“What if I can’t keep up?” I asked the social worker at the Y where I answered phones for the summer.
I was seventeen, leaving for college in just over a month. My list of worries also included whether my roommates and I would like each other, and if my clothes were right for the small artsy school I’d chosen that had, miraculously, chosen me too.
“Why wouldn’t you?” he said. “You’re smart enough.”
He was in his late twenties or maybe early thirties but liked to sit on the edge of my desk as though he were a teenager as well.
“I’m kind of a procrastinator,” I admitted, pulling Jane Austen’s Persuasion from my backpack on the floor. “All freshmen need to read this before school starts and I haven’t even opened it.”
Across the room, the sliding wall separating us from the gym stood partially open. Inside, a cache of boys played basketball, sneakers squeaking against the waxy floor.
He took the book from my hand and flipped to the back. “A hundred and ninety-two pages. And today’s what?”
We glanced at the blotter that doubled as a calendar and struck a deal. I’d read twenty pages every day starting when I left work that evening, which meant I’d be done by the date he circled in ink.
“No missing a day or I’ll take you over my knee and spank you.”
He said this, I assumed, the way the guys playing ball might say, Miss this foul and you’re a dead man. A joke lobbed at a friend to make a point.
Twenty pages a day. As it turned out, I liked Jane Austen. She was funny in a quiet, old-fashioned way. I stayed faithful, until I didn’t, skipping once to attend a party and again to watch a Monty Python movie on TV.
On the circled date, I worked the evening shift. I kidded with the ball players, took messages when the phone rang, gave newcomers directions to the bathroom. The social worker stayed in the inner office, appearing just once to ask about my progress in Persuasion.
“Almost done,” I told him. “I’ll finish it this weekend.”
He drifted away until it was time to kick the basketball players out for the night. Next, he had to make sure all the lights were off in the upstairs classrooms. “Come with me,” he said. A first.
Here is where I’m tempted to shift to third person, to make myself a character, to say she let him take her by the hand and lead her upstairs. They walked in companionable silence down empty halls where he leaned into open doorways to switch off the buzzing fluorescent lights. But of course it was I who paused at each of those rooms and waited as, one by one, he darkened them.
He wouldn’t really, I thought as we entered the last classroom in the corridor. But he dropped my hand, pulled out a desk chair, and settled into it.
“Come here,” he said, patting his knee, and it was I who complied.
Afterward, we sat on the front steps, the glass doors of the Y locked behind us, the rough stone vivid beneath my stinging rear end.
“You understand why I did that, right?” he asked.
“To teach me discipline,” I muttered to my feet in their scuffed sandals. “To help me in school.”
“Exactly. Still, it’s best we don’t tell anyone. Not everyone would get it.”
Here I’d like to say I lifted my face and stared at him until he glanced away, and that doing so released me from this story where a man might hurt me for my own good. But, in fact, I merely nodded.
“Deal?” the social worker asked, just as he had when he’d marked the date on the calendar.
“Deal,” I told the unforgiving ground.
Ona Gritz’s nonfiction is listed among Notables in Best American Essays 2016, and Best Life Stories of 2019 in Salon. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, River Teeth, The Utne Reader, MORE, and elsewhere. Her books include the memoir, On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collection, Geode, a finalist for the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. Ona has recently completed a memoir.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/reihayashi