Public space terrified Professor Treadway. If a stray arm were to brush his, he would feign a sneeze to flinch clear. School hallways were the worst. One fortunate result of his blistering dread of contact was that it swelled the pores of his skin to bubble wrap proportions.
But that was years ago, before the divorce, tenure, and his recent success with spatial self-defense. You come this way, I slide that way. That’s how he described it once to a woman with lipstick on her teeth at speed dating. Needless to say, she did not drop her name tag in his pickle jar that evening.
Treadway attracted two kinds of women: Dame Loneliness, that ubiquitous smotherer, or the rarer actual woman predisposed to break his sheepish, corner-seeking heart.
When particularly unlucky, he crossed paths with this latter type without Cupid lighting the way. That was the case with Irene Dyer, a student twenty years his junior with a few pathologies of her own—abandonment issues traced back to an incident involving her mother, a dropped ice cream cone, and a poolside dolphin kiss at Sea World Europa gone terribly awry. Once activated, Irene’s anxiety made it impossible for her to quit talking or to leave an awkward situation.
It was only a matter of time before the psychic petri dishes in the sky lined up to test the inevitable—his fear of entrapment versus hers of flight. When that day came, Professor Treadway was lecturing on the art of public space.
“The disruption of the urban environment finds its keenest expression in the guerrilla video movements of the 2000s. This slide, for example, rejects any notion of the private.”
A hand went up.
“I get that there’s a rejection, but all I see is a dude in a cow suit on the subway shooting milk at a bag lady.”
A wave of laughter. Another hand.
“Yes, Ms. Dyer.”
“But that’s a practical way of seeing something that isn’t supposed to be seen in a practical way? It’s art.”
Another from the back: “Spraying milk through udders in a cow suit? How is that art? What if I came to class dressed up like a huge dildo and spoogied everybody. Would that be art?”
An hour later in his office, Treadway was performing interest in Irene’s monologue, his watch, and the door, beyond which, he daydreamed, freedom awaited.
“So if the dildo were not so obviously a dildo—”
To the door: “Irene, it’s not simply a matter of being explicit. Lots of art is.”
“What if the dildo suit was not really a dildo, but a rocket or something that only said dildo on it.”
He touched his fingertips in front of his lips and then pointed them at the door.
She continued. “What if it was a woman in the dildo outfit?”
“Aha,” he said, checking his watch.
“And what if it happened somewhere women were not usually found, like a chemistry lab.”
“Isn’t that merely staging a photograph? Where’s the spontaneity?” Was it by the door?
“What if a girl were to walk into a chem lab wearing a leotard that had the word ‘dildo’ written on it and when she turns around, nothing but old men wearing lab coats on top of huge dildo outfits?”
“An interesting video, but a staged one yet again. Just look at the time, Irene.”
“One last thing—”
“What if someone were to disrupt just a space. No one there to offend. Just space. Would that qualify?”
“We’ll have to wait for your final project to find out.” He walked to the door.
“Last question, Professor. If other people matter so much, what if—”
“I’m late here, Irene,” he hissed through an exaggerated smile.
She stepped into the hallway. “What if, in the eyes of society, the artist is an obsessive? Would his actions still be art?”
The door slammed shut.
Relieved, Treadway began stuffing papers into his bag, until a muffled voice from the other side of the door: “Professor Treadway, the door shut on us accidentally.”
He held his breath.
“Professor, would that be art or not?”
His eyes found the phone on his desk. In a flash he imagined security guards toting her down the hall kicking and screaming.
“Hel-lo! Professor Treadway? Would that still be art?”
Would she still be asking her question, screeching it like a banshee? What would his colleagues say?
And she…so smart, so pretty.
“Sorry about that, Irene,” he said through the door. “The university wants us to…close our doors to signal the end of office hours officially.” He coughed to mask the click of the lock. His mind raced for an escape hatch. The window. This was the first floor, after all.
She continued through the door. “So would that situation I outlined, in the case of—”
“I’m going to leave now, Irene,” he said weakly.
“—in the case of an insane artist who would strike the members of the public that he is intervening on as insane…”
Irene spoke louder. Then, she started knocking. After a while, and no doubt because the hallway was empty, she got down on her belly to peek under the door. With her cheek against the cold linoleum and her nostrils spiced with pine-scented dust, she felt the unmistakable draft of an open window. It gently electrified the freckles on her face. Vicariously, if only for a second, she savored the concept of being free.
Michael Chaney is an academic but he is not agoraphobic. He lives in Vermont. Visit his website: http://michaelalexanderchaney.com.