Letter of Intent

I’m happy to say that this personal essay recently won the Jon Whyte Memorial Award, an Alberta Literary Award for as-yet unpublished work. “Letter of Intent” will appear in Waiting: An Anthology of Essays (University of Alberta Press) at a later date. But because a number of people have expressed interest in reading it, I am posting it here first, with the gracious permission of the University of Alberta Press. Enjoy.

Rona Altrows
Letter of Intent
Why am I here? It’s the question I asked at age four when my beloved uncle Al died, have asked repeatedly since then, and find myself, at twenty-six, asking again. Twice in my late teens, steeped in deep depression and unable to find a logical answer, I tried to end my life. What helped me most then was what often comes to my rescue in despair—a book. In that case, it was The Confessions of St. Augustine. Not the religious content of that book. Just the fact that the guy had so many questions. I once decided to count them. Twenty-five in the first three paragraphs alone. What a comfort.
But today I’m nowhere close to despondency. I just want to know why I am here, in the hall outside Room 32, Chancellor Day Hall, McGill University, seated in a straight-backed wooden chair. There’s only one way to keep nerves in check: write in my notebook. Write anything. Take control of time. Don’t just let it pass. Make it pass. Is it fair some people are born all nerves and questions?
Law school classes are held in the ugly concrete tower immediately west of here, but the building I wait in, a grand limestone mansion built in château style, is the home of the law professors’ offices. At some point I will be called in to Room 32 to talk to two of those professors. Three quarters of an hour ago, I knocked tentatively on the heavy wooden door of the office. A man in his forties emerged, perspiration beaded on his forehead. He left the door ajar, stepped out into the hall and told me that he and his colleague would need a few more minutes to prepare. Mind you, I arrived fifteen minutes early. Still. What on earth can they be talking about? Is my application that intriguing? That problematic? I know what they’re doing. They’re scrutinizing my letter of intent for the fifth time, dreaming up trick questions. They’re going to try to trip me up—that’s their strategy. Oh why did I write what I wrote? Why didn’t I compose something more clever or scholarly or legal-sounding? They’ll ask how a degree in English Drama can be expected to lead to a career in the real world, for example, in law. How a person with a permanent, well-paying job as a high school teacher decides to leave that stability behind and invest in a rigorous, multi-year program of studies in a totally different field. How my fixation on a British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, has any connection with my application. Well, I’ll tell them, Disraeli took the first steps toward a law career. Yes, one of my interviewers will point out—the one who studied in England—yes, but did Disraeli stick with the law? He did not. Why do I regard him as a role model? Then I will pull out my trump card: Disraeli wrote novels! Numerous novels. Long novels….
Mind you, I may have something going for me here. In grade five, my classmate Gail and I made a pact that each would nominate the other for Red Cross rep. I followed through but, to my horror, she reneged. For me, that experience crystallized a preoccupation with fairness. It’s why I initiated a petition to the National Assembly last year, requesting a two-word addition to our Civil Code that would allow tenants to get in front of the courts quickly if they needed to, so they would not have to go through a long, expensive legal rigmarole to force their landlords to do essential property repairs. I collected many signatures, and I got my way—those two important words did get added to the Civil Code. Because, eventually, the legislators came to see the situation the way I did: the old way had not been fair to tenants. But is that what the practice of law is about? How badly do I need to find out?
Maybe my two interviewers will wonder whether I have shown up just to make a personal point. After all, when I received the secretary’s call the day after my mother’s funeral, I declined the interview. I explained that my mother had died of accident injuries earlier this month, and my father, who had not been in the accident, was critically ill. The secretary had a warm voice so I let myself talk a bit, at least enough to say that it was all too much, and I should probably return to teaching in the fall, forget my law school dream. Well, it’s up to you—you can withdraw your application, the secretary said. I told her I’d let her know within a week. But once I got off the phone something that I had not counted on presented itself. A voice. I barely had time to put down the receiver when I heard it. Roncha, what are you doing? You want this. Call back and go see those professors. They’ll enjoy talking to you. Call back right away. Well. What do you do when your mother has been dead for only a few days and her disembodied voice is telling you what to do? The situation is unfair. It does not allow for options. So I did call back and said I’d attend the interview after all. I asked who would be talking to me. I recognized the names of both men.
I’m uneasy sitting here. It’s not that comfortable sitting anywhere when you are seven months pregnant. And will my interviewers notice, that’s the main thing. I mean, maybe they are not as observant of such things as women are. And I do have the evidence hidden under a long, fringed, royal blue cape that comes down almost to my knees. Under that I wear black dress pants. Surely a black garment creates a slimmer look, even if it features a wide elasticized panel at the waist? After all, my interviewers will not ask me to lift my cape. That would be rude. They may think I am mentally unstable though, for wearing a heavy woolen garment in this weather. It is only late May but Montreal is in the midst of one of the blistering heat waves it is famous for, most common in July and August but not unheard of earlier in the year. There is no air conditioning here. To make matters worse, I’m reacting to the musty smell of the old building with a hint of the nausea that laid me low in my first trimester.
How to find relief from the heat? I’ve got a white cotton blouse on but dare not reveal it, as one of those professors may open the door at any moment. If he sees me capeless, he’ll be able to tell right away that I’m pregnant. I mean, I am not carrying big, but the bulge is not exactly invisible. I set down my ballpoint pen and notebook, grab three fringes of the cape, braid the fringes together. Repeat with another three. Repeat, repeat. I can’t help it. Can’t simply write. Must do something else with my hands too. Otherwise I will scratch my arm, head, ankle. Scratch to the point of drawing blood. Since childhood—since earliest memory, really—I have done this compulsive scratching at times of stress, unable to stop once I start to scratch, especially when I am also hot. Better to put those fingers to work on the fringes.
My father thinks the law school plan is a mistake. “The legal profession is not what you think, Roncha.” He has said it many times—most recently, yesterday, at the hospital. “Law is not all about making things right for people. Law is business,” he said. “You like politics, not business. Teach now and run for Parliament in a few years. People are sick of lawyer-politicians. A teacher who goes into politics, that’s a politician people can get behind.”
But when one parent is still alive, however tenuously, and the other is freshly dead, the words of the dead one carry greater weight. Unfair but true.
My high-school friend Pat graduated from McGill Law School three years ago. That’s how I recognized my interviewers’ names and knew something of their backgrounds—both had taught her. When I applied she gave me a warning: they don’t like to admit students with part-time jobs. They believe you can’t meet the demands of the program if you are also working at something else. Maybe the interviewers will quiz me on whether I intend to take on some part-time teaching. I can truthfully tell them no.
Of course, it’s not as if I won’t have any distraction if I get in. This baby is due at the end of July and I’ve heard that care of a newborn takes up time. How much, I have no idea. I’ve never had a baby before. I’ve applied for a space in the university daycare centre for September but they won’t reserve it because I haven’t been accepted into law school yet. I’m single so it’ll just be me to look after the baby—me and daycare if I can get the baby in. Kind of scary but I can do it. I’m healthy and I have tons of energy and I can get by on five hours of sleep a night if I have to. I can make it all work. I think.
Twelve more minutes gone. What are they up to now? Maybe they’re figuring out how they will carry out the interview. Maybe they’ll take on roles and they are rehearsing. Who’ll play the good cop, who’ll play the bad cop. Or maybe they have already decided my transcript and letter of intent and references are all golden, and there’s nothing to worry about, and they’re ninety-nine percent sure they will take me, but they just want to look me over and talk to me for a couple of minutes to make sure I am not off my rocker or inarticulate or a Martian. That may well be what we’re headed for. A quickie corroborating interview. Pro forma, like Perry Mason says.
If I could just get some water. Why am I here? Something beyond the obvious has brought me to this place, I’m sure of it. Something to do with—what? Justice? Honour? Fairness? I’m a spaghetti-western hero, crawling through the Nevada desert as the sun beats down on her head. Struggles to eke a final drop out of her tin canteen. Empty, damn it! She throws the canteen onto the barren ground. It clatters, jangling her raw nerves.
Should I knock on the door and ask for a small glass of water? Or would that seem too demanding? I gather up three more fringes of the cape, braid, repeat.
There don’t seem to be any people wandering around. Sure, it’s between academic terms and maybe some professors are away, but still. All of them? They’re all away, except for the two in Room 32? Or are they actually here, noses buried in heavy legal tomes? Do law professors lock themselves in their offices all day every day during the intersession?
Of course, there are advantages to not having access to water. I don’t have to pee. And that’s a good thing, because what if I’m not here when they finally open that door? Will they assume I am gone, and scratch my name off the list of applicants? So unfair. No. I will not let that happen. Even if they would be inclined to conduct themselves in such a lax and cowardly manner, I will not give them the opportunity. I will not drink, therefore will not pee, therefore will not leave this chair until they call me in. Bastards.
It’s going to be crazy if I make it. I won’t be able to tell my mother I got into law school. How is that fair?
The baby doesn’t like it when I get wound up. The baby delivers protest kicks. What if I get into the room and the professors start asking tough questions and I get all nervous and the baby kicks hard, and the interviewers see movement under my cape? Never mind. I’ll tell them I have indigestion.
I should have brought a book. Something deep, about law and ethics or law and society or, best of all, law and property. Then if I happened to forget the book, they’d be impressed with what I’d been reading, and the absent-mindedness that has always plagued me would actually help my case. But I didn’t bring a book and if I forget my notebook, what they will see is what I am writing right now. They’ll know they shouldn’t read my notebook, they’re not stupid, they realize it’s personal and not for their eyes. But read it they will, human nature being what it is. And without saying so, they will deny my application on the basis of what I have written here. My whole academic and professional future depends on my not forgetting this notebook in Room 32. Unfair.
I can hear the doorknob being turned. In a second I’ll be in there, with the two of them. No time to unbraid the fringes. And out of nowhere, I need to pee.