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The Pretense

The Pretense

February 27, 2006

What possessed me to ask to study with the scholar I'll call Sebastian Klugmann? The field of literary study he was at the top of wasn't the one I was limping toward, his critical method didn't especially appeal to me, his style wasn't the one I went for in professors. I liked them older, crankier, as the early signs of collegial neglect are bringing on their first dismayed glimpses of the end. Klugmann didn't have any bitterness to stave off. He was younger, smoother, still influential and assured -- the ambivalence that distinguished his arguments was purely intellectual. He had the privilege of knowing that what he thought mattered, and the pleasure.

I couldn't have been any more his type than he was mine. It's surprising that he let me in to his graduate seminar, and his mistake would soon have been clear to him. I would arrive late, sit in a fold-up chair against a wall -- the high-backed chairs around the conference table were safely taken -- and keep my mouth shut. There's a place in a classroom for quietly engaged students, but a sense of engagement wasn't what I gave off.

It was by all measures a successful seminar: there were verbal footnotes, heated yet cordial disputes, vital principles in play and at stake, shirts with sweat marks running down the seam. Some respond to the fear of whitewater rafting trips or the loudness of certain concerts by falling asleep: My response to the wholesale expenditure in Klugmann's classroom of conflicting yet harmonized energies was to yawn, fidget, count my change for the run during break to the candy machine for a box of Skittles, chosen perhaps because they too could be counted. Only Genevieve could puncture the membrane of my inertia: dark-haired and green-eyed, she would turn to face Klugmann at the head of the table, her collarbone riding high beneath a blouse tightened against breasts swelling like a majestic wave that I might just have caught if only I had known how to surf. Then her full mouth would close and she'd turn away, her frame retreating into her clothing, and I'd slump back in my chair.

So what was I doing there? My motives were probably the common ones, curiosity and ambition. Like everyone else I must have been intrigued by Klugmann's celebrity. It must also have occurred to me as to everyone else that his letter of recommendation would look nice in my dossier. But if my motives were the same as everyone else's, why didn't I try to score points at the conference table like everyone else? Maybe I didn't want to appear to be sucking up and was trying to distinguish myself by my apathy.

Whatever he represented, however polished his manner, Klugmann turned out to be highly likable. He wore his knowledge lightly, agreed and disagreed generously, laughed readily. The lines on his face when he laughed suggested a vulnerability that allayed my distrust of his smoothness.

I tried to see him to discuss my term paper. There was always a wait. Once when I'd had the patience to get to the front of the line I discovered that the dog I took with me everywhere -- a mutt disguised as a Belgian shepherd -- had drifted away. Across campus was a pizzeria where they used so much oil that the toppings tended to slide off the pizza and, often enough, to the ground. I found the dog there as usual. By the time I got back to his office Klugmann had gone. I called to set up another appointment.

My feeling for home across the country was embodied in my devotion to its professional basketball team, the Knicks. This devotion was dire: the Knicks' fate concerned me more than my own. To watch them play was always stressful, but the effect on me of their playoff series against the Bulls belongs in the annals of hysteria. The Bulls were better. I was dead set against an inevitability.

During those game days I'd grow ever more anxious. Once a game was underway I'd pass from muttering gloom to stunned frenzy to a quasi-religious despair in which every basket the Bulls scored was another abomination. The Knicks' mistakes brought on apoplexy, foul calls against them a species of persecution mania. Their triumphs gave me no compensatory pleasure, merely relief.

The appointment Klugmann had given me fell in the middle of the decisive game. Halfway through the second quarter I saw that it was time to leave for it. I watched the rest of the quarter anyway, and was twenty minutes late when I knocked. Klugmann appeared to say he'd be with me shortly and withdrew. Staring at the letters of his name on the frosted glass office door, I played out in imagination the third quarter I was missing, a fantasy all the less convincing for being continually interrupted by resolutions to leave. The door opened. Genevieve came out and turned down the hallway without meeting my eyes.

Klugmann was composed, but I wasn't. Only when he had had me take a seat, fixed his gaze on me with an owlish deliberation and covered the back of one hand with the other -- only then did it strike me that whatever thought I might have given my paper topic was gone. I found that I hadn't come to discuss my work at all but to disavow my classroom persona, to establish a connection to Klugmann, to befriend him.

I was clumsy and inarticulate. I meant to tell him something of myself, but the game clock was ticking. To explain my hurry I launched into a manic excursus on the Knicks: the illustriousness of their history, the nobility of their cause, the precariousness of their situation. Klugmann seemed puzzled, but in a spirit of cordiality he offered an irrelevant anecdote about his boyhood infatuation with the Dodgers. I steered the subject back from baseball to basketball. He looked at his watch and invited me to come to the point. I mumbled something about being too deep in the research for my term paper to be able to discuss it. "Come back and see me when you've got your ducks in a row," Klugmann said. When I resumed my position in front of the television it was late in the game and the Knicks were in trouble.

I turned in my paper. Klugmann liked it well enough. His comments were apt and courteous but gave no hint of our further association. And we had none.

But a term or two later I ran into him in a hallway. His greeting was friendly and we struck up the kind of spontaneous desultory chat that I'd hoped to have in his office. I found myself asking him to excuse my behavior in our meeting. "I remember only that you seemed a little crazy," he said indulgently.

We walked together down the corridor. At the end he went through the swinging door of the men's room, a quartz, marble, and porcelain prewar beauty. I followed him in, and heard my words echo from tiles as he approached a urinal at the far side. I hesitated before going to one at the near side and unzipping my fly. Instead of repairing to a sink at the back of the room when he'd finished, Klugmann took a step towards me and resumed the conversation.

There were no partitions between the urinals, and the sides of the floor-length structure I faced are not so high as in a newer model. This older urinal was more like a tub than a chest and provided less shelter and privacy.

I hadn't had to go in the first place, and my nervousness at talking to Klugmann didn't help. Nothing would come out, not a drop, a fact that would have been apparent from Klugmann's vantage. He was still talking -- was he also looking? I didn't dare turn my head to find out. I was too busy deciding for how long to hold my position. At some moment of headlong abandon I broke into the magic dance men do to purge the last drop, flushed the toilet, put myself together and turned around. Klugmann was heading to the sinks. I did too, averting my eyes while I scrubbed my hands with a surgeon's diligence. We didn't look at each other again till we were back out. His eyes seemed to flash with mischief, and an incisor snagged his lower lip as if he was holding back a laugh. "It isn't that I was crazy," I said. "It was ...."

"A performance?" He clapped me on the shoulder, pivoted on a leather sole and started up the corridor.

"Yeah," I said after him.

"Bravo!" he cried without turning, "bravo," and gathered momentum for the loftier matters that awaited him.

Bio

James Wallenstein, who has a novel in need of a publisher, teaches writing at the New School, Pratt Institute, and Wesleyan University.

 

 

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