A Case of Mistaken Identity

©1991 L.Timmel Duchamp

She appeared to me on a Saturday afternoon in late October. Alone in the apartment, vaguely aware of the whine of a vacuum cleaner in the apartment above, I lazed on the couch, staring up at the ceiling, deliciously preoccupied with the man I felt certain would soon be my lover, thinking not so much about him as about his eyes, hands and mouth, and about how his being in a different department made it o.k. for me to have sex with a professor that old.

"Poor dear," her soft, British voice broke into my reverie, "you do need help."

Startled [my first thought was to wonder how she had gotten in], I swung my gaze off the drab, paint-flaked ceiling down onto the deep rose and gold figure standing poised and erect at the foot of my couch. Her fine silk skirts, pale kid gloves, lacy cuffs and throat rendered my furniture painfully tacky. Only a roomful of antiques or the very best modern could have stood up to her shimmering elegance. Her sharp, warm eyes regarded me with a mixture of ironic amusement and generous sympathy. [Came my second clear thought: What and who is she?] "I know I'm being unforgivably rude and forward." Her voice lilted; her eyes smiled. "But please, allow me to introduce myself."

"Uh, sure," I muttered. "Be my guest." What else could I say? Begone mad vision? Out, out, damned spot?

She bowed from the waist. "Elizabeth Bennet, ma'am. At your very service."

I gaped at her. "Elizabeth Bennet? You mean the Elizabeth Bennet?" But even as the words were leaving my mouth I recalled that Elizabeth Bennet did not--- nor ever had--- existed. Elizabeth Bennet's existence had always been solely of the mind, a figment of first Jane Austen's, and then her readership's, imagination.

My visitor bowed again. "Precisely." Her lip curled. "Or perhaps I should say, as my dear Fitzwilliam insists on addressing me when he's particularly disgusted with me, Mrs. Darcy." The edge in her laugh grated in my ears. But even granted Elizabeth Bennet could take on flesh, surely she would not look quite like this person. The woman who stood before me appeared to be approaching forty, and showed a bit too much flesh on her neck under her chin. Given all the whalebone and bindings one could assume lay under her flowing silks, one could only guess as to whether the fleshiness extended downward. Certainly her bosom was capacious. Yet I had always envisioned Elizabeth Bennet as having small breasts, narrow hips, and a waistline rivaling Scarlet O'Hara's.

Nonplused, I said the first thing that came into my head: "So that's what a reticule looks like." I sat up to take a closer look at the exquisite needlework adorning it. "I suppose you only embroider with silks?"

Her (still fine) eyes swept the room, bringing me to shamed consciousness of its dirt and mess. Between teaching, prelim preparation and sexual obsession I'd had little time for housework. "I suppose you don't embroider at all," she said, smiling. Her eyes beamed approval on me. "And I say good for you! Embroider as you like, if it gives you pleasure. But if other things give you greater pleasure, then you must do them instead!"

"Well, yes, of course," I replied, thinking she was making a bit too much of the application of free will to traditionally womanly pursuits.

Suddenly--- for the first time--- she frowned. "But not, my dear, wasting it on a man who fancies himself a contemporary Darcy! You'd be far better advised to apply yourself to embroidery than to pleasing him. You'd at the very least have something pretty to show for it afterwards."

No one, not even my closest friend Sara, knew about John. (And Sara was John's graduate student, and it had been at her house that I'd first met him.) This woman's imaginary status somehow failed to mitigate my consternation that the thing unfolding between John and me should be the property of an outsider. I'm sure it was this that prompted me to launch an existential attack against her. Smirking, I inquired: "And how, by the way, is Jane?"

She didn't bat an eyelash. "My creator, you're referring to?" Her right eyebrow quizzed me. "Long dead, of course." I thought for a moment from the way her lips twitched she was going to laugh. "And thus just a trifle out of things."

A bit disconcerted that my question hadn't made her vanish, I continued: "Though if you ask me, I don't believe you're exactly what she had in mind when she invented you."

My visitor shrugged. "Times change. People's thinking changes. And therefore the objects of people's thoughts change, too." The flash of a cheeky smile magically sloughed ten years from her face. "Which is, you know, what I am. I understand perfectly the nature of my own reality."

Did Jane Austen ever tell us that Elizabeth Bennet's voice had the power of making her interlocutors suspect her of being ironical about them without ever being quite certain of it? It made me damned uncomfortable, and for the moment reluctant to open my mouth to further exposure. Mute, I ransacked my brain for an inconsistency in the fantasy.

She didn't let the silence drag on for long. "I tried visiting your John at the time he was writing his atrocious book," she said, "but because his notion of Elizabeth Bennet is so far from what I am, he simply could not see me."

"You're talking about Towards A True Elegance of Mind: Jane Austen's Construction of English Middle Class Mores and Ethos?" The idea of a fictional character taking interest in criticism of her text of origin amused me.

"Yes, of course," she replied. "'Tis truly a pity. The way his type represents me makes me long for revenge." She sighed, and shrugged slightly. "But then it's no more possible for me to take revenge on critics than it has been possible for me (since that first pregnancy) to shame Darcy into decency."

I'd never imagined Elizabeth Bennet pregnant, but I found doing so now far easier than accepting her as a plump woman pushing forty, at war with her husband, the Divine Darcy. The idea of it was so ordinarily ugly, so humdrum, that it offended me. "Look," I said rather roughly, "I don't want to hear about Darcy's faults and all the rotten things he's done to you." This was hard-nosed of me, but she was, after all, a fantasy, a fiction, maybe even an hallucination. I was the one with feelings, not her. If one can't say what one thinks to imaginary objects, with whom can one be honest?

A smile played about the corners of her thin, shapely lips. With a rustle of silken skirts she raised her hands, gloved palms open. "Always it's the same. Men identifying themselves with Darcy infatuated with their own romantic idealizations of me, and women identifying themselves with me infatuated with Jane's carefully censored version of Darcy. It's enough to make one lie down and die." Her smile belied the theatrical sigh she let loose. "But the sad truth is I can't lie down and die until I'm allowed to. I might wish that I'd never had to age, that I could have stayed that slim young object of Darcy's greedy desire, but when the world changes, my life changes too. So there's simply no sense in my wishing it weren't so."

"You don't talk like a Jane Austen character," I--- suddenly struck by the modernity of her speech--- accused. "You might at least be consistent in that."

Smiling, she shook her head. "But time does not stand still, and thus all things change. The Pride and Prejudice you read, my dear, is quite different from the one Cassandra Austen, say, read, or even for that matter the one your dreary John reads. You can't step into the same stream twice: I believe some old Greek or other pointed that fact out centuries before even Jane's time?"

I had a hard time not laughing, for her facial expressions were really droll. If she'd been born in the twentieth century she would have had to have been a comic. Yes, I actually had such a thought--- but then, when she began pacing and I saw how unnaturally erect she held her shoulders, had the shock of realizing (again) that she hadn't, properly speaking, been born at all...

It drove me crazy, taking her for a real person one second and then jerking back to reality--- or shall I say relative reality?--- the next.

Her pacing reminded me of how rude I'd been. "Please do sit," I invited her. I recalled the scene where Miss Bingley recruits Elizabeth to walk around the room with her solely to attract Darcy's attention. (Anything, anything to get the Divine Darcy's eyes on one--- even playing second fiddle to one's despised rival.)

"Thanks, but I enjoy walking," my visitor said politely.

Even at your age and weight? I thought of asking. This Elizabeth Bennet looked as though she would rather stay home than have to walk to her destination. (But of course, all of Darcy's carriages, and never any shortage of horses because they were wanted for the farm(s)... ) It occurred to me that perhaps she was afraid of dirtying her shimmering silks on my stained upholstery. I considered fetching a sheet to cover it, but then decided to take Mrs. Darcy at her word. (And besides, I thought, if she was that familiar with her twentieth-century admirers and fantasizers then she should know better than to expect special treatment.)

She's not real! Stop thinking about her as though she were!

She marched into the late afternoon sunlight goldenly pooled at the end of the room. "I cannot think while sitting," she declared. A few gray strands threading her light brown hair shimmered silvery in the light. "But then if you had sticks of wood and bone binding your diaphragm I doubt you'd do so much sitting, either, except when embroidering and listening to the usual insipid gruel that passes for conversation in my world." She frowned out the window for a moment, then reversed direction. "We swathe ourselves with lawn, muslin and silk to make our bindings the more luxurious and thus desirable. Freedom of movement, unlimited access to oxygen would lower us to the status of mere animals, and fix us to an unmediated experience of nature--- which for women is already too great a liability. Heaven forbid we lower ourselves to that level, when we start out so low at the outset!" She laughed, caught my eye--- and winked. (No one had winked at me since my late adolescence, and I hadn't realized that people sometimes still do.) "But I'm talking the veriest revolution here. Jane would not approve." And now she smirked at me, as though she were daring me to take her to task for sauciness. "Shall I tell you what caused the first discomfort, awkwardness and bewildered estrangement in my relations with Darcy?"

My first thought was that sexual intercourse had shocked and dismayed her. In retrospect, though, I must say that I'd never associated prudishness with the Elizabeth Bennet I'd known and loved each time I'd read Pride and Prejudice. Yet face-to-face with this materialization of her, I saw that I had apparently replaced the Elizabeth Bennet I had known and loved with a sexually-frigid, proto-feminist Victorian matron--- and found it hard to believe she wanted to raise such a subject. "I don't think we need to discuss this," I said coldly.

Again her eyebrow quizzed me, and a sudden rush of blood stung my cheeks. "You mean you can't stand to have your illusions about dear old Elizabeth and Darcy shattered. I understand." Sighing, she resumed pacing. "But I'm afraid that my purpose in visiting you can't be served without the shattering of those very illusions. It's ill-mannered of me, I'll readily admit, to force unpleasantness on you. But there's more at stake here than a cherished instance of romanticism." She walked again into the sunlight. As before, my eyes delighted in the silver glinting in her hair and the sun-drunk richness of gold lace and rose silk ever rustling, breathing and swaying with a life I knew it could not really be clothing.

"Wayward, wayward woman," I said half under my breath.

She paused at the window, keeping her back to me for perhaps half a minute. When she turned the dryness of her smile made me wonder how closely it resembled the one she must have given Darcy that first time he had asked her to dance. "I deserve that, yes," she murmured. And her smile streaked into that cheeky grin peculiarly hers. (The mobility of her face, I confess, was beginning to fascinate me.) "But then waywardness is preferable to despairing wretchedness--- at least to me. I know many ladies who would say the opposite, and who wear their wretchedness as a badge of virtue." Her lip curled. "But martyrdom has never been my way."

Standing with her back to the light, speaking so crisply proudly ironically, she for a moment reminded me of the true Elizabeth Bennet. An odd thought occurred to me: what would a modern version of Pride and Prejudice be? Instantly my imagination conjured a translation almost pure Hollywood, of a wry but sexy, dashing middle manager, tangling with an arrogantly attractive (???? How could such an oxymoron persist in the typology of modern sexual aesthetics and mythologies?) senior executive (stinkingly rich and acquisitive, of course) with a passion for handball and skiing (rather than the boxing Jane so coyly alludes to). Elizabeth perhaps sleeps with him two or three times, casually. Then the executive exits, to another part of the country, on business. Liz then learns how he's done her best friend dirty (and messed up the junior executive she's also been sleeping with). But a few chapters down the line our Liz somehow runs into the bastard elsewhere and (keeping her opinions of him to herself) resumes casual sex with him, "to pass the time." Realizing the depths of his passion for her, senior executive begs her to commit to a serious relationship (marriage?), maybe even to give up her job or at least change jobs to be near him. Our heroine, still indignant on her wronged friend's behalf, refuses, to the disbelief and chagrin of Gentleman Darcy. But later, love-chastened, the executive...

Sick, isn't it. Yet all that crossed my mind in the flash of the second it took my visitor to draw a deep breath and shake her head. "Now we'll see how squeamish you are," she said softly, and I wondered whom she meant to address with that comment. "In point of fact, the one thing no scholar or enthusiast of history ever gets right is the matter-of-factness people in my time have about things whose intrinsically disgusting nature we cannot avoid. While your society invests a great deal of time and resources into making the ordinary exigencies of the body nearly invisible." Her eyebrows twitched. "But of course the best people in my society attempt to escape them, too--- as a point of gentility. Poor Mamma," she sighed. "She tried hard, but though we had the income to escape the horrors of butchering and dressing our principle sources of food, other messy things did inevitably fall to our lot, things she could do nothing about."

Is she talking about elimination? I wondered. I'd never before considered likely differences in toilet practices between the wealthy and not-so-wealthy before the days of reasonably efficient indoor plumbing. I tried to imagine where the ladies would go from the Bingley drawing room when they needed to take a piss. Surely they hadn't had to go out of doors, to an outhouse?

My visitor moved past the couch and out of my line of vision. "Oh, the difficulties one must cope with when one's marriage is, as they say, a love match! And I don't just mean the Lady Catherine attitude, but other things I never dreamed of before marriage." Turning onto my side, I discovered that she had stationed herself only a few inches from the edge of the couch. Our eyes met, and her color heightened. It occurred to me that she had intended to be out of my line of vision, safe from scrutiny. After a moment or two she shrugged slightly, and started again towards the patch of sunlight and the window. Consequently she had her back to me when she said, "You probably know we use rags for our monthlies. But what you may not have understood is the social difficulties such practice presents. The least of it is their bulk. One simply moves a bit more slowly, and takes greater care managing her skirts. Those of our sex who aren't ladies naturally find that aspect of it more obtrusive, since they lack the advantage of flowing skirts and multiple petticoats." She skimmed quickly through the puddle of sunlight--- and this time, for some reason, I noticed that her skirt and at least two of her petticoats were virtually diaphanous--- to the window, where she again paused, presumably to look out at the traffic stopped for the light at the intersection. Abruptly she reversed; her eyes darted to my face. (What is she expecting to find? Embarrassment? Derision? Sympathy?) A faint smile hovered over her lips. "But for us ladies," she resumed in a gentle, meditative voice, "the worst problem is odor. On certain days the rags will smell however often one changes them." Still she looked at me, so persistently as to make me avert my eyes from her face. (It's as though she's testing me! There's something thoroughly calculated about the way she's doing this that's at odds with the way she was at the beginning.) "Most ladies therefore spend a minimum of one or two days `indisposed'." Her mouth spread into an outright smile. "Indisposed, you see, is a synonym meaning too embarrassing for a drawing room to hold--- at least, that is, when the drawing room is constituted by mixed company."

I could see her point. Menstrual smells are probably no more acceptable now than they had been in nineteenth-century high society. Why else all the emphasis on deodorized pads and tampons (not to mention all-purpose vaginal sprays)? "I can see it would be a problem," I granted when she did not go on. I sensed the pressure of super-insistent demand, and for a few seconds wondered what the whole thing was really about.

Her smile, widening, nearly broke open her face. "Needless to say, Mamma carefully calculated the best time of the month for the wedding, to make sure my monthlies didn't interfere with the, ah, honeymoon." Her smile contracted to little more than a small, wry grin. She bit her lip. "But of course my monthlies eventually came. To tell you the truth, I hadn't thought much about what I would do about Darcy when they did. Then, three days before the onset, the horrible truth dawned. I found myself facing the inevitable. If Mamma had been living nearby I would have asked her for advice." She frowned. "Though I'm not certain what good that would have done. My marital situation was nothing like hers had ever been." A blush spread upwards from her neck. "Although I gather my parents' match had not been entirely one of convenience... " Obviously she didn't like that subject, I sourly noted. "Well of course the time finally came. And oh did I wish for a separate room of my own from which I could rightfully bar Darcy!" Manifestly restless, my visitor resumed pacing. "I knew Darcy must be aware of the problem since he had, after all, been living for years with his sister. Every household has its own code for referring to such things. I knew I needed one comprehensible to Darcy to enable me to preserve the delicacy and decorum that had so far characterized our relations--- at that point even in bed."

I had begun to feel odd about lying down while my visitor was pacing and talking to me, and now sat up. Something--- I'm not quite sure what it was--- had happened between us to make everything different. I think it must have been the way she was talking to me that suddenly made her seem a real person. (Of course it might just be that we'd slipped into a way of woman-to-woman talking so natural and familiar to me that I automatically reacted in the usual way.) At any rate I felt compelled to demonstrate attentiveness and--- yes, hackneyed as the expression has become--- offer support to another woman caught in the same old struggle that is the single thing (beyond the possession of vaginas) we all share. Also, the situation intrigued me--- perhaps pruriently so. It was like reading a different sort of Jane Austen, one containing all the things she'd taken great care to keep out of her texts.

"Interesting," I said. "I would have thought he wouldn't have been all that, ah, decorous in bed." Ever revisionist, I speculated that the double standard must already have been operating there, even in a so-called `love-match', since aristocrats tended to consider their wives madonnas and everyone else whores, though I'd always thought it had been the Victorians who had transformed upper class women into delicate angels of frigid white purity. Bingley I could have imagined as "decorous." (Actually, when I thought about Bingley naked I imaged him as charmingly ludicrous, sometimes even with a little pink silk bow ornamenting his penis.) Was that simply because Jane had portrayed him as eternally good-natured? Yet I know from personal experience how little a man's outward relations to the world reveal of his domestic (and sexual) relations with a woman.

Jane Austen, you wretch! You've been leading us all down the garden path!

"Oh, but that was only at the beginning," my visitor coolly riposted my remark about Darcy-in-bed. "But to continue. If Georgie--- Darcy's sister, that is--- hadn't been visiting Lady Catherine de Bourgh at the time, I would naturally have asked her for the household code." Elizabeth Bennet Darcy sighed. "Not that knowing it would have prevented Darcy's discovery of my clay feet." Her eyes twinkled at me, making me wonder--- until I realized that for her the story she was telling me lay--- to judge by her middle-aged appearance--- years in the past.

"Are you saying that Darcy's discovery that you, too, menstruate shattered his image of you?" I queried skeptically (while believing, deep in my bones, that such idiocy was all too plausible, given my own experience of sex and gender discrimination).

She shook her head. "You aren't using your imagination. The odor alone suffices to spoil all faerie dreams of ethereal beauty or even clever attractiveness." She pushed her lower lip out, then favored me with another lightning-quick taste of her eyebrows. "It goes against the grain to tell tales on oneself, but I suppose in this case I must. When I was a child, before I knew what `women's delicacy' referred to (outside of pregnancy, that is, for the code terms were virtually identical in my parents' household), I developed a distinct disgust for my mother, solely on the basis of that smell, and the mysterious but repulsive sight of the servants whisking unsavory bundles of rags out of my mother's bedroom for several days each month she wasn't pregnant. (And of course, at least in the later months, I burned with resentment at her for her pregnancies, too.) My father had a slighting way of referring to `women's follies' and `ladies' delicacy' that I inexorably came to connect with those days of the month my mother smelled so horrid." Elizabeth Bennet Darcy seated herself at the other end of the couch. Her posture remained so ramrod straight my own back began to feel uncomfortable. I wondered how she could stand to sit without letting her spine touch the couch's (not exactly impeccable) cushions.

She folded her gloved hands in her lap and stared down at them for a few seconds before continuing. "It is a damnable admission," she said. Her lips pressed tightly together, but she shrugged. "I fully expect my own children feel the same as I did. Certainly Darcy has done nothing to prevent their doing so."

I shifted to face her, tucked my feet under my buttocks, and leaned my elbow on the couch cushions she disdained to touch. "You said something earlier about things being different after your first pregnancy." She turned her head to look at me. "Does that mean that menstruation wasn't really what screwed everything up?"

Her eyebrows twitched, and I wondered if she meant to question my use of screwed up, or whether she intended to rebuke me for assuming that everything between her and Darcy was, in fact, "screwed up." "I thought simplistic cause-and-effect reasoning went out with Nietzsche," she said in a voice I could swear only thinly veiled a shrewish superciliousness.

With this riposte I regained my consciousness of her phantasmic ontological status. Staring with fresh amazement at such anachronistically gowned apparent carnality seated on my stained, shabby couch, I wondered why I had imaged her rather than someone out of (real) history. Could it have something to do with my obsession with John? He had, after all, given me his book and told me that if I knew how to read I'd learn everything that mattered about him by reading it. A whiff of irritation flicked at me, reminding me of how jarring I had found his insistence on linking his academic monograph with the social and personal self I found so sexually appealing. I had almost retorted that I was interested in his body more than his mind, or that I wanted to be his lover, not his disciple, but instead had merely queried in a light, teasing voice, "Every thing, John?" Rather than acknowledge my point, he'd twisted his mouth into a leer and narrowed his eyes and growled "Yes, every thing." What else could I have done but accept the book and take it home and place it dutifully on my nightstand (and then promptly forget his demand that I read it)?

My visitor, who had been keeping oddly still, now listed slightly away from me; sighing, she rested her pink silk elbow on the ratty old arm of the couch. "I can't begin to address the reasons for any of it," she said wearily. She leaned the side of her head onto the knuckles of her smoothly gloved fist and slewed her eyes sideways at me. "But that was when he began physically abusing me. And afterwards, when the child was discovered to be a girl rather than a boy... " She bit her lip. "You must understand that the only reason someone like Darcy has children is for the name. And it is always assumed it is the wife's fault if the sex of the child is not right." She stared down into her lap. "And to think poor dear Georgie blames herself for his brutal streak. She's always whispering to me that it was her elopement with that wretched Wickham that brought it out in him." My visitor slid a cold, inquiring look at me. "Each time she talks that way I assure her the business with Wickham has nothing to do with it. But I sometimes wonder ... "

She was saying that Darcy beat her? Darcy? Unfortunately, as soon as I put the emphasis on Darcy, it didn't seem that implausible. And her, with such a sharp tongue...

I felt sick--- and then abruptly, blindingly angry. "I told you before, I don't want to hear it," I railed at her. "It's not my problem. Anyway, you're not a real person and you never were so this whole thing is insane and goddam nothing to do with me!"

All the while I screeched at her she sat absolutely still, her face expressionless, her eyes disquietingly knowledgeable. "What a stake you seem to have in mere make-believe," she murmured after perhaps half a minute. "Why if it's nothing to do with you does my telling you make you so angry?"

Naturally her saying that made me all the angrier.

"Is it a matter, do you think, of killing the messenger?" Her eyebrows leaped into her curls, drawing her eyes astonishingly wide. "But if I'm the messenger, precisely what message is it that is so distressing to you?"

That did it. Determined to ignore her, I heaved myself up from the couch, crammed into my bag the stack of student essays I had planned to spend the afternoon grading, and marched myself down the stairs and out onto the street. Surely the apparition would not follow me to (of all places!) the Coffee Corner. I felt certain its punk atmosphere would be inimical to Elizabeth Bennet, and could not conceive her erect-back silken refinement surviving its grungy found-object million-times-recycled fifties ambiance.

Apparently I was right. My visitor did not follow me out the apartment, nor appear to me again that day. The seeming realness of the experience faded quickly, and by the following Wednesday when I met John for dinner I'd nearly forgotten it.

But then I had, you see, other things on my mind than the marital relations of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

Since I had a pretty fair idea that Wednesday would be the night, I barely got through the day with my graduate student scalp intact. Somehow I managed to sweat out the first draft of a review essay for my reading course in Reformation Politics, teach three classes in a row after lunch, and survive two seminar hours with the department's most infamous sadist (who unfortunately takes a certain special interest in me). By 5 p.m. my neck and head ached with tension and I was beginning to feel irritated that John would see me only on weeknights (since weekends belong to his kids).

Still, I had such quality fantasizing under my belt that a quick sherry with a few of my peers wiped out most of my edginess and put me in the mood for seducing John come hell or high water. Tonight, I vowed, or never.

So I guess I was in a slightly more aggressive mood than John had ever seen me... And though because of my excitement about the evening's assignation I'd had trouble keeping my mind on the post-seminar sherry talk, as I drove to his house I unfortunately lapsed into ruminating on those bits of nastiness in the seminar my peers had been discussing over sherry. As a result, by the time I pulled into John's driveway I'd worked myself into a lather over The Sadist and his rumored past crimes extending some ten years back. It was common knowledge he'd been sent to Vienna when the parents of an undergraduate in whose dorm room he one night appeared had gotten a little obstreperous with the department chair. Banishment to Vienna doesn't seem like much of a punishment to me, but then I've heard faculty claim that the chair's rebuke of The Sadist in a departmental meeting had been considered scandalous, and had been resented by a few of the jerk's cronies.

And so I was gnawing on this old bone (rather than working myself up over John) when I rang the doorbell. I had been fantasizing the moment for weeks. And was my body tingling, were my breasts aching, my pants wet? No, they were not! As I look back at it now, I don't quite understand how I could have gotten myself so lathered up over something I'd been angry about for the two and a half years I'd been in graduate school. Perhaps it was the nastiness of the seminar. Or maybe it was an unconsciously engineered distraction from thinking about something that would otherwise have me bouncing-off-the-walls with nerves and excitement. But when John opened the door and--- bathed in the sickly yellow porch light--- leered at me, for just the tiniest instant he resembled The Sadist. Quickly he pulled me inside, as though worried about what the neighbors might see. "You're late," he said. And whisked my jacket off my body and into his coat closet. Seizing my elbow he hustled me into the dark, flickery living room lit only by the flames of the wood burning in the fireplace. "What took you so long? And do you like your sherry fino, medium or sweet?"

I specified fino, and observed he already had a glass sitting on a table by the fireplace where he'd apparently been tending the flames and sipping.

"Dinner can be at any time we want it," he said as he handed me a glass. "But then that's the beauty of microwaves, possibly the single advantage to living in this uncivilized century." He plopped himself down beside me and slid his arm around my waist.

"Oh don't tell me you're one of those anachronist types," I grumbled, annoyed to think he might actually mean what he'd said. "I can assure you that I'm not a medievalist because I think it would have been fun to live in the middle ages." I always offer my students the grottier details of life in the middle ages since there's usually at least one person in every class who takes the course because s/he is starry-eyed about knights and damsels and jousts.

John chided me. "But where is your sense of romance?" His hand crept lower, to my hip. It worried me that his touch wasn't creating the shimmering waves of sensation I'd come to expect. "Civilization is practically dead," he moaned, "while romance has been pre-empted." He gestured at the fire crackling fast and bright and hot. "Wood fires and candlelight are about all we know now of romance. Civility is at an all-time low, and women's liberation has killed chivalry. The social life of our times is pretty damned bleak if you ask me."

Women's liberation has killed chivalry, I repeated to myself as an image of The Sadist sprang into my mind. Did "women's liberation" spawn that particular specimen of unchivalrousness, or was it merely that we no longer knew chivalry when we saw it, since some of us at least no longer pretended to like that kind of male attention?

That terrible sinking sensation stole over me. How on such a longed-for occasion could I have allowed myself to get so irritable? I'd thought I liked (besides having been attracted to) John. But now as I viewed his face from the side I could see despite the softness of the firelight the heaviness of age pulling his jaw into what would soon be jowls, I could see the thin querulous oldness of his lips.

What am I doing here? I anxiously queried myself.

I had gone blank. I couldn't remember what I'd seen in him. Instead, my mind screened pictures of myself fielding the Sadist's amused, narrow-eyed, I'm-gonna-get-you-someday-and-boy-will-that-be-fun glances across the seminar table at me.

"Excuse me a minute," John said. While I'd been woolgathering he'd withdrawn his arm and risen to his feet. Had he said anything after his complaint about the murder of chivalry? (I know I hadn't, since if I had it would have been something unforgivable.) I felt guilty for having failed to play the scene correctly. (Adapting, after all, is the role assigned to women.) The silence of the room, the heat and roar of the fire pressed on my nerves. Disconcerted, I gulped the rest of my sherry and debated whether John would think badly of me if I helped myself to more.

"I'm glad to hear you know you wouldn't prefer to live in the eighteenth century," her brisk, British voice softly announced her presence.

I don't know why, but I didn't jump out of my skin or even gasp. A scorching streak of sensation briefly seared my insides, leaving me almost at once in calm, unsurprised consciousness of her presence in John's living room with me. For a few seconds I kept my eyes fixed on the fire, then casually glanced over my shoulder and found her seated on John's linen-upholstered chair just behind me. Even in the dim light I could see that she wore diamonds and evening clothes. "Your timing's for shit," I hissed at her, concerned lest John hear me talking out loud to myself.

"It is you who determined the timing," she said. The pale blur of her hand fluttered through the orange darkness, and I began to make out her shadowed flicker-lit features. I couldn't see well enough to gauge what effect (if any) my scatology had on her, but the quickness of her reply and smoothness of her voice made me think she hadn't gotten it. "Bearing in mind that it has something to do with his inability to see you as you are, ask yourself why he can't see me as I really am," she suggested.

I made a rude noise. "He can't see you because you don't exist."

"That's not the point, is it."

John chose that moment to return. Well before he came within touching range of me I nearly gagged at the reek of cologne he must have just doused himself with. And then when he lowered himself onto the cushions beside me I smelled the minty mouthwash on his breath--- and observed that he'd brought a copy of his damned monograph with him, too. Talk about off-putting! Surely, I thought, this isn't what John is really like! Surely it's just a moment of childish aberration born of nervousness, and not fatuous vanity! "Sorry to take so long," he said. "The cleaning woman's been moving my things around again. God knows why she put my book under the bed, but believe it or not, that's where I found it." He nervously cleared his throat, then launched into a sort of tuneless whistling half under his breath.

Do you always clutch your book to your bosom the first time you go to bed with someone? I contemplated asking him.

"He probably sleeps with it under his pillow every night," Elizabeth Bennet's voice softly insinuated in my ear.

"Have you read it yet?" he asked me point-blank.

His question set my teeth on edge. Did he take me for his student? "I'm afraid I've been a little busy, John, preparing for prelims," I said. "I don't have much spare time for doing outside reading."

"Oh," he said, sounding wounded. "I'd rather hoped you had. What I told you about it is true, you know. My very soul's written into that book."

"If he truly believes that, then you're in trouble," Elizabeth Bennet warned from the shadows. "The utter shallowness of---"

I wanted to yell at her to shut up. But John's louder, more fully bodied voice spoke only inches from my other ear, overriding the ghostly denunciation: "But of course I don't need to tell you---" and now his arms went around me, surrounding me with the sickening sweet stench of his cheap cologne--- "that what Man looks for in Woman is the image and reflection of his soul." His lips snatched at mine. Yes, snatched. This lip-mouth-teeth-tongue encounter bore no resemblance to those we'd previously (so fleetingly) shared. In a horrid moment of physical alienation, I experienced the contact as merely lips and mouth incomprehensibly gobbling at me. In no way did it feel like a kiss. And my awareness of his hands plucking at my bra strap and his big paunch of a belly (which I'd never before much noticed) butting into my midriff made me not only claustrophobic, but embarrassed.

I vowed that once the "kiss" had ended I would somehow extricate myself and beat a fast retreat. He'd be angry at me for it, but I was beginning not to care what he thought of me.

"You know what Man looks for in Woman," Elizabeth Bennet murmured in my ear. "If you wanted to please him, you should have read his book. You knew that's what he wanted, didn't you?"

How disingenuous, I seethed. As if Elizabeth Bennet hadn't wanted to please Darcy all the time she was giving him the cold shoulder! I, at least, had never been so dishonest! Abruptly I withdrew my face from John's mouth. "What do you think Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy's marriage would have been like ten or fifteen years down the line?" I asked him.

He blinked like a child woken without warning into light. "What? What do you mean?"

"Do you think she might have put on a lot of weight from childbearing? And maybe become like her mother? And what about Darcy? How would he have behaved during, say, quarrels? I suppose you do admit they on occasion quarreled?"

He stared at me as though I'd metamorphosed into a freak. "What are you talking about?"

I repeated my questions. "Haven't you ever wondered how things would have worked out afterwards when the romance had gone?"

He frowned. "There's no reason to believe the romance would ever have gone! Not between such ideal lovers." His eyes and mouth expressed professorial disapproval. "You're confusing reality with literature--- the very thing you historians are always accusing us lit men of doing."

Us lit men! "No," I insisted. "I'm talking about imagination, not reality! Have you really so little imagination that you can't try to extrapolate a little from the text and what you know of the society it was modeled on?"

"What's the fucking point?" He was getting really, really, testy. "Who cares what they would have been like later? They're perfect as they've been depicted in the text! They're forever the ideal, perfect lovers, young and fresh and immortal!"

I hate it when my bra is hanging loose, undone, with my breasts half in and out of the cups. It griped me that he'd undone it and that now I was stuck trying to refasten it without first getting most of the way undressed. "What's the harm in imagining?" I said, pushing it. "It's not as though I'm asking you to write a book or deliver a public lecture on the subject!"

His mouth dropped open. I think it was only then that he realized I was no longer the melting eager-for-flesh-to-flesh-contact young thing he'd been all along seeing me as. (Yes, Elizabeth Bennet was right about his not seeing me, damn her!) "I don't think I understand just what it is you want me to imagine," he said in a dry, detached voice it occurred to me must belong to his professorial persona.

"Well, imagine the lovely Elizabeth with her period, nineteenth-century style. Just what would someone as haughty and supercilious as Darcy have made of that?" My arms were beginning to ache from the effort of matching four hooks to four eyes somewhere in the middle of my back.

John sighed. "But why must we imagine such a mundane, ugly thing as that? I don't understand you feminists. You seem determined to reduce everything to its grossest, coarsest dimensions." His fingers drummed an irregular tattoo on the front cover of his book. "Elizabeth's menstruation has nothing to do with anything. Worrying about it is like wondering whether or not Charlemagne wore underwear."

Defeated by my bra strap, I struggled to my feet. "Could you point me towards the bathroom, please?" I asked in my politest social voice.

"Last door at the end of the hall."

I groped my way through the living room. My apparition appeared nowhere in sight. In the bathroom I noted--- and regretted--- the claw-footed tub I knew now I'd never have the pleasure of using. As I straightened my clothing I assured myself there would be no unpleasantness, that John's chivalrous romanticism would see to that. It was a case of mistaken identity, I imagined saying to him.

On my return to the living room I found her standing with her back to the fireplace, staring down at him. She lifted her head to look at me, and the diamonds in her ears caught a bit of the firelight. "He's as close as he's ever been to seeing me," she said. "But I know now it will take more work than you're prepared to give. It's obvious you've had more than enough of him, and there's still quite a distance to go."

Why, I wondered, did it matter that he be able to see my apparition? I went only part way into the living room. "I think it best that I go now, John," I said loudly.

He bounded to his feet. "What is it, what's wrong? You're not taking our little intellectual disagreement personally, are you?" He moved towards me, suddenly a shadow stalking prey. "I'm sure if we just talked about whatever it is that's upset you, given the immense attraction and respect we have for one another---"

"I'm sorry, John," I--- taking several large steps backwards--- interrupted. "But I'm just not into being a mirror for another person's soul. That's not my---"

"For god's sake!" John exclaimed, pursuing me into the front hall. "How can you deny the electricity between us?"

Not liking the expression on his face, I fumbled open the closet door and whipped out my jacket.

"I've failed some kind of feminist litmus test, haven't I," he said bitterly. "All that menstruation crap, it's some kind of Holy Grail with you, isn't it."

Jacket in hand, I darted past John, flipped open the dead-bolt on the front door and--- just barely slipping past his grabbing hands--- dashed out onto the porch into the safety of its thick mustard light. "Thanks for the sherry," I said, lamely offering a sop to the guilt tinging my relief.

John's reply was a sneer. "Sure, anytime."

My car started on the first try. Elizabeth spoke from the back-seat. "You're the third person through whom I've tried to get to him."

I located her fine, bright eyes in the rearview mirror. "I don't understand," I said crossly.

The porch light blinked off. "Maybe I'll have better fortune next time," my apparition mused. "You've certainly given me considerable insight into him."

I edged the car out of the driveway into the silent, empty street. "I've given you insight into him? I rather think it's the other way around. Since I'm real and you're not."

Elizabeth chuckled. "You think I've been haunting you for your own good?"

I put the car in first and accelerated up to second. "Why else would I have invented you? Your appearance helped me see and correct my mistake."

"You are as solipsistic as he is," my apparition remarked. "Ghosts usually don't haunt the living for their own good."

"All right. I bite. Why do ghosts--- presuming a character in a novel can be such a thing--- haunt the living?"

"I've told you already. Ghosts haunt the living because the living don't allow them to rest. In this case, your John is a significant obstacle. I'm tired, my dear. I'd like an end to the lies and misrepresentations so that I can Rest In Peace."

My John indeed.

And with that last jibe Elizabeth Bennet vanished. I never saw her again. I wonder, though, whether John ever did?

This story was published as a Short Story Paperback by Pulphouse in 1991.

back to homepage