Best essays of 2017: A borderline intimate education

My professor said our close relationship wasn't "mentoring." So what were we doing?

Published December 30, 2017 7:30PM (EST)

 (Salon/Ilana LIdagoster)
(Salon/Ilana LIdagoster)

We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. Read all the entries in the series.

Not long ago, I was a college freshman sitting on the cold tile floor of the English building, pretending to read "Pride and Prejudice," and not long ago, Professor Fuller walked across those same cold tiles, into an empty classroom and into my life. It was the first day of our writing workshop, a required course for all students. He introduced himself briefly: Mid-thirties. MFA from a prestigious school. Book published the previous spring. He used “whom” when he spoke and told us to buy a pocket dictionary because our cell phones would disturb “what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream.” Going over the syllabus, he told us class was canceled for a week that semester for his book tour. His eyes were glazed with subtle contentment when he told us — he was a writer, a published writer.

He was the first writer I ever met. I graduated from high school with plaques and cords and what I thought was a good idea of what the next four years would look like. I declared a major in English and enrolled in the most collegiate sounding courses my university offered — philosophy, political science, Latin. I knew I wanted to write, but I also knew that writing is supposed to be a side effect of living, and I wasn’t doing much living. At 18, I had avoided alcohol, drugs and anything else that might be a risk or might lead to one. The most intimate I’d ever been with someone was when my prom date put his hands on my hips when we posed for pictures, and that alone had been enough to make my palms damp. After Fuller's class that first day, I was more optimistic than I’d ever been about my writing. He was a real writer, and he could show me how to be a real writer, too.

I read and reread the stories he assigned. I let it slip that I was taking Latin, because I knew that he had minored in it. I asked for his help with declensions that I could recite perfectly. I bought a pocket dictionary and even started using it.

A few weeks into the semester, the English department put out a cart of free books in the hallway near Fuller's office — the professors’ reject pile, mostly obscure critical theory dissertations from the '60s and '70s written by authors with heavily voweled last names. I began to walk away with one of the dusty slabs when he came out of his office.

“Read this,” he said, handing me a stiff paperback. “It’s better than anything on that cart.”

The cover was a black-and-white photograph of a woman. Sunglasses covered most of her face, blocking out any distinguishable quality she had. It was easy to see myself. White woman? Check. Throw on a pair of sunglasses and I was her, I thought. Maybe he had thought the same thing, I told myself. Maybe he had thought it the moment I walked into his class on the first day and had been waiting for the right time to give me the book.

It was "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" by Joan Didion. I had never heard of her or read a collection of essays before, and I had no idea what the title meant, so I headed to the library to find out. As I hurried across campus, the October air was alive and the dead leaves moved in broken circles at my feet.

A rough beast’s hour had come round at last.

* * *

That night, I got an email:

I’d start with the last essay. –JF

I lingered on those last two letters. They were more personal than his first name. They were something only someone who knew him could decipher. They contained a relationship, a past shared between sender and receiver. I grabbed the book and turned to the last essay:

It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.

I finished the collection the next day, and after our next class he gave me Didion's "The White Album." When I finished that, he gave me a short story by Chekhov. Next came Cheever, Carver, Calvino. Graham Greene. Denis Johnson. Karl Ove Knausgaard. I fell more in awe with each new title. I felt lucky that I found someone who had already sifted through so many pages, dog-eared the ones worth reading and was willing to share his findings with me. We’d discuss the stories during his office hours until there was a line of other students waiting their turn. After a few weeks, he asked if I could start coming one hour before our class instead of during his scheduled office hours so we wouldn’t be interrupted. Meanwhile, the emails steadily became more frequent and longer.

It was the beginning of something — I just couldn’t tell what it was. Everything prior to meeting Fuller felt trivial, boring, childish. I didn’t tell anyone about our arrangement. He existed only in emails and in my mind, the only two places where I could give him room to grow.

Within a few weeks, the topics of our conversations, both in person and over email, broadened. In addition to stories and poems, Fuller started sending music. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert. The Velvet Underground, the Pogues, the Strokes. He’d write me about the first time he heard them — where he was, who he was. When he went on his book tour, he sent a picture of the Chicago skyline. When he needed feedback, he sent sections of the novel he was working on. When he wanted to learn about trees, we showed each other interesting leaves we found outside, squinting at their veins and edges, locating their names in the heavy leaf anthology I took out from the library. When he wanted a plant for his office, he asked for help picking a type. A few times, when the night sky was particularly clear, he’d email me urgently, insisting that I go outside and look at the moon.

There were always postscripts in his emails. There was always something else to say, an implicit promise that the conversation would be continued. That his interest didn’t waver was a continual surprise to me. I felt increasingly indebted to him; his time was valuable and he, for some reason, was giving it to me. By November he asked if I’d be willing to walk around campus with him rather than sit in his office. Walking helps with writing, he said.

We meandered all over campus, down past the gym and football field, along narrow, winding bicycle paths. When the temperature dropped, he wore a peacoat and wrapped his neck with a pale blue scarf. On the days I knew I’d see him, I’d wear knee-length skirts and sheer tights, trying my best to look older and scholarly, but I always just ended up looking cold, my knees glowing red beneath the thin netting.

Still, it felt good to walk with him. His steady pace was metronomic. He was about half a head taller than me, but we somehow walked in sync, hands burrowed in our pockets, looking straight ahead. There’s something comforting about moving through the same space with another person, like two people listening to the same song from one set of headphones. In an email, he described something he had observed about me when we walked:

When you find something interesting, you squint your eyes and look straight ahead, considering what you just heard. You purse your lips, and it looks like everything might come out at once if you were to open them. After a moment, you look up at me, your eyes wide and bright with wonder.

He said we should walk because it helps with writing, but I began to wonder if it was so we wouldn’t be overheard. He would talk to me about a dream he had or his relationship with his parents or his ex-girlfriends. He never mentioned his wife. Their wedding picture, next to the picture of their two kids, sat on his desk back in his office.

Occasionally, we would cross paths with a student he knew. The student would say hello, look at me and continue on their way. I never worried about running into someone I knew because I didn’t know anyone on campus. There were some familiar faces from classes, but by the end of my first semester I had made no friends. I was too busy writing emails. My memories from that holiday season are quotes from his emails, words on a screen. Thanksgiving: He was thankful to have met me. Christmas: Listen to “The Fairytale of New York.” New Years: He met a few amazing people this year, one being his daughter, who was born last spring, and another being me.

My nineteenth birthday fell a few weeks into the winter recess. Fuller was teaching a class in Manhattan then and wanted to go to the Met for my birthday. His class was over by 10 a.m. and he could meet me at Penn Station, he offered around Christmas. I wanted to say yes, wanted the anonymity that only the city could offer, wanted to be missing from my regular life, belonging only to him for a few hours, but knew I couldn’t. I told him it wasn’t a good time. Not now, but not never.

Instead, he sent a copy of Italo Calvino’s "Invisible Cities," one of his favorites, to my house around New Years. On the title page, he wrote small, careful letters for me to read the book slowly, so that I reached the last page on my birthday. One day, newly 19, I sat in bed and read the last page:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Give them space. For months now, I had become Tantalus, starving, stranded, everything I wanted close but out of reach. It was tortuous. My face broke out, worse than it ever had. I stopped participating in my classes, so stressed that I would say the wrong thing that I just said nothing at all. My older sister Margaret called me out a few times for minimizing my internet screen whenever someone walked by my room, which made me even more panicky. I couldn’t bring myself to see how deep in the inferno I was or even think about getting out.

I had a Smith Corona typewriter that belonged to my grandmother who died before I was born. When I told Fuller this, he asked if I would write him something on it, so after he sent "Invisible Cities" I typed him a thank you note. I tried to make it thoughtful but as innocuous as possible, but still, there was something about being able to hold the letter that made it feel incriminating. I was reading Fitzgerald’s letters at the time and found a quote from a letter he wrote to his daughter Scottie, urging her to improve her reading choices. In the note, I thanked him for the book, and quoting Fitzgerald, thanked him for helping me make the right reading choices. He emailed me from the train into the city where he read the letter, saying that he would keep the letter in his coat pocket the whole day.

When the spring semester started, we fell back into the same pattern. We picked a new day and time to meet and walk. The cold was relentless. One day in February, he asked me to come to his office early. He had a surprise. Two coffees, two doughnuts, two chairs in front of the computer screen. He showed me the film "The Third Man," which had come up during one of our talks and was also his favorite movie. I was able to feel his eyes on me as I watched. I don’t remember anything from the film, except for the closing image. The female lead walks down a street lined with tall leafless trees on both sides, while the male lead leans against the side of his car in the foreground, watching the woman become smaller and smaller, disappearing into the vanishing point at the center of the frame. Fuller loved that shot, and so did I. Maybe it was the womanly way she walked, maybe it was knowing how she felt, that feeling of being observed by someone whom you wanted to be observed by, bonded together in a fleeting moment.

A few days later, Fuller told me about a recent morning he spent in a nature preserve nearby and suggested we go together. After spring break, I told him, trying to buy some more time. After a winter of record-breaking low temperatures and snowfalls and wind chills, I grew more and more uneasy when everything began to thaw.

Things fall apart.

It fell apart; I fell apart.

It was spring break and I was sitting at a table in my town’s library studying for next week’s midterms with my sister Kelly when I checked my email. There was a notification in a small font at the bottom of the page: “Open in 1 other location.” I clicked it, and it took me to a page with an IP address. I copy-and-pasted into Google, and a pixelated image of a small house with a bluish-gray roof appeared.

It was my house. Someone was reading my emails.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Margaret had broken into my account and read my exchanges with Fuller. She had brought it — whatever “it” was — to my parents. Across from me, Kelly's eyes widened. She began texting feverishly. Then she looked up but avoided eye contact.

"We’re going home," she said.

I didn’t ask why, didn’t play dumb. I gathered my notebook and American Lit anthology and walked to the car. The low afternoon sun was stunning as we rolled down a long stretch of road in silence, no stop signs or traffic lights, just the pavement and a 50-miles-per-hour speed limit. It felt like we had been slingshotted, the string of hair salons, restaurants and dog groomers blurring into a single motion. It was a road made for stretching your arm out the window, allowing the air to tug at your fingers. I tried to remember the last time I had done that but couldn’t. I leaned my head against the warm glass of the window, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the road for a moment longer.

* * *

My parents asked questions I couldn’t answer. They were the same questions that had been in my mind for a while now, questions I couldn’t bring myself to voice, let alone answer. The worst part was not knowing what to call it — I still don’t know. I never thought of it as being a romantic relationship, never considered it dating. I never called him by his first name. It was always Professor Fuller. There was nothing wrong with this, I told my parents, my voice wearing thinner each second.

But it was pointless. They could see where this was headed. They had read the emails. They had read when he said I looked like a young Natalie Wood. When he told me he was going through a rough time before this year and that meeting me somehow helped him. Someone had run a plumber’s snake down my throat, pulled out every terrible thing inside me and put it on display for everyone to see.

It didn't take long for my mom to convince me to go to the school. "Even if he just goes away, you have to make sure he doesn’t do this to anyone else," she said.

I kept thinking, Do what? What exactly had he done? Could anyone tell me what had happened?

Lying in bed that night, I heard her printing out our emails to bring to the school. I listened as the printer pitilessly spat out page after page of my infatuation, my humiliation. Cold awake, I forced my lids shut.

There was a moment I kept returning to. It happened toward the end, on one of the walks. His alma mater had asked him to participate in a mentoring program. Interested students would email him, introduce themselves, and he would pick one to give literary career guidance via email and video chat. There were two students interested: a boy and a girl. He chose the girl.

He was telling me about something that came up during his discourse with her, something about mentoring, something that made him think of me. He paused and looked at me.

“Not that I think of this as mentoring,” he said quickly.

I don’t remember what came after that. I don’t remember what he was talking about with the girl or why it had reminded him of me, but I remember that line, that throwaway, that glimpse into what this was in his mind, not mentoring, the closest thing I have to an answer. When I go back to that moment, I grab myself by the shoulders and shake them violently. Ask him. What does he mean? What does he think this is?

And every time I watch myself keep walking with him, so good at silencing the version of myself who asks the hard questions.

* * *

“Was it ever . . . physical?” the woman asked.

She said it like she had just thought of the question, but we both knew that wasn’t true. This question was the purpose of the meeting. This question meant the difference between slapping a wrist and cutting off the whole hand.

“No,” I said after a moment.

It was close enough to the truth. There was never any significant intimacy. An occasional brush of shoulders when we walked. A momentary hand on my back. Always just enough to send a jolt of adrenaline through me. Once he held my coat open as I slipped my arms into the holes. Another time he leaned in and gently wedged his headphones into my ears.

“I’m not looking to get him fired,” I said. “I just want to end communication.”

I was surprised by how composed and businesslike I sounded to myself. My answers came mechanically. I was working off a script I had never seen, playing a role I had never auditioned for. The woman was using a script too, and her lines were full of important-sounding words. Legal words. Mandated words. Title IX words.

I could hear the call she would make to him after I left: She won’t be coming to see you today.

And I could hear the silent confusion on the other end, the destruction of a world perfectly constructed.

I was informed that he had a meeting with the Title IX coordinator and the head of his department. That was the end of it. I dropped my writing minor. I cried through an art history exam. I cut holes into my acne until my face throbbed. He was everywhere. In my bookcase were books that he'd recommended. In my iPod were songs he'd told me to listen to. In my closet were outfits I thought he’d like. In my head were stories and movies and anecdotes and advice I had thoughtlessly sucked in, not once considering how I felt about it all.

I had sleepwalked through my first year of college.

Any tall, dark-haired, white man on campus would send me in the opposite direction. I could always tell when it was him, though. His walk gave him away every time, the steady pacing which now seems eerie to me, like a shark moving behind glass.

The inevitable intersection happened a week after the Title IX meeting, ten minutes before my American Lit class. The door to the room, which was just down the hall from Fuller's office, was locked, so I had to wait outside. I considered waiting in a nearby bathroom, but seeing as there was a group of students forming in the hallway, I decided to wait, toughen up, not be so ridiculous.

It was laughable, how quickly he had appeared.

He walked up and talked to two classmates who were standing next to me, a casual conversation that flowed so easily. Meanwhile, I was trying to gain control over whatever inside me had just dropped and shattered. So what are you taking this semester? Shards everywhere. And what class is this? Watch your step. Oh, you’re taking my fiction class next semester? Beyond repair.

I finally walked down the hallway and hid around the bend. Tears clouded my eyes but for the first time in months I was able to see myself clearly: I was alone, had no friends on campus, no one to turn to, nowhere to go, and was stuck with what had caused it all, what I was most desperate to escape from — myself.

* * *

It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.

Years somehow slipped by. I saw him occasionally after that year, but it stopped bothering me as much. He was promoted. For the rest of my time at the university I worked on the campus magazine, where I found a home among big-hearted, bitter misfits my own age.

For a while, I kept writing for revenge. I’d imagine Fuller hearing about all the things I accomplished, all the things I did without his help. This got me nowhere. I was writing for him, not for me. I also wasted a lot of time questioning if I could be a writer without his help and if being a writer was what I really wanted to do. I’ve stopped asking these questions.

But where his influence ends and I begin is something I’m still figuring out. Is "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" the greatest book ever written? No. Is Calvino boring sometimes? Yes. Does walking help the writing process? Probably, but not when wearing tights in 20-degree weather. I wish I hated everything he showed me, that I could lump my poor judgment with poor taste. I wish I hated “Do You Remember the Mountain Bed” and Denis Johnson and the Velvet Underground. I wish I didn't wish “Fairytale of New York” was the only Christmas song ever written. I try to enjoy these things despite my earliest memory of them, try to scrub them clean of that initial read or listen.

Sometimes I get lucky, like I did on this one December day. The magazine staff would get to pick the music for an hour on the campus radio station each week, and that day someone suggested we play a Christmas song. A good Christmas song. A friend of mine immediately started swinging his arms and bellowing wrong lyrics: “They’ve got cars big as balls . . .” We cued the song. The brassy voices pounded against the walls of the decrepit sound booth. We all flinched when we heard a forgotten curse word, violating our agreement with the station. Then we laughed. Too late. Oh well. Make it louder.

I can still hear it, buried in the space between each note, the sound of a song being rewritten.

By J. Munroe

J. Munroe is the pseudonym of a writer from New York.


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