The Professor

Staring at a blank page is the hardest thing to do for a writer.  At least that’s what I’ve repeatedly heard and have often found myself saying.  When you’re inspired to write something, the blank page disappears easily, and there’s no stopping you from going off on your journey, but what happens when you’re uninspired?  Well, that’s when you’re really forced to be creative.  It was 1984 and I was at the library checking out the new novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub, The Talisman, when I first noticed her.  She was sneaking her cigarette in between the stacks quietly reading Anais Nin crouched up like a cat just waiting to pounce on anyone daring enough to interrupt her. Seeing as how I was desperate for some kind of stimulation, I decided – perhaps unwisely – to approach her.   You must understand that when one has writer’s block there’s a desperation that is easily given into.  Experience alone becomes paramount because one never knows when or where a particular muse might present herself. After all, what’s a writer without his muse?  In all my years of writing, it had been my experience that finding a muse is rather easy.  Keeping a muse on the other hand, well . . . if anyone has figured that part out they’d be both awfully wealthy and infinitely prolific. Muses are well – forgive my use of the title of the book I was reading at the time – much like a talisman.  They provide a unique comfort to the artist but damned if any of us know precisely why.

So, there she was reading a volume of Nin’s diaries, and I daresay I approached her without even knowing what I would say.  I usually try to think things through, but that’s the other thing that happens during writer’s block.  The mind just doesn’t function in quite the same way even when attempting to do something other than writing.  She spotted me in her peripheral vision, and despite the fact that I could tell she was gearing up towards nastily shooting me down, I proceeded anyway.  At the time, I figured I had nothing to lose.  She sat there crouched like a tiger in a blue blouse and black faded jeans.  I easily noticed and began admiring her every curve trying my best to ignore the scowl that appeared to be shaping across her face.  At the time I was bold enough to find this hint of her fury invigorating. I imagine, she’d perhaps inspire a vignette at the very least – just enough to get my juices flowing so I could start working on my novel again.  I had already accepted an advance and my editor had been pestering me for a draft so I casually began to cease answering the phone.  Whenever a writer doesn’t answer the phone, it’s usually a sign that they are working so I thought that would at least buy me a little time.   For now, I thought reading and seeking out some inspiration would do me good. It’s impossible to just sit at a desk and write.  I used to tell my students that all the time.  They were usually more than happy to listen to that piece of advice as it gives them a bonafide reason to validate their usual procrastination.  I always said, “Whatever works” so why not take my own advice and see if this apparently lovely creature before me might conjure up something worthwhile to write about.

“You know you’re not supposed to smoke in here,” I said failing to think of something clever.

“You’re being rude.  Can’t you tell I’m reading?  Men – hmphh – You think that when you see a woman reading that they want you to interrupt them.”

“That’s not what I was thinking at all. I was merely . . . observing that you are in violation of proper decorum.  Uh – there is indeed a sign that you may have failed to observe at the entrance.”

She put the book down, stood up with her cigarette jostled between her delicate fingers and approached me.  When she saw that my eyes met hers, she quickly tilted her head and pointed towards the supervising librarian – at least that’s the title I’ve given him.

“Go ahead,” she said, “Tell him.”

“I shall not.  I don’t believe in tattling. I believe it to be . . . bad form.”

“Bad form? Decorum? Are you some kind of professor?”

“Why, yes, as a matter of fact I am.”

“Where do you teach? Kingsborough?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“I go there and I think I’ve seen you around.  What do you teach?”

“This semester, I’m about to begin teaching my first course on motifs of existential crisis in Contemporary Literature.  I also teach a writing workshop.  Perhaps, you’d like to enroll in one of those.”

“Perhaps – but will I learn anything from you?”

“Um – excuse me.  What do you mean?”

“I mean you don’t seem like the type of person I could learn anything from.  I mean all you people have your degrees because you’ve managed to either kiss the right ass or impress the right white men.  I’m guessing you just kissed the right ass judging by your rather uninspired approach.”

“I’ve never been so insulted by a student in my life . . . I’m not quite sure how to respond to such irreverent behavior.  I shall have you know that I am really quite the authority on  . . .”

“Save it for your students, Professor.  You want to go ahead and tell Michael that I’m smoking?  If you tell him in just the right way he might give me a cursory glance and maybe I might be forced to put this out, but if you’re clumsy I guarantee you he’ll just walk away and ignore you.”

“I told you, I don’t consider myself an informant.”

“Try it anyway.”

I should have known better.  I should have just walked away and admitted defeat.  This woman was utterly cunning and she knew it. I didn’t want to admit defeat. I didn’t want to admit to myself that perhaps she was right about me pinning my entire identity down after one brief encounter and deconstructing my entire sense of self-worth down to a tee.  Who was I really?  What did I really know about Literature with a capital “L?” What could she possibly learn from me that couldn’t be gleaned from a stuffy text?  The woman – this female student – this enigma of a lady if that’s what she was – had completely stripped me bare and revealed me in all my oafish nakedness to be nothing but a pretender, and I couldn’t just leave it alone. It wasn’t enough that I retained the respect of all my previous students.  It wasn’t enough that I was highly regarded by my peers as a professor of good renown. No, I craved the admiration this nymph had decided to deny me.

She puffed at her cigarette decadently, sneering at me behind her smile.  Her eyes focused on mine like a target, her lips pursed like a feline about to reveal her fangs.  Her claws gripped the book that she had recently picked up from the ground clutching at it as if it were her bible. I could sense her toes tightening beneath her shoes.

She shot me a look that demanded that I attempt to do what she had demanded of me. I moved towards this Michael as if I had been shoved though her hands never touched me. I stuttered and stammered as I approached him, “Um . . . that uh woman . . . yeah . . . her over there . . . she’s smoking a cigarette.  Could you kindly . . . kindly a -a –a ask her to stop?”

Michael – if that was ever indeed his name- just rolled his eyes at me in a perfunctory way and proceeded down the next aisle turning his back on me.

I glanced back at the woman, my eyes utterly deflated. She smiled puffing her cigarette, “Way to go, Professor.”

I said nothing and began to walk away but then she called out to me, “Don’t you want to know why?”

I turned around, and she laughed at the confusion she could see upon my face. I wanted to run away in that moment, but my ego wouldn’t let me.

“Ha! It’s because Michael . . . Well, he may look like a man but he’s really a naughty boy – the things I let him do to me  . . . Let’s just say I could use this entire library as my personal toilet and he wouldn’t say a damn thing to me.”

I let out a gasp of shock.  The expression on my face must have amused her.  Then, I heard the words I wish I had never heard. If I could take myself back to that fateful day and undo every aspect of it I would. Her lips slithered and hissed as she approached me with that sultry body of hers swaying as she walked.  Her tongue wet her lips before she spoke in just the right way as her neck craned up with her eyes sulking at me in a way that I’ve never witness before in a woman.

Then she said it,” Would you like a similar arrangement?”

I looked at her and said nothing.  She pulled into me and put my arms around her and said, “I bet you have a nice place.”

All I could say was, “I do.”

What happened next is all but a blur to me now after so many years only the entire experience felt like fire.  More specifically, I felt like I was on fire.  The pure carnal lust that woman managed to extract from me seems almost incomprehensible now.  I doubt that I was even really me at the time. It feels like all of it happened to someone else.  I suppose now I wish it had happened to someone else.

When the lovemaking concluded, she sat at my writing desk and began fiddling with the pages I had written for my novel.  I also had some short stories lying about. “Don’t touch that,” I said,” That’s my novel.  It’s not finished.  Feel free to read those.”

“Can I take these with me?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not.”

She dressed herself rather quickly and gave some excuse about needing to get back home and rest for class the next day. I suppose I needed rest myself so I let her go reminding myself to get her name at the very least.

“I’m Melanie Hutsinger,” she said, “And I’ll see you in class tomorrow.  That writing workshop you mentioned?  Well, I’m already enrolled.  Goodnight, Professor Mullen”

“Call me Stan”

“Goodnight, Stan.”

I tried sleeping but my mind was on overdrive with the inspiration to write compelling me to spend the entire night clamoring away at the keys on my typewriter. I completed two short stories inspired by her along with four chapters of the novel I had been working on. The sound of vigorous typing was all that could be heard in my apartment throughout the night until the sun rose at dawn and I realized I had only just minutes to prepare before making my way to class. I had indeed found my new muse.

I gave my typical first day lecture for my writing workshop, and assigned my students to write their first short story for the class in time for next week helplessly glancing at Ms. Melanie Hutsinger the whole time.  I felt paranoid thinking that perhaps the other students might notice the pull going on between the two of us.  There had been other female students in the past, but this had been the first time that I felt such a powerful pull.  During the class, I could tell she did her best to disguise those cunning eyes of hers to make me feel at ease, but there was nothing that could have distracted my attention away from her.  Everything down from the way she dressed to every curl of her hair felt as if it all had spoken to me.  I had spent the entire evening writing about this woman in an inspired frenzy and now here she was in front of me looking through me and dissecting my every word.  It was the first time a woman had intimidated me.

When the lecture was over, she casually walked up to me and handed me back the stories she had borrowed from the previous night.

“Thank you, Ms. Hutsinger,” I said trying my best to disguise my fascination with her. “I appreciate you returning this to me. I would ask you what you thought, but I actually must prepare for my next lesson. Perhaps we can get together this evening?

“Professor, we can indeed get together this evening, but you misunderstand me.”

“How so?”

“I’m not returning these stories to you. . . . I’m handing them in for my first assignment.”

“You must be joking.”

“I assure you I’m not joking. I actually improved upon them greatly overnight.  You’ll see my notes, edits, and corrections in red.”

“Excuse me? But that’s . . . plagiarism”

“I told you when we first met that there’s nothing I could possibly learn from you.  You, however, stand to learn plenty from me.”

“I’m not quite sure how to respond to this.”

“It’s simple.  Here’s the arrangement spelled out for you.  We can continue to see each other socially.  You give me your work, I’ll improve it for you, and then you give me an A for the course.  Then at the conclusion of the semester, we are done.  Is that clear enough for you?”

I stood there dumbfounded.  I just hadn’t had a clue what to say nor how to respond.

She spoke up, “I’ll be at your place around 8pm tonight . . . oh and get some rest because you’ll surely need it.”

The rest of the day went by in a haze.  Surely I must have taught, spoken with other students and colleagues all the while distracted by the very notion of what this woman was proposing. When I got home, I took out the papers she had handed back to me and looked them over expecting to be unimpressed and perhaps slightly amused by the audacity of this young girl only I wasn’t.  To my amazement, she had absolutely improved upon every story she had been given almost tenfold.  I had spent months crafting these stories writing them and rewriting them pouring over each and every word attempting to make them something worthy of publication and in one night this . . . this girl had taken my words and my ideas and had given them the absolute best presentation possibly imaginable.  Her exquisite notes at the end of each story called me out on some of the aspects of my stories which were derivative.  She picked up on my admiration of Brian Kenwhistle and completely called me out on my attempt to emulate his style.  Many of my own colleagues wouldn’t have been a match for this girl, yet here was this absolute genius who had connived her way into my creative life. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was scared yet excited at the same time.

8pm came. The doorbell rang, and it was her. The confident swagger in which she walked in could hardly be described.  She declined to offer any kind of explanation to my queries, and simply demanded to know whether or not I agreed to the arrangement. Once I said yes, she disrobed and let me have my way with her again.

When she was ready to leave, I let her take my unfinished novel.  I had completely surrendered to her, just as she had wanted.  There was little point in resisting.  Saying no wouldn’t have proven anything.  After every one of my sessions, she would leave with some of my writing and I would be inspired to write even more, and it all continued to happen that way in quite a cyclical fashion.  I hardly slept for those months as I was constantly writing whenever I wasn’t with her.

During my time with her the closest she had come to explaining the mystery was in comparing me to Michael from the library.

“Michael could have resisted me at any time only he didn’t,” she said one time looking at me across the bed while she began getting dressed.

“Why is that?”

“Well, you are both alike. You think you’re in control of a thing, and you don’t realize how easily you’d give up that control for the right price.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Professor, we live in a patriarchal system where men control nearly everything.  Now most women – particularly feminists – see that as a disadvantage.  I don’t.”

“And why don’t you consider it a disadvantage, Ms. Hutsinger?”

“I don’t consider it a disadvantage because as long as men are in control that control can easily be swindled out of their hands just as I’ve done with Michael . . . just as I’ve done with you.”

“One might argue though that the price you pay is a steep one and that not every woman can do what you’ve done to seize the control they want.”

“You see that’s where you’re wrong. Bedding a man to get something you want isn’t a steep price at all for me.  It’s actually a pittance.  Feminists would have you believe that every time a woman like me uses a man like you that it’s a violation when really if the enjoyment is mutual I see it as rather a bargain.  You should ponder that as you work on your next project no doubt inspired by our sordid affair. When it comes to art I find that the lines between the artist and the muse very often get blurred.  If I inspired your writing am I not the one responsible for the art you produce?  Is not the muse the art and the art the muse?   Are they not one and the same?”

I had never quite looked at it that way.  She had indeed inspired me in ways I hadn’t fathomed before.

When the semester concluded, I lived up to my end of the bargain and gave her an A.  I never heard from her again.  The very night I had assigned her grade, I sat down at my typewriter preparing to write – hoping that the memory of her would continue to inspire me.  It did not.  I sat hours upon hours looking at a blank page.  My editor had wanted a new draft of my novel, and the deadline was fast approaching only I couldn’t write a thing.  Whatever hold she had over me that had empowered my writing had vanished, and though the thoughts raced inside my head, I could no longer summon the words to express them.  I became empty, hollow, a fragmented sentence without a verb. Just as easily and quickly as she inspired me, her absence had taken away any gift that I may have once claimed to have had.

I never completed that novel.  I stopped writing, gave up teaching, and became a banker. It’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve written anything.  On the internet a few hours ago I came across a story. A woman had been violently killed by her lesbian lover.  The female killer had been a novelist, and her books had been immensely successful.  She had multiple film deals and screenplays to her credit. Her success had come ever since she had gotten involved with a woman who had become her muse. The novelists was none other than Stacy Fontaine and her muse and victim had been none other than Melanie Hutsinger.  According to the article, Ms. Fontaine violently stabbed Ms. Hutsinger when Ms. Hutsinger had attempted to break off the relationship.  The authorities had figured it to be an open and shut case. I think it was probably much more complicated although I’ll never know for sure.

Perhaps, nature played a cruel trick on all of us and Melanie simply chose the wrong artist to serve as a muse.  Maybe she had thought that whatever mystical power she had would be better served by inspiring a female artist instead of a male one although perhaps that’s an unfair conclusion to draw without knowing the full story in intimate detail.  Killer and victim – artist and muse – perhaps the lines that define them will never be all that clear. All I know is that I came home earlier, and now by God, I could write again.  My words have filled these pages, and my tears are not of sorrow but of joy. Judge me however you will.

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2 Comments

  1. OH wow there are ups, there are downs, and then it continues. When she handed the notes back to you it was like a slap in the face, oh she said but they are now improved upon with editing… That’s some sort of narcissism! And the muse was gone at the end too, as though you had just been through one heck of a loop! Grading this one with an “A.”

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