Professor M Corinne Manning
The dog wasn’t mine anymore. It belonged to her and so did the house and the sixties-style turquoise bookshelf that we purchased together, the pots and pans, the soap dish in the bathroom. The reason was that they were her idea.
“Intellectual property,” she shouted at me during a fight in which we were both sobbing.
“That’s for articles and screenplays, not Boris.” I pressed my face into Boris’s neck and gave a deep moan that came from somewhere untouched, like the socket of my hip. It startled all of us. Boris turned and licked at my face.
“I can’t be without this dog.”
“Well, I don’t know what to do.” Julia bit her lip. She watched me from across the room and tore at this one sad piece of her hair that took all the brunt of her stress. Back when we weren’t in the process of breaking up I would pull her hand away. Sometimes I kissed it. But now she tore her hand through and it made an awful snapping sound and I could picture the day when, without my interference, that patch of hair would wilt and crumple to the floor leaving a quarter-sized bald spot. I tugged between the satisfaction of that image and the dwindling part of me that wanted only sweet, good things for her.
“We would have to see each other pretty regularly and I just don’t think I could handle that after what you’ve done.” These words worked like a spell. I kissed Boris’s neck and smelled pine and shit and some chemical from her shampoo. I rubbed between her eyes and then stood with my duffle bag.
“I’ll come by next weekend to pick up my books.”
When Boris was a puppy she sat in my lap and I held her, totally enamored by her softness, her buttery bones and joints; how she seemed ready to spill out into my hands.
“This is why people have babies,” I said to Julia. “When they’re soft like this I bet you can really feel their souls.”
Of course, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to hold a human soul in my hand. I’ve never held a baby, but holding Boris, her soul available and pliable like paraffin, like hands dipped in oil was one of the greatest things I’d ever done. I felt like I was connected to her soul in this very pure way so by the time she became muscled and formed, the proud broad chest of a bull dog, I could stare into her eyes and still feel the—how else can I say it?—availability of her spirit.
There is a trauma to making a mistake and not being forgiven. To being held so accountable that your life is stripped from you. That act is unforgiveable and though I know I should feel guilty, and do, though I know I caused Julia pain, nothing I did warrants her reaction to a student’s email.
This is not supposed to happen to “Queer theory” professors, or as my university prefers “Women and Gender Studies.” But my young queer students always fall in love with me. They love my well fitting slacks, my bow ties. They swoon when I ask them to just call me Professor in lieu of gender pronouns. I’ve watched them follow the line of my waist to my jaw as I speak. When I grade while they work in small groups I can feel their eyes on me as I sit, stoic, fucking their essays. I’m a scholar who prefers to be a teacher and it doesn’t matter that most of my students are bad lays. I get a queer, aching joy from their misfired connections, their wimpy arguments, my red pen circling a clause like a tongue.
“I want you to stun me,” I told this group at the beginning of the semester. “Give me a reason to hold my pen up but not actually put it down.” I watched them all scribble this into their notebooks except for one student, Taylor, who watched me as acutely as I liked to watch them. In my first few years of teaching, if a student did something like this, it would really throw me off. I’d look down, mess with my papers, look at the clock, cough. Now, I’m a professional. They only needed to share their names once at the beginning of class and already I had them memorized.
“Is there a problem, Taylor? Something you want to question?” But she was a professional in her own way because she didn’t sway.
“I’m good. Just watching.”
“It might serve you to write some of this information down.”
“Don’t need to. It’s in the syllabus.” The other students popped their heads up at me. This was the opportunity to get my class size down. Taylor had served me for a spike.
“If you are someone who does very well in all your other classes I guarantee you’ll do poorly in this class.” Taylor released the briefest twitch and it satisfied me deeply, like scratching an itch in my lungs. It never took very much. Twenty year olds are still children. I continued my rant.
“I can spot a complacent intellect as quickly as I can determine a weak argument: by the end of the first sentence. So have your intentions clear. Life is too short and this tuition too expensive to waste anyone’s time.”
Taylor was too prideful at that point to actually start writing but she did pick up her pen. Everyone stared rapt, including me. Lord, what other way can I say this? The picking up of her pen stirred me.
Taylor, with her long swept bangs and hair cut short at the back and her rainbow earring and over sized boy’s jeans didn’t continue to challenge me. In fact, she worked so hard that I would read her papers and feel on the brink of orgasm. The thesis was well thought through, the arguments, though sometimes faulty, were cited with precision and taken as far as they could go. To read her essays was to have someone knelt before you undoing your zipper. Then came the paper on the photographer Catherine Opie and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to email her.
Your paper Queer Eye of Opie is an above satisfactory achievement. We’ll discuss more in conference but I wanted to commend you on taking such an overused topic and turning it into something much deeper. There may be a possibility of publishing this. Let’s talk.
The idea of publishing came out in a flurry of passion and even though it felt good to type it, afterwards I felt a kind of remorse. In the time it took me to stand, assemble my papers, and get my bag, the inbox chimed. Her response was there, like she had been expecting my email and her message had already been written, waiting in her drafts. I pictured her sitting at the computer, waiting to send it, finger poised on the mouse and I started to sweat. I read it smiling like a goof ball.
Dear Prof M, (Prof! So sweet I could hardly stand it.)
I am literally sitting here giddy. I’m looking forward to our conference. I just read Van Der Meer’s “Tribades on Trial” for Professor Leon’s history of sexuality class and I found our discussion of it pretty boring and am hoping I could start a discourse with you. Let me know if you need it. I can attach it as a pdf.
Here was the moment when I was guilty. Here was the moment when I knew what I was doing. That my response would make her shift and buckle over her hand.
No need to send. I think I have the text on my shelf.
That night, when Julia and I had sex, I tried not to think about this exchange but I felt cold and disconnected so finally I pictured the T. at the end of her email. Her offer to attach it as a pdf. I came loudly, holding Julia’s head in my hands as I pictured the textbook, edited by John C. Fout glowing on my shelf, like it had always been waiting for Taylor.
“You’re something else tonight,” Julia said. Her hand was inside of me, well past the knuckles, and I twitched, I buckled, like Taylor did over my email. I suppose I could have told Julia then, because then she would have known that what I was doing with Taylor was helping both of us.
We sat across from each other awkwardly. She looked at all of the items on my desk—the books I was reading or blurbing, the small tchotchkies that Julia gave me, a picture of the two of us on a hike somewhere. I was sweaty and tan in that photo, wearing a tank top. Julia’s long curly hair was pulled behind one shoulder. She was the only person in the world who could go on a ten-mile hike and look refreshed, like she’d just showered. Taylor’s eyes had settled on this photo. I used my finger to direct the angle of the picture a little more towards me.
“I appreciated getting to review that text again. It had been a few years,” I offered. She nodded. She twisted something in her fingers, but it wasn’t a tissue. It was brown, soft. A piece of yarn? My phone rang. I bowed my head to her and leaned over to answer it. Taylor stood to leave but I held my hand up to her. She stayed completely still in the position I froze her in. I couldn’t look at that, so I swiveled away.
“Hello?” I said. I covered the mouth piece. Taylor was still bent. “It’s my partner, please relax. No, I’m here. I’m with a student in conference.” I listened to Julia. Taylor began to play with her earring. “Strawberries sound good. If there isn’t enough arugula in the garden let me know.”
I worried that I would have to say I love you but I didn’t. We hung up the phone without a goodbye like business partners.
“Sorry about that,” I said to Taylor. The brown thing was displayed on her knee. She smiled.
“Sounds like a nice dinner.”
“It’s our anniversary.”
“Oh,” she said sitting up a little more. “Congratulations.”
“What are your thoughts on this essay?” I asked. She held up the brown thing.
“I have a little gift for you,” she said. “I just noticed how your pens were always all over the place in your bag so I knitted you this thing. So you know where your pens are.”
It was brown and unevenly knitted, but I could see now how it would work. It had a little flap secured by a button.
“That is so clever,” I said. I reached for it and she hesitated before giving it to me. I could feel the tug of her end from my end. The yarn was so soft. I undid the button and put three pens inside. I held it up to her like tada! And she giggled probably like she did as a baby. I kept the gift on my desk underneath my fingers.
“You know the part,” she said, “where the villagers are watching the two women have sex through the hole in the attic wall, apparently for hours and one woman just couldn’t take it anymore and says ‘Haven’t you had enough fouling around?’ or something?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“In the article. I just found that so striking and I keep thinking about it. We didn’t even touch on that in class aside from the fact that it was bizarre. There’s something about voyeurism, the eye, which I find really haunting.” She looked at me for courage to go on and I leaned forward in my chair, which I never do. She leaned a little forward too.
“I kind of just want to write a paper on the fact that there is documentation that the villagers watched for four hours. And if that woman hadn’t called out maybe everyone would have kept watching. And there’s all these views of queer sex being ugly, but that document proves that even then it was, is, quite the opposite.” She ran her hand through her hair and I saw that her cheeks were flushed.
“Quite the opposite.” I repeated it knowing it was the wrong thing to do. I glanced at the clock and stood. She jumped to her feet.
“Write it. I’ll work on it with you. You can do this for our final paper.”
“Really? I know you don’t like people to change their topics so late in the semester.”
“Don’t remind me of that.” I grabbed the knitted thing and dropped it in my bag.
She stood there still for a moment and I paused and looked at her, the bag over my shoulder. Her face had a slight chubbyness to it, that puppy softness of youth—and I could see it all over her body. I imagined how it would start to redistribute or disappear forever over the next three years. I didn’t move to hold her, I didn’t quite feel compelled to, but I was curious about the availability of her spirit. If I held her in that office, would I have felt it on the sides of her thighs, around her ribs? What is it like for someone with a spirit so available to hold someone like me? Am I a heavy cold thing? Boris at least appeared to love me. The longing in Taylor’s eyes was so present. I looked away. I opened the door.
“I have a bus to catch,” I said. I’d never seen anyone move so slowly.
I arrived home with my arms full of groceries. I felt lavish after my meeting with Taylor or maybe guilty so I bought cheeses and chocolate. I bought a smoked trout spread to have alongside our salads. Boris and Julia greeted me at the door. Boris whimpered, her back claws clattering as she jumped into the air. Midway she remembered not to put her paws on me and tilted back down to the floor. The house was warm and sunny, fabric and leather strips were strewn over the furniture, the sewing machine out on the coffee table.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” Julia said. She fixed the bobby pin that kept the wily piece of hair back then took the bundle of groceries from my arms. I followed her into the kitchen.
“I decided to start a new shoulder bag for you. It’s officially seven years since you’ve been carrying that one and I’m much better than I was then. Look.” I followed her to the table where the bag rested. She was using the leather we’d purchased from a lesbian couple on our block that sold skins.
“See that?” she pointed to a small pocket in the lining of the bag. “That’s for your pens. After I gave you the old bag I was mortified because you’d come to class and I would watch you go searching for pens. They were all loose and I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered that. And I thought, my god—I’ll never be a theorist. Too many details to pay attention to.” She wrapped her arms around me and kissed me deeply. I tasted onions. I ran my fingers through her hair and brought my lips to her ear.
“I thought you dropped because of all the Foucault.” I felt a ripple through her body.
“Foucault,” I said again.
“Stop it.” She pinched my side. We walked together into the kitchen. The table by the back window was set formally. She opened up the wine and I realized I had seen her open probably hundreds of bottles of wine and every time I still stared in awe at her hands, the way the fingers make every action seem like a rare skill. This was the kind of thing I tried not to notice when she was a student but no matter how hard I tried to look away I could see her hands moving, with that pen, moving.
“Foucault was part of it, but it was also just too painful to see you use that bag while you still felt so unattainable. That seems so long ago. I don’t think I’ve felt that kind of awe about you for years. It’s nice how things shift.”
I put Boris’s front paws up on the chair and rubbed down the sides of her body. I stared at the blood spots on her eye, and kissed the top of her snout.
“We’re coming up on seven years for Boris, too,” I said.
“I think that’s when I knew we were really together,” she said. “That I wasn’t just this kid you passed notes with through campus mail. It blew my mind—I was living with you and we had a dog.”
I took a sliver of trout and let Boris lick it off my finger.
I left the knitted case at school. In my desk. I did not take it with me to class. Taylor noticed my new bag. Saw the pocket where my pens were kept. I didn’t make eye contact with her until I was settled. She did not send me an annotated bibliography or consult me about her project again. In fact, on the last day of the term, she didn’t hand anything in. She was the first to leave class. I felt a flash of anger as she walked out the door. Nothing happened between us, I wanted to shout at her. There was an article and an email in which I said I owned the book. The only thing I almost said out loud then, and I felt my head rush with rage, was act like an adult.
I was fuming when I got back to my office. I tossed the papers on my desk and paced for a moment. What made her think that just because I was going to help her with a paper, because I appreciated her work that I would give up my life for her? How dare she be so petty as to not hand in that paper? I found myself at the computer. My fingers flew on the keys and I couldn’t stop. How dare you, I wrote. To act slighted when nothing happened. To think that anything would happen. I typed and typed. I noticed a red squiggly line underneath one of the words, and then a green squiggly line under a fragment but I just kept going. I clicked save and then sped out of my office to get home in time to take Julia out to dinner.
My intention had been to read through the email after dinner, which was what I did. I stripped down to a t-shirt and sat with a beer only to find that there was nothing in my draft folder.
The beer swam thinly in my belly. I opened up my sent folder and there it was, delivered that afternoon when I intended to save it. No subject, no salutation, no closing. The email was enraged and unhinged. I glanced at the first few lines and wanted to disintegrate.
“M.,” Julia called. “I’m on the phone with Max. Do we have plans Saturday?”
I couldn’t answer. What was Saturday? How could I fix this? I went back to my inbox and there in bold was Taylor’s name. The damn RE:. My cursor hovered over it. I didn’t want to read what it said. I wanted a meteor to land right then, right over Silicon Valley or wherever it was that the internet lived and shut it out, the lights, the internet, make it gone for good.
“M?” she called again. I couldn’t wait for the meteor to fall. I double clicked.
At first I was going to write that I was sorry because no one had ever sent me an email so mean. I think you should know that it hurt my feelings so much that it made me cry. I’ve been feeling confused about what theorists are supposed to feel. My roommate is majoring in Buddhist studies and in many ways it seems like I’m supposed to feel and act the same way as her, as a theorist, but I don’t know if we have the same kind of tools. It seems like a theorist’s brain would just self-destruct one day, which maybe is what yours just did? I was going to apologize but now I’m not going to. What you said to me was inappropriate and should be reported because you did lead me on. No one else got comments on their papers the way that I did. No one else got an uninvited email from you. I know how to read this and you’re just as bad as those fiction authors you talked about who claim they are unaccountable for what their work does because they are just making art, when the fact is that you were fulfilling the role of seducer and I was fulfilling the role of seduced. Maybe I’m not a theorist after all. I’m too used to feeling things.
I’m not going to tell anyone about this email but I do want you to give me an incomplete and sign me into an independent study with Professor Leon. He and I both think we could count it for the credits your class would have filled.
If you didn’t want the pen holder you should have said it wasn’t your style and no thank you.
“Is this a joke?” Julia asked. She stood behind me, her cell phone clutched to the base of her throat.
“A misunderstanding,” I said. I shouldn’t have been so cavalier in that moment with her but it didn’t occur to me that she would be upset, since I hadn’t heard her come up behind me and figured she’d only had enough time to infer that a student was upset about something the way students often are. I stood up slowly and looked at her. She hung up the phone. Her fists were clenched. Is it fair to say that in seven years I had never seen Julia’s fists clench? And that fact struck me as odd even as her hands struck me as beautiful. She pushed a fist into my chest. Lightly. I could tell she wanted to push more.
“She gave you a pen holder?”
“I never used it. This isn’t like us.” I could see that there was trouble. She wasn’t breathing, her eyes looked angry and I didn’t know that eyes could look that way but I wanted them to look at me softly and I knew, looking into them, that I would never feel that from her again and that was the first thing that made me cry.
“I used your bag when you gave it to me back then. I didn’t use her case. I only wrote to her once about her paper. She acted like something more had happened and her entitlement made me mad.”
I couldn’t stop weeping—it was a hysterical cry, terrible whinnying sounds on my inhale. Julia was calm. I saw her breath heave in and at first that made me feel better but she returned right to her stony self.
“Back then I knew you had a reputation but I thought I was the only one—.”
“You were. You are. I promise.”
“How many students?”
“None. This isn’t even a thing that happened.”
“It was such a risk to be with you,” she said. She rubbed at her eye and I moved to hold her but she put her hand up, the way I’d done when asking Taylor to wait for me to finish my phone call. I would have stayed frozen like that forever if it would have made a difference.
“Write her an apology and then please go, please leave. I don’t think I can be in the house with you right now.”
Every time I came back to the house to get more things I hoped that Julia would see me and change her mind but each time she seemed more withdrawn, as if she never saw anything worth anything in me. She called me a sex addict, said she read about it for a few hours on the internet and thought I should get help.
“It’s your relationship with power,” she said.
There was one box of books left to get and this time we arranged it so she wouldn’t be home. This was the beginning of our no contact period. When I turned the key, which I was instructed to leave on the kitchen table, I heard Boris whimpering, I heard her claws on the door. It was like it always was, it was like it hadn’t been a week since I’d last seen her. I let her put her paws on me. I knelt down and hugged her. I moved her front legs over my shoulders. I felt a swell of affection for Julia. She had done this on purpose. This was not something that she had to do. My box was right by the door, with a note on top of it. At what point would her handwriting no longer be the most intimate, most familiar thing to me?
Take Boris for this month. We’ll figure out next month.
Next to the box were Boris’s belongings: her bowl, her leash, her bed. I jumped up with the most joy I’d felt in years. Boris acted in response. Once in the car we settled in next to each other. Boris rested her head on my lap and I felt soft and available. I don’t know if either of us felt aware of my spirit, I’m not certain theorists have one, but I felt free knowing that in the end, Julia and I, at least in this one thing, acted in opposition to what we were set up to act towards. This is a theorist’s happy ending.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.