Her long hair curtained her face as she sat marking papers. Drunk graduate students surrounded her, but she didn’t even look up. Rock pounding, dishes clattering, this was Grendel’s in winter, the old Cambridge dive, loud, warm, and subterranean, half a flight down from Winthrop Street. A green lamp lit every table, a hundred mirrors hung on paneled walls. Collin watched her reflection from every angle. She looked so elegant and out of place.
She came on Tuesday nights, and sometimes Thursdays too. She would order a Mediterranean salad and start grading papers. She was slender, fair, her eyes dark and shining, as though she knew some secret—she alone. Whenever he got close enough, he looked over her shoulder. Her handwriting was precise, her pen purple, extra fine. Once she glanced up and nearly smiled. You realize, he told her silently, if I drop something it’s your fault. If I break a plate, it’s all because of you.
He saw guys leering, even if she didn’t. “Everybody’s looking at her,” he told Samantha, the bartender.
Sam said, “Yeah, but mostly you.”
Collin was twenty-three, bright, artistic, and unhappy. He had just left college for the second time, and although he had good reasons, his mother was upset with him. His ex-girlfriend Noelle was out of patience. His father was in the navy; he had not seen or even heard from the man in seven years. Collin had thought of enlisting, mostly to travel, but he had grown up on a street where signs in the front yards read war is not the answer. He never did enlist. He didn’t go anywhere.
He worked at a bar and went out drinking afterward. Even if he’d enjoyed college and respected his instructors, even if he had excelled at Web design and programming, he didn’t have time to go to class. He was busy collecting tips and partying, waking up in other people’s beds. Sometimes he despised himself; not often. Sometimes he decided to get serious, but he kept working nights and sleeping in, and hanging with his high school friends, and all of this became a full-time job; youth itself was his vocation.
For this reason, the girl’s diligence fascinated him. She sat for hours grading at her table, and she was so young—way too young to be a teacher. She should have known better than to sit alone down there. Few came to work at Grendel’s, and those who tried, didn’t get much done. They would open their computers and close them gratefully when drinks arrived. This girl did not respond to guys circling her table. She looked royal in her cardigans and trailing scarves and calfskin boots. He sketched her on his order pad. The princess of solitude, with a crown.
One Tuesday, when she started packing up, her coat slipped off the back of her chair, and Collin ran to catch it for her. She stood to go, and he realized how tall she was, almost his height. He was close enough to see the gold flecks in her eyes, the freckles dusting her face. He held his breath as she slipped her arms into the sleeves. Then she thanked him, and rushed off.
“Nice,” teased a waitress named Kayte. “Could you catch my coat too? Before it touches the ground?”
Collin watched for the girl on Thursday while he carried out chicken wings and plates of stuffed potato skins. He served foaming Guinness, caught bits of conversation: Seriously? How much did that cost? I feel guilty but . . . The Who pounding. Students wailing, “The exodus is here.” Busy night and no free time, but Collin kept watching until Sam started flicking ice at him from behind the bar. “Who’re you waiting for?”
“So you admit it.” Sam was tiny but in your face. She was compiling a book of vintage cocktails.
“I’m not admitting anything.”
True, Collin wondered about the teacher. He speculated about her at Broadway Bicycle School, where he taught wheel changing, tire patching—basic repair. She had sounded American, but he decided that she came from Paris. Or London. He said, “Inflate the tube and listen.” Maybe Barcelona.
On Monday he colored backdrops for the theater company he had founded with his roommate, Darius. Working with wet chalk on old-fashioned rolling blackboards, he drew slender trunks and arching branches, layered cherry blossoms, white and pink. The edge of his chalk crumbled. He rubbed white and red together with his thumb, and he thought and thought about her. Sometimes she glanced up and she was looking at him, he was sure of it. The next second he would think, No, that can’t be true. Daydreaming about her, he felt lighthearted, amused. His fantasies were so chaste and so persistent. She was always sitting at her table, just out of reach, and he liked her there—although he was intensely curious. What was she doing all alone? A girl like that would have a boyfriend. There had to be some story. A long-distance relationship—but she didn’t look lonely. He wanted to know her. Or at least to hear her name.
There were days she never even crossed his mind. He spent a weekend with Noelle. They went to a party and stayed out late dancing, and then they went to her place and he began undressing her. She laughed, and he knew why. Now that they’d sworn off each other their bodies were so eager.
Late the next day they woke stale and headachy, annoyed with themselves. Even so, Darius’s girlfriend, Emma, had four tickets to Lady Lamb the Beekeeper in Davis Square, and so they went. All that time, Collin didn’t think about the girl, until Lady Lamb bent over her guitar, her long hair curtaining her face. Then suddenly he imagined the girl watching him. He saw himself through her eyes and he was cheap, and aimless. He felt poor, as well, although he didn’t consider himself poor. He considered himself free.
The next week, he was taking orders for a party of six when she materialized again. He looked up, and there she was, already seated in Kayte’s territory. He was not getting off early, but when he saw the huge stack of papers on her table, he made a secret deal with her. If you keep at it until eleven, I’ll walk out with you.
All night he watched her table, willing her to stay. When she began to stir, he murmured: “No, you don’t. Keep working. You aren’t going anywhere.”
Ten forty-five, she pushed back her chair. From behind, he saw her shoulders shaking, and thought she must be sobbing, or choking. He rushed over. “Are you all right?”
When she looked up, she was laughing, not crying, and she showed him an essay. Curvy handwriting on lined paper, the title in bigger script: Juliet: Shakespeare’s Heroin. “What do you think?”
A thousand ideas crowded his mind, none about her student’s spelling, as he watched her add an e. “Are you really a teacher?”
She said, “I keep asking myself.”
“You don’t look like one.”
She shook back her long brown hair and glanced up at him, amused. “What’s a teacher supposed to look like?”
“Old,” he told her. “Bitter.”
“How long have you been teaching?”
“Your students are that bad?”
She frowned as she looked down at her check. Annoyed? Or just figuring out the tip?
He said, “My friend Darius was thinking of directing Romeo and Juliet, but he couldn’t find a church.”
“He couldn’t get permission?” Already she was shouldering her bag, and standing up to go.
“He wanted to do it in a cathedral with stained glass and confessionals, but the only church interested was Unitarian.”
“Are you an actor?”
Jean-Philippe, the busboy, was trying to get by, and Collin stepped sideways. “I’m an actor and an artist.” He regretted the words as soon as he said them. He sounded pretentious. “Mostly chalk.”
She looked puzzled. “On sidewalks?”
“Yeah, but other places too. I do all the art for Theater Without Walls.”
“I’ve heard of them!”
“In the Phoenix?” He turned, glancing backward at Kayte. Cover for me, he begged her silently. She was shaking her head, but he knew she liked him. Just five minutes. My tips are yours! “Wait, let me walk you out.” He handed the girl a leaflet for The Cherry Orchard, a new production at the MIT tennis courts by Theater Without Walls. Art Director: Collin James.
“Tennis courts in December?”
“They’re indoor.” He led the way upstairs and opened the door for her. The snow around them lit the darkness. “I’m designing the lights . . . and the trees. I’m in it too.”
“You perform in Sennott Park, right?”
“We perform all over. We did The Tempest on a traffic island.”
“That’s it! I read about the car accident.”
“It was just one guy hitting a pole,” he said. “Nobody got hurt.”
“Come to The Cherry Orchard. I’ll get you a ticket. Give me your name and I’ll put you on the list.”
She didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no. She just looked at him, and her eyes were so dark and bright that he drew closer, until she began to laugh.
“Or not.” He took a full step back.
“I wasn’t laughing at the play.”
“Why, then?” He had wild curly hair, black eyes, a quick, athletic body, a defensive look.
“I don’t know,” she said in some confusion.
“Come if you want,” he said coolly.
“Okay,” she said, automatically polite.
He didn’t ask her name; he pretended she was just a customer. “Have a good night.”