Sabrina Orah Mark
I’m in the stairwell, reading Grimm, when the Professor taps the metal banister to get my attention. “Rat-a-tat-tat,” says she. Says the Professor. She smells like dry branches and milk. Her face close up is the face of someone far away. “Next.” I get up. The form I need her to sign so I can declare a major is bright orange. I hold it up, and she squints. “I need permission,” I say. She wears one earring. A dangling globe of a faded earth. Her hair seems to be made out of dandelion seed. I imagine blowing on it and making a wish, even though I know already no wish I wish on her will ever come true. I love her instantly.
To get to her office we step over five students I’ve never seen before.
Her office is dark. We sit in the dark.
“Dried apricot?” She pulls one out of a plastic bag. “Thank you.” I put it in my mouth. I chew and chew and am reminded of trick gum. Maybe at the corners of my lips ink will pool and drip down my chin, and then the Professor will laugh and laugh. And the ink will spill everywhere. Down my white blouse. Onto the floor and underneath the door. All the way to mother’s house, and then mother will know everything. I swallow. “Good apricot,” I say. I don’t trust her not to ruin me, but I do need her permission.
“Your hands,” she says. “Let me see.” Her accent is slightly damaged, possibly by wind. She speaks like a roof with a few broken shingles. Nothing serious, but occasionally rain will get in. I show her my hands. They are small and soft. “Never worked a day in your life,” she says. But I do work. On Mondays and Wednesdays I work at the Prayer Center.
“What’s your name, again?” “Penny,” I say. “Penny Spiegelman.” She stares at me and signs the orange form.
I take the crosstown bus to the Prayer Center. It’s on the fifth floor of a building the color of old rope. I can’t stop thinking about the Professor. The prayer wall flutters. I pull 10 prayers down at a time. My son thinks he’s a bird. I need one thousand dollars. I pray my wife stops dying. My roof is leaking. I can’t stop smoking. Three days ago I was supposed to die. Why am I always hungry? I want a husband. My car broke down. Pray for Rose. She is missing. Our job is to answer fifty prayers per shift. My mother is rich, but it’s important for my sense of self I earn some keep. There are six of us including Edith, my boss. Edith is ninety-three and always wanted a son. “Even a small one,” she says. Her prayer is dead center: A son. Rules are we keep Edith’s prayer on the wall until she instructs us to take it down.
The other Prayer Center employees are bright and pink. I can’t tell them apart. Sometimes they cheer.
All day long I wish to fetch the Professor from wherever she is. Prayer after prayer. But she is the Professor, and I am only Penny.
I enroll in her lecture. I write a forty-four page paper on silence so she’ll notice me. I dream of collecting stones with her. She throws a small one at my head, but I wake up before it hits me. One day the Professor calls me up to the front and holds my hand while lecturing on trauma, memory, and magic. The other students are too distracted by their joy to care. She ages me. I wish to be aged.
After class to get to her office I step over ten students I’ve never seen before.
We sit in the dark. “How old are you?” “One thousand,” I say. “That’s what I thought.” She smiles. Her teeth look pretty in her mouth, but nervous and possibly lost. One small one climbs up over her lower lip like a child about to jump overboard. It’s barely noticeable. “Call me Betsy,” says the Professor. But I never do.
The first time we kiss, my body fills with hail. And my bones go tin. And then clang, clap, knock. I would run for cover, but we’re kissing, and I’m the roof. And I’m the house. And I’m the hail. And she’s the Professor.
I take the crosstown bus to the Prayer Center. I want to tell Edith about the Professor but I know she would beg me to run. “Run,” she would say. “Run for your life.” I bring her a small, black coffee. “What a dear you are. A dear dream. A daydream.” I pull ten prayers down: I am being chased by a wolf. Pray my wife keeps the baby. I have no feeling in my hands. Pray my husband stops texting Sarah. Pray for my three cruel daughters. I don’t want to die in this hospital. My mother’s car needs repairs. I am so tired. Pray for Rose. She is still missing.
I step over fifteen students I’ve never seen before and slip a note under the Professor’s door: I draw a little balloon. And next to it, a black hole. “It’s my birthday next Sunday. Come over?” I wait outside her door. Ten minutes later she slips a note back under written in faint pencil: “I need to protect myself as a human being.”
I knock. She doesn’t answer.
I go away.
I live between Orange and Old. A sleepy tree-lined street with cats looking out every window. I blow up a balloon. I blow up another. Two pink balloons drift around my studio. It’s three minutes to six. Sometimes I look around and there’s my mother just standing there with a disapproving look. Who could approve of me loving the Professor? No one. She is mean. I hear a knock. I can’t remember the last time I looked up at the moon.
I come to the door and there she is. Her right eye is cloudy. Professor Cloudy Eye.
“Happy Birthday,” says the Professor. “I can’t stay long.” She hands me a heavy leather backpack. It smells like too many cows. “Thank you,” I say. “It’s beautiful. “Open it,” she says. Inside the backpack is a toy house that fits in my palm. “The door broke off,” she says. “Or maybe there never was a door.” My hands are shaking. She looks around. Your apartment is too neat.” Now the Professor is opening drawers. “Why are you crying?” “I’m not crying. It’s my neighbor who is crying.” “Why do you have a whole drawer of spoons?” “I collect them,” I say.
“I can’t stay long,” says the Professor. “I need to protect myself as a human being.”
I want to cry out of happiness, but it’s true I’m not the one crying. It’s my neighbor who is crying. This time it sounds like she is eating an apple and crying. Sometimes she is hammering and crying. Or vacuuming and crying. Or reading a book and crying. I see her in the elevator. We never talk. She is too blurry. And I am too preoccupied with the Professor and the prayers.
Off school grounds, there is something different about the Professor. She seems narrower, hungrier.
The Professor begins talking. And then she talks for days and days. I remember none of it except her word for love is not the word love. It is a different word, which she says I mispronounce. I say nothing. I just listen.
Edith calls. “Penny,” she says. “I’m worried about you.” “There’s nothing to worry about,” I say. “But the prayers,” says Edith. “You’re not answering them.” “I’m on my way,” I promise. “I’m sorry.”
I try to leave my apartment, but the Professor blocks the door. “I’m not done talking,” she says.
“I need to protect myself as a human being,” says the Professor. She says this over and over again. Over and over. It’s no longer my birthday. It hasn’t been my birthday for months. “If I were, say, blind,” she says, “or say more beautiful or say a winter storm or say Jewish or say rich like your mother, you wouldn’t treat me this way.” “What way?” I ask. “You wouldn’t leave me,” she says. “I’m not leaving you. I just need to go to the Prayer Center.”
My crying neighbor stops crying for a minute. Long enough for me to grow hopeful. A crisp, sunny silence I haven’t heard in years. And then the crying resumes.
While the Professor sleeps, I sneak out.
The prayer wall is heavy with prayers. Edith is distraught. The prayers no longer flutter, but swell. Their once-thin white bodies thicken on top of one another. The pushpins hold on for dear life. “I can’t tell the prayers apart,” cries Edith. “They’re all stuck together.” She starts to read them out loud, panicking: “divorce Rose who cares god fruit seems selfish but I am running out of time pray my mother is sold as soon as possible I just want some peace in my head amen for the missing god is ruining my life I have no good qualities no one will ever walk again. A son…”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I’ll answer them.” And I do. It takes me three days, but I answer them all. Except for Edith’s prayer. Which she hasn’t instructed me yet to take down.
It’s been twenty years. I have a family now. The Professor is still here, but one of her hands has been blotted out. She sits in the corner on a hard, brown chair, watching me. The country has gone frail. She’s still talking. Dried pieces of talking fall out of her mouth like dead leaves. My sons bring her cups of water, but she refuses them. “I need to protect myself,” she says, “as a human being.”
Edith visits with her small son. She is very, very old. She smiles heavily, not at the Professor but at me. My sons play with her small son and show him the house with no door the Professor bought me years ago. Edith’s son goes inside. He is small enough. “Love,” he says. “Love, love, love.” He calls out from inside the house. “That’s not the word,” says the Professor. “He’s saying it wrong.” But Edith’s son keeps calling out. “Tell your small son he’s saying it wrong.” The Professor is getting angrier and angrier. “That’s not how you say it.” But Edith’s son keeps saying it.
The lights in the Prayer Center are off. Permanently. Rose wanders the hallways, still missing. I promise the Professor I will take her with me when they tear the building down next week. She wants to watch. She wants to hold my hand with her remaining hand while the wrecking ball swings.
SABRINA ORAH MARK is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. For The Paris Review she writes a monthly column on fairytales and motherhood entitled Happily.