Taking without Asking: a gay man’s college memoir
By Paul Iasevoli
I stood next to the air conditioner in the classroom and gazed out the window. It was my last day of student teaching at JFK High School. Iowa corn fields stretched to vanishing points in the distance, as I contemplated my final meeting with Doctor Krenshaw. Would he laude my teaching skills? Or would he reprimand me for my overly zealous erudition with seventeen-year-olds who wanted to learn nothing more than how to communicate with their field hands?
The quick flick of fluorescent lights over my head broke me from my reverie. “Four o’clock,” a custodian said from the door, “time to close up.”
“I’m supposed to meet my teaching supervisor here.”
The custodian pushed his broom through the first row of desks. “Too late. It’s Friday, and I lock up tight by four-thirty.”
Rather than put up a fight, I collected the few things I’d accumulated in the one desk drawer the head teacher had allocated me and went to the parking lot to wait for Doctor Krenshaw.
With June sun blinding me, I leaned against my Volkswagen Beetle. Krenshaw pulled up forty minutes late for our meeting. When he stepped out of his Cadillac, his navy-blue suit jacket flapped in the summer breeze.
“Hot,” he said.
I nodded. “Thank God the school is air conditioned.”
“I gave you a peach assignment for your student teaching.”
I cast my gaze onto the smoldering asphalt. “Yeah, I know. Thank you.”
“Why are you outside waiting in this heat?”
“The custodian threw me out of the classroom. They lock up the building early on Fridays.”
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to do it right here.” Doctor Krenshaw pulled a clipboard from his armpit. He skipped the first page of his written observations and read from the second. “On Tuesday, you taught a lesson on the subjunctive.”
“Well, that was pretty good. The way you compared the verbal mood to a cloud that morphs, but do you think high school kids understand that kind of imagery?” His Nazi-blue eyes shot through me, and a chill ran up my back in the hundred-degree heat.
I looked across the blistering pavement to find an explanation for my lesson. “I guess I was just in a mood that day…connecting with my literary side.”
“Your literary side should stay in the closet.” Krenshaw raised his hand to my cheek and gave it three short taps. “Just. Like. You.”
My mouth gaped, ready to protest, but I swallowed my denial.
Krenshaw sat his clipboard on the roof of my car. “Now, I have to make my notes.” He reached into the cigarette pocket of his navy-blue jacket, fished through it, but came up empty handed. “You have something to write with?”
I opened the door of my car to get him a pen, but before I reached inside, Krenshaw’s hand slipped into the front pocket of my pants.
I froze when he grabbed my privates.
He shoved me down. With one hand he pinned my arms back, with the other he unzipped my pants.
I couldn’t fend him off. I was on my back wedged between the small, front seat of my car and the steering wheel. My shoes dangled above the hot pavement.
As he rubbed his penis against my groin, I let myself drift to another time and space when I was safe—a night the moon rose while fishing with my father. A time when my father could keep me away from any evil.
Krenshaw shuddered, and his revolting, warm wetness seeped through the fabric of my underwear. He pulled himself off of me and took a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his jacket to wipe his crotch.
In shock, I glared at him from my prone position between the asphalt and the front seat of my Volkswagen.
Krenshaw coughed and spit on the ground grinning from ear to ear. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Don’t worry son, you’ll get an A-plus from me this semester,” he grabbed my chin, “provided you keep your mouth shut.”
When he started up his Cadillac and drove away, I stood and spit after him into the hot, late afternoon air.
Three months later, I strolled the sidewalks of an Illinois land-grant campus 130 miles south of Chicago. Blue spruce and one-hundred-year-old oaks dotted the grounds. The pristine lawns and grand, old buildings seemed places reserved for the children of the rich and famous.
How was it that I, the son of an immigrant, should have the chance to study literature at a university so prestigious?
My first day on central campus, I walked into the marble foyer of Beardshire hall. I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor where the head secretary of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures showed me to a private office. My eyes widened taking in the size of my new work place. August light filtered in through high transom windows and reflected off an oak-topped desk. In the middle of it sat the latest in technology—a Selectric typewriter and a fax machine attached to a telephone.
“Wow.” I turned to the secretary. “Why…? Why me?”
“Because Doctor Blackman likes you,” she said. “Besides, he’s read your poetry…your work must have impressed him.”
I looked down at my penny loafers. “Those poems? They’re nothing more than fluff,” I mumbled.
The secretary fluttered her feathery lashes and drew so near that our shoulders touched. “Well, maybe he likes fluff,” she whispered. She threw her head back, closed her eyes, and her bright-red lips puckered as if in anticipation of my reciprocation.
I stepped away and cleared my throat. “So, when can I move in my stuff?”
Her eyes sprung open. “Stuff?”
“My books and things.”
“Oh, books…yes, books.” She batted her eyelashes as if to clear her head. “Whenever you want. The semester starts in two weeks.” She turned to walk into the hallway but hesitated.
“By the way, you have two classes this fall—Doctor Blackman insisted I give you the overflow. That’s the most we’ve ever assigned to a first-year graduate student.”
I nodded my appreciation from the far corner of my new office. Working full time in academia was something I’d never expected.
Three weeks into my teaching assistantship, Doctor Blackman walked into my class for an observation. He took a seat in the back of the room. My lesson that day was a review on the use of the past tenses in Spanish, and I’d prepared rubber bands for “the show.” I stretched and stretched the bands between my index fingers until one snapped. When it did, I screeched out the preterit of the verb I was demonstrating. My students laughed, but Blackman sat stone faced in the back.
When class was over, Doctor Blackman put his hand on my shoulder. “See me in my office this afternoon at four,” he said before he left.
I nodded and went into the men’s room. My first classroom observation as a graduate student made my bladder fill with stress.
After my second class session ended, I headed to Doctor Blackman’s office and tapped three times on his shiny-oak door.
“Come in,” echoed from behind its thick wood.
I poked my head into the crack, and late-afternoon light came streaming through the windows at his back.
“Take a seat,” he said.
I pulled a chair over to his desk and sat.
“You did well today.” Doctor Blackman’s tone was serious yet mellow.
I bowed my head, like I would in church before taking communion.
Blackman reached his hand across his desk and chucked me under the chin. “It was a really great lesson, and we’re glad to have you aboard.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, although I was filled with pride that I’d somehow made it. That I was respected by a man I’d admired from afar. A man whose books on Latin-American literature I’d read and studied as an undergraduate.
“You keep working at what you’re doing, and you’ll go places,” he said. “You follow me, and you’ll get what you’re looking for.”
I stared at him. “I don’t know what that is…what I’m looking for. I think I just love literature…the tricks written words can do in any language.”
He ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “Words are only air broken into meaning…actions speak louder.”
I cocked my head trying to understand what Blackman meant but decided to change the subject. “So, what will you say in my evaluation?”
“That remains to be seen…I need to think about it tonight.”
The sky darkened behind Blackman as I stood to leave. He reached across his desk and gripped my hand. “You’ve done well in my estimation.”
I thanked him and walked into the main office where the head secretary stacked papers at her desk.
She glanced up from her work and fluttered her eyelashes. “How did it go?”
I studied her lips—they were painted the same red shade as the day she tried to seduce me in my private office. “I think it was okay.” Feeling my bladder fill, I hurried out and ran to the nearest men’s room.
I was in the middle of my business when the bathroom door creaked open. I glanced over my shoulder and glimpsed Blackman’s salt-and pepper hair from the corner of my eye. He walked in and stood next to me in a line of five urinals. He unzipped his pants and spread his feet so that his left shoe nearly touched my right. With no partition to block his view, I felt him examining me. I fixed my stare on the white wall tiles and stepped closer to the urinal to hide as much of myself as I could.
He reached over and grabbed at me.
I slapped his hand aside and, although I wasn’t nearly done urinating, I turned and hurried to zip up my pants.
“You’re making a big mistake,” he said.
With urine dribbling down my palm, I stopped at the sink on the far wall to rinse it off. Over the rush of running water, I heard Blackman mutter a string of curses.
I ignored his threats and left with my hands still dripping wet.
The following semester, I lost my private office and was relocated to a tiny cubicle in a room with nineteen other graduate assistants. On top of that, Blackman cut me to half a class from the double load I’d taught in the fall. That winter, I lived on a diet of dry cereal and ramen noodles. As I walked through central campus, I was thin as the oak branches overhead and
shivered just as much. But, somehow, I made it through to spring. Maybe because Doctor Blackman accepted a deanship at a university in the Netherlands.
In anticipation of my oral examinations with Doctor O’Connell, my nerves had the better of me, and I felt the urge to pee—although the velveteen seat across from his desk was somewhat comforting. A print of Velázquez’s Vulcan’s Forge, a painting I’d always admired for its masculine imagery, hung on the left-hand wall.
While I waited, I rehearsed my discussion of Argentine cowboys and their gaucho poetry. I would act the part if asked—spin an invisible bolero over my head if that’s what it took to sit for the Southern Latin-American lit exams. I wanted to be done with my Master’s and the Midwestern isolation I’d endured the past five years.
When Doctor O’Connell walked in, I felt ready for any question he would ask. I rose from the velveteen chair and shook his pudgy hand. He met my grip with equal force and grinned. His yellow teeth glistened between upturned lips.
“So, have you been reading, son?”
I nodded, although at twenty-two, I resented that term of endearment, “son,” used on me by a man less than six years my senior. Nonetheless, I rattled off the titles—Martín Fierro, Don Segundo Sombra, and Santo Vega.
“So, you know all about criollos, fabellas, and el pestiso argentino?”
I nodded but hoped O’Connell wouldn’t quiz me on any of the gauchos’ horses’ colors or specific characteristics.
He leaned across his desk. “And what about their outfits—have you studied them?”
“Well, from my reading I’ve pieced them together. Somberos sueros, like wide-brimmed bowler hats, and baggy pants called bombachas.”
O’Connell threw his head back and laughed. “Those pants, most unbecoming of a man—not like the tight Levi’s you’re wearing.”
I cocked my head. “How’s that?”
O’Connell ran his hand over his beer belly. “Although bombachas might look good on me, I can’t imagine a boy like you in them?”
I stared at the pudgy, red-faced Irishman through the flicker of fluorescent lights overhead.
He grinned a yellow smile. “I suppose they could help a gaucho breathe in the pampas’s heat. Or maybe they just made it easier for some pocket-pool.”
I scratched my head. “They might have played billiards. But I think what you’re referring to is an American game.”
O’Connell snickered. “You’re young, my son.”
“I’m twenty-two.” I scowled.
He clucked his tongue. “And still trying to figure it out.” O’Connell bared his yellow teeth. “Tell me, son, what do you think those gauchos did when they were lonely out on the pampas?”
I stared at the Velazquez print to my left as if the men working at Vulcan’s forge could hammer me out an answer. When I turned to O’Connell, his right hand stretched across his desk,
ready to slap my face if I responded incorrectly. “Well, according to what I’ve read,” I gulped my words, “they wrote poetry and sang songs.”
O’Connell smacked his hand on the desk and snarled. “They did each other. Right there in the pampas grass. Fucked each other up the ass for six months at a time. Then they’d go home to their wives and daughters and fuck them just as hard.”
I bit my bottom lip, not sure if O’Connell expected me to respond.
His face contorted. “I haven’t fucked my wife in twice as long!”
The velveteen seat suddenly felt as coarse as burlap and my bladder signaled it was time to leave. “I need to go,” I blurted.
O’Connell stood up, and a bulge protruded through his pants. He snatched my wrist and pulled my hand toward his crotch. “You’re making a mistake if you leave now, son. You’ll fail if I grade your section of the lit exam.”
I tore my arm away and stared him straight in the eyes. “The written exams are anonymous and, honestly, I don’t care if I pass or fail.”
“Fuck you then,” his words bolted through his office door as I slammed it closed.
I raced out of Beardshire Hall and paused on the sidewalk to catch my breath. Lights still burned in O’Connell’s office windows, and I glimpsed his silhouette.
I picked up my pace and raced home. When I unlocked my door, a fog of disgust and fear followed me into my apartment, and I wondered how I’d ended up in yet another salacious situation.
Having failed the Southern Latin-American literature section of my Master’s competency exams, I was forced to spend an extra semester at university. I chose the accelerated fifteen-week summer session, but I had to enroll with a full-course load. After two years in the Master’s program, there weren’t enough new classes offered to fulfill my scheduling requirements.
I decided to visit my graduate advisor to plead my case. Maybe he could let me slip by with less than a full schedule under the circumstances.
Doctor Yves, eight years older than me, had youthful charm and swarthy good looks. When I was lucky enough to enroll in one of his courses, I looked as much forward to watching him teach as to the intellectual challenges he presented. More often than not, while I jotted class notes on Modernismo or poesia criolla, I’d find myself intertwining my own fantasies with Doctor Yves’s rhythmic recitations of poems like Nocturno III or Danza de la Culebra. Some
days I would linger after class to ask insipid questions just to see Yves roll his gorgeous, brown eyes at me. If he were on to my flirtatious ploy, he never seemed to mind it.
When I walked into his office, central campus’s lights flickered on and cast a pallor over the question I needed to ask.
Doctor Yves greeted me with his usual, “Dahling,” switching out the “r” for an “h” in imitation of Marlene Dietrich—his favorite movie idol. “Haven’t seen you for weeks. What brings you here past five on a Friday?” He winked. “Past my wine-time you know.”
I fixed my gaze on the crisscross pattern in the carpet covering his office floor. “I…I need one more course…to fill my requirements for the summer semester,” I mumbled.
Yves tilted his head. “What?”
“Can you help me?” My voice quavered. “I need to get out of here before the fall. I want to go home…back to New York.”
Doctor Yves peered at me over the narrow reading glasses he called quevedos—glasses he wore more for show than necessity. He pushed the July issue of Paris Match he was reading aside. “You know, Dahling, it’s serendipitous that I waited after hours for you.”
I scrunched my brow wondering what he meant by my being there as “serendipitous.”
“I’m thinking of translating Plath’s Ariel into Spanish, it’s never been done you know.” He gave me a sheepish grin that only he could get away with and not seem sarcastic.
“It’s never been what?”
I blushed and looked away. “Of course, I get it, but I’m easily confused when I’m stressed.” I didn’t mention the fact that I felt my bladder filling.
“Well, don’t any longer be stressed or confused, Dahling. You are just what I need—a native speaker of English.” His deep-brown eyes pierced me. “You know me, being Puerto Rican, there are nuances in her poems I sometimes miss. I’ve been toying with Ariel for the past six months, but when I get to a poem like ‘Berck-Plage,’ I find myself lost.” He squinted over his quevedos. “Besides, I’ve never been there, and you’ve traveled through most of France, haven’t you?”
“Last year I took a day trip along the coast from Calais to Normandy, but never to that specific beach.”
“It doesn’t matter. You know more than me.” Doctor Yves looked out the window. “I’ve only spent time in Paris, and…well, a few nights on Rue Pigalle are not exactly a day at the beach.” He smirked. “So, together we can do this.” He studied me waiting for an answer.
I froze in my seat and stared at him.
He ignored my stare and prattled on. “You see, Dahling, I have a friend in Peru who’s agreed to publish this thing if I can do it, but I need you. I know you have the talent, and we can create a special course from it to fill your requirements.”
I shrugged and gazed out the window.
Doctor Yves snapped his fingers. “Are you listening, Dahling? It’s not every day the stars collide when you need them.”
I looked down at his office carpet. “I just don’t want it to be like…like what some other professors had me do…then expected more than I can give—”
“This is me.” Yves’s words were terse. “I’m not them. And believe me I know who and what you mean.” He stretched his arm across the desk. “Just shake on it tonight, and you can say ‘yes’ when you’re ready…if you’re willing?”
We locked eyes and, after a brief silence, I put my hand in his. “I say ‘yes’ tonight.”
Doctor Yves smiled. “Then come by my apartment tomorrow afternoon and we’ll begin.”
“But tomorrow’s Saturday.”
“That’s the point, Dahling, nothing goes better with Plath than a bottle of wine, and what better day to work like that than a weekend day?”
I laughed. “I’ll bring a plate of cheese…and a pen.”
Doctor Yves and I didn’t get any translating done that Saturday, but we mapped out how we’d approach the poems. We’d work as close to the originals as possible to keep their rhyme and meter from English into Spanish.
With a bottle of wine finished, we put away Ariel, and went outside on his balcony.
I lit a cigarette.
Yves scrunched his brow. “Must you, Dahling?”
I took a drag. “It’s a habit.”
“A habit that will kill you.”
“I ain’t dead yet.”
Yves harrumphed. “Just looking out for you.”
We stared off in different directions. The mid-July birch and maples shimmered in the twilight. “This is a really nice street,” I said. “The old houses, and the shade…so quiet.”
Yves knocked back his wine and refilled his glass from a second bottle he’d uncorked. “Not during frat-rush week.” He topped off my glass.
“Frat boys live on this street?” Arousal blossomed in my voice.
Yves gave me a Cheshire-cat grin. “Dahling, they’re all straight as arrows.”
I laughed. “But with the right light and music—”
“Dahling, forget about it. You need to find yourself a real man. A man who will stand by your side…like Patsy Cline says.”
I looked down at the waning wine in my glass. “And that’s going to happen how in this God-forsaken, Midwestern town?”
“Maybe not here—not now.” Yves looked away. “But it will…when you get back to New York.”
I shrugged. “What about you?” I reached for my professor’s hand.
He gave me a broad smile. “Dahling, I’m flattered.”
My hand trembled next to his. “It’s not flattery.
He brushed my hand aside. “Dahling…don’t tell me…you’ve fallen in love?” He took another sip of wine.
“Maybe,” I whispered. “I’ve never known a man…at least never a man like you.”
Doctor Yves studied me, clucked his tongue, and gazed into the distance.
I turned away and dropped my face in my hands. Warm, salty tears ran down my cheeks as I blubbered something about my constant rejection. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hands.
Yves chucked my chin.“Dahling, you have a crush.” He leaned in and patted my hand. “A schoolboy’s crush on his teacher.”
I put my hands in my pockets and shrugged. “But I’ve never felt this way about anybody. I’ve never—”
“Had sex,” I blurted.
Yves’s face went blank. He took a gulp of wine. “And how old are you?”
“I’ve just turned twenty-three.” A lump rose in my throat. “I tried it with women, but that didn’t work.” I sniffled. “I’ve asked a couple guys…but, and—”
“And I’m not the one.” Yves gripped my wrist. “I don’t fuck my students. Never have.” His eyes darted to the trees lining the street. “I’m not the one you want to love. I may be
someone you admire, but that’s not love.” He looked me in the eyes. “Besides, I have a lover. He lives in California…a long way away, but we manage. I’m honest with him, and he is with me.”
I shook my head, as if denying what Yves had said would change anything—change what I’d said and done.
Yves squinted through the dimming light. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded, still embarrassed by my naivety.
He caressed my hand. “It’s not that you’re bad looking…actually you’re really hot, Dahling.”
I laughed in spite of my deflated ego.
Yves took my other hand in his and squeezed them together. “You need to give it time. You’ll find what you’re after, but what you’re after is not me, not now, not at this moment.”
I nodded through tears running down my face. I sucked in a sob, put down my wine glass, and headed for the door.
Out on the street, under the trees of frat row, I reflected on the moon and yew in Plath’s poetry, her images of mannequins and Medusa, and how love was an emotion I had yet to understand.
Our translation of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel languished on South-American bookshelves until it was purloined by one Ramón Buenaventura and published in Spain by Hiperión. While studying
at the University of Salamanca in 1989, I purchased a copy of Buenavista’s book and sent it as a “gift” to Doctor Yves.
“Our words in print,” I wrote on the inside cover.
Two weeks later I received Doctor Yves’s reply in the mail. “Let it go, Dahling. Sometimes people want things so badly, they take them without asking.”
About the Author
Paul Iasevoli's stories and poems have been published in various journals, including Deep South Magazine, where he was 2018 winner of honorable mention in their Race in Place short story contest. His writing has also appeared in the Florida Writers Association’s yearly collection of prose and poetry. He’s author of the 2018 award nominated LGBTQ+ novella, Winter Blossoms, published by Beaten Track Publishing.
More about Paul at his website www.pauliasevoliwords.com