Dolores was small, with hands so tiny they were startling, smaller than rain. She was built like a dancer, trim and shapely but spare, solid. The day Ben met her, she was wearing blue jeans and a low-cut pullover with no bra. Her neck had the muscular delicacy of a horse's, corded, full, firm. The skin looked at once thick and sleek. Her eyes were brown, so dark and rich that they looked almost violet. She was not the sort of woman a man instantly undressed with his eyes, but that was because her face was so compelling. It was the eyes, the long and delicate nose. Again he thought of horses. And it was impossible not to stare at her mouth. Her lips were dark, almost liver-colored, and full-formed, the upper lip as full as the lower, so thick that even when her jaw relaxed they did not partthick, soft, and dark as labia.
He felt foolish when he realized how long he had staredonly an instant in actuality, not long enough for the other students to notice. He had not noticed her until they made eye contact when he called her name. She raised a small hand, narrower than her wrist, the palm noticeably lighter than the rest, when he spoke her name, and their eyes met. He imagined, later, that his mouth fell open, like a cartoon mouse hypnotized by a snake. To her credit, she did not smile triumphantly. The look of recognition in her eyes had no cruelty in it; it was the look of a woman proud of the effect she had but not likely to use that effect for a manipulative advantage.
["All right, who is this chick? I gotta kill her."]
He found his eyes halting at her face every time he swept the room while he lectured, that first morning. Once she flashed teeth when she laughed at a wisecrack another student had made. They were startling white, her teeth, framed by that voluptuous mouth. Thinking of her, walking back to his office, he stumbled on that word, "voluptuous," and thought it was the first time he'd ever been tempted to use it to describe a woman's face. He had tried not to watch her leave, after class, but he took a furtive, thorough glance, like a boy peeking at the girls on the beach. Her hair was a black rope to her waist, braided, thick, entwined like mating snakes. She swaggered a bit in brown cowboy boots, and her faded jeans had that "painted-on" look, creased by every line of her underwear, even the sunrise-shaped half circle that crossed the bottom from one leg to the other. She didn't wear makeup.
["Wanna bet? I bet she had her teeth capped."]
She was not a brilliant student; all semester she hovered between a 'B' and a 'B+', never quite managing the intangible excellence that took a piece of writing from good to exceptional. She did best in her personal writing; she found analytical writing and exposition boring, and her boredom showed in the results. Some of her best work was in her weekly journal. Her writing had a prickly quality, abrasive rather than forceful. She wrote with a kind of articulate angeralmost, he might have said, furiously. He imagined, reading her journal, that she would not be a woman whose anger one could ignore. Her handwriting was spiky, sparing with curves, the loops closed, the ascenders and descenders sharp as sine-waves, like a tight-fisted, angry boy's.
He gave her last essay an 'A.' She was older than the typical freshmantwenty-six, he learned in that final essay. She had written about a lover she had taken the previous summer, a boy, she called him, only eighteen. She wrote of feeling for the first time like an "older woman," of her feeling that this was really a boy, a delicious toy she could play with lovingly, respectfully, but without any illusions that theirs would become a permanent relationship. He was a hand at a Lake Tahoe dude ranch where she had been a housekeeper. They had made love in her trailer, and then in the woods along the lake. She wrote about their relationship with the mature affection of Strauss's Marschallin, he thought as he read. At the end of summer they exchanged sincere promises, she and her lover, promises she knew even then that neither of them would keep, and she dismissed her cavalier to find a girl his own age.
The essay was, like that mouth, 'a piece of work.' Reading it, he found himself so engaged that he forgot, repeatedly, that he was her teacher, judicious and critical, and he read uncritically, savoring the presence on the page. He had to read it a second time to mark it. "This is an 'A' paper," he wrote on the last page, "because its sincerity and force come through the occasional lapses in diction. Reading it, I simply read, not merely ignoring the errors, but unaware of them. I've been telling you all semester that good writing didn't just mean following the rules, but following the rules was part of good writing. I lied. Really good writing does not ignore the rules, but it makes the reader forget them. This is really good writing. Thank you."
It was a mistake, such praise before the semester ended. Stimulated by his encouragement, she wrote a terrible final exam, daringly honest and a little strident, almost a parody of the muscular, delicate last paper. It was about her first marriage, and full of tough clichés and unnecessary cruelty. When she turned it in, she met his eyes with a serious look, almost stern, making him take the exam from her hand so he would see the envelope on top of the bluebook. She had scrawled in that spiky script, "To open after you turn in the grades. Confidential!!" The exclamation points were slanted a little, like nails struck off center.
The 'B-' on the final gave him no choice, he thought, but to give her a 'B' for the course. He argued with himself about that grade all through the process of grading the papers. He had read her final in the classroom, picking it casually from the pile ten minutes or so after she had left the room, and knew at once that it was his fault, the over-confident lack of control, and he used that guilt as an argument for giving her the grade her last essay suggestedgrading the quality of her skills rather than the accumulation of her writing samples. He read the essay again when he graded them all, marking it up but leaving the grade unwritten until he read it a third time, after all the other papers had been graded, all the other final grades recorded. He even delayed to look at the bell curve of the grades for the class, noting that he had given few 'A's, passing over some students whose percentile scores for the semester were three or four points higher than hers. He couldn't, he thought with a kind of relief. It wouldn't be fair to give her the 'A'.
After the grades were delivered to the Administration Building, he opened the envelope in the hall, as he was walking away from the Records Office. It was a thick envelope, and the sheets inside were stapled together. "Dear Doctor Calvin: I guess I have to trust you not to read this till you've got the grades in, like I asked. If you got curious and opened it early, please put it away, like I said, and don't read it until you are done with the grades. I'm going to tell you what I think about your teaching. If it's bad, it might influence your grading (unconsciously of course). If it's good, I don't want you to think I'm just kissing up to you for a better grade. So stop here unless you are all done with the grades, OK?" The rest of the page was blank.
He turned the page, pushing the door open with a shoulder and stepping into the December cold, glancing ahead just before he pushed on the door.
"I won't ever take another class from you," she had written, "so what I want to tell you won't make any difference. I wanted to tell you that I cried when I read your comments on my paper. About Brady? I've wanted to write that paper all semester. I thought about writing it in my journal, but then I thought about the difference you keep hitting on, between public writing and private writing. Writing it in my journal wouldn't have been easy, because it's so personal, but it wouldn't require any discipline, just a little immodesty. It's like (don't laugh) the difference between throwing off your clothes and doing a strip tease. All right, it's not like that, I just wrote that to shock you. You've made me want to impress you with my courage and honesty. You'll see that in my final. It's funny. It wasn't as hard to write, but I don't know if that's because I had that 'breakthrough' you talked about last week, or because I just couldn't get it. Maybe it's because I wrote about Brady with love, and my marriage to Steven is just a sad and angry memory. Isn't that a pretty sentimental idea, that we write better about the good things than the bad? No surgical objectivity there, Doc. I wanted to tell you how much your class has meant to me, seriously, with no tough-talk bullshit (us guys, we don't like to show our affection, huh?). I cried when I read your "Thank you." Thank you. I've always thought of myself as a good writer, but you have forced me to think of writing as a 'discipline,' that favorite word, like bushito or zen. I understand that to write well is a gift we owe God for giving us words. Yeah, yeah, I know, you're an atheist. Well, I'm a nice Catholic girl, all right? What I mean is that I respect my writing. It's not the same as respecting myself, but the two go together. You gave me that, and it was a gift that no amount of my tuition for this semester could pay you for. There are good teachers, who train us to do things or help us to remember the things they teach us. Then there are great teachers, who change our lives in ways we could never forget even if we wanted to. You are a great teacher. I'll never forget you. Dolores Bravo Vigil
When Ben got back to his office, he retrieved her final from the box outside his office door. Turning to the comment he had written on the last page, paragraphs he had written trying to explain what she had put so succinctly in the letter about writing with love rather than rage, he hesitated. "I should be very sorry never to see you again," he wanted to write. He thought guiltily of Marianna. She was at his house weekends now, regularly. They had an understanding, an arrangement. He wrote instead, "I just read your wonderful letter. I'm not, but thank you again. I do have one last thing to teach you, just a piece of advice, but important. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
ms., Diseases of the Heart
Teresa finished moving in on Saturday morning. She didn't ask me to help, but I knocked, came in, saw what she was doing, and lent a hand when she decided to move the couch. We kept out of each other's way most of the day. In the late afternoon, I went to campus for a few hours. When I got home, she was out. When she returned, she came in her door. Her room connects to the main house through the kitchen. I was standing in the kitchen, stirring a soup. She invited me in to see what she had done. There were Ansel Adams prints on the walls. The bookcase was half full. There was a novel on the table, a paperback, and a pair of glasses were neatly arranged next to it. I walked over to the bookcase and began reading the shelves. The books a person owns, and how they are arranged on a shelf, can suggest things about them. Her books were novels, history, some textbooks and a hardbound thesaurus. On one shelf were a few poetry books, little paperbacksNew Directions, a couple of old Dell collections. I spotted a slim, familiar volume among them and took it down. I thumbed through it, found the passage I was looking for in 'Roan Stallion.' Two crisp exclamation marks were pencilled into the margin. I riffled the pages, glancing at the notations on other poems.
"They fired me," she said to my back.
"Why?" I turned to face her.
"For giving notice. Tim said we might as well get it over with."
She seemed disgusted. I supposed it was the irritation of getting fired. The week didn't seem that important to me. "Is that bad?" I said.
"I told him I was changing jobs and started a week from Monday. If that'd been true, I'd be out a week's pay."
She stepped forward and took the Jeffers' poems from my hand, thumbed through it purposefully, then handed it back to me, holding it open.
"I like this one," she said, and she walked away.
It was "Apology for Bad Dreams."
"And 'For Una,' she said, stepping into her closet with a handful of laden hangers. "It reminded me of 'Dover Beach.'"
"Dover Beach?" I said, smiling.
She stepped back out of the closet. "'Dover Beach' by Matthew Arnold. I memorized it in high school. Wanna hear it?"
We weathered the first, awkward week. Nights, she waited for me to go to bed, at least the first few nights, as if she had an appointment. She would ask if she could have things from the refrigerator rather than just taking them. One evening, she was looking at my books in the living room, and when I said, "If you see anything you want to read, go ahead and borrow it," she seemed startled and replied, "It's OK. I have my own books to read." As if to demonstrate her point, she went and got the novel I'd seen that first night and sat with me on my couch reading. It was the first time I saw her wearing her glasses.
She stayed out of my office. When I went in there, she would go to her rooms and read or watch her portable television. After a couple of days, she started leaving her door open. One night, I came to her room when I was ready for bed, and I found her asleep on the couch in a threadbare caftan, Sam curled up at her feet on the cushions. I scooped her up like the child she seemed to be, lying there, and she wrapped her arms around my neck and put her head on my chest.
One afternoon, copies of my novels disappeared from my living room bookcase. I noticed them lined up on her endtable a few days later. Mother Love lay flat on the table, a red ribbon marking a place about halfway through it. "Is that OK?" she said when she saw what I was looking at.
"Sure. You don't have to read them. My second wife didn't."
"What was she like? Your second wife?"
"An academic cliché." Teresa clearly didn't understand. "A graduate student I fell for," I explained. "It only lasted a year. Then we parted with some friendliness."
At first, she only used her own bathroom, even if she got up in the night. Then one night when I came home the light in my bathroom was on. I knocked on the door jamb, she said "Come in." She was lounging in the tub, a scatter of bubbles and the slick look of her steamy bundle of hair suggesting the end of a long bath.
|Chapter Thirteen continues...|