The English Department: a grind of self-effacing imperatives during the day and orgiastic impulses during the evenings. It’s not us saying it, it’s Martin Cloutier. There is a reading arranged, and we are granted the point of view of an insider-outsider, Zara. Zara is from the administrative staff and is wheeling in an a/v cart for the reading as we begin. Mackenzie, head of poetry, is a rival of sorts, especially for the post-reading romps with the guest writers. And then we have the poet of the day, suffering from PBA (Pseudobulbar affect), a disorder that makes him laugh, cry, and talk without control. The three characters in the story may be completely different from each other, but by the end, we realise that they seek the same things: intimacy, connection, sanctuary.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The reading was taking place in The Sokoloff Room. Zara wheeled the A/V cart through the dun-colored hallway until she reached her destination. The brass plaque on the door held deep scratches where long ago some disgruntled student had tried to deface Sokoloff’s name and change it to Sok-u-off.
She bumped open the door with her hind quarters and pulled the cart over the threshold. Several eager grad students were already huddled in back, but none got up to help. They hugged the walls and corners, as was the habit in the English department, everyone erasing themselves with defensive smiles and downward glances: Don’t look at me; I’m just an observer. At departmental events this collective reticence created no small amount of tension: nothing was more uncomfortable than a room full of observers trying not to be observed. Zara always felt she had to make constant adjustments to minimize her personality: she lowered her voice, sunk in her chest, and stopped wearing expensive perfumes. Sometimes she thought even a scented hand lotion might be too bold a statement for the room.
She parked the cart next to the conference table and went trolling for the power cord among its lake of wires. The conference table was actually four tables with mismatched Formica tops pushed together, surrounded by a collection of overstuffed secretarial chairs on wheels. The chairs were inappropriate for a seminar room and better suited to an accounts payable office circa 1982. Of course, living the life of the mind, academics weren’t supposed to care about the furniture. In analyzing the metaphorical networks in Leopold Bloom’s walk through Dublin, one wasn’t supposed to notice the stains on one’s seat, or the levers for tilt, recline and swivel.
Some of the faculty began to arrive, taking seats on the hodgepodge of furniture that lined the walls. Both students and professors shunned the spotlight of the conference table and preferred instead these cast-off couches and chairs, on which the boredom of academic servitude had been writ in ink stains, ball-point carvings, and yogurt drippings. It always embarrassed her that the department had to host writers in this shabby setting. She filled out the requisition forms; she knew what they were being paid – not-a-trifling amount for a few hours’ work plus travel expenses. But how disappointing to be ushered into a room full of misfit furniture, where everyone was trying to make themselves invisible.
Mackenzie entered and had no compunction about sitting at the conference table. As head of poetry, she was introducing the poet. From her several sheaves of paper, Zara could tell she must be nursing one of her literary crushes – the stronger the infatuation, the longer her introductions. In fact, the whole department was anticipating the poet’s visit. Some of his verses had been recently sampled by a rap artist and the song had become a top download on iTunes. The literary blogosphere was rife with speculation that this would reconstitute the art of poetry. No one seemed to mind that the song was called “Vajayjay Makes Me Craycray.”
Mackenzie studied her notes, occasionally shooting imploring glances in the direction of the A/V cart. Zara angled the cart to block her from view. She’d only agreed to come to the reading as a favor to the Chair because no one else knew how to set up the A/V equipment. People gave her apologetic smiles as they bushed past and witnessed her tangled among the electrical cords. The room was beginning to smell like dandruff and wet wool, a scent Zara particularly associated with the English department. As opposed to History, which smelled like furnace exhaust, or Classics, which had the stinging whiff of mothballs. Of course, the faculty wasn’t cognizant of such things as smells, or haircuts, or clothes, or teeth, or muscle tone. Everyone at the college went out of their way not to draw attention to their bodies. The body was just a vehicle to convey the brain from computer to classroom. Heads on sticks is how she thought of them. Their eyes, frightened and astonished behind big plastic glasses, their faces, a smooth spot in a nest of frizzy, unconditioned hair.
When they were still friends, Mackenzie accused her of being overly judgmental. Especially on the subject of her co-workers, for which she was hard-pressed to find much to admire. Sure, they had husbands and wives and children who loved them. Or those who didn’t, had books and awards and a coterie of devoted students. While Zara had only a failed marriage and a plaque from the Dean’s office that said, “Exceptional Achievement in Administrative Services.” Still, for all their accomplishments, her colleagues lacked a certain vitality. Success had sucked them dry, rendered them colorless husks rattling on the branches of academe. If this was the price of achievement, she could do without it.
Zara had no compunctions about her body. She swam, did Pilates, and took a facial every month from a licensed esthetician. She worked hard at being attractive and was determined to remain so, as long as color still came in a bottle. Unlike the other secretaries in the English office who had put on the caftan of middle age, she still made an effort. And the effort didn’t go unnoticed. Male professors always had to be told twice not to give her certain forms, as they would use any excuse to speak with her. New students constantly asked her questions about enrollment, even though Judith and Fiona’s desks were closer to the door. They all teased her about it: “Oh, Zara. One of your suitors just dropped off his vaccination form. You’ll be happy to know he’s had all his shots.”
She ignored their little jibes. She understood that people thought she was trying too hard. That she should relax – take off a few silver bracelets, forego the high definition mascara. Behind her back, the more militant professors accused her of conforming to some patriarchal ideal. But it wasn’t a man she was after; it was pride of ownership. When one had a nice car, one changed the oil, bumped out the chassis, and gave it a wash and wax every weekend. Even the most casual observer could see that Zara was driving around a mint condition Coupe DeVille, while her colleagues rode in rusty Corollas with dented fenders and deflated tires. And though she appreciated the attention of men, she knew that like her ex-husband they would ultimately disappoint.
The grad students were passing around the poet’s chapbook, reading over his poems and making excited comments. It pained her to see young people already so caught up in books that they forgot about their bodies. The girls, who thought feminism meant clunky shoes and chapped lips. And the boys with noodle arms that had never lifted anything heavier than The Riverside Shakespeare. She shuddered to imagine their papery rubbings and pasty comminglings.
The evening’s readers finally arrived: the poet, two fiction writers, and a librettist took seats around the table with the few unlucky late-comers who couldn’t get a spot on the perimeter. She plugged the speakers into the laptop of the librettist who was going to play music from her opera. Zara had never heard of the operas listed in her bio, nor had she known the fiction writers’ novels or the poet’s chapbooks. Most of the readers brought to the college were flying under the broader cultural radar. She thought of them as exotic butterflies soon to be extinct.
Mackenzie began her introduction, her voice taking on that incantatory lilt poets always get, somewhere between Pentecostal preacher and cattle auctioneer. Mackenzie was the only woman in the department other than Zara who still took care of her chassis. This established their initial connection and enabled their friendship to bridge the great divide between administrative staff and faculty. She wore pencil skirts with purple tights. And strapless black shoes with three inch heels. Her hair was pulled into a bun – the Croyden lift as they say – and she wore little makeup. The focus was immediately drawn to her body, whose clothes adhered like a second skin. She hadn’t much of a chest, but her ass could work a room like a Shakespearean actor, moving in subtle configurations and upstaging whatever stood next to it.
They used to go out with the guest writers after the readings. Some of the faculty also tagged along but usually only stayed for one drink. She and Zara would often close the bar. If the guest writers turned out to be bores, they would ditch them and cab it to another bar. As a pair, they still could attract some attention at the Irish pubs or hotel lounges. They had all the bases covered: the tit men came for Zara, the ass men for Mackenzie. Of course, Mackenzie did most of the talking. She knew all the jokes. Understood the lingo of finance execs and biotech salesmen. Oftentimes, after only one drink, she could turn a tit man into an ass man with the mere swivel of her hip. Zara didn’t care. Most of the time she went home alone. She enjoyed the few hours of attention and the possibility of sex. The actuality of it seemed like far too much work.
The incident that ended their friendship was the night a famous novelist had come to read. The festivities ran later than usual. Finally, the other faculty left and it was just Mackenzie and Zara having drinks with him at the bar. He seemed rather taken with both of them and proposed they accompany him back to his hotel. He was recently divorced with needy blue eyes and a full head of bristly dark hair. A former military officer, he had written a story collection about his time in Iraq that had won a major award. Not only did he possess the wounded sensitivity of a man who had witnessed atrocities, he had the upper body strength of a brute who could commit them. Zara wanted to be the woman to heal his wounds and receive his hardboiled gratitude. He clearly had his heart set on a threesome. And there was something in the way that he hunched his massive shoulders and crinkled his big wet eyes that made her want to gratify his heart. Mackenzie might have even promised him such a possibility in advance. They’d been exchanging emails for months in preparation for his visit. She’d read all of his novels and would discuss his female characters with Zara over lunch, trying to figure out what he liked in women.
When they got back to his room, it became evident that he was more interested in her than Mackenzie. This particular tit man could not be persuaded, even though Mackenzie knew all the literary lingo and could talk objective correlatives and narrative prolepsis, he couldn’t keep his soft eyes or rough hands away from Zara. Even when Mackenzie unveiled her magnificent ass, which was quite stunning, Zara had to admit, seeing it naked for the first time in all its alabaster glory. Indented on both sides and quivering with soft flesh at the top, she finally understood the saying “heart-shaped ass.” All of this meant nothing to the novelist who was unfastening Zara’s bra and playing her breasts like they were an instrument he was trying to master.
Of course, she was flattered. For once, words didn’t matter. The body mattered – her body. She let the novelist pluck her like some finely articulated harp, his fingers moving around the strings of her torso. And then his mouth, with his soldierly jaw leveling along her thighs. But somehow she felt removed from the experience. Whatever pleasure she retained was being transmitted on a delayed signal from a station far far away. On the ceiling, a water mark had bloomed into the shape of a desert cactus. The grate of the smoke detector held a quivering piece of lint. She closed her eyes and tried to inhabit her body. Mackenzie’s weight shifted on the mattress – moving to the perimeter; she imagined her hugging her meager chest, frustrated and spent on an island of envy.
Zara reached for his head. Her hands kneaded the tendons in his thick neck. He groaned and the vibrations traveled through her fingers all the way to the base of her spine, the sound reaching some hollow part and filling it with warmth. She brought her head to his, in communion with his quick breaths and tightening brow – but there was Mackenzie behind the novelist, her manicured nails digging into his thighs and her face buried deep in his butt cheeks. Zara was instantly repulsed and pulled herself up against the headboard. Mackenzie fixed her with a triumphant stare, glowering over her catch.
Zara scooted off the bed and gathered her clothes from the carpet, threading her legs through the lacy strings of her underwear, yanking her dress over her head. The novelist continued moaning. She slinked away, shoes in hand, closing the door without a sound.
After that, she stopped coming to the readings. She cooled toward Mackenzie and left her calls unreturned. That picture wouldn’t leave her mind – like something out of the Serengeti: Mackenzie crouched over the novelist, mouth moving in grim determination – a lioness pulling a calf from the herd.
The introduction was almost over. The overblown adjectives of her speech and her sloe-eyed glances confirmed that Mackenzie had her sights on the poet. He was tall and thin, and though well into his forties, sported shoulder-length brown hair with a boyish tilt to his head. A permanent grad student in a velour zip-up, he looked more dressed for an amusement park than an academic reading.
Light applause followed while the poet peered into his laptop and fingered the mouse pad. “Before I begin reading, I want to share a few things.” He rolled back his chair, gazed up at the ceiling, and started a stream-of-consciousness babble that included bathtime with his daughter, hiking the Appalachian trail with his wife, musings on the healing power of olive leaf, and a disputation on the effect of plosives in free verse. All the while, he kept combing his hair with his fingers, as if trying to pull thoughts from his head with great effort.
At around twenty minutes into his “sharing,” people started to feel agitated enough to make eye contact with each other. They glanced back and forth across the conference table and made provoking swivels in their secretarial chairs. Finally, the head of the department interrupted him, “I’m sorry, but your time is coming to an end. We’d love to hear some of your poetry, if you’d care to read.”
He apologized and rolled back to the table to consult his computer screen. “I’ll read just this one.” It was a homage to another poet. After a few seconds, he started to cry. Tears rolled down his cheeks, but he kept reading. Through incantations of foggy highways and Kentucky horse farms, his voice cracked and choked, he kept reading. At one point, he interrupted himself to say, “Don’t worry. I do this sometimes. It’s a tick. It only bothers me because other people are bothered.”
The faculty clutched their inter-office envelopes and smoothed the creases in their slacks. Students riffled the pages of their poetry books and tugged on their hoodie strings. The poet’s voice occupied the room and held it in a kind of reprimand. His tears, so at odds with his descriptions of horses’ hooves and ants climbing blades of grass, implicated everyone in some indecipherable pain. They didn’t know whether to feel empathy or annoyance. Their training had taught them to be moved by images and the cadence of a line, but real-time tears were a spectacle, or quite possibly a fraud—no one knew how to interpret them. Even Zara, who appreciated a good soap opera as much as the next person, was uncomfortable with the display.
When he finished, pink lines ran down his cheeks. There was a smattering of applause, mostly to relieve the agitation, and then the librettist was introduced. Zara cued up her music.
After the librettist finished, there was a break. Zara wheeled the A/V cart back to its closet. She braced herself against one of the old TVs and left a finger-trail of dust on its surface. She felt shameful, like in the hotel room with Mackenzie. Something had been exposed. A person’s inner mechanisms had been unscrewed and all the wires and circuits revealed.
In the hall, embarrassed voices were attempting small talk, while others whispered in vicious gasps. She grabbed her coat and purse and snuck away unnoticed. Hurrying down the stairs, her eyes firmly fixed on the brown rubber treads, she already had her cigarette pack in hand. Outside, she lit up quickly. The rain had thankfully stopped but the stones of the portico still glistened with wet. There were small puddles on the steps leading down to the quad. She left her coat folded over her arm and blew clouds of smoke into the humid night air.
“Do you have another?” said a man’s voice.
She turned to see the poet sitting on the brick balustrade in a pool of light. He was in lotus position, wearing neon colored tennis shoes.
“We’re not supposed to be smoking out here.” She pointed to the sign in bold letters on the wall. It was one thing for her to break the rules, but a stranger on campus hadn’t the same entitlement. Certainly not someone who was paid to give a reading and then arrived high, or drunk, or whatever he was.
“Okay.” He held up his hands and gave a sheepish smile.
His shadow loomed large across the brown brick walls. The building’s flood light reflected a wetness in his eyes. “Here.” She rummaged in her purse and offered him the pack. He took one and she gave him a light. They smoked in silence. It was late enough in the evening that only a few people were walking the paths. She could see all the way down to the entrance gate where the guard’s figure made a dark shadow in his box.
“You always do that?” she said. “Cry over your poetry?”
He flapped his cigaretted hand through the air as if clearing a space around his head. “It’s a tic. I get excited and can’t stop. It’s like I’m crying on the outside but my insides are… unaffected.”
“Well, it must affect you on some level.”
“When I was a little boy, we had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Every time I came to the part ‘one nation indivisible,’ tears would well up behind my eyes. ‘Indivisible’ was such a powerful word. A constant factuality. A fealty I could assess to an aspect. You can’t divide indivisibility. Invisibility. Fealty. Ability. Lity. Lethe. Leucothoe.” He took a long drag on his cigarette to shut himself up.
Zara worried he might start crying again and hurried to finish her smoke.
“Forgetting my medication didn’t help either.” He barked out a laugh.
She watched her shadow rise on the wall. Everyone thought the poet must’ve been high. “On coke,” someone had said. “Meth,” another whispered. Knowing it was due to some medical issue made her a bit more comfortable. She wanted to ask if he was depressed or bi-polar but didn’t dare.
“So what’s your specialty? No wait – don’t tell me.” He searched her up and down, lingering over her breasts. Zara crossed her arms and let her raincoat shield her. He thought for a while, combing his fingers through his thick hair. “You’re a Modernist. With a specialty in Virginia Woolf. You did your dissertation on aspects of the sublime in To The Lighthouse.”
“Hah.” She stomped out her cigarette. “I’m a secretary. My specialty is decrypting freshman handwriting on course change forms.”
“Oh. That’s a relief. Woolf’s a cunt.”
“No. I’m sorry. I’m wrong. She’s more of a uterus. Enveloping. Constricting her characters inside their heads. Inside her own head. Refusing to push them out into the world. She’s the great withholding mother – drowning her babies in her own uterine thoughts.” He pinched his cigarette between two fingers and inhaled deeply. “Just once in her novels I’d like somebody to set a glass on a table. Take a broom and sweep the floor. Pet a dog.” He shook his head and blew out clouds of smoke. “Four long-winded novels and nobody pets a goddamn dog.”
Tears were running down his face again but he was laughing. Zara clutched her coat tighter. “You should be getting back. The break’s probably over.”
“I’m not going back.”
“There’s going to be a question and answer period. People will have questions for you.”
“Yeah. Like, why did you break down sobbing like some hormonal teenager?”
“Trust me. One thing they don’t want to talk about is tears.”
He stretched his lips in some exaggerated facial exercises. “It’s PBA.”
“Pseudobulbar Affect. It’s a disorder caused by trauma to the brain where you can’t stop laughing or crying or sometimes talking. I have medication for it, but I left it back in Ohio. Albino. Black rhino.” He shook his head to stop himself. “High stress situations bring it on stronger.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of then.”
“Who said I was ashamed?”
“Well. I would be. Embarrassed.” She flicked her cigarette butt into an azalea bush. “I felt embarrassed for you.”
Zara rolled her eyes.
“Fremdschämen. It’s when you take on the embarrassment of someone who’s not embarrassed themselves by their actions. Like watching Britney Spears perform.”
“Well, why aren’t you ashamed? Why make me bear your burden?”
The poet raised his eyebrows and started laughing. Silently.
“Don’t you care about your career? Your respect in the community?”
He started to sing. “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. What po-et-try means to me. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me.” He pounded the air with his fist. “You got another cigarette?”
“I have to get going.”
“Why? Sit down and talk with me. The rain’s over.”
“Why would I want to talk with a crazy poet who’s off his meds?”
He raised his arms in Buddha-like supplication. “When else are you going to get another chance?”
She put her coat over the wet balustrade and sat a few feet away. She offered him her pack and lit them both up. It was a pointless gesture. She wasn’t attracted to this skinny boy/man. And even if she was, he had a wife and a child and lived hundreds of miles away. He also had a mental disease, couldn’t speak properly, and seemed addicted to some form of self-destruction. There were enough red flags to hold a communist parade.
Still, she sat and talked. He told her about walking in the woods with his daughter and how they would make up names for the plants and trees: Caterpillar Vine for Japanese spurge, Spikadilforis for pine trees, FingerHands for Horse chestnuts. She told him about all her Russian names: Zara, Zarina, Zaruska, Zarcia, Georgievna Zhilova. And he did a riff on her name while slapping his thighs: “Zarina Athenia. Zaruska babushka. Zarina Argentina take me down to Catalina. I don’t need for a subpoena. We’ll eat crabs and semolina. And make love like two hyenas.”
The man was off his rocker but he made her laugh. They talked for so long that at first they didn’t notice people exiting the big wooden doors of the hall. It was the grad students from the reading. They looked over at the poet but were too afraid to approach. It was only a matter of time before the others would be coming out.
“Shit. Let’s go.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her down the steps. He took her to a spot underneath the staircase and squeezed her into an arched indentation in the brickwork.
“What are you doing? This is crazy,” she said.
“Shh. I don’t want them to see me.”
“It’s wet in here. I’m ruining my blouse.”
He stretched his velour jacket around her back and zipped her up. They were pressed together inside his jacket like two kids in a sleeping bag. She leaned her head on his chest and listened to the quick thumps of his heart. He smelled like cigarettes and fabric softener. For a thin man, his body was kind of squishy. She had no choice but to reach her arms around and hold his womanly hips.
“Don’t worry. I won’t molest you,” he said. “I haven’t had an erection in five years.”
They listened to students trot down the steps. Most were speculating about what had happened to the crazy poet. Zara hoped no one spotted her raincoat and purse left on the balustrade. She recognized the voice of the Chair saying, “Do you think we should notify his family?” There was more patter of feet and astonished voices:
“Best reading ever, Dude.”
“I feel sorry for him.”
“What a freak.”
Even though she knew the poet probably wasn’t embarrassed, she wanted to come to his defense. Though what she would say eluded her. She could feel him shaking, but she didn’t know if it was from tears or laughter. He started whispering in her ear, “freak, sheik, squeak, antique.”
Then she heard Mackenzie’s voice and her strapless shoes clomping down the stairs. She was trying to convince one of the fiction writers to accompany her to a bar. Something came over Zara and she started to yell: “Greek, physique, technique, Mozambique.”
The poet tried to cover her mouth but they were pressed too tightly together.
“Zara? Is that you?” Mackenzie’s voice came from just beyond the azalea bush.
The poet started laughing and Zara joined in.
“What are you doing in there?”
The poet moved sideways and Zara peeked out from inside his jacket. “Oh, we’re just … snuggling.”
“Are you all right?”
She shrugged inside her cocoon. “Don’t I look all right?”
“Zara. This is ridiculous. Why don’t you come out and we’ll all get a drink?” Mackenzie gestured at the people on the stairs.
“Why don’t you go lick some assholes?” she yelled.
The poet started laughing. His laughter shook them so much, Zara felt she was on a twin engine plane experiencing heavy turbulence.
The fiction writer came up next to Mackenzie. “Is there a problem?”
“That man has her trapped inside his sweater.”
The fiction writer studied the two-headed aggregate with a quizzical look. Zara jerked her head in Mackenzie’s direction. “You’d better be careful or she’ll lick your asshole. That’s what she does. She licks assholes.”
Mackenzie took a step closer. “Have you two been drinking?” She turned toward the poet. “What did you give her?”
Zara and the poet kept laughing and jiggling in their cocoon.
“You missed a great Q and A,” the fiction writer offered.
Mackenzie took out her phone. “I’m calling security.”
“Jesus Christ,” Zara said. “Unzip me.” She grabbed the poet’s hand and led him up the stairs to the portico. The others followed. “We’re fine. We haven’t been drinking. We’ve been talking. Talking.” She put on her raincoat and picked up her purse.
“Clearly that man isn’t well,” said Mackenzie.
Zara looked at the poet. “Are you unwell?”
He shrugged. “I’m a poet.”
She took his hand again and started down the stairs.
Mackenzie called after, “Where are you going?”
“We’re going to my place. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Her place. Rat race. Ace of base. Sorry, sorry. You got another cig?”
They started walking down the path hand in hand. “Wait till we get to the car.”
“This is ridiculous. That man is having a nervous breakdown. You can’t just abduct him.”
“I’m not abducting anyone. He’s an adult. Tell her?” She nudged the poet.
A small group had gathered at the foot of the stairs. The poet turned around and waved like a nine-year old being sent off to space camp. “We’re going to sweep the floors and pet the dogs.”
Mackenzie started after them and stomped on a puddle; water splashed her tights, lessened her resolve. She flapped a hand in Zara’s direction, as if to say it was too much to bother with. Then she walked back to the fiction writer and encircled his arm.
Zara didn’t want anyone to follow so she steered the poet off the path and through the wet grass. The wetness soaked inside her pumps and touched the tops of her feet.
She nodded to the guard in his booth, an old man with heavily lidded eyes whom she’d seen a thousand times and never spoken a word. “Good night,” she said.
They passed through the rod-iron gates, the poet softly chanting: “abducting – abdicating – adjudicating – ameliorating.” She had no idea what she was going to do with this broken poet, but there was the long walk to the car to decide.
Martin Cloutier has been published in Harvard Review, Crazyhorse, Contrary, Post Road, Tampa Review, Shenandoah, Story Quarterly, Smokelong Quarterly, Upstreet, Natural Bridge, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. He has been a New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellow in fiction, a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has been awarded a grant from The Elizabeth George Foundation. He currently teaches at the City University of New York.
The banner image uses the Wiki Commons version of Joseph Denis Odevaere’s oil painting Lord Byron on his Death-bed (1826).