“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” I said out loud as I looked at the calendar in front of me. I counted back the days from when it was supposed to arrive to now, to be sure I hadn’t gotten anything mixed up.
It was definitely late.
I put my head down on my desk, and groaned.
It was too soon for this type of responsibility, for this type of complete disruption. I was finally feeling settled in my new role, finally feeling at home in my new space, finally answering to my “new” name without hesitation.
That’s what the first year was supposed to be about.
The honeymoon phase.
And now, because a certain someone decided not to show up on time–maybe not at all, because it had already been days–I was flooded with enough stress to make my stomach hurt.
Ahhh, there she is.
I looked up from my desk, pen already poised to write down a big fat zero in my old-school grade book, to see Jaclyn Love standing in the doorway to my office, eyes wide. I knew exactly what the hastily put-together plastic binder in her hand meant, and as relieved as I was to not have to write down a zero, I was annoyed.
I was so, so annoyed.
“You know I can’t give you anything over a seventy on this, right?” I asked, motioning for her to come in, and bring me the overdue end-of-term paper.
She swept her locs over her shoulder as she stepped in, placing the assignment on the desk. “A seventy?” she whined. “What if… I brought a fat stack of coupons from The Dreamery,” she offered, her tone hopeful and bright.
I raised an eyebrow. “I know you aren’t trying to bribe me?”
“No,” she stepped back. “Just…hoping for a little extra credit?”
The Dreamery was pretty damn delicious–and pretty damn expensive. But it was the best ice cream for a hundred miles, maybe more. Depending on the coupons’ value, perhaps I could…
I had to stay focused, and professional. “This is your final assignment Jaclyn, and you’re turning it in days late. What’s going on?”
With a heavy sigh, she plopped into the chair across from me. “It’s been a crazy busy few weeks–I got some days mixed up, between keeping the shop running and personal shit… it’s been rough, Reesie!”
My brows drifted higher.
“Sorry! I mean, Professor Wright. My bad.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told her, shaking my head. Jaclyn was twenty-four - just six years younger than me–a grown woman. Her non-traditional status was a soft spot for me, because I knew what it was like trying to navigate an adult life while still finding time for school. Mostly, Jaclyn had done well. She had one of the highest grades in my class… well, would’ve had one of the highest grades in my class, if it weren’t for this late ass paper.
“If it’s perfect… maybe a seventy-five,” I told her, hating myself for being such a pushover. She really was a hard worker though, and a great writer with a ton of interesting life experiences to pull from.
That was my second weakness when it came to Jaclyn Love.
She was a reformed troublemaker, who had seen a lot and done a lot - an identity I related to closely.
“I’m glad you’re accepting it at all,” she gushed. “I know I complained about the seventy, but I’ll take whatever you give me. I can’t afford a zero.”
I chuckled. “It won't be a zero,” I assured, with confidence. It would have to be really, really bad for me to rank it so low, and I didn’t believe Jaclyn could write something I’d classify there.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. I… am going to get out of here before you change your mind,” she said, pulling herself up from the chair and easing toward the door. “I’ll see you later!”
“See me with those coupons!” I called after her, and her laughter echoed down the empty hall.
“I’ve got you, cuzzo!”
And there it was.
The completed trifecta.
Why, even though I knew better, I was going to find those seventy-five points for Jaclyn Love.
Because she was a reformed wild child, because she was running a business while attending school full time, and because… she was family. Her father may have given her “Love” as a surname, but that girl and her sisters were Wrights, which meant I would look out for her where I could… as much as proper ethics allowed.
This was only my first year on the BSU staff in my official capacity as a professor, and having her in my class at all was already pushing it. If anyone asked, I could point to her past performance as a justification for allowing her to turn in the late assignment.
Honestly, defending that was preferable to the alternative of having to fail a student my first year.
I was not ready for that.
With Jaclyn’s paper in my possession, I considered myself done for the year–at least with anything that required my presence on campus. BSU was already deep into its annual impression of a ghost town, the usually populated schoolyards and sidewalks empty, save for a few stragglers like Jac and me. Finals were done, bags were packed, and everyone was off to spend the holidays with their families getting on their nerves or vice versa.
The most wonderful time of the year.
I packed up my bag and headed out, locking my office.
That title felt amazing after working so hard, for so long, to make this all come true. Sure, creative writing wasn’t exactly the most rigorous course for any of my students, but I’d already seen enough to feel pretty damn good. I’d brought out talent–and more importantly, interest–in more than one surly student, only in my lecture hall because they had to choose something to get some easy credit hours.
They were mistaken that my class would be easy, but at least now… they didn’t mind.
I was humming to myself as I made my way from the building, and down to the faculty parking lot. My bag got tossed into the passenger seat, and then I buckled in and turned my radio up, harmonizing horribly with Destiny’s Child as they sang the Carol of the Bells.
I winced as I pulled into traffic and my stomach lurched, reminding me I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, even though it was damn near time for dinner. I’d been so busy that it hadn’t even been on my mind, but now hunger gnawed at me. I took inventory of both sides of the street as I drove, waiting for one of the fast food options to tug my senses. When none did, I easily blamed it on my recent efforts to lose weight–on my mother, Imara’s, annoyingly effective brainwashing.
I couldn’t even have a damn burger in peace thanks to her.
There was plenty of rumbling in my stomach and muttering under my breath as I pulled into the parking lot of Toss Up, a favorite spot for salads and shit, but a poor substitute for its sister restaurant Batter Up – where they drowned damn near any good thing you could imagine in waffle batter.
Now, I grudgingly dragged my ass into Toss Up for a salad, knowing the temporary desire for something I could dunk in syrup wasn’t more important than my goal.
My husband loves the extra fat on this ass, I grumbled to nobody but myself as I joined the line of people waiting on their bowls of grass. I breathed in deep, hoping to catch a whiff of the grilled chicken I would pick off my salad to eat first.
The best part.
They offered it done in different flavors, spicy garlic, jerk seasoned, parmesan, among others, and goddamn it was good. Almost good enough to make eating a salad instead of a juicy burger and fries seem worth it.
Smells were free and zero calories, so I took another deep inhale.
And immediately grabbed my stomach.
What the hell?
A smell that usually filled me with good feelings made me sick and light-headed all of a sudden. I pressed my lips together, trying to swallow sudden nausea, but being immersed in that aroma only seemed to make it worse. I turned on my heels, breaking out of line to get to the bathroom, barely making it there before this morning’s breakfast made its debut.
Ugh, I groaned, sinking to the floor of my stall. Thank God Toss Up kept it clean it here, but still… the bathroom floor wasn’t exactly the place to take a rest.
Or maybe it was, since I couldn’t seem to get my ass up, or stop vomiting long enough to even really try. It took several long minutes, but I finally seemed to empty my stomach enough to actually feel some relief. I drug myself up from the ground, flushing the toilet and heading straight for the sink. After scrubbing my hands, I spent several moments gathering water from the faucet to rinse the acrid taste from my mouth.
Then, I allowed myself to process what had just happened.
No longer concerned about the salad, I dried my face and hands and headed straight out. I climbed into my car with only one destination in mind.