A Young Man Tells Me

Nonfiction by Sarah Einstein

. . . that he’s fallen in love with the honey-haired girl in our class, and that if it’s okay with me, he’d like not to have to talk today because now he’s afraid he might say something dumb.
. . . that he feels helpless in the face of so much injustice in the world, and that he wonders what he can do to try to make things better. I invite him into my office and make him a cup of tea.
. . . that when he was a child, his father used to punch him in the arm when he cried, saying “Don’t be such a pussy,” and that he thinks the problem is that the rest of us are snowflakes who could use a good punch now and then to toughen us up.
. . . that he cries every time that damn animal rescue commercial comes on TV.
. . . that his Confederate flag t-shirt is about cultural pride, not racism.
. . . that when he told his father he is gay, his father threw up.
. . . that when he told his father he is gay, his father wrapped him in a bear hug and said, “I love you.”
. . . that he will never tell his father he is gay.
. . . that he’s thinking about dropping out of school because he’s just so damn depressed.
. . . that he sleeps in his car most nights now because his roommate has bought a pistol and likes to hold it while he sits on the couch and drinks Jim Beam. “It’s legal,” says the young man, “so what can I do? But the lease runs out in a few months, and then I’m out of there.”
. . . that he thinks I’m a Jewish radical who uses the university to brainwash good Christians and turn them into Marxists. He’s read all about people like me on the Internet, he says.
. . . that his parents called to tell him they’d had to put down his dog, and he knows she was old, but he wishes they’d waited until Saturday when he could have driven home to say goodbye.
. . . that only his grandmother still calls him Scooter.
. . . that once, when he was about twelve, he hit the homerun that won a championship, and he worries that maybe he peaked at that moment.
. . . that dominance is hard-wired into us—some junk science about lobsters and serotonin—and this is why he’s so aggressive. “It’s like you want us all to be cucks,” he says about my policy of politeness in the classroom. “Alphas gotta alpha.”
. . . that he cries at night with a pillow over his head so his roommate can’t hear him.
. . . that he wants to share the Good News of the Lord with me. I invite him into my office and make him a cup of tea.
. . . that I don’t want to know what he saw in Afghanistan, but that if I did know it would break my heart. I tell him that my heart is indeed broken for him, and that I wish he’d never seen those things. “I say saw,” he says, “but I mean did.” I tell him that I know and reach out to put a hand on his arm, but he flinches away.
. . . that he missed class last week because he’d checked himself into rehab, but then his parents told him that if he didn’t finish the semester, they were done with him, so he checked himself back out and he wonders whether he can do some extra credit to make up for the points he missed while he was gone. I tell him that there’s no need, but he says, “No, no. I was raised to be responsible. Missing class is on me. What do I need to do to make it right?”
. . . that I remind him of his grandmother, of whom he is fond.
. . . that I’m a fat fucking cunt.
. . . that when he was small he saw the ghost of his grandfather hovering over his bed, and that all these years later he still looks for that ghost every night before he falls asleep even though he’s never seen it again.
. . . that he found Jesus the night he totaled his truck, drunk on grain alcohol and grape juice from a high school party, and that although it was worth it because salvation is more important than material things, he really misses that truck.
. . . that once he found a wallet with two hundred bucks in it, and although he was sorely tempted, he returned it to the address on the driver’s license inside. When he knocked on the door, the elderly white man who answered kept the chain on even as he reached out for the wallet. He says, “And I bet that old man would insist he isn’t a racist.” I can only nod.
. . . that I’ve left my keys in my office door again.
. . . that his girlfriend is pregnant and they don’t know what to do. I invite him into my office and make him a cup of tea.
. . . that his mother says I’m full of shit, that his short stories are brilliant and don’t need any revision.
. . . that when he was very small, the Voice of God told him to be a preacher when he grew up, but he’s terrified of speaking in front of people, which he thought he’d grow out of but hasn’t, and so he’s now also terrified of disappointing God.
. . . that he’s writing a book about a boy who finds out he’s the chosen one, goes on a quest, and eventually becomes the king of all the land.
. . . that someone touched him in a way that was wrong when he was small, and that he’s been through therapy and is mostly OK, but that he just couldn’t read the book I’d assigned and he hopes I understand. I do.
. . . that everyone thinks only girls have it hard.
. . . that sometimes he wishes he were a girl.
. . . that he can’t wait to be a man.

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015) and Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK and other journals. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.