Editor’s Note: This is eighth installment from Jonathan Baumbach’s forthcoming short-story collection, “The Pavilion of Former Wives,” to be published by Dzanc. For previously published stories, click here.
* * *
I usually keep my door locked during office hours, not wanting to give the random eager student the wrong impression. I’m opposed to conferences, though I make myself available as required — I hang out at my desk one hour a week for just that purpose — but I see no point in unfelt encouragement.
You have to knock at least three times to get me to open the door. So only the persistent, who usually visit with an agenda of complaint, get in to see me and it is the persistent who are generally the most tiresome. So much of college teaching, so much of life, is wasting time in the disguise of conversation. Whatever small wisdom I have to impart has already been imparted in lectures or in the margins of papers I’ve graded. So, as the more perceptive of my students note, the way to gain my respect is to stay away.
The above is all prelude, of course, to my describing an experience in 180 degree opposition to my hard-earned expectations. And it happens with someone — a woman, a graduate student, who had come in on the wrong day to see the person who uses my office on the days I’m not there. This is what she said to me when against better judgment I opened the door to let her in on her fifth barely audible knock. She looked at me with narrowed eyes and said accusingly, “You’re not Professor Haggert.”
“Haggert is in on Mondays and Wednesdays,” I said.
Nevertheless she walked by me and sat down in the chair next to my desk. “What day is today?” she asked as if she had caught me in some kind of self-contradiction. My first impression was that she had been crying or had spent a sleepless night or both. She wasn’t a bad looking woman, though she was clearly not at her best, whatever that might have been.
“Today was Tuesday when I woke up this morning,” I said.
“Are you positive?” she said. “When I woke up it was Wednesday.”
So here was this woman I’d never met — I did have the sense that I’d seen her before somewhere or other but still — storming into my office to argue about what day it was. “If it was Wednesday,” I said, “Haggert would have been here instead of me.”
“And we both would have been happier,” she said. “Or maybe not.”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Would you give Professor Haggert a message?”
“The thing is, Ms. …, I never see Haggert. We’re not here on the same days. You could leave him a note.”
“No,” she said. “I could but I can’t. A note has too much permanence.”
I laughed, assuming she had made a joke, but in the next moment I realized that had not been her intent, She was tearing up, foraging in her purse for something with which to wipe her eyes or blow her nose. Nothing emerged and she used the back of her hand to blot her eyes.
“Are you all right?” I said, not knowing what else to say, embarrassed at the poverty of my sympathy.
“Yes… no,” she said. “Would it be all right if I told you something? Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone you don’t know. You have a sympathetic presence.”
That was not my reputation and as a probable consequence her remark flattered me into letting her continue. “In that case…” I said.
“I’ve gotten myself into something that feels inescapable,” she said. “What I’m saying is I don’t know how to bring it to an end,”
“Is this an academic matter?”
“Well, it is and it isn’t. Some might consider it a personal matter, but that’s not the way it started. If it’s something that took place at the college, it’s an academic matter, isn’t it? By definition.”
“I see,” the persona of my sympathetic presence said.
“I’m older than most graduate students, not that much older but older, and at least then I was otherwise unattached. That’s the only reason I took him up on his offer.”
“We had been having a conference dealing with this piece I had written and he suggested that we continue it, the conference, over dinner. That’s pretty much how it started. It was the natural continuation of a discussion we had been having. And what happened afterward was predictable if I had taken the time to think about, you know, the implicit context.”
“Okay,” I said. “Is this Professor Haggert we’re taking about?”
“Is it all right with you if I don’t mention any names? I’m not looking to hurt anyone’s reputation.”
“That’s a good thing,” I said, “though you never know it might enhance whoever’s reputation.”
She looked at me uncertainly, then shook her head and permitted herself a very small smile. “That was meant as a joke, right? People tell me I have zero sense of humor. You’ll have to get used to that.”
She laughed. “I didn’t mean that the way you seem to think I meant it.”
That’s when someone else knocked at the door and my visitor got out of her seat in a kind of mock slow motion. “I’ll come back another time,” she said. “I don’t want to interfere with your job.”
When she finally made her way out, whoever was on the other side of the door was also gone.
I had no expectations of seeing her again, but when she didn’t show up the same time or any time after that the following Tuesday, it unmade my day.
The week after that, I left my office door unlocked during my posted office hour but no one I wanted to see showed up. One of the department secretaries stuck her head in to tell me that I hadn’t turned in last term’s grade book. The reason for that, which I explained to her for about the third time, is that I don’t use grade books.
When three weeks went by without a return visit, my accidental visitor began to grow in beauty and whatever virtues attended beauty. On the other hand, I wondered if I crossed her path in another context, say somewhere off campus, would I even recognize her. Her image remained strong if variable in memory, I cursed myself for not having remembered her name, though perhaps it had never been offered.
I came into the college the following Monday on an unacknowledged fact-finding tour disguised as an unavoidable errand. Haggert was in my office when I came in, conferencing with a student who was not remotely the one I was half-hoping to find. Planning to ask Haggert about my visitor and possibly uncover the level of involvement between them. For no apparent reason, Haggert and I had a kind of low level antipathy going on between us. My irritation growing by the minute, I sat impatiently in the anteroom until chronic bad disposition got the better of me. Looking to pass the time with less duress, I went down to the student cafeteria for a cup of coffee. The Java Jive concession was open, which was not always the case, and I treated myself to a “giant” cappuccino, which was in fact the smallest size they served.
I didn’t want random company, so I made my way toward a empty table I had spotted at the far end of the cafeteria. A disembodied voice interrupted my journey.
“There’s an unoccupied chair here,” it (she) said.
“That’s all right,” I said, before registering the source of the voice, a familiar-looking woman I couldn’t quite place.
No need to be coy. It was the woman who had visited my office and I hadn’t, not wholly, not at the moment, recognized her.
“If you’d rather sit by yourself,” she said, her smile taunting me, “I’d understand.”
“You look different today,” I said, taking the seat across from her as opposed to the one alongside.
“My hair may have been up the other day,” she said. “Was that it? You also look somewhat different, you know. Did you get a hair cut or something?”
“No. You seem less upset today,” I said. “I suppose you’ve extricated yourself from the troubling relationship you mentioned.”
“Well, no,” she said. “And I’d appreciate it if you lowered your voice. I didn’t mean that the way it announced itself. If I looked happier, it’s because I’m happy to see you again.”
I didn’t know what to make of her remark. “Thank you, I guess,” I said.
“You guess? What does that mean?”
“You know you never told me your name.”
“Are you sure? I thought I did. Anyway, you could have asked your colleague about me. And maybe you have.”
“If I had — when you say colleague you mean Haggert, don’t you? — then I’d know your name.”
“My friends call me Helena, professor. Maybe that’s because Helena’s my name.”
“Helena,” I said. “I have to go to class now. It was nice running into you.”
I thought of inviting her to come by the office tomorrow to continue our talk, but I let the thought pass for the deed. “I enjoyed our conversation,” I said.
“That’s nice, professor,” she said. “I was actually thinking about you the very moment you hurried by my table pretending not to notice me. So you might say I conjured your presence.” And then she held out her hand to me to shake, the gesture mocking itself. I wanted to watch her leave, a way of holding on, but I let her vanish with hardly a glance in her direction.
When I returned to my shared office, Haggert’s door was closed. He was speaking to a female student and I could make out voices though very little that was actually said. On the way home it struck me that the woman’s voice that had leached back to me through the space under the door was Helena’s. It annoyed me that she hadn’t mentioned that she was leaving me to Haggert.
* * *
I might as well say it now. I have a history of obsessive behavior, which I try, almost always unsuccessfully, to resist. In light of that, I thought it best not to see Helena again, particularly so because I was wasting much too much interior time obsessing about this disturbingly undefined relationship.
So during my next office hour, I made a point of locking my door, prepared to ignore the imprecations of anyone hoping to see me. All in vain. There were no tempting knocks to resist. As a matter of fact, there were no untempting ones either. Nevertheless, I found it impossible to read the student work in front of me, my heightened attention focused on the door for the entire seemingly endless hour.
It was that no one came by to test my resolve that ultimately defeated that resolve or so I interpret the fact that the following Tuesday she was once again in the hard-backed chair catty-corner to my desk. I had unthinkingly left the door opened; she had slouched in without bothering to knock, catching me in an odd mood.
She seemed forlorn once again, breakable. My ungrateful stare said what are you doing here and so she defended herself. “You said,” she said, “that if I needed to talk I could come back.”
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” I said.
“Does that mean you want me to leave? You let me think your door was always open to me.”
“You’re here,” I said. Tell me what you want to tell me.”
“It was a mistake to come here, wasn’t it? I didn’t know where else to go. That’s not precisely true. I came here because I wanted to see you.”
“It wasn’t a mistake to come,” I said.
“I’m presuming on your good will,” she said. “You must think I’m terrible. …. Do you? It’s confusing to me that you share the same office.”
“I can imagine,” I said. “Are you still seeing the faculty member, you see I mention no names, that took you to dinner?”
She considered the question at some length before saying, “I don’t know. We’ve taken turns breaking off with the other, but it doesn’t stick. We have difficulty, or at least it seems that way, keeping apart. Having to see him in tutorial doesn’t make it any easier.”
“You could drop the tutorial.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I need the class for my degree. Besides the term is barely half over.”
“It’s not can’t,” I said. “It’s won’t. You could stop coming to tutorial and get your degree. He wouldn’t have the nerve to stand in your way. You don’t want to stop seeing him or you would.”
She turned her face away. “Sometimes I do,” she said.
“What times are those?”
“I can’t answer that,” she said. “I guess when I’m feeling better about myself. When I’m with you, I think I can stop. He’s married, you know, but they don’t get along.”
“No one has ever told his mistress that he gets along with his wife,” I said. “I don’t know of anyone who has.”
“You don’t like him one bit, do you?” she said with a surprising show of anger.
“What I’m telling you has nothing to do with my feelings for the unmentionable. Besides, I hardly know him.”
“He’s a colleague, isn’t he? You share an office with him. How can you be so mean about him?”
“We’re in on different days. I never attend department meetings. But that’s beside the point. I’m responding to what you tell me. He’s an invisible factor in this for me.”
She gave me a skeptical look, got herself up, and left the office. I regretted having left my door open. For one reason or another, I always regret being available.
The following Tuesday, I pretended to myself that her repeated knocks, her shy persistence, were someone else’s, and I got up from my desk to open the door for her.
She sat down in her usual seat and stared at her hands while we both waited for one of us to speak. “If you’re expecting an apology,” she said at last, “you’re not going to get it.” Then she broke up laughing.
I didn’t let on how pleased I was to see her. “What’s new?” I said.
“You’re going to be proud of me,” she said. “I didn’t go to tutorial yesterday. He actually called me at home last night to ask me why.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I was so overjoyed he called, I couldn’t tell him the real reason. I said something about not feeling up to coming. It was a half truth. What should I have said?”
“I’m the wrong person to ask.”
“No. What would you have said if you were in my shoes?”
I shook my head. “Does he know about us, about your visits to me?”
“No,” she said. “He might. I think I might have mentioned about coming in the wrong day that time and discovering someone else in his place.”
There had been an unsigned note clipped to my desk calendar when I came in today, which read in its entirety, ‘Stay out of my business please!’
“What did you say about me?”
“I don’t know. I said how kind you were and he said that’s not your reputation in the department. He said you have the reputation of being a curmudgeon. Is that true?”
“How do I know,” I said, “though it could also be that your friend, for his own good reasons, is universalizing a private perception.”
“He said you keep your door locked in order to avoid your students. You do keep your door locked during office hours, don’t you?”
“I let you in,” I said.
* * *
The following week, my door unlocked, Haggert appeared in our shared office on the wrong day.
“Do you have an appointment? I asked, not looking up from the book I was reading.
“I think you know why I’m here,” he said.
“That’s presumptuous of you,” I said. “Is there something I can do to help you?”
He remained standing which made him look larger than he actually was. “Everyone knows what a prick you are,” he said. “I was hoping that we could have a civilized talk.”
“Have a seat,” I said.
He hesitated, considered other inapparent options, before occupying the seat next to the desk. “You’re making this hard for me,” he said.
“If I have,” I said, “it may be the only thing right I’ve done so far. What do you want? Does this have something to do with Helena?”
“There are people around, mutual acquaintances, who say that you are actually not as big a prick as you seem. I tend to look for the best in others.”
“I get that you don’t like me.,” I said. “Your point has been made. I take it as an inadvertent compliment that you don’t like me. That said, I don’t see any point in continuing this discussion, do you?”
“Look, I’m sorry if I offended you,” he said. “I’m in an edgy mood. My purpose in coming here is to speak to your better nature.”
“My better nature?” I withheld a laugh.
“Does that amuse you?” he said. “Ms. Golden, Helena, is much more fragile than she may appear. I’m asking you out of common decency to stay away from her.”
“That’s an odd request coming from you.”
“As her teacher and her friend, I’m asking you to keep away from her. You think you can manage that?”
“It sounds to me as if you’re talking to yourself,” I said. “And who are you, you sanctimonious asshole, to throw the word decency at anyone? As I understand it, though it’s not a word I would ordinarily use, you’re the one who’s behaved indecently.”
It was at that moment that a comic strip light bulb seemed to go on over his head. “Wait a minute. You think Helena and I…. Where did you get that idea? No. No. I’m not the one taking advantage of her. …. She let me believe …. You are involved with her, aren’t you?”
“No such luck,” I said.
* * *
After the meeting with Haggert, I was near terminally disappointed with Helena, though I also half-hoped that she would show up in my office again, which didn’t happen for a while. I wanted to believe, had a stake in believing, that Helena was not quite the manipulative liar that Haggert’s revelations suggested. It all made sense in a certain way. And none of it did. What reason did Helena have to lie to me? And why did she lie to Haggert about me? At the very least, I was curious to hear her side of things.
I accessed her phone number and thought of calling her at home, but characteristically I didn’t. It was my MO, a former therapist once told me, to avoid messy entanglements. What I did instead was call one of her former teachers, a woman who had visited in the writing program last year, a sometime friend, with whom (I feel obliged to report) I had had a very brief affair more than 3 years ago.
We met at a restaurant/bar almost equidistant between our two Brooklyn apartments, a place we had been to before when it was under different ownership.
I got to the point before the small talk, the what-had-we-each-been up-to talk, was fully concluded. “Jane, how did Helena Golden do in your workshop?” I asked.
“I like her writing,” she said. “I just wish she had done more of it. She wrote three stories for me, very short stories, none of which had an ending. She’s got ability.”
“Yes. What did you think of her as a person?”
“Before I answer that, Jake, I want to know why you’re asking. What’s going on? Are you doing something you shouldn’t be doing? Of course it’s none of my business.”
I considered telling Jane the entire story, but after a brief in-head debate, I decided not to. Perhaps I was protecting Helena, though at the moment I thought I was protecting myself. Even from the vantage of my perception of it, the story I had to tell didn’t quite parse. “It’s not even my business,” I said.
“We became friends for a while,” Jane said, pausing, taking two extended sips from her wine glass, “and then we stopped being friends. You still haven’t told me why you’re asking about her.”
“Did you stop being friends with her because you discovered she didn’t always tell the truth.”
“No. Not exactly. Who always tells the truth? This is making me uncomfortable, Jake I’m not going to say anything else about Helena unless you tell me specifically why you want to know.”
“I’d rather not,” I said. “You’ll have to trust my reasons.”
“Do you mind if I order some food?” she asked, summoning our waitress. “I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
“Of course not,” I said, but once I realized that I was not likely to learn any more about Helena from her, I was eager to get away. “I have to be somewhere in an hour,” I said.
The edgy dynamic of our former intimacy seemed to be reasserting itself. “There’s plenty of time for you to eat,” I said. I ordered a third glass of wine and a slice of chocolate pudding cake to help pass the time.
When Jane finished her salad, which she seemed to be eating in slow motion, I drove her home. After we said goodnight with a peremptory hug and I accepted with some reluctance her invitation to come in for a nightcap, she confided that she felt protective of Helena because they had once, actually twice, slept together.
* * *
As I said, Helena didn’t visit my office again for quite some time, and when I thought about it, I told myself that it was on balance for the best. Throughout this period, my door was open to anyone who wanted to come and talk to me. Occasionally, someone or other actually did.
The day of my last class, I found an unsigned note in my mailbox, saying, whoever it might be, that the writer would like to talk to me at my convenience. It offered, its only specific information, a Manhattan phone number.
I waited an hour and 27 minutes before calling and got a recorded message announcing that no one was available to answer. I left no message in return.
Shortly after going to sleep that night — it was probably not quite as late as it seemed — my phone rang. In the middle of a dream, I stumbled out the coffin of sleep to answer it. ”Someone called me from your number,” a woman’s voice said.
“It must have been me,” I said. “Do you think you can come by my office tomorrow at about one?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll try.”
I arrived at my office at ten after one the next day, anticipating my caller waiting at the door for my arrival. No one was there, which was equally predictable, and I regretted with renewed bitterness having made the trip. I picked up my mail and returned to my office to see if there was anything that required attention. Someone had left me a copy of the college literary magazine, Whispers, which was the only thing in the pile that had even the slightest entertainment value. I took turns browsing and dozing.
A series of knocks at the door interrupted my reading of a story called “Hasty Retreats” by Helena Golden. The narrative had some familiar elements. The plot concerned a woman who had taken up the writing of fiction after a few other failed careers. Unsure of what she was doing, she presented what were imagined situations to her teachers as if they were actual events in her life.
Though the knocking persisted, I wanted to see how her story played out before whoever it was invaded my space, so I skip-read my way to the end.
In the last paragraph of the story, the 40-year old female graduate student slowly opens the door to her professor’s office after he has ignored her repeated knocking. “Look I’m sorry,” she calls to him on entering. “Will you, can you, forgive me?”
“Never,” he calls back without hesitation.
The story concludes: “But her professor has gotten out of his chair and is half-facing toward her. It pleases her to see from his body language, which she has studied in the imagination’s text as if she might be tested on it, that, whatever his other virtues, he was not to be believed when matters of the heart were at stake.”