There is indeed an institute of higher education which served as a partial model for Locksmith University, as some readers may be able to guess. Nevertheless, there is precious little light and less truth about the university in this story. I must confess I have callously played with details of life in its engineering school for my own narrative purposes. And, of course, the real university's professors of divinity are all models of wise decorum and restraint. Most heinously, I have even altered the football schedule. The game against the arrogant bastards never takes place before Halloween. While universities do exist and, to be sure, they are all well-stocked with rules and committees, this story is otherwise pure fantasy, written chiefly for my own pleasure. I hope some of you may share that pleasure.
I do know the rules. In fact, I helped write them.
It started, I suppose, at dinner at the Dean's house. Now, you need to know that the Dr. Richard Evans, Dean of Engineering of Locksmith University, is not just my boss; he's the best friend I have in the world and his wife, Maggie, is a sweetheart. She was the also the dearest, closest friend of my sweet wife Robin and sat with me, holding my hand, while poor Robin was dying of ovarian cancer.
Maggie is a big woman, blonde, busty and hearty. She's a second Mom to all the junior professors and grad students, particularly the female ones, and has a heart the size of New England. They all consult her about their love lives and everything else you can imagine.
I suppose that's why Maggie started nagging me about trying dating again, a year or so after Robin died. She's simply fallen into the habit of giving advice to the lovelorn and she thinks I qualify. Women past fifty often experience a sudden activation of the matchmaking gene, I think, and they just can't leave a single man alone, even as lousy a prospect as me.
"Will," she kept on saying, "You're the kind of man who needs a woman and, believe me, somewhere out there, a woman needs you."
That's probably true but I had that woman for more than twenty five years and now she's gone. I'm not the dating type and there's no way I could ever replace my heart's desire after she was taken away from me. About six months ago Maggie seemed to give up on her project to get me dating again. I guess I'm her one failure.
But back to dinner at the Dean's: Richard and Maggie had invited my graduate research assistant, Jenny Chen, and me to drop by for a late meal after we were done at the lab. Nothing fancy, just pizza, Caesar salad and beer, nothing we hadn't done dozens of time before. It was going to be a completely relaxed evening, I thought, with nothing more demanding on the conversational plate than the Bruins' chances in the playoffs this year. Did they have the scoring to make a run at the Cup? Who should start in goal? That would be as deep as it would get, I thought. Wrong.
Richard loves hockey - he was all conference defenseman at Nassau University in his day - and though it was not a game day, he was, in fact, wearing his old black and orange letterman's sweater.
I gave him the gears as usual, "Great colors! Reminds me of Halloween! Tell me: is it true that 'Trick or Treat' is the Nassau Tabbycats' school cheer?" I asked.
I had played lacrosse for Locksmith, or more accurately sat on the bench for Locksmith, and it's the sworn duty of every Locksmith Blue to run down Nassau. There's nothing better than a cold beer and an old joke between warm friends, but, for once, he didn't give it back to me.
He frowned, looked at me over his half moon reading glasses, and said, "Will, I need you to sit as my substitute and representative on the University Sexual Harassment Policy Review committee."
I groaned aloud. "Rich, why me? You know I'm out of here for Palo Alto for good next January and these committees take years to report."
"Not this one. The President is completely pissed off by those media reports of harassment of female students at Locksmith and he wants a review of the rules fast ... to show sensitivity to women's concerns and to demonstrate decisive leadership." He lowered his voice to a mock media baritone and made quotation marks in the air on "decisive leadership." Rich isn't a fan of the president.
"I know you're gone next year but people respect you and you know very well that I can't serve on this thing."
Rich looked disgusted, "Because of Maggie, of course. People still remember how we got together."
It was well before my time but I did know the story. Rich had been a brand new Assistant Professor while Maggie was a graduate student in Engineering. They met when he was appointed by the then Dean to serve on her supervisory committee as a replacement for an older professor who had suffered a heart attack. Even though he was not the Director of her dissertation and had never even taught her during her course work, this would be a definite No-No these days.
But Maggie had set her sights on him and the simple truth is that she is a force of nature. He had about as much chance as a beefsteak dropped in the middle a pack of wolves, not that anyone would ever hear him complain. He was then and remains now one happy piece of beefsteak. They were married a year later. It had always been one of your textbook happy marriages but nowadays the way they got together would be considered inappropriate behaviour and even sexual harassment ... inequality of power or something like that.
Maggie stirred in her chair. "Will, I know there is sexual harassment of female students and staff here. Who do you think hears about it first?"
That was definitely a rhetorical question as far as the Engineering school goes. The girls, young women, I mean, all head for Maggie. Everyone knows that she has the ear of the Dean ... and every other body part as well. The end result is that though engineering is one of the increasingly scarce areas left in higher education where females are still a minority, nowadays there isn't much trouble of that sort here at Locksmith. Nobody wants to get on the wrong side of Maggie.
"But in the end, you have to make room for love also. Sometimes young women fall in love with kind, intelligent, strong men in their field, for all the right reasons."
Maggie looked over at Richard and you could read a lifetime's worth of mutual love and respect in her eyes. I knew exactly what she meant and I could tell that Jenny agreed. She was nodding her head also.
"So we are hoping for a voice of reason on the committee, someone who will actually remember human beings are involved," said Richard
"You!" chimed in Maggie.
I didn't stand a chance. Saying "No" to the Dean is one thing but there's no way in the world I can deny Maggie anything.
"Let me think about it overnight," I temporized.
They nodded, contented. They knew they had me.
Rich and Maggie aren't friends, when you come right down to it; they're family. Put it this way: my daughter Amy has a full house of aunts to choose from, three on my side and two on her mother's, and any one of them would have been thrilled to be replacement Mother on Amy's wedding day, last spring. But Amy insisted on being dressed at Maggie's house and having the pre-wedding photos in their garden.
A widower father can do many things for his daughter and Lord knows I have always tried my best, but he surely isn't needed when she is preparing for her wedding ceremony. That's a female thing ... exclusively. It ought to be a mother and daughter thing, but that possibility had been laid to rest three years before. When a man loses the wife he loves, it isn't just the sex or even the companionship that is buried with her; it is all those possibilities that are lost, all the memories to be created and then savored together over the years. Gone, all gone, like my sweet Robin.
I couldn't be more grateful to Maggie for taking over on the day. I had been planning to drive Amy and the bridesmaids over to her house to dress but she wouldn't have it.
"Remember Rich on our Katie's wedding day? Total basket case! He might as well have been blind the way he teared up at the least little thing. He almost drove into a lamppost on Gagetown Rd. Men! Just can't control their emotions!"
But she squeezed Rich's hand and gazed fondly into his eyes even as she spoke. I thought about my own probability of weeping factor, or PWF as we engineers like to put it, and realized she was almost certainly right. It would do nobody any good if I drove into a lamppost on my Amy's wedding day.
"I'll take care of all that," she said.
So Maggie sent Jenny over to collect Amy when it was time. They did trust me to carry my daughter's suitcases to the car and also the precious gown, still wrapped in blue paper to keep it from yellowing with age, the gown her mother had worn almost thirty years ago. Sure enough, my eyes filled for the first of many times that day, as I laid the gown gently across the back seat of the Dean's old Lincoln. Jenny squeezed my upper arm and my little girl kissed me good bye.
I waved them on their way and, temporarily blinded, just as predicted, stumbled back into the house to carry out my own preparations. Though I did manage to miss the lamppost.
More than two hours later, Jenny arrived back at my house to pick me up when it was time for the photos. She adjusted my tie, patted my arm, smiled and said, "You're almost as good looking as your daughter." That was an exaggeration of course – nobody could match Amy on that day - but people are so kind!
I remember that I stepped around the corner of the Dean's house, laid one hand on the garden gate and caught sight of Amy seated in her mother's old wedding gown on the stone bench under the vine laden arbor. Maggie was adjusting the bridal veil and Amy was dreamily staring off in the distance, lost in thought, whether of her late mother or her beloved or both, I do not know. But then, I could not tell if I were thinking more of the young woman who had first worn that gown for me or of the little girl whose life we had created together, now a woman of surpassing grace. If I could not sort out my own thoughts; I do not know why I should suppose that Amy's thoughts were any less complex, nor why I should be able to decipher them.
I stopped, stood dead still, gazed at her, still unaware of my presence as she was. My eyes filled again. I do not know how long I stood there, blinking away the tears. Probably it was but a few seconds. A slender hand slipped two tissues into mine and I wiped my eyes. "It's time," said Jenny and, with gentle pressure on my arm, guided me forward to join my daughter.
Amy picked a photo from that session to be specially framed for me and I treasure it. It is a candid shot of Maggie touching up the edge of the bride's lipstick while Jenny holds back the bridal veil. The love in their eyes is more than I can describe. Maggie can ask me for anything.
After dinner, I dropped Jenny off at the Grad Pad and dawdled back to the farmhouse north of Oldport where Robin and I had made our home. For the longest time after she died, a part of me expected to hear her cheery voice crying out a greeting from the kitchen or the laundry when I unlocked the front door. But that expectation had faded, along with the sharpness of grief. I was alone. I didn't like it.
Over a late night and solitary cup of hot chocolate, I thought about the Dean's request. My mind slipped back to the snafu on my last trip to Japan with Jenny. I'm actually a civil engineer - you know us, the people who design your roads and waterworks and sewers. Civil engineering is the bottom rung of the status ladder in the profession though that's terribly unfair. Civil engineers have probably saved more lives than all the doctors in history put together, just by providing clean water and safely flushing away your sewage.
Locksmith doesn't even have a civil engineering speciality anymore. The Dean saved my position by putting me in materials science. Oh, and the fact I had tenure helped too. But it's one of the reasons, I'm heading out west next January. The other is that my particular speciality has to do with seismic safety, the development of construction techniques and materials that will help structures safely survive earthquakes. For some reason, they are more interested in that subject in California than in New England.
Jenny's research particularly focuses on the safety of nuclear reactors during and after earthquakes. Talk about good timing. Though her family is from Taiwan, not Japan, she had researched the safety protocols and construction techniques of Japanese reactors. At her suggestion, we had published under both our names an article on potential problems with Japanese reactors which mentioned, among other things, the danger of tsunamis. The article had appeared just a few weeks before the terrible tsunami struck in northern Japan. We were in demand, big time, and it didn't hurt that she is a photogenic young woman. There is a newspaper photo of her from that trip to Japan wearing a lab coat, hard hat and goggles, bending over a set of blueprints, the angle of the shot showing just a hint of cleavage, almost geek soft porn, to be honest.
Jenny's been with me a while, first as a Masters student, then a doctoral candidate and finally also as my research assistant. Telling her I was moving to California had been hard.
"Don't worry, I assured her. "I negotiated a delayed departure. I won't take up the new position until January of the year after next. I'll be around to supervise your dissertation to completion."
Jenny was obviously completely shocked, so shocked that she couldn't speak. I could understand that; losing a supervisor in the middle of writing a dissertation is a major league problem. But for one reason or another, it sometimes does happen to students and they mostly battle through it. Besides, what I told her was absolutely true. With normal progress – and Jenny is way beyond normal in her ability, even by doctoral candidate standards – she could complete and defend her dissertation before I left. Worst case, there's always telephone and email for consultations.
But Jenny couldn't say a word. Actually, I was a little hurt. I knew this change would be a dislocation for her but I did expect some response, at least a pro forma "Congratulations!" The move made sense on so many levels, after all. Not only was Palo Alto a better place for seismic engineering but my daughter and her husband lived across the bay at what Rich persisted in calling Hippy U. And Rich and Maggie would be moving to the East Bay also to be near their Katie, once Rich retired in two years time. Jenny knows all that.
"If you need academic advice about your options, you know you're always welcome to talk to the Dean."
At last, Jenny drew a breath, turned back to her computer screen, paused for a minute and replied, "Thanks, I may do just that. I imagine that he can give me good advice ... and Maggie, too."
I don't know if Jenny talked to the Dean or not but that was six months earlier and everything seemed to have calmed down since then. What has heated up since then, however, is, well, yes, the Japanese reactor cores, but also the flow of data. That was both good news and bad news for Jenny. The good news was that both Jenny and I have been consulted by authorities all over the world on reactor safety. As a result, Jenny will be able to write her own ticket almost anywhere she wants, either in business or academia, when she finally does submit her dissertation. The bad news is that the chain reaction of new data will require a rewrite of substantial sections of her work. But I still think she can submit before I leave.
So, considering all this, it was no surprise that we were asked to travel to Japan to review safety issues with Japan's remaining reactors. Oldport-New York-Tokyo is a looong journey. Well, the second leg is a long journey.
Fortunately, our hosts had provided business class tickets. I pity the folks back in coach. I'm 6'2" and though reasonably slim I just don't fit in those economy seats. Add in the breadth of the Pacific Ocean and it's a pain, literally. Jenny is only about 5'5" but even she would be uncomfortable in economy. In fact, anybody who is too large to succeed as a jockey would be uncomfortable, in my opinion. I was pleased we were seated together in business class. We chatted for the first couple of hours, nothing exciting, just academic gossip and comfortable conversation between friends.
The New York-Tokyo flight takes the Great Circle route amazingly far north, cutting across most of Canada. Jenny was very funny, looking down at the Great White North, telling me a story about a young Quebec engineer trying to pick her up at a conference in Montreal.
"I was sitting on a bar stool in the faculty lounge. The young engineer was on one side of me and an older professor from McGill on the other. The young guy was a little drunk and he kept talking about 'my cool.' 'I admire your cool. Your cool is so beautiful. C'est si beau, comme tes jeunes seines.'"
Jenny can do a very creditable French accent. I could hear some smarmy Frenchman cooing over "her cool." It bothered me to hear about it.
Jenny continued, "Finally he all but shouted, 'You have the most beautiful cool in the world!' I told him that he was very kind but that I had never thought of myself as very cool.
Just then, the professor on the other side plucked me by the elbow and whispered in my ear, 'He's not saying 'cool.' He's saying 'cul." That's French for, uhhh, 'rear end' or, uhhh 'arse.' "Pardon my French, as they say.' Then the professor did say something in French to the engineer. I don't know what it was but I am pretty sure I heard the word 'cul' in there and the young guy disappeared."
Jenny paused, looked down at her lap, lifted her eyes to mine and said, "Sometimes older men are wonderful."
I was glad my fellow old guy was there to help her but an utterly reprehensible thought for a man my age kept worming its way into my brain - The young guy was right; she does have a luscious "cool."
But Jenny has a lot in the top storey as well. She reminded me that she had worked professionally before entering grad school and somewhere along the way, was assigned to a construction project in the Arctic. She had some very interesting and pointed observations about building on permafrost. We'll have to consider whether some of those techniques can be adapted for construction in seismically active zones. Travelling with her is wonderful in its own way but I keep getting reminded of the truth. She's smart and fun and sexy but unfortunately, she needs to find someone much younger than me.
Somewhere over northern Manitoba, Jenny yawned very prettily and told me she needed a nap. Very shyly she informed me, "Sometimes I slip sideways when I fall asleep in an airplane. Would you be upset if that happened and I end up leaning on you?"
"Of course not!" I assured her and raised the armrest between us. I wish I dared to invite her to lie down across the two seats and lay her head in my lap but I knew that would be inappropriate.
Jenny raised her hands to her head to release the lustrous raven hair that she had tied, as she usually did, in a pony tail high on her head. As she did so, her tee shirt pulled tight over her small but shapely and very upright breasts. I stifled a sigh and looked for the airline magazine in the seat pocket in front of me. I needed something to distract me. Instead, I pulled out the vomit bag by mistake. I stared at it as if it were a really interesting vomit bag. If I didn't get control of myself, this was indeed going to be a long flight, I told myself. Concentrating on the bag, I repeated to myself, "In case of air sickness..." That seemed to do the trick.
Sure enough, just as Jenny predicted, when she dropped off, she slipped sideways so that her head was resting on my shoulder. It was quite awkward and uncomfortable with her temple resting on the point of my shoulder so I gently lifted my left arm, wrapped it loosely around her shoulder so that her delicate cheek now rested on my chest. In her sleep, she sighed and snuggled more closely. It wasn't just sexy - I knew I mustn't go there - it was comfortable. As I held her, I remembered being comfortable, just plain comfortable, so often with my Robin. I realized that I need a woman to be comfortable with. Maybe, eventually, I do need to start dating again, hoping sometime, with some woman, to be comfortable again.
I dropped off myself and dozed fitfully. I emerged into a semi-conscious state somewhere over Alaska I think, with Jenny still snuggled next to me. A stewardess had obviously covered the two of us with a blanket. As I came to full consciousness, I realized that the presence of the blanket was a very good thing, because I was fully erect. I dare any heterosexual man to hold a sexy young woman in his arms most of the way across northern Canada, or anywhere else, and not have that problem. I tried to think about what to do in case of air sickness but even that didn't help.
I could still remember what I had been dreaming about before I awoke, presumably the cause of the erection. In my dream my head was between Jenny's naked thighs and I was passionately licking her moist slit.
In some ways, I think that oral sex is more intimate than intercourse. Penetration is a biological imperative, an impulse and an instinct we males are born to fulfill. We choose to lick the woman, by contrast, not to sow our seed but to give her pleasure. The penis is "down there" but the mouth is an immediate extension of the brain. (Well, usually, I've known lots of men whose mouth and brain have no connection whatever, but that disconnect shows up in talking, not sex.) My Robin loved oral sex - she loved me - and now I was dreaming that way about Jenny.
It was also a practical problem, big time. Jenny would be humiliated and offended if she saw my hard on. I truly did need to get control over myself, I knew. With a firm exercise of willpower, I made the rest of the journey an erection free zone, but it was tough.
We were picked up at Narita airport in Tokyo and driven in a university car to a downtown hotel. The problem came when we had checked in.
"Professor san, here are the key cards for you and the young lady. You are in room 1724."
I waited for the front desk clerk to give the room number for Jenny also but he turned away, business obviously concluded.
I looked at Jenny. Her eyes had fallen to the floor and she was blushing gently.
"Wait!" I said. "What about the young lady's room?"
The clerk turned back to me with a surprised look on his face. He punched some numbers into his computer and examined the screen intently.
"Reservation for two, arranged by the office of the Dean of Engineering, Locksmith University, one room."
"All that is correct, except the part about one room. The young lady and I can't share a room, We're not..."
I cast a glance at Jenny. She appeared half embarrassed and, strangely, half defiant. Maybe in Japan they assume that an older man travelling with a younger woman must be a couple and therefore sleeping together. Well, I wasn't going to subject Jenny to that, no matter how lustful my daydreams ... especially considering how lustful were my daydreams.
But how could I finish that sentence without publicly humiliating her?
"That is not the nature of our relationship!" I declared firmly.
It looked as if "embarrassed" was now overcoming "defiant" for Jenny.
"Please arrange for another room for me and I will pay for it with my personal credit card.'
The clerk appeared very doubtful. Jenny laid her arm on my arm and said, "Will, you don't need to do that..."
"I certainly do! I don't want to put you in an embarrassing position."
Judging by her face, I was missing out on my intention.
By then the clerk had consulted his computer.
"I'm sorry, Professor san, the hotel is completely full."
"It's all right, Will. We can share." Jenny is so kind and doesn't want to cause any trouble for anybody, even a hotel clerk who is paid to take trouble for the guests.
"No, no, I insist." I told her.
"Are there two beds in the room?" Jenny asked the clerk.
"No, miss, just one, but Queen sized." He checked back on his computer, "As requested by Engineering Department, Locksmith University."
What a foul-up! I would have to tell Rich all about this when we returned.
"Find me another room," I told the clerk firmly.
"I cannot do that, sir. Truly, we have no rooms."
"Please keep looking," I insisted.
Eventually the clerk admitted that the hotel also owned a lower grade establishment, "Largely for day laborers and low grade salarymen, sir!"
I raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"The rooms are not really rooms, sir. More like, how do you say it in English ... drawers!"
I had read about this kind of accommodation in Japan and though I didn't look forward to sleeping in the hotel equivalent of a morgue drawer, I was willing to do just about anything not to impose myself on Jenny.
"Will, please, stay with me!"
I raised my hand to wave away her objections. "That will do until we can make alternate arrangements," I said to the clerk.
Jenny balked at this. "If you won't stay with me, at least let me take the ... drawer. I'm much smaller than you are."
"Not advisable for a young lady, miss," said the clerk regretfully.
"Please call me a taxi. I'll help the young lady with her luggage to her room, while I am waiting," I informed the clerk.
I carried her suitcase and carryon to what was now Jenny's room on the 17th floor. I opened the door, set her luggage on the rack and the dresser and looked around. "Nice room!" I said with appreciation.
Jenny almost lost it. She clung to me and all but begged, "Will, truly, you don't need to go. Please don't leave me here alone!"
I have to admit, I was tempted. It's hard to say no to an armful of femininity, especially an armful as delectable as Jenny. But then I thought of my dream on the airplane. How in the world could I be sure I could resist those kinds of impulses if I were actually sharing a bed with Jenny, right next to that mouth-watering "cool?" What would she think of me if I gave in to temptation and came on to her in the night? And there was no way in the world that I could keep from getting an erection if I were in bed with her. She would be so offended! And I could hardly imagine what Maggie would say to me if Jenny told her what a fool I had been!
There is no fool like an old fool and I knew of too many professors who had made fools of themselves trying to relive their youth with students. Why do we middle aged men delude ourselves into thinking that young women actually are interested in our wrinkly, saggy, well past the best by date, bodies? It's ludicrous!
Her respect and friendship mattered far too much to me to put at risk like that.
"Jenny, I couldn't put you in that position and still live with myself."
"Please, Will, put me in that position!"
I flushed at her inadvertent double entendre. Trust me to think of that. I just couldn't keep myself from sexual thoughts tonight. That settles it, I thought. I couldn't put myself in temptation's way anymore.
"See you at 8:30 in the morning in the lobby," I said. I hugged her quickly and slipped out of the room before I could be tempted again to change my mind.
It turned out that the drawer wasn't that bad. It was no more crowded than being stuck in the lower bunk at summer camp. It certainly smelled better; there was no unwashed and sweaty fourteen year old dangling his socks from the bunk above. It even had a very small flat screen TV on a swivel mount. I've slept in more uncomfortable places, on my daughter's pull-out couch, for example. But "Painful Eliminations" is just as bad without the cheesy English voiceover.
I met Jenny the next day at the appointed time and for some reason she seemed a little distant and cool. Perhaps it was jet lag. That wore off through the day and for the rest of the trip she was her normal self. And the meetings and consultations were first rate. If Jenny wants a job in Japan, she will have no trouble getting one. I knew I ought to be happy for my favorite grad student, but the truth is, the thought of Jenny in Japan made me a little depressed, at least until I told myself to snap out of it.
We flew back stateside via San Francisco and stayed two days with my daughter and her husband in her apartment in Berkeley. Or, to be more exact, Jenny slept on that pull-out couch while I rented a motel room nearby. The room wasn't up to the high standards of a Tokyo drawer, but it was great to see Amy and her husband.
Still, my mild depression returned. Amy and Jenny always get along like sisters, in fact, far better than most blood sisters do. But seeing the two of them together, laughing and chatting, reminded me that I had been lusting after a woman young enough to be my daughter. "Lusting after!" It sounds so, so Jimmy Carter. I was thoroughly ashamed of myself.
Shortly before we left, Amy took me by the arm and whispered in my ear, "Jenny's a sweetheart, Dad. I really like her."
"I like her too, sweetie," I replied. What else is there to say? Amy stood on her tiptoes and said, "Never forget you are a handsome man and, besides that, the most special Dad in the world." That probability of weeping factor kicked in again with me.
I think I was still a little down when we arrived back in Oldport. Rich and Maggie had come to pick us up which was very kind of them. Jenny and I threw our luggage into the massive trunk of the Lincoln and we settle into the amply cushioned rear seat. I wonder if they also call that a "cool" in Montreal.
Rich eyed us in the rear view mirror. "So, how was Tokyo? he asked with a smile.
"Great!" I said.
Rich and Maggie, grinned at each other.
"But your office screwed up."
"Oohhh?" said Maggie in that tone of voice that seems to convey, "Ve haff vays to make you talk!"
"Rich, your office booked us into one room by mistake and the hotel was full. I couldn't get another room, no way, no how."
"And?" continued Maggie.
"I had to find a room in another hotel, one of those beds in a drawer affairs that you read about. You know, like a double wide coffin. But at least coffins don't have reading lamps ... as far as I know!"
I thought they would be amused. My mistake! Maggie, like Queen Victoria, was definitely not amused.
She turned to Jenny, "You let him sleep in a drawer?!?!" she hissed and stared venomously at poor Jenny.
Maybe it was the jet lag, maybe it was still feeling depressed from watching Jenny and Amy together, maybe I am just getting old, but for the first time in my life, I lost my temper with Maggie. I wasn't going to let her abuse my Jenny!
"Maggie!" I said sharply. "That's enough! It's not Jenny's fault. It's probably one of those language mix-ups between Rich's office and the hotel in Tokyo. And it was my call to sleep in the drawer. I was trying to keep Jenny from feeling uncomfortable, and I think that was the right thing to do."
I glared at her. She stared back at me and, for God's sake, then she actually smiled ... as if she approved.
By then I was calming down and guilt washed over me. Not only was I the kind of man who lusts after a woman who trusts me, but now I was telling off a dear friend to whom I owed more than I could ever calculate. What a shit I am!
That's what I remembered as I prepared for bed after the dinner at Rich and Maggie's, and mulled over this business of the Sexual Harassment Policy Committee. I knew young women like Jenny need protection, from men who have all my desires but put them into action. Or, to put it another way, from men who are even worse shits than me.
As a result, the day after the conversation about the Sexual Harrassment Policy Committee, I dropped by the Dean's office, stuck my head through the door and told Rich, "I'll take on that committee work you were asking about."
"Good," he replied. "I was speaking with the President's office about this and I told them I thought you would accept the job." He hesitated for a moment. "They want co-chairs, one male, one female. It's likely that you will be named as the male co-chair."
"Who will be the woman co-chair?" I asked.
"Marsha Kroeger, from the Faculty of Divinity."
"The one who teaches feminist theology?"
And the whole miserable business was just about, though not quite, as bad as I expected. At first I wrote out the entire name of the committee in my Blackberry, "Sexual Harassment Policy Committee" whenever a meeting was scheduled. Eventually I gave up on that and called it simply, "Harassment." And I meant it.
Still, we made good time on the project, just as Rich had predicted. It wasn't always easy working with Marsha. She is one of those tall, lean middle aged white women with an afro perm or a mop or whatever they call it, divided in the middle and falling on either said of the head. That hairdo always says, "aggressive and feminist" to me and whether or not that is true in general, it was certainly the case with Marsha. She pushed the committee along and I smoothed the ruffled feathers. It turned out we were actually a good team.
We decided very early on that the rules, as presently written, were fundamentally sound and that they only needed to be tweaked. Interestingly enough, it was the gay representatives who argued that it was impossible completely to forbid sexual and romantic relationships between members of different categories of people on campus and that the gay population on campus wouldn't put up with draconian limits on their sexual expression.
"Gays refuse to be bound by the dictates of the traditional bourgeois morality of the straight majority," declared the rep from the LGBT society and Marsha nodded her head in decisive agreement. Not for the first time, I wondered what the Puritan divines who founded Locksmith would think of their school now.
I pointed out that you couldn't have one set of rules for gays and another for straights and, to my surprise, the committee agreed. We proposed a system which basically left folks alone where no coercion could reasonably be considered to be involved and a set of procedures by which persons who might be in a position of power or influence over their intended partners could distance themselves formally from any such relationship by writing to their supervisory officer to make alternate arrangements.
"Oh great," grumbled Rich when I outlined the first draft of the rules for him. "Now I'll have to give permission every time a professor has the hots for a grad student." After kvetching about the letters he would have to write, but in a very amusing way, he grunted his approval of our proposals.
I have to admit that the next development truly astounded me, especially since I had done Rich a huge favor by serving on that damned committee. He took Jenny away from me and assigned her to another supervisor, Bobby Cohen! And she could no longer serve as my assistant!
I hotfooted it to Rich's office and told him I was royally pissed off.
"Now, calm down, Will. Bobby Cohen is in nuclear physics and has directed many dissertations, 100% successfully, too."
"Sure, but he's in the physics end of things. He knows piss-all about construction."
"Will, all that part of the work is over for Jenny. She just needs someone who knows the ropes about submitting and who will push her to get her writing done. You're off to California and it will be a problem if Jenny can't submit before then."
"She's making great progress. She'll be done in time!" I declared.
"Things happen to delay students. They don't always submit when their supervisors think they will. You know that."
Rich paused, looked at me apologetically and gently said, "Will, Jenny thinks it's a good idea too."
I was stunned, absolutely stunned. What could I say to that?
I stared out the window for a half minute. Finally, I turned back to Rich. "Rich, is Jenny mad at me? Did I hurt her in any way?" Then a shameful thought struck me: maybe she had somehow caught the vibes of my lust for her and was so disgusted she didn't want to be around me anymore.
Rich winced when I asked that question. "Not in the least. Not at all, Will."
I remembered my display of temper after the Tokyo trip. "Did, did, I offend you ... or Maggie?"
"No, definitely not, Will. Nobody is mad at you." He paused. "You'll understand why, eventually."
But I won't. Not ever.
In some ways though, much to my surprise, things didn't change. Jenny still dropped by regularly just to chat. Rich and Maggie obviously wanted to make me feel better about the change, so they assiduously continued to invite the two of us to their home, just like when Jenny and I were together. But we weren't ... and it hurt.
Sometime later, I dropped over to Rich and Maggie's place on a Saturday afternoon to watch a football game. Jenny was already there, helping Maggie with a home decorating project and we ended up being invited to stay for dinner. I hadn't seen her as much as usual that month, because Jenny had been grinding out her dissertation. Still, I had to acknowledge that she looked well. She has a little bit more of a bottom on her than many Asian women – maybe some folks might even think it's a bit on the large size for her slender frame, but I like it - and a tight pair of blue jeans shows it off nicely. "Cool," as they would say in Montreal.
But the rules forbid staring in a manner likely to cause offense or discomfort, so I did my best not to notice. Or at least, I tried very hard to appear as if I wasn't noticing. It didn't work. Maggie caught me sneaking a peak, smiled at me roguishly and wagged a mildly chiding finger at me. But she didn't look truly upset.
We all sat down in the den after dinner over coffee. Conversation turned very naturally to the progress of the Harassment committee. That led inevitably to Maggie and Rich telling Jenny in considerable and very amusing detail about their early days as a couple. Suddenly Maggie turned to me and said, "Tell Jenny how you and Robin started dating. She needs to know."
"Needs to know, why?"
I shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea why anyone, least of all Jenny, would be interested in how Robin and I got together, but it was easier to tell the story than to argue with Maggie. Not that it's much of a story.
"We were juniors in high school and Robin invited me to a Sadie Hawkins dance. One thing led to another and, well, there you go."