On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Standing quietly, just inside the doorway, Mitchell could see that he was the only man in the room. The only male of any age, indeed.
The lecturer standing at the front of the room caught sight of him, and he saw the concealed double-take. The woman was in her forties, about the same age as him, but everyone else was at least two decades younger. There were about twenty students in all, but the room was small enough to feel full. Perhaps even intimidatingly so.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked, her voice friendly enough, and a few heads turned to look in his direction. He cleared his throat, feeling a little awkward despite having a considerable age advantage on most of them.
“Is this the Women’s Studies class?” Mitchell asked, and after an admirably brief pause, the lecturer nodded.
Two of the young female students exchanged a look, and at least two more shifted in their seats. Mitchell was aware of all of it — had expected it, even — but he pretended not to notice. Instead, he nodded in return, and made his way to a vacant seat as close to the door as possible.
He glanced at his watch, and realised with dismay that he was five minutes late for the class. Parking had been more difficult than expected, even in early evening. He made a mental note to arrive on time from now on.
“We were just going around the room introducing ourselves,” the lecturer said.
“I’m sorry,” Mitchell replied. “Couldn’t get parked. Won’t happen again.”
The lecturer waved the apology away with a disarming smile that showed she’d had the same trouble herself on occasion, then she gestured to one of the other students; a girl who looked barely old enough to drive, with piercing green eyes and a determined expression.
The young woman introduced herself using her full name, and said she was a political science postgraduate, hoping to work for the UN. Mitchell looked at her with the melancholy sort of fondness that so often accompanied middle age.
I remember when I cared that much about everything, he thought. I remember when frustration meant hope, instead of bitterness. I wonder when that changed?
He pushed the thought away. Another young woman was introducing herself now, and saying something about sociology and her own mother’s career. Her accent was northern and lilting, and her hair was four colours that weren’t her own.
Then there was a physicist, and an English Lit undergrad, and a software engineering Ph.D candidate, and a young single mother who radiated defensive fierceness, right down to her tightly-folded arms and thick woollen jumper. It seemed like everyone had something to prove or to disprove by being there, and Mitchell was simultaneously inspired and exhausted by their energy. And then the lecturer’s gaze fell upon him once more.
“Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself,” she said. “What made you choose this course?”
Mitchell nodded, taking a quick look around. Most of the young women weren’t looking at him, and the handful who were looked away immediately when he made eye contact.
“Well, I’m Geoff,” he said. “I guess you thought I had the wrong room.”
It was a lame joke, but there were a couple of wan smiles. He continued.
“I’m probably twice the age of most of you,” he said, apologetically, “but I’m here to learn, and I plan to just keep quiet and listen.”
He nodded, still feeling awkward, and the lecturer gave an encouraging smile. “And the choice of course?” she asked.
Mitchell briefly debated, for the twentieth time that day, whether to just lie. There were lots of easy answers, none of them true but all of them palatable and believable. Most would even curry favour with the group, or hasten his acceptance within it. He’d gone so far as to rehearse a few possibilities on the drive over.
But he was too old for all that. One of the very few benefits of his stage of life was no longer really caring what others thought of you, and embracing the liberty of simple truth and frankness. He even suspected that one or more classes in this very course would focus on his gender’s greater freedom to do away with pretence and performance. It was a gift not to be squandered.
“To be honest, I didn’t choose it,” he replied, and he felt a bit of satisfaction when he saw heads turning in his direction, curiosity written on unlined faces.
“It was a gift,” he said. “From me to my, uh, partner. She’d wanted to do a course like this for years. She read a lot of books on the history of feminism, gender inequality and so on. I paid for the course as a surprise birthday gift. But she left me the day before her birthday, and the course wasn’t refundable. So here I am, and I’m looking forward to it.”
There was utter silence for a few moments, and Mitchell could practically feel the desperate eagerness of some of his classmates to take out their phones and start texting the anecdote to their friends. The lecturer, however, retained her poise, and recovered admirably quickly.
“I think that’s the most interesting answer I’ve ever had to that question,” she said.
“Probably the only time you’ll say that to me,” he replied, and this time a couple of the youngsters did laugh, along with the woman herself.
Mitchell reflected that she was pretty, in a way; he could see how she’d been earlier in her life. Maybe if she was five or ten years younger. But then self-awareness crashed into him, and he cleared his throat. If he made a remark like that out loud here, he’d be eaten alive.
The lecturer raised an eyebrow slightly, as if she’d heard his entire train of thought.
“Perhaps you’ll surprise yourself,” she replied.
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