[This story continues in the following post. Ideally, it should be read in one gulp. But a 5,000+ word post might be pushing my luck.]
Professor Charles Couteau taught the full year Shakespeare seminar at the small experimental college Clara attended. It was tough to get in – especially as he hand-picked the lucky twelve or thirteen juniors and seniors who made it. However, Clara had never worried. As a freshman, she’d done extremely well in his Exploratory Literature course, which he informally called “Meeting the Serpent.” That in itself, she felt, made her a sure thing for the Shakespeare. In fact, she had sobbed in vexation when he refused to let her into it as a sophomore. To ease the year of separation until she became eligible as a junior, she asked him to be her don, a sort of in loco parentis figure established by the college to meet with each student for half an hour or so every other week and keep an eye on how things were going. He seemed pleased at the invitation. Her heart did a little flip-flop of happiness when he accepted.
Judging by the dates of his degrees from Columbia listed in the college catalogue, Couteau was about twenty years older than Clara. He was tall, broad-shouldered, had brush-cut red hair and blue-green eyes, wore rimless glasses, and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes with a slightly shaky freckled hand, exhaling the smoke with audible force. Once he mentioned he had played college football. And he was knowledgeable about so much that wasn’t just literature. The week they discussed Malraux’s Man’s Fate (in translation), Clara confided to her journal she sometimes wished she could be crushed in Couteau’s tweedy arms. Unfortunately he was married, to a woman no student had ever seen on campus, and had a three-year-old daughter named Genevieve.
The Shakespeare, when she was finally allowed to register for it, was no walk in the park. It met once a week for an hour and a half around an oval table where, under Couteau’s Socratic guidance, Clara and ten other young women, smoking heavily, struggled for a whole academic year to identify and analyze the social and psychological underpinnings of the important plays. Although campus gossip had it Couteau was a Marxist, that did not seem relevant to his obfuscations. Instead, what slowly filled the margins of Clara’s heavy Neilson and Hill Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare were despairing pencilled notes about the terms of the culture and dichotomy. She scribbled comments about the impossibility of the human. Many years later, opening the Neilson and Hill, she would also find, in her own college handwriting: Hamlet ½ god, ½ man; Claudius ½ man, ½ fiend; Laertes ½ god, ½ fiend – and even then would have no idea what that had meant. Disjointed notes at the bottom of the last page of The Tempest read: Prospero induces freedom by being conscious of the human limitation. Exists only in relationships with other men. Absolute freedom not freedom. Personal immediate sense of love childish. Why had she written this? Because they were Couteau’s words, as nearly as she could reproduce them.
The less she was able to grasp what Couteau’s perceptions had to do with the stories so familiar to her since childhood from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, the more she admired him. During one of their don-donnee conferences, she declared he should write a book. He smiled his adorable crooked smile. He had begun several times, he admitted. Then life intervened. The unfinished pages were in a drawer.
“Life?” asked Clara.
“Genevieve,” he replied.
Clara became bolder: “Lots of writers have babies. Your wife should encourage you! Doesn’t she understand how much you have to offer?”
The blue-green eyes looked deep into hers for a glorious moment. Then he asked how her term paper on Othello was coming along.
Clara was a fluent writer, but when she finally managed to disgorge the Othello paper just before Christmas it was apparently a disappointment. Couteau returned it with only two “Good!”s in the margins and many more “Develop!”s. Worse, there was no appreciative comment at the top, where at more conventional colleges, a grade might have appeared. She must have not yet sufficiently internalized his analytic vocabulary. As if to punish herself for this failure of devotion, she broke up with her long-time boyfriend during the holiday vacation. Till recently he had been enrolled at a university a safe half-continent away; now finally graduated, he was back in the East demanding payback for his two years of patient fidelity. Compared to Couteau, his personal immediate sense of love was so childish! She therefore had no dates at all during the whole ten days, not even on New Year’s Eve, which made it a relief to return in January to the thickets of iambic pentameter awaiting her in Neilson and Hill.
Couteau had news: he had bought a Victorian house in Bedford. It cost a pretty penny, and was mortgaged to the hilt, but it sat on four acres of land! His domain! He was practically chortling. They’d be moving in over the summer, after certain necessary repairs had been made. Then he’d have the whole following semester to settle in: he was taking a one-term sabbatical.
Her senior year, and he would be away for half of it! “Doesn’t all this lord of the manor stuff undercut your values?” Clara inquired acidly. An apartment dweller all her life, she was unable to share his enthusiasm for wide open spaces.
“How is that?” he asked. “I love uncultivated land in its natural state. The more of it around me the better. Then no one can box me in.”
It’s possible that by May, Clara finally figured out what Couteau wanted to see in a Shakespeare term paper. It’s also possible that the intellectual dichotomy between glorying in ownership of four acres and a big old house on the one hand and, on the other hand, finding the terms of the culture in every Shakespeare play made it impossible to be fully human — had simply eviscerated Couteau’s interpretive standards. Whatever the reason, he could not have written a better comment about her second term paper, on All’s Well That Ends Well:
This is one of the smoothest and tightest jobs I have ever read. “Words and thought” do match, and “feeling,” form and content too. You have made it sound like a fascinating novelette, with no sacrifice of interpretation.
Congratulations! Publish it.
Oh joy! She read these intoxicating words at home, where he had mailed the paper after the school year was over. Of course, she wrote to thank him. He replied that she deserved it. He signed his note “Charles.”
In early November of Clara’s senior year, Couteau telephoned the college switchboard to invite her and his other senior donnee to his new house in Bedford for Thanksgiving. Apprehensively, Clara opened the closet in the off-campus house where she was now living and was glad to discover her green corduroy outfit with full skirt and paisley blouse still fit, sort of, although it had been bought three years before. She did have a few of the freshman fifteen remaining on her hips, and there was a little bulge in her stomach especially evident in profile. But after she moved the waistband hook as far as possible, the bulge was less noticeable. If she ate very little in the week left before Thanksgiving, perhaps it would disappear altogether.
Couteau was picking them up in his car because the trains from their college town to Bedford didn’t run often enough on holidays. Florence, the other donnee, showed up at Clara’s house at the appointed time. Clara knew her but not well; she was rather messy and disorganized. Her preparations for this special occasion seemed to have been minimal: she had unearthed a respectably clean skirt and shapeless sweater, bleached the dark hairs on her upper lip yellow, and applied an unbecomingly purple shade of lipstick. Clara said she looked nice. She said Clara looked elegant and no, not fat at all. Then there was honking from the street, so they bundled up, hurried out, and climbed into the back seat. All the way to Bedford Clara wished she had thought quickly enough to sit in front next to Couteau.
They hadn’t seen him since the end of May. He seemed another man now, relaxed and jovial, as if they hadn’t been his student donnees. While he drove, he told amusing stories about moving into the new house. Florence supplied most of the necessary “And then what?”s while Clara gazed at the back of his neck and tried to decide how she would feel if he fell in love with her. Maybe twenty years was too big an age difference. Although that was exactly what made it so exciting to contemplate.
Too soon they arrived. There was much wiping of feet on the doormat and taking off coats in the front hall. His thin wife came out to greet them, flushed from kitchen heat, carrying a wooden spoon and dressed in a shabby sweater and baggy skirt around which she had wrapped an apron with food stains on it. Margaret was her name. Clara had been speculating about this wife for over three years and was pleasantly gratified to see how far she had, in the words of the ladies’ magazines to which Clara’s mother subscribed, “let herself go.” She wore socks. She hadn’t shaved her legs. Had she cut her hair herself? And no makeup at all: how did she expect to keep him, such a robust man in the prime of life? Clara began to feel very attractive.
The wife returned to her kitchen; Clara and Florence were ushered into the living room. There Couteau poured red wine into three glasses waiting on a tray. No, Margaret would not be joining them; she was still attending to the turkey and and feeding their little girl in the kitchen. Would his little girl appear? Perhaps later, briefly. He didn’t believe small children should have a role at adult social gatherings. There was chat about the college; Couteau shared some confidences about inter-faculty politics. Clara sipped carefully. (How many calories in a glass of red wine?) They toured the ground floor of the house, glasses in hand, while Clara admired this and that because it was clear he was expecting it. The new house had very little furniture in it. Faculty salaries, he explained with a rueful grin. They returned to the living room to stand by a picture window with a panoramic view of his property.
Then it happened. He put his empty glass down on the mantelpiece and came behind Clara. She sensed him close, his body not quite touching hers but almost. He stood perfectly still. She stood perfectly still. She could hear his breathing, feel his exhalations on her neck. He said something about the trees in the distance. Mmm, she agreed, hardly daring to breathe herself. He reached for her glass, took it from her hand, sipped from it, and gave it back to her. He breathed heavily again, two or three times. She sipped from the glass too. From the same place his lips had been. Oh, oh, was she trembling? He mentioned something else about the trees. Was she supposed to turn around? If she did, her breasts would brush against him. Better not. Let him make the next move.
“Dinner must be nearly ready,” he said. “Let’s go find out.” He walked away. Clara looked at Florence. She had seen it all. But there was no time for discussion; dinner was indeed ready. Still shaking, Clara headed to the kitchen offering to help; the wife shooed her away. “No, no, you’re here as a guest,” she insisted. Clara did notice Couteau didn’t get up to help her carry the heavy platters laden with food from the kitchen, but decided it would have been awkward for him to serve his own students. The wife sat down to her own plate only when all the others had been served.
It was a huge, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, prepared from scratch. After turkey noodle soup, there were freshly baked Parker House rolls with pats of butter; salad with homemade “Russian” dressing; a large beautifully browned bird with chestnut stuffing and sherry gravy; candied sweet potatoes, creamed onions, buttered brussels sprouts; and for dessert two kinds of homemade pie – apple and pecan – with store-bought ice cream on top, followed by coffee and brandy. “This must have taken you days,” said Clara. The wife shrugged. “I like to cook. And now we’ll have enough leftovers for quite a while.”
“She is a good cook,” said Couteau.
How Clara would have loved to eat it all! But what if she were on the threshold of romance and might soon need to be naked with her lover? She sipped a little soup, avoiding the noodles, teased the lettuce out from under its generous layer of dressing, ate some sprouts and two thin slices of white meat without gravy, had one taste of the candied sweet potatoes and passed on everything else. Florence was stuffing herself like a pig. Clara had brought saccharin tablets to the table in her skirt pocket and surreptitiously dropped one into her coffee cup. She did permit herself real cream in the coffee because she didn’t want to make trouble by asking for milk. The wife rejected help with clearing, too. “It’s easier by myself,” she said. “I’m so glad you could come. It means a lot to him to be able to do this for his students.”
Suddenly the visit was over. If they left now, Couteau said, they could catch one of the few holiday trains back to the college. He hurried them into their coats and into his car. They reached the station just in time. No meaningful goodbyes. No tender pressure of the hand. “See you next semester,” he said cheerfully. “Be good.” A taxi was waiting at the college station. And then they were back at Clara’s off-campus doorstep. The house was dark. Everyone else was away.
Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.
[To be continued…]