“I found something today I kind of wanted you to hear,” she whispered, curled up against the side of the couch. An old quilt covered her shoulders, adding more warmth to aid the fire popping in the grate in front of her. A few copper curls had escaped the ponytail she’d haphazardly thrown up that morning and her eyes were rimmed with darkness from several nights of not sleeping.
“Mhm?” He barely glanced up from his cell phone, too caught up in what he was looking at to catch the hesitant, eager tone in her voice. He was in the opposite recliner, a firm distance away from her and continued to type quickly. The “tick-tick” of the key vibration was the only sound between them for several seconds.
“Never mind,” she murmured, standing. Folding the quilt into square after square, she laid it on the back of the couch and turned to walk to their bedroom.
Pulling off her t-shirt, she sank into her side of the bed and felt the coolness of the sheets sharp against her hot skin. She pulled free the ponytail band and shook out her curls, letting them spill across her pillow. The firelight from the living room cast a soft glow at the door and she watched for him to rise from his chair.
Tears pricked the corners of her eyes but she fought them. She turned on her side and faced to look out the window of the bedroom, the moon at it’s full capacity. Tree frogs sang and the night was clear, no clouds to obscure the bright stars reflecting off the glass. The blankets soon warmed to her body and the tension in her shoulders eased. The sheets smelled of fresh laundry and her pillow still held the scent of her shampoo from the night before.
Within minutes she was asleep for the first time in four nights.
“Let’s be real here, folks. This is not optional. We are two days away from mid-term and I’m hoping this will present an opportunity for some of you to bring your grades up. I know you all just think of me as the bitchy English professor with too many cats but I care about seeing every single one of you graduate your senior year,” she called, scribbling across the smart-board over the small dances of laughter. “Here are four prompts. All I want is some form of creative writing using one of them. Give me a poem, a short story, anything! There are no rules, no guidelines. You’re adults. You make the call. Just know you will be graded on content and effort. I want them all in my hands or in my email by Monday.”
Signaling their release, she watched as some students erupted from their seats as if they couldn’t get out of her classroom fast enough. Several, however, smiled at her as they exited, telling her to have a good weekend or they’d see her at play practice.
“You hate cats, Dr. Reiss,” one of the girls stated, giggling as she left the room, waving goodbye.
Shutting the door behind the last student, she returned to her desk and took a small sip of water. She now had an hour for a free period, usually dedicated to grading and short meetings with students who needed extra help.
A harsh knock filled the room and a male voice called her name.
“Yeah, come in!”
Standing, she smiled warmly at the man entering the room before grabbing him a chair from the front row to sit beside her desk.
“You slept better,” he said, taking the chair and spinning it backwards before seating himself. “You have color in your cheeks today. I figured you’d be in your office. Glad I caught you. Do you have a second or are you expecting students?”
“No students,” she answered, ignoring the sideways compliment about her complexion. “I’m quite curious how a Medieval History professor found his way into the English department.”
“I like the English building. The vending machines actually work,” he joked, wiggling a package of peanut M&Ms in front of her face. “I actually wanted to ask you about something pertaining to both our fields. In two weeks I’ll be attending a conference on Medieval and Renaissance studies. Several Grad students and a few under-grads will be going with me. There are lectures on everything from art to currency to everyday life – clothing, food, occupations. There’s jousting, food, falconry shows, music, and…plenty of poetry readings and storytelling. It’s more play than work, really, definitely worth giving up a day for. I have one spot I’d kept free, hoping maybe you’d be interested. “
Stunned, she clicked her jaw shut before he could notice her mouth hanging open and broke into a huge smile. More color flooded into her cheeks at the small, tinge of satisfaction it brought her to know he’d thought of her.
“I’d love to go! Tell me what I owe and I’ll get things ready here for an off-day,” she blurted, nervously pulling her sleeves down over her fingers.
“You don’t owe a dime, courtesy of the University. You’ll even be getting paid to be there since you’re chaperoning a learning experience and all,” he smiled. “I just wasn’t going to tell you that until you agreed to go.”
Standing, he laid the rest of the M&Ms on her desk, before turning to leave. She watched with mild curiosity at the limp in his step, his usual casual stride flawed. He had on his customary dark, blue jeans and a button down, rolled up to his elbows. Today he’d worn one the color of bright summer grass – mimicking the color of his eyes. I like him in green, she thought, immediately chiding herself for thinking of him as anything more than a colleague.
“You okay, Maverick? You’re limping,” she asked, her held tilting to the side in question. Her curls fell over her shoulder, hanging loose today for the first time in months. She’d gotten to the point of such depression and insecurity she’d tied it up in a knot everyday.
He stopped and raised a questioning eyebrow back at her, crossing his arms across his chest defensively.
“Sorry,” she choked, apologizing for her inquisitiveness. “That is absolutely none of my business. Have a good rest of your day, Dr. Wells.”
A few seconds of tense silence strained out between them before she heard his footfalls come back her way. While staring straight down at her planner, he sat again in the chair she’d placed for him.
“He left you, didn’t he?”
Her eyes shot straight to his face, trying to gauge whether his question was in fact a question or a jibe. His eyes were kind, the curve of his mouth set in a controlled line.
“No, he didn’t leave me,” she asserted. “I made him go.” A part of her hated the childish tone in her voice but how dare he? As if she was some weak-minded creature who had no power over her own relationships. She was not the kind to be left, like a stray puppy kicked out on the side of the road.
Wide eyed, he leaned into the back of the chair and stared at her.
“I just made you mad,” he countered. “I’ve never seen you mad.”
She watched as the corners of his lips turned upward, hinting at a grin.
“Well, when you’re a pathetic, depressed mess you rarely have much emotion to show,” she admitted, leaning back in her own chair. “Get used to it. I’m hateful after a breakup. It’s the hangovers from all the tequila I douse myself in.”
A sharp, deep laugh escaped his throat, forcing a smile out of her.
“I fell yesterday moving into the new house,” he declared, lifting the hem of his jeans to show a badly bruised and scratched calf. “Dog got under my feet.”
“I didn’t know you had a dog.”
“Two. Basset hound and a bloodhound – Angus and Skip. I’m the one who should be asking you if you’re okay. And don’t apologize for asking again either,” he commanded. “You look so different today.”
Letting the leg of his jeans fall back over his shoe, he rested his elbows down onto his knees and studied his hands. In that moment, she realized he was giving her the option to either talk to him or shut out the subject.
For roughly a minute, she did neither. She didn’t talk and she didn’t shut him out. Instead, she studied his hands with him. Small, flecks of chalk dust still clung to his finger-tips and callouses formed along the insides of his palms. He was dark-complected, the kind of skin that tanned easily and kept its warmness through the fall.
“I told him to go eight days ago,” she finally whispered.
Turning her eyes down, she picked up a pen and started absentmindedly scrawling across the corner of a blank page.
He watched her fingers trace out spiral after spiral, the quietness of the empty classroom comfortable. He liked the way she kept things simple about her – no gaudy posters on her walls or books cramming every available space. He liked that she applied the same rule to herself – a simple, denim shirt and white pencil skirt leading down to tiny, ballet flats. She’d chosen turquoise jewelry, her obvious favorite, he observed. She wore it more often than not and for once her hair was down, allowing him to see it for it’s true worth for the first time.
“You’re staring,” she smiled, still doodling.
“Yup,” he simply agreed.
Laying the pen down, she stood, smiling down at him.
“I need something to drink. Come with?”
Hesitantly, he stood, too, shaking his head.
“I should go. I have a student I’m supposed to be meeting about extra credit in…,” he paused, glancing up at the clock. “Now.”
Walking with him toward the door, she hid her disappointment, already berating herself for flirting so easily with him. She was twenty-nine for God’s sake, not fifteen.
“I’ll get you the dates and the plans for the Med-Ren Fest,” he stated, leaning for a moment against the door frame. “I’m glad you said yes.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she teased. “Go.”
“What the fuck are you doing?”
His voice ripped a hole through her, the volume and harshness so unlike the tender, drawl she’d fallen in love with. He was standing in the doorway of the bedroom in his still muddy jeans and boots, a hoodie pulled over his work t-shirt. A three day old scruff had formed around his chin and mouth, her favorite phase of his facial hair. Just enough to age him and too little to be considered unkempt.
Damn if he wasn’t so handsome, she knew she’d been able to do this so long ago.
“It’s time for you to leave, Nate,” she whispered. “Go home, be closer to work. Be closer to your family.”
Slamming the door to the bedroom, he took two giant steps and was immediately standing in front of her.
“Please tell me this is some sort of a mid-life crisis and you’re not being serious,” he seethed, looking down into her eyes. His jaw was set hard, the light in his eyes dancing with anger. “I have had a really, long day, Ada. I’m not in the mood to fight.”
“And I’m not in the mood to be ignored! To be pushed aside like nothing more than a nuisance. You are not you anymore, Nate. This is NOT how this should feel!”
Pushing past him, she paced to the other side of the bed and continued to gather her things.
“You hate living here. You hate being this far away from your folks and your brother. You miss hunting and fishing and knowing everyone you meet. You hate that my job forced us to move here. You hate me,” she whispered, folding a pair of jeans into the bag she’d started.
“Where the hell is all this coming from?” His hands moved as he asked, spread into a questioning gesture out to his sides. “I am right here. I don’t hate you.”
He rounded the bed, taking the shirt she was now folding out of her hands and reached to turn her chin upward. When she pulled away, he stubbornly tried again and gently ran his thumb across her cheek.
Fresh tears were pooling in her eyes when she looked up at him, the redness of her cheeks and forehead telling him she’d probably been crying for hours.
“You don’t even see me anymore,” she cried softly, leaning into his hand. “I feel like I’m slowing killing myself in this hole I’ve dug to escape from you. You barely look at me. You never call me to check on me in the middle of the day or hold onto me when you get home anymore. And it’s childish that I care.”
“It’s childish that I’ve made you feel like this,” he murmured, pulling her face closer to his chest and wrapping his arms around her shoulders. “Ada, I love you. Nothing is ever going to excuse the fact I haven’t been attentive lately but I know you know I love you.”
“I’m just going to go stay with Becca for a few days,” she stated. “I need to get out of this house. I need time to think.”
Tugging roughly away from her, his brows furrowed deeply and his eyes rushed darker.
“You want to leave?”
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Bayou