REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Fall 2009

Volume 4, Issue 2

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/fall_2009/hlinak.htm




MATT HLINAK

 

Sabbatical

 

At three o’clock on the worst day of his life, Conrad strolled down the hallway, flashing a rakish grin at a group of coeds lined up outside Dr. Hallsley’s office. Someone had propped the door open and a faint breeze danced through the corridor. Conrad just needed to turn in his final grades and he’d be free for the summer. He and Melanie had talked about faking a conference in Milwaukee and spending a long weekend at a bed and breakfast in Lake Geneva before she went off to San Diego.

He continued on to the end of the hallway, rounded the corner and entered his office. When he shut the door behind him, Malcolm X’s stern eyes glared back from a poster on the back of the door. A coffee mug called for him to FREE HUEY, and a bumper sticker taped to the side of his computer monitor proclaimed, UNIDOS NOS LEVANTAMOS! But Conrad’s gaze was drawn to the large oak desk, which only this morning he had cleared off for the first time all year. Now it contained a thick blue, spiral-bound volume entitled The Myth of Stonewall. Conrad lifted it up, leafed through the pages, and checked the floor beneath his desk, but he found no note.

He dashed out of his office and down the stairs into the dungeons where the TA office was located. A shaggy-haired grad student greeted him, but Conrad charged past, over to Melanie’s desk, which stood utterly bare in the corner. The wall was also naked, with no more flyers for Take Back the Night, the LGBT roundtable or PRIDE rallies. Conrad feiged an air of nonchalance as he asked the grad student where Melanie had gone. He absentmindedly twisted his wedding ring around his finger while he awaited a response.

“She took off for San Diego this morning, Dr. Lowe. Is anything wrong?”

“Uh no, everything’s fine. I just wanted to touch base with her before she left.”
Deflated, he headed towards the door.

“Have a good summer, Dr. Lowe.”

Without replying, Conrad raced to the faculty parking lot and hopped into his Honda hatchback, a rusted-out jalopy Anne refused to drive anymore. He jammed the car into drive and tore up Gregory Avenue, narrowly avoiding a cyclist as he turned on to Green Street. A conga line of besotted rugby players stumbled out of the White Horse, bellowing sea chanteys at passing cars.

The captain of the lugger
He was a dirty bugger
Not fit to shovel shit
From one place to another

As they drew near, Conrad rolled up his window and trained his eyes on the bumper of the car in front of him. He glanced in his rearview mirror and saw the line of thick bodies weave across the crowded street and into another bar. He sighed and accelerated with the traffic.

Conrad fumbled with the radio, trying to find a song to fit his feverish mood. He blew past a cotton candy girl trio, paused briefly on a studio group pretending to be a garage band (Melanie had keyed him into the difference) and then settled on “Flight of the Valkyries” playing on the classical station. He took a little satisfaction in the suitability of the song before the sight of Melanie’s empty driveway sent a wave of numbness through his body. He stared at the house that he’d never visited but driven past a hundred times. The decrepit old structure sagged beneath its own weight. Chips of paint sloughed off the outside of the house into the overgrown weeds sprouting out of the base. Glancing in the window, however, Conrad marveled at how well the lovely rose color that Melanie had painted on the interior walls seemed to revitalize the dilapidated structure, as if the vibrant core could breathe life back into the gray husk surrounding it. He tried to stop out front, but the car seemed to resist, his foot poised above the brake rebelling against him and he soon found himself a mile south of campus, with no destination in mind.

He struggled to grasp the idea that she was gone, that maybe she’d never loved him, that he was just a bony old man with a potbelly and an overbite who’d been deluding himself all this time. He’d jeopardized his marriage and career for nothing. He pulled the car to the side of the road and wept.

“You pathetic little man,” he said, punching himself in the thigh. “What did you think would happen?”

As he leaned forward against the steering wheel, a rapping sound impossibly close shook him from his self-loathing. A short, broad-shouldered policewoman hunched outside his window, holding her wide-jawed face at an angle so she could peer inside. Surprised by her stealth, he looked up into the reflective lenses of her sunglasses and saw his bleary face stretched as in a funhouse mirror. He hurriedly wiped the man-tears from his eyes, took a deep breath to compose himself, and rolled down the window.

“Is everything okay, sir?”

“Yes, officer, everything is fine. I just had a rough day.” She removed her sunglasses and brought her face a few inches from his. He wanted to pull away, but felt there would be something incriminating about it, so he held his head in place, not looking at her but not looking away. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her pull her head back and he felt a bit more at ease.

“Damn cops,” Melanie had once cursed while poring over the police reports from the 1969 Stonewall riots.

“The police have always reacted violently to social change,” Conrad had replied before launching into a lengthy diatribe on the inherently reactionary nature of law enforcement and its role in maintaining the social order, regardless of how immoral that order might be. Melanie nodded, but continued to leaf through the reports, obviously not listening. Eager to reclaim her attention, Conrad asked Melanie what she would have done had she been a police officer confronting the rioters.

After a contemplative pause, she answered, “Let the mother burn.” Conrad had smiled.

“Seriously, Connie,” – her teasing nickname for him – “why would anyone stand up for a corrupt system? The same cops that went around busting up bars and cracking heads can’t turn around and say that we were the rioters, that we were the cause of the problem.”

“So victimization is a justification for lawlessness?” he challenged, falling into his familiar Socratic role.

“Sometimes the only way to save the patient is to amputate a limb,” had been her answer.

“Are you sure you can operate this vehicle, sir?” the policewoman asked, pulling him out of his reverie.

“Yes, officer, I’m all right.”

“Why don’t you head on home, sir?”

“I will. Thank you, officer.”

The thought of going home filled him with dread. How could he talk to Anne in this condition? The two hadn’t had a meaningful conversation in years and she couldn’t hide her suspicions; he could just imagine how she’d react to seeing him cry. He decided to head back to the office instead.

He’d met Melanie three-and-a-half years before, when Dr. Avila had gone on sabbatical and Conrad had been asked to teach her seminar on the Gay Rights Movement in the 1970s. Melanie was tall, athletic, and assured, speaking loudly and proudly about the rights of women and homosexuals. She wore her orientation on her sleeve, or more accurately her chest – the first day of class she wore a bright pink t-shirt with the word dyke printed in big black letters.

“Are you gay?” she asked Conrad at the beginning of class. The rest of the class sat silently, taken aback by the bluntness of her question.

“No,” he answered. “Should I be?”

“You can be what you are. But why is a straight man teaching this course?”

“I find the topic interesting. Is it an inappropriate subject for a heterosexual historian?”

“Of course not,” she smiled. “I just hoped there was one area where you guys didn’t have total control.”

Conrad had long been a vocal proponent of gay rights on the campus; it had always seemed utterly appropriate to do so. He’d even written a couple of op-eds for the Prairie Flame over the years. He had a few homosexual students, whose plights fit into the familiar oppression/victimization paradigm he’d spent his career studying, and who felt comfortable relating their concerns to his sympathetic ear.
But there was something about Melanie that unsettled him. She was too forceful, too strong, too unvictimized. She didn’t need his help or want his acceptance. She was a force that none of her brilliant classmates would challenge, not only due to the certainty of her opinions, but also because she was invariably airtight in her logic and support.

One day in class, Peter the Marxist struggled to wedge discrimination against homosexuals into his conception of a world driven by capitalistic oppression.

“It doesn’t fit, Peter,” Melanie challenged, her ardor causing her soft cheeks flush. She leaned forward and brushed her short brown hair away from her face, giving Conrad a glimpse of her long, pale neck.

“But oppression comes from above – ”

“Haven’t you read Kozlovsky?”

“Kozlovsky?”

“What kind of commie are you?”

Peter turned red and started sputtering.

“The Soviets declared homosexuality a crime of decadence perpetrated by the elite. We don’t fit into your dead-white-male-class-struggle bullshit.”

“So, Melanie,” Conrad interjected, “you dispute the link between cultural conservatism and economic power?”

“Poor people hate us just as much as rich people do.”

“But do the poor possess enough political power to oppress?” Conrad pushed.

“No,” Peter chimed in, feeling vindicated.

“What, hillbillies can’t vote?” Melanie asked.

“Good point, Melanie,” Conrad said. “What sorts of issues tend to drive lower-class whites to the polls?”

“Social issues,” Melanie answered. “School busing, immigration, gay marriage.”

“I think your theory needs work, Peter,” Conrad concluded.

As the semester went on, Conrad felt increasingly intimidated by his star pupil. He found himself studying the arcane journal articles he had long since stopped following just to keep up with her. She knew all the scholars and all the latest research. At times she even knew his own research better than he did.

Anne seemed to sense something. One night after Trading Spaces, she asked him why he was staying so late at the office, why he was always lost in some book.

“Didn’t you already get tenure?” she asked as she rose to go to bed.

“I did. It’s just these damn kids are so smart. I need to keep up with my grad students.”

“You never seemed to have any problem before.”

“Well, it’s really just this one. She” – Anne arched an eyebrow at this point – “has memorized just about everything ever written in the field.”

“Why do you feel you need to impress her?”

“Don’t worry, honey,” he chuckled a bit too loudly. “She’s a lesbian.”

Without saying anything else, Anne ambled her frumpy frame up the stairs, swaddled in a faded, cotton nightgown.

He found himself missing those days of blissful poverty when the only entertainment he and Anne had was each other. They would go for walks on the quad, scanning the kiosks for flyers promising anything for free. Most of their time was spent visiting the exhibits of starving artists or listening to suburban folk singers in coffee shops. They had nothing and they wanted nothing.

He remembered lugging a ratty old couch he bought from the Salvation Army up the sidewalk to their apartment. Anne eyed him curiously as he struggled through the door.

“Look,” he said. “I got us a couch.”

“That’s pretty bourgeois, baby.”

“It was only five dollars.”

“What do we need a couch for?” she asked seductively. “We’ve got a bed…” He dropped the couch and followed her inside.

Now their main recreation was watching home makeover shows. They discussed window treatments, oriental rugs, and throw pillows. Conrad found himself unsettled by the way his wife coveted new furniture, disturbed by the lustful gleam in her eye as she apprised a potential new coffee table.

A few days later Melanie knocked on the door of Conrad’s office. Without waiting for his response, she strode through the doorway and slipped into the chair across from his desk. Trying to look nonplussed, Conrad exited the game of Solitaire he’d been playing on his computer and then looked into her eyes, bright green like the scales of a venomous tree snake.

“Hi, Melanie. What can I do for you?”

“Dr. Lowe, I’m not getting it.”

“What aren’t you getting?”

“History.”

“You’re not getting history?”

“Right.”

“Melanie, you are probably the brightest student in my class.”

“Then why can’t I do what you do?”

“What do I do?”

“You can always find the big idea. Your research is brilliant. All I can do is memorize everyone else’s big ideas.”

Her cheeks reddened a bit at her confession, and Conrad could see her struggling against her own pride. A surge of electricity caused the hair on his arms to stand up. He had somehow managed to pierce her veil of perfection. This show of vulnerability revealed her humanity, making her more than an object in his mind.

Melanie and Conrad worked together constantly for the next two years. Unburdened of the need to study his colleagues’ research to impress Melanie, he focused in earnest on his own big ideas. He found connections, brilliant and well-supported, everywhere. He compared the subjugation of women in the Abbasid Empire to depictions in 1970s American pornography. He found linkages between the Roma of sixteenth century Munich and the Hmong community in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. One sunny autumn morning during her final year of grad school, Conrad was explaining to a dazzled Melanie how the African AIDS epidemic mirrored Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs, when she leaned in and kissed him.

They began an affair of the highest discretion. The consequences of their being discovered were well-known from the start. If word got out, Conrad would be divorced and become a pariah in the department, which had recently purged itself of a particularly predatory faculty member, maybe even fired. But the stakes were high for Melanie as well. She would forfeit her role as the leader of the gay rights movement on campus. If people found out that she engaged in such a thoroughly un-feminist (not to mention un-homosexual) cliché as a lovesick tryst with a married, older man who was also her teacher, all her influence would dissolve.

One afternoon as they lay in bed in a hotel off I-57, Conrad asked her if she was still gay.

“I’m not anything, Connie.”

“What does that mean?”

“Gay and straight are artificial constructs. They’re labels that your generation uses to describe broad sets of behavior.”

“So you’re bisexual.”

“I’m attracted to people, not parts.”

She rose out of bed, irritated. Conrad couldn’t help but admire her long, youthful body even as he felt his tenuous hold on her slip away.

As he hunched over his all-but-empty desk, Conrad thought about how wrong the cliché was – there was a power imbalance in their relationship, but he wasn’t the dominant partner. Despite her single display of weakness, she still possessed an innate confidence that Conrad could only affect. His brilliance was merely the reflected heat of her fervor.

Back at his desk, Conrad stared at the cover of her dissertation for hours. He had no need to read it; he had it nearly memorized after guiding Melanie through dozens of drafts and rewrites over the last few years, leading up to her successful defense last week. It was the great work of scholarship of which he knew, and feared, she was capable. She finally found her big idea and now she had nothing left to admire him for.

The night before, Conrad had been in his bedroom, changing out of his suit and into jeans and a t-shirt. Anne was still at work and he had Melanie on his mind. They had long since agreed not to contact one another at home, but he decided to take a chance.

“Jesus, Connie,” she’d answered.

“What? Can’t I call to congratulate the new Ph.D.?”

“My roommates are home.”

“So what? I’m your advisor. It would be weird if I didn’t take you out for some celebratory champagne.”

“There’s no way, Connie.”

“But Melanie, I’m just talking about a drink.”

“There’s no way.”

“Who the hell is going to notice?”

“Tanya’s coming. I gotta go.”

“Melanie – ”

“I’ll swing by your office tomorrow. Bye, Connie.”

Conrad hung up the phone and plopped down on the bed. He glanced up and saw Anne leaning against the doorframe. Her expression was blank.

“When did you get home?” he asked, flustered.

“Just now. Who was on the phone?”

“Oh, just a student, calling for hints for the final. You know how nervous some of these kids get at the end of the semester.”

“I thought you didn’t give out our home number.”

“I don’t. Must’ve looked me up in the phone book.”

Anne smiled at him, but there was a sadness in her eyes. She wasn’t happy either, he knew that. She’d withdrew deeper and deeper into her world of HDTV and Pottery Barn while he chased Melanie around campus. He felt a sudden urge to rise up, take his wife in his arms, confess his sins, beg her forgiveness, but most importantly, to talk to her, really talk to her in a way he hadn’t in years. Instead he just sat there and smiled sadly back at her.

“I’m going to Jeannine’s tomorrow,” she said. “I might be back a bit late. Can you pick up some milk on the way home?”

“Sure,” he’d said as Anne left him alone in their bedroom.

Back in his office, the sun crept down below the horizon, but Conrad lacked the strength to rise and turn on the light. It grew steadily darker until only the faint light from the hallway peaking under the door illuminated the room. Suddenly the janitor swung open the door and flipped the light switch. The wizened little man jumped back at the sight of Conrad sitting alone in the dark.

“Sorry,” he said with a thick Polish accent.

“Oh, it’s okay. I was just leaving.” Conrad snatched his unopened briefcase off the floor and shuffled toward the door.

“Okay?” the janitor asked.

“Okay.”

Conrad got back into his car and headed home. As he drove past Meijer he remembered they were out of milk. Grateful for the reprieve, if not pardon, he slowly made his way to the back of the store and grabbed a gallon of lactose-free skim milk. While in line he scanned the headlines, learning that an estranged celebrity couple might patch things up and that a goat-boy had been spotted in Dubuque, Iowa. He noticed a bucket sitting next to the cashier containing single roses for $1.99 each. He remembered his and Anne’s first Valentine’s Day when he’d been a poor grad student and could only afford a single rose to give her, a rose that she still kept pressed in a book of poetry he’d bought her from a used bookstore. He bought one of the roses and headed home to see his wife, hoping the flower might remind her that a world once existed where he was more important to her than their possessions.

As Conrad turned into their subdivision, he saw Curtis Glenn waddle out to the curb to take out the garbage. Hoping to get by with just a wave, Conrad was disappointed to see Curtis step onto the street and hold up both hands. Sweat oozed out of every pore on Curtis’s body, soaking through his rapidly-yellowing T-shirt. Conrad rolled down the window and Curtis thrust his chubby fingers inside. Conrad shook his hand as briefly as possible before pulling away to discretely wipe Curtis’s sweat on his pant leg.

“How’s the nutty professor doing?”

Conrad wanted to slap him across his fat face, but instead said, “Fine.”

“You look a little out of it.”

“Oh, I’m fine. Just kind of a long day.”

“Bonnie and I have been meaning to invite you two over and we just never get around to it. Are you doing anything this Friday?”

Conrad envisioned an exquisitely-dull evening of listening to Bonnie go on and on about her two-pound dogs and learning the most minute details of Curtis’s plumbing business, all the while trying not to throw up while watching those two fat slobs stuff their faces. The highlight of the evening would come later, when he and Anne would giggle about their hosts’ impeccable social skills. Conrad had mastered the sound of Curtis smacking his lips after every bite, while Anne could mimic Bonnie’s high-pitched squeal when she reached the punch line of yet another canine anecdote. The last time they'd visited the Glenns, they laughed so hard they didn’t fall asleep until well after midnight.

He felt a pressure in the pit of his stomach as he remembered his wife’s delicate laugh. The way she tilted her head back, letting her hair cascade around her shoulders. The way she held her fingers before her mouth to maintain her immutable dignity. The single joyous tear that ran down her check when she found something particularly amusing.

“I’ll have to check with Anne, but I think we’re free.”

“Great,” Curtis beamed. “We’d love to have you over.”

“Sounds good, Curtis. Looking forward to it.”

Curtis tottered back into the house and Conrad continued down their street. He pulled into the driveway and saw that all the windows were dark. It was eight-thirty, which meant Anne should be back from her sister’s, but it was too early for her to be in bed.

Conrad turned on the lamp in the living room. Everything was as it should be, the magazines stacked on the coffee table, the afghan folded over the back of the couch, and each knickknack placed in its proper position. The only sound was the gentle whirring of the packaged system air conditioner outside. There were no messages on their answering machine. He paced through the house, turning on the lights in each room and looking for signs of his wife. She wasn’t in the basement, the laundry room, the den, the spare bedroom, or any of the home’s two-and-half commodes. Each room was fastidiously decorated, spotlessly clean, and utterly devoid of life. He ran upstairs to their bedroom and noticed a slight indentation on the otherwise tightly-pulled duvet, as if someone had recently been sitting on the bed. Conrad charged into the room and saw the closet door had been left open. Anne never left the closet door open and frequently chastised him for doing so. He looked in and saw a half-empty closet – only his cheap professorial suits hung from the bar. Anne’s clothes were gone, as were the suitcases. And then he saw it.

On the nightstand sat a book of poetry from a used bookstore with a single rose pressed between its pages. Conrad slumped onto the bed and thought about history.


 

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