Jody Gehrman Excerpt: Watch Me

Watch Me by Jody Gehrman is a gripping novel exploring intense obsession and illicit attraction, which introduces a world where what you desire most may be the most dangerous thing of all (available January 23, 2018).

Kate Youngblood is disappearing. Muddling through her late 30s as a creative writing professor at Blackwood college, she’s dangerously close to never being noticed again. The follow-up novel to her successful debut tanked. Her husband left her for a woman ten years younger. She’s always been bright, beautiful, independent and a little wild, but now her glow is starting to vanish. She’s heading into an age where her eyes are less blue, her charm worn out, and soon no one will ever truly look at her, want to know her, again.

Except one.

Sam Grist is Kate’s most promising student. An unflinching writer with razor-sharp clarity who gravitates towards dark themes and twisted plots, his raw talent is something Kate wants to nurture into literary success. But he’s not there solely to be the best writer. He’s been watching her. Wanting her. Working his way to her for years.

As Sam slowly makes his way into Kate’s life, they enter a deadly web of dangerous lies and forbidden desire. But how far will his fixation go? And how far will she allow it?

SAM

After five years waiting for this moment, watching you for the first time still catches me off guard. I recognize you from your book jacket, but the reality of you—a three-dimensional object moving through space, flesh and blood and golden hair—makes my pulse race. You don’t know me—not yet—but nothing spikes my pulse. I am ice. I ooze cool, unruffled detachment. It’s the thing people find unnerving about me, the thing I try to hide. I know how to smile and raise my eyebrows and frown in all the right places, just to show I’m human, to communicate to the other hairless apes that I’m part of the tribe. If I don’t control my face, it defaults to blank detachment, and that gives people the creeps. Watching you, though, I don’t have to fake it. I can feel my lips stretching into an amazed smile of their own accord, the smile explorers must have worn when they first stumbled on the New World.

You’re walking across campus framed by two rows of flame-red maples. Your boots kick bright mounds of leaves strewn across your path. I can see from the slight bounce in your gait you’re enjoying the flurry of each step. Though you’re bundled against the cold, a bright green scarf wrapped around your throat, it takes no effort at all to imagine you in bed, the long sinewy lines of your body a feast of light and shadow as you stretch, catlike, back arching.

God, you’re perfect.

I’ve never allowed myself to consider what I’d do if you turned out to be ordinary. If I started school at Blackwood, the place I’ve worked and schemed to enter, only to discover you’re not the woman I thought you were. I didn’t allow myself to consider the possibility because I knew, deep down, it would kill me. By the time I’d read the first page of your book, you were in my blood, in my bones. To live without you was unthinkable.

Of course, you write fiction, and you’re private, so the number of facts I’ve managed to scrape together about your life could fit on a postcard. I love that about you—your mystery. In a world packed with blogs and Facebook updates and tweets and Instagrams, a world crowded with so much white noise from self-absorbed assholes who share every bowel movement in tedious detail, you are enigmatic. Like Shakespeare, it is much easier to find theory and speculation about your life than solid facts.

You are an onion I intend to peel, layer by layer. I will love every second of it. Your mystery will yield to me, your dark cocoon penetrated by my patient, steady hands.

Though I have little solid evidence about who you are and how you fill your hours, I still feel close to you. I watch your jaunty green scarf flutter in the breeze, your hair trailing behind you in a golden swirl. We are connected. It’s undeniable. And it’s not just the tie that binds a fan to his idol. Yes, it’s impossible to read a great writer’s work and not experience their essence. I don’t see you the way I see Nabokov, though, or the Brontës, or Melville. I see you for what you are: the only person on earth who will ever understand me.

You stop to examine a woodpecker. From my position on a nearby bench, I have a perfect view of your motionless body. Your throat is white and exposed as you tilt your face to study the industrious little fucker. He pecks harder than ever at the trunk of a tall, elegant birch, as if urged on by his audience. I see you smile.

Without trying, I smile, too.
 

KATE

Sam Grist sits across from me, staring. His eyes are so piercing that for a moment I’m paralyzed.

I’m not oblivious. I’ve noticed him watching me in class. I’ve observed the way his gaze follows me, tracing the lines of my body like he’s committing them to memory. Sometimes he wears a vaguely drunk expression, like someone two martinis into the evening watching you from across the bar—when you know you’re caught in a glimmering vodka filter that makes everything luminous.

This is the first time I’ve been alone with him. The air in my small office feels thick, dense. His eyes lock on mine with such unapologetic intensity, for a second I can’t remember how to breathe. When one of my students uses the term “piercing” to describe someone’s bright blue eyes, I usually scribble “cliché” in the margin. Now, I’m forced to acknowledge just how apt the phrase can be. His stare pins me to my seat.

With effort, I look away. That’s hardly better. My eyes sink as low as his throat. The skin there is that delicate peach color only youth can manage. So dewy. So tender. If I put my lips there—goddamn it. Stop, Kate. Just stop.

“Nabokov’s my favorite. Lolita. What a fucking beautiful book—sorry.” He blushes, his pale cheeks turning pink.

“It’s okay.” I adjust my glasses. “I’m a professor, not a preacher. I’m more offended by comma splices than ‘fuck.’”

The word lingers in the air between us. It’s there, like the traces a sparkler leaves behind, glimmering in the muted light of my office.

I glance at the floor lamp behind him. Its pale linen shade casts a soft glow. When I bought the lamp last week I told myself I needed it so I could kill the fluorescents in my tiny office; they were giving me a headache. I’ve never liked the cold, clinical mood they radiate. Now, though, I wonder if the vibe is too ‘candlelit lounge.’ It’s something I do way too often, swing from one extreme to another—in this case, from morgue to topless bar.

His smile is slow and knowing as he watches me. Now his eyes dip to my cleavage, and I worry I’ve gone too far. Low lights, “fuck,” Lolita. This is not the professorial persona my tenure team needs to see.

I clear my throat, and his smile vanishes.

“So, you have a question about class?”

He leans back. The glow from the lamp catches in his dark black hair. I try to look at him coolly. I try to channel all the bloodless, sexless professors I’ve ever had. The incredibly well-shaped muscles beneath his black T-shirt beckon from my peripheral vision, but I refuse to give in. It’s the divorce, I tell myself. You’re hungry for distraction. Go easy on yourself.

“I do.” He nods. “Is it a good time?”

“Shoot.” I glance quickly at my computer, then back at him. We don’t have all day, but I can carve out some time from my frantic online shoe shopping to deal with his needs. It’s important to prioritize.

“It’s about the workshop.” He rests his arms on my desk, waiting for me to meet his gaze directly before he goes on. “There’s some really god-awful shit in there, you know?”

I watch him as he catches himself swearing again, see him decide against apologizing. He’s young, but not as young as some of my students. Twenty, maybe? Twenty-one? It’s nearly impossible to guess at age anymore. I’ve given up, especially during that breathless time between eighteen and twenty-five, seven years that feel like they’ll last forever, when you wear the face and body of an adult but still have the blank, unmarked dewiness of a child.

“It’s Sam, right?” I take off my glasses and clean them with the hem of my sweater.

“Yeah. Sam.” There’s a subtle reproach in his voice, like he’s disappointed I had to ask.

I didn’t have to. I just need him to know I don’t think about him. I haven’t singled him out. The fact that this is a lie makes it even more important.

“Are you asking if I think my students’ work is shit?”

“I know you think it’s shit.” He tilts his head to the side. He’s peering past my façade, into me. “I’m asking why you don’t call them on it.”

I pull my cardigan tighter and put my glasses back on. “‘Shit’ is a relative term.”

“Either it sucks or it doesn’t.”

“Nabokov had a hell of a time getting published,” I point out.

“Not because publishers thought his work was shit. Because he terrified them.”

I nod, conceding his point, and change tack. “Workshop is all about getting better. New writers need to experiment.”

“You and I both know those spoiled brats are never going to write a single word worth reading.” His cynical smile makes me uneasy.

I’ve got no idea why Sam affects me the way he does. It’s not like he’s the first smug, talented student ever to sit in that seat lobbing overly confident truisms about workshop at me. And yet … and yet … there’s something about this one. The way his eyes probe my face, the restless motion of his body. He keeps leaning back, like an actor trying to telegraph “relaxed.” Within seconds, though, his sculpted torso tips forward again, his naked forearms on my desk, his body straining toward me.

“I don’t know that.” I can hear the crispness in my tone, the prim, professorial inflection. “Nobody knows what anyone else is capable of.”

“Now that I believe.” He points at me, like he’s the teacher and I’m the student finally stumbling on the right answer.

I kind of hate him. I kind of want him.

His big, beautiful hands land on my desk again; for just a second, his palms lie faceup between us. I see the jagged scars carved into his wrists, red, angry lightning bolts zigzagging his blue veins. My gaze flies to his face. He knows I’ve noticed. His eyes hold mine. In that moment, I’m certain he wanted me to see. But then he pulls his hands back, presses them against his thighs, and stands.

“I won’t take up any more of your valuable time.” His gaze flicks to my computer screen. I must have accidentally jiggled the mouse because Zappos is now perfectly visible.

It’s my turn to blush. Goddamn him.

“Don’t be so harsh on your fellow writers.” I try to sound sage, like someone who lives profoundly, someone who has actual wisdom to pass on. “If you’re right, and they’re all hacks, that’s good news, right? Less competition.”

He raises an eyebrow. I’ve always wanted to master that move but could never seem to manage it. When I try, it comes off strained and frightened. He pulls it off so naturally, like he came out of his mother’s womb and fixed her with that sardonic stare.

“I’m not worried about competition.” He twists the doorknob.

My eyes dart to his wrist, seeking out the pink, puckered wound. I force myself to dismiss him with a nod, like someone who knows what the hell she’s doing.

 

Copyright © 2018 Jody Gehrman.

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Jody Gehrman has authored several novels and numerous plays for stage and screen. Her young-adult novel, Babe in Boyland, won the International Reading Association’s Teen Choice Award and was optioned by the Disney Channel. Jody’s plays have been produced or had staged readings in Ashland, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and L.A. Her full-length, Tribal Life in America, won the Ebell Playwrights Prize and received a staged reading at the historic Ebell Theater in Los Angeles. She and her partner David Wolf won the New Generation Playwrights Award for their one-act, Jake Savage, Jungle P.I. She holds a Masters Degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California and is a professor of Communications at Mendocino College in Northern California.

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