'What This Is' a new story by Allee Richards

You are meeting with your PhD supervisor. You’re in his office – there’s a desk, books, framed degrees, and a wife, also framed. And there’s you and your supervisor seated on opposite sides of his desk. You’ve just completed the first confirmation for your PhD. Confirmation had once made you think of young girls in white tulle dresses, of people who have faith. At university, confirmation is when the school deems whether or not your research is viable to continue. It may not be if your theory isn’t new enough, or your proposal is too ambitious or it’s half-cooked, or maybe you’ve not been working hard enough, or maybe you’re a stupid girl. There are a number of reasons why the university may not have faith in you.

You’re in your supervisor’s office, your supervisor is the head of your department, and he tells you the university has faith in you, confirmed. You can keep writing your PhD and you are joyous, relieved and proud. You clap your hands once and hold them flat together in front of your mouth, a prayer position. Your supervisor, Nicholas, lifts his hand high above his desk and drops his pen dramatically. He pushes his chair back like the case is closed – you’re a genius, confirmed. You each stand and you walk beside the desk and you hug. You’re close with your supervisor, you drink espressos and have in-jokes, but this is the first time that you’ve hugged. It feels appropriate. You are so happy.

You go to pull away from the hug, but he doesn’t. You pull again and he holds tighter. Your PhD supervisor, the head of your department, Nicholas, whispers in your ear, ‘You are so beautiful,’ and he kisses you on the mouth.

On the mouth, he kisses you.

You are twenty-five years old.

You tell your supervisor you have to leave. You’re walking out the door and you hear Nicholas say, ‘You’ve made me so happy.’

He’s said this to you before – when you first proposed your project; when you drew unique parallels between different areas of research in your field; and when you submitted sample chapters well ahead of your timeline, satisfactory sample chapters. Not long after the first time you’d met in his short fiction class, he told you he found your stories charming – you were so proud. He told you your work was publishable – you were so excited. When he told you he was willing to be your supervisor you were flattered. The head of the school was offering to be your supervisor, you were that good. Confirmed – smart and talented. He gave you work as a tutor in the department even before you’d completed your PhD or published a book, he thought you were that good. He had made you so happy.

Remember. Eleven years old, a Westfield shopping centre, an older man whistles at you. You were wearing a knee-length denim skirt and a jacket, also denim, with a pink flower embroidered on the pocket. It was an appropriate outfit for an eleven year old. An older man, maybe forty, whistled at you. He had a big beard, was fat and also wore double-denim. It’s comical to you now how much this memory fits the cliché of a paedophile. You wonder if maybe he didn’t look like that, maybe you just remember it that way because of what happened, because of the wolf-whistling. Remember your mother clutched your hand and linked your forearm under hers, bringing you close to her handbag. Her steps shortened and fastened, a hurried walk.

Usually you take the tram to school, but today you are walking, using this time to rehearse the short speech you wrote and then memorised last night. Lots of famous writers talk about the importance of walking, it’s how the great novels were made.

You are capable of doing this because you’re an intelligent woman. You know this. Nicholas is a great man; therefore, he could only be attracted to women who are smart too. He wouldn’t sacrifice the quality of the course by offering a tutoring role to somebody incapable. He is a great man and he offered you a job because he thinks you’re intelligent. And now that’s why he has feelings for you.

You feel guilty, as you always do before you reject someone.

You’re in his office and you tell him that while you respect him greatly, great respect for his work, this professional admiration should not be confused for anything else. You say you are not interested in his pursuit. You say that even if you were interested, you would never act on any feelings because you respect his wife greatly and because he has a child on the way. You remind him that relationships between supervisors and students are banned at the university. This last point means almost nothing to you. You fucked a tutor once and it didn’t bother you at all that he had a wife and a job, because he was hot and you were horny. But Nicholas is your supervisor, the head of your school, and your boss, and you don’t want to unkindly reject your boss. Or your supervisor. Or the husband of the publishing director of a major Australian publishing house.

At the end of your speech you breathe, an exhale worthy of a yoga instructor. High with relief, you close your eyes and wait.

Nicholas tells you he thinks about going down on you. You say, ‘What?’ Or maybe you just think, what? But your expression tells something. Your eyes are open again, and he goes on. He speaks of fantasies of giving you oral sex. He imagines your pussy is shaved. In his dreams you taste like cherries, he tells you.

You had told yourself to prepare for the worst, to expect it.

You hadn’t expected this.

You are seated on a rolling chair, which Nicholas takes with one hand, bringing you close to him. With his other hand he places a finger inside the waistband of your skirt and you react, finally you start to move. He holds the chair tighter. He leans in close and looks at you; he looks down your skirt. You smack his forearms. You push your feet hard against the floor forcing the chair away, like how you used to play on office rolling chairs when you were a child, like they were bumper cars. You say, ‘No.’ Firmly, like you’re talking to a dog. ‘No.’

Nicholas sits down and hangs his head low, comically deflated, like he’s trying to count his chest hairs. He asks if you think of him as a dirty, unattractive man.

You have offended him. You have offended the man who offered to supervise you for your PhD, who gave you marks high enough to get a scholarship, who gave you a job tutoring in your school. This man has done so much for you.

Now, he is doing this.

You concentrate on making your voice kind, the way you usually speak, when you remind him about the rules at the university. You look to the old, leather-bound books on the shelf behind him as you speak. You remind him of the rules at the university.

Nicholas asks you to tell him a secret. Again, you either ask, ‘What?’ or your expression shows it and he goes on. He clarifies he would like it to be a naughty secret, something you’ve never told anybody else. His head is lifted now, eager and expectant.

You think of listening to Hoa having sex, of the times when she brings women home and you listen, touching yourself on the other side of the wall.

You know you will never tell Nicholas this. You sit silently, staring at the framed wife. She’s sitting at a desk in the photo, behind her is a bookshelf. It would be a demanding job being a publisher, you think. Nicholas must be a supportive husband.

You say something inaudible when you leave this time.

Remember.Thirteen, at the Grantville Show. Rickety death-trap rides on a dusty oval in Grantville, Victoria; a shithole town. You were at the show with your friend and you went to purchase tickets to take the rides, it was 2003 and they were three dollars each. The man selling the tickets had grey stubble and a grey ponytail, faded grey jeans. He was heavily wrinkled, but you could somehow tell he was pretty young. He gave you reels of tickets and didn’t charge you – ‘You, my girl, can ride the rides for free.’ Remember you and your friend laughed at the absurdity of this ugly, old-looking man hitting on a thirteen-year-old, and remember you rode all of the rides for free. The long thread of paper tickets was looped around your hand twice, like big bow loops, the ones you called rabbit ears. They flew behind you like bike streamers while you rode the fast rides and in the background there was the sound of ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

At home you tell Hoa what happened; the first and second times. She’s standing next to the stove, staring at you as she picks pieces of broccoli from a hot pan. You wonder how she’s not burning her fingers.

‘That’s horrible,’ she says. And you agree – it’s horrible.

Hoa says, ‘So he like actually likes Celine Dion then?’ And then you both laugh. You laugh until eventually you’re crying. You can’t breathe and you’re worried you might choke and you laugh harder. Hoa plays Celine Dion and you sing along, silly and cheesy, like girls in a tampon commercial. Hoa holds the wooden spoon to her mouth, using it like a microphone in between poking at the lentils and broccoli on the stove.

Months ago Nicholas had sent you an email – Was very happy after our meeting today, below are some links I think you’ll enjoy.

You replied, Thanks, automatically before you bothered opening the links, assuming they were more articles on wayward nuns in medieval literature. When you eventually got around to opening them you learned they were links to songs on YouTube: ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’, a country song with an epic string crescendo warning against falling in love with women with cropped haircuts; ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion; and Beyoncé’s ‘Love On Top’. You had shown Hoa the links and the two of you laughed thinking Nicholas had been trying to be cool, a hip supervisor, down with the kids. You’d thought he’d been trying to solidify a friendship. You’d danced to the songs in Hoa’s bedroom admiring the flagrant key changes.

More recently, when planning the presentation for your PhD confirmation, at the end of a meeting Nicholas asked you what you were planning on wearing to the confirmation. You admitted, truthfully, that you hadn’t thought about it. You asked if there was anything that you should wear and your supervisor said, ‘No.’ He left a pause before he added, ‘Just make sure it’s fucking sexy.’

You told the anecdote to Hoa just last week. You added that Nicholas was pretty old, pretty weird. You mentioned how his wife was pregnant and you wondered if he was catching some weird hormones from her. Also he grew up in a different generation and maybe he was actually advising you that it would be best for your career if you dressed scantily clad for the panel.

That could still be true. It really might help your chances if you dress sexy.

Hoa asked if it seemed as though he was hitting on you and you said no, truthfully. He had kept his eyes on his computer screen when he said it.

Hoa said, ‘Yeah, old men are weird, dude.’ And then, ‘Eight minutes for an Uber? Is this the third world?’

It’s a joke. A year ago you were both working in a large restaurant with a swanky clientele, the escalator at the restaurant had broken and an old, wealthy customer complained, ‘It’s like the third world here.’ The two of you started saying it ironically, voices heightened and laughing. Now the phrase has transitioned into your vernacular so well that any outsider would think that it’s just the way you talk, that you’re dim-witted girls.

Remember. Your first summer with boobs. A full two cups more than the small, fleshy buds of the previous summer. The local kids in the town where your family holidays talk about how you, ‘Got hot’. You know you look the same as last summer, just with the additional quality masturbation has given you – a new translucent layer of sexuality, like eyes glazed over or filled with tears. And the boobs, of course. All summer local boys want to kiss you and all summer you kiss only one boy. You’re attainable, but only just.

You are at university again. Again, you have walked. A lot of writers talk about the importance of walking, it creates genius. Before walking through the campus gates, far from his office, you take your phone from your pocket and turn the microphone on. You think about commercial news sources that describe Gen Y as tech-savvy. You think about the St Kilda schoolgirl, how Ricky Nixon said she doctored the footage.

In his office, Nicholas says he is so happy to see you. You tell him those words make you very uncomfortable. You tell him you’re uncomfortable about everything. Repeat – uncomfortable.

‘I am so unhappy,’ you say.

And he, suddenly, looks unhappy himself. He asks if he should not have kissed you. You feel your pocket for the outline of your phone then quickly move your hand away again. You answer, ‘Yes.’ You try as hard as you can to remain calm, to remain kind, and you repeat, ‘Yes,’ he should not have kissed you.

He tells you he has strong feelings for you. You think, I am smart; he cannot have feelings for me if I’m not smart. You think about the shaved pussy he described. You tell him the feelings are not reciprocated.

‘You should hear how the other men in the department talk about you.’ He tells you they comment on your body and the way that you dress.

Two months ago, after breaking up with your boyfriend, you came to campus in a tracksuit and no makeup and Nicholas had said that you should make sure you look respectable at school. He’d made you feel bad and since then you’ve been wearing lipstick to your meetings.

You look down at your legs now. The skirt you’re wearing is long, it’s fitted, but it’s not revealing. Your thighs are relaxed over the edge of the office chair making them look huge. You apologise and leave his office. On your walk home you stop at the supermarket and buy a tube of Clearasil and a bulk-buy box of cotton tips.

At home you reread the second chapter of your book along with Nicholas’s comments from months ago. The chapter details a lesbian sex scene. You’d wanted to make sure the sex was real and vital to the story and didn’t read like porn written for the pleasure of men. You spent a long time on the sentence describing the lips nibbling the clitoris. The two of you had discussed the word suckle, how it reminded you of breast feeding, but how that movement of the mouth was exactly what you wanted to describe. Nibbling reminded you of carrots, which wasn’t appropriate.

This is what you do. This is your work.

Nicholas assured you it wasn’t smut; you weren’t E.L. James. He said you were a great writer and that you’d made him, ‘So happy’.

Hoa read the chapter and said it was definitely like porn, but that didn’t mean it was written for men. She told you she took your chapter to bed.

You open every past assignment you wrote during your undergraduate degree. You read every piece of feedback and criticism that every tutor ever gave you. One essay is graded at ninety-one per cent, the teacher loved the themes and loved your style. At the top of one paragraph he has underlined the opening sentence and commented, This sentence doesn’t read well. You read over his words. You read over the sentence. He was right, the sentence doesn’t read well. You go to the next assignment in the pile and read through other teachers’ comments.

All the while you’re running one hand over your face, feeling for lumps. Before going to bed you stand in your bathroom leaning close to the mirror. You take your time squeezing exact, infinitesimal spots of cream on to your finger and then the cotton tip and then your face. Eventually your reflection is speckled white, like food just beginning to mould.

Remember. Eighteen, the first week you had your driver’s license. You stopped to fill up at night and when you pulled out of the petrol station onto the highway you forgot to turn your lights back on. Only five minutes later a policeman pulled you over. You were in the car with a friend, also pretty. The policeman was young and unimpressed. He asked if you knew how to drive. You made a slightly sad face while he reprimanded you, and then you apologised, ‘Sorry officer’. People don’t really call cops officer in Australia, it’s pretty American. The cop continued to reprimand you, but he didn’t give you any demerit points or a fine, which would’ve been several hundred dollars. ‘You obviously need to learn how to drive,’ he said, ‘You need to be taught.’

You continue to work on your PhD. You avoid Nicholas now, no espressos, but you still meet with him as is necessary to continue your research. You act like everything is as it was before. It’s not the same, this is acting. Nicholas gives you feedback on your work, praise and criticism as required. He must be acting, you think. You think, maybe he always was.

You sit in his office, on opposite sides of the desk, Nicholas stares at his computer while he comments on your work. You stare at Nicholas, one hand running around the edge of your jaw, and back again. Often Nicholas will raise his eyes above you, looking past you to the office door, which is wide open, he nods to the men walking behind you. It seems as though these men, his colleagues, the other men in the department, are walking by in a constant stream, like goldfish continually circling a small plastic castle turret. At the end of your meetings, you go to the bathroom and lean in close to the mirror.

Each day, when you come home from university, Hoa asks you if Nicholas ‘Got fiddly’ today. You answer, ‘No’, and then you apologise, because you’ve been too firm. You often catch yourself speaking like this now, blunt and loud, like you’re talking to a dog or to children who need to be bossed around because they don’t understand anything.

Hoa says ‘That’s good’, and you agree it’s a good thing. She asks you if Nicholas is, ‘Like, hot at all?’

‘Intellectually amazing, physically repulsive,’ you say.

‘Damn,’ she says. You say it’s a good thing.

It is a good thing.

Remember. First meeting Hoa, waitressing at a popular restaurant in Richmond. The menu had fifteen kinds of chicken parmigiana and they worked you to the bone, eight-hour shifts without a break. You were only paid fourteen dollars an hour, but your tips were good. At first you averaged eighty dollars a night and you’d thought that was good. One night when counting your tips you noticed Hoa had at least twice that amount. She’d worked there a lot longer than you and she could recite all fifteen parmigianas as listed on the menu. Remember you said, ‘Wow, look at your tips.’ She moved her arms out to her sides, bundles of cash in each hand, and pressed her chest out to you, a stance full of arrogance, like some dickhead dude impersonating a bimbo. Remember you said, ‘Wow, look at your tits.’ From then on you stopped wearing a bra at work. At the end of each night the two of you would sit in the emptied restaurant surrounded by tables and upturned chairs. You smoked and drank margaritas. You made piles with your notes and coins. Hoa would say, ‘Check out these tits’, and you’d both laugh, like gross men seated around a poker table.

You are going interstate to a publishing conference where you will be speaking on a panel. Also speaking over the weekend will be Nicholas and many other published authors, publishers and general literary hotshots. Nicholas knows all of these people and can get you connected, it’s a big opportunity for you.

You speak well. At one point you hear someone in the audience say, ‘Oh’, impressed by your observation. You make a joke and more than a few people laugh.

You watch Nicholas on many of these panels. It seems he is friends with everyone he speaks with, but you already knew that. They rub shoulders, like literally they put their arms around one another’s shoulders and rub them together. When they talk about books there’s always an anecdote like, ‘I read the last word and phoned John at home right away.’ Frequently, Nicholas’s anecdotes are about his wife like, ‘That’s what my wife says about monks in crime fiction.’ People like it when he says that, people like her. It seems everyone is her friend, but you already knew that. After one mention of his wife he looks at you, briefly. He looks pathetic, embarrassed, ashamed, and sad, briefly. You wonder if he feels guilty. You wonder if his wife has a shaved pussy. Then you wonder if she doesn’t, and if that’s why he wants you to. She can’t be at the conference because she’s heavily pregnant. You’ve seen her pregnant, she’s naturally thin and rocks the big belly.

You’re wearing designer jeans and a shirt buttoned at the collar. You’re also wearing heels and carrying a leather handbag, which makes you feel like a child playing dress ups. Watching the women at the conference, you decide heels and handbags make women look like children toddling around wishing they were bigger and smarter.

You watch Nicholas laughing with a Booker Prize winning author, a woman. She’s attractive and not in the bookish way, but in the conventional way. She looks like she could be in porn, which is weird for a literary author. You watch her and Nicholas laughing together on a panel. You think, check out those tits. After their discussion there’s an audience Q&A. You imagine walking to the microphone and asking, ‘Have you guys fucked?’ You imagine the silence that would follow the simple question and then you imagine screaming, ‘Have you guys fucked yet? What fruit does her pussy taste like, Nick? Did you lap it up?’ You imagine screaming like a banshee, a madwoman-shrew. There are plenty of those in literature, in the classics nonetheless.

You don’t hear the questions other people ask. Once it’s over you realise you’ve hardly paid attention to any of the panel – you stupid girl.

One panel is on female representation on prize lists and in reviews. Nicholas advocates for female voices to be heard. He says how he stopped saying ‘authoress’ when a colleague, a colleague, told him she didn’t like the gendered term. Nicholas talks about how he is aware when he refers to a female colleague as an author that he is still using a gendered term. And he worries about offending women. You’d never heard the word authoress before now.

Between panels you take your big handbag to the bathroom.

At the end of the day the literary hotshots are going out for drinks and you are invited to join them. It’s a big opportunity for you. You could snag a book deal if you drink slowly and laugh at the right moments. If you play your cards right, you could snag a book deal.

You fast-forward in your mind – eventually this evening will come to an end, it will be dark, you will be tipsy at least, at some point you will need to walk or get a cab home. You are staying at the same hotel, the one the university booked for the both of you. You decline to go for drinks.

You spend the night on a soft double bed watching UK crime TV shows; the kind that are as entertaining as trash TV, without being trash. Between episodes you wash your face and chat to Hoa online.

He gotten fiddly?

No.

Any other hot professors there? Anyone bangable?

No.

I’m sorry dude.

Me too.

Hours after you’ve left the conference, at 1am, the phone on your nightstand rings. You haven’t heard a landline ring in so long and the sound is shrill. You get a fright, probably because of the crime on TV. The phone shows you the room number of the caller – Nicholas. You don’t answer the call. It rings out and there’s a slight pause, before it starts ringing all over again, like a hiccup that breaks up wailing.

You realise that Nicholas could walk to your room and knock on your door. You realise he could go to reception and tell the receptionist he’s worried you’re not answering his calls. You realise he could actually be worried. You realise, as he is your professor, your boss at the university, the university that booked the hotel for the both of you, he could express his concern to the concierge and get a key to your room, to his student’s room. You take a dining chair and jam it under your door. You sleep the whole night with the chair jammed under the door. You hardly sleep at all.

In the cab on the way to the airport the next day you are quiet. You rub your hands over your face, paying close attention to your hairline, feeling for what’s wrong there. Nicholas asks you what you’re doing and you say you have a headache. He offers you a massage and you decline.

When you get to the airport you head straight to the bathroom. When you return Nicholas asks you why you always take your handbag to the bathroom and you tell him it’s because of your period. ‘I basically always have my period,’ you say, hoping it will repulse him.

Remember – riding your bike home after spending a night drinking with friends. You were stopped at traffic lights on your bike and a pedestrian walking by, a young man, told you that he wished he were your bike so that you would straddle him. You called him a fucking creep. Spat it at him, with harshness that was foreign to you. And he said, ‘Shut up bitch. I’ve hit girls that are uglier than you.’ You rode home indignant. He hit girls that were uglier than you? So he would or wouldn’t hit you? Shouldn’t the threat be that he had hit girls who were prettier than you?

Back at university and in another meeting with Nicholas. He is giving you feedback on your panel performance, praise and criticism as necessary. He looks above your ahead, looking past you to someone at his door, the wide open door. You turn expecting to see one of the other men from the department, but it is a woman. An academic you know and respect. You haven’t seen each other in a long time and the two of you hug. You no longer hug the men in your department, but this woman you know and trust. The two of you are hugging in Nicholas’s office, the door is wide open behind you, and Nicholas asks if he can join in. His tone is jocular, like he’s having a joke, ‘Can I get in on that?’ He laughs, a friendly joke. The academic pulls away from the hug and she says, ‘No,’ direct and stern, like she’s talking to a dog.

You notice the tone. You wonder what invited that tone.

And then you realise, that’s what this is.

You see your options thus:

You can report him. The university may believe you, in which case he will be fired. Or, the school won’t believe you, or Nicholas will object, and you will have some kind of a trial. You imagine being in court – ‘Like talking to a dog your honour, she said it like she was talking a dog.’ If you’re believed and Nicholas is fired, the close-knit staff, his colleagues and friends, will feel awkward. Imagine, they will be making a special effort to be friendly to you, special effort, so that you won’t feel discriminated against. You will need a new supervisor for your PhD, someone who probably won’t be as intelligent and whose heart won’t be in the project. Your research will be greatly disrupted. Nicholas’s wife, the CEO of a large Australian publishing house, a literary hotshot, will hate you. So will her friends, many of whom are publishers and editors. You may never have a book published, because they will all hate you. Or maybe the court or the university will rule in favour of Nicholas, in which case he would stop supervising you, and nobody else would want to, nor would they want to publish your book.

Or, you can continue not to say anything. He will most likely continue to harass you or other women. He will doll out top marks to pretty girls in his short fiction class. That will be on your shoulders.

But you will finish your PhD and his wife will probably publish your book.

But, but, but why do you want a book deal in the first place? Because you think your book will do good in the world? That it will make people reflect and think about their lives and create empathy? Or has this all been an exercise in self-validation, is that what this is? A published author, a tangible mark of intelligence. The kind you need because nobody would meet you and be impressed by your intellect, clearly. You’re a power-hungry fool wanting to trick the world into thinking you’re something you’re not.

Or, you can fuck him. Your book would be published, definitely, and he wouldn’t be doing this to other women, because he’d be doing it to you.

Imagine, your book published by Nicholas’s wife and endorsed by him on the cover. The literary elites, their friends, will review it. They will take it seriously, regard you as the protégée Nick tells them you are. A heart-breaking, poignant, nuanced, assured, exciting, breathtaking, exquisite, début. You will know the truth – that you’re a pretty girl with a pert tush. You will see the charade for what it is, a Clearasil commercial – clean, lather, rinse, pat dry, repeat, repeat, repeat, even though everyone knows that the skin on the packaging has been Photoshopped, the before and the after shots, and the models were chosen for the ads because they already have beautiful skin. And still people go along, repeat, repeat, repeat. You may be a dim-witted girl, but you would be acclaimed as a literary genius.

That’s the other option, fucking him.

Remember. Standing in the crowd at a music festival. Your favourite festival, you go every year with your friends. A young man standing behind you put his hand down your pants. He cupped your vagina. You jumped. You screamed. You pointed. You yelled, ‘This guy just put his hand down my pants!’ Your friends yelled at him. Hoa threw her drink in his face. The crowd around you turned to him as he ran away. You and Hoa screamed, ‘Rapist!’ and then ‘Fuck the patriarchy!’ And you chanted that, ‘Fuck the patriarchy!’ Other girls in the crowd joined in. You were jumping up and down, laughing, high on amphetamines. Remember, you felt powerful. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.

Published in ABR Fiction

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