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?

 

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.

 

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.

“Ms. Thomas?”

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.

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