The Professor

At that time I was a student. I had a friend who was taking French classes and he says to come to this professor’s house for dinner. There would be a lot of people there. It was a party, he says. The professor has books and records just like you, he says. You guys will understand each other. I don’t think too much of it. See, I was doing a lot of my own work then--reading and writing. I didn’t get out much. It would be good to get out of my little apartment. It had cockroaches and the neighbor’s television made a muffled rumbling through the wall.

He lived nearby the university, this professor. I parked at a condo building and went to the front and buzzed and the door unlocked. Down the hallway I saw my friend standing in the professor’s doorway. He had a glass of red wine and jazz music was playing loudly from inside and you could hear all the voices.

The apartment was full of students, nearly all were guys. I didn’t know any of them. The place was furnished very Belle Epoque with gold trim and there were paintings on the walls and statues and vases and flowers and there was a grand piano near the door. The professor kept a beautiful place. You could see it meant something to him.

I followed my friend into the kitchen and he introduces me to this professor. The man is short and a little stout with carefully combed hair and he smiles easily. He was one of those older men of an indeterminate age and you could see his appearance meant something to him. He speaks with a French accent and while he’s pouring me a glass of red wine he says he’s heard a lot about me. I heard a lot about you too, I say. I don’t mean it though. I’m just being polite, you know. Have you really? He says it slowly and he smiles at my friend and looks back at me. He’s got a group of students around him waiting to be entertained and I excuse myself.

I didn’t like these other students much and the only girls to talk to were a little chubby so I started working on my drinking. I went out the sliding door by the piano and onto the veranda. There were potted flowers around it on the brick wall and there’s a glass table with a canopy and four chairs. It’s a clear, cool late-spring night and I sit down. I think I was drinking whisky now. Yes, it was whisky and good whisky too. Johnny Walker Black. At some point I must have gone back in and brought out the bottle.

I must have been sitting there and drinking whisky for awhile because I look inside and most of the students are gone. I saw my friend though talking to a tall skinny kid and I turned back to the bottle. It was good whisky and I was enjoying it. I must have been getting pretty drunk by this time too.

The veranda door slides open behind me and the professor comes out and he sits down. He’s got an empty glass with him. We don’t say anything and I pour him some whisky.

So tell me something about your growing up, I says. When I’ve been drinking I can be very direct with people.

I’ll tell you a story, says this professor. I’ll tell you about Andreas.

Go ahead, I says. I might as well listen. I’m drinking the man’s whisky, aren’t I?

It was summer and I was thirteen and we were on vacation at Cap d’Antibes, in France, he adds.

Yeah, I know where that is, I says. He may be a professor but I know things too.

I had a bad stutter then. I was without confidence. I did not have friends. I remember watching the boys in the park playing soccer. I have never played soccer. When you are of my class you do not play soccer. I remember two boys walking arm in arm along a road. They had back packs and they were going camping together. The professor stopped talking.

Go on, I says. Tell me about Andre.

Andreas, he corrects me. He was older than me. Sixteen. A German. His father had been killed in the war. He was on holiday too. He approached me in the town and it was the way he looked at me and wanted to talk to me--the way he listened to me--he made me feel special. My father told me every day that I was stupid. My mother ignored me and only talked of herself. I stuttered and had no confidence. But Andreas made me feel special. He was the first one.

That’s a good story, I says.

That is the beginning only, says the professor.

Then go on, I says. I pour up another glass for myself. The professor hasn’t touched his yet. There’s at least four more drinks left in the bottle.

Andreas invited me to go camping with him in the Midi-Alps. But first my parents want to meet him, so I invite Andreas to join us at the beach. My father was wounded badly in the war and he was always very against the Germans and I have not said that Andreas is German. I am very nervous about that. Andreas meets us at the beach and my father hears Andreas speak French with a German accent and he is very cold to him. My mother is polite, but it is awkward. Then my father removes his shirt to reveal his scars. I had never seen his wounds before. There are eight shiny, pink scars where the bullets went through his chest and out his back. My father takes off his pants and he is just in his underwear now and he has a prosthetic leg for the one that was amputated. He does not say anything. My father drops the leg at the feet of Andreas and he hops down the beach to the water.

The professor doesn’t say anything more. I don’t say anything either. There’s more to this story and I want him to go on.

Andreas and I went camping together. We walked up into the mountains and he made a fire and we ate together. Then in the tent he held me. He made me feel so good about myself. He told me how intelligent I was. It was the first time for me. This is something different than love. This is friendship. It is what two men can do together. You must understand that. Do you understand that?

Yes, I understand that, I says. I think I understand what he’s talking about but I’m not sure. Maybe this whisky has me confused. I stand up. The professor stands up too.

I remember going to the train station together, the professor continues. Andreas was returning to Germany. My mother came with us. I said goodbye to Andreas. He promised to write me letters. I watched him get on the train and I began to cry. My mother told me to stop.

The professor looked away distantly.

Then my mother turns to me and she says, Isn’t it funny to think that his father might have been the one to shoot your father in the war?

The professor looks like he’s about to cry. He looks like a little boy about to cry. His face is all tensed, about to give way.

When I got back to the villa my father took off his military belt and chased me through the rose garden.

I almost laughed. Imagine that one-legged guy hopping through a rose garden after a little boy with a belt. I could see it wasn’t funny though.

The professor’s eyes are wet and he looks away. We’re just standing there on the veranda. I didn’t know what to do. So I held him. I don’t know why I did it. I was drunk, I guess. Here I am in the middle of the night on a veranda embracing an old French professor. I can hear him sobbing. He’s got his arms around me and his face is buried where my shoulder meets my neck. I hold him and feel him heaving against me. He’s crying hard. The tears are coming out. I go on holding him. I hold him for the longest time.

Ushuaia, Argentina 2/23/2011

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