9-4 story

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.4 (Fall 2009)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Love Story: Version 0.5

Ivor Davies

     The Great Man was up and about, beady-eyed and bushy-bearded, by 4 p.m. on Friday.  No doubt, the wine-and-cheese reception on Thursday evening, after his exhausting flight from Toronto (first-class… but take-off had been delayed an hour), had taken its toll on his septuagenarian constitution; and Spivak had proven unresponsive to subtle hints (or perhaps had taken on more wine than cheese) that a cocktail party was not the place to protest an unflattering line in The Great Man’s review of his new book.  (Just as rule-or-thumb had it that a truly scholarly article should display three-quarters footnoting for every quarter-page of text, so every line of begrudged praise in a review called for a half-hour’s oral lecture from the injured party at the next direct encounter.)

By the time, however, that all graduate students, Ph.D. candidates, lecturers, assistant professors, associate professors, full professors, and professors emeriti were assembled in Marsdon Hall’s pleasantly unrestored setting, resplendent with varnished wood and afternoon sunlight, the Maestro had quite recovered his famous form.  His paper on “The Collaborative Confrontation of Moor and Christian Elements in Late Carolingian Jurisprudence” (rumored to be the harbinger of a new book) betrayed every intention of growing to a two-hour behemoth in its bid to prove a complete muddiness of influences during the identified place and epoch, especially with The Great One’s dramatic pauses factored in.

Saglanov and Rachel were among the grad students (though both, being well embarked on their dissertations, were informally superior to that ranking) who sat pecking away noiselessly on laptops like court reporters at a murder trial.  It was easy to carry on an extended conversation in this manner, since the Maestro apparently viewed the New Age scriptorium surrounding him, with its near-complete absence of eye contact and utter dearth of questioning, as a show of that servile respect so richly merited by his long, distinguished career.

For Saglanov, the occasion to catch up with Rachel was little short of ideal.  Of all the young women he knew or had ever known, he couldn’t recall one who had ever impressed him half so much.  Now that they were both racing to batten all the hatches by the date of their dissertation defense, though, opportunities for more than a nod and a smile were rare.  He wasn’t the phoning/texting kind—had actually given up his cell phone to save money almost a year ago; and as for Rachel, she alone of all the girls within his experience didn’t even own a cell.  That significant fact in itself was probably responsible for a fifth of the one-half advantage she enjoyed in his eyes over the rest of her sex.

As they all sat torpidly under the slanting golden light and the suffocating silver drone, she actually found him first.  He was checking his e-mail over grimly locked jaws that fought, bravely and steadily, against a yawn.  Two new messages.  Office Depot (where he had bought his laptop) was extending its Labor Day sale, and… Hi!  I’ve been watching you over my shoulder.  Do not attempt to acknowledge me.  Do not smile.  Do not assume any expression that could be mistaken for a vital sign.  Clausen worked hard to bring Moses down from the mountain among us.  He will savage us both to our advisors if we do anything to spoil the festivities.

     In spite of himself, Saglanov felt a twitch of delight stir in his lips.  He squelched it and immediately glanced up at the rostrum, as if to signal Moses (should he have noticed the twitch through beetling gray brows) that an exquisitely intelligent irony had been hidden in his last remark.

Why did you sit so far from me?  I couldn’t “acknowledge” you if I had a flare gun.  Though I admit I’ve been watching you with a pensive look for fifteen minutes, as if I were weighing the Dalai Lama’s deep insights and your lovely looping wrists just happened to intersect my reverie.  A bit daring… dare he?  Well, wrists couldn’t get him into much trouble.  He pressed “send”.

Rachel’s fingers worked silently below her lovely, looping wrists.  Within a minute, a bolded “hi” title appeared in his mailbox.

I have to be at Gibbon’s heels constantly, in case he should elbow a crumb off his table.  Upon my sycophancy depends my graduation.  You know that, you guilt-tripping burlone!

     Saglanov could almost feel the glow of his screen reflecting off his warm face.  Never had any such woman existed—certainly not in his fairly wide experience!  While the rest of her kind were soaking up “text messaging” shorthand the way an anthropology researcher might cram to learn Washo the Chimp’s hand signals and lip smacks, Rachel was dashing off instant e-mails with flawless subjunctives, elegant word order, and a bit of Italian thrown in.  Not in his quintessentially Ideal Woman would he ever have had the arrogance to request such perfection.

Through his beatitude, a particularly attenuated equivocation from the rostrum penetrated.  Joy brings boldness—and to the bold, scholarly vacillation has all the virile savor of warm, watered wine.

Did you just hear that?  It’s not true.  He’s trying to please both sides, but I could disprove that mid-of-road pander on the spot.  It’s mandatory PC, not scholarship.

     New message: Why don’t you speak up?

     He hammered silently, smiled invisibly: I thought you were my friend.

     Define friend.  You don’t let me in these days.

     What did she mean by that?  Had she been trying to “get in”?  When?  He racked his brain to recall the last time he had seen her—not thought of her, but actually seen her in a social setting where entry or non-entry was negotiable.  The brief nods in passing… maybe they were his, not hers.  Maybe he had just assumed that she didn’t have the time… maybe he was afraid that she would find the time.

Saglanov peeked sheepishly over his MacBook’s raised lid at the shoulder squared perfectly in a spotless white blouse.  The accusation’s rightfulness infused him with the same melting influence as left him indiscreetly gazing—vanquished and humbled—at that perpendicular shoulder, that cleanly rolled-back cuff, that vase-handle wrist.

Maybe you’re right.  Maybe I find it hard to let people in.

     He sighed rather too heavily for concealment, before he could catch himself.  An answer had already returned.  People???  Knock-knock!

     Who’s there?

     No joke.  I just want in.  Or am I just “people”?

     I seriously didn’t know that I was… he began to write—and then erased it all.  What had he seriously not known?  That she cared?  Yes and no.  He had seriously avoided knowing.  Why lie about it, when truth imparted the pleasant pain of peeling off a scab?  He continued his impromptu confession, which came with astonishing fluidity in this medium.  If only the Church had figured that out, he might still be a believer.  E-confession, hidden even from the frightening sound of one’s own voice.

 If I didn’t let you in, it’s because…  Sigh.  Gritted teeth.  I really do like you.  REALLY like you.  And that first step down is a killer.  I’m trying to save you a broken leg.

     He had scarcely leaned back (bridling the sigh this time) when the bolded “hi” reappeared.  There are worse things to break.

     Very cryptic, he typed.  A skull?  Scholar with broken skull not good.  His fingers had toyed about her words without engaging his brain (his brain not consenting to let his fingers in): he played dumb almost without realizing that it was an act. 

     No answer.

 The analogy would have YOU breaking something, he continued, now committed to the ruse of dumbness.  Am I bad for your scholarly objectivity?  Did Gibbon not like the diss chapter that I proofread?

     No answer.

     Sorry.  I did my best.  He probably preferred your longer sentences.  Like I said, my help is the kiss of death.

The toss which she dealt her short-cut but invincibly rich strawberry blonde hair, as if in impatience, alerted him that he was about to be taken to task.

     Break + part of anatomy?  Popular idiom for severe trauma?  Is that so hard to answer, faceless doctoral candidate?

     Not the skull? his dopey fake-innocence pursed.  (Why?  Because he wanted her to spell it out?  Or because he dreaded that either of them should spell it out?)  Back?  As in spine?  Did I break your back by making extra work?

No answer.

     I’m not good with anything popular.  You’re acquainted with the fate of my cell phone—which I only bought in the first place because of you.  Maybe that tail-end flattery would soothe her.

     Liar!  You are the first source I’d ask about a 1000-yr-old proverb.

     New direction, perhaps—chance to steer away from troubled waters.  But tradition is no longer popular.  Even I know that.  Slogans over proverbs, icons over slogans.  Icons… you know, “eye-cons”, as one of my students wrote with accidental brilliance when I had that teaching fellowship?

     No answer.  Dead end.  His cuteness had not won her over—had not lured her off course.  Back to the old direction.

Okay, let’s see.  Popular sayings with “break” for one hundred… What is “breaking someone’s balls”?

     No, no, no!  He erased all the way through the Jeopardy allusion.  Not only failed to fit the female anatomy—but Rachel was so… so very, very FINE.  Refined.  A thousand years of refinement had not yet been lost on her: she was the last remaining female not to lose their lesson.  “Breaking balls” would not do.  She was possibly even a virgin, as he had mused more than once.  Not likely—not in this setting: but she was most certainly not far from being a virgin.

Breaking wind… he began—and then erased again.  That was even worse, though not anatomically exclusive.  A minutely apt metaphor for the malodorous lecture pouring upon them from across the room, however.

Break… he piddled; but before he could fill out the phrase, a new “hi” boldly popped up.

     Heart.  You incredible dunce.  A broken heart.  Get it?  As when someone cares about you, and you don’t care back?

     He typed, You can’t be, with the outermost tips of his fingers.

     No answer.

     You could do so infinitely better.  Infinitely.

     No answer.

He felt his pulse quickening in his throat, and sat up stiffly.  The Dalai Lama was fortunately blind within his broken wind of sanctity.

     What would break MY heart would be for you to find out how really far below I am… how far below where you think I am.

     Twenty very long seconds.  He incredulously watched them count down in the corner of his screen—he would have sworn they were sixty, at least.

     So you get to break my heart in some kind of offbeat noblesse instead of letting me break it myself?  Sounds rather condescending.  I could file a sexual harassment complaint.

     No—just the opposite.  A fever invaded his fingers.  It would break my heart to know that you hadn’t really broken your heart before, but broke it for real afterward because I let you THINK you had broken it before.

     What an unwieldy sentence he had just sent… too late to call it back.  Sigh.  Now, what was e-mail shorthand for “sigh”?

     Unwieldy sentence.  Shows distinct signs of extreme self-indulgence.

     What I meant to say is…  He sent that much rather than have her fill the wait with speculation.  What had he meant to say?

     What you meant to say—or meant NOT to say, and fully succeeded—is that you can’t handle being close to anyone.  You dress it up as self-sacrifice, which convinces yourself if not others that you’re doing the right thing.  But no, you’re far too bright to fool yourself that way.  We both know that it’s really nothing but self-indulgence.

     We both know that I love you, right?  He pressed “send” with the sudden resignation of a parachutist bailing out. 

     Very long wait.

What a cowardly way of evading the issue!

     But a minute ago I was a coward for shutting you out!

     Exactly.  And then I dragged you by the ear to your locked door, and you tapped out.  A minute ago you were concerned about my broken heart!

     When did you start using wrestling metaphors?

     Seems natural on those rare occasions when I have an exchange with you.  Now, about your loving me… tell me more.

     Well, I love it that you’re the only woman on the planet—he had written “girl”, but quickly erased—who uses a possessive with a gerund.

     Oh, darling!  Do you mean it?

     Absolutely.  Well, more than I ought to—but don’t get mad.  I honestly began to fall hard for you about the time you read that brilliant conference paper that you previewed during seminar.  IQ level: 200+.

     I’ll have to re-read it.

     What I mean is, stupidity turns me off in women.  It’s what turns me off about the very idea of romantic attachment.  Not from my first days in knee pants, I guess… but for years.  Ever since I realized that women are incapable of honest relationships because…  No, no, no.  Backtrack.  Ever since I realized that most women only want the life they’re sold on Limewire.  That the girls I knew never seriously listened to a thing they said.  That they never heard a thing I said.  Send.

But he typed some more without waiting for a response.  That’s when I decided to enter grad school.  Send.

     Message titled “hi”.  Is that when you decided to become a priest?

     Was that a response to the first send or the second?  Had to be the first: it popped up just as he sent the second.  When had he told her about his pathetic lunge at the priesthood?  How much deeper had their conversations worked than he recalled off the top of his head—and how many more such conversations had they had over the past two years than he casually remembered?

My bad—you’re right.  First it was the seminary, then grad school.  Guess I’ve blocked out the seminary.

     Very prompt response.  Which you used to block out your devastating experiences with women.  Do you see a pattern here?

     He grew the least bit morose.  Don’t tell me you believe in ultimate truth!  Everyone follows that same pattern in life—the pinball scenario.  You bound into one slot by rebounding from another.  And so it goes, as you work your way down.  Had he really sent that?

Have you got that out of your system now?  Remember, I have in evidence a recent e-mail wherein you torched the Maestro for trying to please both sides instead of pursuing the truth.

     Ignoscas mihiMiserere meiMy bad.

     It’s alright.  Everything will be alright, as long as you let me in.  Mr. Saglanov, tear down this wall!

He could no more have suppressed a laugh completely than Mother Nature could have denied an air bubble access to the surface from the bottom of the deep blue sea.  He did succeed, however, in choking over it, and he kept one hand firmly fixed over his traitorous smile as the other fished a Kleenex out of a pocket.  Above his white flag of a mask and beneath the brows of his bowed head, he was just able to observe the Maestro pause and stare, as if engaged in an inner battle about whether coughs and sneezes could truly be absolved of guilt when they interrupted his oratory.  The Grand Old Man at last appeared to rule in favor of Mortality and Carnal Susceptibility, and returned his elevated stare to his notes.

Saglanov took special care not to let the Kleenex fall from his face as he peeked down to find the inevitable new message.

You know, they didn’t actually tear down the Berlin Wall the instant Reagan said that.

     He sucked in his lips and bit hard on them so that his fingers would be free to reply.  Maybe they should have.  If you and I both rushed the conference table at the same time, we could probably force everyone on the other side through the window.  I’m sure I could take the old man, anyway.

     Ah, freedom!  Shall we start a revolution, you and I?

     He relaxed his lips.  A strange wave of… not sobriety, but something like sad irony… had overtaken him.  People in our position only incite others to rebel.  We have no talent for the marketplace free-for-all, so we keep memorizing books by the volume for candy and a kiss—or a slap for every missed line, in grad school.  We’re slaves.  It’s all we’ve ever been.  All we’ll ever be.  But we pour all our resentment into our students, and we INSIST that they fight the fight we never could.  Passive aggression.  Transference.

     Her reply was long in coming, but he could see her fingers working thoughtfully over it and waited with a patience close to the serene.

I can see why the priesthood would have attracted you, and also why it repelled you.  You had to try it—and you never could have made it.

     For the same reasons, I’ll never make it as a scholar, either.  The thinking life attracts me irresistibly, but it gives me no freedom to think.

This time he saw the long white fingers play on the keys in several spurts without sending anything.  The final bland product revealed that earlier, surely more interesting versions had been erased.

     You’re grossly underestimating yourself.

     My self-estimate doesn’t matter.  It’s the price tag that the scholarly meat market slaps on me that matters.  I’m chopped liver.  I CAN’T FIND WORK!

     The long, lovely fingers flexed in frustration, no doubt not suspecting that they were closely surveyed—no doubt preoccupied with the thought that this whole relationship would stall if he foresaw a future of dumpster-diving.  He knew that she would understand that.  There was something deeply poignant about the force—the physical force, visible in those little fists—with which she fought against it.  And something truly pathetic about the bland propositions with which she tried to fight it.

Publish your paper on St. Columba.  It’s brilliant!  IQ level approx. 168.

     Brilliant and anathema to Gibbon, Quayle, and the rest of the menagerie.  Brilliant enough to get me talked about in a blackballing kind of way.

     Another long wait, neither anxious nor—now—serene, but filled with pity and self-loathing.  The pity for her as she struggled to throw him a lifeline, the self-loathing ignited by his having involved her in a futile struggle.

     You can’t be afraid of rejection by the establishment.  Truly creative people have to be brave.

     It was closer to platitude than anything he had ever heard her say or would have thought her capable of.  How low she had to stoop in her attempt to fish him out!

     I am bluntly stating a) that my stuff is unpublishable, b) I will never find an academic job without publications, and c)… okay, I didn’t bluntly state this.  But I don’t want to teach Lord of the Flies to snotty ninth-graders.  There are ZERO other options with my degrees.  Work for the government as a personnel officer?  Legal assistant?  I’d rather drive a truck.  But then, at the moment I don’t even own a car.

     You haven’t tried.  You don’t know until you try.  Presumably she meant “tried for a professorial tenure track” and not “tried to buy a car”.

     I’ve tried as much as I can stand.

     If you could just get some interviews… you’re such a brilliant speaker.  I mean it.

     Yeah.  My sermons would have been great, if only I had believed what I was saying.

Her once perfectly squared shoulders had assumed a weary sag, as if under a great weight.  His weight.  He was pummeling her on top of the head—her lovely strawberry-blonde head, loaded with a 200+ IQ—no less brutally than if he were standing over her and raining down blows.  He was already punishing the girl he loved—the only girl he had loved in a very long while, perhaps the only one he had ever really loved.  And it was of this that he had sought to warn her, before “letting her in”.  Yet five minutes of e-mail exchanges had sufficed to teach her the dangers of being inside.  He should be happy.  If he had genuinely meant to sacrifice himself, he would feel happy right about now, having destroyed his last best chance at happiness for the good of her whom he loved most.  An offbeat noblesse, had she called it?  It must indeed be offbeat… because he felt anything but happy.  He thought about just standing up, this instant, and walking out without looking at anyone, and walking away from Marsdon Hall and this campus and his apartment and this city until he could walk no more.  Maybe hitching a lift out on the interstate to… anywhere.  Nowhere.

He had fallen into a kind of stupor.  He had no idea when the new message first appeared in his box—was frankly surprised to see any new message at all, having thought that the door had closed again.  Permanently.  He clicked on it very slowly, like an early astronomer afraid that an accidental nudge of the telescope might displace a new star from its ken.

ILU.  Or whatever the shorthand for that is.  Smiley heart.

     He pondered the new star—for it was most certainly an unknown light in his night sky.  What are we going to do? he typed listlessly.

     Rutgers is interested in me, I think.  No interview yet—the opening hasn’t even been posted.  But I have two contacts there.  All omens promising.  Good pay—way too much for me alone.

     As if she could know the pay if the job hadn’t been posted….  Does Rutgers have lawns that I could mow? he returned one-fingered, a kid grinding out his first piano lesson.

     I could find plenty of work for you to do at home.

     As your proofreader?  As your typist?  A bitter taste prickled the insides of his cheeks, and he ground his jaws over it.  You could never respect a man who stayed at home with the cat.

Do you love me, Eric?

Bitterness, regret, pity, poignancy, hilarity, gratitude… they all swirled together as a kind of plug popped out of some drain in his soul, creating for an instant a blue-black, golden-green rainbow..

     I love the color of your hair.  And the way you smile.  And the dimple in your chin.  And your shoulders, and your wrists and hands.  And the way you walk, and how your eyes look at nowhere when you explain an idea.  I haven’t wanted to love you, because you’re so far above me—because I can only slow you down.  But I’m stuck with it.

     He felt utterly exhausted.  Listening to that ancient idiot at the rostrum drone on and on in an incomprehensible language honestly stirred something violent in him.  Mowing lawns… why not?

Then it’s settled.  Wherever I go, we will go together.

He eyed the words on their electronic billboard until his diaphragm hardly lifted to breathe—until the screen, at last, shifted into power-saving dusk.  There was no more to say.  The door had opened, and shut again… and she had remained on the inside with him.

     ***

     Miraculously, Moses finished reading the wishy-washy pronouncements he had borne down from the fiery cloud (and which indeed preserved many stylistic indicators of cloudy provenance) before the sun went down.  Dr. Clausen’s invitation for questions was greeted with such numb silence that the creaky old chairs began to sweat through their varnish; only the ingenuity of the tenured faculty (or perhaps their near-equal endowment for burdening air with sound on the meagerest of pretexts—for few comments actually became questions) saved the moment from outright embarrassment.  Under the circumstances, little stimulus was needed to evacuate the room after what seemed a sincerely grateful round of applause (the gratitude’s source remaining wide-open to speculation, however).  Only Saglanov failed to move a muscle, slumped in his chair before a blank silver screen, as hips clad in frayed blue jeans rolled around him in the outgoing tide.

Rachel had ridden out the effluence in an eddy where, quickly on her feet, she had drawn one of the duller but more affable grad students—a thirty-something married-with-children brunette of generous embonpoint named Gevette.  A woman of the people… the kind that proved so awkward in Humanities grad programs, since she was clearly fracturing bourgeois stereotypes by entering the Ivory Tower yet dangerously importing bourgeois tastes (marriage, children, etc.) into the sterile sanctum.  One could wish that the people were not quite so… so popular, so vulgar, in their ways.  “Gevette”, indeed!  Dr. Quayle was said to have quipped that two ads, one selling Gilette razors and one Gevalia coffee, must have been merged accidentally on the same glossy page of Look Magazine when her mother was pregnant.  (The jibe’s pristine version, heard by Saglanov, had featured only razors and coffee: “Gilette” and “Gevalia” had been added post mortem to resuscitate the witticism’s prostrate corpse.)  If Gevette had been of African descent, of course (like a recent graduate named LaTiandrasha), such sniping would have been professional suicide; but to Quayle and his ilk, she was merely and safely “that fat brown cow”, as Saglanov had heard him whisper with more discretion but more conviction than had been infused in his famous Look joke.

Saglanov had decided, as a result of such abuse, that he rather liked Gevette; and he loved Rachel all the more because she, too, always gave the woman friendly attention to her face and never took potshots at her behind her back.

“You are coming tonight… right?” effused Gevette over him now, quite eclipsing the low sunlight.

“I haven’t told him yet—I forgot to pass it along,” hastened Rachel at her elbow; and then, with an imploring lift of her light, lovely brows which she sneaked in by gliding just behind the meaty shoulder, “Gevette has invited all the grad students to her house tonight.”

No professors!” roared the scholarly matron with such bovine good health that Rachel glanced around to confirm the room’s emptiness behind them.

Saglanov sealed shut his laptop noiselessly.  “I’m very bad at parties, and this is hardly one of my better weeks,” he said with unimpeachable honesty.

“All the more reason to come!  Rachel can pick you up—I know you don’t have a car.  And if she can’t for some reason…”

“It’s not a problem.  I can do it.”

“I was going to say, Bert will do it.  He’ll be happy to.  He can pick you both up.  He’ll be running around all night, anyway.  He’s my… what do you call it?  My victualler!  Is that the word?”

“You may mean vivaseur.  Thank Bert for me… but don’t count on me.”  And then, after a mild twinge of guilt: “If you remember your Epictetus, you know what happens when a cold coal is set beside a hot one.  Either the cold one begins to glow or the hot one loses its heat.”

“Oh, we’ll keep the heat on!  Don’t you worry about that!”

“Eric,” hazarded Rachel, trying to slip her words in between Gevette’s guffaws like thin sheets of paper into an accelerating shredder, “Gevette’s husband actually has several contacts.  Useful contacts.  People who are hiring.  And I’ve talked to Ariadne—”

“Oh!  That tall, frail girl with the stringy hair?  Is she coming?  She told me she was.  She’d better be!”

“Yes, she’s coming.  Her father’s a state representative—”

“I didn’t know that!  He is, really?”

“Yes, and… and Eric, she seems to think that he’s looking for someone to help him write his speeches.”

“So this would be kind of like a job fair?”  Saglanov attempted to laugh, but had a feeling that the wry smile he produced made his response sound even more sour.  “What will you do, set me off in a corner so people with suggestions can come over and give me phone numbers?”

“There’re not a lot of quiet corners at my place, honey!”

Honey.  “If I can find one, just leave the bottle.”

Gevette appreciated his humor vastly more than did Rachel, by all appearances.  Rachel almost had that far-off look in her eyes that turned them cerulean blue when she thought about ideas… except that the sky betrayed a suspicious sheen, as if about to give rain without a cloud.

 ***

     The rush-hour traffic had obligingly fled the inner city by the time Saglanov began his somnambulist trudge home.  A few restaurants were springing to life, but the tall office buildings enveloping them in shadow had turned to mausoleums for the weekend.  The heat of early September was far from unpleasant now that the sun itself was only a white stripe across twelfth floors and especially wide intersections.  He was free to plod the pavement at his own pace in smacking sandals, and to think.

Which he very much needed to do… for the closing scene with Gevette had left him vaguely sullen.  As if he were feeling the first signs of food poisoning—as if the invading microbes were just beginning to send minute bubbles through his gut which would eventually force him to vomit—the “job fair” thing nagged and gnawed at him.  What was all that about?  What did Rachel mean by encouraging him to find local work at once?  She had apparently been gathering “employment opportunity” info since well before their e-tryst this afternoon.  Had his penurious status been a hang-up to her feelings for him the whole time they’d known each other?  How long was that?  What did she want him to do now—drop everything and write speeches for Senator Landisson?  He hadn’t quite finished his dissertation yet, and he still had to defend it once finished—nor did he own a car, nor was he likely to come into the funds for one by October First.  Didn’t she want him to have a Ph.D.—or would that steal some of the thunder from her own?

Or was she simply backing off her Rutgers idyll—he and the cat back home holding the fort?  Had she committed herself too quickly—maybe she really did feel a physical attraction to his “tennis pro” good looks—and then realized suddenly that the pro couldn’t pay for a can of new balls?  (Lots of new ones to replace the broken ones.)  If they were going to the Promised Land together, shouldn’t he wait to look for a job there?  Was this job-fair party really code for, “I’ll get set up—you give me a call when your paycheck starts coming”?  But what good would a paying job here be there?

No, no, no… far too paranoid.  Rachel wasn’t like that—it was stupid even to have such thoughts.  He recognized the residual influence of Kamila, whose apartment he had moved into as a college freshman and whom he had allowed to move deep into his heart… only to come home one day (“home”, indeed!) to closets emptied of Kamila’s things, two months’ arrears in rent, and a crude note explaining why the debt was his by rights for freeloading the past six months and—by the way—for ignoring the terms of their agreement so far as to become “clingy”.  The Kamilas of this life required a lot of trips to the toilet to flush out of your system—years of them—and even now, the toxicity lingered.

Say, then, that she just wanted to buck him up—to make him think positively, and also to help him put a little cash aside for their move to Rutgers (if not to begin building a new kind of professional résumé).  That was infinitely more in character… and she wouldn’t be going anywhere, after all, until next year (probably next fall: Jesus, the Rutgers opening hadn’t even been formally announced)—and he could prepare for his defense, after all, while holding down a job.  But where would he find the money for a car?  Was she going to loan it to him?  Would he have to allow himself to be adopted lock, stock, and barrel like a helpless waif so that she could put him back on his feet?  Was that what she needed out of him—was she one of these saintly Mother Teresas who needed constantly to clean mud off of boys’ faces?  How self-indulgent was her self-sacrifice?  How wise was it in him to refuse to consider this angle because his perfect Rachel was too good, too pure to have such flaws?

A couple of city attorneys (clothes were uniforms in this part of town) appeared on a collision course with him as he passed under the awning at Tonio’s.  He instinctively threw on his sandaled brakes and hugged his laptop like a monk pausing over his breviary.  Both excused themselves and passed on… but the tumble-tressed bleached-blonde dealt him a lingering smile through her suntan, and the heels that made her tightly wrapped haunches work double-time left a sound/smell wake of swishing lingerie and top-end perfume to frame that image of ivory-white, finely aligned front teeth.

He could have had an affair with her, or someone like her.  She was probably already having an affair with the power-suited junior partner whose fingers played about her elbow… but Junior Partner had had, or currently had, or soon would have an expensive stay-at-home wife whose family made political waves, for better or worse—and affairs of that type eventually proved career-threatening.  Better to keep a Saglanov at home with the cat: a pretty boy (and so bright, too) who was the legal assistant at your office or one of the new waiters at Tonio’s.  You could dress him in Izod polo shirts and set him behind the wheel of your BMW, like Barbie’s Ken.  He would have the right connections from his university days to get you the crystal meth you needed—only the best stuff, and discreetly—for those all-nighters before a big day in court, and for the big day itself.

Saglanov had strayed just far enough down the gigolo corridor to see into its dark recesses.  (A divorced thirty-four-year-old real estate agent, twelve years his senior, had adopted him just after his first degree… and perhaps had sincerely loved him, but at last could not afford the arrangement’s air of disrepute.  Her suit skirt had sounded that certain swish, too, with plenty of silk stocking to stir the martini—and there seemed to be no risk of children, a primary factor in the divorce.)  He never wanted to explore those dark alleys again.  They were almost irresistibly seductive; yet somewhere near the end of them all he would find Kamila’s last words scrawled as huge graffiti on a dirty wall, catching him in the act of justifying their vicious charge.  A leech, a parasite… a clingy invertebrate.  He craved women sometimes like an addict his drug, yet their effects upon him had always turned demeaning and emasculating, like the addict’s shakes and his lice and his mad rambling.  The priesthood—the attempt at the priesthood—had signified in large measure an effort to combat these seductions, as Rachel had guessed (yes: but it had signified, too, a profound sense of the depth and inevitability of human misery).  Yet his seminary days hadn’t failed because his craving for women was too strong.  He could have drawn tears from that suntanned, smiling, swanky courtroom bombshell within the confessional’s silent shadow as readily as he could have shed her blouse and bra within a penthouse sofa’s muted penumbra.  His mind was strong—or could be when it had to be.  The problem was that faith, too, had proved just another dark alley.  The alcoholism and accidental pregnancies and career snags that curled perfect dental work into canine snarls were no more a fright at the bottom of their pit, finally, than the unanswered prayers and suffering of the innocent and prospering of the ruthless lining an even deeper pit.

He looked up at the highest of his apartment building’s eight stories with surprised disappointment.  Almost home (home, indeed!)… and he had settled nothing—had truly thought almost of nothing.  But of what use would thought have been?  His old habit was to start from “basics”—always from “basics”, axioms, the situation’s immovable bedrock.  Well… he was NOT going to teach high school again.  And he would NOT find a tenure-track appointment.  Ergo, his Ph.D. would offer him no benefit at all in finding a job.  Yet he had to finish it, if only to show himself that he could—and if only to give Rachel some enduring reason to be proud of him.

Basic Two: he could not sack groceries or deliver pizza.  He WOULD not.  He would literally put a bullet through his brain first—for allowing himself to become a stupid lackey would amount to the same thing.  Yet he viewed the possibility of hanging dry-wall (and, yes, even of gardening—of mowing lawns) with a certain favor.  If he could use his hands in some faintly artistic endeavor and also not be singing jingles in a silly hat for a tip… maybe so.  The monastic life of centuries ago would have appealed to him.

Basic Three: He would NOT make his daily bread by jerking people around or deceiving them.  Securing the highest divorce settlement for golddiggers who had been married a month to men twice their age, talking people into buying a house who were obviously already living far beyond their means… would writing speeches for a political hack qualify for this category?  Would he be happier in an air-conditioned office excising his best lines because Senator Sleaze didn’t want to offend a donor heavily invested in Time Warner than sweating in suburbia over the hole for a young cherry tree?

Basic Four: He no longer believed there was a God.  But the main reason he didn’t was because to do so only magnified his anguish.  Though he had preserved his chastity after abandoning the seminary in an odd expression of vengeance—as if to vaunt, “I don’t need your humiliation to remove the other kind from my life”—he would have rated the pleasures of a night (a single night) with the swanky attorney far above those of floating pure above academe’s mid-oceanic mating frenzies.  The latter’s mystical pleasure was more akin to pain: a mild but ringing, unending pain of loneliness, of separation.  And he was not the stuff of saints.

His “basics”, then (as he took his last turn, all eight dull stories of “home” now visible), were all contradictory.  Like God’s—the God who didn’t exist, or who did but shouldn’t have because He only made it all worse.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, was clear any more.  Except for one thing only: that he would end up sleeping with Rachel tonight.  She would either swing by to pick him up, and he would decline to go to the “job fair”, and she would be unable to leave him all alone and fearful of having humiliated him, and she would call Gevette and tender her apologies, and they would eat leftovers from his fridge and break open a bottle of cheap wine, and they would rehash their e-mail exchange, and… or else he would somehow find it within himself to go to Gevette’s, he would soldier miserably through the evening, Rachel would bring him home, she would accompany him up for a nightcap rather than watch him slouch away so lonely, they would fight a little, they would risk ruining everything, he would beg her forgiveness before it went too far (or she his), and….

No more chastity, no more virginity, no more riding high above the deep blue sea… more dirty lingerie, more drawn faces in the morning mirror, more consecutive months of worrying over a late period… more death, more birth, more death.  More birth.  A degree that didn’t mean anything, and car payments to make.  Maybe he would enjoy mowing lawns—maybe he wouldn’t absolutely hate it.  Would the bourgeois scum who paid to have their lawns mowed be likely to want a cherry tree or two?

 

Ivor Davies has contributed many a short story to this journal dedicated to peeking behind the apparent glamour of academic life.  His “Memento Mori” appeared in the Spring 2009 issue.