“Worst case scenario,” I say to my girlfriend Phyllis. I sit next to her on a university-issued chair, its upholstery all orange and stained, trying to resist the urge to catch her bouncing foot in my hand. We are waiting for her to be called for her PhD oral exam in contemporary Art History. She shakes her shoe—black, simple, flat—clean off and she doesn’t move when it comes to rest, bottom-up on the linoleum floor. I pick it up after a minute and push it back over her bare toes. I am the champion of supportive boyfriends.
She is supposed to say something like “I give a brilliant exam but before they can declare high honors, Professor Remi flies into a fit of rage, murders Professors White and Elliott, and they lock her up so I have to do it all over again.” But she says nothing so I take her turn.
“You pass.” I am careful to add, “with honors. But that means you must help— who’s that guy with the formaldehyde shark?”
Her response is so quick that if I didn’t already know the answer, I’d have no idea what she said. But at least I’ve gotten her to speak.
“Right. But you have to help him with his next installation. A live alligator.”
Phyllis had told me I didn’t need to come in town for her orals but I surprised her by flying in Friday night. I waited, dodging the comers and goers of the laundry mat with an entrance adjacent to her front door, resisting the phantom waffle cone scent from the bakery across the street.
When she saw me she just kept repeating, “I can’t believe you’re here,” as she dug for her keys in her enormous bag, then jangled them against the lock.
“Come on,” I said. “I know how important this is for you.”
In the hallway on the Art History floor, I reach for her hand without looking. But she has pulled her fingers up to her lips. The skin around her nails is raw, ripped up in tiny, red shreds.
“Worst case scenario,” Phyllis says. She so straightened her hair that it falls in long, brown sticks that adhere to her most professional cardigan. “I fail.”
“That’s cheating.” I do catch her foot now and rest it across my knee.
I lean my face up into hers. “I have some good news to tell you. At dinner.”
We have been sitting in silence for a while when I stretch out my legs in front of me. It’s weird to wait in a hall, white and fluorescent, when I’ll never get up to enter its classrooms or offices—like I’m waiting in a shoebox that smells like old books.
Dr. Remi opens the office door a crack, her frizz and chin all I can see of her. “You can come in, Phyllis.”
She stands and enters without a glance back at me.
*** Two years ago, Phyllis moved for her PhD program and we started the long distance thing. We hadn’t been dating long before her acceptance. I offered to drive her from Cleveland and borrowed my dad’s Durango. We put all of the seats down and piled her things in the back. Most of what we packed was framed—mirrors, photographs and art Phyllis made herself, which we wrapped in her blankets and towels.
“We’ll just try it,” she said from the passenger’s seat.
“Exactly. If it doesn’t work out, at least we tried.”
Heading East on I-80 across Pennsylvania, we played “Would you rather,” “Marry-bury- fuck,” and “Never have I ever.”
“Never have I ever done long distance,” I said.
I was leaning over the steering wheel to stretch out my back, so I had to really twist my neck to watch for Phyllis’s response. Either she sucked at this game or I had so far led a very boring life. She dropped her one remaining digit and lost.
“How did it go?” I asked.
“The relationship?” She sipped her diet Coke. “He isn’t here now.”
After that car ride, we broke up once for a few months, which I spent fucking my insecure coworkers – the benefit of a mostly female office. Phyllis briefly dated another PhD candidate with an extensive knowledge of unknown musicians and an address in Williamsburg.
Hours later, Phyllis’s face appears in the crisscrossed window of the office door. She emerges into the hall. Pale, a little sweaty, and tugging at the tips of her straight hair. I have instructions on what not to say while we wait during the committee’s deliberation: “I’m proud of you no matter what,” “how did it go,” and “at least it’s over,” have all been nixed.
I wait for Phyllis to sit down. Instead, she leans against the wall next to the empty chair. When I stand, I bump the chair with my knee and the echo embarrasses me it’s so loud. Like my body is inexplicably unfamiliar and I’m ashamed to occupy it. Phyllis doesn’t move when I hug her.
We can hear her professors’ voices muffled from inside the office. I imagine Phyllis’s stillness is an effort to overhear what they are saying.
“How about the good news now?” I ask.
Her body twitches against me, “What?”
“I was going to wait until we went to dinner, but what if I tell you the good news now?”
I had pictured telling her over champagne and candlelight, so we could toast to the end of long distance. But she obviously needs some distraction from the discussion going on behind the closed door—to know that even if one aspect of her future is uncertain, at least she has me. Maybe a future apartment together, someone to help her squash bugs or locate her keys in the morning.
She doesn’t respond. I am still holding her against me. I kiss her hair, the grassy smell of her shampoo a little sweeter from her sweat.
“I got the job,” I say, picking up my chin from the top of her head. On my new salary, she won’t need a roommate anymore. We can get a nice place, even by Manhattan standards. I wait for tears or accolades or a long kiss.
I feel her sink a little against the wall.
Professor Remi appears once again at the door and calls Phyllis’s name.