(With apologies to Joyce Carol Oates)
Last night, a balmy October evening, members of the university had honored me with a warm welcome at a lovely, well-attended wine and cheese reception. My $5 million alumnus contribution to the endowment fund guaranteed that. The speakers praised my accomplishments at the tender age of forty-three as the female entrepreneur of a hugely successful hedge fund. I took notes, a habit developed there during my student days. I truly appreciated their time and effort in sorting out some of my lessor known, often silly, personal details like my allergy to chocolate, which everyone agreed was egregious or teasing me about my outrageous collection of feminist tee shirts. I was grateful their remarks weren’t off my questionable bio on the Wikipedia page. Written thank you notes would follow in the next few days.
The next morning, standing on the platform of Princeton Junction train station headed to New York, my eyes, quite accidently, connected with a smallish man who turned in my direction. He was wearing the ubiquitous professorial garb: tweed jacket with patches and khaki trousers. Was that Professor R—? I believe it was. I was sure there was a momentary glance of recognition between us. Whatever his reaction, I felt perplexed. It’s what happens when someone appears out of their element, his being the classroom. I searched my memory to confirm it was him. Seeing him opened a wound I didn’t know I still had. Surely those days were behind me. I chafed at the thought. Oh, on occasion I would read a piece of his in the New Yorker or perhaps I would see an article in the New York Times Magazine but that was ages ago. I do have a vague memory of wondering what had happened to him. But, my god, I haven’t thought of him in years.
I debated approaching Professor R—. What would I say? You changed my life. From where he stood, he was waiting for the Quiet Car. Obviously, he didn’t want to be bothered. He never turned in my direction. His head kept bobbing up and down searching the empty tracks like a gopher coming out of his hole waiting to crawl back in. Not me, today would be an indulgence. I loved riding trains: the noise, the chatter, the animation of the riders and I hadn’t done it in such a long time. Usually my limo service drove me back and forth from my Park Avenue penthouse or my Wall Street office. I don’t get out this way often, so today I took some time and opted for a trip down memory lane. Seems like I’m being overloaded with recollections.
Sitting by the window, I placed my overnight bag at my feet. The unread Wall Street Journal sat on an empty seat next to me as I sipped hot coffee and stepped back in time.
I was starstruck then. Professor R—, the rock star literature professor on campus, intimidated me with his insightful revelations of Dostoevsky navigating the streets of St. Petersburg or his lecturing on Huxley’s Brave New World. Yet, I was among the twelve chosen, an apostle selected for his seminar, ready to prostrate myself at his feet to learn by osmosis. The writing sample I had submitted on Kierkegaard, Rilke, and Camus impressed him. Frequently though, in class he ignored me. If I were tongue-tied, sometimes tripping over my words, he had to needle me into speaking. (Not so last night. The audience hung on my every carefully crafted word.) And, the other two other female students in the select group were so pretty and poised. They handled themselves well, laughing at his jokes and fawning over him like the popular male students did. Early on, he seemed to lose interest in me and my work. I felt clumsy and awkward. Sometimes I wondered if I was part of a joke.
His grade at the end of the semester surprised me at first, then angered me. I worked so hard and wanted — no deserved — an ‘A+’ not a ‘B+’. Especially when I heard that brow-noser, Stuart received a stellar grade for what we all knew was a mediocre paper. But one learns from one’s disappointments. My choice of Virginia Woolf from the canon instead of one of the men like Huxley or Wells secured my reputation as a budding feminist, at least for my professor. When the semester ended, I did send him a brief request for guidance, but he never responded. I was disappointed since I had purchased each of his books, which he autographed to me, Carol Carson. My confidence was too low to continue in the abstract world of language arts. So, I turned to my other love, economics. I’ve always been more comfortable in the world of concrete thinkers, people who could quantify the world.
Infused with these thoughts that morning, time moved quickly. The train rushed past my old world on smooth wheels and raced toward the place I now occupied. At each stop, passengers boarded. At Newark Penn Station, a woman glared at my newspaper which I picked up and folded onto my lap when she sat. Traveling without make-up and in a nondescript track suit, I chuckled to myself that I had bristled at her reaction, embarrassed at my own insightful moment. The train rolled on. My reverie interrupted; my thoughts again returned to the present day.
When we finally arrived at Penn Station, as I walked to the escalator, the professor materialized in front of me.
“Oh, hello, Professor.” I blurted out. “I apologize,” I stammered a bit as heat crept up my neck. “I didn’t mean to stare earlier.” I blocked the entrance. His haughty expression confirmed more that an acknowledgement would never pass his lips. For a millisecond, his continued arrogance intimidated me. Then, I took a deep breath and sighed, my voice clear and strong. “But, you see, I was more than a little startled because I thought you were dead.” His bewildered expression at my remark was priceless. He seemed to shrivel and now looked so harmless. I forgot the rest of the conversation.
I suppose there was a certain irony to our meeting, especially at this time. Recently, Scribners approached me to do my memoir. They want the full story of how I put together and ran the hugely successful Phoenix Hedge Fund, a primarily female firm. Imagine that, I’ll be writing again — from a room of my own. Professor R—may get a paragraph or two. Or, maybe not.
I was certain the university would give me his address. I’ll be sure to send him an autographed copy.
Joanne Sutera writes short stories, and fiction reflecting today’s crazy world, plays that explore relationships, and dark and acerbic poetry. She nourishes her passion by taking classes, attending seminars, and learning from writers she admires. She is published in Zest Magazine, The Kelsey Review, US1 and At Death’s Door, an anthology. She belongs to Room at the Table and the Princeton Writers’ Group. She lives in Lawrence.