Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be a newt? To reside peaceably in an aquarium, rising every so often for a gulp of air, catching a worm in your thin amphibious mouth and being generally content? I often think about that. This is about a time when I thought about it a lot. It was the summer when I worked as a student intern at a senior center near Brighton Beach. I was pursuing a social work degree at Hunter College, and sharing an apartment in downtown Brooklyn with two other graduate students. It was a lonely time for me, and I kept several spotted newts in a terrarium for company, and a five disc CD player that I had on continuously when I was home to ward off the isolating silence.
The executive director of the center was named Sarah. She was a smallish, stern woman, about thirty-five, with a pointy chin and a long ponytail. Her hair was dry, like hay. I often had dreams of her, and in the dreams, there was a terrible dry heat. The sun was dazzling. The landscape was stark. Sarah’s hair was everywhere, so thick, it threatened to engulf me.
Sarah wore long flower print dresses, but the bright, upbeat patterns seemed to clash with her dour demeanor. On especially hot days, she wore sleeveless blouses, and I would try to avoid staring at the patches of underarm hair that strayed about the fabric. She told me she had once tried being a lesbian. In my lame attempt to develop some sort of collegial bond, I told her I would like to try being a lesbian too, but she discouraged me. She said she had given it up because it wasn’t fun to be with someone who had the same physical characteristics as oneself. In my effort to be affable, I told her that seemed perfectly reasonable.
I was obedient to a fault. Not so much because I respected authority, but Sarah was officially my supervisor, and my grade for my internship would be determined by the report she’d draft at the end of the summer. I needed a good grade to boost my average, which bordered on borderline, because I wasn’t truly academically inclined. Not because I wasn’t as smart as the others, but because I really wanted to be a painter and spent far too much time engrossed in travels to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim rather than read longitudinal studies of inner-city blight. But since everyone said I should have something to fall back on, I had enrolled in a program to obtain my master’s of social work degree. With it, I could land a job in a hospital or social service organization. “Fall back on”: that phrase always struck me as odd, as though a profession could be like a thick mat at a health club.
Dealing with Sarah wasn’t the only problem I had that summer. I was also enrolled in a summer school class two evenings a week, and from the start of that course, I was in hot water. The professor was a stern woman in her mid-40s with jet-black hair that she tied behind her with a rubber band. During the first class, she had asked us what we would say if we were told that statistics showed that women only made 77% of the income as men in comparable positions. I answered that before I said anything, I would check where the statistics had come from. Evidently, this was not what she wanted to hear. She gave me a nasty look and refused to call on me after that, no matter how long I kept my hand raised. I got into the habit of just keeping it raised to annoy her. I finally made an appointment to speak with her, and apologized if I had made an insensitive remark, and mentioned that my mother was employed as a cafeteria worker in a corporate dining room, worked a double shift, and earned fifteen cents an hour above minimum wage. I explained that my father had died when I was five and how I had grown up eating only American cheese sandwiches washed down with orange Kool-Aid. However, this did not seem to impress her.
The thought of these two individuals who might determine my academic fate made me somewhat paranoid. I worried that my summer school teacher was communicating with my supervisor, each confiding in the other that I was sexist and insensitive, a wise guy, jerk, fool, goofball, knucklehead, and perhaps a standard deviation below average on the Stanford-Binet, and profoundly deviant according to the guidelines set by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. And since Sarah was particularly hostile to me the day after my comment in class the night before, I wondered whether it was mere coincidence. I began counting the days until I’d be done.
One day at the beginning of August, I walked into Sarah’s office so she could sign my monthly activity log. She was sitting at her desk beside another woman who could’ve been her twin, only a bit more robust and pretty. Sarah seemed not surprised to see me.
– Hi, Sarah said. This is my friend, Gilda. She’s a dancer.
– Excuse me? Gilda said. She looked at Sarah and they both giggled.
– Ballet? I said.
– Oh, I get it, Gilda said. You want to know what kind of dancer I am. She turned to Sarah.
– He wants to know whether I’m a modern or a ballet dancer. Which am I, Sarah?
– Gilda, you’re a modern dancer, don’t you remember? They both giggled some more.
– Well, I guess I’ll leave my activity journal with you, I said, and you can look it over when you get a chance.
– Oh, sure. Don’t forget to do that. It’s so important, Sarah said.
They continued to giggle, and Sarah turned to Gilda and started kissing her on the mouth. I wanted to get out of there, but felt stuck to the floor, the way a child might feel if he wasn’t sure he had permission to leave the room. There was nowhere for me to avert my eyes, but I was determined not to show any intimidation, so I just stared. I stared even more intently than I would have even though I was truly surprised. Finally, the two of them stopped kissing, as if to gather some breath. Sarah looked at me and seemed startled to see me still standing there.
– You can go if you want, Sarah said.
– Or you can stay, Gilda said.
And then a look of dawning comprehension arose in Sarah’s eyes.
– I’m sorry, Joel. I completely forgot to introduce you. This is Joel. The student intern.
– That’s very nice, Joel, Gilda said.
– Thanks, I said.
– Joel is in social work school, Sarah said.
Gilda and Sarah gazed at one another again as though they were having a staring contest to see which one would laugh first. This continued until they simultaneously broke out in roaring laughter.
– Oh, I see. Social work school, Gilda managed to say despite her giggles. Her face was turning red.
– To fall back on, I said.
– Well don’t fall back on me, Sarah said. Gilda, whose face was now swollen from trying to contain her laughter, burst out in hysterics.
–I’ll be certain not to, I said.
–Joel, why don’t you go watch the Pedro Almodóvar movie? It’s being shown in the auditorium. Why don’t you check up on things?
–You’re showing that movie here? I said.
–Well, it’s not showing itself, Sarah said. She turned to her friend and they both exploded with glee.
I turned and made a retreat down the stairs. In the recreation room, about 20 seniors were watching a video on a monitor that had been placed up front in the center aisle. Nevertheless, the audience seemed to have to squint in order to see the subtitles, which resulted in increasing my bewilderment regarding why Sarah would select this video.
– Hey, kid. What the hell they showing this for? A man said. He was about 70, with a reddish complexion, bulbous nose, and straggly blonde hair. He pointed a menacing finger at me.
– Leave him alone, the woman beside him said. He’s not the culprit. It’s the lady director. The nutcase.
– Which nutcase? The man asked. This place is full of them.
The rest of the group had now turned away from the monitor – all except a rigid, tall, gaunt man in the front row who seemed transfixed by the images emanating from the monitor.
– The funny looking one with the grating voice, the woman said.
– Oh, her! I’ll give her a piece of my mind. What does she make us out for, idiots?
The man turned to me. –Well, does she? You work here, he said.
– I’m just an intern, I said.
– What? Like a doctor?
– No, a social work intern.
– What the hell is a social work intern? I never heard of such a thing.
– Well, it wasn’t my idea. I want to be a painter.
–So paint! He said.
Meanwhile, the crowd was growing exasperated. Mumblings were increasing in volume. Several seniors had already gotten up to leave, and I could hear their frustration by the moving and scraping of chairs.
– Where is this woman then? The man said.
– I don’t know, I said. Maybe she went to lunch, I lied.
– Well, who else is there to talk to about this absurdity? The man asked as he stared accusingly at me, as though I were the one who should be held responsible. I considered my options as the man narrowed his gaze.
– I think the accountant is in his office, I said. I hoped my little subterfuge would get me off the hook.
– Well, get the accountant then, the man ordered. I want to give him an account of my mind.
I shrugged and pursed my lips, as if considering whether this would be a good strategy, and, whether this was really part of my responsibility as an unpaid intern. My worst fears seemed to be gaining legitimacy. I sensed some major upheaval in the scheme of the small universe that constituted the senior center was imminent. I pictured the three credits I urgently needed on my transcript, and imagined them as little asterisks floating out to sea, and eventually falling off the end of the earth.
– I’ll be right back, I said, and tried to assume an authoritative demeanor. But from the skeptical look the man gave me, I had a feeling my attempt at appearing in charge was sorely wanting.
I walked down the hall toward the accountant’s office, which I had only visited once, when Sarah had given me a quick tour of the premises on my first day. It was sequestered in the rear of the building, facing a small courtyard with an entanglement of trees and brush, inhabited by scampering, chattering squirrels. I had never been introduced to the accountant, but according to information passed among the staff members, he was a retired dancer from the New York City Ballet.
I stood respectfully in his doorframe, and watched him staring irritatingly at his computer monitor, which was set on an old mahogany desk, piled with intermittently flapping papers caught in the breeze of an old rotating table fan. On the wall were framed ballet posters and a grouping of colorful African masks.
– Excuse me sir, I said.
– How nice to see you Joel. It is Joel, isn’t it? The accountant said.
-The last time I looked, I said, then regretted the clever-manqué way I had responded.
– Have you come by to look at my artwork? I was told you have ambitions to become an artist.
– Ambitions aside, I said. I think you should know that there is a group of angry seniors sitting in the auditorium who would like a word with someone in charge.
– I’m the accountant, Joel. I don’t get involved in the recreational or social aspects of our work. I believe that Sarah’s job.
– Sarah is unavailable at the moment, I said.
– I can well imagine, the accountant said, and gave me a sly wink. But since you are a member of the social work staff, perhaps you should try to discuss any grievances the members might have. Let me try Sarah’s extension, and see if I can pry her from her administrative duties.
The accountant made a fulsome gesture of clearing his throat, and then dialed the phone. As he waited for a response, he seemed to stare at me with a conspiratorial smile. He bobbed his head in small rhythmic motions, seeming to keep time with the increasing number of unanswered rings. Then he pulled the phone delicately from his mouth and ear, and placed it back on the hook. He shook his head in mock disgust, but could not conceal a playful smile.
-I’ll help you out this one time, Joel, but after this, you’re on your own. You’re a big boy, Joel.
The accountant got up from his chair and rather grudgingly walked to the door of his office and continued down the hallway. I observed his diminishing form as he got to the end of the hall and turned into the auditorium. I got up and examined his artwork–the posters and the African masks—then walked to the window that looked out upon the backyard and saw a number of small birds feeding from a hanging birdfeeder – all seeming quite content. I turned to walk back in front of the desk, and noticed that in the accountant’s open briefcase was the cover of a gay men’s magazine. I reached out, picked it up, and examined the cover. It featured a homoerotic photograph of a thin, well-muscled man. His physique was impressive, and I made a bicep to compare mine to the model’s.
– WHAT seniors? I heard the accountant ask from the doorframe. Startled, I put back the magazine where I found it, but not before I was aware that the accountant had noticed.
– The ones in the recreation room where the video is playing. There were about 15 of them in there just a few minutes ago, complaining about the choice of movies.
– Well, the video was playing, the accountant said. But the room was empty. So, guess the problem has resolved itself.
– I guess it has, for now anyway, I said. I better go back to my regular internship responsibilities.
– And what, Joel, specifically are those?
– I sure wish I knew, I said.
– Come visit anytime, Joel. We can do some bird watching together. That is, if you can spare some of your valuable time.
– Thanks for the invitation, I said. I guess I’ll go find Sarah.
– Anytime Joel, the accountant said. I nodded and began to walk towards the door.
– By the way, Joel, I’m curious about your plans and the wonderful world of social work.
– I don’t really have any specific plans, I said. It’s just something to fall back on.
-I hope you don’t fall too hard, he said. He smiled and returned his attention to his computer.
I climbed up the stairs to return to the administrative offices, and wondered whether Sarah and her friend were still engaged. When I got to Sarah’s door, it was closed. I put my ear against it, and tried to listen for any indication of what was going on within. What I heard were various sounds of excitement: moans, squeals, laughter, and a very loud “oh yes, oh yes, oh yes.” Then silence. Then in a mock-serious tone, I heard Sarah say, “Ballet or Modern?” And then hysterical laughter was followed by the smacking sound of wildly passionate kisses.
I decided this wouldn’t be a good time to intrude with questions about my social work internship responsibilities. Maybe there would never be a good time, I thought. So I turned around, walked to the stairway, and galloped down the stairs, then out the front door. I left the building and headed toward the Brighton Beach subway station. The air had a combination salty sweet aroma as if someone had mixed a batch of popcorn with cotton candy, and placed it in front of an electric fan so the odor would permeate the entire neighborhood. I was carrying my book, Blaming the Victim, which had been assigned for the final exam in my summer class, and scheduled for that evening, a book that I had only read through to the introduction. On the platform, the D train roared in. I felt its familiar rumble and the familiar quivering of the tracks. It gave me a queasy feeling, as though I were on a roller coaster with an upset stomach, and I longed to be somewhere safe and solid. As the doors opened, a man was exiting, carrying one of those metal detectors used by people who scan the beach sand, seeking lost treasures like coins, watches, and jewelry.
– Here, I said. A book you might like. Brand-new.
He instinctively took the book as though he were in the habit of accepting things that were free. I entered the subway car, sat down, and simply stared ahead. I got off at DeKalb Avenue, and walked home. Happily, my two roommates weren’t in. I looked into the refrigerator, noticed a half-gallon of orange juice, and took a swig straight from the wax container.
In my room, my spotted newts were lounging in their terrarium. I picked one up and held it in my palm. Unlike many amphibians, the newt is dry to the touch. I held the gentle creature in my hand. It felt as though it were dispensing a thin layer of powder into my hands, as though this magical substance were drying the sweat that had accumulated in my palms because of an anxious day. I imagined how a newt might experience the world. I imagined it calm and at peace.
Banner Image: Red Spotted Newt – By J. Carmichael (Tevonic (talk) 02:17, 7 July 2009 (UTC)) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons