Chapter I I.
Although I had seen and heard Vladimir speak during the master class, the candidates luncheon, and the faculty retreat, I had not had the chance to say more than a few words directly to him until the fall semester. When I first met him, in the spring after he’d been hired as a full-time junior professor, I was coming late to and leaving early from all full-faculty events to avoid having to talk with any of my colleagues. Even sitting three chairs away from Florence was almost too much for me to bear—lightning bolts of anger shot from my vagina to my extremities. I’ve always felt the origin of anger in my vagina and am surprised it is not mentioned more in literature.
On an early September evening, the first week of the semester, he visited me at my home, and that is when we had our first real conversation. I was enjoying the cool breeze in the sitting room of our town house, drinking mineral water—my rule is that if I am alone I do not drink alcohol until 9 p.m. (a practical tactic to keep my weight down)—and reading a history of witches in America, when he rang the bell. Since the allegations had been brought against my husband, I felt unable to read fiction. Usually I eagerly set about a reading project each summer to find at least one or two new short stories or novel excerpts to read with my classes. It was important for them and me to always keep acquainted with the contemporary voice. This summer, however, my eyes felt as though they could not focus on the words. The invented worlds, all the made-up-ness and stolen-ness of fiction, all the characters—they felt like a meager and pitiful offering. I needed dates, facts, numbers, and statistics. Weapons. This is our world and this is what happened in it. In the first class of my survey courses I was accustomed to reading a section of Poetics aloud. In it Aristotle discusses the difference between history and poetry and why poetry, being crafted and theoretical, is a superior representation of humanity. This year I skipped it. This year I skipped my whole introductory lecture—usually a litany of references and quotations that I prepped and practiced for well in advance—designed to cow and delight my students. This year, instead, I asked them to speak about themselves and their experiences. While I wish I could say that this decision came from a desire to get to know them, it did not. On my notes for the class I wrote: “Have them talk! (They’re only interested in what they think, anyway.)”
I heard a car pull into the drive, and then listened for a while as someone paced around the property, wondering which door to approach. In our town, there’s a general custom of entering through the back porch, which, if the house has not been completely remodeled, opens to the kitchen, from a time when in-house help was more prevalent, and domestic labor less of a performance displaying taste, choice, and skill.
Vladimir, however, being new, rang the entrance at the front of the house—which opened to a cold little corridor that we used only as a pass-through to the upstairs. When I opened the door he stood spotlit by the porch light, and immediately put his free hand in his pocket, as though he had been adjusting his hair. He seemed abashed. I remembered my thirties, as a young mother, meeting young fathers, talking about where their sons or daughters were going to elementary school, or whether they were going to try out karate, and how thrilled it made me to see them adjusting their hair or clothing subconsciously: a nervous nod to the powers of attraction I possessed at the time.
He held a bottle of red wine in his other hand and a book tucked into his armpit. When I opened the door he awkwardly switched the two—moving the wine underneath his opposite arm, so it lay against his side like a violin at rest. He wore a knit tie with an engraved tie bar over a checked shirt with rolled-up sleeves, well-cut pants, and good-quality leather boots with thick white soles. Clearly a transplant from the city—no heterosexual man who’d spent much time here would look like that. Even my husband, a vain man with a taste for expensive Irish knit sweaters, had forgotten the specificity and light irony of urban style. My husband wore what he wore because he believed in it—he had lost the sense of costuming and presentation that well-dressed city dwellers naturally possessed. That perambulating sense of always being on display.
Vladimir held out the slim book, chalkboard green with sans serif lettering. “I was going to say I was in the neighborhood but I wasn’t—I came from the college—I wanted to give—John and I had spoken earlier—I wanted to bring him—and you, you—this.
“And this,” he said, holding up the wine. “I wouldn’t presume that bringing only my book was enough to justify a visit.”
I ignored the wine and put on my act of matronly fandom that these days I used more and more with my students and the young people around me. My Big Mom Energy, as they say. “negligible generalities by Vladimir Vladinski,” I read. “Your book. I’m so excited, please come in.”
After some negotiation with the clunky door that involved his tie being caught, he followed me into the sitting room. As I led him though the corridor, I grabbed a pashmina to wrap around my neck. I prefer to conceal my neck.
“John is out, actually, but can I invite you to have a drink with me? Since you weren’t in the neighborhood?”
He agreed after looking at his watch, a gesture to let me know his time was limited.
“Come with me to the kitchen. You can have your wine or beer or a martini.”
I am naturally a busy host, and I like busy hosts, though some do not. When someone comes into my house, for a good portion of time I do not stop moving—tidying, making coffee, cleaning. My mother never sat still unless she was reading, typing, paying bills, or asleep, and I share this quality. When I go into someone’s house and they are doing many chores, and their attention is divided, and they are packing a suitcase or mopping their floors while I linger about, I feel distinctly at ease. I have always liked the feeling of hanging around, and a host who gives me too much of their attention makes me feel unnerved.
When I had a little affair, back in the city, when I was an all-but-dissertation TA, it was with a very slow-moving young man who made intense and lasting eye contact. He was in my section of the Women in Literature seminar, and his gaze upon me, when he would offer a thought about Woolf or Eliot or Aphra Behn, felt so penetrating and impertinent I didn’t know how to take it. I thought it was funny at the beginning, a kind of affectation. As he spent more and more time in my office I became addicted to the eye contact and would try to blink as slowly as possible when we were speaking, so that I could get a sense of leaving and coming back to that warm bath of his ocular attention. When we finally consummated our flirtation, I was devastated to find (though I shouldn’t have been surprised) that he could not maintain this communication while making love and turned as screwed-eyed and internal as any other twenty-one-year-old boy. (Lest you be too horrified, I was only twenty-eight.) Once the affair dissolved, I started to find his eye contact irritating, then enraging, and finally simply cow-eyed and insipid. I had to move through all these points of perception. He is “in business” now, and Republican, I think.
“I mean, a martini, now, why not,” said Vladimir, sounding titillated by the prospect.
“I make them with vodka so you know. They are suburban martinis. Dirty, and wet, with lots of olive juice and vermouth.”
He assured me that was fine, lovely, how he liked them. I opened the bottom cupboard to stand on its ledge so I could reach the glasses on a higher shelf. I am a short woman. This anatomical fact feels at odds with my personality. All my adult life, people, when they find out my height, marvel that I am only five foot three inches tall. They think me to be at least five foot six or even seven. In pictures I am often surprised to see how little I am in comparison to my husband. In my mind, he and I are the same.
I pulled the glasses out of the cupboard. I felt as though Vladimir was standing very close to me, and in fact, when I turned around to hand him the glasses I almost placed them on his chest.
“Sorry,” we both said.
“Jinx,” I said.
When the drinks were fixed, I led him out to the living room. He sat on the loveseat across from me and spread out in an appealingly masculine way, with a big, wide cross of one leg over the other, ankle to knee. He told me that he had a young child at home, three years old (Philomena, but they called her Phee), and that his wife (a person of great fascination to the department who would be teaching a memoir-writing class for us, a beautiful woman I had seen at faculty events but not yet spoken to) was not adjusting well to the change to the country from the city. He asked where my husband was and seemed surprised when I told him that he was out getting a drink with a former student.
I clarified that it was a male student, which relaxed him.
My husband, John, is the chair of our small English Department in our small upstate New York college, population less than 2,200 students. At the start of the spring semester (last January), our department was handed a petition, with more than three hundred signatures, requesting his removal. Attached to the petition were affidavits by seven women, now of various ages, former students at the college, who, over the course of his twenty-eight years of teaching here, had engaged with him sexually. None, mind you, in the past five years, after teacher/student relationships were explicitly banned. At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my vague understanding that they were happening. Now, however, young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements. Now my husband was abusing his power, never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place. Whatever the current state of my marriage may be, I still can’t think about it all without my blood boiling. My anger is not so much directed toward the accusations as it is toward the lack of self-regard these women have—the lack of their own confidence. I wish they could see themselves not as little leaves swirled around by the wind of a world that does not belong to them, but as powerful, sexual women interested in engaging in a little bit of danger, a little bit of taboo, a little bit of fun. With the general, highly objectionable move toward a populist insistence of morality in art, I find this post hoc prudery offensive, as a fellow female. I am depressed that they feel so guilty about their encounters with my husband that they have decided he was taking advantage of them. I want to throw them all a Slut Walk and let them know that when they’re sad, it’s probably not because of the sex they had, and more because they spend too much time on the internet, wondering what people think of them.
Vladimir Vladinski, the young, new professor, who I imagined would work his way up to chair of the department in his tenure, if he receives tenure (which he will, given his adroitness, his literary reputation, his youth, his clear ambition), looked around my living room. I followed his eyes as they rested on the marquee-sized poster of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, bought as part of a Film Forum fundraiser when they were liquidating their poster stock, and the series of framed prints from the homes of great American writers, put together after the cross-country adventure we took when my daughter, Sidney, was eight, and we mapped the trip by visiting the hometowns of important American novelists, from Hemingway to Faulkner to O’Connor to Morrison to Wright to Cather to Didion in Los Angeles. To his left, on the wall, backed and hung, were our brochures of the Dostoevsky museum, the Tolstoy museum, and the Turgenev museum from our trip to Russia. On the shelf below the coffee table, piled high, were the programs of the theater we’d seen in our yearly week in New York City. There was nearly an entire wall devoted to representations of Don Quixote, and a large map of Spain, upon which his journey was tracked with pins and coasters from cafés in those towns. A shrine to our far-flung travel stood in a corner of the room, a collection that included an authentic Noh theater Shiite mask, several little statues purchased in the Ariaria Market in Nigeria, Norwegian-carved bookends, a Swedish antique coffeepot, a sitar from India, and a Moroccan wall hanging.
“Your house is amazing,” he said, picking up a program of Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico and turning it over in his hands.
“Well, it’s a document. Of time passed and things seen.” I carefully set my martini down on the antique ashtray stand we used as a drink table. “Sometimes I look at it as a life well-lived. Sometimes I want to burn it all to the ground and become a minimalist.”
He shook his head. “But this is the best kind of clutter—this looks like a museum—it’s not chain store junk, plastic containers, remote controls.”
“Those are more hidden. I have my bags of bags of bags. But does one always want to be surrounded by so much culture? There’s something exhausting about being constantly bombarded by everyone’s best efforts,” I said.
“I don’t believe you think that. If you’re exhausted by that, you wouldn’t be able to survive academia,” he said. He was, to my great delight, sparring with me.
“Well, who says I have?” I raised my eyebrows and pursed my lips in what I hoped looked like a knowing nod at the Human Comedy.
He took a large drink from his glass and spilled several drops on his chinos, right at the tip of the crotch of his pants that stretched tight like a trampoline between his crossed legs. “I’m surprised he’s allowed out.”
He looked toward the window, black and reflective with the night behind it. From the angle we were both sitting, we could see each other in the reflection, but not ourselves. Without trying, we caught each other’s gaze. We each smiled, close-lipped, shyly. He averted his eyes.
In the days and nights that followed, it was that image of him in the black glass of the window that haunted and warmed me. His arm extended across the sofa cushion, the cross of his leg revealing the stripe of his sock, his head turned over his shoulder, the gesture of his eyes casting down, like an old-fashioned stage actress looking bashfully at a bouquet.
I usually demurred from frankly addressing details about my marriage, and I sometimes wonder why I chose to be so forthright with Vladimir Vladinski, experimental novelist and junior professor of literature at our small college. But of course I immediately answer myself. I wanted to be intimate with him, so deeply intimate, from that moment I saw him with his legs crossed in the reflection of the window. It was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me, or if not a world, a pit, with no bottom—a continual experience of the exhilarating delirium of falling.
And so I divulged everything. How my husband and I had a tacit agreement that we would be as sexually free as we liked during our marriage. No asking, no telling, mostly communicated through off-handed comments and nods. We didn’t discuss it, good lord, who wanted to take the time to discuss such things? Embarrassing, pedestrian, and truly, not our style. I enjoyed the idea of his virility, and I enjoyed the space that his affairs gave me. I was a professor of literature, a mother to Sidney, and a writer. What did I want with a husband who wanted my attention? I wanted to avoid, and I wanted to be avoided. As to the age of the women, I felt too connected to my experience of myself when I was in college to protest. When I was in college, the lust I felt for my professors was overwhelming. It did not matter if they were men or women, attractive or unattractive, brilliant or average, I desired them deeply. I desired them because I thought they had the power to tell me about myself. If I had a shred of brazenness, or even confidence, at the time, I’m sure I would have walked into one of their offices and thrown myself at them. I did not. But if one of them had whistled, I surely would have come running.
And my husband was weak. He wanted to be desired, he lived off it, it was his sunlight and water and oxygen. And every fall a new, fresh group of young and fervent women flooded in, their skin more luminous and beautiful each year, especially in comparison to our own, which seemed to fade and chap the longer we stayed in that upstate town that was cold from October through June.
In my twenties and thirties I had my affairs too. There was the one with the student that I mentioned (though he was the only student—I found that even at the age of twenty-eight I was self-conscious about the aging of my body in comparison to the young, springy women that my young lover would have been most intimately familiar with), and there were men from the area—Thomas, the contractor who renovated our upstairs bath; Robert, a professor from the business department; and Boris, a painter who lived several towns away who hosted me in his large converted barn/studio space (the most cinematic).
Toward the end of my thirties I made the mistake of mingling with someone in my department. It ended badly, with tears and threats and phone calls with hang-ups and hurt feelings. My daughter was nine, and increasingly aware of the world around her. It was complicated and exhausting. I decided to embrace abstinence, to pull myself from the game. I would focus on my work, my home, my writing. The distraction of my colleague, as intriguing as it was, had made me feel ridiculous and undignified; desperate, weak, and grasping. I would pursue dignity, elegance, erudition. I abandoned lust and desire. I authored several essays on form and structure. I published my second novel.
After I told Vlad all this, he looked pained. I think he had expected me to protest that my husband was innocent, that it was some sort of campaign to besmirch his name—to rid the college of the old white men, that sort of thing. He emptied his martini in a few minutes.
He sucked on an olive pit as he asked me questions. “So you knew that your husband had multiple affairs with students?”
I widened my eyes to prevent them from visibly rolling. “Multiple affairs. What silly wording. He fucked them, and they fucked him. He fucked their shining skin and their panties got wet from his approval. They liked it and he couldn’t help it.”
He winced. Prude. “Couldn’t help it. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it’s possible to simply fall.”
“What, in love?” I asked. “Or in lust?”
“Both. There’s always a part of you that you let go slack. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”
He was red in the face, and perturbed. He reminded me of some New England preacher from the nineteenth century—a transcendentalist Unitarian with strict principles. He seemed vegan. I liked it. I liked his arrogant anger.
I folded my hands in my lap. “I feel like I’ve upset you.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He looked like a perturbed teenager. (Not Fair!) “It’s why you should never admire people. They’ll only disappoint you.”
“You can still admire my husband without condoning what he did,” I said. Though it’s not up to you to condone, I thought.
“I wish I could. Maybe I can. I’m sorry. I didn’t eat enough before I drank this.”
We changed subjects after that—we talked about a new novel that had come out from a substantial writer, a play we had both seen in New York and whether it was a feminist retelling of a classic work or patriarchal pandering. I pressed some cheese and bread on him, and some water. We spoke about the differences between the sophomore and junior classes (the juniors were dim, the sophomores were keen). I told him, to the best of my memory, about child-friendly activities in the area for his three-year-old.
We parted in the pitch-black darkness. I let him know once more how much I looked forward to reading his book. He seemed remiss when he said goodbye and told me he “really would” love to hear what both of us thought, especially me. After his car pulled from the drive, I sat out back in a Muskoka chair on the side of our pool. I leaned my head back and looked at the stars. I had a craving for a cigarette, though I hadn’t had one for twenty years. I felt a growing excitement and wildness creep up into my nervous system—a prickly awareness that started in my bones and radiated outward. I thought of Vladimir Vladinski using his large, rough hands to hold my hair back from my face. On the far side of our property, behind the chain-link fence that enclosed the yard, the eyes of a stray cat or a fox reflected the porch light. They glowed like the eyes of a demon.