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I once had a male professor who refused to call on me to translate Latin or Greek poetry if a dirty bit was coming up (which was very often the case). To this day, I’m not sure whether he was trying to preserve my modesty or his own.


A painting of Catulllus’ lover Lesbia, by John Reinhard Weguelin (1878).

6. Little Birds

Lots of guys think material success is the key to bagging girls. Trust me, I’ve spent years with little more than a suitcase full of clothes, and fared better than the guy who has a Lexus and a fancy watch. By itself, money gets you zero. Under my tutelage, you can be the sexy man who gets the girl every time. What are the characteristics of a sexy man? First of all, his movements are slow and deliberate. He has a steady gaze and doesn’t blink often. When he talks about himself (which is rarely), a girl should be impressed, yet disarmed by his humility. Girls reflect back the emotions that they see in another person, and change moods rapidly. A sexy man does the opposite. He stays cool, confident and stable, whatever mood she’s in. On the other hand, he’s dominant and takes the lead. He doesn’t wait around to get lucky; he makes his own luck. —Inclusus Amator

On Monday mornings, Amber had Intro to Latin Poetry with Dr. Owen Griffith. It would have been her favorite class, except that Dr. Griffith rarely called on her. Today’s reading was the famous poem in which Catullus addressed his lady love’s pet sparrow.

“Sparrow of my delicious girl,” translated Guy Gislane. “Who with to play, who to hold in her bazooms.” Sitting next to him, Tommy sniggered, while Nick Flynn looked amused. Nick’s Latin was very good, and he knew how badly Guy was bungling it. Amber fulminated inwardly at the poor translation, and the fact that Dr. Griffith didn’t seem to see her upraised hand. Instead, he called on Nick, who hadn’t moved a finger.

“Sparrow, my girl’s pet,” read Nick, “with whom she plays, holding you in her lap, as she gives you her finger to peck, and provokes you to sharp bites.”

“Very good. Now what part of speech is appetenti?” asked Dr. Griffith. Amber exchanged a look with Joan as he continued quizzing the class on the vocabulary and syntax of the poem. Dr. Griffith was more at home with Cicero and Caesar than with the poets. Rather than discuss the literary or cultural aspects of a love poem, he fell back on philology.

“Professor Griffith, excuse me.” Joan didn’t bother to raise her hand. He looked up from his text, surprised. “Yes, Joan?

“Isn’t there a theory that the sparrow is a metaphor for the penis?” More sniggers. Amber was secretly envious of Joan’s boldness, especially with regard to calling things by their proper names. Amber’s mother, Ellen, was a bit prudish, and during Amber’s childhood had never spoken the word “penis” aloud. Or “vagina,” for that matter. At age eleven, Amber had learned the correct pronunciation of these interesting terms from Lisa, a friend whose parents had made it a point of pride not to be ashamed of the body. At the same age, she had been shocked when Lisa told her the facts of life, adding casually that her parents did it all the time, and were rather noisy about it. Amber had been skeptical about the mechanics of the process. Her friend’s claims seemed outlandish and exaggerated. For example, Lisa insisted that a man’s penis was much, much bigger than a tampon.

These thoughts flitted through Amber’s head as Dr. Griffith cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable at Joan’s question. Yes, he conceded, there was such a theory, but there was nothing in the poem to confirm that interpretation.

“Because if this theory is true, then it makes the last lines really hilarious,” continued Joan, and translated: “If only I could play with you like she does, and lighten the sad cares of my mind!”

“Harrumph,” said Dr. Griffith. Drawing a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his forehead, then looked around the room, his eyes passing over Gaby and Amber as though they were invisible. His roving gaze focused on the large figure of Dwayne Hammond, a transfer student from Baylor. Like Nick, he was a few years older than the students who had come to Parnell straight from high school. In spite of Dwayne’s quiet demeanor, his accent and clothing loudly proclaimed his Waco origins. Usually he wore Wrangler jeans over cowboy boots, with a western-style shirt, and a hat, which he removed when indoors, placing it carefully on the rack underneath his seat. On Wednesdays, he wore a suit and tie, and the stack of books he carried included a Bible. When he was out of earshot, Gaby referred to him as “Jethro.”

“Dwayne, take the first five lines of the next poem.”

“Yessir,” said Dwayne, and began to translate.


At noon, Amber met Gaby and Joan in the student center food court for lunch. “How did it go after I left Diggers with Jake?” she asked.

Gaby looked morose. “Don’t even ask.” It was a shame, thought Amber, that men avoided talking to Gaby, or even looking directly at her. She really was quite attractive, with her gamine haircut, mischievous smile, and creamy skin. Not to mention a generous pair of breasts. The male patrons at the Blue Squirrel café, where Gaby worked the cash register, often ogled her breasts, and she encouraged this by wearing low-cut tops. But the minute they realized she was sitting in a wheelchair behind the counter, it had the same effect as a cold shower.

“It was partly because I was sitting down when everyone else was standing up. I hardly saw anyone at eye level,” lamented Gaby. “I always have that problem at concerts.”

“Would it be better to wear your leg braces?” asked Amber. She knew Gaby could get around with leg braces and crutches by swinging both her legs forward, then standing stiff-legged as she advanced the crutches.

“Maybe, but when it’s crowded, someone might trip over one of my crutches, and then I’d fall. There’s not room for me to move in a crowd like the one they had for Pyewacket. Besides, the braces make me look like Optima Prime, Female Transformer. Now if you ask me, Joan’s the one who needs to spill it,” said Gaby. “The last I saw, she was leaving with the drummer, and he had a hand on her ass.” They both looked expectantly at Joan, who was grinning like a woman with a secret too good not to tell.

“You won’t believe this, but I did a threesome. My first time.” Seeing their shocked reaction, she went on, “Yeah, there was this other girl in the crowd and Gerry liked her too. She was kind of reluctant at the idea and so was I, but he had this way of charming us both. He was so persistent, but in a sweet way, and he put his arms around us and begged us not to make him choose, when we were both so hot.” Joan smiled at the memory of Gerry’s persuasive technique. “So we both went back to where he was staying with a friend. He’s got an apartment in Philly, but when he does gigs in Parnell, he always crashes there. Anyway, we did some blow and then got in the bed together.”

“I hope he was good enough to make it worth your while,” said Amber.

Joan smiled. “Oh yeah. He had a drumstick for each of us, never you worry.”

“But didn’t he expect you to make out with the other girl while he watched? Ewww,” said Gaby.

“It’s not that bad when you’re coked up,” shrugged Joan. “The funny thing is, I didn’t know the other girl, but she looked exactly like Melissa Penske. Maybe a little younger.” Melissa was a History major who had taken Elementary Latin.

“Oh my God,” said Gaby. “It was Melissa’s sister, Mindy. I saw her in the crowd, and recognized her from when Melissa brought her to tour the campus. Joan, she’s frigging fifteen years old!”

This news wiped the smile from Joan’s face. “Shit. She looked way older than that.”

“Nice going, Joanie,” said Amber. “Statutory rape, and supplying drugs to a minor. Next time you feel like a threesome, you’d better check IDs.”

“And lose the coke,” advised Gaby. “Stick to blowing men.”

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” said Joan. All the blood had drained from her face, giving her skin a waxy look.

They assured her that they would not, though Gaby reserved the right to tip off Melissa that her kid sister had snuck into Diggers. Amber thought privately that Joan was in over her head with this Gerry, an older man and an obvious sleazeball, for all his good looks. Maybe Joan would dial it back, now that she’d had a close call.

It was time for Gaby and Amber’s shift at the Blue Squirrel, so they gathered up their books and shrugged themselves into their coats. “Amber, would you mind pushing me? I’ve strained a muscle in my shoulder and I’m trying to go easy on it,” asked Gaby.

“Of course I don’t mind.” Amber felt honored by this sign of trust. Gaby was fiercely independent, and she rarely allowed anyone to push her chair, instead getting a daily upper-body workout by wheeling herself all over campus.

“Give me your stuff. I can hold it on my lap.” They proceeded out of the food court and through the automatic door reserved for the disabled, into the chilly March air. Suddenly Gaby laughed, a bitter sound. “I have to wear a velcro strap around my thighs,” she told Amber. “Otherwise they’d flop open. That would be a sight for the guys, wouldn’t it?”

“I didn’t think you cared so much about being ladylike. Maybe you should let ‘em flop. Then at least you wouldn’t be invisible.” After all, Gaby liked to insist that breast cancer patients should throw away their prosthetics, in order to confront other people with the realities of the disease.

Gaby digested this in silence, and then said, “What’s the recipe for your Rooster sex sauce? It intrigues me, because I’ve only got partial sensation there. That stuff might really get my nerves hopping.”

Amber explained the proportions, adding, “You could add a few more drops at a time and test the sensation. Be very careful, because too much can irritate your skin. If it’s not too personal a question, are you able to have an orgasm?”

“Yeah, but it’s not easy like it was before my accident.” Gaby’s paralysis had resulted from a car accident when she was sixteen. “My boobs are a lot more sensitive now, like they’re trying to make up for what I lost. Sometimes I think I could come just from having them stroked. If anyone would do it,” she added.

“Someone will,” said Amber confidently. “I’m sure of it.”

Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss

Notes: To create the character of Gaby, I had to do quite a bit of research on what it is like to be confined to a wheelchair. The part about the Velcro strap touched my heart. Gaby is afraid her leg braces will make her look like the cartoon character Optima Prime, but judging from this Optima “pinup” illustration, it might not be a bad way to attract men:


Optima Prime “pinup” by Josh Howard. Click for source.

Dwayne from Waco (Texas) is another character of whom I am particularly fond. I have taught a good many students like him, young American men who were raised to love guns and God (not necessarily in that order). Some of them are what we call “rednecks,” but others grow to be sweet family men, respectful and hard-working. Dwayne wears a suit on Wednesdays because that’s when he goes to Bible study. Gaby’s derisive name for Dwayne, “Jethro,” comes from an old TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies, which had a dopey, Southern-fried character by that name.


Jethro Bodine (Max Baer Jr.), from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” His uncle Jed Clampett was played by the great Buddy Ebsen.

The poem discussed in Amber’s class is Catullus 2, by the greatest of Roman love poets, Gaius Valerius Catullus. His passion for the woman he called “Lesbia” was mostly unrequited, and he died at the age of 30, but not before bequeathing an immortal book of poems to posterity. You can find the text and a literal translation of the sparrow poem here. In high school I learned that le petit oiseau (“little bird”) was French slang for “penis,” hence the title of this chapter, but looking it up online, it seems no longer to be current (if it ever was).