August in Indiana was stifling. Some days I couldn't stand to sit outside, even under the awning. And I couldn't sit inside and work at the computer either, because the living room was airless and suffocating, even when I had the fan on high.
As the start of the semester drew nearer, Aaron began to get restless. He'd leave the house early in the morning and go to his new office in the plush -- and air-conditioned -- Media Studies Center. Eastern Indiana had plowed millions into this building and spent even more on top faculty for the department. Aaron was one of their prize acquisitions and they were doing everything to keep him happy. Apparently they were doing a good job, because he wouldn't come home until late in the evening, having gotten something to eat on the fly.
Meanwhile, I checked into the English Department. The secretary handed me a key, gave me the code to use the copy machine, and showed me where my mailbox was located. No one else on the faculty was around and wouldn't be until right before classes started on August 23. My office was a corner box on the third floor with a metal desk, a chair, a wooden bookcase, and sliver of window, pretty much the twin of my office in Boston, except that I had it all to myself. There was no computer, but I found what seemed to be an internet connection, so, I hoped, I'd be able to plug in my laptop.
"Here I am," I said, sitting in the chair. "Professor Desmond."
Of course, no one answered. No one else was there.
A new semester. A new university. A new life.
That little finger of anxiety walked up my spine like the Itsy Bitsy Spider. I hadn't taken any Xanax since I'd arrived in Indiana; I'd been fine. So why now?
I left the building in a hurry.
I went to the gym and walked on the tread for a half-hour. Compared to the facilities at Boston State, it was larger and the equipment was more high-tech, but the guys working out there were taciturn lunks, staring straight ahead as they did their reps, never even speaking to each other in the locker room or the showers, let alone to me. A couple of them glanced my way and sneered, either because I was a stranger or because they sensed I was something they despised.
I was glad to get out of there. Maybe there was a gym or health club in town where I'd feel more comfortable. If so, I needed to find it.
EIU has a decent campus -- it's sprawling, but the majority of the buildings are less than twenty years old and the Quad is dotted with shady trees. Not a bad place, all in all. Once I got to know a few people, once classes began, I was sure I'd feel better. And it would be nice having an office to myself. I could put up posters of my favorite authors and movies, make it a friendly place where my students would want to hang out and talk. That's the kind of professor I wanted to be: approachable, really interested in teaching, memorable. "Oh, I remember Professor Desmond!" they'd say years later. "I loved his class!"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone walking towards the Media Studies Center, which was on the far end of campus, past the Science and Tech Building. There was something familiar about him. I squinted, trying to see who it was. But I didn't really know anyone here except Aaron. Maybe it was a guy I'd seen at the gym. Maybe. Or maybe not. There was something about the way he walked -- awkwardly, but purposefully. It was hard to tell how tall he was at a distance, but he was stocky, dark-haired.
I started following him.
It was stupid. Why was I going after some guy who I was sure was a total stranger?
It couldn't be who I thought it was. Couldn't be.
The guy went into the Media Studies Center. Aaron's new home-away-from-home. He was in the building right at that moment. I should have gone in to visit him. To see his new office. To admire all the perks that Professor Blumenthal was enjoying in his new position.
But Aaron hated it when I came to his office. He said it was a distraction. That academic couples needed to keep separate identities when they worked at the same institution. In my two years at Boston State I'd only gone to his office once and he'd never come to mine, even though our offices were only a five minute walk from each other.
I went home.
Aaron came in about two hours later. I was working at the computer in the living room. Even with the overhead fan turned on full-blast, the sweat was pouring down the back of my neck, but I was making good progress on my book, so I didn't want to take a break.
"Hey!" I called when the side door opened and closed with a slam. Then I heard Aaron go upstairs.
That was weird. Even on his most preoccupied days he would at least stop and say hello.
I saved my work and stood up. My legs ached from the tread. I'd been ignoring my workout and now I was paying for it. I needed to walk more for real and not just on the treadmill. Maybe walk to class while the weather was good. Or get a bicycle. It would be an easy ride to campus. A bike would be fun. Maybe I could convince Aaron to get one, too, and we could ride together. I tried to picture Aaron on a bicycle, in vain.
I went to the kitchen and took out a pitcher of lemonade I'd made earlier, pouring myself a large glass. I looked out the window while I drank it. There was a slight breeze blowing and it looked cool on the deck. I put the glass down and turned to go into the living room and get my guitar...
And almost bumped into Aaron. He walked right by me, picked up his briefcase from the kitchen table, and walked out again. It was like I wasn't there.
That's what it felt like -- I wasn't there. And that gave me a chill. I stood for a few moments, processing. Then I went upstairs.
Aaron was sitting at his desk, phone in hand, ready to make a call.
"What was that about?" I demanded.
"Huh?" Aaron stared at me, oblivious.
"I said what the fuck was that about? You walked right by me like I was invisible!"
"Oh," Aaron shrugged. "I have a lot on my mind."
"Oh, yeah? Well, so do I, but I don't act like you don't exist!"
Aaron sighed deeply. "Can this wait until later? I need to make an important call right now."
"By all means!" I fumed. "Make your call! I wouldn't want to interrupt your important call!"
"Relax, Baby. Whatever the problem is, I'll deal with it when I get off the phone." And he swiveled his fucking chair away from me.
I gaped at my partner -- or rather the back of his head. "Fuck you!" I said to his hair. I noticed that more than a little gray was creeping in among the auburn.
I turned and ran down the stairs and out of the house. I was so fucking angry I couldn't think. I had no idea where I was going, I just went. Just walked. I'd gone a block before I realized I was barefoot and wearing nothing but ragged cut-offs and a white undershirt. No wallet. No keys. Not even a quarter in my pocket.
I'm always running out of the house unprepared. I did it at 16 and I'm still doing it.
At the end of North Oak was a small piece of ground where the street sign was planted. I sat down in the uncut grass. My feet were burning from the heat of the sidewalk and it felt good to cool them. The grass also felt damp and soothing on the backs of my bare legs.
What the hell was going on? What was I doing to myself?
Two teenage girls walked by. They glanced over and put their heads together, giggling.
"Hi," I said.
They stared at me and then giggled again. "Hi!" they called as they passed. Before they turned down the next street, one of them looked around and said, "You're cute!" And they both laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world.
I got up and slowly walked back to the house. Aaron was waiting at the door. "Where did you go? They said on the radio that there's a thunderstorm warning! Did you look at that sky?" He pointed up at some dark, puffy clouds overhead. As far as I knew, Aaron had never noticed a cloud before in his life. "Where are your shoes?"
"I'm not wearing any these days. Haven't you noticed?" I pushed by him into the house.
"So, what was so important that you had to talk to me at that very moment?"
It sounded so stupid after the fact, but I was still angry. Still feeling raw. And hurt. "Am I really so non-existent that you can walk right by without saying a word to me?"
Aaron looked mystified. "I don't know what you're talking about, Shea! You're making something out of nothing! Are you having a panic attack? Why don't you sit down and take a few deep breaths?"
"My anxiety has nothing to do with it!"
"Come here." He took my arm. "Sit down, Baby. Try to tell me what's wrong."
I sat on the couch and he sat next to me. Now it seemed like I'd gotten all bent out of shape over nothing. Hysterical Shea. Shea in a fucking panic.
But one thing kept creeping into my mind. One big, crazy, impossible thing.
"I thought I saw Lowell today."
Aaron was so close that I felt his sudden stillness. It was like ice. "Lowell?"
"Your old grad student. I thought I saw him crossing the Quad. He went into the Media Studies Center. I followed him, but I didn't go inside."
"It was someone else," Aaron said flatly. "Lowell is in Boston."
"It wasn't him!" Now there was an aggravated edge to Aaron's voice. "You're imagining things, Shea! Getting yourself upset over nothing!"
"I'm sure I saw him," I insisted. "The way he walks..."
"Shea! Don't be ridiculous! What would Lowell be doing in Indiana?"
"I don't know. Stalking you?"
Aaron wrapped his arm around me. "Why would anyone stalk me? I think the heat and the semester starting and all the confusion of moving and getting the house in shape is taking its toll. I want you to relax and stay at home for the next few days." He touched my forehead. "You're burning up."
"Another good reason to stay home and take it easy."
He was right. I was working myself up over a phantom. A student who was a thousand miles away. A perceived snub. A nameless anxiety. Dumb, heedless things. "I know." I leaned my head against Aaron's shoulder.
"Are you really that unhappy here, Baby?" he whispered.
I shrugged. I didn't know what so say.
"I'll take care of it," he said. "I'll call around and get the name of a good therapist for you. And you need a refill of your Xanax. Don't worry. You'll be fine. I'll handle everything."
Because that's what Aaron did. He handled everything. All I had to do was close my eyes. That way I couldn't see what was happening.