I’d just come back from Europe, so it may have been the jet lag. Whatever the reason, even after a reminder email from the Wesleyan’s Writers’ Conference organizers, I’d left my blankie at home. I regretted it the moment I stepped into the frigid dorm in the college’s most modern student sleeping quarters. The bedroom, designed for one, was big enough to house a multitude, and they’d air-conditioned it accordingly. It was huge, modern, and expensively furnished with a bed so high I felt like the princess and the pea, in danger of falling off my mattress when I tossed restlessly in the queen-sized bed, causing the double-bed-sized sheets (provided by the college) to come adrift.
My room was one of five in a ‘suite’ that included a shower, toilet, two washbasins and a kitchen. The latter was fully equipped for a person who didn’t want to actually eat or drink anything. A small orange candle stood looking pleased with itself on the counter. No matches. And no crockery, flatware, coffee-maker or kettle. I stole one of the bright blue bar stools to use as a bedside table. If I wanted to reach my phone, book or the light I’d brought with me, the only other way would have been to fall out of bed to grope for them on the floor.
It’s all in the details, I wanted to tell someone, but there was no one around, maybe because the college had put the wrong driving directions on its website. No one had found it yet.
I’d sent them a testy email that morning, to let them know there was no intersection of Church and Vine, and so people might not find the Fauver Apartments, with their signage hidden coyly behind the impressively kempt maples on Vine Street. Even if one happened to be lying (after a debauched evening with other students, for example) on the sidewalk, not too far from Cross Street, and caught sight of the sign, there was no easy way to get into the building from there. The hard-to-read notices, designed to provide extra trauma to writers who might not yet be dysfunctional enough, were almost as effective as Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Black handwriting on small sheets of scarlet paper caused the signs to blend into the twilight.
But you can’t keep a good woman down. Especially if she has paid to become a better writer. So, after a night spent alternately too enervated by cold to doze off or stupefied with exhaustion, I woke, as all hopeful writers do, to find my morning stimulant, tea.
The coffee, a desperate woman’s substitute, was located about three miles away, across the expensive lawns of the College. At least, it felt like three miles, as I stumbled along in the wake of my cool, sophisticated suite-mate. She had strolled out of her room, gleaming and serene, minutes before I was ready to venture out, with the result that in my haste to accept her suggestion that we walk over together, I’d skipped a few essential preparations. I returned after breakfast to fetch my notebook and take my medication. I couldn’t afford high blood pressure at this point.
Veda had attended Wesleyan decades before, and more or less knew her way around, although she grumbled, with an alumna’s pride, that its overly successful graduates had confused things for her by putting up various buildings to advertise themselves improve the place since she’d been a student.
I tried to curb my irritability as I paced the welcome room looking for the coffee. I found it, eventually. Three urns of hot fluid sat hidden in a side galley, near, but not with, the breakfast. In front of each tap sat a saucer with coffee beans in it. Attractive, but not helpful. Still, the urns themselves were labeled. Fairtrade, said one. The next had part of the definition missing. Unfair trade, I decided. The last, in spite of the coffee beans, was filled with hot water.
In the late sixties, I passed a simple exam, involving five or six 1000-word essays about Polish Romantic poets, to get a place at London University. Simple by comparison with this slew of IQ-battering problems. Perhaps that was the idea. If you can’t remember to bring a blanket, or can’t find the dorm and the coffee, they don’t let you attend.
With a cup of hot Fairtrade in my hand, the gray cells lurched into gear again and I forgot to complain about the lack of organization. Mostly because the people working there, the inimitable Anne Greene, doyenne of the writing program, and her student acolytes, were so warm and friendly to an irritable, sleep-deprived lady of advanced years, that I was completely disarmed. I’m not saying this to curry favor with the famous, although the young ones will undoubtedly be bookstore superstars one day. And Anne Greene has no further pinnacle of superstardom to reach.
I got chatting to a young woman who was being helpful behind a desk and asked her what she was writing—steampunk/fantasy/fiction, she told me. Then I asked about her author name. She looked at me through her intellectual’s spectacles.
“I had thought,” she said, “maybe…Sage Gentry.”
I looked fuzzily at her name tag, which sported three names.
“Good idea,” I said. “Drop the last name. Sage Gentry is perfect.”
I put on my glasses, to check the name I’d so cavalierly suggested she abandon.
As I said, they were all very kind.