I tried to marry every single one of my serious relationships. That first one, my first graduate school boyfriend, was ring shopping when I left him. The second one I ultimatumed into proposing. The third, who I met after I quit academia, I actually did marry, to get a visa so I could go back to teaching. This is where all this begins.
I have always believed that monogamy is a cage two people shut themselves up in, then try to make the most of with role-playing, sex toys and porn. I have lost interest, sexually speaking, in every man I’ve dated, somewhere around the three-year mark, if not sooner. And yet I consider myself to be overall a pretty sensual being. Sex positive. Up for anything, low on hang-ups, happy to talk about the act and anything to do with it. So why do I clamp down after a certain period of time, like there’s an alarm going off in my pussy? I have spent hours talking this over with my therapist and we come no closer to understanding. She says to try the other parent, to quote Dar Williams, and I have tried parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, I’ve lugged all the branches of the family tree through my therapist’s front door and none of them bear fruit. I have no idea. I sit on her couch and I stare at the scuffs on the baseboards and the way they’re not quite the same length on either side of the doorframe
and I watch her refill the cartridges in her e-cigarette and wonder if she orders them on the internet or goes to one of those stores with names like Just Vape It or Smok’In, and I push at those baseboards in my mind, moving them around like the pieces of a puzzle, satisfied that even if I can’t discover a reason for my inevitable sexual dissociation, on some level I am coming to terms with it, merely by moving the pieces around. And I think: tonight I will have sex with my husband. And I go home, and I do not have sex with my husband.
I decided a while ago that I was going to have to have contingent relationships, like Sartre and Beauvoir, in order to keep my marriage alive. I would never tell my husband about these affairs; I would just have them. And I didn’t rule out the possibility that like Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, one of these affairs might last for thirty years.
Then I met you. Or rather, I already knew you, and through a period of time in which I was not careful, when I did not use protection, so to speak, I fell for you, and then merely having you on the side, contingent on my marriage, was not an option, not for me, and not for you.
In fact having you at all was not an option.
Someone pointed you out to me, before you were you. I’d do him, she said. He’s the only straight guy here.
He’s not straight! I said.
How do you know?
There are no straight male Brontë scholars.
Fast forward. Now we are friends. Now we drink exuberantly together in bars while I watch your eyes to see what you’re aware of. I am still trying to read you.
You have to hang out with me at the next Brontë conference, you said.
What do you mean?
Well, who else am I going to hang out with?
You must do OK at the conferences.
What do you mean I must do OK?
I mean you’re the only straight male Brontë scholar. You must do OK at conferences.
Please, you said. Who am I going to fuck, Evelyn Broderick Bailey?
I laughed because you wanted me to. I didn’t know who you meant. You go to more of those conferences than I do, you know all the regulars.
A few months later, at the conference, when I saw that name on the tag of a woman who sat down at our table, I felt cruel for laughing at your joke. I looked over to you to catch your eye but you were deep in conversation with another girl, the one who’d been trailing after you all day.
You do OK at conferences.
‘Is that what liminal is? the light that came off you when I first saw you, that day when you walked past me you were lit, you were lit by something, and it wasn’t the usual kind of light, and you were so beautiful I almost had to leave the room, I swear your beauty was changing the surface of my skin.’ So writes Ali Smith in Artful in a passage I love because it’s clever and adoring and true. I remember seeing you at a conference and hearing your name and some things about you like who you were married to and who your supervisor was and thinking: how extraordinary, a straight male Brontë scholar, you don’t see a lot of those. We didn’t meet then but I saw how pale you were in the light pouring through the neo-Gothic windows of the great hall at your university, and I remember finding you singular.
I didn’t think about you again until I ran into you at another conference, a couple of years later, and that time someone introduced us, and I remember being incredibly studied about not letting on that I was attracted to you because I was married and you were married and I did feel that you were studiedly neutral with me too though the whole exchange lasted no longer than five minutes. And then I began to see you regularly at conferences, and we always said hello, and made polite conversation, until finally, after we had drinks for the first time, friendly drinks, nothing more, exuberant and excessive but still only friendly, I went home feeling like something had dislodged, I remember listening to music on my walk home from the metro feeling like someone was going to be unfaithful to someone.
So this is a record of falling for someone I shouldn’t have, and what happened after. I’m writing it to you because you’re not here, because even if we don’t speak anymore, I’d still like to talk to you, to help you understand, though I know you probably won’t, and I know you won’t like my writing this.
I have password-protected this file.
‘I had doubts about publishing it in this form,’ writes Marguerite Duras in Practicalities, ‘but no previous or current genre could have accommodated such a free kind of writing, these return journeys between you and me, and between myself and myself, in the time we went through together.’
I carry on, then, writing that is, in spite of my doubts. Will you ever speak to me again if I publish these letters?
You were something I needed to get me out of a bad spot, a transitional object. The supplement supplements, Derrida tells us, though we didn’t need him to tell us. ‘It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void.’
When we met I was adjuncting. I had been an adjunct for as long as I was a teacher; I was never not adjunct.
Adjunct: supplementary: part-time. Universities hire adjuncts to keep from hiring full-time employees. It’s cheaper for them. The classes still get covered but they don’t have to pay full salaries, not to mention benefits. Many of the adjuncts I know do not work part-time; they work over-time by cobbling together many different part-time jobs. They have to do this to survive.
Contingent faculty make up more than 50% of the workforce in America. It’s 55% in the UK. ‘Are adjunct professors the fast-food workers of the academic world?’ asks The Guardian. You regularly see headlines like this: Adjunct Professor Found Dead in the Street. Couldn’t Afford Healthcare.
You don’t really want a full-time job, you said. You like your freedom.
I remember you checking out my tits in my thin silk blouse while you said it.
We had a conversation, early on. I told you I was on the job market in the country where you taught. You, knowing the market in this country, unlike me, told me what kinds of jobs to apply to, and which ones to avoid. You told me only to apply for jobs called Lecturer. Stay away from anything with teaching in the title, you said. I thought that was strange because surely the job of a lecturer is to teach. But I recognised the sound of this distinction. The good jobs, you said, usually went to people who had funding from the state funding body for their doctorates. Likewise: in my country, tenure track jobs tend to go to people who had full fellowships for their PhDs. I did not. I had a teaching fellowship. Teaching in the title from the very beginning.
I shouldn’t be trying to teach, but to lecture, but clearly teaching is my appropriate state.
Let’s not confuse things, I thought, focusing my gaze on your forehead to avoid meeting your eyes. Let’s call things by their names.
By their names: eyes, dark. Lashes, heavy. Brows, straight. Affect: confusing.
Enter the thoughts. You, out of nowhere. What are you doing in my shower. Get out. You live in another country and you’re married and I’m married and I’m not leaving my husband and you’re not leaving your wife or your country.
Then you did just that.
But before that a few other things happened.
First we were at a conference together, a couple of months after those exuberant drinks. The energy was fast and loose and charged with a casual desire, the kind that usually gets productively channelled into banter and exchange. You sat next to me at lunch and I told you I was pregnant. You flinched. It was almost imperceptible but I saw it, you did, you flinched. Congratulations, you said. Thank you, I said, safe in my pregnancy. Safe from drinking and exuberance and whatever was making me think of you at random, unwelcome, showery times.
There was another girl at the conference, call her V. A girl I avoided, generally. A girl I found pretentious in an annoying rather than an amusing way. (You, for instance, can be amusingly pretentious.) I didn’t like her unironic flesh-coloured stockings and I didn’t like her pout. At the dinner, you sat next to each other. The question of wine arose. Who knows about wine? someone asked.
I do! she said.
Who does that? I thought. The person who knows the most about wine will usually be the quietest about it.
But you were impressed. V. knows about wine! you said, giddy. V. can pick the wine!
You are too easily impressed.
In retrospect, I can almost see you refocusing your attention on her. She was unmarried, and unpregnant. So your desire could find an appropriate outlet.
How I loathe the appropriate. The word inappropriate is only ever used as a form of control. We learn it as children, and boy does it lodge its little stinger. We don’t do this. We don’t do that. Kissing the neighbour boy out by the side of the house while his little brother watched: we don’t do that, it’s inappropriate. Interrupting teachers when they talk: we don’t do that, it’s inappropriate. We carry that sting with us for the rest of our lives; we build our moral codes around it. Have you no shame, pregnant woman, desiring a man who is not the father of your foetus. How misdirected, how inappropriate.
What we appropriate, we make our own, etymologically, we take to ourselves. But I like the movement away from ownership. I don’t want to be owned. I know you don’t either. I don’t want to be your appropriate transitional object. I won’t be your object at all.
You’re the expert in these matters: your book about Charlotte Brontë is all about propriety. I read it. It was good. You analysed your subject from every direction. You turned it over, you challenged it. That doesn’t mean you’re willing to subvert it in your own life. In fact you have done just the opposite. You are the arbitrator of the appropriate.
Anyway, Emily has always been my favourite Brontë. Jane Eyre is such a goody-goody, Lucy Snowe so repressed. I love Cathy for her uncontained and uncontainable rage. Fucking shake down those trees, Cathy, with your unholy wrath.
So I sat, and watched it happen, I watched you transfer your inappropriate desire to a more appropriate object, though I didn’t know till later that was what I was seeing, I was so convinced of her undesirability, like a big Cabernet that smells like meat rotting in the bin, but some people seem to like that sort of thing.
All I knew was I didn’t want to leave a room that you were in. But I was in my first trimester, and I was exhausted, and had had a tiny bit of wine, enough that when I staggered to my feet to leave I babbled to you, in front of everyone, my pregnant, tired, slightly wine-sodden mind unable to shut itself off: come back, come back, come back. I meant to Paris, but I think I already meant to me.
A month and a half later, at dinner with a mutual friend, Z., I said something about your accent, I said something banal and stupid like I can’t understand what he says, but I like to look at him while he says it, which isn’t true, I can understand what you say, it was only an excuse to tell someone how much I liked looking at you.
He went for drinks with V. after dinner that night, Z. said, and she meant by that that she thought you were having a fling with V., and by telling me this in response to my comment about your accent I imagined she suspected I liked you, which I didn’t at that point, I really didn’t, or I thought I didn’t. And I said well, he likes to drink, I’m not sure that means they hooked up. He’s married.
No, she said, shaking her head. I think it means they hooked up.
That stinger again.
I wish I could go back to that night and not leave you alone together.
I would sit next to you every chance I got, and not keep my distance, and fight through my fatigue. How might it all have turned out if I had just kept closer to you?
There is a way in which I think this isn’t for you at all. You won’t want to read this. You won’t agree. It might even make you angry. You’ll think I’m out of control, inappropriate. You’d never call me a bitch: you’re too condescending. You think you’re too good for that kind of language. Call me a bitch, won’t you please?
These letters, then. They’re addressed to you but I’m writing them for all the inappropriate out of control bitches. My Cathys.