Semesters End

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A short meeting about my lab grade with the TA had devolved from general concern about doing well to total panic about graduation. It wasn’t her fault. I’d put off the lab requirement years longer than I should have. I had just realized my first chance at the lab was also going to be my last—unless I wanted to graduate yet another semester late.

“Cole, don’t worry about your grade,” the lab TA said in her lilting mezzo voice. “You don’t get points for extra tension. Act on what’s in front of you.” Her accent, though hard to place, was posh, polished and authoritative. She seemed confident in me. Or maybe she didn’t give a fuck. My graduation was definitely not her problem, and I knew it.

Her long black hair was pulled up into a loose knot, but a single lock had strayed across her temple. Her cramped desk was scattered with smudged data sheets and reams of journal articles with scattered highlighting. She looked tired.

She continued. “What you should do is, go home and make a plan. Do all the basic stuff: Flash cards. Review old quizzes. You might even glance at the textbook.” Her black eyes glittered as she teased me. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it now, while you’re motivated. Don’t put it off all weekend.”

“I will,” I promised. “I definitely will.”

Gathering my things, I made an awkward exit and walked straight off campus. I was oblivious, turning left and right by muscle memory, ruminating on bullshit. My bus stop was crowded with university workers and other students, but I stood by myself. People tend to give me a wide berth. Standing there next to the trash can, I was tempted as hell to take off my backpack and throw the whole damn thing in the trash—lab manual, notebooks and all.

I could just walk away from everything. Quit school, again. Be that much worse than my sister, again. I’d spent the past few years fighting for every hundredth of a point in my GPA, and now my own idiot inability to get a decent grade in the required fucking lab course was going to burn my GPA to the ground.

I already had a plan, and the plan was simple: it was that I definitely would not do it now. The TA was right. Too much tension. Somewhere, in the back of my head, I knew I was catastrophizing.

I’d built up this course in my head for too long. I dragged my feet to the last day of registration, which was how I got stuck with an 8 AM section led by an Indian graduate student with a daunting last name.

All that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. At 8 AM, the lab was clean and organized. If I grabbed a half-hour in the gym and some coffee, I was fine. The TA was open and friendly; she had all the student call her by her first name, Esha. She was not only incredibly smart, but she had a clear way of demonstrating the material—Esha was easily the best TA in the course, if not the department.

I stopped and drank from my water bottle, and followed that by closing my eyes and taking a few slow breaths. The bus stop stank like cigarette smoke, fast food and garbage.

I wanted a drink. I wanted to get drunk in a bar alone, stagger home and cut class tomorrow. Take a day to calm down, think, run some numbers on my grade, and maybe even read the fucking textbook.

There was this fake Irish place not far away that skewed a bit older. I’d been in there on game days once or twice, but none of my friends went there regularly. The bartender scanned my ID carefully and handed it back with a bottle of beer and a shot; I paid cash, tipped well and went as far back as I could go, away from the TVs, where I could read English, August in peace until the lines blurred together.

I found a long wooden table, hidden behind a disused pool table, and settled down in a chair. The afternoon sunlight shone off distant traffic, through the dark, drawn blinds, and left me a world away. The shot was gone immediately, and before I knew it the beer was gone too.

A posh, mezzo voice broke into my reverie. “So, mister,” she said. I looked up to see Esha standing there in a bright blue blouse and jeans, holding a glass of cola. She was only a head taller than me when I was sitting down. “I assume you’re waiting for your study group to get here?”

“I was just—I mean, I—”

Esha dismissed my embarrassment with a wave of her hand; a half a dozen thin silvery bangles sang like bells on her wrist. “No need to explain. I’ll leave you to your book. I just thought I’d tease you a little.”

“Wait—maybe we could talk a little more about lab?”

She wrinkled her nose slightly at the suggestion and glanced at my empty drinks. “I don’t think that would be appropriate. Come see me in office hours. Next week.”

“I definitely will,” I said, repeating myself weakly.

Esha didn’t disagree. She just smiled politely, and walked to another table.

* * *

Tripping over myself in the bar was the push I needed to make me prove what I was capable of. I was far enough along in my degree that all my other classes were fairly routine, so my real attention was focused Niğde Escort totally on the lab midterm.

Every minute of my time was consumed by this one credit hour. I even missed Esha’s last office hour before the test because I was studying too hard—I jogged up to her office a half-hour late. By then, there were three zit-faced sophomores lined up outside the door, mumbling over their crumpled notes.

Esha glanced up briefly and acknowledged me, but didn’t miss a word with the student in her office, explaining something I’d already been over a hundred times on my own.

There was no chance she’d be get to me by the end of the hour. I ambled back to the library, and stayed until my stomach growled so loudly I got a surprised look from the girl at the next table.

The midterm came back with nothing on it but “100” in teal ink on the front page. My adrenaline spiked; I felt like I could leap over every building on campus. A perfect grade was enough to bump my grade up to an A-minus, and that meant I was still in range of graduating with honors.

Heading home on the bus, I kept glancing at the returned test, and those three looping little sky blue numbers. Why didn’t it say, A+ or Nice job? Why not, I knew you could do it, Best in the class or Impressive?

Impressive. That was it. I was trying to impress Esha. Good grades alone were not enough.

My gut was somersaulting, as if I was running toward the end zone with the wind at my back and no one to stop me and the crowd roaring in my ears. I wanted Esha to—cheer. To clap hands and shout, to lose control and jump up, to moan with excitement and shout, scream and stop to catch her breath.

I wanted her.

* * *

How long had this been going on? The physical attraction was certainly instant. Almost literally my feet dragged to the first week of lab; it was the dead of winter, but even slogging through the ice and dirty slush it shouldn’t have taken an hour to get to class.

Every bench was filled except one right up front with a mousy ginger girl who smelled like oranges. My main goal in life was to avoid looking like a dumb, and there I was in baggy cargo shorts and a big puffy parka, lumbering in ten minutes late.

For a moment, I fantasized about turning right around and going straight back to my girlfriend’s apartment, climbing into her toasty warm bed and having sex with her until we both fell asleep.

And then I heard a polished feminine voice call my name from the roster. And then I saw her, Esha, for the first time.

She had shoulder-length black hair, pulled back into a short ponytail, and her eyes were just as dark, and rimmed with a thin line of black eyeliner. Large silver hoop earrings dangled at the bottom of a row of three or four glittering studs on each of her ears.

She wore a hip-length collarless turquoise shirt that only had buttons partway down. The sleeves had been pushed to ride up her forearms, and she had thin silver bangles on her slender wrists. The shirt was open several buttons where a silver pendant hung across her mocha skin, and it fit her tightly down to her waist, lifting and outlining her modest but prominent bust. I couldn’t help but imagining her flat belly.

Because I came in late, Esha introduced herself to me, directly to me, and when we shook hands, I think she noticed how I lingered a little touching her soft hands. She gave me a syllabus and resumed speaking to the class. She was quite short, shorter than my girlfriend, even though she was wearing boots with a little bit of heel, and her round bottom and shapely thighs curved along perfectly in her form-fitting blue jeans.

“Now, as I was saying, the timing of my office hour is one-thirty, every Thursday…” Her intriguing near-British accent was spiced with a just a tinge of an exotic tongue I’d never heard in person before: one-thirty slid very slightly towards von-tirty, little hints like that. It was powerful and alluring. I never was late for class again.

* * *

It was the last spring break of my college career, I hoped, and some old friends of mine wanted to go out on Thursday night, like we used to. After an hour and a half at our regular place, I steered us toward that Irish pub where Esha had caught me a few weeks previously.

There was only a vague hope in the back of my mind that we might run into her. Mostly, it was just that I was almost 24 and beginning to get bored of the bars I usually went to.

We took a table in the back room. One of the booths had been taken up with satchels and backpacks piled on top of each other. About a dozen graduate students were splitting pitchers and playing pool. Sure enough, she was there, sitting on a bench with her back to the pool table. She didn’t slouch; her posture was perfect.

Esha always wore the same kind of brightly colored, long loose shirts that modestly hinted at the form beneath. Unlike most girls I’d been with, she wore hardly any makeup at all—a slight hint of dark lipstick over Niğde Escort Bayan her full brown lips and black eyeliner was all, to emphasize her gleaming black eyes.

I tried to stop myself from admiring her too obviously, but I must have failed because the man across the table from her nudged her and pointed. She turned around and saw me, smiled and waved me over.

“Cole, everyone,” she said. Esha rested her hand on my triceps to present me to the table. “Everyone, Cole—Cole here is in my 8 am section. He got top marks on his midterm.”

I lifted my beer to the table and said something modest. Esha turned and lifted her own half-empty glass and clinked it against mine. “Well done,” she said in a low voice. Her hand was still on my arm as we looked at each other and toasted my grade.

“Thanks,” I said, feeling words slip away from me.

“Seriously,” she replied. The other TAs had turned back to discussing—something, I think the words may have been English. “What’s your major, again?”

I told her.

“I know full well that my field isn’t very high on your list. But you did well, you asked for help and you worked hard. We notice that kind of effort,” she said, cocking her head at her cohort. She took her glass and drained it.

Before the moment could get awkward, I asked, “Can I get you another beer? My buddies and I have a pitcher of—”

She smiled but interrupted me. “No, thanks. I think we’re—” She turned to her table. “Are you guys going to that stupid bowling alley?”

The grad student table gave out a chorus of cheers.

“Yeah, I think we’re heading out after this one.” She patted my arm again. “Thanks, though. Maybe next time.”

My heartbeat revved a little. Dismissed by Esha, I sat back down with my friends and tried to jump back into their loud, rambling conversation. I couldn’t really focus, though. After about ten minutes, the grad students piled out.

Esha waved goodbye politely, and my eyes followed her out the door.

“Shot down, huh, Cole?” my buddy ribbed me.

Over noisy teasing from all the guys, I protested how she was just somebody I knew, and I was just saying hello. After a minute, they forgot about her and went back to whatever the topic was.

I still couldn’t get into it. I held out for another ten minutes, then made up an excuse to get out. The air was just cold enough to still need a jacket, but I could see the stars twinkling over the buildings. The air and the movement started to help clear my brain as I headed home.

Only a couple blocks away, there was bus stop on my route. They only ran every half-hour at that time of night, so I didn’t think twice about it until I heard a female voice coming from inside the shelter. It was Esha.

“…really could use a ride. No, I just wanted to ask. I’ll—yeah, I’ll wait for the…hang on a second.”

Esha stepped out of the shelter, her phone held up to her ear. As I passed under a cobra light, she peered at my face. “Yeah, Ben, everything’s fine. I’ll wait for the bus. Okay, I will. Bye.”

I waved, but I didn’t say anything.

“Cole!” she said. “Early night, huh?”

“Yeah, I’m just walking home. What happened to bowling?”

“I hate bowling,” she said. “Mostly the rented shoes thing. I thought I could catch a ride home, but they were all walking. Do you live this way?”

I told her what corner I lived on.

“That’s—hm.” She thought about it for a moment. “That’s actually farther than me. Are you walking?”

“Yeah. Faster than waiting for the bus.”

Esha looked me up and down. Fiddling with something in her hand, she said, “Look, this is kind of hard to ask, but can I ask you a favor? My place isn’t that far from here, but I’m not walking there alone. I’d be a lot more comfortable if I was with, you know, someone I can trust.”

“You can trust me,” I promised.

She smiled. “I know.”

We walked up the hill toward the cross streets she mentioned, which was on the way to my house by a route I didn’t usually take. It was mostly low-density commercial, dotted with shadowy apartment blocks with thick trees covering the street lights. The only people we passed weren’t the type I wanted to hang out with. I could see why she didn’t want to go alone.

It was a twenty-minute walk. Making conversation, Esha mentioned seeing me at her office hour before the midterm. “Why didn’t you wait?” she asked. “You should wait if you need to talk about something.”

“There was a huge line, and it was already past two. I figured you’d probably be dying to get out of there.”

“What’s important is if you have a question, you ask it,” she said. “But I do get hungry afterwards. Maybe show up earlier next time. Or you can come with me when I get food, if you don’t mind if I eat. I don’t care.”

“Maybe I will,” I said. She seemed not to want to talk about what I realized was just work to her, so we let the conversation drift. We talked about good restaurants and things to do in town. I was surprised how Escort Niğde many things she hadn’t tried. “You have to email that to me,” she kept saying.

Esha never brought up the guy she’d been talking to on the phone. As we got closer to her place, I finally just came out with it.

“So, Esha, you can tell me this is none of my business, but how come your boyfriend didn’t come give you a ride?”

Her eyes widened in surprise, and she started to laugh. “My…?”

“Your boyfriend. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but you were talking to a guy on the phone back there at the bus stop.”

Now, Esha’s smile became a small laugh. “No, he and I just…he’s not my boyfriend, he’s my housemate’s boyfriend. They’re out of town, I guess. He made me promise to take the bus.”

“But you didn’t.”

“None of his business. That’s a big advantage to not having a boyfriend.”

“But a boyfriend would help you out.”

“Well, you came along, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I—” Have a girlfriend, I started to say. “I mean, I’m happy to help if I can, but what if I hadn’t been there?”

“Then the bus would have showed up eventually. I’ve never had a boyfriend, and I’ve been just fine.”

“Seriously? You never had a boyfriend?” I asked, too loudly. I could have punched myself.

Esha’s face was hidden in the night shadows, but I could almost feel her blush. “Yeah—I mean, I’ve had—you know…” Now it was her turn to hold back. She continued, “I’ve had school and stuff to worry about. No time for pointless distractions.”

Esha lived in a small house on a side street I recognized from my morning runs. She stopped me at the narrow footpath leading to the front door, where we said good night. It was a bit odd, just leaving her there.

“Thank you so much for walking with me,” she said.

“No problem,” I said. “I’m glad I could help.”

“Ordinarily, I’d be a good Indian hostess and offer you tea, but…” she trailed off. But you’re my student.

“I’m not much of a tea-drinker,” I said, but she didn’t seem to hear me.

“Sorry,” Esha said. Then she glanced up at the front door, biting her lip. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay walking the rest of the way?”

“It’s a little sketchy, but I’ve done it before. I’ll be alright.”

“Walk me to the door,” she whispered. I went inside the gate, and up her path to the door. She pointed at one of the windows, where there was a small light on, and said, “That’s my room.”

She opened the door just a crack, and I could tell that the living room and all the rest of the house was empty. We were alone.

A light, cold breeze picked up, and instinctively we stepped closer to each other. I looked down into her black eyes and her slightly parted lips.

Esha looked sidelong to the rest of the street, and back toward her open door. Quickly, she said, “Good night, Cole. Thanks again.” And she stepped inside and closed the door.

I waited for a moment. No lights came on.

What was I expecting? A late night kiss from one of my professors? She’d have to jump up on top of me to do it. In reality, it would be me leaning down to take advantage of her…

Stop and breathe, I told myself. My heart was hammering. I clenched my hand, ready to knock on the door. So I let myself breathe slowly, feeling the impulse drift away, forcing myself to think clearly. My hand dropped to the side. I walked home on the straight and narrow path, kicking myself the whole way.

When I walked up to my own front door, in range of my wi-fi, an email alert chimed on my phone.

“Per our conversation,” it read, “campus crime is a very important concern. Please reply to this email to confirm you arrived safely home from campus.” She always signed off her general emails to the class as Esha, but this one simply had her professional signature: full name, campus address and phone number.

Feeling like I was doing something that was sketchy at best, I copied the number into my contacts, and wrote a two word message. Home safe.

About five minutes later came an equally brief reply: Thanks again.

* * *

When classes resumed I realized just how much crap I’d been putting off. I was behind in everything. By the time lab came around, I’d pulled five twelve-hour days in a row. That 6:45 phone alarm? Not happening. I shut it off after one snooze, closed my eyes and sank down into my pillow.

I couldn’t tell how long I’d been sleeping when Esha texted me. Streaks of sunlight pierced through the blinds of my bedroom window.

“Don’t skip lab,” she wrote. “If you can get here by 11 you can sit in on the next section.”

It was 10:30.

Not since freshman year had I done a power shower and race to campus the way I did after I saw that. I biked off toward campus at top speed. I turned hard left to go straight down hill, and in a heartbeat I realized exactly where I was.

Esha’s house was burned into my memory. As I tore past it, I caught her bedroom window in the corner of my eye: a bright yellow and orange curtain was tied to one side. A full-length mirror glinted on the far wall.

I got to lab with five minutes to spare. Esha put me at a bench in the back with a random group, and as she handed me a copy of the quiz she said in a low voice, “I’m glad you came.”

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