'Never mind. Note that we are not asked to condemn this being with the mad heart, this being with whom there is something constitutionally wrong. On the contrary, we are invited to understand and sympathize. But there is a limit to sympathy. For though he lives among us, he is not one of us. He is exactly what he calls himself: a thing, that is, a monster. Finally, Byron will suggest, it will not be possible to love him, not in the deeper, more human sense of the word. He will be condemned to solitude.'
Heads bent, they scribble down his words. Byron, Lucifer, Cain, it is all the same to them. They finish the poem. He assigns the first cantos of Don Juan and ends the class early. Across their heads he calls to her: 'Melanie, can I have a word with you?'
Pinch-faced, exhausted, she stands before him. Again his heart goes out to her. If they were alone he would embrace her, try to cheer her up. But not here, not with the older boy ready to judge, and to mock. My little dove, he would call her. If only...
'Shall we go to my office?' he says instead.
With the boyfriend trailing behind, he leads her up the stairway to his office. 'Wait here,' he tells the boy, and closes the door on him. Melanie sits before him, her head sunken. 'My dear,' he says, 'you are going through a difficult time, I know that, and I don't want to make it more difficult. But I must speak to you as a teacher. I have obligations to my students, all of them. What your friend does off campus is his own business. But I can't have him disrupting my classes. Tell him that, from me. As for yourself, you are going to have to give more time to your work. You are going to have to attend class more regularly. And you are going to have to make up the test you missed.'
She stares back at him in puzzlement, even shock. You have cut me off from everyone, she seems to want to say. You have made me bear your secret. I am no longer just a student. How can you speak to me like this? Her voice, when it comes, is so subdued that he can barely hear: 'I can't take the test, I haven't done the reading.'
What he wants to say cannot be said. Not decently, at any rate, and that to him means it can not be said at all. Mommy is listening in and thus the utmost he can do is signal, flitting his fan whichever way and banging it on things in the hope, insane like any hope, and quite inhumane, that she will somehow "understand".
'Just take the test, Melanie, like everyone else. It does not matter if you are not prepared, the point is to get it behind you. Let us set a date. How about next Monday, during the lunch break? That will give you the weekend to do the reading.'
She raises her chin, meets his eye defiantly. Either she has not understood or she is refusing the opening.
'Monday, here in my office,' he repeats.
She rises, slings her bag over her shoulder.
'Melanie, I have responsibilities. At least go through the motions. Don't make the situation more complicated than it need be.'
Responsibilities: she does not dignify the word with a reply. Driving home from a concert that evening, he stops at a traffic light. A motorcycle throbs past, a silver Ducati bearing two figures in black. They wear helmets, but he recognizes them nevertheless. Melanie, on the pillion, sits with knees wide apart, pelvis arched. A quick shudder of lust tugs him. I have been there! he thinks. Then the motorcycle surges forward, bearing her away.
She does not appear for her examination on Monday. Instead, in his mailbox he finds an official withdrawal card: Student 7710 101SAM Ms M Isaacs has withdrawn from COM 312 with immediate effect. Barely an hour later a telephone call is switched through to his office. 'Professor Lurie? Have you a moment to talk? My name is Isaacs, I'm calling from George. My daughter is in your class, you know, Melanie.'
'Professor, I wonder if you can help us. Melanie has been such a good student, and now she says she is going to give it all up. It has come as a terrible shock to us.'
'I'm not sure I understand.'
'She wants to give up her studies and get a job. It seems such a waste, to spend three years at university and do so well, and then drop out before the end. I wonder if I can ask, Professor, can you have a chat with her, talk some sense into her?'
'Have you spoken to Melanie yourself? Do you know what is behind this decision?'
'We spent all weekend on the phone to her, her mother and I, but we just can't get sense out of her. She is very involved in a play she is acting in, so maybe she is, you know, overworked, overstressed. She always takes things so to heart, Professor, that's her nature, she gets very involved. But if you talk to her, maybe you can persuade her to think again. She has such respect for you. We don't want her to throw away all these years for nothing.'
So Melanie-Meláni, with her baubles from the Oriental Plaza and her blind spot for Wordsworth, takes things to heart. He would not have guessed it. What else has he not guessed about her?
'I wonder, Mr Isaacs, whether I am the right person to speak to Melanie.'
'You are, Professor, you are! As I say, Melanie has such respect for you.'
Respect? You are out of date, Mr Isaacs. He did not say: Your daughter lost respect for me weeks ago, and with good reason. That is what he ought to have said. He said instead: 'I'll see what I can do.' Not quite the same thing.
You will not get away with it, he tells himself afterwards. Nor will father Isaacs in faraway George forget this conversation, with its lies and evasions. I'll see what I can do. Why not come clean? I am the worm in the apple, he should have said. How can I help you when I am the very source of your woe?
He telephones the flat and gets cousin Pauline. Melanie is not available, says Pauline in a chilly voice.
'What do you mean, not available?'
'I mean she doesn't want to speak to you.'
'Tell her', he says, 'it is about her decision to withdraw. Tell her she is being very rash.'
Wednesday's class goes badly, Friday's even worse. Attendance is poor; the only students who come are the tame ones, the passive, the docile. There can be only one explanation. The story must be out.
He is in the department office when he hears a voice behind him: 'Where can I find Professor Lurie?'
'Here I am,' he says without thinking, a modest upstanding reed in an otherwise submerged plain.
The man who has spoken is small, thin, stoop-shouldered. He wears a blue suit too large for him, he smells of cigarette smoke.
'Professor Lurie? We spoke on the telephone. Isaacs.'
'Yes. How do you do. Shall we go to my office?'
'That won't be necessary.' The man pauses, gathers himself, takes a deep breath. 'Professor,' he begins, laying heavy stress on the word, 'you may be very educated and all that, but what you have done is not right.' He pauses, shakes his head. 'It is not right.'
The two secretaries do not pretend to hide their curiosity. There are students in the office too; as the stranger's voice rises they fall silent.
'We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can't trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers. No, Professor Lurie, you may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I'd be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I've got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don't think so, I can see it from your face.'
Now is his chance indeed: let him who would speak, speak. But he stands tongue-tied, the blood thudding in his ears. A viper: how can he deny it?
'Excuse me,' he whispers, 'I have business to attend to.' Like a thing of wood, he turns and leaves. Into the crowded corridor Isaacs following close behind. 'Professor! Professor Lurie!' he calls. 'You can't just run away like that! You have not heard the last of it, I tell you now!'
That is how it begins, the end. Next morning, with surprising dispatch, a memorandum arrives from the office of the Vice-Rector (Student Affairs) notifying him that a complaint has been lodged against him under article 3.1 of the university's Code of Conduct. He is requested to contact the Vice-Rector's office at his earliest convenience. The notification - which arrives in an envelope marked Confidential - is accompanied by a copy of the code. Article 3 deals with victimization or harassment on grounds of race, ethnic group, religion, gender, sexual preference, or physical disability. Article 3.1 addresses victimization or harassment of students by teachers. A second document describes the constitution and competences of committees of inquiry. He reads it, his heart hammering unpleasantly. Halfway through, his concentration fails. He gets up, locks the door of his office, and sits with the paper in his hand, trying to imagine what has happened.
Melanie would not have taken such a step by herself, he is convinced. She is too innocent for that, too ignorant of her power. He, the little man in the ill-fitting suit, must be behind it, he and cousin Pauline, the plain one, the duenna. They must have talked her into it, worn her down, then in the end marched her to the administration offices.
'We want to lodge a complaint,' they must have said. 'Lodge a complaint? What kind of complaint?'
'Harassment,' cousin Pauline would have interjected, while Melanie stood by abashed - 'against a professor.'
'Go to room such-and-such.'
In room such-and-such he, Isaacs, would grow bolder. 'We want to lay a complaint against one of your professors.'
'Have you thought it through? Is this really what you want to do?' they would respond, following procedure.
'Yes, we know what we want to do,' he would say, glancing at his daughter, daring her to object.
There is a form to fill in. The form is placed before them, and a pen. A hand takes up the pen, a hand he has kissed, a hand he knows, or rather he has known, briefly but intimately. First the name of the plaintiff: MELANIE ISAACS, in careful block letters. Down the column of boxes wavers the hand, searching for the one to tick. There, points the nicotine-stained finger of her father. The hand slows, settles, makes its X, its cross of righteousness: J'accuse. Then a space for the name of the accused. DAVID LURIE, writes the hand: PROFESSOR.
Finally, at the foot of the page, the date and her signature: the arabesque of the M, the l with its bold upper loop, the downward gash of the I, the flourish of the final s. The deed is done. Two names on the page, his and hers, side by side. Two in a bed, peas in a papery pod, lovers no longer but foes of a kind. Almost like marriage, in a way. In quite a few ways, actually.
He calls the Vice-Rector's office and is given a five o'clock appointment, outside regular hours. As five o'clock strikes he is walking down the corridor. Aram Hakim, sleek and youthful, emerges and ushers him in. There are already two persons in the room: Elaine Winter, chair of his department, and Farodia Rassool from Social Sciences, who chairs the university-wide committee on discrimination.
'It's late, David, we know why we are here,' leads Hakim, 'so let's get to the point. How can we best tackle this business?'
'You can fill me in about the complaint.'
'Very well. We are talking about a complaint laid by Ms Melanie Isaacs. Also about' - he glances at Elaine Winter - 'some pre-existing irregularities that seem to involve Ms Isaacs. Elaine?'
Elaine Winter takes her cue. She has never liked him; she regards him as a hangover from the past, which he exactly is. She thinks the sooner he is cleared away the better, which is exactly the sort of thought he thought right before getting himself into trouble. 'There is a query about Ms Isaacs's attendance, David. According to her - I spoke to her on the phone - she has attended only two classes in the past month. If that is true, it should have been reported. She also says she missed the mid-term test. Yet' -- she glances at the file in front of her -- 'according to your records, her attendance is unblemished and she has a mark of seventy for the midterm.' She regards him quizzically. 'So unless there are two Melanie Isaacs...
'Very clever. Very clever indeed. Two Melanie Isaacs, who knows, it could even be the case. It is a morale class, Mz Winter.'
'Elaine, please. And what is that supposed to mean ?'
'Romantic poetry is a class you let me teach irrespective of attendance because you want to pretend this meatpacking plant is a University, against all evidence. Consequently, I do not bother taking attendance. And I don't bother marking the students, either -- God knows they are entirely inadherent to Romantic poetry or anything like it, I might as well teach it to yesterday's chicken hatchlings.'
His blast is so thoroughly unexpected, the most his boss can summon is an indignant 'Mr. Lurie!' but he is undeterred.
'You've been going on with David for this long, might as well stick with it. None of the marks -- this girl's or any other's -- mean anything. I just write down numbers on what could as well be lottery tickets. And if you don't, as I'm sure you think you don't, you still are. There is nothing to mark, because we don't teach them anything and they don't learn anything because they can't learn anything. The only thing more futile than this here University altogether would be individual attendance records.'
Elaine Winter is too shocked to say anything, she merely opens and closes her mouth a few times but Hakim intervenes smoothly.
'Friends, this is not the time or place to go into substantial issues. What we should do' - he glances at the other two - 'is clarify procedure. I need barely say, David, the matter will be handled in the strictest confidence, I can assure you of that. Your name will be protected, Ms Isaacs's name will be protected too. A committee will be set up. Its function will be to determine whether there are grounds for disciplinary measures. You or your legal representative will have an opportunity to challenge its composition. Its hearings will be held in camera. In the meantime, until the committee has made its recommendation to the Rector and the Rector has acted, everything goes on as before. Ms Isaacs has officially withdrawn from the course she takes with you, and you will be expected to refrain from all contact with her. Is there anything I am omitting, Farodia, Elaine?'
Tight-lipped, Dr Rassool shakes her head.
'It's always complicated, this harassment business, David, complicated as well as unfortunate, but we believe our procedures are good and fair, so we'll just take it step by step, play it by the book. My one suggestion is, acquaint yourself with the procedures and perhaps get legal advice.'
'I have no intention of doing anything. The girl withdrawing has been the first sane move I've seen anyone do, and I fully intend to follow suit. I have no intention to show up, tomorrow or ever again. Form whatever commission the book mandates, tell them I have no desire to continue working here and let them sort it out. I won't be either hiring lawyers or challenging anything, you sad lot are beyond all challenge.'
He leaves in a fury. But the building is locked and the doorkeeper has gone home. The back exit is locked too. Hakim has to let him out.