Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
Rebecca sat next to Paul and was my enemy. She turned in handwritten poems about broken hearts, grade school mush. If Laura or Jeff had been her teacher, she might have come around. She wanted assignments; she wanted to be told what to do. Laura loved a project. One student of hers had recently been released from prison and had trouble with grammar. Laura met with him every day for two hours, even over the summer. She told me that it was the best thing that ever happened to her, after meeting her fiancé, Brian. Brian was in the law school and was big enough to kick the shit out of anyone, prison or no. I think that made her feel more comfortable about the situation.
The rules were cloudy on purpose; the instructor explained that while it was not against the law for us to have relationships
with our students, it was frowned upon. During our daylong diversity training, we were told a story about a professor who had dated one of his students, only to have the affair end messily halfway through the semester. It wasn’t about the law, the diversity specialist said. The question was about grading and fairness to the other students. We all sat on folding chairs in a room in the student union, trying not to fall asleep or to run screaming from the room. We were teachers; of course we had excellent morals. At the time, I hadn’t met Paul. I didn’t know they made teenage boys that looked like him, like actors whose private lives you’d read about on the Internet. Someone had seen a boy like him, though. That’s why the rules were the way they were, it had to be. Some people must have really fallen in love.
Karen the Modernist had a friend from yoga class; she wanted us to meet. I didn’t know what kind of guy did yoga, or what kind of woman he’d want to meet. I couldn’t wrap my legs around my head, if that’s what he was expecting. Laura wrote my number down and handed it to Karen, agreeing for me. Jeff winked. “Blind dates are sexy,” he said.
I met Martin at the restaurant. Karen and Laura had been raving about it for months. “Finally, a real place to eat,” they said. “It’s just like being in New York.” The food was supposed to be small and expensive, hard to eat.
Martin was standing outside, waiting. He was taller than me, which I liked, and slim, which I’d anticipated, given his bendy origins. He was wearing khaki pants and a black sweater; he’d dressed up. I still had on what I’d been wearing
all day: blue jeans and a cardigan that hung baggily from my shoulders. I watched Martin wonder if I was me.
“Hi,” I said, approaching. My clogs clunked to a halt. “I’m Amy.”
Martin smiled nervously, revealing two even rows of very small teeth. “Shall we?” He pointed toward the thick glass door. Inside, large groups of well-heeled undergraduates gestured with their chopsticks.
“Great!” I said stupidly, and let him open the door.
They sat us at a table against the wall, which meant that I faced the room, while Martin faced only me. The room smelled like pheromones and soy sauce. I was suddenly famished.
“So,” Martin began, trying to catch my eye. “Karen says you teach in the English department?”
“Yes.” She’d told me that he was an engineer, or a computer programmer, and divorced. His hair was thin and feathery on top. “And you do yoga?”
Martin bowed in what I perceived to be a very yogic manner and bared his small teeth again. A waiter appeared next to us, a kid with a beaded necklace and a surfer’s tan. I hated for him to find out we were in Ohio, how painful that would be. I wanted him to say, “Aloha,” but instead he just asked if we wanted anything to drink.
“Yes, please,” I said, turning toward Martin. “Don’t you think we’d better?”
The surfer brought back two small carafes of something that smelled and tasted vaguely of rubbing alcohol. I drank mine quickly and ordered another.
“So, go on blind dates a lot?” The sake was making Martin’s teeth look more human-sized. “What do you like to read?
Have you ever written any poetry? How long have you lived in Ohio?”
He cleared his throat. I wondered what his ex-wife looked like, if she was a brunette like me, if I was his type, if people still talked about their “types.” Martin looked forty, maybe late thirties, which made him approximately thirteen years older than me. Thirteen was almost two times seven. He opened the menu.
“I’m a vegetarian,” he said. “Ooh, they have edamame.” He looked at me over the metallic sheen of the menu. “I went to a place just like this in Japan once.”
Behind him, the room was filling. Girls wore short dresses too slight for the still-cool weather outside and high heels. They opened their mouths and laughed, on dates with each other. They weren’t interested in freshman boys; they needed football players or older guys. I thought about offering up Martin—he had a house, a car. They could do yoga together.
“Order whatever you want, I’ll eat anything,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I followed a clump of girls into the women’s bathroom. There were four of them all dressed nearly identically. It was like one of the picture puzzles in the back pages of old comic books—which of these is different? I drew imaginary circles around one girl’s tiny skirt, another’s cowboy boots. The bathroom was small and dark, with wooden panels on the wall. The girls clattered together toward the mirror. I ducked behind them into one of the empty stalls. Girls that pretty didn’t have bladders, it turned out. Another point for evolution! I made a note to remember to bring that up with Martin—engineers knew about science, I’m sure he’d be
interested. Another mental note—make sure he’s an engineer.
“Oh my God, Jessie, did you see that guy? The waiter? With the necklace? I wanted to lick him.” It was Cowboy Boots.
“I know! Me too! We should order lots more drinks and then leave him our phone number on the check. Oh my God. We totally should.” Tiny Skirt was agreeing with herself.
Maybe I could write my phone number on the bottom of one of Paul’s poems:
If you ever want to talk about your work outside of class, just give me a call. I’m not in the office much, so this is the best way to reach me.
I could pretend not to have an email address or a campus mailbox. I could convince Laura and Jeff to make my desk look abandoned.
The girls clucked and clattered out in formation. The room was filled with the echo of their energy. I peed and noticed that there was music playing. The song was about love, love, love, crazy love.
It was midterms and we all had streams of students coming in, further crowding the small office with heaps of coats and backpacks. Jeff talked loudly and recommended books that I knew he hadn’t actually read. He talked in a booming voice, all confidence, all machismo. His students loved him. Sometimes they’d dawdle outside the door, just hoping he’d show up. They’d lean against the walls with all different parts of their bodies: upper backs, legs, faces. They’d twist themselves into pretzels, just for him. He had the answers, they just knew it. He’d know how their story should end, what they should write their essay about, what made a good poem great. Really he just repeated whatever they’d said, phrasing
it in a more emphatic way. No one ever noticed. It was brilliant.
Rebecca was my twelve thirty. She peeked in the open door and looked almost disappointed to find me sitting exactly where I was supposed to be. She had a face like a sewer rat—pointed and sniveling, her nose out in front of everything else. It wiggled.
“So,” I said, once she was sitting in the chair next to my desk, “how are things?”
“Fine, I guess.” She wrinkled her rat-nose.
Behind me, Laura was having a discussion with a student who’d read a Henry James novel. “Mm hmm,” she said. “Long sentences.”
Rebecca opened her notebook and waited for me to speak.
“You know what?” I said. “You’re fine. We really don’t have that much to talk about. I just wanted to check in.” I smiled at her like I meant it. She stared at my left clog as it dangled off my toes and threatened to drop.
“Okay,” she said, her voice as reedy as her face, all pinched. I wondered what her parents were like, if they genuinely liked her or just loved her like they were supposed to. “I was just wondering, you know, about my grade.” The good ones wondered about their writing. The bad ones wondered about their grade. This was an easy distinction. Sometimes I thought about lowering students’ grades every time they brought it up.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said. “Just make sure you type all the assignments and that you’ve turned everything in. You should be fine.” This was true. Rebecca scooped up her book bag and was out the door before I could say anything else. The
entire conference had lasted three minutes. I shuffled through my papers and listened to Jeff talk about the passive voice. Laura explained the difference between
In between students, Laura showed us pictures from her sister’s wedding on Long Island. She was the maid of honor and wore Vera Wang. The ceremony was on the beach—it was beautiful. Everyone cried, even the priest.
“So, Amy, how was the date?” It had taken Laura two long days to ask.
“It was fine, I suppose.” I thought about Martin’s thin arms. They seemed sad in retrospect—toned for what? For who? “He was a nice guy, but, you know…” I said. Trailing off seemed polite, as though I was conflicted.
Laura looked concerned. She clasped her bony hands in front of her bony chest. “But what? Are you going to see him again?” Her voice was higher than usual. Brian was Laura’s second fiancé. She’d kept the first ring, and sometimes wore it on her other hand. It was sitting there now, looking at me sideways. It told me that I wasn’t getting any younger and that it was really time to stop wasting valuable opportunities.
Paul was early. His backpack was enormous and made him look like a long, lanky turtle—the kind of turtle who probably ran cross-country in high school. Somehow his hair seemed lighter than usual, as though he’d found all the sunlight in Ohio.
“Hey,” he said, addressing me.
“Hey,” I said, wishing I’d thought to buy a lint roller, ever.
Laura and Jeff squeaked their chairs closer together. I couldn’t
decide whether I wished they were paying more or less attention.
“So,” Paul said, sinking down to the chair. He ran his hands over the metal arms.
“So,” I said. He was a turtle, and I was a parrot. “Paul.”
He smoothed out his corduroys. They were the color of Bahamian sand and loose around his legs. His eyes were the color of cold water—a pond. His hair was the color of straw. My brain had turned into one of Rebecca’s poems. It was still my turn to speak.
“Your story was good,” I said. “Really impressive.”
He blushed and turned his face to the side. “Thanks. Really? Thanks. That’s really nice.”
I could feel myself blushing back. “Well,” I said, “it’s easy to be nice when something’s actually good.” Who was talking? I could hear Laura’s head turn toward me, away from her sister’s wedding, away from Jeff’s open mouth. Up close it was easier to remember that Paul was young, too young, but it was also easier to see how well-proportioned his features were. He had shoulders like a swimmer and a long back. He reminded me of the boy I’d lost my virginity to, at an embarrassingly late age. He had been too handsome for me, like Paul was too handsome for me, but age seemed to smooth that out. He wanted me to like him. He was trying to make me like him.
One day, I asked Jeff where he went to meet people—not people like me, but people who he might want to see with their clothes off. The Rooster was on the outskirts of town—a mile
down the four-lane road that led to the airport. A couple of normal-looking Ohio guys—Carhartt jackets, boots—stood outside and smoked. A small decal of a rainbow stuck to the window, well below eye level.
I followed Jeff in through the blacked-out door. The bar was long and dark, and my eyes had to adjust. I half-expected to see guys performing sex acts in every booth, but instead it looked just like any other bar—mostly guys, mostly sitting alone. Jeff nodded at the bartender, but I couldn’t tell if the nod was meant to communicate anything other than hello. He led us toward two stools at the end of the bar. An out-of-date calendar hung on the wall in front of us, welcoming us to 2004. In 2004, Paul would have been fifteen, still a boy. He would have slept in a twin-sized bed, eaten breakfast prepared by his mother. I wondered how tall he was then, if his feet hung off the couch when he watched television. Some boys grew late.
“Want a drink?” Jeff looked amused. He seemed more handsome inside the bar, more relaxed. It was as though there, everyone knew, and there was no pretense, no need for an awkward explanation.
“Sure,” I said. “Vodka tonic?”
“Two vodka tonics,” he said in the direction of the bartender.
“So,” I said, swiveling my seat left and right, left and right. “Come here often?”
Jeff laughed. “Actually, yes.”
It occurred to me suddenly that Jeff might be an alcoholic in addition to a homosexual and maybe I should back off. “That’s cool,” I said. “That’s cool.”
“So, Laura told me that you have the major hots for one of your students.” Jeff winked.
“No,” I said. “Well, maybe.” I tried to take a long slug of my drink and stabbed myself in the cheek with the thin plastic straw. “That’s really bad to admit, isn’t it?”
Jeff shrugged. “Not really. It used to happen to me all the time.”
“Students?” I asked. There was so much more to Jeff. Maybe he and I could talk about Laura, like he and Laura talked about everyone else. Maybe together we could get her to eat something, and then she would thank us forever.
“No, but straight guys. In middle school, high school, that sort of thing. I always had crushes on the straight guys. Sometimes it’s nice to have something you know you can’t do anything about. Sort of Jedi, you know?”
“Jedi?” Behind us, someone played Dolly Parton on the jukebox. Gay bars were so much better than straight bars. It was like a secret world where no one was embarrassed about anything.
“Like a Jedi mind trick—you know, all self-discipline.” Jeff was thirty-three. Every year we had a birthday lunch for him in the office. I wondered if he came here afterward, to really celebrate. I wonder what kind of presents people gave him, whether they were better than the coasters I’d given him. He went on. “It’s like a built-in understanding that you are going to be disappointed, and being okay with that.”