Liza’s head was barely functioning by the end of the night. Macroeconomics was one of those courses that tricked you into thinking that it was interesting, but a few classes in, the formulas and charts had you checking to make sure that you hadn’t accidentally enrolled in a class for economics majors. Unless you were Bruce, who always looked like he was watching the series finale of his favorite TV show. That night, he’d stayed behind to speak with the professor about one of the case studies in the text. Liza went outside to have a cigarette while she waited. She sat on a bicycle rack and watched Bruce and Professor Walker through the window. They were deep in conversation. Bruce had a wide stance with one leg and hip thrust out. His arms were crossed, though he gestured a lot. He was wearing jeans and a wrinkled black t-shirt. Liza smiled. If she was going to go out with a professor, she was glad that she’d found one who broke the stereotype. Walker, not much older than Liza, was sporting wire rimmed glasses and a full beard. He looked like he was wearing a professor costume for Halloween.
She flicked her cigarette at the butt can. The two men were still talking, so she lit another. Bruce kept looking out the window. Was he looking for her? Suddenly she felt silly and wondered if she should leave. More than once, Bruce had said that she didn’t have to drive him. It occurred to her now that he didn’t want her to drive him. Maybe he hadn’t come right out and said so to spare her feelings. That would suck. It wasn’t an entirely far-fetched idea either. She had yet to see his house. Liza wondered if the woman and the little girl from the picture were part of the reason. Liza did a mental shrug and forced it all out of her mind. She got the sense that the woman and little girl were permanently out of the picture. Bruce obviously didn’t want to tell the story, and as long as they stayed out of the picture, she didn’t really want to hear it.
Liza resisted the urge to light up a third cigarette. She stood up and paced around in front of the bike rack. She would never admit this, but Thursday evening was the highlight of her week now that her life was a series of repeating tasks. Liza dreaded watching him disappear through Adams Square at the end of the night, and she thought about him often during the week. She looked at her watch. Almost half an hour had gone by. She felt stupid and decided to go home. She wheeled around towards the parking lot and there was Bruce coming toward her. “Were you waiting for me?”
Shit! Did he want her to be waiting for him, or did he not want her to be waiting for him? “No, I was smoking and…checking my phone,” said Liza. Yeah, that was plausible, because she totally had to lurk right outside the building to do those things.
“Uh huh,” said Bruce. He was smiling. “Shall we?” he asked, holding out his hand.
This kiss started like the others, playful and a little tentative, but quickly evolved into something else entirely. Liza relaxed. Apparently, she’d managed to find the one guy who found her ridiculous behavior endearing. This time, they were interrupted before Liza could lose track of time. Someone was coming through the door. She shoved Bruce away and flew into the closest seat. Bruce calmly slid into a chair on the other side of the table. The man who entered was wearing khakis and a polo shirt. He was pretty nondescript except that he was very tall and very cheerful. He was older. Not grandpa old, but definitely empty nester old. His huge smile wasn’t mocking or sarcastic, not that this made Liza feel any better. She never wanted so badly to be invisible.
“Oh, hi!” said the man brightly. Her face felt like it was going to melt. She managed a weak smile and nod. He exchanged a quick greeting with Bruce (his name was Jim) and then set about making his coffee as if nothing was amiss. Liza was torn between bolting out of the room, continuing to sit frozen, and trying to further the pretense that she and Bruce had just been sitting there talking. Frozen won out. She sat like a statue, eyes darting between Bruce and Jim. Bruce was calm, smiling slightly at Liza with raised eyebrows as if he had no idea what might be bothering her. Liza had a sudden desire to push the table into him. Not hard, just a nudge really. Then she noticed that he was twiddling a scrap of the bandage between his fingers and working the inside of his cheek with his tongue. Jim finished making his coffee, said his goodbyes, and smiled his way out of the kitchen.
Liza again found herself trotting along behind Bruce. They were in the basement walking through a labyrinth of file boxes. Chain-link fences sectioned off various areas. Random items lay scattered around: wood pallets, a janitor’s cart, a hanger, a white bag. Bruce stopped at a metal door. Light shone from underneath and footsteps echoed from the other side. Bruce turned and looked her over in the dim light. Some of the stairwell filth had found its way onto her clothes, she was still panting from her escape, and blood was seeping through the bandage on her hand. Awesome. Bruce was shaking his head as he took this all in, but then a smile crept across his face. He kissed her on the forehead before turning back to the door. When no footsteps could be heard, he stepped through the door and motioned for her to follow. The hall was stark white, lit by rows of fluorescent lights. Liza’s eyes were watering and she bumped into Bruce once or twice before they adjusted to the ungodly brightness. They made a few turns and ended up in one of those little office kitchenettes. Bruce started opening cabinets. Liza sat at a table, but bounced back up a second later. She was feeling restless and agitated. She really needed a cigarette.
Bruce pulled a first aid box from one of the cabinets and brought it over to the table. The old bandage was loaded with dirt and dried blood. He eased it off and examined her hand. The wounds weren’t bleeding at the moment, but the whole palm was red. He led her over to the sink where he rinsed the hand with soap and water. After patting it dry, he applied a thin layer of some sort of cream. Liza zoned out watching his long fingers re-dress the wound. She was silently praying that he didn’t ask how she had gotten the cuts. She didn’t want to lie to him, but she definitely didn’t want to tell him about the beer bottle incident either. Apparently, even after rampaging through his building, she was still hoping that he didn’t think she was a complete nut job. She reminded herself that Bruce had helped her and he didn’t seem angry. Liza’s couldn’t think. She didn’t want to think. She wanted to smoke until she couldn’t breathe and drink until she was sick. She wanted to rewind or fast forward so that she could live at some point in her life when things weren’t such a mess.
Liza realized that Bruce had gotten still. He was standing in front of her holding her freshly bandaged hand. Liza tried to paste a calm expression on her face. It didn’t matter. Before she could bring her head all the way up, his arm was around her waist and he was kissing her.
It was the oddest thing. Liza paused involuntarily for a minute. The stairwell was brick like the rest of the building, but it looked like it belonged in a factory. The railings were made of pipes. The treads were concrete with metal inserts. Each floor seemed to open to an exterior landing. A layer of filth covered everything. She heard Wannabe tearing through the empty office, and took off running down the steps. She wondered why people on TV always run up. Were you more likely to find help on the roof? Was it because you always had the option of jumping to your death to avoid being caught? Maybe they were hoping that their pursuer was too out of shape to make it up a couple of flights of stairs.
That certainly wasn’t the case with this guy. Liza, on the other hand, was wheezing like a sixty-year-old asthmatic. They were nearly at street level, and he was close. At the bottom of the stairs was a mammoth orange metal door. She burst through it, onto a landing that could only be described as a cage. Like the rest of the stairwell, it was made of brick and concrete. Two doors led into it: the one Liza had just come through, and a second door that presumably went to the basement. The cage door was a steel fence covered in mesh. It emptied onto a side street that Liza didn’t recognize. Just outside, a campus cop was getting out of his car. Liza skidded to a stop. Wannabe sounded like he was only a few feet behind, and the cop was going to spot her at any second. The basement door had no handle, but Liza finally had some good luck. The door flew open just as Wannabe reached the landing. It smashed him square in the face, swatting him against the wall. A tattoo covered forearm reached out of the stairwell and pulled Liza inside.
The room was dim. A single leaded glass window on the wall behind her was the only source of light. She was in what was once an office. Seven empty desks were lined up in front of her. The computers, phones, and chairs were all gone, but their tops were littered with pens and manila folders. Two offices stood quietly to her right. Liza peered toward the back of the office and saw a bunch of doors. Stacks of banker’s boxes lined several walls. A sofa that was missing its cushions sat to her left. The space felt eerie and abandoned.
Liza thought she heard the faint sound of Bruce’s sneakers marching down the hallway’s wood floor. The light flowing under the door was interrupted by a pair of feet. A pang of panic shot through her. Shit! As she raced toward the back of the office, she wondered how she always managed to get herself into these situations. Really, she knew the answer. The ridiculous lengths that she went to in order to avoid conflict and drama sometimes only created more of both. Focus, she told herself, there would be plenty of time for pointless self-examination after she escaped.
The doors led to a kitchen, a conference room, and a foreboding brick staircase. She heard a thump behind her. Liza turned, expecting to see Bruce. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or horrified. It was one of the campus security guards. These guys usually came in one of two varieties: overzealous, wannabe cop or the kind that looked like a security guard should be chasing them down. This guy was no taller than Liza, but his neck was thicker than his head. He was partially crouched as if he was about to dive tackle Liza. A wannabe. Lovely. She took off down the foreboding staircase.