A vomit stench from the elevator lingers in my nostrils. I step out onto level 4 of Sydney University’s W. S. Howard building. My gaze darts around the corridor: a staff common room with a fridge on my left, staircase leading into shadows on my right and a straight corridor of translucent glass doors – one of them must be Dr Schlegel’s office: WS310, WS310. I glance up at the navy sign hanging above: <- WS110-WS200, WS205-WS300 -> -- Don’t tell me Dr Schlegel’s office is in another building – my appointment with her is in five minutes!
My eyes scan the last line of the sign: ↑ WS305-WS400. I flash a finger gun in front of me and walk straight: WS2--, WS2--! WS31… WS3… Inside one of the open office, a woman with a blonde pixie cut and pearl necklace holds a landline phone to her ear. She cackles, ‘ohoho! Classic Feminist, isn’t she?’ I pull the sleeves of my tartan dress over my knuckles, thinking back to semester break: I told Anna Chiang, my friend at the writers’ group COLOURPENCIL: marginalised voices, about how I wanted to transfer to USyd. ‘It’s so poignant,’ Anna scoffed over her bento box, ‘that you want to transfer to USyd so badly –USyd Law has to be the dumbest decision I’ve ever made. It’s full of left-wing extremists who are all privileged White bitches.’
‘That’s just USyd Law,’ I tell myself, sweeping stray hair away from my cheek. It feels inflamed from the heater which hums through the corridor. I stop at ‘DR MADGE SCHLEGEL (WS310)’ etched into a black metal strip on one of the doors. I peer through the translucent glass for a human-shaped figure. The top of my hand hovers above the door, fingers half-curled as I get ready to knock. My hand shakes. My knuckles make a soft ‘dopdop’ against Dr Schlegel’s door. It remains shut – maybe she’s using the toilet. I guess I’ll just help myself to these comics on her corkboard. ‘Yo’ mamma contest: an edgy teenager vs. Sigmund Freud’: a teenager with a beanie over his eyes says, ‘yo mamma is so ugly she needs a prescription mirror’, to which Freud replies, ‘your mother is the reason that you will struggle with romantic intimacy for the rest of your life.’
I lift the corner of the comic over: ‘Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre brings MANGA HOKUSAI MANGA’. I drop the newspaper scrap, so Casula falls back onto the board. I remember when Anna had dragged me to the Hokusai Manga exhibition a few months ago. We walked through corridors of posters with slogans like ‘which minority is destroying the country? The rich!’, ‘if the dole bludgers are idle, what the fuck are the idle rich doing?’, 'house nigger alert’ and 'wasps will be wasps' plastered all over them. Anna raved about how it was ‘empowering’ because it ‘gave minorities a chance to represent themselves in the arts sphere’. The whole time, I hoped that she had forgotten I was from a family of doctors.
Before I can squint at the next comic, a woman murmurs behind me, ‘Miki?’ Her voice reminds me of Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey which my Year 12 Advanced English teacher once showed part of during class. I swivel around. Beneath a bush of red and grey hair, Dr Schlegel is the same height as my mother, reaching about my eye-level. Anna and my other friends from St George High School said I was ‘short even for an Asian girl’, so I had expected Dr Schlegel to tower over me like most White people do, ‘you’re Miki? Miki Vương.’ She pronounces my surname as Vuơng, between the correct way and ‘Vu-wong’ that most White people can manage.
‘À – Yes... I’m Miki.’ I point to myself, squishing the second button of my tent dress.
‘Madge Schlegel.’ She opens the door with a click. Four chairs are in the room. I take a deep breath as I examine each chair. A hard-green chair sits beside her desk. Two black plushie chairs sit opposite at diagonals to Dr Schlegel’s blue chair. I freeze, trying to decide where to sit: the black chairs look comfortable, but Dr Schlegel might think I’m being presumptuous for sitting in a chair that has more padding than hers. I choose the green chair.
‘Hi…’ Dr Schlegel sits at her desk, grabbing a pen from her black pencil tin.
‘Hi –.’ You can’t “hi” your professor! ‘… Lo.’ Sunlight glares through the window. I lean back, so that a sliver of blind blocks out some of the light. The fabric of my tent dress gathers in my lap, spilling over my knees and down the chair.
‘High-low…’ She chuckles under her breath. Her glasses reflect the lock screen of the USyd quadrangle on her computer, ‘so, Miki… How are you?’
‘I’m…’ My voice trails off as I stare at the bookmark with a Chinese character sticking out of her pencil tin. I try to read the English description, but it the English text resembles squashed ants from where I am sitting. Above her desk is a postcard of Sigmund Freud coming out onto his balcony to greet his two dogs which look like conjoined pompoms, along with the caption ‘Could this be… Transference…?’. Her bookcase has textbooks with words like ‘Consciousness’, ‘Theory and Practice’ and ‘History and Philosophy’ embossed on them, ‘I’m…’ I recognise the yellow spine of Knowing Me, Knowing You, the textbook I had used for 101679 Personality, slipped between two thick white textbooks.
‘You’re…?’ What did she ask again? I notice a grid on her screen which reminds me of my tutor’s class roles. Maybe she wants me to repeat my name.
‘Miki Vương?’ I lean forward in my seat, trying to peer at her screen, ‘um, do you want to me find it?’
‘Oh, no. I’m just turning this on in case we need to refer to anything.’ She spins in her seat to face me. Neat horizontal creases form across her pencil skirt as she sits in the black chair. ‘So… How are you?’
‘Ah, right. G-Good.’ I force the corners of my mouth upwards, trying to smile but I probably look like a freak instead.
‘So… You want to do a theoretical thesis?’ Dr Schlegel must be far-sighted, I figure when I notice her glasses magnify the edge of her face.
‘À, yes.’ My head shakes up and down like a chicken, fringe stringy with sweat because I’d trekked all over USyd for two hours before I could find the right building.
‘And… What reading have you done?’
‘Well…’ My voice croaks at the end before I’m mumbling, ‘I read Dr Wilcox’s paper about situational realism – and the one you sent me in October.’
‘Which one was that?’ Dr Schlegel’s chair spins towards her computer.
‘The metaphysics one.’ I utter. Dr Schlegel clicks at her mouse. I whip out my plastic bottle from the side of my bag, fingers jittering as I unscrew the top.
‘Ah, yes.’ She scrolls down our emails, ‘that’s right.’
I slide the bottle back into my bag when she spins her chair to face me again, ‘so, Miki, did you have any… particular concepts in mind?’
‘Yes –,’ I raise my finger, curled finger pointing at my email on her screen, ‘I was thinking around the idea of a unified theory.’
‘Dr Da—.’ I stop myself from saying “Dr Dale” because Dr Dale had mentioned to me that he and Dr Schlegel “didn’t get along at all”, ‘like – so that Psychology isn’t fragmented into domains like Cognitive and Social and Neuroscience…’
‘Oh,’ Dr Schlegel leans back in her seat, eyes thinning, ‘I think Psychology will always be fragmented.’
‘But…’ I grip rifts of floral fabric in my lap. ‘Dr Dale – I mean, my tutor in History and Philosophy told me that Psychology needs to be a unified science.’
‘That would be good for the discipline. As I mentioned in my previous email, unification is at the heart of my metaphysics paper.’ Dr Schlegel reaches under her desk to open a mini-fridge. ‘But with the way grant money is allocated, people’s egos, careers – there isn’t much drive for Psychology to unify.’ She pours water from a bottle into a glass cup which she takes with her to the black chair. I glance at the dented plastic bottle on the side of my bag.
‘Dr Dale and I talked about this – he said that as long as we have…’ My hand hover in front of me, trembling as I try to recall Dr Dale’s recount of his PhD, ‘a taxonomy, levels of analysis and… minimal theoretical claims which everyone can agree with - then Psychology will unify.’
‘It sounds very utopian,’ Dr Schlegel shifts forward, ‘I agree with him... But yes – I don’t know how many people he could get on board.’
‘I’m sure a bit of marketing could…’ My voice trails into silence.
Dr Schlegel’s eyebrows lift, forming a wavy ‘w’ crease in her forehead. ‘Aristotle claimed that what separated man from animal was that he was a rational creature. That’s nonsense: the distinguishing thing about man is that he is an irrational creature. Even though working towards a unified theory is best for Psychology, there are too many external factors at play.’
She glances outside the window, ‘people are so good at… Shoving wedges between each other for their own gain. You’ve seen that before, haven’t you?’ I think of the ‘Otherness to the Front’ festival COLOURPENCIL organised at Bankstown Arts Centre, when Anna stood up during her panel and shouted into the audience, ‘listen Whities, get your fucking hands away from our stories!’
‘Yes, I have.’ My fingers curl into fists on my knees. ‘Ingroup-outgroup,’ I chirp from my Social Psychology textbook.
‘That’s right.’ Dr Schlegel’s hand hangs from the armrest. I notice the glimmer of her wedding band: How does such a gloomy woman get married? ‘I’m just about to finish another theoretical paper. Part of me is thinking “what’s the point?”’ Dr Schlegel uncrosses her legs, ‘If we could turn the clock, say, several hundred years on Psychology, that would be wonderful. We could avoid these… conceptual messes we’ve made. People in my generation have messed up the world. Young people can make such better work of it.’
‘Young people…?’ I recall Anna sweating under the stage lights as she shouts, ‘when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression!’ I glance at the Freud postcard near her desk, ‘I don’t know if it’s a young person thing…’
‘It’s difficult to say,’ Dr Schlegel’s places her palms faceup on her knees, fingers rounded as if she is offering me a sphere. The soft outline of my frizzy hair shows in the reflection of her glasses. They magnify her irises, so I can differentiate between the pupils and dark brown.
‘In the right hands, the discipline might change.’ Fine creases like pencil strokes form on either side of her mouth as she smiles, ‘at least, that’s what I think sometimes...’ What is she looking at, straight at me? My goldfish eyes, marshmallow cheeks and a dress that resembles a baby’s blanket as it spills over me and the chair.
I wrap my fingers around my thumbs, ‘yes, I think so too.’
Frances An: "I am a Vietnamese-Cantonese-Australian writer from Western Sydney, Australia. My short stories have been published in EastLit, ZineWest2017, Romanian-Australian bilingual anthology, Seizure and Lost In Books. I am a member of the writers' collectives Finishing School and NewWritersGroupINC. I am currently studying Psychology (Honours) at Western Sydney University: my research project relates to moral self-perception."