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She stood there still for a moment and I paused and looked at her, the bag over my shoulder. Her face had a slight chubbyness to it, that puppy softness of youth—and I could see it all over her body. I imagined how it would start to redistribute or disappear forever over the next three years. I didn’t move to hold her, I didn’t quite feel compelled to, but I was curious about the availability of her spirit. If I held her in that office, would I have felt it on the sides of her thighs, around her ribs? What is it like for someone with a spirit so available to hold someone like me? Am I a heavy cold thing?
Boris at least appeared to love me. The longing in Taylor’s eyes was so present. I looked away. I opened the door.
“I have a bus to catch,” I said. I’d never seen anyone move so slowly.
I arrived home with my arms full of groceries. I felt lavish after my meeting with Taylor or maybe guilty so I bought cheeses and chocolate. I bought a smoked trout spread to have alongside our salads. Boris and Julia greeted me at the door. Boris whimpered, her back claws clattering as she jumped into the air. Midway she remembered not to put her paws on me and tilted back down to the floor. The house was warm and sunny, fabric and leather strips were strewn over the furniture, the sewing machine out on the coffee table.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” Julia said. She fixed the bobby pin that kept the wiley piece of hair back then took the bundle of groceries from my arms. I followed her into the kitchen.
“I decided to start a new shoulder bag for you. It’s officially seven years since you’ve been carrying that one and I’m much better than I was then. Look.” I followed her to the table where the bag rested. She was using the leather we’d purchased from a lesbian couple on our block that sold skins.
“See that?” she pointed to a small pocket in the lining of the bag.
“That’s for your pens. After I gave you the old bag I was mortified because you’d come to class and I would watch you go searching for pens. They were all loose and I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered that. And I thought, my god—I’ll never be a theorist. Too many details to pay attention to.” She wrapped her arms around me and kissed me deeply. I tasted onions. I ran my fingers through her hair and brought my lips to her ear.
“I thought you dropped because of all the Foucault.” I felt a ripple through her body.
“Foucault,” I said again.
“Stop it.” She pinched my side. We walked together into the kitchen.
The table by the back window was set formally. She opened up the wine and I realized I had seen her open probably hundreds of bottles of wine and every time I still stared in awe at her hands, the way the fingers make every action seem like a rare skill. This was the kind of thing I tried not to notice when she was a student but no matter how hard I tried to look away I could see her hands moving, with that pen, moving.
“Foucault was part of it, but it was also just too painful to see you use that bag while you still felt so unattainable. That seems so long ago. I don’t think I’ve felt that kind of awe about you for years. It’s nice how things shift.” I put Boris’s front paws up on the chair and rubbed down the sides of her body. I stared at the blood spots on her eye, and kissed the top of her snout.
“We’re coming up on seven years for Boris, too,” I said.
“I think that’s when I knew we were really together,” she said. “That I wasn’t just this kid you passed notes with through campus mail. It blew my mind—I was living with you and we had a dog.” I took a sliver of trout and let Boris lick it off my finger.
I left the knitted case at school. In my desk. I did not take it with me to class.
Taylor noticed my new bag. Saw the pocket where my pens were kept. I didn’t make eye contact with her until I was settled. She did not send me an annotated bibliography or consult me about her project again. In fact, on the last day of the term, she didn’t hand anything in. She was the first to leave class. I felt a flash of anger as she walked out the door. Nothing happened between us, I wanted to shout at her. There was an article and an email in which I said I owned the book. The only thing I almost said out loud then, and I felt my head rush with rage, was act like an adult.
I was fuming when I got back to my office. I tossed the papers on my desk and paced for a moment. What made her think that just because I was going to help her with a paper, because I appreciated her work that I would give up my life for her? How dare she be so petty as to not hand in that paper? I found myself at the computer. My fingers flew on the keys and I couldn’t stop. How dare you, I wrote. To act slighted when nothing happened. To think that anything would happen. I typed and typed. I noticed a red squiggly line underneath one of the words, and then a green squiggly line under a fragment but I just kept going. I clicked save and then sped out of my office to get home in time to take Julia out to dinner.
My intention had been to read through the email after dinner, which was what I did. I stripped down to a t-shirt and sat with a beer only to find that there was nothing in my draft folder.
The beer swam thinly in my belly. I opened up my sent folder and there it was, delivered that afternoon when I intended to save it. No subject, no salutation, no closing. The email was enraged and unhinged. I glanced at the first few lines and wanted to disintegrate.
“M.,” Julia called. “I’m on the phone with Max. Do we have plans Saturday?” I couldn’t answer. What was Saturday? How could I fix this? I went back to my inbox and there in bold was Taylor’s name. The damn RE:. My cursor hovered over it. I didn’t want to read what it said. I wanted a meteor to land right then, right over Silicon Valley or wherever it was that the internet lived and shut it out, the lights, the internet, make it gone for good.
“M?” she called again. I couldn’t wait for the meteor to fall. I double clicked.
At first I was going to write that I was sorry because no one had ever sent me an email so mean. I think you should know that it hurt my feelings so much that it made me cry. I’ve been feeling confused about what theorists are supposed to feel. My roommate is majoring in Buddhist studies and in many ways it seems like I’m supposed to feel and act the same way as her, as a theorist, but I don’t know if we have the same kind of tools. It seems like a theorist’s brain would just self-destruct one day, which maybe is what yours just did? I was going to apologize but now I’m not going to. What you said to me was inappropriate and should be reported because you did lead me on. No one else got comments on their papers the way that I did. No one else got an uninvited email from you. I know how to read this and you’re just as bad as those fiction authors you talked about who claim they are unaccountable for what their work does because they are just making art, when the fact is that you were fulfilling the role of seducer and I was fulfilling the role of seduced. Maybe I’m not a theorist after all. I’m too used to feeling things.
I’m not going to tell anyone about this email but I do want you to give me an incomplete and sign me into an independent study with Professor Leon. He and I both think we could count it for the credits your class would have filled.
If you didn’t want the pen holder you should have said it wasn’t your style and no thank you.
“Is this a joke?” Julia asked. She stood behind me, her cell phone clutched to the base of her throat.
“A misunderstanding,” I said. I shouldn’t have been so cavalier in that moment with her but it didn’t occur to me that she would be upset, since I hadn’t heard her come up behind me and figured she’d only had enough time to infer that a student was upset about something the way students often are. I stood up slowly and looked at her. She hung up the phone. Her fists were clenched. Is it fair to say that in seven years I had never seen Julia’s fists clenched? And that fact struck me as odd even as her hands struck me as beautiful. She pushed a fist into my chest. Lightly. I could tell she wanted to push more.
“She gave you a pen holder?” “I never used it. This isn’t like us.” I could see that there was trouble.
She wasn’t breathing, her eyes looked angry and I didn’t know that eyes could look that way but I wanted them to look at me softly and I knew, looking into them, that I would never feel that from her again and that was the first thing that made me cry.
“I used your bag when you gave it to me back then. I didn’t use her case. I only wrote to her once about her paper. She acted like something more had happened and her entitlement made me mad.” I couldn’t stop weeping—it was a hysterical cry, terrible whinnying sounds on my inhale. Julia was calm. I saw her breath heave in and at first that made me feel better but she returned right to her stony self.
“Back then I knew you had a reputation but I thought I was the only one—.” “You were. You are. I promise.” “How many students?” “None. This isn’t even a thing that happened.” “It was such a risk to be with you,” she said. She rubbed at her eye and I moved to hold her but she put her hand up, the way I’d done when asking Taylor to wait for me to finish my phone call. I would have stayed frozen like that forever if it would have made a difference.
“Write her an apology and then please go, please leave. I don’t think I can be in the house with you right now.” Every time I came back to the house to get more things I hoped that Julia would see me and change her mind but each time she seemed more withdrawn, as if she never saw anything worth anything in me. She called me a sex addict, said she read about it for a few hours on the internet and thought I should get help.
“It’s your relationship with power,” she said.
There was one box of books left to get and this time we arranged it so she wouldn’t be home. This was the beginning of our no contact period.
When I turned the key, which I was instructed to leave on the kitchen table, I heard Boris whimpering, I heard her claws on the door. It was like it always was, it was like it hadn’t been a week since I’d last seen her. I let her put her paws on me. I knelt down and hugged her. I moved her front legs over my shoulders. I felt a swell of affection for Julia. She had done this on purpose.
This was not something that she had to do. My box was right by the door, with a note on top of it. At what point would her handwriting no longer be the most intimate, most familiar thing to me?
Take Boris for this month. We’ll figure out next month.
—J Next to the box were Boris’s belongings: her bowl, her leash, her bed. I jumped up with the most joy I’d felt in years. Boris acted in response. Once in the car we settled in next to each other. Boris rested her head on my lap and I felt soft and available. I don’t know if either of us felt aware of my spirit, I’m not certain theorists have one, but I felt free knowing that in the end, Julia and I, at least in this one thing, acted in opposition to what we were set up to act towards. This is a theorist’s happy ending.
Corinne Manning is the founding editor of The James Franco Review, an online journal dedicated to the visibility of underrepresented artists. “Professor M” is part of a collection called We Had No Rules, stories from which have also appeared in Story Quarterly and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Additional writing has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, The Oxford American,Arts & Letters, and as a chapbook through alice blue review's Shotgun Wedding Series. She co-runs The Furnace Reading Series in Seattle and teaches for Writers in the Schools.
An Interview with T.V. Reed on Robert Cantwell Digital exchange · November 2014, January 2015 · Interviewed by Alex Davis-Lawrence T. V. Reed is a Professor of American Studies and English at Washington State University. A scholar-activist, his work focuses on digital cultures, cultural theory, contemporary American fiction, social movements, and popular culture. His new book Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left is a critical study of the life, career, and broader cultural significance of Robert Cantwell, a protelarian novelist of the 1930s from Aberdeen, Washington. Reed is also the author of Digitized Lives: Culture, Power and Social Change in the Internet Era and The Art of Protest, which is receiving a 10th anniversary reprinting later this year.
I’ll start with a confession—I hadn’t heard of Robert Cantwell before your book crossed my path. As someone who grew up in Seattle, with family from around the region, it seems like Cantwell is a writer I should have been at least peripherally familiar with. But I hadn’t heard of him in school, stumbled across his name in the library, or read references to his work in any sort of Northwest history or cultural criticism. How is it that a writer like Cantwell has gone so thoroughly under the radar?
I think several factors account for the eclipse of Cantwell’s reputation. Being a regional writer is certainly part of it. Had he been writing about New York or Chicago he’d have been harder to ignore. But mostly it was being a radical writer in an era when being a radical writer actually seemed to matter. Most of the time, dominant forces in society tolerate a little radical writing; in fact they tout it as proof that the system is a fair and open one. But Cantwell was part of an entire movement that sought to overthrow capitalism in the 1930s, and given the depth of the Depression, that seemed to be a real possibility.
In a sense, Cantwell’s entire generation of writers has gone under the radar.