The only clues were what she left on her desk. A yellow legal pad. A photo of a small blond boy. A white chunky coffee mug, a thick residue of coffee etching the sides. One time, three rubber bands in a sort of Venn diagram next to the phone.
Marvin hadn’t caught her. And oh, he knew it was a her. A she. Thin. Darkish, brownish hair. A bob. An almost bowl-cut. She’d been spotted, seen, observed, sometime between 5:30 and 6 on Thursday evenings. Just at twilight. Reports came in to Marvin, the Dean of Humanities. Greg in philosophy saw her across the courtyard, closing the office door, keys jangling. Because Marvin had told Greg all about the mysterious teacher using the spare part-time office, Greg had hightailed it around the square but no luck. She was gone. Vanished, like smoke.
The next day after listening to Greg’s voice mail, Marvin headed down to Police Services. Enough was enough. And there wasn’t enough. Space, that was. Time to get her out.
“No one has the key other than you,” the young woman said. She was barricaded inside her uniform, the protective vest underneath her buttoned up blue shirt like a steel prow or at least an intense corset.
“Can’t you have someone wait out there Thursday nights?”
She stared at him. Marvin looked down. Of course not. What was he thinking? They were cutting sections of classes like cheese. Firing deans who were then reassigned back into the classroom. No one trimmed the bushes that grew up the sides of the offices, ivy threatening to make a bad fairytale out of the entire liberal arts building. No more free bottled water, business cards, retreats. Sabbaticals cancelled. Class maximums raised. Cost-of-living raises rescinded.
Who had time for a mere office interloper?
“I don’t recommend you do it yourself,” she said. “Or any faculty member. Leave her a note.”
“I have. Several. On the desk.”
The woman watched him, gaze steady and wholly uninterested, wanting him and his complaint to disappear through the thick glass door and never come back. “Did you do a check of who is teaching on Thursday nights? Female faculty? Narrow it down? Call them?”
“No one,” Marvin said. “I matched the classes in Humanities and English. Then I looked through the whole schedule. All men. One woman during a 4-7 section. But astronomy and a class way up the hill. I called the Dean of Sciences to make sure. That instructor is about sixty and a redhead.”
The woman sat down in her stiff black chair. She clicked on her computer and typed away. “So I’ve sent a message to District. The Chief. Let’s see what he says. But it’s official.”
Marvin swallowed. What did District ever say but, “Cut! Close! Quit! Stop”? If he wasn’t careful, he’d be kicked back to a faculty office and sentenced to four sections of Introduction to Sociology every semester.
“Thanks,” he said.
She stared at him and then gave him a miniscule nod, a fast head dip he barely saw. For the first time, he noticed her badge, her name in black: Sergeant Holmes. He started, wondering if this was a joke, Halloween at Police Services: Sergeant Sherlock Holmes, Detective Marple, and Officer Poirot. He started to ask, a laugh filling his mouth, but her constant, unblinking stare pulled the gusto right out of him. Marvin turned and pushed open the door, breathing the strange air that the strange and unknown teacher breathed, too.
That night in their dining room, the redwood table gleaming under the stylish black and gold placemats they’d ordered from Room and Board, Marvin sat across from Jim. Outside the large window, a light wind blew off Suisun Bay, leaves flicking the glass. Jim arranged his napkin once, twice, on his lap, his movements punctuating Marvin’s story about Police Services.
“Easy fix, dear,” Jim said in that self-assured tone he always had when Marvin presented a dilemma. “Camera.”
For Jim, life was an easy fix, he a Q and A guy at a tech company, informed on everything, or so he made clients think. Sitting behind a large desk from 7 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, headset on, swiveling in his chair like a NASA engineer.
“Has to be approved by District, MacGyver.” Marvin picked up his spoon. He was sure Jim used chicken broth in the carrot soup and didn’t tell him. After that last Costco run, Marvin had spotted the tower of boxed broth at the back of the pantry. Marvin wanted to pitch a fit about Jim’s passive/aggressive attempts to undermine his vegetarian health regime, but the soup was so smooth and rich and tasty, Marvin kept spooning in one bright orange mouthful after another.
“The secret is ginger,” Jim had said earlier. “And garlic. Pureed.”
Jim had nodded, his face over the steaming pot.
Liar, Marvin thought now, swallowing down another tangy spoonful. Cheat. Poor little chickens.
“You’re sure it’s a teacher?” Jim asked. “Not a student?”
Caught up mid-swallow, Marvin realized he’d not imagined it was a student. Maybe because the office was so neat, so tidy, all the objects placed just so. He and Jim didn’t have children, so he used his own childhood to remember the chaos. His room a horror of closed shades and piled clothing, plates pushed under the bed and porn stuffed between mattress and box spring. The mounds of detritus a protection against his parents, but also his schoolmates. The world. Everything and everyone who wouldn’t accept him. And who would? Skinny to the point of asslessness, prone to nervous over-talking, unable to meet most people in the eye, Marvin felt safe only in the evidence of his own existence, no matter how messy or—in respect to the magazines—dirty.
Imagining a student keeping a tidy, ordered office seemed impossible.
“How—“ he began.
But Jim was riding his tangent. “Or a homeless person. Somehow got a key.”
“With a photo of child on the desk? Pens in a row? And don’t forget the sighting. Dressed up like a teacher?”
“Did anyone get close enough to smell her?” Jim pushed back in his chair.
“You know. Showers. Sinks. She might look all right, but you can always tell when someone is only mildly acquainted with water.”
“She’s fast.” Marvin took a piece of bread, sourdough, crusty on the outside, and bit in. “No one’s gotten close.”
Jim passed him the salad bowl. “Look, let’s go out. Thursday night. You and I’ll stake out the place.”
“That’s right. Trap her.”
“Police services said not to. She might be—“
“Armed? A woman who looks like a professor? Gun in her bag?”
Marvin scooped out a mound of arugula and dried cranberries onto his plate. He breathed in lemon and olive oil. “Who knows? Weirder things have happened.”
Jim crunched through the salad, his eyes on Marvin. Things had gotten weird lately. Despite the budget cuts, the college had established a dedicated office for emergency support staff, an officer trained in all things horrible, plus first aid and CPR. Everyone was on high alert, waiting for a student to arm himself (most likely a him) and burst onto campus to shoot down the professor who had dashed his university dreams with a B. Marvin counselled his professors to be mindful of student reactions, even as President Jimenez insisted on strict adherence to grade standards.
Alone in his office with an angry, sobbing student, Marvin wished he weren’t pressed behind his desk, back to the wall. How could he jump over and past the student who turned violent? Instead of repeating the mantra, “You earned your grade. It wasn’t given to you,” should he just send the complaints upstairs? Let the Dean of Instruction deal with the mess. Her back to the damn wall.
But student weirdness wasn’t really what Marvin was thinking about. No, it was Jim. His focus on food these past five years. All these elaborate dinners. Soup made with cream (and chicken stock). Expensive oils. Walnut, grapeseed, avocado. How much weight had Jim gained this year alone? Marvin never mentioned (though he went through it) the orderly stack of pants in the closet, folded khakis and almost-jeans, in order of despair: 32, 34, 36. All too small. On his way to the dry cleaners last week, Marvin had checked the tags on Jim’s pants. All 38s.
When they met twenty-eight years ago, Jim had weighed a sprightly 145 pounds. At 5’ 8”, he hadn’t been skinny but pared to muscle and bone. Oh, how Marvin had admired his thighs, his strength visible under the denim. And his hair, longish, curling over his t-shirt collar. Marvin had been sitting behind him in Introduction to Government, staring at one luscious strand.
The professor had passed out the syllabi, but all Marvin had wanted to do was slip an index finger through one of Jim’s curls, feel the golden silk on the pad of his finger, pull.
“Do it,” the girl sitting next to him whispered, her eyes on Jim’s hair.
Marvin had turned to her and then back to Jim’s curl, reaching out a finger.
“If you want me,” Jim said now, pushing his salad plate away and leaning back, his hands on his belly, prodigious under his blue button-down shirt. “I’ll be there.”
Marvin speared a cucumber. “I’ll figure it out.”
Jim sipped his wine, looking out the window at the back patio. Underneath the table, their shih tzu Bangle scratched an ear, dog tags wangling.
As he crunched through the cucumber and swallowed, Marvin knew he was no one to judge. Here he was, stuffing his face, night after night, not arguing about elevated cholesterol levels or blood pressure or giant pants. The six-foot boy who had sat behind Jim in government had weighed 155 pounds and had sported a full-head of brown hair and bright blue eyes, 20/10 vision. Now weighing in at 185, his hair was mostly gray, his eyes still blue but now dim and bespectacled. At night without his glasses and headed toward the bathroom in the gloam, Marvin was mostly blind, staggering around like a scoliotic zombie. There was his right Achilles tendon, his carpal tunnel syndrome, and his left twitching eye. A real prize.
Bangle brushed against Marvin’s legs. Jim stood up and started to clear the table.
“Thanks for dinner,” Marvin said. “It was delicious. As usual.”
Jim turned, smiled, and in that second, there was that glimmer, that flash. And there was Marvin, too, all those years ago, wangled by hope, breathless. For that second, whole.
“Homeless folk are sleeping in the Learning Center,” safety officer Dan Beckel said. “Left a nest. Blankets. Canned goods. Used the bathrooms. Stink to high heaven. Had to call in maintenance before the 8 o’clock classes rolled in.”
Used the bathrooms. There went Jim’s water theory. Marvin stared at Dan over the expanse of wooden desk. The man sat stiff and stern in his chair as if they were discussing known terrorists or a ticking bomb. Gave him purpose, Marvin suspected, though in a dangerous situation, Dan would be needed.
Marvin sipped his coffee, looked up over Dan’s head to see students outside his office heading to class. Dan gazed at him, blinking in a slow, orderly fashion, his brown eyes wide-open, protuberant, as if a true emergency were imminent.
“The woman in FO 215 doesn’t seem homeless. There’s no nest.”
“We can change the locks. Chief said to put through the work order. Can’t stake it out. No resources. But if she can’t get in, she can’t get in, you know?”
“But what if she’s a teacher?” Marvin put down his coffee mug. “She seems to go to class. It looks like she’s teaching.”
Dan seemed to be flipping through an imaginary protocol binder in his head, rule 407 A.1.a or something like it: No unauthorized faculty or staff assigned keys to offices.
“If you can’t identify her, she can’t use the office,” he said after a moment. “If her teaching materials are locked in the office, she’ll come to you. If she needs the office for student conferences, she’ll show up here to complain.”
Marvin wanted to argue for her rights as a supposed teacher, but he also wanted this problem gone. He felt like smacking his hands on his desk, standing up, and yanking Dan all the way to the office. Fine. She was going to be evicted. Why couldn’t they change the locks there and then? Dump all the stuff on the desk into a cardboard box. Maybe they could toss everything into a dumpster. Desk and chair and credenza. Gone. Open the windows, air out the office, bring in maintenance to steam-clean the rug. Solved. Over. Finished.
If she came to complain, Marvin would send her to Dan, who was sitting at attention in the emergency office. Not Marvin’s problem.
But no. The cogs must spin at their approved speed. And after a few more words, Dan stood up and left. Marvin pulled out a work order form and filled it out and put it in his “out” box. He stared at it and then picked it up and walked it over to his assistant, Jemma, who was watering her small lush potted plant garden on the top of her desk.
“Could the student assistant run this to Buildings and Grounds?” he asked, handing her the paper. “This needs to happen.”
“Like yesterday.” Jemma looked up over her glasses and her fern fronds and then snatched the form with one thin hand. With a razor fast glance, she analyzed the form for any errors and then tossed it on her desk. “Amazing you just let her stay.”
“What would you do?” he blurted, his face flushing enough that he looked down and fiddled with a pile of paperclips.
Jemma put her hands on her hips, her thin lips pressed together until she released them with a slight smacking sound.
“I’d stalk her like a cat over a gopher hole,” she said. “I’d wait till she turned the corner and then pounce.”
Jemma clapped her hands, the sound a loud surprise, enough to make Marvin step back.
And then, the phone rang, and she turned to answer it. Marvin drifted into his office.
Jim had slammed down the phone, if that was possible with a cell. In any case, he hadn’t said goodbye. All Marvin had wanted to do was tell him he was working late.
At first, Jim heaved out a huge sigh into Marvin’s ear. Then he said, “This isn’t about that woman, is it?”
Marvin paused, and that’s when Jim knew he was lying. Jim always knew. “I told you I’d help. Now I’ve got a fucking soufflé whipped and ready to go in the oven. Done in 30 minutes. You said you’d be home by 5.”
“Yes,” Jim said. “I. Your favorite word.”
That’s when he hung up. But now Marvin’s phone was in his pocket, and he was standing still and straight by the column two doors down from the woman’s office. No, he thought. Not her office. The office, but it seemed taken by her, the mug still there, the photo in its frame.
A few students slipped past him, Marvin pretending to write on the pad he clutched officially. Just a dean doing his busy work. But he’d already written what he needed to: Hi, there. You’ve not come to talk with me, despite my repeated requests. This office is going to be reassigned. Please remove all your belongings forthwith.
He’d actually written forthwith.
The Jim in his head said, “Really? And you used the word please? For god’s sake.”
Marvin took one pass around the square, his eyes focused on the door. At every clack of heel, he turned and simultaneously pushed back against the walls or columns, expecting the mysterious teacher to pass by.
“Hey,” someone called out. “Marvin.”
Marvin turned to see Greg striding toward him, books and folders tucked under one arm. His stomach, round and smooth, moved gently under his button-down shirt, a large cantaloupe, a six-month pregnancy. When he’d been hired, Greg had looked like a Southern Californian lifeguard. A water polo player. A long tall drink of blond water. His theme songs would be from the collected works of The Beach Boys, The Doobie Brothers, and Fleetwood Mac. “So are you looking for our intruder?” he boomed.
Marvin wanted to press an index finger to his lips and shush Greg, but that would be infantile. He blushed, then rubbed his forehead trying to erase the color.
“Thought I’d stalk,” Marvin said.
Greg’s mouth popped open. Oh, Marvin thought, he was kidding.
“I have to get her out,” Marvin said. “Or it’s going to go upstairs. Could be nasty.”
Greg nodded. “Don’t want trouble these days. You heard what happened to Rose Tranby. Back teaching business English. So much for that pay bump before retirement.”
Marvin nodded. All he needed was a major meltdown by a homeless professor.
Greg cleared his throat, stepped back, his free hand on his hip, jaunty and kind of cowboy, a retro Patrick Swayze. Maybe his theme song was from Garth Brooks. Could Greg’s hips swing? Could his toes tap? Marvin wondered about straight men. Often, actually. How did they walk through life in their straight skins? Some of them were straight in name only, slipping into bars and rest stops for the sex they really wanted. How did it feel to look one way but want something completely different? Every single day of his sexual life, Marvin had awakened in the right body and next to the right body. Or, at least, type of body. What about Greg? How did he wake up? The idea of Greg naked wasn’t exactly exciting, but thinking about Greg with another man was intriguing. Really, what would two straight horny men do in a locked room? One of Marvin’s favorite fantasies, used more often than he wished, Jim so often falling asleep in front of the television. It wouldn’t be that hard to reach over and kiss him, but instead, Marvin would finish watching the television show. And maybe another. Or at least that’s what he told Jim the next morning. Thank god for those imaginary straight boys in confined spaces.
Marvin blushed. “So I’m going to hang here and see if I can find her.”
“Do you need my help?” Greg asked. “I can stay late. No problem.”
Marvin took one step back. “I’ll call Police Services if there’s an issue.”
“You sure?” Greg said. “Let me put this stuff in my office.”
Marvin imagined Greg, sans folders, pushing him onto the desk of the imaginary teacher, the one no one could find. First they’d close the blinds. Then, well, let the festivities commence.
“You go,” Marvin said. “She’s probably already spotted us. I’ll have to try another night.”
Greg shrugged slow, another cowboy move, the nonchalant hero ready to walk into the sunset. “Keep me posted.”
“Will do,” Marvin said, almost wanting to salute. Or fall to his knees, his hands gripping Greg’s ass, pressing himself into the glory inside Greg’s pants.
Greg clomped away down the hall, all the warm air going with him. Marvin crossed his arms and pressed his back against the column. The air stilled. The sun skid orange across the sky, setting behind the building and then the hills. Marvin peered around the corner, waiting.
But then what? What was he really going to say?
“Excuse me, but what are you doing in this office? This campus?” or just a quick, “Who the hell are you anyway?” or even faster, “Get out.”
Below him, a skateboarder whizzed by, strictly against the rules. And then, the waft of a forbidden cigarette. If he weren’t spying, Marvin would be down there handing out pamphlets. Smoking only on the perimeter of the campus and the parking lots. Use the designated ashtrays. Next time. Marvin pressed against the column, the steel cooling. He shivered. Maybe in just minutes, he was going to out this woman. Take something from her she needed. Reveal her secret and scare her away. Show her for the fraud she was.
He’d never been outed like that. His sexuality had been Saran-wrapped in high school. He’d worked all summer at the local swim club (oh, that tight orange Speedo) and then he’d flown across the country to attend Columbia. Somehow, his parents accepted his “way too much homework” excuses, not pressing him to come home Thanksgiving and Easter breaks, those long steamy days he spent in bed with Jim doing all he’d dreamed about since he was ten. A quick Christmas home each year and a week during the summer, and before he knew it, his parents were both dead. By then, he and Jim had been together five years, and his parents—killed on Highway 5 by a drunk trucker—had never met him. Never knew (at least never said the words aloud) Marvin was gay.
After the funeral, Marvin didn’t give a shit who knew. But there was a limit. There were rules.
An only child, he inherited the house. For a week, he interviewed real estate agents, until Jim said late one night, “Why don’t we move to California? Live in the house.”
“The suburbs? That Oak Street hell? We will have to hide out there. In plain sight.”
“It’s a nice house, right?” Jim squeezed Marvin’s shoulder. “Paid for. Big yard. We can get a dog.”
We can die out there, too, Marvin thought. And he didn’t mean from boredom or heat stroke or gossip. But from AIDS, San Francisco and temptation just twenty miles away.
But Jim kissed him, once on the shoulder. Once on the neck, his warm face against Marvin’s cheek.
So Marvin applied to Cal, Jim applied to USF, and they both finished grad school while living in the house Marvin had grown up in. Mowed the lawn. Painted the house. Planted lavender. Handed out candy at Halloween.
“Let’s volunteer to be Boy Scout leaders,” Jim had said after doling out the last Snickers from the plastic pumpkin head. “Take the boys on ‘overnights.’ Wink, wink. We could be the talk of the town!”
“Run out of town with pitchforks more like.” Marvin turned off the porch light. “For god’s sake, Jim. It’s not funny! I grew up here with these people. You don’t know how they think. What they imagine. So don’t even joke about it!”
Of course they never volunteered to do anything with children, and they didn’t go into San Francisco to party and sex it up. As far as Marvin knew, they’d both only slept with each other, though, of course, Marvin had imagined a number of possibilities over the years. Greg, for one. But from the moment Marvin wanted to gently pull on Jim’s curl, that was it. From the second Jim turned around in the wooden desk, asking about the reading assignment. Smile, smell of heat and something green, his pulse, a pounding that went past and outside of Marvin’s body. A miracle after years of no one.
Days turned into weeks turned into years. The political climate changed. Gavin Newsom. Gay marriage. Sports figures outing themselves. But still, Marvin and Jim. Only each other. But they were alive, weren’t they? Marvin had an accumulated 178 sick days. So many of their friends died. So many were on regiments of drugs they would be on for the rest of their lives. Traditional. Ordinary. He and Jim lived like Marvin’s parents had. And still did. Other than the truck and dead parts, of course.
A chill wind picked up and blew down the hall. Marvin tensed, imagining that he heard footsteps. Heels. He flattened himself, tried to be invisible. He conjured Jim with his camera and MacGyver smarts. He held his breath, not wanting his lungs to get in the way of his ears. She would turn the corner now. Now! But no. He exhaled, shifted. Nothing but wind.
The next time, she wasn’t so lucky.
Marvin rushed toward her as she unlocked the door with a small pale hand. She was humped over, burdened by a bag lumped with stuff. She clutched a binder, a faded, peeling school logo sticker slapped on the front.
“There you are. I’ve been wanting to talk with you,” Marvin said.
She didn’t look at him, but he saw the collapse in her body, the admittance of defeat. “I know,” she said.
“Please give me that key,” Marvin said as the door opened. “Now.”
She turned to him. He didn’t take in breath as he’d thought he would, recognizing her. Or seeing her homelessness. Or her lie. She seemed familiar, as if this was the person he’d known about forever: small, plain, brown-eyed. Her face was a small tired oval, her cheeks reddened, her hair wind-blown and thin.
She pushed the door wide open, and they both walked in the office. She turned away from him and started to put the mug, frame, and pens on the desk into her bag.
“Who are you?” Marvin asked. “What have you been doing here?”
At that, the woman started, almost shook. “I? Why, I teach here, of course.”
“What do you teach?” Marvin asked.
She looked at him the way his second-grade teacher Mrs. Franklin used to. Why, the look said, must they continue to send me the challenged? The sadly botched and bungled children? The skinny, the wrong, the mentally ill? The untoward and uncouth? The miscreants?
The woman spread her arms wide. “Why, Shakespeare, of course.”
Marvin couldn’t help it. He looked around the bookless office, as if expecting to be surprised by the bard’s collected works, shiny-backed, gold-filigreed. But as they had been every time he’d let himself in, the shelves were empty.
“I see,” he said, palming his cell in his pocket. If only he’d put Police Services on speed dial. Dan Beckel and his skills would be helpful right now.
“Why, I’ve been teaching here for years.” She flicked on the desk light and sat down, scooching herself in, patting the surface as if looking for inkwell and letter opener. Or maybe a quill. “I completed my dissertation on Shakespeare at Stanford. Now I teach only the most difficult classes. Hard work, of course.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Marvin said, his voice finding a non-threatening cadence, the lull he might have used on children, if he’d had any. She was certainly older than he was and fragile, too, ready to break, as delicate as an Elizabethan manuscript.
He pulled up the extra chair and sat down. The woman searched her desk again, her hands making a shush shush sound on the wood. She actually looked like a Shakespeare scholar, small, dark, intense, as if sonnets were crammed into her head to bursting. Her coat was worn but wool, her shoes cracked at the toes and heels but leather. She smelled not clean but not dirty either.
“The students these days,” she went on, “don’t pick up on the subtleties. Poor little chickens.”
Marvin thought of all the chickens, clucking in their death camp coops. Jim stirring the big pot of soup, glugging in the broth on the sly, hoping that Marvin wouldn’t notice but knowing he would. The students in their rows, pecking toward their futures one class at a time.
“I’m with you,” he said.
“We need more funding.” She turned to him, eyes alight. “To take them to Stratford-Upon-Avon! To the Globe in London! To really experience the plays as they were meant to be.”
Where were they all meant to be? Maybe they’d started in the right place, but instead, they’d ended up here in this office. What did they have to look forward to?
The woman clasped her hands, looked up at her empty bookcase. “Maybe the whole school could read Hamlet. A symposium!”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Marvin agreed. “And interestingly, we’ve had a recent budget increase. Would you like to talk with the president? I’m sure he would love your ideas.”
“Why, to go to England again,” she said. “That would be simply lovely.”
Marvin could do it. He had more than enough saved up. Just a drive to SFO. Then they could take the redeye to London. Business class. He could make this poor woman’s dreams come true. At least for a week.
After a week of plays and museums, he’d pop her back on the plane, and then what? Come home? Or maybe he could stay. Retire early. Travel the way he never had as a young man.
Mouth open, the trip whirled in his mind, but then the woman began to hum, a tiny melody but wrong somehow. Off-key and out-of-place. He breathed in, sighed, felt his bones press against the wooden chair.
“Let’s go see the president now,” Marvin said, standing and holding out a hand. “He always works late.”
The woman smiled, smoothed her hair, and took Marvin’s hand.
“Don’t forget your bag,” Marvin said. “And why don’t you let me lock this door for you.”
The woman handed him the key. Her hands were rough, the nails ragged. Up-close, Marvin saw that her lipstick had been applied in a crooked bow, giving her a strange, almost tragic smile. But still beautiful. She couldn’t be more than fifty. He could imagine her the girl next to him in government, the one that smiled when he finally did pull Jim’s curl. Where had she gone? Was it Stanford? To study Shakespeare?
“Thank you so much,” she said as they both walked out and he closed the door, locking it tight.
“All safe,” he said. “Let me escort you.”
He led her down the hallway, listening to her talk about Yorrick and Horatio, maneuvered her down the stairs toward Police Services.
“No ID? No local family?” Jim served Marvin a slice of eggplant piccata, placing it with chef-y flare next to the pile of lemon pasta with organic basil and mound of little gems salad.
Marvin shook his head, his throat caught not on food but sadness. How she’d turned to him, her dark eyes wide with the trip they would never take together. All those Shakespearean words evaporating like steam.
“Did you find out her name? If she’d ever taught there?”
“No,” Marvin said. “Nothing in her bag. No wallet. No address book. Phone. Nothing.”
Her life, Marvin understood, was as empty as the office had been.
“So they’re going to hold her? Pending what?”
“A psych eval,” Marvin said, spearing a perfectly torn piece of lettuce, lightest green. On his tongue, the tang of citrus, the smooth of oil, the pinch of salt.
“Poor thing,” Jim said.
“Poor thing,” Marvin agreed, thinking of the woman, her hands raised, eyes wide.
“Poor little chickens,” she’d said.
Jim chewed and swallowed, wiping his mouth and sitting back. “Now you can assign the office to a real teacher. The semester can proceed as originally forecast.”
Marvin agreed, but nothing was that easy. Yes, she’d be gone, but the thing that had made her sneak into an office remained a mystery. Whatever had turned her from real to pretend was deep inside her. And now she was sequestered inside hospital walls, trapped in bureaucracy, disowned, unwanted, unloved, no family or friends to call. A Jane Doe but still alive. No trace or clue in her office or on her person. The set she’d concocted for herself would be dismantled. Tomorrow, maintenance would come in and clean away all traces of her former non-life.
Jim served him some more salad, and without thinking, Marvin reached out and grabbed his hand.
“What?” Jim asked.
Under his grip, Jim was warm. Marvin gripped harder, and Jim didn’t flinch. Together, they hung together, leaning slightly over the table.
“Hey.” Jim put down his fork.
Marvin pressed hard, let go, sat back. Jim watched him, his carefully prepared meal between them.
“Hey,” Marvin said.
Later that night, Marvin lay awake in bed, Bangle curled at his feet. Outside, the sprinkler system sprung to life. Clearly Jim had forgot to adjust it for the season: he was snoring his way into winter while the lawn waterlogged.
Marvin shifted onto his side. He couldn’t stop thinking about the woman, feeling her thin hand in his. He’d spent weeks strategizing her capture, but all he’d done was find a sad lost woman using an office to help her try to remember a life she might not have ever had.
It was like the life he might have had if he’d gone home during break. Without Jim, he’d forever have thought he was the bungled and the botched. He’d have spent his time home barricaded in his room, hiding out until it was time to leave.
The sprinkler stopped and then started in another quadrant, the house pipes quivering and moaning under the floorboards. Marvin swallowed, sighed, turned over again, and hugged Jim, all of him, holding him close, thinking about those golden curls that were still there, at least in his mind. Jim stirred, spun around, his mouth at Marvin’s ear.
Marvin put a hand on the back of Jim’s neck, closed his eyes against the dark of the room. Inside him, bright and clear, that morning class. The smell of linoleum. A chalkboard. His new textbook. Jim’s smile, the way he understood in two seconds what had taken Marvin his lifetime to understand. The girl encouraging Marvin to reach out, touch the curl.
In their bed, Marvin kissed Jim. As he’d wanted to from that first moment. Yes. There it was. How could he have forgotten? Touch, his finger always sliding on the inside of that tight curl. His heart beating in his throat. A pause of lightness. Marvin reached out again.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press in March 2016. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.