He saw her see him.
Her face said: I know this person. Then he knew he was positively identified, though her expression didn’t change.
Baffling she should still be here, still on campus, all these years later. In this gaudy, sun-drenched glass box. Except not really: that was obviously a student sitting beside her, working with her, at the table in the corner.
His fucked-up senior-year crush.
Bridge too far for stud of any stripe.
He sat down twenty feet away, a chrome and suede sofa like a goddamn nightclub. Back turned. To Alex. Who’d aged, he’d already seen, into full-on beauty. Those mutant ice-blue eyes. Husky-dog eyes, someone once uncharitably said. When the young blonde woman, the student, finally split, book-bagging her laptop, gliding through the sunshine blasting in from fucking everywhere, exiting where he’d entered, he looked over his shoulder. Found her staring. Got up. Went to her. Sat across the table from her. A safe distance.
“My old lesbian friend,” she said, mugging.
He kept his hands on the tabletop. Nice and visible. Put on a sheepish grin that had been nowhere in his repertoire three decades earlier. Back when he’d first knitted himself that hairshirt. “It’s me.”
“I can’t believe.”
“You work here,” he said. “You teach here.”
“Crazy. Since aught-two. The beloved alma mater.”
“You get an office?”
“I do Friday hours here,” she said. “The youngsters should know it’s a real thing. Li-brar-ee, I tell them.”
“The one I knew is over there,” glancing at the shimmering glass wall on the other side of the room. It separated them from the antique reading room of his youth. “How do we get in?”
“There’s a trick.”
“I’m sure you get tired of hearing,” he said, “but the haircut.”
“Gosh. You know we just recently got TV in the house,” she said. “First time I saw that Bourdain fellow I had like two and a half whole seconds of it was definitely you. Speaking of things we probably get tired.”
“Dude had more than a decade on me, you know.”
“Weren’t you going to be a travel writer?”
“Everything went to shit.” He rubbed his afternoon stubble. “Wound up a lawyer.”
“Jesus. What kind?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“My wife, too,” she said. “The mediation kind. Though these days she runs the local women’s shelter.”
He nodded. “Kids?”
“A boy. Ten. How do you think the TV happened? Alicia never wore me down but that little fucker. You?”
“TV? You bet.”
“Married?” she asked. “Some nice lesbian?”
He grinned again. “Was.”
A buzzcut she sported. Gray and sleek, its severity set off by a pair of vaguely Native-American feather earrings. These said professor, not Army officer. Not some fucking CFO, never mind the tailored black suit.
“I guess I should tell you,” he said.
“Did you know Abby Fachette?”
Her head tilted. Just a few degrees. Enough to suggest a no was coming.
“Yes,” she said.
She stared at him.
“Died,” he said. “Four years ago. This month.”
She kept staring at him. The husky-dog eyes. Face blanched. Her gaze slid into the bright could-be-an-airport-lounge behind him. “That’s why you’re here.”
“First time in thirty years. Stranger than fiction.”
Her look suggested readiness to dodge some next grenade. “Never with Abby?”?she asked.
“Never. Who knows why.”
“You weren’t a couple back then? When we were all here?”
“Of course not.” Important. Still, he hurried past it. “Classes together. That was all. Ran into her in D.C. in aught-one. Monday, September tenth. Can you believe? Met again and the fucking world blew up.”
“Of course,” she murmured. “D.C.”
“D.C. All thirteen years we were married. Arlington, unsexy truth be told.”
“What did she do?”
“This world. What happened? Can I ask?”
He wouldn’t be vague. However much he’d prefer it in this case. It would just prompt a follow-up. “Breast cancer.”
She halted it. Paused. Then: “Our California surfer girl.”
He nodded. She’d known Abby, all right. It was the version of her that always pulled hardest at the leash. The one he’d half-gotten on the insane rabid wolf that had mauled and shredded his life. Abby on the beach. Abby in the Pacific sun.
She saw it on his face.
“Should you be here?” she asked. “Should you come places like this?”
“I thought so. I think so.” He looked around absently. “I’m sneaking up on it. Zigzags, tangents. Right now the first first place we met. Four years, after all. Time to graduate. Or something.”
They sat. The sun was shifting in the room. There was nobody else around. Friday afternoon in the college library.
“I’m not dating on the fucking internet,” he said. “Plus which, of course.”
“It’s not easy. Finding straight women looking to go lesbian.”
It hung out there. A gambit.
“I guess Abby,” she said.
“You know, I did try to tell her.” He went for the sheepish grin again but it felt wrong. “To express that to her. More than once. Less than appreciative, sorry to say.”
There was a campus cop by their table. Out of absolutely nowhere. “Afternoon,” the man said. “How we doing, Dr. Brody?”
“Good. We’re good, Ernie. Thank you.”
“Hello, sir. We’re a visitor?”
“Hi,” he said.? “I’m an alum.”
“He’s an old friend of sorts,” Alex said. “We’re good, Ernie.”
He jangled leaving as he hadn’t on approach.
“So I guess I’ll ask,” leaning back in her chair. Either comfy or wanting more space. “I feel like maybe I should. What that was. Back then. I mean since still. All these years later. The same talk, the same words.”
He looked at his hands on the tabletop.?His newly ringless left.
“I saw you sitting here,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. I thought I’ll sit and wait. In case I get a chance to say it. To say how sorry. For that. Back in the day. My only defense being I hope it wasn’t all me.”
“Not all you.”
“It was out of line,” he said. “I know. I know. But I thought, I thought, I thought you saw it in me. Can I say it? The lesbian in me. And maybe on some level. Something in you. Something maybe you’d try. Would be interested in trying. Isn’t that what we do in college? Try things? I never could have done it if I didn’t think.”
She stared at him.
“We weren’t close,” he went on. “I know. Friends of sorts. As you say to Ernie there. But in classrooms. At catacomb parties. Are the catacombs still here?”
“They’re a computing center.”
“Naturally. I thought something. Something in our sort-of-friends chatter,” he said. “Something behind it, inside it. Little looks now and then. In hallways. Moments. When Ginsberg was here and we all meditated with him. All in a circle holding hands and would you believe it was you wound up beside me? I thought some vibe. Some emanation transmitting through my palm. Was I wrong?”
“An emanation in your palm.” She snorted. “You’ve got me thinking a lesbian who flirts with a cute boy is looking for trouble.”
“Everything’s so complicated.”
“A young lesbian with her blood up,” she said. “Better stay away from the hot guy in class. Wasn’t that you?”
“All, all so complicated. You have to see. That’s all I want. For myself, too. I just want,” his baritone’s most soothing register now, “to be complicated, too.”
“Speaking of complicated.”
“I can’t tell you how often I thought about you,” he said. “Senior year. Is it strange I’m telling you this?”
“Something I knew about myself, even in high school,” he said. “The boy who liked girls just like that sounds but isn’t really a boy. Not in his soul. Not in his heart. Queer. Me. Solidly on the spectrum. Not that I could have articulated it then. Never in my life a one-night stand. Hand to God. Faithful. Thirteen years of marriage, never even looked. Not really. Afraid of first-time sex. First-time nakedness. With anyone.”
“‘On the spectrum.’” She put air-quotes around it. Maybe mimicked the baritone, too. “Bashfulness isn’t. Neither is fidelity. But good for you.”
“Not you, as I recall.”
“What sort of man?” going around it. “Still struggling after four years? And I walk onto campus for the first time in three decades and here you are. What does it mean? How did you know to call me your lesbian friend?”
“These words you’re using.”
“L words,” she said. “Q words.” Her nostrils flared. Just a bit. “I like my hair this length because it shows off a three-inch scar on the back of my head.”
“Not from jiu-jitsu?”
“The reason for jiu-jitsu. How the fuck do you know that?”
“We all knew,” brightly. “Didn’t we? Back in the day? The state high-school jiu-jitsu champ. Am I wrong? Indiana. Missouri,” he said. “Is there an Alexandria in Missouri? Aren’t all smart people queer on some level? Don’t make me be straight.” A child’s plea. “It’s hard enough just getting old. Hard enough being a widower. Listen to that word. Fifty, as you say. If we’re not honest now. If we can’t hop some walls.”
“Walls protect people. Dude.”
“I know that. I do. Maybe I’ve just come to a more Robert Frost place.”
“I bet,” nodding, “that’s a nice place to be able to be.”
“You still haven’t said.”
“About me your lesbian friend.”
“For real?” Incredulous. “The discourse on the male lesbian. The one you gave in Anna Hearst’s class. Senior year. American women’s lit. Minutes and minutes it went on. Earnest. Lincolnesque.”
He looked off into a corner.
“Jesus,” she went on. “Quite the bit of talky-talk that generated. Most of it behind your back amongst us girl-folk, I’ll grant. But still.”
“Was Abby in that class?”
“You’re joking,” she said. “You’re asking? My jiu-jitsu you’ve got on your hard drive.”
“She was a decade away,” he said. “Ask me her shoe size. Ask me her first car’s nickname. Ask me her high-school boyfriend’s favorite band. Simply not on my radar.”
She batted a feather earring with a fingertip. “But I was.”
“But you were. And you didn’t know. You didn’t know. You didn’t know.”
“Think,” a loose fist beside her jaw now. “How interested am I getting? Allen Ginsberg-day emanations notwithstanding?”
“I thought you saw it in me,” he said. “Thought you might give it a try.”
“I so badly wanted to be your last collegiate conquest. Your last and greatest. Your reputation, you know.”
“The girl-whisperer,” he said.
“What everyone said behind your back.”
“Boy-folk,” he said. “Young men. What were they? Dudes. Bros. Straight girls, more specifically. There wasn’t one you couldn’t bed. My senior-year housemate. Tomaso. The Peruvian.”
“Oh yeah. That one.”
“At a catacomb party,” he said. “He was there. I wasn’t. He said someone dared you. Some blonde sorority sister hanging out with the English and philosophy freaks in the catacombs and someone said you couldn’t pull it off. A bet.”
“This is funny.” Her arms were crossed tightly. She’d paled a little again. “This is so, so funny.”
“They watched you walk to her. This is Tomaso. Talk to her. Forever he said it took.” He’d lowered his voice. “You and her in the shadows of one of those brick niches.”
“Unbelievable. Thirty years later this reaches me,” she said. “As apocrypha. Geological amounts of time. Through the haze of all that contraband rum and schnapps in soda bottles.”
“It took you an hour. This is Tomaso. Finally you were touching her face. Then you were stroking her hair.” A near-whisper. “Then your thumb was in her mouth.”
She stared at him. Bright-blue wolf eyes.
“I heard it and I was crazy,” he said. “My crush. Such a closed person. You. Monadic. Sidereal. Impervious to all bullshit. An enigma. Out on those grounds, in those buildings. I barely recognize half of them. But let me tell you.”
She was shaking her head.
“After that. I was desperate for you to discover me,” he said. “Is that something a straight boy says? Your last, your greatest. Your strangest. At some party. Corner me. Pet me. Tell me I’m pretty. Put your thumb in my mouth. Make me your girl.”
She was still shaking her head.
“The second you said her name,” she said. “I figured you were looking for me.”
He stared at her. “Who?”
“Maybe to clear the air or some such bullshit. Then you said she’d died and I thought I guess not. Then I thought: no, wait. He is here for me.”
“Abby Fachette,” leaning forward. “That was her at the catacomb party. Not some sorority girl. Abby the English major. Eng-lish. You had to know this,” squinting. “You didn’t know. She never told you.”
He said nothing.
“She and I were I don’t know what. A thing,” she said. “Just a month. Maybe two. Spring of senior year. And that night. That was the start of it. That’s all. No one dared me anything. No fucking bets. Someone said you like her, go talk to her. Talk. Not ‘whisper.’” Again the air quotes. A migrating sunbeam lit the left side of her bristly head now. An earing’s hook sparkled. “And so you know. For the record. I most certainly did not stick my thumb in anyone’s mouth.”
He still said nothing.
“That beautiful girl,” she said. “Malibu blonde. Pure Venice Beach. Sun-kissed.” He didn’t have to reach for the leash this time. “Like a walking Fender Stratocaster.”
“Nice,” he breathed.
“She had this birthmark. Right? The inside of her thigh. Right?”
“Vaguely guitar-shaped,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I always thought Fender. That and I thought Hawthorne. Of course. The flaw you don’t dare wish away. The flaw that isn’t one. That perfect girl. Already dangerously faint. The inside of her left thigh. High, high up. Am I right?”
“Let me tell you,” leaning in more. “It was the very first thing I kissed when I got those jeans off her.”
The sun slipped down now behind the old student union out across the lawn. The room gone gently penumbral. What a relief. Fucking spring. The worst. Almost as bad as discovering, thirty minutes earlier, his beloved old library’s molestation, a big, startling glass-and-steel tumor bulging from its side, glinting violently in the sun. A thing too high-tech to be abutting sandstone, green-patinaed copper, crenellated parapets. In this they sat.
He looked over again at the glass wall separating them from the stone archways he wanted. The carved cherry columns. The long walnut tables with their brass lamps. He’d been puzzling how to get through it, around it, egress for ingress, when he’d spotted Alex.
“First place Abby ever spoke to me,” he said. “Right in there. Senior year, I think. I was walking in. She was walking out.”
She cocked her head. Marveling. “Is that a Springsteen lyric?”
“I’m about eighty percent on it.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘Hi.’”
Alex nodded. Kept it up until he looked at her again. “It’s a beautiful story,” she said. “Like all straight-people stories.”
He absorbed it a moment. Then: “What about the Nine Eleven-eve one?”
She shrugged. “Violence. Pain. Fire.”
He absorbed it. Then twisted in his seat, examining the hyper-modern room.
“Look at this shit,” he said. “Libraries should be dark. Secretive. Monastic.” He gestured with his chin at the glass wall. “I wish I could figure out how to get back there.”
She’d been an abstruse figure in their class. Alex. Prom-queen popular but misanthrope-aloof. Homely but beautiful. Androgynous but smoldering. An out-and-proud lesbian–this was the late eighties, the absurdly early nineties–who lived only with boys. Young men. Dudes, bros. First one local bar band, her housemates, then another. Fiercely, insanely protective of her. Both crews. Out of their fucking minds. Ready to drive rust-bucket Hondas or Mazdas into the living rooms of any local hayseeds who even looked at her wrong on sidewalks, in bars. Then the stories. She’d had a speaking part in an undistributed Jarmusch movie. She’d slept with Michael Stipe. She’d slept with Kim Deal. She’d been a high-school jiu-jitsu champ in some fucked-up state where a lesbian might want to be one. And the best. She was a girl-whisperer. Preternaturally talented. The husky-dog eyes the source of all her powers. This was Tomaso, that shitheel Peruvian. Bitch eyes. No sorority girl safe. No young women’s-studies professor fresh out of Yale safe. That was another story. At a reception after a Gwendolyn Brooks reading their senior year, must have been April, must have been just weeks before graduation, they had another lingering eye-contact incident and this one left him febrile. Never mind how fucking miserable she looked. So little time left. Days. Him and his wicked little crush. He’d move back to the D.C. burbs. She’d probably move to New York. Wind up famous. He was shaking, his stomach growling violently. He could not be dissuaded from believing she saw him for what he now knew he was: a lesbian. Trapped in a male body. How much queerer could you get? He realized she’d vanished from the noisy student-union ballroom. Found her in the pollen-dense twilight outside, alone, leaning on the brick building by an exploding yellow forsythia. Playing with a lighter, flicking it on and off, staring at the blue flame. The very picture of someone who’d just been dumped. He stood in front of her, inches from her, and she thumbed the little wheel one last time and this time no spark. Then they watched together as his right hand rose to hold her left breast. It was small and pear-hard and naked inside her thrift-store sports coat, under her threadbare Devo T-shirt. Her nipple fit comfortably between his forefinger and thumb. Her hair looked like she’d lost a fight with a weed-whacker. It was outrageous, this thing he’d done, and he’d had no idea. None. That he was capable. Did this make him a boy? They stood together pondering the mystery of his hand. Then it slid down to her bony ribcage when he went in for the kiss. Which she returned. Sort of. He couldn’t have guessed that mixed in with her scent, somewhere in there, maybe hours old or maybe days, was that of his ten-years-future wife. It involved minimal contact. The kiss. In no regards sloppy, and only the very, very tips of their tongues touched. Schnapps she tasted like. It ended, the kiss, and his palm was still pressed to her ribs. She was so thin. He wanted to take her somewhere, feed her, watch her eat. It occurred to him he was lucky none of that berserk wolfpack she lived with was around, and they both stood waiting for her reaction to this event, to these proceedings, even as she stared at him with those blisteringly cold blue eyes.
“Take a step backwards now,” she said. “Or I will fuck you up.”