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Past Tense

"I had such a crush on you," she said as they stepped through the door, leaving the administration building. They'd had lunch in the admin cafeteria; he didn't have time to leave campus. Each word was a kitten claw, a tiny weight of pain suddenly pendent in his chest. He made as if to speak. He didn't. He was looking at the slick sidewalk, hunched a bit against the cold. The silence was not awkward. They had shared silences over lunch. Once when he had looked at her, she had had her face turned a bit away, her eyes not focused on any obvious distance, as if avoiding contact with his. Then she moved her eyes, only her eyes, and looked at him. She looked worried. And beautiful. As beautiful as he had thought she was that first time he ever saw her, sitting in the back row of his classroom, the one with the bay window that looked out onto the common, that day in Grand Forks. She had been in back that day, huddled in an Air Force parka–a dark olive face, the eyes heavy-lidded and forbidding, all framed in blue fabric and black hair. She looked worried. They had looked at each other across the lunchroom table while he thought about that day, making one of those silences together, and then she had picked up a French fry from his plate, a sudden, birdlike gesture, and dipped it in the cafeteria's "special sauce." And the moment was gone.

Seven words, he thought, heading back toward the liberal arts building. Most of them terrible. She crossed her arms, walking there beside him. He was walking too fast for her; she was struggling, without protest, to keep up. He slowed down. He wanted to cry.

She was not beautiful. Not really, then or now. After the initial shock of recognition that day in his classroom, he had learned to know her, and she had become a person rather than an icon of desire. A child, fifteen years younger than he, a child with potential, an engaging mind and a stew of emotional energy. Those days when she came to his office, her presence had warmed the air. But her nose was too broad-bridged; her lips rather shapeless. She had a lumpy body, surely curved and athletic under the oversized, boyish clothes she had affected then, but it was not etched precisely in his memory—her body—not like her face. Her eyes were greenish—hazel, he supposed—with flecks, almost an aureole, of tawny brown. Like turquoise, with matrix, he had written one night in his journal. She was a Michif girl, from Rolla. He'd never been able to pronounce her last name correctly. Trottier.

"I have a dog," he said. "He's half boxer, half Pyrennes. Talk about miscegenation!"

"I have a dog," she said brightly. "And a little boy."

It had been six years. She had finished his Intro to Fiction class, taken three more classes with him, given him poetry to read, graduated, and disappeared. He had gotten a divorce. He had moved on to St. Cloud State. He was living with a graduate student, a woman he thought he probably loved.

"Eighteen months," she said, as if he had asked.

"You're married?"


"How long?"

"Two years," she said. Then she laughed. He supposed he was blushing; his face felt hot. He hadn't meant to ask what her answer told him. "It was a love match," she added ruefully. She talked about her husband. He was the manager of the American Express branch office in St. Cloud now. They had met in Denver. They had only been in St. Cloud a few months. They lived over by the prison, she told him.

"It was the craziest thing," she had said. "My brother's at the University of Chicago, getting his Ph.D. in English. He read your paper on The Magus. In Contemporary Literature? I remember how much you used to rave on about that book," she had added, grinning. "You finally wrote about it! He remembered your name. It is distinctive, you know. From things I had told him. He called me last week. It said you were at St. Cloud State. So here you are!" She huffed a dramatic sigh that lifted her shoulders and ribs, and she pursed her lips. They were soft-looking lips, and she pursed them gently, pushing them forward.

"And glad of it," he said then, leaving his meaning for her to sort out. That exchange was followed with a silence.

During that fiction class, she had tracked down everything he had published, even a silly haiku he'd submitted as a joke to a little nature magazine. She had wanted to do a paper on his stories, and he told her that was impossible. She had argued with him, insisting that she could do it, that he was a good writer and worthy of critical study. He was flattered and charmed. It was, he thought now, like playing with a kitten, all claws and bones and fur and teeth. The teeth cut like needles; the claws stuck like tiny pins, but you endured it, a price for your affection, taking the pain as a gift of intimacy, a gift like love. It wasn't even that the kitten didn't mean to hurt. Of course it meant to hurt. It was testing its ability to give pain, learning the boundaries of its passion. But it was young, and clumsy, and you loved it.

"You" was one of those terrible words. "I had a crush on you." She had a crush on him. The third person eased the pain a little. Those were other people, and long ago. "I" was for intimacy, I was the person in front of you, pushing a tendril of black hair out of her eyes and telling you something you had wanted to hear five years ago, after a year of sparring and doubt, something you would have acted upon, had you had the courage to believe what you saw rather than what she said it meant.

"I wish you would stop writing these fictional passages in your journal," he had told her one day. They were supposed to be keeping personal journals of observations, mediations. Hers, every week, included long, sensual narrative scenes involving a red-headed Irish seductress with skin like strawberry ice cream and a grim, craggy older man, an intellectual, a dark and tragic figure whose personal appearance, he had begun to think when he had gotten past vanity, certainly grew more and more like his own as the weeks passed.

It was like dangling a treat above your dog, to see how high he'll jump. She refused to quit.

"You said we could write whatever we want," she had said.

"But I said it had to be true. Nonfiction."

"I don't see the difference. It's good writing. Nothing ever happens to me."

He had wanted to say that the difference was that when he read her fictions, he felt unfaithful to his wife. There was, by then, nothing between him and his wife but the business of daily life, a marriage less than ashes—dust. But he had been married, then, and his son was eleven then, precious to him. If she had said, "Take me with you" to anywhere, he would have screamed and cried inside his head and talked reasonably to her. But he would have done it, finally. Three years later, but alone, after she was gone, he had done it. Alone. And now his son was seventeen. Hers—was it a boy?—was nearly two. The letters—They were journal entries officially, but they were, really, private letters, as private as what people do in motel rooms, the drapes drawn against prying eyes—The letters had been a torment. They were ripe and immature, in the language of romances. It had not been the language that made him angry and speechless with desire; it had been, always, the terrible confusion of truth and fiction. What it meant.

"I think of you at night," she had written, "another man in my arms. A boy really, with slick tangled blonde hair and a face sullen and serious. He takes me with a kind of clumsy desperation, but I put my arms around his neck and think your name, careful not to speak, and it is all right with us. Our bodies fit together then, the way my legs fit around you that time in Montreal."

He'd never been in Montreal.

I love you. She had offered him the opportunity to say that over French fries and a BLT. Offered, and then snatched it away, there in the door, while he hung in the air just below her hand, his teeth clicking together. I have loved you practically from the moment I saw your wonderful dark face, with its piercing, judging eyes and horsy nose, those lips soft as puddings. I have loved you. Present perfect. Not past tense. Not she had loved him. Not past.

They were almost back at his office.

"You understand that I have been in love with you for five years," he said.

"I know." She was looking forward. She was matching his pace. "What should we have done?"

"Come with me to Montréal," he said then.

Ceremony Host ^