I only accepted the university teaching job on a dare from my therapist. She said talking to strangers would be a healthy experience for my brain. Besides, it only required leaving the house three times a week, and I could only maintain my post-trauma persona for a few hours at a time.
After recently ending my studies in India due to illness, sexual assault, and the sudden death of one of my closest friends and mentors, Iris, I had withdrawn to my parents’ house in rural Pennsylvania, where I remained hidden for almost a year in what-I-hoped-to-be reclusive healing.
I imagined what Iris, a turtle-neck wearing earth-mother academic, would have to say about my new job. The scholar knew the pre-trauma me, the irreverent kid that skipped most of undergrad to sketch in art galleries and chalk political slogans on sidewalks. Iris scolded me for being a “smart-ass on the way to committing academic suicide” and supported me when I came out at twenty-one to a conservative family. She could critique my master’s thesis with a scalpel then offer me cheap Shiraz and unsolicited romance advice.
Despite our forty-year age gap, I realized I could offer her as much as she offered me. In one letter she wrote, “Remember how in jest you shouted ‘I hate you’ to me when we were in Scotland together? At any rate, I hate you for bringing forth the longings–to travel, to have adventures, for encouraging my incipient transgressive nature.”
Her response to my finally taking her advice of “grow up and get a job” would have been: “Now you have to attend class.”
My first faculty meeting was at the end of August. I wore black and popped two Xanax. I felt like a fraudulent imposter entering a room full of serious academics, individuals like Iris. But I was greeted by the director, who introduced me to two men in checkered shirts, a young woman with a resting Benadryl face, and an older broad who said, “I hope this new one isn’t another dilly-bar.”
Is she talking about me? I wondered. I reached into my pocket and pressed the fresh cut edge of my new office key into my palm. This was my maladaptive preventative care for dealing with PTSD. Slight physical discomfort kept me present in the conference room.
At the far end of the table sat a professor I had met over the summer, Dilsha, a trim Indian with the slender defined muscles of a dancer, wit like suspended salt-shaker, and a bob of silver curls. As I picked a seat across from her at the table, she ruffled her curls to make an acerbic remark to a young colleague.
“I get emails from students every semester about their mental health. It’s because they are coddled as children. So they come here and feel overwhelmed. What are we supposed to do? Mash the food for them and push it down their throats?” Here Dilsha stroked her neck. “We can’t want their success or healing more than they do.” Her tone turned on a dime as I sat down, and she gave me a warm greeting.
We had exchanged emails in early August because I wanted to observe a class before the semester started. She wrote back, “Of course! And please call me by my first name.” No one had a chance to tell me that students thought she was “savage” (I would have failed her class due to daydreaming and tardiness). She had a formidable reputation on campus, with some faculty referring to her as “an institution” or “that insufferable bitch.” Her passion for language and no-boundaries devotion to her students reminded me of Iris.
Any awe I might have felt for my first faculty meeting faded as the room erupted with disgruntled debate over student retention methods. My imposter syndrome dissipated as fight-or-flight reactions took over and flicked the middle finger at my brain. Volume, even from mild academics, pushed part of my brain back to that street in India. A man I couldn’t clearly remember had his hands around my neck. I took shallow breaths. Dilsha was checking her nails; the glass bangles on her wrists jangled with each movement. Her resting face showed a bored brain on the edge of flat-lining.
Inside my oxford shoes, I clenched my toes. Instead of crying, I took the office key out of my pocket and pressed it against the delicate skin of my wrist.
After a few months teaching, I adjusted to the routine of leaving the house. But if I crossed paths with someone at night, including the university’s elderly instructor of medieval history, I looked on the ground for self-defense weapons: rocks, sticks, pine cones.
This is karma, I thought, for teasing Iris about her anxiety. She was anxious about the neighbors who sold weed, about the future of healthcare, about who would be the next president. My pre-trauma self used to tell her to drink more wine, have more sex.
“I get it now!” I shouted into the afterlife from under a piece of furniture and waited for my amygdala to recover.
During the semester, I shut the door and sat in the dim light of an Edison bulb. I fought the urge to release endorphins by self-harming. Instead, I brewed coffee. Focusing on physical sensations, heat from the steaming cup, taste of a dark blend stiff enough to keep a spoon standing up straight, helped my brain ground, and remain in the present.
Writing to Iris had been my way of grounding and processing life events, but when a blood clot broke loose and traveled to her brilliant brain, I stopped writing. Why continue when she wasn’t there with her half of the conversation? The thought of writing to someone else was painful and felt like betrayal.
After processing parts of my identity through Iris, her absence left a void in my thoughts. I missed what she described as, at seventy-four, “an abnormal personality with occasional flickers of sanity.” With her death, she was the first to teach me closure isn’t always possible, and there are risks to loving. I was lost without those parts of me that I shared with Iris; those parts burned along with her in the crematorium.
I needed a distraction. I tried splatter painting and pyromania, and then out of desperation, I returned to writing. When I finished an essay, I needed an editor, an objective reader with a balance of compassion and efficiency. I thought of Dilsha. Her reputation didn’t put me off.
After a month of what my therapist called avoidance behavior, I finally sent a message to Dilsha. She encouraged my writing about India, and I started stopping by her office to continue conversations. I kept waiting for her to kick me out. She never did.
Instead, Dilsha offered books off her shelves and empathy for deranged bereavement. She had survived more loss than anyone else I knew, loss of health, her husband of thirty years, loss of bodily autonomy.
After I sent Dilsha a vignette about PTSD, we discussed feeling out of place in normal life and echoed what Iris had told me, closure isn’t always possible.
I knew this all too well. Self-harm scars covered my upper thighs, and, like a hoarder of objects, I hoarded the story for each cut. This jagged silver line is for the day he was released from prison. This never healing discoloration on my wrist is for day-to-day human contact.
In Iris’s absence, Dilsha was teaching me about the after, about healing. I was on the other side of the country when Iris went into the hospital for a low-stakes procedure. I read her obituary on social media and screamed into my pillow. As I healed, and Dilsha revealed bits of herself, I felt increasing anxiety. Dilsha’s mortality was an emotional risk factor. I couldn’t tell how old she was, and, despite being in excellent shape, she struggled with unpredictable health. I wondered what Iris would make of my growing sapiosexual attraction to this discerning and intense woman and my fears of replacement/not replacement.
I reminded myself that Dilsha was not Iris. Not Iris, as I stopped myself from taking Dilsha’s arm or hugging her in the hallway.
During the spring semester, Dilsha continued to keep me accountable for wallowing in bouts of depression. I imprinted on Dilsha because she offered an unspoken understanding of assaulted agency- we both had bodies hijacked by strangers. She encouraged me to write through anxiety, to move beyond damage.
“You can’t let this define you.”
But some nights, I couldn’t write my way out of despair or wait for it to pass like a blinding migraine. The quickest way I could release grief or “stay in the moment,” as my therapist was always telling me, was to mark time on my wrist. To stop myself, I tried to imagine the pain it might cause Iris. But later, I dismantled a pencil sharpener. I took deep breaths, pulled lines against the skin, and watched beads of red form.
As the weeks passed towards the end of April, Dilsha dropped the news. “I thought I would stay here until they took me out in a casket, but I’ve decided not to return in the fall.”
I braced myself for another loss and sat in shocked silence.
“It’s time. I don’t understand the younger generation.”
We stood to leave for afternoon class. She fussed with the silver dupatta scarf around her shoulders while searching under her desk for her sandals. She looked up at my face and frowned.
“Sweet friend,” she said. “Of course we’ll stay in contact. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
I said nothing.
She paused by the door with her keys in hand. Then she wrapped her arms around my shoulders in a brush-of-bodies hug. “I’ve wanted to tell you that I’m so glad you’ve come into my life, but I didn’t want to sound dumb.”
I stood stunned for a moment in her embrace, then I leaned into her out-of-bounds body, close enough to smell her perfume and to feel her curls brush my cheek, close enough to connect at the waist. I rested the tips of my fingers against the shoulders of her black kurta.
On the last day of final exams, Dilsha extended an arm to her bookshelves.
“Do you really want all of it?” she asked.
I nodded and scanned her desk for signs of her other lives. She kept fresh cut flowers in a vase by the photo of her husband. The shelves were loaded with volumes of poetry, tomes of philosophy, feminist texts.
That particular day I was asking for her thoughts on an essay about my maladaptive coping mechanisms. As usual, she didn’t offer advice or trite phrases. She was dunking a jasmine tea bag and blowing over the cup. She put the cup down.
She took my left hand in hers and gently touched the white lines on my wrist. “Are you able to write about this? Promise you won’t cut again.”
My eyes focused on the stack of argument textbooks. I hadn’t stopped for anyone else. Not for my therapist or my parents or even my memory of Iris.
“Promise me you won’t. You’re too valuable to lose.”
She sat there waiting, her large brown eyes fixed on me. Love for the living, vibrant woman in front of me made me want to say yes. My clasped hands relaxed. I looked down at the discoloration on my left wrist. The skin had almost healed. Left behind were white lines like stretch marks.
Kristen Bell’s work has appeared in The Louisville Review and Harpur Palate. She is the recipient of Crab Orchard Review’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize.