No odor of chalk dust filled the air. No instructors droned on and on. No chatting students rushed by, rustling papers and books. No laughter brightened the hallway. No wonder they called it Dead Day.
“What’s going on?”
I let my Norton Anthology of World Literature drop onto my wooden desk with a thump and glanced up. Connie stood in my office doorway like a genie escaped from a bottle, wearing her green scrubs and white lab coat.
“Oh.” I rubbed my grainy eyes, the sweet-tart taste of the cherry lozenge I’d been sucking still in my mouth. “Must have dozed off. How are you? Long time, no see.”
“You know how crazy the end of the semester is. Have any free time?”
“Sure.” I sat up straight in my chair and shoved my yellow pad into a desk drawer. All the time in the world. “Just finished deciding on my last exam question. You?”
Connie nodded and walked in. “I have a couple of hours.”
“Good. How about getting out of here, visiting another of my favorite haunts?”
She grinned. “Just so it doesn’t involve alligators or mosquitoes.”
I hid a yawn and, ignoring my sore throat, struggled out of my chair. My shoulders weighed a ton, and my head ached. Where did my burst of energy go?
I grabbed my old brown leather jacket, and we walked out to the faculty parking area into a cold mist.
“My car or yours?” she asked.
“Mine. I invited you, didn’t I?”
“Fair enough. Let’s go.”
I drove past deserted buildings through what used to be the heart of downtown to a nearby old park, barely managing to keep up my end of our small talk. I wanted to return to where we’d left off last Friday—the warm, carefree afternoon, the flirting.
The leaves of the huge, gangly camellia bush I parked beside shone green and glossy, despite the fog and the clouds. Red blooms would cover it in a few months.
Connie turned and faced me. “You look a little down in the mouth. Want to talk?”
I wanted to keep my words in, but they tumbled out.
“That jerk called again this morning. Three o’clock. Woke me up. Said ugly things. He’s called every night or early morning since Friday. I’ve barely slept for four days.”
“The bastard. Get tougher.”
“I’ve tried, but nothing works.”
“Does he scare you?”
“You damn right he does.”
“What’s he gonna do? Crawl through the phone line and grab you? Men like him are bullies. Call his bluff.”
“I know. I’ve tried. But his roughness reminds me of my dad, and he’s always scared me.”
There. I’ve said it. She won’t want to have anything else to do with me. I’m such a loser.
She didn’t even flinch. “That’s a tough one. Why?”
I shivered and wanted to sink into my seat. I hated to dump my problems on her, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“You must think I’m silly. Here I am, fifty years old with my PhD. I’ve traveled all over the world, sometimes alone, been involved in some dangerous situations, etc., etc.” The words kept pouring out. “Not only am I still afraid of my dad. I don’t think I’ll ever not be.”
Connie rested her warm hand on my cold one. “It’s okay. You’re not silly. We’re all afraid of something.”
Her touch calmed me, soothed me. I envisioned red camellias opening on the nearby bush during the coming winter.
“Tell me about him. Maybe that’ll help.”
Her steady tone reassured me.
“I’ve spent the past ten years writing poems about my dad, figuring out what’s wrong between us.”
She took her hand away, and I missed its warmth.
“He worked out of state a lot, mainly in Louisiana.”
She never quit looking at me.
“I understand,” she said. “Mine served overseas for several years. Then one day he just showed up, out of the blue, and I cried. A stranger had come in and monopolized my mother’s time.”
“Yeah. Momma cooked Daddy’s favorite dishes, and they sat for long stretches listening to records. He played with us some, like a kid too. But my little brother and I had a lot more of Momma’s attention after he left on another job.”
“Why were you so afraid of him then–and now?” Connie’s reflective expression reminded me she’d worked as a psych nurse.
“That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”
“And only you have the answer.”
I stared through the mist-covered windshield at the untrimmed bushes growing randomly in what had probably once been a well-kept park.
I dug deep. “One morning, my brother and I went with him to meet his rig-building crew and tell him good-bye. Usually he just left early without us knowing.” I hesitated, fingered a wild-cherry cough drop in my pocket.
“Sorry. I’m not used to talking about these things.” Will she still want to be friends? Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? Be flirty and fun?
“It’s okay. Just let it out.”
“He and his work buddies started to leave, and the kids of one of them ran to him and put their arms around him.” My throat tightened. “They even kissed him on the cheek, and he kissed them back.” My eyes started to water. I sat up straighter, shook my shoulders.
“My dad glared at my brother and me, like he blamed us. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you ever do that?’”
“My brother and I stood there like stones. Why didn’t I? Instead, I backed away from him. I should have been sweet like those other kids.”
“What did your dad do?”
“Just stood there looking disappointed. But I couldn’t hug him, much less kiss him. And that made me so ashamed, I just wanted to run away.”
Now my throat ached, and the insides of my eyelids grew wet. But I took a deep breath and stared out at the gray sky that threatened rain. What an idiot Connie must think I am.
I reached for the key to start the car, drive back to my office at school. There I could be in charge, and all these feelings would go away. But she grabbed my arm.
“It’s all right,” she said, then squeezed my thigh.
I popped the sweet-tart lozenge into my mouth. Connie’s three words made me stay right there, beside her.