In another age, he might have been called her ruin. Her friends, and the counselor who tried to help her after her marriage cratered, actually used the word lycanthrope. Even Gottlieb himself said something to this effect the one time she ventured into his office. “In a story,” he said, “I’m the dark figure you can’t forget. The one waiting in your Granny’s bed, fangs neatly hidden.” Then he sighed. “Alas, these stories are badly misunderstood.”
Therein lay the problem with Gottlieb. The problem, and the terrible delight.
She was twenty-two when she met him: a bright Saturday in late October, 1980, just before the north-coast winter rains began in earnest. She was rooting around in a junk shop for some little treasure—an old blue teacup, a patchwork quilt, a red-fringed lamp—something, anyway, that might transform her bland graduate student apartment. Old discarded things consoled her, as did the atmosphere of Blackbeard’s, which felt more like an old church than a pirate’s ship: cavernous with high colored-glass windows, cracked red concrete floors, and one great aisle with narrower ones on either side, like pews, crammed with domestic detritus. She was, this time, in the back room: a place adrift in unopened boxes, offerings that had “not yet been dealt with,” as the proprietor once told her, sighing hugely as if this were his special cross to bear. He let his repeat customers rummage in those boxes, and she’d been kneeling there, more than once, when stunned newcomers, so deep in grief they appeared to be sleepwalking, dropped things off. Some jettisoned not just old silverware and mustard yellow kitchen curtains, but whole family photograph albums and stacks of letters. This always surprised her. She wanted to touch the person’s sleeve and whisper, “No, no, you’ll regret it, hang on to that.”
But at twenty-two, in late October, all that mattered was the afternoon light falling through the high painted windows in red and gold drifts, lighting her hands as she lifted cups and saucers from a box. Then, abruptly, her hands faded to pale olive. Had a cloud passed over, or dusk fallen precipitously? No, it was only a person blocking the light: a man in a soft gray sweater and trousers, a faded baseball cap over his dark hair. A touch of good-natured mockery about the mouth, eyes slightly crinkled in a way that suggested he knew something about you that you didn’t yet know yourself. Yet. Her heart tightened, her eyes felt hot, as if tears would come, as if her father’s funeral were about to begin again. It was absurd; he’d been dead seven years.
She smiled up at the man, and he smiled back, exactly the look she knew. Tenderness, exhaustion—something else. That expectation she could never grasp.
“First year in Folklore?” He held out a hand. “Stefan Gottlieb.”
She nodded and took his hand, then pulled it quickly away.
“I won’t bite,” he said. “Take my seminar.”
“Oh,” she sputtered, terrified. “It was full. Couldn’t get in.”
He shrugged. “It fills up, first day, with kids who shouldn’t be there. Plenty of room now.” He grinned and turned away, and the warm red light of the high windows was back on her hands. But she felt sunken, abandoned, dropped down suddenly to a place where little waves lapped dully against a gray seawall. Suddenly it felt pointless to keep going through the old boxes.
As it turned out, he was nothing like her father: neither shy nor quietly growing ill. His dark hair sprang up thick and curly when, in class, he took off the baseball cap, and the heavy-lidded dark eyes with their sad humor gleamed feverishly behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses as he read a ballad then began to ask questions. He walked around the long table as they all held still in their seats, braced for some little shaft of knowledge aimed just at them.
Outside of class he seemed twice as dangerous: students, male and female both, were forever emerging from his office with pale, stricken faces. She knew—it was generally known—that he kept a box of Kleenex in his bottom desk drawer, and as the eyes of the fragile student began to brim, he reached down, and briskly, heartlessly, opened the drawer. And there were rumors that he had a taste for a certain type of girl—the Waif—chosen annually from their midst, and that such a figure had already been selected from the new class. This year’s girl, Kara Mills, had twice been seen to disappear into his office after the evening seminar. Twice. That was somehow key. Anna was constantly brushing away the little picture that arose: precarious towers of books, sliding heaps of journal articles, and student essays cascading against her own bare shoulders. The salt and smudge of book-print, an indecipherable phrase tattooed on her hip.
She suspected Gottlieb would have been delighted to hear it, a virginal fantasy if there ever was one. The truth, she’d later learn, was that he hated his office and the small university town of Cordelia—so goddamned provincial, he said—and kept a pied a terre in San Francisco. Most likely he and the girl had merely stopped at the office to get his coat before driving west to the city. A plate of calamari in North Beach, a glass of red wine, a little jazz. From there on, her imagination faltered, then failed completely.
One evening—they’d been studying the Judeo-Spanish ballad tradition—Gottlieb recited the lyrics to a song so pointedly a seduction that Anna dared not look up from the mimeographed sheets he’d handed out.
My sweet let us go and see if
the rose, which this morning opened
her crimson robe to the sun
this evening still retains
the folds of her red robe
and her rosy complexion so like yours.
Alas, look, my sweet, how in so short a time
she has shed her beauty, alas, on to the ground.
Therefore trust me my sweet. . . .
After class was over, she must have been too slow getting her things together and got caught at the threshold as Gottlieb brushed. She flattened herself against the doorframe, instinctively held her breath. He laid a hand lightly on her shoulder and held her gaze. “My sad Sephardic rose,” he said, keeping his hand there another second. “Saved again, from horrors unimaginable.”
Her body seemed to go, in that instant, from white-hot to cold ash. She held very still and averted her face as from a bad smell. It didn’t matter: he was already out in the hall. Kara Mills waited for him by the stairs. With the subtlest of gestures, like a ballroom dancer, he cupped Kara’s elbow in his hand and they descended together, out of view. It was clearly pre-arranged, and Kara unfazed, cool. Anointed. Anna watched by the upstairs window as they reappeared in the Anthropology parking lot, watched him open the passenger door of his car for her.
Kara. A quiet girl with a small narrow face and big dark eyes, dressed always in a boy’s flannel shirt and jeans, which weirdly emphasized the delicate wrist, the small leg. Essays brilliant beyond everyone’s. He’d read aloud from them now and then, just for the pleasure, Anna thought, of watching Kara’s pale cheeks delicately redden, and the other students go deathly white with rage and renewed ambition. There was, in everything he did, the habit of antagonism, in its deepest, oldest sense, as if he meant to oppose, to contest them, in hopes that they might break suddenly into being. Sometimes it worked. Later, many of his students would admit that they went on professionally purely out of the desire to prove how he’d underestimated them. He was infuriating; impossible to please. Or this, anyway, was the drama he enacted.
But that evening—it was nearly dusk and hard to see—Kara lowered herself gracefully into his old Volvo and disappeared into another realm entirely. Gottlieb, for his part, glanced up at the stairway window and gave a little parade wave. Anna didn’t wave back; surely he knew she would not. She felt twice-pegged, first as the daughter endlessly grieving, and now, at the classroom threshold, as the prude, the sexual being not yet born. She stood there humiliated, transfixed like one of those mortal girls who get turned into trees just before something real and shocking can happen to them. She forced herself to picture Gottlieb and Kara at dinner, lifting little rings of fried calamari to their mouths—would it be by fork, or taken in their fingers, shining with oil? No, no, that was far too frank, too ugly, somehow. She preferred to imagine a jazz club, where, as Gottlieb watched Kara, she would watch the sax player, absolutely getting it, the flight of those heartbroken throaty notes, how they bent and lifted out from the tune and spiraled out to anywhere else. She wouldn’t be afraid of the way some jazz went out from its melody line and never came back.
At last Anna made her way down the stairs and out of the building. It was dark by now, with little pools of orange street light on the sidewalk. She heard her name called, or thought she did, then saw a figure under one of the lamps. Male, tall—as she got closer she recognized him from her first day in the class. He’d been a latecomer too, from Oceanography if she remembered rightly, and after another week, had dropped the course. Now he told her that he wasn’t actually sure of her name, was just hoping he’d got it right. “Mine’s Cortland. Just call me Cort,” he said. “Everything okay? You seem upset.”
“What are you doing here?” she said bluntly.
He smiled. “I came back to see if you were still in the class.”
The faintest shiver and pull. She squinted into the spotlight. He was completely unlikely. Long-limbed, with straight thick blond hair and an outdoorsman’s ease, and only a little older than she was. Such men never liked her: she was too gun shy, they said. And spacey.
“Let me buy you a coffee,” said Cort. “Or a beer, maybe something to eat?”
She wanted to whisper yes like some kind of invalid and be taken instantly into his care, but she took a deep breath and asked why he dropped the class. He shrugged, easy in his body. “It just wasn’t what I was looking for,” he said. He paused. “So, come out with me?”
Come with me, my sweet . . . Maybe it was a sign, maybe, even, a turn of luck, though the lyrics of the seduction song and Gottlieb’s hand on her shoulder still clung to her memory, light and irksome as cobwebs. But moments later, at the College Street Pub, Cort’s hands trembled, edging their way across the table toward hers, and she found hers were trembling too. Only once in that hour did she lose focus and picture Gottlieb and Kara, this time with absolute clarity, at a corner booth in a dark club: Gottlieb standing up, offering his hand to Kara with a look both whimsical and desirous.
Was that why she went to Cort’s apartment that same night? She didn’t think about it then. She simply went. I am twenty-two years old, she said to herself, and this is my adventure, my time. He put the music of Erik Satie on the phonograph as if he knew precisely what was called for. A single piano, of course, and if sad, then lightly, lyrically so. They sat side by side on the couch and talked: his oceanography project, her dreams of running her own small museum of folk art. Later, she could never say who made the first move, only that when they shifted to the little alcove that held his narrow student bed, it seemed like some ceremony long since established for them. The alcove was snug as a ship’s cabin, with shelves of big textbooks, beautiful antique maps, and his hands were light and confident, if slightly rushed. The sex—it had been a long time, he said, as did she—had a slight touch of the theatrical. She was aware of a mutual assertion being made between them. How young we are, how poised for the future. How old he is. How over.
Afterward, as they lay curled on their sides, she asked Cort again why he’d enrolled in the course and then dropped it. There was a little silence, in which, this time, she anticipated an answer that would confirm the rightness of their coming together.
“Well,” he said, laughing sleepily. “Oceanography’s mostly guys. The prospects were pretty much nil.”
Prospects, she thought foggily. This means, this means he was hunting. Well, then, was he unlike Gottlieb? Then again, she reasoned, why not, and at least he’d told her the truth. And hadn’t he been gallant about it, plucking her out of a dark moment, waiting in the street like that? There were worse ways to begin, and you could go crazy second-guessing. A golden, long-limbed sailor had found her after all, as her unsteady little craft rocked on the waves. Lying there, she breathed in Cort like sharp salt air and closed her eyes against the small waves that lapped against the old seawall. Still there, but fainter now. That was a good thing too.
He was, of course, Gottlieb’s opposite. If one was the old king, the other was the young and virile prince. He had, in fact, a prince’s air of high courtesy and boyish delight; he seemed to conceal nothing, not even his direct interest, clear in the way he looked her over. There was something golden and natural and uncalculated about it compared to Gottlieb’s weird dark gravity—the sense that once he had chosen you, he had all the time in the world, that you’d come to him eventually.
Kara—Gottlieb’s Chosen One—did come back from that night, and for two months Anna saw, along with everyone else, exactly how it was: the way he’d lightly cup her elbow as they passed in the hall, the flush on her cheeks more or less permanent now. It was a relief, somehow, and as if to remind her that her own destiny was different, Cort always waited for her under the orange lights outside Anthropology after the evening seminar, to “carry her off to safety,” as he said of their retreats to his little alcove.
Then one night Gottlieb riffled through his stack of papers and began to read something that Anna recognized, initially, as only not Kara’s, but then, with a jump of her pulse, as her own phrasing, her own words. He’d asked them to find a folktale from their own hometowns, and she’d chosen a ghost story from the Isabel Gardens, a place her father had taken her many Sundays in childhood. It was a short vague thing; she’d been young, and her father had been a hopelessly brief storyteller—his shyness, she supposed. He’d told her only that it had been owned by a Gold Rush millionaire with a penchant for young women, and that after his death, several people claimed to see a lady in Victorian clothes weeping on a bridge at midnight. One of his jilted lovers, it was said. The bridge had long since been torn down. This was, oddly enough, the thing her father paused on. What happens, he said, when the place a spirit depends on is torn down? Where does it go then? I think, he’d said, that it gets into the people themselves.
Gottlieb’s glasses flashed under the fluorescent lights: unreadable, blinding, and when class was over he simply held up one hand to detain her.
She was pretty sure she knew what was coming. An F, an accusation of dabbling in clichés. Worse—did he think she was accusing him through the example: the “penchant for young women” bit? Clutching her books and picturing Cort waiting, youthful and pure under the orange street lamp, she followed Gottlieb down the hall and waited while he unlocked his office door. The other students hovered at the staircase in a little knot, caught her eye, then vanished with astonishing speed. Kara was among them, and Kara among them did not meet her eyes. Then she too was gone.
Gottlieb’s office was a crushing disappointment: neat and spare, though every bookshelf was filled. She scanned for photographs of a wife, a child, some clue to his personal life. But there was nothing, only professional order, and two Rothko prints on the wall. No sign of the romantic chaos she’d imagined.
“You are not without talent,” he said. He put down his books on a big desk, itself perfectly orderly: several neat stacks of papers, a journal or two. “But you’re going to have to toughen up. If you take everything so much to heart, you’ll never get anywhere.” He paused and looked her right in the eye. “How long ago did you lose your dad?” he said quietly.
“Excuse me?” she sputtered. “Fifteen. I mean, I was fifteen.”
He sighed and rubbed his fingers across his eyes. “Seven years is nothing. You’re going to have some dark days. You haven’t even touched it yet.” He waited a moment and looked at her. “You know that, right?”
She nodded. If she just held still and breathed her way through, she could get out of here without making a fool of herself. She waited, chest tightening as if preparing to rend itself for good, and at the same time, had a comical sensation of distance, of seeing herself small and dainty, and this giant figure about to open the fabled bottom drawer with the Kleenex box. Now she understood: some girls were brought here to be ravished, but others were not. Some girls were already shipwrecks, and these he would never touch. She felt obscurely diminished knowing this. Then she was aware of the warm good smells of wool and tweed and some peppery odor, and let herself nestle, burrow, sink into them.
“You’re a disaster,” he said, holding her at arms’ length. “Be careful, for God’s sake. Take your time. You better go,” he added softly, sweeping his hand through her hair. “Because a golden princeling waits under yonder streetlamp. Don’t want to make him mad— though my actual advice would be to make him mad as soon as possible. He needs a good test, that one. Tell me, does he get you at all? Does he even understand the nature of stories?”
She took a single step backwards. “Oh,” she cried, clutched her books, and ran. Down the stairs and out of the building, shaking. And there stood Cort, under the orange light, watching her, then very pointedly glancing up to the windows of the second floor, where she saw, exactly as he apparently had, into the one lit office on that floor where a silhouetted figure moved to and fro.
“It’s not . . .” she began. “It’s different than it looks—”
But he was looking at her with what seemed to be compassion, or faint fatherly disappointment at the worst. “It’s okay, baby,” he said, and she waited for him to go on, to say, as surely he must, You’re not ready, I understand.
“I want . . .” he said. “I mean—will you marry me?” His eyes were full of tears.
Later she remembered no beat at all, in fact couldn’t remember her own answer, only what he said next. “Oh, thank God,” he cried, and pressed her to him. What did he mean by that? She let it pass and sank against him: clean-smelling, nothing like Gottlieb, nothing like her father. Surely this was a good sign. But as he looked down at her, she got an odd sensation that she wasn’t the one being rescued. It was Cort. From what hidden pain she didn’t know, only that it was as real as the little dark place in herself she was afraid to touch. But she felt, suddenly, strong and helpful and kind, and kissed him back, no daughter now, but a full-grown woman, someone to be counted on.
“Do you need to stay in the program?” he said tenderly.
That surprised her. “Yes,” she replied firmly. “I need to finish it. But I won’t do my thesis work with Gottlieb. I give you my word.”
He looked at her with a wistfulness that nearly broke her. “I appreciate that,” he said. “And if you change your mind . . . That is, if you feel you don’t want to finish, don’t worry. I’m going to take care of you. It’s what I want to do.”
“That’s sweet,” she said, and tried to get used to the clean, salt smell of him. This is where you belong, she told herself. This is moving ahead, not back. That’s why it feels so odd, even a little awkward. It’s not wrong, just new.
Over time it occurred to her that the moment in Gottlieb’s office, which had been extraordinary for her, had been utterly usual—in fact barely memorable—for Gottlieb. He looked at her in the hallways as if he barely recognized her—the former student whose name he’d long since forgotten. And then something else complicated the picture. Kara disappeared from the class, from the program, from Cordelia. One week, two weeks. The rumor was confirmed. “Kara’s left the village,” someone said, and everyone nodded. Apparently she’d gone back to her hometown, harrowed by Gottlieb’s rejection, and had had a bona fide nervous breakdown. In bed one night, Cort touched her face tenderly and whispered, “My God, do you realize that could have been you?” and when she opened her mouth to object, he laid his hand lightly, sexily, across her mouth and pulled her in close. She barely recognized his touch, or the hunger with which he moved against her, and fleetingly, she wondered if he were lost in some fantasy about the fragile Kara. She, for her part, couldn’t get that last nagging vision of Kara out of her head: Kara descending the stairs, Kara alone among the students not looking at her. That small, pale hand sliding down the banister.
But after that night, things began to fall into place, as if, all along, some weird anchor had been secretly tilting them to one side. They planned a summer wedding, and Cort was granted the post-doc he’d been hoping for, and he mentioned again, very casually, the matter of her not needing to finish the program if she didn’t want to, if it was, in some way, tainted for her now. Maybe they shouldn’t wait too long to have their first child, he said. Sometimes people waited until it was too late, thinking it would interfere with their careers and all. She could always come back to grad school later.
She was touched by his eagerness, though every once in a while she thought she heard, as if a trick of the wind, the desperate little phrase from the night of his proposal, “Oh, thank God,” as if he himself was rushing past something. But this sort of worrying seemed an affront to life itself, a last vestige of her old insecurity.
And as if to help clear the way, Gottlieb himself left town: he’d been offered a far more prestigious position at a university on the East Coast. One day he was simply gone. From the program, from Cordelia, from all their lives. “Gottlieb’s left the village,” the students joked mournfully. Anna found, for herself, that the steam had gone out of the whole business. Surely she would come back later, she told herself. She would know when the time was right. She was just too young. As perhaps Kara had been.
Kara. That was the strangest thing of all. Within a year, she realized she was no longer troubled by Kara’s image, by her small, pale hand on the banister and its familiar attendant guilt. One night she even tried to call Kara forth, closing her eyes, willing the small figure to emerge. But there in its place stood Gottlieb. Gottlieb who, like the ghost in her father’s old story, sprang up unbidden from her bones, long after the bridge he depended on had been torn down. There he stood in his dark cap, his glasses flashing as he held her at arm’s length, telling her there would be dark days ahead, that she hadn’t even touched it yet.
She knew that, didn’t she?
Yes, she knew that. A little late, but she heard him now, telling her not to be in such a hurry, not to fight so hard against the mystery that waits, untouched, among the dark, still-folded petals of the rose.
Marjorie Sandor is the author of three books, including Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime (Sarabande Books), 2004 winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Georgia Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Oregon State University in Corvallis. (4/2010)