When The Bennington Review re-launched this past April after thirty years, its first issue packed a table of contents studded with prize-winning authors and exciting emerging voices. This week, to our good fortune, the biannual print publication has made several of its pieces available online, among them new short fiction from Iranian-American writer Porochista Khakpour, author of the acclaimed novels The Last Illusion and Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In “The Pariah and I,” Khakpour tells the story of Anne, a plain and friendless thirty-eight-year-old single academic who takes a visiting assistant professorship in a tiny, rural college town. As the insular, gossipy community, the vapid student body, and the general loneliness and boredom of her existence there gradually drive her into depression, Anne becomes increasingly obsessed with another female professor at the school who has become notorious and ostracized—The Pariah.
She was not what I imagined but who knew what I imagined? Just not that. Pariahness more likely meant every bad girl from every movie with bad girls. Red lipstick, fishnets, heels, leather, a cigarette maybe with a holder, platinum blonde or else jet black. But what would a woman like that be doing here. Which was just what made you wonder about a woman like The Pariah: what would that action of hers do at a place like this, why.
The Pariah is Cheryl Milton, professor of philosophy and Plato scholar, whose indiscretion was cheating on her husband, the film studies professor—and “with a townie neighbor,” as one faculty member emphasizes. The faculty’s allegiance is clear. Professor Milton cannot be fired for such an act, but she can be socially exiled, reduced to a dark footnote at the college until she hopefully has the good sense to leave.
Anne, however, isn’t so quick to judge. She is used to existing on the fringe of polite society, her plainness a kind of defacto banishment. (“I was just neither here nor there. I was pale, I had freckles, I had hair between blonde and brown and red, I was neither thin nor fat, short nor tall, and I was named “Anne,” a name that is destined to be forgotten.”) Anne has not met Cheryl Milton, but she gives her more benefit of the doubt than the other faculty. At first, her interest only manifests in some innocent googling. She looks up both Cheryl and her soon-to-be-ex husband’s faculty pages, and the fact that Cheryl is the only professor in her department without a photograph piques Anne’s interest more. As casually as possible, she asks her students who have Cheryl’s class about her, gaining little information. Then, she visits the philosophy building and locates her closed and unremarkable door—no notes pasted up about office hours, no inspirational pictures or philosophy cartoons. Anne commences lurking around the building at various times of day, trying to catch a peek of this enigmatic woman, now fully obsessed and flirting with stalker behavior.
It started holding a place in my mind all the time, it seemed. I could not stop thinking about her. I didn’t know what I wanted out of this—just to see her? Meet her? Befriend her? No, that was unimaginable. What would The Pariah want to do with me? The only person The Pariah had, undoubtedly, was her townie.
But why did I care? It was hard to say why. All I could think was before her there was that type of woman (the university girls, red-hot debauchery incarnate) and then the other type (mine, the more asexual-seeming professor-types). She had done something to the dynamic with that move of hers. She had raised the stakes, blurred the lines, made the whole darn place a little less safe, the rules a bit less clear.
Anne and the pariah seem to float around each other, never meeting, like two opposing magnets—and they are, in a way, the two poles on an axis of visibility and exclusion. Anne on one end, unremarkable, expendable, barely noticed by the other faculty and even her own students. Cheryl on the other, scandalous local celebrity, social exile, notorious—but also invisible in way, her identity entirely subsumed by one scandalous act, the big scarlet “A” still alive and well in the 21st century. Khakpour laces the story with traces of insidious sexism, from the way the faculty refer to Cheryl as “Larry’s wife” to Anne’s ex blaming her inability to orgasm during sex on some physical deficiency for which she needs a doctor. “The Pariah and I” delves into issues of female sexuality and identity and how patriarchal society influences and warps both.
After you read “The Pariah and I,” check out the rest of The Bennington Review’s first issue. The journal’s mission statement declares a dedication to publishing under-represented groups, and the first issue pans out at 30% writers of color and 60% women, making The Bennington Review an exciting new literary outlet to watch.