A Nudge or a Nuzzle

I knew Jeremy was lying, and of course Jeremy knew, but Robin didn’t seem to know, or didn’t want to know

Desks stacked in a classroom
Photo via Library of Congress

The following is an excerpt from Negative Space, out next week from W. W. Norton.

There wasn’t time for the students to read their work, which disappointed no one. “Finish these tonight,” I said. “Bring them in tomorrow.”

“I’m done,” Eloise said. “Can I hand it in now?”

“Give it a once-over tonight,” I said.

“It’s really done.” But she closed her laptop.

Henri turned his laptop to show me his screen: a field of white, a few thin paragraphs, amply spaced. “Is this enough?” he said.

“I very much doubt it,” I said.

“Where’s Olivia?” Daniel said.

“Oh, she never comes to class,” Gabriella said.

Luca F. approached my desk. “Do we have to read tomorrow?”

“No,” I said. “You don’t have to.” We had this conversation every time the possibility of sharing work came up. Luca F. had a fear of inspiring someone. Earlier in the year, I’d tried to tease it apart. Was he worried about being copied? About not getting credit? No. He said, “I don’t like the idea of someone taking something of mine and doing just whatever they want with it.” And there was the possibility of a chain of inspiration: his work inspiring another person, whose work would inspire another person, and on and on. It wasn’t only reading a story or poem that gave him pause; he was cagey about participating in discussions. It was a paranoid, protective stance, and I was sympathetic.

“You don’t have to,” I said again. “I think you might consider it. You might find inspiring people isn’t as bad as you think.” I didn’t add that the chance of his classmates listening closely enough to be inspired was low.

“But I don’t have to?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“And you won’t show it to anyone? My story?”

“I don’t even have your story.”

“Tomorrow, after I hand it in.”

“I won’t,” I said, thinking that if it contained any violence, anything that might indicate a troubled state of mind, I would show it to the grade dean and the school psychologist.

“OK,” he said. “Thanks. I’m writing about a fox.”

“Oh, a fox,” I said. “Great choice. Do you know what they eat? I can’t wait to read it.”

He looked at me with disappointment. I was usually careful to respond with minimal interest to his ideas, so he wouldn’t worry he was inspiring me. He was backing away from the desk. “Bye,” he said, and left.

“I have a meeting,” I called to the back of the room, where Gabriella and Daniel were lingering near a balance beam. “Another class is coming in. Can we please move a little faster?”

The hallway outside the faculty advising office was narrow and dark, with a thick carpet. On the walls were a few student self-portraits; one seemed to look at me, with drowsy eyes and a mildly unpleasing expression. There were low voices and laughter coming from inside, but they stopped when I knocked. Robin opened the door. The sun had come out while I was teaching, and it filled her office, falling evenly on the wooden desk, the paper lamp, and Jeremy, who sat on the church pew, his posture very upright, legs crossed, hands stacked on his knees. He looked energetic, ready to spring up, which he immediately did.

“I’m sure you’re surprised to see me! You sit.” He opened his arm to the pew.

“Oh no.” I thought of sitting on the floor and decided it would be unseemly. “I can sit here.” I leaned on the windowsill, felt the sun on my back.

“Well,” said Jeremy, and looked at Robin.

“Well,” Robin said, drawing out the word. She was wearing silver earrings shaped like tiny eggs. She touched one and tilted her head, as though she were listening to it. “We think.” She stopped and looked at Jeremy. “This may be a misunderstanding.” She spoke deliberately, giving emphasis to misunderstanding.

“You must be upset,” Jeremy said. “I know how conscientious you are.”

I looked between Jeremy and Robin, grateful for the cover of my mask.

“Why don’t you explain?” Robin said to Jeremy.

“I wasn’t wearing a mask.” He touched his blue surgical mask. “We had the door closed. Olivia must have closed it. No wonder you were suspicious.”

“Not suspicious,” I said.

“Not suspicious. No wonder you were concerned when you thought you saw me touch her. With my head. But I didn’t. I didn’t nudge her.” He looked like he might be smiling when he said nudge.

Nuzzle, I thought. “Oh?“

“It was the angle. I reached across her—I remember this—to pick up a pencil. We were discussing her contribution to the literary magazine. It covered delicate material. Well, Olivia. What do you think she wrote about?” He looked at Robin. “It’s thinly veiled.”

She brought her gaze to the ceiling. “It’ll be in the Post tomorrow. We’ll all be relieved.”

“The cleansing power of sunlight,” Jeremy said.

“Having it hush-hush is making everyone crazy. Not least Olivia.”

“The stuff with her uncle?” I said.

Robin zipped her fingers across her mask, sealing her lips.

Jeremy turned to me. “I’m sure my face looked troubled. I am troubled by this whole situation.”

“It’s depressing when people are so—” Robin stopped. “Just exactly the way they are.” She gave a huff.

“Greedy?” I said.

Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “It is certainly unoriginal,” he said. “The point is, when I reached across to get the paper, you thought my head nudged hers.” The smile again. “Because of the angle. You told Robin it looked like I was comforting her. I wish someone could give that child some comfort.”

“It’s so sad,” said Robin absently, looking at something on her computer, which had been chirping and babbling as emails, texts, and reminders came in. She shook her head, pulled her eyes from the screen. “Her mother and I went to college together.”

“Valerie,” Jeremy said. “Until recently she was making beer. Very good beer, actually.”

They traded facts about Valerie, whose beer was served at high-end restaurants all over the city.

“I don’t like beer,” I said. “I’ve never had a beer I’d call delicious.”

Robin said, “I do like beer, but this was something else entirely.”

“I guess beverages are in her blood,” Jeremy said.

I said, “Is the money from cream soda? Is that right?”

Jeremy said, “I think she was happy to shut it down when Covid started. I don’t think she expected it to take off the way it did. And she never liked working.”

“I met her brother once,” Robin said. “He had a funny way of breathing, like he was panting. And I heard when he was younger.” She stopped and looked at me, maybe remembering she needed to be careful about what she said, or maybe she wanted me to ask another question about Olivia’s uncle, so that she could again tell me she wasn’t at liberty, had said too much, etc. “Don’t repeat this.”

Jeremy looked at his watch and stood up. “I have to teach.”

I started to move away from the window.

“Do you have a second?” Robin said to me.

Jeremy said, “You two should speak.” He looked at me. “I’m sorry. It must have been distressing.”

When Jeremy was gone Robin said, “I want to make sure you’re OK. I want to make sure this makes sense to you.”

“It does,” I said. “I understand what Jeremy is saying.” Jeremy had come up with an explanation, what I’d been hoping for. If I agreed to it, the matter would be officially closed. But it wouldn’t really be off my plate. I said, “I did see their heads touch.”

A few months ago, napkins and food scraps had started to appear every few days on the fire escape of my apartment—bread crusts in tissuey paper, an apple core, ribbons of lettuce.

The first time it happened, my husband accused me.

“What have you been doing out here?” he said, pointing to a waxed muffin wrapper, opened like a flower over the metal slats.

“You aren’t serious,” I said.

“I’m half serious,” he said.

“It’s obviously the raccoon.” A raccoon sometimes came to the window boxes, observing us intently for a few moments. “Or a squirrel.”

“Or a rat,” said Nicholas, who liked to upset me with the possibility of a rat. We’d once had a mouse problem; he called them rats.

“It’s not a rat.”

I entertained the idea that it was me, that I’d experienced some kind of episode and eaten a sandwich on our fire escape. People raided their pantry under the influence of sleeping pills, and I took valerian at night. Or maybe Nicholas, who often seemed on the brink of a breakdown due to his job, had finally completely lost his mind. Soon enough, we saw a squirrel frantically chewing a heel of baguette inches from the window. Since this happened, I’d decided to be more empirical in my judgments, to trust my memory.

I hadn’t seen Jeremy’s head move past Olivia’s head; I’d seen it move into Olivia’s head. Gently. I didn’t want to believe that it had gone further than this, but he’d nudged or nuzzled her. I had seen it. And I couldn’t be sure it had stopped there. I regretted not knowing Olivia better, so that I could say with more certainty what she might and might not do, how she would and wouldn’t act in different circumstances. I regretted not being the kind of person who could make these judgments in the absence of exhaustive knowledge.

“You’re sure this is what you saw?” Robin said.

I said, “It’s what I saw.”

“OK.” Robin put her head in her hands. I was disappointing her, which was not unpleasurable. It was probably how members of the administration felt when they shrugged their shoulders in the face of parents complaining about the school building. I usually bent my will to Robin’s—it was hardly a decision—and not bending my will was a loosening, like removing an earring I’d forgotten I was wearing.

“I’ll have to speak to Jeremy again,” Robin said.

I said, “I wonder if someone should speak to Olivia?”

“That would be a good idea,” said Robin. “There is the question of how to approach it now that we have a—discrepancy.”


“Let me think about this. Let’s loop in Tonya.” Tonya was the school psychologist.


“I’ll talk to her,” Robin said. “You probably should, too.”

I left Robin’s office for the steps outside, still cool, though the sun was strong. The sun warmed my clothes and my skin, and soon I was completely warm; my nerves were quiet. It was good to be in the fresh air, a brick wall between me and everyone in the school. It allowed me to think. Now, in addition to the nudge or nuzzle, there was Jeremy’s lie, vivid and distinct, a fact. Lies were always a surprise, in spite of evidence that most people lied continuously and reflexively. The students lied, my children lied, Nicholas lied. I lied in the progress reports I wrote about my students, but those weren’t wholesale fabrications; they were just editing, spiffing up. They were not, in any event, sinister. I didn’t think they were.

I knew Jeremy was lying, and of course Jeremy knew, but Robin didn’t seem to know, or didn’t want to know. Again I returned to the question of what the lie was about: a nudge or a nuzzle, the beginning of something, or a sign of something underway, or an off moment, one he’d decided it was best to pretend never happened. Darya, the movement instructor, was heading in and stopped to say hello to me.

“You done for the day?”

I shook my head. “Just taking a breather.”

“Do you know—hang on.”

“Who?” Olivia, I thought.

“Ivan,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “No.”

“His parents took him off his medication again,” she said.

“And that’s bad?”

“I’m not meant to talk about this.”

“I won’t say anything.”

She sat down, adjusting a strap on her overalls, which were canvas, cream colored, and did not, like some overalls, make her look like a child. She was carrying a large bag, which she put between her feet; a few branches of eucalyptus escaped from one side.

“I love eucalyptus,” I told her, touching a leaf, its surface flat and serene, a small pool.

“Hmm?” she said. “Oh, I hang them in my shower. It clears the air.” She dipped her head and sniffed it. “In general, I’m skeptical of medication. I think it’s overused.”

“Me too.”

“But it’s done wonders for my nephew, changed his life. For him, it was anxiety.”

“And things are so awful now,” I said.

“So awful. Why suffer? But with Ivan—I don’t know if you’ve ever had a student like this.” He’d made a joke in class about the long, painful death of his cat—even though he knew how much Darya cared about animals, and especially cats. “Why would you tell us that?” she’d said. He just smiled.

“You think of those students who end up doing things,” she said to me. “Anyway, the medication turns him down, smooths the rough edges in more ways than one. He follows directions better. But the parents are putting up roadblocks.” She broke off some eucalyptus and handed it to me. “It can help you relax,” she said. “I don’t mean you.”

“But I do need to relax.”

She shrugged. “I’m saying who doesn’t?“

I stood up. “I have a duty.”

“I have a duty as well,” she said reflectively. “In fact, I have duties.” She stood up. “I think I prefer the older students,” she said. “Maybe it’s just this year. The fourth grade—” She paused for a moment. “Those little shits.“

Excerpted from Negative Space: A Novel by Gillian Linden. Copyright © 2024 by Gillian Linden. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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