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Love and Janus Zyvka

a short story

Stephen Poleskie

LOW CUMULI RACED ALONG IN THE OTHERWISE CLEAR SKY, chasing their shadows across the green of the Topiary Garden. An energetic south wind briskly rocked the leaves of the carefully trimmed figures, giving them a life that contrasted dramatically with their sentient observers, whose only movement at present was the scribbling of our pens across open notebooks. All in all, it was a lovely day to be out of the classroom.

‘I have a question, Professor Zyvka,’ I said.

‘Yes. . . .'

‘Why would anyone want to spend their time shaping plants into human forms?'

‘There are many reasons,’ the professor replied. ‘Perhaps the simplest answer is that it is something they love to do. Sometimes you must do things for love, no matter where it takes you.’

This was Janus Zyvka. He was, Janus thought, a well-liked and respected professor of creative writing at a large Midwestern university. I shall not mention the name of the school, for reasons which will become apparent later. You can, and probably will, insert any name that suits your imagination.

Every semester Professor Zyvka took his advanced writing class to the nearby Topiary Garden on a field trip. Despite our laughing and joking, a garden in which the taxus bushes had been carefully shaped to represent the painted figures from Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte’ never failed to incite his student’s imaginations.

‘I love teaching, and I love my students. I love each and every one of you. . . .’ Professor Zyvka would proclaim to his class on the first day of each semester, until someone took exception to his choice of words and complained.

His department head had cautioned him: ‘Being a foreigner, you probably have not quite grasped the subtle differences in our language. In America it is not appropriate to say that you love your students, like would be a better word to use. Or, just don’t say anything at all. It would be best for you if you weren’t so familiar with your students.’

Smiling politely, as was his way, the reproved Professor Zyvka thanked his superior for the advice. He did not remind his department head that if he checked his files he would find that Janus Thaddeus Zyvka had become an American citizen, and therefore technically was not a foreigner. If the chairman had ever attended one of Zyvka’s lectures he would have noticed that, except for a slight accent, the man had an excellent command of the language. Moreover, all nine of his novels, which were banned in his own country, had been published in the U.S.A. and Great Britain, using the author’s own English translations. Zyvka had also translated them into German, French, and Italian. And the students he had been ‘so familiar with’ continued to write their former mentor, several having already published well-received novels of their own with very reputable houses.

Now, Janus Zyvka came to the Topiary Garden alone. He no longer taught at the university. The former professor came often, at times when he hoped no one would be there. Lecturing to these lifeless green figures, lifted from an imaginary landscape in France and translated in yew to a park in the middle of America, served a need in Janus to communicate that had not died with his dismissal.

‘Scandal is one of the central themes of the Modern Era,’ Professor Zyvka had asserted to his students. ‘The age of individual privacy is perceptibly receding from us. We live in a time of glass houses, and neighborhood spies, where one’s personal life can no longer be shielded behind a window curtain. We live in a place where everyone’s garbage is picked through, and even shredded papers can be reassembled, sometimes taking on a whole new meaning.’

Then, Janus Zyvka’s own window curtains were drawn back.

When he first saw her, Berenice did not seem to Professor Zyvka to be an especially pretty girl, merely not unattractive. Yet, there was something that drew him to her. The professor agreed to give her a tutorial, as he had for so many other students over the recent years.

Berenice had also been the name of Zyvka’s wife, who had died while giving birth three years after they had arrived at the university from what was then Czechoslovakia. To consume his grief, Janus had taken refuge in his work, spending more time with his students than was normal for a professor. Janus Zyvka attempted to polish smooth the agonizing memory of his wife and unborn daughter, like the flat stones of some laconic river. Yet, their faces always reappeared, reflected in the sunshine on the rippling water, their bodies clinging to that unknown which had been the root of their life.

That year the hot weather came early to a misnamed semester. There was no spring, no renewal, only days that grew longer as they passed from winter to summer. Each time Berenice came to Professor Zyvka’s tiny, cramped office for her appointment, he noticed that she wore less and less. Slacks gave way to skirts of modest length, and then miniskirts, and finally the shortest of shorts. Sweaters became blouses, soon exchanged for tank tops worn without a bra, through which her firm breasts poked a sly greeting. Her youthful skin turned a gentle shade of brown as more and more of it was revealed.

Berenice’s long dark hair; her oval face, with a nose too angular by American standards; her voice, an accent that belonged to nowhere in this nowhere part of the country he lived in; and the way she carried her slender figure, all reminded Janus of his departed wife. Was even her name more than a coincidence? Janus Zyvka could not deny that, while Berenice was much younger than he and a student, by the third week of the semester he was hopelessly in love with her.

‘Would you like to take a cup of coffee with me?' Janus had asked cautiously at the finish of one of their sessions. The next time he invited her to dinner, and by the end of the term they were keeping regular company. Berenice did not go home that summer, but stayed in town, ostensibly to work as a waitress to earn money for the fall semester. In reality it was so that she and Janus could be together.

‘God, are you sleeping with that professor? Isn’t he old enough to be your father?’ her roommate had inquired rudely.

‘Of course I’m not,’ Berenice had lied. ‘We’ve just become good friends. He’s lonely since his wife died, and he’s helping me with my writing.’

The glorious summer became a season of romance and happiness for both of them. They made love in his office, in her apartment, in his house on an old couch that creaked and groaned, and on a wooden swing in his over-grown backyard. But Janus never took Berenice to the bed he had shared with his wife.

One night they did it in the back seat of his big Detroit car. ‘This is a first for me, I feel now as if I am a real American,’ Janus had joked. She had laughed too, and confessed that it was not a first for her. Other ‘firsts’ were in the woods behind the golf course, and the on rocks at the reservoir, where they went to sunbathe nude.

Berenice was the only woman, and Professor Zyvka did consider her a woman, even though at his trial she would be referred to as a ‘child’ and an ‘innocent little girl,’ that he had been with in the three years since his wife’s death.

In the mornings, Berenice would wait to meet Janus after his class. Then, they would take their picnic basket to the Topiary Garden, which had become their own secret place. There the would sit among the green figures, sharing food, talking, and holding hands, each aware of the risks they were taking; however, each acknowledging that they had entered into their relationship of their own free will.

‘Are we having a love affair?’ Berenice asked innocently.

‘I cannot say where it’s going, but I have become painfully aware that, for me at least, our relationship has gone far beyond being a mere affair,’ Janus had answered.

‘People are talking about us.’

‘Let them talk. It doesn’t matter what they say.’

But it did.

That fall, Berenice’s mother and stepfather learned of the affair from a gossipy roommate. Without speaking to their daughter, or to Professor Zyvka, the parents fired off letters to the university president, the provost, and all the other names listed in the catalog that seemed to them to be of any importance. For Janus it was as if he had opened up a trunk full of enemies.

Against the pleadings of Berenice, her parents hired a lawyer, and brought a sexual harassment suit against Professor Zyvka and the university. The local newspapers and TV stations were rampant with accusations, statements, and interviews. Janus was publicly referred to as a ‘rapist’ and ‘sex pervert.’

Convicted in the popular media, Janus Zyvka was asked to resign from his position. Berenice’s parents transferred her to another college. After a lengthy and costly proceeding, which severely depleted the professor’s savings, and proved nothing except the irrationality of the American legal system, a court injunction was handed down that forbade Janus from ever having contact with Berenice.

It was then that Janus Zyvka took to sitting by himself in the Topiary Garden, talking to his only friends: the man wearing a top hat, the woman with the umbrella holding the child’s hand, the reclining man with a pipe. He spoke to these green figures in private; he could act differently now. He could say all sorts of things: use strange language, act silly, tell jokes, express heretical ideas, repeat himself, bad-mouth his former colleagues, and laugh out loud.

The garden was still a special place for Janus, but alone and without romance. Far from loving eyes, the light seemed to be different, as if the sky – like him, and the green-leaf people, and the birds and butterflies – were keeping a vigil for the return of his lost Berenice.

The former professor remembered that golden summer before he was forced into a glass house. Then he had sat there, amid the sunshine and warm breezes, surrounded by the yew people, with Berenice, each confiding in the other their past failures, and their future hopes and dreams.

Janus Zyvka had lived in a glass house once before, in his native country; a life without secrets, where his public and private lives were one and the same, a surrealist nightmare where his most casual acts were monitored by the police, his writings read and censored. His books, known and popular in the rest of the world, were not allowed to be published in his own country until long after he had left, and then only permitted for the hard currency they brought in.

Though he often spoke of it cynically, Janus Zyvka loved his homeland. Despite what he perceived as its faults, he hoped to return there some day, just to pay a call though for the members of his family were all dead. Although the country had a new government now, enough of the people from the old regime, who he had attacked in his heretical stories, remained so that he would not be completely welcome. He wanted to die here, however, in this college town that no longer had any meaning for him. He would be buried next to his wife and unborn daughter, in the plot he had bought in the Catholic cemetery out by the river. It was all planned, paid for before he had lost his job, and his savings.

During the hearing into his affair, held by the university to determine if it was going to participate in his defense – chaired by the Dean of the Faculty, a distinguished professor of Greek literature who was also a Boy Scout leader – Professor Zyvka had been confronted by the same ominous bane that had caused him to flee Czechoslovakia. His privacy was stripped away and his motives invented; his past had become his present.

As I cannot recall anything that would indicate otherwise, the echoes of his last dark days having ceased reverberating in my mind, I must assume Janus Zyvka loved his adopted country as well. His love, however, was marred by the bitterness great disappointment sometimes brings. Janus suffered because the reality of his life in America had revealed itself so different from the idyllic dream it had appeared when seen from afar.

Despite the fact that most people considered him a foreigner, Janus Zyvka was a good citizen. He voted in all the elections he was eligible for, bought a lottery ticket every week, watched the NFL on Sunday, mowed his lawn in the summer and shoveled his walk in winter, and drove a big American car with an American flag on the rear window. The patriotic decal had already been there when he bought the car used. Nevertheless, Janus had not scraped it off, no matter how often he thought to do so when he looked in his rear view mirror and saw this symbol of what he had learned in his youth to be ‘capitalist imperialism’ following him down the highway.

Over the next year Janus came to the Topiary Garden almost daily. It formed one corner of the pentagram that had become his life. The other four corners being: the small apartment he now lived in, having sold his house and its memories to pay his bills; the local library, as he was no longer allowed to use the university’s facilities; the cemetery where his wife and daughter lay buried; and the Burger Barn on College Parkway, where he now worked as the assistant night manager.

A letter arrived from Berenice, as Janus had no telephone. One of her roommates was coming to the university for a graduate interview. She would come along for the ride. In spite of the injunction, they had been meeting each other secretly, if infrequently. Berenice had something to important tell him; no one must know. They would meet in the Topiary Garden on next Wednesday afternoon.

The kid at the gas station told the police he had seen the old white Volkswagen stop in the middle of the railroad tracks. It was not a good place to park, but then the driver had not chosen the moment when her car would give out. The engine had stalled again. The driver, Berenice’s roommate, must have been annoyed. A college student on scholarship, she had just had the car fixed, at a cost which represented a small fortune to her.

Not wanting to be late for her interview, the young woman decided to get out and take a look for herself. She had bought a copy of Chilton’s Motor Repair Manual last summer, and read it through, determined to do the maintenance on her car from now on. The police found the manual on the crumpled rear seat.

‘I thought I head a train coming,’ the boy from the gas station stated in the police report. ‘It was about the time it was due.’ He decided he had better run up there and help whoever it was push their car off the racks. Someone was opening the door. The boy remembered yelling: ‘Oh my god! Look out!’ just before the train hit.

Although I was told the details of what follows by one of the men who worked in the Topiary Garden who knew Janus, and who swears this information is true, I suspect you will find it hard to believe. It was already midday, but the sun had not yet gained enough strength to warm the garden. Even the lengthy shadows were only a dull gray. The air was crisp with fall, a scent that always made Janus Zyvka nostalgic, for while over a year had passed since his dismissal, during which time he had submitted numerous applications for teaching positions at other universities, all rejected, he still found himself becoming excited by the start of a new school year.

Janus hoped the Topiary Garden would be empty, but a maintenance man was there working. No matter, he had become comfortable being around people again. Then a visitor appeared. It was a young woman enjoying the garden. He was not expecting Berenice for another hour; she would still be enroute. Janus moved to the side, not wanting to intrude on this stranger. A breeze from the north suddenly made the air cooler. The lone woman turned and walked toward him. Although she had changed a great deal, Janus recognized her; her dark hair, the way she carried her slender body.

Reaching him, Berenice stopped and smiled. She took Janus’ hand in hers. She lifted his fingers to her lips and kissed them. Janus wrapped his arms around her and held her close, dizzy with the excitement of seeing Berenice again. They both seemed to change, were changing. Lightning flashed in the west. A light rain began to fall. Hand in hand, eyes on the ground, as if they dare not look up in order to remain anchored in the present, Janus and Berenice left the garden. There was more lightning, followed almost immediately by the clap of thunder. The storm that had suddenly appeared unleashed its torrent. The maintenance man hurried for shelter.

The next day, at the Topiary Garden a dismayed gardener scratched his head. He had read in the newspaper about a train hitting a car, and a former student from the college being killed, along with her unborn baby. Another girl, the driver of the car, had also died. He had looked at the picture of Berenice in the paper and been confused. He was sure he had seen this girl in the garden here with her professor friend yesterday, but the time was after she was supposedly hit by the train. He was positive of the hour, as he had just finished his lunch. And, although he had worked here for over three years, he could not recall ever seeing the figures he was facing now. While he had never seen a reproduction of the painting these forms were supposed to have been taken from; he was ready to swear that the figures of the man and woman holding a baby had not been there when he left for home yesterday.