Thursday, April 15, 2010


The poetry prompt for today - deadline. Which spawned both a poem and the memory of a scene from BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT on the aftermath of the most dreadful of deadlines - final exams -- and all the crap that goes along with that particular insanity.

If I look up
from the page or
walk to the kitchen
for another half-cup
of cold coffee
or stop to stare
at the wren weaving
her nest under the eaves
I might just miss
the deadline yet
get a chance
to breathe.



My body floats outside of itself, a step ahead of the rest of me. I hurry to keep up, running the stairs three at a time; the adrenalin rush of finishing papers and racing to meet deadlines makes me impervious to slowing down. On the landing, I stop short – I forgot to set up for Biology 110 lab this morning.

Damn. Not prepared for Tien’s lambasting, I ponder whether to go in, but I only have eleven minutes to hand in my paper to Doctor L. I wedge open the door. Empty. The smooth, black benches gleam in the afternoon light. I quickly pass through the room. Muffled laughter, then applause from the seminar room echoes down the hall. Someone’s dissertation defense.

Doctor L’s office is across from the small library cum lunch room. I peer out the library window, watch other students pass the fountain, heading to a residence hall or cafeteria or bar. They have somewhere to go. Someone to see.

Too many memories dance around that fountain, so I turn away, settle at the round table to peruse the latest Neuroscience, but can’t focus; I’m too wired. I pull out my outline, feet tapping music on the floor. Not bad - fifteen detailed pages of background, rationale, and hypotheses, research protocol, and expected conclusions.

The door opens. Dr. L beckons me into his office and settles behind his desk. I hand him my paper and sit in the chair across from him. He reaches for his glasses. Leaning forward, hands thrumming on the seat, I wait for his reaction.

“Quite good, Ben,” he says after several silent minutes. “Innovative.”

I lean back, a smile tugging at my mouth.

“Keep up the good work and you’ll do well in this field.” He looks at the paper and back to me. “This was a tough semester. How did you do?”

“Okay, I think. Didn’t sleep for two weeks, but what the heck. Study design was rough,” I say. “All those stats.”

“But what you’ve learned shows,” he says, shaking my paper. The phone rings. He reaches for the receiver. “Go home, get some rest, then get back in lab on Monday.”

Happy, high, I bound down the hall, the stairs, out the building, and through the bustling, twilit Square. None of my writing buddies are holding court at Au Bon Pain or Café Pamplona, so I hang out in the Pit to listen to the Peruvian band. There’s quite a crowd, clapping and dancing, chucking bills into the open guitar case, but no one I know, so I punch in Sam’s number, contemplate going there for dinner, but hang up in the middle of the first ring, sure he’s sick of me; I’ve crashed there three times the past week. There, or in the lab, escaping my apartment of ghosts. My cold bed.

The band takes a break. Bystanders trail away. I wend my way down now-darkened Harvard Street, to my messy home, my empty fridge. I finally feel relaxed enough to eat, so I decide to splurge at the neighborhood whole foods store: organic strawberries, steamed wild-caught shrimp, asiago cheese, mesclun greens. It sets me back thirty bucks and I don’t give a damn, just pull out my new credit card. But as I cart the makings of my feast home, the bag grows heavier, my pace slows; by the time I open the door, I barely have energy to shove the bag in the fridge. I kick off shoes, put on some Schubert, and collapse on the futon for a quick nap.

When I wake, the room is dark as pitch and oddly quiet. Sleeping bent up on the futon cricked my neck, so I massage it and stumble into the shadowy kitchen. My watch blinks 2:23.

I pour the dregs from a carton of orange juice into a cup sticky from last night’s coffee. Leaning against the counter, I pull cold shrimp from the bag, cramming them into my mouth one after the other without tasting. After a pound, I’m still ravenous, so I rummage in the cupboard for something more substantial. My hand bangs up against the mug where I hid my meds. I pull it down, motivated to be a more compliant patient, to be normal; the noise and weird dreams barraging my brain these past days are really starting to annoy me, they’re so relentless.

The bottle is empty.

I make a mental note to get a refill tomorrow, then settle at the table with crackers and peanut butter. A rogue cricket chirrups its melancholy ballad. Despondency licks at the edges of my heart, but now fueled, my head cycles again, remembering her sleepy morning smile, the way water streams in a slow ‘s’ down her back in the shower, how her brow furrows when she studies. How we reconnect at night, in bed, waking in tangles.

The saltines are stale, but I inhale them anyway, stuffing myself until I feel fuller. Too full. My stomach lurches and I stagger to the bathroom, half-laughing as I vomit, I’m so crazy, I’m a frigging bulimic, but what gushes up freaks me out, it’s flesh, little chunks of my heart all pink in the stream of brown, and I sink to my knees and, for the first time since she left, I cry, these huge, heaving sobs that rend holes in my chest.

Oh God. Oh Jesus. What have I done? What have we done?


  1. Oh, he is in so much pain. From the highest high to the lowest low...all in a day.

    Last sentence tugs the heart.

  2. I love the concept of exploring deadlines because everyone reacts to them differently. i work in a newsroom and believe you me, it's a daily thing... and we all react to them in a different way. I enjoyed both pieces throughly.

  3. 20 years on, I still have anxiety dreams about showing up late for an exam, or not having revised for it, or having done my homework, but left it at home... Something about deadlines...

    But your prose piece blew me away. "Motivated to be a more compliant patient" - what a wonderful line. Superb.

    marc nash

  4. Brilliant as always Linda. I could easily feel his wired high turned miserable low. And your descriptions astound! You are so damn good at this!

  5. Acrid writing, Linda. Moves fiercely from the beginning when there's really nothing dire to hurry about.

  6. Loved both the poem and the exerpt. I particularily liked how the last sentence just hangs there.

  7. Nice pairing of poem and prose, Linda. Enjoyed both of these.

  8. Well, gorgeous, as usual - loved 'sticky from last night's coffee' among other wonderful lines.

    I'm starting out on a research paper so I know too well the pressure and malaise.

    I'm not sure if you need that last line in the prose piece. I got the desperation/shame/destruction from what came before, so well did you paint the picture :)

  9. Hi Linda,
    I loved the poem and can identify so clearly with it. Not that I'm dealing with deadlines, but the whole multi-project, gotta-write-gotta-write-gotta-write mentality keeps me either guiltily at my computer or guiltily away from it! I think you've hit a strong universal theme. The BTB piece is wonderful. I want to read the whole thing! Wonderful stuff, Linda! Thanks for sharing. ~ Olivia

  10. You create that frazzled, burned-out feeling very well, and the final paragraph is powerful. I was particularly struck by how he tries to do the right thing by buying all that delicious whole food but ends up choking down stale crackers anyway.

  11. Thanks all for reading and your kind comments. Whew! What a day. My Fridays lately have been SO work-filled -- all those DEADLINES! Some time to catch up in my alter-world.

    So glad you like the prose piece. I just love this character, and happy you feel his humanity.

    Marc, that line about being a motivated patient - crux of the story. Adherence to regimens, to meds, to your heart.

    Mark, interesting observation about the whole food versus stale saltimes; never thought of it that way. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Okay, off to read YOURS! Peace, Linda

  12. Linda this is intense. I'm in awe. My favourite section in the prose piece is this: "A rogue cricket chirrups its melancholy ballad. Despondency licks at the edges of my heart, but now fueled, my head cycles again, remembering her sleepy morning smile, the way water streams in a slow ‘s’ down her back in the shower, how her brow furrows when she studies."

    How not to love your bruised character?

    And the poetry - simply gorgeous.
    Fantastic writing.

  13. Linda, this is tremendous writing. You've captured perfectly the exhaustion crash from post-deadline euphoria to collapse on the couch.

    So much despair packed into one small heart...

  14. Hi, nice to meet you. Both pieces are exceptional. Lovely, clean writing, and the arc from his being so keyed up to the emotional dam breaking is perfectly executed. Thank you for a lovely story.

  15. Loved the poem. The prose is really nicely done as well. I can really feel the emotional roller coaster Ben is on.

  16. You really had me feeling for the student. You captured the emotion so well.

  17. skillfully done, Linda - a veritable rollercoaster ride

  18. Whoa, I am astounded by this story! I had so many flashbacks from my college days (12 years) that I think you may have given me PTSD. That was excellent and realistic. You really got on the inside with this! Wow!

  19. Always late for the party, that's me.
    But WOW, what a party!
    Your story was dazzling, Linda, and the ending made my breath catch.
    The pain came off that last sentence in waves.