Tuesday
Dec132011

Now is the Time for Us to Be Sweet

Molly Tolsky




Eric Eicher is a student of mine. I had to hold my knees the first time I heard him speak. We have no college town here, just the city of Chicago. It is plenty big enough for two like us. I take him up to the lesbian places in Andersonville—tiny restaurants with big bars and bookshops with a healthy selection of one-act plays. Professor Jacobs, he says, there is so much more to the city than I know. His brows rise and his eyes stay awake. I order him German beers that beg to be served in special glasses. The boy's cheeks turn loose to red not halfway through his first Bock. I tell him that a city like this is not about discovery, but timing. In time you will know what I mean, I say. I never know what I mean when I'm around him. He makes me nervous, like I might reach out and slap his face at any moment.

When it's too hard to get on from the past, the best thing you can do is stop thinking, stop trying. Get a hobby, a new cat. Addict yourself to whatever little thing you have found as your grind. Your drink, your pill, your loveseat naps. It can work. You grind into it. And then Eric Eicher enrolls in your poetry class, transfers in a week after the semester starts.

Professor Jacobs, he says, do you take all your students out like this? He seems so naïve until I feel his hand on my knee beneath the table. He is trying a joke to make me think he is not as nervous as he is. He gets a kick out of kissing me in bars. I've held his face by the hot cheeks but never his hand.

Fuck me out, I tell him. I have never spoken like this before, not to anyone. He calls my apartment very adult and it makes me want to change my hair. I push him onto my bed and he scrambles for a sheet-hold like he's scared, but when he's in me he gets it, takes me by the split ends and whips my head around. The lights stay on and everything has a simple dust. That's it, I say, fuck me right out.

 

I'm teaching my class Dickinson even though I've always hated the girl. In college, I used to make it my thing. I don't care for all that slant rhyme, I'd say, twisting the cranberry into vodka with my pinky. I made my thing hating all the great women. Feminist or tweedy, precious or rank. I'll tell you, I do not care what my students think about poetry. I'm sure I once did, but I cannot remember why. I read their papers and mark with pen the sentences that make a pretty pattern in red ink. I look for keywords and properly cited quotes. I look for names that have interesting roots and well placed vowels. I can't bring myself to read any of Eric's work, though I know he tries hard.

Please know that I'm trying not to bring up my old boyfriend's name. It's too common and I'm too angry at him. I wish he were something more monumental in my past, a husband or a felon. I wish I had more of a claim on him, but I never even met his parents. We were together for a year, or less.

I will say it but not because I want to. He hanged himself at the end of summer and his name was Matt.

Eric Eicher walks next to me with his leathery school bag between us. I can count the number of places on this street where I've broken plans, nails, hearts. Eric does not blink an eye at anything, and always I feel bad for thinking he is dumb. I poke fun at his clothing, his only winter coat. I say it makes him look like a mosquito in a bee costume. I don't know what to say to that, he says. He lights a cigarette but I'm not entirely convinced he's a smoker. Professor Jacobs, Eric says, do you consider me a boyfriend? I want to correct his use of article, his choice of noun, but instead, I laugh.

He's taller than me, but my hands are bigger.

Other teachers try to take me out and some of them even want it pretty bad. I do not know why I'm the one they choose but I suspect it has something to do with my gold accessories—always around the wrist and waist, even a gold heel now and again. They outshine my eyes, give my skin a vicarious glow. A sad man from the history department makes me mixed movies. He puts all his favorite scenes from old films onto a single disc, prints out a little write-up on why I should like them. I hadn't even responded to the first one when he left the second disc in my mailbox, kindly full of Hitchcock. It's not a loyalty to my student. There's no desire for anything else.

I can't even figure out what it is in Eric, why he sometimes reminds me of my old boyfriend. It's something in the way their faces shift, but I can never pin it down to a feeling or a cause. It surprises me right out of sleep. He's only eighteen and my boyfriend was thirty-two, had four inches on him and at least fifty pounds. But faces have their patterns, people have their ways of looking like animals or constellations.

What am I supposed to do with all these shivers?

 

Let's get to a beginning. After he transferred into my class, I took Eric to a coffee shop to talk about the week he missed. It was only the first week, and we had only made our way through roll call. I tried talking to him like I already knew him, to see if that could just work like some dream. I was staring.

Did you do anything fun this weekend? I asked.

I unpacked all of my boxes, he said, and my roommate and I drank a pint of Early Times.

He folded his arms into his own flannel warmth.

Eric, I said, can I talk to you straight? I can't tell you why, but I need to take you out.

From downtown we went north on trains, and Eric was so fresh he couldn't find his way through a turnstile. Can you imagine your first week of college? Sometimes I think I've probably done real harm.

We're going to my favorite bar, I said. There's a theme, and it's depression. Simon is the drunkest bartender you'll ever meet.

I have been known to close down this bar, to drink my last call in the stale taxicab speeding toward home. Inside, Eric looked uncomfortable. I guess he had never been inside a bar before. I sat him in a chair across from me and told him my age, my level of schooling, my history of medication and apartment living. For a kid, he did not seem so drunk. His voice did not sound wise, but he used old-fashioned words like supper and pardon. He went along with everything I said. He nearly followed me into the girl's room. Simon poured me a shot of Knob Creek and asked if I'd finally gotten rid of Matt. I only had the heart to say yes. A woman who was there alone approached Eric and me and told us to stay together forever. She leaned her hands against the table and started doing ballet moves. She called it Buddhism. She said she was waiting for someone, and she had sores at the creases of her lips. My man won't come, she said, but you've got a keeper there. It's all about the body peace, see? You, she pointed to Eric, take care of her. Eric smiled and put his arm around my shoulder.

Can't believe that, he said when she walked away. He left his arm where it was. I let myself sink into his side, tried not to close my eyes. I can imagine smells and create important moments with songs I've never heard before. I could love this Eric, I told myself, with all the love I've never used.

 

Eric Eicher invites me to a party and I know it is a bad idea but I go anyway. Other students are involved, but none from our class, he is sure. It is November. We get to the house in some Ukrainian neighborhood and its bright windows pop out like a shingled spaceship, people's shadows dark and fuzzy in the reflection. Eric walks me through the door with his hand on my back and tries to take my coat but I refuse. I don't have a problem feeling old in a place, but I do have problems with people, when there are too many around me. I can't shake the fear that they are all trying to make me to cry.

I guess house parties don't play music anymore, I say.

Eric's eyes look wild, like he could do nothing to help them settle on one sight. A friend of his comes up to us with two sweaty cans in his hand.

A Lite for the lady, he says, and hands Eric the other.

I stand, waiting for an introduction that never comes. We walk through the rooms of the house and I take inventory of the books and movies lying around, a sorry mix of classics and trash. Eventually we settle on an old pink couch that is covered in cigarette burns, stationed next to CD players that's made to look like a record player. Eric keeps my hand cold with a constant new can of beer, and I'm feeling drunker than I want to feel inside the home of people who can't manage to hide their dirty laundry for guests.

Eric, I say, are you drunk or what?

He puts his arm around me and brushes his face up next to mine. He is growing a beard. I take a single drag from a skinny kid's joint and impress them all with lady-like coughs. We stay on that couch for hours while different kids take turns looking down on us. One girl stands and stares at Eric, asks him if we are a couple.

Well there are two of us, I say. If we were three we'd be a few.

Towards the end of the night, I can't tell if I am tired or too far gone but I am sweating in my coat. I tell Eric to take me home and we push our way to the door, my hand on the back of his neck. I swear a blurry face shouts Professor Jacobs to me as I pass, but Eric tells me I am hearing things. The night outside is colder than I remembered, and Eric is terrible at hailing a cab. I kiss him hard and he slides his hands inside the back of my jeans.

Oh, you're going to hate me, I say, but I love you, Eric Eicher.

I could have knelt down and vomited. I could have pulled every stubbed hair out of his face.

I think I love you, he says, and his arm shoots up just in time for another cab to ignore it.

 

Eric says something in class one day that makes me fume. He asks a question, really sincere—if it's possible to read this Elizabeth Bishop poem and not want to steal the structure, the verbs, to make your own little sestina of pure joy. He is bright eyed, the whole ordeal. I cannot answer. I find the idea depressing. I start to redden up, and Eric says, What's a matter, little one? Someone else has called me this. A teacher or my father. Affection is some kind of weird mess.

I tell him yes, it's possible.

 

Later in the day, the head of my department pulls me in for a meeting. It is a few weeks before the semester is over. His face is all scruff, his breath all potato. He is concerned with my demeanor.

There has been some talk, he says, and we want to make sure our whole team is happy. The English department already gets such a bad, sad rap.

I've never had problems before, I say. Can't we just ride this out?

He reaches out and covers my balled fist with his palm.

Let me tell you something, he says. His mustache grays twist in the light. His hands are neither warm nor cold.

I know about the boy, but I'm willing to remain hushed if you put on a happier face. You know we have a reputation to uphold. A team is only as strong as its weakest whatever.

I'd like to believe that my face remains a healthy color, that I do not flush out with red or white. In the doorway I give a small, unsure bow.

 

How am I so stupid to be in love and feel so empty?

Eric Eicher's is not the face I see when I close my eyes, but I'm aiming to live in a world of open lids and open hearts. I'm hoping to make the best of my station, and all the women poets agree. They say sorry hearts are for the dark ages, that now is the time for us to be sweet. Eric quotes their lines back to me in bed. It is too sentimental for my taste, but I'm used to the other ways of doing. I'm used to ignoring beauty, staving love off like a wool sweater in heat. I've been doing it forever, switching open arms for a firm handshake.

 

The day before our last class of the semester, I want to get Eric away from the city. I take him down and west to a town called Rome. It is on the edge of Goose Lake, a puny batch of water. Each moment the air sinks colder. Clouds dangle accumulation like a bribe. I drive. For the three hours there, we play a game of questions. The sort of you-tell-me and I'll-tell-you that's broken friendships in my past. People don't always want the whole truth, I've learned. We stick to the lighter stuff, asking about our brothers and sisters, stepparents and aunts, first times, recurring dreams.

The lake has signs that say it is closed and benches are piled up like sculptures, all their wood soggy and bright. Eric tries to pull one out of the stack while I sit on a damp patch of grass near the water. I hear him grunt and give up, and he sits down next to me with a fresh splinter in his palm.

Do you remember about the first time you were in love?

Eric, I want to say, we are done playing this game. You have known everything about me since the first day we met. I am this body, these hands, no more, I want to say.

I say I remember old lovers but I cannot remember being in love.

Then I lean in and kiss him, push his body down to the ground. My tongue is the only stopper I can think of to delay any moments that somebody might regret. I unzip his jacket and pull it off. He shivers but does not stop me.

Take off my pants, I say, and he obeys. Goose Lake does not make a watery sound. We rub into the grass until the grass is all dirt. My head goes numb with the buzzing of old insects all around us, his slighter hands tugging loose all my hair. I can't remember the last time I wept. Not for a close friend's wedding, a dear movie, a cold death. I've waited days by the phone for news of something too devastating to withstand.

When I was young, I lost an entire week to thinking I had already died. I could feel my pulse but I was not convinced. My parents took me to see someone. She was very professional and played along. There was seven days of therapy, of pinching the skin behind my ears. Why don't you try to cry, she said. Think up your world's saddest thought. I loved this woman, my sweet brain doctor. She made it harder to forget I was alive.

Pinch my ears, I say to Eric, but he is goose bumped and scratched, pulling away. It's too cold, he says. I think it's too cold for me to finish.

I let him peel off. We put our clothes back on without saying a word. We walk to the car. It has only been a half an hour. I let Eric drive the way home. My feet slide under my body so well, the curled up way I used to sit as a child. It is quiet, and I fall asleep, a feat that is usually not so easy.

When I wake up, the car is stopped, and Eric is not inside. His back is pressed against the driver's window, a lit cigarette waving light between his fingers. I lean over to roll the window down and he jumps back.

I couldn't remember exactly how to get home, he says, and I didn't want to wake you.

I nod and climb over into the driver's seat, my shoes leaving dirt prints on the cushion. We are at a rest stop. Eric finishes his cigarette and gets back into the car. The glare from a streetlamp briefly shows his face. He looks young and defeated and not like anyone I know.

When the lights from downtown become visible in the windshield, I tell him that we have to split ways, that I have been found out at school and was threatened with removal. It is a lie, but not a good one. A good one would have been that we were in different places, that in a better world it could have worked out for two like us. But a good lie is not worth a dime, and the bad truth is no better. I could have told Eric that I had no idea what I was doing, but I would have burst into tears. I would have cried myself back to sleep.

 

The last day of class and it is finally snowing. Eric does not show up and I find that surprising. I expected more out of him, a sharp whispered speech in the hall, a scribbled down note if nothing else. During a five-minute break I use my teacher records to find his address. A dorm room. I will not go.

I end the class with superlatives. Quietist Chewer of Apples, Most Natural Looking Hair. The students have fun and it gets me out easy. Their last impression will be of my boot in the door, hand waving them out an hour too soon.

 Eric has left me a voicemail, asking to meet me at the art museum. I don't like the idea—I'd rather take him somewhere farther, a new bar or a frozen pond, somewhere I can really drive to. I toy with the idea of not showing up at all, but the image of Eric waiting alone in the museum is too much. I feel too bad. There are people on the steps, people leaning on the pillars, people in the lobby with brochures in their hands. I drink a coffee and wait for Eric in the little café on the second floor and he shows up sandwiched between an older couple. They walk towards me and Eric shouts, Professor Jacobs! His eyes are very open and he's shaved his face. Professor Jacobs, it's me, Eric! Still shouting.

Hello, I say, hi, and get up from my chair. The older couple is smiling. They carry their coats, wear pale and tucked-in shirts.

These are my parents, he says. They're here to drive me back to Michigan for break. This was my poetry teacher, you guys. That was the class I told you about.

Michigan, you're from Michigan! is all I can think to say while shaking his parents' hands, mother first, then father. They smile more, nod their heads. I hate the sound of my voice. Suddenly I'm aware that nothing about me matches.

We're just getting in a few sights, Eric says, before we load up the car and skedaddle back home. Do you want to walk around the museum with us?

I try to look for the act's betrayal in his face, but his eyes are just as sincere as ever, his cheeks rosy from cold and not, I think, from shame.

Oh no, I say quickly, I just come here for the coffee.

I point to where I was sitting, my open bag on the chair.

Are you sure? he asks. Have you seen the new installment? I'm certain you'd love it. There are so many beautiful things.

Eric's father puts his arm across his mother's back while she checks her watch. Eric looks just like them.

No really, I say, but have fun, okay?

I feel stupid for coming, for thinking I was doing the kid a favor by showing up. He only knows the half of it. I only ever know the half of anything. If I could rough him down, he can remember me as mean or cold, a small favor from my wrong heart. But everybody is smiling. Eric cannot stop smiling and it is real, I can tell.

You all enjoy the museum, I say. And Eric, you got an A.

His silent mother brings her hands together in cheer and they all give out a quiet victory laugh. I can't help but put on a happy face, too, and I wave them off into the depths of the museum. I sit back down, run out the clock with refillable coffee.

I will use my love in time. I will give it away.