An Essay About Nothing

The walls in the adjunct instructors’ annex are windowless, grey, and dull. It is always warm here. Jackets and blazers hang on the backs of swivel chairs in cubicles that house transient instructors. The two adjuncts sit across from each other, waiting for their big break in academia.

“Here we are, both graduated and stuck in an adjunct pool, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Though, it’d be nice to get an interview if not a full-time faculty job in our field,” she sips water from her reusable bottle. 

“Just tell them in the interview that you teach World Literature. If they ask, you can mention Developmental and Technical Writing. Personally, I always say I teach advanced creative writing, even though I’ve only taught intermediate. Remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it,” he is on his third cup of coffee and second energy bar of the day. 

“I wish I could just teach World Lit for a living and write non-fiction in my spare time. I have so many interesting stories to tell. For example, here’s an episode from my life as a single girl living in Bombay: I am travelling on an overnight train to visit my folks in Indore for the long weekend. I forget to take a blanket for the train journey home. As I lie shivering on my top berth I look across and see a guy on the opposite berth sleeping with his blanket neatly folded on his stomach and …”

“Hold on. What’s a birth?”

“Berth. BERTH. Berths are the beds you sleep on in trains. In the case of compartments with two or three berths, one is on the top, one in the middle and one is …” 

“Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence. Berths are bunk beds.”  

“No, it’s not the same as a bunk bed. It’s retractable. You can set it up with hooks and chains when you want to sleep and then take it down in the morning. Anyways, the guy across from me is not using his blanket. He probably doesn’t even need it. So, I get down, gently tug at the blanket. The guy stirs. I mumble something about me borrowing the blanket. He’s deep in sleep, his hands folded over the blanket. I manage to get it out from under his hands. I go up to my bunk berth, open the blanket and go to sleep. In the morning, at Indore station, I wake up. The guy is standing at the foot of my bunk berth, gently tugging at the blanket and trying to get my attention. I mumble an apology, fold the blanket and hand it over.” 

“Wow. Remind me never to fall asleep on a berth anywhere in your vicinity,” he looks over his coffee mug. 

“It was a one-time thing. Tell me something about your childhood. I picture it being like Home Alone. Did you ever get left behind on a family vacation?”

“Unfortunately, no. I was present for every minute of the never-ending car rides to the Black Hills. It’s funny that you mention Home Alone. My brother looked exactly like McCauley Culkin when he was little, not that we as white males all look the same. Which brings to mind my childhood as a little boy in South Dakota: my brother Brett aka McCauley Culkin and I want to play outside, but it’s really muddy. Our mom tells us we can play but not to play in the mud. We then proceeded to play in the mud. Our dad records it from one of the upstairs windows. When we come back inside, my mom asks, “Boys, what did I ask you not to do?” Immediately, Brett hangs his head in remorse. It is heartbreaking because he is devastated, ready to cry. I am smiling. Brett asks, “Are we in trouble, mom?” Before my mom can answer, I yell, “Are you going to beat him, Mom?” And neither my mom nor my dad can hold it together any longer. They burst out laughing.” 

“You’re saying your dad recorded this? Your family had a video camera?” 

“Yeah. Didn’t yours?” 

“No. We only had still photos, and most of those were black and white. If we wanted to watch a video, we had to rent a VCR.” 

“No VCR, either? Hmm. As someone whose entire knowledge of Indian culture comes from Slumdog Millionaire, am I correct in assuming your childhood was like Jamal’s?” 

“Let me answer your question with another question. As someone whose information about white culture comes from Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers, Frasier, Forest Gump, and all the Die Hard movies, I’m surprised you didn’t ask me about Gandhi.”

“Oh yeah. I forgot about Gandhi. I love Gandhi.” 

“The man or the movie?” 

“Well, I really mean that what I love about Gandhi is the Seinfeld episode where the old lady tells Elaine about her affair with Gandhi and how she rubbed oil all over his bald head.” 

“I love that episode.” 

“We digress. The most important thing is that we need to somehow, against all odds, get fulltime teaching jobs. My advice to you is to approach your interviews with all the confidence of a mediocre white male.” 

“No, thanks. I am approaching my interviews with the confidence of an immigrant brown woman secure in her position as a diversity hire.” 

“I wish I could be more diverse.” 

“I wish you were more diverse, too. Maybe then your knowledge of Indian culture would extend beyond Slumdog Millionaire. 

“Oh, ex-cuse me for thinking that a movie written and directed by two white guys was an authentic depiction of the Indian experience.” 

“Says the guy who didn’t know what a berth was.” 

“You know I kid. But let me ask you this: all things being equal between us, who would you hire for the job, me or you?”

“Are all things equal between us?” 

“Not with respect to camcorders and VCRs.” 

“Or in regard to experience as a single girl working in Bombay.” 

“Well, at least our private conversations won’t be made public. I would hate for anyone to judge us based on this conversation.” 

“What can you do? People will judge anything. Even an essay about nothing. BTW, in non-fiction this is called a meta move.”

“In fiction, this is called breaking the fourth wall.”

Jaya Wagle. A former Indian expat, current US citizen, Jaya Wagle’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrel House, Jellyfish Review, The Rumpus, Hobart, Maudlin House, Little Fiction, Big Truths, Litro, and elsewhere. She has an MA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of North Texas where she now teaches Developmental Writing. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and fifteen-year old son.

Ross Wilcox is from Elk Point, South Dakota. He teaches at the University of North Texas. His debut book, Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society: Stories, was released in August 2020 from 7.13 Books. He lives in Fort Worth with his wife and two cats.

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