Pictures by NicholasV
‘Is she?’ I say, full volume, and I wait to see if he will smile back. I want him to do with his craggy, handsome face what he forgot to do with his hands—to greet me, to make me feel welcome, to let me know that I am still being seen. Could this be the object of my curiosity, I wonder? This challenge?
‘Have you done anything like this before, Ms Berkeley?’
I am surprised to hear him using the English pronunciation without my having suggested it. Also hearing him using Ms over Miss.
‘Sort of,’ I answer him, growing dizzy again, still unsure what this job was going to entail. ‘I mean, I can type. One hundred words a minute, last time I checked.’
This is a lie. I can type fast, I know, but I’ve no idea how many words per minute. I still hunt and peck, backspacing as I go. Summer school typing classes: the keys of the big hunky typewriters painted over with enamel and the teacher walking around with a clipboard, covering our hands as we took dictation.
‘And you’re an English student, you said?’
‘PhD,’ I tell him. ‘A DPhil they call it over in England. I just submitted.’
He congratulates me then asks, ‘What was your topic?’
‘Nineteenth Century. My thesis looked at the existential significance of orphans in the English novel from Dickens to Hardy.’
I can’t be sure, but I think I see him raise his eyebrows as if this wasn’t what he expected of me, as if this wasn’t something he thought people studied anymore.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘You said that you only just submitted your thesis?’
‘So, what are you doing back in the States?’
‘Well…’ I shrug. There are any number of ways to tell this particular story and I pick the most impersonal of the lot. ‘I ran out of money,’ I tell him.
The lights are already on in the office, but this man now leans forward anyway—over that cardboard box—and pulls the tiny chain of his desk lamp. It’s the first time he’s looked at me directly. The lamp goes on, and he looks up like he wants to check I’m still in the room. The lampshade is green and his face lights up a little more, but still there’s no smile. Just an openness, like he is lost and waiting there alone without me. It reminds me of what a boy left behind on a school trip might look like.
Suddenly, I feel I want to be the one conducting this interview. I want to be asking my own questions. A few silent seconds pass as I think about this. I slide out of my shoes and secretly begin massaging my feet into his old worn out rug. Then, surprising myself, I say, ‘Can I ask what’s in the box?’