Over the weekend an old student of mine invited me to attend an event of his in Ann Arbor, that city of university students and the aging hippies who are still trying to hang onto their student days.
The student—let’s call him James—had been in a college workshop of mine four or five years ago. He’d been in his late teens at the time. I remember him mostly as an impossibly skinny kid who was basically a bundle of sticks wearing the same denim button-down shirt week after week, with a belt barely holding his gray pants. I remember the denim shirt well, because he usually wore it unbuttoned about halfway down. When in the classes he’d lean over to read, or screw himself sideways in his seat to think as he chewed on his pen, I’d catch glimpses of his tiny, hair-fringed nipples, clinging to the perfectly smooth skin stretched taut over his ribcage.
James had a white-boy Afro of curly blond hair that probably weighed more than all the rest of him. It seemed his one point of vanity. He didn’t mind wearing the same clothes week after week (they were always clean, to his credit), but he seemed enormously proud of his hair. He kept a pick in his back pocket; at random points throughout the class, usually when someone else was presenting a project and talking about it, he would absently rummage for the plastic device, run it through his hair, and then give his head a pat-down. I don’t even think he knew what he was doing.
Every time I teach, I have certain students—male and female—who become fascinated with me. I think most teachers at and above a certain level would report the same. The young women have a tendency to hang around after workshops as I try to abandon the classroom and detain me with high-minded talk about theory and asking me for reading recommendations. The boldest of them will on occasion will tell me there’s an exhibit at the Institute of the Arts she’s been itching to see, and hint furiously that if I had any interest in going, well. . . .
The boys are much more direct. James was one of those. While visiting me during office hours, he’d lounge in the doorway clutching an armful of books in a way that didn’t inhibit his shirt from falling open to the nipples, and shoot out rapid-fire questions. Did I have a long commute home? Oh really? How long? Where did I live? Oh really? He went there all the time. He’d just had dinner with his friends at a Mexican restaurant in the downtown area of my little town, and then went to a bar afterward.
I wasn’t much surprised when the bar he named was the area’s most popular gay bar. These boys think they’re being so slick and casual, but if they knew how many of their peers through the years have used the exact same approach . . . well, there truly is nothing new under the sun.
“I’ve heard that’s a nice place,” I told him, neither rolling my eyes nor letting it register that I realized the significance of what he was trying to tell me. The poor kid left that day with his imagination raging and his boner unsatisfied.
I’m such a bastard.
In class he was just as relentless. All my participants in that workshop were constantly presenting their work to the rest of the students. When James’ turn came, I knew right from the first sentence he spoke what was coming. I was right, too—his first piece was of such rich obscenity that I could see the hairs curling all around the classroom. It was not only profoundly sexual and explicit in detail, but managed to throw in references to bondage and leather, as well as gay imagery that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Tom of Finland retrospective.
Now. It wasn’t particularly good. A lot of it was sex for the sake of shock; a lot of students, particularly in college, think that writing frankly about sex is a shortcut from the kiddie to the adult table. An awful lot of it, though, is the artistic equivalent of a third-grader on a dare running into a roomful of adults and yelling, at the top of his voice, “FUCK FUCK FUCKITY FUCK FUCK!” It might be designed to shock, but art it’s not.
So at the end of this homoerotic piece—which was most subtly about a student being raped, bound, and left gasping and covered in various bodily fluids by an older male professor—I put on my blank artist’s face, managed not to smirk, and gave him a frank and impassive critique. Oh, I did a good job of pretending to be Captain Oblivious. It felt a little cruel to give a vigorous assessment of what was essentially a Valentine to me, but I did what I had to do. At the end of the workshop, a girl who was James’s friend at the time managed to sum up how I saw the situation pretty well when I overheard her saying to him, as they walked out together, “Good Jesus Christ, why don’t you two just get a room?”
Poor James. He had some talent, but it really only showed up after that day, when I gently made him stuff his dick back into his pants. When he invited me to his event via Facebook last week, though, I was curious enough to drive out to Ann Arbor to see how he’d progressed. The event took place in a gallery near the city’s downtown, a well-lit white box trying to give off a Chelsea bouquet on a Two-Buck Chuck budget.
I slipped in very late, right before the proceedings began. I’d been hoping to remain incognito. Those hopes were dashed, though, when a young guy waved furiously at me from the second row while the first artist was presenting her work. It was James, of course. I almost didn’t recognize him. Gone was the outrageous head of hair—completely shaved, that mane was. He’d left nothing but a very thin layer of stubble on his head that was a golden gleam in the late-afternoon winter sunlight from outside. Throughout the afternoon, I watched as he ran the palms of his hands over it.
Friends still make fun of me because of an incident years ago, after a concert in which one of my buddies was involved. It had been a terrible, excruciating concert during which the audience disappeared during intermission to fortify ourselves with shots from the bar next door—no lie. After the last deafness-inducing song had faded, my friend came bouncing up to a bunch of us, eagerly wanting to know what we’d thought. The people I’d come with all lied prettily. Then it was my turn. My friend looked at me with expectation. “You know what?” I asked, a big smile on my face. Then I told him, quite truthfully, “That is one nice shirt you’ve got on!”
Nice shirt! has been something of a catchphrase in my circle, ever since. And while most of the artists would get a nice shirt! from me, James’s work wasn’t half-bad. He’s not fully baked yet, as an artist. He’s still working on figuring out who he is. If he keeps at it, though, he’ll get there. When James bounced up after the last applause had faded, all golden energy and still as skinny as a couple of chopsticks in Gap clothing, I gave him a hug and immediately told him his strong points, then congratulated him on how far he’d come. So much for making a quick getaway.
He practically lapped me up with his puppy-dog eyes, then bounced up and down and told me how glad he was that I’d come. Then he plucked someone out of the nearby crowd by the shoulders and pushed his companion squarely in front of me. “This is my boyfriend!” he gushed. “And this is my old teacher,” he told the boyfriend, while I tried to pretend that he meant an instructor from my not-too-distant past, not my doddering and aged professor.
“Nice to meet you,” I said pleasantly to the boyfriend, who was a young Latin man of twenty-four or twenty-five, dark-haired, wearing a tasseled scarf indoors, and midwestern enough to think a fauxhawk is still the shit.
The boyfriend narrowed his eyes at me, allowed me to shake his dead-fish hand, and icily intoned, “Oh, this is him?” He then gave me the once-over, taking in my jeans, my sneakers, my T-shirt, and my sweater. He seemed to find me wanting. “I’ve heard about you.”
“All good stuff,” James hastened to say. Then, almost like a rebuff, to his boyfriend he added, “It was all good stuff.”
“Oh yes,” declared the boyfriend. He crossed his arms, then jutted out his hips to the side. They were as sharp as a switchblade. “Of course it was good.”
There was certainly something in the boyfriend’s tone that left me unsettled. He said the words almost as if I were some rival for his affections. Or as if James forced him to roleplay Reluctant Student Raped By Professor Breeder, when their apartment door was shut. “You must be proud of James,” I said.
“Hmmfph.” The boyfriend narrowed his eyes at me a little more, then gave James a long and ostentatious kiss that involved more tongue than really necessary. Then, with a glance of triumph my way, he flounced off in the direction of the wine being handed out in plastic cups.
I managed to disappear quickly only because James was waylaid by some other admirers, but I left Ann Arbor feeling both amused and curious. Amused, because clearly the boyfriend thought I was some kind of opponent I really wasn’t. Curious, because I wanted to know how he’d gotten that way. Did James begin too many sentences with, “I really hope my old teacher comes!”? Was I the topic of a late-night conversation? I used to have this old teacher I really had the hots for, but it never went anywhere.
There’s a whole story there that I’ll never be told. But sometimes life is a little richer from the wondering.