"Kim? This is Augusta." My chest hurt so badly I could hardly talk, but I had to talk.
"Gus, are you okay? What happened?" Kimsky asked in alarm.
"He threw me over, Kim," I said. "Told me I was older than his mother, and there you have it for Augusta Renoir and her amazingly lucky life."
"God, Augusta, I'm sorry. Is it killing you? You poor woman."
"I loved him, Kim," I said, tears starting to well up and choke me with sobs. "I thought he was the most wonderful man ever. I thought he loved me! He said he loved me! How can this happen?" I must have sounded deranged, crying the words so loudly.
"He's a fool," Kimsky said, "maybe he'll come to his senses, Gus."
"His family is visiting to hear him play next weekend, and he all but told me to stay away from them! Oh, god, I can't believe how I fell for him!"
"You need to get the fuck out of Dodge, Gus. Can you come here for the holidays? You know I've been asking you to come for the last three months."
"For the last three months I've been too wrapped up in him," I groaned. "Yeah, Kim, that was why I was calling, not just to cry like some dumb-assed teenybopper. Can you stand me moping around for a couple weeks?"
"Girl, I meant from Thanksgiving to New Years. Don't you have a long break?"
Just hearing Kimsky talk had a calming effect. I blew my nose, and though the tears were still burning down my cheeks, I could stop gasping and sobbing. "We're done with finals on the tenth; I can't leave before then. But classes don't start up again until after New Year's Day. Are you sure it's okay?"
We got out calendars and checked dates; I got on my computer and bought my plane tickets while we were still talking on the phone. After about twenty minutes of Kim reminding me who really loved me in the world, I was ready to bandage my wounds as best I could and stop dying.
Kim was right: I needed to get the fuck out of Dodge and see something besides my empty bed. I threw some clothes in a suitcase and drove to Sacramento, (about two hours away) to stay in an expensive hotel, eat in their expensive restaurant, and shop until I was exhausted the next day. New shoes, nice underwear, and gold earrings are almost as good a balm as a massage.
My two romantic students Anna and Jamal surprised me that week by presenting me with a master copy of a map of the world, with symbols to stand for the various religions from which our texts were taken placed in their proper geographic locations. Each of the texts we'd covered was listed under the religion from which it came. "We thought it might help us understand some of the similarities between the writings and the different religions," Anna explained. "It was just going to be a sketch, but we got interested. You can use it with your classes if you want, but you don't have to. We wanted you to have a copy, anyway."
I hadn't had an apple placed on my desk since I taught Catholic school in Ohio. I laughed with utter delight. "You two don't have any idea what a tremendous gift you've given me. Thank you! I'll spot you point-five on your final grade, not that you're not carrying top marks already."
"Dr. Renoir, we didn't do it for extra credit. We did it because you make these classes so meaningful for us." They exchanged looks and smiles. Jamal put his arm around Anna.
"Nevertheless, I owe you." I put the map in a stiff folder. "Thanks."
That night I used the office machines to do a little cut and paste on the map. Something they'd forgotten. On the formerly empty left corner of the page as I printed out sixty copies of the finished product now were the words: "Map courtesy of Anna Belding and Jamal Allen." Give credit where credit is due.
That meant giving credit to more kinds of love than romance, though romance sure can feel fine. Their map was a tribute of love, for the subject they were willing to do more than memorize and forget after finals, for each other as companions and partners, and for me; though I doubt that they would have called their admiration love, it was, all the same, an affection that did much towards giving me the strength to get through the next couple weeks, until I could go to ground.
On Saturday, when I arrived at the auditorium for the symphony, there was still enough time before the performance to purchase a glass of wine from the fund-raisers' table. I took my wine and ambled around, saying hello to people I knew and looking at the latest display of art works. I was peering, fascinated, at a framed sand painting and wondering how it had been done when I heard someone say, "Augusta." I turned to see Moersgard walking regally toward me.
There was no Barbie doll on his arm. "Moersgard," I said. "How are you?" I looked at the arm of his magnificent suit, and then at his cold blue eyes. I raised my eyebrows just a faint twitch, our old secret language that carried so much meaning asking him, Where's the fashion model?
"I'm doing well, and how are you?" His eyes said, Don't start, Augusta.
Smiling, I turned back to the piece of art before me. Moersgard answered my silent question. "She's off at some elementary teachers' seminar in Seattle," he said.
"Ah, I didn't know that Laurel was focused on primary education," I murmured, assessing his mood.
"Lauren, Augusta. Her name is Lauren. I know what a nearly photographic mind you have, don't be so catty."
An escaped snicker wrinkled my nose briefly. "I'm sorry, Jacob, I honestly didn't remember her name. I wasn't trying to be an ass." She's just so forgettable, my demeanor said to him. I schooled my face to stillness again, and faced him, but he could see the chuckles behind my eyes.
For a moment he tried to look stern, but then his own eyes reflected some humor. "Lauren is a very nice woman." He looked at me, reflecting on comparisons. His eyes began to twinkle. "Not the conversationalist and companion you were, but at least when I wake up in the morning, she's still there, not disappeared in the night without a sound."
"There's that for her," I agreed. "There are the lights, time to find our seats." I set my wine glass on a nearby table. "Enjoy the performance."
"Why don't you join me -- I have an extra space tonight." His eyes glinted a little as he asked. Moersgard enjoyed having a good looking woman on his arm.
"I don't know, won't it cause talk for you?"
"Do I care?" he asked, as though above all the university gossip. "My seats are better than yours ... "
Enjoying the company of a handsome and prestigious man was sure as hell better than sitting alone beside over-perfumed old wool-garbed battleaxes. "I accept," I answered, taking his offered arm, and very glad indeed that I had bought the higher heeled shoes and elegant evening outfit, as well as had the nice touch-up hair trim. It was pleasant walking with him in this way again, very pleasant to be made to feel beautiful, to feel flawless, and at ease.
Once in our places, he put an arm around the back of my seat and whispered in my ear, "You'll be interested to know that your favorite chum Mark Fatzer took one step too far the other day." At my avid interest he continued, "Apparently Fatzer insulted a female student a couple weeks ago -- she was pregnant and had missed one of his classes due to illness. She asked for the class assignments and he refused to give them to her, saying it would just be a waste of his time."
I whispered back, "No shit. He does that kind of humiliation all the time."
Moersgard breathed into my hair, "This time the student was a personal project of Ambris -- you know, associated with the university museum?"
Oh, yeah, Ms. Indiana Jones herself. I snickered in appreciation. "I know her, and stay out of her way. She is one iron-willed mama."
"She's also inherited the money behind one of the university's biggest contributors. Word has it, she wants Fatzer's hide before the end of the fiscal year," he said, "or she cuts the donation to zero."
I clapped my hands over my mouth to keep from whooping. "I saw him toadying up to her this past week in the hall outside the faculty offices. You'd have thought he was her greatest fan."
"To no avail. She hates him."
"Does she want his job?" I hissed, almost annoyed that the orchestra was beginning the overture.
"Not at all," said Moersgard, "only his destruction." He took his arm from behind me and settled back to listen to the music.
Moersgard's seats were better than mine would have been; but I was less grateful for the sound quality than I was for his attention. Barbie had done me a big favor by being in Seattle for the night. Leftovers aren't as bad as they sound.
The performance was quite good, and I enjoyed it. In fact it was Moersgard who instructed me to subscribe to and attend the local symphony, when I first arrived in Port Laughton, and I never regretted it. Not even now, with my young heartbreaker playing on the stage before me. One of the few times in my life I was glad to be short; I couldn't see him.
Afterwards, Moersgard and I dithered slowly up the exit aisle. He had begun to get that speculative look in his eyes, and I was inclined to enjoy it. He complimented me on my sleek black silks; I had made sure I looked good tonight, my hair bright against the dark clothes. Moersgard may have taken on a cookie too young for him in Barbie-laurel-lauren-whatever, but he always had an eye for and a way with women, and I was enjoying his appreciation.
His white eyebrows drew down for a second, and I looked in the direction of his gaze. There was Valentine approaching us, with a woman and two girls in tow. What the hell is this? I thought. I looked at Moersgard, who spoke to me with our secret style the echo, What the hell is this?
I answered with a small look towards the ceiling, Gods know, who cares?
With all the dignity of a consort of Moersgard, I turned. Valentine said, "Dr. Renoir, this is my mother, Madeleine Teshenko, and my sister, Elaine. And her friend, Danielle Matheson. Dad wasn't able to attend. Mother, this is my friend, Dr. Augusta Renoir. She teaches anthropology classes at the university."
My friend, I thought, how sweet and innocent. What is the point here? His mother looked at least ten years older than I did. "I'm pleased to meet you," I said, and in turn, since he was standing there becoming annoyed, introduced them all to Moersgard, who gave me the familiar eye message, I hate this, let's get out of here.
I showed him the blink that said, Me, too, lead the way.
Moersgard gave a nod to the people he had just met, and imperially bent his course away, asking me what I thought of the potential change from a four-semester schedule to the proposed trimester. His right arm casually draped around me, his large frame dwarfing mine. Once we were out of earshot, he leaned against a row of seats, studying my face. "Augusta, why don't we go over to Serenity's and have a drink?"
"And would Ms. Laurel -- no, Lauren, is that right? -- not mind us having a drink at Serenity's?"
"She would be pissed as hell," he admitted. "But who will tell her?"
"I could be just some passing Anthy teacher who mooched a glass of wine," I encouraged, keeping my gaze on his.
"An indigent," he agreed, and smiled his evil smile.
"See you there," I said, "and if not, I'll post your number in the restroom for transvestites to call for advice on foot-wear."
He took my hand and kissed it, and then held onto it and kissed my cheek fondly.
Serenity's was a quiet, comfortable place, art deco decor and cushiony leather-seated barstools, and I had a good long chat and gossip with my former lover. I didn't invite him home with me after our drinks, but I have to say that his powerful presence had been a most welcome distraction from the loneliness I would have felt otherwise.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving I was staring feverishly at my computer screen in my office, composing the final revisions on the final exams (in my mind I called them 'Last rites') when I looked up in response to a shadow in my door. It was Valentine. I stopped what I was doing, and looked at him. I was dumbfounded that he would appear there. I could not believe that there was anything more to be painfully flayed out. He was both the most wonderful creature that my eyes had been created to see, and the least welcome of visitors.
I will not cry, I told my body sternly. Turn to ice. Now. And I did, mentally severing the nerves that move the facial muscles. "Hello, how are you," I said, not even inflecting the question.
"I just dropped by to see how you were doing," he said.
"This is Wednesday, why aren't you at school?"
"Half day, last day of school before Thanksgiving." he said, looking at his shoes.
"I think I asked the wrong question. Why are you darkening my doorway?" I could have asked him, Is there something I can do for you? Is there something you need? But I just wanted him gone. His presence hurt me as though I was being burnt alive inside.
"You looked beautiful at the symphony last Saturday," he said to me.
"Pretty much tough shit for me anyhow," I said. "But thank you for the compliment."
His eyebrows were lowering. "Apparently someone else thought so. That prof Mooresgard was fairly taken with you."
"Moersgard. Dean of Liberal Arts for the university."
"Well, pardon me. He seemed pretty liberal in his affections towards you. What's that all about?"
I swiveled my glacier head in his direction. "My relationship with Jacob Moersgard is none of your damned business, Mr. Teshenko."
He looked at me with anger rising in his dark eyes. "I thought of you as a wolf in the forest," he said, "but when you get right to the essence, you're just the coldest bitch I've ever met." He pushed off my office doorjamb and strode out. "Have a nice life."
I was right behind him at the door. "I did have a nice life," I hissed, "until I met you."
He froze for a second, and then continued on down the hall, graceful, elegant, talented, young -- the stuff of hell.