What do I have to lose?
All I needed to do was email the guy, set up the date, pray he was even a fifth as amazing as Emily said he was, and show up. That’s all.
I am such a Scaredy McFrightenedton . . .
Staring at the blinking cursor on my screen, I eyed the “x” in the upper right hand corner. I could just close the screen, go to the start menu, select shut down, and watch my computer screen fade to black.
One year. Twelve months. Just a week shy of three hundred sixty-five days.
Somewhere in the rebellious recesses of my mind, an annoying little voice that sounded suspiciously like mine reminded me that twelve months had passed since my last date. Since my boyfriend had broken up with me via text message, completely out of the blue, on Valentine’s Day.
On the scale of awful, it rated pretty high. This was because the text he’d sent was a picture of him kissing another girl.
In other words, he was a douche.
Sure, I had sworn off dating for the remainder of my life. Sure, I had been resigned to living my existence as a neurotic spinster. Maybe I would get a cat, or two, or four, or seven—might as well make it a baker’s dozen.
But now, after almost twelve months and Valentine’s Day looming, I was ready to throw my hat in the ring again. Get my groove on. Watch Netflix and chill.
And yet, still. I was not so sure.
What do you have to lose?
The thought troubled me. Pursing my lips as I contemplated loss, I realized—sans the possibility he was a serial killer—all I had to lose was time. Time I would most likely otherwise spend watching Room with a View and rewinding the scene on the hill over and over and over and over.
The one where Julian Sands grabs Helena Bonham Carter with his big, masculine hands, holding her around the waist and sliding his—I imagined—cool hand over her cheek, then pulling her to him with expectation. And as their lips meet for the first time, amidst the sea of golden barley, the kiss explodes with passion.
Screw fear of the unknown! Carpe Diem! Seize the fucking day!
I nodded, then began typing.
You don’t know me . . . and I don’t know how to do this. But rest assured, the most terrible and terrifying thing has already been written (the most terrible thing being the word “hi”, because—in this circumstance—it is also the bravest).
Now that my awkward reference to Anna Karenina has been made, let me start again:
You don’t know me. Our mutual friend (Emily Von) gave me your email address. Emily has told me many times that she thinks we would be perfect for each other, that it’ll be “love at first sight.”
Even though I’m a romantic, I don’t believe in love at first sight; the concept strikes me as frivolous and convenient. As Tolstoy said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”
But I digress.
If you’re interested in meeting up, please come to Jake Peterson’s microbrewery on Fifth and Pine this Saturday at 6 p.m. (Valentine’s Day). I’ll be the one in leather pants.
Looking forward to it, Anna I. Harris
PS Don’t ask what the “I” stands for because I won’t tell you.
On a rush of adrenaline, I typed the email, the address from the card Emily had given me, and hit send. I reveled in my courage and guts and ability to seize the moment. I smiled at the inspiration of meeting at the microbrewery, most likely brought on by the picturesque barley field of Lucy and George’s first kiss.
I also considered myself to be quite ballsy, having scheduled the date for V-day.
I spent a full minute congratulating myself, dwelling on my amazingness before anxiety hit me like a punch in the throat.
What have I done?
Nervous wreck? Anxiety-ridden? How about deer caught in headlights?
Oh yeah, that and more.
What am I doing here? What are you doing?
I glanced down at my outfit—leather pants. Leather-fucking-pants. Leather pants purchased from a thrift store. I was in someone else’s leather pants.
I was a student, and therefore couldn’t afford brand-new leather pants. But I was also a cosplay aficionado, and therefore owned leather pants.
You know, for costumes.
My part-time job working at the Natural History Museum’s swanky restaurant as a server allowed me to maintain the lifestyle to which I’d become accustomed: copious jigsaw puzzles, tragic romance novels, and thrift-store-finds for my cosplay costumes.
But back to now, because right now, I was certifiable. I needed to find the nearest sane person and sign over my rights to decision-making, or at least give them my computer and passcode to the computer labs on campus.
I glanced around the microbrewery with severe apprehension, and my mind started rehearsing for the seventh time all the excuses to leave when he showed up . . . if he showed up.
It was already five minutes after 6:00 pm.
He is not coming. You are a moron in a stranger’s leather pants, and he is not coming because you are a moron. This is what you get for reading all those books.
I tucked my hair—worn in a cascade of curls down my mid-back—nervously behind my ear and glanced at my watch again, unable to miss the cleavage beneath the purple V-neck I’d decided to wear.
I’d justified it earlier by reminding myself that today was laundry day. What I didn’t want to think about was showing up in leather pants and my green granny sweater, the only other clean item in my closet.
I chewed on my lip and shifted in my seat. The waiter looked my way and our eyes met. His gaze flickered to my chest, and he smiled shortly; then he turned and attended to another table. The knot in the pit of my stomach twisted.
Oh great, now Mr. I-am-married-waiter-guy feels sorry for Ms. Ridiculous-in-leather-pants. I rolled my eyes, reminding myself that no one looks good in leather pants, not in real life.
Then, I looked up and saw leather pants . . .
Leather pants, leather boots, leather jacket, leather motorcycle gloves . . . and blue eyes. The bluest eyes I had ever seen. As mesmerizing as his eyes were, I couldn’t help but notice the rest of him—the entire package. Thick muscular thighs, broad muscular chest and arms, square-cut jaw, and blond spiked hair. For a moment, I thought he was . . . him. My blind date.
However, a split second later, as I attempted to swallow my lust, I’d convinced myself he was not him.
Yes, he had blond hair like Emily had described. Yes, he had blue eyes. Yes, he was tall. But, Lucas had also been described as artsy. This man sure as hell wasn’t “artsy.” Sure, his body was a work of art, his movements were artful, but I would never describe him as “artsy.”
Not-artsy was combing the brewery, turning his head this way and that as though searching for someone. I hadn’t had time to compose myself when his eyes locked with mine, and then it was impossible to tear my gaze away.
He walked toward me.
I swallowed again.
He halted at my table, but I was out of saliva and my mouth felt cottony and useless.
He dipped his head as though waiting for me to speak. Finally, raising his eyebrows, he asked, “Anna I. Harris?”
The sound of my name, especially coming from his mouth and said with his sexy man-voice, broke me out of the trance.
I stood inelegantly, causing the chair to scrape noisily on the wood floor, and extended my hand. “Yes, um—yes! I’m Anna, you must be—”
He cut me off, moving a chair closer to mine and said, “Sit.”
And I did. My face flushed with embarrassment. What am I? A dog? Sit. Bark. Roll over. My face flushed again, this time from unbidden images of me rolling over with him on top.
He was watching me, his elbow resting carelessly on the table, and I burned brighter under his scrutiny. Realizing I could clear my throat, I did.
“So, um, thanks for coming.” I glanced up, meeting his clearly amused stare.
He leaned closer, resting his cheek against his propped up palm. “Not what you expected?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
My eyes widened and I instinctively shook my head. “No, of course I—” I looked away, closing my eyes. Then sighing, I lifted my eyes to his again, “Well, actually, yes. You are not what I expected.”
He raised his eyebrows and scooted his chair closer. “How so?”
I smiled at him, feeling more at ease and more anxious at the same time. “Well, Emily said you were artsy and somehow . . .” I gestured to him with my hand, unable to finish my sentence.
Watching me, his expression unreadable, he stated, “I’m not artsy.”
I couldn’t help it; I laughed. He watched my amusement with interest—giving in to a small smile—before clearing his throat. “Nice pants.”
My laughter faded. I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and narrowed my eyes. “Yeah, well, yours aren’t bad either. Where do you shop? The Leather Warehouse?”
Leaning back in his chair, he smirked and pulled off the leather jacket and gloves, revealing a charcoal-gray T-shirt underneath that proved my suspicions about his chest right. Realizing I was staring, I forced myself to look away. “So, um, Emily said—”
Glancing to the side and sighing heavily, he shook his head. “Look, I need to tell you something.”
Oh God. He’s married. He’s a eunuch. He’s gay. He hates my leather pants.
I tried not to let my panic show as he lifted his eyes to mine. Making certain I was paying attention, he leaned in close. “I’m not who you think I am.”
My eyebrows pulled low, evidence of my confusion.
He continued, “I think you sent me that email accidently. I don’t know anyone named Emily. And no one tried to set me up with an Anna.”
My mouth dropped open in despair and a rush of intense embarrassment. “Oh my God.” I stood, reached for my bag, and backed away from the table.
Clearly anticipating my movements, the stranger grabbed my hand. This didn’t deter me from intermittently muttering curses and apologies.
“I’m so sorry, this is not, I mean, I’m sorry you came all the way to, I don’t know what the hell I was, you are definitely not, and I’m not, and fuck!”
“Listen,” he stood and moved his grip from my hand to my elbow, “wait.”
I raised my eyes to his, slightly shaking my head. “Why did you even come?”
He took a step forward, dwarfing me with his massive size. His hand—strong and calloused, I noticed without wanting to—shifted to my waist, holding me still and sending heat to my stomach.
Dipping his head to the side and leaning close, he whispered, “I wanted to know what the ‘I’ stood for.”
“So, did you tell him? What the I stands for?” Emily waved her celery stick through the air, her eager eyes betraying how completely absorbed she’d been in my telling of the story.
“What? No!” I shook my head, glaring at my friend; she’d lost her mind. “Of course not.”
Emily sighed, though I thought it sounded more like a deflating tire. “Why of course not?”
“Because he was in leather pants.”
“So were you.” Emily hopped up onto the counter next to where I was cooking the tomato sauce for dinner.
“Yes, but I don’t normally wear leather pants. He looked like he always wore leather pants. Like maybe he showered in them.”
Emily wrinkled her nose at this. “Gross.”
“No, no. He wasn’t dirty, what I mean is: he looked really good in the pants. He looked like leather pants were his thing.”
My friend crunched on the celery stick she’d been waving around earlier. “Okay, you’ve completely lost me. You didn’t give this hot guy your middle name—or your number—because he looks good in leather pants?”
“Unnaturally good. And he wore leather gloves. And a leather jacket. And he left on a motorcycle.” I thought for a moment, stirring the red sauce and becoming mildly flushed once again as I recalled the tall blond man speeding away while straddling the motorcycle. He didn’t know I’d been watching him.
After he’d asked me for my middle name, my brain and mouth failed me. I couldn’t physically form words. So I gave him a panicked smile, mumbled something mostly incomprehensible about going to the bathroom, shook my head, and bolted out the back door of the restaurant.
I hid in my car, unable to leave but too mortified to stay.
He strolled out ten minutes later, glanced around the parking lot, looking like a perfect mixture of James Dean and a young Paul Newman. I ducked, only peeking over my dashboard when I heard the rumble of a motorcycle. His back was to me, offering me a nice view of his long legs and leather-clad torso. Straddling the bike, he kicked up his stand and drove off into the sunset like a troubled hero from one of those movies I watched too much—Rebel Without a Cause or On the Waterfront.
I sighed at the memory and reminded myself out loud, “Definitely not my type.”
“Let me ask you this.” Emily nudged my knee with her foot. “Did he have a penis?”
I felt my face pinch, draw to a point as I inspected Emily’s wide, green eyes. “I didn’t see it if that’s what you’re asking.” Sadly.
“No. I’m asking you to guess. Did the sexy guy in leather, who I’m assuming you haven’t stopped fixating on for the last three days—don’t deny it!—do you think he has a penis?”
I squirmed where I stood and felt my face do odd things. Inexplicably, I was sweating. Maybe not so inexplicably, because I was now thinking about the stranger’s third leg.
“I’ll take your weird dance as a yes. Furthermore,” Emily’s next bite of the celery rang with a triumphant crunch and she spoke around the piece, “I maintain his leather-clad assets plus the existence of his penis makes him the right type for every heterosexual woman. Admit it, he was universal-hot-guy dating material and you let him slip through your leather gloves.”
I snorted inelegantly. Then, because it was just Emily and me, I did the huff-snort-laugh of disbelief. “Uh, I’d like to think I require more than just a beefcake with a frequent shopper’s card to the leather warehouse.”
“You said he was nice.”
She had me there.
I added more oregano to the sauce, but said nothing.
She nudged my knee again with her foot, smiling a smug smile as she sing-songed, “Admit it. He was nice. And hot. And he could have been smart and funny, but you’ll never know. You left, because you freaked out like a dork.”
“Fine. Fine, I freaked out like a dork!. You would’ve, too. I’m telling you, just looking at him, he wasn’t the kind of guy girls like us date.”
“Girls like us? You mean smart, funny, incredibly beautiful and talented girls?”
I gave her a reluctant smile, because we were normal girls.
Smart and funny? Yeah. Sure.
Incredibly beautiful and talented? Hard to say, mostly because I don’t think women who are beautiful by societal standards usually realize they’re beautiful, not really. I’ve never met a person who had an accurate grasp of their own physical beauty (or lack thereof).
Therefore, hard to say.
Was I beautiful? I didn’t think so.
Better just not to dwell on it.
“Nice girls,” I clarified. “We were nice girls. That’s what I meant.”
She gave me a face so I held up my saucy wooden spoon between us. “Don’t give me that face. We are nice girls. This guy, he was nice, but he wasn’t nice.”
“Look at you. You’re a judging-Jessica. Now who isn’t being nice?”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m not being judgmental. I’m just saying, I would have bored him. I’m boring-nice. I’m not riding-a-motorcycle-nice, or wearing-leather-pants-frequently nice, or going-to-the-gym-for-fun nice, or going-to-clubs-and-sexy-dancing nice.”
“Unless it’s eighties night. We go to clubs on eighties night.”
I reduced the heat of the sauce and turned my attention to the boiling pot of spaghetti. “See? That just proves my point. We like to dance to eighties music, where it’s acceptable to do the robot and other various and sundry dorky dances.”
Emily frowned. “So what? That’s not boring. That’s awesome.”
“Yes. To us and our kind, that’s awesome. To Mr. Leather-fine-pants, that’s boring and lame. He probably goes to clubs and sexes up strangers against walls. He looked like that kind of guy, like he could, like that’s what he does on Tuesdays.”
Now it was Emily’s turn to give me a pinched look. “And you know this how?”
I shrugged, pulling a string of spaghetti from the pot and testing its mushiness. “These are truths universally acknowledged. Men who ride motorcycles, who wear leather like a second skin, and look hot doing it don’t date dorks who idolize Tolstoy. Tuesday night is trivia night for me, unless I have a new jigsaw puzzle I’m excited about or I’m re-reading a tragic love story.”
“Again, awesome. Who doesn’t like trivia night and jigsaw puzzles?”
“Hot men who spend their Tuesdays having sex with hot women.”
“But he could do both. Hot sex, then trivia.”
I huffed, because I knew she was playing devil’s advocate without being serious. Time for her to face facts.
“Be honest with yourself, Em. What would you have done if you’d been in my place?” Emily opened her mouth as though to argue, but I gave her a hard look and challenged, “Be serious.”
She frowned as she considered my words, her shoulders slumping. I drained the spaghetti, a ball of irritation and restlessness forming in my stomach the longer she stayed mute. Part of me hoped she’d continue to tell me I was wrong. Tell me I was being narrow-minded, that she would have stayed and shared a drink, swapped numbers, gone on a motorcycle ride.
But she didn’t.
After several minutes, Emily hopped down from the counter and grabbed plates from the cabinet, asking, “You have the motorcycle guy’s email still? Has he tried to contact you?”
“Nope. He didn’t email me back. And I deleted the email.”
She nodded distractedly. “I guess I would’ve done the same as you, unless he emailed me. If he’d emailed me after the fact, then I would reevaluate.”
Ignoring my question, she changed the subject. “Do you want Lucas’s number? Like I said, he’s artsy, and definitely our kind of nice.”
“Sure. Yes. Thank you.” I tried to give her a smile.
And she tried to give me one in return.
I did call Lucas Kraft.
And he was definitely my kind of nice.
We played Pokemon Go together and assembled a puzzle for our first date.
It was good times.
But then we kissed.
That was not good times. He wasn’t a good kisser. Or maybe we weren’t good at kissing each other.
He didn’t call me. I didn’t call him. I got busy. I forgot about him. In fact, I forgot about dating a human man. I started reading a really good book by a new-to-me author who wrote alternate reality versions of Bronte novels and spent the next few weeks immersed in her backlist. I dated her fictional heroes instead in an unapologetic phase of serial book-boyfriend polygamy.
Now, two months later while talking to Emily over the phone about summer plans, I discovered Lucas had started dating a tattoo artist named Starla with three tongue piercings. They were moving in together after knowing each other for two weeks.
“Anna? Anna, are you still there?”
I nodded, frowning blindly at the syllabus for my Russian Literature class. “Yes. I’m still here.”
“Are you . . . okay?”
I nodded tightly, not understanding why she sounded so muffled or why my heart sounded so loud between my ears.
“I thought you didn’t hit it off?”
I shook my head, completely perplexed by how hard I was taking artsy Lucas’s alteration in love-life luck.
I should have called him. Then maybe I would be moving into an apartment with my new boyfriend . . .
No. No, you shouldn’t have called him. He was boring and kissed like a hamster.
I had to physically shake myself to break from my oddball crisis.
What is wrong with you?
Too late I realized I’d spoken What is wrong with you? aloud. “Sorry, nothing. No. I’m good. I’m fine. That’s great for Lucas and his lady friend. That’s really great.”
But it wasn’t great.
How come lazy-tongued Lucas gets a Starla? Shouldn’t he get a Suzie or a Suanne? Or an Anna? A nice, normal-named woman who matched his type of nice?
Not a tri-pierced Starla!
She probably wears leather pants . . .
“Well, anyway.” I heard Emily start the engine of her car. “I can’t believe you’re taking classes over your senior summer, and Russian Literature of all things. Gag!”
“Don’t gag at me. You know I love all things needlessly angsty and dramatic. Who dressed up like Rodion Raskolnikov last year for Halloween and won all the awards? Me.”
“You won one contest. One. And it was for ‘Most Awesome Costume No One Can Identify.’”
“It doesn’t matter, I still won.”
“Shouldn’t you be trying to enjoy your last summer before becoming a real adult?” Emily made no attempt to disguise her disgust for my summer plans.
“You mean binge-watching Netflix and picking up extra shifts at the museum?”
“No. I’ve been trying to get into this class for three years and it’s always full. This is my last chance.”
“That’s because the professor is supposed to be a hottie.”
“Of course he is. Professor Kroft talks about classical Russian literature for a living. If that author guy taught a course in classical Russian literature, that actress lady would leave her dancer husband for him.”
“You mean Natalie Portman?”
“Who? No. The other one. Maybe it was a supermodel and he plays football. There are too many famous people. How am I supposed to keep them all straight?”
“Point is,” I lowered my voice to a whisper as entered the lecture hall, “being a world-class expert in classical Russian literature would make anyone hot.”
Emily chuckled, but tried to hide it with a cough. “Right. Well, anyway. I’ll leave you to it. Don’t forget, trivia night tomorrow. And it’s the semi-finals. We need your brain for the book questions.”
“Ah. Yes.” I scanned the auditorium, irritated that all the seats toward the front were already taken. The closest I could get to the lecture stand was fourteen rows back. The place was packed. “I’ll be there.”
“Good. Talk later. Enjoy your angst.”
“I will. It will feed my dark, dark soul. Bye.” I clicked off, careful to turn my phone all the way off before slipping it in my bag. If three years of college had taught me anything, it was that professors hated being interrupted by cell phones.
I spent the next several minutes arranging my laptop on the table in front of me, organizing my pens, notepad, and the two paperback novels I’d already re-read (and highlighted, and flagged) as a prerequisite for the class. Once everything was organized to my liking, I allowed myself to look around.
The room was buzzing with excitement, which made my heart do a flip. I was obviously with my people. I was with the lovers of Dostoyevsky and Chekov.
The last of my freak-out vibes from earlier dissipated. I didn’t need Lucas and his hamster kisses. I decided my peculiar reaction must’ve been temporary insanity. So what if I didn’t have a boyfriend? So what if I never had one? Loneliness and self-sacrificing despair were staples of all great classic novels. Maybe true happiness was embracing the tragedy of a solitary existence.
That sounded nice.
Cats and coffee and wretchedness.
I couldn’t wait for the lecture to begin.
“Hiya, I’m Taylor.”
I turned to my left, encountering a bright-eyed brunette with her hand outstretched. I accepted her handshake.
“Good to meet you. I can’t believe I got into this class.” She leaned forward as she said this last part. “I’ve been trying for two semesters, but it’s always full.”
“I know,” I enthusiastically agreed. “I love that it’s so popular. Which of the pre-recs did you read?”
She blinked at me. “What?”
“The pre-recs? Which did you read? I’ve already read Crime and Punishment one hundred times, so I opted for Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I’ve read before, but not recently.”
I stopped talking because Taylor was giving me a blank stare. Confused, I glanced behind me. Finding nothing amiss, I turned to her again.
“Is there something wrong?”
She shook her head, issuing me a look that made me feel as though I might have sprouted antlers. “No. It’s just, I can’t believe you’ve already read these books. And on purpose. And more than once.”
Her response startled me, but before I could interrogate her further, a hush fell over the lecture hall. Soon the only sound in the large room was leather soles on the wood floor as I craned my neck to get a peek at our professor.
“Holy cow,” Taylor exclaimed under her breath, also twisting her neck and dipping her head to the side. “That man can wear a suit.”
I didn’t argue, because she was right. Professor Kroft did look good in a suit. At least, his backside looked good in a suit. He’d entered through a side door and was currently standing with his back to us. The professor was organizing paper printouts and books on the long table at the front of the lecture hall.
And then he turned around.
And I almost fell out of my chair.
“This course is entitled Classics of Russian Literature, and I am your professor, Luca Kroft.” He paused, the bluest eyes I’d ever seen dispassionately surveyed the inhabitants of the first few rows.
I knew they were the bluest eyes I’d ever seen because I’d been up close and personal with them once before.
On Valentine’s Day.
At Jake Peterson’s Microbrewery on Fifth and Pine.
Except, instead of a suit, he’d been wearing leather pants.
“Russian literature, as you’re likely aware, probes into the complexities and depths of the human soul. And since we are dealing with matters of the soul, I will tolerate no disruptions.” Professor Kroft’s entirely too attractive voice was the only sound in the room. “Let me be clear before we begin. If you are late, you will be locked out. If you leave, you will be locked out. The doors, which are now closed, are locked.”
He held us captivated with his arresting gaze as it scanned the hall, looking at all of us and none of us at once.
I ducked, my heart in my throat, my face flushed.
Oh my God.
It’s Mr. Leather-fine-pants.
I forced myself to breathe, not meeting Taylor’s eye as she inspected me. My hands were shaking. I gripped the desk.
What is wrong with me?
It was the shock. That’s what it was. That’s why I was behaving like a loon. Again. The temporary insanity had returned. I was overreacting. I just needed to . . . leave.
But I couldn’t, not yet. He was speaking. If I left then I’d draw attention to myself.
Stay until the end of class, then leave!
Yes. Much better plan.
And act normal.
“What?” Taylor whispered at my side.
I frowned at her and whispered in return, “What what?”
Gah! I’d spoken aloud again without realizing.
I shook my head. “Sorry. Nothing. Ignore me.”
“You’re weird.” She giggled.
“Do you talk to yourself often?”
“Ladies . . .?”
I stiffened, my blood pressure rocketing.
He was looking at us. He’d stopped lecturing and was looking right at us. His hands were on his narrow hips, one of his eyebrows was cocked in displeasure. Also, he was wearing a bowtie.
What the what?
And yes, he looked hot in a bowtie. How was that even possible?
“Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?”
“Sorry, Professor. We were just debating the finer details of . . .” Taylor glanced at the title of my book, “Eugene Onegin. It won’t happen again.” Taylor grinned and preened under the singular weight of his attention.
Meanwhile, I sunk lower in my chair, brought my hand to my forehead to obscure my face as much as possible without completely covering it, and shook my head quickly.
The silence that followed was deafening. I didn’t dare look up. I was still in the throes of my overreaction and I was sure my cheeks were on fire.
Professor Kroft broke the silence. “Your debate is timely, as Yevgeniy Onegin is the first book we’ll be discussing.”
I closed my eyes; his voice, the words he’d spoken hitting me square in the abdomen, driving the air from my lungs. He’d used the Russian pronunciation of Eugene. Life was not fair. Not only did he look good in leather pants, fabulous in a suit, look good in a bowtie, was a world expert on Russian literature, but also he apparently spoke Russian. Flawlessly.
Flee! He is temptation incarnate! He will steal your soul with sexiness!
“Uh . . .” Taylor’s eyes darted around the room and finally, finally she shrank back.
“Tell me, Miss . . .?” He paused and I opened one eye, attempting to discern if he was waiting for me or Taylor to provide a last name. Thankfully, his steady gaze was locked on my classmate.
“Miss Garrison,” she supplied, her voice cracking with nerves.
I wanted to shake my head at her in disgust, or shake some sense into her for volunteering a boldfaced lie. Instead I kept my head down, hoping against hope he’d continue to target bigmouth Taylor.
“And Miss . . .?”
DAMNIT, DOSTIYEVSKY! Why did you have to be so tragic and compelling?
I said nothing, but I might have moaned in mental anguish.
“Miss?” he prompted again, an edge of harassed impatience stealing into the word.
I gathered a large bracing breath—because what else could I do?—and blurted, “Harris.”
I waited, but he was silent again. This time the silence stretched much, much longer. It stretched for such a substantial length of time that most of the class turned in their seats to give me the once-over. After they gave me the once-over, they looked between the Professor and me, then gave me a twice-over, and a thrice-over.
“Miss Harris,” he said finally, like he’d discovered something wonderful for him, and terrible for me.
I opened both my eyes, met the force of his, and grimaced. Yet I managed to choke out, “Professor Kroft.”
He smiled—teeth and everything—as he leaned backward onto the table behind him. He tilted his head to the side, crossed his arms, and pinned me with his gaze. Rather, he paralyzed me with the twin-blue laser beams of sadism pointed at my soul.
He recognized me.
And it was obvious he didn’t like me very much.
Perhaps he was merely irritated that he’d been interrupted on the first day of class, or perhaps he hadn’t liked my hurried departure all those months ago. I couldn’t figure out which of my regrettable actions were the culprit.
Either way, whatever the reason, I was in trouble.
“Tell me, Miss Harris, is Pushkin a precursor to the realism later found in the legendary Russian prose novels?”
“Uh,” my attention flickered to the side, to Taylor, who was watching me with a please-don’t-murder-me expression. She was terrified. For some reason her terror lessened mine.
“I’m waiting, Miss Harris,” he said, demanding my attention once more, in a harsh tone that sent goosebumps racing up my arms and over my chest. “And I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
I shook my head and blinked rapidly, endeavoring to clear the riot of flailing cobwebs from my mind, and repeated his question silently.
Is Pushkin a precursor to the realism later found in the legendary Russian prose novels?
Yes, he is.
Say something. Answer him. You can do this. You love discussing this stuff.
“Um, so, realism. Yes.” I nodded again, my mind finally engaging. “Yes, Pushkin is a precursor to the realism found later in prose novels.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Why?” I parroted.
His gaze grew hooded and his teeth slid to the side. “Yes. Why?” The question was now a harsh staccato. Exacting. Punishing.
I answered without allowing myself to overthink, sensing that haste in responding was the only thing keeping me from being tossed out in abject humiliation. “Because he described the differences in social classes during his time. And not just easily discernable differences. He described their lives, everything from high society, to lower gentry, to peasants in the countryside. He displayed a proto-realist attitude later adopted by other authors.”
The last syllable of my last word seemed to echo in the room. Or maybe it echoed in my head. Once again, silence stretched.
Professor Kroft’s features had arranged themselves into a stoic mask as he continued to stare at me through half-lidded eyes. I was holding my breath. It might have been my imagination, but I was pretty sure half the class was as well.
Finally, he announced, “That is correct.”
His gaze shifted from mine, releasing me from the purgatory of his austere attention. “We may find examples of this attention to detail in his tour through Petersburg high-society life with Yevgeniy in the first chapter, and the bucolic descriptions of the provincial nobility,” he continued.
I took the opportunity to breathe.
My heart was still racing, but heady relief pumped through my veins. He could still toss me out. He could eject me from the class. He could ridicule and embarrass me.
My heart began a slow descent to the floor as I watched him pace in front of the class, waxing poetic about quotidian elements. I had to drop the course. I’d read the reality in his eyes when he’d challenged me. They’d glowed with a keen, sinister attentiveness. If I stayed, if I tried to finish the semester, he would make my life extremely unpleasant.
Embrace the wretchedness, Anna. Embrace it.
I’d just resigned myself to embracing wretchedness when I felt eyes on me again. I looked up from the sad faces I’d been doodling in my notebook and discovered I was, once again, the focus of the entire class and Professor Kroft.
“Miss Harris?” His tone was studiously polite. The politeness struck me as infinitely more dangerous than his palpable exasperation earlier.
“Yes?” I croaked, gripping the desk again, hoping he wasn’t about to toss me out of the lecture hall.
He held my gaze, and I swear one side of his mouth inched slightly upward with a knowing smirk, though his expression hadn’t altered.
“Please stay after class, Miss Harris.”
A low murmur rumbled through the hall at the professor’s demand framed as a request. Instinctively, I sunk lower in my seat, shying away from the multitude of eyes pointed at me, and gritted my teeth.