It sounded like a joke. The university didn’t even offer Introduction to Humor or Intermediate Humor. Just Philosophy 421: Advanced Humor. No prerequisites.
Intrigued, Jason signed up. Lovesick, I followed. It was our last semester before graduating. My plan: to slide witty, ostensibly-improvised notes to Jason for four months and then seal the deal in May with a note reading, “Let’s copulate?!” wagering a two-year friendship on an orgasm.
The class was humorless. The professor was a self-described insomniac, a physicist-turned-philosopher who drew cobwebs of space-time on the chalkboard, equating punchlines with wormholes.
On the first day of class, I sat beside Jason and practiced my power pose: chin titled, doe-eyed, smiling, no teeth, shoulders turned, ankles crossed, arms akimbo. Irresistible, so long as I avoided moving, talking, breathing.
Jason held up the syllabus and asked the professor, “Where are we going?” He was referring to the field trip underlined on the last page of the syllabus. In lieu of a final exam, the field trip was worth half our grade.
The professor said, “Ideally?”
“Another dimension.” The bags under the professor’s eyes were pronounced, bulging, like a second pair of eyes that had yet to open.
Two weeks into the semester, Jason stopped taking notes. He sat in his chair, hunched, navel-gazing, literally.
The professor spent forty minutes analyzing why slipping on a banana peel was funny, how the transformation from subject to object was incongruous.
I wrote in my notebook: We laugh because we are not what we should be. Clueless as to what this meant, I raised my hand, an antennae seeking reception. “I, uh, I don’t follow.”
The professor said, “When you slip on a banana peel, you become a thing. Rachel, you’re not a thing.”
I blushed. Even questioned my identity. Rachel ≠ thing? The sentiment was beautiful, if not uncomfortable. I was so used to being a thing. Thing to be shaved, perfumed, painted, ogled, filled. Thing seeking thing-collector.
The professor frowned.
I said, “What world do you live in?”
Jason told me his advisor had miscalculated. Apparently, he was three credits over the minimum requirement to graduate. “Honestly,” he said, “I’m thinking about dropping Advanced Humor.”
I begged Jason to reconsider, offering a favor, any favor.
He said, “Anything?”
I contorted into my power pose.
Jason touched my shoulders gently, almost quivering. He said, “Jesus, Rachel, are you having a stroke?”
When Jason dropped the class, I was left with no bullseye to distract me. Fear—that opportunist—knocked. Rachel—that sucker—unlocked the deadbolt to her amygdala. Hello loans! Welcome spinsterhood!
Desperate, I latched on to Advanced Humor, daydreaming about the mysterious field trip at the end of the semester. A new red dot appeared in the horizon, and I shot forward. I consoled myself: Every target comes equipped with complimentary blinders.
Months later, the day arrived. As a class, we took a bus, two subway trains, walked four blocks, and entered a comedy club. The professor told us to sit, listen, and wait. There were pictures of World War II tanks on the wall. Apparently, a pun on “tanked”—what the comedians were trying to avoid. There were scented candles on the tables, ranging from “crotch rot” to “napalm in the morning.” Luckily, no candles smelled as advertised. Lastly, there was a velvet curtain behind the stage. No one emerged from it. It just hung there—red, pleated, shut—veiling a question mark.
To earn an A on the final exam, we couldn’t leave the comedy club until we saw “it.” We had no idea what “it” was. So we waited, ordered drinks, and listened to jokes about irritable bowel syndrome, toll booth operators, and animal-cuddling dictators. Eventually, the last comic stepped offstage, the patrons trickled out, and the staff locked the doors with us—Advanced Humor—inside.
That’s when the owner of the club—a man with a mustache, a paunch, and a grin—approached. He chitchatted with the professor like they were old friends. The two used ambiguous pronouns. “Ready for it?” “I live for it.” “It nourishes.” “It awaits.”
Sheepish, we followed the owner and the professor onstage and watched them pull back the red curtain to reveal a bay window. The vista beyond the window was bountiful, serene, luminous. Imagine a keyhole into Saturn.
The professor said, “Call it what you will. An alternate dimension. A counter-world. Oz.” We waited for the professor to say something more illuminating. He didn’t. Not that I blamed him. I sympathized. There’s a reason Dorothy says to Toto, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s easier to describe what’s missing.
Beyond the glass of the bay window, there was no flatulence. No workers bottled inside toll booths for ten hour shifts, dispensing change like human vending machines. No dictators tickling kittens while watching their own people being hacked into human cutlets. No power poses. No things. Just the “should” to our “is.” The shadow of our jokes.
The owner of the comedy club stroked the bay window, smearing the glass with his fat fingers. He said, “You know, it wasn’t always this size. It actually began as a shard of glass, no bigger than a penny. Then it grew into a porthole. And now it’s a bay window. With every joke, the portal gapes a little wider, like a mouth.”
I stepped closer. On the other side—in “Oz”—I could see a girl gracefully leaping over a banana peel. We made eye contact. The girl approached, lifted her finger, and touched a tiny crack in the glass. I wanted to welcome her, become her, fan her in our general direction, so I sucked in the fumes of our world and laughed.
ANDREW GRETES is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, Booth, Passages North, and other journals.