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It was how he dressed. Those brown shoes; expensive, leather and well worn-in. And his cuffs. My God, the cuffs. Of his shirt sleeves. Of his pants. Rolled up, but perfectly. Like someone had done it for him. Probably his wife. He didn’t wear a wedding ring but I knew from the moment I saw him that he had a wife. A beautiful wife who probably made risotto without getting impatient. Maybe she was foreign or batshit crazy. One day after class, I walked up to his desk, reached out and touched his arm. He put his hand on my hand and looked over at me.
“Hi Dr. Fincastle. I have a question,” I said and immediately hated myself for it. I hated it when people said I have a question. Who cares? Just ask it! But I was so nervous. Nervous and feeling stupid and I didn’t have a question anyway. I lied. I just wanted to talk to him and to be close to him and I wanted him to throw his arms around me and say something really beautiful before he kissed me. Something quiet, the word-breath brushing my lips. Hey there, Peri he’d say after we kissed.
“I’m all ears,” he said, taking his hand off of mine as the classroom cleared out. I’ve always loved that. I’m all ears.
I tried to think of something. He smiled and I smiled back.
“I was just wondering if this was the right edition,” I said, holding up my book. I knew he could see right through me and I got embarrassed. Then, I got over it. I got over it so quickly I worried that I was turning into a crazy person.
“I’m sorry. I think you’re hot and I wanted to think of something so I could have a good reason to come up here and talk to you,” I said after the last student walked out of the room. Now we were officially alone for the first time.
He laughed. Stepped over so he could close the door. A loud, hollow sound that echoed around us.
“So there you go,” I said, slipping the book back into my bag, “and you’re obviously married.”
“I’m obviously married?”
“What if I told you I wasn’t?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
“I like your name. Peri. I’ve always wanted to tell you that,” he said.
I took a step closer to him to see what he’d do and he didn’t do anything. He didn’t back away. Didn’t flinch. I kissed him and he kissed me back and I started sleeping with my American Literature professor.
We’d had sex three times. We were in a nice hotel an hour away from town. I asked him his wife’s name.
“You still think I’m married,” he said.
“Sam,” I said.
“Peri,” he said.
“What’s her name? I want to know her name.”
“Does she exist?”
“Fucking stop,” I said, punching his arm as hard as I could.
We were listening to Nina Simone and I was drunk on mid-shelf champagne. I was sitting there with his dress shirt buttoned across my bare breasts, my black lace panties wet with him. He leaned back on his arm and closed his eyes.
“Her name is Rufus,” he said, breathing out.
“It is not.”
“I’ll stop making things up when you stop making things up,” he said.
“What if I get pregnant?”
“What if I disappear? What if none of this is real? What if a wormhole opens up and a train from the future busts through the door?”
“What if you go down to the store right now and get me some blackberries, some sushi?”
The piano solo of the song began. And the hand claps. Sam started clapping and smiling and sang oh yeah when Nina sang it.
He bent down and slipped his beautiful pants over his legs, his red tartan plaid boxer shorts.
“I’ll go get your blackberries. Your sushi,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. He put his undershirt back on and left the hotel room without his coat.
“I have a daughter,” he told me. This time we were in Indianapolis on a long weekend. Presidents’ Day. No school. I told my roommate exactly where I was going, what I was doing. I told my mom some friends were getting married.
“How old is she?”
“She’s fourteen. She lives in Paris,” he said.
“Well, she’s fourteen because her mother had her fourteen years ago. See…when you’re born, it’s this thing called your birthday and every year on that day, you get a year older,” he said. He grinned his shit-eating grin and lit a cigarette.
“I hate you,” I said as he handed it to me and lit another one.
“I am not mean. And I won’t be mean. Not to you, anyway, Princess Peri,” he said.
I smoked and went into his glass for the whiskey-ice. I found a piece with a hole in it and slipped it onto my finger and crossed my legs. I was in his shirt again. I loved doing that; wearing the expensive iron-pressed dress shirt of a man I’d just made love to. This one was as clean and white as death.
“Princess Peri. Sounds like you’re making fun of me. If you are, fuck you. If you’re not, thank you,” I said, licking the ice and tipping my ash into an empty glass.
“Princess Peri is a pearl,” he said, smoking and looking at me like he’d never seen me before.
“Why does your daughter live in Paris?”
“She’s living there right now. With her grandparents. She’ll be back in a month.”
“Please tell me if you’re married or not,” I said. My voice sounded whiny. I hated it. I cleared my throat.
“Do I wear a wedding ring?” He asked, pulling the ice ring from my finger and putting it on his. It was dripping and dripping.
I shook my head no.
“Am I here with you right now?”
I nodded yes.
“Am I going to put out this cigarette and watch you put out yours and pick you up and throw you onto the bed and fuck your brains out like it’s my last night on earth?”
I said I hope so.
“How could I do that if I was married?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
Then he ate the ice and put his cigarette out and I put out mine and he picked me up and I made a little squeaky sound as he tossed me onto the bed and we fucked like we hated each other. And we never used protection. We never talked about it and I didn’t want to. I didn’t care if I got pregnant. Our baby would be happy and beautiful, it would.
“I want to get to know you better but I don’t know how to,” I said. It was my first time at his house. He was sweeping the floor. His daughter was coming home the next day.
“I could say the same thing about you.”
“Why were we going to hotels when we could’ve just come here?”
“I thought you liked the hotels.”
“Good. Because they cost a lot of fucking money. I thought you liked them.”
“I did. I do. But we could’ve come to your house.”
“I didn’t want to come to my house,” he said, emptying the dustpan into the garbage and putting the broom back into the closet.
“It’s fine now, though. I meant I didn’t want to come here until I knew the deal,” he said, leaning against the counter.
“You always dress like a Kennedy? Like, even around the house?” I asked, motioning to his clothes. His v-neck sweater and green-plaid shirt rolled up at the sleeves. His grey wool pants and L.L. Bean boots.
“You always act like a princess?”
“You always answer a question with a question?”
“I don’t know. Do I?” He said before going into his cabinet for a bottle of Jameson.
“I see someone else sometimes,” I said, talking about Derrick. Truth was, I hadn’t slept with Derrick since I started sleeping with Sam, but I talked to him sometimes. And technically, I still saw him. Like two days before, I saw him in the frozen vegetables section at Whole Foods and I helped him pick out carrots.
“Is he as awesome as I am?” Sam asked, pouring a short glass for himself, then another for me.
“Depends. Are your other ladies as awesome as me?”
“I don’t have any other ladies. Unless you count Ona. She’s an awesome lady,” he said.
“I don’t think your daughter counts, no,” I said, taking the glass from him. I wanted to get sloppy drunk and I wanted to sleep diagonally across his bed.
“I’m not supposed to sleep with students,” he said, raising his glass to toast me.
“To sleeping with students,” I said.
That night, I slept lengthwise in his bed with his heavy arm draped over me and when I moved, he moved.
On campus, in Sam’s heated cavern of an office in the basement, Ona stood there with one of her glittery hot-pink high-tops crooked up against the other like a kickstand. She was legs and legs and the thick black braids of a show horse.
“You remind me of my mom,” she said.
“Oh. Do I?” I ran my fingertips across my forehead, tucked my hair behind my ear. I turned to look at Sam. He was stapling a stack of papers. He looked up at Ona, then over to me.
“This is Princess Peri,” Sam introduced me.
“I’m in one of your dad’s American Literature classes,” I said.
“I meant my mom in pictures. She died when I was little, but I’ve seen pictures,” Ona said, putting her hands on her hips.
“Oh,” I said. I looked at Sam and he didn’t change his expression. I watched him blink, wondering if the blink meant something. Wondering if everything meant something. Wondering if anything meant anything.
“Dad can I have twenty dollars?” Ona asked and I turned away from them to give them some privacy. I looked at the bookshelf and touched the spines, fingertips on smooth and crackled paper and leather.
“Nice to meet you, Princess Peri,” Ona said as she was leaving. I turned to wave at her. I watched her walk away. Sam closed the door. Fucking Sam was always closing doors. Sam was always drinking something or smoking something or kissing something or stapling something or driving something or saying something or not saying something.
“What happened to your wife? What happened to Ona’s mom?” I sat down on his couch. I put my bag on the floor. I stood back up and started pacing.
He sat on the edge of his desk and leaned back.
“Don’t look at me like that. I didn’t kill her,” he said. I saw his voice like a typewriter, click-clacking words across a page. I didn’t kill her.
“Why would you say something like that?” My eyes filled with tears and I hadn’t cried in months.
“You were looking at me like I’d killed her. You have this idea that I’m a liar. It turns you on for some reason. I let you believe it. It’s not true, by the way. I’ve never told you a lie. Not one time,” he said, lowering his voice and holding his index finger up in case I didn’t know how much one was.
“I don’t think you killed her. That’s crazy,” I said.
“Someone killed her. But it wasn’t me. It was her boyfriend. And then he killed himself because that’s the dramatic thing to do.”
I wanted to ask him if he was telling me the truth, but I didn’t. I watched him look down at his feet and then back up at me and I knew he wasn’t lying.
“Ona was just a baby?”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
He stood up, crossed his arms.
“I remind you of her?” I asked.
“I think so.”
“Does that bother you?”
“No. Does it bother you?”
I shook my head. It didn’t bother me at all. But I wondered if it made him sad so I asked him that too.
“I’m gonna go on record and say that I’m not a sad person and neither are you,” he said.
I started lifting things from his desk and putting them back. An unnaturally heavy stapler with his initials etched into the top; SKF. A heart-shaped rock paperweight. His half-full, mud-brown coffee mug.
“Are you pregnant?”
“No. No, I’m not pregnant. Why?” I put my hand on the emptiness of my womb.
“Don’t get offended. I’m not saying you look pregnant or anything, but I was wondering. You’d mentioned it before.”
“Only because we don’t use anything. Eventually I’ll get pregnant. That’s what happens,” I said, putting on my best condescending face because I knew it’d make him laugh.
“Thanks so much for imparting your wisdom. Are you a sage?” He smirked. “Yeah. I gotcha. Fine. I’ll try harder next time.”
Then he turned to look out of the window. I looked too. From down there the whole world was only sidewalk and winter grass and the passing, walking feet of people whose faces we couldn’t see.