I used to tell people that my life’s ambition was to be like Professor Pretzel. If you didn’t know who he was, you asked because you’d have to with a name like Professor Pretzel, and if you did know, you’d transition to “tell me more” mode.
I studied at Northeastern by the Museum of Fine Arts on Huntington Avenue in Boston. Professor Pretzel was this guy who stood outside of the MFA with a pretzel cart. He looked like a piece of performance art the first time you saw him. The cart had a Plexiglass box at the top, similar to a terrarium, or a translucent prelude to a Joseph Cornell diorama, given the museum-adjacent setting.
The pretzels were arranged with what you felt was some kind of sociological order, four on one side, two on another, a lone pretzel in a different corner. Family units topped off by more or less the same amount of sodium crystals. Salt-based Socialism for Snacking, could have been his slogan, he was that kind of man. He’d talk to you about anything you were studying. Shelley, Beethoven, Kant. “I go deep down the Nietzsche mine,” he said to me once, wind against our faces, napkins scattering, after I told him I was fucked, who can understand this mad German?
My roommate Choam was gay but he liked to say, “Girl, you have that hungry look in your eye,” as if he was a meathead jock. He’d say it when I hadn’t had a date in a while. Funny to think about now, as I do when my husband is asleep and his breath patters beside me, which is how I think he sounds when he doesn’t quite snore, as if expelled quantities of air could don socks and race across hardwood. The kids would have been asleep hours before. I put Jemmie to bed, our tomboy, so much so it’s as though even her skin is grass-stained. Chuck sees to Edward, who always has a philosophical bone to pick before he acquiesces to placing head upon pillow, like when he maintains that Clifford the Big Red Dog represents a form of race commentary.
I never had any money at school. Sometimes a friend would give me a ticket to a hockey game on campus at Matthews Arena, which was the only way I could go. Things like that were otherwise a choice between a night out and eating. Often I forsook the food. Choam joked about how there was all of that protein in semen, and I just about sucked eggs out of candy canes, his wintertime term for dicks during his camp-it-up phase of junior year.
He had a point. There was a lot of that. But it was more about never feeling I had someone to talk to, which is not something I could have said to Choam, our relationship being built around banter. Banter isn’t talking. In my music appreciation class, a professor who was not Professor Pretzel played us “Fool on the Hill” by the Beatles, straight through, then a second time, isolating the vocal. You could hear the rest of the music, but only faintly, like crickets in the nighttime background of a radio play. The vocal was naked, ISO’ed, as the professor said. Its rhythm seemed to be built entirely from within itself, other music just happened to grow up around it later.
I felt like the vocal, but I worried nothing would grow around me, whereas if you sang that song, you knew others were coming in soon to join with you. The band. The producer. When I went to my first hockey game, I stood in the stands and when we scored, I yelled “Hooray, Huntington Hounds!” I gave it what in my brain I termed the old, Triple-H, because we were the Huskies, and this was funny, a throwback to folksier days. No one laughed, though, and I went home with a guy named Malcolm. I did what I so regimentally did back then, and he stayed the night. In the morning we had sex. I started to roll the condom on and there was so much pre-cum. “Ignore it,” he said, looking down, as though the pre-cum had just burbled out some words, and now he, Malcolm, was striving to add something else, too, like, “There is so much more where that started from, I am a cloud who is going to rain up in you.” I took it off. Thought to throw it aside, but that seemed such a defiant gesture. So I tucked it under a corner of the pillow. “We don’t need it,” I said. He didn’t need much convincing. “Are you sure?” he asked, but there weren’t two syllables out of his mouth before more inches of him than that were inside of me.
And that was Jemmie. Sometimes I think about how she’d react if I presented that story to her that way. Same construction, only with the pronoun at the end for where her name had been.
“And that was you.”
“What was me, mom?”
“How you came to be,” I could say.
“That’s not how people come to be, not really,” she’d add, which would be true, because my daughter is smart that way. Perhaps it’s the grass stains leeching through, imparting lessons contained even in the ground below us, the firmness of surface upon which we walk. But now I sound like Edward, who might make a joke about Clifford the Big Red Dog taking a dump if he could hear my thoughts.
I didn’t tell anyone for months, except for Professor Pretzel. He gave me pretzels to eat and never made me pay, but after a while I believe he thought, “okay, this girl, she shouldn’t just be eating pretzels,” and first he’d share his lunch with me—a lot of sausage and pepper sandwiches—and then he’d bring me a lunch of my own, adding that his wife made it, so we could rest assured it was probably pretty good. I would think of her saying, “You cannot feed this pregnant, scared girl your greasy old subs, let me make a salad, I have some broiled chicken left over from last night.” He loved the Grateful Dead, had a sticker of their logo on the Plexiglass box where the pretzels lived before they went out into the world and did their thing. We talked about the Beatles, whatever I had going on in my classes. He trafficked in no bullshit, he knew what he was talking about, could tell you what went through Beethoven’s head when he wrote his last piano sonatas, could dilate on Thomas Carlyle and the French Revolution, but he “only” sold pretzels. And I thought, “I want to be this fucking guy.”
I married Chuck after grad school. My unit of two became a unit of three. In the year or two before, after senior year, the law firm I had started at as a glorified legal gopher—I was often sent on late afternoon pretzel runs before the professor folded up his cart for the day—had paid enough that Jemmie and both ate, I even gained a lot of weight, which you tend to do when you’re not used to simply being able to eat as you please. When Edward arrived, to join Jemmie his sister, I felt like a twenty-six-year-old living the life of someone in her late forties. We were so settled, our unit of four. In a house off of a road where if a car went by at ten o’clock at night you felt an involuntary tug to either go to the window or say, “Who can that be?” I was very happy. We were all so happy.
And I used to wonder if it was better to be in a given stack of pretzels within that Plexiglass box that the professor had, if everything, to some degree, and it need not be human, might be imbued with a form of longing: If not the body of the beast of longing, then the tapered end of the tail—the fine point, a dotting-of-the-i in skin form.
I don’t know why I have always thought of longing as an iguana. But that’s what I had seen in my mind when I brought someone else home to hear Choam say, “got another one in the skillet, do you?” He fried a lot of eggs, and never stopped with the whole protein-egg-semen thing. I wasn’t going to have Jemmie. But each day I talked to a man who gave me a pretzel, or a lunch, I’d put off what I thought I had decided to do for another day. “You still have time,” he’d say. And each time I responded, “I do, don’t I?” I also thought my child did as well, I was ceding her time, and now she probably had a taste for it already. All over some pretzels.