The empty Pinot and Cabernet bottles clanked discordantly against the Formica countertop. He’d set them down harder than intended. She looked up from the pile of dirty dishes, startled. Professor Nick Garrett smiled at her sheepishly.
“Must have been a good party,” he said to the younger woman standing at the sink next to the pile of chipped porcelain plates and soup bowls and wine glasses with lipstick stains around the edges. He took an unsteady step backwards and braced himself against the wall opposite the sink. “You don’t need to do that, really. You’re the guest of honor.”
“Don’t be silly.” Naomi said as she wiped a well-worn towel around the edge of a dinner plate. “Everything was delicious. Thank you so much for this. It was lovely.” She did a voice like something out of a movie from the 1930s, like Ginger Rogers. She had on a black blouse and tight grey jeans ripped at the knees and low-top Chuck Taylors dyed pink. She'd let her hair down and pulled it around her right shoulder. She never wore makeup, as a point, but also because she didn't need any.
“It’s not every day that a person signs her first book deal. You should be proud of yourself.”
Naomi blushed a little and turned back to the sink full of soapy water.
“I’d say you deserve a lot of the credit, but that feels a little bit too much like what you’re hoping I say right now.”
In the living room, a Louis Armstrong record was playing.
Nick ran his hand through his thinning hair, straightening it across his brow. "You know me too well." He removed his glasses and fogged them with his breath. From his breast pocket, he pulled a handkerchief and started to rub the lenses. For a moment, they were silent.
“Write the scene,” she said, suddenly shutting off the faucet, putting down the dish towel, and turning toward him. She picked up the third-full, liter-and-a-half bottle of red blend, the bottle Nick had called his “emergency stash,” although really it had become something of his go-to recently.
He chuckled. "If you insist." She handed him the bottle.
It was the writing exercise that he did with his graduate students. Once or twice a week, he would text the class those very words, and they would have to draft a story set wherever they happened to be at the time. The point was to make them notice their surroundings, the intricate details, the story in the mundane. Most of the time, the writing was labored and boring, set in dull places stocked with uninspired characters. Naomi’s stories, though, were always exquisite, full of longing and melancholy and beauty without even a hint of melodrama. She had real talent, the sort that earns a person a book deal with a hefty advance at the age of twenty-six.
Nick examined his glasses for smudges and wondered briefly whether the thick black frames were too much, whether he was trying too hard. “It is a poor student who does not one day become the teacher,” he said, sighing to convey his resignation. There was an unspoken recognition that she had surpassed him as a writer.
He looked around the kitchen, his eyes wandering from the sink full of soapy water to the pile of dishes stacked on the counter and in the drying rack to Naomi, trying hard not to let his gaze wander below her neck. Then he held the bottle up to the light, swirling the wine and considering its contents, as though he didn’t know it was swill. He put it to his mouth and took a long pull.
“Let’s see,” he said at last, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “I suppose I’d open the scene with the empty bottles, the sound that they made when I put them down too hard. Start with the details and then zoom out, gradually bringing it all into focus. Give the reader a sense that the characters are comfortable around each other, that they have a good rapport. Show that they’re in good spirits, that they’re celebrating, that they’ve had too much to drink, without stating the obvious.”
Naomi extended an empty glass toward him and he filled it generously. “Here’s to that.” They clinked bottle to glass, and each took a sip. Nick continued.
“I would write about the mess, the dirty dinnerware. The way you were standing over the sink with your hair pulled to the side. I'd say something like “he quietly admired her as she scraped the remnants of braised tenderloin and seared asparagus that clung to the cast iron pans, the dinner he’d labored over for longer than he cared to admit.”
“Clung?” she said with a skeptical look.
She nodded approvingly. “Go on.”
“The house was quiet except for Louis Armstrong's A Monday Date playing softly in the living room, the other guests having recently bundled up and taken their leave into the cold Iowa night. Even after all these years, he still couldn't understand how people lived here. Too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, and not much to do in between. Now it was just the two of them.”
“You know you’re an incorrigible snob, right?”
Nick closed his eyes and swayed his head a bit to the music and sang along. “I'm gonna spread the news, and I'm gonna chase away the blues, so don't forget our Monday date, please, baby, don't be late." He loved this song.
“Nice tension. Who are we? What are our motivations?”
“I’m getting there. Give me a second.” Nick took another slug of his wine and then set it down carefully, taking his time to consider how he wanted to introduce himself into the story, finally settling on sympathetic, a character that the reader will root for.
“Nick Garrett,” he said at last, “wiped the lenses of his thick-rimmed glasses and briefly wondered whether he was trying too hard, whether perhaps that was the problem. He’d once been the enfant terrible of the New York literature scene. His critically-acclaimed debut novel, The Partygoers, had been lauded as ‘On the Road for Gen X.' He'd written the draft of that book in a month-long manic mix of inspiration and Ritalin. It had been easy. Now here he was, a jealous, over-the-hill drunk teaching graduate writing seminars in the middle of the Iowa cornfields. He still told himself that he was a writer, of course, although he hadn’t produced anything worth reading in nearly a decade."
Naomi rolled her eyes and exhaled deeply. “It’s a little self-indulgent, don’t you think?”
“Hear me out.” This was part of their routine, the back-and-forth, the teasing banter. “I’m just getting to the good part.”
Naomi twirled her finger in a get-on-with-it motion. “But don’t you dare give me any more backstory dump.”
“I would never insult you like that.” He chuckled again, but there was a sadness to it. His eyes fell briefly from her face before he caught himself. He wondered whether he should write that into his story – that his gaze had fallen on her breasts. He wondered whether he should use the word ‘breasts,’ or maybe he should go with ‘chest.’ No, neither of those was any good. And ‘tits’ was out of the question. It would change who he is, the character in his story; it would make him a bad guy, a washed up, lecherous older professor lusting after his star student. Worse than that, it would turn him into a cliché, something he often reminded his students was liable to earn them a failing grade. No, he decided. Best to avoid it all together.
“Now in his late-thirties, not even he could delude himself into calling himself an ‘enfant.’ He'd started wearing corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows and had developed a nervous tic of running his hand through his too thin hair." He held his faux-patched professorial elbows up to Naomi and she laughed genuinely, which pleased Nick. She didn’t often do that. She mostly just said ‘that's funny.’ “The critics and fans had long since moved on to the next hot thing: Ben Diller, Zadie Smith, George Henley. It was now possible to buy a secondhand copy of Partygoers for a dollar and change online, which he found endlessly depressing.”
Naomi made a theatrical sad face, her lower lip pouting. The collar of her blouse had slipped over her right shoulder, revealing a near-perfect line of three freckles. It was the sort of detail that made a story worth telling.
"Of course, there was a manuscript in the works, as would be expected, but it had become unwieldly and muddled. His editor was recommending a whole cloth redraft, which was too much for Nick to bear, so he kept tinkering, even though he knew there was probably no saving it.”
“I keep offering a critique,” Naomi interrupted.
“And I keep saying ‘when it’s ready.’”
In the other room, the record came to an end and the needle fell from the last groove, the dulcet trumpet tones and raspy voice replaced by a hissing sound punctuated once a revolution by a faint pop. “She held up her hands in resignation.”
Naomi posed with her palms facing him, playing the part.
“Naomi Williams,” he said, his voice sounding too loud now in the absence of the music. This was going to be tough part. “Chicago-born and instilled from a young age with a certain midwestern sensibility…”
“Here we go.”
“The daughter of an Arkansas and Illinois Railroad attorney and a middle school English teacher…”
“My mother is a management consultant.”
“Is this my story or yours?”
Naomi shrugged, the freckles coming unaligned for just an instant. “Both, I think.”
“… and management consultant, was the most talented student he’d come across in all those years. It wasn’t even close.”
“Oh, stop it,” she said in her old-timey voice, playfully waving her hands.
The wine was starting to make the room spin around the edges of his vision, blurring the line between life and story, fact and fiction. Nick was grateful for the support of the wall.
“She wrote the way he wished he could, with honesty and compassion and an elegance of syntax that had, on more occasions than he’d dared tell her, taken his breath away. Halfway through her first semester in his course, she'd given him a draft of her novel and he'd read it straight through, standing up only to pace back and forth across his office because he knew, knew, that she had created something that was not just good, but quite possibly great. It dawned on him then that he was a lost cause.”
And here it was, the moment of truth, the crescendo of the story of Nick and Naomi. He took a deep breath and put the bottle to his lips again, gathering up his courage.
“Please don’t tell me you’re in love with me,” Naomi said before he could continue. “Don’t you dare.” Her voice was serious now, and Nick wondered whether their routine had been broken, whether she had come out of character. She was almost as good an actor as a writer.
“Nick exhaled, taking her warning into account. He wondered briefly whether he should try to change the narrative, have the characters follow a different arc. But he wasn’t clever enough for that, not by a long shot. And anyway, he was drunk and it was late and he’d already made up his mind. ‘I’m in love with you,’ Nick said, knowing full well what would happen next, that Naomi would set down her glass and politely but firmly tell him that she should probably go now, that it’s getting late, that she was grateful for all that he'd done for her, but that she just didn’t feel that way about him.”
“I should probably…” Naomi set her glass down. “It’s getting late.”
“‘That wasn’t the way I wanted it to turn out – the scene, all of this.’ Nick said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
The kitchen was still a mess and the hiss of the record player continued unabated. She started toward his front door, and he followed behind.
“In his foyer, she paused and he handed her her winter coat. ‘You’re going to want this,’ he said, ‘it’s cold out there.’”
Naomi glanced through the window at the bare trees and the fresh layer of snow that had fallen during the last few hours.
“He opened the door for her and they stood in the threshold. She thanked him for dinner, but something had shifted. They both knew it. ‘Congratulations, he told her again,’ adding, ‘on your book. It really is brilliant. I meant it, what I said about it taking my breath away.’”
“Thank you for everything. I’ll see you on Monday.”
“She told him she would see him in class on Monday, but he knew she wouldn’t be there, that this was it. ‘Please, baby, don't be late,’ Nick sang to her, doing his best Louis impression.”
She turned and pulled the collar of her coat tight around her. Over her shoulder, Naomi spoke. “I give it a passing grade, but it's too melodramatic for my taste."
"There was no ambiguous kiss on the cheek, no last look back. And with that, she disappeared into the night."