Alone in Roanoke with a one-semester job he couldn’t refuse, McNeil hasn’t written to Shushie in three weeks, has phoned her only once in all that time, but he quickly crumples one more attempt at a letter, landing it in the Safeway bag with little more than her name—a salutation he cannot get past. Midway through the spring semester he’s fallen for one of his students, finding, to his dismay, that it’s a full-time preoccupation, this business of being infatuated. Like being back in high school, McNeil thinks, but even so, he tilts back at his kitchen table, imagining himself kissing the wonderful trace of whitish down that runs below Susan’s ear and along her jaw line. Strange how the stuff can be so blond on a brunette. A tennis star from Florida, she has one of those fresh-off-the-court faces that beams health and wealth: freckles, high, ruddy cheekbones, and, more uniquely, faintly Oriental eyes. She is just two inches short of six feet, but with the soft, shy voice of a more diminutive woman, especially, it seems to McNeil, when they talk on the phone. The slight trace of a Southern accent bothers him, since he has not forgotten his last night in New York with Shushie. She had taken his hand as they walked the quiet suburban streets near their apartment, and McNeil had concentrated on holding her hand firmly, for often she would ease her grip, and his hand would slide free. Then she would say, “You don’t have to hold my hand if you don’t want to.” But she had made no complaints that night, had only said half seriously, “You won’t get distracted being at an all-girls school for a whole semester, will you?”
“Probably,” McNeil said, and she had squeezed his hand until they both heard his knuckles crack. Watching her clean, perfect teeth gradually show in a half smile, McNeil rather missed the slightly buck teeth she’d had in high school, and tried to remember her face as it had been then, with braces. It was hard to say just how her face had aged in 11 years. The first time he’d ever noticed her, she was an almost pretty tomboyish type, playing the fiddle and tapping her foot in a production of Oklahoma! The next day he’d had a friend who was in the show introduce him to her. She was very polite, sitting alone at a table in the cafeteria, and he noticed some eyeliner still showing beneath her lashes from the night before. And there were the braces, which he hadn’t been able to see from his seat in the auditorium. She seemed to like him, and even after his friend left, they sat in the cafeteria, drinking chocolate milk. When they got up to go to class, he realized he’d been right about the tomboy bit; she wore jeans with high-top Converse basketball sneakers, and swung her books in wide arcs as they walked. But she was bright and was also first violinist in the school orchestra.
Now Shushie was saying, “I can just imagine those Southern private-school girls fawning all over you.” And then, in a drawl, clasping his hand to her breast, “Wouldn’t y’all lack to come an’ visit ma Daddy’s hoas fom, Professa McNeil? Or can Ah call ya Caleb? That’s such a nas name-—Caleb. Y’all aren’t really serious about that girl up in New Yoak, are you? What’s her name? Shushie? That sho’ is a strange name.”
He had laughed. Despite her playfulness, he could see that this little scene would somehow preclude any real scene that might resemble it. He sensed Shushie knew this.
But it has not precluded Susan. She told McNeil at lunch that she is writing a paper tonight, and he wonders if she will go for a drink if he calls her. Instead he begins a stack of papers from the class in which she sits in the second row, abandoning them gratefully when the phone rings.
It is Shushie. She misses him. She knows it’s silly to call an hour before the rates go down, but she couldn’t wait. She had hoped for a letter from him today. She understands, she says, how busy he must be, but she needs the sustenance of his letters. She tells him the latest Village Voice has an article on her director, which is a good plug for the otherwise unknown production she is rehearsing. He decides this is a word she’s picked up since they’ve been apart.
Shushie’s director is Garrett Ripley, a young Irishman who’d been successful with shows in Dublin and London but was still working his way up in New York. He was virtually the first gay man McNeil had ever met whom he could not dismiss as a limp-wrist, which was gratifying somehow. At the same time, though, the fact of his homosexuality had been a relief to McNeil, considering the hours Shushie would have to spend with him. McNeil had liked Garrett when they were introduced backstage at an off-Broadway show, first because he was Irish and Catholic, but mainly because he’d remarked, as about a dozen other people had done over the years, that McNeil and Shushie must be brother and sister, they looked so much alike. This observation always appealed to McNeil.
Shushie reminds him once again that the play opens in three weeks, and that she wants him to be there for opening night. The show may not even run more than a week, she says. She is already nervous about it but also ecstatic, he can tell, recognizing the anxious way she taps on the phone with the fingers of her free hand.
He is surprised by a perverse impulse to tell her about Susan, not as a confession but to share in his own new excitement. Yet he only assures her that he will manage, one way or another, to get to New York for the opening.
“I’m really missing you, kiddo,” she says.
“It’s pretty miserable without you too,” McNeil says, worried that the words ring as falsely to her as they do there in his kitchen. That false tone echoes in his ear, and to remove it he continues talking. As actresses go, Shushie is fairly inhibited, and not generally fond of theater people, so he asks if she’s gotten to be friendly with people in the cast.
More or less, she says. “I’ve gotten to be pretty good friends with a girl named Carla. She plays the gay guy’s first wife, you know? You didn’t get that letter yet? Oh, guess where she went to school.”
“Huh. What’d she say about the place?”
“That it’s full of girls.”
“I’m not sure you’re really safe there. Safe for me, that is.”
“I’ m safe.”
“Really, though, and it sounds like this teacher-student stuff has reached academic proportions.”
“Yeah, right,” McNeil laughs. “Doesn’t seem to go on much here, though.”
“Shush,” he says, “come on.”
“Are you saying my name, or telling me I should shut up?”
“Yes,” he says.
“Well, you watch yourself, anyway,” she tells him.
He assures her that a letter is on the way, and when they hang up, McNeil is left wondering at his perverse impulse of confession minutes earlier. Chewing on a fresh toothpick, he settles back at his desk and says out loud, “Lot of good that would’ve done her,” noticing once again how much he seems to talk to himself since he and Shushie have been apart.
He forces himself to write a letter to her, not just one of recent trivia concerning his alcoholic landlord with two missing fingers—helping old Sinclair adjust the basement plumbing one night, McNeil had dropped a wrench on the man’s hand and quickly apologized, at which Sinclair held out the two stubs between his index and pinky fingers and said, “That’s okay, young fella, you just knocked my fingers off!”—McNeil writes not just of Sinclair and the stud-farm students at Hollins but a letter to offer some real sustenance. He feels slightly more sincere this time.
The letter left in the mailbox on his corner, he grudgingly returns to his pile of papers, where Susan’s is fourth from the top. He would like to read her essay first, but something, superstition or strange ethics, tells him to take them in their random order, and two A minuses and a B plus later, he is there.
Susan Bentley Barnes
He examines the sheets of her essay, front and back, for any subtleties addressed to him, but there is nothing: no note, no scent, no self-conscious scribblings. He reads it, slowly; another A minus. Nothing unusually brilliant but a very competent prose style.
And now he has to be with her. It is after 11, but she will be up. He will ask her to go for a drink, though already it seems futile. He feels a bit ridiculous dialing a girls’ dormitory at 11 o’clock. At any time, really. The phone, he knows, is in the hallway, not in Susan’s room, so the chances of her answering are slim. A voice that is not hers manages, through stifled laughter, to ask “Hello?”
He asks for Susan Barnes (apparently there is another Susan on the floor, and he doesn’t want to go through that again), and hears in the background, “Susan! Su-san!” And then the conspiratorial silliness of “You have a male cal-ler.”
When she picks up the phone and answers, it is that shy voice, the vulnerably uncertain tone that so suddenly puts him at ease, at least until he sees her. “You have a male cal-ler,” McNeil says dully.
“Hey. Caleb. Yeah, don’t remind me. I can’t help it if I live here.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What time is it?”
“About 10:30,” he lies. “How’s Hobbes?”
“Okay. Hobbes is coming along for me.”
“Listen, would you like to break for a bit and get a drink— or some coffee? I’m all out of beer here,” he says, staring at the extra six-pack of Budweiser on the kitchen floor.
She says softly, “Oh . . . wow,” but the tone is not promising. He thinks she says “wow,” “like,” and especially “I mean” too much.
“Oh wow no?”
“You mean Oh wow yeah, but oh wow you can’t?”
“Yeah, kind of. I mean, I’d really like to, but I haven’t taken this paper very far yet.”
“Okay, that’s cool,” he tells her. McNeil rarely says “that’s cool,” but it is another of the recurring phrases in Susan’s vocabulary, and lately the words come to him almost involuntarily, particularly in conversations with her.
“What about tomorrow night, though?” she says. “You said there was a film. . .?”
“Thursday, I forgot,” he says. “I think it’s a double feature.” He scans the schedule taped to his refrigerator. “You want to go to both?”
“Sure. Yeah, let’s,” she says with great girlish gaiety, and McNeil, bolstered by her enthusiasm, strives to keep her on the phone, clinging to her voice and even enthusiastic about tennis practice and shoulder injuries, answering her questions about his day (solitary, nasty, brutish, and interminable, ha ha), until on her end there is a pause. McNeil hears a voice in the background, and then Susan saying, “I’d better get off, my roommate’s waiting for a long distance call. How ‘bout if I call you around five or six tomorrow when I get home?”
“Fine or five?”
“All right. Pleasant dreams, then, and thanks for calling me, Caleb.”
He loves the deliberate way she tags his name on to the end of certain remarks. His first night with her they had sat in a bar full of students, McNeil foolishly thrilling in the gossip of that’s-the-visiting-professor-in-English-with-Susan-Barnes that he sensed all around them, thrilling also at the pleasure she took, with him at her side, in returning the greetings of friends. There was the additional pleasure of telling one’s stock of stories to someone who hadn’t heard them all eight times before. She had asked about his once wanting to become a priest, which he had hinted at in class, and McNeil said, “Yeah, I’ve never dated a Wasp before.” Susan had laughed, asking if it was something he was really that conscious of, to which McNeil could only say, “Oh, yeah,” which was true in a way, though he didn’t bother to mention that the woman he’d lived with for more than eight years was Jewish. “Aren’t you a little conscious of my being Catholic?” he asked. “God, the Episcopalian kids used to hate us back home. Called us “Cat-lickers.” Always asked us what we were doing “up on the hill” anytime we rode our bikes through their neighborhood. We called ‘em “Piss-pickles.” Beat ‘em in basketball every year. Most of them were more interested in skiing, though. And tennis,” he added with a wink.
The two of them had compared and contrasted Catholics and Episcopalians, deciding guilt was the major difference, McNeil not mentioning money. When he told her that at age 11 he realized he’d willfully done enough bad things that he would surely fry in hell, her face had furrowed sympathetically, and she said, “That’s terrible, Caleb,” the first time she’d used his name, and their hands had inched near to each other on the table afterward. She had described the heritage of tennis clubs and travel, of George Bush and beaches, McNeil the whole time acquiescing in the boyish buoyancy washing over him, even when he imagined Shushie sitting at an adjacent table and shaking her head.
Inside the foyer of Susan’s dorm, it was mainly her height that had kept him from kissing her; he found slightly intimidating the fact that despite his full six feet she could almost look him in the eye. Instead he touched her arm as he left, and she had reached out lightly for his. Home at 2:30, too giddy for sleep, McNeil was on his bed fully dressed, kissing his pillow like some teenager. He imagined lying with her in bed, although he did not yet want to have sex with her, and woke early, surging with a new excitement. Although it was a Saturday, he felt he could have risen before eight o’clock and worked, he felt so fresh, but instead he had lain back to think of her, blankets over his head, in bed with her.
He heads for his bedroom now, first chinning himself ten quick times on the metal bar that spans his high kitchen door frame. It occurs to him that he should be as righteous as her roommate, that he, too, should perform the pieties of long distance calls, but the admonishment withers under the most recent surge of energy. He places a three-foot length of plywood across the arms of his easy chair, rests his feet on the bed, and keeps on with the ABC-ing of papers. He had begun to fear that maybe he was more pursuer than pursued, but now the adrenalin coursing through his legs speaks differently to him. How is it, he wonders, that this girl can make him feel as Shushie no longer makes him feel, as he hasn’t felt in years? But he knows how: only because this is new, and different. And it, too, will wear off in time, given the chance. And what would he be left with then? Not someone he could spend the rest of his life with, certainly.
But even knowing the impossibility of one, and that the other is inevitable, he falls asleep in his chair creating scenes with Susan, later dreaming that he is tonguing a mouth lined with the leather grip of a tennis racket.
As McNeil drives his dying Datsun through Thursday morning, every tall girl with long brown hair is Susan, every girl in a knee-length denim skirt. But each time he is wrong. He decides to detour through the tennis courts, where Susan is bound to be hitting, and is, with some big curly-headed blond bastard, who splays the fingers of his left hand to accent the follow through of his oh-so-perfect technique as the two of them laugh over lobs lost in the sun, the strings of their rackets flashing fancy W’s. He wonders how he will later explain his presence if she turns and sees his car, but she is concentrating too intently on returning the blond brute’s nasty serve.
Spitting his splintered toothpick out the window and pushing the accelerator into the car’s rusted-out floor, he flies past other drivers until the man in the red Audi on his right is the department chairman, and McNeil behaves himself at 30 miles an hour. The car stalls at the parking lot entrance, as it has each time he has given Susan a lift, McNeil each time blush-mumbling the embarrassment that would not be necessary with Shushie.
By the time he reaches his office, he has forgiven Susan her tennis partner, but he cannot concentrate on the remaining papers he must read, nor on the students who come to see him, each stopping in the middle of some sentence until his eyes wander back to their faces. At 12:30 he sneaks away and rambles across the main campus, looking purposeful, aware that he is making himself a fool for this girl, who would seek him out, after all, if she really wished to see him. But somehow it is always he who seems so intensely urgent when he leaves her at her door with a kiss and a question: What are you doing tomorrow night? or When will you be free again?
He has spent a full hour foolishly searching among the blue jeans and back packs, and he must collect his thoughts for a two o’clock class.
It is the class in which Susan sits in the second row, and McNeil, despite the difficulty of concentration, has prepared a brilliant lecture on Samuel Beckett. Susan is not there as he runs through the attendance, and though he stalls so that his brilliance will not be lost on her, he is forced to begin without her. Ten minutes into the class, she slips through the rear door of the room and sits in one of the last rows. McNeil acknowledges her presence with a nod, and she raises her eyebrows and grimaces in apology.
At 3:15 there are questions, comments, and comely girls about the lectern. Some advance aggressively (“Don’t you think it’s reductive for people to equate Godot with God?”), others hang slightly back, waiting to pose their questions in privacy. This was Susan’s routine earlier in the semester, often accompanying him back to his office or to the parking lot. Now she does not seem to see him as she gathers her books and bows into the hallway.
Not at five, but at 5:30 she calls. She remarks on his lecture and apologizes for being late. He asks if she’d like to get some dinner with him before the film. She would, but she and her roommate just polished off half a dozen chocolate croissants, and after last night she needs to nap for an hour. “How ‘bout if I pick you up at about seven?” she asks.
“You don’t trust my driving anymore?”
“No, no, it’ll just be easier, since you have to go out of your way for me.”
“What are you gonna do, borrow a car?”
“No, I’ve got one.”
“I have a car.”
“You own a car?”
“Yeah,” she says, almost reluctantly.
“Oh.” It occurs to him once again how little he really knows about her, and he must also wonder why it has always till now been he who has driven out of his way, her car a secret even when his was lent to a friend, McNeil that night hoofing the three miles home after walking Susan to her dorm.
“Caleb? I think I’m going to need directions.”
Which McNeil provides before hanging up, sitting down, the day’s mail before him with a bottle of Budweiser which says twist-off cap, but leaves deep marks in his thumb and forefinger, and won’t come off. He finally covers the damn thing with a napkin. He is not hungry, his appetite lost lately in the adolescent anxiety of his stomach. He reads the letter from Shushie, which he would not open while waiting for Susan’s call. It is ripe with I’m yours I love you please try to come to New York some weekend soon I’ll send you the money if you need it is only ten o’clock now but I’m going to bed to dream about you.
But McNeil tells himself this is only the language of long distance, not of daily life together, and he won’t let her passion leave the page.
Susan knocks, and when he goes to the door, they touch each other’s arms. It is a blue Honda Accord in his driveway, apparently new, and she is an excellent driver. She wears perfume, which he has always been pleased Shushie has never done, though it flatters him to think of this girl so consciously preparing for him, and the scent is pleasant, even stirs him. Like Shushie, he has noticed, her ears have never been pierced, which seems surprisingly unconventional for Susan. Their conversation is cumbersome; and while he tells her what he knows about Lina Wertmuller, he sounds to himself like he is lecturing still, feels old and stuffy, not at all like age 28 except for his legs, which are once again full of unreined adrenalin. It occurs to him that it’s ridiculous to go to a movie again. Nearly all of their dates have been to this or the campus film series, and they’ve probably spent more time sitting next to each other in silence than actually conversing.
Susan cuts off the engine in the theater parking lot, and reaches across his lap for the glove compartment, saying almost into his chest, “I’d better not forget my glasses this time.” McNeil can’t decide if there is something more to this maneuver or if she really is only getting her glasses. It’s encouraging, at any rate. He has begun to open his door, and the interior light briefly reveals the lovely white down on her jaw and upper lip. He figures it is probably an annoyance to her, something she considers unfeminine, although to him it’s enormously attractive.
He is unable to concentrate through most of the first film, thinking only of Susan’s hand, which he takes soon enough, occasionally giving it little squeezes, which she infrequently returns. When Swept Away begins, she leans against McNeil’s arm, and when she removes her hand from his to scratch her face at one point, his hand slides onto her thigh. During the heated scenes, his hand looms large on her leg there, and McNeil knows Susan and everyone in the row behind them are watching it, but to move it is equally awkward, and it stays.
Her eyes are glassy with unshed tears when the film ends. McNeil puts his arm around her, asking “You all right?” as they file out, as if anything would be wrong with her. She smiles and nods, a bit embarrassed, and outside McNeil knows it is too late to go for drinks, the wretched refrain to which he always returns, decides he will let her take him home, perhaps it is the privacy of his own apartment that has made her insist on driving. At a red light Susan says, “They should never have left the island,” and McNeil agrees, which leaves little to say, so he disagrees. Shushie is in the back seat, shaking her head again. He had hoped to flatter Susan with the information that he cannot concentrate these days for thinking about her, but he knows such a line would still be pushing it at this point.
When she pulls into McNeil’s driveway and switches off the ignition, it is a good sign. “Will you come in for a bit?”
“No, I have to sleep. I have to be up early.”
“Just for a bit. I’ll make sure you get home soon.”
“No, really, Caleb.”
“Okay.” He forces a smile, but his chapped lips crack and prevent it, reminding him to wet them before kissing her this time. Despite the years of practice, he’s felt like a complete novice each time he has kissed Susan good night; the alignment is never quite right, or he unconsciously makes a ridiculous smacking sound, or parts his lips more or less than her own. As she often does while they say good night, Susan toys with one end of his wool scarf. She’s never noticed his initials embroidered in small letters in the corner, and on the other end the words “from your most lover,” which was how Shushie’s litle sister, at age six, had once referred to McNeil. He almost hopes she will discover the embroidery and ask, but at the same time he’s glad she overlooks it. Neurotically insistent, ever the planner, McNeil knows Susan is traveling with the team tomorrow night, but he must ask his usual question: “When do you think we can get together again?”
And Susan straightens. Dropping her hand from his scarf, she stumbles over umms and I means before announcing that she thinks a relationship should be “defined.”
McNeil’s heart sinks. “I really enjoy being with you,” she says, “but I liked it when things were a bit more casual. I just think I’m too tense with you. Something’s not right. Don’t you think?”
He scratches at the unfastened buckle of his seat belt. “Yeah, I guess,” he says.
“It’s not that things are that bad. It’s just, I mean, I can see where it’s going, and I think you must, too, or you will eventually.”
But McNeil already does see, and has seen, despite his persistence, and realizes she is only being more honest than he. Which still does not mean he wants to hear her say: “I just don’t think we should see each other so seriously.”
McNeil stares out the windshield at the wooden swing swaying on his front porch, “Yeah,” he agrees. Adolescent in this thing to the very end, he summons his old high school ethic of never letting a girl think she’s devastated him.
He realizes what a pitiful little boy he must nonetheless seem to her when she tells him, “I know you’ll find the right person eventually.”
“No, don’t worry about that,” McNeil says. He begins, but is unable to tell her that he already has.
Susan blushes for reversing their classroom roles, mumbles, “No, well, I didn’t mean to sound. . . .”
“It’s okay,” McNeil nods. “Really.”
“I’d still like to go to the film series with you. . . .”
“Okay,” McNeil tries to say agreeably, but he’s sure he’ll never call her again. Still, he leans over to kiss her lips as he had planned, wondering if he is alrady transgressing her new directive. But she does not avert her face, only kisses him back automatically and evenly. With a final, subdued “Good night,” he is out of the car and walking slowly up the creaky stairs to his door, steadying an arm of the swing with his hand, aware that he is somehow only playing at solemnity as he turns to wave once from the porch. But once inside he finds himself smiling. Chins himself on the bar in his kitchen doorway, swings into the kitchen, and hungrily tears open an orange. He is free. Shushie’s number rushes at him like a song.