I was in Prospect College’s faculty bathroom stall, my pants coiled around my ankles, my eyes focused on Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the part where he describes how he escaped cannibalism, when I sensed the presence of Mary Beauregard, one of my students, standing just outside the stall’s locked door. How did I know it was her? Was it her familiar breathing, rasping and emphysemic from her chain smoking? Was it her familiar smell of mothballs and cloying talcum powder wafting from her green nicotine-stained skin? Actually, the tipoff was her signature neon pink luggage cart with her matching tote bag and backpack, which I could see beneath the partitioned stall.
“Mary, I know it’s you. You shouldn’t be in here.”
“Professor Severity, I need to talk to you about my grade.”
“What you’re doing is illegal. I could have campus police arrest you. Now I suggest you leave at once.”
“No, not until you explain why I got a C.”
“We can talk about your grade in my office,” I said. “This is not the place.”
“You didn’t even read my essay about the orthopedic surgeon I work for, did you.”
“Actually, I did read it. Did you not read my comments?”
“You said you liked my example but that my essay was ‘larded’ with grammar errors. Why do you have to use the word ‘larded’? It’s such a demeaning word, and it hurts my self-esteem.”
“We can talk about this later.”
“I don’t think so.”
Mary’s track record was well known. A forty-year-old student, she had been attending the college for more than a decade and had filed so many grievances against the school that she was known as “Scary Mary.” But I never imagined she would break into the faculty bathroom and corner an instructor while he was doing his business.
“Mary, you need to leave now, before this goes on your record.”
“Not until you give me more feedback.”
She was now gripping the top of the stall’s partition so that I could see her thick, stubby fingers. Stacking her tote bag and backpack on top of her luggage cart to make a precarious stepping stool, she had elevated her three-hundred pound body. Her tight curly jaundiced hair peeked above the partition. Bathed in sweat, she glowered at me behind her black cat eye glasses. She blinked her eyes repeatedly while crinkling her pointy nose.
“You need to help me,” she said, barely able to catch her breath. “I can’t afford to flunk this class again.”
“Get out of here, Mary, before I have you arrested.”
“No. Not until you explain my grade.”
“You want me to explain your grade? Okay. Your writing is awful. Worse than a fifth grader’s. You have no business going to college. Is that enough explanation for you?”
“Just what I thought. It’s not my writing. It’s me. You’re letting your personal feelings against me to cloud your judgment. You haven’t heard the last of this.”
At this point, she lost her balance and all three hundred pounds of her crashed to the ground. Writhing on the tile floor, she screamed that she had broken her leg. I took out my cell phone and dialed 9-1-1.
The bad news is that Mary had indeed broken her leg. The good news is that Prospect College was finally able to expel Mary from the campus under the power of an indefinite restraining order. I thought I would never have to see Mary Beauregard again.
But I was wrong. It turns out that both of us, for different reasons, needed therapy, and our therapists worked in the same office. Our encounter at the therapy clinic was, believe it or not, even more dramatic than the one in the faculty bathroom owing to a 5.5 earthquake.
We were the only two patients in the Lomita Pines Mental Health Center when the earthquake occurred. The tremor wasn’t big enough to cause any severe property damage or bodily injury. The problem is that the quake started a fire at an adjoining Korean barbecue takeout place. The smoke was so thick that Mary and I had to wait until fire fighters could penetrate the door. By that time Mary and I had almost lost consciousness due to smoke ventilation.
To this day, I am still wracked with guilt and shame for the unfriendly and at times disdainful attitude I showed my former student who was under enormous distress during our entrapment. Mary was an obese woman, and she was eating constantly inside the waiting room before we got hit by the quake. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her shoveling celery sticks into a large tub of hummus and crunching greedily and I remember being annoyed at her constant smacking and then boasting: “I don’t eat lunch. I just snack on hummus.”
I was hungry watching her eat her creamy snack and remember experiencing a tinge of resentment when she didn’t offer to share any with me. Every now and then while looking up at her self-absorbed expression, her tight blond curls and her flamingo pink neck scarf, I would register a certain contempt for her and then return to re-reading Man’s Search for Meaning. In fact, Viktor Frankl’s book was the same one I was using when Mary was expelled from my class.
I had no legitimate reason to resent Mary for eating in front of me. In fact, in my messenger bag I had three chocolate peanut butter protein bars. I doubted I would ever eat them, but it comforted me to know they were there in case while I was waiting to see my therapist that if I get stuck in the waiting room for a longer period that I could handle (anything more than 10 minutes), I could comfort my hunger pains with something to avoid passing out, which was how I often felt when I was waiting beyond what I planned for an appointment.
The most common scenario for the therapist being late was that the patient before me would, because of his selfishness, exceed the allotted time allowance. But there were other scenarios that were cause for worry. There might be a widespread electric outage from a short-circuited power grid, or a lockdown due to a prison escapee or two on the loose; or a hostage situation. Because I look like a hardened paramilitary operative due to a lifetime of hardcore Russian kettlebell training, the hostage-taker would see me as the greatest threat and would very likely go to great lengths to disable me, the muscle-bound Alpha Male of the bunch, perhaps even injure me. During the lockdown in which I could be cooped-up in the waiting room for an indefinite period, I might find myself famished and wounded and could keep my wits about me only because I had the foresight to bring my duffel bag with my 32-ounce water-filled canteen, Eucerin “Soothing Repair Crème” (my skin cracks when I’m overcome with acute anxieties, which is nearly all of the time), a 2-liter plastic beaker (my anxieties also cause frequent urination and a toilet isn’t always handy) and the aforementioned protein bars.
And then the earthquake happened, and the fire, and the ear-crushing alarms, and the billowing smoke, and the screeching Mary Beauregard. Within seconds, I was hiding beneath a chair, cowering like a child, fearing my death inside my therapist’s waiting room and afflicted with the terrifying question: What would my hero Viktor Frankl do in a situation like this? Here is what he would do: He would risk his life and make sure he would do all he could in his power to so that anyone in his vicinity was out of danger. And contrary to my hero, I was trembling under the chair coiled up into the fetal position.
Nearby, Mary was standing up and screaming that our building was surrounded by fire. Wearing a lavender muumuu, she had pressed herself against the glass window and was trying to see signs of any rescuers behind the dark smoke.
“Mr. Severity?” she said.
“I know we don’t like each other very much, but we’re in a crisis. We need to stick together.”
“I think I’ve eaten all my hummus. We might not be rescued for a long time. Do you have anything I might be able to munch on before the fire department gets here?”
When she asked this question, she looked at my black messenger bag, on the floor beside me, with predatory eyes that suggested X-Ray vision.
Of course, I had the three chocolate peanut butter protein bars, but I had eaten nothing for several hours and Mary had just finished gorging on a tub of hummus, none of which she had offered to share with me. Plus she appeared insulated with energy reserves evidenced by her Michelin Man-sized fat rolls.
I said that, regrettably, I had nothing to eat while still curled up beneath the chair, making a mental note that Mary was too large to take cover in the manner I was doing, taking a lesson from earthquake drills in my elementary school days.
Then on impulse I grabbed one of my protein bars and turning my back to Mary so she couldn’t see my face I stuffed it down my throat. I must have looked like a primordial beast, hiding in darkness, a primitive cave, while operating under the grotesque instinct of unbridled self-preservation.
My concern was that Mary, outweighing me by a hundred pounds or so, could perhaps muscle the bar from me if things got desperate. Better to have the nutrition and needed calories in my body now before things got out of hand.
In the same manner, I ate my two remaining protein bars while listening to Mary, still staring out the smoke-shrouded window, whimper and whine about her food-related anxieties. She explained that an eating disorder made her eat incessantly. I decided to not tell her that I shared the same affliction.
“I really don’t eat meals,” she said. “I kind of just graze all day long. It’s a nervous condition.”
“I can relate to that,” I said.
“Then you know what’s it like to have those constant cravings,” she said, flaring her hungry eyes at me. “I’m surprised you didn’t bring any food with you.”
“I usually do,” I responded. “But I was late, I was in a rush. I feel so stupid.”
Her silence and skeptical expression suggested that my words didn’t ring true to her, that she knew I was lying, and that I was indeed hiding a tasty, nutritious morsel inside my travel bag.
She started to walk toward me, but before taking even two steps, she tripped over a turned-over coffee table. When she fell, she dropped her tote bag. A bunch of breath-freshening candies, tiny pale red hockey pucks, fell out of her bag and scattered on the beige carpet. I sniffed one that had rolled close to my nose and found its tangy watermelon aroma tempting but of course did not eat the contaminated candy.
Looking at her lying flat on her stomach, I said, “Are you okay?”
“Nothing broke this time, but I have to pee.”
She stood up on her own accord. She wiped some dust off her billowing stomach before disappearing into the nearby women’s room.
Without warning, I was overcome with hunger. I got up to examine the contents of her neon pink tote bag, which she had left near the turned-over coffee table. It was full of loose receipts, chewing gum wrappers, peanut shells, restaurant coupons. I scratched my fingers at the bottom and felt stale cookie crumbs, like gravel, collecting under my fingernails and then I felt a wrapper and heard a crinkling sound. I could discern the shape of a candy bar of sorts. I picked it up and saw that it was a protein bar in fact, similar in calories and nutritional information as the three I had eaten moments before.
Was Mary’s bag such a mess inside that she didn’t even know she was in possession of it? Was she in such a panic that she couldn’t think straight and had completely forgotten about it? Or, more deviously, did she know she had a protein bar but was not willing to share it with me in the event we were holed up in the waiting room for several days?
Whatever the case, I did not know when I would be rescued and felt the need for more nourishment. My gnawing hunger pains compelled me to unwrap the bar, which turned out to be half melted, and I ate the liquefied bar as quickly as possible before Mary exited the bathroom and caught me in the act. I had melted chocolate all over my fingers and face.
Mary walked out of the ladies’ room, and the first thing she noticed was the chocolate on my face.
“I thought you didn’t have any food,” she said.
“I found a protein bar in my bag,” I said.
“You lied to me,” she said. “You should be ashamed of yourself. You knew you had food to share all along.”
“Like you shared your hummus with me?”
“That was before we were in a crisis.”
“I get it. When things are fine, you can be selfish, but as soon as there’s a crisis, I need to step up to the plate. I need to be the bigger person. How convenient that must be for you.”
We were in a standoff. Not another word was said until the firefighters showed up and broke down the door. A billow of dark smoke shot inside the waiting room, and the rescue team dragged Mary and me out of the building and into an ambulance.
Strange, my first reaction upon seeing the fire fighters wasn’t the elation of being rescued but the embarrassment of being covered with melted chocolate. That was the last thing I remembered before nearly passing out, apparently from lack of oxygen when smoke entered the open door, and I was carried out on a stretcher. You could actually see me lying prone and being lifted inside an ambulance, a recurring image on many of the local news broadcasts for several days.
In the ensuing weeks, well-wishers approached me and asked how I got blood all over my face. I knew it wasn’t blood, but I wasn’t going to tell them I was eating a chocolate protein bar pilfered from my former student’s tote bag.
For me the marks on my face are neither blood nor chocolate. They’re stains, streaks of guilt and self-loathing that I’m trying to erase in my therapy sessions.
Sometimes I imagine Viktor Frankl looking down at me from heaven, and he shakes his head as if to say I have failed him once again.