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When I was 22 years old, I went into a smoke-filled house and persuaded a girl to leave with me. I wanted to save her from pointless bravery; I’d begun to learn what that cost.

My husband was old enough to be my father. When we met, Jack was a professor of philosophy at the college I attended. A charismatic presence on campus with an ardent following, he was tall and trim, black-haired and beautifully tailored. A friend who had a crush on him invited him to a party. Jack turned the evening into a live Socratic dialogue on the nature of love. We sparred, each of us intrigued by the other.

After weeks of chatting in his office, and then meeting for coffee, and then taking long walks, our romance began. I’d just turned 18. He was 43.

In the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for male faculty members to have affairs with female students. No one ever got fired or sued; cancellation hadn’t been invented. Jack was in the middle of a combative divorce that was underway before we met, so we kept our relationship a secret. I transferred to a nearby college, rented an apartment off-campus, and entered into the adult life of the mind, as defined by Jack.

He didn’t like my hippie jeans, so I wore tailored pants and modest skirts. Rock was pernicious and stupid, so we listened only to classical music. His detailed accounts of former affairs made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated.

I let my old friends fall away. We went to dinner parties at the homes of his colleagues. They were kind, but other people often mistook us for father and daughter. I burned with embarrassment; Jack shrugged it off.

We planned to marry as soon as I graduated. My parents, who lived far away, were predictably horrified that the professor I’d been talking about for two years had become my fiancé. I’d get my doctorate, I assured them, and Jack and I would be professors together — somewhere.

Then, two months before our wedding, Jack was out of a job. His college was closing its doors: there would be no next semester, and only one more paycheck.

The academic job market was dire. After a few failed applications, he decided to sell life insurance. An odd choice for a Descartes scholar, but clearly he knew best. My job was to be loyal and fearless. Only Jack could have talked me out of marrying, and he didn’t try. On my 21st birthday, my father walked me down the aisle, his mouth set in a grim line.

Now we went to parties at the homes of other insurance agents. I sat with their wives as they talked about their children; Jack schmoozed with the men. I was ashamed of the disappointment I felt in this new life. I’d taken a vow: for better, for worse.

A year later we left Vermont for Baltimore, where I’d been admitted to a graduate program in classics. Jack’s leg had been badly injured right before we left; he dulled the pain with Percocet and plenty of wine. We lived on his savings and disability checks in an apartment with roaches in the stove and raccoons in the ceiling.

Anxiety killed my appetite: I had to wrap a Band-Aid around my wedding ring to keep it from sliding off. I was angry with myself for feeling overwhelmed; after all, we’d come here for me, to ensure my professional future.

This constant self-scolding split me in two. I was the dutiful wife and grad student; I was my own madwoman in the attic, stifling my cries for help. I wanted to believe Virgil’s maxim: Amor vincit omnia. Didn’t love conquer all?

But my body was keeping score, and I was losing.

One hopeful summer day, we went for a stroll. Jack’s leg was getting stronger. He was probably talking about Descartes’ theory of perception when I staggered off the sidewalk and fell onto someone’s lawn. I lost consciousness, went into a full body seizure and woke up in the hospital, where I spent the next three days.

After every test to determine the cause of the seizure came back negative, a young neurologist asked if I’d been under unusual stress. Reluctantly, I told him about half of it. His diagnosis: psychogenic seizure, also known as an emotional seizure.

I wasn’t allowed to drive. Jack was scared to let me go anywhere by myself, and I was scared of having a seizure alone.

And then a miracle: We were asked to take care of a beautiful house for the summer. The dim, air-conditioned interior reminded me of my childhood home.

As the owner gave us the keys, she said, “Just a word about our neighbors,” indicating the house next door with a lift of her chin. “We don’t see much of them. Mrs. Thompson drinks, and Mr. Thompson makes himself scarce. Their poor daughter Melanie — she’s 16, I think — makes do for herself.”

We didn’t see any of them until Mrs. Thompson’s mattress caught fire.

I was trying to memorize an insanely irregular Greek verb conjugation when I saw thick gray smoke churning from the second story windows of their house. Jack wasn’t home. I ran outside.

About a dozen people stood chatting in groups of two and three, waiting for the fire truck. Someone told me that Mrs. Thompson was unconscious on the top floor, and Melanie wouldn’t leave her. I walked through the open front door.

Smoke was sifting down from the upper story. Through the haze in the foyer, I saw Melanie standing at the bottom of a staircase, one hand on the banister, one foot on the bottom step. Her gaze was focused on a large window on the landing. Rays of sunshine illuminated the loose spirals of smoke and lit her white-blond hair.

“Melanie,” I said. She turned her head. “Let’s wait for the firemen outside.”

“No, I can’t. My mom’s upstairs. I need to show them where she is.”

“We’ll tell them where she is. It’s OK. Come with me.”

“I can’t! Sometimes when she falls asleep, she drops her cigarette on the mattress. That’s what happened. I tried to wake her up.”

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

“You’ve been really brave. But we need to go outside.”

I held out my hand to her. She took another step up the stairs, paused, and stepped back down; paused, and did it again. I held out my hand again. This time she turned and walked to me. I put my arm around her; she was shaking.

As we stepped into daylight, a car pulled into the driveway. “Daddy!” she cried, and ran to him.

I don’t remember what I told Jack when he got home.

Mrs. Thompson died of smoke inhalation, and I saw Melanie just once more. I was pinning sheets to the clothesline behind the house when she came out of her back door. We reached over the fence that separated our yards, stood on tiptoe and hugged wordlessly.

Jack quit insurance for part-time teaching, and I made friends with other students. For a time, life got better — until I started chafing at Jack’s ever-growing list of rules. I nursed painful, guilty crushes on men my age.

Jack and I never had enough money. We fought. Again, my body tried to get my attention, this time with panic attacks. I promised myself that I would leave him when he got a full-time job, but that job never came.

Part of me was afraid to leave; I didn’t know any other life as an adult. Then someone held out his hand to me, saying, You don’t have to do this. But I wish I’d been brave enough to leave the house on my own.

Elizabeth Bobrick is a visiting scholar in the department of classical studies at Wesleyan University.



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