THE PARIAH AND I
BEFORE THERE WAS THE PARIAH—before I knew of The Pariah and before she even became “The Pariah”—there was just me and all the university’s girls. There were boys too but the boys were just boys, as I expected, caps and chortles and acne and enthusiasm for all sort of games involving balls. But the girls were something else. I never saw such girls. They were like little women—and I guess they were little women: “young ladies”—on a planet where little women were designed by those same caps-chortles-acne-ball-loving boys. Their skin was always burnt to an orange glow, like marinated duck, as if to imply lots of outdoor play that seemed to be an illusion at best, and their hair was similarly faded to yellow or streaked enough to imply sun-damage which probably didn’t happen the old-fashioned way either. This was attractive. They wore little shorts or sweats and who could make sweats provocative but them—these tight little sweats, often pink or white, that tugged at their bottoms and rode down their hips, often with words on the butt portion. Meanwhile they wore similarly sportsy tops but with their breasts somehow popping out of even them, even out of a hoodie, as if you could watch the zipper be coerced to a slow descent. Attractive. These girls were little pink and orange rubber things, like hot dogs, jumping out of their bland buns. They were exciting, terrible, and endlessly fascinating to me, me and boys, because, of course, they were nothing like me, not then, of course, or ever. I watched them like you watch a thing that is capable of anything if you look away.
In my world, it was just me and the girls. I was barely of “little woman” ilk of course, definitely the one that didn’t belong, not an unlikely position for me, not one that I hadn’t been used to by then. I was thirty-eight and as single as any of them.
In my department, every single woman was married, even the lesbian Shakespeare professor. For all I could tell, in every department in the college, every female professor was married. It was only my students, those strange girls and I, who were not taken. Some of them though were on their way, or so they were determined.
I was maybe the farthest away.
I had just taken the job in a small town, three hours from other small cities. I was a city girl, but nobody could guess this. During faculty orientation, one woman said, “Oh are you the prof who’s a townie?” I smiled politely while she quickly corrected herself: “Your names sound alike, apologies.” Another professor assumed I was from Ohio. When I asked why, he shrugged and said, “You get some Ohio hires here.” Everyone was surprised when I said I was from Brooklyn. Even in Brooklyn, they would be surprised.
I looked forgettable. I had been told this—in various ways—my whole life and I felt mostly consoled by that because there were people out there that looked unforgettable in the bad way—they were ugly. I was just neither here nor there. I was pale, I had freckles, I had hair between blonde and brown and red, I was neither thin nor fat, short nor tall, and I was named “Anne,” a name that is destined to be forgotten.
And out here it was better that way—as I was a Visiting Assistant Professor, a full-time and yet temporary hire. I had one year, one year and maybe two, if all went well. But nobody needed to remember me, not even the students really, who sometimes just called me “Professor” without a last name attached.
I rented a small house in the center of town, the home of a French professor on her junior leave. All the stuff inside was hers—her abundant Impressionist posters, her French books, her big red couch, her many plants that I was allowed to kill—no worries, she had said over and over, about just about everything I asked her.
I was enjoying my invisibility, the predictability of my days—MWF 1-2:22pm for my ENG 106 in Arnold 221 then 2:30 to 3:52 for my ENG 202 in Fillmore 18B, office hours on Wednesday from 4-7pm in Caldwell 103—when I went to a party and learned about The Pariah.
It was not my first party. I got invited to parties, faculty events, and I’d go early and leave early, and learn a few more names, and drink never more than two glasses of anything and eat never more than one paper plate, and it would be fine. I’d be in bed always, party or not, at 10:22, for some reason. But I went to this one, early for the holiday season, the first of many holiday parties in our department, where the gossip got to me, of all people, which should tell you something of The Pariah’s power. If I was even the last to hear, that was something still. It meant The Pariah really was of pariah-magnitude, there was no doubt about it.
There was a chocolate fountain. This was the rage at the holiday party, apparently a device that was last used at Professor Gilman’s wedding to Professor Rose. It encountered several technical difficulties throughout the night—it had a tendency to sputter and then stall, but nobody minded the spray of milk chocolate here and there. They loved it. It delighted not just the many children, but the many adults, who otherwise had not much to say but “happy holidays” and what a relief it was that it was over—well, almost over, but when is ever over, really—and what are you up to during the break, after grading—all the grading, all the grading, I know—where to, where on earth to, to get the hell out of this miserable—now I don’t mean that, but you know, you know!—college town.
I was going nowhere. I had thought about visiting my parents, but then I had decided against it. I thought it would be a good opportunity to read and get lost in my work some more and get to know this place, without all the burdens of teaching, a place I only had another semester to soak in.
“That’s terrible! I mean, I mean , I don’t mean it’s terrible, your plan or lack of, ha. But really, I feel like a key to being happy here is getting out, know what I mean?”
I reminded Professor Delano that I only had a semester more here.
“Oh! Yes, you’re a VAP. Well, but who knows, you know? Next year, there’s a chance, no? See! I knew of a professor in geology who was a VAP for five years in a row before they turned him tenure-track! He passed away a couple years ago, now what was his name, what was it, Carol, do you remember his name, the geology assoc...”
I ate sliced vegetables and ranch, shortbread and sugar cookies, a slice of quiche and a slice of brie, and sipped my merlot. When a chair freed up I took it and looked up at people with an airy smile, like a tired but delighted grandmother saying, you go ahead now.
There were at least fifty people there, a big gathering since our department and our whole college was so small.
Professor Priou almost spilled my plastic cup of wine on the floor and let out an animated shriek at the near-miss. “Anne! How in the hell are you! I have barely seen you since you got hired! Since your job talk! Where have you been, Anne!”
I shrugged. “Teaching, I guess. Same with you, I suppose. Busy semester, right?”
“Oh, the worst! Now this was definitely the worst semester I’ve ever remembered! What was up with these kids! I had at least three psychiatric cases!”
Professor Chan cut in. “Oh, tell me about it. I had one student come to my class high and drunk and then he started crying. During a mid-term, mind you! A mid-term!”
There was so much laughter all around it was hard to tell who or what it was for. The chocolate fountain was up and running again, as evidenced by the squeals of Professor Knight’s twins who were stationed by it all evening.
“It was a high-drama semester!” Professor Copeland-Ross agreed. “For some more than others, but we all felt it!”
“Oh, oh no, Daisy, you’re not—you’re not referring to—” Professor Chan was in stitches, upset or elated, it was hard to tell, but I was suddenly tuned in tremendously.
“Oh come on, what else? Isn’t that the elephant in the room?”
“Poor Larry didn’t even come.”
“Do you blame him?”
“Well, I’d expect Larry to come, not Cheryl, of course, but what did Larry do—“
“Professor Milton?” I asked. Larry Milton was Film Studies in our department.
Professor Priou nodded down at me, with a secretive smile, as if knowing quite well that I did not know.
“Let’s not get into this,” Professor Kipfer groaned.
“Oh, come now, it’s common knowledge!” Professor Copeland-Ross cried. “Anne, you don’t know? About Cheryl—Professor Milton? Professor Milton’s wife, Professor Milton in Philosophy?”
Cheryl Milton. I knew nobody in Philosophy. I couldn’t even imagine Larry Milton, but I knew his name from a couple students of mine who had had him as well and couldn’t stop complaining about his sternness in my office hours.
I shook my head and beamed innocently, an angel food sponge for any gossip, but so safe, as it would inevitably be one-way, though not that this gaggle of professors seemed to care.
Professor Chan, a Byronist, cleared her throat, and took the lead. “It’s everywhere, Anne, so it’s not like we’re telling you a dirty secret or anything. You’d probably catch wind of it at some point—”
“And whatever, Anne is a VAP, no offense, Anne—” Professor Priou chimed in.
Just as Professor Chan continued the chocolate fountain died again. Groans of children, a dim whirr, and nothing. The living room felt suddenly very silent.
Professor Chan’s voice lowered, just a bit, appropriately. “Professor Milton—Larry’s wife, Cheryl, who does Plato in the Phil department, apparently cheated on him. With a townie neighbor. They are separated and filing for divorce of course, but it’s really awkward at the moment, as you can imagine.”
I blinked a few times. That was it? Someone I didn’t know had cheated on someone I didn’t know. That was it. I nodded, with some feigned sympathy.
“Well, Anne, in a small town like this it’s a big deal,” Professor McDonnell added, sensing my apathy. “And in a small college like this. We’re lucky they were in two different departments. This would really do a number on an entire department, I’d think.”
“It’s just so unfortunate,” the wife of a professor I didn’t know added. “I feel terrible for Larry!”
“To still be linked to her, for even more time, and here possibly forever,” Professor Chan said. “To be linked to that, that, that pariah. . .”
They all sighed.
I looked at the chocolate fountain as if for a response. It was still down.
“That’s terrible,” I said, nibbling on a piece of brie. “I can’t imagine.”
“Understatement of the year!” Professor Kipfer grumbled.
“Pariah is the perfect word!” another wife cried.
I nodded and looked at the floor, hoping my wine would survive this. Eventually the chocolate fountain was up and running again and it drew them away from me and to it, Professor Knight even claiming it was suddenly going faster than ever, just look, amazing.
I had made a point of trying to learn the names of everyone in my department, after my previous department chair at my last VAP job advised “best way to make a best impression is know every name of professor and student alike.” I hadn’t done this at that college, so I felt like it was a bit of a jab and I took it all the more seriously. Still, it didn’t mean I knew faces, though I did know most. But Larry Milton was a complete blur to me, until, a few days later, bored with grading, I looked him up on the faculty directory and then I thought I vaguely recalled him from a department meeting. He was a thin, balding man with a sandy goatee and watery blue eyes. He looked gentle and yet my student had described him as cruel. I thought looks were probably deceiving in this case because a wife probably wouldn’t do that unless with a cruel man, but I didn’t really know, how would I know. It did seem strange that he took Film Studies that seriously.
I then looked up Cheryl Milton. Amazingly she was the only professor in philosophy who had no photo. I wondered if that had been her decision before or after the transgression. Maybe she asked the remove it? Or make the affair had gone on so long that she opted out of a photo early on knowing that one day she’d be notorious? That there would be a woman she didn’t know, that she’d never know, who’d know her as The Pariah and look her up and furiously Google her even, all to no end. There was no trace of her, other than her work, which was, yes, all about Plato, which I knew nothing about to even start looking for clues there, thank goodness.
I forgot about it mostly and then the next week, the last week of class instruction before finals, I realized a student I had in conference, who routinely came to my office hours, was a philosophy major.
“Say, Sophie, you still in philosophy?”
She nodded with a rolled eye for effect. Her skin—even this philosophy student’s—was the color of a tangerine.
“Who do you take?”
“Well, this year Katarankis and Dunn, last year Hodes and Garcia. Why?”
“Oh nothing, just wondering,” I smiled.
I forgot about that too. And then just days later, my worst student, a huge football player named Tyler, came to me after class.
“Look, professor, what are my chances?”
“Of passing,” I finished for him.
I pretended to think long and hard about it. “I can’t say for sure, but not good, Tyler?” I said. In times like this I echoed the intonations of the girls, ending everything with a question mark, which made everything, I thought, a tad more cuddly, especially hard truths for large men.
He sighed. “It’s just that all my grades right now are the pits.”
I nodded, trying to make it an understanding-nod rather than a naturally-nod.
“I mean, Algebra is a joke, Bio forget it, Philosophy doubtful, Econ no way—“
The word philosophy had suddenly become a buzzword for me. I thought to ask and then I didn’t. He ranted onward. I thought to ask and then I didn’t. I realized I was growing warm, my own skin a tropical fruit, that if I didn’t ask, I’d be downright ill, that the question for some reason had an urgency that I had to release it from—
“Oh yeah?” I suddenly blurted. “What do you take?”
He looked confused. “Huh?”
“Philosophy,” I stammered. “It’s an interest of mine. What do you take?”
“Oh it’s just a course on The Republic with what’s-her-name,” he mumbled.
“Plato,” I whispered.
“No, that’s not the professor,” he corrected.
I tried to chuckle.
“It’s what’s-her-name. . .”
“Milton,” I said with too-loud force, I am convinced of it.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
I nodded back.
For a few moments we just nodded.
“How do you like it?”
He shrugged. “It’s like everything else.”
“That bad, huh?” I tried to make a joke.
“It sucks,” he said. “But she’s good.”
“She is? Is she?”
He shrugged. “She’s okay.”
“Oh, okay,” I echoed.
“Yours is my favorite class,” he said.
I smiled. I had beaten The Pariah at least in this area, the favorite of the worst student in my class, maybe the worst I had ever had.
“There’s nothing I can do?” he said, with a smile. Question marks, the gatekeepers to the realm of possibility.
“Nothing I can think of?” I question-marked back, with a wobbly half-smile.
“That’s what I thought,” he sighed and walked out.
For a brief moment I felt insulted. Why did you think that? Why was that what you thought? What a waste of a favorite teacher. And then I reminded myself that he said favorite class, which was quite different than favorite teacher. I was not that woman. I was in and out of their minds like a check, not a check-plus or check-minus, but just a simple, red check.
At the dinner following my job talk that spring, small talk had become a necessity. We went to a nice enough place across the street from the university, a place with antique-looking floral wallpaper and candles in the windows and mahogany everything, one of three decent restaurants in town that I never went to after that. The old chair, Professor Vargas—now on sabbatical—had been quite a talker. Professor Chan and Professor Priou had also come along, though they were less animated. Professor Vargas asked me all sorts of questions I was unprepared for like—while I was debating between beef stroganoff, the third most expensive thing on the menu, or the crab cakes special whose price I had immediately forgotten after the waiter rattled it off robotically—what my favorite television show was.
“I’m sorry, my favorite TV show?” I had thought I misheard.
“Yes! Why not!” Professor Vargas, whose eyes instead of lips were always smiling, said.
“Well,” I had taken a deep breath, feeling like this was a part of the Q&A that had just happened a half hour before after my job talk, on the same level as questions about my pedagogy and the canon and theory and how I’d reach minority and international students who might feel marginalized. “I don’t have one, I guess. I haven’t had a TV in years.”
I thought it was a good answer, one that implied I was a reader; I also thought that would be the end of that, a simple pass. But Vargas was not done with me: “You grew up with one, I’m sure! What about an old one?”
Professor Priou chimed in—I suppose trying to be helpful, the aura Professor Priou usually gave, I’d discover—“I don’t have a TV either, but I’d do anything to see The Jeffersons again.”
I nodded slowly and wondered what my obvious choice would say about me. I did have one, of course, a big one, a series I had taped on VHS ages ago when it was on rerun, a show, I had to admit, was even a lifelong obsession.
“In that case,” I announced and paused, less for suspense than stalling, to make sure it did not imply anything strange or offensive about me. “Laverne & Shirley.”
Professor Vargas’s eyes had really smiled and he even clapped his hands together. “What a choice,” he said.
“You’re probably not alone,” Professor Priou muttered. “I’ve never seen it, but I can imagine we’ve got fans among us.”
Professor Chan had shrugged with a small amused smile.
Professor Vargas had clapped again and said, “Whatever you do, don’t order the crabcakes here, unless you like the taste of cold shredded rubber.”
In the end I ordered the vegetarian plate that both Vargas and Priou ordered, which was a mistake because they seemed very interested in my vegetarianism until I revealed I wasn’t one at all.
“You are full of surprises,” Vargas said at one point, “which in itself is surprising.”
My soon-to-be colleagues burst into the loudest laughter of the day and together their laughter sounded witchy, cackly and cartoonish—which I of course did not even think to imagine was a foreshadowing of the very bad year to come, but simply the way professors sounded.
My favorite part of the Laverne & Shirley opener are the final two scenes, far after the famous countdown intro where they skip down their street, after the shots of them working in Milwaukee’s fictional Shotz Brewery where they occupy themselves by removing a bottle from the assembly line or putting a blown-up glove on top of a beer bottle so it looks like it’s waving, after they’ve thrown snowballs at Lenny and Squiggy. It’s the final eighteen seconds: first, just a shot of L and S back at the assembly line, beers going by, and each with a dreamy look on their face, hands at their chins, contemplative, as if imagining a reality far larger than the one they are trapped in, perhaps imagining that audience of millions that tuned in weekly and for decades to come, and then the final shot, the last twelve seconds, a surprising one, as it’s a bike ride, but Shirley is the one steering Laverne, Laverne comically riding handless on the back of the bike, while Shirley steers and the final frozen shot, the last seven seconds, Shirley has a bigger smile than Laverne for once, and it almost looks as if she’s the taller, bigger, funnier one, the lead.
I always thought of myself as more of a Shirley, but in the weeks after the holiday party, as the semester started losing itself, maybe just emboldened by experience, I’d reconsidered, though reconsidered rather inconsequentially.
It started holding a place in my mind all the time, it seemed. I could not stop thinking about her. I didn’t know what I wanted out of this—just to see her? Meet her? Befriend her? No, that was unimaginable. What would The Pariah want to do with me? The only person The Pariah had, undoubtedly, was her townie.
But why did I care? It was hard to say why. All I could think was before her there was that type of woman (the university girls, red-hot debauchery incarnate) and then the other type (mine, the more asexual-seeming professor-types). She had done something to the dynamic with that move of hers. She had raised the stakes, blurred the lines, made the whole darn place a little less safe, the rules a bit less clear. When I called my one friend, a lecturer in Alaska whose job was not entirely dissimilar, she said, So what? A professor cheated on a professor. This is a big deal to you? I told her somehow it was, but I didn’t know why. And you don’t know these people? I said I didn’t really. She laughed, a gentle laugh, the laughter of a good friend who knows you’re going to be okay. Finally she said, You’re just bored. You’ve got to find some hobby there or some people to hang out with. You hate your job and you’re bored. I remember arguing with her for over ten minutes about how I did not hate my job when the problem was I just hadn’t realized it yet.
Whatever it was, I started getting uncharacteristically brave. One day, when I was making photocopies in the main English department office, I asked our secretary, Maria, where the philosophy department was located, which in retrospect was stupid because I could have simply looked it up online. It was reckless, I realized, but that should show you what it was doing to my head.
“Glasgow,” she said, staring at her computer screen, without looking up. We were in Campbell. Amazingly Glasgow was the building right across from us in the quad.
“Aha!” I said. Stupid. “Great, thanks, Maria. I just needed to refer a student there.”
Maria nodded, still without looking up.
And I left the office and thought what to do. There was of course one thing to do. But what was the point? What could I do once I got there? Just linger? I didn’t know the point. But that in itself told me it might be worth it. I had some extra time before prep for the 106 and Glasgow was just ten seconds away. There was a chance—a slight one—that I could see her perhaps.
I did not see her. I got to Glasgow and located their main office, equipped with a much older secretary than our Maria, but equally immersed in work to notice me. I even located her office down a corridor of offices. Most professors had cartoons or posters or some notice on their office doors. Like, I had a poster of a dog staring at a butterfly, which granted had nothing to do with what I taught, but I just thought it might brighten up whoever existed on the other side, since the image certainly cheered me up whenever I had a chance to look at it. But Cheryl Milton had nothing, nothing except the placard that said simply “Professor Cheryl Milton.” It fit with the lack of directory photo, plainness perhaps a hallmark of newfound pariahhood.
I tried not to stop outside that door, lest she should be in there and suddenly come out. I pretended to look for something, some office I couldn’t find, something that was out of my reach, and with an audible sigh, I speed-walked out and back in Campbell.
There would have to be another way.
I tried everything. In the days to come I went to Glasgow two more times, at different times, and still no sign of a female professor, and judging from the names on the doors she was the only one in their small department. The Pariah in the company of men and men only, I thought, where she belonged.
I tried to look out on campus for Pariah-looking professors. What did that mean? Exactly. It was hopeless.
There was of course a last resort and finally I took it. I went too far, of course, and asked Nick, that worst student of mine who the Pariah and I shared, where their class was.
I nodded, with what I hoped was a casual smile. “And when is it?”
I nodded. I didn’t even know they did night classes there. I thought again it was fitting, the Pariah and her nights.
“Why?” Nick asked.
“Why, are you coming to our class or something?”
I gave him a strange look. “Why would I do that?”
He shrugged. “You said you liked philosophy.”
Ah. “Yes, yes I do! But I don’t know her or really do that sort of thing. I guess I just wondered in case there would ever be a possibility, to even ask her. But you know, I can’t, it turns out. I’m very busy those nights. I’m busy most nights.”
Strangely Nick cracked a smile at that. “Cool.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that.
“When are we getting our quizzes back?” Nick changed the subject, thank goodness.
“Have you graded them?”
“Yes,” I lied, and had to quickly follow, “And I can’t tell you your grade yet. But soon.”
He rolled his eyes and walked out, just like that.
The one good thing about teaching was that you had these people in your life for fourteen weeks and then never again. It was beautiful how it worked. Hello and see you never. How could anyone be lonely with a constant and variable flow of individuals in one’s life like that, season after season; how could anyone care about anyone in a system so systematic.
One time, I nearly bumped into Professor Milton—Professor Larry Milton, that is—on his way out of the department supply room. He was so quick, I didn’t get a chance to look deeply in his eyes, to see what was there and I guess what wasn’t.
Professor Chan was inside, going through boxes.
I think I was smiling.
“Well, you seem uncharacteristically sunny today, Anne!” Professor Chan noticed.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I like the weather,” I added absently. Then I knew it sounded strange and I remembered Chan was the one who told me about the Pariah at the holiday party.
Professor Chan was counting folders, ignoring me, so I got a bit bold.
“Poor guy, huh?” I said in a whisper.
It startled Professor Chan. “Who?!”
That flustered me a bit but I tried not to miss a beat. “El Em,” I said, giving the initials, showing that I was sharp but discreet.
Professor Chan was more discreet though. “You okay, Anne?”
It haunted me, the knowledge of that class. Glasgow 153, W 7-9:52 pm. I knew exactly where to find her. But what would I do? Storm the class? I could of course bump into her before or after it, as she made her way there. After, most likely. But what would I being doing in Glasgow at night? Meeting someone? No, that was strange. Checking out classrooms? Why? Maybe teaching a class? I didn’t even know if there were non-philosophy courses taught in that building, though the scope of it implied it. But she could easily look me up and realize I was a fraud. But would she?
The Pariah was certainly very busy.
For a few days I tried to ignore the urge, to focus on other things I had in my life. I had a renewed interest in knitting—I revisited a purple scarf I had once abandoned. I had also started cooking more elaborate dinners—I had made the best lasagna I had ever made one night. I had started doing 70s aerobics off YouTube in my living room, since I didn’t like to use the campus gym—it seemed wrong to work out in the same space as the students. I started doing crosswords.
In certain ways I was very busy. Different ways, but this was the thing with The Pariah and I. We were opposites but in certain ways, in how the town regarded or disregarded us, perhaps equals. I had started to tell myself that and that of course ended up giving me courage.
But it wasn’t courage exactly that led me to Glasgow that mid-week evening. I had actually already been on campus. I had suddenly run out of groceries and I had a craving for those burritos I liked to get for lunch on days I was teaching. And so I thought why not. It was a Wednesday—hump day, wasn’t that what they called it?—9 p.m.—later than my usual dinner hour by quite a lot, I’d spent so long thinking about this—and if I wanted a campus burrito there was no reason I couldn’t get a campus burrito. I lived seven minutes, walking, from campus and the grill was open til midnight.
So I got out of my home clothes—sweats—and put on my teaching clothes, lest someone should see me who knows me—and threw on a raincoat over it. In retrospect it looked like a trench coat and that could, potentially, have looked odd, but I wasn’t overthinking it.
I only wanted a campus burrito after all.
And so I went to the Bulldog Grill—the college’s mascot was the bulldog—and ordered a medium burrito, extra sour cream and guac, no hot sauce, black not refried beans. It came out after the typical long delay and I sat at the most empty grill seating area, in a booth, and ate.
It was 9:35. I could have of course, taken it home. But it was 9:35.
I had to face it.
I had a purpose there, greater than a campus burrito.
And while I was able to, for the most part, convince myself that she did not have anything to do with my sudden urge and purpose there, I thought, why wasn’t I entitled to check out that thing that had been on my mind, since I was already there. After all, stalkers stalk with their stalking in mind 100%. They don’t accidentally stalk. This was really, in many ways, just a fortunate accident. It would probably be stranger for me to ignore the temptation—that would be giving it a certain power, as if it was some big issue in my life. It wasn’t. I was just another professor curious about another professor’s misfortunes. I wanted to put a face to the rumors—I couldn’t have been the only one. Probably every Wednesday night the halls of Glasgow were bustling with curious professors who had heard. I might get there and walk right out, because of the crowds, not wanting to be associated with that behavior of course.
And so I wiped my face clean of any burrito and went, without any trepidation—well, a little trepidation, but not enough to stop me—to Glasgow. It was 9:49. Glasgow was less than two minutes away, I estimated. Let’s see if The Pariah got her classes out on time. My guess was that she, like me, did not exactly, but then I was reminded that the Pariah was probably busy and especially at night, so maybe she even let them out a whole thirty seconds early or something, eager to get to that other world of hers, her real purpose in this town or so we had all decided.
In an episode titled “The Society Party,” Laverne and Shirley get invited to a high society Shotz Brewery party. From the moment they get there it’s a disaster. They are met with huge stares and awkward conversation, even though their beautiful dresses seem to make them at least seemingly fit in, Laverne in a fitted aqua number and Shirley in a poofier pink one. Theyaccidentally rip an ear off a bust. Then at dinner, they eat with their napkins tucked into the bodices. They even get accused of wearing stolen dresses, which apparently belonged to the cousin of the host. Luckily, Arthur Fonzarelli, the Fonz, has also been invited, and defends the girls, as it turns out Lenny and Squiggy, their sort-of boyfriends, who lent the dresses, actually had stolen dresses on their hands. The cousins don’t call the police as they wanted to, but eventually Laverne finds the dinner unbearable and stomps out. She comes out in a slip, with her dress in her hand and puts it in the woman’s hand, Shirley following. They put their coats over their slips and leave. Back home, as Laverne angrily prepares a snack, Shirley tries to convince her it wasn’t so bad, but Laverne isn’t having it.
It’s a sad ending, one could say, of sorts, Shirley eager to fit in trying to reinterpret the whole thing, Laverne, never one to care about such things, fed up with that other world.
In certain ways I could see how I’d be more Shirley in that situation, and the Pariah—who undoubtedly was once less invisible than me, for after all, who could be more invisible than me out there?—more Laverne. I could see her shaking her head at me and telling me to just give it up. There’s no point in even trying with these people. And then I’d be too scared—aware of my underqualifications of course—of what she’d suggest instead to even ask.
I got there at exactly 9:52, on the dot, and the door to Glasgow 153, a lecture room, was wide open. I could see the students, about thirty in number, packing up, even as she spoke. Her voice was less throaty than I imagined, more high. She was reminding them of their finals—I realized this was her last class with them. A minute after the class was to end, she let them go and they rushed out, as if they’d waited a whole two hours and fifty-two minutes for this very moment.
What could I do? I felt the hot rush of students overtake me. What if they saw me, what if Nick saw me. What was my purpose? I wanted to find somewhere to go, but there wasn’t anywhere. I suddenly felt myself overheating with regret. As the first few students floated out, I went too, as if they were a strong tide sweeping me along, and luckily they swept me over to where they did not stop: a drinking fountain. I drank and I drank and I drank. I could hear them behind me, so many students, giggles, whispers, groans, goodbyes. I came up for air and realized, I couldn’t drink forever. The Pariah herself could be leaving any second.
I inched back to the door, just as the Pariah was laughing with or at a student. “Now don’t pull that next week!” she was saying. “I’m not even kidding!” she was saying. “Have a good one!” she was saying. So, she was a professor who talked like that. I don’t. I’m formal. We have no jokes, no banter, no chuckles, the students and I. I wondered how, with all that had happened to The Pariah, she could laugh like that. But then I knew why: her name, The Pariah. She would not be a Pariah completely if she was entirely regretful, in mourning, begging not just him but all of us for forgiveness.
And so I looked, just barely, pretending to be walking, though very slowly, just by.
I got just enough of her, her profile, hunched over a stack of papers, running her hands through her streaky brown-blonde hair. She was more slight than I thought, more tan, dressed more conservatively in a grey sweater and long black skirt.
Over and over in my mind, she is looking down and running her hands through that once-sun-kissed—or designed for somebody’s purposes to look like it—hair.
She was not what I imagined but who knew what I imagined? Just not that. Pariahness more likely meant every bad girl from every movie with bad girls. Red lipstick, fishnets, heels, leather, a cigarette maybe with a holder, platinum blonde or else jet black. But what would a woman like that be doing here. Which was just what made you wonder about a woman like The Pariah: what would that action of hers do at a place like this, why.
A place like this: gosh, do I not like this place or what, was as bold as the thought grew in my head that semester but that was just the beginning.
Then winter break came and for most of it, I stayed in bed and thought about things I could never recollect when I wondered just where the day had gone. It had, to be honest, gotten bad. It was worse than I wanted to admit for months. I was dying out there, long before it all started, before she ever walked through my mind and into whatever dark corner of the world her and her lover were shacking up in, not to be found. I started to wish for PMS week so something-anything could happen: an event. The special week where I will act like a bitch, the week where I punch a wall, where I kick the scale at new pounds, where I eat a whole pizza and cry. This is a different sort of week, even if just slightly.
I thought of my one friend, the Alaska lecturer. She would sympathize. She once recommended I buy naughty underwear online, what she does. And I did it, though who knew if underwear was “naughty” really—it was lacy and silk and not my usual style, so it was “naughty” enough. I realized it worked, those days can be quite special—you with your own little secret, that you’re aware of all day. I called it my Funderwear days and only still do it at most once a week. When I remember and assign a day, I look forward to it all week.
I called her just before the new year to get more advice, telling her I’ve done the underwear one, and she says, Bake something. It’s a disappointing suggestion, not nearly as good as the underwear. But then I’ll eat it all, I say. She pauses and redeems herself slightly: Cut hearts or little animals out of a cake. You’ll only eat one a day.
But it doesn’t work. I eat sweet bunnies and cat heads and chicks and snakes and just want more. I need a new job, I tell the walls, I tell myself, I tell no other living being, who would they think I was. What would I do? This is the basket I put my eggs in.
And so I spend the evenings curled up with instant cocoa, imagining what would happen if I suddenly appeared in the aisles of a strip club, one of the many made for truckers that pollute Route 9, either as worker or patron, who even knows with me, and instead pop in another VHS Laverne and Shirley episode in that old TV-VCR that my one and only ex found me from off the street in some dismal part of Brooklyn, not far from where I lived.
Strange things start happening since I got obsessed with The Pariah, strange things that maybe I hadn’t noticed happening until the new semester began, a time when you can look strangeness in the eye, a time when for whatever reason you are more aware of novelty, I’ve always found. For instance, the men in town are disappearing. It sounds crazy but they are. A well-known doctor in town goes missing; they find his empty car parked by the river, but no doctor to be found, in or out of the water, no note, no suspicions, no nothing. The Masonic temple shuts down in the same month, with little explanation of what happened, just a For Sale sign and a big old ugly building more vacant than the vacant it seemed before when we all knew its vacancy was just an illusion. Even men at the college; there are three young men in my ENG 107 on the first day and then by the second week all three—and they didn’t seem like friends either—have dropped. I have, for the first time, an all-female class. We’re either a sorority or a nunnery, one of them, I try to joke that week, startled by the vanished men, but the girls just blink and go back to their doodling, glum as ever.
The men are disappearing, I think. It’s another reason I tell myself this is a bad choice for me, about to turn 39, less likely to be taken than any of those orange girls of mine who now claim an entire class.
I think about going to a bar by myself, but then I know the students will be at the bar, and while it’s certainly not forbidden for a professor to be at a bar students might also be at, it certainly doesn’t look good. Not in the Age of the Pariah after all. I didn’t need anyone to talk, though once in a while—this is my craziest thought yet, I thought just after I thought it—I’d imagine what it would be like to be talked about, as if your existence could be confirmed by just that, suddenly a somebody even if it be the bad kind of somebody, the girl whose Funderwear day was every day and everyone knew it.
The Pariah, certainly. And it was in the midst of this season of thinking like that, in the clutches of that worst month of all, short and yet eternal February, gray and barren February, lonely and ignored February—all the worse for that fake plastic glowing heart in the middle—that I ran into The Pariah.
Of all days, the day after Valentine’s Day, a day that was either the worst or the best for The Pariah, hard to say which.
It was never a day that bothered me like it did some people—Professor Delano had hung a construction-paper black heart upside-down on his door—as I just saw it like a day, like Veteran’s Day or Chinese New Year, that simply did not involve me. It was a day for lovers and when had I been one? Not even that Brooklyn ex counted, a man who told me I should be seeing a doctor because I couldn’t have orgasms, a condition I told him many if not most women suffered from, which he belittled as “women’s magazine data,” which I didn’t argue about knowing we’d be over soon enough. In a Valentine’s Day Laverne and Shirley episode, Shirley gets invited to a Valentine’s dance and is bemoaning being dateless. In the end, Laverne dresses up as a man and accompanies her. They have a terrible time—of course, Laverne gets found out—but I honestly think it’s one of the sweetest episodes not because of the stupid holiday, but for the opportunity it gives the girls to get as close as they’ve gotten yet. I remembered them kissing, but now that I think of it how could that be, another distortion of my tired brain or something.
And it’s on the day after that day, that I run into The Pariah, though can you call it “run into” when this whole time we’ve been tiptoeing towards each other, in a sort of blurry Seventies sunset, like in the slow motion of commercials for women’s feminine hygiene products. Sure, it’s hard to say if she has known of me—likely not, of course—but couldn’t my will, strong enough for the two of us, helped us both along? If two people were meant to be wasn’t it the zero and the negative, in the town and school of positives? Wasn’t there something to it?
It happened to be a Funderwear day—of course!—that I ran into the Pariah, because I know better than to wear naughty underwear on actual Valentine’s Day, which would give it too much credit, acknowledge the damn thing too much.
It was also on the day that during class, the ENG 107 class, the one with all girls, that I lost it a bit, that when faced with the fact that the class had once again not done their reading—by that I mean, an estimated less than one-third had read, which is small enough for me to say the class did not do the reading—I suddenly could not take it and told them, Fine, then I’m not doing my job either, what about that? And they blinked at me with their goopy-mascara lashes, like lambs in drag, suddenly looking their most innocent and yet simultaneously bedroom-eyed—though what did I know about that, who was I kidding, how did I know sleep from bed, really?—and I went on and said, What do you want from me? How would you have it? and they shifted uncomfortably in their seats finally, getting the message that this was not like other days, suddenly they had to listen, and it wasn’t going to be just another thing to be bored at, this was something they’d spend lunch that day and maybe even dinner and their frat parties for the next week even talking about at times. Who are you guys? What do you care about? What do you want to be known for? and finally one student, a most orange girl who has irked me all semester mainly for wearing shirts with awful nonsense statements like “Girly-Fries,” piped up in her husky voice and said, “We just want to get a grade and go on with our lives, okay?” and all the question marks in the world couldn’t soften that blow, the blow I knew I had coming for me, when I cried, But don’t you want more? College graduates? They gave me the dead stares of gummy bears. I tried again, Don’t you want to become real women? Don’t you want to be real good women? Women who can be loved? and then things got worse when the two big blondes in the back looked at each other and started giggling, setting off more giggles, and more giggles, until it was just me in the middle of the class, with the Dry-Erase marker in one trembling hand, red in the face and shaking, overwhelmed by their giggles which were like bubbles overpopulating the room, their iridescence distinct, their buoyancy irrefutable, and so all I could do, all I could honestly do, was admit defeat and say, I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well, forgive me, class is ending now—I’ll be posting your homework on Blackboard, have a nice weekend, and how quickly those bubbles carried themselves outward into the college campus, where they could find all sorts of home in the sweetspots that nourished idle gossip and juicy rumors, the world where living and learning are supposed to simultaneously flourish, supposedly because of people like me.
Like The Pariah, who I ran into that same day, who I wouldn’t have run into that day, had I not cancelled that class early, and went to the bank, to take out everything I had, because it was over, I was going to close my account, send a big check and final note to my landlord, rattle off an email to the chair that said it all in two sentences, that I was leaving and yes I understand that this means I can never get another academic job again, fill the car with gas and go back to the rubble of yet another dirty Brooklyn neighborhood, where I could still be old and clueless and alone, without anyone bothering to notice.
She was walking out of the bank, as I was walking—almost running, I was so frantic—in. Excuse me, we both said in unison, like sitcom leading ladies for a cheap laugh, and I suddenly noticed it was her, Cheryl Milton, tan and slight, her body concealed ina flowy black T-shirt and that same long black skirt she had lectured in—what Pariahs wear, I imagined all along—with something of a smile on her face.
“Excuse me,” I said a second time, as she walked onward. She stopped and looked back, still with a small smile. “May I ask what you are smiling at?” I was suddenly very nervous and I thought if I worded it politely it might help with things.
She shook her head slightly and shrugged, still with smile. I had made her speechless, surprised her into a paralysis, this professor of Plato who created more questions than answers probably—what little I remember of Plato from school taught me that little. I had impacted her clearly, The Pariah who had many better things to do, like hold her head up high while she educated the impossible youth, after which she’d dash off to her lover or the lover her new lover didn’t know about, The Pariah who in spite of it all lived. For a moment, like Audubon before a bird, I had pinned her down; this could be, I realized, all I’d ever have with her, given the plan before me.
And so faced with her silence, the same silence of all the young women I had stood before, I, in my day of speaking out, took it upon me again and repeated myself. “Excuse me,” I said a third time. “May I ask what you are smiling at?” I asked a second time.
I thought she was about to cry, as her face did a strange sort of semi-crumble, but then it could have been laughter too, which may be more likely given that she had worn that small smile for the empty eternity before us, broken only by a question, hers for mine, “Do I know you?”
POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR is the author of the forthcoming memoir Sick (HarperPerennial, 2017), and the novels The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014)—a 2014 “Best Book of the Year” according to NPR, Kirkus, Buzzfeed, Popmatters, Electric Literature, and others— and Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove, 2007)—the 2007 California Book Award winner in First Fiction, one of the Chicago Tribune’s Fall’s Best, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Harper’s, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera America, Bookforum, Slate, Salon, Spin, The Daily Beast, Elle, and many other publications around the world. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at Bard College.