The two become friends and then lovers, being touched along the way by Langley's late wife's gay friends, a Tanzanian man who cares for endangered animals, and Sela's grandmother, who raises the only blue rose in the world. As Sela's stories about an aging actor named William Hathaway and a girl named Angela Star-who may or may not be real-intensify, Langley begins to show signs of mental confusion and illness.
The fictional Chalice River from Sela's Quantum Crossing collection becomes a real place for him-one that is lonely, dark, and frightening. When he is ultimately swept away in a déjà vu car accident just yards from where his wife died, his only hope is the power of Sela's passionate tale and her invincible love.
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By Elizabeth Cain
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 Elizabeth Cain
All rights reserved.
On a brilliant fall day on the campus of UCLA, I stood in a long line. I had been standing in that line every September for eight years, three of those from a half a world away. I stood there as a freshman, so far back I could barely see the man's face or hear his questions. I stood there as a sophomore, ten pounds lighter with a braid swinging down my back and a raw and sentimental sonnet in my hand. I stood there again just before my junior year and then turned and ran away with only tears to show for myself. I ran away as far as Africa. I felt that line pressed around me every year in Africa for three years. I earned credits. I wrote. I had a poem published in a safari brochure. I had an African lover who didn't mind in the night when I called out another man's name. I came home and stood in that line as a junior and then as a senior. I graduated before the line ever went down to a place where I could look into the face of Dr. William Langley.
Finally, on a cold Sunday morning, the year I began my graduate program, I sat on the quad in my sleeping bag at two a.m. with a book of his poetry. I was tenth in the line and could not sleep. There were reasons that it was so difficult to get into Professor Langley's classes. One couldn't just enroll online as with most of UCLA's faculty. He had a long-standing tradition of choosing his students by asking a question of them in person. Nobody ever knew what he would ask or what answers deemed a person fit to spend a year or two under his tutelage. He wasn't arrogant about it at all. The university allowed him only forty students in each of his three most popular creative writing classes, and he told everyone how much he enjoyed deciding who those 120 kids would be. By the time I knew I was close enough to at least have his question given to me, I had published two novels and one book of short stories and been accepted in several poetry anthologies. I could probably teach the class.
But I wanted more than an A on a story or a chair in one of his coveted metaphor workshops, limited to fifteen. I wanted more than a graduate degree or even a "well done" from his lips or his pen. I wanted to be important to him, to have him look at me and see my soul, to want to be with me, to miss me if I wasn't there, to call me with ideas, with poems. The thing is I can't tell you why. I tried to get over him every year when the line dispersed and those of us who hadn't made it went on to other things.
I would stay and watch him gather up his papers and books, file his notes neatly in his briefcase, fold up his table and chair, hand them to a couple of boys still hanging around, and head back up to the lit building. My throat would tighten when he put his arm around one of them or smiled at a passing colleague who would tease him about his singular way of gleaning students. I couldn't say the words yet, what I had felt for him since I was a teenager. What did I know of love? I only knew that if I didn't stand in that line, a little piece of me was going to die.
By the time the sun rose, I was practically frozen in my place. Kids were passing out coffee and donuts, practicing answers to probable questions. Professor Langley rarely turned someone down outright. He'd say, "I'll put you on an alternate list" or something kind and encouraging. After all, how bad can an answer be when you've waited all night to approach that table and speak to the man who holds your life in his hands? I guessed I was going to find out.
It had not been a good summer for Mr. Langley. (His students from past years always said he asked to be addressed as Mr. Langley.) Apparently he'd been rushed to the ER three times for symptoms related to dehydration. There had been a fire in Malibu Canyon that had burned his barn to the ground. No animals had been hurt, thank God. At a back-to-school faculty party, he had become desperately ill after two glasses of wine.
And then, barely a month ago, his wife had been following him home from a writers' conference in Big Sur in their second car, a gold Mercedes, courtesy of a trust fund. When he reached their home in the canyon, she was not behind him. She had been driving the wrong way up Conejo Grade and had crashed head on into a semi. How she had gotten on that side of the highway, no one knew. The police report said alcohol was involved, but the truck driver was cleared and lived with only a limb badly scarred by a deep slash where his leg got caught between the demolished hood and the brake. Langley had to live without his wife of almost twenty years. At least there were no children to mourn the lovely Natasha with her silver-blond hair and gray-green eyes and a penchant for a good martini or two.
I, of course, had fanaticized about holding his hand through these traumatic events, but when I thought of the reality of it all, it scared me. I didn't really know this man. Was I just one of a number of starry-eyed college kids who were always crowding around the amiable and handsome professor with his direct gaze and crooked smile that seemed to me to be halfway between laughing and crying? For most of the time I had been aware of him, he had been unavoidably married. That had held me back as much as anything from making a complete fool of myself and perhaps hurting him somehow. But everything had changed.
Light began to fill the sky. He was coming down the steps toward us with some young man—Lee Henderson, I think—whom I'd known since grammar school and with whom I'd shared many teenage games and secrets, but never this one, that I was so crazy about William Langley. I dared to look at the professor now from the closest I'd been in years. He was thinner than I remembered, and his hair was tinged with gray. There were shadowy places under his eyes, and he seemed not to be standing as straight as usual. I had better give a damn brilliant answer.
He arranged his notebook and pens, gave Lee a pat on the back, and looked up at a line that stretched down the campus quad almost as far as one could see. He grinned and said in a hearty voice that rather belied his appearance, "You're all accepted!"
A cheer rose up for his good humor. This was a gracious man. I heard most of the first questions, things like, "What do you think I can teach you?" and "What did you discover about language in the last book or short story you read?" and "Can you define these words—untenable, rhetoric, erudite?" One girl said she couldn't remember the last book or story she'd read. Her name was not put on the golden list. And then, I was standing before him. I was shaking.
"My dear, how long have you been waiting?"
"Eight years, three days, six hours, and twenty minutes."
"Now, there's a story," he said.
He smiled. "Okay, now seriously, give me a line or two of metaphoric prose or poetry—yours, something you've read, or something you can make up on the spot."
I suppose he thought some of us wouldn't know what a metaphor was. So I spoke out in a clear voice, looking right into his eyes.
the horses are circling circling
hooves thrum on the blossoms
white blooms from the night sky
grey geese cry overhead going home
the cougar pads his soft retreat
snow whispers to the blind ground.
He did not look away but said, after a quick intake of breath, "Those are my words."
"What's your name?"
"Ho, now there's a metaphor," he said. He wrote my name with a flourish on his approved list.
I wanted to cry. It had just been so damn long.
"Thank you, Mr. Langley. I won't disappoint you."
"Oh, I'm quite sure of that, young lady."
His eyes held me as if he didn't want me to go, as if there weren't two hundred kids in line by now wondering why I was still there, but finally he said, "I'll see you fifth period tomorrow, Miss Hart."
Lee was sitting on the edge of the fountain, and he called me over. "Did you get in fifth period?"
Lee had worked a couple of years before coming to UCLA, so we were both in about the same place in our upper education. He was a senior and I a first-year graduate student seeking a master's degree. I only had a few other friends with the same interests—my housemates, Melissa Wells and Anne Damon, both of whom I'd met riding horses at Griffith Park and with whom I'd shared midnight popcorn and poetry. But only Melissa knew how I had adored Mr. Langley all these years.
I had told her after I came back from Africa and we met again in Miss La Monde's Chaucer class, which happened to be next to Langley's Room 33. She noticed how I hung out in the hall before and after class, how I put my hand over my heart if he passed us on campus, and how I tried to get in his metaphor workshop, even though I wasn't one of his students. Late one afternoon after a long Saturday trail ride, we were brushing the horses and I leaned my head against my pinto's neck.
"Sela, what on earth is wrong with you?"
"Oh, Melissa, I have to tell someone," I said. "I have been dreaming about William Langley since I was nineteen!"
She jumped on me, telling me I'd better get over it or I could be headed for a lot of trouble. When I asked what on earth she was talking about, she told me that her mother had defended a schizophrenic woman years ago who had escaped from a prison mental ward and had tracked down her ex-husband and his new wife with a gun. She said, "I remember how freaked my mother was about that case, how close that couple had come to being killed. So I worry about you, Sela. Who knows what Langley's wife might do if ... hey, I hear she's kind of weird and has a drinking problem. Just forget any dreams about that man."
"Do you want me to forget sharing stuff with you?" I asked.
"Well ... no. I think he's a doll too!"
Now, I couldn't wait to tell her I'd gotten into his class. She and Anne were farther back in the line, deep in some discussion, probably making up answers to possible questions. I'd see them later. Lee had been assigned to keep the professor supplied with fresh coffee and maybe a sandwich or chips as the morning dragged on.
"This must be hard for him so close to ... losing his wife," I said to Lee.
"He said he was okay, that he really loved choosing his students, and this year he'd be wanting some pretty special answers—'answers that make life worth living' were his exact words. What did you say?"
"I quoted the last two stanzas of one of his poems."
"You answered his question with his own words?"
"I think he liked it. He liked my name anyway."
"I remember how you got teased in junior high about your name," Lee said as he put his arm around my shoulders. "I guess you're glad you have it now."
"He said it was a metaphor."
"I hope he doesn't forget it soon," I said. I glanced back over at Professor Langley. He was shaking the hand of a tall, black, young man who I'd heard had just transferred from a university in South Africa. He was Xhosa. I was sad that I couldn't speak his language. I was fairly competent in Swahili but couldn't imagine when I'd ever use that language again.
"Hey, you, I was saying, if Langley doesn't remember your name, he'll for sure remember your eyes," Lee went on.
"Yeah ... exactly the color of this autumn blue sky."
"I don't know. By the time I'm sitting in his class, they may be the shade of the faded, blue chalkboard."
"Your gold hair curling down practically to your thin waist and your long legs in those black tights won't have escaped his memory, I'm sure."
I knew he meant it as a compliment, but I said quickly, "Lee, it was my answer I wanted him to remember."
"I'm just saying ..."
"Well, get back to work for the exquisitely observant Dr. Langley," I said. "I need some sleep. I'll talk to you later."
"Okay, my friend. Love you."
"Love you, too."
We parted. He went over to fill Mr. Langley's coffee cup, and I headed for the house that the three of us girls had rented, just off campus. Melissa and Anne wouldn't be back for a while, and I could rest. But by the time I had let myself in the door, there was already a poem in my head. It began:
If first words are a metaphor
then we already soar above the common
& untenable paths
where death and loneliness
can strip us bare
Then it stumbled on:
But you and I are meant for poetry
connected by some fleeting but
no one else can hear.
When could I ever show him that, for heaven's sake? What if I was just too much for him, metaphoric name or not? I thought, How can I be amazing, inspiring, comforting, every day from now on? But I was pretty sure he didn't expect that. Realistically, as any respected professor would, he could expect me to listen to him in the classroom and to write my heart out but never, never, never ... to fall in love with him.CHAPTER 2
It was only a short walk from my house on Bruin Drive to the campus. Most of my classes were in the lit building: first period, The Literary Novel; second period, Classics from Around the World; third period, Quantum Physics Demystified (a ten-minute walk to the math/science building); fourth period, The Romantic Movement in Literature; lunch; fifth period with Mr. Langley, MWF, Writing the Short Story (semester one), Writing the Modern Poem (semester two); and sixth period, graduate studies with a faculty advisor.
If an advisor was not available on a particular day, students could use that time as a study hall but had to check in and out with someone from the English department. My graduate studies room was right across the hall from Mr. Langley's, but my advisor was Lois La Monde. I didn't have any other classes with her that year, but I knew her from my junior Chaucer class, and she had a reputation for a no-nonsense attitude about everything, demanding perfection in speech and dress—which most students failed to live up to—and strict attention to university codes. I had been around UCLA off and on for eight years, and I still didn't know what those were. I guessed Miss La Monde would inform me soon enough. I was already pretty sure that throwing my arms around Professor Langley was on the prohibited list.
That first day, I took a few notes in my classes but mostly marked time until I could be in Room 33 with Mr. Langley. I ate with Melissa and Lee at an outdoor café on campus, barely tasting my food. When the bell rang for period 5, we walked together, three utterly joyful lambs going from the sheltered grounds of what felt safe into the woods, where the wolves of despair and bliss stalked the unwary. Nothing wrong with my metaphors.
Langley was writing some very beautiful and succinct quotes from authors we all knew—Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Annie Dillard—under a large, almost calligraphic heading: "WRITERS TAKE NOTE." His back was to us, and his desk was piled with books and papers and, sadly, a photo of Natasha in a red-sequined dress at some faculty function. The frame cut off part of one hand that perhaps held an alcoholic beverage.
Then I was absorbed in the words that hit me so deeply I could hardly breathe when he turned around. And there was that just-as-beautiful face and heart-stopping eyes, and he said, "Who knows where you can find all this advice in one source?"
No one moved. I raised my hand. I would be the first in my class to address this much-honored and quite adorable man.
"Yes ... Miss Hart?"
So he did remember my name.
"Those words can be found in Ms. Oates's book The Faith of a Writer," I answered.
"Absolutely. Thank you, Miss Hart. First assignment—buy that book. I've ordered quite a few copies for the Student Union, and they can be found at bookstores around town. You have two days to read it. By Wednesday, I want you to find a truth that resonates with your experience as a writer, something that shows me you are going to know how to live with those words for the rest of your life."
Excerpted from Applause by Elizabeth Cain. Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Cain. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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