A/N This is a small, quiet story, focused on two people and their struggle to trust each other and to trust themselves. Call it a rom-spy-dramedy (heavier on the drama than the comedy-although the whole thing is a comedy in the classical sense.) It will be 9 chapters long.
I have reimagined Chuck and Sarah here. They are near their mid-thirties when they meet the first time. Their histories are different. This is true of the other characters too.
If you want lots of shoot 'em-up, long car chases or endless masochistic angst, you will not find it here. We can part company now with no hard feelings. This isn't all fluff by any means (there are a few dark, angsty moments) but mostly there's a lot of talk around a number of important flashbacks.
Thanks to michaelfmx for careful beta work on the chapter.
Except for this chapter (a prelude), the other Chapters of the story subdivide the four days (Friday-Monday) of the 2017 Labor Day weekend.
"'But if you are certain, isn't it that you are shutting your eyes in the face of doubt?'—They are shut." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
"Since mistrust believes nothing at all, it does just the opposite of what love does…What then is the deep secret of mistrust? It is a misuse of knowledge…Love is the very opposite of mistrust, and yet is initiated in the same knowledge…[L]ove knows better than anyone else everything that mistrust knows, and yet without being mistrustful; loves knows what experience knows, but it also knows that what men call experience is really a mixture of mistrust and love." Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love
"There are two kinds of light—the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures." James Thurber, Lanterns and Lances
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
The middle of the second full week of classes, Fall Term
Boca Raton, Florida
Main Campus, Commonwealth College
CHAPTER 1 Bell The Cat
Sarah Walker finished preparing the last of the exercises for the Italian class she was to teach in ten minutes. She was annoyed with herself. She normally had all the exercises prepped days before class and was able to review them ahead of time, making sure she had notes about how each exercise tied back to the lectures. But her normal, carefully kept schedule had unwound on her: she was having a difficult time keeping her mind focused. Her mind wandered any time she allowed it to idle—on her morning run, drinking her coffee, trying to read, etc., etc.
'Wandered': that was not the right word, not really. That implied that her mind was aimless, drifting. No, the truth was that her mind was traveling in an all-too-straight line, a line right to that disturbing computer science professor and his smile, his looks, and his touch.
She took a deep breath and blew it out hard. She grabbed a dry erase marker and double-checked her bag. Her textbook was there and a stack of marked quizzes from the day before. She slung her bag on her shoulder and headed out across the quad. Her class would take up the next seventy minutes. That was good. It would be seventy minutes during which her mind would not…wander.
As she walked into class and felt the familiar stares of the male students, and the (often) unfriendly glares of her female ones, she reflected as she often did on the cost of beauty. Yes, she was beautiful. She knew that. She was also entering her mid-thirties. Her beauty was an advantage, even in classes. It made it easy to get the attention of the students—male or female, students noticed beauty. But it was too often the wrong kind of attention. The males ogled her; the females shot her eyes-narrowed, sidelong glances. So, her beauty was also a disadvantage.
At least at thirty-four, her students were no longer as likely to hit on her or to hang around with love-struck looks. She was glad of that. Teaching was hard enough without all those…extra layers of complication. Besides, the way those extra layers complicated things, they also were a constant reminder to Sarah that she was alone. During her stronger moments, she told herself that she wanted to be alone. She had chosen to be alone and she would keep her resolve. But during weaker moments, she had to admit that the cost of her choice, and the keeping of it, was increasing weekly.
As her class ended, two of her students, Robert and Cheryl, got up and joined hands as they left the room. They'd found each other in a previous class in the Spring and Sarah had watched as Cheryl worked, with great care and caution, but also with great determination, to bring herself to Robert's notice. He was red-headed and handsome in an easy-going, genial way, and quite bright. He had, without knowing it, captured Cheryl's attention on the first day, when he took her side in a classroom discussion about the inherent value of learning a foreign language. Robert had agreed with Cheryl, argued in favor of her point, and credited her for her insight.
Leading the discussion, Sarah had been able to see Cheryl's face move from surprise, to delight, to respect. Cheryl had watched Robert put on his backpack and leave before she got up to leave herself. She stood and looked at Sarah. She realized that Sarah had witnessed her entire reaction to Robert and she smiled shyly. Sarah smiled back conspiratorially. Cheryl stepped lightly out of the classroom. Cheryl was tall and thin and attractive, more attractive as you got to know her, and especially when her intelligence animated her face. Sarah thought she had a fighting chance with Robert, despite his obvious popularity with the other young women in the class. Robert was no fool. If he could appreciate Cheryl's mind—and he obviously could—he might be worth her interest.
He had been. They had found each other officially around Spring mid-semester, during long study sessions that neither had used to much effect, given their shaky midterm scores. But they were both unshakably happy and it showed on their faces. They'd been completely wrapped up in each other for months now. As they left class holding hands, Sarah looked at their hands and immediately felt the emptiness of hers, despite the handful of papers in one and the straps of her bag in the other. She envied the way each had a handful of the other, of the other's hand. She envied them their whole romance.
She left the classroom and walked over to the Union. The Florida humidity made her wilt. She had never gotten used to it, not even after living there for a year. She was a desert girl, raised in Nevada, and the Florida heat on its own would have been no problem for her. But it was not just hot. Living there was like being wrapped in a wool blanket soaked in nearly boiling water. Stifling, oppressive—and itchy and slimy all at once. She was deeply glad to step out of the sunlit quad into the shadowy, chilly air-conditioning of the Union student lounge.
She wanted to get a cold bottle of water and sit down at a table. She had a new book she was reading. She was looking forward to getting back to it. It was Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading. She wanted to keep her mind occupied. She was also trying to write a book herself and had found that a little reading each day helped clear her mind to write. The Pound book was good for that purpose, pugnacious and personal, and provocative. It was a good book to read in snippets.
She got out the salad she had packed for lunch. She had cooled down enough to eat. She read as she ate. Between bites, her eyes scanned the Union, not so much for anyone in particular but out of habit, taking note of the number of people around her, their position relative to her and relative to each other, taking note of the exits and vantage points, taking note, taking note, taking note. That old habit was hard to break. She had tried but not taking note made her anxious.
She couldn't break the habit, but she had nearly gotten rid of the low-grade fear that had been the baseline of her life for so many years. Most days, she did not feel that fear anymore, she just felt numb. That was not obviously an improvement. It was in one way because the fear was exhausting. The numbness was not exhausting. It was just there.
The numbness was like a rock so big that her path came to seem impassible. The numbness just made her want to sit down and down and down. And never get up.
She had begun to think that low-grade fear or numbness were her only two choices when she ran into the newest computer science hire. He didn't cause low-grade fear and he certainly did not cause numbness. Mostly, he pissed her off. She wasn't sure why.
No, she was sure why if she was honest with herself. He had been very pleasant, very polite. He had looked at her in a way that affected her. He had touched her and it had affected her. He made her like him. And that pissed her off. It pissed her off. It sure pissed her off.
She finished her salad, spearing the final bite of tomato with visible violence.
"Damn, I know it's hard to believe that it's a fruit, but what did that tomato ever do to you? It can't be that it's red."
Sarah looked up from her speared tomato and into the skeptical eyes of Carina, her best friend at Commonwealth. Carina was a tall woman, willowy and redheaded. She taught modernist novels in the English department. She specialized in James Joyce. (She had recommended the Pound book Sarah was reading.) Carina was a free spirit, but prone to wild ups-and-downs. She was always at a party, it seemed, even when by herself, but it was hard to predict if the party was a wake or a luau. Sarah had often thought it fitting that such a woman would spend her time writing on Finnegans Wake—a book that, despite its title, was somehow simultaneously a wake and a luau.
Carina folded herself in half and sat down. She had wide-set blue eyes and a spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose and over her cheekbones. She smiled her usual high-wattage smile. "So, what's got you in a mood, other than the heat?" Carina was a lifelong Floridian and seemed to Sarah to have a little reptile mixed into her biological heritage. She wasn't cold-blooded, but she didn't seem quite warm-blooded either. Whatever the explanation, Carina rarely seemed bothered by the heat. In fact, she was often in her backyard, reclined in a plastic chaise lounge, sunbathing while reading the latest articles on Joyce. The sunbathing never seemed to affect her mood swings—just as they never seemed to result in her getting tanned. This all added to the reptilian hypothesis for Sarah, but she never spoke of any of it to Carina. She liked Carina, a lot, probably because she was challenging. Judging by the beginning of the conversation, this was a luau day for Carina. That seemed fair enough since it had been more of a wake day, a wake few days, for Sarah.
"I don't know. I'm just out of sorts. Nothing has seemed right to me since the new faculty party. I've been…off…since then."
"Yes, you have been off—because you want someone on, as in on top of you. That new guy: what's his name? I can't seem to…recall it…"
"Charles-Chuck," Sarah offered, knowing that Carina would hold out that 'recall it' for as long as necessary to get Sarah to name the name that Carina knew full well.
Carina cut off the 'recall it' abruptly. "Oh, yes, that's right, Charles. Chuck. He's kind of a big deal, isn't he?
"Well, he was." Sarah looked up, engaging her remarkable memory. "A wunderkind. Went to Stanford before he finished high school. Got his computer engineering degree in a couple of years. Graduate school—still at Stanford. International medals. Got his Ph.D. at 22. Hired by Stanford as a faculty member. Tenured at an age when many are still in grad school.
"But then his wheels came off for some reason. No new research or publications. Started not showing up to teach classes. Got more and more erratic. Ended up a liability. Stanford basically forced him to move. No similar school would touch him. Somehow, he ended up here at Commonwealth. I guess they figure the risk is worth it, since he's now the most famous—and infamous—faculty member at our school."
"Good to know you know nothing about him."
"I hear things."
"Did he tell you any of that at the new faculty party?"
"How'd you know I talked to him there?"
"I didn't until you just told me, blondie."
Sarah frowned. She hated being called that and only allowed Carina to get away with it once in a while. No one else could get away with it, ever. For a professor of foreign languages, and a beautiful one, Sarah seemed to intimidate those who spent much time around her—physically intimidate them, not just intellectually. She was tall and gracefully figured, and there was nothing about her that struck the eye as dangerous. But there was something about the way she carried herself, something about the way she moved, like she was a thinly veiled threat. She seemed coiled by habit, ready to strike at all times. Most of the people around her would not have been able to put it quite into words, but they all felt it.
All, except for Carina. She seemed as untouched by Sarah's unintentional intimidation as she was untouched by the Florida heat.
"So, what did Dr. Who say that has you so riled up?"
"No, you know, Dr. Who."
"Wait. You mean The Doctor—the Tardis guy."
"Yeah, that's who I mean, but I really mean Chuck. No fair trying to distract me."
Sarah smirked slightly. Carina always assumed that she was innocent of popular culture, but Carina thought that was because Sarah rated herself above it, whereas the actual explanation was just that Sarah had been too busy working to keep up with it. Carina was beginning to catch on to that. She was also beginning to catch on to Sarah's ability to manipulate conversations so as to keep from answering questions.
Sarah pursed her lips. It went against her grain, but maybe it would help her figure out what was going on if she told a little of it to Carina. This…wandering in her thoughts was going to keep bothering her if she didn't get herself clear of it, understand it. What had…Chuck…done to her?
Sarah had to go to last year's new faculty party because, well, she was new faculty. Her department chair expected it since she would introduce her at one point during the event. "New professor of foreign languages, on part-time appointment also in Political Science (International Relations), Sarah Lisa Walker." She had borne up under it well enough—and she was glad to be there. It had been a long journey. She was unsure she had made the right choice in becoming a professor, but anything was better than remaining what she had been.
Anyway, she had planned not to attend this year's party, but she had the misfortune of running into her department chair in the hallway only moments before the party was supposed to begin, and she had felt obliged to tag along. She'd been working to resist her instinct to lie in such situations, so she bit her tongue and let Helen Ventura, her chair, lead her on.
She had sat distracted through the event, thinking about her book, when the chair of computer science, a large fleshy man whose name she could never remember, got up and introduced Charles Bartowski. Her first reaction had been to laugh under her breath when Charles, without thinking, corrected his department chair: "It's Chuck." There was general laughter. He blushed.
He was not so handsome that you would imagine him on a magazine cover. But he was tall and lean and remarkably boy-like for a man she was sure was practically the same age she was. He had brown eyes and brown, curly hair…and brown eyes. He had brown eyes…and they looked at her and he and they (his brown eyes) smiled—generously, unselfconsciously, a smile that was an offering to her, to her beauty and her amused look. She could not remember any man looking at her like that, so openly, so unguardedly, with frank interest but no hint of a leer, no insinuation.
Sarah abruptly found herself blushing—something that she did not do. She looked away from him—something that she did not do either, except when calculated choice guided her to do it. She could feel his look remain on her through a large part of his introduction, an introduction that lasted a long time, since whatever exactly his troubles, Chuck Bartowski was a once and possibly future academic superstar. She studied the floor in front of her until the introduction was finished. When she looked up, he had sat down.
Later, Sarah had been talking to a colleague from Foreign Languages, drinking some of the usual cheap champagne often poured at these never-ending academic functions. Her colleague was translating medieval love poetry and was talking enthusiastically about her latest obsession when Sarah felt a gentle touch on her elbow. She gave a start and twisted so fast it was almost impossible to see it happen. She had managed to shift her grip on her champagne flute so that she could use it as a weapon. But what—who—confronted her was Chuck Bartowski, smiling his easy smile and allowing her the first close look at—her first plunge into—his brown eyes.
"I'm sorry to startle you. I wanted to say hello but I don't know your name. I do now know that you must have spent some time learning a martial art because that response wasn't just amazingly fast, I fear it might have ended with me ending—death by flute, not well-tempered and not at concert house." He laughed. Musically and engagingly, damn him.
"I'm sorry to have…overreacted. I don't like to be surprised." She regretted her tone as soon as she said the words: flinty, cold, alienating.
Chuck backed up a literal and metaphorical step. "I can tell. I do apologize. I was just…eager."
Now it was Sarah who stepped back. "'Eager'? You were eager to surprise me?"
"No, no, I was eager to meet you. I'm new. I'm a new guy in computer science."
"No, you're the new guy in computer science, the new guy on the faculty."
Chuck frowned and a little of the openness in his eyes disappeared. "Um, well, I'm glad to be here and I am eager…" he smirked at his own unintended repetition of that word, "…to get started at Commonwealth. I'll be sure not to surprise you in the future. Maybe, like the mice, you could bell the cat?" He laughed again, gently.
"Oh, so I'm the mouse and you're the cat?" Her tone again, but aggressive and threatening this time.
He stepped back again, opening a now-noticeable gap between them, literally and metaphorically. "No, no, really, I didn't mean it that way. I was just thinking in the image of the belled cat, thinking of that Marianne Moore poem in her translation of La Fontaine? No? I wasn't….uh…distributing the image across the two of us, really, not in any serious way. I mean—now that I think about it—if we are distributing it seriously, you would definitely be the cat and I would be the mouse."
Sarah looked at him, growing more annoyed against her will, but she couldn't tell if she was annoyed with Chuck or with herself, or with both of them.
"Like that makes it better?" Her question was absolutely flat.
"I was hoping to be introduced to you too, but I get the feeling I'm losing a game I didn't know I was playing and did not mean to play. So, I'm going to resign; consider my king toppled. I resign. Good game. Maybe I'll see you around." His tone was itself resigned, hurt but not huffy.
He walked away, facing her for a few steps before he turned around and walked into the thinning crowd. Sarah held onto her champagne flute with a grip that began to ache. Her colleague looked at her askance.
"Wow, Sarah. What was that about? He seems like a nice guy. You seemed like you were about to kill him."
Sarah didn't answer for a while. She searched the room again for Chuck. Maybe she could catch up with him? But why? And what would she say? Why had she acted like that? She had faced threats before, long odds. Why had a look and touch unhinged her? Her low-grade fear and her numbness were gone, replaced by an ache in her chest acuter by far than the ache in her fingers, still strangling the stem of the flute.
Sarah looked back to her colleague. She still had not answered. She had no answer, really, or none she was willing to contemplate. Finally, she spoke.
"I…just don't feel…well. I must be coming down with something, maybe it's the heat."
Sarah told Carina the gist of this, but leaving out any real indication of her deeper thoughts or feelings. She explained it, to the extent that she did, in the same way she explained it to her colleague. Carina rolled her eyes.
"The hell you were sick, Sarah. You haven't been sick once since you got here. Chuckles touched you, girl, he sure did; he touched you and cut you to the quick and you've never been touched like that before. Can't you admit that to me, even if you can't to yourself? What's the problem with responding to a man's touch? I think you've been waiting to be touched like that for a long time."
"The problem is I don't respond unless I choose to respond. And I've chosen not to choose to respond. Look, I know this doesn't make sense to you, but I have made a choice. I am alone and I need to be alone."
Carina's gaze was one of frank disbelief. But whether she disbelieved that Sarah had made that choice or disbelieved that she could keep it, she did not say. She let the topic drop. She saw Chuck Bartowski enter the Union and had seen him notice Sarah. He was walking toward the table. She grinned inwardly but schooled her features into outward neutrality.
Chuck saw the blonde hair from the moment he entered the Union. His initial mental decision was to go the other way, but his feet failed to get the message. They were taking him straight toward her. He had found out her name: Sarah. He did finally get his feet to slow down and to swing in a path around her table. He could see that she was talking with someone, a woman with red hair. He didn't want to startle or surprise her again. She had a fork in her hand, after all. He'd like the chance to meet her unarmed, but it didn't seem likely to happen. The red-haired woman watched him circle the table. Her features had been illegible—but now she had begun to grin an anticipatory grin. As he got to the other side of the table, Sarah saw him. But that had been the point: he wanted to be sure she saw him coming this time.
She saw him coming alright. She jerked up in her chair as if it was electrified. That was not good. He stopped mid-step, like a cartoon character. But he could neither move nor turn in such a position, so, after a moment's ludicrous hesitation, he had to complete the step, a step toward her. She reacted by sweeping her lunch things into her bag and standing. She was gone before he could take another step or head in another direction. He stood in his awkward pose, as if he were frozen in stride. Sarah's blonde hair headed toward the door of the Union. The red-haired woman hissed his name: "Chuck, you moron. Catch her!"
Chuck wondered how the red-haired woman knew him well enough to call him a moron, but he thought that, given the situation, she was right, even if unduly familiar. He started after Sarah's retreating hair as quickly as he could on his long legs without actually breaking into a run.
Sarah was at the door and was reaching for it. She opened it and headed out. Chuck was catching up, but he was afraid to call her name to stop her and afraid to touch her when he caught up with her. He was still trying to decide what he would do when he reached the point of no return when he ran headlong into John Casey.
Chuck bounced off John like a ball off a wall.
"Good Lord, Chuck. Watch it! How could you have missed me?" John glanced in the direction Chuck was heading and saw Sarah moving quickly off in the distance. "Oh."
"Well, she's worth chasing, I give you that. She's a beautiful woman: long legs and brains—but a woman like that, if she's alone, there must be a story. It can't be by choice. Either she's broken or she breaks anyone who's interested. I can tell you this much," John was still staring at Sarah as she disappeared, "she's had an interesting path to Commonwealth. I'm virtually certain that woman has not always been a professor…A professional, maybe, but not a professor."
With that dark comment, John bent down and offered Chuck a hand. Chuck had listened to this little speech while seated on his ass after his ricochet from Casey. He looked past Casey, but Sarah had disappeared, vanished. She must have gone into one of the buildings across the quad. Chuck knew which building housed Foreign Languages. But now that he had a moment to think about it, he decided that it would be foolish to follow a woman who'd gone to great lengths—great actual, spatial lengths—to make it obvious that she wanted nothing to do with him.
Casey watched as Chuck dusted himself off and left. Casey had met Chuck during Chuck's first day on campus. Commonwealth had gone to considerable expense to supply Chuck with state-of-the-art computers and other equipment. Casey was the head of security on campus. He met with Chuck the first day about how best to keep the lab secure, on the arrangements that would work best with Chuck's research schedule.
Casey knew that Chuck took a quick liking to him even if the feeling failed to be mutual. Not that Casey disliked Chuck. He just wasn't sure yet what to make of him. He'd been prepared for an academic prima donna, all stuffy and name-dropping and self-satisfied. Instead, he met a man who seemed normal. That was abnormal for most academics. About the only thing at all abnormal about Chuck Bartowski—was a yoke of sadness he wore when he thought no one else was watching. There was a broken dream weighing on the man's shoulders, but he bore the burden of it lightly, even invisibly, when he thought others were watching him. Casey thought he might come to like Chuck—over time. Casey was never one to warm up to folks too quickly. He'd seen too much to put stock in first impressions.
Actually, now that he thougth about it, maybe he did like the kid.
Sarah reached her office and quickly unlocked it. She slipped inside and shut the door, pressing the button to relock it. She leaned heavily against it. She was feeling something akin to terror. It was something akin to terror—but she was not terrified. She was excited, tremendously excited. Seeing Chuck had set her heart racing immediately. It had been racing before she stood and started her long near-sprint to her office.
She had never reacted to a man like this, not even to Bryce. But she didn't need to think about Bryce, any more than she needed to be breathing hard in response to the mere thought of being touched again—even looked at again—by Chuck Bartowski.
She had a problem to face.
Commonwealth was not a large college, not a large campus. Almost everyone taught classes or held office hours almost everyweekday. The chances of her running into Chuck were quite high unless she took extraordinary precautions. She could do that kind of thing; she knew how to do it. She had already looked him up in the campus directory once or twice or… She knew his teaching schedule had him teaching in the class period before her first class and again in the class period before her second class.
He was teaching in a different building, on the far corner of the quad. So, unless she went to the Union before her classes or after her classes, she likely would not run into him. But the Union was part of her before- and after-class routine. She got coffee there in the morning, and, like today, ate her lunch there in the early afternoon. She could stop at the chain coffee shop off-campus, but she liked the one in the Union.
The man who ran it, Morgan, was a goof, but the kind of goof whose company she'd come to enjoy since she changed jobs. She looked forward to talking to him or his wife, Alex, each morning. It was part of her day, a part that made her day better.
That was the thing. Her days at Commonwealth, while not perfect, were always better than her days had been before. Despite the numbness. Real people now populated her days. People like Morgan and Alex, who liked her and thought of her as a part of their days the way she thought of them as part of hers. She had gone so many years with no one in her life like that, not even in minor roles. She had gone years with no routines except the ones she depended on to stay alive. But they were not the kinds of routines that she wanted to keep, despite the fact that she still found it difficult not to fall into them. Yes, the numbness was not great. But it was mostly self-directed. She felt nothing in particular about herself, her past or present or future. She liked Morgan and Alex, and her ten minutes with them every morning thawed her numbness, brought her briefly out of her self-imposed cryogenic state.
Was she willing to give up being briefly heart-warmed by them each day to avoid a man who made her entire being butterfly and dance? Put that way, it sounded crazy, like she was willing to give up a good thing to keep from having something better. But that better something was a something she had chosen not to have, long before Chuck Bartowski incarnated it right in front of her at a new faculty party. She might be suffering from self-numbness, but that was not going to make her break the solemn promises she had made to herself.
She would have to buy her coffee off-campus for a while until she could be sure what Chuck's morning habits were. If he stayed away from the Union, she could go back to her good routine. If not, she'd make do. Maybe she could send a note to Morgan and Alex telling them her writing schedule had changed and that she wouldn't be by in the mornings this semester. She didn't want to just vanish on them. She'd been just vanishing on people for nearly fifteen years—hell, for most of her life. She wanted to quit vanishing. She wanted to stay, to be substantial. She wanted to cast a shadow, not step into the shadows. She had hung up her cloak and locked away her dagger.