On Wednesday night, I am back in the library coffee shop for another helping of leftovers, this time alone. The sparsely populated, blindingly lit room is full of empty tables. Two girls chatter over their Macs, their tones distinctly sorority girl-esque, but one can never be sure. Two tables down, another girl who was alone eating a chicken Caesar wrap now has a companion. Near the back is a man in a suit and tie, looking a little out of place among the more actually dressed occupants of this establishment. He is teaching another student a foreign language that I cannot identify from the “gus in front of verbs” comment I catch drifting through the air, practically devoid of people but cluttered with the usual coffee shop noises. Every now and then, someone else filters in for a soda or to use the restroom. As for myself, I sit next to two unoccupied tables with a black laptop bag overloaded with books. No one but today’s issue of the student newspaper sits next to me, strategically placed on the table to my left.

I’m waiting for my soup to finish cooking in the microwave, which is separated from me by a distance of roughly thirty feet. I’m much farther away from it. I’m immersed in pages written over a century and a half ago, determined to make every minute between the end of my shift and the beginning of my class mean something, even if it’s just turning one more page in the fictional Victorian saga of an independent woman.

This is my third time reading the novel. I’ve read it twice in the past nine months for my thesis, once as a preliminary glance to something that could be potentially useful, and once again not more than three months later as a text I planned to use for the fourth and final body chapter. Like my last bowl of leftovers for the week, I value this text no more or less than the first. I give it its due appreciation. I taste the subtle hint of feminism lurking between the black lines. I have covered its pages in my own annotations, hasty pencil strokes that look like they were made with a dull knife. This third time around, it almost tastes better than it did the first time, more complex, a polyphony of flavors, but it has definitely lost some of its power to captivate and compel. No longer am I infatuated by its suspenseful moments, nor am I duped by the hopes that this woman will be any different than her predecessors in my literary experience. Having gotten to the bottom of this particular pan twice already, I know that the dregs of these chapters are not exactly scorched. They do, however, have a smooth texture and a sharp flavor that reminds me of bleu cheese. I can appreciate it for what it is, but this particular flavor is one that I will never bring myself to fully like.

Like many Victorian women, and like all of her predecessors (at least the ones that I have encountered), this heroine inevitably relinquishes her independence for marriage. I see this happen in modern novels whose titles I will not mention to avoid spoiling them, and whereas most of my friends cheer for this fairytale ending, I find myself inwardly cringing.

Maybe it’s because I have practiced studying literature for longer than I have practiced cooking, but I have learned over the years that no ending can be entirely happy, not in Victorian literature, and not in terms of soup. By the time I eat the last bowl of a full pot, I am sick and damn tired of tasting the same flavors and running my tongue over the same textures. I crave a change despite my habit of supplementing these bowls with sandwiches, salads, and my fair share of nights out at the bar or at a decent culinary establishment. It isn’t quite the same with literature. Much like a frozen brick of soup in the back of my fridge, a book that has remained untouched on my bookshelf for an appropriate amount of time has a savory flavor once it has been extracted and thawed out. I find something new to appreciate as I turn the pages a second or third time, as I immerse my mind’s spoon in this bowl again, first sipping the broth tentatively, then devouring the page, noodles and all.

I can’t help but wonder, as I play the voyeur to Helen’s family drama, as I peer into her moments of fury and solitude, whether this view bears any relation to how I down day after monotonous day, soup after bowl of soup, from the same insipid pan. I find myself wondering if my life, or anyone’s, can really have a happy ending.

The coffee grinder whirs. The microwave dings.

And I turn just one more page.

Advertisements