She enjoyed reading with her mother, Clara. Well before she entered kindergarten, Hannah was capable of reading, with a little help, a first-page article in the Burlington Free Press. And she enjoyed playing board games with her father, Horace, who had a gift for explaining subtle or complicated principles of the games in such a way that Hannah immediately understood them. They moved quickly from Chutes and Ladders and Go Fish to checkers and dominoes. When she was a second-grader, Horace introduced her to chess and was gratified to see that she was more than ready for the challenge. Because she so loved the pieces–and the look of them on the board, the phalanx of Pawns guarding the King, Queen, Knights, Bishops, and Castles–chess instantly became her favorite game. Of course her father was the only person with whom, as a second-grader, she could play it.
With me, what you see is definitely not what you get. I never really meant to do it, but I just started out cultivating an appearance that conceals the truth about who I am. So far as I know, from infanthood on, I was working on the mask. I heard on NPR the other day that autistic people really like systems, and maybe this is my form of autism–perfecting the system of an inside person and an outside person. Or God knows, maybe I’ve got some fluky version of Tourette’s where all the tics and cursing and inappropriate sentiments are on the inside. Whatever it is with me, I’ve evidently polished up the outside so well that even my family members don’t have a clue.
As she moved through elementary and middle school, Hannah continued to enjoy being around her parents, because they treated her with respect she received from no one else and most especially not from her peers. Clara was thirty when she gave birth to their daughter, Horace was nearly forty. They cherished the child perhaps more than they might have if she’d arrived when they were five or ten years younger. Horace and Clara were decorous people, not inclined to be invasive in their relationships with others and particularly wary of bullying their daughter’s consciousness to mold her to their liking. Also, from her first days out of the womb, Hannah impressed them as a creature of integrity–a rare being, as if a cardinal or a dolphin had taken up residence with them. They merely wanted their daughter to become what she seemed destined to be, a bright and capable person. A woman of substance. “She’s already perspicacious,” Horace told Clara the night after Hannah had first beaten him at chess. “When she grows up, she may turn out to be a female Gandhi.” “God forbid,” murmured Clara from her side of the bed, and they both chuckled.
For one thing, when it comes to other people, I have intense likes and dislikes. And you talk about snap judgments–I’m Queen Snap herself. I meet somebody and instantly I’ve got an opinion, like I just read the biography of this person. Sometimes I try to figure out what it is about somebody that impresses me one way or the other. It’s not like I’m correct in what I decide–plenty of times I’ve thought so and so was an angel sent down from heaven only to find out that so and so is actually a full-time employee of the devil. Even then I have a hard time changing my mind. But I did figure out that my parents are pretty much my measure of everybody I meet. I never went through that stage of rebellion some kids go through, where they want to be around anybody who’s not like their parents. My parents listened to me, they talked to me, they helped me, they made me understand that no matter what I did, I was okay with them. So if I’m a screwed-up person, it’s not my parents’ fault. I’m sure of that. I’m also pretty sure that I’ve done only one awful thing in my life, but it wasn’t because of any harm Clara or Horace did to me.
The one adult Hannah found most exciting was her father’s friend Sonny Carson. A computer science professor at St. Michael’s College, Sonny Carson had a charismatic personality and a reckless way of talking. He gave the impression of knowing all there was to know about contemporary culture
–and he seemed especially astute in his understanding of how digital technology was likely to globalize US culture. Sonny Carson also had a pleasantly caustic attitude toward the humanities, in the value of which Horace Houseman passionately believed. The conversations of those two men–Sonny a word-slinging iconoclast and Horace a skilled rhetorician–were exciting to Hannah, not only for the sound of the language but also for the conflict and affection that constantly played between the two men.
When those two guys were on their second cocktail and just warming up to their favorite topic–the Catholic Church–for me it was like the circus had come to town. I wanted to be nowhere but sitting near enough to them to take it all in but not close enough to distract them. I knew they were, at least to some extent, performing for me, but I’m pretty sure they understood that most of what they said was going right over my head. So the best part of it was when they forgot about me–I learned to have my nose in a book and maybe to be sitting in the floor or off to the side when they were in these sessions. Sonny and my father didn’t really disagree with each other all that much about the Catholic Church. They both thought it was pretty awful for the way it harbored child abusers, preached against birth control and abortion, wouldn’t let women into the priesthood, didn’t tolerate homosexuality–all of that stuff. But my father stood up for the positive influence of the church in the advancement of literacy and human rights. And Sonny Carson liked nothing better than going off on “the real story of the church and human rights.” I must have been listening to those old guys carry on that argument from the time I was about 7 or 8, and I went right on eavesdropping on them when I got into high school. The odd thing about it was that even as much as I adored my father, I was pretty much on Sonny’s side of the debate. The Catholic Church was a total mess, yes indeed, I was right there with Sonny on that. Of course, I knew nothing about it, but the even odder thing about it was that the way Sonny described the church–making everything look pretty on the outside but hiding “a plethora of sins, a veritable nest of snakes,” as he put it, on the inside–made me understand what was going on with me personally. I don’t know why, but I found it a comfort that the way I understood myself to be could be described by Sonny talking about something else. And even though he tried to make it sound awful, I wasn’t put off by that. To me a nest of snakes was pretty darned exciting, and I didn’t mind imagining that I had something like that inside me. As long as I didn’t have to tell anybody about it.
Thus the child, the girl, even the very young woman into whom Hannah Houseman was evolving, received a remarkable, (even if somewhat peculiar) education in academic discourse. She heard two very intelligent and informed men speak with passion and wit on a subject that fascinated them. For them, those conversations were an entertainment. Perhaps neither of them considered that it was also an entertainment for Hannah but that it might have been other things as well.
This is a story about torture. As a very young child, I thought a lot about doing painful things to people. I don’t know how far back it goes, but the first time it surfaced was at a birthday party my mother took me to before I even went to Kindergarten. At this party, there was an unnaturally pretty little girl, my age, my size, but with very dark hair and eyebrows and skin so pale it made me think of vanilla ice cream. The instant I saw her, I was infatuated with that child. Greta was her name. Until then I’d never experienced anything so intense as I felt for Greta in the first hours of my being around her. And she seemed to take an interest in me. She wasn’t a talker, but she gave me a smile that made me blush. When it was time for cake and ice cream, I sat beside her. I picked up her arm–she allowed it, curious, I suppose, to see what I was up to. I studied it for a moment–it had the loveliest pattern of tiny blades of dark hair angled across its creamy surface–then brought it to my mouth, put my teeth to its warm surface, and began to bite. At first I was so gentle that Greta must have thought I was giving her a special kind of kiss. But I gradually increased the pressure of my teeth into her skin, all the while watching her face to see how I was affecting her. All these many years later, I see it as vividly as if I’d just done it this morning–that angel’s face changing from curiosity to worry to serious concern to outright horror and outrage. The funny thing was that Greta didn’t think to pull her arm away from me. She certainly could have, but she didn’t. For a moment there, it was like she was collaborating with me in my project of hurting her. But then of course she shrieked and cried, and the grown-ups separated us, and I began to realize how much disgrace I’d brought down upon myself. My mother was very embarrassed, but she wasn’t seriously angry at me, because she was certain I was too young to know any better. She was wrong about that. I knew. And I learned a couple of questionable lessons from the incident. One, biting Greta came out of the passion I felt for her and watching her face as I increased the level of her pain was the thrill of my life up to that point. Two, I didn’t ever again want to get caught doing something like that. I figured it out pretty quickly. I’d discovered something I liked. I’d found out that I’d better keep it to myself.
Hannah Houseman was ideally prepared–or educated–to encounter Professor Jerome Cummings of the Religion Department at Skidmore College. Thirty-five years old, Professor Cummings was a relatively young man for a scholar but because of his disheveled clothes, his beard, and his unkempt hair, he looked much older. His social manner was mousy, irritatingly egoless, absent-minded, only marginally articulate and/or coherent, and geeky. But he’d gotten tenure for two compelling reasons: In the classroom, he spoke with such brilliance that the number of Religion majors at Skidmore had tripled since his arrival on campus, and his one published book, Colum Cille and the Cult of Saints: Contextualizing the Vassals of God, was famous on campus for being a spellbinding treatment of a boring topic. He was about to be promoted to full professor. As a junior, Hannah sought and obtained Professor Cummings’s permission to enroll in his seminar, ‘Seeing the Sacred: Vision in Early and Medieval Christianity.’
Jerry Cummings patiently listened to me explain why he ought to give me, a junior, a place in his senior seminar. I was most certainly bullshitting him, but I did so in the grand tradition of Horace Houseman and Sonny Carson, men who generated intellectual conversation as a recreational act and loved long but grammatical sentences. I figured I had nothing to lose. Cummings had agreed to talk to me about his seminar, but everybody knew he only took seniors. In that year I was into the heroics of despair. I’d hoped that college would be the place where I found classmates and professors who would excite me, but by Thanksgiving break of my freshman year, I realized that hadn’t happened and wasn’t going to. By applying only to small colleges within easy driving distance of Burlington, I’d denied myself access to the very people who might have saved me. Had I gone to Columbia or BU or NYU, I’d have had a better chance. The kind of person I wanted to be around went to big schools in the city–I figured that out my freshman year, when it was too late. But I’d resigned myself to the oblivion of Skidmore and Saratoga Springs, I’d developed an attitude of making the best of my isolation and boredom but doing so in the spirit of irony. I knew Professor Cummings wasn’t going to let me in, but I’d reasoned that it would be cowardly not to ask him. Short, squatty little guy wearing just about the worst clothes I’d ever seen on a grown man, he seemed to me, in that first meeting in his office, a living symbol of my disappointment in college life. I had nothing to lose, and so I just sat there and improvised on the Catholic Church–Horace and Sonny’s old beloved topic. I had looked up a saint or two, because everybody knew Professor Cummings loved to talk about the saints. I threw a fact or two into my monologue. I made it clear that I was a serious atheist. “Belief of any kind,” I remember saying to him, “seems to me both simple-minded and irresponsible in the twenty-first century.” My stifled hopes rose exponentially when I noticed a little smile squirming around under the professor’s beard. But then he raised his hand to signal to me that I’d said enough. I knew he was about to tell me that he’d love to have me in his seminar next year when I got to be a senior. He’d thank me for coming in to talk to him, and blah blah blah. I was standing up and reaching for my backpack to make my exit when he said, “I’ll be happy to have you in my class, Hannah. Bring me the form from the Registrar’s office, and I’ll add your name to the class list.” I got out of his office fast, so as not to make a fool out of myself. I also managed to thank him without getting down on my knees and trying to kiss his hand.
Second semester of her junior year, Hannah requested and received a single. She was relieved to be out from under the oppression of a roommate. Disappointed though she was in the intellectual–and though she wouldn’t have said so, the spiritual–climate of Skidmore, Hannah nevertheless exerted herself in her studies and tried to be a good citizen in class. She didn’t try to be unfriendly around her peers, but she found it difficult to become interested–and stay interested–in them. If she’d followed her real wishes, she’d have driven back to Burlington every weekend to be around her father and hope to get lucky and sit in on one of his conversations with Sonny Carson. She was homesick for “their palaver,” as she called it when she was teasing one or the other of those gentlemen about their habit of extended and intimate social debate.
When he walked into our seminar room, Jerry Cummings underwent a transformation that was like nothing I’d ever witnessed. It was the astonishing fairy tale of Skidmore College–every Thursday afternoon at 3:30 the troll transmogrified himself into a prince. Since I saw it occur only once a week, I never quite got used to it. I swear I got chills the first meeting of the seminar. The man shuffled in, sat down at the head of the table, arranged books and papers in front of him, looked up–straight across the room more or less in the direction of the blackboard on the far wall–and began to speak in this voice that you couldn’t really imagine until you’d heard it. Baritone, yes–which shocked me because from our conversation in his office, I’d have figured him for a tinny and monotonous tenor–but also sonorous and musical, a voice that filled the room and resonated around each one of us. The closest approximation I can think of is Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello. What was weirdest of all was that I felt like Jerry was speaking to me personally. Of course, he wasn’t–and his eyes only occasionally strayed toward me–but that’s what it felt like, and only after I’d been out of the classroom for a day or so was I able to be objective about it and tell myself that everybody in the seminar must have felt the same way–Professor Cummings has singled me out today, and he really wants me to understand these ideas. That first afternoon, he talked about Saint Francis, and the painting called “Saint Francis in the Desert” that’s in the Frick Museum. It shows Saint Francis with his arms held away from his sides, looking upward and receiving the Stigmata. Jerry talked about the way that we’ve sentimentalized Saint Francis, how we all have this general idea about Saint Francis and the animals, birds on his shoulders, a deer nibbling something from his hand, but that it takes a painter like Bellini to remind us of his suffering and isolation. Jerry talked about how the imagination is the only way we can understand the idea of a saint or a god and especially the kind of god proposed by Christianity but how we resist what the imagination can tell us. He said suffering and isolation are just words until something sparks the imagination. He talked about that painting hanging in the Frick–and he had a book that he passed around so we could see Saint Francis in the Desert. He talked about going to see it and standing there in the museum gallery and facing the painting until he just lost track of time. He said he noticed people edging away from him and he wondered why they were doing that until he realized he was holding his arms out and making these little moaning noises. He even made the moaning noises for us, and we laughed softly. “I’m certain that before that day I’d never really grasped the kind of internal torture that Giovanni Bellini made so real in that Saint Francis.” He paused as if he were searching for some way to put it. “And even that was just a glimpse,” he said slowly, “of what it felt like to be utterly alone and filled with almost unbearable aching.” The rest of that class was more of a musical experience for me–Jerry’s voice made sounds that comforted me, and he even invited discussion so that there could be a kind of community chorus, but I confess that I took in very little of what he or anyone else had to say. I was just so certain that Jerry had been talking to me about my life and that he wanted me to understand that much of what I felt was pain, even if I was afraid to call it that. He knew I was all alone with feelings that I could hardly bear.
As a college junior, Hannah Houseman was an unusually serious young woman who’d been brought up in a family that heaped love and respect upon her. Her life had been one of high privilege. It’s fair to say that on the surface of it, she was advantaged in every possible way. More to the point, she had undergone sufficient moral evolution to understand her good fortune and to feel some responsibility toward others. To her credit, she was grateful that she’d not been burdened with beauty, as a fair number of her classmates (both women and men) were but that her appearance was pleasant and her personality, when she wished it to be so, was appealing.
Vassals of God galvanized my life. Suddenly everything made sense. Not only did Jerry Cummings speak to me more deeply than anyone ever had, the reading for the seminar also addressed issues I hadn’t realized were at the center of my thinking. I hardly knew what to do with myself. It took will power to give much attention to my other courses, but I did double and triple readings of the assignments for Vassals of God. In retrospect, I see that I underwent a conversion experience, but at the time I didn’t see it that way. I continued to consider myself an atheist but one who had opened up to what Christian theology had to say. This was foolish, I suppose, because I actually took up praying, my own personal version of it–I want to be humble on my walk this morning, I want Horace and Clara to take some joy from this day, I want to pay even closer attention to Professor Cummings in class tomorrow, that kind of thing. I might as well have been chanting Lord have mercy upon me, Christ have mercy upon me, etc.But real prayer offended me because it seemed completely selfish. I also knew it offended Jerry Cummings because he as much as said so in class. But the thing of it was, when I stepped into that seminar room, I was as much an acolyte as any Catholic nun ever was, striving to believe ever more deeply. In reality, I entered that room clothed and normal looking, guarded in my expression, reserved in my comments, but figuratively, I was utterly naked and opened to Jerry Cummings, filled with desire for him to fill me with the truth toward which my entire life, up until that point, had been directed. When I left that classroom, I felt as if I walked with a soft nimbus of light all around me. I was twenty years old.
The change in Hannah was quickly evident to her parents. Her letters and telephone calls were filled with news about the Vassals of God seminar. Horace and Clara were pleased that their daughter had suddenly become passionate about her studies. But it concerned them both that Hannah might be vulnerable to what could turn out to be another of those crackpot cults. Horace even checked out Professor Jerome Cummings by way of the academic grapevine and was reassured by the news that the young scholar was brilliant but quirky and harmless. And Hannah was quick to assure him that if anything she was more skeptical than ever of all religions. It was simply a matter of her having discovered a way to utilize the superior intellectual offerings of religious thinkers. In a late evening phone conversation she told Clara, “You don’t have to be religious to get something worthwhile out of Thomas Aquinas and Marcus Borg.” Clara thought her daughter sounded so sensible that she instructed herself to stop worrying. Hannah would be fine.
Though I’ve done it only that once, during my Vassals of God spring, I know that it’s possible suddenly to step into an alternative life. Then it was as easy as slipping a new dress over my head. Or taking off an old dress and everything else and walking out into the world without any clothes at all. You can do that, of course, but you’ll be quickly stopped and very likely institutionalized. It felt sort of like that, though, as if I’d found–or stumbled upon–a way to give myself over to the whole force of life. Best of all, I could be naked like that and no one would notice, no one would know. Except, of course Jerry Cummings, who–and I don’t think this was delusion–knew and understood what was happening to me. He was my true and only witness. The papers I wrote for him and the weekly journal entries we passed in for his weekly inspection received extensive and warm responses from him. He annotated our manuscripts in a tiny spidery handwriting that my classmates joked and complained about. My impression was–and this may have been delusion–that he took special pains with what he wrote to me, because even with a fast glance at his little clumps of paragraphs in the margins, I understood every single word. But I found myself saying less and less in our seminar discussions. I was aware of having too much to say, and if I got started, it would be hard to stop. For a while I had enough judgment to know that it would not be in my best interests to alert my classmates to the intensity that informed my every moment.
In fact, her classmates and acquaintances seemed to notice very little change in Hannah. All along, she hadn’t been someone who stood out in a crowd or even a small group. True, she had impressed one or two students and professors with her ability–demonstrated only occasionally–to speak articulately and with unusual poise. But another skill she’d perfected from childhood was taking on the appearance of everyone else. Instinctively she was a social chameleon, so much so that she probably wasn’t even aware of the extent to which she chose her clothes, her speech patterns, how she wore her hair, even her manner of walking and her posture while sitting and standing, with an eye to camouflaging herself. Skidmore of course had its nuances of style practiced only by Skidmore students, but if there had been a class or a test in such matters, Hannah would have been the one who received an A+. She had no particular loyalty to, or even liking for, Skidmore, but no one would have looked more quintessentially Skidmore than she did.
It’s my opinion that I was out of control no more than about ten minutes. A shrink would say that I started losing control at the beginning of the semester and that I didn’t start regaining it until late in the summer. But I think the real insanity was just this one episode. In the seminar, we were talking about the Gospels and their differing accounts of the crucifixion. Jerry had begun to speak about the resistance in our contemporary culture to Christ’s agony on the cross, and how that resistance stands in stark contrast to the values and attitudes of those who actually witnessed it. “For most of them, it was entertainment,” he said in his softest, deepest classroom voice. Then he stopped speaking, as he sometimes did when he wanted us to absorb what he’d said. And I was off. I had had no intention of speaking, and though I was surprised to hear myself start talking, I was pleased to note that my voice was calm and that my demeanor seemed appropriate. Worrisome, though, was that I felt as if I’d suddenly spiked a fever so high that it might kill me if it lasted very long. “If there were a case to be made that Christ was divine rather than human,” I began, “it might be that that level of slow and excruciating pain, inflicted for the sake of a public spectacle, is just about the only force that could cut through the spiritual deadness that victimizes us more and more as civilization removes pain from our lives and injects pleasure in its place. I don’t know anything about the kind of suffering that goes on all over the world, but let’s just say that a child starving to death in Africa is not likely to think Christ’s agony is more exceptional than his own pain and despair. But to the people who are walking around Mall of America, or our parents at home, or even the kids downstairs in the snack bar right now, Christ on the Cross is just about the only thing that could stop them in their tracks. I personally know a girl who put six thousand dollars worth of clothes on her father’s credit card before she came here to start her freshman year. Every detail of our lives works against our taking in that story. Not a single one of us wants to hear it, and I put myself at the head of the line of those of us who want to shut down anybody who starts preaching about it. But you know what? It won’t go away. No matter what drugs, what incredibly expensive houses and cars and hotels and casino and spas and drugs and parties and food we come up with, here comes Christ on the Cross, sneaking in under the doors and through the seams around the window sills. I understand why evangelists and even serious theologians are ready to buy into Christ’s being part of God. But that’s just another way of defending ourselves against Christ on the Cross. Make him part of God, and it just doesn’t hurt nearly as much. It’s a story about a man!” I banged my fist–lightly–on the seminar table and went on. Sweat came onto my forehead and oozed out of my scalp. I blinked away what I suppose were tears. I sat perfectly still. I looked into my classmates’ eyes. More than once I looked straight into the face of Jerry Cummings. Each time I did so, I understood–even though I resisted the thought–that he adored me and that he wished I would shut up.
If she’d had a close friend or family member in whom she confided, Hannah would say that by upbringing, temperament, and intellectual inclination, she was undersexed. She had no such person. Within herself, she understood her restrained manner and appearance as the way she kept the monster under control. Both Clara and Horace Houseman, though certainly not prudes, firmly believed that sex was a private matter. Clara had carried out the obligatory discussion of sex with Hannah not long after her 11th birthday, an occasion that embarrassed both of them–though not so much that they weren’t able to joke about it a few years later. But Hannah’s period didn’t arrive until she was nearly fourteen, her figure remained “understated,” a word Clara used for it that was a comfort to Hannah during her high school years. Hannah wasn’t so much shocked as puzzled by the brazen appearance and behavior of many girls in her classes. She understood the point of wanting that kind of attention, and she supposed that maybe–if her figure ever became a little less understated–there’d come a time when she wanted boys to look at her as they did the most audacious girls of her class. And she did always have a low-simmering interest in this boy or that one–there’d be one whom she found herself observing with particular care. But her interior life had a way of processing those boys through her imagination and then tossing them out. She was reluctant even to start daydreaming about a new one because pretty quickly she’d see that boy’s face twisting up when she’d handcuffed his hands behind his back and begun twisting a piece of flesh from his chest or the thick part of his shoulder or even his thigh until she made him yelp. The monster she knew herself to be could take a perfectly decent boy–who’d done her no harm whatsoever, probably couldn’t even have imagined hurting her–and in an evening’s pre-sleep fantasizing turn him into a sniveling crybaby. It was, Hannah joked to herself, a hateful magic trick. She’d wake the next morning filled with contempt for a boy whom yesterday she’d thought pretty attractive. Mercifully, she rarely remembered her dreams, and the boys themselves didn’t have a clue as to what had transpired between them and her monster.
Jerry Cummings rode with me on the last leg of my trip into crazyland. At the time it didn’t occur to me that he, too, had entered a heightened state of consciousness. I just thought that he had the capacity to understand me. That he was attuned to me for reasons mostly having to do with my father and Sonny Carson’s accidentally having trained me to carry out intellectual discourse while I was still a child. That his brain had in it that whole library full of theology and church history and probably just about everything that had ever been written about saints and martyrs and religious phenomena, and he appreciated my excitement in discovering all that stuff. What didn’t occur to me was that he found me romantically or sexually attractive. He was married and a professor; I was a student who didn’t even date. He was a grown-up, and while, at the age of twenty I wasn’t legally a kid, I’d only taken a few practice runs at thinking of myself as an adult. I confess that I had received so little of that carnally charged kind of male attentiveness that I probably wouldn’t have recognized it, no matter who it came from. And bless his heart, Jerry wasn’t somebody who had any sexual presence whatsoever. Sweet, smart, funny, exciting in the classroom, but sexy? Not even slightly. Then all of a sudden–Shazam! After my Christ on the Cross monologue in the seminar room, the two of us were so hot for each other it’s a miracle (Ha!) we kept our clothes on for the hours it took us to realize where we were bound to go. Our destination, when we finally figured out what it was, was so inevitable, we knew we had no choice. I thought that then. I think it now.
After she’d finished speaking about Christ on the Cross and the girl on her hall who owned twenty-two cashmere sweaters, Hannah walked straight from the seminar to her dorm room, locked the door, and sat at her desk until dark. Then she went to bed. She hadn’t been able to sleep, cry, or eat. The one course of action she could imagine was going to Professor Cummings and apologizing. She focused on that vision so intently that when she actually carried it out. It seemed no more real to her than any one of the several hundred times she’d imagined doing it while curled under the covers of her dormitory bed. Shortly after daylight that morning, she was the only person on the campus when she walked across it to the Humanities building, but she didn’t question the dreamlike quality of the emptiness all around her. She had no words for what it felt like to be herself in those moments, but if she had tried to put it into language, it would be been something like What is is what has to be. Fate itself was moving her, showing her the way, opening up the future with each step she took. When she finally came to it, Professor Cummings’s office door was closed, though the thought never occurred to her that he might not be in there. When she knocked, she heard a soft noise that she took to be his directive to her to come in. But when she tried the door, it was locked. She heard scuffling. Then suddenly the door was open, and Professor Cummings was there, his eyes red and his clothes disheveled. The two of them began to speak almost in unison, “I’m sorry….” But then a clumsy pause clunked down between them, and they stood like wooden figures carved on a clock on some European church steeple or a tableau of lifelike museum statues entitled “Encounter of the Wretched.” Indeed they’d neither of them changed clothes from the previous day. Neither of them had thought to look in a mirror for many hours. It was just after 6:30 a.m., though neither of them had any idea what the time was. Professor Cummings stepped aside. Hannah stepped through the door. He closed it behind her, turning to her as she turned to him.
I hadn’t imagined Physical contact with Jerry Cummings, maybe because I’d been afraid of what I might do to him in the chambers of my psyche. More likely was that I just didn’t think of him in that way, and I’d probably have been grossed out by the thought of my body touching his body. So I can’t account for the jolt of energy and excitement–arousal, I might as well call it–that hit me when we actually put our arms around each other. However unattractive he might have been to me before that moment, the spell I was in converted him into something else entirely. Or–what can I say?–maybe I’d denied desire for so long and with such determination that all it took was the spark of my body pulled hard against his, and I flamed up like a stack of logs soaked in gasoline.
“Shouldn’t you leave a note or something?” Hannah asked him. It was a Friday, and she knew he had afternoon classes. He shook his head, looked directly at her, and let her see him straight on.
Face of a saint, face of a fanatic, face of a homeless person–Jerry was really and truly a fright–his hair, beard, and clothes looked as if someone had come along and jerked pieces of him out of place. He widened his eyes at me, as if my appearance startled him, too. Looking at each other like that just elevated the intensity of what was pushing us to move, go forward, fling ourselves into the future as hard as we could.
By 7:30 that morning they were in Hannah’s car heading for the Albany airport. Jerry knew there’d be a Holiday Inn or some kind of motel out there, and of course he was right about that.
When Horace and Clara and I had traveled, we’d stayed in such rooms. My memory had them saturated with sunlight, a swimming pool outside that I was hot to get myself into, and a huge bed all to myself, upon which I could bounce until I was so exhausted I would sleep deeply into the morning. Jerry and I kept this one dark as a tunnel. One light on in the bathroom, the door cracked slightly open so as to allow a faint signal of basic orientation.
Between them, there were long stretches of silence. Then outbursts of conversation, a rapid clatter of words, sometimes the two of them speaking at once and nevertheless hearing each other and responding, the talk a wild mesh of sentences criss-crossing, repeating and soaring off. Years later, Hannah would remember it in almost symphonic terms, a composition by a mad old maestro who’d be filled with joy in one movement, then plunging into despair the next, but never in any hurry to reach a conclusion. If anything, delaying the end. Her sense of it was that she and Professor Cummings were among the musicians–maybe the second horn player and the first cellist–two players among the many so passionately caught up in performing the piece.
First sex I suppose is probably strange for everybody. Had Jerry and I been ourselves–as opposed to the extraterrestrials into which we’d been transformed–it would have been the saddest of times, the most forlorn efforts to “make love” ever carried out by two human creatures. Even in our heightened states, we had to struggle through immense clumsiness and ignorance. But the thing of it was, body and body, we kept being impelled toward collision and after collision. Trying to get to ecstasy was part of it, but much of what we did and tried to do was–okay, Jerry said it aloud–“Fucking ridiculous!” Shocked by such a word coming from Jerry and delighted at the aptness, I laughed for the first time in what felt like months but was probably only a day and part of a night. It wasn’t really funny, though. Bold and worked up as we were, we were evidently incapable of reaching climax with each other. Jerry said he knew that nobody ever gets back into paradise, but he hadn’t realized that what you get for attempting it is just sadness and frustration. I didn’t take it as hard as he did, though. When we finally went to sleep, I cupped my body against his back and wrapped an arm around him. It wasn’t an orgasm, but it was at least half an answer to the question of what I thought I was doing.
The next morning Hannah and Professor Cummings decided they’d burned through the madness and maybe they could start talking about how to reassemble their lives. Hannah invited him into the shower with her. This she’d learned from Horace and Clara whom, as a little girl, she’d overheard from her bedroom, chattering away in the bathroom while the water ran. She remembered the specific moment when she figured out that her parents were in the shower together and that it had brought out a gaiety in their voices that she’d never heard from either of them anywhere else.
Jerry and I decided that it wasn’t the Christian God that was pulling the strings attached to us on this trip, it was the old-fashioned gods–“the bad-assed, mean ones,” Jerry said a little grimly. Desire took hold of us again while he was washing my back, and it turned into his washing my breasts and moving downward. Desire caught us when we thought we were through with it, and it jerked us hard. We left the water running, we stepped straight from the shower to the bed, wet and without even taking a towel with us. Then we were at it again, and this time Jerry’s hands made their way to my throat–I put my hands on his and even pushed them to make him squeeze harder. All of a sudden I was dizzy, but I was also rising and shuddering, and that’s when I heard him rasping out that he wanted me to hit him. I did! I slapped his jaw as naturally as I might have caressed his cheek. The sting of that hard slap in the palm of my right hand took me that much higher into my climax, so that he didn’t even have to ask me to strike him a second time. I felt him come into me, as he must have felt me shuddering around him. We stopped moving and stared at each other, a pair of wild-eyed wrestlers pinned together and suddenly turned to stone. “Jesus Christ,” Jerry finally murmured. And I gasped, “No. I don’t think so.”
“The drive of shame,” they called it as they made their way back to Saratoga Springs. Hannah and Professor Cummings were so shaken by what they’d found out about themselves and each other that they’d needed several hours of talking in the motel room to begin to feel that they might at least attempt to go back to what they’d left. They had little disagreement over some basic points. They’d been profoundly unwise in their behavior. That they hadn’t used condoms probably wasn’t an issue since Hannah had been taking birth control pills to regulate her period for a couple of years and Professor Cummings hadn’t ever had sex with anyone but his wife. Around noon, he called his wife–Jane, Hannah heard him say the woman’s name as the first word he spoke into the receiver–to tell her that he’d be home that evening and that he would explain to her where he’d been. Hannah couldn’t make out what Jane was saying on the other end of the line, but she picked up the frantic tone of the woman’s voice, and it made her cringe. Hannah and Professor Cummings agreed that they couldn’t see each other again anywhere but in class. And if what they’d done came to light at the college, if there were a scandal and they were questioned, then they’d both have to be honest and tell it exactly as it had happened.
Jerry said he thought that even as awful as we had been, we’d nevertheless done what we had to do. “A necessary spiritual errand,” he called it. I wasn’t sure about that, but I agreed with him that to lie about it would be a desecration. Not to mention that we wouldn’t get by with lying anyway. Jerry also said that he thought his marriage probably wasn’t going to survive the lightning bolt that would strike when he got home and told Jane what he’d done. I thought that lying might be a kindness to Jane, but I knew better than to say that to him. I knew he wouldn’t anyway, and I didn’t really want him to.
They got quieter and quieter as they headed back up the Northway. As Hannah drove, Professor Cummings rested his hand on the seat between them.
I kept trying to figure out whether any part of what I felt might be classified as desire for him. I was also trying to guess whether he might still have some shred of desire lingering in his feelings for me. Would it be possible for it to take hold of us again the way it had in the shower? I hoped that no was the answer to all those questions, and I was pretty certain that all the no’s would become definite once we got back to campus. That was the good news.
The bad news was that now Hannah knew exactly what she wanted. She knew it might be hard to find, but it was out there somewhere.
If I’d found it once, I could find it again.
Or it could find her.
And I wondered how I was going to live with that.