That was the first word that leapt into my mind when he walked into our Aesthetic Literature class. I had to thank last semester’s 18th and 19th Century British Poets course for even knowing that word.
He did, in fact, look like a pirate. Not just because of his dark beard, but something about the way he moved, like a swagger, a strut. He was walking in late so that almost every head in the room turned to look at him, but he seemed totally unconcerned. He had a confidence about him, almost like he owned the lecture hall. He waved to the professor, way down at the bottom of the room, as if he knew her. Then he sat a few chairs down from me, his long legs stretched out in front of him under the desk which now looked ridiculously undersized. He didn’t have a notebook, a laptop, a backpack, or anything else that would indicate that he was a student. He just cocked his head and waited, listening.
The professor’s mouth dropped open a little. This was my second course with her and she had been generally unflappable, even through a minor earthquake, and when half-way through our third class of the semester some guy had stood up in the middle of her lecture and said, “This isn’t what I was expecting. Total horseshit!” and walked out. But the appearance of this corsair made her stop mid-sentence as she discussed The Marble Faun. “Hawthorne was [big pause]—sorry, I’ve lost my place,” and Dr. Rooney looked at the notes stacked on the podium in front of her for a moment, disconcerted.
I only realized that I was staring at him when he turned my way and looked me straight in the face. He had warm brown eyes and thick dark eyebrows, which he now cocked up in a question to me. It wasn’t like, what are you looking at? He seemed to ask, do you like what you see?
I whipped my head back in the direction of the professor and I heard him laugh softly. Who wouldn’t like what she saw? He was one of the most attractive guys I’d ever laid eyes on—not even the thick beard could disguise his strong jaw and high cheekbones. His lips. His straight nose, his olive skin. He was so big that he barely fit into the lecture hall chair.
I put my mind back on Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Marble Faun as the professor returned to her lecture. I had read it last night coming home on the bus through Oakland, my head dipping until it brushed the pages as I nodded off. Not my favorite book.
When the class was over, I pretended to take a long time putting the novel away so I wouldn’t have to walk past the corsair in his aisle seat. He stood slowly and stretched his arms behind him at an almost impossible angle, like his shoulders bent the wrong way. Then he casually loped down to the front of the room, where he stood talking to Dr. Rooney for a few moments.
There was only so long that I could pretend to put away my book and gear. Reluctantly, I swung my bag over my shoulder. I looked one last time before I left the room, and both he and the professor were laughing. It was hard to tell from so far away, but it looked like she was blushing. Blushing?
I hurried out to the street and down to the bus stop to catch the number six. Good, it was mostly empty. I got my favorite seat next to the window, right at the back door. Sixteen people.
The bus wobbled a little as it inched to the next stop and jerked to a halt. The doors scraped closed after three more passengers shuffled on. Nineteen. I evened out my breathing. I wondered about the corsair. I told myself that I was fine.
After a few more stops we were at twenty-five passengers. I could do this. I kept my eyes on the window as Telegraph Avenue moved past. Focus on the outside, focus on that bird, the sky, the guy selling bracelets on the corner.
Seven more. Thirty-two total. I shifted in my seat and fingered my earbuds. Today I was trying classical music, Vivaldi, but it wasn’t helping that much. The bus stopped at a red light and the man in the aisle leaned over, making my seatmate press into me.
That was it. I jumped up and yanked the cord, then pushed past the other riders to the exit. Some days were just like this. I would walk to catch the next bus. Sometimes the commute just took longer.
I was only a few minutes late to work.
“Hi, Maura,” Joana greeted me when she let me in the back door into the kitchen.
“Hey, Joana.” I glanced at the back staircase. “Is Benji home already?”
She handed me a tray. “About twenty minutes ago. Try to get him to drink the milk.”
I took the tray and walked up the steep staircase that servants in this house had used for more than a hundred years to move between the floors. His door was firmly closed and I tapped on it with my foot. “Benji? Open up, I have your snack.”
The door cracked open. “Maura, you know I hate it when you call me that.” His pale, pointy face peered up at me, frowning. I wasn’t hugely tall, but Benji was teeny for a 10-year-old.
I nudged open the door with the tray. “How was school, buddy? How did the math test go?”
He flopped down on his bed and sighed. “It was ridiculously easy. Pitifully simple.”
I winced. “I hope you didn’t mention that to the other kids.”
I tugged his foot. “I remember the email from the teacher saying that this chapter was going to be a challenging for everyone. Would you like it if someone went around saying that something was pitifully simple if you thought it was hard?”
“I didn’t go around saying it.” He dropped his voice. “Much.” I sighed. “But it wasn’t hard. The other kids are idiots.” Benji had put his pillow over his face and now his voice was muffled.
“I hope you didn’t mention that to them, either.” Now I pulled at the pillow. “Come eat your snack. Joana says you have to drink your milk, and then we’re going out to play.”
“I have to do my homework.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Liar.” Benji routinely finished his assignments before he got home, at the lunch table where he ate by himself, or on the bus where no one would sit next to him. That was the information I had teased out of him, and what his teachers had told me at his parent/teacher conference. He even finished all the supplemental work his math teacher devised to keep him from being bored, and read the books I forced on him to try to broaden his focus.
“I have to work ahead,” he countered now.
“Nope, we’re going outside to play. Eat up.”
I sat on the bed with him with the tray between us, forcing him to eat most of the peanut butter and crackers and drink the glass of milk. We split the orange, then I dragged him back downstairs, taking the wide, polished wood staircase this time that led to the front door. I grabbed the ball and forced him to tell me where he had hidden his shoes in an effort to avoid going outside, then we walked out into his neighborhood.
Unlike where I lived with Robin, the Dorsets’ street was wide and clean. Big trees lined the sidewalks in front of even bigger houses. Even the air smelled better.
“Soccer?” I suggested. Benji groaned. “We could always run around the track.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “We have to. You know it’s good for your asthma.”
“That’s paradoxical,” he informed me.
“It’s also correct, according to your doctor, who knows a lot more than you do.” He looked ready to object so I cut him off. “Soccer or running on the track?”
“Fine, soccer,” he sighed. “It’s really absurd that I have to have forced exercise time with my nanny.”
“It’s really absurd that you live in California and had a vitamin D deficiency from lack of exposure to the sun. Quit whining.”
He relaxed and even started to have a little fun as we got into playing. I invented an elaborate scenario about a big-league soccer game. It didn’t matter how many details I got wrong, since neither of us knew anything about sports anyway.
“Goaaaaal!” Benji yelled, after one of his weak little kicks dribbled in between the net-less posts. I looked around and saw two boys on bikes watching us from the red rubber track ringing the field.
“Ben! Benji, come here.” I motioned him over. “Why don’t you go ask those guys if they want to play with you?”
He glanced up as I motioned toward the two boys with a lift of my chin. “Why?” he asked me, puzzled.
“They probably live around here, and you could hang out after school or on weekends. Don’t you think it would be more fun to play with people your age instead of with an old lady?”
Benji shrugged. “No. You’re not that old, anyway. It’s your ball.” We watched as the boys rode away.
I bit my lip. I had been to seven different elementary schools when I was a kid. I had been a careful observer of everything I saw in each of them, and I knew what he had to do to make friends. I also understood, all too well, how it felt to be the outcast.
After about an hour of huffing around the field, we walked back home and I let him have a commensurate hour of screen time. God only knew what he did on his multiple devices when I left for the night, but while I was there I could limit him. While he played his favorite game, Blazer, I worked quickly on my own homework. I would need to work on the bus, too, so no more giving into any silly impulses to jump off and walk for a while. It wasn’t a good walk in the daytime, let alone in the dark.
Joana called us from downstairs that dinner was ready. This was absolutely the biggest perk about working for the Dorsets: Joana cooked every night, delicious dinners, and the five nights that I was there, I got to partake. She also let me have the leftovers, since no one in the house would eat them. Now Benji picked at his garlicky, Cuban chicken and rice and I ate with gusto.
“Eat,” Joana urged him, and our glances met over his head.
“I’m not hungry,” he told her. “It’s very good, though. Thank you, Joana.”
She patted his back. She had two grandsons, five and seven, who got Benji’s hand-me-downs. The seven-year-old was already too big to wear them, and the five-year-old was getting there. She was constantly trying to make Benji eat more so that he would grow. He played with the food on his plate for a while longer, ingested some of the rice, and announced that he was really, really full. I made him clear his dishes as I always did and I helped Joana clean up while he told us about his computer game. I understood about every fourth word. This was also how I felt when Robin and his grad school compatriots started arguing about political science—too much jargon.
After dinner Benji and I went back upstairs and played a ridiculously complicated card game that he had gotten from his uncle the prior Christmas. We spent most of the time arguing about the rules, which I really didn’t understand but Benji claimed to. After a while, I heard Joana call me from downstairs again.
“Maura! It’s getting on eight.”
I jumped up. “I have to go.”
Benji’s hand shot out and grabbed my arm. “Stay until we finish the game!”
“We’ll never finish this game, and I think you’re cheating anyway.” He grinned. “I’ll see you tomorrow, buddy. Really brush your teeth and floss, too! Remember what the dentist said last month.”
“Maura!” Joana urged, and I saw the headlights come up the driveway.
I bent and kissed Benji on the head. “Bye.” I hurried down the back stairs to the kitchen and out the door, waving at Joana, and went on my way back to my own home. The bus was almost empty except for some pretty weird guys at the back. They left me alone and I could read, but I kept the music off so I could hear them coming and I kept my little stun gun ready in my lap under the book. After I got off the bus, I stopped and did some errands, prolonging everything as much as I could.
“Maura!” Robin called immediately when I opened the door to our apartment. I put down the bags I was carrying and shook out my arms, which had begun to burn with the weight of our groceries. He came out of the bedroom and I averted my eyes. Oh, glory. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Ok, just give me a minute.”
“I’ve been ready all afternoon!”
Slowly, I took off my coat and hung it on the hook, my back to Robin in all his naked splendor. I was exhausted.
His arms came around me and his hands grabbed my breasts, kneading them, hard. I pressed my lips together. “Let’s go,” he breathed in my ear. I could smell he had been smoking.
“Just a minute,” I said. “I just have to run to the bathroom.”
He let me go and I carried the groceries into the kitchen, then hurried into the bathroom and closed the door behind me. I turned on the water and started to wash my hands, methodically and thoroughly, like a surgeon. Then I brushed my teeth, carefully polishing each one. I stared at myself in the mirror, at the dark circles under my eyes, my tangled hair from playing outside with Benji. I couldn’t put it off any more.
Robin was lying on the bed, rubbing himself with one fisted hand. He already had a condom on. With his other hand, he beckoned to me. “Come here. You look so hot.”
Slowly I took off my clothes and got into bed, and he rolled on top of me. I tried to stay focused, but my thoughts went to the corsair. I imagined what he would look like without his beard. Without his shirt, without his pants...
“Maura, that’s so good.” Robin’s groan broke into my thoughts. I made appreciative sounds and urged him to go faster. He licked the side of my face and I tried not to grimace. I let my mind go.
It never took that long anyway. “That was great,” he told me, rolling off. He got up and I heard him going through the groceries in the kitchen. After a minute he came back to bed and turned on his side, away from me.
“What did you do today?” I asked him.
I did know. Nothing. “Did you meet with your advisor?”
“That’s next week,” he told me, but I knew that he was lying. Last week it had been for this week.
There was no point in calling him on it, so I changed topics. “I’m worried about Benji,” I mentioned.
Robin didn’t answer. “I think he’s still having friend issues. Did you ever have problems with the other boys when you were his age?” He still didn’t say anything. “I keep feeling like it’s a sports thing. He needs some kind of hook to get them to want to know him, and sports could do it. The chess club and the ‘math warriors’ thing were both total fails. But Benji’s really a great kid. I wish they would give him a chance.” Silence. “Robin?”
“Hm,” he said, and it didn’t take too long before the sounds of his deep breaths filled the bedroom.
Very, very quietly I got up and went into the bathroom and showered for a long time. Then I put away the food I had bought, sat at our little kitchen table and went back to work.
“Thanks, everyone,” Dr. Rooney called. “I’ll see you next week.” She closed her laptop then glanced back up. “Oh, Maura? Maura Sutherland?”
I looked up, and felt my heart start thrumming. Half-heartedly, I raised my hand.
“Can you come down for a moment?” She beckoned to me.
The corsair was sitting three rows in front of me. He had been there when I had run in, a little late coming from the dance studio. Dr. Rooney had already begun the lecture. I had looked straight ahead and had taken an open seat near the end of a row, knowing that eyes were on me and embarrassed. But he hadn’t looked backwards, not for the whole hour and a half class, so I had minutely studied his head and his thick, dark hair. It wasn’t fully black, just very dark brown. And it was a little long, but I thought it had been carefully cut to look unkempt. It was too perfectly messy to be natural. I thought about running my hands through it and shook myself, literally. What was the matter with me?
“Maura?” Dr. Rooney was waiting.
I stepped carefully down to meet my professor. The room had cleared out, mostly. He was still there.
“Maura, you may have noticed that we have a new student. Iván.” She glanced up at the corsair, so I did too. He was smiling at us with perfectly white, straight teeth. “He’s getting a late start this semester.” I nodded. This was true—I’d never known that anyone would be allowed to jump into a class like he apparently was, well after the add/drop period was over. Dr. Rooney and I both managed to tear our gazes away from him. “I know last year you were doing some tutoring. Are you still looking for clients?”
I was always looking for money. “Sure. Yes.”
Dr. Rooney smiled too. “Great. You can help Iván catch up.” She leaned closer to me. “This is a special situation, and I appreciate your help.”
That made it sound like I was doing it for free. “I need to, um, I would still be able…the fee,” I finished lamely.
“Oh, he’ll be able to pay you!” she said in a low tone, and laughed a little. She raised her voice. “Iván, this is Maura Sutherland. She’s an excellent student and I highly recommend her as a tutor. I’ll leave you two to work it out.” She picked up her briefcase and hurried up the steps, leaving me alone with the corsair in the big lecture hall. I meant, leaving me with Iván.
He stood up, unfolding himself from the small chair, and came down to meet me. I was standing on the dais, but he was still much bigger. And when he put out his hand to shake, it dwarfed my fingers. I watched his hand wrapped together with mine and probably held it a bit too long.
“Iván Marrero,” he told me, rolling the Rs of his last name. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Maura.”
I could hear his lovely accent for the first time. He said my name like it had three syllables, Ma-u-ra, the R a soft sound. I liked it.
I nodded at him. “What do you need help with?”
“Can we go somewhere to discuss?” He was watching me, head tilted.
“No, sorry, right now I have to go to work. Do you want to just set up a time to meet?” He shrugged, then nodded. “Ok, the best time for me is the weekend. What about Saturday morning, nine? Eight? Or I can do earlier if you’re available.”
He laughed, throwing back his head. It startled me in the stillness. “Eight in the morning on a Saturday, or earlier? No, I’m not available. How about ten or eleven?”
“Ten is good.” I gave him the name of the library that had the best study spots. “Fourth floor. I’ll meet you at the elevator.” I saw the time on the clock on the wall. “I need to go. I’ll see you then.” I ran up the stairs and grabbed my bag, glancing only once over my shoulder. He was still looking up at me, and I caught my toe and almost fell on my face. Damn it!
I got to the bus stop just in time to see it pulling away from the green light at the corner. Damn it again! I put both straps of my bag over my shoulders and started jogging after the bus, holding my arms crossed over my chest so my breasts wouldn’t bounce.
This was the day that the bus made every green light. I watched it get farther and farther away from me. I rubbed my forehead. I was going to have to get a car or a cab to make it on time, now. I thought about my bank account balance and if I could—
“Hello.” A car stopped next to me, a big, shiny car. With the corsair at the driver’s seat. “I saw you…running.” He smiled. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
I hesitated, panting a little still, remembering all the lectures in my various elementary schools about getting into a car with a stranger. I worried my lip with my teeth.
Iván watched me. The car behind him honked but he ignored it. “I have nothing to do now, so it’s easy for me to drive,” he told me.
“Ok.” I could always jump out or nail him with the stun gun in my bag. “Thank you.” I got in and inhaled. The car smelled brand new. “Do you know your way around here?”
“Not very well, except I think the ocean is that way.” He pointed in the general direction of his right and laughed.
I looked at the fancy screen on the console of the car. “Does this have navigation?” When he nodded, I messed with it a bit, and punched in Benji’s address. The directions started in that disembodied voice and he finally pulled away. The driver of the car behind us looked to be having a stroke from his fury and I waved apologetically. “Thank you again for driving me. I was going to be late to work.”
“You’re going to tutor?”
“I tutor on the side, college students. Mostly I’m a nanny, and I also work at a dance studio a few hours a week.”
“Busy.” He braked hard for a red light and I stiffened my legs so I wouldn’t fall forward. He drove pretty fast.
I shrugged. “I only go to school part-time. I like being busy.”
“To each her own.” He nodded, as if satisfied. “To speak a language well, you have to have the sayings.”
A convertible pulled up next to us and the two women glanced over. “Iván?” the driver screeched. Iván waved. “Oh my God!” she said, and her companion in the passenger seat held up her phone.
Iván put up his window and pulled away quickly when the light turned green. I gripped the handle on the door as the tires squealed.
“Do you know them? Those women?” I asked.
He turned to look at me, surprised. “No, I don’t know them.” He hung a left turn directly in front of a truck, and the driver laid on the horn. I gasped and closed my eyes.
“Then how did they know your name?” I asked when I got my breath back. “She called you Iván, didn’t she?” With his looks, he probably knew thousands of women.
He shrugged, then executed a violent swerve around a car backing out of a driveway, slammed on the brakes to avoid a car coming toward us, and said something angrily under his breath. I was now holding onto the dashboard with my other hand to brace myself. “Are you nervous in cars?” he asked curiously.
“Not usually,” I said.
Iván laughed. “I can’t get used to the way people drive here! I’ll try to drive more like an American. Ready?” He slowed way, way down, until the car behind us was fully tailgating and someone honked. He ignored it blithely.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
He glanced over, an odd look on his face. “Spain.” He started to say something, stopped. “Are you from here?”
I nodded. “I grew up in southern California. Around the LA area.”
“You came up here for school?”
“My boyfriend is in a graduate program so I came with him.”
“Boyfriend?” he asked.
“We live together,” I said, and he shrugged.
What did that mean? I pointed at the imposing Victorian mansion that was Benji’s house. “That’s me. That’s where I work.”
Iván stopped in the middle of the street to let me out. A car heading toward us also stopped, unable to get around. The woman angrily honked and gestured. He didn’t appear to notice. “Maybe you should move over,” I suggested. I pointed to the curb, and he pulled the car well on top of it. I had never driven in Europe, but I had serious doubts that any of this was allowed there either. A man walking a dog on the sidewalk where we were now wedged gave us a dirty look and edged past between a tree and Iván’s giant car. “Um, we haven’t discussed my rate, for tutoring,” I said, unclenching the fists I had made in fear during the car ride, and stretching out my fingers. “I mean, for bringing you up to speed in Dr. Rooney’s class.”
Iván held up his hands. “It’s fine. I’ll pay you what you charge.”
“Uh, ok.” I wasn’t great with talking about money. I saw Benji’s school bus coming around the corner. We had gotten to his house much faster than when I took public transit. “Thank you for the ride.” I turned to look one more time at Iván. I would still think of him as a corsair, even now that I knew his name. He was just…something else.
“Goodbye, Maura.” He put up his hand and waved, and I shut the door.
The bus put out its stop sign and turned on the flashing lights and I walked down the street toward it. I hoped that Iván knew not to run into the bus. A few kids got out, then there was a pause, then Benji followed. He looked so sad, it looked like his head was down in defeat. Without thinking I picked up the pace to reach him. The stop sign retracted and the bus slowly pulled away. As it did, one of the boys who had gotten off before him turned and shoved Benji. He flew back, his arms pinwheeling, and he sat down, hard.
I started to run. “Hey!” I yelled. “Hey, you little shit!” The group of kids saw me and took off running in the other direction. I pounded up to where Benji still sat on the sidewalk, torn between pursuing the kids and beating them down hard, and picking him up and running home.
I stopped and squatted down. “Benji, you ok?” I reached for him, but he swatted my hands away. I could hear his labored breathing. “Do you have your inhaler? Get it out.”
“I’m fine,” he said, and I realized it wasn’t asthma, it was tears. I tried to help him again, but he got onto his knees and stood up. “Leave me alone!”
“Ok.” I stood up too. We walked slowly back toward the house together.
“The kids at my school are idiots,” Benji burst out, sniffing.
“Have you been having problems with that guy? Why did he do that?”
“Because they’re idiots!” he repeated. “All of them.”
I sighed. “Ok. Let’s see what Joana has to eat.” I pushed open the kitchen door.
“I’m not hungry.” He pounded up the stairs to his room, and Joana and I heard the door slam, hard.