The timed lighting ran out the moment that Professor Esme Dane placed her hand on a mis-shelved volume of Keats. The lights clicked off on the ninth floor of the library. As she groped the shelf for the book, five others tumbled from the other side of the stack, leaving a keyhole of daylight. Esme peered through and saw the red sky through the slate glass. The water in the Boston harbor below was choppy. Her eye caught a buoy, and as she leaned through the keyhole made of books, she saw one of her students lying on the floor on the other side of the stack. Two more books fell, echoing through the ninth floor.
Was she dead? The girl didn't move. Esme wondered what the girl was doing there. It was seven in the morning and the library wasn't open to students yet. The harbor wind whistled over the building. Esme swallowed. Were they alone? Had the girl been strangled? She had dirt on her neck. Streaks of dirt, maybe someone's handprint. Esme forgot that she was searching for the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. She looked through the mesh of the metal flooring to the book stacks below and thought she saw a passing shadow. No, all she could see were the tops of the books. She took a Quarter from her pocket and aimed it dead center in the gap between the stacks and the mesh flooring.
She let it go and it dropped four floors before hitting concrete with a "ping."
Maybe in the GH section, across the floor, a book slammed from a shelf. There was a fluttering of pages as if several books opened and poured to the floor. Maybe a footstep. Then came a clanking as a draft rose through the floor. The heat ducts! Esme reminded herself. Heat ducts!
The girl hadn’t moved, so Esme turned to look for the closest exit. There was a spiral staircase somewhere in the darkness at the end of the stack that led to the floor below, but she couldn’t see it. The dim corridor beyond the staircase lead to the impossibly slow elevator. But she knew she shouldn't leave the girl. Or should she? If she could get to the stairwell, she could walk down the nine floors and trip the alarm on the fire exit. Security would amble over in no time.
She turned to the daylight cutting through the keyhole left by the books. Her student's name was Julia, and she always sat in the front row of Esme’s Jane Austen seminar. She never raised her hand; she blurted out whatever thought crossed her mind. Though she always appeared to have absorbed what she read, Julia had somehow missed every multiple-choice question on the midterm. Esme had thought of Julia as mannerless until the week before. When Esme couldn’t climb the ladder from the pool, Julia had hopped out of the water to offer Esme her hand. Most people looked away when Esme fumbled. Yet, Julia interrupted her swim then dove back into her lane as if it were all part of a routine. Esme had watched Julia’s red suit rippling under the water as she darted away. In that moment Esme thought Julia had the manners of a champion. Esme—a member of the 1968 Olympic Swim Team—had stumbled to the locker room, thankful that Julia had the manners not to ask what was wrong with her.
The wind rose, there was a rumble of a low-flying jet. Esme was startled. When she looked at the mesh of the floor she thought she saw a shadow move. Perhaps a wharf cat had gotten into the library, it had happened before. But maybe not, maybe Julia was dead. There had been a stalker on campus. Some homeless crazy who randomly showed up to sit through lectures, and then followed women to their cars. Or sat in unlocked cars. Or sat in stairwells. Waiting. And then said nothing, just moved on when he was caught. Maybe Esme was now being watched. She stuck her firsts into the depths of her pockets, unable to speak.
Julia moved. She wasn’t dead, at all. She curled up on her side, sucked her thumb for a moment, and then stopped. She was asleep on her coat. Her frizzy blond hair seemed alive in a shaft of light, with corkscrew curls that framed her square jaw. Esme sighed in relief. Then she thought she saw trails and stared at the girl to get a better look at the corners of her vision. She wondered if the flecks of light would reappear and obscure her focus—if her retina would detach.
Though her prognosis was good, Esme was in the habit of searching her sight for the onset of symptoms that might leave her blind. Her sight was clear, however, and Esme caught herself thinking Botticelli could not have painted a more beautiful sight than Julia asleep among the books. Esme’s eyes swept over her student, possessing her, and traveled to several piles of books about eighteenth-century literature.
Then she remembered why she had come from her office. An anonymous note had been left in her mail box saying that all the books marked “Austen 330 ENG” had been re-shelved in “Astrophysics 330 ENGIN.” All the books for her courses had been missing from the library since the beginning of the semester. Then Esme saw the book she was looking for. Hugged to the girl’s chest was the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.
Esme was surprised by the quantity of books. Had Julia hidden them from the other students? She was thinking of shaking her, but as Esme gazed at Julia’s face, striped by the sun, she couldn’t move. The fierce crease that usually marked Julia’s forehead was erased by sleep.
Minutes passed, and still Julia slept soundly.
Esme cleared her throat. Nothing. She wanted the book back. Esme pushed a book about engine viscosity until it fell from its shelf. Nothing. She walked into the darkness of the stack, flicked on the light and came around the to the other side to kneel over the girl. Nothing. She was tempted to fondle a ringlet of blond hair.
As Esme turned away she heard the girl stir and wake up.
“How did you get in here?” said Esme. “The library isn’t open yet.”
Julia sat up. “Professor Dane,” she said. “What a surprise!”
“Were you here all night?” said Esme.
“A little bit.”
“Either you were or you weren’t,” said Esme.
The girl rubbed her eye with the ball of her fist.
Esme sniffed. The girl’s clothes were filthy beyond the grunge look popular with undergraduates.
“Professor Dane,” said Julia, her eyes brightening. “I like your suit,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for stolen books,” Esme said.
“So am I,” Julia said. “All the good stuff on Austen was missing, but the librarian said it was still in the library.”
“Julia, that’s your name isn’t it? You know it’s not fair to the other students that you have hidden all the books.”
Julia looked stunned. “It’s not me, ma’am. I combed through all the stacks until I found them.”
“Did you spend the night looking for them?”
“Days,” said Julia. “I knew they were here somewhere. All the stuff from the Romantic period has been raided. So I started on the sixth floor.”
Julia got up and limped stiffly. “Ow, my neck,” she muttered. “The floor’s kind of hard.”
“And you searched stack to stack?” said Esme.
Julia nodded. “Three floors up. Did you get the note I left in your mail box?”
Esme looked away. “You startled me,” she said. “I thought you were dead.”
“I must have dosed off,” said Julia. She hobbled around for a moment. “My leg is numb, sorry.”
* * *
Professor Esme Dane had to smoke. After teaching English 101 to a class of undergraduates who hadn’t read the assignment, she needed a cigarette. There was a tremor in her right hand. Her entire forearm was numb. She wondered if she would be able to swim her ten laps later in the day. The last time she’d lost the sensation in her arm she ran her hand into the aqua-tiled wall of the pool, breaking three fingernails. She didn’t feel the pain until she stopped swimming, stood up in her lane and saw blood running around her cuticles.
Smoke, she thought. If I smoke I will be fine.
Esme got in the elevator and rode down to the lower-level parking garage. Several times a day she made a pilgrimage to a stairwell where a litter of kittens was nesting in a hole in the wall. A winter storm was predicted, and Esme wanted to make sure the kittens had enough food. She had had her eye on a gray kitten for some time. One day in September, as she backed her Volvo into the handicapped zone, she noticed him. He was blue gray. Though he was a short hair, his fur was thick and stood on end. She wondered if he were part Persian. He was aloof and groomed himself as people scrambled to and from the elevators. If she could catch him, Esme thought, she would take him home. But the gray kitten wanted nothing to do with her. Whenever she reached for him, he bolted and found a new place to preen.
Esme lit up and looked through the hole. There was a calico—flecked in patches of four colors--a black kitty, and the gray kitty she desired, grooming his back leg.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” came a voice from below. Then a cough. Esme looked down where the cement stairs ended in dim light. She took a puff.
“This is my spot,” said Esme.
A cough. “You still shouldn’t smoke.”
Esme took another drag. “Who’s there?”
“Nobody.” A sniff.
Esme thought she recognized the voice and walked down the half flight to see who was there. In the shadows under the stairs, Esme saw Julia sitting on a sofa. She was reading the dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice Esme had left on the free book table two weeks before.
“Is that sofa from the third floor lounge?” Esme put her hand in the pocket of her wool trousers.
“Probably,” said Julia. “Hey, Professor Dane, I have a question for you.”
“You’ve got yourself a regular living room here.”
“So long as the lights don’t go out,” said Julia. “So this is my question: why is the opening line of Pride and Prejudice supposedly famous? I don’t get it.”
Esme puffed and eyed Julia. “It’s ironic. In Jane Austen’s day a women’s primary objective was to marry well.”
“I know,” said Julia. “But it seems to me, and call me funny if I am, that a single man in possession of a fortune does not want to get married, he wants to fuck around for as long as possible.”
“From whose point of view was that first line written?” said Esme.
Julia thought for a moment. “The busybody mother,” she said.
“The busybody mother who has five daughters to marry off,” said Esme. “Maybe you should write your next paper on that idea.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Julia.
Esme puffed, but worried that the smoke might bother Julia. The girl sounded as if she had bronchitis or something stuck in her lungs.
“I had this idea,” said Julia. “I was wondering what you think. Could I interview Jane Austen instead of writing a paper and ask her?”
“Jane Austen is dead, Julia.”
“I know that,” said Julia.
But from the look on Julia’s face, Esme wondered if the girl had a clue that Jane Austen had died in 1818.
“I wanted to write the interview and ask Jane Austen everything,” said Julia. “A total fabrication. I want to see if I can answer my own questions.”
“You can,” said Esme.
“That’s fucking great,” said Julia. “Fucking great.”
“Why are you here?” said Esme.
“I’m trying to get into the fifteenth chapter of volume one for your class at four.”
“You’re behind,” said Esme.
“I know,” said Julia. “I’m a little bit slow. It takes me a while.”
“We’re in volume three, chapter twenty,” said Esme. “How are you going to catch up?”
“As best I can,” said Julia, who discretely dabbed her nose with her shirt cuff. “I guess I should have kept my mouth shut.”
Esme puffed. “I don’t know why you bothered to come in today. There’s going to be a storm. The university might shut down early.”
Julia shrugged. “Professor Dane, what’s the Circus? You know in Persuasion? I didn’t get it. Is it a place or is it an event?”
“You read Persuasion? It’s not on the syllabus until April.”
“I was distracted, I could relate to Anne Eliot and Mrs. Smith.”
“The Circus is a ring of Georgian buildings in Bath,” said Esme. “Jane Austen lived around the corner at 25 Gay Street.”
The gray kitty poked its head out from the hole in the wall. From where Esme stood they were at eye level. The cat stared at her. He puffed himself out and started to purr. Esme stifled her impulse to reach for him.
“Hey, Hamlet,” said Julia. “I’ve named him the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.”
“I’d like to take him home, but I can’t catch him.” said Esme. “I hate to see them left wild. Someone should care for them.”
“They know when to come in,” said Julia. She made a kiss kiss noise, and the kitten streaked by Esme and leapt into Julia’s lap.
“Hey!” said Esme. “How’d you do that?”
“He’s my boy,” said Julia. “Right, Hamlet?” Julia held the kitten’s head and made him nod.
“Still,” said Esme, “still!” she stuttered, surprised that the gray kitten could belong to someone else. She dropped her cigarette and stubbed it out with the heel of her boot. “Well. I have office hours now, I suppose I should go up.”
“But you don’t want to,” said Julia.
“How do you know?”
“Why would you want to listen to a bunch of whiners when you could stay and see Hamlet playing the role of Yoda?” Julia pushed down Hamlet’s ears. “There. When the student is ready the master appears,” she said, imitating Yoda. “He should have been in StarWars. Don’t you think?”
“I suppose,” said Esme. She buttoned her wool blazer and wrapped her scarf around her neck. “The temperature is dropping. Don’t stay down here too long.”
* * *
Esme was tired of excuses. The latest was from a kid who broke his arm in a mosh pit at a concert and claimed he could no longer type. Then there was Missy Strand, the princess. Though she had scored 1350 on her SATs and was offered a place at Harvard, she took a full scholarship from the state university because she didn’t want to be saddled with a giant loan. Yet Missy Strand seemed to be coasting. She recycled two of her papers from the required 200-level Brit Lit Survey for the 400-level Austen seminar. Esme knew the papers because she had graded them the year before. Missy wanted a recommendation letter from Professor Dane. The university offered a scholarship for one student to study at the University of Bath, in England, for a semester. Esme didn’t want to recommend Missy because she thought the girl lazy. Whoever won the scholarship was expected to return from England with nothing less than an A-. Professor Esme Dane wanted to see a fresh paper, a thoughtful paper exploring the changes in British class structure after the French Revolution. But when pressed, Missy Strand teared up and fled.
After an hour, Esme wished someone would call in a bomb threat, anything so she could leave for the day. At three o’clock she got her wish. The storm blew in off the Boston Harbor, enveloping the campus in a nor’easter. By three-thirty everyone was told to go home. On her way to her car, Esme looked for the kittens. She started out the door when she thought to look under the stairs. The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father spat past her. Another step down and Esme saw the tips of Julia’s rubber-toed sneakers, and then Julia herself, still sitting on the sofa with her arms crossed and her backpack zipped shut.
“You again,” said Esme. “We’re supposed to leave. There’s a blizzard blowing in.”
“You go ahead,” said Julia. “I’ll leave in a little bit.”
“No, Julia. The university is closed.”
“I’m waiting for someone.”
“I don’t believe you. The campus is empty. Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“Then come with me.”
“You really don’t want me.”
“Why is that?”
A siren began in the building above. “They’re going to lose power. Come on,” said Esme.
Julia wouldn’t budge.
“Look,” said Esme. “We have to leave. You can come to my house if you like.”
“I have head lice,” said Julia.
Julia avoided Esme’s eyes.
“Come on, we’ll stop at a drug store.”
* * *
Esme lived in the South End of Boston on the second floor of a townhouse built before the Civil War. Every wall in the apartment was lined with books. The shelves continued into the huge bathroom, where there were rows of moldering paperback mysteries. In the middle of the room was a giant bathtub with clawed feet. Esme filled it and added green bath oil, which made the tub look like a small pool in a large box of octagon tiles. Esme set fresh clothes for Julia on the armchair she kept in the bathroom. When Julia emerged, Professor Esme Dane sat her student on a stool in the middle of her kitchen and carefully began to comb the nits out of her hair.
“How did you learn to do this?” said Julia.
“My baby sister had a case or two growing up. Most kids on a farm do.” Esme looked at the instructions on the box. “Use special comb to remove dead lice.”
“The chemicals stink.” Julia sniffed.
“Do you have a cold?”
“I have asthma. The dust at school has been getting to me.”
A patch of dead lice clung tenaciously to Julia’s head, their eggs had adhered to shafts of hair a half inch from her scalp. Esme was pleased that she could see them so clearly, even though she knew it meant that Julia must have had the infestation for quite some time.
“This is embarrassing,” said Julia.
Esme chuckled. “My students accuse me of liking to nitpick. Here I am.”
Julia smiled, leaned forward so her curls hid her eyes. Then Esme noticed a tear fall off the girl’s face as she saturated the patch of lice with a cotton-ball full of Linden.
“It’s not that bad,” said Esme. “Where did you get them?”
“The last time I stayed in the shelter.”
“So you have been living on campus.”
Julia shrugged. “It beats the shelter, all those women who’ve fucked over their lives with men and kids.”
“The campus is dangerous at night,” said Esme. “There was a rape last year.”
“I know,” she said. “But I’ve learned how to stay low.”
They were silent.
"You gave me quite a fright this morning," said Esme.
“What’s the story with your briefcase?” Julia said, pointing to the ancient, somewhat shapeless leather bag Esme always carried. “It looks like it’s ready to belch papers.”
Esme smiled. “I bought it in Bath when I lived there. Every few years I get it re-sewn.”
“Why don’t you get a new bag? That one’s pretty beat.”
“You know, the leather from that bag was sealed in a cargo hold of a ship that sank in 1812.” Esme kept talking to distract herself. She enjoyed taking charge of Julia, of having an excuse to examine her hair closely, of soaking the roots of her hair with chemicals, then scruffing through her curls which held their shape, even when wet. “The leather sat at the bottom of the ocean for 150 years, until the harness maker in Bath got a hold of it.”
“So, you’ve just broken it in, is what you’re saying.”
“Pretty much,” said Esme. “There, now we let you sit for five minutes.”
Julia stretched. “Tell me about the Circus,” she said.
“In Persuasion,” said Julia. “In Bath.”
“I lived there, once,” said Esme.
“No!” said Julia. “How did you manage that?”
“I was writing my master’s thesis at Oxford.”
“Oxford. The Oxford?”
“How did you do that?”
“I had a Fulbright.”
“What’s a Fulbright?”
“So you lived in the Circus?”
“It was a sublet, and it was a grand summer. I stayed in Bath after Oxford.”
“Do you have pictures?”
“I do,” said Esme.
“Well, out with them,” said Julia.
Esme fetched a framed photo of herself taken thirty years before when she had long hair and no clue what she would do with her life.
“Look, it says Gay Street just like in Persuasion. You really lived there.”
“It’s time for phase two,” said Esme. She walked Julia to the kitchen sink and poured the second set of chemicals through the girl’s hair, then rinsed it with the small hand-held hose.
“It burns,” said Julia.
Esme held a facecloth to Julia’s forehead. “How’s that?” she said.
“I used to dye my hair when I danced downtown. Oh shit, this hurts.”
“Sorry,” said Esme. “Danced, were you with the ballet?”
“I wish,” said Julia. “I was an exotic dancer.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Not at all, why did you quit?”
“I had a little incident.”
“No biggie, really. I've been banished to the university by a state agency. Yes, I'm thinking of changing my name to Doolittle.”
“Really?” said Esme.
“I shouldn’t have told you. Shit, me and my big mouth.”
“It’s not a problem,” said Esme. “I’ve heard worse.”
Esme had heard of convicts in state law school, or in the College of Public Service; of veterans finally straight enough to enroll for a BA thirty years after they came home from Vietnam. But never had she met a rehab case obsessed with literature.
Esme ran her fingers over her student’s scalp. “I think I got them all. I’ll give you fresh pajamas later. While I wash your clothes.”
“You mean I can stay the night?”
“The night,” said Esme.
* * *
It was time. High noon. Esme looked at the clock again. All the schools, including the university were closed. When the radio announced that the T was flooded and had shut down, Esme told Julia to stay.
But Esme wondered what to do. Julia was sitting on the sofa flipping the pages of a large book on Michelangelo. The girl seemed preoccupied. At five past the hour, Esme locked herself in the bathroom. Like staring at Julia the morning before—to see if her vision was clear—Esme touched a syringe kit, determined to feel it through numb fingers. She mixed the medication cocktail as the visiting nurse had showed her the week before. Then she sat in the armchair, and stuck herself in the thigh. Her right hand fumbled, unable to push down the plunger. She torqued the needle that pierced her flesh.
“Ow!” cried Esme, unable to move for a moment. She burst into tears. A minute passed.
“Professor Dane?” said Julia, through the door.
“Are you all right?”
Esme wouldn’t answer. She attempted the injection again.
“Professor Dane are you all right?”
“No,” she said. “Go away.”
“Open the door.”
“No,” she said, barely audibly. A moment later Esme was surprised to hear the mechanisms of the lock scratching. Then she heard the lock turn. The door swung open.
“How did you do that?” said Esme.
“I picked the lock.”
Esme withdrew the needle from her thigh. “You’d think I could give an injection myself,” said Esme.
“Let me,” said Julia.
“My hand is numb. I can’t feel what I touch,” said Esme. “It makes me so damn mad!”
“Sit still,” said Julia.
“It’s not heroin,” said Esme.
“I know,” said Julia.
“It’s Interferon. Every week I get a shot in the opposite leg.”
“There. Done.” Julia withdrew the needle. Esme was stunned.
“Done. Done?” said Esme, pressing the puncture on her thigh.
“Easy pie,” said Julia.
“I’m not good with self injections,” said Esme, who touched the corner of her eye. “I have to get this down.”
Julia touched Esme’s hair. For a moment Esme leaned her head against Julia’s side.
“I could come back next week,” said Julia. “If you want.”
Esme nodded. The color began to leach from her face. She cleared her throat. “It’s working,” she said. “I have to lie down.” Esme lurched for the door and stumbled down the hall.
“It will be like I have the flu for the next ten hours,” said Esme. “I’ll probably sleep it off.”
“I should go,” said Julia.
“Stay,” said Esme. “Would you do me a favor? I’ll pay you? There’s fifty dollars on the kitchen table. Keep twenty and buy a few groceries with the other thirty.”
* * *
Esme slept soundly, with the vague feeling that she had a fever. When she awoke, the room was dark. Sleet ticked at the windows. She noticed that the apartment smelled of cooking and burning cedar. Esme was pleased. After previous injections she had woken up alone to a cold house. Julia must have thought to light a fire. As Esme sat up, she thought she smelled dope. She kicked off the covers, and sweat trickled down her spine. She wandered into the bathroom, and then down the hall to the living room.
Julia sat at Esme’s desk, tapping her foot. Around her neck was a short scarf, which accentuated her bare skin and cleavage. Julia was wearing Esme’s clothes, and Esme was stunned at how lovely the girl looked. When Esme wore the same low cut shirt, she had no idea that her exposed cleavage could be seen as sexy. On Julia, the plain old shirt was sexy, which somehow made Esme feel sexy—a feeling she hadn’t had in a while. Her eyes followed the satin trim of the neckline, which drew to a point between Julia’s breasts. Esme blinked. Her eyesight was so clear she blushed. Julia looked intelligent. She pouted as she read, and puffed on a joint. The joint became a roach in Julia’s next inhalation and bobbed on the end of the Randy wire that had been rolled in the cigarette paper.
Rather brazen, Esme thought. Julia had raided her stash. Esme admired and loathed the girl in the same instant. Then Esme noticed what Julia was reading. Fanned across the desk and spilling onto the floor were the blue exam books from the Austen midterm she had given the week before. Julia was holding a pencil with her other hand. She looked to be writing while she read from Esme’s grade book. Julia was sizing up the marks of every person Esme had taught in the previous two years. Perhaps Julia was even changing grades. Esme always entered them in pencil.
Julia looked up.
“What are you doing?” said Esme.
Julia giggled as she struggled for something to say.
“That’s privileged information,” said Esme. “I could have you expelled for that.”
“I was curious to see how I was doing,” said Julia.
“I’m going to get dressed,” said Esme. “In about two minutes I’ll be back. The blue books will be put away, and you’ll be doing something else.”
“I’ve made supper,” Julia said, hopefully. “Miss Dane?”
“Goddamn, my knee,” said Esme. “I’m falling apart. Just a minute.”
Five minutes later Esme limped to the table and sat down. Her grandmother’s linens covered the table. Her good silver had been set out and her wine glasses were dusted. “How kind of you to cook,” she said. “I didn’t expect it. I was thinking some cans of chicken soup would be enough.”
“Sodium broth is not food,” said Julia.
“It is in a pinch.”
“I’m sorry about—”
Professor Dane raised her hand.
“Hush, Julia. Oh, how lovely. An entire turkey.”
“And I’ve made garlic bread.”
“And asparagus,” said Esme, serving herself.
“I can explain,” said Julia.
“Let me ask you,” said Esme. “How would you feel if you knew a classmate had read your and everyone else’s exam? If some classmate was fiddling with the teacher’s grade book. Would you think it was fair?”
“I just wanted to know where I stand,” said Julia. “I want to take the exam over. Besides, I was doodling.”
“I have this habit of making little art galleries with Post-it notes. Go look at your desk, I’ve hung a show for you. They’re all pencil abstracts. I’m in my graphite period.”
Esme went to her desk. Doodled Post-its were neatly stuck on all the drawers. Esme ran her fingers through her hair. “If you want help you should ask.”
“I am,” said Julia.
“You should visit me during office hours.” Esme sat down and took a bite of turkey. It was moist and should have been delicious, but her stomach was slightly sour. “And what were you doing smoking marijuana? My marijuana?”
“Sorry,” said Julia. “I liked sitting at your desk and looking out the window. It seemed like a natural thing to do.”
“To peek in all my drawers?”
“They were so cute, I couldn’t resist. Sorry.” Julia leaned back in her chair, averted her eyes, and sniffed.
“You look good in white,” said Esme. “I don’t care if you wear my clothes. But I do care if you smoke my dope.”
“I’ll pay you back,” said Julia.
“It’s not the money. It’s—oh hell—I smoke the stuff when I’m nauseous, which has been often, lately.”
“There’s still a roach, you want to smoke it?”
“Yes I do, thank you.”
Julia jumped to her feet, fetched the ashtray with the roach and sparked it for Esme. Esme took a long drag, keeping her eyes on Julia. The fire cracked in the fireplace.
“Pot is embarrassing for me to get,” said Esme.
Julia was clueless.
“The Marijuana. It’s illegal. I have to visit someone in a housing project to get it.” She took another drag and held her breath. “God forbid the people who need it most should be able to buy it with dignity. But no, there I am making connections in Southie. It irks me.” She took another hit and let the roach go out.
“I could score some for you,” said Julia.
“That’s one transgression too many,” said Esme.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re the student and I am the teacher. I’d like to keep it that way.”
“I know, but.”
“Listen, do you have any idea how awkward it might be for me to see you around school, knowing that I want drugs from you?”
“It’s not like you’re a junkie. You want it for medicinal purposes.”
“It’s still a drug and it’s still illegal. You’re my student. A literature student—a very bright one—and I refuse to contribute any more complications to your life.”
Julia licked her lips. “There’s all sorts of things I could do for you if you’d let me.”
Esme wasn’t listening. The room seemed dark, and her eyes rested on the white of Julia’s t-shirt. She blinked and noticed Julia’s nipples erect through the fabric. Esme recognized her jeans as Julia parted her legs slightly. She admired how loose they appeared on the girl, how Julia's curves gave the familiar denim a new shape.
Julia leaned over and took Esme’s face in her hands. “I’d like to kiss you.”
Esme was caught off guard. She took a deep breath, stifling her impulse to kiss Julia.
“I can’t,” said Esme.
Julia pulled Esme’s face toward her, but Esme turned her cheek and hugged her instead. “I’m your teacher, darling. I’m flattered, but it wouldn’t be right.”
Julia leaned back, then kissed her anyway.
Esme gave in for a moment then pushed away. “I said no.”
“I like it when you stare at my breasts.”
Esme was suddenly enraged. “The word is no. I don’t need or want you!”
“Excuse me.” Julia got up abruptly and went down the hall to the bathroom.
Esme had seen tears in Julia’s eyes. She cleared her throat and waited for Julia to compose herself and return. She hadn’t seen fresh linen on her table in over a year. She uncorked the wine and filled the glasses she hadn’t used since she’d been diagnosed with MS. The candles flickered in the draft, as the building was buffeted by wind. It was lovely of Julia to prepare a meal. Esme decided that she liked having her around, but that she needed to re-establish a boundary. She was the teacher, Julia was the student. She would apologize for staring and tell Julia about her problems with vision.
“Julia?” called Esme after a few minutes. “Dinner is getting cold.”
“Julia, come out now,” said Esme. “We’ll talk it over.”
Esme got up and went down the hall. The bathroom door was open. Five steps beyond, Esme saw that the door to the apartment was left ajar. Esme closed the door and went to the front of the building. The streets of the South End were empty. She looked out the window to the north and saw a figure walking towards Massachusetts Avenue. The figure was enveloped by snow, then disappeared. Esme’s face burned with a slight fever. She slumped at the beautifully set table. When the food had cooled, she ate alone.
* * *
The Austen seminar became dull. Without Julia blurting opinions out of turn, the class was rudderless. Missy Strand sat through class pretending to take notes. Esme noticed that she drew horses when she was bored. Professor Esme Dane’s office hours came and went, and for all her visits to the stairwell, Esme had seen neither Julia nor the gray kitten all week. What had she done? She asked herself. Julia’s clothes, as well as her coat, were all still in the wash when she walked out. Whenever Esme thought of the figure disappearing in the snow she felt a terrible guilt. Where did she go? Was she warm enough?
* * *
It was Tuesday midmorning, and it was time. Esme let out a sigh and mixed her cocktail. Though she touched the syringe, though she held a drinking glass, her grip was clumsy. Small flecks filled the periphery of her vision. Esme dropped the glass and it shattered on the tiled floor. She sat in the armchair and looked at the broken pieces.
The doorbell rang.
“Who is it?” Esme said curtly into the intercom.
“Let me up,” said the voice.
Esme walked to the front of the building and threw open the window. “Who’s there?”
Julia stepped out from the doorway wearing a plaid coat Esme hadn’t worn in years. The coat had belonged to her lover and they had bought it at the flea market in Oxford thirty years before. Esme hadn’t even noticed that the coat was missing. When she fled the week before, Julia must have taken it from the coat rack by the door. She wore the coat belted and it suited her. Esme Dane needed to smoke. In Julia’s arms was the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Esme noticed that the kitten was now a full-grown cat, with splayed toes that he flexed from under Julia’s arm.
“Hamlet’s eyes are fucked up,” called Julia. “I think he needs a doctor.”
Esme buzzed Julia in, lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke out the window.
“I believe he has a cold,” said Esme. “He needs to be warm.”
“How do you know?” said Julia.
“I grew up on a farm,” she said. “Put him down, let him wander.”
Hamlet shook his ears and sneezed. He crouched, looked about but didn’t move. Esme longed to smooth his fur. She turned to Julia and stifled her impulse to hug her, to straighten her collar and touch her cheek to see if she was wearing rouge, or if her skin was chapped.
“Where have you been?” Esme finally said.
“Thinking,” said Julia. “I’m sorry about last week.”
“Me too,” said Esme. “Look, this isn’t a good time for me. I have to—”
“I promised I’d come back,” said Julia. “I’ll do it.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I felt bad. I’m not a cheat, Professor Dane. And I’m not a dope fiend or thief, either.”
“I didn’t think that you were.”
“I was trying to help you,” said Julia. “Because—the truth is I need help. I wanted you to like me, that’s all.”
“I do like you,” said Esme. “All right—I could use an extra hand that’s steady. My thumbs have a mind of their own. While I’m sleeping, will you shop and cook again? I’ll pay you. Then we’ll talk. Only this time don’t go running away.”
Julia gave the injection and they both lay down on Esme’s bed to watch the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, who had made himself at home on the middle of the feather duvet. Esme dozed off watching Hamlet preen his splayed toes.
* * *
After the shopping, after Julia had set out Little Friskies and litter for Hamlet, after the meal and the candles, Esme and Julia sat before the fireplace.
“I’m going to ask you questions and I want you to promise not to bolt,” said Esme. “I worried terribly about you this week.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I see far too many people float into the university and out again because no one pushes them. Tell me,” Esme said. “You got an A on the essay section of the midterm. Why did you go on and get every single multiple-choice question wrong?”
“I have a little problem with numbers.”
“Did you study?”
“Of course I studied,” said Julia. “Ask me any one of those questions and I’ll tell you the answer.”
“Why are you angry?” said Esme.
“Because—the truth is—I have to have an A,” said Julia.
“And why is that?”
“Because I owe it,” said Julia.
“That’s news to me,” said Esme. “I didn’t know students owed A’s. To whom do you owe an A?”
“I thought you had to get a C or better to stay in the university. After all, it is a state school,” said Esme.
“And what good would that do me?” said Julia. “You think people who get C’s get to have a desk like that?” she pointed to Esme’s desk.
Esme smiled. “I found that on the street, darling.”
“You did?” said Julia.
“In the trash. Total rubish”
“Look at that, you still have the gallery.”
Esme looked at the art show made of Post-Its. “I like your drawings very much,” she said.
Julia sighed. “Don’t you think I owe an A to every person who took a chance on me? The truth is I’ve spent so many years working the nookie clubs I had no idea I had room in my head for words. I had no idea I could love books as much as I do.”
“Because I’ve wasted years. Look at me, I’m getting so old.
Esme stifled her impulse to laugh. Julia old? She looked like she was in her late twenties.
“It used to be so easy” said Julia. “I’d dance at the club. Everyone wanted you, the younger the better. It’s crazy, Professor Dane, guys want to have sex with people who look like little girls. The more innocent and vapid looking, the better.”
“Tell me why?” said Esme.
“Because they can control them,” said Julia. “You know what happened? I was a Foster child. I ran away when I was seventeen. I hitchhiked to Boston from Fitchburg, got a fake ID, the whole bit. But then comes the day when you no longer pass as young, and a whole slew of little girls usurp your place, and then you’re lucky to walk away with a hundred dollars at the end of the night.”
“I shouldn’t be telling you all this.”
“Go on,” said Esme. “Get it out.”
“And do you know the worst of it? My future was decided by how I filled in those fucking ovals in tenth grade.”
“What ovals?” said Esme.
“Duh, Professor Dane, the ovals on a Stanford-9 form. Those god-awful tests; those same forms you gave us two weeks ago for the midterm. I always mismatched things, or read the wrong book at the wrong time. Those tests always came back saying ‘WRONG! You’re fucking wrong and an idiot!’ So I started playing dot-to-dot with the exams to pass the time and no one stopped me.”
Sleet tapped the window pane.
“I need to try again, Professor Dane. I need A’s and I’m not going to cheat to get them. I don’t care if I’m sleeping somewhere on campus. I’m a million miles from working a strip joint and every time I see an A I can almost imagine a different life. A future with a desk like that and clothes like yours.”
“Where have you been this week? Where did you go?”
“I have my places,” said Julia.
“Were you on campus?”
Julia shrugged. “I hide.”
“I was embarrassed.”
Julia averted her gaze. “My favorite place is in the library. Before the place is locked down, I go up into the ceiling tiles and into the ducts.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, why would I?”
Esme sighed. “It must get terribly cold.”
“Or hot, depending on the time of year. But I have several places.”
“Can I help you find a real place to live?”
“Actually, yes,” said Julia. She bit her lip and didn’t say anything for a moment. “I was hoping you’d help me get that scholarship to study at the University of Bath.”
“Oh, you were, were you?”
“Yes. I’ve decided I’d like to live in Bath, which is one of the reasons I need the aces.”
“I’m serious,” said Julia. “If I keep getting A’s I’m eligible. You need a 3.75 to even apply and I have a 3.86.”
“Are you surprised?”
“No,” said Esme. “But let me ask you. Did you make a pass at me last week thinking I would change your grade?”
“It crossed my mind. But the truth is—the truth is—I kind of have a thing for you and I can’t help it. In fact, I get crushes on my teachers. I know that sounds dumb—I’ll leave now if you want me to.” Julia stood up.
“Sit down. No, I don’t want you to leave,” said Esme. “Do you make passes at all your teachers?”
“Of course not,” said Julia. “You think I could stand feeling like this twenty times over? It’s you that I like.”
“Because you’re cool. You could make me love anything. You could teach an entire seminar on bear shit and it would be great. I think that’s sexy, Professor Dane. And look at your clothes. No sissy shit. Look at your hair.”
“White, Miss Dane. White. Who has hair so blond it’s white? That’s cool. Sometimes I can’t stop looking at you. Okay, I feel like an idiot.” Julia kicked the leg of her armchair and looked at the fire.
“I think you have a crush on learning, not me,” said Esme.
“I beg to differ.”
Silence filled the room. “You want to live in Bath? That’s daring.”
Julia rummaged through the front of Esme’s old jacket. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Everyone should smoke,” said Esme. She lit a cigarette and shook out the match.
Julia fished a small pipe out of her pocket, loaded the bowl, sparked it, and took a deep puff.
“Maui Wowie,” said Julia. “Would you like some?” She offered the pipe to Esme, then took it back. “Oh, never mind. You said you didn’t want me to score dope for you. Sorry. No offense.”
Esme watched as Julia took another hit.
“Girl, you do have nerve.” Esme held out her hand for the pipe and snapped her fingers.
“Oh, Professor Dane, I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”
Esme snapped her fingers, “don’t be a brat, now,” she said. “It doesn’t become you.”
Julia handed over the pipe.
“Why do you need to go to Bath?” said Esme.
“I want to see the Circus—I want to see Jane Austen’s house—and stand where you stood in that picture—I want—I want to read.”
“Reading is good,” said Esme. “You don’t win the Bath Scholarship and then retire to the pastoral Cotswolds, you have to work when you get there.”
“I know that,” said Julia. “You caught me off guard. Bath is all I think about. Bath, and you. I’d take any class offered.”
“That’s more like it,” said Esme.
“I want to see the baths,” said Julia. “I want to touch the water and imagine it washing me clean.”
Esme cleared her throat. “I used to swim in the King’s Bath.”
Julia sat up straight. “No one is allowed to do that,” said Julia. “I don’t believe you.”
“It was the sixties,” said Esme. “When I spent the winter there.”
“No one has used the baths since 1923.”
“That’s what history books will tell you,” said Esme. “My lover was the grounds keeper. After the Pump House was closed and personnel had gone home, we’d swim. Sometimes we’d have to wait until 3 A.M. And we only did it in winter when the Cathedral was locked down and no one could spy on us.”
Julia was stunned. “You bathed at Bath?”
“What was it like?”
“Warm,” said Esme. “Even in the winter the water is 120 degrees. I’d dive in the water and come up somewhere in the middle with the snow falling all around.”
“Was the water as green as in the pictures?” said Julia.
“It was, but we swam at night.”
“Were you afraid?”
“I was in love.”
“Could you touch bottom?”
“If I dove,” said Esme. “But the water is full of minerals, so you float. We used to make love in the water, up against the diving stone.”
“You did?” said Julia. “You, Miss Dane? Wasn’t that illegal?”
“Don’t be a tease. I was wonderfully young. And foolish. My skin and hair used to be so soft. The waters supposedly have healing properties.”
“Tell me,” said Julia. “Didn’t you used to be a competitive swimmer?”
“I was,” said Esme. “That’s how I paid my way as an undergraduate.”
“Then how come you swim in the slow lane and flail around like you do?”
“The MS is betraying my body,” said Esme. “You have no idea what it’s like to have been a champion and then one day discover you can’t even get out of the pool.”
“Do you think the water at Bath would heal you? Would you swim there again?”
“If I had the chance.”
Julia was quiet for a moment. “I have to go to Bath. I have to have that scholarship, Miss Dane, that’s all there is to it. Can I take the exam over?” Julia started to cry.
Esme sighed. “Sit down at my desk,” she said. “I’ll ask you the same questions.” She got out a list from a file and took notes after each answer.
* * *
“You missed two,” said Esme. “Missing four or fewer is an A.”
Esme sorted through the blue books, found Julia’s and tore up the exam sheet. She replaced it with the notes she had taken, turned to the last page and changed the grade.
“The Dean prefers for the Bath scholarship to go to a student on the honors track,” said Esme. “So you behave. When, by the way, were you planning on asking for a recommendation letter?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even know you needed one.”
“You’ll need three, I can only write one. Make sure your letter writers are willing to write dissertations.”
“What do you mean?”
“Get people to write three pages of sheer praise. And another thing. No one in my class ever gets an A with more than two absences. You’ve had your two.”
“Oh thank you,” said Julia. She sprang into Esme’s lap, kissed her on the lips and hugged her.
“I am as best I can,” said Julia.
Hamlet, having explored the apartment jumped up on a hassock in front of the fire and stretched. He circled once before curling up. Esme’s hand slipped beneath Julia’s shirt. Her hand pulled Julia closer long before she could feel the warmth of Julia’s skin.
Julia sighed and relaxed, touching Esme’s hair. “I am as best I can.”