Catherine had hoped but not anticipated that it would be this easy. Maybe, in a way—she had no one to admit it to—she even felt a little bit miffed that it had been so painless. Perhaps he really was as soulless as she had accused him of being, and she hadn’t hurt him at all. The prick. It helped, of course, that they were in different departments. That made it easy for him to avoid her. But she and Seth were co-chairs of the interdepartmental symposium series on multicultural diversity, so on Thursday she wore the mint green raw silk blouse and the charcoal Lord & Taylor slacks. He would have to be there for their guest lecturer. Everyone would be there. Dr. Angelica Saki-Hopkins was quite a catch, and Catherine would be introducing her.
The way the spider webs had blown against the screen they made a road map. It wasn’t oriented north-south, but he could imagine the brightest, straightest line being the Interstate and the other more random lines being the state and county roads. That imaginary intersection of back roads there he decided was College Station. In his mind he traced the roads back out to the Interstate. Then the late autumn sun was eclipsed by a cloud, and the map vanished from his office window screen. Seth supposed he could take some sort of comfort from the fact that no on else seemed to like her. More than one of his department colleagues had referred to her as the “Anthrobitch.” Male colleagues. Unsolicited. Of course, he had never even mentioned that he knew Catherine beyond their co-chairing the symposium series. As the new man there, he didn’t yet have a personal life in anybody else’s mind. Perhaps he never would. In any event, he had a symposium talk to go to. As we was leaving his office he realized that he would just be listening today, so he paused long enough to take several good tokes on the hash pipe he kept hidden behind Keats on his bookshelf.
Catherine got to the lecture hall ten minutes early and it was already almost full, but Dr. Saki-Hopkins wasn’t there. For a minute she panicked—what if their off-campus guest couldn’t find the building or the room? She walked to the front door of the building, looking everywhere, and there, still a hundred yards away but walking toward her on the diagonal sidewalk across the quad, was her guest speaker, dressed in her trademark long denim skirt and leather jacket, a wide streak of white in her bush of black hair. Walking beside her was Seth. They were deep in conversation. They stopped, still well short of the building and out of ear-shot, still not seeing her waiting there, and Dr. Saki-Hopkins lit a cigarette.
Initially he had been sort of flattered. Even though it was his first semester on campus, he had been asked to co-chair the inter-departmental symposium series with the distinguished and tenured anthropology professor. Then he got to meet her and was surprised to find her attractive, friendly, and not much older than himself. A few working lunches and meetings went smoothly. In spite of her seniority, she didn’t seem at all controlling and readily agreed to his curriculum suggestions. He would take the lit/fine arts part, and she would take the anthro/culture part. Then one day she asked him to stop by her office. She had a favor to ask him. It was a book-length manuscript she was working on. It wasn’t really in her field, and she felt uncertain about it. He was the English professor. Would he take a look at it for her? What she didn’t tell him, and what he didn’t discover until he had the manuscript home and started to read it, was that the book was a rather frank and very descriptive autobiography of her sexual life, starting with her first discovery of a garden hose and moving through early adventures with her mother’s boyfriends onto grade school and high school conquests of her classmates. And that was only through page fifty, where he stopped the first night to masturbate again.
When Dr. Saki-Hopkins and Seth came up the front steps of the building where Catherine was waiting, they were both laughing. “So, the shit missed the fan entirely,” Dr. Saki-Hopkins said. She butted out the filter end of her cigarette against an iron railing and stuck the butt into her jacket pocket. Seth made a point of introducing them, as if they hadn’t met before, as if Angelica wasn’t her invited guest speaker. Then he smiled that goofy smile of his as if he had just said or done something clever and left them there, headed into the lecture hall. Catherine gave Angelica a sisterly hug and told her how glad she was to see her again. Angelica smelled of cigarettes and sweat and asked to be reminded where they had met before. On their way into the lecture hall Catherine asked if Angelica would be speaking on her scheduled topic, the cross-cultural roots of gender dominance, and Angelica informed her that she wanted to talk about a new topic, gender roles as revealed in the folk humor of Native American and African cultures. “It’s about time we got some laughs out of this, isn’t it?” she said. Catherine stopped to make some quick notes on the backs of her typed-up three-by-five cards.
Seth found that he made very few editorial marks on Catherine’s manuscript. There were the usual occasional syntactical, grammatical, and typographical errors to be cleaned up, but he quickly grasped that that was not his function. He was being asked if this work was a classic of erotic confession and self-revelation or just another piece of pornographic trash. It is truly difficult to write anything about promiscuous sexual behavior that doesn’t sound clichéd. There are only so many things you can do with a pair of aroused bodies, and only so many ways to describe what gets done. At first, he did note that the narrator seemed to prefer only private one-on-one heterosexual trysts, but as the book progressed into and out of puberty the scope of encounters gradually widened. He was far from an expert on erotica, but he had trouble imagining anything colder and more clinical than her prose. He wondered if she had kept a diary—it would have been more like a laboratory journal—for all those years, or if all of this in all its specific detail was still locked into her long-term memory. Had she herself gotten off reliving and writing it? It wasn’t as if she was apologizing for or rationalizing anything.
Catherine had booked the largest lecture hall on campus for today’s talk, the one in the Life Sciences building. She was glad she had. Angelica Saki-Hopkins was a big draw. Students came because they had seen her on cable talk shows. Faculty came to witness and be jealous of this anomaly—one of them, an academic, who had somehow parlayed a campus job into a career as a minor celebrity. Angelica had said she wouldn’t need any AV hook-up, no PowerPoint or slide show, just a microphone if the hall was large. A student techie assured Catherine that the podium mike was ready, and she was about to go on and begin her introduction when she got word to wait a few minutes. The university president was on his way but late. Angelica was seated in the front row beside Seth, who was leaning back casually, legs crossed, as if waiting for a basketball game to start. Catherine waved and caught Angelica’s eye and gestured that it would be a minute or two. Seth looked at her as if she were a visitor from another planet. Her hand went to the neck of her blouse, smoothing it against her collar bone. He looked so young sitting there, his big hands clasped around his knee.
Actually, he had never finished reading her manuscript. After about a hundred and fifty pages he had returned it to her, inadvertently allowing himself to be enlisted as subject matter for her next chapter. It was the first really cold night of autumn when he walked to her house north of campus and dropped it off, sort of disgusted with himself for having read as far into it as he had. She blushed like a girl when he handed it back to her, just inside her front door and said, “Not for me.” She asked him inside for a drink. She had a fire going. She wanted to tell him why she had written it. Or not. He could just have a nightcap and go, his reward for bringing her book back to her and not burning it. “No, no, never set fire to it,” he told her. “But be careful. It might spontaneously combust.”
She writes the fuck scenes. Seth supposed that she would have made notes for that night. One shared Scotch on the rocks leading to two, the second brought back from the kitchen along with a slim but potent joint. Her sending him out to the deck for more firewood and his resuscitation of the fire. Their laughing argument about slapstick films and her nimble impersonation of Stan Laurel. The soft punch thrown, the first touch, the kiss. The fact that she wore no underwear. How naked on top of her in front of the fire, one side of his body was bright and hot and the other side was dark and cold. He liked taking her. She loved being taken. The fact that it meant nothing beyond just doing it together was fiendishly freeing. She writhed beneath him, somewhere else altogether, some wonderfully ancient familiar place. Then she clung to him and purred, purred like a cat that had been fed and caressed. He remembered the soft fragrant smell of her mixed with the smell of the fire. It was an act well worth repeating.
Dr. August Boucher, the university president, was famous for arriving late, but he always made his entrances unembarrassed. Catherine didn’t mind waiting for him. This was a plus. President Boucher had never before attended one of their symposium lectures. As the minutes crept past the hour, the audience grew a bit restless. Catherine saw faculty members pull out their cell phones and students start text-messaging. Everyone knew that as soon as the lecture began the electronic message blocking device in the lecture hall would be turned on—a campus rule. She went to the podium and said into the microphone that they were waiting on one more distinguished guest, if they would be patient just another minute or two. President Boucher’s entrance caused only a little stir. He strode to the front row, giving Catherine at the podium a patronizing smile. Did he even know who she was? He found Dr. Saki-Hopkins in her front row seat and shook hands with her, then with Seth, who had also stood to greet him. The three of them spoke for a minute, President Boucher clapping them both on the back, then taking the seat on the other side of Angelica from Seth. Catherine studied her three-by-five cards, then began by welcoming president Boucher and the other distinguished faculty members. She introduced herself as chair of the symposium on multicultural diversity. She didn’t mention Seth, who didn’t seem to notice. He seemed to be staring intently out a high window to his left, over Angelica’s head. She ran through Angelica’s bona fides—her books and papers and appointments and awards. Catherine felt at home behind a podium with a microphone in front of her. She stated the overall purpose of the symposium and tried to contextualize Angelica’s presence there, but was unsure where to go with the new humor in gender role topic that Angelica had just substituted. She said something about an original thinker always at the cutting edge of her discipline, then called Angelica up to the podium. Applause. Not for Catherine, she realized, of course, but for Angelica.
Seth had never been with a woman for whom orgasms were so easy and frequent and so seemingly meaningless. Their trysts were like secret yoga classes, set according to her busy schedule. He didn’t mind. His social calendar wasn’t exactly packed, and he got a teenage kick from their clandestine meetings. He also had to admit that he found frequent passionate sex unencumbered by any hint of courtship or public display quite preferable to his earlier attachments. He recognized some of her techniques from her chronicles, so he was not surprised and went with them. It was almost like a one-on-one seminar. And afterwards she was always sweet, almost girlish. He never spent the night. She made sure he left nothing there at her house, not a trace of him except his semen inside her. They never discussed contraception. He figured she didn’t bring it up because someone with a history like hers would have dealt with that a long time ago, and besides at the urging of his first graduate-school wife years before he had had a vasectomy. He never even thought to mention it. It wasn’t something he was proud of. The applause in the lecture hall brought him back. Catherine had been talking, and he had been watching the flights of Canada Geese high in the sky out the lecture hall windows—not so much Vs as ragged check marks headed south. There was always something melancholy about that sight, the feeling of being left behind. Angelica put a hand on his knee as she stood up. “Wish me luck,” she said. “I’ve never been a comedienne before.”
“Knock ‘em dead,” he said.
Catherine saw Angelica’s hand on Seth’s leg and their whispered exchange as she rose to come to the podium. It crossed her mind to go take the seat beside Seth that Angelica had vacated, but that would be too obvious. And what would she say to him? The truth? That she missed him and that she was now suddenly jealous of him with that notorious cougar Angelica Saki-Hopkins? She picked up her three-by-five cards and took a seat off to the side of the podium. It had been ten days since she had sent him packing, furious with him, and he had not once tried to contact her. Of course, it was over, but she had found no one to replace him and she had confessed things to him that no one else knew. She had told him she wanted to have his baby, and he had as much as laughed at her. “Sex and parenthood are two different things,” he had said. “We may be suited for one but not the other.” Either he didn’t understand that she didn’t want him as a parent of her child just as its biological father or he was saying that he didn’t think she would make a good parent. She thought she would make a fine parent, and she thought it was time to find out, time to move on to the next level. She would record it all, keep a detailed journal of motherhood. She had had her IUD removed after her first luncheon meeting with Seth, having decided he was an ideal sperm donor. But that night ten days before, curled up together under her down comforter after sex, when she had told him she hoped she was getting pregnant, he had just shaken his head and said, “No, no, bad idea, impossible, can’t happen.” And she realized that he didn’t care at all about her, her needs and dreams. He was just fucking her. And she felt used. How dare he not care after she had repeatedly given herself so totally to him.
Angelica took the microphone from its stand at the podium and looped its wire free. “I don’t like those things,” she said, walking away from the podium. “They remind me too much of pulpits. It doesn’t seem right that I’d be standing there above you and you all are sitting there. Can I have a chair here, please? In traditional societies the story teller is always on the same level as her audience, both physically and socially, and I am here today not as an academic, nor as a woman, just as a story teller.”
Seth watched her move. There was an unhurried ease and sway in her stride, as if she were strolling barefoot through her own kitchen. Her gaze was down. The techie brought out a folding chair for her. She moved it closer to her audience. “I want to thank Seth and August and Cathy for inviting me here. I’d never been to your campus before. You could use more trees.” She sat down on the chair, her legs apart, and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. “What I’m going to do today is tell you some jokes. You probably won’t think them very funny because they’re not from our culture, but where they come from they got a laugh. I call them gender jokes, because they’re told by members of one sex about members of the other, the opposite, the oh-so-opposite other sex—guy jokes about gals, gal jokes about guys.” Angelica sat up straight in the chair and looked out over the heads of her by now hushed audience. She paused, holding the microphone against her bosom.
Catherine hated being called Cathy. She bridled at Angelica’s casualness. Would the president think that all of their symposia were just joke sessions? The woman had no text or notes. What was she going to do to fill her forty-five allotted minutes? Catherine had to admit, though, that the pause was effective. Angelica had the by-now standing-room-only audience in the palm of her hand. Then the pause didn’t end. It just went on. Angelica didn’t move, her gaze up at the high windows at the back of the hall never wavered. The microphone remained at rest on her chest. A minute went by. Was she channeling her jokesters? Was this part of her routine? The silence became uncomfortable, and members of the audience began to fidget in their seats. Before sitting down Angelica had moved her chair up closer to the first row where Seth and Dr. Boucher were seated. Now Seth leaned forward toward her. Then in a crouch he went up to her. Angelica didn’t move. He put a hand on her left arm where it rested on her thigh and said her name. The microphone picked it up so that everyone could hear— “Angelica?” No reaction. He looked back toward Dr. Boucher, who came to join him. No one knew what was going on. Catherine put a hand to her mouth.
There was nothing in her eyes. Seth had never seen such a vacant stare. It was as if a switch had been thrown and Angelica’s lively laughing dark eyes had instantly gone totally dead. She was still sitting upright and breathing softly. Except for her eyes she looked at rest. Then a thin line of saliva appeared from the corner of Angelica’s mouth and started down her chin. Dr. Boucher was now squatted down beside him. He too said her name. “Angelica, are you alright?” Again, the microphone broadcast it into the hall. Seth reached up and gently took the microphone from her hand to turn it off, but not before everyone heard Dr. Boucher say, “Stroke.” Then Catherine was there, acting hysterically, shaking Angelica by the shoulders, telling her to wake up. “Do something,” she yelled at Seth. “Call 911, call the campus clinic.” Dr. Boucher pulled out his cell phone, but the electronic message blocker was on in the hall and he could get no signal.
“I’ll go,” Seth said. He knew it was useless, but he wanted to leave. He desperately wanted to leave that place. He went out the side fire-door exit and started to run. The campus clinic was on the outer edge of the campus, and he settled into a long loping stride. It felt good to run. He looked back. No one was behind him, either following him or chasing him. He was all alone, running. stretched out and free. He should run more often, he thought.