I told her there’s nothing wrong with night-teaching at a community college. My mother worried I was becoming some kind of pedagogical vampire. I tried to tell her when the sun sets the good students rise. During the day they work as secretaries and computer programmers and then limp their way through my classes with heavy lids and weary minds. They are older and know their priorities. And they pay for their own credits, so they have an incentive. They care.
After class sometimes my students and I will go out drinking. Weekdays the Rusty Oar on Old Mayne Road has two dollar drafts. Wednesdays, drafts are a buck: “Hump Day Special” they call it. I don’t know why the Rusty Oar is named the Rusty Oar: there isn’t a drop of water around here larger than a puddle or a backyard koi pond, and oars aren’t made of metal anyway.
Every semester I end up fucking one of my students, sometimes two if I’m lucky. If the beautiful ones are taken or disinterested I move onto the second tier. If the second tier is taken I move onto the third tier, and so on. My selection process begins and ends with a simple question: do you have children? The answer is usually, “Me? Children? I’m not even married. I have a boyfriend, but...I’m only...” Fill in the blank. My target pool? The women who can clearly answer this question in such a way as to indicate they are not involved with anyone at all. Otherwise it gets too messy. By the roster I mark an X next to each woman who is taken, and I draw a smiley face next to the open possibilities, the fresh meat. I’m always surprised by how many female community college students are attractive. When I began, I assumed beauty and brains go together. Now I know better. I don’t think I let it affect my grading system, but I have to admit my female students usually do receive A’s.
On the first day of the spring semester one year, I glanced up from the lectern to see Nikki Levering sitting pert, brunette, and nose-ringed front and center. She criss-crossed her legs and plucked her multiple ear piercings. I knew right then. By the second week six or seven of us were downing drafts at The Rusty Oar regularly and I was nudging Nikki and flirting and buying her margaritas on the sly. By week four Nikki was giving me blowjobs in the backseat of her Dodge Viper. By week six I was eating fried egg sandwiches in her apartment for breakfast, wrapping myself in her stolen plush maroon Hyatt bathrobe.
Then I found out that Nikki had a baby. Not only had I failed to ask Nikki my most basic question, but having already fucked her, it was too late to do the basic screening.
I squeezed my fist into a knot. “What do you mean kid? Where has the baby been all these weeks?” I hadn’t seen any baby paraphernalia, any baby pictures, but Nikki explained that all the rattles and booties are with the baby. I thought this begged some explanation.
“The baby’s father gets the baby every other day. Since my husband Sean lives two blocks away the judge thought—”
“Husband. What husband?” I said. “What husband? Did you say husband?”
“Yeah, and ever since the separation the baby’s our little hot potato. It’s not a problem is it?”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “Not at all. No. What the hell? You lied to me.”
“Like I said, we’re separated.”
But when I opened the front door to Nikki’s apartment the next week, the baby was squalling in his living room crib, face red, arms smashing the mattress, feet treading invisible water. We were tipsy already, and we had eaten some great fajitas that night. I dropped the six-pack on the floor and covered my ears. In my life I had never heard such a piercing cry: like a car alarm, but five times worse.
“Aren’t you going to do anything here?” I asked. “What is its problem?”
“He. Not ‘it.’ He’s okay,” she said. “If he shat his pants it ain’t going nowhere, is it?” She had a nice smile. Dimples. Love those.
“Maybe it’s hungry. Did you leave him here during class?”
“Yeah,” she said. “But it’s fine. He can’t go anywhere on his own, can he?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I guess she was technically right. Then Nikki picked up the baby. For a mere moment the baby hushed and I lifted my hands from my ears. But then Nikki placed he baby on the kitchen floor, where it started rocking back and forth on his back like a beetle.
“Why don’t we go have some fun?” Nikki said, lowering her head and pointing to the bedroom. She zapped the TV on and turned the volume up full-blast. Then she closed the door. The sex was usually good, I suppose, but this time the screaming baby and blasting the infomercial about the ultimate wet-dry vac took something away from the mood.
“Can’t you do anything about the crying?” I asked as I entered her.
“No,” she said. “He’s always like that when I have a guy over. He’s showing he disapproves or something. I bet the little sucker will grow up to be the lead singer for some heavy metal group.”
In thirty seconds I wilted.
“Shut that thing up Nikki,” I said. “Or I will.”
“Will you now?” she said, pushing me off her.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What are you going to do, lecture to him about the Spanish-American war? What, you going to bore him to death with the Alamo?”
When I stomped out to the kitchen the baby was crying so hard I thought he might burst into a thousand pieces right there on the linoleum. I scooped the sucker up and held him to my breast, as if I could nurse him. I expected the baby to keep screeching and perhaps upchuck on my polo shirt. Instead, he actually stopped crying almost immediately and then he looked up at me. The baby’s skin was as red as a clown’s nose, and he smelled like diarrhea, but the moment I picked him up something happened. There I was, a forty one year old history professor holding a baby boy in my twenty-something student’s house. It was odd and pathetic at the same time, and somehow human. I hadn’t felt that way in years.
Naked and limp I turned off the television and carried the baby through the doorway to his mother. The dark bedroom was cool and pleasant and for a moment I imagined we were in some dank primordial cave from some early tribe of humans. I held the little guy tighter and sat on the bed next to Nikki. With the baby cooing and gurgling, I let Nikki do her thing, and she did it, and did it well. I had to look away.
By the end of the semester Nikki had dropped the course. She stopped attending class, didn’t answer her phone. That summer she called me out of the blue and told me that her husband came back and that her baby was crawling and could almost stand. She also told me this was it: she wouldn’t talk to me again. She just wanted to let me know what happened to her. Sorry, but I was a mistake. Her husband was in the other room, she whispered.
“I have to go.”
“I have something to ask you,” I said.
“Yeah? Make it quick.”
“Does the baby still scream?” I asked. The pause was heavy, pregnant.
“Hardly at all anymore,” Nikki said. “I guess we’re lucky that way.” Then she hung up on me.