Three weeks later I fly back to Harkness for my second semester of college. But I’m not tutoring, and I’m not nearly as buoyant as I was at the start of the next term.
I really don’t want to dwell on why.
With stacks of freshly printed syllabi under both arms, I trot up a set of marble steps of the English department building. The corridors smell of coffee and old books, and the scent is a balm for my soul. If there were more time, I’d stop right in the middle of the staircase and just inhale it, like the nerd that I really am.
When I reach seminar room 207, I open the door with my hip. Professor Sarky beams at me from under her spiky crop of salt and pepper hair. She is seated at the head of a gleaming walnut conference table, where fifteen or so college women have already gathered, each with a notebook open to a fresh sheet of paper. The air is tinged with first-day-of-the semester expectation.
This is just what I need after moping around my parents house for three weeks.
“Everyone—this is Josie Allister, my assistant,” the professor says as I carry the stack of syllabi over to her.
I won’t lie—my heart swells to hear her call me her assistant. This job doesn’t offer me nearly as many hours as my tutoring gig. I’ll miss the extra fifty bucks a week. But there are advantages to being Professor Sarky’s assistant. In the first place, she’s a legend in her field. She’s smart and innovative and I look forward to helping her with whatever she needs, no matter how trivial.
Also? The tutoring office is dead to me now. I can’t afford to come face to face with a certain hockey player again. Too embarrassing. Too heart-rending.
I sit down at the table and uncap my pen. It’s a new semester, with a new slate of classes, and a new boss. Let’s do this.
The professor opens the class with a heartfelt speech. “Thank you for joining me on this literary journey! The official course title for this seminar took me a while to craft. After many hours of contemplation, I settled on, ‘The Romance Novel and its Modern Female Voices.’”
And now I love Professor Sarky even more for admitting that she’s as indecisive as us ordinary mortals.
“I’ve been wanting to develop this seminar for a long time,” the professor tells us. “I’m sure there are a few gentlemen in the English department who are still snickering.” She beams at us to let us know she isn’t bothered by that at all. “But romance is the single highest-selling genre of the literary world. That’s meaningful to me.” As she speaks, Professor Sarky passes my stack of syllabi around the table to her left.
“Since I began teaching here, Harkness has offered a popular course on The Bible as Literature. The catalog advertises it as a course about the world’s most-read book. And that makes sense, right? But this semester we’re going to study the language’s most-read genre.”
A polite chuckle hums throughout the all-female crowd. It’s really no surprise that only women showed up for the course, which is cross-listed with the Women’s Studies department.
“The romance novel has many critics,” the professor points out next. “And—as in any genre—some of the books aren’t as well-written as the classics. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of their place in the bookstore. It is a genre written largely by women, for women. We’re going to explore all the ways that romance novels are subversive. And we’re going to discover what those books have to share about women’s evolving voices over the past several decades.”
I find myself leaning forward in my seat. This is why I came to Harkness—for this class, and this crazy, brave professor. Not to meet ungrateful men, but to study language and literature with lively minds.
And since real-life romance is a disappointment, at least I can read about it in books.
I’m in the midst of these encouraging thoughts as I notice the old brass doorknob turning. There’s an unfortunate squeak, and Professor Sarky breaks off her introductory comments as we all watch to see which apologetic woman will enter and hastily take a seat.
Although. The shadow cast on the antique textured glass window is too vast to be a woman’s. And when the door swings open I’m am so startled I drop my pen. The figure who enters is the very man I’m avoiding.
“Excusez-moi,” Pepe says.
My eyes dive for the table as my cheeks begin to flame. The low, guttural sound of his French is like a melody I’d spent the last three weeks trying to forget. I only hope he’ll leave the room before he spots me.
Because there is no earthly way a hockey player has decided to take an English course on romance novels. The locker room teasing alone would be a deterrent, right?
But when I raise my eyes again, he’s still there, and taking a seat, too. In the silence he’s caused by his tardiness, the only sound is the squeak of a chair on the old wooden floors as he seats himself.
“Good morning, sir,” the professor says without letting her smile slip. “You have joined us during the introduction for English 217, The Romance Novel and Modern Womens’ Voices. If this course was not in your travel plans, you may wish to take this opportunity to find the right room.”
“Oui!” he says quickly. And even without looking at him, I can hear the cheery smile in his words. “Sorry for my lateness. This eez my first time at zhe English Department. I do not always find English words with the first try, and now the same eez true of the building.” He beams at the professor, and I feel every girl in the room sigh a little.
Pepe’s charm is infectious, damn him. I’m living proof.
And now my little bubble is burst. Two minutes ago, this room was a place where I hadn’t made any mistakes yet. And now my biggest one is seated four chairs away. Professor Sarky begins to speak again, but my concentration is blown. I stare down at the syllabus with unseeing eyes, trying not to look at him. But his shoulders are so broad that they’re inescapable in my peripheral vision.
I’ve just spent three weeks at home in Iowa trying not to feel bad that Pepe hasn’t spoken to me since our big night together. I’m still trying to make sense of it. To me, that night was everything. To him, it was just a one night stand. A little stress relief after a difficult semester.
While the professor drones on about early twentieth century popular fiction, I sneak a quick glance at him, just in case I’ve overblown the attraction in my mind.
But this backfires, because his big, dark eyes are fixed on the professor with polite attentiveness. His sculpted jaw rests in one big hand, and once again I’m studying the shadow of his whiskers over that perfect face. I’d spent all of last semester wondering what it would feel like to run my hands over it.
Now I know what it feels like, and I’m more of a wreck than ever.
While moping my way through Christmas break, it occurred to me that not every girl would feel the same. Some women who’d enjoyed a perfect night in Pepe’s company might feel unscathed.
My roommate agrees. “You said it was the hottest night of your life,” Nadia reminded me, mid-mope. “Maybe a repeat wouldn’t live up to the first time. Put that night on a mental pedestal and leave it there, untarnished.”
It’s a nice idea, with one big flaw. I like Pepe. All of him. The smiles and the manners and the grammatical challenges. I want to spend more time with him.
He doesn’t share that feeling, though. After our post-exams sexfest, he left in the middle of the night, explaining that his flight left early the next morning and he hadn’t packed.
I didn’t panic, though. Perfect excuse to mash and dash, right? I fell into a blissful slumber and dreamt of our perfect future together.
The fairy tale ended the next morning at 9:30 when I opened my dorm room door to find my thesaurus on the welcome mat. When I saw it cast aside there, I just knew. I could practically hear his single-guy gears turning. Well, this is gonna be awkward. Better ditch the book now so we don’t have to speak again.
Even then I wasn’t quite ready to believe that Pepe would shut me out. I let a day go by, and then another. He didn’t text me or call. But I’m a modern girl (if still a chicken) so I pulled up my big girl panties and texted him. After about sixteen drafts I went with: Hi Pepe. Hope you’re having a great vacation. Thinking about you! J.
Now I regret it. Because I never got an answer back. Not one word.
Who does that?
The professor’s voice brings me suddenly back into the present. “Sorry,” I stammer, horrified to find every set of eyes was on me. Including Pepe’s. His brown eyes regard me so seriously that I have to wonder if he can read minds.
Professor Sarky grins. “You can go ahead and explain the library now.”
“Right,” I say, and it comes out sounding froggy. I clear my throat. “The, uh, cart has fifty romance novels on it. They’re sorted according to decade. This is just the first shipment. I’m expecting books from a dozen used booksellers, as well as orders from Amazon and Walmart.”
“This will be the first time that Harkness has ordered teaching texts from Walmart!” The professor announces with glee. “I am making history.”
I paste a smile onto my face and finish my speech. “Each week, you should plan to take two or three books home. Prof. Sarky has prepared an online survey form where we’re going to catalog our impressions of the romance genre over time. The survey form will help you record details such as character names and occupations, tropes and archetypes. Details like that. You’ll find the URL on the syllabus.”
Until a half hour ago, I was thrilled to be part of this little research project. Now I can’t wait to get out of the room.
Pepe’s hand shoots into the air.
“Yes sir,” the professor says.
“Are we to read the whole book? Or just inspect?”
“It depends.” Professor Sarky taps the syllabus. “As outlined in here, you will read at least five romance novels over the course of our time together. Three will be classics that we’ll read together, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Two you will choose yourself, and the rest you will merely catalog.” The professor lifts a hand toward my cart of books. “I’ll end class a few minutes early so that you have time to make your first selections. If you have questions my office hours are Thursday afternoons. Feel free to email me at any time, and please direct questions of procedure to Josie. Thank you! See you all at our next lecture.”
Chairs scrape back from the table and students head toward my book cart. I wish I could just slip out of the room, but Prof. Sarky would find it odd. I’m supposed to stick around and collect the leftover books.
I can’t make such a poor impression on the first day. So I make myself very busy reading the syllabus as people move about the room.
When I look up, Pepe is standing in front of me, three paperbacks in his hand. “Hello Jhosephine.”