by Kevin Stadt
Jenny juggled papers, books and a coffee as she approached the classroom. Nearly an hour early for her 8:00 a.m. lit class, she shifted a book from one hand to the other and grabbed the door handle, stopping and closing her eyes before turning it. It’s okay. You can do this. Jenny took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out slowly through her mouth, noting the butterflies in her stomach and telling herself it was just a passing physical sensation, the way Dr. Strickland taught her to. She pushed through the door into the classroom and flipped on the light.
She jumped and dropped some of the papers, surprised to see someone sitting in the dark in the back row. Jenny laughed and felt her face warm in embarrassment. The student, a middle-aged man with dark hair and sunglasses, didn’t even turn toward her.
“I scared you, yes?” He enunciated each word slowly and fully with a deep voice that filled the room.
Pausing to collect herself, she said, “Yeah. I guess so. I’m Ms. Brooks. Are you here for American lit? You’re pretty early.”
“Are you the instructor?”
“Yep. Actually, this is my first semester teaching. Really excited about it.”
He lifted his nose in the air. “You smell good.”
Jenny set her books and coffee on the teacher’s desk and turned to him with her brow furrowed. He faced the front of the classroom, but didn’t appear to be looking at her. She noticed his walking stick and realized he was blind.
“Oh, well. Thanks. I guess. Are you in my class? What’s your name?”
“I’m here for the lessons. William.”
“Nice to meet you.”
William turned to her for the first time, as if inspecting her. He cocked his head slightly, and a hint of a smile tugged at a corner of his mouth. “Very nice to meet you, Ms. Brooks. I’m excited for all we’re going to do together. All the new things we’ll learn.”
Jenny felt her face scrunch up at the comment, but then the clock caught her eye and she remembered she needed to start setting up for class. She turned on the computer and projector, then wrote her name, office hours, and e-mail on the board. She occasionally glanced back at William. He sat quietly, motionlessly, almost as if he was staring right at her.
* * *
Jenny sat across from Dr. Strickland, an overweight older woman holding a notepad and pen. Jenny regarded the reassuring books and diplomas on the wall of the sober, tastefully decorated room.
“So how did your first class go?”
“I was really nervous, but everything went pretty smoothly. I have a student who’s blind, and at first I was worried about how I could best help him, but he had a laptop with some kind of setup that lets him do everything he needs, so I guess it’s all okay. And, thank God, my mom volunteered to babysit Ben while I teach.”
Dr. Strickland smiled warmly. “How do you feel?”
“Worried about the next class, honestly. Day one is just housekeeping stuff. Went over the syllabus, and then had them write a self-introduction so I could get to know them a little. But next time I have to actually start teaching.”
“It’s normal to have some anxiety about starting a new career, but be careful to watch the narrative your mind creates about it. Be mindful of the voice that tries to tell you you’re not good enough or can’t do it. You’ve stuck with the therapy, the homework, and the meds even through the hardest times, even when Ben’s father left. You’ve come such a long way. Teaching will be a challenge, but I’m confident there won’t be anything about it you can’t handle.”
* * *
Jenny sat at the desk in her bedroom, reading through her students’ self-introductions. She scribbled a couple lines at the top of one, then picked up the next: William’s.
She scanned it and whispered to herself. “What the hell?”
Her lips mouthed the words as she read a passage. “This summer I pursued my passion, which is dining on the most exotic cuts of meat. I tracked down and acquired samples of flesh considered taboo by most in Western culture. I’ve found that the more a pleasure is forbidden, the more tantalizing it inevitably becomes.”
“What the hell... What is it with this guy?” She put William’s paper aside, picked up a different one, and began reading it. Just a couple sentences in, however, her eyes flicked back to William’s. She went back to his sample and read it again. Great. I have to deal with a wacko in my very first semester.
* * *
At 7:00 a.m. the next morning, Jenny walked down the community college hallway toward the adjunct faculty office. As she turned a corner, she paused and her shoulders dropped when she spotted William sitting in a chair near the office door. She checked her watch and raised an eyebrow.
“Hi, William. You’re quite the early bird, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
An awkward moment of silence passed as Jenny waited for some further explanation. When none came, she took out her key card and unlocked the door.
“Well, I’m here. Come on in.”
Jenny flipped on the lights as she entered, put her bag down on the first table, and sat. William closed the door behind him, walked right over without using his stick to navigate, and sat in the chair nearest to her. He scooted it uncomfortably close to Jenny’s, so that their knees nearly touched. Jenny pushed her chair back a little, but as soon as she did, he moved closer again.
“So, what did you want to see me... talk to me about?”
“Do your students need an excuse to stop by and say hello?”
“Of course not. I just assumed you’d have some specific reason for coming.”
William didn’t speak for a moment, and Jenny fidgeted. Finally, he said, “Do I make you uncomfortable?”
“No! Of course not. Why would you?”
Another few beats of painful silence passed. She cleared her throat and crossed her legs.
He cocked his head. “You’re new at this.”
“This is your first time.”
She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Oh. Yeah. Like I said, it’s my first semester teaching. I actually just got my master’s in the spring.”
“So young.” William turned as if gazing off into some distance only he could see from behind his dark sunglasses. “Ah, you’re a new mother, yes?”
Jenny sat up straighter and narrowed her eyes. “How do you know that?”
“A little boy, thirteen months and six days old. Ben. Your mother, Diane, is a great babysitter. She’s feeding him right now. Such a beautiful family. Absolutely delicious.”
Jenny stood up and backed away. She grabbed her bag and clutched her phone. “What is this? Are you stalking me?”
“You seem nervous. Some might say irrational. I’m just an upstanding member of the community. A student with a disability, no less. It’s unprofessional to make wild accusations.”
She stormed out of the room. When she glanced back at William through the window, he smiled widely at her and waved.
* * *
Jenny washed dishes while her mom played with Ben on the living-room floor. Jenny peered out the kitchen window at the small park across the street. She did a double-take, squinting and craning her neck. It was getting dark, but she spotted a man sitting on a park bench, wearing sunglasses. She turned off the kitchen light and grabbed a pair of binoculars from a closet. When she peered out through the binoculars, she swore to herself under her breath. The man was William, and he appeared to be meeting her gaze. He smiled and nodded almost imperceptibly.
“God damn it! You have got to be kidding me.”
Her mom walked in. “Language, honey. What’s wrong?”
“Mom, the guy I told you about is out there. Stay with Ben and watch out the window. If he does anything weird, call 911.”
“Sweetie, maybe you shouldn’t...”
Jenny saw her mom was struggling to choose her words carefully. “Mom, he’s right outside, staring at our window.”
“Honey, he’s blind, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I think he’s actually pretending.”
Diane sighed and sadness clouded her face. “I know you’re going to get mad at me—”
“But I have to ask. Have you been taking your medication?”
“Yes! This isn’t that.”
Diane leaned back against the kitchen counter. She suddenly looked older and tired. Jenny grabbed her purse, then pulled out her pepper spray keychain and phone. “I’ll be right back.”
Jenny stomped down the stairs and across the parking lot, into the park, pulling up a recording app on her phone and starting it as she strode right up to William. She planted herself in front of him, arms crossed.
She talked through clenched teeth. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here? At my home?”
“Am I in your home? I may be blind, but I think I’m in the park, yes?”
“I don’t buy this act.”
“What act are you referring to?”
“You were staring at me in my apartment.”
“Staring at you.”
“You nodded and smiled at me!”
“Ms. Brooks, I apologize if I’ve somehow upset you. I was just enjoying the park, rest assured. No sinister motives.”
“God damn you! When we have the meeting with Dr. Bell, she’ll see what you really—”
William held a finger in the air to stop her and turned toward her apartment. “Ah, your mother. Poor woman. All she’s been through, first with your father, then with you. Runs in the family, doesn’t it?”
Jenny clenched her fists. “How dare you. I swear—”
“She’s watching out the window, right now, worried. The apartment smells like Chinese food, yes? And Ben, so cute. He loves that red teething ring.”
“Don’t say another—”
“So cute that I could just gobble him up. As they say.”
Jenny held up her phone and forced a laugh. “Ha! I recorded all of that, asshole! Got you!”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Kevin Stadt