BY LYDIA A. CYRUS
She said that she thought my non-fiction professors didn’t want anything to do with me anymore. My friend, in her attempt to explain things in her way, told me that my mentors didn’t want anything to do with someone as "dangerous" as me. Someone who, as she put it, would be dead by twenty-five and would cause grievous, irreparable pain to the two professors I was closest to. And I felt bad and I cried about it. If she was really my friend then she should know best where I was headed in life. She meant that things that had happened to me were unattractive. That I was unattractive. At least, unattractive in the sense that people don’t want to know me because I came up rough. Because I survive a life full of painful things that most people will never experience—will ever know—and there were many of those things, all of which happened before my twenty-second birthday. I took to heart what she said to me and I believed it for a little while. It seemed to fade away like our bond did: She graduated and left school and I stayed back to finish my remaining year. We saw each other one more time that summer and then we only talked briefly, not even daily.
When I took college English I was still a senior in high school. My parents scrapped up the money for me to take two English classes while still in school. I took regular high school English on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was going to go to college to get a degree in psychology. I wanted to be a prison psychologist or work for the FBI. I loved to read, that much was always true of me. The librarian at school hated freshman students. It was almost a rite of passage to be growled at by, her but she loved me. She loved me because I was quiet and would come in and check out the library’s only copy of Thoreau or Emerson. Dusty old books that no one else wanted. I read Hemingway and Kerouac too. Once, she actually brought me books from her own home because I wanted to read more about the Beat poets. Everyone I took English with copied my homework, even the kids who didn’t consider me a friend.
The teacher, Natalie, loved me dearly. I ate lunch in her room every day for four years and had her a total of three times as a student over the years. She was the first person I ever told that I really wanted to go to college. When the college class started, I knew everyone in the class. I grew up in a small town and graduated with the same one hundred students I’d known since I was twelve. I had one close friend in the class, Abby, who was a new comer. We sat in the back of the class by ourselves. The way it worked was that the teacher, Mr. Martin, taught the class in person at a different high school and it broadcasted to two other high schools. We had these grey, box shaped microphones screwed into our desks. Sometimes Mr. Martin would call on us to answer a question or read something and we’d have to lean forward and everyone else would have stop talking altogether.
I didn’t know Paul Martin before I took that class. Even now looking back I can say that at the start of that class there are few things I remember. One of our first assignments was to write a personal essay on anything we wanted. I wanted to write an essay about my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother. The only two grandparents I had ever really known all of my life. Mr. Martin thought it was odd and he said that he wasn’t sure how it would work. Now we both know that the quickest way to get me to do anything is to tell me that I can’t. But I wrote that essay anyway and on the day that we got our grades back he asked me to read my paper out loud during class. I did. No one had ever asked me to read anything before and I never forgot the feeling of it: First, the embarrassment and then, the sheer happiness.
Mr. Martin only came to our high school once for an official visit. I remember only vaguely that he wore a cable knit sweater. In nearly every encounter I have ever had with him he was wearing a cable knit sweater. I thought he was a little bizarre. He called his wife His Lovely Bride and he insisted that we call him Big Poppa Choo Choo. The more I got to know him the more I realized that he insisted on the nickname because he loved us. He loved us and didn’t want us to feel like he was a stranger at the front of the room. Years later when I taught my first class I appreciated that sense of loving your kids so much that you don’t want to be a stranger to them. Mr. Martin loved to tell us stories too. There were a lot of them. The only one that I remember well enough to talk about was the time he told us about how he desperately wanted to be the teacher who got to board the Challenger in 1986. He was in the running for it and like anyone would be he was angry when he wasn’t picked. He never told us, that I can remember, the pain he felt when the Challenger exploded. I’ve never asked about it either. I have always thought that it probably ate away at him and although it was a tragedy and I hurt for those who died, I’m grateful that Paul Martin wasn’t on that shuttle.
My second year of college I decided to take a history class with a notoriously horrifying professor. I wanted to take his Nazi Germany class because I heard from various sources that it was a good class but that the professor was scary. When on the first day he walked in with a stick that resembled a pool cue and said, "If you fuck with me on any level I’m kicking you out," I knew those rumors were true. He went around the room and asked various people to read his syllabus and unbeknownst to me he had called on me. I was sitting in the corner of the room, not looking up, and I missed it. Just then an older man who was taking the class turned around to look at me and he winked. He read my section for me. His name was Charlie and his wife Pam also took the class. They were in their late sixties and loved learning, so they audited classes every semester. I don’t know if it was because of their age, but no one would ever sit in the seat behind them, so I did. One day I struck up conversation with them. They became incredibly close friends of mine. The semester after that they took me to Lexington, Kentucky, because I had never been. They treated me like one of their own.
The whole ride there they humored me and let me talk about various things. We got fresh donuts on the way. We went to Whole Foods because I had never been to one before. They saw in me a sheltered young woman who hungered for a lot of things. Charlie is a poet and in one of the conversations we had on the way there he asked me who my favorite poets were. Ginsberg. Whitman. I hadn’t come to love Muriel Rukeyser and Joy Harjo yet. We talked about Ginsberg in depth and I told Charlie about how I bought a copy of Howl in high school and loved it. I lent it to a guy I was seeing my freshman year of college and he never gave it back. He never spoke to me again either. We went to a fancy bookstore there in Lexington and I bought a copy of Love Medicine. When I got to the poetry section of the store I looked for Ginsberg but found none. Instead I lingered and debated for several minutes of buying something from Wallace Stevens instead. Charlie and Pam were nowhere to be seen until I sought them out and we checked out. As we left the store, Charlie reached into his bag and he handed me a new copy of Ginsberg’s Howl. He said he wanted to replace my missing copy. I nearly cried. Some time later I emailed Charlie a copy of an essay I had been working on and hoped to send in for a contest. He said that he thought I wrote a lot like J.D. Salinger.
I was a teacher’s assistant during the second semester of my senior year. I graded papers and ran errands for Natalie and took English 201 as well. By then Paul Martin knew me a little better. That semester my mother moved out and into a house that was over an hour away. It was a hard time that I never talked about. I missed class one day and Natalie, not knowing how much I wanted my classmates to know, simply told Mr. Martin that I was having some difficulties. Some time after that I was in the school’s office turning in something from Natalie when Mr. Martin walked in. I was wearing a black sweater, my combat boots, and a beanie. He hugged me and said, "Do you think your hard times have passed?" And I said, semi jokingly, "Mr. Martin, I think my hard times are just getting started." I was profoundly right.
That second semester the 201 class read a book by a local author named Marie Manilla. After we read the book we took a field trip to the main high school, the one where Mr. Martin taught, to meet Marie. Mr. Martin had paired everyone up from other schools and the girl I was paired with had been texting me that day. We rode a bus for about thirty minutes to get there. I was wearing mustard colored pants and a paisley top. I remember it vividly because I remember how one of the boys from a different school made fun of me—openly mocked me—for it. During the assigned Q&A session of the trip I didn’t ask anything. I really liked the book and I had never met an author before. When my classmates left the room I waited behind. Quietly, I asked Marie to sign my book and I told her that I was just like one of the characters she had written. She signed my book and Paul Martin must have said something about me because Marie gave me one of her chocolate covered strawberries and set me off like that. One of my classmates, a really loud girl, was upset over my having that strawberry. I didn’t know what to say and already felt naked in my mustard colored pants so I gave it to her.
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On the last day of 201 class Paul Martin ended early. We sat in the distance learning room with our feet on desks. Some of us were eating breakfast, something we were absolutely not allowed to do. We were in our last weeks of high school then and everyone was sentimental. My close friend Autumn was in that class. She ended being what I call my Soul Sister, one of the closest friends I’ll ever have. Suddenly there was a knock on the door and we were all confused because no one ever knocked. When the door opened, Paul Martin strolled in with a cooler and a plate of cookies. He went around the room and hugged everyone. Because I sat alone in the back I was last. He told my classmates things like you’re a wonderful student, it was so nice to have you in class. When he got to me, he hugged me and he said you better major in English.
In all the time that I had been his student he praised my work highly. I had grown fond of him too though I don’t believe I ever said so. I invited him to come to my senior night though, the night where we were awarded for various things and given our scholarships. Aside from my parents, Paul Martin was the only person I invited. I was devastated when he didn’t say anything about me being a good student. All of my life up to that point teachers had always gushed over me. I was never a good math student, but my algebra and trig teacher once told me my mother at the grocery store that she never had a doubt that I would be extraordinary. Natalie had finally told me one day before graduation that was Paul Martin said to me was the greatest compliment he gave that day. That was the day I called the university and changed my major from psychology to English.
After graduation, I saw Paul Martin maybe once or twice. He urged me to remain in contact with him through email and I did. On average, I email him once or twice a month. Mainly because I get busy and also because he is terrible at email. I routinely send small, non-personal emails wherein I invite him to English department readings. Since I graduated I’ve learned a few things. On one occasion Mr. Martin told me that he always knew I would be a "star" in the English department. He told me several times he couldn’t wait to see my name listed as the editor of my university’s literary magazine. He had more faith in me that I had ever had in myself. The girl he paired me with on that day with Marie became a friend of mine. One day we were crying to each other about how the little senior babies didn’t deserve Paul Martin. We talked about all the ways we took him for granted when we had him. Now we were older and lost. I was struggling in school socially and miserable at best. I cried every day when I went to class and missed Papa Choo Choo greatly. The girl, Hallie, sent him an email wherein she showed him our text messages. He responded to her email by telling her (telling us) that we were his pride and joy. Or maybe his crowning achievement, I can’t remember now. He said that he never really was our teacher. He was there to answer our questions when we had them, but otherwise he stayed "the hell out of our way."
In her book Just Kids Patti Smith describes the moment she met Allen Ginsberg. Patti was hungry and couldn’t afford a meal. Allen, mistaking Patti for a young man, bought her food in exchange for her company while they ate. When it became clear that a mistake had been made Patti asked if he wanted the food or money back and Allen said no. She wrote that afterwards Allen was always embarrassed and he asked her what she told people when they asked how she met him. She said, "You fed me when I was hungry." It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read and after reading it I immediately told Charlie and Pam that when I think of them and how good they are to me I think of that sentence: You fed me when I was hungry.
The last time I saw Paul Martin in person it was at an English reading. It was in a small little restaurant where another professor read his work. Mr. Martin knew everyone there, almost everyone anyway. Marie was there too. I was late getting there but excited to see him. Excited to introduce him to the professor who had sort of "taken" his place. Since I started college I had met other professors and my favorites by far were my non-fiction professors, a married couple. I knew that one of them would be there and I was so thrilled that Mr. Martin would get to meet him. When I walked in the room was almost full and Paul Martin saw me first. He was already sitting at the table with the professor I had wanted him to meet, not even knowing who he was sitting with. Mr. Martin stood up and said, "Lydia deserves to sit," and he gave me his seat. He found another one. After lunch was over I asked him if he wanted his photo taken with the man who had been reading, an old friend. He said no but he would take a photo with me. The other professor took that photo. I treasure that photograph: Me in my grey trench coat and Paul Martin in a cable knit sweater. It makes it even more important to me to know that my other mentor took that photo. As we were standing in line to pay for our food Mr. Martin and I talked about my finals, I had another one that evening. The he told me that he wanted to pay for my food and he told me to get going. He hugged me and kissed the top of my head and sent me on my way. Again, I thought of Ginsberg and Patti Smith.
Months ago Mr. Martin emailed me to ask if I had ever read anything written by a man named Breece D.J. Pancake. He said you remind me of him. I sought out to discover more about Pancake. I came to find that he was a local author and he went to college in Huntington, like I had. He died in in 1979 after he shot himself. He was twenty-seven. Mr. Martin didn’t know the story about my friend telling me I would be dead by twenty-five, I hadn’t told him. It struck me odd that he thought I was like Breece. I bought a collection of Breece’s short stories and was determined to figure it out for myself. The introduction of that collection is written by someone who once was a professor of Breece’s but later became a close friend. In much of the same way that I had come to Mr. Martin and later my non-fiction professors. That man wrote, "He was always trying to make friends, on any level available to him. He was in the habit of giving gifts." I saw myself a little there. Perhaps that was the connection Mr. Martin was making. In a letter from Breece’s mother she states that, "he loved to give but never learned to receive. He never felt worthy of a gift." There was another admission that I could say was true of myself. It was said that Breece was seemingly "always around" and if something became awkward or he felt he had slighted someone he would disappear and later reappear with a gift in tow. Something I am guilty of though I never realized it was so obvious to others. Yet it was so clear to me that I am guilty of it because I read in a book that Breece Pancake was guilty of it and I simply knew. In my quest to understand Breece more I read an excerpt of a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to John Casey in regards to Breece, "What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know." I think often of how strange it is that my writing is compared to Breece Pancake and J.D.Salinger: More dead men. It probably is a compliment, after all Vonnegut writes that Pancake was good. It truly is something to behold that in my life I have had many creative fathers and the living ones say I remind them of the dead.
Lydia A. Cyrus is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from Huntington, West Virginia. Her work as been featured in Thoreau's Rooster, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Albion Review, and Luna Luna. Her essay "We Love You Anyway," was featured in the 2017 anthology Family Don't End with Blood which chronicles the lives of fans and actors from the television show Supernatural.
She lives and works in Huntington where she spends her time being politically active and volunteering. She is a proud Mountain Woman who strives to make positive change in Southern Appalachia. She enjoys the color red and all things Wonder Woman related! You can usually find her walking around the woods and surrounding areas as she strives to find solitude in the natural world. Twitter: @lydiaacyrus