The Bad Project

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Chapter 31. Dr. Sandstrom’s Ethics/Marianne

Marianne and Liu sat on the stone wall near the dining hall after lunch.

“Okay, you wanted to talk to me.” Marianne said. “What is it?”

“You can’t do this. You can’t stop seeing me,” Liu said. The words sounded definite but he sounded unsure of himself. He looked at her out of the corner of his eyes. Marianne wondered if he was staging this scene to impress her or if he really was upset.

“Liu, I’ve tried to tell you. I wish there was a way to do this without hurting your feelings. I don’t belong to you. We’re done, we’re finished, no more.”

“I can’t handle it. I need you,” he said, louder, more confident in tone.

Marianne shook her head. She had to convince him. He wanted to change her. She stood up and brushed dead leaves off the back of her black jeans.

All of a sudden, he folded his head and shoulders down onto his knees. It sounded like he was crying but he didn’t let her see the tears. He wiped his face on his trousers. When he sat up, fists propped on thighs, his eyes blazed into hers. His spiky hair was disheveled.

“I don’t want to live if you leave me,” Liu said through clenched teeth. His face was red and she could see the muscles in his neck. “I die, then you will live with guilt forever. Better not do it, Marianne.” He jumped up and ran away, left her sitting there.

Marianne tried to balance the words and the way he’d acted against what she guessed he felt. The last words sounded manipulative when she repeated them to herself now, but they had seemed to come straight from his heart when he’d said them. She had felt a pain in her chest. She didn’t want to be his girlfriend, but she didn’t want him to die.

It had been such a short time. Had he really gotten so deeply committed to her? She had just been exploring the Bad, learning about sex. But he had gone a lot deeper than she had. Or he said he had, a tiny voice in her brain said cynically. She didn’t think the voice had the truth to offer this time. She thought he was desperate to keep her because he loved her. Love was not what she ever felt for Liu. Attraction, yes, but not love.

Marianne thought this was finally what Crystal had meant when they started the Bad Project: that the Bad would lead to pain for herself and for other people. She had laughed it off, but now she was learning pain’s secrets. She couldn’t concentrate on her schoolwork, although that was her excuse not to be with Liu. She daydreamed about how to deal with him whenever she wasn’t in class. She had trouble sleeping, although she didn’t have the kind of nightmares that woke Crystal up shaking. What else could she do to get him to stop caring about her?

One day a week later, Crystal opened the door, and the wind blew it back so it slammed against the wall. “Oh, sorry. It’s one of those Santa Ana conditions,” she said, closing the door softly behind her.

“Aren’t they supposed to make people do crazy things?” Marianne said. “I qualify, if so.”

Crystal said, “Whassup?”

“I’m having a problem with Liu,” Marianne said. She crossed her fingers for luck, hoping she wouldn’t push Crystal’s buttons. There wasn’t anyone else she could talk with about this problem.

“You are?” Crystal sat on the edge of her chair. She looked nervous.

“Don’t worry, this isn’t about you criticizing him. It’s him. He said if I break up with him he doesn’t want to live.”

“Oh, no.” Crystal got up and went to the window, looked out at the bright, cloudless day. “I think when you have to break up, it’s probably better to do it hard and fast. I would worry if someone told me that, but it might be just his way to try to get you back.”

The window glass rattled with burst of strong wind, and small sticks and debris struck the pane sounding a lot like rain.

“I guess,” Marianne said. She wanted to ask Crystal if having sex made a guy harder to get rid of, but she couldn’t get the words out. She put on her backpack and went out. She couldn’t stay there with Crystal because the need to talk was so strong she might blurt out something about sex and make her fall apart. She decided to go early to class, maybe stop in the snack bar and have a coke, or drop by Morgan Wing’s office to see if she was in. She had been carrying around her essay about China since Thomas recommended she talk with Professor Wing. Wing was in and out this semester, since she was on sabbatical, and Marianne had missed her twice when she had tried to find her earlier.

She walked into the English Department and saw that Wing’s office door was partly open. She knocked hesitantly.

“Come in,” she heard, so she opened the door and entered. It was a large room with an oak table along one side and three comfortable overstuffed chairs grouped nearby. Morgan Wing was sitting at her desk looking through a pile of papers. “Hi, aren’t you Marianne Wu from the Carson Circus? Come on, let’s sit where it’s more comfortable.” Professor Wing led the way to her overstuffed chairs and they sat at right angles to each other.

“Thomas told me about your anthology and recommended that I show you this piece,” said Marianne, a little breathless. She held out the essay.

Professor Wing laughed. “He did? Well it must be pretty good then.” She took the pages and settled back in her chair. Marianne held her breath. It took her only a few minutes to scan the whole essay.

“This is fine work. Thomas was right to send you to see me. But I am not sure I can fit it in right now. May I keep and let you know next month when I have all the material? I want to use it if I can.” She smiled at Marianne

Marianne told herself to calm down. She felt like she might explode with happiness. It didn’t matter to her right then whether the piece was used or not, Professor Wing liked it and approved of her writing. She felt the corners of her mouth pulling back into a huge smile. “No problem,” she said, in a funny deep voice. She floated up, waved to Professor Wing, and left for her philosophy class.

As she walked across campus, Marianne wondered again if she was pregnant. She had missed her period after the retreat and she bought the kit for testing herself, but she was scared to do the test. The kit sat there in her bottom drawer next to her plum brandy, waiting for her to get it out and use it. What if she was pregnant? Would she try to get an abortion? Waiting too long to do the test might make that impossible. Feeling miserable, she forgot about the coke she wanted and walked slowly on toward philosophy class.

In class, she tried to listen to Dr. Sandstrom. He was in his thirties, and his sandy blonde hair fell boyishly over his glasses. He smiled a lot and told jokes about kids finding philosophy boring, and about sages tripping each other up in verbal battles. The subject was difficult though, and she struggled to understand the concepts of existence and reality. He had explained the previous week that they were done with metaphysics and would move on to ethics. Maybe the ethics was what she wanted when she signed up for this class. She hoped so, and hoped even more that the ethics would help her figure out what to do about Liu. She had asked for Sandstrom’s help at office hours several times, and she really liked him. She’d even caught herself daydreaming about him occasionally. And he was nice. He had come to dinenr with her entry group, and he had been relaxed and charming, a great guest.

“Marianne, what do you think Plato would say about this question of the reality of the world?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Sandstrom, I wasn’t listening,” she blurted out. The other students tittered and then got silent.

“Maybe you’d better stay and talk with me after class,” he said. Oh, no. How would she survive at this school? Even though two of her classes had gone well, Bio and Phil were so hard.

She tried her best to be alert for the rest of the class period, but he didn’t call on her again. At the end of the class, the other students collected their papers, put them in backpacks, and shuffled out of the room. Dr. Sandstrom stood beside the podium, zipping his notes into a backpack. Then he walked over to Marianne’s desk and looked down at her.

He said, ’Come on to my office. I’ve been worried about you.”

Marianne bit her lip. She picked up her backpack. Her stomach clenched. They walked silently to his office down the hall from the lecture room, upstairs, and down another hall.

He unlocked the door and they entered his large office, with windows up so high that light got in but she couldn’t see out. The office was crammed with books and papers. Marianne saw a picture of two tow-headed kids, about four and six, on his desk. He didn’t sit down there, but beckoned her over to a pair of upholstered green chairs positioned side-by-side in the corner of the room. They sat down.

“What’s wrong, Marianne? I’ve missed your optimistic slant on philosophy for a couple of weeks. You haven’t been your usual sunny self. Can I do anything to help? Can you let me into what’s troubling you?” The wind slammed the door closed, but neither of them paid any attention to it. Marianne looked into his worried eyes and wondered what she should tell him. The barrier between professor and student was high, but after all he was her ethics professor; he was an expert in how people should make hard decisions. He got up and went to the door for a minute. She thought he might have locked it. Good, then no one could interrupt them.

“It’s Liu,” she said hesitantly.

“What about Liu? Is he your boyfriend? Did you break up?” Sandstrom took off his glasses and put them on a side table nearby.

“No, that’s not it at all. He…he loves me. I don’t love him. He says he’ll kill himself if we break up and I’ll regret it the rest of my life.” Marianne’s voice was thin and Dr. Sandstrom had to lean close to hear what she was saying. She felt his concern and support. A tear dropped onto her folded hands, and suddenly she was crying hard.

Dr. Sandstrom put his arms around her and held her close. “Oh, Marianne, Liu isn’t going to do any such thing. He is just trying to get his way with you, to keep you when he should let you go. But I understand how hard it would be to let you go.” His voice thickened. He rocked her back and forth and stroked her hair. “He’ll get over it if you insist, although you can’t believe that now.” He put his index finger under Marianne’s chin and lifted up her face. Uh oh. His eyes were blue-green. She noticed how long his eyelashes were. They kissed once, gently, then again more passionately.

“You are so valuable, I won’t let him hurt you like this,” Sandstrom said. Marianne looked into his eyes. The kiss felt good. This was forbidden pleasure, not just a borderline Bad.

“Dr. Sandstrom, I don’t think we should be doing this.”

“It’s Andy. Why not, don’t you like it?” He kissed her again, and she responded. She felt very uneasy but drawn in, too. His hands wandered over her back, tickled her neck, rubbed her breast gently through her blouse. The kiss stirred her and made her feel alive and excited. He led her to a couch on the opposite wall of his office. He unbuttoned her cream silk blouse and took it off. She wasn’t wearing a bra. He licked her right nipple softly, so it stood up. She felt cold spirals winding out from the nipple and thought, “He knows what sex is supposed to be like.” The back of her neck tingled and her buttocks contracted with pleasure, just like she had read about in Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

He unzipped her jeans. She ran her fingers through his blonde hair, realizing she had imagined doing just that many times before. It grew thickly and was soft and a little bit curly. Her throat felt tight and her eyes were moist. He looked into her eyes and ran his hand over her secret parts. She felt a deep thrill inside, where she had hurt when Liu had sex with her.

Andy was still dressed, and he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small package, a condom. He gave it to her, picked her up, laid her down flat on the couch, then rapidly undressed and lay beside her. She was scared but the excitement overcame her worries.

“Put it on me now,” he said.

“I don’t know how to do it,” she whispered.

“Are you a virgin?” he sat up in wonderment.

“No, but I don’t know condoms,” she said. “I only have sex once, with Liu.”

It should be embarrassing to admit that, but it wasn’t, because he didn’t act shocked.

“I’ll show you. It’s fun really. I’d like you to touch me.” His hands guided hers to open the package and put on the condom. “Now you’ll be protected both ways, from babies and from diseases,” he said softly. She didn’t wonder about this phrase until much later.

The condom was lubricated, and it went on easily. He entered her as soon as the condom was on, and Marianne thought maybe he was longer and thinner than Liu, anyway the whole process was much less painful. Then his left index finger massaged her clitoris, building her excitement and pleasure. Back in the days when the only liberty she had was reading, she had looked up that term when she’d discovered masturbation for herself. But she didn’t expect men to know about it. Her whole body responded to Andy. She moaned his name as she got more and more excited. The springs of the old couch creaked and groaned rhythmically. Her mind felt miles above the earth, floating in Coleman’s pleasure dome, Xanadu. Now she understood those passages about Lady Chatterley she had read.

After she had dressed herself and was getting ready to leave, she realized that she wanted to keep Andy Sandstrom to herself forever. And she knew that was impossible, he was her professor, he was married and had kids. But that’s what she wanted.

From that day on, she went to his office every afternoon and they whispered love talk to each other. He read love poems from Rumi to her sometimes. She ran her hands through his hair as much as she wanted. They made the old couch squeak and groan over and over. She always knew that their relationship was impossible. But it seemed to Marianne that they were living in a charmed sphere where nothing could reach them. She didn’t tell Crystal or anyone what had happened. This delicious secret was hers alone, except for Andy. She minimized her contact with anyone else, hoarded up her time to spend with him.

One afternoon when Crystal studied in the library, Marianne sat at her desk in the residence hall, trying to think about biology homework. She asked herself, “If you have what you want, why aren’t you happy?” She got out her journal, which had languished since she had first had sex with Andy, and opened it. She wanted to write, wanted to purge herself of these feelings by writing them out.

She wrote, “I know the answer. I have happiness all right, but it’s doomed. Any day now, the whole thing has to crash down, and I’ll be lucky if both of us don’t get thrown out of Carson. Don’t I even care? Why can’t I stop this?” She stopped and put her head down on her crossed arms for a few minutes. Then she sat up again and wrote, “And if one of us is thrown out, I can’t bear it. Andy Sandstrom is all I want. I have to have him. Isn’t this just how Liu felt about me before? And I might even be pregnant with his baby right this minute. What can I do? Would I have an abortion? Would I give him up for adoption?

I hate the idea of killing a person. But it might ruin my whole life if I had a baby now.” She stared into space as she realized Liu had stopped hanging around, maybe sensing that his power over her had waned. Would that happen to her if Andy fell in love with someone else or said they couldn’t meet any more? “It’s different, Andy has children,” she wrote. “How can I be having sex with this man who is married and has kids? People make strong promises when they marry. I am the cause of his letting go of that reliable part of himself. I must be a terrible person.”

Marianne sat quietly digesting these thoughts for a few minutes, then wrote, “I must end it. It can’t go on any longer.” She got up, stretched, then realized she was breathing hard. She could not stop. She took a black magic marker and crossed out the last few lines in her journal. It was the first time she had ever crossed out anything she wrote in her journals. It had been like a sacred space, a space where it was possible to say anything, to try out impossible thoughts, to explore every avenue. She felt desperate. She had to see Andy. He had just finished his office hour. She jumped up, put away the journal, and ran across campus to meet him.

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