A heavy snow was falling outside the windows of the lecture hall, great clumps of soft white snow. The late afternoon sky was pale silver, darkening to pewter gray. Elizabeth wondered how long it was going to take to dig her car out in the faculty parking lot. Some colleagues were coming over for drinks later and she needed to stop at the supermarket first. She wondered why she was bothering with yet another birthday gathering at her age.
“What kind of stand does Bartleby take when he says ‘I prefer not to?’ Is he taking a stand, or simply retreating from life?” She wrote “I prefer not to” on the chalkboard and circled it as she turned to the class. Several students near the front of the large classroom were already waving their hands.
“He’s the ultimate rebel without a cause, don’t you think Professor Garrett? He’s resisting the modern age,” Jonathan said, nodding. He combed his hands through his tangled hair and leaned forward.
“He doesn’t stand for anything,” Heather countered. “He’s just depressed. He can’t cope.”
“Wasn’t his career at a standstill when he wrote ‘Bartleby’?” Jennifer asked. “It says in the anthology that Melville was giving up on writing.”
Elizabeth never taught Melville without thinking of Lem, of course, his two famous books on Melville, their clandestine affair her senior year in college. He’d been such a narcissist, and she’d been so impressed by him. Her perfect grades, grad school admissions, entry-level fellowships, so much of it had been to impress Lem. Who hadn’t left his wife, after all, had never intended to leave his wife. Rumor had it that she’d finally left him. He was still back in Pennsylvania at Middleton, as far as Elizabeth knew. She’d heard that he married one of his graduate students after the divorce. She didn’t envy her, ministering to his colossal ego, looking the other way during his perpetual affairs. Probably he was on wife three or four by now.
All of their lovemaking had taken place in his office, on a musty brown velour couch that he sponged off occasionally when the stains were too obvious. She’d told herself that he was too carried away by passion and the need for secrecy to find someplace else.
“My office hours are over at five,” he’d whisper in the hall, and she’d nod, enthralled at the prospect of seeing him. He liked her to sit on his desk while he undressed her. Only later did she realize that he’d never exactly said, “I love you.” He said things like “I adore you,” “My God, you’re lovely,” “I think about you all of the time,” and “I couldn’t live without these interludes. You have no idea what life at home is like. My wife and I have nothing in common any more.”
They didn’t talk about literature when they were alone, but he rewarded her comments in his classes with approving nods and encouragement. “Brilliant, Elizabeth. You’ve hit the nail right on the head.” She’d come to believe that they had a great deal in common indeed. When the grad school acceptances began to trickle in, she expected him to implore her to stay. A divorce would take time, she knew that, with children in junior high. Elizabeth had seen the wife, a small, dark-haired, mousy woman. She’d never seen the children. She was sure he wanted her to stay. But he never suggested it, merely discussed the relative merits of the graduate programs, mostly comments about fellow academics at the other universities. “Caleb is quite bright, of course, but his newest book falls short in a number of respects.” Or, “Fiona has built quite a reputation, if you like that sort of thing. Personally I think feminist scholarship will be forgotten in five years. Just another fad.”
She’d chosen Delaware for its proximity to Middleton, foolishly, as it turned out. Lem never called or wrote. After a few unhappy months she started dating an insecure fellow grad student specializing in the Romantics. She and Eddie idealized their bond at first, both outsiders, both high achievers, both veterans of failed love affairs. Soul mates.
“I feel like this was meant to be,” he said, gazing into her eyes. “We were destined to meet at just this time, in just this place.” The din in the cafeteria receded as they held hands across the table, uncleared plates and torn packets of ketchup and mustard forgotten. She wanted to believe he was right.
There’d been rumors that Lem was seeing a new grad student, a blonde from Duke. Before she’d even left Middleton, she heard rather more than she cared to about Lem’s infidelities.
She’d been packing books with her friend Lucy, trying to squeeze her comforter and sheets and pillow into a large suitcase with her clothes. Her roommates were already gone, their lease up. The apartment looked dusty and forlorn without their possessions. It was a hot summer day, and she and Lucy were drinking cold sodas in front of an oscillating fan, taking a break.
“You know about that sophomore he was seeing three years ago, don’t you? They say she called his wife and there was some big drama. She dropped out after that.”
“Yeah, I heard something about that,” Elizabeth said vaguely. She hadn’t heard much, and didn’t care anyway. Three years ago Lem hadn’t even seen her yet. “Well, I hear he’s been banging that grad student Melissa since February. I didn’t want to say anything, but now you’re leaving. You know the one in Comp Lit, writing on Cervantes?” Lucy had put on a sympathetic face, but seemed secretly pleased to be passing on this information.
“She’s not even pretty. Do you mean the fat one who always wears black?”
“Well from what I hear, he’s not all that picky. Really you’re better off without him.”
Elizabeth held the cold can of Coke up to her burning cheeks and wiped the sweat off her face with her sleeve. She jabbed at a corner of the pillow sticking out of the suitcase. “I’m sure there are going to be plenty of guys in the grad program at Delaware. I can’t wait to see what it’s like.”
Alone in a new town, at a new university, Elizabeth had flirted with Eddie to show herself that she didn’t care about Lem. A big, strapping Midwesterner worried that he might not fit in back East, Eddie had flirted with Elizabeth because he was yearning for a soul mate.
“My Belle Dame sans Merci,” he breathed the first night she’d gone home with him. He tugged at her t-shirt, unzipping her jeans and pushing them down. “You are so beautiful.”
She ran her hands over his strong shoulders. His skin was soft and milky white, not hairy like Lem’s. “You too. I’ve never felt like this.”
As they rolled around on his queen-size bed, panting and sweating, she thought maybe that was true. Certainly it was more intimate, intertwined in bed all night, than it had ever been on Lem’s couch. Eddie worshipped her, and called her “my goddess.” He liked to kiss her feet, and suck on each toe. Once he covered the bed in rose petals. He also needed her, and wanted to be with her all the time.
She didn’t think much of the British Romantics, really, far preferring American writers of the same era, but she never told Eddie that. It was clear he felt manly, knowing so much more about the authors in the Romanticism seminar than she did. He read Keats and Coleridge aloud to her in the campus coffeehouse and she pretended she liked their poetry, a little embarrassed when students at other tables eavesdropped.
“Ah! Dearest love, sweet home of all my fears,/And hopes, and joys, and panting miseries,—” His face shone with sincerity.
She didn’t tell him about Lem until they’d been seeing each other for a few months. Eddie immediately blamed Lem for exploiting her trust. They were in bed, Eddie propped on an elbow, his blond hair tousled. She stroked his chest while she talked. She liked Eddie’s bulk, the strength of his torso. He made her feel protected.
“What a jerk! Jeez, you could get him fired, you know, if you told someone about that.”
Elizabeth doubted that was true. Lem was one of the more famous members in the department at Middleton, and hardly the only senior academic having affairs with students. But Eddie was an idealist, and despite the romantic and sexual disarray of the authors he studied, he was fairly conservative in his attitudes.
“I know,” she said. “But it’s over and I don’t think about it any more.”
For a while things had been good with Eddie. They’d moved in together, studied at the library together, read each other’s papers and dissertation chapters. Their wedding had been romantic, a small gathering of grad students and family at the flower-filled campus chapel. But when she turned out to be the one with the first job offer, requiring him to move with her to a small town in North Dakota, he’d sulked for a year, barely working on his unfinished thesis, dragging around their new apartment in sweats, watching daytime TV. He complained incessantly about the weather, about how provincial Winnetonka was. He sneered at her first publication. “That’s the kind of stuff they’re publishing these days, really trivial commentary. No one’s looking at the big picture.” He was above all that bullshit, he told anyone who would listen. He wasn’t going to kowtow to get a degree. When he left for an adjunct position at a community college in Ohio, she found she didn’t miss him. She’d ceased to admire him. Maybe she’d never loved him. Their occasional weekends together dwindled over time, and she hadn’t been very surprised when he called her to say he was seeing someone else. She didn’t think he’d ever finished his Ph.D. She had no idea where he was now.
There wasn’t much social life at the North Dakota State satellite campus in Winnetonka, which felt like a fishbowl where everyone observed your every move. For a while Elizabeth dated an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science department, but she’d been bored, not really interested in his work. Then a fiery radical in Sociology, whose alienation reminded her of Eddie’s. She was skeptical of his cynicism, the way he bonded with students over shared complaints. He seemed immature, and she wasn’t sorry when they parted ways. She was hoping for someone who could talk about literature with her, but hires in the English department were few, and they turned out to be harried suburban fathers who didn’t talk about books anyway, just North Dakota schools and local sports and real estate.
Which was cheap in Winnetonka, so Elizabeth decided to buy a house. It was a good investment, she told herself, even though she didn’t plan to stay. The houses for sale were better than the rentals. Settling on a tidy bungalow with wood floors and an old-fashioned front porch, she painted and sanded, had bookshelves built, bought a Persian carpet and a brown velvet couch. Later she realized it looked something like Lem’s ratty sofa, but it was nicer, and she covered it in bright silk pillows. She enjoyed listening to Bach in the evenings with a glass of wine. She got a cat, whom she named Herman. Herman and her garden made it hard to get away in the summer, but she found she didn’t mind. The years slipped by without Elizabeth noticing.
Her publications were respectable: a slender monograph on Emily Dickinson culled from her dissertation and a string of articles. Not enough to land a senior position elsewhere, but more than enough for the ND State satellite campus. She had a small circle of friends. They spent a good deal of time complaining about the weather and the cultural wasteland of Winnetonka, weighing the relative merits of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, which were far away. They didn’t get to them frequently enough, they all agreed, comparing them to other cities they knew: New York, Boston, L.A., San Francisco.
She was fond of her students, farmers’ kids for the most part, some of them curious about the larger world, most content to go back home when they finished their degrees. She hoped she broadened their horizons. Her American literature classes were always packed, and got good student evaluations. They read Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Poe’s stories, Whitman’s poetry. Melville, Dickinson, Emerson, Wharton, James.
When she taught James’ “The Jolly Corner” the students were unimpressed with the idea that Spencer Brydon was haunted by a spectral alter ego, the self he might have become if he’d stayed in America. “Will this be on the test, Professor Garrett? James was hecka hard to read. Jeez, will you look at how long this sentence is?” So young, all of them. Searching for the roads they’d follow, they had no sense that the routes they chose would preclude other routes. That they might look back at age 68 and wonder how they’d gotten where they were, even conjure dim phantoms of former and potential selves.
Elizabeth switched off the classroom lights and went to her office to finish some paperwork before she bundled up for the trip home. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to celebrate her 68th birthday. Open bottles of wine and small presents, pass around canapés and talk about the snowfall, and how they hadn’t predicted this many inches on the weather report, and Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, and how they hadn’t been there in a while, and cities they’d lived in when they were young, with colleagues who seemed older and more sedentary every year.
“How did I end up here?” she asked herself, winding a long wool muffler around her neck. “And where am I going now?” The answer was depressingly obvious. She pulled on her gloves. She was staying in Winnetonka. She would probably die in Winnetonka. She’d been someone else once, the sexy senior singled out by the attractive older man, a top scholar no less. The promising young Dickinson scholar married to a promising young Keats scholar, ready to publish, start a family, move up the academic ladder, distinguish herself somehow. But maybe that girl had not been as passionate and adventurous as she’d once believed. Maybe she’d been obedient, instead, not imaginative enough to make her own way and choose her destiny. Because surely this wasn’t it, the vague, bright future she’d had in mind.
She saw herself perched naked on Lem’s desk, head thrown back as she laughed in delight at something he’d said. The famous Lemuel Hoskins, joking with her. Out of all the girls in the class, choosing her.
“You’ve got the whole world in front of you, Elizabeth. You’re gifted. You’re beautiful.”
He stroked her tender breasts, caressed the sides of her torso and legs, luminous and pale in the shadowy office, gazing greedily at her warm young body.
“You know I’d do anything for you, Lem.”
“You would, sweetheart, wouldn’t you.”
Her breath quickened as he parted her knees.
Elizabeth shook her head.
She pulled her office door shut, then jiggled the handle to make sure it was locked. She needed to warm up the car and think about the shopping list for the canapés. Something a little different this time. She’d had enough Brie and water crackers and everyone else probably had too. Four bottles of the Riesling, and a couple of reds. She’d buy some kitty treats for Nathaniel. She hoped Joe from maintenance was outside, making his rounds with the snowblower. She didn’t feel like shoveling snow today. Or finding herself snowbound.
It was time to retire. Maybe move somewhere else. There was nothing stopping her. She could go anywhere in the world, some place where there was less snow at least. But she’d gotten used to the bone-chilling North Dakota winters, and really she had no idea where she wanted to go instead.
It was almost dark when she pushed open the glass double doors, bracing herself for the cold. Glistening snow blanketed everything, pure white, and utterly beautiful. The falling snow hushed all sound, and for a moment she felt like the only soul in an untouched, infinite universe. She took a first step, and then a second, her feet sinking deeply as she waded through snowdrifts to the parking lot. The snowflakes were cold and wet on her warm face. By the time she got to her car and looked back, new snow had effaced her steps and she could just barely see the footprints she’d left behind.§