Dr. Jennifer Benson looked exactly like one would expect a remarkably prolific writer and professor of modern and postmodernist literature to look. I’d never asked her exact age, but she was definitely old enough to be my mom. She was probably in her late forties or early fifties. Her hair looked like it belonged in a pre-Raphaelite painting, and her entire wardrobe was clearly the product of some avant-garde designer. She seemed to know everything, though I realized that was impossible.
Her office was small and cozy, complete with a space heater that the administration had officially forbidden. But damn if anyone would tell Dr. Jennifer Benson what she could do. This floor of the humanities building was colder than the frozen floor of Hell.
“So how is your semester going?” Dr. Benson asked.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable talking to people about my personal life. There’s little worse than being labeled as being whiny. “Fine. I’m expecting a new roommate next week,” I said.
“Oh? How exciting.”
I shrugged. It wasn’t really. I’d never paid much attention to Derek, my current roommate, which suited us both fine. I wasn’t a people-person, and Derek wasn’t a people-person. We barely even spoke to one another. My one concern was that this new roommate would be some sort of overly excitable social butterfly. It’d have been better to live alone, but I needed the additional person to cover rent and utilities.
“Chance, I feel like you’ve made a valiant effort here,” Dr. Benson said, as she idly flipped through the pages of my thesis. “But it’s just lacking that…spark. There’s no passion. May I be blunt with you?”
“You seem very uncomfortable writing about sex, and because of this, your argument about erotic tension and sexual power seems very wooden. It’s lacking in passion. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about more than sex.”
Uncomfortable writing about sex. She was entirely spot-on, although if she had been a classmate and not my thesis advisor, I’d have argued. It wasn’t my fault I didn’t like writing about sex. I’d never even had sex, which—okay—maybe made any discomfort my fault. But still. I didn’t understand why sex was so important. I’d survived twenty-five years without ever having it, so it couldn’t be that crucial to life. Besides, having sex made life so much more complicated, and I’d vehemently avoided potential complications through my entire collegiate career.
“It’s also a critique on intellectualism,” Dr. Benson was saying, smiling wryly. “It’s a critique on all those old, white men occupying academic circles. Being scholars, of course, we recognize the importance of intellectualism, but we don’t want to lull ourselves into complacency. We should also critique the institution of intellectualism and its relationship with elitism. We may be in the humanities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re inherently more passionate or empathetic than any other field.”
“Of course not.”
“This novel is about passion and sex and a critique on isolating yourself for the sake of art,” Dr. Benson said. “I think it’s a good novel for you to work through because you are very much like the sort of people this novel critiques. You’re singularly driven to over-achieve, which is good, but you don’t want that to come at the expense of experience.”
That was easy for her to say. She had a degree, a reputation, and made a comfortable living. But I knew that Dr. Benson had fought tooth and nail for her tenure-track position. At some point, she, too, was a poor college student and struggling to make ends meet. She means well. This isn’t the first conversation we’ve had about my tendency to hyper-focus on academics or about my unwillingness to try new things.
“You said that your New Year’s resolution was to try new things. Have you had any luck with that?” Dr. Benson asked.
“Not really,” I admitted. “But I have tried.”
“Keep trying,” she said. “I worry about you.”
“You don’t need to worry about me.”
Dr. Benson shook her head. “I don’t think you’ve been to a single grad student event,” she said. “And networking is so crucial for getting ahead in academia. Just try one thing. One poetry night at Carpe Diem.”
“My poetry is horrible,” I replied.
“Deflection, huh?” she asked. “You clearly have the makings of a great rhetorician.”
I smiled. “I had a great rhetoric professor,” I replied.
Dr. Benson smirked. “That was a fun class—even if Taylor and Delilah kept arguing.”
When weren’t those two arguing? I’d had four classes with them together, and I’d quickly discovered that Taylor and Delilah disagreed about literally everything. They hadn’t been shy about tearing one another apart over it either.
“You always reacted very gracefully to it,” I commented.
“I do try, Chance. Speaking of, I filled out your recommendation for Southern Miss,” Dr. Benson said.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. Anyway, I’ve left comments,” Dr. Benson said. “But you’ll need to make some major revisions. I know you can do this. I’ve seen your work before and it was very good! So...”
She handed back the first chapter of my thesis, heavily marked with her pencil.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to muster some enthusiasm.
I’d expected minor grammatical errors and spelling mistakes—not an entire rewrite wherein I tried to find some passion of all things.
I took the paper and toyed with the corners of the pages.
“I’ll try to have revisions to you by next week,” I said.
“That sounds great,” Dr. Benson said. “And that gives us some time before the new semester really gets into the swing of things. I’m teaching one of those hundred-student British literature sections in addition to everything else.”
“Yeah. I’ll have assignments for my own students, too.”
Of course, I was just a teaching assistant. I wasn’t a real professor like her, so I didn’t earn much of a paycheck. To be fair, I also didn’t have to deal with everything she did. The last time I met with her, Dr. Benson had stacks of paperwork all around her—six different plagiarism cases, and that was little more time-consuming than the paperwork required for a plagiarism case. She’d had a book deadline, too—something about Freud and Shakespeare—and two academic articles that she was revising.
“Wonderful. I look forward to hearing about your experiences,” Dr. Benson said. “It’s always very exciting to hear about people just beginning their teaching careers.”
She always made it sound like we were colleagues, and that unnerved me. Not because Dr. Benson was ever inappropriate or overstepping her boundaries, but because something about her conversational, casual attitude made me talk more than I normally would. Dr. Benson knew more about me than anyone else in the department. She probably knew even more than my roommate did, too.
“Great,” I said. “I’ll see you then.”
She seemed surprised, but I wasn’t sure why. Instead, I left, pulling the door closed behind me. I’d just turned the corner when I nearly ran into Taylor. At twenty, she was the youngest of us. A tiny, sprite-like woman with curly red hair and large brown eyes. “Chance! I didn’t think you had classes today,” she said, her Appalachian drawl thick.
“I don’t. I had a meeting with Dr. Benson,” I replied, waving my thesis edits.
Taylor smiled. “Have fun,” she said. “But hey, are you going out with us May 21st? Man of La Mancha is playing at the opera and I’m organizing a group of us to go together. I didn’t know if you knew.”
Of course I knew. I was a part of the same group text as everyone else; I just didn’t talk much in it.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll think about it.”
“Oh, no! You’re going this time!” Taylor exclaimed. “You can’t work all the time.”
I had just promised Dr. Benson I would be more outgoing, and an opportunity had just landed right in my lap. “I’ll think about it, okay? I have to go,” I replied.
Taylor’s smile never wavered. “Okay. See you around!”
“Sure,” I replied, as I edged towards the stairs.
As I left the humanities building, I half-expected her to run after me and offer to drive me home. She knew I didn’t own a car and was ridiculously concerned about me walking home, although perhaps it was unfair to call her concern ridiculous. Pensacola did have a high rate of pedestrians getting hit by vehicles. Still, it was embarrassing to rely on someone.
Maybe being a little friendlier and a little more sociable wouldn’t hurt me. But it was much easier to stay in than it was to go out and deal with people. Besides, I’d made it this long without relying on anyone or making friends. Maybe that came at a cost, though. I’d always taken a sort of pride in being twenty-four and being as alone as possible. I’d been proud to say I’d never been on a date. And that I’d neatly avoided romance and sex for this long. But maybe I really had missed something special.
I waited at the crosswalk and cast an annoyed glance as someone blatantly jaywalked right in front of me. Honestly, just because there wasn’t any traffic didn’t mean someone should just waltz across the street when the crosswalk clearly indicated they shouldn’t.
I rocked back on my heels, waiting for the light to turn. As soon as I got back to the apartment, I was going to start being more spontaneous. I was going to change everything. It couldn’t be that hard. Sure, I couldn’t find an epic romance overnight, but sex, at least, was easily obtainable. I was attractive enough to have sex with. Yeah. This wasn’t terrible. This would be easy. All I had to do was find someone to have sex with me once. Just once. It couldn’t really be that hard. People had sex every day. Probably every few minutes.
God, I sounded like a Puritan.
The light changed, so I crossed the street. I resisted the urge to glare at the jerk who’d pulled halfway into the crosswalk, hoping to turn right on red. Why was it so hard for people not to be jerks?
My apartment was on the second floor. I took the stairs to avoid any potential awkwardness in the elevator. Aside from my roommate, I knew nothing about any of the apartment’s other tenants, and I wasn’t eager to learn. If I managed to defend my thesis in time, I’d be gone in seven months.
The stairwell smelled like mold, which maintenance occasionally tried to cover with truly alarming amounts of lavender Lysol. The building looked like the sort of place where someone would be murdered, although in the years I’d lived here, the most exciting thing to happen had been someone setting a couple of apartments on fire while trying to kill a cockroach. Fortunately, it hadn’t been my apartment.
Was it desperate to post on Craigslist asking for a sexual partner? Definitely. I consoled myself with the knowledge that this would be a one-time affair. I’d have sex once, so I could understand what the big deal was. I’d have something spontaneous under my belt. Then, I’d hopefully have an easier time of being more adventurous, and I’d be more comfortable talking about it and manage to write about the subject with more passion. Besides, it was just sex. A one-night stand. Lots of people have one-night stands, so it wasn’t really that big of a deal.
I fumbled with my keys and opened the apartment door, greeted by the pleasant scent of Winter’s Dance, which was some blend of vanilla and ylang-ylang. The apartment was dark, quiet, and neat—just how I liked it. Even the boxes packed with Derek’s possessions were neatly stacked against the wall. Dear God, I hoped this new roommate wasn’t a slob.
It was Monday, which meant laundry day. However, if I went to the laundry room now, I’d be waiting forever. After carefully placing the hard copy of my thesis into its designated folder, I pulled open my laptop. I could do this. It would be easy, just an experiment.
I pulled up Craiglist, made my listing, and stared at it for what felt like an eternity. Twenty-five-year-old needs sex now probably wasn’t the best ad.
Should I describe myself? Obviously, I at least needed to mention I was interested in men. But did I need to tell them I was a scrawny guy with average looks and bright blue hair? Or should I ask for photos first? Photos of the other person, then details about what I looked like.
Twenty-five-year-old man. Looking for men. One-night stand type deal. Send photos.
Did I need to specify I didn’t want pictures of their junk? I wasn’t really looking forward to a bunch of unsolicited dick pics. Maybe a little more description was needed.
Twenty-five-year-old man. 7/10.
That sounded honest. On a grading scale, “7” would be average. So far so good. And it sounded realistic without being too obnoxious.
In case someone was into that.
But we can turn off the lights, so you don’t have to look at me.
Oh, God, what if someone I knew responded? Sure, I didn’t make a habit of knowing many people, but what if one of my students or one of my professors responded?
Send pictures if interested. Looking for one-night stand.
I made the post before I could talk myself out of it, but this only raised more questions. If someone did respond to my offer, did I need to bring the condoms or would they? Did I need to read up on how to have sex, so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself when I finally tried? As an English student, I’d read all about sex, but my reading hadn’t exactly included how-to instructions. What if I only attracted creeps? Or human traffickers?
Maybe I’d have better luck if I just went to gay bars and hit on random men. I’d never been to a gay bar—or any bar—in my life. Hell, I’d hardly been anywhere off-campus since moving to East Hill College in Pensacola, Florida. Target. Starbucks. That was about it. I didn’t even know where any bars were. I set my laptop aside and stretched out on the sofa. The awkward pressure in my head and the uneasiness in my stomach heralded a coming migraine. But if I took a nap now, I’d only end up waking up at three or four in the morning. Then I’d feel like crap the next day, and I had to work.
Ugh. I threw an arm over my eyes and sighed. Why couldn’t Dr. Benson just say my thesis was fine and let me graduate with my subpar work?
I knew why, logically, but that did little to make me feel better about the situation. She really did care about my success, though, and I was mature enough to recognize the wisdom in most of what she said. I pulled one of the sofa pillows over my face and sighed.
I really hated people sometimes. Most of the time. As a university freshman, I hadn’t known where I’d end up being after I graduated with my bachelor’s, so it’d seemed safer to forego all relationships until I’d decided. Besides, I hadn’t ever had many friends anyway; I’d moved around too much to form any lasting relationships. Being alone worked for me, too. Having no friends or romantic interests made it easier to focus on my schoolwork. I’d done well with it, too—straight A’s all through my undergrad to now.
This wasn’t anywhere close to where I’d wanted my life to be at twenty-four; it wasn’t intolerable, but I’d imagined it somehow being more glorious, more freedom, and less worry. It’d pay off in the end, of course. When I had my degrees and a good career. A nice apartment. Maybe with a cat.
Yes. A nice apartment, a fluffy cat, and health insurance to cover migraine medicine. All I needed to do was finish my thesis, graduate, and move on to my doctorate and a real career. Then I could worry about relationships.