She strove for ambiguity. No matter how often I’d stress the importance of writing with clarity, I could not get her to change her strange, cryptic style. Even the note she slipped under my office door was somewhat vague and indecipherable. Besides her initials, all she’d written was, “Adorable.”
“I’ll tell you what it means,” my wife said. I’d just mentioned the note and my inability to understand it. We were in the car, driving our boys to a visit with the pediatrician. Behind us, they quietly turned pages of large, colorful books. “It means you need to stop being so friendly with your students. Unless you want to sleep with them.”
I did not, of course, want to sleep with my students. But I did want them to like me. And it would be okay, too, if someday a handful of them loved me in the way that I’d come to love my first creative writing professor. I remember how, as I’d worked my way through my college’s orientation process, students recommended him at every turn. He was fun, they said, interesting, and cared about them as people. Within the first few days of class with him, I knew that this was true. He’d taken time to learn our names, and he encouraged each of us to drop by his office so he could get to know us. I went to see him a week into the semester. Before long I was going to his apartment for dinner and drinks. There’d be other students there, too, and he’d hold us spellbound with his life stories, sometimes revealing something intensely personal, how he’d coped, for instance, when AIDS claimed his partner of twenty-three years. This, it seemed to me, was where our real education took place. And this was how a professor became a human.
I’d hoped to model my teaching after him. I planned to infuse my lectures with stories from my life, anecdotes that would be elaborated upon in my den or a nearby bar. But it hadn’t quite worked out that way. My writing professor was single and lived alone, whereas I am married with children. In two years, I’ve only had students to my house twice. I’ve never taken them to a bar. I have had food and drinks with them at The Ninty-Nine, a family restaurant not far from the school. But my cryptic student Jean had joined us there just a few times. And on one occasion, my wife was there, too.
“But you hung out with Jean,” I reminded her. “Did she seem like she had a crush on me?”
I swung my head in her direction. “Yes?”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because students get crushes on their professors all the time. It happens.”
But I could not believe it had happened to me. Certainly not Jean. She was always very respectful, polite and reserved. She even preferred to call me “Dr. Walker” when most others called me “Jerald” or “Dr. J.” She’d become a favorite, one of a half-dozen students with whom I exchanged frequent emails and spent a great deal of time. My wife was wrong; I was convinced of it. Jean’s note was probably some reference to the weather or her mood. I even conceded that it might have been aimed at my attire, the pink and blue shirt, for instance, that I’d recently worn in class. I was content with this reasoning for a week. That’s when one of my inner-circle students came to my office and said, “Jean plans to seduce you.”
I chuckled. “What are you talking about?’
“She told me last night. We went out for drinks.” And then she laughed and added, “She thinks you’re hot!”
“Obviously,” I said, “she was drunk.”
“Here’s the weird thing, though. She said it before she was drunk. When she was drunk, things really got bizarre. She went on and on about all of the freaky stuff she was going to do to you. It was disgusting. I mean,” she said, starting to laugh again, “you’re, like, an old man!”
“Actually, I’m forty.”
“Damn!” she said. “I thought you were thirty!” She shook her head sadly. “You’re old enough to be our nerdy, goofy father. That’s gross!” She sipped lavishly from her iced coffee, as if to rid her taste buds of something unpleasant. “Anyway, I just thought I’d warn you, because, as gross as it is, she’s really, really into you. I’d even go so far as calling you an obsession.”
I started noticing things after that, the way, for instance, Jean looked at me during my fiction writing class. Whenever I glanced in her direction, she blushed, and while I cannot entirely rule out the power of my imagination, I sometimes saw a wink of an eye or the pucker of lips. It was difficult not to stare at her. I often lost my train of thought. After two weeks of this, she sent me an email, requesting a conference. She wanted, she said, to discuss an idea for a short story.
The make-up was new, thickly applied mascara and a pasty–looking foundation; I’d never seen her wear it before, or perhaps just not so much of it. Her red sundress had spaghetti straps, revealed more than a hint of cleavage, and fell to her knees. It was conservative attire by student standards, until she sat in my rocking chair and crossed her long legs, causing her hem to rise to mid-thigh. The smell of perfume rushed to me.
“So, Dr. Walker, how have you been?”
“Okay,” I said. “How about you?”
She sighed. “Frustrated.”
“Yeah. That’s why I’m here. “ She leaned forward to scratch her left ankle, and her breasts threatened to topple free. I concentrated on the ceiling until she sat back again. “I’m pretty much finished with this story I’m writing,” she said. “Except for the ending. I was wondering if you could help me with it.”
“Sure. I’ll take a look at it.”
“I haven’t written it out yet. It’s in my head. That’s how I compose. If you have time, I’ll tell you what I have so far. I know you don’t teach for another forty-five minutes.”
I checked my watch. “Okay,” I said. “Shoot.”
She smiled and glanced at the door. “Do you mind if I close that?” she asked.
“Can’t,” I lied. “School policy.”
She pouted. “Well, anyway,” she continued, her voice lower now, a breathy whisper, “the story is about this college student, Katie. Katie has been married for eight years, since she was eighteen. Even though she’s very pretty and men hit on her all the time, she’s never cheated on her husband.”
“Because she’s loyal.”
“Totally,” Jean responded. “She doesn’t want to jeopardize a good thing. You see, he makes a lot of money and pays all the bills. He’s even paying for her classes. Ironically, that’s where the problem for her starts. She develops this crush on one of her professors.”
“That happens all the time,” I said.
“Right. That’s what everyone tells her. And she’s content to just leave it at that, until he starts giving her these mixed messages.”
“Such as taking her out for drinks and hanging out with her. Sending her emails. A lot.”
I cleared my throat. “It could be, though, that she’s misinterpreting his actions. Is he like that with other students?”
“To a degree.”
“But it’s more with her?”
“Yes. And he watches her in class. They flirt with each other. Sometimes,” she said, “Katie wears really short dresses, just to see if he stares at her legs.”
I looked at my watch.
“Katie thinks he wants to do more than look, though. But she isn’t sure. But she is sure she does. She’s obsessed with him. It’s really driving her crazy. Especially when he suddenly stops being so accessible. He doesn’t seem interested in hanging out anymore. And his emails are brief and to the point.”
“Maybe he’s busy.”
“Or,” she said, “struggling with his desire.”
“Maybe. But either way, she can’t handle not having him in her life. So she starts to follow him around campus.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Stalking him?”
“More like enjoying him.”
“But without his knowledge?”
“Of course. She doesn’t want to freak him out.”
“That would probably do it.”
Jean nodded. “He might freak out also if he knew that she drives by his house everyday, hoping to catch at least of glimpse of him. He really is making her crazy.” Jean paused to run her fingers through her hair. “Finally,” she continued, “Katie puts on a very pretty dress and goes to see him in his office. When she gets there, all she can think about is how hot he is. She wants to kiss him. She wants to have sex with him. Desperately.” She was quiet for several seconds before saying, “That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I can’t figure out how it ends.”
“Endings are the hardest part.”
She scratched her ankle again. I drank from a bottle of water on my desk. She crossed her legs, brushing something off her thigh.
“So,” she asked, “any suggestions?”
I thought for a moment. “Maybe,” I began, “maybe, she confesses her feelings.”
“And then.” I picked up a pencil and tapped it on my knee. “And then. And then he apologizes. He tells her that there’s been a terrible misunderstanding, that she has mistaken kindness for flirting. He tells how he only wants to be friends with his students. He wants them to like him. Nothing more.”
Jean lowered her gaze and stared at her hands. Maybe half a minute passed before she rose. Just before leaving, she said, “And you call yourself a teacher.”
I turned this comment over and over in my head, trying to make sense of it, but I could not. Clarity. I needed clarity. Her strange, cryptic style simply would not do.