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Authors: Charles Blackstone

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BOOK: Vintage Attraction
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It was inordinately frustrating that despite how I felt about Izzy, Talia still had some kind of hold on me. Things with me and the host of the city's most watched cable-access television show
couldn't have been more promising in juxtaposition with this sexual perversity in Chicago. How had I gotten so attached to a twenty-year-old vegan with dyed hair, a music blog, Facebook page, and a Brazilian wax? During the semester, both because of how I felt and of the inevitable institutional repercussions for feeling, I was wary of even venturing close enough to hand back assignments, but when she began to come on to me, I didn't resist. I couldn't. She wore ethereally iridescent purple and blue thongs. She sprayed thrift-store sweaters with anachronistic Exclamation perfume. She had a Mac. She read Pynchon and kept T. S. Eliot and Nabokov on her bedside table in off-campus student housing. During our illicit months together, we drank wine (the French provenances she always pronounced unflinchingly), made out in my Mustang, in her Jetta, ate at pancake houses, fucked breathlessly and without condoms. Once, when I was sick, she bought and prepared me instant asparagus risotto—the outcome of which was far more successful than when she tried to cook without a boxed mix—and hot lemon Theraflu. I could argue about philosophy and summary-to-scene ratios in short stories with the precocious underclassman poised to graduate in just two years, three fewer than the average UIC English major. But our connection, like everything else within the speciously protective confines of academia, was, even then, already finite. At the time, being with Talia was everything I needed, but I didn't want it anymore. No matter how drunk I ever got, I knew how I operated: I stumbled into entanglements, tumbled from one romance with a girl I'd offhandedly select to the next, haphazardly—I always had—but when I fell in love, I catapulted. I was in love with somebody else. And luckily for me—as far as I could see then, anyway—things with Talia were over for good.

The taxi into which I helped her climb took off and vanished into the night before I'd finished saying good-bye. I was left standing at the curb. I realized that I was still holding the paper-and-plastic-bound bouquet. The orchids, through the vent, looked a little less energetic than they'd been when the clerk first armed me with them. It didn't matter that Talia had relinquished the gift. With her gone, and out of my life, the flowers had served their purpose. I deposited the bundle into a black-painted sidewalk receptacle.

Unencumbered, and commensurately emboldened, I revolved back into the restaurant. From an inconspicuous corner by the coat check, I dialed Izzy from my cell phone. I made up something preposterous about having just finished a meal with a visiting poet and some of the faculty and not feeling quite ready to make my way to the Blue Line station to begin the four-mile trek home.

“Let me buy you an after-dinner drink,” she said.

She showed up in a blue-and-white taxi fifteen minutes later. “Pilsen isn't that far from here,” she said. I reached for her hand as we walked along Randolph, headed for The Tasting Room. To my surprise, she didn't object. The street was empty. This part of town was full of warehouses and delivery trucks and wholesale meat and produce purveyors that operated early in the day and then were dead at night.

We took two seats in the center of the mahogany bar. There was wood everywhere: the tables, the walls, the floors. Everything was dark and polished. The lights were kept dim and obfuscating, except for the higher-wattage glow from the bulbs haloing the liquor bottles against the backsplash. A server equipped us with menus and decorated our allocation of space with silver and napkins and a small tea-light candle in a squat, unadorned container that could have doubled as a shot glass.

I barely had a chance to handle my menu before the bartender, a blonde woman with spiky platinum hair, swept it away. After only a second's consideration, Izzy ordered a flight of dessert wine. The bartender brought over a narrow rectangular paper placemat that had a row of circles on top of which glasses would eventually be placed. Beneath each circle, a small caption indicated what they would contain: Hungarian Tokaji, Australian Muscadelle, and white port from the Upper Douro Valley—regions of the world I knew nothing about, much less their
digestifs
. A spectrum of hues soon stood before Izzy and me. We passed the portions back and forth, spending a moment or two sniffing and sipping microscopic fractions, and then exchanging again. I was surprised how sweet the dessert wine was. The alcohol burn, though unremitting, began to warm my chest.

“Beats vodka,” I said, turning the glass I held.

“Old-school cocktails are really hot right now.”

“I can't believe how many people are out this late on a Monday.”

“Industry night,” the eavesdropping bartender put in with her faint Texas twang. “Monday is the restaurant world's Sunday.”

“What's their Saturday?” I asked.

“Sunday,” Izzy replied.

“What about Friday?”

“They don't get a Friday.”

“That is a confusing calculus,” I said. “Here's to Monday nights.”

“Monday's actually a popular date night.”

“Makes sense, with all the half-priced-bottle deals in the city. Nothing says love like
prix fixe
.”

“At the bistro, I've seen cheap wine backfire. I've seen expensive wine backfire. Did you catch those orchids in the garbage we passed? I don't even want to know what happened on that date.”

I'd almost completely forgotten about them, and laughed. “Something tells me those flowers are going to end up the subject of a Craigslist Missed Connections post tomorrow, one way or another.”

“I read those, too,” she said. “They're hilarious.”

“It never ceases to amaze me how badly people misinterpret insignificant gestures. ‘I was riding the Red Line, and you asked me if you could sit down in the space my bag was hogging. I felt like we really connected. Drinks sometime?' She only spoke to you because she wanted your seat. It wasn't love at first transfer.”

Izzy nodded. “And, okay, let's say it was love, right? Let's just say that such an absurdity were possible. How do they really think the other person is going to, like, drop everything and fall for them?”

“I sometimes wonder if they even really expect that,” I said. “It could just be more like leaving notes for god at the Wailing Wall. You know, in Jerusalem? There are all these little scraps of paper stuck in the cracks, requests in a billion languages, for who knows how many different conceptions of god, to cure an aunt's cancer or find a kidney for the second cousin, twice removed. I mean, I'm sure they'd
like
it to work, but nobody could really expect it to.”

We sat close on our neighboring barstools, leaning in, our legs angled toward each other's. “I'm actually kind of shocked nobody's posted one for me. I feel completely left out,” she said then.

“This,” I said, “is a problem. Perhaps you've not been reading as closely as you should.”

“Perhaps,” she said.

I rarely stayed out this late, ate this much, drank this much on weeknights—or any nights. Accordingly, my muscles ached and my head pulsed as we walked a sobering, windswept walk down Halsted and back to my lot at UIC on Harrison. I was grateful the Mustang started after a few panicking hesitations on the second level of the mostly empty concrete parking structure. Izzy didn't object to a kiss from me before she climbed the stairs to her apartment. I missed her instantly. I hated to see her go, didn't want us to be apart, and was glad she hadn't refused my offer to take her home so that I could extend our impromptu date another fifteen minutes. Driving to my place in Humboldt Park, my feet were cinder blocks against the clutch and the accelerator, and my shifting was inelegant. Once in the apartment, however, I couldn't sleep.

It was at insomniac times like these that I usually pulled out the Rhodia and sketched a concept or two, but on this occasion, it was a monologue of sorts I wrought. I sat at my little kitchen table, hovering over a legal pad. Even though I was exhausted, all that transpired tonight—finally being freed from Talia's spell; sharing, unencumbered, the port with Izzy—had energized me. My sentences blazed. At four thirty in the morning, I had a draft. I continued to edit as I plugged the text into the Craigslist form from my office Mac Performa on campus the next morning before submitting. I entered the URL the automatic responder sent a moment later, and read my Missed Connections post, entitled “Because it was Monday night at The Tasting Room—m4w”:

I'd never in the five minutes I'd known you seen you looking so amplified, and the fact that I wasn't the one making you glow tore me into impossible shreds. I tried to ignore your date, the young artist—postmodern restaurateur maybe, or was he an indie film actor?—a cross between Jeff Goldblum and F. Scott Fitzgerald, with returned-to-vogue chunky Woody Allenish glasses, sagaciously—or slovenly—cantilevered, because I was immensely jealous. I could tell by the way he held your gaze that he was a formidable opponent.

The way he felt about you was apparent in irrefutable, unimpeachable physiognomy as you made your way out. Your date stood a little straighter, his hair free to cascade whichever way it wanted, his chin stronger, more sure of itself. It was as though his entire picture had been retouched. His smile grinned larger, his ardor more ardent. I think his blazer even fit a little better. How did you do it? How did you manage to change him? After you departed, I needed to grab something, to still myself, but there was nothing I could reach; it was all too far from me. I stood from my little table and found everything inside me had shifted, moved, reorganized. Things had been bought, sold, an internal organ garage sale. I had a heart shard, a lung cross section, and a kidney encased in glass, but most disconcerting was that I had ceased to possess truth,
a priori
or
posteriori
, because of you, because you were gone, and you were the truth. I need to have you in my life to be whole, to be anything.

May I see you again?

I e-mailed Izzy:
I think someone was following us last night
and then pasted the web address. Below that I signed off simply,
Hapworth
.

A reply was waiting for me when I got back from class.

Peter, that is the most amazing thing anybody has ever written me. You are sweet. I had a splendid time last night. Can't wait to see you again. Izzy.

3

Around the conference table in Shelley Schultz's office sat
next seme
ster's new adjuncts—and me. There was Bearded Sweater Dude, a pudgy Wicker Park hipster who exuded a sickening air of conscientiousness not made any easier to endure by his environmentally responsible metallic coffee tumbler and serious-looking spiral notebook. To his left was Senegalese Woman, a mid-forties first-grade teacher sort, with a fabric-covered journal and a vacant but present look on her face. In between her fingers, she had a Bic pen. Its white plastic shell seemed even brighter against her dark skin. She nodded a lot, even when nobody was speaking. To Senegalese Woman's left sat Short Haired. Though her blue eyes and Mandy Moore haircut connoted a much younger person, her tiny, lusterless features betrayed signs that her twenties took place in an analog era. Orange Corduroy Pants had a high forehead and lipstick spilling over the boundaries of her mouth. She was the sort of person I'd have expected to find working at a holistic acupressure clinic. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that she'd come to UIC from such a position. Next to her stood Schultz, the coordinator, in an age-inappropriate miniskirt and department-issue turtleneck.

I always hated having to see Schultz, let alone attend her superfluous, disorganized meetings. I wasn't sure why she'd even invited me to this one, since I'd been adjuncting for almost ten years. I would have blown it off, like I usually did, but I showed up today to find out what Schultz had assigned me for the coming semester. No matter how much I disliked her, to have a livelihood, even a meager one, depended on my receiving at least two sections a term. I was annoyed, but resigned to suffer through. If at the end of it I could get what I wanted, I'd have no need to interact with her, corporeally, for a few months at least. Her e-mails and mailbox memos were an unrelenting scourge.

Bearded Sweater Dude spoke in jazzy cadences. “I, like, start them out, you know, like, free associating, just to kinda get them in the groove of brainstorming.” What the hell was he talking about?

Orange Pants, for a full two minutes, rambled an anecdote about a former student of hers. The student had been having trouble writing a resume and come to a number of her office-hours sessions seeking guidance on the topic. By the end of the term, “they” emerged victorious. Schultz, visibly pleased and not at all fettered by the pronoun-antecedent disagreement, unveiled her plan for us to teach this spring a full three-week unit on “practical writing,” with lectures on resume fonts, paper stocks, and personal website designs. “I have some handouts on using Microsoft Mail Merge macros, for students that want to maximize the reach of their cover letters,” Orange Pants told us. Senegalese Woman made a note of this and drew several emphatic asterisks beside it.

“Mr. Hapworth, you've been quiet,” Schultz said. “Do you have anything to add?” She put a hand to her mouth. “Everybody, I forgot to introduce Peter Hapworth. Mr. Hapworth is, dollars to donuts, one of our longest-surviving adjuncts. Three or four years now, right? Peter has a creative writing background, so, as you can imagine, he always has unique and creative approaches to teaching comp.”

While some tenured faculty solicited feedback from us transients at occasional departmental meetings and on-campus happy hours just to foster the illusion of academic democracy, which we all pretended existed in spite of the oligarchic hierarchy, I knew, “dollars to donuts,” that Schultz wasn't putting up a pretense. She was an administrator in the worst way. She had a master's in education, not in English, and accordingly unrealistic expectations of the students. She actually really did need suggestions from adjuncts, as it had been years since she'd bothered to read any pedagogy in journals. Her source for inspiration was, in keeping with the undergraduates, Google.

For comic relief—what else could have prompted it?—Bearded Sweater Dude stood up here. I didn't even look in the vicinity of his face while he spoke. Instead I stared at the guy's flat-fronted khakis, which fit him poorly, like he'd bought them without even trying them on. “I like to have the students trace themselves on a big piece of butcher paper, and then cut out the silhouette and make a collage on it, using pieces of newspapers and pictures from magazines that they feel describe themselves.”

“You could also just have them write something,” I said.

“Sorry, man?” Bearded Sweater Dude sat down again.

“Like, I don't know, instead of wasting time with the magazines and collages, just, you know, assign a paragraph or two of self-reflection. Writing.” He stared at me with unfocused eyes. “Writing? Pens, paper, sentences, that sort of thing?”

Bearded Sweater Dude shook his head slowly. My very obvious suggestion had, it appeared, sent his lesson plan, or what passed for one, into revolution.

Schultz must have sensed there was nowhere the meeting could possibly go from here. She abruptly and awkwardly dismissed us with benedictions. I watched the new adjunct hires collect their notebooks, shoulder their bags, and walk, single-file, out of her office. They waited to begin conversing until they had cleared the threshold, as though timid undergraduates.

“Is there a problem, Peter?” Schultz asked when we were alone. Her voice was affectless. “Are you happy working here?”

“Happy?” I asked. “This is academia. Liberal arts academia. English department liberal arts academia, no less. What does being happy have to do with it? We're naturally a disgruntled sort.”

She cleared her throat. “I think you saw a room full of enthusiastic young teachers who would disagree with you.”

“You want to know something, Shelley? I've realized—okay. I've been thinking a lot about Beethoven. You know, the composer?”

She nodded, though I seriously doubted she would have been able to name one sonata.

“Beethoven gradually started going deaf, but he continued to compose after he'd become fully deaf. Deaf. And he was writing music that would continue to be relevant for hundreds of years to come. Deaf. What excuse do we have to advocate, to champion mediocrity? Is it just because some of us are mediocre? I certainly am not.”

She didn't remark, as though I'd given a soliloquy. “I wanted to speak with you about this, Mr. Hapworth.” She clicked her computer mouse weakly several times and turned the monitor to me. There was an e-mail I'd sent weeks ago.

From: Peter Hapworth

Date: Tue, Sep 11, 2007 at 11:36 AM

To: Adjunct Coordinator

Subject: RE: ENG161 mandatory handouts!!!

Could you possibly leave hard copies of future items we're to distribute somewhere where those of us with limited computer access can get them? Once again, I couldn't read the descriptive essay attachment because it was in PDF format, and the computer the department placed in my office back in 1997 is now too ancient to open these files. A kind departmental administrator with access to a terminal manufactured in the twenty-first century printed it for me and I was able to provide my students with copies after that.

I'm really glad I took a look at it on my walk across campus, as it contained a number of overly simplistic assumptions about showing vs. telling in narrative, as well as a laughable usage error in its second sentence. Considering the author had so pompously heralded himself a professional, we appreciated the irony of his misusing “affect” and “effect,” but presenting such flawed models to students is inordinately embarrassing. I've been using a new textbook called
Teaching Composition to Dummies
, and I'm sure after perusing it for a few minutes, we could come up with a more useful handout than a download from a specious, random website offering “instruction.”

I withdrew and Schultz took this as a cue to angle the screen back to where only she could view it. I was silent until she spoke.

“Your tone in this message came across as extremely condescending, Peter,” she said, gaze fixed on the monitor, “and I don't believe that was your intention. I know that often it is hard to convey what we mean in written communication, where we don't have voice inflections to help us decode—”

“I'm sorry for the e-mail, Shelley.” I sighed. “For the tone, I mean. I've just been a little preoccupied lately, I guess.”

Shelley Schultz pivoted her empty head, which signaled my dismissal. So I left. The next time I'd visit would be the last time.

Back at my desk, I pulled up the note I'd sent to Schultz from my webmail folders. I spent a number of minutes wondering if I should have said “during” the twenty-first century instead of “in” when I juxtaposed my elderly office terminal with receptionist Charles Wilcox's iMac. The matter I should have been pondering was what exactly I thought pissing off Shelley Schultz was going to accomplish. I knew I was already disliked around here. This was my job, my only discernible means of having an income, but it had become hard to care too much about the politics. I was largely a department outsider. Possibly I'd always been. I began adjuncting, I supposed, as a phasic placeholder, a space-filler for my life. I never imagined it to be anything beyond temporary. And on the nineteenth floor I still was.

In the early days, still marginally professionally naïve, I'd apply for tenure-track jobs at area schools from time to time. Once, some years ago, an entry-level assistant professor line opened up here. I submitted the paperwork, the myriad transcripts and recommendations and a statement of teaching philosophy, by the deadline, but didn't get an interview. It wasn't a complete shock to have not made it beyond the first round, if I'd actually progressed
that
far. The disorganized department never sent a letter to acknowledge receipt of my dossier. A few months later, they hired Shelley Schultz.

Even though the adjunct coordinator lacked a degree beyond her MEd, I knew my unsuccessful candidacy had much to do with the fact that I didn't have a PhD. Sometimes I regretted I'd ended up without one. But after two master's degrees, the idea of taking the GRE subject exams the doctoral program application prerequisites required had seemed inconceivable. I'd barely done well enough on the regular test to get into grad school in the first place. And there was the two-foreign-languages requirement. As an undergrad, I'd struggled with French, and couldn't imagine having to go through that again with Spanish or Greek. Oral exams? A dissertation longer than my eighty-eight-page MFA short-story-collection thesis I threw together the week before it was due at Cornell? So, I never applied and instead ended up a University of Illinois at Chicago part-time adjunct lecturer. It was in this position that, at some point I could no longer recall, I'd resigned myself to remain.

With my face close to the monitor, I continued to stare at the paragraphs (did people still paragraph e-mails?) I'd sent Schultz until the words blurred into antiquated Performa pixels. My cell phone's ringing broke the digital spell.

“Hi,” Izzy said, after I greeted her. “I hope I didn't catch you at a bad time.”

“No, no,” I returned. “It's nice to hear your voice.”

“I want you to come somewhere with me this weekend.”

Ever since that monumental evening in the not-so-distant past, Izzy and I had been gradually but eagerly accumulating dates. We'd seen Truffaut double features at the Siskel Center, drunk Brachetto d'Acqui by candlelight in a private corner of a River North osteria that was open late. At my place we'd had a living-room screening of
Annie Hall
and half of
Manhattan
, followed by a meal of taqueria takeaway and chilled Cru Beaujolais, a night we fondly called Mexicallen. We'd gone to
dim sum brunches, taken strolls along crowded downtown avenues and through quaint neighborhood side streets, and made out for quite a few hours atop my IKEA couch. Every time I saw her, I was reminded of how I'd felt about Izzy when I first beheld her in person almost three weeks ago. I was immediately taken with her beauty, her dark-brown hair, statuesque height and broad shoulders, her remarkably resilient onstage persona, and smart and expensive-looking Chanel ensemble, which demonstrated an equally remarkable next-day resilience. Just as impressive was her offstage persona. I'd never failed to feel comfortable or happy in her presence, and so I'd wandered a measure blindly through our times together, just as I'd blindly and unthinkingly sent her that first e-mail. Now, together, we moved from this burger to that burrito to this glass of wine to that potsticker in a perpetual fog of thrill and delight. Doing so was serving me well. I didn't want to analyze how things were going, sabotage her willingness—or mine—with suffocating preoccupation and skepticism. After a life of anticlimax and blunders in love, I knew it was indisputably smarter to let things progress and stay in the moment.

“Where?” I asked.

“I have to give a talk at this food and wine thing,” she said. “In Kohler, Wisconsin.”

“As in the Kohler that makes toilets?”

“Let's hope among other things.”

Even in our headlong nascence, a time well before I'd ever have real cause to, I caught myself occasionally wondering what the hell she was doing with me. Now was one of those times.

BOOK: Vintage Attraction
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