My life, to this point, had become about dust and books.
I sat at my desk, thumbing through a late Victorian copy of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, marking passages with ripped fragments of a document; the Dean's last memorandum, inciting the English Department toward recycling and energy conservation. Good employees read memorandums thoroughly and strive to achieve the goals outlined. That's exactly what I was doing. I'm a good employee.
A late afternoon ray of sun silently crept through my office window, casting shadows of branched leaves over my bookshelves. The sunlight accented the dust on my shelves in a highly offensive way, as if to say, "Yo, Angela, you missed a spot."
Fuck off, sun.
I finished marking the last passage of Tennyson with a scrap of torn paper that read:
"...indeed, it is our duty to...
post-consumer materials inherently redu- ...
...my colleagues, we must help one an-..."
I closed the book with a punctuated thwap. Take that sunlight. Take that Dean Warren. I'm going home. I stood up, and reached for the pea coat slung haphazardly on the back of my office chair, and wrapped my scarf around my neck. It might have been sunny, but it was the middle of November - solar heat was a myth. I slung my messenger bag over my chest so that the bag was hanging diagonally down my back, and picked up a stack of papers as tall as my Newfoundlander. I could barely make out the top of my office door over the dead tree carcasses in my arms.
Keys ... I have keys around here somewhere ... on my desk ... next time put the keys in your pocket first, dumb ass ... if I could only find the ring ... maybe if I reach with my middle finger ...
"Hi Professor! I just stopped by to drop off my ter - Professor! You're going to kill yourself! Let me help you!!"
Wendy Windsor stood somewhere in front of me, though I could only see pieces of her nut brown hair frantically swaying from one side to the other of the massive pile in front of my face. She took a large chunk from the middle of the pile before I could tell her that I had arranged the papers alphabetically, by class. Ah well. I'd do it again later. Have English nerd - will alphabetize.
Wendy Windsor was an incredibly petite student of mine, with straight bobbed hair and enthusiastic green eyes. She was the kind of student who lost pens in every pocket, of any article of clothing she happened to be wearing that day. And though sometimes clumsy, she was incredibly bright and well-liked by the other women of the college. She was constantly consuming non-sweetened iced tea in 16 ounce plastic cups with lids and bendy straws, which she purchased from the student coffee shop on the other end of campus. Other Wendy trade marks included a slight hint of jasmine - either from shampoo or lotion; a white and purple polka-dot scarf, worn through all-seasons due to constant coldness, and a navy blue and gold Wellesley College sweatshirt. She was a poster child, and she was my favorite.
"Hi Wendy. Thanks." I managed to blurt out. "I'm sorry, you stopped by to ...?"
"You're welcome, professor. I came by to drop off my end of term paper. I thought I'd turn it in early before you had to grade anything, but it looks like I'm really late!"
"No Wendy. You're not late, I am. These papers are the mid-terms." She stared at me blankly. "From last month. I thought I'd finally grade them over the long weekend. Wishful thinking, maybe."
"Oh Professor! I could come over and help, if you want!"
"Do you mean to tell me you have no plans? Four days of Thanksgiving break, and you're not going home? Are you kidding me?"
"No! I mean, yes, I was driving home after dropping this off, but I can stay! Seriously! A couple of my house mates are here all weekend anyway, and are-"
"But professor, I really can-"
"Wendy. Go home. The next month is going to be rough. Rest. Eat. Sleep. Do something crazy. Go see a movie."
"Are you sure? What are you doing for Thanksgiving, Professor? You're not going to be all alone grading papers and eating microwaved burritos, are you?!" She was referring to a Thanksgiving from two years ago. Wendy also had an impeccable memory.
"What? No. Where did you get that idea?!" She stared at me, and raised an eyebrow. "No. I promise. Ellie will be home, and we're going over to her parents house. I will be very human." Her eyebrow raised itself higher, as if that were possible. "Promise."
"Ellie will be home?"
"On my honor. I'm picking her up at the airport in a few hours."
"Okay. But if you do end up needing my help, send me an e-mail, okay? Home's only a couple of hours away."
"I will. And thank you. That's a very sweet offer."
"Can I at least help you carry these to your car?"
"You sure can. Except that I need to find my keys..." I felt something drop in the left pocket of my pea coat.
I love picking Ellie up at the airport. Movies have worked hard to make airports unshakable symbols of romance - and I was never one to take painstaking symbolism for granted. It's a good thing that I love airports as much as I do - I've spent much of my adult life in them; coming and going, going and coming. But it was different with Ellie - heightened, somehow. We had met at an airport. We spent most of the early part of our relationship traveling back and forth to see each other. We were now spending our married life taxiing each other to and from for work. In essence, we were having a poly-amorous relationship with the airport. And we were okay with that.
Before 9/11, we would meet each other at the terminal, usually with flowers or bottles of water (what? air travel is dehydrating). However, since the drastic change of airport culture, we met each other at baggage claim. Tonight I brought a bottle of water. Best to keep it simple; she has a lot of luggage.
I sat on a bench across from the escalators, people watching. I watch people a lot - ever since I can remember, I would watch and invent imaginary lives for people I didn't know. I still do this. Some of them become quite inventive and intricate, though most only hypothesize at a relationship, and a reason for meeting. I was currently watching a little boy, about 4 or 5 years old, jump from floor tile from floor tile, making thruster-like sounds that came through puffed out cheeks and his top set of teeth biting his lower lip. There was a tall, dark haired man standing a few feet away - his father, I had guessed. They're waiting for Uncle Joe to arrive from a trip to Russia, where little do they know, Uncle Joe fell into some deep trouble with the Moscow Mafia over a gambling snafu, and he would have to surrender himself to the American consolate upon his return ....
"What, no welcoming committee?" said the most beautiful voice I had ever heard. I looked up, and saw her standing there, her lithe, tall frame covered by a zip-up fleece and jeans, her silver hair swept back in a pony tail. Her eyes were a dark greenish-blue, and sparkled slightly as she smirked at me.
I didn't say anything right away. Instead I stood up, pulled her against me, wrapping my arms around her, nuzzling my nose against her neck.
"Hi, you." I finally said.
"Hi yourself." She pulled away just enough to look me in the eyes. "Are you okay? You looked lost. I thought I might have to call for a policeman to come take you phrmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm." I was kissing her, earnestly.
I pulled away to whisper in her ear, "I've missed you so much."
"I've missed you. Can we get my bags, and go home? Now?"
"Yeah. Let's do that." I had forgotten, in my rapture, about the bottle of water still in my right hand. "Oh, I almost forgot. This is for you. Here."
"Thanks," she said, as she took my left hand in her right. We walked over to the baggage carousel, our fingers entwined. "So what were you thinking about back there?"
"You don't have an Uncle Joe. And neither do I."
"You made him up," she looked around, and saw a likely candidate. "For that little girl over there, right? Let me guess, Uncle Joe is running from the cops because he robbed a bank to pay for her very costly heart-surgery, and he won't make it home in time for Thanksgiving, because he'll be in jail?"
"Uh, it was that little boy over there, and for your information, Joe is running from the Russian mob because of a gambling debt." I added, "Smartass."
Ellie chuckled wickedly, squeezed my hand harder, and put her head on my shoulder.
"It's good to be home," she said.
We decided to stop for a drink on our way home. I was constantly guilty of keeping our stores of food and beverages well below humanitarian standards.
As it was the night before Thanksgiving, and seeing as how we were in a small college town currently resembling the waning days of Tombstone, most of the pubs around town were closed. And when I say most, I mean all. Even the liquor stores had decided that procrastinators should be punished austerely, and flaunted their red neon signs as a punishment for bad planning. Heathens.
"It's okay, love. Let's just go home. There will be a lot of drinking tomorrow. I'm sure my father has more than enough."
"I'm sorry. One day I'll get better at grocery shopping, I swear I will."
"No you won't. But it's one of the many reasons I love you."
She smiled at me, teasingly. I turned toward the south side of campus, slowly making our way back home, when Ellie said, "Hey, there's a place back there that looks open."
"In that strip mall on the right, behind the pizza place."
"I don't see - Oh! I do see! Let's just grab a quick beer."
I pulled into the parking lot, which resembled an old mine-field of potholes and asphalt fissures. Most of the buildings around Wellesley were beautiful red brick or wooden frames from the 18th and 19th centuries, full of New England charm and Puritan simplicity. Even if the buildings weren't authentic, they were built to resemble authenticity. This strip mall was one of the few failed architecture ventures of the '70's that hadn't been torn down, for whatever reason. The neon sign on the roof read, "The Gin Joint."
"I feel like I'm about to go slumming with Humphrey Bogart," Ellie quipped.
"You should only be so lucky," I smiled at her. "I've heard some of the girls talk about this place. I think slumming is the general allure of this place. There's not another reason it's survived this long. The WASPs wouldn't stand for it otherwise."
We got out of the car, and I opened the bar door for Ellie. It was dimly lit inside, with chincy red pleather booths lining the walls, and swiveling captains chairs at the bar. The walls were paneled with fake dark wood, and there were yellowed and fading headshots of C list celebrities who, for whatever reason, made their way through Wellesley, Massachusetts. Signed, of course.
A blonde bartender with a buzz cut, and impressively thick facial hair was wiping glasses behind the counter. He didn't look up when we came in. There was one other person in "The Gin Joint," sitting in a corner booth, with an amber glass of something-on-the-rocks. We sat down at the bar.
Only then did the Viking man-child of a bartender look at us. "What'll you have?"
I took a quick glance at the tap selection: PBR, Sam Adams, and Budweiser. I suddenly realized this might be the kind of place that didn't believe in importing beer.
"I'll have a Sam Adams, please."
"And for you?" Viking boy asked Ellie.
"The same, please."
The bartender turned around, and quietly started filling the pint glasses at a diagonal angle.
"Nice place you have here," I said, entirely too cheerful.
Erik the Red's progeny just kind of grunted, and changed out the full pint glass for the empty. Ellie gave me a sideways smile, and pretended to study the headshot of Charles Nelson Reilly above the bar. I opted to look down at the cocktail napkins. They had random trivia questions, with the answers written upside down underneath the question.
"Hey Ellie, what's the capital of Mozambique?"
"What?! How did you know that?"
"I'm brilliant. You should know that by now."
"I do know that, but Mozambique?! I mean, it's not as though it were asking the capital of the US, or even Canada! That's ... that's amazing! I barely knew Mozambique was a country in Africa..."
"I have the same cocktail napkin, my love."
"Whatever." The corners of her mouth twisted upward into a wry smile.
We weren't quite half way done with our beer, but I could tell Ellie was exhausted, and quite frankly, so was I. I took one last, large drink of my beer, took a $20.00 out of my wallet, and placed it on the bar.
"Want change?" The bartender asked me.
"No. Happy Thanksgiving."
He grunted. "Thanks."
"Have a good night," we said, almost in unison. I pulled my coat on, and started wrapping my scarf, when the man in the corner booth shifted in his seat. I glanced at him from the corner of my eye. He looked like a cross between a misplaced lumber jack and an angry sailor. He was wearing a simple olive green beenie that folded over onto itself, obscuring his eyes. He looked liked he hadn't had a shave or a haircut in years, long scraggly curls hung around his ears. In the low light, it was impossible to get much other detail. I could, however, tell that he was looking at me, and only me, which made me nervous.
We started to walk for the door, passing as far away from the salty dog's table as was possible, without calling attention to our purposeful distance. We were about 5 feet from the door, when he spoke.
"Leaving so soon?"
"Yep. Have to get ready for Thanksgiving tomorrow. Have a good night."
"I said, 'Pity.' Here I've come all this way looking for you, and you don't have the decency to sit down and chat."
"Excuse me? I don't think I know you. You must have me mistaken with someone else."
"Angela Derrick. Associate Professor of English Literature and Poetry at Wellesley College. Born in Portland, Oregon, Jefferson High School, class of 1992, president of the marching band, captain of the girls varsity basketball team, and editor of the Yearbook."
"Look, while I'm sure google is a fascinating way to spend your time, I have no idea who you are, and the fact that you know such private information about me is really unsettling. Please stop before I call the police."
I made for the door quickly, with Ellie right behind me. The man slid out from the booth, and took a few steps toward us.
"You really don't recognize me, do you, Angie."
"What the fuck, dude! No! You look like the love-child of Grizzly Adams and the Ancient Mariner. I've never met you before, and I don't want to meet you now. Get the fuck away from me."
Ellie stepped in between us, and took a step forward. "Back away. Now."
He took a step back, and raised both of his hands, as though Ellie were pointing a gun at him. "This must be Ellie."
This made Ellie angrier, and even more protective, she took a step toward him. She said calmly, but menacingly, "Go away."
I turned to leave one last time, pulling Ellie along with me. As I pushed open the door, he said, "Angie, it's me."
There was something about the way he said me, a morsel of past remembrance I couldn't quite place. I stopped. "Me, who?" I said, skeptically.
He took off his cap, and stepped closer. Ellie went to stop him, but I put my hand on her shoulder. "Hang on, El." He stepped into a pool of light, and looked right in my eyes. I knew those eyes. Or at least I used to...
"Babe, it's me."
I could tell that Ellie didn't like the way he called me babe, but I took a few steps closer, and looked at him as though I had X-Ray vision.
"David? Dave ... is that you?"
"In the flesh, babe."
The last thing I remember was falling sideways.
Friday, January 22, 2010
My life, to this point, had become about dust and books.