Authors: Jules Moulin
“That was my favorite class. I was
What can I say?”
Ally stood and pulled a paperback book from a shelf. “
Elements of Style.
All you needâto keep it short.” She handed it to him, but Jake wouldn't take it. “Please,” she said.
“I can buy it.”
“I have another.”
“You're my Sex and Genderâ”
“I'm not coming back.”
Ally stopped and quieted, surprised.
“I need the credit. In case I transfer. Ever. One day. But Brown's wicked pricey and I don't want debt. I'm not coming back.”
Ally blinked. She understood. She had had luck in grad school at Brown: grants, scholarships, TA jobs, the lecturing offer from Economics. But now that her dissertation was done, she was drowning in undergrad loans. She placed the book on her desk and sat down.
“That's why I want to fix your bed. I need the cash.”
“I see,” she said and thought about it. She wanted the help. It wasn't that. She needed the help. “Can you do a dead bolt?”
“You have one?”
“I hope you spent money. I like Schlage. It's got to be bump-proof.”
Ally nodded. “There were robberies. On my street. Last two weeks. I need the windowsâ”
“Pins in the frames. Add a stopper to the ACs. Do you have ACs?”
Ally studied him as he spoke. “I do, but can you put them in?”
Jake nodded. “Tools in my trunk. Parked on Thayer.”
The door to Lizzie's room squeaked too. Ally wanted to go in and out while Lizzie was sleeping and not wake her up. She knew the hinges needed that grease, whatever it was called, but she wasn't sure something wasn't wrong with the hinge.
Was he a conflict of interest? Jake? Hiring Jake? He took her classes, after all.
“Professor Hughes,” Jake continued, “my mother was single. Four boys. I know how it is. You take care of everyone else, but no one's there to take care of you. Let me help. You'd be helping me, too.”
“Jake,” she said, “I'm not handy. Harry was supposed to doÂ .Â .Â . a lot. He was coming the whole weekend. Saturday, SundayÂ .Â .Â .”
Jake begged. “Seven bucks an hour. I'll do it all.”
Ally studied him.
Jake arrived to every class before Ally did, and he always left last. He lingered in the hall or just outside as if he had questions, but he never approached, never spoke up, and never once raised his hand.
Every so often, in the middle of her lecture, Ally's gaze would land on him and he'd smile in a way that made her feel breathless and leave her thoughts muddled.
His eyes caught and held hers as if he were making an assessment of something, of Ally or the lecture, she didn't know which, but he seemed amused.
At some point, she had decided to ignore him. The boy in the back, she told herself, he wasn't there to learn. Boys in back rows, they sat there in judgment. They weren't engaged. They sat back in protest.
She didn't know that the boy in the back was Jake Bean of the “love letters,” as her TAs had called themâimpassioned, for sure, but never ending.
“Okay,” she said finally and nodded. “Let's do it.”
“I'll follow you home?”
“Yes,” she said and picked up the book and handed it to him.
“Fine.” Jake took it.
“Thanks,” she said gratefully.
o I have to use it for grad school?” asked Lizzie, out of the blue.
Ally was fumbling with the remote. “What?”
It was eight o'clock, and mother and daughter were happily curled up on Ally's bed. They'd watch
while they ate breakfast for dinner on trays, eggs and crepes. That was the plan.
Ally wore boxers and Jake's old T-shirt, the Red Sox one, the one she had kept, and Lizzie wore pajamas.
“The money she left,” Lizzie continued. Ally's mother, Lizzie's grandmother, Claire Anne Hughes, had died in March, four months before. She had left Lizzie money, meant for grad school.
“Hold on. Shoot. HD one or HD two?”
“I'm rethinking Juilliard.”
“Hold on, Bug.” Ally punched the remote again.
“First of all, I won't get in. We both know that. And even if I do, why spend four years memorizing Chekhov when I can be acting on TV? They say it's the golden age ofâ”
“My God, we've got a rover on Mars and we can't create an easier remote?” Ally was annoyed.
“I want Claire's money, but not for grad school. Would that be okay?”
Ally turned and looked at her tray. Her food was getting cold. “Please throw a napkin over my plate.”
Lizzie arranged her mother's napkin, and her own, on top of the plate to contain the steam, to keep the food warm.
“Finally!” Ally said. The movie began. She climbed into bed and pulled the dinner tray onto her lap. “Okay, good, so everyone thinks it's about an era, but I think it's about love and lust and what it's like to grow old as a womanâ”
“Mom, did you hear me? About the money?”
On the TV screen, a young Dustin Hoffman, blankly depressed, sat in an airplane on his way home after graduating from college.
“What about it?”
“Can I have it?”
“I can't tell you.”
Ally aimed and turned up the volume. “See, to you, he's Captain Hook. To me, he's Tootsie. If you want to be an actress, honey, Dustin Hoffmanâ We should watch
! It's about acting
“Mother, please. Forget the movie for two seconds. Please.”
“What is it? Why?” Ally turned up the volume again.
“I spoke to Cybil. You know, my agentÂ .Â .Â . She thinksâI should do something to my nose.”
“What?” Ally said, looking at Lizzie for the first time in minutes. “Like what?”
“She thinks if you're an actress and have to fix your nose, you should do it when you're young like Marilyn Monroe. When you're olderâ”
“Wait a sec.
are we discussing?”
Lizzie paused and took a deep breath. “Claire's money.”
“You want a
“Please. Don't freak. The whole thing costs eighteen grand, which is two thousand less thanâ”
“Elizabeth. Wait. I'mâwait a second.” Ally pushed her tray forward, grabbed the remote, and paused the movie. She turned back around and sat up on her knees, stunned.
Lizzie's face paled in defeat. “This is
hard for me. To even bring this up to youÂ .Â .Â .”
“I'mâ Let meâ Okay, justâgive me a second to recover from the shock so we canâ”
“What?” Lizzie looked at her plate. “Discuss it? My mind's made up.”
we should discuss itâas reasonable adultsâbecause you need to knowâthere is
I will everâever, everâgive you money to do thatâ
Lizzie shook her head. “It's not vanity, Mom. It's a matter of physics.”
“We have two eyes. The camera has one. One lens. Without depth perception. SoÂ .Â .Â . soÂ .Â .Â . it flattens stuff out. Whatever's in front. A lens makes everything wider and bigger.”
it puts on twelve pounds. It's why actors have to be thin to look normal and why my nose looks bigger on-screen than it does in real life.”
Ally softened and inched closer to talk it through, to set her daughter straight. She took Lizzie's hand. “Sweetheart, first, your body is sacred. Second, you are a beautiful girl.”
“It's not about beauty. It's about image. And how three dimensions translate to two.”
Ally let go of Lizzie's hand and rubbed her forehead. She scratched the back of her neck, panicked, on the verge of tears. “This Cybil? Is this the woman whoâwho told youâtold youâto dye your hair?”
“And lose thirty pounds?”
“Mother. Yes. I just explainedâ”
“Said you shouldâtold
daughterâat five foot ten, to hover around one hundred pounds?”
“Calm down. One hundred and five.”
Ally tried to stay calm. A technique she used when Lizzie was three. Instead of raising her voice when upset, she whispered. “I don't know where to start,” she said softly. “The global thing orâor the fact that it's not a tattoo. You can't reverse it. Or that you're letting some surgeon slice you
to conform toâ”
“I'm not conforming!” Lizzie interrupted. “I want to be in
I don't have the chops for stage. And I want my nose to appear less big. If I want a big nose, I can build one. Nicole Kidman. She built a nose for Virginia Woolf. I want to ensure myself that range.”
“I don't buy that. It's not like your nose is
“I want to do this. I'm
to do this. With Claire's money or mine that I save.”
“No. BecauseÂ .Â .Â . by the time you save that kind of money, I will have brought you back to your senses. I want to speak to Cybil.”
“No! That'sâ No! I'm twenty years old! I'm not five! She's not my teacher!”
“She's telling youâincorrectlyâthat your nose will keep you fromâ She's
you into changing yourself when you are perfect. As you were
“Don't say it!” Lizzie looked at her plate in despair. She wanted the night to be fun and delicious and now her crepes and eggs were cold. “I know you think you're right,” she said coolly. “Let's stop. Give it some time.”
“But promise me you won't do itâwithout telling me first. Please.”
“Why? So you can lock me up?”
“Well, there's thatÂ .Â .Â . But if you do it, I have to prepare myself too, Bug. I'll beÂ .Â .Â .” Ally turned away. Tears spilled.
Lizzie closed her eyes. “You'll be what?”
“Heartbroken,” Ally choked out. Then she raised her voice in anguish. “You're funny and gorgeous! Heads turn when you walk down the street!”
“Weather got one! Weather was twelve!”
one. You don't remember. Her nose was bizarrely, abnormally wide. I'm not opposed to fixing cleft palates. I'm not opposed toâ”
“Mom,” Lizzie pleaded, “please don't cry.” She grabbed a napkin and handed it to her. “Please don't. Maybe I can explain this betterÂ .Â .Â . another time.”
Ally tried to pull herself together. She had been like this for months. Since Claire's diagnosis, the lung cancer, she'd been weepy, didactic, and weepy again. She launched into lectures on anything and everything with no invitation and no restraint. She cried all the time. “What if you
“How exactly would Iâ?”
“Worst-case scenario. Point zero one chance ofâ”
“So? The worst-case scenario happens!”
“Okay, forget it.” Lizzie moved her tray aside and climbed off the bed. “I'm finished discussing this tonight.” She flew to the bureau and pressed play on the DVD player. “And so are you.” She climbed back up and settled herself. Her mother was grieving and crazy and grieving.
Ally glared at her for a moment, then turned and took a bite of her crepes.
They both calmed.
Earlier that night, she'd reduced the flour, gluten-free for Lizzie, to thin the batter and crisp the edges the way Lizzie liked them. “The syrup is hot. Take it,” she said and held out the pitcher.
Lizzie took it and poured syrup onto her crepes. She sipped orange juice and ice through a straw and focused on the movie for a moment.
Ally couldn't. Her eyes darted from her crepes to Lizzie, to Lizzie's nose, then back to the TV, where Dustin Hoffman, as Benjamin Braddock, was claiming his baggage at LAX. “Dustin Hoffman has a big nose.”
Lizzie said nothing.
Ally gazed around the room.
She'd moved in four years ago, back into the brownstone, into the room, her childhood room, and cleared the remains: the stuffed animals, framed awards, framed photos of Amelia Earhart and Nellie Bly. She left the walls empty except for a map and set the TV up to watch news in bed, but she rarely did. “And don't forget you're Israeli,” she mumbled. She couldn't let it go.
“Seriously? I totally forgot I'm half Israeli!”
“If you want to look like some all-American, Christie Brinkley, cookie-cutter, white-breadâ”
Lizzie reached out, took Ally's arm, and squeezed it. “Not another word. Not tonight. I'm sorry I brought it up.”
Ally looked at her beautiful daughter. “Me too,” she said.
JAKE WRAPPED HIS ARMS
around the AC unit and lifted it high as if it weighed nothing. No hesitation. No effort.
Ally watched him. “Wow,” she said. She could barely budge it with her foot when she'd dusted it off for Harry.
Jake was fit, she thought as she watched, but not in an artificial way, as if he had pumped himself up at a gym. He was fit as if he did real work, construction or something outdoors. As if he fought fires. As if he saved lives.
“This way,” she said. He followed her through the garage and inside.
As Ally stepped in, she was relieved. The kitchen, the house, the whole house, was orderly. Muriel had cleaned early that morning, and well. Everything was ordered, put away, immaculate, from baseboards to ceiling, and Ally was grateful. Muriel had tucked away every marker, puzzle, sticker, paintbrush, doll.
“Can you use the thing?” She strolled across the kitchen and felt light-headed, leading him out to the hall, to the stairs. The house had heated up during the day.
“That goes underneath. My landlord said to use the thing.”
“The universal support bracket?”
“That,” she said and started upstairs to the second floor.
“You have one?” he asked, following her.
“I do. Two.”
Ally led him to Lizzie's room. “That one,” she said, pointing to the window farthest from the bed. “I don't want it blowing on her when she sleeps.”
“You got it,” Jake said. He squatted to set the unit down. “Can I move these books?”
“No, no. Please. Use the desk.”
Lizzie had organized her Nancy Drew collection, fifty-six books, across the floor, starting with
The Secret of the Old Clock.
“Your daughter likes to read.”
“The criminal mind. Spies. Secrets. She's obsessed.”
Jake smiled and gazed at the books.
“Let me show you where the second one goes.” Ally left and walked down the hall toward her bedroom. Jake followed but kept his own stride, slower and more relaxed than Ally's.
The fact that she was alone with a strangerâa man, no lessâhadn't struck her until she entered the room where she slept, where she undressed, and Jake stepped in, close, behind her.
Muriel had left a pile of underwear, freshly washed, on the bed. Ally swooped in, gathered it up, and pointed to the corner. “That window, please. The one over there.” She moved to her bureau, opened a drawer, and shoved the underwear deep inside.
“Nice room,” Jake said, looking around. He slid his hands into his pockets. “Big bed.”
Ally turned and looked at the bed. It was a king. “My daughter sleeps with me most nights. She's in New York. Have you ever been?”
“No.” No, he hadn't.
Ally nodded, turned, and strode out and back down the hall. She headed downstairs and Jake followed. “Can I have a beer?” he asked politely. “If you have one.”
Ally turned. On one hand, of course, what else would a college kid want to drink on a Friday while he worked? On the other hand, a beer? “Are you twenty-one?”
“Yes, I am, but the law is for purchase. Not for consumption.” He tilted his head as if explaining the rule to a child.
“Oh,” Ally said. She hadn't known that. “Sure, then,” she said, stepping into the kitchen. She moved toward the fridge. “I only have Stella.”
“Of course you do,” Jake said, walking out past her into the garage.
By nine that night, Jake had installed the two ACs. He embedded a dead bolt in the back door and secured six of the first-floor windows. He washed a basement wall with bleach, raised Lizzie's bike seat, built her bunk bed, and placed the bottom bunk on risers so that a trundle could slide underneath.
He did all this with a transistor radio by his side. The Sox were playing, and, sadly for Jake, the Mariners won.
Ally found pizza dough in the freezer. She should have been grading and not in the kitchen puttering around, assembling snacks and a pizza for Jake. But she was on edge, unnerved by his presence, all of his sounds: The radio chatter and near distant whir of his heavy black drill. His footsteps across her hardwood floorsÂ .Â .Â .
When Ally needed to calm down, she cooked. She cooked or baked, or cooked and baked at the same time, a habit that started when she was just six, about to turn seven.
“I want to show you something,” he said, stepping in and startling her. She was pulling the pizza out of the oven. She placed it on the counter as Jake walked out, and this time it was Ally who followed.
“I want to show you how to do this.”
The second floor was dark. At the top of the stairs, Ally turned on a lamp.
“Do this now, for next time,” he said. Reaching down, he took Ally's hand and placed it around a can of oil.
Ally looked at him. What was he doing?
“Lubricating oil. Aerosol. Don't spray it into your pretty eyes.”
Ally grimaced. Please. Come on. Her pretty eyes?
But Jake was focused. “Here's how.” He stepped around Ally, behind her back, but kept his right hand wrapped around hers, around the can.
“Jake, please,” Ally said, spinning to face him. “I know how to spray aÂ .Â .Â .” She laughed but then froze as Jake placed his left hand on her waist and turned her around, commanding her to do what he wanted her to do. With his right, he held her hand, and the can, over the hinge.
“You have to spray down,” he instructed kindly. “You have to be on top. So the oil moves down and into the grooves. When the metal pieces slide over each other, they vibrate, and the door acts like a soundboard.”
Ally stood on her toes as she reached, and Jake closed in from behind to help. Quickly, she realized she was too short. “Okay,” she said. “I seeâI see what you're doingâbut I need a chair or a stool or something.”
“No, you don't. I'll do it this time.” He turned her around with his left hand again, took the can from her, and did it himself.
Ally stepped aside and gazed down the steps. “Spray down. Got it. Thank you,” she said, feeling the print of his hand on her waist.
“You're welcome,” he said, moving the door back and forth. It was silent.
“Okay,” said Ally, sounding as businesslike as she could. “Wow. I don't know how to thank you. I made you a pizza. Eat it here, take it back to the dorm.”
“I'm not going back,” he said, turning to her. “Remember? I quit. The semester's over?”
Ally paused and looked at him. “And you prefer cash? So, eight hoursÂ .Â .Â .”
Jake shook his head. He turned and placed the spray can down. Then he turned back and took her by the elbow as if he had done so a hundred times. “Let's stop,” he said, gently pulling her toward him. He released her elbow, then cupped her face and kissed her firmly on the corner of her mouth.
He didn't find her lips. He didn't find her cheek. But firmly and in complete control, he planted his lips on the corner of her mouth as if to ask her permission first.
Ally drew a breath of surprise. She was startled by the motion, the timing, the nerve.
Startled a little, but not entirely, completely surprised.
The afternoon had been charged, for sure. She, of course, was attracted to Jake. But who wasn't? Any living, breathing woman, fifteen years old or five hundredÂ .Â .Â . And Ally had put on a game face, she thought. Nothing would happen. Surely he wasn't attracted to her. And if he were, by any chance, Jake would have to be so sure, so assured and confident, to make a move on his professor.
What kind of student would do that?
But there they were, and there he was in Ally's house. She had invited him in, after all, or had he invited himself?
“Oh,” she said, staring at him, feeling winded. She couldn't think.
“Is that okay?” Jake asked.
She didn't know. Lizzie was away. That was true. Her daughter was three hours south in New York and safe with Claire.
She was with Claire, Ally's mom.
On Sunday, they'd hop the Amtrak at Penn. Ally would fetch them at one o'clock at PVD on the Gaspee Street side. But she was supposed to be grading papers. Yoko's papers. That night. Not kissing one of her students.
“Let me stay. Please,” Jake said. He looked into her eyes and squeezed her elbow. He had her elbow again. Then he stepped back to give her some space, room to think, to see him, to breathe, to catch her breath.
He slipped his hands into his pockets and then slipped them out, and a second later, he kissed her again, this time in the middle of her mouth. “Sorry,” he said and let her go completely. “I can't help it. I've been wanting to do that for three years.”
What? Ally thought. He did? Years?
They gazed at each other, and neither one spoke.
She wasn't startled the second time, and she didn't resist. She saw it coming. She wanted him to kiss her again. He tasted like Stella, malty and sweet. “Oh my goodness,” she said and looked down.
He tasted like college and kissed her the way she'd been kissed back then, on the second floor of Healy Hall or in a dark, sodden corner of Champions bar. Suddenly the past rose inside her, that feeling from ten years before, all that raucous, innocent fun, and something released, nerves maybe, and made her laugh.
“You're laughing,” Jake said, seeming embarrassed.
“No, no, I'm not,” she said kindly, but she was. “I'm your professor, Jake. Come on. I'm thirty-one.”
“I'm twenty-one. So?”
“Please. It's totally yucky andÂ .Â .Â . inappropriate, and I'm sure against some rule.”
“Why?” he said. “What rule? I'm attracted to you, and I'm pretty sure you're attracted to me.”
“I am, Jake. I am. But who isn't? Look at you. Please. Everyone's attracted to you.”
She looked at him and then downstairs. She imagined Claire standing there, Lizzie with her backpack, both looking up from the first floor. You get only
mistake, Claire said when Ally got pregnant in college. One. She'd made hers.
Claire was right, Ally thought: Grown-up professors did not do this. They didn't kiss students. Maybe the men did, but not the women. What was she doing? What was she thinking?
She turned to him. “Think for a second. If I were your professor, and I was a man and you were a womanÂ .Â .Â .”
“What ifâyou needed a recommendation? A credit for classâwhich you
? It might seem likeâ”
what's happening here.”
Ally smiled. “I made a pizza.” She turned away. “You must be starved.”
“Good.” She stepped away and went downstairs. This was right, she thought as she did. To walk away.
On the first floor, they cut through the dining room toward the kitchen. “Do you always lead?” Jake asked.
“No. My little girl Lizzie leads. She's the boss. She'll be back Sunday.”
“You said that already.”
“Oh, I did? Right. She's got a report due. Tuesday. On her birthday. Nathan Hale. Benedict Arnold. It's about spies.” She entered the kitchen and moved toward the pizza, pretending to ignore him, to forget what had happened seconds before, rambling on about Loyalists and Patriots, Lizzie's obsession with espionage.
Then she stopped and drew still. Other than the cutting board, the entire kitchen was clean and in order. The entire house. Thank you, Muriel, she said to herself as she stood there. Thank you. Thank you.
She spun and faced him. “It has to be a secret.” She whispered as if someone could hear her. Someone on campus. Two miles away. She choked out the words.
Jake stopped, motionless, eyes wide, surprised.
“You can't, you know, write about it. In yourâ”
“I don't have aâ”
“You can't tellâyou can't even
about it after tonight.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
Ally felt her heart beating. Was she doing this? They stood there and looked at each other and waited. “This is my daughter. I could get fired. I'm in enough trouble.”
He lifted his hands, palms out, as if to say he understood, as if to say it would all be all right. Everything. “Professor Hughes,” he said gently. “Just to remind youÂ .Â .Â . today I'm done.”
This was true. Ally nodded. It helped her a great deal to hear this again.
“Friends,” he said. “That's all we are. You're not my teacher. I'm not your student.” Jake swallowed.
Every inch of her body felt swollen, as if she might implode if the pressure of wanting him wasn't relieved. She had wanted to touch him, to taste him, to know him so badly for so many hours, all afternoon, all evening, all semester, if she'd been honest with herself, not even knowing him, not knowing that he was the Jake of the eighty-page papers, the boy in the back.
Jake was the boy in the back.
The sun had set, the sky darkened, and as Ally watched him, what a specimen he was, sweating in the heat, repairing what needed repair in her homeÂ .Â .Â . he was already inside in a way.