Thursday, September 3, 2015

My Date with the Most Conservative Professor on Campus

West Hollywood, May 1986

The University of Southern California in the 1980s was extremely elitist, stuffy, and conservative, and Charles Bertan was the most elitist, stuffy, and conservative of the faculty.  A little shorter than me, slim, with an oval, slightly irregular face and a crooked smile.

He had stuffy degrees from Harvard and Princeton, always wore a suit, carried a briefcase, and spoke with super-correct grammar.

This isn't him -- I couldn't find a picture that did the conservatism justice, and also showed some muscle.

He was only a few years older than me, but he had already published a dozen books and articles on Restoration and Augustan literature: John Donne, Henry Fielding, Alexander Pope, 18th century pastoral...

His classroom skills weren't great: he called students "Mr." and "Miss", never joked, rarely smiled, and called out mistakes tactlessly.  When asked a pleasant question like "How was your weekend?" he fumbled and stammered.

Other students disliked him; I was fascinated.

What kind of life did this guy have?  What did he do at night? Who did he go home to?  Did he watch tv, collect antiques, volunteer at a homeless shelter, go camping at Yosemite?  Or were Tom Jones and An Essay on Man life enough? 

I could not imagine Dr. Bertan taking off his shirt, getting naked, lying in bed, kissing someone, having sex.  Not that he wasn't attractive. He just wasn't a sexual being.

Or was he?  Maybe I could find out.

If I cruised him, he would probably rush off in horror, like a squirrel when you get too close.  I had to be subtle, make him think that he was cruising me.

1. Setting the ground work.

I began working out just before class, so I would still be pumped, and came in with the tightest t-shirt I could find  to show off my chest -- 50", my best feature.  Dr. Bertan kept trying not to look.

We met in a conference room, around a rectangular table, with Dr. Bertan at the head.  I started sitting adjacent to him, so occasionally our legs would brush together "by accident."  Once he got flustered and scooted his chair to the far end, but the next class session, he was in the middle of the table again.

When he passed me a batch of papers to hand out, I made sure that our hands touched "by accident."  He quickly moved away -- I just smiled.  


2. Piquing his interest.

His reactions suggested that he was gay, but just to make sure, one day I said, "I know we skipped over John Wilmont, Earl of Rochester in our anthology, but I read him anyway.  One line has me puzzled.  What does he mean by There's a sweet soft page of mine, does the trick worth forty wenches."

"Oh, well...." Dr. Bertan blushed a little.  "No doubt Rochester is suggesting his preference for...um...homosexuality."

"Right, right!"  I pretended it had just now dawned on me.  "I know all about that trick."

The class laughed. "Pages or wenches?" someone asked.

I just smiled.  Dr. Bertan stared at me for a moment, as if expecting a response, and then moved on.

Definitely gay.

3. The seduction.

I waited until final grades were posted, in case he had scruples against hooking up with a student, and then went to his office.  It was small but elegant: walnut desk, two chairs, small couch, Persian rug, floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

"I just wanted to thank you for a very interesting semester," I  began," "accidentally" slamming the door behind me.  "Wow, I wish I had a library like this.  A copy of The Rape of the Lock, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley!"  I pointed to an old book on the top shelf.  "I love Beardsley!  Can I take a look at it?"

He beamed at my interest.  "Why, of course.  That's a beautiful edition.  I picked it up at a bookstall in Paris."  

It was too far up to reach, so I had to stand on a chair.

"Wait -- it's rickety -- let me support you.  There's a stepladder in the main office, if...."  Dr. Bertan's hands were pressing on my sides.  I tried to steady myself with a hand on his shoulder.  I grabbed the book -- and the chair slid out from under me.  I collapsed onto the floor,

Dr. Bertan knelt beside me.  "Are you...are you all right?" he stammered.

I just planned to leaf through a book, but this was much better!  "Fine.  A little shaken. Maybe I better sit down."

"Of course, of course."  He helped me onto the couch, and sat beside me. "Do you want to go to the Student Health Center?"

"Oh, no,  I'm fine.  Except I think I hit the chair on the way down.  Could you check for bruises?"

"Um...ok."  I raised my t-shirt.  He reached out and gingerly ran his hand over my chest.  "Anything tender?"

"No."  I put my hand over his and squeezed.  "You have a soft touch."

"Um...thanks."  He was staring in deer-in-headlight terror.  I had to make my next move carefully.

I retrieved the book, sat down beside him again, and put my arm around his shoulders, squeezing hard so he could feel my bicep rise. His hand moved to my lap.

"So, ready to look at those Beardsley illustrations?  Or did you have something else in mind?"

Dr. Bertan blushed red, and drew his hand away.  "I don't...I don't...I mean, I've never...."

"Well, isn't it about time you did?  We're the same age, and I'm not your student anymore, so what's stopping you?"

"Um...well...um...I suppose we could have dinner."

 So I didn't get a hookup, but I did get a date: very nice dinner at the Cafe Etoille  -- he was a little nervous, but warmed up quickly -- followed by a walk through West Hollywood, a stop at the Different Light Bookstore, then back to my apartment to spend the night.

We dated once or twice more, but then I flew off to Australia and Japan for the summer, and he went to London to research Alexander Pope, and by the time we returned, the moment had passed.

Besides, I kept calling him Dr. Bertan instead of Charlie.

See also: Cruised by a Young Republican; 8 Harvard Yard Hookups


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