Appetiteby Jonathan Baumbach
First of all, don’t believe what you’ve heard about me. Given the stories circulating, you would think I was some kind of retrograde chauvinist but unless I’m suffering from amnesia or have been in a psychotic state for the past month, I know I’ve done nothing to warrant the current fuss. My lapses, such as they are, proceed from what might best be described as passionate excess.
When people refer to me as “larger than life,” I don’t think it’s size alone they’re referring to, though I am well over six feet and tend to weigh between 250 and 300 pounds depending on a nexus of variables. I have an oversized personality and an immense appetite, the one having only incidental connection with the other. This may sound like a rationalization but I try to strike a balance between my needs—I am no stranger to restraint—and my personal sense of decency.
Most women find me charming and that gets me in trouble. Four years ago, I was pressed to give up a tenured position at the University of Washington for having “inappropriate relations” with several of my women students. In fact, I never pursued a woman who hadn’t made herself available to me first. The first of the women who complained about me to the authorities did so after I called an end to the affair. And though she lied about much of what happened between us, she never said I forced myself on her. One of the others—they came out of the woodwork like dust bunnies to testify against me—one of the more shameless others, said I had imposed myself on her against her will. It was her testimony and not the original complaint that turned me into a pariah. They gave me the opportunity to resign with the promise that my stigmatized behavior would not be broadcast elsewhere. I had no choice, my craven lawyer insisted, but to accept their terms. Anyway, even if I hadn’t been pushed out, I was ready to leave Seattle, which was like living in the afterlife.
After the Seattle debacle, I took a slightly less prestigious job at one of the city colleges in New York.
There was this woman in my Life Drawing class, who tended to hang around my desk after the bell chatting me up. An instinctive diplomat myself, I distrusted flattery in others, though this child-woman, Octavia, quite sexy in an unassuming way, and probably the most gifted student in the group, had circumvented my alarm system. In fact, she reminded me of myself some years back when I was starting out.
With Nora away for ten days, visiting her parents in Vancouver, I felt lonely and a tad deprived. Still (and I insist on this), I had absolutely no intention of getting involved with a student again.
On the other hand, I am an impulsive person and one Friday when the saucy Octavia showed up at my office ostensibly to discuss her progress in the course, I found myself inviting her to a weekend party at my country house, recently purchased and still in the process of renovation.
—That sounds fun, she said. Is there some kind of bus that goes there?
—You can ride up with me, I said. I’ll come by and pick you up at 9 on Saturday if that’s agreeable.
She accepted my offer with undisguised pleasure. It was only after she got into the car and discovered she was my only passenger that she asked who else would be there.
—Sam and Annie, I said, both of whom Octavia had met.
—They’re driving up later in the day. Nora, unfortunately, is visiting her parents on the left coast and won’t be able to join us.
I should mention that Nora and I, though not actually married, have been living together for 12 years.
Octavia rolled her eyes charmingly, withheld whatever rude remark passed like a shadow across her face.
—Anyway, small parties are the best, don’t you think.
She glanced slyly at me as if taking my measure and I smiled back reassuringly.
She was mostly silent for the rest of the trip, and occasionally surly, preoccupied with whatever, so I told her some jokes, one of which provoked a laugh.
—You’re impossible, she said.
—Yes, I said, and isn’t that a good thing, which provoked further giddiness, all of which seemed a positive sign. In matters of the heart (or hard-on), I’ve always been a partisan of the implicit.
When we got to the house, we were the only ones there actually. Sam and Annie were not expected until much later (I was beginning to hope they wouldn’t show up at all) and noting Octavia’s uneasiness, I made a point of being reassuring. I said that unlike some of my fellow shmearers in the Art Department, I was not the kind of man who sought affairs with his attractive female students. I let her know that the main bedroom was hers for the night and that I would put up in the airless guest room above the garage.
In the makeshift scenario of my imaginary movie, she would have said, Don’t put yourself out on my account, but Octavia defeated expectation, thanking me in her sassy way for being a gentleman. I could understand that she didn’t want to seem too available.
The house was a mess—we had left in a hurry the previous weekend—and Octavia seemed put out by the disorder. The first thing she did after checking out her room and changing into her bathing suit was wash the dirty dishes that had been left in the sink. I would have dried, but I couldn’t find a dish towel so I stomped about impatiently in the living room, cleaning off the couch, rearranging the clutter.
—You’re very domestic, I said, but you’re here to enjoy yourself. That’s the point, isn’t it? So let’s have a swim and then we’ll go to town for lunch.
—I can cook, she said, if you want to bring food in. Is there a dish towel somewhere?
—Just leave them in the drainer please, I said.
When I could finally get her away from the sink, we walked through a wooded area to the pond, which is at the far end of the property.
—How can I be sure you’re not leading me down the garden path, said my witty flower.
—Is that what you think of me, I said, playing at being offended.
—I never know what’s expected of me, she said. You’ll have to tell me.
And that was my cue (and didn’t I know it), but I let the moment pass. I could tell from her expression that the pond, perhaps smaller and murkier than my description suggested, did not live up to expectations. She sat down on her towel and opened a book she had brought with her while I launched myself with a rather graceful, I will say, surface dive.
When I came up for air, I waved to her to join me.
—When I’m ready, she said, lying on her side on a skimpy towel in a provocative pose.—I need to get some sun first. There was of course no sun out, which I was discreet enough not to mention.
I did a few self-conscious, show-offy laps, imagined her watching my performance, then returned to her side. “The water’s perfect,” I said.
—I am getting hungry, she said, looking up from her book.
—Then let’s go to town and get something to eat, I said.
—I want to finish the chapter first, she said.
I sat down on the grass next to her towel. If I were the author of that book, I said, I’d be terribly pleased at your devotion.
—If I were the pond, she said, I’d probably ask you not to be so rough with me.
—If you were the pond, I said, offering a mock sigh, letting the completion of the thought remain implicit.
At lunch she was again sullen and uncommunicative and it crossed my mind that there was something a little off with the disconcertingly variable Octavia. After I finished my burger, she was still picking at hers. Ultimately, she left more than half on her plate and it was all I could do not to ask for her leavings. The charmer anticipated me. —Would you like the rest of mine? she asked.
—Thank you, no, the hungry man said, averting his eyes, but when she insisted a second and third time, I yielded to her seduction. Her burger was still warm from her touch when I picked it up.
We had just returned to the pond when Sam and Annie drove up in their black Chevy Blazer. Sam is a former MFA student and Annie, who I had a brief involvement with myself, was a life model in one of the classes he took with me. Usually the models don’t mix with the students but these two were living together with my blessing before the term was over. Octavia had met them both before and seemed pleased and even surprised by their arrival. Sam said they wanted to walk around town and invited Octavia to join them, an offer she accepted with more enthusiasm than seemed warranted.
So I had the house to myself for the next several hours and I whited out a painting whose solution persisted in eluding me, then I took a nap on one of the chaises on the deck. I must have been very tired because I didn’t hear them drive up.
—Do you know you have snakes on your property, Annie was saying to me when I opened my eyes. Her remark embarrassed me. I had a hard-on when I woke from some unremembered erotic dream and her snake comment I somehow thought referenced my condition.
Sam and Annie had brought back two six packs of the aptly named Pete’s Wicked Lager, which we took over to the pond with us. For the rest of the afternoon, we drank beer and lolled in the water. Octavia kept her distance in Sam and Annie’s presence, which I read as a form of discretion. I asked her once as an aside if she were enjoying herself and she said,—I’m doing my best.
After dinner, which was barbecued trout and vegetable kebobs, Sam and I went into town to get some more beer and we ended up at this pub that had a pool table and what with Sam bragging at how good he was, there was nothing to do but teach him a lesson. It took five games for me to assert my superiority.
When we got back—we had been missing for several hours—Octavia had retired for the night and Annie was on a couch in the living room dozing over a magazine. She was angry with Sam when she woke and she insisted on going outside with him to discuss the matter. It’s all my fault, I said.
In any event, Sam and Annie were planning to spend the night outside (under the stars, said Annie) in a sleeping bag they had brought for the occasion. My pajamas, which I rarely wore in warm weather anyway, were still in the bedroom and I considered retrieving them. I had second thoughts about disturbing Octavia and besides the eight beers I had put away had diluted my appetite for sex. So I moved my bulk to the room above the garage and fell immediately asleep in my underwear on a sheetless cot. I slept for about forty minutes, then found myself rolling from back to side, the small room even with the one window propped open without the courtesy of a breeze, and of course I had to pee. I had to pee with maniacal urgency. So I hurried down the stairs in my skivvies into the starless night and let loose my waterfall against the side of the garage. Assuming myself alone, I sighed with pleasure as I peed.
I wasn’t aware of another creature coming up behind me until I turned around.
It was very dark and I actually picked out her scent in the torpid air before I could make out who she was.
—Sam and I had a fight, she whispered.
—I’m so sorry, I said.
—It’s all your fault, you know, she said.
—Yes, I said, I think I admitted to that.
—Oh not tonight, she said, not the drinking particularly, though having a drunk boy friend does not make me happy, but the whole thing, the getting together with him was your fault.
Although there was hardly more than six inches separating us, I could barely read her face in the dim light.—That’s the moment’s disappointment talking, I said.
She laughed and I realized from the sound of the laugh that she had also been crying.—You once said…, she said, and the next thing I knew she was up against me, her head against my cheek.—You once said the moment was the only thing.
So we went up to my room–for–the–night above the garage to continue whatever had started of its own accord. The sex part was Annie’s idea, though I will not deny that I did not offer much resistance. She gave me head and, a gentleman in my fashion, I followed suit. To the best of my recollection that’s all we did. When I woke again at first light I was alone in the room and could almost believe that I had dreamt the encounter with Annie.
I put on the baggy Bermuda shorts I had worn the day before and went down the stairs and into the house to brew a pot of coffee. Octavia and Annie were already there, squeezing oranges for juice and making pancakes on the electric griddle. There was no sign of Sam.—You can take a shower now if you like, Octavia said.
What I really wanted was to brush my teeth and get out of the underwear I had slept in, which I did. I also washed my face and splashed some water on my private parts.
When I glanced out the window, I registered that Sam’s Blazer was not where he had left it.
When I returned to the kitchen, Sam was stuffing his face with pancakes and the two women were gone.
—Did the women go into town? I asked him.
—Oh, he said, Annie and I had a fight. I would have won that last pool game if I hadn’t been drunk.
—Of course you would, I said.
—So, what’s going on with the two of you? he asked.
—Nothing, I said. …What are you talking about, Sam?
—Come on, you know what I’m talking about, he said.
—You have my word that nothing much happened, I said.
—You don’t have to be defensive with me, he said. I’m not Octavia’s guardian.
So it was not Annie we were talking about. I sensed from the glance Sam gave me that he had also picked up on the implications of our misunderstanding.
It wasn’t until about noon on Sunday that I found myself alone with Octavia again—Sam and Annie were off somewhere in the Blazer. I was doing the crossword puzzle on the grass by the pond, distracted by her footsteps as she approached.
—How is it you’re not off with Sam and Annie? I asked her.
—Are there any cunning country walks around here? she said.
—It depends on what you mean by cunning, I said, making a point of not looking up at her.
—Have I done something to offend you? she asked. If I have, I’m sorry. Her question pricked a nerve. —Why would you think you offended me?
—I don’t know, she said after a moment’s silence. I seem to have a way that I don’t understand of getting people angry at me.
I looked up at her, trying to assess the ad hoc rules of the game she was playing. -Give me a few more minutes with the puzzle, I said, and then we’ll go for a walk if you like.
—I really think you’re angry at me, she said and made an event out of walking away.
I returned to the puzzle but her presence or absence, my irritation with her performance, distracted me. After some procrastination, I got to my feet and walked back toward the house.
I caught up with her on the wooded path, sitting on a tree stump, looking pleased with herself.
—Would you help me up? she said in a sulky voice, holding out her hand.
I should probably freeze frame the action here to comment on what was going on with me. I assumed that the hand dangled in my direction was a sexual offer, belated perhaps but nevertheless whole-hearted and undeniable. I had of course been waiting with Jobean patience for this moment so I was not about to turn her down. As I took her hand in my paw, my mind had already jumped two steps ahead and I was sorting out possible venues. At the same time, I was warning myself to stay in the moment—a sure indication that I had already lost it.
I can still see us, connected by our hands, Octavia moving toward me in mind-induced slow-motion.
I remember bending toward her because of the disparity of our respective heights, feeling the strain in my back, tasting her mouth for the barest of seconds.
Her voice interrupted whatever was happening.—I didn’t ask you to do that, she said, did I? Did I?
—Of course you didn’t, I said, and I lumbered away like some wounded bear.
She caught up with me at the end of the path and said she was sorry if I had thought she had led me on because that had not been her intention. She even made a convincing effort at looking regretful, though I was not impressed.
It was time for some truth. –Of course it was your intention, Octavia, I said. –It’s what separates adults from children, taking responsibility for what they do.
—Wasn’t my apology an indication of responsibility, she said. I thought it was.
—You might tell me what you had in mind when you asked me to take your hand, I said.
She smiled slyly, seemed about to explain herself then teared up, mumbled something unintelligible and sashayed off toward the house.
I was tempted to follow her but instead I returned to the pond to cool off, swimming with a kind of demonic purpose, feeling at once immensely reasonable and unreasonably angry.
Sam and Annie were holding hands when they appeared at the pond about an hour later. They were going to take a quick swim and then make their way back to the city taking scenic back roads. –When are you planning to leave? Annie asked me.
—I tend to leave as late as possible, I said. It’s an easier trip if you wait.
—Sam needs to get back, Annie said. Sam was uncharacteristically silent.
I had no inkling that the sky was falling when I trailed after them to the house to see them off.
On my return to the house, Octavia was sitting on a chaise on the deck, a book open on her lap. Her backpack, I noticed, was conspicuously positioned alongside the chaise. She seemed packed to leave, which was just as well.
—Your wife called about an hour ago, she announced, not looking at me. Nora, that’s her name isn’t it, seemed surprised to hear a woman’s voice and asked me who I was.
—Is that right? I said.
—I said, you know, that I was a student of yours, she said. I totally hope that was the right thing to say. I didn’t want to get you in any kind of trouble.
—Not to worry, I said.
While Sam was packing the blazer, Annie sidled up to inform me that, in the spirit of being honest with each other, she told Sam about our late night encounter.
I merely nodded, feeling a bit stupefied. –Sam doesn’t seem too put out by the news, I said.
—Don’t be fooled by his manner, she whispered. He’s actually furious. The reason we’re leaving is because he feels compromised accepting your hospitality.
I was prepared for disaster when the following Tuesday the department head called me into her office for an unscheduled meeting.
The night before I had what was probably the most literal dream I’d ever had or could remember having in which, prophetically, I had also received an invitation to see the department head. In the dream, she showed me a hand-written letter including elegantly drawn illustrations (“elegantly drawn” were the head’s words) from one of my students complaining about my behavior.—Before I bring you up on charges, she said, sticking her tongue out at me, I’d like to hear your response to the letter.
She pushed the document across the desk to me as if there were something so loathsome about it she could barely stand to touch it.
—Whatever’s in the letter, I said, I want you to know that, given the situation, I behaved pretty well.
—Read the letter before you defend yourself, she said.
The handwriting was mostly illegible and I wondered as I read the letter, or tried to read it, how much of it the department head had actually deciphered.
What follows is what I remember of the document.
Dear Chairman Meow (the Head’s name was Dr. Kittman):
I am writing to you out of gentile (perhaps genuine) concern over (illegible) dis-something in our otherwise dis-something deportment (probably department). One of your (illegible) shmearers invited me to conjugate at his cunt-ry estate in the Catskills. There was supposed to be some kind of (illegible) and I believe, all things considered, I was inveigled (perhaps invited) to be the final course. I am not a tart no matter what (illegible) seems to think. He, the oppressor (professor perhaps), paints us all with the same tart brush. Frankly, I was shocked and offended to find myself in this man’s crutches (surely clutches) when I had every right to expect that I had let myself in for no more than a peasant (no doubt pleasant) day in the woods. Ask anyone, my own (illegible) was totally beyond reproach. So what do you propose to do about this improprietus madder (surely matter).
—This doesn’t make any sense, I said.
—Okay, she said. I just wanted to hear your side of it.
—You have my word, Tess Kittman said, that whatever is said here will go no further.
It was the heavy breathing quality of this statement that put me on my guard.—You have the same assurance from me, I said.
—During the decision-making process right before we hired you, she said, we received an anonymous letter from Seattle advising us to turn you down because of certain imputed actions of yours at UW. As you see, we ignored the letter. You were otherwise such a strong candidate though the charges against you did give some of us pause. When you hire someone, no matter how impressive the vita, you never really know what you’re getting. That’s why we require a minimum of four years service before we consider someone for tenure.
—A more than reasonable safeguard, I said.
—Well, yes, she said, though some more established people like yourself tend to find our policy somewhat frustrating. You’re in your fourth year and I should imagine you’d like to know whether the department plans to recommend you for early tenure.
—I hadn’t given it a thought, I said.
Throughout this mostly one-sided conversation, I had been waiting for Tess Kittman to produce Octavia’s damning illegible (dream) letter. Instead she nattered on about rumors passing her way about inappropriate behavior on my part but fortunately blah blah blah there had been no official complaints and the department (meaning Herself), otherwise pleased with my performance, was nevertheless prepared to recommend me for “early tenure.”
And that was it.
But that was not it. My radar accessed some of the floating rumors Tess Kittman alluded to alleging sexual improprieties and I’ve had to deal with knowing smiles from a wide range of colleagues and students, some who had never even taken my classes. Octavia, herself, wore this sassy look on her face whenever our paths happened to cross.
As a consequence of unacknowledged anxiety, I’ve gained fifteen pounds in the two weeks following Octavia’s country weekend.
Without telling anyone, not the department, not Nora, I’ve looked into other job possibilities, but there are no openings so far at the places I’d been willing to consider. If my financial situation were stronger, I’d take some time off from teaching and do nothing but make art. Sleep has not been a friend for the longest time.
Whenever I go into the college to teach my classes, it is as if I am perpetually re-entering the landscape of my disgrace.
Look, if I don’t know my own heart, who does?
If I were given to complaint, which I’m not, I would say circumstances have conspired unfairly against me. I will not say it, but I think it, I can’t help thinking it, and this deep sense of injustice, which comes unbidden, which whispers itself, provides a kind of private consolation.
Second of all, there is no second of all.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.