There are only two other tables occupied when Anne arrives at the small coffee shop on the corner of the busy street. She’s fifteen minutes early, but she wanted to make sure she could secure them a table, clearly overestimating the lunch-hour crowd in this quiet café. Spotting a corner booth by a window overlooking the back patio, she makes herself comfortable in the seat while she waits for her student to show up. It was a blistering hot summer day in Ames, Iowa, and it seemed like the whole city had gotten the memo to stay indoors for the day, all except for the few brave souls in the sleepy coffee shop, most of them completely plugged in as they worked on their laptops, oblivious to the world around them. Anne taps impatiently on the table, looking out of the window. She's feeling strangely anxious about her meeting, which was unusual considering how many times she’d met with her graduate students to talk about research. And yet, there was something gnawing at the back of her mind when she thought about her newest PhD student, Ann Walker.
She’d been an Assistant Professor in the department of Cognitive Science and Behavioral Psychology at Northern Iowa University for 2 years now, and in her brief time at the institution, she’d advised her fair share of bright and talented graduate students. But none had captured her attention like young Miss Walker had. It had only been 4 short months since they’d met and started working together on Ann’s dissertation on the role of episodic memory on expert knowledge structures. She was still narrowing down the focus of her work, but she had already made more progress on her research than other students had in the span of a whole year. And yet, this didn’t explain the uneasy feeling of something fluttering in her stomach when Anne spotted Miss Walker walk through the doors of the café in a bluster. Her hair was slightly wild from being whipped around by the strong afternoon breeze, and her cheeks were flushed from the intense summer sun beating down outside. She spotted her advisor in the booth and made her way over, a thin smile growing on her face.
“Dr. Lister!” She approached the table, dropping her bookbag on the seat opposite her and sliding into the booth unceremoniously.
“Hi Ann.” Anne greeted her with a warm smile. “How are you?”
“I’m good! Well, it’s really hot out there,” An impish smile from Ann. “But I’m good.”
“Good.” Anne echoed, eyes wandering to a drop of sweat drawing a line down the side of Miss Walker’s forehead and sliding onto the space right below her jaw. She tore her eyes away as she heard Ann speak again.
“How was your vacation?” She inquired, looking genuinely interested.
Anne blinked. She’d almost forgotten about the trip she’d taken with her wife to Chicago earlier that month. It’d been almost 4 weeks since she’d met with Ann because of her travels, but that felt like a lifetime ago. She’d offered to meet with her for coffee instead of their usual weekly meetings in her office in order to get re-acquainted in a more casual setting after the long hiatus.
“Oh, it was good! Chicago was amazing as usual.” Not wanting to talk about it, Anne quickly deflected. “Tell me about your trip to California?”
That seemed to divert their conversation. “I had so much fun.” Ann appeared to light up at the memory. “It was a lot of driving, but we managed to get a lot of sightseeing in.”
“Yes, I’m quite fond of the west coast.” Anne felt a small smile grow on her face. “It’s quite an interesting place to visit… not sure I’d ever want to live there.”
“Oh I don’t know.” A wistful look graced Ann’s face, like she was daydreaming about another life. “It’s not so bad.”
“Mm. Well.” Anne straightened up in her seat. “I’m glad you had fun. It’s good to take a break after the semester and take some time for yourself before starting up with research again.”
Miss Walker nodded, looking down at her hands that were now picking at a scuff on the old wooden table. She seemed suddenly quiet.
“I know your first year has been difficult.” Anne spoke steadily, affection present in her voice even while she tried to maintain some emotional distance. “No one said that starting a PhD program would be easy. But you’re doing good. You’re managing well.”
Ann glanced up from the table, a sad smile on her face. It seemed the praise had touched her more than was intended. “Thank you, Dr. Lister. That means a lot, coming from you.”
Anne couldn’t keep a soft chuckle from escaping her lips. “It doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is that you’re back and ready for a productive summer.”
“Yes.” Ann squared her shoulders, determination in her eyes. “I do feel ready. I mean, I am ready.”
“Well let’s hope you are.” Anne raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got a lot on your plate. We’ve got the conference coming up next month, and the other one at the end of August…”
“Ah yes, I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that.” Ann rummaged through her bag, pulling out a notebook and pen and opening to a well-used page, crowded with her big loopy handwriting. “I’ve arranged a lunch meeting with Dr. Stuart to talk about my dissertation. She said she’s going to be in Delft, at the conference, I mean, and we’re currently scheduled for Tuesday at 1pm.”
Anne was quietly impressed by her initiative. She had not even begun planning for these trips. Recent life events had derailed some of her plans.
“That’s good.” She said shortly. “Make sure you send her your research prospectus before we leave so she’ll have time to look over it before our meeting.”
“Okay.” Ann scribbled in a tiny sliver of space left in the corner of the page. “Thanks.”
She finished writing and shut her notebook. Then she regarded Anne as a thought occurred to her. “Is Mariana coming with you to Delft?”
Anne tried to push down the sudden emotion that had welled up in her at the mention of her wife. She was not ready to talk about this and she could feel her mood instantaneously darken. And the meeting had been going so well.
Ann’s eyes widened when she noticed her sudden change in demeanor. “Umm…” She didn’t know what to say, afraid she may have overstepped some line. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“No, it’s ok.” Anne shut her eyes and took a deep breath. She may as well tell Ann now. It would probably make itself known soon anyway, so what’s the point in trying to hide it?
Steeling herself, she opened her eyes and met Ann’s with what she hoped was a neutral expression. “Mariana is not coming with me to Delft.”
“She’s not going to be coming with me to any conferences from now on.”
“Oh?” Ann looked puzzled.
“Because we’re getting a divorce.”
A painful silence settled on them. It seemed that the news that stunned Ann speechless, as she stared at the table, eyes darting back and forth, processing the news. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she spoke very quietly.
“I’m so sorry, Dr. Lister.”
“What?” Ann finally met her eyes.
“I want you to call me Anne.” She said quickly snapping her eyes away from the younger woman. For some reason, it was unbearable to look at her right then. She preoccupied herself with glancing out the window at the passing traffic.
“Okay… Anne.” Ann said slowly, testing out how the word felt in her mouth. It felt strange that they shared the same first name. “I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.”
“Mm. Well…” Anne’s tapping on the table got faster. “That’s not— I mean, it’s fine. It’s not going to affect you, or my work, so you don’t need to worry about any of that.”
It looked like Ann wanted to stay something. She opened her mouth, but the words seemed to die on her tongue. At her silence, Anne glanced back out of the side of her eye.
“I’m sorry if I’ve shocked you.” She placed her hands, palm down on the table, trying to smooth away her worries. “I shouldn’t have told you. Like I said, it’s not going to affect—” She choked on her last word as she felt Ann gently touch the back of her left hand where it rested on the table. Her eyes snapped to their joined hands, the sudden warmth of the contact was overwhelming.
“Thanks for telling me.” Ann looked at her squarely in the eyes. “And it is terrible.”
It was Anne’s turn to be speechless. Ann was now rubbing the back of her hand ever so slightly with her thumb, and the tender gesture made her ache with a painful longing for something she had no name for.
Then, almost as if remembering herself, Ann withdrew her hand and sat back in her seat. “These things are terrible.” She said reflectively.
“Let’s talk about something else.” Anne sniffed and clasped her hands together. She absently rubbed the back of her hand, as if she was trying to rub off the tingling sensation that lingered on the spot that Ann had touched moments ago.
And so they talked about other things: the two journal articles Ann was working on over the summer, plans for data collection in the Fall, her comprehensive exam, and preparations for her conference presentations. The weight of their previous conversation still lingered until the end of their meeting, but neither woman wanted to acknowledge it. Privately, Anne felt relieved to share the news of her divorce with someone else. It had been such a tightly kept secret, the both of them feeling shame over the failure of their marriage, that it had just been easier to keep it to themselves. But now that someone else knew, she felt a glimmer of hope- maybe she could find it within herself to get on with her life and move past this.
The weeks pass in a blur, the steady flow of work consuming hours and days in a predictable rhythm. On most days, Anne remains in the office well past 8pm, chipping away at the long list of tasks that need to be completed, letting the work take her mind off other worries. Her days are filled with endless committee meetings, writing sessions with graduate students, curriculum planning duties, and the various faculty trainings and obligatory workshops sprinkled in here and there.
She still manages to see Ann twice a week, giving her a generous amount of her time and working closely with her on her journal papers. It seemed that the intensity of their conversation in the café weeks ago was fading into the background. In its place, a strange tender understanding had begun to develop between them. Anne told herself that this was a result of them working so closely together. It certainly was not because of the unusual spark that ignited in her chest every time they accidentally made physical contact. Like that one time they were sitting next to one another in her office, necks craning to look at Ann’s laptop screen as they worked through addressing the many edits that she had added to a journal manuscript. Absorbed in the task, Anne had reached for the keyboard without thinking and accidentally brushed the tops of Ann’s hands resting atop the keys. The warm tingling sensation that ran up her arms at the contact seemed to sear itself in her brain, making her ache with a sudden longing for more contact from the younger woman. No, it certainly had nothing to do with that.
That’s what Anne tells herself when she feels her heart beat speed up unexpectedly when she pulls up to John Booth’s house. They were having a summer research group party for all the faculty and students of the lab, and her colleague had graciously offered to host at his house. Despite her protests, Mariana – the soon to be ex-wife, had insisted she come along, even though it would be easier if she had just made some excuse about not feeling well. People would probably have wondered why Mariana was absent- she was always with Anne at these events- but it would have saved her any awkwardness of having to explain why Mariana was not accompanying her to Delft for the conference. It didn’t matter now, and she just needed to make the best of the situation. She took a deep breath as she closed the door of her car and walked up the stairs of the house, trailing behind Mariana.
A curious swirl of smells greet them as they walk in through the front door, calling out their ‘hello’s and ‘how are you’s. The gathering already seemed to be in full swing, and a sizable group of people part as they make their way through into the kitchen to the heart of the event. At some point Mariana hangs back to talk to Eugènie, John’s wife, while Anne forges forward through the crowd. She finally spots John, and gives him a tight smile, her anxiousness betraying her.
“How are you, John?” She brusquely nudges him on the arm with the back of her hand.
“Thanks for coming!” John is a tall man of 40-years of age, head topped with scruffy blonde hair that seemed to defy gravity. Even as a tenured professor, he had a very casual, down to earth energy that made him very approachable. That was probably the reason why Anne had taken so quickly to him when she started out 2 years ago, and she was always grateful for his steady mentorship throughout her transition.
“I see things are already in full swing.” Anne reached out to accept the can of beer offered by John, the fizz of the can opening cutting through the low hum of conversation in the room.
“Yes, indeed.” John ran a hand through this unruly hair, a sheepish look crossing his face. “But I made the mistake of starting the grill a little late this evening.” He pointed through the screen door leading to his patio where a charcoal grill was starting to let off small amounts of smoke. “So people have just been getting drunker and drunker while waiting for food!”
Anne chuckled and looked around the room. It was getting pretty loud in there. She spotted Harriet, another new faculty member already glowing in the cheeks and gesturing a little too wildly. The graduate students were being rather friendly as well, but the constraints of propriety kept them from completely losing themselves around their professors. Nevertheless, Anne felt gratitude wash over her as she watched the easy way that her research group conversed with one another. They really had a good thing going here, and the sense of community was so good for the students. She turned back to John.
“Well, it’s not a party until Elizabeth gets drunk and starts shooting her mouth off about undergrads, is it?” That got a laugh out of John.
“That’s true!” He grinned at her then rested his can of beer on the kitchen counter. “Excuse me, I’m going to check on the grill again.”
“Mm.” Anne nodded her acknowledgement and swung back more of the fizzy liquid in her can. She suddenly felt an urge to lose herself to the night. Work had been very draining lately, and this seemed like the perfect way to unwind. She took another big swig of her beer, feeling the liquid already working its magic, warming her up from the inside out.
Then the sound of the front door opening and closing was heard, followed by some shuffling and murmured greetings as someone made their way through the crowd.
Anne turned around to face the newcomer and felt her heart jump in her throat.
There stood Ann, hands full with a six pack of beer and a cheese tray, dressed in a close-fitting black cocktail dress, complete with a daring slit up the side of the skirt, revealing an almost inappropriate amount of leg. She was in the midst of balancing the items in her arms, when their eyes met. They were standing on opposite sides of the kitchen, but the space between seemed to crackle with energy, and Anne felt momentarily stunned at the sight. It was almost as though it had not, up to that point, occurred to her that Ann might show up in something other than her usual shirt and jeans combo. The unexpected appearance of the little black dress took her completely by surprise.
Ann was the first to recover, placing the items down on the counter before her. She smoothed the front of her dress as she made her way around the kitchen to where her advisor stood, a nervous look in her eyes.
“Hi.” Her voice was small, and Anne noticed it tremble ever so slightly. She was gripping the can of beer tightly in her hand until it started to buckle under the pressure. Noticing this, she quickly put down it on the counter next to her and wiped the condensation from her hand on her pants. Her modest black button down and slacks seemed to pale in comparison to Ann's stunning outfit.
“Hi.” Anne echoed back, silently berating herself for her sudden lack of eloquence.
“You look…” She trailed off, unable to complete the sentence as her eyes flitted down to take in the beautiful black dress. Up close, she noticed how the material had a velvety sheen that accentuated her curves in ways she hadn’t noticed before. She took a hard swallow, quickly lifting her eyes to meet Ann’s gaze.
“Thanks.” There was a slight flush forming on her cheeks from the compliment she knew her professor wanted to give her.
“So.” Anne tried to move the conversation along. “You’re here. Your first lab party. What do you think?” She gestured widely to the room at to the other faculty and students forming small clusters of conversation throughout the space.
Ann’s eyes skirted around the room, taking in the party. “It’s nice. This is nice.” She met Anne’s eyes again. “I haven’t been to such a gathering before. It’s really special that our research group does things like this throughout the year.”
“Yes, I know. It’s really important that we develop a sense of community.”
There was a small pause as they each searched for the next thing to say. They stared at one another, feeling a strange pull between them, like the space was collapsing on itself.
“So are you—”
“Where can I—”
They both laughed and stopped midsentence, the tension between them breaking.
“Sorry, go ahead.” Anne gestured for her to continue.
Still laughing, Ann shook her head and pointed to the dented can of beer sitting on the counter. “I was just going to ask where to get a drink.”
“Oh! There’s a bunch of drinks in the cooler outside.”
“Right. Thanks.” Ann had a wide smile on her face, eyes sparkling in the dim light of the kitchen. It seemed that she was lingering, not wanting their conversation to end just yet. Anne couldn’t help but notice the way her nose seemed to crinkle up with laugh lines and felt an aching tender feeling bloom in her chest.
“Go ahead.” Anne motioned with her head to the screen door leading to the patio. “Grab a drink. I’ll be right here.”
“Ok.” Ann said, giving her a sheepish smile. “I’ll be right back.”
The kitchen was tight between the counter and the patio door, and she shimmied around the small space, coming within inches of Anne. She murmured a soft “excuse me” as she squeezed by her, leaving a trace of a faintly sweet scent where their bodies had almost been touching. Was that vanilla? Peach? Anne felt a sudden need to know exactly what the fragrance was as she watched Ann disappear through the patio door into the quickly fading light of the evening. She sighed and picked her drink up again, taking big gulps and emptying it of its contents, trying to shake off these unwelcome feelings.
“Going hard tonight, I see.” Mariana had made her way through the house, and was now at her side, giving her a disapproving look.
“It’s not like that.” Anne set down the empty can, not meeting her eyes.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter to me, I guess.” Mariana shrugged. “Just take care of yourself. You know how you get when you’ve had too much.”
“You’re right.” Anne gritted her teeth. She was quickly getting tired of the conversation. “It really shouldn’t matter to you.”
Mariana opened her mouth to retort with something equally biting but seemed to think better of it. With a sigh, she seemed to deflate and rocked back on her feet.
Sensing the change, Anne tried a different tack. There was no need to start something in the middle of a party. They could still be civil with one another, even if this was probably the last time they would show up to a gathering like this together.
“So how’s Eugènie? I saw you talking with her when we arrived.” Anne asks casually, hoping to redirect the conversation to something mundane. She leans back against the counter, resting her elbow on the surface, propping herself up.
“She’s good.” Mariana mimics her position, leaning up on the counter beside Anne. “She’s busy as usual.”
There’s a pause as Mariana thinks about what she’s going to say next. “I told her.” She takes a deep breath.
“You did what?” Anne hisses through her gritted teeth, straightening up and rounding on her. “We were going to wait until the paperwork was finalized! That was the plan!”
“I know, but she was asking about the trip to Delft, and I just didn’t know what else to say—”
“How about anything but that!” Anne cut her off with a loud whisper, almost as if she was afraid of someone overhearing their conversation.
Mariana gave her a pitiful look. “Oh come on. It’s fine.” She brought her hands up to rub Anne’s shoulders, trying to soothe her. The feeling does not have a soothing effect- quite the opposite, in fact. It makes her want to pry herself out of the embrace the moment she touches her.
Before she could act, she hears the patio door behind her squeak open, and then there’s a quiet little “Oh” that follows.
Anne whips around, heart thudding in her chest as she sees the quickly retreating back of Ann escape through the open door with startling speed. She’s not quite sure what Ann saw, but it clearly upset her enough to make her leave in such a hurry.
Turning back to Mariana, she sees her wearing an equally puzzled look on her face. “What’s that about?” She muses out loud, frowning slightly.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to check on her.” Anne starts to go after her but turns around just as she reaches the door. She raises a finger in warning.
“Don’t say anything to anyone else,” she says. “Seriously, let’s just get through tonight.”
“Ok.” Mariana agrees, holding her hands up in surrender. “Whatever you say.” She pushes off from the counter, making her way further into the house.
Taking a deep breath, Anne pushes open the door, letting the cool evening air wash over her. The setting sun cast a dim orange glow in the sky, and she feels the tension already begin to leave her body. She rounds the corner of the house, entering the peaceful patio decorated with strings of outdoor lights crisscrossing overhead. Large potted plants line the rock walls, and there’s a steady trickle of an outdoor fountain bubbling away in the far corner. The tall trees and lush vegetation around the outdoor space makes it feel more private than it really is.
It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darker lighting, and she eventually spots Ann perched atop a wide retaining wall, flanked by two large ferns that are gently swaying in the breeze. She sees Anne round the corner and mutters a curse under her breath while angling her face away from the light.
“Ann?” Anne calls out cautiously, uncertain if she had interrupted something. “Are you alright?”
Her voice is wavery, but she manages to answer. “Yes. Yes I’m fine.” She’s still not looking up.
Anne slowly makes her way closer to where Ann is seated, trying to get a better look at her face. What could have gotten the girl so upset?
She finally stops in front of Ann. “Hey,” she says quietly, tentatively, like she’s afraid of scaring her away. “What’s going on?”
“It’s…” Ann’s eyes are barely visible in the dim lighting, but she can see her eyes dart about, searching for something. Then, taking a deep breath, she steels herself.
“It’s just that I thought Mariana wasn’t going to be here…” Ann finally meets her eyes, an unreadable expression on her face.
Anne stands before her, dumbfounded. It feels like her mind is trying to play catch up, moving slower because of the effects of the alcohol. Then, her eyes grow wide as she puts the pieces together in her head: Her awkwardness earlier in the kitchen. Showing up in that delightfully sexy dress. Running out when she saw them together – almost as if she was disappointed - almost as if she—no. It can’t be. Her silence spurred Ann on.
“Of course it’s none of my business. I-I’m really happy that you’re back together. I didn’t mean to interrupt you two—"
“You didn’t—” Anne tried to interject, but her student kept going, unable to stop.
“—I just wasn’t expecting to see her. I don’t know why I behaved that way. It’s a good thing, really. I’m really happy for you--”
“Ann!” Anne said louder. She was smiling now, amused at how flustered Ann was getting. “We’re not getting back together!”
That stopped her. “What?” Ann breathed out, disbelief on her face.
“We’re not getting back together. She’s just here because… well… because we haven’t told anyone else yet.” Anne’s shoulders sagged, the explanation seeming flimsy when spoken out loud.
A pregnant pause settled between them. Anne was still shaken, trying to work out what it all meant, but a slow smile of relief was spreading on her face. There was something undeniably adorable about the way Miss Walker rambled on and on when she was nervous, the way she was blushing in embarrassment now, balking at her behavior.
“I’m sorry.” She closed her eyes, a sheepish smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Anne chucked softly, waving her apology off. “It’s alright.”
“No, it’s not.” Ann ran a hand through her own hair, making a few strands fall in her face. Her eyes dart around the patio, trying to look anywhere but at Anne. “I shouldn’t have behaved like that… I wish you could forget that I ever did that.”
Her heart pounds in her chest when she sees the way Ann looks up at her – like she wants her comfort—no, her approval. She aches to close the distance between them, to hold her, to make her stop shaking as much as she is. But how can she? The weight of her conscience screams at her, telling her she shouldn’t. Instead, she settles for reaching out and squeezing her thigh lightly where it rests on the stone wall, trying to reassure her. The skin below the fabric of her dress feels so warm, and the contact sends unexpected bolts of pleasure through both of them.
Anne leans in closer to Ann, bending her knees slightly to bring herself to the younger woman’s eye level. She gives her a small smile, trying to reassure her. There’s a lump in her throat and her heart feels like it’s going to leap out of her chest. She can’t stop herself from saying what comes next, even though she knows it will start something dangerous.
“I can’t forget what you did… and I don’t want to.”
Their eyes meet, and she sees hope swirling in Ann’s eyes. The contact is electric, and she doesn’t want to stop touching her, but even this casual gesture somehow seems too close – too intimate – to be strictly professional.
So she moves away, hand sliding from where it was resting on Ann’s leg. The movement generates a small friction against her skin, and she sees the younger woman’s eyes flutter at the sensation.
Anne’s voice is low and scratchy, strained from the effort of holding back her emotions.
“I’m going to head back in.”
Ann is looks down and bites her lip. “Ok. I’ll be right there.”
Anne walks back towards the house, glancing back at where she’s still sitting on the wall, trying to compose herself. She stops at the entrance to the patio, looking back at her. She’s still looking down at her hands, like she’s miles away. Standing there, a fleeting thought occurs to her:
She’d made it all the way through six grueling years of graduate school. Yet, nothing had prepared her for the mad little crush she was now developing on one Miss Walker.