He is a biology or criminal justice major. I don’t know if he thinks about me outside of class. He writes fiction that destroys me.
“I really like your assignments,” he says to me the fourth class of the semester.
“Thank you,” I say, cordially. “The semester has only just started.”
He is 18, and I am 25.
The head of my department is very serious. She sends out emails about the importance of student engagement and reminds us of the blackout holidays. She has long hair and wears even longer, flowy dresses with bracelets up and down her arms. We smile at each other from across the hall, and she reminds me to check my mailbox because it’s important to keep up on these kinds of things.
Inside, there is a “Welcome Back” goodie bag from the two married professors, a copy of the student newspaper, and a handwritten, wrinkled note, folded in half.
I read one of your stories online. I liked it a lot, and I hope you keep writing. Would you like to send me some more of your work sometime? See you in class.
It is from him, but I still try to convince myself otherwise. Noah. Noah, who? I ask, laughing to myself. My inner world is racing with wit and desire. Would you like to, he wants to know. I would like to. Would I like to invite you over to my shitty apartment? Would I like to learn how you write such beautiful fiction? Would I like to learn what goes on behind those green eyes? I would like to know you. I would like to know more.
In our next class, I scan the classroom and ask, “The author of this piece gives away the ending in the first sentence. How does she do this?”
We are reading “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. Arnold Friend’s treacherous vibration and sly conversation never ceases to shock and excite me. I scan the room to see one student who quickly puts their phone away, another who avoids eye contact, struck with anxiety by their inability to answer the question, and then him. He raises his hand.
“Was,” he says. “The author says, ‘Her name was Connie.’”
I nod. “That’s exactly it.”
He sits in the front row. I cannot avoid him. He watches my every movement with genuine intrigue.
After our fifth class, some of the students want to know, “How are you a professor? You are so young.” They are curious and full of life. Many of them have not lived through anything. But he has. I want to explain to them that I am not really a professor, just someone with an expensive master’s degree who lives in an apartment she can barely afford. But I do not say these things. I let them think I am somehow wiser, more mature, but the truth is the gas light is on in my car, and I want to be someone else.
I talk to the department head about Noah. I tell her that he is a promising student, that he should write more. She says this is great, that I should be recognizing all these things. She asks for more details. I tell her everything I want to say to him. I tell her that his fiction is the freedom and heartbreak after a messy breakup, that his characters are feeling both angst and dread, but are still riddled with the inaction that I have been experiencing my whole life. She listens quietly, carefully. I speak in hurried desperation, and then stop abruptly as if recognizing I am going to be fired now, right?
She tells me that I need to keep a careful distance. That it’s important I recognize I am in a position of power, regardless of my “youthfulness.” But this is something you can use to connect with them, she tells me. In a healthy way.
Before Thanksgiving break, he writes a story about a woman who is swallowed whole by her abusive boyfriend when she tries to break up with him. It is written in first-person all the way up to the end when you come to realize she was never actually swallowed by him because she never actually broke up with him, rendering herself incapable of taking a stand. It is both comical and distressing.
I make the whole class read it.
“How does the point of view drive this story?” I want to know. The class is silent. “How many lives have you lived before?” I want to ask him.
The department head knocks on my office and wants to know how my students are doing. How my promising student is doing. She appears interested in my response but is scanning behind and around herself for others. I want to tell her that my mind is alive once again, that I can sense and feel things harder than ever before. He wants me to send him more of my writing, I think of telling her. He wrote me a note and smiles at me when we make eye contact, and what could this possibly mean for us? She is scanning the hallway, and I begin talking about Joyce Carol Oates with a smile on my face.
I have been having dreams or nightmares. I am unsure which one. I lay on the bed in my room, and it is dark, full of fish. They are touching me, defiling me. I try to touch them, but my hands pass through them. Noah is there, too. He is also in my room, frozen in bed next to me. We lay on top of the duvet my mother gave me when I graduated college. There are more fish at the bottom of my bed, scavenger fish, and they open their mouth wide, ready to swallow us both whole when I wake up sweating, aroused, and terrified.
On the last day of class, my department head sits in. She says she has heard good things from my students, that I assign interactive and creatively stimulating assignments. Noah is there in the front row. He is wearing dark jeans with Timberland boots and his short curls are perfectly gelled. He wears a tight, V-neck shirt that hugs his biceps just right, one that I imagine lasering off with pure will.
The department head sits next to him, watching, waiting, and I feel an impenetrable ocean wave rise between us. I talk about fallacies, how creative writers must be able to recognize these in their own writing and that of others, and I send my students forth deeper into the world of academia.
The department head congratulates me on a job well done. She says I must have many students who will go on to use this knowledge, becoming promising writers, but reminds me to keep a healthy distance from them. “They are just children, really,” she whispers to me, slyly, and with a smile. I thank her, but I am watching as Noah pauses, packing up his notebook for five minutes.
When she is gone, I wipe the fallacies away from the board and maybe try to swim through the ocean between us. I wonder if he feels it. The strength of the current, pulling us in different directions. I turn to look at him, and his smile swings upward along with his eyebrows. A look that is wanting, waiting for me to tell him, yes, it’s fine, come tell me everything, I want to know it all. Where you have been, and where you are going.
Danielle Epting has published fiction and nonfiction work in various journals such as Flash Fiction Magazine, Thought Catalog, and Nailed Magazine. Her first collection of short stories, Eyes Shut, was published in 2021. When she’s not writing, she can be found running or hanging out with her pup. More of her work can be found at danielleepting.com.