Friday, December 2, 2005

Falling stars

The old Romanian astronomy professor smelled like bouillon cubes. He wore Cosby sweaters and black leather loafers with stiff tassels and worn leather soles. I never actually saw the soles but I assumed that they were worn and tattered, per his general appearance.

I signed up for the class the semester before my sophomore year for a few deeply thought-out reasons. Firstly, and most importantly to an average college student such as myself, I had heard it was an easy "A". I have since learned that this was a great fallacy, probably passed on to me by some bitter upper-classman who was similarly misled. Thankfully, I also had an interest in astronomy. I loved looking at the stars. I still do. I had little history with the subject but it seemed intriguing. There has always been something captivating about the night sky, ancient and archaic, evolving yet staid. In so many of my romantic fantasies I kissed the editor of the college newspaper under the stars. That was enough of a sell. And in addition to all of this frivolous reasoning, I wanted to seem worldly. I wanted to say that I had something in common with Galileo. I wanted to square off with all of the bearded bespectacled philosophy students in their tweed jackets and be able to expound my knowledge of the universe. My universe. We'd sip black coffee and smoke rolled cigarettes and stare up at the sky with understanding. And the editor of the college paper would be devastatingly impressed and ask me to join him on a hike through the mountains. Because like the stars, the mountains seemed so foreign and exotic to a suburban college commuter and self-proclaimed city slicker. Me and my editor fellow would strap on thick leather boots and name all the visible planets. He'd kiss me each time a shooting star passed by overhead.

I sold the fantasy. Instead, I ended up with three hours of lecture every Wednesday in a dismal tiled classroom with drafty windows that seemed like it could have been a set for "Welcome Back, Kotter." On the first day our professor stumbled painfully through an itemized syllabus with enough grammatical and spelling errors to make the English major in me twitch a little bit. His lectures were intolerable. His heavy accent was distracting and he read from ancient overhead sheets that we could have easily copied from our textbook. The only thing that kept me coming back every week was the giant bar of chocolate.

Every week our professor would give us a much-needed ten-minute break and then he'd pull a King-Sized milk chocolate bar from his brown leather briefcase. He'd break it into squares through the wrapper and tear it open for us to eat. We'd all grab a chunk and bleed into the hallway to recap the old man's best quotes for the day. Most of them were light-hearted pokes at his thick accent and his unsteady command of the English language. We'd sink down onto the salty brown floor of the hallway and lean coolly against the cement block wall. We'd stuff the chocolate down our throats and slap our knees and double over and laugh thick chalky laughs before heading to the vending machine for a bottle of soda to wash it all down. And the caffeine would keep us awake for the next two hours.

One day he forgot to bring our quiz for the week but he still remembered the chocolate. We shared another rbar and he asked us if we had any questions. By this class we knew not to bother asking--he just couldn't understand us at all. There was so little actual communication: lecture, chocolate, lecture. It was formulaic. It was ancient and staid. In fact it was nearly everything that I wanted from the class when I first signed up. And I started to welcome the routine.

Near the end of the semester I though to myself, "I'm going to buy him chocolate for the last day of class." I was so proud of myself for thinking it. I wanted a pat on the back that I didn't deserve. Weeks went by and eventually I entered the musty classroom for the last time to take my final. The old man stood at the front of the room smiling toothlessly at us, his cloudy gray eyes darting beneath the rusty-looking glasses on the end of his nose. When he turned to write on the chalkboard I noticed two large cysts on the back of his balding head and another on his neck. He turned back and pulled a chocolate bar from his leather case and broke it open mechanically for us on the lab table just out of reach. I watched everyone laugh and I heard the thickness in the back of their throats. They were still laughing, eating his chocolate, anxious to leave this stuffy room with all their youthful indifference. I took my test and followed them out.

I imagined the professor straightening our exams by himself in the cold classroom, trudging through the snow that reminded him of Romania to his rusted Ford Escort ("Red like Mars"). He drove home to his sturdy wife who was larger than him and who had a large brown mole atop her swollen left cheek. He told her over her beef stew how proud he was of all of us and how nice and good we were. How we really cared about astronomy, that we listened and studied and thanked him for the chocolate. And then he shook his head and swallowed a runny spoonful of beef stew and wondered why he ever came to America in the first place.