While a junior at Wellesley College, I developed a crush on my not-young history professor. These things happen all the time in education — students falling for professors, and sometimes the inverse too — and perhaps even more so in single-sex environments.
It turns out I was more comfortable with my fantasies of conducting a romance with him than I was with the reality. During a moment in his office, it seemed as though Professor Zimmer (a pseudonym) was offering me an invitation, and I, out of good sense or fear or both, turned away.
That was the end of our story, but not the end of the story for me. The crush and the offer and his later, early death have taken root in my imagination, and again and again in my life I have pulled them out to consider them. About the place of this memory in my life I wrote an essay, “Dead and Gone.” The moment when the flimsiness of the crush encounters the cold fist of reality is described here:
The room was still, my body pinned in the chair and in space. Without moving my eyes, I watched the dust sparkle again in the air between us, and I looked at him and I did not look away. This was a test, and I wanted to pass it.
The office was his, and the silence was his to disrupt. “You know, if you ever want to talk about your major, or the class, we could meet again. In the afternoon, or later. We could even go get a beer.” There was a pause. “Sometimes I’m free in the evening.” And he looked at me without looking away.
I felt as though I was being dared: dared to be the object of attention, dared to interpret his offer, dared to say, Yes, I’d love to. I sat there, pinned and thinking. And the big billboard of my romantic fantasy gave way and fell into pieces. I saw us meeting in the parking lot near the town grocery store after dark, and him pulling up in the kind of old Volvo that all the professors drove and pushing open the passenger side door and me getting in, and me ducking down below the dash so nobody could see me as we drove and drove and drove away from town to somewhere he would take us. And on the floor of this car I saw all the crap that’s always on the floor of these cars, because as a babysitter for other professors and their children I had driven these cars and ferried children not my own around town in them, and I recognized the bits of cereal and plastic lunch baggies and receipts and the discarded envelopes of mail opened in the car and the gloves and winter grit and the floor mats askew. And I had plenty of time to study this stuff on the floor because my head was tucked down, and there was no view out the window for me, because I was hiding — he was hiding me — and this, I suddenly saw, is how our time together outside of school would be.
“Thank you,” was all I could say out loud. I had no words for whether I would consider history or not, meeting or not, because suddenly I knew that all I wanted was to remove myself from what would only, it seemed then, become sordid. Old car, old motel room in some other town, old dirt.
A few of my readers have seen this essay in draft, and their feedback and encouragement helped shape it. Thank you again.
Photograph, “Volvo Dashboard,” by Jean Pichot on flickr via creativecommons.org