The most thankless job on the planet may well be teaching Renaissance love poetry to a group of hormone-dazed adolescents on a beautiful spring day. I had saved up against just such a day, through the deep snows of February, the sleets of March, and April’s endless deluge, one of the most popular and accessible of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I might as well have been reciting the Dow Jones Industrial Average for all the impact the Bard’s words were having on the class. Even Robin Weiss, my best student, was more interested in the sunbathers and Frisbee players cavorting five stories below us in Washington Square Park than in answering my last question.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his eyes still on the sun-splashed scene outside the window. “Could you repeat the question?”
“I asked what you thought of Shakespeare’s promise to his beloved to immortalize him through art.”
“Hmph.” Robin begins by ejecting a disdainful breath of air. “I think of it the way I think of most lovers’ promises, that he ‘speaks an infinite deal of nothing.’ ”
A chorus of sighs from the girls in the back row greets Robin’s pronouncement. Had they all had their hearts broken recently? I wonder. Perhaps by Robin himself? Weren’t they a little young to be giving up on love? But then I remember that this is exactly the age that feels love’s disappointment the most keenly, the age when one might forswear love, never guessing there might come a day when one is forsworn by love.
“So you don’t think that art provides immortality?” I ask, unwilling to let Robin hide behind the world-weary pose he’s worn, along with a vintage Versace tweed jacket lined in yellow silk, since returning from the fall semester in Florence. I still remembered the fervor he’d had in Freshman Comp. He was going to be a playwright because, he said, to have your words spoken on the stage after your death meant you’d never truly be dead. I knew he’d switched his ambition to filmmaker since then and had spent his time in Italy making a film that the whole campus was talking about. In fact, tonight it was to be shown at the Hudson College Invitational Film Show, where it was expected to win first prize. Was Robin already jaded by success?
Turning from the sun toward me, though, his face looks not so much jaded as bruised. His pale blue eyes are dilated and bloodshot, his full lips are chapped and swollen, and his delicate skin is chafed and raw. His sandy brown hair looks as wild as the signature Medusa heads on the buttons of his jacket. I’m used to my students looking haggard around finals time, but Robin looks as if he’d spent the last week weeping. I would happily let him off the hook—especially since I can tell by the shuffling of books and shouldering of backpacks and by my watch, which lies on the desk in front of me, that the class’s hour is drawing to an end—but Robin chooses to answer my question with a question. Or rather, two questions.
“If you lost someone you loved, would reading something about him—or by him—lessen the loss one iota? Wouldn’t you trade all the poems and all the plays in all the world for just five minutes with him again?”
“Well,” I begin, intending to deal with Robin’s questions as I usually deal with difficult—or in this case, unanswerable—questions in class: by turning it back to the student. Maybe even assigning it as an essay topic. But Robin is looking at me as though he really expects an answer. As if he’d been offered this Faustian bargain last night at the Cedar Tavern and there’s a sinister-looking man in a dark overcoat waiting in the hall for his answer. All of literature for five minutes with your lost beloved? Even the class’s incipient rustling, which should have swept us all out of here like a late November rainstorm cleaning out the dead leaves, has been stilled by Robin’s urgency.
“Five minutes?” I ask. As if I could bargain. Get in on the deal.
Robin nods, the ghost of a smile curving his chapped lips, reminding me of someone else whose lips used to curve in that same Cupid’s bow.
“Sure,” I say, blushing at the memory of that other mouth, “who wouldn’t?”
There’s another class in the same room after ours, so there’s no lingering. In the hall I answer a few of my students’ questions about the final and the term paper and explain, riding the elevator down to the lobby, that my regular office hours are suspended today because of the film show and reception tonight. When the elevator reaches the ground floor the students quickly disperse, and I’m surprised to see Robin, who had bolted out of the class after I answered his question, still in the lobby. It’s been a while since he’s waited for me after class. I’m even more surprised to see him in conversation with a young man who might have sprung from my Faustian fantasy of ten minutes ago—right down to the black sheepherding overcoat and sinister expression. The boy turns his face to the light and I’m startled both by how handsome he is—his finely modeled features like a white marble bust of a Greek god framed by blue-black ringlets—and by something familiar about him. No doubt he’s a drama major whom I’ve seen in a student play. He certainly seems to have a flair for the dramatic as he replies angrily to something Robin says, shakes his fine head of hair, and then sweeps out of the lobby, the tails of his coat floating behind him.
For a moment Robin looks as if he were considering following him, but then he sees me. “I know you don’t have office hours, Dr. Asher,” he says, “but could I walk with you a minute?”
“As long as you don’t ask any more soul-searching questions,” I say, preceding Robin through the revolving doors. Although it’s late in the afternoon, the light is so bright that I have to fish in my bag for sunglasses. When I’ve gotten them on, I see by Robin’s downcast expression that he’s taken my remark seriously.
“Oh, no, you do have another soul-searching question. Well, ask away, but try to remember that I’m old, Robin, and such urgent questions of love are a little less urgent these days.”
“You’re hardly old—” he begins, but I wave my hands in the air to stop him. God, had I been fishing for a compliment? Had I—even worse—been flirting?
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to ask you ab-bout,” Robin says, stuttering a little on the last word. I haven’t heard Robin stutter since first semester freshman year, when he started taking voice and acting classes. It must be the film show tonight that has him so nervous. “You’re . . . what . . . in your mid-thirties?”
“Thereabouts,” I say, thinking, Close enough. No need to tell him that at thirty-nine I’m at the bitter end of my thirties. “Why?”
“Because you were at La Civetta when you were in college and I wondered if some of the same teachers were there. I’m going back there this summer and I’m trying to decide what classes to take.”
We’ve reached Graham Hall, the nineteenth-century brownstone that houses the comp lit department and my office. The building is named for Hudson College’s most famous alumnus, Cyril Graham, who donated his New York townhouse to the college, along with the use of his villa in Tuscany, La Civetta, four decades ago. There’s a plaque with Cyril’s profile etched in bronze beside the front door, and as I turn to answer Robin’s question (making it clear, I hope, that he shouldn’t follow me up to my office), I can almost feel the old man’s hawklike eyes boring into my back.
“Well, let’s see,” I say, pretending that the year I spent at La Civetta twenty years ago is such a distant and minor episode that I have to ransack my memory in order to recall its dramatis personae. “The old man himself was there, of course,” I say, cocking a thumb over my shoulder at the plaque, “teaching that class . . . what did he call it?”
“The Aesthetics of Place,” Robin says, smiling.
“My God, is he still at it? Does he still go on about the Mitford sisters and the Duchess of Windsor?”
Robin smiles and looks a little more relaxed. “He manages to imply he went to Oxford with both Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh—a chronological impossibility—and was simultaneously lunching with Fellini on the Via Veneto while making silk screens with Warhol at the Factory—a geographical impossibility.”
I laugh, relieved to see that Robin’s stutter has disappeared again. The remarks about Cyril Graham sound like a set speech. Even his pose—one hand grasping the lapel of his vintage jacket so that the sun glances off its gold Medusa-head buttons—looks rehearsed. I suspect that Robin, like many a stutterer before him, has learned that his delivery is improved by rehearsal. “I have to admit that I enjoyed that class. It was such shameless gossip and a rest after declining Latin nouns with Harriet Milhouse and memorizing Renaissance architectural terms with Professore DelVecchio.”
“I think they’ve retired,” Robin says, “but I would have thought the class you’d mention first would have been the one on the sonnet—”
“Oh, but the professor who taught that class was a graduate student,” I say, perhaps a little too quickly—as if I’d had my excuse for not mentioning him ready. “He went back to Rome the next year to finish his degree.”
“Bruno Brunelli, right? He’s back. His wife, Claudia, took over the job of hospitality coordinator from Bruno’s mother, Benedetta, only in Claudia’s case it’s really a misnomer—”
“Oh, really? I didn’t know.” I hold up my wrist to check the time but my watch isn’t there. “Damn,” I say, “I must have left my watch in class.” I always take my watch off in class and lay it on the desk so that I can keep track of where I am in my lecture without having to look at my wrist. I’ve never left it behind, though. Had Robin’s question rattled me that badly?
“I’ll run back for it,” Robin offers gallantly. “Will you be at the film show?”
“Of course, Robin, I wouldn’t miss your opening night, but please don’t bother—”
“Then I’ll give it to you there,” he says, brushing away my objections, “and we can talk some more? There’s something really important I have to discuss with you.”
“If I can get through your flock of admirers after your film is shown, I’ll be happy to talk to you.” The shadow that had been over him in class is back—or perhaps it’s just that the spring light is fading from the sky, leaving us both in the shade of the brownstone.
“I might need rescuing from an angry mob instead. The film isn’t going to be what everyone expects.”
“That’s just opening-night jitters, Robin. I’m sure it’ll be great.”
“But even so, will you?”
“Will I what? Rescue you?”
Robin lays his fingertips on my wrist—in just the place laid bare by my missing watch—and I shiver at his touch. The spring day’s promise of summer has faded to chill evening. I start to laugh at the absurdity of Robin’s request, but when I see the look in his eyes I don’t.
“Of course,” I tell him, “I’ll do my best.”
I carry the chill of Robin’s touch up three sweeping flights of the main staircase and one back-stairs flight to the garret (formerly a maid’s room) under the eaves that’s been my office for the six years I’ve taught at Hudson College. Mark Abrams, the college president, has offered to relocate me to the new faculty building on Mercer, where I’d have elevator service, high-speed Internet access, and German coffee machines perking finely ground Colombian coffee all day long. But I prefer my little garret with its egg-and-dart moldings and nonworking fireplace. Besides, I have my coffee at Cafe Lucrezia on MacDougal, which has two working fireplaces and makes the best cappuccino this side of the Atlantic.
Excerpted from The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman. Copyright © 2007 by Carol Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.