by Susan Weaver
I slide my finger under the flap of an envelope, ignoring the paper cut it gives me, to fish out yet more minutes of another faculty meeting I failed to attend. A blot of blood smears the address label. I scan the sheets inside and drop them in the wastebasket. I've always been a fast reader, eating up lines of words as though they were perfectly formed bodies laid out for my pleasure, punctuated by the curves of commas, erect exclamation marks, or the slap and caress of semi-colons.
"You're textually obsessed," Lori used to laugh, blue smoke from her American Spirit cigarette spiraling into the air. "Obsessed is a strong word," I'd answer, craving a cigarette. I wasn't an obsessive. I was a hider. I played it safe. Books were about the pull of a life lived between lines, on musty pages that could be closed when you were done with them.
I dislike late classes, especially in winter. The students are cold and hungry; they watch with pale impatient faces, hoping I'll finish early.
But this one is different. She smiles encouragingly, following me with her eyes as I pace from one side of the seminar room to the other, feeding them elliptical questions that I hope they'll snaffle up like sweetmeats. Amid the restless rustles she is stillness and silence. Her kittenish eyes follow my hands as though I dangle a piece of string for her amusement.
That first night when class is over, she waits behind. As the other students trail out she approaches me, notepad pressed to her chest, and complains about the lack of female authors on the reading list. I hear my hollow reply about out-of-print books and shipments that didn't arrive in time. Her gray, unblinking eyes search mine. She smiles and asks me if she can supplement the reading list with her own choices. I tell her to feel free. She smiles and says lightly, "Thank you Miss Parnell." I don't correct her, for though I am married she guesses rightly. It is my maiden name.
That night I stay back marking papers. I half expect a soft tapping on my door. But all I hear is the wind whipping around the quadrangle, through the sandstone arches, rattling an empty tin can along the flagstones. I jump when the phone rings and Stephen's soft voice asks when I'm coming home. He has a cold and is going to bed early. Do I have my key?
Later, when I crawl into bed, trying not to let the chill air beneath the blankets, Stephen stirs and turns, pulling me to him with a soft groan. I feel his penis, a tube of rigid flesh pressed into the cleft of my ass. I close my eyes but all I can see are hers, unblinking and insistent, probing my left hand, touching my slightly beaten wedding band. The ring Stephen bought me from an antique store in the West Village in 1988.
Going to Australia had seemed like a good idea. Almost immediately Stephen was offered a professorship at a Sydney university. It took longer for me to find work. Eventually something turned up for me, and I wondered if my footsteps would forever follow in his, like a child walking along the beach after her father. But we were cozy, free to pursue our interests and be paid for it.
Unlike most academics, I found teaching a pleasure. Addicted to the fresh, upturned faces that greeted me each semester, I fed off their energy and enthusiasm. In return I told them stories about New York. Yes, I really had met Ginsberg and stayed in Warhol's old room at the Chelsea Hotel. But don't ask me to describe the ceiling -- that's personal! After they picked up their books and bags and filed out, I felt like a cheap comedian. I was getting easy laughs from the two-drink-minimum crowd.
The novel I had planned to write was no more than a slim notepad, half-filled with jottings. Wrangling with the words of others was a joy, but my own lay limp on the page. The baby I'd sometimes imagined? In my forties, it was not going to happen now. Stephen enjoyed another promotion. I pressed my face to the glass ceiling and wondered if I really wanted to venture beyond it.
I rang Lori, who told me, "Don't come home. It's crazy here. Political correctness has gone insane. You have to be a dyke or black or both to get tenure. Everyone's confusing who you screw with who you are. Fucking identity politics," she moaned. Even with a doctorate and a book out, Lori couldn't get work. "I'm just a white, straight slut," she whined down the phone. "But party politics and promiscuity just don't cut it anymore. Not like in the '70s."
Late one afternoon, passing Colin Hodges' darkened room on the way to mine, I hear the slow, rhythmic squeaking of his swivel chair, accompanied by staccato grunts and finally a stifled cry. Then silence. My heart starts racing. I step into my office but leave the door ajar so I can hear soft, breathy conversation, female laughter, and through a sliver of light, see her emerge followed shortly by Hodges, his shirttails ludicrously bunched above his belt, his glasses crooked and smeared. I see the waistband of her low-slung jeans and the curve of her breasts as she smoothes down her T-shirt.
The next day I can't bring myself to look at her. Again she fixes me with her insistent gaze, a slight smile playing about her lips as she delivers her seminar paper on semiotics in contemporary erotic literature.
I lose count of the number of times she says "cunt."
I sit fused to my chair, motionless, chin lowered. When it is over, the blood ebbs from my face like a receding tide. The class claps with slow but warm approval and I look up to see her sensual mouth widening into a smile.
Later when I return to my office carrying a stack of papers, she's sitting outside my door. She springs to her feet and I catch a flash of bare stomach with a ring of fire tattooed around her navel. She grins, and for the first time I notice her perfect white teeth.
"Can I help you with those?"
"I'm fine, thanks," I say, and toe my door open.
"Is this a good time to see you?"
"As good as any," I say, glancing at my gold wristwatch, a tenth anniversary present from Stephen.
"Good, because I really need to speak with you," she says.
We go inside my office and she closes the door behind her. "Please open that," I demand. A closed office with a student inside contravenes the sexual harassment guidelines we received a week ago.
"Okay," she smiles, opening it an inch with her toe. Then she looks me in the eyes and speaks softly in a voice slightly thicker than a whisper.
"...My tongue is broken; a thin flame
runs under my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears drumming,
I drip with sweat; trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than dry grass.
At such times death isn't far from me..."
I stare at my square-toed shoes. A slight flush spreads into my cheeks.
"Sappho," I say.
"Yeah. I thought Kathy Acker wasn't quite to your taste so I chose something more classic," her eyes danced. "Just to prove that I'm not obsessed with postmodern pornography. I want to look at eroticism by women writers within the literary canon."
She extends her foot to touch mine. "So what do you think?"
"It would meet the criteria for originality," I say, turning to put my papers down, to disguise the sweat which has broken out on my temples.
"Great, then you'll do me?"
"You'll be my supervisor." She laughs.
"You have Mr. Plotnik assigned as your supervisor."
"But I want you."
"I'm at my limit of supervisions."
She hooks her thumbs into the waist of her jeans and looks down.
"I've...spoken to Dr Hodges," she smiles slowly. "He's okay with it if you are."
My embarrassment turns to fury. Fury that she had gone to my superior. Fury that she had fucked him. Fury at myself for listening, at wanting to be him.
"Besides, you're a woman. You'll enjoy what I'm trying to do."
I lift my chin and turn to her, my arms folded. "And what is that exactly?"
We stand a breath apart, and for the first time I realize she is taller than me. She looks at my frown and follows it to my graying hairline. I take in her shiny brown hair pulled high into a ponytail, her slightly upturned nose, her clear, soft skin. Her insolently parted pink lips. She smiles, enjoying the trail of my eyes across her face. We are mapping each other with glances as tangible as touch.
"You heard us fucking," her lips flicker. "Me and Hodges."
Dr. Hodges and I, I mentally correct her, but my head reels. I was meant to be her audience.
"Finally," she huffs. "After I worked out what days you stayed back." Her eyes investigate my belt buckle. She leans against my door, closing it with her firm ass.
The pulse at my jaw starts throbbing. "I want you to leave."
She looks into my eyes and sees the struggle. Thinks better of pushing me. Hitches her rucksack over her shoulder.
"And I just want you." Then she is gone.
I ignore the various messages she leaves for me. I wait. For my hands to stop shaking at the thought of her. I wait the way a smoker trying to quit stretches the hours before the day's first cigarette.
Finally, I agree to be her supervisor. The day before Stephen is due back I agree to meet to discuss her dissertation. At a café we outline the argument on the butcher's paper tablecloth. She listens, head tilted to one side, pen poised to jot down a word or phrase. Once, the tips of our pens meet as we compete for the last available space on the paper, now a mess of gray and silver scrawl, and we are shocked at the touch. She laughs and withdraws. I recommend a book she really should read. I offer to drive her to my office to get the book. Halfway there I realize it is at home.
"If you don't mind," I say.
"Not a problem," she says, her lips curling at the corner.
The house is cold and dark and silent. I turn on lamps until we stand in a cocoon of yellow light. I ask her if she is cold, if she is hungry. She's fine, but would love a drink. I open the bottle of expensive red Stephen bought me. "It'll keep you company while I'm gone." He'd smiled.
I pour two glasses and extend one to her. The aroma of spice meets my nose. My hand shakes slightly. We have drifted out of neutral waters.
Her fingers brush mine as she takes the glass.
"This is meant to be good," I offer, and gulp rather than sip.
She smirks and swills hers like Pepsi.
"Whatever. Wine is wine. You drink it to get drunk." She smiles, and puts the glass aside dismissively. Then: "You were going to get me the book."
"Of course," I say and go into the study.
When I come out she has removed her sweater and shoes, in spite of the chill winter afternoon. She is wearing a man's blue tank top, which barely conceals her full, upright breasts.
I hand her the book and she examines its jacket then turns it over, clicking her tongue as she reads the jacket blurb. I sip at my wine in short, nervous bursts.
In one languid movement she tosses the book onto a chair, comes to me, takes my wineglass, places it on the floor. I open my mouth to protest and she slides her tongue in, gingerly teasing at my own. She runs her hand underneath my sweater, up my back, to my bra strap and flicks it undone. She traces her fingers over my breasts, the tips dancing around my nipples which pucker at her touch. She then traces a line down, down to my navel.
I shiver. It is like being unzipped. Gently at first, as though I am a present she wants to delay opening, then deeply insistent, she touches and probes as her lust takes hold.
"I'm going to fuck you," she whispers in my ear.
Something turns over in the pit of my stomach. I join her on a ribbon of lust that ruptures now like spilt wine, or blood. With one slip of the pen, no becomes now.
Once, when I was seven, being the assistant in my cousin's magic show, he announced to the dusty attic of my uncle's house that he would "now run me through with six daggers," and tied me to an old chest, I'd been scared and thrilled and confused. The daggers never materialized but his tinkler did and I was a captive audience as he played with his wrinkled pink nodule of flesh an inch from my face.
Now I am splayed on the Persian rug, every garment of clothing twisted or tossed aside, elbows and fingertips dark from spilt wine. She has wrapped herself around me and we thrash together, legs entwined and tongues fighting wordlessly. There is a drumming in my ears as her fingers rub and pinch my nipples. She parts my legs with her thighs and as her four fingers enter me, my wet flesh closes hungrily around her swirling insistence. Her thumb, pressed firmly on my clit, moves in a circular, massage that causes flames to dance over my skin. Trembling shakes me and death seems near.
Later, Stephen calls to say he's staying on an extra night. He's bumped into Bob Barnard at the conference and it's just like the old days back at NYU.
I measure each day in predictable increments, discontent unless twelve out of twenty-four hours are devoured by work. I count down the hours until our coffee fuck, as she calls it, my cunt tumescent with expectation.
We meet at the same café. I am early, and lamely, I have brought a book I pretend to read. She arrives at my table and without sitting down announces that the coffee is far better at her place.
We dry fuck in the vestibule to her seedy apartment block where the light bulb has blown; up against the exposed brick wall she kicks my feet apart, her thigh pushing into my clit. We deep kiss, her tongue setting off a fire that ignites my cunt. Numb from lust we stumble into her apartment and fuck through our clothes on her unmade bed. Finally, gloriously astride my pelvis, she arches her back and laughs, lifting her blue tank top over her voluptuous torso. "Time for flesh."
"You know what we call those in the States," I say, mouth dry, touching the blue fabric.
Her eyes widen, and she twists the top into a rope that binds my wrists tightly to the head of her wrought-iron bed. She wriggles out of her jeans, lifts up my skirt and pulls down my panties. Cunts pressed together, she rides me hard, biting my neck and twisting my nipples until we come in unison. She unties me and prying apart our hot, sticky bodies, she arranges us in sixty-nine position. I have never done this before. I mirror her seamless, fluid moves: for an eternity my tongue is buried deep inside her. She sucks my clit, flicks it from side to side. We come again, our muffled cries indistinguishable from each other's, and I feel her cunt muscles contract around the root of my aching tongue.
Drenched in sweat, our groins gluey with each other's body fluids, she leads me to the bathroom and runs a warm bath. We soap and scrub each other until our flesh is rosy, then interlocking our legs like scissor blades, we finger-fuck each other, timing our orgasms to meet again. When she comes, I watch, fascinated as a bloom of blood spreads underneath her skin, mottling the alabaster across her breasts and shoulders.
We kiss, our hands teasing each other beneath the milky water. When her dexterous fingers find that I am still engorged and slickly oozing juice, she turns me around so that I am on all fours, my pink ass in the air. She kisses me there twice, and then I gasp as I feel her clenched fist push at the folds of my vagina, and groan as it slides in almost effortlessly, opening me up, filling me to my limit. I clutch at the faucet for balance as she fists me slowly from behind, the water lapping my thighs in time with the string of filthy phrases issuing from her flushed lips. When I come for the twelfth time that night it is as though the top of my head explodes in a searing light. Cunt and mouth become one. I am speechless: cries and moans are all I can utter.
I have one thought: I could die like this.
She is masterful with my body, leading it to things I never knew I had in me. She coaxes ever more orgasms out of me in the way a writer wrings meaning from a well-crafted phrase.
As night falls she calls out to me from the kitchen. "Sorry. I'm actually out of coffee."
Stephen will be back today, and a pile of marking needs my attention. I open a paper to grade and it is hers. I look at my hands. Are these the fingers she kisses and sucks and fucks herself with? I bring them to my nose. Her smell lingers: I no longer know where I begin and she ends. We have become one erotic beast. The ancient Greeks called it ouroboros. The serpent devouring its own tail. The formula for the bell curve has been driven out of my head by twelve consecutive orgasms. I give her a High Distinction.
I call her the same dozen times and finally she answers. She's studying. She can't see me. Yes, of course she wants to see me. She's working. She's not seeing someone else. Don't be ridiculous. Her voice reaches down into my belly, into my loins. It unzips me. My hand slips uncontrollably into my pants -- which have been slick and sticky for hours. As we talk I rub furiously, my orgasm building within the shrill throb of blood in my ears. She hangs up after several attempts to disengage from me. I come violently in a welter of sweat and tears.
I take up smoking again. I love the feel of the filter between my lips. Firm, slightly acrid, like a sweaty, erect nipple. Sometimes I see her moving down the corridor, swift, incandescent, on her way to a postgraduate seminar. She is good at disappearing into a throng of students before I can be sure it is her.
I smoke in my office and wait for a reprimand that never comes. It is not my only vice. I buy a silver vibrator and keep it in my top drawer; it reminds me of a large bullet. I make myself come before each class.
I begin to write in a red notebook. Sentences respond to my touch and I discover that words are like bodies. The more you play with them, the more interesting they become.
She taught me that.