By Courtney McDermott
I introduced Hemingway to my class. Presented him in a blue suit, his mustache trimmed, his hair parted and neat, even though he’d had several drinks already. He sat cross-legged in a chair by the whiteboard. He rested an elbow on his top knee and held his hand lazily like he held a cigarette. But there is no smoking on campus.
The students praised his dialogue.
“I love your words!” one girl explained, rubbing her fingers over highlighted sentences.
“He makes sense,” said another.
“He says things without saying things. His words are like symbols,” said a third.
Hemingway chewed thoughtfully. He opened a window and shouted “Shit” just to hear his own voice.
I was introduced to Hemingway by a college roommate who made love to him. She was resigned to know she wasn’t the only one.
“A misogynist!” I proclaimed. “I don’t know how you can spend your days with him. The Old Man and the Sea is the worst book I ever read.”
“A novice shouldn’t start with that one,” my roommate had told me. “You need to understand him first before you go there.”
I think he knew I didn’t like him as he gazed out the window, purposefully turning his head, so I could admire his profile.
I felt ridiculous, like a sell-out, for letting my prize writing student read him. Had actually recommended stories and novels to him.
Hemingway and I had a conversation after class. “What have you learned from me?”
“Nothing!” I said. “Nothing at all.”
“Women tell lies.”
“Men lie to themselves, because they tell themselves they don’t lie.”
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
“I am listening.”
“That’s what you’ve learned from me.”
“I planted strawberries.”
“They’ll grow red and seedy and full,” I said.
“That’s usually how they grow.”
“I should have helped. I like the feel of dirt on my hands.”
“These hands?” He touched them. “They’re too soft to like dirt.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in flirting.”
“This isn’t flirting.”
“If you say so.”
“Did you finally read that story?”
“I now understand Hemingway’s feelings towards women.”
“Love is just a game,” he said.
“Doesn’t the character feel that way because he’s a soldier?”
“But Hemingway was a soldier.”
“Not quite. But, so it’s the experience of a soldier, not a man?”
“His point is that people should be straight up with each other.”
“People should be. They can be.”
“But they’re not.”
“I don’t think that’s always true.”
“You sound so worldly.”
He grimaced. “You’re mocking me.”
“Let me buy you a coffee and we’ll continue to talk about this. I mean I want to talk more about writing with you. You are the expert and all.”
“Teacher, writer – neither of them expertly. And I won’t let you buy.”
“You need to hang around more Arab men.”
“What would Hemingway think of you buying me coffee?”
He smiled. “I read him. I understand him. Doesn’t mean I want to be like him.”
You wear a silver watch even in the rain. You wear tired jeans torn on the left knee, open like purse strings. And the navy polo shirt where over the heart is a monogram for the Food Services Dept. of a university.
You have sleepy eyes over the coffee you’ve bought for us. You bring me homemade cookies when you come to water the cactus that sits in the greenhouse at the farm where I’m staying.
For Christmas you pulled my name, and made me a book, the blank pages meticulously sewn into the cover. You tried to hide your smile when I said I loved it.
You once had a harelip, sewn shut over your crooked teeth, and a mole has slid down your cheekbone.
You had lice once, and shaved your head, hiding underneath a fur-lined hoodie.
I asked, “Who invented chess?” and you replied, “The Persians,” though I hadn’t expected an answer.
You’re a snob for NPR, but are haughty when I say I only like independent films.
You are an after-child – a man in some cultures – but not this one – and therefore, I cannot love you.
You want to ride a motorcycle, but I think you might kill yourself.
You watched my sister cut my hair on the sun porch, the dried out ends near your feet as you told me about the motorcycle boots you purchased.
You are a lover of earth. Only eating local foods. You’re going to take a GAP year and be like Hemingway, taking stabs at bulls and drinking under foreign suns.
You love a girl your age, and you love me.
You drink cups of Puerto Rican coffee and eat lamb and rice like the Persians who invented chess.
You painted an orange line around the sculpture and wrote of a man digging a grave. You said God existed in the shadows more so than the light.
We played hide-in-seek in the dark and your hand touched my back.
You wrote her a note pinned with flower petals. And I read it and saw you missed her. And you can’t miss me because it’s not allowed.
I can’t love you.
Think of this as the punishment of a writer’s life. You like to quote authors, I’ll quote Hemingway. “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”
I’d like to say don’t write me, but it’d be lying to think you would.
Courtney McDermott earned her MFA increative writing from the University of Notre Dame. She is a native of Iowa.