Ashley Seitz Kramer
Our semester together ended long ago, but Samantha still visits me. She asks if she can tell me private things, secret things, now that she is no longer a student in my class. I’m reluctant, but I say yes. I feel a little guilty because she’s not my favorite student (she barely earned a C), and I’m afraid she knows this. Mid-semester, if someone told me that this student would be the one I would see most often afterward, the one to whom I would offer life advice, I never would have believed it. I could have sworn this very student hated all sixteen weeks of my class. Had I actually threatened to throw away her cell phone once, or was that just a fantasy?
When Samantha visits, she talks about her friends, her job, her relationships, her grades, a possible internship in Chicago. I work very hard to care about and remember these developments. But there is only so much room I can devote to the details: as some come in, others go out.
One day, Samantha visits after a long absence and mentions her brother. She has two brothers, both older, and I remember that she likes one brother more than she likes the other. I’m proud of myself for remembering these facts: that Samantha has older brothers, and that she favors one. The favored brother—I remember more!—lives in New York; how is he? Yes, Samantha says, that brother lived in New York, but now he is dead. When I don’t respond, she says it again. By now she’s accustomed to the horror that flashes across everyone’s face: yes, I heard her correctly, her brother died a few months ago, last semester.
I am silent, but I am also trying to figure out where such a tragedy fits in the last semester. When exactly did her brother die? When exactly did Samantha receive this news? Suddenly I need bookends to hold up this event, but all I can conjure are my own personal tragedies to separate the weeks, and sometimes, whole months: not getting my conference paper accepted; unexpectedly spending two thousand dollars on a car repair; dealing with a student who plagiarized in every single paper he ever wrote and then denied it, and then later, dealing with the grievance committee; calling the police on the neighbor kids when they threw a huge party at three in the morning; and having a major fight with my boyfriend right before we were supposed to leave for a romantic weekend.
But what happened between those things? It’s hard to make sense of it now, even though I know I came into this very office every day, and worked every day, and often spent much of my weekends writing what I know were the same comments in the margins of what felt like the same essays, week after week. I need to know specifically: when did the brother die? What comment about clarity was I making under my breath when Sam (I just remembered, I can call her that now) received the phone call, and what happened in the very next moment? I must know these answers—they seem to be the only thing that can keep the shelves in my office from collapsing entirely—and yet I know I can’t ask these questions.
I think of my own brother, thousands of miles away. He likes to send me very blurry pictures of the beach at sunrise, as if truly beautiful things can’t be ruined, no matter how hard we try.
Samantha isn’t crying. She has cried for months, she said; no need to cry now, here, in my office. But still she’s distressed. I don’t look at my watch, the one my brother bought me for my thirtieth birthday, but I know I’ll be late to my next meeting. Sam is talking about something important. She hasn’t been sleeping, and says she hadn’t showered for over three weeks. She explains how her family refused the autopsy for her brother since they are Muslim, so they’ll never know why their son died. Samantha will never know why her favorite brother died in his own bed, in the middle of the night, in New York. This is why she can’t sleep.
Her parents are divorced and live in different states. They call her, but not enough; they are worried about her, but not enough.
Samantha tells me one last thing. Before she begins, I know that this is the story she came to my office to tell.
One day her roommates picked her up from the couch, where she’d been for weeks, grieving and not sleeping, making a permanent dent in the soft cushions. Sam is petite, no more than ninety pounds—so it’s easy for them to pick her up and place her in a hot bath. The roommates tried to brush her hair, but it had been unwashed for so long that there were many tangles. They used scissors to cut out the worst of the knots. While she’s talking, I look at the scissors on my desk, as if they could cut me out of this scene altogether, like a paper doll.
The roommates weren’t embarrassed to bathe Samantha. Samantha wasn’t embarrassed to be bathed. And now, in my office, Samantha doesn’t seem embarrassed to tell the story. I know this is true and remember that it’s true because of how much I am embarrassed, myself, by all of it. I look down at my desk several times, but Sam continues.
They gently washed her head, she says, and then they helped her wash her body, which I imagine looked even smaller in the large bathtub. The roommates used a comb to straighten the clean black hair that fell down Sam’s brown back. The water grew darker from dirt. The bathroom grew darker with grief. As Sam speaks, my office grows darker with what can only be empathy—it replaces and surpasses my embarrassment like an eclipse. Everything is darker than it was before the brother’s death. I see that now. I can’t look at the watch my brother gave me, I don’t need to, but I know for sure that I am too late; I have missed the meeting entirely. I refrain from thinking about all that I have missed. I promise myself I won’t let any of these details go, not this time. Finally, I look away from Samantha’s face—I must look away—to my watch, but only so I can have a private thought, one private thought, a question really, which I will never repeat to anyone and therefore never validate or answer. What have I taught this girl about anything?
Ashley Seitz Kramer, originally from Ohio, has won numerous awards including the Ruth Stone Prize, the Schiff Prize, the Utah Writers’ Contest, and most recently the 2014 Zone 3 Press First Book Award. Her book, Museum of Distance, is forthcoming in 2015. Her work is published in Colorado Review, Quarterly West, Western Humanities Reviews, Parcel, The Burnside Review, Anti-, The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She’s taught college writing for over a decade and now teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she is Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences.