"Did you?"


"Ever have an affair with a student? While she was taking a class, I mean."

She was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. He could hear a wooden spoon striking the rim of a metal pan. Stirring something.

"What are you making?"

"Food. Answer my question." She came to the door. Standing there, oppressively domestic in her Williams-Sonoma Garden Veggies apron, a wooden spatula in one hand and the handle of a saucepan in the other, she looked like a boy in drag. The thought startled him. It was her hair. She had cut it off, over his protests. It was close cropped, shorter than most boys', black but with no more definition than a painted skull cap. Her intense expression did not allow for evasion. The spoon clicked rhythmically and inexorably. She was otherwise immobile.

"Once," he said.

"Once what?" she said, as if she had forgotten the question.

"I did once. Have an affair. With a student."

The spoon ticked on. "And?" she said finally.

"And what? What? Was it nice? You want details? Her address?"

"What are you so defensive about? So you screwed one of your students. Doesn't everybody? There was a guy at Fort Lewis who specialized in deflowering poets. You can't write adult poetry until you are a complete woman. That kind of crap."

"It wasn't like that."

"Well, of course not."

He glanced at her, looking for signs of irony. He saw none.

"It was when my marriage was falling apart. It was a little girl half my age. She had a crush on me, and I thought, why not? Everybody does it."

"Well, not everybody," she murmured, the spoon clicking below their voices.

"No. It was reasonably sordid. I let her know I'd be working through the evening, and sure enough, she turned up. She was a plain girl. Not ugly, but plain, someone you wouldn't notice, unless you had talked with her. She was very bright. We talked for an hour. Once she got up to go to the girl's room, and when she came back, she sat on the floor against my leg, as if it were something she'd read about doing."

He got up and went into the kitchen, slipping past her and taking down the bourbon. He put some ice in a glass and covered the cubes with bourbon. He swirled it to hear the ice tinkle. He listened to her spoon. Dolores crossed to the stove and set the pan down, not missing a stroke.

"White sauce," she said as if that explained something. She dropped the flame to its lowest setting.

"After a while, I put out the lights and we copulated on the floor of my office. She was not, mercifully, a virgin."

"Neither were you," she interjected. He smiled.

"No. I just meant–never mind." He sipped the bourbon. "I was not smitten with her. I think that was what made it sordid. I knew I was not doing this because I cared for her or needed her desperately; it was out of boredom, the sense that my marriage was done for and nothing could salvage it, the certainty that Doris thought she loved me and was grateful that I wanted to split her tail on a regular basis."

"Don't be crude."

"It was a crude business."

"Well, you don't have to do your tough-guy bullshit with me. You weren't shitty to her. Don't pretend shitty now."

"No. Thank you. I wasn't, except for the basic shittiness; giving her something that I knew was less than she wanted, even if she didn't. Nancy didn't even notice. You know? She never said a word. Of course, by then we didn't talk much anyway. We hadn't made love in nearly three months. I suppose she wondered; maybe she thought I was getting off in the shower."

"Were you?"

"No. God, you're a pushy bitch tonight."

"I'm making dinner," she said, as if that explained everything. "What happened?"

"To Doris? She advised me to get a divorce. She wanted me to marry her, but she was sensible enough not to ask. She just waited, like an unloved puppy, for me to think of scratching behind her ears."

"Generous you."

"Generous me. She thought she loved me, and she wanted to be loved back. I could not say I loved her. She gave me opportunities. She created openings. Once, half asleep, I called her 'Nancy,' and she cried. We met in motels discreetly far from campus, and she lay on my sweaty, spent body like a kitten, her naked bottom a delicious curve my hand fit neatly around. She would say, 'I love you,' like an invitation, and I would say nothing. I would squeeze her rump ambiguously."

"Clever you."

"Clever me. It wouldn't stand up in a court of law."

"You wouldn't want it to," she snapped, setting plates on the table.

"Now who's being crude?" Ben said. He went to the kitchen for silver. He set out the forks while she brought her pasta to the table in a serving bowl.

"You deserve it, you exploitive bastard. So. What happened?"

"She committed suicide."

Dolores put down her fork. She stared at him. He was ladling the white sauce onto the pasta. He did not look up.

"She didn't."

"No," he said, stirring the sauce and pasta together. "That only happens in bad novels. She got tired of waiting. She got tired of motel-room loving and furtive gropes in the hallway, and she graduated. She didn't even say goodbye. Just there one day, off to Wisconsin the next."

"Poor you."

"Fuck you," he said amiably.

–ms., Diseases of the Heart

"I don't want to finish the project with Annabel."

"This stage is out of my depth. I don't do analysis."

"That's crap." Claudine glared at me furiously. "That's absolute crap. What's going on?"

Walking back to my office, I had decided to pull back from the research project. It was certainly true that she could finish without me. And she needed the publication, without a senior collaborator's name as co-author. She and Annabel were friends. About the same age.

When Claudine returned from lunch, I told her. In my own mind, the reason I had given was true, if not the whole truth. I had no training in stylistics, and only a semester of boot camp for teaching English. I knew the terminology, but my engagement, I realized upon reflection, had been with Claudine Lindheim, not with the project.

"I'll be happy to read drafts. We'll be finished with the data collection in three weeks. I didn't mean I wouldn't finish reading and evaluating papers. I just don't think collaborating with me on the analysis of the data makes sense. Annabel has an incisive mind; and she will see the material from a new and probably very illuminating angle."

For a moment, while I faced her down, the madhouse image of her collaborating with Peter and getting beaten up over a disagreement about comma splices played through my mind. I can wipe all expression from my face–an old exercise from theater classes that I found handy in the classroom. I had done it. Claudine's face was a black study in anger and frustration.

"At least think about it, will you?" I said.

"I want to know the real reason."

I thought about the story I had told in class a few hours before. That wasn't the real reason. What was it? Was I jealous of her love for Peter? I don't think so. It was, among other things, a petty contempt. I was not comfortable with contempt. It is dangerous to be contemptuous of a positive emotion one cannot even imagine, this "love" that forgave the other's acts of violence. I thought of Ellen's suggestion, that perhaps Claudine was the violent one, perhaps her injuries were visible signs of Peter's self-defense rather than his acts of aggression. Then I discovered the real reason. It no longer mattered who was the aggressor; I understood now, after looking at that naked face this morning–honest, terrible, in no way enviable–that they collaborated in the abuse of her body; the victim existed only in the poverty of my imagination.

Claudine was waiting. I met her eyes; I maintained my blank expression. "All right. The fact is that the project is taking up too much of my time. I've been neglecting a new novel. I haven't written a word, in fact, for two months."

"Well, we could slow down a little, meet less often."

"This book needs to be written now."

"Can't you work on it and the project too?"

"Physically, I suppose I could. But I know my work habits. I can't engage my writing energy on two tasks at once. Reading the papers and filling out the data forms is teaching energy, and I can manage that till the end of the semester."

"You promised to write your summary of what we had observed."

"I agreed to do that. I'll do it."

"Well, what is it you don't want to do?"

"I don't have time for the meetings, and they are important to the analysis. By the time I get home, I'm too tired to write. I usually write in the evenings, eight to midnight. But that's after three or four hours of getting school out of my system." It was a lie, but my work habits were private matters. I've always been a good liar. I think it comes with the fiction territory. You become a plausible inventor, and the skill transfers to the real world. You learn how to give away a character's lie, and observing the body language of lying, you can learn not to use it. I faced her down, waiting for her to reply.

She just looked at me; it seemed like minutes. Probably not. At last she turned her chair back to her desk. I turned to mine, picking up a stack of papers from my fiction class. It was one; the class met that evening.

"I don't believe you," she said. I ignored the invitation.

After about five minutes–the reading of one paper–she stood up abruptly, gathered her purse and briefcase from under her desk, and left without a word, her heels clicking angrily on the hard floor in the hall. I felt relief, like a man who's finally gone to get a dreaded diagnosis, only to learn the clutching pain in his chest is not angina but something trivial, however much it hurts.

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