A parallel universe in "On Beauty"

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Howard Belsey began preparing the projector for his daily lecture and putting his History of Art slides in order. This routine had become almost as tedious as the students that partook in his classes and he executed his preparation without enthusiasm. The time had come for the lecture to begin and the students began to fill the empty seats in front of him. Some faces he recognized and others he did not; he presumed they were only shopping the class. The last student to arrive rushed in, closed the door behind her and walked over to the nearest available seat. Her name was Alyssa and she was one of the students who had decided to shop the class and was using this single lecture as the deciding point to whether she would take Howard’s class. The lecture began and Howard projected his first image on to the screen: "Rembrandt's Dr. Nicolaes Tulp Demonstrating the Anatomy of the Arm” (1632). He had offered them a Rembrandt who was neither a rule breaker nor an original but rather a conformist; he had asked them to ask themselves what they meant by 'genius' and, in the perplexed silence, replaced the familiar rebel master of historical fame with Howard's own vision of a merely competent artisan who painted whatever his wealthy patrons requested.

Alyssa looked around the room at the endless sea of faces. Not one face was animated. She began to wonder what the reason for this silence was. Was it boredom? Or was it something more? The only sound in the lecture hall was the echo of a cough and the sound of pens idly scratching on paper. As Howard stared at each student with a bitterly challenging smirk, awaiting an answer, Alyssa realized what the problem was- fear. None of these students were willing to risk revealing their opinion, they were happier in their silent safety. Maybe if one girl were to answer then the rest would follow, she thought. Alyssa stared at the painting projected on the screen in front of her. She began to imagine how it was created and the efforts the painter went to in order to achieve such a masterpiece. A plethora of questions filled her cunning mind. The one that stood out the most, however, was: “How is it possible that something so beautiful can be written off and something so ordinary?”

She stared at Howard’s face and noticed that the greater the silence grew, the more satisfied his expression became, and his contentment began to irritate her. She did not know whether it was due to his expression or her own desire to defend the beautiful painting but she decided to speak, if only to break the deadly silence. She raised her hand, hoping that no one saw it tremble ever so slightly, and summoned her most authoritative, yet politely refined, voice. She asked, “Can one really claim that such a painting, with its clear mastery of technique and use of such vivid imagery, is banal simply because it was commissioned for a wealthy patron? Surely there is more to fine art than the finances of its recipient…” Here she trailed off, but arched one eyebrow and curled the corners of her lips upwards, ever so slightly.

At the sound of Alyssa’s voice Howard and instantly stopped and spun around on his heel. Once she had finished speaking he stared at her for quite some time before answering, his eyes scrutinizing her entire body. She stared back equally as intensely and noticed, with some pleasure, that the expression on Howard’s face had turned into something other than satisfaction. She could see that he was unnerved by her comment, which indeed he was. Was it possible that someone was questioning his method of teaching, his view of the artistic cannon, his entire academic ethos? Why was this girl not silent like the rest of the students? Did she not fear him or was it because she was putting him to the test, figuring that, as a shopping student, she had nothing to lose? He crossed his arms and then placed his right hand on his chin, his other hand was clutched in a fist to his side. “What is your name?” he inquired bitterly. She responded unwaveringly, “Alyssa Vasari.” The rest of the classroom had gone silent. Not a single bored yawn could be heard. The pens and pencils had stopped their casual doodling. All eyes were on the invisible, but highly palpable, tension being projected between Alyssa and Professor Belsey. Suddenly class had gotten much more interesting, and each pupil was anxiously waiting to see who would break the stare first; the acclaimed, collegiate Belsey or the unknown, unafraid Alyssa.

Alyssa sat, for what seemed like minutes, in the near silent room. The only sounds she could hear were the monotonous ticking of the wall clock, contrasted with her frantic heart-beating. Tick, Thump-thump, tick, thump-thump. She was determined not to falter, and held her stare, refusing to break eye contact. Meanwhile Belsey regarded her with cool contempt, and something else. Yes, fight it as he might, Howard could feel a growing attraction for this Miss. Vasari. What was it? Her flawlessly pale skin? Her ice-blue eyes? Her body’s curves, prominently showing from under the folds of her blouse? None of these, he decided. No, her body, although rivaling even the most exquisite Ingres nude, was nothing in comparison to her mordant remark. She had only uttered a handful of words, but their tone was cutting enough to send a chill of excitement down his spine. He quickly stepped behind his desk, lest the degree of his exhilaration be projected in silhouette on the classroom screen for all the students to see.

            Although Alyssa’s eyes followed him, Howard’s movement had broken their visual force field, and he quickly and dismissively said “Miss. Vasari, I would be happy to answer to your amusing, little questions during my office hours, but I do not intend to waste precious class time, especially on the first day.” Belsey spent the rest of the period duly reviewing the projected syllabus, explaining campus and online resources, and recommending an exhibition that was currently being shown at the Museum. Class finally ended, and the students eagerly scuttled off to their next activity, happy to be free of the intimidating bonds of Professor Belsey. Alyssa slowly bent over to collect her things, and then, hips swaying, calmly made her way toward the door. Howard, in a boyish trance, could not help but notice her hourglass shape, calling to mind so many other perfectly sculpted Athenas and Venuses. This one was far from a cold statue though, she was fiery and real. Howard’s eyes were glued to her form when Alyssa suddenly turned around and composedly said, “I saw that.” Howard stumbled, trying to recover his composure, “What, no, that is to say, I was merely, umm, Saw what?” Alyssa smiled, and then cooed, “Why, I saw the exhibition at the Museum, but thank you for the recommendation nonetheless.” Then she walked out, leaving Howard alone and exasperated. The door slamming behind her felt like a slap in his face. How had she so charmingly infuriated him?

*          *          *

            As Howard walked through the University’s corridors back to his office he was lost in a sea of conflicting thoughts. He found himself feeling distinctly uncomfortable, but was unable to put a name on what exactly he was feeling. Did he want Miss. Vasari in his class? Surely not. She would be a nuisance, constantly questioning his steadfast routines and logical, categorical methods of presenting the, now mundanely familiar, materials he would be teaching. He normally reveled in the security of his rigid customs, breaking away from his static framework would be uncomfortable and, although he did not want to admit it, even to himself, frightening. Then why was he rushing back to his office to make sure he was there when his office hours officially began, lest he miss the annoyingly entrancing Miss. Vasari?

*          *          *

            Alyssa tugged impatiently on a lock of her sandy hair, furrowing her brow as she erased and rearranged her potential schedule. Shopping for classes could be frustrating for someone with such eclectic interests and Alyssa was currently trying to juggle Economics of the European Union with Human Cognition. Her poor notepad was brutally being dismembered, and her already cluttered room was scattered with crossed-out and torn pages of discarded schedules. She paged through the course catalogue so violently that she cut her finger on one of the pages. As Alyssa paused her planning to suck the blood from her fingertip, her mind began to wander to the day’s events, or one event in particular. She was a bright student, and enjoyed the 4.0s and praise that the majority of her assignments received. Why then, would she enroll in a course where she was sure to irritate the professor and be forced to conform her writing to his dull perspectives, or suffer the grade-consequences? Her joie de vivre had no place in Professor Belsey’s class, yet there was something strangely appealing about his taut shoulders, gruff manner, and intense stare. She was fascinated by his masculine severity, and had the urge to break through his stoic shell. She was sure to ruin her GPA in his course, as well as cause herself a great amount of stress, and yet she spent another hour and a half organizing and reorganizing her schedule, all so that she would be free for Professor Belsey’s course, as well as his office hours.

*          *          *

            Friday afternoon found Howard nervously clenching and unclenching his fists and trying to stop his left eye from its telltale, anxious twitching. “Is there a problem with the system?” he asked tersely. The registrar gave him the evil eye and continued slowly clicking through pages on her computer. “No” she said dutifully, “but you do know that the class lists aren’t supposed to go out until Monday.” Howard nodded impatiently “Yes yes, but I wanted it before the weekend so that I can start planning a fieldtrip.” The truth was that we could not bare the thought of enduring another weekend with his wife without at least knowing whether Alyssa, that is, Miss. Vasari, had indeed enrolled in his class. The registrar clicked one final button and gave him the satisfied look all 60- something women give when they have mastered the enigma of Word and ‘File’ ‘Print’. Howard could feel his blood shot eyes throbbing as they followed the lazer printer back and forth over the page, hoping that any on looking colleagues would chalk this up to his caffeine addiction. He grabbed the sheet from the contented old woman and began looking at the names from the bottom of the page upwards: Zuckerman, Samuel. Yao, Lyn. Walsh, Loretta. Come on, for the love of God. Vickers, Patricia. And then there it was shining up at him from the page: Vasari, Alyssa. He let out a quiet gasp which nearly resembled a moan, and felt a stirring in his loins that could most certainly not be attributed to the dowdy registrar who was now eyeing him curiously from behind magenta bifocals.

            Tick Tock, Tick, Tock. Alyssa was sweating as she glanced nervously at the wall clock in her room. She had had to stay late at her job and had rushed back to her room to change before going to Professor Belsey’s office hours. Why did she even care what she was wearing to this stupid, stodgy, old jerk’s office hours? Still, each outfit was cast aside in a panic. Too preppie, not academic enough, too bohemian, too boring, too low cut, not low cut enough! Running across campus she cursed herself for having enrolled in the class and cursed herself again for having spent the better half of an hour assembling what had finally amounted to tight, black jeans and a loose button-down shirt. When Alyssa arrived at his door the Professor’s door she apologized for being late (it was 4:50pm and his hours ended at 5:00) and tried to gain her breath. Howard, who had by this point chewed through a packet of #2 pencils in anticipation, noticed that Alyssa’s run had flushed her cheeks in a way which reminded him of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, while her panting reminded him of something far from Victorian. They sat opposite one another mutely for a full minute, before Alyssa broke their silence and said “So tell me what Beauty means to you.” Professor Belsey had been expecting questions on Rembrandt, or a critique of any number of his published works, but not such a preposterous question. He fumbled for the answer for quite some time, spouting quotations in Greek, and citing famous theorists and historians, anything to keep him from saying “you.”

            Alyssa parried each of his declarations with an eloquent retort or counter argument, and neither one of them noticed the light in the sky gradually waning. Their lively discussion began in respectful tones, but steadily evolved into flirtatious bantering. Howard could not remember the last time he felt so stimulated and cerebrally challenged. Certainly not at his weekly faculty meetings, and not for some time at home with Kiki. Kiki, yes she would probably be sitting in the kitchen right now… His thoughts were broken by the turning of the doorknob from across the room. Howard panicked and rushed to compose himself, and then wondered why he had started so. Alyssa and he looked perfectly innocent, indeed apart from some coquettish remarks there was nothing out of the ordinary, and yet he found the need to justify himself or explain the situation to whoever was entering. “Oh sorry Professor, I thought I would just empty your bin, I didn’t realize you were still in here.” Howard breathed a sigh of relief “That’s fine Reggie,” he said to the custodian “but there’s no need, thank you and goodnight.” Alyssa smiled coyly at the Professor and murmured, “I guess it’s late….” and then arched her eyebrow. Reggie lumbered out the door, softly shutting it behind him. Howard realized that he was reluctant to end their conversation or, more specifically, end their evening. “Yes” he said, “and dark, you had better let me drive you back to your dorm, it’s quite far isn’t it?” Alyssa’s mind perked up “Yes, it is, but how did you know which dorm I live in, Professor?” Howard glared at her maliciously and snapped “You know God Damned well why I know, now stop calling me ‘Professor’.” He shoved some documents into his briefcase yanked on his coat and then meekly turned around and added “Forgive me, I am not sure why I am so on edge, but the offer still stands if you would like a lift.” Howard’s outburst had excited Alyssa, but also confirmed her suppositions; he was attracted to her.

*          *          *

            They made their way out to Howard’s car in silence. Alyssa got in before Howard could open the door, and as he walked back around to the driver’s side she quickly glanced around the interior of the car. She was not surprised by what she found, but it made her sad, ashamed and frustrated nonetheless. On the backseat was a woman’s sweater in a dry-cleaning bag. Clearly this was not an article carelessly forgotten in the car by a college, friend, or even another fling. Professor Belsey had a wife who was waiting at home for more than her cardigan. Howard started the car and headed for Alyssa’s dorm. Once outside he said, “I can’t come into one of the dorms with a student.” “And I can’t bring your wife her dry-cleaning” she replied. Howard winced, and could not believe the words that followed. “Well, it is a nice evening, we could go for a drive.” Alyssa looked out her window but nodded tersely, she knew what was coming. Her thoughts lept from one idea to the next. She was applying for a research grant and needed a 4.0 in this class, and a recommendation from the acclaimed Howard Belsey might just give her the edge she needed.  She had fooled around with older men before, but had vowed never to jeopardize a marriage. From what she had heard she would not be Belsey’s first extra-marital conquest, so shouldn’t the blame lie with him? If she were not in his car some other girl might be, and that other girl might not be as deserving of a research grant to go to India. She cursed herself for being such a good debater, but this time she was not trying to convince a reader that her argument was valid, she was trying to convince herself that she knew right from wrong.

            Howard’s sweaty palms struggled to grasp the steering wheel, but his mouth was bone dry. His analytical mind was swimming. Logic and reasoning had never let him down before, but he could not reason through his current situation. Yes, he had had affairs before, but he had justified them by telling himself that Kiki did not sexual satisfy him, and that as long as his deviations were purely physical there was nothing egregious about his actions. This time was different. Alyssa entranced him, he wanted to do more. He wanted to hold her, to talk to her, to listen to her fresh and vibrant ideas. He was profoundly conflicted. If he slept with Alyssa he would be violating a personal relationship, as well as a professional one. No where in his ridged, static mind could he find the answer his moral conflict. Normally he could remove himself from the situation and dissect it impartially, but this time removing himself was impossible. She had broken him, and he felt detached from his mind as he felt his body pull the car over on a wooded road. Alyssa and Howard watched their bodies, as if they did not inhabit them, while limbs intertwined and clothes were shed.

*          *          *

            The act itself was anti climactic, and although each participant derived a degree of pleasure, this ecstasy was short lived. Howard returned home to find Kiki in front of the television, eyes glazed over as she shoveled cheese-puffs into her mouth. Alyssa’s roommate was too busy with a family crisis to even notice Alyssa’s rumpled hair and disheveled clothes. The Summer came, and Howard was promoted to Academic Dean. An honor that tethered him to the University for another ten years, minimum. He smiled politely at the ceremony and scanned the audience for the student he knew had written an exemplarily evaluation of his course, but his eyes could only find Kiki. She sat like a lump in the third row, her fat hands slapping together as she gurgled some sort of applause. There’s no escape, he thought, I am stuck here until I die, or go mad. He continued his melancholy brooding until his thoughts were interrupted by the announcement of the student awards. “Miss. Alyssa Vasari has been awarded the Huntington Research Grant for her proposal to study the architectural vestiges of colonialism in India!”  Alyssa climbed the steps and accepted the award with a sick feeling in her stomach. She saw William Porter bravely clapping, although his lips were pursed together and his shoulders slumped. He was her friend, despite always having been her academic rival, and Alyssa knew how hard he had worked on his grant proposal. It was far more interesting than hers, but had lacked faculty support; a recommendation was all that differentiated her proposal from his.

*          *          *

            Alyssa and Howard had never spoken of their incident, and it had certainly never repeated itself. Her papers were always perfectly organized and articulated, as well as being insightful and interesting, and although he disagreed with all her ideas, he had given each assignment the much-coveted 4.0 mark. Alyssa had exaggeratedly played devils-advocate in all of her works for his class, but not once did Professor Belsey invite her to discuss her points with him in office hours.

Sitting in his living room Howard shuddered at the croaking sound of Kiki’s voice. “Now that you have that raise we can afford to take a vacation some place nice. We never spend time together. It would be good to get away for a solid three weeks, just the two of us someplace.” Three weeks? Just the two of them? Howard ground his teeth and cursed his stupid promotion, but could not bring himself to curse the event, or person, who had influenced it.

            As Alyssa’s plane was preparing to take-off for India she tried to distract herself by looking through guide books and glossy brochures, but could not elevate her mood. She thought of Will Porter, back at home working long hours at the library as well as in an office. He had congratulated her and assured her that by the end of the summer he would have saved enough money to fund his own research trip. She thought bitterly about the doors which would open for her after she published her findings, and guiltily wondered who had really merited this award. As the plane bolted into the sky she felt a distinct surge of nausea, which she doubted was due to the flight.

*          *          *

            When Howard arrived home from his “nice alone-time” with Kiki he began to sort through the mail which had accumulated during their vacation. Junk, Junk, Bill, Junk, Postcard. The postcard was of a beautiful Hindu temple to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty. He flipped it over and read “ You told me that a painting could not be beautiful if it was created for prestige and financial gain. You said that art needed to be created for the right reasons. I suppose I know what you mean, now. I cannot find beauty in India. Perhaps I am here for the wrong reasons. ~ A.V.” Howard stroked the card, and then tucked it away in his pocket, thinking, “But you were so beautiful to me, in such a real way, regardless of the reasons. Our act, however wretched the outcome, was beautiful, no matter how short-lived that beauty was. It does not matter what the motivations for it were, it was always be painfully beautiful to me.” They never spoke again, nor saw each other, but each carried an internal punishment of regret, guilt, and unrequited desire for the rest of their lives. Polar opposites in everyway Alyssa and Howard would rarely be compared to one another, yet each was silently suffering under the yolk of morality.

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