Estella Deng wrapped herself in a sea-green scarf and began to doodle on the page of bullet points before her—the beginnings of a royal blue star. She detailed its countless rays, luminosities. Because that’s what you are, her inner voice chimed as a reminder of all reminders. The brightest of stars—shine.
She worked in I.T. “IT,” she would joke, when asked what she was working on. “I’m working on IT.” “IT is what I’m working on.” “I’ll get to IT.”
At the moment, she was among those congregated for the Fall Semester Staff Meeting. The classroom was cold, the air conditioning unit still in need of adjustment. Students from the previous class had left behind coffee cups and candy wrappers, empty bags of chips scattered like debris over the conference-style table. There sat the administrators and instructors of the program, packed tightly together, sardine-like. Estella was able to get a whiff of Mrs. Aleman’s bergamot perfume. She could feel Mr. Smythe’s knees, pressed against her own. On the whiteboard were the half-erased remnants of what looked to be a chemical equation. And beside that, the next item on the agenda: the office. Students were taking things at their will—stealing.
It was Rudyard Kahn who now raised the issue. He wasn’t the first instructor to make a report, but he was one of the most adamant that something must be done about it. Dry-erase markers, binder clips, gel pens, entire reams of paper, gone for good.
“Objects that couldn’t have simply vanished into thin air,” Rudyard was saying.
There was more: an instructor of biology mentioned his store of petri dishes. Another instructor—psychology—was suddenly reminded of the Eiffel Tower paperweight from her trip to Paris. It then occurred to one of the writing instructors that his autographed copy of Madame Bovary, signed by its most recent translator, Lydia Davis, wasn’t where he’d last left it. “And it’d be nice to have it back.”
The light was pale yellow, sickly in color. In the basement, there were no windows. Estella sighed. She caught sight of her reflection on the glass of a nearby monitor. Her graying hair, the sag in her wide, dark eyes. She would have never imagined herself to be the figure before her now—more rounded in the face than she would have liked, plagued by dry mouth, prone to frequent yawning. Perhaps she had been looking at her reflection for far too long. It felt as if what she saw was beginning to turn on her. And yet the affirmations that her life coach—a Trinidadian woman by the name of Marcia, whom Estella had been seeing on the Upper East Side—told her to recite to herself had always been an attempt at the opposite: a resistance to complacency.
You feel so good today.
You are the brightest of stars.
Shine, shine, shine . . .
“Let’s be honest,” said Jane, the mousy instructor of sociology, breaking into the swell of Estella’s thoughts. “Students take things at their will. It’s as if they think that the office is some kind of buffet.” She reported that someone had “borrowed” her stapler—it was the third time. “I had to place an order for another, and who knows how long that’s going to take?”
The meeting came to a head when Dr. Bridgewater raised her voice over the cacophony, hammering her flimsy pen against the table like a gavel. “We can’t deny the students access. The space is foremost for them. This is, after all, a university.”
Dr. Bridgewater went on to remind everyone that their line of work was considered a “service profession.” If one didn’t like it, one could simply leave. “And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Thus, typical of most meetings at the program, the agenda went unresolved.
“You’re the lucky one,” Rudyard muttered to Estella afterward as they were leaving. He was tall, still with darkish hair but pallid in complexion. He had made an attempt to slip past her, but then pulled the door open, harder than he’d intended, and it only startled her all the more.
“What exactly is this all about, Rudyard?”
“What do you think? Students are stealing right from under our noses.” Then, as if pivoting to another point: “Though some people are lucky enough to have an office all to themselves. Not so unlike yourself, might I add.”
“There’s no logic to it. It just boggles the mind.”
“How so?” She could see that he was only speaking out of frustration. At least she hoped so. She also hoped that they wouldn’t be overheard, so she started to whisper. “What can I do? It’s not up to me.”
“Of course, I suppose.” His gaze then fell back on a partial view of Dr. Bridgewater through the window from the hallway. The formidable figure sat at the head of the table, still holding court, determined to make her mark on the program. “It’s up to the powers that be, in all their infinite wisdom.”
“The powers that be?” After all these years, Estella could see that Rudyard had become resentful—even bitter. For one, he had been passed over several times for a promotion. And a promotion would have certainly led to an office of his own. “Believe me when I say that I feel for you, Rudyard. I really do.”
“Spare me your pity.”
“It’s not pity.”
He stared down at his watch. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to get to my next class.”
Estella could have offered something else, but only looked on helplessly: a lowly figure, disappearing down the hall, once ripe with promise.
This is what she chose to remember: another spring semester, another afternoon, twelve years prior. How at one time, they had been a sort of item. In fact, there were still instances, as the office settled into its own quietude, when Estella found herself reminiscing about that day. Washington Square Park, the fountain, the haze of a setting sun. The backdrop of the marble arch—triumphant. How it did feel like fate when they’d all but collided. She never thought herself very good at making first impressions, and yet there she was, exuding what felt like the very best version of herself, and all for Rudyard: “You must be Rudyard.” “Why, yes.” “How do you do?” “I’m swell, and yourself?” “The most swell, if that makes any sense.” “Oh, it does. It really does.”
Rudyard had laughed—they both did. And she felt as if she were once again in her element. They’d been in their late thirties then. He, only a year younger, slightly more attractive than the handful of men she’d been seeing before him. There was the ophthalmologist with the crooked leg. She had been semi-serious with the architect, the scar on his left cheek. Then there was the philosophy professor, Said, before he had left the country for Algeria. Rudyard had a firm jaw and penetrating, almost icy blue eyes. He resembled an actor, or a lawyer, someone with a veneer-like exterior, unbreakable. He had just moved to New York City in order to start his position as an adjunct instructor of mathematics for the program, with the promise of being promoted to full-time staff. She already knew this about the man, but that day as they chatted on a bench in the park, she pretended as though she were hearing it for the very first time. In truth, she had been watching him all along—at meetings, rushing to and from classes. He had been more optimistic then, infectious in his good humor, his ambitious classroom pedagogy. He was even liked by the students—at least according to the evaluations she’d had to organize. There were exchanges of smiles throughout the following weeks at the office, pieces of conversation that resonated like a bell in the innermost depths of Estella, practically transcendent with meaning: “How are you doing, Estella?” “I’m doing well.” “Wonderful day, isn’t it?” “The most wonderful.”
All the silly things that she had said for his benefit—for instance, she wasn’t all that interested in the reinterpretation of Baroque music, or the various spice levels of Thai food. She would have rather talked about the Queen of England. Or her collection of herbal teas.
Estella didn’t know where she found the courage, but one day soon afterward, perhaps reading too much into Rudyard’s vulnerability of being new to the university and still trying to find his footing in the program, she braved through her doubts. She asked him to dinner.
In hindsight, Estella could see that perhaps Rudyard had agreed in haste because he was newly hired, and wasn’t quite in the position not to make some friends at the office, to carve out a place for himself. Whatever the reason, she had hoped that they would make a connection, and that it would be true. Why she latched onto him so immediately, she couldn’t quite answer anymore. Perhaps because he seemed new and unspoiled. Or was it because she had felt at a kind of prime of her life—its final stages? But that was then.
Only after several evenings out together—after they’d seen a foreign film at the Angelika on Houston Street; after they’d leisurely strolled through SoHo, where Estella was almost dangerously open about the office and its politics (“Watch out for that Mabel Devoe, she’s a gossip”); after Rudyard had kissed her, and she had taken him back to her apartment, and he’d spent the night—he stopped returning her calls altogether. Even after she had left message after message, one after the next. Each escalating in further concern, in panic.
And then there was the unfortunate evening. She had let the chardonnay get to her head. She had made an overestimation in her judgment, leaving the tear-filled monologue on his answering machine, and telling him something to the effect that if he got to know her—to really really know her—he’d feel differently. She could only guess at what she’d done wrong. Was it the Swedish film that they saw? Was it the restaurant she had suggested, Veselka? Did he not like the Ukrainian borscht?
The following week, Rudyard approached her to say, “I listened to your messages.”
“Oh, I can explain.” She was in her office, working on the Final Report, almost past due.
“I feel that I owe you an explanation.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” she said, while pretending to type.
“It isn’t you. In fact, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel anything, but I’ve already made it a point not to mix work with my personal life.”
Yet it seemed to explain it all. The avoidances, the purposeful absences. The sting of intention.
“I need the space,” he added. “A healthy distance. I hope that you can understand. We can be friends, can’t we?”
She wanted to. In her memory of the moment, her inner voice was already urging, Forgive, forget. No regrets. She let out a hope-filled, “Okay?”
But the following year, the rumors began to circulate—Rudyard, in a secret relationship. Supposedly with a former student. And then the rumor gained momentum. It had been none other than Mabel Devoe who’d spotted Rudyard and the girl canoodling at a cafe. Was it at Dojo? Campus Eatery? The diner at 19 Waverly Place?
Mabel said she caught hand holding, the exchange of affectionate glances, shameless bouts of laughter. The appearance of something untoward, materializing. “Foolish,” she remarked. “Reckless.”
In a moment of self-righteousness, Mabel had actually confronted Rudyard.
“You did?” Estella asked. “What did he say exactly?”
“What do you think? The man told me to mind my own business—but also that he was no longer the student’s instructor and that they were both consenting adults.” Her face, scrunched in disapproval.
“Oh, I see.” Estella had been taken by surprise. It sounded like Rudyard, though. The Rudyard who had been promoted to full-time staff and who no longer needed to be on his best behavior.
Mabel had half a mind to report the incident to her superior—their superior. It would likely go up to the director, at the time an aging Dr. Chowdhry, who had been on the verge of retirement, and whose managerial tactic had always been to get things hurriedly handled in order to pass the remaining days. In the end, it was Estella who’d convinced Mabel not to make a report. It wasn’t that times were worse back then. It was almost like another epoch, before the realization that the agreements of decency between people weren’t as obvious as previously thought. For one, there was too much left unsaid, too much kept unarticulated. An irrational indignity in accountability. And people were seemingly in a kind of dark age, as well as a mistaken bliss.
“Think of the poor student,” a former version of Estella had said. “We need not tarnish her reputation, or jeopardize her chances at a professional future.”
“You mean Leona?” Mabel replied. Then in a lower register, “Have you met Leona?”
Leona Chung had been a senior, about to graduate. She was a loquacious girl with voluminous chocolate hair and near-perfect teeth, who, just a couple of semesters prior, Estella could remember being overly anxious about a quantum physics exam and rummaging through flashcards in the office as if the quality of the next phase of her life depended upon it.
Rudyard was lucky. For all his recklessness, he had remained unscathed. The people who needed to know never found out. Time passed. Then more time passed. Again, it was like another season—then a winter. People stopped remembering; they moved on. And it was soon apparent that the romance fizzled out anyway, once Leona started medical school across the country.
Estella had trouble drifting off into her usual sleep. She was on her subway ride home—the 4 train. She couldn’t refrain from thinking about the Fall Semester Staff Meeting, two hours wasted on students stealing from the office. Then she thought of Rudyard, still somewhat miffed at the tone he had taken with her, that elitist, disdainful air—pulling the door open as if he’d meant to get away from her at the soonest possible moment. Yes, it was true, after nearly a decade of teaching, he was now the most senior of instructors at the Academic Resource Center. Also, he had had a point; he wasn’t the only one who felt underappreciated, riddled by low morale. But was it her fault? Was it not the “powers that be” who had withheld the advancement he so desired? That he even deserved, to an extent?
But times had changed. The university, expanding—the program along with it. Furthermore, she thought that she and Rudyard had cultivated an understanding, that their relationship remained more than cordial. They’d come to utter obligatory hellos, superficial outrage over any unexpected changes in the weather. Staunch advocates for free food at mandatory program events like Checking in with the Program: A Mandatory Event.
Later that week, Dr. Bridgewater personally stopped by Estella’s office. The woman took in the crowded room of computers, the overfilled filing cabinets. After exchanging short-lived pleasantries, she laid it all out. It was the meetings upstate—how potentially beneficial they were for the vitality of the program. She advised Estella to put in a request for an assistant.
Estella was taken aback. “What do you mean? Assistant?”
“I want you to be more available: on standby. I mean, to send upstate. It might have to be at a moment’s notice. You never know.”
“Never know? Upstate? More meetings?” Estella could barely fathom the thought. She was already disenchanted by the meetings at the university. She found them redundant, almost always too long, too exhaustive. Furthermore, she wasn’t keen on the idea of someone meddling with her belongings. She then wondered: What about the job had originally enlivened her? What had been lost? For one, her position in I.T. was terminal. There was no moving up. And she was already starting to feel like she herself was at a terminus. All that was left before her, an abyss of lateral moves. And then, she thought, what had the job taken from her own life? How many stolen hours of reprieve? And how to put some of that back?
You are a force of self-love. Shine, shine, shine.
“You can think of it as a promotion,” Dr. Bridgewater told her, as if reading her mind.
“A promotion?” Biting down on her bottom lip, Estella tried her best not to laugh. She watched as Dr. Bridgewater didn’t seem to register any of it. The woman was a micromanager, someone who would always be suspicious of her subordinates, questioning the motives of each action as if they were an attempt to usurp her decision-making. It was the antithesis of generosity. “Or the antithesis of a skill-set,” a writing instructor had once said. Still, Dr. Bridgewater managed to appear unperturbed. She straightened her blazer. It was violet that day, the university’s color.
“Now, if you can only figure out what to do about this theft situation with the students. It’s really getting out of hand.”
“Yes, you, Estella. The staff keep complaining that the signs you’ve posted haven’t been working.”
“Not working? What do you mean?”
“Things keep getting taken.”
“Oh. You sure?”
“Dr. Escobar’s toaster, for instance. Several of Ingrid’s houseplants, though to be honest, I suspect they died. Not to mention Rudyard Kahn’s coat.”
“But you see, I already have too much on my plate.”
Estella listed the meetings on her schedule for later that week. The files in the sub-basement that still needed to be sorted.
Her boss stared her down. “Does it look like I’m asking you?”
“Well, I . . .”
“Because, Ms. Deng, if you need me to spell it out for you—I will.”
So spell it, Estella imagined she’d reply, but didn’t.
His name was Dante. According to his résumé, he was a sophomore. He played on the volleyball team. He was majoring in economics, with a minor in computer science. He was treasurer of the Black Students’ Science Organization. That’s not exactly President, she thought.
Estella put Dante to work immediately. In part, she supposed, to dissuade the youngster from thinking that the job was easy, or rather, simple. She also wanted to reveal to him—and to some extent to herself—how much her position actually entailed. It was supposed to be grueling work, not the work of someone who kept their head low, in the hopes that they wouldn’t be singled out. She now had something to prove. And prove she must.
You are worth more than your own comprehension.
So she had Dante reconfigure the student laptops. She had him reinstall the online grading system. She had him rid the grading system of bugs. She had him update the tutoring database. She even sent him to the bowels of the filing cabinets in the sub-basement, in order to alphabetize the records, some of which went back years—decades even, long before she herself had started working for the program.
And then she was caught by surprise. Dante quickly rose to the challenge. He was only too happy to put in the hours in order to see each project through.
“Done, done, and done,” he’d proclaim.
She soon changed her mind about the kid—she couldn’t help it. He had certainly passed a kind of test. In many ways, he was more efficient than her own coworkers, those who would go about their days seemingly dumbfounded and scatterbrained, in that decayed state. It was as if they had embraced surrender for the final stretch of their days—a strategy for the maintenance and upkeep of one’s sense of being before the inevitable leveling off.
Yet seeing Dante was nothing short of ennobling. Perhaps there was something more too—something in the young man that even reminded her of her former self.
“Shine. Shine. Shine,” Dante said. He was reading off the pink Post-It note that she had stuck to her computer monitor.
When his birthday came around that December, Estella got him a gift card.
“The university bookstore?” Dante exclaimed. “How fantastic! You shouldn’t have.” He had peeled open the bright green envelope, careful enough not to wrinkle it.
“Don’t mention it.” She then added, “Just keep up the excellent work.”
“Yes, of course,” Dante responded. And she could see in the light of his eyes, in the subtle elongation of his posture, that he meant it.
It was only a matter of time before Estella entrusted Dante with the keys to her own office. She was actually relieved that there would now be a presence to be seen in the space: bright lights, a figure, no matter how blurred from the opaque windows. People would pass and notice that the office was being put to good use, which only lifted the pressure of having to rush back after one of the meetings or conferences she was being sent to in order to oversee the program’s efforts. Albany, Westchester. That time in Providence. She could stop somewhere for a late lunch. She could decompress. Breathe.
You deserve all the best.
To her delight, Dante knew how to take initiative as well. For instance, it was he who installed the surveillance system on four student computers along a wall of the basement office. The cameras would discreetly watch over the desks of the instructors like a garrison. The black-and-white footage, recorded for perusal later, no sound.
“It’ll be like catching mice,” Dante said. “Office supplies, out like pieces of cheese.”
“Dante, you’re a godsend. How do you always manage it?”
“To go above and beyond.”
The young man all but blushed. “Should I inform the instructors as soon as it goes live?”
Estella considered the ramifications, what telling them might mean. She could already foresee how her colleagues would only be disgruntled—and how they might demand another unnecessary staff meeting that’d venture into nowhere territory, a meeting she’d have to prepare and even facilitate. More on her plate. No doubt she’d have to explain in minute detail the system’s application, its process. Explain away the ethics of surveillance. No doubt she would have to field questions. If someone were to mention “Big Brother,” she’d flip. Now she only wanted to show that she was making an effort. Should Dr. Bridgewater raise the issue again, she would have her bases covered.
“Better not to alarm them,” Estella finally said. “I suspect that we might not even need it. Why don’t we save it? As a last resort?” And then, “Hopefully the problem will sort itself out.”
He zipped up his backpack and swung it over his shoulder. “Fair enough.” And then, “Is there anything else that you need from me today before I head out?”
Estella shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said. “You’ve done enough, more than enough.”
Exam week. Anxious students crowded the hallways. There were long lines to seek out the last-minute wisdom of various instructors. The office turned into its own kind of madhouse, as there was barely any room to maneuver about. Even Dante was forced to cut back on his hours. “Mandarin is kicking my butt,” he said. Estella told him that it was his priority to do well in his classes, and that he had better get that A on his exam or else she’d kick his butt.
That Monday, as soon as Estella sat down to work on the Midyear Report, Dr. Hadid barged into her office. She could see the panic exuding from the man’s face. He informed her that someone had taken his hat. He described it to her: a red beanie, a designer logo. “Have you seen it?”
“No.” Then she had to be honest: “What would anyone want with your beanie?”
“It was a gift from my daughter. All I know is that I wore it last Thursday. I left it on my desk, and when I returned this morning, it was . . .”
She leaned forward. “Yes?”
From her swivel chair, she looked up at the man. His expression, a tiredness that came from overwork and more low morale. When she’d first met Dr. Hadid, he had been a sprightly PhD student. He still had all his dark hair then. He also didn’t reek of cigarettes and general gloom. Now Dr. Hadid made sure to mention that Jane’s stapler was also missing. And it had just been replaced, for the third time.
“Perhaps the janitor moved it somewhere? Perhaps another instructor borrowed it?”
“What gives? The hat was a gift! And on top of that, my already-missing petri dishes. The universe is too cruel.” (She almost thought he had said “university.”)
“Calm down,” Estella said. “Let’s be sensible.”
“I think I’ll have no other choice.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll have to take this up with Dr. Bridgewater. In fact, a couple of the instructors have been meaning to.”
The image of Dr. Bridgewater admonishing her flashed before her mind’s eye. She could kiss her A.M.I.—annual merit increase—goodbye. “Now let’s not get carried away. Give me a chance to get to the bottom of the matter.”
“Haven’t you already tried? Do you mean to hang up more posters?”
“Actually, I think I have one more trick up my sleeve.”
That evening, after many of the instructors had left for the day, Estella hunkered down and began to review the hours of footage that had been recorded. She had pushed off the task for far too long, and now there was much to go over, too much. She did so while having dinner at her desk, a container of macaroni and cheese, chicken, and mashed potatoes drowning in gravy. Perusing the black-and-white screens, she tried to fast-forward through what she saw: various students and instructors coming and going throughout the day. Nothing so out of the ordinary. A student took a ream of paper. Another took several pens. It was true—students were taking things at their will: literally stealing. She made a list of names. She was up to sixteen. Seventeen.
An hour later, long after Estella had done her worst on the macaroni and cheese, she began to realize that the exercise was proving to be a fruitless endeavor, almost as perfunctory as the reports she was obligated to type up each year. Now she saw that she had dug herself into another hole, deeper too. She’d be expected to go over hours upon hours of footage. And was she expected to report every single student who borrowed a pen? Even at quadruple the speed? She’d have to be there for much of the night, that’s for sure.
The opening of her office door startled her. “Oh God!” she couldn’t help crying out. “You scared the bejesus out of me!”
There was Dante—as if she had summoned the youngster from the depths of her unconsciousness. He jangled the keys at the door.
“I knocked. Didn’t you hear me?”
“Clearly not. How long have you been out there?”
“Not so long. I’m surprised that you’re still here.”
“Classified business.” She tried to sound jovial. “And may I ask what you’re doing here at such a late hour?”
“I think I left my philosophy book.” He surveyed the room, then pointed. “And I was right, there it is.” He picked up the book. The cover displayed a picture of Simone de Beauvoir and Friedrich Nietzsche. “I was afraid I’d lost it.”
“This office isn’t supposed to be your locker, you know.”
He chuckled. Then he looked over at the computer screen. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Quite well, actually.”
“I can run an update next week if you’d like.”
“That would be nice.”
“That’s Professor Kahn, isn’t it?”
“What?” She could feel the heat rising to her face.
Dante didn’t seem to notice, though. “He was my calculus teacher.”
“Freshman year. A bit of a crab. But that’s between you and me.”
“Oh, I’ll bet you’re not the first to say something like that.”
He took a seat. Estella couldn’t help thinking that it was a mistake for her to sound so inviting. Now Dante was telling her, “He made an example out of me once in front of the class. All because I walked in five minutes late.”
She gave him a pointed look.
“All right, maybe it was ten minutes, but still.”
She really did like the kid. A few years from now, she suspected, what he was telling her would only be a distant memory, if a memory at all. But she also considered Rudyard’s hypocrisy. Was there not many an instance when the man would arrive late for program meetings himself? For now, she just said, “Sounds like Classic Kahn.”
Dante chuckled. He turned back to the computer screen. She tried to see what he might be seeing. Or perhaps envisioning. There was Rudyard, still paused, in mid-conversation with another student. It was during office hours.
Estella felt the need to say, “Just trying to get to the bottom of this situation, who’s stealing what. I mean, with all the thefts that have been going on. I should work on this.”
“Oh, yes,” Dante said, as if realizing he was in the way. “Of course.”
After Dante left, Estella turned her attention back to the footage. She made several more discoveries. Jane had actually lost her stapler while absorbed in a telephone call; she had inadvertently knocked it behind her desk. She then helped herself to Dr. Hadid’s, a couple of desks over. The English literature instructor (Angela, was it?) had a penchant for picking her nose in front of the computer monitor. And that Mabel Devoe—she was actually romantically involved with one of the academic advisors. How rich. They’d exchange quick kisses and fondle each other when they thought no one was watching.
It turned out that Dr. Hadid had not, in fact, left his beanie with the designer logo on his desk. He had actually left it on a nearby bookshelf. And it looked as if he had forgotten where he’d put it altogether. Case closed, Estella thought. She breathed a much-needed sigh of relief.
In the meantime, she went back to watching Rudyard—found herself relishing watching him in a way she’d never been able to do before. His power naps in between grading sessions. How he, too, indulged in sweets. A donut, another brownie. How he would lick the tips of his fingers afterward. She had seen him spill his coffee on his pants and try to wipe himself clean with a pile of napkins. What was so appealing about him in the first place? In the years since, Estella had seen other people beyond Rudyard. But after attending a string of weddings, she’d decided that a break was in order. Now she saved the footage. Knowing herself, she might want to revisit it again, another night. For now, she would only watch a little while longer.
It neared midnight. The building was officially closed. Estella could barely keep her eyes open. Still, her will to maintain her inertia won out. Just a few more minutes.
“Replenish the soul,” she said aloud. “It is what you deserve.”
She watched Rudyard as he rose to put on his coat. He buttoned it up. She thought of how when the trench coat was new, it had made him appear all the more dapper. Too bad it had been taken from him—he’d had it for years.
He then made his way a few desks over and paused before the mirror, checking to see if there was something in his teeth. He fixed his hair. She thought that perhaps he had plans for dinner. When he came upon Dr. Hadid’s desk, Estella jolted up. “No,” she mouthed as she eyed him. She rewound the footage. Then she couldn’t help herself from bursting out in laughter. It was a laughter that lasted all the way to the train station at Union Square. The winter night, feeling unseasonably warm.
Of course, it wasn’t only Dr. Hadid’s hat. Over the next couple of days, Estella found that Rudyard helped himself to Mr. Penceal’s swear jar. Then there was the coffee mug that belonged to one of the psychology instructors. There was Dr. Lum’s personal molecule set, and Maureen’s desk calendar of Impressionist paintings. It became a kind of routine for Rudyard. After his colleagues had gone home, he might remain behind and help himself to one or two things. “Treating it like a buffet” seemed apt now. And it became Estella’s routine to wait until he’d leave in order to watch him take whatever appeared to have some hint of sentimental value. He also helped himself to Mrs. Goolsby’s souvenir coaster, which she’d brought back from New Orleans. It wound up in Rudyard’s breast pocket, traveling with him to God knows where.
Watching him, it surprised Estella how much she could sympathize. She saw that he was a man who suffered the anguish of private hurts. It never occurred to her how alone he must have felt, seeing how he spent his Friday evenings at the office too, and had come to spend more and more weekends there—again, alone. Now she imagined that he might even feel as alone as she did at times. And if they were both alone, couldn’t they figure out a way to be less alone? She somehow understood. Or projected. Approximately middle-aged, they were both experiencing the dusk of something, and the dawn that followed wouldn’t shine nearly as bright as it once had.
Still, in the successive days, Estella came to realize a renewed sense of her own self. She stopped Rudyard in the hall to tell him of her needless commutes to conferences—sometimes as far away as Albany. She came to tell him about her so-called promotions, which felt like more indignities inflicted by “the powers that be.” It was language that he understood. At first, he seemed caught off guard by her forwardness, as if unsure of what to do with their recent conversations. But then he came to respond to her openness. Each time he laughed, it left her feeling more emboldened. He’d ask her about her day, and she would tell him: meetings elsewhere, the Final Report to work on. He would even joke with her. “Any new promotions lately?” Or the time when he caught her on her way out: “What part of Neverland are they sending you to this time?” “God knows.” “Do your best.” “I’m working on IT.”
“What’s gotten into you, Estella Deng?” Rudyard asked days later. They were standing outside her office. Estella, unaware that she’d been smiling at him the entire time. Once again, he was expressing his dismay with the program, the university overall, his feeling of low morale.
He was even considering applying to another university, though he had been saying this for years. Still he remarked on wanting a better position, better pay. “Not some place where I’m forced to teach in such a thankless environment.” He then said he’d probably have to wait out the spring semester before he could realistically consider it an option.
“But you can’t leave,” Estella found herself saying.
“Why ever not?” He glanced around. He was supposed to be someone of cool resignation. What happened? “I’m beginning to detest everyone here.”
“Really? Even me?” She playfully batted her eyes. Her interior monologue chanted, You ooze exquisiteness.
Rudyard shook his head as if he were realizing something for the very first time. “No, not you, Estella.”
“Goodness gracious.” She turned to enter her office. She could feel his gaze follow her. Closing the door, she swore she spied, just for a moment, his shadow lingering under the threshold.
The next week, there was another knock on her door.
“Come,” Estella called out from her desk. She waved him in. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Rudyard hesitated. “Very funny. Am I interrupting something?”
“Kinda, sorta.” She couldn’t help teasing him, though it was partly true. She was making headway on her report and didn’t want to lose her momentum.
“Okay, how about sometime later today then?” he offered.
“I’m busy, actually.”
“The entire day?”
She nodded. It wasn’t untrue. She had to prepare for a meeting in Albany later that week. She’d expected him to leave, yet he remained standing at the door. Awkwardly, she saw him inspect the room. At that moment, she was filled with self-consciousness. In some ways, her office resembled her most disorganized and convoluted self, and she almost wished that her bookshelf was not filled with her collection of teapots, many of which were chipped. At one time, she thought it added to the charm. Now she could only see the plants that clung to dear life, the stack of computers on the floor in various stages of repair. The intermittent blinking of the fluorescent light on the ceiling, like a cry for help.
“You should probably get that fixed,” he said.
“I’m still working on it?”
He stood watching her intently as she went through the motions of proofreading her report. The numbers seemed to coagulate and swim in her head, but none quite sank in.
“Yes?” she finally said, her inner voice urging, Stay calm, carry on.
“What are you doing tonight?” Rudyard then asked. “I don’t have any plans for later this evening, I mean.”
Estella turned to face him. He appeared nervous, even younger, less put together. But she could see that he was serious.
“I see.” Then, “Are you saying that you’re too busy?”
She had on the red lipstick that she’d bought at Duane Reade only half an hour earlier. Dinner was at an Italian restaurant a couple of blocks off campus. She’d ordered the fettuccine alfredo. Rudyard, a bowl of mussels. They shared a bottle of the cabernet. It was going well, as well as Estella had hoped. She felt her dark eyes shine. Her words seemed to resonate all the more with meaning when she spoke about the progress with work, how her assistant Dante had been such a pleasant surprise, a Godsend even.
“In fact, he was once a student of yours, wasn’t he?”
“Gosh, I don’t remember.”
She felt uninhibited. And yet she could see that Rudyard was the opposite. He played with the shells on his plate. He seemed to retreat within himself. He told her that he didn’t have much of an appetite, as it turned out. But he nibbled when he wasn’t half-heartedly agreeing with her. He showed only an inkling of interest when she spoke about an I.T. convention she’d attended a few years back, all the way in Victoria, British Columbia. High Tea at the Empress Hotel. The delicious blueberry scones, to die for. “You just had to be there,” Estella said, with a dismissive gesture of her hand.
“I’m sure,” Rudyard nodded absentmindedly. He was noticeably less opinionated as well; there was none of his usual complaining, his curmudgeonly attitude. Still, she did not let this deter her from speaking about the program, its shortcomings and blind spots. She saw herself entirely in control. In her element. She felt her energy spill over, and even overpower his.
“Perhaps something for dessert?” the waiter asked, collecting their plates.
Rudyard shook his head. “No dessert for me.”
But Estella insisted. “Yes, for the both of us. Bring us each a pastry, something sweet.” She turned to Rudyard. “I’ll have what you don’t finish.”
Rudyard was silent as the waiter cleared the table. “Estella, I wanted to say that I hope you know that I’ve grown rather fond of you through the years.”
“As have I.”
He seemed to relax a little. “I’m relieved to hear you say that, truly I am.”
“Is that what this dinner is about?”
“Well, sort of. Yes. I suppose it is.”
She leaned in. She felt seductive, even evocative. “So what else do you have in mind?”
Their desserts arrived. Rudyard then covered his mouth with a clenched fist and cleared his throat. It looked as if he were preparing to deliver a well-rehearsed speech. “I wanted you to hear it from me first.”
“Hear what?” She kept her smile, and broke apart a piece of the croissant; its flakes scattered haphazardly across her side of the table. Rudyard left his barely touched. “Well?”
He looked up from his plate. “I’ve received a kind of promotion. I’ve been made Unit Leader.”
“Oh, Rudyard! That’s wonderful news!” She then leaned in and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. “Well, this can go either way, can’t it?”
“It’s good news. A generous raise. Incentive to stay.”
“I’m only kidding. That’s fantastic!”
“I know. In fact, I’ve actually known for some time now.”
“You didn’t have to keep it to yourself.” She held up her glass. “I feel a congratulation is in order.”
He broke into a meek smile.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Estella offered.
“I’m not embarrassed.” Then, “What I mean to say is, our roles are changing at the program.”
“And in light of my new responsibilities, I made a request.”
“It’s for your office. It’s been approved by Dr. Bridgewater. You’ll be officially notified shortly.”
She felt her face drain. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Are you saying that you’re taking my office?”
“Now let me explain. I’ve been struggling with how I was going to tell you. Believe me when I say that it’s not personal.”
“As I already said, I’ve grown rather fond of you through the years.”
She laughed. “Fond of me.”
“But I’ve been with the program for a very long time.”
“As have I.”
“Well, I simply cannot do with the space that I have.” Then, “It’s only unfortunate that it has to be yours.”
Her eyes fell to her silverware; it glinted under the intensity of the lights. She could imagine Rudyard reciting a not so dissimilar spiel to Dr. Bridgewater. She felt herself shrink further.
“And with all the thefts going on, the office has turned into an uncomfortable place to be for all of us,” Rudyard continued. “Especially for me. In fact, as you probably well know, someone has even taken my coat.”
“Anyhow, I thought I’d extend you the courtesy. I wanted to give you the chance to prepare yourself. After all, I remember those messages that you left on my answering machine. They weren’t, shall we say, pleasant. It wasn’t so long ago, either.”
Estella dabbed her lips with the linen napkin. Her red lipstick smeared across the beige cloth.
“Rudyard, that was a long time ago.”
“And I’ve changed.”
“And you’re a fool.”
He glanced around the restaurant. It was near empty. Still, his expression was deadpan. “If you’re planning on making a scene now, spare me. I have an early class in the morning. And then I have a meeting with Dr. Bridgewater.”
“Well, you can tell her that you’ve been stealing from the office.”
His smile dropped. “Excuse me?”
“It’s you, Rudyard.”
He laughed a little. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you? I had a surveillance system installed on the office computers. I have the footage saved on my hard drive, and synced to all my devices. Do you want me to show you? I can.”
The corners of his mouth stiffened. He lost some of the color in his expression. It was as if he was willing his muscles to remain in place.
“Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?” Rudyard finally said.
“You’re one to talk.”
The waiter returned to fill their water glasses. After he had gone, Rudyard leaned in. His tone was one of deliberateness when he said, “So what are you going to do?”
“Just as I’ve been doing all along, Rudyard—absolutely nothing.”
“Nothing?” He sat back, reached for his glass. “Then let me rephrase the question. What do you want in return?”
She could have laughed. “In return? God, Rudyard, don’t you know?”
“I want you to whisk me back to my apartment and make passionate love to me.” She didn’t realize at first that she had said it aloud. He almost spat out the water he was drinking.
Estella shook her head. She had already thought it through to some extent—what she wanted to happen to him. She didn’t want him gone. Only rebuffed. Even someone in her debt. “No, Rudyard. Just stop, all right? I want you to put this to bed. Everything goes back to where and who it belongs and you, just stop this nonsense.”
He blinked. Estella could see that he was genuinely surprised. What kind of person had he assumed her to be? she wondered. “Why are you doing this?” he then said.
“I don’t know. You used to be a good person, I think.” Then, because she thought that she’d been so prepared to say it, “And I’ve always been quite . . .”
He cut in, “I can see that I’ve misjudged you.” It was the closest he came to an apology. He glanced outside the window, at the taxis that swerved through the wet street. “I hope that we can still be friends.”
And then, what Estella had wanted to say felt incorrect—disproportionate to the unfolding moment, and devoid of the ease with which she’d planned on delivering what had already formed and reformed in her mind. All she could do was reach over, touch his hand. She was surprised by how cold it felt. His skin was dry, almost reptilian. Rudyard glanced down, as if denying that this part of his body belonged to him. As soon as her grip lightened a little, he pulled away.
The following day, Estella called in sick. She told Doris at the front desk that she had come down with a nasty flu—highly contagious, fever, chills, mucus. A discomfort lingered, and she even went through the motions of being sick. Her body seemed to obey. She lay in bed for most of the day. She watched tv, dined on cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. She left the dishes standing in the sink. She held the remote in hand and flipped through various daytime soaps and game shows. Someone actually won the grand prize. One million dollars.
“That’ll never be me,” she said to no one in particular, before changing the channel.
The next day, she called in sick again. She emailed Dante, CC’d Dr. Bridgewater. Dante could commence with the sorting and packing of her office. He didn’t need her there for the start of it. The weekend then descended like a night with no end. She slept for hours and woke before the sunrise, only to plunge back into a syrupy sleep. Then darkness, darkness, darkness.
A rush of blood to the head. A summer, humid and bug-infested. A childhood plagued by misunderstandings. Her mother had misunderstood her constantly. She had always been a quiet girl. It wasn’t that she was unaware of things. She was only thinking. She was thinking all the time about things. There was the incident of her bike. This had been in the suburbs of Long Island, where she had grown up. It was a small area. The number of people only in the hundreds. She had lost her bike. It had been red. With tassels. Her father had just taken off the training wheels. She somehow knew it instantly—it had been stolen. Only she was mistaken; it wasn’t stolen. A girl down the street had taken the bike for a ride without telling her (Estella no longer remembered her name). Or she did tell her. Only Estella hadn’t been paying attention. At least that was the story that had been told to her. Estella had cried, though. It was too much crying, until the bike was finally returned to her. Her mother had said, “This is what happens to tattletales.” Would she be a tattletale all her life? She didn’t want to be. “Tattletale,” her mother repeated. “Don’t be a tattletale.”
“It was Mr. Kahn all along,” Dante said. “Can you believe it?”
The kid was sitting at her desk. He leaned back on the swivel chair. Seeing the confusion on her face, Dante stood up. “I took the liberty of reviewing the surveillance footage while you were out.”
Estella dropped her bag on the cabinet, cleared of its books. “Oh, Dante. You didn’t have to.”
“I thought it was as good a time as any to make an example out of the guy.” There was a knowing grin across his face. Did he expect Estella to share in it? Well, she didn’t.
“Mr. Kahn had it coming to him, am I right?”
She found herself at a loss for words. “Well . . .”
“He’s gone for good, you know,” Dante continued. “He resigned yesterday, in a fit. Dr. Bridgewater confronted him. He kept saying how it was a blessing in disguise. Well, bless him.” And then, “They had to call security.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me? Why didn’t you?”
“You were out sick. Though I’m glad to say it looks like you’ve made a full recovery.”
“No.” Estella shook her head. She beat her palm against her forehead. “No, no, no.”
“What’s the matter? Are you still under the weather?”
“I’m okay,” she said, though she suddenly wanted out of the office and back under the warmth of her covers.
“Don’t you worry about me, though. Dr. Bridgewater promised that my identity wouldn’t be disclosed. I won’t get in trouble, if that’s what you’re worried about. Mr. Kahn will never know it was me who told.” He raised his palms. “My hands are clean.”
“But of course, that’s good news.”
“He was taking everything home with him. One after the next.”
Dante nodded. “It’s been happening for a while.”
“But you already knew.”
“What did you say?” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the young man lean over to watch her. She tried to keep her face impassive. Her demeanor professional.
“Because you had already saved the footage, and you were collecting it. You were going to report him, weren’t you?” Now Dante was the one who was clearly confused. “Weren’t you?” Then, “I was only trying to go above and beyond, just like you said.”
Estella forced a smile. In the distance, she could see a figure approaching from down the hall. It was Dr. Bridgewater, making her way toward the office.
“Of course,” Estella said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Then once again, it was the weekend. Another morning. This time, she called the Ritz, made a reservation for tea. She was in luck. The hostess said that there had been a last-minute cancellation and that she could squeeze Estella in for the three o’clock sitting, “If you would like it.” Her accent was French.
“That’d be perfect,” Estella said. “I’ll take it.”
She showered and changed into one of the new business suits she had been saving for something more significant that never came. Turquoise, silver buttons. A gold scarf. She dabbed on the red lipstick. Standing before the bathroom mirror, she said aloud, with every ounce of conviction that she could muster, “Estella Theodora Deng: You look like a million bucks.”
At high tea, a man asked if he could join her. He, too, had been dining alone. His name was Jonathan Sommers, and he spoke flirtatiously, though it was clear that he wasn’t all that interested in her romantically, or in any other woman for that matter. But she enjoyed the spur-of-the-moment company, the witty banter that ensued. Later that evening, they went to see a movie.