Too late, I see her. I try to hide, but it’s hard to be inconspicuous when you’re pushing a bicycle. We exchange greetings. Hers cool, mine jovial, with a smile. ‘Show teeth’, my wife used to say.
“And the University?” she asks, looking away up the crowded sidewalk.
“It’s all going wonderfully now.” I smile again. Her mouth works as she chews and swallows things she would like to say. There is no sign of her smile. Her smile is the thing I remember most about her. Without it, she is concerned, serious, plain and easy to miss, but her smile transforms her. Her smile is so open, so honest, but so rare that when it comes, it dazzles.
Finally, something: “Now?”
“Yes,” I say. “You know…”
She nods, looks away again, makes a decision. “I trusted you.” Stopping, she faces me, forcing people to squeeze past the bicycle. “Don’t expect me to be friendly. You know what you did.”
“What I did? I was your professor. I helped you.” I walk on quickly. “It’s been splendid talking to you.”
She keeps up easily, skipping a little as she walks. “Helped me? Helped yourself, I think.”
“I’m going to the bicycle shop—my bike needs repair.” I hope she’ll let me go. Take pity on me perhaps. Who doesn’t pity a man wheeling a broken down bicycle?
“You’re doing so well now.” She catches at my sleeve to slow me down. “You’re famous. I see you on the box.”
“Yes, my idea—”
“Your idea?” Again, her mouth works, the skin on her face tightens. “But it wasn’t yours, was it? It was mine. You stole it.” Her voice becomes louder. “You stole my big idea, professor.”
“You kept my pen.”
Her eyes lose focus for a moment, her head shaking slightly. “Your pen? I kept your pen?”
“Yes, I lent it to you. You never gave it back.” She screws her face up, trying to remember.
“Was it expensive?”
It was one of those commodity pens you buy five to a pack and lose four in the first few days.
“That old chewed-at thing?” Her lips curl in distaste. “It was disgusting. I threw it out.”
I hardly remember the pen, but I do remember my dismay at losing it.
“I’d had it a long time. I was used to it.”
Her eyes narrow and she tilts her head a little to the side. “A pen,” she says slowly. “You ripped off my idea because of an old chewed up pen…”
“Oh you’re young,” I say. “You have a wonderful mind, you’ll have many big ideas; I’d be surprised if you haven’t had half a dozen doozies since then.” I try the teeth again, hoping she’ll be a little less loud. People are looking.
She gets louder. “No. I haven’t had any doozies! Why are you laughing? You think it’s funny that you ruined my life?” A Pekinese and her owner scowl at me as they cross the street. A bus inches past in traffic, windows pasted with white, curious faces, mopping up the drama. I walk again, faster, making a run for the bicycle shop, which is just ahead. Jo will be there. Jo is scary. She will never make a fuss in front of Jo.
She follows me through the door. Brightly-tubed, black-tired bicycles hang from the ceiling above a glass counter, overstuffed with glittering gears, brakes, shifters, and pedals. By the side and behind are racks of fluorescent clothing that I could never wear.
It’s a cacophony of color, and in the middle of it all is Jo. Spotty, greasy-handed, teenaged and surly, she is fiddling with a bike on a stand. She sees me come in, lowers her head and turns her back, wrenching on the bike.
My student leans her back on the glass counter, her elbows bent, her hands on the glass top. “Really—why did you do it? Do you steal all your students’ great ideas? I bet you do; I know you do.” Her eyes become large and moist. “I thought we had something.”
“Tenure,” I mumble, remembering. “I wanted tenure. I needed tenure.” I should get Jo involved. “Jo, my bike—”
Jo gives the wrench one last tug, wipes her greasy hands on a greasier cloth, and sits behind the counter, glowering at me.
“You brought the heap back.” She wasn’t going for the teeth either.
My student is red-faced now, her teeth are bared, her hands held white-knuckled by her sides. No sign of that smile. “Tenure! You ruined my life, so you could get your miserable tenure?”
“I thought you’d be happy for me,” I say.
“Going to pay me this time?” asks Jo.
“I didn’t ruin your life—you must have a great job now, in some multinational something—”
She nodded. “McDonalds. I work in McDonalds.” McDonalds. Small children, ketchup fingers, lips pursed around ketchup fries, gaping wounds in joyful faces. Harried mothers, loud noise, upset drinks. I shudder. Not like the Italian place, with its white table cloths, waiters with mustaches and accents. And Chianti. I lick my lips. Chianti…
“Messed it up again?” Jo comes from behind the counter and stands, hands on hips, tut-tutting at my bicycle and the angry young woman with me. Her hand comforts the handlebar. It had been a good bike. All top end Shimano.
“It’s been out in the rain,” she sniffed. “Look—it’s filthy. And these gears; they’re rusted solid!” Her hand moves back to her hip, leaving an oily handprint on the chrome. She sneers at me with that particular expression that cyclists reserve for those who don’t share their passion.
“McDonalds? Making hamburgers? Surely you could do better than that.”
“After the hatchet-job you did on me at the hearing? I’m lucky to have anything.”
“Pricey bicycle. A lot of my customers would love to have one of these.”
“Do you know what he did to me? He was my professor. He pretended to like me, to help me, then he stole my great idea!”
Jo moves closer to her. “Not surprised,” she said, lowering her voice and shrugging. “Doesn’t care for his bicycle…”
I can tell my student liked her. She grinned. “And you should see his poetry. He writes poems to all the young women in class.”
Jo’s eyes dart quickly to one side; a smile begins.
“We don’t have to talk about the poetry, please. I just write it to make the course more involving, more exciting. I just want to connect.”
“Only, every poem is the same; he just changes the first line. ‘Oh Claire, I love thy hair.’ Or, ‘Oh Janice, you look so Spanish.’”
Jo’s smile is now a laugh. “Really? He writes poems to the women? What was yours?”
“I never got one. My name is Rosamund. I’m too hard to rhyme.”
Jo cackles. “What would he write for me? Oh Jo, I’m sure you know—”
“I love thy toe,” I say, hurriedly.
“My toe?” said Jo, her brows beetling. “What about my toe?”
“And his socks,” said Rosamund, her voice rising to a screech. “You can see his heels. All holes. Big old potatoes sticking out of the back of his sandals!”
The girls are laughing together now, clutching each other, so free, their bodies dipping with their laughter, Jo’s hand at her mouth. I try to hide my heels. My wife told me that people would notice. Hiding one heel is easy, two is more difficult.
“Why are you standing like that?” asks Rosamund. I have moved my heels together, toes splayed out like Charlie Chaplin. “It looks ridiculous.” It’s at these moments that I miss my wife the most—that woman could hide a heel.
This old stag’s antlers crumble with their laughter. Already they are friends, bonded by secrets that men can never understand. We may catch an insight, like a dolphin arcing out of the water, but then, like the dolphin, it sinks into mystery, leaving us with nothing.
“You can forget about the pen,” I say. “I’ve bought a new packet.”
Finally she smiles. The grubby bicycle shop glows as if a nuclear weapon has detonated in the street outside. Even Jo is impressed. Then she giggles and the girls exchange a knowing look.
“And the bicycle.” I thrust it towards her, my brow furrowed, eyes firm. It is earnestness I am going for now. “Please keep it—I want you to have it. To make up, you know…” She makes no move to take it.
“Jo, I’ll buy a new bicycle from you. I will—I’ll treat it like a baby.”
But I can tell they aren’t interested. These young women, like my wife at the end, want nothing from me.