Sample text for Quieter than sleep / Joanne Dobson.


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Counter I might as well admit it: I was sick of desire.  Of love, sex, and desire, and all their cumbersome baggage.  First of all, I was lugging around the residue of a recently pulverized heart.  I should have been used to it by now.  It had been six months since I'd left Tony, my longtime lover, to take a teaching job at Enfield College.  Well, I couldn't pass up an offer from one of New England's most elite private schools, could I?  Well, could I?  And Tony didn't want a commuting relationship.  He said that was no way to love someone, long distance.  So I left.  And I was right.  Wasn't I?  But I couldn't forget him, and I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't, just possibly, made a terrible mistake.

Almost worse than my aching heart, however, was the all-too-close physical presence of Randy Astin-Berger.  No, I wasn't in love with Randy.  Far from it.  Rather, I was in dire peril of being bored to death by his erudite discourse on literature and sexuality.  And he kept hitting on me.  Standing a good six inches closer to me than I could ever imagine ever wanting him to, Randy was treating me to an extended scholarly analysis of the erotic implications of The Scarlet Letter. No doubt he thought of this as an irresistibly seductive line.

"And, thus," Randy said, as he pushed a lock of lank black hair back from his forehead and then touched me lightly on the shoulder, "inevitably results the narrative disallowal of desire."  Light glinted off the gold stud in his left earlobe.  "As Foucault would say, the erotic . . ."  I was paying very little attention but I did hear him say something about seduction, transgression, obsession, the tyranny of the body.  It was enough to put me off sex forever.

With his broad shoulders and MTV-rugged face, Randy was not an unattractive man.  It was just that he was so boring.  I may have a Ph.D. in English but I've always preferred to hold my social conversations in words of three syllables or fewer.  And I'd much rather talk to a warm-blooded, witty human being than to a pompous wind-up genius doll like Randy Astin-Berger.

I sighed, imperceptibly I hoped.  Randy had evidently finished with The Scarlet Letter and had begun obscurely on some other letter and the transgressive nature of desire.  He'd been indulging in something more exotic than the liquid offerings at the bar.  His eyes glittered.  His manner had become confiding and insistent.  He began to loosen his tie.

Untenured assistant professors must be vigilantly attentive, and I was doing my damnedest to look fascinated.  In spite of his relative youth, Randy had just been named to Enfield College's prestigious Palaver Chair of English.  And rumor had it that he was next in line to be department chair.  I had to be nice to Randy; he was the Man.  But I was tired, hot, and seriously stressed out; I didn't know how long I could keep up the facade.

I concentrated on the iridescent chrysanthemum design of Randy's shiny black retro tie; at least that would keep me awake.  He wore the tie with a soft white narrow-collared cotton shirt, unironed, of course, under a wide-shouldered linen jacket the color of very ripe honeydew melon.  His wide-pleated black cotton twill slacks hung loose over Reebok running shoes.  He looked just exactly like what he was: a hotshot academic superstar on the make.

"Epistolary conventions of eros demand . . ."  Randy said.

I stifled a yawn.  It was stuffy in the room.

"And, then, given the tenuous preservation of literary ephemera, leading to failed transmission of even the most fundamental biographical data . . ."

Good God.  Would he never shut up?  I stretched my neck, trying to ease the tension in my shoulders.  It had been a hectic month: classes, papers, exams, frantic students with eleventh-hour crises--suicidal friends, dying grandmothers, obscurely terrifying medical diagnoses.  I took the opportunity to look around.

The Enfield College faculty was making merry.  The president's annual Christmas reception for faculty and staff was being held in the public chambers of the president's mansion.  Excuse me: the president's house. At Enfield the word mansion would be considered vulgar.  To me it looked like a mansion, but I've always been smart enough to take on protective coloration.  If anyone asked, tonight I was at the president's house.

Three high-ceilinged rooms of late nineteenth-century design opened into a massive three-story-high central hall.  From a dramatic balcony with delicately turned mahogany railings, a curved staircase swept down each side of the hall.  Swags of Christmas greens decorated the banisters; electric candles twinkled in the hundred sconces of the hall's central crystal chandelier.  Understated opulence.

I am not used to opulence, understated or otherwise, having grown up in a row house in Lowell, Massachusetts.  In Lowell, we thought faded red paper fold-out bells were festive, and sagging loops of green and red construction paper.  Lowell wasn't very far from Enfield, but in every way that mattered it was immeasurably distant.  Not that my success as an academic had turned me into a snob.  It was just that I'd learned early--very early--that poverty can breed ignorance, abuse, and fear.  Learned it, so to speak, in my very bones.  A little opulence, now and then, looks pretty damn good to me.

Suddenly, I'd had enough of Randy.  Tenure was five years in my future; I'd tough it out.  I gave him a fraudulent smile, touched my empty glass with a finger whose significance I assumed required no deconstruction, and began to back down the steps as smoothly as I could.  I was heading for the bar.

"But, Karen--" Randy sputtered, as I moved away, "the letter . . ."  And something about a desk--or a disk; I still wasn't listening.

In an alcove by the right staircase a string quartet played excerpts from the Messiah. Randy had buttonholed me on the lower steps of this staircase.  It wasn't the first time he'd cornered me.  And I was afraid it wouldn't be the last.

I began to cruise, looking for my friend Greg Samoorian, who'd just that day been tenured in the Anthropology Department.  I did careful surveillance as I made my way through the crush of faculty members, administrators, and spouses.  The last thing I wanted was to fall into Randy's clutches again.

The crowd was abuzz with news of the just-announced tenure decisions.  Student waiters proffered trays of champagne in stem glasses, fueling already flaming academic passions.  More than once I heard: "Executive Committee," "denial," "scandalous," "appeal."  The tenure issue had been fiercely debated during the fall months, and my good buddy Greg had ended up being the sole Enfield tenure of the year.  All the other candidates had been denied.

I looked around but didn't see Greg.  Surely he must have come, if only to celebrate his triumph.

"Professor Pelletier?"  Behind me, the voice was hushed, almost furtive.  I spun around.  "Would you like a glass of champagne?"  Sophia Warzek.  Pale.  Blond.  Much too thin.  A townie on scholarship, working her way through Enfield.  The black uniform dress hung loosely on her, as if it had been made for someone from a much more robust species--like, maybe, for a human being.

"Sophia?"  I took a glass from the tray.  Waterford.  Nice.  I sipped.  The champagne was nice, too.  "Sophia, are you losing weight or something?  You don't look at all well."

"No.  I'm okay."  She gave me a bright smile.  I wasn't convinced.  "I'm just tired.  It's been a rough semester."  Sophia looked so frail holding the heavy silver tray, I had to resist an impulse to take it from her.

"Yeah," I said.  "I imagine.  You work too hard.  And you're really much too thin.  And all of a sudden, too."  I narrowed my eyes, thinking of anorexia, not an uncommon problem with Enfield's women students.  "What's going on with you?"

I would never have asked such a personal question of any other student.  But, like me, Sophia was an outsider at prestigious Enfield.  And there's no denying it: Like calls to like.  With my factory-town upbringing and her immigrant parents, Sophia and I knew the American class system from the bottom up.  The view was not a pretty one.

In the crowded, noisy room, Sophia contemplated my question as if she might actually answer it.  Then and there.  Tray full of champagne and all.  Then someone jostled her arm, she staggered, and that time I did grab for the tray.  A pair of large, muscular hands reached it first, righted it.  Oh, God, no!  Not Randy Astin-Berger again.

"Uhh."  Sophia blanched as Randy's hand closed over hers on the tray.  Then she turned back to me, and her voice became furtive again.  "Maybe I'll call you.  About that late paper, I mean."

Late paper?  Sophia was a fastidiously punctual student.  Her final research paper had been sitting, unread, on my office desk for over a week, while the others filtered in days late.  She faltered, obviously thinking she'd been too presumptuous.  "What I mean is, if that's all right?"

"Sure," I replied.  "Anytime."  But she had scampered away with her heavy tray, looking as if she should be at home, confined to strict bed rest, rather than serving fine wine to professors already too tipsy to appreciate it.

"Karen," Randy said, but he was staring after Sophia.  When she disappeared in the crowd, he turned back to me, fixing me with his torrid eye.  "I've made up my mind."  His smile was munificent, Zeus showering a mere mortal maiden with his divine largess.  "I've decided to share some delightful news with you."

Share? The thought of sharing anything with Randy Astin-Berger left me more than a little nauseous.

"You'll be thrilled.  I guarantee it.  But first I've got to see--someone."  He waggled his fingers in the air.  The someone was a mere annoyance.  Would be disposed of with dispatch.  "But after that, what say we blow this scene?"  He gave me a suggestive little leer.  Surely his eyes were just a bit too bright?  His pupils slightly contracted?

This was a problem.  I wasn't about to go anywhere with this smirking, self-important blowhard.  Even if he was a sure bet to be future chair of my department.

"Jeez, Randy, I'm sorry.  I've got a date later."  A date with my own narrow bed, thank you very much.

"Yeah?"  Eyes narrowed.  Thinking about asking me with whom.  Still sober enough, thank heaven, to rethink such a crude impulse.  "Well, okay, listen, I'll catch you before you go.  Look for me.  Right?"  An intimate squeeze of the upper arm, a follow-up leer, and he was weaving away through the crowd.

Not if I can help it, dude.  All I wanted now was to find Greg, congratulate him, and get the hell out of here.  I'd worry about Randy's unwanted attentions later.

But I couldn't get his words out of my mind.  Thrilled?  I'd be thrilled?  What could Randy Astin-Berger possibly have to tell me that would thrill me?

The last real thrill I'd had was the job offer from Enfield the year before.  A fairy tale come true.  Who would have believed it?  Karen Pelletier (that's PELL-uh-teer, the New England pronunciation, not the more elegant French) from Lowell, Massachusetts.  Pregnant and married at eighteen.  A mother at nineteen.  Divorced and destitute at twenty-one.  And now--a professor at Enfield College.

It hadn't been easy.  Night school, waitressing, scholarships, loans, teaching fellowships: I'd patched together piecemeal the education that seems to fall, ripe and succulent, into my students' laps.  And I'd raised Amanda, too--and hadn't done a bad job of it.  She was a major pain in the neck, of course, but then, who wasn't at eighteen?

After two years as an assistant professor at a New York City education factory, I'd been recruited by Enfield last year on the basis of my forthcoming book on class and classical American writers.  I was--as I said--thrilled to accept their offer.  Even left the man I loved to do so.

Was it worth it?  Well . . . I was beginning to wonder.

I cruised by a cluster of colleagues engaged in spirited debate over the most recent rap group censorship case.  All the faces were white; most were middle-aged.  Jill Greenberg, by far the youngest in this contentious group, reached out and fingered the sleeve of my white silk dress.  Raising her eyebrows in approval, she smiled at me, kept hold of the silk, and smoothly peeled away from the others.

"Do you think any one of that bunch has ever actually listened to rap?"  she muttered as she guided me in the direction of the hors d'oeuvre table.  In the fervor of argument, Jill's unruly red hair, gathered with a purple ribbon in an asymmetrical bunch on the top of her head, had begun to sag over her forehead.  Anyone else would have looked slovenly.  Jill looked adorable.

"Neat dress," she said, relinquishing my sleeve and stacking a small plate high with crabmeat puffs.  "Emily's?"

I was startled into laughter.  "How'd you guess?"

I'd bought the dress as a kind of private joke, a wry allusion to Emily Dickinson, who for many years had dressed only in white.  I happen to know a great deal about Dickinson.  That's one of the reasons I'm here at Enfield.

"Oh, I read."  She looked at me slit-eyed.  "You're too tall to be Emily, you know.  And not quite virginal enough for the Nun of Amherst."

"What makes you think she was virginal?"  I retorted.  "There's all sorts of speculation--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know.  But I'm talking about you.  Why don't you wear your hair down like that all the time?  And the makeup . . . I never thought you could look quite so--well--hot."

"Jill!"

"Oh, I know, I'm embarrassing you.  Sometimes I'm really indiscreet.  But I'm just really interested in, you know, style. And I always thought that professorial look of yours was some sort of camouflage."  The wild red topknot flopped over her left eye.  She tugged off the purple ribbon and shook her head.  Curls fell about her face like a miniature firestorm.

"Now, me," she went on, "I like to be outrageous."  She flapped the purple ribbon in the air.  "But you--restraint is super on you.  Keeps 'em guessing.  Those innocent sleeves.  That demure neckline.  That clinging white silk revealing just--well, you know."  She nodded vigorously and popped a crabmeat puff into her mouth.

I took the opportunity to change the subject.  "Have you seen Greg Samoorian?  I've been looking for him all evening."

"He's around here somewhere.  Over by the bar, I think.  Getting soused."  Jill put the plate of hors d'oeuvres down on a small side table.  "You know, I'm really happy for him, getting tenure and all, but I'm sick about the rest of them.  Those motherfuckers on the Executive Committee . . ."

I raised my eyebrows.  I'm only thirty-seven but Jill made me feel positively middle-aged and staid.

"Yeah, I know, indiscreet again.  But, jeez, Karen.  From what I hear, all four of the candidates were backed by their departments.  Lots of publications, good service, but they were all blackballed by the committee.  Especially by that asshole, Astin-Berger."

"That's what I heard, too.  That Ran


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886 Correspondence Fiction, Women teachers Fiction, College teachers Fiction, Massachusetts Fiction