I still enjoyed the commencement ceremonies each May, even after all these years, annoyed at my cynical colleagues who had to be cajoled to attend. They claimed to hate the pomp and circumstance, or was it the wasted undergraduates concealing booze under their rented regalia? I settled into my chair on the dais, my black academic robes flowing and the black velvet tam perched on my head and listened to the university president’s booming voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce our next vice president for academic affairs. Join me in congratulating Vice President Leslie Emerson.”
Why had he chosen commencement to make the announcement? The promotion wasn’t a surprise, but the occasion was.
The instant I heard the words “vice president,” the long-forgotten memory of that stressful period of graduate school erupted into my mind.
Following the polite applause, the president turned to face me. Grinning, he extended his arm in my direction. Crap. Did he expect me to address the crowd? Why hadn’t he prepared me?
The first image to burst in my mind’s eye was Peter’s snowy white hair.
Panic rose in my chest. As I stood on shaky legs, my heart pounded. Sweat bloomed on my face and poured from my armpits. Is this what a heart attack felt like? Focus, Leslie, focus!
But the details of the affair bubbled to the surface like simmering caramel and began to ricochet across my mind. The next image to surface was his aging body, pale and lean from long-distance running, his only reprieve from constant work.
I rose and floated over to the podium, scrambling to make my rational brain work, to purge these images, to manufacture something—anything—to say, no matter how vacuous. I smiled and gazed over the beaming crowd, stalling for time, afraid I would pass out.
“Thank you, President Harrington. Graduates, this is your day, and I don’t want to take up your time. I appreciate your vote of confidence and look forward to guiding the academic departments forward into the future.”
More tepid applause.
I wobbled back to my seat, praying none of my distinguished colleagues—mostly men—would notice how roiled I was, how utterly disquieted.
It would be hard to imagine a less likely sexual partner if you could call him that. What could possibly have attracted me to Peter? Me, a lonely, poverty-stricken graduate student going through a painful divorce, struggling to complete my dissertation. Him, a distinguished sixty-seven-year-old university vice president, not even terribly attractive. With the benefit of hindsight, I could see what a cliché it was. As in all May-December romances—ha!, only Peter would call what we had a romance—it was the power I was attracted to, his privilege, hoping it might open doors for me. Why couldn’t I see that at the time? Nausea settled in my gut.
When it began, I wasn’t yet thirty. At the time, if you’d asked me, I probably wouldn’t have described myself as pretty. Attractive, maybe. Slender and tan, with an earnest unlined face, full lips curled into a smile despite feeling stressed all the time about money and whether my professors would approve my dissertation. About whether I’d land an academic job after all the years of hard work.
And yet, I displayed my endless legs and braless breasts—it was the sixties!—in short shorts and tank tops, clueless about their effect on a work-obsessed man in his sixties.
On the stage, Ph.D. graduates glided by one by one, sailing toward bright futures, smiling broadly as cameras flashed and family and friends applauded in the steamy auditorium. I barely heard a word, though, my mind fogged, all of my mental energy obsessing about why I did it and what it said about me. It was consensual, wasn’t it? No one held a gun to my head. Or was I a victim?
I never expected the “relationship” to follow me across the country to my first academic job, or that Peter would beg me to meet him for sex in a seedy, no-star motel where he could be safely anonymous. He traveled constantly, finding excuses to fly to the city where I worked. We drank expensive vodka from a flask he always carried with him and had sex on germ-ridden, ratty bedspreads. Drunk was the only way I could fuck him. The smell of vodka still nauseated me.
After those encounters, three in all, I wondered if that’s what it was like to be a hooker, though not a single dollar had ever exchanged hands. If money was not the currency of this relationship, then what was? Peter got my youthful, sexual body. But what was in it for me? What did I get in return? The satisfaction of a powerful man craving my body, finding me desirable, showering me with attention. Such a contrast from my soon-to-be ex-husband and the needy, immature graduate students who surrounded me. But were there other motives as well?
Eventually, after I started to date another assistant professor, I mustered the courage to tell Peter it was over. He became furious, unaccustomed as he was to not getting his way. At first, he told me I had no right, and then later, came wheedling, and then pleading. He said we could continue despite my having a new boyfriend. As if that were the issue.
Finally, he gave up. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard he’d died several years ago, despite all that running. Now I was the only one with memories of that time.
As I processed down the steps and off the stage with the other faculty, the irony hit me.
Who was the vice president now?