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fiction



by Halina Duraj



Sturm und Drang Hall



The famous poet swung open the silver doors of the men’s room, shaking the water droplets from his hands. “No paper towels in Sturm und Drang Hall,” he said to Melinda. They were in Sturm Hall, the old geophysics building at this campus neither of them had ever visited. It was in Melinda’s city, but she’d never had a reason to go. He was there to give a talk to a poetry class. Months earlier, in December, when he’d first mentioned it, she’d agreed to accompany him, even though it immediately made her nervous. The talk was in March, and he had never, ever, made plans to see her more than a few days in advance. It was what she wanted with him—future plans—but at the same time, she feared a jinx.

 

She had been right. By the day of his talk, they’d been broken up for a month. She had broken up with him. Six months they’d been seeing each other—or whatever you call it when the woman is in love with the man and the man keeps saying “I want you to look out for yourself, kid.” He still hadn’t told anyone about her, not a friend, not a colleague, not one of his kids, not his ex-wife whom he talked to on the phone every day. He kept telling Melinda he wished she were fifty. He was sixty-five, she was thirty-five.

 

She wasn’t totally dumb; she had known the prognosis was bad, between not telling anyone about her and wishing she were fundamentally different than she was. So she broke up with him. She cried all month long, even though she knew she’d done the right thing. Then, two days before the talk she was no longer going to, he called and said, “How about you take the train up here the morning of my talk and make the drive down with me?” It was a terrible idea. She said yes because she had no willpower and also because she wanted to, even if it was just one more time. She took the train to his city and they had sex in the afternoon and then drove down the highway in his car, back to the city she’d left that morning.

         

Sturm Hall had been abandoned but had not yet become what it would become next: demolished. Through the glass doors into the old Geology Department, she saw empty desktops and a cluster of computer monitors on a countertop. A hand-lettered sign on the office doors said, “We are in the new Physical Sciences Complex by Murgey Plaza.”

 

They had time to kill before he needed to be at the class. “Come on,” he said. They went to the vending machines near the emergency exit. She thought they might be empty, but they were fully stocked. Small lights within the machine shone brightly on the packets of candy among the coils. He bought a Twix. He ate one, fed her the twin. She expected it to be stale, but it tasted good. The hallway was cluttered with old bookcases and school desks, the kind with the little table attached to the uncomfortable plastic chair. At one end of the hallway were old seismographs: huge drums with tiny needle-pens suspended above them to ink jagged lines on paper rolling round and round. There were lines on the paper but the drums weren’t turning. The machines were unplugged.

 

Melinda stopped in front of them. “How strange,” she said. “Seismographs not seismo-ing. I’ve only ever seen them moving, on the news.”

 

“Like this afternoon?”

 

“What are you talking about? There was an earthquake?”

 

He waggled his eyebrows at her. They were black; his hair was silver-gray.

 

“Oh god,” Melinda said. She clutched his upper arm and pressed her forehead to his shoulder—a gentle bonk. “You’re so lame sometimes,” she said. She was laughing.

           

They went to the second floor to find the classroom. Seven o’clock. They still had half an hour. He liked to be early. He peeked through the little glass window of the classroom door. A graduate poetry class. “Well, they’re in there,” he said. Melinda wondered if it was the only class being held in that whole huge building; it felt like it. They were waiting for the class to take their scheduled break so he could go in and be the famous poet.

 

“You could write a poem about this building,” he said. “You could call it ‘Same Here.’ It has to have the line, ‘I tried to pay, but he wouldn’t take it.’” He was making fun of her. She’d tried to give the train conductor her money three times that morning. The first time, he said, “I’m busy, I’ll be back.” The second time, she followed him up the aisle when he passed. She said, “Excuse me, I still haven’t paid.” He glanced over his shoulder, then said, “Don’t worry about it.” When the train stopped and she was about to step onto the station platform, the conductor hopped off before her and reached up for her overnight bag—even though she wasn’t staying overnight. She had the money wadded in her pocket, ready to hand to him. “Are you sure? I want to pay,” she said. “Have a nice trip, ma’am,” he said.

 

The famous poet had been waiting for her on the platform. They kissed. She pressed her face to the side of his neck. She did not know if she’d see him again after today, so she tried to memorize everything: the smell of his expensive Italian cologne, the late-morning light along the platform, the stairs they took to cross over the tracks, the dark wood interior of a train station that had once been in an old movie. She didn’t know that she wouldn’t see him again, but she didn’t know that she would. She had to decide she knew she wouldn’t, or otherwise a person could make herself crazy, wishing for things to change, wishing for the man to say he’d been wrong, he didn’t need to her be fifty. He didn’t need her to be anything other than what she was. Besides, he loved that she was younger. It thrilled him. She knew it, she could feel it in the way he pressed his hips into hers at the kitchen sink when he got her into his apartment. He always undressed her right there in the kitchen.

 

They walked the long, wide, upstairs hallway of Sturm und Drang Hall, killing time, peeking into empty classrooms. She wished he would hold her hand, but she knew he wouldn’t—someone might come out of the poetry classroom and see them. She opened a door and entered an auditorium with faded linoleum floors, heavy brown drapes against the windows. Tiers of avocado-green upholstered seats rose to the back of the room. “Look! A pencil sharpener,” she said. “Look! The old pull-down maps!” They pulled a map down over the blackboard together: The USSR. East Germany.

 

Out in the hallway, a huge plaster relief map of the western U.S. hung on the wall. “Let me show you where we’re goin’, buttercup,” the poet said. She stood close to him. He put his broad palm on the small of her back, where, when he touched her, she’d do anything he asked, would believe anything he said. She almost hated herself for it, her weakness at his touch, his voice. He says jump and then he tells you how high, her closest friend once said. Melinda’s friends hated him—or rather, Melinda’s friends hated her for reminding them all how weak a woman can be. Melinda hated herself a little, too. But she also loved herself a little for it. So she could be moved to stupidity by a man’s touch. So what? It was a way of being alive. Not the best way, not the only way. One of the ways.

 

Melinda watched the poet search for Santa Fe on the map. He’d spent Christmas there. He stayed at his ex-wife’s house, the one she got in the divorce, where they’d lived together all those married years. He told Melinda he and his ex-wife had slept in the same bed over the holiday but just like brother and sister, and only because their daughters, grown now, were staying in the guest rooms. He told Melinda this after he got back. He hadn’t called her the whole seven days he’d been gone, though in the month before he left, they’d talked every day, sometimes twice a day. His daughters were younger than Melinda, thank God, though not by much.

 

He owned a cabin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. High desert, he said. Nothing like it. When he’d first told Melinda about it, when they’d first met, she’d dreamed he would take her there someday. Now, when he moved his hand from her back to trace a path across the map, she took two steps away from him, then forced herself to take a third.

 

They entered the classroom right on time at 7:30. Melinda stood in the doorway, just behind the poet. He approached the professor at the front of the room; she sat facing a semi-circle of students at desks. The professor greeted him with a handshake and introduced him to the class. The poet turned to Melinda, still in the doorway. “This is my friend, Melinda,” he said. She realized she didn’t know where she was supposed to sit. Not up front with him. But she wasn’t a student. A decade ago, long before she’d ever met him, yes, she’d been a student. But not his; never his.

 

Probably everyone could tell they were sleeping together. She could see it in the way the students appraised her, the small, smirky smiles. The professor—a well-maintained, fit, upper middle-aged blonde in a knee-length red skirt, black blazer, tall black riding boots—she definitely knew they were sleeping together. Melinda could see, from the way the professor greeted the poet, that she wanted to sleep with him as well, that she’d worn this outfit, sexy yet professional, because she had been hoping to take the poet to dinner or a drink after class, maybe to end up at her place. She hadn’t expected him to bring a “friend.” Melinda had noticed how the professor’s body language changed toward the poet as soon as she saw Melinda. The professor was not naïve.

 

That was the big difference between the poet and herself, Melinda thought as she took a seat at the back of the room. It wasn’t their age. Or that he was famous—poetry famous. It was that he thought no one could tell they were sleeping together, and she thought everyone could tell, and that was why she’d come.

 

She watched the poet, his legs splayed in his uncomfortable student-desk beside the professor in her uncomfortable student-desk. She watched him gesture with his big hands, telling a funny story about his stay at a famous writing residency. It was a ghost story. The punchline was, “But I’m supposed to be invisible!” She’d heard him tell it before. At the talk at which she’d met him.

 

While the poet read one of his longer poems to the class, she tried to make as little noise as possible emerging from the uncomfortable desk. She opened the door and the hinges squealed; she mouthed “Sorry” back at the class. The poet looked up at her but didn’t pause in his reading.

 

There were no restrooms on the second floor, so she returned to the first floor, past the vending machine and frozen seismographs. In her stall, she read the Sharpie graffiti above the toilet paper dispenser. Some penis drawings, a “Fuck that Ho,” and an order to “Write Yo Dreams Here,” followed by a brief list in different hands: “Pass O-Chem,” “Make you shut the fuck up,” “Graduate in four years,” “Dance like no one’s watching,” “Suck Toby McAllister’s pussy,” and “Afford a spray tan.” Melinda wished she had a Sharpie; she knew the ballpoint pen in her purse would only scratch the metal. There were no paper towels in the women’s room either; she dried her hands on her thighs.

 

In the hallway, she stopped again in front of the seismographs. Their thick black electrical cords snaked along the linoleum. She reached into her purse for her pen. She extended one of the graphed lines on the paper cylinder by a few inches—sharp peaks in ballpoint blue. She stepped back and squinted. No one would notice, but maybe that was the point. She wondered what would happen to them now, where old seismographs went to die when everything was digital.

 

She studied the wall, saw an outlet, looked around, and then quickly plugged in a machine. Red plastic lights blinked to life on a dated instrument panel. Melinda pressed a round, red button. Somewhere deep inside, a small motor hummed to life. Melinda ran up the stairs. She didn’t want to see the paper drum spin.

 

When she re-entered the classroom through the squealing door, the poet was reading the poem everyone knew was about his ex-wife even though he pretended it wasn’t. It was a good poem and he read it well. It was the title poem of his latest collection, the one that had won the big prize. Melinda knew it by heart. This time, no one in the room looked up when Melinda walked in. Not even the poet.

 

She wasn’t really his buttercup. He was never going to take her to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He would probably invite her up to his city again for kitchen sex. Folding herself into the uncomfortable seat, she decided that she definitely would not see him again. She really decided, not just sort-of decided as she had at the train station. This would be the last time.

 


 

Halina Duraj’s writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Sun, Ecotone, and the 2014 PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology. Her debut story collection, The Family Cannon, was published by Augury Books and was a finalist for a Community of Literary Magazines and Presses Debut Fiction Award. She teaches literature and writing at the University of San Diego.

 

 

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