Go placidly amid the noise and haste, so the poem advises. But somehow, I always manage to get pummelled in the peak hour rush: propelled from crowded bus to office, then most likely stuck under a stale shirt armpit during the bumpy bus ride home. Once or twice, I think I’ve actually managed it and willed myself into silent escape amidst the shrieking, shifting of bodies, and constant shuffle.
Yet, someone always turns the volume control up again: like Janet Reeves, now filling up my doorway with her solid twin-set form.
“Sarah, don’t forget Faculty Drinks this afternoon.” She holds up a hand before I can speak. “Now, don’t give me excuses, young lady. You’ve never come to drinks, and you’ve been here over a year. I’ll have to start calling you a snob if you don’t come,” she chortles at her own audaciousness, florid cheeks, round and rosy as a Rubens’ cherub.
“Yes, of course. I’ll be there, Janet.” I attempt a smile. I think it comes out as a smile, but I’m never quite sure. Reactions to my facial expressions aren’t consistent. Drinks with the team. Yippee. I already knew my excuses wouldn’t cut it a third time. Rod walks past and calls out, without stopping, that I need to have all grade analysis entered by this afternoon. Two presentations to cover this afternoon, and I’ve still only half-finished the data.
After a frantic day, I’m standing in the not so socially distanced staffroom, polishing off my third salami roll before I admit it sets my stomach acids to a low simmer. I concentrate on another white wine to take my mind off the juices bubbling away in my belly. Janet isn’t florid anymore. She’s positively flaming. She and Rod are hysterical about something in the corner. Probably me, I assume, through my paranoia.
“Here you go. Time for a top-up.” The Dean is at my elbow with a bottle.
“Oh no…” I start, but my red plastic cup is already full.
Geoffrey pulls up two chairs and motions me to sit. I am in for the long haul. I turn to him with my best replica of an attentive smile, then sit down. Geoffrey tells me there are more budget cuts, accountability reports, and feasibility studies on the way. All signs of the times, he’s afraid. Then he launches into his pet topic: the advantages of using a consistent font and format for all presentations. He is not a fan of fancy fonts or too many graphics. Distracting extras, apparently. He’s thinking of gathering data, maybe a formal in-house study that will show why student progress may be impaired by the frivolousness of certain presentations. And don’t get him started on pre-recorded presentations, he says. All the green screen idiocy of Eiffel towers and Miami sunsets in the background, when we all know perfectly well that the presenter is at home in their second bedroom, wearing track pants, with a pile of unfolded washing behind them. At least all that Pandemic nonsense is almost behind us, he says.
I’m struggling to maintain my listening expression when Janet appears behind us with a tall, balding man.
“Geoffrey, you know my husband, Tony? Dear man has come to join us, as he doesn’t like me driving home after a few little drinkies,” she snorts. “Anyway, you must tell him about that hike you went on last month. Tony loves hiking. Not really my thing, so I thought he could bend your ear.”
I beam at Janet, thankful for the reprieve, and finally see my chance to get away.
“Come with me, Sarah. We’ll get a top-up.”
I really don’t think she needs one, and actually, neither do I.
“Thanks, Janet. I’m just off to the bathroom first, though.”
I figure she’ll have forgotten about me by the time I get back, and I can easily escape. The bathrooms are out near the elevator, and so, clutching my bag, I move purposefully toward the door. I’ve done it. I can see the light of the elevator through the open door as it beckons me down to the lobby, the bus, to my pajamas, some microwave dinner, the couch, and an easy Netflix selection.
Oh, God. Brian Harris. He has his arms outspread and is heading straight for me. As I get closer, I see that he is completely hammered. He’s swaying a little and wearing an ear-splitting grin. I’m not sure where the budget for these Faculty Drinks comes from, with all these free-flowing bottles. And whoever’s on the social committee needs to reconsider salami rolls and cheese and crackers as an actual form of sustenance to soak up the alcohol.
“Sarah! Come talk to me. My favorite new blood.” He flings a heavy arm about my shoulder and notices my bag and jacket. “What? You can’t leave! It’s way too early,” he shouts.
“These things usually kick on to dinner and a bar afterward.”
Then his eyes glaze over a little as he leans in, whispering in stale warm beer breath, “Unless you want to skip the whole thing and go back to my place.”
“Wouldn’t your wife mind?” I ask.
“Ahh, no, she’s at her parent’s place for the weekend. Taken the kids too. Her dad’s dying.”
I stare at him a moment, then remove his arm from around my shoulder and continue toward the door.
But now my quiet escape has been foiled, and Janet, with Geoffrey and her husband trailing, is rushing toward me. It takes me another ten minutes to explain that I need to go. I desperately search for a reason they will accept. Toothache. I have a toothache. That’s always irrefutable. Geoffrey insists I take the number of his dentist, who is cheaper than most because his English is not particularly good, and sometimes, he has been known to treat the wrong tooth. Janet wants to know which tooth hurts because she used to work as a dental nurse ‘many moons ago,’ and it can make all the difference in the price and length of the consultation. It’s the back molar, I tell her, and realize my jaw is starting to hurt from all the grinding. She wants a look at it. Now? I glance over at the elevator light, glowing greenly at me. I am never getting out of this room. In desperation, I curl back my lip and show her. She thinks I may have an exposed nerve. I totally agree.
Finally, I am at the elevator. I have shut the door behind me in some sort of attempt to keep ‘Faculty Drinks’ back in their own dimension. Relief surges through me until I see Brian Harris stumbling out into the hall. I’m fuzzy. Panicked. Did I actually say the words, “No thanks, Brian, I’m not really into having casual sex with old misogynist colleagues,” or did I merely walk off in disgust? I think it was the second option. I turn heel and am about to re-enter the jungle, muttering something about leaving my jacket behind. Brian looks at me strangely as I rush toward the door, just as Rod swings it wide open into my face.
I stumble, feel my legs collapsing, and fall to the floor. The room is spinning, and my eyes sting. There is a wet warmth on my face. Go Placidly. Oh my God. It’s working. For a blissful moment, I am calm. I’m back on a childhood holiday at the beach, the shock and thud of the surf when you miss a wave and get body-slammed into the sand. The pain and pleasure all at once. When you’re still not old enough to worry about your bikini bottoms being dragged down or the snot streaming from your nose. My nose. Ahh, I remembered that sensation. But this wasn’t snot. It was blood.
“Oh hell!” It’s Rod’s voice. “Brian, don’t stand there gaping. Run and get some paper towels, some ice. Get Janet!”
Squinting up at Brian, I see him biting his lip and grimacing as if he were the one who slammed me, but he manages to pull himself together and run back inside. Rod is on the floor with me now, apologizing and swearing constantly. He tentatively tilts my head back.
“Aren’t you meant to lean the head forwards or just in a neutral position?” I ask quietly. My voice seems a long way off.
“Oh God, I can’t remember. Janet will know. JANET!!” he screams painfully near my ear.
Suddenly the door opens, and the party joins us in the hallway. They gasp in unison.
“Oh, Sarah! Oh, you poor thing!” and then some lower voices asking, “Who is she? Is she new?”
They have tissues, ice, and Janet. She’s clucking and fussing at my side. Let yourself drift. Close your eyes, I tell myself. Let the noise and the movement float away. Sail off into the calm waters.
“Oh my God! She’s unconscious!” somebody screams.
My head is really starting to throb now. I manage to whisper, “No, I’m ok.” I open my eyes to meet Rod’s panicked gaze. He looks like a bad soapie star acting out the concerned lover at the death scene. All furrowed eyebrows and serious angles.
“Sarah, I’m so sorry. I had no idea you were there. I thought you’d left.”
I try to laugh, but it comes out as a hoarse cackle. “It’s ok. I’m just a bit stunned. I’ll be all right in a minute.”
Janet, of course, takes up the mission to get me to the hospital right away. My protests are dismissed, and finally, I’m in the elevator with Rod supporting me. We take his car because apparently, he doesn’t drink. Janet insists she’ll sit in the back with me.
“This is one of the first drinks we get you to, and look what happens?” she cries. “Don’t worry, there’ll be another one next semester.” I think this is meant to console me.
At Emergency, I plead with them to go back to the party. Thankfully, it’s not too busy, but I still foresee a long wait ahead. Janet eventually calls her husband to pick her up from the hospital, and it is decided that Rod will stay to drive me home. I am silently relieved that someone will stay. Hospitals make me anxious. Neon lights, cleaning product smells, and tired nurses shifting papers and wheelchairs. All those wines, and a throbbing head, loosen my guard as I lean into Rod’s warm side. He hesitates but then lifts his arm so I can nestle into him while we wait. About an hour later, a nurse is looking cynically at Rod as he relays the story of my slamming. He skulks back to his chair, muttering about it not being his fault and not all men are violent, you know. The examination doesn’t take long. No X-ray is needed, but it takes an eternity to get a doctor to sign off. When I am led back into the waiting room, Rod is still there. My nose is not broken but will bruise. I am so tired. Rod drives me home. I don’t bother protesting or even thanking him.
I can hear the TV as we approach the front door, so Kerry must be home. The lights and noise pierce my skull as I step gingerly inside. Rod follows me. Kerry looks momentarily annoyed, turning around on the couch, and then I see her expression alter as she takes in my prizefighter’s face. She gasps, pizza in hand. An olive slips to the floor as she squeals and jumps up.
“I had a small accident,” I offer.
“Yeah, that would be me,” Rod says.
Kerry pushes the pizza box to the floor, rushes over, and guides me to the lounge.
“Oh my God, lie down,” she demands in a high pitch. “Ice? Does she need ice?”
I close my eyes again and whisper to myself. Go placidly. Drift. I leave consciousness with the trail of Rod’s explanation in my ears.
At 3 AM, I awake to the smell of melted cheese on oily cardboard wafting from the lounge-room floor. I throw off the rug that someone has placed over me and blindly rush to the bathroom. I heave into the toilet bowl. Strands of hair fall onto my sweaty face, and I heave again.
“Are you ok?” a deep voice asks.
The taste of bile and salami settle in my mouth, but the threat of further convulsions seems to have passed.
“Yep. Ok,” I mutter. To who? I suddenly wonder. That’s not Kerry’s voice. I twist my neck to stare up at Rod, his lean body wrapped hastily in a towel.
“Rod, what are you doing here? You didn’t have to stay. My flatmate’s here...”
Wait. Where did he sleep if I woke up on the lounge? Not my room! I scream internally, imagining the scattered underwear, collection of coffee cups, and papers.
“Did you sleep in my room?” I ask, horrified.
Kerry, tousle-haired, in her T-Shirt, appears beside him. Her hand rests lightly on his forearm.
“Oh my God.” I cringe at the sudden realization.
I wake early. Everything hurts. Kerry’s bedroom door is closed as I tread delicately to the bathroom. I look like I’ve gone a few rounds in Fight Club. The water is harsh and cruel at first but eventually, it soothes, and a type of normality washes over me. I am sitting at the breakfast table waiting for my aspirin to take effect when Kerry walks in. She smiles at me awkwardly.
“How are you?” she asks
“Rod’s having a shower. That’s the last aspirin in the cupboard. Rod says he’ll drive me to the shops, and we’ll get some more and a few other things. You need to rest.”
I pause for a moment, unsure how to react to this unique situation.
“Sure. If it’s no problem,” I say
“Absolutely,” she says and can hardly wait to leave the room.
They don’t want breakfast.
“Thanks, guys,” I offer lamely as they leave.
I watch them through the window as they walk up the driveway. Rod briefly cups his hand around Kerry’s bum. Ugh. I clutch my head and vow never to attend another ‘Faculty Drinks.’ Go placidly amid the noise and haste. And be slammed in the face. Go placidly and endure pain and embarrassment. Go placidly. If they’ll let you.
About the Author
Kate Maxwell is a teacher and writer from Sydney. She’s been published and awarded in many Australian and International literary magazines. Her first poetry anthology, Never Good at Maths, was published in 2021, and her second anthology is forthcoming in 2023. Kate’s interests include film, wine, and sleeping. She can be found at https://kateswritingplace.com/