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GOOD IN A CRISIS
At night, for an hour before going to sleep, Ginny read the personal ads. Not because she was looking for a lover, but because she was mesmerized by the language people chose to describe themselves. She found herself underlining standout lines by women and men, old and young. Platinum frequent flier, phenomenal legs, does museums in two hours max wrote a thirty-six-year-old businesswoman. Generally a barrel of laughs when not contemplating thoughts of an untimely death quipped a fortysomething filmmaker. Ginny also enjoyed Capable of holding entire conversations with answering machines, and Rides badly, speaks three foreign languages badly, cooks badly, but does all with vigor & enthusiasm. She sometimes thought of pairing up two ads with each other: Zero maintenance having sushi with Non-needy seeks other non-needy. Her affection was stirred by the fellow who claimed to appreciate all manner of candor—he was seeking a mate with poise, wit, and joie de vivre. There is no such thing as too much information, another singleton declared. Ginny laughed; she loved that. Her friends found the personals to be categorically depressing, but Ginny had developed a near-obsessive fascination with them, and found in them a source of hope both mundane and profound. Still trying to chance upon a unifed theory of everything, but in the meantime, searching for a soul who is wildly intelligent and in possession of some sadness. This from an eighty-year-old retired physics pro-fessor, who sounded like a winner to Ginny, in spite of the forty-fve-year age difference. But by far her favorites were three of the simplest: Adventuresome, liberal, hair; Got dog?; and Good in a crisis.
Ginny was in no way looking for a mate herself. She described herself as happily married to the single life, and didn't want to be responsible for anyone else's socks or chicken dinners. If she were a plant, her instructions would have read: Needs ample sunlight; thrives in solitude. Some winter evenings she would turn off her phone, start a fire, open a book—and swear there was no home happier than hers. Her friends called her commitment-phobic to her face, but why label as fear what was simply a choice? When she told them she dreamed of being an old spinster one day, of course no one believed her. But she knew her recent restlessness had little to do with love.
Ginny had no illusions about marriage. To her it looked like boatloads of work and a lifetime of compromise. She realized she was in the minority in her disaffection for the institution; the world was peopled with the betrothed. Still, occasionally her friends confided details that supported her aversion: Jessica's husband, Ted, taped The X-Files over their wedding video; Katrina could never cook with her favorite spice, dill, because Leo didn't care for it. And parenthood—parenthood looked like slavery. Ginny found herself newly in awe of her own parents now that her peers had begun to procreate, and she could see up close what was involved. To consider all they had given up—the time, the freedom. Maybe I'm just too selfish to have children, she confessed to Jessica over the phone.
Let's not forget, a lot of people have children for selfish reasons, Jessica said. In order to have someone to play with, or to take care of them when they’re old. Or because they’re bored and don’t have anything better to do. Jessica herself was pregnant with baby number four, and Ginny knew her motives were of the more magnanimous variety: She wanted to adore her children in a way she had never been adored. Truth be told, Ginny already had children—I've classes full of them. Despite frustrations, her favorites were the seniors. Twenty seventeen-year-olds were hers for AP English every day, fifth period, right after lunch, when all the blood in their bodies that wasn’t already servicing endocrine glands was busy digesting pizza and Gatorade. Nonetheless, she made it her duty to try to love them. And she attempted to impart a few morsels of wisdom; she tried very hard, but more and more she felt that something was being lost on them. She did everything she'd always done: She took them on the field trip to Walden Pond; she read from writers' obituaries; she told them who were the alcoholics, who slept with whom, who were the geniuses and who were the hacks, which one subsisted on a diet of only white wine, oysters, and grapes for so long she had to be hospitalized for anemia. Still, they looked at her with what could only be called accusation. As if she were withholding something. As if there were something that she, Ginny, was supposed to be doing for them, or giving them, but she was simply too selfsh or too lazy to do it.
She'd heard of the great teachers who said they learned more from their students than they taught them, so she examined her teenagers’ faces with fresh scrutiny and pored over their essays with renewed vigor, wondering what she was supposed to glean. Her kids were so disaffected, so sophisticated, so urbane. A couple of times she could have sworn Marc Campbell had winked at her in the hall-way. She had them read Suite Française, a World War II novel whose author had perished at Auschwitz while the manuscript was rescued by her daughters. Ginny asked if there were any questions.
Do you think the sum of the good things mankind has done outweighs the sum of the horrible things? It was Julia, her star student. Ginny panicked for a second, genuinely stumped, then made up an answer about how it's not always useful to quantify things.
If they wanted difficult questions, she'd give them the difficult questions. Love is an attempt to penetrate another being, but it can only be realized if the surrender is mutual, she said the following Wednesday. She was reading to them from The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. It is always difficult to give oneself up; few persons anywhere ever succeed in doing so, and even fewer transcend the possessive stage to know love for what it actually is—
And you, Miss Porter? asked Jimmy Galway, interrupting. He was a confusing child: He had the attitude of a tattooed rebel but the fresh-pressed shirts of a diplomat.
And me what?
You one of the few? It briefly flashed through Ginny's head that she would never have dreamed of interrupting her teachers, never mind daring to ask if they had ever truly succeeded in falling in love. She leaned back against the front of her desk and wished the slit in her slim black skirt stopped an inch lower than it did. But she didn't believe in lying, least of all to the young.
I have often been in love, she said, matter-of-factly. But never of the surrendering variety. Or rather, if I do surrender, it doesn't seem to be sustainable for very long. Just then the bell rang, and brought relief. Within the relief, there was also a small pearl of pride, that pleasurable feeling that sometimes accompanies speaking the plain truth.
The pride didn't last. The days dragged; her kids became less and less engaged. Some would unabashedly toy with their cell phones while she was teaching. They didn't do their homework; they chewed gum in glass; Tim Harris sat with an unlit clove cigarette perched on his lips during the entire first act of Waiting for Godot. It was as if they were challenging her, calling her out. But she didn't know what was wrong, or how to reach them. Hadn't there been things that had reached her once? Books, films, scraps of beauty that had moved her so deeply she had wept with gratitude? How could she now not remember what they were? Even the well-worn volumes on her own syllabus seemed to have become mere words on a page.
There's more to life than grammar and spelling, she announced on a rainy Friday afternoon, but it only made them slouch deeper in their chairs, squeaking their sneakers against the linoleum. She felt like a hypocrite. Grammar and spelling, sadly, were her lifeblood. Against her better wishes, she’d become an enforcer of the picayune. Her students must have perceived her failure; with the wisdom of children, they sensed that she had chosen the easy path in life, and they resented her for it.
I’m sure they don’t resent you, Jessica said cheerfully, placing her spoon on the edge of her saucer. All around them, the bright voice of Sam Cooke was greeting itself in the gleaming surfaces of the diner. They’re teenagers. They probably don’t give you a second thought. They’re too busy thinking about each other, or how to get out of that hellhole. Jessica had so seamlessly made the transition from pink-haired punk rocker to wife and mother that Ginny sometimes forgot about her undying empathy for the disenfranchised.
That hellhole is my life, Ginny said.
I know, honey. I'm sorry. I feel for you. You know I do.
I need to get out of there. It’s just—something's got to change, Ginny said. She cupped her mug with both hands. You know, when I was their age, I loved English class. It was better than honors chemistry with Mr. Marks. Or writing the Presidents report for Mr. Tully. It was exciting. It was English, with Mr. Hennessey. Jessica arched an eyebrow. Mr. Hennessey, the one you were in love with?
I wasn't in love with him, I was inspired by him. He was my inspiration.
Uh-huh. I thought you said you had your first sex dream about him. Ginny was grateful she didn't blush easily. He was my mentor. I mean, all these years, he's been my invisible mentor.
Why not make him visible? said Jessica.
Why not look him up?
Whatever for? Ginny said, but Jessica only shook her head, slid belly-first out of the booth, and went to pay the check.
Ginny thought about doing a search on the Internet, but in the end, finding Mr. Hennessey was as easy as calling her old high school and speaking to the secretary from whom Ginny used to procure late slips on account of the bus—by God, the same woman still worked there. Arthur Hennessey lived in western Massachusetts now, had stopped teaching ten years ago. His address was 49 Merriam Street, Pittsfield. She had a phone number on file but wasn’t sure it was current.
Arthur. It was strange to think of his first name. He’d been, what, maybe thirty-five when she was seventeen?
Which would make him ?fty-four now, give or take. She wondered what he’d be doing, why he’d left teaching; it seemed he’d been born to teach. Perhaps he owned a bookstore or had started some sort of nonprofit. Or she could picture him as a ski instructor; he’d always been the chaperone for the school-sponsored ski trips. Would he be married, with a family? He'd been a perennial bachelor back then: tall, dark hair, broad shoulders—practically the bachelor from Central Casting. It was occasionally rumored that he was engaged, or had a girlfriend, but he never seemed to actually get married. He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.
His classroom had all the elegance and electricity hers lacked. He would pepper his lessons with quotes from John Cheever, Walt Whitman, Bob Dylan. He seemed to know something about everything, and he wielded his knowledge not as a weapon but with self-effacing humor and quirkiness. He promised his students two dollars for each time they brought in an example of bad grammar in a pop song—an arrangement that easily could have bankrupted him. Ginny was the first to produce one. I have a quote from the song 'Hungry Eyes,' she announced shyly one afternoon. She didn't have to say what it was. I feel the magic between you and I! Mr. Hennessey blurted out, as if he were removing a painful splinter from his heel.
He didn’t draw the same boundaries her other teachers did. He told them what books he was reading, what movies he liked, what happened the week he was out on jury duty. We were seated around a large table, and the lawyer questioning potential jurors said: 'Each of you needs to choose which of these adjectives best describes you: leader or follower.' 'Leader,’ reported the first. ‘Leader,' said the next. Then it was Mr. Hennessey's turn. Well, if these two are leaders, I’d better be a follower, he said. But I should inform you, these words are nouns, not adjectives.
He had them memorize and recite their favorite poem. He said he would bring in his guitar and accompany them, if they wanted to sing it. The students laughed, but he was serious. Each of you should make a point of having at least one great poem committed to memory, he said. In case you ever have to spend some time in prison.
In the spring he missed half a week of school, and the substitute teacher told them his mother had died. When he returned to class on Thursday, he was quieter than usual, but beneath the surface, the old self blazed. He gave them an essay assignment so he could sit at his desk, writing what looked like thank-you notes. Write a three-page composition, either fiction or nonfiction, that illustrates how fragile yet how durable we are. Ginny wrote something relatively unimaginative about her dog. That afternoon, when she got home from school, she went to her bedroom, locked the door, and cried.
Never listen to the world, he announced one sunlit morning in the middle of June. It was the last day of school. The world gives terrible advice. In fact, more often than not, do the exact opposite of what the world says. This was her final memory of the man, her favorite teacher. She couldn't locate him in the crowd at graduation, couldn't find him afterward to tell him about her college choice, thank him for his recommendation. But he had inhabited her consciousness all these years. Of course he had. And now she had his address.
At first it had seemed fitting and adventuresome to drive to his house on a Saturday afternoon, rather than calling ahead. The world gives terrible advice, she repeated to herself, speeding along the MassPike. What kind of advice would Mr. Hennessey give? But now, sitting on the side of the road with the engine still running, she felt ridiculous. She was about a mile from the house, had driven by twice, seen a truck, seen the light on in the kitchen, and kept going. It was October, and both sides of the dirt road were lined with trees whose yellow leaves had already fallen. She knew her students were out at soccer matches and football games, and in the silence she heard their shouts and cheers. While here she sat on a country road, where not a single car had passed her. One minute she was prepared to go back to the house; the next she was ready to drive the two-plus hours it would take to get home. This must be what a midlife crisis feels like, she said to herself. Then she remembered Good in a crisis, from the personal ads, and laughed. The next thing she knew, she had pulled into his driveway, turned off the engine, and was slamming the car door.
The house was modest and unremarkable. Greenish paint, beige shutters, a few shrubs along the front. An old-fashioned black mailbox hung beside the door. The truck in the driveway was rusted, and the word toyota across its back was missing its final A, rendering it a palindrome. Ginny rang the bell and waited, feeling a bit queasy, preparing herself for a wife or child to answer, or a stranger—perhaps this was an old address—anything. She rang the bell again. A moment later, there he was. Mr. Hennessey.
Yes? he said through the screen door. She could tell he didn't recognize her. She wore her blond hair long and curly now, and her face had settled in a way that gave her cheekbones she hadn't had when she was seventeen. She was wearing jeans and a brown suede jacket, and carrying an oversize handbag that she thought of as her schoolmarm's purse.
Mr. Hennessey, hello. It’s Virginia Porter. I was a student of yours.
Virginia Porter, Mr. Hennessey said, a smile widening his face. Come on in. How the heck are you?
I’m all right. I'm a teacher myself now, she said, wishing she’d waited a little longer to say it.
No kidding! Are you really? He opened the hall closet. Here, let me take your coat. If he was shocked to see her, he showed no sign of it. He spoke as though they did this every third Saturday in October. She pulled her arms out of her jacket, and he helped her. I am, she said, trying not to grin. She was surprised at how good she felt. Mr. Hennessey’s face had surprised her—it had more lines, but it was the same face.
Have a seat. Do you feel like coffee or anything? Tea?
Tea would be great.
The two of them sat on a worn leather sofa opposite a beautifully carved coffee table, holding their cups of tea. Ginny commented on the table, which featured a landscape of seraphs and Cyrillic letters under a sheet of glass.
I made it, Mr. Hennessey said. I meant to sell it to someone, but then I ended up keeping it. Funny how things work out sometimes.
You're a natural—it's gorgeous. Is that what you do these days, woodwork?
I do a bunch of things; handyman stuff, mostly. I have some friends with farms who do a lot of canning, so there’s seasonal work. It suits me; I like being outdoors. It’s nice out here.
What made you give up teaching? Ginny said, not realizing until she asked it how the question had been pressing on her. You were so great at it.
You don't know? Mr. Hennessey said, adjusting his position. It was quite the scandal back in the day. I thought everyone knew.
Ginny felt her face go hot, ashamed both that she didn’t know and that she might have brought up an indelicate topic. I guess I’m behind the times. I never heard a thing.
Oh. Well. It was six or seven years after your class. On a ski trip, one of the boys was arrested for smoking pot. Just one of those kid things. No harm done, really. He and his friends had taken a bag to the top of the mountain, presumably to get high and then ski down. But since the trip was in Canada and they’d carried it across the U.S. border, it became a big deal. The authorities pressed him about who sold it to him, and the kid said I had. Said I gave him the weed earlier that day. That everyone knew I would supply students with drugs—all they had to do was ask.
It was entirely made up, of course, probably out of desperation. But the school board took it rather seriously, as you can imagine. They searched my house, deposi¬tioned me. In the end I was vindicated, but after that, it was as if the wind had gone out of my sails. A year later I left.
I’m so sorry, Ginny said. I didn't know any of this. I didn’t know a thing.
Don’t be sorry. It all turned out for the best. I like it here. I have plenty of time to read. And it’s quiet. Peaceful.
Ginny surveyed the room—the crowded bookshelves, the dusty white curtains, the guitar case in the corner next to an expensive-looking stereo. It did seem like the abode of a contented person. Simple but homey.
He lifted his teacup. What about you? he said. How do you like your life?
My life is generally a barrel of laughs when I’m not contemplating thoughts of an untimely death, she said, which she’d hoped would make him laugh, but it didn’t. I like my life all right, she said, and found her¬self wishing they were drinking beer rather than tea. She remembered the restaurant in Chinatown that was the only place in Boston where you could get alcohol after serving hours, by ordering a kettle of cold tea. Cold tea, wink wink.
Anything exciting going on? he said. Where do you teach?
Lexington High School, she said. English. I even have the AP class.
Ah! Mr. Hennessey said. Our archrivals! How could you?
It's just the way the numbers worked out. It’s nothing personal, she said, as if she were a professional ballplayer.
And forgive me if I was hoping you’d say English rather than chemistry.
Ginny made a snort. All I remember from chemistry is Avogadro’s number. And even that I don't remember.
Avogadro isn’t worth remembering. Unless you’re out on a date with a chemist you want to impress.
I guess that explains why that one never called again, she said. She found her gaze shifting to Mr. Hennessey’s hands. There was no wedding band; there was no evidence of children’s things around the house.
How about you? she said. Dating any chemists?
No. Did you ever marry?
Mr. Hennessey put down his cup of tea. No.
He looked at her. He’d always encouraged his students to be candid and direct, and his expression implied he was pleased that someone had ? nally taken him up on it.
Just not for me, I suppose.
I know what you mean, Ginny said. I feel that way about eggplant.
Mr. Hennessey clicked his tongue. Now that’s a pity. That means you won’t be able to sample my beer-battered fried eggplant extraordinaire.
I hope you’re kidding, Ginny said. Wow, you’re serious? How about just a beer, minus the eggplant extraordinaire.
Mr. Hennessey rose to his feet. All right, Virginia, he said. But it’s your loss.
Two beers later, she was feeling much more relaxed. Mr. Hennessey had put on a Tom Waits CD, and Ginny thought he had the saddest yet most hopeful voice she'd ever heard.
Mr. Hennessey, would you mind if I asked you a question?
On one condition: You have to stop calling me Mr. Hennessey. You make me feel as if it's still 1987. We need to bring ourselves up to date.
Ginny offered her hand. Deal, she said. She took a breath. Arthur, do you think the good things human beings have done outweigh the hideous things?
Mr. Hennessey nearly spilled his beer. What the hell kind of question is that?
The kind my kids ask. That's from Julia, who’s an ace, but so shy. She writes these ingenious paragraphs about the overlooked dross of the world, but never makes a peep in class. Then the other day she finally spoke up, and I let her down. I couldn't help her, Ginny said. It was awful.
I'll tell you what I think: It only takes one moment of perfection to atone for a lifetime of waste. Ginny sat up as if he'd slapped her. Perfection? I beg your pardon? Aren't you the man whose blackboard perennially read: Strive for perfection, but learn to work with imperfection? You taught us perfection was a chimera. I thought it was a fiction.
So did I, he said. But I was wrong. Perfection isn’t outside us. Perfection is a way of seeing.
Ginny fell silent. You were less cryptic before you became enlightened, she wanted to say, but the lines on his face appeared freshly earnest, as if each were the receipt for some suffering, and she changed her mind. Mr. Hennessey split the caps off two fresh bottles and handed her one. She thought about declining, not certain what it would mean in terms of her drive home, but she accepted, and clinked her bottle to his.
To perfection, she said.
To 1987, said Mr. Hennessey.
While Mr. Hennessey was in the bathroom, Ginny realized she was drunk. It felt good; it felt as if she’d needed to get drunk for a long time.
Personally, I think the whole endeavor is overrated, she said as he reclaimed his place beside her.
Which endeavor is that?
Life. The pursuit of happiness. Love.
Is that so.
That is definitely so. I swear by it. My kids, for example. My class. They’re so suspicious and disengaged. I think they sense something insincere in me, and they hate it. They hate my class. Is there something insincere in you?
No. Well, yes. I mean, teaching. I'm not sure I want to be a teacher anymore.
The words hung in the air; Mr. Hennessey didn’t seem to have a response. I'm sorry, she said. I didn't mean to burden you with all this stuff. I just thought you might have some advice.
He leaned back against the couch. Tell me, he said. What do you think will become of Julia? She didn't blame him for changing the subject; she hadn't meant to dump her life in his lap.
I don’t know. She's so sensitive, I worry. I think either she'll have to toughen up, or the world will toughen her up. Ginny had noticed that people didn’t seem to value sensitivity much. Don't be so sensitive! they’d shout— not the most delicate way to handle a finely attuned person—as if sensitivity were voluntary.
He smiled. Or not.
What do you mean?
Maybe she'll find a way to capitalize on her sensitivity. I doubt it.
I just do. Ginny thought about the way Julia's hands shook when it was her turn to read aloud, how the skin on her arms turned to gooseflesh whenever she read a sentence that was especially moving.
You don’t think it could ever be an asset—perhaps her greatest asset?
No. Ginny laughed. I don't.
Mr. Hennessey gave her a funny look. Interesting, his expression said. Would you mind if I asked you a personal question?
That'd be only fair.
What was your poem? When I had the students memorize their favorite poem and recite it.
Oh, God, I don't remember. That was so long ago. I couldn’t begin to remember. He smiled an enigmatic smile she didn’t appreciate. He was sitting only a foot away, and she found herself partly wanting to scoot over next to him and partly wanting to reach for her purse and flee. He leaned forward and set his bottle down on the table. Well, I'd say if you truly don't enjoy teaching, you should leave. But if you do enjoy it, you should stay. Personally, I can’t picture you as anything other than an excellent teacher.
But—I’m not like you. I’m not the way you were.
You’re like yourself, he said. Even better.
You don’t know me, she said, becoming annoyed, wishing she hadn’t accepted that last beer. Or was it that she felt as if she were only seventeen again? Her father had taken her aside that year, told her he was worried about her, that she was like a turtle without a shell. You don't know me, she said again. I toughened up. I grew a shell. I'm not— He put his hand against her back but, oddly, she felt it in her stomach. Your shell is papier-mâché, he said. You are a piñata.
She looked into his face. It was still so handsome. You were my favorite teacher, she wanted to say, but she was too embarrassed, too afraid she would sound like a schoolgirl with a crush. You were everybody’s favorite. He held her eyes. And I'm no good at being in love, either, she said abruptly, shifting away from him. She sometimes had a talent for dispelling awkward mo-ments by making them even more awkward. I don’t like the idea of giving yourself up, of surrendering. Why does it have to be like that? Who invented this system, anyway?
Mr. Hennessey appeared stunned, and she wondered if she'd scared him.
Did you put truth serum in my drink? she said, hoping to recover a little. But he had grown pensive. For the first time, she recognized the expression she knew from the classroom.
I don’t know that you necessarily have to give yourself up, he said. Maybe your self just becomes larger.
Spoken like a lifelong bachelor, she said, but when she saw his face, she regretted it. I was engaged once, he said, turning to the window. Outside, the sun was setting, and the western sky was the colors of a bruise: purple and yellow, fading to gray. She was curious about everything. And what a heart. As he spoke, the room seemed quiet in a way it hadn't before. Ginny sat perfectly still.
Her name was Isabel, he said. When she left, it took something from me. Changed me. I almost feel as if I’ve been in hibernation. For a while, I suppose I was waiting for her to come back. But at a certain point, I imagine one's supposed to give up. His face had a vulnerability she’d never seen in it when he was her teacher. I guess I just never knew when to give up.
He seemed about to say more, but then he stopped. He pressed his lips together. If I see this man cry, Ginny thought, it will break me. If I see him cry, I will break in two. But instead of attempting to say more, he just smiled—a broad, apologetic smile—as if he were laughing at his own predicament, at how funny it was to have been through such heartache.
That was five or six years ago now, he said, sitting up. The interesting thing is, I stayed friends with her father. He lived right up the road. I used to go over and help him out with repair-type stuff around the house, things he was too weak to do himself.
Sometimes we'd just sit and talk. But we never mentioned Isabel. One day, one of the last times I saw him before he died, he looked at me and said: 'Arthur, God answered all my prayers. All my prayers in life—except for one.' I knew he was trying to help me. Ginny didn't know what to say. She wanted to help him, too, but she didn't know how. She felt terrible then, terrible that she was considering leaving teaching, terrible that she was such a failure.
I'm sorry if I let you down, she said softly.
Mr. Hennessey shook his head. You didn’t let me down. You could never let me down.
He lifted her chin. You were my Julia, he said. You were my quiet ace.
Ginny closed her eyes. 'Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom,' she said, and kept her eyes shut, afraid to open them, afraid of everything. James Wright’s 'A Blessing.' Of course. That would be the perfect poem for you, he said. Then he leaned in and kissed her, respectful and slow at first, then in a way that let her feel his hunger. She kissed him back, raising her hand to his neck. The simple act of touching him with tenderness made the hair on her arms stand up. When they stopped kissing, he pulled her into a hug, both arms locking her against his body, tight. Then they both started to laugh—real, deep laughter—and the more they laughed, the more they wanted to laugh. It was as if they had just heard the funniest joke in the world. It was as if they were the funniest joke in the world. When they stopped laughing, Ginny felt as if she might start to cry again. She stared at the vertical row of buttons on his shirt.
I can't remember what I used to think was beautiful, she said. You're beautiful, he whispered. You just might be the most beautiful thing.
You're drunk, Ginny laughed. And insane. Both. But her giddiness quickly evaporated. She didn't want to hurt him, not Mr. Hennessey, not this great, invisible love of her life. I should get going, she said, releasing him and glancing at her watch. I’m not sure you’'e medically fit to drive, he said. Besides, I was just about to offer you the guest room, and suggest we make pancakes tomorrow morning, then lounge around all day reading books.
Reading books, eh?
Or engaging in stimulating activity of one fashion or another.
Ginny smiled. I told you, I’m no good at the love thing. I'm willing to wager you're better than you think. And who said anything about love? I said pancakes. She stalled for a moment. She knew she should leave. She knew her pattern, her tendency to leave a broken heart in her wake when she returned to her solitary ways. Arthur—
She reached for her purse. I can't. I'm sorry. I really have to go. She started for the door.
He took her arm. Wait, he said. He drew a breath. I do miss it. I miss every damn thing about it. I should never have left. It was ego, pride. I'm envious of you, he said. I'm jealous.
Ginny sat down, shocked. What? That's insane. Why don't you go back, teach again somewhere? You could start fresh.
He was shaking his head. It's not that simple, he said. I've been away for so long. Sometimes you can miss something even when you know it’s not for you anymore. That's a load of bull. You were a fantastic teacher. You could get a job again in an instant. Heck, you can have my job. You just have to teach me how to carve tables.
Classes could be arranged, he said, taking her hand.
She slipped her hand away. The clock on the wall read 8:35. The alcohol was wearing off, and she suddenly felt very tired. I really should leave, she said.
Fair enough, he said, and they both stood up. Then he kissed her again, and it was as sweet as before. When she opened her eyes, his pupils were wide.
Hold on—I'll be right back, he said. I think I still have something you’ll get a huge kick out of. Then he headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
While he was gone, Ginny scanned the room, her eyes lighting on the bookshelves, the stereo, the coffee table. For a moment, she took in the whole scene, herself included, as if viewing it from above. She laughed. She knew then that she would leave teaching; she could see how much it had been misplaced admiration for him all along. And she imagined with equal clarity the possibility that he would return to it. She could see the strands of their lives crisscrossing like two chromosomes.
Outside, the sun had fully set, and a few lights glimmered through the clouds. Somewhere in the darkness a dog barked, and she heard a screen door slam. Ginny took her purse, and without making a sound, went for the door. All of her instincts told her to vanish, to flee. All of her instincts, except for one. The next minute, she was climbing the stairs—very slowly, like a woman sleepwalking, incapable of imagining the dream that awaits her when she wakes up.