Everyone sat around a creaky table in a dingy bar just off campus. For some reason the collection of professors that were willing to organize a workshop for their students insisted on holding it in Ashley’s, probably because of its proximity to campus, but it was always disappointing to the students that their free drinks would have to be the beer they could afford on their own. Either way, it was always something of a production to get everyone organized and to make their way the half-mile away from the academic building, but there was always a collection of students and professors that nonetheless gathered Tuesday evenings to talk about the students’ work.
They all had developed habits by this point: Professor Toman, a short, elderly, paunchy professor of Czech poetry always drank scotch (only from a bottle he deemed worthy of his palate, which he no doubt had to donate to the bar for his own consumption); Professor Hartley, a sharp looking middle aged man who taught literary theory to students who usually didn’t know the first thing about theory and some who knew too much, drank whatever the kids were drinking, so he sat with a Coors light on a paper coaster; Professor Bloom, an assistant professor working her way up through medieval English literature in her early thirties who it seemed always had to worry more about her students’ attraction to her than what she was actually teaching, sat with a glass of red wine that tasted like sweet vermouth; Jonathan, a bespectacled junior sporting a well maintained beard who made sure everyone in every one of his classes knew exactly how well read he was, sat with an Anchor Steam; Lindsay, a sophomore who was as much of a female version of Jonathan as could really be possible, sat with a Coors light (but only after Professor Hartley ordered his); Tatiana, the one who no one ever really knew why exactly attended at all, sat with a cloudy white wine; and Stephen, a senior who physically looked like he was twenty-two but emotionally looked like he was about sixty, either from his sullen demeanor or the huge bags under his eyes, sat with a double of top shelf whiskey (which would have, at best, been in the well anywhere else around campus).
Jonathan talked about Adorno, who clearly would have loved his vinyl collection and his twelve hundred dollar turntable. Lindsay talked about her excursions into psychoanalysis and how Lacan was history’s greatest feminist who missed his calling as a full time literary critic. Tatiana smiled and nodded while she furtively checked her phone. Stephen was half dozing through the whole thing, as he had started to do through the few activities he still participated in, and mumbled something about how by this point in his academic life he had given up appearances and started reading the Beats. All the professors eagerly offered opinions and advice, but by now even they were realizing that these, their most enthusiastic students (excepting Stephen), hadn’t actually retained anything through their years of study except for how to intellectually posture in front of a table of like minded people. Lindsay laughed awkwardly hard at Professor Hartley’s jokes, Professor Toman got to the point that he was more interested in his scotch than anything being said around the table, and Professor Bloom just gazed emptily around the table and out the window, wondering what she had gotten herself into.
Finally they all got up and filed out, except for Stephen, who usually didn’t leave right away because he didn’t have anything else to do and had gone through three more drinks than anyone else. This time, though, Professor Bloom hesitated at the door and turned around to join Stephen at the bar. He looked over at her.
“Yeah, you mind if I sit with you?”
“No, not at all, here, pull up a seat.” Stephen didn’t give it a second thought; he figured that she’d give him some shit for his attendance in her class, a class that she had given him an override to get into in the first place. She ordered another red wine (this was the wine menu at Ashley’s: red and white) and settled in.
“So you usually stay here for a while afterwards, don’t you?”
“Yeah, well, Tuesday afternoons, you know? Not much going on, so I usually sit down for a drink or two.”
“Yeah but you usually go through four or five before everyone leaves.”
“Yeah well, it’s funny what sitting next to Jonathan and Lindsay for two hours will do to a person, you know?” Stephen laughed but instantly winced, realizing that she, as a professor, probably loved them for the exact same reasons he couldn’t stand to listen to them, so he was pleasantly surprised when she laughed so hard she blushed. Without even realizing it he replayed what she said when she first sat down and thought that it was basically just a reformulation of the (tried and true) “you come here often?” line, but, as with any of his semi-limerent fantasies that had become almost instantaneous when he interacted with anyone of the opposite sex after two years of abject loneliness and disappointing depression (disappointing in that it was intense enough to prevent him from ever enjoying himself but not so intense that it would cripple him in some beautifully tragic way), he let it run its—by now—quick course and encouraged it to drift off into nothing. It’s not like he was going to do anything about it anyways, so he made a mental note to take an extra Ambien that night and turned his attention back to his conversation.
“So you don’t like them either, huh?”
“Well I know I shouldn’t say anything like this . . . but god no,” they both laughed again, “I have one class with each of them and I started the semester thinking that they were a godsend because they were the only ones that ever talked. Last semester I had one class that was just nothing but dead air, and my goodness it was painful. Not only in the class, but it takes a lot out of you as a teacher to have thirty kids who are clearly not interested in anything you’re saying after you’ve spent so much time preparing the class as a whole and then for each class individually. We’re halfway through this semester, right?”
“I think so.”
“God, I can’t even keep time straight I have so much work, but anyways it was about a quarter way through, right before fall break, that something snapped and I just couldn’t stand to have either of them in class. Just empty words, so many empty words.”
“I can’t understand a goddamned thing Jonathan says in that early English class. It’s amazing; there must be some very specific number of ten letter words that if you pass will render everything you’re saying completely incomprehensible. And make you a terrible person.” They both laughed again and Jonathan thought to himself that he hadn’t enjoyed talking to someone this much in as long as he could remember, which, in fairness, wasn’t very far considering he was six sad whiskeys deep. They both paused and took long pulls on their drinks.
“So are you okay?”
“Am I okay?”
“Yeah,” Professor Bloom responded not a little embarrassedly, “it’s just that you’ve seemed a little worn down this year. And a bit of last year too, I guess.”
“You don’t talk much—or at all—in class any more and don’t come to my office hours, so when you stop coming to class I don’t have much recourse but to trip you up with your grade.”
“But it’s not just that, obviously, your well being is more important than grades, and you know we can work something out in that regard. I do enjoy having you in class, especially as a balance to the great scholar who won’t shut the hell up.”
“Well, I’m fine,” at this point Stephen realized that he could either stop there and talk about Ginsberg half-heartedly until she left or he could, for the first time in months (probably years), just embrace a conversation and be honest, “you know, as fine as fine goes.”
“As fine as fine goes?”
“Yeah. I’m fine in that my life isn’t falling apart, but goddamnit am I lonely. The past two years have been so shitty.”
“I’m sorry to hear that . . .tell me about it.”
“The sad thing is is that it wasn’t something in particular that threw me for a loop. Just at some point last year after this girl broke up with me—“
“Isn’t that something that should throw you for a loop?”
“Not really, we weren’t together for that long, and I’m not sure how much I liked her in the first place. But anyway that happened and then like a month later I just got sad, it sort of washed over me, which happens from time to time, but this time it didn’t go away, at least it hasn’t yet, and I stopped giving a shit about school, friends, whatever, which is a terrible thing to do in college because that’s all there is, then I realized that and it made me feel worse, and it all sort of spiraled from there. So here I am, just one more semester . . . Sorry, I don’t want to bum you out or anything.”
“You’re not, at all, actually,” she paused and ordered herself another wine and Stephen another whiskey, “I’ll get this one.”
“Of course. So what was I saying? Oh yeah, no you’re not bumming me out at all, I didn’t have the greatest time in college, either.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Well, shit, look at yo—“
“I was joking, sorry. There was this whole thing with a professor and me hooking up, as you kids would say—“
“Yeah us kids, you’re what? Like six years older than I am?”
“Aanyways, there was this whole thing and it got found out and he was going to lose his job so he, somehow, pinned the whole thing on me. He kept his job, we never saw each other again, but it turned out I was pregnant. He tried to give me money for an abortion but I said no so he said that if I wouldn’t take it I had to transfer which, nineteen year old that I was, I decided to do, but by the time I was ready to start the next year halfway across the country, I was eight months pregnant, so orientation and everything after wasn’t too great. But here I am, in the end. So you bummed me out and I bummed you out, we’re even.”
“I’ll drink to that.” They both took long swigs. “Wait. When did you get remarried?”
“Yeah. That’s you’re ring finger, right? I’m not that drunk.”
“I just wear it to keep the, ahem, tenured part of the department off of me.”
“I think so . . . I really am sorry to hear that you’re having a rough go of it.”
“It’s not the end of the world.”
“No, but that’s not a reason to just embrace it. Come to class! It’ll be fun, I promise! We’ll get you out of your funk. You and Don Quixote have a lot in common.”
After laughing he replied, “we have nothing in common, have you been listening to me? Also, why the hell are we reading Don Quixote in that class?” She laughed again.
“It was the first thing I thought of, but fair enough . . . still, you’re young, you’ve got a lot of ahead of you—“
“Life is full of choices, it’s about the journey not the destination—“
“Alright, alright, fine, I know, I’m old.”
“You’re not old.”
“Anyways, there’s a reason all those terrible clichés have become terrible clichés.”
“Yeah no one knows how to talk with any substance about the meaning of life, so we have to recycle garbage . . . wait, can I do that for my next experiential assignment? I’ll recycle garbage and see what happens. I’ll probably end up going to grad school. I’ll condition my hair before I shampoo it to supplement my findings.”
Through giggles she responded, “Are you always so sarcastic?”
“You mispronounced ‘funny and charming’.”
“See? This is why I like when you’re in class.” She was blushing again. “You should come more often.” The bartender walked by and Professor Bloom took notice.
“Are you done drinking?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Okay, I’ll get the check.” The bartender walked by again and she asked for the check.
“All on one?” The bartender asked
“Yeah, sure, this is my model student. He brings me an apple before every class.”
“Uh, okay.” The bartender left and returned with the check, which she paid and they gathered their things.
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“I haven’t smoked a cigarette since college.”
“Well, since freshman year, right?”
“Wow shut up,” she playfully replied, “but yeah, sure, I’ll smoke one with you.” They walked outside as Stephen lit up two cigarettes and passed one to Professor Bloom. As they stood out of the rain under the awning, Stephen’s mind raced. She had been flirting with him, right? Why else would she have told him all of that? She wasn’t that much older, after all. Suddenly all the confidence Stephen had thought he’d lost came rushing back, he smirked in a way he hadn’t felt in years, and knew that this was the moment to make a move, the moment that would mark the beginning of him getting back on track and into a relationship that was everything he always wanted. Finally, he thought, someone who is smarter than I am, drop-dead gorgeous, and has had formative life experiences. We could spend rainy days in bed cuddling and reading oh my god rainy day cuddling will have never involved so much reading and of course we’ll have coffee oh man coffee I’ll put whiskey in mine probably but she’d put a little in hers just so she’d be drinking the same thing that I am we could go out to nice dinners and she’d appreciate really good food and well crafted cocktails we could go out and get a whole bar set and spend Saturdays cooking and anytime we weren’t doing that or having sex we’d be reading in each other’s arms this is it this is the key to happiness I found it I knew I would at college but I never thought it’d be a professor oh well this is perfect.
Just as Stephen turned to Professor Bloom a handsome man in his mid thirties, wearing a tailored peacoat and expensive loafers, stopped in front of them and greeted Professor Bloom with a hug and a kiss.
“Stephen, this is my boyfriend Mark.”
“Your boyfriend . . .” Mark extended his hand.
“Professor Makin, nice to meet you Stephen.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
Professor Bloom turned to him, “Thanks for letting me hang around Stephen, I’ll see you in class on Thursday, right?”
Stephen stood and watched them walk away as his cigarette burned into his fingers.
Michael Moeller is a senior at the University of Michigan. He is currently trying to find a way to make a living writing after he graduates. Which will work out just fine (he keeps telling himself).