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Professor Ecks wanted to know. “I see them pass through, at the top of their class, always single, with their stories of lost hopes, one-night stands, the men who couldn’t appreciate them. Oh, it makes me sad.”
It made me equally sad; I could have wept right there in the Midwestern diner in which we were on the third hour of lunch. Dr. Ecks sympathized. The tables were small; my hand with its cigarette rested only five and a half inches from his hand wrapped around his mug of coffee. We didn’t touch; we just looked. We were paragons of self-control.
“How do you see your life in, oh, perhaps, ten years from now?” Professor Ecks paid such careful attention to me that I was ready to pledge my future despite the existence of his Wife and Son, the arch-angelic young boy Dr. Ecks seemed to live for. I wondered if Mrs. Ecks was a Smart Woman whom Professor Ecks had rescued from solitude twenty years before.
“I’m in a cabin on the coast of Maine. I live there with two golden retrievers. I teach at the university twice a week, so the rest of the time I work at home, where I watch the waves and the herons and the lighthouse. It’s a good life. I don’t get famous but I do get — unlike Rodney Dangerfield — respect. From the people in our field who count. I have lots of friends with children for whom I’m a surrogate aunt. And I go gray early.”
“Any…companions?” asked my professor.
“You mean, besides the dogs?”
“Well, yes. I mean — a man.”
“It’s always me alone with my dogs. I can’t picture the man who would fit.” I am small and obsessively organized, known to arrange the order of magazines in the bathroom in alphabetical order.
Professor Ecks clucked with sympathy. “It’s hard for you, isn’t it? You’re so bright. And I know there are no men in the program for you.”
He teaches, and I study toward my doctorate, in a tiny program in a diminutive private university. Most of the men are married; half of the women are single. All but one of the professors are men; half cheat on their wives — a large majority with graduate students.
It was late October, and Professor Ecks and I had been getting to know one another since I arrived from the coast. A golden shaft of afternoon sun reached inside the delicatessen to bathe us at our rear table. He had a beautiful face — like a Sir Reynolds’ count or duke, stuck in time at a perennially turning-forty phase of regret. Solemn folds in his skin testified to past losses, the bohemian life he never dared. Dark, deep eyes and a sensitive, thin-lipped mouth, quivering with empathy. As small as me, Dr. Ecks could pass for a boy. But gray salted his lovely black mop of hair, and his hands were the hands of a man who knew how to worry: in perpetual motion, a celebrated doodler, Dr. Ecks’ hands could draw the most miniscule boxes with yet more boxes inside them.
I loved his office — a bright, be-rugged room brimming with books and art and plants. He had a couch, two overstuffed chairs which faced each other, and an ancient reading lamp with silver tassels hanging from the shade like weeping willow fronds. Or maybe like stripper’s pasties. A Royal manual typewriter on his desk. Fresh flowers at all seasons. If the phone rang while I was there, he would answer it apologetically, and if I got up to go — whispering “I’ll find you later,” so he could take his call in privacy — he would motion me back, as if to say, “Oh no: this phone call isn’t important. You are. Please stay. Don’t go away.”
When was the last time any man paid me such attention? This was the question I asked and asked as Professor Ecks and I stared into one another’s eyes over the coffee mugs and ashtrays, the sky turning gray while the afternoon stretched on and on. If Professor Ecks only knew how much I thought about him. Did he know? Did my eyes speak volumes? My throat filled with phlegm. Silently, he was pleading with me for something; what could I give him?
“I guess I have to go,” he sighed. “I should get back.”
So we left, two small unhappy people longing for each other. At the crossroads, Dr. Ecks offered to walk me home, if that was okay. Surprised — even thrilled — I said yes. Please. So we walked together, slowly, down the street of student apartments to mine, which is damp and underground, a clean but cheap studio. Although we tried, we could not make the walk last longer than ten minutes. So we had to say goodbye again, so soon after our last parting gazes.
“You haven’t seen where I live, have you?” I asked, brazen as a teenager. I was sure he’d decline the offer, so I didn’t feel truly brave.
“Well, I really should get back to work.” He didn’t move, however, in the direction of campus. “But do you think I could use your…” he trailed off, leaving me to gracefully fill in the blank.
“Oh sure. Absolutely. Come on in.” Did I fumble with my keys? Probably. Here was Dr. Ecks, coming alone into my apartment in the same day in which he’d told me about the love affair he’d had at the last school he’d worked. Not with a student — but with his Wife’s best friend. His Wife and the friend remained friends. His Wife went so far as to help wallpaper the new home (in red rows of unopened rosebuds) where Dr. Ecks and the woman planned to move. The Son, however, would remain in the house with the Wife. Dr. Ecks told me he had changed his mind at the last minute; the implications loomed too heavily to go through with it, even though his Wife was perfectly willing to live down the street from him instead of in the same house.
I always wondered if he actually peed or only flushed the toilet. He pointed to my grandmother’s quilts. “Oh, those are beautiful,” he said, and sat down on the bed, fingered the material and looked up at me.
Here was Dr. Ecks sitting on the edge of my bed, looking up at me with what looked like desire. I edged toward the other side of the room. “Yes. She made them when I was born; I take them everywhere. I repair them.” I was talking too fast; I wasn’t ready for Professor Ecks on my grandmother’s quilts. “A married man shall never defile us,” they seemed to say, not surprisingly in my grandmother’s proper British accent. In late October I was still in the semi-moralistic stage: it was too bad I was in love with a married man, but I would get over it. Dr. Ecks looked at his watch and I walked him to the door and said thank you for lunch. He said we’d have to do it again, and left. We were close enough to kiss but only looked.
For weeks I asked myself why I did not take advantage of the opportunity. It never came again, although I was to fall deeper and more painfully in love and eventually to discard my previous views on the immorality of adultery.
Specifically, I dropped them the night I had dinner at Dr. Ecks’ house and met his Wife. Two professors and another student were invited, so I didn’t feel conspicuous. The other Profs drank too much and gabbed with the Wife, whom they had known almost a decade. I mooned over my broccoli at Dr. Ecks at the other end of the table. His Son looked just like him: sweet and sad, equipped for a long life of looking expectantly into women’s eyes. The Wife was cordial to everyone except Mr. Ecks, whom she regarded with an icy air of distaste. Dinner lasted forever, and by the end of the evening I wanted to rescue Dr. Ecks from this seething pit of domestic horror. The poor man, I thought, contending with constant opprobrium from his nasty Wife, putting up with her outright hatred for his work.
“Oh, I hate —-s”, she’d said, naming the practitioners of his profession.
The professors got drunk, and the other student left early, so I accepted a ride with Dr. Ecks, who drove his colleagues safely home. We dropped them off first, which didn’t make sense, since I lived closest to the Ecks.
“So,” said Dr. Ecks when we were alone, driving across town in the heart of a college-town midnight, “so how are you?” he asked with such intensity that I might have confessed, but he wasn’t ready for such disclosure. He liked things hidden, messages which needed to be decoded with long-lasting and intricate pleasure.
“I…I’m having a hard time Ronald,” I said. “Turn left.” (It seemed he’d forgotten either where I lived or how to get there.) “A hard time? Why is that?”
“Well, Dr. Ecks, Ronald, I’m having difficulty with the attention you give me, with…our relationship. Turn right.” Relationship is such a long word; it fell heavily in the car.
“Our relationship, Maria?”
“Well, yes. You keep sending me these signals which say, which seem to say that you’re interested in me, and I don’t know what to do with them. Turn left.”
“Oh my,” said Dr. Ecks, his lovely face deepening into a frown. “Oh no. I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood me, Maria. Here we are.” “Misunderstood you?”
“Well, yes.” He put the car in park but did not shut off the engine.
I wanted to cry.
He put his hand on my hand — our first touch. It was soft and hairy. I withdrew mine as if I’d touched a dead rat.
“Maria, you’re a very sweet and bright young woman, and I feel for you in your loneliness, but I’m a married man, as you have seen this evening. I have a Son to think of. Yes, it’s true I was unfaithful in the past, but I’m trying to change. I’m trying to be good.” I unbuckled my seatbelt and unlocked the door, found a solid curb under my foot.
“I’m sorry, Maria. I’m sorry there’s been a misunderstanding.”
I looked at him with rage, my lips trembling. He must have thought I would weep from rejection. I would have punched his nose if he weren’t so fragile. My silence made him worry.
“Maria, listen, we’ll talk later this week. Okay? I’ll think about this some more.”
“You’ll think about this?”
“Yes. Yes I’ll reconsider. No, I won’t reconsider. I’m just so surprised.”
“Well yes. This is quite a shock.”
Shock? I might have asked. Who sat on whose bed with those big sad puppy eyes?” I might also have asked.
Instead I got out of the car and slammed the door as hard as I could. Time passed.
Every September brings a new harvest of female faces with deep, dark eyes and a hunger for companionship. The smart women of the next graduating class. He found another to be his partner in the Mating Professor Dance, and I observed their pas-de-deux. Why didn’t anyone talk about his multi-hour lunches? About how he never had any male protégés? I watched Isabella twirl and tango, saying nothing.
Should I have told her he was a tease? She believed he would fall for her and leave his Wife. After Christmas, their trysting ended, Isabella roamed the hallways looking wounded, her head low to avert his sensitive, inquiring eyes.
I befriended Isabella, and we forged something splendid out of the wreck.
We still laugh about Dr. Ecks and his worries about smart women.
What do they do?
The answer, as we study naked together in bed, couldn’t be more academic.