The Graduate Student
It was a campus again, only now he was something called a graduate student: something he had thought would be something different enough that all the old feelings wouldn’t come rushing back, especially because now he had been a member of the city for three years—a membership he had longed for and dreamed of during the four years of college. But, instead, those feelings came back seemingly confirmed, that it had been ridiculous to walk around a college campus for four years learning to think of the self. Learning to ask, What is going to become of me? In a way that came at the expense of asking, What is going to become of us? And it was the same foolish question now, only with different faces and buildings attached to it, and he wished that he could be someone who he saw sometimes—the proud brown man on a college campus, the one who knew that he was here to do well by his people, who did not ask college to be a home because he knew what home was, who could ask, What is going to become of us? and at the very least be sure of who he meant by us. Because, after all, here he was now in a student center named after Cesar Chavez, coming out of a real history of brown and black people having fought to make the place at least more of a home for him, and still he did not know who his Us was, even at those times when he felt confident that it was the right question. It was possible that everybody who eventually settled into, What is going to become of me? did so because it was hard to know who they meant by Us. It had been easy as an undergraduate to say that Us was everybody. But a graduate student was supposed to have some kind of focus. The graduate students he had seen had always looked so purposeful to him in the old days. He had ached for that kind of purpose, and now here he was, at twenty-four, in the position that had looked so sure. If he still didn’t know who Us was, nobody did.
They named their buildings after Cesar Chavez now. A good thing, but as he looked at the mural inside the building, it seemed impossible that he would ever have an us that was as clear as Cesar Chavez’s us, which he knew was a very foolish way to feel. And then he went down the old track he’d gone down a million times, wondering if he would have an us if he had stayed in the country of his birth, the Us of Iran, where his father had had his us, a very clear and certain Us, one that had allowed him to go to the end of who he was. Was a college campus the place to go to the end of who he was? Listen, they had told him, you want to be a writer? Go to graduate school and learn as much as you can about writing. But something told him that he was never going to learn to write if he didn’t figure out who his Us was and how he could bring them along in every word he wrote.
Those three years in the city, he thought he’d found it. He’d thought it was kids. Working at a school, seeing them every day, seeing how they were asking the same questions he was, only without fear, he thought for sure he’d found it. And yet any Us you found was going to leave somebody out, and the most ridiculous thing to leave out was everybody who had once been kids. How the world had laughed at him when he’d thought he could leave them out. He still heard that laughter, never too far away.
He knew that at its best a college campus was supposed to be a place to help you find your us. That was how things looked with the proud brown man. What good was finding your Us if you weren’t developing skills to go along with helping them? That was what his father had always told him. Was he really so crazy to think that finding an Us was finding the skills to help them? He felt ashamed to think so in a building named for Cesar Chavez. And yet if he had any chance of finding an Us that took in the people of the city, Market Street’s men and women, the faces on the train, he couldn’t guess how that wouldn’t come with skill.
Was a college campus the place to do that? He didn’t want to write it off. College was a part of the world too. He wanted to move through it the way the proud brown man did, the way his father had done himself: knowing that it was only one place out of many and that it could give him something.
I’ll try, he thought.
I’ll try not to get lost in all those old feelings, or to go looking for some semblance of an Us in the quiet afternoon when the campus is empty and find it then in the absence of people, in the image of all that they can be to each other. I’ll try once again not to find a presence in an absence, even though, ha ha, that is what a writer does all the time anyway, isn’t it? To try crafting something where nothing exists. But okay, I’ll try not to do that with living, ha ha, I’ll try to keep crafting confined to writing, like anybody else on this campus who closes up their notebook at the end of the day and says that their work is nice and done for the day, ha ha, who knows exactly what the day just passed was, who knows how it is connected to some kind of Us, who knows that it is not at all as lonely as it looks, who knows that it is all connected, ha ha, and whose work on a college campus only helps them to see its ties. Ha ha ha.
Siamak Vossoughi is a writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, Gulf Coast, and Fourteen Hills. His first collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and his second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize.