The Historian | Retreat

AUTUMN | BOSTON

 

EVERY FALL I begin the first class of the school year the same way. I’m not fool enough to think the students entering the Boston Museum of History’s internship program—high school seniors selected for their drive and intelligence—won’t want to test me. So I offer them a challenge. They always leap, assuming they’ll win. They won’t. Not the way they expect to.

My glasses and bald head, the way I dress—in tweed vests and ironed shirts, like a stereotype of a museum curator—work in my favor, keep me from being a threat. I stand behind my desk, hands clasped at the small of my back, suppressing a smile as the students enter the classroom for the first time, stealing looks at me, loud and boisterous to cover their nerves. They goof around, point at the unusual art I’ve packed into the room, and peer into the empty inkwells built into the tops of the old desks.

I want to smile because I know something they don’t, something they think they already know. They’re here because they think history is interesting. But I can make them fall so in love with history that the way they see themselves will shift forever.

Starting today.

Then he walks into the room with his arm around a beautiful girl.

His exuberance is incandescent. He doesn’t simply enter the classroom, he radiates into it, vibrant with life, as though fueled by an energy source of pure dazzle.

His effect on his classmates is instantaneous. Girls shamelessly bat their eyelashes at him. Boys jostle and joke. They slap him on the back, vying for his friendship. At least one of the boys bats his eyelashes, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

At first I think he’s going to be a disciplinary problem, but he’s the opposite. He holds out a desk chair for a pretty girl with red hair and then brings the other students into line by cajoling them into settling down and paying attention.

I blink, give myself a mental shake, and get down to business, starting with roll call.

His name is Ruben Harper.

 

 

I SPEND the first ten minutes of class capturing their interest by sharing my genuine aversion to modern contraptions and answering their incredulous questions, shaking my head as they call out the names of things I don’t know about and don’t want to learn how to use—their beloved cell phones and computer programs and video games and fancy calculators. My unconcealed ignorance eventually stuns them to silence. And then I introduce the challenge.

“No way can you beat us on that thing, Mr. Normand,” one of the boys scoffs when I propose a contest between their calculators and an abacus. I hold up my most daunting abacus, the wide one with ornate scenes painted on the red-stained wood of the frame.

“We’ll see,” I say with a casual shrug, like I have nothing to worry about. Then I make them wait for an hour, using the gift of their piqued interest to regale them with awe-inspiring aspects of the history of the calculator, including a brief demonstration of the slide rule. By the time I’ve made sure everyone in the class can do basic multiplication using the slide rules I passed around, they’re obsessing over the clock, whining to get started with the contest.

“Okay. Who wants to be our impartial tester and referee?” I ask the class. A girl in the front row raises her hand first. “Sarah, right?” She nods. “Bring your calculator.” I wave her up front to a freestanding easel with a large pad of paper on it and hand her a fat felt pen.

“Now do you all agree that it will be a fair contest if Sarah thinks up what to ask us and determines the winner?”

I get nods and grins from the students, and Ruben says, “Come on, man. Let’s go. My trigger finger’s itchy,” which makes everyone laugh.

“A few ground rules,” I say. “Sarah will write problems on the page in secret.” Sarah takes the hint and turns the easel around so she can write without us seeing. “The problems can include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and combinations of any or all of those. When she’s ready, she’ll turn the easel around. As soon as you have the answer, raise both hands in the air. Sarah will judge the winner. If there’s a tie, we’ll do a rematch. Okay?” I look around the room and all I see are smug, eager faces. With the abacus on the desk in front of me, I nod to Sarah to begin.

Ruben comes closest to beating me. Closest, but I still wallop him in a conclusive, best-eleven-out-of-twenty challenge. By the time I’ve won the first nine matches in a row, the class is teasing Ruben for his determination to think he has a chance. They’re also looking at me differently, as I knew they would.

Ruben is gracious in defeat. He stands up from his desk and walks to the front of the class, where he bows his head and presents his slain calculator to me on the palm of his outstretched hand.

It’s obvious that he loves the attention.

 

 

OVER THE next weeks, I catalog Ruben’s effect on the people around him. He’s not a selfish god. He acknowledges the attention of his classmates without overtly encouraging it, is carefully platonic, except with whatever girl he’s dating, rarely initiates physical contact, and spreads his attention evenly—survival techniques probably already long practiced by the time he showed up in my class.

He’s good-looking enough, but his beauty is in his energy. The wavy, dark brown hair that curls into his collar, his tall, solid frame, and his wardrobe are all only average. But the force field of his laser-focused attention, his contagious curiosity, his fluid movements, and the pure strength of his purpose are something else entirely.

I duly note the effect he has on the people around him, and then I use my observations of Ruben and his classmates to inform my lesson plans, to assist my reach for words and ideas that will capture their interest and motivate them toward an appreciation of history. I’m a teacher. I do what I do best.

I’m also human.

Over the progression of weeks and months, I succeed in dampening my reaction to Ruben. By early December I’ve grown accustomed enough to the discomfort to consider the issue resolved and reward myself with occasional self-chiding chuckles for having been a fool.

I behave impeccably, responsibly, irreproachably.

I behave so impeccably that I’m unaware of the escalating threat until it’s too late.

When I notice the look, that look, on Ruben’s face, that spark in his brown eyes, I have to fight to keep from turning around to see who’s behind me. I know no one’s behind me. The absurdity of that look being directed at me makes me laugh out loud. I turn the laugh into a joke about the next topic of my lecture and carry on.

But that first questioning smirk of Ruben’s is followed by others. Over the next months, the looks he sends me evolve into confident flirtations, and his deep voice when he speaks to me takes on new subtexts of softness and danger.

Certain he’ll outgrow his infatuation, I remain professional, watch the calendar, counting on time to save me. Inside myself doors close. Locks click. I turn away. Close my eyes. Try not to see.

But sunlight finds a way.

As Ruben grows to fully inhabit his curious desire… I wake up.

The feeling I wake to is pain, but I awaken. Even the never of our nonpossibility gives me an image, something to touch in my dreams, a warm pocket of flame in my cold bed, thawing me for a fleeting hour now and then. Those looks Ruben gives me reunite me with an old feeling of wanting something I can’t have. Of really wanting something I really can’t have. Will certainly never have. An exquisitely sad feeling that has always resided behind my sternum, even when I’ve managed to ignore it.

This feeling of awakening grows all through winter’s fear and into spring’s tortured taunt. By May’s countdown to the end of Ruben’s time as my student and his subsequent catapult away to college…. I require him to leave. I ache for him to leave. To please just go.

 

 

ON A sparkling day at the beginning of June, on the last day of Ruben’s internship, after our little ceremony in the museum’s private drawing room with parents and siblings and museum officials, after the handing out of certificates and the polite sipping of sparkling punch from stemmed glasses, Ruben finds me alone, leaning against the window ledge in my office.

I’m watching white petals lift and float and drift onto the grass below from the apple trees that crowd against the windows. I’m imagining a life that is spontaneous and graceful. I’m praying in my own way, waiting for him to be gone.

Ruben places his warm palms on my back.

The shock of his boldness bows my head.

When I don’t turn around, he leans his whole body against mine and whispers into my ear, “I’m away for the summer. After that, I’m not waiting any longer.”

His fingers leave me in a soft fall down my spine and I listen to him walk away, blood pumping inside my ears until that’s all I can hear.

I close my eyes and press my forehead against the window until I stop shaking.

It takes a long time.

But I’ve found a new prayer.

I lift my head and turn around to get my jacket.

He’s right there, leaning in the doorway, watching me.

He stares, waiting, until I nod.

Then he finally, finally leaves.

 

 

The Explorer | Approach

THREE MONTHS LATER | AUGUST

 

RUBEN ARRIVES back in Boston ready to party. After a long summer at his grandmother’s farm in western Massachusetts and a sedating three-hour bus ride home, the need to move and talk and flirt makes his legs jump with impatience. He’s spent most of the bus ride texting his friends to arrange a traveling party to reunite him with city lights and his favorite bars and local bands.

It’s only when the bus turns the last corner and Ruben sees a posse of his friends waiting for him that he finds the courage to make the call, which goes immediately to voice mail.

“Mr. Normand… um, Henry?” Ruben clears his throat, regretting the question mark. “I’m back in Boston and wonder if you’d like to… if we could… if there’s a chance you’d… damn it. Call me if you want to go out for coffee sometime.” He leaves his number, hangs up with a frustrated sigh, and grabs his bag, more ready than ever to be swallowed by music and rowdy laughter.

Anything to distract him from months of silence from the man he doesn’t want to want but can’t forget.

 

 

CANDACE, ONE of Ruben’s buddies from high school, sidles up to him at the second bar, a small almost-dive with a low cover charge and a history of turning a blind eye to questionable fake IDs. She slides her hand into Ruben’s and turns toward him until her breast presses against his arm.

“Anything especially exciting happen over the summer, way out there in the country?” Her delivery, full of breath and big eyes, makes the question a proposition.

Ruben mentally reviews his summer. The giddy feeling of graduating from high school. The hope of a call from Mr. Normand that would turn Ruben’s long crush into something else—something hands-on with an invitation to call Mr. Normand by his first name. Endless busy days on the farm. Squiring farm girls to the village but excusing himself from anything more than chaste kisses on doorsteps. The shock of realizing it wasn’t the girl stable hands his own age he was trying so hard to impress but the hands who were older… and men.

“Nope,” Ruben finally answers, but he looks down at Candace and smiles to take the edge off his body’s unwillingness to react to her. She must sense it, because she shifts away and pats his arm.

And that’s when Henry calls.

 

MY MIND and heart sorted through a galaxy of information to create this novel. I’m grateful for the generosity and encouragement of these beta readers who helped the story find its way home: C.C., Chris E., A. J. Henderson, A. B., Andrea Dalling, and Armi.

It has been a pleasure to work with Liz Fitzgerald, Senior Editor at Dreamspinner Press, whose expertise and kindness made me want to do whatever she asked. I’ve enjoyed working with everyone I’ve come into contact with at Dreamspinner. Their professionalism and wisdom made the publication process calming and educational.

They won’t have known it, because I’ve been lurking without speaking up much, but the authors in the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter of Romance Writers of America have been guiding lights. Their comments and discussions on the forums, their articles and stories, their books, and their ways of being have shown me much about how I want to be as a writer in this genre and in general.

I’m convinced that Everyday History would be a different novel if not for James Morrison’s album The Awakening, which I listened to every day for hours as I wrote. The flavor of that music and those songs made its way into the bones of this story.