Central Coast California Writers Club Fiction Contest Winners: First Prize: Ties by Allison Joseph
Some woman keeps sending my husband neckties. She was a student of his several years ago, a tall shy girl who wore glasses and sat at the back of his classrooms, looking at him with big moony eyes and a slim-lipped smile. Now she’s in graduate school learning all about female empowerment and the impact of a finely-wrought metaphor. Ties—bonds—remembrance—fidelity.
Neil’s embarrassed by this largesse, these gifts. First, he’d tried to ignore the slim boxes that came monthly, tossing them in a heap in a dusty corner of his office. But when I visit him one rainy Friday morning, the baby doing her can-can dance inside me, I see them, all six boxes addressed to “Prof. Neil,” as if no last name were necessary, as if he and this girl had an intimacy that didn’t require such boring means of identification.
“What the heck are those,” I ask, picking one up, blowing dust off the box on the top of the stack.
“Oh, those.” Neil runs a hand through his dark messy hair, shoots a glance in the direction of the neglected packages. “I don’t know what they are. You remember Sandy Donaldson?”
“Yeah, sort of.” The girl always kind of creeped me out. I’d walk across campus to see Neil for lunch, and she’d be in his office, her chair pulled up as close to Neil’s desk as his disarray of papers and books would allow.’d be stammering about Wordsworth or Dickinson or whatever dead author they were reading in class. She’d look at me as I stood waiting in the corner, nod her head to acknowledge me, and then go right on talking to Neil about the effectiveness of poetry in describing our mortal failings or our immortal souls, whichever he’d lectured about that week. Neil would be so good at avoiding her eyes that he wouldn’t see me standing there either. I’d pause, wait a few minutes, then I’d sound like a loving, concerned faculty wife—“Neil, honey, have you had lunch yet?” On hearing me, Sandy would scramble out of the one good chair in his office, apologizing profusely. Then she’d wait in the corridor outside his office, pacing back and forth, ostensibly talking to Mrs. Fields, the lovely ancient departmental secretary who takes care of everyone at school.
“Well, she keeps sending me those little boxes.”
“Aren’t you the slightest bit curious as to what’s in them?”
“No, I’ve got too much to do.” Neil is ABD, and doesn’t really want to finish his dissertation on Browning and the Beats. He says now that it was a bad idea from the start, and that he just wants to write his own poems. He envies me, he says, the way I’m at home this semester, awaiting the baby’s arrival. The work I could get done, the time for thinking! He’s warned me to use this time wisely, to get something accomplished before I’m up to my elbows in diapers and bottles and wet wipes. I guess that means I’m not getting a maid once Arianna’s born.
“Let me open one. See what’s on her mind. Where is she now?”
“New Haven? Studying art history at Yale, I think. Far cry from Lister.”
“Go ahead, and open one if you want. But then I have got to get something to eat before I drop.” Neil fidgets in his desk chair, an old wooden contraption of slats and screws.
The box is wrapped tightly with that awful kind of sealing tape that that has seams in it, rigid little lines that are nearly impossible to tear through. I try to work under it with my fingernails. It won’t give.
“Here. I’ve got scissors.” Neil hands me a tiny pair more suited to clipping one’s fingernails. I work the pointy ends under the tape, and free up enough of it so that I can rip it off.
“Andrea, don’t make a mess.”
“I’m not.” I toss the cardboard and tape contraption into the wastebasket, slide its contents out onto my palm. “It’s a tie,” I say. “And a letter.”
“A tie?” Neil looks confused. “I never wear ties.”
Neil goes to class each day looking more and more like your classic rumpled English professor, though he’s only 37. His sweaters gain inexplicable holes each winter, and his button-down shirts lose their buttons and poke out from under his wool blazers. He never wears ties, and before this moment, the only tie he’d ever owned was the one he bought for his father’s wake in Queens—Neil is Irish-born, but New York-raised. His family wasn’t too thrilled about our marriage, but my mother-in-law Patty is thrilled about Arianna, her first grandchild.
“There’s a note here, too. Can I read it?”
“Go ahead, read it. I know you want to.”
“Dear Prof. Neil. I’m sending you this tie so that you can look good in class when you are evaluated. I know that Lister College needs you. You need to be there for the girls like me who would be nothing without your guidance. Sincerely, Sandy Donaldson.”
“Well, that’s not too bad, is it?” Neil smiles, relieved.
I hold the tie up to the light. It’s brown, silk, not heavy.
“Andrea, unless there’s food in those boxes, I don’t care.”
“You should. You hold the futures of these Lister girls in your hot little hands.”
“Enough. Food time. You have to eat too.”
We exit the tiny windowless cubicle of his office, and leave the rest of the boxes unopened. Little Arianna perks up again, a regular showgirl.
“Ha, very funny, Andrea.” He kisses my cheek, scoots me back into his office, leaves me to go enlighten and shape the best female minds in America. Or the best female minds in America who couldn’t get into Bryn Mawr, Spellman, or Wellesley.
“Stay out of trouble,” he says, exiting lugging his briefcase and his brick-sized Norton Anthology of Poetry.
he’s gone, I look around. Here’s everything a young educator needs, I think, gazing at the anthologies and the writing texts, the stacks of ungraded essays and blue books, the piles of submissions for the campus literary magazine, the recommendation forms from Lister women wanting to go to law school, medical school, creative writing programs. These are the sorts of projects we’re supposed to tackle here, a cheery academic couple helping bright young women achieve their goals. But I got pregnant, and frankly, I didn’t want to do anything, to teach anything or anyone. Lister, being a woman’s college, couldn’t exactly protest when I took maternity leave before the birth. I went home after the school year’s opening convocation and now only come in to see Neil.
I read them all, from the first to the last, and I don’t stop until I’ve come to the last sentence of the last letter. “I love you, Neil, please answer me. Write back and don’t let anything stop us from being together,” it read. It’s dated six months ago.
Arianna keeps kicking as I read and re-read, and I can’t stop laughing. “See what a stud your daddy is, darling?” I ask her. “Your daddy’s got a fan club.”letters are so desperate, so whiny, yet so grateful. Sandy wants, most of all, to thank Neil, for enlightening her. About beauty. About truth. About how we all need to experience them, before we die.
I can hear Neil coming back down the corridor, chatting with a few girls who want to ask questions about paper topics and due dates. I suppose I should put the letters away, back where I found them, but I don’t want to. I want him to tell me why he kept them, why there are twenty letters in his desk from a sad-eyed girl who sat in the back of his class for three semesters, but no picture of me. Of us.
“Still here, Andrea?” Neil leans down, kisses me on my forehead, puts his briefcase on the floor. Two freshman girls duck their heads in, see I’m there, then scurry off. He turns as if to follow them, then thinks better of it, seeing the letters and boxes scattered about the desk. “You didn’t read all these, did you?”
“When were you going to tell me about your fan club?” I can feel tears welling up, and I want to fight them down with bitchy sarcasm.
“What, these? They’re fairy tales. Sandy couldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Did you write her back?” I can feel Arianna flutter and kick. Maybe she’ll be a swimmer, go to a Big Ten university on scholarship. She’ll be the Tiger Woods of women’s swimming, a mixed-race champion.
“Of course not. I wrote her a recommendation for graduate school. That’s all.”
“Why did you keep these then?” I twirl on his rickety desk chair, feel more ungainly than I already am.
“I couldn’t throw them away. I kept them in case she needed my help.”
“Neil, you could have told me.”
“About letters from some student I wasn’t even teaching anymore?”
“Yes, one who is sending you obsessed letters about wanting to be with you. Yes, I think you could have told me about that.” I’m indignant, tearful. I cross my arms over my chest, the rise of my belly, curl myself over myself.
“Andrea, it doesn’t matter. None of the little crushes the girls here have matter.”
“Little crushes?” He’d used the plural.
“The girls who come to Lister are a bit sheltered.”
“I know that.” I hate it when he lectures me.
“They come from small towns and little cities in the Midwest. Lister is their first exposure to a lot of things.” Neil is kneeling down beside me now, trying to get me to tilt my chin up, to look at him.
“So—,” I stop, not sure what I’m accusing him of.
“The girls get little fixations. It’s normal. I’m not doing anything to provoke them.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Andrea, be fair.”
I can’t be fair. Not with this pile of lovesick letters in front of me. Not with these unopened boxes teetering off the edge of his desk.
“Open all the boxes, and then I’ll believe you.”
“Okay, okay.” Neil struggles to his feet, brushes off his knees, and reaches for the remaining boxes. He opens each of them in turn, the ties falling to the floor in a multicolored heap. Two red ones, an aqua one, one in soothing sea green, another in burnt orange. Little notes flutter to the ground. Neil sweeps the ties and notes together with his foot, picks them up, deposits them in the wastebasket.
“Read the notes.”
“Andrea, they don’t matter. She doesn’t matter.”
I want to get up to go to the wastebasket myself, but Neil stops me.
“I’m going to take you home. You need to lie down and stop worrying.”
He’s right.need to stop worrying about our future, about Lister College’s future, about Neil’s future with these girls who take his classes and stare at his mop of messy dark hair and his rumpled clothes, ones who listen and swoon as he reads them the words of poets that they long to be, but won’t ever come close to being. I need to stop worrying about the Sandys and Lisas, the Georgias and Margarets and Veroniques. I am Andrea, the only one who matters.
“Throw these away too,” I say, pointing at the letters.
“See what happens when you look where you aren’t supposed to?” Neil says gently. Is this the tone of voice he’ll take with Arianna, scolding her for looking in the closet where her Christmas gifts are hidden?
I feel faint. I lean on Neil, letting him hold me up. He helps me rise from the desk chair, props me against one of his crowded bookshelves. Then he picks up all the letters and their envelopes from the desk, plops them unceremoniously in the trash.
“There. Done. Happy now?” He looks at me, one eyebrow arched up in anticipation of my answer.
“Why did you keep them? Don’t lie.”
“ I was flattered, a little bit. But then it happened again. Other girls. I always tell them no. But Sandy was the first, the most persistent. I thought she might need help some day, so I kept them.”
“Here’s what you are going to do,” I say, a plan coming to me in my hazy anger. “Put it all in a box, and give it to Mrs. Fields with the address to send it all back to.”
“Andrea, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“It’s what you are going to do.” I’m propped up by the weight off the overstuffed bookshelf behind me.
Neil sighs. He’s a patient man. I’m not budging, and he knows it. I’ll stand here all day if I have to, tears on my face, baby doing somersaults inside me.
“Okay if I just give it all to Mrs. Fields? I don’t know where a box would be in all this mess.”
“Okay, but tell Mrs. Fields to write a note saying Lister faculty can’t accept gifts.”
“Andrea, you know that’s not true.”
“It is for you. From now on.”
Neil looks at me, tired of fighting.kneels down at the trash, extricating the ties and letters, the envelopes, the notes. He puts the letters back in their envelopes, puts the rubber band back on them, folds the ties neatly, stacks the little notes on top.
“And if you get another box, write return to sender on it, and put it back in the mail.”
Neil leaves his office without speaking. When he returns, I see how tired he looks, and I want to kiss him. To tell him I’m sorry. I’m not a Lister woman, not a beautiful blonde girl in a college sweatshirt or a serious-looking scholar with ambitions, not like the girls on the cover of the college catalog. I want to say I’m sorry, but I don’t. We leave his office, and Drucker Hall, and the Lister campus, and though it’s only a short way from its tree-lined streets to our off-campus apartment, we drive. I don’t fiddle with the radio, and he doesn’t whistle. We are not ourselves, and I wonder if this is what it will be like when we are parents and we no longer pay attention to each other.
So when another box, postmarked New Haven, arrives for Prof. Neil, I see it on our coffee table first, not in his office. Arianna has stopped her kicking inside me, and is now kicking off blankets in her crib, little future gymnast. I take the box and tear it open with a dull kitchen knife, look at the silky tie within. It’s blue. I’ll use it to wipe up the spills from Arianna’s bottles, to keep the front of my shirt dry. Something around here needs to be put to use, to be made practical. Might as well start with this, a small sky-blue piece of the world my daughter’s been born into, this gift from a woman she doesn’t even know.