Introduction: Julie Showalter’s Unpublished Writing
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
Julie’s Unpublished Writing comprises a group of pieces I’ve found on Julie’s computer or in her office that range from workshop exercises to story fragments to projects set aside to finish at a later day to work that appears, at least to me, to be fully as polished and effective as her published stories.
Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness, the latest addition to Julie’s Unpublished Writing, was originally posted May 25, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com. It is unlike any of Julie’s other work – and it is, especially if the reader knows his/her Browning, Keats, Byron et al, hilarious.
Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness
I wouldn’t call it a flaw; she had no flaws. Even now, after everything that has happened, I still find her flawless. Blameless? Well, that is another matter.
Call it a blemish, perhaps. Or a worry. For that’s what it was to me, a worry. This perfect beauty had a wart. Such an ugly word, not the right word for something that was more incongruous than ugly. But pre-cancerous. I do not think it is incorrect to use the word pre-cancerous to describe it. Any wart or mole has to be watched for changes, must be adjudged pre-cancerous. I believe one owes it to oneself to be familiar with the warning signs.
I discovered it when we were having intercourse for the fifteenth time, the sixth night we lived together. You will understand the depth of my feelings for this woman when I tell you that I left my wife of nineteen years for her. Left the 4,500 square foot mock Tudor I bought at a lull in the high-end market in ’88, left my prize-winning day lily collection, left my son, my wife. All without a thought. Left and rented what I thought of as our little love nest, a cliché I’d never use aloud. But then one is permitted a slight latitude in thought beyond what is acceptable in conversation.
That night, after fourteen approximately identical performances, it seemed appropriate that I try something different, something daring, as it were. I started as I had on previous encounters, touching her breasts – small firm breasts with large areolas and nipples that hardened at a breath. It’s not the size of the mammary gland that excites a man like myself – in fact when my wife was lactating I sometimes feared being smothered. No, size is secondary to symmetry, response.
This woman glowed and responded. I took her nipples between my teeth – first the left and then the right. I’m right handed, and left followed by right has always seemed the proper order for me. She writhed. Again, a word with negative connotations. How better to describe it? She moved beneath my mouth, rose to meet me as I nibbled. As she rose, I pulled away to intensify her excitement. I’ve always found concentrating stimulus on a single point more arousing than a random thrashing of body parts. Other nights, our excitement had been such that after dallying at her breasts I had no choice but to enter her.
But this night, our fifteenth time, I delayed our gratification. I moved my mouth to her belly – flat, firm, her navel a declivity into which I briefly plunged my tongue, then down, down, but diverting, pulling away before her thrusts could pull me lower.
“Prolong, prolong, my dear,” I said, as I shifted my body until I was on my knees between her legs. I started at her left calf and worked up. Licking, flicking little cat tongues that elicited verbal as well as physical response. I’ve rejected the word writhe, but perhaps it’s correct. There was a snake-like sinuousness to her movements.
Her legs were as smooth as her belly. Unlike my wife, who shaved her legs twice a month, this woman came from her bath every night steaming and rosy and smooth as the cheek of a young boy. Her thighs alone would have made me love her, brown and lean and strong.
Those thighs had changed my life. I saw this woman half way back in my class two weeks into the fall term. The date is etched in my mind, for it was my forty-fifth birthday, September 26. I wrote the next day’s assignment on the board – “My Last Duchess” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” – I am given to pedagogical pairings of this sort which astound my colleagues. When I turned back to the class, I saw her in motion. She wore one of those short skirts they all wear this fall. She turned to talk to someone behind and to her left, straightening her right leg full length to brace herself. Her skirt pulled up, revealing a long lean expanse of outer thigh. I experienced a shiver, a frisson of delight. All the world combined at that moment to give me pleasure. The maple outside the window, its leaves just tinged with orange, the sunlight streaming in, the sense of a class well-taught, the sight of the young girl’s thigh.
The pleasure was still with me when I returned home that night. The yardman had visited that day and everything was in order, the grass 2¼ inches as I like it, the beds crisply spaded. I decided to spend a moment with my lilies.
In my post-graduate days, I had flirted with the rose and then the iris. But both, while lovely plants, are plagued by disease. One has to worry about them constantly. And the rose is really quite common. At least half a dozen men in the humanities division alone are obsessed with the rose. Hemerocallis, in contrast, is a plant of strong constitution and breathtaking beauty; and among my acquaintance, I alone knew her intimately. Some late-blooming tetraploids were still in flower, and I sat on my favorite bench among them. The term “day lily” refers to the fact that each flower lasts but a day. But even within that day, a slight wilting occurs, not so much that an untrained eye would notice. But a connoisseur notices and waits for the next bud to open, the next moment of perfection to occur. There was such a blossom that afternoon, a Catherine Woodbury – freshly opened, perfect. My happiness was marred only by the realization that there were no unopened pods on that plant. This would be the last such lily this season.
Early autumn, but autumn nonetheless, as forty-five begins the autumn of life. I attempted to fend off depression. A flower still bloomed. The grass was still green. Much remained. Ah yes, Tennyson, “Though much is taken, much remains.” My chuckle was rueful. Tennyson’s Ulysses was talking to old men about to embark on their final adventure. Byron did not serve better – “My days are in the yellow leaf,” and he a scant thirty-six. Keats saw autumn as the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” I sighed. Keats, dead at twenty-five, escaped the mortifications of middle age.
My emotions were at this pitch when I opened the door to my home and was plunged from exquisite melancholy into chaos. My son’s music blared. I am a man of words, a man of subtlety, and the driving repetitive beat repulsed me. My increased sensitivity at that moment made it impossible to ignore the words being chanted. “Ignorance has taken over / We gotta take the power back / Bam, here’s the plan / Mother fuck Uncle Sam.” Charming. Rhyme, meter, and meaning in perfect complementarity.
My wife is a psychologist and she assures me that his obsession with such music is normal, and transitory. She points out that his grades are good, that he does not sulk about as many of his peers do, that broadcasting this music establishes his identity in our household. Still, I have often felt that the price for his identity will be my sanity.
There was no comfort in the kitchen. My wife stood at the counter, her right arm up to the elbow inside a goose. “Could you bring up the wine?” she asked. “I thought a champagne to toast the birthday boy, and the good Merlot for dinner. I’ve seated Helen James next to you. I hope that’s ok.” I felt a childlike petulance. Why did the Jameses have to be invited to my party? Hank James is contemptible, a pseudo-democrat who approaches all – colleagues and students alike – with robust familiarity – “Call me Hank” – then insists on all the perquisites due a full professor. He is my chief rival for chairmanship of the department, but I think his recent tirade about his parking space has done him in. His wife is no better – a woman in her forties who bares a midriff tanned an unhealthy fuscous brown. I’ve always believed that a refusal to acknowledge time’s passing, no matter how painful, makes one ludicrous.
My wife at that moment was a case in point. She wore Bermuda shorts which displayed the varicosities she has begun to develop – blue rivers on the backs of her knees, which almost seemed to pulse. She removed her hand from the goose and turned, noticing, no doubt that I wasn’t engaging in our usual banter about wine, food, and unpleasant guests. “Are you getting one of your headaches?” she asked. “You can lie down until the guests arrive.” She rested her outer wrist on my cheek and kissed me.
At that moment my son moved through the scene – baseball cap on backwards, baggy shorts reaching mid-calf, portable phone plastered to his ear. I all but staggered under the burden of the moment – the music, my son’s insolence, the smell of goose grease on my wife, the thickness of her waist where I had placed my hand for support. My head pounded. “I cannot live like this,” I thought.
A vision of the young woman turning away, extending her leg, the rising skirt, the long, lean thigh, appeared before me, and I saw my grail.
A teacher, especially a teacher of poetry, has a certain attraction for female students. I have, in my day, been the object of many student crushes, some quite blatant. I have always been flattered by these infatuations, but I have never encouraged them. Quite the contrary. Among my colleagues I developed something of a reputation as a prude for my stand on faculty-student liaisons; but I had never understood why a man would risk everything, including disease, for a brief affair.
There is no hypocrisy in what followed because I wasn’t seeking an affair. I wanted her for a life partner. I pursued this young woman. I am not an unattractive man, and I like to think I carry myself with distinction. She had a boyfriend to whom she had been loyal since high school, but frankly, it was a mis-match. I asked her to meet with me in my office. The meeting led to drinks, which led to dinner. I wooed her with my own words and with those of Byron, Keats, and Shelley. The boyfriend was history, as my son would say.
My wife, whom I have always believed to be a compassionate woman, showed no compassion when she learned of my affaire de coeur. And she rejected out of hand my plan to maintain residence at our home until the chairmanship was announced. Her obdurateness resulted in my precipitant move to what was to have been a temporary pied à terre.
Initially I was nervous, as who would not be, over potential damage to my career. But it became clear in a matter of days that what is suspected and what is known are different things entirely. As long as I was discreet and gave no overt proof of my new living arrangements, no harm would accrue.
On the night of which I speak, our fifteenth to enjoy each other concupiscently, I moved my mouth up her left inner thigh. I did not stop at the thigh. I am not squeamish about such things; I know some women attribute reluctance in this area to misogyny. No, I am not squeamish, especially with one as fastidious as she, still warm and soapy from her bath. I did not hold my tongue back from parting what was closed, from tickling that small organ I have heard called an undeveloped penis. But do not mistake me for a man who slathers and wallows at this orifice; that is not my style. This woman was a delicate flower to be tasted only with the tip of the tongue. A flicker, two, three, then down to the right calf.
Up again to the crease between leg and groin, one of the few creases on her body. Then my tongue found the thing. Alarm twanged through my body. “What’s this,” I asked.
“What?” She was distracted. Who could blame her? “It’s nothing. A wart. A birthmark. It’s been there all my life.”
I completed the act that night. One could tell she noticed no difference in my ardor. There was no difference, no measurable difference, but there was the worry.
The next morning I feigned arousal. No, that’s ridiculous, how can a man feign such a thing? Rather, I encouraged my arousal, exaggerated it a bit. You will understand what a treasure this young woman was when I tell you she was embarrassed to repeat in daylight what we had done the night before. She wasn’t a virgin when I wooed her, not technically, but she was inexperienced. Imagine the world I opened for her after a year of backseat grappling with her high school Lothario. Less than a month into her college career and she found herself in the arms of a skilled, generous lover. Her shyness excited me beyond my pretense, and I proceeded as I had the night before. I had almost forgotten my purpose when I saw the thing in the morning light that streamed through the gap in the blinds.
In size and shape it resembled nothing more than a child’s chewed off pencil eraser. Gray and dead-looking, protruding, bumpy, in this expanse of healthy smooth flesh – it simply did not belong on her body.
Do not attribute the strength of my reaction to the fact that I believed her flawed. No matter how she misinterpreted what followed, I always loved her as she was. But I wanted to marry her, to spend my life with her. I thought of the warning signs and my future stretched before me. Who would there be to check it but I? Every week, at least once a week, the journey up the left thigh then the right, to touch the thing with my tongue, gauge its size, try to remember how it felt last week, last month, last year.
I could not enjoy making love to her again as long as it was there. I executed my duty, of course. I had years of experience in executing such duty, but I wanted more from her. I wanted the original unsullied ecstasy we had shared. The thing must be removed.
I resorted to a ruse. There was a mole just under my jaw, easily checked daily. “The damn thing bothers me,” I told her, “I’m always nicking it. And there’s the constant worry. You know these things can go bad.” I kissed away the little frown between her eyebrows. “If it worries you,” I said, “of course I’ll have it off. Ten minutes with the dermatologist. I should have done it years ago. And as long as we’re going, why not take care of that little thing of yours.”
“I’ve never thought about it,” she said. “Is it ugly?”
“No. Of course not. It’s nothing now, but it could change. It could be diseased. I’m not asking you to go through this alone. We’ll do it together.”
We rode to the doctor’s office side by side on our bicycles. I tell you this woman made me young again. We never walked if we could run, never drove if we could bicycle. When we entered the park, she sped ahead, then stopped beneath some oaks, their leaves a dusty burgundy, and turned back toward me laughing, her leg extended as it was when I first noticed her.
I see her still, waiting for me on that bicycle, the dappled sun in her hair, her face without bitterness. Memory coupled with understanding is indeed the curse of the intelligent man. That ride appears to me now as the last transcendent moment before loss of innocence, as Wordsworth would have it, our moment “of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.”
Ten minutes was precisely how long my mole took. The doctor and I discovered a mutual fondness for Turner, and I barely noticed what was going on.
I had brought freshman papers that needed grading to allay my anxiety while I waited for her. Unlike Hank James, I do not subordinate my survey courses to my graduate seminars, and I give each essay my full attention, no matter how vapid the thought or inelegant the syntax. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to discover that she’d been in the procedure room for over an hour.
When she came out, her face was a color I hadn’t seen before — at least not on her. Actually, I had a rather unpleasant flashback to my wife just after my son was delivered. She had the drained, ashen look women get when they can’t handle pain.
Standing there in the waiting room, she seemed near peevish tears. “It really hurt,” she said, “and it kept bleeding. You didn’t say there’d be bleeding.” Then she delivered the coup de grace, “He said the only reason to do this was cosmetic. If you didn’t like the way I looked, why didn’t you just get another girl?”
I cannot express my distress at that moment. First the ashen complexion with all the negative memories that evoked. Then her quoting another man’s opinion in opposition to my own. Finally, her complete misunderstanding of my motives.
At that moment the tectonic plates of our relationship shifted, although I wasn’t immediately aware of the full seismic impact.
I stumbled out of the office after her. She threw her leg over her bicycle and winced. “It hurts,” she said again. Then she took off ahead of me, her glorious calves pumping away. “She’s in pain,” I rationalized, noting how she sat to the side on her saddle, used her left leg to push and let her right leg follow. I thought to comfort her, pedaled harder, but such unaccustomed exertion caused my heart to pound and soon I lost her around a curve.
I tried to pretend nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but that night after I nibbled her breasts, when I put my hand between her legs spreading gently, she said what was becoming a refrain, “It hurts,” and turned her back to me.
The next day she asked me to drive her to school. I had thought she understood my position, but I explained again patiently, remembering her youth. “My dear, we must be discreet. It is known that I have left my wife. Quite possibly it is known that I am involved with another women. We may have even been seen bicycling together. Such things are tolerated. However, my arriving for my 8:00 class with you in tow would fall into the realm of flaunting. Imagine James’s face if he saw you in the faculty parking lot. Chairmanships of departments have been denied for less grievous sins than falling in love with an eighteen-year old student.”
“Fine!” she said. “Whatever.” She grabbed her backpack and flounced out. Flounced is the word.
Fine! Whatever! I had thought her superior, thought to make her my wife, but she was behaving like the rest of her generation, behaving like my son. Did the scales fall from my eyes at that moment? Not entirely. The air about me still vibrated with her pheromones; the watermelon scent of her shampoo lingered.
So it was with mixed emotions that I regarded the note I found when I came home that evening. “I’m dropping your class. I’m going back to Jerry. He loves me the way I am. P.S. Please don’t give me an F.”
Mixed emotions, as I said. Sadness that the idyll was over. Disappointment in the girl, of course. And anger at the way she’d used and deceived me. After consideration I realized that anger was in the ascendance, anger was, after all, the only appropriate emotion.
Fine, I thought. If Jerry loves little girls who use lavender ink and write with great looping letters, then Jerry can love you, my dear. I tossed her billet-doux in the trash.
I poured myself a brandy, a pleasure I had relinquished during the month she had been with me. I walked to the window. The tree that had obscured the view weeks earlier when I chose the apartment had lost its leaves, revealing the parking lot and beyond, more apartments just like my own. Rain was turning to sleet and the first hard frost had been predicted. I wondered if my lilies had been properly mulched, their ugly dead leaves cut back. Then I remembered that they were no longer my lilies. There was a quotation that perfectly captured my mood, something in Browning, I was sure of it. It just wouldn’t come to me at that moment.