They stood in the faculty lounge sipping coffee. Outside, palm trees swayed in the breeze. Inside, women pursed their lips and men tugged on their sleeves. The object of their discussion had long since left the room. The air was stuffy. Someone opened a window.
“It’s not that I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for Donald,” said Margaret.
Donald Mitchell taught Victorian literature. Margaret, they all knew, had her eye on his classes.
“But the poor man’s an embarrassment,” said Margaret. “An embarrassment to the department and to himself.”
Thirty years earlier, coeds had lined up for Donald’s lectures. His thick black hair softly swept his collar. His clothes were more like costumes, the shirts with billowy sleeves, the velvet smoking jackets begging to be stroked. Instead of reading passages to his students, Donald performed them. Austen. Hardy. The Brontes. The girls would sigh and swoon. Over the years more than one female instructor struggled to resist his charms.
Corinne Braverman bore no such romantic illusions. Forty-three years old, she possessed neither entanglements nor debt. Donald was her friend, perhaps her only true friend on the faculty. The ground beneath began to tilt. She leaned to the other side.
“Agnes’ health issues are a lot to handle,” said Corinne. “For anyone to handle.”
Every person in the lounge had been a guest in the Mitchell home. Agnes’ cooking was only matched by her meal’s presentation. Vases overflowed with roses grown in her garden. While her husband regaled the world with his wit and intellect, she paid the bills and raised their children. But there was no question Donald was smitten. When he looked at Agnes, his smile grew a little wider, his eyes glowed.
“He’ll figure it out,” said Corinne. “His family will help. We’ll help.”
A year earlier, Agnes was diagnosed with dementia. No one knew what went on in the confines of their home, but conjecture sat readily on their tongues.
“And what about his students?” asked Margaret. Backpedaling now. Pretending to be earnest. Acting like she cared.
“He’s only teaching one class this semester,” said Corrine. “And he can teach those novels in his sleep.”
Alfred Waring was chair of the English department. No neck. A blocky head sat directly on his shoulders, the shoulders propped atop a large squared chest.
“That’s the problem in a nutshell, Corky.”
He winked at her and grinned. Corinne was an accomplished author and respected teacher. Still the ogling and the winking.
“Donald’s lost in a dream world of his own devise,” said Waring. “He needs a wake-up call. And I’m gonna be the one who does it. ”
Corrine stared at the computer and willed the words to fly across the screen. Her fingers sat poised over the keyboard. She sipped her wine. She took out her hair band, twisted her long brown hair into a knot and repositioned it on top of her head. Then she got up.
The apartment was the only connection she had with her ex-husband. She met Charlie when she was in her last year of graduate school. She was twenty-five and he was a successful businessman pushing fifty. She was young and poor and determined to write the Great American Novel. He was sophisticated and rich and schooled in fine wines, expensive art, and bespoke suits. Before she met Charlie, she never realized how much else there was to learn.
Ten years later he had an affair with one of her students. Adrianne Horowitz, for crying out loud. He said it meant nothing. A flirtation at a cocktail party had turned into something else. But suddenly Charlie was diminished in Corrine’s eyes, a condensed and abridged version of his former self. And the shadow he had cast over their lives followed Corinne wherever she went.
When she’d walk into the faculty lounge, a hush fell like a veil. Those who envied her success were the quickest to judge. Emails scurried among her co-workers. They weren’t meant for her (or were they?) but found themselves on her computer screen nonetheless. Nonsense about abortions. Caribbean trysts. Flamboyant gifts. Her so-called colleagues zeroed in like stealth drones.
Only Donald stood by Corrine’s side. With a few phone calls, he managed to get the girl transferred to another college. A more prestigious college. A college that usually wouldn’t give a girl like her the time of day. Corinne had filed for a divorce. And thanks to Donald, the final vestige of her husband’s sordid affair was gone as well.
“That harlot is polluting the very air we breathe,” he ranted. He stood in the hall of the classroom building and brandished the air with his hand. “I’m sweeping the floor clean.”
Looking back, Corinne never fully appreciated the scope of her friend’s gift. His many gifts. Once Donald enveloped you, once he took you in his purview, a warm cloak wrapped around your shoulders. Corinne stood on her balcony and stared into Biscayne Bay. The tide rolled in and out, the water glassy. She walked back to the computer and sent off an email asking him to lunch.
They met in the school’s cafeteria the next day. Leaning over the table, Corrine whispered loudly so her elderly friend could hear.
“How’s the reduced load, Donald? Are you enjoying your free time?”
His eyes were watery. An old man’s eyes. Whether they were rheumy or weepy it was hard to tell.
“Alas. The vicissitudes of retirement!” He looked up at her and blinked.
“You’re keeping busy, right? Reading? Writing?” Corinne immediately regretted her words. How easy it was to both publish and perish. You were only as good as your latest review.
Donald gazed into the distance as he spoke. “I thought that a fairer era of life was beginning for me, one that was to have its flowers and pleasures. But alas, such illusions are fraught with peril.”
Corinne put down her fork. “I think you’re quoting Bronte, Donald. Are you quoting Bronte?”
“Providence sustain me!” He blotted his face with a paper napkin. “Remorse is the poison of life.”
Shit. “You’re scaring me, Donald. This isn’t funny. This isn’t cute.”
“I weep in anguish. My dear Agnes, my sole conjugal embrace, is not the woman she once was. Her physiognomy is no longer agreeable. Her eyes no longer bear a ray of recognition.”
Corrine felt her sandwich work its way from her stomach to her throat. She swallowed slowly and took deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. “It’s okay, Donald.” She reached across the table and grasped his hand. “I’m here for you, I promise.”
That night, she stared at her computer again. For months Corrine had been struggling to produce an outline for her next novel. Teaching four classes in creative writing was her excuse. The papers to grade. The whining to contend with. But it was more than that. Corinne’s mind needed to be emptied in order for it to be filled. Lately it’d been a receptacle for worries.
A working title: My Brain – The Dumpster.
And the compromises she had made for critical acclaim! Her most recent novel, a convoluted experiment with form, was praised by The New York Times and adored by her students. But Corrine hated it. Her characters had become formulaic: chic, erudite, ironic. Not a single chapter in her novel had been told in fluid succession. It was more like a Rubik’s cube, a puzzle, a jumble of plots and tenses and points of view. Her publisher called her every month and her agent emailed her every day. But there was nothing she found more depressing than repeating her success.
She walked over to her bookshelves. Charlie had filled the apartment with rare Chinese vases and Persian rugs. When he left, Corinne found it remarkably easy to part with his possessions. All that was left were her books. For as long as she could remember, her love of reading had been inexorably linked with her love of collecting old manuscripts, first editions, browned and fragile sheaves of paper. She scanned the shelves and found what she was looking for: a worn and tattered copy of Jane Eyre.
The following weeks Donald’s diversions became even more eccentric. One day he found a large stray dog roaming the campus and brought it back to his office. Donald knew nothing about dogs. But the animal, a cross between a bear and a rug, quickly took to both Donald and hamburgers from fast food establishments. Soon the pair became a campus fixture. The large dog would nip at his heels while Donald yelled Down Pilot! Come Pilot! Let us be off to class!
All, of course, in a passable British accent.
His wardrobe was evolving as well. Riding breeches. Ascots and scarves in the ninety-degree heat. One morning Donald wrapped himself in black robes and wove a turban around his head. His course syllabus had long been ignored. He spent the fifty minutes of class time gazing into a crystal ball and palpating the bumps on his students’ heads. Slowly he was moving beyond the bounds of reason. Corrine found him in his office later that afternoon, the large dog slobbering at his side.
“What’s going on, Donald? You’re taking creative instruction to a whole new level.”
He stared at her without a glimpse of recognition. She tried again.
“I begin to fear your wits are touched, Donald. Your damp and bemired apparel fair troubles me.”
A light seemed to flick on. He got up from his chair and took Corrine’s hand.
“My day was proceeding most unfavorably until I feasted my eyes upon you.”
A little guy on a trampoline started jumping up and down in Corrine’s chest. “What city are we in, Donald? Do you know where you are?”
“Solitude, my dear, is such an oppression.”
“Donald, can you tell me what year it is?”
“A memory without blot or contamination must be an exquisite treasure.”
Corrine looked through the slats in the window. Outside the sun was a blood orange stain on the horizon. Commuter students were heading to the parking lot. She sighed.
“Let me drive you home, Donald. It’s been a long day.”
Instead he directed her to the Metrorail station. They drove to the Kiss and Ride lot and walked each row looking for his car. The dog followed, sniffing the ground aimlessly at his side.
“Ere long,” said Donald, “we shall find it.”
“It’s a gold Camry, right?” said Corinne.
He looked at her and blinked. Then he took out his handkerchief and delicately wiped his brow.
“Your lachrymose visage pains me. A throe of true despair cleaves my breast.”
The black asphalt seemed to roll and retreat. “Forget about your car,” said Corrine. “We’ll take mine.”
She circled the block, not recognizing the house. The home she remembered had manicured hedges, a row of red begonias lining the trees. She checked and double-checked the address. Good lord. Kudzu had overgrown the fence and climbed up the walls. Weeds sprouted through cracks in the walkway. Most disconcerting of all were the locks on the front door. The locks were all on the outside. They weren’t meant to deter thieves. They were meant to keep someone locked in.
“Isn’t this…like a fire hazard, Donald?”
“It’s for Bertha,” said Donald. “I do my best to protect her. Have always done, will continue to do.” He opened the door to a large and unlit room.
“You mean Agnes, right? You meant to say Agnes?”
Instead of being perfumed with roses, the air smelled of disinfectant. Agnes was propped in an armchair watching television. An attendant sat on the sofa next to her.
“Grace Poole may fancy her gin,” said Donald, “but at least she provides a modicum of companionship.”
The attendant was black, middle-aged, wearing a nurse’s uniform. She got up and offered Corrine her hand. “Agnes is having a good day today. Sometimes she gets sassy. Today’s a good day.”
Corinne glanced at the woman’s palm. Lately everything looked like an x-ray. The skin was white. The creases black. In. Out. In. Out.
“I’m Corky. And you are?”
“Gladys,” she said. “I cook their meals. Wash their clothes. Make sure the Mrs. doesn’t fly out the door. She tends to wander. Flies right out the door.”
Corrine walked from room to room. The beds were made. The bathrooms spotless. When she worked up the courage, she sat down next to Agnes.
“You’re looking well, Agnes.”
The woman must have aged twenty years since Corrine’s last visit.
“Your housecoat looks comfortable. The slippers, too.”
There were food stains all over the robe. Probably remnants from each of her meals. On her feet, like homeless poodles, were two balls of white fluff.
Agnes slowly moved her hand to Corrine’s chin and started humming.
“She doesn’t talk much,” said Gladys.
For a brief moment, Bronte’s novel appeared before her eyes. The pages of Jane Eyre blew open. Yet I would to God, there was an end of all this! No wonder Donald was going crazy.
Corrine left a few minutes later, went back to her apartment, and took a shower. It was hours before she felt clean. She vowed to be kinder, more patient, more forgiving. She’d visit Donald every day if it would help.
But all of her efforts backfired. She’d make her friend a cup of tea and bring it to his desk. Instead of thanks, a speech would peal from his lips.
“You are my sympathy, my better self, my good angel! I knew you would do me good in some way, at some time!”
She’d grade his test papers and leave them piled on his desk. In return, he’d offer a marriage proposal.
“I ask you to pass through life at my side — to be my second wife and best earthly companion. My soul is athirst for your love!”
There was no question that the man was losing his mind. And the further he regressed, the greater his submersion in the novel. His reality and Edward Rochester’s seemed hopelessly intertwined.
Each night Corrine returned to her apartment alone and dejected. She dutifully performed all of her writing rituals. She poured herself a glass of wine. She knotted her hair. She walked to the balcony, then back again. But the blank white screen seemed to grow larger every day.
Oh Providence! Why hast thou deserted me?
Donald’s pain. Agnes’ loss. Waring’s threats. And like a specter in a nineteenth century novel, the hollowness of her own life loomed.
Then finally inspiration took hold, announcing itself in the quiet of her den. The evening had seemed endless, a full moon hovering over the bay, plump. Corinne sat down at her computer. She closed her eyes and cleared her head. Slowly the whiteness transformed to clouds and calla lilies and hand-stitched parchment paper. One by one she pushed the buttons on her keyboard. A knot unraveled. The sentences flew onto the page.
There was once an elderly, learned man who loved to teach and loved his wife.
She merely had to create a template, a guidebook for her friend to follow.
He lived in a clean, orderly house.
A list of instructions, perhaps.
There were dishes to wash, clothes to launder.
A treasure trove of old memories. Good memories.
The parties! The feasts! How he adored her!
A visual image for him to cling to. The scent of family, of children, of home.
Vases overflowed with roses. Freshly baked bread perfumed the rooms.
A reminder of his passion. A road map for their future.
When he looked at her, he remembered what was honest and pure.
Corrine stayed up through the night. When she finished days later, she held a manuscript three inches thick. The plan was straightforward. She’d thrust it into Donald’s hands and beg him to open it. She’d plant herself alongside his desk and read the pages aloud while he listened.
“This is a love story,” she’d tell him. “Your love story.” Over and over again, they’d comb the pages until her words became his words. Perhaps it would take weeks or months to regain what he had lost. But Corrine was firm in her conviction. Her novel would be his North Star, his compass, his pathway back home. It would be easy. It would be simple. It would be true.