A Peach of a Pair
Author:Kim Boykin

“Okay. So, you’re going to go into Dean Kerrigan’s office and you’re going to tell her?”

Sue had gone over this a million times since I was summoned for this appointment, since I missed my senior recital Friday night. She waited for me to fill in the blank.

“I’ve had the flu.” She nodded, waiting for the rest of the lie. “And I didn’t go to the infirmary because—”

“Because you didn’t want to get anybody sick.” She smiled at me like I was one of her soon-to-be first-grade students. “And since I—I mean since Sue had already had the flu . . .”

My bed covers were a rumpled mess and were calling to me. Sleep was the only cure for my broken heart. In my dreams, Sissy never came to the orange grove the night Brooks proposed. He and I went all the way so many times, our bodies were a blur. And there was no Sissy. She didn’t exist. Nothing existed, just me and Brooks. Until I woke up.

“Look at me, Nettie. Focus.” Sue turned my face to hers. I loved her to bits for caring so much, for loving me so much, but right now I would have knocked her senseless and crawled back under the covers if I thought Dean Kerrigan wouldn’t send someone to my room to fetch me. Knowing the dean, she would come herself.

“Since my roommate already had the flu,” I whispered.

“There. We’re going to be a little late, but you look perfect,” Sue said. “And don’t forget to say you’re sorry. At least ten times. Just sprinkle them into the conversation so that you can graduate, Nettie. I want you to graduate, and I know deep down you want that too.”

No, I just wanted to go to bed. Forever.

The whole way to the dean of students’ office, Sue held my hand. When we entered the administration building, I could barely hear someone in the music building next door practicing on one of the concert Steinway grand pianos. The beginning strains of Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 48 Number 1 in C minor, the haunting expression of grief that could not be contained with red bricks and mortar.

I’d wept that first day I touched those keys. After wearing out a secondhand no-name upright back home, sitting down on the sleek black bench and touching the ivory keys had been surreal. An equal mix of giddy and awe. The way Brooks always made me feel.

I turned around to walk in the opposite direction, but Sue pulled me back. “Come on, Nettie. Don’t throw away the last four years. Not for a man. Not for anyone.”

But Brooks had thrown away the last ten like they were nothing. Like I was nothing. Dean Kerrigan opened her office door, most likely to come look for me. She nodded at Sue to leave, and without a word, I walked into her office.

She closed the door behind me. “Please, sit, Nettie.” She motioned to the small couch. She sat down beside me, took my hands in hers, and smiled. “Now, tell me what’s going on.”

“I’m sorry.” How many times did Sue say I should tell her? “I’m sorry. So sorry.” But I was not at all sorry. “Flu. I’m sorry. The flu, I had—”

“A girl like you doesn’t miss her senior recital because of the flu, Nettie. Talk to me so we can figure out how to make this right, so you can graduate. You’ve worked so hard.”

“I had the flu, I—” The last word dissolved into a whine that set my chest heaving. Tears streamed down the thick makeup Sue plastered on my face to make me look normal, perky.

Dean Kerrigan wrapped her arms around me. “That’s it, dear; let it out.” She smelled like my mother, like vanilla and rose water, or maybe I just wanted Dean Kerrigan to smell like her. To be her.

She always kept a stack of handkerchiefs on her desk in a little wicker basket for just such occasions. After I got over being a silly freshman, I always felt more like a peer to my professors than a student, even to the dean herself. Many times I’d smiled at that basket, sure I’d never need its contents to make a tearful plea or confession to Harriet Kerrigan, and now, I was on my third handkerchief.

“All right,” she said gently. “That’s enough, Nettie. You only get thirty minutes of my time to feel sorry for yourself, my dear.” My breath stuttered when I laughed, still unable to look at her. She crooked a finger and tilted my face up to meet her gaze. My chin quivered, the tears building again. “No more tears now; we’re going to work this out.”

Dean Kerrigan’s amber eyes were warm and full of love for me, for every girl at the college. Everyone adored her because she cared so deeply.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

“I want you to graduate on time,” she said. I shook my head violently. “You might not feel like it at this very moment, Nettie, but I know you want that too.”

“But I don’t.” If ten years with Brooks meant nothing, graduation meant nothing. “I know I’m supposed to make an excuse for missing the recital, but I’m not going to do that.”

“I wish you would.” She smiled. “Just a tiny excuse to show me you care.”