# 13 – Ink

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Liza watched Bruce disappear up the street and wondered again where he lived. She glanced down at the clock on the dashboard. It was ten twenty-four. Casey would be asleep by now, so she circled around until she found a parking spot. She grabbed her bag and headed into the square. Adams Square was a big park that took up a city block. It was meticulously landscaped with various bushes, trees, and flowers. Cobblestone walkways dotted with benches cut through the vegetation. Statues and fountains were scattered throughout. The trees were strung with big round Christmas lights that gave the square a festive atmosphere at night. It reminded Liza of a wedding she’d been to as a child. It was at an apple orchard in the country. The trees were all lit up, and she had spent most of the reception wandering up and down the rows, mesmerized by the lights.

She sat down under a tree and pulled out a pencil and the parchment. Liza began to sketch Bruce sitting on the bench in the garden at night. He was leaning slightly forward, arms out, palms flat on the marble. His long legs were bent in front of him. He looked like he might be getting ready to stand up. She had him wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. Between the tattoos and the setting, at first glance he looked like someone you would cross the street to avoid. She spent a lot of time adding subtle details, more details than she usually included in her sketches. Each brick was a book cover. The ones closest to Bruce were books that had inspired his tattoos. If you didn’t look carefully, the words just appeared to be shading. A slim object was intertwined in the long fingers of his right hand. It could be a knife, until a second glance showed that it was a quill. Around the bench, Liza drew some of the bushes and flowers that she could remember and then added ivy. The ivy grew every which way, snaking up the sides of the bench, around a tree, and across a few of the brick books. When she finished with this, the bench was almost completely ensconced in ivy.

Liza dug around in her bag for the black fine point pen she used to ink in her drawings. She carefully went over the sketch, spending extra time on Bruce’s face. She wanted to get his high cheekbones and dark, heavy-lidded eyes just right. As an afterthought, she sketched a full moon partially hidden from view behind a tree. Its light cast most of the left half of Bruce’s body in shadow. She slid the pen into her hair and held up the parchment to inspect her handiwork. She was happy with the way it had turned out. At first, Bruce looked somewhat menacing, but the details revealed themselves the longer you looked. The knife was a writing tool. The scuffed bricks were works of literature. The cocky sneer was a tentative smile. He wasn’t getting up to attack, but to greet. She had added the shadow to represent the mysteriousness of her new friend.

She smiled and looked around, willing him to come marching up the path. Liza wished she could give him the drawing now. Class wasn’t for a few days and she realized that in addition to not knowing where he lived, she also didn’t have his phone number. His office number was probably on the University’s website, but that seemed too stalker-like. She sighed and carefully tucked the drawing into her bag. It would have to wait. “Mysterious bastard,” she said under her breath.

# 12 – Talk to Me

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Liza had been trying to ignore the disappearing sun for the past forty-five minutes.  This was one of those days that you wished you could live in forever.  She didn’t want it to end and she didn’t want it ruined by an encounter with Laura at home.  Bruce didn’t mentioned that he had anywhere to be.  She realized that she had no idea where he lived except that it was near Adams Square.  Did he live in a condo?  An apartment?  One of those big old historic houses?  Did he live alone?  Not knowing the answers to these questions agitated her.

“Do you want a cigarette?” asked Bruce.

Liza looked at him, a little taken aback.  Was she that transparent?  “It’s ok.  I can wait,” she said.  It was true.  She didn’t feel the urge to smoke.

“Are you sure?  It’s a nice night.  I’ll come out with you.  Do you have a few more minutes or…do you need to get home to the owner of the art project in your car?”

Casey’s art project.  She had given it to Liza back when she had still been able to attend school.  “Sure.  I mean, no.  Well…”  She thought of her niece stuck at home all day with Laura, sick and barely able to get around on her own.  She should get home.  Laura was likely to be having another party, or to have gone out and left her daughter to fend for herself.  Liza looked at Bruce.  Casey was Laura’s responsibility, not hers.  “Let’s go outside.  I have time.  The little girl who made the art project is my niece, not my daughter.”

“Laura?”

Liza hesitated.  Don’t go into detail.  Keep it light.  “Laura is my sister.  Casey is her daughter.  She’s eight.  She made the project.”

They walked outside and hopped up on a short brick wall in front of Liza’s car.  She turned her face up and closing her eyes for a minute.  When she opened them again Bruce was looking at her.

“Where’d you go?  What were you thinking about?” asked Bruce softly.

“Eh, nothing.  I was just thinking about…”  Casey.  “Stuff.”

“You know, if you ever change your mind about that long story, I’d still be happy to listen.  I get the feeling that there is a problem or issue there.  I may not be able to help, but you can always talk to me.”

Liza’s eyes began to fill up.  Maybe Bruce couldn’t see them in the darkness.  She was angry at herself and turned her head as if she was looking up the street.  They were getting ready to overflow.  Dammit!  A long arm wrapped around her.  Bruce slid closer.  He put his other hand on the side of her head and gently laid it on his shoulder.  She felt calm almost immediately.  He rubbed her back.  She wrapped her arms around his waist.  “You too,” she whispered.

“Me too, what?”

“Your long story.  You can always talk to me too.” said Liza.  Several flickered across his face, but she couldn’t identify them in the fading light. He kissed her forehead and continued rubbing her back.  Liza felt happy and free, in a way that she hadn’t since she was a kid.  At some point, she fell asleep.  When she woke up the moon was shining and the street lights were twinkling around them.

# 11 – Parchment Paper

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“An artist.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“What kind?”

“I don’t know.  I never got that far.  I draw pencil sketches mostly.”  She hesitated.  “They’re kind of…dark.  Some people love them, some people find them disturbing.”  She watched him closely.

He was nodding, thoughtful.  “I don’t suppose you would show me some of your drawings?”

“Sure, right after you let me read your novel,” said Liza.

Bruce bunched his lips up in annoyance, but his eyes were smiling.  He shook his head and took a sip of coffee.  “Ok, so tell me this:  why didn’t you pursue it?  Why don’t you pursue it?  You said draw, present tense.”

“I was planning on pursuing it at different times.  Two of my five majors were art and another was graphic design.”

“What happened?” he asked.  Liza considered her answer.  He seemed genuinely curious.  He wasn’t looking at her like she was stupid or flaky.

She shrugged.  “Life?  I should’ve majored in art the first time around.  I should’ve just gone for it.  I was eighteen with no responsibilities, nothing to lose but time and money.  I’ve lost those anyway, and have nothing to show for it.”  Ok, enough of the philosophical sidebar.  “Anyway.  My advisor thought it wasn’t practical and my family acted like I’d said I wanted to major in sword swallowing.  So I majored in law, hated it, and dropped out.  I went back a year later, majored in art, lost my job and my tuition reimbursement, and dropped out…and on and on.”  She paused, debating. “I finally decided to give it one last try a couple of years ago.  I was half way through.  Then…I had some personal problems.  Everything got to be too much.  I ended up dropping out again.  This is actually my first term back.  I’m majoring in business administration this time.  It’s not exciting, but I can tolerate it.  I’ve been doing office work of some sort for almost a decade.”

“Why not major in art this time if that’s what you like?” asked Bruce.

“I don’t have that luxury anymore.  I have bills to pay and…”  She thought about Casey and Laura, but didn’t want to go there.  “and, I don’t know, I’m not getting any younger.”

He didn’t say anything for a while, just looked at her, poking his tongue into his cheek, thinking.  “How about a turkey sandwich?”

“Huh?”  Nice, very eloquent.

He stood up.  “That cookie didn’t do it for me.  I’m still hungry.  Do you want to split a turkey sandwich?”  he asked, pointing up at the counter.

“Sure,” she said.  Liza watched him march up to the counter and wondered if she had made him uncomfortable.  She was mad at herself for revealing her indecisiveness and hinting at her family drama.  He didn’t want to hear about that.  She promised herself that she would keep it light from now on.  Liza watched him, thinking again how attractive he was.  She would never admit it out loud, but she was really starting to like him.

He came back and deposited the sandwich and a can of energy drink on the table.

She laughed, forgetting her thoughts.  “Wow, coffee and an energy drink!  Are we going for a jog after this?”

He smiled.  “I couldn’t resist.  It reminded me of that first night outside of Norton, on the bench.”  Bruce spread out a napkin in front of each of them.  He pulled out the turkey sandwich and gave her half.  He took a big bite of his half and set to work on the parchment wrapper.  He removed the plastic liner, carefully pulled off the tape, and flattened it out on the table.  Next, he folded it in half, pressing the fold hard.  Then he tore the paper down the middle along the fold.

“What are you doing?” Liza asked.

“Homework,” he said.  “Since you won’t show me any of your drawings, and I won’t let you read my novel, let’s make a deal.”  He handed her half of the parchment paper, and set the other half on the table next to him.  “Draw something for me.  Anything.  Something that you won’t mind showing me.  I’ll write something for you.  I’m not sure what yet.  We’ll exchange them after class next week.”

“Why after?”

“Well, we’re both nervous about letting the other seeing our work.  This way, neither of us will have to watch the other’s reaction.”

Liza smiled.  She liked it.  A million pictures raced through her mind.  She almost wished that she could start now.  Her smile faded.  “Are you going to be able to get past your writer’s block?”

“It might not be good, but I’ll force myself,” he said, glancing down at his paper as if it might jump up and slap him.

“Ok, deal,” Liza said, holding out her hand before he could change his mind.  Once again, his giant hand enveloped hers.  She didn’t feel as nervous this time, mainly just happy.  He tugged her hand toward himself and rose slightly out of his chair, leaning forward.  Liza half-rose from her own chair and met his lips over the table.

 

# 10 – Someday

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“So, what made you decide to become a lit professor?” asked Liza.

“I don’t know.  I always loved books, even as a kid.  Sometimes I would spend the whole day at the library of whatever base we were living on.  For me, reading was a chance to step inside someone else’s life for a while.  You know, we moved a lot and my parents weren’t always around.  My mom worked full-time and my dad would be deployed for months.  Like I think I told you, I had friends, but, when you move around a lot, you never have the chance to develop close friendships.”  He shrugged.  “I don’t know what I’m getting at.”

“Hmm,” Liza considered this.  It was a foreign lifestyle to her.  She thought it must be hard on a kid to move around that much, even if it was kind of an adventure for them.  It probably got old never being able to lay down roots and perpetually being the new kid.  It could probably get lonely sometimes.  She pictured Bruce as a child, spending the day in a quiet corner of the library reading, poking the inside of his cheek with his tongue.  She smiled at the thought.  He smiled back and raised his eyebrows in question.  Liza shook her head.  “No, I think I get it, at least kind of.”  They sipped their coffees and took turns pulling pieces off a big peanut butter cookie.  “When did you know you wanted to teach?”

“After I spent two years writing a novel and another year not being able to get it published,” he said.

“Ah.  Sorry,” she said, “Do you still have a copy of the novel?”

He hesitated, “Somewhere.”

“I don’t suppose you’d let me read it sometime?”  As soon as the words were out, she wanted to take them back.  She was afraid they sounded presumptuous or pushy.  They were really only acquaintances who had shared a few hours, a can of energy drink, and a kiss.  Here she was, asking to read his failed novel.  When she could make herself look at him again, he was studying her.  She couldn’t read his expression.  Had she made him sad by digging up bad memories?

“Someday I’ll let you read it,” he said.  Someday was good.  Someday meant that he was also hoping there would be more days.

“Do you still write?” she asked.

“Nah, I still make up stories in my head, but nothing comes out when I sit down to write.”  Now he looked sad.  Good job, dumb-ass.  Liza didn’t know what to say.  She thought it would be insensitive to change the topic and mean to keep grilling him about it.  Clearly, this was a regret.  His hand was sitting on the table next to his mug.  It was the one with the bent finger.  She reached over and rested her hand on top of his.

# 9 – Fifty

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“I don’t know.  Fifty?”

“Fifty?!”  He looked alarmed.

“Forty-eight??”

“Jesus, do I really look that old?”  Bruce turned to look at his reflection in the bookstore window.

“No, I think you look like you could be around my age.”  Liza studied him as he rubbed his hand across his hair and sucked in a phantom gut.  “Hmm…how about…thirty-two?”

“Oh, yeah right.  What, are you trying to make up for that first guess?”  Liza couldn’t tell if he was playing or if she had really hurt his feelings.

“No, that’s my guess.  Honestly, you look like you could be in your twenties, but considering that you’re a professor and were married, I guessed high.  You must at least be in your early thirties.”

Bruce stared at her with an unreadable expression, before breaking into a wide smile. “I’m thirty-eight, but thank you.”

“Sure, just don’t forget that you had to fish for that compliment,” Liza said, grinning and cocking an eyebrow at him.  “So tell me, how old do you think I am?”

“Hmm…seventh semester freshman, evening student, full-time job, drives a Focus, likes Halestorm, drinks energy drinks…” His eyes roamed her face for a minute.  “I’m going to say…twenty-seven.”

He was right.  Exactly.  Liza pursed her lips.  She was more competitive than a PMSing soccer mom on steroids and didn’t like losing; not even this little guessing game.  “How did you know that?”

“I guessed.  How would I know?”  He looked amused.

“I don’t know.  Can’t professors look up student records?”

“Yes, we can, but apparently Liza is a nickname, and you never told me your last name.”  She smiled.  He had tried to look her up.

“My real first name is Elizabeth,” she said.

A slow grin spread across his face.  He extended his right hand, “Bruce.”

 

# 8 – Laura and Casey

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Liza’s throat burned from the pack of cigarettes that she inhaled since she came home.  Her eyes were swollen, her nose was stuffed shut, and her fingers were like prunes.  She’d been in here for over an hour.  The bathroom had become a hiding place and a prison since Laura and Casey had come to live with her.  She heard a crash from somewhere in the house, followed by Laura’s throaty laugh.  Liza reached her breaking point.  She turned off the water and threw some clothes on.  A little makeup, a clip for her damp hair, and she rushed downstairs.  Laura was in the living room blasting some cheesy pop song and grinding with a guy that Liza had never seen.  Another guy was sitting in a chair drinking Liza’s beer and stuffing his face with leftover pizza.  Casey was asleep on the sofa.  Liza scooped up her niece’s frail little body and carried her upstairs to bed.  She tucked her in and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead.  Liza sighed and stared down at the sleeping girl, arms crossed.  She felt horrible for her, but didn’t know if she could do anything to help.

Laura had Casey when she was sixteen.  If she knew who the father was, she never said.  When she turned eighteen, she took Casey and disappeared.  No one in the family heard from her for almost six years.  Liza had tried to track her down two years ago when their parents died.  She had half expected her to show up at the funeral, but she hadn’t.  Laura turned up at the house one night a couple of months ago with Casey, who was now eight and sick with leukemia.  Casey’s medical bills and Laura’s careless lifestyle had left them with no money and insurmountable debt.  She already knew that their parents had died and that they had left Liza the house.  Liza had considered turning her away.   They had never been close, and though Liza loved her niece, she didn’t relish the thought of living with a child, a sick child.  In the end, it was only because of Casey that she agreed to let them stay.  Their relationship was strained.  Laura refused to tell Liza where she had been and what she had been doing for the past six years.  She only shrugged when Liza asked why she hadn’t come home for the funeral.

Liza realized pretty fast that her little sister was not much more mature than she had been at sixteen.  She went out almost every night, even leaving Casey alone on the evenings when Liza had class.  Laura brought random guys back to the house.  She missed Casey’s doctor’s appointments and forget her medicine.  Liza hated to think it, but she suspected that Laura hadn’t just written off her daughter, but that she was waiting for her to die.  Liza tried to help where she could, but it was difficult between work, school, and her lack of experience with kids.  She couldn’t take it anymore, and Casey had taken it for way too long.  Liza didn’t know if she could do anything. If she could, it wasn’t happening tonight.  She quietly closed Casey’s door and walked back through the living room and out into the night.  A while later she found herself driving through campus.  Liza told herself that she had driven there on autopilot, but she knew she was lying.  She knew it by her irrational disappointment  at not finding him in the garden.

# 7 – Either Way

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“Wow, you’re one bad-ass lit professor, aren’t you?” teased Liza.  It was early July and it was sweltering outside.  Bruce was wearing a sleeveless shirt and cargo shorts.  She was finally able to get a good look at some of the tattoos that she had glimpsed before.  It was funny; from a distance, he looked more like a biker than a professor.  A closer inspection revealed that all of his tattoos referenced literature in some way or another.  Her favorite was a simple quote that ran up his left forearm, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  It was from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.   Liza traced the letters with her finger.

“I was a military brat growing up, and unlike a lot of us, I enjoyed moving around.  I don’t know.  I always managed to make friends wherever we went, but I never minded leaving them behind when my dad was re-stationed.  I liked my friends but I really liked exploring new cities.”  Bruce was smiling slightly as he stared off into the sky.  Liza was quiet.  She reflected on her own childhood.  It had been good but ordinary.  Mom stayed home and Dad was a plumber.  She had spent her whole childhood in the brick row house that she now owned.  She thought about Casey.  Laura was not a very good mom in Liza’s opinion, but a lot of friends and family had stepped in to help her  raise Casey.  Maybe those times would yield some happy childhood memories when she grew up.  Well, if she grew up.

“So.  Do you travel at lot?” asked Liza.

“No, I haven’t in quite a while, but I’d like to again,” said Bruce.  Liza nodded.  She had always wanted to travel, but never seemed to have the time and money at the same time.

“I took a math class online a couple of terms ago.  The professor lived in upstate New York.  Apparently, when you teach online, you can be located anywhere.  You could travel and teach,” said Liza.  Why the hell was she telling him this?  She knew she would miss him if he left.  This thought didn’t sit well with her, but she knew it was true.

“I’d like to be able to do that someday,” said Bruce.  He got quiet and thoughtful again before joking, “You trying to get rid of me?”

“No, not at all.  I like hanging out with you.”

A wide smile erupted on Bruce’s face.  “I like it too.  Very much.”  He slid his hand across the bench toward where hers was resting and opened it.  She laced her fingers through his.  He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb.  His tongue was roving around his cheek.  Liza had come to realize that this was his thinking face.  “Do you…would you like to…Do you want to hang out sometime?  Besides this, I mean.  Maybe grab a cup of coffee?” he asked.

“I’d like that.”  Liza felt like she was blushing.  She turned her head and pretended to study the bush next to the bench.  It had purple flowers with bright yellow streaks.

That night, before he got out of the car at Adams Square, he leaned over and brushed his lips across her forehead.  She jumped and turned her head toward his.  He kissed her cheekbone and then ran his lips down to hers.  He pressed his lips against hers for a minute before wordlessly hopping out of the car.  She watched him march off down the street and couldn’t help but wonder if this was the beginning of something really good or really bad.  It could go either way.