She stands halfway up the tower of steps balancing a small box in her arms. She’s asking a student for directions to Robinson Hall. The young man unhooks one of his thumbs from his sagging backpack and turns slowly to scan the campus behind him. He shrugs and gestures off towards everything.
“I’m headed there,” I say as I pass. “Follow me.”
“Oh, that would be great. Thank you!” She falls into step. The sun is too bright. Heat bounces off the concrete plaza.
“Please let me carry that for you.” I turn and offer my arms.
“You sure you don’t mind?”
I heft the box. Its weight surprises me but the effort is welcome. “I’ve skipped the gym for the past week. I need the workout.”
She asks what I do at the university. I explain my role with PhD students and she offers up the question that always comes next. “Do you have your doctorate?”
I laugh it off, cracking the usual joke. “Seeing it from the inside, I’ve lost my taste for scholarship.” This is only half a truth, but it is a serviceable deflection of a topic too leaden for a sunny afternoon.
She’s not buying it. “From my experience,” she says, “you just have to hold your nose and get it done.”
We are walking in the shade now past the fountain. Undergrads weave through the commons in shorts, hoodies, headscarves, earbuds. I glance at my companion. Is she a student’s mom? A volunteer? She’s small and spry, probably in her 50s, with brassy curls and a sure step. Her trousers and blouse are carefully casual. Her makeup, light and even. She oozes wealth, but who knows?
We have these three minutes together.
I choose real.
“Honestly, I’m a single mom and I’m juggling more than I can handle as it is.”
She perks up. “A single mom! You do have a lot going on!” Her breeziness borders on excitement. “This is what my dissertation research was about. Mothers choosing to work or be home.” She pats the box. “That’s what’s in my book.”
It turns out I’m carrying the display volumes for her reading at the upcoming Fall for the Book festival. As we make our way into Robinson Hall and wind through its maze of corridors, she tells me about the research: 200 women with toddlers, 123 of whom she interviewed again when their kids were graduating high school. They shared their stories about the tension between work and home, about the tough choices they had to make.
We bang into the stairwell and plod up to the 4th floor. She asks me about my social life. “You must not have time for someone special. . . ?” I tell her I do and she bubbles with glee.
We eventually stumble into the bunker of offices crammed in behind one wall of the main hallway. I hand her off to the festival coordinator along with her books, but only after she gives me her card and a warm handshake.
I head back to my office past a bearded skater bending to the water fountain. An Asian man in a crimson plastic backpack hurtles past and trips breathless into class. From the seminar room across from my office, a Spanish instructor sounds out a sentence. The students, their tongues in tangled unison, parrot it back.
This campus hums with potential energy. I’m grateful for a career that moves in so vital a setting, where ideas ping and arc across every exchange, and where curiosity nudges back the skin of our questions so we can dig into the meat.
Even so, it’s always a relief to leave. High on puzzles and flow, I still house echoes of longing to return to my boy, my pooch, my neighborhood, my nest.
But on October 3, although it’s a Saturday, I’ll take the road back here. I want to cross her path on purpose. I’ll be ready to lighten her load again, this time by carrying one of those books home.
Visit Deborah Kahn at www.TheRoadsTaken.net