Spider

Your long years of service in this institution entitle you to at least this one privilege. You get your double espresso in a real cup over the heads of the students crowded around the counter, and you go find a seat at one of the tables.

To say your spirits are low would be a wild understatement. You try to withdraw into yourself, but all you find there are fathomless recesses of blackness, gloom, and self-loathing.

You’ve just come out of a class to which only a third of the students showed up to watch you entangle yourself in tortuous explications of marginal matters, all—you now realize in retrospect, though certainly not for the first time—in order to postpone the moment of truth when you’d have to tackle the main point, the really important issue, for which you eventually had only ten minutes left, forcing you to criminally condense its cruxes and complexities and conclude with the dubious promise to tie up the loose ends next time. Were you one of those students, it is seriously doubtful whether you would even give it a next time.

When you stopped off to pick up your mail, lurking in your box was a large brown envelope with the results of the student assessments from last term. You were hardly surprised, though naturally not heartened, to find that once again they were not quite pleased. Only 4.7% of the faculty got an overall grade lower than your own, and only on “Course Planning and Organization” were you rated lower than on “Teacher Assessment.” True, there does seem to be a tiny but arguably quite devoted core that follows you from course to course and even from year to year, and those precious few are usually among the better minds in the group, although never the very best. Still, the responses you elicit from the vast majority of your students range from slight revulsion to chronic fatigue. And who can relate to that better than you yourself?

Your hatred for this institution is as vehement as it is intimate, but you can think of no other place where you could exercise your chosen vocation, one you’ve put many years of hard work into and the only one you can be said to have ever liked, and you’d be hard put to even conceive of what it would be like to try and make a living any other way. Although you managed, through a feverish last-minute mobilization and with the emotional and practical support of some loyal friends, to add three or four publications to your curriculum vitae, the process of your consideration for promotion-cum-tenure has been dragging on for months, and that does not bode well.

From the case in your shirt pocket you take out your reading glasses, which up until a year ago you didn’t need at all, to stare at the free copy of the student newspaper you found lying on the table. Over your frames you cast desperate searching glances every few seconds in all directions. The situation is so familiar that you have immortalized it in a little poem, a lyrical effusion that you have refined and polished over time into a single haikuesque image. You decide to rewrite the second line, arriving at the definitive version, for now:

From turnstile to checkout,
His gazes spin a web,
The spider in the cafeteria’s center.          

You first came up with this image in a different cafeteria, the one you’re sitting in now having neither a turnstile nor a checkout line, sprawling instead through a postmodern sort of space whose geometrical formation has no name. Yet once again you are vainly searching external reality for a graspable straw to distract you from the paralyzing depression in which you are wallowing, and once again salvation is supposed to come from an unexpected encounter that might hold the promise of happiness, or at least interest. You understand, and this too not for the first time, that such a promise is unlikely to be anything but false. Or, alternately, that any such happiness can be nothing but unattainable—for you, that is. After all, what have you to offer in your current sorry state? Of whom, or of what, are you worthy? Yet you crave the appearance of some object, if only for the purpose of testing whether you are still capable of desiring something, anything. You are fairly certain that the sense of failure you risk is a price you would willingly pay. Big joke.

When your eyes begin to lift over the frames of your glasses for another fruitless round, their field of vision is blocked by the expanse of a bare midriff. The owner of this navel is a co-ed named Marva, not your student, not a former one either, not even enrolled in your department.

During your first years in this institution, despite living with Patricia at the time, you did not, at least in terms of your intentions, have any more qualms than a wolf in a chicken coop. You never hesitated to unleash the full arsenal of your poetic-intellectual charm on any available female student who acted or spoke to you in a manner deviating however slightly from strict formality. Once or twice, on the lawn or on the bus to campus, your insistent staring led to a conversation that led to the beginning of a liaison. Nor did the female members of that tiny minority of your loyal following escape your sleazy attentions, provided, of course, you found them attractive enough. You did get laid a few times as a result, as you now fondly recall. There was, for example, that freshman in one of your tutorials, a girl by the name of Nili, who had you over to her dorm room a few times, where she pushed her bed against her absent roommate’s to create the illusion of a double bed. Still active in your fantasy life are her huge breasts and cherry lips and her watery-blue eyes that would glaze over at the moment of penetration in a way you found extremely flattering. At some point her parents and therapist took it upon themselves to talk her out of seeing you. Only then did you allow yourself to realize what a serious risk you had run, and how inadvisable, nothing short of insane, it was, in fact, considering your own best interests. Even before the new sexual harassment legislation came into effect, before the sexual scandals of President Clinton in America, you set yourself an iron-clad rule that you have since tried very hard not to bend: no fooling around with your students. And as far as possible, not even with other students in your department. Certainly not until after handing in grades.

But Marva, as noted, is not included in any of these problematic categories. This you ascertained shortly after her eyes—elongated, almond-shaped eyes, featuring an astonishing contrast between the purity of their whites and the deep brown of their irises—came on to you, bold and teasing, over the computer screen at the library circulation desk. Beneath those wondrous eyes her face showed more crude sensuality than prettiness, especially in her very wide mouth, ravenous and joyless, and in the gap between her rather large front teeth. These reservations, however, never occurred to you until after several hallway conversations led to a ride home and a few tequila shots in some bar downtown, followed by three or four sexual encounters devoid of unnecessary demonstrations of feeling, stretching over a period of several months, which were, when all is said and done, quite satisfactory.

Her showing up just now is certainly not the worst thing that could have happened to you this afternoon. She looks you up and down, and greets you with a long and throaty, “Hi.” One of her feet has shed its Swedish wooden clog and a knee has emerged from between the folds of her long black Indian cotton skirt to rest upon the vacant seat next to you, barely four centimeters from your left thigh. You recognize the new feature on her face right away: a sparkling metal stud—otherwise known as a nose-ring—in the flesh of her left nostril. Surely you’re a member of the older generation, since the mere thought of metal embedded in human flesh arouses aversion bordering on true horror. Yet you make do with an ironic, equivocal comment.

“Will you be in your office later on?” Marva wants to know.

“Yeah, but I have office hours soon,” you say, and glancing at your watch it dawns on you that this office hour, technically speaking, is already underway without you.

Ensconced in your office two stories below ground, a tiny hexagonal cell with only a minute vent at the top of its shortest wall, as Schubert’s Quartettsatz plays on the tape-deck you brought to reflect your foul moods and offer slight consolation during the difficult hours you must pass on these premises, some fifteen minutes before the end of the official office hour, you hear a knock at the door. No one has come to seek your counsel in the thirty-odd minutes you’ve been sitting there, and you’re rather puzzled as to why any of your students, male or female, would think it a good idea to do so now that the time is almost up. You call out, “Yes,” and being familiar with the surprising effectiveness of the door’s acoustic insulation, you get up to open it. But the door has already swung in, and the caller is none other than Marva.

“Hi,” you say, retreating the two and a half steps back to your chair, waving her hospitably to the seat across your desk, which she is to take, as any other student. Marva, however, has something else in mind. She shuts the door behind her and advances straight to where you sit behind the desk. She lays one hand on the back of your neck and settles right onto your lap. Tilting both your head and hers to suitable angles, she starts sucking your face. As she finds having both knees facing in the same direction inconvenient, she swings one over, so that now she is straddling you face to face. Another few slurpy kisses and her left hand begins to unbutton your shirt.

“One sec,” you say breathlessly, struggling to get up. “The door…” It takes quite an effort to unsaddle her, but you manage somehow to get up and lock the door. Faculty office doors in this institution have no real locks but rather a latch-like contraption embedded in the handle, so that anyone with a key, a custodial worker, or a secretary, can always open the door from outside. Still, at this late hour of the afternoon, there’s only a slim chance that someone like that might decide to burst in, which mitigates your anxiety somewhat without totally eliminating it. You turn back to Marva and now your right hand is on the nape of her neck, your left hitching up the black knit top that sparsely covers her chest to reach the hooks of her bra. Unlike her somewhat ungainly arms and legs, her shoulder blades are delicate and finely shaped and her breasts small and elegant—a sight you have found uplifting on previous occasions.

Together you sink onto the small decorative rug between the desk and the door, a yellowish rectangle with green diamonds, crocheted by Patricia as a wall hanging, which remains in your possession as a rare souvenir from your three years of cohabitation with her, which came to an end not long ago when she moved back to her Latin American homeland and was thereby relegated to a remote corner of your consciousness. With astonishing agility, Marva manages to extricate your midsection from your jeans and boxers, but does not bother completely removing them, and neither do you, so that your legs remain hampered and entangled in denim. Her light skirt and underwear represent an even simpler obstacle. Now she is on top of you again, reaching down a long arm to point your dick to the target, which is already pouting moistly within its black thicket of hair, as you can glimpse briefly just before it swallows you up.

The sex is short and to the point. Six or seven rapid thrusts, and you feel the spasms of orgasm shaking her body inside and out. One of your eyes flicks open to register her head tilted to one side, her nostrils flaring lewdly, highlighted by that nose-ring, or whatever this ornament is called in biblical Hebrew, and that’s it—you can't hold out any longer, and you come for all you’re worth.

Another minute or two and she’s back on her feet, zipping up her skirt with that same businesslike swiftness, as her hand reaches for the door.

“Hey, maybe I can call you later,” you suggest, and she says, “I don’t know, I might be out.”

When you awake from your deep slumber, still lying on Patricia’s rug, it’s dark outside, as far as you can ascertain through the tiny vent that is the only source of daylight and fresh air in your office. Now that you come to think of it, you recall that the first time you fucked Marva followed closely upon the rolling and smoking of a prohibited substance in her childhood room at her parents’ place while they entertained guests in the living room, and that all of your subsequent encounters occurred with the possibility of exposure and scandal never too far away. Could that say something about what gets this girl’s adrenaline going? Surely it’s not exactly an ennobling quality of your own.

A search of your desk drawers turns up a chocolate bar purchased this morning or the day before, and after eating it you are no longer hungry. You see no reason to gather up your various belongings and papers, deliberate as to which ones there’s any point lugging home and which can be left here, go up to your car in the outdoor parking lot and drive to the city you settled in years ago, for reasons no longer necessarily relevant—all this when tomorrow, fairly early in the morning, you have to be back here again for a meeting of the research committee to which you were recently appointed—and you decide to do something you have never done before: sleep on the rug in the office.

You keep a toothbrush in your bag, just in case, although you had not anticipated needing to use it in a place unequipped with toothpaste. You also have a hand-towel, which has been hanging on a hook in your office ever since the university stopped restocking the paper towels in the bathrooms and replaced them with a hot-air dryer. In any case, you were never a clean freak. When asked in the second grade by the school nurse whether you bathed every day, you answered with candid precision, “Partially,” and were rewarded with thundering peals of laughter that took a while to die down. Now you slip into the nearest bathroom to get ready, as best you can, to spend the night in your office.

The next morning you repeat the same routine, go up to the cafeteria for a latté and pastry, and get to the committee meeting with almost two hours’ net gain of sleep. The committee is chaired by an Israel Prize winner, an international expert on the history of the Portuguese Marranos, and the agenda features faculty requests to fund typing, photocopying, and so forth. The amounts range from two hundred to nine hundred shekels, and each petition is discussed extensively with the utmost gravity by seven fine minds. You spend the rest of the day in a fairly reasonable way: reading in the library, seeing what’s new at the bookstore, roaming the hallways. Then you tape a note on your door which says, in every language you know, “Please do not disturb,” and retire for a siesta of unlimited duration.

Next thing you know, night is falling again, the campus has emptied out, and tomorrow you have a class to teach before noon and you’re not exactly ready for it. You have every reason to wish to conserve each possible minute, so you decide to spend another night on the rug in your office. You retrieve your messages from your answering machine at home, read and respond to your e-mails on your laptop. Shortly before midnight you start to feel a little cold, and if truth be told you were suffering from it last night too, so you go out to your car to get the sleeping bag you’ve just remembered you keep in the trunk. To prevent the building door from slamming shut behind you, you block it with a chair you find in the hallway, but on your way back you run into a guard who wants to know who you are and what you are doing. You flash your faculty ID and explain that you’re here to perform a certain work-related task on the computer in your office, which due to the time difference with Australia must be conducted in the wee hours of the night. Then you each set off as if bound for a twenty-eight-day tour of reserve duty deep in the West Bank.

The next night he even knocks on your door to offer you some coffee from his thermos. Your office is beginning to reek like a place that is lived in. It’s no wonder: you’ve been living in it for three days now. The weekend requires you to be slightly more cautious. You hole up in your office almost exclusively, leaving only to use the bathroom. You have a small supply of almonds, dried fruit and granola bars, and the weekend papers, all of which you made sure to purchase ahead of time with some cash withdrawn from the campus ATM. The radio is tuned, softly, to the public classical music station.

In the elevator on Sunday morning you run into Lois, a young assistant professor of theater who is roughly at the same stage of her academic career as you are, and with whom you like to share experiences and exchange friendly quips in English. Her intelligent eyes look at you supportively over the pointed lapels of the dark silk blouse she wears under the jacket of her elegant pastel-shaded tailored suit. Overall, she is the very embodiment of freshness and readiness for the new week. You are well aware that your body may be giving off some distressing odors by now, especially in a tight space like this crowded elevator. In the car you found a more-or-less clean orange T-shirt from a rock festival you once attended, but other than that you have no change of clothes. You realize now that you could have purchased a shaving kit at the student union store, except that you find this action—the shaving, not the purchasing—extremely tedious, and you don’t have the emotional wherewithal to cope with it right now. Lois must have noticed your week-plus-old stubble, because she asks in a worried tone if, God forbid, you’re in mourning or something.

“You mean because I always wear black?” you say. “Yeah, I’m in mourning for my lost life.” You trust her to pick up on the Chekhovian irony, and you are not mistaken: you both smile, though not necessarily in the same spirit.

© Moshe Ron. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Jessica Cohen. All rights reserved.