Tino's was what my old man would call a spaghetti joint -- posters of Mount Vesuvius on the wall, chianti bottles with drippy candles, checkered tablecloths, wicker baskets overflowing with Italian bread, and a menu heavy on red sauce and meat covered with thick breading. If you were in the right mood, I guess Tino's might be considered charmingly retro, but if you weren't in the right mood it was just tacky.
But for all its low-rent ambience and indifferent food, Tino's was surprisingly expensive. That's why it was popular with the faculty from BSU -- because of the high prices it attracted very few students. Occasionally you'd see some kid sitting uncomfortably with his parents, or a group of sorority girls on a night out, but otherwise it was a place where professors could go and eat a lot of pasta and get shit-faced on wine without looking like idiots in front of their students.
That's one of the reasons Aaron hated Tino's with a passion. He liked good food done tastefully. Thai. Sushi. French nouvelle cuisine. Real paella. A perfectly trimmed pastrami sandwich. Or the little raviolis stuffed with goat cheese I bought at a fancy imported food store in South Boston -- the same ones he'd been scarfing down earlier. A pile of Prince's rigatoni with a Kristin Bjorn-sized sausage on top drowned in Ragu was his worst nightmare. In other words, Aaron was a major food snob.
"So why are we going to Tino's?" I asked in the car on the way there.
Aaron shrugged. "Everybody likes it. It's close. And they have big tables and plenty of room."
"And it's expensive and you always get indigestion whenever you eat there," I add.
"It's Nick's favorite place. And this dinner was his idea. Do you really mind that much?"
"No." I replied truthfully. I could always get by on a salad and a piece of Italian bread. "I don't mind if you don't. But I also don't want you up all night, burping. Or worse."
"I won't!" Aaron laughed. "I promise. I'll go light on the lead meatballs."
"Here's the man of the hour!" cried Nick Foradis as we walked into the large, noisy dining room. The place was packed on a Friday night.
There were more of Aaron's colleagues there than I had expected. Not only guys from the Film Program, but from other areas of Media Studies, too, including Video Production, Television, and Broadcasting. In the short time he'd been at Boston State, Aaron had become a "Big Deal." And it seemed that everyone wanted a little of the shine off his reflected glory.
And when I say guys, I mean that. Almost all of the profs in Media Studies were male, as were a vast majority of the students. That was always a shock, especially coming from English, where there was more of a balance in the faculty and where the majors tended to be female.
And they were all straight, too. Except Aaron. I'd always believed that much of my partner's dissatisfaction with his job was the macho attitude of many of the senior faculty, but mainly the Chair, Aaron's nemesis, Lester Bannon. The Old School Bannon never made any openly homophobic comments, especially in front of Aaron, but I could tell by the way he looked at me at departmental functions, with a sneering, superior glare, that he hated the fact that fags were worming their way into his aggressively hetero discipline.
"Sit right here," said Nick, pulling out a chair for Aaron. "And you, too, Shea." He indicated a seat on the other end of the table. "You remember my wife, Ingrid?"
I was being put in the wives' section.
I was about to say something, but Aaron was already in deep conversation with Nick and another man from the department. I could feel a tiny finger of anxiety creeping up my spine. I held my breath and let it out. Then I did it again. It wasn't worth making a big deal about this. Not now. Not here. It didn't matter. We were already out the door. Out of BSU. Out of Boston all together. The anxiety began to recede, but I was aware that it was awake and waiting.
"Hi." Ingrid smiled and shook my hand as I slipped into the chair next to her. She was a thin, long-necked blonde who had been an actress and was now an adjunct in the Drama Department. "Glad you could make it." She turned to a curly-haired woman sitting across the long table. "Susan, have you met Shea? He's Aaron's friend. Susan is Bob's wife."
I had no clue who Bob was, but the woman nodded. "You must be pleased with this new job, although if Bob told me we were pulling up stakes and moving to Indiana, I'd have to clobber him!"
"Indiana is nothing!" chimed in another woman, a chubby brunette who was swigging a glass of red wine. "Ray's first position was in Alabama. We were there four long years. The summers almost killed me. And the nearest decent store was two hours away in Montgomery. Jesus! I was stuck at home with two kids and I thought I'd go out of my mind! The neighbors thought we were Damn Yankees and I thought they were all members of the Klan. Talk about a lousy situation! I was so happy when we moved back up here that I got pregnant again!"
The women laughed raucously, although I couldn't understand what was so funny about getting pregnant.
Someone passed me the bottle of red wine. I poured some into my glass and took a large gulp. It was slightly sour, but the alcohol content seemed fairly high. I took another gulp.
"Do you boys know where you're going to be living out there?" Ingrid asked as the waitress began taking orders. "Is it a close to Chicago?" She closed her menu. "I'll have the linguini in white clam sauce."
I shook my head. "I think Chicago is a few hours away. Indianapolis is the nearest city. I've never been out there, so I have no idea where we'll live."
"Well, don't let them stick you in faculty housing!" asserted Susan, the curly-haired woman. "That's always the pits. I'll never forget the place Bob and I lived when he took that fill-in position at Cunningham. I think it was an old fraternity that the university was too cheap to tear down. The house was falling apart around us. I thought we'd never get through the winter!"
The women all began to tell horror stories about places they'd lived as they followed their husbands around academia. Living in a dorm in a cornfield, a converted crackhouse in the middle of gang turf, a boarding house owned by an elderly Classics professor with twenty cats, apartments with windows that wouldn't open in the summer or wouldn't close in the winter. They reminded me of Army wives, dragging their families from place to place like nomads on that elusive search for the perfect tenure-track position. Their husband's position, of course.
"What will you be doing in Indiana, honey?" asked the chubby brunette whose name I never caught. "Do you have a job here?"
"Shea teaches in the English Department now -- isn't that right?" said Ingrid.
"I'm an instructor." The waitress stopped and stared down at me, waiting. "Um... I'll just have a salad. With Italian dressing." I handed her my menu.
"You have to order more than that!" the brunette exclaimed. "You're way too thin, honey. A good strong wind would blow you away!"
"Really, that's all I want," I insisted. I glanced down the table to see what Aaron was doing, but he was holding forth on what was wrong with the department under the mismanagement of Lester Bannon.
"Have some antipasto," said Susan, pushing a huge platter of salami, cheese, and other odds and ends in my direction. "It'll fill you up."
"No, thanks. Maybe later." I was starting to feel queasy.
Another bottle of wine went around the table, along with the antipasto platter and baskets of bread. Everyone was laughing and having a great time, but I felt like I was sitting somewhere high above the table, watching like an alien.
I really should be used to this by now. I've spent a large part of my life dealing with departmental politics. Going to meetings and dinners and parties and receptions. Smiling and nodding. Trying to remember names, faces, positions. Trying to keep the hierarchy straight. Sometimes it was Aaron's department, Aaron's colleagues. And sometimes it was my own. I imagine it would be the same no matter what job you were in. You always had to deal with the boss, your co-workers, all the baggage involved with getting through every day. Or getting ahead.
That's what Aaron is an expert at. Getting ahead. Playing politics. Shmoozing. Knowing who to cultivate and who to cut dead. Yes, he's the master. And I'm no good at it. In fact, I'm dismal at it. You wouldn't think that a roomful of benign strangers could spook me. After all, I've survived a lot worse than some half-drunk academics scarfing down bad Italian food. And I've faced much worse futures than a promising job in a new town with my committed partner. I should feel hopeful, not depressed. Eager, not anxious. Maybe there was something very wrong with me. Very, very wrong.
The waitress set my salad down in front of me and I poked at it listlessly.
"Have some more vino," said Ingrid, refilling my glass. "This is a party! You must be so excited for Aaron."
"Yes," I replied. "Excited."
"You never said what you'd be doing out there. Do you have any idea?"
I picked up the wine and drank some more. It was still bad, but I didn't mind. I was barely even tasting it. "I'll be in their English Department. Assistant professor. On a tenure-track." I paused. "Spousal hire."
Ingrid looked at me as if she could read my mind. "Don't worry. I only wish I could get a job that good." She lowered her voice. "And Nick wishes he'd be recruited by some place with deep pockets who wanted him badly enough to give me a job, too. But that isn't going to happen -- at least not any time soon! He talks about leaving BSU and going somewhere else, but the truth is that Nick has tenure, I teach my Movement classes in the Drama Department, the girls like their school, and we're in a neighborhood close to the university that isn't a slum. We aren't going anywhere, no matter what happens. But Aaron -- he's a real star! His documentaries are amazing. I'm surprised he isn't headed to Hollywood instead of Indiana."
"He'd go there in a heartbeat." I put down my fork. I'd only eaten a few bites of the salad, but that was more than enough. "But he needs a deal. He needs a financial backer. It takes money to make his films. More money than we have. But Indiana is offering him what he needs for now, so..."
"I understand," she said. Ingrid's husband, Nick, had tried to break into commercial films without success. He'd made a few commercials in New York, but never made it out to Los Angeles. So he'd fallen into teaching. Apparently he had a good eye, but Aaron said that wasn't enough. You had to be more than just good to succeed. You had to be great. You had to be sensational. And Aaron had it in him to be sensational. Nick Foradis didn't.
"Excuse me." I pushed back my chair and stood up. Whether it was the wine or the anxiety, my head was spinning. I looked around for the men's room and saw a sign pointing down a hallway. I bolted for it.
I'm not sure how long I was in the john, but it seemed like forever. As I leaned over the toilet I heard men go in and out, the heavy door creaking on its hinges. I didn't have all that much to throw up, mainly the wine and a little lettuce, but I stayed in there, clinging as if I was going to fall, sweat pouring off me.
I heard the door open again. Then someone knocked on the stall.
"Shea? Are you all right?"
"Yes," I mumbled.
"Open the door."
I got up slowly, straightening my shirt and brushing off my pants. I felt like a total fucking mess.
Aaron took one look at me and put his arms around me, holding me tightly. "Were you sick?"
I nodded. "A little."
I nodded again.
"Do you have any Xanax?"
"No. I haven't had one in such a long time, I didn't think I'd need any."
I washed my face and rinsed out my mouth while Aaron handed me paper towels. When I'd dried my face, he smoothed my hair with his fingers.
"Do you feel better now?" he asked.
"I think so." Actually, I felt horrible. My heart was racing and my hands were shaking. And I had to go back out into that big room. Back out to all those people. I knew I was going to puke again. But I couldn't.
And Aaron knew. He always knew.
He took my elbow and guided me out of the men's room.
"We have to be going," he announced to the table. "It's been a long day for both of us."
"Not so soon!" said one of his colleagues. "The night is young! And we just opened another bottle of wine!"
"Another time," said Aaron.
I knew they were looking at me. Wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Thinking, "That guy Aaron lives with, he's a squirrely one."
Ingrid got up from her seat and touched my shoulder gently. "Take care of yourself, Shea. I hope to see you again before you two leave for Indiana."
"Thanks." I could barely croak the words out.
Aaron grasped my arm tighter, as if he was afraid I'd take a header. But I didn't. Once we were in the parking lot and I took a few gasps of fresh air, I started to breathe normally.
"You were really looking green," he said as we got into the car. "Was it the food, the wine, or the company that brought it on?"
"I don't know," I whispered, my heart sinking. "Everything."
"Everything," Aaron repeated. "That narrows it down." But then he leaned over and kissed me. "I want you to tell me immediately whenever you feel an attack coming on. And don't forget to carry your Xanax. That's what it's for. Okay?"
But it wasn't. And we both knew it.