I cannot listen to vocal music when I’m working—I find the lyrics distracting, worming their way into whatever I’m doing. So, instrumental jazz has always been the background music of my creative endeavors: piano, trumpet, saxophone, whatever — as long as it’s beautiful. Everything but Thelonious Monk’s version of “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It is, in my estimation, one of the most beautiful pieces of music out there, and I sacrificed what once was a true love for the song in order to sound smart and sophisticated to a man who would later abuse his position of power and try to force an inappropriate relationship with me.
Monk’s piano stylings in this piece are exquisite — you can feel all of the painful reflection on naiveté in the song without any words. The melody is trumpeted and augmented with tracings across ivory keys. We act like fools. We allow people to hurt us. Is it beautiful or is it stupid? Is it representative of our hope in things like love or of our idiocy, born out of narcissism? I love Monk. I didn’t always like jazz, but I grew into it the way I grew into the too-big shoes my dad always bought for me.
I betrayed Monk the night I shared my affinity for him in an already red-flag-raising setting with a man — my professor, my undergraduate advisor. I think he saw me as a sort of Pygmalion project. I had taken several of his classes and had recently and randomly been assigned by the department as his advisee. He had taken me on as an independent study student. A young woman, intelligent, but lacking in refinement. Try this wine, taste this cheese, listen to this music, read this unpublished piece I’m working on, and if taking you to of my loft, this or that restaurant, or my softly-lit rug-piled office for our meetings encourages you to sleep with me, well, all the better! You’ll be bringing me my slippers any day now, and everyone will congratulate me on the smart parrot that also proves my virility! I’m divorced, and my current girlfriend lives an ocean away. It doesn’t matter that I’m forty years older than you!
I don’t know if he’d thought it out that extensively on this particular evening. In fact, at this point, he may have just been acting out his own fantasy of “improving” someone with potential but with a crassness familiar to him with his own rural Kentucky upbringing. This moment, my betrayal of Monk, preceded the creepy things, the things that made me cry when I was alone and would look for predators in the closets in my apartment, the things that broke me down — the kiss on the cheek that turned my stomach, the text about “dessert” that made me ashamed, the meetings after, each one feeling more like a prison sentence I had to carry out. Later I would face the “situation” that faculty in my department knew, but they never moved to stop or prevent it. Not enough to report, this pattern. I wasn’t his first, they agreed, but they wouldn’t meet my eyes.
Perhaps it began when I saw the record collection, when I was still worried he wouldn’t think I was smart, that I confessed my intimate love for Monk and for that particular recording. He had it on vinyl — he played it for me and watched how I felt the music. I saw him watching. Maybe that is when the whole relationship changed. That moment when the observed realizes there is something unholy in the observation. He played several other versions, but by then I was planning my escape, and the songs became more like tracks in a movie about a kidnapping, an entrapment.
More would happen, more would be said, yet never a direct confrontation because he held too much power. I have had people tell me that I was lucky because he didn’t try anything physical, and I believe them. I’ve had people insinuate that I brought his behavior on myself, and I’ve believed them. The experience haunted me well into graduate school, where I questioned every interaction with every male professor I had, no matter how innocuous. In every weak moment, I’ve thought back on those clucking, shaking, male heads in my undergraduate department who couldn’t do anything, and I’ve wondered if they only wrote recommendation letters for me out of pity. I’ve felt rage when I’ve seen the professor’s success: the publication of his book, his acceptance of a new position at a more prestigious university. I felt something beyond rage when I learned that I wasn’t the last, despite the fact that I warned younger female students since “implicit” wasn’t bad enough to formally report.
I think I’m writing this now, on such a public platform, while listening to Monk — still trying six years later to take him back, to own his music again — because there is a little girl napping in the room next to me while I write this that I’m bound to protect. Because I can’t have been the only one. Because this kind of harassment still exists in higher education. Because someone else needs to know that it isn’t her fault.