As third-year faculty in the Women and Gender Studies Department, Dr. Constance Presley was twenty years younger than the average attendee at the President’s End of Summer Party. A newly inked book contract had garnered the invitation. Unfortunately, the breezy scarlet sheath and Christian Louboutin heels she’d bought with the meager book advance attracted predatory males like Dr. Francis Anderson, the recently divorced chair of the Political Science Department. “I’d like to ravage you in the bushes,” he confessed.
“Are you kidding me, Francis?” Colleagues as far away as the food tent turned their heads. “That’s the best you can do?”
Francis followed her to the long serving table adorned with marinated mushrooms, Gulf shrimp, and mini-crab cakes. “What do you mean?”
The three-woman French department gathered around the array of artisan cheeses raised their collective eyebrows. “Francis– May I call you, Frank? We’ve never formally been introduced. I only know you by your lecherous campus reputation.” She pointed to his flushed face. “You’ve obviously been drinking.” Her tone was commanding and uncompromising. “You approached me uninvited and prefaced a veiled threat of sexual assault with the words I’d like to….” Constance shook her head. In his Brooks Brothers linen suit and Sperry topsiders, he didn’t appear stupid. “‘I’d like to,’ you said. That phrasing is wrong on so many levels.”
Constance picked up a jumbo shrimp. “A meta-analysis of contemporary studies found that 53% of women admit to rape fantasies, so on a good night, you’d have a fifty-fifty chance to score with the line.” She dipped the shrimp in cocktail sauce and raised it to her lips. “But if your plan is to ravage me in the bushes, don’t ask my permission first.” She bit the shrimp in half, popped it in her mouth, and to the astonishment of the French Department ladies, winked at them.
Frank caught up with her again at the open bar. The now curious French department trailed behind them. “When did I ask your permission?”
“When you walked up with a watered-down bourbon and sour and told me ‘I’d like to….’ What response did you expect? ‘Oh, Frank, it’s what I’ve dreamed of!’” Already several chardonnays into the evening, the French ladies applauded her performance. She lifted a marinated mushroom to her mouth and chewed slowly. “That is not my fantasy date.”
“Well done,” Eloise Melrose told Constance after he left. “Since his wife left him, Francis has forgotten how to act in polite company.” Eloise wore a simple black dress and sensible shoes. Her face was flushed; her tone was subversive. “Can we talk?”
“You find a table,” Constance told her, “I’ll get us something French.”
Eloise captured a wedge of Camembert and a plate of crackers to share along with a tray table to set them on. Beverly Beloit and Margaret Dubois, the junior faculty members, dragged four canvas chairs onto the lawn away from the stage where the college jazz band was playing.
Constance reappeared with a bottle of Ciroc, an ice bucket, lemon twists, and four rocks glasses. “French vodka made from grapes is more civilized than the domestic brands.”
“But how did you…?”
“The bartender is a WGS major. I promised her an autographed a copy of my new book.”
“We’ve heard about the book,” said Margaret. “What’s it called?”
“Discipline and Power: Women and Sexuality in Revolt.” Constance passed out their drinks.
“So, it’s addressed to women…?” Beverly asked.
“It speaks to men as well. My publisher believes it will help them redefine their societal roles.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s simple.” Constance sipped. The French ladies followed suit. “Modern women, like us,” she said, turning to Beverly, “are capable of defending and supporting ourselves. A man’s offer of protection is no longer enough to secure a woman’s domestic and sexual services.”
Beverly nodded. “It’s a new paradigm. Men like Frank don’t know how to behave.”
The ladies consider that proposition as Constance continued. “Historically, protection got confused with dominance, and power became associated with sexuality.”
“But none of those are uniquely male roles,” Eloise clarified.
“Exactly. Each of us is a sexual animal, as likely to gain pleasure from dominance as from domination.”
The evening’s host, Dr. Jacoby Root, interrupted her. “I’m glad you could join us on short notice.”
“I was honored to be invited, Dr. Root.”
“Please call me, Jac.” He noted the French Ladies’ advanced state of intoxication and the absence of men in the cluster of lawn chairs. “I see our rising campus star is in excellent hands.” Gentleman Jac, as he was known on campus, stood only five feet tall, but was powerfully built. In college he’d wrestled his way to the NCAA semi-final round before losing to the eventual champion.
“Constance was telling us about her book,” Eloise explained when the other two French ladies turned mute.
“My ex-wife read all her publications. Ellen is the one who encouraged me to hire Dr. Presley four years ago.” The president turned to Constance. “You’re the reason she left me and remarried her first husband.”
Constance blinked. “I believe that’s a compliment.”
“Definitely.” He leaned over and said in a voice, barely audible, “Don’t let me interrupt your celebration. I’ll come back later.”
A steady stream of men sought out Constance who rebuffed them all. The French ladies briefed her on campus politics, committee assignments, and the arduous path to tenure. Her book contract could smooth the way, but it wouldn’t be a guarantee. Eventually Constance confiscated their car keys.
As the women walked to their waiting Uber, the college President fell into step beside them. He touched Constance’s arm. “I was hoping you might stay a little longer.” When she didn’t immediately reply, he added, “Some of the Board and members of Faculty Council are poolside. I’d like to introduce you.”
“How kind, Jac,” Eloise told him. She was the soberest of the lot.
She turned to Constance. “I’ll make sure everyone gets home, dear. I’m sure the Board would love to hear about your book.”
By now the jazz band had been replaced by piped in music, and Campus Catering had packed up all the food except for pizzas bites poolside. As they walked, Jac explained to Constance, “Someday you’ll chair your department, and you’ll need a mentor. Eloise would be a good one.” He paused before descending the steps to the pool. “Five years ago. there were six departments on campus with fewer than five members. Four of the departments were foreign languages. Now there is only one department with fewer than five—French. Eloise is a politically savvy woman. You could learn a lot from her.”
Eloise had told her the story. She saw the cuts coming and pushed her French colleagues to become visible and indispensable. “We hosted a French film festival with alumni support,” she told Constance. “We had free French food tasting events and courses for the community on French wines and cheese. We used summer and J-term trips to French-speaking destinations as a recruiting tool for majors. And we volunteered to be on every campus committee that would have us. When the time came for cuts, nobody knew who the Swedish profs were or what the German department had contributed to the campus community, but they knew all about the French.”
Constance turned to Jac. “And what about you, Mr. President? What could I learn from you?”
“That remains to be seen.” He glanced down at the waiting members of the Faculty Council. “As president of the university, I’m your supervisor. I’m charged with providing you an atmosphere in which you can thrive, academically and as a person.”
“You’re also charged with being my protector.”
“You’re in an awkward position. You can smooth the way, but you can’t show favoritism. You may be attracted to me, but you cannot act on that attraction. So, you are both all-powerful—capable of making or destroying my career—and impotent.”
“A curious choice of words, and not exactly what I’m feeling right now, but essentially correct.”
Constance laughed, looped her arm in his to steady herself, and proceeded down the stairs where he introduced her to the campus power brokers. She was charming and clever. They questioned her about the controversy surrounding her book and asked her to speculate why it now topped the Nonfiction charts. On every other topic, she deferred to them, carefully listening as they explained the dynamics of campus, the need for propriety, and the care that she must use when she discussed the book on NPR and MSNBC and the Rachel Maddow show.
By 2:30 a.m. the last of the faculty and board members were gone. Only the board chairwoman and Constance remained. “This publication will take you places that a tenured position on campus cannot. Ignore what my colleagues told you. Don’t ask anyone for permission. Follow your instincts. Take what you want.”
“And you’ll have my back?”
The chairwoman laughed. “Oh, hardly. I’ll hang you out to dry like the rest of them, maybe quicker– But I’ll give your book as Christmas presents and tell my associates proudly that I knew you when….” She kissed Constance on the cheek. “Thank you for adding life to this ossified gathering. And be sure to show your thanks to Jac. He took some risks for you.”
The chairwoman called out to the college president, who’d just finished dismissing the staff. “Kind sir, would you walk me to my car? He glanced over to Constance. “I don’t think she’s ready to leave. I’m sure she’ll wait for you.”
Her body tensed, and her face flushed. Jac assured her, “I’ll only be a moment.” Constance nodded consent.
When he reappeared, she was seated on the terrace illuminated by the pool lights. He carried a bottle of wine and two fresh glasses. “I’ve been saving this for a special occasion.”
He uncorked the bottle, poured the wine, and handed her a crystal flute. She inhaled the bouquet, sipped, savored, and swallowed. She was unfamiliar with the label, but she knew enough about wines to know this was rare and expensive, something he’d brought from deep within his famous wine cellar. “What a lovely vintage. How can I thank you?
Jac stared into her gray-green eyes, holding the wine at eye level, as if it was a prop rather than a rare find he’d anticipated drinking for almost a decade. He was unsure why he’d needed her to stay, or why he’d selected this unlikely and extravagant bottle to decant. “I don’t want anything from you,” he told her. “I hate to drink alone.”
They fell into easy conversation, shared their interests in music and art, and avoided topics related to their work or the university. And when he started to pour another glass, she waved him off. “No more. At least not until I can shake off this drowsiness.”
“Coffee?” he asked hesitantly.
“A dip in the pool.” She removed her silver earrings and placed them on a wrought iron table along with her wine glass. She reached behind her neck and unclasped the long silver chain that hung there. She set it next to her earrings. “With your permission…?” she asked motioning toward the pool.
Constance stood, turned, and began walking slowly down the stairs. She stopped, reached back, and unzipped the dress. She shrugged the straps off of her bare shoulders, and then shimmied slightly until the dress cascaded down into a puddle at her feet.
Now, wearing only her red stiletto heels, she resumed her descent to the pool. “Are you coming? Without glancing back, she sensed the moment when he decided to follow, the vintage wine forgotten on the table. She walked to the edge of the water and waited.
Paul Lewellan lives in Davenport, Iowa, on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. He shares the writing space with his wife Pamela, an annoying little Shi Tzu named Mannie, and their ginger tabby Sunny. They keep a safe social distance from everyone else. Paul’s work has appeared The White Wall Review, Big Muddy, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Fictional Café, Old Northwest Review, and others. He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Award.