# 8 – Laura and Casey

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Liza’s throat burned from the pack of cigarettes that she inhaled since coming home.  Her eyes were swollen, her nose was stuffed shut, and her fingers were like prunes.  The bathtub had become her hiding place and prison since Laura and Casey had come to live with her.  Liza heard a crash from downstairs, followed by Laura’s throaty laugh.  She turned off the water, threw on some clothes, and added a little makeup.

Laura was in the living room blasting some cheesy pop song and grinding with a guy that Liza had never seen before.  Another guy slouched 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.

Casey was born when Laura was only sixteen.  If she knew who the father was, she never said.  When Laura turned eighteen, she took Casey and disappeared.  No one in the family heard from her for almost six years.  Liza 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.  Casey was now eight and sick with leukemia.  Casey’s medical bills and Laura’s poor choices had left them with no money and insurmountable debt.  Laura knew that their parents had died and that they had left Liza the house.

Liza wanted to turn her sister away.  They were never close and, though Liza loved Casey, she did not relish the thought of living with a child.  In the end, the child was the reason 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.

Laura wasn’t much more mature than she had been at sixteen.  She went out almost every night, sometimes 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 to refill her prescriptions.  Liza had an awful feeling that Laura hadn’t just written off her daughter, but was actually waiting for her to die.

Liza tried to help out 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 that 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.  They were in the garden again.  It was a sweltering July evening.  Bruce wore a sleeveless shirt and cargo shorts.  Liza was finally able to get a good look at some of the tattoos that she had only glimpsed before.

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.  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.  Unlike most of us, I enjoyed moving around.  I don’t know…I always managed to make friends wherever we went, but then I never minded leaving them behind when my dad was re-stationed.  I liked my friends but I really liked exploring new cities.”

Bruce had a far away look as 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 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.  If she grew up.

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

“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 the 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 in the hell was she telling him this?  Though the though didn’t sit well with her, she knew that she would miss him if he left.

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

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

A wide grin erupted on Bruce’s face.  “Me too.  Very much.”  He slid his hand across the bench toward where hers rested 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’s face felt hot.  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 trudge down the street and wondered if this was the beginning of something really good or really bad.  It felt like it could go either way.

 

# 6 – Rough

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Liza slid her sunglasses down in order to hide her eyes.  She had been looking forward to the probability of seeing Bruce again, but she didn’t want him to see her looking like this.  He was already sitting on the marble bench when she walked up.  She collapsed next to him, nearly sitting on his books.

“Hey,” she said.  Her first real smile of the week found its way to her face.

“Hey.”  He raised his hand as if to pat hers, then hesitated before dropping it back to the bench.

“Everything OK?” she asked.  He seemed well-rested tonight.  Both eyes were the same size.  No five o’clock shadow.  But something was off.  He seemed…thoughtful.

“I’m fine,” he said, “rough week.”

“Wow, rough night, rough week.  Sounds like you have a rough life.”

“You have no idea,” he said with a wry smile.  He leaned back and spread his long arms across the top of the bench.  Liza decided not to press.  “What’s with the sunglasses?” he asked.

What indeed?  The degree of shadow that the trees threw in the garden made it a little absurd for her to be wearing them.  Liza shrugged.  She didn’t want to lie or be the kind of person who aired dirty laundry to strangers.

It was tempting.  Bruce didn’t feel like a stranger even though they had only spent two hours together.  It would be nice to have someone to vent to.  On the other hand, she didn’t want to come off like a whiny bitch and she definitely did not want for him to see her as pitiable.

Liza sighed and leaned back.  She bumped into his arm then sprang back upright.  Bruce grinned and shook his head.  He moved his books and patted the bench next to him.  She slid over and leaned back.  It was cool for June and his warmth felt good.  He smelled like soap.  She rested her head on his shoulder.  Her tension floated away.  A minute later, he rested his head on top of hers.  They didn’t move until it was time for class.

 

# 5 – Class 2

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Traffic was light.  Liza arrived on campus almost an hour before class.  She could have gone home first, but she didn’t feel like dealing with Laura.  A little garden with a seating area lay tucked on one side of Norton Hall.  It was out-of-the-way and didn’t get much use.

Liza tossed her bags onto an old marble bench and slumped down next to them.  She fished a cigarette from her purse, making a mental note to try to quit again next week.  Her eyes were killing her from staring at spreadsheets all day.  She closed them and sat enjoying the peace and the nicotine buzz.  A minute later she heard the soft tread of shoes on the mossy brick ground.  She opened her eyes to find Bruce looming over her a few feet away.

“Mind if I sit down?”

“Not at all,” said Liza, dragging her bags closer to make room.  Today he wore jean shorts and a cheery bright shirt with little fruit people walking across the front.  He was sporting an impressive five o’clock shadow and one eye was closed slightly more than the other.  He looked dead tired.  “Rough night, Professor?”

“Are you in any of my classes?” he asked.

“No.”

“Are you ever going to take any of my classes?”

“Literature?  I’d love to, but no.”

“Then it’s Bruce, and, to answer your question, I did have a rough night.  The storm kept me up,” he said.  “So, if you would love to take one of my classes, what’s stopping you?”

“Well, unlike you, I don’t work here.  My employer only pays for business classes.  Even then, they only pay half…”

“Ah, point taken,” he said, eyeing the energy drink that she produced from one of her bags.

“I feel bad drinking this in front of you,” she said.  “You look like you need it more than I do.”  She cracked open the can, took a swig, and held it out to him.  He looked from her to the can and back again a few times before accepting it and taking a big sip before handing it back.  Just then Halestorm blared from Liza’s phone, signaling an incoming call.  She pulled it out of her pocket.  It was Laura.  The smile slid off of her face.  She looked at the phone for a minute before rejecting the call.

“Who’s Laura, if you don’t mind me asking?” said Bruce.

“I don’t mind, but it’s a long story and I don’t want to talk about it,” said Liza.

“Fair enough,” said Bruce.  They were quiet for a minute, passing the energy drink back and forth, enjoying the beautiful summer evening.  “Just tell me this – is Laura your girlfriend?”

Liza looked at him, not comprehending at first.  “Oh!  No, Laura isn’t my girlfriend.  I’m not gay,” she said with a smile.  Ok, so maybe he was interested.

“Boyfriend?  Husband?” he asked.

“No and no.  You?”

“No.  Not anymore.”

Liza hesitated.  She wasn’t sure if it would be rude to ask or rude not to ask.  “Do you mind if I ask what happened?”

“I don’t mind, but it’s a long story and I don’t want to talk about it,” said Bruce with a grin.  Her heart melted.  There was no doubt that he was handsome; greys, five o’clock shadow, sleepy eyes and all.  When he smiled, he looked unbelievably cute; younger than she figured him for.  She couldn’t stop herself from smiling back at him.

“Fair enough,” said Liza, passing him the can.

# 4 – Adams Square

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Ridiculously long fingers enveloped half of her forearm.  The first joint of his right ring finger seemed to be permanently bent.  She turned his hand to get a better look and wondered what had happened.  An accident?  A fight?  Maybe a birth defect?  She looked up to find him looking between her and his hand, eyebrows raised, slight smile.  Another horn beeped and she released his hand.

“So, where can I take you?”

He worked his tongue around his cheek for a few seconds before answering, “Adams Square?”

“Ok,” said Liza.  She sped off and jabbed the radio button.  Music blared at an ungodly volume and she quickly lowered it.  “What are you majoring in?”  Well, that was original.

Bruce looked out the side window.  “Nothing.  I like to take classes for fun sometimes,” he said.

“For fun?” Liza stared over at him.  “Macroeconomics…for funHere?!”

Bruce shrugged, “I work here, so it’s free.”

“Oh.  What do you do?”

“I teach Literature, but I like to take different classes now and then to learn new things.”

“You’re a professor?”  Liza said, disappointment creeping into voice.  It probably wasn’t okay to go out with a professor.  Well, maybe.  She was older, certainly not college age.  Not that this guy would want to go out with her anyway.  What the hell was he doing masquerading as a student, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, looking attractive?  Professors were supposed to have white hair and wear tweed jackets.  They lived in the big stone houses on campus or drove hybrid cars out to their suburban McMansions.

“I am.  That okay with you?”  She could hear the smile in his voice and relaxed.  He had a nice voice.  Distinctive.  Like James Gandolfini, only less so.

She gave a big fake sigh.  “I guess.  As long as it’s okay with you that I’m a…hmm…seventh semester freshman majoring in business admin.”

Seventh semester freshman?  Is that even possible?”

“It is when you switch your major five times,” said Liza.

“Oh. My. God,” he said, valley girl style.  She laughed and looked over to see him shaking his head and grinning.  “Yeah, that’s okay with me.”  The sky erupted into a sea of lights as they entered Adams Square on the north side.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“You can let me out here,” said Bruce, sitting up and reaching for the door handle.  “Thanks for the ride, Liza.  It was nice meeting you.”

Liza hit the brakes and they lurched to an abrupt stop at the corner.  “No problem.  It was nice meeting you too.”  He sat there staring at her with a faint smile on his face for what seemed like forever.  Finally he jumped out and trudged off down the street.