The adjunct goes to an on-campus reading given by a visiting writer. This writer is having a pretty good year—her novel was just nominated for a handful of prestigious awards and an earlier collection of stories is being adapted into a limited series on Netflix. The adjunct has not read any of her stuff, but he means to. This is the kind of career he’d love to have, after all. He himself is feeling pretty good; a piece of his flash fiction has just been accepted by a small magazine called The Doof City Review. At 580 words, it took him two months and twelve drafts to get right. Some days he managed to squeeze out only a single word. It will be his fourth publication.
The reading itself is being held in one of the department’s usual rooms, a medium-sized classroom in the stadium style where the desks and seats are fixed to the floor. The department held a mingle with this visiting writer earlier in the day, though the adjunct couldn’t go because he had been teaching. They served pizza and salad, had hummus for the vegans. Some of those good cookies. This was primarily for the grad students. The adjunct hopes to meet the visiting writer now or, more likely, after the reading is over when everyone floats into town for drinks. The idea of being around successful writers when they are drunk is always an exciting one for the adjunct, as if they might accidentally get a little too chummy and offer him a secret handful of their success like pulling pop rocks out of their pocket and sprinkling some into his open mouth.
There are plenty of seats. Undergrads are scattered around the corners and near the back—they’ve got their hoods up, their earbuds in. Their phones glow. They wait stone-faced for the reading to begin. There are empty seats up front but the adjunct doesn’t take one. Those, he knows, are for the reader and for the faculty members and grad students who have accompanied the reader to dinner. They will arrive six minutes late, their cheeks warm with red wine.
And here they are now. The visiting writer is chatting amiably, holding a copy of her acclaimed novel and a sharpie and a bottle of water. She is short. She is wearing slacks and sneakers and a cardigan sweater that looks purposefully misbuttoned. She has a revelatory smile. She wears big chunky glasses. The novel, he can see, holds a cache of folded papers: new stuff. Suddenly, the adjunct is very excited. Suddenly, he wants to meet her very badly. He takes a seat in the middle of the room.
The visiting writer reads from her novel and the adjunct can see why it was nominated for awards. It is heartfelt and real. He’s surprised by how funny it is. The visiting writer seems at ease. She makes jokes that only the grad students laugh at, and he realizes she must have sat in on that afternoon’s workshop. Such things happened when he was pursuing his master’s degree. The visiting writer addresses one of the grad students, Jessie, by name and Jessie purses her lips to suppress a wide smile.
The visiting writer sets her novel down. She pulls out the folded papers and unfolds them. “This is new stuff,” she says. “I’m feeling good about it, which is usually a red flag, but I’m going to read it anyway.” The grad students titter; the undergrads are politely silent.
The story she reads is actually an essay and it is called “Colostrum.” This is not a word with which the adjunct is familiar, but the essay is a good one and he comes to understand that colostrum is nutrient-rich breast milk that a woman’s body produces just before giving birth. Colostrum contains many antibodies and is high in fat, both of which are very important to tiny and vulnerable newborn bodies.
The visiting writer, in her essay, describes the experience of breastfeeding her newborn daughter for the very first time and the magnitude of the pain she felt when her daughter wouldn’t latch. This pain, she writes, was the pain of failure, the pain of shame. Exhausted from labor, her hormones broiling with chemicals, the visiting writer says that she had never felt anything quite so devastating.
Without warning, the adjunct thinks of Elenora.
The visiting writer’s baby turned yellow. She wouldn’t take the milk. She lost three pounds and couldn’t gain it back. The doctors were calm and the nurses workmanlike. “This is fine,” they would say. “This is not a big deal.” They put the baby in a clear plastic box, under photo-therapy lights. “Very common,” the nurses said. The lights were bad for the baby’s eyes, and so she had to be blindfolded.
Elenora signed her texts with the letter L. The adjunct found this funny. “Going to the store. Need anything? –L.” “Getting a drink. Be home by prob 11:30. Love L.” “Love you. L.”
The visiting writer describes her nipples as two chewed-up wads of Hubba Bubba. An undergrad looks up from his phone to see what everyone’s laughing at and then looks back down at it.
The baby got better, but slowly. Because the baby wouldn’t latch, the visiting writer began pumping her breast milk. “The colostrum will help,” the nurses kept saying. But the visiting writer produced very little—a sad, watery trickle. They put every drop into a bottle and fed it to the baby, and after four days in the box they sent the visiting writer and her husband and the baby home.
“I’m going home. L.”
The visiting writer descended into a deep depression. She couldn’t hold the baby. She says, “I was not quite awake and not quite asleep. Every three hours I would pump and produce next to nothing. I could not take in the enormity of my failure.”
Eventually, her husband interceded. He called the visiting writer’s doctor. Days passed. He brought the baby in to the visiting writer and said, “Look.” The baby, she was surprised to discover, was fine. He had been feeding the baby instant formula. She was luminous. She kicked her little legs and pumped her little arms. She blinked her tiny eyelids. She pushed the pointy tip of her tongue through her lips.
The visiting writer’s doctor told her that if she wanted to stop pumping then she should. And so the visiting writer did stop pumping and the baby happily ate formula mixed with warm water and the baby grew up to be healthy and curious and it was as if there had never been any such thing as colostrum to begin with.
The adjunct goes into town for drinks after the reading is over. The grad students have pushed a bunch of tables together and are moving chairs around them. The visiting writer had some books to sign and has not yet arrived. The grad student Jessie has already staked out her spot and is sitting in it, next to a chair she clearly hopes to keep empty, typing intently on her phone. The adjunct goes to the bar and pretends to study the craft beer menu. He doesn’t feel much like drinking.
Before too long, the visiting writer arrives with a few members of the faculty. They are all juiced from the reading. Seeing her up close, the adjunct is struck by the visiting writer’s smallness. At the same time, he can feel the shift in the room’s gravity as she walks through it.
He has a beer but stays outside the group and doesn’t say much. He does not meet the visiting writer.
The grad students feed her drinks and ask her questions. “Before I write anything,” she says to them, “I always stop and ask myself: ‘What is the value of this to other people? Why does this need to be written?’” Jessie, sitting next to her, opens her mouth and waits for the pop rocks.
The adjunct pays his tab and slips out without anybody noticing.
On the street he experiences the feeling of being outside in the world at night, which is not its own feeling but a mixer for other things, like grenadine for joy or tonic water with loneliness. He thinks about the acceptance he received earlier in the day, which feels now like some other day in some undefined other time. The Doof City Review.
The adjunct walks to his car and gets in. He waits to start it up because, when he does, he knows which song will be playing and he’s not in the mood to hear it. Instead, he sits in the silence and even that feels like the wrong choice. He pulls his phone out of his pocket. He goes to his messages and reads the last one Elenora sent him.
“You just give me so little. L.”
I am amazed that so much information and emotion can be expressed in this short story.