UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2012
DAUGHTER OF PIERUS
All professors of Literature are at heart failed writers. We expounders of prosody, we analysts of subtext, we tribe of linguistic impotents, all of us have traded pen and ink for the lectern not out of choice but from a recognition of our own profound inadequacies. It is a condition worthy of the Greek tragedians (or perhaps the comedians ((Diphilus rather than Aristophanes)))--we who most appreciate the sublime are also the least capable of producing it. To what degree we recognize this in ourselves determines the depth of our self-loathing. Though the Muses may scorn our company, proximity to beauty can be its own consolation.
At fifty-three, I had long traded any pretensions of being a writer for the solid mediocrity of scholarship. I had published numerous articles in academic journals as well as two books of literary criticism. I had won tenure, a corner office and an undemanding schedule at a respectable college. I had, in short, secured a life in Literature. And while a life spent explicating the work of strangers can only be seen as a form of self-degradation, it was a gentle degradation that I had chosen, a willing abasement. Like a eunuch in the harems of the old Caliphate, my life was to be spent surrounded by treasures I could never possess, much less duplicate.
Yet the daughters of Pierus are flighty, their moods changeable, the nature of their affections inscrutable. Their whims are not to be analyzed, only indulged.
My muse came to me on the first Tuesday of last November.
I have examined my memory of that day many times in the year since, but the details have dimmed away leaving only an improvised memory, a construct I have assembled from dubious and conditional scraps, a simulacrum.
So, the first Tuesday of November. One year ago.
Iím huddled in the doorway of Marshall Hall, smoking a Lucky Strike. The ashbin beside me overflows with lipstick stained butts--American Spirit, Djaram Black, Virginia Slims. (Do men even smoke anymore? The perfumed and depilated boys I teach make it seem unlikely.) A dry snow has talced the faculty parking lot and the street lamps have switched on, triggered to luminesce by the early dark. A student is waiting in my office when I return, a first year from my Monday 101 class, a vague presence who sits in the middle row and keeps her head down. Doesnít ask questions after my lectures, doesnít offer any comments during the seminars. The essays she turns in are unremarkable. Weíve never spoken before.
The girl slides her latest assignment across the desk-- five pages printed in oversized Courier, triple spaced with 1 Ĺ " margins, all held together with an oversized pink clip. A ďC-Ē scrawled across the top in red ink, my handwriting. Her name hand-written in the top corner.
I tell the girl that I understand her concern. I say, "You need to burrow into the texts more deeply and find the ideas and themes submerged beneath the apparent." I point out passages she should expand upon, passages she should drop. I talk of imagery, of theme, of unreliable narrators.
"You must do more," I say, "than simply summarize what you have read."
Her face is sullen, her thin lips compressed into a bloodless gash. I recognize the look, Iíve seen it many times during my twenty-five years teaching at this college. Western Clarion State is most known for its Schools of Law and Economics; the undergraduates who enroll here more interested in the works of Blackstone and Smith than Melville or Byron. Tuition is high and legacy admissions the norm, as is a sense of deep entitlement and a peevish impatience for any subject not definable in fungible assets.
The girl says that she must maintain a ďBĒ average or her funding will lapse. "My Dad will like totally cut me off," she says.
"There are six weeks remaining in the trimester. If you push yourself--"
"Chemistry is dragging me down," she says. "Fucking T.A. won't cut me a break."
"You could get tutoring--"
"Look, I need an 'A' in this class. Canít we come to some agreement?
"We could like help each other." Her eyes narrow to slits. "Do things for each other."
She leers at me, her lips peeling back over small white teeth. It takes me a moment to understand what she is proposing.
"What's so goddamned funny?" she says.
"This clichť requires an ingťnue," I say. "Know where we can find one?"
"It's okay," she says. "I'm on the pill."
The girl is not attractive; I find her attitude brusque and mercenary. Yet when she comes around my desk and gets down on her knees, I do not push her away. Her mouth is dry. Her tongue is rough, as if calloused. The revulsion twisting her face is off-putting and I turn away, studying my reflection ghosted in the windowpane. Outside, the snow has thickened, drifts piling up at the edges of the parking lot. A rising wind spins vortices across the asphalt.
For most of my life, I had been a passably handsome man. Young undergraduates were especially keen on me, those engaging and optimistic girls who brighten the campus in their flocks, their eyes always clear, their lips always plump, their skin always scrubbed, always smelling of roses and soap, always and always. Though I never took advantage of the opportunities presented by these youths (the threat of lawsuits tempering my ardor), my opportunities for sex did not suffer (the spouses of my colleagues providing an especially rich battery of partners, the boredom of small town academia parting more legs than lust ever could).
The loss of my charms happened abruptly. I awoke one day to find that a transparency had settled over me, a thinness of presence. The women who had always smiled at me in passing now no longer saw me--I had become a specter over which their eyes slid without friction, without pause. Even formerly reliable partners no longer returned my calls, their gentle refusals mounting until they could no longer be rationalized away.
Though I felt this loss keenly, I did not resort to those desperate efforts that so many men employ to deny the onset of age. The new clothes, the hairpiece, the trips to the health club--I have always found such pursuits to be unseemly in a man. For my part, I chose to accept my loss with dignity and adapt to my new limitations.
Whores became my new pursuit. They have been and are the salvation of old men, of ugly men, of the awkward and the disabled, of the inept and the depressed. Ask any man who has relied on their services and he will affirm that the solace whores offer is not to be discounted. Angelina, Ashley, Sasha, Veronique--I knew their names, like their enthusiasms, were not genuine, but whatever motivates a whore, whatever calculations of profit and loss, do not negate what is proffered. It is enough that she is willing.
One night a week, made possible by Viagra and later Cialis, proved sufficient to satisfy my sexual needs. For the last decade of my life, I had lived by a schedule whose regularity I came to rely upon. My days were ordered, my nights accounted for. At fifty-three, my course seemed firmly plotted.
The girl and I quickly establish a routine. Every Sunday, she comes to my apartment with her essay. She undresses in my bathroom and rinses herself in my shower as I lay on my bed and read over her pages, setting them on the nightstand when she eventually emerges. The girlís body is pear-shaped, her shoulders rounded, her breasts pendulous, her rump heavy, her skin splotchy. The hair between her legs is shockingly dense, spreading across her lower belly and the inside of her thighs in an unruly brown thatch. Initially repelled by this, over the weeks of her visits I came to enjoy the coarse tangles, the lushness against my cheek as I nuzzle the skin beneath.
Afterwards, the girl sits in the living room and watches television as I rewrite her paper on my computer. The smell of marijuana and the girl's braying laughter spur me to finish as quickly as possible. I put the completed file on a flash drive she has provided and shout her name--this is her signal to return to the bedroom for a second round of sex. After another shower, she leaves my apartment on the last bus back to campus.
Itís dangerous, of course it is. Not just the sex itself but the explicit quid pro quo, the exchange of sex for grades. Such scandals end careers, even for the tenured. Iím taking a very foolish risk. Why? The girl is not even much desirable to me, a feeling that Iím sure is reciprocal. The whores I continue to patronize are much livelier than this hard-eyed girl who smokes pot or take pills whenever she visits, as if to numb herself to my touch. In bed she is limp as a rag doll, her eyes kept tightly shut as I labor against her. Once as I take her in the rear, I grow so irritated at her unresponsiveness that I slap her buttocks with the flat of my hand. She does not react and I do it again, harder. When she still doesn't respond, I take a fistful of her hair and yank her head back. She never makes a sound. After that night, the roughness of our play escalates. She raises no objections but also expresses no enthusiasm for the contortions I bend her to, the demands I make of her body endured with a quiet stoicism. She denies me only one thing-- though she has used her mouth on me many times, when I try to kiss her she turns her face away, not bothering to hide her disgust. Is my reduction of this petulant brat to a thing the reason it feels so good, so right, to degrade her? I donít like to think such ugliness is what excites me, but I also cannot deny it with any assurance. For the truth is that while I donít find her attractive, while I donít enjoy her company, while I donít aspire to know her in any meaningful way, her visits have become the absolute culmination of my week and, on those occasions when she cannot come, I find myself utterly unmoored, wandering aimlessly about my apartment, flipping through books and opening drawers as if I were in a strangerís home.
At the end of the trimester, I fulfill our agreement and provide the girl her grade. I am surprised when, at the start of the second trimester, I again find her name on my enrollment list. I ask why she signed up for a course she clearly despises.
"Itís an easy 'A'," she says.
The girl stands naked by the side of my bed and I see that she has shaved off all of her pubic hair. The exposed skin looks irritated and raw. Several small bandages adorn her thighs, her belly. I ask her why she has done this.
"My boyfriend wanted me to. He said it was ugly."
"When did you get a boyfriend?"
"I donít want to talk about him with you."
We go through our usual routine. After she leaves, I find a legal tablet and write, She shaved off every hair on her body, even her eyelashes. The rest comes easily and by morning I have over twelve thousand words. For the first time in decades, to my surprise and trepidation, I am writing again.
I donít see the girl for a month after the second trimester ends. Sheís dropped the final third of the course and though I search, I canít find her anywhere on campus. Her absence disconcerts me. I've skipped classes, forgotten assignments. I miss the drugs the girl shares with me--I'm drinking too much, too often, in compensation. Worst of all, I am no longer able to write. Returning to this state of impotency after experiencing such creative propulsion is devastating-- the exile's suffering is greater than one who has known only the diaspora.
It occurs to me, not for the first time, that besides her name I really know very little about the girl. I make some discreet inquiries at the Registrar but learn nothing. I spend hours parked outside of the dorm where the girl lives but do not see her. I play with the idea of knocking at the front door, pretending some errand or school business, but conclude that the risk is too great. I am a familiar figure on campus, my face well-known.
A Friday evening and I've abandoned another try at my novel. Iím watching the Red Sox play the Orioles when the girl knocks at my door. She tells me she is pregnant.
"You said you were on the pill."
"I was. Mostly."
"Maybe itís your boyfriendís."
She shrugs. "Does it really matter? Iím going to get rid of it. I need money."
"Well I canít like ask my father, can I?"
"I havenít told him, you tard." She sighs as she slumps on to my sofa. "Don't plan to, either."
She turns on the TV, hunting for her favorite show. She fishes a pipe from her pocket and fills it with marijuana and lifts it to her mouth.
A brief spasm of madness-- I sit next to the girl and put my arm around her. I push the pipe away from her lips. "Melanee," I say. She frowns and looks up at me and her face curdles. She flings my arm off and slides to the other end of my sofa.
"Don't even think about it," she says. "Because there is no fucking way. Got it? No. Fucking. Way. "
The next day we drive downtown. There are protestors outside the clinic. We park at a library across the street. I ask her if she wants me to go in with her but she shakes her head.
"Theyíre nothing," she says.
The protestors scream at Melanee as she goes inside. She stares at each one as she passes. I buy flowers at a nearby gas station then sit in the car, writing. A few hours later, it's done. An old woman clutching a poster of a dismembered fetus follows Melanee back to the parking lot. She writes down my license number as we pull out. I spend the next few weeks worrying someone will contact the college, but no one ever does.
After her boyfriend leaves her, Melanee moves in with me. The summer is hot and we spend the days inside with the shades drawn. I teach an extra-credit course once a week on campus but the rest of the time I am at home, with Melanee. She's gained a lot of weight since the end of the school year and the heat is hard on her so she spends most of her time sitting on the couch naked, watching television, her skin glistening with sweat. I buy boxes of popsicles for her, the bright confections stacked neatly in my freezer.
During those three febrile months, I hunch over the dining table from morning to late afternoon with a stack of legal tablets and pens, writing my novel. Sweat occasionally drips on to the pad from my forehead but I don't mind-- the use of computers has feminized too many modern writers, the creative urge neutered by the infinite malleability of copy-paste, drag-and-drop, search-and-replace.
At night Melanee and I lounge on the rooftop deck, drinking bourbon and sharing whatever narcotics the girl has managed to procure, the buzz a continuation of the writer's high I burned through during the day. As I take a hit or swallow a pill, Melanee describes the constellations to me, enjoying the chance to talk about things that I have no knowledge of.
"My father told me lots of stuff about stars," she says.
"Heís an astronomer?" I say.
"Heís a cunt," she says.
We laugh together then, Melanee and I, the two of us stoned and blissed, our naked bodies cooling beneath a sky spangled with stars.
Our sex grows more inventive, more aggressive as the summer wanes. Melanee remains pliant through all of it, her passivity a goad for more extreme efforts on my part, efforts which I have grown increasingly repelled by but which I cannot abandon. I expect the girl to voice some complaint, to set some limit as to what she will allow, but she never does and, despite the disgust I feel for myself (and for the girl, for her bovine docility), I find that my appetite grows with each degradation we enact. The Internet has proven a boon in providing variations for me to experiment with and, however repellant, Melanee never flinches from my demands. Because of this, I canít help but consider her an abettor of what we do, my mind eased by the notion that the responsibility is a shared one, that we are both complicit in the games we play.
Melanee never leaves my apartment now and so never needs to cover up the bruises and cuts which she has accrued. In late summer, however, I push one of our sessions too far and have to take Melanee to the hospital. I am closely questioned by the attending physician. I shrug and deny her insinuations but the nosy bitch persists, relenting only after Melanee supports me. She gives Melanee some pamphlets on the dangers of certain sexual activities and a list of hotlines she can call if she needs help.
Back at the apartment, I tell the girl that I am worried things may be getting out of hand, that the authorities may get involved somehow. "I chose to be with you," she says. "You can do what you like."
At the end of summer, Melanee tells me she is not going back to college. She tells me that she plans on enrolling at an art school to learn graphics and animation.
"My father is dazzled by all that computer shit," she says. "Heíll sprain his hand writing the check."
The three months since she arrived have been a strange time. We have spent weeks on end behind locked doors, days of feverish writing graying into a haze of rough sex, of controlled violence, of bourbon and pot and drugs.
"High grade only," she says. "None of that ghetto shit."
I donít ask Melanee how she gets her drugs, though I am sure her ex-boyfriend visits when I am gone. The apartment has taken on a sour smell of alcohol and sex and stale smoke; occasionally, though, I catch a hint of something very much like a manís cologne. When I ask Melanee about this, she laughs at me.
"You're such a tard," she says.
The writing continues apace. Each day brings new plot inventions, new thematic complexities. As I near the climax of the novel, I decide that I cannot tolerate the distraction of my summer class and abandon it. The Dean sends me emails but I disregard them--I leave the apartment only to get food for Melanee (Big Macs, Whoppers, Jumbo Jacks, Wendy's Double-Stacks, Grande Nachos) and more bourbon, more Lucky Strikes for me.
Despite the drugs, Melanee weighs close to three hundred pounds now. Her new bulk sits well on her, I think. She has let her pubic hair grow back--itís even denser than before, reclaiming not just the area it had once covered, but expanding across new swathes of her body. Running my fingers through the tangle of it is like stroking the belly of a friendly dog. Melanee watches me as I pet her, her tongue absently probing the sores in her mouth.
Inevitably I am summoned to the Presidentís office. I answer her questions with shrugs, with sneers. When I am ordered to take a sabbatical, I feel nothing but relief.
I spend several hours drinking in my office. I swallow four tiny blue pills that Melanee has packed for me in an aspirin tin. I don't know what they are but they make my head spin. A wave of nausea washes over me, then recedes. The right side of my body tingles and I toy with the notion that I am having a stroke when everything suddenly comes into terrible focus, my powers of observation so attuned that I can see down to the quantum level of all things, all places. The world is a seething foam, everything uncertain, everything collapsing.
I sneak back into the Administrative offices. I defecate in front of the Presidentís office door, I urinate in her potted plants. This is not an act of vandalism. It is a consecration.
Back at the apartment, Melanee is lounging on the couch, eating potato chips. Her girth is an impressive sight, her enormous breasts quivering with each labored breath, her pubic hair grown well past her belly button. It is a struggle to push her off the couch. I straddle her belly, pinning her shoulders to the floor.
"I know your boyfriend comes over when I am not here," I say. "I know the things you two get up to. I won't have it, Melanee."
She sighs, utterly bored. I seize a handful of her breast, twisting it in my fist.
"This meat," I say, "is not merely meat. It is a chrysalis too, my darling. What gestates within, I wonder. What will emerge?"
A long crease runs down Melanee's front, deepening as she has grown larger, the rolls of her skin tucking in on themselves in a vertical line from breastbone to pubis. I run my hand through this crease, exploring it's depths.
"You chose me," I say, taking off my pants. "That cannot be undone."
As I push into her, I can feel my old self falling away, the plaque of dead years scraping away from my bones. Melanee giggles at the sounds I make as I strain against her. She touches my balding head. She rubs my back.
"Darling," she says. "Oh, darling."
Then comes the miracle, the dues ex machina-- she lifts her face to me, her lips parted, her eyes shining. We kiss, lovers at last.
All this was a year ago, as I said. Today, I received a call from my agent (an agent--such wonders!) informing me that Blue Silk has sold to a very respectable house. In the morning, I fly to New York where a two book contract awaits my signature.
Before then I will celebrate with Melanee. She will be so happy to hear the good news. Together we shall toast what we have accomplished, the two of us, together--just as there is no act of creation without both domination and grace, so too does an artist serve as the conduit for his muse, the generative force channeled through the instrument, the impulse made real.
Melanee is dozing in my bedroom as I write this. She fills the bed completely now, so much soft flesh offered up that I grow dizzy at the sight of her, at the beauty she has become. The crease running down her front has grown very deep, its edges blurred by the lush mat of hair that extends from her crotch to her neck. Soon I will be able to nestle within her, to draw the flaps of her around me so that I sink into the warm center of her. It is an envelopment I have long desired-- to be wrapped forever in the embrace of my inspiration, my love, my muse.
* tip o' the hat to John Scalzi
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