Melody had written a scene about a pregnant teenager who is fucking her father, and for that reason—not to mention the fact that the piece was very good and she was his brightest student and he liked her a great deal—Mark wanted to talk with her. She’d given him her number. “Story. We’ll discuss story,” he’d promised. A pretext. He had a fine day of texting planned. End-to-end encryption. Plausible deniability. Lots of intellectual closeness, prying, and the pulling forth of titillating secrets—and what other secrets are worth pulling forth?
He even had a line in mind: When the moment was right, he would ask Melody to reveal why she was texting an older man; she would lol him and write that whatever she answers will be too dark; and he would reply that dark and tantalizing are the same thing. He might even add a flourish: Dark and tantalizing are the same thing, my dear. And his circumstance was perfect for idle chatter.
It was summer term, so the teaching was light. And he had just gotten out of the hospital for an ear infection that had raged through amoxicillin and had required augmentin, so he was in the queue for a week’s worth of outpatient I.V. antibiotics. Time had been his insurance would have covered a nurse visiting his home, but the college’s junky, new HMO meant he had to drive to a facility in Boca Raton. He lived in North Boynton Beach, and this place was in South Boca, off Palmetto Park Road, so the drive down Jog Road took 45 minutes. He was led into a room that was almost entirely pink. It was lined with comfortable chairs along the wall. Each chair had a personal television attached to a flimsy pole; if he wanted to watch tv, he had to either hold the television with one hand or not move a muscle the two hours he was soaking up the drugs.
His idea had been to text Melody during those two hours. She wanted to fuck her father—or her protagonist did. Same difference. What a turn on.
Right off, there was a problem. The nurse couldn’t find a vein. He’d wanted to blame her, but it was his fault, for the same reason he’d not been able fight off an ear infection: a kind of slovenliness of personal care over the last eight or so months, a malaise he’d once believed himself immune from: his mother had passed, his father was getting old, his brother was in ill health, his sister was far too happy out in Colorado, his career was floundering, he was not publishing, he was not presenting at conferences, his dean had told him to get on the ball, he had grown to dislike his dean (which meant, and he couldn’t believe this, he was becoming one of those faculty), he was shaving less frequently, he was eating too much red meat, he was eating too many carbohydrates, he was not eating enough pussy, he wasn’t working out often enough or hard enough, he was fatigued and restless, young women were looking more and more marriageable to him, he wished he had kids, he wished he had a maid, his armpits had started sweating, and for ten days he’d had a recurring nightmare about an apocalyptic noise at the light of dawn that so frightened him he’d locked himself in his home, armed the alarm, and waited for death to come—after he woke.
He bled. Gauze; twenty minutes of pressure. The nurse bandaged him. To run the IV, she had to dig into his leg. He didn’t mind needles but hated blood, and he was woozy for a good half hour. Plus, he hadn’t counted on feeling the drug enter his system, hadn’t counted on the cool invasion of the chemical, which also made him queasy. He’d felt a little of this queasiness in the hospital, but he’d ascribed it to pain meds. Turned out, the opposite had been true: the opioids those corner dealers had pushed into his system had muted his nausea.
The upshot was, he was a full hour late sending his first text to Melody.
He watched his phone. Waited. Read the news through an app. Went back to his text window, hoped to see an ellipsis, didn’t. Read the news through Safari. Checked for an ellipsis again. Read the news through a different app.
It was like losing a contest when the nurse came around to his chair and told him he was done, she was sorry about the problems with the line, and she would see him tomorrow—and Melody hadn’t replied. This nurse was not an unattractive woman, and when on intake she’d found out he was a professor, she’d taken a slight interest in him; he was more handsome than most professors, more masculine, and more gregarious, he knew, closer to an executive who has found himself than an intellectual who has lost himself. But he was so preoccupied with Melody he had neglected to flirt back.
He said goodbye. Told her he wished he’d been better company. She said that relative to the usual patient, he was a breath of fresh air. He shook her hand. She had a delicate hand; she’d worked hard to get that line into his leg, and the gentle way she offered her hand now, palm down, fingers soft and slightly bent, suggested a wide sensual range.
He went off into the bright heat. In his car, he checked the text window with Melody. No ellipsis. He couldn’t help himself. He texted, “Are you okay?”
“I am,” she wrote, two hours later.
He was home, sucking down Gatorade. The antibiotics were dehydrating him. “Are you alone?”
“No, silly. It’s the middle of the day. I’m watching Bargain Basements.”
“Very funny. It can’t all be professorial.”
“LOL. You’re adorable. I’m woozy.”
“Meds. No biggie. What’s new and exciting?”
She nothing-muched him, he asked how her other classes were going, she told him they were bland, that nothing was like class with him, that he was the real thing, to which he replied by saying it had been a long time since he’d felt like the real thing. “In many ways, I’m an old man.” He resisted telling her about his ear infection or for that matter his malaise. She wouldn’t want to hear about it—she wasn’t the Florence-Nightingale sort. She wanted the man he’d once been, back when it had seemed he would be somebody.
But the conversation took a surprising turn. He had hoped to move briskly, to sexualize their chat on the quick, but she started talking about how a writer plots a story. She asked him why plot more than anything vexes serious writers. His contention—he could not fully get away from trying to seduce her—was that most serious writers haven’t lived enough, haven’t been enough places nor had enough on the line to mine their lives for subject matter: prep school kids, off to the Ivy League at 18, under contract by 25. “What do they know about the struggles of the ordinary man, what lives in his heart. You have to touch that stuff, Melody.”
“I think it’s less what you do than what you can get out of the things all people do.”
“I’m sorry, I disagree. You have to try it out.” He brought up her subject matter along the lines of living boldly: “As in your piece. That stuff is inside you. It’s gritty and raw, but it’s honest—it’s not a fib.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Though I see your point. It never happened,” he wrote.
Maybe she would say it had.
Maybe she would say she wanted it to. Maybe she’d say of course not, but daddy issues would be her lifelong leitmotif.
“So you really think it’s about living?” she asked.
He had her. “Yes. Be imprudent. All semester.” Go for it, Mark. “You could even fuck your professor. JK, JK. LOL. LMAO.”
She didn’t reply.
“I’m kidding, Melody.”
“Are you okay?”
It was a Tuesday. She was in his Thursday night workshop. He spent the next thirty-six hours in a criminal fugue-like state.
“The criminal is a liar,” Mark wrote in his journal. “I was quite aware of what I was doing during the fact. The criminal is transposing, transitioning. The criminal wishes the state into which he has entered after the fact to be the state he was in when he committed the crime. This after-the-fact state is one of near perfect insanity or disconnection, redirected by brief, somewhat absurd moments of lucidity such as this one—absurd because even as I write these words, I am conscious not only of the fact that I will shortly descend into ‘the state’ again, but that I must, and more so that I want to—that ‘this state’ has become a comfort, like a child’s blanket.”
If someone asked him, “Here you are, but how did you get here?” he would have pointed vaguely at his car, looked back at the man who had asked the question, and with trembling lips, with some realization on the tip of his tongue—I’m nuts, aren’t I? Is this the start of rapid onset dementia?—muttered, “I don’t remember.”
Lord, those lines asking whether she was in bed alone, urging her to sleep with him. Take those away and he was a grown man talking with his grown student. He could have pointed to the conversation as well within the bounds of convention between professor and student and, in fact, precisely the reason, in 2019, it is essential that the two parties have access to one another outside the classroom. But he’d written the line, “Are you in bed?” He’d stacked that line on top of, “Are you alone?” And there was no way to spin “Are you alone? Are you in bed?” as anything other than the war-drums of pre-sex, the male army marching toward the village of the woman who, the army is hopeful, will provide safe quarter. When he wrote, “Fuck your professor,” no amount of jk-ing or lol-ing would make a reasonable observer suppose that had Melody shown up to his house in an overcoat and nothing else, he’d have said to her, “I was kidding!”
He was comforted into the night by videos on YouTube of criminals confessing. One in particular fascinated him, that of a man named Michael Bateman, who lived outside of Denver, ten miles from his sister. Mr. Bateman had murdered his wife and two little girls. Because of the affluence of the town in which Mr. Bateman lived, his entire investigation was recorded, beginning with bodycam footage of the arrival of a police officer to Mr. Bateman’s home to take a report that his wife and daughters were missing. It was not long before, in Mark’s fight-or-flight state, in order, he hoped, to relieve the horror of his own miserable predicament (what was Melody’s perspective on the end of their exchange; what was she going to say; to whom; was his career on the line?)—it was not long before he began to imagine the horror of Bateman’s crime: in the night, Bateman had gone into the bedrooms of his little girls and strangled them. The second child, the younger one, had asked him, as he flanked her bed, “Did you hurt Cynthia?” He’d said he had. “Are you going to hurt me, too?” He’d said he was, he was sorry. Her neck was too small to choke with his hands; he had to use a belt. His wife had been in San Diego visiting friends (their marriage was on the rocks, and she’d taken six weeks away, leaving him with the kids, which was not unusual of her). When she returned that morning, he met her at the door. He embraced her. He told her he was very sorry. She said she was sorry, too. She insisted they would work it out—as though she had the power to insist upon such a thing, as though merely by deciding her desire was to reconcile, he had no choice but to agree. He told her he had something to show her. He took her by the arm and guided her gently to the room of their oldest daughter, and when she screamed, he grabbed her and said, “Let me show you the other.” He dragged her to the doorway of the other girl’s room as she cried out, “No! God no! No!”
He put his hands around her neck. She did not resist. “She wanted to die.”
Mark wrote in his journal: “Why kill the girls?”
It did not help that on Wednesday the nurse at the IV infusion center was not the attractive, attracted nurse who had in such a lovely way infused him with life-giving antibiotics the day before but, of all horrible and horrifying developments, a man.
Seated in a comfortable armchair, trying to act as though he might read a book—one Melody had recommended, an overwrought melodrama but not exactly a bad one, an attempt, at least, at art via that poor-man’s version of honestly called confession, as well as two plot twists that were inorganic, dishonest, and pre-conceived—seated in an armchair, acting as though he was a normal man in a normal position leading a normal life, it did not help that Mark had another man’s hands all over him.
This nurse’s name was Gray Gentry. What a name. And Gray Gentry was obnoxiously handsome and appealing. Goodness were his teeth white. Goodness was he masculine and hirsute. His crown of hair was parted softly—Mark was reminded of the pitcher Jim Palmer in those Pert Plus commercials from his childhood, Mr. Palmer pulling on a tee shirt and tossing his conditioned hair about like some woman-built love-monster fresh from the female factory. Gray spoke in a fair, medical whisper. “There we go. Got it. No going in through the leg today, buddy. Leave it to the boys. Are you comfortable, Mr. Karrat.”
He even pronounced Mark’s name correctly (Cuh-ROT); most not only got it wrong but put Mark in a vegetative state: Mr. Carrot. Professor Carrot. Mark had a handy reply: “It’s pronounced ‘onion.’” He and the transgressor would laugh, and Mark would comment, in an authorial way, about the annoyance of modern name-sensitivity. They’d eventually get into the weaknesses of liberal movements, especially MeToo, which discussion he now worried about: would his anti-progressive testimony come back to haunt him, given Melody—who to his mind had ceased being Melody and had become , AreYouAloneAreYouinBedFuckYourProfessor(LOLLMAO).
There were three others receiving infusions, and it struck Mark his ignorance, for he had assumed yesterday that these infusees were all receiving antibiotics; were here for the low-grade reason he was; and afterwards would head out to do stupid things that put the normalcy of their lives—and the façade of normalcy under which eccentric South Florida allowed them to operate—in peril. One woman in particular took him aback. She looked very old. Her face was shriveled like a dried sponge, her darkish skin robbed of all suppleness by what yesterday he’d assumed was a hardscrabble life: he’d imagined her working as a maid in a motel on Federal Highway, shuttling from mildewed room to mildewed room and hoping for a dollar left on a pillow. But as she spoke to Nurse Gray—who had a demeanor so godly and Midwestern it was like speaking to Oz—her voice contained touches, though they were merely touches, merely suggestions, of youth. Youth was to be found in the content of what she said, the sometimes sturdy way she said it, and the self-effacing humor of Mark’s generation, not the self-assurance of the Boomers nor the self-conscious severity of Melody’s Millennial crew.
He called Nurse Gray over. “Is she a cancer patient?”
“I can’t tell you,” Gray said. But he made an expression as though to say, What do you think.
Gray moved back to his spot behind a counter; he typed notes into a computer.
Mark was marooned in the chair two hours. Off and on, he took in the woman. It was as though her body had drawn into itself. He’d read a book by a famous author in which the author liked to make up words—this author was brilliant but his style was nearly impossible, which made Mark want to murder him out of jealousy and aggravation. One of the words the author had made up was envacuumed. It was a fine fake word, if a little literary for that moment in the novel. This woman looked envacuumed. The flesh of her cheeks had pulled against the bone; sunken would not have been the proper modifier; here the cheeks were as though a fine layer of flesh was spread as thinly as possible, prior to tearing, over the sharp bones of the skull. There was no plumpness in her lips; they were two discolored lines below her nose, which seemed to have been robbed of something lifelike, as well, becoming a kind of beak, as though a string had been tied around the back of her head and a small cone fastened to the front. But what got him were her arms. They were not envacuumed; they were flaccid and fleshy. When she turned the pages of her book, the flesh of the back of her arm hung like a deflated, wrinkled balloon—one that has been popped violently rather than whose air has been soothingly let out. And this combined with something else: her head seemed to him, in contrast to her arms, unusually small. Of itself, it was merely compact. But compared to her arms, it looked shrunken, as though tumors had pulled in the walls of her cranium like some giant magnet.
He could not keep his eyes off her. This was entirely unfair and awful of him; she was captive in her chair, and he was like a child confronting the deformed: staring, trying to work out answers in his mind to questions unformed by words. Yet he was not even doing that, which bothered him most. He was like the criminal in an after-the-crime fugue state, assumed to be concerned with one thing—would he be caught; what would the consequences be—yet only secondarily consumed by those questions and primarily consumed by something broader: Am I the person who is the sum of the answers to questions like that? Similarly, Mark was consumed not by the woman’s case primarily but by his consumption by her case: Am I a person who is consumed by the case of such a woman?
In his chair in the Pink Room, as he’d called it yesterday to the nurse and to Melody, he wondered, Would I really have fucked my student? The answer, of course, was yes. The answer now, of course, was no, not in a million years. I would see in her body, her beautiful, young, naked body, my entire career down the tubes. No chance. Not one. I’ll pass, and if in a year when you’re no longer my student the thrill is still there for you, we’ll meet up for coffee and see what happens. But no way in the present, no way while you’re on my roster, no way while next to your name there is a slot for a grade and that grade has not been given.
Yet what good was it to say that now. He was—or had been—a different man.
He’d been teaching story as though it was this: a character wants something intensely, goes after it, encounters obstacles, and either gets what he was after or doesn’t. But that was not life at all. That was some of false version of life: escapism. Law and Order SVU—Ice T and Mariska Hargitay shooting the hell out of everyone and catching the molesty molester before he’s had a chance to molest again. In real life, Ice T can’t make the collar: Lispily, he explains, “My wife has the flu. I got the kids for the afternoon. Enjoy the arrest.” In real life, you shoot one person and you go down for the psychological count; in real life, you text a few lines, your entire psyche and soul are overtaken by consequences, and the original motive, to seduce Melody, goes bye-bye. And what replaces that motive… that’s the story; that’s when the plot really gets going.
He closed his eyes when Gray returned to pull down the empty bags from the IV stand and remove the line. Gray sat beside him and tenderly wrapped the port on his forearm in gauze and plastic. In order to not look at the woman, Mark looked at Gray. He wondered what it would be like to kiss a man. He didn’t want to kiss Gray. He just imagined what it would be like.
Gray looked up at him. An expression of knowing crossed his face. “Keep the port dry. You may want to wrap your entire arm in plastic—or you can avoid showering, maybe bathe with the arm out of the bath. You’re allegedly a reader. Read in the tub.” He gestured at Mark’s unopened novel. “Weighty stuff.”
“I’m a college professor.”
“I saw that on your paperwork. Low stress, high yield.”
“Tell that to my dean. A student recommended this to me.” He was trying to normalize Melody. A student. We have a perfectly normal student-professor relationship—normal pupil, normal teacher. “My best student.”
Gray nodded. “You’ll have to tell me how it is. Of course, you’ll have to open it first.”
He watched Gray away. Gray was upset at him, had seen him studying the dying woman.
So as Mark was leaving the Pink Room, he pumped his fist to cheer her on. She smiled as best she could. But in the end, Gray and she could be left behind, for he knew the world was going to be cruel to her until the day she died, that for every act of compassion and mercy there would be a thousand stares at her freakishness, a thousand moments of shock which even the polite and decent can’t help feeling. He wanted to tell her, We’re all freaks. We’re all on the edge. They’re just different edges.
But he’d be lying, and he didn’t know why, and it was easy enough to not care: he had his own problems to deal with.
He had class the next morning. He’d hurried into and out of his office—he’d ducked his dean. Now his hand trembled as he wrote on the white board, and his head was so light he leaned against the board to catch his breath. His heart was pounding; adrenaline was coursing through his veins. The police, the FBI, the NSA were surely outside the door, getting ready to swoop in, guns drawn like Hargitay and Ice T, who has a line at the ready the way Mark had a line at the ready on Tuesday: as Mark passes him in handcuffs, Ice T will lisp, “Sick bastard, taking advantage of troubled young girls.”
Seventeen minutes in to class, Melody came through the door.
Mark said, as she crossed to an empty chair, “I’m happy you’re here.”
She slinked as a rule. Head down. She could at other times be entirely saleswoman-like: warm and friendly, confident and bright-eyed. But the shy side of her moved surreptitiously, like a criminal scuttling in the shadows of internal unease. She took out her notebook and started writing furiously; she did this all the time, was overcome by flashes of prose that needed immediately jotting down. Such urgency. He’d once felt it, back when the world, writing, and the world of writing had been new and enormous and yielding.
At half past the hour, Melody raised her hand and commented, unfavorably, upon something he’d said: “I think you’ve got the love triangle wrong.”
“You’re familiar with the story?”
“It’s the boyfriend and girlfriend at the bottom to start, with Henry at the top, and by the end of the story, the boyfriend has ascended, not the girlfriend, because she’s seeking his approval, not his love, and she doesn’t get it.”
“But she doesn’t love him anymore. She turns him down. She asserts her prerogative. Everyone, this is Melody, from my evening workshop.”
“Her having turned Henry down isn’t a moment of ascension for her; it’s just a moment. It’s easy for a woman to say no to someone she doesn’t love.”
“The things that matter happen before the interaction. He’s accepted the fact that because they’re both still young she has the power to turn him down or not—it happened in the white space. So the narrator’s fate is out of his hands and in hers, and rather than fight it he has learned to accept the nature of things—and that’s his ascension.”
“Is that an ascension? It sounds passive.”
“If his soul is lifted, if he gains in spirit, it is.”
* * *
He ended class early. He asked Melody to stay after; she told him she’d planned to. A kid from the back kept asking obvious questions as Mark packed up. Melody rolled her eyes. So Mark rolled his eyes, assimilating her in order to be allied with her. He answered the student’s questions politely and with professional detail; he did not want even the whiff of poor workmanship to trail him. When the student was finally gone—Kurt or Kirk or something—he said to Melody, “Thank you for coming.”
“I knew it!” she laughed, peering at him. “I know you were worried you were in trouble. You’re not in trouble, Mark.”
He signed himself out of his account on the classroom computer. He raised the stubborn projector screen after three tries. He was erasing the white board. “My career is no small thing to me.”
“As a writer or a professor?”
“I think they’re related.”
“You were never in any trouble. I knew you worried about it. I told myself you wouldn’t—I thought of texting you. I knew it. Too funny.”
She had picked up an eraser to help him. He studied her face; she was very pretty, very feminine, and she had a lightness in her eyes that belied the darkness in her work. Something grave grew in his heart, some catastrophic acceptance: Her scene, the one she’d wanted to discuss, was better than anything he would ever write.
“Can I see what you wrote today? In your notebook?”
That laugh: even her derision was sexy; even her disdain was appealing. “Not on your life, Professor. I’ll walk you out.”
The protagonist fucks her father. But it’s not that. There she is: Melody. All the desire is all the love. Everyone has love. Even the terrified, the destroyed, the ruined, as well as the beautiful, the young, the brilliant—step toward her as she exits, this one darling soul. She has lived, but she’s right: It’s not the reason she is what she is. She lives on the edge we all live on, which is what makes us feel alive and lends us shallow depths to plumb: the mere circumstances of every ragged life are the circumstances of her life, too.
You can look at it any way you want, you can write any fiction you want, but there’s one story that would be genuine and true: you were going to discard her, and she knew it. And it wasn’t that she didn’t want to be discarded. It’s that she couldn’t bear to be discarded by the likes of you.
By the way, you should be writing this down.
He was forty-three years old that afternoon, and he was forty-three years old the next afternoon, when in the Pink Room, prior to taking his comfortable seat, he asked the dying woman, “What do you think about while you’re here?”
Her face brightened. He sat beside her for a while and listened as she told him the story of the beautiful, happy child she once was, of her father’s tender love, her mother’s stern love. Her sweet little brother—“He lives in Hawaii, with the Air Force.” She told Mark of times she and her father camped out in the backyard under the stars and her father told her the stories of his life, which were stories of an immigrant. Her father told stories of her grandparents, of meeting and falling in love with her mother, of her mother and him buying their first home in the States. “There’s a funny story of their first argument in the home—my parents were very passionate people. They fought a lot.” Her mother had broken a piece of wedding China with a cynical look on her face. Her father broke down in tears, and her mother realized just how much power she had over him. Though they fought often after that, they never fought with violence or disdain—always fought at a careful distance, and sometimes they laughed as they fought.
A careful distance. There was something to that. The space between things. It was in the white space, Melody had said.
Back at his chair, the nurse—the attractive woman, whose name was Diane—met him. As she pushed into the port that Gray had established, she told him what he’d just done was very decent. But he didn’t think it had anything to do with decency, and he told her so.
“May I have a cup of coffee with you?” he asked.
“Yes.” She stopped what she was doing. She looked at him. Because of her work, her face was close to his. He could see the foundation over the lines. He thought, It’s okay to get old.
So a man stands in a doorway. He is contemplating the end of everything he knows. Okay. Look around. In the room, eight feet away, there sleeps a little girl. Forget the peacefulness of her sleep. Too easy; too obvious; don’t even mention it. Maybe study the size of her body—her smallness in the small bed is striking, just as the size of a child’s coffin is striking and calls up a notion about justice and fate long part of the human psyche: all harm to a child is an injustice. But there’s also a warm, silver moonlight falling across her bedroom, and she should see that light again and again, all the nights of her childhood.
Does he wake her? He knows he should. He knows he must tell his little girl everything: that he’s in love with another woman and is leaving her mother, that he does not want to lose her, that what he needs from her tonight is a vow that she will always allow him be her father and will ask her little sister to do the same, which will give him a better reason to live and live decently than the woman he used to love and the woman he loves now, whose love may come and go, the way moonlight is not always silver and sometimes blue—and sometimes there’s no light at all, the moon is covered by clouds, and that reminds me of a story, you know the one I’m talking about… that story. The one we tell when the stars crack.
Nick LaRocca’s stories and essays have most recently been featured or are forthcoming in BlazeVOX, The Coachella Review, The MacGuffin, Flint Hills Review, Blue Lake Review, Canyon Voices, Euphony, Crack the Spine, Valley Voices, Outside In Magazine, South85, and Per Contra. Work from his early career appears in Rush Hour: Bad Boys (Delacorte Press) and the Beloit Fiction Journal. His short story “Gestures” (Lowestoft Chronicle) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for Fiction. His short story “Understandings” was nominated for Best of the Net by Wraparound South. He has just finished the novel The Fighter. Interviews of Nick are available online in the 3288 Review and Wraparound South. He is a Professor of English at Palm Beach State College, where he teaches creative writing, essay writing, and literature.