The story of no

He vowed never to mix pleasure with teaching, but her indifference proved irresistible.


August Jacobs
May 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

During my years as a college professor, I assiduously avoided intimacy
with students. In an environment of unspoken permissiveness, I took an
unforgiving stance. Thou shalt not encourage, accept or enjoy the
intimacy of students. As with most prohibitions, this one went against
all natural inclinations. When, for example, one young woman, blond
hair flowing over her shoulders, airy sundress hanging gracefully on
breasts and hips, put her hand on my chest and teasingly accused me of
flattering her with good grades, the thrill that surged through me
was dizzying. But I knew that this was simply her way of getting what
she wanted, just as a basketball player once gave me tickets to a game.
A sublimated quid pro quo that slipped undetected below the illicitness
radar. And though I wouldn't want to exile libido from the classroom
entirely, I told myself sternly, the excitement of teaching and learning
should circulate around the material at hand, not around the personalities
involved.

But every once in a while it is nice to be adored. Twelve people enrolled
in my "Psychoanalysis and Culture" seminar, all seniors, nine women. The
material was difficult, the evenings were dark and cold, but I was on top
of my game. Soon, I was spending all week writing elaborate lectures. The
class was a frenetic dance between blackboards, notes and texts. And if
teaching, like hitting a baseball, has a sweet spot, I found it that
semester. My arguments would grow to baroque complexity only to reach an
elegant simplicity in their conclusion. After the semester had ended, my
student evaluations astounded the teaching committee. I was loved. After
each seminar, my fans would follow me to my car. And students would report
their Freudian epiphanies to their other professors, who would relate them
back to me.

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But there was one student not taken by me. She wasn't resistant to the
material, nor did she show any dislike for me or the seminar. But what was
breathtaking to the rest of us left her unmoved. I would not have
fallen for her had it not been for this irresistible distance. She was
neither the smartest nor the prettiest nor the coolest. But
somewhere along the line, she had been inoculated against the allure I held
for everyone else.

I, however, lacked all immunity to her charms. If her seductive
disinterest weren't enough, she had the bluest eyes and the fairest skin
one could ever dream up. And lest you think Rebecca was a preppy,
she had dirty blond dreadlocks with frosted highlights. Her affectations
were punk, but underneath there was a femininity that allowed her to hold
down a job at the bridal registry of an upscale department store. Her
beauty was understated yet persuasive enough that she could pass effortlessly from feminist cultural
studies to counseling brides on crystal. Her low-slung, vintage men's jeans weren't worn to disguise
the generosity of her hips or her stomach. Her boots were edgier than the
clunky Doc Martens everyone
else was wearing. And I thought that her small, black cardigan could also
be worn at the bridal registry, but imagining that pristine incarnation of
my otherwise grunge crush was too delicious to dwell on for long.

The real treasure, though, came at the intersection of her undersized
cardigan and her baggy jeans. There, she had left the bottom buttons of
the cardigan unbuttoned, and before the black cashmere met the faded denim,
there appeared a triangle of porcelain white stomach. At the bottom of
this triangle was the loveliest bellybutton I had ever seen, pierced by a
single steel ring. Her stomach didn't conform to any ideal. It was
neither flat nor muscular, but it was defiantly, if subtly, displayed. At
the center of this otherwise covered body, there appeared a brazen
challenge to gaze at flesh, to be moved by the warm sensuality of skin, to
be pushed by the edginess of a belly-button ring and to imagine, if you
dare, another triangle, six inches below this one.

With 11 pairs of loving eyes gazing at my every move, with 11 pairs
of attentive ears anxiously awaiting my next pronouncement, I delivered
lectures to Rebecca alone. The days separating my contact with Rebecca
grew longer. Awaiting some gleam to appear in Rebecca's deep blue eyes or
some quiver to shoot through her impenetrable calm, however, was futile. I
had to settle for gazing at her stomach as she breathed, watching it crease
in different ways as she adjusted her slouch.

As the end of the semester approached, Rebecca began to ask me questions
about desire and its satisfaction, about pleasure and its thresholds, that
made me delirious with curiosity. She was trying to get an answer without
letting on the real question. After the final class, I hurried to read her
paper first, hoping it would disclose what she had been getting at. It
turns out that our quiet, reserved bridal attendant, our bad-ass,
not-giving-you-the-time-of-day punk, was also part of the local S/M scene.
Her paper, the thesis of which was something like "a good top is hard to
find," showed no patience for the swooning lover, no tolerance for the
passive admirer. I knew then that the more my desire had been evident to
her, the more she would have sneered at my bottom ways. I had been
disdained. I imagined my devotion judged pathetic by her cruel regime.
And I understood why my pleading gaze had been met by nothing but her icy
visage.

I had found Rebecca's brutal indifference maddeningly seductive. And
although it filled me with desire, I could never have been the top she was
looking for. Ironically, that I loved the adoration of my students was for
her the greatest turn-off. I fed off of their adoration and sometimes I
pandered to it -- to her, this made me unworthy. I lacked the severe
autonomy, the unapologetic strength, that she sought in a top. The very
fact that I had won over the affection of the rest of the class made me
appear to Rebecca weak, not irresistible. And in Rebecca's eyes, I saw my
own neediness reflected. To accompany my shattered self-image, she did
leave me one small gift, a token, really, of her cruelty: stapled to her
paper were a dozen photocopied pages from "The Story of O." Choice excerpts,
for my pleasure. I've returned to these passages often since then, but
when I dream, I return to that soft, white triangle of midriff. And
although I would have preferred the warmth of human flesh, I still miss my
captivity. I have never since been the teacher I was then.

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August Jacobs

August Jacobs is a former professor of comparative literature living in Virginia.

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