"To Her Coy Mister-ess" by Victoria Leigh Bennett

In the first place, I resented everyone and his neighbor commenting on or even seeming to concern himself with my soul or lack of one. And I didn’t like their terms, either. At the time, I didn’t know to ask myself if I was in a nest of Gnostics, if that’s what all academics really were, or not. Or whether that was bad or good; or indifferent? And even less did I like being accused of idolatry, which was a sin; my discomfort with this was mystifying, since, even though I knew what it was supposed to be, it shouldn’t have bothered me: I wasn’t a Catholic, and wasn’t really a Christian, though I’d been raised in a Protestant milquetoast version of Christianity.

This sounds confused, doesn’t it? But even though Aidan and I had thought (or at least I had thought) that our affair was a secret, not only from his wife but from everyone else of note at the university, it seemed a little too coincidental to me that my professors (only the male ones) were putting their efforts in class into a kind of preaching, when it was a clearly non-religious school at least in academic terms; and when they preached about some texts, they repeatedly brought up the question of the “divine spark,” and whether or not particular people had one (and here they would meet my attentive glance in a pointed manner). Now, from the little I’ve learned since about the divine spark—from Googling, which is all my remaining sense of antagonism towards their unfairness has allowed—I know that it is supposed to reside in every human being, as the spark of God in them. That is apparently Gnostic teaching. But also, it seemed, it may be correctly awakened or may only lie dormant. They didn’t say this, however. Their disputes, which since neither I nor anyone else was contradicting them, were being carried on with themselves, strolling back and forth at the fronts of classrooms, were as to whether a person was one who had the divine spark or one who was only composed of clay. They were downright insulting. I mean, if everyone has a soul, then who were they to say I—or anyone—didn’t have one, or to imply it, just because I was screwing around with one of their colleagues’ married graduate students? And what about him, who had been the initiator, what was he, pure gold? Or clay? Were they likewise preaching at him, or since he was practicing to become one of them, were they extending him the professional courtesy of dark angels to one of their own kind?

And if they were really angels of light, why not preach to him, too, or even mainly? I was eight years his junior, was under their jurisdiction in a moral sense in the in loco parentis manner; was that how proper parents acted, not taking up for and protecting their own young, but instead blaming them entirely for a scrape they’d gotten themselves into and letting the other party off scot-free? Because as Aidan had told me, his supervisor suspected something, but had simply told him to keep his nose as clean as possible. Of course, his supervisor also was a huge man who frequented the skinny-dipping reservoir where students of my age went, where I had gone several times either by myself or with a female friend; a supervisor who’d taken his own twelve-year-old son there with him in the sort of tolerance which in older sophisticated societies was usually accomplished by men taking their young or adolescent sons to a brothel or an “understanding” older woman for the night. Yeah, and so where was his spark? Was it hidden in his mound of clay? Where did tolerance for breaches of societal norms begin and end in such a place? And what were the norms?

I can sketch out the terms of my own confusion regarding my adult role models in this manner now, but at the time all I knew was suffering over Aidan’s back and forth about whether he wanted to continue with me or not, his fine manipulations amounting to a sort of sadism emotionally. I was so attuned to his every movement that when he came down the stairs in the hallway outside my basement apartment, I knew from the first step whether it was he or someone else. Most of the time, I had intuitions, strange forebodings, ghastly shadows of apprehension which I now associate with the Brontë sisters’ fiction, if he wasn’t going to turn up for our mid-morning or later daytime rendezvous at all. It was a creative time, of course, because I was living in a true Romantic’s dream, bad and good both, and I had strange, prophetic dreams at night, drank more than was good for me, secretly despised him in my heart of hearts though I was faithful to a fault in external adherence, resisting every other married man who made for me in the illusion that what went for one went for all; all the Romantic contradictions were there. It was gut-wrenching, and I developed stomach issues, not Romantic except in the sense that such abuses of good sense and good health were truly part of the Romantic

period, too. But it’s only now that we humorously and a little sympathetically discuss that Byron was getting portly and so lived on a diet for a while of potatoes with vinegar, believed at the time to be good for reducing.

The most resounding defeat of common sense was my loyalty to my mistake when Aidan finally admitted that even though he’d been promising to leave his wife and come live with me after I graduated, he had played me false, too: because it turned out that they were simultaneously preparing for a baby. He had been impregnating her all at the same time as he had been making avowals to me. It wasn’t clear to me why I was taking his side against myself to that extent, but the weary thing dragged on until after I graduated. He even had me over to his house one summer day to meet his cat, and one night had me there for dinner, both times when his wife was away.

When I thought about it logically, a new thing for me, though all the accusations about not having a soul had stung and caused damage to my sense of myself, of value for myself, one incident kept coming back to me that finally made me feel more like letting go. True, I didn’t let go willingly until he himself ended the affair, and I exacted full tribute of sympathy from my long-suffering friends who’d always colored within the lines and couldn’t understand my motives in the least. I wasn’t sure I could, except for the influence of certain old movies like Intermezzo and Casablanca. There was only one professor’s remarks, still, which touched me in a more coherent way. My female professors, of whom there were fewer in those days than there were of the men, had by and large kept their opinions to themselves and treated me with a kind of charitable distance, not even seeming to know what was going on, which indeed they might not have, as “the old boy network” was the one to refer to for information, and they too were outsiders to that. But one female professor, Lady Mary Beth Rostakovich, therefrom Oxford as a guest lecturer and one of whom the men seemed largely to be a bit afraid, knew or thought she knew something of me. And her attitude was not one of moral and preachy disapproval paired with the lust of someone after the Biblical Suzanne. She was, rather, satirically amused. That was much harder to bear.

I often thought of her in the next fall after graduation, during my long, slow recovery from the extended period of emotional self-abuse. In the semester before I had graduated, the lecture class was studying Marvell and his poem “To His Coy Mistress,” the famous piece in which a poet says to his intended but reluctant lover all sorts of things ringing changes on the carpe diem theme—remarks that if she doesn’t respond more quickly, “then worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity,” and a passage which acknowledged that he wasn’t in the situation such that “My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and slower.” She called particular attention at the end of the class, when unexpectedly from her I got the usual professorial eyeroll of meaning, to the phrase “vegetable love.” She articulated that it was meant to convey something less than full animal and satisfying robustness, of love as of other things, and that there were even “back then” people who made fun of vegetarians as weak and watered-down. The more I thought about this, the harder it was to puzzle out: I mean, if she knew anything really about my situation, then she knew that I had been engaged in a concupiscent affair, fully physical. So, why was she advising me to get more fully involved, as the woman addressed in the poem? That woman was not my counterpart. It was only after I thought about it a little longer that I got the real point of that wry smile and the satirical but kind advice she was giving: I was in the position of the poet speaking (hadn’t I placed in a poetry contest just the year before?), and I was wasting my time with a humanly vegetal situation, whatever its carnal facts had been. She was a sudden burst of sunshine from a dark crevasse of rock to me then, as if the hillside towering above me had been split and rolled asunder and a new set of commandments given. And first and foremost was the one that I was later to find when, funnily enough, I read Dune, about not putting yourself into someone else’s power. It didn’t say “in another’s keeping,” as that was a matter more of real caring, but in someone else’s power. And I began to realize that feminism didn’t mean fucking around wherever you wanted to and expecting to get away with it just because men did too, but making self-consistent and well-reasoned decisions, however passionate or loving, about which people were fit to be in your life as trusted equals. Also, I learned that I could take my models for behavior from those positive ones of men or women either, and that just because someone wanted to make me the lump of sparkless clay didn’t mean I couldn’t, as a woman, be the Gnostic magician myself. Not that I wanted to be, but that I could be.

Victoria Leigh Bennett, Resident Greater Boston, MA, born WV. Ph.D. Degrees: English & Theater. Website: creative-shadows.com, containing 8 novels & lots of articles/reviews. "Poems from the Northeast," @winningwriters, @press_roi, @thealienbuddha, @madrigalpress, @LovesDiscretion, @cultofclio. Also has 1 collection short stories. Current WIP: 9th Novel/CNF/Poetry/Fiction. Twitter: @vicklbennett, Facebook at Victoria Leigh Bennett.