Learning German in Central Pennsylvania

Creative Nonfiction by Valerie Little

Learning German in Central Pennsylvania

“I thought of you last night,” Professor H says nonchalantly, studying me as I drape my houndstooth printed coat over his office loveseat. A Tetris of stacked papers, folders, and CDs make sitting on said loveseat impossible. Except for that one time when he cleared it off so I could sleep while he worked on his book about Schumann and Brahms. Even after the innumerable hours we’ve prized in this office, I still don’t always know how to read his particular kind of strange. Taking my usual seat across from H, I feel a flash self-consciousness, wanting to hide the shape of my body.

Earlier, he had left me a usual sign—the open window of his second story office, letting in the refreshingly fragrant morning air. Autumn is exquisite in State College, Pennsylvania. The campus of Penn State University dons its finest for the brochure photos—wide, dewy green lawns, the glint of afternoon sun on historic stone buildings, and American elms full of crimson, mustard, and burnt orange leaves. Once inside, the warm colors of fall remain. Walking down the hallway is a free course in the history of 1960s interior design with its polished brown concrete floors, exposed red brick, and walls painted sunflower and harvest gold.

H leans back in his black office chair, adjusts his wire-rimmed glasses, and stretches his arms above his head. “During bedtime stories, Kira asked me if you knew of any girls who are composers. Who should I have her listen to?”

“Tori Amos—she’s a classically trained pianist. Tell Kira how Tori gave conservatory training a big fuck you and started writing her own music. She plays the harpsichord in pop songs, H. The harpsichord!” My enthusiasm feels childish, so I rein myself back into Serious Music Student mind. “How about Jennifer Higdon? Libby Larsen?”

He writes down their names and starts paging through his notes for class. “Alright, you. Gotta teach soon. Go practice,” he says with two dismissive flicks of his hand. I furrow my brow, knowing he doesn’t have class for hours. Usually, we blow through an afternoon with stories about him sneaking off as a teenager to get high because school was too easy, how my viola studies are progressing, or drawing parallels between him and his college sweetheart, elementary school music teacher wife, Serena, and me and my charisma-for-days composer boyfriend, Billy.

H appreciates the delicate sampler of focus, judgment, and elation stitched onto each hopeful undergraduate music student. His serious classical guitar studies were curtailed in his mid-twenties by focal dystonia, so he traded the practice rooms for the library to study musicology. When I need to forget about the viola for a while, we comb through Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Adorno—checking the time only when one of us notices the sun has gone down. But this morning, I uneasily take my orders and leave.

That evening, I email H:
hey, did I do something? if you don’t want to hang out anymore, be honest. i can take it.

He responds:
Come by in the morning. Cheers, HT

The next day, colored leaves sweeten the air as they mature, die, and crackle under my boots. Even though I know they will be reincarnated come spring, they infuse my favorite season with bittersweetness every year. Talk of Serena’s choir practice and their girls’ preschool tick-tocks away the walk to the coffee shop. I stay a modest step and a half ahead of him, never too close. The last time someone saw H and me off-campus, they called his wife. I was enamored by his defiant response: “Yeah, here’s me galavanting all over town with an undergrad. As long as Serena’s okay with it, everyone else can fuck off.”

I never heard about it again, so I guess they did indeed fuck off.

We grab a high top by the front door. “So, were you trying to get rid of me yesterday? It’s okay, you can tell me if I’m boring to you now.”

“What are you talking about? That’s bullshit and you know it.” I give him a pursed, half smile. I want to read and write like H, stumble around in that brilliant brain of his—and sure—I’m quietly captivated that my thirty-seven-year-old professor has taken an unconventional interest in my education—and me.

I wait for H to continue. “You know why I don’t tell you my thoughts sometimes? Because I’m afraid they’d scare you. That I’d freak you out. I couldn’t care less what you say sometimes as long as you’re there with me.”

I suddenly don’t know what I’m doing here. My hot face and apiary stomach make me painfully aware of the emotional limitations of my youth. My eyes rest on the steaming funnel of black tea as my mind replays the last few months. The flighty, elderly head of the musicology department demurely asking H to keep his door open—specifically when I was there. Billy’s chiseled jaw tightening while he makes a “joke” about punching H in the face for trying to take his girl. His forehead resting on the back of my neck at midnight, whispering that I’ll be okay while I stare at the blank screen of my computer, frozen by H’s criticism of my paper before I even write the first sentence.

“Listen, Valerie. You make me happy. Everything has been better since you. I hate kicking you out of my office. I wish we had days, not hours. But the bottom line is I’m a married dad and you’re my twenty-year-old student.”

I don’t remember my reply, only looking around at students likely having normal conversations and studying for midterms. “Come on. I have to give an exam in twenty-five minutes.” Convention returns. I tell him how Billy surprised me with a trip to New York to hear Don Giovanni at City Opera. We map out main ideas for my term paper on fin-de-siècle Vienna. Outside his office door, H pulls a paperback from his jacket—Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. The inscription reads: Unfortunately, most good Bildungsroman are about boys. Use your imagination. As I walk away, holding the book like a precious rock from Saturn’s ring, I know our something without a name now needs the crystalline quiet and protection of winter.

***

Sixteen autumns ripen and decline. As the #MeToo movement courageously burns, I ask questions to the walls: Why do I preserve those hours in H’s office like leaves under glass? Did my heartbeat quicken over his coffee shop confession? Did he want to teach me how to write or something more? Am I justified in telling my therapist that H traumatized me if part of me whispers that I needed things to be weird to have something I could feel? Admittedly, I glissandoed over the line with more than one professor, curiously gathering data on the balance of power between men and women, teachers and students—using my mind, never body, as bait.

My friends and I find a long weekend to visit campus. The night before the rest of them arrive, H and I go to a student recital. During intermission, I feel the familiar gravity of several professors’ eyes on us. “Well, seeing you two together makes me feel like I just got out of a time machine,” my former viola professor jests in his watered-down New Zealand accent while arching a dark eyebrow at me while H isn’t looking. Even so, things feel easy with H for the first time in years. After the recital, he drives me to my Airbnb. As his Subaru idles outside, I attempt an airy jab about a picture I’d seen on Facebook, featuring H and a pretty, blond young woman at commencement.

“I bet she’s just another student in a long line that started with me.” He keeps his eyes on the steering wheel.

“No.” I am uncharacteristically silent and I remember staring into that teacup many years ago.

“There was never anyone like you again.”

As I walk to the door, I press his words between the pages of my mind. Despite the darkness, I notice the tulips opening in the yard. Spring.

About the Author

Valerie Little

Website

Valerie studied creative writing and music at Pennsylvania State University. Her work has been seen in Sheila-Na-Gig, The Write Launch, River Heron Review, Kalliope, Willard and Maple, Aurore, Cathexis Northwest Press, Ember Chasm Review, Saint Paul Almanac, Duck Lake Journal, and on Minnesota Public Radio and the literary podcast, Apertures. Professionally, she is a violist and orchestra librarian with the Minnesota Orchestra.