The initial attraction. The idea of being an adjunct is too attractive for an unemployed MFA candidate to ignore. The promise of teaching a course, of being a conduit for change, of belonging to a brilliant network of academics is worth the meager compensation. Just like Aaron’s blue eyes, in that first moment when he brushed up against my too tight skirt in a nameless bar one summer night. He ordered a Miller Light, and as the bartender handed him the sweaty bottle, Aaron grinned and breathed into my ear, “You want one?” I was young and newly divorced, and the promise of him and a few more Miller Lites was more than I could resist.
The self-loathing. Every semester, as I agree to two, three, four, seven courses at sometimes less than $2,000 a pop, I am ashamed. I should stand up for myself, I think. I feel the space between my ribs fill with righteous indignation. I should do something about this, start a revolution, and demand proper compensation and access to benefits. I am the downtrodden coalminer of my generation, a Triangle factory floor girl, a Selma marcher, I think to myself as I’m sipping my Venti Latte from Starbucks.
Aaron’s bed was a nest filled with down: pillows, comforter, and blankets. It was the cushion for my falling into him, night after night, even though I promised my very best friend that I wouldn’t. Every weekend I steeled myself for our inevitable run-in. I will stand up to him, I will resist the tug of my skirt, the pull of his pink lips and fair skin, the lure of the free beer and mediocre sex. But there I was again, my breath a cavern of last night’s poor judgment, my clothes wrinkled and lifeless on the floor, my self-respect nowhere to be found.
The grey area. One night, after we had been sleeping together for months, Aaron introduced me to a friend of his as his “colleague.” Colleague? I didn’t even know he had a job. He just seemed to appear at night, at the bar. The inner workings of his life: details like where he worked, his favorite color, his astrological sign, his last name, all of that was information that would reveal itself once we started officially dating. Once I become the girlfriend.
My presence is not required at faculty meetings, in fact, I’m not allowed inside the room where real decisions are made. I’m not invited to department lunches, asked for opinions about texts or curriculum, or even allowed to take a class to further my scholarship. I have to pay for parking, am not allowed to use the fitness facilities, and my name is seldom included on inter-department emails. I exist in a void
The resentment. When Aaron and I first started whatever it was we were doing, I would sometimes surprise him with a blow job late at night, after I’ve slept for an hour or two and woke up in a still-drunk haze. He appreciated this. But, months later, his calloused hands (maybe he’s a construction worker?) would push my head into his waist like he was planting me into the rich soil of his groin. Soon, there were no more surprises.
I’m walking past a well-decorated faculty office, the light from inside looks almost divine. The shadows of two tenured professors dance in the doorway. One complains about teaching four courses this semester. The other mentions the word overload. I make copies of my syllabus on the office copy machine. This year I will teach twelve classes at four different colleges, and make less than $30,000. One night, I spread my college ID badges out across a sticky wooden table at our bar, they were a patchwork quilt of inadequacy. Aaron laughed and slugged his beer. Inside of me there was a fire smouldering.
The messy ending. On a random Monday morning, Aaron stopped answering his phone. I called him three times a day for three weeks. I felt the burn of his phone number on my fingertips while I slept. I missed the nest. I missed his hands on the back of my skull in the darkness. I missed the promise of girlfriend.
Just like I miss the promise of faculty. I have the wrong three letters after my name. I don’t have enough publishing experience. I went to the wrong school, studied the wrong discipline, and made the wrong choices. I’m not good enough for a full-time slot. I’m not good enough for dental insurance. I’m not good enough for tenure. I’m not good enough for Aaron.
My students remember me, write me letters years later thanking me. You made me a writer, one letter says. These are the right letters, the letters that smell like honey, like Aaron on a warm summer night. This is what keeps me coming back.