Welfare

In the fall of her freshman year Tess fell in love at UCLA, with Dr. Wiseman, and wrote what she thought was a confidential evaluation when his poetry class was over, saying that he was not only true to his name but incredibly sexy and kind, sensitive and brilliant and generous, and that she’d marry him on the spot. She didn’t sign her name. When she went to his office in May, to recite the prologue to The Canterbury Tales for a grade, she saw it posted on his door under his nameplate next to one by a girl who had loopy handwriting and found him sexist and selfish, an egomaniacal lech. Tess thought he must’ve known exactly who he was to share both versions of himself with the world.

She hadn’t known he’d get his hands on her thoughts. She wondered if he recognized her printing. This was in 1990, when papers could still be in pen. He opened the door before she could calm herself or run. It was almost noon and she hadn’t eaten breakfast, or dinner the night before, so she felt sick and weak. She was short on cash and pregnant enough that her jeans were unbuttoned and even partially unzipped under a gray T-shirt she’d taken from her father, covering the part of her belly that was now past what most jeans could handle. Even if she could’ve afforded them, she resisted maternity clothes.

There was a sandwich on a plate on Dr. Wiseman’s desk. It was a homemade sandwich with sprouts, tomato, and green frilly lettuce that stuck out around the bread.

“Ready?” he said, and Tess nodded.

She sat across from him with the sandwich between them and held his gaze but was unable to say more than the first line.

She tried doing it with her eyes closed.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s hard when you’re watching me.”

He said she could face the window if she preferred.

“Thanks,” she said, and stood.

She looked too young to be pregnant. That blonde ponytail, that belly on her thin frame. It had been a mystery to him in December when her poems turned bleak and filled suddenly with fear, abandonment, lack.

She stood with her back to him and said the words in Middle English while she watched a bunch of normal kids eat pizza in the quad below.

“Nice work,” Dr. Wiseman said when she finished, and she believed him because he’d heard it countless times, delivered with every possible accent and every degree of skill, but the feeling of doing nice work was tempered by the knowledge that all she’d done was read the prologue off a page she could see in her mind, which she knew was cheating.

“Thanks,” she said.

Dr. Wiseman was a pro at Middle English. He was a large man but fit, robust, not an inch of him weakened by age, as far as Tess could see. His blond hair was full of gray and he had tanned, freckled forearms, but something in his face stayed the same no matter what blemish he had or what made his eyes widen, mouth tighten, nostrils expand or contract. She’d had a lot of time to watch him in class and she’d come to believe that he had an imperturbable core. She’d written that in her evaluation, which he gave no sign of knowing was hers.

“Let me know if this is too personal,” he said, “but I heard from a colleague and can see for myself, I didn’t want to ignore . . . are you expecting?”

“I am,” she said, looking down at the baby. A funny thing about being pregnant was that people didn’t treat as secret what seemed the most hush-hush of all. Maybe because it was supposed to be exciting and wouldn’t be private for long.

“I want you to know that I’m here to help,” he was saying, “if I can—if you need an extension on an assignment or—”

“Can I have a bite of that?”

He offered her the whole sandwich but she wouldn’t take more than half. She would learn that certain people felt good if they gave you things and that accepting gifts wasn’t cheating. They didn’t do it to make you feel indebted or inept or to lord what they had over you. They didn’t begrudge. Tess would be a professional one day, an advocate, and would marry one, but she couldn’t know that now because she was eighteen and had slept in her car the night before. She thought of herself as having fallen to the bottom rung. She would be there for three years.

Dr. Wiseman said as she ate that his sister was single and had wanted children very badly when she turned forty, and so went abroad and got pregnant.

As if you have to leave the country, Tess thought.

“Pregnant with twins, actually,” he said, laughing at what nature could do.

“Are they born?”

“They’re three years old,” he said, “and she’s struggling but she’s on public assistance.”

Tess didn’t know what that was and she tried to change the subject to hide her ignorance but he discovered it and explained. Then Tess had a string of questions. They covered eligibility, health insurance, food stamps, cash, and the issue of who deserved what. She didn’t know welfare was possible. She didn’t know anyone on it, and had nothing in common with them.

“The program began in 1935, as part of the New Deal,” he told her. “To support widowed white women and their children.”

“When times were tough,” she said.

“Absolutely,” he said, standing to walk her out. “That’s why they call it relief.

On the back of his door, on a hanger, on a hook, was a light-blue dress shirt with a button-down collar.

“Can I borrow this?” she said. She’d been humbled and was learning the ropes.

He laughed. He was always laughing like the world was way funnier than she’d been led to believe.

“Sure,” he said, “you can return it when the baby’s born.”

She blushed when she took it off the hanger. It didn’t seem like an even exchange.

“Sorry,” she said.

“Thanks,” she said.

She folded it over her arm. He opened the door. She tried to tell him what she’d done, she pointed and laughed at her evaluation and made some offhand remark, but he didn’t connect it with her. He took pleasure in the two visions of himself and posted them to show he endorsed all perspectives, but he had a fragile marriage and a weakness for female students, especially the ones he helped shape.

“I might come stay at your house before this is over,” she called from down the hall. He laughed and said he’d love to have her.

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