Many Archaic statues served as gravestones. There’s something profoundly sad about the charming figures of youths called kouroi, because these were used to mark the tombs of young men. But they were also given as gifts to the gods. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a kouros represents a youth cut down before his prime, or the beardless god Apollo, who was destined to live forever in the form of a beautiful young man.
Rimini Woodland Cemetery was part arboretum and part graveyard. The winter had been unusually mild, and the black cherries were already blooming, while the Callery pear trees were in full flower, so that the park was awash in fluffy clouds of white blossoms. Other trees were clothing themselves in the light but vivid green of late April leaves. They found a small caretaker’s house, and Max asked about the Desmond family.
“Desmond? Nobody buried here by that name in a long time. I’ll have to look it up,” said the weatherbeaten old man at the window. He invited them in while he poked around in his files, finally producing a map which he marked with two X’s. “The main plot’s here,” he said, “and not far off there was a supplemental purchase. A less desirable spot, closer to the road.”
They walked past ornate gravestones, some mausoleums with angel sculptures, more flowering trees, and a fountain, until they found the Desmond family plot. It held several graves of people who had died at the turn of the century, and two of those pitiful, miniature stones that served to mark the graves of small children. Each had a roselike flower with leaves carved on its upper third. One of the stones read Davina Desmond 1941-1945, and the other Denton Desmond 1943-1945.
“Yes, this is my family,” said Max. “My grandfather had a limp —polio, I think— so he couldn’t enlist. He was a country doctor in these parts.”
“Is he buried here?” asked Andy.
“No. He left in 1945. Let’s see if we can find the other grave.”
They followed the map to the edge of the cemetery, where it met the road. Set slightly apart from the other plots was a much-chipped stone that read Mary Desmond 1915-1945.
“It looks as though someone took a hammer to it,” said Andy.
“I’m sure someone did. This is my grandmother. She killed two of her children, Davina and Denton. She tried to kill my father, Dexter, but he was the eldest, and he fought when she came after him with the knife. He ran, and eventually made it to a farmhouse.”
“What happened to Mary?”
“She hanged herself while waiting for trial.” He stood there looking down at the stone. He pulled out a camera, as though to take a picture, but seemed undecided.
“I’ll give you a moment,” said Andy. “I’m going to walk over toward the fountain.” She set out at a relaxed pace, turning over in her mind what Max had told her. His grandmother was a murderer… that would certainly explain why Mr. Desmond had taken his remaining son and moved away after his wife’s suicide. And why the stone had been vandalized. She pictured generations of teenagers sneaking out to the graveyard on Halloween to chip away at the stone, and circulating stories about a child-killing ghost. Suddenly a thought occurred to her, and an icy finger trailed its way down her spine. What if my father is a criminal, a murderer? Is that why Mother never wanted me to know him?
Max caught up with her. “Let’s walk a little more.” He tucked her hand under his arm and they set off, taking much the same path that she and John used to take.
“I didn’t know you had connections here,” she said.
“Neither did I. My father never spoke of what happened. I only pried the story from my mother about a year ago, after years of nagging. It’s a dark family secret.” He chuckled a little.
“It sounds horrific. Why did Mary do it?”
“My grandfather was going to leave her for someone else.”
“Medea,” breathed Andy. “She was a modern-day Medea, killing the children to get revenge on the father.”
“Yes. She was even a foreigner like Medea, a stranger in a strange land. Her real name was Máire. Irish.”
“Is that why you accepted our invitation?” she asked. “Because you needed to make a trip out here anyway?”
She looked over at him. He had that half-smile he often wore. Max had finally grown into his face. When he was younger, his features had seemed starkly attractive and yet too harsh— the jutting nose, the prominent brow and cheekbones, the masculine chin all gave a slight intimation of Easter Island. Now that he was older, everything worked together. The flavors had blended. He rarely smiled open-mouthed. Instead, the corners of his mouth turned up slightly, giving him an enigmatic smile like the one on the Philadelphia Apollo.
“My visit here was overdetermined. But yes, that was one of the reasons.”
Overdetermined? What was he talking about? How many reasons can there be? “I’m sorry about your grandmother, and everything that happened. But you must feel a kind of relief in finally learning the truth.”
“Yes. I suppose you still haven’t found out who your father was. That must bother you a great deal.”
“It does,” she agreed. “Let’s get some lunch. There’s only one decent place in Rimini, but it’s quite good. Dino’s.”
“Italian? But small-town Italian food is so generic,” he objected. “White grocery store bread. Pizza loaded with overly sweet sauce. Salads with canned vegetables.”
“It wouldn’t kill you to eat a meatball sub and some chickpeas from a can, Mister New York foodie. Besides, Dino’s is a lot better than that. You’ll see.”
As she was driving back toward Main Street, she tried to remember on what occasion she’d told Max about her father. That was a subject she almost always avoided. Now that she thought about it, she was quite certain she hadn’t told him.
You asked me, Jim, whether John and I felt we were doing something illicit. We first met in 1991, the year Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. That was a watershed year. Yet even as universities were busy crafting sexual harassment policies, most stopped short of barring consensual relations between teachers and their students. Even Parnell State, one of my two employers, has no such policy to this very day. I have no idea how or whether the Anita Hill episode affected John, for we never discussed it. He indicated that he thought the office was the wrong place for us to meet, so he must have felt that others would disapprove. Yet I suspect his concern was related more to the difference in our ages than it was to our teacher-student relationship. As for me, I simply didn’t care what anyone else thought.
You also wondered whether John was involved with any of his other students, before me. An obvious question. I am surprised that it never before entered my mind, even though I spend a great deal of time, these days, pondering my earliest meetings with John. Certainly I am resistant to the idea that he was capable of serious moral error. He told me that he wanted to take me to a restaurant, but that perhaps, given the nature of our association at the moment, it was better to use discretion. “Use discretion”: that was how he put it.
On Saturday evening, I drove to his big old house on the lake, a Victorian affair with beautiful woodwork, furnished with antiques and exotic-looking patterned rugs. He served me dinner, roast chicken with broccoli and a baked potato I think it was, on rather feminine china which forced me to acknowledge the presence, in spirit, of his dead wife Edith. Edith Elliott, it must be admitted, was a woman of taste. At that point she had only been dead about four years, having succumbed unexpectedly to a massive heart attack. Everywhere I looked, there was something Edith had chosen, had selected for their life together, had loved. It gave me pause, as he knew it would. John wanted me to understand that he had lived a life before me, and that our love would never banish that life from his memory. He was giving me a chance to cut things off before they went any further. He showed me a few pictures of her that he kept in his study. Edith had been a handsome woman, beautiful even. She had that unusual black hair that goes grey in a dramatic streak over the forehead before it slowly turns white all over. She hadn’t lived long enough for that to happen.
I sat on the sofa with my glass of Chablis, pondering this man who was new to me, this John, husband of Edith. He had two children older than I was, Sarah-Jane, born in ’62, and Thomas in ’65. Thomas had produced one grandchild. To the eyes of a more mature, experienced person, the case must seem fraught with inevitable emotional pitfalls. But at the time, I accepted all of this quite naturally. It was all part of John, and therefore it was right. In fact, I felt a thrill in having come to possess such personal, intimate knowledge of John’s life. It was, I imagine, what a devoted biographer feels upon gaining some new and precious insight into the object of study.
He sat beside me, silent with his wine, allowing me to absorb all that I had learned. I was silent too, staring at the knee of his brown trousers. I wondered if, perhaps, I ought to begin a conversation about Walter Pater, or Sir John Beazley, but I felt dazed. Finally, seeing that my wine glass was empty on the side table, he set down his glass too, and turned to me. “What are you thinking about?” he asked.
He wanted to know what I was thinking about! “How much I love you,” I answered, quite truthfully. An exhalation came from him, a low sound, and he took me in his arms. He held me to his chest, and I wanted to weep, but my heart was thudding at the same time, and I felt aroused by the touch of his hands on my back. The fingers of one hand, extending under my arm, brushed against my left breast, then withdrew. I liked the smell of him. It was masculine, but subtly sweet like an evergreen, and slightly resinous.
He released me and then stood up, holding out his hand, his eyes questioning again. I understood that he was taking me to bed. I followed him to the stairs, where he maneuvered me in front of him, and climbed the steps behind me. Oh, that was exquisite, knowing that he was close on my heels, but not touching me, not yet. It was the space in between, the anticipation like no other.
The bedroom didn’t seem very Edith. It had no feminine pillows, spreads or curtains, no family pictures. There was a queen-size, four-poster bed, a heavy antique, with an old-fashioned Baltimore album quilt in red, blue and yellow. It was appliquéd with geometric designs and eagles. John kissed me again, this time fondling a breast through my dress, a pink shirtwaist style with a belt in the same fabric. Pink was my favorite color, then. I touched him too, and felt the urge to slide my hand to the front of his trousers. I resisted, fearing that he might think it was unladylike. I wasn’t sure how a man of John’s generation expected a woman to act in bed. Slipping my feet from my shoes, I allowed him to unbutton my dress and pull it from me, so that I stood before him in my white bra and panties.
I will never forget the expression on John’s face at that moment. It was almost reverent, and more intent even than a few moments later, when I lay on the bed, naked, while he removed his clothes. Underwear was very erotic for him, though he preferred white or pastels. Once he bought me a black satin teddy, but although I wore it several times, he never responded to it the way he did my virginal white panties.
At a certain point, I realized that John thought I was a virgin, that I needed to be guided through my first experience of adult lovemaking. In a way it was true, for I had never been with a man of his fullness of years. It was all quite different from the fevered clutchings of my defloration, at nineteen, by my first college boyfriend. After that, there was my affair with Max, a graduate student in my program. He was the tall, dark and handsome type, he made me laugh, and he was a good lover into the bargain. I had my first orgasm with him. But we disagreed violently about everything. What movie to see, where to eat. One day when I wasn’t “in the mood,” he threatened to call one of his other girlfriends. Innocent little fool that I was, it hadn’t occurred to me that there were others. I stopped speaking to him, and after a month or so, I heard that he’d gone to England on a Mellon fellowship to finish his dissertation. He’s had quite a career, Max has.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: When I was in college, I fell in love with one of my (unmarried) professors, and he with me. I’m glad I didn’t marry him. But I easily could have ended up in Andy’s situation, since I always appreciated older men, especially if they were intelligent and cultured. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder whether that professor had had other affairs with students before me.
In re-reading the story, I realized that the character John Elliott was something of a celebrity on his campus, and that he had the academic equivalent of a fan club. Andy’s love for him involves a kind of devoted worship which, in certain ways, resembles fandom.
The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas scandal in 1991 was an important moment in the U.S. because it was the first time people began to speak frankly about sexual harassment in the workplace, and it revealed the HUGE divide between men’s and women’s opinions on the subject. Clarence Thomas was confirmed despite the scandal, and he sits on the Supreme Court today.
This painting by Bernard Safran (1964) is entitled Medea. It always gives me a chill.