“So what did you think of the conference today?”
I walk down the hall, my hands in my pockets, messenger bag over my shoulder, side by side with Pretty Grad Student. We spent the day, as did most of our colleagues, at a small conference on management and ecology. Unlike the massive conferences for which we typically plan for weeks, this was more directed, with an emphasis on the intersection between policy and ecology.
“It was disappointing,” I answer, continuing the inner monologue I’d been running for the past several minutes. “It was like everyone wanted to be the keynote speaker, so hardly anyone presented any real science.”
“That one guy did.”
“Yeah, one guy,” I agree. “I was expecting presentations on new findings and advancements in the field, not hours of proselytizing.” I shake my head and sigh. “Two days, wasted. I could have made such headway on my analysis.”
“Quit overachieving,” she scolds me. “You’re making the rest of us look lazy.”
“Quit being lazy and you too can be the department bitch,” I say with forced enthusiasm.
She snorts. “Now you’re just whining.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I say. “Just frustrated.” I unlock my office door and step inside, tossing my bag into one of the empty chairs across from my desk. I fall into my large work chair, an excessive expenditure I have never once regretted, and slump comfortably.
Pretty Grad Student shuts my office door and sits on the corner of my desk, silent. After a moment, she asks, delicately, “Are things going better with your wife yet?”
I glance at her. We normally don’t talk much about my and Ashley’s relationship. It’s not like we purposely avoid the subject, but we always seem to be occupied by other things (usually our nether regions). The only reason she knows we’re in a rough patch is because she stayed with me at my hotel, helping me make the most of my self-imposed isolation. Her interest surprises me, and I say as much.
“I worry about you,” she says calmly. “I don’t think anyone realizes how much effort you put into being happy. I mean, I didn’t realize it either until these past few days.”
“I’m spending time with you because I genuinely enjoy your company,” I say calmly. “I’m not using you.”
“No, and I’ve never thought you were,” she says. Then a sly smirk crosses her lips. “But, for the record, you can use me any way you need, baby.”
I smile at her. “Thanks.”
Her smirk remains, but she furrows her brow as though concerned. “Seriously though, it can’t be healthy for you to keep all this frustration bottled up like you do. It’s great that you put on a stiff upper lip and all that, but eventually you have to let yourself be unhappy.”
“I don’t want to be unhappy,” I answer, annoyed, swiveling to and fro in my chair. “I don’t have any reason to be unhappy. I’m tired of being unhappy.”
She stands up and moves toward me, sitting on her knees in front of me. She takes my hands in hers and locks gazes with me. “If you want to quit being unhappy, then stop pretending that you aren’t. Lying to the world about how you feel is one thing, but refusing to let yourself experience your own emotions is another.” She smiles warmly, if a bit sadly. “You’re the most amazing man I’ve ever known. But even the most amazing of men can have bad days, and it sounds to me like you’ve been having an awful lot of them. You deserve to let it out.”
I look at her and smile weakly. “Thanks. But I don’t agree with you. The best thing I can do is try to keep positive and not let myself get overburdened by my own baggage.” I squeeze her hands lightly, and she nods quietly. She kisses my knuckle once before standing, leaning forward, and kissing me gently on the lips.
“Suit yourself, baby,” she says, more lightheartedly than before, but the concern is still there. “But don’t think I’m going to let this go. We’re going to talk about it tonight.”
I grin. “Assuming you can get my mouth off of you long enough to get me to say anything.”
“If you’re not talking, you’d better have your mouth on me.”
“Now you’re just repeating me,” I say as I wave her off. “Get to work, minion. I’ll be ready to leave in an hour.”
She glares playfully and snaps her teeth at me. (It’s much sexier than it sounds, especially coming from her), then turns abruptly, letting herself out. I hear her voice from around the corner: “Yes sir, professor.”
I look at the empty doorframe, listening to her footfalls as she goes down the hall. I smile, despite my frustration, and sigh. Strangely enough, I feel a bit better.