Little Curly

I first learned of our university’s 25th reunion when Simone, my case manager at Soteria, shook me awake from the rec room couch and exclaimed, “You have a message, Mr. Memory.” The staff called me that because, unlike most patients here, those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, my memory remains intact. My first memory, for example, when I was four, is of my dog being “put down” (what Professor Pankova had taught us was a euphemism) for biting a neighbor pelting her with rocks. I humped my walker to the lounge’s DELL that kept freezing due to low RAM, as I regularly explained to the Director, signed in with my password, /laika/, and squinted to read a forwarded message from Lane Fromick, an old college roommate and current hedge-fund millionaire. The body of the forwarded message was a formal invitation from the University’s Student Senate Reunion Committee (USSR-C), but in the forwarded message, which I saw was also CC’d to our other roommate that senior year, Ross Detweiler, it read: “Panky! Panky! Let’s finally get her drunk!!!!”

Simone read along, her dreads touching my beard. “How exciting!” She whooped and suggested how great it would be to see old friends, but she didn’t know how far apart we’d grown, how for over two decades while I had resided in Soteria, Ross and Lane had become executives, purchased houses, married, had children. I thought then not of Lane or Ross (or even Nora), but of Professor Pankova, or Lenka, as she asked me to call her (as I’ll elaborate on in sections below). Where she might be now, if she were still alive, if she had finally found the people who had forgotten her. I had never forgotten her, because she was the best teacher I ever had although it wasn’t what she’d taught in the classroom, but rather what she taught me about empathy during that brief time we shared our despair on her porch across from my senior year frat house, that I remembered best. 

We’d been at 824 Bernitz for a week when we saw Professor Pankova, our freshman English teacher, for the first time in four years. We were playing flip-cup on the roof with the girls we’d taken home from Hooligans (Nora was out of town). Lane had retreated to the far corner of the roof to take a call from the guy with the X up the street and when he returned, he was motioning at the vapid giggling girls to cease their shrieking. “Shh shh yo yo,” he said. “I just saw our crazy first-year teacher.” 

The girls screeched at us to come back but we lowered ourselves on our elbows and crept to the edge of the roof. It was harder for me because of the swelling in my knees and elbows, the first, inconspicuous symptoms of my condition, but I persisted. We exclaimed holy shit, laughing and using the TeleLens applications on our phones to see Professor Pankova (we only remembered her name later) more clearly. It was definitely her, we agreed. She was on her porch, which was set back farther from the street than the other porches, as if the house were a refuge. The grass plots on the three visible sides of her house were unmown and weeds sprang up on the sidewalk by her porch, twining upwards along the porch’s chipped columns. Flowers with sad petals drooped in pots and resembled the weeds rising up from below to meet them, fornicating along the columns. In the corner of the porch was a bicycle with no rear tire and a rocking chair facing inward. The screen door was torn and hung on a tilt, held open by the lever at the top, allowing a little dog with curly matted fur to run inside and out, yipping.

Her house, or more like bungalow (she’d taught us to always use vivid, descriptive terms), with its chipped paint and inebriated shingles, was bordered on both sides by frat houses, I believe D-Z (Delta Zeta) and PKP (Phi Kappa Phi), although it’s hard to recall (I might be saying PKP because one of their pledges appeared at Soteria the other day saying he wanted to help “people with disabilities”). Like our place at 824, these frat houses were larger than the surrounding houses, with lawns maintained by work crews from the local mushroom farms and the Dominican ghetto, driveways full of BMW’s. 

That night the guys in D-Z were on their front lawn grilling shirtless, throwing footballs and chipping hacky-sacks. On the other side of the house, a bunch of PKP co-eds were dancing out on the wet cropped grass, gyrating to the techno music that I remember Nora used to like, their spectral forms lit by the confluence of the moon and the X-dealer’s car up the street, which was parked with its blinkers on and headlights illuminating the portion of the neighborhood from the PKP house to Professor Pankova’s porch. 

Professor Pankova sat on the steps like a punished child, her knees pushed together and feet splayed out. She had on one of those gypsy dresses and clogs she’d always worn to class. Her face matched the dress, like she were some kind of curly-haired gnome from a fairy tale or a little person from The Wizard of Oz, which she’d made us watch in class during the unit on Exile and Displacement. 

No one remembered where she’d come from—some country that was part of the former USSR with a lot of consonants. Freshman year, we thought it sufficient to know she was foreign, from some place we never wanted to go, and complained about how dumb it was for the university to assign a Communist to teach ENG 1. Ross in particular remembered how enthusiastic she had been to introduce us to her culture and homeland, magnifying the country on Google Earth, playing popular records from home with unfamiliar instruments, passing around picnic baskets with baked goods we pretended to eat but hid in our bags and tossed into the trashcan as we left class.

“She was always so cheerful,” Ross said. “It was weird.” 

I remember wondering whether she was just weird or if people from wherever she was from were just happier. 

On that night we first saw her, however, she didn’t appear cheerful. She drank from the bottle like a man, holding it by the tapered neck and chugging, looking up and down the street as cars passed, as if waiting for someone. 

“Panky-Panky!” Lane yelled. We poked him in the biceps and ribs, whispering for him to stop, but he laughed louder and repeated: “Professor Panky-Panky!”

She looked up and down the street again, and then over in a vague scan, pausing with the bottle by her chin, but didn’t identify us. She pushed off the porch steps and limped inside, the barking dog twirling around her thick ankles, reminding me of how sick she had become by the end of the semester, how many times she had to cancel class or dismiss us early. (Those were the pleasure days that seem so distant now: 10 am parties, 3 pm hook-ups, waking up blacked-out the next day and telling our professors we were sick). She turned off the porch lights and lowered the blinds. We returned to the girls and I used the randomized number generator I’d designed in Advanced Comp. Apps to determine who would be with who that night—who would be with whom, I imagined Professor Pankova correcting me in her cluttered office, with the picture of Laika harnessed into the shuttle. 

The next night at Hooligans we got wasted and jokingly discussed what to do about Professor Pankova. Lane and Ross, who’d both been on the wrestling team with me before my fatigue and swelling started, were bouncers there, and I was being paid in free meals and IPA’s to improve the bar’s network signal. We were smoking out back by the garbage cans, talking to some of the waitresses from the Olive Garden next door. We were across the parking lot from Soteria Community Recovery Center, where Professor Pankova had attempted to make us volunteer for class participation points, which we’d gotten out of by having the wrestling coach’s assistant forge the volunteering slips. People over at the Recovery Center sat on benches or hunched over wheelchairs, looking at the ground; some talked to themselves and walked with spasms and tics, even as the smoke blew over their porch and hung above them like a bell jar. They looked like figures in documentaries, grey and sepia-toned, slow moving, silent. 

Our ideas about how to treat Professor Pankova depended on the grades we’d received or our individual memories of class. Lane, who would have lost his scholarship that year if she hadn’t advocated for him before the academic standards committee, suggested we wait until she was not around and at least mow her lawn and weed-whack some of the shit on her porch. He didn’t want to see her again, he said, but obviously she couldn’t do it, and it was making the street look white trash. 

I suggested inviting her to parties, getting her drunk, and earning invitations to see the inside of her house. This idea was partially motivated, I guess, by the humor of it, but I like to think—based on what happened later—that I felt a shard of kindness or compassion for her. However weird and exhilarating it had been the previous night to see her, by that night I only remembered her defeated, solitary form, slumped over with her curly hair sprouting like some sort of shrub. Ross, of course, still bore her a grudge because she had given him a D, resulting in him being unable to compete with the wrestling team for two semesters. 

Since we couldn’t agree on anything, we decided in the meantime we would spy on her—
this had become my area of expertise at the university, both officially and unofficially. I used a Wi-Fi-Locator to obtain her wireless network and IP address, and, after breaking through her WAP2, set about accessing her browsing history and directory profiles. 

I hacked her network password —/laika/—which Lane remembered was the name of the dog the Soviets had sent into space on Sputnik. Professor Pankova often teared up while telling us how the dog had burned to ash in outer space, asking us to imagine its feelings of loneliness and betrayal, but we didn’t know or care what these words referred to then. Pankova had seemed so much older than us when we were freshmen, but now we didn’t fear her at all. We were beyond her pale powers, we realized, and so Ross and Lane wrestled and worked at Hooligans while Nora and I looked for a place in the city with an elevator for my knees, and the sparkling frats on both sides of her grey home crackled nightly with the hysterical vigor of hale youth as the hacking script I’d designed ran in the background of Professor Pankova’s network, monitoring her activities. 

We continued to see her nightly on the porch with her bottles. Sometimes she sat on the steps as she had the first time, gazing up and down the street as if she had just arrived from wherever she had come from years ago, as if the intervening years had not diminished her loneliness or estrangement. Other times, she sat on the inward-facing rocking chair and graded papers with an LED pen whose light haloed the paper’s text. Or she played strange music and paced along the porch, looking up at the stars and moving her lips, the barking dog running inside and out. The grass grew, and the weeds and flowers reached towards one another, creating a kind of green sheath that concealed her from the neighborhood.

Even then I was learning the nature of exile, how it’s not a geographical condition, but an emotional one. My degenerative and multiplying symptoms had ended my wrestling career and now radiated their effects to every other sector of my life: I couldn’t play touch football on the shore with the guys, my classes had to be scheduled in special buildings with elevators, and even Nora at times evinced frustration, like when I was unable to dance at her cousin’s wedding that time. Everything I desired or had felt a part of seemed on the brink of disappearing. 

Most nights now Ross and Lane would be gone until dawn, partying with the staff of Hooligans or with under-aged girls whose fake ID’s they’d confiscate and return for blowjobs. Nora spent more and more time at her internship in the city, where she stayed with a cousin on the fourth-floor of an old building without elevators. It wasn’t until I began inspecting Professor Pankova’s posts on social network sites and forums that I learned she was experiencing the same emotions, which I’ll get to (or clarify, excuse me) momentarily. 

I stopped eating and started snorting the schedule IV narcotics we received gratis from the wrestling program. I would take them and lay in bed propped up on pillows beside a dehumidifier to help with the inflammation and rashes that had begun appearing on my face and neck. From my bedroom window I could see how Professor Pankova’s porch reflected the radiant sparks and color echoes splash-dancing from the two houses that surrounded it. Even when she wasn’t on her porch I could see her through the front window, hunched over her computer desk. I can’t say for sure whether she looked desperate or unhinged, but those were the words she herself wrote on the forums and message boards and emails she sent to her sister and a man named Vladimir, who responded only once to say that she couldn’t come home because he had re-married and there was no place for her. 

She was so naive about online culture and technology that she was still actually using MSN and Yahoo! to perform search engine queries for “substance abuse,” “depression,” and “adjustment disorder.” I followed her now on those sites from my rigged Netbook, not for the sake of following her (as I pretended with the guys), but because sharing that space with my old professor assuaged (she would have circled that word in red with a smile) my feelings of loneliness and exile and what Nora said on the phone sounded like clinical depression. In truth, I realized everything that had been promised me had been effaced, removed, destroyed. 

The words Professor Pankova typed as they scrolled across my screen seemed as though they could have come from me (even when they were in her native tongue and I needed to use the browser language extension I had refined to translate), and I remembered what she had said in class once about everybody making the same sounds through the same mouths when they cry. We had changed that to everyone making the same sounds when they cum—later proven to be untrue—but what she said about crying has held true, in my opinion, and believe me I’ve seen a lot of it here at Soteria over the past decades.

By the time our final classes were over, Ross and Lane had gotten for real girlfriends and were rarely at the house on Bernitz, Nora left me for a guy she’d been secretly staying with for months in the city, and all the frats and sororities had their end-of-year parties. I remained propped in bed with my humidifier and Netbook, observing the street’s activities. The members of the other frats or sorority houses, those overgrown kids, placed appliances and trash on the sidewalk and just left them there; uniformed maintenance people and painters restored the houses to what they’d been before they’d been ruined by pleasure; and the grass surrounding Professor Pankova’s house continued to grow. It became almost tropical, and I half expected to see the glistening scales of luxuriating rainbow snakes along the columns (reminding me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which she’d assigned and I’d barely skimmed)—anyway, it was then, after my advisor informed me that my health petition had been denied and I would have to apply to graduate in the summer, that I took the metro bus with the underprivileged, non-college-affiliated minorities to Hooligans to see Ross and Lane for the first time in weeks. 

They were working the door but it was a quiet Monday night, so we talked about what they were doing that summer, how their girlfriends sounded when they came (Ross showed me a video on his phone of his girlfriend masturbating), where the wrestling team had placed, the jobs and five-digit bonuses they had landed through Career Services. None of us drank because they were on shift, and alcohol was contraindicated with the NSAIDs I was on for what the university doctor had diagnosed as lupus.

When that night’s band arrived, Ross and Lane helped cart in the amps and drums, and I limped to the corner booth and watched a baseball game. I experienced a sensation that had becoming increasingly common: even at my young age, I was seeing most of my past and future fade. I would never again slide into second or run down a fly ball; I would never again tailgate, kill kegs or taunt opponents’ fans; I would never have a girlfriend like that guy on the TV behind home plate, who looked at him the way Nora used to look at me. I felt my stomach drop and I experienced a sense of great emptiness and floating disconnection—I didn’t want my degree in Computer Design. I didn’t want to get back with Nora. I couldn’t think of one thing I desired. 

I hobbled outside, ignoring Ross and Lane’s puzzled looks. I sat on a bench and stared at the people outside Soteria. I told myself: think of them as people. I told myself: think of them as you. I looked at them and forced a smile. Nobody smiled back but instead looked at me as if interpreting a gesture from an alien culture. A woman with skin like plastic bags held her dentures in a palsied grip and motioned for me to sit next to her. I walked over, massaging my gimpy right knee, and saw Ross and Lane come outside and light up, winking at me as if I were playing some kind of practical joke. 

Then I saw her, Professor Pankova, as I approached the center and entered the circle of invalids; I saw her through the slats in one window’s blind, wearing her customary gypsy dress, her stubby arms flying apart as she expressed something, her face obscured by her curly hair. For the first time, I opened the door and entered Soteria. There was no air-conditioning, only two oscillating fans set at distant corners. Everything looked run down—the furniture second-hand, the carpet stained and rubbed bare, the air stale with sweat and the smells of old bodies. More residents sat on couches and foldable chairs in a U-shape around Professor Pankova, just as we had our first year in class. Like those spoiled, selfish children we had been, the residents also disregarded Professor Pankova’s passion, looking at the floor, chewing their lips, cracking knuckles, the same way we passed notes, or texted jokes about her feet, or gazed out at the girls tanning on the quad in April and May. In their cases, however, it was difficult to tell if this was because of a physical or emotional problem and not just boredom or inattention. I closed the door softly behind me so it wouldn’t bang and shuffled to the back of the room. 

“This is what I try to say,” she was saying in her accent, still choppy and child-like. She stood beside one of those old cathode-ray tube television sets with a VCR tray underneath. There was a paused image from Homeward Bound, the two dogs and cat I recognized from childhood. She continued: “no matter how much you... flounder alone, no matter how much you feel was taken from you, or how lost and alone you are, things can be in reverse. I mean, change. All day, things change.” 

A man wearing a stained tracksuit snorted, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Do not shake your head like that Mr. Tenly like you are given up,” she said. “I repeat: every day provides us with opportunity to get back lost things, to return to our homes like these animals. Anyone can be loved, any place can be home: you all deserve this. We deserve this.” 

She re-started the movie and took quick little steps to a chair next to the TV, scanning the audience with a puzzled smile. She paused when she saw me, continuing to scan around, aiming the smile the way she aimed her eyes when she spoke, and then she looked directly back at me and waved by bunching her fingers into a fist and flexing it. She motioned for one of the other volunteers to get me a chair, and I sat in the back and watched until the end of the movie.

Afterwards, she walked up to me.  She only came up to my chin and smelled vaguely of broth.   “Hello there, Mr. Sonsteim,” she said      

“Professor,” I said.  

“Lenka.  You call me Lenka now.”  She sat on a seat next to me, her knee butting against mine.  I winced.  “Is it knee that is in pain?” she asked.  

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Hard to explain.”

“I drive you home,” she said.  “I know you are neighbor, you shy fellow.  I keep waiting for you to visit.”  She winked at me. “And now you visit and explain. This is what it is to be a neighbor, to share, to overcome loneliness.”  She grabbed her keys and folded her fluffy coat over her forearm.  She looked at me again and said, “It has been so long between the two of us!” 

When we arrived at 827 Bernitz she warmed up some kind of soup and opened a bottle of wine, placing it on a kitchen table covered with envelopes with the postal inscription “Address Not Found.” The only furnished rooms were her office and the kitchen.  The den had a small TV on a chicken crate in the corner, but its spangled cord was wrapped around it, and a layer of dust concealed its screen.  Books in different languages were stacked to the ceiling, bending at the top and seeming to sway as I limped by them on my way to the kitchen. 

“I do not entertain,” she said, nervously.  I knelt to play with the little dog, who kept yipping and licking me, until my knees ached and I leaned against the wall, holding the spastic thing up against my lap.  She looked up from the stove and frowned.

“Is your knee?”  She pointed to the bottle on the table, a cheap $10 Shiraz. “Would wine help?”  

I shook my head.  “I can’t drink,” I said. “Pills, for lupus.” I pointed at my head like the pills were there.  

“And they are working?”  

I struggled up from the floor and sat at the table.  She ladled the soup into two bowls and brought them to the table.   

“Lupus,” she said, piling the letters onto an empty chair and placing the two bowls before us. “I know of it but not really.” She squinted her eyes and smiled.  

“It feels like when I tell people they don’t want to know.” 

“That is true of many things, no?” she asked. “You can tell me, you will always be my student.”  

I shrugged. “It’s an autoimmune disorder, like HIV, but not that bad. It’s not contagious,” I added quickly.   

“Where I come from, many young people have HIV. From drugs mainly.” She pursed her lips. “It is very sad, many young people on drugs.” 

I told her about Nora, and Ross and Lane, and how everyone had left me.  She listened, nodding occasionally and looking straight at me, which everyone else in my life had stopped doing. When I finished, she patted my hand and said, “When life takes friends from us, life gives us new friends back.”  

After dinner she asked if I wanted to sit on the porch with her.  She pointed at the little curly-haired dog. “I call him Toto,” she said, and giggled.  

I stood on the porch steps with her as she rocked and finished the bottle. The street was quiet, the houses dark, the driveways empty.    

“Johnny” (it sounded like zhonniez), “you do technology, no?”  She removed a flip-phone from her pocket.   

I shrugged to indicate yes.  

“Is it possible,” she said, petting Toto, “for service to not work, that when I call people or text message, as you students say, nobody receives them?”  

“It depends.”  

“This will sound silly, but my phone, I wonder if it works?  Nobody responds to my texts or calls. Is it possible they do not get them?”  She drank from the bottle and handed me her phone. “Could you look and see?”  

I looked at her phone’s sent log, seeing hundreds of text and calls to contacts named Vladimir, Svetlana, Marina, Babushka.  

“It looks they’ve been sent,” I said, handing it back. “Sometimes people change numbers or the network goes down,” I said, feeling bad about lying.  

“You’re a kind boy,” she said, after a long pause. “I think that they have forgotten.  Promise, never forget me. You will live long, happy life, and I want you to always remember me.”  She giggled. “Tell your grandkids about your silly college English teacher.”     

As our evening visits became more and more frequent, we developed an actual friendship. We started a book club, just for two, she joked, and at least two or three times a week we would eat together, either her cooking something from a recipe book from her homeland or me microwaving fast-food or ordering in.  I moved Ross and Lane’s old bookshelves across the street and organized her books into different subjects— Russian literature, American literature, poetry, and psychology.  When my lease on 824 Bernitz expired in May, I moved into the empty room upstairs in Pankova’s house.  

While I still talked to Lenka at dinner or on the porch, for the most part I lay in bed for the next few months, watching as the new semester began and 824 was rented by a new iteration of frat boys, acting out the same rooftop drug experiments and sexual games I used to participate in. I was full of self-pity, something I couldn’t prevent Lenka from noticing.  

One night on the porch, she asked, looking down at the porch’s busted planks, “Did class volunteer?”  

“What class?”

She waved her hands and said, “It is no thing, I just…you remember in our class when I asked you all to volunteer? At Soteria? And you all gave slips saying you did?”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t determine whether lying to her now or admitting that we had all lied to her then was worse.  

“It is ok, I just wondered,” she said. “I bring it up because volunteering, Johnny, I do not mean to force you, but it helps. You meet people. You get out of your room. You stop thinking of the self. It is a thing that just happens.” We were on a couch that I’d recovered from one of the frats’ sidewalk trash-lots. She got up and looked up and down the street, as if this were some teaching move she rehearsed, and pointed to the street. “It is two-way street, no?”  

I didn’t volunteer, not then. I was too consumed by the direction my life had taken. I returned to my bedroom, my Netbook, my humidifier, watching the colored world out the window, taking increasing amounts of narcotics and discontinuing the lupus pills. After a year, my symptoms became so serious that I couldn’t take care of myself, and, despite Lenka’s protestations that she could take care of me, I admitted myself into Soteria as a resident. She disappeared six months later, but I was the only one who appeared to notice.    

I never went to the reunion and didn’t talk to Lane again. Those were different times, and I’ve matured enough to now know that I can’t recover them. The best I could do, I realized, was learn to embrace this new life at Soteria. Sometimes, when my symptoms are flaring up and all I want to do is lie in bed, I remember Professor Pankova’s message of hope, of how things can change, how people can be helped. There are certificates in my room commemorating me as “Helper of the Month” for the work I do teaching other residents how to use search engines, how to share their feelings on message boards and forums, and, most importantly, how to use electronic mail to communicate with friends and family. At times, when they ask me why nobody responds to their electronic mails, just like Professor Pankova asked me why nobody responded to her texts and phone calls decades before, I think of how Laika, or “Little Curly,” as Professor Pankova once told us the dog was nicknamed, must have felt as she ascended above the atmosphere, condemned to burn alone among the stars and cosmic residue, barking in mute space “I’m hurt and alone.”