Fiction · 12/09/2020

The World in its Entirety an Open Door

Months after his student stopped coming to class, she was taking his order at the Starbucks drive-thru two towns over from the campus — and apartment — they had once shared.

He knew her voice through the speaker: gravelly and smoker-like, though her papers and tests never smelled like smoke. He could always tell the smokers. He sometimes held the papers to his nose, inhaling.

She suggested he order a pastry, in the same voice that once had described Orwell, laughingly, as Orwellian. He wanted to leave the drive-thru line but was trapped by SUVs in front and behind, cement curbs on either side. She would see him. She would see him seeing her handing over his change and designer coffee. In a black headset and green apron, stand-ins for the cap and gown she’d never worn.

Twenty-three months earlier, she had peered through the window in his office door, timid as a deer. The better word here is skittish, she’d later say, marking up the poems he showed her in bed. He taught Geography and Culture, though he’d always written poems. Always. Not all of the poems were about her, but enough. She wrote poetry, too. Angry slashes on the page, he’d once told her, dismissing the beauty in her use of line breaks, the (petty) recurring image of the lover’s “foxlike silver chest hair.” If it was him she meant, he didn’t approve. Being with her was supposed to remind him of who he had once been.

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“The word you actually want is ‘berm,’” she’d said, the week before he threw her out of his apartment. He often used “actually” in class, critiquing others. Now it was her word. Each class, she sat next to a young man, a junior with scant interest in geography or culture, whose texts popped up on her phone with increasing regularity. With suspiciously flirtatious overtones he recognized at once. In confronting her about this, he did not raise his hand, but he raised his voice. He told her to go and she did, the timing of her obedience all wrong. I have been looking for an opening to leave, she’d said, walking out the door. He slammed the door on her. What choice did he have? He prepared for her chagrined return to class: he would accept her apology with a stoic nod. She never returned.

The SUVs were pulling forward. When it was not her at the window but a young man with spiky blond hair and a nose ring, his throat tightened. Fooled by a recording.

Campus records could show where to find her, though he wasn’t supposed to use them for that purpose. This seemed like an exception. She was innocent. Doe-eyed, because sometimes clichés are true. She had taught him that. The skin at her temples was so delicate, the veins throbbed when she read something dense. How hasty he had been! He was relieved when the semester ended and the junior text messager was no longer staring him down for an hour and fifteen minutes each Monday and Wednesday. Enough. He would make it right. He imagined her tearful gratitude. He knew a woman in the registrar’s office; they once had dated, it ended amicably enough, he could pull strings for re-enrollment.

“Sir?” the barista with the nose ring asked, handing over the latte.

He taste-tested the hot drink before driving on. It’s possible he would have noticed her, had he known to watch for flight patterns. She stood at the berm, readying to bound across the busy street. The world in its entirety an open door. Her green apron flapped in the traffic breeze like a single wing, making a noise that sounded like away away away.

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Sarah Layden is the author of Trip Through Your Wires, a novel, and The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, winner of the Sonder Press Chapbook Competition. Her short fiction appears in Boston Review, Blackbird, PANK, Moon City Review, Zone 3, Booth, Best Microfiction 2020, and elsewhere. A two-time Society of Professional Journalists award winner, her recent essays, interviews and articles have appeared in Poets & Writers, Salon, The Millions, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Indianapolis Star, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Humanist. She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.