"Writing is discovery. You don't know what you're going to feel until you feel it," said Mr. Teicher, her slightly potbellied English teacher. He was reflecting what the writing theorist Peter Elbow said, she later discovered, without giving him credit. She wrote in her journal that she was seventeen. "How easily my womanly train leaves the station." She wrote that when she made out with Ethan Sidell on the bus ride back to New York from Boston, she felt his dick through the black denim fabric of his jeans - and even though his dick stayed zipped in his black jeans, it was an experience worth "feeling." "Dick-bumps," she commented, "have brains of their own."
Mr. Teicher, his round face animated by an eager educator's smile, walked to the subway at the same time she did - and he said she could call him 'Brendon.' He very much liked the short story she had written for the school literary magazine about a dead girl. It reminded him of a Truman Capote story, he told her. Had she considered mortuary science as a career? Undertakers made good money; a girl like herself, no matter how pretty, needed a marketable skill.
'No matter how pretty?' Should a teacher talk like that to his student? She felt prickles of self-confident excitement at the way she aroused him. Mr. Teicher had thick black curly hair and eye glasses with silver tube-like rims. He'd love to show her that Truman Capote story. He'd bring her his copy. They could discuss it.
She wondered how far he'd push things; or whether she'd encourage him if he did. The answer to her second question came to her effortlessly when he offered to buy her a hot chocolate. She stopped walking to the subway when he did and backed away from him like he was a shard of glass under her bare feet. That was junior year. She still subscribed to the notion that it was admirable to wait until marriage even though conventional wisdom was no doubt correct: If you love someone then it's O.K.
Senior year came and went and she entered an honors program at the University of Buffalo. Her freshman composition instructor glanced her way with that same interested - infatuated look she had seen on Mr. Teicher, and they often exchanged sweet smiles. He was thirty-five to her nineteen and had a hang-dog handsome face, and a perpetual shadow of a beard. A potential teacher-student affair, generally speaking, hardly ever blossomed, but a sixteen year spread between their ages did not qualify, in her mind, as a deal breaker. When it happens, it happens. He told her class that he was turning his house on Stockbridge Ave. into a literary salon to be opened to all. It was a romantic tug on her sensibility. It gave her the impression that they'd make love in his house, and sooner than later.
In the third month of the semester, he assigned the class to write a 'humor piece with a serious undertone.' She wrote her essay about a virgin (herself) who lived quite comfortably with her father in an East Side Manhattan high-rise. He played the violin in the New York Philharmonic; and she was his only child: smart, cute (everyone could see that), personable, (she left out sexy): and worth involving oneself with. She had in mind to prompt her instructor into a relationship that went beyond eye-contact. Chips would fall where they may.
When he handed back the essays in his chilly classroom, he pressed his nails inside the folds of wool of his knitted turtle neck and scratched under the collar. "Notice that I did not announce that I was scratching my neck. I simply scratched. The same holds true for your essays: too many of you announced your 'scratchings.' Simply execute your plan."
She had written: "A few weeks before my graduation from an all-girls orthodox Jewish high school in Manhattan I attended a lecture given to the members of my senior class. The lecture was not mandatory, but no one missed it, not even the cutters, because the subject of the lecture is the very topic of my essay: that men are scum.
Her lecturer, she wrote, was Dr. Binky Firth, the assistant principal of her Day School. "We girls knew that The Binkster's lecture about men being scum reflected on his own scumminess. It was he who skulked the halls scoping out girls committing the stylish crime of wearing a tight fitting blouse. For four years we endured his oily penetrating stare. - [You will not find Dr. Firth on the school's list of faculty: I am not using his real name or his real nick-name]. He might as well have announced, 'Any nubile body not in conformity with the dress code, please step into my office to be examined.' He ended his lecture with a statement reflecting on the coarse impotency of his esthetic: 'Frankly ladies: boys can't control the scum within.' By Jove - he really said that, the scum within!"
Her instructor returned her essay with an undeserved grade of B-. Ms. Weisgal,' he wrote, 'Are you slamming shut the door on life's possibilities? We all exaggerate our imagined vulnerabilities. But I'm put off by your cynical indictment of men. A member of the Ladies Auxiliary indicts in generalities - not someone like you with soft sensibility and excellent potential.' Holy boy power, did he say she had 'soft sensibility' like he was trying to seduce her? Someone told her he had an affair with a girl the year before who was now a Soph; and they were still supposedly friendly.
Flashing him her smile, she brushed aside her dark blonde hair and sat across from him in a swivel chair to discuss her grade. They watched the other students depart the classroom. He wore his turtle neck; she was in an oversized sweatshirt and jeans. Thankfully, she was not wearing a long skirt like she wore in her Jewish Day School.
"Is it awkward for teachers when some girls dress provocatively?" she asked.
"You mean, are teachers scummy like the rest of mankind?"
She was not writing about 'men,' she insisted, "you included, sir." She was writing about one skuzzy man.
"Perhaps you misread my intension - and that is why you gave me B-?"
"Perhaps I did. What was your intension?"
"He cautioned us to avoid compromising situations. But he would have loved to compromise with any number of us."
"What compromising situation? The teacher is here; the student is there."
She didn't mean the situation 'now.' They were sitting in a classroom discussing her grade. They weren't sipping an ice cream soda in a coffee shop out of one glass. How could he mean the situation now was 'compromising'?
He blushed and scratched his neck.
She shivered. "I'm wearing thermals under my jeans and it's only November," she said.
He cleared his throat. He desired her. He could handle the information.
He read aloud the title of her essay: 'A Novice's Guide to the Men are Scum Controversy.'
"It's a good title, even movie-like."
"I re-read my paper, professor. It is not a B- paper. Most certainly not. By the way, I love your name, 'Maritain: What is it, French?"
To sleep with someone for the first time was not a light-hearted decision. She might demure. But hopefully Prof. Maritain would cultivate his own scummi-ness by offering her an overnight in Niagara Falls. Proposing a mischievous forbidden pitfall would be more substantive than sitting where he was on a swivel chair with her essay on his lap covering his limp erection. As if he didn't know what was up.
"Are you going to change my grade?"
"Why should I? What insights do you deliver? A voyage au bout de la nuit is what it is."
"Which means what? I attended a humorous lecture in a Hebrew high school."
"The headmaster of your school, what was he, a pervert?"
"He wasn't the headmaster. We don't have headmasters in a Jewish Day School. I didn't go to Choate."
"Like I did? Ah, I see. You looked me up?"
"I looked up all my teachers."
"Why do you keep using scum to describe men?"
"He used scum in his lecture. I'm not the one who used it."
"He used it, but you took ownership. Such a grunge word ..."
"A grunge word for a grunge topic."
"You experienced your bourgeoning sexuality among the rabbis? Did your rabbi friend blow his brains out, living as he did among the pretty blossoms?"
She sensed that he was searching for subliminally sexual messages. Here: She'd give him one. Look into my eyes: take me to a free-standing hotel overlooking the Falls. Granted, she lacked experience in the sexual trenches; but surely he could see she resonated with unlocked potential.
"You have the Jewish world stereotyped."
He cupped his chin. "Do I? A young woman's bourgeoning sexuality becomes a superficial joke for girls to giggle over? And that's not a stereotype?" Looking her way like a chicken pecking at crumbs, he crossed out the B-, replacing it with A. "Miss Weisgal," he said, "I think you're a rabbi killer."
She floated home on Jet Blue for Thanksgiving break, alight with anticipation and indecision.
Her father, noting her capacious day-dreaming asked, "What's befuddling you?"
"Classes are going well, not to worry."
Mr. Weisgal handed her a hard-covered ledger-sized daybook that had red cloth-like covers and the tweedy masculine feel of the Oban Scotch on his shelf. "Whatever it is, or whoever it is, write in this journal like you're Oliver Wendell Holmes or Beerbohm. It also comes with a world atlas."
While doing her pre-Thanksgiving baking, she decided she'd call her ledger book: My Men are Scum Year. She'd document every intimate moment, every embrace, and every sensation. She'd start with Prof. Maritain. Back from Aunt Sadie's after the Thanksgiving feast, her face was white heat: real sexual possibilities loomed. Writing was discovery - hello Mr. Teicher!
Before writing, she played Las Vegas solitaire on her home computer to see if they'd, you know, fuck. But solitaire didn't mean anything; and she was not a prophetess. She was a realist. Alas, the 'Standard Daily Journal' corresponded to the calendar date. There were five weeks to go before the New Year kicked in. Was it bad luck to write on calendar dates yet to unfold?
Ran to dentist got squeezed in for quick look-see. Hygienist not in. Yuk. Bet my mouth smelled. What she wrote was not an introspective essay; she blah-blahed to avoid Issues. Ethan Sidell on Facebook got in touch out of the blue, resurrecting old 'casual' connections. He was home in Syosset. He was thinking of her. How waz she doin'? Thinking of her? He was thinking of his hard on. Other guys, not only Ethan, expressed romantic interest in her. Hesh Brody, for instance, a strutting around baby who smoked, was an ass filling his lungs with coal dust. On her desk was a writing pad. On each page was printed: from the desk of Debbie Weisgal as if the writer, Debbie Weisgal, was someone issuing edicts from her desk.
"Having a desk of one's own does not make you someone with a desk," she wrote.
Back at Buffalo after a bumpy landing she took a Sunday nap in her zippered sweatshirt and awakened after six, waiting in a wrapped towel for the water to in her shower to stop running cold. It never did. She had to rinse quickly. Shivering, she made careful use of her eye-liner and picked out her plane open collared shirt. On the box of homemade biscotti on her desk, she had drawn a blue chef's hat with a tiny inverted triangle that was lodged in a bed of white flowers. The logo-like drawing was love symbolism she copied from an arcane website. She had written on the box in her steady calligrapher's hand that carefully mimicked the type-face Lucida Blackletter, from the bakery of Debbie Weisgal. The words winked of irony and her heart did not stop its nervous to-do. Would the gentleman who resided on Stockbridge Ave. to whom she was about to deliver the biscotti, invite her in? Would he risk being alone with her? Her plan to deliver the home-made biscotti was not the plan of a stalker, not at all. Even if Prof. Maritain wasn't home, she'd leave the box of biscotti in a plastic bag on his door knob. What she was doing was not something crazy, stupid, and unrealistic. She was not throwing herself at him.
She was being nice.
He lived in University Heights, a decent sounding place, Buffalo being one big college town. Having never taken the bus to the South Campus, never needing to, the twenty minute bus ride seemed long. There were plenty of seats. She stared at the clouds speckling the dark sky and took out her 3 x 5 cards. Was she being dumb to force feed herself material to chat with him in case they discussed biscotti? 1. Tuscany and Umbria by Emma Jones (2005): "Plenty of clothes and knickknacks... but... the region's food produce proves the biggest draw, especially the city's biscotti ..." 2. Mandelbrot, the twice-baked cookies commonly found in Ashkenazi Jewish households, was baked by the large Jewish population in Italy's Piedmont region who were influenced by biscotti, the twice-baked cookies of Italian provenance.
Perhaps she'd simply show him her prep cards: I was so-o nervous coming here, I made myself a cheat sheet... (Aren't I cute? Aren't I vulnerable?) You're listening to Schubert's Symphony No. 5! Gosh, you like classical music, too? I was raised on it. My father, you see ...
The snow fell like powdery dust. (No Lake Effect snow dump in the forecast, not yet - but she had adapted to Buffalo's apprehensiveness.) Why was she wearing sandals on her cold feet! Fuck, they'd have to do. She wasn't going back to the dorm for boots. The bus turned onto a slummy street that was trickled with wearisome Christmas lights, and litter. She grimaced at the bordered up property. Tameka's Chicken was open, but who'd eat there? The bus stopped in front of a rundown store. Two sketchy types got on. It was a depressed neighborhood, for sure, a poor neighborhood. The professor bought a house here? She made her way to the front of the bus. She wasn't afraid; she rode subways all the time in Manhattan. She simply didn't know where she was. "Please announce Stockbridge Ave." The driver gave her a look: white girl travelling alone? Imagine, in four months at Buffalo, she never stepped foot off the North Campus except to go to the airport. Talk about not leaving one's Comfort Zone.
The next long block had way more of the college feel: a few brightly lit pubs, some decent vehicular traffic, an inviting place called The Coffee Mill with free Wi-Fi, a men's shop attractively Christmased-up with fine-clothed mannequins. Most importantly, a number of student-types were on the sashay. When the driver called her stop, she inched her way forward, gripping the backs of seats. She didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do, she told herself.
On the street there was nervous energy all around her. She felt as if she was back stage with daddy at the Philharmonic. Someone said hi: it was Dara from Western Civ!
"Hi Dara, how was your Thanksgiving?"
She walked on Stockbridge following the house numbers cautiously. She took everything in: the faces of people driving cars, even the passengers, in case one of them was him; the house with the wrap-around porch that, even in the dark, needed a painting. It wasn't a bad block: she'd seen worse. It was an Upstate New York block with big old trees and big old houses. Perhaps Prof. Maritain had made a canny investment in a neighborhood with a gentrified future? His house was on the left and her willies returned big time. She doubted everything: herself, him, her decision to have sex; or major in English. Mr. Teicher was right about Mortuary Science. She'd look into it first thing. She was a mortician, not a lover. Poor Ethan Sidell, she owed him one. If she had a car, she'd have circled the block, and hit the road.
Then she realized that she left the box of biscotti on the bus and her willies got replaced by anger. How could she have been so careless, so ditzy? No biscotti and cold sandaled feet. And no thermals. Still, when the audience at the Philharmonic coughed, and the conductor stepped on stage, the concert was on. She rang his bell like she was the UPS man. Got a package here for you to sign. No emotion. He opened the door in a Buffalo Bills t-shirt and blue jeans and looked at her curiously, not recognizing her. (So much for the mad embrace.) She didn't say anything. It took a few seconds, maybe longer, until recognition lit his face.
"Debbie is fine."
"Debbie." He put his hands out. "What's up?"
The usual questions: was everything all right? Was there a problem? Something happen?
"One problem, yes. Alas, I left the biscotti on the bus that I baked especially for you. It was actually baked for Thanksgiving at my aunt's house in Brooklyn, but I added to the recipe. Do you like biscotti?"
The look on his face was flustered, intrigued, and confused. He was excited. Her presence at the threshold of his home was not boring him.
He motioned her to come in: "Do you play Chutes and Ladders? I got a hot game of Chutes and Ladders goin'."
His young son stared at her from the floor of the den. So did his young daughter. His wife, poking her head in from the dining room, looked at her like she was indeed the UPS man. Boxes were here and there, still to be unpacked. An older couple that he introduced as his in-laws, John and Elizabeth from Ottawa, were seated at a round mahogany table. Dessert dishes and coffee cups had yet to be cleared.
"Ottawa," Debbie said pleasantly, "was the first major city in North America to turn its best streets into a pedestrian mall. My town, Manhattan, waited fifty years before trying it."
In-laws John and Elizabeth stared at her. The professor's kids stared at her. Lithe but aggravated Mrs. Maritain stared at her: and at him, as if waiting for reassurance or an all-clear signal. You'd better reassure your wife double quick, Debbie urged him in her thought. She thinks we're screwing.
Professor Maritain said: "I'm glad you're here. Helen, she's a heck of a good writer. I'd like her to submit something to Cedar." His observation about her writing did not seem to explain her presence in their house on a Sunday night. "Would you like some coffee?" he asked. "Please, join us. Did you eat?"
"Full to here," she said, not looking especially at him. "Pardon my intrusion," she said to Mrs. Maritain. "I planned on delivering home-made biscotti to your lovely household in honor of your new house. But I left it on the bus."
"Someone will eat it," in-law John said. Evidently hard of hearing, he cupped his ear in her direction. "One man's loss is another man's gain."
"Are you sure?" the professor asked her. "There's Key lime pie, chocolate fudge brownies?"
"Tempting," she said. "But I really have to go. Study group."
"I'll give you a lift back."
She sensed it in the air, his desire to have a go with her was palpable. But was he crazy? Was he suicidal? His wife was standing right there! Of course, perhaps he and his wife had an accommodation?
"It's fine," she said. "Really not necessary." She gave the kids a tootles wave. "It was a pleasure. Bye guys."
The journey back always being quicker than the journey out, she didn't have long to wait for the bus. A new dollop of sifted snow, powdery and fresh, glazed over Stockbridge Ave. When the 'North Campus' bus inched its way to the shelter, she waved her school ID at the driver, and recognized one of the girls from her class.
The driver held up her box of biscotti. How sweet. She and her girlfriend would have something to munch on the way back to school. They wouldn't eat it all, though. He'd get his share.