The Make-Up Test by Jenny L. Howe (Excerpt)

Chapter 1

If one more person used the word hegemonic, Allison Avery was going to scream.

After almost two full weeks of classes at Claymore University, she should be more adjusted to the quirks of graduate-level literature courses, but it still felt like … a lot.

Everyone seemed so much older, like Link with his suspenders and bowties themed for every class, and Kara, whose button-downs were so freshly pressed she could roll down a grassy hill and still not have a wrinkle. And they all had laptops (new shiny ones), and were typing away with a gusto Allison couldn’t muster while scribbling frantically into her notebook like some kind of Luddite as she missed every other word Professor Behi said.

When Allison had sat through the commencement address at her college graduation in May, listening to some politician whose name she should have known droning on about making the most of every opportunity, she’d let her mind drift to the fall, imagining herself in cute floral dresses, sitting in a snug corner of the library in a worn easy chair, listening raptly to professors wax poetic about Chaucer and Julian of Norwich and Boccaccio. She certainly hadn’t planned on being crammed into the same cramped desk/chair combos from undergrad that jabbed at her curves no matter how she angled herself. Nor letting her eyes burn until the wee hours of the morning, trying to make sense of two paragraphs of Jacques Derrida.

And never, ever, ever had she expected to be sitting across the discussion circle from Colin Benjamin. Her ex-boyfriend.

Colin, not surprisingly, had been the latest person to cause Allison’s brain to pucker by finding a way to work hegemonic into a sentence. That was the only reason she was staring at him right now.

He slouched lower in his chair as their professor’s gaze shifted to a new raised hand. One of his spindly ankles sat upon his equally spindly knee—there was a reason she used to jokingly call him Ichabod Crane—revealing purple socks with the word cats! scrawled around drawings of felines in various stages of stretching and sleeping.

Allison bit the inside of her cheek to keep from reacting. It should be illegal for Colin Benjamin to wear cute socks. Or do anything cute, for that matter. The only adjectives reserved for him should be words like irritating, maddening, vexatious.

Behind glasses with thick, maroon frames, his hazel eyes slid toward her, and his hand reached for his dark blond hair. He kept the top long and the sides shaved, and despite all the gel that glued it back from his brow, Allison knew the strands were soft like silk.

The thought turned her stomach. To dismiss it, she thrust her arm into the air.

A smile warmed Professor Behi’s face. It sliced a good decade off the age suggested by the thick streaks of gray in her black hair and the crow’s feet etched deeply into the skin at the corners of her brown eyes. “Yes, Allison?”

Even from the safety of her desk, Allison’s cheeks burned, and her voice turned squeaky. “Professo—er—Isha—” They’d been instructed at orientation to call their professors by their first names. You’re peers now, the fourth-year graduate student had insisted, proudly, as if to remind everyone what a huge deal it was to be in one of the most prestigious Ph.D. programs in the country. Like Allison could ever forget. Her mom had framed the acceptance letter and hung it above the fireplace. She made guests stand in front of it and admire the creamy white paper for at least ten seconds, an icon to worship.

But when these “peers” could dismiss students from the program at their discretion, that equality seemed dubious at best. Allison would much rather call them professor and make the power dynamic transparent.

She cleared her throat. “This is probably a dumb question, but if Derrida was so concerned about accessing meaning in a text, why did he go out of his way to make his writing so…” Allison clamped down on her bottom lip, trying to figure out the right word. Of course, with twelve other people’s eyes on her—including Colin Benjamin’s bespectacled gaze—all thought had left her brain. “Impossible,” she finally muttered.

Colin lifted his hand to respond. Because of course he did. Colin Benjamin never missed the chance to challenge someone. Or hear the sound of his own voice.

Which, Allison hated to admit, was smooth and low and comforting. He would have made an excellent audio book narrator.

Before Professor Behi could acknowledge him, Ethan Windmore (to herself, Allison referred to him as Ethan Windbag) announced, “You’ve clearly missed the nuance of his theory.”

Though no one said a word, Allison could feel their collective desire to groan. The tension pressed against the dingy windowpanes, thickening the already stuffy air of a muggy September afternoon in New England. After four years as an undergrad at Brown University, Allison should have been used to the fact that autumn didn’t properly arrive in Providence, Rhode Island, until November. It made her miss the way the air in Northern Maine grew crisp as soon as school began.

Ethan leaned across his desk, causing his biceps to bulge against his T-shirt. He should not have noticeable biceps, Allison decided. No one that obnoxious should be allowed such a vanity.

She’d hoped someone might come to her rescue, but the whole class had become mysteriously enraptured by whatever object was in closest proximity. Link was wiping the screen of his laptop like it was a windshield covered in bug carcasses. Kara smoothed out the faux-wood top of her desk. Alex and Mandy, the two other members of Allison’s cohort, both picked at their nails.

Allison hated attention. But with three minutes of class left, she was not in the mood for one of Ethan’s lectures. “I understand the nuance fine.” Lies. Derrida’s writing might as well have still been in French for all Allison could grasp of it. But hell would freeze over and pigs would fly and white dudes would admit they’re wrong before she’d reveal that she did not comprehend a lick of literary theory. “I guess I’m not impressed by writers who get off on obfuscation.”

Ethan gasped. The sound puffed Allison up with pride.

Professor Behi let out a musical laugh. “That seems like a good place to stop for today. Everyone, take Allison’s lead and for our next meeting consider why Derrida needs to make his work so”—she tossed Allison a grin—“impossible.”

People started to stand and snap shut their laptops, but Professor Behi clapped, returning the room to silence. “For you first-year students, teaching assistant positions have now been assigned. You can find a letter in your department mailbox about the course, your duties, etc. I apologize for the delay. A few last-minute shifts in course offerings resulted in some confusion.”

Allison’s heart galloped as she packed her bag. Finally, she’d find out if she’d been assigned to Professor Frances’s class, British Literature’s Greatest Hits: Pre-1800.

With her heart set on a career in medieval literature, a teaching assistantship with Professor Wendy Frances would be the ideal start. The woman was a genius. Her focus on modernizing the oldest of texts drew fire from traditionalists, but Allison knew this was the kind of academic work the world needed. Not criticism so dense it required a dictionary. Professor Frances’s work transcended academic lines. People read it for pleasure. And it got them interested in texts that weren’t household names. She helped people find themselves in the books Allison loved.

It was exactly what Allison wanted to do. And two flights of stairs up, in the tiny little graduate mailroom within the cramped graduate student lounge, could be an envelope that would set her on that path.

The west stairwell of Haber Hall had no windows, and the lights flickered. A small shiver danced up her back as Allison climbed the steps. At the top of the last flight, she pushed into the brightly painted hallway of the English Department. Unlike the dour gray of the rest of Haber, the third floor was the yellow of a perfect stick of butter, warm and inviting. Colorful posters and pamphlets boasting details for literary conferences and writers’ workshops and indie movie releases and book launches speckled the space. Most of the professors’ office doors were open and the din of conversation and rapid typing bounced along the worn red rug.

Allison ducked into the grad lounge. An old couch, its brown leather mapped with fault lines, was pushed under the window opposite a small kitchenette, and a random assortment of tables cluttered the center of the room. Along the back wall, rows of mailboxes sat above a countertop that held a printer and a hodgepodge of office supplies, most of which no one had touched since 2006.

Idling in front of the mailboxes was, of course, Colin Benjamin. The recessed lighting overhead turned the gel in his coifed hair to strands of glass as he stared down at a letter in his hands. His tall, gangly form blocked the entire space like he was a grocery shopper who’d stopped his cart in the middle of an aisle to scan the shelves.

The smartest move would be to hang back and wait until he was finished. But waiting required patience, and Allison possessed not one ounce of that. Especially not when she’d been desperate for weeks to find out about her TA-ship. She’d spotted the manila envelope peeking from her mail slot as soon as she’d rounded the door. She needed to get her hands on it.

Gritting her teeth, she smoothed down the front of her flowy polka-dotted top and tossed her long brown hair over her shoulder. Then she moved in.

As she inched toward Colin, she took the most subtle deep breath she could manage and held in her gut to ensure she’d fit between him and the counter.

Even growing up in a house where Allison’s mother bent over backward to make Allison feel normal and beautiful, it was impossible, as a perpetually plus-sized girl, not to think about those things. Nothing about the world had been built with her body shape in mind, and so every space became a math problem with angles to analyze and equations to work out.

Allison hated math.

Thanks to the curse of her father’s last name, her mailbox was at the top of the row, forcing her to rise up on her tiptoes to reach the envelope. Even then, leaning forward as far as her short calves would allow, she only managed to snag the corner. The thrill of triumph lasted the one second it took her to realize that, in the process, she’d thrust her ass up against something behind her.

Or, more aptly, someone.

And there was only one someone in this room.

A wail of mortification clawed at her throat as Allison jumped away. She kept backing up until the scratchy, cracked arm of the leather couch jammed into the bend of her knee and pinched her bare legs. The envelope’s thick material crinkled loudly against her fingers.

Color flared in Colin’s narrow cheeks, and his eyes went wide. Had their unfortunate close encounter of the ass-to-groin kind unearthed the same memory for him as it had for Allison?

Of the first time they’d met? At that party?

The night before classes had started Allison’s sophomore year at Brown, she and her best friend, Sophie, had been crushed in the middle of a crowd in some upperclassman’s apartment, dancing like their lives depended on it, when someone had pressed up against Allison. She’d assumed at first they’d bumped into each other, but then seconds passed by and the person didn’t move, so Allison had eased her body back and, against her better judgment, let herself grind with this stranger.

Never having been great at impersonal interactions, she only made it about halfway through the song before she glanced back at him.

“I’m Allison,” she’d yelled over the music.

“I’m”—his mouth pursed, and his thick blond eyebrows arched over his glasses—“just trying to get by.”

It was only then that she’d really taken him in, squinting through her haze of alcohol. His arms raised over his head, the discomfort on his face. She’d trapped this poor, unsuspecting guy against the wall. Held him up with her ass.

That was the moment Allison learned embarrassment could be a physical, painful thing.

Over the past few years, she’d tried very hard to forget that night, and the eight months of dating Colin that had followed. But ever since seeing him at Claymore’s orientation, it all kept flooding back, uninvited. Every bit of their history, from her horror at discovering two days after that party that he was in her Literary Theory class, to her failed attempts at avoiding him, to their first time getting coffee a week later, to their first kiss a week after that. And all the other firsts, and seconds, and thirds that followed, right up until he unceremoniously dumped her in the middle of spring semester.

They were some of the best and worst moments of her life, and Allison wished she could forget them all.

Colin shifted in front of her, and, to her surprise, a soft smile spread over his face. He almost looked happy to see her. “Oh hey—”

Allison bristled. She was not in the mood for small talk with the guy who’d once broken her heart, especially not when she was holding a piece of paper that could change the course of her whole future.

“Could you not manspread all over the lounge? Other people need to get in here, too.” She unwound the red string from the button that held the envelope closed, circling it again and again until it snapped off.

Her tone seemed to amuse him, the right corner of his mouth ticking up higher. Something mischievous sparked in his gaze. “I thought maybe you … wanted to dance?”

Allison fought off a squawk of horror. This was exactly why she’d been avoiding him since orientation. Maybe to him, their past was a joke, but their breakup had been one of the most painful moments of her life.

Before she could decide how to respond, the trill of a new voice cut through their standoff. “Oh. Perfect.

In the doorway stood a statuesque woman in her late forties. Her ash-blond hair was swept into a messy bun, the shorter strands framing her round face and tangling with her leaf-shaped gold earrings. Her gray-blue eyes were lined with flawless cat’s-eye swoops, and she donned that shade of red lipstick that somehow looked good on everyone. Her sensible black sheath dress was adorned with a loose, floral chiffon kimono in shades of blue and yellow, giving her an air of bohemian professionalism that Allison immediately coveted.

Her heart hammered as if she were standing in front of a movie star as Professor Frances glided toward them. “Allison, excellent. I was hoping to see you before our first class on Tuesday.”

Our class?” Allison’s gaze fell to the unopened envelope in her hand.

“You couldn’t possibly think I’d let someone else have you after that writing sample on the similarities between the Wife of Bath and Ursula from The Little Mermaid.” Professor Frances grinned.

Allison almost squealed. This was exactly what she’d been hoping for. The chance to be mentored by the department’s most renowned pre–eighteenth century specialist, right from the start of her graduate school career. Maybe if they got along, Professor Frances would choose Allison as her research assistant, invite her on her trips to Europe to examine original copies of some of the oldest works of literature, co-write papers with her. It could all set Allison on track to achieve everything she’d dreamed of from the minute her father laughed at her acceptance to Brown four years ago and asked her how she thought she and her mom were going to pay for it on a waitress’s wage. (Sometimes Allison wished her parents had gotten divorced long before her freshman year in college, but without her father’s endless negativity motivating her, she might not have been standing here now on the precipice of all her dreams. Lemons, meet lemonade.)

Professor Frances’s eyes cut from Allison to Colin, whom Allison had momentarily forgotten existed. She smiled as she spoke eleven words that landed like a bomb on Allison’s whole world.

“I’m looking forward to working with both of you this semester.”

Chapter 2

Both of you.

Twenty-four hours later, the words still clung to Allison’s insides like she used to imagine swallowed chewing gum did when she was a kid.

Not only would she have to see her ex-boyfriend across the room every week in all three of her grad classes, but now, as TAs in the same course, she’d have to work with him. That meant being polite and professional, and not ignoring him, no matter how much she might want to.

It was a disaster. A tragedy. A misfortune of Dickensian levels.

Groaning, Allison closed her eyes and tipped her face toward the sun. She’d been hoping that taking her reading outside for the afternoon would help her mood, but she was no closer to being able to concentrate. Just sweatier. Swiping at her damp forehead, she shut the cover of Derrida’s Of Grammatology and shoved it across the glass table.

“Since when do we abuse books?” Sophie’s voice mixed with the creak of the back door as she joined Allison outside. She’d had a dentist appointment that morning, and for Sophie Andrade, any appointment was an excuse for a day off, especially if it was Friday.

“We don’t. Except this one.” To prove her point, Allison used the end of her pen to push Derrida over the edge of the table. The book hit the ground with a satisfying thump.

The noise sent Monty, Allison’s seven-month-old Corgi, wriggling like a blender on full blast under Sophie’s arm. She’d barely placed him down before he was zooming around the tight circumference of the deck, his nails clicking and clacking against the wooden slats.

“I found that beast trying to use my aunt’s pin cushion as a tennis ball.” By day, Sophie did data entry, but by night, she was designing her own line of plus-sized clothing, so her room always looked like a crafts store had exploded in it. It was a veritable cornucopia of temptation for a mischievous dog, and Monty had no self-control.

Copyright © 2022 by Jenny L. Howe