When I was little, I was afraid aliens were going to eat me. Of course, it was just that Twilight Zone episode I’d seen, To Serve Man, the one where a message of peace turned out to be an alien cookbook and the world was its meal, people being fattened up on a spaceship for the slaughter. They had to convince me it was just a show, a parable about humanity and all that.
But I grow and the world serves me up bit by bit. No aliens to single out, alas. First it fattens up my ego, offers credit cards, low interest rates, even English teaching positions which I rush into with youthful gait. At first, it praises my knowledge of Hemingway, Yates, iceberg theory, characterization. Calls me passionate, dynamic. Someone likens me to Patrick Stewart in terms of charisma, albeit with hair. It even offers nice apartments in buildings with green and brown that don’t yet resemble vomit and that are peppered with graceful professionals. Then with year after year, it serves apathetic faces and gaping mouths, lecture halls that smell like armpits and pot, increasingly ubiquitous cell phones, slices up some self-esteem with each returned teaching evaluation peppered with terms like droning, no life, pompous, and even just die already. It tells me to smile, just a little more, just a tad more, yes. The world also chops up energy and knowledge, vis-à-vis department heads droning on about meeting outcomes, statistics dripping from pedantic mustaches like melted ice cream. The world consumes joy with each credit card bill, each rent statement, each appliance that breaks through no fault of my own, each item beeping at the grocery store. Even Michelinas TV dinners add up. And it devours my smile, munching with glee, but it doesn’t get my bottle of Merlot, which I still drink because I need that one good, somewhat bitter thing.
The world does leave me some humor, even if it’s related to debts, death, suicide humor, and the uselessness of friends. I still have a laugh that sounds like someone choking. But it devours my physicality with a car crash, someone rear ending me, leaving me stiff and unable to sit, while with the world’s assistance, said driver dissembles, making up excuses about having lost a sister or a mother, I can’t remember. Said driver gets off and pays only a pittance. I can’t even stride, hobbling, step by step, knees creaking with shame while people try to look away, silent words rising. Cripple, cripple, freak. For a time, I consider sending him the check back, his apathetic owl-like eyes and half-mustache all too vivid. This is a man who has also lost and not just family. I am certain. Perhaps he is a barista, a McDonald’s employee, a disillusioned bartender even. But would he feel legitimized? Would he relegate this whole incident to the dustbin of history?
When I turn fifty, a month after that crash, I tear up evaluations piece by piece, watch cold, scrawled words burn one by one, along with little multiple choice-style circles that try to trap teaching philosophies in either or scenarios. I start eating steaks, lobster, crab, with Merlot of course. Relish the elegance of utensils, the girth of my portions, the bites. And I lean back in chairs and tip, but don’t fall.
I also jump up on desks and demand students answer questions, critique stories and not just regurgitate theory. I tell them to despise authors, make a case for something better. Tell me why, why, why. Forget textbooks. Maybe my style’s just a bad Dead Poets Society ripoff, but it’s something. I also emit barbaric yawps too, while blasting Tchaikovsky and declaring myself classroom tsar.
Of course, the world sends me a bill and deems me unhinged as a teacher. Words like counseling, leave of absence, and safety are murmured in hushed tones. Leave of absence becomes termination after I terminate a stuck printer with a baseball bat. On top of that, my accounts are full of blood-red minus signs and words like delinquent. Delinquent, a mouth ready to eat my credit and my respectability. But I don’t pay a cent, the mouth roaring lunging, while I laugh, the first laugh I’ve emitted in years, something wide and hearty, something that eats those minus signs right up. And eating someone tastes good. I don’t blame those aliens.