I took a Chaucer English Literature class in 1968 at New York University. I was told Chaucer used a lot of dirty words. An erotic film was made based on ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ I figured the professor wasn’t going to screen it in class but maybe I could take a female classmate to see it when it played at one of those art houses where intelligent people go to watch porn.
All my hopes of becoming titillated by great literature were dashed when I noticed it was written in Middle English. In order to understand the sexual connotations, you had to read the footnotes. There’s something about a footnote that slows down the action. I usually skip them. Sex is about stripping bare, relating to the other person without any clothes. Footnotes are like wearing two sweaters, adding on what doesn’t need to be there. I trust authors. I don’t need to see proof that the facts the authors claim are true do exist. I know they wouldn’t deceive me unless they had to.
She wore two scarves. One of wool to match her coat. The other of cotton to match her dress. She looked stunning. But anyone who dressed up for a Chaucer class would definitely not find me appealing. Though, I appreciated her not changing her seat. Some women don’t like you sitting in back of them. They can’t tell what you’re fantasizing about. And I fantasized a lot about Cybill’s back. I’m embarrassed to say they were all of an erotic nature. I was never a ‘Back person.’ Usually backs don’t turn me on. But Cybill had an amazing back, one of the best that I had ever seen. Most backs beckon you to catch up to the woman so you can gaze at her profile. That’s their only purpose, besides holding the body erect. I kept staring at her back. Her shoulder blades were well defined.
She must have worked out a lot. And once in a while she faced me to say hello. But I felt safer viewing her from the back. That way she couldn’t see my face while I was having fantasies about her.
The teacher asked us why we were taking a Chaucer class. Most students said they were taking it because it was required. Cybill said she was taking it because she heard Chaucer was the father of English literature. And to understand the son, which of course was the greater of the two – William Shakespeare – you had to understand the father. The teacher was impressed. But he wasn’t impressed at how she recited Chaucer. She kept stumbling over Middle English. The teacher said she was being too emotive. The emotions were in the words, they were strong enough by themselves, they didn’t need a fancy delivery. "The line, ‘When that April with its sweet roots,’" the teacher said, says it all. She didn’t have to shout it.
One male student would greet her at her desk every morning. He’d try to make small talk. It seemed that his talk kept getting smaller, because for the most part he’d just stand there and gape. One time he got brave and revealed something about himself – he was a math major. Therefore, they had something in common – he wasn’t required to take Chaucer, either. ‘Why don’t we meet one night at a café and talk about our love for Chaucer,’ he said. She must have been thinking about her recital of the Prologue of the Canterbury tales, because she shouted, ‘No. I’m not interested in meeting
you after class to discuss Chaucer or anything else.’ He was embarrassed. He ran out of the class. She stood up, faced the class and said, ‘I can’t believe a mixed-up math major would have the nerve to ask me out.’ Then she sat down. It was like her social life was part performance. I knew better than to ask her out. And anyway, I was in love with her back. What kind of date would it be if I spent the evening sitting behind her. No one would think we were a couple.
The math major stayed away from class for two weeks. He stayed clear of Cybill. She never looked at him. A guy I knew in class said he didn’t think asking someone out on a date was a misdemeanor. He said it was mathematics – the more you ask the better your chances of someone saying ‘Yes.’ – which was something a math major would know. He was convinced that Cybill was going to be famous one day. She made a minor incident the talk of the class. No one talked about Chaucer anymore. They talked about Cybill. He was right.
Hal Sirowitz is the former Poet Laureate of Queens, New York. His first book was Mother Said (Crown). His latest book is Father Said (Soft Skull Press). In between he wrote My Therapist Said, and Before, During & After.