By the Book
“WHAT TIME’S YOUR CLASS, Anne?” my best friend and fellow English professor Larry asked. He was standing at the door to my office in his pressed shirt and tortoiseshell glasses, his balding head shaved close and his hand clutching an interoffice mail envelope.
“In fifteen minutes,” I said, scrolling through my backlog of student e-mails. “Ugh, listen to this one.” I read aloud: “ ‘Hey, Prof! It’s Mike. I’m going to miss class today because I’m stuck at Burning Man and can’t get a ride back until tomorrow. See you Wednesday!’ I mean, can you believe it? Burning Man? Why not just say you’re sick?”
“At least he’s being honest,” Larry said. “I mean, I wish I were at Burning Man.”
“DELETE,” I said. “God, why don’t they make kids take a class on e-mail etiquette during freshman orientation? You know, like address your professors by their full title, not ‘Prof’ or ‘Yo.’ ”
“I once got an e-mail from a student that began with ‘What up, Lar?’ I have to admit, I was a bit charmed.”
“Hmph,” I said. “I’d kill my students if they tried to call me Anne.”
Larry was a Henry James scholar. He wore cashmere sweaters and tweed jackets and shoes custom-made by John Lobb. You know how people start to look a lot like their dogs? Well, professors start to look a lot like their subjects.
“Your office is looking . . . disheveled,” Larry said, eyeing my piles of library books, the empty Starbucks cups littering my desk, the academic journals I subscribed to but never read, instead using them as a doorstop. He walked over to my desk and picked up my broken wall clock, which was lying facedown on a stack of papers.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“It needs a new battery,” I said without looking away from my computer screen. “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
“This clock has been lying here for at least six months,” Larry said. “No wonder you’re always running late! How do you know what time it is?”
“I have my phone,” I said. “Clocks are obsolete.”
“Preposterous!” Larry said. He always wore an elegant watch with an alligator-skin band, passed down from his grandfather. He disappeared from my office, carrying the clock. A few minutes later, he reappeared, fiddling with the clock hands.
“I’m setting your clock five minutes ahead,” he announced. “By my calculation, you should be in class right now.”
“Wait, what? Really?” I yelled, jumping up from my chair
and spilling my coffee onto the keyboard. “Where are my lesson plans? Where’s my book?” I rifled through my desk, looking for napkins and cursing.
Larry picked up my dog-eared copy of Middlemarch, its cover stapled on, its pages bristling with Post-it notes. “Is this what you’re looking for?” he said drily.
“That’s it!” I said, snatching it from him. I threw it into my book bag, scrambling around the outside pouch to make sure I had dry-erase markers, my lipstick, a pen.
“I don’t know how you make your students read that book,” Larry said. “It’s one thousand pages of pedantic moralizing.”
“I don’t know how you can read Henry James,” I retorted. “What was it that Twain said? ‘Once you’ve put down a James novel, you can’t pick it back up again’?”
“Twain was a philistine,” Larry said, unperturbed. He handed me a lint brush. “You have cat hair all over your skirt.”
“Ugh, I need to take Jellyby to the groomer. She’s shedding like crazy.”
“Another lion cut? Don’t you think that’s a little undignified? She’s a house cat, not a beast in the jungle.”
“Har-har,” I said. I dove under my desk to find my heels, which I’d kicked off as soon as I’d arrived in my office that morning. “Will I see you after class?”
“I have my shrink appointment now, but yes, I’ll see you later—you’ll be at the reception for our new president, yes?”
“We have a new president?” I asked, shoving my feet
into my heels. Our previous president, a Civil War historian, had retired only a few months earlier due to health issues.
“He was hired over the summer! Didn’t you see the e-mail? Or did you delete it, like Mr. Burning Man’s missive?”
“I don’t check my school e-mail over the summer,” I said. “Who is it? Oh, wait—let me guess. I bet it’s an MBA who wants to raise money for a new stadium.”
“No, this guy actually sounds interesting,” Larry said, hanging my clock on the wall. He stood back for a minute, making sure it was straight. “He majored in English as an undergrad, you know. In fact, you might have known him—he went to Princeton, too.”
“Really? I’m sure he must have been years ahead of me.” I slung my book bag around my shoulder and headed to the door.
“Actually, he’s around our age,” Larry said. “Fortyish.”
“I’m thirty-two,” I snapped. “What’s his name?”
“Adam,” Larry said. “Adam Martinez.”
“Wait, are you sure that’s his name?”
“Yes, why? You recognize it?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But it can’t be the same guy. It’s a common name, right?”
“I’m late for my appointment, and you, my dear, are late for your class,” Larry said, pushing me down the hall. “Oscar Wilde may have always been late on principle, but you don’t have tenure yet!”
I RACED ACROSS CAMPUS, my heels punching holes in the lawn. I hated wearing heels, but since I was barely five foot two, I needed all the help I could get. As I walked, I applied my lipstick and tried to smooth down my hair. I breathed into my palm and sniffed. Not great, but not rancid.
The campus smelled like freshly mown grass. All around the quad, students were sunbathing or playing Frisbee or making out. It was September at Fairfax, a small liberal arts college tucked into the San Bernardino foothills. The town reminded me of an East Coast college town, just transplanted to Southern California. A two-block Main Street held a constantly changing array of frozen yogurt shops, pizza places, and clothing boutiques. There were picturesque Craftsman-style bungalows on streets named after Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges—Harvard Street, Cornell Place, Wellesley Road. There was even collegiate Gothic architecture. One of the college’s early benefactors, a railroad tycoon, had donated his fortune to the school under the stipulation that all campus buildings be modeled after his alma mater, Yale. If it weren’t for the palm trees on the edge of campus, you would think you were in the middle of Connecticut.
Adam Martinez. It couldn’t be him, I thought as I cut across the quad. I pulled out my phone and tried to search through my inbox for the invitation to the candidate reception. I had 14,335 messages in my account. Apparently, I hadn’t deleted quite enough e-mail. I searched for “Adam Martinez” and came up empty. Maybe it had gone into
my spam folder. Or maybe Larry had just gotten the name wrong.
I reached my classroom just as the campus clock tower struck ten. There were maybe twenty-five students in the class, minus one or two or five who were stuck at Burning Man or “sick” or hungover. As I’d expected, most of my students were women. The class was “Introduction to the Nineteenth-Century British Novel,” and it was full of wide-eyed English majors who had read too much Austen and Brontë when they were in middle and high school. I could spot them a mile away because I used to be one of them—young, mousy, and naive enough to believe Darcys and Rochesters existed. My job, I often told myself, was to force my students to look at the novels critically, analytically. These novels weren’t about love. They were about money, and power, and imperialism, and real estate. At least that’s what I said to them, even though, deep down, I was as big of a sucker for the romance as they were.
I’d assigned the first few chapters of Middlemarch to kick off the class, but it was pretty clear that many of the students hadn’t finished the reading. I knew what they were thinking: Casaubon was a loser, and Dorothea was an idiot, and God, how annoying was it that the Victorians were paid by the word? I could just imagine my students furtively texting each other beneath their desks:
Student 1: “u read the book?”
Student 2: “TL; DR.”
Besides that, school had just started, so we were still in “shopping week,” that period of free choice and zero commitment
that students loved and professors resented. Most of my students were still in vacation mode, relaxed and giddy at reuniting with their friends after the summer.
I briefly lectured, then broke the class up in smaller groups and had them analyze passages.
“Don’t just give me a plot summary of the passage,” I told them. “Trust me—I’ve read the book.” The class snickered. “Slow down and look more closely at the language. Why does Eliot make certain word choices? What metaphors does she use and why?”
As I walked around the classroom, dipping in and out of group discussions, I scolded myself for being so distracted. I was as bad as my students, counting down the minutes until class was over, desperate to check my phone to see if Larry had texted or e-mailed me. A student raised her hand and I hurried over, grateful for the interruption.
ON MY WAY TO my next class, I checked my phone again. Larry had forwarded me the message with the reception info. I scrolled through the event details, and there he was. The new president was named Adam Martinez, and he had previously been provost at the University of Houston.
It can’t be, I thought, stopping dead in the middle of the quad. Hands shaking, I clicked on the attachment. Slowly, Adam Martinez’s CV downloaded onto my phone. I frantically scanned his work history. He’d been provost at the University of Houston for three years. Before that, he’d served as
dean of their law school. Before that, he’d worked in something called “private equity.” And before that, he’d worked as an in-house counsel for a Wall Street bank. I searched for his degrees. JD/MBA from Columbia University. Bachelor’s in English from Princeton.
I suddenly felt faint. My former fiancé was my new boss.