“Erin, can you stay after class today? I want to talk to you a minute.” We were shuffling around in a black-box theater, dusting off our jeans after lying on the floor trying to breathe ourselves two inches below the surface, tensing each muscle in our bodies in slow succession, imagining our animal selves. I picked a dust bunny off my thigh and tried to avoid making eye contact. “Sure, Scott,” I said quietly. “I mean, I guess I’ve got a minute.”
A first-year journalism student, I had credits to burn: As it turns out, hopeful new reporters aren’t expected to become experts in anything—except coaxing information out of subjects who do have expertise of one type or another, then digesting that information into something the average magazine-reading schmuck can understand and appreciate. As such, journalism school is a study in knowing a little bit about a lot of things, and academic requirements are as loosey-goosey as the romantic attachments of most undergraduate coeds. Requirements included one class each in math, economics, philosophy or religion, literature, social studies—and, broadly enough, “something art related.”
Acting is an art, I realized, and besides, shouldn’t every college student study just enough drama technique to be dangerous—or, at the very least, pretentious? So I signed up for Intro to Acting with 20 other credit-burning B.A. candidates, and Scott was our professor: An almost impossible cliché of the theater-department adjunct, whose deep eye contact and emotional connectedness practically shakes the knees right out from underneath any college-age heterosexual woman (not counting homosexual—and even several heterosexual—men).
You’d never think to call him “Professor” anything—he was Scott from the first moment he burst into the room. You also always wished he would ask to see you for a minute after class. That is, unless you were me.
It’s not that I wasn’t under some version of his spell. For one thing, I’m as warm-blooded as the next person; for another, the notion of simply being noticed has always sent shivers up my spine. And to be noticed by Scott meant more than just a cursory hello at the beginning of class: It meant being in the crosshairs of the most nutrient-dense sexual energy a person could possibly output. Even if he wasn’t sexually attracted to you, he wanted you to think he could be. An exciting idea in theory, but it was terrifying to me: At 18 I’d not so much as played Spin-the-Bottle before, let alone felt myself in the gravitational pull of a blindingly charismatic adjunct professor with the long hair and the sinewy arms. It was an undertow; he was dangerous. Anybody could see that.
But I guess I did have a minute to talk to Scott after class, so I agreed even though I sort of wished I had anywhere else to be. The rest of the class filed out slowly—no one ever wanted to walk quickly out of his sun spot—and he turned to me and jerked his thumb toward the door. “Take a walk with me? I have to get something from my office.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and bounced out of the room, maximizing the angelic effect of his chin-length curls. I shuffled behind.
We walked down a maze of corridors and stopped at his office door. “I share it with another adjunct,” he admitted somewhat wistfully. “So there isn’t much of ‘me’ in here.” (That’s all right, I thought. There’s plenty of you everywhere else.) I followed him into the room and let him close the door behind us. He motioned for me to sit down, dropped himself into the chair across the desk from me, and said, “Tell me about you. What makes you tick?”
As with every other question I’m ever asked in life—”Does this train go to Penn Station?” “Where can I get a good coffee around here?”—I was immediately rendered paralyzed by the fear of answering incorrectly. Jesus, he’s right—what does make me tick? What does “tick” even mean? Who am I? What am I doing here? Why is he staring at me like that?
I sat in stunned silence, my mouth open a little, a squeak escaping in his direction. “I… I guess I don’t know. Could you be more specific?”
He laughed. When Scott laughed, there was a sort of whiplashing of neck, head, and hair that happened: A riot of joyful noise and curls. It never seemed exactly genuine, but it still made you feel special. “I mean, what do you like to do? Where are you from? Are you dating anybody?”
“I’ve never dated anyone,” I blurted. “I’ve actually never even been kissed.” Why did I say that? His office had become a confession booth.
“Do you like anybody?” he asked.
“I mean, I don’t know. I guess?” I fidgeted, looking down at my hands restlessly bothering one another in my lap. “There’s a girl in my dorm?” I said it as a question because that’s exactly what it was: Though I’d been more or less out as queer in theory, there had been no opportunities to practice. Unrequited love and a lot of Ani DiFranco was the extent of my lesbian experience to that point; I felt ugly and phony and unloveable. Did the girl in my dorm even know I was alive? It was doubtful. And anyway, what was I doing talking to my acting professor about this?
“C’mon,” he said, grabbing a marbled composition book and rising to the door. “Let’s go for a walk. I want to talk to you.”
We stepped out of the building and walked over the quad; Scott had tucked the notebook under his arm, and his steps were long and gliding. I carried a bag full of awkwardly heavy textbooks, and stepped as brightly as I could to keep up. “I’m directing the student play next term,” he said as we walked. “It’s Henry V—and I want you to audition for it.”
I stopped walking for a moment and watched him stride ahead before jumping a little to catch up. “I’ve never auditioned for anything. I don’t know how to act, and I’d be too nervous to be any good. What the hell could I do in Henry V?”
We’d walked up to one of the classroom buildings, and he sat us on a bench in front which was half-obscured by overgrown shrubs. It smelled green and fresh, but felt claustrophobic. He turned a little to face me; his knee touched mine.
“I see something in you,” he said. “You’re special. You have energy and honesty. You have a spirit you need to share with the world.”
The bubble of tension burst and I laughed a little. “The world absolutely does not need me to share my spirit, Scott. I don’t have any acting talent at all. You see how nervous I am just in class, can you imagine me on stage with people who want to do this for a living? I couldn’t.”
“Please,” he said, gripping me by the shoulders. “Please promise me you’ll think about it. I need you in this show.”
“You do not need me in this show.”
“Just think about it.”
His hands felt enormous on my shoulders, fingers gripped just firmly enough to say, I’m serious about this. I’d never been touched that way by anyone before, never been stared at by a man with wide-open doe eyes, never been told the world needed me, never—
The hands squeezed, and the arms pulled me closer. Suddenly, his mouth was on mine, pressing and firm, lips to lips. Caught completely off-guard, I’d kept my eyes open; it was strange to see someone else’s face so close to my own, to smell his skin and that gorgeous hair. To wonder how long this would last. To wonder where it would go from here. To wonder where it could go from here, on this bench in front of Churchill Hall directly at the end of a class period, watching out of the corner of my eye while students filed past us through those big double doors.
His hands relaxed and he pulled away, slowly opening his eyes. “Promise me you’ll think about it.”
Just at that moment, I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant.