Love & Sex

How Love Letters from My Horny College Professor Changed My Idea of Sex

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I am waking up the neighbors thinking about you.

The old joke is that if you ever go through the trouble of having an affair with your professor, you better get an A. The lines begin to blur when you take the class pass/fail and when, well, you don't actually go through with an affair.

I was sitting in the grad lounge of my college, where my writing professor had taken me and my classmates to celebrate the end of the semester. He walked up behind me and whispered the Beatles lyric, "Everybody had a hard year," low in my ear. He placed a new pitcher of beer down on the table in front of me wordlessly and my underage hands stealthily poured from it. Catching on to the game, I announced the next line to the entire table, "Everybody had a wet dream." A few classmates giggled at my non sequitur, but my professor just gave me a concentrated look. It was a familiar, urgent gaze I recognized from the faces of the men who had kissed me, pushed me up against walls without hesitation or consequence. I was 20 years-old and didn't know what to do with those looks when they cropped up in unlikely places, from the eyes of men 16 years my senior. Especially from men who had spent a semester working through my first drafts and schooling me on the merits of Borges. I had enjoyed the look just as much as it terrified me.

The first email from him came after our end of the semester fiction reading. It was filled with typical what-are-you-doing-this-summer formalities, only amplified. "I enjoyed you so much as my student. Your writing is already at the level greater than mine when I was your age. Would you mind taking a look at this piece I wrote?" As I read, my eyes had welled up with tears. I was taken aback, and since I'd spent all semester admiring the mind of this odd yet wise writing professor, I was intrigued.

He wasn't particularly handsome. He was a few inches taller than me, with short brown hair, a wide nose, and the rounded moon belly of a man who didn't sleep enough. But he had the charm and harmless nature of a thin James Gandolfini. It was an off-putting and rugged sexuality, like you could guess he enjoyed going down on women from the way he licked his lips mid-sentence.

Your hips remind me of my ex-girlfriend's hips.

The next email from him was equally generous, including the promised draft of a story he was hoping to market to literary journals. But then, at the very end, was a faint hint of what I'd always seen after class. "Your hips remind me of my ex-girlfriend's hips." A small thrill went through me. I foolishly typed back about my new salad dressing recipe, what I'd been working on, how Pale Fire was fucking impossible to get through (the irony that I was reading Nabakov that summer isn't lost on me). I didn't touch that last sentence, though. I pretended I hadn't read it. "Remember when you once reprimanded all the boys in class for checking out a leggy blonde while I was doing a reading?" I remarked instead. I was trying to grasp for straws, conjuring up any anecdote that could justify the urgency with which I felt I must write this man back.

I soon became addicted to the emails. It wasn't that they turned me on. I wasn't throwing back the covers and feverishly masturbating to the inflated version of myself he saw. But they did feel good. They were daily sparks of reassurance as I waded through my menial summer job at an art gallery back home in New England. Since it was a time before at-the-hip smartphones, I had to wait until after 8 p.m. each night to get them. I was taking my time with them, composing Mini Yahoo! Mail novels. When I'd take a few days off, he'd write me, "You know, it's been a couple of days since we exchanged e-mails, and now I get this one of yours, and suddenly, abruptly, intensely, brutally, I realize how much I've missed them." There was no embarrassment in our correspondence, no cause to censor myself. Pubic hair, chronic illnesses, depression, menstruation, canned corn — no topic was left uncovered. He was my professor, just my old, friendly professor and I was his very good friend.

Then, after three-and-a-half weeks of this letter writing marathon, our modest, yet compulsive, flirtation came to a head. "I cannot shake off the powerful, beautiful intensity of your stare, of the way your eyes look when they look at things or people. I distinctly remember the almost physical pleasure I experienced each time you looked at me, and I had to make a superhuman effort to try to look professional and not dissolve myself in the beauty of that look," he wrote. I, not knowing what to do, answered demurely. 

Can you fire me? Nope.

About two hours later, I got the email I'd half expected, obviously wanted, and would never know how to deflect. "I'm still so floored I don't even know where to begin. I'd better not begin, because I don't know where that might lead. You're just fascinating, and so talented, and so funny, and so smart, and so sexy. Okay, I put it on the table. Fuck it. [redacted university]: fire me! Hands down. But you know what, [redacted university]? She's not my student anymore, ha! Can you fire me? Nope. (I hope not, at least). You are one of the — if not the — most amazing woman I've ever met."

Now would be a good time to inform you that I was in a committed two-year relationship during this summer. I had never mentioned this to my professor. Throughout the 50 odd emails I'd sent him, I'd managed to omit this very important bit of personal information. It was partly because I wanted to nurse what I sensed what a nascent attraction between he and I, but it was mostly because I was willing to give myself over to the power of talking to someone who I thought, for the first time, was a mental match for me. I hadn't needed to talk about my boyfriend. He was sweet, generous, funny, but not highly verbal. I was being offered the chance to get a certain illicit fix with a man who was undoubtedly smarter than I was, and, for reasons unbeknownst to me, was crazy for me. "I don't know why I've never told you I have a boyfriend, I think you can guess."

He didn't mind. "I feel safe in the sense that you are into this guy, and, well, nothing, then, can happen between us. So I feel safe and therefore am taking the liberty to put on the table the fact that I'm altogether pleased with you, fascinated by you. In a nearby possible world, we'd so have something," he replied.

The emails continued at the steady pace of two people who could hide behind the glass wall of passionate, remote words. My boyfriend would spend some weekends with me, going to the beach, laughing, having genuinely good sex. Yet every time his car drove away, the first thing I felt moved to do was check my email, pour out another 800 words to my lover-at-large. If I'm honest, a part of me was feigning an "unfathomable confusion" I claimed to have. If my professor stopped emailing me, I'd lose my high. I would no longer be under the warmth of that sun.

But, the words kept coming. "I so need to have sex!!! And I can think of having sex only with you, but of course the latter is out of the question. (Am I being too blunt? Well, I guess we're past the "blunt" stage whereas my visceral impulse would be to get together with you — and me and you would (ideally, not in this world) talk and talk and talk and make love and make love and make love, until you understood how amazing I think you are," he told me in one of his less discreet moments. It was decided. I'd meet up with him when I got back into town, but we were just going to talk. We were just going to talk, I repeated to myself.

A few weeks later, I slid into the booth of the restaurant across from him. I was wearing a tight, black minidress that I was half-wearing because it was 80 degrees out and half-wearing because I looked excellent in it. The summer had treated him well — the moon belly had waned and his face was flush from the heat. I wasn't sure how our real-life rapport would translate to this dimly lit library in the back of a pub. "I took you here for the books," he said. "Well, do you want me to read them in front of you?" I replied. He gave me a wolfish grin. I was teasing him like I could with any old friend and soon he was regaling me with tales from his graduate school, one in which a French woman had come over his apartment in the middle of the night and begged him to pee across her back. I lost it.

By the end of the night I had three beers, barely touched my soggy salad, and he had insisted on picking up the check. "I gotta go home. Want to walk me to the bus stop?" I'd asked after a few hours. I was drawing a line. I thought of my boyfriend studying at home. I thought of the consequences of post coital campus run-ins in the library. But mostly, I thought of his face, our faces, after we'd finished screwing one another and realized our limbs could never live up to the hype of our letters. "Friends?" I'd smiled as I gave him a hug that lingered a little too long. "Friends," he winced, nodded, and watched me step on the bus.

At home I was met with an email that, for once, I hadn't really expected. "Why’d you have to wear the black dress? I’m waking up my neighbors thinking about you." I had turned off the fantasy, but he was still living in it. Still hoping I'd crawl back, copy and paste a conflicted Neruda poem into Yahoo, and meet for a cocktail tomorrow.

He was just one of the first men I came close to the edge of fucking. One of the few guys where it felt more gratifying to almost get there with than actually get there. As I'd sat in my modest, damp room inside my mother's house earlier that summer, my keyboard clacking furiously, I'd come close to picturing the world — that ideal world — that my professor had created. I'd go over to his humble apartment, which would be filled with a warm black leather couch, purple drapes, exposed brick wall, and a romanesque tin ceiling. We'd be listening to a record, some Otis Redding, I guess, and he'd be showing me some out-of-print James Purdy novel when the the tips of our fingers would meet and I'd sort of just slip my legs over his lap. I knew what the salt of his mouth would taste like, I knew what it'd sound like if he sighed. The image was so overwrought, so well rehearsed in my mind, that a timid, chickenshit person like me would never need to take the risk and actually fuck him. Besides, it wouldn't have ever been good. The sex could never be as florid, self-indulgent, manicured, and pyretic as the letters we'd exchanged. Our emails had outgrown the bed. Sex is always something cruder, yet no less fascinating, than words.

For the next year, when I'd look across the library and see him, I'd always keep a few steps back. There he was, leaning over a desk. Pudgy, curious, aloof. Whatever had captured me that summer, it had passed.

Image via IFC Films.