My dormitory bed has a thin mattress, no box spring. I can feel the metal springs when I toss and turn. I brought two flat sheets I purchased for five dollars at Walmart. No blanket. I am hot. I am cold. Not really that different from a night at home. I am a woman of a certain age.
I forgot my pillow so I improvise with a spare nightgown, a towel, and yoga pants. First I try rolling them up. This pillow is too hard. Then I trying messing them up like crumpled clothes in a laundry basket. This pillow is too soft. On day three, one of my suite mates hears about my pillow dilemma. She brought two, she lends me one. This pillow is just right.
I am having a caffeine catastrophe. I don’t always eat breakfast but I need coffee. They told us coffee would be available all day but it is not. If I don’t get up the hill and past the windmill to the cafeteria by nine, I will have to wait until eleven, when I will have a headache. So each morning I rise early for a small two dollar cup of coffee that tastes like dishwater. I choose between soy or 2% milk. Neither choice makes me happy. I like my coffee with half and half, made by my husband each morning, and in my hands immediately upon waking.
The food is some kind of farm to table menu, portion controlled by calories. I wonder if I’ve mistakenly signed up for an expensive weight loss camp. Twenty-four dollars for dinner. The food is a la carte, meaning we pay as we go. It wasn’t included in the conference tuition. After the first night I pass on dinner and begin to forage for food.
I was a work study student in college. My freshman year, I worked in the cafeteria. At 57, there is no work study so I stock up on food in the cafeteria like a squirrel preparing for winter.
The following morning at breakfast, I help myself to yogurt with honey and granola. A bowl of raisin bran. Two hardboiled eggs. Two slices of foccacia with broccoli. A banana and an apple. Six dollars. I eat only the yogurt and cereal. The rest of the food goes into my pocketbook. I return to the dorm where there is a fridge I discovered in the basement.
At lunch I am told I can have two sandwiches but they are actually half sandwiches. I also make a salad and grab another apple and banana. The drink selection is water. Lunch costs twelve dollars. Coffee is two dollars extra but during the coffee catastrophe I drink coffee whenever I can get it, any time of day.
I discover each night after the book readings they serve cheese and crackers, nacho chips and salsa, and vegetable crudités with dip. For free. Everyone gets two glasses of beer or wine which are really 1/2 glasses. Is it me or do MFA types have a different definition of half and whole?
A young man who ate dinner in town one night has a doggy bag from an Italian restaurant. It contains a giant meatball and pasta and weighs five pounds. He asks if anyone would like it. Everyone demurely declines the offer. I grab it and add it to my pile of acorns in the fridge in the basement. There is no microwave but I remember liking cold pasta back in college. I can do this. Fifty seven is the new eighteen.
The next day I encounter another problem. The sandwich of the day is beets served open face on a slice of whole grain bread. Who eats this shit? I have hard boiled eggs, foccacia, and one bite muffins from this morning, so I eat those for lunch and wonder what I will do for dinner. I don’t have a car and the shuttle bus stops running at 4:30.
By day three, other people are complaining about the food. The very thin woman who runs the program gives us all a pep talk. “It’s not about the food, it’s about the writing,” she tells us. Easy for her to say.
But it is about the writing.
Julia Glass, the author of Three Junes, tells us she feels like an imposter. She has no M.F.A. No degree in English. She started writing by the seat of her pants. Yes, me too, to all of the above. She has a visual arts degree and wrote a book inspired by a triptych she saw in a museum. A painting with smaller paintings framing it. I write stories from visual images and from music. I see the story in my mind, like a movie.
Zachary Lazar reads a beautiful piece from his first novel about an aging writer suffering from depression and asking what will happen to his work? Could this be me?
Billy Collins and Terrance Hayes blow me away with their joint poetry reading. I attend Hayes’ craft workshop the next day. He is a gorgeous black man, at least 6’2”, exuding sexuality. He talks of poetry and sex. Of longing. Of how to make love last. It seems he’s speaking directly to me about the third novel I am writing.
I stay up late at night, alone in my monastic cell, horny as hell, eating a banana and a hard boiled egg, ripping apart my novel and loving every minute of it.