A writer, most content when enveloped by books, ventures out of her comfort zone for some authentic lived experience…
by: Emma Burger
For Julia Legrand, there was no more blissful way to spend a solitary afternoon than wandering the narrow aisles of a used bookstore. At the same time, there was no cliche more cringe-inducing for Julia than the implicit latent sexual tension between nearby browsers as they both reached for the same Jonathan Franzen tome or passed each other timidly — the swish of their jacketed shoulders brushing against one another as they scanned the fiction Ds for Didion. It was always some shaggy haired guy with his too-small knit beanie and tattered Manhattan Portage messenger bag who seemed to be quietly lurking by the same shelf as Julia, a dog-eared New Yorker curled under his arm. She hated how obviously he’d watch her out of the corner of his eye as he skimmed the crowded rows of cracked spines with his index finger, the wheels in his mind seemed to whir desperately as he searched for an intelligent sounding pickup line like they were in Notting Hill and he was a literary Hugh Grant. She hated him in part because he reminded her of the coffee-breathed graduate students at the small liberal arts school whose poetry readings and natural wine tastings had dotted the otherwise bucolic hills of that upstate New York campus where she’d spent one fall and half a winter nearly ten years ago.
Julia had dropped out of school her second semester. Not because she couldn’t walk into a campus bar without having to listen to some loser wax philosophic on his Bukowski thesis or explain the process of skin-contact fermentation in painstaking detail; she’d known such self-indulgent behavior was par for the course when she’d enrolled, committing to what she’d expected would be four years of her life and over a hundred thousand dollars in debt. When she’d left her midwest town that August just after her eighteenth birthday, she hugged her dad goodbye, promising not to come back from the East Coast all hopped up on trigger warnings and safe spaces. By February though, the prospect of three and a half more years of the place felt exhausting to Julia. As she sat through tedious lectures and discussion sessions, she started finding it nearly impossible to care about liminality and embodied experiences knowing that a thousand miles away, her dad was slowly dying and she was running out of money.
A decade had passed since those six brief months upstate and still, the main reason Julia couldn’t stand the Joshes, Ethans, and Matts who lingered lustfully in the stacks of the Strand wasn’t that they reminded her of the Ryans, Davids, and Dans of her short-lived liberal arts school experience. No, the main reason she couldn’t stand them was the way that they dutifully performed the graceless pseudo-intellectualism she so loathed in herself. The problem with these would-be David Foster Wallace’s wasn’t that they liked to read good books, or engage in discourse, or even that they referred to their mundane babble as discourse. The real problem was how close their scholarly self-presentation hit home — a constant reminder of her own aspirational fraudulence.
When Julia first left college and moved to Brooklyn, she worked at a coffee shop for a few weeks before becoming bored, the acrid smell of beans roasting growing increasingly nauseating. She’d then done a stint at a bar, two weeks as a nanny, a couple months in retail, but left all those jobs with less than a week’s notice, craving at least the superficial gravitas of a more intellectual environment. What she actually wanted was to be a writer, but nobody became a writer, not really. It was when she worked her first shift at a little bookshop in the Village that she felt she’d finally found her footing in the city, if just for the length of her shift. The bookshop was no Shakespeare & Company — it wasn’t even her freshman Classics seminar for that matter — but it felt profoundly right to be among words again. To be surrounded by great works of literature, to absorb the stories via osmosis and snippets skimmed while her supervisors weren’t looking, if nothing more.
Over her ten-year tenure in the city, Julia had lived in just about every neighborhood across the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and worked in just about every bookstore south of 14th Street. She could tell by the color of the scrunchie on a woman’s wrist whether she’d be walking out with a Cheryl Strayed, Toni Morrison, or Sylvia Plath. On top of working days for the various booksellers across the city, Julia claimed to be hard at work on her novel, still untitled. At first, it helped to wake up early while the world was asleep, putting pen to page in the short window of quiet in the city, stopping only when the garbage truck roared by outside her window. As time went on though, the pull of the pre-dawn writer’s life dwindled in comparison to the plushy hug of another hour in bed. Her book was supposed to be a boarding school cult story, but she’d never been able to get past chapter six and had given up trying, choosing instead to live her life and hope that inspiration might strike when she expected it least.
Maybe all that was missing was some lived experience, she’d thought, the nasally soprano of her insufferable freshman teaching assistant ringing in her ears. Two months into her lived experience though, Julia was more stuck than ever. Stuck in the knowledge that she was nearing thirty and had never really seen anything to completion -— not college, not her book, not even a relationship. As much as she loved spending her days among great works at the Strand, she knew that if nothing changed, she would still be getting asked, at age forty, what it was she really wanted to do with her life.
It felt like fate then when Gloria, her dad’s nurse, called one morning in a panic explaining that she’d had a family emergency and would need to fly home to the Philippines for at least six months. It had been over a decade since Julia had spent more than a week at home, and with the way her dad’s dementia was progressing, it was unclear how much longer he had to live. Maybe some time with the old man was just what she needed, away from the manic energy of the city and the neck-bearded loiterers who perennially populated its five noble boroughs. Besides, she had nothing holding her in New York – nobody would even notice she was gone.
Having jumped from apartment to apartment a dozen times at least, half of Julia’s worldly possessions were still in boxes. Within the week, all her things were packed, her see-you-later happy hour with the few friends she had left in the city was hosted, and she was thirty-thousand feet in the air somewhere between Pennsylvania and Illinois, imagining what the next few months could possibly have in store.
Julia’s dad Bert lived ten minutes outside of town in the modest ranch house where she’d spent her teenage years. The drive from the airport lasted the length of Julia’s favorite album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Without fail, Wilco would be playing “Reservations” by the time the car had passed several cornfields and turned right down English Road, a long dirt path that iced over every winter. To her friends in New York, it was flyover country. To her dad’s family in the countryside, it was the city. To Julia herself, it was really just the farmland outside downtown where she’d spent most of her free time growing up. Back then, she’d been a good student — a real student. She’d gone to a magnet school for the gifted in town where most of her friends had been the children of aging hippies, physicians, psychologists, and professors at the university. Although out on English Road they were only a few miles from the university and downtown, life at the ranch felt like another planet entirely.
Julia’s family had moved downstate from Northern Michigan when Bert first received his diagnosis. He was only forty-two at the time, Julia only eleven. It wasn’t long after the move that her mother, Laura, had fled, unwilling to live with the reality of her husband’s progressive and ultimately terminal disease. She’d left for the West Coast and never turned back, leaving Julia to worry about Bert while Laura bounced between boyfriends in Arizona and Oregon. Although their new town wasn’t exactly Bert’s cup of tea, it worked for the two of them — their already small and rapidly dwindling family unit. At their place on English Road, they weren’t far from one of the best hospitals in the state, and ambulances could make it out to the house easily in under fifteen minutes. As Bert’s condition progressed and Julia spent less and less time at home, visiting nurses came out their way with increased frequency until Gloria came to live with him full-time, attending to Bert’s care.
With no job, school or relationships back home, Julia resolved that this trip, this relocation — whatever it was — this would be the time for her to sit down and finish her novel. Bert, despite the gradual loss of his mental faculties, was okay on his own for a few hours each day. Although he couldn’t live truly alone, he also didn’t need Julia to be a round-the-clock babysitter. He didn’t need someone to wipe his ass, certainly not his own adult daughter. This made the prospect of the whole arrangement significantly more palatable for both of them.
Regardless, Julia’s stomach turned in the Uber on the way from the airport. Having been away from home for so long, it was unclear what and who exactly she’d be coming back to. Last time she’d seen Bert, he’d been repeating stories, grasping for slippery words and names from past lives just out of reach — her high school friends, middle school friends, estranged cousins of his. Even so, Bert had still been recognizable as himself and he could still hold a conversation. He still remembered Julia. From time to time while she was in New York, Gloria would update Julia with pictures of Bert or health news after major doctors’ appointments. Most of their relationship over the last few years though was made up both of the mutual knowledge that the other was still alive and Julia’s guilt over how thin their once intimate rapport had worn.
Back at her hippie high school downtown, Julia had not been popular per se, but well-liked. Or maybe she had been popular — it was hard to say. If she had been, the distinction was relatively meaningless among the nerds at her school. She’d been into theater, but detested the theater kid monniker — an early indicator perhaps of her future disdain for the poetry reciting, literary magazine toting grad students first lurking around every corner at her campus upstate. Her time in this midwest city, her semi-hometown — seemingly lifetimes ago — was made up of a string of peripheral friends and boyfriends, games of spin the bottle, bike rides around well-groomed cul de sacs, and boozing in her classmates’ carpeted basements.
It was hard to say whether Julia felt lucky that home for her was a university town, or if she simply never would have agreed to be Bert’s nurse if he’d lived anywhere else. Here, there were lots of places to write and lots of people writing and reading around her. Everywhere she looked, there were British post-docs furiously typing film criticism, little old ladies thumbing through Sartre chapbooks, e-girls scribbling poetry in tattered notebooks. Brick-walled coffee shops, the gothic Hogwartsian law library, cozy bars where professors and auto workers alike sat shoulder-to-shoulder nursing a beer. The people here felt both self-serious and at the same time, much less so than the people back in New York. Her own temperament felt warmer, less frenzied and kinetic than it had in years. Back home in Michigan, there was life, but there was also enough breathing room to sit down and think about it. To write about it. To step outside the harried business of living, when she wanted to, and observe the world around her.
It was lonely at night though, all the way out at the end of English Road. The quiet domesticity and seclusion that felt so easy and peaceful during the day turned eerie and depressing when the sun went down. To combat the gloom, Julia took to going out at night, almost every night of the week. Townie bars, mostly. Early in the week, they were quiet, but there was always someone out. Some old man or another hunched at the bar, sipping a Heineken.
One Tuesday evening, a couple weeks into her new routine, Julia drove into town to see a jazz band at Side Car, a sleepy cocktail bar just ten blocks from campus. Side Car was discreet. It wasn’t a speakeasy exactly, but it was down an understated brick staircase, just below a bumping nightclub best known for dance floor groping and promoting the spread of venereal disease. Julia made her way downstairs, taking a seat at the bar. The bartender nodded in her direction, “Want to try something new I’m working on?” he asked. Julia nodded yes, wondering whether it was problematic that she’d been home less than three weeks and she was already well on her way to achieving regular status. He filled a coupe to the brim with a viscous lavender-gray liquid, garnishing the foamy surface with a spritz of something aromatic. Julia sipped it carefully, letting the tart drink linger on her lips. “I like it!” she exclaimed, wishing secretly she were drinking something milder, less precious.
The best thing about Side Car on a Tuesday was the jazz band. They were there, like clockwork, three aggressively normal dudes, dentists and accountants by day, playing Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. She missed the electric charge of the nightlife in New York, but appreciated the fact that here, you could walk down the street any night of the week and hear live music, have a familiar face pour a cocktail he was working on. Lately when she’d gone out, she’d started noticing that wherever she went, there were old men. At home, she took care of an old man. Out at the bar, she watched old men tapping away at a baby grand, another blowing hot air through an alto sax.
Three barstools down from where she sat, another older man in a button down and jacket sat nursing a whiskey rocks. His face was long, his cheeks sallow, his salt and pepper hair mostly salt. She’d seen him downtown before, leather satchel slung over his shoulder as he walked with intention to his office or lecture hall, or maybe home to a nice cozy Victorian house where his wife was waiting with dinner. Julia watched him out of the corner of her eye, wondering what he was doing out at the bar on a night like this. She wondered where he grew up, where he lived in town, what he taught — if he taught. He must’ve taught, with a tweed jacket and leather bag like that. Like everyone else at Side Car that night, he was there for the music. He listened in silence, quietly drumming his thumbs against the bar against the smooth melody of “All of Me,” shooting a stern look at anyone who dared speak or clink loudly against their plate as the band played. “All of me,” Julia hummed unconsciously in her head, entirely imperceptible to anyone else around. “Why not take all of me — can’t you see, I’m no good without you.” It was a song she’d played in the piano lessons that her grandmother gifted her growing up, insisting it was imperative to her development that she knew what to do in front of a keyboard.
The pretension that cloaked the room when the jazz band played reminded Julia of the pompousness that so irked her about the guys at the Strand, the guys who lurked the halls of her liberal arts school, the guys who would never ever have her no matter how impressive their taste in books or movies or music for how deeply, profoundly annoying she found them. Half the point of seeing jazz, it seemed, was to signal that you knew just when to clap and when to fall silent. To know that even though it was a bar and you may have brought someone there to socialize and catch up, there was no chit chat permitted mid-set. She found it both perturbing and comforting that the old men around her, thirty and forty years her senior, still found the need to perform their intellect. To impress and disappoint the women around them. To order the right scotch at the right time, to sip it just-so, more to show that they knew what was good than to enjoy the thing itself.
“What are you drinking?” The presumed professor’s voice broke the silence as the band leaned their instruments against their stools, filing offstage, prompting a din of ambient noise to pick up, flooding the bar.
“Oh this?” Julia looked up, surprised at how soft his voice sounded. Not harsh and gravelly like her father’s. Well-worn for sure, but gentle. “Something Mike made up,” she said, gesturing at the bartender.
“Are you a student?” he asked.
Julia paused and nodded. It wasn’t a lie, she reasoned, if she didn’t say it out loud. She was a student of jazz bars and college towns and old men and her father’s slowly progressing illness. Flattered on one hand that at thirty, he still thought she could pass for twenty or twenty-one. Embarrassed, on the other, to have no good answer to that ubiquitous question, “What do you do?” Which she turned, expertly, on him.
“I’m a professor. An English professor.” Of course he was. “You smoke?” The professor asked, pulling a box from his coat pocket. “I shouldn’t,” he added, suddenly self-conscious. “I’ve been trying to quit, but not tonight. I’ll quit tomorrow.”
“Sure, just one,” Julia smiled and followed the professor up the narrow brick staircase and into the cool, dark night. “So what kind of English do you teach? Like, classics? Shakespeare?” she mumbled, a cigarette resting loose between her lips as he held up one hand to shield the lighter from the wind as he flicked the stubborn wheel. How intimate it felt, her face just inches from a man who she hadn’t known a thing about mere minutes ago. Julia inhaled sharply, the clove pleasantly numbing her lips as she drew the smoke into her lungs.
“I teach freshman creative writing,” he responded as he lit his own. The two of them stood, shoulder to shoulder, acutely aware of the intimacy of the act.
Julia stared at the bright burning cherry, smoke billowing from the end. “That’s gotta be an interesting job,” she said, finally breaking the silence.
“It’s the best job,” the professor replied. “These kids come to you, still unformed. You’d think, when you’re lecturing and a hundred faces are staring blankly back at you — or worse, buried in their phone — that they couldn’t give less of a fuck. And then you ask these kids to write something and they bare their souls. Their pain, their joy, their suffering. It’s like they’ve been waiting all those torturously long eighteen years just to have someone come along and ask them what they think. What they feel.” He paused, taking a long drag from his cigarette, Julia saying nothing. “They have these small, amazing lives, and are too young to know just how small they are. They’re too young to know that it’s that smallness itself that makes their stories great.”
The two of them stood out there in the cold together, smoking another and then another. She told him about New York. About the bookstores, and dropping out of college, and trying to write her novel. “It sounds great,” the professor said, indulging her maybe. “I’d love to read what you’ve got so far.” When she told him about the slowly dying father she’d moved back home to take care of, hot tears welled in her eyes — her own small life only feeling real in the dark night with someone she barely knew besides for the fact that he liked stories.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked, seemingly out of nowhere, reaching for her hand — awkward and clearly out of practice. His hand felt large and unwieldy in hers as he pulled her toward his warm body. She leaned in to the kiss, going on tiptoes to reach his face as he stooped to meet hers. He didn’t kiss her like the guys she’d dated in New York. Her Bushwick hookups, her week-long flings, her on-again, off-again Tinder boyfriends. He kissed like an old man — hungry and grateful. With longing. Melancholy, like he’d been searching for her for all this time and now it was maybe too late.
That night when Julia arrived home, she looked the professor up. She didn’t know his name, only the classes he taught and what he looked like, at least in the dark. His freshman creative writing class, The Art of Small Stories, met on Thursdays at 6 pm in Mason Hall. The following Thursday evening, Julia snuck into the back row of the lecture hall, careful not to draw any attention as she slipped into a seat in the far upper left corner of the class. A couple other kids hoping to go unnoticed were also spread across the back row, physically there, but mentally a million miles away. The back of the class felt like home to Julia. She enjoyed watching the professor from afar, relishing his obliviousness to her quiet presence in his space. She watched him make small talk with the three girls sitting together in the front row. They laughed and she wondered what it was he’d said.
He was one of those cool professors — the type students adored — who played music as sloppily dressed freshmen sauntered in late to class, some buzzed, already fortified for the wild Thursday night ahead. Julia strained to hear what song he was playing. The music was quiet from all the way in the back but sounded familiar. Whatever it was, the faint melody reminded her of that night with him, the burning sensation of cloves in the back of her throat. Maybe it was just seeing his face again, this time fully in his element — his classroom — that brought that night back in such vivid detail. As more students filed in, Julia looked down at her phone. It was five past the hour, he was late to start class. As if on cue, he fiddled with the speaker, turning the volume up to fill the lecture hall, quieting the upbeat chatter of the class. “All of me,” Billie Holiday crooned, “Why not take all of me. Can’t you see, I’m no good without you.” Julia couldn’t be sure, but she swore as he turned the music off and cleared his throat to begin, he looked right at her all the way in the top row, momentarily bringing his index and middle finger to his lips as if to say, please see me for a smoke after class.
Emma Burger is a writer and young professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021. You can also find her work in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Idle Ink, and the Chamber Magazine.