The plane took one hard hop on the runway. Serge opened his eyes hoping when he looked out the window he’d see anything but Corpus Christi, Texas. The second he stepped outside of the terminal, thick air swarmed him like a million angry mosquitos finding the places he most hated to be sticky and damp – armpits, back of the neck, area between his underwear and thighs. The short walk to the rental car office was enough to cover him in a sandy, sweaty mixture making him feel like a snail engulfed in his own slime.
“Welcome to Corpus Christi,” a woman with tightly sprayed hair said holding the door open while he stepped into the blissfully air conditioned building.
“Pretty humid today,” he said.
“Yes sir,” the woman smiled. “Always is.”
At the car rental counter, a man with an Avis logo sewn above his pocket spoke in a calm, soft voice as he explained to Serge why the only vehicle available for rental was a white minivan.
“We had some issues with a large group who rented several cars for a jamboree,” the man said in a voice so soft Serge was forced to ask him to repeat the sentence twice. “A jamboree,” the man said, enunciating carefully without raising his voice. He had a moustache that would either not grow or was in the process of growing. Serge wondered why the van hadn’t been the perfect vehicle for a jamboree, but silently filled out the paperwork.
The minivan was parked at the curb just across from the airport proper. It was clean, except for a Lay’s potato chip bag wedged between the driver’s seat and the console. No sooner had he started the car, when the sight of the bag threw Serge into a blind rage. “God damn it,” he said, throwing the bag out the car window as he drove toward the city center. With the window open, the heat from outside stormed into the car like crusaders on a mission. Serge quickly closed the window and found the button for the air conditioner, but the cool force of air hit him right between the eyes and he punched at the vents.
Serge caught a glimpse of a startled woman in the car next to his. Had she seen him punch at the air? He smiled apologetically. It was Corpus Christi he was punching – the city with its gray sky, gray bay, gray faces making him feel like he needed to escape the confines of his own skin. Once the air conditioner cooled the car and he adjusted the vents away from his face, he calmed down.
Even though it was not the same branch of the community college he had attended, Serge found the place easily enough. He had enough time to walk around the air-conditioned building before his meeting began with the four men who would decide his fate for the next year.
Serge knew before each man shook his hand goodbye that he would be offered the job even though he already hated the job and Corpus Christi and, he predicted, he’d end up hating each of them soon enough. By the time his one year contract was up they’d hate him too and it would be time to move on. But he had a year to keep things right. No second-guessing why he was doing what he was doing.
“Dr. Segovia,” they’d said, one by one, shaking his hand with conviction and looking him in the eye with a solemnity that made him question his desire for the job all over again. “We look forward to seeing you in August.”
Serge pulled off his tie as he opened the door and walked toward the rented van. Every man in the interview had been white. It made him nervous to be the only person of color in a room like he was the Technicolor portion of a black and white film; something to be gaped at.
“Sir,” a man yelled from down the street. Serge stopped and caught a glimpse of himself in the van window before he looked toward the voice. With sunglasses on and his hair blown back and the salt and sand coating the window, he thought he might even look okay.
“Señor,” the voice said again. “Wash your windows? Ventanas sucias.”
“No,” Serge said and pointed at the old man for emphasis. “Fucking Corpus Christi,” he said under his breath. “No,” he said again, in the same voice he might use on a dog who was following him. “Go on now.”
He had four hours to kill before he had to be at the airport for his flight back to Chicago. He pulled the rear view mirror toward his face. Not too bad, he thought again. The new sunglasses he’d bought in Chicago made him look tough. At a party last week a woman told him he looked rugged and manly. “Like that big man in the movie,” she’d said. “The one who married Penelope Cruz. What’s-his-name?” Serge couldn’t remember his name either, but the sunglasses made him feel like that man.
As soon as Serge heard the click of the seat belt, he thought of Lila. Lila was a little more than three hours away from Corpus Christi. What if he drove from here to Austin to see her, then flew back to Chicago from there?
Before he could think about it too much, he had had the car rental agency on the phone. On the way out of Corpus, he called the airlines. No problem. That was the easy part. This whole thing was a gamble anyway. What if she didn’t pick up her phone even after seeing his name pop up on the screen? What did he think a slow move down the US map toward her would fix?
Serge headed out on 37 North. The few thin twigs that passed for coastal trees soon disappeared from the landscape altogether. Everything fails in Texas, Serge thought, even the scrub oaks.
He sped past an area where a few squat wooden houses formed a community without a name. This was where the cotton pickers lived; places that looked like his own childhood homes- a series of small highway stops where you accepted the furniture others left behind. By the time he was seven, his mother stopped putting up her own drapes.
“Get an education,” his father told him almost every day as he walked into the house and took the beer his mother offered him. Serge watched as his two older brothers tried to shortcut the system by selling drugs here and there. He saw his older sister move into a house a few fenced yards away from their house and begin having babies before she ever went to a prom. But when Serge graduated from high school, his two brothers and sister and several cousins chipped in and gave him three thousand dollars. Serge paid for two years of his community college education with half of the money.
At Del Mar Community College, one of his government professors helped him secure a full scholarship to Loyola University in Chicago. Serge loved Loyola and Chicago and being away from Texas. He’d told this story to the four white men today, except the part about being glad to be out of Texas. They liked being a part of his triumphant return to Del Mar.
Serge called his brother to tell him he was coming back to Corpus for a year. His brother went quiet. “Raul, you there?”
“Why you coming back, man? You don’t owe anybody anything. You understand?”
“It’s just for a year. I need to be in Texas for a year. That’s all.”
His brother took a long drag on a cigarette. Serge heard him spit. “Every loser I know says the same shit, man.”
Raul worked as a roofer after his brief stint in prison. His oldest brother, Augie, had been killed in a bar fight in the Valley when Serge was still at Loyola. After Serge hung up, he decided he would mail Raul a check for two hundred and fifty dollars when he got back to Chicago. He’d stopped sending money to his family after his parents died a few years back. He’d forgotten how good it felt to send money home.
After Serge completed his doctorate at Loyola, he moved in with an art history professor named Arden from Delaware. He always called her that - Arden from Delaware - even though she hated it. He couldn’t seem to picture her removed from her Delaware roots. Her parents, nice as they were to him, made him feel like they wiped down the seat where he had sat as soon as he left. Not because they didn’t like him, but because he might leave a stain. They looked at him like he was a Chia pet, about to sprout something they couldn’t name.
One night, after he drank too much, he told Arden from Delaware his suspicions about her family. She cried until she threw up. The next morning she packed her bags and moved in with her friend Kathy from Indianapolis. Whenever he saw Arden from Delaware around campus, she looked at him like he was a hunter with his scope fixed on her forehead.
But then there was Lila.
Every year Dr. Ball, the last remnant of the true Humanities discipline, held a formal faculty tea in honor of the end of term. Serge always attended, happy to see his colleagues in suit coats and ties and the women in dresses with heels and jewelry. This is how he’d imagined professors dressed before he actually worked with them every day.
Standing in line, holding a glass plate already filled with almonds and honey and grapes, Serge reached toward the cheese board at the same time a hand reached over from across the table. He looked into the deep brown eyes of Lila. He didn’t know she was Lila then. He just knew she was all shades of the best the world had to offer. Her hair was flipped at the ends and strands of auburn stood out from among the brown like flowers in an autumnal landscape. Her skin was tan and shimmered whenever the light hit her arm. She smiled at Serge and he felt his face redden.
“Sorry,” she said. “I should have looked before I grabbed.”
Later, after they began sleeping together, he asked her to repeat that same line over and over. They started dating the very night she was celebrating the new job that would take her away from Chicago and plop her down in the center of Texas. Still - it was six months before she was scheduled to leave and neither of them expected the instant attraction to stick around for the whole six months anyway.
But it did and for the next six months they saw each other daily. The moments they had were already marked by X’s on an invisible calendar somewhere behind them. In the days before she left for Austin, Serge invited her to his apartment for dinner.
“Thank you for this,” she shouted into the kitchen from his couch. “I have boxes everywhere. I can’t even use my bathroom without moving a pile of books or clothes or something. Can I spend the night pretty please?”
Serge turned to grab some carrots out of the refrigerator. He was making her favorite dinner, beef stew. Before he could grab the carrots, he saw the picture of them attached by a magnet to the front of his refrigerator. It was the only photograph in his home.
In the photograph, Lila wore a lobster bib. Serge’s hands were poised to look like crab claws. They were moving toward her neck. His fingers, frozen in the picture, were surely opening, then closing; crab-like. Lila looked into the camera, unaware of the mock danger to her neck. She had placed soda straws into both of her nostrils. It’s the kind of picture, Serge suddenly realized, you take when you are nearing the end. Pretend fun. Fun for a picture fun. A memory.
Serge chopped the end of one carrot. When he looked down, he noticed he’d cut the tip of his index finger. It was a pretty good slice too. Serge held his finger in the air, the way his mother taught him whenever one of them cut themselves in the field. He heard the ingredients in the cast iron pot slowly boiling. Serge held his finger over the pot and let several drops of blood fall into the stew.
“Incredible,” Lila said, running her finger across the bottom of the empty bowl to clean it. “This is the best meal you’ve ever made, Serge. And considering all the meals you’ve cooked for me that is saying something.”
Serge played with the bandage around his finger and thanked her.
The month before Lila left was marked by good-bye parties given by her many friends and colleagues. Serge hated these parties. He disliked her friends and resented her colleagues. He called her Chicago friends the Hipster’s 11 and her colleagues the Great White Snores.
“It’s just how it is,” Lila told Serge every time he pointed out how white the math department was. “We need to recruit more minority students into STEM programs.” Still, Serge felt like he was with Arden from Delaware whenever he walked into another 1930’s Craftsman style bungalow with original hardwood floors and was inevitably asked, “Is Serge short for Sergio?” His disdain, Lila told him now and then, was evident.
“It’s not disdain,” Serge said, knowing how apt a word that actually was. “I’m just not sure I belong in that world.”
“My world,” Lila reminded him. “These are my friends. My colleagues. Yours too, actually.”
He had just completed his annual evaluation with the Dean. The comments from the Dean were spare and clipped – “good attention to detail;” “diligent about attendance at departmental meetings.”
“These don’t sound like great attributes,” Serge had said to his dean. “Do you guys like me at all?”
“We want to,” the Dean said.
There was one final party scheduled for Lila on the night before she left for Austin. Serge liked the couple throwing the party. Russ taught chemistry at Loyola and his wife Sandra was a math teacher at a local high school. They lived in an old Victorian home filled with clutter: unopened mail in the bathroom, plants needing water lining the windows, and laundry waiting to be put away sitting in baskets by the fireplace like kindling ready for winter.
“Just move what you need to,” Russ said, pointing Serge in the direction of the couch. “I ordered pizza.” Russ was fat in an old-fashioned way - soft and round without a trace of hardness. Serge felt comfortable being treated to the messiness of their life.
Serge sat back on the couch and put one arm around Lila. She put a hand on his thigh. One by one the regular Lila crowd arrived. Between slices of pizza and glasses of wine and the overall sense of loss that Lila’s leaving was bringing on, the conversation soon grew heavy.
“Here,” Sandra said, always aware of how energy in a room was shifting. “I bought you a good-bye gift.”
“Shit,” Serge thought, moving his arm so Lila could bend forward to take the gift. He should have gotten her a good-bye gift too.
“Oh, Sandra,” Lila said, holding a book in her hand. “Are you kidding me? I’ve never even seen this edition before.”
“It was Russ who found it,” Sandra said. “I just thought of it.” Russ leaned over and kissed Lila’s forehead. Lila brushed away a tear and Serge wasn’t sure if it was for the gift or for the kiss.
“I was inspired by that book myself,” a man Serge thought was named Absalom said. “I mean, in it lies the true meaning of everything.” Serge tried to read the title, but it was too dark for him to see. He should know her favorite book anyway.
Most of the people around the circle nodded reverently at Absalom’s comment.
“I’ve been working on a theory about Melville by correlating Judas with Starbuck,” Lila said.
“Oh,” Russ said, surprising Serge with the shift in his tone – high pitched, like a delicate man. “Oh Lila. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“It freaks me out sometimes,” Lila went on. “I mean, think about it. If the ship is predestined, as the Parsee predicted, to end in disaster, then isn’t everything the people do on board a part of that destiny?”
Serge yawned, knowing then the book was Moby-Dick, and saw Lila give him a look. It wasn’t an angry look, it was a look of sorrow. He was tired, a little drunk, worried about losing her, and feeling angry that he still felt, after all his academic attainment - stupid.
“How can you ever know what something means?” Serge asked. “We academics, and I include myself, spend far too much time pondering and not doing.”
“Interesting,” Russ said, trying to save him. “At one point in Moby-Dick we get a glimpse of Ishmael as an older man. He is telling the story we are reading – this amazing adventure – for a few drinks in a bar. Ishmael, for God’s sake, was the sole survivor. And there he is, in a bar, doing what with his life?”
“How many of us have sailed the world, Russ?” Serge said, sounding snotty even to himself. “Seriously. It’s a book. It was meant to entertain. Did anyone ever consider that interpretation?”
The room got quiet. Sandra stood up and began to gather paper plates and napkins. “Well, this is why we can’t talk about Moby-Dick,” Lila laughed. But her laugh was rough, like the bottom of an old pool.
“Serge,” Absalom said. “Is that short for Sergio?”
Lila was quiet on the way home. “Are you mad at me?” Serge asked.
“I get it,” she said. “You were bored at the party. Everybody got it. I tried to draw you out by telling some stories about things you were interested in, but you actually shrugged after I told one. People got uncomfortable. They thought maybe we were having problems. Suddenly, I did too.”
“Is this because I hated Moby-Dick?” Serge asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Most people don’t even read it and that I can forgive, but to read it and actively hate it – I don’t know. There’s something there that bothers me.”
But once they got back to his apartment she reached for him in bed and they had sex. It didn’t feel like good-bye sex; it felt like routine sex flavored with wine and a hint of anger. But afterward Lila sat up in bed and leaned against the headboard, something she never did.
“I like Russ,” Lila said, out of the blue.
“Me too,” Serge yawned.
“I sat in on a class of his once when he had his students play a game of Jeopardy. One of the answers to a question was ‘mutually miscible.’ I asked Russ what it meant. He said it was when two solutions could completely dissolve into each other.”
“Like you into me,” Serge said, snuggling into Lila’s breasts, remembering the stew.
She sighed. “The first word is mutually.”
He was afraid to say anything; aware that this was an important moment.
“I let you into my life and all you’ve done is criticize it. It’s too white or too stuffy or too self-reverential. You tell me you think my friends are talking about you – about how you got here – about where you came from. They never have. No one has a problem with you but you. I’d be thrilled to dissolve into your world, Serge, but I don’t know it. You hide it. It’s your shame, not anyone else’s.”
Serge closed his eyes and began to breathe heavily. He was going to pretend to have fallen asleep – pretend he hadn’t heard anything Lila said.
“You won’t dissolve into me and I have nothing to dissolve into, Serge. We are not mutually miscible.”
The next morning he walked with her to her car. When she started to climb in, he kissed her. “See you in a couple of weeks,” he said.
“Is Serge short for Sergio?” Lila asked. When he didn’t answer she started the car. “My mother is from Chihuahua, Mexico. Not that you ever asked.”
Since then he hadn’t spoken to her at all. After a week passed, he texted her and nothing. Then he emailed and nothing. Then he called and nothing. So he decided to go to her – to Texas – to become a person who could dissolve and be dissolved. He would let her cook for him and he would taste her blood. He would tell her that his name was not short for anything. Serge - his mother had named him – thinking no one would ever mistake him for a Sergio – thinking that would sound like he could be anything.
Denise Tolan graduated from the Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University. She has been published in Reed, The Great American Literary Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing, Quirk, and Magna Publications. She was recently nominated for 2015’s Best of the Net Anthology.