after class - Inside My Desk
AFTER
CLASS
by
r/
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2015
AFTER CLASS
I had finished my Smith Cage routine and was sitting on the
security bar with my face in my towel when I heard the
unmistaken sound of her voice.
"You spend a lot of time hiding in terry-cloth."
"Not a bad idea," I responded as I lifted my head to her face
bearing down on me.
I had run into Erin by accident, more like crash-bang, several
weeks ago. Both of us were signing in at the counter ruled over by
the principle owner, Katie, who seated herself on a fire-engine-red
bar stool with a high back. It took a few seconds to realize that we
knew each other and another few seconds to decide if we should
acknowledge that we knew each other.
"I hope this is temporary."
Erin had spoken first. That had caught Katie’s attention.
"Afraid not. At least a year. How...are...you...after...how long?" I'd
finally gotten out.
"Not as long as I had hoped. What happened to the beard and the
pony-tail? You look older," and with that she'd walked away.
"You will need protection...that I can see," Katie had said
sympathetically.
"Woe is me! You can guess what might have laid the groundwork
for this conversation. I knew she lived in the city, but I never
thought I’d meet her in the gym. Her attitude toward workouts in
our previous lives was ‘only on the eighth day of the week, thank
you’."
"She joined a month before you arrived. Should we believe in
fate?"
"I live with the fear of colliding universes and out-of-control fates.
Sorry, you had to put up with a couple of feuding ex-lovers."
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AFTER CLASS
Before the reunion at the desk we hadn't seen each other in a
decade and hadn't had any contact for several years. The last
encounter or quarrel occurred after I'd discovered her art online.
We had exchanged a few emails in which she had no obvious
trouble remembering me, but after we had completed our
negotiations and I had bought a painting amnesia set in...for her,
not for me. In those emails she had been courteous but not
forthcoming, and then when I asked if I could attend a future
opening, she read me a new riot act...there had been several
years earlier. The answer was No; she barely knew me; she
wanted no further contact. That had been the last contact until the
gods, who so often have fucked up my life, decreed the desk
meeting. I had pretty much forgotten her over the preceding
decade. That was harder to do during the past two years because
her painting, beautifully framed, was hanging on my wall along
with certain invisible memories. But, even the painting and
whatever memories it provoked were nothing compared to her
actual presence...a growl of a voice directed at me as if I had
joined this gym intentionally to make her life miserable. I was
happy to own her painting; it was among my favorites. I had not
forgotten – believe me, I had tried but couldn't – but I had stored
her vitriolic emails where such things go and I had used her
silence enforced by her amnesia to enjoy her painting on my own.
If I thought about her, I used the pleasure of her painting – colors
in motion – to shield myself from her past outbursts. In the gym I
was on my own with her and not her painting. My protector, Katie,
was never far and always attentive.
Small in stature she had lost her curvaceous, youthful figure. She
had always been round rather than lean but attractively so. A
dozen years later she not grown taller or leaner, only rounder.
Regardless that round face centered by deep blue eyes still drew
me in. It had happened when we first met and secretly spent
nights together, and it was happening all these years later, me
seated looking up, her leaning against the metal frame of the
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Smith Cage. Would she turn feral and pounce? I was trying to
prepare.
"How have your gallery presentations gone?" I threw out without
knowing what to expect.
"You have a knack for raising the wrong subject. That’s why you
were told not to attend."
"I followed your orders. I do look at the new paintings online. I like
what I see, but that’s about as close as I’ll ever get, since the
gallery owner won’t ever let me through the door by your
instructions."
"You pissed me off."
"There was a time when I didn’t. I like to remember those days."
"I have no idea what you’re remembering," she said glaring at me.
"Didn’t mean to cross the line," I said in what I hoped would be
taken as genuine penance.
How this woman combined cool and savage in one body I’ll never
figure out. When we first met, it was only the cool I saw. I was
warned by friends who introduced us that she had her moods.
We all have our moods. Why should hers be different. Besides,
she was an artist.
Moods barely described what I came to see in our last days and
inevitable parting. I was not permitted to assume we were a
couple; nor was I apparently permitted to be with other women.
When seen with such in the same coffee bar where we met, the
boom covered with barbed wire was lowered, never to be raised,
not even after the long interlude. Not sure I'd ever really wanted to
know what being savaged felt like. It was as close as I ever
wanted to be. Why was I trying to have a conversation with
someone who did not like me and had disowned our past?
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AFTER CLASS
"So, the critics didn’t like it," I continued gently, even though I
knew what the few critics who saw the show had said.
Being a glutton for her punishment I was willing to endure another
verbal blast to find out what she thought. Since I’d discovered her
paintings online a couple years ago, I’d taken an interest in her
career. I told her in one email, to which there was no response, I
found her canvases so sensuous as to be soothing and so
unpredictable as to be menacing. Critics had not been positive
nor neutral, unfortunately. Cute, superficial and unmemorable
were words that often showed up in their columns. I’d even seen
juvenile and confused. But, they missed the essence as far as I
was concerned. The personality of the artist and the essence of
the painting may be one and the same. Images of everyday things
painted in soft, alluring colors will divert your eyes from more
ominous shadows and colors. A vortex, unobserved, will suck you
in. Cajoling and bewitching at the same time. Her canvases had a
way of turning on the viewer as if to say "Gotcha ya", maybe even
"You asked for it".
Wasn’t that how she got me into her vortex that I was still swirling
around in and trying to escape from? Maybe I was reading into
her canvases how I felt about our troubled past rather than what
she intended. Our stories about that past were very much at odds
and would remain so, since there was little likelihood we could
ever sit down with wine and sort out the differences. We’d now
spoken several times since our re-acquaintance, no more than
five or ten minutes each time. Why she talked to me at all was
incomprehensible, except to remind me how much she despised
me. Was this some form of punishment for past sins for which I
was no more or no less responsible than she was? I was no
closer to figuring her out now than I was years ago when she told
my friends she wanted to go out with me. We did, and here we
are, after a long hiatus of silence, face to face, snarling at each
other in a gym miles and years removed from where it all started.
What I knew then was I liked her and she liked me. What I
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couldn't figure out now was why I continued to like her...well, not
enough to have ever called or written her since her last
outburst...in a real sense I was letting her invade my world that
had gotten along perfectly well without her. Why couldn't I just tell
her to shut up and beat it? Not in my nature, really. Was I being
pulled in again out of curiosity or hope or something more sinister
I should utterly dismiss. I should walk away from her and her
paintings. I won’t. I know better, but I don’t.
These gym encounters have only reaffirmed what she said earlier
in a slightly different version and was saying again for good
measure.
"You have no place and have never had any place in my world.”
I remember lines from somewhere…,
No one ever listens to me,
I hardly listen to myself.
Could these lines apply to her as well? Lines for humankind.
“Am I supposed to respond to that? You might not like the
response,” I replied instead of ending the conversation by walking
away.
That set her off. I quit listening, even though I was still sitting there
watching her lips move.
Maybe the nub of the matter was she had come to believe I had
no part in her life. Like some kind of elderly lech or monster who
arose out of a deep, dark hole to torment her, told lies, bought a
painting to further torment her and came to the City, to this gym to
wrong her.
Even now
turn up to
her for the
the dark
I can’t take my eyes off her snarling lips that always
the right. What would surprise a person just meeting
first time is how swiftly that sneer can become a smile,
can become light, the vitriol can become high6
AFTER CLASS
spiritedness, only then to revert to what they were once your
guard is down. Perhaps I’m caught in that twisted-logic web of
observing her when it might dawn on her that she had a fuckedup version of eating fresh shrimp in green sauce and drinking
Bordeaux before she was legal and before we repaired to the
balcony on a very warm summer night.
Not knowing what she just said to me, I asked,
"What didn’t the critics like about your paintings?”
Not giving voice to my other thought...besides you…I was
surprised she actually altered the tone in her voice, dropped the
nastiness of her mood and answered my query.
"My style is "lite" like beer, too bubbly, all foam, no depth, no
body," she replied as if well-rehearsed.
“Not true!” I said loud and clear.
She was lost for moment with that thought so I ventured on.
"Why do you think they miss what you see and some of the rest of
us see?"
"They haven’t slept with me?" she shot back, demanding a reply.
I turned ashen, I was sure. We had gone from "slept with me" to
"we had no past" back to "slept with me." Recovering as fast as I
could, I muttered:
"Well, there is the question of professionalism. Shouldn’t they be
able to see merit without knowing the body?"
I hoped this would be an acceptable response, end the
conversation and allow me to breathe.
“Some old friends have even joined the chorus of doubters. At my
exhibit, which you were ordered to stay away from, they shook
their collective heads in disapproval. What I heard I couldn’t
believe: The parts don’t add up to a whole.”
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AFTER CLASS
“Is that what you think,” she asked, hands behind her rather than
on her hips…a more common stance…leaning toward me with
not what I would call an inquisitive look but rather a hostile look,
as if I should have the right answer ready.
“I don’t agree with your friends or the critics. I’m proud your
painting is hanging on my wall.”
“It shouldn’t be there. I shouldn’t have let you have it.”
"You didn’t let me ‘have it’, I bought it. I like it, and I’m not
complaining, but for the sake of the record…."
"Fuck the record. I should take it back, but you’d fight me all the
way to the hell. You’re as bull-headed as I am. Nice on the
surface, unlike me, but underneath we’re the same – you push, I
push back, you, then me…it’s endless."
So, here we were, back to where this conversation started,
dancing around the tabooed subject of who we had been. At least,
in a moment, perhaps in a weak moment, she had blurted out a
memory...even in our best times we had sparred…that we should
in the heat of this standoff, our latest, nod in assent to…we
didn’t…a past. Perhaps we knew each other better than either
wanted to confess to. The most revealing thing about this
conversation, which I shouldn’t be having with her, was its
confessional nature. Notwithstanding what she said in our last
email exchange – I don’t want to be friends, I barely knew you
years ago – she did have memories.
She turned and walked away. I re-entered the Smith Cage and did
another set of squats. I was vain about keeping my butt, not
letting it turn into a backside slide that so many aging men were
plagued with. After finishing the routine I resumed my place on the
safety bar. Looking across the room I could see Erin on the
StairMaster, a machine I had assiduously avoided and would for a
new but obvious reason continue to do so. When I tried to focus
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on her face, I could not help but feel…not think…I might have won
a battle…well…maybe better said I held my own.
When I was making my exit, past Katie, I heard:
“She slouched on her way to the StairMaster. It must have gone in
your favor.” She reached across the counter and gave me a hug.
“Thanks, Guardian Angel. I don’t know the questions to ask or the
answers to give. Do you offer psychiatric services for gym rats in
combat?”
“If I answered that, you’d be surprised. Another time. Go home
and feel good. That’s the extent of our psychiatric services today.”
As I turned the corner to my new residence, I was asking myself:
back in Erin’s whirlpool by accident or design? I was not at all
religious, didn’t even bother to ask the fundamental but
unanswerable question…was there or wasn't there…from which
all religions sprang; when one didn’t ask question…surprise,
surprise…no mystery. Of course, crazy stuff happens in lives, and
i find myself speculating about fates, parallel universes and
quantum entanglements. Strange energies and forces science will
pinpoint someday. Creating new gods or bigger gods would solve
nothing. Simply observed, I was in the same city and joined the
same gym and hocus-pocus we met once again. Whether luck
or entanglement or something else, we met and I now had to
figure what to do about it.
I landed in her backyard, a city I had loved since my
undergraduate days, because a long-time friend had asked me to
take over his graduate seminar for the fall semester at the
university where he had taught for some years and where his
deanly duties had left little time to teach. I could if I wanted extend
the stay to a full year because my university owed me a semester
off. My temporary salary was big and the workload was small –
that’s what deans can do. And after the fall semester my homeuniversity salary would kick in. The dean‘s secretary, whose
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family was in the real estate business, found me a loft to lease for
the year. Money was not an issue. I was going to use the year to
finish some things and start some other things and think about
when and if I should take early retirement.
Even though I knew this was Erin’s backyard, I also thought...no
chance in a city this big. Besides, I had told myself I was not
dumb enough to try a third go-around with her. The gods were
having a good laugh over that personal resolution. Erin was back,
even if under the restricted conditions of gym face-offs. I wanted
to declare her banned but, strangely, not yet. What could I
possibly be thinking. Banned but not yet. I climbed the stairs to
my living quarters, I hadn’t engineered this reunion, but neither
had I done what I could do to escape from her presence. Of
course, I was finding out that the truth I didn’t want was the truth.
The loft, which I had dubbed The Space, was a deal-closer, as the
dean knew it would be. I had renovated largely with my own
hands several different properties in which I attempted to enlarge
the sense of space, but never had I lived in or come close to
creating by renovation a space as open , as spacious, as this. I
disliked interior walls and small windows. There was little to
dislike about The Space. The loft was also furnished with more
furniture of modern or contemporary styles than I owned at home.
I decided to have some pieces from my own art collection shipped
to the loft, including Erin’s untitled painting. Now the artist was
closer to her canvas than I was prepared for.
As I spiffed up The Space, I wondered what Erin’s reaction would
have been to a nickname – Hooch – a handle she never knew me
by because I had more or less abandoned it in my mature years.
But, a few colleagues in the city knew me as Hooch, and thanks
to the dean all the seminar students came to know it. He spent
ten minutes discussing my nickname to the amusement of the
assembled group. At the end of the introduction he warned
students that they should not be mislead by such an unscholarly
appellation, for like those "hooch" runners in the Southern
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Appalachians during the prohibition years, Hooch à la Hugh
Chilton would require them to navigate the most treacherous
roads in order to deliver the goods, what he hoped, of course,
would be legal goods. It was a bravado performance, which was
why he was a dean, and why I was still Hooch.
With a fake feather duster in hand I found myself standing again
in front of her painting. It brought me pleasure, even though I was
also taunted by it. Right now, it was the artist, not the art that
preoccupied me. After the encounter we had today and the
encounters since day one, I began to consider in the interest of
universal peace I was either going to change gyms or change
times. Yes, what I had to do. I walked to the kitchen to finish the
preparations for the food court to accompany tonight’s seminar. If
I had to be slapped around by Erin, this was the best day for it.
The seminar was the high point of my week, and I had no doubt
that while she had been front and center for the last couple hours
she’d soon fade to wherever she lived most of the time. I often
wondered if she lived in and ruled over another brain in my head.
I had asked the dean, why me? I was seldom on anyone’s list to
be a visiting anything. I was not active in professional circles. I did
not with any regularity serve on panels, or attend conferences, or
deliver papers, or sit on boards. Nor did I seek visiting
professorships. Right here, in this city there were probably as
many as a half-dozen scholars who could have filled the bill. The
dean’s response was, to my surprise, that those were reasons.
Besides, everyone deserved a last hurrah. Finally, I might find it
so exciting I’d put out of my mind any thought of retirement and
embellish rather than abandon my career. He knew me as a
maverick, and more to the point, he knew I’d come to cherish the
role, even nourish it. He was the opposite, more active as a
professional than as a scholar. His earlier research was
innovative and sound, but he’d given up scholarship for
administration. He had continued to teach and accept graduate
students, some of whom were among the brightest young
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scholars, but he had reached point where something had to give. I
assumed he was destined for a university presidency, and the
abandonment of his last teaching assignment was in preparation
for his next move.
I also knew that, as dean (with the support of the president, who
was a former classmate and a close friend) he had rankled his
own department because he was trying to revamp graduate
programs including theirs. In the modern era, where information
was quickly and easily accessible and undergraduates entering
graduate schools were far better prepared than ever, departments
should, he had said to me, get rid of the hoop-jumping mentality. I
basically agreed with him. A few times over coffee or wine, when
the dean and I were physically in the same place, we talked about
these issues because in my early career I had served time as an
academic administrator. Although we were not intimate friends – I
knew little about his personal life and he knew little about mine –
we could on a scholar/academician level converse with ease and
pleasure. We disagreed about how to interpret datasets and
trends, but these differences never became a barrier between us.
The dean had more or less ceded the disputed historical turf to
me because I was still digging away and he wasn’t.
He had often urged me to spread my wings and to join him and
others. And I just as often refused. The sky was full of honkers
and crowers. I had no interest in flying with them.
The truth was that I always felt more comfortable as the outsider. I
had never relished the role of the insider. Unattached rather than
attached. That helped to explain why I failed as an academic
administrator. Well, there was also the boring factor.
Unfortunately, that attitude spilled over into my personal life with
messy results. I tended to make decisions professionally and
personally that reinforced my hermetic side rather than my
gregarious side. Frankly, I was not sure I had gregarious that
came through as gregarious. I couldn’t explain this to myself let
alone others. It wasn’t that I couldn’t connect with people. I could,
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but when I did connect at some point I had the urge to slide back
into the comfort of the hermit or worse those with whom i
connected had the urge to push me back.
As a child, I remember I wanted to be included, but I always
stayed on the edge of the circle so I could escape, if necessary.
As an adult, more often than not, I lost the need for inclusiveness
and pretty much stayed outside the circle by choice.
When the dean’s invitation arrived, I had to ask myself...the cynic
I'd become...did he have an undeclared grand design in mind?
After making further queries by phone and email, I couldn’t detect
any sinister design. It appeared he had decided (since his budget
was paying the salary) to hire me because I would bring a
different and perhaps fresh perspective to the program, which, I
knew, of course, he was trying to change. This was most evident
in the fact that the description of the seminar was rewritten for this
one occasion to emphasize the relevance and applicability of
number-crunching to historical analysis and to invite graduate
students from outside the research area that the Dean and I
shared. I could handle areas outside my own specialty because I
had in the last decade branched out myself.
After assessing where I was in my own life, professional and
personal, I said; "What the fuck; it’s the City, for at least six
months and maybe for a year. Why not."
After accepting and informing my own department, word
circulated quickly that the obnoxious one had received an offer
from an Ivy. Of course, I hadn’t, but I did nothing to dispel the
rumors. And since I seldom showed up in the department and
even less seldom talked to my colleagues, the rumors not only
flowed unimpeded but also gained many delicious flavors
because those doing the spreading were also doing the making
up. No one from the department had ever been called by an Ivy,
and for the first and foremost call — they kept forgetting it was
visiting — to be for the least-liked member of the department was
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unsettling, extremely unsettling for the Old Guard who had hired
the chosen and then publicly regretted it.
The departmental head actually encouraged me to accept and
was not a part of the enemies’ cabal. His appointment as an
outsider was recent and had rankled the very same faculty
members driving the rumor mill. Even as an outsider, he knew
more about my research than my own colleagues. I had already
indicated my intention to retire, even though he told me straightout that he hoped not because he had planned to unite me with
several old-timers whom I still respected and got along with and
the new members, now nearly a dozen, with whom I was on good
terms, to help him reshape the departmental program. I made no
commitment, although I wanted him to succeed, I was pretty
certain I would not be around to help much. He had surprised me
with an almost offhanded remark that he’d be grateful for chance
to match any offer that come my way as a result of this gig. On
that point I could reassure him I was expecting no offer and was
hardly thinking about starting all over in another place or
institution. I repeated what he already knew: I had several
manuscripts close to completion, and having access to several
good libraries plus a long-esteemed colleague [not the dean] at a
nearby university plus the lightest teaching load I'd ever had
would allow me to finish them in short order. I would finish them
during this year in the city, and even though I had sworn off dating
a couple of years ago, I was ready to indulge my pleasure in
visiting galleries and museums, attending concerts and recitals
and discovering new eateries.
As has happened from time to time in my life, I was ready to
change course. Home was comfortable and predictable but a bit
long in the tooth. The city seemed like the right move before I flew
away into retirement. As a temp, I could hang out around the
edge, being attached when that felt right but not being pulled into
the center, which almost never felt right.
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Erin was not drawn into any part of the picture of life in the city, as
it had evolved in my mind since accepting the dean’s invitation.
That she became a part of the picture was unplanned and
unexpected. Maybe the gods were not being so cruel and
vindictive. Perhaps, seeing her in person and listening to her
invectives face-to-face, I'd finally come to my senses. I'd see the
light, so to speak; she was not the person I remembered her
being. According to her even that version was faulty.
The dean made it clear, while I was a member of a department, I
was ultimately responsible to his office. He had been granted
funds to bring in outsiders who might stir things up a bit. He was
not looking for revolutionaries. Rather, he was looking for people
with solid scholarly credentials and with a willingness to engage
students on a different level from the normal pedagogy. He was
not asking outsiders to become his agents for change in
departments. In fact, he went to some lengths to insulate the
outside appointees from departmental politics. Whatever "shaking
up" might come from these appointments would be indirect. He
knew my approach was not exactly orthodox but certainly not
(yet) revolutionary. If anything distinguished my scholarship and
pedagogy from the norm it could be summed up under let's ask
some different questions, try some different approaches and then
spend time with the documents. I generally did not assign long
reading lists, bibliographic essays, literature reviews. I asked
students to attack the numbers in the very first class, even though
some of them had never seen a dataset before. After the dean’s
unexpected introduction, I handed the students a dataset I had
created specifically for that first class, and we went to work, in this
case with the dean present, an uncharacteristically quiet
presence. I warned everyone during the introduction to be
prepared to be called upon, not in an adversarial manner like a
law-school class, but, in a more friendly fashion, questions like
what do you see and how would you describe it. It helped, of
course, that these were students not only bright and prepared but
interested. After an hour we took a break. The dean departed with
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the comment "just about what I expected," and flashed a big
smile. I was not sure how to read that comment, but, for better or
worse, this venture was launched. But I had nothing to lose,
whether I won his approval or the department’s disapproval. I was
on academic terrain I could handle.
The seminar met in The Space because there was no reason not
to. In this wireless world – this university was ahead of most in
this regard — I didn’t need a classroom or an office, although I
had a small space within the dean’s compound of offices, which I
had yet to use except for unlocking the door to make sure the key
worked [as instructed by the dean’s secretary]. All the students
had their own laptops, and I could send files and receive files
without ever setting foot on campus. All the datasets, their
descriptions and sources were downloadable as were
commentaries by me, the students and other scholars. In all the
years I’d been teaching about crunching numbers, the capacity
n o w t o d o i t a s a c l a s s o r i n d i v i d u a l l y d i g i t a l l y,
electronically...whatever the right word was...made the experience
easier on one hand and more enriching on the other. All that time I
used to spend preparing on paper what I wanted the student to
study could now be devoted to analysis – at least that’s what I told
myself. No denying it was different from the days of mimeograph
and ditto machines! Who remembers those machines?
While I favor a free-wheeling discussion, I left as little as possible
to chance. The previous summer I had prepared all the data and
ancillary files that the student would need. I anticipated few
weekly preparations because so much of the work of gathering,
organizing and massaging the data was finished. The work that
remained was developing a plan for transmitting the information to
the students' computer with instructions for their collective or
individual assignments. I wanted to give them leeway but also to
set certain minimal standards that they all had to meet. That was
the week-by-week agenda, and by the time I had arrived I had
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finished the necessary preparations without actually meeting the
students for nearly half the semester.
What I did not anticipate was that several outsiders, not students
but post-docs and professors, had asked if they could attend, and
even though the seminar was limited to ten, I said yes. These
were scholars who had experience in contemporary data analysis,
like trends in government figures, but who were becoming
interested in moving back in time and studying historical datasets.
That required some skills in how to assemble data from sources
that were suspect and incomplete. While they knew far more than
I did about the various analytical tools that were more applicable
to modern data collections, they wanted to know about how to
judge datasets within their historical contexts. That brought an
additional dimension to what we could do in the seminar. It made
the venture more fun than I could ever have envisioned. They
were more than willing to offer some tutorials in addition to what I
was doing, so once the seminar was underway I was making
some alterations to the schedule so I could call upon their
expertise. We were six weeks into the semester, and by some
unknown force, controlled by a different set of gods…I’m sure…
this seminar was working better than I had ever hoped. The
students were bright and eager and the camaraderie between the
students and the outsiders had many benefits.
I gave letter grades because I had to. Most if not all would receive
the highest grade. For my part I regarded the extensive
evaluations, which I compiled on a continuing basis week-byweek of each student’s progress, as being more important than
the letter grade. I would share these evaluations with the
students, and at the end of the seminar I would give each student
a small packet of my materials concerning their accomplishments
as well as their weaknesses. It would be their choice, their
decision that I should deposit the evaluations in their
departmental files. Following each evening seminar, because I
was such a night owl, I usually spent a couple of hours updating
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their evaluations based on their performances that evening. With
my laptop on throughout the session it was easy enough for me to
insert brief comments on a student’s performance, and later I
would expand the comments into a more formal critique. I had
developed this style of teaching and evaluating at my home
university.
In addition to the sessions I taught, Sal was the second of the
three prominent scholars who would lead seminars.
As I finished what I had to do for the evening, my cell went off. I
checked the number on the screen. I recognized the caller was
that of the evening's performer.
"Hello Sal."
"You can’t be in the middle of something or you wouldn’t have
answered the phone so smartly."
"Your uncanniness continues to dazzle me. How are you?"
"Asking myself why I accepted this invitation. I’m not sure I’m
equipped to deal with so many brainiacs in a large, open space. I
prefer dummies in small, closed spaces."
"Make sure you pin on your tail before you leave home, Eeyore. It
will improve the symmetry."
"No way. Without my tail I can plead incompleteness. It’s my
constitutional right."
"Have it your way, as you will and always have. Just be here tailless or tail-attached by six. I will serve your favorite pasta dish,
and I’m about to open an expensive Chianti. You should feel right
at home. And need I remind you these are smart kids? So, you
have about two hours to pump up your fret level. And don’t forget
your laptop. We live in real time here, not in some Princetonian
Sixty’s bubble you’ve crawled into."
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"How we’ve remained friends I don’t know. If you hadn’t upset the
applecart with all your regressions that meant scuttling decadesworth of received wisdom on colonial economic growth, we’d all
be ensconced in our tenured worlds with obsequious students
and comfortable hierarchies. You’ve screwed it all up. When are
you upstarts going to learn to conform instead of confront."
“Well said, as usual, without any regard for the truth. I can see
that this will be a rollicking session. Your mood is perfect. And to
think you’re working your way into a lather without much
encouragement from me. The students will love you. By the way,
no reciprocating on the love thing. House rules."
"Always the devil in disguise. Have the students figured that out
yet? I don’t have time for an answer. I need a nap to calm down."
And he hung up. So typical of Sal. He could do this seminar in his
sleep, but he’ll act as if he were giving his first college lecture, and
worse, as if it were all my fault. His public persona was wellknown across the professional world that we both belonged to.
Once I gave a paper he had written to be delivered at a
professional meeting, which at the last minute he could not
attend. The room was filled with colleagues of ours plus many
newcomers who were misinformed that fireworks would ensue
because of the membership of the panel. These panels tend to be
weighed down in unctuous sincerity. I was not originally part of the
panel, but because I lived nearby I agreed to attend as his cone. I
knew the panel members, but whereas Sal fit in with the others…
all insiders…I was an unknown as far as panel participation went.
Quite frankly, the first two papers were pretty dull. The capacity
audience was getting restless. As I sat there with a paper I had
not written, I began think about how Sal, who was a natural
performer, would assess the mood of the room. I knew what was
in his paper, and I knew the contents were not about to stir much
debate, and I knew, most importantly, Sal would be searching his
brain for some way to fire up the crowd, especially the
newcomers. I couldn’t change the contents…solid econometric
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analysis…but I could address the attentiveness question by how I
presented the paper. I had to find a way to set off some small
pyrotechnic moments to get the audience back into the session.
When I rose to read Sal’s paper, the third and last one, I decided
on the spur of the moment to try to read it as Sal would. I had
some stage experience in high school and college, but I didn’t
know if I could pull it off. I had to present that hang-dog demeanor
that he was known for, and I also tried to drape myself over the
lecture as he did to underscore further a scholar’s fretting. For the
first few minutes through the first two pages the room came alive,
with more laughter than I’d ever heard at any similar panel. Once I
had the attention of the audience I began to summarize the
essential points and then on my own made an effort to contrast
Sal's finding with those of the other panel members. The latter
provoked a series of questions that allowed my panel colleagues
to toot their own horns and for me to expand the Sal persona. It
turned out better than I thought it might, and later at the inevitable
evening cocktail party I was toasted…Sal’s clone. No objections
from me because I’d long thought Sal was the best in our field.
At six, precisely, Sal showed up and handed me a piece of fabric
shaped like a tail. Then he abruptly turned, bent over to highlight
his ass and pointed with his finger to the spot where I was
supposed to attach the tail. I refused to accommodate him,
pleading bad eyes, and we both had a good laugh as we walked
with arms around each other’s shoulder into The Space. He had
been here for drinks several times since I arrived so he was
familiar with the layout. The table was set and we sat immediately,
since we had only an hour before the students arrived.
"So Huuuugh, what’s up. You know giving up Hooch is a mistake."
"It’s not been retired," I said, trying to show utter remorse.
"Huuugh is totally devoid in color or texture, you know. What won
you fame and fortune was not your rather one-dimensional
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research but your nickname – a Hooch had be a once-in-a-lifetime academic superstar."
"The students know the nickname, thanks to you-know-whom, but
they still call me Dr whatever."
"By the way, to bring you up-to-date on professional gossip, which
you never have any to share because you never talk to anyone,
guess whose name is changing again? A hint, you used to screw
her…."
"You’re kidding!"
“Not only not kidding but her new husband is your old nemesis.
How screwed up will she be now?"
"Is she going to live in England?"
"Well, he’s not going to live here, and from the West Coast to the
Isles is a hell of a commute every other weekend."
"I hadn’t thought about her in a while. How many years ago? We
hooked up after our respective divorces. Fucking every night. She
insisted on a ten-pm bedtime with an hour for fucking. I was
exhausted after two weeks."
"At least you got two weeks under your belt – I’d be done in in two
days."
"Not if you pinned your tail back on. I couldn’t say the word 'fuck',
like 'oh fuck me baby' because it was impious, she being a
regular church-goer, but the act was just the opposite. One night I
was playing around on the piano at ten o’clock and she lost her
temper because I wasn't ready for evening's services. Oddest
romance of my life."
"You were more of a Hooch than a Huuugh in those days. Unlike
you, though, so constantly on the prowl for all those impious
moments, I’ve lived in virtual tranquility."
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"You’re damn lucky she stayed with you and your perpetual
grayness."
"Don’t I know that, thank you. Let’s talk about tonight…," and so
we did. Sal would put on a premier performance I knew, but he
required some tending. He was trying hard to rely more on the
laptop than pieces of paper, but he did bring a few printed-on-aper
graphs and charts with him. A security blanket, perhaps.
Another strong reason for doing this temp gig was the fact that
Sal and Lynn had moved back to the city where they had grown
up two years ago after a long stint in a no-name southern
university. Sal and I and sometimes Lynn, who was much busier
than Sal because of her administrative duties, tried to get together
for coffee at least once a week, and several times we’d met at
restaurants of their choosing for an evening of good food, wine
and conversation. Being natives of the city they knew where to
find small, often family-owned eateries that featured limited
menus, fresh ingredients and simple dishes. I loved these treks
down narrow streets, each with its own rhythm and voice, a
mixture of shops and residences, a part of and yet apart from the
feel of a big city. Being back in the city had boosted their spirits. In
the last few years both had lost their elderly parents, and for Sal
the death of his father had been almost traumatic. On the other
end, as should happen, their two kids left home, graduated from
colleges elsewhere and took off to grad school about 3,000 miles
away. The hole in their lives was amply filled with their renewed
city life.
Sal was the second of the guest appearances I had arranged with
the help of the dean. The first was by a noted economic
anthropologist from another university in the city. I knew her work
but had never met her. Her special interest was how indigenous
populations adapted to new economic regimens as a result of
conquest from the outside. What most impressed the students
was how economic data could be assembled from sources that
were not heavily numeric. Her patience and skill in explaining how
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economic anthropologists worked with their sources had provoked
a lively discussion. The dean had assured me she had ample
experience in explaining economic anthropology to those outside
the field. He was right, again.
Sal’s approach would be different. Since the students were by
now pretty familiar with standard historical datasets, he would
walk them through datasets based upon archival documents,
unlike the economic anthropologist, but even archival sources
posed many problems in trying to convert them into usable
datasets. His reputation was built on his skill not only to assemble
useful datasets out of bits and pieces of data but also to take a
wide variety of data and to transpose them in ways to construct
mega-datasets to enrich the analytical framework. For the century
in which he worked he could ask different questions that elicited
different answers about economic trends. That was good for the
students, not to restricted to data analysis in one century alone.
Further Sal and I would spend some time toward the end of the
session talking about bridging two centuries that were quite
different in their economic and closely-related political patterns.
We had both upended standard interpretations of these periods
with the result that his analysis begged for a longer time frame
that came from my work. As so often happens, new approaches
can call into question existing interpretations. In this case the
dean's own much-cited work had along with the work of several
other scholars here and abroad had been upended. In spite of
some tense back and forth at professional meetings and the bar
time that inevitably followed we had all remained friends and
comrades in a larger cause. Well, truth be told, I was less
involved because the century they were fighting over followed the
century I worked in and more to the point I seldom attended
professional meetings. Still, it didn’t always happen that academic
adversaries could stand to be around each other even when it
was an inviting bar.
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The first half of Sal’s presentation would have the feel of a lecture,
but the second half would be more free-wheeling with Sal trying to
engage each student for a few minutes and also trying not to lock
up his computer, still a nemesis in his life.
The third presentation was three weeks hence, and tonight I was
to meet Deirdre, who had called to ask if she could attend. She
was a visiting professor/researcher at one of the university’s
institutes, and from Sal I had learned that she had also become a
candidate for a chaired professorship here. Her specialty was
international currency markets, but recently she had pushed her
focus back into the early modern period, especially the links
between Europe and China. Several years ago I had posted an
essay that challenged earlier estimates of silver bullion exports
from the New World to the Far East, corrected errors in several
widely-used datasets and offered new estimates based on
reworking the printed sources. She had apparently read what I
had posted and thought my estimates were reasonable, based on
what she had learned about currency transactions. I had looked at
the New World sources but she was using a much wider net. I
was looking forward to meeting her, and I alerted Sal to her
appearance tonight. He was pleased. I never saw Sal show any
reluctance to engage as many as possible in his quest.
Because Sal had just published another "big" book on postcolonial trade, I’d spent about thirty minutes last week highlighting
its major themes and suggesting how to approach the datasets
that he had posted on my web site and would walk the students
through tonight. Despite his fretting, he was always wellorganized and well-prepared. This was the last session before the
Fall-Term recess, and I’d also announced last week there would
be no specific assignments over the recess, but once back they
could expect a heavier-than-usual workload and perhaps a
somewhat faster pace in order to complete the assigned topics.
Finally, I warned them that Deirdre’s presentation would require
some familiarity with several arcane economic theories, and for
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those who lacked the background, they should consult the links to
tutorials that I had listed on the web site.
As Sal cleared the few dishes, I made sure the buffet was ready.
"Not a bad pasta dish. Your creation?" asked Sal with a warm
smile.
I knew to beware of warm smile. He knew full well the answer. I
was not crazy about pasta and never fixed pasta in my kitchen.
"Well, thank you," I replied. "One of my favorite Marcella Hazan
recipes. I only fix it for my best Italian buddies. It barely takes any
time at all."
"That’s because you bought it at the Italian deli down the street. I
doubt if Hazan would approve, but I do, and that’s what count," he
said with brio.
With The Space now ready we poured some wine and waited for
the arrival of the class. At close to seven the bell sounded and I
zinged the door downstairs. More than half the class showed up
in the first group, and minutes later other groups arrived. The
attendees spread themselves around the wingback where Sal
was seated. Some seated themselves in chairs or on the sofa,
which I urged them to push closer to the wingback and its
honored guest. Some preferred to lounge on the dozen or more
large floor pillows. Apparently, the pillows had been designed
specifically for that use. The fabric was heavy-duty and highlycolorful and could be removed for laundering, which the cleaning
crew took care of every couple of weeks. I momentarily glanced at
Erin’s painting and saw some of the same colors from the painting
in the fabrics.
As usual the group included the regular outsiders and several
outsiders who come to hear Sal. Also two or three spouses,
partners or lovers of the enrolled students had joined us. It was
more than a full house. i observed without commenting that Sal’s
face revealed how thrilled he was to have drawn in half of the
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city’s night people for his presentation. As yet Deirdre had not
made her appearance. I decided we should start, at least we
should introduce ourselves, since about a half-dozen were firsttimers. As the introductions were ending the bell rang one more
time. Before I could comment, Sal asked impishly,
"Ah, Professor Chilton, is this bad timing on our part?"
"Most definitely it is," I replied as I buzzed in who I assumed it
was Deirdre. There was no Intercom, but a peep-hole provided a
wide view of the landing outside the heavy metal door. When I
looked I saw not one but two people, a female who must be
Deirdre and of all people the dean, or at least that’s who
appeared to be on the landing. Once I opened the door, there was
no mistaking who he was. We shook hands while he introduced
Deirdre to me. I ushered them into the room and presented them
to the assembled, I couldn’t help but observe the mixture of facial
expressions. Everyone knew who the dean was but not everyone
had met him in person. The registered students had met him the
first night, but others knew him only because of his position. Sal
may have been the only one in the room who knew both the dean
and Deirdre. That they arrived together was curious to me, if to no
one else, because it did not appear that they had accidentally met
outside at the corner of the building.
I asked the dean to make the rounds while I opened some more
wine. This was the dean at his best. He not only introduced
Deirdre but he also spoke to each member of the audience. As I
was preparing the wine, I was trying to eavesdrop on these brief
one-on-one conversations. I poured wine for him and Deirdre and
for others who were ready. While still standing I commenced my
introduction of Sal. I then turned to the dean and asked if he had
done the assigned reading for the seminar. Hardly necessary, he
said, since he laid the groundwork for Sal’s stellar contributions to
the field. True to an extent, but actually more stretch than truth.
His scholarly work had ended twenty years ago, and, until he
entered administration, he had been coasting on those early
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accomplishments. Sal had galloped right by him and had left him,
so to speak, sitting in the dust. Much of the dean’s writing since
had been in the form of bibliographic essays at which he was a
whiz. Sal now owned the field in which they had earlier competed
for recognition, competed I say because they had come to almost
diametrically-opposed conclusions. To no surprise, Sal had the
weight of evidence on his side.
For forty-five minutes Sal held the class in awe. The fact that he
reacquired his city’s accent helped. He knew the topic so well that
there was not a wasted word or phrase. Several times he asked
the attendees to look at the tables and graphs on their computers
and on the sheets that he had provided and to pay close attention
to certain irregularities that must be accounted for before patterns
and trends could be described. He also cautioned them not to
read too much into the statistical results because crunching
historical numeric series often missed the softness or the
incompleteness of the data themselves.
A few years ago he had been critical of some of my research on
the grounds that I had used regression where I shouldn’t have. He
was a stickler for following certain rules, most of which were
based on common sense. Did it look right? Did it fit with what we
know from other sources? Did it come off as cute and clever
rather than persuasive? We had conducted a friendly argument
about my regressions in print, but even though I stood by them, I
always kept his comments in the back of my mind. He knew what
he was doing and saying. A European economic historian, whom
we both knew and liked, had applied stepped regression
methodology that changed the parameters with each run so that
he ended up with dozens of coefficients that he then used to test
certain trends. The results did not square with what some of the
rest of us had found so that the journal that decided to publish his
findings did so with commentary from other scholars. Among the
commentators Sal took the least admiring stance. Regressions
begat regressions begat regressions with results that begat
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nonsense. That more or less summed up his views. Beware of
numbers from calculations for the sake of calculations. He was
proven right as more discreet analyses were undertaken in the
wake of the publication.
As a member of the editorial board he had recommended against
publication. But the editors of the journal was dazzled by the
numbers that they did not understand. There was no escaping
Sal's influence in shaping the research in the general field that we
both worked in and the dean had once worked in more directly
than now. Sal and I had drawn a line in our continuing
conversations. The fact was that I knew the data better in my
period than he did, and similarly he knew the data better than I did
in his period. We had divided up the research globe in a sense.
We had friendly discussions and disagreements about
interpretations, but we seldom contested over the datasets.
In Sal’s eyes, of course, both the dean and I had gone apostate
because we were now pursing new interests far outside the area
that had united us as colleagues and friends. I doubted that Sal
would ever grow tired of what he had been doing so well for a
long time. I had no interest in doing what the dean had turned to
doing – had done that in my young academic life – but I wanted to
try my hand at some new things.
At the end of his formal presentation we took a break and
gathered around the buffet. Twenty minutes later we began the
discussion. I was pleased that the students were the first to ask
questions. As usual they were prepared. Six weeks ago they
couldn’t even have framed the questions. They had come a good
distance. After the students had exhausted their bag of questions,
Deirdre raised some technical issues. To what extent had Sal
relied on estimates in order to enrich the dataset and what
standards had he used in making the estimates? As always Sal
was straight about how he had built the databank and how
another method of estimating might have altered the results
slightly. The fact was Sal was so meticulous that he had tried as
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many different methods for estimating the lacunae in the dataset
as he could. And he was always open to another approach that he
had not tried. He was always on solid technical grounds but
always looking to make it more solid. I did not permit intellectual
brawls, and there was no sign, even as the dean posed some
questions, that a brawl was about to break out. At nine-thirty I
adjourned the discussion, and the seminar morphed into a social
event.
With dessert served and drinks in hand the crowd broke into small
knots of conversation, and I made certain I circulated through
them all.
"Many thanks for letting us attend tonight, Dr Chilton, or may I use
Hooch. Is that truly a nickname you go by? Amazing for an
academic," I was asked as I joined one knot made up several I
had just met for the first time.
"Hooch it is, and it’s up for sale," I replied.
"The most amazing thing about the dynamics of this seminar,"
continued the visitor, "is that the students in the face of so many
high-powered academics seldom seem intimidated or inhibited."
"I don’t have a ready explanation. I had a similar experience a
decade ago when I was invited to teach a year-long seminar
abroad. I think it may help to be temporary. I’m not a part of the
local scene, and except for Sal and the dean and one or two
others – Erin flashed through my mind – I’m unknown in this city.
That gives me a certain amount of freedom that permanent
appointments may not have. For me and the students it’s pretty
much a clean slate. In an odd way because we are new to each
other, the students and I can share an unencumbered enthusiasm
for the subject. To hell with the politics, if you know what I mean."
"I share that view," said Sasha, one of the enrolled students who
had just joined the group. "I’m new to the program, and I’m not
familiar with the rules of engagement yet. I barely know the
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professors or the students or whatever the parties may be warring
over at the moment. That will end as I become more connected to
the program, but right now I’m rather enjoying the outsiderobserver role. It’s scary at times but not the first time I’ve found
myself in such a situation. I’ll miss the clean-slate phase."
"I’m not scheduled to teach this class again here, but if I were, I
suspect I would feel more constrained than I do now," I offered in
response to Sasha’s comment. "The more you exist within the
system the more you have to respond to what the system
expects. That’s not always bad, but now I’m enjoying that
unfettered feeling. If things work well, as I think happened tonight,
I’m pleased. If they don’t, I try to make some course corrections –
excuse the pun – but I seldom agonize about the failures.”
"Failure is not a word that Hooch understands," came the voice of
the one and only dean in the room followed by laughter. He joined
our group.
"Failure is what makes the world go round and why we need
hooch," I shot back and then raised my glass.
"Have you ever met another Hooch?" asked someone in the
group.
“Among humans no, although I can’t believe it’s all that rare.
Recently, though, in one of those odd Google moments I ran into
a cat named Hooch, whose death was being memorialized online.
Lo and behold, the article included the name of the woman who
saved the cat Hooch, although she had called the cat Mooch. The
person who Mooch changed the name to Hooch without
explanation. But, to finish the story of the discovery, the woman
who nursed Mooch back to healed so he could become Hooch
was the woman who taught me to ski years ago. I had lost track of
her. She has long had an interest in abandoned or abused
animals. She was a beautiful young woman who is now a
practicing veterinarian out West. She saved Mooch, although he
only lived two more years, and on a less dramatic scale she
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saved me from abandoning skiing, a sport I took late and could
not master. One evening at the local resort where she taught
skiing she grabbed my arm, loaded me on the lift, eased me off at
the op…never having been there before…and pointed me
downhill with a push. Before I knew it, she was in front of me
skiing backwards and shouting instructions…‘bend your knees,
lean into the skis, be in charge, turn your shoulder…’ and after
numerous fallings with her small body yanking me up onto my
skis we reached the bottom. ‘Again,’ she ordered and for the rest
of the night until I made a run with minimal mishaps, I was at her
beck and call. I fell in love, of course, but it was a love that
belonged to that other Greek word. I assume if we were in touch
we’d be friends, and perhaps skiing together. That’s my other
Hooch story. When I read it, it made me think perhaps we
shouldn’t be too dismissive about nicknames.”
“So you didn’t try to get in touch with her?" asked someone.
"No, not yet, at least. Sometimes it’s best to leave old friendships
buried," I said without trying to show in my expression or
language how relevant that thought was.
"So is Hooch a family nickname or something acquired later?"
another asked.
"Family. They had nicknames for everyone. My father called his
first cousin Daniel Deeter even though his name was Paul. My
aunt called her husband Timothy, not Tim, even though his own
name was George, which was not much different from Timothy in
terms of popularity. A double curiosity with my younger brother
who got officially tagged Larry Wayne – a name with no
connection whatsoever to any living or past family member. When
my mother was asked she simply replied that she liked the sound
of it. But, then, my father couldn’t avoid a nickname, so Larry
became, seldom Larry, never Wayne, so much for names that our
mom liked the sounds of. In my case I think Hooch came from the
sound of combining Hugh Owen Chilton, but I’m not sure. In any
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event, with a handle like mine, you need a good nickname. Many
people know me as Hugh; no one knows me as Owen. Useless
middle names.”
“Except in your nickname,” from a voice I knew.
"I can tell you how good a sport he is about this artificial handle,"
interjected the dean. By then Sal, who was one of the coconspirators in the story the dean was about to tell, had stepped
into the circle. "We arranged a panel discussion to celebrate his
magnus opus, which Sal called the best of a generation, and
while more of his colleagues may have known him only as Hugh,
not as Hooch, he was introduced as Dr. Hugh ‘Hooch’ Chilton
after which there was a resounding chorus of ‘Hooch, Hooch, is
good for what ails you!’ And we lifted our glasses after the chorus.
Of course, the conspirators stand among you.”
The students had a good laugh, and I, as expected, blushed,
although I knew the story.
As that knot disbanded, I moved on. The crowd began thinning
fast. Some with family obligations left shortly after the official
adjournment, and, as the hour approached eleven, only a handful
remained — Sal, the dean, Deirdre and two students. The dean
was in an expansive mood, as two longtime friends observed and
knowingly smiled to each other. Sal and I had seen him in this
mood before,…not often…mainly when his plans were working
out. People who spend their days and lives planning must need
times when feeling satisfied and expressing glee override
temporarily more planning. Most striking in the dean’s case, for
those of us who knew him, was under these circumstances he
dropped his ever-present, almost defensive, aloofness and joined
in. His aloofness was a public genuine part of his persona but
time to time got sidetracked. Such was his mood with Dierdre at
his side.
We were all standing by the big window that offered a view of the
neighborhood. The conversation had turned to the view and the
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weather, and within minutes the group had gathered up coats and
briefcases and headed for the door. We all trouped downstairs to
the street
On the way to the street the dean turned to me and asked if I was
free for lunch tomorrow? I said I was.
"I’ll meet you at Sheila’s at noon or one pm."
"I’ll choose one pm. It matches up with my sleeping habits better."
I said, afraid to ask why this unexpected invitation on such short
notice.
"Good work tonight," he said with a tap on the shoulder as he and
Deirdre entered their cab.
I could see the Sal’s snarky smile. He had overheard my
conversation with the dean before his cab, which a student was
sharing with him, had pulled up behind the dean’s.
“The ground is moving under your very feet” was all his said as he
closed the door.
I asked Sasha where she lived, and she told me she lived in the
neighborhood and would walk, and I insisted, because of the hour
without any resistance from her, I would escort her home.
Although a cool, autumn evening, the sweater I had donned
earlier was all I needed.
The near-midnight walk through the neighborhood was pleasant
and with no apparent risk. Sasha and I talked about living in the
city and being lured by its many temptations.
I asked her about Ken, a long-time colleague, who, I knew, had
been Sasha’s undergraduate teacher, and I was surprised when
she said she had not seen him for several years but last winter
when she was completing her applications they talked by phone
and exchanged emails.
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It was obvious that several years had intervened between
graduation and now, I asked what had transpired during the time.
Somehow I missed details of her hiatus between finishing college
and showing up here.
"My undergraduate major was history plus work in econ and
math, both of which came easily for me but neither of which I’m
much interested in. My father is trained in business economics
and has worked for West Coast investment houses and banks. I
have more interest in history – I need to proclaim that loud and
clear now, don’t I? – largely because of Ken," she said
enthusiasism. "He’s a demanding but compassionate teacher, and
I found the way he approached history challenging. In his senior
seminar we read your work as well as Sal’s and the dean’s. You
— if you don’t mind my saying so — and Sal ask hard questions
questions to answer, whereas the dean is more focused on tying
the answers together than asking the questions. For three people
who pretty much worked independently of each other, you have
established an intellectual camaraderie across the eras you deal
with. I’m not the only one to notice. The class has talked about
now that ewe have read all three. I have a sense at times that I’m
further ahead in my understanding of what you three are trying to
do than the other students who have not read your pubs before.
Sal’s presentation was fairly easy for me to follow because Ken
had Sal’s permission to assign an earlier draft of what was
published as his book…."
"I’m not surprised to hear this about Ken," I broke in, as we
reached her building. "I have no doubt your grounding is solid.
Why then the hiatus and what, I suspect, is some uncertainty
about continuing in the history program? I think I should be more
in tune with the students’ dossiers than I am. I tend to
procrastinate about things like that, sometimes never getting
anything done. I knew you were Ken’s student, and I should have
asked earlier."
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"What you don’t know and what is barely mentioned in my dossier
is that I have another career. I’ve been designing jewelry and
peddling my creations since my mid-teens. I took no classes in
design at the university so this side of my life doesn’t show up on
the official transcript. I’d got my training by attending various
summer institutes and working with master West Coast jewelers.
No artists in my immediate family, but strong support from my
parents to explore as much as possible. It turns out my paternal
great-grandmother was an amateur painter. Some of her paintings
were in the attic of my aunt’s house. She was quite good for
having no training whatsoever. Her paintings have been rescued
from the attic, reframed and hung on walls of homes of family
members. I’ve been influenced by what I saw in her paintings.
She loved to experiment with pastels in unexpected
juxtapositions, but for me what was more important was the
power that derived from the simplicity and the leanness of the
design. That has carried over into how I design my jewelry. After
graduation I had to make a choice, more schooling, find a job or
do art. I chose the last. The summer before I graduated I worked
with a sculptor, my first experience in that medium. I decided to
pursue sculpting rather than jewelry, although I continued to
design and sell jewelry. I apprenticed myself to Nevada sculptor.
Last spring after being accepted here an exhibit of my sculptures
at a small Bay gallery sold out. I had second thoughts about grad
school but stuck with my decision. I was caught in that legendary
battle between the right side of the brain and the left side. Risktaking is what artists get used to so at Ken’s recommendation I
took the risk and applied here. I liked the idea of being in this City
on the East Coast. I thought I might end up working in the Dean’s
area. I had read most of his pubs. I had indicated that on the
dossier you never read….”
“Touché.”
“The dean wrote me a personal note to say he would not be
teaching in the fall term but he recommended I enroll in your
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course. A different period, he said, but I would benefit from ‘one of
the best in numeric analysis’. I’m quoting from the letter in case
you’re wondering ‘what she’s up to.’ In any event here I am. Part
artist and part historian-in-the-making.”
"I appreciate the endorsement. The dean and I have known each
other a long time but at a distance. This is the first time in our
respective careers we’ve been in such close proximity. I spent
most of my career at one university but he has held high-level
appointments, as you probably know, at several prestigious
universities on the East Coast. Without knowing who your mentor
is or what the department’s party line is, I think you’re wise to treat
the year as a time to explore. You’ve been admitted to one of the
most highly-regarded programs in the country, and don’t be
surprised if those who rule hold that over your head. Even at my
university, hardly on the list of the prestigious, students who
change their minds get chastised for taking up space, wasting
faculty time and other nonsense like that. I temporarily quit grad
school because I was in my twenties and had other ideas running
around in my head. I went back a year later but I came close to
going in a totally different direction. Getting an advanced degree
can be a pain in the ass. It appears that you have talent to do
history, but, ultimately, you have to decide whether your heart is in
it. I’m sure learning how to sculpt can be a slog, but it’s a different
kind of slog from learning how to be a historian. I must confess
that in my mature years I want to work the right hemisphere more
than the left. I just haven’t figured out how yet. I have no artistic
talent at all, at least none that has shown up yet, but one avenue
by which I can exercise the right side is to write, not history, which
I’ve done over and over and over for a third of my life, but stories.
For the most part I’ve been writing them in my head, but since I
came to the city I’m turning them into actual words on a screen.
It’s a different, even odd, experience. Instead of trying to create a
narrative based on documents or datasets in front of me, I’m
trying to create one based on what’s floating around in my head.
Sometimes I feel as if I have more than one brain, and ideas or
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experiences keep jumping back and forth among the various
brains, imaginary as they may be. The brain that governs my day
is the one I’m most familiar with, but the other or others can
intrude and do with regularity. Especially when I’m writing stories,
unlike history, I almost feel as if I’m working out of another brain. I
find myself talking to the characters who momentarily exist in the
space where I’m working. Do you ever talk to your creations?"
"Maybe so. I talk to myself while I’m creating, but I never thought
of this as talking to what I'm creating. Do the characters ever talk
back?" she asked with a laugh.
"Only in my head, I’m afraid. I’d really freak out if they actually
had voices and moved their limbs and made physical contact."
"You’re right, though, about the process. Studying reports or
tables and then trying to write about them is different from
studying a piece of metal and then trying to subject the metal to a
design floating around in your head. It obviously helps to make a
sketch first, but even than it’s almost as if the metal dictates how
to proceed. I’ve done both for some years, although because of
my hiatus from history I’m a bit out of practice. It’s been
challenging the last couple months to raise the past world in those
documents and datasets to a prominence in this world over the
imaginary world of shaping and manipulating a piece of metal
here and now. One thing I know already is it’s hard for me not to
be using the right side of my brain as much as I have in the past.
As an undergraduate I did my class-work and still spent twenty
hours a week in a studio. That’s not possible now. Even if I had a
studio, it wouldn’t be. If I continue with grad school, I can’t
imagine that I won’t spend summers in a studio. I realize that is a
heretical position. I should be spending those summers doing
history. I sketch a little every day, and, if past experience is any
guide, I’ll begin to turn these sketches into full-blown designs that
I eventually will want to make. I really don’t know if one can be a
practicing historian and sculptor at the same time. It’s hard to
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imagine doing history as a hobby. In my case it’s also hard to
imagine doing sculpting as a hobby."
"Will you return next summer to Nevada to work with your teacher
or in your studio at home?" I asked what seemed to be natural
questions.
"No," came a firm answer. "We’re a neurotic group. I used to work
such long hours at home I drove my parents batty. And my
teacher, if I were to return, would drive me batty. My teacher and I
become lovers. We ended up arguing a lot in the studio as well as
in the bedroom, so the time had come to move on. Besides he
had a long-time partner, another artist, who would swoop in from
wherever she lived and painted, and I’d be hidden away. It was
funnier than the comics. No, I’ll rent a studio somewhere away
from my parents and my ex.
"But your ex must be excited about how well you’ve done
unless…," I ventured.
"You’re right to add unless…my rise has coincided with his
eclipse. I’m afraid he had one idea, and it’s run its course. I
learned very little design from him, but I learned how to use the
tools and materials. Unlike my jewelry, which is small and
exquisite – it speaks in a soft voice – my sculptures are large and
soaring – in contrast, a loud voice. He taught me how to execute
on the large-scale, but he never taught himself how to reinvent
the large-scale."
"Any chance I could ever see some example of your creations?" I
queried.
"I’m not surprised you asked. I couldn’t help but notice the art on
the walls. Yours or the owner’s?"
"It’s all mine. The walls were bare when I looked at The Space.
That was a good thing because I was free to think about the walls
and my art and not be distracted by someone else's art. So I left
after signing the lease, fully knowing I would pack and ship a part
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of my collection. I even knew where the large pieces would be
hung. Almost no changes when I began hanging the pieces. I
can’t live without art on the walls, although I’ve had a tough time
living with some of the artists."
"I told you, we’re a neurotic group. As opened-minded as my
parents are, they could never figure out what was happening
between me and the sculptor. All my boy friends in high school
and college fit a set of molds that fell within their expectations and
experiences. The sculptor didn’t. Even I had to ask myself why. I
wondered if artists have trouble stopping the creative process.
Loving this guy who was older but not wiser was a creative
venture in itself. Anyway, I’m glad to be beyond his reach. Three
artists brawling in a small space would be disastrous. It’s been a
whirlwind for the past decade, not what I expected when I began
my teen years."
"What a story! It’s late, and I should get back, but perhaps we
could pick up from here over a glass of wine or a cup of java
sometime. Perhaps you could bring along some photographs of
your work, if you have any.”
"Yes to both questions. As you must know, every artist carries a
large portfolio around just in case someone asks. My roommate
hasn’t quite got use to my roomful of photos, sketches, videos,
etc. If coffee or wine is appropriate – I’m not familiar with the local
rules since artists have none – I’m game."
"We’ll establish our own rules. I’m perfectly comfortable with it, if
you are. If you’re in the city for the recess send me an email as to
a time. My calendar is pretty open," I replied.
She said she had decided to stay to get ready for the final rush,
but a little socializing would be welcome.
We parted, and I thought on the walk back what a gem. So
talented, and yet so low key. Her written work – what I had seen
thus far – had a flow not unlike her conversational language. At
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times it was a little too sparse. Usually with students I was
pleading for fewer words, but with Sasha I was asking for more
words. No doubt, in my mind, she could do either history or art. I
should ask the dean tomorrow about her admission? He may end
up volunteering the information since he must have known she
would be enrolled in my seminar. In her mid- or late twenties with
notable accomplishments already. How many of her peers could
boost similar achievements? How different from my generation, at
least the slice of my generation that I knew. Athletics more
important than academics; music, art, literature of little
consequence. I stumbled around with piano, clarinet and violin
lessons without much progress whatsoever. In high school never
asked to write a serious essay or encouraged to let loose my
imagination. Not true of everyone or every high school in my
generation but certainly true of some like mine. I never had much
focus. Some opportunities but not much direction or
encouragement. Maybe that was my fault. I was always restless.
Driven less by the need to accomplish and more by the need to
escape whatever world I found myself situated in. Scatter-shot
best described my growing up. I was not abused nor neglected.
My childhood was not traumatic. I just wanted something different,
but I couldn’t grab hold of different, at least not for long. I changed
my surroundings…left home for college miles away whereas most
of classmates stayed close to home…in what I thought was the
best route to realize my goals except the goals were fuzzy at best.
Change for change’s sake. An indifferent student, not much to
show for my so-called escape, not at all accomplished in the way
many of the students I’ve taught have, and yet I have long
subscribed to the belief that something happened that came to
make difference. I’m still trying to figure that out. I suppose that
why I keep trying to write stuff I never thought I’d write about. Was
the escape still happening?
As I climbed the stairs, I recalled how Sasha in conversation at
least was noticeably relaxed and unpressured. Despite her
accomplishments she seemed bent on further explorations. I don’t
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think she was afraid of the changes these explorations might
bring. Reading too much into this brief conversation, I was sure...I
further speculated...that she may welcome the prospect of
change. To spend a year in grad school away from what she
obviously was good at and could make a living from didn’t seem
to weigh that heavily. If grad school didn’t work out she’d move to
the next phase.
I understood. Moving on still a force to be reckoned with.
Relationships, friendships, even a marriage had failed on the
rocks for moorings. At my age I should be seeking moorings, and
yet I kept seeking the opposite. In a strange way both Sasha and I
were here in this setting having arrived from different experiences
to figure out what we wanted to do. For me, after the dean’s
invitation arrived, I took a while to decide, although truth be told I
knew a day or two later what I was going to do. I wanted to retire
but not yet, opposed as that sounds. A year or a half year away,
living somewhere else doing something else, was a better
approach after which I would decide about then future. I realized
I’d been living in a kind of mental and physical stasis. I had
unknowingly moored myself to routine. The dean’s invitation was
a way out without going all the way at no great cost. I called the
dean back in ten days later and without ever seeing the contract
took the plunge. This could not exactly describe Sasha’s journey
to the University and the City, although we shared in common a
need to get out and get on, no matter the risk.
As I walked into The a Space…a corollary thought. My escape
and reentry not risk-free smacked me in the face. Unexpectedly I
ended up not just in proximity to Erin’s world but in her world. An
overhang from a time when I let my wish world rule. I could wish
for calm — no fighting words — but if I did…the way things were
going…I’d be sorely disappointed. Not exactly grin and bear it…
so much about this gig was just plain wonderful…but grin and
bear it for those few Erin moments.
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The next morning the cell was blinking when I woke about my
usual time mid-morning. I dialed up voice message. It was the
dean’s secretary’s sweet voice. The dean, she said, would meet
me at one o’clock at Sheila’s Café about fifteen minutes from my
door. I was supposed to call back only if inconvenient. It wasn’t
inconvenient, but I called back anyway. I loved talking to the
dean’s secretary with an accent from one of the city’s
neighborhoods, where she was raised and where she raised her
own kids. She knew how to organize the dean’s day, as she had
pretty much organized the days of her kids, her husband and her
aging parents.
"Dr Chilton, how are you," she asked in utter sincerity, so typical
of her. "I hope I didn’t wake you."
"And if I told you that you did, you’d say it’s about time I should be
getting up, no?"
"Would I ever venture to tell the faculty what to do?" she said
without missing a beat.
"It’s a good thing you do venture once in a while, and tell the
dean, one o’clock is fine. By the way what am I to expect," a
question I knew she would finesse.
"You haven’t been fired. Don’t make yourself so scarce around
here. We’ve not had any of your wonderful chocolates for a
while."
"Only looking out for your health, but your point is well taken. I will
make amends soon. Keeping the staff happy is essential if
anything is to get done around here."
We disconnected, and I set about brewing my Peet’s and
squeezing some oranges for juice. The thought of cold or hot
cereal made me gag, so I dropped some bread in the toaster and
grabbed a couple of Laughing Cows or whatever they’re called to
spread over the toast. Jacques Pépin once said on TV he only
drank coffee for breakfast. That would work for me as well,
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although I would add willingly orange juice and a piece of
chocolate cake. But because the doctors kept reminding that I
needed roughage to stay healthy, I played along, as if cereal,
yogurt and the like were central to my life. I seldom ever let them
cross my palate. Now, eggs and bacon or sausage or ham, that
could happen every morning.
I used to switched on the TV to a business channel to check on
my portfolio stocks — I almost never buy bonds anymore, and I
certainly stay away from the exotic stuff, expensive and risky —
but now everything I need is on my IPhone and IPad. In fact, I
didn't have TV at home nor here. I missed having all those market
pundits to shout at. If you paid attention to them, you'd be broke in
no time. I was not broke, and after the Great Debacle several
years ago, I took my losses, rearranged my portfolio and was now
solidly in the green. The market had changed in so many ways
since I started decades ago, but it will still reward prudence when
the economy was not in shambles, which almost had to happen
every decade or two, usually thanks to market exuberance. At the
moment it was weak, in the early stages of recovery, but no
longer in shambles, headed in the right direction, this year,
perhaps, was aiming at 7 to 8 percent growth. I could live with that
quite comfortably, and didn't have sleepless nights and agitated
days over investments in shit no one understood and no retail
investor should ever buy. I knew I was a minority of one on this
point, but I discovered years ago that by following a few tried and
true principles, I didn't need a broker or an analyst. With my
pension, investments and Social Security I will retire early and
comfortably, like next year or the year after.
As I walked to Sheila’s, I couldn’t help but speculate why this
luncheon was even taking place, especially after the dean
showed up last night for the seminar. I assumed I was going to
learn something but what I hadn’t a clue. When I reached the
Café, I was surprised to find the dean already seated at a table
outside. The fall weather had not yet driven patrons inside. After a
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handshake I sat down across from the dean, he in his formal
deanery attire, me in scruffy jeans and long-sleeved T.
"I have chosen the wine, if you don’t mind. Actually Sheila chose
the wine. To a very successful session last night. It only confirmed
that I made the right choice," intoned the dean as we raised our
glasses.
"Thank you, but you make it sound, as if the power of appointing
is more valued than the talent of the appointee."
"As usual, you’re on the mark. It’s the appointee that makes the
appointor look smart. Am I looking smart? Straight out of Admin
101."
“You’re more expansive than usual. I’m grateful for the brilliance
of the appointer, believe me. But, I‘ve also known you too long not
to ask, what’s up?"
"Your tenure as an administrator left you more quietly cynical than
most. After we order, I’ll tell you what’s up "
We both knew that Sheila’s luncheon special was what we would
order, especially since we could both observe she was headed to
our table.
"We have a limit on the number of troublemakers allowed in the
Café at one time. You’ve exceeded the limit," she said without
fear or apology. I had been coming to Sheila’s since I arrived last
summer, but the dean had been a steady customer for several
years and had introduced me to Sheila last spring when I flew in
to discuss the offer. Unlike so many American cafés Sheila’s had
a limited menu that changed daily. Bistro food, I once told her,
only to learn she had trained in France, had been married to and
divorced from a French entrepreneur and had returned to the city
where she had grown up to open a café to rave reviews.
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"We’re having lunch so I can defang this troublemaker," shot back
the dean. "I’m hoping that your cassoulet with this hearty
Bordeaux will do the trick."
"He’s not about to be defanged anymore than you are. But the
cassoulet will divert your attention to what’s pleasurable in life.
Bon appétit," and she left.
As the dean sipped his Bordeaux. I could see his mood was
turning pensive and serious. I took some pleasure in drinking
Bordeaux with him because I had introduced him to Bordeaux
while he was teaching at Hopkins where at the time Napa reigned
dominant. He sat back as the waiter located plates in front of us
and the steaming cassoulet in the middle. The waiter asked if he
could spoon, and we both answered in the affirmative. That would
be the last we would see of him until dessert and coffee unless
we had a request or complaint. Sheila trained her staff not to be
inquiring about the food. Let the clientele eat. If they were
unsatisfied, they’d speak out, especially in this city, and if they
were satisfied, they’d be back. Otherwise, stay away and don't
ask or hover.
"Now, that we know both the Bordeaux and the cassoulet are
more than we had expected, let’s turn to your expectations, let’s
call it your future."
"I’m please to learn on this beautiful fall day at a wonderful café
that serves a 3-star cassoulet I have a future. You know, unlike
Sal who gropes his way into despair, I expect to be swallowed up
in one big gulp – that will be it. No future."
"Well, for the future you have at the moment — is that a non
sequitur — here’s my question: can I lure you to remain at the
university as a temporary-permanent faculty member. After that
performance last night, even if it were a one-shot event, I have no
doubt that you merit appointment – not because it’s me appointing
but because it’s you delivering."
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I did not respond immediately. I finished the last of the cassoulet
on my plate. I had yet to look at the dean after his comment and
question. He was smart enough to allow me time. In the
meantime, the waiter arrived with the dessert sheet — three
items, all of which I could have ordered at once. I chose one and
answered yes to the espresso question, and the dean who never
ventured near a gym or a machine declined dessert but ordered
an espresso.
"At the moment I’m committed to the prior arrangement. Onesemester temporary appointment, a semester off in the city and a
return to my home university. My thinking hasn’t changed," I said
finally and with a degree of finality.
Before I could say more, he advised me that the department chair
would be calling me soon to discuss the same topic. He thought
that discussion might go better if I had some warning. This
conversation had to be confidential.
"It would be disingenuous for me not to say I’m honored. I truly
am. Thus far, this had been a better ride than I’d prepared myself
for. I can’t imagine it won’t hit some bumps but, even so, it may
remain a better ride than I could find anywhere else. In an odd
way its temporariness may account for its good feeling. It’s not
that the thought of something permanent hadn’t crossed my mind;
it has. But, I feel freer because there’s no commitment beyond the
agreed-upon end at which point I’ll bow out. My home university
remains a commitment but less and less so with time. Eventually,
I’ll flee. If I accepted an appointment here, the whole cycle of
being committed starts all over again. Not that I couldn’t flee at
some future time, but that’s the problem, the indefinite future
time."
"As if I hadn’t thought about these possibilities," broke in the
dean. "I knew from the outset that unlike ninety-nine percent of
our profession, the prospect of a permanent appointment at a
prestigious university would hardly lure you."
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"Likewise, I assumed you had taken that into account, so there
must be more," smiling as I spoke.
"There is, but only after a liquor. I’m heading home after this," and
with that he motioned the waiter and then ordered the best
Armagnac that was hidden away in Sheila’s private cabinet.
"The best may not work its magic," I warned with obvious
pleasure.
"Your department chair wouldn’t understand this conversation. He
has been driven all his life to move up, and when he encounters
someone who has the qualifications to do precisely that and who
shuns it, he concludes the person’s a misfit."
“Bingo! The reason we have so many dysfunctional departments,"
I threw in with unexpected results, a deanly chuckle.
"I’ve talked to the Provost and the President about you, but more
about how your appointment would represent an important shift in
how some departments with big graduate programs need to
adjust. Both officials in public and private have warned the
department that demographic and technological shifts will bring to
bear some new pressures on business as usual. This university is
pretty adept at embracing change, but, at each turn, the academic
culture, which you and I both know so well, begins to resist. We
get thousands of applications from well-qualified persons for
admission to the undergraduate and graduate programs, and,
more often than not, when the acceptances are tallied, we end up
with a student profile like last year’s, like a decade earlier, if not, a
century earlier. It can’t continue that way simply because the
ground is changing under us as we speak. Even if we alter
admissions standards to admit a few outliers, we can’t keep them
because they end up with faculty who demand almost total
allegiance to some old cultural model."
"Like Sasha, for example, good in history with some math
background, and what I learned last night an accomplished
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designer with her own line of jewelry and a growing interest in
sculpting. To organize a program that allows her to pursue her
multiple interests, which seem totally unrelated, is outside any
program. She needs a studio as well as seminar."
"How interesting. I read her dossier but what you just said did not
come through that clearly," said the dean. He was lost in his own
thought for a moment before resuming. "I often think about myself
– strong academic record, competent in several languages,
varsity athlete, a junior year abroad – a winning profile when I was
admitted to Harvard even though I lacked the pedigree, and now
there are thousands with compelling but different profiles…some
like Sasha, others virtuoso musicians, still others writing song
lyrics, doing standup comedy…when I read the applications and
essays I’m astounded at what they have accomplished. We‘re
training a generation of historians who may treat their chosen field
as just part of their life…that part that earns a living…so they can
do what really absorbs them. History absorbed me, perhaps you,
and now, decades later, Hooch, I wish I could supplement history
with…what was it that Noble Laureate Richard Feynman became
famous for besides physics….”
“Drumming and perhaps belly dancing,” I responded to the dean’s
surprise.
“Yes…you’re right. Neither of those would suit me but something
as exotic and unpredictable that would cause everyone to say By
God, the dean has been pushing the envelope. Wouldn’t that stir
up our corner of the academic world!”
We both had a hearty laugh before he continued.
“I’m jealous of these kids, They’ll do history as well as I did and
they’ll perform Shakespeare in local theatre and they’ll play punk
rock…as if I know what that is…with kids and friends.”
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I sat there is amazement. This from the dean, a button-down guy
if ever there was one. I wanted to shout Hallelujah or maybe sing
it. I was sure he’d join me.
“We’re very careful to let only what we want to grace our hallowed
halls. Public universities are much more vulnerable and,
therefore, may be adjusting faster than we are. The worse of it,
Hooch — so strange to call a distinguished professor Hooch but it
sure has worked well in this setting…we all seemed to ready for
some hooch — we really don’t know how to accommodate this
fast-paced world that may ultimately blew up the planet. I think we
need someone like you not because you have the answers –
don’t be offended – but because you know you don’t have the
answers. With you and the students it’s more of a process. How
do we get from here to there and what have we learned along the
way and how will this help us move ahead. I witnessed that the
first night, and with Sal last night the students showed how well
they’re managing the process. Now, do you want to hear the
outline of the proposal the chair will offer you?"
As he finished his thought I was recalling my conversation with
myself last night. He was a generation behind me, and his
youthful accomplishments compared to mine were utterly stellar.
Then, I also recalled the dean had just asked me a question.
"Sorry, I was thinking how different your youth was from mine and
how different Sasha’s is from either of ours and how we’re both
trolling through the same water. To your question, am I supposed
to act surprised if and when I talk to the chair?"
"Overwhelmed! That sort of ‘what me?’ Is it possible?
Impersonation...à la Sal...which we all know you can do."
"I’d forgotten. You were in the back of the room, weren’t you?"
"In stitches, by the way." The dean in stitches was hard for me to
picture, although it helped to have just listened to his
uncharacteristic light banter for the last quarter hour. "Here’s the
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deal. My future is uncertain. There is not much support within the
department for me to return. I’m not afraid to take them on, but I’m
not sure it’s worth it. I think I’m destined to spend the rest of my
life in administration. I like it. As you, having spent a few years
doing it, know, it’s an unpredictable game. We both were ready to
move beyond the research we’ve been arguing about for years.
You chose to tack into new waters, and I chose to jump ship. You
have managed the new waters well, but I may have to jump
again. I’ve only been in this job a couple years. In terms of my
career I should stay with it a few more years. That’s my plan. You
know the President and I were suite-mates at Harvard, and we’ve
remained close ever since. I talk to him on the q-t a couple times
a month. I along with two others put forward his name five years
ago during the last presidential search. His star has risen
nationally since his appointment, and, as odd as it sounds for the
person you’ve known for twenty or twenty-five years, I’ve more or
less hitched my wagon to his star. I’ll leave it at that. As far as the
department knows or cares, I’m destined to be the dean for the
immediate future. That where you come in."
He sipped some liquor before continuing. I was attentive because
I didn’t want to miss anything. I fixed my gaze on his face. I
wanted to watch his expressions as well as listen to his words.
"The department has been told no chance to fill my slot with a big
name until next year at the earliest and perhaps not even then.
History, like all in Arts and Sciences, has to submit a plan for the
next decade. You’ve had enough administrative experience to
know what this entails, but here it is more general and
philosophical. Out of The Plan will come short-range goals to be
worked toward. On the other hand, the department has been
granted permission to hire a new junior member in our field to
handle essentially undergrad classes. So where does this leave
you? I have money for what is called facetiously ‘super faculty’ –
appointments for specified period to serve in a senior capacity
and to develop experimental courses at the grad level. It’s fairly
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free-wheeling but must follow certain criteria established by a
committee in consultation with me. It is hoped that ideas for such
appointments and courses will develop from within the
departments, but it is understood that they may originate in my
office. Your presence has become, unbeknownst to you, a bit of a
test of the idea. I know you well enough to assume that won’t
bother you. We weren’t being dishonest. This program has been
evolving since before you were hired. I knew your approach would
be different, and I wanted to use it as a template."
The dean took another sip, and I had a moment to speculate on
what was coming next. I thought I knew.
"Back to the proposal. It’s pretty simple actually. Do this one more
year with some additional responsibilities that we can negotiate.
The graduate school has some university-wide plans for next year
and these plans might dovetail well with some of your preretirement goals. We can talk about these later. You may keep
The Space and you will receive a salary increase. Next year we’ll
get together to discuss what the future might entail. It’s one year
at a time. I’m assuming you can arrange a second year’s leave
from your home university. If not, we can develop a backup plan.
You don’t have to decide for a while. But you need to know it’s
under discussion. Your seminar next semester, if you choose to
stay, will be a repeat of this semester’s. For the following year you
are free to develop courses that fall within the general guidelines I
just laid out but also fall within your own special interests. We are
not asking you to reinvent yourself unless you want to. The
department will proceed with a junior appointment – you may be
asked to chair the committee — and if there’s no senior person on
board after next year, so be it. I’ve tried to keep this whole matter
in as relaxed a mode as I can. I do not want to drive you to a
premature decision. But let me be clear. The university and that
includes the department would be thrilled to have you here for
another year."
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It had been delivered in a manner that the dean was known for
both as a scholar and administrator. He liked to think in terms of
ideas and plans unfolding. This was vintage unfolding.
"Well, it deserves consideration. What more can I say right now.
You know me well enough that I will not drag out a decision. On
matters like this I don’t dilly-dally. Of course, since I’m familiar with
protocol in these matters, I will remain mute until I’ve had my
conversation with the chair."
"Agreed. No rush. We have time to alter our plans if you should
opt out."
"One question, though. What happens if you’re not here? This
seems to be mainly your plan and your money, and without "your"
it may all fall into the circular file. At some point your cryptic
remarks of a few minutes ago will have to give way to something
more definite. I’m assuming at some point I can have a more
definite pinpointing of your future whereabouts."
The dean took much longer than I had expected to respond. I was
not surprised because I saw in his expression something that
made me ask the question.
"I promise you that my whereabouts will be more precisely
pinpointed. I sincerely doubt, if I were in your shoes, I would even
come to the table, if I couldn’t talk to the chef."
He paused again. Obviously troubled and therefore
uncharacteristically unsure how to proceed he was going to
choose his words carefully. I remained quiet. The clatter of dishes,
dozens of table conversations and early afternoon street traffic
briefly assumed center stage.
"There is some gossip making the rounds that concerns me and
Deirdre, whom you met last night. You may be privy to it."
"I am not," I answered honestly. "I had a brief conversation with
Deirdre last night about getting together before her presentation in
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a couple of weeks. When you arrived last night together, I
assumed you were friends and colleagues." I did not say that I
was suspicious, as is my nature about boy-girl friendships.
"You never cared much for gossip. The few times you deigned to
attend a conference and to join a circle of colleagues in beer and
gossip you sat in silence. I could never be sure you were even
listening."
"I was so far removed from the professional world you were
talking about I had trouble following the conversation. To be
perfectly honest most of what I heard when I was making an effort
to listen I simply did not believe. Faculty fantasies. There was a
time in my younger days when I was more interested in gossip.
After a while, it felt like an empty ritual. I once read that gossip
was viewed by some anthropologists and sociologists as a vehicle
for social cohesion – it made people feel they belonged to a
network and, more importantly, they could contribute to the
dynamics of the network. Gossip and religion operate in the same
vessel, as far as I am concerned. It’s make-believe. I won’t get
into the potential benefits of the social-bonding thing, which I’ve
failed at most of my life. Right now, gossip or not, I’m all ears."
"I can always count on you to build a context for whatever the
discussion is."
We both smiled, not a frequent expression thus far in this
conversation, before the dean continued.
"Deirdre and I have been friends for a long time, and earlier we
were intimate friends. We both married others but remained in
touch. Why we did not marry is hard to explain. We were both
very young and...will it surprise you...very ambitious. I did not
initiate the plan that eventually brought her to the university. The
institute where she now has an appointment is funded in part by
my office but is an independent, interdisciplinary entity that
includes the area of mathematical topology across various fields.
Deirdre is a whiz in using mathematical models in dealing with
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contemporary economic questions, even though lately, as you are
well aware, she’s developed a deeper interest in analyzing
historical datasets. The director of the institute drew up a proposal
to appoint her as a visiting scholar with money from my office.
The proposal ended up on my desk, and I obviously faced a
dilemma. The director did not know about our longstanding
friendship, and I’m not sure anyone else here did. I knew, though,
if she were appointed, it would not take long for our friendship to
become part of the conversation. I signed on to the extent that I
approved the funding but played no role in the negotiations. I left it
up to the director. Of course, after an offer was made, Deirdre
called me. We were both concerned about what might become
public, if she accepted. I informed the president who understood
the risks but who would not interfere. She accepted, has been on
campus since last July, and she has made a big impression both
at the institute and in the related departments where she will offer
seminars and eventually have students. In fact, she is under
consideration for a chaired professorship. Then, last week our
friendship became public information, and you can guess how
quickly the rumor mills sprang into action. It may have no fallout
for her because she had given no signal she would accept a
permanent appointment or leave Toronto where she lives with her
husband and children. The fallout for me may be worse. We’ll
see. During her time we have been friends and colleagues and
nothing more. That may not be enough. I would simply ask your
patience on the question of my future. You probably don’t have as
much information as you need to make a decision, but you don’t
have to make a decision yet."
I had no intention of pushing for more information. I actually knew
enough. I also knew the lunch was over. He had delivered his
message, and just as I was not going to push for more neither
was he going to offer more.
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We both simultaneously got up from the table, he had the check,
and we headed for the cashier. Sheila was at the desk, and she
obviously could not resist:
"That long lunch could only mean a plot is being hatched. I look
forward to the repercussions."
"Plotting is what academics are about, and your patio and your
menu may inspire some of the best plotting anywhere in the city,"
retorted the dean.
I nodded in approval. At the curb the dean waved down a cab. He
had a major fund-raising dinner to attend at the President’s
residence that evening. He asked if I had any plans. I said, yes, to
unwind with a bottle of champagne. And with a tap on my
shoulder he was gone.
Walking home, I kept asking myself what was the conversation I
just had? An offer I could not accept, and a past romance, not
mine for once, with present and future repercussions. I didn’t have
to know any more to figure out it was heading for messiness. The
dean had to think that I would at the very least be skeptical about
signing on. For once, I was outside the eye of his storm. I had no
desire to add another storm to my own collection. I chuckled to
myself, as I wondered if the dean’s story, as told to me today, will
be the same story I might hear from Deirdre or someone else.
I was home only long enough to change for my workout. Although
I‘d told myself after "our" earlier encounter that I was going to
change my time or my gym, here I was going to the gym about
the same time as usual. When I walked in, Katie was in her chair
at the desk.
"How’d you swing the late Friday afternoon gig? Owners should
be sipping Margaritas across the street."
"Can’t afford to with members like you. You’re here so much,
taking up space, using electricity, wearing out equipment, without
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thinking how nominal your monthly fee is," she said, as she
handed me the pen to sign in with.
"You don’t want me to be a slouch like half the membership, do
you?"
"Yes, by all means, yes. I make money off them, not you. Besides
you don’t need my trainers and you won’t do aerobics."
"Aerobics was the invention of a dimwitted person for other
persons seeking dimwittedness. I would increase liability
insurance in case you are flooded with lawsuits from people who
gained nothing or lost everything by jumping up and down on
boxes."
"You wouldn’t like a job as a trainer, would you? It would cost me
less to pay you than to let you in the gym for two hours every day.
By the way Erin’s here," as she broke into a big smile.
"You don’t miss a thing, do you? I could use someone like you in
my life. Are you free?"
I knew she wasn’t, and, as if to confirm that, her muscle-bulging
and supremely handsome boyfriend came out of the office and
shook my hand.
"After the day I’ve had with him," she said, as she threw her arms
around his waist, "I may give you a call. But in addition to using
more than you’ve paid for, please don’t stir up the ladies anymore
than you have thus far."
"Greg, will you call her off, please? All I want is that corner over
there with some dumbbells."
"If I could create a bubble for you, I would, but someone has got
her eye on you already," said Katie.
I refused to look, gave both the high sign and headed off to the
dumbbell corner.
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A heavy lifter was working in the same corner, and he nodded as I
put my towel down and then said,
"Hi, I’m Scott."
"Hi, Scott, I’m known as Hooch, but I also go by Hugh."
"Great handle, Hooch. I’ve always wanted a nickname like that."
"It’s yours without charge. And I’ll trade you Hugh for Scott."
"Let’s shake on that," as he threw out his hand. "It’s all yours, I’m
done. We’ll talk some other time."
I wished he had stayed a while as a buffer. I was working on arms
today, and I would have to move back and forth between here and
the pull-down machines, which were much too close to her.
I finished a set of tri routines when I sensed a presence. I looked
in the mirror. No archangel. I chose to remain seated but I turned
to my right just as she said,
"You should have a spotter. You’re too old to work without a
spotter."
"Would that be your role?"
"You know what would have happened if I spotted for you. I
wouldn’t hesitate."
Just what I needed after a rather mind-boggling luncheon. I
looked at her from top to bottom and affirmed for my memory's
sake she was both the same body and a different body. Was I
being sucked in as usual? Stockier and older — I ignored meaner
that popped into my head — but with that devil on my shoulder i
found myself thinking back to more pleasant times and playful
moods. Nothing pleasant or playful now.
"Have you thought about taking up some weight-lifting to
compliment your Nautilus-aerobic routine?" I said not knowing
how it might register.
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"What I least like about you is you’re genuinely nice. I insult you,
embarrass you, dis you, and what I get is an invitation to lift
weights."
Not the way I had considered.
"A genetic defect. I would, to use your adverb, genuinely like to be
friends, but, in the most blistering email I’d ever received, you
made it clear we’d never been friends and could never be friends.
So, what am I to do?"
"Be an asshole like the rest of us. It will be good for what ails
you." With that she turned and walked away. I recalled another
gym encounter when Sarah Ann ended our friendship by ordering
me never to speak to her again because I had just said hello. My
gym batting average – zero, maybe negative zero.
As I continued my workout, I thought she might have a point. But,
as hard as I tried to be an asshole, I knew from experience I’d end
up worse off than ever. It would be easier to switch gyms – not
likely – or switch times.
"You have a way with woman," intoned Katie as I approached the
desk on my exit.
"Thanks, Katie. This little sideshow is one of the benefits of my
rather costly membership to you."
"More than a sideshow. I could feel the static over here. Funny
thing, she comes to you, you never go to her. What does that
mean? She’s after something. You haven’t a clue, I suspect? But,
of course, being a male, you won’t until it’s too late. Since she’s
not a weekend rat, you get a break for a couple of days even
though you’re gonna cost me."
"Are you free for dinner tonight? I need further counseling, and
you won’t have to buy groceries."
"Don’t ask too many times. You may be surprised," as she waved
her arm toward the door and picked up her singing cell.
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And I left. I stopped for some small dishes because I wasn’t going
to cook tonight. I wish I were through thinking for the day. I hoped
the "brut" in the fridge would smooth the edges created by the
day's encounters.
After a flute of champagne and a light supper of small plates I
could see through The Grand Window that a beautiful evening
was descending on the neighborhood and I decided on a stroll. I
had no particular route in mind except I would probably end up in
the park about five blocks south. Donning a sweater and a scarf –
October days had been warm but its evenings always turned cool
— I exited the building and became a part of the street crowd.
The crowd included people of all ages plus assorted animals,
well, assorted dogs. I remembered being so struck years ago
when I read Jane Jacobs and her diagnosis of the American
cities’ failures – empty sidewalks meant empty cities. Just filling
streets with intimate vehicles contributed nothing to life in cities.
Cities needed people out and about to be vibrant. A Europecentric view, to be sure. Whether or not she had the right
diagnosis about the plight of the post-World-War-Two American
city, cities seemed healthier when sidewalks were filled with
walkers and their pets, venders, cyclists and perhaps even a few
panhandlers, almost as if a counterbalance to the lifelessness of
street traffic.
Several time I had made this walk, and, as an outsider, a
newcomer, I never met anyone I knew. Even so, I ended up
greeting scores of people and from time to time having brief
conversations. The walk seemed to stand in contrast to the last
twenty-four hours. Walking with the crowd without knowing
anything about the crowd versus luncheons, workouts and
conversations that revealed far too much. Despite Katie’s
accurate assessment of male intuition, I was getting that feeling
that I was in for some relationship messiness, imposed, not of my
making exactly.
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I can choose from several different routes to reach the park.
Tonight I chose to stay on the most crowded. I realized long ago
that I was better at working through things in anonymous crowds
than in heart-to-heart talks with friends and colleagues. After my
own marriage failed I signed on with several therapist to try to
figure out what was next. The first blamed me, as if I'd done the
opposite of what I actually did. I walked out. The second was too
touchy and feely — I had no interest in hugging my neighbor, as
pretty as she was, or playing emotive charades…I couldn’t even
play regular charades — and I lasted two sessions. The third was
the right choice. A minister who seemed most unministerial helped
me to open up some new avenues for accommodating stress and
disappointment. Most importantly he did not take offense when I
argued with him. We came to know each other pretty well, and
after a few months I had a pretty good idea where I was heading.
Atypical for a historian, perhaps, I've been more interested in
where I, the personal I, not the historian I, was going than where
I’d been. I believed somehow that I could deal with the past if I
were negotiating my way into the future. Even the minister/
therapist, acknowledged that I was pretty good at muscling my
way through the worst. I once told him that despite my muscling
ability I lived with the fear that I really had never experienced how
bad the worse could be. As a result, I felt untested, and I was
always leery of what events might signal. I think he came up with
the phrase anonymity of the future and asked if that might
characterize my feelings. Not a bad way to put it, I said. Perhaps
the future was more comforting because whenever I tried to make
sense of past behavior I remained puzzled. But wasn't that what
happened when we, the historians, did our best to unravel the
past. So many gaps and inconsistencies that we had to make
leaps of faith...some evidence but never completely satisfactory.
And those leaps could prove to be chimeras. True in life and in
history. The future, on the other hand, was meant to be shadowy
and chimerical. Walking along a busier than usual street with
hundreds of folks and hundreds of stories, I could imagine how
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many were mired in their past and how many were strolling into
their future without ever having to know the truth.
To this day I believe, as I came to realize then, that cleaning up
the past is relative. No single past. Many pasts, which are not
easy to make sense of no matter how hard you may try. Not a
good thing for a historian to preach, for if a person’s past is
jumbled, think what that means for the collective past. What I did
in therapy was to clean up a little here and little there until I felt I
could step into the future. For better or for worse, that’s what
happened.
So, back to the moment. As I made my way to the park, I
welcome plus comfort by way of the anonymous crowd. I just
didn’t feel "lonely" in the crowd. How I related to the crowd vis-àvis David Riesman I had never figured out, although I had used
the book in class many times. I was pretty sure the "otherness"
category didn’t fit. It hardly mattered. This was a momentary
repose from that proverbial storm that was be brewing
somewhere off the horizon but close enough to be felt. Maybe the
strategy in these walks was to let my thoughts, worries, fears
mingle in some weird neuron world with everybody else’s so all
the personal preoccupations we shared seemed less
unmanageable. Of course, the laws of physics dictated otherwise.
Energies on the loose could be dangerous. Anyway, that was how
it felt as I reached the park.
The evening light had given way to night, and to my surprise
because I hadn’t paid attention a full moon was ascending. Most
of the park benches were occupied. I slowed my pace, as I
searched for a seat. I could walk to the other end and stand at the
rail that bounded the park before the terrain fell off toward the
harbor. As I approached the rail, I could also see that it was
popular tonight. I found a space, and since the rail was high, I
leaned on my elbows and dropped my chin into my cupped
hands. I never tired of the view of where the city and the water
met. I also observed that the moon’s tenure was limited. Dark
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clouds pointed to a natural storm a-brewing, unlike the peopleinduced storms I was navigating.
Darkness in its many shades and forms was not a foe. I had
never experienced deep, emotional darkness, so I was able to
find pleasure in both the dark and the light. For as long as I could
remember, to lie awake in the middle of the night in a totally dark
room except for any night light that came through the window
could be therapeutic and was not threatening. I often tried to
navigate my body through darkness. I once made the mistake of
telling my doctor that I liked to live in the dark, only turning lights
on when I had to. With his arched eyebrows, his long index finger
pointed straight at me and his stern MD voice, he said...turn the
lights on…you’re too old to prance around in the dark...if you
fall.... I got the message but I hadn’t changed.
It was in the dark more than in the light that I could pull into high
relief the "I" of Jorge Borges’s "Borges and I." I read this Parable
when I was a young adult. It made little sense then. I was mostly
just an "I" then. I was not known publicly for much at all. Well...I
had been a high-school clown, telling jokes and relishing the role
of class jester. Not a good student, only a marginal athlete and
handsome enough but a romantic fumbler. Everyone in my small
class "went steady" as we used to say. I was the exception along
with two or three others. We were the Three Musketeers and
hung out together. I could not avoid having a public persona —
don't we all? — but it was barely visible. I spent most of my time
fretting with my interior "I". Moreover, I had trouble with
dichotomies. The dichotomous was not a part of my upbringing.
My parents and their siblings, maybe eight or ten…I had trouble
remembering exactly…worked hard at their jobs, day-in day-out,
but also worked hard at being publicly invisible. Seldom was
anything said about feelings, crises, needs or challenges. The
less said, the better. Even if they had any interest in what Borges
was getting at, they would consider it a terrible idea. I lived that
way for a while, but once on my own I discarded it along with lots
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of things I was raised to believe and practice. So, when I read
"Borges & I" initially I’d not yet chucked the baggage I’d grown up
with and was fearful about the new life I was fashioning almost
unconsciously for myself. I had trouble imaging what Borges’s
problem was, although because of my religious indoctrination I
knew what a Parable was...more or less. A few months
back...maybe a year ago...for no particular reason I reread it. I
also read it in Spanish, the language of my research. I had no
trouble getting the message this round, although I had also seen
numerous references to the Borges dichotomy over the years and
knew the argument. But, it took on a more nuanced meaning
when I actually read it. It had a simple structure, as most Parables
did, but the interaction between the elements was what mattered.
Yo had created Borges, but Borges had evolved in a way that Yo
hardly recognized nor entirely approved of. What separated the
two entities in the same body was the public Borges and the
private Yo (borges), and perhaps more importantly they seemed
to be having a bit of a tussle. Although the public self originated
out of the private self, it set its own parameters of behavior. The
Parable was clear on the ultimate outcome – "I" would die but
Borges would survive – Borges was a published writer and thinker
after-all – even as Yo came awfully close to disowning its
creation.
From my last reading I remember the words "I shall remain in
Borges, not in myself (if it is true I am someone) but I recognize
myself less…." The possibility that the Borges, which the public
thought they knew, was not the Borges that the "I" was. In another
Parable Borges asked God to let him be who he was supposed to
be, and God answered more or less…no can do because like you
I am many and no one simultaneously. And, still in another,
Borges wrote "no man knows who he is". The long and the short
was "who the hell are we?" Under these conditions Know thyself
seems absurdly impossible. Since Borges said that he had talked
to God, I could only assume [he also made up the story] that he
bought into the notion of the state of God...many and no one
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simultaneously? I’d never talked to God, but I didn't need him/her/
it to tell me what I felt — trying to corral many I’s, many me’s,
many Chiltons but not a clue who I was or could be at any given
moment.
The writer Jorge Luis Borges enjoyed far more notoriety and fame
and was subject of so much more discussion, adulation and
criticism than the rest of us. In the course of that development his
public self had separated, so to speak itself from the private self
— the I — that gave birth to the public self. The private self had
trouble recognizing the public self. Worse yet, whatever happened
to the private self — death, for example, the death of the mortal
Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis — the public self — Borges — would
live on. Suppose, the dead Jorge or Yo after his demise could
take a peek at his public self, would the evolution of the public self
have continued in such a way that he was incapable of
recognizing who he had once been in the public eye. In life Jorge
was dismayed, troubled, even outraged at the Borges that was
being reshaped and resculpted in his very presence. Since God
had spoken that he couldn’t keep track of his own faces and
existences nor ours — a pretty serious if not earth-shaking
admission — how the hell were we supposed to? Borges’s lament
was evocative: I have to stick with Borges, so long as I’m alive,
even though Yo feel less and less him.
How about us mortals who live more trivial lives than Jorge
Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges? Both the dean and Sal, even Erin,
had public selves far larger than anything I had ever know. The
dean was all public, Sal was half and half — I knew him too well
too long to miss his private side — and Erin like many artists was
unavoidably public, although for me it contested with the private
self I knew and loved first — sharing our idiosyncrasies and
laughing about them…hardly possible now…and rereading in my
mind the René Magritte notecards she sent me when I was out of
town…pining for my return. Here I was with a past blasting into a
present and not knowing the outcome. I had consciously dropped
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my public profile to as near zero as I could. My public self was
always getting me into trouble. Of late I had so abandoned my
public self that I had no idea what had become of it. That had
ended with the accepting of this gig. Resurrecting my public self…
more like actually creating a public self…was part of the deal. It
wasn’t clear my private self objected. It might have preferred less
attention, more freedom. Jorge Luis despaired over how little
control Yo had over Borges. I had not reached that stage and was
unlikely ever to. But I couldn’t help but muse, as I was now doing
while leaning on a polished metal rail overlooking a harbor in a
city where I’d spent my undergraduate days listening to jazz and
falling in love, certainly not studying, with a wary eye on darkening
clouds, that my public self had been jolted out of obscurity. It was
functioning along side of the private self. At moment there was a
certain restraint that allowed both to relax, to enjoy the
transformation, to observe, to be protective but to be open…all in
all a different setting from what I had known for years and, more
importantly, not yet uncomfortable.
But even on the trivial level, which most of us occupied compared
to a Borges or other such celebrities, the public self could get
away from the private self. Borges wrote as if he wasn’t certain
that it was a struggle between one public and one private self
because each self had so many faces and existences that even
God couldn’t keep track. At bottom the whole idea of being many
and no one simultaneously was forever folding in on itself like the
multi-dimensions of string theory. That we all have a public and
private self is more comprehensible than the idea that we are one
and many all at once. It was our own doing, though, wasn’t it? We
allowed ourselves to be framed and referenced and pinpointed
and inflated and diminished — the list was endless — and
seemingly preferred the chaos we’d created to that orderly,
somber life-role that we often pictured as ideal. I looked across
the harbor at the gathering dark clouds and decided, or Chilton or
Hooch or abandoned lover or emergent ghost looked and
decided, the time had come to get my ass home.
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Once back in The Space, I filled another flute, settled into the
lounger and turned on both the cell and the computer, each of
which lit up and rang aloud. Reality had surely returned. OK, with
Borges on my shoulder, in my mind, I could choose what to look
at first and Chilton could agree or disagree. I chose "voicemail"
since there was only one caller. (Chilton seemed to disappear.) It
was Sal with a reminder that I was joining them and some friends
for dinner tomorrow night. I hadn’t forgotten, and I erased the
message. I put down the cell and turned to the email.
The students and I conferred a lot by email, and most of the
messages were from students and could be answered later. The
email from Sasha required an answer. Concerning times for a gettogether during the break, she had some suggestions, and I
responded with a time that would work for me and presumably
would work for her.
After cleaning up the few dishes and turning on the quietest
dishwasher that I had ever been around, it was earlier than usual
— too early — for me to turn in, but I felt ready for some sleep. I
gathered up Russo and headed to the bedroom tucked away in
the corner at the end of a long, sleek interior wall about half the
height of the brick wall that separated my side of the building from
the other side. This wall extended from the end of the kitchen to
the exterior, windowed wall. In between the end of the kitchen and
the bedroom were bath, storage and laundry facilities. I never
heard a sound from the other side of the brick wall, although I was
told that a young couple with children lived upstairs. Downstairs
below both residences were offices that I had no occasion to visit.
The interior wall, behind which hid the three units — bath, utility
and bed — was constructed from panels of glass-like sheets, and
seemed more like a work of art than a barrier or separator. The
kitchen end of the wall was anchored to a large pantry that
extended ten or twelve feet from the brick wall and on the other
end a regal closet that did not touch the exterior wall and could be
entered from either the bedroom or the other side across from the
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floor-to-ceiling windows. The glass interior wall reflected light but
was opaque to the light behind it. It was about ten feet high at
which point it turned into a slanted glass ceiling that was attached
to the interior brick wall. Unlike the vertical wall the ceiling
reflected the light from the area that it covered. Each time I
walked along this passageway the choreography of the light
changed. As I entered the bedroom, I took one last glance at the
changing sky. I knew I would awaken to rain and to a new
choreography on the ceiling.
And rain plus thunder was what I awoke to. It was almost
torrential. I had promised Sal and Lynn I’d bring the wine for what
they told me would be, not to my surprise, Italian fare, veal and
pasta. Two Italian dishes in one week could make me querulous,
but unlikely since Lynn’s pasta dishes had a light touch, always to
my liking. I had the feeling that Sal and Lynn had decided on a
campaign to root out my disaffection for Italian cuisine. Sal's
favorite phrases to describe my professional and personal
idiosyncrasies was, if nothing else, succinct – you’re nuts! That
applied to my choice of cuisines as well as lovers. When it came
to cuisine, Lynn was more embracing. I have no idea what she
thought about my lovers. Her cuisine strategy was that enough
time at their table would educate my palette and bring me into the
fold. I was willing to spend as much time at their table as they
could endure. I doubted I would ever enter the fold, but I was
willing to hang around on another edge indefinitely. I was willing to
endure further verbal spankings from Sal simply because an
evening at their table came close to the ideal I had concocted in
my head about what constituted a perfect social event.
Whenever I think about Italian cooking, I almost automatically
recall my days with Alicia. We were friends, although I wished we
were lovers. The ideal love, I had convinced myself, simply
because it could never be tested. Alicia prepared wonderful Italian
dishes for casual dinners that she made for roommates and
friends and often included me, may years older than the rest. My
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memory, rightly or wrongly, was that her dishes were basically
Italian in the manner in which they were cooked, but because she
was a serious vegetarian, close to being a vegan, they were as
much about other ingredients and less about pastas and sauces.
Sadly, Alicia moved to the other side of the country and we had
not seen each other or shared a plate in years. My memories
were still raving about her cooking as if she were sitting across
the table. What I kept in my head all these years was what I could
never say at her table nor could I say to anyone – it remained the
preserve of my "I" – how deeply I loved her. Never meant to be
romantic or physical love. Something beyond Platonic as well. Not
like my feelings for Erin or others I could recall. A feeling that
would never be surrendered. I wondered if she had given up the
physical act of rescuing animals, risking life and limb for the sake
of abused animals. All I had to do, she would say, was snip the
chain, and I was out of there with the animal. How many times
had I heard that and cringed when I did.
No, I won’t ever surrender those memories.
No more time to sort out my past. The rain had not yet let up
enough that, even if I were dressed and breakfasted, I could walk
the two blocks to my favorite wine shop where I’d let Tish and
Serge choose the wine for me. I hadn’t a clue about Italian. I had
to be ready to leave, though, when the clouds did part. I was out
of bed and, as I walked to the kitchen and heard a distance roll of
thunder, I began to recall a dream I’d awakened from. At this point
a vague recollection and yet enough to remember I was in a large
space with no wall, a roof but no walls, which allowed the outside
and inside to intersect. I once read or was told that the outside
could be interpreted as dream disorder and the inside as the
opposite or dream order. I have no idea how valid this
interpretation was among dream theorists. The room was filled
with faces, not bodies with faces, just faces. I was standing above
and on the side where I could survey the faces, some of which I
recognized. Then, I stepped into the mass of faces on what
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became a walk among them. I nodded to those I recognized but
with no response to my nod. And the dream ended as I walked.
Now fully awake I could not recall the details of the faces, not
even the ones I thought I recognized, or how far I had walked,
whether I stayed inside or ventured outside. A sea of faces
seemed odd, and as with most dreams I could only recollect
enough to be thoroughly puzzled. Apparently, again from what I
had read or heard, the cognitive function of thinking about the
dream was quite different from the dream function and, therefore,
a dream that seemed crystal clear while being dreamed became a
jumble when cogitating began. Before storing it away with many
other dreams marked by an indelible question mark, I lingered for
a few moments on the insoluble: whatever the dream the details –
faces and actions like walking — could be understood even
though the meaning was lost; in life we also identify the details
and actions but barely glimpse the meaning, even though we
think we understand.
A sip, just a sip, of Peet’s Sumatra snapped me back into
whatever reality I was supposed to be occupying. I had drunk
Peet’s for decades. I’d tried every Signature blend since my first
cup at the Berkeley shop, shortly after Mr Peet had opened it. I'd
learned to drink coffee in France, and I was generally dissatisfied
with American brands until I tasted Peet's. Eventually it was
available by mail and now with retail outlets in some large cities, it
was more readily available than when I fell in love with it. Not in
the City, surprisingly,,…in the groceries…but no retail shops.
For most of my adult life I had drunk Peet's but I had shunned
sadly the egg and meat breakfast, although that was my father’s
standard breakfast and he’d lived forever. Nor had I succumbed to
the bagel breakfast. For that, of course, I’ve been dismissed as a
crank and a nut because I regard that lump of dough called a
bagel uneatable. So here I sit quite happily just drinking Peet’s
after a shot of fresh orange juice. In a few minutes I’ll add
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something, perhaps some raspberries and cream plus a cookie,
preferably from my collection of Oreos.
Bang, Bang, Bang! The thunder resounded across The Space. In
the old days, when a thunderstorm arrived, we ran around and
unplugged computers for fear that a surge in the electrical line
would fry the equipment. Nowadays, we just keep working.
I have a memory of a surge with a different consequence. When I
was a kid, about ten or eleven, I had a severe of ear infection, one
of many in my childhood. My recollection was that this bout began
during a trip to see the Cleveland Indians, my AL team. The days
of Lou Boudreau, Joe Gordon, Bobby Feller, etc., and my ears
hurt so badly we had to leave the game early. Upon returning
home, I was dispatched to the Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist who
scared the be-jesus out of me. Gruff barely captured his manner,
at least in my memory. It was late evening, and he decided after
examining me that lancing the eardrum was the only remedy. I
think he "froze" my eardrums and then zip zap. I don’t remember
if the lancing hurt, but I do remember how the loss of the pressure
against the eardrums and drainage felt.
We returned home at the beginning of a thunderstorm. After my
parents retired, I lay awake in my small room across the hall from
theirs. My pillow was covered with a towel to soak up the goop
oozing out of my ears. All at once the outside and the inside lit up.
A bolt of lightning launched an intense crack of thunder that
reverberated across my room. As scary as that was, the follow-up
was incredulous: light bulbs began to pop and the lamp hanging
on the wall next to my bed was knocked from its nail. My parents,
out of bed and on the move, checked on me first and then quickly
determined that the house was not on fire either inside or out and
the damage was confined to popped light bulbs and the loss of
electric power.
Outside they and aroused neighbors discovered that the lightning
had struck a pole with a transformer across the street from the
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house. As they explained it to me later, after the power company
had replaced the transformer and restored electricity, the energy
from the bolt of lightning had traveled from the poles across the
lines that connected to the houses and more or less exited
through the popped light bulbs. At least, that is how I recall the
explanation that had survived all these years as the memory of a
ten-year-old. Some years ago, while my parents were still alive I
asked, if this recollection, which still lingered in my memory bank,
was accurate only to discover that their memories were more
dubious than mine. I will never know how much of these
memories I’ve made up over time, as I’ve recalled a series of
events that had a basic truth.
I had a message from Sasha. She said Monday would work for
her. I replied that I’d make reservations for Monday at seven at Le
Petit Place on Willis. Since I had to walk in her direction to reach
Willis, I said I would meet her at her apartment. She could expect
me about thirty minutes before our reservations. I had reply. I was
booked.
The rain seemed to be letting up, so I decided to run the few
errands I had planned. After cleaning up the dishes, showering
and shaving and spiffing up the bedroom, I took off with my trusty
Bodum red sac that I had acquired during my last Paris stay. As I
entered the wine shop, I heard,
"Dr Chilton, how are you?" hidden from view somewhere amongst
the hundreds of bottles. Then, Serge emerged from behind a rack
halfway into the shop. How he knew who it was I could not
explain. Best left as a mystery.
"I’m fine. Serge, but I’ll have to warn you again that, as a Doctor, I
may prescribe some medicine that will make you forget the ‘Dr’
salutation."
"How about my Dear Chilton Sir instead?" he said with a puckish
grin from ear to ear.
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"You’re hopeless, Serge, except in matters of oenology, and that’s
why I’m here."
"Oenologist at your service!" accompanied by the click of his
heels. Just then Tish emerged from the office.
"Hooch, how are you?" she asked in a voice as quiet and silky as
Serge’s was loud and brassy. Her persona was just the opposite
of Serge with all his formalities.
"Hello, Tish, I’m fine. You’re looking well," I replied.
"I’m fine also except reigning in this showman consumes all my
energy," she said, as he planted a kiss on Serge’s right cheek.
"And, if I weren’t such a showman, she’d be planting that kiss on
some other cheek," he proclaimed, a comment that provoked a
smack on his backside.
"Before this shop goes up in flames from fires of passion, let me
place an order. Another Italian meal with my dear friends across
town. A delicate pasta with veal I’ve been informed. Within
seconds Tish retrieved three bottles of a label that was totally
foreign to me.
"On the mark," shouted out Serge, who had not made a move
toward any of the shelves with scores of Italian wines.
Neither Serge nor Tish was more than five feet six inches, and
neither carried any extra weight. Dressed in casual off-the-rank
designer attire, they both looked the part of bantering
shopkeepers. They were indeed a handsome couple. I also
bought a Bordeaux for my Sunday fare, although I hadn’t yet been
to the local market to choose the fare. I’d let the Bordeaux do the
choosing for me. I’d become one of their steady customers, and
after I made my purchases, if the shop wasn’t busy, we’d chat
about this and that. Both had degrees from good universities with
majors in the sciences, but instead of pursuing medicine, which
both sets of parents, who lived in the neighborhood, had expected
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if not almost commanded, they decided to indulge their love for
food and wine. The food part was in the future, but the wine part
had proven highly successful in a city full of wine shops. I’d
assumed, even though I had no special economic insights as to
why they had done so well so fast, that they knew the subject
better than the competition — having spent more than a year
touring and tasting in Europe and then a year working in several
California wineries — and perhaps more importantly because they
were well educated they knew how to articulate what they knew.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that they located in a neighborhood that
knew them well and they also knew well. I prepared to leave with
the usual admonition to report how good an accompaniment the
wine was when, to my surprise, they extended me an invitation for
next weekend to a wine-tasting at their apartment with other wine
enthusiasts. No thought necessary. I answered in the affirmative
enthusiastically and left.
I was slowly becoming acquainted with the butcher and the owner
of The Berries, my local grocery store. The owner discovered one
day that we both wore clogs, his being white and mine dirty brown
with holes where the big toes live – impossible said the shoe
clerk, when I showed up to buy the pair I now own in an older pair
with matching holes, even though I explained I had toenails made
of steel – and since then butcher had been more outgoing, often
asking if I’d like to try this or that. Today his recommendation was
beefs filets, and, as he was becoming aware, I was a sucker for
filets. He must have known the Bordeaux was in my satchel. I
picked up some produce and headed home in what was looking
like more menacing rain. At that very juncture I thought this life
cannot last, but I was milking it now for all its worth.
It was well past noon when I opened the door to The Space. I
remembered the opera broadcast started an hour early today –
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That should put me in
the right mood for the dinner party tonight. Like Walther, I’d break
all the rules and render a song with such expression and beauty
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no one would notice I couldn’t sing. Fame, love and glory would
follow in that order.
After fixing a small plate of basically what others treat as hors
d’oeuvres, I switched on both the radio to a local station that
broadcast Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. At the end of Act I,
during the intermission, the stage having been set for the dispute,
I turned on my computer only to find the pleasure that the singing
had created diminished by a larger than usual list of emails.
Actually it was the names of the senders that caused me slight
discomfort. Not students whose queries I would have answered
immediately but those others with whom I must communicate from
time to time. I thought…hmmm…did I need to open these today? I
decided they could wait until later. I chuckled as I thought: had
Walther, the maverick, just given them the finger the opera would
have ended, much too early for any Wagner performance, and I’d
feel more compelled to deal with these emails. But, we had
another four hours ahead of us, thankfully. I pushed away the
computer because the second act was about to begin.
Because Saturday afternoon was opera time and had been for
years I’d forego the gym. It was the one day I purposely took off
from working out. I occasionally missed other days because of
meetings or appointments, but I seldom worked out on Saturdays.
As the orchestra began I pulled the computer back, found the
libretto online and settled back, in hopes that my very rusty
college German would not completely desert me.
During the next intermission I poured myself a glass of wine and
checked the Weather Channel. More storms coming, so I decided
I’d take a cab across town tonight instead of walking to the
appropriate cross-town subway. I returned to my chair with my
glass of wine and that digital copy of the libretto on the screen
where I remained until the end of the opera. Walther was singing
the beautiful Prize Song after which he scorned the gold chain, a
sign of his admittance to the guild. Sachs implored Walther to put
aside his bitterness and accept his nomination. Walther relented,
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and the final chorus that could lift you out of your chair was
dedicated to the beloved cobbler, Sachs. I once read...was
Wagner addressing a very human condition – no gods or mythical
figures to contend with – just humans trying with a good deal of
comedy and farce to navigate the shoals when authority and
desire came into conflict. Of course, everyone was rooting for
Walther, and yet the authority of the guild will prevail through
necessary accommodation. I’d always had trouble with the
accommodation part, although with age I’d become more
malleable.
By seven o’clock I was in a cab heading across town. I will be a
few minutes late, but I’m told that was being stylish in the city. I
arrived at the brownstone, and after ringing the bell I was greeted
by Lynn.
"Hooch, come in, your timing is impeccable!"
We embraced, and then I handed her the wine. Lynn was not only
a smart cook but she knew labels as well.
"Perfect," she said. "I’ll bet you didn’t know these labels, but your
cavistes did. Right?"
"You’ve got it, and my only role is to suggest you uncork them
now."
"Sal! Call the Rabbit into action," and she handed the bottles to
her husband who appeared at her side but first shook my hand
and patted my shoulder.
"Welcome, my friend, and thank you for the wine," as he turned
and walked toward the buffet where Rabbit resided.
I could see another couple, whom I did not know, and an
unaccompanied lady whom I did not know either, standing by the
gas-fed fireplace. Lynn took my arm and led me to the fireplace,
where she did the introductions in her own inimitable style.
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I always had trouble remembering names, and Lynn knew that, so
she repeated them several times with intervening and endearing
comments. On this occasion….
"He can remember the output of silver in 1701 Potosí, but he can’t
remember to whom he has just been introduced. So let me
repeat, Ellen and Paul and Cindy. Keep repeating the names
while I check on the stove."
Just then Sal showed up with a martini, for which he was famous,
not only because he bought the best gin but also because he
imported magic ice. He then repeated everyone’s name slowly for
my benefit and offered a toast of hope for my memory. The
evening was off to a good start. I knew everyone’s name.
At the table I was seated next to Cindy, an Associate Dean or
Director at Sal's university. Actually, she knew Lynn before she
knew Sal. After straightening me out, she asked how I liked my
new assignment. I said I was quite content. I enjoyed living in the
city, seeing Sal and Lynn after many years of only talking by
phone and having exceptionally able students.
"Is this a one-year appointment?" she asked.
"Aah, only one semester," I responded without hesitation.
"I wouldn’t be surprised, if you end up staying longer than year,"
chimed in Sal.
"There’s an incentive to return home so I can take early
retirement," I replied hoping this would put an end of a discussion
about the future. I had made up my mind after the dean’s
conversation but until I heard out the chair, I couldn’t say anything
definitely. I was sure Sal knew something.
"You’ve been retiring ever since I first met you, Hooch, and it ain’t
any closer now than it was then. You’ve got nothing else to do.
You’re now close to being a total recluse. If you retire, it will mean
full-time reclusensss. This job is your salvation, so hang on," he
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decried to the bemusement of the others, all of whom were
listening.
“Salvatore!" said Lynn sternly. "Don’t be projecting yourself onto
Hooch’s plans. You’ve been retiring since our undergraduate
days!" to laughter around the table.
"I’ve learned what I know about reclusiveness from Sal," I
interjected. "So I am as fully prepared as I’ll ever need to be.
Thank you, my good friend," and I patted his arm.
"You’ll be back in the thick of it before the first year ends," retorted
Sal. "It’s criminal for the best and brightest to retire early."
"And that’s why I can do it. The best-and-the-brightest club will
remain intact."
"If and when you do retire," asked Paul, "where will you go?"
“To the vacant room at the of the hall,” I said pointing to my left.
“God Forbid!”
“And which God would that be,” I asked following Sal’s outburst.
“The One you rejected and denounced. Beware!”
In the midst of laughter around the table Lynn tried to restore
calm.
“These two have created their own theatre over the years. You’ve
just witnessed the latest performance.”
I pitched in by answering Paul’s question.
“A big city somewhere. I have a half-dozen places in mind, but
haven’t decided yet. I quit driving years ago so small towns and
rural areas are out of the question. Besides anything too remote
would drive me back to work in six months. Any suggestions?"
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"Probably nothing you haven’t considered. I’d certainly feel most
comfortable in the Northeast and I’d probably just stay where I
am,” Paul answered in a flat, serious tone.
"This City is a good choice, but I’m leaning toward a totally
different part of the country or maybe even the globe. Lots of
things have to fall into place before I can actually take off,
notwithstanding what Sal has proclaimed."
In meantime Lynn arrived with a big platter, which she set in front
of Sal, who was momentarily bewildered because he had no
plates or utensils. Ellen then put the plates and utensils in front of
him, and he felt confident enough to begin his assigned task. I
asked, if I could pour the wine, and Lynn gave thumbs-up. Five
minutes later everyone was raving about Lynn culinary
accomplishments, something we’d all raved about for years.
"You know, Lynn, if I can live in your vacant room and have dibs
on the leftovers I might just become a convert to the Italian style,"
I said, knowing I could expect a retort from my host. It came
immediately.
"I don’t think so. We have strict rules about who can stay over.
Besides, I couldn’t hold my seminars here with you prowling
around and engaging the young women in your banal banter. On
the other hand we could use some help with the cleaning. By the
way, to your credit, damn it, the wine is perfect."
"Thank Serge and Tish. Am I permitted to report your
endorsement or do I have to sign a waiver?"
And so it went for the remainder of our time at the table, as we ate
and drank and tried not to let the conversation ever become too
weighty. After a light dessert, we took our demitasses to the living
room.
I found myself sitting next to Ellen on the sofa. She was not an
academic but a Wall Street trader. Her shop where she was
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managing partner dealt mainly in derivatives and that was where
the conversation began.
"Do you own any derivatives?" she asked. "You seem to know
something about them."
"No, I don’t, although I own a few funds in which derivatives are
components. They take too much time. I don’t want to sit glued to
my TV or computer screen to make sure something untoward isn’t
happening. I know I can set limits and all that, but I’d still have to
pay more attention than I want. I get market reports every day, but
I trade only when I’m ready to change the portfolio. Most stocks
I’ve owned for years. I see this as supplemental to my
forthcoming pension. It’s a defined-benefits plan so I’ll get a set
yearly sum until I die, and a few years after retirement I’ll be able
to enhance it with Social Security, also until I die. I don’t like
thinking about the dying part, but I’m glad my death rather than
my mistake will end the payouts. And I’ll carry my medical, a big
plus. I have no debt and so when the day arrives I think I’ll be
OK."
"I think so. I’m envious. This is the third shop I’ve worked for and
while we can earn huge bonuses, my actual retirement accounts
are still too small. In the end with Paul’s pension we’ll be fine."
"I think the major pitfall is when people retire with too much debt.
Without any debt I can’t imagine that I will ever need as much
money as I now earn to maintain a good life. I suppose it depends
on what one wants to do after retirement."
"You’re right, of course. Since I have no other skills or interests to
fall back on, I'm apprehensive about retirement. Travel, cook, knit,
play around, dance a different tune...I can't get my arms around
any of those things easily and enthusiastically. Frankly, they all
seems like taking up time. As much as we traders complain...and
we do complain endlessly...about pressures and demands we're a
mess when both are suspended temporarily. Maybe I could use a
good tutor?"
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"Well, there are some prerequisites. There's Day-Dreaming 101,
followed by Lazing-About 201 and finally a seminar in Paris on
Cafe-Sitting 301. All just a click away…."
To a hearty howl from our eavesdropping host came:
"Lynn, would you please instruct these two jokesters in proper
household decorum? Day-Dreaming, Lazing-About and CafeSitting is not what serious, mindful folks do.”
"Oh, hush, Sal...." Only to elicit more hoots and howls.
"Sal says you have many hobbies – other interests perhaps I
should say."
"Besides skiing, star-gazing with actual telescopes and not with
psychedelics, managing two web sites, cooking, attending opera
– I could go on but I won’t. Yes, lots of hobbies and interests. I
bore easily."
"And no mate or partner?"
"Been there, done that. I’ve been divorced a long time, and while I
have had some relationships since, mine tend to be messy. So,
I’ve pretty much decided for the sake of sanity, I’ll plod along by
myself. That’s not for everyone, but it’s OK for me."
"I understand. This is my third marriage. I married too young, and
then I didn’t wait long enough in between. I struggled over this
one. I was 40, had a career and couldn’t remember that I was
unbearably miserable living alone, although in my business it’s
hardly a problem to find a guy to bed down with or move in with."
"Has this one worked out better?"
"We’ll save that for another conversation. Testy at time, to be
sure. What is it about male academics? I live in a world of ruthless
egomaniacs, but academics are whiny egomaniacs."
I broke into a big smile that caught Ellen's attention.
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"I’d never thought of that comparison. Frankly, I find many Wall
Streeters pretty whiny but usually because they can’t be as
greedy as they want to be. But that’s not what you’re talking
about, is it?"
"No. Whining is universal and probably not the distinguishing trait.
The difference — am I revealing too much? — is that one takes
the risk in the bedroom and leaves it at that — often just leaves —
and the other takes the risk and then wants to analyze it. You can
guess who’s who."
"I can. Dare I ask, do you have a preference?"
"I’m not sure we’re supposed to be having this conversation," she
responded with her own big smile. "In fact, I think someone else
was supposed to entertain you this evening."
"I’m quite content with the entertainment at hand. This is not the
first time I’ve failed a match-making class. The efforts are goodhearted but fruitless, I'm afraid."
"To answer your question, though, I can’t say I do. I’m not sure I
should. Easy enough to create the stereotypes, but that’s all they
are. Like whining, we make up categories just because we have
to. Isn’t making love always and thankfully a risk? Would you
really want to make love if you knew ahead of time what to
expect? To answer my own question, that’s what happens to
marriages, isn’t it?"
"So, why stayed married?"
"It’s a convenience. I live a fairly hectic day, and it’s a relief to
come home to an established mode: the drink is ready, eventually
the dinner appears and bedtime is seldom violated. The marriage
has worked; a year from now, who knows. And, sometimes, the
unexpected happens, and it momentarily seems worth it. I
suppose ‘good marriages’ have an ample supply of the
unexpected."
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"I wonder?" I asked. "My parents were married more than sixty
years, and I think their marriage was grounded in the expected,
not the unexpected. They had little tolerance for deviations from
the norm. Unlike my parents, whether by accident or choice,
probably choice, I seemingly find no comfort in the norm. I’ve
continually stepped over lines; sometimes, when they recognized
what I was doing, I regrettably caused them grief. I still have
trouble with lines."
"I suspect my husband would like to redraw the lines. He was
fascinated by my life as a trader. It was both arcane and lucrative.
And, I suppose, as I insinuated earlier, I was looking for the
opposite of the arcane and lucrative because that’s what I dealt
with day in and day out. He’s no dummy, of course. Wellrespected in his field of social and political theory but in his midlife that may not be as satisfying as it was earlier, certainly when
he was married to woman with lower expectations and ambitions.
He was attracted to me because of what I did as much as who I
was. I’ve often wondered if he shouldn’t have stayed with her. He
was ready to cross some lines that he may now wish he hadn’t.
One can look back, but we’re still where we are and we still don’t
what’s ahead. The uneasiness in our marriage right now is more
pronounced than I would prefer."
This conversation between two people who had just met on the
other side of the room from the others could not have ever been
anticipated by either of us. I didn’t want it go on or to end. I knew
more than I should know, but even under those circumstances I
remained curious. I should not be privy to this information, postdinner on the sofa in the living room of my two best friends who
were also close friends of the person who was telling me what I
shouldn't know. One of those conversations in which the flow of
questions was endless, no struggle, no pauses, totally relaxed,
pure pleasure, even though the topic should not be. I could feel
that if any conversation with Sal and Lynn about Ellen’s personal
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life occurred, I’d know know more than they did and I’d have to
play dumb.
"Are female traders different from their male peers? What drives
them in the office or in the bedroom?" I asked.
"Competitive, compulsive, cranky and carefree," came her
response without losing a beat.
"You’ve obviously been asked that before. Carefree, not an
adjective I would have expected."
"Not only asked before but thought about, talked about,
repeatedly. Will it surprise you if I tell you that bonding among
women traders occurs more readily than between men and
women or among men. Male traders are always looking over their
collective shoulders, pointing their fingers, slapping their
foreheads, stomping around in their bubbles. Not so true of the
older traders who took reward-risk seriously; more the case with
my peers. Few women traders among the elders, but a huge
increase in the generations behind the elders. When I’m having a
drink, I like to enjoy the drink, and when I’m having sex, I like to
enjoy the sex. Women traders, well, this woman trader knows
how to be carefree.
"Good point to shift gears. Are you a city kid?"
She chuckled, a bit louder than usual, before answering.
"Not at all. Daughter of a couple of hippies. They actually stayed
together until my dad suffered a heart attack and died. My mom
died a few years later. They were both in their seventies. They
had few possessions, but they were terrific parents. No drugs,
whatsoever, but they loved the patch of land they owned in
northern California, nat Mendocino. I was an only child but never
felt lonely. My parents were always taking in others who were in
the middle of this crisis or that. It wasn’t exactly a collective but it
had that feel. Music was a big constant. Strings mainly…guitars,
banjos, lutes. I can still make a tune on a guitar. We raised a lot of
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our own food, and the kitchen was the biggest room in the house
that my father was always adding to. I know I’m making it sound
idyllic, even though there were times when it was utterly
precarious. I was not schooled at home because my parents
believed in public education, and I was certainly encouraged to do
well but also to explore, even if I messed up. I’m not a babyboomer who resents having had hippy parents. They were both
talented in many ways, and they used their talents to keep the
crazy enterprise that they had created in motion. I suspect that
the risk-taking that I grew up with was what propelled me into the
career I’m in. But, obviously, it risk-taking of a very different
caliber. I also wanted something different, very different. At some
point unbeknownst to me I began seeking a life that would give
me security and stability, two goals that insinuated their way into
my thinking about my future…I suppose without being too
psychological about it all because my childhood and youth had
such a helter-skelter…lovingly so…quality I was ready for a
change. Funny thing, though. Security and stability on the surface
but still helter-skelter underneath. Is that possible? I’m afraid I
haven’t done very well substituting for helter-skelter, at least, not
on the personal level. And, I suspect that the anti-acquisitive side
of my upbringing – we made do – is now coming to the fore. I
don’t see myself trading forever on the scale I’m now doing. I
have few material needs. My parents spent their lives acquiring
only what they needed and not much more, and yet that patch of
land saved them. When they had to leave, hard as it was, they
sold it for a sum that gave them more material comfort than they’d
ever known before. They sold it all but one corner, which I'm the
sole proprietor of, although I haven't seen it in years. I can’t say
they were happy in their new urban surroundings, but they were
smart enough to figure out that they had made the right choice.
They lived quietly and comfortably for nearly a decade. In an odd
way I’m leaning away from what I’ve done for my adult life and
done very well and back into the world and life I shared with my
parents. They were smart enough to alter, hard as it was, what
they’d done since their teens, and now I’m asking myself if I’m
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smart enough to alter what I’ve been doing since my early
twenties. They left the open spaces for a more closed setting, and
I may be heading in the opposite direction. Perhaps just idle
thoughts. But that’s my story. Is it worth a memoir?" she asked
with a deep frown before dropping r head and staring at her
hands folded on her lap. Momentarily, so uncharacteristic of this
woman who seemed to have Nature's forces at her command.
One of those pauses we all have when life as we knew it ran into
life as we remember it.
"A memoir…absolutely. Just the right tension…where we are and
where we want to be. I know it well. I’d love to be your publisher.
Publisher or not, the rest of the story will have to wait. Looks as if
the evening is done. Too bad. Look me up on the web and drop
me a line. I’d loved to know more."
"You’re right. Adieus are in order. I will look you up. You also have
a story, which I didn’t hear much of because somehow you
managed to come up with the questions that kept my story going
and hid yours."
"I’ll have to make up one to come close to yours. Mine is neither
comedy nor tragedy, more like Looney Tunes. I was about to say
keep trading, but maybe I need something more original, which I
can’t come up with."
We shook hands, and then we joined the others at the door. It
took another ten minutes to exit, and another ten minutes for the
cab Lynn had ordered to arrive. I was home by midnight. I
thought…an evening worth recording...so I opened my journal
and wrote for the next thirty minutes. It was after one am before I
crawled into bed.
The Sunday Times, which at home I never read anymore, was
waiting for me at the doorstep, when I awoke. I did not order it,
but it seemed to know where it was supposed to be. I should ask
the secretary, but I probably won't. I threw it on the sofa and set
about to wake up my kitchen...the morning grind. Shortly
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thereafter, my Peet’s was ready, preceded by a shot of OJ. I
moved to the sofa and opened The Old Grey Lady.
Halfway through the first section a local story caught my eye. A
local condo developer was suing a former tenant for failure to
fulfill a contract. The details about the suit were scant, but names
of owners of the property were Howard and Ellen Suskin. The
article noted that they had bought the condo for several million
and, then, shortly thereafter their marriage dissolved. The
husband remained in the condo but the wife moved out. Several
years later for no known reason the husband abandoned the
condo, and it had been unoccupied since. The developer was
trying to enforce a provision that stipulated that condos could not
be unoccupied for more than twelve months. The article indicated
that a sum of money had exchanged hands as a part of the
settlement, and while the wife’s name remained on the original
contract, there was also a codiçil that absolved her of any further
interest. Was that Ellen’s last name, I asked myself. I was not
sure her last name was ever used last night, but Suskin rang a
bell, one of those hundreds of bells that get rung in my everfading memory bank. By noon, I had read as much as I wanted
and put down the paper.
I turned on the computer. For a Sunday morning I was surprised
how long the email list had grown. About half the emails could be
answered in a few sentences. Even an email from the chair of the
department could be taken care of quickly. I knew what it was
about, and so it was. He said he would like to talk to me early next
week, if I were staying in the city during the recess. I replied that I
was and would await his call. Maybe he’ll forgot, I mused. But the
email from the chair at my home university would take longer. He
was beginning to draw up class schedules for the next academic
year, and he was checking on my plans. He also said that two
senior members had unexpectedly announced their retirement
and searches for their replacements would be put off for a year.
He was eager to discuss these searches with me, if I had time to
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call. I liked the new head – young, bright and eager – and while I
had agreed to help him out on several matters, I really didn’t want
to become too involved. The old-guard was still there, and
although less numerous because of more retirements than had
been expected, I was still on less than amicable terms with most
of those remaining. I replied that my plans about returning at the
end of the year hadn’t changed, and I would be happy to call him
in a week or so. Maybe he’ll forget too.
I was especially interested in the note from Deirdre’s. After
watching Sal's performance, she had come up with several
possible approaches. She was definitely onboard. She thought a
meeting between us would be helpful since she was just
beginning to deal with historians and may need some coaching.
She was on her way to Toronto for the week, but after her return,
perhaps we could find a time. My note was brief. Pleased to have
her response and almost anytime after her return would work for
me. I was done and shut down the computer. A workout was
called for. I had a quick snack, dressed for the gym and took off.
Paulette was at the desk.
"Hi," she said, handing me the pen. "You have the gym pretty
much to yourself. Everyone must be off looking at the leaves or
what’s left of them."
"Thanks," I said as I took the pen. "I’m glad to have the gym to
myself. I see you’re catching up on your fiction. She’s a fine
writer."
"Believe it or not, it’s not for a class. It’s for pleasure, and pure
pleasure it is."
"She’s written two other novels that I can also recommend. Finish
the one you’re reading and then decide. She’s a wonderful storyteller. The flow is almost flawless."
"Actually I’m a lit major with an interest in writing, but while
reading fiction like this, I have to wonder if I have the talent."
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"Are you taking writing courses?"
"I am, and I am doing OK, but still…."
"It’s scary. Just keep at it. I’m off to the far corner," and I departed.
I spent an hour plus without any interruptions. A good workout by
any measure. I headed for the exit, bid Paulette adieu and
squinted as I hit the sunlight. No Erin, and I thought about the
benefits, if this arrangement became permanent.
I chose to eat at Sheila’s. Another fine fall evening to sit outside
and to watch the street traffic. By six fifteen I was seated at the
café and had a glass of wine in front of me. Sheila seldom worked
on Sundays. Tonight it was not yet busy so the staff was in
relaxed mode. I ordered soup and a shrimp-scallop casserole.
After such a good workout I decided that a dessert was in order.
Fresh apple crisp with a scoop of vanilla ice cream was my choice
and an espresso. By eight o’clock I felt satisfied and fortified
enough to head home.
When I woke the next morning, I decided to do some work at the
university library. With students on recess it would be quieter than
usual. Despite accessibility to information through the Web,
libraries seemed busier than ever. In part, I suppose, because
libraries were responsible for Web accessibility. Computers
everywhere, links to hundreds of electronic databases, utilities
I’ve never heard of or tried to use. How different from my
graduate-student days. I remember finding my mentor one day
sitting at the card catalogue, rifling through the long-drawer of
entries. When I greeted him, he had to tell me how much he liked
card-catalogue systems. I could only imagine how thousands of
cards his long, thin fingers had passed over. Whatever would he
think now…sitting for hours in a library and never touching a card
or a book…he wouldn’t even have to bother to come to the library
building. I was always impatient with card-catalogue systems and
tried all sorts of shortcuts. The electronic card-catalogue was
made for me.
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With my library tasks behind me, I arrived at the gym even earlier
than I’d planned and hopeful....
"Ah ha," was how Katie greeted me. "A new strategy."
"I can’t slip anything by you, can I?’
"I told you, this saga has not run its course yet. Trust me."
"I hardly have any choice, do I? By the way, how was your
weekend?"
"Relaxing. I cooked, sat on the deck, and became reacquainted
with my domestic side. And you?"
"Quite manageable and generally pleasant. A surprisingly lovely
Saturday evening – dinner and conversation with friends and
some people newly met. And yesterday’s workout, which cost you
so dearly, in near solitude, was a morale booster."
"As long as your morale is getting boosted, I’ll survive financially,"
she said as she handed the pen to others who had just arrived to
sign in.
Mid-afternoon may be ideal for workouts. Physical wear and tear
but no emotional hammering. I was on my way home by threethirty. After a shower I sent Sasha a text message to confirm the
time and within minutes I had a reply in the affirmative. I spent the
next hour cleaning up emails and reviewing my portfolio. Nothing
about the market was very encouraging. Best not to try to
outsmart the market.
I showed up on time at Sasha’s doorstep, where she was waiting.
"I decided to wait for you here because my roommate is
entertaining some friends. We’ll get to the restaurant and the food
faster, no?"
"You’re right. Let’s go."
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We didn't rush but walked leisurely along the streets, which were
filling up with strollers and others hurrying home to lovers or
enemies. Our table was ready, and we were seated along the
windows that faced the street. I had eaten here several times but
did not know the staff well, although our waitress recognized me.
Le Petit Place, despite its name, was not exactly a French café or
bistro. More eclectic with a limited menu that might showcase
some non-French cuisine, that changed daily and that also
featured a prix fixe and an excellent wine list. Tonight the prix fixe
was paella valenciana, and we both agreed that was all we
needed to know. The response of the waitress certainly broke any
ice, if there was any ice to begin with. She had spent all afternoon
committing today’s menu to memory and by ordering the prix fixe
we were going to deny her a chance to show off? We promised to
eaves-drop on any nearby table, if she got a chance to do her
thing. Wine was an easy choice. They had several labels of
recently discovered Rioja vineyards, and I chose a label that I had
seen on display at Tish and Serge’s. Then, on the spur of the
moment, I decided to begin with a champagne, a decision to
which Sasha gave an actual thumbs-up. And after the barman
poured our champagne at the table the conversation began in
earnest. In fact, there was nothing earnest about talking to Sasha.
Ease of conversation seemed to be another one of her talents.
"I’m assuming it’s rather silly to ask how’s the week going on
Monday of the week?" I threw out just for fun.
"Actually I was bored today. Is that a sign of what’s to come?
Should I report it’s been a boring week?"
"If you do, I’ll have to order another bottle of champagne, just to
stem the boredom."
"That would probably not only make the rest of the week unboring
but also unproductive. I’m pretty well organized so I don’t have a
lot to catch up on. Of course, I may wish I had this week back in a
month or so. Your observation the first session about reading lists
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and literature reviews was certainly prescient. I do a lot of that in
other courses. What did you call it?"
"The Yale Syndrome. Many of my colleagues at my university
were Yale PhDs, and when they conducted doctoral exams they
were obsessed with lists and reviews. These exams caused my
mind to wonder, my eyes to glaze over. I don't think I was ever
elbowed to wake up, but that could have happened. My mentor
was a Yale man, and I think the bibliography I presented to him
before my orals consisted of one hundred and fifty items, all of
which I had read. He recommended several more, one in Latin.
Latin…I’d studied Latin in high school but hadn’t ever used it. It
turned out to be fairly easy with a translation. I don’t recall,
however, that the list of readings for him or any other member of
my committee was ever mentioned during the orals. There were a
few details I couldn’t remember – I think I was being fact-checked
– but, by and large, I was spared a bibliography test.
“Just the opposite with my own departmental colleagues. They
dwelt on those lists: why this entry and not that entry? why star
this one and not that one? I should add that these Eli's were
among my favorite colleagues. Young, smart and fun except in
these oral exams.
“I almost flunked the written part of my own orals, however,
because the examiner whom I had never met was a Yalie. She
was unhappy that I hadn't proven I'd read the basic literature. I
hadn't read her basic-literature list. That was why her questions
made no sense. Even if I had, I would have gone off on my own
and done just as badly. When I think about that...a blow to my ego
in the presence of my mentor more or less explaining how he
saved me...I remind myself that she disappeared into the
woodwork never to be heard from again. Extensively-read
bibliographies can’t save you."
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"I have a pretty good memory for lists, so I might survive a
bibliographic review, even though it doesn’t sound very
interesting," inserted Sasha.
"Part of my problem is that I don’t remember titles or authors, and
too often I’m afraid I don’t remember what ideas I should
associate with the forgotten titles and authors. I tend to do a lot of
thinking about what I’m doing and less time about what others
have been doing or are doing. Even Sal, in reviewing my ‘big
book’, remarked that the bibliography, which was about a dozen
pages, was not as comprehensive as it should be. In a sense he
was correct. I had ignored some standards, and I had not scoured
the field for the latest publications no matter how obscure. Had I
been more bibliographically-driven, would I have written a
different book, offered a different perspective, arrived at a different
interpretation? Hardly. The book was data-driven, and I was pretty
much on my own in any event. More to the point, I didn’t much
care. It was unlikely that I had stolen ideas or misrepresented
facts unknowingly because I hadn’t read as widely as I should. I
can think of projects that would require you to read everything that
had ever been published, but such was not my project. Besides,
as you have no doubt observed, I’ve chosen to operate on my
own, even though, when I began my career, I anticipated more
participation in a community of scholars."
"Ken used to speak endearingly of his mentor and his fellowstudents, as if they constituted just such a community."
"Indeed, as he should. He belonged to a circle of young scholars
with similar research interests, all of whom had a link to Ken’s
mentor. They have kept the circle alive through their published
research and edited collections. When I was a grad student, I was
an outlier among my mentor’s students because I was the only
one working with big datasets. My fellow-students and I had little
in common and seldom talked. I fretted about this for some years
because my ideal was not being realized, then I finally said ‘what
the hell’. I can't change this. I became a lone wolf, comfortably so,
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I must confess. A couple times, like now, I’ve been in situations for
a few months, not much longer, where I abandoned the lone-wolf
role.
“Sal, the dean and I have known each other a long time, and
while Sal and I have a personal connection – we like putting up
with each other – the dean and I do not. And, this is a group of
students for whom I’m developing deep affection. But, it will come
to an end, as it must. The ironic thing is that I’m in this situation
with notable scholars and noteworthy students at a time when I’m
actually working on subjects and in areas that have nothing to do
with why I’m here. I’m turning confessional, but I’m probably done
doing what you know me for. And what I’m working on now, I may
never become known for. With your split loyalties you may
understand more than most how one’s world can get so
bifurcated, or in my case scattered."
The wine arrived with bread and other goodies. A timely and
welcome pause in the conversation. I had said enough about my
professional woes, which seemed less woeful at the moment than
before. Was I sounding pedantic and silly? Worse than my
colleagues talking about their lists.
"Bifurcated is certainly how I feel. To be perfectly honest, I’m not
sure I’m emotionally prepared to jump through the hoops I see
looming on the horizon. Let me brown-nose for a minute."
I laughed because I hadn’t heard that term in years. And she
smiled, as if I should be offended.
"Your approach is different. I suspect at the end of the course, if
I’ve only read five books instead of fifty, but I can present a
reasonable interpretation based on a careful analysis of the
appropriate datasets you’ll be satisfied. When said this way, it
doesn’t sound very challenging. But when said in terms of what
we confront in the datasets, it can be very challenging. All of us
are becoming aware of that. We talk about it among ourselves all
the time. The other thing that’s happening — you probably know
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this — is that we are also checking out the secondary works
based upon what we need to know, not what will impress you."
"Bingo! That’s what I hoped for. At times, it may be an untidy
process because you may dilly-dally around with the data for days
or weeks before you find the key. That’s the way it is in the real
world. Hit and miss, success and failure, living on the edge, well,
to the extent that historians can live with an edge."
I poured both of us more wine.
"I’m still much in the dark about faculty expectations. Based on
conversations with my advisor, whom I’m not crazy about, I doubt
if I’m going to meet their expectations, even if I knew exactly what
they were. I’m having an easier time with your seminar than my
other classes, not because it’s easier – it isn’t – but it makes
sense. The work is designed to reach a goal not to be the goal. As
an artist, I have goals in mind, not cast in concrete, but clear
enough that my time is not just spent working but working toward
something. Sometimes the goals prove to be unattainable, but
that’s part of the risk. Working toward a goal that can’t be attained
is frustrating but not unsatisfying. Working to be working is
worthless. I may be overstating because I feel more at home with
the material in your seminar than I do with the material in my
other classes. On the other hand, since I have to choose several
other fields in which I have little or no current competence, I may
be really looking for a reason to get out. Something inside
wherever that may be may have decided it ain’t worth it. Excuse
the near perfect English," I could see a big smile as she dropped
her head.
At this juncture I said with as much convictions as I could muster,
"You’re excused.”
The paella arrived, and without further comment about work,
school or life we dug in, and because it was so good we just kept
digging.
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After a few minute she picked up the thread of the conversation.
"It won’t surprise to hear me say I’m doing history externally but
art internally. I’ve given up trying to corral the art. Doing art is not
a perfect world. Not only did I learn to sculpt from my ex but I
learned how to shout, stomp, scream and many other gauche
gestures and expressions. Never much enjoyed emotive side,
partly because I had no prior exposure to it. My parents in
managing their household emphasize calm instead of outburst.
My parents were not artists, and they never found it necessary or
useful to exist in a constant state of outburst. Even my dad, the
businessman, is known among his business associate as a calm
and steady hand. I had to learn to be explosive when my ex was
in a huff in the studio or in the bedroom. The odd thing is that the
better I got at fighting back and the angrier my ex got, the more
self-assured I became and the more creative I felt. I had to
wonder when I escaped The Compound — my name for his
property — if the absence of this thin-skinned, marginally-talented
shouter would affect my own output. It hasn’t yet. But, I also
understood the need for tension to agitate the creative impulses.
Not his brand of tension, though. He hated criticism of his own
work, so much so that whatever good might have come from the
criticism was lost. He lived where he did to avoid being around
people who were going to tear his work apart or perform better
than him. The town was small, he was the only sculptor and the
community adored him. They assumed that all the people in their
buses arrived as pilgrims to see the great master when in fact all
these trips were arranged by his agent and the pilgrims were
simply in search of an interesting bus ride. It took me a while to
figure all this out. But after two years in which I learned the basics
I was ready to leave."
She paused before she continued:
"Put a bunch of aspiring artists in the same studio, and you have
the potential for another world war. In college studio critiques
were far harsher than anything I’ve experienced here. But when
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you’re creating and working alone, it can be so fulfilling. From
what you’ve said, you’ve more or less operated outside the circle.
Artists can do that as well. At some point, on our own, we can
learn what is good and valuable and, more importantly, once there
how little the critics matter. Am I just dreaming?"
"You are dreaming, but it’s absolutely the right dream. I suppose
it’s more accurate to say I’ve listened to my colleagues and critics,
when I thought I should. I listen to Sal, for example, but less so to
the dean. It's always my choice. I don’t mind a vigorous debate,
but I have no interest in a brawl. I don’t believe that my work is so
original or profound to be worth a brawl. Besides, I’ve never been
in a fist-fight my whole life, not even as a kid. Not about to start
now for real or vicariously."
"It’s something the students talk about. I think some of my
classmates wish you were harsher because they’re afraid they
won’t learn the skills."
"Believe me, I’ve heard before from students and colleagues I’m
being soft. I’m not really being soft, as you can observe from the
comments I’ve written on your papers. Being a shit is not a role I
admire."
Surprisingly that offhandedly remark seemed to resonate for both
of us. Sasha begun to laugh, almost hilariously, and soon both of
us were in near tears. It took a few minutes to recover; after a sip
of wine I continued.
"But, you should take the comments to heart in lieu of expecting
to get beat up. We can argue about them, but I’m more interested
in having you try on your own to incorporate these comments into
your thinking about how to approach a topic. If you need someone
to put you through the paces, then, I’m not the ideal teacher. By
the way the ‘you' should be read as students, not you personally. I
don’t think most humans need much training in how to be brutal. I
do think we can all learn how to be smart. I’m not yet convinced
that brutal leads to smart."
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"The ‘you’ is and was understood. There is a parallel in the arts.
Often times the criticism is directed in such a way as to imply, if
you had done it the way I said you should have, then…. Of
course, I didn’t do it that way because I’m not you, I’m me – we
like to lord over others if we can. That was the tactic of my ex.
Inexplicable how creative people or those who claim creative want
clones."
"Speaking of doing art, may I have a peek inside the folder you’ve
brought along? But, first, let’s order desert or espresso or liquor,
whatever would keep the conversation going."
"Liquors are pretty alien to me, but a dessert and an espresso
sound about right. Fortunately, weigh-gain is not a problem I have
yet."
We ordered the dessert recommended by the waitress after we
allowed her ample time to describe the full list. A memorized list
but a performance. She must have spent time in the kitchen with
the chef because she could probably have listed all the
ingredients as well. I glanced at Sasha who was actually looking
at me with a knowing smile. It was funny and simultaneously
bravura.
"How high should we allow ours expectations in dessert or art?"
She posed the question with a mischievous grin as the waitress
departed and she handed me photographs from her portfolio.
"Who can predict expectations of dessert and art. Besides, who
wants to. Let it happen."
Beginning with the very first, the photographs of her jewelry were
eye-catching. To be sure, the placement, the lighting, the angle,
all presented the jewelry with perfection. In the end, though, the
beauty was in the jewelry and the photographs simply captured
the beauty of the jewelry itself. The rings were the most intriguing,
a band with clusters of small beads, piled on top of each other in
various arrangements, and with single beads almost free-floating.
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Nothing was highly polished, but everything was exquisitely
finished. The pendants and earrings were of various designs –
round, oblong, arced – some with beads and some void of any
ornamentation except for the elegance of the surface. I wore no
jewelry, not even a watch, but if I did, I would prefer the mixture of
whimsy and exquisiteness I saw in these photos.
As I turned to the last pages, I came face-to-face with her
sculptures. Different in design but similar in aesthetic. Long
narrow rectangles shadowed by angled pieces that were
deceptively simple in appearance but complex in design. Curving
metal seemed to be a constant in her compositions. Again, like
the jewelry, the surfaces did not glisten in the light, but they still
dazzled the eye. There was no way one would ever tire of looking
at her creations. I put down the folder and noticed that her look
was as intent as I had ever seen it.
"Brilliant," I said, "utterly brilliant. You’re in your twenties, and you
seem to have found that constant that some artists search a
lifetime for. The history world’s loss will be the art world’s re-gain."
I closed the folder, and, as I did, she smiled.
"I’m not sure it would have mattered if your reaction had been
negative because I’m for the time being pretty much excited about
what I’m doing. They’re my creations, and I’m not about to give up
on them yet. But, honestly, I wanted your approval because when
I look at the art on your wall – and I’ve done that, while I should
have been concentrating on history – I knew you had a welltrained eye. One painting in particular — I don’t know if it has a
title — is a painting that can suck you in until you walk through the
odd-shaped archway. That’s the power of good art."
"You have the right one, and the story behind is more frightening
than the walk-through. Next time, I’ll fill you in. The artist resides
in this city, and much to my chagrin and joy belongs to the same
gym that I joined unknowingly and innocently. The breakup
entailed more brutal language than you'd ever hear from your
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studio critics or maybe your ex. We haven’t been in touch for a
couple of years and hadn’t seen each other in a decade or more,
but from minute one at the signup counter her language hadn't
changed, as if she'd been rehearsing to pick up wherever we’d
left off if we should ever meet again. Meet again we did, but the
owner of the gym seemed to have figured out everything without
being told and she's become my protector. I should introduce you
to a fellow-artist, but, Sasha, I have misgivings. I haven’t decided
one way or another."
I stopped for moment, dropped my head and tried to think of what
to say next.
"Out of your control, spiraling toward not disaster so much as
crappiness. I know the feeling," she offered sympathetically.
"That’s the proper diagnosis," I said as I lifted a smiling face.
"Relationship messiness. My life has been steeped in it. Maybe
I’m the only one who can’t step around inevitable messes. I know
I’m adept at stepping in and looking for more."
She laughed, not at me but with me, I realized.
After paying the check, we headed in the direction of her
apartment when I suggested a longer route in order to enjoy
another pleasant fall evening. She agreed.
"Is it for certain you’ll not be teaching after this semester? I’m not
the only one who’s interested, by the way."
"No plans to teach, and quite frankly not much interest. I want to
write, go to museums and galleries, try new restaurants and slide
slowly into poverty. But I appreciate the good words."
"I can’t blame you as much as some of us would like to have you
around. I can hardly criticize since my own future is under review.
This conversation had crystallized some things for me. I’m not
sure I want to leave the city, but when you’re an artist in a city
where there is so much to grab onto – my sketch pad is filled with
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ideas – the art assumes pre-eminence. Is that demeaning of the
power and glory of history?"
"Yes, and for that I’ll have to give you a black star!" I said as we
reached her door.
"Thank you for breaking the rules and for the evening. I’d invite
you up to see more etchings" – we both laughed – "but I suspect
the relationship messiness that I left up there several hours ago is
still a work in progress."
"We can only break so many rules in one night. But I will be in
touch. If not about history, about whether it’s safe to introduce you
to another artist. The irony of any introduction would be,
afterwards, I would be totally excluded."
"That won’t happen," said Sasha as she patted me on the
shoulder and disappeared through the door.
I was not ready to retire for the night. There was a bar between
Sasha's and my place that I had passed several times but never
dropped in on. It had a name that made me curious: Your Circle.
As I walked through the huge circular double door into a dim...no,
a darkened ...room I was greeted by Dante? How would I know
that, for I could not recall I'd ever seen a painting of
Alighieri...well, I was so informed by someone whom I
recognized...Satan.
"And may all your sins be washed away," Dante intoned...no
sang...and it wasn't a tenor but a mezzo....
"Not a chance," responded Satan in deep baritone, as he led me
to the bar, no table or chairs...just a bar that in the dimness of the
lighting seemingly filled the room by curving around and circling
back.
"Your seat. Cherish it. Your future and your fate."
"I'd hoped both would be slightly different. Who am I to argue."
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I almost always chose to sit at the end or corner of a bar. This bar
had no customary end or corner. When we arrived my seat to
cherish was a curve. I could begin to visualize the layout of the
entire complex that undulated down and up, my curve being more
up than down. Satan placed his hand on the back of a low-swung
stool and then with a slight wave the stool acquired a back. Satan
turned the seat of the stool/chair toward me and I slid on board,
leaned back as Satan turned me toward the bar. Before departing
he announced:
"You are in Circle Six. You'll find out what's in this Circle, if you've
forgotten your Dante, on the screen in front of you. Tap the top of
the screen, and it will disappear. It is your sponsor for your time in
Six."
I'd definitely forgotten my Dante, but Six...that low down...could
not be good. I tapped the top and...oh shit...then, I
remembered...HERETICS.
"Perfect," I thought I said to myself except I heard
"Satan's a sticker for perfection." When I looked up my eyes met a
young, round face, much too beautiful for the Sixth Circle.
"I'm Iz, and you are, if you wish to reveal yourself...."
I revealed myself as Hooch, and she laughed, as if she didn't
believe me. Not the first time.
"I can see you're ready to order."
"I'm amazed. Dim as it is, how can you see that I am because I
am?"
"Satan's world is not complicated. Do you want a spoon with your
Old Fashioned? Satan recommends."
Even before I could answer, she walked away. Because the
lighting was embedded in the floor, I noticed she wore beautiful,
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knee-high tan boots that fit her calves perfectly. I was dazzled. I
remarked about boots upon her return with my drink.
"My grandmother will be pleased," was all she said. She walked
away with a step and sound that accented her beautifully-booted
calves. Obviously, I was less than convincing as a heretic,
although I'd always considered myself among the notables when I
thought about heresy.
I checked the screen for information about the ingredients of the
Old Fashioned. It belonged to anti-sweet...no cherry or
sugar...said to be from the original, early nineteenth century. I had
to assume Satan knew his business.
When I lifted my head from reading the screen, I realized the bar
had filled to near overflowing. I noticed for the first time that the
seating in some circles was low...the bars were not all the same
height...with the change in the grade of the surface being almost
imperceptible.
I recalled a friend from years past, a German-Jew who fled Hitler
for England, then for the United States, a particle physicist, a
historian of photography and amateur musician...in fact, we met
through our piano teacher who specialized in teaching adults,
although I proved to be unteachable...I recalled we had to change
cafés because he being a couple decades older than me was
mighty uncomfortable in high stools and chairs. Here the people
seated at the lowest bars were among the youngest and those at
the highest the oldest. Oh, well, that was hardly as interesting a
thought as watching the choreography of the serveurs, almost all
grandly booted, as if Iz's grandmother had a thriving consultancy
or a large family.
Suddenly I felt — why I didn’t know — ready to leave — but
simultaneously I wasn’t ready to leave. I was about to wave for Iz
or whoever had replaced her, when I heard to my left,
"I hope your flaming tomb is satisfactory."
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When I turned, even in the dimness of the light, I could see a face
with more snark than smile looking at me.
"Unbeatable," I volunteered out of no where. "No desire to make
the proprietor unhappy. Secretly hoping that all of this is a bit
premature, except I do take great pride in my Circle Six
designation. I've forgotten my other choices except some good
pagans like Socrates and Virgil might have a more favorable
location."
"Circle One since you've forgotten. I don't remember what's going
on, but I don't think they're roasting in their tombs. Anyway, no
names — is that a deal?"
"That's a deal.”
“For now, you’re Mr H Man.”
“Ironically you’ve chosen the first letter of my name and
nickname. You’re one powerful chick. An agent of Mr Satan
himself, I’m beginning to think.”
“Don’t speculate too much. To finish the equation I’m R the first
letter of my first name. H and R we are. Don’t go there…drink
instead.”
We did. A moment of quiet, all across the bar, as if they were
waiting for our next utterance.
"Not hard to figure you've never been here before, and I've been
here too often. So what gives?"
"Temporary gig at local university."
“So, new to the Devil's playground, both the bar and the city."
"Not exactly. I spent my undergrad days in the city doing
everything but being a student. I was ordered to leave. I suppose
my revenge is that I was invited back."
I heard a laugh, followed by,
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"I'm from some place close, and while a student, not yet
degreed...is that a word...I ran off with my boyfriend. We ended up
here. Not yet been invited back. We lived together happily for a
few years and then got married and lived together unhappily for a
few years. It's been a roller-coaster since. Forbidden to know
anymore. I can see from your expression you’re learning the
rules.”
“For the first time ever I love rules,” I sneaked in as she took a
breath.
“I could see that. It’s written in your face. That’s why I'm still
talking to you, a fellow heretic, and not the one on my left…as she
elbowed him and ignored the expression that struck fear in my
heart…telling my story, my way, unprovoked, hoping I get drunk
or stoned or sunk before the night's over. My pope-loving, massgoing, fear-mongering parents warned me about my penchant for
mischief and worse, and here I am having a drink with a perfect
stranger who seems like a perfect friend...I stole that line from Ian
Shaw...as a prelude to my ultimate fate."
Before I knew it a second Old-Fashioned, again delivered by
"perfect boots", and a tap on the hand, had shown up.
"I'm afraid to ask how this appeared. We'll be drunk before we're
stoned. Sunk I don’t know about. And I know the music of Ian
Shaw well. That line is from Somewhere Toward Love. Do I
pass?"
Instead of an answer I got a kiss and a smile.
"You're no fuckin’ joke, are you?"
"Nope. Do they allow Karaoke in the Sixth Circle?"
"Don't care, Buster...your new name...com'on, we're out of here."
As she pulled me off my stool, she waved her hand in front of the
screen at her place and then in front of my screen, while we both
swallowed the last of our drinks.
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"Paid" showed up on both screens with more instructions that The
Nameless did not give me time to read.
Outside, she stood in front of me, almost reaching my chin, and
asked, no, commanded,
"Your place or mine? Be smart. Choose the shorter distance."
I didn't choose, but we ended up in front of my door. In the
meantime, on the way, I got the abbreviated abbreviated version
of her current status. She not only liked to talk but also to talk fast:
a current guy but that was I was allowed to know. I made note of a
rather large, rather conspicuous diamond on that finger that
signaled status. A mirage or some such word because of my
heavy-duty maleness. The next time I could see her left hand it
was gone. I was learning the rules. No more such questions. I
was beginning to think this whole thing was a grand mirage
concocted by Satan’s hand.
At the top of the stairs she blocked the door before I could insert
the key. She was both serious and sensuous.
"Listen, I think I'm going to like you, and I think I'm going to fuck
you tonight and that's it. No matter how much I may yearn for you
again...I have no doubt that will happen to you for me and me for
you...I'm not easy to forget and my first impressions you aren't
either...but I want you to fuck me hard and long tonight....and then
forget...long and hard…forget…the words speak for themselves.”
She took the key in my hand and unlocked and opened the door,
and then I heard the rest of the sentence,
"In the most beautiful space I've ever been allowed to make love
in. Wow! Let me take this in, and don't turn any lights on. That's
an order. And the next order is hold me, undress me, fuck me
right there."
In minutes we were naked and curled against each other in a pile
of floor pillows. For the next hour — I surprised myself that I could
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even perform after such a long absence but the lady without a
name knew what she was about and most assuredly I hadn't
forgotten — we allowed ourselves to be lost. The moment was a
moment not to be recorded but to be lived since it would not be
relived.
"Please tell me you own a bed," was whispered in my right ear. "I
have yet to see a bedroom."
I stood, slowly and not without a bit of a wobble, picked her up
from the pillows, and with her arms wrapped around my neck
carried her to the bedroom. She had a small compact body, not
exactly the physique of a marathoner — that's what she was she
had told me somewhere along the way — but lean, muscular and
taut.
After a second round more gentle and familiar than the first, she
stared at the dancing lights on the glass ceiling.
"I prefer this to burning tombs. I've been living with 'Don't rattle the
cage' for so long. I want this but I can't have this. I want you, but I
can't have you. So many times, mostly at night, I want to uproot it
all — my job, my guy, my place, my destiny — fuck…I’ve just
done that haven’t I…with you haven’t I? But like those dots of light
dancing above us all that was before I dragged you kicking and
screaming to this place, which I did not know, became ephemeral
— right word, my doctor herr professor? — and no longer existed.
No infidelity, no mistrust, no memory, therefore. What is not
ephemeral and is real is that I am in a memorable space with a
memorable guy…Love…You Are Love…com’on…what?….”
“The Fantasticks,” I shot back and then sang:
“Love! You love you!
Better far than a metaphor
Can ever, ever be.
Love, you are love!
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My mystery of love!
And when I got to a reprise of Love….I heard in a startlingly
beautiful voice
(I am love)
You are love (I am love)
My mystery (His mystery)
Oh love!
Love…
Love…!
We finished in a full-throated, stand-up flourish in each other’s
arms and collapsed on the bed unlike Luisa and Matt who had a
wall between them.
“And if I decide to abduct — they called it something different —you, what are you worth. Don’t answer. I’ve already decided.
You’re worth the moment, every fuckin’ piece of the moment. Let it
never die…but it will. Fuckin’ glad, fuckin’ sad.”
She pulled the covers over both of us and caressed my upper
body. I was falling in love with…the words that my mind or Satan’s
mind delivered…in love with the woman I had longed for…long
longed for…I did not break the silence because she was not
done.
“You might have guessed. I've been to Your Circle before. I've
been destined and now you have been but you won’t know that
until later. In fact you’ll tuck all this away, as will I, until one of
those odd twists in our lives now bound, not ever to be unbound,
causes it erupt. Satan’s way. You not only fucked me tonight but
you fucked up the pattern that’s been fucking up my life. And I
fucked you with the same results. I wanted you to, and I knew you
wouldn’t resist…ditto for you. The vibes in the Sixth Circle chose
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my seat. It was chosen. From then on neither of us was driving.
We’re still being driven. Don't get a big head but I've never fucked
anyone as old as you. Now get a big head. I’m fucked out for the
moment, and I haven’t felt that since those brilliantly-lit night skies
in upstate wherever. All-nighters. With all the accoutrements. I’ve
always preferred younger, even my current is six years younger
— oh, another six — but I’m glad you're not."
I was about to interject something. I felt momentarily incoherent.
Lust had become desire. I loved her body; I loved her talk. By her
standards I was a bore. I would not let her leave. I would tell her
that except she seemed to know what was coming. Her hand
covered my mouth. I was forbidden again to speak.
She rolled on top.
"You're a fuckin' weight-lifter, aren't you?" she asked, almost as if
she was scolding me. She nestled her head into my shoulder and
pressed her flat tummy against mine, more rounded than flat.
“No thirds, Buster, no thirds. I can feel it coming but no thirds.”
"You know the basics of my life, but I'm not sure I want to know
the basics of yours. If I don't know them, I can fantasize, I can
make stuff up. That's preferable to knowing. What I know is you
fulfilled your promise. It was long and hard. I want it again and
again and again but fate hasn’t made up its mind yet. In case
you’ve forgotten…all your brain power, which I’m sure there is
aplenty…fate doesn’t give a fuck what you think or decide you
want. But, boy, is fate happy when we allow ourselves to feel
we’re in charge.”
“Oh, fuck, I must leave, I don't want to leave, I must go, I don't
want to go, make me stay, turn me into a dancing dot of light on
your ceiling, fuck, I'm crying….an example of fate’s black humor.”
She flipped off the sheet, dressed quickly, having ordered me to
stay in bed, sat on the edge of the bed, caressed my lips, pulled
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our faces together and, without a word and much to my surprise
snapped a selfie of us cheek to cheek.
"We're allowed one text. This selfie to you is mine. Your number,
please," which she typed in as I repeated it. I heard my phone
ring from the other room.
"Goodbye, H Man. You can, I can look up the numbers and find
our names. I doubt if either of us will. Our memories will be
thankfully porous for now. We know the score. We belong
together but.…” Left unfinished, she kissed me for a long time and
left. The sound of the closing door was indelibly imprinted in my
memory. Surprisingly, I fell asleep. Probably from sheer
exhaustion. I did not rule out some sort of potion as I drifted off.
The next morning when I awoke my cell was jumping all over the
counter in the kitchen. I had to remind myself where I was. Was it
night or a dream lost in night? No. It was morning. No doubt.
I walked, more like wobbled, to the kitchen. I looked at our selfie.
She had a face that must have been gorgeous in her youth and
twenty years later had only substituted the ripening of time...more
delicious than gorgeous. I ignored the call that had set off the cell
plus all the rest that preceded it. I felt lost in some sort of Sixth
Circle reverie if that were possible. I cropped her face, saved it
and then inserted it into a text message with some lines rattling
around in my head:
If you asked me what is love
I'd leave a blank space
If you asked me why is love
I'd show you this face
I thought about it for a few seconds, and then added that I was
allowed one message. I sent it.
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Faster than I expected, I had an answer that I did not think I was
allowed...one message each.
Three icons: 💘 💔 💧 🎲 . Nothing else. I did not reply. I knew
what was meant.
I circled back into my message screen. I could see a call from the
dean. I intuitively know what that was about – a call from the chair
and I could guess what that was about – and a call from Sal but I
had no idea what that was about. I decided with that array of
personalities I needed my Peet’s before dialing anyone. Then, I
dialed Sal, the mystery call.
Sal answered immediately with
"I hope I woke you up. Such an iniquitous life-style for a Calvinist."
"You’re jealous because I have a strategy without penance and
confessions, thanks to the Geneva JC, to achieve a blissful life. I
sin all I want because I don’t know where I'll end up and ignore all
the gobbly-gook you have to heed."
"I gave up bliss when I turned eighteen – now let’s see, you’re
fifty-something or is it sixty-something and enjoying bliss? Com'on
now. Seriously, Ellen from Saturday called me for your cell
number. She said she had gone to your pornographic web site but
found no phone number. She wrote an email last night but had no
answer as of this morning. I granted her request only because I
plan to keep you mired in trouble. Did I do wrong? My priest is allpowerful, if I did."
I had laugh before answering. Priceless Salisms.
"You’re sharper in the morning than at night. Less threatening to
me if I only talk to you after six pm. Of course, your priest is
powerless in my world, but let him try. I will expect a call from her.
By the way, are she and her former in some sort of legal
skirmish?"
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"You take time to read the Times? Yes, it’s nasty, more for him
than her because she’s legally outside the reach of the developer.
Sounds juicy, though. Her current marriage ain’t no bed of roses.
Lynn and I both wonder how we’re going to continue to navigate
their marital shoals. That relationship messiness syndrome you
are famous for dragging into every conversation is engulfing us all
right now and we're all sinking."
"Your marriage has been so near-perfect that you'll never
comprehend messiness."
"I’ll drown in messiness. Never mind. I have some figures I want
your academic opinion on. My café this time. I have a fucking
faculty meeting in the afternoon. I’m using you as a bromide
before a long floor fight. I’ll call you, time and place, if I’m alive."
"Just hold onto your tail, Eeyore. Now I have the dean and the
chair to talk to…."
"And will you be joining us next year…?"
"Shit...news travels extra fast when people live on top of each
other."
"To put your conniving mind at ease, you have been under
consideration and discussion for months. I advised them against a
permanent appointment. You’d go crazy. See ya at café time.”
Always my favorite friendly adversary.
The chair was next. He too answered immediately.
"Thanks for calling back. Are you free for lunch tomorrow?"
"I am."
"Good. Let’s meet at the office and then we’ll walk to the Faculty
Club. Would that be satisfactory?"
"It would be. Just have your secretary call mid-morning to be sure
I’m up, you know."
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"Will do. See you tomorrow."
I thought to myself, that man is on his way to a long administrative
career, as long as he can keep it under control. I knew that
because he was totally humorless.
I called the dean and his secretary answered.
"Dr. Chilton, how are you?"
"I’m fine for eleven am, and how are you?"
"Up to my you-know-what with work. The dean wants to talk to
you as soon as possible, but he’s in a meeting right now. Will you
be near your cell for a while?” she asked followed by her
customary chastisement. “No early naps, please."
"If I have ten minutes I may sneak one in. May I ask you a
question?"
"You may. Anything to keep you awake for a while longer."
"I’ll have to blame my sleep-deprived state on you."
Of course, it wasn't the dean's secretary who was responsible for
my sleep-deprived state. I was momentarily distracted by the
sunlight dancing on the glass ceiling...I wanted to go back...again
and again....
"Dr Chilton? Have you drifted off?" I heard in my ear piece.
"Heavy thoughts...now where was I...oh, yes, does your family
have any spaces to rent that could be used for studios or are
already equipped as studios? Not for me but I’m inquiring on
behalf of a student whose pre-history life was making jewelry and
sculptures. She’s new to the city and doesn’t have any contacts
yet."
"Ah-ha, Sasha."
"Holy Cow...you memorize the dossiers?"
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"Yes. Be careful. Yours is full of goodies."
Who else in the academic world had a secretary so quick, smart
and funny.
“Indeed, the family does, and several of them are in your
neighborhood,” she said without missing a beat. "Let me doublecheck with Will, and I’ll get back to you. Now don’t lie down, and
no more heavy thoughts.” She hung up.
I was cleaning up the few dishes when the cell went off again, and
I assumed I knew who it was. The dean, of course.
"I’m not lying down or asleep, per instructions from your
secretary," I spoke into the phone.
"I could use some sleep," confessed the dean, who seldom
confessed to anything. "I’m actually leaving town tonight for a
week. I find myself in a bit of a pickle. I need your opinion. A
candidate for one of the visiting-researcher slots will be on
campus next week. I’m putting together a panel to conduct a
‘conversation’, if you know what I mean, with him late Monday
afternoon at a place to be determined. He and I share some
common ground, and you may know his name – Dwight Cleland."
"I do know the name and, in fact, I met him several years ago. I’ll
be glad to help you out as long as I’m not crossing any forbidden
lines, not that I haven’t in the past."
"No forbidden lines, if what you mean, as I’m sure you do,
departmental lines. Strictly an interdisciplinary matter. Do you
have any opinion of him?"
"First-rate mind, but a bit weasily on his special focus – how
exporting democracy works. A much debated topic. He tends to
dismiss the debate. Quite smart, perhaps more clever than smart,
in being dismissive. He and I had fun for a few minutes over his
dismissiveness. In short, I don’t agree with him. History’s not on
his side.”
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"In twenty-five words or fewer, you sum it up, as I might have
expected."
I thought to myself...this was the dean in an unexpected
mood...humorous but edgy. I had to wonder...something up?
"Then, that’s why, when I mentioned that you were here for a
semester in a similar program, he laughed softly but noticeably. I
could hardly miss it even over the phone. OK, my secretary will
call you with the details. I’ll be in touch upon my return." And he
hung up.
A good time to work out, I thought. It was. Within two hours I was
home again. After a shower and a nap I was ready to turn on my
computer for the first time in almost a day and try to do some
writing. As soon as the screen appeared, a list of emails showed
up. Nothing requiring immediate attention except for the expected
email from Ellen. She wrote to say she’d call very soon but for the
rest of the day she was tied up. Probably tomorrow.
The following morning after a reminder from the chair’s secretary I
caught the subway uptown to the university. I arrived a few
minutes early so I could check my snail mail and chat briefly with
the office staff. The chair was as prompt a person as I had ever
known — did his meetings ever exceed the limits he had set?
Was that a sign that really not much of importance occupied his
time or demanded his attention? Before I could think about
answers, he opened his door and invited me in.
We were not alone. Two senior members, whose names I could
not recall, were standing when I entered the room. We exchanged
greetings as well as names, after which the chair apologized for
not informing me that others would be joining us. His excuse: that
had only been decided earlier in the morning. I was beginning to
think this must be a very collegial department to be deciding
things on such short notice. Having more people around made my
task easier. I saw advantages in dealing with several, none of
whom knew me well, than in dealing with the chair one-on-one. I
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could let them talk and interrupt each other and fill the lacunae,
and I could say very little until the right moment. The ball was in
their court and might never find its way to my court. I could have
written the script for what was coming with respect to me without
knowing any further details.
The gist of the chair's flawless introduction with knowing nods
from his two allies was: reports from students as well as visiting
faculty were highly favorable; slot I was occupying for this
semester would not be filled for another year; a senior
appointment would eventually be made but in addition a junior
tenure-track position to "dovetail" [his word] the senior
appointment had been tentatively authorized; the president,
provost and dean’s council had urged the department to revise
and expand the program because of changes in what student
expected, needed, demanded; changes and appointments would
be phased in over three years; and, to the crux of the matter,
would I accept a temporary appointment through the Spring Term
and further would I consider an extension of the appointment
through the next academic year to help guide the department
toward its desired goals. This took almost a half hour since there
were actually three versions that I had to listen to. Once the chair
had spoken, each of the other attendees had a short but similar
version of what the chair had just said, so typical of academic
kowtowing. This presentation would have been much more
interesting if someone had said:
Listen, Chilton, we've got a mess on our hands. Students are
pissed because we're so old-fashioned; the dean and president,
who are like hand in glove, want us to move our asses faster than
we've ever had to; the dean likes you, so whatever we may think
of you, we're begging for you to help us to get from here to there
after which you can beat it.
Of course, that was not what I heard. If I had heard that, I might
have altered the decision that I had already made. That could
have meant a fun year or so.
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Breaking my revery, the chair suggested we adjourn for lunch
where I could ask questions. Questions over the usual facultyclub fare of mud-thick asparagus soup and over-cooked chicken
something-or-other were much easier to deal with than within the
confines of the office where the combatants directly faced each
other. After placing our orders – mine was a nondescript salad –
the senior of the seniors asked me the wrong question: what were
my professional plans for the near term? I had no intention of
telling him about my plans except to say I plan to retire, and that
was the truth. I could see from their expressions they had no clue.
Now, the ball had passed to my court. My first question was
whether the extension of my appointment was in accord with the
wishes of the members of the department, and my second
question was whether it can be assumed that the previous
occupant – everyone knew the dean was a personal friend – had
no intention of resuming his teaching duties or returning full-time
to the department or reclaiming his much-deserved scholarly
mantel, and my third question was whether I am to assume, as
caretaker, I would not be a candidate for the senior position? I
knew my part was finished. These answers would take us through
dessert and coffee, and I was sure that the chair had scheduled
no more than an hour for this luncheon.
I barely listened to the answers, for they made no difference. I
had made up my mind. I knew what the plan was — to use me, a
friend of the dean, as a wedge, while publicly claiming my
appointment as a signal of changes to come. With me in a
concocted position of determining the future the dean was less
likely to interfere, or worse from their point-of-view to return. I had
no idea what the chair and his allies wanted to do with the field
that the dean had elevated to prominence, but I was not about to
sign up to any potential internecine warfare.
I was vaguely attentive as they talked, sometimes all three at
once. One of the senior members, who informed me that he was
chair of the department’s executive committee, assured me that
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protocol was being followed, and I interpreted that to mean that
the department had not been consulted because the chair in
consultation with the executive committee had the authority to
make temporary appointments and then to decide what the duties
of the temporary appointee should be.
"Trouble right here in River City," I sang to myself quietly.
Someone might be proud I remembered that lyric.
The answers to questions two and three were qualified: the dean,
[i. e. my friend] had not objected to the plan and had indicated
that for the time being he intended to continue in his current
appointment. Facilitator rather than caretaker would best describe
my role, but once the profile for a senior appointment was written,
I could decide if I qualified as a candidate. In short, being lightyears ahead of my inquisitors, I had no trouble laying out the
basics in my mind without any actual words being spoken: I would
lead the battle for change that would surely include purging the
department of the dean’s longstanding influence and then I would
be thanked and dismissed.
Lunch was over because the chair was antsy, and I said I would
deliver a response within a few days. This was not well received
because they expected me to say several weeks, ample time to
reflect and to have further consultations. There would be no
further consultations.
I had decided before leaving home to stop at the gym on my
return. I brought along a small bag with what I needed, and after a
subway trip I showed up at Katie’s desk.
"How are you, my dear? Are we on for tonight?" I asked without a
smile.
"Aren’t we chipper? You’re also in luck. She’s not here because
you’re early."
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"Ah, well-laid plans. So, are we on for tonight?" I could see how
bright-eyed she was, so I assumed I could get away with that one
more time.
"Bad, bad, bad. Did you eat or drink lunch?
"A little of both. I just finished a luncheon meeting about my
future. The plans laid out struck me as worthy of several glasses
of inferior wine. Actually, the wine, as inferior as it was, was more
interesting than the plans. Since you won’t answer my question,
I’ll leave you to contemplate how a marginal wine can be elevated
to such heights."
I was gone before she could rap my knuckles.
I changed, picked a spot in a room that was filling fast and went to
work on shoulders and upper arms. An hour latter, I was done,
and as I approached the desk, I heard
"By the way, what time tonight?"
"Too tired and too old to answer. In our next life…"
As I reached the door I heard
"Our next life may be ascending…."
If there was more, I didn’t want to hear it. Katie was just too
appealing to suffer further disappointment. Beside, Circle Six was
having its revenge...I was feeling physically and emotionally
spent.
When I got home, after a long, pleasant hot shower, I indulged a
short nap. I awoke with new exuberance and set about to do
some work. I opened some wine and ate chaucuterie and fruit
from the fridge. It was a much colder fall evening than the
previous week, and I was not tempted to venture out. I worked
through the evening. When I quit, I had finished seminar
preparations for several weeks. I had several files to send the
students but decided to wait until they retuned next week. My cell
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lit up but with a less familiar ring. It was a text message from
Ellen. She wanted to call mid-morning tomorrow, if convenient. I
responded in the affirmative and assured her I’d be up by then.
I had an hour before challenging dream-world, and I devoured a
couple chapters of Russo. Somehow, he made his characters'
lives hang together, even though they should collapse. Was that
the ultimate fate? Just sort of hanging in there? No multiple
universes, just the same one in which we muck around until our
final exit. I didn’t quite know how to fit the last few days into that
scheme. Last night may remain forever a mystery. R was deeply
embedded, not forgotten, but surprisingly not hovering, pocking,
demanding...just hanging around almost invisible, almost out of
reach, almost but not quite tempting in that place where fate,
according to her, would lodge her.
"I waited as long as I could," spoke Ellen into her cell the next
morning. "Do you know how much of life you miss by sleeping
through it?"
"And how much shit did I miss," an answer that surprised me in
my quasi-somnolent state.
"May I join you, then?"
"You’ll need permission," I responded quickly.
"Unlikely, but I have a less controversial invitation. Some
background first. I not only trade securities, but I also am partowner of some businesses, including a gallery. It’s called
Newcomers, and the name explains its purpose. We are rich
people with an interest in helping not-yet-established, young or
old, artists to be shown. We keep no one on the roster for more
than two years – that can mean from three to four shows – and
more importantly commissions cover costs of the gallery including
searches for new prospects, and the investors receive no
dividends, bonuses or any other write-offs. We can count it as a
charitable deduction in accord with existing tax laws. In short, it’s
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not a money-maker or a tax-haven. This may surprise you, but I
found your web site, and you own a print by someone who has an
indirect but ever-present relationship with the Gallery."
"Oh my god," I heard myself shout.
"You seem less than thrilled. Am I correct?"
I knew instantly who she was referring to.
"Erin no doubt." I muttered rather than spoke.
"Yes. She has a bit of a reputation, which I sense you may be
familiar with."
"How many degrees of separation are we operating in?" I asked.
"You tell me. We have never shown her because she's too
established. But, at our next opening we will showing someone
she knows. You may or may not know him.
"I don't think so. And Erin I know far too well. But I assume this
call is not about Erin."
"No. The art on your web site says something about you and what
we do. Therefore, I'm extending a personal invitation to attend our
opening next Friday night, not this Friday, at seven pm. I’ll send
you the address. It’s not far. I’m serving cocktails at my place at
five pm, and you’re invited. No artists, probably no other
academics, just rich people and you. I think you’ll do fine. I
suspect you know more than they do about art, based upon your
web commentary. I was impressed. How about it?"
"I’d love both, being surrounded by rich people and flattered by
them. How do you get anyone to a five-pm, Friday-afternoon
cocktail party?"
"Because they don’t work, or, like me, they can be done by early
afternoon. Who needs another million after five pm?"
"A world I have a lot to learn about."
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"Will you be bringing a companion either to the cocktail hour or to
the gallery?" she asked unexpectedly.
"No one I can think of except a student of mine, also an artist,
wonderful jeweler and abstract sculptor, to the opening. I think
she’d enjoy it. She hasn’t had time yet to make any local artistic
connections. I’d thought about introducing her to Erin, then I
backed off. Besides, you may be interested."
"Given your track record, I may be. Mark it down. Check the
gallery web site for details. I’ll be out of town from tomorrow until
Monday. But I have access to emails, etc. I look forward to seeing
you."
"Likewise and thanks. Be safe." We hung up.
My social life was in full bloom after years of living in a desert like
a rock. I now had to fill in my cell scheduler with various alerts. I
hadn’t used a scheduler in years. I couldn’t say I was displeased,
despite many outbursts pooh-poohing active social lives. Was the
city leading me down a path that would dump me somewhere in
the bay? I’d never learned how to swim.
Not much happened between Ellen’s call and the wine tasting I
was getting ready for Saturday night. The Dean’s secretary had
called with information about studios and details after Monday’s
conversation. I had a number to call to reach Will, but I’d decided
to put it off until next week. I was looking forward to the winetasting, although I couldn’t imagine I would know anyone besides
the owners. And, when I arrived that was immediately true.
Tish gave me a warm hug and Serge announced Dr. Chilton is
here in his usual loud but cheery retail voice. Tish introduced me
to a group of about 10 people of various ages and attires. During
the evening another half-dozen arrived. Although I wasn’t very
good at wine-talk – all those fruity smells and smoky tastes
eluded me — I knew instantly when I was drinking good wine and
knew that it had a lot to do with simple taste. The palate told me
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all I needed to know. The table was full of bottles with labels and
from regions I knew nothing about. Tonight I’d taste and listen. I
was not the only academic. But most of the guests were nonacademics. We drank an expensive Chateauneuf du Pape, which
I knew quite well; we were served a moderately-priced Rioja —
Cédula Real 2004 — I did not know but would remember because
Rioja was becoming my fallback when I wasn’t buying French.
Two Tuscany wines were so-so, and Tish teased me about my
anti-Italian bias. The rest were from the United States including
one from Virginia, which I thought was undrinkable, and finally
one from Australia. Serge made it clear that they had chosen a
range of reds — they were all red — and they personally did not
endorse all of them. Serge was filled with facts and figures about
the number of wine-producing regions, new labels that were
growing by leaps and bounds and prices that would continue to
be impossible to predict. I was glad I didn’t have to remember all
this. I was willing to let Tish and Serge do that. Reading wine
reviews was about as interesting as cleaning house.
This was a savvy crowd, not just about wine but a range of topics.
A neurologist who was studying brain cell activity at the most
basic level and who confessed that the findings did not fit the
models and the models that might explain the findings seemed
out of whack with current knowledge. A female weight-lifter from
another neighborhood gym with a nationally-syndicated comic
strip that was taking off. A dot-com entrepreneur who was working
on a social-networking site for oldsters like me who didn’t listen to
the latest ITunes downloads. People were genuinely interested in
what I did, especially my WWW life. Since it was a wine-tasting
event, every conversation was bound to be interrupted with the
announcement of a new pouring and would turn back to the
reason for the gathering. Talking about our lives and ourselves
never got very far under the circumstances. That was fine by me.
I’d had enough of that during the past week. I left in a buoyant
mood, due in part, I suppose, to the consumption of more wine
than usual, but also a quick kiss on the lips by my hostess, Tish.
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The walk home was hardly pleasant — a cold foul wind — but
medicinal in a way.
Over the weekend I sent an email to Sasha. I had a contact — not
the one I had mentioned — about studio space, and I expected to
talk to him this coming week. If it sounded promising, I’d put her in
touch with him. Further I explained that she was invited to a
gallery opening for aspiring artists and I would explain the details
later. I had a few other emails to answer and some work to do on
my web sites, but all in all it was a quiet weekend.
On Monday, the first day back for the students, I emailed the
information about the files they should download for the next
several weeks. Sasha left me an email in which she responded
with an affirmative about the gallery opening and a few details
about the studio she would be interested in but could not commit
herself to right now. I called Will, whose sister had, as I knew she
would, properly laid the groundwork, and I came away from the
conversation with a lot of information about studio rates and
locations. I gave him Sasha’s name and said she would be in
touch.
I showed up at the gym earlier than usual with a comment from
Katie that this was getting to be a habit and probably a good one,
and after the gym I stopped by the wine shop. I thanked Tish and
Serge for a fine evening, and they said I had passed the blackball
test with flying colors, a mixture of metaphors that amused us all.
Now, as I walked home with a couple of bottles of Cédula Real
2004, a Rioja we had tasted, I had to begin to prepare for the
forthcoming "conversation", at a building, not far, that served as
the university’s convention center. I had little information, although
the dean’s secretary assured me I had all I needed.
I decided to take a chance on the worsening weather, donned my
raincoat and grabbed my umbrella and left the loft for what would
be about a twenty minute walk. Once I’d arrived, I was shown to a
small room, properly furnished in leather and with booze, where a
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professor from geography, the chair of the meeting, introduced
herself and then introduced me to the others standing in the
center of the room. A white-coated waiter appeared at my side to
take my order. I thought, the dean knows how to plan, even the
smallest, the least consequential events. I decided I needed a
straight bourbon, which turned out to be not superior but better
than average. Within minutes Dwight and his handlers arrived.
Dwight and I shook hands and laughed as we both commented
how unlikely it was that our next meeting should be here under
these circumstances. The chair announced the "conversation"
was to begin. Except for an economist and Dwight I had never
met until now the other half-dozen I’d be conversing with. As
curious as I was about the group, my mind began to wander.
Then, I heard my name and refocused on the chair’s commentary,
not sure what I had missed. I heard the term post-colonial, and it
began to dawn on me what this group was about. While still being
a scholar/teacher, the dean had developed an interest in postcolonial theory. Post-colonialism also involved a refined version of
world-systems theory from a quarter of a century ago. As I
refocused, I realized that the chair was referring to my seminar —
I hadn’t a clue how she knew anything about it — in which,
according to her, I was helping to ground students, interested in
post-colonial strategies, by careful and systematic analysis of late
colonial economies. Well, there was nothing wrong with that
assessment except the seminar had nothing to do with postcolonialism or world-systems or, as far as I knew, with students
who were planning to pursue such strategies. I was trying to recall
— had I ever uttered the word post-colonial in any class or
seminar — I’d certainly never uttered the utterly mystifying term
world-systems. What had I missed? I was never as attentive as I
should have been in these settings, either here or at home, but
this caught me completely off-guard. I decided I couldn’t fake it.
When the chair finished her remarks, she turned to me as if I
should have a response. I was honest. Unaware though I was of
the group’s special interest in post-colonialism, I could heartily
endorse the chair’s remarks of the value being well-grounded in
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colonial studies in order to gain insights about developments in
the post-colonial period. Then, I turned to Dwight and said that I
thought he would find students and faculty members prepared
and eager to take up the issues that interested him. That was all I
had to say, and I had to hope that was all I would be asked to say.
I was trying to adapt to a situation that I had not anticipated.
The chair thanked me for my comments and apologized that I was
not more fully informed. Before she could fully inform me, others
joined in the "conversation" and for the next hour I sat and
listened, paying closer attention than I had earlier, at least, most
of the time. My assumption was correct. This was a hand-picked
group of like-minded academics to initiate a major interdisciplinary
program across many departments under the guidance of the
dean and the provost and most importantly with a few star
appointments not to the departments but to the program. It was
truly ambitious and risky, not the first such attempt in the annals of
re-engineering the academic world, but unlike many beached
academic whales from past interdisciplinary storms, this one had
money and plenty of it. In fact, the money had been raised before
the program was officially launched. I had to hand it to the dean –
always a big thinker and always a coy risk-taker.
At the end of the "conversation" I shook hands, wished Dwight the
best and exited as quickly as I could. Avoiding any further
inquiries was my goal. Even a fairly heavy rain did not deter me. I
was headed for the shelter of The Space, as contradictory as that
sounded.
The next day I met Sal as planned at one of his favorite coffee
bars. Being the faux hypochondriac he was, he was dressed, as if
Arctic weather had descended upon us. After we ordered, the
conversation turned to some data he’d been working with. What
did I think, he asked, as he handed me several tables and graphs.
He was trying to link several different datasets, several of which
were mine, over a span of two centuries. As we chatted, I thought
that once again Sal is staking out new territory and the result will
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be unsettling for some scholars. I offered some suggestions and
also said I had some other datasets, compiled by several young
scholars but not yet published that I’d send him to look at. Then,
we put away the charts and ordered espressos.
As we drank our espressos, he became more relaxed. He knew
most of the important gossip about our academic circle, and that
was what was on his mind. He always managed to find a way to
remind me I was still regarded as a pain in the ass by most
because I contributed so little to the rumor mill.
Then uncharacteristically he asked,
"Have you been in touch with Ellen?"
I described the call and the gallery invitation.
"And do you have an interest in her?" one of those zingers Sal
was known for.
I laughed before replying. Sal was not laughing. His moral-cop
demeanor was absolutely in view.
"Hardly. She’s a personality to reckon with. She also married, and
I’m not about to entangle myself in that knot of relationship
messiness."
"Actually, it’s not you I worry about, it’s her. The marriage is in
trouble, and if it falls, Lynn and I will be faced once again with
choosing sides. I’ve known Paul for some years – a good scholar
and teacher with a messy personal life along with a youth spent
on the city streets that in some odd way continues to fuck up his
life. Lynn has known Ellen since we moved here through yoga or
some such meditative experience I’ll never understand. We like
both, but in the last few months their marriage had been
devolving, if you know what I mean."
"I don’t think she’s after me. Obviously I don’t know Paul at all.
Ellen and I have some common interests, but the bedroom is not
on the list."
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"I must confess that I have observed a different you in the city. Is
it the city or is it you?"
"Well, my dear friend, you always had an unrealistic view of what I
was doing in my off-hours. I’ve been divorced a long, long time.
I’ve had some relationships, not all of which I’d describe as A-Q.
I’ve been in some bedrooms I should have avoided. And I was
shut out of some bedrooms, and that still haunts me. In the end, I
suppose I’ve changed only because I tired of failing. Failing in the
sense that what was sweet almost always turned sour."
"All relationships and marriages turn sour," interjected my tablemate, not to my surprise. "Are you chasing perfection? I can't
imagine you are. You're too smart and cynical for that."
"Of course not. You're right. Yours is the only perfect marriage I
know." I saw Sal cover his ears with his hands. I continued
because I knew he was all ears.
"I often try to list in my head all the factors that predicted sourness
and then messiness, and pretty soon the list being endless I lose
track and get bored. Nonetheless, I've reached a conclusion for
myself. I seem to bring into every relationship a killer app,
although I'm mystified by where it originates or what it is. Tired is
the word, my friend, I acknowledge my absolute loss of youth and
adventure that informs every romantic endeavor. I'm not wrinkling
away into a self-spun web where I am to die. I'm just pulling back,
and that's more comfortable right now than not."
I stopped to gain my composure in a conversation I never
expected on our afternoon agenda. And also recalling the utter
pleasure of momentarily being in love with my new-found but
now-gone Sixth Circle pal. It happened quickly and ended just as
quickly, and no messiness except for the expected
disappointment I feel when I think of R.
"Yes, pulling back is the right phrase. I've moored myself to an
indeterminate period of romanceless sanity until I can get other
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things in order. Ellen is a woman to admire and under different
circumstances I might act differently. But at this moment the sign
on the door says closed."
"I can't imagine this as permanent or even desirable. Since I've
known you you lived life to the fullest. Even the historian like the
lover full steam ahead. That's what pisses people off. I doubt if it
will remain quiescent long Hoocheroo...take shelter when it
returns."
We both laughed. Sal always had a better handle on my personal
whims and sallies than I did.
"Nothing is permanent, and everything is wrapped in desire.
Granted. Maybe it's a mood that will evaporate. Sometimes I think
of this more moored life as a convenience. It has caused me no
emotional damage that I know of; I haven't become incapable or,
so far as I know [actually I did know], impotent. I'm not sure until
this conversation I'd ever thought about it in the context of
tiredness and restfulness. I've left the high seas...the crashing
about against the breakers...for the relative quiet of the bay. I'm
not unaware of my basic nature...almost in a Hegelian World what
may seem permanent is in fact fomenting the next cycle of
change. That’s the one thing I’ve come to terms with. Since I can
remember, lashing myself to a way of life, for the lack of a better
term, was the first step toward rebelling against that life. Right
now I seem less rambunctious, even to myself, but I can only see
it in terms of day-to-day. It will end. Perhaps, I’m really just sitting
dead in the water — is there a nautical term? — rather than being
moored. A long answer but not complete. I’ve had plenty of time
the last year, especially here, to wallow around in ‘where to now.’"
"In spite what you say, you were married, happily, at least for a
while when I first met you. Weren’t you moored, happily, to use
your phrase?"
"At times it was satisfactorily, and being moored posed no greet
difficulty. But the rope was often taut and from time to time
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broken. Certainly, from her behavior she was not happily moored,
and that had an effect on me. During my marriage I kept thinking
it’s working and I’ll stick with it until the end, but now when I
conjure up those words from whatever memory bank they occupy,
I’m not sure whether I can believe what I thought I believed. As
you well know length of time in a marriage means nothing. For a
while during the divorce I fought being unmoored, but then I
welcomed it. And, my life since then, if I could measure it, as you
and I are wont to do with so much else that we spend our time
with, if I could, would I find it more unmoored because that’s what
I prefer, but not as unmoored as it might appear, as I might want
you to think it is, as you might want to think it is…always in wild,
uncontrollable seas. What would the chart look like? Would we
both be disappointed, dismayed, disgusted? Perhaps, my dear
friend, my dear believer, I’m an angelic putti that graces the frieze
of your church. Child-like with adult fantasies.”
I could see the droop of his visage growing.
“My acquaintanceship with Ellen consists of several hours in your
house, at your table, on your sofa…no pun intended…and some
emails and calls. Probably not enough to write a juicy short story.
You’re writing the story, not me. You have me bobbing around in
those wild, open seas, unmoored, unattached, landing long
enough to play out The Don Giovanni I love in opera and fiction,
no matter what the circumstances might actually point to. A
neuroscientist acquaintance told me about brain trickery. This is
your brain playing tricks, Sal. What neither of us knows at this
moment is what I might do. And that may or may have anything to
do with bobbing around in open seas or playing out The Don.
That too, though, can become a story in your mind or my mind.
Not having done anything yet doesn’t rule out not doing anything
ever. I can see in your face…oh, no, not another entanglement.
That’s the best I can do. Food for thought.”
"You can’t leave me dangling like this…man, I have a faculty
meeting to get ready for and to sit though as if I fully cared."
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"Dangling is an operative word in the world I’m describing. Not
surprised you don’t like it. No reason you should be dangling. Not
everyone’s cup of tea. So what should I say to ‘disendangle’ you?
Am I on the prowl now? No! Will I be in the future? Tune in. Will
that suffice? No! And will you keep worrying, speculating,
wondering? A given. So, without further dangling or
disendangling, that messy middle where I’m an Olympian, you are
my guest today.”
I paid the bill, and we headed into the street, sunny but cold.
“I can manage being moored for a while, and then it doesn't work
any longer. But, of course, we don’t know which Chilton had lunch
with you today, do we? I can rest assured, however, you won’t
find out at your faculty meeting.”
I put my arm across his back and tapped his opposite shoulder.
"I’m exhausted. You’ve done it again, I have no energy left to
listen to faculty spouting shit this afternoon."
“Unlikely. Eeyore in disguise but Mr Atlas underneath. Will it help
if you adopt my mantra — it’s all neuron trickery."
We embraced and parted. The gym was my next stop. If Erin
were in attendance, I’d amble over and ask her if she wanted to
fuck, to take up where we left off years ago. I quickly concluded
that being an asshole would make the situation worse and me
worse off. Her dream world, portrayed on canvas, could be
observed but never explained. Dreaming was what we mortals
did, night after night, often more than one dream per night, and
then we tried to remember and to explain and to tell stories about
our dreams, and in the end it was what we see on Erin’s
canvases -– images, colors, flatness, eeriness and above all
trickery. She was simply better at capturing or pretending to
capture those fleeting moments. To her credit she made it a part
of her aesthetic, and that mediation between dream and real
made her paintings worth looking at.
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She wasn't there, and I avoided the embarrassment of inviting her
to fuck.
When I awoke on Wednesday I decided it was time. I logged in,
entered the chair’s email address, and in three sentences I
thanked him and the department for the opportunity to teach such
a fine group of graduate students, I had considered the
department’s offer and I must decline. I also sent a copy to the
traveling dean with the comment, "Sorry. Saying no is what I’m
most comfortable with. Thanks."
I read for the rest of the morning and then headed to the gym.
Before leaving, I put some champagne, rather bubbly, on ice, not
because I had written an email that would willy-nilly move life in a
desired direction. At least that was how it looked at the moment.
When I entered the gym I saw no Katie, no Erin, an attendant I’d
never met — was it Bruce or Brace…I wasn’t sure — nor many
unfamiliar rats to contend with it. It was pretty much empty. That
can make for an efficient (or call it quick) workout. On my way
home in an hour.
About seven pm with a glass of champagne in my hand the door
bell rang. My god, I thought, they’ve come to haul me away. I rang
the person in, and when I checked the peephole I saw Sasha. I
quickly opened the door.
"Sasha," I said far too excitedly. "Is anything wrong? Come in."
She was all smiles so I knew my question must have struck her
as absurd.
"Thanks," she said a little sheepishly. "No, don’t be alarmed. No
crises. Just some news that I want you to know before you hear
by whatever vine carries such information. I hope I’m not
intruding.”
“Absolutely not.”
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She chose the sofa – in class she preferred the floor pillows – and
I chose the wingback.
"I made a decision over the weekend," she started, and after a
brief pause, she continued, "I’m withdrawing at the end of the
semester, but I’m staying in the city, at least for a while. I’ve
decided I really want to do art. I have enough money, mainly my
own, to live on for several years, if I’m careful. I told my parents
over the weekend. I don’t have to ask their permission any more.
But, they are dear to me and deserve to know. As I expected, they
said they would not interfere and would be available to help out, if
necessary. They’re predictable in a way that their daughter isn’t. I
feel somewhat exploitative, even though I know, if they had to
help, it would only be a modest financial burden for them. I don’t
plan to ask for help, but, by the same reasoning, I can do this
because I know they can help out. I intend to complete my classwork just in case, and besides, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I
fairly competitive about such things. That’s my story and the
reason I’m here."
I got up and walked into the kitchen.
"This calls for a celebration. I have my champagne, you need
yours," and I poured her a glass.
"And now I have some news for you. I will be in city next
semester, but I have told the university I will not accept the
temporary-permanent, permanent-temporary appointment they
offered me last week. Let’s drink to our liberty," and we both
laughed.
“What do we take away from all these life-bending decisions in
one weekend? I suspect mine was a bit easier because I’m going
back to what I know, but you’re going ahead to something more or
less unknown.”
"I asked myself or that part of my brain that still talks to me, why
would I accept? No reasonable affirmative answer. There are a
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few details I’m leaving out now, but I can fill you in later after the
dust has settled, if there is any dust to settle. The offer was less
about bringing me into the department and more about keeping
someone out."
Sasha smiled, and I knew she was satisfied.
“I can see from your expression it’s not hard to add two and two.
Of course, I’ve always preferred Lord Byron’s remark that if two
plus two equalled five that would be a more interesting result.”
“The Lord was right. That would have been more interesting. I can
think of endless possibilities should it be five instead of four.
Someday you’ll clue me on all these brains at work. More
interesting than who’s getting hired or fired."
"My current fad. I can’t forget something that was said to me at a
wine-tasting last week – maybe that explains it – too much wine –
but it was from a brain expert who said watch out for the brain’s
trickery. Because it’s becoming a preoccupation — I think I really
like the sound of the words brain trickery — it needs to be put to
rest for a while." I retrieved the bottle and split the remainder
between us.
"Anything I can do to assist the transition back to artist?" I asked.
"Indeed, a studio is a must. Should I call this Will person?"
"Yes, you should. You may have to use my name or my name and
his sister’s name to remind him why you’re calling, but once you
get his attention you’ll find him very helpful and unthreatening. Or
I can lead the way."
"I’ll call in the morning. I should be going because I know you’re
busy with tomorrow’s seminar and all."
"Please stay, finish your champagne, I’m fully ready for tomorrow,
maybe we can walk across the street for an espresso?"
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And that we did. I asked her how she had reached her decision to
switch and stay, and she knew exactly how to answer. The right
side was more interesting than the left. That was good enough for
me. It was also good for a laugh since brain talk was becoming a
preoccupation for both of us. I realized Friday’s Gallery Soirée
was almost upon us, and tonight was a better time than tomorrow
or later to clue her in.
"You’ll recall I said I knew an artist who might be able to help you
find a studio, after which I decided against involving her. Well,
you’re probably going to meet her at the Gallery. She is known to
the Gallery folks, especially one of the founders, who extended us
the invitation, and has some connection with one of the artists on
exhibit.”
“Oh, she’s not on exhibit?”
“No, she’s an established artist, and the Gallery apparently shows
only newcomers to the City and the area. I’ve not yet visited the
Gallery so I’m not sure what to expect.”
“And she’ll be in attendance? Are you uncomfortable with that?”
I decided to tell Sasha the rest of the story…more an outline…of
my past and current tussles with Erin. I hesitated for a moment. I
wasn’t sure where to begin or how detailed to become because it
dawned on me that except for Katie who surmised correctly from
the current back-and-forth that we had once been lovers I’d never
told anyone this story. I’d written about it in my head and on the
screen or on paper, not always endearingly, but I’d never spoken
to anyone about it. People had admired her painting on my wall
but never knew our past.
“Artist and patron have a history. History may not be the best
choice of words. But we have a past.” And in the next quarter hour
Sasha learned about that past.
"Do you still pine for her?" Sasha asked pointedly but
empathetically at the end.
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"Yes and no. She was young, and the fact that a young woman,
attractive and talented…albeit unpredictably moody…wanted to
date me, twice her age, post-divorce, was an ego-booster. And to
be perfectly honest the first moments were what the very
temptation itself had caused me to envision. Then reality set in. It
became a test of wills that soon devolved into chaos. I should
have known better is a retrospective judgment that had no
bearing over what we both knew we were doing with all the
implicit risks. I suspect when I decided to buy one of her paintings
I was also hoping to reconnect on some level. I knew nothing
about what had transpired in her life in the previous decade. That
didn’t happen. And now that it has happened under very different
circumstances I can see more clearly why reconnecting was a
bad idea. If fate pushed me into her life, maybe fate was now
trying to save me. I have lots of struggles with my fates, and I do
believe they are plural. There you have it. Not something I’d ever
tell a student except you’re about to meet her. An addendum.
Never having talked about our past to anyone before, not even to
my friend who introduced us, I feel a bit stronger, a bit keener
about closing it down once and for all. Almost as if I should tell her
off. I’ve never been able to do that. When I decided to accept thus
temporary gig, I knew she lived here. I made no plans before I
arrived or after to get in touch. I couldn't imagine in a place this
big and complex, I ever run into her...at least the odds were on my
side. And, then, bang! In front of one of the most prescient people
I’ve ever met. Without knowing the details you know, she could, I
swear, fill in the blanks. You have time to back out.”
I paused to empty the rest of my expresso. I noticed that Sasha
was holding her cup below her lower lip but it couldn’t conceal her
smile.
"Not on your life. Sorry. Besides, you need support, and, forgive
me, I’m fascinated. Don't be upset, but I want to meet her."
"You may have noticed from time to time," she continued, "I’m
looking at her painting. I like to think that I can both…listen to one
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reality and observe another. Had it ever occurred to you that in
the painting she’s lifting her hand in an iconic gesture?”
There was pause that often occurs between comment and
revelation.
“Holy fuck no! Excuse the language.”
By now we were both laughing.
"How could I have missed it? Sitting here outside The Space and
away from the painting, I see it far too vividly. It’s not beyond her.
And let me add not directed at me or anyone specifically….”
"I agree," said Sasha. “It’s collective indictment. It’s powerful,
though. Think about all the color and imagery around the black
archway. And some of the brightest colors are in the icon we all
know above the archway. Can you resist not walking through the
arch?”
"Let me add one more comment, based on the fact that she and I
are both artists. Even though the images have a certain
randomness on a very flat surface, there is nothing random about
the design. It is, in fact, tighter and more controlled than one
might first observe. I’ve not met her, and if I do, I’m not sure I will
like her. That doesn't demean the painting. It’s brilliant."
After a few minutes of silence we both realized there was nothing
more to be said. We put on our coats, and I walked her back to
her apartment. When I got home, I spent some time...maybe ten
or fifteen minutes...standing in front of tonight's much-discussed
piece. I liked it even more and, conversely, I cared even less
about the artist.
Once in the Louvre after joining the throng who came to stare at
the Mona Lisa I walked around the wall that held the painting only
to discover a half-dozen…maybe more… paintings by
Caravaggio…Michelangelo Merisi da…on the opposite side. I
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stood there for a long time, a very long time, far longer than I had
ever stood in front of Dear Mona.
His life was not to be admired or idealized. I probably would never
want to have a drink with him. What he produced on his
canvases, however, were larger than any life out of which they
may have grown. The best artists, the best poets and writers, the
best performers were those who could transcend the source of
the subject. The creator receded as the creation bloomed.
When I turned on the electronics the next morning, there were the
expected messages. With my Peet’s in hand I started through
them. First, the chair’s email. Reconsider was the operative term
with another proposed meeting to answer questions and iron out
details. My response was two sentences: I thanked him but said
my decision was final. The dean’s note more surprising. He asked
me to reconsider, suggested some bargaining with the chair that
might make it more attractive to me and, then, added that while I
may have made the right decision, he felt an obligation to the
university to plead the case for my staying. He would be back in
the office in a few days.
My reply was equally brief. There was no other way to read his
email than the way I had...his acting in behalf of the university
should not be interpreted as urging or expecting me to change my
mind. He was smart to know fait accompli when he saw it. I
signed off with deepest affections, which I meant.
His was followed by an email from Deirdre. I was deeply curious.
Most of it had to do with her thoughts about the seminar she
would be leading. Clearly, she was making serious preparations.
She could not attend tonight but would call me tomorrow. At the
end she wrote she was sorry I would not be on-board after the
end of the term but assumed I was remaining in the city for a
while longer. Not having said anything to her about my decision, I
could quickly surmise how she had learned. I chuckled because I
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knew more intrigue was ahead. My reply was thanks, call me
tomorrow and yes, for a while.
The other emails went quickly. I, then, turned to the messages on
my cell. The emails had taken care of some of the cell messages.
I switched on the message from Ellen, who called to remind me of
the Friday night affair and to tell me that Sasha whom she called
my friend instead of my student was preparing some photos of
her work for an appointment at the Gallery earlier on Friday. I sent
her a one-line text message of thanks. By noon, I was shopping
for what I would need for the seminar tonight. Serge and Tish
recommended an Arribes red that we had tasted instead of
another Rioja, and I bought several bottles of Pirita, 2009. At the
deli I picked out several hors d’oeuvres and desserts. After lunch I
decided to do my workout, and I was in and out of the gym in less
than an hour. By six o’clock everything was ready. I checked my
emails to discover one from the dean of the college, asking me to
meet her tomorrow, if possible, at eleven am. I quickly wrote a
reply that I would be at her office at the appointed time. I was not
about to change my mind but, I had found the dean quite
approachable and personable. I wanted to give an opportunity to
make her case. About seven the door bell rang, and, thus, began
the filling of The Space.
Everyone was in attendance. No outsiders this week. Just as well.
I explained what was ahead and warned the students that the files
they would soon receive for the session with Deirdre might be a
bit challenging. Then, I launched into what was a mini-lecture
about price history, a lecture I had given many times before about
a subject that was more or less the cornerstone of my
professional reputation. We took a break and I ordered everyone
to the buffet. After the seminar resumed, I made a few more
comments and then opened it up to questions. By nine-thirty we
had finished. I spoke briefly to Sasha who quietly reported that
her advisor was not happy with her decision. Nor was the chair
happy with mine, I responded. And we both smiled. Since another
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student had asked to talk briefly after class, I could not walk
Sasha home. She reassured me she was safe, it was too early for
the crazies to out. We agreed to meet at the Gallery at seven pm,
and I sat down to talk with student who remained.
The next morning I showed up as promised at the dean’s office. I
was ushered in almost immediately. She was a large woman,
muscular and tall…I supposed she could bench press far more
than I could…and very much in command. We chatted briefly
about some recent university events before turning to the topic at
hand. She succinctly reviewed the main points of the chair’s offer
and asked if there was anything that she could change that would
allow me to reconsider. I said probably not. I told her
straightforwardly that I was uncomfortable occupying a position
that a colleague and friend of nearly three decades had vacated
and was entitled to return to. Besides, I was seriously weighing
early retirement, and I had absolutely no desire to start a new
cycle of teaching and administrating that this job would entail. I
appreciated the university’s vote of confidence, but my decision, I
said, was irreversible. I could see she was not about to press the
issue any further. We both understood each other, even though
we didn’t talk about some of the things that we understood. She
stood, as did I, and we shook hands. She said she was glad we
had this opportunity to hear my side, and she appreciated my
directness.
I decided to eat lunch at a nearby restaurant that the students had
recommended. At the table by myself I thought that the next
phase that always seemed so distant and ephemeral had begun
to take form. To have ended my career at this university would
have been a feather in the proverbial cap, but, no thanks. The
attention was flattering and pleasing, but as hard as Chilton
might resist, he was about to make his exit. I was shifting gears. It
was time to give my left hemisphere a break and rev up the right
side. It was not that simple, of course. The things we do, we think
about, we chase may originate and reside in both hemispheres.
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There is some truth, however, to the distinction, at least on a
symbolic level. What I wanted to pursue was not the life of a
documenter but the life of imaginer. I was thinking again about my
conversation with the wine-tasting, neurological scientist. The
brain, confronted with so many perceptions and experiences,
couldn’t possibly record everything connected with an event or an
episode. Even those moments that we think we can recall vividly,
including those known to have extremely active and sensitive
memory-making neurons, the brain records what it can and
leaves gaps until the moment of recall when it simply makes up
stuff to fill in the gaps. More and more that intrigued me. Let me
help the brain and perhaps add a little color by making up stuff to
go along with what the brain summoned. That intrigued me almost
as much as another brainiac notion that our neural activity, like all
chemical reactions and quantum behaviors, may have a
counterpart in a different universe. Perhaps these many brains
actually communicate with each other so what we think we’re
doing here and now may carryover from there and then.
Alas, not what Sal or the dean or the department and his minions
would ever understand. Besides, making stuff up the profession
that we all have practiced so diligently, was forbidden. I was
called to show off my left-sidedness, and I had fulfilled my
contract. I have no embarrassment about how I'd performed. And
in my quasi-moored state I'd kept messiness at bay. Surprisingly,
perhaps for the first time ever, the nameless but initialed lover
from Circle Six — A one-night stand, I said, chuckling quietly —
had not made my chaotic romantic life worse but, conversely, had
somehow bought some clarity. I was feeling some of that old self,
as the expression went, when I was more sure-footed about
engaging the unexpected, more accurately, sought the
unexpected, the untried. I was pulling hard on the moorings of the
past months, maybe years. The nameless one broke the
quarantine, but it may have been time. I may wish for another
chance...lots of other chances...with her, but it started and ended
in a way that left no emotional scars. It may become part of one of
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those stories circling in my head. I knew at some point I had to
give vent to them. They were showing up in my dreams and even
in my conversations. I was getting ready to play make-believe.
How odd, I thought, after decades of kowtowing to the deities of
the documents and bitching at others who should have, I had
decided to end the quest for historical truth and join the world of
make-believe.
Years ago, when I began to toy with my future, I came to a
profound realization. The study of history with a special, if not
relentless, focus on elevating the importance of the source, had
served as a personal bulwark. I had never won much
encouragement as a student nor as a professional. I was deadly
serious about how I approached historical analysis and
interpretation, but I was also exploiting a talent, hidden until it
exploded into my professorial life, almost by accident, after I
began to uncover some shoddy work by prominent scholars
simply by paying close attention to the documents themselves.
Not hard; certainly not the equivalent of rocket science, so went
the cliché. By digging and probing in many different archives, the
bulwark became a springboard to a more illustrious career than I
could ever have anticipated...not of the caliber of the dean or of
Sal but up there. Most importantly, the events of the past week or
two that crowded into my life have been resolved in favor of
quitting and redirecting. Nothing ever final but as final as it can be.
I had amazed myself how easy this gig was in the sense that
while I never failed to prepare I could have done it on the fly. From
what people seemed to be saying...I guess unexpectedly I had
soared. Be that as it may, I was neither a fraud or a clown,
academically-speaking. I was pretty much leaving on my terms,
and I was comfortable with that. In addition, I had told Sal the
truth. Notwithstanding an unexpected tryst with nameless, I had
deliberately moored my personal life as I entered what I assumed
would be the final stage of my academic life. But, what I did not
fess up to unambiguously was I was probably heading for open
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seas again and by design. I suspected that walking away from
what I was good at and not much caring how the rest of the world
saw that was incomprehensible to that world. Sal tried to
discourage me by raising doubts and even fears but he knew me
well...I was walking. The dean had fostered abandonment in order
to manage other academics who were trying to achieve what he
had won his spurs for. He tried to manage me into a place where
he wanted me to be, partly to serve his own personal purposes
and partly to create another academic star, and yet he knew his
chances were barely even odds. The department head and his
coteries were so predictable they were irrelevant. I knew I was
breaking ties with my friends and colleagues, but I was feeling
fulfilled because I was doing what I had been thinking about doing
for years. And I wasn't worried. These past few days brought the
future closer, and when I returned to my home university I would
complete the process. I paid my bill and with my small bag took
off to the gym. On the way I checked my cell. For the first time in
days the screen was clear.
As I approached the desk, Katie uttered,
"All clear. Your luck’s holding."
"Except for tonight. She’ll probably be at a Gallery reception I’m
also attending. Maybe I can hide behind a giant sculpture."
"That your problem. You keep hiding. Stand out front and be an
asshole," shot back Katie, followed by "Excuse the language."
"Funny, last week someone we both know gave me the same
advice. I’m beginning to think it’s a gender-based strategy."
"A favorite term for how we act and wish men would act."
"Under advisement, my dear, But, why do I have so much trouble
being an asshole, at least under the terms laid out by you and
you-know-whom?"
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"My guess is you think of ass-holery in the context of colleagues
and associates but never friends and lovers. I have no doubt you
can be an asshole with your dean, but not with your lover,
especially when you’re in love?"
"Man, this should be an interesting workout, thanks to my
therapist."
"I thought about therapy, my mom being a prominent psychiatrist,
believe it or not, but bodies seemed easier to manage than
heads."
"You must have tons of stories from the dinner table."
"Didn’t have much of a dinner table, but stories, yes. We’ll have a
drink with my stories some night. Now, begone."
Astonishment as I moved toward the Smith Cage. An hour later
with a high sign from Katie I was on my way home to dress for the
Gallery Gala tonight.
I could feel a spirit in my step as I arrived at the door of Ellen’s
apartment. I wondered if Paul were home and who would answer
the door. A man who was not Paul answered. He was, I
speculated, the equivalent of a butler, whatever they’re called
today. Ellen crossed the room, full of people, to embrace and
greet me.
"You’re looking quite muscular. Did you work out as usual today?"
"I did and thanks – muscular is not a term I hear often enough."
"Rich people like muscle – join me, I’ll introduce you."
For the next five minutes, even as others arrived and were
ignored by Ellen, another prerogative of rich people, I met a
dozen people, whose names were more fleeting than any good
ideas I’d ever had. I ended up in a knot of people, casually
dressed and markedly younger, who seemed to know who I was
before I was introduced. Of course, it was Ellen’s doing. The
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conversation was mainly about me, as if I needed that, and not
about them, as if they were immune from such mundane
boosting. Paul was nowhere in sight, and yet none of the males
appeared to be serving as a substitute. The interior was filled with
art and the view was another form of art, more representational
than the art on my walls and, I presumed, the art we were about
to view at the Gallery. I didn’t have much time to think about that
or to stand in front of the walls. The affair was catered, and I was
confronted by several servers with food, drink and utensils. The
champagne was not the blancs de blanc from the Loire that I
often drank at home. Before I could ask, the servers had moved
on. I was trying to juggle food and drink and look at several
splendid nineteenth-century American landscape paintings when
two of the younger folks I’d met earlier…a woman and a man,
apparently a couple…asked me my opinion, as if I should have
something to say. We talked about the paintings, and I was
immediately aware that they knew more about this genre than I
did. Before I could embarrass myself, Ellen with servers in tow
showed up at my side with my coat. The servers took my plate
and flute, not yet finished, and Ellen held my coat. I learned we
were expected at the Gallery and I would be served the same
food and drink there because the same caterer had been
employed for both. Within minutes Ellen shepherded me along
with several others out the door for a short walk to the Gallery.
Once in a lifetime. Whatever glass ceiling had been over my head
had been shattered, I thought to myself. And when reality
returned, the pieces will have to be picked up.
The Gallery was ablaze in light and already filled. The Director
greeted Ellen and the others, presumably owners. I was
introduced, and Laurent – that was his name – said we’ve been
expecting you, i.e. me. More expectations than I had ever
experienced before. Ellen said I should find Sasha and I should
beware of Erin. And she was gone.
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I spotted Sasha and joined her. She had a medium but lean frame
and was dressed in a way that accented her best features. She
was not lacking in best features. For the first time I could see how
attractive she was. Maybe it was the Gallery lighting.
"Hi! Did you survive?" she asked empathetically.
"It was incredible, and I almost never describe social occasions
that way. Ellen is a phenomenal host. Does that come from being
rich?"
"It comes from wealth and more importantly being smart. I know a
little about rich people, both smart and not so smart, not like the
wealth in this room, but my parents are rich enough that I know a
little about working this crowd. Besides, I’ve shown my work at
Bay galleries full of all sorts of rich people. I prefer to keep my
distance. Let me add to cheer you up or bolster your confidence,
since we’ve not yet met over yonder but will as soon as she spies
you, the host has a thing for you. I’m being bold and outspoken at
the same time. Blame it on the champagne, which is out of this
world."
"A thing? Quick, where’s the champagne?" just as the gentleman
with the tray was at my side.
"Let’s walk," I said to Sasha, "and what thing and how do you
know about it?"
"I met Ellen and the director briefly here this afternoon after a
near-disastrous encounter – not planned — with my advisor. A
day of contrasts, great for art, a bit wearying for artists not
becoming historians. I think they’re interested in my stuff, but I
know she’s interested in you, big time.”
"How come I’m the last to know?" not entirely an honest question,
although I was truly surprised that Ellen revealed enough that
Sasha could pick it up.
"Because you’re oblivious?" she said with a laugh.
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We were standing in front of a painting, heavy oils and very large,
that defied description.
"What do you think?" I asked out of curiosity, as to how quickly
she could react to a piece of art she had just seen. Actually, it
wasn’t her first viewing. She had seen it when she walked in, but I
was still interested her reaction.
"Too much paint, although he’s skilled with the brush. It’s abstract
but not mysterious. The heavy brush strokes have driven the
mystery out."
I was impressed. I saw immediately what she was saying.
We worked our way through the room, agreeing and disagreeing,
until we reached the print. Neither of us had said anything yet and
wouldn’t be first to speak.
"And why are you here? Every time I turn around…."
"It’s my assigned role. Erin meet Sasha."
They shook hands, and the expressions on their faces could not
have been more different. Scowling Erin and beaming Sasha.
What was I to do next?
Sasha took care of it. She explained she was a graduate student
and also an artist. I was her teacher, and we also shared an
interest in art. She told Erin that she had seen her painting in my
apartment and was an admirer. How quickly two practicing artists
found common ground that apparently was not available to lovers
or former lovers. Sasha was clearly more in her element than I
was.
"If we could take them back, I would," snapped Erin.
"I really doubt if you could afford your painting so it’s stuck on my
walls despite your chagrin," I said sternly, remembering the
asshole advice of the past few days.
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“You know, Erin, we artists want and need admiring audiences.
Your painting on his wall get that. I’d leave it there.”
I was dumbfounded. This moment was Sasha’s, and Erin had
become a listener. Just, then, Ellen showed up.
"Come with me for a moment, Sasha. Oh, hello Erin. I was just
talking to your companion. He’s in a buoyant mood. Entertain
Hooch, or do you know him as Hugh?"
What a dual performance by two endearing women in the
company of me and a snappish but momentarily subdued exlover, I thought. As they left me with Erin, looking a bit aghast,
Sasha was all smiles and Ellen all who the fuck cares.
"Hooch?"
"You dumped me before I could tell you. And you haven’t been
much interested in listening to me since."
"And how do you know The Lady?"
"The Lady? You mean Ellen?" and she nodded with irritation in
the affirmative. I explained how Ellen and I had met and that she
had invited me to the opening because of a brief discussion we
had about art collecting.
"Shit," was what I heard.
"I will stay out of your way and your life, Erin. But the painting’s
mine. It will stay on my wall and on my web site, if and when you
want to look."
"You’re unhinged…."
"No more than you, Erin. I liked you not too far in the past, and
part of me still likes you. I have no idea what demons you’re
fighting, but, at least, I acknowledge my feelings toward you, even
though you have rewritten history. That’s OK. It’s done all the
time. This conversation is over. There are interesting people I
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want to meet. You’re not among them." I walked away somewhat
amazed at myself. Katie might be proud. Suddenly, I heard a door
go shut in my head. Am I hallucinating, I wondered.
"So, did you tell her off?" asked Sasha, the next voice I heard.
"I guess I did, mildly so, probably. How did you know?"
"It’s not worth talking about. We’ve got a few more things to look
at and, then, I’m buying you a drink."
We spent another half hour or so, circulating, drinking excellent
champagne and commenting on the other art, some of which was
quirky and alluring, more so than I would expect if rich people
were actually running the Gallery. Apparently they weren’t to
Ellen’s credit.
“I saw the printmaker but never spoke to him. I was occupied."
"I did earlier. Very pleasant and straightforward conversation.
Printmaking not my thing. Never done it. It always seemed hard to
me. His theme a bit heavy, a bit intellectual for me, but his
execution struck me as nearly flawless. How about you?"
"I own some prints but they’re not yet on The Space's walls. I may
decide to send them. Printmaking has always looked and
sounded harder to me than painting. I’m sure that naïve. The
same is true of sculpting. Again naive. So much equipment; so
many steps; so much risk. I often like the results, though, and I
can say that of his print, although I find it less visceral, more
mental. Given his theme, I wonder if he’s carrying over something
from earlier endeavors, before printmaking."
"Good question. Unlike his companion, mate, friend — I haven't
heard the official designation — he's aiming at something, and I
suspect if we’d spent more time looking and talking it would
eventually fully reveal itself. It doesn't on first encounter. Even
though the aim is not entirely visible — as the words themselves
imply — the undertaking is daunting.”
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"Is there some aesthetic that can unite two artists of such differing
artistic choices, not just the form but more so the subject?
Presumably they live together or in close proximity to each other.
Do they consider, argue, ignore the question of their respective
approaches? Of course, I have a hard time imagining Erin in that
setting and you know firsthand why now."
"You forget, my dear professor, I've been living with someone
equally snappish, for a couple of years, and even though we
belonged to the same endeavor, we only once in a while
managed a serious conversations about such things as
aesthetics. Verbal brawling was more the standard. She is her
own force. You know, without reviving past ghosts, I can honestly
understand why you struggle. She is still attractive...dressed to
the nines tonight...and has an authority about her that cannot be
easy to ignore. I can deal with her because I'm not nor ever was
in love with her. To put you at ease, I can't help but think of my life
with my ex. The printmaker actually seems like someone who
prefers not to brawl. That said, nothing more should be said, I'm
done looking at art and standing among rich folks. And, besides,
guess who walking toward us."
It was Ellen, of course, and she said that we had been good
citizens and should take our leave. Sasha asked if she would join
us, and she said, as much fun as it would be, Gallery matters
would occupy her for the rest of the evening. She suggested the
bar, two or three doors away from the Gallery. With a peck on my
check and an embrace for Sasha she shooed us out the door.
The décor in the bar, more upscale than any bar I’d ever been in,
was cool and inviting. Also quiet enough to talk. We took a bistrotype table at the back end and ordered drinks – martinis for both.
"A week unlike any I’ve ever known," I said without thinking.
"I was thinking this was your ordinary week," replied Sasha. "So,
you and Erin hit it off?"
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"Knocked the cover off the ball. May have been the final
encounter. I told her she wasn’t worth talking to and walked away.
As close to being an asshole as I can get, when they’re not
colleagues and deans. I heard a door slam shut in my head."
"A door? In your our head? If it works, who cares that you’re
hearing doors shut. I don’t think it’s over on her part. Your
acquaintanceship with Ellen, on the other hand, is all in your favor
at this moment. Lose one, win one...not a bad week, I'd say. She’s
a power in the art community in which the painter and the
printmaker seek membership. In fact, she’s a go-to person. We
also exchanged the usual contact info. So, will I be competing
with your biggest fan? I'm not sure I'm ready for such
distinguished membership in a place I barely know. I had that
status...gallerists and sponsors...on a smaller scale, and I was
never comfortable being an object, and that was essentially my
role in the quid pro quo. I was already an object in my domestic
world, and I wasn't pleased with that. Anyway, I'm nosy enough to
want to stay tuned in.
She sipped her martini without looking up...eyes focused, I
assumed, on the center of the table.
"Students should not be talking to professors like this," she
said...no...asserted. She lifted her head and looked straight and
hard at me, as if to add silently, "no apologies, no regrets. How’s
that as an illustration of an artist dichotomous mind…don’t do it
but by all mean do it.”
“Yes! Yes! A dichotomy I can admire in my reclining/declining
years. It can be dangerous, but it’s always desirable. With Ellen,
despite some ambiguous feelings, you must have hit it off?"
"Sharp woman. Because I like her I will work up a portfolio and
have some things sent after the first of the year. I told her about
my conversation with Will, and she asked for his number so she
could explain to him how the Gallery might help out. It has a
policy of assisting new artists in finding and equipping studios.
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I’m OK with that right now, even though my own plans are still up
in the air. I intend to finish my academic term on the up side...no
incompletes or bad grades...just in case I decide to come back.
I'm pretty capable at juggling things, but studios, art and galleries
will have to take a back seat for the next few weeks."
She leaned back, her arms stretched out all the way, her fingers
wound around her martini, her head cocked, her face a smile,
when she said with obvious relish:
"By the way, how are your juggling skills? You may have your
hands full with the two E's in the next few weeks. If I were a fly on
the wall…sadly, I don't have time for that."
Impish would barely describe her expression, more like delight,
awaiting my response.
Momentarily I was lost in other thoughts. I’d recalled that when I
was finishing my doctorate, my mentor said to me out of the blue
that he never thought of me as a student, but more like a
colleague. He thought that way because I was the oldest of his
students and had already worked as a teacher and an
administrator for nearly a decade. I brought background and
experience to this undertaking...a favorite expression of his...the
other students had not yet come to know. Similarly, Sasha was
among the oldest of her peers...not by much...but also brought an
array of encounters and undertakings far beyond anything her
peers had. If I were treating her differently from the others but not
according her any favors or privileges, I felt I was acting within the
boundaries I generally set for students enrolled in my courses.
Our conversations, notwithstanding, I was still in a position to
judge her along with the rest based on their work and their
progress. I had no intention of crossing any boundaries.
"You keep reminding me of what I do not yet know firsthand. I was
never very good as intuiting, if that's the word. Furthermore, one
of the two rules to avoid relationship messiness is thumbs down
on married women."
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"Not a bad rule. What’s the second?"
"You can probably guess."
"Yes...no students."
"Well, you’re close, no students in my classes. It should probably
extend and generally has extended to all students, but Erin was
an exception as were one or to others that came and went without
leaving a trail.” I said with her eyes planted squarely on me. "Do
you think it’s a bad rule?"
"No, it has to be the rule.”
“Were you propositioned as a undergraduate?”
“Yes, more than once. And the only one I took up with was the
sculptor who had a temporary appointment.”
“It is now true that some universities will fire any professor and
dismiss any student, enrolled or not, if such indiscretions come to
light.”
“Unfortunately, I have trouble with rules. Common sense tells me
that professor screwing enrolled students is asking for a ton of
trouble — I escaped the trouble being an enrolled students but
not later. I sometimes think if we had followed the rules I might
have avoided the later trouble. The truth was I wanted to be with
him. I had finessed other propositions, easy enough because the
proposers were shits. Excuse the language. When I met the
sculptor, he did not come across as a shit…not yet.”
Sasha had more to say, so I did not interrupt.
“I’m not so far removed from my undergraduate days that I can
recall girls telling each other about the latest propositions. Seldom
from the professor you might want to sack with. Mine was not run
of the mill. More than one us in his studio had the thought. Why I
got the call…I want to say luck of the draw but it wasn’t. I’ll leave it
at that in a conversation I did not expect tonight.”
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“Yes, a good idea. You seem at ease talking about these
experiences. I pretty much an open book about lots of things but
as I said earlier Erin has been a secret, at least on my end. On
one level it was OK because you ended up with him for a couple
years. But, as my father used to say, 'when there is hell to pay,
you wish there weren't.' I hope you avoided any hell to pay."
"Not from the university, which never found out. Another neardisastrous proposition my sophomore years involved a
distinguished professor in math. He was married to another
distinguished academic and he was sleeping with another woman
who somehow discovered he had eyes for me — I was barely
aware he had eyes for me let alone eyes at all — and she
threatened to blow it wide open except he reminded her of her
own indiscretions. I got out of that class damn fast. It was an
elective. I didn’t need it. Besides, I had accumulated so many AP
credits I was almost a year ahead of my fellow students. I was
much more afraid of the potential risks then than later when I met
the sculptor. I certainly felt less rule-bound. There were so many
cases of faculty, men and women, shacking up with students that
the university had to know what was going on. In fact, one of the
most widely-circulated story concerned a prominent dean, who
had been a named professor before being elected dean and had
'binders' of women, some of whom were plucked out during his
deanship."
With both of us laughing at the binder reference, she finished by
saying
“My iconoclastic side gets stronger with age. Isn’t supposed to
work the other way? You may be the wrong person to ask,” she
said trying to look sheepish but giving away to a smile too
accompany my laugh.
“Some rules are needed but when the heart or in your world
whatever part of the brain insists, the rules are useless. If you
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people desire each other, they can choose to proceed or not. I’m
not sure the rules, even the threat of firing, will matter much.”
I was nodding my head.
“Academe is no Camelot. Temptations no different there than on
Wall Street or at cocktail parties.
"’Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief
shining moment…’ or would you prefer the earlier ‘a fleeting wisp
of glory’?" she actually sang.
"Wow. I’m impressed! Not of your generation."
"My parents had an old LP, which I listened to until I’d memorized
the lyrics. I only sang in my room by myself. Forget you heard
me."
"I will at your request. Now, that I’ve heard the words again, I’m
thinking that if ever a Camelot, Lerner and Lowe style, existed, it
is just a 'fleeting wisp....'"
"I confess — maybe it's the martini...one of the best ever — I'm
looking forward to the next 'fleeting wisp' — whatever that may
be. I think I live for one wisp after another.”
“Here’s to more fleeting wisps for both of us as we stake new
paths."
"Was it hard to turn down such a prestigious offer? I think every
young, aspiring scholar would regard you as…."
"Unhinged," laughing as I said it. "Erin used that word to describe
me tonight. I couldn’t resist."
"Who's exactly unhinged?"
"I had the same thought. No, it was easy. I can say more about it
now that the College dean and I had our tete-à-tete this morning. I
didn’t know the offer was coming in the form that it arrived, but I
had more than an inkling that something was afoot. I learned the
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first round of details from the dean, the other dean whom you
know, two weeks ago over lunch. He not only paid for the lunch,
but he was ready to plunk down my salary for the next semester.
On the way home from lunch, without knowing all the details that I
learned from the chair and his sidekicks last week, I knew it was a
no-starter. I would like to have helped the dean out because
we've been collegial friends for a long time, but to expand your
metaphor this is no Camelot. I’m not interested in recycling myself
through the academic life that I’m quite ready to quit. Unlike so
many colleagues, including Sal and the dean, I have new things
to do or at least to try in the next phase."
"I assume the dean is disappointed, but how about Sal?" she
ventured.
"I’m not sure Sal knows yet that I’ve turned it down. He knew the
offer was coming, probably from the dean. The dean feigned
disappointment but concluded his email with you’re probably
making the right decision or words to that effect. I found that odd
but in a way reassuring. My instincts about these situations, unlike
my personal life, are pretty much on the mark. Behind all these
conversations and messages there is something I don’t know, and
even if I knew, my mind is made up. I don’t have to know
everything. I plan to finish the seminar and then turn my attention
to six months of being tempted by the lures of the city. By the
way...I agree...damn good martini. Thanks Sasha and thanks to
Ellen. Let me escort you home."
"Agreed. You’ve had something to do with some big changes in
my life, and I’m grateful. Like you, I have new things to do in the
next phase," and she squeezed my hand.
We took the same cab, and I said I’d walk from her apartment. I
was ready for bed almost as soon as I crossed the threshold.
The final four weeks shot by. The blockbuster was that the Friday
after the Gallery show the dean announced his resignation from
the deanship and his return to his department as a full-time faculty
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member. Not a word to any of his friends, not even Sal who was
closer to him than the rest of us before or after the
announcement. He seemed to have dropped out of sight. I talked
to Sal Monday night, and we agreed to stay in touch, even though
we had to cancel our Tuesday luncheon because of the press of
work, mainly his. Wednesday I met Deirdre. We had already met
for lunch the week before and this was for coffee to make sure we
were in synch about her seminar presentation. I was impressed
with how much work she had put into this, and I told her so. Her
response was she liked the attitude of these kids, she thought she
could get an interesting discussion going and the fact was on
Thursday night she did. The discussion went well past nine-thirty
to past ten. At our pre-seminar meeting I asked her about the
dean, and she said she knew not much more than we did. She
had not talked to him, and I did not ask her again.
I took a few minutes after Deirdre’s presentation to wind up. This
was the last seminar, although I made plans to meet each student
to discuss papers, performance, grades, etc. I thanked them for
making this seminar memorable, for welcoming outside speakers
and for drinking a lot of wine I was getting ready to throw out. That
was it. After the seminar ended, Sasha asked me if I wasn’t
impressed with my intuition given the unfolding of events. Once in
a lifetime, I said.
I walked Deirdre to the curb where she got a cab immediately. I
thanked her again for a terrific performance, we embraced and
she was gone. As I walked upstairs I felt sadness that the
experiment, which I had originally viewed as iffy, had somehow
worked and was over. I felt for once I had made the right decision,
actually a series of right decisions. I poured some Armagnac and
sat in the unlit room except for flickering of light on walls and
panels from outside.
Thanksgiving was upon us. I had no plans for the day itself.
Turkey dinners I can do without. Not a fan. The city was full of
Thanksgiving-Day deals at attractive prices, but I had decided to
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cook in, having the day before visited the wine shop and the
grocery store. Sal and Lynn had inquired about my plans, and I
assured them I was in good hands, my own. They were with
family outside the city. Much to my surprise Ellen called early in
the week to invite me to join them on the weekend in the
Hamptons where they owned a home. Never been there, I said,
but had to do it before I died. She said she’d send instructions for
transport and death by email.
Some seminar-related work remained. I had talked to all the
students about their papers through the chat link that the
university encouraged faculty to use and had met with several of
them, but I didn’t expect any papers or files until the week after
Thanksgiving. I was so near done I could actually work on other
things. I had talked to the retirement counselor at my home
university, and he had emailed the options for early retirement,
which may occur sooner than I had anticipated. I also spent
several hours writing down some ideas for what might be a
fictionalized memoir. Why not? Absolutely nothing to lose. And
everything could be made up. That appealed to me, the archive/
document guy.
No life was never trouble-free for long, even when one tried to
keep it that way, I said to myself, not the first time, as I stared out
the window of a middle car in a passenger train heading back to
the city. I had spent yesterday, last night and a few hours this
morning contesting trouble, not of my making, except I was
present and my presence was meant to abet trouble.
Yesterday afternoon and evening were spent rambling about a
very large turn-of-the-twentieth-century house overlooking some
bay or cove, ocean shore terms with which I lacked familiarity,
with Paul, Ellen and their very rich and beautifully-attired friends,
and last night and again this morning with Ellen who arrived in my
bedroom through some secret passage (built by the original
owner so he could visit a lady in waiting for a tryst [right word not
often used anymore]) and through a door hidden in the wood
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paneling along an interior wall to be fucked. Over the clickity-clack
of the wheels on the tracks I was trying to create a narrative of
surprises, tears and farewells. In my bed she was as beautiful as
one imagined: gorgeous face even in the shadows, eyes that
sparkled, lips that curved, small but firm breast, a stomach too flat
for her age...a body eager for love-making, perhaps just plain, raw
fucking, and an emotional state that declared disaster. A whirlwind that collapsed, even before I could arrange my body or my
head to account for an expected arrival. Hours later with her
quaking body curled into my arms Rule One was still in tact. I
would have fucked, hard almost immediately, but those fates had
different plans. Instead, I had to become listener, therapist,
counsellor, hugger...and of course worrier. How far would this
breakdown go. My cell was within an arm's reach, but what would
I do with it. Finally, I decided to get out bed, donned my pajamas
that she had stripped away and sat on the edge of the bed after I
had arranged the six or seven pillows and the comforter around
her body.
Eventually, she calmed down, I dried her eyes, I noticed for the
first time two of their several dogs...and not small dogs...sitting on
their hunches a few feet from the bottom of the bed and I began
to talk to her. I asked her where Paul was and I learned he and
friends left for a local bar (after I had turned in earlier than the
others because the longer than normal train ride plus so much
booze and food had taken its toll) and would probably not return. I
asked why he would not return, and, after staring at my face
slightly bent over hers with an expression of contempt directed, I
assumed, at the absent Paul and not at me, although I wasn't
sure, she said he would spend the rest of the night with his lover.
Not what I wanted to hear. This could only get messier and
messier. I asked the only thing I could think of...what could I
do...at the moment of asking I was totally without recourse. Her
answer — "fuck me" — was not going to happen. I put my hand
on her cheek and kissed her lightly on the lips before saying what
had to be said. Between outburst and silence, both loaded with
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contempt, as if she had heard it all before and refused to listen,
eventually after what seemed close to forever, I talked her down.
She moved closer, turned and furled her body against me in a
sitting, leaning position. She fell asleep, much to my surprise, I
presumed from sheer exhaustion, both physical and emotional,
and I sat with her until I too dropped off against the headboard.
When I awoke, she was gone along with the dogs. It was barely
light out so I decided to pack and catch an early train, but I wasn't
sure how easy it would be to leave. As I opened the door to the
hall, I could hear the voices of the staff downstairs. And, as I
descended, I saw Ellen standing at the bottom. After the night she
had had, I couldn't believe how lovely she looked. Without a word
she took me by my hand and led me into the sun room where
breakfast was being served. I listened to her, as articulate as I
had ever heard her, say that the car was waiting to take me to the
train, that, as the owner of their properties, she forbade Paul ever
to set foot on any of them and I would not hear from her again.
We finished breakfast, she handed me a thermos of coffee with
the addendum that the thermos was for me to remember her by,
escorted me to door and embraced me, kissed my lips and
whispered "I love you, but loving me would be messy." Halfway
home that was the narrative with more gaps that would never be
filled in except in my imagination.
Once home I poured a bigger Armagnac than usual. Should I
worry about Ellen? I couldn’t decide. I momentarily felt the
presence of the woman I expected. Lips firm as if extending an
invitation, and hands, for the first time, that made my skin pulsate.
I wasn’t sure she wanted to release that other woman.
And then, I of course, all I had to remember was her final
words...her loving me or me loving her would just be a pile of
mess, sad but true. I slowly made my way to my bedroom after a
moment or two of standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows
with a southern exposure of the city that would be my place for six
months or more without Ellen and probably without Erin.
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After an absence of several days I showed up at the gym with my
checkbook.
Noticing the checkbook Katie opened my file on the computer.
"Let’s see, now, I’ll have to charge you double for the next period
because (1) you spend too much time in the gym and (2) you
caused me to lose a client," she said without taking her eyes over
the screen.
"I’ll pay. It’s worth it. What’s the total?" I said looking straight at
her face now turned toward me.
"The crazy thing is," she said in her relaxed mode, "you would
write me a check for whatever I said. As foolish as you sound,
you’re not."
"There’s a limit, my dear, and there may also be some perks you
aren’t aware of."
She laughed and pulled a sheet from the printer for me to sign.
"How many months, my love?"
"Probably six unless I decide to stay permanently. Would
permanent make you happy? That’s down the road. I’m sorry
about the lost business. I’ll try to find a replacement. I can’t say,
though, I regret she’s gone."
"Me neither, quite honestly. She was an unpleasant person.
Something destabilizing in her life – a word my mom often used.
Did you tell her off."
"Unrequited love, as the poets tell us repeatedly, never vanishes.
Yes, I did tell her to get lost, if only to prove the poets wrong. You
said a while back that her attendance was mainly designed to
torment me. That would be hard to do now. With all the workout
time, watch my muscle bulge. Of course, that only means more
torment from you," I said as I finished writing the check and
handed it to Katie.
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"You can count on endless tormenting, mainly because you're
costing me money. Sign here," she said, pointing to that
ubiquitous bottom line.
"So, now I'm just another member who fantasizes about making
out with the owner?"
Mussing up my hair...not the first time...she retorted,
"Become bald and fat, and your fantasy world will suddenly
expand."
As I folded my copy of the agreement and stuck it in the small bag
I carried, I surveyed her beautiful physique once again and
replied,
"Translated...quit costing me money and you'll be rewarded. Be
careful what you wish for."
With a "Shoo!" I bounded into the interior of the gym.
The students’ files began showing up in my inbox. I went to work
on them as they arrived. Between grading and working out the
week after Thanksgiving was full.
By the end of the week the student had their grades and
evaluations. I was pleased, very pleased, with their work.
Because of my several conversations with Sasha I was most
worried about her. She performed well. She handled the data well,
and her essay was well-organized and well-written. Perhaps, a bit
brief, glossing over points that needed more amplification, but that
was true of some of her peers who were further along in the
graduate program. It was most evident that the ease with which
she spoke she also wrote. More encouraging, though, she was
willing to be bold and argue a position that was uniquely hers. I
could write a strong letter for her file in case she wanted to
reconsider. I doubted that she ever would.
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Sal called to remind me about the informal beer hall dinner
Saturday night, an invitation extended earlier in the week, and did
I know that Ellen had quit the city?
"No, I didn’t know." Not entirely the truth, although I had no
information from her or anyone else that she did what she said
she wanted to do.
"Be at our house at six. Do I have to pick you up? Or can you find
your way? The City can gobble up country kids with wandering
minds like yours.”
"I’ll find my way. Perhaps with a police escort. I may arrive early
just so you don’t freak out if I’m not there promptly at six.
"Good idea. I can’t afford to freak out with 50 papers to read."
"Com’on now. You have a grader. All you do is sign the grade
card, and I suspect you’ve found a way around that."
"But the TA’s can’t worry the way I do on behalf of the students.
Now what about Ellen? What do you know?"
I’d had a few minutes to think, and certain things not for Sal to
know fell into place.
"Nothing concrete. What do you know?"
"Not more than what she sent Lynn by email. She’s on the West
Coast…."
"And she bought a piece of land…."
"How did you know?"
"At your house she told me about her parents and a piece of land
they owned and where she grew up not quite like a hippy but in a
hippish fashion. Did she buy that land?"
"She didn’t say."
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"Don’t be surprised if she did. This decampment may be
permanent."
"How do you know so much if you don’t know anything?"
"I listen, and then I have fun making up what I don’t know. Would
you like to hear about yourself?"
"And Paul has gone mum. Not sure he's still town either."
"Mum signals messiness. Otherwise he'd be screaming bloody
murder about her defection, don't you think?"
"How the hell do I know? More to the point, how the hell do you
know?"
"I've tried to be your tutor for years, but, you know, it ain't easy.
You would have learned so much."
"I’ve already heard enough. Saturday. Dress casually and don’t be
late!"
Another disappearance, I thought. I was such an ace at launching
them. As I turned this over in my mind, I was making a bet with
myself that I wouldn’t hear, at least not for many months. I
doubted that she’d quit her job because she could do that from
anywhere. I’ll bet she’s quit her marriage and her circle. And the
gallery? In trouble, I concluded. I would have to relay the news to
Sasha in time. I hadn’t moved since I’d turned off the cell. I wasn’t
immobile, just musing.
What does one wear to a beer hall, I wished I could ask someone.
The opera broadcast was coming to an end, and that gave me
ample to time to reach Sal's before six. I decided on jeans and
clogs, which was all I owned in those categories of attire, and a
turtleneck with a sweater. Lynn and Sal were ready when I
arrived. Lynn took my arm, and we started the short walk of a
block or two to Beer, Beer, Beer. It was indeed a beer hall, and I
was surprised that the owner knew Sal and Lynn. An old high
school friend who, when I asked, had more money than brains,
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according to Sal. He escorted us to a backroom, and when he
opened the door Lynn made sure I entered first to the applause of
a room full of my student!
I stood dumbfounded and speechless. Not only the students but
their spouses or companions and even a few kids, who were as
baffled as I looked. This was a student-organized farewell, I would
learn later. They were genuinely appreciative, and I was genuinely
moved. I made an effort to speak to every student, to meet
spouses and companions and kids. The one thing I heard from
more than one was how grateful they were that I dealt with each
student individually and openly. I knew their work, their strengths
and weaknesses and their potential better than almost any
professor they had ever had. I liked that. Something I worked at.
My goals, their goals had been met. If this should become the last
class in my professional life, I went out singing, perhaps even
dancing.
One thing that didn't happen despite much prodding...I did not
drink any beer in a beer hall. I hadn't drunk a beer in thirty years.
Never much liked it when I did drink it. When lifted hugs or her
glass in celebration of a course and semester just finished I was
booed when I raised my wine glass.
I had a few minutes with Sasha and asked about her plans and
was there anything I could do. She said she was leaving next
Friday after the last day and hadn’t had time to think that far
ahead. I also had a few minutes with Lynn who unexpectedly said
she was still shocked over Ellen’s departure. I agreed. This was
not a conversation I wanted to have. Fortunately we were
interrupted. Sal was ready to leave, and so they did. I ended up
sharing a cab with Sasha.
"You are looking coy or is it overwork?" I said attentively.
Her answer was a kiss, a passionate kiss, and with arms around
my neck. Then she said,
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"I can do this, I’m no longer your student, I want to be your lover.
What do you say?"
"First, I need to cut through all the stars in my field of perception
to make sure it’s who I think it is and not the cabby. Sasha?"
Her answer was an even longer kiss. Such sweet lips and hands
that knew what to do even in the back of a taxi. I whispered,
"Shouldn’t we change the drop-off or is this to be confined only to
the back of a cab?"
"I need to pick up some things. To walk into a beer hall with a
suitcase was a bit too much."
"So how much of this was your engineering?"
"A lot, especially the cab ride. My backup plan — just to show up
at your doorstep. By the way I plan to stay a few days even if I
must oust Ellen or Erin or anyone else. I can feel that will be OK
by you," as she moved her hand across my abdomen.
"The nest is currently singular and can easily become plural.
Much to tell you about the names you named."
Ten minutes later with a hard-on that I hoped was not too obvious
— actually I didn’t care — I was riding the elevator for the first
time to Sasha’s apartment, and when I entered her bedroom I
was unprepared, even though she had warned me, for what I saw.
I was spellbound for the second time this evening — wall-to-wall,
wall-to-floor, in drawings, paintings and a couple wall sculptures.
All those adjectives – lean, exquisite, original, intriguing. Sasha
seemed as oblivious as I was captivated.
"Hop to it, my dear," she said and then with a wave of her arm she
added, "You can stare to your heart’s content next week when we
take these down so I can stash them in your loft."
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Walking with two shoulder bags, which she had pretty much
packed earlier, and with her free arm hooked onto mine, we were
silent.
"You know," she finally said, "You had nothing to do with this
caper. Always the perfect gentleman."
"A genetic defect," I replied.
"I came close to dumping the whole plan. I wasn’t sure I could
ever get you interested. You were always interested in what I did
but not a pass or a passing word."
"Believe me, I plan to do penance tonight. But honestly I never
thought I was the object of your affections. You did a pretty good
job yourself hiding your interest. Should I have known? I’m sure I
missed something, I always do. But I’ve been thrown overboard
so many times because I’ve let my heart lead the way. I'm about
to test my asceticism. The city is finding ways to puncture the
bubble I came here with. So why didn’t you abandon?
"Being with you at the Gallery, watching you outside of your
preferred environments of thinking, eating, conversing and, yes,
drinking, talking about the art and above all meeting Erin and
Ellen, I decided I had to take a chance. I wanted to fuck you that
very night, but I knew you wouldn’t, even though you were
vulnerable after dueling with Erin and Ellen.
"It’s a good thing you didn’t test me – I would have failed, at least
in terms of sticking to the code."
"I lay awake that night for a long time. I was so pumped up
sexually and emotionally, you can guess what happened. I tried to
talk myself out of this only to end up talking myself back in. I
finally fell asleep. When I awoke, I knew I was going to do this
because you were fun to be with and I wanted to be with you. Erin
and Ellen no longer concerned me as much as my own drive to
try to win you. Nor did the future concern me. There’s a curious
kind of conjuncture because of our ages: I’m too young still to get
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too agitated about where I’ll be a decade from now, and you’re too
old — can you accept that? — to get too agitated period. I
decided it was a good time to try to hook up."
"I’m hooked, and we’re home," as I unlocked the street door.
Once inside she romped up the stairs, dropped her bag and
turned with her hands outstretched and cupped, and I flipped the
keys which she caught with ease, like a skilled athlete. By the
time I got to the landing, the door was open and she was standing
in the doorway.
"Welcome to our abode," she said and then with eyes, more
sparkling and inviting than I had ever noticed before, fixed on me,
she gently pulled my face to hers for a kiss made for falling in
love. I closed the door behind me, we undressed in the middle of
The Space and we made love, no, we began making love that
had several episodes, different locations and utterly uninhibited. I
could not now help but know how perfectly proportioned her body
was for her medium frame. She was only a few inches shorter
than me but lankier and leaner. It was also deceptive. She was
appropriately endowed. The love-making alternated between
explosive and languid. She relished deep, and I relished her
relish. And then we would lie face-to-face, talk about what we
were feeling, not why, and caress each other’s body. Sculptors
and, yes, painters, I mused, had hands that knew how to be
sensual. We discovered that the blue of our eyes was similar but
the geometry was slightly different. She marveled at how much
hair I still had, almost a full head, and I learned that she was a
natural blonde with a few highlights. When I kissed her breasts,
she ever so gently caressed my penis. Our sex ran the gamut
until we were truly spent.
"Bad news," she said, "It was better than when I was lying in my
own bed with an imaginary you on top so I’m staying, and, good
news, there’s a bottle of champagne in my bag, room-temperature
by now."
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"Further bad news," I said. "You are sexy besides being smart
and sassy, and there’s a bottle of celebratory champagne in the
fridge. Shall we make it an all-nighter?"
She started to laugh, as she pulled me up and into the kitchen.
"I love the shall. The seminar agreed you were the only person we
knew who distinguished between shall and will repeatedly and
consistently. We shall, but only after I shall kiss you," and we did,
and then we opened the most expensive champagne I then
owned. Not the best time to uncork it straight out if the fridge, a bit
too cold but actually warming up between our preoccupations with
each other.
"So, did you sleep with Ellen?" she asked out of the blue during
one of those preoccupations, "and I love the bubbly."
"I did and I didn't."
"Typical intellectuals answer. Simple yes or no, did you...."
"Not being typical. It is both yes and no. You asked if I slept with
her, not if I fucked her, and I did sleep with her and I did not fuck
her, technically-speaking, although that's what you meant by
sleep with her. Am I about to have my balls yanked off because I
sound academic but I'm being honest. Do I get to confess before
you inflict pain?"
"I like your balls where they are," as she moved her hand to
where they actually were. "Everyone but you knows what sleep
with means just as everyone but you knew where she had aimed
her arrow. If we hadn’t had a drink together, she would have had a
drink and a fuck probably sans sommelier with you. So, 'fess up.
The story, please, in five minutes...no more."
Leaning against the counter and her leaning against me I told her
the story...more an unembellished outline than a narrative...more
or less as I had pulled it together on the train. This was the first
time I had actually told anyone.
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"Hell, you're such a terrible liar so I have to believe you. But, it fits
your fictional motif of relationship messiness so closely I'm
suspicious."
"It does sound that way, doesn't it? Has life and art finally joined in
my conscious world? Perhaps I don't have a conscious world.
Perhaps I was never in the Hamptons. Perhaps this woman
lending against me and playing close to my balls is simply a piece
of fiction on someone's computer screen. One thing I know...and if
you asked Bernie he would confirm...I did not fuck Ellen.
"Bernie...Bernie How many fuckin' characters are in our story?
You know something, Mr-Write-All-The-Time, your problem with
woman — may I remind you 'You scare me...You're taking me
someplace I've never been' — is that you are only a character
and not a person. Let me see if I can remedy that...."
Before I knew it I was having sex standing up. I was standing up
but leaning against the counter and she was hanging around my
neck with her feet and calves anchored on the top if the counter.
Minutes and explosions later she dropped her hands to the floor
and in a kind of back-flip assumed an erect position with our faces
inches apart followed by the best postcoital remark ever:
“High school gymnastics taught me contortions that I’ve adapted
for other more godly ventures.”
"To applause and shouts of encore…."
“You and your many characters…I liked this one…make sure he
sticks around.”
Had I ever stood naked with another whose body belonged on a
canvas on a wall, had become a sculpture on its own in an unlit
kitchen that was somehow aglow. She knew I was looking,
marveling and wondering. She stood perfectly still not in posing
but in knowing.
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Intuitively I took her hand and we walked to the closet at the end
of the room next to the windows where we found robes and
blankets, and languidly we made a nest among all the pillows in
the middle of the Space. The night light seemed to be dancing
with more bounce and jive than I'd ever noticed before. We were
not bouncing and jiving but lying quietly. I was thinking about the
beauty of this, and I wondered what she was thinking on this first
night of lovemaking.
“I am where I wanted to be. I actually awoke one night in tears
with quakes. I’d dreamed you had gone off with the two Es.
Worse yet, I was watching you fuck. Both at the same time. Don’t
ask how. I haven’t a clue. I came to the realization it was a dream
since only in a dream could you have a penis capable of that. I
still fretted. Had I missed something in the dream that would
explain how you could do that so that in real life you’d run off and
do it. How fuckin’ jealous is that? Me…jealous. Holy shit. Slap my
forehead and shout Oy Vey!”
“Oy Vey!”
“Not you…me.”
“Back home I have a colleague who is known for that gesture and
outburst and perhaps unfairly is imitated with great exaggeration
by others. It is called the George Moment. He found out about it
and vowed to put a stop to the mockery by never doing again…at
which time he slapped his forehead and shouted Oy Vey! I have
no idea what the current situation is with respect to the George
Moment but I just observed you do it better.”
“Oh, I’m maimed for life,” I being on the receiving end.
She forbade me to say more. I obeyed.
“They are not for you. Sharing in the past never bothered but I’ve
just declared an end to it. They’ll find contentment or they won’t
but we have it and we’re playing selfish. I doubt if Erin will take
more than a half hour to notice you’re out of her life. I won’t
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explain why I know this…not just think it…know it because the
words would do flip-flops in your head until you got them arranged
the way you wanted them. Ellen…a different problem. I have no
doubt you’ll hear from her, if for no reason because she wants you
to know something. She quit you before it ever got started, and
that won’t be easy to forget. She had the physique, the poise, the
power to dazzle any male. That her man had lovers or needed
lovers would have been the tipoff, perhaps, that something was
amiss if we had known about them. Sad in a way. I liked her, as
you did. A powerhouse on one track, and a dud on another. Not
unheard of but still surprising. How often we are wrong in our
speculations based upon appearance or impression. Given who
and what she was it was pretty easy to fall into that trap that she
could turn the every trick. She couldn't, for whatever reason we
know not. I wonder if she lay on her bed, post-Gallery, as I did,
and planned. I was determined, but I also vacillated. Did she
vacillate? I suspect she did but for a different reason. I had doubts
about whether I should, not whether I could. I had no doubts
about the contentment we’re now feeling. I wonder if she thought
about the could. What did she know or fear or pretend? What we
know and fear is often subsumed in pretending. Interesting to
consider if neither of us had nothing to fear...we both vacillated
over should but never could, how would it have turned out? Had
the two you hit it off, would I have even tried? Hmm. I had nothing
to do with her failure to reach her goal. I did not act during the last
cab ride, and if I had your T-Day might have been different. And
then again we could think up all sorts of scenarios, none of which
would fill in the gaps of what we don't know. Simple fact, even
though she had the advantage, she wouldn’t realize her desire or
dream. That has to hurt. How sad. It happened independently of
me or anyone else. I've heard all I need to know. I'd be surprised
if she can put it aside easily and painlessly, but she makes
millions outwitting risk and had to speculate on what could
happen. It will hurt probably worse because losing a few dollars
can be reversed but losing loves almost never can. Despite what
she said I won't be surprised if you hear from her eventually. You
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were the lover she was literally chasing into the bedroom and
poof the bedroom exposed her. We'll cross that bridge if and
when it occurs."
"Thanks...."
Before I could finish she grabbed me by the ears a and pulled me
into her lips. This time, a different passion, as if we touched
because we liked to touch, nothing more complicated than that.
“And one more thing,” she continued. "The other E —
surprise...surprise — I know your dump worked."
"Holy shit! Holy how?”
"We're going to arm wrestle for your affections, and if I lose I only
get you on Wednesdays."
She tilted her head, laid her palms flat against my cheeks and
waited....
"I can only imagine,” I struggled to say, “what shape I'd be in after
six night with her and one with you."
"Who said anything about nights. You're only worth some mucking
around in the day light." She released her palms from my cheeks
and clapped her hands in apparent celebration.
"I learned from Katie, the gym boss, that Erin dropped her
membership and directly if not conveniently blamed me, advising
Katie to charge me double for a lost member."
"I'm afraid she may still be lurking about, not in direct sunlight,
because I may be joining an artists' guild she belongs to unless
she's now decided to quit that. That was the occasion for emailing
me and for slipping all that shit in about her dump. I'm greedy. I
want you to myself, so eliminating the admiring, fawning ladies is
part of the plan. We've all got stashes of exes, but for tonight and
the foreseeable future stashes are quiet, mine and yours. They
have a way of arousing themselves.”
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“How is it that two artists who should be slapping each other over
the guy are exchanging friendly emails over how to share him?”
“Because we’re artists and you’re not? If there weren’t a you in
the middle I think I’d like her and we’d be friends. I think I know
why you fell head over heels. Remember, the tumble is over.”
"Oh, one more thing," she continued. "I haven’t told you. We’ve
been preoccupied with less mundane things, thank god. I have a
lease for a studio in the neighborhood — I don’t know exactly
where — from Will who received a signed, notarized lease from
the Gallery. I’ve not read the fine print yet, but it’s for six months
with an option for another six months. That’s works for now.
Apparently, whatever the fate of its founder and benefactor, the
Gallery is still in business and is expecting to be in the future.
Even if it goes kaput, I can afford the lease."
"Another rich woman with whom I may actually have a future," I
chuckled.
"A rich woman — there’s some truth in that — who knows how to
love you." She pulled me up and arm-in-arm we walked to the
bedroom. We were more circuitous than direct. We stopped in the
kitchen to gather up the flutes of bubbly just in case. We would
finish the flutes, stare at the light a-dancing in the glass ceiling,
caress, kiss, cuddle and...the night was not done, nor was this
new story. We spoke very little, listening instead to the music in
our breathing, our movements, our silence. At some point I heard
her say so softly,
"My dear, I’m going to let myself fall in love with you, that feels
good, and you’re going to let yourself fall in love with me, that
feels better." She rolled me over, and six hours later still in each
other’s arms we awoke.
Over Peet’s — she said she was ready to convert from whatever
coffee she bought on sale — in the morning light I saw a woman
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as beautiful in a robe that didn’t fit her as she was in the nude last
night. I started humming in my mind….
"Is this for fun...."
No reason powerful or scary enough to change course. If she
planned this and pulled it off, I could do my part to help to sustain
it. How dangerous were these waters? After years of using
various ploys and excuses not to become involved, I'm willingly
and happily abandoning them. Somehow as her eyes caught
mine I felt she knew exactly what I was thinking.
"It’s time to stop weighing all the options. Your new fallback
position is to accept what is and what is going to be," she more or
less commanded, as she squeezed my hand. We had agreed to
turn our cells off last night and neither of us had turned a phone
on. She pulled hers from a pocket, and as it lit up with messages I
could see her expression grow heavy and then came the outburst.
Was the scary part suddenly descending?
"Shit, shit, shit! Guess who?"
"I don't know, but I can probably guess."
"Stashes of exes, you may recall from a few hours ago, only a few
hours ago, are always lurking...that was what we said. He pops
back in when I least want him around. More to the point,
according to my mom’s wisdom, 'Times of pure pleasure are
always accompanied by shadows of shit?' Sorry. This has nothing
to do with you."
She got up and walked to a corner of The Space, while listening
to the message on her cell. When she returned to her chair, she
was still agitated but calmer, at least on the surface.
"This is my stashee problem you need to know a little about.
standard about exes is no secrets. I don't expect you to
anything, not even offer advice unless you think it might
helpful, but I need to have you listen. Fortunately, for once in
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romantic life I'm with someone who knows how to listen and to
keep him mouth shut at the same time."
That brought smiles to our faces.
"First of all, this call, this message enrages me – a side you’ve not
seen – but rest assured my rage is almost always temporary.
Second, I will not allow myself nor will I invite you to dwell on or
whine about past shit that is always hanging around. Third, I fuck
for passion and I react with passion. In short, I’m going into the
bedroom and deal with this, and then I’ll put my arms around you
and summarize in a sentence or two. No more."
The sounds from the bedroom were unnerving. I heard asshole,
fuckhead and the most ominous don’t you dare. Five minutes
later…a shorter time than I would have predicted…she emerged
from the bedroom, swearing and crying. I was standing with my
back to the sink, still filled with breakfast mugs and plates, and
she put her arms around me.
"Summary: first sentence — I broke up with him, he wants me
back, he can’t sell anything because I’m not there, he will commit
suicide; second sentence — he’s coming to the city to take me
back."
"And my role?"
"Hold me. I want your body to stem the anger. Then we’ll relax."
For several minutes we did just that. I could feel every muscle,
hers and mine, engage each other until somehow the tension
dissipated. She released herself enough to walk us to the
windows with southern exposure and a view of our part of the city.
"He terrorizes because he has nothing else. I’m going to call his
buddy to find out the truth, and then I will plan. This time I will tell
you what I'm planning. No surprises. Thanks for letting me rage. I
owe you one."
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We kissed, and she again retired to the bedroom and I to the
kitchen sink. I not only cleaned up the dishes but also what was
left in the champagne bottle, purely for strength, early though it
was. I could hear sound from the bedroom but nothing I could
comprehend. It was a long conversation, and I interpreted that as
a good sign. With both dishes and the champagne done, I
retrieved my own cell on the counter, turned it on with some
trepidation and unlike her cell mine was virtually absent any
messages.
When she reappeared, she was dressed...I was not...and she
walked with a stride I had seen so often before. I was still
standing with my back to the sink. She threw her arms around my
neck and eyed me.
"He’s probably faking it, although there a small probability — to
use your language — he’s not. He has no money and no credit so
flying here, staying here, not currently doable. No doubt he’s
reached bottom, where he’s been headed for years. Relationship
messiness — to use another one of your phrases...I do listen —
never ends either for the loves you won’t erase or the ones you
can’t erase. They’re out there, never completely under your
control and waiting to pounce in my case, to torment and
terrorize.”
She pulled me in tight. Neither of us wanted to let go, but then my
cell went off. She smiled, grabbed my cell before that final fourth
ring and thrust it into my hand before walking to the other side of
The Space. I looked at her body – how could I have missed it for
so many weeks — and said hello.
"Dr Chilton," came the dean’s secretary’s voice. "I’m sorry to call
on the weekend. Are you free for a few minutes?"
"Completely at your disposal," I said, fully aware I was still
wearing pjs, more naked than dressed to be at anyone's disposal.
I looked at Sasha who had her hand over her mouth to muffle her
laughter.
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For the next quarter hour we talked. The call was to bring me up
to date on the status of the dean, now resigned but not yet at the
end of his official duties. While away during the recess, he
suffered severe chest pains, admitted himself to a clinic and was
then transferred to a university hospital with what was diagnosed
as pre-cardiac condition. He was recovering only to slip into a
deep depression, probably because of the medicine, was placed
under intensive care for a couple days and finally was released to
regular care for a couple more. He arrived in the city two days ago
and was now resting at home. He would appreciate a call at his
cell number. As announced earlier, without any change, he will not
return to the deanship. I asked a few simple questions, which she
could answer, and we agreed to stay in touch.
After hearing all this I felt numb. Pre-cardiac conditions can occur
to many of our generation, that was bad enough, but
incapacitating the dean, a man who lived with no known limits,
was utterly scary. Sasha walked to my side and put her arm
around my waist. She still had a copy of a recent New Yorker in
her hand.
"More bad news? You know, rain and all that," as she caressed
my back.
I was glad I had someone to talk to. I hadn’t admitted that in a
long time.
I gave her a summary. It took longer than two sentences.
"Almost as if you were prescient," she said as she draped her
arms over my shoulders and pulled my head to her shoulder.
"Almost. I turned down the offer for reasons of my own, however. I
can’t imagine this is over for the dean. Remind me later to call
Sal."
Sasha’s cell went off, and she pulled it from her pocket.
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"Hi Mom," she said, and then she pointed to the bedroom, her
third trip without me, I quickly calculated. Always a whiz with
numbers.
The bedroom was busier than it had been for the last three
months. I retrieved the New York Times at my door, seated myself
on the sofa and pulled out the "Book Review." I planned to read it
quickly. The lead piece on the front page of the "Review"
explained why. It was a scathing review by a snappish Montanan
of a book on writing by a pompous Englishman. Right on, I said
out loud without remembering that there were now two of us. The
Brits kept trying to tell the colonials how to write, interpret history
and hate religion; and the colonials keep arguing with them
instead of telling them to fuck off. Thirty minutes later, having
finished the Book Review, I found Sasha at my side. A littler glum,
I thought, but managing. I put my arms around her, and she
began her recap. Also much longer than her standard two
sentences.
"My shithead ex called my parents and scared them silly. Can you
believe that? They’re OK now. I decided I had lay more
unexpected news on them, not sure how they would react. I told
them where I was and who I was with, and my Dad said, the
sweetheart he is, 'Tell me he's not as crazy as the sculptor.' I told
him you were crazier," saying this bought her trademark smile that
helped to dispel the glum. "It worked as comic relief for all of us,
before and now."
"Crazier to be sure but also safer," was my reply.
"They’re OK with this, although I left out some crucial details."
"Like age," I interjected.
"Like age and your inability to stay awake and finish the job,” she
said without pause.
“Ah…sleeping beauty….”
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“Do you rewrite every story?”
“Every story! And what do I get to tell my parents when they call in
from above?"
"Madly in love with someone who doesn’t think love is madness."
And we kissed so gently and softly – modulating the tempo was
something we seemed to be naturals at.
We decided to do lunch at Sheila’s. It was busy – Sunday always
was — but several tables had just opened up shortly after we
arrived. Sheila was at the desk, unusual for her to pull weekend
duty. I introduced Sasha with the comment that she may become
another regular. Ignoring all the hustle and bustle around her she
came out from behind the desk and embraced Sasha but said,
"We love this guy, and we don’t share," and led us to a table. She
hugged Sasha, seated her and then me. When Sheila was out of
earshot, I heard in a plaintive voice:
“All the women seems to have the same line on you, with one
exception. It will take some getting used to, although how can one
not like Sheila.”
“Take it as being duly welcomed," I said, trying to defuse Sasha’s
expression, more leering than endearing. I thought to myself this
relationship will endure some testing. I’m game.
We shared a bistro-version Wellington for two and joked about
how complicated it had become in fewer than twenty-four hours.
What could we expect in the future? We forewent dessert but
each had an espresso. I decided to ask her if she had any interest
in joining the gym? Indeed, a must was her response. She had
been a gym rat in college, but not since. The sculptor had an
aversion to formal exercise.
As we left the café, I suggested a walk in her new neighborhood
unless it was too cold. There was no objection as she pulled down
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her cap and pulled up her scarf. The street noise was minimal,
and we walked along in silence for a short distance.
"You know, last night was splendidly special, and I speak for you
and me. I could tell, and I want more splendidly special nights
even though relationships have a way of tamping down the
splendid and the special. It’s the creative impulse in me. We have
our lives to live and our duties to perform, but I know how creative
you can be in other ways. I want some of that, and I promise you
some of mine. You’re finding out I can be bitchy. I also promise to
do something about that," as she squeezed my arm.
"Don’t. The quickest way to doom this relationship is to start
making rules about how we’re going to change. Remember, I
grew up in the sixties when communal types sat around and
made rule after rule about how members ought to get with it and
they fucked up the whole enterprise. Creative we can be, directed
behavior modification sucks."
"And that I intend to pursue again, you beautiful man!"
I called Sal after a nap. We were too tired to fuck but not to
entangle ourselves. I fell asleep loving her body and these new
moorings that also seemed to have a long enough line to reach
into the wild waters.
"Look, Sal, I’m worried too but others are in charge. Whether or
not you should call him, let me ask him. I’ll call him tomorrow.
OK? Do the dishes or something to drop the pressure. Later," and
I hung up.
"Are dishes your answer to everything nerve-wracking?"
"Yes, better than breaking them, the therapy practiced by my best
man. His kitchen cabinets were overflowing with dishes because
he often hurled them against the wall for no apparent reason, at
least no reason he’d share. Later committed for a short stay."
"You’re right, washing is better."
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During the rest of the day into the evening we messed around
reading, talking, teasing, learning. She perused the Times more
seriously than I, disenchantment not yet having taken hold, and
was far more politically attuned than I was. I had some catching
up to do. Bedtime was uncharacteristically early for me, and, as it
turned out, for her, another night owl.
Our love-making was languid and exclusionary. We explored our
bodies, we talked about our feelings, we made sketches on each
other’s face or chest or thigh with our fingers. We teased and
laughed a lot. It was cozy…not a word I could ever recall thinking,
let alone saying. We drifted into sleep having no doubt pleased
the gods.
The next morning Sasha was up and drinking from a press full of
Peet’s before me. She poured me a cup and sat on my lap as she
handed me the cup. I noticed she had been sketching, and I
asked her what she had in mind.
"You," she said, "I’m going to do a series sketches of you, your
many impersonations and brains and I may later stick your face
on a ring or sculpt your whole naked body with a huge penis."
"And you don’t need me to sit naked for hours with a hard-on?"
"Indeed, that’s part of the plan," as she began to play erotically
while I tried to juggle my Peet’s.
"I had an email from a guy I’ve been seeing about tomorrow night.
Am I busy?"
"Did you screw him?"
“Turn-about’s fair play, I did but not on the first date. Does that
count for anything?"
"You’re busy, but invite him to tea."
She squeezed and jumped off.
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"I’ve already taken care of him, nicely. I need a shower, and I
notice you have those huge, fluffy Turkish towels. Are they only
for special guests? By the way you’re getting a new handle.
Haven’t decided yet. I have trouble with all your names.”
The next thing I heard was the shower, for the first time without
me in it.
I surveyed her refreshed body as Sasha stood in front of me with
the towel — the very large towel — not draped around her body
but wrapped around her long hair and hanging over her shoulder.
There was something different about looking at a body with which
you’ve had so much good sex. It stood out in a way it hadn’t
before. Every curve, every muscle, every angle meant something.
She knew I was looking, and she just stood there in utter silence,
expressionless like a cat whose next move might not be what you
expected. Finally, I broke the silence, losing whatever test was
underway.
"A goddess in my living room. Showers are transforming."
"Don’t forget that image. My ultimate ambition is to be a goddess.
I love the power.”
“I should tell you some housekeeping details. The linens and
towels and robes and all the sexiness they imply were furnished.
Once a week, at some appointed time, usually when I am gone —
how that happens I haven’t a clue — a crew of lovelies and
handsomes show up to clean and to replace unlaundered with
laundered. I’m no sure what the extent of their duties are.”
“I think I’ll hang around to find out. You’re not invited.”
And she threw her arms around me. “I’ve thought that way for so
long I can’t stop. I’m a sucker for adventure. That’s obvious isn’t?
Right now this is the only adventure I want. Should I add it’s
consuming me and all my planning?”
I drew a new face on her face. It was the same face.
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"You have to learn that I’m terrible at planning because I never
feel compelled to do any. I just wake up in the morning and things
happen. Plan my day for me."
"You’re not forcing me into another dependency-relationship —
get my water, make my bed, do my laundry, get out, don’t leave
— have you ever gone through that? I can’t believe I did for as
long as I did. Rest assured I’m delivering a different person for
you to love."
“I’ve never thought of myself as dependent-driven. I can’t
remember that I did the asking. In fact, I can’t remember being
asked very often. Even with my ex who might well have been
inclined that way wasn’t with me. I was a doer and most of the
women were too. It wasn’t that we didn’t share or help each other
but not in the way you just described. One woman, not my age
but closer than most with whom I might have been willing to hook
up with but never did, told me a story about her being entrapped
in a relationship. I can’t recall she ever used the word
dependency, but that was the word that popped into my head as
she finished the story. Most notably the relationship had turned
abusive. She was quite frank about not being able to get out of it.
Her elderly mother had to drive hundreds of miles to extract her
literally from an apartment and a relationship she couldn’t leave
on her own. She was thirty-five. I never quite assimilated that,
partly because when I knew her she was a strong-willed
professional. Maybe being strong-willed can work in the opposite
direction in the bedroom. It was one of the messiest stories I’d
ever heard."
“Why did you date her?”
“I didn’t qualify.”
“Qualify? Like filling out a job app?”
"More or less. On our last date…maybe the third or fourth…I
learned while sitting at a bar after a concert, which she had invited
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me to…I learned that she enjoyed my company but I did not het
qualifications. I asked innocently what she meant. Let me note
when I knew her she was in her early forties. I didn’t qualify
because she was still planning to do it all — kids, family, house in
the burbs, what most of us say we’ll do when we’re in our twenties
— and she couldn’t take a chance on a man my age."
By this time Sasha was laughing out loud.
“What a put-down. Did you recover?”
“Barely…as you can tell.”
“How sad. Out to the pasture you go. You have more stories than
a library, and they’re so eerie they belong on the Fantasy Shelf. Is
all of this for the sake of the story-telling? Made up to amuse your
unsuspecting ladies?” she asked as she pulled away and gave
me that you’re-in-my-crosshairs look I’d first seen at Sheila’s.
“Dare I ask…is there more to this tale or have I heard the end?"
“Yes. Of course. I notice you’re listening. There is more both sad
and funny. Full steam ahead for the sake of the story or….”
“Full-steam ahead for the sake of my curiosity, which may in your
mind be the equivalent of the story.”
‘Good point. We were gym buddies but, as you already know, we
never became lovers. Our first date was a gym meet — she was a
gymnast in college and kept up with the sport…I sat by myself
because she was helping out, moving mats and spotting for
participants — and afterwards we sat in the bleachers with cokes
from a machine when she told me about losing her fiancé who
had been her college love and was killed in a traffic accident. The
barest details. I didn't ask for more. I have no idea what happened
between his death and her extraction. She said she had moved
on, and maybe she had…I couldn’t tell. She was attractive and
fairly smart. She was working on a doctorate in the biological
sciences. She had worked in the labs of several food-processing
companies before entering grad school. If she had current boy
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friends, she never talked about them at the gym or the several
were went out. We mostly talked about her studies, which she
repeatedly called so demanding she worked twelve to fifteen
hours a day. She only other activity was the gym. She did weights
and aerobic, and on the few times we worked out together she
was obviously serious. If she were at loose ends and had a
dependency problem I sure wouldn’t have detected it if I had
heard the extraction story.”
"At loose ends can be awful. It causes you to latch onto things
that will probably only make matters worse. But some people
spend their lives in that mode. With the sculptor I began to come
up with all sorts of strategies to avoid what had to be done. Not
my mode now. My mom, a successful woman by every measure,
has a minor dependency thing concerning my dad, who has a
heart of gold and the patience of Job. But her childhood was
much scarier than his or mine. I’m not sure she has ever come to
terms with that or ever will. She lives with contentment about her
life but with a dark side that is still out of bounds. I’ve not helped
because of the sculptor, and I get pissed, as you saw yesterday,
when he starts playing around, in a way that unsettles her. My
dad’s upbringing and path were very different. He was almost
destined to succeed at what he chose to do. At the same time he
was the most loving and caring husband my mom could ever ask
for. I think, although we never talked about it, he accepted her
dependence on him but never exploited it. She carved out a
career in public education, although a few years ago we retired, o
become by her own description a ‘do-gooder’. One thing they
agreed upon was that they did not like the sculptor and they did
not want him around and they never came to the compound, even
to see my pieces. When there were encounters my mom left it to
my dad to manage those moments because he was used to
dealing with shit-heads in his job. Sometimes I had the strange
feeling that she wanted to reach out to protect my ex as she might
have wished someone had protected her, even though she didn't
like him one bit. Reaching out never crossed my dad’s mind. I
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can’t justify my selfishness…why I subjected them to so much
pain.WhenI finally dumped him, I wrote a long apologia to them
and gave them a small sculpture that symbolized our home life.
My mom told me later, when I finally arrived home, that they had
read the letter and held the sculpture while having a full-fledged
bawl. Just talking about brings tears to me eyes.”
We both looked at each other with tears in our eyes.
“Man, you know how to win a woman’s heart, don’t you? All
tears.”
I handed her a Kleenex that she used to wipe my tears before
hers.
“I’m determined to figure out why I let that lunatic in my life. Being
with you may help me do that. No figuring out today.”
She wrapped the towel around her body and led me to the sofa.
No problem for her to curl up her legs under her butt and no
chance for me…ever. I extended my legs across the coffee table.
"No necking until I hear the funny or less serious part.
Counterbalance to such a fuckin’ serious day. I also need to
decide if I believe you or not. You might be a liar and philander
disguised as a storyteller.…”
“By all means let me finish…lying and philandering two of my
favorite sports. I may have to fabricate a little just to keep you
interested, from falling asleep."
“On with it….”
"When she was dissecting my lack of a future at the bar, where I
learned I did not qualify, I saw a familiar face heading toward us
from the other side of the bar. He threw his arm around me as if
we were long-time buddies — we weren’t. He sat next to her and
immediately steered the conversation from me and to her. I
thought to myself...this is going to be fun. He had a reputation as
a lady’s man, a reputation mainly burnished by his own retelling of
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his many conquests. I had no doubt that as troubled as she was,
he was no match for her. Being courted for nefarious deeds was a
no-no. I had no doubt he was also operating on the premise that
this divorced academic joke — me — was no match for him. He
too was an economist, although he kept writing the same shit over
and over again to be published in popular magazines or delivered
at quasi-important world conferences. No one could figure out
why he ever got hired to head a rather well-known department."
I paused and turned only to discover Sasha more attentive than I
had expected.
"So was there a wife to go with the string of women?"
"There was, and she and I were colleagues and good friends.
How she put up with this lout was beyond me. She unlike him was
a distinguished scholar, author of several, well-received books,
one of a handful of people who knew some of the details of my
messy divorce. Actually shortly after this episode I'm describing
she ordered him out of the house for good. As she had listened to
my sad, sad, sad tale I spent several evenings at her house...no
hanky-panky...listening to her tale that was sad but more bizarre.
Even before those conversations I knew his ways. They were so
transparent as to make one laugh."
"He prowled and ended up on a stool next to your date?"
"Right. When the stool next to her became vacant, he clumsily
slipped around me...he was awkward as a cow…and her to that
stool. I can still see his expression, which of course he could not."
"And his charm — I use the term loosely — he must have had
something going for him if he were a so-called ladies man?"
"I don’t know what he had. I could detect no charm. He was tall
and ugly with a paunch and talked incessantly about himself. The
more I saw him in action the more I was convinced the tales of
conquests were made up."
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"I can tell...the story's not done."
"Are stories ever done?"
She gently nudged me but it was not an ominous nudge.
"He apparently had something of a moral compass because he
had a justification for his behavior — the Holocaust."
"The real Holocaust?"
"My reaction exactly the first time I heard it. His parents were
survivors, and even though he was born and raised here
somewhere in the West he carried their trauma."
"And his amorous pursuits were needed to liberate himself from
his trauma by way of their trauma…oh my god, I’ve heard other
versions, not Holocaust-related but trauma-related. Before I
discovered sanity, I used to fight with my ex over the other
woman, and the answer I got was they were working through
traumas from childhood, or adulthood or Sunday School or
permanent constipation. I’ve lost track of all the traumas."
"Times in my life I could have used a good trauma story, but I
don’t lie well."
"So, the bar encounter has an ending, happy I'm sure?"
"Like so much else in life, before he could settle in next to her and
work his non-existent charm she excused herself for potty
purposes, and as she walked behind him, never even
acknowledging his presence nor bidding him adieu, she pointed at
the door. That's how it ended. I said something like 'Gotta Go' and
caught up with her outside. I never saw him again. Eventually his
academic luck ran out as had his matrimonial luck. He was asked
to step down. He chose to resign and to leave town in the dark of
the night."
"And?"
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“When we got to her apartment, I had no expectation of anything
more. A handshake and thanks for the evening. But, I was in for a
further surprise. Let keep you awake by proclaiming I went home
with a bounce in my step."
“Even though you failed to qualify, you fucked her.”
“Exactly. I'll leave it...."
"One, two, three...."
"Ok. While standing in the doorway, I learned why I was not to be
invited in…I had never seen the inside of her apartment…and it
was more jarring than not qualifying. The hour was at hand when
she talked to her father. She’d told me, however, her father was
dead and had been dead for ten or fifteen years. I can only
imagined how I looked. She companied by telling me that they
talked almost nightly, and this was the time that they had set for
today. I was flummoxed. I managed to ask where he lived,
thinking it might be a step-father, and she chuckled before
answering over there. I had to ask over where, and she again
chuckled before repeating over there beyond the pale.”
“You shook hands and quick-stepped it out of there. Am I to
believe this?”
“Exactly. What I asked myself as drove home. Never much into
the game of talking to the dead. All I can tell you is she was
deadly…excuse the pun…serious about this. As I left, she said he
will ask about you…again? No more to tell. I saw her at the gym
once in a while but we never chatted.”
“You’ve not made this up, have you.?
“No. In fact, I wrote all down in my journal before retiring, and the
next day at lunch I repeated it to my closest friend. He was much
blunter than I would ever be: how do you end up with so many
lunatics?”
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“Speaking of lunatics! I must confuse it took me a while to ditch
the sculptor but once it happened my future became my
preoccupation. She seemed to want to keep living in her past. I
couldn’t stop thinking about what was ahead. I thought about
where to live, what to sculpt, how to adjust, and almost never
about him. I’d be sitting at my table or in one of his stolen chairs,
and he’d be stomping around, cussing me out, the ugliest
peacock you could ever imagine, because I was not sufficiently
engrossed in his life. Inevitably we sparred. I’d call him shallow
and he’d call me maniacal, and after while I came to an obvious
conclusion…more obvious than I’d ever admitted…that this was
going no where. He was doing nothing checking on me and
complaining about what he observed or thought he observed.
Sometimes I had to wonder if we even knew each other. It took
months, and now I can’t even remember if we ever had a civil
conversation with each other. And lovemaking only when we’d
both drunk too much. Perhaps if he had stayed permanently
drunk…not really. I’m not proud of this story but you can use it to
warn your readership of another potential lunatic, to use your
friend’s phrase. A Waste of Time might be the title. Actually your
phrase. Those four words sum it up perfectly without vitriol. I’m
waiting to read your first fictional piece…A Waste of Time.”
“A phrase I love. It could become a title. Scads of stories we could
both tell. And the older — you did not hear that — I get, the more
pertinent it becomes. In fact, I worry sometimes I measure too
much by those four words. Before you pack and leave…you are
not and this is not a waste of time.”
"Good. I was worried for a moment. I get the last word, though,
because I shall be I.”
I threw my hands over my ears to her snickering.
“I’m glad I attacked you in the back of the cab. I have no clue
where this will end up but you can bet I shall shall shall stay
jealous and vigilant. The external world is not going to leave us
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alone, I fear, but I’m relishing the upside. So Pip...your new
name…as long as I’m relishing, I’m staying. Let's take a noontime
nap...does that qualify as an appropriate waste of time.”
"Am I also permitted a final word?"
“No! There can only be one final word or otherwise it would be a
waste of time.”
We both awoke early afternoon, in the bed, some transport magic
performed by the sofa.
“Awake?” I heard softly in my ear. “I just made some plans since
you’re incapable. We’re going to the gym after I do some packing.
My roommate’s man, a real creep, wants the room as early as
possible so he can set up his Internet whatever he does. I think
he’s a professional hacker. So I can pack everything today and
we can figure out how to move it all tomorrow. I can lure him into
hauling the stuff over here in his car. He told me one night he
wanted to fuck or if possible to fuck both of us in the same bed.
After I threw up, I reminded him I was an evangelical Christian. I
once had a friend whose favorite expression was I’d rather suck a
dirty sock than make love to him. Well, that sums it up."
"Gee, I’ve had a great time with some evangelicals…oh no, a
knee from out of nowhere."
We kissed, gently and softly, for a long time.
For the first time we rubbed noses – a ritual I didn't know about –
when her face became alive, sparkling eyes and radiant smiles,
not a word, just her face and mine inches apart, as if something
was also cascading through her, maybe for the first time. All either
of us had to know was registered therein.
We agreed to meet at the gym, which she assured me she could
find — I had to remember how resourceful this woman was —
and as I arrived at the door she was coming down the street. I
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walked toward her. We were both bundled up against the hard
wind.
"How’d it go?"
"Done. Everything’s ready for tomorrow, and weirdo will drive his
potential ménage à trois wherever she wants to go. Ugh!"
"Here we go," as I opened the door. Katie was at the desk, all
eyes, her mouth nearly agape in either horror or amazement
"Hi, Katie, Meet Sasha. I promised you a replacement, she is it.
Does it meet with your approval?"
Katie jumped off her stool, came around to the front of the desk –
one of the few times I’d seen her in front of the desk – and gave
Sasha a hug. If my heart stopped then and there, I could take a
beautiful scene to my grave.
"I have no idea what’s happened since I last saw him, this one
who’s intent on putting me out of business, but I’m not asking any
questions. Welcome Sasha."
Hi," said Sasha in the voice I remember the first time I met her —
engaging but modulated. "I’ve been anxious to see the gym that
so dominates his life and conversation. I wasn’t sure it was real or
another one of his stories."
"So you’ve hear the stories too. They’re endless, aren’t they, and
suspect, don’t you think?" replied Katie. I was now leaning against
the counter in anticipation that this would have to run its course.
"You look as if you’re not averse to working out," remarked Katie,
as she surveyed Sasha who like me had removed her winter gear.
"Any ideas what you want to do?"
"I’d like to do more weight-lifting. Never done much. The
machines tend to bore me. Besides, I need to stay close to him,"
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as she nodded in my direction, "because old guys tend to forget
where they’ve stashed their latest…"
Followed by a roar of laughter including Greg who had now joined
the group. I was too befuddled by the wit of this woman to make a
proper introduction. Sasha reached her hand across the counter
and did it herself.
Katie returned to her accustomed place and dug out the
paperwork.
"We can close the deal after your workout. Six months like his to
start?"
We nodded yes in unison.
"Look, Greg is free right now, he’s the best, why not start with him
today, and after that we can set you up with a couple more
training sessions."
Sasha explained she would be gone for ten days, but she’d like to
get started. She had the rest of this week. I had no part in this
conversation, nor, as it turned out, in providing the financing, even
though I held my checkbook in my hand. This was a sure sign of
financial independence would rule this romance. I had always
said after my divorce, to the amusement of gym-rat friends, when
I was asked the inevitable question about remarriage, "only if she
brings her own checkbook". Now it had happened. And so a new
part of our venture began. As I watched her and Greg, I could see
how strong and flexible she was. I had felt that in bed, but I wasn’t
sure. At the end of the workout we headed to the desk where
Sasha signed the forms and, much to my surprise, Katie reached
across and gave me kiss on the check. Greg and Sasha arranged
their future appointments for the remainder of the week and after
her return. The first time in my gym career I’d ever had a mate to
work out with. I was pretty sure I was going to like her.
"So now I have to worry about Katie in addition to the others.
What a beauty. She needs to be in a drawing."
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"Not with me, I assume," as I felt her squeeze the hell out of my
arm, through her glove and my coat. “Whoa. My hand’s in a
strangle hold. Ouch! What the hell did Greg do for you today?"
“That ouch…a warning! Greg is cool, and I like Katie, and I want
you to admire Katie from a distance."
"I’ll call you on this one. I know Katie well, even after just a few
months. Her mom is a prominent, practicing/teaching psychiatrist,
and Katie’s about as well grounded as anyone I’ve met. She and
Greg belong together, although every guy in the gym wishes it
weren’t true. You surely felt an inner strength just in the short time
you talked to her."
"You’re right. Your intuitive powers are actually pretty impressive
for once. More importantly, you’re the first guy to have gym time
with me. I like that. Are the stars lining up?”
"Likewise for me, stars and all.”
She bounded up the stairs as usual, but now she had her own set
of keys and she was waiting for me in the doorway. We hugged
and kissed, hung our coats and scarves and walked arm-in-arm to
the bedroom.
She began to root around in her bag and then handed me a
package of condoms.
"That serious, eh. Thanks, but they’re not needed. Curl up here
with me. We can listen to wind and…"
"You have another story, no?"
"Yes, the gift of condoms makes it necessary. Now’s as good a
time as any.”
“I need something to drink. What can I bring you? I’m choosing
juice for now."
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"I need something stronger, maybe some bourbon on ice. I
can…."
"No, you cannot. Curl up, I have a feeling this ain’t gonna be
easy," and after a quick kiss she went off to the kitchen.
No, it ain’t gonna be easy, but it used to be much harder.
Both of us still in gym attire, we were ensconced amongst all the
pillows, probably eight or nine.
"I’m not sure what’s ahead, but today’s been a good day,
Pipperoo, a variation of your new name."
"A good day, and nothing catastrophic yet on the horizon. I don’t
need condoms because I have no poppers in my semen."
"A vasectomy? But you had no kids, right? Aren’t they reluctant to
zap people who haven’t had kids yet?"
"You have an uncanny familiarity with medical literature."
“Not so uncanny. Guess who tried to get a vas and was denied.
He could not get the condom on before he died on the spot. It was
so un-fuckin’ funny. He would go berserk, and I’d have to finish
the job myself. I don’t like that unfinished feeling. Thank god you
finish it with a flourish, my love." She kissed me and we had
trouble letting go.
"OK. Time out. We may never get this done before you leave. The
obvious question is the one you asked. I have no children of my
own. My ex had three, if you can believe that." From her look she
could not.
"She was married at eighteen to a scion…is that the right word…a
rich guy with a trust fund. Actually they both had money, but he
had a lot more. Private schools, summer camps, European stays,
horses, houses, but no parents, just nannies. They met their
freshman year at Hampshire College, the first step in their
rebellion against parental planning and comparable upbringings
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and, as the story requires, they ran off and got married. She also
got pregnant, and then pregnant again a year later, and finally a
third time but several years later. Three kids by the time she was
twenty-two. They could afford help and were able to graduate
almost on time. She wanted a career despite her wealth, and he
didn’t want one because of his. His trust fund must have been
huge, but I don’t know that. Despite her rebellious nature and
rather premature behavior, she wanted to be an editor at a
recognized publisher. She did it on her own with no help from him
and their families. And she was good at it. She was smart, wellread and could write a decent sentence. But over time she
couldn’t deal with him. Not abusive, just lazy and spoiled. So in
her mid-twenties with three kids she walked. Obviously, made
manageable because she had money. Money was nit ever an
issue during separation and divorce. No fighting over property.
The lawyers took care of everything. The legal side was tidy. As
you might guess, the personal side was not. I met her through a
friend several years later. I’d been through a few unsavory
romances that I haven’t told you about. Can we do that later? No
one around here knows anything about my marriage or premarriage. Not even Sal except he knows there was a divorce."
"You know why this hookup will last forever. So many stories I
can’t possibly leave until I hear them all."
"If stories will keep you down on the ranch I’ll make up as many
as we need. Back to a not-so-made-up story. After a couple of
years we married. She seemed stable and ready, and I had no
trouble cutting the cake. The kids needed a lot of attention — i
had absolutely no skills but intuitively…that word again…more
than she had…by her own admission — and even though they’re
adults now they still need attention. Too much like their father."
I took a drink, and Sasha ran her hands back and forth across my
cheeks. She knew the hard part was coming.
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"I’ll spare you many details. The kids were in and out of this
school and that school, all private of course, and they would arrive
unannounced and for a stay of one day to one month at our more
modest quarters — five bedrooms and four thousand square feet
– only then to return to the estate of their father and his family. I
tried, even she said that unequivocally at the divorce hearing, and
she added I tried harder than she did. We all carry our crosses –
that’s mine — and they can weigh you down and even became
unbearable. She started disappearing for various duration before
reappearing, leaving me to juggle the household, the kids’ lives
and the staff. Thank goodness there was a staff. I’m resourceful,
more so than most, but I was in over my head. In time — perhaps
first instance when I entertained seriously the weight of waste of
time — I called it quits. I moved out. I had never signed
guardianship papers so I had no legal responsibility. The sad fact
was that the kids and I could get along and could from time to
time live normal lives. Their father never could, and their mother
was increasingly absent. I’m still in touch with them and talk to
them several times a year. Also, before I came here I made an
effort to spend a day with each of them and their partners. Two of
them, incidentally, are gay and in all three cases the partners —
no marriages — have helped to give ballast to their lives. I like
their partners, and that’s another reason to stay in touch. I may
see the youngest here after Xmas, although it’s still up in the air.
That’s why I haven’t said anything. The divorce took forever
because she and her family kept trying to buy me back into the
marriage. Finally, they realized the game was up and we signed
the papers. I walked out with my personal things, the art I’d
bought and the books I’d collected and my retirement and
portfolio intact. I refused everything else. We’d been separated for
several years before the divorce, and in that time I dated several
women including Erin. But the trauma of separation had come
and gone by the time I knew her. I’d already been through
therapy. I also took a leave to teach abroad. What shook me up
was the sense of failure I felt. I worried about her but I worried
more about the kids. Their welfare made me stay in longer than I
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should have, and then it collapsed anyway, I had all those feelings
you read about — betrayal, anger, failure, etc. I was at loose
ends, and I knew I needed help. I fell off the cliff I’d been so
gingerly stepping along for years. Sorry to lay all this on you so
soon. You’re becoming a part of my crazy past. Crazier than your
ex's, as you warned your dad. Are you up for this?"
There was silence. She had not taken her eyes off my face and
now tears began to form in those beautiful blue wells. She kissed
me ever so gently and softly, as if to say you’re safe with me.
"Back to what started this conversation. The vas procedure was
agreed to by our physician — a friend of the family, of course...her
family not mine — because we did not want any children of our
own. The kid business was tough enough without more. Her ex
actually fathered three more. God knows what their lives have
been like. You know what the other option was but she decided
against it. In fact, she remarried because she got pregnant a
couple months after she started dating her guy who became her
husband and sadly her ex a few months after her son was born.
That’s how I got chosen in my early thirties to be declared spermdead. I didn’t give it much thought because my hands were full
with the comings and goings of her tribe. That’s my condom story.
I prefer it without condoms. Our reward, perhaps."
"Agreed," as she ran her hand across my cheeks. "And everyone,
myself included, thought of you as a carefree divorcée. I guess
we never considered what kind of marriage you had because you
seemed so unconnected to it."
"Except for my occasional visits with her kids, I’m no longer
connected. Doug, the therapist, kept saying unlatch, unlatch,
unlatch, and ultimately it worked. But, be prepared if they call. I
never know when that will occur. And even show up. That hasn't
happened yet here but it could. It's a remnant from a challenging
marriage that I’m inclined to hang onto. It's episodic...long periods
of no contact but when they get in touch I do what I can. It isn't
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much anymore, and that's probably a good sign. I know that they
are grateful, and that’s reassuring. End of the story that no one in
my contemporary life knows about except...."
I never finished the sentence, and in a reverse of the usual I lay
my head on her shoulder.
An hour later wrapped in our towels we lay on the bed.
"I don’t want to leave, but I don’t know how to get out of this trip
home. The water beating down on me while you were beating
inside of me was utterly delicious and divine."
"I love shower fucking. It's instinctive and unrestrained, the lust
being both driven and softened by the water cascading across
bodies, clean bodies, I should add."
"My, aren't we the evening poet? Will it ever end? I'll answer my
own question. I won't allow it," followed by a long hug.
We decided to cook in. Actually we decided I should cook in.
Sasha had no interest. We opened a good wine and I whipped up
a vichyssoise, made a plate of cold-cuts and cheeses, cut some
bread, and within forty-five minutes we were dining.
"Will it bother you if I never learn to cook? I can do the dishes,
although they cause violent mood swings in me but seem to serve
as therapy for you."
"Let’s hire someone. I wouldn’t mind being the sous-chef and the
diner, and if permitted, the lover. Just being waited on has been a
life-long dream, deferred, deferred, deferred. Do you suppose
there's an Internet site?"
"My mom does both so well and without fuss. I’ve never actually
created anything very domestic and probably won’t. I have a lot of
trouble wrapping my arms around domestic things unless they're
art. Oh, and sex. I took a course on Still-Life in college with all
those table scenes and implied domesticity...domestic part never
became an interest...but what did fascinate me was the use of
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space. In some strange way I can’t explain, that course after
thousands of slides caused me to rethink how I looked at space or
at the use of space. It made me realize there were limits to what I
could do with jewelry. I thought seriously about taking up the
brush and the canvas. I’d been drawing since I was a kid, but
going from drawings to paintings is harder than it might appear. At
some point, maybe because I was sleeping with a very smart
biochem major who could draw on paper from memory hundreds
of molecules — those things that look like tinker toys — I got
more interested in his renderings of molecules than his other
offerings. I liked the way those shapes interacted with the space. I
started thinking about not painting but about moving from jewelry
I’d been doing for several years…more than that actually…to
sculpting.”
"So what happened to the biochemist?"
"He was a difficult fuck, if you know what I mean, except my
parents loved him. That probably doomed us. They can’t love
you."
"Unlikely. I promise not to render any molecules. But the Still-Life
genre always intrigued me. I don’t own any. I almost bought one
by an Iowa City painter a year ago. So real I thought I should
crawl inside the frame and sit at the table. That ’s an artist’s real
where I'm never comfortable. When I began to take an interest in
painting I kept asking — arrogantly I think now — so what is so
fascinating about someone’s kitchen table? Our dining room table
always had a bowl of wax and then plastic fruit. The cut-glass
bowl itself was surely worth more than the wax or plastic
reproductions. Nowadays because fruit moves around the world
with such ease many have real fruit in highly decorative bowls
probably bought at summer arts fairs. But does anyone throw a
recently-shot pheasant on the table to accompany the fruit? One
of the first art prints I bought in my twenties when I had no money
and knew next to nothing about art was a Braque Still-Life. His
was different. No pheasants. I hadn’t a clue except I liked the
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arrangement of the geometrics that some may have transformed
in their minds into fruit, pheasants and sundry things. I left them
as geometrics. And here I am, decades later, with a lot of art on
my wall here and at home that cause visitors to ask me…“So
what is it” Even Erin on yonder wall has a Still-Life quality to it —
ribbons and dishes surrounding what may be a candelabra in
utterly enticing hues, ah, that menacing hole in the middle
remains."
Sasha turned and looked for a few minutes.
"Her brilliance is that she paints the mystery, the insolvable in her
life. I can honestly understand how you’re drawn in — just be
careful how far you go along that path, Pipperoo," in her warning
voice as she turned back.
"If jealousy makes you creative, let’s drink to jealousy."
She got up and came around the table and put her arms around
me from behind and whispered,
"I worry, but I’m not worried. Does that make any sense?
Dangerous, I know, but that’s the way it may be for a while. Who
knows where we’re going. For three months I watched and
listened and waited. I knew I was falling in love. With a style, a
sense of humor, a specter, I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew
the feeling. Was it a bundle of neurons playing tricks, to use your
analogy? My outlet was sketching. You didn’t look very closely —
well, I didn’t give you much time to look very closely — but you
show up in those sketches in various guises and distortions. Sorry
about the distortions. I never knew if I would get to this point. And
now that I’m here, the process begins all over, what is the next
point, the next cycle, the next…."
"Bundle of neurons playing mischief. May they never quit!"
"Pip, behave! You can’t be naughtier or wittier than I am."
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"I wouldn’t try," I said as I felt her let go. I got up and faced her,
and I knew the danger of throwing my arms around her again. I
had no idea who was running this old body anymore. Someday I
must read up on libidos. Can libidos drive people crazy? Drive old
people to early death? I was totally in the dark. I had lived on the
edge and had fallen off once or twice. Moderation had wormed its
way into my life with increasing ease and acceptance. Where had
moderation gone? There was nothing moderate about having this
lovable woman in my life. Nothing.”
"OK, your thoughts, you’re off somewhere?" she said as we sat
on the sofa and she pulled my head around to square up with
hers. "I haven’t gotten used to this wandering mind yet or is it
wondering mind. You’re probing something right now, aren’t
you?"
“Hmm. Scattered thoughts. At this very precise moment…some
lyrics: 'I wonder, I worry, I think, I drink....'"
Before I could finish I heard, "Underline drink."
"Let's drink to that," and we finished what was in our glasses.
"Ok, wonderer or wanderer, worrier, thinker, drinker, out with
it...what's bumping around up there," as she slipped her open
palm onto the top of my head.
"Sitting on your legs again. I’ll know I’ve found the fountain of
youth when I can do that. In the meantime, even though I'm no
more clairvoyant then you about the future, I think the future...the
future will kill whatever future we have if we try to direct it. I prefer
to live in the present, the past is too messy with some memorable
moments, though, and I can’t figure out the future. Perhaps I’m
cutting too fine a line between present and future. Right now in
the present it’s working between us."
She nodded and squeezed my shoulder and lay her head on my
shoulder.
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"And furthermore I’ll tell you why it’s working — at the risk on
conjuring up a curse — because our own egos, perhaps more
precisely our own libidos, tell us it’s working. I’m a product of a
Sunday School upbringing…I hope you brought your Bible…and
any thought that sex could have a positive outcome except for
procreation was the work of the devil. Well, my love, the devil has
done his or her work and we like what he or she’s done and we
both think we have a future. If all that takes new bundles of
neurons, pushes aside the status quo, breaks old moorings,
stretches new ones, agitates the waters around us, so be it. We’re
both cognitive as well as emotional animals, and at both levels the
messages contain the same — it will unfold because we want it
to. That’s it. You and I can think of a thousand questions and
doubts that must be dealt with along the way, but on a level that
my Sunday School teacher would not approve of we have
melded. How many do you know or have known would still be
fighting with their zippers or condoms at this stage or would have
already drawn their knives?"
"I’m in; even if I tried, I couldn’t get out," she said as she lifted her
head and then shifted herself onto my lap. With her lips no more
than inches "You’re also in and can’t get out. I can feel it. That’s
what matters." And we kissed.
After a few minutes, she jumped up and commanded,
"Sit, I’m pouring you some wine, cleaning up the dishes and
cussing you for making me feel good. And then I’m getting out my
sketch pad, and I’m taking you into the world I dream about.
"Do I have your permission to call the dean? I’d promised I
would."
"Absolutely," and in the midst of the clatter of dishes I dialed the
dean’s number. I was surprised when he answered. Also that he
was eager to talk. We did for a half-hour. In the meanwhile Sasha
had poured the wine, finished the dishes, sat down next to me
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and started sketching. The dean and I covered the waterfront. We
finished, and I closed the phone.
"So, I doubt if it’s totally good news, but how bad is it?" asked
Sasha.
"I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. I couldn’t tell what was
real and what was made up. He said he’d been far sicker than he
ever thought possible, but also his recovery was faster than…do I
need to finish that sentence. What was hardest to grab unto was
his excitement about returning to full-time teaching. I don’t believe
it. I can’t imagine the classroom will satisfy whatever drives him
unless the heart attack tamped down his ambition. Incidentally, it
was a full-blown heart attack. He’s got stuff inside him now. I don’t
know, Sasha, I’m not optimistic. I don’t know firsthand what
cardiac patients go through in a recovery. Maybe he needs to be
forward-looking. There was something in the voice that raised red
flags."
“I barely know him, but I agree…I can’t see him being happily
confined to the classroom. And remember you need to call Sal."
"Tomorrow. Better to give the news in the daylight than before
bedtime. The dean said that Sal should call as soon as possible."
"It’s odd to me that you’re calling him, he’s not calling you, or he's
telling you to call Sal, etc."
"Not out of character for the dean. He’s used to being
approached. It must be no different in illness or health. Sal can
sort all this out tomorrow."
Sasha had her sketch pad on her lap and a pile of pencil on the
table.
"May I watch?" I asked.
"Only if you hand the right pencil to me when I need it," she
replied without averting her eyes from the pad. "And without being
told?"
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I picked up the pencils in my right hand and arranged them so
that all the points were facing up. She smiled as she watched me
do this out of the corner of her eye. I hadn’t a clue, of course,
which was the right pencil. It didn’t matter. When ready to change
pencils, she simply reached over and took the one she needed
and left the one she discarded. She seemed to know intimately
the role of each pencil on her pad. I had the feeling that she could
also pick out those nuances that made relationships work or not
work. For maybe five or ten minutes — time had a fleeting quality
with Sasha — neither of us spoke as the figure on the sheet
began to take form. Then I realized it was Katie, that beautiful
body that she admired earlier in the day. Somehow she sensed
that the revelation I was having was reason enough to break the
silence.
"So what do you think? Remember it’s early stage."
"I’m amazed. How did you gather in all those details in such short
order?"
"Some of the drawing is strictly generic, but the features that
make it Katie and not just any other beautiful woman caught my
eye as soon as we met. I was rolling those over in my head
wherever that happens, and I kept her in sight while I was working
out with Greg, another beautiful body. I can still do several things
at once." A sly glance in my direction followed.
"Thanks. Would you ever sculpt Katie?"
"Probably not. I’ve tried such sculpting on a small scale, but it’s
not my thing. I’m much more comfortable with forms and objects.
Drawing figures, however, keeps me in touch with my aesthetic
sense. Drawing remains basic to almost everything we do as
artists, at least I think so."
"How hard was it when you were also doing history?"
She closed the pad and laid it on the table with the pencils taken
from my hand.
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"Some days it was hard. I almost had to lock up my pad and
pencils in the next apartment or spend the day in the library. I
always allowed myself time on the weekend to draw. I usually had
a date on the weekend not because I was especially thrilled with
the guys but because I liked a break from the intensity of the
work. I also think a little sex is positive even when your partner
has little future. I only had sex a couple of times with one guy.
Knowing that, will it be easier for you to accept my
promiscuousness?" she asked, her mischievous eyes aimed in
my direction. "By the way little future does not exist in our world."
"I’m not sure how to react until I consult Ms Post. I, of course,
endorse celibacy."
"And Ellen was a mirage?"
"That was therapy."
"For her or you?"
"I wish I knew…I wish I knew." Sasha’s lips against mine made
any further comment unnecessary.
This was the first night we sleep more than we fucked. I awoke
first and gently caressed her arm draped over my chest until she
opened her eyes and then slide on top. We had already
established some rules and routines. No anal sex ever. She
preferred the bottom for intercourse and the top for snuggling.
Perfect, I thought. We spent a lot of time caressing, sometimes
talking, sometimes cooing. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d
cooed. This morning she wanted to snuggle. She had something
on her mind, something had to be talked about.
"I hope I didn’t wake you – well, not really," she whispered in my
ear. "I could not resist pulling my leg over yours and laying my
head on your chest, which, my dear Pip, is remarkably muscular
and cushy at the same time. I tried to reconstruct the dream I just
had. All I could come up with was I was standing in front of a
sculpture or a person who looked like a sculpture. It was certainly
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immobile and not inviting. I was scared. When I woke up, I
thought the body next to me was the body from my dream. I
wanted you, but I wanted to push you away. I needed you, and
then I realized I had you. I plan to hold you, the real you, for a
while."
"Perhaps it was about the unknown. I am an expert, of course, on
the basis of several dream-therapy sessions with Doug. He was
into dream therapy. He asked me to keep a record of my dreams,
and I still do. Lots of days with no record because I can’t always
recall enough of a dream to write something down. In some
dream therapy outside and inside can be interpreted in terms of
disorder and order. Outside is open and unprotected, inside is the
opposite. An oddity for me. I prefer interiors with few of the things
— walls, doorways, hallways — that make interiors interiors, like
this space. My kind of interior, so I had to ask Doug if my dreams
were telling me I was kidding myself about interiors. He said just
keep writing down what you remember and eventually it might
make sense. After nearly twenty years of writing down I'm not
sure where I am on thus question. What I know is that when
outside slash inside are in play I do a lot of moving back and forth
between the two conditions. What I've read since then suggests
that what I, my dreams, what we do is work at trying to impose
some order. It's elusive. I remember a dream with verdant, rolling
farmland. When I told Doug about the dream, he asked if I could
remember the context of the dream. I said I thought I was
traveling to DC, something I did to get away from the shit of my
divorce, and this was a view from the road I was driving along.
And then he asked how the trip went, and I replied that it didn’t do
much to raise my spirits. That was when he told me that the
farmland in the post-journey dream was deceptive. I thought I was
escaping but I was actually just piling on more shit, not finding
order, as the landscape seemed to suggest, but courting disorder.
So when I'm confronted with the interior slash exterior dream
business I don't press too hard. I accept the basic premise but
after all these years of writing down or trying to write down things
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that are themselves screwed up I don't fight it. Sometimes I say to
myself I understand; most times I just shrug. Your dream may lack
the interior slash exterior interplay — not every dream is
structured that way — but it may have a similar tension of familiar
and unfamiliar. New circumstances that scare...old ones that
haunt. Even though you and I can verbally or physically reassure
each other, our dream world’s may not yet be in accord. Are you
feeling at loose ends?"
I could feel that she had been listening intently, and when I
finished she tightened her hold on my torso. I began to caress the
back of her neck. Finally, she said,
"When I began setting my trap for you — and I admit I was doing
that — I could never figure out what I’d do if I caught you. Well, I
did capture, I crawled inside the trap with you and now I’m
wondering where next. That was not in the original plan. Setting
the trap took a lot of effort, and setting the future after the trap
sprung seemed like too much effort or perhaps more dangerous
than devising the trap. I don't know. We’re both in this up to our
you-know-what, I want that and I want more of that, but I haven’t
come to terms with what it all means. Not something I’ve ever
worried about in the past. My longest relationship was with the
sculptor, and yet I always seemed to feel or know it had a limited
future. He cared little about what I needed, and eventually I came
to feel the same way about him. Why did I sleep with him, why did
I stay with him, why, why, why? This feels different, and now I’m
scared? Unsure? Unprepared?"
I could both feel and hear the sobs.
"I’m feeling a little disordered and disorderly, to use your words."
Best to let her have a cry.
"I hear a cell," she said as she lifted her head, her eyes so moist
they glistened.
"I’m sorry I didn’t hear it. Do you want me to check it?"
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"Maybe you’d better," and she rolled off.
I retrieved her phone.
“My roommate,” I heard her say when she looked at the screen. "I
need to call her with a time. What do you think about early
afternoon, say between one and two?” as she patted the bed next
to her and I lay down again.
"That’s good, let’s do it then." She rolled back on top of me.
They talked for a few minutes and settled on twelve-thirty.
"I’ll feel better when the move is finished. That closes another
window I could escape through. Ha-Ha. Never. Even though I
know I have to leave Friday, I want to stay. I have things to tell
you, to ask you, to share and to discard. I don’t want to wait two
weeks to start. I’m mean and selfish that way, but that’s the way I
am."
"It doesn’t fit my definition of mean and selfish. I want you to stay,
but I also want you to do what you have to do to launch our life
here. Also your parents may need some reassurance."
"I’ve thought of all those things, but they don’t change how I really
feel. You’re right, though, I have to do what I have to do — you
and I are both well practiced at that — but I’m feeling pissed
about it. Sorry. I’m not sure I can fuck, but kiss me and may it
never end."
We kissed and caressed but we didn’t fuck. After a few minutes
she propped her head up on her arms resting on my chest and
said,
"I like to fuck, and sometimes I worry that libido thing you brought
up earlier is out of control, has always been out of control. I meet
guys who are complete turn-offs, and I’ve also met a few who
have the opposite effect. Irrespective I love the feeling of doing
sex. Feeling is something I cultivate, and I have yet to find
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anything — not with pencils or hammers and tongs or chisels —
that makes sensuous so sensuous. Does that bother you?”
"Of course it bothers me...that I didn't think that."
“Guilty of the same, aren't you? And I thought I was uniquely sick
or stupid.”
“After a lousy date with fuck I’d lie in bed and berate myself until I
fell asleep. The simple truth was that I wanted to find out how it
felt, even with shit-heads, almost as if I could magically remake
their lives by exposing and teasing their hidden drives into action
at a level that they’d never experienced before.”
“Did it work?” I couldn’t resist asking at the risk of a verbal or
physical thrashing.
“Of course…look at what I’ve done for you?”
“Hoisted on my own verbal petard. I don’t want to turn back or go
back. I paid my dues, and you may feel the same about yourself.
Most of the world will look askance at what we creating, but hasn't
that always been the case for both of us?”
“And by that logic we deserve to thumb our collective noses at the
rest of the world. Right?”
“Righto.”
“When we talk, my intuition kicks in, and my heart rules; when I’m
alone with my thoughts, my brain kicks in, and my future dims. So
we have to talk non-stop Mr Hooch, Mr Pip, Dr Hugh, Prof Chilton,
Mr Borges, Mr Yo and anyone else you or I make you into.”
“You know, Karl Jung tried to pinpoint the source of our intuitions
— mine’s pretty unreliable —- and he decided that it was
perception via our subconscious….”
“Enough! Enough! No sub-conscience. I’m not even sure I want to
believe there is such. I’m having enough trouble with parallel
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brains, wild neurons, rambling libidos, fabricated memories and all
the rest. Besides, the time is at hand to prepare for my formal
settling-in.”
My head was locked in her hands as she brushed my eyes with
her thumbs. I could have lain there forever, leaving her remark
hanging. Then I heard,
"Nothing gets resolved quickly. Let’s leave it at that. Up, BuddyBoy…it will take more than this morning to shovel out all the shit.”
“A new tag…I’m losing track….”
“As well you should…we’ve just begin Aceroo!”
It was mid-morning by the time we dressed. I took my bag to do
some shopping, and she headed for her soon-to-be-vacated
apartment.
The ménage à trois was just unloading his vehicle when I
returned. They were earlier than I expected, and I was later. I
helped to schlep the few remaining things up the stairs, and when
we finished I thanked ménage at the same time that Sasha did
but from the other side of The Space. I walked him to the landing,
as he looked back over his shoulder at trois as if there might be a
sign or signal. There wasn’t. I reminded him that he shouldn't
linger because he might get a parking ticket. I'd never seen a
traffic ticket issued, and since I didn't drive I had no idea what the
street restrictions were. But that shooed him along. After he — I
never got his name but I had to endure his toothy smile and
unctuous vocabulary — closed the street door, I applauded, and
as I turned into The Space Sasha began applauding to. And soon
we were clapping and during some sort of footwork meant to be a
dance. And then we collapsed into each other's arms unto the
sofa.
"You're right...a freak, not a nerd but a freak."
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I fixed lunch for me and Sasha, who was busily organizing her
corner on the opposite side from the kitchen, just under Erin’s
painting. The juxtaposition caused me to pause. Finally, I said it
was ready whenever she was, and without a word she headed
toward the table.
"The longer I’m in this space the more I love it," she said as she
draped her arms around my neck from behind. She moved her
pelvis tight against mine. It was possible lunch would have to be
postponed indefinitely. We came to our senses and ate lunch and
talked about the move. She was clearly happy to be out, and we
both agreed that her roommate was not loony at all and should
not be hooked up with this guy. Of course, we all had loony tunes
in our lives. I cleaned up the kitchen so she could get back to her
corner, and then I called Sal to fill him in. He was more upset than
the last time we talked, and I encouraged him to call the dean
because he may come away with a different and more positive
impression. He said he would. He said Lynn wanted to talk to me,
and when she came on the line, she said Sal would fill her in
about the dean. She asked about my vacation plans, and I
accepted her invitation for Xmas dinner with them and their kids
who’d be home for the week, and then she asked if I had heard
from Ellen and I said I hadn’t. She said she was worried, and my
response, trying not to give anything away, was that a move back
to California might be just what she needed at this point in her life.
I hadn’t convinced Lynn of anything, but she appreciated the
sentiment, and we hung up. I wish I could have said more. Lynn
was one of those dear people we meet far too infrequently in life.
It bothered me I was not being more forthcoming. But, I was
speculating except I was sure I was right. I honestly felt Ellen
would work things out. I ambled over the Sasha’s corner and sat
on the floor next to her.
I summarized, and I asked for her opinion. She thought for a
minute, and while she agreed that Ellen would find her way, she
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was less optimistic about whether the land would make a
difference.
"Perhaps a first step. She may never actually reconnect with the
life she lived there after the life she’s been living. A respite at best.
And you need to keep all that business about you and Ellen from
both Sal and Lynn, unless Ellen tells them first. If you tell them,
they’ll conclude you seduced her. They may never believe that
you didn't no matter how often you say you didn't. To be honest I
had to fight off my natural instinct that you fucked her because
that's what is expected. If they hear the story from her, presuming
she's truthful, they’re less likely to blame you. Now, do I have to
worry about you over Xmas? You’re properly bounded and
leashed?" she asked, a tinge of sadness in her voice.
"Did I seduce you with some sort of magic I’m unaware of?" and I
got exactly what I expected but in the gut, not in the…. "By the
way, I expect you to worry incessantly about me and my libido as I
will worry about you and yours," I added.
"Your gut is so hard I should shoot for a more vulnerable spot.
One of these days your smart mouth will be sewn shut to
universal applause," she said firmly as she nestled her head into
my shoulder.
"You had three months to figure out what you were in for. It’s not
my fault, you blew it," comments that provoked a new, surprisingly
hard blow to the gut that unlike the first had an impact. The
strength in her arms surprised me.
"It will take a while, but I will eventually whip you into shape," she
said as she wrapped her arms around my chest.
I gave in. No good reason not to.
But, for the first time since I’d been pulled into her world in the
backseat of a cab, I could see worry lines where there were none
before. She seemed to move between buoyant and edgy no
matter what occupied her attention. She was taking stock as
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perhaps I should also. Not my strength in any romance I could
remember. Fall, fall, fall until you shattered against the concrete,
and then pick up the pieces if you could. I couldn't recommend it.
No turning back. I loved this woman top to bottom, inside and out,
but falling in love, as I well knew, was laden with risk. No bookie
would make favorable odds on this one. Was Sasha deciding the
odds were unfavorable?
In my most rational moment, I couldn’t blame her. As much as I
liked to ignore my age, as much as I liked to congratulate myself
on bench pressing my weight and more, as much as I liked to
rewrite my life, I knew I was going for broke in a situation like this.
I could dismiss the age thing because it didn’t matter to me. How
about Sasha? Could she dismiss it? I didn’t have to do what she
had to do…to explain to her parents that she had fallen in love
and wanted to live with a man twice her age, perhaps older than
her father. I did not have an ex hanging around who wanted to
cause trouble. Erin could be annoying but that was all it ever was.
As tenacious as she was in planning Sasha now had to
accommodate her success — she had definitely won me — in the
context of her other worlds, her other lives.
I had to remember it was easier for me. The tension level had
risen slightly, but it was nowhere near the pleasure level, which
rested somewhere near the sky. It was the ease in fucking, in
talking and in being silent…like now…five days together no
discord. Uneasiness but not discord.
"This is so fuckin' easy and so fuckin' hard," whispered Sasha, as
if she was inside my head. "I’d convinced myself that if I could win
your affections we could just glide along because somehow we
were both smart enough to figure out how to do that. When you
first slid inside me, Pipperoo, it was so easy, so cool, so big, so
lovable, I never wanted it to end. Pre-You I’ve wanted most of
them to end almost immediately. Masturbating — the guy trick —
was preferable. Not this time. Funny or sad or ironic the gods
make sure that even the best of times will get messy. Now, I’m
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trying to explain all this to myself. Why? I have nothing to worry
about, and yet I’m doing just that. Am I still caught inside the
sculptor’s web? Or is this something quite natural. This is new to
me, coming off...pun not intended...a long-term relationship...my
first...and finding the perfection..backup...near perfection I'd been
hoping for, but...always a but...fears and doubts keep bubbling up.
What the fuck. Two people find love with each other, and I need a
priest to bless it. Am I getting screwed up because it actually
worked out as I had planned it and dreamt it? Letting go. I’ve
never felt that way about any man I’ve slept with. And I’m
determined despite these fuckin’ moments of asking too many
question to hang on and to push ahead because it went ever be
as good without you."
After a few seconds,
“That strangeness. Talking and I feel better. I'll just keep bending
your ear if that's needed to make better better. Maybe I just have
to ask the questions, mull them over, but not actually answer
them."
We both intuitively realized being gym time was perfect or timing,
although Sasha didn’t have an appointment this afternoon. The
unanswered questions did not go to the gym. Against their
religion.
We worked out together under the watchful eye of Katie, and it
was fun.
"I keep expecting someone to amble over here with today’s dose
of vitriol," said Sasha as we sat on a bench with our towels
wrapped around our necks.
"She’s apparently gone for good. The gods of Olympus are
sometimes wise and good."
"And how will they smile on us, Bad-Old-Man, or will it be
something worse? How silly. You have me thinking there are real
gods out there on that peak."
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"Of course, there are. Isn’t that where you descended from when
you landed in the back seat?"
"I have no problem with that since you seem to acknowledge
implicitly where the power lies," said with that angled look again.
"I acknowledge. Take me home on your golden wings."
"Love birds in the gym — a good thing," said Katie, as we left.
The evening was quiet. We showered, separately, ate in, drank in,
talked and joked, were spared any calls or emails, watched a
wonderful two-hour YouTube video made at The Proms at Royal
Albert Hall celebrating the music of Stephan Sondheim on his
eightieth birthday. We both knew most of the lyrics...in her case
again because of her mom's Broadway LP collection...and sang
along, having cast our inhibitions into the street. Drinking wine,
laughing, singing and just plain listening with a Sasha so recently
met added a highlight the birthday highlights. Enfolded in each
other’s arms, having sung ourselves silly, we kissed and literally
fell asleep as if we intended to kiss good night.
I must have been as tired as she was because the next thing I
remember was her hand moving ever so lightly across my back.
When I opened my eyes, I knew it was morning — the dawn light
was dancing across the glass ceiling — enough light that I could
see her eyes fixed on mine.
"Never had an alarm clock like this," I said with some trepidation
because I did not know what her morning mood would be.
"When I woke this morning, I knew I was in love with you, but at
the same time I knew I loved being in this relationship, which by
any reasonable definition is brazen and beautiful. I know more
about you than you know about me. You have more to learn, and
I’ve decided you’re "going to get told" as they say up in the high
Sierras."
"Do they also say giddy-up?"
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"Quiet! I like you ‘old’. You can do with ‘old’ what few can do with
‘young’. Don’t ask me to explain that nonsense, but that’s how I
feel. You present yourself with such an even-keel demeanor. At
first I thought it was a pose. It’s not, is it? You’ve learned how to
accommodate and resolve without losing a passion for things. I’ve
watched you for three months, and I’ve loved you for five days,
and even though I’ve had doubts the last day or two — yes,
doubts, my dear, real doubts — now I’ve got my arms around you
and I’m not letting go. One more thing before your ego explodes. I
bring something to this relationship that’s novel. Unlike your past
lovers, I’m telling you I intend to make you my lover and my
companion. It scares me, but it also drives me. That’s what a
good night’s sleep can do for you," as she slid under me.
“In case you missed it...that would be ICYMI...we did not fuck last
night. We're about to make up for that."
I shaved while she readied the coffee. Looking in the mirror, I
wasn’t sure who was staring back at me. Was the image in the
mirror fucking Sasha or was that image reprimanding me for
fucking Sasha? There was no doubt I was going to keep fucking
Sasha. She was right, we were in this because we wanted to be.
Vulcan’s forge had made a set of bracelets and we both heard
and felt the snap. Sex with her this morning was different, almost
rollicking, as if we had cut a tether. And when it happened, it
happened at the same time for both of us.
I also heard a cell, then I heard “Fuck!"
I knew there was a new bump in the road. There was nothing
beguiling about that voice. Just the opposite. She was reading the
riot act, and it was not pretty. I slowly stepped into The Space,
and to my surprise she motioned me to her side. Her free arm
was now draped over my shoulder.
"This is the final word. I will not cancel the deal, and I will not
renegotiate the deal, and I will not forget the deal. The next
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conversation will be with my lawyer. Write that down and goodby." And she shut her cell.
"Sit. We need to talk. I’ll get the Peet’s. Can you think and talk
without breakfast? Of course, you can, what am I thinking."
Fido sat, as instructed. I’d never been instructed in this manner,
but I seemed to know what to do.
"OK. A good night’s sleep not only made me more in love than
yesterday but feistier as well. I’m not as calm as you and never
well be. I’m sure for most of the last three months you may have
thought that quiet and calm described who I was. Actually you
seem to be adapting pretty well to the bigger, other side of my
personality. I will probably never figure out how you can have so
much passion between the covers and remain so calm while
people like me are blowing up around you. And don’t use family or
genetic shit. You’ve used that line already. I don’t really want to
change that. That’s why I want you here beside me as I talk
through this."
I was befuddled and buffaloed at the same time. I couldn't show
either or both. I’d decided she hadn’t just talked to her ex but
whoever it was it was about her ex.
"When I was about 12, my father took ill. It was serious, very
serious. In the midst of all that he decided that he had to do more
than he had done to assure that mom and I would be taken care
of. While listening to doctors’ diagnoses, at times absolutely
devastating, he managed to talk to his lawyer about our financial
security. He got well, thank goodness, but the financial changes
were executed anyway. I have my dad’s head for numbers. My
mom is not out to lunch on financial matters, but she has trouble
with the big picture of markets and investments."
She sipped her Peet’s.
"Goddamn, I love this coffee! Let me drop to the ‘bottom line’ as it
were, I’m worth a few hundred thousand bucks. I don’t know the
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exact amount at the moment. It’s plenty. Of course, you may not
think so, and before you answer remember your patience is going
to be tested as never before until we get through the several piles
of shit crowding in on my life, our lives,” she said playfully but also
determinedly.
"But, even people, as you well know, who are smart about money
can be dumb about the people they let into their vaults. I let
fuckhead in by buying half the property with the studio and the
house. He needed money and I was able to get a sweetheart —
another pun to ignore — deal. Someday I’ll let you look at the
papers, but now all you need to know is he’s defaulted on his
mortgage and under the arrangement, if he defaults, the property
must be sold. I’m ready to cash out because I’ll make money even
in this market. There’s been a buyer out there for more than a
year waiting patiently and sometimes not so patiently for my ex to
screw-up enough that he has to sell. For the record I often stayed
with him when Tootsie came for one of her stays. And, yes, I slept
with him. He has money and not much else. Can you live with
that?"
"Are you waiting for answer or will I be held accountable at the
end of the conversation," I said slyly. "I know there is more to
come."
"Forget I heard that. I want a career and want to make a living
from that, but the fact is in my late twenties I’m pretty well off. The
person on the phone was his agent who for reasons that I can’t
fathom is trying to resurrect my ex’s career. He wants me to back
off. I won’t. I had a recent email from the buyer, reassuring me he
was committed to the purchase.”
"No hard feelings on his part?"
"None. I was an interlude between marriage four and five. With
rich people it has to do with making money. Making love is
incidental. You never figured that out with Ellen, did you?"
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"In fact, I did indirectly, although I’m not sure I understood it.
Closing a deal subsumes.…”
"Touché. You did. Anyway those are the basics. The trust fund is
now under my control, and a friend of my father manages it. I’m
careful about expenses, but once the sale is completed I can be
less careful. By the way I operate independently of my father,
although I talk to him from time to time about what’s in the
portfolio. My father didn’t want me to invest in the crazy’s
property, but the advisor thought it had potential. Neither knew I
had sleep with the guy who’s going to prove my advisor right.
Even if this deal were to fall through...and it won't since I have the
hidden ace...other buyers will show up. Oh, by the way, utter
silence about my sleep-over with moneybags. If it became public,
his life would become more complicated than it is already. I’m not
sure anyone else knows except you, and you know nothing.
Promise me."
I made the appropriate sign with my finger on my lips.
As was becoming a wonderful custom with her, she swung over
on to my lap.
"Tell me this is not going to change anything."
"How do you want me to tell you?" and I rolled her on her back.
After a long passionate kiss, she said,
"As angry as I was on the phone — a mood you’re learning to live
with, I hope — you've worked your magic. Good boy! Now the
rest of the story. I’m actually happy to have some reserves. I
thought about this as I cooled down. I’m not going to tell you what
to do about your retirement, but I’d be a liar if I said I weren’t
rooting for as early a retirement as possible. I can do that
because I know we’ll have the resources to settle where we want.
Of the few people I’ve known in your position, thinking about
retirement, you seem to me best prepared."
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"I have no fears, and now the context is far different from what it’s
been. I too have several hundred thousand dollars stashed away
plus my pension and then Social Security down the road. I’m OK,
and apparently you’re OK too. Look, back to the bottom line, we’ll
manage probably better than most financially."
If I had more to say, I wasn’t going to be allowed to deliver it. It
never got delivered. It was noon when she pulled me up and
pushed me into the bedroom for the usual morning fare...getting
dressed.
We showed up at the gym at the appointed time for Sasha’s next
training session. Katie looked at both us and said,
"So that’s how you look when you’re in love? We’ve forgotten,
right Greg? Are you sure you have enough energy and strength to
work-out without endangering yourselves?"
Actually I had more of both than usual. On the way home we
stopped at the wine shop. I introduced Sasha to Tish and Serge.
And before I could gauge their reaction, Tish had Sasha in her
arm and they walked across the store to the other side.
"Don’t worry," said a reassuring Serge. "You need some
champagne, and I’ve got something that’s just right."
"So what did Tish have to say, or should I mind my own
business," I asked, as we headed to the butcher shop.
Sasha laughed.
"The women in your life, not the romantic ones, have only your
best interests at heart. And the romantics ones have the opposite.
And in some strange, bizarre way, they’ve decided without
knowing me I line up with those best interests. Do I? Not a
position I’m used to being in."
“I have no answer, but don’t switch sides." And we entered the
butcher shop.
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It was nearly six pm by the time we got home. I started cooking —
chicken breast baked in a cream sauce with risotto (from the box),
bread, cheese — but first I opened the champagne recommended
by Serge. And it was better than I expected for a California label. I
poured her champagne and took the glass to her. She was getting
ready to put the two small sculpture pieces I had seen in her
bedroom on the far wall at an appropriate distance from the
Painting of Note. They were matching pieces but the finish of the
metal and the angles of the long rectangles were slightly different,
a difference that became perceptible only after looking for a few
minutes and at a distance. The subtlety was intriguing and also
playful and whimsical. Since her arrival, she had worn little of her
jewelry, but she almost always had her rings on several fingers.
They were more delicate than her sculptures but equally luring. As
she stepped back from the wall I handed her champagne. She
took the glass and never took her eye off the wall. She leaned up
against me without a word. I love these moments of silence when
the space around us vibrated with an invisible but energy. Some
kind of romantic dark quantum energy.
"Later," she said, "I’m not sure it’s right yet." She looked around at
the other walls, and then her eyes stopped at Erin’s painting. "I’ll
leave it for now. The way in which the light strikes the metal is
important. Com’on, I’m gonna help you cook by watching."
She lifted herself up onto the end of the counter, and I began to
prepare the sauce. We talked and laughed about little things that
had happened during the day. After I stuck the dish in the oven, I
walked over to where she sat. I filled our glasses about halfway,
and she spread her legs so that I could lean against the counter in
front of her. She was more mellow or maybe more introspective
than I’d seen her. The tension from this morning seemed to have
dissipated, but she was also looking wary. I wondered if she had
more to say.
She set down her glass and put her arms around my neck.
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"You know more about me and my life than any other human. It’s
easier for you to talk about your past than it is for me. One
realization for me was that there’s something eerily similar about
our romantic ventures. I’ve never figured out my passion for
making love and having sex. The guys I’ve slept with…the good
guys…were easy to fall in love with. Only later did the flaws begin
to show. They were smart, physically attractive and desirable at
least on that elemental level. Even the sculptor. He was the oldest
male I’d ever fucked. Physically and creatively he was in decline,
but it took a while for me to see that. Even so he was attractive to
other women. He loved to parade around the bars we
occasionally visited, throwing his arms around this beauty or that
not so beauty and proposing assignations that never took place.
However much I fretted in the early months I soon came to realize
that his performance was pitiful not endearing. The town, I told
you, loved him because he brought business not because they
were in love with him. That set me to thinking, probably six
months after I had moved there, that this was a mistake. Of
course, every three or four months his Tootsie arrived for a week,
and I decamped to another old guy. We slept together but it was
hardly memorable. I was doing him a favor, and he was doing me
a favor, and we knew it. A week in which money matter not at all.
In fact, one of those weeks, at the last minute, we flew in a charter
aircraft to Baja where he had a time-share. The okay sex was
tolerable under those conditions. Besides, there were no
hysterics. Those were saved for when I returned to The
Compound. More like detonation. Every detail he wanted. At first I
cowered, then after the Baja trip, which was a ball unheard of in
the sculptor’s world, and at some tipping point I began to narrate
for his pleasure in precise detail everything I did with the other old
man, and in your mould I made it juicier and him angrier by
making up stuff. As furious as this made the sculptor he knew
better than to turn on me or my temporary lover. He was trapped.
I was emboldened; I’d gouge his eyes out. The other guy needed
no emboldening; he would ship the sculptor off to a place far
away never to return.”
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Her stories were getting longer and longer. She smiled as that
thought crossed various synapses.
“From the picture he had, the sculptor’s Tootsie was not
unattractive. I never saw her in person. My Baja guy had
introduced them…they had know each other a long time and
probably were once lovers…would sigh when her name came up
because when he introduced them he never expected it to turn
into what it did. He called her Nutty. It didn’t take a genius to
figure he might be thinking the same thing about me. But, with
me, he was a gentleman…friends who could be lovers and lovers
who could be friends. I never thought that was possible. You’ll
never meet the sculptor but you may meet the substitute. Could
you handle that?” she asked while pursing her lips and scrunching
up her nose.
“Save it. She had another man, her regular, and apparently chose
him over the sculptor after I left. Was the sculptor worth a fuck
only so long as he had another woman? I have no idea how I was
seen by her. She knew there was another woman. From what
fuck-head told me with glee — one of the few times he expressed
any glee at all — she ranted and raved about me and ordered him
to dismiss — his word — me, but apparently departure should not
confused with dismissal. I departed but was not dismissed so she
departed too. As you would say…words matter.”
She arched her eyebrows, and this story was not yet done. I
thought it best to keep quiet.
“You’re my third old guy. Third time is a charm right? Shit, this is a
long story, longer than yours. Three old guys, and I wanted you to
make it happen and you’re making it happen. I thought about that
when I was setting my trap. It could be more of the same,
although as I sat in The Space, listened and watched, I decided
your were not the sculptor or the substitute. If and when you look
through my pile of drawings, you find some old guys not rendered
admiringly. That includes the other two old guys among a
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collection of anonymous, grisly oldsters. You’re not there. I
repeat…you’re not there. Obviously I didn’t want you there with
them. I was full of hope mixed with fear. Old guys are different
from young guys who tend to be generic with a few exceptions.
Find the word for me that distinguishes young from old in the
fucking game….”
“Scars,” I said without thinking.
“Scars…scars…scars,” she repeated as if it were being drawn.
Silence again but ionized. She was looking squarely at me. So
locked in was I that I could barely breathe.
“I wasn’t ready for what it could be. You seemed to be ready.
Listening to your stories and making love in your bed have made
me understand more than ever why I love the thrill that comes
from two bodies letting go. And what may be more valued
because it's so revelatory is you seem to be driven by that thrill as
well. At least that’s what I feel, not only when we fuck but even
when I hang my arms around your neck as I’m doing right now.
My Old Man, it feels different, so different I have been struggling
to explain it to myself. Is that why I’m finding scary? Back to your
word…am I accepting the scars — there must be more you
haven’t told me…a poem, a song, a throwaway — talk to me….”
“Lyrics by Fran Landesman…” and I sang
Don’t be ashamed
Everybody’s got scars
From our various wars
On our way to the stars
There’s the one on your knee when you fell off your bike
Or the bite from a babe
that you love but don’t like …
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On this planet of ours
That the way we keep score….
And I’ve forgot the rest. You get the point even with my voice. I
could see her smile of approval instead of her smile of suspicion.
“Of course. And your singing it made all the difference. Quit being
embarrassed by the lousy fucks in our unpredictable lives. I tell
you that I love you and you tell me that you love me, and I believe
myself and I believe you, but saying it and then feeling it the way I
do is new to me. I still have to say it and now I’m thinking I should
say it. We've both had partners and lovers. They have all left
scars, right? But, you know something, Pipperoo…I like your
scars better than mine. Is that permitted? You might meet the
other old guy but you’ll never meet the sculptor unless he carries
out his threat to show up at you door. And you'll never meet all the
youngster I’ve screwed around with. Except for one possibility, no
introductions forthcoming. But I’ve met a couple
of yours and
silly as it sound I’d like to meet others. Don’t take this too
seriously, but I can see why you fell for Erin…you should have…it
became terribly messy…I don’t want you even to speculate about
reviving it…but, yes, one of your stellar scars! I’m done. Shit, that
was hard," as she dropped her head hard against my chest.
"Fucking hard. It used to be so easy to talk in a few declarative
sentences, especially with my lovers, but now it takes all evening.
Something else new in my new life. Fuckin' long narratives à la
Hooch. Tell me I made some sense."
She tightened her embrace and looked at me with utmost
seriousness,
"Perfect sense. I have more scars. I was never sure what all
those fuckin' scars were worth because I seemed to be just
adding to the total and not getting any smarter. If we can believe
the song, that's the way it goes. Then came a long hiatus, selfimposed, from the world you and I are creating right now, when I
had time to think about and certainly revise all those scars and
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wars that was in effect coming to terms. I wasn't sure I could ever
get it right, I quit collecting scars. While I have more scars,
translated as a therapist might, more perspective, and I had
more or less after hearing this song decided to accept the scars
but also because I was feeling their weight to postpone any
further potential scarring episode. Then, fate intervened. I'm not
unhappy fate did. But what fate delivered that I'm now holding in
my arms was a stunning surprise. I'm in fuckin' wonderment but
happily so. I think — let me speak for you now —- happily for you
too. There are those moments, those scary moments, which I can
sense for both of us, but by beloved long-winded love narrator I
have no reason to turn back. You were making plans, setting
traps…to use your phrase…anticipating and testing. I like the way
it happened, but you made it happen. You were my student, you
came to class with the others, you did your work, we talked, we
dined, I liked you, but I never entertained the thought of being
your lover. I did worry that we might be too close in the context of
the tricky business of judging a student’s merit. But it was a
needless worry. I assumed I would bid you adieu as I did the
others, and life would move ahead. It’s not that I haven’t designed
and set my own traps, but this was not mine. And you made it
work. It sprung and our lives are and will be different. These past
five days did not invent themselves. Don’t forget that. Whatever
your fears, doubt, queries, whatever, you have...emphasize
have...what you wanted, and I want you to have what you have.
Let it unfold. Bumps…yes. Abysses…not in sight.”
I paused for a second to catch my breath but not to stop. I could
see in her eyes I had the green light.
“It sounds trite to say all ventures have risks. It may be trite in
academic discussions or in business plans. But not in love. Think
about it. How many place could it have gone wrong? More than
you can count. We never know. Always more romantic failures
than successes. The odds weren’t with you in springing the trap
and capturing your prey…sounds awful, doesn’t it…but point
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made. Deep down you knew that. It may be that’s why all these
fears and doubts are bubbling to the surface. It worked. They’re
out of luck and out of place. Let them float away. I don’t know if
your time in California will be an unexpected and unwanted test.
We can’t do much to prepare. But you haven’t called me
overbearing yet. That’s a good sign because it’s a
characterization I’m familiar with. Once told by a lady seeking my
approval or endorsement — Your arrogance is exceeded only by
your lack of humility. I was not in awe of her singing on one of
those fuckin’ aerobic machines. She made the mistake of asking
me what I thought. I made the mistake of not thinking ahead and
loading up the leg press before answering. Her zinger — far
better than I thought she could do — came as I was trying to
manage about a thousand pounds on the leg press. Her singing
was unbearable, although I actually spared her that word. Nor
have I heard after five days and nights of fucking that I scare you
and am conniving to take you some place you’ve never been. You
are not inexperienced or frigid, thank god. I could go on but I
won’t. It would be A waste of time. Final thought why I think we’re
on the right track. I haven’t wanted to hide from your moods that
you’ve warned me about and have showed off with gusto. Quite
honestly, they’re more interesting than threatening to me. I have
known moods that would make Satan shutter. Am I being too
underbearing for the occasion? I hope so. I’m in and you’re in.
Period.”
Sasha stood shaking her head, smiling broadly and slowly
drawing me toward her. It was familiar when it wasn't.
“Beautiful...not long and beautiful," after which a kiss was so
warm and so perfectly placed against my lips that must have
caused the bell to ding.
“Not long was worth it. I think I just got the kiss that may have
sealed our fate…."
"Be careful what you 'think' for" .
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She quickly set the table...her one unquestioned domestic
skill...and a late dinner turned into a longer and later evening than
we expected? We talked, we teased, we boosted, we went ohh
and ahh more than once, we listened to music, we made plans —
yes, our fate, for however long any fate can last, seemed to be
sealed.
The next morning — only a couple of days before she left — we
ticked off the things that had to do and agreed to meet at the gym
about three pm. She had an appointment at the gallery, but even
if the gallery had to back out she wasn’t concerned. I now knew
why she was not concerned. She preferred not to invade her
portfolio too often for too much, but rent even in this city would not
break the bank.
My chores involved a trip to the department to sign papers, turn in
keys and say good-by. I also planned to stop at the dean’s office
to see his secretary. My errands were uneventful. I stayed the
longest at the dean’s office. I brought a box of Belgian chocolates.
I thanked the dean’s secretary for all she’s done, especially
relating to Sasha. I said that Sasha fully intended to sign a lease.
She’d know more after today. We chatted on about this and that,
but surprisingly not a word about the dean. I wondered if he had
ever really worked here.
We both showed up at three. Katie was busy with someone but
Greg was waiting. After the workouts Katie made it clear that she
expected to see Sasha back at the gym in a couple weeks, no ifs,
ands or buts. Otherwise, how could she put up...pointing at me.
On the way home we joked about the risk of disobeying Katie. We
had decided to cook-in again, and during one of my errands I had
picked up one of Sasha’s favorite – mussels. I chose a cold pasta
dish made at the deli since I didn’t do pasta. I was going to boil
the mussels in water and wine and top with a butter sauce. Fresh
baguette, some cheese and two luscious cupcakes. Before
cooking I repopped some champagne left over from yesterday.
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"Champagne again! I’ve had more champagne in five days than
the rest of my life…."
"I’m sorry you’ve been deprived…in this one area only…," I
managed to move out of the way of her open hand.
We sat on the sofa, and through The Grand Window we could
watch the light snow dance through the city lights.
"Maybe I’ll be snowed in…no flights to anywhere…so much snow
we’d be moored in here for days…could you stand me for days
without Katie, Tish and Sheila?" she asked with her cocked head
and arched eyebrows.
"I refuse to answer on the grounds that I will suffer...I don’t like
suffering."
"Do you think you can get away with that answer? Simple yes or
no to the question."
The right answer was kissing her, and I did.
While she checked her emails, I fixed the meal. When I said
"almost ready" she fixed places for us on the coffee table. I
poured some Bordeaux, and dinner was served. She noted that
the snow had stopped, but the question still needed to be
answered. Tenacious hardly described her mind. I was a puppy
dog compared to her.
After dinner and a cleaned-up kitchen, she cuddled up against me
on the sofa. I had an Armagnac but she begged off.
"You haven’t checked your emails all day? Aren’t you in awe of
your many would-be lovers?” she asked.
“A story I should never have told. The answer awesomely…
maybe tomorrow.”
"And will you be that nonchalant while I’m gone?" as she
burrowed her head into my shoulder. "Yes or no, no bullshit."
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“No. no, no!" I said as I caressed her thighs.
"Being moored more than you like or want or are used to. Why
am I even saying that."
“A couple weeks ago I tried to explain to Sal who thinks I’m more
the playboy than I am. He is moored, happily so. I admit I have a
natural aversion to moorings. In the end it’s relative. I’m not sure I
figured that out until recently. In an unexpected turn of events
coming to the city for this gig cut the rope and let me drift or
cascade into fresh water again. I'm happy with what I've found.
Let me be my usual, straight-forward, uncomplicated self — just
one brain working — I like the life I'm in now because...plain and
simple...I like you, I like being with you, I would miss not being
with you and whatever the doubts and fears I'm willing to take
them on. Well beyond the moorings, happily so.”
“Short and sweet,” was what I heard.
We looked at each, without moving, as we had come to do so
often it was becoming a thing that only we understood.
"Man, I like that answer. I was pulled in my what you said. I
hatched this plan, but that was all I could hatch. I think that for a
while I was put out because I saw you engaging more quickly and
fully than I was in what was my scheme. What was I expecting. I
don’t know. More static, more resistance, more doubt. I should be
in this full-steam ahead…fuck the risks and the shoals and the
assholes. As we talked, made love, did stuff together, on this night
before I take off I am certain I am where I want to be, with whom I
want to be, you are where you want to be, with whom you want
be. I had no idea what would happen after I attacked. I was pretty
sure we’d fuck…excuse my arrogance and lack of humility…but
after the Ellen collapse I had no doubt we’d fuck. But after a night
of fucking I kept asking…what next…what next. There were no
red flags. I knew we had come off that night-long love-making with
even more desire and lust. There weren’t any red flags so I made
up some. The asshole didn’t help, but oddly enough by making
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me show my anger in front of you after a night to remember made
me realize how stupid I was being. Oh,Therapist Man, Dream
Interpreter, does getting pissed over a former lover help dispel the
crap that I keep dredging up from somewhere to try to explain
why I’m so happy with you? ”
“Yes…without knowing the answer…yes.”
"Yes. Unreservedly — I’ve never used that word with a man
before — now take me to bed. I’ll finish packing in the morning.
What time does the limo pick me up?"
"Not until eleven. I shall take you to bed."
We made love, slept and made love again. And the dishes and
glasses hung out where we left them.
Awake in the early hours, Sasha said,
"I want you to think about where we might settle when you retire. I
plan to think about it, and I think it will be fun to talk about. Let’s
agree anything and everything is on the table. We may have our
preferences and our dislikes, but right now think about every
possibility. After last night I can’t even entertain of how this
relationship can ever be unwound."
We talked about this and that for another hour and then we swing
into action. The snow had stopped so there was no chance her
flight would be cancelled. By eleven we were ready. With the back
door of the limo open we kissed and said in unison "I love you".
And within moments she was gone. I knew I could expect a call
from the airport, and she knew I’d call tonight. As I watched the
cab turn right and pass out of sight I thought of lines from a poem
recently read, something like,
I didn’t build my brain,
but I’m helping to finish it.
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When I refocused on the street again, it was empty. A sign? A
moment? The wait for what will return had begun.
As I climbed the stairs, my screen lit up and I read…
“I’m on my way over. She’s not coming back.”
Followed by
“Fuck the flight. I’m on my way back.”
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