“Hey babe, what tie should I wear with this shirt?” I asked, draping a solid pink tie and then a diagonal-striped black and blue one from the collar of my black dress shirt.
I rounded the corner into the bathroom, jerking to an abrupt stop when I caught a glance of the mirror over her shoulder. “Jesus. You look incredible Ava.” Her deep purple dress accented all of the right parts of her body, clinging tight to her hips, pressing her breasts out and rolling down her back. Her eyelashes jetted out as she rolled on mascara, contrasting the big blue orbs underneath.
She never dresses like this for one of our dates, I thought, but I could understand. Dr. Chetkowski had touched us both. The party tonight was as good an occasion as any to go all out.
I put my hands on her hips and pressed against her, brushing my lips against her neck.
“No, no, don’t. Seriously. You’ll make a mess of my hair,” she said pushing herself away.
“Hmm, I like the sound of that,” I whispered into the space just below her ear.
“Charles, I’m not joking. I’ve got to get ready. We can’t be late for the party.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek, quick and insincere like an ironic high-five. It was sweet enough for a girl in the middle of getting ready.
“Excited for tonight?”
“Yeah, definitely babe,” she answered, quick and detached like the kiss. She focused on the mirror, her eyes in that familiar, distant gaze. It was the same expression she had after we had sex in the shower in the morning. She grabbed her purse off the counter. “We’ve got to get going.”
The drive took us through the outline of the city. Out of the apartment-packed center, into the suburbs, with all of the cloned cul-de-sacs. Then into the more elite suburbs, trees separating the houses, pristine green lawns and Mercedes. “If I’m ever watering my lawn to ensure I one-up the Joneses, begin making arrangements, Charles, because I’ve departed,” I could hear Dr. Chet’s voice during one of our frequent meetings in his office.
“Don’t miss the right up here,” she called from the passenger seat. She hadn’t spoken the entire trip, but she kept her fingers wrapped in mine through the half-hour car ride. I didn’t mind the silence. “Aimless conversation is for the aimless,” Dr. Chet always said.
We approached the house. It sat on top of a small hill. He’d left the landscape bare, save a water fountain in the shape of a stone baby angel, spitting a steady stream of water out of its mouth into a pool at its feet. I could picture him laughing after he bought it on a whim.
“Ahh, it’s the guests of honor,” he greeted us at the door, his sarcastic smile painted on. He grabbed my hand, before pulling me into a tight embrace. He smelled of scotch and cigarettes underneath a veil of cologne. He moved towards Ava then, giving her a European-style kiss on the cheek, putting his arm around her back for a brief hug, careful not to ruffle her hair. “So beautiful, dear,” he said as he stepped back. “And I suppose you clean up all right too, Charles,” he said with a chuckle.
“I apologize in advance for the moments of boredom to come tonight. I’m afraid there’s no avoiding inviting the entire English department to a department party,” he faked a dramatic yawn and winked at us. “Sadly, some are not quite as interesting as yourselves. Let’s get you both a drink.”
We followed him towards his kitchen, past a few of the other professors who had already arrived, sitting at the dining room table. Dr. Chetkowski’s English department parties were practically folklore now. There were tales of fistfights between him and the more conservative, older professors who detested his sex-fueled approach to everything— stories of past affairs and orgies.
He crouched as he peered into his liquor cabinet before pulling out two bottles. I watched Ava’s expression as he turned around. The attraction was undeniable. It was no secret that Dr. Chet was the ultimate prize for the undergrads. Tall, thin and brilliant. His bright blue eyes could entrance anyone. His voice boomed to command attention, but always with the hint of a sensual whisper at the end of his phrases.
“A bottle of Chardonnay for the lovely lady; that is your flavor of choice correct? And bourbon for the gentleman, of course.” He grabbed a wine glass and two small glasses, pouring quickly— a smooth urgency. He distributed the glasses and held his up for a toast, “To the idealistic, love and joy filled world that we writers know is bull shit. May we embrace it for these next few hours.” He took a sip and smirked, “That will help.”
It was far from the first time I’d shared a glass of bourbon with Dr. Chet. I came into his creative writing class, a dopey and depressed freshman, too nervous and awkward to make friends. I sat deep in the corner, only taking my headphones off when he would speak. He was everything I dreamed of being. Funny, witty, brilliant. Gorgeous. The girls in the class leaned forward as he spoke, and stayed that way until he walked by their desk. They’d wilt.
He called me into his office after our first assignment. I was sure I’d failed. I’d written a choppy, unimaginative flash piece about a quiet boy trying to float through school unnoticed— probably autobiographical.
He shook my hand and smiled when I came in his office. As we sat down across from a table, he said, “Charles, you have a real gift for this. Subject matter could use some help,” he said with a knowing chuckle, “but that comes with living life. You get it, man.”
I came back every week with drafts of new stories. He told me I was improving rapidly. It wasn’t long before we skipped the formalities of the meetings. We’d talk about Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, Bukowski— about beautiful girls, while drinking from a bottle of bourbon he stashed away in his desk.
“What do you think of that girl in class, Ava?” he asked one day, “Very front left seat?” as if I’d needed clarification.
“What do you mean?” I answered, hesitant.
“Well, Charles. If you’re going to be a real writer you’re going to have to write about love. To do that, you’ve got to fall in love. I think if you stepped out of your shell a little, you may have a shot.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked, more eager now.
“I can’t give anything away, but do you think you’re the only student I talk to?” I realized that’s exactly what I thought. If it weren’t for the excitement about even the vague possibility that Ava could be interested in me, the realization that I didn’t hold exclusive rights to Dr. Chet probably would have hurt a little.
I dropped a short story I’d written about a beautiful girl—so clearly her—under her door. It was cheesy, but it worked. We started seeing each other. I kept writing about her. We’d often have lunch with Dr. Chet. Laugh and talk about writing and life together. He helped us with some short stories we’d been working on, and push us to publish them in some of the journals he’d published in over the years.
She was my first girlfriend, unless you count Susie Black in first grade who I pushed on the swing at recess one day. She broke up with me next day for not writing her a goodbye note before catching the bus. Cold Susie.
Ava and I were different. We fell in love fast. And it was messy like love always is. The boyfriend before me had cheated on her with her best friend back home, which left her out a best friend and pretty fucked up from losing her high-school sweetheart. But I held her while she cried about it, and sometimes we’d have sex after, and I’d promise her I wouldn’t do that to her. I wouldn’t.
After a few drinks in the kitchen, Dr. Chet led us to the table and had us sit down while the rest of the professors filed in, and he grabbed dinner to bring to the table.
I didn’t know that many of the professors. I shared quick greetings with the ones I did before they turned back to associating with their colleagues. Ava didn’t talk much either. She grew a little nervous in crowds, and this was far from my comfort zone as well. But our fingers interlocked beneath the table, resting on her thigh. She smiled every time Dr. Chetkowski walked into the room, reveling in their snappy exchanges and a refill of her wine glass between each dish brought to the table.
Soon the table was prepared, and Dr. Chetkowski stood over the table and raised his glass. “Here’s to loving a language and the journeys it takes you on. To us old writers, and those of us who pretend to be one,” this caught a few sneers and eye rolls around the table. “Most importantly, here’s to the promising few among us, like these two, who have the mystical ability to understand and communicate the impossible. Charles, to your first novel being published. No joke for any college junior. Ava, dear, to your impressive work. The breakthrough is coming.”
We both smiled wide, elated at his praise. He’d placed us above his colleagues right in front of them. It was like being heralded as the parent’s favorite in front of all of your siblings.
We devoured our dinners while making small talk with all of the other professors about our publishing.
The praise and attention slowly faded away as the professors began to settle into department memories and story sharing. Dr. Chet only half engaged in the banter, his face pressed against his hand, elbow propped on the table.
Ava silenced next to me, our fingers still wrapped together. “You alright?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m alright. I’ve had way too much to drink though I think.” She always pulled back inside herself when drinking too much. That was the one thing that hadn’t changed at all since we’d met. Residual effects of the damage before me.
I admit I’d had too much to drink as well. My mind began to wander and my fingers pulsed a little against hers. I began to perspire, but she was too withdrawn to notice.
I pulled my hand away in guilt as I remembered.
Just after the acceptance letter for my novel arrived in the mail, Dr. Chet and I had one of our meetings in his office to celebrate. We drank way too much. I remember him laughing after a TA poked his head in to say good night. He accidentally answered with “have a good flight,” his words slurred and drawn out.
I asked if he would show me any short stories he had sitting around, yet to publish. He pulled one out of his desk and read it to me. It took a while due to the alcohol, but not even the slurred words could detract from its visceral beauty. It was a love story in the truest sense. The main character lost everything and began working as a male escort to be able to support himself, when he met a woman who he fell for. She girded him with gifts and praise— but couldn’t bring herself to leave her rich husband.
It was heartbreaking. I could feel the weight pressing on my shoulders as he finished the last sentence. The way his voice tailed off in pain, trembling as he read it.
We sat silently for a few moments when he finished. I think the silence would have continued, but he sprung to his feet and ran to his garbage can, emptying the contents of his stomach into it. “I’m sorry. Charles, I’m a mess these days. I’m sorry.” I guess I never imagined that he could have issues. I knew he wasn’t married. He didn’t have kids. “Could you stay here? I know it’s a lot to ask.”
“Of course I can, Dr. Chet.”
“Call me Tom, please,” he said. He reached out and grabbed my hand. I curled back in shock a bit at first, but it was strangely comforting, and I froze. He twisted my fingers gently into the same formation I so often sat in with Ava. I didn’t feel any sexual attraction. Nothing romantic. Just a closeness. A peace. It felt more intimate than any time I’d had sex with Ava. I felt nauseous. I knew I wouldn’t puke, but my chest felt hollowed. “Call me Tom,” I heard in the back of my head.
“Ava would you like to help me take care of these dishes?” he asked at the end of the meal.
She nodded and stood up. I was just about to stand as he said, “You, stay. I’m sure they’ve all got questions about the book. If they give a shit about anything they will, that is.” It was a heartfelt compliment, but I felt terrible and needed to stand up. Instead, I sat and took questions about the book’s inspiration and the process. Their interest was sincere. But I missed Chet’s firecracker personality in the midst of all the faculty’s gray personalities.
I headed into the kitchen to find them, but instead found a heap of dirty dishes in the sink and an empty kitchen. I thought that maybe Ava had drank more and gotten sick, so I headed upstairs and looked for bathrooms to see if she was inside, hunched over the toilet. But the bathrooms were empty.
A door down the hallway had been left open just a crack and light protruded. I pulled the door back, careful that it wouldn’t creak too loud.
I saw the muscles on his back contouring as his fingers unzipped the back of her dress. His head lowered into her neck.
“Ava, seriously?” I yelled.
Both snapped around like a door had slammed behind them. Dr. Chet’s mouth was agape for a second before he started rattling off excuses.
“Charles, I’m so sorry. It’s really not how it… It’s been such a hard year, and I’ve gotten so close to you two. Fuck.” he rambled.
She just stood with her eyes cast towards the floor, the same distant gaze I saw in the mirror this morning. I wanted to hate her. But I couldn’t. I should have understood earlier. You can’t look into the eyes of someone that’s only looking past you. She wasn’t the character I had painted across so many pages. I hadn’t figured out how to separate the two until I had to stare down the truth on her naked back.
“Charles, seriously. I’m just so confused. Why do you think I’m such a drunk?”
“You know, Tom,” I began. “You’re right. It is all bull shit. We writers know it. We just pretend.”
I didn’t yet hate him, but my hand stung where the two had hooked their fingers in mine. In that shared space. I knew the spite would kick in the morning, but I could feel the words tugging at my skin already. He always found a way to move me. Even now.
I walked outside and started trekking back towards the city, dialing a cab. The wind bit at my skin, irritating but soothing like an ice bath.
I thought of the bottle of bourbon and the computer on my desk. The city lights leveled in front of me as my buzz wore off in the crisp night air. The stars highlighted the outline of the moon, steady above.