Published in an anthology by Zimbell House, The Professor, in January 2018
The professor was an afterthought. Even before he arrived for treatment, Robin was worrying how to bear a really smart child – reluctantly concluding that her husband Hod was not the best choice to father outstanding progeny.
Not that she didn’t love Hod. She did, completely and thoroughly; had never thought of straying. He was a thoughtful man, tall and handsome, a household helpmeet and a gentle lover, and would be a wonderful father – after the child was born, or at least conceived.
She’d increasingly seen newspaper and TV reports about the changing needs of the workplace. High school diplomas would soon have little value. Before long, college bachelor’s degrees might get an applicant job interviews, but probably not good jobs. Employers were increasingly looking for advanced degrees and “critical thinking” skills.
They had agreed that it was time to start a family; she would quit the pill and begin a calendar to track her renewed menstrual cycle. In a book borrowed from the library, she read that it would take a month to resume fertility, or sometimes longer. It was possible, although rare, to resume fertility without having had a period, the book said — a possible complication that she didn’t want to think about.
Hod wasn’t what anyone would call an intellectual. He taught high school history primarily to assure the after-school jobs he liked best, coaching almost every sport in its season. She went to most of his games, and patiently enjoyed hearing his next-morning analysis of each contest. On Sundays, she gave him the sports section and had the rest of the New York Times to herself. Apart from his own games and teams and talent recruitment, his favorite dinnertime topics were the Red Sox or Patriots or Celtics.
Thinking to broaden his horizons, she once took him to the art museum. Bad timing: It turned out to feature an exhibit of gays like Mapplethorpe and Warhol. Hod took one look and abandoned her, waiting in the coffee shop while she hastily toured the displays. He refused ever to go back to the museum.
He laughed at her when, in preparation for a pregnancy, she foreswore her occasional glass of wine and insisted they have fish twice a week. She’d read up on protecting and nourishing babies’ brains in utero: avoid alcohol; eat foods rich in omega-3s and DHA.
She wasn’t entirely confident that she had the genetic endowment to give a child a major leg up into the cerebral world, but she was sure that Hod didn’t. And their children would have to be smart to be successful.
She was a physical therapist at Harmony Acres, an upscale retirement community, helping older men and women make the most of new knees and hips or overcome problems ranging from arthritis to balance.
The “strength clinic,” Harmony Acres called it: a narrow, long room where she worked with two other exercise therapists. It was like a small gym, a cold, whitely over-lit, clinical place: balance bars; step machines; padded leather platforms whose height she could adjust for prone exercises; thick foam rubber pads on which people hopped or stepped to flex leg muscles; racks of dumbbells and inflatable balls of every size.
She tried to make up for the daunting array of muscle mechanics with personal warmth. Management called the residents sent to her “clients,” a word she refused to use. She didn’t like calling them patients, either, and did so rarely. Mostly she avoided any such arms-length words by learning and using their actual names.
And they responded with equal warmth. Some of them must have seen her as a daughter; she was glad to play that role. Every one of them must be pretty smart, successful enough in their careers to afford such a place for their golden years. They chatted while she showed them how to stretch or sit or stand or exercise muscles gone flabby.
Perhaps it was Mrs. Appleby who inadvertently prompted the idea. “I was never very good at sports,” she told Robin one day. “My mother picked my father for brains rather than brawn. When I earned my Ph.D. at age twenty-three, she told me that it had been a good choice — even if I didn’t manage to ride a bike until I was almost sixteen.” She laughed cheerfully at herself.
Robin laughed with her. “No regrets?”
“None,” Mrs. Appleby said. “Not being an early biker probably spared me a lot of skinned knees. But now I’m sixty and need coaching to be supple enough to try the tai chi class. Show me that move again, please.”
My mother picked my father for brains. The phrase etched itself into her mind. It was too late to pick a husband for brains, but perhaps not too late to pick a smart father. She woke at night appalled at herself, then rolled over, lulled back to sleep by the thought of children able to make their way in a demanding world. My mother picked my father for brains.
Robin meant to make a list of candidates, but no other names came to mind after Dr. Zed appeared, signing up for exercises to improve his balance. Younger than many of her patients – perhaps Mrs. Appleby’s age – he was almost as tall and good-looking as Hod, and cheerfully personable.
“Good morning, Mr. Zalinsky,” she’d said on his first visit. “I’m sure we can find some exercises that will be helpful.”
“Please, everyone here calls me Dr. Zed.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize. You’re a doctor?”
“No, no, it’s a Ph.D. My full name is Zigmund Zalinsky, but when I was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford my British classmates started calling me Zed.”
A Rhodes Scholar, she thought. Smart. Aloud: “I think I remember. The British say ‘A through Zed,’ right?”
“Exactly. When I came home, two Oxford colleagues joined me at Harvard, and when I earned my doctorate, I became Dr. Zed. The moniker has stuck with me my whole life.”
He was scheduled in the rehab center twice a week, doing standing exercises at the waist-level bars and leg lifts from the flat platform. By the third session, she’d decided. Dr. Zed was the perfect candidate: a Ph.D whose progeny might not only have his brainpower but also – a happy bonus — look quite a bit like Hod!
Although not yet sure how she would manage it, she stopped taking the pill, and marked the calendar.
At the third session, she had him wear a thick canvas belt around his chest, one with a long tail, and began giving him a gentle shove now and then, at times he didn’t expect it. “We want you to instinctively step back or to the side to keep your balance. To protect yourself from falling.”
He smiled at her. “What if I fell?”
“That’s what the belt is for. I’d catch you.”
“You must be stronger than you look,” he grinned, but added, “I trust you.” And he went back to regaling her with his experiences as a visiting professor in a half-dozen countries. “France,” he said, lingering a moment as he recounted each of them, obviously recalling thumbnail memories. “Spain. Ah, Spain. Germany. Italy. China. India. Incredible India.”
“You learned their languages?”
“You bet. Blessed with a good ear, and a determination not to be embarrassed by making mistakes.”
“People didn’t mind the mistakes?”
“They were pleased to see me trying, and were glad to help.”
She woke up that night from a dream in which her first-born son astonished her by speaking French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese and Hindi.
Artificial insemination, she had long since decided, wouldn’t work: It would be almost impossible to manage without Hod’s knowing, and he would be devastated. Better a once-in-a-lifetime tryst, discreetly arranged, here at Harmony Acres. She was astonished at her audacity, more than a little guilt-ridden, but determined.
She looked Dr. Zed up in the retirement community directory: no wife, no one else listed in that apartment. As she’d guessed, just past sixty. Going to the downtown library, carefully perusing the shelves without asking for help, she read up on age and impotence. The professor was young enough to surely be fertile. Fecund, in fact.
And a widower who might even welcome a romantic encounter. She blushed at that thought, but began to savor it. Pick a father for brains.
Then a problem: A few days after that decisive session, Dr. Zed fell in his apartment, broke a rib, and had to put his visits to the clinic on hold.
Three weeks went by. She began to explore, in her mind, other candidates among the men she was helping with their rehabilitation. None even began to measure up to the professor. She began to worry about that casual phrase in the library book: It is possible, although rare, to resume fertility without having had a period. The thought flashed into her mind that she should have Hod wear a condom for a few weeks, but she immediately knew that was impossible.
Then, on Friday – oh, joy! — Dr. Zed phoned, ready to get back into it. “Just leg and balance exercises,” he said. “My ribcage is still painful.”
“I understand,” she said, digging into her purse for her fertility calendar. Perfect! On the most likely scenario the book described, her ovulation should begin Saturday, so she should be fertile all next week. “How about Monday at 10:00?”
“Great. I’ll be there!”
There might be a problem at home, though. She and Hod always made love on Saturday nights. Her calculation was that she wouldn’t be ready to conceive until Sunday at the earliest, but the book said the science was less than exact.
A problem easily solved. “How about dinner out?” she said as soon as he got home from coaching the football team. “There’s a band at the hotel restaurant that plays oldies, perfect for dancing. I want to dance with you.”
He was a marvelous dance partner, one of the reasons she loved him. And by mid-evening, she couldn’t wait to get him into bed. At home, she daubed on a touch of his favorite perfume. He fumbled her clothes off like a teen-ager, and then became the patient lover, his skillful foreplay lasting so long that they were both in ecstasy as they came together.
Afterward, she felt a twinge of guilt, being so calculating; but she thought he was now sated for the week ahead – a week that she was reserving for better seed.
Monday morning, at the rehab, Dr. Zed declared his rib nearly healed, but painful if he coughed. His doctor said he could go back to exercise with her if they were careful.
“The cough pain means your chest muscles have tightened up to protect the ribcage,” she told him. “We don’t want to do too much until that rib is knitted, but we can begin to loosen up the muscles.”
She had him lie down on his back on the therapy platform, and stepped on the pedal to bring it up to waist height. She had him roll onto his side while she folded a towel into a long, soft tube. “Now roll back so we get that towel under your spine. Good. Can you feel that stretching your chest muscles? Is it painful?”
“De minimus. Only minimally.”
Oh, yes, she thought. He knows Latin, too. Nobody speaks Latin, he told her once, but it’s great for vocabulary. She imagined children with vast vocabularies. “Good,” she said aloud. “Bring your knees up, please.”
“Like that?” For such a remarkable man, he was amazingly compliant with suggestions from a mere exercise therapist.
“Perfect,” she said. “Now bend them to the left as far as you can while keeping your shoulders flat. No, no, both shoulders on the mat.” She pushed his shoulders down like a wrestler pinning an opponent. “Hold it there ten seconds.”
She knew he was counting, but not even moving his lips. Some kind of counter back in that tightly-packed cranium. “Now back up, and bend them to the right. Hold . . . hold; now back up. How does that feel?”
“Good; I can feel it loosening the chest muscles.”
“But not straining the ribs? No sharp pain?”
“No, just right.”
She picked out a four-foot exercise rod and handed it to him. “One hand at each end,” she said. “Twist as far to the right as you can, until that arm is flat on the mat, or until it hurts, then go back to the other side.”
“But keep your hips flat on the mat. We’re trying to make your spine more supple.” She thought about pressing his hips down, but decided against it.
“All this makes me less likely to fall?”
“Because I’m more likely to be able to catch myself?”
“Exactly.” This man had it all scoped out the first time. Most of her patients took weeks to figure it out and do it right. Without prompting, Dr. Zed stretched over to the right, held it ten seconds, then stretched back to the left.
“Does that towel under your spine still feel all right?”
“Yes, just right.”
“I’m going to massage your chest just a bit.” He was almost as tall as Hod, and it occurred to her that when he was thirty he probably had pecs as firm and muscular as Hod’s. More good genes. “We want those tensed muscles to relax so you can pull your shoulders back, or take a deep breath, without discomfort.”
“Feels fine, thanks. That’s a very gentle massage. I’ve had masseurs in Istanbul and Djakarta and other places bear down until it hurt, but felt better afterward.”
“We’re not doing a real massage,” she said. “I can do those, too, but that’s not called for here. My, you’ve traveled a lot.”
“Been very fortunate. Probably two dozen countries.”
“But didn’t learn all their languages?”
“Just enough to see please and thank you and which way is the railroad station.” He smiled. “Or the men’s room. You like to travel?”
She imagined herself stepping off an airplane in Bangkok to be met by her firstborn son who worked there and spoke the language. “I hope to,” she managed. “Can you do this at home?”
“You mean the towel under my spine? I think so.”
She’d planned for this. “Tell you what,” she said, “I know where to get a shaped foam pad that’s just right for this exercise, rather than just a rolled-up towel. I can bring it to you tomorrow. What time are you up and about?”
“Oh, you needn’t do that. I can come up here again.”
“No trouble at all, Dr. Zed. My parking spot is quite near your end of the complex,” she lied.
“Really? That’s good of you. I’m through breakfast and reading the newspaper by eight.”
“Great. See you in the morning.”
She had to drive across town to get the foam pad, so was late home and preparing Hod’s dinner. “Just had to work late,” she lied.
“You all right, Robbie? You’ve seemed distracted lately. Are you pregnant already?”
“No, no just preoccupied.” She hesitated, amazed and how readily her brain invented a pretext. “I have a new patient, an eighty-year-old woman who’s just gotten a new hip and is afraid to push herself.”
“No pain, no gain, right?” Hod often enough had youngsters with strains or pains or even breaks that he understood this part of her work. “Early bed tonight?”
Oh God. “I have to work on a report. Management wants to be sure we’re putting in our time productively.”
“Okay. Tell me when I can help.”
Dear, sweet Hod. She hunched over the computer after they did the dishes. Blessedly, he turned in soon. He was the kind of sleeper who, once under, couldn’t be roused by fire alarms, but she nonetheless crept into bed cautiously. Happily, he didn’t stir. It took her a long time to sleep, though: Her mind was racing with scenarios for the morrow.”
She contrived not to let Hod see, as she made him breakfast, that she was a nervous wreck. She got him off to work, then dashed back upstairs for a quick shower, examining herself carefully in the mirror before putting on the bra with extra padding and a pants-suit that flattered her figure. One with Velcro instead of hard-to-undo snaps or buttons.
She spent the whole drive from home to Harmony Acres going over the scenarios she’d imagined at night, trying to decide how she might best begin this – what should she call it? — calculated seduction.
She would get him on his bed – on the floor? no, better on the bed – and take elaborate care to be sure that the pad fit the small of his back perfectly. Have him do the exercises he’d done yesterday. Be solicitous that the not-yet-healed rib not complain.
And do a little massage. Maybe more than a little. Lean in, so that her carefully-enhanced breasts were close to his chest. To his face.
She parked, daubed on some of the perfume she’d brought from home, squared her shoulders and headed to the entry door nearest his apartment, the new foam pad in hand.
As he’d told her, his apartment was just down the hall from the entry. She took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.
“Good morning, Dr. Zed.”
“Oh, Robin, you’re so thoughtful. Please come in. Let me turn down the radio.”
Which gave her a moment to take in his digs. The walls of the little living room were hung with prints, some immediately familiar: Mapplethorpe and Warhol, the ones she’d seen at the art museum. Other photos and prints. All of men; no women. On a small table was a bronze statue, which she recognized as a careful replica of Michelangelo’s David, full-frontal naked, chiseled pecs and abs and genitalia.
Prominent behind the little sofa was an oil painting that was obviously an original: a handsome man, tall, greying, surely close to Dr. Zed’s age. She stared, as a new reality began to percolate into her consciousness.
He turned and saw her looking at the painting. “My partner of more than three decades,” he explained. “He died three years ago.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Robin stammered. She held up the foam pad. “Here’s your spine-stretcher.”
“Oh, thank you! Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”
“No, thank you. I’d better get upstairs to work.”