Very Nice

An original short story from the author of Twins, Bad Marie, and The Red Car.

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I didn't think, the day that I kissed my professor for the first time, that he would kiss me back. His lips were soft. He tasted like coffee. The coffee I had made for him.

"That was very nice," he said.

My professor smiled at me. Though hesitant at first, he had returned the kiss.

My professor, my creative-writing teacher, had asked me to watch his dog, Amira, for the day. It was the last day of the semester. He had a standard poodle. A large dog with apricot-colored fur. I loved standard poodles. I had grown up with standard poodles. Sometimes, my professor took his poodle to class. He loved his dog.

More From Summer Fiction Issue No. 3
4 articles
Fiction: "The Expectation of Anywhere"
Fiction: "Glimmer"
Fiction: "The Man in the Sky"

My professor lived in New York City. He commuted up the Hudson River to campus. He took Metro North. He had been sick most of the semester. A virus, he said, a flu that would not go away. He was incredibly beautiful, my professor, like his dog. Together, they were a breathtaking pair. My professor had long eyelashes, big eyes, brown skin. Silky hair. He was tall, thin, too thin. He was from Pakistan.

My professor had published a novel that had won all the big awards the year it came out. I had tried to read his book, but I couldn't. A sentence was as long as a paragraph. A paragraph was as long as a page. At a reading on campus, I asked him to sign a copy of his book. Though I had not been able to read it, I told him that I thought it was beautiful.

"So are you, Rachel," he said, looking up from the book, looking into my eyes.

The compliment had come out of nowhere, blindsided me.

***

The professor was in my house off campus when I kissed him.

We were sitting in my kitchen. My roommates were at the library, studying for exams. My professor was drinking the good coffee I made him. His beautiful dog, Amira, was sitting at our knees, and we both petted her, our hands almost touching. He seemed agitated, my professor, agitated in a way I had never seen before.

"I couldn't get a seat on the train," he said as he entered my house without even waiting for me to invite him in. He accepted the cup of coffee I offered him, nodding as I poured in the half and half. "There were open seats, several, but no one would make room for me."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because of my skin color, of course," he said, bitterly.

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I stared at him.

"Because people think I am a terrorist," he said.

"You are a writer," I said. "A famous novelist."

My professor shook his head. "I had to ask the conductor to ask a woman to remove her bags. The trip takes over an hour. I was not going to stand. I had asked her, twice. I knew I should just move on, but I was tired. I am tired today. I am angry, too. This is not the first time. Normally I am used to it, but today, it was too much. I am just a person trying to go to work. I am dressed well, am I not?"

My professor was wearing faded blue jeans, a worn blue button-down shirt that looked soft to the touch. Loafers. His hair was growing long, wisps of hair covering his ears, bangs over his eyes.

My professor had told me once that I could be a good writer if I were to let myself write. Most assignments came and went, and I did not turn anything in. I wanted my work to be brilliant, which meant it was impossible for me to write anything at all. I would be getting an incomplete for the semester, in a class where everyone got 4.0s.

"That sounds horrible," I said. "She sounds like a horrible woman."

"I am sure she doesn't think of herself that way. I am sure she gives money to Planned Parenthood and votes Democrat. She doesn't even know she is racist. She is the kind of woman who says that she likes Indian food but won't eat cilantro."

I wanted to tell my professor that when I made salsa, I used lots of fresh cilantro. That while I often put my knapsack on my seat, hoping that no one would sit next to me on the train, whenever it was crowded, I always made the seat available, before I was asked. I told my professor this.

"Of course, Rachel," he said. "Of course you would do that. You are a beautiful person."

He looked so sad, my professor, and this was the second time that he had called me beautiful, and so I kissed him.

At first, he did not return my kiss, and then, just when I was about to pull away, he did.

***

"You thought it was nice?" I asked him. "Very nice? You thought it was a very nice kiss?"

Once, early in the semester, I had turned in a short story and he had deleted all of the verys.

"It is the nicest thing that has happened to me in a long time," my professor said.

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He had crossed out all of the reallys. All of the justs. There was not much story left.

"Really?" I said.

"Really." My professor took another sip of his coffee. He sighed. "If you don't mind, I would like for you to kiss me again."

"Is that OK?" I asked him.

"I don't know," he said. "Honestly, I am so fucking law-abiding. I don't even cross the street until the light changes. Right now, I just want what I want, and I would like it if you would kiss me again."

And so I did.

This time, I put my hand on the back of his head, my fingers in his hair, and I leaned in, not letting him go. I considered putting my tongue in his mouth but decided against it. It seemed possible that at any moment my professor might change his mind. I did not want him to reprimand me.

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***

Finally, my professor pulled away.

"I am going to be late for class," he said, looking down at his watch.

It was a beautiful watch. It looked like an antique. It had Roman numerals; the brown leather band was soft and worn. I wanted to touch his watch, but I restrained myself. I did not want my professor to think that I was strange. I did not want him to know that I loved every single thing about him. That I loved his blue shirt. I restrained myself from touching his shirt. "I have class in ten minutes," he said.

My professor stood up. Amira also stood up, but he was leaving his standard poodle with me. He had brought a rawhide bone with him for her to chew on.

I did not want my professor to think that I was strange. I did not want him to know that I loved every single thing about him.

"You be a good girl," he said.

I walked my professor to the door, Amira following us. I didn't want my professor to leave. I wanted to wrap him in my arms. I wanted to protect him. I felt afraid for his safety. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm really sorry."

"What are you sorry for?"

I didn't know. "For making you late," I said.

My professor shrugged. He did not disagree with me. But even then, he didn't seem in a hurry to leave. The tips of his fingers brushed my side. He had long, beautiful fingers.

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"I'll bring Amira to your office at six," I said.

That was the plan we had previously agreed on. I would keep his dog for the day, walk her, feed her, play with her. Up until now, my professor used to take her to class, but there had been complaints. A student claimed to be allergic to dogs, which was ridiculous because Amira was a poodle, hypoallergenic. And then there was another student, a girl who claimed that Amira had growled at her. I didn't think it could be true. Amira was the nicest dog.

When my professor had asked me how much I wanted to be paid, I said that I didn't want any money. He told me he would pay me twenty dollars. My professor did not want to take advantage of my kindness. He did not want any appearance, he said, of impropriety. That had been yesterday.

***

At 5:30, my professor appeared at my door, his hands at his sides. It had started to rain unexpectedly and he was wet.

"Do you want to come in?" I asked him.

I took his hand and I brought him inside. Amira was resting on the living-room floor. She thumped her tail, but she didn't get up. I had taken Amira out for a long walk. We had played ball. I had tired her out.

I had looked my professor up on the Internet during the day. I read his Twitter page. His job at my liberal-arts college, a two-year writer's residence, was ending today. His health insurance, it also ended today. His second novel, long overdue, was only half-written. His advance, already spent. My sad and beautiful professor had laid himself bare on Twitter. I had learned a lot.

"Would you like to have a glass of wine?" I asked him.

"You are too young," he said, shaking his head.

This, of course, was ridiculous. I had been drinking wine since I was fifteen years old. I also realized that there was a line my professor did not want to cross and that it did not matter that somehow we had already crossed it. I would not contradict him further.

We walked upstairs. My professor smiled when he saw my bedroom. The art posters on the wall. My music stand. My flute case. I was in orchestra.

"Do you know what Amira means?" my professor said, sitting down on my bed, taking off his shoes.

I did not.

"It means princess," he said.

It made sense. There was something regal about my professor's dog. She crossed her front paws when she lay down on the floor.

I sat on my bed, next to my professor. I also took off my shoes. I felt happy, even though I understood that my professor was sad. I realized that I would probably not be able to make him happy, but that I would still try.

"I am going home tomorrow," he said.

"New York?" I thought he was going back that night. Catching the train.

He shook his head.

"Pakistan."

"You are?"

"My grandmother is dying."

"Is that a good idea?" I asked him.

Things were all wrong in America since the election. Immigrants who left were sometimes not allowed back. If you were Mexican. If you were Middle Eastern. Probably Pakistani, too. I was not sure. I wish I knew.

"She took care of me when I was a little boy," my professor said. "I have to go."

I pushed his hair behind his ears. I felt the urge to say my professor's name, but I was afraid I would mispronounce it. I had practiced during the afternoon, his first name and his last name, over and over again, but I didn't want to risk it. I did not want to make a mistake. My professor would not look at me, but I knew what I had to do.

So, for the third time that day, I kissed my professor. This time, it was not that nice. Our front teeth actually clattered. It hurt, even, and I jumped back. So did my professor. My professor, I realized, who had led me up the stairs, was nervous. I wanted to set him at ease. I wanted to let him know that he wasn't doing anything wrong. He wanted what he wanted. That was OK. Somehow, it was OK.

I pushed him gently down on the bed.

"This will be nice, too," I told my professor. "Very nice."

My professor did not correct me. I began to unbutton his blue shirt. It was soft, like I'd thought it would be.

Marcy Dermansky is the author of the novels Bad Marie, Twins, and most recently The Red Car, which will be released in paperback this September.

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