Annabelle Jeffries was lost in thought. It was nothing new, except this time she almost bought a zebra head. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the little girl with the blue toenail polish in line at Cosmo’s Costumes, Anna definitely would have left with the wrong rubber mask. She was trying to memorize the names of her new students, using a word association trick her friend and professor-in-crime Cynda Bass had explained, when the little girl’s incessant whining to her frazzled mother about “needing boas for the birthday party or everything would be ruined,” Anna returned to reality. The snap back to real life was often jarring, but as she noticed the stripes rather than the donkey she ordered, Anna was grateful for it.
There were no zebras in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Stepping out of line, she returned to the back counter of the shop. After a bit of confusion and sifting through stacks of yellow order slips, the heads were switched and Anna paid for her donkey. She grabbed a quick coffee next door and noticed the little girl, now drowning in hot pink boas, climbing into a minivan. Anna chuckled at the sight as she crossed the street to her car. She wondered if her sisters, one with a new baby born in April and the other with a baby on the way, had any idea what they’d gotten themselves—and their lovely husbands—into. It had been a busy and exciting year for her family, but Anna was settled back into the calm normalcy of her routine. The University of California–Berkeley was renowned for the occasional spectacle or spotlight issues, but it was also a university steeped in tradition and history. That was what drew Anna there as an undergrad and what brought her back to teach years later. She recognized how lucky she was to be exactly where she belonged.
There were only two more weeks in September, which meant four remaining class periods of Macbeth, Anna thought, clicking her car open and trying not to spill coffee down the front of her top. She tossed her bags onto the passenger seat while her mind shifted to upcoming lectures and the meeting she had next week with the English department curriculum committee. When Greta, the department secretary who always had chocolate-covered almonds on her desk, had called to set up the meeting, she mentioned it was a “casual discussion.” Anna had been teaching Shakespeare at UC Berkeley for three years now. That was long enough to know there was nothing casual about the curriculum committee.
The committee was in charge of keeping an eye on the “dissemination of knowledge as it pertains to the English department goals and standards as set forth by the dean.” That was what the members told Anna the first year they reviewed her classroom. They’d left her alone last year and she thought she’d proven herself by now, but Anna seemed to be back under the microscope again after recently applying for full-professor tenure. Although she wasn’t sure how all the committees worked, they acted more like they were responsible for the brick-by-brick building of the institution, rather than simply the current overseers of its teachings and traditions. Anna found them stodgy and at times stifling, especially since during her first-year review they had declared her teaching style was “a touch unconventional.”
Following that review, Anna had tried to tone things down, but it never worked. It was impossible not to get excited about the porter scene in between Act II and Act III of Macbeth or all the blood and deceit. That’s how Shakespeare wanted it. His words all but demanded the work be brought to life, so in a way, she was honoring him by annoying the establishment. Not that she would ever explain her classroom to the committee like that. She loved her job and wanted to keep it, so she at least tried to play the game. But maybe she hadn’t been trying hard enough if they wanted to meet again.
Macbeth was the first play of the semester, followed by the comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which would start mid-October. When she had been hired, the committee had wanted her to cover three plays a semester along with a general overview and history of William Shakespeare. She explained that an overview and history usually put people to sleep and that it was far better to focus on two plays a semester. They’d looked over their glasses at her, and had Anna not possessed “incredibly accomplished credentials,” as the man wearing a turtleneck in July had pointed out, they would never have offered her the position.
She had not intended to become a teacher, let alone a professor. Anna was the quiet one of the four Jeffries sisters. Meticulous about her grades, as was expected in her family, but happiest in her head. She’d loved Shakespeare since she was old enough to understand, but once she began studying, a passion grew that surprised even her. Following graduate school and a wonderful professor at Oxford who took their class to the roof every Thursday and instructed them to “shout Shakespeare until they can hear us in Manchester,” Anna knew what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it.
Teachers didn’t need to be stuffy or elevated from their students. Learning could be an experience, a life-changing experience. That was what she wanted to give her students, not some snooze-fest that didn’t do Will the slightest justice.
After much heated debate, the committee agreed an in-depth study of two plays was sufficient, and Anna would dedicate at least ten days of class time to an overview and historical perspective. It was a compromise that should have settled things, but each year still felt like a push and pull. Climbing into the warmth of her car, she kept thinking about the “casual discussion.” What did they want now?
Anna looked over at her packages and tried to focus on the present, as her sister Sage always advised. That little suggestion was simple on the surface, but extremely difficult in practice. The first three years she taught English 117, Anna rented her props in case someone, or the dean for that matter, decided to pinch her and confirm that her dream of igniting young minds with the brilliance of William Shakespeare was not only laughable, but over. But she was a month into her fourth year, her second year as an associate professor. She had even submitted her paperwork and portfolio to seek full-professor status. Being permanent, settled, had become what she wanted more than anything. Her class had been using props all month and would continue in the coming weeks when the rest of the students would have a chance to read aloud. With the purchase of the donkey head, she was now prepared for her next play and “ahead of the game,” to use her father’s phrase.
The guy who fixed her order at Cosmo’s, the one with the impressive beard, had asked if she was an actress. Anna got that a lot. She’d loved Shakespeare all her life, seen every play, some three and four times, but she had never acted in one. She was more of a watcher, an examiner of life in general, sort of like… paint on a scenery wall. Maybe.
“No. I teach.”
“In costume?” he’d asked, placing the credit card slip in front of her for a signature.
“We are starting A Midsummer Night’s Dream next week. I… try to keep things interesting, and Bottom is one of my favorite characters.”
He cringed. Anna was used to that too. “Shakespeare?”
“Aww, no way. I never got that guy.”
“Hence the mask. I’m trying to change that reaction one class at a time.” Her eyes twinkled, but he still looked unconvinced.
It seemed the students who had time for the beauty of Shakespeare were fewer and fewer. She may not have taught The History of Film or even the new class on the Harry Potter series, although she loved those books, but Annabelle worked hard to ensure her class was progressive and engaging. Her seats were full every year, sometimes with a waiting list. It was an honor. She believed a person was given only so much good fortune and with that in mind, gave teaching everything she had. Being able to do what she loved and live in her own world was exceptional, and she wasn’t about to squander it by being mediocre.
“Yeah? Sweet. Seems a shame to cover up that face, though.” Impressive Beard winked, and Anna was sure she’d blushed. She could never get used to that… flirting. In her mind she was clever, sexy even, but reality was a harsher critic. Flirting required taking what was in her head and freeing it in a way that wasn’t awkward or jumbled. Flirts enjoyed the spotlight. Anna was not a flirt.
“Embrace you,” Anna’s mother used to advise somewhere in the blur of high school when that was virtually impossible, but she remembered it all these years later. That was something, she supposed.
“Nice beard,” Anna said, trying for friendly. He was good-looking, sort of. Anna had not been on a date in almost two years, unless she counted the guy who cleaned the shoes at the bowling alley, which she certainly did not think counted. That had been a setup one night after the tournament was over, and he looked so sad waiting for her at the brown Formica table with a pitcher of beer and two mini pizzas. She loved bowling, and since her league bowled at Plank, she enjoyed the food too. But even craft beer and house-made crust couldn’t mask his incredibly detailed love of reptiles. That was not a date.
Steve wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, she still waved to him every Wednesday during league night, and it looked like he might be dating the new cashier, the one with the snake tattoo on her ankle. Perfect, Anna had thought when she saw them together. Steve deserved to be happy.
And Anna had hers: teaching and her students.
Besides, she wasn’t good at being fun and flirty, and it seemed that was what most men wanted. If her job wasn’t off-putting enough, her penchant for romantic movies and reading usually ran any relationship into the ground at around week three. But, maybe this guy was…
“Thanks. I like playing dress-up too,” he said, winking yet again.
Yikes! Anna laughed, grabbed her bag, and left without another word.
Two of her sisters had found love in addition to their careers. Anna had to admit having a person by her side sounded lovely, but it wasn’t for her. She’d been given extra when she became a professor—got to wake up every morning and drive to a fabulous campus. She wasn’t going to push her luck by asking for love. Besides, love the way she imagined it didn’t exist.
Anna was content. Maybe she wanted to travel more and go back to Spain one day, but she’d bought a small home four months ago. This was her place, where she belonged. The commitment of the donkey head had sealed the deal.
Starting her car, she tried to hold back from rewriting the scene in the costume shop. She needed to live in reality a little more, at least that’s what Cynda and her sisters always said. But Anna couldn’t help it. She’d been converting real life to fiction for far too long. In her mind, Mr. Sexy Beard would have steered clear of creeper and instead asked for her number or been good at say… knock-knock jokes. He would have had a quirk, a personality, instead of sinking into the obvious. She sighed. Reality was disappointing. Her family hated it when she said that out loud, but it was the truth. Every time, without fail, what she saw was exactly what she got. Especially when it came to men. Men were never a surprise.
“If music be the food of love, play on,” she said to her empty car and turned on Ingrid Michaelson. Ingrid spoke to her soul, especially in September. Anna took a sip of her coffee and put it in her cup holder.
It was a gorgeous day. She thought about rolling down her window but decided against it. She loved the breeze, but any time she rolled the windows down, things went flying and made a mess. Anna was not about making a mess. Her life was neat, tidy, and tucked into a quiet corner north of her favorite big city. Her sisters had new families and babies. Anna had her books, Wednesday-night bowling, weekend movie marathons, or the occasional drink with Cynda and her current crazy boyfriend. This one was a nude painter. He didn’t paint nudes, he painted in the nude.
See, you even have some comedy, Anna thought as she pulled into her parking spot.
Dane Sivac was trying his best not to laugh and doing a decent job so far. He’d only had to “cough” once.
There wasn’t time to grab a coffee before this after-morning-practice meeting, and now two guys in suits launched into the “emotional completeness” of every athlete on the football team. Dane almost lost it. Looking over his shoulder to see if there was going to be any sort of caffeine served at this thing, he wondered why the hell everyone else in the room was nodding and smiling on cue. What was going on? After some sappy slideshow complete with music, story time was finally over, and Dane sprang to his feet and made a beeline for the real world.
Come on. Dane turned to find Head Coach Hall and a woman in a suit wearing a large, shiny necklace that seemed too big for her.
“Before you run out of here, I thought you’d like to meet Dr. Frazier. She’s the psychologist working with Trey.”
Dane nodded, shook hands, and made nice because his boss was smiling and Dane had been around long enough to know that a happy head coach meant a happy life. “Right. Good to put a face with the name.”
“You too. I heard Trey chose a Shakespeare class when I asked him to step out of his comfort zone to bolster his confidence.”
Dane raised his eyebrows, hoping that made him look interested in the game his boss and the shrink were playing with his star receiver. Well, his almost star receiver. “I did hear that. I’m not sure how that’s going, but I’ll ask Trey at practice later tonight.”
“He seems to be enjoying the class, but I e-mailed you his four-week grade report. He’s failing.”
She nodded. The concerned-but-distant-shrink nod and smile was something Dane hadn’t seen in a while. Not since his mother had the clever idea that he himself needed to “discuss his feelings.” Christ, shrinks gave Dane the shakes.
“Wow, well, maybe you can work with his teacher,” Dane said, his now-desperate need for coffee making him a little twitchy.
“We were hoping you could get in touch with her,” Coach Hall said.
“Yeah, sort of explain to the teacher that Trey’s taken on a challenge and see if there’s anything you can do to help get his grades up.
Dane wanted to laugh, ask his boss if this was some kind of joke. The guy had a good sense of humor, but at the moment he was looking at Dane as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a football coach to monitor an athlete’s studies with his Shakespeare professor. Trey wasn’t going to lose his scholarship. He wasn’t flunking out. It was the first month of school. So he’s having a hard time reading about men in tights, Dane thought but did not say.
“Okay. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the doctor to talk with his teacher since it was her recommendation?” He tried for polite.
The shrink took a deep “cleansing breath.” Dane recognized that too. His mother and sister were big fans of the cleansing breath, but then the doctor’s eyes went wide, almost like she’d been mesmerized by something, and when she addressed Dane, she had a bit of a Barbie tilt to her head. The whole effect made her look crazy, which was ironic for a shrink. Something else Dane would not be sharing.
“Let me try to explain, Coach Sivac. On the surface that seems logical, but I don’t want Trey having the stigma of seeing a sports psychologist. Granted, I gave him the assignment, but I think it would be best if you were his liaison going forward. It seems more organic if you understand my meaning. Besides, coaches should display an air of approachability for their players, don’t you think?”
Like vegetables, organic? Why the hell did it seem like the more pieces of paper these people collected, the harder it was to understand a word they said? Dane nodded because nodding was the go-to these days. And talking right now would certainly get him in trouble.
“Right.” He looked to Coach Hall for some confirmation that this woman was a pain in the ass and found nothing but more nodding. “I’ll check in with the teacher. Can Trey drop the class? Or audit?”
“I don’t want him to drop it. In our session yesterday, he seemed to express a genuine interest in the subject. Furthermore, I don’t want him pulling out now, especially since this class is part of his confidence building blocks. I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“I… actually have no idea what that means.”
She giggled. It wasn’t a word Dane used a lot, but the sound coming out of her could only be described as a giggle. Giggle with Barbie neck and crazy eyes. This woman reminded him of a character in Harry Potter. The one who wore the weird suits and looked like she was from the fifties. His nieces would know her name.
“Plus, it’s stimulating and I think it’s good for him.”
“But… he’s failing.”
So that’s why it worked so well. It was hard to argue with a nod.
Dane accepted defeat. He was used to going round and round with the women in his life and knew eventually he would be worn down, so he quit while he was ahead.
“Okay. Well, thanks for this talk and the meeting in general. Good fun. I’ll get with the teacher.”
“Excellent,” the shrink said, clasping her hands together, crazy eyes looking pretty damn happy now.
“Coach.” Dane nodded as a sign he was now going to back away slowly.
His boss, the man who just last week brought a giant wall of a lineman to tears, nodded too and put his hand on Dane’s shoulder. “Thanks for this,” he said as he walked him outside the meeting room.
When they were alone, Dane asked in the most politically correct way he could muster, “What the hell?”
“Look, I know it’s different, but the higher-ups are on my ass, and you know everything flows downstream. They’re responsible for our budget and ultimately the success of our program. If those suits asked me to put on a tutu and dance around the room, I’m not sure I wouldn’t give it a shot. I’m sorry about Crazy Eyes in there, but this is the new ‘culture’ and we need to play nice.”
Dane let out a deep breath. “Right. Well, I guess I’m off to get Trey’s schedule.”
“Hey, just be glad you’re old enough to remember when college ball was just a game. Now we’re a ‘building block in the lives of these young men.’”
Dane laughed and turned back toward his boss. “When I was in college, do you know what my coach’s favorite saying was?”
Coach Hall waited, his eyes giving away that he knew it was going to be a good one.
“He used to say, ‘You’re all playing like a bunch of fucking bunnies.’ How do you think that would go over in there?”
His boss roared and held his out-pouched stomach. “That would be—what was on that handout?—‘excessive emotional duress.’”
Dane shook his head. “Cut it out. You’re scaring me.” He turned to leave.
“You’ll follow up with the teacher?”
“Do I have a choice?” he asked, pushing through the door.
Dane shrugged his acceptance and decided he needed coffee and a few doughnuts before venturing into the English department. Yeah, that was going to be a treat.