Today, instead of a Sampling, I will be posting my novella "Genuine" for your delicate perusal. On this piece, it is more important than ever that you talk to me and tell me what you think.
Because "Genuine" brought back Rejection Letter #2, and I may be a little sulky on that still.
Still, this story needs a chance to see the light of day. So here goes nothing.
This note was buried in some of the information I collected when I wrote this piece. I thought it interesting:
“Genuine” is a labor of love on my part. Even if they don’t end up selecting it, I needed to write after some bad news I received… and I needed to keep my mind off things that were developing as I was writing. So this piece is my personal screw-you to the carpel tunnel syndrome in my wrists and to life itself, as it endeavors to steal my escapisms from me.
Prompt: It is never too late to find love.
Perspective: First Person
Genres: Slice of Life, Drama
Length: 5270 words
-Large age gap
-Inventive courting methods
-Nosey best friend
Let the games begin.
For the first hour or so of my office hours, my office had been flooded with eager students with simple questions that made me want to rethink my career. Then I hadn’t seen a single student for the following hour. Honestly, I’d been about ready to gather my papers and head out, even with half an hour remaining of my scheduled office hours, but for that hesitant knock at my door.
The slow way the student opened my office door seemed to echo the timidity of the knocking.
“Professor Etheridge… I know I’m kind of late…” the boy began, absently running his fingers through his red-brown bangs.
“You’re just fine on time: my office hours last until four.”
His shy smile was fast and bright and endearing. “Thank you.”
I couldn’t keep myself from smiling back at him. “Tell me, what are you struggling with…?”
“Devlin,” he volunteered. “Devlin Lovelace. I’m in your 8am Calculus course. Um, I’m having a little trouble with these derivative functions.” A sheepish look graced his face as he continued, drawing my attention to the equations he was struggling with and carefully explaining the steps he took before he got stuck.
If only all of my students could be this thorough in their clarification!
Explaining the equations to him again, I found an exercise I hadn’t assigned to the class and led him through it slowly, taking time to explain each step as he followed along. I could almost see the light of understanding flicker to life in his eyes as a smile began to stretch across his lips.
It had taken him a bit of time, but he could follow and complete the assignment on his own now. As I watched him leave my office at 4:15, I smiled to myself and thought, I wouldn’t mind seeing that boy again.
Though he kept to himself, his attentive nature made me think he took meticulous notes. As I taught, I had frequently noticed that the girl to his right would allow her gaze to drift to his notes when she seemed to be getting lost, and it made me decide I was probably right. His homework was always handed in on time on neat sheets of notebook paper that carefully documented his work. More often than not, his answers were accurate and I rarely marked those sheets with more than “Excellent work” across the top margin.
I didn’t see him at my office hours again until the next unit began. Again, he arrived during the last half hour. Again, I was smiling to myself as he left my office late and marveling over the bright young man. It seemed that he had found a foothold in my thoughts that he had no wish to relinquish.
“You look brighter –maybe even lighter. Have you found someone?” Antoine del Vera inquired one afternoon over lunch. Antoine taught the business math course, and we had become fast friends over conversations about the applications of calculus in the business world.
I snorted at his question. “I happen to be much too old for a boyfriend, Antoine. A partner would be nice, but I’m not holding out much hope on that front, either.”
“Hey, it could happen, Talon. Who says that the 40s aren’t the prime of life?” The dark haired man shrugged.
“Hm. Spoken like a 39 year old in the last stages of grief for his fleeing youth,” I tossed back rather tartly.
Laughing, Antoine shook his head. “Seriously, Talon: what’s lifted your spirits like this? You actually smile and you keep humming Sinatra and swing music when nothing else occupies your attention. To me, it seems that for the first time in a while, you’re genuinely happy.”
A simultaneous ache and warmth surrounded my heart in a tight grip. Antoine was a dear friend and he knew me so well that the signs of happiness I generally disregarded stood out against my life. Yet as he deduced my happiness, he also had to note it’s chronic absence. Truly, he was the sort of friend that was once in a lifetime –but on deeper levels, it hurt to know that he recognized my hurt.
“It’s… well, just a bright student in one of my lectures, I guess,” I admitted finally. “He’s a shy little thing, as far as I can tell, but he has this contagious smile…” My gaze met Antoine’s slowly. “It’s not much, but it’s genuine.”
His answering smile was tender. “Love –great, true, lasting love– has simple beginnings. You could take a chance…”
“I’m not made for love, Antoine. All I understand are numbers and equations and graphs.”
“Your head is rational, yes, but you have the old soul of a romantic, Talon. You just need to be able to let go, sometimes.” His dark eyes seemed to plead with me to let go of my control just this once.
But I couldn’t let it go. I remembered too well the hurt and the pain that had followed letting go, that had inspired my need to control, and I had no wish to relive things well passed. My emotions had once mastered me, after all, and I had no wish to be as manipulated as I had been. “No, Antoine. Letting go… it hurts too much.”
“Then you choose to be alone,” he returned simply, though his heart and his hurt seemed to haunt his eyes.
Still, there had been a reason I had chosen the numbers and equations: they had logical, correct answers and they did not shift in nature at the slightest turn or bump. That much could not be said for people and love, in my experiences.
I’d just made up my mind to head home when who should walk in the door but Devlin Lovelace, surrounded by a handful of loud happy men his age. They cheered when the bartender carded Devlin and forced him to hand over his ID. Resigned to my need to watch this interesting scene play out, I signaled for another drink. The bartender slid his card back to him and I wondered if today could possibly be his birthday.
The small group of men settled at the bar –Devlin seated on a stool at the bar and surrounded by the others, some seated while others stood. The first beers were bought and passed around, and it was no hardship to guess they’d already had a few. Though the center of attention, he seemed more sober than the others. He took long slow sips from a long-necked bottle, his eyes darting about the room as though the amount of attention he was receiving was frankly embarrassing to him.
One of the boys –a blond one, fairly cute– noticed Devlin’s wondering attention and set about setting it back to the task at hand, which was apparently getting so drunk they wouldn’t be hung-over for their classes tomorrow because they’d still be drunk. He laughed and whispered things in Devlin’s ear and something twisted in my stomach when he turned Devlin’s head to plant a sloppy wet kiss on his lips. Devlin’s blush could have lit the entire bar but he laughed good-naturedly, giving the less than steady blond a light shove.
Feeling more than a little like a voyeur and not liking the churning in my stomach, I lifted my glass to drain what remained only to find myself snagged in that pale green gaze. Slowly, I met his eyes and raised my glass toward him. Seconds ticked by, but they felt like years until he responded. Cheeks flushed prettily, he echoed the motion with his bottle. Slamming back the rest of my drink, it still burned in my throat as I settled my tab and took my leave from the bar.
Walking back to my apartment in the cool night air, I wondered why I had been so affected by what had occurred before my very eyes. Probably too much heavy conversation, contemplation, and alcohol, I decided, though there was no stagger to my step or ghosts lingering in my mind.
It started out pretty simply with the appearance of a golden apple on my desk before I arrived to my 8 am lecture. That golden apples were my favorite was a little known fact, but I brushed it off, anyway, figuring it was a student’s attempt to curry favor. So I let that little mystery go and taught my class, though I did take the apple with me.
The following Tuesday, however, a hot cup of coffee appeared with a yellow sticky note that read “Strong and black, the way you like it”. The handwriting was crisp and clear and even, and I had to admit my curiosity was stirred. My mood frequently improved when I was well-caffeinated, but there was no reason for any of my students to know how I liked my coffee. I gave the darkly fragrant brew a cautionary sip and thought I’d found nirvana for a moment. The blend was bold yet smooth and it matched my taste so well it was as though I’d selected it myself. I sipped from the cup as I taught that hour and I left my own note behind: “Thank you”.
Two days later, two red pens awaited me –and they matched the one that had died tragically only a few nights before as I graded trigonometry homework.
“Someone in my morning calculus class is leaving me gifts,” I told Antoine later that day over lunch.
He arched a brow at that. “What sort of gifts?”
I thought it over for a moment.“Thoughtful ones, I guess? A perfectly ripe golden apple, a cup of coffee just the way I like it… and then today, pens to replace the one that gave it’s life grading papers. It’s sort of… sweet and disconcerting, all at once.”
“Maybe you have an admirer,” Antoine spoke the words slowly.
Try as I might, I could not contain my scoff. “I’m at least twice the age of my students, Antoine. This isn’t a romance novel.”
“Hey, there’s something to be said for experience, Talon. Besides, think about how many of your students long after Johnny Depp. The age difference is pretty well the same.”
“But it’s not the same. I’m their teacher, the one who is tasked with dragging them through whatever required math course kicking and screaming. He’s an actor, an untouchable ideal for them to aspire to.”
He sighed. “Students have crushes on their teachers all of the time, with no regard to the subject they teach. Can’t you just enjoy it?”
“Right now, it’s a puzzle to solve, Antoine. Whoever is leaving these gifts knows more of me than they should.”
“You know me well, but that’s to be expected from my best friend. But these are things they shouldn’t know. It wasn’t just an apple, it was my favorite kind of apple. It wasn’t just a cup of coffee: it was just the way I take it, and a good blend to boot. And those pens were my favorite brand and you know how I am about my pens.” I sighed. “Why should any of these things matter to anyone but me? Why put so much effort into this?”
“Maybe it’s a courting ritual, Talon. Hell, I don’t know! But maybe you should stop over-thinking these things: they could be well-intentioned whims or bids for your attention or God knows what else. Just… let it go and let it happen, okay?”
“I’m not good at that,” I confessed softly. “When I let go, things fall apart…”
His hand reached for mine and covered it. “Then sometimes, things need to fall apart."
I was most of the way through the stack of calculus homework that had been handed in this morning before I snagged on that familiar handwriting. It was clearly printed, only as large as the writer felt was needed –just like the note that had been left on the cup of coffee. My eyes shot over to the top margin of the page –the right side– to discover the owner of such distinctive handwriting and who my mysterious admirer or whatever was.
I shook my head to clear it, all but certain I’d read it incorrectly, but when I looked back to the page, the name remained the same.
That short auburn hair and those overgrown bangs that fell into those intelligent pale green eyes. The slender lithe form that sat up so straight in a class that most slept through. The ovular glasses that perched on his nose and made his eyes seem to dominate his face… Devlin Lovelace, my fascination since the first few weeks of the semester. The one who need only smile at me to leave me smiling and singing Sinatra under my breath for the rest of the day.
The boy who was probably less than half my age.
Scoffing at myself, I shook my head. Yes, the boy fascinated me endlessly. Yes, I found something refreshing and enticing about him. Yes, his mere smile could leave me smiling for the rest of the day. But not one of those things added up to any real sort of relationship –not friendship nor mentorship or even a love affair.
Yet it seemed that neither one of us had noticed that the other noticed us, which seemed all but laughable to me. One part of me was glad I was able to keep my notice under the radar. Another part of me lectured me on the fact that I should have noticed, what with all the surreptitious glances I’d sent his way. The last part wondered if any of it really mattered. After all, I was not only his professor: I was also old enough to be his father.
And despite Antoine’s protests on the matter, I rather felt too old to date a college boy.
Yet I suppose I couldn’t help but wonder how much he was spending on these simple little gestures of his?
Having been an undergraduate –and then a graduate– student myself, I had first-hand knowledge of the non-existent shoe string budget a lot of students lived one. I had, in fact, been one of them. Luckily, I’d been able to get a job and a very understanding boss when I worked my way through college, but it had still been very difficult and I ate a lot of ramen dinners.
While none of the gifts he left me cost too much on their own, all together they could total up quite nicely –especially since the gifts were a biweekly occurrence. It sort of warmed me as I thought of it, that I was important enough for him to budget out a portion of his limited funds to leave me these things.
They continued clear through the semester, up to the session before the final exam would be administrated. It would have seemed odd to not have received a gift that day but for the one that was left for me after the study session: a pale pink thorn-less rose with a note that read “Will you meet with me?”
So as the class filed out, I made sure my reply was waiting in him in the familiar place reserved for each gift I received.
“After finals. Study hard and do well” was all it said, but I knew he would understand. After all, he seemed to understand me better than most.
“This person,” I hedge, having not yet revealed the one I knew to be responsible, “seems to know so very much about me, yet I know so little of them.”
A grin flashed across his face. “Is that interest I hear?”
“…Sort of…?” ‘Interest’ was much too mild a word for what I felt for Devlin, yet too strong a word for an anonymous gift giver.
“Well, surely they would be willing to share about themselves if you asked. Still, favorite things tend to be rather abstract and they don’t really tell you much about a person as a whole, Talon.”
“Yet they still know so much. It makes me feel as though I have been watched –though I’m not sure if I should feel paranoid or flattered by the attention.”
A pained expression slipped slowly across his face but he didn’t speak for a few moments. “I told him,” he finally admitted in a soft voice, as though waiting for my reprimand.
“It’s Devlin, isn’t it. The only thing I couldn’t really figure out was why you seemed so surprised when I first told you about the gifts.”
He seemed a bit taken aback by my words. “So you did figure out who it was. Well, he asked me about some of your favorite things and I thought ‘What’s the harm in it?’ you know? I really didn’t know what he planned to do with it, so I was as surprised as you were when the gifts began appearing.” He was silent for a few moments, pensive, as though thinking through how to put his thoughts into words. “I didn’t mean any harm with it, Talon. It just strikes me that sometimes, you are the largest impediment on your own happiness. It’s like you don’t believe you deserve to be happy for some reason, so you just won’t let it happen. But Devlin… he’s got one more semester left before he graduates with his accounting degree and he’s not looking for temporary. I think you two could be quite happy together if you could stop going on about his age and think about how such a soul might bring you a little balance, levity, and light.”
“I’ll think about it, Antoine.” But inside, I was already counting the moments until I’d actually meet Devlin Lovelace as something other than one of my students.
So the bulk of my class filed into the lecture, all prepared for a difficult final they were all probably afraid of failing. The apprehension that laced the air was so thick that it laid heavy on my tongue. Yet I still refused to take pity on them until I passed out all of the five-page exams and returned to the front of the room.
“What you have before you is a rather short final. Being that the skills we built up over the semester are necessary to the last unit, our final over covers that unit.”
A wave of exhilarated sighs and cheers crossed the body of students at a surprising volume and velocity. I held up my hands and smiled as the noise quieted slowly. “Very well, then. You have the entire exam period to complete it, though I doubt any of you will need that much time. Once you are finished, bring it up to my desk. Then you’re free to leave.”
The noise seemed to settle itself out of existence. Then all that could be heard was the sounds of pens and pencils scratching at paper and the occasional soft swear word that followed said pen or pencil hitting the floor. Shaking my head and smiling, I settled behind the desk and tried to ease myself into the task of grading finals from my other classes as I presided over this exam.
Thirty minutes slowly dripped past and only ten of the finals were graded. Defeated, I finally just set down my pen and decided to wait it out, since concentration seemed beyond my grasp at the moment. I did my best to wait in silence, scribbling down little doodles and thoughts about Devlin as they occurred to me.
He seemed to fill my mind in a way I hadn’t thought possible after Grif’s rejections. Only he had ever filled my mind beyond the point of concentration, but Devlin seemed to fill my mind to the point of distraction. It should have been disconcerting or maybe a little worrying, especially after the way my relationship with Grif had worked out, but his dominion seemed to crowd out even those thoughts.
Forty-five minutes into the exam period, he rose from his seat and placed his final on my desk. Over his name rested a familiar yellow sticky note, which I retrieved as he hastened to gather his things.
“Meet me at the angel in the courtyard as soon as the last final is handed in, please.”
The other students would never finish their finals fast enough to suit me.
It was a few blocks from the Richard Leverd Building, but I didn’t mind the brisk air or the snowflakes that seemed to dance to some sweet slow music as they drifted down. The weather seemed to summon a calmness to my mind that had been quite absent for me today. My strides ate at the distance slowly and my thoughts drifted like the snow on the wind, peaceful yet varied as they drifted over my understanding and faded into nothing.
When it came down to it, Antoine was right. I often found myself undeserving of happiness because I had caused Grif so much unhappiness. I blamed myself for his suicide, because I knew he was scared to come out to his family, but after our last fight, I hadn’t thought he wanted me by his side. Without my strength to urge him on, he didn’t come out at all: instead, he killed himself to ‘spare them the shame’.
But as much as I blamed myself for things that happened half a lifetime ago, perhaps it was time for me to stop punishing myself for my anger and hurt and youthful missteps. Perhaps it was time to let myself be happy and have a look at what my future might be.
The snowy courtyard was beautiful, even with snow heaped up on the bronzed wings of the angel statue Devlin had named as out meeting place. Devlin, now drapped in a charcoal wool coat and a sanguine scarf, seemed lost in the snowfall as it dusted upon his hair and his coat. He looked up as my footsteps cruched in the layer of snow already lingering on the ground.
“Good afternoon, professor,” he greeted.
It took me a moment to find the nerve to reply. “Given some of the things that have passed between us, perhaps you should call me ‘Talon’,” I instructed softly, smiling gently at him.
“Talon,” he repeated, as though tasting and weighing the way it felt upon his tongue.
I fought back a shiver as the way he seemed to savor the gift, the intimacy, of my first name. “Where shall we go?”
“I know a place,” he returned, his smile warm as he reached for my hand.
“What can I get for you, Dev?” the waiter inquired.
“Oh, two cups of my usual, Benji. Talon takes his coffee the same way I do,” he commented softly, his eyes meeting mine shyly.
Benji rolled his eyes at that. “I suppose the way you seek to torment yourself with your coffee is no concern of mine,” he added, trying to hold back his smile.
“Nope. You just have to serve it,” Devlin shot back, his smile sweet.
Benji didn’t seem to have a comeback for that one: he simply departed to get what was ordered.
Devlin’s attention shifted back to me fully. “I’m sorry about Benji. He’s usually nicer when I bring people with me.”
I smiled in spite of myself, thinking about what Antoine might say if I brought Devlin with me to one of our lunches. “He seems like a good friend.”
“He is. At least he is most of the time, when he’s not trying to fix me.”
I laughed. “The same could be said for Antoine del Vera.”
Devlin did have the good grace to blush at that. “I… I’m sorry about that, Talon.”
“It’s not something you need to apologize for. Honestly, I think I’m rather happy that he decided to tell you a few things about me. It gave me a chance to meet you, as something other than my student.” I gave him a soft smile that couldn’t possibly show how I felt. “Should we start over?”
A half-smile on his lips, he extended his hand. “I’m Devlin Lovelace. I’m an accounting major.”
I took that hand in mine. “I’m Talon Etheridge. I’m a professor of mathematics.” I gave his hand a smooth shake. “It’s nice to meet you, Devlin.”
I almost felt the chill that raced up his arm. “Though I must admit, I probably wouldn’t have noticed you if you weren’t in my class. You stood out.”
His blush was delectable. “Y-you noticed me?”
“How could I not? You were so alert and genuine and eager to learn, while so many of my other students were literally sleeping in their texts.” I lifted his hand to my lips and pressed a kiss to his hand just to watch his eyes flutter shut, only to open wide.
He blinked, withdrawing slowly from the touch of my lips.
“You fascinated me, Devlin. There’s no other word for it. You fascinated me in a way I didn’t think was still possible.” I shook my head. “Hell, I thought 43 was too old to feel this way, but you showed me differently.”
Just then, Benji dropped our coffee off at the table and pinched Devlin’s blushing cheek. “Oh, keep on making him blush, sir. He knows I’ll never let him live it down.”
I couldn’t help but laugh as Devlin’s blush deepened. Benji departed after that, laughing as he retreated for the kitchen.
“I liked you, too, from the very first day of class. I had slipped in late and you looked up when the door opened. You didn’t make a big deal of it: you just nodded to me and kept going, but you made sure I had a copy of the syllabus before I left. And I just… became more and more interested in you each day,” he confessed softly.
I reached for his hand again, not even remotely shy about holding it across the table.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way about someone before, Talon.”
Squeezing his hand was all the reply I could manage for a few moments. “I usually can’t just let go and let things happen, but you made it possible. What I feel for you… it’s not going to pass, Devlin.”
“If what I felt for you was going to pass, don’t you think it would have happened before the final exam?” he inquired tartly. “It’s not a crush but not quite a relationship. Where does that leave us?”
“Just starting out, together. As we should be.” The beginning. So strange to see something begin so late in my life, and yet, it was right. I didn’t want to race into anything –not because I was scared it wouldn’t last, but because I didn’t want to miss a step along the way. For some reason, after all of my past lovers and experiences, this one felt too genuine to miss out on.
He squeezed my hand, as well. “You know, you’re right. Just where we should be.”
Please write me a comment and let me know. Up until now, my eyes have been much the only set to have gazed upon this piece, so I need a little feed-back. Doesn't take long; just drop me a line.