At three-thirty Natasha cracked her office door and peered down the hallway to her left. Rain hacked against the big arched windows. The stained old carpet lay dusty and innocent in the gloomy light. Nothing lurked there, not even the usual student idling on a cell phone. But to her right, a shadow, a form moved toward her. She shut the door silently.
“Natasha? Hey.” A small hand slapped the door.
It was A’isha. Natasha opened up and pulled her friend inside, then shut the door again as quietly as possible.
“Sort of. Not really. Just trying to get some work done.”
“Who’re you hiding from?”
“I’m not hiding. I’m just avoiding Roger.”
“Roger? But you like Roger. You’re friends, remember? Did something happen?” A’isha settled in Natasha’s side chair in hopes of a good bit of gossip. Not that she’d spread it. Natasha and A’isha weren’t tenured, and Roger was the most powerful professor in the department. He seemed benign, but no one dared gossip about him. Harvard’s Comparative Literature Department hardly ever granted junior professors tenure, but Natasha and A’isha were almost certain they’d make it. They would need Roger’s help, though.
“I do like him. But not that much. You know what I mean?”
“How much? What, has he been hitting on you? I can’t believe it.”
“No, no, he’d never do that. You know how he is—he’s shy about stuff like that. Or too old, maybe. Anyway, it’s just not his style. But I can tell he likes me more than he did, and I don’t want to encourage him.”
“You sure? It’s the easy way to tenure.” A’isha was kidding, but Natasha thought maybe she wasn’t. She wondered sometimes if A’isha wasn’t out to sabotage her. How many tenured positions could the program absorb? The classes were so small: six students in Natasha’s Polish and Russian Poets of the Post-Soviet Avant-Garde; but then very few Harvard students read Polish or Russian. Did A’isha attract more students? She taught beginning Urdu, and that course always filled with fifteen more or less eager undergraduates. But her graduate seminar in the contemporary Pakistani novel probably didn’t draw so well. Still, tenure wasn’t a popularity contest. Senior faculty dismissed student expressions of regard for junior faculty. Natasha knew they were right to: it was easy to win over students, a lot harder to actually teach them something, especially a difficult foreign literature.
A’isha and she went out almost every night after their classes and drank martinis at the Grafton Street Grill. They chatted freely about everything, but sometimes Natasha suspected A’isha of holding back vital information, little secrets that could help Natasha hang onto her job. A’isha always seemed so knowing, so sophisticated about academic politics, so alert to all the nuances. Now Natasha had revealed to A’isha that she thought Roger was falling for her. Could A’isha use that against her?
“He’s a good guy and won’t do anything out of line. No one survives here as long as he has unless they know how to follow the rules,” Natasha said. “Remember what happened to Derek Walcott?”
“Roger’s written twenty books and knows more about French and German literature than anyone else on the planet—he could bugger the president of the university and the whole Board of Overseers and still keep his tenure,” A’isha replied. “Just keep away if he’s making you uncomfortable. Anyway, I’m off to the copy center. Need anything done?”
“Thank you, no, I’m just sorting through my notes. Class in a few minutes.”
With A’isha gone the office seemed a little lonely. Natasha’s computer stared blankly. The Harvard shield lazed across the black screen. She touched a key and the screen saver disappeared, replaced by the last page of a long article on three new poets Natasha had met in Krakow over the Christmas break. Their work wasn’t all that good, but typified the stuff that filled the new magazines and literary blogs. Bland imitations of bland American poetry. Natasha wondered if these new kids had read or even heard of Herbert, Szymborska, and Milosz. Hadn’t those famous names come up in their conversation? Her article claimed that poetry was becoming globalized, but now that she thought about it she realized it was also becoming trivialized. She couldn’t say that, could she? Natasha didn’t want to betray those pleasant young people who had sat and chatted with her for hours over cappuccino and pastries. She wanted to present them as exciting, innovative, and committed. But they weren’t. She wanted to show her article to Roger and get his advice, but she just couldn’t, and she wasn’t quite sure why.
Five minutes before class she slung her bookbag over her shoulder and set forth, almost crashing into Roger right outside her door.
“Hey,” she smiled, and then wished she could retract the smile. Too forward? Too dishonest?
“Hey yourself. Haven’t seen you today.” Roger loomed over her. His bulk and bushy white hair intimidated her almost as much as his publications and reputation. Most people found his size and clumsiness endearing. So had Natasha, until about a week ago when she thought she had sensed something going on. Roger had never made a pass at her, had never draped a thick arm over her shoulders, had never asked her out even just for coffee, had never flirted by gesture or word. But something about the way he looked at her with his pale blue eyes enlarged by old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses seemed awry. He seemed to be following her, tracking her like a camera. She had never felt that sensation before. Scrupulous as always, he looked at her face, never at her body. It wasn’t lechery, she was sure of that: it was love. She could handle lechery, but not the love of a man twenty or thirty years older than her. It embarrassed her. She couldn’t imagine sex with him.
“I’ve got to get to class,” Natasha said, but made no move to pass him, although he politely stepped aside, flattening his bulk against the wall. “I’m teaching Derieva today. She’s my favorite of the newer poets, you know. I gave you that translation, remember?”
“Oh yes, I liked what I read. A good translation, isn’t it? At least it reads well as English language poetry.”
“Yes.” Natasha was shaking inside. What was wrong with her? “Yes, a good translation by a friend. I know her from Columbia. We were teaching fellows in the Slavic lit program. She’s at Stony Brook now.” Her voice felt tinny, cheap. She should shut up and get away.
Roger edged down the hallway. “Well, have a good class. Have a good weekend, too. I’ll see you on Monday.” He lumbered away like an ox to its stable. His old-fashioned briefcase, heavy with books and papers, slapped against his leg.
Natasha stood there breathing shallow little breaths. She felt she had avoided some terrible drama, but she knew it would have to have been one of her own making. Roger would always be Roger: stodgy, brilliant, asexual; but wasn’t she brilliant too?
A floor below, Roger’s voice rose in greeting. “Hey A’isha.” Then a murmur of conversation Natasha couldn’t catch, then a laugh. She couldn’t tell whether Roger or A’isha had laughed, and that realization disturbed her. The murmur continued, two voices comfortable with each other. She ran to the stairway and peered down and glimpsed of the two of them descending together, step by step, A’isha’s lean brown proprietary hand gripping Roger’s corduroy arm.