James, the student she’d fucked in the bathroom, hadn’t been the best writer in Cheryl’s class. That distinction went to Sarah Two, whose stories were as dark as they were clever. Better still, they were largely devoid of the melodrama that drove most of the work the seniors in the seminar (even James) had turned in every other week. Christopher’s writing was actually even better than Sarah Two’s, but Cheryl had just given Christopher a failing grade the day she fucked James in the bathroom, so his work didn’t really count.
Not that Cheryl had wanted to think about grades while she was fucking her student. She actively hadn’t wanted to think about them, and was sort of surprised as well as dismayed to find her thoughts turning to them when she should have been focusing on how laughably ridiculous and unsexy fucking someone in a bar’s bathroom was turning out to be: how they kept slipping on the damp tile or banging into the porcelain sink; how their differing heights made it practically impossible to have sex standing up, but they couldn’t sit down on the toilet, since it lacked a lid; how James had to keep one hand on the door the entire time, since its bolt refused to line up with its catch.
But she hadn’t wanted to think about fucking her student while she was fucking him either, because even while it was happening, she’d begun to regret it, the aftermath so obvious that even if the sex had been enjoyable—and it wasn’t—her awareness of the inevitable consequences dulled any pleasure she might have otherwise felt.
Luckily, she hadn’t been able to think about anything for very long, thanks to the cocaine.
The worst part was that she’d been heading home, leaving the bar where she’d joined her students, going down the flight of stairs to the exit, when she’d met James coming up. She could have—she should have—said goodbye and just kept going. She’d already had several more than the one gin and tonic she’d promised herself, and had said her goodbyes to all of her students, except James.
(And Christopher. She hadn’t said goodbye to Christopher, because he hadn’t shown up.)
In fact, she’d deliberately chosen to leave without saying goodbye to James, because she’d felt uneasy about the way they’d been interacting. Always attentive in class, James had become intensely focused on Cheryl at the bar, peppering her with personal questions and jumping up to order her another as soon as she’d finished a drink. And the more she drank, the more attractive he’d become. It would be a lie to say that she hadn’t dwelled on his looks once or twice over the course of the semester (especially on the cleft in his chin, which drew her eyes and occasionally made her lose focus when she was trying to make a point in class). But she genuinely hadn’t, until then, imagined touching her own lips to his, or resting her hand on the small of his back, just above his narrow hips, or reaching up to brush at the spray of dark blond bangs that fell across his forehead and hid his brick-brown eyes.
So she’d waited until he’d left their table, presumably for the bathroom. She’d made a show of studying her watch, abruptly ending a conversation with Lorene and Sarah One and saying that she had to leave.
She blamed Prince as much as she blamed herself for what happened next: the electric wail of “When Doves Cry” had sizzled over the bar’s speakers just as she was leaving, and then the beat had tugged at her hips, flipped her inhibition switch. Dig, if you will, the picture. And there was James, standing at the base of the staircase as she bumped her way down. When he pulled her into the bathroom with the promise of “doing lines,” she’d told herself that he was being adorably writerly: that what they were about to do involved recitation, a spooling out of poetry in the midst of a fond and flirty goodbye.
And that’s all that would have happened, she told herself later (told herself for years later), if it hadn’t been for the cocaine. Within minutes of snorting the stubby line of white powder James had scraped together with a razor on the back of the toilet, Cheryl found herself flooded with euphoria: she was gorgeous; she was fabulous! She was a gifted writer and an extraordinary teacher and anything she might do with this perfect boy—this perfect man!—in this disgusting place was a cosmic celebration of poetry, an invocation to the gods of art!
Until she did it, of course. Then it was just sort of sloppy and stupid, and she was stuck with him.
It wasn’t as though she hadn’t been warned. “Socializing with your students is just asking for trouble,” Ajeet, her officemate, had said as she was packing up her book bag to head to the bar. “I just pass out candy at the end of class and go home.”
This was advice that would have been useful on Wednesday, when she’d taught her last class (not that she’d had any candy to pass out), but still, Cheryl recognized its wisdom. “They’re not my students anymore, anyway, are they?” she asked. “My grades are now officially in.”
“Oh, officially. You entered them into the computer yourself? Into that?” Ajeet lifted his chin in the direction of the chunky monitor on Cheryl’s desk, its screen, as always, dark.
“You know what I mean. I gave them to whatshername. Besides, it’s one drink. What’s the harm?”
“It’s never just one drink. I’m an old man and I still wouldn’t do it, and you’re practically their age. Let the kids drink up and fuck up on their own.”
Ajeet wasn’t an old man. He was in his late thirties or early forties, small and nearly bald, with a swirl of black hair at the top of his head that looked like the “at” sign Cheryl never used on her typewriter. He was stacking files on his desk, pretending to be working, but Cheryl knew he was just waiting for her to leave so he could get back to whatever it was he’d been doing on his own computer before she’d come in. He was used to having the place to himself; Cheryl only came to the office when she had to meet with students or needed to store her belongings before heading to class.
She couldn’t write in the office. Especially not on the computer, which the Department had lent her for the year, but which she didn’t know how to work. And her typewriter was too heavy to lug back and forth from her apartment off campus. Then there was the matter of Ajeet, who was in the office from early morning until he went home to his family at night. Cheryl couldn’t write when other people were around: it made her feel too self-conscious; it made her feel, on some level, like a fraud. So much of her writing time involved not writing that she could spend hours at her desk and come away with a paragraph or two, or none.
And she couldn’t come into the office to work at night, when Ajeet was busy reading to his little boys or cooking dinner with his wife or playing board games or whatever it was that families did, because the English building was empty, even creepy, after dark, especially when she was already safely ensconced in her apartment with her grilled cheese and her glass of wine and re-runs of comedies from her childhood, from the Sixties and Seventies, or long-distance calls after peak hours to her mother or the handful of friends she’d left behind in Santa Cruz.
“Why don’t you come with me?” she’d asked Ajeet, only half-joking: there was something unnerving about the idea of hanging out with her students, now that she was actually about to do it. What if they collectively turned on her and complained about her teaching? What if Christopher showed up?
“You want me to go? I’ll go.”
“Forget it, no, they’ll think you’re my boyfriend or something.” Hearing herself, Cheryl looked up and registered Ajeet’s expression: a wince. “I mean,” she said, “they’ll think something. They make a thousand assumptions if you give them the slightest detail about your life.”
Ajeet waved her attempt at apology away. “They’d think I’m your father. But listen, whatever you do, no shots. One drink. You wish them all luck with their futures and then you get your ass home. Because something always happens. Somebody gets too drunk and gets hit by a car or tries to jump off a roof, and you’re the adult who gets sued. Everybody’s always suing. And you’ll end up fired.”
The office was small, and Ajeet was practically shouting at her from his desk by the window. She lowered her own voice, hoping he’d take the hint. “I’m only here for one year.”
“Yeah, but you could easily turn that into another year, and then more. Somebody goes on sabbatical or takes maternity leave. You could teach Lit, or Poetry. Don’t you want to stick around?”
Cheryl considered the question. Did she?