Why I Stopped Sleeping With Students -- and Why I Went Back
An earlier version of this ran on Medium in 2017 — and attracted such violently negative attention that I had to take it down. I rewrote it substantially, and since I won’t be doing a memoir anytime soon, offer it here.
March 1998, Silverlake, California.
Lily and I sit on a curb outside a restaurant. I hold a cigarette in my left hand, she has one in her right. Our other hands are busy together.
Lily rubs her thumb over mine and looks down. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she says. She is trembling.
“You sure this is what you want?” I ask. I always ask.
Lily doesn’t say anything, just turns her face towards mine, and kisses me, hard, her tongue sharp and strong. “Yes,” she says. “I think I do.”
I am not quite 31. Lily has just turned 18. Earlier that week, she handed in her midterm for my women’s studies class.
Three months later, Pasadena, California.
I sit naked on the edge of my bed, my eyes wincing at the light that’s just been switched on. Lily stands a few feet away, rummaging furiously for her clothes. Two minutes earlier, I was inside of her while she rode me in the dark. As Lily’s eagerness grew, she had shifted, and her hand moved from my bicep to my shoulder. Her fingers found the burns I’d inflicted on myself the day before.
I’d used a car cigarette lighter. It was my third episode of burning in a month.
“I’m sorry,” I say. My eyes go to the Xanax bottle on the dresser. If she’s leaving, I’m swallowing a handful the moment she hits the door.
Lily pulls on her jeans. She stares at me. I stare back. I am certain I will never see her naked again, and my eyes linger on the glimmering dragon tattoo that rises, undulating, from her pelvis to her rib cage.
“When we got together, I thought you were so amazing. And then I saw, you’re a man, you’re just another weak man.” Lily wriggles into her bra. “I was stupid for thinking you might be different.”
Her words hurt much worse than the burns. I look down. A week later, I will overdose. When I get sober, I will swear off sleeping with students.
That pledge will last nearly 10 years.
February 2008, Pasadena, California
I am at home on a Thursday night, cleaning chinchilla cages. Eira, my wife of three years, is on a business trip — in Miami or London or Kampala, or somewhere even further away. She travels so much, and does so well. I can’t keep track.
This thing that’s about to happen is not Eira’s fault, not her responsibility. Her being a continent or two away enables the how; her being gone is not the why.
My cell rings. It’s Leigh. She’s crying so hard I can barely understand her.
Leigh is 20. This semester, she’s taking her fourth class with me at Pasadena City College . She calls me her mentor. She’s hinted at wanting more, but I’ve attributed that to attention-seeking. Or maybe she’s just testing.
Since Lily, I’ve been scrupulous about my boundaries with students. In ten years, I’ve taught thousands and mentored dozens and always, always, stayed on the right side of a line I once crossed with exuberance.
Does staying on the right side of the line mean giving your only student who’s a professional model your cell number? Does it mean creating a relationship with her so close that you’re the first one they call at 9PM when something bad happens?
Sure. I’m a caring mentor -- whose closest mentees just happen to be disproportionately young, attractive and female. I’m still not doing what I was before.
I’m still being good.
I am very, very tired of being good.
Leigh cries to me on the phone, telling me a story about a hateful voicemail she got from an ex-girlfriend. “I don’t know what to do,” she wails, “I feel so fucking alone.”
As it so often has right before I make a fateful (and generally, stupid) decision, that famous line from Macbeth pops into my head: “Here on this bank and shoal of time, we jump’d the life to come.”
Unlike Mr and Mrs Macbeth, I’m not quite planning on regicide — but after so many years of toeing the line, what I’m about to do is not far off. Fuck the consequences. Fuck what is to come. There is no more sophisticated answer to why. There is just jumping from the bank. There is just, fuck it.
“Hey, Leigh,” I say. “Listen. Would you like to come over?”
Silence. A small gasp. “Really? Yes. I would.”
I give her directions, and then walk outside to wait for her.
Ten minutes later, her battered Jetta pulls up Marengo Avenue, parks. Leigh steps out, walks toward me, then stops ten feet away, uncertain. Her low-rise jeans are tucked into boots; above three inches of exposed tummy there’s a tight beige sweater that seems (maybe) deliberately inside-out.
Most days, Leigh looks older than 20. Not tonight. Tonight she looks frightened, eager, and young. I’ve never thought I wanted her, but now, I suddenly do. Desperately.
We study each other, each of us wondering if the other knows why this is happening.
If she takes the next step first, I’ll kiss her. If she waits for me to come to her, I won’t. She has to be sure.
I’m not done playing this silly game in my head before Leigh walks up to me, lowers her head, and butts me with it, gently, on my chest.
One of Leigh’s hands takes one of mine, and our fingers interlace. “Are you sure about this?” she asks.
One set of doubts is erased in an instant, and as for the other, as for my marriage, as for these ten years of being “good,” as for my career itself?
I’m jumping that life to come.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m sure.” She looks up, I look down, and brush some of her blonde strands away. We kiss.
A moment later, hand in hand, I lead Leigh into the house that Eira and I have shared these last five years.
And though I didn’t hear it at the time, whenever I recall this moment, I hear a click. It is the click of a switch being thrown to send a train hurtling down a different set of tracks. It is the click of a pen being readied, a pen that will sign a letter of resignation. It is the click my locker at TJ’s makes at 4:30AM when I slam it shut before my morning shift, my name on my shirt and no longer on an office door; it is the click of their mother’s door behind me, when I say goodbye to my teary children, and won’t see them for another week.
It is the click that comes when you press ‘play’ on a movie that’s long been on pause.
In real life, I didn’t hear the click. What I did hear, as Leigh and I undressed each other, was my father’s voice.
“Old boy,” I heard him say, “it is awfully hard to be good, but you do have to try.”
And as she took me inside her, I tried to think of something to say back to him.
And I had nothing. Nothing at all.
Such monumental recklessness, such deliberate foolishness — it cries out for a better explanation than “fuck it.” It demands a story, perhaps one rooted in deep childhood trauma, something to make it all make sense. So many spouses who have been betrayed ask, in rage and pain, “Why? WHY?” and so many men like me have to choose between inventing a narrative that sounds plausible, or giving up any hope of justification and saying simply, “I don’t know.”
Sometimes, the worst things are acts of malice. Sometimes, they are acts of desire. Sometimes, the worst things are acts that seem to have no internal author at all.
Years and years of therapy have led me back to these twin stories of stopping and starting. I relive them behind the eyelids, torturing myself with them, and they are with me now as warning. Perhaps someday, I’ll have a memoir with a good answer, one that satisfies the reader, and offers insight into a colossal foolishness that changed the course of so many lives.
All I can say is this: my father was right. We do have to try.