My eyes seek the source of the jack-hammer laughter assaulting my ears and blocking the instructor's words. This is a small room, so the search is short.
The woman sits front row center. She's laughing so hard her face is the same burgundy color as her over-stretched T-shirt. The instructor's story about wolverines is not that funny. It wasn't even that funny the first time he told it. It's definitely not so funny now in the third or fourth or fifth telling. It will be teeth-grinding material by the end of class.
But she barks out delight as though her life depends on it.
This writing workshop has turned out to be a lecture class. Fourteen of us sit in two rows facing the instructor (a Kenny-Rogers-before-plastic-surgery look-alike) who stands behind a lectern. He delivers words of wisdom and tells stale jokes. We take notes. We are all writers defined by distinctly different criteria with little to bond us beyond the act of writing itself and our presence in this tired hotel space.
The woman has a clear need to be teacher's pet. I know this because it was not very long ago that I might have occupied her seat. As a veteran teacher-pleaser, I recognize the signs. As it is today, I sit with Kari at the far right of the back row, with no interest in pet status. I am not so far grown out of that need, however, that I can study her without squirming a bit.
She's a romance writer. Her book is about an older married woman who falls in love and has an affair with a younger male celebrity. If I were to judge this book by her cover, the only romance in her life, past or present, is this story.
Her hands are beautiful - hand model material. Graceful with long tapered fingers ending in perfect unpolished ovals. Pale, unblemished, young.
I might not have noticed them except for their sharp contrast with the rest of her.
Limp, dull brown hair - straight bangs offer the only hint of style. Thick-lensed glasses nearly obscuring small but startlingly blue eyes (Was she called four-eyes, or worse, as a child?). Wide nostrils (Was she called piggy as a child?). Two front teeth are much whiter and larger than the rest, outsized only by her even thicker gumline (Was she called bucky beaver?).
Full lips that might be pretty, but are not. No makeup. No jewelry except for a genderless watch. Ears have never been pierced. The beginnings of middle-age jowls forming corners at the bottom of her face.
Overweight and lumpy - her profile is folded arms and two rolls of fat, one of which turns out to be her breasts.
It's as if she's been told so often what she's not, that she stopped trying to be anything at all.
Except a writer, whose work she believes can define her far better than her appearance. And a teacher's pet - hanging on his every word, laughing wildly and flipping her hair when he turns his attention to her, never once taking her eyes from his face. And a member of this strange tribe gathered for a few hours in a tacky hotel meeting room seeking a certain kind of truth.
While I don't know her specific story, I do recognize the wounds and the armor with which she protects herself. If she can only show the teacher how sincere she is, how committed to her craft, how intuned to him she is, then surely his kind and mildly flirty attention is proof of her worth. If she can laugh with such wild whole-hearted abandon in this group of strangers, then surely she belongs and maybe it even means she's happy.
If only she could know that beauty more glorious and brilliant than she can imagine rests inside her imprisoned heart, just waiting to be released. From the sisterhood of teachers' pets, I offer her prayers of healing love.
photo from Flickr