My students had gotten me tipsy after our end of the term year happy hour and put me on a cab ride home to the West Hills. I would have swum further with the young, but a fellow instructor and friend of mine followed me to the bar where I had thought to buy another round for the lot of them. She put her hand on my arm and delicately told me this: “I think their generosity towards the elderly is tapped out.”
When I announced my departure, the beauties swarmed me and feigned their reluctance to see me go. And Benjamin—my 25 year-old graduate student of godlike intellect and physical perfection—escorted me to the street and hailed me a cab. I squeezed his hand once before entering the hypersanitized cab.
But quickly the car spun me away from the posh bar and up above Salt City. The cabbie knew these hairpin turns well and glided us upwards. I hated to go home to the small, not-posh home that was so cozy for a married couple and now so cold to a widow. Couldn’t one of those bright voices kept me company tonight?
To comfort myself, I thought of the loners, instead of the bright ones I’d left. I’ve met so many of them at State over the years. They’ll come to my classroom for a refresher in political science. “I like politics,” they’ll say with a shrug. “Thought I might go back and finish up my B.A.” I know your real story, I will think while I nod in sympathy. I know how tightly those lonely hours are stretching your humanity. A four-credit class at State is not just an innocent diversion for these loners; a class is a protection.
For some reason, the first face that appeared in my mind was Ethan’s, who was married and living in a suburb of Salt City, with his wife, of course. I had known him since we were both studying the law at State back in the 80s. He was no longer practicing; the hours away from his wife were too long and these days I believe the couple survived from his wife’s inheritance. She had some obsession with knowing her husband’s whereabouts and had few friends of her own. I assume that Ethan was a faithful husband, but at some point, I think he must have smiled too long at a pretty neighbor. His wife cut his exposure to all his old friends and moved the two of them to a suburb so far from Salt City that you might hesitate to link it to the riverbed of our metropolis.
I think of poor Ethan, reading and drinking tea inside a comfortable house on a dark road and being watched for signs of insurrection.
I think of Shannon. She is getting too old to be an administrative assistant and came to class in the hope that more education would lever her out of a barely-above-poverty-line paycheck. She lives in a suburb of Salt City and being that extra fifteen minutes’ drive from downtown means that she never goes there. Happy hours, visits to Body Plus, the occasional attention from the ex-boyfriend. The changes make her head spin and her face look ancient in the bathroom mirror. So she hides away and never returns after that first class.
Darren was a loner who finished out a term. He was a man who reminded me of a Tempur-Pedic mattress. He reminded me of how my husband might have been if he hadn’t met me so long ago and waded out of subservience. The way that Darren sidled up to my desk after class made me worry for the strength of his heart. I suspected some experience with violence in his extreme deference—though after all of it, he’ll expand again and fill himself back in.
I thought of another loner: That ancient man all stooped over on the bus I took from the West Hills into the university. Most women thought him adorable, but I recognized his face. He hadn’t changed much over the years and I’ve lived in SC long enough to remember his crime, almost forty years ago. I’d studied the tawdry details in sickening relief to pouring over legal textbooks. He’d only been released from prison ten years ago. How quickly people forget and think the best of the feeble. I see him smacking his gums and lapping up their attention.
We pull up to my small widow’s cottage.
“25,” the cab driver tells me.
I fish for two twenties and glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror while I wait for a couple dollars in change. Those purple swells of sleeplessness under my eyes. The dried-up flesh of my throat, like a garment wrung out after a wash. I am the last loner I’ll think of tonight.