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26

 

Affenlight, who was keeping watch through the kitchen window as he mopped up the wet red mess he’d made of the tomatoes, saw Genevieve and Owen emerge from Phumber Hall and, hand in hand like the most comfortable of couples, make their way across the foreshortened strip of spring-damp lawn that separated Phumber from Scull. The sight sent a misguided pang of jealousy through him, not unlike the one he’d suffered when he found out that Henry Skrimshander was Owen’s roommate. Imagine that: jealous of the boy’s mother, for holding his hand. He checked his tie and his cuffs in the hallway mirror and headed downstairs ahead of the bell.

Genevieve released Owen’s hand and squeezed both of Affenlight’s, planted kisses on both his cheeks. “Guert! Can you believe it?”

“Barely,” Affenlight said.

“On one hand I think, Darling, why do you have to go to Japan? Is it really necessary to abandon your poor mother entirely? But I’m so proud. And really, Tokyo’s not much farther from San Jose than Westish is.”

“And warmer,” Affenlight agreed. “Much more pleasant to visit.”

“Oh, don’t be modest,” Genevieve said. “Your campus is so quaint, so… nineteenth century. I’m embarrassed that it took O landing in the hospital, of all things, to finally get me to visit.” She ran her hand through her hair, which was cut so short it should have been butch but instead looked sleekly feminine. She was wearing the same navy skirt and white blouse as this morning, but a few subtle changes—a jangle of silver bracelets, an undone blouse button—had altered their impression entirely. She fixed Affenlight with a look: “I’ll have to come back when I can stay longer.”

“Parents are always welcome,” Affenlight said cautiously. He extended his hand to Owen, felt an electric thrill as their palms clapped together. “Congratulations, young man. You’re the first Westish student to win a Trowell.”

Owen smiled with the good side of his mouth. “Well, the Trowells have only been handing them out since eighty-two,” he said with laconic pride. The handshake lasted.

Upstairs, Affenlight opened a bottle of wine, showed Genevieve to the bathroom, and encouraged Owen to take off his shoes and put his feet up on the ottoman. “Please,” he said. “Don’t stand on ceremony here.” Affenlight tucked a pillow behind Owen’s head, on the back of which stood a massive, bandage-covered lump. He heard again the ugly thud of that beautiful head slamming against the cement back of the dugout. “How are you feeling?”

Owen nodded gingerly. “I’ve felt worse.”

“When?”

“Well, never. But I could imagine feeling worse.” A fuchsin semicircle rimmed his eye socket; the swelling spread all the way down to the blood-stiffened corner of his lip, so that his words emerged slowly, slightly thickened, from one side of his mouth. “I get dizzy,” he said. “I’ve been having some trouble remembering things. Hard to tell if it’s the concussion or the drugs.” He paused. “And I hear these awful toneless ringing sounds.”

The Westish Chapel bells were tolling eight o’clock. “Every hour?” Affenlight said.

“Just about.” Owen laid his hands on the gentle swell of his belly and closed his eyes. “I did feel worse once, I suppose. When Jason broke up with me.”

Jason. The name broke over Affenlight like a wave. “Jason?” he asked.

“Jason Gomes. Do you remember him?”

It took Affenlight a moment to place the name. “Ah, yes. Jason was one of our best students.”

Owen nodded. “And your best-looking.”

“I don’t remember that part.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do,” Owen said coyly. “He was much better-looking than I am. He might even have been better-looking than you.” Owen scratched his chin, his tone evaluative and probably slightly teasing. Affenlight blanched. If Owen thought Jason was slightly better-looking than Affenlight but much better-looking than Owen, then Owen thought that Affenlight was better-looking than Owen. Which was a compliment. But to be compared unfavorably to an ex-boyfriend: that was a slight. But the conditional had been used: might even have been. It was like an SAT for gay flirting. Not that gay flirting differed from straight flirting. But if it didn’t differ, why was Affenlight so bad at it? Genevieve had returned and was perusing Affenlight’s bookshelves, her back turned, sipping her wine.

“It hurt that much?” Affenlight asked quietly, meaning the breakup.

“I was so distressed I refused to eat. Henry had to force-feed me.” Owen opened his eyes and looked at Affenlight. “I don’t like getting my heart broken.”

Before Affenlight could digest this, Genevieve arranged herself beside him on the couch, crossing those dynamite legs in his direction. “Guert, this is quite a place.”

“Do you like it?”

She looked around, her chin lifted thoughtfully. “I do,” she decided. “But it’s certainly very…”

“Academic?” Affenlight suggested.

“I was going to say undergraduate. Or masculine. But I suppose your daughter can help with the latter, at least. Where is she, by the way?”

“She went out to forage for some snacks for us.”

“She’d better not be going to any trouble.” Genevieve waggled a finger at Affenlight. “The whole point of this evening was for me to thank you for taking such good care of Owen.”

“Nonsense. You two are the guests of honor. You’ve traveled all this way, and Owen has done Westish proud. News of the Trowell goes out worldwide—it’s the sort of thing that makes a school president look good.”

“The school president looks pretty good already.” Genevieve smiled. Affenlight smiled back. Was he straight flirting? The legs seemed to demand it. Or maybe it wasn’t the legs but the fact that he had no other way to relate to women. What could you do if you couldn’t flirt, charm, and flatter? You could keep the conversation lofty and erudite, but in Affenlight’s experience this was usually perceived as flirting too. Luckily Owen seemed to have dozed off. Though maybe he was just pretending.

For a split second Affenlight thought that Genevieve’s hand was tickling his thigh; despite himself he flinched, kicking the coffee table and sloshing wine out of his glass. It turned out to be his cell phone buzzing in his pocket. Genevieve, by way of response, patted him on the thigh. “Easy,” she said, plucking at the crease in his light-wool slacks. “You okay?”

“Ha-ha. Yes, of course. Sorry about that,” Affenlight said. “My phone.” He slipped the infernal device partway from his pocket and checked the caller ID. A 415 area code—Pella, he thought, but Pella had left her phone in San Francisco. David, then, returned from wherever he’d been, returned to find his wife’s phone on the kitchen table, the call log stuffed with his own unrequited calls. Bewildered now; apoplectic soon enough. Affenlight let it ring.

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