Wednesday I got to The New School early to talk to Gary about how sex had gone, but he wasn’t in his office. Plus the bitchy redhead from my class was hovering around his door and I didn’t want to make small talk with her. I poked my head into the adjunct office and found it empty. I was relieved and went inside. The lights were out and I sat down. I burned fifteen minutes by staring at a bulletin board, letting my eyes go blurry and doing my best to think nothing. I got close. I made a point of getting to my classroom just as it was time to begin so I didn’t have to sit there with all of them staring at me. I went right into it.
“Open your books to page fifty six. Today we’ll be discussing the rhetorical triangle.”
The smartass redhead said, “We talked about that last time. He-llo-o…”
The class erupted and I felt my face go red. She said “hello” in the three syllable way that made you want to punch someone in the fucking face until they looked like hamburger meat. I kept my cool and asked the class to read the next chapter on their own. This would give me a chance to figure out what the hell I was doing.
I looked over the syllabus while they read. The redhead whispered shit to the guy sitting next to her with a smirk. I hadn’t wanted to inflict physical violence on a person this badly in a long time. Not since I’d seen a guy slap his wife on the subway a few months ago. It was late, maybe three in the morning. They had been having a pretty quiet argument. Loud enough that you’d notice they were fighting, but not so loud you knew what they were saying. It was their faces that told you something big was going on. Veins popped out all over and wild hand movements caused all eight of the other passengers in the car to start watching like I was. And then he flat out smacked her. He did it like he hated her. He did it like he’d wished it killed her.
She screamed. The guy grabbed her head and pulled it to his lips. He spit words into her ear, a rehearsed barrage that he’d no doubt made her suffer before. She quieted. It wasn’t really the fuckhole that had bothered me. The world was peppered with fuckholes and if you spent any time in public, you’d see one from time to time. What made me so angry was that as soon as he slapped his wife stupid, every one of those onlookers darted their eyes back to their papers or to their friends or out the windows. They all pretended to go back to their conversations, or to the Yankees scores, or to their private thoughts. They all pretended they hadn’t seen a person just get hit with the full force of an adult man’s hand. I wanted to get up and tell all of those assholes that they were cowards. I wanted to put them on trial for their betrayal to the woman. I wanted to see hamburger meat faces, slumped over on the seats of the train.
I didn’t do any of that. What I did was the same thing everyone else did. I looked away. I had a fake conversation with myself about random bullshit. But what would I make to go with the pork chops? I’d love to find some of those au gratin potatoes, but I don’t know if the Duane Reade even carries stuff like that. I’ll probably have to walk over to C Town on 7th Ave. I was every bit as cowardly as them.
I collected myself, got over my anger for the redhead and put a lesson plan together. Class went better than I had expected and it reminded me of a couple years before when I had been a TA and really loved teaching. I got on a little roll and made a few concepts accessible by sharing personal anecdotes (selling door to door vacuums requires loads of rhetoric and no conscience, and genital warts sometimes look like awkwardly placed zits) that made the class perk up from their text messaging hypnosis. I was suddenly able to remember a Wordsworth line right when I needed it, to me alone there came a thought of grief, and when I accidently kept the class longer than I was supposed to, no one noticed.
“Oh,” I said, as I looked at the clock. “We’re out of time.”
They looked to their watches and cell phones with surprise. They scurried off and I’d forgotten about the redhead. It was as close to professional euphoria as I had ever felt. It was probably a very small version of what successful people feel all the time. I felt like a teacher. The feeling was buzzing inside me when I left the building. I lit a cigarette and grabbed a slice of pizza. The frigid February air made me walk briskly and I found myself in the kind of mood where the burn of hot pizza sauce on the roof of my mouth made me laugh instead of curse. I hadn’t laughed at pain in a long time and it felt good. On an ad near the entrance to the subway it showed a couple dancing in moonlight. It was selling something or other, and it reminded me that Valentine’s was coming up.
Later that night, over bourbon and cokes with Rachel, I brought up the idea of celebrating.
“We should do something big,” I said. “We should jump on a bus and go somewhere.”
She perked up on the couch and came over to me as I made us another round in the kitchen.
“You want to plan to go somewhere? You want to plan to travel somewhere for Valentine’s Day?”
“I’d love to,” she said. “I’m just a little surprised you even remembered it’s coming up. You’ve kind of been somewhere else lately.”
“I know,” I said. “Sorry. I’ve been a little fucked up, but I’m going to shake it off.”
“Do you want to talk about it? I’ve been trying to give you space, but if you want to.”
“I don’t really think I need to talk about it. I think I’m over it. You know, it was months ago.”
She gave me a skeptical look.
“Babe,” she said.
I looked away and took a sip of my drink. Handed her the one I made for her. Went for the couch.
“Babe,” she repeated. “I found the shirt.”
She went to our bedroom and I heard her reach into the hamper and extract the evidence. She came back out with the wrinkled thing. It was my favorite black t-shirt. I had spelled out Fuck Raymond Carver with duct tape over the chest. I could feel my face getting red.
“What’s it for?” she asked, the way your mom used to ask when she found porn under your bed. Forgiving, but disgusted. Her nose was crinkled.
“I was going to wear it to work the other day but I was chicken shit. I didn’t want people asking about it.”
“Why would you put words on a t-shirt for people to see and then not wear it because people were going to see it? It’s kind of crazy, sweet heart.”
I stood up and took the thing from her. I hung my head like a kid and hoped my sorrow would make her pity me enough to drop the whole thing.
“Seriously, what’s the Fuck Raymond Carver thing all about? The poor man has been dead from cancer for more than twenty years. I think he’s been sufficiently fucked without you making cakes and making shirts and whatever else you’ve been doing.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m not over it yet. But I’m working on it. I am. And I think part of working on it is that I’ve got to get out of my own head. I think we should get on a bus and go to Philly for Valentine’s. Do Love Park. Have a Philly cheesesteak. Maybe go to a nice restaurant one night.”
She smiled. “Okay crazy husband. Let’s go to Philly for Valentine’s.”
“Great,” I said. “And I’ll plan the whole thing. I’ll get the hotel and the restaurant. I’ll do everything.”
“Okay,” she said. “But no more Fuck Raymond Carver? No more ruining your clothes?”
“No more,” I said.
She smiled and we sat down. I was glad I’d never told her the magazine was located in Philadelphia. If I planned it right, I’d be able to confront the editor of PBQ without Rachel ever knowing.