The Summer of My Discontent

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Ana George


All the students turn out for these seminars; it’s a way the faculty have of exhibiting the instruments of torture to future victims. The day arrived when it was my turn to present. Mike had done his thesis seminar the previous semester, but he was kind enough on this big day of mine to pull his nose out his thesis, and come watch.

The regular seminar supervisor seemed to be out of town, which was probably just as well, because he had other ideas on my topic, and I was happy to not deal with them that day. The stand-in was a woman, unusual in a physics department, so of course I knew who she was, though we hadn’t had direct dealings before.

There I stood, explaining all my favorite ideas, carefully separating mine from everyone else’s, quoting chapter and verse from the literature. Professor Maxwell was asking pointed questions, making very useful suggestions; I found myself wishing I had a pocket to put my pen in, but alas, the dress I was wearing had nothing of the sort.

Part way through it occurred to me Mike wasn’t listening to what I was saying; perhaps his mind was on his own thesis, or some other personal problem. But his eyes were on me, which made me feel delightfully sexy. Which was a distraction; this was not the time. Glancing around the rest of the (almost all male) grad student ranks, most of them were also looking at my hair, or my legs. Oh well. There were a few worthwhile things said, so the purpose was served; there were new things to think about as I proceeded to write this stuff up. I learned things not only about my topic, but also about giving presentations, what to wear, how to act, and so forth, if you want to be listened to. Or if you don’t really want to be listened to, for that matter.

*

Walking home that evening in May, I could see Mike’s mind was somewhere else. We greeted Steve, a classmate, and I had the odd experience of seeing us, for a moment, from his point of view. Here’s a nice gal, one of just a few in the department, who’s picked out an unexceptional guy: not the best dressed, not the hunkiest, not the smartest, though good enough in all those ways. Envy was what was written on Steve’s face, seeing Mike with me. Mike had picked that up, too, and seemed an inch or two taller as we walked on. He’s already too tall, in my opinion.

“Marry me,” he said, in the half-light of the evening.

I’d been completely comfortable there in the bedroom until that moment.

“Um…” I propped myself up on an elbow, pawed my hair out of my eyes, and looked at him; he was eagerly, timidly, awaiting my response. It was abundantly clear that whatever I said next would change the course of both of our lives.

Suddenly my nudity, which had been a casual pleasure, took on an air of ultimate importance. I sat up, let my hair cover my face, found my dress, and put it on. I sat down in the chair opposite the bed, knees together, arms folded. A gentle head motion opened the curtain of my hair, and let him see my face. I could see he was concerned, alarmed even. A lump of mortal dread had settled into my stomach.

“No, Mike, I can’t,” I told him. “I need more than this. It’s pleasant, sure, sharing stuff with you. But there’s no passion.”

“Sure there is,” he said, eyes on the shadowy triangle at my hem, his naked lust stirring again. “I love you, Renée.”

I crossed my legs. “Do you?” I asked. “I don’t think I understand what you mean when you say that.”

This kind of took him aback; he couldn’t explain, but couldn’t let it go, either. “I do, though,” he muttered.

“That’s just it, you see? You don’t even know if I have any passion for you or not. As Stan Rogers put it:

Make love to your woman
at ten fifty-three.

You’re snoozed out, and I’m staring at the ceiling, wondering if that’s all there is.”

“Hmmph,” he said, covering himself with the sheet.

*

“Why so sad?” asked the woman on the next bar stool.

Oh, my. It was Professor Maxwell. I groped for a napkin to dry my face, and watched her watching me toss my long hair out of my lap, over a shoulder, arrange my dress, cross my legs. I cleared my throat, and turned to her.

“Call me Max,” she said. “I liked your presentation.”

And my composure gave way again.

I’m not sure now much of the story I managed to tell her, or how much she was able to gather from between my sobs, even if I did tell it.

At length, she was holding me, murmuring in my ear, “Come to my place. We’ll talk tomorrow when you’re more yourself.”

*

Morning. Max is apparently not a morning person. The mop of hair on her pillow was disarranged and not nearly as black as it had seemed under artificial light in the bar the night before, or at a distance in the lecture hall.

I got up as gently as possible, to let her sleep on. In the kitchen, I found a coffee grinder, a hundred irrelevant tools and supplies, followed, in the last possible place I could think of, filters. There were beans in the freezer, so I put on some water and made coffee. The grinder was frighteningly loud in the silent house. I took advantage of the wait to do something about my hair.

I brought two mugs back to the bedroom, setting one on the bed stand a foot from her comatose nose, and took the other to sit in the easy chair across the room, to read and watch her come around.

When she finally stirred, I smiled at her, made some noises with my feet, and slurped at my coffee to let her know I was still there.

“Renee. How nice, having someone bring me coffee before I’m even awake,” she said.

“A small token of my esteem,” I replied. “Thanks so much for last night.”

She merely smiled. She crawled out of bed and into the robe I held for her. I inhaled her essence as I wrapped her in the fabric and my arms. She giggled. “Breakfast first,” she said.

The cat, Joe, seeing Max in the kitchen, came around, presumably wanting food.

But even more than food, he seemed interested in sniffing my toes and fingers as we sat eating. I stroked his neck.

“He seems very affectionate for a cat,” I remarked.

“Seems that way, yeah,” said Max, “but it’s all a big ruse. I think it translates as something like Ooo, here’s a human that does not yet belong to another cat. Must mark.

I laughed, which disturbed Joe. He went to investigate the contents of his bowl with an air of proper feline nonchalance.

*

“So…” ventured Max. “Tell me about yourself, where you are in life, where you’re going.”

It was a tall order.

“I’ve been with Mike for a year now, no, almost two. It seemed the thing to do; all my college friends were getting married, settling down, breeding rug rats. So I started letting my hair down, just to see, and Mike is what happened. He made me laugh; he was fun to be around. So we started sharing meals, study sessions, nights, weekends, a bed, a few dreams, an address. Not much passion, but hey, I’m a rational girl; I think I’m more comfortable without. Just kind of drifted together.”

Max grunted in assent from time to time. “But…?” she prompted when I stopped talking.

“Well, when he started talking about forever, it scared the hell out of me. I mean, is this all there is? Eventually we’ll be done with grad school, one way or another, sure. But his idea of life is sleep, sex, eat, work, eat, sex, sleep. No time anymore for amusing each other. No time for dreaming together.” My lip quivered and my voice stopped. Max went out of focus.

“C’mere,” she said, putting fingers into my hair, wrapping an arm around my waist. She danced me around the room while I got myself together again.

Clearing my throat, I asked the obvious question. “So does this, last night, mean…?”

“It means whatever you want it to mean,” said Max. “I don’t think who you love has much to do with identities or categories or any of that. I am who I am. You are who you are. If we can share something special for a while, why ask for more?”

I relaxed for a while, with that idea burrowing around under my skin. It seemed so obvious, so true, there in Max’s parlor in the warm light of midmorning. But it had seemed so alien, so forbidden, so enticing, in the dim light at the bar the previous evening. And so confusing in the night. But Max had a way of waving her hand and cutting through all the clouds of hype, of fluff, that society has wrapped around our intimacies. Perhaps it boils down to one thing: Max knows who she is, and what she wants. And, wonder of wonders, what she wanted seemed to be me. What could I do but go with it?

Perhaps the wildest thing is that this attitude seems to be contagious.

*

And so, I left him.

Max and I went to the apartment when Mike was at work, sorted through all the stuff, packed it in boxes and the back of our cars. I hate moving, always, unequivocally. But especially when there’s an emotional monkey-wrench in the process.

Max let me put my stuff in her extra bedroom, at least until I found a place of my own. We were exhausted by the end of the day, stiff and sweaty, so she introduced me to the extra large bathtub in her upstairs bathroom. Unlike the typical euphemism, this was actually a room for baths. The tub was huge: big enough to lie flat in, let your hair down, let it float free. Or, as Max demonstrated with a grin, to accommodate a friend.

“Better?” asked Max, over a nice steaming mug of herbal tea. She’d been asking that a lot lately. I guess I hadn’t realized just how spirit-snuffing my life had become.

“Much. Thanks sooo much, Max, for everything, but most of all for reminding me I can go for whatever I want; it’s ok to know what I want.”

“Or whom,” said Max, with that show me all your teeth giggling grin of hers. She had a way of short-circuiting my rationalizations, my explanations.

“Or whom,” I agreed. With which Max, all 5 foot nothing of her, scrunched into my lap, and kissed me.

“I don’t usually seduce my professors,” I apologized, when I had possession of all my mouth parts again.

“Bah. I’m not your professor. I’m just the old dyke who works down the hall,” she laughed. “And stop apologizing. I want this, you want this, enough said, yes?”

“Sorry,” I started, then stopped myself, chuckling. “Yes. Enough said.”

Halfway down the mug of tea, it was cool enough to begin to taste the essence. “Max?” I asked.

“Mmm?” she murmured, contentedly.

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what? You’re safe here.”

“I know that. It’s just that I’ve been such a creature of habit; drifting from one thing to the next. I don’t want this to be a drift. I want to do this because I want to do this.” I thought for a moment, replaying that in my head. “I’m not sure that came out right… Am I making any kind of sense?”

“Absolutely. Let me set you up with sheets and stuff in your own room. Then there’s no pressure; we can be roommates if we want, or whatever else suits our mutual fancy.”

I thanked her.

“But Renée? You’ll have to talk to me, tell me about how you’re feeling about stuff, OK?”

*

One day I came home after a long wrangle with a problem and an argument with my advisor to find Max sitting on the couch, staring into space.

“What’s up?” I asked her, dropping my backpack next to the door of the Gloaming Room, where we often sat to watch the sunset.

She stirred, looked up. I could see there were tears in her eyes, but there was a smile on her face as well. “Come sit,” she said.

She showed me a letter, written on the letterhead of another university, instantly recognizable. “We are pleased to announce,” it announced, “our acceptance of your application for a sabbatical among us here.” I didn’t read the rest.

A cold hand contracted around my heart. We were just getting to know each other, just getting past the stage of always bumping into each other in the kitchen.

“So…?” I asked, looking into her eyes.

She took my hand, intertwined our fingers, gripped it with her other hand as well, and held the resulting fist in her lap, squeezing gently. “I applied for this last winter, before I even knew you existed,” she explained. “I’m sorry, I’m glad, I don’t know that to feel.”

“Go,” I told her. When her eyebrow went up, I nodded into her eyes. “I’ll miss you, of course, more than anything. But this is such a great thing, getting away from here, learning new things from different people…” I trailed off. A lump was forming in my throat.

“Thanks,” she said, “I’ve picked a good one, I see.” A tear formed in her eye, slid down her cheek, and dripped from her chin onto our clasped hands. The sun had set; the room grew dark.

I kissed her eyes, one, two, one again. Disengaging our hands, I knelt between her knees, put hands on her shoulders, pulled her close, and kissed her full on the lips. She was smiling as I released her.

“Thanks,” she murmured again, with another sniffle. “About the house,” she said. “You need a place to stay, since your lease with Mike is expiring; I need someone to house-sit. Would you?”

“Oh, yes,” I agreed. An ideal situation for a grad student: it was either a garret someplace or a nice house on Faculty Row. It would have been better, of course, with Max in it.

So here I am. Alone, happy to be alone. Holding on to Max’s principles, roughly summarized as Know what you want and Don’t settle for anything less. And ready to spit in the eye of a society that doesn’t understand alone-ness. One little replay of the flash in Max’s eye when things weren’t going her way is enough to remind me of that. And of her love, and what we shared for a while.

pencil

Ana George is a scientist living near Boston, who writes a little on the side. Two previous stories by this author have appeared in Toasted-Cheese. She also enjoys hiking, singing antique music, arguing philosophy, and taking care of her yard in the suburbs. She loves feedback, and can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.

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