I’m racing across campus in the rain, almost late for my six-thirty dinner date. Okay, it’s not a dinner date. I’ll be on the clock for the Student Help Center.
But I really don’t want to be late to meet Pepe.
Naturally, I failed to bring an umbrella when I left my dorm room this afternoon, and I’m regretting the oversight. I’m sporting a style we’ll call the Wet Dog as I dash through the gates to Turner House. “Thank you,” I call to the student who’s let me in. Then I get another dousing of rain as I cross the courtyard toward the dining hall entrance.
Once inside, the race is over. But my hair is dripping on the old oak floorboards. I should try to find the ladies’ room and blot the rain water from my hair…
“Oh, noh!” Pepe’s deep voice exclaims behind me. I turn around, and he grabs my bag off my shoulder, giving it a little shake. “Take off your coat, chaton. You’re soaked.”
Face burning, I do as I’m told. He ducks into a shadowy alcove and I see him hang my dripping jacket on a hook.
“Bon,” he says when he returns. “Shall we?” He’s still carrying my bag as well as his. They both look small on his big frame. Also notable—my bag is pink with black polka dots. It’s totally girly. And Pepe carries it without objection.
He is the perfect man. And he belongs to someone else. I’ve been a little depressed since reading his “When I Get Home” essay. She was right there in the first line. Marie. His girlfriend goes to school near their hometown in Canada. Pepe misses her.
He was quite eloquent at describing how much. It was his best writing yet. I hated every word.
Coincidentally, I didn’t force myself to go to that off-campus party he invited us to. Why risk humiliation to impress a guy who’s already taken?
I follow him through the common room, towards the hubbub of dinner hour. We still have our tutoring sessions, at least. And the crazy thing is that I’m better at it now. Since I know I don’t have a chance with Pepe, my tongue doesn’t get so tied anymore. I can string sentences together reliably. It’s much better.
But it’s also worse.
The dining hall is busy, as always. But I love this room. Turner House is built in the Georgian style, with intricate white plasterwork and chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings. The tables are long, gleaming oak with tall, carved chairs pulled up to them. We join a short line of students waiting to enter the serving kitchen and I grab a tray off the stand, taking a moment to flick locks of wet hair off my shoulders.
“Thank you for meeting me here, chaton.” Pepe smiles at me. And the way he cups my elbow for a quick squeeze makes me feel a little light-headed.
It still takes me a few minutes to settle down in his presence. I’ve still got it bad. “No big deal,” I stammer. Last month he let it slip that he was sometimes forced to choose between tutoring and dinner. So now I often meet him at whichever dining hall is scheduled to be open late.
True to form, this room is full of hockey, soccer and football jackets, because the jocks all have lengthy practice sessions six nights a week. It sounds grueling as hell.
“How’s your week been?” I ask as the line inches forward.
“Not the best.” His face sort of shuts down then, in a very un-Pepe-like way. I’m trying to decide whether or not to ask why when the guy behind the counter says, “next.”
Pepe steps aside to let me order first, and my cheeks heat for no reason at all except that I’m charmed by his old-fashioned manners. A quick glance at the offerings informs me that it’s Chinese night. “I’ll have, um, the chicken and broccoli, thanks. That’s all.”
After my plate is passed over the counter, Pepe gives the server a grin. “Hit me hard,” is all he says.
“No problem, man.” The guy in the paper hat begins piling food onto a plate. A layer of rice, followed by a mountain of chicken. Two egg rolls are wedged precariously onto the rim. “That’s all I can fit,” he says, passing the plate into Pepe’s waiting hands.
“Bien. You are the best.”
At the beverage counter Pepe fills four glasses with milk while I fill one with diet soda. I wait for him, because I don’t know where he wants to sit. Another guy in a hockey jacket walks up and claps Pepe on the shoulder. “I heard the news, man. So sorry.”
“Noh, It is fine,” Pepe mutters. He picks up his tray and lifts his sculpted chin, indicating that I should follow.
We cross the dining hall to find an empty little table tucked into a corner. We always dig in first and tutor last, so I take a couple of bites and watch Pepe. There are circles under his eyes. “You look tired,” I say before I think better of it. His smile is flat tonight. That never happens.
“Eh.” He shrugs off the comment. “Listen, Jhosephine. I don’t know about this new essay. I wrote it late last night, and now I want to tear it up.”
“It can’t be that bad,” I say quietly. “You’ve been doing great.” In truth he still makes a lot of the same mistakes in his writing. But he works so damn hard that I have nothing but empathy.
And then there’s my crush on him, size XXL.
Now he reaches into his book bag and pulls out his folder. When he hands it over, though, he looks nervous. Then he grabs his fork and shoves another bite of chicken into his mouth.
Something makes me hesitate. “Pepe,” I ask quietly. “Are you sure you want me to read this?”
He sighs. “I was very upset when I wrote it. I can’t decide.”
“Do you want to think about it?” Essays can be so personal. I know a lot about him from reading everything he writes for this course. Last month I read about the recent death of his Italian grandfather. Pepe had learned of his passing while riding the bus home from a hockey game in Boston. He’d cried all the way back to Harkness, apparently.
The theme of that essay was unexpected behaviors. Pepe hadn’t expected his hockey teammates to understand his sadness. But apparently the entire bus had become misty eyed. Coach had asked the bus driver to pull off the highway at a Friendly’s so he could buy them all ice cream to cheer them up again.
“Listen,” I tell him. “Just because your professor encourages you to write personal things in these essays, it doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
“Noh. I don’t care if the professor reads. It is not so great, though, to have my pretty tutor hear all the dumb shit in my life.” He gives me a sad smile.
The compliment catches me off guard. Our gazes lock, and his expression is both vulnerable and still unreadable. “If it helps, there’s plenty of dumb shit in my life, too.”
He smiles, but it’s a little sad. Then he points at the folder. “Just read. It is okay. I need the help. This one is very rough, I think.”
“What was the prompt?” I ask, opening the cover.
His chuckle is dry. “Something that angers us.”
Liars are the thing that angers me. Some lie for politics. Some lie while selling soap on the television. Those are impersonal lies, at least. But sometimes it is much worse. A woman can say she loves you and then take your best friend to bed while you are here at school, working for a better life, trying to keep all your promises.
My eyes fly to his, and he winces. “I should not write essays on the day I break up with Marie.”
“I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “Maybe you’ll get back together, though.”
Slowly, he gives his head a shake. “I am finished trying to make her happy. It cannot be done. Each time she feels like hooking up, she dumps me. That’s the pattern. Only this time she skipped that step.” He heaves a sigh. “For a year I try to make long distance work for us. She breaks up four times, but then begs to have me back.” He rolls his eyes, and I smile because it’s so cute to see a big man do that. “Yesterday my buddy texts me a picture of her making out with my old roommate from Montreal…”
The noise I make isn’t very glamorous, but it’s heartfelt.
“Oui. So that is it for her. I cannot make her wait for me. She has to want to.”
I have no idea what to say. Who would cheat on this sweet man? He’s both attractive and genuinely nice. “That sucks,” I whisper. “I’m sorry.”
He shakes his head. “Sucks more that I wrote an essay about it. A bad one.”
I turn back to his writing, my red pen in hand. I shove my tray aside and start marking it up. The grammar and spelling are worse than usual, as if he’d vomited these feelings onto the page without the usual care. It takes me a while to get through it, and my heart is splintering the whole time.
When I hand the paper back, he slaps it down on the table as if embarrassed. “Now finish your dinner,” he says, and I notice his giant plate is already emptied. “I’ll get the ice cream.” He’s off like a shot, eager to get off the topic of his heartbreak, I suppose.
When he returns, it’s with two sundaes. He’s sliced bananas over vanilla ice cream, and added nuts and chocolate sauce.
“Wow,” I remark as he sets a spoon down beside me. “I’d better hit the gym tomorrow.”
“No, chaton,” he says. “This isn’t food for feeling guilty,” he says, waving his spoon at the ice cream.
“What is it, then?”
“Food for getting over the girl.”
“I don’t know, Pepe,” I tease. “The ice cream binge is kind of a chick thing to do. Will it even work on you?”
He smiles at me over his spoon. “I will let you know. My essay is not the best, no?”
“You’ve written better sentences,” I say, hoping he appreciates my honesty. “But your professor might care about passion as much as he cares about expression, I think. There are points for grammar, but also for bravery."
Pepe snorts. "Bravery?"
"Yeah. It takes courage to put yourself out there. This essay can be more raw than the others. I like this line…” I scan the page to find it. “Anger from betrayal is more combustible than any other kind.”
“Combustible,” Pepe says, licking his lips as if tasting the word. “I found it in your thesaurus, chaton. I looked up burn.”
This makes me irrationally happy. “I love the word combustible. Well done, sir.”
He smiles, and the twinkle in his eyes finally makes a brief appearance. And I put it there.