Happiness

Ling Ma: ‘Office Hours,’ a Short Story

How she used to smoke in his office, back when the University allowed that in campus buildings. He didn’t smoke, but allowed her to as she sat on the sofa across from his desk. Or rather, he didn’t object, and even set out a little dessert plate as an ashtray. Maybe because it gave them both a pretense for talking longer, for the extra duration of a cigarette, then two, then three. So that by the time she graduated, she was a chain-smoker.

She had taken several of his courses, mostly on cinema. She’d read the assigned Gombrich texts, studied the Muybridge prints, wrote a paper on close-ups of Falconetti’s face. After class, she would drop by his office hours to continue class discussion. “Let’s hear it” was the first thing he’d say when she arrived. During her junior year, they would talk for an hour every week.
Their conversations began to drag over time, usually when he started pontificating about how he’d never intended to be a career academic. Though flattered that he confided in her, she grew a little bored. He had the dream job of watching movies and writing about them.

He was both an involved mentor who frequently elicited her opinions, and a ragged, pacing animal, sour about where he had ended up in life.
Once, she offhandedly mentioned that she was tired and sleep-deprived. “So go home then,” he snapped. Taken aback, she explained that she didn’t have enough time to go home before her next class. “You can take a nap,” he said, and offered to leave his office so she could sleep on the sofa. “I’ll take these papers to grade and go downstairs to Holy Grounds,” he said, referring to the basement coffee shop in Godspeed Hall.

Except when she lay down, he didn’t leave. Maybe she’d already known he wouldn’t. He remained behind his desk, and the sound of pages turning, the quick swipes of the pen as he scrawled devastating comments on students’ papers, served as the white noise that lulled her to sleep. She thought of his pen scrawling over her body, its sharp razor-point tip marking her with corrective feedback in corrosive industrial ink.

When she awoke, he already had his coat on. “Okay?” he asked as she sat up.

“Okay,” she said, a little embarrassed. “Was I asleep for long?”

“No, not at all,” he said. “But office hours end in two minutes.”

She wanted to be the object of his gaze, if only with her eyes closed, a little longer. She liked being warmed by his interest without ever yielding to it. The naps began to occur often enough to set a precedent. The rust-colored sofa was mushy but comfortable. After a while, she no longer felt self-conscious about languishing in the amnion of his office. When she woke up, he would say, “Okay?” and she would reply, “Okay,” and leave.

It was a drafty office. Wind whistled through the walls. Leaving Godspeed Hall, she would bury her face in the collar of her coat, redolent of a tangy pine as she walked across campus on those dark winter afternoons.

There was no sofa in her apartment, no bed. She slept on an inflatable mattress, reinforced nightly with a bike pump. Her parents had re-mortgaged their house to afford her private-college tuition, and she didn’t ask for more. From her wages shelving books at the library, she subsisted on spaghetti and apples, supplemented by appetizer spreads laid out at English Department receptions. After lectures on the decline of the novel, the failures of empire, she pilfered smoked salmon, soft cheeses, caviar garnishes. On weekends, there was usually a party where she helped herself to the snacks.

The last time she remembered seeing the Professor was after leaving such a party, a few weeks before graduation. She’d been standing on a street corner late at night, waiting for a ride in the rain. He’d been walking his dog near campus.

“I like your dog, Professor,” she had called out. It was an excessive, girthful Bernese mix.

“Oh, good,” he said as he neared. “My dog is your dog.”

“Oh, good. I was about to clone it. What’s its name?”

“Nemo.”

“Hi, Nemo! Nemo, did you know that your name means ‘no one’? I’m sorry!”

The dog withstood her overzealous petting with dignity.

“Do you have a strategy for getting home?”

“Yes.” She didn’t mention that she had been waiting for “the drunk van,” a weekend campus service that deposited inebriated students at home.

He studied her, then pointed across the street, at Godspeed Hall. “That’s my office.”

“I know.” Though actually she hadn’t known. Her surroundings suddenly reoriented around her: She had been standing on the wrong corner for pickup.

“If you’d like to dry off, you’re welcome to it. I could give you the keys. I won’t be in until Monday.”

“I’m fine.” She smiled.

“I see.” He hesitated. “You’re graduating in two weeks. What’s next after this?”

“I don’t know.” On the other side of graduation was her actual life, the slow narrowing of possibilities that would catch her and freeze her in a vocation, a relationship, a life. She intended to avoid that slow calcification—if only by refraining from making any crucial decisions. In other words, she was moving back home. “I want your job one day.” Maybe she was saying it just to see his response.

“You can have it. This is my last year.”

“You’re retiring?” The surprise of this news sobered her a little.

“I’ve probably overstayed. Once you’re tenured, you never leave.” Nemo tugged on his leash, but the Professor did not move. “The gap between you and your students widens. You get older, while they stay the same age, year after year. Like vampires.”

“Doesn’t sound that bad to me.” She did not know what to say. He was not happy. He was just a person. “I’ve really enjoyed your classes, Professor.” She wanted to add more. How watching long films in the campus screening room, as they did in his class, made the midwestern winters bearable; how she appreciated that, unlike other faculty, he never wielded his knowledge as a weapon against his students.

“The sanest way forward—you have to learn how to split yourself up, like an earthworm.”

She did not know what he was talking about.

“Anyway. I think Nemo is getting restless. I should be on my way.” He nodded at her. “Get home safe. And if I don’t see you before graduation, stay out of trouble.”

She watched as the Professor walked across the street with Nemo. They ambled through the quad, then into the building that housed his office. It was almost three in the morning, but she reminded herself that she didn’t know him well. She had just been his student, a vampire. Whatever he was doing, it was really none of her business.

Her default position was that of a dog fighting its way out of a corner. For much of her adult life, she had assumed this defensive crouch, tensed to prove herself against all odds at all times. She lacked the assurance, like many of her peers, that if one thing didn’t work out, there would always be something else. Maybe this desperation had helped drive her onto the tenure track, doggedly persisting through a complicated gantlet of grad school and postdocs and fellowships until she finally found herself gainfully employed as an assistant Professor at her college alma mater, where the fights were imperceptible because everyone had too much to lose and there was no corner.

The Film and Media Studies faculty holiday party was held in a circular brick tower. She sipped rosé next to the window, a heavy wool coat over her other arm as if she were ready to leave. Surveying the event space, she did the usual reconnaissance: There was the one who bludgeoned her with compliments, the one who cut her off mid-sentence, the one who leaned in too closely and asked, in a hushed, solemn tone, how she was doing, as if only they could be the facilitator of her feelings. This dance of feigned, unearned intimacies played on endlessly at every meeting.

Anyway. She was showing her face. She was engaging. And Carolyn was half-heartedly feting her. “Hey, before I forget. To your book,” Carolyn said, raising her glass and clinking it against hers. “Will you sign my copy later?” Without waiting for a response, she continued, “You must be so busy after your book release. I’m sure you’re just being heaped with accolades.”

“Oh, I’m just glad it’s done.” Marie’s book, on cinema of “the face,” had been released by a university press at the beginning of the semester.

Carolyn leaned in meaningfully. “How are you feeling about that?”

She wasn’t entirely sure what the question was. “It always takes longer than you think.” She cleared her throat. “Do you have any interesting plans for holiday break?”

“We’re taking the kids to the Adirondacks. We all need the detox, you know?”

Carolyn waved her jittery hands, glistening with rings. “It’s crazy how busy things get. I’m serving on, like, 10 committees.” She looked at Marie curiously.

“Ladies.” Sean approached, placing his hands on both their backs. He was her least favorite. “I presume you’re teaching next semester.”

Carolyn and Marie nodded in unison.

“And I presume these courses have titles.” Sean looked at Marie. He didn’t ask her questions so much as issue statements that she could confirm or refute.

“Well, one course is called ‘The Disappearing Woman,’” Marie said. “We start with the genre of women’s films, then we look at contemporary heroines. You know, Vertigo, L’Avventura …”

He sipped his wine, glanced around the room. “Oh, that’s fun.” He waved at the program chair across the room. She couldn’t tell if he was pretending, this nonchalance. “So I assume the woman always disappears by the end.”

“The course title should come with a spoiler alert.” She too sipped her drink.

“You know, I’ve found in my experience that students respond best to genre surveys rather than courses built around a theme.”

“Depends on the syllabus, I’m sure,” she said benignly. He hadn’t been teaching at the University much longer than she had. She turned to Carolyn.

“What are you teaching this spring, Carolyn?”

“An introductory survey of silent film.” Carolyn shifted warily. “Anyway, I have to run. I promised the sitter I wouldn’t be late tonight.”

Sean ignored Carolyn’s retreat. “I would take a look at some of the course listings from years past to give you the right idea of what works best.”

“I have, but thanks.” Marie looked around the room, scanning it for reasons to excuse herself. Colleagues encircled one another, then broke apart periodically to form new groups. This was when she spotted the Professor, speaking with someone across the room. He looked, for lack of more elegant descriptors, frail and decrepit. She hadn’t seen him in maybe 15 years, not since college.

On cue, he looked up and caught her gaze.

The Professor wanted to see his old office, which was now her office. They walked across the dimly lit quads in the snow. He walked with a cane, and hid his winces with every step. He was speaking to her as if they were picking up mid-conversation after more than a decade. “I’m very ill. The treatments aren’t working.”

“Is it serious?” she asked, knowing well that at his age, all illnesses were serious.

“It’s terminal,” he said matter-of-factly. “I don’t have long, though there are differing opinions about what that means.”

“I’m sorry.” Her pat response sounded so trivial. They continued on to Godspeed Hall in silence. When she opened the door to her office and switched on the fluorescent lights, he looked around at the now-bare walls and new plywood furnishings, the empty bookcases, the mini fridge in the corner. She wanted to apologize for not having properly made the space her own. “It’s mostly just for meeting with students.” She preferred to do her scholarly work at home. “Would you like tea or something?”

He didn’t respond at first. “I would like you to keep an open mind.” He studied the closet behind her desk. Then he opened the door, revealing an old armoire that had always been there. She watched as he struggled to move it.

“Here, let me help you,” she said. But he had already slid it to the edge of the closet. From the drag marks in the floorboards, it had been moved many times.

“There.” He was satisfied. “Now turn on the light, please.”

When she pulled the dangling bulb’s drawstring, the light revealed a hole in the wall, which she had never noticed before. It was large enough that a person could easily enter it. He stepped through the hole until he was almost fully submerged. She took a step forward, then back.

Sensing her hesitation, he turned around. “Okay?”

“Okay.” As if in a dream, she followed him.

On the other side is where the story begins.

The passageway led outside. She looked around as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. To their left, a cloister of coniferous trees, swaying in the breeze. It had stopped snowing. Or, actually, there was no snow on the ground at all. It was not even cold. The air felt soft and supple. It was almost warm, as if it were a summer’s night. Or maybe it was a summer’s night, somewhere.

She said, “I have never been to this part of campus before.” And then waited for him to correct her. They were not on campus, or even near it.

“I used to come out here when I had your office.” He was still looking around.

There was a full moon in the sky, the only source of light. It illuminated what looked like a country road receding into the distance.

She wanted to take off her coat, but to do so would have been to accept the reality of her surroundings. “Where are we?”

He pointed to a pine tree some yards away. “Do you see that cup over there? On the ground?” She squinted. There was a white paper cup at its base. “It’s a cup of coffee. Can you take a look?”

She walked over to the tree and picked up the Solo cup, filled with fresh coffee, lightened with cream.

“Is it still warm?”

“Yes.” She brought it to him, but he didn’t bother to examine it.

“What if I told you I left it there years ago, on my last day before retirement?”

“But it’s still warm.” Heat emanated from the cup.

“Yes, that’s my point.” He paused. “What I can tell you is that I have visited this place hundreds of times. It is always night here. The weather is always the same, warm and temperate.”

She studied the coffee cup in her hand. The paper sleeve was imprinted with the logo of Holy Grounds, which had closed years ago.

She looked around again, studied the space. “Where does that road go?” she asked, gesturing to the two-lane freeway.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen a single car on it. I used to have questions too. But eventually I found I was able to enjoy this place without any answers.” He was looking at the sky, the full moon. “It’s always the same.”

She set the cup down in the grass. “Why did you show this to me?” she asked. When he didn’t answer, she repeated the question.

It was only after the Professor had passed, during holiday break, that she entered the passageway again. The University memorial service, scheduled shortly after New Year’s, was held in the same circular-tower room as the faculty holiday party. She had not expected the body to be on view, half the casket opened to expose his closed face, pale and frowning.

Something he had said once in a lecture: “It is in the most surreal situations that a person feels the most present, the closest to reality.” What film had he been speaking of? She wished she could ask him now.

Sean approached, clearing his throat. “So I hear you’re presenting at HFF.”

“I’m subbing for someone else who wasn’t available.” She moved away from the coffin, not wanting to hold the conversation so close to the body. Sean followed.

“Huh, so you replaced someone.” He took a sip of wine.

“That’s my impression. But I don’t know.” She was downplaying it. The Humanities Futures Forum—or “huff,” as everyone called HFF—was an annual weekend fundraising event for the University’s major donors.

“I presume you have ideas about what you’re presenting.”

What if she just didn’t respond? “I’m not sure yet. Maybe something on cinematic fantasy or dream spaces. Like The Wizard of Oz, or maybe Stalker.”

“Fantasy space.” He nodded slowly. “Well, you could devote the entire session to all the Tarkovsky films alone.”

“It’s only a 20-minute presentation. But I’ll keep that in mind.” Marie held her smile. “I should go and pay my respects.”

In her time at the University, she had begun to dislike Sean intensely, but as a point of pride she couldn’t quite commit to her dislike. He seemed unworthy of any intensity of feeling, he who made his students call him Doctor.

But today, at the beginning of the new year, at the memorial for her former Professor, the prospect of seeing someone like Sean regularly, of forever dodging him at receptions and cocktail parties, of treading lightly while serving on the same committees, of presenting at faculty meetings, just seemed intolerable, fucking impossible.

Across the room, attendees clustered around the Professor’s widow, elegant in her charcoal dress. “He wanted to go on his own terms,” the widow said. “He decided when he wanted to stop the treatment. So I’m glad he was able to have some control over the process, at least.”

“And what about you? How are you doing?” Carolyn cooed. “I am so sorry. You must be so exhausted. Tell me there’s someone taking care of you.” Her voice was subsumed by the cicada chorus of others’ condolences. Marie placed her glass on a table and left.

It was still bright outside. She walked across the quads and retreated to her office, where the tears did not come. In the silence of not crying, she heard the wind whistling from the closet.

For the first time, she entered the passageway by herself. When she emerged on the other side, it was night, just as it had been before. The towering trees rustled in greeting, unloosening a familiar pine scent. The inky sky above was scattered with stars, the full moon. Implausibly, it was all still the same.

She moved through the clearing uneasily until she spotted one familiar thing: the paper cup of coffee, where she had placed it last. It was still warm. Hot, even. She took a sip, scalding her tongue. Then she downed the rest of the cup.

On Wednesdays, she taught “The Disappearing Woman.” That week, in the February thaw of the spring semester, they watched Ghost World, released in 2001, a year many of her students had been born. In the end, Enid, the teenage protagonist, gets on a mysterious bus and seems to leave town. The credits rolled.

Marie flipped on the lights and looked around at her 15 students. “So, what did you think?”

A student named Zach spoke first. “I didn’t get the ending. I mean, I like that it’s kind of open-ended, but it feels like a cop-out. Enid just gets on this special bus and goes where?”

She reset the question. “Well, the ending seems to serve as a refutation of some kind, with Enid opting out of the town on this mysterious bus. One way to approach this is to ask: What is Ghost World trying to refute? Are there specific scenes that suggest an answer?”

When Marie began as a teacher, she had directed all her efforts toward appearing unafraid. But training herself to appear unafraid was not the same as training herself not to feel afraid—the difference between pretending and being. She learned to become another person entirely as soon as she slipped into the classroom,.

“There’s a lot of anxiety around this idea of authenticity,” Abby offered. “Like, the fake ’50s diner that plays Top 40 music. Or the art teacher who has these narrow parameters for what qualifies as art. Enid and Rebecca are always hyperaware of what’s inauthentic.”

“Yeah, but wherever Enid ends up, she’s only going to see inauthenticity and hypocrisy. There is no place she’s going where she’s not going to see that,” said Grey. “What place could the bus take her that would meet her standards? It doesn’t exist.”

Sarah added, “Yeah, because Enid gets to disappear, but most of us are like Rebecca: We’re critical of the world, but we still have to live in it.”

Abby interjected: “But that’s the fantasy, right? That there is an escape, there is a way out of …” She trailed off, then restarted. “The movie doesn’t show you the answers. The ending simply opts out. It’s an aversion.”

After class, Marie returned to her office and entered the closet’s passageway. She referred to the outside area as “the chamber.” Initially, it had served as a discreet area to smoke, a habit she had picked up again after the Professor’s memorial. She would lock her office door, move the armoire, and go through the wall. She lingered in the clearing near the entryway, blowing her smoke into the night air, surrounded by those swaying trees. The pleasure of this place, she discovered, was its extreme, surreal privacy.

Over time, her visits had become more exploratory. In the chamber, there was the road and there were the woods. She heard the sound of water, a brook, maybe, but she never ventured far. The Professor had said he didn’t know how large the forest was. He had gotten lost there once, and had emerged days later, at a loss to explain his disappearance to his wife, who had filed a missing-person report.

Using a key-chain flashlight to guide her, Marie walked along the silent road. She would never get lost if she stuck close to it; it would always lead her back to the entryway. Flowers grew in the ditches, thistle and yarrow and hyssop, some sagebrush and chamomile, and she collected some. The deeper she went inside the chamber, the more apprehension she felt.

The road reminded her of her lost year. After graduation, she had moved back home, to the same house her parents had re-mortgaged to pay for her college. For a year she had lived like a dilettante, sleeping in too late too often and watching movies during the day. In the evenings, while her parents worked the dinner rush at their restaurant, she would often find herself walking alone along a freeway near the house, one that cut through a landscape of strip malls, a collusion of Target, Starbucks, and Orangetheory Fitness. It was a time when the future could have been anything, been anywhere. It was so open that it could have actually crushed her.

She had offered to work for her parents at the restaurant, but they hadn’t sent her to the University so she could assume their livelihood. She had been named after Maria from The Sound of Music, the first film her parents had watched in America. “Climb every mountain,” Mother Superior sings, urging Maria to leave, to see the world. That whole sequence, the Professor had informed her once, was censored in Germany. “A nun advising a young woman to leave the convent and explore the world, the subtext being to sow her wild oats—well, it was more outrageous than any graphic scenes,” he had said.

When she thought about the Professor now, she could understand, in a way she had not before, his unhappiness. She remembered, most of all, his complaints—the pressures of teaching, the lack of time to work on his own writing, and the bureaucratic gridlock. She also saw how he had created the terms of their relationship. How he had encouraged her to attend his office hours, those naps he’d allowed her to take. Even the act of disclosing his dissatisfactions … All those little actions had had the effect of making her feel like the exception.

It was to his credit, maybe, that nothing had ever transpired between them. Maybe he had wanted her to initiate it, absolving him of liability. But she never did. She was content with the faint affect of romance, rather than its realization. By senior year, the Professor had become colder, more dismissive and impatient. She stopped going to his office hours. In his absence, she was ashamed of her reliance on his attention. She was naive, a clear windowpane.

And now here she was.

At a certain point, she stopped walking along the road, and pivoted to return. She dropped her bouquet of collected flowers—a mourning bouquet. What right did she have to mourn?

She had brought flowers from the chamber into her office before, arranged them in a beautiful vase, and they had decayed instantaneously in front of her, as if in a time-lapse video. What remained were moldy, phosphorous, blackened stems, water that smelled like rotting teeth. What came from that world was not meant to live in this one.

The Humanities Futures Forum began on a Saturday morning. The donors filed in, wearing polo shirts and sport jackets. The lecture room was designed like a conch shell, spiraling downhill toward the speaker, who stood at its carpeted bottom, looking upward at the audience.

As everyone took their seat, the lights dimmed. The projector turned on, and speaking into the microphone, she welcomed them to the presentation. “Cinema, as they say, is the space of fantasy. Today, I’d like to show you clips from two films, 40 years apart: The Wizard of Oz and Stalker.”

The presentation screen lowered from the ceiling. A black-and-white clip from The Wizard of Oz played. Dorothy awakes in her uprooted house, which has been blown away by a tornado, and the door opens onto the Land of Oz in full color. This was followed by a clip from Stalker, showing a group of men riding on railroad tracks into the “Zone.” The switch again from the sepia-toned film to the full-color foliage of a new realm.

She had to remember to hold the microphone closer to her mouth.  “In each film, we journey through an alternate reality, a fantasy space, a second site—if you will—that is not of our world.”

In the darkened room, she looked at the impassive faces of the audience: the distinguished alumni of and major donors to the University. HFF was technically a showcase of the University’s programs, but it was mostly just classroom cosplay for them. The campus served as an elaborate set that allowed the donors to pretend they were still college students.

“Whether this alternate site is called Oz or the Zone, they share one similarity,” she continued. “The travelers move toward a central apparatus, a place where their wishes are said to be granted. For Dorothy and her friends, they are seeking out the Emerald City, where the Wizard resides. In Stalker, the travelers move toward the ‘Room,’ a fabled space that grants each passenger a subconscious wish.”

The screen played clips from each film—the Emerald City, followed by an outside shot of the Room. Periodically, the donors moved to the back and helped themselves at the refreshments table, which was piled with finger sandwiches, canapés, and buckets of champagne. Unlike her, they must have already paid off their student loans.

She continued with her little presentation. “I can’t help but observe that in each film, the protagonist never has an elaborate wish. Stalker has guided others through the Zone many times, but has never entered the Room. And after a hard-won journey to find the wizard, Dorothy’s only wish is for a return to normalcy, a return home. Fervent, elaborate wishing, as suggested by the actions of our virtuous main characters, can only be folly.”

When she was finished, she answered questions as the refreshments table was replenished. Then the next group of donors came in, seated themselves. She went through the presentation again and then held another question-and-answer session. Then the same thing. Another group came in. She repeated the process.

After the final presentation of the day, Marie understood what she had to do. She crossed the quads to Godspeed. Inside her office, she opened the closet, pushed aside the armoire, and disappeared into the chamber.

She bypassed the road and went into the woods. It was hard to see at first, the full moon’s light obscured by the foliage, by tangled tree branches. She brought out the mini flashlight on her key chain, following the sound of water which led her to a stream, glinting in the dark. Further passage into the forest was blocked by the water, which seemed to emit a tinkling sound until Marie realized it was something else. It was a metallic sound, like jangling keys. There was something moving low to the ground, on the other side of the stream. The creature was bounding toward the bank. Reflexively, she aimed her flashlight toward it: a dog, thirstily lapping at the water’s edge. A Bernese, collared with tags. The dog’s reflection on the water’s surface was soon joined by the reflection of its owner. She looked up. The figure was standing at a distance. She shined her flashlight at it, but the beam was too weak to reveal a face. He was wearing his mackintosh and loafers, his standard dress on campus. She glanced back at the water. She was able to see a reflection of a face. Was this him or a facsimile? A chimera?

She spoke, her voice tremulous. “Professor?” she said. There was no answer. Slowly he turned and moved away, the dog by his side. She stepped closer to the stream, raised her voice this time. “Nemo?”

The dog stopped and turned to look at her. It barked before catching up with its owner. Across the stream, the two figures disappeared into the woods.

The recurring sound of something hitting the wall, a hard clacking, made Sean step out of his office and investigate. He had been working in Godspeed that Saturday, trying to finish an essay.

The door to Marie’s office, just down the hall, had been left open, but she wasn’t inside. He stood in the doorway, glancing at her desk—strewn with items spilling out of her leather tote—before stepping in. Hesitation implied wrongdoing.

It was freezing, was the first thing he noticed. She had left the window open. The sound Sean had heard was the blinds smacking against the window frame. It was typical of her, her carelessness. He closed the window.

The closet door opened. He glanced up to see her stepping through it. “I didn’t realize you were in here,” he said, hiding his surprise. “You left the window open.”

“Oh, I wasn’t aware. I’m sorry. Anyway, I’m off to the HFF reception.” She paused, then asked, “Would you like to come with?”

“Oh, uh—I have a few things to do in the office.” It was the first time she had ever invited him to anything.

“Are you sure? I hear there’s an open bar. Donor events are always the most flush.” She smiled conspiratorially.

Something was off, her lack of suspicion or irritation. He cleared his throat. “You should really keep the window of your office closed in the winter. It forces the heating system in the building to overcompensate, overheating everyone’s offices.”

She nodded. “That’s right. I’ll make sure to keep it shut next time.” As if to herself, she said, “I should write a reminder on a Post-it.”

“See that you do.” He slipped out into the hallway and back to his office. He closed the door and sat down at his desk, pivoting back to his laptop, the cursor blinking at him. None of the words he had just written made sense. From his window, he saw her leave out the front of Godspeed, her coat flapping behind her.

He got up and went to her office again. He looked around again, as if she might materialize out of nowhere. He opened the closet, which felt drafty and smelled like the outdoors. It took a moment before his eyes adjusted, and he recoiled at a blotch of black mold growing across the wall. His first instinct was to blame Marie for not having called building maintenance earlier to eradicate it. A breeze filled the closet. It took another moment before he realized it was not mold.

He approached the opening cautiously, ducking his head inside. He couldn’t see anything. Then, unable to stop himself, he rushed through the passageway. Inexplicably, he was outside. In a clearing somewhere. He made out the silhouette of a figure standing there smoking, their back toward him. Even though he could not see the face, he knew immediately: her hair, the same wool coat. Was that really her, though? Whom had he just seen leaving the building? He hastened toward her, hoping to take her by surprise. “But I just saw you leave!” he cried, triumphant and confused.

The figure seemed to startle. She turned around to look at him. The cigarette fell from her mouth, snuffing out as it hit the ground.

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