Ray Franklin was grading badly-written German essays when the Professor called him into the office.
"Raymondt, I have something to ask you." Professor Morton Dichter had been teaching at the University for twenty years, but his accent had never completely disappeared. "My younger brother informs me that my niece now is attending the University here."
Ray nodded blankly, wondering whether congratulations were expected. Fortunately, the Professor continued without much pause. "I did not know I had a niece, but then Kurt and I have not spoken much since I came to this country. Twenty-five years is a long time..." The Professor's deep voice faded briefly, then resumed its normal volume. "My brother tells me that Marta -- that is my niece, you see -- studies computer science but she is too focused on her books and her assignments. She is not, what do you call it, having her social life. He has asked because of my position here if I can do something to see that Marta does more with her time than sits with her face to the computer."
Ray hadn't gotten to be a teaching assistant to the head of the German department by being slow. He hadn't stayed one by being presumptuous, either. He settled for tilting his head to one side and inquiring, "And how could I be of assistance, Professor?"
"Raymondt, I have been observing you in the year and a half that you have been one of my teaching assistants. You are a young man of quality and character. Of course, with your name that only makes sense -- you do know that your name means 'protector'? Well, I wish to ask you a favor. Would you agree to, what is the term, escort my niece for a few weeks? My brother thinks once she get used to the idea of being among people that she will naturally open up. I will, of course, reimburse you for half of your expenses."
That was the Professor for you. Just when he started to sound human and personal, he had to add that coldly clinical comment about money. Granted, it saved Ray from raising the issue himself, but it impaled him neatly on an ethical dilemma. There was probably something in the University policies that said professors couldn't use their teaching assistants as gigolos, paid or otherwise. On the other hand, turning down Morton Dichter would probably eliminate Ray's chances at a plum graduate school. Anyway, how bad could it be taking a girl around a few times, even if she turned out to be a total dog?
Ray had reasons to rethink his answer to that last question several times over the next two weeks.
The first encounter (Ray refused in his mind to call it a "date") was actually chaperoned by the Professor, who took both students to dinner at the Faculty Club. He explained over a veal roast and wine that his brother wanted Marta to spend some more time away from her studies, that the University experience was meant to be more than the awarding of a degree. Ray listened with half an ear, inserting comments here and there but devoting the bulk of his attention to sizing up his new companion. Marta was an inch taller than Ray but otherwise she was about what he had expected -- brains without looks. She was solid, broad-shouldered and plain, with streaked brown hair falling artlessly to her shoulders. Her voice was low and unremarkable, and she wore a drab red dress that managed to emphasize all of her curves, including the unflattering ones. However, she ate with a delicate grace that made Ray feel somehow like a country villager invited to dine with the squire. She also flashed him a look during her uncle's monologue that said clearly, "Okay, he's forcing us to be together, let's try not to make it more painful than it has to be."
Away from her uncle, Marta was a different story. The following Tuesday she met him at Gino's for pizza before seeing the latest chick flick. Ray was in dress casual, but Marta turned up in flip-flops, ratty jeans and a well-worn t-shirt that jiggled in several places every time she moved. Her conversation at dinner was centered around trees, cycles, and other words that sounded like English but instead meant something else in terms of her computer courses. Ray did his best to look like he understood every third word. His brief attempts to turn the conversation to something non-academic were politely ignored. The movie theatre was better, if only because he didn't have to try and maintain a conversation and in the relative darkness he could easily avoid the appearance of staring at her chest or waist. She seemed unimpressed by the movie and they parted with a handshake, her hand capturing his in a damp but firm grip.
Over the next week he took her in turn to a basketball game, a physics lecture by a visiting Nobel prize winner, a comedy movie and a CD release party for a local rock group. Her clothing decisions varied from not-quite-embarrassing to just off center; at the basketball game she looked like a frumpy overweight librarian, but for both the Nobel lecture and the CD party she chose clingy eye-catching blouses and knee-length skirts that practically forced you to take all of her curves in at once. Ray wanted to give her some advice, but he couldn't find any way that wouldn't be either condescending or insulting. Luckily he had picked his events well and hadn't run into any of his usual crowd, and his opinion of her didn't seem relevant since they always parted at her apartment door with the same damp handshake.
On one front, however, Ray felt he was finally giving the Professor some value for his money -- Marta was starting to open up to him about herself rather than her coursework. After the CD party, which she appeared to enjoy thoroughly, they went to a coffee bar for dessert and she told him about growing up in one of the smaller states on the banks of the Rhine, being unpopular (without specifying a reason) and deciding that the best way to get out of town was to excel at school. She then surprised Ray by demonstrating a fondness and wide knowledge of American poets, from Emily Dickinson to Carl Sandburg. Poetry was one of Ray's side interests, and he was doubly surprised to find out from Marta that Professor Dichter was a poet, having been published back in Germany before he moved to America. Marta for her part was surprised that her uncle's top teaching assistant wouldn't know that, a comment that Ray chose to take as flattery.
Their evening ended as usual at her apartment door with Ray prepared for her clammy handshake, but instead she leaned into him for a quick hug, her arms pulling him briefly but emphatically against her before she turned and went inside. Ray drove home in a confused and disturbed mood, and decided by Monday morning to tell the Professor merely that Marta seemed to be adapting to college social life. He didn't, however, claim that his escorting services were finished.
The next week was first trimester exams, so Marta was busy with her computer programs and Ray was occupied grading papers. He didn't even realize that Friday had arrived until Marta called him for a change.
"Hi, Ray!" Her voice was breathless, excited, almost girlish. If it weren't for her accent, he'd have thought the call was from someone else. "There's a goth group playing at a club downtown tonight, and I don't want to see them by myself. I wondered if you'd be interested?" Goth wasn't at all Ray's preference, but he was so amazed to hear this side of Marta that he heard his agreement and her acceptance before his brain caught up to reality. The incongruous image of frumpy Marta being excited about dark, moody goth music broke Ray's concentration for the rest of the afternoon.
He grabbed a quick dinner and drove to Marta's apartment, where she was already standing outside her door waiting for him. Ray did a double-take to make sure he had the right apartment -- the woman there was Marta's size and general shape but that was the only thing familiar about her. Her eyes were heavily made up with black shadows, and she wore a dress of some stiff but flexible black material that made her look like a heavyset voluptuous witch. She held out one hand imperiously, and Ray escorted her to the passenger side of his car with something more than his usual gentlemanly manners. She took her seat without so much as a thank-you.
Halfway to the club Marta finally broke her dramatic silence with a low chuckle. "Oh Ray, you should have seen your face when you saw me! I'm glad you agreed to take me, I've got some friends in the band but I didn't have a ride. I think you'll really like this." The comment eased Ray's confusion somewhat, although he still wondered where this side of Marta came from.
The downtown club was dim and dingy, and smelled vaguely of beer and less savory intoxicants. Ray paid the cover charges and followed Marta in, noting her animated greetings to several of the dark-clad figures in the crowd. He felt distinctly out of place, and was glad of the occasional squeeze of Marta's hand on his. He followed her lead in getting a club soda at the bar, and they wandered through the close-packed space until Marta found an empty booth, urging Ray to scoot in first. He took a long swallow from his drink, and finally found his own voice. "You said friends of yours -- computer science majors?" The tone of his voice indicated he found this hard to believe.
.... There is more of this story ...