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May 20, 2024

Time Traveler 05

By Sand Pilarski

Every year on the second Saturday of July, the Alumni Association hosts a fundraising reunion concert and reception at the university. The fiscal year begins July first, and that's why they choose that date, or so I've been told. In Port Laughton, the concert with its reception is a social event, an opportunity to see and be seen; a display of one's generosity and wealth; and an opportunity for local money-mongers to throw their weight around in a minor way.

This year the Port Laughton Symphony Orchestra had recruited a substantial number of its members to participate in the concert, far more agreeable to me than the boring men's choir of last year. While not a mandatory event, faculty were strongly encouraged to attend this yearly display, and Moersgard had told me the first year I was here to never miss it unless I wanted to be hunting for a new job soon.

This would be my first Alumni Association July Concert alone, no longer on Moersgard's arm. Would people look from Moersgard and his lovely young protegee to me and wonder what the kinky, convoluted soap opera story was? Would Augusta Renoir confront the new concubine and tear her hair out? Would Moersgard discover that his fashion model Barbie has no brain and throw himself at Dr. Renoir's feet?

I could have scouted up an escort for the evening, but had chosen not to do so; I wanted to send a clear message to the soap opera crowd: Augusta Renoir, Who Slept Her Way to the Top, did not need to sleep with anyone else to maintain that position.

Dressed in black, as befits an evening performance, with subdued gold jewelry and my hair drawn back in a velvet-covered barrette, I looked pretty damn good for an old cast-off bag of forty-four; on a good day, if I wasn't tired, I could just about pass for late twenties, and early thirties was what people would guess most of the time. About a year ago a near-sighted waitress even made me show my driver's license before she would bring me a beer. (Poor woman, she was embarrassed. I was more than a few years older than she was.) I controversially wore silky slacks pegged under the ankle (rather than a dress -- dresses tend to make me look a bit stumpy because I'm so short) with a matching blouse and a figured silk jacket with a high collar. This was an outfit for greeting the spouses of the important people there, an outfit that said, "Yes, I look good, but look, ma, no cleavage. I'm not after your husband."

Because it was the social event of the summer, and because I'm just as nosy and addicted to the soap opera of university life as anyone else, I arrived at the hall shortly after the doors opened, so that I could procure an advantageous seat from which I could see the dramatis personae as they entered. With whom would they seat themselves? Who would greet whom first? How would they be dressed?

The musicians were trickling by the seat I had chosen, at a table near the back of the hall, as I preferred to be able to duck out fast if necessary, and as well out of consideration for those worthies who might actually know something about music and appreciate the performance from a closer vantage point.

Look! There were those important people, the president of the university, and shaking his hand, the Alumni Association president. They slapped shoulders and pumped palms with nearly identical hail-fellow-well-met grins. Their wives stood a pace or so back, primly holding their evening bags with the fingertips of both hands just below their bellybuttons. They both had on long sleeveless floral print dresses with square necklines (absurd clothing for the chilly evening under the fog) and beauty salon-streaked hair. I felt a snicker coming on, and put up a hand to mask it. Given my habit for being amused by people's behaviors, I ought to carry a fan or a formal handkerchief to put to my face.

I would have liked, (in a split second of thought) to have known why they considered it 'proper' to hold their purses just so. Subconsciously guarding their uteri? And how they came to the conclusion about the kind of dress and the hairstyles they wore. Certainly wasn't fashion magazines. After all, I knew where my choices of dress came from, at least on an occasion like this: that repository of social wisdom herself, my mother. "Evening wear is black, black, black, except in the case of a gala," I could just about hear her voice saying. "For afternoon performances, beige is acceptable. Opening nights you can wear white, as long as it doesn't make you look wide or glow in the dark. Stick with black if you can."

To provoke her, I had countered that few people even knew those rules any more. "Even if no one else remembers, I do. Even when I'm dead I don't want to see you going to the theater in a pink skirt and loafers."

So I still chose my clothes to please my mother when I went out to a social event. Even dead she was a better advisor than some of these women had.

Two musicians in dark suits went striding past me, carrying violin cases and talking musical shorthand about movements and tempos and other even more arcane terms. One had curly dark hair, and when the two were about twenty-five feet away, he stopped as though jerked by an invisible chain. He turned and looked at me, dark eyes wide. I gasped: it was the man I'd seen down town. He raised his left hand in half of a feeble wave. Then his companion rapped him on the chest with his knuckles and dragged on his arm. They turned and continued to the stage.

This is what the fox feels like when he falls asleep and wakens to hear the hounds baying the 'scented!' call, I thought, my heart beating faster in the beginning of a panic. Wait, wait. He can't be dangerous or he wouldn't be with the symphony, right? And he has to be a serious musician or he wouldn't be playing with the symphony, right? And I'm surrounded by dozens and dozens of people I know, so I'm safe, right? I took a deep breath and forced myself to observe the people entering the hall doors. I had to concentrate then to analyze or appreciate what the women were wearing, and the analysis was no longer amusing, just grimly determined.

Time at that concert compressed somehow, speeding by with no standard measurement of seconds, minutes, an hour. I was frozen into a tableau of watching the dark-haired man play the violin and stare at his music. The sound of the orchestra seemed helixical, not linear, swirling tonelessly around the ceiling. With a start I looked at my watch and saw that the performance was nearly over.

I considered leaving before the music was over, even though to do so would have been politically unwise. Startled by the man's presence, I was prepared to run, or at the very least hide in the crowd during the reception. Who was he? He was lean and handsome, but he was a stranger, an unknown, and he had shown me that he knew that I was there.

After the applause at the end of the concert, when everyone stood up to stretch their legs (and nearly all the women stampeded to the restroom -- why is that? Do they all drink a quart of water before the performance?) the violinist with curly hair approached the conductor and spoke to him. It seemed then that they both looked in my direction, causing a flash of trepidation in the area of my lungs. I turned so that I was not looking at them, in time to see Moersgard and his tall brunette protegee bearing down on me.

"Good evening, Augusta," he said, smiling his leonine smile. He turned to the young woman and said to her, "This is Dr. Renoir, of the Anthropology Department, though she also teaches courses for Religious Studies, as well."

I extended my hand to greet the girl and out of the corner of my eye, saw the conductor and the violinist headed in our direction, and so lost track of what Moersgard and the girl were saying. "I'm so sorry," I apologized, "Your name is Barbara Smith, did you say?"

"No," she said, "I said, 'Lauren Smith.'" Her nose pinched up a bit.

"I am sorry," I said again. "Must be the heat in here, I'm feeling a bit light-headed. Maybe too many glasses of wine with the concert. Pleased to meet you." Shit, Moersgard was pissed and glaring at me with narrowed eyes, knowing me too well, knowing now what I thought of his new consort. He was well able to see that there were no wine glasses on the table. "Jacob has spoken well of you, Lauren. I hope that your studies go well this year."

Now I was starting to lose the embarrassment and becoming defensive at Moersgard's continued glowering. I turned to him blatantly, and raised my eyebrows at him. "Do you want me to go on, Moersgard?" And then smiled my most false and threatening smile at him.

"If you shake hands with Augusta, Lauren, it's always wise to count your fingers afterwards. Do you have them all? Very good. Nice speaking with you, Doctor Renoir." He steered them away. Damn it to hell, what was he up to? He didn't introduce me to his previous pash when he took up with me; why would he drag Miss Tits over here? To show her the competition -- this, Barbie, is what you have to live up to -- even if I was competition, which I wasn't. Let her deal with Moersgard's increasing prostate problems, a heavy price to pay for political weight. What's more, I thought, eying them suspiciously as they moved away, she wore a pink sweater set above a tight black skirt that made her look like a smoked sausage.

"Excuse me, Dr. Renoir," said a voice to my left. I turned, and the Port Laughton Symphony Orchestra conductor Josef Asaki stood there with the suspect violinist. Once again I extended a hand, and congratulated Asaki on the performance. He thanked me and then drew my attention to the violin player. "Please allow me to introduce one of our newest members of the symphony, Mr. Valentine Teshenko. Valentine has recently moved to Port Laughton, and will be the new music director at Port Laughton High School." To Valentine (pronouncing it Valen-teen) he said, "This is Professor Augusta Renoir of the Anthropology Department here. She is considered by some to be the best teacher in the world." That made me laugh aloud, considering that his troublemaking son had been one of my first students here, and I had kicked him out of class twice for his injudicious and unrepentant voice, only to become his favorite professor.

I extended my hand, and Mr. Valentine Teshenko took it and shook it gently, his eyes not leaving mine. Is this man nuts or just the most impertinent twerp I've ever met? I thought.

Asaki gave a kind of half-bow and excused himself, leaving me with the twerp. I jammed my hands in my pockets, still experiencing the photographer in my head examining the pads of his fingers against my skin.

"I saw you down by Giammarino's a couple times recently," said the twerp Teshenko. "I tried to catch up to you once, but you disappeared. Like magic," he said smiling.

"Damn right I did, Mr. Teshenko. All I saw was a stranger following me. You scared the hell out of me, as a matter of fact."

He drew back with a semi-shudder. "I didn't realize that. I'm very sorry. I just saw a strikingly lovely lady, and wanted to meet her."

"This is California, Mr. Teshenko, and a university town. That means there are a lot of nuts on the prowl, and even more nuts on the prowl. You may want to reconsider your approach to introductions."

"Dr. Renoir, I am sorry. Please forgive me."

I bowed my head a little, not really forgiving. "I have to greet some other guests. If you will excuse me," I said, moving away from him in dismissal. I focused on working my way through the crowd, greeting people I knew, introducing myself to strangers. Questioning myself about how brusque I had been with a stranger just a few moments before. What was the difference?

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-08-15
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