I was shocked when he opened it and I got my first good look at him in more than a week. His dark hair was sticking up all over the place, there were bruise-like circles under his eyes, and it looked as though he’d lost ten pounds. He looked like hell.
“Professor Marks? Uh, what’re you doing here?” He eyed me warily, as he probably should, since showing up at his dorm room was unprofessional at best, stalkerish at worst.
I cleared my throat. If I was going to do this, I’d come off as professional and courteous as possible. “I haven’t seen you in class in over a week.” Looking down at him, I confessed, “Sissy told me what happened. I’m here to talk.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need to talk.” He started to close the door but my hand shot out and grabbed it.
“Sissy is worried about you,” I said softly, trying to conceal the hope in my eyes at wanting him to confide in me. “I can be a really great listener.” He paused, then nodded his head and opened the door wider to allow me entry.
“I don’t know why she worries. It’s not like I’m going to do anything to hurt myself. I’m just grieving. My mom was the only family I had, well, I have my half-sister, but she has her own life and we were never super close.”
He kicked some clothes out of the way and sat down on his bed, leaning up against the cement block wall that was covered in posters. “My sister was raised by her grandma and she’s seven years older than me. Mom always felt bad about them taking Court away, so she did everything in her power to make sure the same didn’t happen to me.”
He twisted around, dropping his feet to the floor buried his face in his hands as quiet sobs racked his body. I dragged the desk chair over to where he was sitting and sat down next to him by the edge of the bed. Our knees brushed briefly and I sucked in a lungful of air before moving back a fraction. My hand came down on his knee and I squeezed.
“It’s good to grieve for your loss, but would your mom want you to sit here alone, wallowing in that grief?” He looked up at me with red rimmed eyes. “Absolutely not. She’d want you to live. I’m aware of your scholarship, if your grades slip they could take that from you, Ryan.”
“Yeah,” he said attempting to take a few deep breaths and pull himself together. “It just hurts so fucking bad knowing that I wasn’t enough of a reason for her to get herself clean. I know it was a disease taking her life, but honestly, I don’t give a fuck about that at the moment.” His anger was palpable and well deserved, but it’d been a week of him holing himself up in this room alone, suffering alone.
“I know this sounds contrite, and while this is painful, it will get easier. As you progress through your degree — and you will, Ryan, make no mistake — you’ll understand more of the anatomy of an alcoholic and drug addict. It may not be of comfort to you now, but eventually you’ll learn to forgive her.”
Anger flashed in his eyes as he jumped off the bed, pushing me back, and screamed the most guttural heartbreaking sound I’d ever heard in my life.
“I don’t want to forgive her! She left me. That’s the one thing she always promised she wouldn’t do.” He slammed his hand down on his desk. The container full of pencils fell over, scattering across the floor.
“I did everything for her. I work two jobs so she has a place to stay and a phone to call me. I put food in her fridge every week. Yet, she couldn’t even keep the one promise she made to me.” His hands were braced on the desk, his head slumped forward, and I couldn’t hold myself back anymore. I walked over and wrapped my arms around him; it was like the dam burst inside of him. He turned around, then buried his face in the crook of my neck as loud racking sobs tore through his body.
I knew what I’d said was the truth about him eventually forgiving her, but he was still so raw there was no way he’d be able to accept anything until he passed through the overwhelming sadness and anger.
“Shhh, it’s okay, I’m here. I’m not judging you, Ryan. If you need to cry, do it. If you need to get angry and throw things, I’ll sit quietly and watch that you don’t hurt yourself. The one thing you aren’t is alone.” I rubbed his back soothingly before I realized what I was doing. Ryan must have gotten the same weird tension because he sniffled before taking a step back.
“Thank y-you,” he stammered. “I’m okay now.”
“Right.” I cleared my throat, shifting from foot to foot, taking a step back from him, now completely uncomfortable with the tension radiating from him. “I, uh, brought the work you missed the last week.”
Walking back over to the front door, I grabbed my satchel and dug around for the packet of papers I’d printed for him. He took a few hesitant steps forward and our fingers brushed as I handed him the assignment. A spark of electricity sizzled up my arm and I drew my arm back quickly.
“I’ll be in class Monday with all of this done.” His eyes refused to meet mine.
“My personal cell number is on that card in case you need to talk.”
“Is that… allowed?” He finally looked up.
“Look, Ryan, I’m just a professor making sure that a student is okay. It’s my responsibility, not only as a teacher here, but knowing what had happened, it’s the right thing to do.” I shrugged casually.
“None of my other professors have come to my dorm offering to talk or leaving me their phone numbers.” He pointed out with a lifted eyebrow.
“Look, use the number, or don’t. I don’t really care. I was just offering my help if you need it.” So what if I was a bit righteous in defending myself? He was acting as though I had ulterior motives—and as much as there was something about him, the person before me was in pain, and I’d never cross that line of causing someone more.
“Are you sure that’s all it is, Professor Marks?” Ryan took an aggressive step toward me, his hands balled into fists at his sides, crumpling the papers I gave him.
My jaw clenched tight as I ground out, “Positive, I’ll see you in class on Monday, Ryan,” then I hightailed it out the door, Ryan’s soft chuckle following me.
Shit. What was I thinking going in there?