“God, if that man grabs my shoulder again, I’m going to put him in the ground,” Michelle smiled and waved to an investor, talking through grit teeth.
“Looks like I was right to buy you those Tae Kwon Do classes,” Miles laughed, plucking her empty glass from her hand. “You might need a refill after that conversation.”
Michelle nodded, giving him a pitiful face. “Before I scream.”
“Down tiger, I’ll be right back.”
“A pinot grigio, please!” She called after him.
Michelle paused to contemplate the room after her husband slipped into the crowd. Many of their guests seemed to have forgotten their checkbooks this evening, preferring to keep conversations on the upcoming holidays or current events. With tonight’s abysmal turnout, their wing would take at least two more years in order to get built. They were right when they said that the move up to administration was a headache and a paycheck, but she had no idea it would be this tedious. Her beaded clutch vibrated in her hand. She undid the clasp and checked her phone, suddenly flooded with notifications. Six messages from Bones.
She glowered at her phone. Another night with Kostya back in town, drunk and looking for a diversion until his next layover. Rolling her eyes, she swiped away the notifications.
“Something wrong?” Miles returned, with a new glass of champagne for the both of them. A brave choice, considering that he generally didn’t take his alcohol well.
“No, just checking to see if I have any messages from the dog sitter,” she shook her head, locking her phone.
Her husband gave her an indulgent smile, his almond eyes curving into gentle half-moons, “Don’t worry about the dog, Jenna’s got it.” He took the cell from her hands and slipped it into the pocket of his dress pants.
“Miles,” she protested.
“Uh-oh, looks like you should hold onto this instead,” he handed her the glass of champagne.
“Okay fine, you’re right,” she said, reaching out to accept.
“Be here now,” he rubbed her back through her portofino.
“Thank you, Dr. Ngyuen.”
“Of course, Dr. Spotleva,” he said graciously, draping her hand over his outstretched arm. He lead them through the glass atrium of the western wing of the college.
She’d first seen Miles here years ago, when he started as an adjunct here, working fervently to finish a PhD track, and just as fervently concerned with making a good enough impression to get hired Post-Doc.
Michelle taught a class down the hall from his, and it was hard to forget how soulfully he stared out the windows of the atrium when his classes let out, in his own world. She wondered what he was constantly working out in his mind, staring out at the courtyard below like it was a silent council.
She finally decided she liked him after she observed him teach at a guest lecture, when he rolled up the sleeves of his sweater and she could see his delicately wiry wrists below. Miles spent the entirety of the lecture speaking to an empty corner of the room, too humiliated to address the crowd behind him. Then, with a small voice, he thanked them for coming and wrapped up the seminar.
After the lecture, Michelle decided to do something about things.
As Miles packed up his things into a small, black tote, she focused on his hands, slipping things into the bag. The din of the closing seminar grew silent around her and she could feel herself loosen from time, just slightly. She took the moment to impose her will on the space around him, pushing into the psychic static like a magnet pushing against the same pole. She pushed until she could feel a soft pop in reality.
As if on cue, Miles stopped, forgetting what he was reaching for on the desk. Turning away from his overlooked car keys, he left without remembering to check for their weight in his pockets. Without another glace, Miles set his eyes on the ground and left the room immediately.
Michelle laughed at herself, a little ashamed that she was using such a dirty trick to catch him alone. She took her time putting away her things, telling her friends she would catch up later, moving towards the door only when everyone else had cleared out of the seminar hall.
Then, she simply pulled out her phone and waited. Before long, she could hear his shoes coming back down the hall. Just as she could hear the steps near the door, she stepped out, looking down at her screen.
Miles ran into her, dropping his research papers on the ground.
She regarded him over the top of her phone, “Oh, I’m sorry. I just stayed behind to send a quick email.”
“No, that’s fine, I was just--” he went to gesture politely but could only just stand there, looking flustered.
Michelle stooped down in her pencil skirt to help him pick up his research, “Pardon.”
“No--that’s on me, Doctor Spotleva. I’m sorry to bother you.”
She paused, surprised that he recognized her, “How’d you know that?”
“Your name?” He smiled shyly, towards the ground, collecting his papers. “Your translation of Brothers Karamazov is pretty well known here, not just in Humanities. I was actually pretty surprised you came. Didn’t know neuroreceptors were your thing.”
Her brows furrowed, feeling like he was putting her on, “Really?”
“Yes,” he said, now visibly coloring. She could tell that he was avoiding specifically looking at her legs.
“Plus there’s the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
He shook his head, his jet black hair covering most of his mortified face. “No, sorry, it’s not work appropriate. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
“The what?” she smiled wickedly, holding his papers hostage.
He stared helplessly at her for a moment before hanging his head. “The chili pepper.”
She was confused for a moment. “The chili pepper?”
“On Rate My Professors. You have a chili pepper on your page. Quite a few, actually.”
“Well,” Michelle tried to hold back a stunned laugh. He was far more forthcoming than she expected him to be. “I guess my reputation precedes me. Or at least my chili peppers do,” she relinquished the papers to his grasp, brushing dirt off her skirt delicately. She felt his gaze follow the path of her fingers.
“You’ve been getting quite a bit of renown, too, from what I hear,” Michelle stood, holding out a hand to help him up, “Miles Ngyuen. Proponent for treatment of PTSD with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide.”
Miles paused for a moment warily before accepting her hand, “You got me.”
She handed him his emptied folder, “You’re not looking into starting a new religion here at Harvard? I hope
I’m not disappointing you in letting you that’s been done already.”
His lips twisted sardonically, “No. My sister’s a veteran in treatment. I’m not here to beguile any co-eds during my tenure.”
“I take it you’re not the beguiling type?”
“I never said that,” he said, giving her a discreet smile.
Michelle admired the string lights they hung for the night’s Gala, a nostalgic smile playing on her lips. “You remember we met here, not too far from here?”
“I remember I was picked up by a gorgeous blonde after losing my keys, yes,” Miles replied.
“I think the only thing getting picked up there was your research paper,” she teased.
He laughed, before taking a step back and regarding her at arms length, “Mmm, yup. Still gorgeous.”
She appreciated the way the soft light above hit Miles, falling in his coal black hair, and warming his tawny face. The burnt orange button-up was a fitting choice, doing lovely things to his light brown eyes and slightly flushed cheeks. “Do you want to get out of here?”
He groaned, leaning back, “Dear Lord, I thought you’d never ask.”
The keys clattered to the marble countertop, the loudest noise in their quiet apartment as they came home. The front door shut behind them, the outdated holiday wreath attached to it swinging softly.
“I’m going to take it a lot easier on my wine next time,” Miles said, folding his blazer over the kitchen counter stool.
“You’re such a lightweight,” Michelle laughed, leaning down to take off her sling-backs. She could see him wobbling slightly, standing there and holding onto the stoolback. “I could’ve sipped you under the table three times over already.”
“Oh I see,” Miles laughed, his olive face flushed, “You were trying to get me drunk.”
“Well it does get you frisky,” she smiled charmingly across the kitchen, knowing it would take her shy husband off-guard.
He pulled her in by the waist, “You don’t have to get me drunk for that.”
She pulled his head down and kissed him, tasting the sharp bite of his merlot. She could feel his hands, slowly and searchingly working her blouse out of her skirt. Sighing, she closed her eyes and enjoyed the feeling of his hands undoing her bra.
Then faintly--so softly she thought she was imagining it--she heard a lighter go off. That was when she realized the balcony was door open. Michelle’s body froze, trying to remember if she’d forgotten to lock it from earlier. “Miles,” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder, “Did you open the balcony door just now?”
He took his face from the crook of her neck and looked behind him, at the curtain flapping in the mild wind. “No, Mich. I don’t remember doing that.” He reached for his phone, eyes trained on the open screen.
“I’m going to call the cops.”
“Don’t,” she said, frustrated. She could smell them now, Marlboro Reds. She only knew one person still smoking them. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Take care of it?”
She poked her head out onto the balcony and sighed when she saw Kostya’s moonlit outline.
“Bones,” she said, stepping out in her bare, stockinged feet, “Don’t you believe in making plans?”
“Only if you believe in picking up,” he said, flicking his cigarette over the railing.
“Are you here to cockblock me?” Michelle said asked.
“I block nothing,” he held up his hands defensively. “Just bored tonight.”
“Use the door next time, you have keys for a reason,” she said, feeling a growing weariness as he padded inside with his boots on, treading over her new cream-colored rug.
“Hello Miles,” Kostya replied, sliding into the counterstool cooly. Even sitting down, he towered over his hosts. “You guys coming back from a date?”
“A fundraiser,” Michelle said, rubbing her temples. “For the new research wing of the College.”
“Kostya,” Miles said, reddening when he saw him. “Nice of you to drop by.”
Michelle shifted uncomfortably. It wasn’t that Miles didn’t like her childhood friend, but rather that Bones completely unseated his calm. The fact that he commonly barged in on them like a drunken frat boy, or the general size of him wasn’t quite what irked Miles.
Rather, it was the gravitational magnetism of Bones that flustered Miles, who was so used to taking the world at his own speed. There was a hurtle to everything about the scruffy libertine slouched on her counter stool, a momentum that felt hard to throw the brakes on once he got started.
Being the master of himself was something Miles took pride in, but decimating control was something Kostya sipped on like a fine wine. She knew that first hand. Michelle began to feel a deep exhaustion setting in. Before it could overtake her completely, she tried to cross the kitchen, “What are you having, Bones? I’ll fix something for you.”
He stopped her by putting a hand on her shoulder, ice cold. It made her wonder how long he’d been out there on the balcony, waiting for them to come home. She wondered if he got cold at all anymore, like her.
“No, no, no,” he insisted, moving to the bar “You relax. I’ll make you two something I had in Dubrovnik.”
She met Miles’ gaze in the kitchen and gestured her head towards the couch. He nodded and settled onto the soft creased leather with her. She tried to give him an apologetic look, but he seemed like he was reaching his daily limit of polite interaction.
“Where are you headed to this time, Bones?” She asked, watching him fiddle with the mesh filter of their cocktail shaker.
“Prague,” he answered vaguely, stooping down in front of their service bar, “Do you have any red pepper flakes?”
She pointed towards the kitchen, “Bottom