Matrimonial Agency

Sunset on the Plains, by Albert Bierstadt, circa 1887

She fumbled for the bedside lamp as her husband asked who was it now, for the love of Pete, and what made college students think they could wake up their professors in the middle of the night. She kissed his forehead and told him it was probably one of those wrong numbers again. People should really know better than to drink and dial, she said, knowing that her little joke, like previous attempts at cheerful intimacy, would most likely fall, to use a biblical expression, on uncircumcised ears. He rubbed his nose and mumbled something into his pillow, rolled over and resumed snoring, first softly, like a baby, then with rapidly increasing vigor. She cupped the phone in both hands and whispered a hesitated hello into the receiver.

It was not a wrong number. A student from her Bible as Literature class, a talented young man, was wondering if he could use a certain outside source—a recent study on the subjunctive mood—in his midterm paper on the Book of Esther. He knew it was early in the morning, probably too early, for which he apologized, but the deadline was fast approaching, and he was, after more than a week of extensive research, on the verge of a minor academic breakthrough.

She sat up. Her feet were cold, her mouth dry. A gust of wind erupted outside, rattling the house. She asked if she could call him back in ten minutes, hung up, climbed out of bed, brushed her teeth and went downstairs, to the kitchen. Her husband, whose congested breathing she now managed to muffle with the comforting sound of the dripping coffee, would almost certainly chastise her again. How many times, he would demand, have I asked you not to give our home number to strangers? Eager to change the subject, she would insist that her students were counting on her. She was their alpha and omega, so to speak. Her knowledge had to be at their disposal.

Her husband would probably want to know if her job description included waking up in the middle of the night to attend to insomniac young scholars. And she would remind him that he, too, was required to be available after hours.

Only in case of an emergency, he would retort.

To which she would shrug, weary of the futility of another argument.

You’re young, he would add, and not unattractive. Sometimes students get the wrong ideas, if you know what I mean.

She knew what he meant. She poured herself a cup of coffee, wiped the kitchen counter with a paper towel, lit a cigarette, and dialed the number she knew by heart. The busy signal did not surprise her. Always animated, often hyperactive, her student was not the type who waited by the phone.

The wind grew louder, then suddenly died down. Did something thump upstairs? She listened closely for a few seconds before concluding that it was just her imagination. Why was her husband so suspicious? She did manage to attract, often without being aware of it, diligent young scholars, infatuated followers, accidental fans. Did her husband think that she might respond to the advances of an easily impressionable protégé? Did he think that she was going to do something imprudent? It had taken her years to secure a stable job, build a small career, and she was not going to jeopardize it now. Not that she was particularly excited about the location. The endless fields, the oversized sky, the pollen, the pesticide, the flatness of the land, the politeness of the people, the snow, the mosquitoes, the dragonflies, the noisy freight trains, the slow drivers, the potato plants, the sugar beet factories, the smoke, the smell, the trading posts, the missile silos, the grain elevators, the badly maintained roads, the permanently inebriated neighbors, the sincere desolation of the Great Plains, the splendid isolation of the empty prairie, the unwavering spirit of the American wasteland, the oozing fecundity of the agricultural outdoors, the glorious oil fields, the cutting cold, the wind chill factor, the hunters, the guns, the crickets, the flickertails, the local fascination with ice hockey, crystal meth, fake tanning, Jesus Christ.

She had been too tired, overwhelmed by the anxiety of relocation, to come up with a good excuse that would exempt her from joining the four-day tour offered to new faculty upon their arrival at the University. She sat on the bus, the only linguist, surrounded by men and women who taught accounting and anesthesiology, electrical engineering and forensic science, air traffic control and global economic development. While the guide, a painfully slow speaker who aspirated his bilabials, insisted on the magnificent history and sheer beauty of the state, her mind, to use an inevitable trope, was wandering. Had she made the right decision?

She did not like her new license plate. It was more of a command than an invitation. An order, a threat. The whole thing was obviously elliptical, but holy was not the only omitted element. discover the spirit. Or else.

She did not like grocery store clerks who wrinkled their noses in disgust whenever she bought apricots, avocados, cilantro, figs, nectarines, persimmons, pomegranates, or turnips. She did not like the fact that anything slightly more elegant than faded jeans and an oversized sweatshirt was considered pretentious. And not that it affected her personally, but she did find it disturbing that in North Dakota, at least officially, cohabitation between unmarried people was still punishable by up to one year in prison.

And why would the sandwich shop south of the train tracks refuse to deliver to the northern neighborhoods when it took less than five minutes to drive between any two points in this town?

She did not like her male colleagues, misunderstood mavericks who viewed intellectual aptitude as a blemish on their virility, an inherent weakness for which they compensated with a simulated desire to quit the academic world, grow soy beans and beards, raise quarter horses and large families. Denigration of scholarship was not uncommon in a place where anyone who took classes beyond high school was considered overly educated.

It was only when confronted with an uncompromising display of passion that she realized how devoid of excitement her life had become. She had been invited to participate in a radio program in one of the Twin Cities, she could not remember which, something about dead languages and the modern reader. The interviewer, a popular airwave personality by the name of Arabella Gold, was running late, and the station was in turmoil. According to the protocol, if Miss Gold failed to show up fifteen minutes before she was to go on air, the station manager had to summon an understudy. But fifteen minutes was a lot of time, and the manager decided to wait a little longer. Millions of listeners were waiting to hear Miss Gold. She was bound to show up.

Five minutes went by. Where was Miss Gold? On her way. She would show up. She was stuck in traffic. She was in the bathroom. She was getting a cup of coffee. She would show up any second now. There was no need to call an understudy. She would do the show.

Another five minutes. The manager sent for the understudy, a mustached man who arrived promptly, seated himself in the studio, and began leafing through some notes, ready to take over. Two minutes before show time, tall and breathless, Arabella Gold walked in. The manager sighed in relief and told her replacement that he would not be needed after all.

Wait, Arabella Gold said, her hands on her hips, her mouth quivering. You gave up on me?

The manager cleared his throat. We thought you were not coming, he said. But now that you are here, we can let our emergency man go.

Arabella Gold shook her head. Keep him, she said. Her face was stern, her blouse tight, her eyes on fire. I can see, she said, that you can do without me.

She turned around and stormed out of the station. The manager was paralyzed, as was the rest of the crew. Except for the mustached man, who shrugged, took his place behind the microphone, greeted the faithful listeners, apologized for the absence of the regular host, and proceeded to do the show in her stead.

She lusted after Arabella Gold, secretly, shamefully. She was terrified, excited, aroused. She had never seen anyone so zealous, so furious, so illogically capricious. She should have tried to talk to her. She should have chased her, stopped her, attempted some kind of contact.

Three months later, in her Saint Louis Park apartment, late at night, after another day at the station, Arabella Gold committed suicide. Her father, according to the newspapers, had taken his own life some five years earlier.


*     *     *


Ten things she liked about her student:

1.     The way his tongue peeped out between his teeth when he took notes in class.

2.     The fire in his soul, the twinkle in his eye, the softness of his voice, etc.

3.     Unlike most of his classmates, he was not, for the most part, the silent type.

4.     Unlike most of his classmates, he did not drive a truck.

5.     Unlike her husband, he was rarely petulant.

6.     Unlike her husband, he smiled. Yes, his whiplash smile, his restless spirit, his hungry heart, etc.

7.     In spite of his Midwestern upbringing, he did not consider it rude to express a wish, desire, or opinion.

8.     In spite of his sensitivity, he was not, to the best of her knowledge, a vegetarian.

9.     His all-consuming curiosity, which rarely remained within the domain of the academic.

10.  Ultimately, he could handle rejection.


*     *     *


She lit another cigarette, tried his number again. Still busy. She poured herself another cup of coffee, carried it to the living room, sat on the couch, turned on the television. She has always been attracted, in spite of her cautious, calculated, cowardly nature, to danger. Where did life take place? Surely not at school, in the warm stability of her natural equanimity. Years ago, an urban beauty with a freshly awarded undergraduate degree, she had decided to conquer, regardless of cost or consequence, her fear of the illegal, the illogical, the unconventional. She drank, hoping, as many drinkers do, that inebriation would bring courage, adventure, illumination. She experimented, for lack of a better phrase, with drugs. She detested parties but forced herself to attend them, waiting for something extraordinary to happen, someone special to appear, some thrilling escapade to unfold with splendor and drama.

Nothing ever happened. She was hired as a proofreader at a mail-ordering firm that specialized in religious literature from around the world. The hours were long, the work soporific, the pay small, but there was always the chance of moving up. Maybe she could be a translator. Or an editor. She was diligent and dependable, but the prospects of promotion seemed despondently slim, and she finally quit. She wanted to go back to school but could not, her scholastic proclivities notwithstanding, imagine herself immersed in graduate work. Not yet.

She had applied for a temporary clerical position at a successful law firm whose clientele consisted primarily of actors and musicians. The interview went well, the boss was impressed, she got the job. Needless to say, she was soon disappointed to realize that her secretarial responsibilities did not provide her with plenty of opportunities to meet famous entertainers. She did date, briefly, a professional tattoo artist, a young autodidact who failed to understand why she would not, despite his credentials, experience, and impeccable record, let him desecrate her flesh. When she confessed that she was afraid of the irreversibility of the act, not to mention the pain, he concluded that she was incapable of commitment, gave her, in case she ever changed her mind, a generous gift certificate to his own shop, and left her.

She dated her boss but was somewhat crestfallen, though not entirely surprised, when he assured her, in the pale moonlight of her rent-controlled apartment, moments after the conclusion of a prolonged, breathless, partially satisfying sexual session, that although he was not seeing her exclusively, she definitely ranked high, very high, when measured against his other girlfriends, both past and present.

Gradually, with waning resistance, she learned to accept the fact that she might, for the rest of her life, implode with desire, yearn and burn, ache and break, etc.

Years went by. She went back to school. She went to another party. And then she saw him. He was aloof, indifferent, critical, seated in an antique wicker chair, surveying the people in attendance with eyes that seemed to crave a different kind of human contact, possibly more intimate, probably wilder than the present social gathering could warrant. He disentangled his long frame from the chair and introduced himself, shaking her hand with a disquieting combination of tenderness and determination, evidently aware of what is often referred to in certain novels as the smoldering fire inside the softness of her flesh. Her body responded to his nearness, spine tingling, knees melting. Her blood boiled with a stinging anticipation that ignited her senses and numbed her discretion. Detecting her excitement, he gave her a look that would have made an Egyptian mummy blush, ran a muscular hand through his closely cropped hair, and asked if she would like, considering the obvious correlation between their equally immodest minds, to spend the rest of the evening somewhere else, preferably his place.

She liked his resolve, his blatancy, his sense of purpose, his way with words. In the sweet humidity of his apartment, echoing his impetus, she removed her clothes and pressed her nakedness against his body. His hands, big and steadfast, caressed her yielding thighs, the inviting fullness of her breasts, etc.

The following morning, still in bed, he asked her if she wanted to go to Africa with him. Of course, she said, mistaking his work schedule for spontaneity. They got married, packed, flew to Madrid, took the train to Malaga, crossed the Mediterranean, and landed in Morocco, where she discovered that he was not, contrary to what he had told her, helping the poor. At first she thought he was a missionary, a misconception which magnified her newfound exhilaration. Making love to a professional defender of the faith had always been her fantasy, hackneyed yet pardonable. She soon realized, however, that his motives were neither religious nor philanthropic. He was a government employee, performing an unspecified cloak-and-dagger role in the service of some surreptitious higher power, one of those nebulous jobs that made our lives safer. An undercover agent? An intelligence officer? A paid assassin? She couldn’t tell. And his lips, save for those long, earthshaking kisses that marked the initial stages of their relationship, remained, to invoke another worn expression, sealed.

He used to be insatiably alive, bursting with frenzy, mystery, prelapsarian ecstasy. Then they moved back to America, and all the passion was gone. She remembered an old Hollywood drama in which a slick, worldly, very young Barbara Stanwyck, on the run from an abusive New York boyfriend, assumes a false identity and ships herself off to the fictional town of Elks Crossing, North Dakota, pretending to be the mail-order bride of a silent, rough-hewn, hardworking wheat farmer. She wanted to watch it again, with her husband, but he was not enthusiastic. He wanted to know if it had a schmaltzy ending.

They learn to love each other, she said.

My point exactly, he said.


*     *     *


In retrospect, she should have never been so nice to that student of hers, so attentive, so encouraging. Yes, he was gorgeous, especially in his brown leather boots, an eccentric pencil tucked behind what is often referred to in finely tuned literary descriptions as a perfectly sculpted ear. He was a landlocked kid who dreamed, pardon the banality, of living by the ocean, an athletic boy who would sneak into boxcars to read in solitude, then jump off when the train started moving. Exhausted by the universal loneliness of new faculty, yet certainly not desperate enough to throw herself into the throes of unethical heartache, she resolved, in spite of the obvious attraction, to stay reserved. He asked, implored, seduced, ignored, laughed, cried, invited, suggested, hoped, cursed, feigned indifference, gave presents, wrote letters, left messages. But she insisted on friendship, warm and deep and honest and safe. He said, with the respectful smirk of a defeated contestant, that she was tough as nails.


*     *     *


It was almost six o’clock. The distant hum of snowplows was growing steadily closer. She got up, went to the kitchen, emptied her ashtray, washed her cup and some leftover dishes from the night before, and started breakfast: fresh coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, cottage cheese. No bacon. She ate it at diners and restaurants but never cooked it at home. Her father had never been observant, and her mother was not even Jewish, but she had somehow been conditioned to refrain from certain dietary infringements, at least in her own kitchen.

Her husband, on the other hand, was never fussy about his food. Years earlier, on her birthday, he managed to surprise her in a way that still made her skin tingle. In true secretive fashion, having made reservations for dinner, he informed her of his intention to take her out on a special date, a little gastronomical adventure, neglecting to mention that the restaurant, a fancy bistro that had been favorably reviewed in several trendy magazines, was in Paris. He did say it was a little out of the way, and that he hoped she was not starving, but it was not until they arrived at the airport that she realized what he had in mind. She burst into tears and hugged him for a full five minutes, unable to let go.

Their flight was delayed, the restaurant had closed by the time they landed in France, but it was still perfect, absolutely perfect. They had cheap onion soup and freshly baked bread at the meat market, then checked into a hotel. When she yawned, exhausted yet exhilarated, and asked what time it was, he locked the door, undressed her with the utmost tenderness, took off his own clothes, and said, quoting one of her favorite movies, that it was the time one half of Paris was making love to the other half.


*     *     *


She tried her student again. No answer. She would see him in class.

She set the table, went upstairs, brushed her teeth again, and crawled back into bed, putting her arms around her husband, a brief moment of crepuscular grace before the alarm went off. He opened his eyes and told her that her hair smelled smoky.

Sorry, she said. Breakfast is ready.

He put his hand on her hip and said he didn’t suppose she would want to tell him what her young admirer had called about.

The usual, she said. A paper, a deadline, some burning questions.

What about?

A biblical narrative, she said.

Anything I may have read?

She smiled, another self-conscious attempt at lighthearted domesticity. Set in the royal court of Persia, it was the story of a disobedient female, a woman with a mind of her own, an independently thinking wife who refused to submit to a fickle king.

He sat up, ran his fingers through his hair, and asked her if she didn’t think it was counterproductive, especially for the wife of a king, to defy authority.

Well, she said, he did replace her with a younger queen.

He stretched his arms and cracked his knuckles, indicating that it was time to start the day, then patted her posterior and got out of bed.

My point exactly, he said.


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