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  • Enlightenment
  • William Pei Shih (bio)

fiction, Harvard, professor, student, relationship, old age, loneliness

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Harvard, 1966. Abel Jones is in his third year. He is an exceptional student, head of the class. He is studying history. His area of focus, the eighteenth century. England and France. Still, there are days when he is lost. Days when he is perplexed. For one, he is excruciatingly shy, soft-spoken. A young man from the country. There are times when he even feels out of his depth. The university is distinctively male, overwhelmingly white—a kind of white. It is marked by class. Even one's residence defines him. The best rooms are on the second floor, where the most well-to-do reside. A scholarship student, Abel lives on the top floor. Sex is possible. It is commonly available in the bathrooms. At times, he can't help but think that he's no better than a pervert.

It is recommended that the undergraduates take a term off in order to find their place in the world. His classmates spend time in Rome. In Athens. He visits a psychotherapist in Cambridge, one who he discovers later is quite distinguished. He's told that he can't possibly be a pervert. Or a homosexual, but that he is having what the experts refer to as "sexual panic." As soon as he succeeds in dating a woman, he will come to his senses. Everything will align.

Her name is Daphne. She is in her last year at Radcliffe. She has radical beliefs, echoes the consciousness of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. He takes her to see A Man for All Seasons. Dinner afterwards. Daphne has flushed cheeks, auburn hair. Soft blue eyes that radiate with authoritative clarity. She is wearing a burgundy dress. She exudes beauty, not to mention confidence. Someone raised from noble ideals, [End Page 112] and the best of intentions. Parents who know better. Someone from money. Her family had campaigned for Johnson and Humphrey. It didn't matter that they lost. "More than awareness," she says, "we need action. We need movement. Or else we're only cursed to repeat the same mistakes with each successive generation."

The war, feminism, civil rights: All are at the forefront of her mind and heart.

Abel can't help but find himself entranced by the woman. Is this the makings of something more? Because he actually likes the person he's becoming in her presence. He seems to be saying all the right things. How she counters with ease. He is unexpectedly at his best. It is a kind of achievement to be this in sync with the universe.

Over coffee, over apple pie, he can see them together, ten years down the line—they are married. There might already be children. They would be scholars, both at the top of their game. They'd have a home in the suburbs, host dinner parties. Talk politics, the philosophy of Diderot. Most importantly, they would be happy together, a force to be reckoned with. He can already tell that she will be the type of woman who will pave the way, shine a spotlight on all of his best qualities. It would be easy for people to admire him, as they admire her. A lifetime, ripe with possibilities. Windfall after windfall. He would never have to fear the risk of losing his leverage in the world ever again.

They end up in her room in Beacon Hill. Her roommate is conveniently gone for the weekend, visiting family in Washington, DC—they have complete privacy.

"What are you waiting for?" Daphne says.

"What do you mean?"

"Kiss me already."

"All right."

He kisses her. She returns with a sudden heat. The scent of incense, bergamot perfume. They are already lying down on her bed. Some of their clothes are tossed to the side. He can feel the arch of her body, pressing closer against his. He wants to be overwhelmed. He wants to give in. But he feels himself pulling away.

"What's the matter?" The flash of unease in her eyes cripples him further. "What's...


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pp. 112-122
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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