One night, while looking at menus in their favorite Thai restaurant, Professor Ketch’s girlfriend Julia touched his arm and asked, “Ketch, why do you love me?”
Professor Ketch looked up over his glasses. He was hungry, and there was a movie to catch, and both those facts conspired to make him peevish, and his peevishness at times when he was hungry and there were films to catch was nothing new to Julia.
“I’m sorry, what?” he said.
Julia said, “I’m just asking. I’d like to know. How come, that’s all?” Her smile was awkward, and weak.
Professor Ketch dropped his menu.
He said, “This again?”
“You’ve never given me an answer and I’m just asking,” she said, patting his forearm reassuringly. “I mean, no big deal, I’d just like to know. It’s my self-esteem issues, I guess.”
Professor Ketch removed his glasses. “You know I’ve been waiting to see this film for over two years. You know I’ve got a conference next week, finals the week after. And now you want to start another marathon about the quality of my affections?”
“I’m not asking for a dissertation, Ketch, for Christ’s sake, just a candid, heartfelt articulation. I mean why can’t you do that?”
“Why can’t you just judge me by my actions?” Professor Ketch said.
Julia said, “I do, and that’s why I’m asking. I don’t understand your actions.”
Professor Ketch folded his glasses and slid them inside his jacket.
“All right,” he said, pushing back in his chair. “Do you understand this action?”
Julia said, “What?”
He fished a twenty from his wallet and tossed it near her plate. “Enjoy your dinner.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m out of here.”
“No,” Julia told him. “Wait.”
Professor Ketch waited. “Well,” he said, his arms ready to lift himself from his chair.
Julia said, “Forget it.”
“Forget I asked.”
“Till when forget it?” Professor Ketch said. “Till when? The main course? Dessert? Forget it till when?”
“I won’t ask you again,” Julia said.
“Tonight you won’t ask me again?”
“Tonight,” Julia said. “And forever.”
Professor Ketch pulled his seat back in. “Forever. That’s what, a threat? An utterance of resignation and finality? Am I supposed to feel threatened, or guilty?”
Julia picked up her menu.
“What are you having?” she said. “I might go for the plak num.”
“No,” he said, “wait. This isn’t finished.”
“I said I won’t ask you. Christ, I’m hungry. I thought you were hungry.”
“I’m not eating until I know.”
“Know what?” Julia asked.
wai’d and offered a delicate bow, and Professor Ketch put his hands together and wai’d back.
“I hate when you do that,” Julia said.
Professor Ketch caught and held her eye.
“There doesn’t seem to be much about tonight that you do like, is there?”
“OK, here we go. The professor flips the terms of the question. Look,” she said, leaning forward. “I was your student, fucking eons ago.”
“It’s little more than two years, actually.”
“Actually this,” she said, holding up her middle finger. “And I’m not your student now.”
“Ah, but there’s so much you have to learn,” Professor Ketch said, spreading his arms out wide.
“Maybe,” Julia said, “but allow me as a friend to inform you: you ain’t the teacher. You ain’t even the TA and in my education, I’m miles beyond what your ass can provide.”
“Gosh, I love when you break into vernacular,” he said. “There! There’s something that I love about you. `Dear Julia, I love when you break into vernacular. Love and oodles of kisses, Ketch.’ Now can we fucking order so we can get to the movie on time?”
Professor Ketch signaled for the waitress.
“You don’t get there on time, you get there forty-five minutes early and read a book.”
“If you like, I’ll give you your ticket and save you a seat, or am I guessing correctly that you’d rather sit by yourself tonight since you find me so repugnant.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“And you’re a crybaby little cunt.”
The waitress appeared.
“I’m sorry,” Professor Ketch told the waitress, “I was premature.”
Julia said, “That’s ironic.”
The waitress wai’d again and slid away unperturbed.
“Ah,” the professor said, “now we go after the swordsmanship.”
Julia dropped her forehead into her hands and shook it.
“Baby, the day I don’t do it for you in the sack, well, you know where to find the door. Unlike the slum you crawled out of, this city’s bursting with young, able studs, some of whom might – what is it you like? – articulate, is it?”
Julia said, “Stop.”
She raised her head. Her face was a mass of tears.
“Just please fucking quit it, please!”
“Hey, you keep your voice fucking down,” Professor Ketch said anxiously.
“Oh fuck you!” she screamed. Standing, Julia swept her table setting into the Professor’s, knocking his plate and his water glass into his lap. “Just fucking, fucking, fucking fuck you!” she said, running past tables for the door.
Professor Ketch stood, mortified, speechless, his lap running with water.
Their waitress stared.
Face, Professor Ketch knew, was important to a Thai, and losing it, publicly, with outbursts of anger, was damaging. Open-mouthed, he pointed toward the door and moved awkwardly in its direction.
The waitress wai’d.
An hour later, while he was fucking Julia, Professor Ketch noted that her lubricity was less than optimal. When it was optimal, when her vaginal walls were slick with an undersea slime, he penetrated further, beyond a trap door as it were, until his penis encountered a ridge, a soft-wet under-cropping that angled his penis down even as his hips drove forward. And when he hit that ridge, he knew he’d hit a truth, a soft, wet, irrefutable truth, the kind that made Julia yelp, the kind that, in his discipline, was rare, was the grail, was alchemy.
Not finding that alchemy tonight, and sensing, through the less than optimal viscosity that he wouldn’t, he rolled onto his back, pulling Julia on top of him, and allowed her to grind out some second best truth of her own. He loved to watch her in this position, loved to watch her put on her homegirl show. Taking her tits into her hands, sucking one, then the other, her thick thighs powerfully pumping her pelvic floor like a piston. Then swinging a one-eighty, lowering her forehead to the mattress and with manicured fingers separating the bubble cheeks of her ass. He took the small bedside flashlight and trained the beam on her anus while into its puckered rim she slid a red fingernail cuticle deep. When he cut the flashlight’s beam, she knew it was time to spin back around and to cover his face with her tits, her miraculous tits. He buried his nose between them, shook his head from side to side, slavered over them and allowed himself to disappear into some primordial zone. His index finger circled her anus and coaxed her forward, then back, forward, then back, and from her chest came a low earthy grumble that grew into spastic full-throated screams that both delighted and infuriated him because to scream she needed space and that space pulled her tits away from his face and her anus off his finger. But she knew how quickly to resume the position, to re-smother his face and re-cover his finger, and when he thickened, when he was close, she knew how to pop off of him at exactly the last instant and to face-fall deeply over his cock and to bury his cock between her cheeks, and to pull the braids back from her face so that he could watch her concentrate and work to accommodate the jets of semen he bazooka’d onto her uvula, and she knew how to keep her mouth over his cock, to throat it back and forth and to linger at the head and to dive back down and to take it out and lick and teethe and tease its shaft and to tongue the pool at its tip and to smile around the cum-string connecting her lips to his dick and then to slide her tongue over that cum-string and swallow it and return for more, for whatever might be left, and then to kiss his prick, and his balls, and his thighs and calves and toes, and to run her fingertips like feathers up and down the length of his torso and legs and feet, and to not ask him about whether or not he loved her, or how he loved her, or why he loved her, not now, in bed, in the early hours of a night, with his semen still sliding toward her stomach and his penis against her lips and his eyelids falling heavily over his eyes, and the Thai dinner long forgotten and the movie probably just letting out and the salsa from a party one building over just beginning to filter in through the half-open window.
Thirty minutes later, Professor Ketch removed a Granny Smith apple from the refrigerator. He ran a perfunctory splash of water over its green surface, then bit into it, still wet, its hard sour taste pursing his cheeks.
He studied the reflection of his flat stomach in the hall mirror. His colleagues his age – early 40s and older – had all softened and settled somewhat over their belts. Not Professor Ketch. He took another bite of the apple. These fights, he thought, and the sex after, and then the hour so late, the energy so low, leaving only time for an apple, they’re what kept him in shape. Not a terribly high price to pay.
He took his seat in the living room and turned the TV onto C-span. Julia joined him, curling her long thick-thighed legs under her on the futon. They watched the Senate confirmation hearings on Condoleezza Rice, and they listened to her lies and equivocations and utter naked falsehoods. And they watched the Senators accept her naked falsehoods without outrage or follow-up.
“Of them all, she disgusts me the most,” Julia said. “They must have run out of white white supremacists.”
“This country,” Professor Ketch said, shaking his head. “It’s going to hell.”
Julia said, “This country is hell and always was.”
There was more to her statement than met the ear, but at his age, Professor Ketch knew better than to elicit what exactly that might be. He was tired, and he’d heard it all before, if not from Julia then from others. He’d probably even said it himself, once, when he was their age.
What he liked about Julia was how well she intuited things. He stood up, went to the bedroom, came out in his underwear and carrying a pair of shorts. Immediately, she began regrouping her things and pulling them on. She might ask a question or two now, about this filmmaker, that author, and those questions might have some associative energy connecting them to her earlier questions, but that energy would be easy enough for him to ignore while at the same time specific enough for him to offer her either an assurance or a warning in code. Something she couldn’t quote and pin him down on some one dinner, two dinners later, but something nonetheless that they both understood.
Julia got fully dressed, he remained shirtless. He reached around her to the mantel and pulled a ten-dollar bill from his wallet.
“You’re not going to walk me down?” she said.
“You don’t mind,” he said, “do you? It’s still fairly early.”
She said OK. She understood that that was the punishment for having brought up the question that would ruin the dinner and postpone the movie and she thought that, sure, OK, she could live with that punishment.
At the door, he handed her the ten. “Make sure you show me the receipt,” he told her.
It was a running joke. A cab to her place cost six dollars on a bad night. On a good night, a night, that is, when she left before midnight, she wouldn’t even take a cab. Sometimes she walked, sometimes she took the bus or subway. And then, back in her room, she’d put the crumpled ten-spot on her desk and she’d look at it while she wrote entries in her journal or wrote e-mails to friends back home or wrote letters to Professor Ketch, long letters, letters that kept her awake sometimes till dawn, and she’d wonder about what that ten meant. Ten more than zero? Ten less than twenty? Ninety less than a hundred? Or none of those? Or all of those?
“Call me,” she told him.
Professor Ketch said he would, of course.
She kissed him, and smiled, and turned, and stopped at the top of the stairs.
“Sorry,” she said, her eyes glistening, “about earlier. Ruining the
dinner and the movie and all.”
Professor Ketch shrugged it off.
“I do know you love me.”
Professor Ketch said that that was good.
“Do you think the movie might come around again sometime soon?”
Professor Ketch turned his hands palms up. He covered his mouth,
trying to stifle a yawn.
“I know,” she said, “I should let you get to bed.”
Professor Ketch agreed. It had been a long, draining day.
“OK,” she said, “call me.”
Professor Ketch nodded.
“Oops,” Julia smiled. “I already asked you that, didn’t I?”
Professor Ketch told her don’t worry about it.
Julia said, “Bye,” and he watched as she popped down the steps.
He watched her descend, round the turn in the stairs, leave his sight.
He listened as she walked toward the door, listened to her open the
inner door, then the outer door. He didn’t close his door, and lock
it, and throw the bolt, until he heard the outer door draw closed.
He didn’t know that sometimes she opened the inner and outer doors, and
allowed them to close, but didn’t pass through them. He didn’t know
that sometimes she tiptoed back up the stairs to his door and listened.
While he what? While he watched more C-span? Or found a movie on
cable? Or sent e-mails? Or made phone calls? Who, she sometimes
wondered, would he be calling this late? Because she would take out
her cell phone and look at its dark unlit face remain implacably dark
and she knew it wasn’t her. Sometimes she resisted the temptation to
call him from her cell phone and find out.