The Technical Virgin by Kirsten Major
Caroline Jones, whose work ethic and prompt response to all professional email had won her a cherished if small reputation in her field, was at her desk on Saturday night, becoming more and more agitated. One student paper after another revealed that her craven freshman charges had once again eluded her.
She had written a masterfully engineered composition assignment about Thurber’s Walter Mitty story that closed all exits to lazy literature analysis (such as “it happened that way because that is the way it happened”). Despite careful crafting, she found herself reading sickening gobs of prose such as, “Walter Mitty perhaps was someone who had Alzheimer’s disease, and this explains why he seems to be in several different places at once.” These results made her heart pound in competitive fear. Suppose the section leader saw? It was he, after all, who had suggested that the assignment was overreaching, and whom Caroline ignored, because the penguin-gaited section leader reeked of deadend senior lecturehood, always veering towards a fatal interest in educating students so that they could write, as opposed to inviting students to scholarship and then rating their appearance on a steep and even mysterious scale. This was the mark of a tenure-track thinker, a winner such as Caroline Jones. She hoped. Or, she had hoped. The papers were terrible.
The shared graduate student office window was open, letting in a damp breeze from the Arts Quadrangle. Below, a flock of girls who had dressed in heels were picking their way across the cobblestone walk, looking like flamingoes supporting each other through treacherous migration to the campus cinema. Caroline could hear the buoyant tone of their voices.
The paper she ended with was Douglas Greenwood’s. Douglas was an aristocratic-faced, back-row sprawler who had the habit of grabbing a tuft of dark hair and rolling it between his thumb and index finger. It was not lost on Caroline that he did this during the times when Caroline either became tedious about some piece of literature or decided she would not let something go with a student, things which ranged from an understanding of grammar to exposing a paper’s weak reasoning. There would be Douglas, his head ducked to submit his glossy hair to his fingers for rolling and tugging, while he waited.
She scanned the first two pages. Her heart lightened at seeing one calm, competent sentence after another, and she restlessly skipped to the conclusion: “The most important thing about a fantasy is the way that it ends,” he began. Caroline looked up from the paper and inhaled. The mark of a good undergraduate paper is its ability to impart a certain queer feeling in a graduate student: a combined stab of loneliness and relief that this loneliness is recognized. Caroline sat there with that sentence. She had not felt this way about a paper for a long time. She turned out her desk light and sat there, in the dark, with flags of light from the quadrangle hitting the walls and desks in the bare office.
Walking home, there was a musty baked-macadam smell from a faculty parking lot, and a recent rain sharpened up the scent of lilacs. On the main well-lighted drag, Caroline walked past houses for alumni, development, and internal affairs until she got to a corner, made a decision, and turned down a darker side street. The houses on this street had fallen to the Greeks. People stood on the lawns with badly hung Christmas lights, tossed Frisbees on the sidewalk, speakers were pushed out on porches.
She stopped cold. She had forgotten to drop off the student essays at the student mail center. It was Saturday night and her last series of student meetings, starting with Douglas Greenwood, was on Monday morning. The mail center was a 20-minute walk in the other direction. And also, Douglas Greenwood appeared to be standing, shirtless, about twenty feet away on the stairs of the next house. She recognized his proportions and the cut of his hair. Up the center of his back his spinal cord created a long, curved indent, and he had olive or tanned skin. Her stomach dropped with relief when he went inside.
“Wanna beer?” a friendly boy with a short forehead, blond curls and blue eyes, wearing a black t-shirt, said to her.
“Yes, actually,” she said, and walked with him a few steps to a gray rubber garbage can that held a keg and a stack of red Solo plastic cups. He shook one off the top and filled it for her.
She drank and looked at him and talked to him through one cup and then another. He was her height, and had a tooth that was turning brown; no doubt his parents would get on him to go to the dentist when he got home for the summer. He seemed like he could be a sweet guy. His small stature comforted her, and she sucked on her beer and thought in progressively graphic terms about how he might be the person with whom she could explore, or dispense with, the final sexual frontier. Which she hadn’t gotten around to yet. Caroline disliked the term technical virgin. Caroline disliked the idea of doing anything to “get it over with” or simply for the sake of doing it. This was the kind of animal reasoning she saw in the classroom, and it disturbed her to think of applying it to her own life. In containing her sexuality in a net of intellectual resolve, Caroline was quite safe with her thoughts everywhere she went.
“I wanted to get something to Douglas Greenwood,” Caroline said. “If I give it to you, will you hand it to him? I think he’s just inside.”
“Sure,” said the guy, said but just then, a woman in a bikini top came up and rested her elbow on his shoulder and held out her cup, and he lifted the tap to it. “Or, why don’t you just go in there?” he said. “There’s mailboxes too, in case you don’t want to talk to Doug.”
“Why wouldn’t she want to talk to Doug?” said the woman.
“There are always reasons that chicks don’t want to talk to guys,” he said in a businesslike but not unkind tone.
Inside the house, beautiful wood, torn and broken furniture, Caroline saw that the mailboxes in the foyer were all cleared for the party, which was raging. She drifted upstairs. Caroline noticed that there were names on the doors, and she kept peering at them until someone asked if she was looking for someone in particular, and she said Douglas Greenwood and was told that while he had gone outside, his room was two floors up through a firedoor, actually in the attic. Caroline went up one more floor, came across a group of men and women playing some kind of role game involving cards, and with the wave of a hand she was sent to a part of the floor where the carpeting ended; there was just bare wooden floor, a door that creaked ominously to a narrow staircase so steep that Caroline was nose-to-nose with the risers as she climbed.
She didn’t bother to knock, just walked in to the dark room, and Douglas didn’t even look up from where he was at his chair, his legs propped up on his desk with the lone desk lamp switched on while he was reading a paperback. Caroline, in response, didn’t say anything either, just turned to her bag and felt around for the file folder.
“Jesus!” he yelled, when he turned and saw it was her. He sprang up, looked around at the floor, snatched a t-shirt from it, and jammed it over his head.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Douglas,” she said archly, coolly. This was the sort of professor- in-charge attitude which she aspired to whenever possible. “I was told that you were out-of-doors, and as you recall we have a conference on Monday morning to discuss your paper.”
“Yeah, um, okay,” he said awkwardly. “How was it?” He defensively put a hand in his pocket. The simian features of his eyes and high cheekbones were looser than she’d seen in class. He was staring at her, and his lips were open and round.
“It was intriguing,” Caroline said, still rifling through the papers. The second beer had hit her more than she realized. “Why do you live here?” she said suddenly and looked up at him. “It seems unlike what I know of you.”
“I wanted to try something different,” he said.
“If you wanted to try something different, why didn’t you take a year off, travel, learn a foreign language, do something meaningful?”
“I did do that. I’m twenty years old. The fraternity was to try to blend in. You know, when in Rome,” he said, and in the background glass shattered and a great cheer went up. “I’m down here as an experiment anyway. I’m Canadian. My family used to be American,” he said.
“Oh, that’s funny: I’m American but my family used to be Canadian. I have Canadian cousins. They don’t like me very much.”
“Of course. I bet you made up games and then changed the rules so you’d win.”
Caroline flushed with profound shame; that is exactly what she did. Only the cousins knew and they never tattled. They sat at many a holiday table with her through her fatuous adolescence as she publicly championed justice and truth. She felt ashamed and stupid. “I really did like your paper,” she said, unhappily. “It was the best in the class. I would never say that unless it was true. You are a very good writer, but actually it’s not that. You are a good thinker.”
“I’m just older, that’s all.”
“And you’re modest too,” she said, mournfully.
There was so much noise already that they had disregarded the sirens. But a loudspeaker announced that they were surrounded, that no one was to leave the premises, and the noises were changing from music and cries to silence and complaints and loud footsteps.
“Oh, shit,” Douglas said. “It’s the police. You need to hide.”
“I do not need to hide.”
“The house is serving alcohol to minors, which includes me. And you are my composition teacher, and from that cup, it’s clear that you’ve been drinking too. Aren’t you going on the job market in a year?”
Caroline dove to the space between the bed and the wall he pointed to, just as there was a tumble of angry footsteps up the stairs.
Douglas went to the door and had some indistinct conversation while she lay there. She was prepared for the suffocating stench of goatish teen boy, but instead she smelled citrus and then something that seemed akin to warm motor oil, and her professorial show collapsed and she huddled there in the keep of his masculine things, underwear and socks and Jules Verne novels. Still smarting from having yet another Canadian see the shallow, dishonorable side of her, she thought about how the rest of this night could go. The officer would leave; and Douglas would come back, pull her up, and put his soft mouth on hers. Of course she would impale herself on him. He had just written a great paper and he seemed interested and bored in class in the same rhythm she was; it had created a tie between them, and she was sitting there clenching her toes, fighting off a vision that he would penetrate her.
“I’m sorry, Officer!” she said as she sent the covers sailing and scrabbled up and over the bed. “I am this man’s professor. I stopped by to give him this paper, and did nothing else. Other than have a couple of beers.”
“Oh God,” Douglas interjected.
“Which I am aware is unethical; but I believe also, of course, that it is unethical to hide.”
The policeman was stocky, bearded, had a nametag that said, “Bush.”
“I merely ask, Officer Bush, that you do not hold this young man accountable for anything untoward, which is totally my fault.”
“We are practically the same age,” Douglas said.
“Except he is a minor who is drinking,” she said.
“Caroline!” Douglas said.
“This is your student?”Officer Bush said. Officer Bush removed his cap, which revealed brief tufts of strawberry-blond hair. He had a naturally pleasant facial expression but he also had a big presence, a gun, a nightstick, and a notebook.
“This isn’t a joke,” Officer Bush said. “We’re booking people for misconduct. Are you an employee of this university?”
“No, she is not,” Douglas said. “She is just another student, who has a campus job of grading essays.”
“I have a syllabus that I made myself!” Caroline cried. “He’s just trying to protect me.”
“She’s just trying to protect me,” Douglas said.
Officer Bush looked at them both like they were nuts, and pressed his forearm to his head to wipe beads of sweat. He said, “Look, miss: are you a student or a teacher?”
“You can’t be both.”
“Graduate student.” She drew herself up with dignity.
“Okay, so this is what I’m going to do. I’m not seeing a problem up here. There’s a fire escape out the door. I’ll radio clearance for you at the bottom. You two go down it, you take her home, and I advise you to stay away from this house when there are parties like this in the future.”
When they were near the bottom and out of Officer Bush’s earshot, Caroline turned to Douglas and said, “Obviously, you don’t have to walk me home,” but in turning Caroline misstepped and ended up scraping her ankle against a broken and rusted metal slat. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, she was hobbling and the policeman standing guard turned his flashlight on it to reveal a slick, wet wound, glistening red, and told her that if she hadn’t had a tetanus shot recently, she was going to need to go to the hospital. Douglas took her elbow and guided her towards his car.
“Is this car from Canada?” she said as he drove.
“Probably more like from Mexico.”
“But is this a Canadian car?” she said, looking at the speedometer. “How fast is a hundred kilometers per hour, really?”
“It’s a hundred kilometers per hour, really, Professor Jones.”
“Douglas: I am, like, wounded.”
“About sixty miles per hour.”
“Is there anything else Canadian going on in here?” She scrabbled around at the passenger side of the dashboard, the car door, checking the lock and window knob.
At the hospital, she did indeed get a tetanus shot, a cleaning of the abrasion that took out tiny chips of rusted paint, and exactly one Valium because the resident thought she was wound up and just needed to go home and rest.
When they got to her apartment, in another repurposed mansion, it was still the middle of the night, 3:00 a.m. “Okay,” she said, after they cleared the vestibule, and turned herself around, and sat on a stair and then used her good leg to push her bottom up to the next stair, and then the next stair until she paused and put her head in her hands. Douglas watched with his arms crossed and when she stopped, he walked up the three stairs, leaned down, and gathered her up. He carried her into her apartment, across the threshold, and into her bed. He stood there, watching her, and she put her hands on her forehead, which was damp. She searched the ceiling, thinking.
“You never wrote about being foreign in any of your personal essays,” she said.
“No one ever asks me about it, as if it were a thing.”
“Of course it’s a thing. Familiar but not familiar, sounding like us, but not us. Like aliens. Or men.”
He laughed. “Men are not weird.”
“Yes, they are,” she said, thinking about that unshared sexual space, though technically she had done everything else.Intercourse doesn’t matter, she fought back in her head. It’s a symbol. You are mistaking a physical act for a symbol.
“Your paper,” she said to the ceiling. And then she laughed. “I didn’t put a grade on it. I have to grade your paper.”
“May I sit down?” he said, and touched his knee to the side of the bed as the place where he would like to sit.
Suddenly it occurred to her that the teaching she was doing was an act not of laying bare the truth, but of obscuring. You take an experience in literature, and have initial feelings, impressions, which she then herded herself and her students into shaping into opinions, theses, arguments about the truth that were intended to stand alone. The experience itself was abandoned.
She looked at Douglas Greenwood and thought, I like Douglas Greenwood. I am possibly in love with him. I have looked at him every day in class, and thought about him. I actually could see myself marrying and growing old with him, when he is old enough to get married. Douglas Greenwood as text, Douglas Greenwood as a set of initial, clear impulses. He was the person she was going to welcome into her body. It was only a matter of time. She was afraid.
“What?” he said, concerned, leaning over her. “What do you need?”
“Could you...pull up that chair and tell me how your paper ended.”
“If it’s in your bag, I can get it.”
“No. I’d like you to talk to me about it yourself. I confess I didn’t read it all the way through. I was so sleepy. Tell me why the most important thing about a fantasy is how it ends.” And he pulled up a chair and started speaking, and Caroline listened, drifting off happily even though she knew that when she woke up, he would be gone.
© Kirsten Major 2103
Kirsten Major was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, got on a plane at 14 for a boarding school she’d never seen and basically never went back home again. After attending Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, she studied ancient Greek at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota and went to MFA school at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She reports that the road between Ithaca and Troy is indeed twisty and has many blind curves.
The Technical Virgin was read by Yulia Laricheva for the Teachers & Students Show on 4th September 2013