|Some Things I Forgot To Tell You
"Why haven't you been teaching your survey class, Professor Muff?" The president of the university sits stiffly composed in an authoritative-looking wing chair to my right. I sit on the green neo-rococo sofa in her formal living-room-like office. I stare straight ahead into the warmth of the oak log fire. A rather severe-looking antique enameled iron clock ticks its deadly tocks on the mantel. The creaky, historic Gothic revival administration building has rooms that are too small, ceilings that are too low. The air seems permanently sucked clean of oxygen. It feels like a room many people have died in. Outside, the wind howls. I think about my earmuffs, which I have misplaced somewhere in my apartment. Hadn't I stuffed them into that little top drawer? Weren't they now part of a tangle of underwear and socks under which several out-of-date condoms are buried and forgotten? The president of the university points out that for an unknown number of weeks I have failed to appear at the large, requisite-free survey course I am responsible for this semester. The students no longer show at the appointed hour. Do I know where my students are? Yes, I do indeed suspect that I have forgotten about this class. There is indeed a lingering, vague sense of panic in the back of my mind. I wonder what my students have been doing during the hour the class was supposed to meet. I console myself that time still exists to set things right. I will round up the students. I will change. I will be better about remembering to teach. I am not yet a failure as a university professor.
"Professor Muff, finals begin next week. You are a talented man. Are you at all concerned about your students' grades? Your position at this university? The consequences beyond your current employment?"
It is becoming apparent to me that despite my habitual desperate-yet-artful game of bluff, I am in the process of revealing a level of ability far below the run-of-the-mill competence I have been struggling to achieve. I am running forward, slipping further behind.
On the cracked lead paint of the white enameled outer windowsill, beyond the leaded diamond-shaped panes that look onto the broad lawns of Science Center Hill, I see for a fleeting moment the tip of the tail of a gray tiger-striped kitten. The tail twitches like a beckoning finger, and disappears.
You would think a man with the name of Mufflemann would know where to find his earmuffs. And who but I, Prof. Muff, the tall, slim, hunched-over figure bracing himself against the freezing northeast mist as he follows the concrete path up over the exposed hill by the Science Center, would wear earmuffs? I'm constantly amazed, surprised, discouraged by the wind, which seems to blow at me from every direction at once. No matter which way I turn, I seem to be heading into this personal, unforgiving gale.
A man without earmuffs will fail to right the wrongs of his life. This simple axiom becomes evident in another troubling realizationone that causes a jab of pain in the area of my chest I've long associated with the leaky valve in my overly-sensitive heart: my little cat has somehow escaped from my apartment. She will not be able to survive in the vast, severe, open and free world. She is just a kittenan animal shelter orphan. She couldn't even finish breast-feeding from her own tragically-deceased mother, run over in a back alley by the small, blue, sputtering jalopy of a scatterbrain professor.
This is why human males have nipples; I meant to include this in the course material. The answer you find is commonly erroneous: because of the transgender of the human embryo? No. Male humans have two nipples in order to provide them with an outside, secondhand chance of comprehending the source of compassion. My students need to know this. I have an all-too-brief moment of influence. They will become doctors, lawyers, politicians, corrupt CEOs, interrogators in secret political concentration camps, revolutionary and counterrevolutionary despots. This may be the one important fact I cast out over my pond of naïve and dangerously idealistic fry.
I am running in long, slow-motion leaps like an astronaut across a moonscape. My cat is always just ahead of me. Her flirtatious striped tail disappears behind the next corner. She leads me into a labyrinth of street corners and alleys, up the front stairs of the sterile-looking, sixties-era Science Department skyscraper. In the slate-tiled entry hall, with its abundance of glass walls, a closing elevator door is about to crush my poor kitty's tail. At the final moment, her tail slides quickly and safely through. She is a magician. I am left pounding my index finger into the plastic up arrow outside the closed elevator door. A young female student approaches me from behind.
"Where are your earmuffs, Professor Muff?" she asks, and then she giggles.
The voice is familiar. I turn. She is gone. In my undelivered lectures, I recall that there is information about how elevator buttons are fomites. I wish to relay this fact to the female student. She will need to know for the final exam. In fact, her own survival: little flagella-propelled organisms and tiny spiked spores are attacking the human body with the tenacity and vigor of Deluxe Space Invaders, creatures in an early, crude video game from my own college years. I examine my elevator-button-contaminated index finger, study it, turn it from side to side. I have an uncontrollable urge to sniff it, test the tip with my tongue just to see if what they say is true. Remarkable, how my nose almost immediately begins to sniffle, and how a slight tremor passes through my sinuses like a seismic foreshock in an earthquake-doomed region of the world. I believe I've discovered a new, mutant virus for which there is no cure.
I've got to find my cat. I am running up a stairwell, no, climbing on all fours like a brachiating primate. Yes: I am a Homo-non-erectus. Does a memory of a gene from the most ancient times exist in me? Ambling like a slow-motion ape seems strange, yet oddly natural. I will need to tell my students: when our human ancestors conquered the upright standing position, a quick and easy way of getting around was lost. We must attempt this together in class.
At the top of the stairs there is a closed door, and a sign crudely fashioned out of driftwood: CRUSTIES' LOUNGE. The short, balding man in a turtleneck standing before the door is the bouncer. His name is Bob. We are on friendly terms. Colleagues. He is a tenured specialist in the morphology of minute North Atlantic sea creatures.
"Developed an interest in decapods, Muff?"
"Decapods? I feel like an ape."
"You should have been a pair of ragged claws ."
"Oh...yes." I ponder this for a moment. How comforting that other literary persons have had such strange dreams. "I'm looking for my lost cat, and a young woman, who"
"You're not allowed in unless you've joined the International Crustacean Society, and from my knowledge, you have no business here."
"Bob, I have urgent concerns about a number of my students. I suspect that behind this door; please"
"Are you still teaching at this university, Muff?"
Has Bob always been this rude? Does everyone share a secret I've not been let in on? I produce from my wallet a tattered, expired membership card to some sort of professional scholarly society. The card is made of paper. The print is hardly visible. My wallet has been through the washing machine a few times too many. This is my luckBob is easily fooled.
He studies the card, turning it over, "You haven't signed the back, Muff."
"I have. It's worn off."
"You'll have to sign before I let you in."
There is a long, freshly sharpened No. 2 pencil in my jacket pocket. I'm always losing my pencil. What a relief to find it so easily. I sign.
"You will need identification, Muff. University photo ID."
"You know who I am."
The door opens, and three drunken male studentspart of the first generation raised with Disney and a video player as babysitterarms around each other's shoulders, swagger and carouse down the stairs singing a horrible, syrupy ditty from The Little Mermaid. A fog of tobacco smoke fills the stairwell. How fortunate for the tobacco industry that young people of each new generation are so eager to discover anew if what they say about smoking is true. People like me are responsible for encouraging such self-destructively critical thinking.
Inside, a hostess stands behind a podium that is sheathed in plastic palm fronds. She sees me, and walks to the door. "Why are you here, Muff?" she says matter-of-factly.
Behind her, in a dimly lit interior, I see groups of students and faculty laughing, lounging, drinking, singing songs I don't understand the words of. There are soft, colorful sofas, tableseach with a single sandalwood scented votive candle and a bar. A few of my colleagues and my studentsyes, I do believe those are my students are lying on the plush, carpeted floor. They are conversing intimately: cheekbones supported on palms, palms supported by elbows, single legs bent, single knees jutting lazily in the air like student-teacher conferees at a symposium on undersea life in a Greek bathhouse. Yes, those are togas.
The hostess has lovely, fine, yellow-green hair that spreads over her shoulders and spills like a fragile mass of edible seaweed onto her fine, small breasts. In sleep I seem to recall these breasts dance like delicate, slow-motion Aurelia aurita rising and falling on the gentle tidal swell of her nearly imperceptible breaths.
"You've changed your hair," I say. She has never looked more attractive. Such healthy freshness of the face can only be the result of having sex with someone capable and loving. This realization wakens in me a deep, chronic sense of sadness. How is it possible that she; while I?
"Why aren't you with the twins?" she says.
"The twins? I'm looking for my students. Seems I've neglected to go to class."
"What are you trying to teach this semester?"
"You're teaching thanatology? You don't know a thing about dying."
"Everyone knows something about dying."
"You're not qualified."
"I beg your pardon. Don't you understand how it's been, since?
The hostess sighs. "Muff. You are such a talented man. When are you going to stop pretending?"
"Is that what you think? That everything I do is specious?" I pause. I try to look directly and meaningfully into her eyes. "Listen, there are some things I forgot to tell you."
"No. You listen. I dropped off Rick and Zack at your apartment several hours ago. If they come to any harm..."
A feeling of panic. This is my night for childcare. How could I forget? I've got to get home. I turn, stumble, and begin a swift, uncontrollable, sideways roll down the stairs: bump-bump-bump-bump; uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh...
I am driving my shabby 1968 Bahama blue VW Beetle with black leatherette interior along the long crest of Science Center Hill. This rusted-out Bug is not a fine, vintage automobileit is the only car I've ever owned. The engine is vibrating and sputtering madly. The stick shift forces my right handmy entire bodyinto an uncontrollable jittering. Before me, the road seems to plummet. Apparently, I am driving toward the edge of a cliff. I nervously cram the stub of my unfiltered cigarette into the front dash ashtray.
Once, when I was very young, I asked my dad, "Would you drive me to the edge of the world?" He laughed, I recall, and replied, "You can only drive to the edge of the world in a dream." It has taken me fifty years to discover where the world ends. Unfortunately, this discovery is accompanied by the realization that the brakes of my car have failed.
As I roll toward the abyss, I push with all my strength against the brakes, and begin an out-of-control, stop-motion, gasoline engine odyssey over Science Center Hill. I'm confident the brakes will work before whatever inevitable collision occurs, or, failing this, I will simply wake myself from this nightmare.
That is impossible, isn't it? One cannot witness one's own death, recall it, reflect upon it, and really be dead. True, or False? I will include this as an extra credit question on the finala gift for the poorest student. Having failed so many times myself, I've never had the heart to put anyone through the same agony. I suspect I can attribute any success I've had as a teacher to my reputation as a softy. Jesus was just such a softy, wasn't he? I believe that next year is my year to teach the Religions of the World survey. Will there even be a next year? If I could only get these brilliant musings down on paper. There is still time to resurrect my teaching career.
I pass an officer sitting in a parked police cruiser, and I feel a sense of relief. Surely the officer will notice that I've lost control of my vehicle. He'll come to my aid. Looking in the rearview mirror, I see the cruiser turn out into the street. The officer switches on the blue flashing lights. I rumble in slow motion past buildings and street corners, through stop signs and red traffic lights. At each corner I expect a collision. I cringe, brace myself. The impact remains perceptible and imminent, but never occurs.
I make a right, then a left. Each time, I use my directional blinker, hoping to get the officer behind me to believe I am not an escaping criminal. What fugitivewhat guilt-ridden personwould use directional blinkers during a police chase?
The cruiser has its siren on, and now, it is joined by a second cruiser, a third, a fourth, all with lights flashing and sirens wailing. I notice the sound of a helicopter above me. I turn on my yellow emergency flashers. I roll down the driver's side window and begin a wobbly wave with my left hand, trying to communicate that I can't stop this car. I hear a sound like popcorn: pop-pop; pop-pop-pop; pop. The officers are shooting at me. Yeah. I'm a pitiful, lonely Clyde. Bonny was smart enough dump me before the final scene.
I brace myself against the impact of bullets, which somehow remain invisible and harmless. Now the situation becomes more complicated: my lost kitten is sleeping peacefully in the middle of the road ahead of me. As I steamroll towards her, she awakens, yawns, stretches, and casts a playful look of affectionate recognition at me, the driver of the slow-motion runaway auto that is about to crush her to death. The dismay that settles into my mind and body is caused by the recognition that I am about to betray the trust of the County Animal Shelter. My failure as a responsible cat owner will be a confirmation of my long-held, most-feared suspicion: I am bound to fail at whatever I attempt. Oh, shit. Watch out, kitty. Kitty?
The inevitable does not happen. Or does it? I can't remember, and no time to thinkI've got to find Rick and Zack. Two four-year-olds left alone in an apartment could suffer any form of catastrophe, and they are entirely dependent on me to keep them safe.
I stand before the door of my apartment, fumbling with keys. From inside I hear running water. Water begins to flow from under the door, and continues down the hallway into the stairwell. Little Zack is tugging on my pant-leg. How did Zack get into the hallway? Where is Rick?
My twin sons love to sit at my digital piano and compose cacophonous, atonal, aleatoric concerti for four hands, four feet and occasional noses and chins. Mr. Stockhausen, Rick will nod, formally, to Zack before they proceed. Mr. Crumb, Zack will nod in return. They will shake hands. They will begin murdering my piano like a couple of four-year-olds. I am the one who taught them this respectful routine of collegial etiquette.
I push against the door, and, somehow, it opens. My apartment is dark. Zack takes my hand and leads me toward the bathroom. The water in the living room is knee-high, and rising. I take Zack in my arms and wade to the bathroom door. Zack is pressing his finger into the door, trying to show me where Rick is. I manage to get the door open, but I can't see the source of the water. I hear the sound of Rick's muffled cries; I start to panic. Somehow he has become wedged in a crawl space above the bathroom ceiling. He can reach his arm to me through a small opening, which is not large enough for me to get through. I hold onto his hand, which feels so much smaller and more vulnerable than I remember. The water pressure of the ever-rising flood is so great that I can't seem to move.
I can see a larger opening above him. This would offer him a way out, yet I cannot see what obstacles are in the way. I lift Zack so he can crawl through the opening to Rick. I want to let go of both of them, let them find their way to safety, yet I am fearful they'll become confused. A sense of indecision, panic, and desperation begins to overwhelm me.
I attempt to will myself out of witnessing the conclusion to the tragic event a competent father would have known better to avoid.
Rick? Zack? I am swimming downward underwater, holding my breath. What logic is there in thinking I will find air through a determined breaststroke of descent? Each stroke I take turns another notch of the undersea pressure-vice around my chest. Somewhere, if I can swim low enough, I will find a cavern where there is oxygen. Can I get to it before I run out of air? Before the vast weight of the Atlantic Ocean crushes me? I swim along a muddy, downward slope. My lungs feel like they will burst. I haven't been able to get a proper breath since that meeting in the office of the university president.
Feeling with my hands, I find an opening just big enough to fit through. I recognize this as some sort of eel-like sea creature's burrow. I swim down into a narrow tunnel, sensing the presence of long, tiny baby eels around me. I recall reading that baby eels can slither into your ears and eat through to the your feet. Don't they emerge as long, vicious adult-eel ribbons of flesh? You pull and pull as they slide through the soles of your feet, and you never find the end of them. As you pull, they give birth to thousands of baby eels that slither again up your body in search of your aural canals to begin the life cycle anew. The hell of helminths. Just the thought can inspire in me a dangerous nocturnal apneic episode. Where are my nasal pillows? Yet another thing I've lost. Who wants to sleep with someone who snores like a stainless steel spoon caught in a dishwater disposal unit? I will have to raise this question with my students. Do I see hands?
Asphyxia? Choking? No wonder: I believe I have swallowed my long, freshly sharpened No. 2 pencil. This can happen. I put my pencil between my lips to free my hands, I get busy doing other things, I forget about the pencil, andgulp.
Perhaps I haven't swallowed it after all. Perhaps I'm imagining this. Perhaps the No. 2 pencil is still in my shirt pocket. No. Not there. I crawl on the floor on my hands and knees. I grope with my fingers and hands hoping to discover that it has rolled under a chair or table. I remain convinced that the lump in my throat is my pencil. I pick up the phone on a small night table and dial the University Crisis Line. The young male voice that answers belongs to that kid from class who asked me to write a recommendation. Did I ever mail it?
"Campus Crisis Line."
"Hello? Listen, I think I've swallowed a sharp No. 2 pencil. I've looked for it everywhere."
"That's impossible, Prof. Muff."
How did he know my name? "No, I'm sure of it."
"Feeling lonely and helpless, again, Muff?"
"I'm convinced I've swallowed my pencil."
"When did you first notice?"
"A minute ago."
"Muff, if you had swallowed a sharp pencil, you'd be very sick."
He has a point. I admire fresh, healthy young minds. Still, a sense of panic rises like bile in my throat. It is a humiliating feeling to have to turn to a student for emotional support. Moreover, I am not getting the reassurance I need. "Hello?"
The line is dead. No wonder: he has not been taught the purpose of male human nipples. I take a few deep breaths. Can you die from loneliness?
My vintage 1966 Bahama blue VW Beetle has finally rolled to a stop. I can't find my vehicle registration. My insurance card. My driver's license.
"Out of the car, Muff." The officer is one of the Anthropology emeriti, isn't he? The one who became famous for his research on the evolution of urinals? Hah! Scholarly work? Nothing but a coffee table picture book.
I am standing by the side of the road, where there are six cruisers illuminating the night with slow, silent, ghostly flashes of blue light. This street is lined with homes of faculty members, who, I reassure myself, are asleep. Besides, they wouldn't recognize that it is Prof. Muff who is being interrogated by ten police officers.
"What's the rush?" Officer Emeritus asks.
"I've lost my kitten," I say.
"HE'S LOST HIS KITTEN!" the officer yells to the other officers in a voice loud enough to wake the entire university. All ten officers erupt in laughter, scoffs and jeers. I see lights coming on in bedroom windows, familiar-looking faces peering out.
The next thing I know, my arms are behind my back, handcuffs are on my wrists. This is not pleasant. I am pushed into the back of a cruiser. I am being driven off into the night. This is an agonizing, humiliating turn of events.
The cruiser makes several turns. We seem to be driving in circles. Eventually we stop behind what I think is the football stadium. Officer Emeritus opens the cruiser door and leads me into a subterranean area where he pushes open a door labeled MEN'S LOCKER ROOM. It is remarkable to me to realize that our home team shower also serves as entrance to a secret, underground university detention center.
"These handcuffs are too tight," I say again.
"Don't worry. Those are double-locking," Officer Emeritus says.
"I don't know what that means," I reply.
"Means they wouldn't even hurt your little puss-puss."
I am offended. "What do you know about my little cat?"
He makes no reply. He leads me into a processing room resembling a doctor's office. There are chairs with filthy, olive-green cushions. On the wall is a large screen TV, where an unscrupulous-looking, drunkenly-garrulous financial analyst is babbling about a lucrative bubble in competitor-free disaster-relief schemes.
A young female student enters the room and sits on an olive-green-cushioned chair next to me. The cushion emits a swoosh of stale air as she sits. She is that giggling student from my class. Her prison guard uniform is as white as a nurse's smock. She begins writing on a clipboard.
"You know my name. Look"
"First Name," she repeats sternly.
"You don't have to spell, Professor Muff. Middle?"
"Mufflemann." I reply. Then I add, so as not to confuse the record, "The Third."
The girl lets out that familiar giggle, which echoes eerily through the concrete structure. She stands, opens a door, and shouts into the area beyond the waiting room, "HEY. Listen to THIS. The guy wants to be called THE THIRD." I hear guffaws coming from the other room.
She motions to me to follow her through the door. I pass into a large, dark room lined with small cells. Each cell contains a bed and a toilet. There appears to be a person sleeping on the bed of each cell. Aggressive-sounding rock music blares from speakers hidden somewhere. It sounds like the sort of music they would have playing in an attack vehicle during a military assault on a distant desert.
The young female student guard confers with a young male student guard. He only has seven dollars, I hear her say.
He calls over to me, "Where's the rest of the money?"
"There is no other money," I say. They think you get rich teaching?
"No crazy money hidden away, in the car or something?
"I have no idea what you mean by crazy money," I reply. This isn't a nice job for a kid to have: all-night guard duty in a university jail. What sort of college work-study are they offering young war veterans these days?
The female student guard leads me into a cell with a thick door and glass walls. There are four benches along the wall, and, in the rear, a half-wall partition, steel toilet and sink. Two men in the cell look at me as I sit down across from them. I think I remember these bums: Humanities. So, this is what happened.
For a few minutes we are silent. I listen to the sounds of the detention center: the rock music, and every once in a while the weird giggle of the female student prison guard. In class, I'd hear the giggle from the back of the room every time I'd say something particularly meaningful. It is amazing how that giggle echoes and echoes and echoes here in the middle of the night.
So, this is what it's like to be trapped in a locked room, to be robbed of my personal liberties, to be completely dependent on the will of prison guards, to be held without being charged, to be 'detained'. This euphemism bothers me. Isn't life a form of detention? Death a form of 'extraordinary rendition'? My students need to know about this: must a human being confess to crimes assigned randomly to him at birth, when, in fact, he never asked to be born in the first place, and therefore had no criminal intent?
I have the thought that my cellmatesthese ex-humanities colleaguescould be assassins or terrorists. HIV-positive. And what would keep them from assaulting me? The man on the left is a big, dark-skinned man. On the right, a muscular, tattooed man in a T-shirt, with a sparse beard. His skin is toughened and lean. In this environment anyone looks like a criminal. And me?
Often, when I lecture, I bite my lip. It is a sign of concentration. The head of the department once said to me, stop biting your lip when you teach, Muff, you look like youre not in control. How do you hope to gain the respect of your students with such a miserable, lost look?
"Why are you crying, Muff?" the tattooed ex-humanities professor says.
"Me?" I say, somewhat startled and embarrassed.
"Looks like your lower lip is trembling. Like you're crying."
The other ex-humanities professor gets up from his bench, walks over, sits next to me. There is gentleness in his presence, despite the thick forearms and large biceps, which could strangle me in a moment.
"Don't worry." he says. "I'll protect you here."
I wonder if this how it happens: how a mutually beneficial prison relationship begins: how comfort's bartered for.
"I'm not crying," I say rather unconvincingly. "I'm biting my lip. I do this sometimes."
There is a jangle of keys. The cell door opens. "Muff, you get to make a call," the young female student guard says. I nod, and she leads me to a desk where there is a phone. From the distance I hear the tattooed ex-humanities professor pounding like an animal on the door of the cell I've just left.
"Why did they arrest me?" I ask her.
"You don't know?" she scoffs.
She giggles in that eerie way.
I have to find someone who can help. I dial the four-digit campus extension I am very familiar with. The phone rings three times.
"Campus Crisis Line," that comforting voice of one of my promising male students replies. He always sounds so hopeful and cheery at the beginning of a call.
"I need help," I say.
"Prof. Muff," the student sighs, "do you know what is tacked to the bulletin board in the Campus Crisis Line office?"
"No, I don't believe I do."
"It is a list of chronic callers. These are people we cannot help because they refuse to accept help. They are sick. We can't be allowed to waste our time on pathetic repeat callers. Don't you have any respect for yourself?"
Since when do I tolerate a lecture from an 18-year-old? "Look, okay. I've called perhaps once or twice too often. But listen. I'm really in trouble this time. I've been arrested. I think I'm being held in a secret university prison. It can only be entered through the men's room in the lower regions of the football stadium."
"Look, Muff. I like you. I think, with help, you could become one of the most popular teachers at this university."
"I suspect I've been arrested for Failure to Teach. Do you think that is a legitimate reason to arrest someone?"
"Muff, Muff, Muff," he says. I can almost see him shake his head. "Everyone knows you're not qualified to teach that survey course."
"The Art of Dying? Look, I've been doing research," I say, emphatically. "I think I'm becoming an expert."
"Muff, it's against Campus Crisis Line policy, but why don't I offer one or two suggestions."
"Go on, then. Suggest." My heart is racing.
"Listen. There's still time to set things straight. You give your students Incompletes. Then, during holiday break, you take all of us to a tropical island beach resort. You know the kind? Sun? Sand? Volleyball? Plenty of alcohol, drugs, sex? I could get the word out that you are going to lead a class conference. You will give us fact sheets, PowerPoints, whateverthough no one will actually attend. After the final examthe grading of which reveals the compassionate side of youeveryone goes home. You convert the Incoms to inflated grades. Your worries vanish. After student evaluations, you are Professor-of-the-Year.
"Do it, Muff. Good for you. Good for your students."
Before I can reply, the phone goes dead as if the line had been severed. I notice that water is seeping under the exterior doors of the prison. The lights are flickering. Where did everyone go? Why is it suddenly so silent? No music. No bone-chilling, tormenting giggling. And all of the cells have been emptied. I am alone in this dank prison. Hey, you forgot me. The doors are locked. The water rising to my waist, my chest, my chin. I shiver, shutter, tremble, lift my face to find the last bit of air.
Damn. Why does this storm surge keep following me? I'd feel better if I'd taken the time to untangle those earmuffs from the socks, underwear and condoms in my dresser drawer.
I think I can still make the plane. I run to the head of the security line, carelessly stepping on feet, pushing my way ahead. Once again, this slow-motion race. Am I proceeding forward, or is Terminal M slipping backward? I throw my carry-on garment bag, my laptop onto the processing belt. I don't bother to retrieve them. As I slow-dash through the fast food area, I plow into a fortyish, well-dressed businessman, the kind you see in full-recline in newspapers ads for expensive overseas airlines with first class Pullman-car interiors. He has been talking on a cell phone in an all-too-loud, all-too-aren't-I-impressed-with-myself voice. The collision sends him sprawling, his cell phone tumbling through the air. The phone lands in the stainless steel refried beans container of the Below-The-Belt Buffet. I am impressed by the spontaneous outbursts of applause and cheers rippling throughout the concourse behind me. Can I be such a hero? The terrifying thought of being successful at anything forces both of my calves into painful cramps.
The waiting area at Gate 9 is empty; the passengers have already boarded this tropical-paradise-bound jet. The metal of the boarding ramp rings hollow, metallic echoes of my footsteps. The door of the jet is still open. A flight attendant stands as if she were waiting for me. I recognize this figure. This is the same beautiful woman who was the hostess at the Crustacean Society lounge. She is so very familiar to me.
"You're working here?" I say.
"Never get anywhere on time, do you, Muff?"
"You're an air hostess now? Thanks for holding the plane."
"Not for you," she answers coldly. "A last minute oil pressure check on engine three."
I look through the crack between the boarding ramp and the plane. My gaze extends along the smooth silver of the plane's sides, across the wing to the tail. An engine is on fire.
"Engine three?" I say, alarmed.
"We have things under control. Are you getting on, or staying here?"
"There's one vacant seat at the rear of the plane. Hurry, you're holding things up."
This woman looks very attractive in the airline's retro-miniskirt-Nancy-Sinatra-thigh-high-leather-boots air hostess uniform. The symbolism of these leather boots, and the song to which they refer, that is, whom they're going to walk all over, is not lost on me.
The door closes behind me, and I begin a slow-motion, moon-walking dance down the long aisle to the one empty seat at the rear. Immediately upon entering the plane, I see that all of the passengers are the students of my survey class. This is a great relief to me. I have finally found them. Only, I just as quickly realize that as I saunter and slow-dance down the aisle, I am completely naked, and every eye of every passengerall of them my studentsis fixed on my naked groin.
Midway down the aisle that very familiar young, giggly female student stands, and puts a hand over her mouth. Her fingernails are painted cherry red. She has red lipstick. She smells of cheap bath soap, the kind of synthetic fragrance that gives me asthma.
"GAWD!" She giggles, and points a cherry-red-tipped finger. "He has a foreskin!"
There is derisive laughter from my students, and from the crew of the plane, who have neglected to disengage the public address system. The young female student continues, by way of explanation, "I've never seen Muff without an erection. I had no way of knowing whether he was circumcised or not."
A falsehood. In fact, I am circumcisedcommon practice for a non-Catholic 1950's male infant. Yet, how can I prove it? Despite my innocence, the student's words awake in me, beyond my control, a healthy erection, which grows steadily and swiftly until it is as hard as the trunk of a seaward-slanting Buccaneer Palm at the edge of Montagu Bay. Everyone on the plane watches the progress. This dream is inappropriate. I did not choose to be in it. What a thief, the sleeping mind.
"This is not true," I say, trying to deny the obvious. "This is one big LIE!" I am fully aware of the intense, angry glare of the air hostess in the Nancy Sinatra boots. Indeed, there are some things I forgot to tell her.
"Please direct your attention to the front of the plane," a voice says over the speaker. A video begins playing on various screens above seat backsa preflight informational briefing and demonstration of the various features of the female sexual anatomy. My air hostess is holding a plastic take-apart model of the womb.
Here, point by point, the preflight demonstration video is thorough: vulva, mons veneris, labia majora and minora, clitoris, urethra, Bartholin glands, perineum, vagina, Dr. Gräfenberg's famous erotogenic zone (one of many, for Gräfenberg wrote: there is no spot on the female body from which sexual desire can not be aroused), cervix, uterus, ovaries, rectum. The air hostess demonstrates the location of each by taking apart the model, pointing with an index finger. There is no longer a ring on that left hand.
The announcer on the preflight videothe voice of my male student crisis line volunteercontinues, "Direct your attention to Professor Muff, standing by seat 23B. Muff, Muff, Muff: a woman's affection is extremely fragile. Do you still believe the problem lay in your angle or manner of entry, or in your failure to seize the timely opportunity to engage in coitus a posteriori?"
Why do I let myself be lectured to by an 18-year-old? I want to reply to the preflight demonstration video, defend myself. Indeed, isn't that a shadow of sympathy for me in the face of the air hostess? Does she really, still?
"Muff, Muff, Muff. Have you ever earned anyone's trust?" Having made his point, the announcer goes on to demonstrate other urgent procedures: "in-flight sexual arousal will automatically release condoms located above your seat." The air hostess is now strutting down the aisle holding a limp condom as if it were a demonstration of an oxygen mask. Why do humans of every generation insist on discovering for themselves that casual sex leads to unhappiness?
The plane is gaining speed down the runway, and the force of the acceleration causes me to fall into the lap of the young female student with cherry-red nails. She pays no attention, but continues reading a story in the student newspaper with the headline PANTY SEX: NEWEST CAMPUS CRAZE.
What the heck is panty sex? I want to tell this young woman that she ought to get together with her classmate from the Crisis LineI think they would make a good pair but something else causes concern. The jet, with its whining engines, seems to be taking too long to lift into the air. I wait for the familiar tilt of the nosewheel, but this never comes. Out the window, the buildings of the airport pass by in a blur, and then buildings of a city, highways, trees. Why aren't we lifting off? A crash is imminent.
Mountains go by; we seem to be flying through them. The plane lunges forward. Still, the high-pitched labor of the engines. Am I the only one concerned with this? Nothing to do but prepare myself for whatever devastating impact awaits, and I imagine there will be more than one, for I've heard this about air disasters. I find myself withdrawing into the emergency brace position, something that brings back vague memories of being a cramped fetus. I want to present this to my class: it is possible to recall experiences from the womb. True, of False? Defend your answer.
I feel sadness. So many young, talented studentsmy students. What have I done? This is my fault. I am to blame for this onslaught of tragedy.
I am alone, falling, falling through clouds and mist. It is terribly cold in the downward rush against wind, and, now more than ever, I wish I had remembered my earmuffs. I believe I must appear as a lonely blipa lost, doomed little piece of cloudon the meager radar of some desolate weather station. I cannot tell how high I am. There is time to think, isn't there? I am somewhat less concerned about the approaching groundrather peaceful-looking farmland in an arid part of the country dotted with perfect circles, where irrigation sprinklers travel the circumference of fertile plots of cropland overturned in vulva-like furrows than I am that my students will have to meet without me. This is a great disappointment.
I think I have included in the syllabus of the course the well-known study concerning the impossibility of dreaming your own death. This is essential information. We cannot be aware of an event that occurs after we cease to exist as living, thinking beings. If we remain alive, that is, able to reflect, reassure ourselves and others, seek comfort in the living, give and find forgiveness, the thing we fear most did not, in fact, occur. Thus, there is no reason to be afraid of dying. Death existsbetter: ceases to existbeyond our capacity to think. As far as we know, there is no death. What a relief.
I must turn this into the final essay question: use information found in your notes to refute or defend the above postulate. Oh, dear. They are all going to fail.
I can no longer see the landscape into which I am plummeting. I wonder if I can will myself into a conscious state, and thus alter the circumstances. Still, I cannot seem to shake myself out of a creeping feeling of paralysis. I cannot move a single limb, or raise my head. I am an enemy combatantboth lawful and unlawfulagainst my own sleeping mind.
I am certain that the event I am witnessing is my own funeral. The pews of University Chapela drafty, Romanesque stone sanctuary I found to be a dreary, unforgiving placeare nearly empty. I would have preferred the Buddhist room, with its small red pillows on the floor. Better yet, an informal scattering of ashes from the windy top of the Science Center.
There is a student choir singing, accompanied by a student orchestra. I am pleased to see that the members of the choir and orchestra are the students from my survey class. Wonderful, how talented they are, really. They seem to be performing a requiem, which I, myself, have composed. Am I capable of such beautiful, compassionate music? Music that makes people weep? If I could only remember this, write it down immediately. Is the human mind so capable if only left to the guidance of subconscious thought? I must suggest this to my students: a composer, like Beethoven, speaks to eternal generations simply by getting his thoughts on paper. Every time you play a Beethoven piano sonata, for example, this long-dead human being invites you into his bed. In this tasksharing my human experience with countless human generations and thus offering comfort to the unbornI have failed, miserably.
As the service ends, I stand in a long reception line. There is a table covered with a white tablecloth and platters of post-funereal finger food: egg, ham and tuna salad sandwiches on small doughy white bread buns. I hate egg salad. I hate tuna salad. I hateespecially hateham salad on soggy miniature white bread buns.
The purpose of this line is to offer a few consoling words to family, and I can see a woman at the head of the line shaking hands with guests, smiling, speaking quietly. Is she crying? I want the line to move more quickly so that I can speak with her, myself. There are many things I have forgotten to tell her.
A young man in front of me turns. "Hello, Prof. Muff," he says. "Did you know yourself?" This is that student volunteer from the Crisis Line.
"What do you mean, did I know myself?"
"That is what you say at funerals, right? Did you know so-and-so, the deceased?"
"I see. Well, not very well, I suppose. It was a casual acquaintance. I" The student has become distracted talking to his giggly female classmate. Wonderful, that my funeral has finally gotten these two outstanding kids together. I'm glad I don't have to elaborate on the answer. Suddenly, my tongue feels paralyzed.
Paralysis is one of the symptoms of the new virus. I remember, now. The virus has taken this long to swim through my system, hungrily ambushing white blood cells, each cell as helpless as Custer and the Seventh on the prickly-pear-strewn Montana grassland. My throat is scratchy. A rash on my knees. I wonder: is it possible to die after you are already dead? This new question remains interesting to me: not rebirth, but redeath. I will have to raise this issue with my students. Yes: another extra credit question, in an endless array of extra credit questions for thoselike mewho are continually on an odyssey of failure. And that brings another point to mind: in my dream-journey I seem to have become a sort of reverse Odysseus. Therefore, I must be returning to some sort of reverse Penelope.
I cough. The rattle in my lungs causes everyone in University Chapel to turn and stare at me. I realize I am the least interesting thing in my extraordinarily uninteresting life. This, of course, my worst fear.
My doorbell is ringing. I've been hearing this for awhile, confusing the sound with other things: the tinkling of the finger cymbals of white-robbed monks snaking their way in a long line up the craggy slopes of a mountainous region: the pleasant sound of bamboo wind chimes suspended from the eaves of a secluded hut: the musical pinging of a soft electronic rain, which seems to be part of a new dream-composition of mine.
My alarm clock, perhaps? No. The doorbell. I rise, walk through the living room, and open the door. There stands the beautiful hostess from the Crustacean Society Lounge, the woman with fragile Aurelia aurita breasts, the lovely air hostess from University Airlines. She no longer wears the miniskirt and Nancy Sinatra boots. I'm encouraged by this: she is still the person I can't stop loving.
She is wearing my earmuffs. She is cradling my cat in her arms. In her right hand, she holds my No. 2 pencil, and my nasal pillows. Her left hand is holding Rick's little four-year-old hand. Rick's other little hand is holding the hand of brother Zack. She is the most beautiful woman in the world. This is the most beautiful family in the world.
"I'm returning the things you've lost," she says.
I note, with an increasing sense of relief, that she has included herself among these items. "But...my students?"
She frowns. For a second or two we are silent. Then, she laughs and laughs. I've almost forgotten how wonderful it is to plant numerous light kisses all over this familiar, laughing face and mouth, how wonderful it is to tumble into bed and make love for long, lovely hours, to feel the magic energy of her warm, naked body, to drift into peaceful, luscious, luxurious sleep.
This is real. I'm certain. Isn't it? I believe it is entirely possible to find the things you've lost. I must present this to my students: sometimes, against all odds, you wake with an unmistakable feeling of happiness, if only for a moment.
True, or False?