I drink black tea and cups upon cups of coffee at small cafes, editing essays and twisting words. The setting makes me seem rather intelligent and pretentious. I am neither of those things. In fact, I feel rather stupid. But all great writers craft stories in cafes; and if I aspire to be a writer, I too must sit in these outdoor, Parisian seats.
The tea is now cold and the coffee was always bitter; I cannot seem to grow accustomed to the taste. But I finish each cup for it is Thursday. I dislike Thursdays. The kind of weary days where the week is close to being done, but not close enough to feel giddy about. The kind of days where activities and events seem to blur and burden you altogether. I order another drink.
Laid out before me are pages upon pages of literature, people’s drafts and stories and moments all captured in text. I wish to write the next great American novel. I am neither great nor American.
To be American is to be hungry and ambitious and selfish. I’m starving—but I cannot bring myself to eat. There are too many choices. Instead, I pacify my ambition with the sweet taste of succession. After all, what a writer wants most besides harnessing art is garnering reputation—relying on legacy. What an artist craves most is memory. What compels an artist to move, to create, to craft, is neither inspiration nor aesthetics—but fear.
There is fear in endings, but an even greater fear in losing the story itself. Artists cannot seem to stand the thought of it. So, they sing songs, sell stories, and produce poetry. Anything to emboss greatness onto the hunk of metal known as aesthetic history. There is desperate urgency as they work to capture life in order to be remembered after death. I am done with fearing death. I stared him down once before and I am ready to embrace him yet again, so I will never be a great artist. Instead, I wish to be a teacher. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.
In high school, my English teacher once told me that if you cannot create greatness, you should teach it. That way, you can be credited for producing it, and maybe—one day—some writer can inscribe your name as his dedication. You can be someone’s muse. Teaching, that’s succession.
I had once adored the way this teacher had chosen his words. The way he always inspired me to find my own. The way he crafted stories and commented upon others. Not once did he ever call me an artist.
Soon, I began to see the overlap in his stories. The lies he wove into the truth for emotional emphasis. The interchangeable themes and names and tragedies. I found this to be very compelling—these lies. In fact, my teacher got so good at telling them that he won an essay contest and soon traveled the world to share these stories. I guess the classroom got too small for him. I am not an artist, so I hope to be a good person. I do not lie.
I take a break from editing the stack of stories before me. The texts-hungry writers from around the state mailed editors, not expecting their work to be weighed by a burned-out Literature student. I look across the table at my boyfriend, hard at work finishing a term paper for his class.
I concentrate on his hands as they type. He does not seem to wrestle with his words. In fact, he is articulate and American and hungry. I am sure he will one day grow up to be great. It takes effort to contain my jealousy.
He fell in love with me for I am neither American nor destined for greatness. In fact, he believes that I embody most things he is not—I’m “different.” From him. From other girls. It seems the difference is alluring, attractive—refreshing.
Here’s a secret: Women are not snowflakes. Not unique fleeting entities ever meant to “refresh.” Most of us are the same, which is not the tragedy narratives would like you to believe. The true calamity resides in the fact that we have all internalized this expectation, and none of us can ever live up to it.
Most girls are the same. They represent nature, until they lose themselves to the role of nurture. They are dreamers, until their dreams are forced to die. They are beautiful and naive, until they are old and ignorant. They are young and “free” until they attract someone older and sterner. Someone who will be sure to remind them of how “different” they are. A woman’s life is defined by a switching. From one thing to another. Girl to woman. Writer to teacher. It’s not a slow transition or a metamorphosis; it’s a sudden snap.
Blink. My boyfriend once lamented on how time moves too fast. Blink, and you’re in college. Blink, and you’re working for someone. Blink, and you have people working for you. Time blinks away, and you hardly ever get to enjoy it all.
I don’t believe time truly works like that. At least it never has for me. For time to move too fast, you have to be aware of owning your own time. You have to know what you want to do with it. Time, like most things, is a sudden snap. You never have agency over it, and once you realize you want it, know what you want to do with it, the time is already gone. No spare moments for greatness.
Upon sharing these thoughts, my boyfriend had remarked again how this different way of thinking fascinates him. Now, I say nothing.
I fell in love with him because he once told me that my hair looked like “crashing waves.” It was comments like these that first made me swoon and then made me envious. Poetry flows out of him. The kind of soulful phrases and aphorisms that come with being told repeatedly that you have the potential to be somebody. He gets told that often. And if not for his patented pragmatism, I think he would allow himself to be a poet.
He seems like the sort of man my mother would want me to marry. The kind whose pragmatism leads to the sort of houses she admires. My mother is a big stickler for pragmatism. My father would find him dreary and boring—which he is. My father likes to say that I do not need a man to complete me.
Regardless of what each parent may think, there is unanimity in the fact that we must start considering what is deemed marriage material. My mother was married by the time she turned 23, had me at 27, and worked on and off ever since. I’m 20, I beg for more time. Time to study, work, and edit stories in cafes, hoping for the creativity to craft my own. Art takes time. Takes inspiration. Takes experience. Art cannot be penciled into a timeline with marriage. So, it is men like the lover across from me that force women like me to want to become teachers. What’s more infuriating is that it is never their deliberate fault.
I long to be capable—to be loved. To be told my hair looks like waves while being allowed the opportunity to author opuses about the ocean. For a woman, it seems the two must be mutually exclusive. This was a grounding revelation. One I wish I could unlearn. But last night, I spent the evening baking banana bread. A treat to get me through today.
I adore baking. It allows me time to clear my head while creating something tactile with my hands. I get to produce for the sole purpose of my own enjoyment. My mother always told me that my future husband would love this about me. She would say, “Most men deal with bitter remarks when their woman gets angry, yet yours would receive sweet baked goods.” I never said I was angry, but I bake for myself.
Yet, as the smell of bread wafted through the kitchen last night, I could not help but imagine grubby children running around the room. I felt the sudden urge to hold these imaginary children close and love them. The amount of love I felt was terrifying. The desire to drive them to and from school, to kiss each bruise, and carry them off to bed overwhelmed me. My panacea of baking suddenly became a means to appease a family, to care for others. An act of love.
Artists cannot afford to spend that kind of love. I would have to be thrifty to save my affection. Each spare penny, hidden in a jar under the bed like an emergency fund. I would be diligent in my spending. Split the bill evenly for each student at work and not impulse buy for the children I keep at home. I would have to hold my jar tight to not let the pennies spill out if I heard them cry. My love must be worth more than a rainy day.
I could collect the coins until I had enough love, enough soul, enough energy to stay up one night and spend it all on a page. I would write till my funds ran out and sell the story in order to buy more. That was how I would sustain myself. Teach and love and care, and hopefully—maybe—create on the side until it proved worthy enough to take up more time. Maybe, I too could win an essay contest and go around the world selling stories.
I pull out the box of banana bread from my backpack and remove its plastic lid. Two thick slices, each iced with cream cheese and decorated with walnuts. I watch my boyfriend’s hands slowly stop typing. I watch him first eye the bread and then me, waiting for me to push the box over and offer him the first slice like I always do. He loves my bread.
Today, I scarf down both slices. I make an effort to pick out each crumb from the box, to lick clean each finger. Today, I refuse to share. I’m hungry. I know that later, I’ll feel sick and regret the sweet taste of bread, but for now I savor each bite. This is my bread, my labor, my love—today; I choose to feed it to myself.
I zone into work and edit at an astonishing pace. I’m motivated and diligent and provide insightful comments. I open a new tab on my computer to start compiling these critiques, my bright ideas—saving them for myself rather than handing them to the hungry.
My boyfriend, having wrapped up his term paper, reaches over to grasp my hand. I swat his touch away. I’m focused. I’m writing. I see a future in the scripts before me. A pile of stories, a choose your own adventure. I wish to take the best paragraphs and merge them all together into one. An artist, a teacher, a mother, a lover, a free thinker, a loner, a critic, and a composer—I want it all. But, of course, that’s not how this works. And when I think long and hard about it, I have learned to be okay with that.
For now, I revel in time. My time. Full on my bread, I write. Chasing glory before it all runs out.
My boyfriend packs up his laptop, and says he’ll head back to his place early. He kisses my cheek and says he will meet me later once I’ve finished. Today, he is feeling rather uninspired. He remarks on how odd the day makes him feel.
Yes. What an odd sort of Thursday indeed.
About the Author:
Ria Dhingra is a Sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is perusing a degree in English Literature. Her work has been recognized by her university as she was the recipient of the Mackaman Undergraduate Writer’s Award in 2021. Her work appears in or is forthcoming in Bridge Literary Journal. Ria is a lover of stories, car rides, post-it notes, and trying to find beauty in the ordinary.