"The Wager," Part 6

Click the title of this post to see previous parts.

Helen stopped short of the door of her boyfriend’s apartment, stunned. Muffled giggles and squeals were seeping through the door. She pounded on the door.


The giggles stopped short, quickly followed by rustling and whispers. There was a pattering toward the door, which opened to reveal an embarrassed but defiant Carlo in his bathrobe.

“I forgot you were coming over. Sorry.” A smile flickered across his face. Helen looked past that at a girl with an expensive haircut fixing her outfit as she came out of the bathroom.

“Oh, shit. This totally sucks.” She looked at Helen desperately. “Omigod, I’m, like so sorry. I totally didn’t know that Carlo had a girlfriend.” She was bright red and unable to look at Helen. “We were just, like, talking about my grade, and, you know…”

She ran around the room, collecting her belongings, including a paper with a bright red B−, and shoving them into an undersized leather backpack. She threw the backpack over her shoulder and finally looked at Helen. “I’m really, really sorry.”

“How old are you?”


Helen glared at Carlo, who glared back, ignoring the girl.

“Uh, I think I should leave.” The girl moved fearfully between Helen and Carlo, out the door, and ran out of the building.

Helen began. “Nailing your students? What the hell is your problem? Do you have any idea how pathetic it is to be forty-five and banging sorority chicks who want a better grade?”

Carlo tried to be sophisticated. “Oh, come on, Helen. We never made any promises.”

“Not verbally, no.”

“So you say. Look, this girl came out of my class bothering me about her grade.” He laughed. “She actually said, ‘My parents aren’t paying $40,000 a year for me to get Bs.’”

“You don’t even remember her name, do you?” Carlo was silent. “You knew goddam well I was coming over today. If you’d had any decency, you’d have just broken it off instead of humiliating all three of us.”

Carlo waved it off. “Jesus, Helen, it’s not a big deal. It was nothing.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a big fucking deal for me.” Helen tried to continue, but her rage choked her up. She turned and walked out. Carlo didn’t try to stop her.

Helen retraced her steps back to her apartment in Center City in a daze. She stormed into her brownstone apartment, slammed the door, threw her keys against the wall as hard as she could, and slumped down onto her couch to cry.

After a while, the tears ceased. She got up and walked into her bedroom/office. Her futon was a mess, blankets and sheets twisted up, pillows half uncovered and strewn haphazardly on the mattress. Clothes lay on the floor of her closet, pushing the door half-open, migrating to the chair next to the futon where they hung sadly. Helen rarely did laundry, preferring instead to wear the same clothes over and over again. She only wore jeans and t-shirts—maybe shorts if it was really hot—augmenting the ensemble with a loose sweater or a sweatshirt if it was cool, and an old army jacket if it was cold. She lived in one pair of sneakers until they fell apart; then she replaced them with a new version of the same brand. She hated shopping for clothes with a passion. Twice a year she’d run into a store, grab six identical t-shirts, three pairs of Levi’s, a bunch of panties and bras, a fistful of white tube socks. She got her hair cut for ten bucks at the local barbershop, wore no makeup, never blew her hair dry, rarely combed it. It was all to no avail: she was easily the most beautiful woman anyone had ever seen.

Helen’s desk lay opposite the futon. It was as neat as a desk that’s used several hours a day can be. Books lined the walls above her desk, surrounding the window that looked out on the street. Ivy followed the shelves, linking the volumes. Drafts of dissertation chapters were piled next to her computer. Low black file cabinets supported a smooth wooden door, now serving as a work table at a right angle to her desk, following the wall. On this table were dictionaries in several languages, a printer, piles of library books, and mementos from her travels. There was an onyx chess set from Turkey, an Eastern Orthodox icon from Greece, and a fist-sized piece of marble she had swiped from Hadrian’s Villa in Italy.

She had sat on the stump several hundred yards from the main complex staring at the lump of marble lying on the ground. She had seen dozens like it strewn all over the site, unmarked and ignored.

Wouldn’t I be a barbarian if I took it? she had asked herself. No more so than the British Museum, she decided. She would cherish it. She had wanted something to take with her to love and treasure, a piece of the classical world to call her own. It’s unknown former role in Hadrian’s plan evidence of humanity’s creativity; it’s unknown, likely enslaved hewer evidence of humanity’s cruelty. Could the two aspects ever be separated? The lump of marble asked her this question whenever her eyes fell upon it.

So, she had smuggled it out, guessing correctly that the Italians would be as lax about security upon departure as they had been upon arrival in those pre-9/11 days.

Helen always smiled when she looked at her workspace. Work comforted her. Thinking, writing, reading—these tasks calmed her. Books, computers, articles—these things kept her company. She was usually shy around people, conscious that she was instantly judged by her beauty. Very few people were unaffected by her stunning beauty: some avoided her, some tried to conquer her only to discard her later. Helen knew what only the extraordinarily beautiful know: such beauty is a handicap. People hate the unusual, even if they covet it—especially if they covet it. Women often hated her for her looks and reveled in her isolation. Helen found it hard to have friendships with men; they always assumed she was interested. Those she was interested in usually never got up the courage to approach her. Always she wondered whether she was sought after as an accoutrement, an adornment, mostly for other males’ envy.

She had thought that an older, accomplished, attractive man like Carlo would not hold her overwhelming attractiveness against her. He knew eight languages; was a leader in his field of archaeology; tenured—i.e., one would think someone secure enough to enjoy Helen’s many gifts. For a couple of weeks, it had seemed as though Carlo had seen past her beauty, and had liked what he saw. But, she admitted to herself forlornly, as soon as she had slept with him, the relationship had started to fizzle out. Helen was not only beautiful but immensely intelligent. Carlo could handle the beauty; he couldn’t handle an intellectual equal. Adornments should be seen, not heard.

Helen sat down at her desk, intending to work on her dissertation. She reached down to turn on the computer, but stopped mid-movement.

No, she thought. And she got up, grabbed her keys off the floor, and walked out of the apartment. She was headed for a local Irish bar.

This is what I need, she thought as she walked into the bar, a few hours of alcohol-lubricated self-pity, just to get it out of my system.

Helen had been too preoccupied to notice the strangely dressed young man who had been following her since she had left Carlo’s apartment. When she went into the bar, he took off in the opposite direction, west, toward the university.

* * *

An excerpt from a work © 1996; 2007 Doug Tarnopol