Subtitles: 1

Matthew James Babcock


This is the first in a series of short creative nonfiction pieces called “Subtitles” (where the title comes at the end). 

     I am a paid pair of eyes. I help a bearded man in ragged cutoff shorts — a man named Kasim —with his English translation of the Koran, until the director discovers he isn’t enrolled as a student and bans him from the center.  Before he gets banned, Kasim waits down the hall in a sunken room of cranky radiators and abused cubicles and prays kneeling on his braided rug of exquisite gold and maroon, and when I enter and call his name he rises and from his smoky beard his smile flashes like a shard of rare sunlight.

     I help a redheaded guy who smells of canned chili and wears black jeans, a black T-shirt with a Casper the Friendly Ghost decal, and a black overcoat streaked with powdered sugar.  Acne shellacs his forehead like a curse.  He grins and braces gleam.  Behind his greasy glasses his green eyes glimmer as he reads to me about his suicide attempt — a hanging in the garage, foiled by his dad on his way to tee off at the country club.  As if savoring a delicacy, he beams over the account, particularly pleased with the phrase “feces bulged into my underwear.”

     Midweek in the morning a blond girl in an oatmeal overcoat enters and asks for help.  I scoot over and she sits next to me.  Her stapled white paper flaps on the desk, and her hands hover over it like relaxed claws.  Rainbows ring the fingers of her fingerless gloves of white wool.  Her frizzy hair cascades to her shoulders like the hurried coiffure of a French poodle.

     “I’m not sure it’s any good,” she says, shrugging off her coat.  “I just need help with some things.”

     “Let’s look,” I say.

     The “Center”: a junction of cramped offices in the basement of the old Ray B. West Building.  Green metallic bookcases teeter against cinderblock walls, overflowing with the hardback psychedelia of a museum of style manuals.  In the hallway students thunder past like bison.  Through the door to the lab, rows of students gawk at computer monitors the size of microwave ovens.  Their slack-jawed faces glow electric blue, twenty zombies waiting for twenty frozen burritos to cook.  A Filipino-looking graduate student with Buddy Holly glasses and glistening black curls balances an apricot Danish on a paper plate and serpentines through the computers, speaking like a Cambridge don.  His belly paunch hangs over the waist of his faded jean shorts.  His T-shirt is two sizes too small.  Black flip-flop sandals slap his heels.

     “This is what they call the world wide web,” he says and takes a bite of Danish.

     “What’s your essay on?” I say.

     “Virginia Woolf,” the girl says.  “Due next week.”

     “Why don’t you read it, and I’ll listen.”

     I speak without hope because it is impossible to hear anything at this crossroads of chaos.  The graduate students work in the back room, like privileged priests sequestered in solitude, where they can close the door and meditate on the work of their young charges in the natural light spilling through a bubble-glass window.  Andrea, the center’s director, lurks in her office, her door perpetually propped open, ready to pounce on any writing heresies uttered by undergraduates.  Andrea wears plain plum cardigans, olive slacks, and pointy black pumps.  The woman has black marbles for eyes.  Her head hangs on her neck as if she’s short a few spinal discs, and her long grayish-brown bangs mask half her face, which makes her look like an aged skateboarder. 

     The graduate student in the back office is a petite blond woman — Arctic blond — with an elegantly sharp nose.  Her favorite uniform is a ribbed white long underwear top, form-fitting bleached jeans, and a canvas belt with a brass D-ring buckle.  Her masculine hairstyle — sheared up the back, short over the ears, floofy “rooster” bangs — could land her as the front man in an 80’s band.  I don’t know if she’s gay.  She’s friendly with the openly gay undergraduate and graduate students, but when she’s not working, she sits in a chair behind me, and whenever I turn around she tucks her bare feet under her in a salacious lotus position and arches her back the way women do when they pretend to stretch in order to showcase their breasts.

     I try to listen to the girl’s Virginia Woolf paper, but noise muffles her voice.  It’s also hard to listen because I just finished To the Lighthouse myself — the night before, staying late and locking myself in the graduate student office — and the book has toppled my inner gyroscope, leaving me feeling rapturously unmoored in the mosaics of Modernism.  I try to hook my thoughts into the girl’s sentences, but I can’t stop thinking: How can you write a three-part novel and have the second part be basically about the cleaning lady?  The audacious grandeur of one sentence keeps undulating through my inner ear: “Mrs. McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters.”

     “Because of the evils of men,” the girl reads.  “We see . . . ”

     “Evils of men?” I say, snapping back to reality.  “Why are men evil?”

     Andrea’s upper half flaps into her open doorway like a hinged vampire figure in an amusement park ride.

     “Because they have strong backs and tiny minds,” she says, vanishing into her study.

     The girl and I gaze at her paper.  She holds her hands like a pianist unsure of which chords come next in the concerto.  I glance behind me.  The blond graduate student sits with her knees apart, hands clasped behind her head, back arched, breasts shooting for the sun as if painted on the nose of a B-52.

     Then Andrea’s upper half swings into the doorway, a swollen smile on her lips. 

     “Matt,” she says.  “When you get a second, could you help me move this bookcase to the other side of my office?”

Introduction to Feminism


Matthew James Babcock: Professor.  Writer.  Failed breakdancer.  Lived for two years in Great Britain. Books: Points of Reference (Folded Word); Strange Terrain (Mad Hat); Heterodoxologies (Educe Press); Future Perfect (forthcoming, Ferry Street Books, 2018).