Short Story Professor Anita Baker
She was frightened by the lackadaisical way he displayed his violence, the way America trained her students.
Anita Baker did not like confrontation. She was the sort of person who would lay in bed at night, dissecting her day, and broiling over things she should have said, but didn’t say.
She often visited memories of her conversations with her colleague, Jacob. They were both non-fiction students and teaching assistants in an MFA program, at a midwestern university. They shared the same office and had the same office hours. Jacob was a small man, with astounding, annoying eyes; and a source of anguish to Anita Baker. He talked to her incessantly, about Africa , about Wizkid and Davido, about the latest Nollywood movie he’d seen, about anything slightly Nigerian he’d come across. He touched her hair, and told her she was beautiful, in the tone of a person affirming an unequal. And in all this, Anita Baker showed no sign of unquiet.
Such was her person.
One can then imagine the drowning sensation that rose inside poor Anita Baker when she walked into class on the first day of school and found, sitting beside the window, the dark-haired nineteen-year-old she’d fucked during the summer. She stammered through her reading of the syllabus and ended the fifty-five-minute class thirty minutes early, ten of which she spent in the bathroom cleaning sweat dripping down her thighs. She felt betrayed by life and, as she walked back to her office, thought briefly of running into a speeding car.
When Anita Baker could think without the fuzziness associated with despondency, she emailed said boy and asked him—no, commanded him—to come to her office the next day, though it was not the day she’d designated for office hours. Not only did she want to avoid having to share the office with Jacob, she felt it impossible to leave such problem unfixed for long.
She ended the email with: “Be on time.” No complimentary close. Just her initials.
The next day, she waited for the boy with contained panic, and when he walked in, she felt the panic smash tight things inside her.
“Professor,” he said, taking the seat adjacent to her, smiling.
Anita Baker smiled back and clenched her toes. “I want you to drop my course, Alec.”
“I’m not comfortable teaching a student I have been involved with.”
Involved with. She should have come up with a better phrase. They had sex once. Sloppy, quick sex. He’d fumbled through the entire thing like he was searching for something he didn’t really want to find.
He had on a dry, disinterested look. “So, what’s up with your name, anyway? Is your mom Anita Baker? I mean, I know you’re from Africa and all, but—”
“The school’s policy, Alec, states that—”
Anita Baker swallowed more than spit. She swallowed rage and self-pity and bewilderment. She did not know what she was saying. They never discussed such scenarios in pedagogy classes or in the many online courses required of teaching assistants, which she’d done with acute attention and care. And she could not bear the thought of reaching out to her supervisor, Reese. He was a Christian man; he just began smiling at her since she started attending the church he pastored.
“Can I call you Baker? Like a person who bakes stuff?” He laughed, reclining on the chair, stretching his legs so that they touched her clenched toes.
“You will leave me no choice than to invite higher authority into this matter,” Anita Baker said, sitting upright, shoulders raised, a mask, for her instinct was to flee the scene.
“Professor, I’ve read your syllabus and I believe taking this course will enhance my learning experience at this institution. I’m particularly interested in the Baldwin essay you are assigning.” There was a glint in his eyes as he spoke. “You know, Notes of a Native Son is my favorite essay.”
He sat up. “That part where Baldwin is walking down the street and he suddenly has this feeling that white folks are gonna attack him. That part. I fucking loved it.” He paused, and then laughed and laughed.
Anita Baker looked at herself, at her floral print blouse, at her nicely ironed skirt, at her imitation Cartier wristwatch, and felt so small, so helpless. She heard herself say, “Please.”
She was frightened by him, the boy, the lackadaisical way he displayed his violence. She’d always wondered about the way America trained her students, to have such unabashed, unchecked confidence, to believe the illusion that everyone’s opinion, no matter how deranged, no matter how stupid, mattered. Had someone, somewhere, extinguished whatever flaming fire this boy carried inside him, she wouldn’t be in this situation.
“I’m gonna do it on one condition,” he said. “You are going to close the door, go on your knees, and suck my cock.”
Anita Baker stared at his pale, scrawny face, stared really hard. She could not comprehend the disorderliness of life. Shouldn’t a person be punished for a sin they actually enjoyed, or one in which they were some sort of perpetrator?
Did it matter to whomever rolls the dice of life that she’d never before had a one-night stand, that in the months—thirteen months—that she’d been in America, she’d not had sex with anyone aside this boy? Did it matter that she’d been good until she could no longer be good? That she’d gone on only one other Tinder date, and the man, a third year PhD student in a department in the sciences, had laughed at her jokes, touched her knees gently, but had not texted her afterwards?
Did it matter to this being that her mother had died when she was six, that all Anita Baker could remember of her was static, like her mother’s entire life had been a snapshot, and Anita Baker had only taken a hurried glimpse? Did it matter that her father and two siblings only called her when they needed money? That since she left Nigeria, she’d been having this feeling of being pulled down, being perpetually pulled down, always wanting to sit, to lean on walls and rails and chair handles, to lower her head?
Shouldn’t a person be punished for a sin they actually enjoyed, or one in which they were some sort of perpetrator?
Did it matter that she’d walked into a muffin shop early that morning and after a minute or two of ordering had realized she could not afford it? She could not afford a muffin. A muffin. A fucking muffin. A stupid fucking muffin.
“Are we doing this or not, Baker?” The boy asked, leaning towards Anita Baker. “I have a class in a couple of minutes.”
The smell of coffee wafted in through the shut window. She could hear doors open and close, the sound of footsteps, the hushed chattering of students in the hallway. These familiar sensory details somehow hinged her to the real world, to the world she knew, not a world in which she was being threatened in the vilest way by this sickly-looking boy.
She walked over to him, leaned on the table. “Here,” she said, dropping her laptop in front of him. “Drop the course first.”
She could not tell what it was that flashed through his eyes—surprise, fear, hesitation—but she felt emboldened by it.
“What you waiting for?” she asked, her mouth contorted in mockery. “You want this or naa?”
He set the laptop on his knees and began punching the pads. She could see him clearly then, without his little eyes burrowing into her: his long limbs, his uncombed hair, his lips slim and pink. She remembered then what his lips felt like in her mouth, soft and quivering, how when she first arrived at his apartment, he’d handed her a cold glass of wine with a shy smile, and she’d noticed his perfectly slicked back hair, and noticed—in the stiff way he sat, and held the remote, and took his glass of wine to his mouth—that he was nervous, how later on, as he humped slowly, he kept asking if she was enjoying it, if she liked it, and if she had come, all of which she answered with a bored grunt, how after he came, he avoided her gaze, even as he unlocked the door and threw it open for her to leave.
Now he handed back the laptop to Anita Baker and she checked to be sure he had dropped her course, after which she placed it on her end of the table.
“One more thing,” the boy said, as he moved his chair backwards, reclining deeper, positioning himself to make it easy for her to kneel before him and do his bidding.
“What’s up with the name? Is Anita Baker your mom? I googled her when you first told me your name. Thought you were lying. You got her voice?”
In that moment, Anita Baker wanted to walk behind the boy, squeeze the back of his collar and yank him off the chair. She wanted to scream into his face, wanted to scratch him in soft and tender places. She wanted to hit him. He was humiliating her. He was shredding whatever dignity she had kept for herself all these years, through everything.
But she didn’t—couldn’t. She would get arrested, charged, deported. Even if she wasn’t arrested, she could lose her job and her F-1status. Her life could become like that of many Nigerians in America with expired papers, who had to work odd jobs, hide from law enforcement officers. A life spent looking over one’s shoulder.
“Leave now,” she said calmly. “If you have a problem, you can take it up with the school authorities.”
He opened his mouth and closed it. She knew he could see rage trying to burst through. He could see the seriousness in her face. She knew because his eyes, which had been mocking, defiant, had grown smaller. She knew because he sat up, closed his legs.
Anita Baker would go to Reese. She would tell him everything. She would go to the TA who facilitated the pedagogy classes and whose mild demeanor she remembered now with hopefulness. She would walk through fire first before she let the boy win.
She sat down, turned her attention to the screen in front of her, and then after a moment, raised her head and said, “Go to hell.” She stared at him hard, intensely, emboldened by his silence, by the fear in his eyes. When he stood up, her body tightened, but she kept her gaze steady, piercing. She exhaled when he turned his back to her and walked out, closing the door gently.
Tears crowded her eyes, and though she tried to shut them away in case he changed his mind and walked back in, she sank to the floor and came undone.