When I get back to my office, I see that my boss Frank Richardson, chairman of the English department, is waiting outside, sneaking glances at his watch. I hurry over, swearing at myself for spending so long in Riley’s office. It was totally not worth it to see his dirty drawings.
“I’m so sorry, Frank,” I say, hurrying over. I brush off my shirt and slacks, noticing that I have a tiny spot of coffee on my shirt. Great. “I didn’t know we were supposed to be meeting.”
“We’re not,” Frank says. He’s a stout man with a full head of very straight brown hair and a face that’s much chubbier than his body. He pretends it’s not true, but Jill and I know that he gives preference to the male professors over the females. He doesn’t truly respect us the way he respects the male staff. That’s why I’m still just an instructor after all these years, and also why I was so anxious to keep him from finding out about my little memory problem. “I was just concerned about you, Margaret.”
“Oh?” I unlock the door to my office, trying to keep my hands from shaking. “Why is that?”
“Well…” Frank follows me into my office, and repositions the chair that Riley had pushed out of the way so he can take a seat. “Your husband called me after your accident and made it sound like you were seriously hurt. Then he called back the next day and told me you were fine and coming right back to work. It just seemed a little odd.”
“Don’t I look fine?” I ask, forcing a smile.
Frank looks me up and down, which makes me feel somewhat self-conscious. I’ve never been gorgeous, but I really feel very frumpy lately. I nervously straighten out my schoolmarm glasses. “You seem a little… peaked.”
Peaked? What is that supposed to mean?
I’m trying to figure out what to say to reassure him when I hear a little buzz come from inside my purse. I’m guessing it was my phone. Stalling for time, I say, “Excuse me a moment,” while I fish around in my purse for my iPhone.
When I find the phone, I see there’s a text message on the screen. From Riley. You’ve got a big staff BBQ next Friday. Frank is bringing his new wife Susan, who you really like.
I glance out the window, at Riley’s office one floor down. I catch a glimpse of him, but he isn’t looking at me.
“I’m completely fine,” I assure Frank. “And I’m very excited about the barbecue next Friday. I think it will be fantastic.”
Frank brightens, looking pleased. “You’ll still be coming then?”
“Absolutely!” I say. “And I can’t wait to see Susan again.”
“She’s very excited too,” Frank says. He has a smile on his face that’s unfamiliar to me. Back in the old days, he never used to smile that wide. Maybe it has something to do with this woman Susan. “You always make her feel welcome, Margaret.”
“Well, she’s… wonderful.”
Frank beams. “I’m glad you think so.” Then his face becomes a little more serious. “By the way, I just wanted to remind you that your biannual evaluation is coming up in a few weeks. I’ll have my receptionist email you a time.
Any relief I had felt a moment ago completely disappears. My biannual evaluation. Where I have to talk to Frank what I’ve achieved recently and why I might deserve a promotion. Except I don’t know what I’ve achieved because I can’t remember the last three years. That’s probably reason enough why I don’t deserve a promotion.
But I still manage to plaster a smile on my face: “Perfect.”
My reassurances seem to placate Frank, at least for now. But I feel like I can’t take a deep breath until he finally excuses himself and leaves my office entirely.
Once Frank is gone, I look back out my window to Riley’s office. The lights are now out, and I feel a twinge of disappointment. I grab my phone and type: Thanks.
Even though he’s not in the office anymore, his reply comes back almost instantly: No problem.
I can’t help but add: I thought you never sent me emails or text messages.
He replies: Thought it was worth the risk.
I look back at his empty office. I know I shouldn’t keep talking to him, but I can’t resist somehow. Where did you go?
Got a meeting. Some of us actually have jobs, you know. ttyl.
I smile and put my phone back in my purse. I really shouldn’t be smiling though. I told Riley to leave me alone and five minutes later, he’s sending me a text message. Admittedly, it really helped me a lot, but still. I don’t want to give him the wrong idea, that something might actually happen between the two of us.
Now that I have access to my computer, I go online and check my work email. Tons of emails from people whose names I barely recognize, about things that are completely unfamiliar to me. I have a feeling that even Riley can’t help me with this. Then again, maybe Jill can. At least she probably knows who these people are and can give me the gist of it. I’ll have to call her later.
I idly go to the Google search page, and before I can stop myself, I’m typing in the name Riley Samuels. It’s not an extremely common name and I can already tell that most of the links are for the Riley that I know. I find the page for him at the university, which features a small photo of him looking like they’d snapped it just as he was rolling out of bed. His black hair is all over the place, as usual, he’s wearing a tie but hasn’t actually managed to tie it, and even his glasses are a little crooked. He looks kind of startled in the photo, like they really did catch him in the middle of dressing or something.
He’s apparently teaching several classes at Ohio State, both on the graduate and undergraduate level. There’s also a long list of publications, which puts my own to shame. His specialty seems to be pattern recognition and processing (whatever that is).
I click on the university link for one of his classes, entitled Computation Theory. The university puts up ratings of all the classes, and I can see that Riley earned close to the maximum rating of 5. There are a handful of comments below the ratings:
The material is pretty interesting, but what makes this class great is Dr. Samuels. He is the best!
Dr. Samuels explains pushdown automata in a way that even a first grader would understand. Exams are fair, workload is heavy but interesting and relevant. Loved the class!
Best part of the class was when Dr. Samuels juggled!
He juggles? Riley juggles?? Oh no. This just gets worse and worse. No normal people juggle. I’m pretty sure of that.
Riley was wrong. There’s absolutely no way he could be any dorkier.
When I glance back at his window, I remember the pictures Riley had shown me in his office. If his story about the two of us is true, that means I must have a corresponding pile of pictures I drew for him. Somewhere.
I start searching the office. I look in desk drawers, cabinets, everywhere. I find tons of old student essays, some old drafts of the first chapter of my failed book (don’t want to think about that), and a bunch of other garbage. Every time I see some stray white paper, my heart leaps. But it isn’t there. I search every damn inch of that office and never find my signs for Riley.
The only thing I can think of is that he was lying.
It takes me the better part of an hour to reorganize my office, and by then, I’m running late for my creative writing workshop. I put on my jacket, shove Riley’s notes into my purse, and take off in the direction of Denney Hall. I consider skipping out on lunch, but I’m actually completely starving, so I end up stopping off at a café and grab a slice of pizza. Okay, two slices of pizza. I’ll start my diet tomorrow.
My workshop is on the third floor of Denney Hall. I take one more quick peak at the cheat sheet that Riley made of my students, brace myself, and walk into the room. I look around at the vaguely familiar faces of the twelve students in the room, and plaster a smile across my lips. The first I hear is a good looking boy with a bored expression on his face saying, “…total rip-off of Hemingway. Anyone with half a mind could tell you that.” I pull out my cheat sheet one more time and see Riley’s notes on the boy: Phillip Carrington—Arrogant little prick. I stifle a laugh.
“Hello, everyone,” I say, sliding into a seat at the head of the table. I’ve taught tons of these writers’ workshops, and although there are glimmers of brilliant writing from time to time, a lot of it is laughably bad. Kids of twenty years old just don’t have enough life experience to write meaningfully. Well, maybe Hemingway did when he was twenty. But back in those days, kids went to war at age 18. College kids are soft. “Sorry for being late.”
“Are you all right, Dr. McDaniels?” a girl sitting to my left speaks up. I can’t remember her name, but I remember what Riley wrote about her: Lisps, only writes poetry, drives you nuts. “We heard you got in a really bad car wreck.”
“It was just a fender bender,” I say, trying to shrug it off. If only they knew.
“We heard you were in the hosssspital,” the poetic lisper insists.
“Only for observation,” I say. “I promise, I’m fine.” And to prove it, I hold out my hands in front of my face and touch my nose with index fingers one by one. Then I realize this isn’t making my case any stronger, so I stop.
“All right,” I say. “Why don’t we start by reading some of the short pieces you’ve written for this week?” I always assign a short exercise for each workshop and allow a few people to read to start off the class. I turn to the poetic lisper. “Would you like to start?”
“Oh, yes!” she says eagerly. She pulls out a piece of light blue scented paper with spider-like handwriting on it. “Now I know we were supposed to do prose, but this story is a bit like a poem.”
“What a shock,” Arrogant Little Prick mutters.
The poem is about the death of the girl’s cat. You’ll be happy to know her cat is in heaven right now, purring beautiful music to the angels.
“Anyone else?” I ask.
A blond girl raises her hand. Big front teeth, always writes about her boyfriend. “Yes, Audrey,” I say. “Go ahead.”
The girl pulls out a sheet of paper and clears her throat. “When I first saw Johnny’s pale blond hair and eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean, I knew he would crush my heart to shreds. I knew he’d teach me to feel pain in ways I’d never felt before, gut-wrenching, soul-crushing pain that surged through every cell of my body…”
By the time Audrey finishes her piece, I definitely know the meaning of gut-wrenching. No wonder I’ve been complaining about these people to Riley. I don’t know if I can handle much more of this, but I force myself to ask, “Anyone else would like to share?”
A hand shoots up at the other end of the table. It’s a tall, eager-looking boy. I recall Riley’s notes: Loves surprise endings. I dig my nails into the table. “Yes, go on…”
The boy pulls out two sheets of typewritten paper. “Once upon a time, there was a boy who never wanted to brush his teeth…”
My headache returns as the eager student recounts the tumultuous tale of the boy who didn’t want to brush his teeth. I try to surreptitiously massage my temples. How did I ever make it through this class without the help of alcohol?
“…but then again, what do I know? I’m just a tooth!” the student finishes up his story.
I must be the worst teacher in the world if this is what my students come up with. No wonder I haven’t gotten a promotion in three years. That and the fact that I don’t juggle.
After class, I meet up with Jill at my office. We go through my emails together, and she clues me in to who everyone is and helps me reply to some of the messages. It’s amazing how many new staff members there can be in only three short years. I love how Jill not only tells me who everyone is, but fills me in on all the gossip.
“What’s the deal with Frank’s new wife anyway?” I ask her.
“Ooh!” Jill’s face lights up the way it always does when she has some really juicy gossip. “His wife left him for her samba teacher. It was a huge scandal! His new wife Susan is pretty horrible.”
“Fantastic,” I say miserably. “So much for having an ally on Frank’s team.”
“You don’t need an ally,” Jill says. “You just need to finish your book.”
A year ago… no wait, four years ago, I started writing a book about the works of Jane Austin. It was basically a treatise on how her novels are the basis of all modern chick lit. In my head, it sounded brilliant. Getting it from my head onto paper has been the challenge. Everyone who read the first chapter loved it, but I just couldn’t seem to make it past that.
“Fantastic,” I say again.
“So how long were you on hold with IT before you got your password reset?” Jill asks me, as she clicks on another unopened email.
“Oh, they never helped me,” I say. “Riley came by and he knew my password.”
Jill pulls away from the computer and raises her perfect eyebrows at me. “Riley knew your password? Riley Samuels?”
I realize too late that I probably shouldn’t have shared that with her. “Yeah. It was ‘Maureen.’ Do you know who that is?”
“Not a clue.” I had hoped that mention of Maureen would divert the conversation away from Riley but it doesn’t. “So how did Riley know your password?”
I shrug. “He’s a computer guy, so…”
“I bet he hacked into your computer!” Jill says, her eyes widening. “Ew! He is such a stalker!”
“You really think so he hacked my computer?”
“Oh, definitely!” Jill says, nodding effusively. “How else would he know your password, right?”
Actually, what she’s saying makes total sense. It explains everything. If Riley hacked into my computer, he’d know my password (or he’d be able to change it to something nonsensical like “Maureen”), he’d know about that upcoming barbecue, Frank’s new wife, and he’d have access to all the stories my students emailed out so he could easily write that cheat sheet for me. And that’s why I couldn’t find the pictures for the window that corresponded with his own. Because he made the whole thing up. It was probably some elaborate fantasy of his.
Of course, it doesn’t explain how he knew where my linen closet was. But then again, if we knew each other, he’d surely been to my house before. He’d had plenty of time to memorize the layout. The more I think about it, the creepier this is.
“Do you think he’s dangerous?” I ask Jill, squeezing my hands together.
“Probably not,” she says. “I mean, he’s in a wheelchair. I don’t think you’d have much trouble fighting him off.” She giggles. “If you needed to escape him, you could just run up some stairs.”
I laugh along with her, although the sound catches a bit in my throat. “Did you know he juggles?”
Jill covers her mouth, giggling harder. “Of course I know that. Oh, Maggie, there was one time when we were walking through campus and we saw him juggling in front of the math building. I just about died laughing.”
“He does it in class too!” I add, warming up to this game. “It was in his class evaluations.”
“No!” Jill is now laughing so hard, her face has turned a shade of pink. “Oh my God, Maggie, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Honestly, I don’t know what you did to make a pathetic geek like that like you so much.”
“He really liked me?” I feel the laughter dying on my lips.
“Please,” Jill sniffs, catching her breath. “He was crazy about you. You could tell he was trying to pretend he wasn’t, but it was so obvious he was. You could just see it in his face.” She pauses, wiping her eyes. “It’s sort of sad, to be honest. He probably never dates or anything like that, so when you were nice to him, he just took it the wrong way.”
I swallow hard. “He never dates?”
“Well, look at him.”
Hey, he’s not that bad. Obviously he’s disabled, but he’s not ugly or anything. He has those really intense eyes. And his dark hair could be a little neater (and a little blonder), but I have to admit, it’s growing on me. When he smiles, he’s actually very cute.
Of course, I don’t say any of that to Jill. I just nod my head and say, “Yes, that’s true.”
“I heard he’s a paraplegic,” she says. “So he’s, like, paralyzed or something.”
“Oh,” I say, trying to pretend like I’m not interested.
“It must be hard,” she muses. “I mean, no woman wants to date a guy who can’t walk. I bet he’s still a virgin.”
“Maybe,” I mumble.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all,” Jill says before she turns back to the computer as if she’s lost interest in this topic.
We go back to looking at my emails, and I’m careful not to mention Riley ever again in Jill’s presence.
To be continued...