The House on Mt. Vernon Street
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The irony of the name “ Charles” assigned to a river seems to be lost on many Bostonians, or perhaps too obscure a detail for anyone to really care about. But, Professor Stephan Garcin had always found it ironic that the city, with its Freedom Trail and Faneuil Hall and Boston Massacre Monument, had a large river named after a despotic English king running through it. And, in addition, a street named after the same king. This he mused over every so often as he descended Mt. Vernon Street to eat breakfast at the Paramount. As a professor with a doctorate in English Literature, he supposed it was his job to notice the actual meaning and frequent stupidity of words.
Professor Garcin taught at Northeastern University in Back Bay, where he found students disturbingly aloof in their studies. Most were more interested in parties, and according to local newspaper, vandalizing neighborhood homes as they returned from said parties. Oh, how he dreamed of Harvard! Or, at the very least, Emerson. Students there were reportedly pretentious, which would maybe create some interesting discussion. Northeastern students were pretentious in their own way, about topics which they cared for—beer and film and numerous hedonistic desires. This was not to say there weren’t students that Garcin enjoyed—he particularly liked that young man—Mr.Danbury—in his 19th Century English Lit class.
These things were but trivialities to the 58 year old, as long as he had his home and his wife Ling and his son Charles Dickens Garcin. He lived in and loved thoroughly a three story house on Mt. Vernon. It was the product of months of speculation and investigation, and the final resting place of nearly a million dollars. Indeed, it had cost Garcin all of his life savings and then some, but to him, it was more than worth it. Built in the same year that Poe published Ms. Found in a Bottle, the house had maintained constant upkeep since then, and, to Garcin, was perfect in most every way. It was walking distance from the Common and from the aforementioned Charles St, where he could buy nearly anything he needed at only a reasonably overpriced cost. He was five minutes from both the Park St. T-stop and the Charles T-stop, which would take him to most places in Boston.
The layout was exquisite and very comfortable. The front door opened into a grand hardwood foyer, deliciously lit in sepia tones by a multi-tiered chandelier. Upon first sight, the visitor would be faced with a wooden staircase. To the right of that was a hallway leading to the kitchen, and on the visitor’s direct right lay the parlor, where the professor occasionally read on the love seat adjacent to the sofa. Through a doorway at the back of the parlor lay the dining room, also illuminated by a chandelier. Through a turnstile doorway on the side of the dining room was the cozy kitchen and breakfast area, with its dark wood cabinets and (thanks to Ling) light cinnamon scents. The window over the sink in the kitchen faced the stone courtyard between him and his neighbor, complete with tables, chairs, and a lovely garden. The upper floor of the house was all hardwood. Over the kitchen was the professor’s study, wallpapered with ancient tomes of all sorts. A long hallway terminating in a stairwell to the third floor and branching off to two bedrooms along the way was all that remained of the second level. The third floor was composed of only two rooms—Charlie’s old playroom, with soft white carpet and sky blue walls dotted with creamy clouds; and a dusty old storage space.
How Garcin loved to sit in the breakfast room in the morning and drink his coffee and look at beautiful Ling while she prepared his scrambled eggs. How he so enjoyed gazing out the bay window on the front parlor at the red and yellow autumn leaves drifting like butterflies down from the tree outside the house. How cozy his study! The Professor loved that house to an almost unhealthy degree.
But, to keep from igniting the jealousies of his wife, he lavished her with attention and praise, and spoiled her to the best of his ability. The two had met when he was thirty-five and she twenty—she was an undergraduate studying Botany at the University of Chicago, he working feverishly on his doctorate. In the years since then, she had aged physically to about thirty-two. She remained gorgeous, long-legged, doe-eyed, dark haired, while he had, unfortunately, begun to fall apart. Ling was of Chinese descent, but had never seen her motherland. She had no accent, but spoke very softly and quickly. Her face was so perfectly shaped, so perfectly acute and round, Garcin couldn’t help but peck her freckled cheeks whenever possible. Her skin was pale and smooth as ivory and practically fleckless. She always dressed in dark colors and skirts, never afraid to show off her delicate, eloquent legs. She was well-versed in the classics of Chinese literature, and repeatedly intrigued her husband with discussion about them. Her half-hearted pursuit of botany had only given her a very capable green thumb, with which she had littered the house with rare and pulchritudinous species of plant.
Together, Ling and Garcin had raised their twenty-one year old son, Charlie. Charlie, sadly, disappointed the Professor a little bit. The boy had done well-enough in grade school, with an early interest and aptitude for music. This developed into an obsession with guitar and a reiterative involvement in local bands during high school. Instead of attending Harvard pre-law as Garcin had hoped, the boy had attended Berkely School of Music in Back Bay for a year. Then, due to the rigorous tour schedule of his band, he dropped out to fully support his passion. Charlie had claimed he already knew all he needed about music, and just wanted to spread his message to the masses. The argument between him and his father had been explosive, a fireball shattering the tree-snapping still cold of a Massachusetts winter night. Charlie had left with the door slam heard round the world, red-faced and nearly in tears with frustration, and the two had not spoken since. Truthfully, Garcin was more than a little disappointed, and even more so brokenhearted, but he loved his son the same.
And because he had his home and his wife and somewhat his son, Professor Garcin was happy. Never mind the preposterously hastening train of time that had left the withering shadow of the thought of Death in his mind. Never mind that little cough he had—he enjoyed his pipe far too much, and who gave a damn what he put in it? And never mind that that same locomotion of ages had decayed and destroyed him, left his body an under-oiled, arthritic, slightly (just a smidgen) overweight sweater-vested machine. His hair was more salt than pepper, and was on its way to more dome than foliage. No, he never allowed himself to consider these things in the autumn of his existence.
It was a fine, crisp like rice paper, mid-autumn morning that Professor Garcin rode the green line from Park Street to Northeastern. He was dressed in his brown pants and itchy gray sweater, with a white button down shirt collar protruding like a mountain summit over his outfit. His boots clicked on the stones of the sidewalk, then the cement tiles of the quad as he made his way to class. The grass of the quad was an amber tawny color, disheveled like messy hair and cluttered with bisque dead leaves. A breeze blew, carrying with it the promise of winter, and also the acrid smell of cigarette smoke. Never had he seen so many people smoking before he came to this university. But no bother, he was glad there were no restrictions against it on campus.
He first went to his office, located in the dusky, maze-like confines of one of the older buildings on campus. It was adjacent to the sitting room for English teachers, with its almost tomb-like appearance among the ancient brick walls and antediluvian tomes on rotting shelves. Professors Davis and Ford were drinking coffee as he passed by, bidding them good morning. They raised their cups in greeting, Professor Davis smiling her goofy, bespectacled smile beneath a crop of frizzy brown hair, Professor Ford half-grinning boyishly, the features of his 76 year old face wrinkling considerably.
Garcin arrived in his office right on time as usual—9:00 A.M. He remained there until 11:30, reading a journal comparing Daisy Miller to Nabokov’s Lolita, then departed to lunch with Davis. Over pastrami sandwiches they discussed and lamented the decay of modern literary culture, then parted ways to teach classes. At 1:25, Garcin had 19th Century English Lit, with his favorite student, Elliott Danbury. Stephan was captivated not only by Danbury’s unique intelligence, but his curious character as well. The youth had mid-length raven color hair and murky, questioning brown eyes. He was usually well-dressed, in his own way. He had some sort of affinity for tacky sweaters and plaid pants. Even in his middle age, Garcin knew Danbury’s clothes were unfashionable.
At the beginning of the semester, Elliott was quiet and reserved. At that time, he had melded with the rest of the twenty-five student class. Then, as the Professor had delightfully noted, the comments of fellow student Evelyn Stein had slowly, decisively driven Elliott to the edge of confrontation. Finally, to Garcin’s barely-restrained glee, Elliott spoke with a dagger of a tongue:
“ Evelyn—you’re missing the point. It doesn’t matter if you can trust the author or not. What matters is that you can feel his expression, his pain. Because that’s what this is, it’s pain on paper. Asking whether or not you can trust the author is asking whether or not his pain is real, and frankly, I find that insulting.”
Evelyn, a huffy and probably mischievous rich daddy’s girl, was appalled. She looked to Garcin for support, but he could only smile, for he too, had grown exasperated with her incessant and unnecessary chattering. She did not speak in class for at least two weeks after that event. And from that point on, Garcin had liked Elliott. That very same day, Elliott approached him after class to speak of Lord Byron and the two had grown fast friends.
That day, the Professor was lecturing on Middlemarch, which consequently led to a discussion of marriage. It grew quite heated, as Garcin watched on in surprise. Finally, Elliott turned the spotlight on him.
“ Professor, you’re married, what do you think?”
“ Well, that is…marriage is a lovely thing, if of course one makes sure he or she is making the exact right choice—there are equal parts idealism and realism involved. Dorothea’s problem, obviously, is that she expects too much out of life. She’s too busy stopping to smell the flowers to realize she’s about to step in garbage, if you will…”
After class, Elliott approached Garcin as usual.
“ Nice answer back there.” He said.
“ Thank you. I found it a little lacking myself.”
“ Don’t buy into your own words?”
“ Oh, I do, of course, but my metaphor of flowers and garbage was a tad much, I think.”
“ Well, you are an English professor.”
“ I suppose that does entitle me to a certain degree of fluffed language.”
“ I’d say so.”
“ Speaking of which, Elliott, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. We’ve never spoken of your major.”
“ Oh, well I’m an English major, of course.”
“ Good, good. If you don’t my asking, what do you want to do with that?”
“ I guess become an English professor.”
“ You don’t sound so sure.”
“ Well, I’m not.”
Garcin noticed that the youth’s faced had darkened a bit. An interesting development.
“ Say, Elliott, would you ever be interested in having dinner at my place?” Garcin threw his line out. He was always willing to show off his house, and he wished to talk to Danbury longer than their five minute intervals after class.
“ Uh…sure. I’m always ready to eat something other than dining hall food.”
“ Great. What day can you do it?”
“ Does Thursday work for you?”
“ I believe so.”
“ Yes.” The Professor paused to scribble something on a sheet of paper. “ Here’s my address. Do you know where that is?”
“ Over in Beacon Hill? Yeah.”
“ Excellent. Want to come over…say, six?”
“ That works.”
“ Good. Well, I’ll see you in class on Wednesday, then.”
When Garcin returned home to Ling that day, he excitedly told her of the dinner on Thursday. She smiled, appearing to share at least a partial amount of his excitement, but then conceded with, “ I’m sorry, dear, but the first game of my bowling league is Thursday night. Will you and Elliott…?”
“ Oh, I forgot about that. I’m sorry.” The Professor gingerly kissed Ling’s freckled cheek. “ Elliott and I can make do, I suppose. I haven’t tested my cooking skills in a while, since yours are so exemplary.”
“ Thanks, love.”
“ You’re very welcome.”
So, with the absence of Ling, Professor Garcin fastidiously caroused the recipe books lining the baker’s rack in the kitchen of the house for something that he figured Elliott would like. Of course, it didn’t take long for Garcin to realize that it was impossible for someone to figure out another’s taste in food simply by that person’s taste in literature. Having reached that end, the Professor chose one of the handful of dishes he was particularly adept at preparing. That Thursday, he came home and changed into his flannel lounge pants and a comfortable sweater, then diligently began on the work ahead. At 5:30, with only thirty minutes (!) before Elliott’s arrival, Ling left to go bowling. Garcin kissed her on the mouth on her way out the door and wished her luck. At six, Elliott arrived in his usual tacky conservative wear, removing a striped scarf. Garcin had barely had the time to wipe the beads of sweat off his brow.
“ Come in, come in. This is my humble abode.”
“ Very nice.” Elliott commented, pushing a brown lock out of his face while he looked around. “ Not very humble.”
“ Oh you jest. This is the parlor, and through that door is the dining room. But we won’t be eating there, we’ll be eating here.”
And, under the gentle yellow gaze of forty-eight simulated candles of the foyer chandelier, the two passed into the homey kitchen. Elliott’s boots clicked satisfactorily on the tile floor.
“ Food smells good.”
“ Thank you. One can only hope it tastes the same.”
“ Where’s your wife? I’m curious to meet the Mrs behind the legend.”
“ She’s at the first game of her bowling league tonight. There will always be other times. For now, sit, and ready yourself for a treat.”
Garcin had made a simple salad to complement a splendid Chilean sea bass. With it, he brewed a pot of tea. It was of the professor’s opinion that tea went well with any and all foods. He felt the same about coffee.
“ So, Elliott, we’ve spoken the last several weeks about nothing but literature. How about you tell me a bit about yourself for once?”
“ Well, what would you like to know?”
“ I guess it might help to know where you’re from.”
“ South Carolina.”
“ Really? You have no accent.”
“ I was born in Wisconsin.”
“ This is excellent, by the way.”
“ Thank you. Now, what brings you to Boston?”
“ I’ve spent most of my life living in a suburb of Columbia. There was nothing to do. Nothing at all. And the political and intellectual atmosphere was just…stifling. And the weather was shit, too.”
Garcin chuckled. “ I’ve heard that before. But, you know, New England doesn’t have the most pleasant weather…”
“ I just want some true cold weather. You don’t find much of that in South Carolina.”
“ Ah. So you came to Boston to relieve your boredom, your distaste of Southern heat, and a negative environment for your intellectual aspirations.”
“ Why’d you come to Northeastern?”
“ Well, for starters, it gave me a great financial aid offer. And I mean, it’s a pretty good school, right?”
“ Right. But, if you don’t mind me saying, you exhibit an intellectual genius and prowess that I’ve not seen at Northeastern in the three years I’ve worked there. Why aren’t you somewhere like, oh, Harvard or Yale?”
“ Long story, I guess.”
“ That’s fine. So what do you think so far?”
“ I love it. Boston is…it’s great. And I am enjoying myself at Northeastern.”
“ That’s good to hear.”
“ Yep. So what about you, how’d you end up at Northeastern?”
The Professor smiled. “ Long story. Don’t try to divert the spotlight. What made you choose English? You said you wanted to be a professor, but that means you don’t want to just teach.”
“ Right. I like to write.”
“ Oh really? What kind of things? Poetry, short stories…novels?”
“ Poetry and short stories, mostly. I tried writing a novel once.”
“ It sucked.”
“ I’m sure there’s nothing farther from the truth.”
“ Oh, trust me, Professor. It was trash.”
“ I find that hard to believe. Why not let me read it, so I can decide for myself?”
“ How about I start you off with a short story, instead?”
“ I’ll bring it to the next class.”
For another two hours, Professor and Student sat at the little wooden round breakfast table, next to the strangely modern black appliances of the old cherry oak kitchen. They discussed all things under the sun, from politics to books to celebrities, to love and history and the future. Garcin and Elliott found themselves to be equals in nearly all facets of opinion. They both felt like best friends, old souls, separated by the sliding sands of time.
About 8:30, Elliott rose from the table, announcing that he had mid-terms to study for. The Professor agreed to let him leave only on the terms that they would make a habit of these dinners. Elliott acceded, claiming he would never turn down a free meal, especially under such pleasant company. They consented to meet the next Wednesday at the same time. That time, Elliott would be able to meet Ling.
Rewrapping the striped scarf around his neck, the student shook hands with Garcin and stepped into the frosty night. The Professor shut the door as a gust of wind rattled dead leaves off the tree outside his house, sending them scraping down the gutters and sidewalks.
The next time Garcin saw Elliott was during his Friday class. Once the lecture was over, Elliott approached him as usual and handed him his short story. Then, with a sheepish smile and a handshake, he departed early. Raising one eyebrow in curiosity, Garcin headed outside to sit by the quad and read. He had eagerly anticipated Elliott’s writing, ever since he had had the pleasure of reading the youth’s first paper. With an expensive tobacco pipe hanging from his mouth, gentle curls of saccharine purple smoke lilting like ghostly flowers from it, he delved into the manuscript. It read as follows:
Of the Life and Times of Daniel Bedington: Part I
Daniel Bedington was born into a typical middle-class Midwestern family. He had one brother, one half-brother, and one half-sister. His father Harold Bedington II worked out of town on contract to maintain the family’s well-being. Only two years after his birth, Daniel and his family moved to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. Harold had the family do this so they could be united, but it did not last long. Daniel’s half-sister, Francesca, remained in the Michigan town they had come from. She was sixteen years his senior, and would soon be pregnant out of wedlock. Daniel’s half-brother, Larkin, remained in Michigan for a few years then joined the rest of the family in Georgia. He was married at that time to a future ex-wife.
Daniel lived an odd, but uneventful childhood. He had an unusual attachment to his mother, so much so that he skipped school in fifth grade because he missed her too much. He early on showed a high intelligence, and through the years, became to be viewed as the last hope of the Bedingtons. No one said it, but everyone knew it, including young Daniel. All of the children of Harold Jr. had fallen short of their ambitions. This became especially acute as Daniel entered middle school.
Larkin had done reasonably well throughout high school, however, he dropped out of college after one year. He got his second chance when he played bass in a grunge act on the fringe of popularity. Unfortunately, this ended when he quit to appease his wife. Months later, the band exploded into the mainstream. Larkin eventually divorced that same woman.
Francesca had also done reasonably well in high school. Upon graduation, though, she disappeared and emerged three years later with a child and no father. As Daniel entered high school, she had a second child and was still trying to get a college degree, though she was married at this point.
Jack, only seven years older than Daniel, had barely graduated from high school. He attended a public university in Southern Georgia afterwards, which was more than he or anyone else had predicted four years prior.
Still, entering high school, Daniel stood as the last Bedington to be able to rise above the family’s humble middle class status. With good grades and sharp wit, he seemed poised to do so.
But perhaps Daniel was too innocent, too needy to function normally in high school. He desperately wanted to fall in love. And, within a month of attending the local public institution, he thought he had. He had miraculously managed to push himself into dating a Chinese girl he had had a crush on.
For two months, they were attached to each other. Daniel could not disseminate between love and lust, though, and this would be a painful lesson for him to learn. During that period of time, Harold Bedington Sr.’s health began to decline. Just as he was hospitalized for the second time due to complications of congestive heart failure, Daniel’s girlfriend decided she no longer wanted to be with him.
Never before had Daniel felt so in love, and never had he been hurt so badly. He fell into a deep depression, and began cutting himself. He smoked marijuana with the members of his band and drank alcohol on a regular basis. He wanted to commit suicide, but he knew that the elder Bedington was going to die soon, and he didn’t want to bankrupt the family or completely crush his father, Harold Jr. For though Daniel had never treated Harold as such, the man had been a kind and caring father. The thought of him having to deal with two deaths at the same time was heartbreaking.
The eldest Bedington died shortly after Christmas and was buried the day before Daniel’s birthday.
With that came the dissolution of Daniel’s family. Harold Sr. had been the unifying force of them all. He was a man of numerous jokes and amiable personality. If for nothing else, the members came together to be amused by him. But now that he had parted for good, there existed a vacuum in the family which would never be filled. Harold Jr. was working contracts out of state again. In a short time, Larkin would accuse the rest of the family of being against him and stop speaking to them. Francesca was still too far away to be a regular part of things, as was Jack. This left Daniel, who now only aspired to be a beach bum.
Eventually, though, Daniel’s frame of mind changed, and he decided that he still wanted to be the pride of the family. He still wanted to raise the prestige of the Bedingtons. He wanted to go to Harvard and become a famous writer. But by this point he was already taking summer school for the classes he had failed while under the influence. It didn’t take long for him to realize that his dreams were in vain—he had destroyed them himself. He had no chance in applying to Harvard now and…
Garcin set the manuscript down, shaken at the atrocious nature of the work. Was this the same student that turned in A papers in his class? He refused to believe it. Surely, none other than an eighth grader had written what he had just read. Elliott’s analytical writing and even the language he used in speaking was rich and complicated. What Garcin had just read was Hemingway at his most mediocre, it was mass market paperback romantic rubbish. He had expected Fitzgerald or Tolstoy and had received Brett Easton Ellis instead. Were the papers he had read before mere forgeries? That was unlikely—Elliott’s character was of too much quality and his spoken word too sophisticated to suppose that. Maybe it was a practical joke. He certainly hoped so.
Perplexed and a smidgen disheartened, the Professor puffed his pipe and placed the story in his parcel bag. He craved some coffee. He headed down gusty Huntington Avenue to sit in one of his favorite local coffee houses and muse over the conspicuously…average writing. At the bottom of the cup, he decided that he would not mention the story unless Elliott brought it up.
The weekend passed without event, and Monday came, bringing the 1:25 lit class with it. They continued discussions of Middlemarch and its depiction of human desires. After class, Elliott approached him as usual.
“ How was your weekend?” the Professor asked.
“ Nothing special. There was much studying to be had.”
“ I see, I see.”
There was an awkward pause, then Elliott said with a general interest in his tone, “ So, did you read the story?”
It was then that a terrible cough racked Professor Garcin’s body. For a solid minute, he choked and sputtered, hands resting on the knees of his pleated trousers. These fits were common to him, but never had they been this bad. Of course, he could have been exaggerating things a little to stall time.
“ Are you alright?” Elliott asked after a while, visibly concerned.
Garcin cleared his throat and cleared it again. With one last great cough, he stood straight and smiled at Elliott. “ Yes, just a slight cough there. Ahem. What were we talking about?”
“ My story.”
“ Yes. Well, I found its style to be vastly different than that of the papers you wrote in class.”
“ I’ll admit I was experimenting a little, but other than that, what did you think?”
“ The story of the family was very uhm, tragic, I must say.” Garcin knew he had to derail the conversation before it led to disaster. He had to change topics. “ Tell me about your novel, now that I’m more engaged than ever as to your talent. Is it in the same…style as this story?”
“ I guess. I really don’t care for it, though, and…”
“ Are you still coming to dinner Wednesday?”
“ Of course.”
“ Great. Perhaps we should discuss it there. And I bet Ling would be delighted to hear about your writing.”
“ Okay. I’ll see you later, then?”
As the Professor sat in his study that night, he realized that there had been something else about Elliott’s story bothering him. What it was, he did not know. It was just out of the grasp of his mind. He went back to the manuscript and combed over it, scouring the reaches of his thought to figure out what it was. As a bit of a writer himself, he tried to figure out why Elliott would change his style, why Elliott would depict the pathetic characters that he did…
It was true. Garcin sucked his pipe and scratched his beard. Yes, that had to be it. The boy had written from personal experience. That was the only way. Garcin knew from his own attempts as an author that drawing too directly from one’s life led to two types of product: either an extraordinarily well-felt, ultra-developed and significant work of art; or, because the paint hadn’t had time to dry, because the emotions hadn’t settled enough to be analyzed and written down, a seemingly half-hearted, abortive mediocrity resulted. It made sense all of a sudden—when Garcin had asked why Elliott wasn’t attending Harvard, he had replied that it was a long story. And in giving him this manuscript, the student had been trying to tell Garcin that story. And the way he had behaved when confronted with what he wanted to do with his life—it was still inexplicit to him. Oh, poorest of poor Elliott!
The next problem confronting Garcin was how to approach Elliott with this realization. For the most part, their relationship had remained almost professional, in a sense. Never before had they discussed such pervading, difficult topics as those about which Elliott had scribed. Obviously, Elliott wished to discourse about the events which had befallen him in his life, given the thinly veiled method in which he had presented them. He had given Garcin the key, now the Professor had merely to find the right door.
He knew also that Elliott was obviously a troubled young man, and that it was good for him to have someone to speak with, but to what extent was he the right person to fill that role? The boy needed professional help—he had wanted to commit suicide at one point. However, as could be the case, perhaps he was avoiding a psychologist on the terms that psychiatric evaluations cost copious amounts of money, and would bring his problems under the eye of his parents. Perhaps Elliott just needed a confidant. The Professor was ready to occupy that role, but how could he get to it without imposing himself? There was a small chance that the student had just written a story and nothing else.
Ultimately, Garcin decided to bide his time and keep a keen observation on his prized student. He would drop a few questions at their dinner that Wednesday and see in what manner Elliott answered them. Those would decide his future course of action.
The next day and the day after followed without event. Elliott failed to mention his story, creating a fear in Garcin that he had driven his pupil from the hope of discussion. However, he did not act on this fear, and, he hoped, he maintained a normal outward appearance to the student.
Wednesday finally arrived and with it a biting cold. The whispery breath of winter on every breeze had turned into a banshee scream heading the blast of each icy gust that day. Garcin shivered underneath his brown sweater as he made his way down to the Park St. T-stop that morning. Hundreds of titian leaves shredded down the sidewalks, whipping weakly into him as he trudged along. Old man winter was not far off.
Temperatures declined after about two P.M., and left Elliott shivering in his scarf and beanie while he waited on Garcin to open the door.
“ Come in, come in. We have a fire going, and tea a-brewing.” The Professor welcomed him in with a wide swath of his arm.
“ Thanks.” Elliott said faintly. Garcin took his fur collar coat and put it in the closet underneath the stairs. He then fetched a cup of tea and handed it to the cherry-cheeked student, who reaffirmed his gratitude.
“ Have a seat.” Garcin motioned to one of the cozy leather chairs in the parlor. Elliott obliged, and the Professor sat opposite him. “ Dinner will be ready shortly.”
“ May I ask what I am being treated to tonight?”
“ Of course.”
There was a moment’s pause. Elliott laughed, “ Well, what is it?”
“ There you are. We’re having Ling’s specially-prepared Soup a l’oignon, along with baguette and boeuf bourguignon.”
“ Très bien.” Elliott countered, then blushed and said timidly, “ That’s about all the French I know.”
“ That’s fine. I took Italian in college.”
“ Really? Remember anything?”
“ Not at all.”
“ I see…so since you’ve been badgering me with questions this past week,” Elliott took a moment to slurp some tea, “ I now find it fit for me to ask you something.”
Garcin raised an eyebrow. “ Shoot.”
“ Well, since we’re on the topic of college, what drew you to major in English?”
“ Hah, that’s a bit of a story. I guess it started with…”
“ Boys, dinner’s ready.” Came a gentle voice from the kitchen.
“ Shall we finish this over dinner?”
Professor Garcin led his student into the kitchen, whereupon he formally introduced Ling.
And it was in that moment that Elliott was transfixed. Entranced. Tantalized. Enchanté, to say the least. Garcin’s wife held her hand out to him and he took it, trying to maintain his composure. It felt soft and light; her grasp was not forced or strong. She pulled her hand back after a second, delicate, sincere smile persisting all the way. In a daze, Elliott sat with the couple at their breakfast table, which was covered in fine-smelling cuisine in expensive white dishes. Professor Garcin began speaking and Elliott somehow managed a conversation, but for the duration of the night he was fixed upon Ling, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Her hair, black as midnight, formed a flawless frame around her sumptuous face. It flowed like a gentle atramentous waterfall down the sides of her head, lilting this way and that while she moved, careless like curtains caught in the breeze. Bits of light clung to it and bounced away, and he swore he saw a halo behind her, under the gentle kitchen light.
Her face was matchless—there was no better in Heaven. Her simple forehead sat above delicious almond eyes, graced with the shine of utmost intelligence. They sparkled as she laughed in delightful melodies. Her nose was cute and small. Her lips were full and cerise, masking an immaculate smile of teeth straighter than piano keys. And when she smiled, dimples formed below her well-formed cheekbones, and the whole world seemed to stop. Her chin and jaw were gently defined, appearing to complete the harmony of her countenance.
Below her chin was a short and voluptuous neck, the lines of her throat barely showing, begging to be kissed.
She was wearing a simple, though alluring outfit—a long black skirt and black boots, with a slit up the side, briefly exposing her golden thigh, ever so trim and exquisite. Her top consisted of a calm blue button down shirt, adhering nicely to the wanton curves of her body.
When she spoke, all too briefly contributing to Elliott and the Professor’s conversations, her voice was high and soft, delicate like flowers or glass. Elliott felt like if he spoke too loud in response, he would shatter it. It sent shivers down his spine.
For three hours they must’ve sat around that table, and for three hours, Elliott admired Ling Garcin. He took every precaution to make sure that the Professor didn’t notice, nor Ling for that matter. But what truly reeled him helplessly in was the fact that there were several instances where his gaze and Ling’s met—then locked. She seemed to be whispering sweet nothings with her eyes. He knew he wasn’t imagining things, but at the same time, this seemed too good to be true. She was impossibly young to be the Professor’s wife, though.
But Garcin was his friend, and he certainly couldn’t betray him. And he had just met this lady—how could he possibly imagine in his wildest dreams that she was just as in love with him as he was with her, that she wanted to do the things he wanted to. To even consider her being remotely willing to commit adultery at this point was ludicrous. But then, he would see her enthralling glance, and that argument would fall to pieces.
In any circumstance, Elliott was reluctant to leave when he felt the pressures of polite society upon him. He shook hands with the Professor, then turned to Ling. She offered her hand and he took it, and immediately he felt something different from the previous shake. It was warmer, tighter. She gave him that look again, right under Garcin’s nose. Embarrassed, confused, Elliott quickly made his departure into the bite of winter awaiting him outside.
He took the T back to Northeastern and back to the bedimmed confines of his dorm on The Fenway. He had long grown tired of the sterile fluorescent bulbs and speckled sorrel-blue carpets and the bare, off white walls. He knew hardly a soul on his hall—relations with his roommate were detached and formal. Most of his time was spent enshrined in study or reading. All of his meals were eaten solitarily. In sooth, he had felt his soul to be threadbare at best, despairingly lonely at worst, and yet, here he had found hope in two people: friendship in Professor Garcin, love in his wife, if she meant what she said with her eyes. Sadly, there was little way these two relationships could develop simultaneously. One day he would have to choose.
Professor Garcin felt he had made considerable progress with Elliott. At the end of the night they had made arrangements to meet again the next week, by which he surmised he would be ready to begin the difficult process of dismantling and relieving the emotional demons of his young friend. At dinner he had asked increasingly intimate though hardly personal questions about Elliott’s family, his hometown, his hobbies. This had given Garcin significant insight—Elliott indeed had three siblings, two brothers and a sister. He hadn’t known his hometown in Wisconsin for very long at all. And, he had fostered a brief interest in music, which was alluded to in his story as well. The Professor felt newly accomplished at these discoveries, and somewhat alarmed to know he was able to confidently consider Elliott’s story a plea for help. There was a fresh urgency to his motives.
That Friday, Elliott and Garcin held their typical dialogue after class.
“ Got any big plans for the weekend?” Elliott asked casually.
“ Housework. I’ve found two bulbs in the chandelier in my foyer that have gone out, and won’t seem to come on again even after I’ve replaced them. And the light in the kitchen is doing the same thing. I might have to call an electrician.”
Elliott chuckled slightly.
“ It amuses me to imagine you on a ladder in your work clothes, fumbling about with a chandelier, probably while smoking your pipe.”
Garcin smiled. “ Well, you’ve affirmed the image right-on. But anyhow, what day would like to have dinner next week? Ling wanted me to you know that she was very pleased to meet you and see for herself all the great things I’ve told her about you, by the way.”
Elliott blushed. “ I’m flattered.” He desperately wanted to see Ling again, and this now weekly dinner was his only chance to do so. He had to pick his day carefully—Thursday was out of the question, since he remembered that she had her bowling league that night. He decided to be safe and choose Wednesday again.
“ I guess Wednesday works, though I think Thursday might be better for me.” The Professor responded.
“ I don’t think I can do it Thursday. Sorry, maybe we could rearrange it for another…”
“ No, no, Wednesday is quite alright. I’ll let Ling know in advance, she’ll prepare something fantastic.”
“ Great. I’ll see you Monday, then?”
“ Sure. Have a good weekend.”
“ You too. Good luck with your lights.”
Professor Garcin wanted to appease Elliott, but he knew there was no way he could speak to him with Ling there. He loved Ling with all of his heart, but she created an awkwardness and probably for Elliott, an uncomfortable atmosphere in which he would not be able to speak his heart. Maybe the next week he would be successful in bringing Elliott over on Thursday, the only day Ling was not home at night. Or perhaps he could ask the boy out for coffee one afternoon. He wanted to maintain the weekly dinners, though, since it seemed to comfort Elliott. Garcin understood the importance of a home cooked meal.
By that next Wednesday, the Common was devoid of its autumn foliage, now carpeted with a layer of rusty dead leaves. The frosty wind of winter had settled for good, leaving Garcin’s cheeks chapped. He wore his gray wool overcoat all the time now, and his black scarf as well. Boston was waiting for that first snow, for the first stars to fall from their homes in the sky and grace the ground. Thanksgiving was coming, and before he knew it, the semester would be over. This put a franticness to his actions, to his desire to cure Elliott before it was too late. Especially because, to his knowledge, Elliott had not registered into any of his classes. It was true they would remain friends into the next semester, but Garcin figured the student would have to go home for Christmas before then, and who knew what sort of terrible occurrence could happen then?
A cold drizzle fell as Elliott took the T to the Professor’s house, casting a translucent blur over the subway windows. The lights of the city were magnified and beclouded with a halo effect, filling the dark view port with enormous red and yellow bulbs. He shivered as he stepped onto the platform at the Charles stop, making his way down the Longfellow Bridge onto the glittering displays of Charles Street. Most stores had their holiday displays up, though Christmas was more than a month away.
A few minutes later, he found himself at Garcin’s door on the sloping sidewalk of Mt. Vernon Street. He knocked once, cold drops of precipitation peppering the back of his neck, and then Garcin had flung the door open. He was brought into the warm, homey interior, now slightly darkened by the absence of a few chandelier lights.
“ I see you couldn’t fix your chandelier problem.” Elliott observed.
“ Yes, unfortunately. We didn’t have any luck in the kitchen either, so Ling and I had to use candles.”
“ Romantic.” Elliott quipped sarcastically, but a part of him meant it.
Over another fine dinner, professor and student talked for hours once more. But this time, Elliott noticed, the Professor’s questions weren’t as intrusive. This thought passed through his mind for but a split second, a fly in a photograph. He was too ensorcelled by Ling, whose features were rendered ravishingly by the flickering shadows drawn by the candles. She had grown somehow more angelic since their parting. And, to both his horror and his delight, she was still giving him those enticing looks. As Garcin prattled on about homosexuality amongst the Beats, Elliott was able to reply to Ling with his own look. To this, she smiled, though he regretted it instantaneously. Garcin was his friend, his only friend (to be honest without hindrance). He was playing a dangerous game, but never before had he fallen in love with a woman so deeply in such a short span of time.
After Elliott’s reply, Ling’s alluring stares ceased. This came towards the end of the evening, and a few minutes later Elliott excused himself to the bathroom before announcing his departure. The Professor led him to the door and said his goodbye, and here he was able to shake Ling’s hand again, an event he had looked forward to for a whole week. He grasped her fragile hand, his palm against hers, and felt a slip of paper between them. She smiled, eyes quickly flirting downward at their hands. He nodded slightly, and wished the both of them goodnight.
Elliott stuffed the paper in his pocket as soon as the door shut behind him, and it felt like he had more likely placed hot charcoal there while he walked back to the T stop. He dared not look at it before he got on the train, for fear it would be ruined in the drizzle. The paper beckoned him and when he finally got on the train, he tore it from his coat. He read it and was rendered equal parts ecstatic and terrified. In elegant, dainty handwriting was scribed the message:
“ Call before Stephan gets home tomorrow at 5 PM. 617-943 4—”
Whatever could this mean? What could it lead to? Would he satisfy Ling’s request? These uncertainties kept him awake most of the night. As the pink fingers of dawn reached over the skeletal trees of The Fens, Elliott came to the conclusion that he would definitely call Ling, and see where that would take him. He hated himself for betraying the Professor so, but fantasies of being with Ling overtook and dominated his thinking. Dim hopes like ghastly, far away lights in the dark flittered in his head—maybe Ling would leave the Professor for him, and they could disappear. Or maybe the Professor was one of those types that encouraged multiple partners. Given his penchant for Romantic poetry, Elliott doubted it, but for the moment his heart was sequestered from anything but love and yearning.
Sleep finally became him, and he awoke nine hours later with a mind weakly set in its purpose and shakily unclouded by doubt. He suffered a rushed shower and, glancing at his watch, picked up his cell phone with overexcited hands to dial the number on the paper. He paced while it rang. And when Ling answered in her sultry, inveigling voice, he couldn’t help but grin until the edges of his lips hurt.
“ I have a bowling game tonight, but it’s early enough in the season that I can drop out and find a replacement. Meet me at Casa Romero on Gloucester Street at 6 P.M.”
Elliott could only agree nervously to her directions, surprised at her forwardness. Though direct and specific, all of Ling’s words were delivered in her casual, sweet tone, which made things all the more perplexing for the youth.
“ I look forward to seeing you,” said Ling, signaling the end of their brief but significant conversation.
“ Not as much as I look forward to seeing you,” Elliott replied awkwardly, and said his goodbye. He stared down at his phone in disbelief, then laughed heartily, and continued to do so at periodic intervals until it came time for him to prepare for his date. He wore his best trousers and sweater, including a tie in the outfit. Judging by the Garcins’ taste for ornate cooking and their home in derisorily expensive Beacon Hill, Elliott inferred that Casa Romero would be no commoner’s taco shack. He was giddy and filled with nervous pangs, and at the same time, he berated himself for doing this to the Professor.
Gloucester Street, an offshoot of the shopping district on Newbury Street, was a short walk from the Hynes T-stop. Twilight had settled on the streets by the time Elliott emerged from the subway, and the stramineous city lights were now cast palely on oppressive gray clouds blanketing the night sky. The air was moist and cold, but apprehensive. Had Elliott not been raised in South Carolina, he would’ve known that the first snowfall was nearly there.
Heading up Mass Avenue, Elliott made a right down Marlborough St and shortly came upon a shady alleyway, the back of which contained the entrance to Casa Romero. With entire flocks of butterflies budding in his stomach as he took each step down the alley, he approached pensively. At last, he reached the darkened doorstep of his destination, and made his way inside via an old wooden door hardly suited to its hinges. He was thereupon drenched in the gloom of Old Mexico—assaulted at every corner by lavish floral décor and wrought iron and woven tapestries. Bravely repressing his last urge to abscond, he stepped forward to the podium.
“ Just one?”
“ Uh, no. I’m meeting someone under the name of…of uh, Merteuil.”
“ Ah. Right this way please.”
Elliott went forward, further into the dim atmosphere, past decadent barflies, past murals gloriously depicting the Day of the Dead festival, through lavish doorways in the style of Mexican villas, a maze of frightening spectral smoke and laughing adults--subsequently he arrived at a small, round booth in the rear of the restaurant. And there awaited his vixen, more beautiful than ever.
She was bound in seductive curls of lavender smoke, her black hair glimmering lightly, eyes flickering as she smiled at him. Her shoulders were bare—she had been wearing a heavy coat and scarf, now removed. They were flawless and soft looking, but more tantalizing was the exposure of her upper chest, flat and smooth above her moderately proportioned bosom. Elliott melted instantly and graciously fell into the booth. Ling shook his hand warmly, and he sensed there was something even more to it this time; a vigorous wantonness that hadn’t been present before, most likely due to the fact that her husband wasn’t there.
The waiter asked his drink order, he replied just water. She was nursing a mixed drink of some sort—Elliot had only been good at consuming them, not recognizing them. This difference in their choices of beverage made him realize how much older Ling was than him. This mattered little, though, and the thought carried brief passage in his mind.
“ So…how are you?” Elliott asked after an awkward pause.
“ I’m good. And yourself?”
“ Pretty good, well—great.” He replied, and fell back into quietude. “ Yep, feeling good.” He added after a few moments.
He looked down at the menu, trying to figure out what, if anything, he was going to order. Raising his eyes to Ling, he saw she was focused hungrily on him. “ What do you think you’re going to order?”
Her gaze faded as she seemed to drift back down to reality. “ Oh, I was—uh, I didn’t think…we were going to eat anything.”
A third torturous silence descended upon them.
Elliott winced and scratched the back of his head, flushing with embarrassment. “ I’m sorry, it’s just I’ve never done this so…”
“ It’s okay, neither have I…” Ling seemed to lose interest, glimpsing nonchalantly about their surroundings. Then she abruptly grabbed both of Elliott’s hands and stared intensely into his eyes. He nearly fell over with shock. “ I only have three and a half hours left until I’m supposed to be home from bowling. Wanna find a hotel?”
The offer redoubled the youth’s heart beat, and he could nearly feel the beads of sweat accumulating on his forehead. “ Y-yes. Absolutely. But…”
“ Elliott, I knew I had to have you from the moment I saw you. And I know you feel the same—I sense it. We don’t have much time.”
“ I know, it’s just…I’ve never done this sort of thing before without uh, um, conversation, you know?”
Ling had taken Elliott’s hand and was leading him back through the caliginous labyrinth to the front door. She looked back at him and said, “ We don’t need conversation, you understand? We are both so passionate about each other that we are beyond words. We couldn’t possibly express our mutual admiration in the limited lexicon of human speech. We must express it through action.”
And as she said these things, Elliott stared intently into her chocolate almond eyes and saw that she meant every word. And he agreed with her.
They were outside in the cold by that point, in the cacophony of Boston nightlife, in the swirl of yellow taxi cabs, roaring T lines, chattering couples, and flashing coruscations forever present on every corner—and at the end of the alley, Ling stopped. “ Do you get what I’m saying?” And then, a bit more despairingly, “ Do you know what I’m feeling?”
And Elliott took her other hand, gently caressing her thumb with his. With a dangerously absolute sincerity, he said: “ Yes.”
Ling beamed at him and hailed a cab.
The remainder of the evening was a rush of coming and going and confusion and sexual ecstasy. They were zipped off to Chinatown underneath bulging, ashen cloud cover. Neon signs in unfamiliar languages waltzed past the windows of the cab, and suddenly Ling was kissing Elliott. And then they had stopped, tossing money at the cabbie, flying through revolving doors into the stodgy environs of a hotel lobby. Ling rattled something off in Chinese, handing the clerk her credit card as some sort of collateral. They made out in the elevator on the way up to the third floor and spilled into the hallway, Ling pinning Elliott to the greasy wall, he running his hand up her thigh. They somehow found their room and collapsed into it, already undressing. And for the next three hours they expressed their passions, a furor of tossed sheets and moans and caresses. And somewhere along the way, Elliott looked up and saw that it was snowing outside.
When it came time for Ling to leave, they parted ways at the entrance to the hotel, she to the Chinatown T-stop, he to that of the New England Medical Center. Their last kiss was deep and impassioned, and it tasted like true love.
Elliott danced and twirled in the snow all the way to his stop, catching the tiny crystallizations on his tongue, watching it gather on his coat, laughing like he had never done so before. He hadn’t been this happy since he could remember, hadn’t felt so consummately for anybody ever before. He couldn’t wait to see Ling again.
Professor Garcin spent most of Thursday evening in his study, savoring his favorite tobacco in his choice pipe, pouring over the details of Elliott’s story, configuring in his brain what he would say to the young man to console him. It was decided that he would ask him out for coffee that weekend and initiate the dialogue that he knew the boy needed desperately. He had the method in which he would approach the topic mapped out and dissected almost to the point of ridicule. He had readied his response to any of Elliott’s questions, as well. The Professor was not going to lose this boy, not like he had lost his own son.
Ling arrived home late, but that was of no consequence. He kissed her slightly perspired cheek and pulled back to raise an eyebrow. “ Strenuous game tonight, my love?”
“ Yes, dear. I’m quite tired, actually.”
“ I understand, beautiful. Going to bed?”
“ Yes. Goodnight.”
“ Goodnight, love. I will join you shortly.”
Ling ascended the stairs and Garcin acquiescently watched her as she went. As soon as she had showered and laid down in bed, she felt alone again.
Garcin’s wife took on such moods when she was tired, the poor dear. Of course, she had never been anything but pleasant to him, but he found it difficult to construct conversation with her whenever she was fatigued. He shrugged the matter off a moment later, noticing that more bulbs in his chandelier had burned out.
The next day Elliott adjoined Garcin after class, and the Professor immediately noticed a striking change in him. There was a distance, a discomposure, an aloofness formerly absent in their conversation. There was something young Danbury was avoiding, and Garcin assumed the worst.
“ Elliott—I think we should meet this weekend, maybe for a cup of coffee, and discuss that short story you gave me.”
Elliott colored ashamedly, yet relented all the while. He didn’t want to change anything between him and the Professor, though part of him knew that was inevitable. Still, he couldn’t decline Garcin’s offer for fear of altering their friendship, and also for fear of giving anyway any sort of hint of the previous night.“ O-okay. When?”
“ Is Sunday afternoon okay for you?”
“ Great. Say three o’clock?”
“ Any preference as to where you’d like to meet?”
“ Okay. How about we meet at the corner of Mt. Vernon and Charles Street?” Garcin would have suggested that they meet at his house, but he was anxious to excite the jealousies of his wife. She had, however, seemed open and even pleased at the idea of having Elliott over for dinner once a week. She didn’t know, though, that Garcin had planned on designating her bowling night for that.
“ Works for me. I have to go, though, so I’ll see you then, okay?”
“ Alright. Bye Elliott.”
Elliott quickly strode away, back in the direction of his residence hall. He was disappointed and a bit confounded as to why the Professor didn’t insist on their meeting at his house (for this provided a further glimpse at Ling), but at the same time, Elliott was almost glad he wouldn’t have to face the awkward situation of seeing the two together. This situation, he knew, would occur within time, but he wasn’t quite ready to experience it.
Garcin was more concerned about Elliott than ever previously after the passing of their brief dialogue. He grew nervous and increasingly frantic over the weekend, but somehow managed to compose himself by the time they met on the snow-piled corner of Mt. Vernon and Charles.
Winter had officially announced her arrival—complete was the composition of falling snow, harsh gusts of wind, and freezing temperatures. Garcin admitted the season was beautiful in its beginning stages. He enjoyed watching the placid gravitations of snowflakes and their lazy, timeless spirals. He also enjoyed its delightful crunch underfoot.
Elliott appeared presently, dressed in his fur collar parka and beanie and striped scarf. He stood opposite the Professor in his orange goose down jacket and his thick gray scarf, pipe leaning dilatorily out of his mouth.
“ Good afternoon, Elliott.” Garcin greeted with a smile.
Elliott returned the smile sheepishly. “ How are you?”
“ I’m quite alright. And yourself?”
The youth hesitated. “ I’m…good.” Elliott couldn’t betray his honest feelings.
“ Shall we?” Garcin nodded down the street. They trotted forward at an agreeable pace, uncomfortably quiet.
They entered an affected, glass-fronted little café on the corner of Charles and some unknown alley. Inside was contained the clink of coffee cups and the roar of the espresso machine, and the idle palaver of Sunday customers. The floors were a sandy tile of sorts, now made slippery by the snow-covered boots of the patrons. A fireplace crackled in the back of the shop, surrounded by well-worn couches. Elliott and Garcin took a table near the window, allowing them to observe the snowflakes drifting by amongst the Bostonians trying to find warmth.
“ Allow me to buy you something.” The Professor insisted.
“ Okay, um, hot chocolate sounds good.”
“ My pleasure.”
A few moments later, Garcin returned to the table with a pair of hot beverages. Elliott gazed down at the finish of the light wood, then at his steaming chocolate. He brought his eyes up eventually, finding that the Professor was staring at him.
“ We never had a chance to discuss that short story you gave me, Elliott.”
“ I just figured you didn’t like it…”
“ Oh, that was hardly the case. I will admit I think you are capable of writing much more…effectively. But as I’m sure you know, there is a significance to the story.”
Elliott did what he could to repulse the blood rushing to his cheeks at that moment. He knew exactly where Garcin was leading the conversation, and he cursed himself for ever letting him read the story. He looked down at his arms, saw through his sweater sleeves the numerous scars he had inflicted upon himself. So, the Professor had seen through his sweater sleeves as well—nothing he could do now but deny it. Elliott already felt completely different than he had when he’d given the old man the story. Love, deepest most passionate love, had made him happy.
“ Still listening?”
“ Son, I’m sorry for what you’ve had to go through.”
Elliott looked up and faked his most confused expression. “ What do you mean?”
The Professor looked as if someone had run over his puppy. “ How…how much of that story was truth?”
“ None. Okay, well my half-brother is a bit of an ass, but other than that it was completely falsified.”
“ Yep.” He said, nearly choking on his own lie.
Garcin appeared relieved, even though his face had reddened considerably. “ Elliott, my boy, I was quite concerned—I took the similarities between your family and the Bedingtons, slight as they were, to heart. I thought that…that…”
“ Yeah. I understand,” Elliott said, feeling his insides blacken.
“ I’m glad that you’re…you’re not like that. I was terribly concerned for your well-being. I must say, you threw me for one hell of a loop.”
“ I’m sorry.”
“ Oh, no worry, it was mostly my fault. It’s my job to overanalyze, you know.”
Elliott smirked. “ Yeah.”
“ So, you’re…alright, then?”
“ Of course.”
“ That is good to hear.”
“ Yes…well, Professor, I must be going. I’m sure you have things to do as well.”
“ Yes, yes.”
“ Can I ask you one thing, though?”
“ Why of course.”
“ Is that story the reason why you invited me over for dinner the second night?”
“ Well, er, yes. But, you are more than welcome to come back. In fact, I insist upon it.”
“ I would love to. We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”
“ Excellent. Take care, Elliott.”
“ You too.”
Oh most rotten, horrid, surfeiting of emotions! Elliott felt nauseous. In that single day’s conversation he had essentially severed any real connection he could have with Garcin, his only friend. By lying about his past and his problems, he had trod down a path that no longer afforded him any way out. And in addition, he had learned that the entire reason he was ever allowed the chance to begin the liaison with Ling was to surface those emotional demons he had heretofore kept essentially repressed. He would never have been able to express his to Ling if Garcin had never tried to help him. And how had Elliott expressed his gratitude to the Professor’s aid? By falling in love and having sex with his wife!
But eventually Elliott’s thoughts turned to those fateful hours he had recently spent with Ling, and he knew they were right, and he knew he couldn’t live without another taste of that. Ling was worth these precarious circumstances—true love was worth anything.
The next day Elliott called Ling before he went to Garcin’s class, hopeful in achieving another rendezvous.
“ I hope you had a good time the other night,” he stated, “ because I really did.”
“ Did you say did or didn’t?”
“ Oh, okay. Good. I had an amazing time. You’re amazing.”
“ So are you. When do you want to get together again?”
“ I’m at home by myself until five o’clock everyday, so…”
“ I don’t have any afternoon classes on Tuesdays or Thursdays.”
“ Then you should come over Tuesday afternoon, but I think we should just get together on Thursday nights.”
“ What time are you out of class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays?”
Elliott couldn’t help but grin at her hunger. “ I don’t have class until 1:25 those days.”
“ Maybe on Mondays or Wednesdays you could come over in the morning.”
“ That sounds good. How about Mondays?”
“ Okay. What time?”
“ Sure. And what about Tuesday afternoon?”
“ Just come over whenever you get out of class.”
“ Okay. That’ll be about 12:30.”
“ Great. So I’ll see you at that time tomorrow.”
“ Alright. Bye.”
Elliott hung up and smiled to himself, uncontrollably giddy.
This elation floated within him for the rest of the day, even overtaking his guilt regarding the Professor. Their usual after-class discussion was as it had been in the beginning of the semester—buoyant, amicable, scholarly.
Admittedly, Garcin was still a smidgen embarrassed about his misconceptions, though he tried not to show it. He continued to hold theories about Elliott’s true nature—one does not write such despondent characters without at least a hint of dolor in his own existence. But, as Thoreau had known, no man is able to escape despair. What creates a writer is the method by which he confronts his tribulations.
Despite his disconcertment, the Professor had felt a weight removed from his shoulders upon the discovery of his false predispositions. He no longer felt distraught over saving the youth. He could close out the semester at ease. Instead of planning what he would say at their dinner conversations, he could merely discuss with the boy as old friends, as family, almost.
Elliott appeared at Garcin’s house at 1:00 that Tuesday. It was one of those clear, blue winter days with no clouds to hold in the warmth—a stiff wind rushed up the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill, carrying bits of snow with it. Ling answered the door in lingerie and tugged Elliott inside, where they picked up where they had left off the previous Thursday.
That Wednesday at dinner they made eyes while Garcin wasn’t looking, and snickered childishly behind his back. Elliott found his remorse fading, drowned in the Ling-inspired glee. He was slowly determining that all he had ever wanted was love, love from a woman like her.
Thursday night they checked back into the hotel in Chinatown, amidst freezing rain and twinkling Christmas lights. The streets were streamed and blurred, light bouncing off puddles, clumps of white snow on the sidewalk, dusky, half-melted mush in the gutters. Time quickly deteriorated in Elliott’s mind, as well as any thought of study or going home—his existence was defined by when he got to see Ling. He no longer thought in terms of literature or obligations or even necessity, except for the only necessity he perceived—the dire need to be with Ling. As far as anyone else was concerned, though there was no one else outside of Garcin, Elliott lived between her trim, silky thighs.
Three weeks passed, and Professor Garcin was growing more and more addled with his life. Elliott’s behavior had taken an about-face. He seemed permanently preoccupied, but outrageously overjoyed with this preoccupation. He was distant, brief in his conversations with the Professor, but never unpleasant. It was beginning to chaff him. And Ling, dear, precious Ling, was interminably exhausted. This left their interaction painfully minimal, and his kisses and hugs only seemed to perturb her. She wouldn’t offer any explanations as to why she was acting in such a way. This too was beginning to abrade him, as much as he contested that fact. He couldn’t help but feel that the Elliott and Ling, separately of course, had some sort of terribly exciting life beyond his own. On top of all this, it would have appeared that his cherished home was coming apart. There were now more burned out bulbs in the foyer chandelier than those burning, and the kitchen light was still refusing to cooperate, and the bedroom light was dead as well. If he wasn’t so overwrought with the decay of his most intimate relations, he would have taken the time to hire an electrician.
One Monday morning, as Garcin passed by the English teachers’ sitting room in transit to his office, Professor Davis beckoned him to join her and Ford. He agreed and stepped into the dungeon-like confines of the small room. From an old wooden table he procured a Styrofoam cup, which he filled with cheap coffee from a large tap.
“ How are you, Professor?” the eternally chipper Davis inquired, goofy smile protruding into Garcin’s bitter Monday morning.
“ I’ve been better, alas.”
“ That’s unfortunate.” Ford’s ancient voice sounded.
“ What’s bothering you?” Davis asked good-naturedly.
“ Oh, I’m just…having some issues with my house.”
“ Oh no-o.” Davis replied, stretching the last syllable of the no. “ I remember thinking at your little Christmas party last year that that was such a beautiful house! What’s wrong with it?”
“ Some electrical problems, I suppose. If you’ll excuse me, I have a fair amount of papers to grade…”
“ Just one moment, Professor. I was wondering if I could ask a favor of you.” Davis said, and Garcin stopped on his way out the door, though he was unable to mask his exasperation.
“ What can I do for you, Joyce?”
“ I have a student I told I would meet at office hours tomorrow, but I am unable to hold my own obligations—I have a dentist appointment!”
At this statement, Garcin coughed and swallowed blistering coffee—it was about time that woman visited a dentist, he thought, hacking to hide his amusement.
“ Oh dear, are you okay?”
“ Yeah,” he responded in a raspy voice, “ yeah. Go ahead.”
“ Well, Dr. Ford would normally speak to this student, but he has a class. I was wondering if you would be good enough to talk with Maggie?”
Garcin ardently wanted to refuse Davis, but common courtesy dictated that an inestimable foul on behalf of workplace relations. “ Sure. What time will she be by?”
“ Two o’clock.”
“ Okay. Tell her to come to my office.”
“ Thanks Stephan.”
“ You’re welcome.”
Garcin retreated to his office and barricaded himself in there until class. Him and Elliott’s chat after class was explicitly short and cold, at least on his part. Elliott seemed not to mind, which only perpetuated his irritation. He wanted to demand what the hell was so fantastic, but he suppressed the urge.
The commute home brought weather that was absolutely fallacious—steely gray and dim, all the city entrenched in snow. The wind rampaged through his down jacket as he made his way up Mt. Vernon Street, occasionally slipping on a patch of ice. As usual, Ling barely received his kiss on the cheek, and turned her coldest shoulder to any of his other affections. He lay in bed that night in darkness, though it was his reading hour, and wondered where he had gone wrong.
All of these things Professor Garcin forgot at two o’clock Tuesday afternoon when he met Maggie and fell in love. She had been waiting in his office when he arrived, dressed in jeans and a Northeastern sweatshirt. She immediately came off as one who was continuously comfortable with her surroundings, forever insouciant. Both of her knees, capping a pair of perfectly shaped thighs, were propped on the edge of his desk and she was leaning back in a chair in apparent relaxation. She was wearing glasses over her trenchant jade-color eyes, which captivated him at first glance. Her obsidian hair was tied up, though various strands hung down into the rumpled hood of her sweatshirt. She smiled shyly as he sat down, delicate lips thinned beautifully. Her skin was white as the New England snow, and when she spoke her voice was sultry and low, but not anywhere near masculine.
“ Professor Garcin?”
“ That would be me. I assume you are Maggie.”
“ Yes. Nice to meet you.” She extended a delicate hand, dwarfed completely by his own worn palm. He noticed then how petite she was, and found her all the more adorable.
“ It is my pleasure. Now, how may I help you?”
Maggie began speaking (most eloquently) about De Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and the two of them soon launched into a discussion on literature. All the while, Garcin grew more infatuated. Maggie proved herself to be very apt, brilliant even. The language she used was poetry. She brought fresh points to their dialogue, with an insight he had never seen before. This had been the source of her questions—none of the faculty appeared to be deft enough to understand her view of writing. However, she contended, Garcin had done the best of all the others. He sighed inwardly to this, and brought their talk back to Don Quixote.
And suddenly it was four o’clock. Maggie announced that she had to leave, much to the discontent of the Professor, and rose from her chair.
“ It was great meeting you. Perhaps we could continue our discussions on another day?”
“ I would love to.” Maggie smiled, emerald eyes twinkling innocently.
“ Well, don’t be afraid to stop by my office.”
“ I won’t. Talk to you later, Professor. It was nice meeting you!”
And with those words, the angel floated from the room. Garcin sighed and leaned back in his executive chair. “ Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” He quoted, as his elation peaked and sunk, anchored to his acknowledgement of the age gap between them. An attractive girl like Maggie would never even think of Garcin as more than a mentor, and regardless, he had Ling—beautiful, sweet, Ling. But there was a wall building between them, and despite his best efforts, it refused to come down. Still, Garcin couldn’t just give up on the marriage because of that, or because he had met an attractive student. But Maggie was so well-versed in literature, so down-to-earth and heavenly at the same time. Maggie would have been perfect for him, if she wasn’t so young. All the Professor could do was sigh and lament.
And that was what he did, for the duration of the week. He sometimes saw Maggie passing on his way to class, bound up in her casual style of winter clothes, smiling and talking with her friends. She never noticed him. He entertained fantasies of her having a strange fetish for older men, of believing in soul mates and knowing that love had no boundary in time. His glorious, warm home was now cold and gloomy, with more lights going out everyday, and him caring less each day. Ling seemed now afflicted with the same fever as Elliott—happily preoccupied.
Elliott came over on Wednesday, as usual. Right away he noticed a change in the Professor, his features darkened by the augmenting murkiness in the household. Something was wrong—he was more haggard than was typical, his face more sunken. Their handshake was feeble, like no exchange between friends. Even in his euphoria, the youth saw these things.
Dinner was uninspired, a first for his experiences at the household. The Professor had a limp interest in their conversations, also a first. For a moment Elliott feared that him and Ling had been discovered, but this was quickly alleviated as Ling rubbed her foot sensuously against Elliott’s calf. Plus, he was quite confident that the consequences of their affair being discovered would be a little more astringent than a mediocre dinner and poor entertainment. Concerned, he ventured to ask if the Professor was feeling okay.
“ Oh, I’m alright. Holiday blues, I suppose.”
“ But Christmas is a month away and Thanksgiving isn’t even until next week.”
“ Speaking of Thanksgiving, what are your plans, Elliott?”
“ I can’t go home—parents can’t afford it. And you know how difficult it is travel around then.”
“ Yes, yes.” Garcin replied abstractedly. As that fact materialized in his brain, a remnant of him and Elliott’s formerly tender kinship surfaced. The poor boy had no place to eat his Thanksgiving dinner. “ Would you like to join Ling and I for our Thanksgiving dinner?”
“ Yes, if I wouldn’t be imposing…”
“ Oh, not at all.” Ling said.
“ We would be pleased to have you.” Garcin added.
“ Great. Thank you guys so much. I’m not sure where I would be without you.” Elliott said, eyeing Ling.
To Elliott’s dismay, the Professor never properly addressed his former question. He remained nearly catatonic for the rest of the evening, and after a while, Elliott had grown bored. He tried several times to start engaging discussions, but each attempt was defeated by the absolute melancholy of the old man. Having decidedly failed to gain recognition from his friend, Elliott announced that he was leaving. With as much enthusiasm as he had received at his arrival, the youth was ushered back out into the algidity.
The next night, Elliott and Ling were again checked into the stodgy Chinatown hotel, where they sinfully indulged in their passions. When both were too exhausted to perform anymore, they embraced under the warm hotel comforter and lay quietly. As Elliott traced the small of Ling’s back, he asked about Garcin.
“ He’s been moping all week, I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” Ling said with an air of annoyance.
“ Haven’t you asked?”
“ You should.”
“ He’s your husband.”
Ling admitted her delicate, little laugh. “ Elliott, need I remind you that we are in fact committing adultery? If I really cared about Stephan, I wouldn’t be with you. I love you, not Stephan.”
“ But something must’ve attracted you to him in the first place, right? There had to be at least one reason why you married him.”
Ling sighed. “ I don’t see why we’re talking about this.”
“ Because he’s my friend, and he looks terrible. I’m worried about him.”
“ I don’t see how you can still be friends with the man who your lover is married to.”
“ We would never have met if it weren’t for Profes…Stephan.”
“ I believe we would have. Somehow, some way. Maybe in another life.”
“ You’re right,” Elliott agreed, reminded of how much he loved Ling. He had to tread carefully with the topic of Garcin, and he decided that it was better to pursue his concerns alone, for fear of aggravating his amour. “ We’re probably meant for each other.”
Ling began kissing his chest, then his neck. “ Of course we are,” she whispered into his ear, and they started again.
On Friday morning, Professor Garcin came into his office disheveled, sleepless, superannuated. He was suffering a crisis of conscious and a complete deterioration of the things that he held dear. Did he stay with the apathetic wife or let his last reserves loose and fall for the college girl with whom he had no chance? Every time he considered this thought, his being was racked with pain, as if his heart started pumping hot lead. He would moan and sigh to himself every so often, staring into space over the stack of ungraded papers on his desk. For two hours he continued this behavior, until he heard a light knock on his door.
Looking up, an immediate smile spread across his face. It was Maggie. He shook his head to temporarily rid himself of his dolefulness and asked her how she was doing.
“ I’m fine. How are you?” she replied coolly, adding, “ You don’t look very well, if I may say so.”
“ I’m fine, I’m fine. I just haven’t slept well lately—too much work to do, you know?”
“ So what brings you here?”
Maggie sat down, crossing her legs. “ I was just so pleased to find an intellectual equal last week, that I wanted to come back and have another chat with you.”
Garcin grinned genuinely. “ I’m flattered.”
Maggie giggled charmingly. “ So, obviously you’ve studied English extensively, but you have quite a knowledge of world literature. Which is your favorite outside of English?”
“ I would have to say Russian literature. You can always depend on it being plethoric with interesting characters and beautiful language. What about yourself?”
“ Russian lit is my favorite, too!”
“ You know, we do have a Russian major here, if you’re interested. You’re an English major, right?”
“ Do you like it here? Are you from Boston?”
“ Actually I’m from California.”
“ Wow, that’s quite a change.”
Maggie laughed, “ Yeah, but I love it. This cold weather, it’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced, but it’s great.”
“ I imagine your family will have a lot of questions when you come home for Thanksgiving.”
“ Oh, I won’t be going home for Thanksgiving. Too expensive.”
“ Yeah, it sucks. Everyone else I know is heading home, too.”
“ Well, you’re more than welcome to join me and my uh, wife, for Thanksgiving dinner. I’m also hosting another freshman, one of my students. He’s from South Carolina.”
“ Would you mind?”
“ Not at all. In fact, I implore you to come.”
“ Okay…but wait until you see how much I can eat!” Maggie said, laughing, and Garcin laughed in conjunction, but not because her joke was that funny.
The two continued to chat for another hour or so, until Maggie had to leave for class. As Garcin watched her swaying hips saunter out the door, he exhaled woefully, the emptiness filling his office again. It had been a long time since he’d felt like he did—and he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. But in any case, he was exultant to know that Maggie was to be present at Thanksgiving dinner. And the thought that she had come by her own volition to his office, excited to have found an intellectual equal! Oh would that, could that excitement be the basis of attraction!
But then Garcin thought of his reflection—a scruffy-bearded old man with the shameful, annular protrusion of a gut underneath his itchy sweater; weary gray eyes with bags underneath them; thin hair on the verge of combed over; nothing desirable. This was the barren, naturalistic truth: he had not the stuff to be her suitor.
The rest of the week and into the next passed much the same as its antecedent—Ling remained as distant as her homeland, though Garcin sensed a new edge to it, a sharpness, a resentment he had never encountered before. Elliott he only saw once before classes ended for the break, and then their conversation was but of the details of Thanksgiving. Elliott wanted to speak to Garcin about his recent behavior, but was unable and unsure how to approach the topic. At this point, he had seemed mildly relieved of his former melancholy anyhow. Perhaps Elliott’s presence at Thanksgiving, however awkward, would lighten the Professor’s mood. He didn’t think too much on the fact, his attentions still monopolized by Ling. Much to Garcin’s disappointment, Elliott had scored poorly on the last paper, an apparent result of the boy’s disconnection. This he discovered on Monday. Tuesday he realized that he needed to repair the discordant electrical problem in his house, and hired an electrician for Wednesday. Around 1:30 Wednesday, shortly after the start of his class ( from which Elliott was curiously absent), the Professor received a call from the electrician claiming that no one was there to let him in. Thoroughly incensed, he rushed home to let the worker in and promptly called Ling’s cell phone.
Elliott and Ling had decided to get together Wednesday to make up for not seeing each other Thursday, checking in to their unassuming hotel whose clerks now recognized them. With curtains closed to the cloudburst outside, they indulged sensuously in the dim, cool twilight of the room, lit only by the meager splash of light on the floor beneath the curtains. At the height of their passion, Ling’s cell phone sprang to life and vibrated off the nightstand. Neither noticed.
Garcin was angry, but unable to stay as such. He had failed to mention, in the emaciated state of contact between him and his wife, that the electrician was coming that day. He had brought the idea of it up several times over the past weeks, but had never acted on it until then, making the mistaken assumption Ling would be home. Still, he was flummoxed as to her whereabouts. She had never left the house without telling him since they had been married. While this event was not of her usual manner, Garcin eventually dismissed it to the fact that she was probably grocery shopping for the next day. He was more perturbed that the electrician had been unsuccessful in his attempt to repair the lights of his household. Ostensibly, there was no tangible problem, according to the worker. Now assiduously splenetic, Garcin wrote a check to the electrician and promptly spirited off to an antique store on Charles St. to light his home.
When he returned, Ling was watching television in the parlor. He asked where she had been, and she replied that, as suspected, she had been grocery shopping. Apologizing for not informing her of the electrician’s arrival, the Professor kissed his wife on the cheek and began setting up the new lamps. He was infuriated to find that they, too, did not work. Determined to ascertain the reason for this, Garcin plugged the master bedroom television into the same outlet as he had placed the lamps, and was further perplexed when it worked just fine. The same occurred in the kitchen. Puffing his most relaxing tobacco, he paced the house, heels clicking on the hardwood. After forty-five minutes of this, he re-launched his campaign to restore light, and fought with his household for the next several hours. His battle was waged primarily in the kitchen, as Ling had gone to bed shortly after his first attempt. He felt guilty the entire night after the look she had given him when he told her that Maggie was coming in addition to Elliott. Maggie, he reasoned, was a new guest, and therefore had to see the house in all its resplendence. Ling did not appear to believe it, and retired jealously. Hoping a good night’s sleep would cure her sadly well-founded jealousy, Garcin continued duelling on into the wee hours.
A gentle snow shower fell the next day as Elliott walked through the Common on the way to the Professor’s house. The sky was a mosaic of chalky smears and amorphous slate blots, dotted with the millions of tiny white globes descending listlessly. The Common was sugar-frosted—every branch on every naked tree encrusted with the powdery stuff. There was hardly a breeze that day, leaving an odd, beautiful tranquility over the scene; flat hoary plains like spilled sugar, Frog Pond a mirror of opalescence, the honeyed dome of the State house rising over the hill like an aureate ornament on white cake.
Professor Garcin answered the door following Elliott’s shy knock, admitting him into the grand foyer. A table in the corner supported a giant scented candle which illuminated the room in light, dancing shadows. From what Elliott could tell, the smell was cinnamon. He inhaled pleasantly, shaking hands with the old man. He was then led into the genial furnishings of the parlor.
“ Elliott, I’d like you to meet a new friend of mine—Maggie.” Garcin said sublimely, motioning towards a college-age girl reading a book on the floor. She looked up and smiled.
For the first time in weeks, Elliott’s mind was sufficiently divorced from Ling. He beheld a beauty of the greatest rank—such intimate, wide green eyes—he saw a sea of coruscation in them, he saw worlds, he saw infinite possibilities, he saw vast calm gorgeous wonderful beauty in them, and it was like nothing he had observed before. Her hair, star-speckled with light from the television, lay parted on her head like thick veils of ebon gossamer. Her face, so perfectly framing those enchanting eyes, was unblemished and pearly, the angles of her chin and cheekbones combining to complete a portrait of utter artistry. The girl’s shapely form was understated by the gray sweatshirt she wore, but Elliott knew it to be recherché just by his observation of her snug-fitting jeans over the curves of her thighs. Her legs finished cutely with a pair of striped socks on her petite feet, which stood crossed in the air. Suddenly feeling bashful and clumsy, all Elliott could do was smile, unable to mouth a greeting.
“ We’ll be eating about five, so have a seat and enjoy yourself.” Garcin said, departing to the kitchen to check on the turkey. Elliott sat on the couch a few feet from Maggie and stared dully at the Lions/Patriots game on TV. He couldn’t but feel reverted to his old timid ways, how he had been before meeting Ling.
“ So uh…how do you know the Professor?” He asked finally, hoping he was not disturbing the girl from her book.
“ Professor Davis had him talk to me one day because she couldn’t answer my questions.”
Elliott chuckled lightly. “ Was he able to help you?”
“ Yeah, he’s quite intelligent.”
“ How do you know him?”
“ He teaches my American lit class.”
“ Really? How is it?”
“ Oh, it’s great. A lot of work, but it’s worth every bit. He’s an excellent teacher.”
“ Yeah, I got that impression when I first met him. So attentive and patient.”
“ Yep. You should definitely take one of his courses next semester.”
“ I will.”
For a moment they were quiet, but Elliott was desperate to do away with the obtrusive awkwardness. “ What are you reading?”
“ The Foundation Pit. I love Russian literature.”
“ Oh, that’s a great book.”
“ You’ve read it?”
“ Yeah, for my class on Russian history.”
“ It’s interesting. Weird. So much symbolism.”
“ Yeah. It sucked, though, since my professor was more of a history expert than a literature expert, and couldn’t really guide us through the different symbols and such.”
“ Which one are you?”
“ Oh, literature definitely. My friends in high school used to make fun of me because I was a glutton for boring nineteenth century novels.”
This seemed to snatch Maggie’s interest, and she set her book down to sit next to him on the couch.
“ Sorry if I’m distracting you from reading, it’s just I don’t really like football and there’s nothing else to do…”
“ You’re not distracting me. In fact, I insist we continue the conversation.” Maggie said with a smile.
“ Well, if you insist.” Elliott joked sarcastically, and Maggie laughed gingerly. Her voice was soft and endearing, but low and husky all at once. Over the next few hours he heard a lot of it, as they talked of books upon books. Occasionally Garcin would join in their conversation, having emerged from the kitchen with a flustered countenance. He reported that he was in the laborious process of baking pumpkin pie whilst sharing a kitchen with his spouse. Over the course of the afternoon, the house was filled with the delectable aroma of many dishes: turkey, gravy, potatoes, pumpkin pie, all combining with the cinnamon candle to paint a delicious medley. The fire was crackling gaily, emitting a generous warmth about the parlor.
Gazing upon Maggie and sitting on the hearth, back toasting against the flames, Professor Garcin felt more joyous than he had in quite a while. His day was slightly tarnished by the unwelcoming temper of Ling, but this he would deal with once Maggie was gone. For now, he would enjoy her company, oblivious to Elliott’s own attraction. When Maggie was in the room, she radiated like a supernova, blocking out anything else in his vision. He saw her and only her.
The four sat down in the dining room at precisely four o’clock. Maggie offered to help Ling set the table, but was coldly reminded she was a guest. Garcin helped her, though, and the table was quickly covered in steaming dishes. They sat in the four seats at the end of the long table, two and two on either side; Garcin and Ling, Elliott and Maggie. As was almost customary, Ling massaged Elliott’s calf with her foot through the course of the meal; they exchanged a few glances, but both of their attentions were focused on the new guest. Ling took any opportunity she had to shoot her a choleric glare; Elliott took any opportunity he had to impress her. Garcin noticed neither of these things, save for one of Ling’s sinister looks in Maggie’s direction—and that was enough. He was quite offended by it, deciding to speak with her as soon as the guests were gone.
The meal lasted about two hours underneath the warm golden light of the dining room. Nearly everyone appeared to have a good time; especially Maggie, who was most assuredly not blind to Elliott’s affection. Coffee and desert was served afterward, and in total, they must have sat in the dining room for more than four hours. Rigorous discussions on politics and English and society were held, and Elliott and Garcin even fell into rare form as old friends, unaware they were in competition.
At the end of the evening, Maggie stated that she would have to leave. Elliott quickly conjoined his own reasons for departure and they were thusly led to the shadowy front door, where the cinnamon candle sat unevenly-melted like the broken tops of mountain peaks. Garcin and Elliott shook hands beatifically. Maggie ventured to do the same, while Elliott and Ling hugged lightly, careful not to reveal anything.
A moment later Elliott and Maggie stood alone on the silent, still street. The snow had stopped falling, and not a soul was outside. They made their way towards the Charles T-stop, knowing it was not wise to cross the Common at night. A handful of cars sloshed by, bright screaming demons in the night, destroyers of an otherwise halcyon landscape. The two chatted quietly, and Elliott could feel his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest. They rode the entire way back to Northeastern together, talking in quiet, friendly tones all the while. As they came to the looming structure of Maggie’s dorm, they nodded awkwardly, unsure how to truly part ways. As Elliott began to head down the street, Maggie called after him.
“ Huh?” he turned.
“ Want my number, so you can maybe call me sometime?”
There was a pause, and he began walking back. “ Yeah.”
Maggie produced a pen from her purse and scribbled her number on Elliott’s palm, then looked him in the eye. “ Call me sometime, okay?”
“ Okay. See you later.”
As Elliott lay in his empty room that night, he felt his heart dividing into itself. He thought that him and Ling were meant to be—but if that was so, how could he be so attracted to Maggie? She was the exact opposite of Ling—simple, talkative, more intellectual than sensual—how could he be attracted to two completely different people? On the other hand, Ling had never preached anything about faithfulness to Elliott. Could he manage two women at the same time? What would Maggie do if she found out? That could prove to be disastrous, or in the very least, a magnificently awkward situation. As his emotions forked and intersected, his course of action soon emerged, an ominous white shape floating to the surface from the depths of his consciousness: he would have to choose, just as he would have to choose between Ling and the Professor.
While these events transpired, Elliott was wholly ignorant to the fact that Ling was still yet to choose the recipient of her affections herself. The result of this was the most heated argument ever to occur in the Garcin household, initiated as soon as the Professor had shut the door behind the guests. He turned, expression darkened, and looked straight at his wife. She wore an equally baneful visage.
“ What’s wrong?” Garcin inquired monotonously.
“ You should know,” was the cold response.
“ Should I?”
“ Well, perchance that I don’t. Perhaps you could enlighten me.”
“ I saw the way you looked at that college girl. I know why you invited her over here.”
“ Are you implying…?”
“ Ling, I’m fifty-eight years old! She’s eighteen!”
“ That doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter in these sorts of things. I’m only forty-three.”
“ But you don’t look it, and that’s the difference between us. You could get anyone you want if…”
“ This isn’t about me. And what could happen doesn’t matter. It’s what’s already happened, and that’s that you have a thing for that college girl.”
This was the greatest of Garcin’s fears—finally inciting the wrath of Ling’s jealousy. He had seen it before in bits and pieces throughout their marriage, but never so powerfully. And, unfortunately, this time she had a right to be jealous. But he would deny that to the very end, because he had done nothing to betray their vows.
“ And what is that based on, dear?”
“ Don’t call me dear. Just the simple fact that you invited her over here, and then spent more time talking to her in the parlor than you did to me, your wife, all day.”
“ I had to entertain our guests! It’s courteous!”
“ Don’t you yell at me, Stephan.”
“ Then don’t falsely accuse me!”
“ I’m not! I see it in your eyes! You like that college girl, and not me!”
“ How can you say such things? I love you, Ling, and I’ve done every goddamn thing I can to show that to you in the past several weeks. And you know what you’ve done? You’ve ignored every single one of them!”
“ What about the last fifteen years, Stephan?”
“ Oh for Christ’s sake, are you serious?”
“ Ling, I’ve kissed you everyday on my way out the door. I’ve cooked you dinner. I’ve shown general interest in your life! Is that not good enough?”
“ No! Pampering your wife like some sort of child, showing her off like some trophy, does not come anything close to love!”
“ Well then what does?”
“ You don’t do anything romantic! We haven’t made love since Charlie! I was twenty-three!”
By now they had stormed into the tenebrous kitchen, where they nearly disappeared in shadow, words cutting swaths through the air like daggers. Their voices racketed off the cabinets and tile floor, magnified, intensified, and the entire house seemed to be watching intently, waiting for the outcome.
“ Well…what—what if I haven’t been able to make love since then?! And what if we can’t afford to go out to dinner all the time?”
“ You know very well that we can afford it! And why didn’t you just tell me?” The last of Ling’s words wrenched out of her painfully, caught halfway between a sob.
“ Because I was too busy trying to make sure you didn’t jump to inane conclusions like this. And we don’t have nearly as much money as you like to think we do.”
“ Inane conclusions? Inane?! It’s inane that you haven’t said one thing worth a damn to me since we got married! All of your talk, all of your courting, it didn’t amount to anything! And if we’re so poor, why are we living in a one million dollar house in Beacon Hill?”
“ Because…because I love this house and I thought it would be perfect for us to raise our child in!”
“ You’ve always loved this stupid house, more than you ever could have loved me! And some good it did for our son!”
That statement crossed the line for Garcin. Charlie had always been a sensitive topic between them, a failure which neither wanted to address because it would inevitably lead to finger-pointing. His face reddened and his eyes widened, and he stepped closer to Ling, feeling the surging, boiling rage filter up through his body. It took all he could to restrain himself to this point.
“ I bought this house to provide for my family! Can’t you see everything I’ve ever done was to provide for you and Charlie! That’s how I show my love! I love this house because of the memories it holds! You and Charlie have made this place for me, Ling! But you can’t see that, because I can’t perform! You can’t get past that! And since you were so goddamn focused on that, you forgot that we had a child that needed guidance! Children don’t grow completely on their own—I did what I could to raise him, but I was making ends meet! What the hell were you doing?”
Ling’s mouth fell agape. She glared, tears glittering against the candlelight, and stomped her feet. “ I was wishing I had someone else besides my deadbeat husband! I was wishing that I didn’t feel lonely every night! I was wishing for someone to talk to about real things, not just about how my day went! I wanted to talk about real issues, like we did before we were married! I wanted a real marriage, a real relationship!”
“ And you know what, Stephan? I found one. I did something about my life! I didn’t just let it slip from my hands, like you did! Just because you’re married and have a kid and have settled down, doesn’t mean your life is complete! There are changes that occur within those things, and you haven’t changed at all, for yourself or them!”
“ What do you mean…?” Garcin asked softly.
“ I’m having an affair, Stephan. I’ve been making love with your precious prize student. And that’s what it is—love! But you wouldn’t have the slightest idea about that, would you?”
Garcin stumbled a step backwards, open-mouthed. He swallowed the sob in his throat and forced himself not to cry, not to allow this to shatter his heart. He had nothing else to say, no rebuttal to this harshest of facts. And her final words, that devastating question, it struck him like an arrow in the chest. All the abnormalities of the last month, all of Ling’s erratic behavior—the puzzle pieces had fallen into place, and a heartbreaking portrait had appeared.
Garcin didn’t bother to say anything more. Instead, he took his coat and scarf and hat and he left, ensuring that his pipe was still in his pocket. All of these things, unbeknownst to Ling, had been purchased at thrift stores, so she could buy her clothes at designer names. His pipe he had bought at a yard sale, not in some upscale smoke shop in Cambridge. He frequently avoided his favorite and most expensive tobacco, so Ling could go shopping if she wanted to. When he went to the grocery store to cook for dinner, he bought store brands and never let Ling see the box, under the guise that the meal was to be a surprise. He hadn’t added books to his study nearly since they’d been married—any research he had done was through library-lent material. This drastically cut back the cost of being a scholar, if he could be called one. He hadn’t written anything of considerable mention since Charlie had left. He hadn’t felt inspired, or really anything, since then. He was too busy drowning in bills and maintaining the illusion to Ling that everything was fine.
Leaving behind the house he so dearly loved and the warmth of the fire and that lovely cinnamon smell and the click of his boots on the hardwood floor and the grand chandelier with all the lights burned out and the bed he had slept in for the majority of his marriage—leaving behind his home—Garcin trudged through the tomb-like stillness of late night Boston towards Fifteen Beacon, the nearest hotel. Every house on Mt. Vernon Street seemed beaming with warm, yellow light, abounding with the sounds of holiday cheer. He concentrated on the crunch of snow under his feet to block it out. He thought about the history of the neighborhood to keep out of his mind what Ling had said.
There were no vacancies at Fifteen Beacon, due to the holiday weekend. Garcin sighed and moved on, packing his pipe as he made his way out the door. He went to the Omni Parker House and Nine Zero, encountering the same result. He headed down Tremont Street and was turned back the Ritz-Carlton. Continuing down Boylston, he arrived at the Charlesmark Hotel and was finally received. The clerk, of the quirky stereotype found at the midnight shift, took his credit card to make the reservation in the computer. After a moment, he handed the card back to Garcin.
“ I’m sorry sir, we can’t take your reservation.”
“ Why? Are you full?”
“ No. Apparently your card has maxed the spending limit and…”
But Garcin was already gone. He surmised that Ling’s affair had something to do with his credit card, and trudged angrily down Exeter to Huntington Avenue. He checked his wallet and found seventy-three dollars, which wouldn’t get him anywhere at any regular hotel. Glancing up from that, he realized he was standing before the Neo-Gothic structure of the YMCA, the brobdingnagian sign on the roof gleaming like the eyes of God. That was where he stayed that night, staring out the window while the snow began to fall again, puffing his pipe and trying to figure out what had just happened.
Elliott received a phone call from Ling on Friday afternoon. She asked that he come over, and he inquired to the whereabouts of the Professor. She wanted to tell him in person, so he bundled up and headed outside, confronted by a chilly, still winter day. Cerulean skies spotted with flocculent cumulus lay above, and the now partially melted snow yielded a near reflection of fallen clouds on the streets below.
Ling answered the door fully clothed, almond eyes reddened with tears, soft cheeks colored with the strain of crying.
“ Come in.” she said, voice broken with sorrow.
Tea was brewing in the kitchen over the faded scent of cinnamon. Dishes were piled up in the sink, the candles of the previous night now emitting tiny jet streams of smoke. The house was uncommonly cold.
The two sat at the breakfast table, sipping tea. “ What’s the matter?” Elliott asked tenderly, touching Ling’s knee.
“ He left me.” Ling sputtered.
“ He…what?” Elliott’s eyes distended with fear upon the realization of Ling’s words, so tearfully uttered. “ What happened?”
“ The bastard had an eye on that college girl last night. So I got mad, and then he denied it, and it just got worse from there…”
“ So…he knows?”
Ling nodded, a crystalline orb sliding precariously down her cheek. Finally her reserve left her, and she deteriorated into helpless sobbing. Elliott embraced her, rubbing her back. “ It’ll be okay. Don’t worry,” was all he could say, though his own mind was quickly drowning in presentiment. The one thing dominating all else was the fact that Ling had been jealous over the Professor’s supposed eyeing of Maggie. Did she not realize the hypocrisy in that? And what did that mean for him?
“ What do we do, Elliott?” she cried.
He kissed Ling’s forehead. “ Things will work out somehow, if we’re meant for each other. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise; if Prof…er, Stephan decides to divorce you, we won’t have to make things so secretive.”
“ But don’t you get it, Stephan left me! He’s not coming back!”
This focus on Garcin irked Elliott, and confused him. “ Isn’t that what you want?”
“ Elliott—he’s my husband.”
“ But you said you didn’t love him, and that you loved me. This is really great for us.”
“ Well, maybe…maybe you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.”
This pained Elliott. With a tinge of hurt in his voice, he said, “ What does that mean? Ling, you can’t be in love with two people at once, not with how much you say you love me. Not with what we’ve experienced, not when you’ve told someone that you specifically didn’t love someone else. You can’t be jealous when you’re cheating on the person who’s responsible for it!”
“ And why not?”
“ Love…it’s faith. That’s a big part of it,” Elliott said, realizing his own words as he said them. “ Dedication. So if your lover doesn’t please you, you talk to them about it. You don’t immediately fall in love with someone else. But you don’t seem to understand that. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t have me and be jealous of Stephan’s attentions, which I personally find preposterous. He’s so ridiculously in love with you, he could never even make the first move toward an affair if he wanted to.”
Ling’s saddened features had slowly hardened. Elliott was now indignant. How could she do this to him, how could she possibly lead him on like she had? Had they ever really loved, or was it all pretense?
Mrs. Garcin’s embittered response affirmed everything. “ If I can’t have you and Stephan, then I guess you’d better leave.”
“ What?” Elliott murmured.
“ I’ve been thinking about Stephan ever since he left, and how great he actually was, all the things he did for me…you never once bought me dinner or offered to pay for the hotel room. He at least cooked it for me. All you wanted was sex and…”
“ Because you wanted it, too! You told me it was the only way we could express our love, and I believed that. I loved you with all my heart, and now you’re just going to dump me out on the sidewalk because I’m not convenient anymore. I’m not a thrill anymore. I’m not exciting. Well, guess what? You’re married to an English professor! And good luck getting him back!” Elliott rose to leave, feeling the tears welling. Ling’s face had softened a bit, seeing the emotion gathering in his eyes.
“ Elliott, wait. I didn’t understand, before…I didn’t know what I wanted…I was so full of these repressed urges, I just…I got confused about the difference between love and attraction…I realize now that I have to choose between those two, always, and you should be proud because after all this I chose love. I’m sorry you’re not that choice.”
“ You don’t know love. You just go for whatever’s most attractive, and when it’s taken away, you cry like a spoiled little girl. You want what you can’t have, and that’s why you told me you loved me—you weren’t supposed to be able to have me, but you know what, you did, and I loved you for it.”
This comment had struck a nerve with Ling. “ How can you, an eighteen year old, talk to me about love? You have no idea what love is! You just wish you did, so you could explain why you stooped to have sex with a married woman. A married woman twenty-five years older than you! Now get out of my house!”
Shocked, aggrieved, Elliott staggered out of the house on Mt. Vernon Street. He held his broken heart at bay until he returned, alone, back to his dormitory. Falling onto his bed, he shattered into a million lonely pieces, and each one cascaded down his cheeks, reflecting in it every memory he’d ever had with Ling. Over time he realized that this single occurrence had destroyed his ties with both Professor Garcin and Maggie, if she ever found out. Amidst the undulations of grief sweeping over him, a small determination began to grow. He could not let Maggie find out about this, somehow.
The remains of the holiday weekend passed without event, though the thought of confronting Professor Garcin on Monday steadily grew acidic in Elliott’s stomach. Yet he knew it had to be done. What would result was beyond him. Would they ever reconcile? Would they at least be able to part ways without being enemies? He was thankful to know, at least, that there were only two weeks of class left.
On Sunday Elliott called Maggie, half-expecting her to already know of his devious liaison. What would he do without her? Although she was but an acquaintance to him, she was all he had left in any way of personal relations. He had no dorm buddies or any solid friendship with his roommates. He had nothing without Ling or Maggie or the Professor.
To his relief, Maggie appeared cheerful and ignorant of his shameful actions. He did his best to mimic happiness, to mask his desperation, as he invited her to see a movie on Monday. He chose that date strategically—as his meeting with Garcin would surely leave him at his absolute worst, perhaps a date with Maggie would raise him from that abyss.
She agreed to his proposition, and they decided to meet in the early evening. With that, their conversation ended and Elliott hung up the phone. He sighed drearily and laid back in his bed, staring at the ceiling as he had done for the past two days. Despite the unpleasant end to his relation with Ling, he still missed her.
Professor Garcin found the idea of rising from his bed at the YMCA nearly inconceivable that Monday morning. He was able to perform the action upon realizing he was already late. Still wearing the same clothes as he had been Thursday, he shoved a cigarette in between his lips. He had long ago run out of pipe tobacco, finding it cheaper to purchase a carton of cigarettes (which he was quickly in the process of diminishing). He opened a window to smoke his cigarette, listening to the rhythmic passing of cars over the half-melted slush on the street.
Northeastern was a short walk from where he was staying, the only positive note to his situation. He trudged through moist, cold wind straight to his office, missing the warm fire of his home the entire way. Professors Davis and Ford were oblivious to his situation, though he knew he looked bad because they avoided even inquiring as to what had happened to him. He hadn’t felt like answering, anyhow. He hadn’t felt like going to work, but the only thing that drove him now was seeing Elliott—why the hell had he ever cared for that little bastard in the first place? What a sordid, contemptible destroyer of joy! How Garcin wished that he had never seen his face! He had been happy until then—until he had decided to waste countless hours trying to fix the imaginary mental problems of the youth, only to have the ungrateful scamp initiate an affair behind his back. The utter wastefulness of the past two months became apparent to Garcin at that moment, and he clenched his fist in furious gall. And such he remained, drinking cold coffee and possessing a thousand yard stare of sheer bestiality, until the glorious hour of his course with Elliott arrived.
Smoking two cigarettes because he wasn’t satisfied with one, the Professor barged across campus. Students nearly fell over trying to clear his path, and he couldn’t help but delight in the look upon the faces of those he knew. A bicycler narrowly escaped severe bodily injury as he skidded past the Professor, who hadn’t bothered to stop for him. A faculty member ventured to say good afternoon, but was scared away as he gave closer inspection to his shabby colleague. Leaving a swath of shocked academicians in his path, Garcin at last entered the building containing his class, tossing his cigarettes away.
With a wet, debilitative cough he entered the auditorium and immediately checked Elliott’s typical seat to see if he was indeed present. To his satisfaction, the boy was there.
“ There will be no class today, due to matters of a…personal nature. Make sure to do your readings, and I will see you Wednesday.” This he announced without removing his eyes from Elliott.
The student understood Garcin’s intentions and stayed in his seat as the rest of the class filed out. Once the class was empty, Garcin looked up from the spot of ground he had been focusing on.
“ Come down here, please, Elliott.”
“ Professor, I’m so sorry, I…”
“ You are not sorry!” the Professor screamed, slamming his fist on the desk he stood behind.
“ Please just…”
“ No you listen. This is inexcusable, Elliott! Inexcusable! You can’t have sex with the wife of a married man, nonetheless one who is a friend! What the hell were you thinking?”
“ It’s over, Professor. She told me…”
“ What made you do this? What made you ruin my life?”
Elliott grew flustered, intimidated as he was, with the Professor’s interruptions. “ Apparently I’m not the reason your life is ruined. Apparently you had something for Maggie.”
Garcin’s anger was temporarily reposed. “ She told you that?”
“ Yes. And I defended you. I told her that you would never think of such a thing. I loved Ling but I felt terrible about this the entire time because you are my friend. And when I could have sided with her and when I could have let her think how horrible you are for allegedly eyeing Maggie, I told her that was hardly an option for you!”
“ This is beside the point the fact that YOU HAD SEX WITH MY WIFE!” Garcin burst, having found his anger again.
“ Well you obviously were not!”
Garcin’s knuckles whitened. “ I can’t help that, and that’s none of your goddamn business!”
“ You have no idea how lonely your wife is, how she only wishes you would pay her an ounce of real attention because…”
“ Don’t talk to me about my wife!”
Elliott had straightened up a bit, no longer shrinking under Garcin’s red hot anger. “ That’s your problem. She’s not a person, she’s a possession. That’s why she came to me, that’s why she loved me, because I saw her as a real person.”
With tears glinting in the corners of his eyes, Garcin shook his head. “ That’s not true. She didn’t love you. You don’t know what love is!”
“ I have a better idea than you do.” Elliott said softly.
“ Oh…no…no you don’t. I am fifty-eight years old, I’ve been married for twenty-three years, the great majority of which has been a happy time. I was fine without you. My life was fine before I met you. You wrecked everything, even my house started falling apart after it came in contact with you.”
This last remark struck deep in Elliott. His lips quivered and his eyes began to tear. “ You don’t know me, you don’t know what I know about love! You don’t know what love is because you’ve never been heartbroken, you’ve never felt alone because as long as you had your trophy wife everything was just great. Nevermind her feelings! You don’t know me, Professor.”
“ I can’t believe this. An eighteen year old is lecturing me on love. What do you know? How do I know you’ve been heartbroken? How do I know you’ve felt alone?”
Elliott drew up his sleeves and held his forearms up. They were crisscrossed with the pale remnants of old scars and the crimson trails of new gashes.
“ The story…it was true?”
Elliott nodded, cheeks dampened with embittered tears.
“ Why didn’t you…?”
“ Because I was happy. I was happy with Ling. We were in love, and I thought for once it might last. But who ruined whose life here? Because she loves you, Stephan. She loves you, not me. She hates me now. It took me for either of you to even realize this!”
“ Elliott, I’m…”
“ Get away from me.”
“ No, I want to…”
“ I don’t care. You don’t know me. And I never want to see your face again.”
“ No, Elliott…”
Professor Garcin’s protestations were in vain, though, as Elliott had already rushed out the door.
The Professor now felt drenched in guilt, seeping it from his pores, unable to do anything about the pain he had surely caused the boy. What if he had nudged the youth ever closer to the ultimate act of self-destruction? He couldn’t deal with that notion, couldn’t grasp the mantle of inescapable guilt that would forever place on his shoulders. He had to do something, he had to save the boy. He stepped outside to smoke.
Leaning against the gray stone of the academic building, feeling late autumn nipping on his uncovered face, Garcin suddenly spotted Maggie approaching him in an adorable winter outfit. He was immediately conscious of his slovenly appearance, but unable to do anything to curtail it. He would just have to bear it.
“ Hey Professor. I didn’t know you smoked.”
Garcin looked at his cigarette as if he had never seen it before. “ I just started,” he chuckled embarrassedly, and tossed it away. “ How are you?”
“ I’m good, how about yourself? Oh, are you okay? You look a little…”
“ Like hell?” he offered a smile. “ It’s a long story. I’ve most certainly been better.”
“ I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“ Do you ever see Elliott?”
“ Actually I’m going to see him tonight.”
Garcin raised a mildly jealous eyebrow. “ Really?”
“ Yeah. We’re going to see a movie together.”
“ A date?”
Maggie nodded cheerfully.
The Professor tried not to let his disappointment show. He still held intense affections for Maggie, made stronger than ever by his recent estrangement. But now, not only had Elliott managed to get more out of his wife than he ever had, he was cozening his new desire. What was he to do? Undoubtedly he was frustrated, irritated, uncommonly irreversibly fed up with the joke his existence had become, left with nowhere to turn but back to the YMCA, which he couldn’t even afford. However, he was already walking on eggshells with Elliott, edging him dangerously nearer to the fires of suicide.
“ Why do you ask? Don’t you have class with him?”
“ Well…yes, but this is very important. Please, just…just let him know I’m sorry.”
The Professor took his leave much as Elliott had done, unannounced, ashamedly, angrily. Moments later he found himself inside the drab stone entombment of the YMCA, cigarette clinging precariously to his lip. He had abandoned his bed in favor of the cold, rigid floor. His eyes sat fastened to the alabaster creases of the ceiling, never once moving. He wanted to tear the sun right out of its haughty throne in the sky. He wanted to find Fate herself and shake her until she spilled forth the secret of his declining reality. He wanted to tell whatever deity that stood poised over him, surely laughing, to shove his self-righteousness. He wanted to punch Elliott Danbury in the face, then help him to the mental hospital. He wanted his wife back, but he also yearned for the now completely unattainable Maggie.
Torn in innumerable directions, the Professor was left with no definite course of action. Supposedly Ling loved him. But she had committed adultery, and her last remarks still stung somewhere in his ribcage. Elliott was the source of all his bane, all his itinerant petulance. Yet one comment could prove disastrous, if his words thus far hadn’t already done so. It was clear now that his wife’s affair was partially his fault. But what could he do to repair things, and even more recondite, what could he do to eliminate his own hypocrisy? It may have been his responsibility to ensure that Elliott did not hurt himself anymore, yet he couldn’t help but to harbor a growing hatred for the boy who had bested him with the two sources of his strongest inclination. Where and when would this all come together, when would he be able to do something to stop this nonsense?
Just then there came a rapping at Garcin’s door. Who on Earth could have the desire to visit him? He rose with a groan, cigarette ashes fluttering across his sweater. There was no eyehole through which he could see this unexpected guest. He guessed that it was the manager, come to inform him that he was to leave. With an exasperated sigh, the Professor opened the door—and fell into an enduring consecution of coughs. Before him was the lanky figure of Charles Dickens Garcin.
Elliott and Maggie met around sunset. In the hours previous to their meeting an ashen blanket of snow clouds had unfurled across the sky, now polished with roseate and apricot. The city was painted in these tones, the glass fronts of buildings blushing before the remains of the sun. As Elliott and Maggie headed towards the Fens, tiny shards of snow occasionally added a sharp tinge to the increasingly cool wind. Maggie chanced to entwine her arm around Elliott’s, and he smiled sincerely.
“ Oh, Professor Garcin told me to tell you that he’s sorry.”
Elliott nearly lost his composure at the mention of Garcin, but was able to hang onto it by a fragile thread. “ Yeah?”
“ Yeah. And then he just ran off. Something’s wrong with him, Elliott. He looked terrible. Do you have any idea what that’s about?”
“ You don’t have to tell me. I understand if it’s between you and the Professor. But let me know this: is he okay?”
“ I…I don’t know. He’s having problems with his wife.”
“ Aww. He really did look terrible. Did you see him today?”
“ Yeah. It was pretty awful.”
Elliott had really hoped that the name Garcin wouldn’t come up that night. He wanted no more of Stephan or Ling, because both had broken his heart. He viewed Maggie as his last chance, his only connection in this strange northern world. If that didn’t work, he wouldn’t know what to do. He needed this relationship.
Luckily, there arose nothing else to disturb the date. It was completely different from Elliott’s first “date” with Ling—this was based around conversation and the tempering of passion, the gradual release of it through small gesture. They clung close to each other as they walked through the bleached, sugar-coated landscape of the Fens in the winter and past Fenway Park to the movie theatre. They held hands innocently while watching the movie.
As the two grew closer and closer, Elliott felt increasingly guilty. He was withholding so much from Maggie. Why did it have to be that he met her through Garcin? Why couldn’t they be completely isolated? And as his guilt accrued, so did his compulsion to tell her everything. But how could she possibly understand? It would definitely push her away. That was something he could not afford. But Maggie’s faint knowledge of the events transpiring between him and the Garcins was going to hang drearily over their relationship until some light was shed on it.
By the time the two had reached the entrance to Maggie’s residence hall, Elliott had decided what he would do: tell the partial truth. In this his role as the despicable adulterer could be masked merely as one unnamed. While still exposing some of the emotion imprisoned within him the past few days, he could also retain his good standing with Maggie.
“ Look, um, I guess I’ll tell you what’s going on with the Professor, since I really need to.”
“ No, you don’t have to. I completely understand if it’s a personal thing.” In saying this, Maggie looked in his eyes sincerely. Bits of snow clung to her raven hair, and her emerald eyes reflected eons. Elliott heard his heart berating him for what he was about to do. But he had to do it, or he was going to explode.
“ Well, it’s kind of a long story…”
“ Let’s go up to my room, then. It’s a lot warmer up there.”
Upon establishing themselves in Maggie’s otherwise empty dorm room, sitting face to face in a pair of desk chairs, Elliott began into his tale. He explained that he had to tell someone, since the Professor had come to him for advice and he was unable to provide it. This, dictated Elliott, was the reason Garcin had apologized: when he couldn’t help, the Professor had gotten angry. Maggie listened to all this with sympathetic, heart rendering regard. Struggling within himself, Elliott proceeded to recount the skeleton of his interactions with Ling and Garcin’s discovery, twisting the story as need be.
“ That’s…that’s terrible.” Maggie murmured at the hanging conclusion, visibly moved. “ The poor Professor. And such a miserable wife!”
“ I think adultery is one of the most loathsome things a person can do. I mean, you’ve taken a sacred vow, pledging yourself to someone else. A vow that requires sacrifice and humility, and above all, uncompromising love. And what do you do? You shove it aside so you can please your whims.”
“ I know…”
“ And whoever Mrs. Garcin had that affair with, whatever worthless, pitiful excuse for a human being decided to intrude on the sanctimony of their marriage…I hope they get what they deserve.”
Elliott’s heart fell into itself completely at that instant. Maggie’s sharp words, unintentionally and obliviously aimed at him, had destroyed any shred of resilience left within him. His emotional being deteriorated, as a house gutted by fire collapses inward. A numbness, a cold apathy, settled like a specter over him in the absence of extreme depression. He realized that he had no place with someone as pure as Maggie, someone of such ideals as she. She was above him, he did not deserve her.
“ I’d better go.” Elliott said blankly. “ I have class tomorrow and all.”
Maggie’s precious eyes suggested confusion, but she agreed. They walked, in silence, to the entrance of the building. “ Call me tomorrow, or something. I had a lot of fun tonight, Elliott.”
“ Me, too.”
“ See you later, then?”
Maggie put her arms around Elliott and held him for a moment. He touched her back weakly. Then she pulled away, killing him with her beautiful face. “ Goodnight.”
Elliott returned to his dorm, dragging his feet in the snow. He moved as if in a dream. But he was contemplating, planning, deciding. He knew what had be done.
When Professor Garcin had recovered from his lengthy fit, he looked with an astonished expression at his son. He was dressed as he had never seen him, in dress pants and tie. His tattooed arms were concealed by the stark white sleeves of his shirt, his normally unkempt onyx-color hair neatly tied into a pony tail. Garcin sat on the edge of the cot, his knees feeling weak. There was no embrace, or even a handshake, just a moment of awkward quiet while Charlie gazed at his father with concerned, but not unhappy, charcoal eyes.
“ You alright?”
“ Yeah. How…how are you? My god, it’s been so long.”
“ I’m…good, I guess. I got a job.” Charlie said with a sheepish smile, plucking his name tag.
“ You work here?” Garcin asked with an incredulous look. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth to replace the one that had been expelled by his cough.
“ Yeah. You can’t smoke in here.”
“ Can you allow me at least one, given the circumstances?”
After the Professor had lit the cigarette, he asked while shaking the fire from his match, “ So, what do you uh…do here?”
“ I manage the receptions desk. That’s how I knew you were here, I saw your name on the guest list.”
“ I see. If you don’t mind my asking, whatever happened to the band?”
Charlie laughed, not successfully hiding his embarrassment. “ We broke up a while ago.”
“ And you’ve been working here ever since? Just a five minute walk from me?”
“ I haven’t been working here the whole time, but pretty much yeah. But look, Stephan, we have to talk.”
“ Yeah. Mom called me and told me what happened, so I came here to put some sense into you.”
This condescending comment irritated Garcin, but he didn’t immediately show it. He was more bothered by the fact that Ling knew how to get in contact with his son. “ Your mother knew how to get in touch with you?”
“ Well, I’m assuming she had to look me up, because I never gave her my number before. She sounded really desperate when I talked to her. She’s a mess, you know. She was so upset I could hardly understand her.”
“ Serves her right.”
“ No, Stephan, it doesn’t.”
“ Don’t call me Stephan. I’m your father, for Christ’s sake.”
“ Then treat me like a son.”
“ Not this again. I will not go over this with you, Charlie.”
“ Call me Charles.”
“ Then call me dad.”
“ Why didn’t you even act like you gave a damn these past three years? Why didn’t you even try to contact me? I would have come back if I would’ve felt welcomed.”
“ Well I didn’t think you ever wanted to see me again. I thought I was doing you a favor.”
“ Since when is it a favor to abandon your son?”
“ It was my impression you left by your own will.”
“ Because that was the only choice I had! You wouldn’t have me if I didn’t go to some school, if I didn’t follow in your footsteps as a worthless Professor! College isn’t for everyone, Stephan!”
“ Look…Charles…I’m tired of fighting. I miss you. I love you. You’re my son, I will love you and support you no matter what. But I will always act with your best interests in mind.”
“ It doesn’t seem that way, but whatever. I’m here to talk about Mom. What did you do to her?”
“ What did I do to her? The question should be what did she do to me! She had an affair with my favorite student!”
“ And you left?”
“ Yes, rightfully so!”
“ You should go back to her. She misses you.”
“ Why should I go back? She said she didn’t love me.”
“ Sometimes people say things they don’t mean. You know she loves you. She always has.”
“ But how does that explain her cheating on me?”
“ People get confused. Sometimes they make bad decisions, and realize it, but continue what they’re doing because they know no other way out.”
“ It can’t be that hard to end an affair!”
“ Is it ever easy to end any relationship? When you’re stuck between a risky relationship and a husband who treats you like an object, it can be hard to figure the right way out.”
“ I did not treat her like an object! I loved Ling, I loved her with the entirety of my being, and I did everything I could to show that to her.”
“ Did you love her or the idea of her? And don’t say loved, because I know you still love her.”
“ How do you know?”
“ We’re the same, Stephan. Why do you think we fight so much?”
Garcin refused to answer this, instead choosing to stare hard at his son.
“ You know I’m right. Stephan, you catered to the idea of Ling, but I know you love her as a real person, somewhere. You just have to focus on that, bring that out. You have to forgive her for reacting to the mistakes you’ve made.”
“ I was not the cause of this, Charles.”
“ Stop thinking about yourself! You were the cause of this! And you feel guilty about it, but you won’t do anything, because you’re too proud. And you’re afraid of disturbing the status quo. You’re afraid of confronting the idea that things aren’t perfect just because you live in a nice house with a pretty wife. Well, Stephan, look where that mentality has gotten you. You’re living in the YMCA. Far cry from Beacon Hill, isn’t it? Far cry from perfect, isn’t it? Accept it, and do something about it. It’s not too late to repair the damage.”
“ But how can I ever look at Ling knowing she cheated on me?”
“ How could she ever look at her liaison knowing she imagined it was you?”
“ Did she really do that?”
“ Sometimes, yes. That’s what she told me. I’m telling you, she never stopped loving you. She got confused.”
Garcin stared at the floor for a long time, regretfully feeling Charlie’s words seep in. Coupled with what Ling and Elliott had said to him, he began to realize the illusion he’d been living. He stood up.
“ Are you going over there?”
“ You’d better hurry. She’s putting the house on the market tomorrow. She’s convinced you’re gone for good.”
“ I’m leaving then. Goodbye, Charles.”
The Professor slid by his son and rushed down the stairs. He crashed out into the street as the Sun was slipping past the edge of the world, spraying golden pink across the clouds as if it had dropped into a full glass of the color. He heard the roar of the T down Huntington, and sprinted towards the Symphony T-stop. Bounding across traffic, he descended into the subway and stumbled onto the train just as it arrived. He remained breathless the entire way to Park St. As soon as he reached that destination, he shoved his way up to the street and began carving through the drifts of the Common. His heart thrashed in his ribcage, his sides burned, his lungs closed. He was running off the terrible stress of the past few days, feeling it slide off of him like a discarded garment. Hope, however meek, was returning to him.
His burdened heart conspired against him, though, and refused to lighten its pace as his lungs constricted and forced coughs out of him. Wheezing, the Professor slackened his gait. A terrible cough came over him, accompanied with dizziness. He staggered forward, though. He had to see Ling. He had to talk to her. But his house was becoming farther and farther away. The Common seemed to go on into eternity, the endless snowdrifts, colored by the palettes of sunset, the emaciated trees, the homeless making their shelters for the night. His legs revolted. His heart was in open rebellion now, attacking his entire chest, trying to rip him apart. His lungs didn’t want to inflate. Helpless, Garcin stopped, then fell into the snow, his left arm numbing. He grimaced in pain, but couldn’t move. All he could do was close his eyes and fade out, surrounded by soft, warm snow.
Elliott had everything ready—the letters to Professor Garcin, Ling, Maggie, and various members of his family. His roommates were in class, which he had skipped for the day. He was complacently and conveniently unaccompanied. The numbness had remained like a fog about him since he had left Maggie the previous night, but it was of no consequence to him now. He was sleepless, his vision and perception distorted by the lack of rest. He was viewing the world in a strange, indescribable haze, interpreting it with a mind encumbered. Yet again, this was of no consequence.
He held before him six oxycontin which he had purchased from one of his neighbors late the night before. Shifting his gaze from the little pills in his hands, he focused momentarily on the slashes across his arms. He’d worked hard in the past several hours, leaving deeper gashes than he’d ever inflicted, strewn like bloody ribbons about his forearms. Some were still bleeding. Each and every one was on fire, but he welcomed the burn.
Checking over his final preparations, he determined that it was time. He found it vaguely funny that he’d never imagined committing suicide in the afternoon. It had always seemed like a moonlit ordeal. Upon further reflection he realized that most people died in broad daylight anyhow. And now, he was to join their ranks.
He swallowed each sixty milligram capsule individually with a bit of water. They tasted sweet. As each descended into his stomach, he tried to imagine feeling a bit closer to death, but truthfully he felt no different. He didn’t feel any different afterward, either.
With the deed done, Elliott had naught to do but wait. He stared at the wall, at his crimson patterned arms, at the nickel blue carpet. He really didn’t want to regret this. He tried to conceptualize what his life would have been like without his constant mistakes. Maybe he would’ve gone to Harvard. Maybe he would not have slept with Professor Garcin’s wife. Maybe he would’ve had more friends, or a normal relationship.
As Elliott’s mind drifted out on the plain of intoxication, bending, melting, fading in and out, minutes passing by unchecked, walls cascading down in streams of pasty apocalyptic gel, carpet liquefying into sky, the Sun glaring angrily through his window, he forgot that he was dying. He wanted to sleep. What was he doing there? It was time to leave to wherever he had to be.
His cell phone rang catastrophically. He answered in a voice encased in alarm. “ H—hello?”
“ It’s Maggie.”
“ Oh. Hey, I remember you.”
“ Are you okay? You don’t sound like yourself.”
“ I’m not myself. I’m in transition.”
“ What’s wrong with you?”
“ I’m dying of course.”
“ Look,” he said matter-of-factly, “ I took six OxyContin and a glass of water. It’s over, but I feel great. Everything’s just grrreat.”
“ Oh my God…are you serious?”
“ Is the sky blue?”
“ I’m coming over, Elliott. What’s your room number?”
“ 356. But really, is the sky blue? I need to know, Maggie.”
Maggie had hung up as soon as she had received the numbers, promptly calling an ambulance. Then she sprinted over to his residence hall, yelling hysterically to the resident director that the boy in room 356 was trying to kill himself. First the Professor, now Elliott. She’d never been to a funeral before, never seen death firsthand, and now it was staring her in the eye. Twice in one day, how could this happen?
Rumor spreads with immeasurable haste on college campuses. Walking amongst students in between class for any amount of time, one collects a hundred wild stories, usually of a ridiculous degree of excess and stupidity. The rumor that permeated across Northeastern that same day was hardly of that category, though. For, every once in a great while, one hears a bit of news so outlandish that it couldn’t possibly be anything else but the stuff of rumor. However, being so outlandish, the only shape this ambiguous information can take is that of truth. And such was the nature of the rumor at Northeastern. Supposedly, Professor Garcin had been found facedown in the snow by a jogger in Boston Common at sunset, having suffered a heart attack. He had been promptly admitted into the New England Medical Center’s Emergency Room, where his condition remained unknown. It was this news that came to Maggie, which became her reason for calling Elliott.
Minutes later Maggie was at New England Medical Center, watching her delirious friend being wheeled away on a stretcher to have his stomach pumped. She asked the desk where Garcin was located and noted his number, then returned to her seat in the waiting room, relieved to know he was at least alive.
An overbearing air of sickness, unhappiness, and darkness oppressed the hospital emergency room. She could feel the negativity, though the blanched walls and bright fluorescent lights indicated otherwise. She could sense the pain, both physical and emotional, that coated the hallways and drifted through the vents. It was an exigent sensation, and it wore heavily on her as she waited with her breath caught. She prayed that Elliott would be okay, prayed that the doctors could save him. She really liked him, and his attempt at suicide had puzzled her.
After what had seemed like hours, a man in scrubs told her that Elliott was recovering and she could see him. She entered the shaded room timidly, finding the youth spread out on a bed, connected with all manner of tubes. He was awake and grim-faced. She smiled, hoping to counteract his downtrodden features, but it was to no avail.
“ Hey…” she said, sitting next to him.
“ Hey,” he replied flatly, regarding her with sunken eyes.
“ How are you feeling?”
Maggie took one of Elliott’s hands and held it warmly. She was shocked at the terrible wounds on his arms, but said nothing.
“ A little better.”
This drew a bit of a laugh from her that quickly disappeared in the dreadful, still air of the room.
“ I’m sorry.” Elliott said after a pause.
“ Oh, sweetie, you have nothing to be sorry for.”
“ Yes I do. I ruined your day. And there’s something else.”
“ Elliott, I don’t care if you ruined my day. I’m just glad you’re alive.”
“ Maggie, I…I lied to you about Professor Garcin’s wife. Or, I didn’t tell you the whole story.”
“ Let’s forget about that for now.”
“ No, I have to tell you this.”
“ Please, just listen.”
“ The person who Ling cheated on the Professor with was me. It was all as much my fault as it was hers. I saw her, and I thought I was in love, and she thought she loved me too. But our relationship, it was all physical. Repressed intentions. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to draw the line between lust and love. And that’s been my problem all along.”
Maggie was unsure what to say. She couldn’t be angry, not at this fragile moment. But why had he done this, and could he be trusted for it?
“ Maggie, I really like you, and not just physically. I didn’t know I was going to meet someone like you while I was with Ling. You’re…you’re exactly what I’ve been searching for my entire life. I’m so sorry if I’ve angered you. You have every right to be that way. I angered the Professor too, and I felt so terrible about it. He was my only friend. I couldn’t lose you after losing both him and Ling, but I realized I didn’t deserve you after what you said last night.”
“ Elliott,” Maggie said tenderly, “ What you did was wrong, but you acknowledge that. You acknowledge your mistakes. That means there’s still hope for you. There’s still hope for you to correct what you’ve done. And I really like you, too. And I respect you now, for telling the truth. That was brave. My perception of you has changed considerably, but that doesn’t mean it’s over between us.”
Elliott managed a half-smile. For a few moments they sat in harmonious silence, hand-in-hand. Then Maggie said, “ I guess I should let you know—Professor Garcin’s here. He had a heart attack last night. A jogger found him in the Common.”
“ Is he okay?”
“ I don’t know. Do you want me to go check on him?”
“ Please. And Maggie?”
“ Tell him and Ling that I’m truly sincerely sorry.”
Professor Garcin had certainly felt healthier, though never clearer. His brush with death had left in him a renewed sense of purpose and objective, a new view of love and his marriage. Ling had arrived at the hospital shortly after he was admitted, raining tearful kisses and embraces upon him, apologizing repeatedly. But he had apologized profusely as well. This was all superseded by a long discussion, in which Garcin explained his now defunct admiration for Maggie and recounted his conversation with Charles that had led to his revelation. Ling had listened intently, never letting her anger rise over her. As she had responded to him, an affection showed in her eyes like he’d never seen before. Relations between them were far from perfect or resolved, but for now, everything was okay. A new life was before them, a new relationship. And this made him happy, for what had seemed like the first time in years.
He experienced a temporary shock when Maggie crept into the room. Ling, who had been sitting by his side holding his hand, was similarly affected.
“ Hey. I heard what happened. It’s all over campus. Are you okay?”
“ I’m…better than I’ve been in a while, I suppose. Did you really come over here to see me?”
“ Well…uh, Elliott’s here as well.”
“ Oh no. Did he…”
“ He took six oxycontin.”
“ Dear God. Is he okay?”
“ He’s recovering. He wanted me to let you both know that he’s truly, sincerely sorry.”
“ Tell him that he’s exempt from the final, and that I send my sincerest apologies for what I’ve done.”
“ Okay. Well, I just wanted to see if you were okay. I guess I’ll go let Elliott know what you said.”
Maggie stepped into the hallway, and Ling followed after her. The Professor started to object, but his wife indicated that her intentions were not malicious.
Ling increased her pace to walk next to the girl. “ Hey.”
“ Oh, hey. Are you alright? This must be such a shock.”
“ It is, but…I guess a lot of good has come out of it.”
They entered the room together, and Maggie was left unsure how to act. She decided to leave the room respectfully, knowing that any relationship between Elliott and the Professor’s wife was definitely finished.
Elliott tensed apprehensively as Ling approached his bed. She sat a safe distance away, though, and stared at the ground while she spoke in hushed tones, her voice crushed by the stress of the past few days.
“ I just wanted to apologize for anything I said that might’ve hurt you…I didn’t realize…”
“ It’s fine. And I’m sorry if I hurt you, as well. But Ling, I think it’s safe to say that we both made a mistake here, and we were both misguided to begin with.”
“ You’re right. I shouldn’t have brought you into it.”
“ I didn’t have to accept your offer.”
“ Well, in any case, let’s forget about it, okay?”
“ Okay. I think it’d be best, though, if we didn’t speak again. I need friends my own age. And tell your husband that I enjoyed our friendship while it lasted, and I’m sorry to see it end, but I know this is best. I’m sure he’ll agree.”
“ Alright. Take care, Elliott.”
Ling departed, replaced by Maggie. She took her seat by Elliott and told him what the Professor had said. Then they held hands, sitting in peaceful quiet. It made Elliott happy.
Elliott only passed one class that semester—Garcin’s. He was in psychoanalytical sessions for the duration of his finals, but emerged healthier by Christmas. He went home and returned two weeks later for the beginning of a new semester, for a new relationship with Maggie. He never spoke to the Professor again, but he wholeheartedly recommended him to his newfound friends.
Charles Dickens Garcin visited his father in the hospital shortly before he was released. Though he disappeared again right after, his presence had warmed the heart of his father. Ling remained by Garcin’s side for the entirety of his stay, which amounted to several days. He quit smoking in that time and worked with his wife to create a solid budget to manage the overwhelming payments due on their house. When Garcin and Ling finally did return to the house on Mt. Vernon Street, they were astonished to see that most of the previously extinguished lights in the house had rekindled mysteriously, relinquishing the abode to its former state as a warm, bright place—only now it was home to a family.