About a Ring

By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr
By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr

By Nikki Schulak

“This essay doesn’t have to be about our affair,” my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, told me.

This can just be a story about a ring.

•••

My son Max turns fourteen next month. He was sprawled on the couch watching a YouTube video—that viral Bruno Mars lip-dub marriage proposal that took place in Portland—when my husband and I came in from walking the dog.

David and I were in the middle of having the Why Don’t You Take Drum Lessons bicker. This is the one where I nag at him to find a hobby, and he says, “It’s not your responsibility to organize my life” and then I say, “I just want you to get out more, and be happy,” and then I get pouty, and he gets mad, and then I get mad that he’s mad.

Max looked up from his phone like he’d just realized we were in the room. “How did you—you know—propose to Mom?” he asked.

David and I stopped our bickering and collected ourselves.

I answered Max’s question even though I knew it was meant for David. “He got down on his knee. He gave me a dozen roses.”

“Yeah, everybody does that,” Max said. “I mean, what did he do that was special?

“Knee bending and roses are romantic,” I explained.

David spoke up. “Well, son.” He lowered his voice in the name of drama. “I chased her—from the Upper East side to the Upper West side—by cab.”

“You did?” This was more the kind of story Max had expected. Put some music behind it, and you’ve got a YouTube video.

Our whole engagement story is in fact special, but not the kind of special I’m ready to share with my teenager. I didn’t tell Max, for instance, that I’d bullied David into marrying me. Maybe “bullied” is too strong a word. I’d said something along the lines of, “David, we have to get married as soon as possible.”

And he said, “Why?”

And I said, “Because my parents are going to die soon, and it’s important to me that they see me get married.” My father had late stage diabetes. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Then I added, “I love you, honey. But if you aren’t ready to get married, then we’re going to have to break up because I need to find someone who is.”

After that, our conversation went on so long, I had to take a taxi to my psychiatrist’s appointment on the West side instead of the cross-town bus.

When I told the psychiatrist about my marriage proposal, she said, “Sometimes women are ready to get married before men are. Give him a little time.” My session lasted another twenty minutes. And, sure enough, when I walked out of the building, there was David waiting on the sidewalk. He did get down on a knee and handed me a dozen roses and said, “Nikki, I realize now if I don’t marry you, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”

Then we walked along Central Park West holding hands until we found a pay phone and I called my mother. “Mom,” I said. “David and I are getting married!”

“Oh, Nikki, thank God!”

Then she asked, “When?”

“This summer, I think, Mom. On the farm.”

And she started to cry.

When we called David’s parents, his mother said, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t tell if she was excited or appalled.

•••

A few months after we’d announced our engagement, David and I gathered in the dining room of his Grandmother Kaska’s house with his parents, Anton and Margaret, and my parents, Bernie and Esther, and David’s sister. We couldn’t gather in the living room because it was full with two grand pianos. Kaska had trained at a conservatory in Switzerland before the war, and had then taught piano in Queens for more than forty years.

The china cabinet in the dining room was filled with ivory figurines from China and silver sugar bowls with silver tongs and bottles of liquor dating back to the fifties. On the walls were oil painted scenes of Paris, and Brussels, and also a few dark portraits.

I hadn’t expected an engagement ring. David and I had never discussed it, and it wasn’t something I had ever dreamed about. So when his family gave me the diamond, I was surprised. My hands are not beautiful. I garden without gloves and at the time I worked with animals, cleaning cages, and my nails are thin and tear easily and I bite them. After I started wearing the diamond, I tried to take better care of my hands. I’d quit biting for a while, months at a time, but then, I’d be at the movies, and the film would be suspenseful, and before I knew it, my nails would be raw and my cuticles would bleed.

Grandmother Kaska sat at the head of the table. On the wall behind her was a portrait of a woman who could have easily been mistaken for a man. Kaska said, “Nikki, I’m going to tell you a story.

“This”—she turned and pointed to the portrait, her eighty year old fingers bent and swollen from arthritis—“was Vera. Vera was my mother-in-law, Rajmund’s mother. She was the first to wear the ring.” Everyone in the room looked at the portrait of Vera, who looked back at us. “Vera’s husband worked in the diamond industry and he made the ring for her, in Amsterdam.

“When I became engaged to Rajmund, Vera took the ring off her finger and put it on mine. I wore that ring to Cuba when we couldn’t get into the United States. Three years later, I wore it to Ellis Island.” Kaska took a sip of tea. “When Margaret got engaged to my son, I took the ring off my finger and put it on hers.” Now Kaska looked at the ring on Margaret’s finger, so we all did.

My mother once told me, “Remember, when you get married, you’re marrying a whole family.”

Then Margaret got up from the table. She came and stood between David and me, and she took the ring off her finger. “I have to admit,” she said, “I thought I’d wear this ring a few more years.” She handed the ring to David, and he slipped it on my finger. Actually, he didn’t slip the ring on my finger, because it wasn’t a perfect fit, although by the time we got married in August, and I’d lost my bride pounds, the ring did fit just fine.

Margaret sat back down. “Go ahead and get a new setting if you don’t like this one,” she said. “I know you’re hard on your hands.” Everyone at the table looked at my hands. “But then, of course, with a new setting, it would no longer be the same ring.”

David’s sister, who was in high school at the time, said, “It’s weird to see it on your hand, Nikki. I’ll always associate it with my mother.”

My mother said, “I can’t believe my daughter is going to wear a diamond.”

I told this story to my girlfriend Penny. Penny has many diamonds, and I told her how the ring on my finger is ceremonially passed from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law in each generation, and that the expectation is that someday, I will give this ring to my son’s fiancée. Penny, who’s husband recently gave her some $2500 Kiki de Montparnasse pearl restraints and the accompanying 24K dipped handcuffs with key and chain for Mother’s Day, said, “Give your diamond engagement ring away to your daughter-in-law? Darling, I think that’s assuming an awful lot.”

I do wonder, though, who will I give it to? Because my son and my daughter both currently date girls, it’s possible I’ll have more than one daughter-in-law. Then what? Does it go to the spouse of the child who marries first? Or the one I like best? This is confusing, perhaps, but the important thing is this: the ring has been handed from one generation to the next, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law for over one hundred years; it was on my finger that the ring broke.

•••

When I had the affair, then came out about it to David, I explained to him that I didn’t want to end the relationship with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to stop being a wife, either, and that was the beginning of our open marriage.

The transition was not elegant. David was hurt, and angry, and surprised. I became the family pariah, which of course, every family needs. David and I went to counseling, first just the two of us, then, my boyfriend, too. We called it tri-therapy, and it went on long enough that we couldn’t afford to rent a place at the beach that summer because our entire vacation budget was going to the therapist.

Near the same time we were becoming a truple, we had a step-niece who was divorcing after four years of marriage. Our kids had been in the wedding—a big wedding, at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. The family opinion was that the divorce was unfortunate, especially given the twins, but still, much more socially acceptable than what David and I were choosing to do.

“It’s not like they get to vote,” David said.

“An open marriage?” David’s mother said to us. “What the hell am I supposed to tell people?”

“Tell people we love each other,” I answered. “And tell them that we love parenting our kids together in the same house.”

“But you cheated on him,” Margaret said.

“Tell them our sex life had irreconcilable differences. Tell them David’s dating lots of nice women. He’s doing just fine for himself.”

She considered this. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Maybe we could have helped.” Then she bestowed some advice: “Lots of married couples don’t have sex. After a while, in a marriage, sex doesn’t matter.”

“For me it matters,” I said to her. “It matters to me. And believe me, it matters to your son.”

What I didn’t tell her was that David hadn’t gone down on me in twenty years; that he’d confessed in couple’s therapy that he’d “never been that attracted to me,” but he thought it didn’t matter. I had tried to make myself more attractive to him. I lost weight, I dyed my hair, I wore sexy clothes and lingerie, but nothing I did made him want me the way I wanted to be wanted.

•••

I asked my step-niece out for lunch. Sadie is the one member of my family who didn’t treat me like a pariah at the family gatherings we still got invited to. I admired her, and I trusted her to give me the straight story.

“Sadie, I feel a little paranoid. It’s been more than a year since you got divorced, and I came out about the affair, and I get this sense like everybody in the family is still just talking about me behind my back.”

“You aren’t paranoid. Everybody is still talking about you behind your back.” She took a big bite of her turkey reuben. “We have parties you aren’t invited to.”

“I know about the parties. What are they saying about me?”

“I knew you’d ask, so I brought some notes.” She took her Smart Phone out of her purse. “Do you want me to read them to you now, or do you want me to send them to you in an e-mail?”

“Oh my God, Sadie. Just read them.” The ice was melting in my tea.

I’ll never get over that she lied to us. It’s shameful.

I can forgive her for the affair. It’s the fact that she hasn’t stopped with that boyfriend.

If her parents were alive, they would be embarrassed by her choices.

She should take off that family ring and give it back to Margaret. Of course now no one will ever want to wear it.

And my personal favorite:

They should take their daughter out of St Mary’s and put her in the public schools.

Sadie closed her phone and finished her sandwich. “I’m sorry, Nikki. I’ve got about five more minutes and then I have to head back to the office. Let’s have dinner soon.”

“Listen. I don’t want to have to explain about us anymore. Neither does David. We’re always on the defensive. I want us all to be able to be in the same room at Thanksgiving this year. I really want to know: What do you think we should do?” Sadie freshened her lipstick. She took her keys out of her purse and set them on the table.

“You’re the ones who’ve chosen the morally ambiguous path. You owe them more education.”

I know Sadie hated selling their bungalow after the divorce. She hates the shared custody. She hates the way her kids come back from weekends with their dad all tense and frazzled.

My boyfriend is a good man. He and David get along. The kids like him. So does the dog. He makes homemade burgers that our son describes as “the best he’s ever eaten.” He was our daughter’s preferred driving instructor this summer.

“What we’re doing isn’t destructive,” I say. “It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s working for us.”

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Tell them.”

•••

I did not take the ring off out of shame or as a protest. The shank split just as we were preparing for a big family trip, and when we got back, I was busy and it sat in a box on a shelf in my bedroom for six months. The jeweler I took it to for repair called the split a “stress fracture” and told me it wasn’t my fault. He said the solder line had worn down from years of rubbing and normal wear. He asked me when I’d had it resized.

“Never. I think my mother-in-law had it resized when she gave it to me—more than twenty years ago.”

The jeweler nodded his head as if that explained everything, and he studied the ring with his loupe. “This diamond isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s charming. I’d estimate it was cut sometime between 1790 and 1820.”

“1790? It’s older than I thought.”

The jeweler looked up at me.

“Old?” He kept a straight face. “This diamond was formed in the earth more than a billion years ago.” He looked back at the diamond and added, “This is an old European Cut. It’s got a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. It also has a circular girdle, and—take a look here—it has fifty-eight facets.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “The family tells a different story.”

He shrugged, then he pointed out that there was some prong failure. He got out a little envelope, dropped the ring in, and wrote out a claim slip. “I’ll have it done by next Saturday.”

When I got back home from the jeweler, I texted David.

Me: The ring was made by Vera’s husband and given to her, right? Because the according to the jeweler, the diamond is actually older than we thought. Can you ask your dad about this?

David: Actually, I think the ring was originally forged by Sauron. In Mordor.

Me: And can you ask your dad what his grandfather’s name was? And what year did he and Vera marry?

David: Why don’t you just ask my dad yourself?

So I sent my father-in-law a quick, casual e-mail, asking about the ring. He still hasn’t replied.

•••

When I picked up the ring, the band sparkled in a way I’d never noticed. The jeweler asked if I’d like my other rings cleaned as well. I didn’t know that gold needed to be cleaned. I handed him the two other rings I wear: my mother’s wedding ring, that I’ve worn since she died nineteen years ago, and my wedding ring, which I’ve never had cleaned in the twenty-one years I’ve worn it. He didn’t comment on my mother’s simple gold band, but he admired my wedding ring. “This is old, too,” he said, impressed. “I’d estimate 1820s—because of the Lily of the Valley pattern, and the quality of the gold. Is it eighteen carat?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Is it English?”

“I don’t think so…”

He looked inside the band and found the inscription “David and Nikki 1994”. David’s wedding band has the same inscription as mine, except in his ring, my name comes first. We had asked the woman who designed the rings for us to copy an old pattern. We wanted them to look seasoned, like they’d seen a lot of love.

The jeweler shrugged.

Despite the family’s opinions, I don’t have any intentions of returning the engagement ring early. Partly, this is because I like the way it looks on my hand now that I’ve discovered a good gel manicure holds up for weeks, and partly because my boyfriend whispers sexy things in my ear when I’m wearing it, and partly because I won’t be shamed. I want my kids to associate this ring with my finger. Someday, I want them to reflect on the fact that I didn’t take it off.

•••

NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her teenagers, her husband, her boyfriend, and her beloved dog, Calvin.

 

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The Professor

phoneandlamp
By Alan Bruce/ Flickr

By Daisy Alpert Florin

I remembered that voice. Cool, soft, diffuse: the kind of voice that you’d have to strain to hear over the noise in a loud restaurant. A voice that rocked you along in its low, gentle waves. I’d always loved the way he seemed to listen more than he spoke. We’d never gone to a restaurant together, anyway.

“I want to know what you remember about me.” I held the phone close to my mouth and watched the curve of my lips in the rear view mirror as I spoke. With the pad of my index finger, I traced the dark circles under my eyes.

“Well, you were a gifted writer.” I flinched at his use of the past tense. I wrote rarely now, if ever. Caring for two children left little time for intellectual endeavors. At times, the contrast between my life now and the way it used to be was overwhelming.

“I have an image of you then.” He paused. “Do you want to hear this?”

I did, absolutely. This was why I’d called him.

“Sometimes, when you would wait outside my office, I’d find you sitting on the floor in the hallway, reading a book. It was very endearing. Most students would just stand there, waiting.”

Sunlight reflected off the windows of the building across the parking lot. I pulled down the sun visor to shield my eyes. This was what I wanted to hear, that I was noticed, remembered for an unstudied pose. Did anyone still see me that way? I closed my eyes, remembering that moment. How was it possible that he remembered it, too?

“Why do you want to know this?” he asked.

I paused, thinking. I was a thirty-four-year-old woman reaching back for my twenty-two-year-old self, speaking to someone who remembered the world in which she existed.

“Because you knew me when I still had choices to make about the kind of life I would have,” I said. “I don’t feel like that person anymore and maybe I want you to tell me that I still am, which is crazy, since you don’t even know me anymore.”

“I still know you,” he said. “You were then what you are now: eloquent, serious, thoughtful. I sense no diminishment in you even though we haven’t spoken in ten years. What made you so compelling then is what makes you that way now—you ask hard questions of life, and you expect hard answers. Most people are not that way.”

I leaned my head against the steering wheel and allowed his words to wash over me. I was twenty-two again, self-conscious and bold, fearful and fearless. I saw my future unspooling before me, full of hope and danger.

•••

Twelve years earlier, he had singled me out. I was getting ready to graduate from college, slim and sarcastic and completely terrified. He was filling in for a professor on leave, and so we found each other stumbling around our distinguished college, both of us feeling more than a bit like frauds. I noticed right away how his eyes would linger on me a beat too long after I had finished speaking. I could feel him watching me as I stood up from the seminar table and wrapped a long woolen scarf around my neck. I was young, but not naive; something about me had attracted his attention, and I liked it.

I was taking his class—an intro writing seminar—on a whim. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer and during the semester, I discovered the power that writing had to reveal my inner self. When I wrote, I imagined the professor reading my words as I typed them. He responded to my writing as well as to my presence in the sun-filled classroom. Our connection was palpable and strong.

A few weeks into the semester, we arranged to meet in his office so he could help me with my post-graduation job hunt. While other students pursued corporate recruiting or worked alumni connections in the career center, I scaled the stairs, two at a time, to his office, my long and billowing wool coat, a 1970s hand-me-down from my mother, trailing behind me. When I arrived, he was still meeting with another student, so I sat down on the worn carpet outside his office, my back pressed against the wall, my knees tucked under my chin. A few minutes later, he came out and looked down at me. There was something about his gaze, steady and intense, that emboldened me. I stood up, teetering a bit in my high-heeled boots.

Inside his office, the radiators clanked and hissed. The sun, low in the winter sky, shone through the tall windows, casting everything in pale grey. I could feel his eyes on me as I pulled back the fur-lined hood and undid the toggle buttons of my coat. I slid a yellow folder toward him, and he gently removed the papers that were inside.

I watched him as he read, his dark head bent down toward his desk. He was young, as professors went, although like most college students, I couldn’t have said how old he was, only somewhere between thirty and dead. He had curly hair and a mustache and wore a rumpled writer’s wardrobe: wool sweaters, soft jackets. On his left hand was a gleaming wedding band that I couldn’t help but notice, although it didn’t mean much to me. What attracted me more than his physical appearance was his voice, which was quiet and soothing, and the power of his gaze. When he looked at me, he seemed to see something I only suspected was there.

“These are good,” he said. “You write well, with humor and clarity.”

“Thanks,” I said, looking down. The whites of my knees shone through the smooth material of my tights.

I looked around his office, taking in the high ceilings and sparse furnishings. On the shelf behind him was a photo of two children dressed in colorful bathing suits, the bright blue ocean glistening in the background. I twisted my long hair into a knot, aware suddenly of the curve of my neck.

“So, city girl,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “how did you end up here?” He gestured at the snow-covered quad outside the window.

“Well, not many people from my high school wanted to come here, so I thought I might have an edge.”

He laughed. “Aren’t there other kids from New York here?”

“Yes,” I said, “but not from my high school.” I began to describe my high school, full of brilliant, quirky kids, the kind of school with a Japanese Animation Appreciation Society but no football team. Few of my classmates had chosen the kind of college I had—a politically conservative campus in a one traffic light-town—and now, as the end of college approached, I often wondered what I had been thinking. He listened, his chin resting in his hands, his eyes soft and heavy lidded.

After that day, I looked for more reasons to visit him, to envelop myself in the still quiet of his office and the heat of his gaze. After discussing my job search, I told him about frat parties, late night swims in the river, my hunt for a graduation dress that wouldn’t be seen beneath my robe and a pair of funky shoes that I hoped would be. I told him how my friends roused me from bed at night shouting, “You sleep when you die!” and I would dress myself quickly in layers of flannel and denim and head out to another party. When I spoke, I could feel the way that my youth and energy intoxicated him. I was a femme fatale in duck boots.

•••

I was the one who had rekindled our connection, Googling him one afternoon while my kids napped. He had appeared, suddenly, in a dream several nights earlier in which whatever barrier that had once stood between us was inexplicably gone. The connection between us was magnetic and erotic, and I woke up with the memory of him clinging to me like a wet bathing suit.

I quickly found his email address beneath a recent photo. He looked much the same, grayer perhaps, but his eyes had the same intensity. Was it melancholy? I wondered now. I typed what I thought was a casual note and quickly clicked send. A few hours later, he wrote back: I wont lie and say your email brought back fond memories of our time together. The truth is, I havent stopped thinking about you since.

I was stunned by the intensity of his words. Was he serious? Did he really still think about me? The thought thrilled me, a dollop of intrigue mixed into my domestic routine. We emailed each other a few more times and then set a time to speak on the phone. I didn’t want to call him from my house so I left my kids at home with a babysitter and parked my car in the parking lot of a nearby nursery school.

What was I doing? I asked myself as I dialed his number. This was dangerous territory. I was married now, the mother of young children. I had no intention of leaving my family, and yet I couldn’t stop myself. The young girl I had once been—the one he had known—beckoned me, and her pull felt like gravity. Besides, wasn’t this what he had always done, spoken to me in privacy, out of earshot of his wife and children? I had always assumed that I was a secret he kept from his family, although I had never asked. So maybe it was okay, I reasoned. I wiped my damp hands on my jeans.

He answered after the first ring.

“I think I know why I started thinking about you,” I told him, the words rushing forth. “I’m in the same place now that you were in then—married with two kids. And it’s so hard, harder than anyone ever tells you. So I think I get it now, what you might have been looking for in me. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” he said. “You brought conversation back into my life, the kind that disappears when you’re married and raising small children. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I found it with you.”

I thought about the kinds of conversations I had now with my husband and friends: whose turn was it to take out the trash, please could I drop off the dry cleaning, what was I going to do about summer camp?

“Why didn’t you run away with me?” I asked him, shocking myself with the boldness of the question. “It would have been easier then than it is now.”

“Well, there was a bit of a stigma, don’t you think? The professor running off with his much younger student? Our age difference was a bit more to overcome back then.” He paused. “You also told me you didn’t want that.”

“I did? When?”

“One day in my office. I remember I moved too close to you and you pointed your finger at me and told me to step back. You said, ‘There are lines for a reason.’”

I dug around in my memory like an overstuffed purse. I couldn’t remember this at all.

“Well, you could have fought for me.”

“I suppose so,” he said. “But you’re the one who didn’t meet me in Boston that day, remember?”

I watched a squirrel dart across the parking lot, jerking his head back and forth as he ran. Mothers were walking kids back to their cars, buckling them into brightly patterned car seats, doling out snacks and reprimands and kisses. I wondered what my kids were doing at home. Waking up from their naps, probably, their hair fuzzy, their skin pink.

“Well, we could have tried,” I told him, watching the women ease their cars slowly out of the parking lot, returning to their appropriate lives of duty and routine.

•••

After I graduated from college, our conversations continued. And perhaps because we were no longer face-to-face, they became more intimate. Freed from the boundaries of our teacher-student relationship, we called each other almost daily. I talked about my new life in the city of my youth: entry-level jobs, late nights in smoky bars, the men who came and went. He shared few details about his life with me, and I never asked. I didn’t know the names or ages of his children or what he did after he hung up the phone. I knew he spoke to me from an office with a phone that only he answered, but I didn’t know where it was or what he did there. In my mind, it was tucked in the corner of a clapboard house with a large wooden desk by a window overlooking a leafy backyard. It was always quiet and remote and bathed in a soft green light.

I came to crave these long conversations, the way they removed me from the life around me, a life I wasn’t sure how to become a part of. When we spoke, I heard only his voice soothing me, building me up. My power over him continued to thrill me and could, I discovered, be as erotic as touch. I was as lonely and lost as ever, but on the phone, my life was full of possibility and ever-changing. I wasn’t writing anymore but, in a way, I was, telling him the stories I wasn’t writing down. And he was my most avid reader.

I never stopped to question the propriety of a married man and father speaking on the phone with a woman almost half his age. That it made me feel good was all I cared about, and so I used him and his affirmation of me as material to fill the gaping maw that was my burgeoning self.

After about a year, something happened that pushed us beyond the safe borders that we had established for our relationship, if that’s what it could be called. One day on the phone, I mentioned that my friend Molly and I were planning a trip to Boston to visit our mutual friend Janine.

“Funny,” he said. “I’m going to be in Boston that same weekend. Maybe we can meet up.”

He sounded casual, and I tried to meet his tone. A face-to-face meeting would signify a shift in our relationship from the emotional and intellectual affair we’d been having to something very different. The thought both excited and terrified me. After some discussion, we made arrangements to meet on Saturday afternoon. From my desk in a towering New York office building, Saturday seemed very far away.

When Molly and I arrived at Janine’s apartment, he had already called looking for me there.

“Who is this man calling you?” Janine asked me as soon as I walked in the door. I had never told anyone about the professor, but now it all came out: the phone calls, the wife and kids, our proposed meeting. They remembered him vaguely from school and were appropriately scandalized.

“Holy shit!” Janine said. “I can’t believe you never told us!” Molly raised a pierced eyebrow at me. I laughed and tried to siphon off some of their exuberance for myself. After settling in, I called him from Janine’s phone and we firmed up our plans for the next day. I would meet him in a park on the far side of town. What would happen next, I did not know.

Molly, Janine, and I drank cheap wine from plastic cups and prepped for a night on the town. I wore a short floral dress and chunky Doc Martens, a poor man’s Winona Ryder. “Where’s my Ethan Hawke?” I shouted at my reflection as Molly and I primped in Janine’s tiny bathroom. I put on my best smoky eye and red lipstick while Molly slicked back her cropped hair. Janine slithered into a pair of tight black pants, teased her brown hair high and painted her delicate eyelashes with mascara. She was ready to leave Boston, she told us. “I’m too much woman for this one-horse town.”

At the nightclub, I tried to lose myself in the heat and sound. As I danced, I imagined the professor watching me. I swung my hair around, my neck loose and long. I imagined his hands on me, sliding around my waist and pulling me toward him, the space between us narrowing as we swayed in time to the music, the throbbing bass notes coursing up through the floor and our bodies. I slept fitfully on Janine’s futon that night, Molly’s lanky frame stretched out beside me.

The next day, Molly and I sat together in the front seat of her car sipping coffee out of paper cups and puzzling over a map of the city. She had agreed to drive me to the park where I was meeting the professor and, I suppose, pick me up a few hours later. The details were vague.

“What are you thinking, Daisy?” she asked after a few moments. I kept my head down, unable to meet her gaze.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at the map. The brightly colored roads blended together into an unnavigable tangle. “Do you think I should go?”

“Well, what do you think is going to happen if you meet him? What do you want to happen?”

I tried to conjure up a physical image of the professor, but he was hazy. All I remembered was his voice and the way he made me feel. I was chasing a ghost.

“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s forget it.”

We tossed the crumpled map into the backseat and Molly cranked up the radio. Liz Phair’s voice blasted through the speakers of the Honda Accord, foul-mouthed anthems of female empowerment pulsing through the car. We sang along until we were hoarse.

As the hour of our meeting came and went, I tried not to think about the professor waiting for me. A few hours later, the phone rang at Janine’s apartment. She handed it to me.

“Where were you?” he said when I answered the phone. His voice was louder than I’d ever heard it before. “I was really worried about you.”

“I decided not to come,” I said.

“Why not?” he said. “You could have let me know. This is a big city. Anything could have happened to you.”

“Oh, so you were worried about me? That’s why you’re calling, to make sure I’m okay?”

I pulled the phone down the hallway, the curly cord stretching behind me.

“Don’t you think this is a little weird? I mean, what are you doing?” I stretched the words out. “Did you really have plans to come to Boston this weekend?”

He said nothing. I felt the outline of everything we had left unsaid pushing against me until I could barely breathe. I wondered where he was calling me from.

“Do you have feelings for me?” I asked quietly. “Do you love me?”

“I think you know I do.”

I exhaled slowly, my heart pounding in my ears.

“Well, that’s why I didn’t come,” I said. And then, after several beats, “I think I have to go.”

“If that’s what you think is best,” he said.

“I do,” I said and hung up.

I stumbled back into the living room where Molly and Janine were sprawled out listening to the Indigo Girls.

“What happened?” Janine asked, sitting up. Molly watched me expectantly.

“He was kind of pissed but, whatever,” I said. And with that, I was swept back into their world, leaving the intensity of the phone call, and whatever it had meant, behind.

•••

And that was how it ended, on the phone, our relationship remaining emotionally charged but physically chaste. I went back to my life in New York and rarely thought about the professor after that day. He remained firmly in my memory, as a part of my past encased in amber. I’d met and married my husband and started my own family without ever thinking of the impact I might have had on his. And yet here I was now, back on the phone with him, listening to the same, soft voice speaking to me in a very different life.

We had never had a physical affair, but did that make what we had done all right? Our relationship existed in a kind of gray area, and I wondered if what we had done was outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a marriage. If he had felt bored, stifled by routine, burden and obligation, was it okay for him to seek a kind of comfort elsewhere? Was it okay for me to do the same?

“Were you happy?” I asked him, gazing out at the parking lot. The sun shone through the trees, sprinkling drops of light on the pavement. “I mean, back when we knew each other, were you happy?”

“I suppose I was,” he said. “Meeting you made me happy.”

“No, I mean with your wife and kids. Did they make you happy? You never spoke about them, and I think I understand why, but looking back, it seems significant to me now.”

I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. “Marriage is complicated, Daisy,” he said. “We do love our spouses and children no matter how disinclined we may be to discuss them.” He was drifting into his cool, detached professor-ese. It pissed me off.

“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m a grown-up now, just like you. You don’t need to protect me. You don’t need to be my mentor. Here I am, asking you the hard questions and I want the hard answers.”

“Okay, Daisy, you want the truth?” he said. His voice turned to glass. “Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In a happy marriage, today would be a moment to celebrate but, in mine, the day has gone by unnoticed, unacknowledged. Not even a verbal exchange of ‘Happy Anniversary.’ My twentieth was the same, as were many before that. I believe I’ve just given you a ‘hard answer.’ I’d be happy to give you more. I’d be happy to not be mentor-ly toward you, but I’d need to know what you want. And I’d need to know I can trust you.”

The sun beat down on the windshield of the car. Tiny pinpricks of sweat rose along the flat of my lip and quickly turned cold. The parking lot was empty, marked only by the regular grid of white lines. See, they seemed to be saying, there are rules we follow, unquestioning.

“Can I call you again?” he asked.

There it was, the invitation to a life of danger, the one I’d declined many years before in Boston but had asked for again. Did I want it now?

“No,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want. But if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me.”

I hung up the phone and drove slowly down the street toward home, to my children fresh from sleep, to the trash that needed to be taken out, to the dishwasher that needed to be emptied. It was not a life my twenty-two-year-old self would have recognized, but it was certainly one she would have envied. My world came into focus again, its colors bright and vibrant, technicolor. I felt clean, like crisp white linen drying in the sun. As I moved through the streets of my quiet suburban town, past the familiar houses and trees, I knew that I would not call him again. I’d learned all that I needed to know from the professor.

•••

DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is the staff editor at Brain, Child. A native New Yorker, she lives in Connecticut with her family.