a Soft Landing

Old Boys, New Boy 1961

I spent most of my adult life on the faculty of New York University, a sprawling urban corporation that provokes awe and disdain, occasionally admiration, sometimes rage and almost never love. Mater, si, Alma, no. I was, and still am, I suppose, what is called a professor, and what I professed was some knowledge of that part of the world called the Middle East. It is not a modest profession, this claim to expertise, and particularly when the expertise concerns real estate that has produced not only King Farouk, Ayatollah Khomeini and Mu’ammar Qaddafi, but also, somewhat earlier, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.

Professors do not work that way, of course; their pretensions are somewhat more modest. One of my colleagues claims to know something about Moses and his followers, for example, and another (somewhat less) about Ataturk, and a third purports to explain—oh yeah?–the intricacies of Arabic poetry. Sit them down by themselves around a table and they’ll profess almost anything, of course; stand them up in front of students and their expertise shrinks; put them in print, and it wobbles on the head of a pin. It’s the modesty called professionalism.

What I originally professed to profess from atop the head of my pin was Islamic philosophy, which is a fairly comfortable subject since it has mostly to do with what other professors thought, most of them in tenth or eleventh century. Not all of them to be sure, only the bright ones; and not everything they thought, just what they professed in their books and lectures. It is, as I say, a fairly familiar and comfortable terrain for its aficionados, and if those other long dead professors are occasionally obscure or difficult –they were, after all, philosophers– at least we were all speaking the same language, them and me. Aristotle studied what Plato thought and said what he thought of it, and Plotinus did the same to Aristotle, and the Arabs to Plotinus, and Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas to the lot of them, the Arabs included. And so on down to myself, though with ever diminishing returns. All that is required is that you can read some Greek and Latin and Arabic and somehow think like a professor. Nothing to it, really. It always seemed easier than trying to understanding what Tutankhamen or the Ayatollah Khomeini were up to.

That was the unpromising load of goods I had to haul into the academic marketplace when they finally constrained me to leave Princeton and get a job. There are probably still some witnesses about who will testify that it wasn’t terribly difficult getting an academic job in those gloriously expansive days in the early Sixties, but I almost succeeded in failing. My banishment to the stacks of the Firestone Library had made me as insubstantial as my professors had intended. Perhaps they concluded that I never really existed or perhaps that I had gotten my degree many years before –“Remember that queer fellow who spoke Latin and was always going on about Transubstantiation? What do you think ever became of him?”– even as the actual me was standing in the shadowy library aisles waiting for one of them to pick up the phone and get him a job at Harvard or UCLA.

But not when you pick up the phone in May, as I finally persuaded one of my putative mentors to do. I had first to reintroduce myself –“Funny, Frank, we were talking about you just the other day in the faculty lounge. Are you back on a sabbatical?”– and convinced him that no, I was not back at Princeton on a sabbatical leave, that I was still his student, and that far from being tenured at Yale, as my mentor had thought, I was in fact looking for my first job. I would even settle for Assistant Professor.

“Aha,” Professor Fine said. “Sorry. Come with me, won’t you?”

I did, half angry, half expectant, and I was privileged to witness a delicate operation, no longer much in vogue but one which saved my life on that lovely Spring afternoon: Professor Fine dialed into not the Information Superhighway but its venerable predecessor, the Old Boy Network.

“Jotham, John Fine here.”

It was all so smooth, so clean, so decent: “That position you were looking to fill?…..Splendid young man here….Just the chap…Exactly…Of course….Best to Betsy.”

Well, I was a splendid young man, and I was just the chap –the Old Boys trusted one other to tell the truth– so John did what he had do, and Jotham got what he deserved, and I had a job, as we all knew even before the phone descended back onto its cradle. The trouble was, it was considered very bad form to kiss one of the Old Boys after the deed was done. “Thanks, Mr. Fine,” was all the protocol allowed. I was now keen on learning the protocol on the very mistaken presumption that I would myself one day be an Old Boy.

There were, of course, some loose ends. The job was as an Assistant Professor of Classics and I had a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, but I knew, and John Fine knew, that no one was going to challenge someone who had eighteen years of Latin and whose docket included a translation of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon into Greek, the Attic stichomythia into flawless iambics, the Doric choruses into lyric meters of almost unfathomable complexity. The other very loose end might well have strangled me, though I was then so naive that I thought nothing of it: the appointment was for one year, to replace a faculty member on sabbatical leave.

Even the Old Boys like to inspect the goods they’ve accepted in trust, so there was a visit to New York later that May. I had little idea where New York University was, though I had spent more than one evening escorting impressionable young ladies around Greenwich Village. No wonder. The university hid itself in those days in a series of anonymous lofts east and south of Washington Square Park, not the kind of sight you pointed out to dates and, I thought, not exactly the kind of place where you’d want to go to school either.

Jotham Johnson and the splendid young man he had bought were identically dressed in Princeton-issue tweed jacket, chinos, plaid shirt and knit tie, though three decades of a lifetime separated us. Old Boy and New Boy. He had been a field archeologist in Sicily and a navy lieutenant during the war while I was standing idly on Bronx street corners or kneeling in dark chapels attempting to pray. He did not seem to hold it against me; the Ivy apparently erased all differences. He sat back relaxed in his swivel chair, cast his crinkled, blue-eyed smile upon his newest recruit and, seven storeys above Waverly Place, described New York University for me. He made it sound like a small, Protestant, family-run business, an arrangement that I had never actually encountered before, but that now seemed like an exceedingly agreeable way to conduct any enterprise, even the world’s largest private university, and one that in in fact had about as many Protestants in its halls as, say, Fordham University. I in turn tried to make my own life sound equally agreeable by a small edit here and there. Finally, we both paused at the same moment. He stood up. “Well, we try to run a trim little ship here.” He extended a friendly hand. “Welcome aboard.”

I love this man more than my father, I recall thinking, I want to stay here for the rest of my life. And, miraculously, I did.

There were a number of details which we hadn’t discussed, like my salary, an omission that amazed my more worldly–and employed–friends, but that I hadn’t even noticed, so pleasant was our chat. Nine years in the cloister doesn’t exactly prepare you for a world in which services are rendered for money, and, as those friends pointedly reminded me, rents are paid by the same medium of exchange. No matter; within a few days there arrived in Princeton what I was to discover was a typical Jotham Johnson letter, warm and chatty and filled with details. In the Fall I would teach four courses aboard his trim little ship, two sections of the Classics Department staple called “Introduction to Classical Civilization,” and which, since most Classicists are either Hellenists or Latinists, tended to list heavily either to the Greek port or to the Roman starboard. Usually I never even got close to reaching the Romans. In fact, I never made it past Alexander the Great. Or Aristotle.

One of my other courses was to be “Ancient Civilizations of the Near East,” a subject about which no one in the Classics Department had the slightest knowledge or interest. That included its newest member, but since I had a degree in Islamics, and was, more importantly, the lowest on the department totem pole, it fell to me to untangle the Seven Oriental Monarchies. The last course was left entirely up to me, anything I might choose to offer the learning-hungry undergraduates. “Later Aristotelianism from al-Kindi to Ibn Rushd” struck me as maybe pushing it a little so I invented something called “The Greek Thinkers” by which, and by its later but more mature offspring, graduate seminars in Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, I managed to teach myself some rather substantial bits of ancient philosophy.

The same letter proffered an invitation: I might, if I wished, pop up to New York and observe one of the faculty teaching a summer section of Classical Civ. So one July afternoon I was sitting in the rear of a non-descript classroom in the Main Building — a charmless edifice somewhat like the Texas Book Depository– and watched Professor Abe Holtz go through his paces on the Greeks and Romans. It was a highly instructive and euphoric experience. I had taught high school and I knew what that was like. Whether in the highly selective and Jesuit-conditioned Canisius High School or the dingbat circumstances of Rhinelander Country Day, it was work, a tough, grinding, eight month long mano a mano to see whether the students would learn something before I resignedly threw in the psychic, but none the less visible to all, towel. It required patience and stamina besides. This, I could see in an instant, was very different. Professor Holtz, a thoroughly affable gent with no visible attainments, stood before his thirty charges and narrated, sometimes cheerfully, always carefully, how things stood with Homer and Augustus. And the students listened, some of them, while others stared vacantly at him or each other. Their disinterest was–how can I say it?–polite. Jeez, I thought, this is going to be easy, and possibly fun. I could scarcely wait until September.

I had now reached the point in fact where my Jesuit life had been unconsciously tending, a little more and a little less. I was a secular professor, and though it was not at Catholic Fordham but at a very profane New York University, I was teaching subjects with more religious matter in them than he would likely have as a Jesuit. At Fordham the good Jesuit Father would probably have given instruction in Plato and Aristotle with some kind of spiritual intent; at NYU the very secular professor started with Homer but ended up teaching the New Testament and Sufism, though with no intent other than that of a historian. But I have reason to think the two teachers, the cleric I intended to be and the layman I now was, would have sounded pretty much the same. Credit that flash to one Mr. Jeffrey Spitzer, late of Forest Hills, New York and then, in 1961, an undergraduate committed to my care at NYU.

“Professor, sir?”

“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ Spitzer.” A true democrat, I, willing to waive my superfluous title. “What’s on your mind?”

Spitzer stood tensely erect in the hallway. He had an “idea,” I knew. Not the craven “I’m going to miss the exam” kind of idea or the shyly proud “I need a letter of recommendation to graduate school” idea. This was something more cerebral, by the look in his shining eyes.

“Do you know, Professor, there are two kinds of teaching…”

Aha, I thought, that kind of idea. A flash.

“…the Talmud way and the Aristotle way.”

“Go on, Spitzer.”

“In the Talmud way the rabbi puts the book in front of you and then you and he push the words around, look over them, under them, behind them. When the class is over you put the book away until next time, when you take it out and start all over again. You’ve been nowhere, but you’ve learned something, more than you think.”

“It’s called ‘noodling,’ Spitzer; you ‘noodle’ the text.”

“Right,” agreed Spitzer. “The spiral kind.”

“The spiral kind of what?”

“Of noodle. You know, twists. But the Aristotle way always goes from point A to point B, then next time from B to C. It comes out line by line, block by block, always going somewhere. The train doesn’t stop and you can’t get off until the end of the line.”

“And you learn less than you think, is that it, Spitzer?”

“Right.”

“And I teach like a rabbi, is that what you’re trying to say?”

“You teach like a Jesuit, sir. Pure Aristotle. Bang. Bang.”

Bang, bang was right.

“And how do you know from Jesuits, Spitzer?”

“I went to John Carroll for two semesters before I transferred to NYU. Did you go to a Jesuit university, sir?”

“I told you, Spitzer, don’t call me ‘sir’. And they’re called fusilli.”

“Who?”

“The twisty noodles.”

Spitzer was right. It was unlikely that I would have changed my routine a great deal after twenty years of polishing. The delivery, timing, nuance were all as fixed in stone as the Decalogue, as timeless as the grim and grimy Doric facade of Regis High School where I had first learned my lines from master thespians. No, the lines were all intact; it was the audience that had changed. Jeffrey Spitzer, for all his flashy insights, could not play Mr. Bones to my Father Interlocutor and so I had descended from high Jesuitical dialectic to the barefaced monologue where Mr. Spitzer had discovered and unfrocked me. In this new world I was reduced to playing with myself.

The new Assistant Professor stood before those cheerful children of the New York bourgeoisie for a number of years and explained how things really were among the Greeks and the Romans, and later how the Jews got down and the Christians got up and what the Prophet of Allah had wrought in distant Arabia. They heard me out with extremely courteous attention, if not always with perfect comprehension. I thought it almost a miracle, the students’ acceptance of our joint venture in learning. They had all been through it before, as I myself had, in elementary and high schools, but there was something very special about a college classroom that struck me the first time I ever stood in one as a teacher. There was a kind of seriousness about it, though without solemnity, and a great blossoming of ideals and aspiration. We were both redolently fresh, the students and their professor, and we mated endlessly on our couch of learning without tedium or languor.

We were disposed, all seven of us defenders of the Classical Tradition, in a large open room in the East Building. The professors’ desks were neatly arranged in rows facing the door and behind us sat Jotham Johnson, my already revered chairman, his back to the large windows looking out on Washington Place six storeys below. It was right out of Dickens, with Greek travel posters, save there was no porridge served. You had to go downstairs to Chock Full o’Nuts with your spoon and get your own. Like everyone else, I had my very own metal desk with a formica top and a metal swivel chair with a formica seat. Next to the desk was a straight backed metal chair for whoever might be ill advised enough to join me. Princeton it was not, nor was there, except in the case of Jotham Johnson, any wisps of ivy clinging to the faculty. My first impression was of moderately successful insurance salesmen. They all wore their dark weekday suits with white shirts and ties that had taken a vow of anonymity. No bow ties here. No sartorial statements. Yet in no more than six or seven years faculty and students alike would be shedding these workday clothes, piece by traditional piece, and clothing themselves in the rainbow.

I sat behind my metal desk and looked expectantly at the door. Students didn’t much consult their professors, then or now, but the word must have flashed out around the student grapevine that there was this guy in the East Building waiting to talk to students. Or else sixty young souls heard the word “menstruation” uttered for the first time in public in a classroom and decided to check out just what kind of weird and foul-mouthed beast had been washed up on their new academic shore. But they came and sat on that metal seat and talked, about everything and anything: Vivaldi, the New York Knicks, whether Yom Kippur was more sacred than the Sabbath, the morality of locking your air raid shelter against your neighbor, how you dealt with a homosexual husband. I didn’t even know that last problem existed, but I didn’t think the student was asking for practical advice in any event. At least I hoped not.

I learned a great deal in those years. For the first six months or so my jaw hung slack with wonder at the quite remarkable litany of braggadocio tales, tearful laments, problems and complaints that came spilling forth without embarrassment from those youthful lips. In time I learned to disguise my wonder, but it never really diminished. There were times when I was being conned, snowed, browned or jobbed, but what difference did it make, I thought; all they wanted was some recognition, and I was more than willing to sit through an occasional con in exchange for the extraordinary knowledge of what it was to be a human being struggling toward adulthood at the beginning of the Sixties, both the pain and the joy of it.

Enlightening, yes, but there were cheerfully baser satisfactions as well. I hadn’t been in a classroom with females since grade school. Now, suddenly after twenty years, I was standing before a class brimming with them. There was and is a great deal of the erotic in those student encounters to begin with. How not, with twenty year old maidens lost in awe and giddy with the expectation of the first father figure they could have as their very own? In those innocent days, we eyed each other with interested prospect, professor and student, as every male and female has done since Adam and Eve cast their first mutual regard across the hedges of Eden. That Eden was inexplicably located in Greenwich Village, that Adam stood while talking and Eve sat and took notes as he spoke, and that Eve’s performance, but never Adam’s was graded at the end of the semester, seemed to bother neither principal to the proceedings, more to my surprise than theirs, I imagined. They knew who I was and I didn’t much care who they were as long as I liked them, the daughter of the Dean, the future author of a Lesbian novel, a precocious sixteen year old cheerleader with very Advanced Placement from Massillon High School, and an equally precocious forty year old divorced housewife who I thought should have been a cheerleader.

It might sound like sheer fun at this remove, though I’m not even sure of that, but it certainly wasn’t at the time. It was really quite terrifying. Even though I held all the hegemonic cards, I had, before each one of those apparently joyous frolics in the shadows around Washington Square Park, to lay out, by the most elaborate and precise indirection, uniform rules of behavior that sounded like the Code of Canon Law. No fair making demands of any sort. No fair falling in love –“Are you kidding?” asked the astonished cheerleader. “I thought this was just a lay.”– and above all, no fair asking me to fall in love with them. Let’s stay cool. I was of course talking to myself and, as usual, I wasn’t listening. Nor were they, as I discovered.

We met, I and my companions of classroom, table and bed, briefly touched and moved on, each instructed or satisfied or bored or disillusioned, depending on the expectation. Expectation was all. I never expected to find passion there and never, I was sure, love. That would not come from such deliberately casual coupling. I knew it and I suspect my partners knew it as well. We were all fishing, with minnows as bait, for a bright and alluring sunfish, no more. But occasionally the catch was somewhat more exotic. Like a Bubba.

She wasn’t one of your classic beauties, nor was her name, Bubba Bazeline, exactly a musical trill. Bubba wasn’t her real name, of course, but it was as implausible and as foolish as Bazeline and so why not, some early relative must have thought. Anyway, Bubba posed herself in the front row of my “Introduction to Classical Civilization,” her breasts glaring at me and her gelatinous thighs pouring like ardent lava out from under her skirt. Bubba’s sullen eyes were weighed down with pounds of mascara and eye-liner, and no real bee, no matter how myopic, would have gone near that jet lacquered hive that sat atop her head in a surreal parody of hair. Bubba was, in short, irresistible, the ultimate animal buried not too deeply in the fantasies of every nice young man out of a Catholic parish in the Bronx.

“Miss Bazeline, why are you taking this course?” I asked as soon as I had my baser inclinations sufficiently under control to attempt to speak to her.

“Oh, well, I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in gladiators and stuff like that and it falls in an empty spot.”

The empty spot into which my course had fallen was plumb in the middle of Bubba’s beehive hairdo.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

A dull gleam appeared under the eye-liner.

“I really need a good grade in this course, Professor.”

Oh God, this is going to be terrible, I thought. Terrible.

“I’m not talking about grades, Miss Bazeline; I’m talking about coffee.”

“Oh, well, OK.”

I’m sorry, Bubba, I said to myself, but I’m about to use you. I knew, it, sorrowfully, from the beginning. She was, I conceded, a prime natural deposit of eros uncovered by chance in the scattered remains of Greco-Roman civilization, matter for a revolting but inevitable experiment, to see how much I could or would put up with in the name of sex.

“You know, sometimes I write poetry. Would you like to read it?” she asked.

“What’s it about?”

“Oh, well, love and things.”

Don’t screw with me, Bubba, don’t screw with me, I prayed. Let’s not talk grades and let’s not talk love. A little quid pro quo, but not love. Don’t make me lie to you, please.

“Yes, I’d like to read your poems,” I lied.

“Well, there’s only one really. It’s called ‘A Poem to Love’.”

Christ!

I reeled Bubba in slowly, very slowly, quaking all the time at the terrible thing in which I was so purposefully engaged. Before and after Bubba I was taken by girls and women who were beautiful or willful or charming or hostile or witty or learned or abrasive, but never ever before or since by one who simply was. Ours was a truly existential relationship.

“Bubba,” I said, “why don’t we talk tomorrow in my apartment?”

“Can’t we go to the movies or something first?”

Poor Bubba had her pride.

“No, we can’t go to the movies or something. I just want to discuss your poetry, or rather, your poem.”

“Oh, well, OK.”

I thought it might have been Bubba who came to the door the next evening; she was wrapped in such a veil of cosmetic that it could have been the Associate Dean. No, I would have recognized those thunderous thighs anywhere. It was Bubba all right.

“Bubba, you look different.”

“I shortened some of my skirts. Do you like this one?”

My God! Yes, yes, you could say I liked that one.

“Would you like some wine, Bubba?”

“Why sure. Do you have anything really sweet? I love sweet wine. What’s that one with the funny name?””

Easy, Bubba, easy, I sighed.

“Now, about your poem,” I began when we were settled opposite each other in the living room.

“Yes?” she asked politely and crossed her combustible legs right in my face.

“Well,” I emended, “let’s have our wine first.”

She smiled her acquiescence. I was seized with an insane desire to plunge my hands into her lacquered beehive. No, what I really wanted was to bottle Bubba Bazeline and carry her with me forever.

“Bubba, you have some legs.”

She laboriously recrossed them in the other direction to fortify my conviction.

“You’re pretty cute yourself,” she cooed, delicately sipping the wine.

The hell with it, I decided.

“Bubba, let’s go to bed.”

“Oh, well, OK. But you promise we’ll talk about the poem afterwards?”

“I promise.”

She stood up and started to unbutton her blouse.

“No, Bubba, in the bedroom. And please, I want to do it with your clothes on.”

“Isn’t that a little funny?” she squinted.

“Well, maybe a little. But I was reading in a book that it’s supposed to be a lot of kicks that way.”

She still looked doubtful, but the argumentum ex libris was too powerful to resist.

“Oh, well, OK.”

It was fun, not as much fun as discussing her poem afterwards, of course, but fun nonetheless. Bubba was as terrible to the touch as to the eye, marvelously mottled and squishy. My hands stuck to her lacquered hair, my mouth to her lacquered lips, my eyebrows got tangled in her false eyelashes. Great clouds of “Ma Folie” penetrated my nostrils, my lungs and eventually my brain. Her garterbelt and panties had red flocking on them and tiny red bows, one of which I found in my bed two weeks later and which I still keep pressed in my copy of Thomas Merton. God, this is terrific, I thought.

Unthinkable, unbearable, unrepeatable, but, oh my, good.

Not so nice that, I confess upon review; but highly predictable. Long ago I had started off all wrong, in a great cloud of fervid but totally unrequited passion, and on the wise Greek view, there had to be somewhere down that long twisting road a Bubba Bazeline to restore cosmic justice by rubbing my face in sex unredeemed by any passion whatsoever. That is, at any rate, a more comfortable way of regarding it than thinking it was revenge. If it was revenge, I’m truly sorry, Bubba; you had done nothing to deserve being sacrificed on the cold and remote altar of Irish maidens from Country Club Road. Forgive me.

Bubba was not an accident, however. I had performed an iniquitous deed upon her person, so iniquitous that even I recognized it. I became cautious, took to remaining home alone in the evening, staying well clear of lacquered hair and flocked panties. I may even have gone to lunch with one or two of the male members of the Classics Department. I was often given to such extravagant penitential gestures, particularly those of short duration.

My energies drifted elsewhere. I started writing again. I published an article in Der Islam on “Atomism and Occasionalism in the Theology of Ibn Qumama” which brought a congratulatory note from the Dean and, as I was later told by an indiscreet colleague, provided that same Dean with his favorite example of the irrelevance of most academic research. And since the Dean liked that one so well, I maliciously sent him an offprint of another entitled “The Communicatio Idiomatum Once Again. A Monophysite Misunderstanding?” It got me promoted. In the departmental vote there was only one dissent. Annette Zolda, Associate Professor of Latin, voted non placet.

Annette was one of my big mistakes at NYU, I realized. A careless mistake, really, but grave. When I arrived on Washington Square my glance had flickered across Annette Zolda as it had across every female aged eight to eighty collected on that academic playground. Just a preliminary glance, to be followed up later, after the first screenings were over, by a little closer scrutiny. Annette somehow survived the first cut and got her closer scrutiny. No big deal, a drink maybe or coffee or lunch. Just a look.

I invited Annette to a late afternoon drink at a bar on McDougall Street where the wallpaper bore a red flocking identical to the one I later discovered on Miss Bazeline’s panties. It helped speed, one supposed, the intoxication. We were certainly not intoxicated, Professor Zolda and I, not on a single drink each. I thought I had acted pleasantly, that I ended the afternoon neither too soon to suggest disinterest nor so late as to intimate dinner. We talked about the department, about our colleagues, standard stuff all of it, while my well-schooled unconscious ran through its check-list of desiderata: brightness, medium; interest, unknown; sense of humor, none; physical attraction, none. Forget it, I concluded. I paid the bill, I walked her to the corner and we parted with a handshake and a smile.

Annette Zolda may have had her own check-list that afternoon on which I scored somewhat higher because two weeks later I found a note in my department mailbox inviting me to her apartment for drinks. My education at Our Lady of the Assumption, parish and school, had conditioned me to give a minimalist reading to such messages: if a woman invited me for drinks in her apartment, I assumed it meant drinks in her apartment. I, the most promiscuous transmitter of signals between the Hudson and the Great Divide, had no receiving equipment at all. I didn’t even know that women were permitted to send.

Annette Zolda lived like a single professor in New York City. She had a flat in an old apartment house in the East 30s. A bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, bathroom and study. Academics have an entry ritual to a new premises. They say hello and immediately fall to inspecting the contents of the bookshelves. It’s not a bad way of proceeding; it certainly beats sniffing hindquarters. Annette’s library Rorschach yielded predictable results: the Latin classics, Oxford texts and Loebs, with their French and German wissenschaftlich outriders, some not very up to date archeology, a pretty good run of the Journal of Roman Studies and an occasional number —too expensive— of L’Année philogique. There was a careful and well-thumbed collection of novels, a few books on movies and movie-makers, some curious things on hair, and, off in a corner, where they looked presently unused, though it had not always been so from the looks of their covers, a small concentration of Wilhelm Reich. No religion, no self-help and, alas, I noted with dismay, no cookbooks. It was going to be onion dip all evening.

Annette brought out the onion dip and margaritas. We sat and drank at opposite ends of her sofa, slowly picking up the frayed ends of our earlier conversation. She told me how she got into business; I gave her a laundered version of how I got into this business and went over my check-list again. Same total. Going nowhere. My mistake must have occurred precisely then. I think I must have carelessly allowed the sum of my disinterest to show up in my eyes. Or in my voice, or on my face. Somewhere. I could only guess that she had somehow turned on, when or to what degree I have no idea, only to discover that I had turned completely off. Not in so many words, not in a gesture or any overt sign, but unmistakably nonetheless.

Every real contact between a man and a woman has something erotic in it, the almost inaudible whirring of bats’ wings, somebody has called it. A faint odor, a small buzz that says no more than “I know you’re there” even to twelve year old boys and sixty-five year old grandmothers: “I acknowledge your sexual otherness.” The posted odds of consequence to that acknowledgment may be a hundred or a thousand or a million to one, but it is that intriguing “one” that prolongs eye contact for three totally unnecessary seconds and conversations by a scant minute or so. It rustles over phones, across check-out counters, restaurants, and, God knows, college classrooms.

Annette Zolda looked into my eyes in her own living room and saw there a million, and then, after a slight pause, ZERO. I have no explanation. It was an unnatural act. Despair, the absolute loss of hope, is so grave that it is reckoned a sin against the Holy Spirit. To lose hope is one thing, but Annette Zolda was informed that she should in fact surrender all hope. Not only would I not live up to her still unvoiced expectations –we all adjust and live with that truth about others– but she was not to have any expectations at all because for this man sitting opposite her on the sofa she did not exist. I had committed a cold-blooded act of gynocide. And terribly, I didn’t realize what I had done. I didn’t want to linger there but I found myself out on the quiet Murray Hill street somewhat more quickly than even I had planned. And as I stood under the trees, I knew something had happened, though I had no idea what.

Only gradually did I become aware of Annette Zolda’s vast and implacable fury. I sensed after a while that she was avoiding me, and then, when avoidance was impossible, at our department meetings or chance encounters in the hall, I began to feel the chilling breath of her disdain communicated in a simple “Hello” or “Good morning.” I heard the constriction in her voice and could see the peculiar line of her jaw, the twist of her lips, the angry cast of her eye. The sense of it became so oppressive that I dared not ask what was the matter; I knew she never could or would tell me.

Passive hostility and random encounters were not enough. Annette began to thrust her will up against mine. I could now feel her hostility coursing through innocuous academic issues in the department, piddling questions of who should teach what and when, who sat where and why. She launched her destructive impulses through secretaries, students and colleagues. Annette Zolda’s rage filled every corner of the university and the enormity of it frightened and bewildered me.

No need to be suspenseful about this. As a parish altar boy I had served the 8 o’clock Sunday Mass every week without fail between my eighth and my eighteenth birthday. During those same ten years of liturgical servitude I was present in the sanctuary for every sacramental turnout from baptisms to funerals, and I heroically donned the red cassock and surplice for that most punishing of liturgies, the late Sunday afternoon Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. God, in short, owed me. Big time.

In September, Annette Zolda took up her new teaching position at Iowa State University.

As for me, the Lord’s beloved, when the missing professor whom I had replaced on his sabbatical finally returned and found someone else sitting in his chair, the department simply brought out another metal chair. I, who knew nothing of the workings of universities, had simply assumed from the beginning that I would be staying on. I moved from Princeton—Farewell, O Ivy, a Long Farewell—to an exceedingly cool, that is, cheap walkup on 11th and Avenue A in what was still being called, in those proto-hip days, the Lower East Side. I had a convertible couch from Au Bon Marché and a LP stereo from Harvey Electronics. There may have been real hippies gestating under the local piles of Poles and Ukrainians, but in those days they were still only a slight but suspicious odor. In 1961 I was the coolest guy on Avenue A, which I fear says it all.

No Comments

Leave a Reply