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It wasn’t as though she had anywhere else to go at the end of the next term. She should have been applying for positions, should have been making contacts, should have been actively involved in shaping her own future. But this job had fallen into her lap, unsolicited, in much the same way that any accomplishment in her life had come to pass thus far: through happenstance and coincidence. She’d sold a novel while in grad school, and though it wasn’t a particularly good novel, its publication had leant her a sort of It-Girl status and brought some recognition to the small MFA program she’d attended in Southern California. Gabriel, her MFA program’s director, was a good friend of Marcus, the director of the English Department here, and he’d recommended Cheryl when Marcus’s last-minute search to replace an ailing writing teacher had come up short. Gabriel had recommended Cheryl for the job, not because he believed in her work, but because he was tired of fucking her, she was pretty sure, and had wanted to put half a country between them before anyone found out what had been going on.
Cheryl had been tired of fucking Gabriel, too. And she’d had nowhere to go, and nothing to do, now that she’d completed her coursework. She’d planned to look for work at the end of summer, but the work had found her, instead. In less than a week, she’d packed up her belongings and begun the long drive north and east, hoping that somewhere along the journey she’d start to feel excited about it.
She had been excited about teaching, at first, but that excitement quickly gave way to the fear of being exposed. She knew nothing about teaching writing. She’d taught Freshman Comp as a grad student, but teaching students how to craft thesis statements and provide support for their arguments was an entirely different proposition from teaching them how not to suck as creative writers. Because that’s what the teaching of fiction mostly came down to, as far as Cheryl could see: don’t do this. Don’t do that. This is why that sucks. Please stop doing that.
If the stories were good, like Christopher’s or Sarah Two’s or, to a lesser degree, James’s, she could happily point to the things that made them work (good dialogue, vivid imagery, fully realized characters, powerful endings). But when the stories were bad, like Jason’s or Nikki’s or Sarah One’s, or just not terribly compelling, like Lorene’s, Jennifer’s, Mark’s, or David’s, she found herself becoming strident, even harsh. And even if the stories were good, she still had to give the students grades, and those grades (like the one she’d just given Christopher) had to take into account factors other than talent. The whole system seemed designed to make the students hate the teacher.
Cheryl couldn’t stand to be hated. She couldn’t stand strong feelings of any sort being directed her way. Love, hate, compassion, rage: she’d spent most of her 26 years trying to avoid eliciting any or all of them. She wasn’t the sort of writer who wrote because she wanted to be loved. She didn’t want to want anything, because when you wanted things, you were almost always disappointed. Better to be cool and not give a shit—and if you couldn’t help it, if you found yourself caring, the best thing to do was pretend you didn’t, until you didn’t.
She’d pulled on the puffy down coat she’d bought at a used clothing store (at her students’ suggestion), then slung her book bag over her shoulder. “Honestly,” she’d told Ajeet, “I don’t care if they keep me on or not. I’ll be fine either way. This place is so fucking cold.”
“And getting colder. The lake’s completely frozen, they say.” Ajeet stood, too, and once he was out from behind his bulky computer, Cheryl could see that he was wearing a brightly colored sweater instead of his usual t-shirt and random pullover, as well as a nice pair of slacks in place of his usual acid-washed jeans.
“Whoa,” she said. “So fancy! Going out with your students, too?”
“Ha. The opposite. So I guess you forgot it was the holiday party tonight. I wondered.”
The Department’s holiday party. That explained the decorations scotch-taped to the office windows, the sequined Christmas tree sweater the administrator had been wearing when Cheryl had turned in her grades an hour ago. “Fuck,” Cheryl said.
“Still time to change your mind. Blow off the kids. They won’t even notice you’re not there.”
In most of the revisions of her life that she’d written over the nearly thirty years that had passed since she’d fucked James in the bathroom, that was exactly what Cheryl had done. She’d taken her coat back off, stored her book bag in her desk, and waited for Ajeet to power down his computer before they locked the office door and wandered down the hall to the party. There, she drank a single plastic cup of wine, nibbled on Swedish meatballs and a handful of crackers and cheese, and mingled, chatting up various faculty members and staff, telling witty anecdotes and speaking earnestly of how thoroughly she’d enjoyed teaching this class, how much she looked forward to the start of the next term. She remembered names. She complimented. She listened intently and nodded appropriately or frowned and touched a sympathetic hand to the speaker’s shoulder. When she left the party, she went home and wrote a thank-you note to Marcus for having trusted her to join the faculty for this amazing year, a note that would become a tradition over time, its postage increasing until it morphed into an email that, when Marcus finally retired, she began receiving instead of sending.
The day after she’d fucked James in the bathroom, Cheryl dragged herself through the morning, using the time she normally reserved for writing to pack for her early flight to Santa Cruz the next day. She’d planned to go out and shop for gifts for her family when she was done, but a light snow had begun to fall, along with the temperature, so she switched to cleaning: scrubbing the bathroom; mopping the small kitchen; reorganizing shelves. She plugged tapes into her boombox and kept moving, cranking the music each time she allowed herself to realize that what she was really doing was waiting for a call from James. Just as she had always waited, after any hookup, for the call that would normalize the sex, that would suggest what sort of relationship might follow it, or confirm that one wouldn’t, if the call never came.
It didn’t occur to her until the day was nearly over that she was the one who’d have to make that call. She was James’s teacher. She was in the position of power. It was her job to check in with him to make sure he was okay about what had happened, and to tell him that the whole thing was a mistake, and that it would never happen again. And even if James had wanted to take on that role, he couldn’t have: he didn’t know her number. It was unlisted, and the only number she’d given out to her students, in the interest of safety, was the office phone’s.
On the other hand, she had his. At the office, on an index card.
Along with his address, his favorite novel, his favorite song, and some other bullshit Cheryl had asked her students to fill out at the start of the semester, though she had never looked at the cards again after wrapping them with a rubber band and sliding them into one of the drawers of her desk at the end of the first day of class.
She waited until it was late enough that she could be sure Ajeet would have gone home to his family, and caught a bus to campus. The snowfall had grown heavier, and even though it was just after five o’clock, night had fallen. The bus was nearly empty. Once or twice, it skidded over an icy surface, and as she banged against the window, scenes from the bathroom flitted into her consciousness: James bending to kiss her, his nostrils ringed with white; the zipper of her tight black skirt scissoring open.
The building, or at least Cheryl’s floor of it, appeared to be empty; the lights were off in the main office, a couple of cardboard poinsettias scattered on the floor in the hallway. But faculty members often kept their office doors closed when they were working, and a bucket and mop near the entrance to the Ladies’ room suggested there was at least a janitor or two still around.
Ajeet was nowhere in sight, his computer dark.
Cheryl found the index cards at the back of the drawer she’d used to hold emergency snacks, wedged behind a sleeve of crackers and an unopened bag of miniature chocolate bars from Halloween. She pulled the food out, along with the cards. Dinner.
James’s card was third in the stack of ten, but she flipped past it several times because she’d forgotten his last name. “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” he’d written, along with “’Don’t Stop Believing’” and “Better endings.”
It took Cheryl a minute or two before she remembered the third bullshit question she’d assigned the students: What do you want to get out of this class?
She’d never really addressed the issue head-on, apart from analyzing the various failed endings they’d seen in nearly all the students’ stories: the “It Was All a Dream” trope; the deus ex machina; the innumerable deaths of narrators; the forced epiphany; the elliptical image as stand-in for epiphany; the fast-forwarding to a time when the events of the story take on meaning for the aged storyteller.
Beyond some vague discussion of how a story’s ending should “open the story out,” Cheryl hadn’t even tried to answer the question. She had no idea how to end stories herself. In fact, this was how she’d wound up writing the novel that had been published: it had started as a short story that she couldn’t finish. To save face, she’d called it a “chapter” when she put it up for workshop, as she did with the next story, and the next, and so forth, until all her unfinished stories, written on the same general theme and sharing many of the same characters, combined in such a way that they made an almost coherent narrative. It was an accidental novel that she’d pretended had been deliberately and carefully constructed in this way, and no one was more surprised than Cheryl when Gabriel and her classmates accepted that premise (let alone the agent who’d taken the “novel” on, or the publisher who’d eventually accepted it).
Her parents were blue-collar people (her father owned an auto-parts store and her mother ran the service desk), but they were heavy, if indiscriminate, readers. Their shelves were full of paperbacks (pot-boilers, best-sellers, mysteries, and romance novels) as well as cheap, hardbound editions of classics they’d received from mail-order subscriptions or found at second-hand stores. They were proud of Cheryl for becoming a writer, but they were surprised. When her mom read Broken/Open, Cheryl’s book, she’d called it “complicated, but good.” But she’d wanted to know why Cheryl didn’t try writing a romance, maybe, instead of what she called “the opposite.”
Cheryl had studied her mother’s face as she’d said this, noting the way the jowls had just begun to loosen at her jaw, the way the color had been leached from her once jewel-blue eyes. Her mother, like Cheryl’s student Lorene, was in her early fifties. She’d told her mother then what she later found herself telling Lorene when she’d turned in a story about a race war in “the ‘hood”: Write what you know.
That had probably been a mistake. What had Dante known of Hell? Shakespeare of lovesick fairies?
Cheryl flipped through the other cards, wondering what else she hadn’t taught her students. Nikki’s favorite novel was a movie (“Reds”). Sarah One had wanted help with dialogue. Mark’s favorite song was “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
She’d reached Sarah Two’s card (“Song of Solomon”; “’Rock the Casbah’”; “How to integrate flashbacks”) when she heard the knock on the office door.