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     The Plagiarist   


by Kim Bridgford



 Kim Bridgford

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Version One

            The minute Professor X reads the story, she knows that it is plagiarized, plagiarized in fact from the student's own girlfriend who took the course a year ago. The professor, a noted teacher of creative writing at a famous New England school, is surprised by several things—that it is an earnest A student who has done this; that he has chosen a piece from one of her own classes; that he has chosen a piece so memorable—a modern-day piece set in an English castle with the characters at a literary masquerade ball.
            She confronts him immediately after class, after all his peers have discussed the story, for Professor X is a teacher of workshops. Everyone has commented on the beauty of the style, the surprise of the castle, the characters dressed as Shakespeare and George Eliot, respectively, making love in the shrubs. He is by far the best writer in the course and the most well traveled—he and the professor have traded quips on their favorite Oxford pubs—and everyone listened patiently as he talked about his extensive research on English castles during the summer. "All castles are not the same, of course, although to the untrained American eye. . ." he intoned, going on to add a few remarks about cathedrals: about the exquisite stained glass windows, the high ceilings leading every eye to God.
             When Professor X confronts him after class, he weeps; he has forgotten about her memory—legendary really. She can quote lines from papers twenty years before. How could he have let this one essential fact slip from his grasp! He begs for forgiveness; he has simply wanted to please her, and she raises her eyebrows—to be pleased by plagiarism! But that's not what he meant. He did not want to let her down; the pressure to perform was excruciating sometimes, she must know. She is, after all, Professor X, author of three novels, two short-story collections, and a book of poems. She has won the National Book Award and has been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. He came to the school to study with Professor X—does she know this?—and yet in the class he was struck by debilitating fear when he received Bs on his first few assignments. He is not used to receiving Bs, and, although he knew she graded her courses differently, it was hard to wait for the end; it was hard to be sure things would come out all right.
             She listens; she is used to listening—she is, after all, Professor X—she has listened to students for over thirty years. She is sympathetic. Still, he has plagiarized; he has deceived, broken something essential in her heart. She gives him a zero on the story. Good-bye, Phi Beta Kappa; good-bye, recommendation from the esteemed Professor X; good-bye, literary prizes.
            She tells him he is lucky not to fail the course; she tells him she will not report him to the Dean; she tells him how serious plagiarism is, especially for someone like him who wants to be a writer.
            Outside dusk falls on the campus in an appalling beauty, the kind that invites amateur photographers to take pictures of the college. "You should have told me," she says, weakening a little, a small woman who reminds everyone of a bird, the darting famous features. "You should have told me you were afraid."
            "Tell you?" the student says. He is astounded. He is also frightfully good looking with curly brown hair. "How could anyone tell you that?"
            She is mystified by this remark, and when he gathers his papers and leaves the classroom, tears are still in his eyes. They glisten, like stage props of tears. She tells herself she has done the right thing and goes home.

Version Two

            "Fuck me," says the girlfriend, lying naked on his bed. He turns from his desk to look at her. She is beautiful: dark-complected like him, with classic features, and large, brooding eyes. Her hair is long and loose the way he likes it, the hair of a heroine. Some days they pretend they are Catherine and Heathcliff.
            "I can't," he says, turning back to his computer. "I have to write a story for Professor X."
            The girlfriend groans. She is sick to death of Professor X. She took the professor last year when her boyfriend was in London, and she associates the longing of that time with all the stupefying rigor of the course. Now here she is having to live through everything again in minute detail: the mannerisms of Professor X, her famous statements (perhaps to show up in a review in the Times), her difficult grades. Last spring her boyfriend kept asking about the professor—what did she say exactly? What was she really like?—when all the girlfriend wanted was phone sex.
            After a half an hour of this, offering herself in seductive poses with hardly an appreciative murmur, she springs up naked from the bed. Abruptly she flings on her clothes. "Where are you going?" her boyfriend asks absentmindedly, and she answers with a slam of the door.
            She is back in fifteen minutes. She is smiling and flirtatious, like a child offering him a prized possession. "There is your story for Professor X," she says and plunks it on his desk.
            He is aghast. The story is from her midterm portfolio—an extra story that his girlfriend has included, a story that the professor has particularly liked. The student is impressed that his girlfriend has received all of these positive remarks (and as a sophomore!): wonderful characters, lovely list, good details. It is not hard to pretend that the comments are for him.
            "But Professor X!" he says, as if the name is enough to call forth all the demons that will assail him. The girlfriend rolls her eyes.
            "She'll never remember," she says, putting her index finger in her mouth and sucking. "How many papers would you think she's graded since last spring?"
            He doesn't know; his heart is pounding. The story he is writing about a talking sheep does not have the wit he envisioned: an Animal Farm of the 90s.
            He hesitates; he looks at the story again. The piece is the kind he would write—literary, descriptive; it would blend seamlessly with his others.
            The girlfriend whispers, "It's not like I'm going to turn you in."
            He looks up, worried. "What if she asks you about it?"
            The girlfriend smiles, her beautiful hair all around her shoulders. "I'll tell her that she's mistaken."
            Then she starts to strip, teasing him, running her bra against his face, and he gets a hot feeling in his thighs. Laughing, she whispers in his ear, "I even have the disk."
            He will not even have to type it then; he will need at most fifteen minutes in the morning. He turns. Her nipple is already in his mouth, and they are laughing. They are young; they make love all night long.
            However, the student finds that the matter is not so simple. He has trouble sleeping; his conscience attacks him. Doesn't he volunteer in soup kitchens? Isn't he in the choir? He has never done anything like this before—he's the one who stays in on Saturday nights, for Christ's sake, who turns assignments in early—and he pictures Professor X stopping him in the hall, asking, "Do you have a moment?" the accusing eyes meeting his guilty ones.
            He can barely listen when the story is workshopped, when he receives the predictable comments from Professor X—they are identical to the ones on his girlfriend's paper—and he waits to be stopped after class. He is, but only to hear Professor X say, "Very good story." She is putting everything in her leather book bag, one of her trademarks (she has posed with it for Coach); a moment later she looks up and smiles.
            All he can say is "Thank you."
            He ceaselessly revises this story for his final portfolio out of guilt, changes the ending on his girlfriend's story, and does so well he is afraid that Professor X will nominate him for a literary prize or a scholarship, that there will be a special prize for stories set in England—his mind is racing, he knows it—and that will get Professor X to thinking: she will remember his girlfriend's story too.
            He does not want Professor X to see them together, and when he sees the professor in the hall, he tells his girlfriend to put her head down. "It's like I'm a criminal," she says, but she does it for him. She whispers in his ear, "I'll do anything you want," right before Professor X walks by, and his excitement, the difference in his breathing, makes her smile. She almost looks up too soon, almost looks Professor X right in the face.
            After graduation they get married; they always planned to, but he keeps having nightmares about the story. He gave up his prize—getting his recommendation from Professor X—but he got into a good grad school anyway. Still, he is haunted by the professor and is obsessed by any article about her, as if she will one day reveal his plagiarism in public, which is something, he thinks, she is capable of and that he deserves.
            Lying together in the middle of the night, the newlyweds hold each other, and his girlfriend-now-wife says, "You didn't kill anybody." She is shocked that Professor X still plays such a role in their lives; she herself cannot even remember most of her professors' names.
            It's true; he did not kill anyone. But he has killed a part of himself that he has always valued. Inevitably he starts to ask himself how he could have married someone who asked him to plagiarize, who made him choose between her and Professor X. The girlfriend has always known how important the professor was to him, so why offer him such a temptation? Why take him away from what he has wanted most?
            As the months go on, he begins to ask himself: What does he really know about his wife anyway? She is, at times, a little unstable and had a brief breakdown in high school, but she is gorgeous, and bright, and good in bed. This combination is an unsettling one, when he thinks about it. Late at night, while she is asleep and he studies her features, he wonders if he can trust her. What does she do during the day when he is at school? He follows her. Most of the time she's doing ordinary things—shopping, laundry, library book returns—but one day, he sees her talking to an attractive professor. She is laughing, throwing her hair back in that way he likes, so that he, the boyfriend-now-husband, has to stop and do it for her, fondling her long, brown hair. The professor, admittedly, is taken by the same gesture.
            Suddenly, the husband knows that if she'll cheat in one area she'll cheat in another.
            The girlfriend-now-wife doesn't understand what starts to happen; she worships her husband, but eventually she doesn't want to be with him. He bores her; he is intense and obsessive, drilling her on her whereabouts and conversations so that she dreams of being anywhere else but with him. After they divorce, she marries the attractive professor.
            Even then the former student still dreams about Professor X and wakes, alone and abashed, in his bed.

Version Three

            Professor X reads the story, and it sounds familiar—somewhat like a story she read last spring—but how will she prove this? Could the student have entered a version of this story in an earlier college competition? Sometimes really good writing can sound professional—can sound plagiarized—because the others are so weak. Could Professor X be overreacting?
            Which of course she is capable of; which of course is why she is such a formidable presence. What most people don't see is the bizarre nature of some her doubts—did she arrive at school in her pajamas? Would she start to shake in front of her classes, uncontrollably shake? This from Professor X! The words swim in front of her, and she is uncertain. If she decides to move forward, will the administration back her up? The year has gone on without incident, and she is getting ready to retire. Inwardly she groans at her conundrum. She has a hard enough time with plagiarism cases when she brings in a copy of the original and reads—an essay from T. S. Eliot, a passage from Shakespeare—then matches it word for word with the student's assignment. One parent had said once, leaning forward, hearing, "To be or not to be. . ." "I can see how you might think they are close. Still I know how hard he worked on it. . ."
            What can she tell the students, the administration, and the parents? Over a year ago, she spent a half an hour reading a story, and here it has shown up again. She thinks this version might be a little better, and then she wonders whose story it is—which version is the chicken and which the egg. Perhaps the girlfriend turned in her boyfriend's story while he was in London. The girlfriend's work was erratic, and frankly Professor X was surprised to receive this story, without the usual grammatical and typographical errors. Would she go back and change that girl's grade if she found out that the girl had stolen an earlier draft from her boyfriend? Did the boyfriend know that she had used his story?
            The more Professor X thinks about it, the more the possibilities swim in her mind. She tells her husband, who is sitting in a chair reading Thomas Mann. He looks up, his beautiful calm features already making her feel better. He is thin and athletic, an avid cyclist even now. His heart is like a young man's. Feel it, he always says, and Professor X, who is addressed by the first name that her students do not dare utter until graduation, does.
            He is also sick with cancer, the reason Professor X is retiring, why she has so much trouble concentrating. She is sorry to be bothering him with this problem—like a gnat, when she thinks about it—but he has always been her sounding board.
            He looks up over his reading glasses and says, "You are not the world's policeman." Then he goes back to The Magic Mountain.
            A tranquil feeling comes over her, and she breathes deeply. It is true she is not the world's policeman. She thanks him for his advice, and she goes out to the kitchen, makes herself a cup of tea. It is hot and strong, and she drinks it right down.
            As she always does in such situations, she thinks about her life. One time she panicked when she was in grade school and copied a few answers from someone's quiz. She was nine, and she was sure the teacher saw her, was sure he knew. She was grateful to him for not confronting her, and yet maybe it would have been better; maybe the matter would have been over then. As it is, she still has dreams about her fear, about her exposure.
            Rubbing her eyes, she simply grades the paper and hopes she has done the right thing. That night she gets into bed with her husband and holds him tight. She does not know how much time they have, and so every day is a gift. She puts her head on his heart and goes to sleep.

The Plagiarist (Continued) by Kim Bridgford("The Plagiarist" continues)



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