Cynthia Sally Haggard writes historical novels, short stories, and flash fiction. Her first novel, Thwarted Queen is a fictionalized biography of Lady Cecylee Neville (1415-1495), mother of two kings of England, including Richard III, whose bones were recently found under a car-park in Leicester. Her novel has been shortlisted for many awards, including the 2012 Eric Hoffer New Horizon Award for debut authors. To date, sales have surpassed $40,000.
Cynthia graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in June 2015. When she’s not annoying everyone by insisting her fictional characters are more real than they are, Cynthia likes to go for long walks, knit something glamorous, cook in her wonderful kitchen, and play the piano. You can visit her at www.spunstories.com.
Spring Semester, 1960
By itself it was unremarkable, a boxy desk made of cheap materials with a fake wood veneer, a standard issue object that populated countless offices in college campuses. What was odd was the way it stood in the professor’s office, turned sideways, so that one short side met the wall just inside the door. Any student entering that office to meet with the professor would push the door open to the right, while to the immediate left squatted that huge desk, with two plastic chairs positioned primly underneath its cavernous opening, a grudging invitation for the student to sit, perhaps with a friend. On the other side, the private side where the drawers and compartments were, slouched the professor.
He taught two of the classes I was taking for my final semester, Introductory Statistics and History of Social Sciences. He had an unusual name, Matthias Szczepanski. The other students gave up struggling with his name after the first class and called him “Professor S.” But I was curious. Where was he from? One day, after class, I surmounted my natural shyness, and, ignoring that forbidding desk, I seated myself on the prissy plastic seat to ask him how to pronounce his name.
“SHUH -CHAY-PAN-SKEE” He made me repeat it several times, until I was rewarded by a smile that wasn’t exactly a smile, a suggestion of a curve in those thin lips, while his light-brown eyes claimed me.
I went home that day, my mind wrapped around my professor, as if I were a snug piece of velvet hiding a jewel. I lived a few miles away with my parents. Father was the minister of the Lutheran church, Mother was a homemaker. My parents had reluctantly granted my request to go to University, provided that I continue to live with them. When I’d finally gathered the courage in my first year to ask Father why it was necessary to continue living at home, he put down the sermon he was working on and immobilized me with his disapproving look.
“Isn’t it obvious, Caroline?” he said, the tone of his voice making me curl up inside. “Unchaperoned young people get up to all sorts of—unsavory doings. I do not want you to be mixed up in all of that. Your mother and I have certain—expectations.”
Then he cast his eyes down to the sermon on his desk, picked up his fountain pen, and made a note in the margin.
I stood there in that silence, hands clasped in front of me. I knew what his expectations were, to catch a husband. His agreement to my university studies had been bought with Mother’s promise that a prospective suitor would find an educated young woman more interesting. But what were my expectations? I wanted to do something bold--
“Shut the door quietly behind you, please,” he remarked without looking up.
Now, I was completing my final semester at university with few friends there, or indeed anywhere. The friends I’d known since Kindergarten when my family arrived here from Pennsylvania were leaving, marrying, and having children. The few that were left were trying to find husbands, or embarking on careers of their own, mostly nursing, or secretarial, and their lives had become very different from mine. It was captivating to find, at last, such a friend in Professor Szczepanski. I was greedy, wanting him to teach me everything he knew, not just about sociology, but about life and the world he lived in.
And so our friendship began, with regular visits to the office hours he used to hold once a week for each class. It wasn’t hard for me to become his star student. When I wasn’t taking class, I was either perched on a chair in the library, or sitting at home with my parents in the deadening silence Father demanded, working. But now, in that final semester, the hours eased past, the deathly quality of Father’s silence dissolving as I lost myself in my studies. The other students were mostly absent from his office hours, and so we used to hold many private conferences about something I’d written, or questions that had come up in class, his huge desk brooding between us, a natural barricade. But its existence no longer troubled me.
One day, we were in his office as usual, and our conversation had long drawn to its natural close. Yet we lingered. I had just finished reading Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, an account of life in a medieval village in France between 1294 and 1324, one of the extra readings he suggested for the history course.
“I’ve never read a book like that before, it doesn’t come across as a history.” I paused, frowning, fumbling to clutch at an evanescent thread of thought. “It feels much more like science—like case studies—”
He sat up suddenly, his eyes capturing mine.
“You noticed that?”
“Of course,” I replied. “Isn’t it obvious?”
He sagged back into his seat. “Not to the other students.” He warmed me with his light-brown eyes. “But you are unusually mature for your age.”
I scrutinized his expression, surprised.
“I mean it,” he said, his eyes glowing as they lingered on my face. They were compelling eyes that seemed to call forth secrets, things I never spoke of. And perhaps that is why I slid into disloyal talk about my parents, how I’d had to beg them to let me go to university, how they insisted I live at home, and how I had few friends.
“You didn’t have a childhood either,” he remarked.
He leaned across that huge desk as if to reach for my hand, but his arm lay on his side of the desk, his fingers hovering in the air, disconnected. He spoke to me about his family, how he’d grown up poor on a farm near Champaign-Urbana, how he had to beg his parents, both Polish immigrants, to let him go to school in the big city of Chicago.
“I even got a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago, and still they hesitated.”
My heart pulsed in the bottom of my throat as I nodded. “How were you able to go?”
“My mother,” he replied simply. “Somehow she persuaded my father to let me go. She’s a remarkable woman, I’d like you to meet her.”
A surge of some unnameable emotion lifted me up. For the first time in my life I felt I had won—something. And yet the weight of anticipation hung heavily upon me. How was I supposed to behave? Suppose his mother disapproved? Suppose I did something embarrassing? And, worst of all, suppose he stopped liking me?
I perched on that prim plastic seat, outwardly demure, my eyes lowered, while my hand lay lightly on my side of his desk, waiting. I studied the fake brown veneer of the desk as nothing happened.
The weight of his silence pressed in, so eventually I raised my head to check his expression.
He devoured me, almost as if he were seeing me for the first time.
“I’ve never met a woman like you before.”
I held my breath as I cast my eyes down, willing my heart to stop dancing its jagged rhythm. For the first twenty years of my life, I’d melted into the wallpaper, looking out as parties, and dances swirled in front of me, like a dangerous whirlpool. No one had discerned me before. No one had striven hard enough to surmount my natural shyness, see past my gangly figure, ignore my home-made clothes.
Slowly, I lifted my lashes.
He laughed. “You take me too seriously, Caroline.”
I compelled the corners of my mouth to curl up into a smile, not understanding.
He glanced at his watch, forcing me to rise, and leave.
I got little sleep that night. What had happened? He’d been so warm, so attentive. Then—what? Had he paid me a compliment when he said he’d never met anyone like me before? Or—or was he laughing at me? My stomach sour, I pushed away tangled sheets and padded to the window in thick socks. Snow was falling outside, dusting everything in a light coating of white, while a cold morning glimmered into being. Today was Saturday, April 2. That meant yesterday had been April 1. Had he been teasing me?
I missed his office hours that week and the next, not returning until April 22. His smile warmed his face as I knocked softly upon the door.
“Come in, come in,” he said, “and let me take a look at you. I haven’t seen you in a while.”
I sat tentatively, straight-backed, knees together, while he sprawled in his chair, knees apart, and examined me. I had dressed with more than usual care, wanting to make the right impression. I was a young lady, and wanted to be treated as such, so I wore my church clothes, a black skirt that came to mid-calf and made me look older, the white blouse with the stiff collar Mother had given me as a gift, and my favorite dark-blue sweater I’d knitted myself. I hoped it brought out the color of my eyes.
“I—I—Iwanttoaskyousomething..” I drew in a monumental breath that made me cough. “Iwanttoapplytolawschool,” I leaned to the right to slide the application form out of my briefcase.
“Oh, sure,” he drawled. “Bring it along next week.”
I straightened in my seat, folding my hands softly so that he wouldn’t see that I already had the form.
“You’re going to graduate soon,” he observed. “Perhaps, after that, you’ll allow me to take you to my favorite cafe?”
My gaze fell into my black lap. I couldn’t look at him. How I longed to say ‘yes’ to his invitation, but the heft of his expectations was too painful. I was only a girl, he was my professor; he was a sophisticated man of the world, I was a fish out of water. The thirteen miles from his office to my home seemed aeons away.
The silence uncoiled, lengthening. Unable to bear it any more, I placed both hands flat on his huge desk, and drew in a deep breath.
“Ifyoutakemetoyourfavoritecafe,” I remarked to the desk, “I’llorderthemostexpensivethingthere.”
His silence was deadening.
Unable to hold back any more, I lifted my face to his as a flood of giggles washed over me.
He studied me for a moment, a dull redness creeping along his cheeks. His laugh, when it came, was a series of short, sharp barks.
On the other side of that desk, out of sight, I clenched my fingers together until the bones cracked. On my lap sat my law-school application. What had I done?
I argued with myself for a couple of weeks, before manhandling myself back to his office to see about the law school application I’d placed oh-so-carefully into his mailbox the week before, just out of sight of his pregnant secretary, who glowered at me. The door was half-open, but he was not there. I stood still for many moments, inhaling the silence, before I crept to the other side of his sullen desk, and sank slowly, oh-so-slowly into his seat. I exhaled as I leaned back in his high-backed chair, running the tips of my fingers over the fake veneer of the desk, closing my eyes as if by doing so I could imbue myself with his power. The back and the arms of the chair cradled me, as if he were holding me in his arms. As I relaxed, the muscles in my back thawed, my body hummed, purring. If only we could be closer—A light step made me start up.
He leaned against the door jamb watching, a smile on his face, a predatory smile. My body snapped back into its usual jammedness as my cheeks heated up. I rose and attempted to come around the desk, but a sharp corner dug into my hip, causing me to cry out in pain. Blindly I clutched at the fake veneer, but my hands slid away. I set my jaw and somehow heaved my way around the short side of the desk that wasn’t against the wall. Finally, I was by those two prim plastic chairs, on my usual side of the desk, on my way out. But he was there, blocking the doorway.
“That was quite something.” He grinned.
I searched his face, looking for—a morsel of kindness?
“Want my job?”
I stared at the brown leather shoes Mother had got at a Church sale.
“No, no.” My words were sticking to the back of my throat. I coughed. “I wouldn’t be good enough.”
“Hmmm.” He made to pass, and wrong-footed, I fell into an awkward dance with him in the doorway. Just as his hand inadvertently brushed my breasts, I stepped back sharply, banging the back of my head against the door jamb. I ground my teeth so I wouldn’t cry out.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He shot me a knowing look, and smirked.
“Be my guest,” he said, his baritone rich and inviting, “I’m happy to walk into you. Anytime.”
“I came about my law-school application.” I had to rise in my seat to lean far enough across his desk to hand him another copy of the form.
“Ah, yes.” He glanced at it briefly, then looked up. “I can’t do it.”
“But—” This didn’t seem real. “I thought—”
His long fingers gently traced a pattern on that desk. “I can’t do it.” A dullish red hue broke out across his cheeks.
“But if you don’t, I won’t get into law school.”
“Caroline, please don’t exaggerate. There must be plenty of others who could perform this service for you.”
“I don’t understand.” My throat shut, so I had to swallow to open it. “I thought—”
“No.” He looked directly at me, his light-brown eyes as opaque as shiny coins in a too-bright sun.
I sat there, crumbling.
He rose to his feet, edged around that huge desk, walked past me as if I were another plastic chair, and opened the door.
“I must ask you to leave, Caroline. I’m very busy at present.”
I gazed around his room one last time. His desk gleamed smugly in the sunlight.
“Please leave. Now.” His face was immobile as he held the door open.
Somehow, I got to my feet and left, my arms wrapped around my brown leather bag. As I stepped into that antiseptic corridor with its white walls, white ceiling tiles, cheap white linoleum floor, I heard his door click shut behind me. I stumbled outside into a painfully sunny courtyard and slumped down onto my favorite bench. What was I going to do? He was the only person who knew my work well enough to be able to write a convincing letter of reference for the prestigious law schools I wanted to go to. I sat there for many moments, a cool wind wafting loss all around me.
“Caroline.” Father stood in the doorway of his study holding The Baltimore Sun, as I arrived home.
“I was right all along, not letting you stay at university. It is no place for respectable young women.”
I stared up into his unreadable face as he placed the paper into my hands.
“I believe this concerns one of your professors.”
The study door clicked shut behind him.
Alone in the sitting room, I leaned over the pages of The Sun. There he is, a hazy, indefinite image, placed above the fold on the first page. I am shocked to discover that he’s only twenty-nine, nine years older than I am. I scan the page. Dr. Szczepanski, a brilliant young scholar in the Sociology department, is up for tenure, but will probably lose his job.
He is the father of an illegitimate child.
The pages slide to the ground as the back of my neck prickles. How did I miss this? I retrieve the pages, staring at the blurry words. There is a picture of a faint young woman, someone I vaguely recognize. Of course, it’s the glowering secretary. I squint at the picture, but the woman doesn’t even look particularly beautiful. Why in the world would someone like Professor Szczepanski risk everything for her?
My mind spins How could he have done it, the lecherous bastard? Could’t he keep his hands to himself? I start as I realize that he almost never touched me. I bend my head to the article, which states that although Dr. Szczepanski hasn’t openly disputed the young woman’s claim, nevertheless he is refusing to marry her. It goes on to mention that there is no dispute about Dr. Szczepanski’s conduct. He was caught red-handed with her, upon his desk.
A surge of lava-like emotion wells up in my chest, spreading fingers throughout me like thick blood oozing from a wound. I try to imagine myself back in his office. His desk squats there, a looming shadow, a barricade against an unkind world. Those who ignored the desk’s covert message to keep out, those who sat down and leaned across to chat, passed his test of friendship.
As I did.
The secretary must have been even bolder.
I sit there forever, trying to make sense of it. I thought I was special, I thought I was his star, I thought I was his protegée. I press my lips together. It is time I took charge of my life. The Sociology Department was small. Was it gossipy? Did his colleagues think that I was the one having the affair with him? Because of course, in a sense, I was. It was an Affair of the Heart. But unlike most such affairs, this one wasn’t physical.
Our currency had been glances, and silences.