The Semester of Fading, Third Place Winner in Fiction

The Semester of Fading

by Michelle Chen


Dr. Mary Ren

Contact: mren34@longinghs| 728-843-2732

Office: 246 (a room I haunt with a swivel chair that runs ridges into the carpet and four people whose backs of heads I can recognize on sight)

Office Hours: Late afternoon, sometimes in the deli a few blocks away where the cashier makes you put the money on the counter instead of into his hand. Once in the Tempest Bar and Grill on a thin yellow stool.


Course Description: This course is about reduction. It’s about me knowing the difference between a metaphor and a simile at age eight, and me eight months later writing in a notebook with six pictures of tamagotchis on the cover. The green and blue ones were winking, greeting me with round, whole bodies. It will involve naps in a dented SUV, wearing a sweater from a thrift store. By November, the focus will be America’s romance with tragedy and going out for a run at one am carrying nothing.

Preparation for the final will largely involve crafting formal literary essays and my conjoined twin.

Texts: We’ll discuss American novels, essays, and poems of the twentieth-century that recur in my dreams as shrapnel bombings and nomads wearing haute couture scaling a valley. We will redraw the shape of my back and the look of my face, delve deep into the symbolism of lights so bright you know there’s going to be surgery one way or another. The text is either buried in Fort Acacia Cemetery in a half-size enamel box or has been donated for medical research.

Attendance: Punctuality is my punctuation. It keeps you from floating off like a balloon, pops rather than allow you to shrivel from pressure. I will not be in attendance for most of the semester as I’ve started feeling glassy. I’ll stand there and explain but everything’s ephemeral. It’s a shame but really it is.

Grading: You will be graded based on your aptitude as an armchair philosopher and on your ability to cauterize a wound. Please, no jeremiads. Catalogs of woe do not inspire me to subscribe to your soul. Class participation is optional, as always.


September 5               “The Things They Carried”, Tim O’ Brien


We will open our study with a through analysis of division, from cutting to stitching to pedaling a bike on the edge of a high bridge with a low fence. The first time I read this I was on a flight by myself. Speeding towards a global affairs program, side still throbbing and flexing my scholarship bandaid on top of cockroach-infested bathroom cabinets and pajama pants with broken waistbands that I had to keep pulling up. A man with blonde arrow-shaped forelocks whistled in the aisle, only pausing to say that I looked like a lawyer.

I will try to lead a discussion on Lt. Jimmy Cross and his obsession. It doesn’t do any good to run your mind to death without knowing her coldness, or warmth. I will try to infuse symbolism into blown-off body parts but I won’t quite manage it. Destruction doesn’t matter, the destroyed are only hidden. She’ll write him and he’ll read her for the rest of his life.

After the plane landed I got off and got lost. It must have happened while I was fingering my stitches or gazing at the Arabic above a flower shop. Where were the chaperones? I started walking. Whenever I look down in this classroom I’m still looking at stained white airport tiles.


October 10                 Passages from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and “Selected Poems” by Emily Dickinson


Which childhood can I never escape from? I remember all the roofs I’ve been on. Here is an itinerary:

Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?

After a while I began graduating stuff. He had only shared part of my liver and a kidney and after his deflated body was gone I put him out ¾ him, with his translucent, easily-bruisable skin and missing toes, so that he only had lumps for feet. He had latched on somehow, hungry for my strong heart and functioning respiration, and weighed no more than an average housecat. So I left every school with honors and would occasionally climb onto roofs. First it was the garage, onto which I slung from the balcony and clung to the red ceramic tiles. Far below, the backyard encircled weeds up to my hip and mosquitoes. I will pose a Socratic Seminar on the brown snail I found sucking on a brick there as a major project for this unit. Additionally, there will be an assignment in which you mimic Emily’s dashes ¾ her ability to cut the page neatly. We will have a debate over whether she was a good cook, or at least a precise one. No gristle, but the remnants hang like ghosts.


November 3               “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston


Class adjourned.


December 7                “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne


To be honest I still don’t know the others in my office. The swivel chair is too new and too heavy to maneuver. After the parent-teacher conferences the whole gaggle burst into the outside world, voices echoing down the staircase and pushing with a crunch on the main door like nobody’s business. Luke was kind enough to invite me but my desk has a photo of my mother so truly no one expected me to go. Stomach growling, I tapped at my computer: A…

A what? ‘A’ was used much too much in English. Appendage? His mass used to hang off of my body like a knapsack. Adulterer? Had he cheated my mother by squirming onto my body like dried sap to a tree?

As demonstrated, this unit will involve a lot of questioning. We will question, and lead from that; we will analyze the portrayal of Puritan society and Hester’s self-sustainability. No womb could cook her up ¾ she isn’t devoured. No twin leeches off of twelve-year-old her and makes her short of breath. She chooses her breath, and if she loses it it’s because she’s climbed too high an altitude to breathe and be anything other than whole.


January 9                   “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Sometimes I miss him. I sometimes wonder if he could ever have counted to three or stacked alphabet blocks, one day simply grabbing all of my neurons and moving my body, and I would be cheering him on with an invisible mind. This lesson will begin with an introduction to 1920s America and a transplant of Nick and me, or possibly switching us at birth. We couldn’t afford dividing me at birth, so I covered him with thick, soft jackets and was called a buff rugby player once. Summer burned me up and my face would become water and melt like a snow angel, or so I’d thought at the time. This unit will culminate with an essay on the philosophy of swimming. You may elaborate on the mentality of both floating and treading water. Undress, classmate pool parties and beach trips would tell me. People who like green are more compassionate. There’s a reason why the sun isn’t green in this world. I was embarrassed like I am now fresh out of academia and teaching these jaunty young people. Now I wish I had taken off those sweaty skins, bared him to the world when I still could.




Your final is to accumulate and multiply yourself as a representation of what you have learned in this course, undetermined by essay or exam. Now I look at those four backs of heads and I see tendons and ligaments bridging them. With every touch my students are stuck together, the fine details of fingers and noses as indistinguishable as individual cloud wisps seen from the ground. Bits and pieces, but not chimera, and I give this extra flesh to you. The office sees me as whole, and thus when strangers meet me they think that I was always whole. You will be evaluated by your completeness ¾ the level of your understanding and embodiment of being uncut, unabridged. I want to give my self up to this school but my skin, meat and organs are loosening, fading from view. I just can’t say, even now, that the body they see is only half I own.