Authors: Claire Lombardo
“It’s shitty, but he seems like a nice kid,” Wendy said. “Strangely well adjusted.”
“His name!” Her sister laughed, an organic startling laugh. “Shit, sorry. Jonah. Bendt, unfortunately; like, cool, why not just cement the kid’s fate as a pipefitter?”
She felt the syllables with her lips. Not the name she would’ve chosen, but she hadn’t allowed herself to entertain the thought at the time, so no name would’ve been. She tried to fit the name to the face in profile she’d seen at the restaurant, to the ethereal mass she saw on the only ultrasound she ever allowed herself to look at.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening. There was not a single element of this that was supposed to appear again in the life she’d worked so hard to build; not a single molecule of this road not taken—though of course she thought of him, sometimes, weekly at least—was ever supposed to find its way back to her, especially now, when her husband had made partner and she had made continual strides among Evanston’s social elite, when one of her boys was school age and the other was heading there fast.
“Listen, Viol,” Wendy said, “there’s—kind of a situation.”
“So you said,” Violet murmured, feeling spacey and discarnate. “You being a harbinger of change and all.”
“That’s me,” Wendy said, but her voice got serious. Eli appeared on the landing of the stairs, squinty with sleep, clutching his stuffed platypus. She waved him over and he crawled into her lap. “It’s this—South America thing,” Wendy continued, because of course there was a
South America thing,
because of course there was no such thing as normalcy when it came to her sister, because of course she wasn’t entitled to a post-naptime snuggle with her baby boy, not as long as Wendy was around to light fires and push her buttons.
She was stroking her son’s back while she forced herself to listen to her sister—rhythmically, ritualistically, like children who comforted themselves by rocking.
The Behavioral Sciences Building was a place where people got routinely, ludicrously lost. The floor plan looked like a genome; the exterior resembled something made from gingerbread; inside, students wandered, wide-eyed, blunted by the windowlessness, looking for classrooms, for bathrooms. All these people getting turned around, dizzied by the double helix of the staircases, yet Marilyn Connolly had just begun to find herself. It was her second semester as a commuter student at the UIC Circle Campus, and though she returned each evening to the house on Fair Oaks, where she lived quietly with her widowed father, during the day she was free to do as she wished.
She quickly mastered the layout of BSB, and there was a particular set of stairs she liked, one that led to a locked classroom between the second and third floors, cold to the touch even beneath layers of clothing, murder on the back, acoustically risky. She was outspoken in her classes, valued and deferred to in a way that she’d never before experienced. Her professors laughed at her jokes; her classmates whispered to her confidentially during lectures. She became, suddenly, very attractive to those around her, not for her ability to hold her head up in domestic crises when her father had had too much scotch or to iron his Oxford collars, but for her mind—and, in the dark corners of this hideous building, her body.
Which was how she ended up on those stairs. Men now looked at her like she was an adult, capable of anything, and it both scared and intrigued her. And she enjoyed the physical part—the deviancy, the feel of the concrete steps beneath her back, the pleasurable filling-in of space that happened with fellow English majors between her legs, their mouths on her neck, her breasts; stuffy Joyce devotee Dean McGillis taught her, somewhat unpleasantly, how to execute a blowjob. Perhaps it was a form of greed, or overcompensation: she’d been deprived for so long—her mother dead, her father broken and firmly opposed to her communing with the opposite sex—of love, of autonomy, of the electric pleasure of another person’s hands on her body, and it seemed only fair that she take advantage of the host of willing undergraduates at her disposal.
An unexpected complication showed up one day in March, a bespectacled complication in a raincoat who entered the building when she was hoping to catch one of the TAs from her Theories of Personality class. She knew only the handwriting of the teaching assistants from the feedback they provided on essays: there was Barely Legible Blue Ballpoint, Left-Slanted #2 Pencil, and—her least favorite—High-Pressure Red Pen, whose comments sometimes tore through the paper. She studied the man. His posture was delicate and tense, almost apologetic despite his stature—over six feet, thin but broad-shouldered. She wondered which handwriting was his.
“Excuse me?” She rose from the stairs—a lower and more visible flight, serving, today, a chaste end—and he looked to her, startled. “Hi, are you— I’m—Marilyn Connolly?”
His face opened, a further softening around the eyes. “Hi there,” he said.
“I hoped you’d have a minute to talk.” She was suddenly aware of how she’d dressed: a snug sweater with a deep-cut V-neck, suede A-line skirt, and—the clincher—her brown calfskin go-go boots. But the man had his eyes fixed on her face; he had not once let them dip down toward her breasts. She couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or offended by this.
“Would you rather sit out here?” she asked. “Or in your office?” Before he could reply, she continued: “One form of windowless ambience versus another, I suppose.”
He smiled at her. “I’m wondering if you—” He paused. “Here’s fine.”
They sat beside each other—she saw him, finally, notice the exposed curve of her knee. His eyes were dark, almost black. There was a gentleness in the way his neck sloped down to his spine. She was surprised to feel nervous prickles of electricity across her scalp.
“Remind me of your name?” she said.
“I don’t think I actually— David. David Sorenson.”
“Not quite yet. David’s fine.”
“David. Nice to meet you. I wanted to discuss my grade on the midterm paper.” She held it out like a summons. “I realize that the mere mention of sexuality apparently makes all of the men in this department melt into puddles of shame, but
was on the list of recommended texts for this assignment, was it not?” Before he could answer, she plowed on. “I didn’t choose it provocatively, David. I’d like that to be clear. I chose it based on personal interest, which is what we were instructed to do. I’m an English major. I’m taking this class because I’m drawn to human dynamics. To psychological complexity. So you’ll understand that I found the commentary on my paper—and the resulting grade—to be incredibly problematic.”
“I—ah, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“And I wonder if a male student would have been put under the same scrutiny.”
“I couldn’t say.”
“I’m trying very hard in this class,” she said. “I’m a straight-A student.” Her biggest fear had been that she’d start crying during her speech. She was horrified to feel pressure behind her sinuses. She was, she
one of the smartest people in the class, and she felt like she was constantly working twice as hard to assure the people around her that this was even marginally true. A B in an elective class wouldn’t be the end of the world. But it might interfere with her acceptance to certain PhD programs, might cause a roadblock on the path she’d been working so hard to lay out. She swallowed. “One of the comments actually contained the phrase
“That wasn’t me.”
“In any case. I feel like I’m being held to different standards, Doctor. I didn’t deserve a B minus on this paper. It was well researched, even if you object to the nature of the texts referenced.”
“I’m not a doctor,” he reminded her, and she leaned away from him, incredulous.
“That’s all you have to say?”
“You’re damn right it is. Lord. You want to teach at the college level? I assure you, not everything is always going to fall into some pristine categorical norm where—”
“Not what I meant,” David said.
“Oh, God, you’re— Oh, if this turns into some convoluted sexual thing, I really can’t—”
“I think you might have me mistaken for—someone else.”
“I—Marilyn, was it?—I’m not— I’m premed. An undergraduate. I came here to talk to my clinical psychiatry professor.”
She felt suddenly cold, at once mortified and furious. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m so sorry. I’m—incredibly sorry. I just— You seemed so upset and I—”
He shrugged. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
She laughed theatrically—a single, pronounced
“How many opportunities did I just give you to tell me that I was embarrassing the hell out of myself? Wasting my time?”
“Not that many, actually. You were on kind of a roll.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, and he met her eyes again. The kindness behind them annoyed her, the warm agendalessness. “And to be honest, I…” He trailed off, looked down.
“For someone who’s so sensitive to interruption, you seem to have an oddly faulty grasp on finishing your own sentences.”
“I liked listening to you talk,” he said. He must have seen the indignant look on her face because he colored. “I didn’t mean your voice. Though—I mean, your voice is nice too. I’m not being—you know, some sort of creep. I meant I like the way you structure your sentences. There’s something musical about it. I’ve never really noticed that in another person before.”
“Just when I think this conversation couldn’t get any more bizarre.”
“I really am sorry. And just for the record, I think it’s ridiculous that you were docked points on a paper because you wrote about something potentially—erotic.” With this, he colored even more deeply. “We’d all get B minuses in anatomy if held to those standards.”
She lifted a hand to cover her mouth—she sensed a smile forming—and startled at the heat of her own skin. “Ah, good. I was just thinking the world needs more untoward doctors.”
His face fell.
“I’m kidding,” she said. “I think. I can’t believe you just allowed that to happen. You easily could have said no when I asked you to sit down with me.”
“I don’t know that I could have done so
necessarily.” He looked down, then up at her quickly. “It’s not every day that a beautiful woman asks me to sit with her.” The line flowed from him, oddly, without sounding staged—without, in effect, sounding like
—and this made her face heat up again. “But that’s beside the point. I’m a charlatan. I’m sorry, Marilyn. Truly.” He cleared his throat. “You don’t happen to know where Dr. Bartlett’s office is, do you?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” she said. “This building’s a labyrinth.”
There was no way she could find him charming—this earnestness, this aw-shucks passivity. No way that she was intrigued by this self-professed
She could see that he was older: not much older, but older enough; enough, perhaps, to value her as something more than a stimulated coed with a nefarious mastery of the most confusing building on campus.
“Guess I’ll begin my quest,” he said. “And again, Marilyn, I—I’m sorrier than I can say. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“Well, you might want to check and see if the CIA is recruiting, because you had me fooled.” And now—damn it all to hell—now she was imagining tucking herself under the arm of his stupid charlatan raincoat and running away with him; now she was imagining herself being somewhere else, with him, or allowing him to
her somewhere else. “Here’s the deal,” she said. “You find this elusive
before sunset? And manage not to hoodwink some other poor unassuming woman?” Now her heart was in her throat, pulsing to attention. “You achieve that feat, and maybe I’ll let you take me to dinner.”
“I— Okay,” he said. “Deal.” He held out his hand to shake.
She could tell that this microscopic act of assertion was hard for him. She would come to find his prudence exquisitely charming, except when she didn’t. There was no shock when she took his hand, no cinematic burst of static electricity, but there was a pleasant warmth, the gentle pressure of his fingers around hers. The lightning-quick pulse beneath the thin skin of his wrist; her hand fitting neatly into someone else’s hand.
His mother was, at once, prettier and uglier than he’d been expecting. She had dark hair and big eyes, but she was also pale—almost grayish—and there was something about the pinch of her mouth that reminded him of his math teacher, Mrs. DelBanco, who always told him he wasn’t trying hard enough. She didn’t fit in their kitchen; the muted blue of her sweater clashed with the red paint over the stove. Hanna kept telling him he had an impressive eye for detail.
“Jonah’s got wonderful artistic skill,” Hanna said, reading his mind.
The name didn’t feel right. He’d always thought she would have a more motherly name. Lisa or Cheryl or something. He read the school directory some nights while Hanna cooked dinner, paging through the lines of names, the kid first then usually two parents,
Tom and Beth Costner, Kurt and Carolyn Newberg.
Then an address, a house on a street named after a midwestern state—unless the family was rich, in which case the street was named after a variety of tree—and three phone numbers, home, work, and cell. Jonah was featured in this year’s directory, but his last name—Bendt—didn’t match Hanna and Terrence’s, and they had only one number listed because both of his foster parents worked from home and shared an iPhone because Hanna, as she’d told him many times, was
resistant to technology.
He was staring at Violet’s hands, the right twisting the bejeweled rings on the third finger of the left. Hanna wore a plain gold band; she’d told him about blood diamonds. He wondered if anyone had informed Violet but decided that they probably hadn’t, since her necklace also bore a number of shiny stones.