By Ross Goldstein
The Palace was anything but; a sputtering neon sign dangled over the half-hinged front door, suspended by the remains of a frayed power cord. The ACE of Palace had died a long time ago, leaving PAL, which was how the students at Brighton College referred to the campus beer hall. The dive had all the charm of an outhouse on a hot day, but the offer of two buck pitchers was enough to pack it full on weekend nights. Despite being a geriatric dog’s age older than the rest of the patrons, I found solace at the Pal. It was a good place to hide out when being home alone was more than I wanted to manage.
I sat at the far end of the Pal’s sticky bar, insulated from intrusion, protected from the random apologetic review of my Chaucer lecture or the timid request for an extension on the essay due on Monday. I was faculty. English Lit. Lately I had come to view my engagement at Brighton as more of a job than a career. That was on me, not the college.
A woman wedged her way up to the bar. She said something, barely audible, over the whiny Seattle grunge rock blasting out of the speakers. When I didn’t respond, she repeated herself, leaning in.
“You don’t recognize me…” Her voice was flat. Was she asking a question or making a statement?
I lifted the brim of my sweat-stained Patriots hat to get a better look. Her high cheek bones were surrounded by a tangle of curly red hair that seemed confused about purpose or position. She sported a conservative tweed jacket over a ribbed black turtleneck. Tight jeans tapered down to spike heels. She was stuck somewhere on the bridge between student and urban professional. She was pretty in the way that younger women are when their features are just getting to know each other.
“Not sure I know you… should I?”
“Not particularly, I guess. But it’d make me feel a little better if you did.” She averted her eyes. We were scaring each other.
“Well, I’m not sure that making you feel better is part of my job responsibility here.” Snarky, but I was out of practice with small talk.
“Mind if I join you?” she replied, hitting the stool next to me without waiting for an invitation.
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Riley?” She looked at me. Hoping for a spark of recognition.
Nothing. Could have been the alcohol, but more likely it was the mental muddle of the past year and a half. Since the accident. She furrowed her brow. “Maybe you remember me as Betsy?” Elizabeth? Betsy? A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse. I shrugged my shoulders and took a sip. “Sorry, but I don’t—.”
“Comp Lit, seven years ago. I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. I was pretty quiet in class. Always in the last row. Back for my sister’s graduation.” She launched her thumb over her shoulder toward a gaggle of students raucously playing a drinking game in a crowded booth. “Anyway, I don’t want to disturb you”—a little too late for that— “but I heard about your wife and what happened. And I wanted to tell you how sorry I was . . . am. Just awful. I thought about sending you a condolence note, or something, when it happened last year, but who knows what’s the right thing to say?” She shrugged her shoulders. “Not really sure right now, except that it must really suck. To lose someone like that. So sudden. An asshole like that, arrested for DUI three times for fuck’s sake, still has a license? When I heard about the accident . . . well, you never think it could happen to someone you know. Not that I actually knew your wife. But you. I did take your course, and it felt like I kind of knew you.”
She flagged two fingers at the bartender. Her voice was now huskier and more forceful than the hesitant murmur she’d used to greet me. “Hope you don’t mind. It’s just that I feel like a fossil when I hang out with my sister’s friends.”
“So, tell me, Betsy. You’re. . . ?”
“New York. Tech start-up.” She rolled her eyes and shrugged. “English majors don’t find much work in the world, do they?”
“So I hear.”
“Fake it til you make it, or so they say.” She tilted her head back and drained the last of her drink.
I lifted my drink and tipped it in her direction. “Thanks.” I hoped gratitude was the right tone to strike. Connection. Focus. Make the effort. It’s the small steps that bring you back. “You took my class—what did you say? Seven years ago?”
“Right. Comp Lit. To be honest, I wasn’t there for the class. I mean I like the classics as much as the next person. Brothers Karamazov, Heart of Darkness. Great Gatsby was super cool in the way that people don’t always get what they want. War and Peace, Russian names. Ugh. Oh,and Of Human Bondage, loved that. Gave me a whole new perspective on obsessive love. What was it you said in class? ‘Truly falling in love requires forgetting everything you know about yourself so that you can meet yourself in your lover’s eyes?’ So cool. That’s stayed with me.”
“I said that?”
“Yes. Then you said, ‘real love means jumping without a safety net. Trust the power of love to keep you aloft,’” she said as if reading from a script. “‘Power of love,’ pure poetry. I remember that like it was yesterday.”
“You remember that?” I asked. A tingle of pride crawled up my back.
“Well, maybe not exactly, but it was something like that. There are things you hear that change the way you see the world.
Her comment brought me back to that night. The call from the sheriff startled me out of my slumber on the couch. Laura was on her way home from dinner with her best friend, Teresa, when she was broadsided by a drunk on 47. The momentum tangled both vehicles into a flaming knot, sending them careening a hundred yards down the highway. “She never felt a thing,” the coroner said when I went down to identify the body. “Like a hammer hitting a fly,” he said. I remember wondering, how would anyone know that?
“You guys were married for a long time,” Betsy said.
“Fifteen years,” I replied.
“No children, huh??”
“Look, Betsy, I appreciate your concern and thanks for your condolences, but I don’t really like to talk about it. You should be over there with your sister and her friends. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m kind of in a ‘drink alone’ flow right now.”
Her cheeks flared. “Oh, God, shit. I’m so sorry. Sometimes it’s like I’ve got Asperger’s, the way I go on. I apologize. Here, let me make it up to you.” She ordered two more drinks, took one, and slid the other in front of me, backing away like a zookeeper retreating from a lion at meal time.
“Wait, I don’t—” I mumbled, but she had already slipped off, and the rumble of background noise swallowed my words. My eyes tracked her path through the crowd. Maybe I ought to try a little harder. Betsy? How many Betsys were there were at Brighton? Funny how names went in cycles.
My wife and I met in graduate school. Lit nerds. She was studying for her MA in narrative studies, and I was completing my doctoral thesis, Empire of Chance: War, Literature, and the Epistemic Order of Modernity. We left for Brighton the summer after we were married. Each morning she retreated to her writing desk, which is where I’d find her when I returned in the afternoon. “Good day?” I’d ask as I pulled a cold beer from the fridge. “Four thousand words,” she’d reply. Laura’s OCD utilized quantification as reassurance. I think the randomness of her demise would have made her furious. Or maybe she always knew it was the logical final irony in her struggle against the chaos of the universe. I’d like to think she would have laughed about it. “Figures,” she might have said with the sweet smirk and the tilt of her head. The memory of that textured gesture still makes me smile.
I was trudging through the parking lot when I heard Betsy’s voice. “Wait! Professor Chambers? Hold on! I want to apologize.” The chilly, fall air dissolved my tequila buzz. I turned to see Betsy run-shuffle out of the Pal looking like a chocolate dipped marshmallow in her brown puffy overcoat.
She chugged to a stop in front of me., breathless. “I’m such a klutz . . . I didn’t mean to bother you. And that stuff about your wife . . . I mean, I do feel sorry for you. No, that doesn’t sound right. I’m trying to say . . . it’s not like pity. It’s just that nobody should go through something like that. Alone. But there’s something else.”
She searched for words like she was trying on shoes for size. The wind blew her hair in front of her, and when she pulled it back from her face, I saw the flash of a lightning bolt tattoo on her wrist vainly covering the faint scars that traversed her forearm like parallel tracks on a ski slope. “Betsy, thanks for your concern. It’s getting late for me. And it’s a little cold, so I’m going to leave now.” I unlocked the door and slid behind the wheel. Betsy hustled around to the other side door and jabbed her finger at the passenger seat. I thought about ignoring her, but she raised her hands in a prayerful pose and hunched her shoulders in a theatrical shiver. I unlocked the passenger door.
In the car, I rubbed my hands together for warmth. Betsy reached over and covered my hands with hers. She interlaced her fingers in mine and leaned in closer. Chemicals surged. Dopamine? Oxytocin? Laura and I used to joke about couples who held hands, like they were afraid to disconnect from each other. Was I holding her hand or was she holding mine?
“I used to come to see you during your office hours. Tuesday afternoons. Three to five. Thursday. One to three.”
“I don’t remember you—”
“I chickened out. Stood outside your door, sometimes for the whole two hours, trying to get the nerve up.”
“Was I that scary?”
“No. Not you. I scared myself. What I wanted to tell you then, and again, inside, there at the bar, is this.” Betsy drew in a deep breath. “I wanted to have sex with you. I had this wild fantasy about closing your office door and seducing you. Right there in your office. Like out of some movie or something.” She stared off into the distance as she spoke. “Oh, God. So embarrassing.” Betsy tucked her flushed cheeks under the buttoned collar of her jacket. I could see the edge of a smile peeking over the edge.
“I had no idea,” I stumbled. “I’m not sure that would have been a good idea,” feeling just as stupid as the words made me sound. “I was married. And students. You don’t mess with students.”
“Yeah, like that stops half the old farts here from fantasizing about some torrid fuck-fest with the hottie sitting in the front row. And the girls? You think we didn’t joke about who we lusted after. It’s college. Come on. You couldn’t have been that naïve.”
Betsy leaned over and placed her lips against my cheek. I felt the weight of her smell. Alcohol on the surface, but riding below, a deeper, funkier body odor. I inhaled her warmth. I turned my head, and her lips found mine. Her tongue opened my lips. How long had it been? Passion was something Laura and I reminisced about, like you might remember a close friend who moved to a distant city. Our sex had become a Kabuki play. Touching led to stroking. Penetration. Bathroom. Shower. Sleep. Over time Laura’s penchant for quantification emerged. “Once a week has become once a month,” she commented the last time, when we were finished. Her tone was dreamy, as if she were speaking more to herself than to me.
“No, I’m the one to apologize,” she interrupted. “I need to try harder.” A month later she was gone.
Over the last year and a half, I’d mapped the interior of my consciousness. I knew every nook and cranny, where the dead ends lay, the places to avoid because they offered no exit from the sadness, the abandonment, the loneliness, the questions, and always, in the end, the anger. Friends were supportive, or at least tried. “It’s good that there were no children,” they offered, as if my loss would be easier to bear in isolation. As if pain summates. I slept little, I exercised none, I drank more, I lost weight. I knew, in the abstract, that somehow, someway, the pain would recede, but only if I “handled it,” whatever that meant. I asked, “Why her?” And then, after a couple of drinks, “Why me?”, the question lurking in the back of my mind like an unwelcome house guest. I took comfort in the coroner’s pronouncement that she never knew what hit her. Then I felt guilty about feeling comfort. In the months after the funeral her close friends came for a few items, personal reminders, a favorite sweater, a comb. The rest I took to the Salvation Army. I hung a few pictures of her on the wall leading to the kitchen. Memories became decoration. I kept her pillow and often found myself awakening in the middle of the night to the familiarity of her smell.
“Hey, come back.” Betsy cuffed my chin turning my head toward her.
“Sorry,” I replied. So easy to lose the thread.
“You still live on Circle?” Betsy asked.
“You know where I live?”
“Kind of. Not exactly. I followed you from campus a couple of times. I probably sound like some kind of weird stalker.”
It wasn’t for me to question anyone else’s obsession. Betsy’s hand was rubbing my crotch over my pants. I was surprised at how quickly I got hard. Morality is situational. Betsy was no longer a student, and I was no longer married. The question of why she wanted me tangled with memories of Laura as the Pal disappeared in my rear view mirror.
We stood on opposite sides of the bed. Betsy slid her top off and unbuckled her pants. She turned and sat on the bed, peeling her jeans down her legs. I heard the clank of her belt hitting the floor. She continued undressing, her bra, her panties, her socks. Unabashed, smiling, she might as well have been in her own room. Naked, she slow crawled across the bed, until she was in front of me, smiling that same smile I had seen in the car. She unfastened my belt and pulled my pants down. Still smiling, she reached out for my cock.
“Not yet.” The best way to stay in control is to give up the illusion that you ever had it in the first place.
Betsy looked up and smiled. Her eye contact was as strong as the sun on a cloudless day. “Just relax,” she said. “It’s going to be great. You’ll see.”
Betsy pulled me down on the bed and straddled me. She lowered herself on top of me and fell forward on my chest, nestling her head in the crook of my neck. “There,” she groaned. “Right there,” as she ground her pelvis into my hips. I felt the heat of her body pressed against mine, the pressure of her weight. I was falling, the scaffolding of my consciousness folding in on itself as sensation obliterated observation. I came in a matter of moments. She rolled off me and began to rub her clitoris. “I’m greedy,” she giggled, a mock apology for her intention of having another, or maybe her first, orgasm. I admired her confidence. Her breath quickened and her chest turned a bright crimson. “Oh, God!” she screamed as her legs shook. Her face tightened in on itself as if a string had pulled it taught.
After we finished, Betsy popped out of the bed. She pulled her panties out from the tangled covers and hopped into them. She padded from the bedroom to the kitchen, calling back to me, “Thirsty?”
In a few minutes when she still hadn’t returned, I followed and found her standing in the hallway, staring at a picture of Laura.
“She was very beautiful. You guys were lucky. To have each other. Until the end, I guess.”
Betsy announced that she’d love to spend the night, but her sister would worry, so she was calling a cab to leave. She was standing in front of the mirror. She turned slowly, looking over her shoulder at her profile. She tugged on her jeans, wiggling to make her way into pants a size or two too small. She pulled her sweater over her head.
Her cab would be here in no time. I’d never see her again, probably. The intimacy with Betsy had been casual. Intense, out of need. But casual out of circumstance. She was in the process of leaving and I needed to know more. Why me? Laura and I had a relationship that had a beginning, a middle, and really, no end. And I was adrift. For the past year and a half, since Laura’s death, I had been in exile. Self-imposed, I suppose, but there comes a time when you are so far removed from the texture of human interaction that you must conclude that you are the problem. I hardly knew this girl, Betsy, but I needed to know. I needed to understand. I propped myself up on my elbow.
“Betsy? I just want to ask. Why me? Why did you choose me?”
Betsy’s head slid out from the neckline. “Lots of reasons, I suppose. And none in particular. When you lectured us about obsessive love, you made it sound so perfect, so absolute, so, I don’t know, so dreamy. Hot stuff, really. And it didn’t hurt that you were one of the cutest professors on the list.”
“Right, the list. Tell me you don’t know about the list,” Betsy put her hand over her mouth trying to hide the smirk on her face.
“The list, silly. I thought everyone at Brighton knew about the list. One night the girls in the dorm made a list of the professors we wanted to hook up with. Each of us got a choice. Kind of like a fantasy draft. Stupid, I suppose. Probably had more to do with boredom than anything else. We picked numbers to see who would get first choice. I went third.”
“Are you joking?”
“No. I mean it wasn’t a life goal or anything like that.” Betsy looked back at me and laughed. “Does it hurt being a third pick? Even if I had the first choice, I still would have chosen you. It couldn’t have just been anybody.”
Betsy had her jacket on and came to the side of the bed. She brushed the top of my head with her lips. Outside the sound of tires crushing gravel—her cab was here. As she left the room, she turned, “Hey, don’t take it personally.” The door clicked shut.
Ross E. Goldstein, Ph.D. practiced as a clinical psychologist for many years before committing himself to the craft of writing. He is the author of Chain Reaction, a coming of age story set in the world of professional cycling, and Fortysomething: Claiming the Power and Passion of Your Midlife Years, a non-fiction work on adult life-stage transition. Ross splits his time between Mill Valley, CA and Sun Valley, ID. When not on his bike he can usually be found pounding away on his computer in the hope that his words are working to convey the thoughts in his head. His favorite authors include Thomas McGuane and Colum McCann.