Coed – episode 3

This is episode 3 of “Coed”, a short story about fusion – two persons coming together to share a single body.  If you haven’t yet read episode 1, start here.

The next few days of cohabitation are comparatively peaceful.  Although more spills occur, they are genuine accidents, the inevitable price of learning.  Once May realizes the futility of obstructing him, Jerry’s motor skills improve.  In exchange for her cooperation, Jerry observes certain taboos.  She does not need to tell him, even silently, what they are; his awareness of her sensibilities has sharpened remarkably.  He does not mind too much, finding an unexpected, heady pleasure in his new situation – the joy of youthful health.  I had no idea how my vision was greying out, he announces one sparkling morning, the same day be begins seriously thinking how to get his job back.

For her part, May wonders how she could have tolerated, for so long, her vapid, callow ignorance.  The competence of experience, the wit of scholarship, the rich memories of people known and places inhabited, are a bonanza beside which the formerly-known wealth of Jerry’s conversation seems a pale shadow.  And there are other, more practical reasons to reconcile herself to Jerry, as he constantly reminds her.  Her prospects for success in the jungle of academe (she had not realized what a jungle it is), formerly shaky (she had not realized how shaky, either), are now as good as gold.

We’ll call on Ginger, Jerry decides.  He can be browbeaten.

Why browbeaten? May wonders.  It’s only reasonable that we should get the job.

It is only reasonable.  Unfortunately, the best of reasons won’t sway Ginger unless they cloak a threat.

Threat?  I don’t know if I can do that, Jerry.

You don’t have to.  I’ll do the talking.  His wife Suzanne, you know, lived for some time with a lunatic sculptor.  After he threatened her with a chisel, she was desperate to come home, which would have been the worst possible turn of events for poor Ginger.  Happily, I was able to advise him.

May feels comforted, although mystified by the story.  Should we ask  for an appointment?

God no!  It’s futile to talk to Ginger in his office.  It gives him a paralyzing sense of his duty as Department Chairman.  If he’s going to do anything helpful – i.e. improper – we’ll have to catch him for lunch.

We’d better get dressed, then. Turning towards the bedroom, May concocts an image of herself which disturbs Jerry profoundly.

I don’t want to look like that! he protests.  If I’m dealing with Ginger, I must project my own persona.  Just jeans and a T-shirt, please.

That’s not how I’d go about asking this guy for help, May demurs.  The thought of herself in Jerry-style clothes contrasts poorly with her own choice, involving a pinky-beige blouse, eye-catching toenail polish, and a challenging whiff of Fly-by-Night perfume.  Feeling Jerry’s unease with such accoutrements, she lets him have his way.  This time, he’s driving.

The interview turns out to be more difficult than expected.  From the moment of snagging the Chairman’s attention with the usual invitation, “Lunch with me, Ginger?” Jerry knows his powers of diplomacy face a supreme test.  His domineering tone does not readily translate into the female.  Accustomed to looking down upon Ginger, Jerry now finds himself half a head shorter.  Ginger’s slightly bug-eyed gaze paws at him, trying to uncover a relationship to this girl-student who so confidently invited him to lunch under the scrutinizing gaze of Adele, the Department’s secretary and true administrator.  It seems that Ginger has forgotten, or chosen not to remember, the girl’s name.  “May Jensen,” Jerry is forced to remind him, choking back gall and appearing, no doubt, like a junior grad student with an inflated sense of her own importance.  After being assured of the need to discuss something vital, Ginger promises to talk – for ten minutes, at three o’clock, in his office.

Although such treatment might have subdued May, it outrages Jerry, helping restore his confidence.  “I sent you a email,” he reminds Ginger, deliberately discomfiting him in front of Adele and some curious students.  “About Jerry MacFarlane.  I think you owe it to his memory to…”

“His memory?  He’s on vacation,” Ginger retorts with a warning glare.

“Shall we discuss it over lunch?” Jerry persists, friendly but firm.  Ginger accepts without further fuss.

But the going gets no easier.  As he lays the whole story before his reluctant listener, in a discreetly low voice, Jerry is distracted by what he imagines to be leering glances from the Faculty Club waiter.  Just ignore it, May advises him silently.

What does he think, Ginger’s knocked me up? Jerry seethes, while trying to find the words to make Ginger call him by his right name.  But Ginger never does.  He says almost nothing until well into his second martini.  Then, ducking his head, he snarls, “What do you actually want?”

“The job.”  Jerry keeps his tone light.

“Jerry MacFarlane is still on the university payroll.  There’s no vacancy.”

“There will be a vacancy.  I showed you his medical report.”

“If there’s a vacancy” – fiddling with his glass, Ginger comes close to snapping the stem – “it couldn’t possibly go to you.  The Department doesn’t hire its own students.”

“The Department can make an exception,” Jerry insists.  “It’s my job.”

“It’s MacFarlane’s job.”

“Ginger, I told you I am…”

Ginger drowns him out.  “Except for a lousy B.A., you have no qualifications!  You can’t expect to walk into a full professorship just because MacFarlane and Sam Herkferker picked you as test rat.”  Amazed that Ginger could speak to him that way, Jerry is momentarily speechless.  Taking silence as victory, Ginger pursues his point with new friendliness.  “Look at it from the administrative point of view.  You have a student card, it has your picture, your age, you’re on the computer as May Janzen.”

“Jensen,” Jerry corrects him stiffly.

“As far as the university is concerned, as far as the Department is concerned, and legality is concerned, that’s who you are.  Agreed, something happened to you – and let me make absolutely clear that I don’t approve, I don’t condone it, and if I’d known in time I would have stopped it.  Obviously MacFarlane was under stress, but that’s no excuse for involving a student.”

Now Ginger stares frankly and openly, his evasiveness gone.  Being confronted by such composure makes Jerry feel insecure.  He wants to break in angrily with, “You don’t know what you’re talking about – it was life or death!” but somehow he cannot.  With May’s soft voice he cannot overcome Ginger’s smug resonance.

“I don’t say it’s all bad,” the Chairman continues.  “Obviously the procedure worked, at least in part, giving you some of Jerry’s background and even, I would say, vocabulary, and maybe more.  Jerry is a fine scholar, so anything you get from him will be to your credit.  But your request for special treatment is out of line.  If you have gained from this (as I sincerely hope) you’ll have plenty of opportunity to demonstrate it in the graduate program.”

“So it’s normal channels,” Jerry finally gets out in a voice weakened by resentment.  “You expect me, after fifteen years of publishing and teaching, to hang around the lounge drinking bad coffee, worrying about what nitpicking judgement some earnest, threatened, tenure-hopeful will pass on my term papers.  Ginger” –  he struggles to take control –  “remember the night Suzanne asked to move back in with you?  Just when you’d staunched the wounds and got the drinking under control and were able to teach again?  She made so much noise outside the house that you had to let her in because of the neighbors and then you called me, Jerry.  You asked me to speak to her.  I told Suzanne she was asking too much of you.”  Sensing an impact, Jerry leans forward; Ginger looks positively ill; the waiter hovers like a smirking fly.  “You’re asking too much,” Jerry concludes, confident of having brought Ginger around and almost sorry for having hit him so hard.  But he didn’t have much choice, when Ginger was so pigheaded.  What if someone had asked him to go back to grad school?

But instead of coming around, Ginger is getting up to leave.  “That is completely unacceptable!  Passing personal information to students.”  His voice is steeped in outrage.  “Forget you heard that,”  he orders.  Then he brings his face down close to Jerry’s.  “As things stand now, I don’t blame you for this interview.  You’ve been used, and that’s a shame.  I will contact MacFarlane and tell him he spoiled my lunch.  But don’t come to me again,”  Ginger warns, giving a vivid, although unstated, impression of the power a Department Head can exercise over the career of a graduate student just starting out.  Again Jerry is stuck for words, long enough for Ginger to escape.

Jerry’s shoulders slump.  That was lame, runs through his mind.

I don’t understand…. He shakes his head, beautiful blond hair swaying forlornly over his barely-touched plate.

You were too aggressive.  He won’t take that.

He has before.

Sure, he’ll take it from Jerry MacFarlane.  Not from a woman.  A student.  Who’s young.

They sigh together.  Normal channels.

Let’s see, May calculates.  We have the right to take the preliminary exams in May.  We wouldn’t have any trouble passing, and that would eliminate a whole year of course work.

You’re overconfident, Jerry cautions.

What do you mean?  We can write the best answers the Department’s ever… May’s thought drowns in a flood of Jerry’s reservations.

It’s not a question of quality, he explains, with people like Axelgrind on the examining committee.  No one ever passes the prelims in their first year.  It’s an article of faith in the Department that none of our students is that good.  Sorry, May.

Jeez, the more I learn, the sicker I get.  I don’t want a PhD that much.

Hold on, it’s not that bad!

It is.  I want to do something constructive with my life.  Maybe I could get a job with the Parks Branch.

The…?   May, I admit academic life has its problems, but that’s true of any career and there’s a lot to compensate…

I’m not talking about occasional problems, May interrupts.  Your life was compromise after compromise.  You once had original ideas, but you turned into an academic hack.  A clever, impressive, successful hack.  I thought I had enough talent that it wouldn’t happen to me, but now I’m not so sure.  I want to live honestly.

Who lives honestly?  May, I’m forty.  I can’t go out and start a brand-new life.

Some men do.  So do lots of women.  Anyway, you’re twenty-one, not forty.

But…. A vision of Jerry’s career, adorned with the respect of colleagues and the adoration of students, buoyant with free books and subsidized travel, aglow with the enlightened sexuality of campuses, flits away, beyond reach, on cartoon wings.  God, I’m depressed!  I don’t understand why I’m so depressed.

It’s nothing, she tells him ominously.

What do you mean, nothing?  I feel goddamn suicidal!  What’s in the murk of your mind?  You’re not formulating very clearly, May, open up!

For god’s sake, Jerry, haven’t you ever heard of menstruation?

They plunge their shared face into their shared hands.

I’m not giving up, Jerry thinks desperately.  Don’t underestimate me.  Normal channels –that’s not acceptable.  I’ll write to Gupta.  He’s capable of understanding the situation, unlike that moron Ginger!  I only wish I’d written more about the project.  But that doesn’t matter, I can get the point across to Gupta.  If he says I’m Jerry, the Department won’t dare say I’m not.  When Gupta understands what this project is about, we’re halfway to a job at someplace like Berkeley.  I mean it, the Bay Area!  I don’t want any more crap about joining the Forest Service to play Smokey the Bear.

*  *  *

“Yes, I have his new email address,” Adele assures her.  “But I can’t give it out.”

“It’s very important.”

Adele purses her lips.  “Why don’t you ask him for it yourself?   Professor Gupta is on campus.”

May gasps.  “Since when?”

“Today.”

“Why wasn’t I informed?”

Adele looks her up and down.  “Most of the students watch the bulletin board,” she remarks dryly.  “Oh, by the way” – she reaches into a drawer – “this came for you.”  The paper envelope, with Scandinavian-looking postage, was addressed by Jerry.  A disapproving tone penetrates Adele’s secretarial propriety.  “Did you know Carole joined him over there?  She’ll look after him, poor thing.”

May doesn’t know whether “poor thing” meant Jerry or Carole.  She carries the strange letter to an anonymous cafeteria table before opening it with fingers that hardly obey her.

You haven’t done anything for me, it begins in Jerry’s characteristic purple soft-tip pen and a larger, looser version of his usual handwriting.  I thought you’d call me at least.  Undoutedly you have your problems but remember Im dying and your not.

May and Jerry look up from the letter, at the bleakness of spilled coffee.  I don’t know if I can finish this – god, I’ve got to.

They read:

It did not take me long to learn Id been tricked.  I hoped for life but when I came to I saw only emptiness.  In store for me.  Other wise I felt okay so I came over here to enjoy myself.  But now I

The next few lines are obliterated by purple squiggles.

Sometimes its better though.  One good day I phoned Jamal Gupta in Princeton who said he was happy to hear from me.  I told him everything about the project.  I gave Sam credit for everything about the project.  I gave Sam credit for everything.

Cold fear touches May-and-Jerry’s heart.  They skim the closing lines.

Im glad I did so.  I also sent Ginger my resignation by the way.  Carole has come, which delights me too, but makes me ashamed.  She forgives me, but I can not make amends.  I can not help her, she can only help me.  Death and rejection by you have given me back my conshence – TOO LATE.

See you,

Jerry

Jerry and May stuff the letter into their back pocket.  Where the hell’s Gupta?

The lab, I bet.

*  *  *

Jerry recognizes the back of Gupta’s head.  At a nod from Sam, the distinguished neuroscientist spins around.  “Here you are at last – wonderful!”  Gupta’s enthusiasm gives Jerry a much-needed lift.

But it is soon obvious that the main interest in May/Jerry, at this gathering, is as the product of a successful experiment – the concrete token of an incipient paradigm shift which, like gravitational forces in a melting iceberg, is about to flip the cognitive sciences upside down.  Such, at least, is indicated by Gupta’s unrestrained praise for the project and its undisputed author, Sam, who, although blushing vividly, makes precise, detailed, unfaltering replies to most of Gupta’s penetrating questions.  Tiptoeing around, Ginger and Alex Axelgrind maintain appearances by throwing in occasional comments and queries, but despite Gupta’s polite responses, the developing dialogue is clearly independent of their contribution.  And of Jerry’s.  Gupta does not need his talents as interpreter, having no trouble communicating with Sam directly.  And Sam smiles and talks as freely and happily as if he were in love.  “I wish you’d told me about this sooner,” Gupta chides him gently.  “It’s the sort of thing I’ve been wondering about for years.”

“Your articles were the foundation of our work,” Sam replies graciously.

More or less ignored after the initial flurry, Jerry and May wander over to scratch the chimps behind the ears.  Nina tries out a few signs hopefully.  “I still don’t know how to talk to you,” May murmurs.

She becomes aware of Ginger’s discreet little paunch grazing her elbow.  “You needn’t worry about publicity,” he says sotto voce.  “We’ll protect you.  The results will be replicated with primates before a word is published, I promise you.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” she admits.

“The university will do everything in its power.  To help, I mean.”

As soon as possible, May and Jerry escape the lab.

*  *  *

It is hot in the Rockies in midsummer, until one reaches the high meadows and ridges above the tree line, penetrating the syrupy flows of glacial air.  In this region, the scrape of boots has a ring to it.  May and Jerry listen to the sound with sensual appreciation, experiencing it together for the first time.

It is the first weekend after May’s formal withdrawal from graduate school.  They hike the ridge line alone.  Mark would like this, she thinks with regret.

The breakup was mercifully quick – over in a single conversation.  She called Mark to finalize the plans for their often-postponed camping trip.  He started to make excuses.  She reminded him of all the times he insisted on her saying what she means.  At that, Mark apologized and stated his case.  That they didn’t have good times together anymore.  That he was tired of coaxing, and rubbing her neck, and jollying her along for two goddamn hours before she relaxed enough to want him in bed.

As Jerry explained it, unwelcomely, the cost-benefit ratio was no longer attractive.

Mark is intolerant, she decided, knowing that the world holds other, different men.  Since then, though, she has wondered whether she could live with any of them.  (Jerry not counting.)  She feels unconfident about sex, confused by clashing memories.  A quickening interest in her own body disturbs her.  She trusts no one living to help her.  The secret of her intimacy with Jerry is like incestuous guilt.

For awhile, when Jerry was worn down by repeated failures, she pretended he didn’t exist – that the result of the operation had been what she originally expected, just adorning her with extra intellect, worldliness, and perhaps a trace of masculine roughness to help her out of difficult situations.  But that meant denying his memories – which was too obvious a lie – and his will – which caused her to mistake it for her own.  That was the worst confusion, when she caught herself pursuing things she disapproved of, and despising things she’d struggled for – that, most of all, undermined her sense of knowing who she was. So she made up her mind to accept reality.  She is herself, and Jerry is Jerry; the difference is clear, even though the line between them may not always be.

And yet, there are long periods of time when he keeps extremely quiet.

Now, as her eye is drawn to a rock, worn concave and smooth by the retreating ice, and warmed by today’s sun, a small voice demands to sit down.

Not yet, she decides.

I’m tired!  I’m not used to this.

No. Resolutely, she plods past the rock.  I’ve  got to get into shape for the job.  It starts Monday! she realizes in astonishment.

Smokey the Bear, comes a jeering memory.

At least it’s useful.  And healthy.

Oh, yes.  (Groan.)

Stop complaining.

What’s in it for me?  I don’t know why I let you get your own way so much.

She sighs.  It’s an okay job.

I’m just tired of the way you try to dominate our relationship. This is an old thought, which she ignores.

Gradually, the crest falls away to reveal the glacier’s hump, cracked and dirty, but bright with melt-water.

The act of severing her ties to the university brought instant pangs of remorse.  For all its faults, she knows she will miss, sharply, being on the intellectual scene – the hard clambering and giddy clinging on the outer edges of thought.  It is little comfort to promise herself to read up on subjects that interest her, to assure herself she is equipped for an active mental life.  She knows her new job will demand too much.  For awhile she toyed with the idea of eking out the small settlement she received from the university as long as possible, so as to be free to work – write a paper that would establish (or re-establish) her within the circle of brilliance – but gave it up, fearing that the project would simply fail and plunge her into depression.  She knows she has already forgotten a lot.

Anyway, I like myself better when I’m not at the university.

Oh, was I as bad as all that?

Far below her, a grey whisky jack’s flight path crosses a talus slope of the same colour.

She is glad of one thing – that Jerry did the right thing by Sam.  It shows some good in his character.

Recalling the spectacle of Ginger begging Sam to take a job, she laughs out loud.

‘Her’ job.  But it was funny.

Sam should do well at Princeton.  I hope he doesn’t get corrupted.

To eat lunch, she sits on an ancient, frozen log, watching the sun melt her ascending bootprints.

It’ll be good to be working!  Good to do something for the wilderness, instead of just enjoying it.  That sound pretentious – what can a person do for the wilderness?  Well, help protect it. Her dad did that.

Stretching, she feels a pleasant tiredness in her legs.  The nervous tension that kept her awake nights has drained away.  I should have come weeks ago.  Incredible, I’m going to get paid for this!

In the long shadows of late day, she starts down.  Do you love me? she wonders, but gets no answer.

the end

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