Alexander untethered his MacBook from the projection cables and slid it into the padded sleeve of his computer bag. His class of Columbia University neuropsychology graduate students, were collecting their own things, talking, and filing past him on their way out the door. He kept his gaze focused on his hands, his bag, the work of leaving this room as quickly as possible before he was cornered by one of them and forced, out of politeness and professorial duty, to indulge their questions, comments, or otherwise banal blathering meant to accomplish nothing more than single themselves out from the herd of other students. They were special. They were engaged with their education. They were making sure to follow the brochure’s advice to get to know your professors. They believed the university marketing material that had ensured them that Columbia professors care about you, not only as a student but as a person.
They always thought this especially true of Alexander because he was a doctor of neuropsychology and assumed this made him more approachable than their other professors—therapeutic even. But for Alexander Strauss, nothing could be further from the truth. Sit down. Listen to what I’m teaching you. Do the work. Now leave my class as quickly as you can. He was a doctor of neuropsychology, a practitioner, a scientist, not a therapist.
And this day, in particular, the additional post-class conversation was neither desired nor encouraged. He was looking forward to having an hour to spend sipping one, probably two, Macallan on the rocks at Marley’s polished mahogany bar before he boarded the train that would carry him home and out of the city. He had rambunctious five-year-old twin girls and a wife who seemed to be spiraling into personal chaos. He was going to need some liquid fortitude before walking in his door.
“Doctor Strauss?” a woman’s high and tenuous voice interrupted his packing. Even before he turned to face her, he knew she was nervous about approaching him from the insecure pitch of her question.
He cleared his throat to hide his annoyance, but his response was clipped, “Yes.” He closed his bag and slipped the wide crossbody strap over his head. When he turned, he saw that she was young, early twenties, with long brown hair tied in a low ponytail. Her brown eyes held a question for him, but he could also see that he’d been right—she was nervous, maybe even a little afraid.
Her expression made him feel like an ass, so he dropped his shoulders a few inches and remedied his tone. “How can I help you?”
For a moment, she only stood there, staring at him with those huge, beautiful eyes. Alexander forced a smile, hoping it would help reset the interaction. Yes, he felt the stress with his teaching workload, research, and everything that seemed to be happening with Mia. But the last thing he needed was for one of his students to feel like he was not supportive. Or, much worse, discriminatory.
She opened her mouth and was about to speak, but then a look of concern stalled her attempt.
Alexander looked over her head, there were still a few other students left in the room, but they were heading for the door. He didn’t want to be alone in the room with one of his young female students.
Jesus, even the suspicion of impropriety was the last thing he needed right now.
“Is there anything…” he tilted his head, trying to be approachable. Caring. Concerned for her wellbeing while not counting the minutes he was losing with his planned scotch.
“Doctor Strauss,” she announced. Suddenly finding her voice, she appeared determined to state her purpose. “I’m Tasha Adams.” She thrust out her small hand.
Alexander noticed how delicate her fingers were as he took her hand in his own for two shakes before dropping it promptly. Tasha Adams was young and beautiful. And he wished she would hurry and get to her point because the last of the other students were now walking out the door.
“What can I do for you, Tasha?” he said in his best dad’s voice while inclining his head toward the door. “How about we walk and talk?” Yes, let’s walk right out of this deserted classroom into the open spaces for everyone to witness their conversation.
Alexander felt he couldn’t ever be too careful when it came to appearances. As he headed toward the door, Tasha fell into step beside him.
“I’m in your class,” she stated.
“Yes,” he forced a smile. “I gathered.”
A look of relief softened her expression. “Well, I was wondering—” She stopped short as she turned and reached into her own bag. “If you would consider signing this for me?”
When she handed him a book, he stopped walking. It was a copy of his book, Somebody She Used to Know: Amnesia and the Journey Forward. He couldn’t help the genuine and delighted smile that spread across his face. “Well, this is a surprise.”
“Really?” she asked, turning again to her bag. She pulled out a pen and handed it to him. “It was so good. I figured you must get asked all the time.”
With the hardcover cradled against his forearm, he flipped open to the title page and clicked the pen. “Yes…five years ago during the book tour? Thousands of requests to sign it.” He scribbled his name across the page and closed the book. “But these days? And by a student who’s already loaded up with all my other assigned readings? No.” He handed the book back to her and gave her a genuine smile. The unexpected encounter with a young fan had buoyed his spirits.
“Thank you,” she said and held the book in her hands for several seconds before returning it to her bag.
“You are more than welcome,” he said as he pushed open and held the door that led outside.
Tasha nodded her head in thanks for the courtesy and slipped past him. This close to her, it was impossible to ignore the intoxicating waft of her scent. And whether it was simply her or an elixir of the shampoo, soap, and perfume she used, the result was a lush, fresh aroma. A walk in the woods while holding hands.
Alexander swallowed the feeling down and followed her out the door. “Well, Ms. Tasha Adams,” he said, sounding excruciating and lame even to himself. “It was a pleasure to meet you. I’ll see you in class.”
She nodded and dropped her eyes to the ground.
He waited for several seconds. Was she going to say goodbye? Should he walk away now? It seemed weird to leave without her saying anything but equally odd, more so, to stand here staring at her, saying nothing.
“Okay then,” he said as he adjusted his shoulder strap. “Bye.” He raised his hand and started to leave.
“Doctor Strauss?” She raised her eyes to meet his.
She bit her bottom lip, hesitating, then mustered her courage. “I was wondering. Well, your book. It would be an understatement to say it’s been influential for me. I might go so far as to say it’s actually changed my life.”
With a wide-eyed surprise, Alexander rocked back on his heels. “That’s quite a compliment.” Her admission took him by surprise. It had happened a few times while touring with this book. Readers would lean in awkwardly while he signed their book and gush about how his work had impacted them profoundly. He never knew quite how to respond. Thank you? I’m so happy you enjoyed it? Reserved platitudes that never matched the reader’s fervent declarations—and then they would take their book and be gone. His words had changed their life, and yet he would never see or hear from them again.
But Tasha Adams was in his class. She was beautiful and smelled like youth.
“Thank you,” he said.
Tasha took a breath. “I was wondering.” She shrugged one shoulder. “I know you are very busy, but…would it be possible for me to buy you a cup of coffee sometime? I…well, I have so many questions about your book and your work. Getting to study with you is one of the biggest reasons I came to Columbia.”
Alexander took a beat to digest her question, and this other adulation directed his way. “I’m flattered,” he blurted. “And yes.” It was his turn to lower his eyes to the ground. “Coffee would be great…good.” He shook his head, looked into her eyes again, and tried to smile casually. “But I insist, my treat.”
Her expression lit up. “Wonderful. Is tomorrow too soon?”