Friday afternoons on campus are like the Dead Zone -- no one wants to be here and those who are here are trying to get out as fast as they can. And that's especially true on the sunny final day of April.
The students in my last class were watching the clock like condemned prisoners, their books closed and their pens and notebooks already put away. There was no point in trying to fight it. The second I said the words, "Okay, I'll see you all on Monday," they were out the door in a stampede. Sometimes one or two will linger to ask a question or walk with me across the Quad, but not today. They could smell the end of the semester and it was a heady aroma.
Alone, I ambled back to the Humanities Building and took the elevator up to the English Department to talk to the boss.
"I suppose it's too much to hope that Mal is still here?" I asked the secretary. I always feel uneasy referring to a man old enough to be my grandfather as "Mal," but Malcolm J. Cornish, specialist in Eighteenth Century belles lettres, insisted, even for mere part-timers like me.
The secretary, Helen, a gray-haired woman who had worked there since before the Roman Empire fell, guffawed. "You must be kidding! He only came in today because he had lunch with the Dean. He's only teaching one grad seminar this semester, so if you want to catch him, Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best days."
"Oh. I should have remembered that." The news that I wouldn't be back in the fall would have to wait until Monday.
"No trouble, hon. That's what I'm here for," she said in her thick Southie accent. "You got a nice weekend planned?"
"Sort of. My partner just got a new job. At Eastern Indiana."
Helen pursed her lips. "He the one that makes the movies?"
"Documentaries. Yes, he's the one."
"That's fantastic! Congratulations!" She smiled at me. The people in the English Department were nice. The atmosphere was friendly and collegial, unlike in Media Studies, where it was cut-throat and poisonous. No wonder Aaron was eager to leave.
"You going with him, hon?"
"Yes." Although I'd miss this place, there was never any doubt that I'd go with Aaron. This job would never be anything more than it was, a part-time position, no matter how long I worked here. It was ultimately a dead-end. A job you settled for. Not a reason to stay behind while your partner moved a thousand miles away.
We'd been together for eleven years. More than my entire adult life. Friends often said that they couldn't picture one of us without the other. That wasn't surprising because I couldn't picture myself without Aaron. Or Aaron without me.
"We'll miss you around here," said Helen in a way that made me believe her. "Can't imagine living anywhere but Boston. Course, all my family's here. Where you from, hon?"
That was an interesting question. Where are you from? Who are your family? I could answer that question in a couple of different ways, but I went for the easiest. "Cleveland."
"I hear that's a fine place," Helen nodded. "And where's this new job again?"
"Indiana. I've never been there... at least not yet."
"I'm sure it's swell." Helen shrugged. "You're young. You'll find a place to settle down sooner or later. What's your friend's name again?"
"Aaron. He was with me at the Christmas party. Tall? Curly hair? Glasses?"
She frowned. "If I saw him maybe I'd remember him."
My eye caught the time on the clock over a bank of file cabinets. It was getting late and I wanted to hit the gym before I went home. "Well, I'll try to catch Mal on Monday. Thanks, Helen."
"See ya, hon. Take care."
Yes, the people in the department were nice, although I always got the impression that Helen called everyone "hon" because she couldn't remember their actual names. And I'd miss my office-mate, Barbara. She had helped show me the ropes when I first got here. But they'd have no difficulty finding a replacement to fill that fourth desk in the crowded part-time instructor's office. Boston was loaded with able bodies who could teach Freshman English.
I walked across the Quad, enjoying the day. The two best times of year here are the fall, just as the leaves begin to turn, and this belated spring, when the rain has let up but the humidity hasn't yet kicked in. Tomorrow was the first of May and the end of the semester circus would begin in earnest. Final projects, final panics, final exams, and then quiet would descend on the campus until the end of August.
But I wouldn't be here in August.
Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe I was too complaisant in a job that had no future. It was easy to get into a rut, teaching lower-division classes like Freshman English that the full-time faculty turned their noses up at, but which were requirements. Someone had to teach them. Someone like me, or like Barbara. Someone who was still looking for something better. Or someone who had given up and was just trying to hang on, reluctant to leave academia. That was Barbara. I knew how much she loved her students, loved teaching, but it was a marginal life in the end. I knew that she was thinking of taking a public school job, teaching high school or middle school English. It would pay her more and she'd get health insurance and other benefits, but she still didn't want to let go of her dream of being a professor -- a dream that was getting more unlikely as each semester passed.
I didn't want that to be me.
Maybe this was the stick of dynamite under my ass that I needed to get me out of here. To get me really looking for another job. There were a lot of colleges and universities in Indiana and Ohio. And Chicago wasn't that far away. Other academic couples worked at different institutions and still stayed together. It could work. It might be inconvenient, mainly for Aaron, but he'd live. He was a big boy, after all. He could take care of himself. And if I could find a decent job in my area, a tenure-track job that wasn't a dead-end, he'd be proud of me. He knew how far I'd come. And how much it would mean to me.
The gym was almost empty at this time of day, especially on a Friday. Faculty usually worked out early in the morning, before class, or later in the evening, while most of the students had already started their weekend. They were already at Happy Hour or at one of the frats, kicking off the final weekend before the end-of-semester crunch began.
I changed into shorts and a tee shirt and hit the tread. I mainly wanted to work off some tension and this was the best way I knew how. I'd never been any great athlete -- two years of Little League marked the beginning and the end of my career as a jock! -- but I liked physical activity. I liked walking and running. I liked feeling that my body was working. And I liked sex. That was my main physical activity. And, like the gym, it was something Aaron and I could do together.
But sometimes I need to do it myself, whether working out or jerking off. Sometimes I need to focus on just myself, apart from Aaron. Give myself a little time to think things over. The tread is good for that. You can move and sweat, walk and run, but you don't have to go anywhere. It's the perfect option for someone who isn't sure where he's going.
There were a couple of guys at the other end of the gym using some free weights, but I was alone in my area until another guy came out of the locker room. I saw him glance around and when he saw me, he walked right over and got on the other tread.
"Hey," he said.
I nodded. "Hey."
He had spiked, blond-tipped hair and was wearing a tank top that read "BSU Crew." And he was watching me.
"I know you. You're usually here with that other guy, right?"
"Right." I never know what to say to guys at the gym. I'm not big for chitchat when I'm sweating.
"What are you working today?" he asked.
That was always a trick question. And I never had a good answer to it. "I'm just doing general cardio. Blowing off steam. I don't really have much of a plan. I just sort of... work out."
"I need to focus on my upper body today," Gabe confided. "For crew. I'm on the team."
"That's great." He looked like a rower. He was shorter than me, but he had twice the muscle, especially in his legs and arms.
"Yeah, I'm on scholarship, so I gotta keep fit." He tilted his head. "I can help with your workout. I'm not a real trainer or anything, but I know a lot. I mean, if you wanted to. You use any supplements?"
"No, I just try to eat right." I wiped my forehead with my towel. I wasn't sure if it was the gym or Gabe's persistence, but I was starting to get uncomfortably warm.
"You should try some vitamins. And protein powder, too. Not that you don't look great." He paused and looked away for a second. "Because you do. I like a swimmer's build. I mean if you don't mind me saying that?"
Why couldn't I just tell this guy to get lost? What the hell was wrong with me? Or did part of me not want him to get lost?
It was the way he was looking at me. I know that guys look at me. A lot of older men especially. Aaron says that I have that 'retro' look. Like I stepped out of the Sixties or Seventies. I keep thinking that's what the older guys are looking at. Remembering the good old days. I should probably change my hair. Get it cut. Or buzzed off. Except that Aaron would freak out.
But the truth is that a lot of younger guys look, too. Especially students. I'm 28 but I know I look younger. Young enough to pass as a student. When I'm with Aaron guys tend to keep their distance -- Aaron can be more than a little intimidating -- but all bets are off when I'm by myself.
I should be used to it by now. Guys have been looking at me as long as I can remember. Girls, too, but I never paid much attention to them so they never really count in my mind. But guys did. It's always been that way. Older guys. Younger guys. Guys in my class. Guys on the street. Guys hanging out at the mall. And guys at the gym. Like Gabe.
I noticed that he was staring at me again. He saw me and seemed startled. "Um... you have beautiful... hands."
"Thanks." I guess. Whatever.
"If you don't mind me saying that? I mean, I'm not gay or anything. But I'm not homophobic, either, like some guys. I can appreciate another guy's body, right? Especially in the gym."
"Sure. I don't mind." Shit. That was the wrong thing to say. So why did I say it?
"When you're finished do you want to go someplace?" said Gabe with a grin. Yes, he was cute. Definitely cute. "Kick back? Just hang out?"
"I can't. Really. I need to get home." I stepped off the tread and wiped off the handles with my towel.
"Oh, okay." I could see that Gabe, not that he was gay or anything, was disappointed. "No problem. See you around."
I went into the locker room and took a shower and when I got out Gabe was waiting for me, wrapped only in a towel that left little to the imagination. It made me very aware that I was also only wearing a towel. It was truly one of those porn moments waiting to happen. Only it wasn't going to.
"Listen, why don't you give me your number? I'll give you a call. Maybe we can work out next week. I'll show you a couple of things, you know? Give you a few pointers."
I shook my head. "I can't. Sorry. That guy who's usually with me is my partner."
"I figured." Gabe made a face. Then he picked up his backpack from the bench and pulled out a small notebook and a pen. He scribbled something on a page and ripped it out. "Here's my number. Give me a call. If you feel like it. Any time. I'll be here all summer. For crew, you know?"
Gabe went into the shower and I got dressed. I packed up my stuff and headed home to get ready for Aaron's big dinner tonight at Tino's.
But Gabe's number was still in my pocket. I'm not certain why, but it was.