How to Approach a Man

by

John Kilgore

 

How she met Jeff—Jeff, her lover, her husband, eventually the father of her children—Karen, afterwards, was not good at explaining. But then, she was no great shakes at explaining anything: had a way of dropping her voice abruptly, or winging off on sudden tangents, or stopping dead in mid-sentence in fourth period Lit I to stare out the window, transfixed by the sight of a squirrel sauntering along the power line, sassy as a new coat of paint.

Oh, she rambled, she droned, she confused the kids. She put her beginnings last and her endings first and her middles nowhere. And she knew it. That was what brought her to the Powers Public Speaking Seminars in the first place.

That—and a fat check from her principal, who has more faith in such things than she does and feels "unboundless confidence" (as he puts it) in Karen as she approaches the milestone of her second year of full-time mediocre teaching. "Karen, we all love you here," says the principal. "I personally think you're terrific. But there's no way around it: your delivery parameters kind of, you know, suck." At the look on her face he raises his meaty ex-football player's hand, suddenly cautionary. "Now, don't slay the messenger."

Karen is not about to slay anyone, though she feels skeptical. Her theory is that people speak the way they think, more or less, and you're not going to change that with a long Saturday and half a Sunday of workshops. But she clips the flyer, she sends in the principal's money, she drives dutifully south and west to the seminars, in a modest hotel in a modest town about an hour from Chicago.

She is bent over signing the conference register, at 8:13 AM on a balmy spring Saturday, when she looks up to see a stranger with a round Michael Moriarty sort of face, Jeff something according to his name badge, smiling at her as he collects his glossy red folder. And right away she thinks, We'll be together. Just like that. Quiet but somehow certain. No lightning flashes, no trepidation of the spheres, but a sensation more like what happens when for a long time you have been looking for a set of drapes, say, to fit a particular window, and then one day when you're thinking about something else your eye falls on a pattern and you find yourself saying, There.

"Good morning," says Jeff. He turns, does an awkward little hitch so he can check her name badge, then heads down the hall to the kickoff lecture. Karen nods speechlessly, missing a beat. After a moment she follows down the hall, a little stunned, adrift. Who expected this? She's here on business. But till now the conference seemed pretty pointless, whereas now—well, there has to be a way to meet him.

The kickoff lecture ("The Role of the Speaker; Eye Contact and Diaphragmatic Breathing; Body Language; Other Basics" ) takes place in the "main ballroom," also surely the only ballroom, a space full of glare and shadow where the speaker occupies a low dais with state and national flags in stands off to one side, making Karen suspect that a Rotary or Cub Scout meeting was held here last night. She ends up sitting in a folding chair in the row behind Jeff, about three seats over, where she can study him on the sly. He isn't so much to look at, really, but she likes what she sees. Sandy blond hair, wide-set brown eyes, and small ears, the kind without lobes, it's a mutation or something but she finds it exotic, you think of taking hold of them like the two handles on those whadyacallit Greek vases. Amphorae. The other men here are mostly in suits but he's wearing soft jeans with a loosened tie, looking comfortable but still businesslike. Lean and square and exceptionally broad-shouldered, he's not much taller than her but must be nearly twice as wide. His fingers are long and flat (spatulate, she sometimes says in class, using the word just so she can stop and define it), his whole body has a sort of stretched-out Gumby look that makes her want to lean over and touch him, see if he's all real. She likes the way he sits, still and straight, not squirming the way people do in unfamiliar chairs.

Karen can tell a lot about people just by looking, in fact she can tell a lot about a lot of things, which is one of her problems as a public speaker. Everything hits her at once, bang, and she never knows where to begin. (There is a session later today, Organization and Priority, that she must be sure to attend; though on the other hand she sometimes feels that sticking to the point is a feature of small minds.) Looking at Jeff—peeping out of the corner of her eye but also looking straight at him for several long moments while she pretends to gaze at the speaker—she would bet that he owns a fishing pole, a Wok, many books, and a small dog, that he can paint a room with surprising speed, that he likes seeing certain movies several times.

In fact she could go further. In fact she does. Closing her eyes a moment (for the day has begun with a long drive and bad coffee, and she has that strange kind of sleepiness you can have when you're also excited)—closing her eyes, she pictures Jeff as a one-thing-at-a-time, stay-cool, follow-the-sequence sort of person. He checks all three mirrors before he starts the car. His socks go on before his pants, and he does not know how to steam open an envelope because he has never needed to. He files taxes in February, has gifts when needed, arrives at appointments five minutes early. Not that he's what her students have lately begun to call "anal," using a word that somehow escaped from dusty college Psychology texts: it's just the way things naturally happen with him.

So since she's just the opposite—an everything-at-once, topsy-turvy, devil-take-the hindmost sort of person—doesn't this make them perfect partners?

The conference folder includes a directory of participants, and Karen takes a look. Jeff's company is Midwest Datatronics, an annoying name she thinks, his title is "programmer," and he lives at least a hundred miles away from her. Bad news, but nothing is impossible. She can see it working: long drives through the corn and soy and milo, meeting halfway, sending notes back and forth during the week. It could be fun. Jeff might have a fully restored 1955 Slipstream trailer tucked away somewhere, under some pine trees next to a pond, and that could be their getaway.

Up on the platform the speaker is saying, "Aha! Now we are getting somewhere!" He uses his long pointer to tap a circle on the whiteboard that says REAL COMMUNICATION. Around this big circle are several little circles that say CONFUSION, EMBARRASSMENT, DISTRACTION, BOREDOM, and MIXED MESSAGES. At the bottom of the board is a crude drawing of a rocket ship, labeled ENERGY, which is blasting upwards toward the big circle. "Our rocket ship is getting us where we want to go!" cries the speaker. He has drawn the rocket with a little squiggle that makes it look, well, circumcised.

The woman on Karen's left leans over and whispers, "Do you see how much mousse he's wearing?"

Karen nods and smiles, having observed the same thing herself. She has one of those multi-track minds that can attend to several things at once, making a salad and listening to music while talking on the phone, that sort of thing. And just now she is noticing that Jeff has glanced her direction for the third time in ten minutes. Ordinarily she doesn't like getting checked out, who does, but this is discreet and brief, and anyway she's been doing some staring herself, cleverly disguising it as classroom attention. She has forgotten the feeling of being attracted to someone, the little spurts of adrenaline or hormones or whatever it is. It's nice. The taste of a Margarita when it's been six months since your last one.

It occurs to her that she is being, really now, pretty silly, given that so far exactly two words, both his, have passed between them. Still, it's a fact that Karen is available these days. For a long time after David, she just couldn't take an interest in anyone, and then she promised herself that work would take first, second, and third priority this year. Which it has, though to make sure she isn't kidding herself she keeps count of invitations she's turned down, and so far it's been well over two a month, doing nicely, thank you.

And Jeff? One of the things you learn is that a great guy doesn't just beam down into your life one day, because if he's really great he's already involved, what else would he be? But Jeff has just looked her way for the fourth time in fourteen minutes, and she doesn't place him as the kind of guy who does that much looking if he has someone. Though of course she could be wrong. She was about David. Wrong. About the looking and what it meant.

After the introductory session people drift out to the surprisingly dingy foyer that connects all the meeting rooms. Karen finds herself in a group that stands around in an overlarge circle, chatting awkwardly and rather oddly. They are all strangers, all of them suffer from weak communication skills, and everyone keeps speaking too loud or too soft or at the wrong time.

"Nice day."

"Really, really, really."

"I remember weather like this once. It was in Wisconsin. We never had anything like it, there at the lake. Before that, Roger was still in school."

"How did you, uh, you know, the speaker?"

"Really great."

"For me it's a sort of bird-and-butter issue. I'm in sales."

Then Jeff walks by, speaking with the instructor who just lectured, smiling as he passes. Karen smiles back, and a little later she starts edging his way, ready to strike up a conversation. But instead she ends up doing what she always does at parties.

At parties, if there is someone Karen really wants to speak to, she always speaks to someone else first, and then to someone else, in fact to anyone who comes her way, and often she never does get to the person she is really interested in. She doesn't know why. David used to tell her, in that flat final way of his, "It's because you have an inferiority complex. You always think the person you're talking to outranks you, so they have to be the one to break off the conversation."

"Outranks?" said Karen.

"Sure," said David. "There's always a pecking order, you know. There's been studies, comparing cocktail parties to baboon colonies, I think it was." His voice had that warm tremor it got, faux friendly, when he trotted out a favorite theory.

"Maybe people aren't like baboons," said Karen.

"Sure they are," David shot back. "There's been studies. They measure eye movements or something. Everyone decides really quick if they're more interesting, less interesting, or about equal to everyone else. Then the more interesting guests have to break off the conversations with the less interesting ones, never vice versa. The longest conversations take place between the equals, because no one knows who should make the first move."

"I just try not to be rude," Karen said.

David looked grim, let down. "That's insecurity talking, sweetie. If you never break off first, you lose all your own status. You spend all night talking to the most boring, insecure people at the party."

Well, that was David. Karen always thought he had a strange concept of parties. Before they went to one he would be like an athlete preparing for a big game, exhilarated and tense, running over in his head the things he meant to say. And sometimes as they rode home afterwards he would be drunk not so much with booze as with triumph, making fun of the other guests, saying one nasty thing after another about these people who were supposed to be his friends. It was true that he was popular, though, holding the floor with one funny story after another. She got invited everywhere with him. Once Karen told him that he was missing the point, but he got so hurt and huffy she didn't pursue it. When the world didn't measure up to his alpha-male ideas David was subject to blue moods, spells of silence, fits of unmanly tears.

So today, as the too-large circle finally breaks up, she finds herself talking to the nice man next to her, dark and small and strange, in a turban and handlebar moustache and the kind of three-piece suit she has never seen except in old movies, smelling slightly of curry, with English that is rapid and fluent but heavily accented and full of nonexistent words he seems to think he's heard somewhere: togethering, enthusious, pleasureful, homish. He says his country just once, fast, and she never does get it straight. But it turns out he is some kind of minor diplomat, Third Secretary of ________, "no longer junior but not extremely senior" as he puts it. He and his family have only been in-country for four months, and now his embassy has sent him to the Seminars because he will be making public appearances from time to time and they want him to work on his English.

All this is really interesting and Karen listens happily enough, sneaking just a glance or two over at Jeff, who has gotten into a conversation with a small blonde woman in slacks, Susan something, and is listening to her in what happens to be, no fooling, the very posture that David used to say was typical for someone trapped in an unwanted conversation—head bent, face blank, one hand cupped over an elbow.

So before you know it the whole break (35 minutes: the Powers people don't seem too concerned about giving the customers full measure) has gone, and the group starts drifting toward the door. Karen says goodbye to Reginald, her foreign friend, and heads for the Organization and Priority room. But at the last instant she swerves and goes to Connecting and Responding instead, a little startled at herself, following Jeff's square back; only then to prove she isn't bird-dogging him (as her grandmother would say), she walks right past and takes a seat in front: where she then has to sit through the whole session without taking a single peek.

It is lunchtime before they meet. Karen has gotten caught up in a small group from her last seminar, including a Judy and an Alicia and Reginald, who is holding forth in his curious way, discussing agricultural customs of his country as if lunch were an extra-credit project, when Jeff comes up with his tray and joins them. Karen likes the low-key way he does it, not bothering with any clever lines. But after a minute he asks her, "So, what are you in for?" like someone in an old prison movie, and she giggles.

"Confusing my students. You?"

He tells her, and they chat. It turns out she was right about the books and the dog, wrong about the fishing pole. He eats his meal slowly, finishing each item before he goes on to the next one, and never tries to speak with his mouth full. Ringless, he says nothing about a wife or girlfriend. But Karen has never been too good at small talk, and today she is nervous. She finds herself telling him entirely too much about her cat, Hester Prynne, wondering the whole time why on earth she chooses that, does she want him to think she's a cat lady? He gives her an amused, slightly fuddled look and she makes a desperate segue into even more unpromising terrain, David's aquarium, with the two depressed piranha that had to be force-fed. Lord, she thinks, I'm a whole zoo today. How do people ever get all the way from Pleased to meetcha to I want to bear your children? It seemed such an easy step this morning when she had her vision; now it feels like a leap across the Grand Canyon.

Then they have to dash off to a surprisingly busy afternoon, full of small seminars and workshops that keep taking them into separate orbits. She keeps seeing Jeff hurrying down hallways, standing on the other side of crowded rooms, smiling at her over other heads. She grows impatient. These ditzy meetings are not teaching her a thing about public speaking, but they completely prevent private speaking.

The only high point of the afternoon is the Extemporaneous Presentation seminar. In this class all the participants draw topics from a little box that the session leader passes around, then take turns delivering four minute speeches. Karen's topic is "Integrity: Your Key to The Future," which instantly strikes her as such a lame, loser, unbelievably moronic theme that she goes into shock and denial, wasting all her prep time doodling and sneaking peeks at Jeff. When her turn comes she gets up and says, "I'm going to explain why I hate topics like this" and gets a nice opening laugh, but after that it's all pretty tough sledding, she does a little riff on abstractions and buzzwords and how the world is too full of people talking at you not to you, saying what they don't mean and wanting you to agree, but it's all too deep and sudden, Chapter 7 of the book you haven't read the first six Chapters of, so by the end she is getting mainly blank stares from this room full of stammerers, mumblers, ramblers, and hopelessly shy people. Actually this is a low point.

But the high point is Jeff's speech. As he gets up to speak on his assigned topic, "an aspect of your job that you find rewarding," he gives Karen a little smile and half a wink, then stands in front of the group without a trace of nervousness, not a twitch, not a flinch, not the ghost of a blush or a stammer, hands comfortably in his pockets till he begins, face relaxed but eyes lively, in a calm so absolute that it is, she swears, weirdly and undeniably erotic. Taking no more than three of his four minutes, speaking in a clear and easy baritone, in sentences without parentheses or dashes or too many commas, he explains how he works on a computer program that designs personalized mechanical limbs for late-life amputees. As he finishes the big woman with frosted hair sitting next to Karen, Judy something, leans over and whispers, "My God, What's he doing here?"

As it happens Karen knows the answer to this and whispers back, "His company just wants him to. A policy for all their people that they have to do something like this every quarter." Judy pats her on the arm as if she must be old friends with him and deserve part of the credit, and in a small way Karen feels that she does, after all she's had a crush on him since 8:13.

A crush which seems doomed, with the conference now two-thirds over.

But on Saturday night the program calls for a dance, no less, back in the "main ballroom," where the Rotarians and Cub Scouts apparently have the night off. It's as if the organizers were saying okay, we admit we can't make you into good public speakers, but we can still have a good time. But Karen is pleased. Piece of cake, she thinks. Dancing is ten times better than conversation anyway, it says what conversation can't and says it quicker.

Only Jeff won't dance. Karen can't believe it. He hangs around the cash bar, listening to the music (CD's only, and a local oldies station, because the organizers are way too cheap for a band or even a DJ), nursing a beer, looking like he's enjoying himself—but not dancing. Karen goes over his way once, he comes hers twice and they talk, but he doesn't dance. And she doesn't want to ask him first, somehow this is important, she has her pride and frankly she's starting to get irked with him, standing there watching like a geek while she goes out on the floor with someone else, even looking (she could swear) a little forlorn and envious.

So choose your answer, Karen thinks. He's involved with someone after all (in which case he shouldn't keep giving her these swift secret glances and slightly overdone smiles). He's terminally uncoordinated. He's one of these gay guys who likes to hide it by flirting. Or maybe he's just having trouble with the non sequitur, professional (supposedly) seminars all day, forced bonding tonight. She could see his point, there.

In fact the true explanation is none of these, but something Jeff will tell her within a month, in that succinct and entirely credible way of his. "You were beautiful, but I didn't want to rush it. It wasn't quite time, you know?"

A sweet answer once he puts it that way. A sweet man. But back at the conference Karen does not yet know this, she is getting irritated, and a new complication, Vince, has reared its curly head. Vince is one of the session leaders, he is big and dark and wears a blue-green suit with a loud yellow tie, he has two garnets in his left ear. Something about him reminds her of pitch-men at carnivals. She has been in two of his seminars today and twice, now, he has asked her to "volunteer" to help him in his demonstrations. In between times he has been doing Diaphragmatic Breathing in her vicinity, he has been practicing Carefully Prolonged Eye Contact on her and making Dynamic Gestures where he thinks they will be most impressive to her. Altogether he is a slug.

And now tonight he keeps asking her to dance, he buys her drinks she hasn't asked for, he smirks and leans and tries to corner her. Meanwhile she notices that several other instructors are homing in on the women they have decided are most desirable, and from their confidence it is obvious they think a caste system is operating here: Me teacher, you student. The whole concept is incredibly annoying. From where she's sitting, the instructors in this overpriced anti-mumbling clinic look like the hired help, not the brass.

Only the thing is, letting Vince hang around helps her talk to Jeff. Appalling but true. She and Jeff can talk and joke but there's no question of either of them making a pass because Vince has already, so to speak, taken that part. After two drinks she finds the situation amusing, but after four it seems depressing. She gets angry with Jeff and his ridiculous shyness (if that is what it is). She flirts with Vince, dances with him. She has another drink and they dance a slow dance and, well, she's only human, a slow warmth starts stealing over her and she realizes that this evening could have a truly disgusting end. She goes for her sweater.

Surprised, angry, Vince nevertheless manages his Gentleman's Quarterly smirk as he catches up to her near the door. "How about if I come by your room later, precious?" Karen faces him directly, with Prolonged Eye Contact. Breathing easily from the diaphragm, she tells him, "Vince, drop dead. Please. Right now."

Which leaves Sunday morning.

There is a breakfast in one of the conference rooms, "continental" of course, fruit cups and four different kinds of heavy pastry heaped on trays next to a dozen thermos pitchers full of lukewarm coffee, the table covered by a scarlet cloth that clashes with both the fruit cups and Karen's hangover. Feeling rumpled and irritable in a turquoise cotton dress that did not travel well, Karen is eyeing the layout dubiously when Jeff comes into the room. He looks good this morning, taller than she had realized, wide awake. Dressier than yesterday, he wears slacks, a pinstripe shirt, a quiet tie, as if he has something more important to do after he finishes here. Late church, conceivably. With the sleeves rolled to his elbows his forearms look tan and very strong, and she remembers him saying he splits his own wood for his fireplace.

And suddenly Karen is furious with him. Angry beyond anything she has a rational excuse for. Where it comes from she doesn't have a chance to think, beyond an instant's flashback to the way he watched her last night while she was dancing with Vince. Wimp! Idiot! He moves toward her, ready to say hello.

Karen walks straight to Vince's table and sits down.

Vince is methodically chewing the first of three pastries, leaning over his plate, face sullen and sleepy. His eyes widen as she sits down, but at first he says nothing. Clearly he thinks he is owed an explanation. His suit, charcoal with the sort of plaid you can only see under the light, looks expensive and tailored, but he has cufflinks that seem to be made of plastic. There is more flesh under his jaw, around his eyes, than she had noticed last night after four drinks, and a deep wrinkle has been baked into his cardboard-stiff shirt.

"Well, did you get plenty of sleep last night?" he manages at last, with just the right emphasis to keep the remark from being either innocent or friendly. He gives her one of those looks men give women: as if she is an object whose use he can't guess.

"Actually I could have used another hour," Karen tells him. "I'm not sure my speech is ready."

He blinks, trying to follow her logic. Karen adds, "What I mean is, if I'd had another hour after the dance, before I went to bed, I could have prepared more." All the participants are supposed to deliver final speeches in their seminars this morning, showing off what they have learned. Another reason the dance was at best a very strange idea. Karen has no idea what she will speak on, she means to listen to the others and see what comes to her.

Vince thinks for a moment, then purses his lips and says, "Well, maybe you should have left earlier."

The meanness is perfectly deliberate, and Karen is already, even if it's not at him, inwardly boiling. So she decides to let Vince have it. She elects to take his head off, right here and now.

Trouble is, she's never been all that quick with a quip. When you think about it it's funny that she teaches English, or teaches at all, because the kids are so lippy and you have to contend with that; but with them it never seems to matter so much what she says, the only trick is that if you care and you're not scared, which she does and she isn't, the kids know it. She got mad one day and told Timo Estes, "Don't play dead with me!" and nobody laughed.

But this morning, sitting here steaming, ready to take Vince's head off (which is funny because it's really Jeff she's mad at), Karen draws a blank. Can't find a word. Nada. It is what Steve, one of the other instructors, has called Speaker's Block, a malady for which he recommended Not Panicking and Creative Visualization and other remedies which Karen, from her rich experience of losing the thread in Rooms 101W and 215E, has already discovered for herself. She feels herself coloring, she looks back at Vince with Eye Contact that is Prolonged, but None Too Carefully, and registers with sinking certainty that she looks hurt and befuddled and now this creep probably thinks boy, he really shut her up with that one.

Which of course he has.

The table starts to fill up, other students coming over to join Vince now that Karen has broken the ice. Barry the stammering law student who needs to clip his nose hairs, Judy who wants to start her own hobby shop and give ceramics classes, Samantha the compulsively muttering trainer for a chain of convenience stores—they have all had workshops together and shared short biographies and revealed roughly equivalent goals and weaknesses, after which there was the dance, and now they are all bound together in slightly hysterical bonhomie. There is a quick round-robin of good mornings and how-are-yous, just a shade too meticulous. Now that he has a crowd, Vince becomes Mr. Personality again, all nods and smiles, wishing everyone luck on their presentations. Before long he is holding forth with some thoughts carried over from his Metaphor and Anecdote seminar yesterday, Judy and Samantha looking on with expressions so sappy Karen wishes she could take a photo and mail it to them later.

The seat at the end of the table, on her left, is still empty, and suddenly Jeff is standing there with his fruit cup and his coffee.

He says, "Mind if I sit here, Karen?"

Karen shrugs and says, more loudly than she intends, "Seat's empty." Then she turns away from him, putting both elbows on the table and gazing at Vince.

It's not much, but in this tense overpolite company, everyone notices. Judy and Barry both give her a look and Samantha twitches, resisting the impulse. There has been a lot of talk about Nonverbal Messages at the conference, and the way Karen is sitting, screening Jeff off from the rest of the table, sends one that is none too subtle.

Meanwhile Vince, on a roll, is explaining one more time the importance of lacing your presentation with pictures and stories. "You have to turn on the camera along with the microphone," he quips, cleverly enough, except that he already said that yesterday. She pictures how her back will look from Jeff's point of view and feels annoyed that the zipper sheath on this particular dress is pooched in a couple of spots—annoyed with herself, annoyed with Vince, and therefore all the more annoyed with Jeff, after all if he weren't such a disappointment she wouldn't have to be treating him in this shabby way. She listens to Vince blather and watches his tan self-satisfied face, wishing again that she could tell him off, and notices his left hand, which in the morning light reveals a detail that was not, she swears, visible yesterday: a faint pale circlet of lighter skin on the ring finger.

Which isn't really all that significant, she already thought he was a cheeseball, but somehow this is what gives her the final impetus to lean forward and interrupt him.

"You know," she says, loud. "This is all such bullshit."

In the silence that follows you can hear the click of dishes being stacked in the kitchen, the squeak of someone's rubber soles on the parquet. Vince's handsome face goes a little flatter as he tucks his chin back, Karen read once how that's part of the fight-or-flee reflex, you do it to protect your jaw against a knockout punch. Oh, boy. She feels a spinning, tingly energy that is not quite dismay.

"What do you mean?" Vince says coldly, getting the jaw back into motion.

What, indeed? She was shooting strictly from the hip. But strangely this does not seem to be a problem. Karen lets a palm flop out into the air over the table, languid, confident. "I mean, you can't possibly stand there in front of a group, making your presentation, and think about all this stuff. Eye contact and Diaphragmatic Breathing. Organization and Priority. Metaphor and Anecdote. Connecting and Responding," she says, ticking off the titles of the seminars. "You'd forget everything you were trying to say! I mean, you people have rolled through the whole first day without once, in my opinion, ever mentioning the only thing that really matters: having something to say, and meaning it." While she says all this Karen reads the expressions of the other people at the table, something she has no trouble doing, she has one of those multi-track minds. What she sees is that the others, women particularly, are giving her indignant expressions: spines stiffening, eyes wider.

Vince looks affronted but not cowed. "Oh, con-tent," he says airily. "We talked about that right at the beginning, remember? This isn't a conference about that. What we try to do—"

"And it's all so insincere!" Karen exclaims. The word makes Barry wince slightly, she notices, but Jeff, who has shifted around the end of the table to listen better, merely looks thoughtful. "All this stuff about eye contact and getting people's names and reinforcing questioners. Like people have buttons and all you have to do is push the right ones. I mean, it's just so typical of the way a man would think."

"Of—what?" says Vince, taken off guard by the last thing she said.

Samantha, who has been ready to object, instead looks surprised and says, "Yeah," half under her breath.

Karen has one of those feelings again. There. This picture on that wall. That place to look for a lost key. This bit of encouragement for a struggling student. She leans toward Vince, taps her nail on the table. "And the participants, sixty per cent of us here, maybe more like seventy, are women. So of course you give us six male instructors, six out of six."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Vince says.

As if on cue, all three women at the table laugh together. "Everything," says Karen.

"All those things you're saying to do," Samantha explains, not unkindly. "Eye contact. Non-threatening postures. Audience Awareness. We do all that already, mostly."

"It is sort of obvious," says Judy.

Jeff laughs suddenly. "Oh, I don't know. I found some of it pretty useful."

"And you're a man," says Samantha. "See what we mean?"

Vince looks wounded, defensive. He has put his hands under the table and his lower lip is sticking out. "So what are you saying? The whole experience was a waste for you? You want a refund?"

"And then that dance!" says Karen, ignoring his question. "I mean, what was that? You talk past us for a day, then just to really prove you don't take us seriously, you turn down the lights and start trying to pick us up?"

At this Samantha looks much less certain. But Judy nods her head grimly. "That dance had no professional purpose whatsoever," she says gravely; then suddenly blushes—probably, Karen thinks, because she is a bit overweight, fifty pounds or so, and thinks it will look like that's where she's coming from.

"Exactly right," she says firmly, to reassure Judy.

"I'm sorry to hear all this," says Jeff, sounding worried. "Frankly, I thought we were all having a pretty good time."

"And you!" says Karen. She whirls on him, realizing as she does that this is really what she has been waiting for, a halfway decent excuse to unload on him. Or any excuse. The barest pretext. "I'm not surprised you take Vince's side. I mean, this whole weekend is just a big joke to you, isn't it?"

Jeff is stunned. "I—" he says, swallows. "What do you mean?"

"What do I mean?" Karen echoes scornfully, with a look round at the other women, full of confidence that they share her thought. In fact she can tell from their body language that they don't have a clue. She's not all that clear about the concept herself, but there's no backing out now. "I mean, you don't even belong here," she says hotly. "You already speak as well as any of the instructors. Better. But does it ever occur to you that the rest of us have real problems we may be trying to work on? Do you ever think we may not appreciate being gawked at, by someone who finds the whole process so much easier than we do?"

To Karen's amazement Barry, the stuttering law student, down at the end of the table, nods emphatically at this, as if it is exactly what he has been thinking.

"Cripe's sake," says Vince, and everyone turns to him. But apparently he has nothing to add to this.

"I never looked at it that way," says Jeff. His tone is less hurt or offended than puzzled, like he doesn't believe she means it. Which she doesn't, but since she's just accused him of thinking everything is a joke, taking that tone doesn't help his position.

"Well, you should," Karen says disgustedly. She jabs her spoon at him. "What do you think it says about you, that you always put yourself into a no-risk, no-lose situation? Does that make you a nice guy, or a stick in the mud?"

Samantha covers her mouth, appalled by this piece of unprovoked character assassination. But Jeff grins suddenly. "You know, I've been told something like this before."

"I'm sure you have," Karen says coldly. Irritated, out of ammunition, she realizes that there is only one way to end this tirade. She stands up. "As for me, I'm sick of this whole sideshow. I think I'll skip the last seminar, Vince, if you can spare me. I've got better things to do with my Sunday. Goodbye, everyone!"

And she whirls and stalks grandly off, hearing her half-heels, which she detests but has worn because they seem so businesslike, click angrily on the parquet. That's that, she thinks. She has made, she supposes, a complete fool of herself, an enemy of Vince, and an ex-friend of Jeff. She can imagine the conversation resuming back at the table, awkward, shell-shocked: What got into her? But somehow she doesn't feel so bad.

She has to go back to her room for her bag, and to get there she goes back outside, crossing a little patio. She finds herself in the middle of a beautiful crisp spring day, cool and sunny, trees everywhere showing the tips of new leaves. She will get back home in time to go over to her mother's, pick up Hester Prynne, and put in those tulip bulbs she got on sale last week. What did get into her, she wonders? No telling. A bad mood, strange surroundings, strange people, she just lost it for a bit.

By the time she gets her bag packed, Karen is whistling. She has a pretty good idea what got into her, after all. Look at it this way: he wasn't going to call, so what was there to lose? "And now there is that nice little directory of conference participants, tucked in among the other handouts in her glossy folder; and two good chances of her and Jeff speaking again. One, he calls to apologize for whatever it was that made her so mad. Two, she calls him to apologize for raking him over the coals like that.

But in fact neither possibility comes true, because just then there is a knock on the door. She opens it and there he is. The sunlight is coming right over his shoulder and his face, in the shadow, is a little hard to read. After a moment he says, "Was all that—back there, you know—some kind of act?"

Karen lifts her chin and smiles. The sun falls warm on her cheek and she feels very attractive, suddenly. "Whatever could you mean?" she says.

John Kilgore teaches literature and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has published work in THE NEBRASKA REVIEW, MCCALL'S, NEBULA, SPACE AND TIME, THE RIVER KING POETRY SUPPLEMENT, and elsewhere. He won Illinois Artists Fellowships in 1987 and again in 1998 and published a small collection, IMPROBABILITIES in 1991. Currently he is seeking a publisher for his novel RADIO ROGER, a fantasy epic set in a universe where apocalypse has become a bad habit. He can be reached at cfjdk[AT]eiu.edu (replace [AT] with @).

TOP

HOME

 

H
O
M
E

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

TOP