ince arriving the previous week I’d kept hearing about a notorious person, and now as I entered the packed lecture hall my gaze caught on a highly conspicuous man. That’s him I declared inwardly, which of course was absurd. It was a vast university, of thousands of souls. There was no reason these two kinds of prominence—scandalous noteworthiness, and exceptional, even sinister, attractiveness—must be long to the same human being. Yet they had. The man was Nicholas Brodeur, though I knew it for sure only later.
That first time seeing him, even before being sure who he was, it was already clear that his attractiveness was mixed up with a great deal of ridiculousness. He wore a long duster coat, in the heat of September. His filthy blond hair stuck up and out in thatchy spikes from heavy use of some kind of pomade, as if it were 1982, not ’92, and he wore Lennon shades with completely black lenses, as if it were outdoors, not in, and overall, in his resemblance to a Joy Division poster, he comported himself as if twenty and not, as I’d come to find out, almost forty. Still he was the best-looking man, by a league, in the room and certainly the best-looking man I had seen in the flesh to that point in my life. I hadn’t yet lived in one of the world’s great cities, where such specimens congregate, but even now that I have, he still ranks. And he must have realized; there was in his posture a kind of inverse vanity, a suggestion that he engaged in his sartorial ridiculousness out of some impatience with the effects of his beauty. He stood alone at the back, his feet away from the wall and his shoulders slumped against it. An ambiguous expression that was not quite a smile slightly lifted the sides of his mouth. His hands remained stuffed in the duster’s deep pockets. The inappropriate hoodlum charade seemed to chide anybody who stared, as I did.
Casper was the only fellow student in my program I’d managed so far to befriend. When he arrived and dropped into the seat I had saved him, I directed his eyes to the man. “Oh my,” Casper said. “Do I want to fuck him, or just be him?” Just being him did seem the lesser risk.
I’d been inoculated against the villain Brodeur before I’d even enrolled. On my visit to campus the previous spring, my informational coffee with a second-year poetry student had been interrupted by a timorous and blushing undergraduate whom the second-year had caught in a fervent embrace, and then presented to me portentously as someone “any woman considering coming here needs to talk to.” In the course of preparing her senior thesis under Brodeur’s direction, the undergraduate had been victimized by him, in what precise way it would victimize her further to ask her to relate. The result, thus far, had been a petition demanding his firing, but the second-year was confident that far more severe retribution would follow. This was only the most recent petition, and the most recent of his sexual crimes. He was rumored to ask female students to read Donne to him while he lay on the floor of his office, in darkness, it was presumed masturbating himself. He was said to recite bawdy couplets referring to breasts while directing his gaze in the classroom at actual breasts. He’d attended, at the repertory cinema on campus, a screening of a late-career, poorly received film by Roman Polanski—the rapist—and unlike the rest of the solemn, censorious house, there to sharpen the critical blades, he’d apparently laughed so hard as to have literally fallen from his seat onto the floor. Amid all this baleful intelligence it came as a superfluous footnote that his relations with his wife, who was also a faculty member, were obscure and chaotic.
I was as susceptible to this sort of gossip as anyone else—it impressed itself on me with more permanence than the titles of the texts I was required to read for my first set of graduate courses. And yet, as opposite as they would seem from each other in worth, the salacious gossip and the scholarly imperatives, they were equally thrilling to me, different-color threads of the same mantle: that of adulthood. Graduating from college, I’d suddenly found I’d Grown Up, and graduate school was my Eden, where I named and possessed all the precious, first things, even those with a taint, like the villain Brodeur. Eagerly I absorbed Brodeur’s villainous status as I did the rest of the new esoterica. Rents were cheaper off the hill than on. The better grocery store was Friel’s, not Mighty Buy. Nicholas Brodeur was a predator—not to mention a sexist!—whose continuing presence on campus proved the sorry truth of everything we’d learned in women’s studies (and so was gratifying, though most of us wouldn’t admit it). But for all my initiate’s self-importance, about Nicholas Brodeur and the rest, I hadn’t been warned of his beauty, which for true initiates went without saying. Consciousness of his beauty, I understood now, thrilled beneath every condemnation. It was the shared secret that lent the condemning its eager subtext.
The assembly of hundreds in the stifling hall was for a series of readings by the writing program faculty to fight world hunger. How the funereal poems, or the confusing prose excerpts, each of which was prefaced by long explanations of context, might fight world hunger had not been made clear. Admission had been free, and no one was taking donations. Yet nonattendance at the reading seemed sufficiently aligned with indifference to world hunger that even acid-tongued Casper did not wax sarcastic, and despite the ravishingly gorgeous day outside, the hall was standing-room only, its atmosphere a strange combination of stultification and a showy self-regard for the good we were doing. I recognized just a scattering of students here and there, and not many more from the group of performers, who took the stage one by one with perhaps a hair too much affectation of reluctant humility, or loose-limbed unconcern, alternating these attitudes almost as consistently as they alternated genres: poet, fiction writer, poet, and so on, each, at the conclusion of his or her reading, giving introduction to the colleague who followed in a wry, collegial shorthand which sometimes provoked scattered outbursts of laughter from the knowing concealed in the crowd. Not a word that was read stayed with me. I could not even recall, once the readers were back in their seats, which had read poems versus prose. Affecting a pose of my own, of enchanted absorption, as if the powerful words drew my gaze far beyond the confines of the hall, I very slowly rotated my head toward the back, but the standing-room area now was so crowded I could no longer see him. Perhaps he had left.
When the reading was over it was a long time before we could even get out of our seats. “I’m very disappointed Byron and the Bunnymen didn’t share his work also,” said Casper.
“The man standing in back? But he isn’t a poet.”
“What else would he be?”
“Something made me think he must be Nicholas Brodeur,” I admitted, but Casper pooh-poohed. “Brodeur’s a Spenserian,” Casper explained. “He’ll be tweedy. Even if he’s a rapist he’s going to be tweedy. You’re casting too much to type.”
Later that week, when I came up the steps at the end of my first day of classes, Dutra was already home, sprawled in the porch hammock with a half-empty bottle of beer. “What an insane day!” I complained and exulted.
“You obviously need a drink,” he said, swinging the bottle at me so I had to accept it. Dutra had a pouncing way of expressing himself, as if the subtext was always “I gotcha!” His voice was generally too loud for its setting, for the porch on this homely, leaf-drowned block of wood-frame houses on this somnolent, hot afternoon, for example, but the oversize voice was well matched with his face, long and lean and not the least softened up at its edges by his five-dollar barbershop buzz cut, its narrow span busily occupied by a large, slightly hooked Roman nose and large, hooded green eyes and a wide, mobile mouth and large out-sticking ears, all of which he tirelessly manipulated as a clown would, launching his eyebrows or stretching his grin from one lobe to the other. Yet in his rare moments of repose it was easy to imagine him leading the Argonauts and clanking his sword in the dust. It was my latest theory that the carelessness with which he carried himself—shambling with his shoulders hitched up, or tossing himself like so much useless scrap wood into a heap in the hammock—was meant to conceal this feline athleticism, to benefit him with a hidden advantage. He seemed to particularly relish being underestimated, a condition which formed the theme of the story he was now telling me, and which had surely played a role in our current relationship. I happened to be sleeping with Dutra. Ten days before, the very night I’d moved in, he’d seduced me, with no more effort and no less presumption than he’d used handing over his beer.
His story had to do with the boot-camp-style orientation he’d just undergone. He had begun his day dismissed as the skinny wise-ass, and wound up unanimously elected team leader: a typical triumph for him.
“It was every kind of kill-the-individual, forge-the-collective, kick-your-ass, boot-camp-type thing they could think of,” he went on, reaching over his head for the six-pack to fetch us new beers. “Climb walls, swing on ropes, fall blindfolded off high things into a net someone’s supposedly holding. Toward the end of the day, when we were doing that—put their blindfold on, help them up the ladder, talk them into jumping off with no idea is someone going to catch them or their neck’s getting broken—one of the residents said to me, ‘You’re going to make a great doctor. They really trust you.’” Dutra’s unabashed braggartliness was like a sedative to me; I was unused to so much confidence. Dutra stated his superiorities because they were facts, not because he required my agreement. It was the same attitude with which he’d stated the idiosyncrasies of the apartment, the day I’d come for a viewing: the apartment was, and would always be during his tenancy, absolutely messy and absolutely utilitarian—he had no time for nor interest in beauty—but it would never be dirty; he had no tolerance for dirtiness. He rolled his sleeves up and scrubbed things, he washed windows and laundry, but he did not waste his time making things neat; it went without saying I’d live the same way. As far as shared space, I should feel liberated to do as I pleased so long as I didn’t object to his habits, which were principally smoking marijuana, watching television, and studying to be a vascular surgeon, all of which activities took place at all hours simultaneously, and were necessarily bound to one another. Finally, although the apartment was furnished, as advertised, the two rooms I was offered were in fact absolutely empty. There were not even blinds or lightbulbs.
Arriving in that town I hadn’t owned any more in the way of furniture than I had four years previously on my first day of college. I’d circled his ad when I’d seen the word “furnished.” “I don’t suppose,” I’d said tentatively in the course of that first conversation, “there’s an old desk and chair, or a bookshelf, or anything. Maybe in the attic? Or the basement?” The apartment was half a wood house: half a front porch; half a first floor, with the living room and dining room and kitchen; half an upstairs, with three rooms, a big one in front which was his and the two small available ones, off the hall and in back just beside the bathroom; half a basement below; half an attic above; and half a small, grassy backyard. The other half of the house—it had been built as one structure, with two identical, symmetrical sides—was occupied by the owners, who regarded Dutra alone as their tenant, and Dutra’s housemates as his business. I was to pay my rent to him, and he would take care of all of the bills.
“No,” Dutra had said. We’d been standing in the hallway together, regarding the stark, spotless rooms, which I’d had the sense had not been merely cleaned, but sterilized and perhaps exorcised.
“What about a bed?” I’d wondered, hoping to sound breezily unconcerned.
“No,” Dutra had said, “but you’re welcome to sleep on the couch, or with me, until you get one.”
It was a few hours more before I knew I had heard this correctly; at the time I said only, “Did someone else used to live in these rooms?” as we returned down the stairs.
“Yes,” he’d said, with emphasis but without elaboration.
Dutra’s given name was Daniel Francis Dutra, and the story of his conquest of the university was one he shared more readily, given that it amplified the theme of his hidden advantage. He was from New York City, the only child of a hairdresser mother and a shiftless, perfidious father who left them when Dutra was three. Dutra’s mother, whom he adored and berated for her numerous foibles for hours on end on the phone, had raised him to believe in himself, to say the least, the result being that Dutra had gotten into Bronx Science and been met with adulation; had gone from there to NYU on multiple scholarships, patrons verily shoving one another aside to give money to him; had at NYU launched a historically lucrative drug-dealing business; and had in quick succession failed out, OD’d, and gotten a record, because his girlfriend of the time, “in a moment of weakness,” had called an ambulance on seeing him turn blue, instead of, as any right-thinking person would have, just walking him and dousing him with water until he revived. His downfall had been total. Stripped of his scholarships, thrown out of school, too disgusted with his girlfriend to forgive her for seeking assistance in saving his life, he had taken what remained to him and moved to the small town of Cortland, where he’d enrolled in community college. Coming among such humble comrades as he met there, most of whom had never set foot in Manhattan, and were dating their cousins and listening to the Allman Brothers Band and struggling valiantly and hopelessly to master the parts of the cell, had been the cure for Dutra’s arrogance, Dutra arrogantly reminisced. He’d been thoroughly bored in community college, but careful, piling up his straight A’s and his credits, and then he’d presented himself to the university as a diamond-in-the-rough transfer student from wee nearby Cortland as opposed to a prodigal from New York City, and been taken up joyously, and been there ever since.
So this was Dutra’s third year in town, though his first as a graduate student in the School of Medicine. These contrasting conditions, of jaded veteran and innocent initiate, rendered Dutra my ideal if surprising companion. In his habitual controlling egotism he was happy to spend hours lecturing me as to where I should buy morning bagels, afternoon six-packs, late-night falafels; with whom I should bank; at what drugstore I could most cheaply purchase toothpaste; which bar had an acceptable pool table, jukebox, draft beer selection; what site of natural beauty among dozens in town was most congenial to drug use, al fresco sexual relations, a bonfire—I had not yet found one category of need, however mundane or abstruse, about which he lacked a bombastic opinion.
Yet at the same time as serving as sage, Dutra was boyishly thrilled about medical school. Without contradiction he both saw it as his due and cherished it as an astounding piece of luck. It merited his delight, a sentiment he generously extended to all other aspects of his new situation, myself included. Dutra possessed a wonderful capacity for alternating domineering, almost bullying speech with a listening so thorough, so rapturously attentive—eyes percolating with interest, clown grin by impossible increments gaining more width—that my paltry resistance that first night had been demolished well before he pulled off all my clothes. No detail, of his new world or mine, was too inconsequential. His orientation thus far had been unlike mine a genuinely harrowing ordeal of obstacle courses and scavenger hunts and overnight camping trips with insufficient equipment, yet he insisted on my full reciprocation. “So I’m exhausted. Too exhausted to talk,” he concluded now while still sprawled in the hammock, after regaling me for perhaps an unbroken half hour, his arms and legs gesticulating and his bottle sometimes splashing beer that fell onto the porch with a slap. “Get the other six out of the fridge and tell me all about your insane day.”
I was very worked up. The first meeting of one of my classes had been disrupted by protesting second-year students who accused the professor, an elderly white male novelist and Faulkner scholar from the South, of perpetuating racist/colonialist sentiment in his most recent book. “They were chanting ‘Joseph Conrad, Joseph Conrad’!” I evoked, splashing beer of my own as I mimed a hand waving a sign. “Because, you know, of Conrad’s Colonialist Agenda. So we’re going to have an emergency meeting to decide if we should boycott his class, or stay and try to subvert it somehow from within.”
“Can I ask a really idiotic question?” Dutra said, in a tone that suggested his question would reveal that all idiocy lay elsewhere. “With these people, is that name, Joseph Conrad, supposed to be an insult?”
“But Joseph Conrad is a fabulous writer.” It was the pat declaration of a nonscholar and nonwriter; even Dutra had his limits.
“I don’t think they’re talking about his writing so much as his politics. And the way his discourse perpetuates the status quo. The inequities in power between whites, who control the discourse, and nonwhites, who are controlled by it—”
“Who cares about his politics?” said Dutra, swinging out of the hammock.
“I think his politics are inseparable—”
“Oh, bullshit. Do you like his books or don’t you?”
Here was a question I hadn’t expected. “I’ve only read Heart of Darkness but . . . I liked it,” I acceded at last. This was just the sort of double admission Dutra seemed to extract as a matter of course.
“Do you like the other guy’s books?”
“Whose? My professor’s?”
“I’ve never read them.” Strike three.
Dutra burst out hysterically laughing. “No wonder you’re confused!” he exclaimed, in the exaggeratedly bemused, tenderly condescending manner I’d already learned was his method of shifting the mood. He actually lowered his eyelids at me. Annoyed, I drained the last of my beer and threw the bottle at him, which he snatched deftly out of the air as he followed me into the house. “You don’t have any empirical evidence,” he went on, pinning me to the couch cushions after sweeping a jetsam of hardcover textbooks and bong components and record sleeves and the leavings of an interrupted penny-rolling project from the couch onto the floor. “You’ve never read the guy’s books, let alone interacted with him— how could you expect yourself to know if he’s racist or not?” But by now, with joint effort, we’d unpeeled my sundress from over my head, and freed one of my legs from my panties, and freed his erection, tumid purple and blue, interestingly bent, and logically corresponding in all other ways with his assemblage of outsize mobile characteristics, so that it no longer seemed necessary to make a reply.
Excerpted from My Education: A Novel by Susan Choi
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