Judging distance

Hannah Allen

A word is flung into the dark from the sidewalk behind me, but I don’t recognize the voice it belongs to. What did he say? Tighten my scarf around my neck, hold my umbrella a little lower, glance left to scan the approaching expanse of parking lot for other students leaving campus. Night classes out, parking spaces vacant. Streetlights punctuate the November darkness. I step off the sidewalk into the lot. My steps quicken.

“Slut!” The word, clear and hard, snaps against my ears. I sidestep a sheet of ice. Fingers involuntarily fumble in my coat pocket. Is he talking to me? I meant to sew up the hole in my jacket, the one that sucks change, lighter, and keys deep into the lining. Too late now. My fingers can’t make sense of the mess. Slow down to feel out my keys. Mom’s voice in my head: You should already have them out, dear.

“SLUT! HEY, SLUT!” The voice, closer. Coming from the right but from how far back, I’m not sure. Never been good at depth perception. It’s near enough that I forget about finding my keys. Why did I leave work early? Only had ten minutes left. Head down, I march towards my old Buick at the far end of the empty lot. Rain, lashing below the umbrella, blinds me. My hair works free from its slack bun. Sharp, wet strands slap at my face. Tears gather at the corner of my left eye. I think of my boyfriend. Wish Drew would’ve answered my fucking call. Pull my phone from my slacks and try again. Voicemail.

Do I look like a slut? Overworked, overweight graduate student in a too-tight jacket, brown bangs plastered down, one-shoulder messenger bag warping my frame. Does he want me to answer? Just ignore him. Get to the car, get to the car, get to the car. Thoughts sync with the rhythm of my rain boots.

Who does he think he is? Finally work my keys out of the black hole of my jacket, but I’m not unlocking my car. I hold them in between each finger, makeshift brass knuckles. I don’t know what to do now. Squinting through the icy rain, I search for the voice. Don’t know what I expect to see. I thought maybe there would be two or more of them, one showing off, but it’s just him. He’s wearing a gray hoodie, “Class of 2014” in block white on the back. The canvas strap of a Jansport hangs low off his shoulder. He’s walking up the sidewalk to campus, past the parking lot entrance now, away from the late-night coffee shop a couple blocks down. Sometimes I sip a dark roast and read for class there, the atmosphere humming with caffeine and anxiety of early morning tests. I’ll be teaching boys like him in a few months, new duty as a grad assistant. I don’t even know him. He bends to pick up a discarded Coke can. The water beads catch the light of the street lamp as it clangs into a metal garbage bin.

I turn and walk the remaining fifty feet of the parking lot to my car. Stab the unlock button on my key fob, throw my bag and umbrella into the back, fall into the driver’s seat. Think about turning right out of the parking lot instead of left, back towards campus. Wonder if my car would get damaged if I ran it up on the sidewalk. These half-formed thoughts evaporate out the window with a curl of smoke from my cigarette. What could I possibly say to him? Nothing I’ve learned would teach him anything. A question I don’t ask: Why me? I already know that answer.

A college reader, colored with Post-its and scrawled notes, is on the floorboard of my car. From my rearview, the yellow corner of a legal pad labeled “Assignment Prompts?” pokes out of my messenger bag. The start of my teaching career, edging nearer to reality, has been on my mind the last few weeks. New clothes, straight pages of unopened textbooks, heads full of summer. A room of faces, closer than ever, waiting for answers.

hannah-allenHannah Allen, raised among the honeysuckle and hollers of Wolf Creek, Kentucky, is a graduate student of English at Western Kentucky University. Her work has appeared in Zest, on crumpled sheets of paper at the bottom of her backpack, and in frantic emails to her creative writing group members. Hannah Allen, her fiancé, and their cat live outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

Image credit: Erich Ferdinand on Flickr

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