.No Title .
She scanned the shelves, searching for something that wasn’t a cookbook, cheap romance or volume of Irish political history. Ah—A Tale of Two Cities. Tragic. Perfect. She nudged it free and turned to sit on the couch.
"Find anything good?"
She jumped at the unexpected voice and looked over to find Professor Thompson in the doorway.
"Dickens," she said, and sat.
"I hear he isn’t much company for a party."
"I’m feeling maudlin and there’s no one to complain to, so Monsieur Carton will have to suffice." She pronounced his name as though it were French, a sort of homage to her advisor’s penchant for retaining certain words’ foreign flavors.
"I thought that state was reserved for English gentlemen."
"Tell that to the maudlin." She took a swallow of her second rum and soda that night.
He took a step inside. "You don't seem yourself. Is—something the matter?"
She half-shrugged. "Nothing time and a little self-pity won’t fix."
"Shall I get one of your friends from the dining room?"
"No, no, it’s all right. I don’t want to disturb anyone." Another swallow. The room was getting rather warm.
"Perhaps you’ve had enough to drink for the evening?" he said, eyeing her cup.
"Not enough, in my opinion. I’m still coherent enough to think."
Now he looked worried, and came closer to the couch, dropping to a squat beside her. She stared at the sleeve of his gray cashmere sweater, rolled up to his elbows, at the soft-looking mat of dark hair on the backs of his arms. In the four years he had been her advisor, she'd never noticed how attractive his wrists were, even if they were middle-aged wrists. And she really ought to have, considering how generally appealing she found the rest of him.
"Are you certain you’re all right?" he asked, interrupting her internal monologue. She raised her gaze to his face. The bright brown eyes she had definitely noticed, on multiple occasions. He tended to lean in when talking to people but she’d never been that close to him before, and the alcohol was saying wonderful things as loudly as her inhibitions.
"Russell?" came Ms. MacKenna’s cheerful wavering voice from the living room.
Alone again, she snuggled into the cushions and flipped to the middle of the novel, where things got the most deliciously depressing.
A few chapters and a few more sips later, Sydney’s unappreciated life and her drink were nearly finished. She felt light but still solemn—wanted more, but didn’t want to get up—couldn’t concentrate on the book anymore, and brooded instead.
So she was glad when Professor Thompson came back, carrying a bottle of water and a glass of red wine. He held the bottle out to her. She took it. He looked at the book lying open, spine up, in her lap.
"And how is Monsieur Carton?" he asked with the same French inflection she had used, and sat beside her. She was warm and snug and felt like closing her eyes at the sound of his voice. She wasn’t so far gone as to actually do it, though.
"I have a bad feeling he’s going to get his head chopped off for a woman who doesn’t deserve him," she said. "Thanks." She put the water bottle on the carpet and swigged half the remaining rum. "How’s the party?"
"I believe charades is about to commence. It was an advantageous time to make my exit."
"Professors playing charades with Ms. MacKenna and a bunch of honors students… If I weren’t so comfortable, I’d get up to watch." She giggled. "I can just imagine Professor Brooke trying to act out ‘Tootsie’ or something."
He laughed softly. "Yes, I’m sure Jim is enjoying himself out there."
Now she laughed.
"What?" he asked.
"Nothing. Just that you always call him ‘Jim,’ and he seems like more of a ‘James’ to me." She blushed. "I mean, most like a ‘Professor Brooke,’ but you know what I mean." Time for another gulp. "It was so nice of him to come back from sabbatical to be on my defense panel."
"I’m sure he was flattered to be asked. And I would have called in a favor if he'd said no." He gave her a gentle smile, and she smiled back, which felt nice.
"Too bad he won’t be here for graduation, though. I’d love for my parents to meet him." At that, she felt a flicker of sadness. She was worried, and sick of worrying, about how they would act next weekend, the first time they would spend together since her mother had moved out. Ugh. Definitely not enough drinking yet. She lifted her cup, but then she felt pressure on her wrist. Professor Thompson was guiding her hand away.
"Why don’t you tell me what it is that has you drowning in Captain Morgan and stop making yourself sick."
Oh. That was really sweet. Still, it didn’t mean the professor—who was probably being polite—wanted her to pour her heart out. She lowered her hands to her lap. "Nothing. Just typical senior stuff, I’m sure."
"You know—end of college, start of life, gonna miss people, not sure where I’m going, need to prove myself sort of thing."
"That ‘sort of thing’ hasn’t seemed to affect you before," he said. “And you don’t strike me as a drinker.”
She shrugged. "There’s more to it, but I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to me angst."
"Try me. It will probably help to talk about it. And whatever you have to say is going to be less painful than charades."
She took a breath and stared at the tricolor flag on the paperback in her lap. "I guess… I’ve just been lonely lately. My best friend here is a depressed cynic. Half the people I know are abroad. I thought I had something going with Eric there for a while, but he disappeared into schoolwork and stuff after winter break. And—" She glanced up at him and when he made no move to stop her, she continued. "And my parents split over the summer, and since then I haven’t really wanted to talk to them. It’s pain on one side, and anger on the other. That’s why I was glad to have my thesis, to concentrate on something else. Now I have to go home and deal with it. I’ve just… I haven’t had much comfort lately. None, actually. And now I’m tired and it was hard to watch everyone laugh before." Oh, no, and she was starting to get teary. "Plus it’s hard to be around people I like who are going on with their lives who I may not see again. And it doesn’t help that I keep wondering what’s the point to life in the first place." She had to stop. Time to pick up the cup again.
"Christ," he said. She looked up in surprise, then made a noise that she thought was half chuckle and half sob as he drained his glass. A burst of laughter came from the living room.
"Sorry," she said, and wiped her eyes. "I warned you I was maudlin."
"I’m beginning to see why. That’s a tough place for anyone to be, but especially so for someone young and at a transitional moment in life. Please stop drinking."
She had been about to finish but handed him the cup instead. "Lately I’ve been thinking if I could just have a hug it would all be okay," she admitted, unable to meet his gaze. Now the tears were slipping slowly, silently, down her cheeks. Warmth, everywhere, someone’s arms around her, feeling protected—that’s all she wanted. Right now she had the warmth, but that was all. His sweater and the hair on his arms looked so soft. The room was starting to spin a little.
When the cushion moved, she thought she was losing her balance, but then she realized Professor Thompson had shifted closer. He leaned over her and put his empty glass on the end table before he turned to look at her directly. "It’s difficult to see you this upset," he said, and she wondered what he meant, until he stood and walked to the door. Then she was unable to hold back a quiet sob.
But instead of leaving, he pushed the door nearly closed, walked back and sat beside her once more. "I’m breaking all protocol, but here," he said, taking the book off her lap and draping one arm on the cushions behind her. After a brief hesitation she settled against him and dared to put a hand on his chest beside her cheek. He said nothing as she cried quietly into his sweater—which turned out to be almost as soft as it looked—, just stroked her shoulder.
"Better than Sydney Carton?"
There was a pause. Then he said, "Everyone feels lonely on occasion.”
"I know. It’s hard. Some days more than others."
"I’m sorry to hear about your parents."
"It’s okay. I’ll get used to it. And I think it’s better for them in the long run."
Applause came from the living room now, followed by chatter and the squeak of folding chairs on hardwood. "I think the guests are about to depart," he said.
Abandoning the vestiges of her dignity, she made a noise of weariness. "Don’t want to go. Don’t want to move."
Another pause. "If you want to rest, I can take you home in a little while, after we’ve helped clean up."
"Really? Okay," she said, and yawned.
"May I get up?" he asked. She lifted her head so he could slide over, then let it drop back to the cushion. She opened her eyes enough to see him pick up his glass and her cup.
"Just remember there are always people who care about you," he said. "Lights off?"
He turned the light out and pulled the door nearly closed behind him. She sighed.
Muffled voices outside the door woke her up. She didn’t want to move and kept her eyes closed, still facing the cushions. One of the voices belonged to Professor Thompson. The other… she couldn’t quite make it out. Sounded male. Then the library door opened and light flooded the room. She shut her eyes tighter, head pounding.
"Are you awake?" Professor Thompson called softly. He was coming in to collect her, then. She toyed with the idea of feigning sleep so he would touch her again; so she didn’t move. Then the second person came into the room with him, and she tensed at the whisper of cloth on cloth and—lips on lips? Her eyes opened, though all she saw was nut-brown leather. Yes, that was the unmistakeable sound of a kiss ending.
"Not in here," Thompson murmured.
The real shock came when the other person responded with something she couldn’t quite make out. Because it was definitely a man. And then there was rustling again.
Thompson was talking: "Stop, Jim. Let’s get her home first."
Her mouth opened, and for a moment she forgot to breathe. Oh, how she wished she were facing the other direction.
Footsteps approached, and before she had a chance to think, Professor Thompson was leaning over her. Her eyes were still open wide, her breathing shallow and quick. Too late—he knew. So she turned onto her back and looked up at him. Kept turning her head, and there was Professor Brooke lounging against the doorjamb, looking about as tipsy as she still felt.
"Hi," she said. She tried to sit up and would have fallen back except Professor Thompson put out an arm to steady her.
"You should have stopped me drinking sooner," she said. "I feel dizzier than before. And my head hurts. Hi Professor Brooke. If I promise not to tell anyone, will you kiss again? I didn’t get to see."
Professor Brooke let out a disbelieving breath of a laugh, while Professor Thompson looked concerned. He glanced over his shoulder. "Jim, get her some water, will you?" he asked.
“I have some here, from before,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the bottle.
Thompson squinted down at her. "Do you feel ill?"
"No, I’m okay. Head hurts is all."
"Then sit up and listen carefully," he ordered, sharper than she’d ever heard him, so she did, a little afraid. He must have noticed her reaction because his next statement was softer, if still stern. "Need I remind you of the consequences that could arise should you share this tidbit of information with your schoolmates?"
"I won’t," she said. "I wouldn’t do that.”
He visibly relaxed. "I appreciate it. Jim—Professor Brooke and I have been fairly selective in the people we've chosen to reveal our relationship to. It's not a secret, precisely, but with all the controversy lately we feel it's best to keep … a low profile for a while."
"I won't tell," she repeated. Then she realized something and brightened. “Especially when it means Eric wins the bet."
"We had a pool going. About whether you were more likely to take up with someone like him, or like me. Or with Ms. MacKenna."
A snort from the doorway: Professor Brooke was back. He came in and held out the cup to her.
"I’d like to see that some time," he said, before dropping to the couch beside her. "She’d probably be too far gone to know what to do with you."
"Rather like you right now," Professor Thompson remarked to him.
She grinned, delighted with their banter. "So Eric wins, but I won’t give him the satisfaction of knowing," she said, and downed the water.
"Did I warrant a pool?" Brooke asked.
"No," she said. "My friend Hannah and I knew you were always on about—about—Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t you have a girlfriend?"
"Yes. Past being the operative tense here.”
"Oh." Then: "I was serious about my blackmail before. Would you? To seal the deal?"
“You’re being blackmailed?” asked Brooke. “Did I miss something important?”
She answered for Thompson. “I’ve promised not to tell anyone about—you know. You two. If…”
“Oh, right. On condition that we smooch?”
"See that?" he said to Thompson with a smile, indicating her face. "Same shade she used to go when I called on her in class." Then to her: "So we’ve got a voyeur, then, eh? Wouldn’t have expected it of you. But I’m up for it."
Thompson mumbled something she didn’t catch.
“What d’you say, Russ?” Brooke asked, apparently unflustered by the idea of kissing another man in front of a former student.
"Rum says, please," she added, before Thompson could say no. This time both men laughed. Boy, was she going to regret this in the morning.
But it would be worth it. Oh, would it be worth it.
Because Thompson didn’t protest as Brooke stood, glanced down at her with a lopsided smile, and gave the other man a lingering, if relatively chaste, kiss on the mouth. He stepped back and they looked at her.
"Shall we?" Thompson asked, now blushing faintly himself.
She nodded, wondering if she’d actually woken up yet.
"Can you walk?"
She stood, and found that after the wave of dizziness cleared, she was fine. "Yes," she said.
"Do you need the bathroom?"
Come to think of it, yes. She nodded and disappeared to take care of it.
When she emerged and had gathered her purse and keys she went in search of her professors—her former professors—and found them waiting by the door with their jackets on, chatting with Ms. MacKenna, looking completely normal. She lost her balance for a second, then regained her equilibrium (if not her dignity) and stood beside them. The irony of having stumbled in front of the society’s notoriously inebriated advisor was not lost on her. Luckily the woman didn’t seem to notice.
"Thanks for letting me use the couch," she said to Ms. MacKenna. "I’m feeling better now."
"Glad t’hear it, honey," the woman said. "Now, you take care of yourself before gradzation, okay?" And planted a wet lipsticky kiss on her cheek.
She forced a bright smile and said she would.
Then they were outside. Feeling suddenly chilly, she rubbed her arms as she shivered once. Next thing she knew, a leather jacket had found its way across her shoulders. She looked to the right and found Professor Brooke in shirtsleeves, grinning at her. She grinned back. "Hannah and I used to drool over this jacket," she said, and found herself veering inexplicably to the left. He caught and held her elbow until they reached Professor Thompson’s black sedan.
"Where am I taking you?" Thompson asked as they pulled out of the driveway.
"Cam House. Behind Burger King." No one said anything for a moment, so she kept talking, slowly, dreamily. "Two years ago when I lived with Hannah on the second floor we used to get Whopper smell in the spring and sometimes the drive-in speaker would wake us up. But now I’m on the fourth floor on the other side so it’s just mice chasing each other at two in the morning. They’re kind of cute, but not at two in the morning when it’s all squeak squeak and you’re trying to sleep."
"Jesus," said Brooke. "How much did you have to drink, anyway?"
"About the equivalent of five shots of rum before I stopped her," Thompson answered for her.
"Sometimes I wonder if Marge knows her own name."
She snorted. Poor Ms. MacKenna.
"I’m really glad I don’t have any exams tomorrow," she said suddenly as they turned onto the main street. "Do you have to have office hours?"
"Yes, but I will not be suffering the aftereffects of overindulgence. Unlike my two passengers."
"He’s not drunk," she said, at the same time Brooke protested, "I’m not drunk." Then they both burst out laughing. Thompson sighed.
She took it upon herself to narrate the remainder of their journey, languidly, as buildings passed by in a haze. "I’d always wondered who that blond guy in the Guitar Center window was, so one day last semester I went in and asked a salesman, and he told me, and now I can’t remember what he said, only that I’d never heard of him and he’s a drummer for someone. Espresso Royale hasn’t been the same since they took the old white couches from the front, even if they were dirty and you could feel all the springs. Have you ever been to Nud Pob? A lot of people say it’s good. That’s the back of our house coming up, only that little road is one-way, the wrong way, of course, so you can’t turn there, even though it’s close to Cam House. They’ll let you turn down before the highway comes in, though, so you only have to go a few more blocks. Isn’t this new metal awning hideous? Better than yellow-and-white circus stripes, I suppose, but they could have done better. And let’s not get into these rusty monstrosities they call sculptures all down our street. There’s a steel cauldron down by the post office that looks better covered in slush than when the ivy blooms in the spring. Oh! That’s where I get my mail. I haven’t gotten any mail that’s not a phone bill in—"
"What number house?" Thompson interrupted.
She looked up. Brooke had a fist over his grin. "Two-oh-two. Over there."
He pulled up in front of Cam House and idled the engine.
"Thanks for the ride, Professor. And thanks for your jacket." She handed said item over to the other passenger.
"You’re welcome." Thompson looked as if he wanted to say something more, so she waited. "Remember what I said earlier," he said finally. "You’re not alone."
She nodded and opened the door, suddenly lonely all over again despite his attempted comfort.
Even he had someone. "I know. I will. ’Night."
"’Night," they both said. She got out.
The car didn’t pull away until after she’d opened the front door. It was to be expected, she supposed, that Professor Thompson was a regular Prince Charming. She frowned. Except he was Professor Brooke’s Prince Charming.
Oh, so many stairs. One flight. Two flights. Three flights. As she trudged across the hallway to her door, Eric popped his head out from his room. "Hey," he said. "Ms. MacKenna said you weren’t feeling well."
"Yeah. Had too much to drink. Got depressed. Okay now. Sleepy."
"I checked in on you in the library and you were out cold."
"Thompson said he was going to bring you back."
"He did. He has a car." She leaned against the wall.
"You sure you’re okay?"
She thought she would be closer to okay if he would take a few steps toward her and give her a hug, and curling up next to him for the night wasn’t looking so bad either, but she wasn’t sure how much of that sentiment was the alcohol talking, and she was a coward anyway, so she just said, "Yup. Did you have a nice time? Any charades stumpers?"
But she found she couldn’t pay attention as he described some of the more outrageous performances several students and a few professors—Brooke included—had given earlier. She suddenly realized he was asking her something. "Sorry, what?"
He looked concerned. "Maybe you should go to bed," he said.
"No problem. Can I do anything?"
"No, I’m okay."
"See you tomorrow?"
She decided a shower was a good idea. Soon she was standing under the spray with her eyes closed and one hand on the linoleum for balance, replaying the memory of her ex-professors kissing until her skin wrinkled with moisture. She tilted her head back, rinsed out her mouth, and stepped out.
Back in her room in bed, she stared at the ceiling and tried to imagine what the two men were doing… right… then… And wondered whether they were thinking about her.