Midterm

Erin Murphy

This is the point in the semester when college girls cry softly in bathroom stalls, flushing to mask the sobs, then exit to check their mascara in mirrors.

Maybe it’s a rough exam or papers piling up like laundry. Most likely, it’s a boy—a high school love who has found someone else or a new crush who won’t return her texts.

A decade ago I had a first-year nursing student in my freshman composition course. She made straight As and never missed a class. In mid-October, she disappeared for nearly two weeks. When she came to my office to apologize, she could only heave, each syllable catching in her chest. She had returned to Boston for the fall break weekend where she broke up with her longtime boyfriend. It was a difficult decision. His family had become her family. His mother taught her to make potato and cheese pierogies. But things had changed. Or she had changed. He took it better than she had expected. The next day, he hanged himself. I did what I could do: gave her tissues and a hug, walked her to the counseling center.

This is the point in the semester when college girls cry softly in bathroom stalls. We meet at the row of sinks where I wash my hands, pluck a gray hair. The girls blow their noses, dab their tears. They cannot know yet the difference between pain that lasts a matter of days and the weight we carry for years.

 

Erin MurphyErin Murphy is the author or editor of ten books. Her most recent collection of poetry, Assisted Living, won the Brick Road Poetry Prize and was published in 2018. Her next book of poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her edited anthologies include Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine (University of Nebraska Press, 2019) and Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (SUNY Press, 2016), winner of the Gold Medal Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award. Murphy’s individual essays and poems have appeared in The Georgia Review, Brevity, The Normal School, Waxwing, Memoir Magazine, Field, Southern Humanities Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Southern Indiana Review, and numerous textbooks and anthologies. Her essay “White Lies” was featured recently in Creative Nonfiction’s Sunday Short Reads series and is forthcoming in The Best of Brevity anthology. She is Professor of English and creative writing at Penn State Altoona.