She had just had another creepy experience with her ex; that’s ex-lover and ex-professor. She really wasn’t in the mood for a faculty party. Her friend from the English Department, trying to be sisterly, kept encouraging her to get out more. She appreciated it. But as much as she loved and needed academics – school – there were parts of it that made her sick. Men. All the men. Everywhere she went in life, since she could remember, it was men either wanting her attention or men giving her attention she didn’t want.
But here she was, at this party in a faculty member’s backyard garden, surrounded by a mix of genuine scholars and men who didn’t have the gumption to start their own band to get laid and instead decided to teach social science. There was one guy in particular who stood out, carrying on with a large boisterous professor who looked like a sea captain.
This guy looked young, but he looked like he’d been through some shit. There was a familiarity about his face as he rolled his eyes and jabbed the professor with his beer can. He seemed surrounded by a cloud of arrogance that was likely just a cover for a hurt boy. She was close enough to their banter to hear something that pissed her off.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You should be,” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Whatever is, is good,” she repeated his comment. “That isn’t the basis of religion, if there is such a thing.”
The professor looked at him and then at her. Then he smiled widely at him and then at her, like he knew something, as if this moment was a punchline to a long elaborate joke.
“I think I hear a phone ringing somewhere,” the professor said. “I’d better answer it.” He looked again at the guy, jabbed a carrot stick in dip on the table, and walked off with his can of beer and a smile.
The argument they had about religion and faith and culture and history was just a runaround. He was too smart to outsmart her but too biased and dug in with conventional bullshit to get it. When she talked about her work studying prairie Indians, he was dismissive. After the last run in with her ex, she felt like asking him to go it outside so she could kick his ass. Between his smugness and the dingbat surfer dude in her office that morning telling her his paper was going to be late because his friend Ishmael got hit in the head with a surfboard, she was about ready to become a serial killer.
“Because, in the end, that’s where every religion ends up,” he said setting down his plate of cucumber sandwiches after responding to her criticism that his view was a kind of warmed-over deism.
“Do you know anything about indigenous cultures?” she said, setting down her plate. “I mean, anything?”
“Let’s see,” he said, putting his hand on his chin and looking skyward. “I don’t know, human sacrifice?”
“Are you that ignorant?” she asked, trying to emanate indifference and incredulousness in equal parts. Here she was again, trying not to be an angry woman but still appalled at his profligate spending of his privilege on such stupid ideas. She had to back everything up in triplicate; he could just say, “You know, like William James pointed out in “The Varieties.” That pissed her off. Then he relented.
“Look,” he said. “You’re right, I don’t know shit about indigenous culture.”
In a moment of what she’d think later was both intuition and intention, he said something else.
“Maybe you can enlighten me.”
And here is where he pushed her to a breaking point, set her otherwise gruff exterior tottering. As much as his crossed arms and confidence and defiance enraged her, it drew her in. Who was this guy? Letting her own guard down, she felt myself creating an opening.
“Yes,” she said. “I could do that.”
“If you’ll let me tutor you on morality and ethics,” he said, picking up his can of beer.
“Sure,” she said. Then she said, “Fuck you.”
He looked like a kid who had caught a grasshopper in his hands. She felt stupid for even being there. But they traded phone numbers. And she noticed her friend, who always teased her for being too much like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and not enough like Dido, smiling from across the room. So was the professor. As she looked at his phone number on the napkin, she wondered if these two, the professor and her friend, had colluded somehow, made a bargain, to bring her together with this arrogant prick.
They got together at a coffee shop later. She went with few expectations. Well, she tried not to have any. Being human, she had some. Maybe he was someone she could argue with and still respect. Maybe. This was her struggle, needing someone but not needing anyone. So, she went and met him at the Arbor on campus. And all they did was argue. He made her so mad she slapped him. Later, she wished she felt bad about it but she didn’t. All she could do was wait for him to message her on the goofy university electronic mail system. They had laughed that this electronic mail thing was interesting once you figured out how to log in, but there was nobody to message because nobody had this thing, an electronic mail. They said they’d send messages that way. And they did.
In between some things on campus, she stopped at the library. She hoped she’d see a message. The black screen with green type lit up and she put in all her stuff, login and password. There was something there from him. They got right into it. He started about the slap.
“Why did you go all Bernadette Devlin on me yesterday?” he asked.
She loved Bernadette Devlin the young Irish woman elected to parliament in the 1970s. That he knew who she was astonished and impressed her. Again, it both pleased me and pissed her off. The weird blinking cursor was a friend because she could hide my immediate reaction behind it. She smiled. She grimaced. She stood up. She sat down. Even though he was somewhere on the campus, this computer message thing allowed time. It slowed her down.
“She’s a hero of mine. I’m surprised you know who she is.”
She hit return.
“She’s one of mine too,” he wrote back. “She’s the only one to think about fucking with the mace since Cromwell.”
She had talked with him enough to know his politics were antithetical to her own. But he wasn’t trying to sleep with her, although she knew he wanted to. And he was confident enough to mock her, to tease her. He somehow didn’t care if when he opened his hands, she’d just jump out. He had her, but he didn’t seem afraid to let her go. She decided to fuck with him.
“You’re such an asshole,” she wrote. “You don’t seem to grasp that I don’t care the slightest about you.”
“Fine,” he wrote back. “Let’s stop writing each other.”
They kept at it.
“I don’t really feel comfortable with your love of Margaret Thatcher,” she wrote. “That’s messed up.”
“Who do you love?” he asked
“Don’t try to do psychological stuff on me,” she wrote. “Ok? You won’t win.”
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “Why would I want to win?”
“Hmmm. I can feel it,” she answered. “Harriet Tubman. Gloria Anzaldua. Frida Kahlo. Rosa Luxemburg.”
“Rosa Luxemburg?” he asked. “How about Hannah Arendt?”
“I’m not sure about Hannah,” she wrote.
“Because you’ve never read her,” he typed.
“And you’ve read Anzaldua?” she responded. “I think maybe you think I’m not as smart as you. Which is wrong.”
“I don’t know,” he wrote. “I’m not that smart.”
“Well,” she wrote, “you are the only one who can distract me from my work, falter in my purpose. But you are an asshole.”
“Nobody is going to dispute your designation of ‘asshole’ when it comes to me,” he wrote. “I am one. Guilty!”
They did that kind of shit for days. Then one day he did something that made her laugh out loud in the little room with computers in the library. Another student at another terminal looked at her with disdain.
“Why don’t we go on a date?” he typed.
“What?” she typed back, “You like me?”
“Yeah,” he wrote back. “I like you a lot.”
She felt something that she liked but knew was troublesome. A man was usually a boy wrapped in something called manhood. Underneath all the bluster, all the Foghorn Leghorn bullshit was a scared little kid worried about being strong enough. He had a peculiar way of telling his story, what he believed, in a way that was appealing because it was honest; he wanted her, but he didn’t need her. That’s what she sat there thinking about while the cursor blinked. A date. She blushed happily because he couldn’t see her doing it.
“Ok,” she typed back. “Let’s do it. Let’s go on a date.”
They set it up, and he chose a hotel bar downtown.
Her friend from the English department came over before the date, and they picked out something to wear. They had fun with it. Why not? The more vicarious fun her friend had the more fun she had myself. It was a purple velvety dress she got a consignment shop. It had crenulated gold borders that made her look like a Punic princess.
“You’re irresistible,” she said.
“I feel ridiculous.”
“Don’t be ashamed of how beautiful you are,” she said. “You are as sexy as you are smart.”
“Whatever,” she said. “This is all a waste of time. I have work to do.”
“Let it go,” she said. “You need to have some fun at his expense. The work can wait.”
All this made her very late. But when I arrived, he looked happily surprised. He looked spiffy, as we say in Kansas, professorial in his blazer and button-down shirt. He took her hands. His were softer than hers.
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re right, I’m not.”
“Neither am I.”
They sat down and she wondered about why he chose this place to meet.
“What the fuck?” she asked. “Why here? You’re going to rub capitalism and colonialism in my face?”
“Of course!” he said. “My paymasters are here.”
She didn’t wear glasses, but she looked at him then as if she was peering over the top of a pair of bifocals with disdain.
“I like it,” he explained. “And nobody knows us here, our students, our professors, would never come here.”
“Yeah, well it looks like we just walked into Room With a View,” she said. “The Elephant Bar,” she repeated the bar’s name mockingly.
“Yes,” he said. “You have a problem with elephants?”
“I love elephants,” she said with a crooked smile. “Hannibal’s not Hemingway’s elephants. Maybe Hemingway’s head belongs up there.”
She pointed at the fake Ibex heads mounted around the lobby bar.
“You have something against hunting?” he asked.
“Have you ever been hunting?” she asked, knowing he never had. In Kansas she hunted turkeys with her dad. Some things never change. Here she was again, laying low, trying to stay quiet waiting for the bird to make his next move.
“No, and the only thing I’m hunting for now is a fun night out with you. More fun than fighting.”
He had problem with staring. She thought he was fixed on her freckles, something she hated as a kid but grew to love as she got older. Even if he wasn’t, she was self-conscious enough about them that she always thought people were trying to find the Big Dipper or Orion on her face.
“C’mon, you can say you’ve been here, right?” he said.
She stared back at him.
“Ok,” she said leaning forward, “But buy me a fancy drink.”
“Another dirty martini and a Singapore Sling for her, please,” he told the waitress.
The drink, when it arrived, was a feat of mixology.
“There’s your fancy drink,” he said. “Go native!”
“Fuck you!” she said, and sipped.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Good,” she said. “But don’t forget I hate you, please? A drink won’t change that.”
Before he could hit back, she indulged in a commentary on the drink.
“I think they’ve done it. Made a cocktail I’ll remember. Not sweet or cloying. Not bitter just to challenge. Just the kind of thing that would get you out of bed in the morning to write another chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“Who doesn’t,” he said.
“You are a classic narcissist,” she said. “You ignored when I said, ‘I hate you’ and you missed what I said about this fucking fabulous drink.”
She looked at him and smiled.
“Can I have your olives?” she asked.
“This time, Franny, the answer is no,” he said. “The only reason I order these is for the olives. So, no.”
That was another surprise. He seemed to understand that the way to her heart if she had one, was through language. He knew Salinger well enough to cite him at that moment. IShe acknowledged it.
“I see, Lane.”
He looked at her and smiled.
“Looks like we’ve both read Franny and Zooey,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, “I can keep up and then I’ll fucking pass you.”
He looked at her. He was really staring at her. His eyes were fixed on that light from the ancient flame that burned in hers. He could hear a voice saying, “Troppo fiso!” She would always say he had a staring problem, holding his gaze at her much longer than she liked.
“Let’s dance,” he said, breaking his reverie.
A small band had started to play. They were playing a very respectable version of On a Slow Boat to China.
“This is such a racist and sexist song,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “Everyone should be outraged.”
“It’s like a rape fantasy,” she said.
“Except when Ella Fitzgerald sings it,” he said.
The singer kept singing. They kept dancing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like you’re much of a dancer.”
“I’m not,” he said, then he twirled her around. “But I try.”
They danced around alone on the dance floor.
It was the band’s first song, and when they finished playing, they found themselves standing with each other, awkwardly, on the dance floor.
“Better than that email thing,” he said.
“I guess,” she said.
They sat back down. They drained their drinks and ordered two more.
“This really sucks,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he said. “We’re getting drunk at the fanciest place in town, my treat.”
“I think I’d rather the earth open up and take me straight to hell than admit it, but I’m starting to like you,” she said.
“Let’s dance again,” he said.
And they did. Now the band was playing “At Last.” The singer was doing something as close to Etta James as anyone could in such a place. He was drunk and so was she. As they danced it felt like it might have just as well been Etta herself.
“You really don’t know how to dance, do you?” she said.
“No idea,” he said. “Where’d you learn?”
“High school gyms and the VFW.”
Then they kissed.
And then they looked at each other a long time.
“That was inappropriate,” he said.
“I’m going to report you,” she said.
They kissed again, deeply, deliberately. By now there were lots of elderly people shuffling around, and for a moment, they forgot themselves.
The song ended.
“Hey,” she said putting her finger under his chin, “let’s go play pool.”
He looked a little perplexed, maybe stunned at her aggressiveness. He even looked a little afraid. She’d seen it in men’s eyes before. She knew he had something to worry about.
She thought of her boy students, especially Dart, a surfer kid from Irvine who wore his baseball hat backwards and for whom school was a kind of purgatory. Something about that familiar flash of fear on his face tonight made her want to cling to him.
“Pool,” he said “So, tonight we do things I can’t do sober and try them when I’m drunk?”
“Yeah,” she said and pulled him from the dance floor. “It’s a test.”