She sat at her favorite spot in the library. She had the desk all to herself, although four people can actually fit on the rectangular table. Everyone who spends a great deal of time at the library knows that once a person occupies the entire table, it was off limits to everyone else. If a group decided to conquer a table, then that’s acceptable. However, when only one does the conquering, it would be wise to let that person be. That was the unspoken rule.
Penelope knew that by spreading her items throughout the table, she was clearly indicating that she meant business. She emptied her satchel bag filled with her books, pens, and her freshly brown leather journal filled with her notes, thoughts, and her life. She was there to study for her final exams. She was focused and determined so that no one would have ever guessed her plan after the exams were over and grades were posted in her records.
She opened her laptop and stared at the screen. She debated whether she should turn it on, but she was fixated at her reflection. The table, her table, was right by the window and the light hit her laptop screen just so that she can make out her face.
Penelope’s hair was up in a messy bun, and no one would have noticed that she had not washed her hair in the last four days. A good daily spray of dry shampoo prevented all the greasiness that would have accumulated from her neglect. She remembered to put a bit of mascara and lip-gloss on just so that she does not attract any unwanted attention to the truth hidden beneath her skin.
People will begin to notice when a person stops taking care of themselves, she told herself every morning. Penelope knew that if there were breadcrumbs left behind that people would have speculated afterwards, and she can hear them say, “Ohh, it was there all along.”
Penelope was not about to let that happen.
She turned on her laptop, and searched for the folder where she kept her notes on all the reading materials in one of her classes. She was keen enough to know that Woolf’s The Death of the Moth would be one of the pieces that she would be required to write an essay about. So she decided to tackle that on first. Woolf was misunderstood by many, and many believed she was easily understood. Wrong, and wrong, Penelope thought. People are idiots to even remotely think that they can dissect a person based on what she had written. An author can fool her readers into thinking that they know her, when it fact those who could not understand are the ones closer to what the author attempted to convey. Neither here or there, Penelope wanted to say out loud.
“It is here or it could be there,” a voice behind Penelope said. “Do you mind if I sit here?” The woman came around Penelope and stood at the corner of the table. She was tall, and her hair reached her shoulders but was cut bluntly as if the person who sliced her hair did so with such precision. Her face was pristine with make-up, but the kind that no one could tell whether it was her natural beauty or naturally made up with products kind of beauty. Penelope observed her navy blue blazer, and her button down shirt. She wore a dainty gold necklace and the pendant that was hanging from it was stylishly hidden behind one of the buttons. She was wearing jeans that looked as if it was made just for her, and her flat loafers looked as though they were bought from a high-end boutique. Penelope wanted to roll her eyes.
“There are other tables that are empty that you are welcome to,” Penelope gave her the Vanna White wave to show her where all the other tables were available.
“Well, you’re sitting at my table, and I can’t do my work at all the others. So, do you mind if we share?” She asked. Penelope noticed that this woman carried a book and her own journal that looked worn as if it had seen better days. Sheesh, she dressed impeccably stylish, but carries a worn out journal. So cliché. She must be a professor or a PhD student, Penelope assessed quietly.
“Sure, help yourself,” Penelope said.
“Studying Woolf?” the woman asked.
Penelope wanted to roll her eyes, but to avoid being rude and again leaving a breadcrumb, she answered, “Yes.” The woman looked around the table, and Penelope knew that she was being assessed, or worst yet, judged.
“It’s amazing how much studying they require for undergrads, and all for the sake of getting the very same degree that someone who did half the work,” the woman said.
“Yes, some of us do not have the luxury to fast forward this process,” Penelope answered.
“Fast-forward, huh? Why would you want to fast forward college?”
“Because aren’t we all in a rush these days?” Penelope asked.
“I guess you’re right. But, there’s something to be said about becoming still. You know similar to when Woolf describes the moth,” the woman replied.
“Are you a professor? English or creative writing?” Penelope asked.
“Professor? I wouldn’t say that. I had put in my time reading the greats, the depressed, the maniacs, the dreamers, and the assholes. And just like you I’ve had to put in my time writing about them,” she said.
Penelope was not in a mood for a conversation, but if she showed a slight bit of annoyance, this woman could be one of those people who’d say she noticed when…
“You must be really good at using dry shampoo. I must say that’s my go to when I honestly do not even want to deal with the hair,” the woman said.
“Oh, err, yah. It’s a college student go to when it’s finals week. I’m sure you had your ways when you went to college,” Penelope gave the woman a fake smile.
“Really, you could say that without adding a smile that you do not mean. Just say it with a face that you actually want to express,” the woman said.
Penelope rolled her eyes, “I’m sure you had your ways when you went to college so many damn years ago.”
“Much better when you acknowledge your truth, right?” The woman smiled at Penelope, which Penelope recognized to be genuine. She looked at her laptop intently as if she was concentrating on her notes.
“You know I envy young women like you about to embark on the world after college,” the woman said. Penelope glanced at her companion who was looking through her book and writing something down on her journal.
“There’s so much out there in this world that you have yet to take on. Aren’t you excited about all of it?”
“No,” Penelope said.
“Oh, c’mon. Don’t be so cynical. You can travel the world, eat all the food, learn about the country’s history, love someone without care, have one-night stands on your choosing, and not feel guilty about it. So much of the world to conquer!”
“Just take a look at how you conquered this table,” the woman laughed.
“Not really interested. Just trying to get through the last week of finals, and graduation. That’s all,” Penelope answered.
“That’s all? That’s not all there is. I can tell you that.”
Perhaps, if I just have a conversation with her and let her talk, she’ll eventually shut the fuck up, Penelope thought.
“Sure, tell me what is all there is in your world?” Penelope asked.
“Well, since you asked. After I graduated from college, I did travel the world. I went to Europe first, and backpacked with some friends. Germany, Italy, the U.K., France. We ate, got drunk, screwed around, took in all the sights. I did that for a year, and afterwards—you know life settled in. Met a man who I didn’t get tired of, had two kids—and in between all of that dove into fighting for human rights. No biggie.”
“That’s really nice, lady. Such a happy story,” Penelope responded.
“Shit wasn’t easy though. So cliché about life’s hardships, but it’s the undeniable truth,” the woman said.
“That’s your truth. Everyone has their own truth even if they continually lie about it,” Penelope said.
“And is your truth making sure not to leave any breadcrumbs around?” the woman asked.
Penelope’s head jerked up from looking at her laptop screen. She and the woman looked intently at each other.
“Excuse me?” Penelope asked.
“Your hair that’s been unwashed for days but you are trying to make sure that the dry shampoo hides it, but your messy bun has become tangled. Your mascara, and that lip gloss to show that you haven’t forgotten to take care of yourself, but the bags under your eyes tell a different story. Your sweatshirt is hiding the same t-shirt that you’ve been wearing for a week now doesn’t fool me,” the woman said.
Penelope found herself unable to respond.
“Virginia Woolf with the rocks in her dress and walking towards a river. Sylvia Plath and the oven. Anne Sexton, Charlotte Perkins-Gillman. Should I keep going?”
Penelope felt the sweat beads bubbling on her scalp as some of them began drooling down the back of her neck. Penelope continued to look intently at the woman sitting across from her, and she realized that her tendency to grab hold of the pendant on her necklace ended the poker face that she had attempted to maintain. She felt the roundness of the R that was her pendant that calmed her in moments of crisis.
“Think about it clearly, and for first time in your life—you need to be a coward about the decision you made. And, that should be the last time that you are allowed to be a coward,” the woman said. She leaned over the table, and tapped Penelope’s journal, “your life is worth more than what you’ve written on these pages,” she said. As she leaned over, Penelope saw the pendant on the woman’s necklace. Roundness of the R.
The woman stood up, gathered her journal and book, and walked away.
Penelope looked at her laptop, and pushed it forward to give herself enough space to put her head down. As she kept her head on her folded arms, she felt the cowardliness of herself spill onto the table.
The woman stood in the middle of the room, and looked at the table where she had sat, and where there was once a young woman with her head resting on her folded arms attempting not to quiver from the first time she decided to be a coward.
There are many things that can occur when a person was at a pinnacle of a decision. There are many conversations that may emerge from the mind at the right moment in time.
“Dr. Renaud, there you are! Are you ready for the run-through of your commencement speech?” A man in his mid 40s interrupted the woman’s thoughts and silence in the room as he walked towards her. “Ah, I see you found the study hall in the library! With your book and your journal, you can pass for a PhD student!” he said.
“Mr. Johannes, why yes, this was one of my favorite places to study during my undergrad days,” the woman said.
“Were you reminiscing of your time here?” Mr. Johannes asked.
“You can say that. Many decisions must have been made in a place like this, don’t you think?” the woman asked.
“I am sure you are correct, Dr. Renaud,” Mr. Johannes said.
The woman nodded. “Please, you may drop the formalities,” she said, “I will never be comfortable with it. You may simply call me Penelope.”