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“So how was it?” “It was cold. Sir, is there anything else I can help you with?” “Wait,” I say. “Yes. You can spare a second, yes? Where am I calling in Idaho?” She goes mute. One count, two. Three. Then she’s all business. “I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t tell you where in Idaho.” “What? Why?” “Sir, do you need me to take care of anything else on your account?” “I guess not, but—” “Have a nice day, Sir,” and she hangs up before I can say goodbye.
Crouched on my bed, the phone burns against my ear. I lay back on the sweaty mattress. The lump in my stomach returns. From the corner of my eye I catch a spider making a break from under the fridge. I club it with a rolled magazine. The crunch of its blameless body leaves a streak across the glossy cover. I’m standing there unable to muster any pride when my phone rings and it’s Susan.
After four rings I answer. That familiar, ever up-lifting voice. Clear across the country, and I can feel her body almost, touch her hair almost, inhale that vanilla scent. Almost, and she tells me about the package she sent today. It’s something handmade, full of beach and sea secrets from Rhode Island. Through these tired pangs of regret, I promise I’ll send her something too, something of Washington, of myself. Don’t, she tells me. Because the package would arrive too late and we’ll already be together, be here.
“I need to tell you something.” “What?” she says. “Is everything ok?” “It’s, it’s just...” “You can tell me. You can tell me anything you want.” I fidget with my car keys. From the cracks between the slats, two more spiders emerge.
“What is it?” she says. “We can talk to each other.” Oblivious, the bugs scuttle around my kitchen. But I unroll the periodical because they’ll just keep coming.
“It’s just, I’ve got these damn spiders in my house. The heat’s bringing them in. I think. All over. I just wanted you to know before you get back and you’re here.” She calls me silly. And I tell her I know. Very silly. I lie back on my bed, peeling sheets, bare blue mattress. After possibly a too-deep breath I tell her I want more about Rhode Island, more about the people, the beaches, and she says I’d love it. The houses, they’re just like those New England cottages you see in pictures. Stone chimneys and shake siding. We’ve been getting these storms with thunder that echoes through the whole city. And the salt off of the Atlantic. It’s different here. I wish you could taste it too, with me. Wonderful. Wonderful, I say. Wonderful, and there she goes, riding her bike down narrow streets, and covered bridges, and a basket of fruit, warm rain just rolling off her skin.
Eric Severn received his MFA from the University of Idaho. He has worked as fiction editor of the literary journal Fugue and was the recipient of the University of Idaho’s Hemingway Fellowship. His writing is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction, Lake Effect, and Pleiades.
Professor M Corinne Manning The dog wasn’t mine anymore. It belonged to her and so did the house and the sixties-style turquoise bookshelf that we purchased together, the pots and pans, the soap dish in the bathroom. The reason was that they were her idea.
“Intellectual property,” she shouted at me during a fight in which we were both sobbing.
“That’s for articles and screenplays, not Boris.” I pressed my face into Boris’s neck and gave a deep moan that came from somewhere untouched, like the socket of my hip. It startled all of us. Boris turned and licked at my face.
“I can’t be without this dog.” “Well, I don’t know what to do.” Julia bit her lip. She watched me from across the room and tore at this one sad piece of her hair that took all the brunt of her stress. Back when we weren’t in the process of breaking up I would pull her hand away. Sometimes I kissed it. But now she tore her hand through and it made an awful snapping sound and I could picture the day when, without my interference, that patch of hair would wilt and crumple to the floor leaving a quarter-sized bald spot. I tugged between the satisfaction of that image and the dwindling part of me that wanted only sweet, good things for her.
“We would have to see each other pretty regularly and I just don’t think I could handle that after what you’ve done.” These words worked like a spell. I kissed Boris’s neck and smelled pine and shit and some chemical from her shampoo. I rubbed between her eyes and then stood with my duffle bag.
“I’ll come by next weekend to pick up my books.” When Boris was a puppy she sat in my lap and I held her, totally enamored by her softness, her buttery bones and joints; how she seemed ready to spill out into my hands.
“This is why people have babies,” I said to Julia. “When they’re soft like this I bet you can really feel their souls.” Of course, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to hold a human soul in my hand. I’ve never held a baby, but holding Boris, her soul available and pliable like paraffin, like hands dipped in oil was one of the greatest things I’d ever done. I felt like I was connected to her soul in this very pure way so by the time she became muscled and formed, the proud broad chest of a bull dog, I could stare into her eyes and still feel the—how else can I say it?—availability of her spirit.
There is a trauma to making a mistake and not being forgiven. To being held so accountable that your life is stripped from you. That act is unforgiveable and though I know I should feel guilty, and do, though I know I caused Julia pain, nothing I did warrants her reaction to a student’s email.
This is not supposed to happen to “Queer theory” professors, or as my university prefers “Women and Gender Studies.” But my young queer students always fall in love with me. They love my well fitting slacks, my bow ties. I’ve watched them follow the line of my waist to my jaw as I speak.
When I grade while they work in small groups I can feel their eyes on me as I sit, stoic, fucking their essays. I’m a scholar who prefers to be a teacher and it doesn’t matter that most of my students are bad lays. I get a queer, aching joy from their misfired connections, their wimpy arguments, my red pen circling a clause like a tongue.
“I want you to stun me,” I told this group at the beginning of the semester. “Give me a reason to hold my pen up but not actually put it down.” I watched them all scribble this into their notebooks except for one student, Taylor, who watched me as acutely as I liked to watch them. In my first few years of teaching, if a student did something like this, it would really throw me off. I’d look down, mess with my papers, look at the clock, cough.
Now, I’m a professional. They only needed to share their names once at the beginning of class and already I had them memorized.
“Is there a problem, Taylor? Something you want to question?” But she was a professional in her own way because she didn’t sway.
“I’m good. Just watching.” “It might serve you to write some of this information down.” “Don’t need to. It’s in the syllabus.” The other students popped their heads up at me. This was the opportunity to get my class size down. Taylor had served me for a spike.
“If you are someone who does very well in all your other classes I guarantee you’ll do poorly in this class.” Taylor released the briefest twitch and it satisfied me deeply, like scratching an itch in my lungs. It never took very much. Twenty year olds are still children. I continued my rant.
“I can spot a complacent intellect as quickly as I can determine a weak argument: by the end of the first sentence. So have your intentions clear. Life is too short and this tuition too expensive to waste anyone’s time.” Taylor was too prideful at that point to actually start writing but she did pick up her pen. Everyone stared rapt, including me. Lord, what other way can I say this? The picking up of her pen stirred me.
Taylor, with her long swept bangs and hair cut short at the back and her rainbow earring and over sized boy’s jeans didn’t continue to challenge me. In fact, she worked so hard that I would read her papers and feel on the brink of orgasm. The thesis was well thought through, the arguments, though sometimes faulty, were cited with precision and taken as far as they could go.
To read her essays was to have someone knelt before you undoing your zipper. Then came the paper on the photographer Catherine Opie and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to email her.
Taylor, Your paper Queer Eye of Opie is an above satisfactory achievement. We’ll discuss more in conference but I wanted to commend you on taking such an overused topic and turning it into something much deeper. There may be a possibility of publishing this. Let’s talk.
—Professor M The idea of publishing came out in a flurry of passion and even though it felt good to type it, afterwards I felt a kind of remorse. In the time it took me to stand, assemble my papers, and get my bag, the inbox chimed. Her response was there, like she had been expecting my email and her message had already been written, waiting in her drafts. I pictured her sitting at the computer, waiting to send it, finger poised on the mouse and I started to sweat. I read it smiling like a goof ball.
Dear Prof M, (Prof! So sweet I could hardly stand it.) I am literally sitting here giddy. I’m looking forward to our conference. I just read Van Der Meer’s “Tribades on Trial” for Professor Leon’s history of sexuality class and I found our discussion of it pretty boring and am hoping I could start a discourse with you. Let me know if you need it. I can attach it as a pdf.
Here was the moment when I was guilty. Here was the moment when I knew what I was doing. That my response would make her shift and buckle over her hand.
Taylor, No need to send. I think I have the text on my shelf.
—Professor M That night, when Julia and I had sex, I tried not to think about this exchange but I felt cold and disconnected so finally I pictured the T. at the end of her email. Her offer to attach it as a pdf. I came loudly, holding Julia’s head in my hands as I pictured the textbook, edited by John C. Fout glowing on my shelf, like it had always been waiting for Taylor.
“You’re something else tonight,” Julia said. Her hand was inside of me, well past the knuckles, and I twitched, I buckled, like Taylor did over my email. I suppose I could have told Julia then, because then she would have known that what I was doing with Taylor was helping both of us.
We sat across from each other awkwardly. She looked at all of the items on my desk—the books I was reading or blurbing, the small tchotchkies that Julia gave me, a picture of the two of us on a hike somewhere. I was sweaty and tan in that photo, wearing a tank top. Julia’s long curly hair was pulled behind one shoulder. She was the only person in the world who could go on a ten-mile hike and look refreshed, like she’d just showered. Taylor’s eyes had settled on this photo. I used my finger to direct the angle of the picture a little more towards me.
“I appreciated getting to review that text again. It had been a few years,” I offered. She nodded. She twisted something in her fingers, but it wasn’t a tissue. It was brown, soft. A piece of yarn? My phone rang. I bowed my head to her and leaned over to answer it. Taylor stood to leave but I held my hand up to her. She stayed completely still in the position I froze her in. I couldn’t look at that, so I swiveled away.
“Hello?” I said. I covered the mouth piece. Taylor was still bent. “It’s my partner, please relax. No, I’m here. I’m with a student in conference.” I listened to Julia. Taylor began to play with her earring. “Strawberries sound good. If there isn’t enough arugula in the garden let me know.” I worried that I would have to say I love you but I didn’t. We hung up the phone without a goodbye like business partners.
“Sorry about that,” I said to Taylor. The brown thing was displayed on her knee. She smiled.
“Sounds like a nice dinner.” “It’s our anniversary.” “Oh,” she said sitting up a little more. “Congratulations.” “What are your thoughts on this essay?” I asked. She held up the brown thing.
“I have a little gift for you,” she said. “I just noticed how your pens were always all over the place in your bag so I knitted you this thing. So you know where your pens are.” It was brown and unevenly knitted, but I could see now how it would work. It had a little flap secured by a button.
“That is so clever,” I said. I reached for it and she hesitated before giving it to me. I could feel the tug of her end from my end. The yarn was so soft. I undid the button and put three pens inside. I held it up to her like tada!
And she giggled probably like she did as a baby. I kept the gift on my desk underneath my fingers.
“You know the part,” she said, “where the villagers are watching the two women have sex through the hole in the attic wall, apparently for hours and one woman just couldn’t take it anymore and says ‘Haven’t you had enough fouling around?’ or something?” “What are you talking about?” I asked.
“In the article. I just found that so striking and I keep thinking about it. We didn’t even touch on that in class aside from the fact that it was bizarre. There’s something about voyeurism, the eye, which I find really haunting.” She looked at me for courage to go on and I leaned forward in my chair, which I never do. She leaned a little forward too.
“I kind of just want to write a paper on the fact that there is documentation that the villagers watched for four hours. And if that woman hadn’t called out maybe everyone would have kept watching. And there’s all these views of queer sex being ugly, but that document proves that even then it was, is, quite the opposite.” She ran her hand through her hair and I saw that her cheeks were flushed.
“Quite the opposite.” I repeated it knowing it was the wrong thing to do. I glanced at the clock and stood. She jumped to her feet.
“Write it. I’ll work on it with you. You can do this for our final paper.” “Really? I know you don’t like people to change their topics so late in the semester.” “Don’t remind me of that.” I grabbed the knitted thing and dropped it in my bag.