“Higher Learning”

“You know, Brendan, sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason.”

I sigh, the whiskey hot on my breath, and nod. It’s 2pm, I’m drunk, and I’m sitting with the legendary Professor Rubadeau for office hours. Hundreds of smiling students look down on me from the copious photos plastering the walls as well as the posters dangling from the ceiling. 

“It’s no myth that us Irish are susceptible to drink. My own dad drank away all his money…I mean all of it, he couldn’t even feed our family. I grew up constantly hungry, all because that asshole wanted to get drunk. I resented him more for treating my mom so poorly, putting her thru that hell. You don’t want to be like my dad.”

“That’s awful,” I sympathize, concluding that, yes he can smell the booze on my breath.

“Yeah, and it was a real waste, too. He was brilliant, like they usually are…like you.”

If my cheeks weren’t already reddened from inebriation, I’d be blushing. Suddenly, I feel very vulnerable…

***

After all, I’ve finally returned to school after dropping out two years ago. I only signed up for two classes to ease myself back in: Astro 120-something and English 425, Advanced Creative Nonfiction, taught by Prof. Rubadeau. He was renowned throughout the University of Michigan, often winning the Golden Apple award for the most outstanding professor in the humanities (or it may have jus been the English department). His classes were routinely described as life-changing. From first hearing about him in my freshman year, I had eagerly anticipated this class, which was comprised of 14 seniors, all of them essentially sharing their life story in one long paper, critiquing the others’ essays, and reviewing grammar and vocabulary. The reviews online were unanimously positive, but cautioned that he was a notoriously harsh grader for an English prof, rarely giving out A’s. Yet, they insisted the experience was one of their most memorable in college, and was potentially transformative. Fuck it, I thought when selecting it as the first class to take since re-enrolling, I need inspired over tired.

The first few weeks of the semester went surprisingly well, even though I was busier than ever, splitting my week between work and school. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I had Astronomy in the am, a two hour break, and then the personal narrative class in the afternoon. The rest of the week, save Sunday, I worked at Renewal by Andersen, going door-to-door trying to schedule people for an appointment with a sale rep. It was a sales pitch for a sales pitch. I hated it but the cash was too good to pass up and I could get fucked up on the job (seriously, I was better at it when I was). I earned anywhere from $500-800 each week for 25-35 hours of work, leaving plenty of expendable cash and plenty of free time.

I had had a drug problem in the past, which I controlled during 18 months of probation, but had been steadily getting worse since then, recently reaching an unprecedented level. For breakfast, I’d eat a 30mg addie and a xannie bar, have the same for lunch, and then tongue another half bar at dinner. I supplemented this pharmaceutical diet with norcs sporadically throughout the week.

I lived at my parents’ house at the time, and I hated that, too. I had no car, and little desire to involve myself in the local social scene. Plus, I wasn’t getting laid at all, compounding my misery. It was like high school all over again.

After working all summer, classes in Ann Arbor were a welcome reprieve from my malingering doldrums. John, as Prof. Rubadeau had us address him, was a tall, scrawny, energetic old man with a giant Santa Claus beard and short white hair. He constantly cussed during class, peppering every few sentences with a “shit” or a “fuck”, but never in some lame attempt to connect with his young students, but rather because he genuinely couldn’t help himself. He later confided that cursing was the only bad habit he was unable to rid himself of, even after focusing on it.

On the first day of class he stressed how intimately we’d get to know our classmates and perhaps, more importantly, ourselves. The grade was based on one 15-20 page paper, a 2-page critique of every classmate’s paper, and participation in classroom discussion. The paper was about some salient aspect of our life that defined us, or at least, revealed some important part of ourselves. I was nervous about writing it, not knowing what I’d talk about, so I signed up to share in the very last week possible. 

At the start of every class, we would review grammar and syntax, and one student would be designated to share ten vocabulary words with the class. He or she would say the word, use it in a sentence, and then John would ask if anyone knew the definition before the original student read the definition to the rest of us.

Besides the obnoxious things I said because I was loaded on sticks, this part of class is where I really separated myself from the others. I always knew the definition. Some words, like coruscate (to sparkle, scintillate) or recondite (abstruse, not easily understood), merely impressed my classmates. Others, such as verdigris (a greenish patina, like on the Statue of Liberty) surprised John, and even myself, to an extent. It reached a point where I need not even raise my hand. I’d let John ask the class first, and then after being met with silence, he’d defer to me, “Okay Brendan, tell us the definition.”

My extensive vocabulary and other flashes of intelligence starkly contrasted with my erratic and offbeat behavior at other times. In my notes and critiques, I always paired intimate questions with insightful observations that guided the writer to clarify what they actually meant, paring their words down to the essentials, or expanding on incomplete ideas. In class discussions, my favored addie-xan combo frequently garbled my intelligent input with idiotic white noise. Apropos of nothing, I made some pretty politically-incorrect and unverifiable claims, including gems like:

-Lauren’s are typically hotter, but sluttier, than Laura’s.
-Jews and Catholic, lapsed or not, tend to be the most reflective people in the world (and also described damn near every one in our class).
-Men were the true romantics. Women were only in it for the feelz.

We divulged so much to each other it felt like I was sitting at an AA table. (“Brendan, what the hell?!” Lauren drawled quietly when I verbalized that thought in class.)

Once, as was customary, John prefaced the lesson by casually asking, “Anyone have good news to share?”

I raised my hand, mock-sheepishly. “I’m finally off probation, so I don’t have to drug test anymore.”

Nervous giggles around the room.

“How’d you get on probation?” John pressed on without skipping a beat.

“I was in the car with someone who had drugs. But right before that I was on probation for…let’s say, noodling with my girlfriend in her car at the park.”

More laughs.

“Okay, well everyone applaud Brendan’s delinquency is coming to a close.” Pregnant pause. “Or we hope it’s at the end.”

The problem was that it wasn’t, however.

One day after Astro, I went and bought a pint to relax a little without xannies. I nearly killed the bottle, and then smoked a joint in the alcove behind the Art History building. I was so fucked up that I had to skip English. My classmate Mary texted me while I was supposed to be in class: “Playing hooky, huh?” She had seen me in the hallway after my morning lecture.

“Sometimes you gotta give yourself a break,” I philosophized.

“Well yes, you do, but are you okay? Do you want to get a coffee or something after I get out of the class you skipped 🙂 “

I agreed but not before I had quickly scrambled to locate and purchase an addie to sober up. We met at Espresso Royale. Since she was one of the first to share her essay with the class, I knew a little bit about her: Strict Arab mother, a few older sisters, one in recovery after a party/slut phase, a twin brother. Used to be in Tri-Delt. Thought her ex-boyfriend was an irredeemable asshole. 

On my second vanilla latte and the adderall study buddy peaking, I couldn’t help but fill her in on my own life. How I dropped out two years before. About the altercation at NYPD that precipitated me hurling a brick through a Mercedes windshield. Followed by the pointless destruction of other, innocent cars, fueled by a blind, xanax and coked out rage. How it was during the Occupy Wall Street era and somehow I saw a parallel with my vandalism, telling the arresting officers it was because I was Irish. (I know, I know…even today I’m still begrudging, like, fuck you, brain.) That weekend the Ann Arbor News ran a story with a headline along the lines of: “Drunken Vandal blames racism against the Irish.” My then roommate found out, and things quickly went kind of viral. I explained that the public spectacle of it all had zero impact on my decision to drop out; if anything, I felt a ridiculous pride for my legendary stupidity. Rather, I couldn’t follow the rules of probation, and constantly risked jail time as a result, that prompted my departure.

I went from taking a breathalyzer once in the morning at the station for free to an at home breathalyzer twice a day with a reasonable weekly fee until finally getting strapped with an alcohol tether, expensive as all hell. Mary was, by turns, amused, horrified, to hysterical, from interested to sympathetic. 

As I was describing my canvassing job, I pulled out a pill bottle from my backpack.

“What are those?!” she asked sharply.

“Xans…wanna piece of one?” I offered blithely.
“No…But you sure you’re doing okay?”
“Yes! Mary, this is just me. This is just the shit I do.”

She frowned and said, more to herself than me, “But you’re so smart…”

***

Since the start of term, I frequently visited John during office hours. Over the course of our conversations, I related the same things that I had just told to Mary, albeit slightly rewording it and emphasizing some parts over others, because trying to fuck as the endgame was obviously no longer applicable. 

Eventually, John got around to asking what I wanted to do with my life. I said that I wanted to be a writer, that I didn’t really care about money, at least, not as my central focus. I was actually sincere, that’s the fucking wild part. Furthermore, he was really interested to hear about my job as a pretty successful quasi-door-to-door salesman. He recalled how he had a similar job when he was younger but was terrible at it. He prodded me to disclose what helped me to succeed.

“It’s all bullshit…well, confidence, too. Confidence in your bullshit,” I said confidentially. “You just have to believe in something so much so that someone else can see it from your perspective. Or, really, the perspective you want them to see from.” Left unmentioned were the drugs that powered my high-energy sales..

On another visit, sagaciously, he encouraged and advised me at once: “You need to write a novel or book about everything you’ve been telling me these past few weeks. You’re just one of those individuals people will find fascinating so you need to control your own story. If you don’t write about it, someone else will and you may not agree with the way they tell it.”

***

The semester progressed without much drama. My relationship with Mary fell into limbo, as I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be her friend or fuck her. I hesitated over which role to play, which was reason enough to preclude the latter possibility. It shouldn’t be something you deliberate over. We were naturally good friends, and I was grateful to count her as one.

More importantly, as my turn to share with the class quickly approached, I fretted that the carefully constructed image of myself I had presented to the class would be undermined by a long personal story. I didn’t want to want to expose myself or appear especially vulnerable. 

Regardless, I soon recognized these excuses as just utter bullshit concocted by my ego. I was already known as a quirky jackass, if a sometimes thoughtful one. Plus, I had already learned about everyone else:

Jack wrote for the Michigan Daily and was super Italian. Lauren was traumatized by her minor psoriasis, but was an absolute smoke show. Gina ran track. Nick pitched for the baseball team, and Karen played softball. Another wrote about losing his virginity (I suspect it was an creative attempt to convince the rest of us that he wasn’t still a virgin.) Rachel wrote about an ex or close friend who killed himself. 

I noticed that all the girls addressed body-image issues in some fashion, however oblique; the guys were broader in their concerns, mostly struggling to define themselves during a time when masculinity was disparaged. This was really the first time I grappled with how often and intense body-image issues loom in the female mind. 

My upcoming deadline prompted some serious, deep introspection. Quite simply, I didn’t know what to write about. I had already written about moving to NYC at 18 for a previous creative nonfiction class. However, that also didn’t define me. I hadn’t really accomplished much, so then, what would it be about? What could it be about? That I was an excellent bullshitter? I liked to do drugs? Girls I had slept with? Or that I constantly struggled with the question of who I truly was? I shared a fear with my male classmates that I wouldn’t become a successful “man”; even worse, I didn’t know what standards I could reliably refer and aspire to in today’s world.

For a few days, I prepared to write this essay, a process full of false starts and premature endings. Then my xannie supply ran dry and I couldn’t find any to buy, from any of my sources. Soon, I was plagued by the most intense anxiety that I could only quell by slamming a pint of liquor. Worried that I was gonna choke and flunk in the last two weeks, I then proceeded to act as if that was exactly my intention. I skipped class the week my paper was due. I received phone calls and text messages asking if I was okay. I ignored them. I still couldn’t find any benzos. Finally, I broke down and told my parents about my problem; they already figured as much, just not the extent of it. 

We set up an emergency appointment with my doctor to devise a game plan that would safely wean me off the pills. He prescribed me a large amount of klonopin, twice a day, as the dose slowly reduced every other week.

With the first tablet dissolving under my tongue, I set out to write my essay in a frenzy. All 30+ pages, all in one sitting. I discussed my drug use and my job. The problems arising from both. My upbringing. My hopes and beliefs. My fears. My wins. My losses. 

I shot it off in an email to John as soon as it was completed, along with a brief message: “I’m sorry this is so late. I had a breakdown. I hope you can let me pass still because I put my heart and soul into that paper. All best, Brendan.”

I texted Mary after ghosting her all week. She hit me back immediately: ” We were all super worried, you asshole. I told John I had a feeling something bad happened.” She asked about my paper, which I sent her right then, along with what I had emailed John. She read it as soon as she got it, commenting, “This is amazing. and I definitely have to tell you something before our next class.”

An hour later my inbox contained John’s response:

“Hey asshole,
I received your essay and read all 30 fuckin pages of it. Typically I would never do that for anyone but I was so invested after the first few pages that I had to read the whole thing. This entire semester I’ve been trying to get you to realize that if you let something other than yourself run your life, you’ll ruin it. Drugs and alcohol will destroy you if you don’t change your ways, and I’m not convinced you ever will. You’re too smart to squander your enormous talent. In five years, you’re either going to be famous and wildly successful or broke and living under a bridge. I hope you choose the right thing.
Send a copy to all of your classmates and make up the work you missed. You probably owe them an apology as well…You should have failed, so don’t tell anyone what your final grade is.
All best, John”

***

I arrived early for the next class, but everyone except for John was already there, and they watched me closely as I slowly made my way to my seat and organized myself.

“So what the hell is going on with you and John?” Mr. I-swear-I’ve-sexed-a-woman-before asked excitedly.

“Whaddya mean?” I demanded.

“He told us you were going to be famous one day,” someone interjected.

“That you’re going to write a book,” another added. 

I was honestly thrown off guard. I looked around the room until I caught Mary’s eye, and she nodded, as if to confirm that this was both true and what she wanted to talk to me about. 

“I dunno, me and John are just cool with each other,” I sputtered. “And I do wanna write…like a book or something.”

“I’d read it,” someone said. The rest murmured in agreement. I was so flattered I was almost embarrassed, my tongue in knots, and then John showed up, as if on cue. 

“So, did everyone read Brendan’s essay?”

***

The following week my phone vibrated at a text from Mary. “What’d you get in John’s class? I got a B+”

Ah, shit…my belly churned. Mary was one of the best students in class and she didn’t get an A. How fucked up was this grading scale? I anxiously logged onto Wolverine Access, butterflies in my stomach as I’m navigating to find my grades. Once the page loaded, I couldn’t believe my eyes: A+.

So it hasn’t quite been 5 years since that class. I’m neither famous writer nor a homeless bum. Drugs have fucked me up, but not irrevocably. For starters, I’m no longer under their spell. And now I’m writing as much as possible, trying to control my story.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I really like this. You are a gifted writer. I feel like I’m reading my own story in this. Keep your head up. You’re gonna be ok.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brendan says:

      I’m gonna pass that along to Brendan. And yeah man, a lot of us go through some similar hellish stuff, maybe we don’t end up in the same predicament, but we understand. I hope that feeling of reading your own story allows some perspective on how to make things in your life more cohesive and “better” (whatever that means). YOU keep your head up as well, and you’re gonna be more than okay.

      Liked by 1 person

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