the quiet corners, an excerpt
I have said that this book was “coming soon” for so long that I’m sure most of my readers have forgotten I was ever writing a book at all! But I mean it this time. It’s coming soon! 😀 I’m just tweaking a few final words and passages here and there and then it goes into formatting. Ebook formatting doesn’t take very long at all, so the ebooks should be ready in a week or two. I have my sights set on a July release still, some time near the end of the month. Then paperbacks will take another 2-3 weeks after that.
Before I post this chapter, I was just quickly reminded of the photo/story projects that I used to do on this blog. Those were a lot of fun. I thought of those and just spent probably two hours searching through all of my photos, looking for something that illustrated “the quiet corners” to be representative of this excerpt. I didn’t find a goddamn thing, lol! I realize now that I do not take enough interior photos at all! Far too many mountains and forests and oceans and ponies. (Which is not a bad thing, exactly, just that I probably don’t need any more of them.) So perhaps I’ll have to send myself on a photo expedition this weekend and see what I can find of quiet interiors. If I find something, I’ll update this post with the photo. Picture something old and dusty, like from a library or university, good lighting through a rickety window, books on the windowsill, dust in the sunlight. With that in mind, you can begin reading.
This is the whole first section of the first chapter of The Fish and the Bird, finished as it will ever be. I’d like you to meet Leila and Corbin.
This wasn’t an affair. Or at least, this wasn’t what I ever imagined an affair would have felt like. There were no steamy dangerously-timed trysts in secret cafes, no excursions to far-off towns where nobody knew our secrets, no invented girls-only getaways to cover up nights of passion in exotic hotel rooms. I’ve never seen an exotic hotel room in my life. We were calm and rational. We were measured, we were disciplined, we enriched each other, we laughed. We hid in quiet corners together and talked about books, our families, and pie.
When a woman has an affair in movies, there is always “this problem.” You can almost see it like it’s a tangible thing. You point your finger and say, There. She just needs to fix that thing, that’s all. And she’ll be fine. They’ll all be fine. Like she needed to scratch an itch. Something was wrong, so she’d screw it out—with another man. She was bored, or neglected, or abused, or unhappy.
I swear I wasn’t unhappy. Nobody would have ever said that I was unhappy.
But one thing was certain, this wasn’t an affair because we weren’t sleeping together. That much was simple, at least. Whether either of us wanted to was beside the point. I wanted all kinds of things, but I was always very clear about my fantasy and my reality. In reality, I had been married to my high school sweetheart for ten years, and we had two kids together. And in reality, I could tell myself anything and believe it. The Oakland County libraries were bigger and had a better selection of books. There was no Trader Joe’s out in the dusty farming town where I lived. I told myself whatever I wanted and that was how, twice a week, I paid a convenient visit to the university where Corbin Green taught freshman history.
I walked through campus in a daydream, carrying books in one arm and Hunter on the opposite hip. He pointed at a fountain we passed, reaching out for it so far and so hard that it pulled me off my center of gravity. He babbled, “Mama, wawa! Mama, wawa!”
I wasn’t too old yet, not so out of place here at all except for the baby on my hip and the diaper bag slung over my shoulder instead of a backpack. Though I didn’t doubt some of these girls were mothers, too. There were grad students here my age, having scholarly discussions on benches under the trees, sipping coffee, talking intensely to each other. I might have been one of them in another life.
“Mama! Wawa, wawa!”
“I don’t know, buddy.” I fished my phone out of my pocket and checked the time. Corbin’s class let out at one, and it usually took him fifteen minutes to finish up with his students and make it over to his office. It took me thirty-five minutes to drive back home, and Felicity got off the bus at a quarter to three. We would have about twenty minutes. It was all we ever had together. We met twice a week here on campus and once a week after yoga. I couldn’t possibly justify meeting him any more than that, although he would sometimes come into the shop for pie and sit there with a slice while I rang up customers or wiped the counters. It was the length of time it took to eat pie, to stretch after yoga, to drop off a book, or to have a conversation. Twenty minutes. Our whole friendship was built twenty minutes at a time.
“Okay. Not too long, though,” I told Hunter. I knelt down beside the fountain with him, and I handed him pennies to throw. His fat little arms rounded a short arc and plunked down, his whole hand splashing into the water with the penny. Splash, splash. I’d smell like chlorine, but that was no better or worse than any of the other things I usually smelled like: mashed peas, baby powder, my shampoo still, I hoped. I didn’t worry much about how I smelled or looked when I went to see Corbin anymore. He’d seen me much worse than this after yoga class, with wet circles under my arms and down my back, hair matted to my forehead, skin glazed with sweat, and our limbs worked warm and pliant. He would sometimes reach out to brush a damp strand of hair that was stuck to my forehead with no more contact than a breeze might have on my skin. At least now I had my hair brushed, a clean shirt—glancing down, yes, still clean, and in a flattering color too, peach—and my favorite jeans that I could finally fit into again. Thank you, yoga.
Splash, splash, splash, and I caught an eyeful of chlorine. “That’s enough,” I said, pulling his arms out of the water and wiping them dry with my sleeve.
“Wawaaaa,” he cried, a painful ballad to the fountain he’d been tragically forced to leave behind.
“Waaaa,” I cried along with him. He stopped crying and turned to me, a strange and careful suspicion in his eyes. He cried again and I mimicked again, and then it became a game. He stopped and chuckled. We carried on as we walked across campus, crying and laughing, until there was more laughing than crying, until there was no crying at all.
How easy it was to be thirteen months old. How quickly the most devastating loss could be forgotten in the space of a fun new game.
Corbin’s office was a closet. “That’s what they do to us adjuncts,” he told me, “put us under the staircases and in the attics.” It was true. The ceiling slid low above his desk where a stairwell was built above. Corbin couldn’t even stand up straight in that spot. His office door was open halfway. There was a girl across from him at the desk, mousy and glancing down at her papers. She had a crush on him, I could tell. I knew exactly what it was like to have a crush on him. It was almost a comfort to have Hunter here, babbling and drooling. Maybe I might not have trusted myself otherwise.
The girl moved to gather her things when she saw me. “No, it’s okay, don’t hurry,” I said from the hallway, noting a flash of a smile cross Corbin’s face to find me there. That was the first thing I noticed about him when we met, that kind of restrained smile that almost happened but didn’t. That, and the tiny cleft in his chin, the sculpted lithe body you’d expect to find on a thirty-year-old man who worked part-time in a yoga studio, and a long ponytail of golden-brown hair suggesting bad pickup lines, acoustic guitar ballads, and surf boards. What took longer to learn was that he didn’t play guitar, and that he never used pickup lines on women, and that there was so much more about him that I would never get to learn twenty minutes at a time.
Corbin spoke with his student some more about the Ming Dynasty of China. He was teaching one more class here, and another at a different college, along with a couples’ massage class at The Lotus, scraping together whatever work he could. Whatever they’d let him teach, he’d teach it. “I’ll bring Matt in,” I teased him once about the couples’ massage. He went red, but graciously said, “You should.”
I should have, maybe, but I wouldn’t. To have the two of them in the same room was a situation that theoretically should have been perfectly safe, but it just felt so explosive.
I put Hunter down in the hallway outside Corbin’s door. Hunter loved to walk now. He thought he was so good at it. He bobbled off down the empty hallway, but not too far, stopping to make sure that I was still there before turning and cooing a musical laugh.
The nervous girl left Corbin’s office then and muttered, “Sorry,” as she passed, a shade of intense guilt on her cheeks. And then it occurred to me that she probably thought I was his wife.
“Hunter,” I called. He turned to glance at me once and then continued down the hall. His bubbly glee echoed off the old stone walls. I ran over to collect him.
The floor of Corbin’s office was hard and usually unswept, so Corbin laid out a blanket he kept there. It must have been for Hunter specifically because Corbin was not the type to get cold. I put Hunter down and took some toys out of the diaper bag for him. Hunter shook a soft tasseled rag doll, making tiny bells chime in the silence.
With Hunter out of my hands, and because we were alone, I reached out to Corbin first—he always waited for me to reach out first—and folded my arms around him. We said the usual pleasantries as we embraced each other, “Hi, how are you? How was your morning? Oh, you smell so nice.” I put my face to his shoulder, his clean-shaven cheek brushing against mine for a moment. His aftershave was a woody scent and something else on him reminded me of a citrus grove, along with the faint dusty smell of old paper books and fresh air. We hugged shortly enough to be friendly, but long enough to take a deep breath of him. Inhale. And, just as quickly, we let go.
“Are you thirsty?”
“You don’t have to bother,” I said.
“I don’t mind at all.” He had a little tea cart in the corner with an electric kettle and bottles of spring water. I was a boring tea drinker—regular black tea, sugar and cream—but he had so many other kinds, green tea, white tea, jasmine tea, orange petal tea. He made us two cups.
The room had only one old window that looked rusted shut. I leaned against the desk and slid my butt onto it to sit. He leaned back in his chair, almost as if keeping his distance from me, his shirt pulling taut against his tense muscular frame. Looking at him was an indulgent form of torture. His students must have been crazy for him. He looked exactly like the kind of guy who picked up women at yoga and said ‘namaste’ in conversation. And he was, in fact, that kind of guy. He was idealistic, stubborn, detached, blunt, and naive. He was not boyfriend material and certainly not stepfather material. He didn’t make promises and he didn’t believe in love. He was a lovely distraction. He was great to talk to and beautiful to look at, so what more could possibly come of it?
Nothing. The impossibility of it all was a beautiful safety net.
“That girl has a crush on you,” I teased.
His smile was unsure and unpracticed, the most curious thing. He needed to be made to smile more. “She’s young. She probably has a crush on everyone. Don’t you remember what it’s like to be eighteen?”
“Oh, do I ever.” I wanted to pretend that I was eighteen and he was my professor. But he wasn’t my professor because I never wanted one until now. Now I wanted one. Had I gone to college at eighteen, it would have been a disaster. I would have been in short skirts, red lipstick, and tight shirts, and then what would my life look like? Not like this, I could tell you that much. And I quite liked my life. I was happy enough. It was a good thing I never went to college. “Do the girls ever do this, come in here and sit here on your desk?” I wasn’t wearing red lipstick—I had on no makeup at all—but I flashed him a sly, sideways smile and tossed my hair lightly. “I didn’t understand the assignment, Professor. Maybe you could demonstrate it for me?”
He laughed out loud, short, like a gasp, looking at me with equal parts intrigue and frustration. “No, that doesn’t really happen.” He re-situated himself in his chair. “Or at least, not like that.” He raised his eyebrows, almost imperceptibly, gulped hard, cleared his throat, and picked up a stack of papers to shuffle around. Corbin wasn’t the type of man to roll his eyes, but he got the point across just fine. I wasn’t being fair. We had a certain set of unspoken rules, but sometimes I forgot them. Sometimes I wanted to forget them because flirting with this man filled my greedy heart with so much life. But we were friends. And friends didn’t dick tease each other, because that wasn’t nice. So I slid off the desk and took the large armchair beside it, folding my legs underneath me. We sipped our tea and sat quietly and comfortably, watching Hunter play. Hunter held up a yellow car at us. Vroooom.
This was supposed to fade. That was what Charlotte told me. It was just a crush, it would pass, but that was long since passed now. The nervous, giddy bubble of seeing him again was replaced with a quiet joy. I looked forward to him. I took him in our measured doses like a special treat. I hadn’t expected that my feelings for him would settle into my pores and skin, into my bones, my toes, the folds of my brain, nestling himself in the deep pockets of my heart where he buzzed quietly and constantly, filling me. Charlotte said that I would forget him, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was different than the way I loved my husband, Matt. That was also comfortable, but in a different way, in a dedicated and simple way. It wasn’t a love that filled my bones, but a love that had become the ground underneath me: steady, reliable, doing its duty.
Hunter babbled on the floor. He drooled a bit on Corbin’s blanket, so I took him up onto my lap and he drooled on my arm instead, his third and fourth teeth cutting through his gums and making a fountain of his poor little mouth. Corbin handed us a tissue. Hunter laughed at him. Corbin poked at his nose lightly, barely a touch. I didn’t assume that he disliked children, but he was nervous of them—or maybe he was just nervous of my husband’s child. But Hunter was just a baby. What harm was it if he met my children since we were just friends?
But I knew there was a reason that Corbin hadn’t met my daughter yet, or more precisely, there was a reason that she hadn’t met him. Because Felicity was six, she was smart, and she would cut straight through whatever bullshit lie I tried to tell her about how he was just another one of my ordinary friends.
I shifted Hunter to one knee and reached down into my bag for a book. “This reminded me of you, so I had to bring it. It’s Li Po. There’s a poem in here called, ‘Alone and Drinking Under the Moon.’” Corbin was already amused, but I was quite serious about this. I cleared my throat and prepared to read. Corbin listened while Hunter squirmed to get down. I missed him being a newborn, when the novelty of my voice, whatever it was I was saying, was enough to entrance him. I could read him poetry or biographies or sections of the Wikipedia. Now he just wanted his car back, so I let him go.
When I finished, Corbin looked mystified. “That reminds you of me? So you think I’m a drunk?”
“No,” I said, laughing. I knew he hardly drank at all. “A wandering spirit, I meant. I can imagine there have been times when you were comfortably acquainted with only your shadow and the moon.”
“It’s lovely,” he said about the poem, while looking at me.
I slid the book across the table. “You should read some of them.” The book was well loved, maybe older than I was. It had been my mother’s once, and now the hard fabric cover unraveled at its edges. The pages themselves had heart. “I mean, they’re mostly about being drunk. But they’re beautiful.”
“I’m not a poet,” he said. “If you wanted to discuss them, I would hate to disappoint you.”
“You don’t have to be a poet.”
“Which is your favorite?”
“The River Merchant’s Wife.”
“I want to hear it.”
Hear it, he said, not read it. He slid the book back across the table to me. So I read it to him. I could have probably recited it by heart for as many times as I’d read this poem, but I needed the text this time because the way he watched made me nervous. I finished the poem and gave him the book again, which he kept this time. The way he looked at me sometimes was with so much surprise, arrested bliss. Like this poem, these words, this voice, wasn’t his to listen to. But because it was offered, he would take it anyway.
Then Hunter had a piece of fluff headed for his mouth. I sprung up from the chair and across the room in a single bound. I was Superman in a cape—all moms are when their kid is about to eat dirt—bending on one leg, cup of tea in hand, not a drop spilled.
I sat back down.
“You move like a dancer sometimes,” Corbin said. “Even before the yoga, I always thought that.”
I laughed. “Thanks? Well, I’m not one.”
It stopped me cold.
“Oh,” I said, staring at him. That was wrong. I had been one. I had been a dancer. I must have looked so shocked and confused because he looked so sorry, like he’d just said something that he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t that he shouldn’t have said it, but that I didn’t know how he could have known. It was like he’d peeked into my head somehow, deeper than I could myself—which was not exactly surprising, I could hardly remember what I had for breakfast sometimes—and saw all of my childhood memories and the secrets they contained. One memory, me as a dancing child. What sorcery was this? We laughed and I pointed my finger at him, accusingly, and told him, “I was one, a dancer, a really long time ago.” Over twenty years ago, three sessions when I was six and seven, and I’d almost completely forgotten it. Except for these vague memories now, pink shoes and tights, little girls gathered on wooden floors, little girls multiplied by mirrors until we were a tiny army of pink. Now there was no room for form or grace in my life. Did Matt even know this about me? This vignette from my days as a suburban daughter of a zoologist and a business mogul, a flash of old film, someone else’s story. I’d been a little ballerina once. “We did the Nutcracker,” I mused. “I was a Sugar Plum Fairy.”
He smiled, shrugging. “Like I said, you just have good balance. That’s all. Do you dance anymore? Would you try it again?”
The eagerness on his face suggested that he wanted to see me try it right here, right now, in his office. I shook my head. “I’m not that daring,” I said. “I think I’d crack my head open.”
“I think you might surprise yourself,” he said.
I wiped a pool of baby slobber off my arm without looking away from him, because sometimes I couldn’t look away from him. He didn’t just see me—my flesh, my curves and skin, my smile—he saw all of that and something else, too. Recognition. He was under no illusions. He wasn’t simply charmed. He saw that I was a living, breathing body with faults and flaws and neuroses all my own, but he also saw more. He saw something that hadn’t been seen by anyone in a very long time, maybe ever, maybe even by myself, that tiny spark of existence that made me, specifically, not in general.
Sometimes my heart swelled with the immense impossibility of it all. Feelings were so fickle. What was the point of them?
The time. Twenty minutes had passed. I had to go.
“Thank you,” I said to him. He bowed his head lightly to me. I wasn’t always sure what I meant by it. Thank you. Thank you for the conversation? For the books? For his time? For not telling me that this was too much trouble? For not being annoyed that there was nowhere for this to go? He could have told me that this wasn’t worth it, but he didn’t. Just as easily, I could have told him that it was all too dangerous, but I didn’t. And I knew he was grateful, too.
*** from The Fish and the Bird © Laura Rae Amos, 2016 ***