The Sweet Road of Undoing
Jennifer Mills Kerr
Every Tuesday morning, the same routine, and this Tuesday was no different. I sipped burnt-tasting coffee in the faculty lounge and made copies from my writing workbook, optimistically entitled, Breakthroughs. As the copy machine squeaked, the stack of mail in Rick Starling’s inbox confronted me. A staff directory lay on top; beneath were catalogs, newsletters, and slips of paper, pink, white, and blue. What was written on those pages? The caffeine began its ram-tam-tam in my ears, and I wondered this morning, as I’d wondered every other morning of fall semester, why this fellow teacher felt no need to retrieve his mail. It had his name on it after all, and one never knew, perhaps there was something interesting lying within his inbox’s shadows, a Pottery Barn catalog or a vacation request approval. Maybe even a love letter. Why hadn’t he considered this?
Buzz-squeak, buzz-squeak, buzz-squeak, the machine droned on. I turned away and reached into my inbox. Cold emptiness greeted my fingertips. Barren. The word landed between my ears like a cement block. What was I looking for? Funny, in the past five weeks, I’d never asked myself this question. But now the answer came swiftly. I wanted a love letter. I didn’t care whether it was from a man or a woman, typed or handwritten. But it had to be a steamy, tender-hearted missive about how wonderful I was, how beautiful, and when it came down to it, I wanted to hear that I was hot. Sexy. Had it going on. I taught college students after all. Real breasted brunettes in snug tank tops, young men with biceps and untainted smiles—every day, and for hours at a time, I encountered the simple yet unassailable lust for sex. While I lectured on thesis statements and topic sentences, my students created an electric force field consisting of hot glances and licked lips, fingers caressing desktops, bare feet sliding along the floor, and the ever-seductive flip of long, silky hair. Sex, sex, sex. It was getting to me.
In the past month, I’d checked my inbox several times a day, reaching on tiptoes to feel if something was there. I did this obsessively (I don’t use that word easily), checking even when I knew the box was empty. Now, I glared at my brown pointy shoes as if I were a crossing guard and ordered my feet to stay put, not move an inch toward my vacant inbox again. My feet had their own volition lately, and could lead me places that would make returning to normal life difficult. But what was “normal life” anyway? As an English teacher, I should be able to define those words. I’d clung to them five years ago when a divorced neighbor invited me over for dinner, and I’d told him no. My son, Nicholas, had a basketball game that night; that was the routine; that was normal life. A single mom attends her son’s games. End of story.
Now that nice man—who had decent biceps of his own as I recall—was remarried to a blonde colon hydrotherapist, and I still had my so-called normal life. Just the other day, they waved at me from their Pathfinder, and I smiled, waved back, thinking: He could have done better. But standing in front of my empty inbox, I knew that my son’s basketball game was simply an excuse for a woman in her late thirties, shaken by an ugly divorce, to stay alone and safe.
But now things were different. Now I could flee the normal routine. Now, I could leave the college, leave my empty house, and leave all the clothes and books and jewelry. Nicholas had moved out of our home thirty-seven days earlier. Without him, I could do anything, be anyone. My responsibilities as mother no longer held me in place; I felt the undeniable pull of “out there”—I wasn’t sure what else to call it—that could yank me out of my usual routine of teaching literature and paying bills and combing my hair in the morning.
I gazed into Rick Starling’s inbox again.
Without turning, I knew it was Susan Daley, administrative assistant to the English department. Whenever she spoke, she sounded like she was smiling—even when she wasn’t. She wore a long pea-green jacket with a matching skirt that dipped below her knees. Over six feet tall, the woman looked like a giant string bean.
“Gregory Frank called,” she said. “He won’t be able to come to class today because his--”
“Stop,” I said, raising my hand. “Don’t say another word. Greg has missed over half my classes. I’m tired of his excuses.” I glanced inside Rick Starling’s inbox again as if it held redemption for Gregory Frank’s lies, like a note from the Vatican or a personal reference from Mother Teresa.
“But his mother died,” Susan said.
A groan escaped me. “Please. Last week his sister had leukemia; the week before that, he had to drive his aunt to the emergency room; the week before that, his brother broke his leg. Now his mother has died? The boy is shameless.”
Susan blinked. “You don’t believe him?”
“Do you?” I asked.
“He sounded sincere on the phone, really heartbroken,” she said. “His nose was stuffed up.”
“He probably has allergies. Believe me, it’s all excuses with him. Excuses and lies.” I walked to my empty inbox, lay my hand tenderly within, and allowed the cold metal to soak into my palm for a full five seconds. “Talk is cheap.”
“But Miranda, what if it’s true?” Susan touched her heart. “What if—this time—he’s telling the truth, and his mother actually died?”
I returned to my post at the copy machine, stifling a sigh. I couldn’t blame Susan: all of us creep into others’ lives and imagine things that aren’t there. Rick and I had only spoken a few times since he joined the faculty last year, but gazing at his full inbox these past weeks, he’d suddenly become quite alive to me. He became a confident man, one without the need for reassurance from others, a man curiously and mysteriously fulfilled.
“Do you know if…” I pointed to Rick Starling’s inbox, “he has a girlfriend?”
“That man.” Susan shook her head. “I distribute the mail three times a day, and he never picks it up.”
“Where’s all his mail from?” I asked, whispering now.
“I never actually look at it,” she said.
“Does he have a girlfriend?” I asked again.
“Divorced,” she said. “Are you interested in him too?”
“What do you mean, too
“You‘re the third teacher who’s asked me about him since he started working here.”
“Did he date any of them?”
“Fiona Adams invited him to her house for dinner, and he spoke about his mother half the night. Absolutely devoted to her apparently. Bored Fiona to death.”
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a son loving his mother.” My voice surprised me in its gruffness. “Fiona Adams always struck me as a fool.”
Susan crossed her arms; I’d forgotten that she and Fiona were close. “What are you going to do about Greg Frank?” she asked. “The boy obviously needs help.”
“I’ll pretend his mother died when he shows up in class, and tell him I’m very sorry,” I said. “How’s that?” I was smiling at her now—I couldn’t help myself—and the more I smiled, the more grim Susan’s expression became.
“Fine,” she said.
“If he calls again,” I added, “leave the message in my inbox. Okay?”
She tilted her head and squinted, studying me as if I were an abstract at the MOMA that everyone said was fabulous, but she was having none of it. My elation about future mail—even if it was a message from Greg Frank—quickly dissolved.
Without another word, she left the room.
I returned my attention to the copy machine. The image of my son, Nicholas, lying in his dorm room at Princeton, feeling lonely, gripped my heart and squeezed. Would he attach himself to some female teacher for support? Would she look like me, act like me, talk like me? Or would she be completely different? His last e-mail was rushed, and displayed the horrific era of text messaging:
hi, mom. school’s gd. food’s carbo-fried terror. rmmate does bong hits b-4 class. don’t worry. i don’t. very cool ptry rding last nt.--u would have liked it. lv, nic
I cried when I read it. It was only the second time that I’d heard from him in four weeks, and I needed him to say more. To say that he missed me. To say that I was wonderful. To say something, anything, that would tell me that I hadn’t lost him completely. He’d even abbreviated the word ‘love.’ I printed out the short note yesterday, and laid it on the kitchen table. Have I been a good mother? I asked the nearly blank page. Had my focus upon him all these years been worth it? I wasn’t speaking to Nicholas; I was speaking to time, past time, a place that would not change no matter how many questions I asked. Did I really want to hear its answers?
Nicholas had delayed a year before leaving for Princeton, simply stating, “I’m going to take a year off, then go experience winter.”
My son had a curious way of speaking. He loved using words like “dimension” and “experience” and “concept.” A frigid East Coast winter wasn’t a season to be endured, but something that could enlarge his life, expand upon it. Since he was two years old, Nicholas had begged me to drive him places; he was always yearning to see something different, experience something new. We took day trips on Sundays—our own church service—driving along the rumbling waves of the California coast or into the Redwoods of the Sierras; sometimes we drove through the vineyards of Napa Valley. Nicholas would tell me his impressions; I’d tell him mine. The colors of the trees. The scent of the air. The way the place felt against our skin. In three different Toyotas, over a period of fifteen years, we painted a canvas together with our words. After returning home, we laughed because we couldn’t remember most of what we’d said. It was a sweet dream that faded in the light of day.
The Xerox machine rattled with strain as my copies squeezed into the output tray. The machine was tired. I was tired. Seven more perfectly articulate yet arguably pointless handouts to go. Once again, I gazed at the pile in Rick Starling’s overflowing inbox as if it were the promised land. Before I knew it, my newborn copies were ready. I snatched them from the output tray and reached into Rick’s inbox to retrieve his mail. I had no business putting my hands there, and half expected them to be burned. But I also felt the giddiness of a teenager, attaching such importance to this gesture, as if I were braving the fires of hell for my sin. The caffeine assisted in rumbling my anxious heart.
I rushed down the hallway, now allowing my feet to run, run, run as they’d been urging me to do since Nicholas left. My stomach felt like I’d swallowed a brick. With sick guilt, I glanced at the recycle bin, a green plastic box set randomly against the wall, and imagined dropping Rick Starling’s mail there.
A young, freckle-faced man, eyes pale blue, stepped aside to let me pass along the narrow hallway. “Have a wonderful day!” I sang, clutching the mail tightly to my chest, as if holding Rick’s deepest secrets.
“You too,” was his faint response.
I hurried downstairs, anxious to get to the Writing Center, where I imagined Rick Starling assumed his requisite duty soldiering about the room, sea-glass green eyes flashing upon the monitors to make sure none of the students visited myspace.com or pornographic web sites.
One minute later, I discovered him doing precisely that, and felt the pure rush of victory through my veins. I knew the man—at least at the most superficial level. He wore navy corduroys, and they rustled between his tree-trunk legs, firm and quite wonderful. I waited by the desk at the front like a student. There were two-dozen heads gazing into monitors, clicking sounds from the keyboards, and the gentle whirring of an overhead fan. Eventually, Rick glanced at me, and a smile exploded from my face. I was close to laughter although I couldn’t explain why.
He approached, smiling. “What is it, Miranda?”
“Here’s your mail.” I extended the pile of catalogs and unread letters as if it were a delicate parcel of china.
He took the pile without removing his eyes from my face, which I wouldn’t have minded, except there was a faint starkness about his features indicating shock. Still, I was undaunted.
“It may seem strange to you, Rick,” I said, “but I stand at the copy machine every other morning, and see how your inbox is so full, and mine is so empty.” I began to laugh, covering my mouth in an attempt to stifle my hysterics and gasped, hunched over, quivering, realizing all the time that I was making a complete fool of myself. Without my permission, tears rolled down my cheeks. Millions of kids go to college. It was nothing new. Maybe that was why I’d carried on so resolutely, telling myself nothing had changed, even though Nicholas was gone. Now, I was having a breakdown—in front of the most handsome single man in the English department.
“You touched my mail?” Rick said, then glanced about the room as if someone had called his name. A few students watched us from behind their monitors, intent as deer, sensitive to our every movement. I wiped my tear-streaked cheeks, imagining the front page of the campus newspaper: Miranda Stevens Breaks Down in the Writing Center.
I said, “It’s hard to explain.” Air fluttered within my chest. I placed a firm hand over my solar plexus, and the mother in me said, It’s all right, Miranda. Nicholas will move home once he graduates.
“What’s hard to explain?” Rick said.
“I can’t say,” I began, horrified that words had escaped me. An inarticulate English teacher was a sorry excuse for a human being as far as I was concerned. “What I mean is, I really don’t know—”
“Let’s step outside for a minute, okay?”
I nodded. With a sure hand, Rick steered me toward the door; his touch, warm and paternal, felt exactly how I guessed it would.
The hallway smelled of ammonia—something I’d never noticed before. Rick faced me, but because of my short stature, my eyes met his chest. The buttons on his flannel shirt had the faint opalescence of seashell, and I imagined slipping each one between its neat, evenly spaced slit, my hands traveling this sweet road of undoing, opening, vulnerability. Was his skin warm? Smooth to the touch?
“I always check my inbox,” Rick said. “But there’s nothing in there I ever want, so I put it back.”
I opened my mouth, but no words came. I’d never considered this possibility. The man didn’t use the recycle bin?
Rick kept his eyes on my face. Cheeks flushed, he wore a pained expression, eyes sparkling beneath a thundercloud brow. Suddenly, he squeezed my shoulder. “It’s going to be all right,” he whispered. “Whatever it is.”
The warmth from his hand flowed down my torso, through my legs. I felt the pressure of the floor, sturdy beneath my feet. Students rustled past, through the great swinging door of the Writing Center, in and out, in and out, an endless stream of human activity, thought, movement.
“I want you to come over to my house for dinner,” I announced.
“Really?” His eyes flashed. “Jesus Christ. I’d love to.”
I felt the need to explain myself—why do teachers always feel this is necessary? “My son left for college thirty-seven days ago. And he’s not going to come home again. Not to live. He won’t. He’s not.”
Without a word, Rick cradled my elbow and guided me down the hallway, toward the glass door washed by sunlight. Where on earth was the man taking me? I glanced behind, but only saw a young woman with several facial piercings yank open the door to the Writing Center and disappear.
The sun felt good on my back. I wondered why this door, so bright with sunshine and possibility, was never used, why the students and teachers only entered through the other side of the building. And while my mind considered this inane fact, I noticed the faint, teasing friction of my sweater against my breasts.
“Your son’s leaving means a fresh start for you,” Rick whispered. “A lot of women begin—”
I kissed him. His mouth opened to me, and I experienced the marvelous taste of licorice on his tongue. Marvelous. Such a perfect word for this… Rick Starling, a man who could definitely be described as marvelous. And even though I had a Ph.D., even though I was on the highly regarded scheduling committee, even though I was clearly visible to the students, I kissed and kissed and kissed him, as if sucking the last ounce of delicious juice through a straw. I saw the two of us through the eyes of our students: two adults getting it on in a flourish of heat and madness. I could see our students reaction too, eyes bulging, faces lit by excitement, hands covering their mouths in surprise and glee—communicating it all without a word, their bodies saying all that was needed to say.