a professor's fate

I had been judged and sentenced, by a jury of one.

The man was not yet a Pulitzer Prize-winner. Had not yet been discovered by Broadway. Had only just completed the play that would make him famous. No… then, in the very early years of the Reagan Administration, he was still only the Dean of the Drama Department at an unremarkable University, lost on a map, somewhere in the Great American Southwest. He also held my fate in his hands.

I had been discovered, by him, to be an undesirable. Making money to pay for my tuition and books by cashing in on the desperation of professional men. Some, like the professor in question, a friend of the man sitting before me, were married with kids. They were also miserable, lonely and on the verge of despair. That’s where I came in. I made them feel better about themselves. I gave them what was missing from their lives. And I took their money, as payment, both for my time and to ensure that their dirty little secrets remained that way.

As I sat across the desk from this morose looking man, with the penetrating eyes and the grim set to his lips, I felt the balance tipping. Because the man in question was a friend of his, he wouldn’t have me suspended from the University proper, but he no longer wanted me as a member of his little enclave. I was no longer welcome to be a Drama major. I could choose any other major, or I could have my “secret” made public. An ultimatum. I fingered the folded piece of paper in my pocket and considered.

“Fine,” I said. “So, I’m no longer a theater student. I wasn’t really learning anything here, anyway.”

He made a dismissive gesture. “People like you seldom do,” he sneered.

My anger almost got the better of me. I had been judged and sentenced, by a jury of one. I wondered what he might think if he knew the truth of the matter. Would he come so quickly to the aid of his friend, if he knew that the betrayal was far more intimate than he had assumed? Had I known, then, that this little slice of life, MY life, would some day become part of what he would later refer to as one of his “reflections of sorrow and fear,” I might have reconsidered. Then again, maybe not. I actually liked the play, when I saw it, even though the character he had based on me was completely fabricated based on this one meeting.

But that was years in the future. All I had to go on now, was the situation as I held it, crumpled in the palm of my hand. The piece of paper in my pocket could have changed everything. I had no doubt in my mind. Looking into this man’s steely eyes, I knew that, to him, it was all very black and white. The note could, and would, irrevocably change that. If, that is, I had been willing to reveal it. But a deal’s a deal and just because the other party decided to dishonor it, didn’t mean I should follow suit. I had a reputation to uphold, after all. So, I smiled and left his office.

Once back at my little apartment, I took the folded piece of paper from my pocket and re-read it again. It was a love note from the very man who had turned me in. An eloquent declaration of passion and undying love, from a man who lived his life in the theater and saw drama in every circumstance. A damning piece of evidence, from the married professor who, in a drunken panic, had confessed to his friend, the Dean, that he had been “seduced” by one of his students.

I knew, even then, that had I thrown that note onto the Dean’s desk, on that fateful afternoon, I would still have been booted from the department. The professor in question, however, would, most likely, have lost his job. Probably his family, too. Definitely his friendship with the future great man. I figured, he had to live with himself. I was okay with what I’d done. All the way around.

Contemplating my future—maybe a change to journalism or literature in the coming semester—I fired up a doob and, placing the note in the ashtray, lay the match next to it. Tomorrow was another day and, hell, at least I would still be able to face myself in the mirror come morning. Then, as now, it was just a matter of perspective.

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