Since early childhood, I have been captivated by very old books and documents, especially manuscripts. There’s something about seeing the handwriting of a person who lived centuries ago that never fails to send a pleasurable shiver down my spine. Like communing with the dead, but in a way that isn’t scary. Instead, it feels like a sacred act, the transfer of knowledge from one age to another over an unimaginable chasm of time. And if there is an element of mystery, if the script is undeciphered, a message from the past waiting to be unfolded… so much the better.
The Voynich Affair: Chapter 1
Lynn Melton’s best feature had always been her breasts. They were a perfect C, though on her slender rib cage they looked rather larger. They had a pert, pointy shape and large, pink nipples. The few men who had seen them were uniformly enchanted. As long as she and Richard were an item, his favorite sexual activity, short of actual intercourse, was playing with her breasts. When they divorced after fifteen years of marriage so that he could wed a younger woman, he told her his one regret was that he would no longer be able to visit “the puppies.”
Six months later, she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation. Her hair grew back quickly enough, but where before her breasts had been almost perfectly symmetrical, they were now rather lopsided, and the left breast had a sizable divot, which persisted after healing in spite of the surgeon’s best efforts. She knew she was lucky to be alive, and that her heartbreak over the damage to her breast was irrational, yet coming so soon after her divorce, it was a heavy blow. Richard came to see her in the hospital, but his remarks about what a shame it was because she “used to have such great tits” did nothing to improve her mental state. With the objectivity provided by distance and time, she came to realize that Richard was a selfish man who rarely gave a thought to the feelings of other people. She was glad they hadn’t had children together, though she did help raise Richard’s two daughters from his first marriage.
Her best friend in the English department was Laura Livingston, who studied the libraries of English writers, with an emphasis on Alexander Pope. Laura’s mother had gone through the same type of cancer treatment, and Laura proved invaluable in helping Lynn through the crisis, driving her to appointments and procedures, researching the latest treatment options on the web, and sympathizing with her worries about potential lymphedema and other complications. When she returned to work, George Tennison, the dean of her college at Parnell State University, asked Lynn to consider becoming chair of the department.
“I know I shouldn’t be asking this, after what you’ve just gone through,” he said rather sheepishly, “but I honestly can’t think of any other suitable candidates, and you’re the only person both factions in the department will respect.”
She was daunted by the responsibility, and loath to give up her summers, but at the same time, she liked the idea of a more structured workday; it would take her mind off her personal life— or more accurately, the lack thereof. “How about a trial run of a year?” she asked, and George readily agreed. The trial year turned into two years, and then three.
Lynn quickly discovered that there was a major downside to the job: an avalanche of information about her colleagues that she would rather not have known. It wasn’t so much that she learned of, and to some small extent mourned every death and illness in their families, their divorces and marital problems, and their problems with substance abuse. What upset her most was the realization that her department was full of poster children for the Seven Deadly Sins. Greed, sloth, anger, pride and envy were on daily display, with lust and gluttony also present, but of less concern to her as an administrator. Until she discovered that several male faculty members were viewing and downloading pornographic movies on their university-issued computers, and that the breakroom and three faculty offices were infested with mice and ants because of the large amounts of food dropped on the floors and ground into the rugs.
Still, she had a calm demeanor and was good at listening, which pleased the department faculty, and she found a certain satisfaction in mediating disputes, at least when there was a chance for a successful resolution. Sometimes, as in the case of the great divide between the faculty in Literature and those in the Literacy and Rhetoric program, she had to be satisfied with keeping the peace talks going, rather than establishing any permanent accords.
She got along well with the three department secretaries, Tasha, Carole and Dorothy, because she treated them respectfully, and unlike her predecessor Dick Townley, she didn’t ask them to do work that devolved rightfully to the chair. Carole and Dorothy were older than she, and they took a maternal interest in her. They fiercely protected Lynn from faculty members whose main object in approaching her was to chew her ear off with endless complaints about “impossible teaching schedules” (code for having to come to work more than three days a week), the rude behavior of their colleagues in not taking on the classes they didn’t wish to teach, or the mystery of why reserved parking spaces were not awarded to those who published books with major university presses.
Lately, though, the three secretaries had been hinting that she needed to find a boyfriend, and suggesting the names of various men in the college who were known to be single. Carole even collected a “Bachelor Book” with photos of all the potential candidates for the boyfriend position, and wrote up a job description that gave Lynn, a Shakespeare scholar, a good laugh. “Must have the brains of Hamlet, the looks of Romeo, the wit of Benedick, the good humor of Falstaff, and the wisdom of Prospero.”
“If anyone like that stops by, please send him down the hall to me!” she told them. Tasha, who was relatively new, thought that Lynn ought to ask Jonathan “Jonny” Sebelius out for coffee, “since he’s so good-looking.” When the others heard this, they exploded in laughter. Sebelius, a tall Milton scholar with a head of luxuriant, shoulder-length curls and a pair of icy blue eyes, was quite handsome in spite of the scar on his face from a duel (he was a competitive fencer). His World Lit lectures drew smitten young women in droves. But he was also a confirmed misogynist and visibly uncomfortable when forced to make conversation with a woman.
When this was explained to her, Tasha said, “Whatever. But if Professor Sebelius offered to show me his sword, I sure as heck wouldn’t say no.”
The fact was that nobody in her department, in the college, or even in the university aroused the slightest romantic interest in Lynn. She wasn’t pining for Richard, though she very much missed having a man around. But it was hard for her to imagine what a relationship with someone new would look like. She was forty-two. What were the chances of meeting an unmarried man, one she would feel comfortable with? And even if she had the good luck to meet someone, the thought of baring her disfigured breasts, and seeing the inevitable look of disappointment on his face, was intolerable. She turned her mind to her work.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss.
Notes: To all my RA fan buddies, sorry for dubbing Lynn’s rotten ex-husband “Richard”! I wrote this story before I became aware of the prénom of the divine Mr. A.
Lynn’s frustrations as a department chair are drawn from my real-life experience (including the porn-watching male professors!). Lynn was the first heroine I created after Laura Livingston, the protagonist of my London Broil trilogy. Lynn and Laura are very similar characters. I had to build up more confidence in my writing before I could create protagonists who were quite different from me… and even then, I’m not sure I ever succeed in making them truly different.
I’ve not had breast cancer myself, but I’ve known a shocking number of women who have. Some died from it. Most survived. All set an example of grace, humor, and strength that leaves me in awe. In some small way, this story is a tribute to them.