After a run-in with her ex didn’t go as planned, the author feared she’d lost her looks. (Photo: Susan Shapiro)
I was alarmed to see him at the cocktail party. We hadn’t spoken in thirty years. I thought he’d moved out of town. As a student in his graduate class, I’d idolized him. My heart knotted in my chest, as if I was still his cute anxious coed. I was glad I’d had my dark hair dyed back to its original chestnut brown that afternoon, and I was wearing my flattering black silk dress and Prada heels. At least I looked good. Desperately wanting to end our animosity, I walked over. He was balder, older, more distinguished.
“Good to see you,” I said, my hand trembling. He didn’t answer, staring like I was a stranger. I’d read he had a wife, kids, had won awards in our field. I assumed he knew I was now a married teacher, too. “It’s Susan.” I waited for my name and face to jar his recollection. “Your former student.” He smiled vaguely, then turned away to talk to the person behind me.
Humiliated and confused, I looked around for the ladies’ room. He must have been seventy now. Did he have Alzheimer’s, or was I the one whose memory was addled? I felt flushed; what a horrible time for another hot flash. I spied my husband talking to friends near the bar and I prayed he hadn’t caught the snub. I feared I’d exaggerated my amorous relationship with my professor in my head. I’d often pictured us having a heart-to-heart, reminiscing. Or arguing and having it out. I’d obviously overestimated my place in his romantic lexicon. Of all the conflicting scenarios I’d envisioned for three decades, I’d never considered he wouldn’t remember me.
In the bathroom mirror, I stared at the marionette lines around my mouth, the puffiness over my once chiseled cheekbones. Was there one moment when a woman knew she’d lost her youth and beauty? At fifty, I thought I’d remained attractive. Yet I was no longer the head-turner he’d once called “his gorgeous, luscious muse.” Had I changed that much? I wanted to shout: But you were the one who discovered me, believed in me, drew stars in the margins of my rough drafts, the way I edited my students’ papers now.
There’d been lots of screwing around at the urban university where we’d met in the ‘80s. It was decades before Ivy League colleges banned all faculty and undergraduates from sexual relationships and front pages chronicled a Stanford University pupil suing the mentor she’d been dating for harassment and rape. But our affair wasn’t abusive, or just a fling. Neither of us expected to fall in love.
The author as a 20-year-old New York University student, posing with a friend in Greenwich Village. (Photo: Susan Shapiro)
Back in 1981, as an overeager grad student, I thrusted out my hand at orientation, “It’s an honor to meet you,” I’d said. “Planning to finish your Ph.D. by the end of the mixer?” he asked. He’d obviously seen my application, knew I was only twenty, having skipped two grades. He wrestled his hand free from my grip. He was academically dashing, in a beige jacket and corduroys. He had piercing brown eyes. I didn’t want him to leave. “Why? Are you threatened by fast women?” I’d asked, not catching my double entendre.
“I can’t wait for your class.” I fished out my schedule from my purse to show him, with my school ID. “I’m a poetry major.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m the one who accepted you.”
“You are? Wow. How amazing, the first person I meet is the one who took me.”
“How amazing, I’m in the place where I teach,” he said. “Must be fate.”
“Total kismet,” I’d answered, fresh off the Midwest bus, missing his sarcasm.
I was a tall, thin-skinned girl with size nine and a half feet. But in the big city, I soon lost weight, donned thick black mascara and eyeliner to highlight my dark orbs, along with lower-cut, tighter black clothes and spikier shoes. I could tell he noticed. At a holiday party he threw at his place, he’d pointed to my heels and flirtatiously joked, “You’re trying to tower over me.” I took them off to help clean up afterwards. Then we sat on the wooden floor of his dusty one-bedroom, drinking cheap Chardonnay from paper cups, with me chattering anxiously.
“You talk too much, too loud, too quickly,” he cut me off. Noticing me blush, he’d said, “Don’t be nervous, we’re not having an affair or anything.” Could he tell I wanted to? Did he? He seemed single, lonely, attracted to me. Showing up at his every office hour, I’d hand him stacks of my poetry. “Just one.” He’d unleash his full, throaty laugh, marking my pages with squiggles and arrows. “You have too many words, not enough music.” I loved how he spoke.
“I’m falling for you,” I blurted out.
“I would never date a student,” he said. I was crushed. Until he added, “If only I weren’t your teacher.” Hope! He introduced me to his colleagues as “a talented newcomer.” When he asked what I thought of his early drafts, I was honored. Finishing my degree, he recommended me for a coveted magazine position.
The evening of my graduation, free of academic roles, he took me to dinner to celebrate, saying how beautiful I was, confessing his feelings. Finally we kissed. It was awkward and scary. But switching from protégée to girlfriend, I felt special. He said I was the only former student he’d ever touched. I believed him.
Alas, I was more comfortable in his classroom than his bedroom. I was smoking, toking, and drinking more, which bothered him. He didn’t like my proud label of “raging feminist,” or that the job he’d found me took priority. He hated my new short haircut, saying it was “too butch,” as if changing my appearance was a personal affront. “You’re too controlling,” I argued. I’d imagined us as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Were we closer to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath?
He thought preparing a Thanksgiving party together would be sexy. I hated cooking. “I can’t make a turkey,” I complained to my Jewish mother. She had a surprise meal for 10 delivered. I was delighted. He found it intrusive, emasculating. “You’re too close to your family, there’s no room in your life for a man,” he accused, citing my long daily calls and frequent Michigan visits.
Then one day he announced, “I won a year fellowship to Israel. Will you come?”
I was flattered. “But I can’t afford it.”
“I’ll pay for everything.”
“I have a job. I can’t gallivant around the world as an appendage to a guy.”
“Well, we could get married,” he said.
“What? Now?” I adored him, but the idea was overwhelming.
He seemed wounded by my cold response. At 23, I had to establish myself. At 43, he needed to settle down. He stopped speaking to me. When he wouldn’t return my calls, I was grief stricken. Breakups were bad enough, but this fissure ousted me from my new life and crowd. I was petrified I’d be blacklisted by the publishing world. I feared I’d screwed everything up. Haunted, I finally tried therapy.
For the next decade, I struggled with work and love. Eventually I dated other poets (broke, depressed), novelists (less broke, egotistic, depressed), journalists (broke, manic, depressed), lawyers, doctors and MBA’s (rich, happy but so boring they depressed me.) At 29, I met Charlie in a group of TV/film guys (less broke, funnier about their depression).
I looked hot that fall, having exercised back to my ideal 128 weight. Though Charlie was smitten, yet more commitment-phobic than I was. It took two years to coerce him to meet my parents. He schlepped Gus’s Dills on the plane for my folks, smelling like pickle juice. Not a fan of his own mom’s domestic skills, he was entranced by my mom’s overstuffed fridge, flattered she had tuna salad — his favorite — waiting for him. When I turned 35, I gave him an ultimatum. He finally slipped a diamond engagement ring on my finger. Seeing it, my mom ran upstairs to get my late grandmother’s diamond earrings, saved for her only daughter.
“But I don’t have pierced ears,” I told her.
“I have a great idea. You can add the stones to your ring!” she insisted. Oh no. I recalled my old professor’s warning that my family was too interdependent. Now my maternal figure — and my dead Grandma — were crowding the most important jewel a man could ever give me. I sheepishly asked Charlie.
“Fine by me,” Charlie said, shrugging. “My sister helped pick the ring out. My brother-in-law’s loaning me money for our apartment. My dad’s a judge who wants to marry us. My relatives are all over us too. It’s kind of sweet.”
Fifteen years later, back at the soiree, I grabbed Charlie, who hated parties, whispering his favorite question. “Can we go home?”
“What’s wrong?” he asked in the taxi.
“Something bizarre happened.” I was ashamed. “I saw my ex. The professor.”
“He was there? Really? Which one was he?”
“He didn’t recognize me.” I was near tears. My ex was so exalted in my mind, but I’d meant nothing to him.
“That guy in the brown blazer glaring at me? Now I know why! Of course he knew who you were. You’re the exact same as when I met you.” My husband laughed. “Has anyone from your past ever not recognized you?”
“You just love me,” I mumbled into his collar.
“Oh, he knew exactly who you were, alright.”
I was thrilled to think my old flame remembered me. Maybe I didn’t look so different three decades later, after all. Even if I did, I was lucky to have maintained married lust. My husband didn’t mind me without makeup, a dress size or two higher. (“All he notices about your body is how often you offer it to him,” my married male shrink opined.) I still worshipped poetry and prose, not Botox and plastic surgery. I was healthy, taught well, did charity to knock the edge off my narcissism, recalling the poet George Herbert’s line “living well is the best revenge.”
I’d hoped to tell my old flame that he’d changed my life for the better, inspiring me to teach. (And to push my husband into becoming a professor, too.) I’d wanted to apologize, not sure if I’d been immature back then, or just in my twenties. The downside of teachers dating students was the complex power balance. It took intense therapy to unravel what happened, and for me to be able to marry, twelve years after our split.
Yet if my ex was still angry, I decided, that meant I’d been important to him, too. He was never a Svengali, seducing an innocent rube. I wasn’t victimized. If he was drawn to my youthful looks, I was lured by his experience and career, which I wound up usurping. For a second, the scenario made me proud of my lasting sexual power. I’d wanted him, had him, and hurt him worse than he’d hurt me — if he couldn’t even say hello after this long.
This story inspired Susan Shapiro’s new novel, “What’s Never Said,” available now on Amazon.