(Page 3 of 3)
She’d left it ajar. If this were Ajeet, he would have simply come in.
She felt the sensation, again, of the bus skidding on ice. She looked up, fully expecting to see James standing there.
But it was Christopher.
He was wearing the khaki coat he’d worn all semester, with the addition now of a damp-looking woolen cap pulled low over his brows, a backpack sagging heavily from his right arm.
She’d told the students to call her by her first name, but Christopher never had. At first she’d thought he suffered from an excess of politeness, but by the end of the semester, she had the sense that it probably had more to do with contempt.
Was he there to say goodbye, since he hadn’t come to the bar the night before?
Or, more likely, to complain about his failing grade?
But he couldn’t have known about it yet: the registrar’s office wouldn’t send out the grades until late in the winter break.
She considered her options, then remembered that she was still wearing her coat.
“Christopher, hey. I was just leaving.” She slid the cards under the bag of chocolate bars and stood. “Did you need something?”
“Can I talk to you?” He looked gaunt, unkempt. His longish black hair, curling beneath his cap, glinted with oil. Sweat gleamed in his sparse mustache.
“Yeah, I really have to get going, though. I’m really late.” Cheryl opened up her book bag and made a show of hastily stowing the candy, the crackers, the cards. Busy, busy. Late, late.
Christopher advanced into the room anyway, peering at her from beneath the cap. She could smell him now, a strong mix of cigarettes and BO and, possibly, alcohol. “Hey, I just have to ask. Did you fail me?”
Cheryl found herself turning to Ajeet’s desk, as though he might magically appear from behind the computer. Snow pelted the window, thick white splotches in a sea of black.
She knew that the minute she opened her mouth to speak, she’d begin to stammer. So she sat back down and mutely waved Christopher into the folding chair on the opposite side of her desk.
Christopher put his backpack on the floor and slid into the chair, leaning forward and resting his arms on Cheryl’s desk. A tattoo of a red fish swimming over squiggly blue lines peeked out from one of the ridden-up sleeves of his jacket. He was slender, even slight. Cheryl wasn’t small. She made the calculation: if she needed to, could she take him? Or was she better off making a break for the door?
“Yes,” she said. “I failed you. But Christopher, I had to. You didn’t turn in half of the critiques, and you missed more than a third of the class sessions. It’s a senior seminar. You had to know the requirements, right? They were right there, on the syllabus.”
Christopher closed his eyes. “Fuck.”
“I’m really sorry. But participation is fifty percent of your grade.”
“Fifty percent?” His eyes snapped open. “It’s a fucking writing class! Not a participation class.”
Cheryl pushed her chair back from her desk, ready to spring for the door. She hooked the handle of her book bag so she wouldn’t have to fumble for it. “No, it’s both. You can’t teach writing—I mean, you can’t learn writing—if you don’t talk about it. Even when I called on you, you hardly spoke.”
“What was I supposed to say? ‘This story sucks, like the other story sucked, like all the stories suck’?”
Cheryl tried for a measured tone. “I’m sorry you feel that way. That everybody’s stories suck, except yours.”
“Mine suck too! So do yours! Everybody’s stories fucking suck!”
Christopher was crying.
He dropped his head to his hands and knuckled his eyes, snot dripping from his nose. “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck.” Then, before Cheryl could do anything a person might do, like put a hand on his shoulder or get him a tissue or tell him that things were going to be okay, that he was the best writer in the class even if he’d failed, he jumped up, grabbed his backpack, and ran out of the room, the office door banging against the wall.
After she’d finally stopped shaking, Cheryl read his card.
As I Lay Dying.
“When Doves Cry.”
He hadn’t answered the question about what he’d wanted to learn from the class.
She called James from the office and asked him to meet her for a drink, at a different bar. They had two, and then she called a cab that took them slowly back to her apartment through the heavy snow.
The sex was better than it had been in the bathroom, but not by much. James was too eager, maybe, or maybe just unpracticed, and Cheryl, who had really only ever been with older men, like Gabriel, didn’t know how to tell him what it was he should do. She thought about asking him whether he had more cocaine, but she knew she shouldn’t. Besides, if he had had any, he would have brought it out. He pulled her into his shoulder and she let herself tuck her head against his neck. “It’s funny,” she told him, breathing in the smell of him, the fruity shampoo, the tang of sweat, “when you said you wanted to do lines last night, I thought you meant you wanted to recite poetry.”
“Seriously?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said.
After Cheryl returned from break, she and James were together for the entire semester that followed. James stayed over two or three nights a week at her apartment, though she had the sense that he would have been there every night, if she’d let him. She never stayed at his. They made dinners together or picked up deli food from the place across the street and ate it while they watched rented movies on her couch. The sex never really improved, but James didn’t seem to notice, and Cheryl didn’t really care, that much.
One night in the late spring, she even brought him with her to Ajeet’s house for a dinner, and watched him playing with Ajeet’s sons in their little backyard, chasing a ball through the unmown grass. She had the sense, as she was watching them, that James wanted her to see him as a father figure, as a man who would be good with kids. But it was hard not to see them as three boys, racing around.
She knew it didn’t look good for her. She knew that every time she brought James to a reading or a faculty party or ran into someone from the Department while they were at a movie or a restaurant, she was being judged. It was the late Eighties, and while student-teacher relationships were frowned upon or openly discouraged, most colleges and universities hadn’t yet instituted hard-and-fast rules, hadn’t yet begun to fire faculty who crossed the line with their students.
Still, she was relieved when Marcus told her that they wouldn’t be able to keep her on the following year. It gave her a chance to make a clean break with James: she needed to return to California, and he needed to get on with his life.
The older she got, the less Cheryl thought about the mistakes she’d made in teaching, mostly because she never taught again. If she were to ever write about it (and she never would), she would have to change the part about how Christopher had walked out onto the not-entirely frozen lake and fallen through the ice and drowned the night after she fucked James in the bathroom, because even though it had actually happened, it would read as melodramatic if she stuck it in a story, especially if she had made it seem, in any way, her fault. “There’s a reason why truth is stranger than fiction,” she’d told her students the very first meeting of class. “Truth doesn’t make any sense. It’s chaotic and random. Fiction is supposed to make sense, even if it’s only on some visceral or emotional plane.”
Of course, the older she got, the more Cheryl realized that telling her students that had also been a mistake.