Author’s Note: In my short story, Professor, I wanted to explore the complex nuance of sex, power, and choice. The protagonist is a middle-aged divorced mother who is pursued by her professor. She is flattered by the attention, feels powerful, and thinks she is making her own choices in their relationship. In the end though, it becomes clear how little choice she actually had and that her agency and power were an illusion.
CLARE STOOD AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE NATURE PRESERVE east of campus, wondering if she’d been forgotten. It wouldn’t have surprised her; the professor didn’t seem to pay much attention to his calendar. During the past winter, while she was in his fiction workshop, he’d missed one of their three out-of-class conferences. Now, three months later, they were meeting to discuss the first fifty pages of her novel, which she’d revised following his suggestions. So far, he was thirteen minutes late, but she waited until it was twenty to text him.
“Was in my calendar the wrong way,” he responded. “Be right there.”
She’d been surprised when he suggested meeting here rather than in his office but didn’t question it. He said it had been such a cold, wet spring, and the weather looked to be beautiful, and the dogwoods and lilacs were still in bloom, and he wanted to take some photos before they disappeared. Clare was always impressed when people knew the names of trees and flowers, a facet of knowledge she herself lacked.
At 10:45, nearly an hour late, he walked up to her, smiled wordlessly, and held his arms open for a hug.
His body—his weight—always surprised her. Her hands couldn’t touch behind his back; she’d noted this fact the first time they’d hugged, which had also been in public, on campus. She’d been on her way to the English department to drop off pages of her novel in his faculty mailbox, and he was walking toward her on the diagonal path across the quad. He was impossible to miss, one of the few black faces in a sea of pale white and Asian ones, and though not tall, he was wide. He and Clare were almost the same height—she was tall for a woman and he slightly short for a man—but he was three times as wide as she. He’d been looking down at his phone—he was always looking at his phone—and Clare lay in his path.
“Ah, what a sight for sore eyes,” he’d said when he sensed her presence and looked up. Then, holding out the phone, he said, “I just got some bad news here. Can I get a hug?”
Now, at the nature preserve, Clare wondered where her novel pages were; the professor carried only his camera and the handkerchief he was using to wipe sweat from his face.
“This book is goin’ to win awards,” he said when they started walking on the gravel path into the woods. “You’re an amazin’ writer.” His accent, from London’s East End where he’d grown up with his black father and white mother, prevented him from pronouncing “g” at the end of words. Clare loved the sound of his voice and the way he spoke—words, the way he said them, were imbued with softness and ease. He said “writer” as if it ended in an “a.”
He went on to mention other writers he’d worked with: a Pulitzer Prize winner, National Book Award finalists. “I judge some of these awards,” he said, “and trust me, this is just as good.” He wiped some sweat from his forehead. “Your pages are in my car; I have nothing but good things to say. You just need to keep writin’.”
Clare was speechless.
“My editor will love it,” he went on. “I’m goin’ to email her today.”
“But it’s not finished,” Clare said.
“It doesn’t matter⎯we should get this out there.” He stopped walking, held the camera up to his eye, focused on a tree awash in white blossoms, and pressed the shutter several times. Birds rushed up out of the tree, and white petals fluttered to the ground. “Listen,” he said, “don’t sell yourself short.”
“I just feel like I’m already so behind,” Clare said. She had three young children and had been divorced for a year. Life was daunting.
“Toni Morrison was forty-five before she published her first novel. It’s goin’ to happen,” he said.
They walked for about an hour, falling silent each time he stopped to take a photo. He asked her about her children, her divorce. He told her how he wished his own mother had divorced his dad, how it was a brave thing to do. He talked about some of the other MFA students she knew, how some of them were just “piss poor.” At the time, she didn’t question this derision of her classmates, didn’t think it was inappropriate at all. What she thought was that she was winning.
She asked him to be her thesis advisor.
“I’d be honored,” he said.
When they got back to the parking lot, after he’d handed her the fifty pages of her novel and driven away, Clare sat in her car and looked through her manuscript. He’d made no detailed comments, provided only effusive, generalized praise. She felt her face flush at the thought that maybe he hadn’t even read it. But that couldn’t be true. He wouldn’t have offered to contact his editor if he hadn’t read her work.
She would remember that walk and think how he’d lied. She didn’t write like any of those writers he mentioned. Years later, she would think to herself, You were delusional for believing him.
HIS HAD NOT BEEN A TYPICAL WORKSHOP, this particular professor’s, this award-laden head of the creative writing department, author of eleven novels and books of poetry, this TED talker whose speech “On Our Common Humanity” had hundreds of thousands of views.
On the first day of class, he’d stood at the chalkboard, wooden mala beads around his neck, a lapis lazuli Ganesh resting on his belly, and drew two intersecting lines on the blackboard with an abstract symbol in each quadrant. They were told to copy what he’d drawn onto a piece of paper and then complete a larger drawing in each square using the symbols provided. He then gathered the sheets of paper and analyzed each student in front of the class based on what they’d drawn.
Standing at the front of the classroom, he’d said about Clare, “You hide your emotions. You need to be more vulnerable if you are going to be a real writer,” leaving no doubt as to who was the real writer and who was the aspiring one. Clare didn’t yet recognize that all writers, real or not, were always aspiring.
After he’d analyzed each student, the professor told them it was a psychological profile test he’d learned from a friend of his who worked for MI6.
Two other things that stood out later about his workshop: his tearing up the manuscript pages of a fellow student as she sat crying, and the time he’d asked Clare what love meant to her. She’d answered, “Freedom.”
He’d tapped his pencil to her pages then and said, “But this character cares about what she can get from the people she loves.”
“In the beginning, yes,” Clare said, “but you haven’t read the whole book.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
A FEW MONTHS AFTER THEIR WALK in the nature preserve, the professor spoke to a sold-out auditorium at a citywide humanities festival. Clare was in the audience with her boyfriend, a man she’d been dating since her divorce. Afterward, the professor signed books. Clare bought the only book of his she didn’t yet own—a poetry collection he’d written with artwork by one of his writing mentors, a professor at another university. In it he wrote, For my beautiful friend whose heart is a song. Grace!
The working title of Clare’s novel was The Sight of the Sky. That evening, after the book signing, the professor texted her a photo he’d taken of a recent sunrise—all cumulus clouds and pools of light scattered across a shadowed lake. “Is this the cover for my novel?” she wrote back with the winking emoji. “It’s whatever you want it to be,” he replied with the heart eye emoji. A gust of excitement swept through her.
Her boyfriend, sitting across the table from her at dinner, asked who she was texting.
“Maybe the three of us should go to dinner,” he said.
“He’s a genius. His speech was incredible. Can’t I be friends with him, too?”
Clare wanted to say, Make your own friends, but instead she said, “I’m sure he’s too busy for that.”
From then on, she would get texts from the professor, and if she didn’t hear from him for a day or two, she would think of a reason to text him herself.
“We should hang out more,” he texted one day around Thanksgiving.
She told her boyfriend she thought they should take a break.
THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE was a shabby, squat bungalow tucked between two mansions on a dark, dead-end street near campus. When he had invited Clare for dinner, he told her to cancel a previous engagement with the woman who translated his novels into French. Clare felt flattered.
Tentatively she pulled into the sloped, snow-covered driveway, put the car in park, and checked herself in the rearview mirror. She twisted and retwisted her long blond hair into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She tipped the mirror down, applied a nude lip gloss, and rubbed her lips together. “This will be fine,” she said, out loud, to herself. There was no going back, anyway. Going back would make everything a bigger deal than it actually was.
Standing at the door, its brown paint peeling and cracked, Clare held her breath and rang the bell. The house was quiet and dark, and for a moment she wondered, again, if he’d forgotten. But blessedly he answered, and as soon as the door was shut behind her, his thick arms enveloped her.
She felt him warm against her body. Yet, pressed against him, she felt oddly distant. That’s what his weight did, she thought, created distance. He’d been hurt as a child, as a young adult. You only had to read anything he wrote to know. The weight was his way of having protection, that’s what she decided now. It made her feel sorry for him.
He released her and she sat on the bench in his foyer to take off her motorcycle boots.
“I like those,” he said. “I have a thing for shoes.” He opened the hall closet to reveal floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with shoes organized by genre—sandals, athletic sneakers, loafers, boots. Clare thought then of something he’d once said in workshop— how material things are a way to cover up pain.
“That’s quite a collection, but I prefer you barefoot,” she said, looking at his clean, smooth, well-groomed feet, the toes lined up in a perfect slant. Then, looking up at his face, she smiled. “And I don’t usually like feet.”
It was below zero outside, but he was wearing thn cotton lounge pants and a white, short-sleeve T-shirt that showed off his tattooed arms. By the end of the night, Clare thought, I might know whether they’re all over his body.
Clare pulled a bottle of Cabernet out of her bag. He’d told her to bring alcohol if she wanted it—he only drank Coke and coffee. Coffee with spoonfuls of sugar and cream. She felt slightly ashamed that she needed the wine—but she did need it— and he took the bottle into the kitchen, opened it, and poured her a glass.
They sat down in his living room, she in the corner of his black leather sectional and he on a lounge chair. In the compact room, it was the farthest place from her he could have chosen to sit. The TV above the fireplace was playing a reality show. He muted it. Bookshelves flanked the fireplace and two orb-like speakers sat on either side of the hearth. Abstract paintings in black and red and gray hung on the walls. A small Christmas tree sat on a table by the window, decorated with colored lights and tinsel. A single stocking hung from the mantel, and Clare felt that he must be lonely. Behind the sofa was another room he said was his study, and she could see a familiar photograph of James Baldwin hanging above the desk.
Whenever she thought about that night, she imagined Baldwin gazing down at her from the wall, impassive, while she hunches inside the doorframe of the study, watching herself, ashamed.
“SO, WHAT ARE WE DOING?” Clare asked. She felt the need to name it upfront, thinking maybe naming it might be a way to get a handle on it and have some control.
“We’re hangin’ out,” he said, peering at her over the top of his glasses. His fingers rubbed the silver whiskers on his chin.
“You are my thesis advisor,” she said, “but then again, I’m almost forty and not an undergrad.” She’d made a list in her mind of the dynamics between them, trying to find an even score. Did the fact she was an adult matter when he was her professor and she was his student? She hadn’t quite worked out which was more important and had decided it was worth proceeding, come what may. The adult won out; whatever happened, it would be her mistake.
“And we’re both adults,” he said, as if reading her mind. “And you have three kids, and I’ve never wanted kids.”
Clare laughed. “We haven’t even had dinner, and you’re talking about my kids?” She remembered now, during the first day of class back in January during introductions, when she’d mentioned her children, he’d said, “You’re much too elegant to be a mother.” At the time she took it as a compliment, but now she saw it might have been a slight, negating a part of her he didn’t respect.
“We’re both single, that’s another thing,” Clare said.
“What about the friend you brought to my lecture?”
“We broke up.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you leave your husband for him?”
“My marriage being over had nothing to do with him. He was just the catalyst getting me to leave.” She winked. In workshop, he’d been insistent on this point—every story had one protagonist, one antagonist, and one catalyst. If you didn’t know who was who, you didn’t have a story.
“I need to be clear about my situation,” he said.
Clare held her breath, felt a hollowing-out in her chest.
“Me and this other person I was dating over the summer, we’re seein’ each other for two weeks over Christmas. To see if it can work.”
“This other person” was a woman who, a few weeks before, he’d told Clare he’d broken up with.
“Okay,” Clare said. “Not sure what you want me to say.”
“I just want to be honest with you.”
“Why invite me over?”
“Because I like you. You’re irresistible.”
SHE OFTEN WONDERED why she didn’t leave then or simply say no. Simply say, I think you should figure things out with her before we do anything. Simply say, I think we should keep this a professional relationship. But she’d never been good at saying no. Years later, the only explanation she could think of for why she didn’t say no was that she thought she might lose something if she did.
“LET’S WATCH A MOVIE,” he said. He heaved himself up from his chair, walked the three steps to the fireplace, and pulled a stack of DVDs off the mantel.
Clare looked through them and noticed several were not yet released outside of theaters: Carol, Spotlight, The Martian, Room, Joy. “How’d you get all these?” she asked.
“I vote on Best Screenplay for the Academy.”
He lay down next to her on his sectional. Before they started Trumbo, a film Clare hadn’t heard of but the only one he hadn’t yet watched, they ordered out for Indian. She was worried he would get too much food, wondered how much he really ate, if she would somehow need to keep up, but he only ordered chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, and one serving of naan. He must do most of his eating alone, she thought, and again felt sorry for him.
Before the initial credits came on, he turned toward her and put his hand to the back of her head, pulled her mouth to his. At first she thought they’d just kiss for a bit and go back to the movie, but almost immediately he unbuttoned her jeans and started pulling her sweater up. “Let’s move to the bed,” he said.
His bedroom was sparse, like a clinic. A beige cotton duvet, a wooden dresser, two bedside tables. A lamp, casting fluorescent light across the bed, stood on one side table. He set his glasses down on the table and left the light on.
She liked his body, the size of it. Nothing about it repulsed her, as she’d feared it might. The one friend she’d told about going to his house had Googled him. “How on earth are you going to fuck?” she’d asked.
Clare had laughed. “I highly doubt that will happen, it’s just dinner.”
Her friend had rolled her eyes. “Yeah, dinner at his house. You know he’s using you, right?”
“What on earth for?” Clare didn’t see what she had to offer him.
Now he lay on his back, and Clare kissed his mouth, kissed his ink-black nipples, traced his ear with her tongue. He grabbed her hips and, pulling her onto him, pushed his penis into her. Holding her hips, he thrust himself into her but kept slipping out. He flipped her onto her back in what felt like frustration and, kneeling above her, pulled her legs up over his shoulders. She wished for the bedside lamp to be off.
He leaned forward and, with Clare’s knees now next to her ears, the professor put one hand against the wooden headboard and the other on her neck. His eyes went hard. “Do you like that?” he asked. The palm of his hand pressed on her throat. She had no idea what to answer, no idea what the right answer was. His eyes, not his hand, scared her, and what she thought was: He could actually kill me. She also thought: In his novels, women are often abused or killed.
Then the doorbell rang. It was the food delivery. He took his hand from her throat. “I’d better get that,” he said and pulled away. She sat up, retwisted her hair into a bun, and gathered her clothes and got dressed. They sat on the sofa and ate from the coffee table and talked about his tattoos (they were on his upper arms and back as well) and what each of them meant to him. After they finished eating, she said she had to get home to the sitter. He kissed her good-bye at the door, dryly, and she thought it was done.
Later that night, as she was driving home, she got a text. “Please let me know when you’re home, sweetness. Loved being with you tonight.”
When she got home, she immediately wrote down what had happened in his bedroom with his hand on her throat. Already she didn’t trust her memory. Perhaps he’d just been tracing her collarbone, feeling the contours of her neck. She remembered something he’d said in workshop: “We’re always too busy lookin’ at the blood to look at the wound.”
She realized then they hadn’t talked that night about writing at all.
HE ASKED HER OVER to his house again. In the intervening days, he’d had surgery on his mouth to fix some teeth. “I want to see you,” he texted, “but I’m not in great shape.”
Clare brought him dinner and, seated next to him on the sofa, leaned over to kiss him. He laughed a bit. “The kissin’ feels good,” he said, “maybe because of the pain as well.”
She thought it a puzzling thing to say. He started to undo her jeans. “I have my period,” she said. “But I don’t mind if you don’t.” The fact that their sex felt incomplete and he hadn’t come before, hadn’t even been close, bothered her. She wanted to redeem herself.
“Ah, blood magic, probably not the best idea,” he said and tapped her on the nose. “It would bond us too much.”
She rubbed the front of his sweatpants and felt that he was hard. “I’d like to do something for you.”
He smiled. “I’m not gonna protest.” He lifted his hips so she could slide his pants down. She knelt between his legs and started licking his penis.
After several minutes, she felt him starting to go soft and looked up. He was looking not at her but toward the window, one arm propped behind his head.
“Is this not okay?” she asked.
“No, no, it feels good.” He reached down and rubbed her hair. “It’s just my spiritual practice. I have a lot of control.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her up toward him. “Just sit here next to me.” He patted the sofa and pulled up his pants.
For the next hour, Clare listened to stories about his family. How he missed his dead mother. How he hated his dead father.
Later, as she was leaving, he opened a shoebox near his front door. It contained a pair of running shoes, glittery. “These aren’t what I ordered,” he said. “They look like disco balls.”
The next day he left for California and posted a picture on Instagram of two round points of light on his wooden floor with the caption “strange lights on wood floor.” She, the woman he was going to visit, commented, “disco balls?”
Clare Googled the phrase, discovering it was a sexual reference. She felt a bit sick.
OVER CHRISTMAS WEEK, between meals and presents and trying to keep her children from going stir crazy, Clare stalked him and the girlfriend—a brilliant younger poet and wunderkind who’d performed at the White House—on social media. Pictures of palm trees and bright blue skies taken though the passenger side mirror of her car. A tattoo of a hummingbird on the front of her shoulder.
He texted Clare every couple of days, “hi” or “miss you.” Once she answered, “Thinking about having you in bed and everything I want to do with you.” He wrote back, “Like what?” She wrote, “Anything you want.” He didn’t respond.
She finished her novel manuscript while her children were skiing in Montana with their father over New Year’s week and sent the professor a text: “I think I’ve made it to the end.”
“Congrats!” he wrote back. “Can you bring me a hard copy when I return?”
“Of course,” she said, always obliging.
ANOTHER DARK, SNOWY NIGHT, a couple of weeks later. Clare pulled into the small, sloped driveway, this time with no hesitation.
“Me and the woman in California, we’re goin’ to try to make it work,” he said once the small talk was out of the way.
“I know.” Clare knew this already from Instagram. She knew this because the girlfriend had taken a photo of her completed poetry manuscripts on his bed with the caption “Manuscript 1 & 2. Done and done. Thank you, cheefee.”
Chief, Guru, Sensei, Maestro, Sifu—all words Clare had seen or heard used to describe him.
She didn’t get mad or cry. She didn’t ask him why he’d even acted as if there was anything. Didn’t ask him why he wanted to have sex if he wasn’t interested in coming. Instead, she said, “We’re still friends, right?”
“And you’ll still help me with my novel, right?”
“Of course I will.”
She drove home to her empty house, drank two glasses of whiskey, and texted her ex-boyfriend. He still had a key, and she waited in bed for him.
He came into the dark bedroom, got undressed, and slid into bed, kissed her frantically, desperately.
“Calm down,” she said.
He pushed Clare’s hair back and kissed her, more slowly now. She turned away from him and pushed herself backward onto him, used her own fingers, slippery, on herself.
Afterward she told him to leave. “That was the last time, you know,” she said as he dressed.
“Why do you have to say that?”
“I just thought you should know.”
After he left, she got out of bed and drank one more whiskey, crying silently in her kitchen.
THE PROFESSOR TEXTED HER to meet him in his office to go over her manuscript. He had the corner office on the elevated ground floor of the most iconic building on campus, the office anyone would choose. It was early evening, still winter, and already dark. As she walked across the quad, Clare was transfixed by his office windows shining pale yellow with light. I will never have an office like that, she thought.
His heavy wooden door was closed, and when Clare knocked, there was no answer. Knocked again. Silence. She turned the knob and tentatively peeked around the door.
He looked up from his massive mahogany desk. “Oh, hi. Sorry, did you knock?”
She nodded. “Sorry, is this still an okay time?”
“Yes, of course, come in.” He didn’t stand to greet her. The wall behind him was plastered with framed covers of his books— in English but also in translation. When she’d first come to his office during the previous winter, he’d motioned to them with a flick of his wrist and said, “To remind anyone who thinks I don’t belong here.”
Now he paged through her manuscript, not looking at her as he spoke.
“Pages eighty to one-ten feel rote.” “Chapters fifteen to nineteen, no heart.” “Three quarters of the way in, I’m not feelin’ like I’m learning anythin’ new.” “A lot of these scenes are falling flat, Clare. You have to ask yourself, what purpose is this scene here for, what is it tryin’ to show.”
Clare dug her nails into her palms and stared at the sea of novel covers behind him. Willing the tears to stay in her eyes, she thought, I will never have a wall like that.
When he finally looked at her, he leaned back in his chair and sighed. “I’m sorry, is this difficult for you?”
“Why are you acting like you don’t even know me?” She didn’t look directly at him but fixed her stare on the cover of his latest novel, which hung above his left shoulder. The blurb across the top, by an even more famous writer, was one she’d memorized long ago: “A luminous, white-hot, earth-shattering talent.” She thought of how utterly pathetic she must look to him, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
Now the luminous talent stood up and walked around to the front of his desk, pulled Clare up from her chair, and embraced her. “Mmmmm,” he said as he pressed against her. “Do you feel that? We are dangerous.”
“You have a girlfriend.” Clare pulled away. “And I need to get back to my kids.”
Driving home that night, she remembered something he’d said about people. “Once they’re out of my life, they’re gone. I don’t ever think about them again. It’s like I don’t remember.” And as she drove Clare thought: You played a game you were never going to win.
IT WAS YEARS LATER that Clare attended a writing conference and sat across the table from the editor the professor had mentioned that day during their walk in the nature preserve, the one he said he’d show her work to.
Clare tells the editor that the professor had been her thesis advisor and helped her revise the novel—the first ten pages of which the editor now holds loosely, as if they were trash.
The editor answers, “He sends me a lot of work from his students. He’s never sent yours.”
As she walks away from the table, Clare remembers again what he’d said about blood and wounds and knows that no matter what she’d done, whether she’d said yes or no, the outcome for her would have been the same.
Erin Branning is a fiction editor for TriQuarterly, Northwestern University’s literary journal, where she has published interviews with Ben Fountain and Lily King. Her work has also been published in Manifest-Station, LitBreak and Delmarva Review. She holds an MFA from Northwestern University, a Bachelor of Arts in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her four children and is currently working on a memoir with Megan Stielstra through Catapult.
Delmarva Review publishes compelling new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions annually. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it receives partial financial support from individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The review is available worldwide from Amazon.com and other major online booksellers and specialty regional bookstores. For more information about the authors, see the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.
# # #