or, Cross-Class Lust
from August Highland's "Muse Apprentice Guild," Fall 2003
Hey, don't I owe you an e-mail?
Well, I have nothing to say, except that I just had an awkward hallway encounter with a man I
have a crush on. No, not a crush, it's just that I have wanted to, ever since first meeting him,
strip him naked, toss him about, and nibble at him.
Feel like getting an e-mail about that? A ramble in my libido? A girl's room report? A midnight
giggly phone call?
He's a fellow graduate student in my department.
He's old. Well, older than I. Meaning: old and gray.
Now, mind you: I do not love this man. Never could.
I would, given the chance, slap his entire life and its philosophical underpinnings in the face.
I would march it and him off to the rice paddies, on starvation rations, his nights devoted to
rigorous re-education in dank, otherwise bare rooms adorned with posters of Rosa Luxembourg and
Che. I would burn the books recording the social mechanics that make his life possible.
He is, in a word, rich. Well, richer than I. Meaning: "I don't have to work for a living
and not a seam of me shows what it is like to have to work for a living." Rich: part of why
he's still so pretty, no doubt. So radiantly, comfortably, lived in. Rich, he ages like a slab
of walnut, with the polish of many careful hands; like green glass buried and a hundred years
later unearthed, partially, by rain, fully, by mushroom hunters gladful to have struck the valuable
antique; or like blue glass breathed upon seashore; or like stone. For the rich the accumulation
of time is no terror, no tragedy, but merely another form of investment. He does not age as we
do, as the poor do, chipped, exposed, like scuffed up, peed on, linoleum; he does not pill like
polyester. No. The fortunate, regular features he was born with still allure, and at his age.
Rich, meaning he attended the same secondary school attended by his father and his grandfather
and his great grandfather, going back to someone who knew Robert E. Lee. An institution I know
you've heard of, because it often makes headlines. How? By maintaining a notorious exclusionary
admissions policy, in spite of shrill protest and Supreme Court proceedings. And by pumping out
graduates of high achievement, like that famous physician I know you've also heard of, the one
who gave his whole life to Third World villagers otherwise unconnected by roads or electric lines
to the rest of the world.
To the rice paddies! Burn the books!
I know he attended this school because he wears its ring. I asked him about that. He was a bit
embarrassed. Before I could do so myself he mentioned the school's infamous exclusionary admissions
policy. He told, too, of how his education there indentured him to a military commission in Vietnam,
and of how he surrendered himself to an underground network of physicians who made it their business
to get patricians like him out of such service.
But he still wears its ring.
Pass the matches.
But, first, one of the guards wants a quick, snuck, nibble
disguised, so as to appear to
be part of the punishment, so as to betray not one scintilla of appetite for, or pleasure in,
the volumes in that library we're setting alight.
Why the crush, or whatever we're calling it; okay, I guess "crush" is a good enough
shorthand for the sake of this e-mail. Hair comes to mind. Lots of it, salt and pepper. An inspired
combination, on a summer tomato, on a man's head and face and hands. Chest, too, I'm assuming,
or else why bother? Yes, if I unbuttoned that crisp, creased shirt and found no chest hair, I
would announce, "Excuse me, I double-parked," even though I do not own a car, and, just,
leave. It's that kind of lust. His hair is profuse; it suggests, like a trained tiger, that day-by-day
if not minute-by-minute discipline must be exerted to keep it in check, to keep it on this side
of the fence.
He wears excellent clothes. He possesses fabrics I admire for their serviceability, or simply
want to touch. I keep telling myself that I'm going to buy a Gore-Tex jacket with my next AI check.
Frivolities like rent or dentistry always intervene. And, so, when it rains, I jerry-rig these
ridiculous one-woman mobile tents of cotton coats and plastic bags and hope that no one sees;
that rain will render me invisible. And there he is, in class already, suave in his Gore-Tex jacket,
worn, perhaps, were he ever to decide, on a whim, to abandon his cozy SUV and walk through the
rain. (I'd like to see him walk through the rain. I'd like to see his hair wet.) Underneath his
jacket, snug and warm, there is a cashmere sweater, some leather, or - let me loose all control
here - suede. Earth tones swath his body and enhance its beauty. "Bamboo," "river
slate," "merlot," "marl." Ever notice how catalogues manage to trademark
even colors as commodities, both rich and exclusive? Thus insisting that even the palette has
its gated neighborhoods. While you are stuck in the plebian flatlands of Pepto-Bismol pink and
lime Jell-O green, men like this stride on the chromatically right side of the tracks, able to
command shades long denied you. I can imagine the bargaining at the bizarre: "Buy me some
sky," he bids his agent. "I need to trade in azure. Sell me some earth. My portfolio
requires ocher and russet and loam." Like the Biblical Lydia, Banana Republic will sell him
purple and clothe him in shades and textures of earth and earth-based activities, though he spends
his days under artificial light or driving his SUV.
I do not spring. Just by looking, I know: beyond my reach.
If I react to him at all, it is to work to annoy him. I took particular delight, when I last ran
into him, in saying something especially coded to be socially acceptable but both immediately
wounding and capable of leaving a long-term sore.
Shit, it's only in typing that that I realize how vicious I had been. Why did I do that?
I think I did it because he has given me unsolicited advice. He must know more; I am poor, he,
rich. He has stopped me in book stores and in libraries when I was ready to nod and move on, even
in Holiday seasons, always lingering long to meet some hidden need of his, but none of my overt
ones. He has unilaterally hugged me as I stood stiff and straight-armed. He has addressed me as
colleague, as co-equal, as compañera, while I have honored the gap. I honor the gap that
I see in the rich shade and fullness of his fabrics, the fade and fray in mine, that I see in
his wanting me for longer than I am available in libraries and bookstores, but never stopping
in his SUV as I walk home with groceries exploding from my overstressed backpack zippers. Do you
know, all the Halloweens I've lived in this town, all the university types with their "Save
the World" bumper stickers have driven right on past as I carried my pumpkin home in my arms?
All the summers, I carry home watermelons, and they speed on past. One year I was carrying home
forty pounds of peat for my victory garden (victory over the grad school gods of funding) and
a neighbor in her SUV and her share-the-wealth bumper stickers waved at me even as she drove on
So I refuse his hugs, his advice, his language that performs a non-existent collegiality. Rather,
I silently demand from him a gesture as extreme as my poverty, as expansive as his wealth. I want
him to burst through protocol and pull onto the shoulder and call out, "Hop in. After all,
we are going the same way."
I want the rich to do this because we have decided that their wealth hurls them beyond what we
can ever be; Olympians, they delimit human striving, and if humanity, as a species, is so limited
that it can't offer someone a ride when she's going the same way, then I guess I'd rather just
So, why the crush? I'm remembering first meeting him.
I entered a campus building I found particularly frightening. I forget why exactly and yet I know
my task was to debase myself in front of someone stupid and slow with greater power in exchange
for something I desperately needed and deserved and would not get that, to the officials there,
was chump change. But my humiliation would not be chump change; it would be no-risk sport, and
their answer would be "No," pronounced like a bullet; after its delivery, small time
big game hunters, they'd get to watch and savor as I went down.
I was wandering through a warren of offices, and, lost, I ran into him. He was seated at a computer.
I asked him a question, the kind of neutral, directional or schedule or fill-in-the-blank question
that people like me in institutions like this always ask and naively think will enhance our chances
of acceptance and success (Ha! As soon as we own the answer, They change the map; They institute
a new system for measuring time). I was asking this question of this man, whom I knew, just by
looking at him, had the answer. Was born with it right in his mouth, along with that proverbial
silver spoon. My legs still wobble from steerage; I recognize those who stride this dry land.
And what came out of his mouth stunned me and glued me to the floor. Yes, he had the answer to
the question I asked him, and he answered me. Those were the facts he spoke. But his attitude
said, "No, no, I don't have my papers with me now; I can't imagine where they are; I left
my house this morning with my papers; stop shining that light in my eyes! Can't you tell just
from the color of my skin that I'm an Aryan? An Aryan, I tell you, just like you!"
Whoa. I was so, utterly, confused. Wherefrom this patrician's defensiveness when confronted with
lost, shabbily dressed, hat-in-hand me? The yin of this scene had landslid into its yang. So,
I went around, hat-in-hand, via the back doors of gossip, and asked, "What is the story with
that guy?" Gossip I, with no political or social capital here, had no right to. But if others
felt the same lack of balance between appearance and reality that I had felt when first meeting
him, they would be eager to get their feelings of discomfort off their chests, no matter their
interlocutor. They did feel it, and they were eager to talk.
They spoke eagerly, not because I was their friend, in fact they were his friends, but because
they were eager to process the cognitive dissonance this man had caused them. They wanted to escape,
by categorizing him, the discomfort of not being sure of someone, and by seeing me nod at their
categorization; by pinning him in his place in their Linnaean systematization of the significant
life forms on this campus, and by hearing me express admiration of their analyses.
"Yeah, he is a little off, isn't he?" they began. "So handsome and yet so shy.
And the way he lives is so
eccentric." He has devoted his life, they
told me, to following a famed professor, following him around this country and the world, setting
up his audio visual equipment, quoting him chapter and verse, literally and figuratively carrying
his water. He and The Professor do travel in lands, where, if you want water, you best carry your
own. And if you are above carrying your own water, well, you acquire an amanuensis who does it
for you. The Professor could pay native bearers or Sherpas or coolies to carry his water for him;
he could pay someone to call him "Bwana." He makes a six figure salary; not bad in this
country, even better in the malarial swamps asheen with curtains of rain where The Professor's
inspiration dispatches him. But The Professor doesn't do that. Because he has this man, this patrician
man, to do it for him, for free. That is, it's free for The Professor.
I actually got to meet The Professor once. It was a wine-and-cheese something-or-other. I attend
lectures by famous scholars in order to do my imitation of a late-autumn chipmunk. At the wine-and-cheese
post-lecture receptions I scurry around, stuffing cheddar, brie, and baguette slices into my pockets.
I made no attempt to flatter The Professor; I think I may have tapped on his shoulder because
he stood between me and the stilton. But like any narcissist, The Professor was certain that I
was an acolyte, and that anything he deigned to say to me I'd go home and paste in my scrapbook.
As it happens, the tidbit he provided me with was one I won't soon forget, but not because it
was a pearl from the treasure chest of the great king. As an aside, during a long dissertation
on a topic that didn't much interest me and which I've since forgotten, The Professor told me,
in the just-between-you-and-me conspiratorial tone that narcissists are so good at, that the university
had once provided him with a private jet ride that crossed half the time zones on this planet
in order to check the facts in one of the footnotes in one of his books. How many out-of-state
undergraduates have to be fleeced to fund research of such preciousness? And here's the kicker:
The Professor does this while writing books celebrating the political rights of the common man.
I think The Professor told me that anecdote in order to recruit me. I think he sized me up as
a proletarian; the baguette slices peeking out of my fanny pack announced me as that or something
far worse. I think he was attempting to win me over, to say, "You and me, kid, we see the
foolishness of all this." Not because I'm anyone important; I'm not. But because narcissists
would win over everyone they can, including proletarians like me. In fact, though, I have never
felt so repelled by this place, and wondered if any aspect of it were redeemable.
And then I left that gathering, and entered an empty classroom in order to wrap my booty in paper
napkins for the long walk home. I switched on the classroom's light, and there he was. The man,
the hairy man, the rich hairy man on whom I have a crush. No, not a crush. Whom I have occasionally
wanted to nibble. He was seated in one of the little student desks, and he was crying. He may
as well have been naked.
I placed my cheese and bread on a desk. I turned around, and walked toward the door. I was not
at all sure as to what I would do once I got to the door. I closed the door. After I had finished
closing the door, I was still inside the room. I noted that there was a street light across from
this classroom. I switched off the classroom's light. The street light illuminated the room with
a soft silver. I sat down. I listened.
I liked his voice. He didn't really have anything to say. No, I'm not being coy here. I'm not
trying to protect him. But I've heard a lot of people in pain tell their stories; that's what
my research is all about, after all. Through newspaper ads and signs in hospitals I find people
in pain and I make appointments and I meet them and I place the tape recorder between them and
me and I switch it on. His story wasn't plotted like those. No concentration camps, no childhood
rapes, no menacing ex-spouse. In terms of something I could summarize and transcribe for you,
and cause you to feel as moved as I felt as I listened to him, he said nothing. But he had a man's
voice; it echoed spring marsh sounds. Who cares what he's saying with a voice like that?
All right. I am being coy. And maybe the one I'm trying to protect is me.
His father was a bastard. A drunk. Never satisfied. But a big man in town, a name to conjure with.
The father died young. And so the son, refusing, or unaware of the opportunity to, consider himself
liberated, with all the imagination and creativity of a wind-up toy, less free than some lifers,
saddled himself with The Professor, to whom he plays Gunga Din. Another big man, big name, equally
impossible to please. And you know, I felt his colleague. Because my father was a bastard, too.
Wasn't yours? Wasn't everybody's?
But it's not the narrative that amazed me. It was that he has all the citations I've put my life
in hock to be authorized to use. He knows how to say, in Latin, "All Gaul is divided into
three parts." He can match the big ideas with the big names. "The invention of romantic
love": Bloch. "Dictatorship of the proletariat": Marx. "Resolution of opposites":
Levi-Strauss. "Suicide": Durkheim.
All right; here's his transcript: "Mama, wa, wa, ouch." With all those memorized names
and citations, he still needs someone to pick the dirt out, to swab on some Mercurochrome. The
answer he needs is in the heart of anyone who has pulled over onto the shoulder and called out,
"Hop in. After all, we are going the same way." The answer is as old and as unsophisticated
a gesture as reaching out one's hand and making contact with other human flesh.
But I restrained myself. I have given up trying to save bastards who can never be satisfied because
their focus is exclusively on themselves. Long after that, I gave up trying to save those who
can never be satisfied because their focus is exclusively on bastards. So I don't listen to these
stories any more, unless there is a tape recorder between me and their tellers. And so I do save
them - in the archive of material I'll exploit in my dissertation on my way to becoming the professor.
But I wanted to touch his hair. I thought of how, sometimes, when something soft and wet meets
something else soft and wet, one can become adamant, the other, strong. And, so, when his hand
was conveniently close to mine, I placed my hand over his hand. His hand shook, shook, now, shook
- I mean that word for exactly what it means, and he pulled his hand away from my hand. And then
he delivered an exquisite articulation on the theme of his need to reach out, knowing that he
needs to reach out, knowing that others will accept his reaching out, knowing that there are so
many riches to be gained by reaching out. And his inability to reach out.
I am made the audience of so many cataracts of words in this institution, and I never know quite
how to react. That's a big part of whether you are a success, or not. Whether or not your reaction
is the right one. I was once harangued after a lecture by a fellow grad student, a fully funded
one. "You look so disdainful. Do you think it's safe to show that sort of thing so openly?"
I've never felt safe behind my own face ever since. My reaction this time was apparently not the
right one, either. I could not be comfortable leaning back into impermeability and merely admiring
his pretty words. All I could say was, "I'm sorry," before I rose to go.
Why the crush?
He cleared his throat, when my hand was on the doorknob, and he said, "You actually come
across as quite tough. But just then your whole countenance changed."
"Thank you," I said, before I left.
He's the only man ever to have used the word "countenance" to refer to my face. Reason
enough for a crush on a man, I would say.
© Danusha V.