A Choice of Profession
Cronin, after discovering that his wife, Marge, had been two-timing him with a friend, suffered months of crisis. He had loved Marge and jealousy lingered unbearably. He lived through an anguish of degrading emotions, and a few months after his divorce, left a well-paying job in Chicago to take up teaching. He had always wanted to teach. Cronin taught composition and survey of literature in a small college town in Northern California, and after an initially exhilarating period, began to find it a bore. This caused him to worry because he hoped to be at peace in the profession. He wasn’t sure whether it was true boredom or simply not knowing whether he wanted to teach the rest of his life. He was bored mostly outside the classroom—the endless grading of papers and bookkeeping chores; and for a man of his type, Cronin felt, he had too much to read. He also felt he had been asking from teaching more than he was entitled to. He had always thought of teaching as something religious and perhaps still did. It had to do with giving oneself to others, a way of being he hadn’t achieved in his marriage. Cronin, a tall, bulky-shouldered man with sensitive eyes, and a full brown mustache, smoked too much. His trousers were usually smeared with cigarette ashes he brushed off his thighs; and lately, after a period of forbearance, he had begun to drink. Apart from students there were few women around who weren’t married, and he was alone too often. Though at the beginning he was invited to faculty parties, he wanted nothing to do with the wives of his colleagues.
The fall wore away. Cronin remained aimlessly in town during the winter vacation. In the spring term a new student, an older girl, appeared in his literature class. Unlike most of the other girls, she wore bright attractive dresses and high heels. She wore her light hair in a bun from which strands slipped but she was otherwise feminine and neat, a mature woman, he realized. Although she wasn’t really pretty, her face was open and attractive. Cronin wondered at her experienced eyes and deep-breasted figure. She had slender shoulders and fairly heavy but shapely legs. He thought at first she might be a faculty wife but she was without their combination of articulateness and timidity; he didn’t think she was married. He also liked the way she listened to him in class. Many of the students, when he lectured or read poetry, looked sleepy, stupefied, or exalted, but she listened down to bedrock, as if she were expecting a message or had got it. Cronin noticed that the others in the class might listen to the poetry but she also listened to Cronin. Her name, not very charming, was Mary Lou Miller. He could tell she regarded him as a man, and after so long a dry, almost perilous season, he responded to her as a woman. Though Cronin wasn’t planning to become involved with a student, he had at times considered taking up with one but resisted it on principle. He wanted to be protected in love by certain rules, but loving a student meant no rules to begin with.
He continued to be interested in her and she occasionally would wait at his desk after class and walk with him in the direction of his office. He often thought she had something personal to say to him but when she spoke it was usually to say that one or another poem had moved her; her taste, he thought, was a little too inclusive. Mary Lou rarely recited in class. He found her a bit boring when they talked for more than five minutes, but that secretly pleased him because the attraction to her was quite strong and this was a form of insurance. One morning, during a free hour, he went to the registrar’s office on some pretext or other, and looked up her records. Cronin was surprised to discover she was twenty-four and only a first-year student. He, though he sometimes felt forty, was twenty-nine. Because they were so close in age, as well as for other reasons, he decided to ask her out. That same afternoon Mary Lou knocked on his office door and came in to see him about a quiz he had just returned. She had got a low C and it worried her. Cronin lit her cigarette and noticed that she watched him intently, his eyes, mustache, hands, as he explained what she might have written on her paper. They were sitting within a foot of one another, and when she raised both arms to fix her bun, the imprint of her large nipples on her dress caught his attention. It was during this talk in the office that he suggested they go for a drive one evening at the end of the week. Mary Lou agreed, saying maybe they could stop off somewhere for a drink, and Cronin, momentarily hesitating, said he thought they might. All the while they had been talking she was looking at him from some inner place in herself and he had the feeling he had been appraising her superficially.
On the ride that night Mary Lou sat close to Cronin. She had at first sat at the door but soon her warm side was pressed to his though he had not seen her move. They had started at sunset and for an hour the sky was light. The Northern California winter, though colder than he had anticipated, was mild compared to a winter in Chicago, but Cronin was glad to be in touch with spring. He liked the lengthening days, and tonight it was a relief to be with a woman once more. The car passed through a number of neon-lit mountain towns neither of them had been in before and Cronin noticed that every motel flashed vacancy signs. Part of his good mood was an awareness of the approach of a new season, and part, that he had thought it over and decided there was nothing to worry about. She was a woman, no eighteen-year-old kid he would be taking advantage of. Nor was he married and about to commit adultery. He felt a sincere interest in her.
It was a pleasant evening drive in early March and on their way back they stopped off at a bar in Red Bluff, about forty miles from the college, where it was unlikely anyone they knew would see them. The waiter brought drinks and when Mary Lou had finished hers she excused herself, went to the ladies’ room, and upon returning, asked for another on the rocks. She had on a bright blue dress, rather short, and wore no stockings. During the week she used no lip rouge or nail polish; tonight she had both on and Cronin thought he liked her better without them. She smiled at him, her face, after she had had two, flushed. In repose her smile settled into the tail-end of bitterness, an expression touched with cynicism, and he wondered about her. They had talked about themselves on the ride, she less than he, Cronin reticently. She had been brought up on a farm in Idaho. He had spent most of his life in Evanston, Illinois, where his grandfather, an evangelical minister, had lived and preached. Cronin’s father had died when Cronin was fourteen. Mary Lou told him she had once been married and was now divorced. He had guessed something of the sort and at that point admitted he had been divorced himself. He could feel his leg touching hers under the table and realized it was her doing. Cronin, pretty much contented, had had one drink to her two, and he was nursing his first when she asked for a third. She had become quiet but when their eyes met she smiled again.
“Do you mind if I call you Mary Louise?” Cronin asked her.
“You can if you want to,” she said, “but my real name is Mary Lou. That’s on my birth certificate.”
He asked her how long she had been married before her divorce.
“Oh, just about three years. One that I didn’t live with him. How about yourself?”
“Two,” said Cronin.
She drank from her glass. He liked the fact that she was satisfied with a few simple biographical details. A fuller exchange of information could come later.
He lit a cigarette, only his second since they had come in, whereas she squashed one butt to light another. He wondered why she was nervous.
“Happy?” Cronin asked.
“I’m okay, thanks.” She crushed a newly lit cigarette, thought about it and lit another.
She seemed about to say something, paused, and said, “How long have you been teaching, if you don’t mind me asking you?”
Cronin wondered what was on her mind. ‘“Not so long,” he answered. “This is only my first year.”
“You sure put a lot in it.”
He could feel the calf of her leg pressed warmly against his; yet she was momentarily inattentive, vaguely looking around at the people in the bar.
“How about you?” he asked.
“In what ways?”
“How is it you started college so comparatively late?”
She finished her drink. “I never wanted to go when I graduated high school. Instead I worked a couple of years, then I joined the Wacs.” She fell silent.
He asked if she wanted him to order another drink.
“Not right away.” Mary Lou’s eyes focused on his face. “First I want to tell you something about myself. Do you want to hear it?”
“Yes, if you want to tell me.”
“It’s about my life,” Mary Lou said. “When I was in the Wacs I met this guy, Ray A. Miller, a T-5 from Providence, Rhode Island, and we got hitched in secret in Las Vegas. He was a first-class p—.”
Cronin gazed at her, wondering if she had had one too many. He considered suggesting they leave now but Mary Lou, sitting there solidly, smoking the last cigarette in her pack, told Cronin what she had started out to.
“I call him that word because that’s what he was. He married me just to live easy off me. He talked me into doing what he wanted, and I was too goddamn stupid to say no, because at that time I loved him. After we left the service he set me up in this flea-bitten three-room apartment in San Francisco, where I was a call girl. He took the dough and I got the s—.”
“Call girl?” Cronin almost groaned.
“A whore, if you want me to say it.”
Cronin was overwhelmed. He felt a momentary constricting fright and a strange uneasy jealousy, followed by a sense of disappointment and unexpected loss.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Her leg was tense against his but he let his stay though it seemed to him it trembled. His cigarette ash broke, and while brushing it off his thigh, Cronin managed to withdraw his leg from hers. Her face was impassive.
Mary Lou slowly fixed her bun, removing a large number of hairpins and placing them thickly back again.
“I suppose you have a bad opinion of me now?” she said to Cronin, after she had fixed her hair.
He said he had no opinion at all, though he knew he had. “I’m just sorry it happened.”
She looked at him intently. “One thing I want you to know is I don’t have that kind of a life any more. I’m not interested in it. I’m interested in taking it as it comes or goes but not for money any more. That won’t happen to me again.”
Cronin said he was surprised it ever had.
“It was just a job I had to do,” Mary Lou explained. “That’s how I thought about it. I kept on it because I was afraid Ray would walk out on me. He always knew what he wanted but I didn’t. He was a strong type and I wasn’t.”
“Did he walk out?”
She nodded. “We were having fights about what to do with the dough. He said he was going to start some kind of a business but he never did.”
“That’s when you quit?”
She lowered her eyes. “Not all at once. I stayed for a while to get some money to go to college with. I didn’t stay long and I haven’t got enough, so I have to work in the cafeteria.”
“When did you finally quit?”
“In three months, when I got arrested.”
He asked about that.
“My apartment was raided by two San Francisco bulls. But it was my first offense so the judge paroled me. I’m paroled now and for one more year.”
“I guess you’ve been through the mill,” Cronin said, toying with his glass.
“I sure have,” said Mary Lou, “but I’m not the same person I once was. I learned a lot.”
“Would you care for a last drink before we leave?” he asked. “It’s getting late. We’ve got an hour’s drive.”
“No, but thanks anyway.”
“I’ll just have a last drink.”
The waiter brought Cronin a scotch.
“Tell me why you told me this,” he asked Mary Lou after he had drunk from his glass.
“I don’t know for sure,” she said. “Some of it is because I like you. I like the way you teach in your class. That’s why I got the idea of telling you.”
“But why, specifically?”
“Because everything is different now.”
“The past doesn’t bother you?”
“Not much. I wanted to tell you before this but I couldn’t do it in your office without a drink to start me off.”
“Do you want me to do anything for you?” Cronin asked her.
“For instance, what?” said Mary Lou.
“If you want to talk to anybody about yourself I could get you the name of a psychiatrist.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I don’t need one. The guy I talk to about myself will have to do it for nothing, for kicks.”
She asked Cronin for one of his cigarettes and smoked while he finished his drink.
As they were getting ready to leave, Mary Lou said, “The way I figure, it wasn’t all my fault but it’s dead and gone now. I got the right to think of the future.”
“You have,” said Cronin.
On the ride home he felt more objective and not unsympathetic to the girl, yet he was still disappointed, and from time to time, irritated with himself.
“Anyway,” Cronin told her, “You can work for a better way of life now.”
“That’s why I want an education for,” Mary Lou said.
It took cronin a surprisingly long time to get over having been let down by Mary Lou. He had built her up in his mind as a woman he might want to spend some time with, and the surprise of her revelation, and his disillusionment, lingered so long he felt unsettled. “What’s this, Marge all over again?” He didn’t want any more of that, and not from this girl. He saw her in class, as usual, three times a week. She seemed to listen with the same interest, maybe less interested, but she didn’t approach him and no longer waited at his desk to walk with him to his office. Cronin understood that to mean he was to make the next move now that he knew, but he didn’t make it. What could he say to her—that he wished he didn’t know? Or now that he knew, that he sometimes glanced at her in class and pictured her being paid off by the last guy she had slept with? She was in his thoughts much of the time. He wondered what would have happened that night they were out if she hadn’t made that confession. Could he have guessed from the way she performed in bed that she had been a professional? He continued to think of having her and sometimes the thought was so wearing he avoided looking at her in class. He found his desire hard to bear but after a month it wore down. She seemed not very interesting to him, then, and he was often aware how hard her expression was. He felt sorry for her and occasionally smiled, and once in a while she seemed cynically to smile back.
Cronin had made friends with a painter, George Getz, an assistant professor in the art department, an active, prematurely bald man, with whom he went on sketching trips, usually on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. George sketched or did water colors as Cronin looked on or sat against a tree, smoking. Sometimes he wandered along streams and in the woods. When the painter, married from youth and the father of three girls, was tied down during the weekend, Cronin drove off by himself or tried walking alone, though generally he cared little for walking in town, and wasn’t sure which direction to go next. One fine Sunday in April, when George was busy with his family, Cronin started on a walk but it soon began to seem like work so he returned to his apartment and sat on the bed. Wanting company he searched in his mind for who, and after some doubts looked up Mary Lou Miller’s number and dialed it. He wasn’t sure why he had, though he knew it bothered him a little. “Hello there,” she said. She had hesitated on hearing his voice but seemed cordial enough. Cronin wondered about a drive and she said she wouldn’t mind. He called for her in his car. She looked a little distant when she came out and he was surprised at how attractive. He noticed she seemed to be prettier on warm days.
“How are things with you?” Cronin asked as he held the door open for her.
“All right, I guess. How are they with you?”
“Fine,” Cronin said.
“How’s the teaching?”
“Fine. I’m enjoying it more than I was.”
Not much more, but it was too much trouble to explain why.
She seemed at ease. They drove toward the mountains along some of the side roads he had explored with George, until they came to a long blue lake shaped like a bird in flight. Cronin parked the car and they went through a scattering of pine trees, down to the water. At his suggestion they walked part of the way around the lake, and back. It took more than an hour and Mary Lou said she hadn’t walked that much in years.
“Life’s pleasures are cheap,” Cronin said.
“No, they’re not,” said Mary Lou.
He let it pass. They had said nothing about last time, there was nothing to say really. The beauty of the day had lightened Cronin’s mood—he remembered having dreamed of Marge last night and had awakened uneasy. But Mary Lou’s company, he admitted to himself, had made the walk around the lake enjoyable. She was wearing a yellow cotton dress that showed her figure off, and her hair, to the large thick knot on her neck, was for once neatly arranged. She was rather quiet, as though a word too much might defeat her, but once she loosened up they talked amiably. She seemed to Cronin, as he sat by her side gazing at the lake, no more nor less than any woman he had known. The way he presently saw it was that she was entitled to her mistakes. He was to his. Yet though he tried to forget what she had told him, the fact that she had been a whore kept nagging him. She had known many men, how large a crowd they would make following her, he was afraid to guess. He had never known anyone like her, and that he was with her now struck him as somewhat strange. But Cronin thought what an unusual thing present time was. In the present a person is what she is or is becoming and not what she was. She was this heavy-but-shapely-legged girl in a yellow dress, sitting by his side as though she belonged there. Cronin thought this was an interesting lesson for him. The past interfered if you let it. People feared it because they thought it predicted the future. It didn’t if you realized how much life changed, and concentrated on what it had changed to, and lived that. He began to think of the possibility of friendship with Mary Lou.
She got up, brushing pine needles off her dress. “It’s hot,” she said. “Would you mind if I peeled and went in for a dip?”
“Go ahead,” said Cronin.
“Why don’t you come in yourself?” she asked. “You could keep your shorts on and later get dry in the sun.”
“No, I don’t think so,” he said, “I’m not much of a swimmer.”
“Neither am I,” Mary Lou said, “but I like the water.”
She unzipped her dress and pulled it over her head. Then she kicked off her shoes, stepped out of a half slip and removed her white underwear. He enjoyed the fullness of her form, the beauty of her breasts. Mary Lou walked into the water, shivered, and began to swim. Cronin sat watching her, one arm around his knees as he smoked. After swimming a while, Mary Lou, her flesh lit in the sunlight, came out of the water, drew on her underpants, then let the sun dry her as she redid her damp hair. He was moved by her wet body after bathing.
When she had dressed, Cronin suggested they have dinner together and Mary Lou agreed. “But first you come up to my joint for a drink. I want to show you how I fixed it up.”
He said he would like to.
On their ride back she was talkative. She told Cronin about her life as a child. Her father had been a small wheat farmer in Idaho. She had one married sister and two married brothers. She said the oldest brother was a big bastard.
“He’s pretty rich by now,” she said, “and he talks a lot about God’s grace but in his heart he is a bastard. When I was thirteen one day he grabbed me in the barn and laid me though I didn’t want to.”
“Oh Christ,” said Cronin. “You committed incest?”
“It all happened when I was a kid.”
“Why don’t you keep these things to yourself?” Cronin said. “What makes you think I want to hear them?”
“I guess I felt I trusted you.”
“Well, don’t trust me,” he shouted.
He drove to her house and let her off at the curb. Then he drove away.
The next morning Mary Lou did not appear in Cronin’s class, and a few days later her dropslip came through.
A week had gone by when Cronin one day saw her walking with George Getz, and his heart was flooded with jealous misery. He thought he was rid of his desire for the girl; but seeing her walking at the painter’s side, talking animatedly, George interested, Mary Lou good to look at in a white summer dress and doing very well, thanks, without Cronin, awoke in him a sense of loss and jealousy. He thought he might be in love with her. Cronin watched them go up the stairs of the art building, and though he had no good reason to, pictured them in each other’s arms, naked on George’s studio couch. The effect was frightening.
My God, thought Cronin, here I am thinking of her with the same miserable feelings I had about Marge. I can’t go through that again.
He fought to put her out of his mind—the insistent suspicion of an affair between her and the painter—but his memory of her body at the lake, and imagining the experiences she had had with men, what she would do with George, for instance, and might have done with Cronin if they had become lovers, made things worse. Thinking of her experiences was like trying to stop the pain of a particular wound by stabbing yourself elsewhere. It seemed to Cronin as though his thoughts were like a box of snakes that had fallen and broken apart and the snakes were slithering everywhere. His only relief was to get drunk but when that wore off the anguish was worse.
One morning he was so desperately jealous—the most useless of emotions, and especially useless in a situation where the girl really meant little to him, almost nothing, and the past, despite all his theorizing and good intentions, much too much—that he waited for them for hours, in the foyer of the school of architecture across the street from the art building. Cronin did not at first know why he was waiting but that he had to, perhaps to satisfy himself they were or weren’t having an affair. He saw neither of them then, but on the next afternoon he followed the painter at a distance to Mary Lou’s apartment. Cronin saw him go in shortly before 5 P.M., and was still unhappily waiting under a tree across the street several houses down, when George came out at half-past ten. Cronin was wakeful all night.
Terrified that this should mean so much to him, he tried to work out some means of relief. Should he telephone the girl and ask her back into his class so that they could once more be on good terms? Or if that meant trouble with the registrar’s office, couldn’t he just call and apologize for acting as he had, then offer to resume their friendship? Or could he scare George away by telling him about her past? The painter was a family man, a careful sort, and Cronin felt sure he would end it with Mary Lou if he thought anyone suspected he was involved with her; he wanted to go on feeding his three girls. But telling him about her seemed such a stinking thing to do that Cronin couldn’t face it. Still, things were so bad he finally decided to speak to George. He felt that if he could be sure the painter wasn’t being intimate with her, his jealousy would die out and the girl fade in his thoughts.
He waited till George invited him on another sketching afternoon, and was glad to have the chance to bring it up then, rather than to have to seek the painter out in his office or studio. They were at the edge of the woods, George at work on a water color, when Cronin spoke of the girl and asked whether George knew that Mary Lou had once been a prostitute in San Francisco for a couple of years.
George wiped his brush with a rag, then asked Cronin where he had got his information.
Cronin said he had got it from her. “She was married to someone who set her up professionally and cut in on the take. After he left her she quit.”
“What a son of a bitch,” said George. He worked for a while, then turned to Cronin and asked, “Why do you tell me about it?”
“I thought you ought to know.”
“Why ought I?”
‘“Isn’t she a student of yours?”
“No, she isn’t. She came to my office and offered to model for me. It’s hard to get girls to pose in the nude around here so I said yes. That’s all there is between us.”
He seemed embarrassed.
Cronin looked away. “I didn’t think there was anything between you. I just thought you would want to know, if she was your student. I didn’t know she wasn’t.”
“Well,” said George, “I know now, but I still intend to use her as a model.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Thanks for telling me, though,” George said. “I’ve sometimes felt there’s a bit of the slut in her. It wouldn’t pay to get involved.”
Cronin, feeling some repulsion for himself, then said, “To tell the truth, George, I’m not entirely innocent in this. I’ve wanted to take the girl to bed.”
“I almost did,” George said.
Though Cronin wasn’t sure the painter had or hadn’t, he was certain he wouldn’t dare be intimate with her now. When he got home he felt relief, mingled with shame that had him talking to himself, but he slept better that night.
A few nights later Mary Lou rang Cronin’s door bell, walked up the stairs, and when she was admitted into his apartment, said she wanted to talk to him. Cronin, reading in pajamas and robe, offered her a scotch but she refused. Her face was pale, her expression embittered. She was wearing levis and a baggy sweater; the hair spilled out of her bun.
“Look,” Mary Lou said to Cronin, “I didn’t come here for any favors, but did you say anything to Professor Getz about me? I mean what I told you about San Francisco?”
“Did he say I had?” Cronin asked.
“No, but we were being friendly and then he changed to me. I figure somebody must have told him something, and I thought nobody knew anything but you, so you must’ve told him.”
Cronin admitted it. “I thought he ought to know, considering the circumstances.”
“Such as what?” she asked sullenly.
He hesitated. “He’s a married man with three kids. There could be serious trouble.”
“That’s his goddamn business.”
He admitted that too. “I’m sorry, Mary Lou. All I can say is that my life has been confused and complicated lately.”
“What about mine?” She was sitting in a chair, then turned her head and wept.
Cronin poured her a drink but Mary Lou wouldn’t take it.
“The reason I told you those things is because I thought you were a guy I could trust and be friends with. Instead it was the opposite. I’m sorry what I told you got you so bothered, but there’s a lot worse than that, and one thing I want you to know is it doesn’t bother me any more. I made my peace with my life.”
“I haven’t,” said Cronin.
“I don’t want to hear about it,” said Mary Lou, and though he asked her to stay she left.
Afterward he thought, she has learned something from her experience that I haven’t learned from mine.
And he felt sorry for Mary Lou for the way he had treated her. It’s not easy to be moral, Cronin thought. He decided, before he went to bed, not to come back to this college in the fall, to quit teaching.
On Commencement Day, Cronin met Mary Lou on the street, in her yellow dress, and they stopped to talk. She had put on weight but wasn’t looking well and as they talked her stomach rumbled. In embarrassment she covered her abdomen.
“It’s from studying,” she said. “I got awfully worried about my finals. The doctor in the infirmary said to watch out or I might wind up with an ulcer.”
Cronin also advised her to take care. “Your health comes first.”
They said goodby. He never saw her again but a year later, in Chicago, he had a card from her. She wrote she was still at college, majoring in education, and hoped someday to teach.