In the backyard, a hammock stretched between two trees like a fishing net. It was just before our speech communications department’s welcome potluck with fruit-in-wiggly-Jell-O and foil-covered casseroles and jalapeño-cheddar burgers. Amy, the director, was sick. So, Christopher, the assistant director, had hosted it. Out by the hammock, he asked one of the new graduate students if she wanted to have a threesome with him and his fiancé. She walked away.
When it happened, I was looking through the porch’s screen. My girlfriend Lauren and I were ready to eat. The evening tinted darker despite flames licking out of the fire pit.
I found porn on my computer, Lauren texted.
I had checked the time on my phone as I made copies of rubrics for class. I wondered what the porn was and how I hadn’t deleted it. I didn’t use my laptop for the Internet, only Lauren’s which was always on. I always covered my tracks by clearing history, emptying cookies, and refreshing the cache. I never downloaded anything and never paid for anything. The laptop had pop-up software and virus detectors. It almost would have been easier to deny the porn if I could pass it off as randomly appearing. Without more information, I needed to be vague.
Do you know anything about this? Lauren texted.
What?! I texted back and then turned off my phone and shoved it in my pocket.
One of my students was advocating for emergency poles on campus. Her plan for installing poles in the line of sight all around campus made sense. Then she began to list off other colleges to support her argument. While our university was a public research school, the ones she used were historically women-only private institutions.
I’d had another female student attempt to turn in a persuasive topic calling all women to not walk alone at night. In office hours, I had asked her if our town was unsafe. And were only women at risk? I didn’t ask if all crime—want of money, want of flesh, want of power—was mostly done by men. The girl changed her topic to suggest every college student not walk alone.
During the emergency pole speech, I didn’t interrupt. I let her finish. The class applauded as they always did. I wrote on the notes section of her rubric: So, are men the real problem?
“It was some lesbians fucking with a dildo,” Lauren said. “I deleted it.”
I had just come home and before taking my shoes off said that it was wild that stuff was on the laptop. I wanted to say I didn’t know what it was, but I didn’t want to lie to Lauren. I remembered a brief clip that had opened in Windows Media Player that I had closed.
Two nude women sucked on an electric blue dildo before taking turns plunging it into each other. I can’t remember if it was Alexis Texas with an ass the size of the Lone Star State or Shyla Stylez still moving her worn out body or Phoenix Marie who keeps coming back after getting pounded, but one of the two was curvy and had dyed-blonde hair.
The other woman was dark-haired, flat-chested, and thin and acted more aggressive to make up for what she lacked physically. It could have been Jenna Haze with her bugged-out eyes or Sasha Grey with her I-don’t-give-a-fuck/fuck-me nose flare or Belladonna with her cum-slurping gap-toothed mouth. There were too many possibilities. I knew too many porn stars.
I was turned on thinking about the clip. Then I noticed that Lauren looked ashamed, like she didn’t measure up to something she thought I wanted, and then I felt as ashamed as she looked. I didn’t say anything else.
My buddy Nate, another speech teacher, had met Andrea, an undergrad, on the city bus to school. She was shorter than him. Nate was short and didn’t want to be with a taller woman. I told him I didn’t mind Lauren being almost as tall as me. He said I was already tall and not only was Andrea short, she was a bombshell, clever, and going to be an elementary school teacher like his mom. I didn’t mention that bombs exploded, that clever wasn’t smart, and Oedipal issues might be a problem. Andrea moved in with Nate.
One night, Andrea texted Nate: That was too much meat.
He asked her about it, and she said that she meant a sandwich, it was supposed to be sent to a friend, it was nothing.
At home, Nate went through Andrea’s Facebook. She’d left herself logged in on her laptop. He found message after message from other guys who wanted to make plans to fuck her, at Nate’s place, in their bed, while he was teaching during the day or the nights he played basketball with me.
Nate tore apart their mattress and kicked Andrea out.
Now, I wonder if Nate ever worried about what he would find. Once I had gone through Lauren’s journal thinking that she didn’t love me. Instead, I found that she thought I was too good for her. She wrote that sometimes she went through the pages of writing on my desk to see if I mentioned her so she could figure out what I saw in her.
I asked Lauren to use a password to lock her laptop so I wouldn’t waste time on the Internet. What I meant was that I didn’t want to stream porn videos on tube sites whenever I had free time at home. As much as I had liked the control of seeing whatever I could imagine, I didn’t like how I felt those images were controlling me.
Occasionally when Lauren and I had sex, an image—a veiny cock pumping between two tits or something—would flash in my mind, and I knew I could use it to finish. If I did, then I felt distanced from Lauren. If I didn’t, then I couldn’t always finish and I didn’t want Lauren to think I didn’t want her.
I would flip Lauren’s laptop’s screen up when she was gone. Instead of the blue login screen, sometimes the desktop background showed our cat sprawled on a quilt. I would feel like Lauren wasn’t helping me to stop so I might as well watch some porn because I couldn’t help myself. Of course, I could have not checked to see if I could do something that I didn’t want to do. Of course, I could have turned on my laptop’s Wi-Fi and logged in. Of course, I didn’t.
I had my routine of shutting the living room’s blinds, kneeling in front of Lauren’s laptop on a coffee table, sifting through videos, unbuttoning my jeans, and finishing in my hand. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I wanted to distract myself from my thesis. Maybe I didn’t want to stop.
At the beginning of my second semester of teaching, I received a stack of my evaluations in sealed envelopes. One of them read, I would give him my #, but….
The evals were supposed to be anonymous, but I knew the loopy gel-pen script was Aubrie’s. Aubrie was a freckly freshman who wore skinny jeans. She was weird in a cool/smart way. In high school she would have been called alternative, geeky, a spaz, and probably accepted in each of those cliques.
I didn’t know whether to take Aubrie’s note seriously. If it was true, I would have felt good. I was wanted and Aubrie probably wanted me to want her.
I didn’t know whether I should have contacted her. Aubrie was probably someone who didn’t often feel wanted. But our semester was over and the new one had begun. Should I have told Aubrie I had a girlfriend? Should I have explained how her note was a compliment? Should I have apologized about giving any signals to her?
Instead of telling, explaining, or apologizing to Aubrie, I brought my evals home to show to Lauren. Jealous rage flushed across her face. It was a mistake to share Aubrie’s note even as a joke. Lauren asked me who she was. I said I thought she was one of my smartest kids. I didn’t call Aubrie a girl, or even a woman. Lauren bit her cheek. I threw away all my evals.
I watched the screen’s blackness, as a piano plunked dun-dun, dun-dun, dum. The notes repeated at the opening of a compilation video tribute to Ava Addams. Spliced-together clips showed Ava performing: squeezing a bottle of baby oil, pressing against floor-to-ceiling windows, kneeling on carpet, throwing a leg onto a kitchen counter, and sprawling on a bed. She had a clover tattoo over her shaved pussy and a dinner-plate sized yin-yang above her ass. The soundtrack added a clap, clap-clap.
Ava never closed her mouth. She stuck her tongue out. She didn’t make eye contact with her co-stars. She closed her eyes or she glanced into the camera’s lens, at me, and turned on a smile.
The video was as fake as all that, except for two moments that stopped me:
A singer whispered, “The devil makes us sin, / but we like it when we’re spinning in his grip.” Ava moved into a bathroom alone. The camera followed. A lock of her dyed black hair fell from behind her ear and curled over the top of her bare breast. Ava attempted to hoist a pale yellow, too-tight corset. Her droopy eyes made her look tired. Her mouth was closed. She scrunched the side of her cheek, frowning. She was almost stuck, but then she slid the lace edge up.
Later, the low squeal of feedback swirled like Lauren’s overheating laptop’s fan. In another bathroom, Ava flipped her hair over her shoulder, getting it away from the mess on her face. She pulled a hand towel from the wall. She wiped off her nose and mouth and chin. She made eye contact with herself in the mirror and then glanced away.
I finished even though I didn’t want to.
Jamie acted motherly with her speech students, like they were children, like they were the little daughter she was raising mostly by herself. In our shared office, with my back to her desk, I would hear Jamie sympathize, “Oh, honey….” Usually, I got up and walked around the building, hoping the student would leave by the time I got back.
Once, when I returned, Jamie told me that one evening when everyone else was gone, Christopher, the assistant director, had come into our office, shut the door behind him, pressed her up against the wall, kissed her, and—
I didn’t want to know anything more. I said I would have to report the conduct because it shouldn’t have been happening. What seemed odd is that Jamie had been smiling when I stopped her. She seemed to enjoy telling me about what happened. It seemed she wasn’t telling about assault but sharing attention she was glad to have gotten.
“That video was mine,” I said back at home. I had been thinking about how to tell Lauren for a while. It had been months since she found the porn.
Lauren knew what I was talking about. She hadn’t forgotten. On our couch, I put my head in Lauren’s lap because I didn’t want her to get up and leave. I didn’t want to see the reaction in her face. I didn’t think I could look her in the eye.
“It’s not something I want on my computer,” Lauren said. “I know there are couples who use it together, but—”
“No,” I said. I hated that I had started to get turned on when she said that.
“It made me feel self-conscious like, ‘Is that something he wants?’”
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I didn’t say I would stop.
“First world problems,” Lauren said.
“You know you can talk to me directly about this?” Amy said.
I sat in her corner office at the end of the year. Her nameplate under Director of Speech Communication was going to be removed soon since she was becoming a dean. The door was closed like our conversation wouldn’t go anywhere else.
I had already spoken to another speech professor, and he had told me that Christopher had “boundary issues” before. The professor asked me to talk to Amy. I wondered how many other times she had heard something, but hadn’t dealt with Christopher.
“Actually,” I said. “At, first, I didn’t tell you because I thought you already knew and wouldn’t do anything, or you didn’t want to know and wouldn’t do anything.”
There wasn’t anything to do. Christopher was leaving to attend a PhD program so he could become a program director and Jamie was graduating. He was never Jamie’s boss and never graded her, so unless she told Amy that what was happening was wrong, it wasn’t.
At dusk, a truck’s headlights flashed in my rearview. The truck didn’t seem to be there until its front bumper edged toward my back bumper. The driver wanted me to go faster.
I was in the right hand lane. I was going back home to Lauren. I tapped my brakes.
The truck swerved into open space in the left lane and then pulled around me back into the right lane. At the next street, the driver exited. He did all of it without a blinker, like he didn’t even need to signal, because he should be able to do what he wants to do whenever, wherever.