Debra Brenegan serves as an Associate Professor and the Graduate Program Director at Mount Mary University. Her work has been published in Calyx, Tampa Review, Natural Bridge, The Laurel Review, Cimarron Review, Phoebe, RE:AL, The Southern Women’s Review, Knee-Jerk, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. Her novel, Shame the Devil was named a finalist for Foreword Reviews 2011 Book of the Year Award for Historical Fiction.
Rory and Abigail Go to a Wedding
It was a competition that Rory knew would end badly, yet he couldn’t help but dive into it like a crazed teenager plunging off some bridge into a rock-racked river. Rory and Abigail were in it together, seemed to be from the moment their eyes first met, wryly, during their adjunct university lecturer orientation three years earlier. But, Rory would emerge the victor. That much he knew.
Walking across the quad toward the grand-columned, secretly-mildewing 150-year-old English Department building, Rory mentally outlined his story. Tabitha, absent for two weeks because of “illness” (Rory would be sure to use finger quotes) finally showed up to Academic Writing class and asked innocently, “Have I missed anything important?”
Rory’s retorts pushed against his teeth. No, we just sat around and watched TV and waited for you to get back. No, when I found out through your roommate’s friend, who happens to be in my other Academic Writing section, that you were sick, we all donned black crepe armbands and sat outside your dorm door, praying for your recovery. No, Tabitha, darling, you of all people should know that nothing important ever happens in this class; it was wise of you to skip it and spend a few weeks shopping online and watching YouTube.
Rory burst into the faculty lunchroom, the smell of garlicky tomato sauce overpowering the oily odor of the constantly humming copy machine. Abigail was already there, her dark hair shining blue under the awful lighting. She was tucking into her usual Tupperware salad, a bottle of pink Vitamin Water half downed, next to the Tupperware. She motioned for Rory to sit opposite her. “Oh my God,” she said, holding her hand over her mouth.
Rory dug into his messenger bag for his slightly smashed PBJ. “What? Who?”
“I told you about Mick, right?”
“Not him again.”
“Well, today, not only does he raise his hand and volunteer that he didn’t read the ‘stupid story’ again, but after our discussion got going, he actually wanted to participate.”
“What? Without reading?”
“He said he had an opinion based on what people had told him about the story.”
“Sort of like only seeing the movie trailer. No – worse. I hope you gave a quiz.”
“Should have. Wasn’t thinking. How about you?”
Rory’s eyes brightened as he related his Tabitha tale.
Abigail laughed, hand over mouth, over the Tupperware. “Is her last name Moody?”
“Moony,” Rory said.
“That’s it!” Abigail said. “Big blonde mane?”
“I failed her last semester. She had it all – mysterious illnesses, a dying grandmother. Car trouble. Boyfriend issues.”
“Anything to avoid writing a paper,” Rory offered.
“Exactly. Watch out for her.”
The next class period, Tabitha rushed in two minutes late. Rory was a stickler about tardies and he marked the red ‘T’ next to her name without losing his train of thought. It was due day for essay number two and the students’ hair was collectively greasy. They had deep rings beneath their bloodshot eyes. Nearly all of them had donned flip flops. Rory told them to put their rough drafts beneath their final drafts and to label them as such. He told them to put their annotative bibliographies underneath the drafts. He told them to bring their packets to the front table and to stack them neatly in a pile in front of his messenger bag.
The students came forward with their essay offerings, except for Tabitha, who sat near the back of the room, her chin tucked into her chest.
Rory explained the details of essay number three and released the sleep-deprived darlings fifteen minutes early. They scampered out.
Thanks, Dr. Quincy.
Tabitha sat at the back of the room, blinking rapidly as Rory jammed the essay packets into his messenger bag. He shoved one arm, then the other through the sleeves of his thin khaki jacket. He glanced at Tabitha. “You okay?” he asked. He didn’t relish the excuse he knew was coming, but felt it would be unfair simply to walk away without giving her the courtesy of a listen.
“My grandmother,” Tabitha said, sniffing.
Rory rolled his eyes the slightest bit. “Yes?”
“She may die.”
“We all may die, Miss Moony. What does that have to do with essay number two?”
“I mean soon.” And with this, Tabitha broke into gentle wincing tears, the mascara gathering beneath her lashes like ineffective sandbags.
Rory remained neutral. “Would you like to take another late? One more week, downgraded a whole letter grade. Another letter grade off for each extra day.”
Tabitha smiled. “That’d be great.” She lifted her head suddenly, to better show the smile, and Rory noticed the sparkly pink lip gloss fairly dripping from her lower lip, the child-flushed cheeks, the pale green eyes. “Thanks so much,” she added. “You’re really an understanding teacher. I mean, compared to some.”
“Well, I . . .” Rory stammered. He was strangely stunned by the child/adult combination, by the ludicrous lip gloss, the fresh, naturally-rosy cheeks.
Tabitha glowed at him. “So, one week?”
She stood, rolled her shoulders back like a soldier, exposing her chest. “Call me Tabby,” she said. “Professor.”
Rory snapped back to cynicism. Professor. Was she mocking him? Everyone knew about the rank and file who covered the basics at most universities. And Tabby, oh sure. It sounded like a pet’s name, maybe some funky index card, not what any sane couple would intentionally name a daughter they wanted anyone to take seriously. Rory’s mouth puckered. “One week.”
The next week, during office hours, Rory was roused from his usual flurry of grading by a timid knock on his open door. There stood Tabitha, a low-cut, glittery tee-shirt strained over her chest, a flutter of papers dangling from her fingers – presumably essay number two.
“Ah, one week exactly,” Rory said, holding out his hand for the essay.
Tabitha’s face twisted into what looked like a grimace, but was probably meant to be a smile. She had the usual gobs of pink slimed over her lips, but her cheeks were pale and her eyes puffy. She placed her hand into Rory’s outstretched one and batted her eyes.
Rory snatched his hand away as if from a hot stove. “Your paper, Tabitha. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Color flooded her cheeks. “I’m sorry. It’s just . . .” Tabitha’s eyes filled. “I’m sorry, Professor.” She handed him the paper and fled. Rory could hear her clumping down the hallway all the way to the elevator. He didn’t hear the elevator’s arrival ding. Likely, she had continued running and had taken the stairs. It was only six flights.
Rory glanced at Tabitha’s essay. As he guessed, it was abysmal. The introductory paragraph alone had both a Wikipedia citation and something from dictionary.com.
Later, in the faculty lunchroom, Abigail’s eyes danced as she held her fingers over her chewing mouth. Rory’s ass barely touched the chair opposite her before she sputtered, “Denise.”
Rory had to wince. “Not again.”
“Ah, Dr. Johnston, can we get extra credit for watching the State of the Union address?”
Rory rolled his eyes. “They should want to watch it.”
Abigail’s nostrils flared. “Only if there’s something in it for them.”
“Their parents probably gave them a dollar each time they brushed their teeth.”
“Blew their noses.”
“Wiped their asses.”
“Say, maybe that’ll be in our job descriptions next year?”
“That and another furlough.”
Abigail stabbed at her salad, her jaw tight with chewing.
“Fuck,” Rory said. “Hey, listen to this one.” And he told her the latest about Tabitha, but the irony somehow came out flat, the dialogue stilted.
Abigail stopped chewing, drilled her eyes into Rory’s fluttering ones. “Oh, she’s good. Look at you.”
Rory cheeks tensed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Except that she’s working you. Big time. You’d better watch out.”
Rory took a massive bite out of his PBJ and chewed savagely, suddenly ashamed he had noticed the mascara sandbags, the emptiness where the ding of the elevator should have been. The only thing he should be noticing about Miss Tabitha Moony was whether she plagiarized, was tardy, absent, or traumatized.
He stopped chewing, oddly wondering if she was traumatized. Her pale face. The pathetic hand holding. Maybe it had been a shake. An awkward hand shake. Maybe he had been the one to misconstrue.
“Knock Knock,” Abigail said, her salad finished and her fingers working hard to divide a piece of chocolate cake with a plastic spoon. She pushed a napkin with a half slice of cake toward him. “So, what about it? Can you go with me or not?”
And that’s how Rory realized he would be Abigail’s non-date date for her cousin’s wedding. His stomach cramped. He wolfed down the cake and smiled a chocolate smile. “Round two,” he called over his shoulder as he bolted out the door to his next class.
Rory taught two sections of Academic Writing on Tuesdays and Thursdays (a combined total of 48 five-page papers every three weeks) and two sections of an American Literature survey course (70 students total, two short papers, midterm exam, final exam and a honking research number at semester’s end) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Between the prepping and the grading, he had precious little time to work on his book, which was his golden ticket to a real job as a real professor. He also had a nonexistent social life. A date with Abigail? He was weirded out. Even though it was a non-date date, he was still weirded out.
Rory bumped down the long hallway toward his classroom. He startled when he saw Tabitha leaning back against the doorframe, a hulking guy lurking over her, staring down her top, smiling with only his lips. Tabitha looked pale again, half-way between frightened and sleepy. Was this guy bothering her?
Tabitha snapped to attention when she saw Rory, pushed the hulk away from her. “Professor Quincy!”
“Tabitha,” Rory said, pulling out his keys. “Are you coming for more Academic Writing? Most of my students get enough of it the first time around.”
Tabitha’s cheeks flamed. “No, just walking my boyfriend to class.” And that’s when Rory noticed that the hulk was Jeremy Piper, another of his struggling students. He made a mental note to read Tabitha’s late essay number two with greater scrutiny.
Jeremy suddenly lunged toward Tabitha, grabbed her face with one hand and kissed her deeply. Rory averted his eyes but couldn’t help noticing Tabitha’s squirm.
“See you later,” Jeremy said as Tabitha first slid her eyes toward Rory, then trotted down the hall.
The future non-date date occupied Rory’s thoughts more than it should have. Would he have to buy Abigail drinks? Meet her parents? Pretend to love her?
Abigail noticed his reticence, struggled to ease it. “I’m not selling anything,” she told him. “You’re just a friend. That’s all. Don’t freak out about it. You’re freaking me out.”
Of course, Abigail was one-hundred percent right. Rory had done things like this before. Non-date dates were a part of life. What was his problem?
The Saturday before the wedding, Rory went to Kohl’s to look for a new tie. He was browsing among the purples and teals, wanting desperately to achieve a non-date date look that was creative but not kooky, stylish but not worried, when he heard a sweet-throated hello. He instantly knew the voice, could feel pink-glossed vibrations emanating just beyond his left shoulder. He turned toward Tabitha, sure he’d see the infamous sticky lips, the rosy cheeks, those pale eyes. But, instead of the Tabitha he knew, an imposter had taken her place – the pink cheeks were still there, looking very much like she’d just gotten in from an afternoon of sledding, but her face was refreshingly bare and her mass of blonde curls was confined in a low ponytail. Tabitha wore jeans, sneakers and a comfortable-looking sweatshirt. Most discombobulating, though, was what she grasped in her hands – the handles of a wheelchair with an elderly woman leaning left within it.
“Tabitha!” Rory exclaimed, more animatedly than he intended.
Tabitha’s cheeks flared. “Professor Quincy. This is my grandma.”
The woman in the wheelchair roused herself a little and smiled. She held out her frail fingers for a shake. “Pleased to meet you. Tabby, is this the professor you told me about?”
“Yes, Gram. He’s been very kind to me.”
Rory stammered concessions, denials, something incoherent and then launched into a much unneeded explanation about how he had been invited to a wedding and was picking out a new tie.
“Get the blue one,” Tabitha said. “It matches your eyes.”
“And the striped shirt,” Grandma added. “Nothing worse than a new tie with an old shirt.”
Rory glanced down at the rumpled number he was wearing and felt his face ignite. He grabbed the blue tie and the recommended shirt. Nice seeing you. Nice meeting you. Good bye now. Good bye. He raced to the check-out line.
Afterwards, in his apartment, Rory unwrapped the shirt and ironed it. He hung it carefully in his bedroom closet, the tie folded neatly over an adjacent hanger. What a spectacle he’d made of himself. He was obviously in serious need of a social life if he was so unnerved by an 18 year old. The wedding would be good for him. Would reconnect him to the human race. Maybe he’d even meet someone there.
For the next week, Rory avoided both Tabitha and Abigail. He conducted class, grinless, and spoke to his students like the cogs they were. He was affable and articulate but drew the line at anything that could remotely be construed as kind. Between classes, he devoured his sandwiches in his office, the door closed, the lights off. What was wrong with a little mid-day space, some peace and quiet amid the chaos of academia?
Abigail texted him on Thursday. We still on for this weekend?
Rory felt a headache starting. Of course!
That Saturday night, Rory took a taxi to the reception hall. Abigail had mentioned it was open bar and he didn’t want to have to worry about the possibility of driving home. Rory straightened his new tie in the lobby mirror, then entered the throng of bare shoulders and polished shoes. Gardenias and roses perfumed the air, violet ribbons curled around banisters and candelabras. A cake towered in the corner. Abigail appeared at his elbow. “Hi, Handsome.” Her eyes glittered wetly. She’d already had a drink or two.
Rory followed Abigail to the bar and after three J&Bs on the rocks, he felt comfortable meeting her college roommate, her ex-boyfriend, her father.
Henry slapped Rory on the shoulder. “Abby tells me you work with her at the university,” he said.
“Yes, Sir. Abigail and I have worked together for several years now.”
“And are you also raking in $28,000 a year?”
“No offense, Son. I think it’s criminal what’s happened to the state of education these days. At that pay scale you’ll pay off your student loans with your social security checks.”
“But what’s money, anyway?” Henry said. “Just something to keep track of.”
“I’ve got my loans almost paid off,” Rory blurted.
“I’m sure you have.”
Abigail interrupted with a couple of glasses of champagne. “Daddy, are you harassing Rory?” She handed Rory a glass, spilled a little of the sticky on his hand. “He’s a bully,” she told Rory. “Just ignore him.”
Abigail had lipstick on her teeth. Henry motioned to her that she should wipe it off and she handed her glass to Rory, then scrubbed her teeth with her finger. “Better?” she asked Rory.
Rory nodded, handed back the glass. Henry grinned like he knew a punch line.
“Ignore him,” Abigail said and steered Rory toward a more welcoming circle, a group of her old college pals, some single, most married. Rory eyed up the available women and abruptly concluded that none were possibilities. So he stuck by Abigail, Abby to everyone else, and they matched each other drink for drink. Or so Rory thought. He actually lost count.
Later, he guessed he was drunk when Abigail was throwing him out of her apartment. “You disgusting pig,” she slurred. “You pervert!” They were naked, had almost certainly attempted sex. Rory’s perceptions were mixing up with his sensations. Abigail was drunk, too. She staggered and lurched. She threw things at him to get him to hurry up with his dressing – small pillows that had landed on the floor, the condom wrapper, then the condom. Yes, they had attempted sex.
Rory ducked the first two, got slapped near the eye with the last. Still, he understood what she accused him of, suddenly remembered most clearly. “It was Abby,” he insisted as she threw his new, blue tie at him, pushed him toward the door. “I didn’t say Tabby.”
“Pig!” she screamed and Rory scurried into the hallway, stumbled outside into a damp night. He walked. The dark slapped his senses into focus. Abby had accused him of sleeping with his student. He winced, took a shaky breath. He had had thoughts, sure. But didn’t everyone? Have thoughts? Have thoughts about everyone else? He had never . . . He would never . . .
He reached into his pants pocket, found he still had phone, wallet, keys. He looked up at the road signs, got his bearings. He called for a yellow cab.
Tabitha was especially bright and eloquent in class the following week. Her words spun from her lips like cotton candy, entrancing, mentally-stimulating, pink. Was this the same student? Or was he somehow blinded to this version of Tabitha, or maybe to the other one?
She was exploring euthanasia for her final paper. Her research, for a freshman, was significant. She had scanned the library’s data bases, had found the latest statistics, opinions, theoretical posturing. But she wanted more, she said. She wanted to really understand.
She concocted an elaborate survey – Rory had approved it – and administered it to her grandmother and 99 fellow Laurel Oaks Senior Community members. Tabitha stayed after class to discuss her findings. Most of the residents favored the practice, although almost as many were equally afraid of the aftereffects.
“Such as?” Rory asked.
“Having their doctor punished. Stressing out their survivors.”
The way Tabitha had said survivors impressed Rory. The word was thrown so off-the-cuff, so matter-of-factly that he knew she was seriously immersed in her research. This was every teacher’s dream – to spark the love of learning in young breasts. Er, young hearts. Probably young minds was a better way of thinking about this. Rory’s upper lip grew damp.
During his lunch hours, Rory slumped in his office chair, his heart pounding, hands shaking. What was happening to him? He wolfed down his sandwiches, the peanut butter sticking thickly to his tongue. He deleted email.
Abigail found him near the end of the week. “You are so obvious it’s insulting,” she said. She stood in the doorframe of his darkened office. He had forgotten to lock the door.
Rory stood, flipped on the light, opened the door completely.
“I could report you, you know,” she said. “Report you both.”
“What has she done?”
Abigail narrowed her eyes.
“What has either of us done? Nothing’s happened, Abby.”
Rory sighed. Abigail looked to be made of steel. Her jaw clamped tight like a hinge, her dark hair gleamed like metal under the fluorescent lighting. Rory wondered where his friend had gone. How had their relationship come to this? “Don’t do this,” he said. “Really. Sit down. Talk to me.”
Abigail’s face melted a little, enough to permit her eyes to glisten. She sat in the chair opposite Rory’s desk. “Okay,” she said. “Explain.”
Rory told it all, how nothing had happened, how maybe he’d been weirdly curious about Tabitha, but hadn’t let that interfere with his teaching duties. In fact, he’d probably been tougher on her, more judgmental anyway. And what about this other elephant in the room – the one called Rory-and-Abigail-go-to-a-wedding?
Abigail blanched, sat blinking like a mechanical toy.
“What about that?” Rory repeated.
“That has nothing to do with this.”
And that’s when Rory knew, could see it as plain as the lipstick on Abigail’s face – she had hoped for more. She had hoped for a real date.
Rory breathed slowly in, then out. “Abigail,” he said. “I hope we’re still friends.”
Abigail’s face collapsed. Then it shored up again into angles and planes. It was a face that Rory hoped was more realistic. Abigail was a smart woman. She understood things. She had taken a chance and it hadn’t shaken out. But it wasn’t like she had been the only one working the risk machine. He’d taken a chance, too. He’d had to play verbal ping pong with her father. Meet all of her friends. Buy a new outfit. All for free drinks. All in the name of opportunity. For the possibility of a social life.
“Okay, then,” Abigail said. “But, just humor me, will you?”
“If her research paper is on euthanasia, flunk her ass.”
Rory startled. “But, why?”
Abigail’s lips pursed. “Because that’s the paper I found out was plagiarized. Written by a grad student, probably, and for sale at termpapers.com. It was way too detailed for a college freshman, especially that college freshman.”
Rory’s lips felt parched. He licked them, but they dried out again. He fumbled in his desk drawer for lip balm while nodding. “Wow. Geez. I mean, the nerve, right?”
Abigail watched him circle his lips with the balm. Her face softened, began to look a little like the old Abigail’s. “Just let me know if that’s her topic and I’ll help you nail her. With another honor code violation, she’ll be expelled and neither of us will have to worry about her again. Deal?”
“Deal,” Rory said and stood. He glanced at his watch. He swallowed air. “Round two.”
The semester ended a little over a week later. After Rory’s last course of the day, he stayed behind in his classroom, his messenger bag stuffed with student research papers and final exams. He turned out half the lights, sat in the artificial dusk with his hands shaking. He rummaged in the front pocket of his messenger bag and found a cellophane-wrapped peppermint from some restaurant. He unwrapped the peppermint and popped it into his mouth. Tabitha’s final essay was nestled in his bag, along with 117 others. He had glanced at it briefly when she had handed it to him. “Euthanasia – The Final Dignity.” Even the title seemed lofty.
Rory opened the messenger bag and pulled out the stack of papers from Tabitha’s section. He found her paper and put it on the top of the pile. He bit down hard on the peppermint, crushing the minty splinters between his teeth. Then he smiled. Paragraph one had a very inelegant citation from dictionary.com in its opening sentence. He scanned the rest of the first page. Plenty of high diction – psychological inevitability, familicide, palliative care. Rory’s lips felt dry. He licked them until they were peppermint cool. Ethical approximation, self-deterministic, doctrine of double effect. Finally he saw it – a statistic direct from good-old Wikipedia. If a grad student had written this paper, Tabitha had had the sense to doctor it up. He thought about her pushing her grandmother through Kohl’s, her hair pulled back into that ponytail, those pale eyes gentle, even innocent. He thought about the handshake, or clasp. He thought about Jeremy plunging his tongue into Tabitha’s mouth in front of their mutual professor.
He thought about Abigail. A second honor code violation.
You’re really an understanding teacher. . . compared to some.
Maybe Tabitha had done her own work. Isn’t that the premise he usually brought to his essay reading? Innocent until proven guilty?
He packed the papers back into his messenger bag and hurried to the parking lot. As he came to his car, his stomach dropped. Abigail stood leaning against the driver’s door. “Hello, Stranger,” she said. She attempted a smile, but her eyes weren’t in it. They were stricken, frozen. Abigail’s body was equally rigid and Rory got the funny sense that she was frightened.
“Finally over,” Rory said, making a show of exhaling. “And, oh, I took your advice.”
Abigail cocked her head.
“About Tabitha. I watched her like a hawk. And, you know, at first, she did pick euthanasia as her topic.”
Abigail lit up. “No! You’re freaking kidding me.”
Rory licked his lips. “Can you believe it? And so, I started giving her the evil eye. You know, staring at her list of sources and exclaiming how remarkable it was that she, a college freshman, could design and administer a graduate-level sociological survey to a group of nursing home residents.”
Abigail snorted. “Oh, well, that’s a new addition. Wonder where that came from?”
Rory rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I think she got the point, because lo and behold, what does she turn in today?”
Abigail faced glowed in anticipation. “What?”
“‘The Media’s Portrayal of Gender Stereotypes in Music Videos.’”
Abigail clapped her hands. “Oh my God.”
Rory took out his keys, which signaled Abigail to move from in front of his car door. He held his finger up in the air for emphasis. “Complete, no less, with a riveting opening paragraph loaded with authoritative definitions from—”
“Wikipedia or dictionary.com?”
Rory turned to her like a maestro delivering the final baton cue. “Both!”
Rory grinned. “Oh, yeah. First class,” he said. “A solid C+ effort anyway.”
Abigail eyes shined and, for the first time in weeks, her smile seemed genuine. “Hey, I’m sorry,” she said.
Rory raised his eyebrows.
“I’m sorry I accused you. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
Rory shook his head, held up his hand to avert the praise.
“You’re a good teacher, Rory,” she said. “I let my own stuff get mixed up in this.”
Rory’s cheeks flushed. “And you’re a good friend. It was right of you to warn me. Professional.”
Abigail nodded, bit her lip.
“Say,” Rory said, throwing his messenger bag into the back seat. “Get in. Let’s go get a beer.”