by Fran Hoepfner
Fran Hoepfner is a writer and teacher living in New York. She has an MFA in Fiction writing from Rutgers University-Newark. She is an editor-at-large for the independent film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room and the editor-in-chief of Fran Magazine.
Whenever the English department happy hours stretched past eight, the conversation inevitably turned to the flagrant flaws in student writing. The faculty tried, of course, to avoid the topic of teaching, gossiping instead about their families and vacations and research, but it always came back to teaching, and more specifically students, about whom there was always something a little mean to say.
The students were obsessed with vampires. They were obsessed with dark-haired mysterious women who were a little bit sad. They loved writing about a car crash. They wrote about kidnappings—perhaps because of a Netflix show? They could only write about twenty-somethings, or worse: teenagers. So many scenes took place “after school.” So many scenes took place at “prom.” The students were too reliant on crazy verbs; whatever happened to “walked” or “said” or “thought”? There were too many flashbacks. There were too many flashforwards. They loved their tricks, their puzzle box plots. They loved everything that wasn’t a real story.
Hans drank four white wines—two more than standard—and said, “They are afraid of sex.”
He had not previously considered it, but the way his colleagues looked at him after his announcement suggested they, too, might have been afraid of sex. Lorene Panzarino (Advanced Poetry) shrugged. “Who’s to say they’re having it?” Redd Figson (Introduction to Journalism) and Christine Chapple (Brit Lit Survey) frowned. “You can’t force them to be interested in something they don’t care about,” said Peter Thompson (American Lit, as well as the head of the English department, as well as Hans’s boss). Only the new hire, the adjunct, Asa the Assistant Lecturer laughed into his beer. What did he find so funny? It’s not like he was much older than the students they were shit-talking.
Hans stood by what he said. The students never wrote about sex. Their characters hardly thought about their romantic futures; they felt no itch of desire. It was infuriating! Their characters—over-intelligent, annoyingly attractive—would do well to have a little sex. It’s what people who were like that did, or so Hans figured.
“You’re right, you know,” Asa the Assistant Lecturer told him as they passed around the receipt of the night’s total, everyone snapping blurry photos of their beverages. “I wonder if having been exposed to years of television cutting to black has been bad for their brains.”
Was there sex in Asa’s little novel? Was there room for it in his slim margins, stylish double-spacing? Hans had no clue. Asa had come from a state school in a state no one cared about, having been published directly out of undergrad with one of those books with an all-lowercase title. The semester they filled the position, Hans was in Wales on sabbatical, researching a novel he’d yet to start. He couldn’t be sure if he would have given Asa the thumbs up in his faculty review.
Regardless, he didn’t want pretty Asa’s pretty pity. When a man is so determined to be liked by all, he is often admired by none. “It’s rather old-fashioned to blame television for cultural ills,” Hans said.
“I mean, I agree,” Asa said, “but it’s also really easy.”
Did the students like Asa? Hans had no idea. He was young with dark hair and butterscotch brown eyes. He wore fashionably tight sweaters and carried an expensive-looking briefcase. Leather, probably. Or vegan leather, given his generation. “He’s so dark academia,” one of Hans’s students said to him, to which Hans had snapped, “It’s all dark academia.” Compared to Hans, though, who was older and balding and fat and unfashionable, Asa was a real campus adonis.
“I just think,” Asa continued, not that he’d been asked to elaborate, “that if you want your students to write something, you’re their teacher. Just assign them sex scenes and see what they do.”
He had a point. Until the students cried trigger warning, he was free to assign them whatever he pleased. Later that night, he laughed to himself, thinking of his students withdrawing from his class because he made them write sex scenes. Heaven forbid!
The following week, Hans issued his dozen-something students the assignment as plain-stated as he possibly could. “Write a sex scene,” he published to the online campus bulletin board they were required to use. In class, however, his students peppered him with questions. What kind of sex? That was up to them. Foreplay? One should hope so. What if the characters are asexual? That would go against the nature of the assignment. Should it have a plot? Only if absolutely necessary.
“I don’t think they’re very happy with me,” Hans told Asa, leaning against the latter’s door at the end of the day. Asa was sequestered in a supply closet turned compact office where the other faculty could not be subjected to his youthful beauty. Hans was aware of his posture, the curvature of his stomach pressing into the doorframe. It was flirtatious, but only just.
Asa, on the other hand, sat with his legs kicked up on his desk, the underside of his ass on full display. “Why’s that?”
Whore, Hans thought, and then smiled as though he was laughing at his students and not as his own thoughts. “They’re judgmental, maybe, of my having assigned it. One of them asked if they could write a story about institutionalized violence instead, because they said sex technically qualifies.”
The other man smiled. “Well, good luck with your grading, professor.”
The student work was—as expected—dismal as shit. The students wrote non-graphic, non-thrilling, aggressively consensual sex, ranging from what Hans could only assume was a purely metaphorical bee pollination story to a Word document rivaling Hemingway’s saddest six-word story with a mere two-word: “They fucked.” (As a poem, perhaps, that was much more functional.) For all that his students griped about wanting more freedom, they took advantage of none of it in their work, the lust so dreary and obligatory. Tongues “twirled” into each other (“Can you picture this? Actually?” Hans wrote in the margins) as chests bumped each other (“Ow?”). It was all a far greater undertaking than he anticipated.
“Do you have time to read some of these over?” he asked Asa.
“I already teach a full course load, so I’ll need further compensation,” Asa pointed out.
“We can split a bottle of wine,” Hans offered.
Asa frowned. “Orange?”
“White,” Hans said. He waved a stack of papers in front of Asa’s face. “One of the stories in here is an extremely graphic depiction of Adam and Eve losing their virginities to each other, if that’s any incentive.”
Drinking with Asa made him feel not twice but only once divorced, a charged air of possibility imbued in every barb or note exchanged over their drinks. It was annoying, if not inevitable, a little, that Asa was not a total idiot. He was a softer grader than Hans, his youthful optimism embodied in the buoyant B- (a false promise, if any), but he took no prisoners when it came to cowardice.
Hans was forced to admit he’d never taken much interest in the adjuncts before: it was like getting attached to a goldfish. They moved and worked quickly (or not at all) until one day they were gone. As tenured faculty, he couldn’t help but feel bad if his tutelage made them think this was a secure industry.
“Is there much sex in your own writing?” Asa asked him.
Hans could not help but be caught off-guard, nearly setting his wine glass atop his phone to the almost-ruin of both. (Asa, ever-heroic, caught the glass before it tipped.) He thought back on his own unremarkable but consistent bibliography. “There’s some, but it’s largely heterosexual,” he explained. “Husbands, wives.”
“Things of that nature,” Asa laughed.
Hans nodded, unsure of the joke.
“Why do you think you write about them and not, you know…?”
Asa balked. “Being, like…?”
“Gay?” Hans asked.
“You think I’m gay?”
It was Hans’s turn to laugh. “No, obviously, of course, I’m nothing but.” He took a sip of wine, grateful to have finally gained the upper hand. “I don’t know, there was an exotic allure at best and a grotesque failure at worst. I spent many long hours trying to figure out if a character was going to graze a nipple or paw at a breast in The Windmill.”
“I think I would figure that one out kinda quickly,” Asa said.
Hans scoffed. “They’re entirely different.”
“Maybe if you’ve never grabbed boob,” he said with a shrug.
“What, and you have?”
“Wait, did you think I was gay?” Asa asked. He couldn’t even finish his question without laughing. “No, I am, but, like, I went to college three years ago and drank rum. Of course I’ve grabbed a boob. More than a few.”
“Congratulations on your sexual exploits,” Hans said, the embittered remembrance of being twice-divorced flooding back. So Asa was a little slut, a party-goer and bon vivant, whose writing took a backseat to his commitment to life. In ten years, he’d be in his mid-thirties without health insurance or a condominium to his name—best of luck to him admitting to a human rights lawyer on a date that he enjoyed feeling women up in undergrad. Hans frowned. Maybe there was nothing to be gained from the literalness of Asa, from his personhood. He was better off relegated to the supply closet, for top-ups, when necessary.
In bed that night, Hans thought briefly of Asa, tempted, maybe, to touch himself, but he was too tired and drunk with a class at ten the next morning. Instead, his musings turned darker and deeper, to love felt and lost, of Fritz, his husband of a dozen years, now back in Munich with an older lover, Danish, maybe, or Belgian. A painter, Hans remembered now—très romantique! Their lovemaking was cautious and frantic, accepted (sometimes) by the upper echelons of European academia before relocating to New York, and then Seattle, and then to New Jersey right in time for the horrors of AIDS to sweep through the populace. They were mercifully exclusive, as the generations below him now referred to it, but it was hard not to feel like it was them against the world in every way. When they separated, they spent a month having the best sex of both their lives, a forbidden, dangerous type of fucking where every thrust felt like the last one until, inevitably, it was. Hans’s not-fantasy, then, turned to his second husband, Isaac, who was—embarrassingly then but shamefully now—one of his former students. They’d kept in touch in the early days of email, writing to each other about Jeffrey Eugenides and Donna Tartt, until the next thing he knew, Hans was buying a plane ticket for the younger man to come stay for the weekend. Their marriage lasted all of eighteen months: long enough for him to feel the scorn of his colleagues (he hadn’t done anything illegal!) and jump ship to New Hampshire, where he now lived and taught.
Asa’s life would be unburdened for all but academia; he would be granted all the trappings of modern romantic happiness (an online wedding registry, an equal employment opportunity clause, to name a few). That type of pleasure was dull, or so Hans had to believe it. Regardless, to think of Asa’s future put him right to sleep.
Hans returned to his grading in the light of day, seated in his office with a cup of warm coffee and half of a cranberry scone. He’d realized during his waking hours that what made the students’ sex scenes so drab and uncreative was not a fear of sex, but a fear of confrontation. To provoke or pursue someone sexually required a (if not several!) risk(s); it was not the fault of “the apps” or “sex negativity,” as he’d told Asa it was over wine, but the ability to opt out of danger completely. To that end, he found himself scribbling in the margins, “Maybe she should feel like she might get kidnapped?” on a student’s scene.
“You seem spritely,” Asa observed at the proverbial watercooler that was the faculty mailboxes.
“I have decided to enjoy my life agin,” Hans announced. In the light of Thursday's mid-dawn, Asa looked positively angelic: all cheekbones and eyelashes. “Care to celebrate with me?”
He frowned, the light tumbling off his face. “I have to grade tonight.”
Age-old excuse. “Later then? Maybe early next week?”
Asa fiddled with his watch. “Yeah, that should work,” he said with a quick smile.
Work it did not. Hans could not catch Asa for longer than a minute here or there for the next several weeks—“I owe you a drink, I know!” Asa faux-agonized, laughing as though their friendship was a joke to him. Hans ought to have known better: why look to a younger person as a beacon of reliability? Still, in the weeks since he taught the sex scenes, Hans found his students much more open-hearted and even a bit funny. The exercise had failed in a practical sense, but it had allowed them to shake off their initial embarrassment with each other and the act of writing. A month after the initial challenge was put forth to them, one of Hans’s students submitted a story with a sex scene—tasteful, but still a little erotic, with a surprisingly affectionate description of a cock. Maybe he had made an impact after all.
Hans did not manage to get Asa alone—and even then!—until the next faculty happy hour, in which he cornered the younger man with a scolding: “You’ve been avoiding me.”
Asa laughed—he was never not laughing. “No! No, it’s not true.” But he could offer no excuse for his own flakiness, his absence from the department. “Are you still enjoying your life?”
Hans considered: this semester’s students liked him more than any prior, the weather was unseasonably warm for mid-spring, he’d not indulged a sexual fantasy about his younger part-time coworker. “All is well,” he affirmed.
“Well, I’m jealous, trust me,” Asa said.
“I know,” Hans said. “I could be the ugliest, fattest, most disgusting person in the department, but I’m tenured and you’re not, so.”
It came out crueler than he’d meant it, and the hurt blossomed across Asa’s face, his lips parting as though to say something mean-spirited in response. But Asa had nothing, literally. “Right,” he said.
“I’m very sorry,” Hans said, “two glasses of wine and…”
“No, it’s fine.”
“It can’t be.”
“It is,” Asa said, putting a hand on Hans’s wrist.
They avoided each other for the rest of the happy hour, drifting off and away to discuss formalities with other professors, before once more reconnecting out in the parking lot. Asa stood on the curb of the bar, waiting for a rideshare. Hans would be walking—he lived only a few blocks away. They looked at each other, some unspoken contract of affection or apology, and Hans shortened the distance between them without further thought.
“Listen…” Asa said, commanded, really, and Hans leaned in, he was hard, he didn’t mean to be, but it was simply that way, Asa was so infuriating, precocious and unreliable, but so clearly the victim in any interaction that it was hard not to just hate him. They kissed: it felt like it went on for minutes, but in reality, Hans knew that wouldn’t be the case, that any one of their coworkers could come out of the bar and see them, and it would be Arizona all over again. Asa pulled away. “I need…”
“Anything,” Hans said.
“A rec letter for law school.”
Was it too late to take back “anything”? Hans scratched behind his ear, the cool breeze of night setting in. One of the other professors dipped out the front door. “Bye, boys!” she said with a little wave. “Au revoir!” Asa called to her. To Hans, once again, he tilted his head, an unimaginable softness to his anticipation. Hans could keep him like this forever, but they both knew that was not tenable.
“No, I don't think so,” he decided, “but best of luck,” and Hans meant it. No one was likely to believe his heart was in the right place, but it was, like other parts of him, situated snug inside his body.