Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sweet Harmonie

Edward Harmonie was one of the English department’s stars, when I was working on my master’s degree. His specialty was Shakespeare, and he had a stellar reputation among the other faculty. “Oh, you’ve got to take Harmonie,” I remember my master’s thesis advisor telling me. “He’s superb.”

Even my father, who spent his career teaching at the same university, knew Harmonie from faculty senate meetings. “You can’t graduate without taking Edward Harmonie,” he told me. “He’s a fascinating speaker and a great showman.”

Whenever Harmonie strode into one of the seminar rooms in the Hibbs building, he looked the very model of an old-fashioned British public school teacher, a veritable Mr. Chips in tweed. He wore his more-salt-than-pepper beard trimmed to a devilish point, and affected a pair of reading half-glasses on the tip of his nose. The glasses he employed solely so that he might peer above them—never through—at his students when they interrupted his train of speech with an impertinent question. If it were particularly impertinent, he’d raise one eyebrow and dismiss the offender with a curt word delivered in his distinctive lisp: “We don’t have time for thisssss, do we, classssss?”

Harmonie fancied himself an actor in the classroom. Typically he’d encourage his students to read aloud from the texts we were studying, but his impatience to declaim the passages himself always overtook him. One of our class would always begin by thumping out the iambic pentameter of a line in a dull, lifeless way: “NOW my CHARMS are ALL o'erTHROWN, AND what STRENGTH I HAVE’S mine OWN. . . .”

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Franklin,” Harmonie would say, his face drawn into a rictus of pain. “We do not butcher the Bard. We treat him gently. We caressssss him as we would a lover. When the moment is right, we seize him. Roughly. Then we make him our own. Now my charms are all o’erthrown.” A dramatic sigh, followed by a look off over our heads at the classroom clock, as if it were a setting sun. “And what ssssstrength I have’sssss. . . .” A squeeze of the hands, a lowering of the lids, a resigned bow to the ground. “. . . mine own.”

Week after week we watched Edward Harmonie enact every major character in the Sssssshakespearean pantheon. He declaimed Lady Macbeth with a heady drag queen vibrato and boomed out Falstaff in his best bass. He capered as mischievous Puck and Ariel and enacted love scenes between Viola and Orsino with unbounded, imagined tenderness. After ever long scene, he’d incline his head at us as if thanking us for applause, a my, aren’t I clever? smile playing within the perimeter of his neatly groomed little beard.

Harmonie was a showman, all right, but while he thought of himself as a modern-day Edmund Kean, I always found him a huckster, a greasy P. T. Barnum selling a snake oil version of Shakespeare, an attention-seeking narcissist who thought himself far too grand for his circumstances. It took me a few weeks to realize that in his seminars we did nothing but listen to him declaim the Bard, watching videotapes of plays he’d recorded from PBS, and then listen to him tell us how in college he had done Hamlet better than Olivier, Macbeth better than Jon Finch, and apparently Ophelia better than Marianne Faithfull.

His Shakespearean voice full of hokey tremolos and those sudden, odd juxtapositions of forte and pianissimo favored by the untrained; worse, he was afflicted with that effete, effeminate speaking voice that favored lots of sibilants. It was tough to concentrate on what he was saying when you were thinking to yourself, Exactly how many esses are there in ‘Now isssssss the winter of our disssssssssssscontent’? Harmonie’s Lady Macbeth sounded like a bitchy, evil queen, all right, but one out of The Boys in the Band, not stormy Scotland. His Puck and Ariel were mincing circuit boys, his Viola and Orsino a fag and his hag swapping cross-dressing tips.

Early in the semester, Harmonie threw a wine tasting party for his graduate class at his home. It was a quaint old townhouse on West Cary in one of those pretty Richmond neighborhoods heavy on charm but short on parking. What I remember most about the house is the wood paneling. The stuff was everywhere. The entryway was covered in dark wood paneling. The living room. The dining room. The library. Along all the walls in every dark, wood-covered room were glass-fronted floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with handsome leather-bound books and incunabulae displayed on a wooden stands. The rarities looked like authentic old editions of Bacon and Marlowe, but in the gloom and murk they could’ve been Crackerjack prizes or illustrated sex manuals, for all we could see.

The whole set-up reminded me of a terrible 1960s horror movie in which a bunch of rich students congregate at a civilized, urbane professor’s house for cocktails, only to find that the professor is Satan and they’re all there to be sacrificed to the Dark Forces. Only none of us were rich, and if Harmonie was Satan, Beelzebub surely had a lot in common with Paul Lynde.

My friend Sara worked part-time in the main office; she was heavily pregnant, ready to give birth at any moment, and couldn’t come to the party, she’d called to tell me earlier that night. “But I heard something important. The secretaries said that every semester, Harmonie picks out a student from his classes for his lover. Sometimes they’ll last the year, but usually he’s on to a new one by the next semester.”

“Lord,” I said.

“Maybe it’ll be you!”

“It most certainly will not.” The thought of being in bed with Edward gave me the creeps. He probably had an appropriate Shakespearean quote for every sexual act. People who bring up a literary allusion whenever it’s vaguely relevant irritate me beyond belief—I admit mostly because it’s a skill I wish were in my repertoire. The thought of being annoyed and intimidated simultaneously was too much to bear.

Hubris I had aplenty, though. At twenty-one, I was the youngest in the graduate school by far. I was still painfully skinny. And my only male competition in the seminar filled with women was a middle-aged Kentuckian chain-smoker whose habit of wearing square prescription eyeglasses with dark brown lenses gave him the air of a serial killer. It was going to be me, I was sure. I spent the entire evening trying unsuccessfully not to let Harmonie get me alone.

“You mussssst try this white,” Harmonie would murmur to me throughout that long, long evening as he pressed me into a corner. “It’s divine.”

“I’m not drinking, Dr. Harmonie,” I told him at one point, brandishing the glass of water I was nursing. “Remember?”

“Call me Edward,” he suggested. “I could find you a dessssssert wine if you want something . . . sssssweet.”

“No thank you,” I replied.

“You need to loosen up.”

“I’m plenty loose!”

He cocked his left eyebrow at that, smiled a secret smile, and went to mingle.

As the evening of Dr. Harmonie’s cocktail party ground on, the professor himself kept emerging from his kitchen with new bottles of wine. There were red wines so dark they looked like liquid obsidian, pale blush whines, Rhine wines, California wines, French wines. No one but Dr. Harmonie himself cared what kinds of wines they were, really; it was free booze, and we were all poor graduate students.

I didn’t drink, however. The more inebriated my seminar-mates became, the more uncomfortable I was. Three hours into the party, I judged I’d endured enough of wine breath and the professor’s leers. I made a feeble excuse to Dr. Harmonie about having to get up in the morning. “What a pity!” he boomed in his Falstaff voice. “Our boy must depart! When you depart from me, sssssorrow abides, and happinesssss takes leave!” Then, in a more confidential voice, he added, “I’ve put your coat in the bedroom. Would you like me to ssssshow you where that isss?”

“Ah. . . .”

He leaned in close, his lips still wet with wine. I remember the quote from Twelfth Night as if it was yesterday. “Come, boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief.”

I must have turned beet red with embarrassment, because he leaned back and laughed. “I’ve made him blush! So young. So very very young. How old are you?” he wanted to know.

My age was a sore point with me. I’d skipped a year of high school, so I was in my first year of graduate school while still barely twenty-one. I looked all of sixteen. Most of the people in that program were in their thirties or forties; I’d lied, when asked by other students, and added a few years to my age.

“Twenty-five,” I lied.

“And yet he has the face of a youth. Look!” he shouted, his voice echoing from the wood-paneled room. “Look at this baby face! So sweet. So young! So innocent. A babe, a child, a shrimp.” He grabbed my cheeks with his free hand, for emphasis, then released them. “Donna, escort this sweet young shepherd to the bedroom for his coat.”

I felt as if I’d had a narrow escape, somehow. Sexually inexperienced I wasn’t, but I lacked the skill of tactfully saying ‘no’ in situations I wanted to flee. Donna was one of the women in my seminar. She was a perfectly enormous woman in her late thirties, as wide as she was short. I can’t say I quite liked Donna. She’d start a classroom discussion with a statement like, “So, do you think Lady Macbeth had big tits or what?”, or “God damn, I just want to kick Hamlet’s scrawny li’l ass for being such a wimp.” All evening during the wine tasting she’d cut short Harmonie’s little discussions about the wine’s province and vintage with jeers of “Who cares where the fuck it’s from? Just fill my glass already!”

I followed Donna up the stairs and into a bedroom with fake Elizabethan timbers across the ceiling. All our coats lay on the bed. While I picked mine out, Donna threw herself onto the mattress, sprawled to the end table on the bed’s other side, opened the drawer and took out a cigarette and a lighter. She flicked the lighter a few times, inhaled, and huffed out a mouthful of smoke before she closed the drawer again. “Oh god, that feels good.” I don’t really recall standing there with my mouth gaping open—if anything, confronted with that kind of weird behavior I would’ve pretended I wasn’t looking and made a quick exit—but Donna acted as if I had been. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “Edward doesn’t give a good god-damn if I leave my cigarettes in his drawer. I’m over here so much.”

Again, I didn’t say a word. I think I just stared. “We’ve been seeing each other since the second week of class,” she told me. Then, because she probably thought I was young and still a virgin, she made sure I understood. “Seeing each other.” Her last word was a whisper. “Fucking.

“Oh,” I finally mustered. “Oh, of course. I thought—” I stopped.

“You thought he was gay?” She took a drag of her cigarette. That was indeed what I was going to say, but I didn’t acknowledge it. “Honey, Edward’s bisexual in impulse, but when he’s in bed with a woman like me, he’s all man.”

I fled the party as quickly as possible.

A bunch of us who’d been at the party that night found reason to linger after one of our other classes, the following Monday. Donna was not among them. We gossiped. Apparently that evening, as the party wound down an hour after I left, she managed to take almost everyone in the class to the bedroom and inform them in one way or another that she and Edward had been having an affair.

The few students who hadn’t gotten the bedroom revelation were shocked. “But I thought he was gay!” they screamed. I repeated what Donna had told me about how he was all man in bed with her, and we all hooted with laughter.

A couple of years ago, by the way, I told my dad this story. He had the same reaction. “I thought Edward was gay!” he almost yelled.

That evening, though, we all compared notes, and I repeated what I’d heard about how Harmonie had an affair with a student every semester, then dumped them for a new one. But why, we all wanted to know, had he chosen Donna? She was loud. She was vulgar. She apparently didn’t even have a passing acquaintance with the word discretion. Hell, she and discretion had never even been in the same phone directory.

Part of my pride smarted, too. I had no desire to be Edward Harmonie’s boy toy for the semester, honestly. It wasn’t that I was fundamentally against student-teacher affairs, as a full two dozen of my undergraduate professors would have attested. I found Harmonie both pretentious and smarmy.

But damn. To be passed over in favor of Donna. That hurt my youthful pride.

Donna got more and more obnoxious throughout the semester. It wasn’t long until she started talking about the affair openly to the rest of us, as if she’d assumed that we’d all gossip about it after her little bedroom confessions the night of the party. If she came into the classroom looking tired, before Harmonie walked in and assumed his Shakespearean stance she be sure to let us all know it was because Edward had been an animal and they’d been at it all night long. If she were happy, we were sure to discover it was because Edward had gifted her with theater tickets or flowers. If she was upset, it was because she’d had to spend a night apart from Edward.

One class, she called him ‘honey’ twice, casually. “Honey, could you repeat that?” “Honey, don’t you think that Prospero. . . .” Now, honey is a general term in Virginia that both genders employ to address anyone from a lover to a spouse to the plumber who’s come to unclog your toilet, but that night we all froze, startled, to hear the word coming from her mouth. We noticed after that night she never used it again, and we speculated that he must have chewed her out with some choice Elizabethan curses.

Toward the end of the semester, Harmonie was unusually late for the seminar one week. We sat in our seats, looking at our watches and debating the academic myth about the hierarchy of minutes to wait for a professor based on their job title. Was it fifteen minutes for a full professor and only ten minutes for an associate? Or was it longer?

“He’s probably tired out from last night,” said Donna. The rest of us rolled our eyes toward heaven and steeled ourselves for another confession of how Harmonie turned into a wild boar when the pair of them were rutting, but we got something surprisingly different. “We stayed up late last night, grading your papers,” she told us. Our final papers, over which we’d labored for weeks. “There were a few good ones in the stack, but man, some of you! I read through some and he’s show me parts and we’d lauuuuuugh!”

You’ve never seen a class so stunned. Most of us were angry. All of us, I think, had that same secret image of Donna and Edward rolling around naked in bed, red sharpies in hand, laughing at our papers. Probably laughing at my paper. Then Harmonie himself breezed in, apologized, and began the usual round of videotape watching and correcting the professional actors’ interpretations.

Most of us, sans Donna, gathered at the local coffee shop afterwards to discuss what needed to be done. Should we complain to the department chair? To the university’s president? Should we approach Harmonie himself? In the end, some of the cooler heads prevailed. We decided we’d wait until we got our papers back; if there was any evidence that they’d been graded by Donna, or that they’d been manhandled or besprinkled with bodily fluids, then as a class we’d go to someone and complain.

Our papers were fine. I got an A, I recall; I’d hit upon the trick earlier in the semester that writing about sex in one of Harmonie’s assignments practically guaranteed one a top grade, no matter how inane the topic. Saucy! read one of the comments he’d left in the margins. How delicious! read another, as if I’d handed in a lost comedy of Oscar Wilde.

We compared grades after class. No one was truly dissatisfied. Even the B students admitted that they’d gotten what they deserved. Any righteous anger we had over the grading in bed incident dissipated, though none of us were entirely happy about it.

I could have told Donna from my own personal experience that she was going to get a B in the class; reports of faculty members who take advantage of a student’s offer to do anything to get an A are greatly exaggerated. (It happens. Just not as often as soft-core porn would have you believe.) I always found the professors with whom I got involved ultra-scrupulous about assigning a final grade I deserved. After a few flings with professors, I could almost pinpoint the date three and a half weeks before a semester’s end on which he would feel compelled to give me the inevitable Now We Have To Discuss Something Very Serious Here About Your Final Grade talk.

Donna, however, didn’t take the B very well. Oh, she understood that it was to avoid favoritism, she told us the last week of class while she inhaled a cigarette at the coffee shop. She wasn’t going to blackmail him into giving her a better grade than she deserved. “But damn,” she said. “You’d think that for putting up with that kinky little bastard and his tiny wee-wee, I’d get a fuckin’ A!”

Harmonie wore an actual cape the last day of the semester. “To my heart I gather the memories we have shared this semester,” he said at the conclusion. His eyes locked with mine. “Parting is ssssssuch sssssssweet sssssorrow,” Then he bowed and flourished the cape so that it sounded like a rippling flag in a high wind. “I thank you all for them.” He left us behind with our teacher evaluations and swept out of the classroom like Sir Walter Raleigh leaving an audience with the Queen, before departing for the New World .

Donna watched him go with narrowed eyes. “Pretentious little fart,” she growled.


  1. I've had men like that want me and been completely uninterested. This is some great writing.

    Matthew Darringer

  2. This had me rolling my eyes left and right. How you survived that class, I will never know. As someone who spent a great deal of time in my undergraduate education producing Shakespeare papers that impressed the head of the department (mostly so that I could get a recommendation letter for my grad school applications, I'm not ashamed to say), I'm almost embarrassed by Harmonie's actions. I swear, most scholars of the bard are much more subdued. The one in our department was more likely to be tickled pink by student recitation (whether good or bad) than to take the burden of showmanship on herself. The Shakespeare classes I took were some of the best in my career. Sorry this one kind of sucked.

    And for what it is worth, I would have picked you as a lover over that strange woman any day.


  3. I think we've all known a Donna or two over the years.

  4. Great! Laughing -almost- Out Loud.

  5. God, I loved this one. Brought back a lot of memories of delightfully (in hindsight) pretentious academics! Thanks.

  6. Very interesting story, beautifully told.

    I thank God that (a) I have never known a woman as vulgar as Donna, and (b) nothing like what you describe with Harmonie (or Donna) ever happened in my college experience. Not even close.

    I hadn't, until now, appreciated how great it was to have professors who wouldn't have thought of hitting on their students. Or at least if they thought about it, they never tried it. AND who, by and large, acted as though the classroom experience was not mainly about them, but about getting us to think.

  7. The movie you mentioned reminded me of my organic chemistry professor- I always used to remark that I was convinced he was Satan incarnate. His tests always turned me into a nervous wreck to the point of throwing up before them. He was definitely the stereotypical super dorky science professor complete with an X-Files T-shirt that said, "The Truth Is out There."