At 10 A.M., the hotel café is already busy, the lights dimmed.
I sit at the bar, drinking an orange juice while most of the people around me
are starting in on morning cocktails—mimosas and Bloody Marys, champagne,
I stare at the row of televisions, all tuned to dierent news shows. They come
at me in closed captions, most of them reporting on The Shop. PBS shows
footage of Avett Thompson being handcued and escorted away. MSNBC has a
preview of Belle’s Today show interview, Belle calling Avett’s arrest a travesty of
justice. CNN’s chyron keeps warning that more indictments are coming, on
repeat. It’s almost like a promise, mirroring Grady’s promise, that Owen will be
in even more trouble soon. That whatever he is running from is about to catch
him.This is what gnaws at me, over and over, when I think of my husband—that
something is coming for him, for all of us, that he couldn’t stop. That he has left
me to try and stop it for him.
I take out my notepad and go back over what Grady said during our phone
call—trying to recall every detail, trying to hone in on what may be important to
glean from it. I keep coming back to how he said that Owen might have erased
his own online history. And, as wrong as that feels, I try to move myself there, to
that assumption, to see what it shows me.
Which is when I land on it. That there are certain things we can’t erase,
certain things that we reveal to the people closest to us despite what we may or
may not know we are telling them.
There are things, that without meaning to, Owen has told only me.
So I make another list. A list of everything I know about Owen’s past. Not
the false facts—Newton, Princeton, Seattle. The other facts—the nonfacts:
things I learned accidentally during our time together, things that in retrospect
seem like strange encounters. Like the guy from Roosevelt High School. I look
Roosevelt up, and nd eighty-six of them spread across the United States. None
of them are anywhere near Massachusetts. But eight of them—in places like San
Antonio and Dallas—are spread out across Texas.
I put a pin in that and keep thinking, landing on the night with Owen at the
hotel, the piggy bank on the bar. Which is when I realize something about that
piggy bank—something I’ve been struggling to remember. Am I remembering it
correctly now, or am I conjuring up the memory out of something like
desperation? I shoot Jules a text to check it out for me and keep thinking.
I keep working my way through things only I know: the anecdotes and stories
that Owen has told me late at night. Just the two of us. The way you only do
with the person you’ve chosen, the witness to your life.
Those stories, the stories he shared when he didn’t even realize he was
sharing, can’t all be false too. I refuse to believe it. I will refuse to believe it until
I’m proven wrong.
I start rolling through them, Owen’s greatest hits: the time he took a boat trip
down the Eastern Seaboard with his father, barely sixteen years old, the only time
he ever spent several days alone with his father. The time during his senior year
of high school that he let his girlfriend’s dog out to play and the dog ran away,
Owen getting red from his rst job for spending that afternoon searching for
the dog instead of returning to work. The time he snuck into the midnight
screening of Star Wars with his pals, his parents awake at 2:45 A.M. when he
nally walked in.
And a story he told me about college, about why he started to love
engineering and technology so much. Owen’s freshman year of college, barely
nineteen years old, he took a mathematics course with a professor he adored,
someone he credited with his current career. Even though the professor told
Owen he was the worst student he’d ever had. Had he told me what the
professor’s name was? Tobias something. Was it Newton? Or was it Professor
Newhouse? And didn’t he have a nickname he went by?
I race upstairs and back into the hotel room to wake Bailey—the one person
who maybe has heard the story about this professor more times than I have.
I pull the comforter o and sit down on the edge of her bed.
“I’m sleeping,” she says.
“Not anymore,” I say.
She reluctantly props herself up against the headboard. “What is it?”
“Do you remember the name of your father’s professor? The one he loved so
much, who taught him freshman year?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she says.
I ght my impatience, thinking of all the times Bailey has rolled her eyes at
this story—at how Owen has used it as a teaching opportunity. He’s used it to
convince Bailey to stick with something that matters to her, to commit to her
plan. He’s used it when he was trying to convince her of the opposite.
“You know this story, Bailey. The professor taught that impossible course in
gauge theory and global analysis. Your father loves talking about him. The
professor who told him that he was the worst student he’d ever had. And how
that actually made Owen want to do better. How it focused him?”
Bailey starts nodding, a slow recognition. “You mean the guy who put my
father’s midterm on the bulletin board, right…?” she says. “So he wouldn’t
forget all the ways he could improve.”
“Sometimes your passion takes work and you shouldn’t give up on it just
because it isn’t easy…” She takes on Owen’s voice, imitating him. “Sometimes,
kid, you need to work harder to get to a better place.”
“That’s it. Yes. That’s him. I think his rst name was Tobias but I need to
know his full name. Please tell me you remember it.”
“Why?” she says.
“Just, can you remember it, Bailey?”
“He called him by his last name sometimes. A nickname for his last name.
But it started with a J… didn’t it?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“No, I don’t think that was it… It was Cook… He called him Cook. So maybe
it was Cooker?” she says. “Or was it Cookman?”
I smile, almost laughing out loud. She’s right. I know it as soon as I hear it.
It’s good to know I wasn’t even close.
“What’s so funny?” she says. “You’re freaking me out.”
“Nothing, that’s great. That’s what I needed to know,” I say. “Go back to
“I don’t want to,” she says. “Tell me what you gured out.”
I open my phone and I plug his name into the search engine. How many
professors with the name Tobias Cookman could there be who teach collegelevel
mathematics? And more specically gauge theory and global analysis?
One that I nd, one who is teaching theoretical mathematics. One who has
dozens of accolades and awards for his teaching. One who, from the set of
photographs that pop up, looks just as surly as Owen has described him.
Wrinkled brow, a deep frown. And, for some reason, in many of the
photographs he is also perpetually clad in red cowboy boots.
Professor Tobias “Cook” Cookman.
He has never worked at Princeton University.
But for the last twenty-nine years, he has been on the faculty at the University
of Texas at Austin.