Life isn’t easy for single mother Ally Hughes. Teaching at Brown, her class load is huge and her boss is a menace. At home, she contends with a critical mother, a falling-down house, and a daughter who never misses a beat. Between taking care of the people she loves, teaching full time, and making ends meet, Ally doesn't have time for a man. She doesn’t date. She’s not into flings. But then she meets Jake, an eager student, young in years but old in soul, who challenges his favorite professor to open up her life, and her heart, to love. It doesn't work. In fact, his urging backfires.
Ten years later, Ally's still single. Jake reappears and surprises her in a brand-new role: He's dating Ally's now-grown daughter. In this hilarious, heartrending tale, Ally is finally forced to concede (not only to herself) that an independent, "liberated" woman can still make room in her life for love.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Jules Moulin has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She spent her twenties writing the Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning series Party of Five and The West Wing. She left Hollywood to be a full-time mom and splits her time between New York City and Pasadena, California. This is her first novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
In the end, it was Harry’s fault.
Harry Goodman had promised to help Professor Hughes around the house that Friday. He’d also promised the Friday before and the Friday before that, too.
But it was New England and baseball season and 2004. The Sox were moving toward a ninety-eight, sixty-four record that spring, and five months later, that October, they’d sweep the Cardinals to win their first Series in eighty-six years.
Harry grew up in South Boston and it was a very emotional time. He said he could feel it—feel it coming: the loss of the underdog status, the triumph of victory, the shedding of the past and having to look toward an uncertain future after success . . .
So he was spending most of his days calming his nerves at Mulligan’s Pub.
Ally sneaked out through the back door of Robinson, dodging her boss, Dr. Priscilla Patricia Meer.
She headed east behind Mencoff, Brackett, and Partridge, and when she hit Brown Street, she turned left, hoping to God she could get in and out of Pembroke Hall before Priscilla came by or called.
She had only one. One student: Jake Bean. He was it. Then she would go home and meet Harry.
Jake lost her after the lecture. In the throng of students and halfway downstairs, Ally went right instead of left, and Jake turned left instead of right and took the front door, walking to Brown on Waterman Street. He headed north and caught sight of her at Meeting Street. “Professor Hughes!” He broke into a jog. “Professor!”
Ally skipped steps up the Pembroke stoop, heaving her backpack, cell phone to cheek, speaking to the desk assistant at the East Providence Police Department. “So they weren’t the guys? The guys you picked up? They were other guys?” She was confused.
“Dr. Hughes! Professor!” called Jake from down the block, gaining on her.
Ally disappeared inside. She didn’t hear him. Despite the two lectures she taught each semester, the most popular campus-wide two years running, sold-out, so to speak, she didn’t feel like a doctor of anything, much less an assistant professor.
Her grades were late. On Tuesday, Yoko had called in tears. “Professor, I’m sick!”
“Yoko? Where are you?” Yoko hadn’t returned her calls.
“I can’t walk!”
“Willa told me—”
“My papers are with me. I took them to Omaha by mistake!”
“I’m so sorry! So stupid! So dumb!”
“I’m such an idiot!”
“Calm down. Please. Mail them to me. Is your mother there?”
“I’ll grade them for you. It’s no big deal. This is your health.”
Yoko paused. “Really?”
“Really. Can she mail them today? Express Mail? Ten, twenty bucks?”
“Mom!” Yoko yelled and then said to Ally, “Hold on.” Then, “Mom!”
“How many left?”
“Only—only, like . . . twenty-one?”
Ally absorbed this. Twenty-one papers meant twenty-one hours of grading, at least. She sighed. “Are you asking me or telling me?” Yoko always inflected upward at the end of a sentence as if she were asking a question when she wasn’t. A way, Ally thought, to belie her brilliance, to seem less sure than she actually was. She had been first in her class at Yale.
Yoko then said, “Twenty-one. But nine left to grade.”
Ally smiled. “Nine.” She could do it. “Got it. Get well.”
“Professor!” Jake called as he flew into the building. He climbed the stairs to the second floor.
Ally shut her door and locked it. She dropped her backpack, crossed to her desk, and gathered the papers from Omaha.
She was late to meet Harry, but Harry was always late himself, and not by minutes. Harry was always two hours late. When he showed up. If he showed up. “So they’re at large? Is that the right term? They’re still on the loose?”
The story had made The Brown Daily Herald: “Robbery Crew Hits Nabe.”
Two weeks before, a rash of break-ins beset Ally’s street, two miles from campus. Three morning burglaries, three midnight robberies, three men in ski masks, all short, all armed. A neighbor had spotted the men in a pickup casing Grotto.
Ally had hired Harry to put a bolt in the back door and finish the jobs he had started in March.
“All the jobs, Harry,” she’d said when they spoke.
This was the weekend. Harry would be at the house at one, and Ally would hole up to read and grade.
She loved the rental, the tiny Victorian, even if it was falling apart. For six years she’d paid Harry to replace shingles, empty the gutters, caulk the windows. She was sure it was rotting at its core, but did her best to keep it warm, to keep herself and Lizzie safe. It wasn’t a five-star hotel, she said, when her mother complained, but it was home.
But three short men with three black masks, this was worse than leaks and mold.
Not that she owned anything to steal. The rooms were full of secondhand finds: old wooden tables, older chairs; desks and beds that Ally had bought at Goodwill, Savers, and the Salvation Army in Newport and Boston.
She hung up as Jake knocked. She turned and froze. Could it be Meer? “Yes?” she called. “Who’s there?”
He had called Monday and booked twenty minutes of office hours to talk about his failed final paper.
She moved to the door and opened it. When she saw him, she drew back, surprised. “You’re Jake?”
“I have an appointment.”
“Yes! Okay!” She moved aside so Jake could step in. “We’ve never met.” She closed the door. Jake turned and held out his hand. Ally shook it. “Sorry. With two hundred students—I can’t always put a face to a name.” Ally had thought that “Jake Bean” was the big blond guy who smiled all the time and sat down front.
She couldn’t believe it. This was Jake?
Jake Bean was the boy in the back?
They hadn’t talked, but the boy in the back had haunted Ally for three years.
He looked like that singer, the one from that boarding school—Exeter, it was; Andover maybe—the boy every Brown girl was drooling over: John Mayer or Meyer or Moyer, whatever it was, with that catchy little “Body Is a Wonderland” tune. Jake looked like him but much more handsome. He was the runway version of him. The rough-around-the-edges, childlike-but-tough, Hugo-Boss-model version of him.
“Professor Hughes, please. I never missed a lecture. Give me the credit. I’m begging you here.”
Ally flipped through his paper. “Let’s discuss it,” she said kindly. Then her phone rang. She leaned in to see the incoming number. “Hold on, sorry. I have to get this.” She turned and picked up. “Harry?” She listened to Harry for a moment and grew annoyed. “Really, Harry? Seriously? Third time, Harry. Third time you canceled on me this month . . . Can you come and do the—?” She listened a moment. “No, fine. But, no, Harry. Don’t call back. Good-bye, Harry.” She hung up and took a deep breath.
“No,” Ally said. “I have a girl turning ten in four days and a bunk bed that needs— Harry the handyman canceled on me three times.”
“You have a daughter?”
“Yes,” she said.
Ally laughed. “This is my life!” She was upset. Lizzie had begged for a bunk bed for years. Ally had saved and finally bought one for Lizzie’s birthday. The bed had been hiding in the basement for weeks, in parts, in boxes, waiting to be built.
And she needed a lock. On the back door. She needed the downstairs windows secured.
She needed so much.
Shaking her head, she slid Jake’s paper back to her lap and picked up a pen. “I’ll . . . find someone else.”
“What about your husband? Can’t he do it?”
Ally looked up and then back down. It was a question and natural enough, but personal. “I don’t have one,” she said softly. “I’m a, you know . . . single . . . mom.”
“I’ll do it.”
“What?” She focused on the page, on Jake’s profile of Anaïs Nin.
“Thanks.” Ally looked up. “Sorry. What?”
“Me and my brother—we have a business. Bookshelves, IKEA. Dollhouses. Do you know the skill—the talent—it takes to get that Barbie elevator going?”
Ally smiled. “I do,” she said. “That elevator!” Crazy thing. Lizzie had a Dreamhouse. “But let’s get back to the first part here . . . The part that sounds so . . . pseudo-academic.”
Jake’s gaze floated past Ally, out the window, to the trees. He was embarrassed. “I’m not a good writer,” he said. “I suck.”
“No, you don’t. The ideas are great. Most of them. But it’s too long and you change tone. At first, you use this fake formal tone.” She looked up. “Why?”
Jake shrugged. “To sound smart.”
“But you are smart. And then you change.” Ally flipped to page fourteen. “Your voice changes a quarter way through. You leave Nin totally behind. You leave your subject completely behind and start riffing for forty pages.”
“I get excited.”
“You go off point: tantric sex, Britney Spears?”
“This part,” she said and pointed to a paragraph. She read it aloud. “‘In pop culture, older women are disrespected, but I think they rock.’” She looked at him. “Rock?”
“But rock in a term paper?”
“You said to include our opinion,” he said. “That’s my opinion.”
“Or ‘Sick sex is a fast-food burger. Sacred sex is a porterhouse steak.’ Intriguing, for sure, but what does it mean?”
“There’s gotta be love,” Jake explained.
“There’s got to be love to make the meat good?”
“Sex, like anything— Professor Hughes, if I may?”
“Go ahead, please.” Ally leaned back.
Jake leaned forward. “It all exists, like, on a continuum. High cow, low cow. High sex, low sex. And Anaïs Nin, if you ask me, she was on the bottom fucking rung. Excuse my French.”
“Fuck isn’t French.”
“So why this course devoted to her?”
“Well. I agree.”
Jake was surprised. “You do?”
Ally sighed. “If a chair sent out an SOS for a popular class because the professor who normally taught it was off for the year, to research, you know, all the gender-based leisure habits of octogenarians in Greece and Italy . . .”
“If a low-on-the-totem-pole sucker like me—were asked to teach it, she might say yes. Especially if she were up for review.” Ally then stopped. “Sorry,” she said. “Too much caffeine. I should be quiet.”
“She was an evil, evil liar.”
“Nin. Isn’t that—?”
Then, on cue, came four fast knocks on Ally’s door. Meer’s signature rat-a-tat-tat. Ally froze. Then four again.
“Coming!” said Ally, girding herself as she rose from the chair. Jake looked concerned. She crossed to the door and opened it. “Hi! Priscilla! Hi!”
“I left you a message,” Meer said, annoyed. “Where are your grades?”
“Coming,” said Ally. “Monday, first thing. One of my TAs had to go home.”
“Who?” Meer asked, arms crossed, anchoring a thick stack of files.
“Please,” Ally begged, “don’t make me say.”
“You have to stop babying them—”
“I’m with a student. Monday, okay?”
Meer leaned in. “Where?”
“Here—he’s right . . .” She opened the door to reveal Jake. Jake waved.
“Oh,” Meer said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. The seniors are done. I spoke to the registrar.”
“Fine,” Meer said and turned and walked off, her stacked heels pounding the floorboards.
Ally stood for a moment, unmoving. She then looked at Jake and closed the door. She sat down again and looked up. “Ever had someone love you so much, you can see it in their eyes?”
Jake smiled. “Meer?”
“She wishes I was a Marxist. We approach—life—from a different . . .”
“That. Sorry. Where were we?”
“The liar. Nin. Married to two guys at the same time. Cheated on both.”
“Revenge sex with her dad? Because he left? Who does that? She was a pervert and a stuck-up sociopath.”
Ally smiled. “But she was an efficient writer. Unlike you.”
Jake shrugged and looked away. His cheeks flushed. “Maybe.”
“Please. Don’t be embarrassed. I’ll give you credit, but—”
“What? You will?”
“I love you!”
“I love you! Thanks!”
Ally laughed. “But your writing! Jake. You can’t hand in fifty-two pages when I ask for twelve.” She picked up some files from her desk. “See? Look. Three years of you.” She pulled the files onto her lap and opened one. She took out a midterm and a final, fifty and eighty pages, respectively. “Remember these?” She handed them to him.
He glanced down. “I—I wrote these freshman year.”
“I read them all. I kept them all.”
“None of my TAs knew what to do with them! How to grade them!” Ally laughed. “This one, on the Triangle fire, for Women and Work. Eighty pages.”
“That was my favorite class. I was inspired. What can I say?”
Ally stood and pulled a paperback book from a shelf. “Elements of Style. All you need—to keep it short.” She handed it to him, but Jake wouldn’t take it. “Please,” she said.
“I can buy it.”
“I have another.”
“You’re my Sex and Gender—”
“I’m not coming back.”
Ally stopped and quieted, surprised.
“I need the credit. In case I transfer. Ever. One day. But Brown’s wicked pricey and I don’t want debt. I’m not coming back.”
Ally blinked. She understood. She had had luck in grad school at Brown: grants, scholarships, TA jobs, the lecturing offer from Economics. But now that her dissertation was done, she was drowning in undergrad loans. She placed the book on her desk and sat down.
“That’s why I want to fix your bed. I need the cash.”
“I see,” she said and thought about it. She wanted the help. It wasn’t that. She needed the help. “Can you do a dead bolt?”
“You have one?”
“I hope you spent money. I like Schlage. It’s got to be bump-proof.”
Ally nodded. “There were robberies. On my street. Last two weeks. I need the windows—”
“Pins in the frames. Add a stopper to the ACs. Do you have ACs?”
Ally studied him as he spoke. “I do, but can you put them in?”
Jake nodded. “Tools in my trunk. Parked on Thayer.”
The door to Lizzie’s room squeaked too. Ally wanted to go in and out while Lizzie was sleeping and not wake her up. She knew the hinges needed that grease, whatever it was called, but she wasn’t sure something wasn’t wrong with the hinge.
Was he a conflict of interest? Jake? Hiring Jake? He took her classes, after all.
“Professor Hughes,” Jake continued, “my mother was single. Four boys. I know how it is. You take care of everyone else, but no one’s there to take care of you. Let me help. You’d be helping me, too.”
“Jake,” she said, “I’m not handy. Harry was supposed to do . . . a lot. He was coming the whole weekend. Saturday, Sunday . . .”
Jake begged. “Seven bucks an hour. I’ll do it all.”
Ally studied him.
Jake arrived to every class before Ally did, and he always left last. He lingered in the hall or just outside as if he had questions, but he never approached, never spoke up, and never once raised his hand.
Every so often, in the middle of her lecture, Ally’s gaze would land on him and he’d smile in a way that made her feel breathless and leave her thoughts muddled.
His eyes caught and held hers as if he were making an assessment of something, of Ally or the lecture, she didn’t know which, but he seemed amused.
At some point, she had decided to ignore him. The boy in the back, she told herself, he wasn’t there to learn. Boys in back rows, they sat there in judgment. They weren’t engaged. They sat back in protest.
She didn’t know that the boy in the back was Jake Bean of the “love letters,” as her TAs had called them—impassioned, for sure, but never ending.
“Okay,” she said finally and nodded. “Let’s do it.”
“I’ll follow you home?”
“Yes,” she said and picked up the book and handed it to him.
“Fine.” Jake took it.
“Thanks,” she said gratefully.
“No, thank you.”
TEN YEARS LATER
Do I have to use it for grad school?” asked Lizzie, out of the blue.
Ally was fumbling with the remote. “What?”
It was eight o’clock, and mother and daughter were happily curled up on Ally’s bed. They’d watch The Graduate while they ate breakfast for dinner on trays, eggs and crepes. That was the plan.
Ally wore boxers and Jake’s old T-shirt, the Red Sox one, the one she had kept, and Lizzie wore pajamas.
“The money she left,” Lizzie continued. Ally’s mother, Lizzie’s grandmother, Claire Anne Hughes, had died in March, four months before. She had left Lizzie money, meant for grad school.
“Hold on. Shoot. HD one or HD two?”
“I’m rethinking Juilliard.”
“Hold on, Bug.” Ally punched the remote again.
“First of all, I won’t get in. We both know that. And even if I do, why spend four years memorizing Chekhov when I can be acting on TV? They say it’s the golden age of—”
“My God, we’ve got a rover on Mars and we can’t create an easier remote?” Ally was annoyed.
“I want Claire’s money, but not for grad school. Would that be okay?”
Ally turned and looked at her tray. Her food was getting cold. “Please throw a napkin over my plate.”
Lizzie arranged her mother’s napkin, and her own, on top of the plate to contain the steam, to keep the food warm.
“Finally!” Ally said. The movie began. She climbed into bed and pulled the dinner tray onto her lap. “Okay, good, so everyone thinks it’s about an era, but I think it’s about love and lust and what it’s like to grow old as a woman—”
“Mom, did you hear me? About the money?”
On the TV screen, a young Dustin Hoffman, blankly depressed, sat in an airplane on his way home after graduating from college.
“What about it?”
“Can I have it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Ally aimed and turned up the volume. “See, to you, he’s Captain Hook. To me, he’s Tootsie. If you want to be an actress, honey, Dustin Hoffman— We should watch Tootsie! It’s about acting and women—”
“Mother, please. Forget the movie for two seconds. Please.”
“What is it? Why?” Ally turned up the volume again.
“I spoke to Cybil. You know, my agent . . . She thinks—I should do something to my nose.”
“What?” Ally said, looking at Lizzie for the first time in minutes. “Like what?”
“She thinks if you’re an actress and have to fix your nose, you should do it when you’re young like Marilyn Monroe. When you’re older—”
“Wait a sec. What are we discussing?”
Lizzie paused and took a deep breath. “Claire’s money.”
“You want a nose job?”
“Please. Don’t freak. The whole thing costs eighteen grand, which is two thousand less than—”
“Elizabeth. Wait. I’m—wait a second.” Ally pushed her tray forward, grabbed the remote, and paused the movie. She turned back around and sat up on her knees, stunned.
Lizzie’s face paled in defeat. “This is really hard for me. To even bring this up to you . . .”
“I’m— Let me— Okay, just—give me a second to recover from the shock so we can—”
“What?” Lizzie looked at her plate. “Discuss it? My mind’s made up.”
“Yes, honey. Yes, we should discuss it—as reasonable adults—because you need to know—there is no way I will ever—ever, ever—give you money to do that—ever.”
Lizzie shook her head. “It’s not vanity, Mom. It’s a matter of physics.”
“We have two eyes. The camera has one. One lens. Without depth perception. So . . . so . . . it flattens stuff out. Whatever’s in front. A lens makes everything wider and bigger.”
“And it puts on twelve pounds. It’s why actors have to be thin to look normal and why my nose looks bigger on-screen than it does in real life.”
Ally softened and inched closer to talk it through, to set her daughter straight. She took Lizzie’s hand. “Sweetheart, first, your body is sacred. Second, you are a beautiful girl.”
“It’s not about beauty. It’s about image. And how three dimensions translate to two.”
Ally let go of Lizzie’s hand and rubbed her forehead. She scratched the back of her neck, panicked, on the verge of tears. “This Cybil? Is this the woman who—who told you—told you—to dye your hair?”
“And lose thirty pounds?”
“Mother. Yes. I just explained—”
“Said you should—told my daughter—at five foot ten, to hover around one hundred pounds?”
“Calm down. One hundred and five.”
Ally tried to stay calm. A technique she used when Lizzie was three. Instead of raising her voice when upset, she whispered. “I don’t know where to start,” she said softly. “The global thing or—or the fact that it’s not a tattoo. You can’t reverse it. Or that you’re letting some surgeon slice you open to conform to—”
“I’m not conforming!” Lizzie interrupted. “I want to be in film. I don’t have the chops for stage. And I want my nose to appear less big. If I want a big nose, I can build one. Nicole Kidman. She built a nose for Virginia Woolf. I want to ensure myself that range.”
“I don’t buy that. It’s not like your nose is that big.”
“I want to do this. I’m going to do this. With Claire’s money or mine that I save.”
“No. Because . . . by the time you save that kind of money, I will have brought you back to your senses. I want to speak to Cybil.”
“No! That’s— No! I’m twenty years old! I’m not five! She’s not my teacher!”
“She’s telling you—incorrectly—that your nose will keep you from— She’s shaming you into changing yourself when you are perfect. As you were knitted in—”
“Don’t say it!” Lizzie looked at her plate in despair. She wanted the night to be fun and delicious and now her crepes and eggs were cold. “I know you think you’re right,” she said coolly. “Let’s stop. Give it some time.”
“But promise me you won’t do it—without telling me first. Please.”
“Why? So you can lock me up?”
“Well, there’s that . . . But if you do it, I have to prepare myself too, Bug. I’ll be . . .” Ally turned away. Tears spilled.
Lizzie closed her eyes. “You’ll be what?”
“Heartbroken,” Ally choked out. Then she raised her voice in anguish. “You’re funny and gorgeous! Heads turn when you walk down the street!”
“Weather got one! Weather was twelve!”
“Weather needed one. You don’t remember. Her nose was bizarrely, abnormally wide. I’m not opposed to fixing cleft palates. I’m not opposed to—”
“Mom,” Lizzie pleaded, “please don’t cry.” She grabbed a napkin and handed it to her. “Please don’t. Maybe I can explain this better . . . another time.”
Ally tried to pull herself together. She had been like this for months. Since Claire’s diagnosis, the lung cancer, she’d been weepy, didactic, and weepy again. She launched into lectures on anything and everything with no invitation and no restraint. She cried all the time. “What if you die?”
“How exactly would I—?”
“Worst-case scenario. Point zero one chance of—”
“So? The worst-case scenario happens!”
“Okay, forget it.” Lizzie moved her tray aside and climbed off the bed. “I’m finished discussing this tonight.” She flew to the bureau and pressed play on the DVD player. “And so are you.” She climbed back up and settled herself. Her mother was grieving and crazy and grieving.
Ally glared at her for a moment, then turned and took a bite of her crepes.
They both calmed.
Earlier that night, she’d reduced the flour, gluten-free for Lizzie, to thin the batter and crisp the edges the way Lizzie liked them. “The syrup is hot. Take it,” she said and held out the pitcher.
Lizzie took it and poured syrup onto her crepes. She sipped orange juice and ice through a straw and focused on the movie for a moment.
Ally couldn’t. Her eyes darted from her crepes to Lizzie, to Lizzie’s nose, then back to the TV, where Dustin Hoffman, as Benjamin Braddock, was claiming his baggage at LAX. “Dustin Hoffman has a big nose.”
Lizzie said nothing.
Ally gazed around the room.
She’d moved in four years ago, back into the brownstone, into the room, her childhood room, and cleared the remains: the stuffed animals, framed awards, framed photos of Amelia Earhart and Nellie Bly. She left the walls empty except for a map and set the TV up to watch news in bed, but she rarely did. “And don’t forget you’re Israeli,” she mumbled. She couldn’t let it go.
“Seriously? I totally forgot I’m half Israeli!”
“If you want to look like some all-American, Christie Brinkley, cookie-cutter, white-bread—”
Lizzie reached out, took Ally’s arm, and squeezed it. “Not another word. Not tonight. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
Ally looked at her beautiful daughter. “Me too,” she said.
JAKE WRAPPED HIS ARMS around the AC unit and lifted it high as if it weighed nothing. No hesitation. No effort.
Ally watched him. “Wow,” she said. She could barely budge it with her foot when she’d dusted it off for Harry.
Jake was fit, she thought as she watched, but not in an artificial way, as if he had pumped himself up at a gym. He was fit as if he did real work, construction or something outdoors. As if he fought fires. As if he saved lives.
“This way,” she said. He followed her through the garage and inside.
As Ally stepped in, she was relieved. The kitchen, the house, the whole house, was orderly. Muriel had cleaned early that morning, and well. Everything was ordered, put away, immaculate, from baseboards to ceiling, and Ally was grateful. Muriel had tucked away every marker, puzzle, sticker, paintbrush, doll.
“Can you use the thing?” She strolled across the kitchen and felt light-headed, leading him out to the hall, to the stairs. The house had heated up during the day.
“That goes underneath. My landlord said to use the thing.”
“The universal support bracket?”
“That,” she said and started upstairs to the second floor.
“You have one?” he asked, following her.
“I do. Two.”
Ally led him to Lizzie’s room. “That one,” she said, pointing to the window farthest from the bed. “I don’t want it blowing on her when she sleeps.”
“You got it,” Jake said. He squatted to set the unit down. “Can I move these books?”
“No, no. Please. Use the desk.”
Lizzie had organized her Nancy Drew collection, fifty-six books, across the floor, starting with The Secret of the Old Clock.
“Your daughter likes to read.”
“The criminal mind. Spies. Secrets. She’s obsessed.”
Jake smiled and gazed at the books.
“Let me show you where the second one goes.” Ally left and walked down the hall toward her bedroom. Jake followed but kept his own stride, slower and more relaxed than Ally’s.
The fact that she was alone with a stranger—a man, no less—hadn’t struck her until she entered the room where she slept, where she undressed, and Jake stepped in, close, behind her.
Muriel had left a pile of underwear, freshly washed, on the bed. Ally swooped in, gathered it up, and pointed to the corner. “That window, please. The one over there.” She moved to her bureau, opened a drawer, and shoved the underwear deep inside.
“Nice room,” Jake said, looking around. He slid his hands into his pockets. “Big bed.”
Ally turned and looked at the bed. It was a king. “My daughter sleeps with me most nights. She’s in New York. Have you ever been?”
“No.” No, he hadn’t.
Ally nodded, turned, and strode out and back down the hall. She headed downstairs and Jake followed. “Can I have a beer?” he asked politely. “If you have one.”
Ally turned. On one hand, of course, what else would a college kid want to drink on a Friday while he worked? On the other hand, a beer? “Are you twenty-one?”
“Yes, I am, but the law is for purchase. Not for consumption.” He tilted his head as if explaining the rule to a child.
“Oh,” Ally said. She hadn’t known that. “Sure, then,” she said, stepping into the kitchen. She moved toward the fridge. “I only have Stella.”
“Of course you do,” Jake said, walking out past her into the garage.
By nine that night, Jake had installed the two ACs. He embedded a dead bolt in the back door and secured six of the first-floor windows. He washed a basement wall with bleach, raised Lizzie’s bike seat, built her bunk bed, and placed the bottom bunk on risers so that a trundle could slide underneath.
He did all this with a transistor radio by his side. The Sox were playing, and, sadly for Jake, the Mariners won.
Ally found pizza dough in the freezer. She should have been grading and not in the kitchen puttering around, assembling snacks and a pizza for Jake. But she was on edge, unnerved by his presence, all of his sounds: The radio chatter and near distant whir of his heavy black drill. His footsteps across her hardwood floors . . .
When Ally needed to calm down, she cooked. She cooked or baked, or cooked and baked at the same time, a habit that started when she was just six, about to turn seven.
“I want to show you something,” he said, stepping in and startling her. She was pulling the pizza out of the oven. She placed it on the counter as Jake walked out, and this time it was Ally who followed.
“I want to show you how to do this.”
The second floor was dark. At the top of the stairs, Ally turned on a lamp.
“Do this now, for next time,” he said. Reaching down, he took Ally’s hand and placed it around a can of oil.
Ally looked at him. What was he doing?
“Lubricating oil. Aerosol. Don’t spray it into your pretty eyes.”
Ally grimaced. Please. Come on. Her pretty eyes?
But Jake was focused. “Here’s how.” He stepped around Ally, behind her back, but kept his right hand wrapped around hers, around the can.
“Jake, please,” Ally said, spinning to face him. “I know how to spray a . . .” She laughed but then froze as Jake placed his left hand on her waist and turned her around, commanding her to do what he wanted her to do. With his right, he held her hand, and the can, over the hinge.
“You have to spray down,” he instructed kindly. “You have to be on top. So the oil moves down and into the grooves. When the metal pieces slide over each other, they vibrate, and the door acts like a soundboard.”
Ally stood on her toes as she reached, and Jake closed in from behind to help. Quickly, she realized she was too short. “Okay,” she said. “I see—I see what you’re doing—but I need a chair or a stool or something.”
“No, you don’t. I’ll do it this time.” He turned her around with his left hand again, took the can from her, and did it himself.
Ally stepped aside and gazed down the steps. “Spray down. Got it. Thank you,” she said, feeling the print of his hand on her waist.
“You’re welcome,” he said, moving the door back and forth. It was silent.
“Okay,” said Ally, sounding as businesslike as she could. “Wow. I don’t know how to thank you. I made you a pizza. Eat it here, take it back to the dorm.”
“I’m not going back,” he said, turning to her. “Remember? I quit. The semester’s over?”
Ally paused and looked at him. “And you prefer cash? So, eight hours . . .”
Jake shook his head. He turned and placed the spray can down. Then he turned back and took her by the elbow as if he had done so a hundred times. “Let’s stop,” he said, gently pulling her toward him. He released her elbow, then cupped her face and kissed her firmly on the corner of her mouth.
He didn’t find her lips. He didn’t find her cheek. But firmly and in complete control, he planted his lips on the corner of her mouth as if to ask her permission first.
Ally drew a breath of surprise. She was startled by the motion, the timing, the nerve.
Startled a little, but not entirely, completely surprised.
The afternoon had been charged, for sure. She, of course, was attracted to Jake. But who wasn’t? Any living, breathing woman, fifteen years old or five hundred . . . And Ally had put on a game face, she thought. Nothing would happen. Surely he wasn’t attracted to her. And if he were, by any chance, Jake would have to be so sure, so assured and confident, to make a move on his professor.
What kind of student would do that?
But there they were, and there he was in Ally’s house. She had invited him in, after all, or had he invited himself?
“Oh,” she said, staring at him, feeling winded. She couldn’t think.
“Is that okay?” Jake asked.
She didn’t know. Lizzie was away. That was true. Her daughter was three hours south in New York and safe with Claire.
She was with Claire, Ally’s mom.
On Sunday, they’d hop the Amtrak at Penn. Ally would fetch them at one o’clock at PVD on the Gaspee Street side. But she was supposed to be grading papers. Yoko’s papers. That night. Not kissing one of her students.
“Let me stay. Please,” Jake said. He looked into her eyes and squeezed her elbow. He had her elbow again. Then he stepped back to give her some space, room to think, to see him, to breathe, to catch her breath.
He slipped his hands into his pockets and then slipped them out, and a second later, he kissed her again, this time in the middle of her mouth. “Sorry,” he said and let her go completely. “I can’t help it. I’ve been wanting to do that for three years.”
What? Ally thought. He did? Years? Three years?
They gazed at each other, and neither one spoke.
She wasn’t startled the second time, and she didn’t resist. She saw it coming. She wanted him to kiss her again. He tasted like Stella, malty and sweet. “Oh my goodness,” she said and looked down.
He tasted like college and kissed her the way she’d been kissed back then, on the second floor of Healy Hall or in a dark, sodden corner of Champions bar. Suddenly the past rose inside her, that feeling from ten years before, all that raucous, innocent fun, and something released, nerves maybe, and made her laugh.
“You’re laughing,” Jake said, seeming embarrassed.
“No, no, I’m not,” she said kindly, but she was. “I’m your professor, Jake. Come on. I’m thirty-one.”
“I’m twenty-one. So?”
“Please. It’s totally yucky and . . . inappropriate, and I’m sure against some rule.”
“Why?” he said. “What rule? I’m attracted to you, and I’m pretty sure you’re attracted to me.”
“I am, Jake. I am. But who isn’t? Look at you. Please. Everyone’s attracted to you.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fun book! at first the pace is a little quick but you get used to it, and are sad when you realize its so short! Read in one day :)