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My Gift to Cindy
by Mike Markel
Would you think me insufferable if I begin by stating I am extraordinarily good at what I do? Spoken by a young person, such a claim might smack of vanity, and you would be excused for concluding that the speaker is probably mistaken. After all, one of the charms of young people is that their effortless enthusiasm and coltish energy lead them to believe the tedious bromide that diligence inevitably leads to success. How demoralizing it would be for them to learn, while they were still young, that the axiom can be a chimera.
Spoken by someone of my age (fifty-six) a claim of significant accomplishment deserves more careful, sober consideration. In my case, the claim is supported by some three decades of evidence. My numerous scholarly articles and books speak, as it were, volumes. My students on their endless evaluation forms report that I am a superb lecturer; my colleagues and supervisors (except those whose views are obviously tainted with envy) agree. There is, I can say with confidence, no valid evidence to refute my claim.
Perhaps the most compelling reason my claim is worthy of your consideration is that I have long since abandoned the gossamer self-delusions of youth. I do not believe, for instance, that I am or could ever become an expert marksman or astronaut or, alas, lieder singer. No, I am aware of, and, what is more important, comfortable with or at least reconciled to, my many limitations. Therefore, when I state I am a superb professor of Renaissance literature, you would do well not to scoff.
Please note that I do not suggest my accomplishments have come easily or without cost. To the contrary, my devotion to my calling is single-minded and intense. I have no wife, no children, no encumbrances of any sort. I have never provided shelter and sustenance for a foster child; never saved a kitten from an early, undeserved needle at the shelter; never even spent a dreary Thanksgiving afternoon carving turkey for the impoverished at the mission. All I do is read and write and minister to the needs of my students. In short, I have devoted all my considerable energy and time toward one goal: becoming an extraordinary professor. And in that I have succeeded.
Given this background, I think you are ready to read about the incident I wish to relate now. It concerns a student named Cindy, who occupied my attention for a time but who is no longer part of my life.
If you are like most readers, you wish to know what a character looks like. I will oblige. Cindy was a beautiful young woman. Her long hair was the color of sunshine. Outside, or even in the harsh fluorescence of my lecture hall, the delicate waves of her tresses seemed to entangle the filtering light, creating an ethereal halo. Even the slightest movement she made required that she brush the locks out of her eyes or arrange them behind her delicate ears. Sometimes she would spread her fingers like a fan and run them through her mane from front to back. Within a second it had returned to its rustic informality, and I would see her blow the golden locks out of her face so that she could once again view the world. She was, of course, of the age that considered casual beauty sufficient justification for even the most persistent bother.
Of her other features I will say little. The eyes were brown, the rich brown of Belgian chocolate, with tiny gold flecks that made the sunlight shimmer. The skin was soft and unblemished, with just the traces of freckles on the cheeks, which provided a pleasingly childish counterpoint to the more mature aspects of her appearance. Her smile, which appeared frequently, was unforced and generous. When she laughed, her head rocked backward, the joy she was experiencing so complete, so unalloyed that it animated her whole body. She wore (and needed) no makeup.
Her carriage was erect, her figure curvaceous and well proportioned. The breasts were of a fullness rarely seen among women with slim waists and svelte ankles. I suspect that her figure had blossomed only just recently, for like many young women of an opulent aspect she seemed surprised and somewhat ill at ease with the persistent unsought attention of the local young men. Accordingly, she favored modest outfits, with shapeless sweatshirts and loose-fitting jeans. Still, when she walked, she would clutch her elbows before her to reduce the jaunty sway and bounce of her breasts. Despite her efforts to conceal her most obvious attributes, she could not traverse fifty yards on campus without eliciting longing looks, hormonal grunts, or even more unsophisticated responses from boys her age.
Although I will not pretend I did not notice her striking appearance, I maintain that, for someone of my age and position, her allure was based on attributes more substantial. She appeared genuinely curious about literature and, therefore, about life. Like almost all my students, she came to my Shakespeare course ill prepared. Naturally, she had read the stories of the star-crossed lovers and the Roman emperor who was to be buried, not praised. She might have been forced to recite Henry V's speech to his troops, or even to perform, to her considerable embarrassment, the scene requiring that she kiss a fellow student wearing the head of a jackass. Nonetheless, she could not be said to have read Shakespeare.
My course was a revelation to her. One of my great joys, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at nine, was watching her expression as I spoke. I read the master’s words to her, deconstructed the particularly convoluted passages, elucidated the social and cultural forces of Elizabethan England. Her eyes grew wide with wonder as she pictured the fantastic characters in The Tempest. She appeared on the verge of tears as Horatio bade farewell to Hamlet. She recoiled in abject horror at the deaths of the young princes in the Tower. She was, in short, the perfect audience for Shakespeare.
I believe I deserved a substantial portion of the credit for this wonderful experience. My speaking voice is a rich, sonorous baritone (I had done some acting in my youth) and my knowledge of the plays, their provenance, and the major criticism comprehensive. She asked questions frequently, and I believe that in my answers I did not disappoint. She could have had no better guide to Shakespeare, and for this experience I was in her debt just as surely as she was in mine.
Over the weeks, my gratitude grew and developed into something more complex and layered. I ask that you listen sympathetically to my recounting of what occurred. I was not like her many male admirers. When I looked at her, I did not see her physical presence, her beautiful face, her luxurious womanly form. I did not long to conquer her, to possess her. I did not picture her lying languidly on my bed, covered demurely by a sheet after making love with an experienced, mature gentleman whom she trusted to offer a gentle but thorough initiation into the mysteries of the flesh.
No, not at all. I saw a tender young mind, a beautiful, open spirit on the threshold of maturity, longing to experience the beauty, the sadness, the rapture of life. I saw a spirit with the sensitivity to recognize in me the intelligence, the experience, and, yes, I will say it, the wisdom to guide her and accompany her on her journey.
Our friendship developed apace. Lingering chats at the podium after my lectures became leisurely discussions in my office about Shakespeare, about other literature, about life itself. Sometimes we met in the presence of other students (I am the advisor of the undergraduate student honorary society, among my other service contributions), but more often we met alone. Cindy understood that we shared a special relationship. She had many questions, and I had many answers. Why would either of us desire the distraction of others?
Our relationship, although chaste, deepened. She began to share more intimate details of her young life. Naturally, I had heard such melodramas before from other students over the years, about a friend who succumbed in combat overseas, about a favorite canine obliterated by a car, about all the miniature triumphs and tragedies of high-school life. But if the stories were unexceptional, she told them with the same wonder, the same engagement and high spirits that she brought to the study of literature. As I got to know her, I was drawn closer and closer to the spinning vortex of her vitality. I was smitten, and I believed that I, too, held an equally strong attraction for her.
I was, therefore, excited when one Friday she extended an invitation to call on her at her apartment the next evening. When I attempted to discover her plans, she smiled mysteriously and told me I would find out tomorrow at eight. In a lovely, feminine hand, she wrote her address in purple ink on a scrap of paper. To be candid, the thought that she wished to take our relationship to the next level filled me not only with excitement but also some anxiety. Our friendship, founded as it was on her curiosity and my wisdom, was perfect as it was. It lacked as yet the transcendent splendor of a true melding of the flesh and the spirit, of course, but was I wise to risk such a union? I was unable to resist the thirst for an answer.
I arrived at the appointed hour. Turning off the ignition, I re-checked the address. I found myself not in what is commonly referred to as the student slums, but rather in a decent if unsophisticated middle-class neighborhood of modest three-bedroom homes. Perhaps she and several other females were renting the house, but my powers of observation suggested that this was not a rental. The grounds were well maintained, the edges of the grass clipped rigorously where they met the driveway. The shrubs were recently trimmed, the paint fresh and unblemished.
As I reached to press the doorbell, the door opened and Cindy appeared. She was, as usual, ravishing. I admit to some surprise, and a little disappointment, that she was wearing the same sort of modest blouse and jeans that she favored during the day. However, as I try not to overanalyze my environment, I entered the house in a receptive mood.
She led me to the simple living room (couch and matching chairs, end tables, fireplace, and a dozen framed photographs and inexpensive prints on the walls.) Sitting on the couch, with a cup of tea on a coaster on the end table, was a woman of—this is only a guess—forty. She looked strikingly like Cindy: the same coloring, the same eyes and hair, and (I could discern this even though she was seated) the same voluptuous figure. Of course, the hair lacked the youthful sheen of Cindy's, and lines were visible around her eyes. In addition, I could see a slight lack of tone in the flesh where the jaw met the upper neck. In sum, however, my conclusion was that this was a remarkably attractive woman of a certain age.
Cindy sat on one of the matching chairs as the woman said to me, "Good evening, professor, we’re so glad you could make it."
"Good evening, madam," I said, with a slight bow, somewhat nonplussed at the situation.
As the woman swept her hand in a gesture inviting me to sit on the other side chair, I glanced at Cindy, my look gently imploring her to introduce me to this woman.
Cindy said, "Robert, this is my mother, Mary Jenkins."
I pride myself on an ability to navigate varied social situations, but I will admit that this particular one had caught me by surprise, and I required a few seconds to compose a simple reply. "Ms. Jenkins, what a pleasure to meet you." She smiled, and I saw immediately the tiniest hint of an overbite, a charming imperfection that she shared with Cindy. In that instant, I knew that they were, indeed, mother and daughter.
I was expecting one of the two women to begin speaking. Surely, the situation called for some sort of explanation. However, an excruciating few seconds passed with no sound from either woman. Indeed, both women gazed at me, each wearing the same faint smile, as if I should be the one to speak. And so I did. "Ms. Jenkins, I had no idea that you lived here in town, and that your daughter resides here with you. What a pleasant arrangement for you both."
"Yes, we think it works well, don't we, Cindy?"
Cindy said, "Yes, we do."
Her words hung in the air, and I felt the awkwardness descend on me again, like a fog. Why were they doing this? No one would mistake Cindy for a sophisticated conversationalist, but she or certainly her mother might be expected to offer something.
"You don't know who I am, or why Cindy invited you here, do you, professor?"
I am accustomed to thinking on my feet, practiced at drawing people out conversationally, and therefore I was glad that she apparently had settled on a topic and was willing to speak. Rather than parse her two questions and offer a precise, if somewhat complex and embarrassing response, I simply replied, "No, Ms. Jenkins, I do not."
"That's what I assumed, judging by your expression when you came in." I couldn't decipher her subtext, but I felt a heavy sense of foreboding. "My maiden name is Bettendorf, Mary Bettendorf. That was my name twenty years ago, when I was your student."
Having taught at the university for almost thirty years, I had encountered this situation a dozen times before: two generations of the same family had studied with me. I felt the anxiety lift as I realized that the women were intending nothing other than an intimate celebration of the gift I had provided them both. Although this was certainly not what I had expected when I prepared for the evening, life presents surprises, even for an experienced man such as myself, and this evening would surely provide its own modest pleasures.
I awaited a comment from one of the two women, but, to my chagrin, neither said anything, and that familiar feeling of discomfort enveloped me again. I felt perspiration begin to form on my upper lip.
"Isn’t that remarkable?" I said. "Did you take my Shakespeare class, the one your daughter is taking?" I had not the slightest interest in what her response to this question might be, of course, but if this woman were incapable of more sustained discourse, I would oblige her with feathery shuttlecocks of dialogue.
"Yes, it was the Shakespeare class." She paused, looking at me as if this fact were somehow noteworthy or intrinsically interesting. She held her gaze for several long moments.
"Did you find it interesting?" I offered, acclimating myself to the staccato conversational rhythm she apparently preferred.
"Yes, I did," she said, again pausing. "We talked after class many times. Soon, we were talking in your office."
"Did you find our talks rewarding?" Glancing at Cindy, I saw furrowed brows and intense concentration, as if she were trying to read my face, as if, in fact, she were grading me on some sort of examination.
I turned my attention back to the mother, who was as silent as an unread text. Both women now were staring at me. I must admit, I began to feel a somewhat more pronounced discomfort.
Several more excruciating moments passed as I shifted in my seat. Finally, I spoke. "Ms. Jenkins, forgive me for my directness, but I get the distinct sense that you wish to communicate something to me but are finding it difficult to do so. If I am correct, would it not be better if you simply said what you wish to say?"
"Yes, professor, you are right. What I wish to say is this: I want you to limit your dealings with Cindy to the classroom. You are not to meet with her in your office. You are not to have anything to do with her off campus. And you are not--under any circumstances--to make any sexual advances toward her."
"Really, Ms. Jenkins," I exclaimed, "I find the implication of your statement outrageous. My relationship with your daughter is perfectly appropriate. She is my student. I am her professor. Nothing untoward has occurred between us, and nothing will." I realized I was standing, although I had no recollection of having risen from the chair.
I found this situation extremely disquieting. The fact is that I was being totally honest with her. Nothing untoward had occurred, and nothing would. Nonetheless, I did not relish the prospect of her going to some official at the university and lodging an accusation of misconduct. Tongues wag in every office, but in no office would they wag with more animation and delight than in a university department of English. I was lost in the thought of the implications of this potentially embarrassing incident when she spoke again.
"Professor, please sit down," she said, the enigmatic smile still on her face. "Of course, I believe you when you say your intentions toward Cindy are perfectly honorable. After all, you are an esteemed professor and a well-respected figure of many years’ standing on campus."
This statement provided me considerable comfort. In our conversation, Mary Jenkins had not yet touched on my ethos, that wonderful Greek word that, roughly translated, means character. I was relieved to learn that she afforded me the respect due to a person of my position and reputation in the scholarly world. I could feel my muscles relax. I was holding my head high, ready to exploit the first opportunity to take rhetorical control of the situation. "I appreciate that, Ms.—"
"Excuse me, professor," she said, interrupting. "I am not finished. I have no interest in encouraging you to change your professional habits. Nor do I have any interest in seeing you punished professionally or personally for any actions you have committed in the past. In fact," she said, with a smile that I found quite inappropriate, "I have no interest in you at all. The reason I told you not to make any sexual advances toward Cindy is that, as I recently informed her, she is your daughter."
Six months have passed since this unpleasant incident, and so my recollection of details might not be total. Apparently, I lost consciousness, and Mary Jenkins and Cindy reported to me later that they were genuinely concerned about my health. Within a few minutes, however, I revived. They indicated that my voice was high pitched and fluttering, my breathing shallow and rapid. Mary Jenkins claimed that I vehemently denied paternity, vowing that I would fight any attempt to seek retribution on me professionally or to seek compensation from me. She stated that she explained to me again that she bore me no ill will and sought nothing from me. She merely wanted me to know the facts so that I would act appropriately.
Because I have no recollection of any conversation that occurred after Ms. Jenkins' claim, I cannot corroborate her account of the incident. I do remember leaving the house and driving home in some agitation. By the next evening, however, I had regained my poise, and the incident, though not forgotten, no longer seemed a significant threat to my well-being.
I have now had ample opportunity to think deeply about the incident, and I have formulated my conclusions. First, nothing can excuse the manner in which she relayed her message to me. To ambush me--in front of a current student--with a claim that she surely must have realized was likely to cause me considerable embarrassment cannot be justified. Her own statement describing my response to her charge supports this conclusion.
Second, I am convinced that Ms. Jenkins' claim that I am Cindy's father was false. I have no recollection of ever having met Mary Jenkins, no less of having had intimate relations with her. In addition, Mary Jenkins provided no evidence to support her charge. Common sense indicates that, if her charge were true, she would have provided ample, unimpeachable substantiation for me to examine. It is simply inconceivable that she would have given birth to this person some twenty years before without seeking to exploit the many advantages that establishing paternity--establishing my paternity--would provide.
The only plausible explanation is that Cindy and Mary Jenkins harbored some sort of grievance toward me and proceeded to carry out this cruel hoax. This interpretation is supported by Cindy's actions in the week following the incident. When I returned to the podium on Monday, I noticed that she was, uncharacteristically, absent. Looking up her records later that morning, I learned that she had withdrawn from the university. Undoubtedly, she was ashamed of her participation in the hoax.
I have not seen Cindy since the evening in question. In my view, she made an unwise decision. I would have forgiven her participation in the hoax (after all, I do believe that the quality of mercy is twice blessed). By abandoning my tutelage, Cindy declined an extraordinary opportunity to immerse herself in literature and, of course, life itself. I have always felt—and continue to feel—that I offer all my students a remarkable gift, a view that Cindy's mother herself had admitted in our conversation.
The incident with Cindy helped me realize an important truth: some students who appear so are not in fact capable of receiving and appreciating the considerable gift I offer them. Although I admit that this truth can be discouraging, at times even demoralizing, I accept it with humility and without bitterness or rancor. Taking my professional responsibilities seriously, I can only persist in my effort to identify those students who are capable of valuing my gift.
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