Professor Ellen Rose put the phone down and looked at Ann Painter. As if this woman who wore Birkenstocks to an interview and didn’t shave her legs could fit into her department! There were some frumpy dog's body types around that you could get a lot of teaching and research out of, but they did not have that challenging look in their eye, the way Ann did. They stayed out of sight. Ann was not compliant, you could tell. Ellen would never hire her. If Ann amounted to anything, she wouldn’t be trying to get a job at this podunk public university anyway, especially at her advanced age. Better to find a young, trainable assistant and pay him what he was worth. It made economic and academic sense. She hadn’t looked at Ann’s resume, and she didn’t need to. If she thought the want ads in the papers and journals meant anything in academic hiring, she obviously did not know how things worked. Imagine!
In her younger years, when she was nicer and the department was expanding constantly, Ellen had hired a few of these bright, idiosyncratic women, but the students always hated them. They did not object to odd men, but odd women were unpopular, unless they were sweet and harmless. Ann was neither. Ellen, for all her self-centeredness, could read Ann well enough. Ellen had enough to do without dealing with trouble makers.
Ellen had made a lot out of her position here, after years and years of hard work, but she was stuck with Aggie U because her husband’s job kept them here in the provinces. She could have made the grade anywhere, she knew that, with her drive and ability, her Harvard Ph.D. Refusing to let herself get frustrated, she had instead made the best of things. That’s why she couldn’t understand feminists. She did it all. If they weren’t willing to work as hard as she did, they shouldn’t complain. A lot of them had had more opportunities than she, but they just sat around bitching and moaning, instead of working harder.
Ellen always looked trim and perfect, worked out, watched her weight. She had her hair and nails done once a week. She wore silk or wool, depending on the seasons, never those rayon rags so popular with old hippies like Ann. If you wanted respect, you had to look and act the part. Her father, her first mentor, had taught her as much. "You’re as good as any man, but it’s a man’s world, so you better think about that," he told her. And she had followed his advice. She enjoyed, on top of her success at Aggie U, a solid marriage, and she had three successful adult children. If she could do it, a lot of others could too, but they just weren’t willing to make the sacrifices she had.
Ann for her part had felt insulted from the moment she walked in the door. Ellen clearly signaled her instant aversion to Ann by going into her full "busy academic" mode that she used to keep rivals and time wasters off base. Fifteen minutes of being ignored and being forced to listen in on a one-sided phone conversation about departmental matters at least served to get Ann's adrenaline cooking. Her mind raced along although she knew how to keep an outwardly relaxed appearance.
Ann had to admire Ellen. Really. What a setup this woman had. What an operator. In academic life, size of office, lab, numbers of assistants, tell you who’s important. She had all the largest, best and newest. With her birdlike tininess and little girl voice Ellen projected a less than forceful presence. Of course she used this little me act to disarm rivals. Ann had seen women of her kind before. Poor Professor Rose was a type. She'd clawed her way out of some ghetto. She probably did not have a friend in the world, not that that would bother her, no doubt.
"Just got to write something down before I forget it," said Ellen, swiveling her chair around to her computer with its ergonomically correct keyboard and typing away. That took another five minutes. Then she turned back to Ann, assuming a facial expression of friendly resignation.
"I’m really sorry. These things can’t wait, sometimes."
"Oh, I know how that is," said Ann.
She really didn’t, and didn’t want to, either, but it was something to say.
"Anyway, what were we talking about?"
Ann started out with her customary intensity, which she knew turned people off but she couldn’t help it, and began to state her case. She was here, it had been a long expensive plane trip and a long, expensive cab ride, and she was damned if she’d leave until she was ready to.
After listening to Ann for a mere ten minutes, the strain of continuing to act interested was more than Ellen could stand without some diversion. She swiveled around once again in her fancy office leather chair, leapt to her feet, and grinned, ready to turn on the charm for a while, knowing that Ann had gotten the full message and that she would soon leave.
"Look at the time. I’m so sorry. Listen, let’s go grab a bite at the cafeteria, shall we?"
"I’m hungry. How’s the food?" said Ann, playing along.
"Passable, but you know how it is here. We’re very democratic. We don’t have a faculty club. We used to, but it just got too expensive, especially when a lot of the profs were bringing their whole families in to eat."
That probably was not much of a loss to Prof. Rose, Ann figured, who looked just this side of anorexic anyway.
The cafeteria, noisy, disheveled, comfy, full of students wolfing down big portions of very plain food—macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, large cokes—made Ann feel how lonely she was for the careless and unreflective life these youth enjoyed. They lived in paradise and did not even know it.
"That must be what paradise is, what these kids have," she mused aloud, "Just living your life without reflection."
Ellen’s mask slipped. She looked openly put out and let Ann see it, pursing up her lips and sniffing, looking for a moment like the old hag she was at heart. This was the first time in months that she’d come here. Not only did she have to deal with this crock of a woman when she had so much to do, but the cafeteria was, as usual, filthy and overrun. Coming to the cafeteria always reminded her of the poor quality of student they got here. She had a nutritious, low-fat, low calorie lunch tucked away in her desk, which she would eat later, as she always did.
The two woman bought their food and cleared off a spot at one of the huge round tables. Ellen pretended to eat a salad, messing with it on her plate and making empty small talk with Ann, who had decided to give up on the situation and was packing away with great enjoyment a burger with everything and fries.
Later, Ann got on the plane fuming at the futility and expense she had been subjected to. She knew it would turn out this way, but you always have hope. Even though the job she wanted wasn’t much, she couldn’t have even that. She really wanted to stay in the States.
It was not to be, however, at least not for a while. A few days later, she would read another ad, get a job in Japan paying $40, 000 a year and be on her way again. Oh, well. At least she wasn't a loser like Professor Rose. She truly counted her blessings.
© 2001 Marianna Scheffer