An MFA right after undergrad and straight into a paid position. Not bad, right? But you won’t find my book in the storefront. No Pulitzer, not even a “Joel’s staff pick” sticker thrown on the cover. When I was hired I fantasized about National Book Prizes and intimate literary gatherings at George Saunders’ house. I pictured a big paycheck alongside evenings of writing novels. I didn’t expect long nights, weekends, and lunch hours sorting through twenty-somethings’ muddled thoughts about drinking on rooftops and dysfunctional families. I also didn’t expect that I’d enjoy it. When my students submit work it’s like they reach down into some messy space between their heart and their liver, grab whatever they can, and throw the viscera onto the page. I play surgeon and help clean up the blood. I make sure the organs are aligned, everything’s flowing in the right direction, then I sew it up and throw away the gloves. When I do my job well, I don’t leave a trace, and my students are grateful.
Carole’s writing, of course, rarely needs it. Sure, it’s rough in parts, but whenever a deadline rolls around, she starts whispering to me about mismatched socks strewn on the floor and the groveling hand of a clock. She writes about the penmanship of her brother’s grocery lists, the hem of her father’s pants hitting cement tiles on the way out, and I’m the one left gutted.
As I read her work, I picture her. I see her pull at the edges of her curly brown hair, the way she takes her sweater off and I want to be there. I’d bring her a coffee and watch her nose wrinkle as she writes jokes. Eventually, I’d get restless. I’d close her computer, pull her out of her chair and push her up against the wall. The day after class deadlines, images of her surge through me until I can’t take any more. I build up the courage to do something about it.
I plan instead of sleep. When I’m not working, I devour graphic novels and Billy Wilder films, so unless the woman is both a 12 year old boy and a 60 year old man (preferably in neither of those bodies), they’re not going to be wowed. When it comes to not waking up lonely, I’ve learned to strategize. I look up university protocol and find vague condemnations. Nothing that’s not maneuverable. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve wrapped my arms around warm curves, or had someone to watch Firefly with.
Every Tuesday at 4, I have office hours – she comes with specific questions. Is this sentence too long? How can I fix the pacing of my first paragraph? She arrives on time, the cutest grin plastered across her face. My desk, empty except for a small stack of papers, sits like a lifetime between us.
“I’m actually a bit busy right now, and don’t really have time to meet with you. Not that I don’t want to,” I tell her. She crosses her legs then uncrosses them, about to say “ok,” and leave. Just like that. I picture myself sitting there, paralyzed, my heart dribbling on the floor, watching as she stomps out, dragging her feet through the heart puddle as she goes. It would cling to the underside of her shoes, other professors would wonder how it ended up on clean carpets. But I know what I’m doing. I recite my line exactly as practiced.
“So I was wondering if you might want to have a meeting tomorrow over lunch instead?” I look right at her.
The small freckle above the corner of her lip inches upwards and her face turns the pale pink of her nail polish. She doesn’t freak out. If anything, she’s confused, which is fine. She isn’t sure if I’m suggesting lunch out of convenience or because I want to spend time with her. I’ve got her thinking about me. And her. And me and her together.
Her eyes search mine for an explanation, then scan the bookshelf for something else to focus on. My heartbeat bounces off the corners of the room but I only hear her soft, shallow breaths as she doesn’t say anything. Women love to make you wait. Then finally, she says ok. OK. Okay. I wonder if she is saying yes because she wants my feedback, or to be polite, or because she is picturing shirts on the floor. I suggest a time and place I’ve already decided on.
When I get there she is already sitting at a corner table. I like that she’s a bit over eager, like in class. At first she is more shy than in my office, and we eat to a soundtrack of small talk. I ask her about her life, her hobbies, I know she likes hiking from one of the pieces she turned in, and she steers the conversation towards her work. Fine with me, I could talk about writing all day. An hour later, there are papers thrown between us and she is still directing us towards craft. I make fun of the typewriter tattoo I got in grad school, and she laughs, her eyes lighting up as they meet mine in the crossfire of the joke. Since childhood, when girls learned to point out my pale arms, I’ve become practiced in confident self-deprecation. Before she leaves, I suggest we have lunch again next week,instead of office hours, and she pauses. But only for a short tiny minuscule moment, and she says “sure,” and I exhale.
Perhaps she is treating these lunches as a mentorship kind of thing, so I make my intentions clear. “I admire your writing.” I tell her. “I’m obsessed with that piece about you and your ex.” That one really got me going, but of course I don’t tell her that. She doesn’t know how to respond so she acts like she doesn’t hear me.
At the second lunch meeting, instead of asking about sentence structures and paragraph lengths, she asks if the characters are likable, if she deals with loneliness in cliche ways. I steer the conversation into the ideas themselves. I slip in a detail about my sister who hates me, and how I feel insecure I’m not living up to my potential as a writer. Relationships, I know, are give and take.
“Do you have thoughts on the ending?” she asks about her last story. She sent it to me last night, my inbox spinning from zero to one and back to zero within 5 seconds. “I’ve re-written it a hundred times, and it always falls short,” she says. I suggest she takes out the last sentence, and shorten some of the others. I give her my ideas to fill the silence, and she smiles and writes them down. She does not realize her charm. I rest my hand on her shoulder and she flinches a little. Not upset or uncomfortable, she doesn’t move away from me, she’s just surprised.
As we meet for our third lunch date, it hits me. This is happening. This is really happening. I’ve laid the groundwork and I’ve actually gotten to this point, so now I have to take the final step.
“I like spending time with you,” I tell her. “I want to ask you something.“ She doesn’t smile. She was smiling and then her teeth jumped back behind her lips and her skin fell as loose as a 20 year old’s skin can.
I want to stop talking, but it’s too late now. If anyone is worth the suffering they cause, she is, so I finish what I started.
“The situation might seem weird, but I don’t think it should. Just act like you would with any other man approaching you in admiration.” Her eyebrows wrinkle and she struggles to keep her features in place. I act like I don’t notice. “I think we have great chemistry.”
I know to an outsider this might verge on unprofessional, but understand I don’t see her as my student. She is a fully grown woman. She looks 25 at least. And if she tells me I am being inappropriate, if she throws her notebook at me or cries or calls me an ass, I would apologize immediately. I would tell her to forget I ever said anything, and assure her that I could still be a worthwhile teacher. But she doesn’t. She sits in silence, and I know I have a chance.
“Maybe we can have some wine, and talk. Not about writing. Well, I’m always happy to talk about writing, you know me. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you pretty well these past months. You can read some of my work if you’d like. Watch a movie. You know, just spend time together.”
My guts roll around on themselves like my organs are a broken roller coaster. It’s like this every time I ask a beautiful woman for a date. Whether they’re interested or not, they become coy, just because they can. They smile sheepishly into themselves, and decide whether they will let you admire them a little longer, or will rip you apart like your lego sculptures, tiny bricks on the ground beneath their feet.
I have to remind myself that I’m not terrible looking. I’ve published an entire novel and several chapbooks of anecdotal vignettes and lyrical essays and some women find me endearing. Carole makes me forget these things. But no, I am not crazy to think she might be as interested in me as I am in her. To think she might even look up to me.
She bites her bottom lip, ripping a little of the skin off. A drop of blood forms so I lean in to help, but she moves. Her spine cracks against the back of the chair and I think she might fall out of it. I asked too early, I should have waited. She could have made the first move. After we break the world record for awkward silences, she says she will come and she finishes eating and grabs her papers and leaves. I don’t mean to make her nervous, but she makes me feel that way too.
I sweep my floor, and then I mop it. I look out the windows, and then I sit down. I take out a couple books, ones she would like, and place them to look forgotten on the table. I get up and check the windows. Lakes form under my arms and leak onto my shirt, so I change into a new, loose-fitting outfit. I keep the curtains closed so she does not catch me standing there. I glance at my watch. That groveling hand of my clock. Ha. I pick up one of the books and try to take in the words. I let out the stomach I’ve been sucking in for 20 minutes.
At 7:23pm she’s on my doorstep. I pour a glass of cabernet sauvignon and guide her to my couch.
Just relax. Both of us. Questions work well to get her comfortable. She answers them and does not sit still. I want her to talk but I wish she didn’t talk so much. Every silence that sneaks up on us, she rushes to fill by asking me something. When she finally pauses, I reach out slowly, deliberately, to brush the hair away from her eyes. Before my hand travels the chasm between us, she tucks the loose strands behind her ear. So I’m left sitting next to her on the couch, hand chilling mid-air like an idiot. Like I am doing a bad ET impression. I’m so close to ruining everything and my hand is practically at her face so I see no other option but to move it to rest on her cheek. From there, I lean in, and I kiss her. She squirms. She is restless, like me. Together, we are nervous writers in a dangerous world. I keep kissing her, and she starts pulling away. I know I should stop, but this is my moment. I finally have her, here, in my arms, like i’ve thought about every night. I run my fingers through her hair, then down her back and under her clothes and it’s better than my fantasies, better than the musical episode of Buffy, hell, it’s even better than seeing my book published for the first time.
I stop for a second and the eyes in front of me belong to a fox at gunpoint. I lean back, to take in this untouchable woman, and she begins to gather her things. With one hand through her coat sleeve she says “well, I should get going,” the distance between her and the couch, between me and her, increasing with each word. Did she think that was a goodnight kiss? I knew I was going too fast. I do not want to scare her away, so I go along with it. I can’t stop smiling as I walk her out.
I’d say it was a lovely night.
In class, nothing is different. I try to catch her eye and she stares into her notebook like Cirque du Soleil is going on in there. As much as I want a glance, a glimmer of a smile, I know we can’t let others catch on. Instead, I make my feedback as poetic as I can. A secret, coded, love letter. I email her for conferences to discuss her work – her writing has gotten noisy and abstract. I find her number in the college directory and call to ask why she’s been absent. She doesn’t answer. I try not to come across as desperate, but I don’t care if she has the power, I want her to talk to me.
When can we meet again? I had a lovely time with you. I read your work over and over and I can’t wait to get to know that person more. Do you know how many girls in the class have crushes on me? But I only think of you. Allow me to make you happy. We could have something great. We can’t just leave things like this.
I write her terrible letters. Truly awful stuff. I try to be poetic and it sounds false. I try to be straightforward and it’s cliche. Tender and vulnerable? Nope, just pathetic. What kind of writer am I if I can’t even create a goddamned love letter? Carole obviously agrees because I get no response.
I look up this ex-boyfriend of hers. I find his first name from her story, and then I check facebook. I find a photo of her snuggling with the moron, Jack Fernagie, who could never deserve her. I look him up in college records and get his address. This information isn’t public, of course, but it’s not difficult to access. I start going for walks in the area. I learn he’s on the basketball team and studies chemical engineering. I do nothing with the information, except dwell on it. Why would she be with someone like that? She should be with an artist.
After making me wait out the distance of the universe, she gives me the time of day. In a curt email she tells me it was all a mistake. She is not interested. She asks me to forget it, to leave her alone. I know I’m a writer, but I can’t describe how that made me feel. Like a marching band trampling on my heart. Like an entire freaking parade jumping up and down on it. So I only send a couple more letters asking her to reconsider. I leave them with gifts outside her house.
Stan, the head of the department arranges a meeting. This happens often to talk about a new book or figure out class schedules, I think he sees a younger version of himself in me. But he addresses me with a sternness I’ve only heard him use once before, while dismissing a student accusing him of racism, and I know it’s bad. How did he figure it out?
The university can access my emails, but would they pay attention to random writing feedback between a teacher and his class? I step into Stan’s office, closing the door behind me. I ask about his wife.
“It’s come to my attention there may be something inappropriate going on between you and a student,” he says.
Carole told me herself how uncomfortable Stan makes her. Female students would want him fired for sexism long before they’d find a problem with me. He’s lucky if 2 or 3 stick around to be ignored in his workshops. Who does he think he is? I call him a jealous prick. No I don’t. I take a deep breath and smile at him, I hope it looks confident but not smug.
He talks a lot, which gives me time to decide how to respond.
“I will not have my department tarnished.” he says. “I have worked hard for my position and respectability. The students have been protesting the university’s handling of sexual assault for months. You know damn well we’re under a magnifying glass here. One misstep and we’ll be dealing with slanderous articles, pissed off alum and budget cuts. Don’t put me through that, George.”
I could tell him the things she writes in her assignments. Say that she was interested at first, but she changed her mind, and we’ve come to a mutual understanding.
“If a student goes public with accusations, at that point it will be out of my hands. We’ll have to let you go. For now, it’s just a concern, so what your step. It could be the difference between a meeting with the ethics committee and your job.”
I know to be deliberate. Another deep breath, I hold my hands in my lap to keep them still. I stay quiet. Whatever I say will be meaningless. I need Carole. She has to be the one to tell them what happened, to defend me.
I ask her, once again, to come over. If she speaks on my behalf it could save my job. The administration are not actually worried that these romances happen, but about negative press, so if Carole proves there’s not a problem, there won’t be. She knows I’m not a bad guy, after all. She said so once in an email. But she doesn’t respond so I have no choice but to go to her house.
When she opens the door, she takes a step back, hovering, not sure what to do. But she lets me in and before I say anything, she apologizes. She says she knows I was only trying to be nice, but it was too much, and she got scared and she regrets it. Then I realize. It wasn’t my coworkers suspecting something – she reported me. If I lose it now she’ll never forgive me. Any small glimmer of a chance thrown out the tiny, lego window that she’s already grinding into the floor with her heel. I focus on my breathing.
“Carole, are you serious? I like you so much. How could you do this to me?”
I take deep breaths, in and out, the way one does when the walls turn white and start to crumble. I mean to be calm, but writers are passionate people. I raise my hands and come towards her and I throw every word I can think of at her, emotions rising and being released, swelling in anger and then exhaled.
“I could lose my job, do you realize that? Take it back. Please. You came to my house, didn’t you? What did you expect? You know there’s something between us. And you don’t think this will hurt you too? You think employers will rush to hire someone who is going to seduce the boss and then sue them?”
I let go of her shoulders, realizing I have been shaking her. She’s so disoriented she can barely stand, her eyes have doubled in size and are wet. I reach out again to steady her, to stroke her hair, to calm her down. Before either of us realize what is happening, she grabs a knife sitting on the kitchen table and it flies through the air. She slashes it, without thought, in my direction, with little control over what her hand or the knife are actually doing. And like that, my pinky falls. It bends a little at the joint when it hits the ground.
Not a metaphorical pinky or figurative knife. Not stabbing a broken, pathetic man in his feelings. If only. She stands for a moment watching it happen until her knees slam the floorboards and she exhales like there is no air left in her body. It is a full second before the pain registers and it’s the kind of pain of teeth being ripped out with pliers, of spoons removing eyeballs from their sockets, of a pinky being cut off with a kitchen knife, resting on sticky hardwood floors. In the midst of the action, the bottle of wine I brought was knocked over, the ground is stained with two shades of red.
She calls 911 but does not come in the ambulance. The doctors are able to re-attach the pinky, and tell me that once it heals it will be almost, but not quite, perfectly functional. Neither of us press charges. A doctor’s report is the only one filed – nothing with the school or police.
I think she feels guilty, but she doesn’t reach out. I wish things were different. I wish we walked away with memories of being goofy at the movies, of drinking and dancing in my living room. Instead, she drops my class, and takes a leave from university. It’s her loss, I tell myself. But I miss watching her freckle move as she talks. I know I am better than the mess she reduced me to, so I refuse to let her destroy me. I do pinky stretches and pinky weight exercises every morning before my first cup of coffee. I write a new chapbook – a series of sketches about fingers and fingertips, and it wins an award.
About the Author: Sarah Melton is a new writer who studied creative writing at Brown University. She used to write for the arts and culture magazine, Motif, but currently works at NPR Books.