Nothing is less unfinished than Cinda, Cinda Smithers, who would be thirty-nine or forty some time this year. The school is history, North Dallas University, a school that hired me accidentally and with which I parted ways soon after we discovered our mistake. I have been in Montana ever since, no place of exile, this ice-cold scene, past twenty years. I teach at a place where my students are, as a favorite writer once observed wryly of children, boring. The girls wear jeans and sensible skirts and ponytail their hair with rubber bands. The boys come to class smelling of straw and barn stalings, and every pair of male jeans has its worn circle on one back pocket for the Timberline can. They want to learn, if not what I want to teach, and they are eager. They believe in the advantages of education. A handful of graduate students, their eyes on teaching careers, endure my lectures on Beowulf and "The Seafarer."
Cinda, too, is history, so much of it the tired clichés of Dallas — rich kids ethically impoverished, academics with a talent for washing their hands like Pilate, and the parents. The parents. Handing out new Camaros which, when they were stolen, kids shrugged over. Daddy will just have to get them another. The thousand-dollar choker worn to class because Jordan wanted to see it. The weekends at the Anatole, followed by calls to have Mom send the maid over to clean up before the hotel raises hell. Ecstasy and things less attractively labeled. That, the parents did not provide.
I liked my NDU students, for all their world-weary decadent innocence, especially the Freshman English students. It was a challenge, liking them. They were, for the most part, aging Stepford nymphets eager to kiss for profit and hard-eyed boys whose virginity was left in Matamoros, if it lasted that long. They found me, the ones who thought about me at all, charming and quaint, the way delicate birds look, in their plummy boredom, at cattle, wolves and a passing bee too big to eat. I was no more comprehensible to them than Grendel. Less, perhaps, since I didn't bite. It was not strange, except for its extremity. I've been a pompous old fart since I was an undergraduate ("Long before," I hear my first wife whisper with a touch of malice). It comes with being born a thousand years late. I should have been a scop singing of nickers and weregilt. Instead, I'm a tired old soldier with a mastery of Anglo-Saxon, a rotting liver, and my memento mori.
Calling roll on the first day of my second Fall semester at NDU, I spoke Cynthia Smithers' name and two voices responded. From the second row, a marzipan soprano said with a lilt, "Cinda, please," and a curl-headed boy in back, whose name I learned was Robert Tallant, added, sotto voce, "Cinder Smithereens." The girl in the second row, a small-boned blonde with hair lighter than her tan but colored to coordinate nicely, twisted in her chair, a reflex she halted before she could dart a glare at the sneering boy. "Cinda," she said again, meeting my eyes. I nodded. "Business," she added. I had asked them to tell me their majors. Of twenty-three, she was the tenth or more for "Business."
She would have weighed a hundred pounds with running shoes, and her dress that day, a sundress I think it's called, might have weighed three or four ounces. Silk, perhaps. I am not good with fabrics. It would have weighed less than her hair and cost more than a good deer rifle. I remember her dress? I was a hungry man accustomed to feasting; she was memorable, and untouchable. I finished reading the roll, making a note of Bobbie Tallant's name. Bobbie, not Robert, was majoring in Media, a subject area I was clueless about at that time.
He was from North Dallas itself, Bobbie Tallant, from a part of town that looked down on the campus neighborhood with its two-large-a-month low rent district. He was small and spare, with eyes that sometimes grew expressively, a manipulation he used with blatance that destroyed the effect. He had pale skin, pale hair, and pale eyes: WASP to the root. And his hair was a mop of curls. I should have taken to him at once. He was given to staring with an antique disinterest; it was wasted on me.
On any other campus, Cinda Smithers would have been a glorious apparition, Helen of Troy in a supermarket, Marilyn Monroe at the PTA. But my first Freshman class at NDU, the year before, had on its rolls two Miss Texas finalists, the reigning Miss Houston, a professional Seventeen model from Port Arthur, and a girl from Tyler who had her sights set, realistically, on that year's Miss Universe competition. It was like teaching a roomful of parakeets.
Not that they twittered, and not that the boys were any less confectionary. Boys are a candy I've never had a taste for. By my second year, I knew what the cold, calculating eyes of the male students were saying. "How can I get an edge on this guy? What is the angle?" And the girls — wide-eyed and pouty mouthed, the more obvious ones — deciding what to wiggle, how loud to sigh, to help me forget their intellectual shortcomings. I wish I was exaggerating. It was an oppressive ambient, those classrooms, for the first few weeks. Then some of them began to understand that I was not going to grade based on the quality of their flattery, the location of the stadium seats they could get me, awe of Daddy's money, Mom's close personal relationship to some Bush, or the pouty promise on candy-bright lips. Things would get better. We learned to respect each other a bit, if that's the word. Certainly it was not trust, unless in the special sense that one trusts the rattler to bite and keeps one's distance.
Once it became clear that I was not gay — a potentially insoluble problem — the girls began to sort out what might work. I was a bit of a rebel, not only to their world view but to the clichés and assumptions of my own. A hitch in Viet Nam, and then egghead professor? Not just English but Old English? Bizarre. Radical measures were required. Bras disappeared, necks were exposed, and skirts stayed short well into the cool weather. I enjoyed the view and defied their hopes and expectations, continuing to grade fairly and mercilessly. But they learned, and their grades improved, so they found cause/effect where there was none. What could I do? Point out that the male students' grades were improving as well? How did they explain that?
The student body at NDU was, demographically, those bright kids who always deserved a "B plus" — no better but no worse. The boys had been high school quarterbacks getting academic breaks for their contributions to school spirit, so they arrived with unearned GPAs. The girls had been cheerleaders and homemakers and beauty pageant contestants, and every one of them, at least once, Homecoming Queen. Unlike the boys, their grades were not generally inflated, but they were used to a challenge-free academic universe. These children made up an entire campus of royalty — at sea sometimes, the brighter ones, because they were suddenly not special. Some, courtesy of complacent narcissism, were oblivious to even that.
They saw, as if in a room illuminated by evening light through the windows, the nature and implications of their privilege.
Perhaps I am being too hard on them, as a group. Most of them, under the designer clothes and tailored tans, were just kids with insecurities and worries, dreams and values, things that they began writing about in their journals once their suspicions were somewhat allayed. They examined their racism, as well as they could, and their hedonism and their unquestioned politics and even, some of them, the vacuity of their social lives. Sometimes they saw, as if in a room illuminated by evening light through the windows, the nature and implications of their privilege. They were among my best students in performance, and my least interesting. Some of them showed some intellectual promise.
It was well into the semester before I saw that in Cinda Smithers. It's easy to assume that beauty is not accompanied by brains, but I usually could get past this prejudice. Cinda was a challenge and a surprise. She revealed her mind to me unwillingly, accidentally. When I realized how bright she was, I thought immediately of Jayne Mansfield, with her IQ of 130 and her decision that the road to success required her to bleach hair and brain. Cinda simpered in class. I had grew used to simpering, but it had been startling at first, to actually hear it and see it. Many of the more unsubtle girls simpered, just as the unsubtle boys fawned. Fawning and simpering: It was a cultural thing. It went with the territory. I could avoid it on the weekends.
Cinda's first paper was so good, I worried that she might have plagiarized it. Smart people, I presumed, did not simper. I knew from her journal, a minimal effort, that she was above average in her grasp of simple mechanics like spelling and grammar. The paper suggested more than that. After that first paper, I gave them an in-class writing assignment, a "pop essay," and she aced that, producing a well-argued, coherent, challenging sequence of paragraphs in the half hour I gave them, while others, including the young man who emerged as the strongest writer overall, could manage nothing but notes, drafts, and a sketch. Hers was not the best performance in the group, but it was a solid second.
So I began putting her in peer groups as the strong member rather than as filler. Workgroups were usually made up of four or five students, generally with one above average, one a bit below, and two middle-range students. I didn't tell them that was how it worked, but I expect most of them figured out it was no accident that "the class dummies" never seemed to end up together, nor the eggheads either. Cinda challenged me about it one day after class.
"How come I never get to be in one of the good groups?" she said. She threw out a hip to punctuate her pettish irritation, and pouted like a four-year-old. It wasn't especially charming.
"How do you mean?"
The room was emptying out. She gave me a quick, accurate description of how I put the groups together, then she said, "But you never let me be in a group with one of the smart students!" Her voice negotiated the emphases like a series of speed bumps. Her tone undercut the seriousness of the complaint. She sounded like a little girl complaining that her big brother always gets to pick the TV shows. I cocked an eyebrow.
"It's not fair!" she added with just the right combination of querulousness and self-mockery. I picked up my books and papers and smiled. The last student had left. I glanced at the door to be sure our conversation was private.
"You know perfectly well why not."
We began to make our way to the door. She held her books to her chest, both arms folded around them. "I do not!"
"Stop talking to me with exclamation points, Ok? There's nobody to hear."
We were almost at the door when she said, "What do you mean?"
I stopped in the doorway. "I'm on to you, Cinda. You are one of the smart students."
She exhaled through her nose. We stood in the doorway while she considered her options. She glanced into the hall. "I am not!" she hissed.
It was, I came to think in later weeks, a breakthrough of sorts. She still became interested in her nails at odd moments during lectures; she still giggled when I called on her and looked around as if I had done it by mistake. But her journal, a private discussion between the two of us, suddenly blossomed, her secret now on the table. She actually seemed to be interested in writing. After four weeks of reading about hair and nail appointments, banalities about the evening's television offerings or casual conversations with her friends, platitudes about the headlines, I opened it the next week to find this, an improvement of sorts:
I never did understand what you were trying to tell us about breath-line punctuation. When I punctuate sentences, I follow the rules Miss Garnett gave us in tenth grade. I don't put commas for short phases, semi-colons for long pauses, and periods for stops. That's so subjective! I know, we said all that and you argued and we gave up. But that doesn't make you right! Just weird.
A few days later she wrote:
Did you know that Jerry Lincoln, the first black
player in our conference, was put in the hospital by his own
teammates during practice? What kind of stupid is that? It's
things like that that make people think Southerners are just redneck
racists with sheets and hoods in the closet. Some of the guys say
ugly things about the black students — well, sugar! so do some of
the girls! One night we were goofing off in one girl's room and
Heather — no cross that out I'm not going to tell who but at
least she's not in your classes. Heather Anonymous is a drama major
and she looked around and said, "What a dump!" and another
girl (more anonymous) said, "Call Leslie James and have
her clean it up." Some of us laughed. Oh, Leslie is black, of
I know that kind of thing is not harmless, like the mean jokes that people end by saying, "Just kidding!" But it's not breaking arms. And we are just as bad to each other. Heather's weak spot is her big — well — so we trash her for that; another girl's is her nerdiness, so we go after than. Mine is — well never mind what mine is and you can probably guess. So it's not racist, exactly, using Leslie's being a black person as her weak spot.
Ok, maybe it is. But it's not breaking arms. And it's not calling perfectly nice guys "porch monkeys" behind their backs. Snort! I can just imagine Bobbie or Ian calling one of those guys that to their faces. Talk about ER!
I guess you can't believe I wrote "Snort." I didn't really snort, you know. I'm not even sure what a snort is. I just wrote it to keep you guessing. And I guess you think we are a little lynch mob of racists. Right? Gotcha.
The underlining and exclamation points would be permanent features of her writing, it seemed, although she would forget them sometimes. And she had drawn a happy face at the end of the paragraph to sweeten the sting. But it was a journal, with room for self-indulgence, and as the weeks passed, the entries remained thoughtful, if the diction was laced with adolescence.
What is it about men and looking? I have a
professor who is always staring at my — what word should I use?
Bosoms? That sounds kind of old-fashioned and cute. And plural. Why
did Victorian ladies have "bosoms" and we only have one?
The girls all say "boobs," and the boys, we think, prefer
"tits," which a lot of girls think is vulgar and demeaning.
Not as bad, in my mind, as juvenile crud like "hooters,"
"jugs" (a personal non-favorite), and "knockers."
Come to think of it, "breast" works like "bosom,"
doesn't it? I mean, you can have one or two, right? And those other
words. Always plural. Nobody would say, "He grabbed her hooter."
I'm wandering on purpose, you know, in case you're getting lost. I'm tempted to throw in some deliberate misspellings, but that would be almost as hard as belching in public. Sorry. I took to heart what you said about "too much control," you see, the idea that good writing should be effortless as well as flawless, and the journal is where we practice effortlessness. Something like that, anyway.
It was effectively a direct quote, and she knew it. Her point made, she returned to the subject at hand.
This professor. He is always looking at my
bosom. Well, I don't mean to say that he is always looking at
it. He looks at other bosoms, actually. But I don't know if he would
recognize my face, honestly, or any girl's. His eyes never get
that high. He gives me the creeps. "Creeps me out," one of
my floormates would say. She's from California. When he's talking to
you, he'll reach down and sort of scratch or rub himself, you know
where I mean, and then sort of half-absentmindedly smell his fingers.
I just gag! He does that in front of guys too, by the way. And
in class! I don't think he even knows he's doing it. I wonder where
he looks when he talks to guys? I guess he's some sort of world
authority on Eskimos or something, or he'd have been out of here a
long time ago.
I have another professor who is gay. Hey. Around here, who isn't? Besides me, of course. And you, according to the consensus. You aren't married, not known to be involved, man of mystery. It's a source of some gossip, you know. And that's my three hundred words with some to spare, so off to study Eskimo kinship rules. Yahoo.
Under the occasional flirtatious calculation, there was engagement, even if it was a bit adversarial. She was actually interested in what she was writing. She took intellectual risks as well as social ones, but only in these private conversations.
... satisfied to have her classmates think that she achieved her grades by successfully negotiating the minefield of flattery and sexiness which they attempted with less enviable fortune.
That was how I began to think about it, as cover. For what? She was a Business major, and she explained in a journal entry that she was not convinced that a woman could be as successful at getting her way in the boardroom as she could be "in other places." In the same journal entry she offered as an axiom, "There is no place where there's an advantage to letting people know how smart you are." It seemed wise beyond Freshman years, if a bit exaggerated. I considered the possibility that she had read it somewhere. She seemed to be a good student, if not working hard at it, and she was satisfied, I assumed, to have her classmates think that she achieved her grades by successfully negotiating the minefield of flattery and sexiness which they attempted with less enviable fortune.
I took risks in my classrooms, and they were bigger here, where I was an Abelard in the court of Philip. Perhaps that was why my classes were fairly popular. Not because I was a good teacher or a fair grader, but because I was entertaining, amusing. We would talk about sexual politics while my colleagues were regaling their students with Marxist theory no more relevant to their lives than alchemy, the Parmenidean monad, or finch beaks in the Galapagos. One afternoon we were discussing "hot language," and after some minor hitches and embarrassments, they got into the idea with gusto. Some of them with too much gusto.
"You mean," one boy said, "like 'quiff.'" A few girls gasped and a number of the boys tittered.
"To judge by the reaction, I'd say yes," I said. "But I don't know the word, so for me it's not hot at all."
This caused another round of amusement, including laughter, at my expense. But that was the point, I reminded them, that hot words were only hot subjectively. I had launched the discussion by describing how, on my first visit home after a semester of college, I discovered that "screwed" meaning "cheated" (as in, "I got screwed out of an A in that class") was just as hot a word for my mother as "fucked" was then for me. They had looked mildly aghast, a few of them, when I said "fuck."
"What does it mean?" I said to the boy who had offered the word. "Quiff." He made a broad mugging show of "Can you believe this?" and shook his head. A couple of the girls were flustered again when I said the word.
"Ask Cinder," Bobbie Tallant said. "She's a walking... thesaurus." A couple of boys grinned; Bobbie had negotiated a covert insult.
"It's not a word I care to know," she snapped.
"So isn't anybody brave enough to tell me what it means? Is it a noun, verb, or adjective? No wait. It's a noun, right?"
"You know what it means. You're just faking," one of the girls said. She was red around the ears and cheeks. A couple of boys nodded. Cinda was studiously writing, as if ignoring the conversation.
"Nope." I explained why it was likely to be a noun rather than a verb, which led us into a discussion of nonsense language and then, of course, to Lewis Carroll. How do we know, I asked, that "slithing" and "gimbelling" are not only actions, but fairly sinister ones? I brought up Chaucer using words casually in The Canterbury Tales which we find a bit shocking today: "queynte," I mentioned. And one of them said, "What's shocking about that? Quaint?" I wrote it on the board in Chaucer's spelling and said, "Look it up. His spelling is not hot any more." I thought about the direction the discussion had taken, then I said, "I'm going to tell you the dirtiest, most obscene thing I ever heard. And no, it wasn't in the Navy.
"It was in an elevator, here in Dallas, downtown. I was going up to a lawyer's office. Two men and a young woman were getting off the elevator when I got on, and the two men lingered, watching the woman walk away. One of them said, without looking at his friend, and loud enough for her to hear, 'How'd you like to rip off some of that?' He was wearing a very flashy suit for a guy his age."
I waited. Some of them looked puzzled; a couple looked smug. One of the boys finally said, "What's so obscene about that? I mean, it's disgusting, I guess, but not obscene."
"Ask the women if they agree." He didn't respond; I made eye contact with a few of the more grim-faced girls. Patti Breaux snapped, "It's obscene, all right. We aren't even human. We're 'it.'" Another girl added, "And 'rip'! Jeez! Don't let them catch me in a dark alley."
"It's not the words, it's the ideas in the words, that's obscene," Brian McCrea said.
I nodded. "For me," I said, "'shag some nooky' is a lot more obscene than 'fuck.' 'Fuck' has its problems, but fundamentally it's just a plain old Anglo-Saxon word we don't have much of an alternative for. Chaucer could say 'swive' and nobody flinched, but that word died, unless that's where "screwed" came from. And the 'heat' of a word has nothing to do with the word itself and everything to do with how and why we say it. 'Gash' is hardly hot at all, until you've heard a man use it to talk about a woman."
When the bell rang and I dismissed them, Bobbie fell in behind Cinda. As they passed my desk, he murmured, in the cadence of her walk, "Quiff quiff."
She spun on him and snarled, "You little fuck!" Then her eye caught mine, I cocked an eyebrow disapprovingly, and she turned and hurried from the room.
"Tallant," I said before he made it to the door. He stopped. A few students passed him. One boy gave him a sympathetic look.
"Yes sir," he said, turning politely.
I gestured with my hand. "Come here. Question."
One or two of the last students lingered. I dismissed them again. "Not your business, boys and girls." They left.
"What does it mean, Bobbie?"
"Don't bullshit me, Bobbie. What does it mean?"
"Quiff? Well, it's a word some guys use, it means a real airhead."
"I don't see why it would mean that."
"Well," he grinned, "It's the sound of a pussy fart?"
"A 'pussy fart'?"
"You know, air gets inside and...." He had forgotten for a moment that I was "sir," but then he remembered. He shrugged. "It's just a word some guys use, sir."
I let him stand uncomfortably in front of me for a moment, while I weighed a temptation. I succumbed. "You know, Tallant, she's right. You are a little fuck."
He just looked at me, a powerless soldier at attention. "Is that all, sir?"
"I think so," I said. My double entendre was unintended, but it hit me as he was walking away, and I smiled to myself. Later I realized I was being sucked into the ethic of the town and campus: power permits license. I was ashamed and then, at last, not.
In one entry of that week's journal, Cinda chose to explain her name.
You are probably the first teacher I've had who hasn't asked about my name. I guess you just don't care! Not really. I'm so used to explaining it. My mother named me "Mary Cynthia." My father used to call me his little Cinderella. Silly name. He claimed it was because of something I did when I was little. In fact, he has a photograph to prove it. He carries a copy around in his wallet. Me squatting stark naked and grinning, about two years old, in a fireplace. I have greasy charcoal dust all over me, even on my face, and a big happy grin. It's a pretty disgusting picture. I mean, the camera angle is just a few degrees east of pornographic, if you know what I mean. Anybody but Daddy I would tell them to get rid of it.
"I have an evil stepbrother, but that's another story."
I inherited Cinda's journal, in a sense. No one asked for it, so I kept it. And the other. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Memory hauls out details and manufactures filler. that first dress as if I had a photograph of it. The honey color of her hair, a color I saw once later on a stray cat. Her mouth like a billboard for makeup. I see her in my mind's eye and heart's home, not a lost love but wasted, a lost opportunity. A sweetness I cannot taste, a bird driven into my grill. I am alone, I can say what I please.
The journals were student property, of course. I would use journal entries to generate essay topics, individually or by generalizing from some comment. For one assignment, I had the class write about their majors. I told Cinda I wanted her to explore the idea of successful career women, referring her to her journal entry. I did the same thing for other students, but most of them were allowed to find their own slant on the general subject. Some even mined their journals for subjects spontaneously. Bobbie Tallant made the connection quickly.
I was beginning to comprehend what a "Media" major was. Bobbie Tallant did his essay on documentary film, what he called "reality video." Specifically on people who collect film that shows real death. The idea titillated and grossed out his peer group as the drafts progressed. One girl refused to read his second draft, and I had to rearrange the groups to shift her elsewhere. I considered putting Cinda in his group, but decided that was self-indulgent.
She interviewed three women for her essay. One was Lainie Kassman, a student counselor, a friend of mine whom I had suggested Cinda talk with. Another was a woman she knew from a local department store, Feldman's, someone her father had known when she was working in San Antonio. The third was one of her high school teachers, now a vice principal at Cinda's high school.
"It's totally boring, you know. Thanks a lot for the great assignment, with all respect," she wrote in her journal. She didn't like talking to women, she said, and my friend had asked her almost as many questions as she answered. But she would be a good trouper and get it done.
The paper was not great, though in the top ten percent for the assignment. It concluded, not surprisingly, by affirming Ms. Cinda Smithers' views regarding the pitfalls of the career life. Reading it, I mused over why someone with these views was majoring in Business. Her interview with the teacher was startling for both of us. Cinda had gone home for the weekend to interview her. She had probed carefully, exploiting her talent for seeming to understand only half of what you said. I'm sure the teacher was on to her; no one with any brains would have fallen for the act after reading a few of her exams and papers. The teacher had confessed that her career was not as important to her as a failure of love. Cinda did not put it in quotes, but somehow my mind added them: "a failure of love." And without saying it in so many words, Cinda made it clear that the lost love was not a man. In her journal, Cinda had referred to the fact that two of her subjects were lesbians, not bothering to elucidate, and had mused over whether that skewed her evidence a bit. I couldn't tell from her commentary whether she had spotted Lainie, but I assumed so.
I gave the paper an "A minus." Cinda was shaping up as an A- student, never quite getting it right. "Hitting her marks," she called it one day. There were two students whose grades were consistently better than hers, a feisty black girl on an athletic scholarship and a guy from Florida, nerdy, intense, and studious. The three of them held the top three grade positions all semester. But somehow one of the others always got the highest mark and Cinda was always either second or third. Brian McCrae held a strong fourth position in the scores. She didn't know, of course, that she was so close and so consistently not quite there, only that every A came with a tick after it that took away the reward the A gave.
I had lunch with Lainie a few days after reading the paper on career women. We talked about Cinda.
"She's got strong opinions," Lainie observed.
"Iron butterfly," I said ruefully, stirring my soup.
"The CFM bullshit is over the top."
"The what?" I said. I'd had a girlfriend who called her open-toed heels "CFMs" and got a kick out my puzzlement. She finally told me one day what it meant.
"The 'Come fuck me' stuff. I mean. She was in my office an hour. Fifteen minutes into the discussion she had me sized up and was flirting with me!" She eyed me suspiciously. "You aren't going to pretend she doesn't do it with you. She's no more gay than you are."
I shook my head. "I'm guessing she'd do it to the mailman. Not sleep with him; flirt with him. It's her 'normal.'"
"I think she was abused."
"That's a stretch. Just because she flirted with you?"
"Because she flirts with everybody!" she said. "It's a classic sign."
I shrugged. "I suppose," I muttered. I had seen the abused among my students at another school, including a girl whose career of molestation by her stepfather had been capped by two strangers raping her at gunpoint when she was fourteen. Cinda did not fit my profile, but Lainie was the expert.
"She's a nice kid, once you get past the silliness," I said.
Lainie chewed and swallowed meditatively. Then she said, "So, you get past the silliness?"
I laughed, but I wasn't sure if she was joking. "Sure. I'm an old tomcat being stalked by squirrels," I said. Strange, how we begin to think of ourselves as 'old' with no grasp of how old we can be. I was thirty-five, and felt as finished as I had at twenty-five and would at fifty-five. And these children, with their grown-up clothes and baby souls, these children.
"'Tomcat' maybe," Lainie said. "You keep your eyes on the road, Al."
I laughed again. In Montana, the roads are treacherous, and you learn to drive with more than your eyes. In 'nam, your eyes were sometimes the last to know. I laughed with the confidence of an untested driver; Cinda would test everything.
"I can't tell you this in three hundred words," Cinda wrote in a journal entry that filled two pages.
... so I'm going to just write it and it can count
for more than one day, Ok? I mean, I could pretend I'm writing it a
bit each day, but I don't think you are the kind of slave driver who
would say that just because I wrote a thousand words on Monday
doesn't excuse me from writing my three hundred on Tuesday. Please
let me be right! So.
I was out of class last Friday because I had a photo shoot. It was just some advertising for Feldman's. A few dresses and some undergarments. A new line of makeup. Well, I won't bore you with all the sweaty details. People think modeling is glamorous, but it's hard work and pretty boring. The pay is spectacular sometimes, but you sure earn it. People think it's great for your vanity, having all that attention, but you get bored with it. Like being a slab of meat. You know, my film teacher in high school told us that this movie director, Alfred Hitchcock, supposedly said that actors are cattle. It's like that. Or sheep. But not always. These guys were a little different. You'll see what I mean.
You know, it takes five or six guys to work one of those studios, all hovering around you, moving lights, reloading cameras, managing wardrobe things, stuff. And there's usually a client rep. Someone creative. And a marketing guy or even a couple sometimes. Someone to keep your face on. There must have been ten guys there, plus this one woman, a gofer who was always in and out, "Lisa this," "Lisa that." Anyway, this photographer likes to talk. Specifically, it turns out, about the Playboy assignment he's got. At first, it just sort of seems to come up. You know, casual, like, "Guess what? I bet you never knew anybody who actually got an assignment from Playboy." I allowed (Is that the right spelling? It sounds like "I loud," but that can't be right. And I can't find it in the dictionary. The meaning, I mean.)
Sorry. I got off track. I allowed that he was right. Not that I felt deprived, but I didn't say that. I'm standing there in this dress I have to tell Daddy to buy, and I'm wishing my lip didn't sweat and thinking, "Oh, law, here it comes," and sure enough, he starts telling me what a great "bod" I have. He says "bod," too. I don't think I ever heard a man Daddy's age say "bod." At least not to me. In a movie maybe, but that's not real. And finally he wonders if I'd be interested. "In what," you ask? Right. So I ask him what it pays. Playboy is about the best money you can make! It turns out he's just one of a bunch of photographers contributing to one of those "Girls of" things. "Girls of Mediocre Colleges That Are Full of Themselves." (Just kidding.) And he tells me what he'll pay me. It's about five times what you get for looking cute in a Liz Claiborne. But I act kind of nervous, like I've never done anything like that before and what kind of girl would do that. (And I hadn't, for your information! I got pretty risqué once for one of my boyfriends' cameras, but not altogether!) The other guys, the grips and like that, they are all getting all hot because they think he's going to talk me into it. I'm thinking, these guys must have pretty sad personal lives if they are this hot to see me naked. I mean, I'm a lot better than average, but a girl's a girl, and I'm not built like a sexbomb or anything. If anything, I'm a little skinny, especially where it counts. No nodding!!!
So I almost didn't do it just because of that, them being so eager. And maybe they would make fun of my chest. No thank you! I wasn't afraid or anything. I mean, we were in a studio. It wasn't like we were in a pool hall or an alley. I decided, what's the point? And I said Ok. I had to sign a release and he obviously didn't want me to read it but I did anyway and it looked legit. I was of age so that was Ok. There was one section that said something about not obliged to do anything that would violate some code or other. Probably local porn laws? I was mainly checking that it specifically said the pictures could only be used in Playboy, and it did. The last thing I need is to turn up in the altogether in some sleazy men's rag.
So I did it. You shocked? Altogether and then some, if you know what I mean. I told him I didn't want to do anything really pornographic and he said not to worry, he wanted legal art shots. "Art" shots. It was so silly. I made a rule in my own mind, that I would only let him take pictures that could be hung in a museum without shocking anyone. I mean the poses. And anyone meaning like my folks for example if it wasn't me. Not my grandma who had a cow when she saw my San Padre bathing suit not even on me.
It was just like you'd expect, the guys trying to get a peek at me there. And sure enough, as soon as I let my hair down, so to speak, he wanted more than I'd said I would do. I went along with it, keeping my rule in mind and thinking, "They let some pretty kinky stuff in museums these days...." (Just kidding, Dr. Singleton. Ha, ha?)
He tried to get some other things, things I thought were pretty hard core, but I said no. Well, not always, but to the really raunchy stuff. He never asked for anything with sex in it, just poses. Just stuff to look at. That was good. I wasn't going to do sex, even to myself for Heaven's sake. Let them look, as my daddy would say — under other circumstances, of course. So he took his pictures and the rest of them moved around like... oh, like their pants were too tight? But he was so pushy. I got tired being bullied and whined at, and so I lay down once or twice and got into exactly the pose he wanted, really explicit, letting them see it all. You don't want to know. Do you? But then, just as he was about to shoot, I would put my legs back together and say I was embarrassed. And they would absolutely beg me. "Come on, Cinda, honey, give up some booty!" One time when he got mad, I said that my daddy would really be shocked if.... That was fun. He looked like he'd wet himself and that was that. Men are funny. He never threatened not to pay me when I wouldn't cooperate or cheated. And he never offered to "up the ante," as my father would say, to get what he wanted. And he just wanted stuff to look at. What is it about men?
I'll bet I shocked you. And I bet you wish, just a tiny bit, that you could see the pictures, huh? Admit it.
I wrote in the margin that it would make an interesting essay topic. She stopped at my desk on the way out. "You can't be serious!" she said.
I smiled. "No, not really. You couldn't write it anyway. Too revealing." She looked puzzled. Then she smiled back.
"You're funny," she said. And she left. She stopped in the doorway and looked back, a sidelong, speculative look, letting others pass, and she seemed about to say something, some second thought. It was a long pause.
She was practically assured of an A- for the course. A respectable grade.
We went into the week before finals with her grades so flat that she was practically guaranteed an A- for the course. An A- is a respectable grade; it was not a grade I expected anyone to challenge. It's true that NDU had a thirteen-step grade recording system, so that the transcript itself would discriminate an A- from an A+ or an A. I'd never given an A+ for a course. I had given no more than ten or so unencumbered A's in my first year, for roughly 200 students, but quite a few A- grades. More of them than F's or D's, and equally distributed between male and female students. The preponderance of NDU freshmen, the huge percentage of them, scored in the B ranges. B's and high C's went with the territory. The few D's and F's were the result of calamities like dropping out without withdrawing.
Two days before the final, in midst of finals week, Cinda came to my office.
"You know," she said, "a lot of us have never had a B in English in our lives." She was holding her books in both arms, cradled in front of her, waist high. She sat down, disappearing for a moment below the desk to put her books on the floor.
"It's a cruel world," I said to the top of her head, smiling.
She looked at me sternly though, when she settled back in the chair. "You gave me one."
"No, you earned one."
She laughed. "There's nothing I can do to get that minus off my A, is there?" Her tone was casual. I thought she was just accepting the inevitable, that the observation was the point and the question rhetorical.
"It's statistically possible to write a final that would pull you up," I said. Grades were weighted to the end of the semester, and the final was a big factor, since it was in-class. "You know, if you had participated in class more, you might not be looking at that minus."
"I don't like to talk in class." I shrugged. "I don't have anything to say."
"Baloney. You have your journal with you?"
She handed it to me. I flipped through it and handed it back.
I'm writing this in class. You didn't say we
couldn't write in class. You just made your weird comment
about shepherds keeping their flocks and then eating them. Geez
Louise! Do you think just because we own Beemers, we aren't all
little barefoot Baptists who like to burn witches? Lighten up!
Seriously, Professor Singleton, you are going to get yourself fired!
I mean it. It is fun to see smoke coming out of these guys'
ears. I think Elizabeth Du Champs is going to blow a gasket in a
"Selective metaphor." I get it, Ok? It's an interesting idea. That's why using analogies doesn't work when we argue. I say Love is a rose and he says, "Yeah, full of thorns!" The Good Shepherd only works if you forget the sheep are how he makes a living. But how about empty metaphors? I mean, nothing is "selected" at all! Like for instance, "die like a dog." So how does a dog die that's so much worse than dying like a cat or rose? Why do we say "like a dog," and everybody knows it was awful?
I really am writing because I want to tell you before I forget it — there was this hunky guy at my high school. At least we thought so. He was smart and handsome and athletic, you know, kind of like... well, never mind. He was older than me and in my church. (Yes, I go to church!) We were in the same study group one year and the teacher was going on about "the Good Shpeherd" and finally Matthew said, "You know why there are more sheep in the world than wolves?" The teacher said "No" and Matthew said, "Sheep are edible." We all thought he was just being rude and the teacher said, "What do you mean," but like he knew and was just testing to see if Matthew would push it. Matthew said, "It's obvious, isn't it? We breed sheep and kill wolves. But we breed the sheep to eat." The teacher said what does that have to do with Jesus and Matthew said "Nothing," and shrugged like it was just a thought. "Then I fail to see why you mentioned it," Mr. Stanton said. I just remembered it was Mr. Stanton, the father of a guy I could not stand who told blonde jokes. "What did the blonde say when her boyfriend blew in her ear? 'Thanks for the refill.'"
Matthew was the great love of my life, seriously. But the bell's going to ring.
She looked up from the page, quizzical.
"You have nothing to say," I repeated.
"Why didn't you talk about this instead of writing it?"
"Talk about Matthew?"
"Talk about what we were talking about. 'Die like a dog'? Matthew's comment about wolves would have been helpful."
She smiled. "You didn't need any help." She looked at the page. "I should've torn that out. I knew it would get me in trouble."
"It didn't get you in trouble. It's an example to help you see why you have a minus looming in your future."
She got up and went to my bookcase to the left of my desk. She touched a couple of books on a convenient shelf, looked at the handful of miniature Medieval lead warriors on another, then looked up at the books on the top shelf. She reached up to pull down a slim book. She was wearing one of those three-ounce dresses, sleeved, open in front, cut to barely mid-thigh before she raised that arm, opaque but light as an airbrushed layer of paint. Her legs had only the hint of hose, like light dust. Her shoes were flat, almost heel-less; she had lifted and cocked one foot for balance as she reached. The dress was a deep topaz, almost carnelian, somehow translucent but black in its creases and folds. Was it silk, I wondered again. It was watered silk, she told me much later, when she wore it the second time for me.
I keep a one-step library stool by the bookcase, which towers over me. She had ignored it. She stood with her back to me, at a slight angle facing the window, examining the book cover, then the back, then thumbing through the pages, stopping to read a few sentences here and there. Her hair came halfway down her shoulders. It was not done up in a bun or a French braid, her favorite looks, but loose, a honey-colored waterfall held in place by some invisible feminine miracle. The dress was scalloped in back halfway down her spine, the zipper a ridge like tiny vertebrae down to the waist. Her vertebrae cast shadows like knuckles across her tan in the slant afternoon light from floorlamp behind me. She shifted her weight, and one haunch hardened in her tableau vivante. Her bottom was as defined, if not as solid, as two melons in a sack. I imagined how she would hate the word "haunch." "Buttock" would be no better. She probably said "bum," or "buns," or "glute" to other girls. Or perhaps just "bottom." She took a deep breath, a long sniff. She closed the book and turned to face me, as if recalling where she was.
"Is this a good writer?" she said, holding up the book beside her face like a trained spokesmodel. I smiled. It was In Love and Trouble.
"You bet," I said. "Alice Walker. The Color Purple."
She nodded. "I saw that," she said. She took a couple of steps toward me, casual, floor-brushing steps, almost dance-like.
"Do you want to borrow it? Some of the stories are pretty harsh."
She shook her head. She turned and put the book back in the high gap it came from, flashing her leg again, the angle of the pose a little different. She rose again onto her toes for a second, then one foot, the other lifted sidewise for balance. The dress crept up and up, like a curtain in a peep show.
"I try to please."
"I really want an A," she said. "I could tell you that I need it. To get in a sorority or something." I said nothing. "But that wouldn't matter to you, and it's not true. I just want an A."
She stared at me. "What for? What do you mean?"
"If you don't need it, why do you want it?"
She laughed merrily, as if she thought I was kidding. She looked around the room. I had a picture of Marilyn Monroe on one wall. She studied it. It was the picture from Bus Stop, Monroe in Cherie's stage costume, eyes almost shut, a sensual, introspective smile, touching her cleavage lightly with a finger surely dabbed with scent. "I'll bet that's a hit with the denim-skirt crowd," Cinda said.
There were also a couple of R. C. Gorman prints on the walls, items of tangible value. She stared at one, sighed again, and then nodded. "I like that," she said. I had been reading a journal when she came in. I picked it up again. I assumed we were done.
She turned to look at the other wall, and the movement put her near the door. She moved once more and pushed it shut gently by leaning her shoulders against it, her hands behind her so that they thrust her pelvis a bit forward, and waited for me to look up. She was smiling the sleepy smile of a contented cat. She exhaled once more, from her slightly parted lips this time, her chest moving a little and her diaphragm swelling below her breasts. She was wearing a subtle bra. It was invisible, leaving no marks or shadows through her delicate dress, but it somehow smoothed her nipples as well. There was not the least prominence, not a hint of reality to mar the image. There had been a bit of a depression, like a groove, under her arm, along the ribs, about halfway to her waist, when she reached up to return the book. The back of the dress was low enough that I found myself curious about the architecture of the bra. Meantime I waited, not saying a word, watching her think.
"Is there really nothing I can do?" she said. She let her eyes go wide as pantomimed punctuation, then caught herself and relaxed her face, as if it had been an involuntary look, a moment of unintended nakedness or honesty.
... we would have, at best, a gentleman's agreement...
It was not the first time for me. My first semester at NDU, a voluptuous blonde B student had come to my office in a dress cut well into her cleavage, leaned over close enough to smother me, and breathed, "Isn't there anything I can do to get an A?" It was, frankly, comical, and Lainie and I had a laugh over it, the student mercifully anonymous, later. And the student got her B and disappeared. It came with the territory, such offers, and some teachers let it convince them they were actually attractive to their students. There is, occasionally, the student who really has a crush and, overwhelmed by her passions, might do things requested. And there is, less often, the student who grabs you by the heart and dangles you on the edge of disaster for a semester or a year. Pauline had been my student, but it was three years later that we became lovers. It was a territory ripe for plunder. And some plundered it unscrupulously.
Did she realize, I would wonder after she had gone, that we could have at best a gentleman's agreement? The one who delivered first would have to trust the other. She did not strike me as a woman who would have failed to consider that. While she stood there, waiting for my response, I wondered how much it would shock her if I accepted her offer? Not much, I decided, sadly. Last year, I had sent the girl away. I had quoted Clint Eastwood to her: "You could study." Would Cinda be impressed if I rejected her offer? Would it, as her peers liked to say, "Make her think?" Would she learn anything about herself, or just about me?
"What did you have in mind?" I said.
She came closer, away from the door. She sat down, leaning forward, her hands clasped and resting on the edge of the desk. "You know, a lot of the girls are interested in you. I mean, curious. You are a sexy teacher. You know that, of course."
I chuckled, not so much agreeing as agreeable, accepting the flattery for what it was worth. "Right," I said. Then I raised an eyebrow. She studied my face, smiled, and played her next card.
"You want to know something funny? One day I went into the Ladies just before class, and Stephanie Rausch was coming out of a stall. She didn't think I saw, but she was putting her bra in her purse. It was just before class," she emphasized, and she raised an eyebrow herself, as if mocking my expression.
"Hot afternoon?" I said.
"Hot teacher." She paused. "I would've too, if I had a bit more to show." She made a face, like a cat noticing a bad smell.
I didn't laugh this time. "Cinda, this is all very flattering, but flattery isn't going to change your grade. You'll get what you earn."
She sighed with a touch of exasperation. "You are going to make me do all the work, aren't you?"
I did not reply.
"If you would add, say, a few points, just a few points, to the grade, it would wipe out that minus," she said to the Gorman above and behind me. Then she looked me in the face. "It would be a trade," she added with a polite smile, as if she had offered me a tray of hors d'oeuvres.
"You know what for."
"I would be foolish to guess."
She pooched out her lower lip and blew straight up, disturbing her bangs. "You are so mean," she said, in her little girl voice. "Why are you making me spell it out? Have you got a hidden microphone?" she said, and she grinned.
"You would sleep with me?"
"It wouldn't be so bad." She laughed. "For you, I mean. I might teach you some things, huh?"
"I lost my virginity before you were born."
"Well, age isn't everything." She studied my face. "This is very difficult, Professor Singleton. And you aren't making it any easier." She smiled, a kind of tentative, almost conspiratorial look. "I don't believe you, by the way. You'd've had to be twelve or something."
"Fourteen. You would have sex with me to pump a few percentage points into your final grade."
"It wouldn't be so bad," she said again. This time she didn't laugh or even smile.
I looked down at my desk for a long time. I was disappointed. I said, "You kids are such squanderers."
"What do you mean?"
"Never mind. Go study. Do your best on the exam."
She didn't get angry or make a scene. She didn't try new arguments. She didn't offer more revealing glimpses of this or that. She didn't offer me money. I wondered how much two or three percentage points were worth in the NDU grade market.
I wondered how much two or three percentage points were worth in the NDU grade market.
And she aced the final. She had earned the A she wanted to buy. I gave four, in fact, rather than the usual two or three; McCrae pulled it off too. I was proud of both of them. The two top students had been solid when the class began; Brian had truly grown into his final. Cinda too, though for her it was more like finally hitting her marks. And I was troubled by her performance, not just pleased. Thinking about what she might assume when she saw the grade, I felt guilty and, examining that, amused. How it would perplex her, getting for free what she had been prepared to pay for. I left the final papers, but not the exams, with the receptionist for them to claim and pick up. The course grade is on that paper. I had learned the previous year not to leave the papers outside. The good ones disappeared, destined for frat house recycling. And the students were shameless about nosing into others' grades, as well. Marty, the receptionist, had a sign-out sheet for the papers, and they had to show her ID. It led to some embarrassing confrontations, but Marty was no pushover. Cinda picked up hers the day I put them out. The next morning, there was sealed envelope in my mailbox with my name on it. Inside was a phone number and one flourished word: "Call." The period was a circle, the handwriting easily identifiable.
I returned to my office meaning to call. Perhaps she had a question; perhaps she wanted to thank me. But I knew better. I should have thrown the message away; the previous year, I would have. I called the next day. I called around noon, and I got an answering machine, not her voice, so I hung up. I called again that evening, from my apartment, and her roommate answered.
"Cinda Smithers?" I said.
"Here," the voice said, not to me.
In an instant, Cinda was on the line. "Who is it please?"
"Allen Singleton. You wanted to talk about something?" I said.
"Can I meet you somewhere?" she said.
"My office tomorrow?"
"Is now Ok?" she said in a theatrical whisper. "At your place?" Before I could reply, she giggled. "It's like a spy movie, all this careful language," she said. "Kimberley is oblivious, you know. She's pounding the floor. Doing aerobics with a headset. I could shoot off a gun and she wouldn't know it. And Alix is in the bathroom. Never mind what for."
"Who answered the phone?"
"That was Alix. She was walking past it, or I'd've beat her. I was expecting your call," she added in that breathless, Monroe impression she favored, "yesterday."
"We can't talk tonight," I said. "You don't want to come to my office?"
"It's not the best place, is it?"
I could have lectured her then, or made an appointment for my office and prepared the lecture. "How about dinner tomorrow?"
I named a favorite restaurant, Greek, quite some distance from campus.
She thought about something. "You can't pick me up here," she said. "Can I meet you at your place?"
I hesitated. "Ok," I said, and I gave her the address.
"All right. I'll remember," she said. She laughed again. "The address. I didn't even write it down. Your secret is safe."
"I'm in the phone book," I said. "It's Allen, with an 'e'. I'll see you."
"I can't wait," she said with theatrical, breathy seductiveness. If I'd had doubts before, they were evaporating. She thought I had decided to renegotiate and had paid in advance. Now she was prepared to pay her debt. The gentleman's agreement? Her cynical peers would find integrity an anachronism. Was she serious, or curious? What was she bringing me, and why? And would I dare to eat the peach? I was frightened by my intent. What was I doing?
I was also suspicious and puzzled, and that let me drift into folly half-blind. There was a rat to smell. Where? If she thought I had given her the grade for favors promised, what was her motive for keeping her word? Honor? Integrity? Her classmates would have hooted. "You got one for free, girl!" they would have said, and high-fived her. So what, then? Certainly not lust. I was vain of my mind, of an education even I knew was of limited real value, but of nothing else, and not that vain. Not lust, I'm afraid. A crush? They happened, but the signals were reasonably clear, and Cinda had none of them waving. Consistent with the mask she smiled behind, but not with the cool-eyed cat it concealed. Cinda would not have crushes. I was as likely to be eaten as loved.
In my defense, a weak defense at best, the class was over, the grades tendered, finals week completed, and our student/teacher contract had expired. I was four years divorced that day, two years celibate and, for reasons I've probably failed to capture, I had been touched by this strange hard-eyed creature with her tough pragmatism and kittenish charm. Touched in a way feminists would sneer at, of course: lonely, hungry, a bit deluded and even, yes, flattered. And I thought, lying in bed that night, of that bit of amber silk, slashed by darkness, rising like a curtain as she returned In Love and Trouble to the shelf. I thought about kinds of ruin, formalities that could best be called blackmail. I thought, even, of hidden cameras and microphones, and wondered what on earth I was doing. Wondered, and knew I would proceed. Who knew what to expect?
"Expect nothing," Pauline, the last woman in my life, would have said. "I may kill you in the morning," she would say matter-of-factly after we made love, and then nibble my earlobe. She would say these things while we lay together in a sweaty tangle as if discussing the weather. Joking, she meant them. She didn't kill me, of course; she just left me, like a man left to drag himself from a train wreck. But she was right about expectations. All good is extra. Cinda defied expectations. No, "defied" is wrong. She was oblivious to them as a cat.
She arrived at my door a few minutes late, a bit breathless as usual. When I answered the door, she had one hand on her "bosom," panting a bit.
"I ran up the stairs," she said. "I was late."
Then I recognized the pose, the gesture with the hand, the slight lean forward, and I grinned. She was daubed with something spicy and rose-like. Her hair was more real than white cotton candy, her lips more real than gleaming cherries, and a mist of sweat on her upper lip.
She was wearing what I guess is called a "scarf dress." If she had taken five or six identical scarves and folded them together, tucking them into a sash, the skirt would be the result. And the blouse was similar. Say two more, folded, draped, pinned. It looked assembled rather than put on. I did not invite her in. I had greeted her ready to go. We left from the door, took my car.
We chatted over dinner. She was waiting for her father to pick her up. She and her sister would go with him to Canada in a couple of days to ski at Banff. She would be back just before the beginning of the semester. I did not talk about the wounds of war, or hunting deer in the Red River breaks, or Pauline. I tipped the belly dancer. Cinda had watched her performance appraisingly. The woman bent to offer her halter for my dollar; I put one on each side. We left, and Cinda took my arm, hers draped on mine like a napkin. I made the decision I had known I would make. We returned to my apartment.
We had wine in the living room, a Shiraz I favored. She walked around the room, very consciously on display, balancing a wine glass in two fingers, her pinkie arched, the dress swaying like fronds. As I create her in memory's eye, twenty years later, I am younger too, the thirty-five that seemed so far from nineteen. I pause at the keyboard and run my hand over the grey bristles on my skull. I scrape a knuckle on unshaven jaw and finger wattles of neck skin. Sitting here, in the Fort Collins Lamplighter, tapping a story of my youth, I almost pity that young man, so immature, so foolish, wastrel heart, sure he knew the world's foundation, and the two of them playing a game neither understood. She touched things, careful about picking them up. On the mantel I had a badger skull, white as chalk, the lower jaw intact. She let a finger hover above it and turned her head to look at me.
"It will absorb the skin oils," I said.
She nodded and let it be. Next to it was a picture of Yvette Mimieux, a publicity shot from Toys in the Attic. A knickknack that I had purchased and framed years ago. "That's not... Marilyn Monroe," she said, studying the picture. "When she was younger? Is it?" I shook my head. "May I?"
This time I nodded and she picked up the picture. "It's Yvette Mimieux," I explained. "She was the big crush of my adolescence. A movie star. I was too young for Annette Funicello."
"She's beautiful," Cinda said. I wondered if she saw the resemblance. It had struck me when I tidied the room that afternoon. I had stopped, picked up the picture, and looked at it in much the same way Cinda was doing now. Marilyn Monroe was root for two branches of the Hollywood feminine. There were the slutty overblown parodies like Mamie van Doren, Diana Dors, Jayne Mansfield, and there were the innocents maudites — Mimieux, Carol Lynley, even Bardot, and others less famous. Mimieux was so vacantly beautiful that she specialized, as one critic had nastily quipped, in characters who combined beauty with a slightly retarded mind. Toys in the Attic; Weena the stunning and vacuous Eloi in George Pal's The Time Machine. In reality, Yvette Mimieux wrote screenplays, produced a few television movies, and was a successful businesswoman. Of the Monroe imitators and inheritors, I had always favored the innocents — not for their youth, but for their subtlety. Just as I preferred the seductive sibilants of belly dancing to the pounding kettle drums of burlesque. The photo had eroded my resistance. Of course it had; life is dreams and we wake to die.
"Like you," I said. "Beautiful."
She did not simper and protest. She nodded as if we were discussing someone else. She continued to study the face.
I said, "More like a starlet. She got off to a great start and fizzled as an actress. I was eleven when The Time Machine and Where the Boys Are came out. 'Great start'!" I chuckled. "She gets eaten in one and gang-raped in the other."
"She's very pretty," Cinda said. "Thank you." She replaced the picture and resumed her circuit of the room, touching this, examining that. In a vase I had put a handful of daffodils.
She stopped at a Rodin replica on a bookshelf, Claudel as a Danaid, and ran a finger along the back, down the rump and around, a long arc touching the intimate shadows as well as the shape of the thigh.
Then she came back at the couch, and she sat beside me, turned so that her right thigh lay on mine, her calf and foot between my legs, her toes gently prodding the far ankle. "Why do you have a foot?" she said.
""It was done by Camille Claudel," I explained. "She was Rodin's student. He ruined her."
She sipped her wine, then twisted away to put it down. She took my hand and put it on her body. "Ruin me," she whispered. She allowed my hands to open the dress, to peel it away, to explore the velvet of her skin. She unbuttoned my shirt, kissed my chest, and then my mouth. The dress, it turned out, was quite simple to remove. She made love to me on the couch, her little frame seeming at once strong and fragile beneath my weight, like some precious alloy. She performed with professionalism that one might be tempted to think sincere.
It was, that year, the waning of the libertine period between the Puritanism of my parents and the beginning of dread, the new disease that would haunt Cinda's generation and those after. My generation talked about making love with whomever we pleased, and we failed to note that we did not please as often as we might. We took precautions against pregnancy, but unless you were very knowledgeable about these things and, your friends would say, a bit paranoid, the precautions against venereal disease consisted of staying away from people who had them. I'd had a vasectomy, which I jokingly dedicated to my mother one night when Pauline inquired. I don't know if I really thought I was unfit to have children, but I wanted none.
Cinda opened herself to bare flesh, and I assumed this was on the pill. We didn't speak of such things that night. She didn't stay the night. We made love — had intercourse, rather — a second time in my bed. It was better. We were completely naked then and comfortable with each other's bodies, and we played a bit. We were careful not to call attention to the transactional nature of our evening, the quid pro quo. When she began to dress, a bit after midnight, we were even, in her eyes at least. I had considered telling her at the beginning of the evening, that she had already earned the grade, the proper way. I didn't; I was less honorable that she had been. I stood in my bedroom doorway, wearing my bathrobe, watching retrieve her garments and dress to go. No one was harmed; no one was traduced.
"Are you going out of town for the holidays?" she said as she slipped into her shoes.
"Me? Not really."
She nodded. "Daddy is taking us to Aspen to ski," she said. "Oh, I told you that."
'I thought you said Banff."
"Oh, yeah. I forgot." I wondered if she forgot it was Banff or forgot she had told me Banff. In any case, I felt even less guilt for my silence about the grade. We were not what we seemed then, even trivially. She finished with the second shoe and stood up. "I hope you don't think I'm trying to impress you. I know that wouldn't impress you. I know a couple of girls who are going to Switzerland. I'm supposed to be jealous." She smiled. When she stepped past me, coming back into the bedroom for her earrings, she brushed a palm across my shoulder, as if it were somehow accidental. I followed her back to the living room. She collected her purse and I helped her into her coat. I lingered a bit adjusting the collar, our faces close, a moment of sentiment that seemed mutual. She put her hands in her pockets.
"What did you mean about squandering?" she said.
I had to think a moment to recall what I had said. "Squandering." I brushed a hair away from her eyebrow. I was facing the mantel; my eyes fell on the picture of Yvette Mimieux, and I smiled. "You, you kids, you are like Eloi. Your sense of relative values is so... strange."
She thought about it. "You mean, because I was willing to have sex with you just to get a couple of extra percentage points on my grade? When it was already pretty good?"
I nodded, and she grinned. "Would it shock you if I said I did it on a dare?" She laughed at the face I made. "Maybe you are the one with weird values, huh? Merry Christmas, Professor Singleton." She darted forward to kiss my cheek. "You're quaint," she said, distorting the word a bit, making it two syllables; and she was gone. I had been patronized by an Eloi.
She called me a week later, a few days before the registration for the next semester, early on a Thursday evening. I was reading Tolkien when the phone rang. "I knew," she said crisply, "that you wouldn't call me, so I thought I should just break the ice myself. Can I come over?"
I was incredulous. "I didn't know you were back," I said. Not that I would have called. She didn't say anything and I added, "Of course."
She said "What time?" and I said, "Now's fine," and that was that. She was on my doorstep a few minutes later.
"Did you think about me while I was gone?" she said while I helped her with her coat. I nodded. We sat on the couch and she told me about her trip. At one point, she observed, "I like your apartment." She asked for wine and when I came back, she was holding the book I had been reading, Beowulf: The Monster and The Critics. "Is this the same Tolkien?" she said, and then read the jacket flap. "I knew he was a linguist or something at Oxford," she added. I handed her the wine.
"He's kind of an embarrassment in Old English circles. We are supposed to be dashing and charismatic, and he's an old fogey."
"A very wealthy old fogey," she corrected.
"A very talented old fogey," I conceded. I sat beside her; she browsed in the table of contents.
"Have you read The Lord of the Rings," I asked.
"Guy stuff. And no offence, but nerdly guy. Like the guys with mended glasses who read science fiction and dress up like Dr. Spock."
"I was a nerdly guy once, you cruel woman."
She sipped, dipping her head to the lip of the glass and murmured, more than loud enough to hear, "'Was?'"
And then she was gone, but not without offering, in a businesslike tone that brooked no argument, to come again that weekend. I had been collected, it seemed, like an exotic pet. But it was not, that evening, somewhat to my disappointment, a sexual encounter.
I fed her Saturday and we talked. She was looking forward to an art class next semester. They might go to New York for the Guggenheim. She adored Tiepolo; I was not sure who Tiepolo was, I said.
"He did Virgins. With a capital 'V', I mean. Madonna of the Goldfinch? There's one in the National Gallery that I just love. She looks so radiant! She has one of those snakes they do under her foot, and those fat ugly babies painters loved and she's just oblivious. And so beautiful, as if she lived in another world. There's one in the Prado just like her except that the National Gallery one is done in blue and the other one is done in orange tones. Is that weird? He was a contemporary of Mengs, Canaletto and Boucher. I'm supposed to like Mengs and Canaletto better, but nobody's ever heard of any of them. Canaletto is all buildings. I mean they are beautiful compositions and the light and detailing are wonderful, but he's basically painting post cards for touring nobles. How many castles and churches can you look at without falling asleep? Mengs is nothing but portraits and your religious clichés and like that. He taught Goya and that's something. He was a looker, too. Kind of like you but with a nicer nose," she added, kissing the offended nose. "I can just imagine him: 'Francisco, young man, you aren't going to get anywhere with that Alba woman, give it up and concentrate on your studies!' But secretly I adore Boucher. He's like a big old happy Persian cat, grey with a little dab of milk on his chin. You just want to hug him. Tiepolo was in Spain for a while, before Goya, the same time Mengs was there, actually, but he was mainly Italian. Isn't that funny? After Velasquez, the most interesting painters in Spain until Goya comes along one hundred fifty years later are an Italian and a German. It's a pretty boring century everywhere, except for Tiepolo. I mean, in England its pre-Reynolds! Tiepolo is the end for Italian painting too. You wait a hundred years after Caravaggio and you get Carracis and Caravachis and Cavalinos and Canellonis and Carbonaras and Canovas and Caneletis, and finally Tiepolo comes along, and then nothing. Well, there's Reni," she said. "I forgot about Reni. But Tiepolo did frescos and churches and stuff, and mythological themes and the inspirational stuff. You know: "History Patting Honor on the Bum" and like that. And Madonnas! He's not as good as Caravaggio, of course, but who cares!"
It was dizzying. "Are you Catholic?" I asked, to get my balance.
"You don't have to be Catholic to love the Virgin," she said crisply. "I can't think of anything that's inspired more great art than the Madonna."
"Oh, don't be a pill. You are so cynical."
"No, you're right. You could do a book of nothing but ways that depicting the Virgin Mary told people who the artists were and what they cared about."
"Art's not as naked as that," she said after sipping her wine. "Leonardo da Vinci hated the Church, and he was queer, and he did beautiful Madonnas."
"Yeah. Well. Da Vinci."
She giggled. "That's the best you can do, with a Ph.D? 'Yeah, well'?"
"Is this 'put the old fool in his place' night?" I said gruffly. She elbowed me.
"Not tonight," she said.
Again, we did not make love. Do not imagine me reaching for her, groping, and rejected, please. Imagine rather a jaded, wary older man, admittedly one who seems to my almost finished eye, twenty years later, a posing youth than a mature intelligence. Imagine him warily eyeing the delicate creature that seems to have chosen to prowl his home — beautiful, delicate, dangerous as an ocelot. She threatens not death, after all, but nasty wounds. And he sits warily, rejecting nothing, making no advances, observing the stray who has adopted him, her captive.
I could feel the alien heat of her ribs, palpable as the warmth of a cooking pan after groping through a freezer, on my palm all day.
I did not spend the night and the next day thinking about that why. I could feel the alien heat of her ribs, palpable as the warmth of a cooking pan after groping through a freezer, on my palm all day. In the evening I baked chicken, uncertain whether I was expected to feed her. She didn't even tell me what time she would arrive. At eight, I was starving and alone. A knock at the door, and there she was, in the first day's dress, the amber silk. She was small, perhaps five foot, or an inch more. Her head barely reached my nose. She seemed, standing there on the porch, even smaller. And light, surely lighter than a hundred pounds, spare as a boy for all her curves. Something that could never swim upstream, I thought.
"I suppose you expect me to feed you again?" I said crossly when I opened the door.
"No," she said, stepping into my arms. "I already ate." She kissed me, pushing us away from the door with a couple of firm steps, as if leading a clumsy dance partner. I managed to shut the door with my foot before it slipped out of reach. It was a kiss too practiced to be called "wild" or "passionate," but it was breathtaking and, I think, sincere. She put her head on my chest.
"That was for not trying to grope me as soon as I walked in the door, two nights running. I was impressed." Her tone was flat, without saccharine affectations. Without underlining. Her arms were around my waist, mine around hers.
I did not speak. I kissed her hair, a gesture of sensual curiosity, not tenderness. Her hair reminded me of the soft fur of kittens — a cliché, but what else is that soft? I felt no tenderness for this odd little beast. Some friendliness, some passion, and a certain curiosity. I am not the hero of my story.
"Now give me some white wine and come to bed," she said.
I was tempted to resist. "There's no white wine," I said. We made love with the enthusiasm and energy of friends dancing. She had dramatized great pleasure at my first orgasm, that night before Christmas, gasping and chirping beneath me. The physiology of climax is harder to fake than the sound effects. I was polite but not fooled. Tonight she simply took her own pleasure, savoring the act without completion, and let me take mine. When I was done, I bent over her in the thin light of my bedroom and gave her a lengthy, sexless massage. It was a pleasure for me as well, touching her body with these gestures at once soothing and exploratory, like running one's finger over the skin of a great marble nude. She drifted in and out of sleep. When I was done, she rolled on her back, her arms splayed cruciform.
"I had a boyfriend once who poured half a glass of Chablis on my belly button and then licked it all off. Everywhere it went. Everywhere," she repeated archly.
She didn't speak for a bit, then she said dryly, "He was forty-two, Mr. Maturity. A high school teacher."
She kissed my neck as forgiveness and slid from the bed. She dressed, she thanked me, she kissed me again, and as she left I said, "You realize you can't take any more classes with me." She seemed not to hear. I seemed not to notice her silence. It came to me, as I returned to the bed, why she might keep the bargain she thought we had made.
I learned four days later that she was signed up for my second-term English class. A few repeat students: that's normal for me. This semester it was Alice Banks, the scholarship athlete, along with a few others. Including Cinda. I was disappointed that Brian McCrae was not there; not surprised that the boy from Florida had moved on. Bobbie Tallant, for no reason I could imagine, was back; I had given him the grade he seemed to expect, a B- he earned whether he deserved it or not. I have always had a fairly high percentage of students drop in the first week, most semesters. Not the repeaters, usually. Rarely, perhaps one or two per semester, students would ask me to pull strings to transfer them into my classes. Their motives were a range of positives and negatives. Having a good student repeat with me was flattering. Having a student repeat because he thought he had me figured out was tiresome. Cinda's decision was both and not acceptable.
I didn't call her before the first class meeting, as I might have done. I was reluctant to call her again in any case. Delicious as the holiday had been, things were out of control. Her presence in my classroom was clear evidence of that. At the end of the first session, I picked three of the repeaters and told them that they should come to my office, telling them the hours I was available. Cinda came in that afternoon.
"Close the door, please," I said. I was sitting behind my desk. Her face said she thought she knew what was coming — a little smile, sensual, not quite seductive, welcoming but not presumptuous. It was a sweet smile. But I did not get up.
"Sit down, Ok?" She sat on the edge of the chair and put her hands on the desk, like the hands of children, folded properly, almost unconsciously. "I'm not comfortable having a student in my classes whom I have been intimate with," I said.
"It compromises my ability to treat her fairly."
"You mean you might give me a good grade because we had sex?"
"I wouldn't trust my judgment."
"You seem to have pretty good judgment. I think."
"That's not the real issue. You have to take a different instructor."
"I don't see why," she said. There was a deceptive blandness, something like innocence in her voice that I could not pin down — hypocrisy or perplexity? I chose perplexity. I would again today. I was a mystery to her, as she was to me.
"Many reasons. If you get a high grade this semester, people might think it was bought with sexual favors. That hurts both of us. If we have a personal falling out, it will be difficult not to carry that ill will into the classroom. For either of us. No matter what grade you get, you may feel that I used my power as a teacher to punish you. Or reward you. Your grade will be meaningless to you, because you won't know if you earned it. If the other students figured out we had been intimate, that would undercut both of us, not just me."
"I'm not going to tell anyone!" She paused. "Do you let your personal feelings affect grades?"
"I try not to. It has happened; subtly, but rarely. You can't help it. But I have never had a woman in my classes whom I'd slept with. Never."
"I earned my A. With my writing, I mean."
"You might have told me."
"I know. I decided that if you wanted to think — whatever you thought — that was up to you. I'm not proud of it."
"I wasn't sure. But there wasn't anything you could do, if I didn't put out."
"Yes." My puzzlement came back to me then, the thing she had said before Christmas. "What did you mean, about the dare?"
She smiled out the window. Then she looked at the Gorman behind my shoulder. I could see the other one, a soft shape that suggested stone, a rounded boulder, a crouching woman in a rose skirt, her brown hand on her ankle, the body round as pregnancy. "I said I thought you were sexy, and a couple of the older girls bet I couldn't seduce you. 'The Ice Man,' they called you."
"So you won your bet."
She looked at me then. "I told them I lost and paid off. I told you; I'll never tell anyone. Ok?" She made a grimacing smile. "It wasn't much of a bet. Ten dollars. What can you do with ten dollars?"
I laughed more than I should have. My first year of graduate school, I lived in an apartment that cost $30 a month. "I want to you transfer to Margaret Davidson's Comp 102. I can arrange it. You'll like her."
"No!" she snapped. Then she added, "I want to stay in your class. You are a good teacher."
I thought about it for some time. I could force the issue, but it would be difficult. "I'm sorry. Of the two, I'd rather have kept the other."
Again, she looked puzzled. Puzzled and then comprehending and then a bit hurt. I got up and went to the door, carrying my coffee cup. Before I opened the door, I said, "You can stay. But you have to tone down the bubblehead act, Ok? It undermines the credibility of my grades." I made a motion with my head as I opened the door, a kind of nodding bow. She got up stiffly and left. I got coffee in the mail room, waited for the next student.
She came to my house a few nights later, without warning. I was alone, reading Blake for my survey, when she knocked. She had not dropped the class.
"I'd like to talk," she said.
I let her in. I was drinking English tea. I offered her some. When I came back from making hers, she was reading my Norton Anthology. She asked me about Blake, I gave her a stock response. "I like the rose poem," she said, and put the book aside.
We sat, a gentleman and his guest. A little princess and her host. My tea milked. I waited.
"I don't see why I should have to choose between being your student and being your friend," she said.
"I've already worked through that with you."
"You don't care what people think."
"Not really. Not around here, anyway."
"So you don't trust yourself."
"That's right, I guess." And didn't add that I didn't trust her. It was an unnecessary rudeness.
It was an amazing delicate thing, her hand, fine-boned as a wing.
I took up her hand. It was an amazing delicate thing, her hand, fine-boned as a wing. The skin, even across her knuckles, was soft and smooth as satin. She'd had her nails airbrushed, a delicate, moiré pattern like opals.
"You have to," she repeated.
I put her palm on my mouth and kissed it. It was warm, salty, and soft, latticed with bones.
"You don't care what people say," she whispered. Then she added, "The wrist...."
I touched her pulse with my tongue. It would be a lie to say, "I don't know what I was thinking." I know what I was thinking. This once. This once. I know how I could have been thinking it. I know why I was thinking it. I suppose, if I had given it more thought, then, I would have known it was wrong and been persuaded by the knowledge. She did not offer me love; I hadn't even that excuse.
She was smiling at me, not the tender smile of a lover, but the polite smile of someone given what she wanted. "Your hair is so... full of shadows," she said.
"It was hard, chasing you away."
"Harder than you thought, huh?"
"I missed you. Not after the first time. But these last two days, knowing I had to give you up. Then I missed you."
"Well, you could have missed me while I was in Aspen. But that's Ok." She pecked a kiss onto my cheek. "Can I come back Thursday night?" It was said in a tone that only allowed for one answer.
I snorted ruefully. "More free food," I said.
"I'll bring Chinese."
It was a strange relationship. Others might dismiss it as commonplace. Maybe, for others, it would have been. Even now, looking back across a generation of years, it was like nothing else before or since, strange or not. It was "just once," as things turned out. I never touched another student, after her. We need touching, and I have learned not to, like holding your breath for a haul underwater. We made love occasionally, but that was not the point, not even punctuation. It was more a dessert than the main course, seldom necessary, always welcome. Often we met just to talk, eat, perhaps watch a movie. Hers or mine, the films. I saw movies I would not have noticed; she saw films from before her time. Once in a while we lapsed into discussing an assignment, and one or the other decided we were straying into a mixture of roles we should avoid. We did not go out together; I drew a discreet line there. It is one thing not to fear the tiger, another to prod it. I knew she dated other men. Boys, she called them, and she told me about the evenings, vague about any sexual element. One night, there was a long and tender bout of sexual play that ended with an orgasm I was sure she had not faked. She said, "What was that?!" and I laughed. I chose that moment, while we drifted back from our pleasure, to tell her that it bothered me a bit, to be sharing her sexually.
"Why?" she said. We were side by side, my arm under her shoulders. She rolled into my embrace and kissed my chest, as if tasting it. She touched the skin with her tongue, like she was gathering crumbs.
"Well, I trust you, but why should I trust your male friends?"
"You mean diseases?" she said crossly. She scratched my ribs with a fist of claws, leaving pink streaks.
"Don't take it personally."
"That's disgusting," she said.
"It's reality. You have no way of knowing what they've done, where they've been."
"Well, for your information, I make them take precautions."
"You didn't me."
"You have a vasectomy."
"You didn't know that at first."
"I'm on the pill, silly. I don't tell them that. In fact, I tell them I'm not and make a big deal out of what my Daddy would do if I got pregnant. So they wear their little raincoats."
"Cinda, you weren't careful with me."
She lay tucked in my armpit, thoughtful. She sighed. "You are a grown man. I assumed you were Ok. About sicknesses, I mean. And I'm on the pill, so I didn't think I needed to be careful." She paused, tilted her face up to examine my face. "Was I wrong? Is that the point of all this?"
"No," I said, kissing her eyebrow. "I had a blood test before Pauline. It was her idea, so when she left, I got another. And I don't do casual sex." I had told her, in a moment of intimacy, that she was the first in two years; she had been incredulous.
"Two years! 'The Ice Man,'" she said dramatically.
"No, just old."
"Do you think I have sex with every guy who buys me a movie ticket?" she said.
"No, but I assume that you are not, shall we say, faithful."
"Faithful? Are you 'faithful'?"
So much for believing in my celibacy. "I'm exclusive. I'm monogamous. I'm not complaining, sweetheart. Just telling you."
"Would you be?"
"I don't know. Yes. But that's so possessive."
"We are what we are."
She put her head on my chest. Truce. After a while, I thought she was asleep. She was not asleep. She put her fingers on my lips in the dark, running them slowly over the contour of my mouth.
"Are you in love with me?" she said.
"That's tough. No right answer."
"Just tell me the truth."
"No, I'm not."
"That's good, because I'm not in love with you."
I laughed. "Well that makes it simpler. No, I don't love you."
"Don't be mean."
"You said it first, Cinda."
"I said I'm not in love. I love you. Don't you love me?"
I had to think about that for a long time. Was this a theological question, I thought? She was patient. "Ok, I see what you mean."
She waited again. Finally she said, "Well? Do you?"
"Yes. I love you. And no, I'm not in love with you. Go to sleep."
"You remind me of my father," she said after a while, sounding half asleep. My heart went cold, a numbness that sank into my gut.
"How?" I said sharply.
"You are strong. Not physically strong, like football players, character-strong, like you wouldn't back down if you were outnumbered. And you smell like a man. Like — don't be offended — like sweat or something. It's like men sweat differently than boys. I read somewhere that the reason we don't eat male animals is that they taste bad when they get mature. Maybe that's it."
"I'm not crazy about being compared to your father," I said, with the gentlest irony I could manage. "Or a boar."
She raised her head a bit to look at me. "Why?"
"It feels a bit... incestuous. Not the boar," I added.
She did not reply. The lights were out, and her velvety skin was touching me from armpit to thigh, where her leg rested on mine. Her curls were damp against my skin and her knee between my legs. She often slept over. It was not unusual, she said, and she deflected her roommates' curiosity. It might be harder, she had said one night, after she pledged.
She was silent for so long that I wondered again if she had fallen asleep. She rolled onto her back. That meant we would talk.
"What?" I said.
"I used to sit in back so I could watch you and nobody would notice," she said. "One time, I imagined that I came right up, in front of everybody, unzipped you, and put your thing in my mouth — ""
"'Thing.' You are such a little Puritan. You can't even say 'cock'."
"I can too!"
"Well I wish you would. I feel like something from an old monster movie. A one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple pu — people eater."
"Cock," she said defiantly. "You'd rather be a stinky little rooster? How about 'cod'? I figured out that if that thing Jethro Tull wears is a 'codpiece', then what's in there is a cod. Jeez Louise! I mean it smells kind of fishy if you haven't washed, but is that what you want us to think about? I just imagine some guy pulling it out and it's a slimy fish with its mouth going 'glub. glub.'"
"All right! In England they call the vagina 'fish and finger pie,' Miss Garden of Earthly Delights and Fragrant Flowers."
"'They' don't. Men do."
"And it's Ian Anderson. Jethro Tull is the whole band."
She made an unladylike noise, a poorly executed raspberry.
"You can tell a lot about people by the sexual language they use," I said.
"Heard that one," she muttered into my armpit.
"Brat," I said absent-mindedly. "What do you call your 'thing'?"
"It's not a 'thing!'"
"Tit for tat," I said. She slapped my arm.
"What do you say? Do you ever say 'bush'?"
"It is?" I said. I was genuinely taken by surprise.
"Bush! Like it was a brillo pad or something!" She was silent, a sulky silence I thought was pretense. Then she said, "I like 'pussy,' to tell the truth."
"So do I. And 'vulva', of all things. It's almost a pretty word. Some of the words are just the opposite. Like 'cod,' but worse."
"Oh you know. Words I don't use. I don't care for 'cunt,' but I like it in conjunction with 'cock'—"
She squeaked, caught herself, and snorted. Most undignified, and I smiled at my verbal acccident. "They do seem to fit together nicely," she gasped, and then had a second fit of giggling.
"We can't have a serious conversation if you are going to drag it into the gutter," I said, and poked her ribs gently.
"So what is the word you can't say?"
"Well, I can't say it so I can't tell you, can I?"
"Now who's the little Puritan?"
"It's not the same."
"No, it's you, which makes it Ok."
She was silent for a minute. Then she said, "I never heard that one. But it's like 'quiff', you just know it's meant to hurt."
"You never heard it? I remember it from the first really ugly misogynist jokes I heard, when I was ten."
"It must have disappeared, like 'groovy' and 'skiddoo.'"
"'Groovy' has disappeared?"
"Flash, Rumplestiltskin, this is the twentieth century!"
"Get me my Geritol."
"Get your rest."
I kissed her cheek. She surprised me by kissing mine.
A few nights later, we argued about "fidelity" again. It was always a tough argument, because my fidelity to her depended on nothing but indolence, so I could hardly muster any claim to debts or reciprocity. Would I be promiscuous, given her opportunity? I was uncertain. I thought not.
"I don't see why it bothers you," she said. "Are you worried that I might make comparisons?"
"I suppose it's vanity, to some degree."
"It's not about diseases," she said, with no question mark.
"It is to a degree, I think. It is a worry. And not just for me. I worry about you, you know."
She kissed my jaw for thank you.
"What do you talk about, with boys?"
"Why do you always call them that? 'Boys'! Does it worry you that I might have sex with another 'man'?" I did not reply. "You know what we talk about. Girl stuff, like who's in what movie, and guy stuff, like how big it is and how much I want it."
"Cynicism must be contagious."
"Cynicism? What do you mean? It's just the way it is. You want to know how to get a guy to do what you want? It's a piece of cake. When he's telling you about his car or something, just open your eyes a little wider. Then let your lips part. Not a lot, like you were a retard, just enough to show your awe, and he'll go fight a tiger for you. Piece of cake."
"It wouldn't work for me," I said.
"You don't know till you try it," she replied.
"I meant, I don't think if I did it, guys would go fight tigers for me."
She was silent. Then she said, "Whatever." I think she was offended.
"It doesn't always work," I said.
"Well, sometimes you have to be more subtle. Like letting him think he's so awesome you wouldn't try that kind of bull crap on him."
I smiled in the dark. "You are hard a man's ego."
"Only you, Allen. Only you."
"Cinda, do you ever care about the boys you have sex with?"
She took a gasping breath. "'Care' about them? What do you mean? You think I just — " She stopped mid-sentence.
"I meant — "
"I know. You meant 'love,' but you didn't want to say it."
She had been nestled against me. When she rolled onto her back I thought, "The declaiming pose." It always meant we would talk. I didn't mind; but it was amusing, that she seemed to need the position to open up. I turned on my side so I could see her profile. The sheet was tangled under her and tight across her body, and one arm lay on top of it.
"I was majorly in love once," she said. "One time. He was an older guy, a senior. A hunk, but nice too. He was on the basketball team, and he was really nice. He was two years older than me, and I'd have followed him anywhere: desert island, the moon, Des Moines, Iowa. We had lunch together in the cafeteria, and he treated me like a little sister. I would have done anything for him. He wasn't a big scholar or anything, but he was, you know, studious, not very social. I thought I had a chance with him, because he didn't have a regular girlfriend, and he would come find me to hang out at lunch and even gave me a ride home once. I was fifteen, you know, so that was a big deal."
"Sounds like love," I said.
She was silent again. "Don't make fun of me," she said, and I was ashamed.
"It's what I do," I said. "I'm sorry."
"He was gay. I don't mean we thought he was gay because he didn't chase girls. He got caught on his knees with an assistant coach and there was a big scandal. He quit school, of course, and his family got him out of San Antonio. I don't know what happened to him." She moved a bit, getting comfortable on her back.
I knew she was offended. I tried to make amends. "I had a major love in high school, too. We walked home through a wooded park every day. We used to make out standing up in a clearing. I got weak in the knees kissing her, but it never even occurred to me to actually... well, go all the way. Or even half way. Or more than a few steps. Well, Ok, it occurred to me a lot, but usually after she was safely locked in her house and I was alone in my room. I wanted her so badly I could explode. I was fifteen."
We lay together, drifting toward sleep, each, I suppose, in a place we could not go back to.
"Men make such a big thing out of sex," she said, as if to herself. I put my hand on her belly so she would know I was listening. Her skin was cool through the sheet and firm. After a while she covered my hand with hers. "When I was eleven, we had a babysitter, a boy, fourteen. Fifteen. Almost. He was in high school. He babysat my sister and me. Annie is two years younger. One night he came into the bedroom after we got ready for bed. We had twin beds, with different covers. He wanted us to do a 'show.' If we would take off our clothes, he would take off his. I thought 'What's the big deal?' I was already in my nightgown and just panties. Annie told me later that she really wanted to see 'boys' but she hated having him look at her. I guess I felt the same way. Except about the looking. That sounded sort of exciting, showing him. So I took my nightie off with him watching, and skooched off my panties without showing anything really, and sat on my bed, like the mermaid in that statue, the little mermaid. All demure. And Annie took off her pj's and her underpants and stood there naked like it was just nothing and he stared at her there and looked unhappy. Then he looked at me, all scrunched and not showing anything, and he asked me to stand up. Really polite, and he was blushing. He looked so silly. I said it was his turn first, and he started taking off his pants and socks. He already had his shoes off when he came in, I remember, and he took off his shirt while we were undressing. His feet were white, like bleach or fish. Anyway, he took it all off and there we were, all naked. It was like, 'big deal' but I was really curious about his thing and I got to see it."
While she spoke, she had rolled toward me and settled her head on my shoulder, so I could feel her jaw move. She stopped talking. I thought, "Eleven?" but I didn't say anything. How the world had changed. I waited, and she was silent too. It did not feel like a contest, but at last I said, "Did you stand up?" She nodded. Her hair bobbed against my face.
"His thing, his penis was standing up like a hot dog. It looked like a boiled hot dog, I thought. I was kind of disappointed and excited at the same time. I was, like, 'That's it?' I told Annie afterwards that it looked like a hot dog and she said 'except on the end.' We had some laughs about it. Later, I mean, whispering after he was gone, not in front of him. We weren't mean. Yet. Or brave. He looked really unhappy when he was naked, like he had paid more than he wanted to. No, it was like, he wanted something but he was afraid to ask. That's what it was like. He took his clothes and went in the bathroom and we went to bed. I heard him in the bathroom and Annie whispered, 'What's he doing?' and I said, 'Jacking off,' like I was so mature. It was funny. The scene, not the sounds from the bathroom. It was like, 'What was that?!' What we'd done, all his looking and heavy breathing and looking like the police would arrive any minute. I mean, we were just little girls, what's the big deal!"
"Well, it's called child molesting," I said dryly.
"I know. I don't mean the big deal that way. I mean, why was it so important to him?"
"Men make such a big thing out of sex," I said.
"The bathroom thing was funny too, we could hear him, and we just wanted to giggle. But we didn't, not till after he was gone. Annie and I talked about his thing in the dark. He was probably downstairs. The TV was on. We were used to each other naked, and we had seen pictures that Daddy wouldn't like, and in art books, but never a real thing." She was quiet for a while. Then she said, "Cock. Sorry."
She lay quietly for a while, as if collecting her thoughts. Her fingers kneaded my hand a bit, the tips pressing into my thigh.
"The next time he babysitted us, he got me out of my bed after Annie was asleep and he wanted to do things in the bathroom. I went with him. I was interested, Ok? He touched me and he had me hold his penis. It was warm and sticking up. I moved my hand and he gasped and said, 'Don't!' like I hurt him. But I didn't. He wanted me to kiss it — there, I mean, not on the lips. I didn't want to, because I was afraid it would taste of, you know, like pee. He said, 'I washed. Look, I'll wash again, right now.' We were in the bathroom with the door closed, in case Annie woke up. He had his pants down, around his shoes like a slapstick cartoon, but I was naked. Not a stitch, sitting on the cool tiles, and my nightie on a towel rod and he couldn't stop looking. He turned around to the sink and I thought about what an ugly butt he had, with his pants down like that. After he washed I took a hold of his penis like a ladle and did it, to the end. Kissing it. It was like kissing a dog's nose. You know, kind of gross but Ok. After I kissed it, he said, 'Suck the end,' and I didn't want to. He said, 'Come on!' kind of whiney and he was holding it. I was curious. My dad had a picture of a girl doing that in his stuff. I found it under his socks one day. It was a real photograph, and she was holding it in her mouth like the end of a popsicle with her eyes closed. I took a hold of it and put my mouth around it, and he said, 'Don't be surprised if something comes out.'
"It was so funny. I was surprised, by the idea I mean, and I started to say, 'What do you mean?' because I was afraid he meant he was going to pee on me. And sure enough, something came out right then, but not in my mouth because he surprised me and I was pulled away to say something. It spurted on the floor and some on my hand and even my chest, and some ran down his penis like salad oil. He was really upset and hurried to clean the floor. I wiped my hand and my chest with TP. The 'gism got hard really fast, like glue almost, on my skin, but it stayed wet on the tissue. I wonder why that is? He looked so dumb, kneeling with his pants down and his white buns, scrubbing like crazy. At least they weren't hairy. He flushed the TP, and then he wanted me to lick him off and I said 'No way.' But I had touched it, the 'gism on the TP, and I'd had it on my hand and almost licked my hand like if you got some juice on it or jelly. I wondered what it tasted like. You know, the way you wonder, when you're a little kid, what things on your finger might taste like? It looked like corn syrup, but not exactly. Next time I found out. It's not nasty, like I was afraid it would be. Not nice either. Not sweet at all; kind of bitter and dry. I mean astringent, like medicine. It's Ok."
"Next time?" I said. "It happened again?"
"It didn't 'happen'; it was something we did. Lots of times. My parents went out a lot," she added. Then she said, "I'm sorry," and I think she meant for telling me.
"I don't mind, if you want to tell me."
She snorted. "Yeah. I bet!"
"I don't mean I want to hear it," I said defensively. "I mean, I'm listening if you want to talk."
She was silent for a long time. When she spoke again, her tone was more brisk and matter-of-fact. "Things got pretty decadent after that. It was like every night he needed to do something new. Not every night. It's not like he would come in our bedroom every night. He'd babysit a couple times a month, but sure as you please, that night there'd be something, but always at bedtime. We'd be perfectly normal, you know, watching TV, doing homework, then Annie and I would go to bed and bang, there he'd be, everything off but his jeans. I think he was scared to do anything except after bed, because our parents might come home and there we'd be, an orgy on the living room rug. That would have been funny! Well, not really."
She was quiet for some time. I almost spoke, but I was, after all, speechless. My sisters and I had "played doctor" a few times when we were very young, and I had imagined talking the oldest out of her clothes again when I was thirteen and she was beginning to get breasts. It was another planet, distant as meadhalls and dragons. I didn't know what to say.
"One night he took Annie in the bathroom and that kind of ticked me off, like I was rejected. When he was gone she said he wanted her to kiss him there but she wouldn't, so she squeezed it and rubbed and "his weinie sneezed." When she said that, I rolled off the bed laughing and she said it again. We laughed fit to bust and later we decided it would make a great name for a restaurant. "Fast food," I said, and she rolled around some more; we knew about "fast." And "little"; "little" was killer, and it sure looked little to me. The Sneezing Weinie. The next day after school she drew a sign for the restaurant, "snot" and all, but I had her burn it because Daddy would not be amused.
"I never let him, you know, the real thing, but he had me do him with my hand with Annie watching till he came and wanted me to lick it in front of her. I made a face and I wouldn't. He tried to get us to do things. To each other? We did them later, some of them, the ones with hands, but after he was gone, because we were curious and Annie didn't want him watching. She called him "the perv." We kissed with tongues to see what it was like and played with each others' nipples and that was heavenly. She said "heavenly." And once I put my finger inside myself and she copied me and it felt so good. I thought about kissing her there but never did. She was so cute, a smart mouth but sweet to me. She wouldn't do things to him while I watched, but she would go to the bathroom with him, and she sucked him once anyway till he came. I know because I kissed her good night and tasted him on her mouth. I didn't care, but — "
"You don't have to tell me this stuff," I said.
"I know. I can't tell my friends, you know. I can't tell them anything."
I rooted my arm around her and hugged her lightly against my chest. "You want me to stop?" I shook my head in the dark. "I bet," she said again. She put a hand up and I kissed the finger tips. She lowered it to scratch my belly above the navel, then ran a finger into the depression. Her head moved as if to speak, and she didn't. I could hear a clock ticking, in the kitchen I think, and then she spoke.
"It's not true. About doing it. I never told anyone this. We had real sex after a while. He put his fingers in me three or four times, stretching and rubbing, and then one night he did it. Had sex, I mean. On the tile floor, with a towel for a pillow. It was fast; he could hardly get it in and then boom. It hurt inside. Just a little. I was lucky he was small. I didn't bleed or anything. Lots of girls don't, you know. I don't think he did that with Annie. She would have told me. And if it hurt like it did me, she'd have told on him. We didn't. We did this stuff for more than a year. Through the winter. I remember the cold bathtub when he sat on it, his buns on a towel, so I could suck him. But bathtubs are always cold, aren't they? Even when the water is hot. Once he said he wanted to take pictures of us but he never did. Where would he get them developed? He was just a kid. He would talk about them, the pictures, what would be in them, things he could never get us to do, like babbling about treasure, and it sounded so dumb. Pictures. Who cares? I would've, except for letting him watch with Annie, but he couldn't get them developed.
"On his birthday, we had a 'private party.' Two weekends after, really, not that night. My parents were gone to Austin overnight, and he was feeling brave so we didn't have to go in the bathroom. At least not at first. We were his naked sex slaves while he sat like a sheik of Araby, his thing sticking up and looking silly, to tell the truth. We licked him and kissed each other and he was just in Heaven. I licked his balls to gross Annie out and rubbed myself on his knee so it felt sweet and I pretended I was coming. That was to gross her out too though; I made like I was coming, the way that girl does in The Name of the Rose, all hot, you know — "
She interrupted herself to moan a few times convincingly, just the right mixture of querulous, almost hysterical desire, ecstatic and distressed. A familiar sound, I thought with some irony.
" — and she made a face at me. He wanted us to do each other — you know, kissing there." Her hand brushed down in a vague, almost sleepy gesture. "It was such a big deal with him! He begged and we wouldn't. He said, 'Pleeeeease' so whiney and 'Just try it' like it was a new cereal and 'Come on!' Annie finally said 'Gross!' and told him to buzz off. So he wanted to have sex with me right there, right in front of her, the real thing, but I wouldn't so we went in the bathroom, and then he tried again with Annie, taking her in after me. I asked her that time, "Did you?" and she shook her head, but I wasn't sure. I don't think she did. I don't think she ever did the real thing. Maybe I would have told, if he did her.
"What a mess," I said.
"I guess we should have told. He got caught anyway. He wasn't very smart. I mean, letting us see each other was really dumb. We could back each other up if we told. We didn't, though. We didn't tell. He got caught buck naked with a little naked girl, someone he babysat with, and she told the whole story. Not us, her."
"Good," I said.
"He wasn't so bad," she said. "He never made us or hurt us. He just wanted to do things."
"Well, he shouldn't have done them."
"He ended up in counseling, and they cured him. He never bothered us again, anyway, when he came back."
"What do you mean, 'came back'?"
She took a long, hesitant breath. "He wasn't just a babysitter. He was my stepbrother. My stepmother's from her first marriage. Daddy never found out about us; but the other girl was bad enough! We lied like a rug."
"Is that incest? When it's a stepbrother? We weren't related biologically."
"No. I don't know."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told you."
"He does anything I want. Anything...."
"You think I'm some kind of monster."
"No. You were eleven. He's the monster."
"He was fifteen," she said. She was silent for a long time. Again, I thought she was asleep. Then she spoke, as if in a dream. "His skin was so white, where the sun didn't tan him. Like statues." She was quiet again. She seemed to be asleep; she murmured, "He does anything I want. Anything." Then, at last, she was asleep.
We managed to keep the classroom out of our private life, for the most part. Just before midterm, I gave her a B for a mediocre paper. A few nights later, over dinner, she said, "You gave me a B!" The tone was accusative.
"No, you earned a B," I said. It was my stock answer.
"Well, I guess we don't have to worry any more about special favors," she said ironically.
"That was the deal," I reminded her.
"But I never got a B before in my entire life. In English, anyway."
I had given her one the previous semester, but never mind. "Maybe," I said, watching my plate, "I should give you a B for the course, just to prove that you aren't getting special favors."
"You mean whether I deserve it or not?" I murmured confirmation and nodded, as if considering the options. We were sitting side by side on the couch, at TV trays, watching a movie. Her hand strayed to my knee. "Even if I obviously earned an A?" I nodded.
She leaned over to whisper in my ear. "You do," she snarled in an ominous, convincing undertone, "and I'll cut off your onions with a cheese spreader."
When the film ended, we went to bed. To sleep, not sex. I was tired, she was "cursed," as she put it. We lay quietly for a while. Then she said, "You know, I do have sex with other guys sometimes."
"I assume so. You are free, you know."
"It's not like with you. I don't mean the sex. Sex is sex. I mean the rest of it. When I'm with you, I don't feel like we are in a contest — You know: Will she or won't she? What will it cost? How long do I have to be polite before she drops her drawers? It's like, sometimes, you don't care if we have sex or not. On a specific night, I mean. I have a feeling if I cut you off — "
She giggled. "I wouldn't. You know that. I meant, if we stopped, you would be upset, but it's not like every time I see you, either I put out or the evening is incomplete."
"I'm not sure I like knowing about the others," I said.
"Well, I'm not going to lie about it," she said in a clipped tone that sounded oddly righteous. She lied with no compunction.
"Let's just not discuss it. Like my GI."
"Bowel movements. We have them. We don't pretend we don't. But we don't discuss them."
"I don't mean to compare. I'm just not comfortable, thinking of you with another man."
"They are just boys," she said. "Most of them."
"Rutting male, regardless of age."
"'Rutting'? Never mind, I get it."
We were never seen together, or so it seemed. Not while she was in my class. I took her out a few times but across town, or clear over to Fort Worth: risky but not much. I was invited to speak at the University of Chicago's Medieval Round Table and she wanted to go. She wheedled like a child. When that didn't work, she shifted tactics. "You can't stop me from going to Chicago, you know."
"This is not funny," I said.
"You are ashamed of me. You think I'll embarrass you because I can't speak Anglo-Saxon?"
Finally I agreed.
She was brilliant, of course. She decided she was a confidential buyer for an art collector in Houston. On the plane she gave me a whole story to cover her, and I was unable to remember half of it. Her name was "Clarissa Goodnight not the 'cattle Goodnights,'" she said. "It's perfect. The first name is unusual but hard to remember, and the last name is old money in Texas but maybe not because we aren't related. They'll remember 'the Goodnight girl.' My father," she added, "was a dealer in Asian antiquities, but they didn't interest me." It took me a moment to comprehend that this was "Mr. Goodnight, not her real father. "Don't worry," she added as we descended into O'Hare. "Just let me do the talking if anyone asks." And she did, perfectly in character for the afternoon and evening, a trivial but competent businesswoman travelling with her lover, self-effacing but a bit full of herself, politely interested in his interests but visiting from a world of her own. My colleagues would remember her. Professor Streight, my host, asked about her a year later. That night, the half dozen we dined with were gentlemen and did not, if they saw through her, let on.
At a small party afterward, a graduate student grilled her suspiciously.
"A 'confidential buyer'?" he repeated. "Meaning you what?"
"My employer doesn't want publicity, so I handle the negotiations when she is interested in a piece." I thought "she" was a nice touch and made a note to remember it.
"So you are a 'front man.'"
"I don't think of myself as a man," she said, smiling and putting a hand on her blouse between her breasts, as if modestly.
"But you are one of those people who reduces art to a commodity."
"No, I handle the commodity side of art."
"Same thing," he said dismissively.
"Not necessarily," I interjected. They both shot their eyes at me impatiently. "Art is a commodity. Just like ballet dancers sweat."
"Yes," she said without a trace of irony. "I handle the sweat."
There was an odd silent exchange between them. I assumed the student, who was only a few years older than her, was imagining a pass. Not that it took much imagination. Just brass. I moved closer to her.
"Was it your employer who bought that Rembrandt for millions of dollars?"
She smiled politely and shrugged.
"I think," he went on, "art should be in museums, where people can see it. And the idea of someone selling a Rembrandt for millions of dollars makes me sick. Doesn't it bother you, to be pandering to the acquisitiveness of the rich?" Apparently he had decided against the pass.
Cinda sipped her drink. "Sweat's sweat," she said.
"Tell him about the Tiepolo," I said mischievously.
"Allen," she said primly. "You know I can't talk about that! I should never have told you!"
"What's a Taypolo?" her inquisitor asked.
"Tee-aypolo," she corrected. "You know, the entire collection will go to the Canadian National Gallery of Art eventually, so I suppose my employer might agree with you. About people, anyway." She added, as if suddenly realizing she hadn't answered his question, "Tiepolo was a major/minor Italian of the early Renaissance. Mannerist, really. Barely collectible."
I told her we could do things less cautiously after the term ended. And that she categorically was not going to take the third comp class with me. She looked sullen. I knew there would be a fight.
We planned a summer trip, for after third term, one she would have to deceive her father about. We would go to New Orleans, a day's drive I'd never made. She would be with some girlfriends, supposedly, girls who would cover for her if he asked. Girls who had their own, somehow similar plans. I wasn't sure all that secrecy was necessary, but it was her life, not mine. We were going to go in the summer, when the Gulf was hot and not terribly attractive to tourists. I daydreamed about dancing with her to jazz in the French Quarter, her dress sticky with the sweet smell of sweat. She wanted to see the voodoo museums, and Anne Rice's house.
One afternoon she was in my office, hanging around, and she said, "You have this at home too." She had picked up the Cranach Salome. "What is it? Is it Dutch?"
"Cranach. A medieval picture of Salome. You know. Seven veils, off with his head."
She looked puzzled. I was taking too much for granted.
"She danced naked for Herod and then demanded John the Baptist's head." Cinda made a face. "Come by tonight and I'll give you some culture."
We watched a video of Strauss's Salome while sharing a Caesar salad. When it was done, she said, "I thought opera stars were fat." I didn't say anything, and she added, "I knew a guy who had to go to the opera. He said the soprano was so fat, they had to use two body doubles for the love scenes."
"Your forty-year-old schoolteacher."
"No. She's a looker. I can't believe she took all her clothes off."
"Anything for art."
She was killing time. The credits were still rolling. I could see something was on her mind. Finally she said, "You said she killed John the Baptist. She didn't kill him, Herod did."
"She made him do it."
"It's not the same thing! You guys are always talking about how we make you do this and make you do that! We don't make you do anything. 'What could I do, your honor? She started mouthing off and I had to smack her. She made me do it!' 'What could I do? That skimpy dress, the way she was walking, she was asking for it — "
"All right!" I said. "I apologize."
She was silent for a while. Then she said, "That's not to say she wasn't one sick puppy."
Her desire to join a sorority was entirely pragmatic, and she was struggling a bit, because she was not a prime candidate. Her father sold commercial real estate, and "in San Antonio," she would add with anguished italics. She was pretty, but that hardly counted at NDU. Her grades, ironically, were her best asset. That and fitting in, being sociable, doing what was expected of her.
Getting good "marks" — she was vague about how — when the fraternities had their "little sister" nights was important, apparently, especially if you didn't have sororities fighting to recruit you. Little Sisters night was approaching. We did not discuss it, but I knew from classroom scuttlebutt.
We spent the weekend together before the "Little Sisters" night. I took her along on a hop to Amarillo, to do some research on a literary side interest — and, I confess, to get some relief from the oppressive Spring humidity. "Little Sister" night was Tuesday. She missed class Wednesday, then again on Friday, and I didn't see her at all for five days.
"She can't come to the phone," her roommate told me when I finally called, late Saturday afternoon.
She was in class Monday. I asked her and another student to drop by my office. Bobbie Tallant smirked when I said her name. I had never asked her what was up between them, or the origin of the name he had called her. He was from Dallas, so it wasn't some ugly high school history. After his confrontation with me, he had never needled her again in class. He confined himself to sneers and knowing looks I think I was supposed to find intriguing and troubling. They were just irritating. There was something, some history, some ugliness. Monday, Cinda looked sick, as if she were in the last stages of a cold.
"Are you all right?" I said later, after I closed my office door behind her. She nodded, looking at the floor. I gathered her in my arms. It was the only time I ever did that in my office. She flinched and stiffened, so I let her go. "Are you sure?" I said. "Did something happen at this... thing?"
She shook her head. "No. I got taken advantage of," she said, contradicting herself with barely a pause. "They put something in a drink." She looked at the Monroe poster.
She shook her head again. "Can I go?"
"If you want to talk, come to my house. Any time. If I'm not there, just wait." I had given her a key, almost as a joke, for Valentine's Day.
The weekend after, a week after that brief meeting, she accepted a second invitation. She came for dinner and conversation, and we talked around her depression rather than through it. There were rumors, she said. She might have to quit school.
We talked around her depression rather than through it.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?" I said, trying to make it sound more like an offer than a question.
She shook her head, her hair flying across my mouth and chin.
"You could talk with Lainie," I suggested. "She might help."
"I'll think about it," she said reluctantly.
That was a few days before the tape arrived. A VHS tape, unlabeled, in a cheap, potato-chip yellow bubblepak you could buy at KMart for a quarter, with a Dallas postmark. The postmark turned out to be the downtown main post office. It was no help in identifying the sender. I was, in my own innocence, merely puzzled. It had been delivered to my office mailbox. Inside was a neatly typed list of six names. I recognized one as a History professor Cinda had taken last semester, the gay one. He was a campus celebrity, published and a prominent liberal in the faculty senate. Later I identified the rest of them. All men, all professors. All, I assumed, people she'd had classes with. Her father was not on the list. That struck me, after I had seen what was on the tape, as strange. It isn't important any more, but it still seems a bit odd, a kind of oversight.
I watched the tape that night. It was a record of Little Sisters night, a very private documentary. Reality video of one small piece of the event. There was nothing to indicate that that was what it was, but of course, it would have to be, and so, it turned out, it was.
She was obviously drugged. Her speech was slurred, and her eyes were out of focus. It had to be more than just alcohol. The camera was hidden, I think. At least at first, when she was coherent enough to have known what it was. It was hidden, but someone was manipulating it, focusing, zooming. And there had been editing, even some smearing of the image here and there, whatever that's called. I have no idea how, some studio trick. There was some care to see to it that no faces but hers were in the frames. As if only a face could give away identity. The boys who raped her were all drunk, drunk enough to be stupid, anyway. She had already had intercourse with one, before the tape began. She said something about it. "Not another one!" in that whiney, not quite sincere tone she could do so well. She consented to the second boy's wishes, and the camera captured the penetration and a brief flash of her pubic hair as she lay like an anatomically correct, life-size doll on the studio couch.
She was thirsty and she had a glass of wine after that. She had asked for water; a hand came into the frame to give her red wine in a drinking glass. She was not coherent in the frames that came after the wine. I suppose it was drugged as well. She hung her head, as if it were too heavy. She had taken the first recorded penetration fully dressed, except for her panties, her skirt bundled unceremoniously around her hips. Then two boys stripped her. One pulled a leg up and aside, crudely offering the camera what the porn magazines call a split beaver. The camera zoomed in on the stained, distended labia, a drool of semen caught in her hair. It was as if she were dead. One boy unzipped and placed his turgid organ against her face and she took it, mouthing it like a sleepy child finding a breast in reach. The camera zoomed away from that closeup to disclose that she was being penetrated by another as well, her ankle clasped against his hip as he thrust into her sidewise. There were sounds in the background that I could not place. Music from upstairs, muffled. But something else.
They spared her nothing. The room seemed to be a basement. There was a studio couch, a table, necessary lights. Once I saw the corner of a window frame, high on the wall. They manipulated her like a doll, folding her into this position, then that, not so much taking sexual pleasure from her as demonstrating her helplessness to resist. It went on for half an hour, spliced and condensed from what must have been longer. At one point, I froze the tape and went outside. One of them had taken her from behind, making her cry a bit. A few frames later, I recognized the stains and smears on the penis hovering in front of her face, and I stopped the tape. When I came back, I hit the fast forward button, but the machine gave me a moment of her mouth opening, her tongue. I stopped the tape, letting the screen go black, and went into the bathroom, sat on the cold linoleum, my arm on the tub. I wanted to vomit. To vomit for her. I couldn't. I considered putting a finger down my throat. The idea triggered another kind of nausea. I rested my head on the toilet seat. It smelled vaguely of urine, like a neglected men's room.
I went back to the tape. I let it fast forward a bit with no image, getting past that horror, only to stumble into another. The sounds, the strange sounds I had been unable to identify, were distress noises of a dog. Two of the boys were whispering instructions to her, and the third was encouraging the dog. She was folded up, crouched on her knees, looking almost unconscious, her face not really visible. The dog wouldn't touch her. One boy said, "Give him a hand job. Then he'll be interested."
Another voice said, "Fuckin' A! I'm not touching it. Let her do it."
The tape was composed of numerous jump cuts, as I learned to call them some years later. Reality does not "jump cut," of course. The camera came in when the boy brought the dog around to her face. It caught her opening her eyes, her look of confusion, disbelief, and then revulsion. The dog, stimulated somehow by the atmosphere of the place, was partially erect, the surreal, hooked red egg of his glans gleaming. I thought later that I knew, after seeing that image of that inhuman organ imposed across her face, that I knew why the Devil is a black dog.
They could not make her do it. They threatened her, but it was bluster, and she said no. She begged and pleaded, vague and incoherent, but she fought them and refused. The tape ended as if it had run out.
Someone had sent this to a half dozen people. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do. An effort had been made to keep the boys anonymous, but it was obvious who she was. The boys would be easy to track down. The cameraman, who was truly anonymous, unless his voice was on the tape, must have done this without telling them. This: Not the filming, which they obviously helped stage, but this broadcasting of their exploit. I supposed it was meant originally to be nothing but a memento for the fraternity archives. Even as drunk as they were, they would have known that they would not get away with it, if it got out. Five people. Only if four were dead.
I called Lainie. I didn't know what else to do. She agreed to come over.
Lainie was a hard, spare woman, like a greyhound. She favored Levis and pearl-button shirts off duty, with the sleeves torn off. She kept horses about halfway up toward Denton. She was only on campus a few days a week. It would take her a hour to come to the house. I showered while I was waiting. It didn't help. I got out a faculty directory and checked the rest of the names. They were all there. I supposed our common ground was having her in class. I could not believe that we were all lovers, but the thought crossed my mind. No, there was the history professor.
When Lainie arrived, I explained to her, best I could, what had happened. I gave her a general idea of what was on the tape. I said that I had no idea what to do. She listened. At one point, she asked to see the tape. I said later. I didn't want to run it again. She nodded.
"Why do you think they sent it to you?" she said.
"The names are all faculty members. I suppose they are teachers who know her."
"Let me see." I handed her the list. "They're all men," she said.
"Cinda avoids female teachers," I said.
Lainie was studying my face. After meeting her eyes, I began to feel naked.
"Were you intimate with her?"
"You mean sex?" I said lamely.
"Don't fuck with me, Allen. Answer my question."
"When she was in your classes?"
"She's in my class now." She waited. "Yes."
"You stupid shit," she said. She looked at the list. "So maybe these six are men she's fucked." I opened my mouth to protest, but she silenced me. "Maybe they know her well enough to know it's really her, all the way through. Though it sounds too amateurish for anything complicated like a body double. And maybe they are men who have an investment in not telling. Or who will tell." She appraised my face. "Not you, of course." The tone was contemptuous.
"What about Royden?" I said.
"Ok," she agreed. Josh Royden was very publicly gay and not bisexual, either.
"They didn't send it to her father."
She shrugged. "That makes sense," she said. She did not elaborate. "Do you think they sent one to her?"
"I don't know. She's been depressed. She told me there was a sexual incident." I shook my head. "I don't think she knows what happened that night. I don't think she could have been handling this, the way she's been. She's too.... I don't know. How do you handle this?" Then I realized the tape had come that day. "Maybe today? They might have today."
Lainie shook her head. "Not necessarily. Leaving her in the dark would be part of the joke."
"Joke!" I said.
She shook her head again. "Think about it. What is she going to feel like, when she finds out that some of her professors have seen her doing things she doesn't even remember doing? Somebody really hates this girl. I wonder if there are other copies. Sure there are."
We sat together in silence. Then Lainie stood up. She said, "I can talk to her. Give me the tape. Unless you want to keep it."
"I didn't deserve that," I said. I handed it to her.
She glared at me. "What you deserve is between you and God."
I called Cinda the next day and offered to take her to the Anatole for dinner. She was puzzled. Why was I breaking my rules? I told her that I'd had a paper accepted and wanted to celebrate. She agreed to meet me on campus. I was relieved; surely she had not seen the tape.
I am not a gourmet. The food was wasted on me, but Cinda was awed by the flavors. And the prices. We had a hundred-dollar bottle of wine.
"You feeling better?" I said over dessert. There was still a bit of wine. We split it. She nodded soberly, watching the wine flow into her glass.
"I'm Ok," she said. She stared at her plate, one finger on the stem of the wineglass. She was eating a trifle, raspberries with a pattern of chocolate painted over and around them. She picked up the little spoon, pushed a raspberry with it.
I complimented her dress, feeling a bit an idiot. I had mentioned it twice already.
She smiled a bit. "You sure must like this dress!" she said. I'd seen it before. It was a dark green that made her eyes murky and tropical.
She put a spoonful of raspberries in her mouth. She crushed them and swallowed. There was a trace of chocolate in the dimple where her lips met. Her tongue flicked out and took it. She looked at my face.
If she had asked me about love at that moment, I would have told her a foolish truth.
We sat in my car for a few minutes outside her dorm. "This thing," I said, "doesn't reflect on you."
"Did somebody tell you what happened?" she said, sounding frightened. Not panicked but worried. I was sure she did not know about the tape.
"No. I've been thinking about what you told me. Just what you told me. Technically, you were raped, even if you consented to anything."
"I don't want to talk about it," she said,
"I know. I want you to see Lainie, though. You need to talk to someone."
"I will. I'll call her."
I recited Lainie's number. "She's in the directory. You can talk to me about it if you ever want to." She nodded. "You don't have to, and I won't ask. I won't even comment. I can listen, when you need to talk. Ok? I won't ask, because I respect your privacy, but don't think I don't care. I care about you very much."
She nodded again and reached for the door handle.
"Wait!" I said. She was startled. "I — " I said clumsily. "I want you to be Ok," I said lamely. I leaned across the seats and turned her face toward mine, kissed her mouth. She returned the kiss. And then she was gone. I waited until the big glass doors closed, taking her in, locking behind her. I had not said it, the ultimate obscenity of our sad world. I wished I had, but knew that given another chance, I would fail again.
That was Sunday. Lainie called me at my office Wednesday afternoon.
"Have you seen Cinda today?" she said by way of greeting.
"She skipped class again."
"I talked to her Tuesday morning. I told her about the tape, the list. She had to know. I gave her as vague a description as I could. She wanted to see it. I told her no. No way I was going to let her see that filth. I didn't say that. I said it was criminal evidence, and I wouldn't surrender it. I told her where I got it. I showed her the list. She was devastated. She asked me if you had watched it; I said she'd have to ask you. I don't know," she said. "She agreed to come back today, but she didn't. I figured out this morning what she'd done. I called the others, and sure enough, she got the tape from Josh Royden. This morning. He was the first one she asked. For obvious reasons, I guess. He said he hadn't even opened the envelope yet. He'd forgotten about it. She told him it was 'compromising' and she wanted it. She convinced him that she knew what it was by telling him about the list inside the envelope. So he just gave it to her. He talked with her a bit — "
"Is she at home?" I said. "Did you call the dorm?"
"They haven't seen her. I called her family. Her mother said she hadn't talked to her in a week or so. She was vague."
"Did you call her father?"
"I got his number. I haven't reached him yet. So you haven't heard from her?"
"No. Call me at home when you talk to her father, Ok?" I wanted to get off the phone. I knew where she might be.
"If you turn her up, let me know. Ok?"
"Yes. Later, huh?"
"What?" I said impatiently.
"They should be executed, those little bastards. It's against all my principles — "
"I know," I said, hanging up before she could finish.
I should have called the police. It wouldn't have made any difference. But that would have been the right thing to do next. It seemed too dramatic. Instead, I went home. The door was locked. The television was not on; her purse was on the couch, the empty envelope beside it. There was a terrible stink in the room, burnt plastic. I remembered it from the days when my brother and I had built planes and wrecked them, setting fire to the plastic. The fumes are toxic, I suppose. The bathroom door was closed and, I discovered, locked.
"Cinda?" I said. I called her name, asked her to let me in, explained that I was worried, heard nothing and tried to force the door. That too would have been a logical time to call the police. They would arrive in a half hour or so, force the door, deal with whatever needed to be dealt with. I slammed my shoulder against the door, like I had seen done in movies and, miraculously, it worked. The door was badly fitted, and it popped open.
There is a curse of literature. It trivializes reality with footnotes. The first thing I thought, almost before I knew what I was looking at, was "Who would have thought she had so much blood in her?" But it was not blood, of course, not thirty gallons of blood.
One wrist gaped at me like the gills of a fish, not even a thread of blood...
I called the police then. I opened the front door, so they could come in. Then I went back into the bathroom and sat with her. I took her hand from the water and held it. The water was cold, and her hand. I cried for her a little, a few tears that burned a great deal. I knew I shouldn't touch her, and I didn't, except for the limp hand. I sat on the floor, where I had sat a few nights before, wanting to throw up. And again, still, nothing.
There was no note, the police decreed. The tape lay in a foil roasting pan in the kitchen sink. She had opened the cassette with a screwdriver and burned the mylar, burning the plastic in the process. Considerate of my sink. There were smutty places on the ceiling above the sink, and the smell was terrible. There was some blood in the sink. It was thought that she had cut herself on the plastic or the screwdriver. Cuts on her fingers seemed to confirm this.
She was said to have been dead more than an hour when I got home. I was still a suspect, routinely so, and when it became clear how she came to have a key to my apartment, there were complications I could scarcely bother with. An ugly conversation with my chairman ended with me offering my resignation. He refused to accept it, saying, as if it had just occurred to him, "You haven't done anything wrong." I knew he meant "illegal," but I didn't quibble. I was relieved of my class assignments for the semester. I left that summer.
It took less than a week to identify the boys. The legal machinery was in motion the moment their names were known. They became, in spite of some efforts, matters of public record, those names. Here, take them: David Bruen, Andy Van Ness, Richard Morgan. Remember them, please. And Bobbie Tallant, of course. They never identified the dog. It would have been put down, I suppose, on some principle. The accepted story was that it was a stray. Bobbie had picked it up somewhere, and it ran away that night, afterwards. Fled the scene. The prosecuting attorney tried to make this seem like conspiracy, premeditation, the acquisition of the dog, but there was no evidence that proved he did it, and there was testimony offered about Bobbie's kindness to dogs. He loved dogs. They were represented — the boys — by Bobbie's father's firm. It was, I was told by a police officer and then again later by an assistant prosecutor in the same phrase, a "powerhouse firm." And Cinda's father was just a rich realtor. In San Antonio.
As I watched things unfold, I felt as if I had been dragged into a badly plotted film. The boys were all pledges, even Tallant, but no one could identify a larger, more mature, controlling intelligence that might have put them up to this. Yet, they were not responsible, because they were under the influence. Cinda supposedly had a history of imbalances and incidents. I say "supposedly" because I did not believe it, and the testimony was vague. Her stepbrother David Coombs was seriously disturbed. His juvenile record and two suicide attempts, both attacks on the wrists, somehow became relevant. Her sister Anne Elise had taken pills; too many, once. She had said it was an accident, the defense attorneys were dubious. And Bobbie, Bobbie Tallant, with his media expertise. He had tried to confess, after all. The sending of the tape. It was a public service, a cry for help. He opened his eyes wide on the stand, tossed his innocent curls. Surely we could see, the jury and those of us not so sure, we could see that he sent the tape as a way to come clean, to bring it all out in the open. I had an opportunity to testify. I was not allowed to say what I thought about that. Two more copies surfaced at the frat house, and another was turned in by an anonymous student. The other four professors denied getting the tape. No doubt there are more still circulating.
A police officer was suspended for "accidentally" breaking Dave Bruen's jaw with a nightstick. There was a rumor that another officer asked Andy, while they were walking alone back to his cell, if they ever got her to do anything with the dog. The rumor did not preserve Andy's answer.
The boys got probation and counseling. They sat through a stern lecture on innocence, however tarnished, being fatally blighted and the tragedy for which they were, however indirectly, responsible. They were sentenced for non-consensual sex acts, sort of like rape but not, a bit worse than date rape, perhaps, but as the defense attorneys pointed out — and they had successfully prevented the jury's sensibilities from being assaulted by actually viewing the tape — the only time she said "no" on the tape, they didn't make her do it, what she didn't consent to, and in fact nothing really happened with the dog, ugly and regrettable and even depraved, if you like, though its presence was. So things were, as the defense attorneys insisted, however regrettable, ambiguous. And the girl. Well. Unstable, an accident waiting to happen.
Bobbie got a year at a prison spa and ten years probation. His voice was not identifiable on the tape, so there was no proof that he was even there, which made his confession all the more admirable. He was sober enough to handle the camera and therefore had not actually participated in the assault. They couldn't prove he got the dog. The boys didn't remember, and he had the right to remain silent about some things.
Sitting here in Amarillo, I have 500 miles to go. How we grow. Twenty years ago, I ate at the Big Texan. Not the 6-pound Porterhouse, but oblivious to the cowgirl on the roof, beef cuts dotted onto her outline. Tonight, I thought of the pornography of meat as I drove by, stopped at a Kroger's for cheese and carrots to take to the motel to enjoy with a Guinness while I polish, like a strange Rodin, my hunched Claudel. You didn't think this was spontaneous, a drafted blurt of confession? I am polishing, fine grit on stone, a strange analog of Humbert. Truth, but polished truth. I am not the hero of my story. Breakfast tomorrow, and the last leg.
Bobbie Tallant is the financial officer of a Dallas firm that specializes in creating vertical applications for the banking industry. It was easy enough to locate him through the alumni association. He drives a blue Porsche to work. It's only a twenty-minute commute from his home. A quick shuttle from DFW, were I flying, a long drive from Montana. The others don't matter. Bobbie held the gun. I wonder if he still collects death videos. Would his wife know? Would she care? It doesn't matter.
I dropped my classes immediately, within days after she died. There were loose ends to be taken care of, things to return. I had the student journals, and before I gave them to the teaching assistant who would finish Cinda's class, I removed hers. I thought of it as protecting her against prying eyes. I thought I would return it to her family but they never asked for it and I realized that it was more important to me than it was likely to be for them. Selfish perhaps, but no matter. I wanted it, and I still have it, its spiral back wedged between a Fowles novel and a grammar I never consult. When I want to hear her voice, I read it.
And there is something else. It was on my bed, slipped under the covers, a small notebook, fabric-bound and key-locked. I should have given it to the police, but I imagined she put there for me, or at least to be sure it would not fall into the wrong hands, and they had no reason to search the bedroom. I looked into it in the coming days. It was a private journal, one she would not want to share with her family, so I kept it too. Perhaps, I thought later, she believed I would destroy it for her. I imagined her deciding what to do and then, in her businesslike way, divesting herself of the diary, to avoid having it fall into the wrong hands. The diary on the bed, her watch on the sink, shoes neatly slipped from on the carpet. If she wanted it disposed of, why did she give it to me? But I knew, just as she must have known, I would read it. We both knew.
In the months after, I parsed it for illuminations. We were there, like figures of a sketched fiction — some lines flattering, some not. But no illumination, just details, facts as contextless as potsherds and brass fallen from leather. What did I expect? She was a child. I learned nothing; but it kept her there, beyond the shadows, these long years. There was this, a night I remember with her help:
We had sex and it was nice. It always is. Well most of the time. It helps that we never have to. When he was inside me, I was sleepy and then he said, "Little lamb, who made thee?" in my ear, like a compliment. It was so weird. "What?" I said, and he said, "It's Blake. William Blake. You know, 'Tyger, tyger, burning bright...." He recited the whole poem, the lamb one, and I was really confused with him in me and not doing anything. "That doesn't sound at all like William Blake," I said, like I would know. He chuckled. "You think I'm a little lamb?" I said and I was ready to smack him, sex or not. "Shhh," he said. Then he kissed me on the cheek and he said, "He who made the lamb made thee." But that wasn't in the poem. I found it. It's in the tiger poem. Allen, you are so weird.
I wanted her to say goodbye.