Her Voice Beyond Words
Her Voice Beyond Words
April 4, 2017
I have grown to dread the sight of Bess. It doesn’t make sense. These days, I rarely see her. But something has turned for me.
When she was in my class, several semesters ago, she practically ran the discussion. When we had advising sessions, we drifted off into chatting about our personal lives and ran long.
Lately, maybe it’s not fair, but in my mind, she seems to move inside a chaotic whirl, like the driver of an eighteen wheeler who glances in the rear view mirror to see nothing but a cloud of particles floating in the air, a natural consequence of moving through a space that had to be crossed, erasing the past, without much thought about what is in the trailing clouds of dust, a movement that brought on a certain kind of darkness, a movement that seemed both destructive and natural, a movement that seemed enough in and of itself at a moment in time, a movement that leaves all changed.
On a Friday afternoon, fairly recently, maybe several weeks ago, the Friday before Spring Break, after most students were already driving home or toward a beach on the gulf, after most faculty had left their offices, I was walking across campus, returning from a meeting, and I saw her coming down the sidewalk. It was dry and windy, chilly for March, cloudy. She smiled as she approached.
“Hello. Kind of a wasteland around here.”
“Not much life,” I said.
“Well, at least we had a little excitement lately.”
I assumed she was alluding to Cooper being led off campus, later being led in handcuffs from his home to the county jail. Maybe, this didn’t happen weeks ago. Maybe, it was after Spring Break. I can’t remember. I've lost the sequence of events. But, whenever it was, she seemed to be referring to the Cooper incident. So, it must have been after Cooper was escorted off campus, after he was arrested. I just can't remember.
She must have understood that I was confused, but she said nothing else. She just stood there, rocking a bit, back and forth, as if she were waiting for some guy to ask her to dance. It was awkward. I was still. Uncomfortable. In full sight, as if fixed by a pin inside a display case.
I never know whether I should continue the conversation as if I understood the reference, the unsaid, or ask questions, clarify, or simply ignore the suggestion until the other person is willing to make a direct, unambiguous statement. I constantly feel like people assume I know things I don’t know, and they are trying to tease information out of me without asking directly. I probably should be consistent. I probably should always ask, “What do you mean?” This might stop the vague references, the insinuations, the winks and nudges. I would develop a reputation of being a dull boy, a person who is incapable of understanding nuance, someone who probably doesn’t know anything that hasn’t already appeared in the newspaper or in an email on a campus-wide listserv. This might not be bad.
I just don’t know how to respond, so I say nothing. Every time, I wonder, How should I respond? What is expected? Then I say nothing.
I didn’t feel that I knew much about Cooper, only what I had heard from a few sources. It will appear in the press soon enough. Apparently, he had been meeting young women online. He arranged for one young woman, someone he thought was a woman of age, to meet him at his house. As it turned out, she was only fifteen, although it is not clear when Cooper learned this. It might have been after he was arrested. From what One source told me, someone who worked with him, who had visited him in jail, she looked older, acted more experienced, but this might have come from Cooper. She had disappeared. From her house, that is. To see Cooper. Her parents, who must have suspected something was up, maybe she was often ran off, got in trouble. Anyway, her parents, they used the GPS on her phone to track her down and sent the police to Cooper’s house. It’s unclear how, but they must have known she was meeting a man, an older man. The police were there, at his house, on the front porch, and he answered the door in a bathrobe with nothing underneath. The police found the young woman in a bedroom. She was fully clothed by the time the police got to her, but they suspected she had just quickly dressed while Cooper answered the door. When the police began to search the house, including everything on his computer, they found he had downloaded kiddie porn.
He didn't know it was there, so his friend said. He had a program set up to capture porn with a certain kind of fetish and automatically download it. The program had captured some kiddie porn. It was there, on his hard drive. Even if he didn’t know it was there, which might be true, even if he could prove it, that won’t help him in court. There is no defense for possession of kiddie porn. If you possess it, you are guilty. He is almost certainly going to jail, probably for several years.
All this happened after he was fired, after university police led him off campus. I have no idea if the two events are related or not. I am sure people on campus are talking, telling what they have heard, from any source, but that's all I've heard. I talked to that one friend, the one who had visited him in jail, by accident. In the grocery store. In front of the bananas.
I just haven’t been around. I have entered the underworld and plan to remain there as much as possible. I teach my class and go home. I cancelled faculty meetings until further notice. I have been telling the dean I am sick whenever we have chairs meetings. I think he is glad that I am not there. The dean. When I have to be on campus to do administrative tasks, I keep my door closed.
No one seems concerned that I have disappeared. The department moves along on its own momentum. The university is dealing with other issues. It’s odd how, when things are normal, you have these little problems that seem so important, and you do whatever it takes to deal with them, to solve them, patch things up, whatever. Then, you are in a major crisis, and nothing else seems to matter but the crisis. There’s usually nothing you can do about the crisis, but you drop everything, focus all of your attention on it, trying to figure out what to do, even nothing can be done, even if all you can figure out is to sit still in the dark, and all the other problems, the normal things that once seemed to be so important, are ignored, and nothing happens. Everything seems to go on as if there were no crisis, like there were some sort of invisible hand that keeps driving everything forward. A force.
So, Bess said something about excitement.
Eventually, I responded, “Oh?” That’s what I came up with. A single syllable void of semantic content. Little more than a grunt.
“That thing, you know. I was referring to that thing." She said it and then smiled a little, as if she were prompting my faulty memory. I decided to act like I knew that she meant Cooper. The thing must be Cooper.
“I heard about that.”
“Seems like there is no official comment. I guess that’s typical. But there’s a lot of buzzing here and there. Stories in the dorms. Stories in cafeteria. Stories. Some pretty interesting stuff.” My mind was unfocused, as it usually was on a Friday afternoon. Instead of processing what Bess was trying to say, and why she felt a need to tell me anything about rumors, I was lingering on “stuff” and thinking about how so many of our smartest students will cap off a brilliant statement with a mind-numbing colloquialism. I was somewhere else, wandering.
Bess took my silence, I think, as an invitation to stand there, as if we were having a conversation, as if we would receive something important. Later, I thought that maybe she was waiting for me to compliment her for her part in all of it, when I didn’t really know how involved she had been, or if she had been involved at all. All I knew is that people thought she was involved, probably a lot of people, including the dean. I wish I had been more present, more in the moment. Eventually, I gathered myself a bit. I said, “I haven’t heard anything. Good to see you. Have a nice weekend.” Something to end it. I started to walk on.
“I’m sure most of it is not true, but the one that keeps coming up is the one about the Craig’s List ad. One of those ‘mating’ ads.”
“Mating?” I was only a few steps away, so I turned, stopped.
“Oh, that’s what I call it. Dating, I guess. I heard a student followed up on the ad and found out who was behind it and sent it directly to the president. A whole series of emails. On his university email account.”
“I haven’t heard anything.”
“There’s probably more to it. If that part’s true. Who knows?”
“It’s not something I would know about.” Bess gave me a half smile that was completely inscrutable.
“Good seeing you,” she said.
It was ended, then, as if it had been the most normal conversation, as if we had been chatting about some sappy Hollywood rom-com.
She turned and began to walk away. I stood frozen, watching her, thinking that, then, just then, I saw some of that dust swirling behind her.
Friday night, all day Saturday, I thought about that exchange, wondering if I should try to find the ad. If Cooper did place an ad, if it were compromising, if it were part of a scandal, a police matter, surely it would have been taken down. I suppose I should have taken the high road here, but I didn’t.
Though I resisted for a few days, I went looking in the dating section of Craig’s List. I started to understand the “mating” reference. It was clear, after looking at only a handful of ads, that Craig’s List is the last refuge of dating, the final destination for people who wanted to make pitches that would be banned on every other commercial site. I’ll spare you specific descriptions and just say that there were photos of body parts without heads and a little text. Among this mass of crude solicitations, there was one, only one, that was all text, foreign to its surroundings. It was a story, one that almost seemed to have been written by thirteen year old boy:
On this autumnal day, as the leaves are beginning to change into a beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows, I am walking from my office, across the quad on campus, yes, I am a professor at the university. I am struck by the beauty of the season and tantalized by the chill in the air. I sense it all. As beautiful as the leaves are, as happy as I am to be in this sea of colors, I have to admire the young smart women as they walk to their next class. Such beauty surrounds me. I am overwhelmed. I am writing this for you—just for you. I know that there is a way we can meet. I have things, learned from many cultures, much travel, that I can share with you. I know things. This can be our time together. Let’s make the most of it. Send me a message and a photo at blah, blah, blah.
I may not remember it word for word, but it was something like that. This must have been the ad that Bess alluded to. God, what sappy drivel. It was hard to imagine this was written by a professor in his fifties. It was hard to imagine that he was taking this kind of chance with his career. Bess said that she heard this had something to do with Cooper being fired. Combined with some sort of chain of emails with a female student.
It makes sense that she could have heard about the ad. I am sure that students would see things like this and wonder who the professor was, maybe make some conjectures about the source, based entirely on how the professor acted around female students in class, during conferences in their offices, during chance encounters off campus. But who would know about the email chain? I guess Bess could have heard about it from the student who was involved with Cooper, but it seems like that person wouldn’t have gone around bragging about it. I started to wonder if Bess hadn’t baited the guy, sent him some emails, starting a long exchange of messages. Maybe, she even set up a meeting and taped it. Maybe, she had a friend photograph it. She could have collected a mass of documents and then sent them to someone in the administration. . . . I know. I am probably paranoid. I have lost all sense of what is normal. In chaos, and it feels like we are in chaos, the sensational seems reasonable. Fake news seems not much different than real news.
I don’t really know anything, so I shouldn’t say anything. I shouldn’t assume I know anything about Bess or what she might have done. I’ve become as bad as anyone else. The culture on campus seems to breed hysteria. Our normal routines have been shattered. We have seen the dark underbelly of what goes on in any organization. Instead of being absorbed in a daily routine, people are asking, “What else is going on?” Their view of reality has turned inside out. It will feed on itself for a long time.