All depictions are fictional, and any similarities to the life of any person is purely coincidental!
A Canonical Lover
“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.”
– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Amelia’s coffee is cold and her engine is cut off as she watches her lover herd his two small children out his front door, down his steps, and into his car. She notices how careful he is as he arranges them just so in their car seats, and how suddenly old he looks. His wife comes outside moments later. He gives her a peck on the cheek before crossing over to the driver’s side, where he climbs behind the wheel while she buckles into the passenger seat. He flips on his headlights (it’s drizzling, and he’s cautious) and backs out of the drive. They’re gone in a flash, off to his children’s daycare and then to the university, where both he and his wife – and Amelia, of course – work.
She puts her key back in the ignition and turns on her car. She was on an early morning donut run, or coffee run, or library run, whatever, when suddenly she found herself making circles around her lover’s house, circles that grew tighter and tighter until she was parked on his street and watching his doorstep.
She puts the gear in reverse and tries not to think about very much.
When she parks at the university, she spills coffee all over her polyester dress. She curses as she tries to use a fistful of napkins to mitigate the damage. Suddenly, the alarm on her phone sounds, reminding her that she has five minutes until she has to teach class. She throws the napkins on the dashboard, gathers her things, and races down the tree-lined path that leads to school.
She arrives winded and flushed, two minutes late despite the heroic effort she made at skipping the elevator and charging up four flights of stairs. Most of her students are already in their seats, bored. They stare at their smart phones and avoid conversation with each another. To buy some time, she asks them to pass forward the composition drafts that are due today, only to find that nearly a third of them don’t have anything to turn in.
It’s while she’s teaching the expository essay that she begins to wonder how she ended up here: clicking through a malfunctioning PowerPoint in front of forty freshmen students that don’t notice anything amiss, caked in stains and shame. Not so much being here, exactly, but ending up here, not the destination, but the journey, not the lack of grace, but her fall from it. She thinks of all the people that have told her – with at least a modicum of gravitas in their voices – that she was going to change the world.
Her lover had been one of those.
She is forced to push the due date for the drafts to Friday, because she worries that if she is too strict with her class her students will take their ultimate revenge in the form of bitter teaching evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations could cost her a fellowship or even a full-time position after she graduates. She asks herself if they understand the hold they have over her, and when one of them asks for a due date of next Wednesday instead, she figures that they do.
Amelia met her lover in his seminar on decolonialism during her first year of graduate school. Intimidated by the bombast of her peers, she originally said very little. That was why he took her under his wing, or so he said – invited her to office hours, worked with her on her presentations and her final paper so that it was “publication worthy.”
He told her that she was brilliant, the smartest one in her entire cohort. He encouraged her to believe in herself and voice her thoughts. He offered her his guidance and support, and then one night, when she was working late, he asked her out to dinner.
She has a text from him when her class is over. It says, “Busy all day?”
He knows that her dissertation proposal defense is scheduled for the end of the next month. He knows this because he’s her thesis advisor, and she’s been writing her proposal since October. She answers, “Yeah. Working on bibliography.”
“Let me come over,” he writes, adding a heart emoticon.
At that first dinner they shared together, she wore her favorite dress. She thinks the dress is how this whole affair started. If she had just stayed in her jeans and sweatshirt, she would have paid her half of the bill, walked out of the restaurant, and caught the bus back to her neighborhood. But what’s done is done and, well, she hadn’t actually followed through on any of it. No, that night she wore her blue dress and her pearl earrings, and he paid for her meal, and then they had sex for the first time in his car.
Later, of course, he apologized. “The car, really? It’s such a damn cliché,” he said. They’d never had sex in a car since.
“OK,” she texts back.
Her tiny studio apartment is a mess, books strewn everywhere like molted snakeskin. The dissertation she (he?) wants to write is on representation of the exotic in children’s literature, but once upon a time, she wanted to be an architect or an astronaut or a paleontologist or the next J.K. Rowling, so that, she thinks, is why she checks out so many books on so many different topics that she will never get around to reading. The possibility they embody makes her feel as if she were still coming into being, still being spoken into life.
When he gets there, he sits at her kitchen table and talks about departmental politics.
“Jesus,” he says, “it’s like committing first-degree homicide just to figure out how to use the guidebook to petition the department for an external committee member.” He’s also involved in administration, of course.
They swap war stories about their day. He laughs when she tells him about the roadblock she ran into during her section of Comp. 101. “Graduate student instructors are like pulp fiction – necessary, highly in demand, but no respect,” he says. He rubs her arm. There there, he seems to say. I, too, remember being a lowly grad student – if barely. “It doesn’t really get better until you get tenure.”
After they sleep together, he glances through the annotated bibliography she’s including in her dissertation proposal, makes a few recommendations, and promises to grab dinner with her this weekend. He winces apologetically – he would tonight, but he has to take his daughter to a soccer game, you know.
Amelia used to play soccer. She marched through her youth collecting not rocks or Pokémon cards, but awards: medals, trophies, scholarships, recognitions of all shapes and sizes. Most likely to succeed, valedictorian, best smile: the trifecta. She went to a selective college on a full scholarship. By all appearances, she was readying her torch to set the world alight, making up for a lack of focus and direction with a devouring intensity.
She’s pretty sure she doesn’t have enough money left in her bank account to eat out, but she doesn’t have enough food in her apartment to eat in, so she takes the risk. She is able to pay for Chinese takeout, which she consumes as she pours over her proposal until three in the morning.
And then at eight-thirty, there she is again: watching her lover as he heads out the door. His two children are blonde, like his wife. The little girl is crying about something, snot running down her face, so Amelia’s lover scoops her up in his arms and carries her to the car. The little boy climbs into his seat angelically.
Amelia is half afraid he’ll recognize her beat up sedan and half hopes he does. She feels like the coffee stain from yesterday: slowly encroaching on this other man, this other life that he has so carefully kept separate from her. Even though his wife works at the same university in a different department, Amelia has never met her. She hadn’t even known until recently that her lover and his wife don’t share the same surname, that his wife kept her Russian blood in semantics if not in citizenry.
But he doesn’t see her, nobody does. The family leaves again like they did the day before, and she goes to teach another section of Comp. 101 like she did the day before, and so on and so forth. Amelia buys some horrible sushi from the basement café and tries not to ask herself if she could possibly be going a little mad. This is how fantastic murder trials begin, she thinks. With waiting outside of a married lover’s house, shared workplaces, and bad sushi.
But that’s just a low moment. A high one comes a few hours later, when she stops to see her lover in his office. At certain times, she likes to convince herself that she is his muse – the Victorine to his Manet, the Beauvoir to his Sartre. He has, after all, published numerous academic and secular books, including a biography and two works of fiction, one of which even won the coveted Ambassador Book Award. He writes for The Atlantic and VICE, and he has penned several columns for The New York Times. And here he is, discussing ideas for his next project with her. She soaks up his energy like the little plant in his windowsill.
Any humiliation she carries has nothing to do with sleeping with a married man. It has to do with that afternoon, when she walks into the graduate lounge and sees her lover talking in a corner with another young female student. It reminds her of a meeting she recently had with the department’s teaching coordinator, when she was warned that if she chose not to lead her class according to strict guidelines, there would always a line behind her. She realized with a start that she had been mass-produced.
She tries not to think about this, either, when he comes to her apartment late that night. She doesn’t know what he told his wife to get out of the house and she doesn’t ask. He lies in her bed and looks at a picture on her nightstand of herself and her dad, taken before she was in kindergarten.
“You were a precocious little thing, weren’t you?” He asks. In the picture, she’s sitting on a tree limb and her dad is ready to pounce lest she should fall.
She hugs the sheet to her chest and shrugs. “I guess so,” she says. “Aren’t all kids?”
He skims his finger on her arm. “No, they aren’t. Declan is scared of his own shadow. He won’t sit in the bathtub while the water runs.”
She doesn’t like how he introduces his family into her apartment without hesitating. She, of course, isn’t allowed within sight of any of it: of his wife, of his children, of his house, but he uses them to invade her space as seamlessly as he writes his books. Her space is of no consequence to him, she guesses.
Maybe that is why she finds herself in front of his house yet again the following Monday morning. And Wednesday. And the Thursday after that. She’s not naturally territorial, but she thinks about how he continues to bring her to a seedy restaurant far on the edge of town so that they won’t be recognized, long after she told him how much she hated it. Did he even hear her? He is so good at appearing thoughtful that it’s hard to tell.
On Monday, he eats pancakes with his children on the porch. On Wednesday, he loads his wife’s dry cleaning into the car. On Thursday, he chases his dog around the yard until he can corral it back into the house.
On Friday, Amelia is typing away in the library café when Diego sits next to her. He’s in the PhD program’s first year, and before coming here, he taught English and forensics at a high school in California.
“Do you have an outline for that presentation you gave in Mayock’s class?” He asks.
“Sure, give me your email and I’ll shoot it over to you.”
He remains sitting there nervously, all long arms, knobby elbows, and messy red hair. “Are you going to the MLA conference?”
“If my travel grant gets approved,” she says.
“Cool. Me too.”
A few minutes of amiable silence go by.
“Hey, would you like to get coffee some time?” He asks her.
Amelia blinks and looks up from her laptop screen. “What?”
“I mean,” he says hurriedly, “if you’re not too busy. Just to talk. Not work. Or, I mean, whatever you want.”
“Um . . .” She notices he’s sweating.
“I want to spend some time with you outside of class,” he clarifies.
She thinks a minute. Her mind feels fuzzy. “Well, yeah,” she finally answers. “Okay.”
It’s something that she wasn’t going to tell her lover about, but it comes boiling out of her late that night. He finds it hilarious.
“Diego? That surfer kid from California? Is he going to show you how to draw a henna tattoo?” He laughs, propped up against her pillows. “I think I recommended against his admission. Can’t write his way out of a box – an open box, a deconstructed box.”
Amelia bites her fingernail. “So you don’t think I should go?”
Her lover raises his eyebrows. “I never said that.”
“But you –”
“I think it’s good for you to hang out with some kids your own age, healthy to do whatever it is that kids do. Hang out? Talk? Netflix and chill?” He scratches his graying head sheepishly. “I’ll admit, I’m not up to date on the lingo.”
She sits straight up. “Good? Healthy?”
The pitying sort of smile comes into his eyes, and he leans closer to her and rubs his face into her stomach. “Come on, now, Amelia, don’t turn possessive on me. You know that it’s important to establish lives outside of each other.” His careful phrasing seems to imply that he has indeed established a life with her.
She says nothing, just pulls her hair back into a ponytail. He pats her knee and they read his latest op-ed in the local paper together (about the Black Lives Matter movement). Then she tells him that she still has some grading to do for tomorrow, and he gets dressed and leaves.
So it is with her lover’s approval that she officially accepts Diego’s invitation. They meet for coffee on a Tuesday evening. He orders something remarkably non-pretentious – dark roast – and doesn’t comment on her icy, fruity drink that seems more adolescent than intellectual, which she pays for herself.
“So, where are you from?” He asks.
The images flash through the folds of her brain: ripped screen doors, languid trees, cornfields, broken down cars and rusted playgrounds. “Eastern Ohio – near Akron.”
“Oh man, really? Someone told me that Ohio’s great.”
“Were they selling something?”
He laughs. “Not that I know of, but maybe.” A pause. “I’m from New Mexico.”
“I thought you were from California.”
“Oh sure, after my mom died my family moved there. That’s where I went to college and started teaching.”
Her eyes lower to the tabletop. “Sorry to hear about your mom.”
He smiles. “Yeah.”
“So, why did you decide not to teach high school anymore?”
“I don’t know. Onto the next adventure, you know?”
She nods enthusiastically, but if she were to be honest, she’s here because she couldn’t think of much else to do. The gods of inspiration left her abandoned and forlorn on the day that she received her undergraduate diploma, a deep, wounding betrayal.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” He asks.
“Two sisters. You?”
“Four brothers and a sister.”
They talk like this for a long while, conversing about anything and everything except coursework, comprehensive examinations, teaching, or theses. Amelia begins to relax, muscle by muscle, and when he asks her out to dinner on Friday, a grin is stuck to her mouth.
“Yeah, okay,” she says.
But that night, as she returns to her apartment and throws a Hot Pocket in the microwave, all she can see is her lover’s face. He would be pleased, she knows. “Oh, out to dinner?” He’d say. “That’s good. Healthy.” He would move on to happily describing some talk he’s been asked to give in Houston or Vienna or Beijing. And somehow, his stamp of approval over it – all of it – is so glaringly evident that it seems as if the date is only happening because he ordained it to be so.
She makes it through the week on almost no sleep. Because he is out of town at a conference, she does not see her lover at all. He texts her funny pictures, sends her the title of a Polish movie he wants her to watch, and spams her messages with emoticons, but he doesn’t call, and he doesn’t ask her if he can stop by on his way home from the airport, which he usually does. He might already assume it’s a forgone conclusion, she thinks as she attacks her students’ essays. Because isn’t it?
Friday finds Amelia outside of her lover’s house in the achingly clear light of morning. He won’t be in town until mid-afternoon, and she doesn’t know why she’s sitting on his street in her Honda. There’s no car in his driveway. She assumes that his wife and children have already left.
She hardly understands how it happens. One moment, she is waiting calmly for something – she doesn’t know what. The next, she’s standing on the pavement, a motion so fluid that it almost seems instantaneous. So do the quick, even steps that she takes to his front lawn.
She stands there, staring at her lover’s ivy-covered garage door, listening to his dog bark somewhere in the recesses of his house.
Suddenly, the front door opens to reveal his wife, petite and blonde, done up smartly in a fitted dress and purple jewelry. “Can I help you?”
A ton of concrete to the chest or an ax stroke to the head. Her heartbeat stops. “Um, I’m –”
“I know who you are,” her lover’s wife says with hardly a trace of her Eastern European accent. “What I’m still not clear on is why you are here.”
Time stops, dangles on a lightning shard. “Sorry,” she says, “I didn’t know – I mean – I must have the wrong house.”
The woman snorts. She looks Amelia up and down. “You poor creature. Come inside.”
“I don’t think –”
Helpless, the proverbial fly in the honeyed trap, Amelia walks into her lover’s entry hall and follows his wife into his kitchen. There are bottles of wine and wrapped cheeses everywhere, fresh breads and fruits. “You’ll have to excuse the mess,” his wife says. “Oliver and I are entertaining tonight.”
Amelia says nothing.
“Coffee?” She asks, moving toward the fresh pot by the stainless steel refrigerator.
Amelia does not answer, but her lover’s wife sets a full mug before her.
“I said I know who you are, but I don’t know your name. Amber? Leigh? Hannah? I remember the first one, Stephanie, I think, but all the others seem to run together for me. Undergrads, grad students, all of them.”
She can’t absorb what is being said. “Amelia.”
“Ah.” Her lover’s wife sips at her own cup, savoring either the name or the taste, perhaps both. “Amelia. It’s nice. Sweet. Classic.” A pause. “Natasha,” she says, by way of introduction.
Natasha steps over a toy police car on the floor and moves to open the dishwasher.
After an eternity of suffocation, Amelia finally tries to speak. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know that – I mean – I didn’t know anyone was home.”
Natasha offers a thin smile. “Yes, well, my class has a take-home final, so we don’t meet today.” She begins to remove plates, spoons, and sippie cups from the dishwasher’s top rack. “I’ve seen you for weeks. I was wondering if you’d ever get out of your car.”
Bile sticks to Amelia’s throat.
“How long?” Natasha asks.
Her lover’s wife doesn’t repeat her question, but only fixes her with a steely gaze until the words gush forth in a torrent.
“I – I don’t know,” Amelia blurts out. “A year. More.”
Natasha turns back to the dishwasher. “More,” she echoes. Her voice is nonchalant when she asks, “You know why I don’t worry about you, any of you?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Oliver was married to someone else when we met during his post-doc. A horrible little woman. He left her for me.” She turns around again and smiles. “So he’s already left his wife for an affair once, you see, and you know Oliver. He despises redundancy.”
There is a sickening silence.
“Are you finished with your coffee?”
When Amelia finally manages to find some sort of footing in the tar slick that is her heart, all she can say is, “I have to go.”
Natasha pours the untouched coffee down the sink. “I’m sure you do.”
Amelia bounds past designer furniture, window treatments, and hardwood floors to reach the outside. By the time she makes it back to her car, she is sure she is going to throw up.
She finds herself driving not toward the university, but instead back to her apartment. Her phone alarm for class buzzes and she ignores it. Then her phone buzzes again. It’s her mother calling, and Amelia doesn’t answer. She is animated by a current of electricity so blue and rare that she is afraid any interference will send it ricocheting out of her body and back into the vast expanse of the universe.
She bounds up the steps to her second-floor studio, pushes open her door, wades through books and dirty laundry, and picks up the stack of papers that is her dissertation proposal. It takes her several minutes to find a lighter, but then her proposal is burning in the kitchen sink, its carefully spaced text curling up in glowing embers before being released as smoke.
This is, of course, indulging her taste for the symbolic. She has at least ten backups of the document on her laptop. But the backups don’t matter, she thinks, and suddenly, the symbolic is all that does.
It doesn’t take her long to pack what she needs, and popping open her trunk to heave in the few garbage bags that hold her life’s possessions gives her a strange, thrilling sense of impulsiveness.
Is this what she has always been so afraid of? Possibility makes her skin burn.
She disables her email and calls her mother back just as she is turning off her street. Her father answers. “You’re a hard girl to reach, Ame,” he says. She imagines him sitting at the kitchen table before dinner, taking off the boots that he’s used for a lifetime in heavy machinery. “How are ya, honey?”
Five miles away, a red-headed man is waiting at a small, candlelit table, checking his watch. After another half hour, he stands up and walks out.