All my life I’ve been haunted by the phrase “Once an X, Always an X.” It started when I left the Midwest of my birth and rearing and went Out East for college: I spent years trying to hide my Illinois accent and knowledge of nitrogen cycles and fit in with all the Andover kids. But once a Midwesterner, always a Midwesterner, as I would soon find out on the squash court among other places. Around the same time I also tried to make the uncomfortable switch from being a Math Person to being a Book Person. Jesus, all those pages, all those character names and nicknames I thought I’d never keep the Buendía family or the Karamazov brothers straight.
Eventually I did succeed in becoming a Book Person and went on to get a Ph.D., only then to leave the academy and try my way in the all-too-real world. The big question, of course, was whether I could shake off my academic trappings, stop quoting Spenser at dinner parties and learn to leave the bowties in the closet. It was a painful lesson to realize that it didn’t behoove me to flip through Latin flashcards while waiting in line at a club, nor to smoke a pipe at a rock concert. So I adapted, slowly. For some us of, it’s hard to be young, and I seemed to learn how only after all my youth had faded.
But the fact is, even though I am now decked out in the same hipster duds that all the kids are wearing, and working for one of those new-fangled dot com things (whatever that means), I am still a geek and always will be. It’s my nature, through and through. So I take great joy (and experience very little guilt) going back and re-reading David Lodge’s lighthearted academic send-ups, Small World and Changing Places. One of Lodge’s characters is modeled on an old professor of mine, resulting, for me, in a strange collapsing of past and present, fictional and real. It’s a small world indeed, and Lodge’s warmth and humor keeps it spinning.
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From Small World by David Lodge
“I was sitting opposite Joy. She was wearing a soft blue velour dressing gown with a hood, and a zip that went from hem to throat . . . Joy was, I guessed, in her early thirties, with fair wavy hair and blue eyes. A rather heavy chin, but with a wide, generous mouth, full lips. She had a trace of a northern accent, Yorkshire I thought. She did a little English teaching, conversation classes at the university, but basically saw her role as supporting her husband’s career. I daresay she made the effort to get up and be hospitable to me for his sake. Well, as we talked, and ate, and drank, I suddenly felt myself overcome with the most powerful desire for Joy.
“It was as if, having passed through the shadow of death, I had suddenly recovered an appetite for life that I thought I had lost forever, since returning from America to England. In a way it was keener than anything I had ever known before. The food pierced me with its exquisite flavours, the tea was fragrant as ambrosia, and the woman sitting opposite to me seemed unbearably beautiful, all the more because she was totally unconscious of her attractions for me. Her hair was tousled and her face was pale and puffy from sleep, and she had no make-up or lipstick on, of course. She sat quietly, cradling her mug of tea in both hands, not saying much, smiling faintly at her husband’s jokes, as if she’d heard them before. I honestly think that I would have felt just the same about any woman, in that situation, at that moment, who wasn’t downright ugly. Joy just represented woman for me then. She was like Milton’s Eve, Adam’s dream he woke and found it true, as Keats says. I suddenly thought how nice women were. How soft and kind. How lovely it would be, how natural, to go across and put my arms round her, to bury my head in her lap. All this while Simpson was telling me about the appalling standards of English-language teaching in Italian secondary schools. Eventually he glanced at his watch and said that it had gone four, and instead of going back to bed he thought he would drive to Milan while he was wide awake and rest when he got there. He was taking the Council car, he told me, so Joy would run me to the airport in theirs.
“He had his bag already packed, so it was only a few minutes before he was gone. We shook hands, and he wished me better luck with my flight the next day. Joy went with him to the front door of the apartment, and I heard them kiss goodbye. She came back into the living room, looking a little shy. The blue dressing gown was a couple of inches too long for her, and she had to hold up the skirt in front of her it gave her a courtly, vaguely medieval air as she came back into the room. I noticed that her feet were bare. ‘I’m sure you’d like to get some sleep now,’ she said. ‘There is a second bed in Gerard’s room, but if I put you in there he might be scared when he wakes up in the morning.’ I said the sofa would be fine. ‘But Gerard gets up frightfully early, I’m afraid he’ll disturb you,’ she said. ‘If you don’t mind taking our bed, I could quite easily go into his room myself.’ I said no, no; she pressed me and said would I just give her a few moments to change the sheets, and I said I wouldn’t dream of putting her to such trouble. The thought of that bed, still warm from her body, was too much for me. I started to shake all over with the effort to stop myself from taking an irrevocable leap into moral space, pulling on the zip tab at her throat like a parachute ripcord, and falling with her to the floor.
“Anyway, there we were looking at each other. We heard a car accelerate away outside, down the hill, Simpson presumably. ‘What’s the matter?’ she said, ‘You’re trembling all over.’ She was trembling herself a litt1e. I said I supposed it was shock. Delayed reaction. She gave me some more brandy, and swallowed some herself. I could tell that she knew it wasn’t really shock that was making me tremble, that it was herself, her proximity, but she couldn’t quite credit her own intuition. ‘You’d better lie down,’ she said, ‘I’ll show you the bedroom.’
“I followed her into the main bedroom. It was lit by a single bedside lamp with a purple shade. There was a large double bed with a duvet half thrown back. She straightened it out and plumped the pillows. I was still shaking all over. She asked me if I would like a hot water bottle. I said, ‘There’s only one thing that would stop me shaking like this. If you would put your arms round me . . .’
“Although it was a dim light in the room, I could see that she went very red. ‘I can’t do that,’ she said. ‘You shouldn’t ask me.’ ‘Please,’ I said, and took a step towards.
“Ninety-nine women out of a hundred would have walked straight out of the room, perhaps slapped my face. But Joy just stood there. I stepped up close to her and put my arms round her. God, it was wonderful. I could feel the warmth of her breasts coming through the velour dressing gown and my shirt. She put her arms round me and gently clasped my back. I stopped shaking as if by magic. I had my chin on her shoulder and I was moaning and raving into her ear about how wonderful and generous and beautiful she was, and what ecstasy it was to hold her in my arms, and how I felt reconnected to the earth and the life force and all kinds of romantic nonsense. And all the time I was looking at myself reflected in the dressing-table mirror, in this weird purple light, my chin on her shoulder, my hands moving over her back, as if I were watching a film or looking into a crystal ball. It didn’t seem possible that it was really happening. I saw my hands slide down the small of her back and cup her buttocks, bunching the skirt of her dressing gown, and I said to the man in the mirror, silently, in my head, you’re crazy, now she’ll break away, slap your face, scream for help. But she didn’t. I saw her back arch and felt her press against me. I swayed, and staggered slightly, and as I recovered my balance I altered my position a little, and now in the mirror I could see her face, reflected in another mirror on the other side of the room, and, my God, there was an expression of total abandonment on it, her eyes were half shut and her lips were parted and she was smiling. Smiling! So I pulled back my head and kissed her, full on the lips. Her tongue went straight into my mouth like a warm eel. I pulled gently at the zip on the front of her dressing gown and slid my hand inside. She was naked underneath it.
“I slipped the dressing gown from her shoulders, and it crackled with static electricity as it slid off and settled at her feet. I fell on my knees and buried my face in her belly. She ran her fingers through my hair, and dug her nails into my shoulders. I lay her down on the bed and began to tear off my clothes with one hand while I kept stroking her with the other, afraid that if I once let go of her, I would lose her. I had just enough presence of mind to ask if she was protected, and she nodded, without opening her eyes. Then we made love. There was nothing particularly subtle or prolonged about it, but I’ve never had an orgasm like it, before or since. I felt I was defying death, fucking my way out of the grave. She had to put her hand over my mouth, to stop me from shouting her name aloud: Joy, Joy, Joy.”