When Hermione thinks about the writers who came through this program before her, she feels paralyzed.
So mostly, she doesn't.
Sunglasses left behind in the basket by her front door, she makes her way across campus half snow-blind, eyelids aching in the cold. Outside the library she stomps her boots, scattering clods of dry snow, before pushing through the door.
She's not up in workshop today. It’s both a relief and a disappointment. Instead, she arrives with three printed sheets of notes on someone else's work.
A bank of floor-to-ceiling windows makes up one entire wall of the reading room on the second floor, and wraps around half of the next. Most of the MFA cohort—fourteen in all—sit at the round table below, paperclipped notes and pens in neat ranks in front of them, scratching in their Leuchtturm journals or tapping their keyboards.
Padma's already seated in her and Hermione’s usual place, close to the fire.
"I don't know how you can drink something cold right now." Hermione shivers, folding herself into the chair beside Padma’s and shrugging her wool coat over the back.
Only water is allowed in the library, but Hermione knows Padma's sucking iced soy matcha latte through her stainless steel straw.
“You may be surprised to learn this, Hermione, but some animals are able to keep their bodies warmer than their immediate environment.” Padma purses her lips around her straw.
Padma’s relaxed and easy. She’s good—very good—probably the best writer in their cohort, and justifiably confident. Her hilarious short story about a young woman traveling with her slacker younger brother to a family wedding in Chennai was very well-received last week.
Hermione’s not up for three weeks, and has no problem giving critique. She should be relaxed, too. But as she lays out her notes and digs her favorite pen from the bottom of her canvas bag, she’s jittery—over-caffeinated and underslept.
She unclips her papers, straightens them, reclips them, then fishes a stubby plastic bottle of hand sanitizer from her bag and squirts a blob into her palm. She rehangs her coat from her chair, and moves her bag from one side to the other. She gets up to fill her water bottle in the dispenser next to the bathrooms, and when she comes back, unloops and reloops her scarf.
“What is wrong with you?” Padma whispers. “Are you drinking Hiballs again?”
“No, I am not drinking Hiballs again.” Hermione pounds half her water and immediately regrets the urgent need to pee she’ll have in twenty minutes.
Professor Lupin, as if on cue, arrives.
“Alright,” he says, still unbuttoning his own pea coat. The collar peeking out from under his V-neck sweater is rumpled. He himself looks rumpled, as though he needs someone to show him how to iron himself. There’s a perpetually harassed, shell-shocked aura to him, like he gets hit by a car a little bit on his way to class every day. “Let’s get started.”
They get started.
They all look between whoever’s speaking at the moment and the student seated directly across the table from Hermione, receiving their feedback.
Except Hermione looks out the windows at the searing white snowscape. At the stub of hangnail asserting itself at the edge of her left-hand pinkie. At Padma’s neat shell pink manicure as she absent-mindedly rattles the ice in her cup. At Michael Corner, sitting in the corner, leaning in his chair with his index finger hooked over his upper lip.
Never, ever at—
“One quality I really appreciate about Draco’s work is his concision.” Susan, to Hermione’s right, has been talking for a while. “I think the choice to be even more restrained here, where the narrator is appraising his chances with this young woman, is particularly effective, and avoids being overtly or problematically attached to the male gaze.”
As though someone invoking his name summons her attention, Hermione looks at Draco, sitting opposite. He’s looking at her, but jerks his head to the side the second she makes eye contact.
There’s this whole thing he has going on, like he knows he’s supposed to look casual, so he does—so he tries —but he’s obviously wearing Tom Ford trousers and a $2,000 sweater.
Today it’s a cream-colored Aran, the sort of handknit garment a New England fisherman from 1912 would buy if he shopped at Neiman Marcus.
Draco swam for his college team, and the sweater fits in a very particular way across his very particular build.
He crosses, then recrosses his arms over his chest, and Hermione downs half of what’s left of her water.
It seems unfair for him—never published but already rich, disruptively hard-muscled and at ease in his own beauty like it's something the universe owed him—to be an excellent writer, but there is no one in the room who isn’t. He worships at Hemingway’s altar, allergic to interiority like he’s afraid that if his characters reveal their inner worlds they'll expose his, too.
Hermione is extremely aware of how valid that is.
She’s read this week's short story twice. Once, standing breathless in her apartment entry, her keys clattered on the floor, bag still over her shoulder, and her blood yowling in alarm. The second time with a pen in hand, taking notes as rapidly as her perfectionism would allow, to get the assignment over and done with, so she could throw it into Lupin’s mailbox and never think about it again.
It's a fictional encounter between a nameless narrator and a sparking, brilliant know-it-all. It’s literary and carefully appropriate; erotic without being explicit; sexual without being crass. But where her classmates’ imaginations have surely filled in the blanks, Hermione’s readings were embellished from experience.
“The diction here is stellar. Highly evocative,” says Padma. “I understand perfectly that this is, for this narrator, probably the best sex he’s had in his life, without that actually being said.”
Hermione’s cheeks burn. She can’t look across the table. It’s impossible.
She does the impossible and looks. He’s staring at her now, wide-eyed and haunted, his face bloodless.
“I’d have liked to have had a better sense of the woman’s response to this encounter.” Ernie, immediately next to Draco, flips through his notes. “She’s not absented, she’s present and seems super engaged, but then she just takes off?”
The writer is silent in workshop, absorbing critique and taking notes, and Draco’s pen scratches at his page.
“That’s the point, though, right?” Marietta, on Draco's other side, leans forward to address Ernie. “Like, is this one-sided? Does this woman get that this was, like, a life-changing fuck? Sorry,” she laughs. “I mean he’s blind-sided, and I love the pathos of that feeling apparently not being reciprocated.”
It wasn’t supposed to have happened at all.
Opening up her relationship with Roger to see other people wasn’t the same thing as a break-up. Two days after agreeing that they were both struggling with long distance, Hermione had no intention of flirting with Draco Malfoy over a glass of Merlot.
The idea that by the end of the night he’d have her pressed to his apartment door, one hand fumbling to fit his key in the lock and the other shoved under her bra cup was absurd.
That she would be on her back twenty minutes later with her knee in his hand, gasping into his half-open mouth while he fucked her into incoherence was beyond anything she could have imagined.
The whole situation was so patently ridiculous, she’d jumped out of his bed and scrambled for her underwear the second it was over. Then she’d turned to him, lying prone and half-covered in his sheets, and said:
“That was fun.”
Every text he sent stayed on read.
The luckless narrator ends Draco’s story on a similar note.
For an hour, he submits to the opinions of twelve classmates and one writing professor about what that actually means.
Twelve, not thirteen.
Hermione would share her notes, but she has to pee.
Waiting for his espresso in the student union building, Draco startles, but recovers well.
“I said, I’m sorry. I—” Hermione bunches her fists in her coat pockets. “I should have answered your texts.”
He has the worst, smarmiest face. She’d really like to be able to stop looking at it.
“It’s fine, Granger.” He’s easy and detached, chin tilted up and Adam’s apple bobbing on a swallow. “Just wanted to make sure we were cool.”
Hermione grabs the front of his Neiman Marcus sweater and drags him behind a ficus.
“You wanted to make sure we were cool?” she asks.
“Yeah. We’re cool, right?” His face says he doesn’t give a shit, but she can see his pulse at the side of his neck.
The barista calls, “Triple tall Americano for Draco.”
“Then what was that story?” Hermione glares up at him.
“What, the story we just went over in workshop?” He scoffs. “Did you think that was about you?”
“Did I think that was about me? Are you kidding?”
“I hate to break it to you, but that was fiction.”
“That was not—”
Hermione wants to pummel him in his perfect pecs.
Instead, she says, “Absolutely not. You do not get to fictionalize that. It was real, and it was unbelievable, and you and I both know that—”
But his mouth is on hers, and his hand is in her hair, so she doesn’t finish.
“Triple tall Americano, no room, for Draco?” says the barista.
They break apart, panting.
“It was absolutely about me,” says Hermione.
She pushes up on her toes and kisses him on her terms, hard and resolved.
When she breaks away, he groans.
“I sort of have—had—a serious boyfriend.” Her fists are wrenched into his sweater, stretching it out.
“Break up with him.”
This time when they kiss, it’s slightly less manic.
“You can’t write about us having sex again,” she says, leaning out of mouth-reach.
“Okay.” He looks resigned. “Wait, I can’t write about us having sex again, or I can’t write about us having sex again? ”
“Oh, thank God.”
“Your coffee’s going cold,” she mutters against Draco’s mouth.
“Granger, I value your input.”
“But please, stop thinking and let me kiss you.”
Mostly, she does.