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It’s winter break, I should be home, but I prefer coming in to my office. We’re allowed to bring our dogs when students aren’t on campus, so with Dobbs here and the building otherwise empty, it’s like he and I are at home, anyway. But I’m not in my office just now. Dobbs is leashed and we’re walking down the stairwell that, if a stairwell can smell like art history, smells like art history. Past the vending machine. Outside. It’s scarf weather, but I’ve forgotten a scarf. We keep to my usual lunch-break walking loop: art department, athletic field, cluster of administrative buildings, riverfront, woods, then art department again. Two miles to the dot. Thirty minutes.
I walk Dobbs along the athletic field. It was here, last year, as Reesha and I were on our lunch walk, that a student was accidentally shot with an arrow during an archery class. He was out beyond the targets, stock still with an arrow sticking out of his thigh, his face cinched into a grimace.
Dobbs and I head through the courtyard between the administration buildings where Reesha works. There she is, ahead of us, heading toward the river. She walks a little slower without me, I notice. Her breath fogs. She’s wearing her mustard-colored scarf.
“Come on, Dobbs,” I say. “A sprint.”
Reesha hears us, turns, and puts away her phone. She flashes a smile. “Hey, Amy! Hey, Lou Dobbs! What are you doing on campus?”
I am not grading. I’m an assistant professor in the art department, teaching art history and art restoration and the grades were turned in last week. Reesha Swanson works in payroll. Her home is nearly paid off. She has a grown daughter, though she doesn’t look old enough to have a grown daughter. Her husband works in facilities management at the college across the river. His name is Paul and on weekends he works on his collection of topiary. It’s won prizes. I have never met Paul in all the years Reesha and I have been walking together. I have no children, no husband, just Dobbs and an apartment that eats half my paycheck and keeps nibbling.
I first noticed Reesha five years ago while on my lunch walks. She was a predictable, reoccurring comet amid the replaceable stars of students walking and skateboarding on campus. For a year or so we passed one another a few times a week with a friendly wave before finding a certain rhythm that brought us together in conversation.
I am in love with Reesha. Our lunch-break relationship is the longest run of intimacy I’ve had. Reesha hasn’t a clue how much she means to me, thanks to my restraint. Why ask for the impossible and suffer the loss of Reesha Swanson?
I pull Dobbs away from an elm he’s sniffed about long enough. About ten feet up, just before the first branch, a blue ribbon is tied around the trunk, without ornament. I’ve noticed these ribbons around lots of campus trees lately. “I hope these trees aren’t marked for cutting down. Do they look diseased?”
“They wouldn’t dare. I think it’s just a surveying class.”
We survey another beribboned elm ahead, then pines, and then sweet gums in the grassy hollow before the embankment that connects to the river walk. Some of the trees’ trunks are thick enough around to have needed two people to secure the ribbon. The blue ribbons look a little like sashes. Reesha is likely right—just an initiative to map all the trees on campus. Nothing to worry over.
We keep pace, despite the slope up the levee’s side. We aren’t here for the views. To look at us, we are simply two college employees burning calories. Reesha doesn’t get as much time off, while the only reason I’m on campus today is so I don’t miss my walk with Reesha.
Downstream, the bridge dips its feet in the water, which moves placidly around its black stone shins. Last year, Reesha and I were walking along the river here when a swimmer cramped up and drowned. Drifted downstream nearly a mile. Two years before that, there was an armed robbery at the cashier’s window in the building where Reesha works. I didn’t see the robbery, but I heard the getaway car’s nervous squeal. In my head, I picture the robbery as a Pollockian splatter, the drowning an amalgam of Turner’s treatment of water, the archery accident Sodoma’s Saint Sebastian—same wound, same expression. All these dark moments and I was there. Reesha was too, but has let them go. I need her endless positivity in my life like I need air.
“Paul’s sister doing any better?” I ask. Paul’s sister has lupus.
“I’m afraid not, but I’ll be sure to let him know you asked about her.”
It’s too bad about Paul’s sister, but I like how Reesha makes me feel like I am a part of her circle of close friends and family. Like I’ve met Paul’s sister, for one. Like I’ve hung out with them at backyard BBQs and birthday parties. That’s not how it really is, of course, but she has a generous spirit and I have no lack of imagination. I wonder if Reesha’s family thinks I’m a figment of her imagination.
Students are sculling on the river. No rest for the athletic. Reesha walks beside me, looking out across the water to the opposite shore where her husband works. The new library extension on the campus there gleams above the trees. Skateboarders pass us, their wheels hitting the seams of the walk with a sound like the clops of a horse at full speed. Dobbs wants to tear after them and pulls hard on the leash. After our walk, I’ll probably head home with Dobbs. The apartment needs cleaning. Dinner. Some TV. There’s another Reesha at home, one who is a figment of my imagination. She’s actually a body pillow leftover from shoulder surgery. There’s a dark T-shirt on the upper half and sweats on the lower. In bed, in the dark, it’s like Reesha is beside me. I spoon her from behind and sleep soundly, painlessly, my open palm gently cupping the full contour of the pillow. The T-shirt’s been dabbed with the same perfume Reesha sometimes uses: it’s light and slightly citrusy. I could go on, but you get the idea. We are all a little diseased, yet still standing.
Dobbs picks this stretch just before we head away from the river to do his business. I pull out a fresh bag and grab with what I’ve lately thought of as the shit-eating puppet. I turn the puppet inside out, tie it, and drop it off in the next trashcan. The trail exits back onto campus here, Dobbs straining on the leash as we head down the levee and into the copse of wood.
Sometimes, like now, Reesha and I don’t talk. Or we talk, but silently, in our own heads. I think about what Reesha said a few weeks ago, about how if something ever happened to Paul she’d give up on relationships and sex. Too much work; she wouldn’t want to start anything up again. It saddened me to hear her talk like this and even now I still haven’t shaken off this glimpse of her.
I think other things, too: about how this portion of the trail needs more lights this time of year, with dusk still coming on early. Two students at the college across the river were raped in places with bad lighting. I am someone with no shortage of dark worries: the impeachment trial, the news about new record-high global warming numbers, the spreading virus in China, and the poor student reviews I received. Also, how my car needs new brakes, and how Dobbs gnaws at a spot on his foot that means I’ll probably need to take him to the vet. All this and a dozen other things that feel like they’re in a queue to bankrupt me, injure me, and grind me into dust. Ordinarily, I think this. But when with Reesha, or with pillow-Reesha, I think only of her. Reesha attends church; doesn’t waste time following the news; knows what’s a fraud and doesn’t need to know more; and paints in her spare time in, of all things, Excel. Her spreadsheet paintings are a marvel: landscapes, flower bouquets and such, each spreadsheet cell a different color or gradient, the whole thing zoomed out until the colors look like paint dabs. I’ve tried to talk her into letting me put them into an exhibition in the college’s art department, but she won’t hear of it. I think it’s because she doesn’t want the college to know what she does during her downtime at work. I love her ridiculous infraction and her fear of being found out. I love those eyes, that hair. I love the way our steps fall into sync now and then, like the two of us could keep on marching, away from work and students to take on the world. She wouldn’t even have to put any effort into it; I would do everything.
Where the path passes the art department, Dobbs and I part from Reesha. Dobbs and I climb up the stairwell. Through my office window I’ll be able to see Reesha for another minute or so until she’s hidden by trees. But I don’t make it to the window at first. My office isn’t how I left it. My work bag is on the floor along with everything that was once in it—which is, thankfully, nothing of value. Dobbs sniffs through everything. My laptop is missing from my desk, I notice, but it’s the university’s and all my work is in the cloud. I’ve been robbed, but I don’t yet feel robbed.
Then I see that the thief has put a photo of me on my desk and squirted glue over it—no, not glue at all. Something worse from someone occupying a darker, even more unpleasant place than I do. I’m not sure whether I am meant to feel defiled, or perversely desired. I know I should feel threatened, but I don’t. I suppose I have to report what’s happened to the college police—at least the break-in and theft. First, though, I slide a manilla folder under the defaced photo of me—one from the art department website—and dump both into the trash.
I take several deep breaths, then walk to the window. This office break-in feels like a Hopper painting, but I force that association away; it’s still incomplete. I look down and see trees with blue ribbons, elms and pines and sweet gum, and for a long moment I marvel at the existence of these living things and wish the marveling could continue, grow stronger, be enough. I can see the top of the library at the other college, but not the river between us. I can see the hills beyond, but not the town at its feet. I can see everything that I want, and all that I can’t have. I have learned that this is simply what it means to be alive. The art is in leaving no trace of that wanting. I close the window and gather up my things.