A Clean Well-lighted Room

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorCollege, Undergraduate October 2001

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Security Panning the room, our professor searched for the student with the answer to the question. I followed her eyes as they moved from student to student. From the left of the room, she passed over me, over the two attractive young women who sit just in front of me, and over the large gentleman who always seems to have something to say. She continued on to the right side of the room, but I did not. My eyes were caught on a young man named Dallas. I could see he had something to say, and he was aching to interject his thoughts. I wondered what thoughts he had. I wondered if this was the first time he had ever completed an assigned reading because it was the first time he had ever had an opinion in class. Was he trying to impress someone? I looked deep into his eyes, searching for the answers to my questions.

The room began to get dark, my head was becoming heavy, and my mind was wandering. As my eyes finally closed, Dallas' life became my own.

"Did I exfoliate yesterday, or am I supposed to do that today," I asked myself. Over-exfoliation is bad for the skin because it can lead to dryness and, in extreme cases, irritation. Stepping from the shower, I patted my skin dry because rubbing leads to premature aging. I then used a lotion which is massed produced by Vaseline. High in vitamins and aloe, it is thoroughly refreshing after a mildly warm shower. The brushing of my teeth isn't done until after I eat a wholesome and nutritious breakfast with my girlfriend, so I moved back to my room to select a suitable wardrobe for the classes I have today. The key in this selection is a finding a medium between sophistication and exaggeration. People who wear jeans and t-shirts and are kicked back in a hard, wooden desk barely large enough for a fourth grader, have no more class than people who wear suits and ties and are sitting attentively at the edge of their seat. It is extremely important to know how to fit in to the crowd, find the norm, and not attract unwanted attention.

Today I have class with two incredibly gorgeous freshmen and a bunch of my brothers from the house. I need to look attractive for the women, but casual for the men. I select a pair of cotton slacks without pleats and a black knit shirt which displays my thin body very well. Once dressed, I move back to the bathroom so that I may fix my hair. Hair is always styled after dressing so that pulling any shirts over my head does not matt the spikes I work so hard to achieve. "Perfection achieved," I say to myself. With a single wink in the mirror for self-reassurance, I head to the phone to call my girl. After telling her I'm ready, I head out to the parking lot to get in the only white, 2000 Mustang with tan convertible top.

As I head through the doors, I see my reflection and I look good as usual. About halfway to the car I notice a crease in the bottom of my left pant leg. I continue walking to the car. "If I notice it, won't everyone else?" I bend over and try to smooth it out. As hard as I try, the crease will not remove itself from my pants. I walk around the parking lot for short time in order to change my perspective, and then look back down at the pant leg. "Shit, it's still there! I cannot continue with this day. I have to go change." Casually walking, being extremely careful not to perspire, I move back inside to pick a new wardrobe for class. After an hour of rooting around in my three closets, I decide on some hemp pants with a draw string and a white cotton shirt. It is a very comfortable, casual, and modern choice. I am pleased.

As I begin to leave the room for the second time, I realize that I have not turned the television off. I search the room for the remote control, but am unable to find its location. I finally decide to walk to the television and turn it off. As I approach it, I see two familiar buildings in New York City topple to the ground. I wonder why the city would destroy two buildings which appear to be in perfectly good shape. It just doesn't seem to make any sense. "Oh, I bet its one of those movies where aliens attack the world," I think to myself. I switch it off and head out to the car.

After driving a block from my house, realizing, as I do every morning, that I probably could have walked, I once again realize how hard it is to get a good view of the women all over campus when you are walking. I continue to circle campus judging any female prospects that look my direction. There are so many women out there with so many different backgrounds and different likes and different dislikes that it often becomes hard to decide which of them I will choose. I park the car and meet my incredible girl friend in the dining hall.

Natalie is such a sweet girl. She is tall, blonde, and thin. She is extremely caring and generous. Just a week ago on Valentine's Day she bought me an entire aquarium set with two seventy-five dollar Blow Fish. It was an extravagant present. I can't seem to remember what it was I purchased for her in return, but she hasn't complained, so it must have been nice. We have been together for somewhere around two years, and I know that we must both feel every minute has been absolutely perfect, or we never could have stayed together this long.

Someone catches my eye in the hallway. "Hello, Cynthia. You look incredible. I'm in a hurry, but call me tonight. We'll have dinner and movie. I'll make reservations. Does Dorsia's sound appetizing?" "Anything is fine as long as I'm with you, Dallas." "Well, make it seven o'clock then." "Should I bring a bag?" "Unless you are planning to wear the same clothes to class the next day, I'd say a bag would be appropriate." "I was just asking to be polite." "There is no need sweetheart. You know you always stay. It's practically your house too." "You're so sweet Dallas." "I know, call me later, Cynthia" Natalie and I are in love, and I'm sure one day we will get married. She is the perfect woman. She is smart and wealthy and talented. I can't even remember the last time I looked for another woman. Well, I guess I forgot about Cynthia and Rachel and Sebrina, but they are only around to please a thirst that Natalie could not possibly quench all by herself. Oh, I forgot about Sarah. Regardless of how many there are, they do not mean a thing to me.

After my last class, I meet with my tutor and give him all the assignments that are due tomorrow. I wish he could just hand them in for me so I wouldn't have to go pick them up from him and go to all these classes. Unfortunately, that isn't possible, so I have to attend.

On the way home, I pass a house on South Street where four guys are out back bonging beers from giant red funnels. I wonder how they find drinking like that fun when there are only four of them, no women around, and they aren't down at one of the popular and extremely crowded bars. Personally, I don't enjoy alcohol, but the social situations of today call for its use, so who am I to argue? There is a bellowing holler from the House of the Crazy Drinkers. "It's a party Man! Come have a beer bong. Don't be scared. It's casual." I don't like being taunted like this, but confrontation is only appropriate when others see your actions and when you are certain that you can either achieve victory or talk the other party into submission. Because these factors are not achievable at this moment, I continue driving back to my house.

It was either the professor repeating the question, "What is the theme of "˜A Clean, Well-lighted Place," or the motion of Dallas' lanky arm that somehow disturbed me. Suddenly, as I woke from this horrible nightmare, my eyes became fixed on Dallas once again. It appears he is the first student to respond, as our professor praises him for beginning the discussion. After lowering his arm, he stood and began to speak.

"I think Hemingway's story is about teaching people about loneliness and depression. It's also a lesson on sympathy and kindness and making a better world for everyone," Dallas stated with excitement. The professor was quiet. She took a deep breath as if trying to swallow the words which were lingering in the air. I looked around the room and saw the happiness in everyone's eyes. The class was taken in by our caring and compassionate brother. I looked back at Dallas and felt an overwhelming need to run hysterically to the restroom, vomit, and bathe my entire body in the sink, hoping to wash any remembrance of that statement from my soul.

Exhaling slowly, our instructor turned her back to the class and walked behind her large, wooden block of a desk stationed in front of the chalk board. She sat slowly and looked as if she was searching for a response. I knew she was desperately struggling to find a polite way to dismiss Dallas' answer. She then raised her head and focused on him. "That was not only correct, but it was t also the most passionate comment I have heard in quite some time," she said. The switch on the time-bomb inside my head had just been set to detonate.

As if scorched by a flame from the depths of hell, I jumped from my chair and exploded. "What the hell did you just say?" My words echoed around the silent, cold, brick room. "How can you agree with this crap!?!" Before anyone responded, or even realized what had just happened, I began spewing anger and hatred and distaste over everyone in the room.

"That was the most superficial response I've ever heard. It sounded like some shit out of a sixth grader's book report. He probably read it in some file at his fraternity house where upperclassmen had left papers from all the general education courses they taken so that the entire house could regurgitate the same writings, no one would really have to study, and the "˜brotherhood' could spend more time slapping the freshmen's asses with wooden paddles.

"This story" I continued, "is about security and how that security does not protect, but destroys a person's life. The damn title explains the whole story. Hemingway wrote, "A Clean, Well-lighted Place." These words speak about a place that is neat, organized, familiar and predictable. Everyone at that place is quiet and respectful and solemn. It is a place well lit and comforting and safe. It is secure. When you are at that place, you are protected from all the risks and the action and the adventure that exist just outside the thin sheets of glass in the windows and in the doors. In fact, it is so secure that people could easily wrap themselves up in this uneventful and totally unsatisfying blanket of safety and sleep their entire life away. In the end, that person would have no real experiences and no real memories. All they would have would be dreams about all the things they wish they could do in life, and a clean, well lit room in which they sit and ponder all the world has to offer for so many other people." The fury inside me had to be released. I turned to the one person in the room that I despised the most. "Dallas, perhaps you identify with this lonely and depressed man because in about forty years, you will be him. You have no real friends. People only talk to you because they believe it will improve their image. You only talk to them so that you have friends every where you go. You try so hard to make people like you, not because you are a nice and friendly person, but because you can't stand being alone. In fact, the fear of being alone is the only reason that you still date Natalie, isn't it? Everyone on campus knows you date six or seven girls on the side. The only reason you keep Natalie around is to ensure that you always have a female by your side when the other girls realize the truth behind your lies. You have no honesty for fear of what people will say about your lifestyle. If you don't even accept who you are and what it is you do, how can you honesty expect anyone else to accept it? "Look at the way you come to class, Dallas. You dress like a model straight out of a Maxim Magazine, even at eight o'clock in the morning. You spend hours getting ready every time you step into public. And what is the point? Security. It is a preservation of image that allows you to uphold an appearance of self-confidence that truly isn't there.

"You are the same as the old waiter in the story we are speaking about. Just as the old waiter said to the young waiter, I will say it to you: "We are of two different kinds" (161). You live your life focused on what everyone else thinks of you. You strive to impress, to make friends, and to be popular. Image is everything. You surround yourself in a clean and organized world where you feel you are in control. Everywhere you go is bright with people and faces that are the basis of the security and safety you feel you need to exist. You know everyone, but you know no one. You are nothing but a face, and your so called friends are nothing but pawns in a struggle for complete normalcy.

"I will not live a prison of safety and security. Confidence is my friend. I live because my eyes open each morning and I take in the air that gives me life. The people in my life know my heart and my mind as well as I, and are with me because we feel life couldn't be the same if we didn't share it together. We bend the rules. We break the molds. We do not live the life society deems appropriate. We push the limits. We do the things everyone else feels embarrassed to do. No matter the clothes I wear, the car I drive, or the choices I make, the people who love me are there. A lack of security is what lets me truly experience life.

"Perhaps you see this story as a bunch of depressed old men. Maybe Hemingway does want people to treat each other with more decency, but that isn't all that is in this story. Hemingway is telling us why there are unhappy people. Didn't you see him draw us in with the conversation between the waiters concerning the reasoning behind the old man's attempted suicide? Assuming the old man must have been in despair, one waiter asks, "What about?" The other waiter thinks hard for a minute or two and then answers, "Nothing"¦.He has plenty of money (158)." Right at that moment Hemingway reveals the entire lesson. Appearance and superficial happiness only make people feel normal. Without confidence, you cannot live your life. Without confidence, you are no better than the old waiter "who like[s] to stay late at the café" where he feels safe and where people know him (161). You are just like that old waiter you feel we should pity and treat more nicely, Dallas. You are one of "those that need a light for the night" so that you can sit up and worry about what impressions you made that day (161). Asking yourself what you should wear the next day, and whether you made a good impression on that freshman that asked you to buy her a drink downtown, you "lie in bed" and worry all night long. Frustrated and tired, you, just as the old waiter, tell yourself "it is probably only insomnia" (161). A tear rolls down your face because you know you are not as secure as you present yourself, and you bury it in your pillow." I woke up the next day in a chair in my living room stark naked wearing 70's vintage gold rimmed sunglasses. Pouring a glass of tropical punch Kool-aid, I open the newspaper. I came across Dallas' name after about three more refreshing glasses of Kool-aid. Chances are good that his parents did not cut out this article and place it on the refrigerator. Thinking about class yesterday, I remembered the way everyone looked at me as I walked out of the room. They laughed at the things I said. They must have thought that I knew nothing. Dallas even grinned, but I could tell he knew I was right. He was just like that old man in that story. Dallas went home and thought about that café and the old man sitting inside. He thought about how the old man sat and watched life outside that clean, well lighted place. Dallas probably even considered asking that old man to leave with him, but lacking confidence, never made it through the door. Dallas thought just like the old man. I noticed the deep red colored punch in my glass sitting next to the paper and could no longer drink it. I poured the whole glass down the drain and went into the bathroom. While turning on the shower, I wondered if anyone would really miss him.