Thom Clark sat in a holding cell in west Tennessee, a stark difference from his usual office at Memphis State, where he was chair of the English Department.
He stared at the floor and rubbed his blood-stained hands.
His cell mate, a man who had grunted when Thom had said hello minutes before, burped and rotated his neck, exposing a throat tattoo of Bugs Bunny smoking a cigarette.
Two weeks ago, Thom sat in his office, marking up students’ papers, imploring his undergraduates to stop using banal phrases, like “soft as a baby’s bottom” or “rising like a Phoenix,” yet there he was lamenting the fact that he’d slept with a student named Lane, the night before, one from his Creative Writing 202 class. Talk about clichés.
Ever since his divorce, he’d been a mess, but he was too good at pretending to have it together. It had taken a divorce for him to realize that he was a fine actor, that he walked around in a constant role of “content professor,” like he was Daniel Day Lewis in some indie film that critics adored.
Kathryn, his ex, was still—even a year later—the background on his computer screen. His DVR still recorded her shows, and sometimes he spritzed a few sprays of her lavender perfume on his sheets before bed.
She’d left him for a younger guy. And, as a result, Thom had done his best to try and “get younger”: he’d bought a vintage motorcycle (one he struggled to ride); he’d purchased band tees from an online site (some whose songs he didn’t even know); and he’d gotten his hair dyed chestnut brown at a salon near Jackson (about an hour away from campus).
What made it worse for him was that he didn’t do anything particularly wrong to let the relationship fall apart. No drinking. No abuse. She’d just slipped out of love. Some marriages died from gunshot wounds; others passed from old age.
A text came through on his phone. It was Lane:
“Had fun last night. Let’s do it again soon.”
He thought Lane wanted more of a relationship. She’d mentioned going to see a play and visiting some wine bar in town. She’d added, too, that she would be done with school at the end of the year, and that they would no longer have to hide their affection. She’d actually used the word “affection,” which he thought seemed out of place for a woman who wore hot-pink underwear.
Thom rose and twisted the stick on the venetian blinds, allowing the shades to tilt and make the afternoon sun bearable. Afterwards, he replied to some emails, mostly writing “check your syllabus,” and then made himself a cup of tea.
There was a knock at the door. The door was actually open, but students knocked anyway.
“Professor Clark?” the woman said. She was older than college age.
“Come in,” Thom said, rolling up his sleeves.
The woman crossed the threshold of the door, but didn’t have a seat. Her face was plain, and her dark eyes were intense, complementing her black hair that was pulled into a loose braid. “You don’t remember me, do you?” She took a seat and propped her purse on her knees.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “So many students.”
“Akari. I graduated ten years ago.” She paused. “Wow, ten years ago. It feels crazy to say it. I was in your creative writing class my senior year, and also in your French translation seminar.”
“They cut that one. I loved teaching French translation. Maybe more than I enjoy teaching English, but the mother tongue pays the bills.”
“Did I jog your memory?” she asked.
“A little,” he said. “Akari.” The name was unfamiliar enough that he thought he should remember her, but he didn’t.
“I was sort of unremarkable.” She crossed her legs. One of her wrists was heavy with bracelets, and they clashed as she wrung her hands.
“What did you write?” he asked.
“Love poems mostly.”
“Very short ones. A few lines . . .” She smiled. “You were always telling me I should expand, go deeper, unpack things. One time, though, you said something of mine reminded you of Neruda’s.”
“I’m sure I meant it.” Thom hadn’t broken eye contact with Akari in a while, so he did so now, blinking a few times, then pretending to search for something in one of his desk drawers.
“I know you did. That’s why I liked you.”
“Can I get you some tea or coffee?”
Thom wanted her to tell him what she was doing here, so he took a long sip of tea, hoping the silence would spur her to speak.
“I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing here.”
“It’s a little nutty, really. You see, after graduation, I went to grad school in Boston to become an architect. . .”
The sun beamed directly into Akari’s eyes. Thom stood and adjusted the blinds once again.
Akari continued: “There I met this Frenchman.”
“It was wonderful, except that I fell in love with him, and he was married. We spent so much time together studying. It was just bound to happen, you know? Anyway, he and his wife separated, and I had an idea. I just remembered in class, one day, you talked about romance so well, and how you and your wife wrote each other long love letters when she was working abroad for Habitat for Humanity . . . I think it was that, or maybe the Peace Corps.”
“Wow, yes,” Thom said.
“You spoke about love with such honesty, and I remember you saying something about how it was ‘as vast and complex as the galaxies.’ It always stuck with me.”
“A little pretentious, no?” he said.
“It seemed heartfelt,” Akari said.
Thom thought he should tell Akari that he and Kathryn were no longer a couple, but his face warmed from the praise, so he basked in the moment.
“I was wondering,” she said, “now that Pierre has moved on from his wife . . . if you could help me with a love letter. I wrote a crummy draft, and you’re the only man I know who wrote a collection of love poems and has translated French work.” She took a breath.
Thom scratched his face.
“You aren’t interested?”
“It’s not that . . .”
Thom recognized that look—the one that said “I have it together” when, in reality, the face wanted to crumple.
“You’re busy,” she said. “It was a stupid. You ever think something’s great until you do it? You hear the words, and you’re just like, ‘what the hell’?” She opened her purse and pulled out some papers. “I’ve tried. I did what you said all those years ago: unpacked, told him how I felt. I just can’t get the words down.”
Thom finished his tea.
Akari continued: “Do you ever get the sense that if you just wrote the perfect line in the absolute perfect way, someone could love you?”
“The written word is nice that way. It can be groomed, you know?” He reflected more on her question. The oral word was so impulsive—nothing could be smoothed out, and the memory of poorly spoken words often haunted him, like when he said he didn’t want to be friends with Kathryn, or that “reheated food never tasted the same.”
“So,” Akari said. “Do you think you could help?”
Thom popped his knuckles. “Sure,” he said.