Jessica had the office across from yours for two years. At first you helped with her lesson plans, but eventually you started talking about everything.
One day, you made the choice to be in love with her. We are always responsible for these things—even if they sneak up on us, we are always choosing. And you decided to go for it. Even if you didn’t talk about it. In your head, at least, you were all in.
She started showing up in your office every day at 2:20, right after the class she taught, and she would tell you how it had gone. At first she stood in the doorway, but after a while, she would sit in the chair in the corner. She always pulled it a little closer to you before she sat down, and eventually you started to think of it as her chair. Even after she left, it was still her chair.
There was the fact of her boyfriend. He was cool enough, if you like guys who wear Dr. Who shirts (he had at least three of them, and those were just the ones you saw). But Jessie said he packed her lunch every day—carrots and pretzels and turkey wraps—so you figured he couldn’t be all that bad.
Eventually she finished her master’s degree, the only thing keeping them in this stupid town, and off they went to live in Des Moines, where he grew up.
After they left, you didn’t reach out. You were always waiting for a note from her, or a phone call—some indication that it was okay to continue feeling the way you did. Our feelings don’t need validation from other people—you’re free to feel however you choose—but you decided to wait for permission.
You wondered if she thought about you and you decided that she had to—you had been such a part of her daily rhythm. You kind of figured that it had to be worse for you—you were still stuck in that office. With the chair.
There were other visitors but there was no Jessie.
You wondered if your melancholy showed through, if you might as well have had her picture on your desk, some kind of Jessica memorial. But no one mentioned her.
After she graduated, Tim took over her class. She had given him a folder with her old lesson plans and a few pages of notes on legal paper, penned in her loopy script.
Once, after asking whether you had access to her old syllabus, Tim said, “Do you miss Jessica?”
“Yes,” you said. Matter of fact, as though there was nothing more to it. Yes, period. Yes; don’t ask any more questions.
You didn’t look him in the eye, and after a while, he started talking about something else.
After seven months with no word from Jessie, you got on the Internet and met Caroline, and pretty soon, your life was no longer pizza boxes and drinking alone. When Caroline visited your office, she would sit in Jessica’s chair.
Eventually, you would have to stop thinking of it as Jessica’s chair.
Caroline made you a four-month anniversary card out of markers and construction paper and the next day you wheeled the chair down the hallway.
You pushed it into Tim’s office and said, “Do you have a place for this? I need to get rid of it.”
You did not say, “I need to get rid of it because in my head it belongs to Jessica,” though if anyone would understand, it was probably Tim.
“Cool,” Tim said. And he sat in the chair and rolled it around his office. He pushed his own desk chair out into the hallway, and Jessica’s chair became Tim’s.
It was almost like she knew. Like she knew you were finally starting to sort things out.
Just when you had stopped thinking of it as Jessie’s chair, she came back.
You found out when you saw the list of incoming grad students. It was pasted into the bottom of an email that said, “Join us in August for an ice cream social to meet the new Ph.D. students.”
There was her name: Jessica Lyn Painter.
A week later she wrote to you. She copied four other people on the email. Your name was third. I’m coming back! it said.
And then, the next month, she was there.
She was barely away for a year, and then she came back, standing in your office like no time had passed at all, with a fancy engagement ring to boot.
There was the absence of Jessica and then there was her return.
So far, neither of you had said a word. She looked around for her chair and leaned against the wall.