a dystopian romance
by Kevin Rush
I first met Cassandra at the Grand Canyon. I was traveling alone during a break in the hearings, trying to clear my head of all the media crap that had been printed. Trying to remember who I was before all this got started.
I locked my bike to the base of the Nike billboard, the one with Michael Jordan flying across the Canyon. Cassandra was standing in the shade of the Gatorade billboard: “For a thirst as deep as this hole….”
“Wonders of privatization,” I said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “The Canyon’s cleaner than it’s been in decades. And you can shoot around them easily enough. When you get your pictures developed, you’ll forget they were even here.”
I stepped up to the railing of the overlook, removed my camera from the case, and tried to frame a wide shot. Cassandra stepped up beside me.
“You’re using the Canon,” she said. “Have you tried the new Nikon? Can’t beat it for clarity.”
“You a professional photographer?” I asked.
She smiled confidently, tilting her head back. “Professional photographers love the new Nikon.”
“You a salesperson?”
She shook her head.
“School teacher,” she laughed. “Enjoying my spring break.”
“Really?” I guess it was that time of year. My students, former students, would be getting excited about graduation. Anxious to get going, but secretly miserable about having to leave. After a decade of teaching, I still hadn’t gotten used to graduation. You spend all year falling in love with a class, then boom, you’re dumped. Then you try making yourself fall in love again, knowing all the while the same fate awaits you. Well, no more of that, at least. Even if I were cleared, I wouldn’t be returning to a classroom.
“Why are you traveling alone?” I asked.
“Same as you, I suppose,” she said. That same confident smile, but a jauntier tilt of the head.
“I came seeking solitude,” I told her. I took one last shot of the Canyon, and walked back to my bike.
“Your bike,” she called after me, “is that a rental?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I rented it for the day.”
“When it’s time to buy, consider a Cannondale.”
I couldn’t help noticing that Cassandra was walking towards me and not towards her own bike. “You’re not seeking solitude,” I said. She sucked a little on her upper lip and shook her head apologetically. By now I was enjoying the bat of her eyes and flash of her teeth. During the last months of hearings, amid the swirl of interested spectators, I’d had precious little intimacy. Perhaps in the gaping crowd, I’d already had too much solitude.
“There’s a ridge trail I’m planning to ride. You’re welcome to join me.”
She ran to her bike with the enthusiasm of a little girl who had just been promised a trip to the circus. I guess I’m a sucker for that joie de vivre. It’s why I prefer twelve year-olds to people my own age. Their hearts are open.
Cassandra openly showed her delight when we discovered we lived in the same city. We arranged a date, but with no private transportation between us, we were forced to board a city bus, one completely painted over as athletic footwear, or what we used to call a sneaker. On one side of the bus was a smirking male role model with several gold earrings and necklaces. “With this new program,” Cassandra commented, “the buses are repainted regularly, so there’s no unsightly graffiti.”
We had dinner at the Olive Garden, then watched Sylvester Stallone smoke six packs of Marlboros, guzzle a case of Budweiser, then use his chiseled frame as a bridge that fifty kids crossed from a burning skyscraper to safety. It was not a magical evening, but it set the tone for other low-maintenance encounters where we would seek entertainment and distraction amid the hustle of the city or in each other’s arms. Cassandra was always anxious to get together, always ready to explore, and endlessly fascinated by every new product that came on the market.
That latter part could get a little old: on a teacher’s salary there were so many things I could not afford, that I didn’t bother to keep abreast of all that was available. But Cassandra had strong opinions about what was the proper product for whatever purpose. She even interrupted our lovemaking to lecture me about her preferred brand of condom, then in our next session expressed her thanks for my coming over to her brand. But there were times when her materialism clashed with my austerity. Especially now, since materialism and I were at war.
“This session of the State Education Department Board of Inquiry will come to order,” the Chairman grumbled, as he slammed his gavel. There were seven of us who had been put on administrative leave and hauled before the Board. I had watched for weeks as six of my peers, none more than casual acquaintances had vehemently protested, withered under the white-hot spotlight, mumbled mea culpas, and capitulated to save, if not their careers, at least their pensions. Today was my turn.
“Mr. Cartwright,” the Chairman grumbled, “are you familiar with the State’s educational guidelines?”
“And you are aware that the Sate requires use of the Teaching Network in your district?”
“How many hours a day does the State mandate, for your junior high school, Mr. Cartwright?”
“I believe it’s three to four hours, sir.”
“And how many hours a day did you use it, Mr. Cartwright?”
There were gasps from the gallery and the click and whir of cameras. Mr. Hirschfeld, my attorney, put his hand on my shoulder. Restraint, he had cautioned. Keep your answers clipped. Don’t volunteer anything.
“Well,” the Chairman adjusted his thick glasses. “It seems we have evidence of insubordination. Now, there’s the question of teaching ethics.”
This was the sticking point, as Hirschfeld had repeatedly reminded me. Insubordination was a rather minor charge. In essence I had violated a contract. The remedies were in equity. Probably I would be enjoined not to repeat the offending behavior, in other words, make sure that my students watched three to four hours of “educational” television per day instead of instructing them myself. Under those terms, I would keep my job and everything else. At worst, I could be fired.
But an ethics violation allowed for additional punitive remedies. I could get my State credential revoked. I could lose my pension. The others had caved after being found guilty of insubordination, and after sumptuous ass-kissing had been allowed to remain teachers…seriously bowdlerized teachers, but let us judge not. Nevertheless, the question remained hanging in the air: just what would the Board, or its cantankerous Chairman, hold to be an ethical violation?
“Now Mr. Cartwright,” the Chairman gurgled, “as to the question of ethics. You say you did use the Teaching Network?”
“And you would agree that whatever we use we must pay for?”
“Because if we do no pay for it, and we use it, that would be stealing, would it not?”
“I suppose it would, sir.”
“Yes, of course it would. And stealing would be an ethical violation. We can’t have a thief instructing our children. So let me ask you, Mr. Cartwright, in that one hour of viewing, would you say that was one continuous hour?”
“Um…,” I looked over at Hirschfeld, who seemed to be trying to frame an objection. With a flip of his hand, he told me he had no basis.
“Because within the continuous hour schedule, that’s where the payment for the programming is, Mr. Cartwright.”
My throat started to tighten. I hated these long wind-ups before the pitch. Hirschfeld had warned me not to get anxious, not to blurt anything out simply to silence the old windbag. I was trying to keep my cool, but losing it. Then Hirschfeld grabbed my microphone. “Mr. Chairman, why don’t you ask a direct question? You’ll be given a direct answer.”
“My direct question, Mr. Cartwright, is, during that hour of programming, did you allow the children to watch the commercials?”
“I most certainly did not!”
More gasps, and the hammer fell.
“A little remorse, Sam,” Hirschfeld was saying. “That’s all they want to see. You can go back to teaching in the fall like the others.”
“That’s not teaching. I introduce programs. I’m Ed fucking Sullivan.” I looked around the bar for Cassandra. The interior of Friday’s had so many red and white stripes, I seemed to be looking for Waldo.
“You could go to another state. In Wyoming, Teaching Network is only two hours a day. You could go there if there’s no ethics violation on your record. Play ball a little, Sam.”
The bartender finally came over. I looked at the taps. Six beers on draught, all of the Budweiser. “Got anything in bottles?”
“Michelob,” he grunted. I nodded unenthusiastic assent and got back to my discussion with Hirschfeld.
“Doesn’t an ethics violation have to deal with moral turpitude? Since when did turning off the telly during commercials become a high crime?”
“That’s questionable, I admit. Gives us grounds for appeal, but that could take years and you’d be out of work. Besides, they’re not going to stop here. They’ve already subpoenaed your records. You show you won’t play ball, they’ll depose every teacher you ever worked with, every student…”
Hirschfeld must have seen me flinch.
“What, Sam? What are they going to find?”
“Nothing. They won’t find anything.” And Cassandra entered, much to my relief.
Back at her preciously decorated apartment, Cassandra was vigorously untangling the knots in my shoulders and neck.
“What you need,” she said, “is a good soak in the tub. ‘Calgon! Take me away!’”
“How many times do I have to tell you, quoting commercial copy is not a demonstration of wit.”
“Hmpf,” she pouted, but only for a second. “What you need, Black and Decker has a heated electric massager.”
“Ah, a vibrator, now that’s something you probably can recommend.”
It was then that I learned my girlfriend was not above biting and hair-pulling to win a fight. Still, I managed to get the upper hand. “Stop, stop,” she howled. “You’re messing me all up.”
“I thought that was the idea.”
“No, the idea was to relax you after your hard day. You tell me your troubles, and I tell you what you need to make everything right again.”
I swung my legs around and we sat on the floor facing each other. Her face, even at nine in the evening was bright and looked freshly scrubbed.
“I kissed a girl once.”
“Since you met me?”
“Oh.” Cassandra rose to her knees, like she was about to flee the scene. I grabbed her wrist and kept her down on the floor with me.
“Please, listen. I had a student, Michelle. Smart girl. An A student. One morning I called on her three times, and she couldn’t answer. She looked distracted, even scared. I asked her to step out into the hall.”
“Sam,” she protested, “you don’t have to tell me this.”
“When we got out there, she burst into tears. She told me her infant sister had died during the night. SIDS. Her parents didn’t know what to do, so they sent her off to school without any explanation. She knew her sister was dead, but…. Anyway, she cried, and I held her, and I kissed her on the forehead.”
“Who saw you?”
“The principal was coming to get Michelle. Her parents had pulled themselves together and wanted her home.”
“Oh my god, Sam, oh my god.”
“The principal said she wouldn’t press charges. She called it a regrettable, but momentary lack of judgment.”
“That’s good. Then she won’t testify.”
“She’ll have to. They’ll depose her. Blackmail her.”
I looked at Cassandra. Her bright eyes were a gathering storm. I wondered if it was okay to hold her, kiss her. Then I saw it. How I had missed it all these weeks, I don’t know. I had taken it for a pin, an ornament. Now, it was clearly a microphone. I grabbed it from her sweater, as she fought and shrieked, following the cord as it wound under her left breast to a small box taped to her sternum. Peeling the box off I discovered a mini-cassette recorder.
“It’s not what you think,” she cried.
“You deceitful bitch! You’re with them!”
“I wanted to turn it off. I was getting up to turn it off. You have to believe me, Sam. I would never inform on you.”
She got between me and the door. I held the machine away from her.
“You can keep the tape, Sam. I don’t want it. But give me back the recorder. Please?”
I gave her the machine and the tape, too. “I don’t give a damn what you tell them. Fascist bastards. I’ll tell them myself.”
In a second I was past her, then out on the street.
The next day, I arrived for the hearings with a prepared statement on the Michelle incident. It was, Hirschfeld assured me, dangerously unapologetic.
“They’ll hang you as a pedophile,” he moaned.
“I won’t be hanged,” I responded. “I’ll be killed in combat.”
I don’t know if I was relieved or disappointed when the subject never came up. Apparently, the Nielsen ratings had been released and the hearings were not playing well. Several of the major sponsors were withdrawing, and the Chairman was faced with the uncomfortable choice of continuing to grill me in front of a national audience then concluding his work in obscurity, or wrapping things up in the here and now. So I, in my defiance, go the same slap on the wrist as the capitulators.
As the final gavel crash of the day reverberated through the hall, Hirschfeld grabbed my arm. “I have more good news,” he smiled. “I placed you.”
As he gathered up his papers, he explained. “some of the snootier prep schools still use books and blackboards. There’s always a long list of teaching applicants, but this hearing… hey, you can’t buy this kind of publicity. You projected the image of the rugged individual up against the corrupt system, but you didn’t say enough to scare them off.”
“Well, you’ve got to remember, they’ve got their own corrupt system.”
“Hirsch,” I interrupted, ‘just tell me where the school is.”
I had just finished packing when Cassandra called. She needed to talk. I told her I didn’t need to listen. I just needed to get on with life. But she was insistent, and suggested that it would be easier for me to get on with life if I had the incriminating tape in my possession.
“Tapes can be copied or destroyed, Cassandra. I might as well just leave it up to you.”
“You’re still seeking solitude?” she asked, with what I thought was stifled weeping.
Was I so easy to read? Had I walked out of one of her favorite books into that Canyon? In my mind I could see that fresh face and those bright eyes. I’d like to see her again, if only to live one more hour in that escapist fantasy we had co-created. And since she hadn’t sold me out, I figured I could stop by on my way to the airport.
I had never been real comfortable going over to Cassandra’s apartment. I didn’t like getting the fish eye from the doorman. I worried I might track something in on her white, sculpted carpet, or scratch her rosewood. (My furniture still consisted of plank-and-cinderblock bookcases.) Plus the panoply of Delacroix and Matisse prints made the apartment seem overpopulated. I had fantasies in which the tiny people of Delacroixopolis attacked and subdued the misshapen giants of Matisseland. My mind celebrated the triumph of intricate and distinct individuals, while my body, in an act of sublime betrayal, writhed and merged with Cassandra’s in an imitation of the bloated, pink corpus. I was more conflicted than usual arriving for what at best would be a sorrowful farewell.
“I want you to have the tape,” she said, extending her hand. I took the tiny cassette without comment. She tried to lighten the mood with a forced laugh. “This is all such an awful misunderstanding. I wasn’t spying on you. I’m… I’m a conver-placement specialist.”
“You’re a teacher.”
“My other job. Do you think I could afford an apartment like this on a teacher’s salary?” She cleared her throat and continued. “Surveys show that consumers trust word of mouth more than they do any commercial. That’s what makes conver-placement the most exciting new frontier advertising. My job is to engage consumers in conversation and …”
“Make product placements?”
“Exactly,” she smiled. I was, she assumed, finally getting it. Her enthusiasm mounted. “The tape recording is just to document the number of placements I’ve made during conversation in any given week.”
“You should have told me.”
She continued, oblivious to my anger. “I couldn’t tell you. If consumers know a placement is being made, it doesn’t have any weight. I don’t get paid when people know what I’m doing.”
“You shouldn’t have been doing it…with me!”
“Oh, c’mon, Sam,” she snapped. “I was seeing you everyday! I couldn’t let that time go to waste. Besides, where was the harm?”
“You interrupted our lovemaking for a condom commercial!”
“And you bought the product. How offended could you have been?”
She was smirking. Arrogant. I couldn’t look at her. My eyes surveyed the apartment. The leather sofa. The five CD changer. She had sold our intimacy for her one bedroom Taj Mahal. What else had she done?
“Do you do this with your students?”
“Do you make placements when you’re teaching your students?”
She took a step towards the window. The backlighting accentuated the red highlights in her brown hair. Was this a deliberate piece of staging?
“Everything I say in my placements is supported by independent consumer research.”
“Do you make placements with your students?”
“I offer facts about the products, not opinion,” she stammered. “Sam, it’s education just the same.”
I smashed her glass top coffee table first. The rosewood leg made an excellent bludgeon for smashing her framed prints. A protruding nail ripped the leather upholstery quite nicely. The electronics I smashed against her red brick fireplace. Having sunk the wealth which I as a bondsman had piled up, I walked casually out the door, leaving Cassandra weeping amidst the rubble. If she called the cops, they never caught up with me. I reclaimed my luggage from Cassandra’s doorman, hailed a cab to the airport and was in another time zone by evening.
The turning leaves were already littering the cobblestone path as I walked to the administration building.
I looked up to see a smiling woman in tweed holding open the door.
“Yes, I know,” she laughed. “I meant you resemble Nick Carraway. You have read the book?”
“Yes. I’m afraid I’ve become more used to commercial references than literary allusions. And you are?”
“Amelia Wilkinson,” she smiled confidently. “I’ve been asked to give you a tour of the grounds.”
We strolled around the grounds: lush grass, in the distance rolling hills, and woods now vibrant copper and scarlet. I felt at once that I had reached my just reward and had bitten off more than I could chew. But Amy was a charming tour guide. She knew the history of every building, not only when each was constructed, but what scandalous events had transpired therein. She gave a complete rundown of the skeletons in the closets of the major benefactors. She humanized this academic Shangri-La, and made me feel that I could comfortably exist here, meet and maybe surpass expectations.
We settled in for lunch on an outdoor patio overlooking the great lawn of the campus. Her hair shimmered in the noon sun.
“When you said I resembled Nick Carraway,” I asked, “would that be before or after he learns the truth about Gatsby?”
“Both, I think,” she answered with a gentle laugh. “You’ve learned a little, but not all. Learning, after all, is a lifetime occupation.”
Was Amy inviting me on some quest for further knowledge? As I wondered delightful things I might learn from Amelia Wilkinson, a Frisbee flew over from the lawn and struck my fork, splattering food all over my tie. Amy dipped her napkin into a water glass and handed it to me to dab up the gravy.
“I’m afraid this tie is lost.”
Amy’s eyes sparkled, “Hugo Boss has an exciting new line of ties.”
I dropped the napkin on my tray. I felt the chill in the late summer air.
“A tie,” I said, “is something you pick off a rack. Even for the men who wear them, they are an afterthought. How the hell do you know who has an exciting new line?”
Amy adjusted the pin in her tweed lapel. “Too obvious?”
I turned in my chair and crossed my legs. What a pallet of colors this landscape offered. Beauty in the stricken leaves. My hush puppies were seriously down at the heel. I liked how the sunlight played in Amy’s hair.
“We all make mistakes when we’re starting out,” I told her. “We just have to learn not to repeat them.”