(Credit: Salon/Ilana LIdagoster)
My professor said our close relationship wasn’t “mentoring.” So what were we doing?
Not long ago, I was a college freshman sitting on the cold tile floor of the English building, pretending to read “Pride and Prejudice,” and not long ago, Professor Fuller walked across those same cold tiles, into an empty classroom and into my life. It was the first day of our writing workshop, a required course for all students. He introduced himself briefly: Mid-thirties. MFA from a prestigious school. Book published the previous spring. He used “whom” when he spoke and told us to buy a pocket dictionary because our cell phones would disturb “what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream.” Going over the syllabus, he told us class was canceled for a week that semester for his book tour. His eyes were glazed with subtle contentment when he told us — he was a writer, a published writer.
He was the first writer I ever met. I graduated from high school with plaques and cords and what I thought was a good idea of what the next four years would look like. I declared a major in English and enrolled in the most collegiate sounding courses my university offered — philosophy, political science, Latin. I knew I wanted to write, but I also knew that writing is supposed to be a side effect of living, and I wasn’t doing much living. At 18, I had avoided alcohol, drugs and anything else that might be a risk or might lead to one. The most intimate I’d ever been with someone was when my prom date put his hands on my hips when we posed for pictures, and that alone had been enough to make my palms damp. After Fuller’s class that first day, I was more optimistic than I’d ever been about my writing. He was a real writer, and he could show me how to be a real writer, too.
I read and reread the stories he assigned. I let it slip that I was taking Latin, because I knew that he had minored in it. I asked for his help with declensions that I could recite perfectly. I bought a pocket dictionary and even started using it.
A few weeks into the semester, the English department put out a cart of free books in the hallway near Fuller’s office — the professors’ reject pile, mostly obscure critical theory dissertations from the ’60s and ’70s written by authors with heavily voweled last names. I began to walk away with one of the dusty slabs when he came out of his office.
“Read this,” he said, handing me a stiff paperback. “It’s better than anything on that cart.”
The cover was a black-and-white photograph of a woman. Sunglasses covered most of her face, blocking out any distinguishable quality she had. It was easy to see myself. White woman? Check. Throw on a pair of sunglasses and I was her, I thought. Maybe he had thought the same thing, I told myself. Maybe he had thought it the moment I walked into his class on the first day and had been waiting for the right time to give me the book.
It was “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion. I had never heard of her or read a collection of essays before, and I had no idea what the title meant, so I headed to the library to find out. As I hurried across campus, the October air was alive and the dead leaves moved in broken circles at my feet.
A rough beast’s hour had come round at last.
That night, I got an email:
I’d start with the last essay. –JF
I lingered on those last two letters. They were more personal than his first name. They were something only someone who knew him could decipher. They contained a relationship, a past shared between sender and receiver. I grabbed the book and turned to the last essay:
It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.
I finished the collection the next day, and after our next class he gave me Didion’s “The White Album.” When I finished that, he gave me a short story by Chekhov. Next came Cheever, Carver, Calvino. Graham Greene. Denis Johnson. Karl Ove Knausgaard. I fell more in awe with each new title. I felt lucky that I found someone who had already sifted through so many pages, dog-eared the ones worth reading and was willing to share his findings with me. We’d discuss the stories during his office hours until there was a line of other students waiting their turn. After a few weeks, he asked if I could start coming one hour before our class instead of during his scheduled office hours so we wouldn’t be interrupted. Meanwhile, the emails steadily became more frequent and longer.
It was the beginning of something — I just couldn’t tell what it was. Everything prior to meeting Fuller felt trivial, boring, childish. I didn’t tell anyone about our arrangement. He existed only in emails and in my mind, the only two places where I could give him room to grow.