‘Sarah,’ the sound of my roommate Tanya’s voice snapped me out of my reverie, ‘you took half an hour in the shower, and now you’ve been standing wrapped in that towel for 5 minutes looking into your underwear drawer. It’s not a lingerie shop. What’s so hard to figure out?’

‘Well, it is a little bit hard,’ I said. ‘The white set looks really nice, but makes my skin look more olive, and the black set is nice too, maybe not as nice as the white, but by contrast, it makes my skin look more fair.’

‘You’re crazy. I thought you were just going to flirt with him, mess with his head, and manipulate him to get him to give you a better grade. You fucking him now? Otherwise, what’s he doing evaluating your underwear choice and its effect on your skin tone?’

‘I don’t know. I just feel freaked out this scheme. I’m not exactly experienced at stuff like this. I thought if I felt sort of sexy and available, it would help me to convey the vibe to him, and he might offer to help me out just so I’d like him, or, failing that, he’d suggest or even propose something indecent, and then…’

‘Don’t even get me started. No wait. Let me start and finish in a single sentence. ‘Don’t do it.’ Ok, two sentences. ‘Because it’s a terrible idea.”

‘You’ve made your views very clear on the matter,’ I said.

‘Who is this professor anyway? He the one always holds the side of his head like he has a headache?’

‘No, that’s Professor Stevens. We’re talking about Professor Kessel. Tall, slim, dresses conservatively, but without a tie; you can tell he’s in his forties, but you can’t necessarily say why. Sort of Jeremy Irons looking.’

‘Honey, Jeremy Irons does not look like he’s in his forties.’

‘Tanya, darling, I’m not a personal friend of Jeremy Irons. I don’t mean Jeremy Irons as he looked when we three had lunch yesterday. I mean Jeremy Irons from some movie when he was around Professor Kessel’s age, which is somewhere in his forties.’

‘I think I know the one you mean. Sort of stuffy but with a hint of hot? In an old, takes whatever BS he’s teaching way too seriously, kind of way?’

‘Yeah. He’s an attractive man. For his age.’

‘So what’s he need from you? Probably swimming in grad student pussy. Backstroke and everything, blowing out a whale-style spout of pussy juice as he pinwheels his arms in reverse.’

‘You go too far.’ I said. ‘I don’t need that image in my head. But I take your point. What’s he need me for, given the sexual options available to him? Well, the word on the street is that he’s a straight arrow. No hint of hitting on hot undergrads. His advisees all look like a random selection of grad students, male and female, attractive and unattractive, some clearly on the spectrum; you know, as if they were picked on the basis of their abilities.’

‘So no backstroke?’

‘No, he doesn’t have Professor Bocce’s harem, nor, to be fair and open-minded, does he have the male equivalent of Professor Cooper’s collection of dim-bulb MILF-loving gym rats.’

‘Ooh, innocent little Sarah bandying about a neologism like ‘MILF’.

‘Strictly speaking, it’s an acronym.’

‘Still and all, if he isn’t grooming and fucking his grad students, like a normal professor, why’s he going to break the rules for you?’

‘He looks at me. In a way that is almost pained. Like he wants something from me. There’s something mutual, too. I like him too somehow, feel there’s a mutual connection or something, even though I make a point of not listening in his course, or ever doing the readings.’

‘You feel a mutual connection, so you’re going to threaten to blow up his career to save you the trouble of studying for his course? You don’t feel a connection with me, I hope?’

I laughed, ‘I feel the strongest of connections with you. But, you haven’t failed me on a midterm, so you’re safe. And so is he, actually. I mean technically, anyway. If I get dirt on him, I’ll threaten him to get what I want, but if he refuses and tells him to go ahead and expose him, I’ll just drop it.’

‘Still, it’s not exactly a nice thing to do. It’s not like you.’

‘The midterm grade cannot stand. It will ruin everything. It has to be changed.’

‘But you just said, you did it to yourself. You didn’t listen to the lectures or read the material.’

‘Don’t play the ‘Just’ card on me. I could think of a number of instances where the ‘Just’ card applies to you, if you want to get started in that direction.’

‘And that’s what really hurts,’ Tanya agreed grudgingly.

‘Anyway, here I am, GPA-ruining grade on a midterm, filled with regret, but heading out to make things right, breath sweet, undercarriage polished to a sparkle and beyond reproach, carefully picked undies girded ’bout the waist, ready to face any hardship to get what I’m due.’

‘Or to get what some less attractive student, with worse panties, and some sense of shame, wouldn’t ask for?’ my roommate asked, grinning and sticking out her tongue.

I deflated, and all the cattiness came out of her at once, ‘Seriously Sarah. Is this worth it? Does it have a chance of succeeding? As your roommate, I know you watch a ton of porn, and masturbate to an extent that a less tolerant roommate would find objectionable, but if what you say is true, you’re also a virgin, and your experience is limited to hand-based fumblings with the idiots you let take you out on dates.’

‘Why are they idiots?’ I asked.

‘You have a point. You are the idiot. They are guys with enough sense of quality female flesh to see through your frumpy clothes, and enough confidence to ask ten girls per day on dates on the percentages theory. You’re the idiot nice girl who freezes out the equally nice, and equally inexperienced, guys from your classes or the gym, the ones who don’t have the confidence to make the first move without some feedback from you; instead you accept the date requests from these assholes who have the confidence to ask, because they don’t care if you say yes or no. And then, when they presume too much, demand sex without creating a connection, you refuse, they call you a lesbian or a cock-tease, and the whole thing ends miserably.’

What could I say to that? She had a point.

I popped my head around the open edge of his door, ‘Hi Professor, are you still holding office hours?’

He looked at his watch, ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘though officially only for five more minutes. But still, I’m here. How can I help, Sarah?’

‘I’ve been wanting to speak with you,’ I told him.

‘You’re using past tense. Yet you’ve come in the last five minutes of a two-hour period of office hours. If you wanted to speak to me earlier, couldn’t you have come earlier?’

I hesitated, then decided to ignore his question and just push ahead. ‘Well, if you have five minutes left, I’ll take them.’

‘I have them, and more’, he declared. ‘Please, sit. How can I be of service?’

I entered his office, making a point of closing the door behind me, and sat at the desk across from him, somewhat delicately, as I felt rather underdressed. I normally wear trousers, or long dresses, and long sleeve, loose shirts. Today I was wearing a shorter, knee-length skirt and a scoop neck shirt.

‘Professor, it’s about my midterm grade,’ I declared.

His expression of patient and alert interest disappeared, and now he looked mildly annoyed. ‘And you’re here to get some advice on how to perform better on future assessments?’

‘Well, that too, of course, but I also wanted to see if we could do something about the actual midterm grade.’

‘What do you mean, ‘do’? What could we do about it?’

‘Well, raise it a bit.’

‘Perhaps we could water it?’ he suggested, ‘See if it grows?’

‘Professor, with the grade I got on the midterm…I mean…if I get that grade for the course, I’ll have to repeat and I’ll lose my scholarship.’

‘That is unfortunate. However, I believe the reason scholarships are tied to grades is to prevent scarce resources being wasted on students who aren’t focused on their studies. The money can then be re-directed to someone who will make better use of it.’

‘Professor, please! You’re not listening.’

‘I’m listening. I’m just not doing what you want. I wonder if you are listening to yourself.’

‘But the midterm was so hard! Wasn’t it a bit unfair?’

‘Other students performed very well on the midterm. I think what made it particularly challenging for you was the fact that you didn’t know the answers to the questions, as a result of being largely unfamiliar with the course material.’

‘No professor! I studied so hard.’

At this, he smiled and said, ‘Claiming to have studied hard for an exam you failed is like claiming to be sober after the third time you’ve fallen down at a party. In the case of the party, drunkenness is the best-case scenario; if you’re not drunk, you’ve likely had a stroke. In the present case, if the recent midterm is a true measure of your performance after studying hard, you’re wasting your money at university.’

I was about to protest, but I felt a reluctant smile breaking across my face. It was common to claim to have studied hard when you wanted to plead to professors for leniency, and it was generally accepted without challenge, if also without real belief. But he was right. It would have been terrible if I had spent days, or even hours, studying, and still hadn’t known how to answer any of the midterm questions. Of course I hadn’t studied; I never studied when I thought I could get away without.

I started again, ‘Ok professor. Perhaps I could have studied harder. I will next time. But that midterm grade is so low, if it stays the same, I’ll never be able to get above a C in the course, even if I ace everything from here on. There must be something you can do to help me.’

‘You know I don’t give makeup exams or assign extra-credit work. That is made clear in the syllabus, and I made a point of it on the first day of class.’

‘But couldn’t you make an exception for me?’ I tried to act flirty or sexy as I asked, but it turned out to be a bit harder than I’d thought. Probably it takes practice.

‘I did reach out to you with an offer of help. I’d thought…hoped…perhaps that was why you’d come today. A few weeks ago one of your assignments was noticeably better than anything else you’d done in the course. I made a note in my feedback suggesting that you come see me so we could talk about how to achieve that level of performance more generally.’

‘You did?’ I asked, surprised.

‘So, you’re not exactly pouring over my comments on your papers, eh?’

Damn. What a blunder!

‘Still, if you know I can do the work, why let one midterm drag my grade down so badly?’

‘For one thing, you’ve produced one good piece of work. That’s the outlier. The midterm is in line with your general performance. For another, conversations like these are actually hard, and can be heart-breaking, when you have students who worked hard, but just aren’t that bright. On the basis of that good assignment of yours however, we know you’re smart, so your poor performance suggests that you’re just lazy.’

My mom had been visiting the week that assignment was due, and with her around, I actually had to do some work. I couldn’t just spend all my time at the gym, or having coffee with my friends. So I’d done a bit of work, and evidently, he’d noticed the difference.

I needed to reset this conversation.

I made careful, intense eye-contact with him, held his gaze for a few seconds, and then said, ‘Professor, I’d be so grateful if you could make an exception for me and help me out with that grade.’

‘And I genuinely regret that I can’t do it,’ he replied, holding my gaze, but somehow making the whole exchange impersonal.

‘Can’t or won’t?’ I asked, trying a pouty look.

‘Won’t, I suppose. It would make me feel guilty.’

‘But you wouldn’t be harming any of the other students, you’d just be giving a little extra help to me.’

‘Why you?’ he asked.

‘Don’t you like me?’

‘You’re fine. I hardly know you. You think I like you better than my other students?’ he asked.

‘But…I see you looking at me in class…’

‘Really?’ he asked, ‘As often as not I see you chatting to your friend Rana instead of paying attention to the lecture. That, along with not doing the readings, is your problem in the course. It’s not my liking you or not.’

I got up from my chair and walked over to him. I leaned forward over the desk to put my face just inches from his. All of this felt artificial and wrong. It had gone so much easier when I had imagined it. ‘Please professor, help me out. There must be something I can do. Just tell me. I’ll do anything to improve this grade. Anything.’ I tried to make ‘anything’ sound sultry, but I don’t think it came out sultry.

‘I don’t understand. What are you suggesting?’ he asked.

‘Well since I said ‘anything’, I suppose that’s up to you?’ I replied. I rested my elbows on the desk and supported my face with my hands, bringing my biceps on either side of my breasts, trying to create cleavage he might see through the scoop neck.

As we stared at each other in silence, I gradually began to hear a soft winding sound coming from the small clutch in my hand. I couldn’t help looking at it, and then he looked at it too.

He looked perplexed, then thoughtful, and then his face hardened to suspicion. ‘Are you recording this conversation, Sarah?’ He reached for the clutch and took it out of my trembling hand. He popped the snap and looked. Inside was a miniature tape recorder, red light blinking in the corner. He reached to turn it off.

‘I’m sorry,’ I murmured, ‘I’m so stupid. I just…’

He let the silence hang for 10 or 15 seconds, ‘You just wanted to entice me into an agreement to trade sex for grades, and then, once the agreement was made, you planned to threaten me with a recording of the arrangement in order to get the grades you want.’ He continued, ‘That way you could pass the course without the inconvenience of learning anything, at the negligible cost of causing me to live in fear of humiliation and the destruction of my career. Would that be an accurate summation of what you…just… planned to do?’

I didn’t know what to say. I was ashamed. At my laziness, my stupidity, and my selfishness. But I was also mad at myself for coming into a dynamic situation without a single plan, but instead, with two incompatible plans. I had showered, groomed, and picked out underwear and clothing like I was going on a date. Then I’d put the recorder in the clutch. Why did I need neatly trimmed pubic hair and carefully selected underwear if the plan was blackmail? At the moment he’d discovered the tape recorder, I’d been hoping he’d agree to change the grade in return for something like feeling my breasts, or maybe a hand job, and was planning to do it. Looking forward to it somewhat. He was older, but he was tall and handsome, face mature but unwrinkled, with only a hint of grey in the temples of his brown hair. He was sort of sexy too, with his rigid posture, his almost anachronistic precise speech and formal manners. And he just gave an overall sense of being …very male.

He broke the silence first. ‘I don’t like to use the university academic integrity system. It wastes my time, and is often overly harsh in punishment when it finds against a student. In this case, however, I wonder if I’m ethically obliged to report this. It will be embarrassment to me even though I’ve done nothing wrong, but I worry for my colleagues. Are all your decent grades the results of entrapping your male professors? Have you ever earned a grade at this university?’

My chest convulsed with anxiety. In the minute since being discovered, I had come to terms with Professor Kessel hating me, and probably of failing the course, but the implications now were much worse. My voice was weak with fear as I started, ‘No professor! You don’t have to report me. I’ve never done this before. You must have been able to tell how hopeless I was at it. And I’ll certainly never do it again. It was a disaster. And you never agreed to anything, and you didn’t even seem inclined to consider it.’ I was warming to my topic now, ‘So in a way, you were never at any risk, and no good professor ever would be either. I mean, if a professor agreed, then he would be a bad professor, and would deserve the anxiety the recording would cause. It might stop him from making deals like that with other girls.’

He still looked quite severe, but there was a hint of that sardonic curiosity now as he spoke, ‘Are you recasting your blackmail attempt as some combination of a test of character for male faculty, and a public service to the young women of the university. You’re some kind of activist and whistleblower?’

I shook my head slightly and looked down, but decided to stay silent to see what he said next.

‘Look, idiot professors like my recently dismissed colleague Crane are a plague. Now that I think about it, you probably got this terrible idea from his case?’

I nodded. It was well known that Professor Crane would give good grades to attractive well-endowed girls in return for access to their breasts. It was never any use to me because he was only interested in large Cs or above. ‘Trade your Cs or Ds for As’ was the joke students told about him. Last year a student had taped him making the offer, and used it to get an A from him. After she had moved on, she had gifted the tape to a friend, who made copies. One copy had made its way to the administration. He was fired at the start of this term.

Professor Kessel continued, ‘The deals Crane made were despicable, and he deserved to be fired. He was apparently the instigator, though I’m sure once word got around some young women volunteered to get the easy grades. He engaged in these arrangements routinely, and with an explicit quid pro quo. Worst of all, in some cases he threatened to give young women lower grades than they deserved if they did not participate. Come to think of it, he should probably have been referred to the police, not just fired. On the other hand, I don’t know if I could as heartily condemn a man who gave in to a proposal like the one you just made to me. It’s no easy thing for a man in his forties to reject the advances of a beautiful young woman. A fleeting and seemingly harmless opportunity to reconnect with the physical perfection, excitement and possibility of youth, and proposed by the young woman herself…’

I perked up. His tone had definitely changed as he spoke, and he sounded almost wistful by the end. Also, he thought I was beautiful! The term ‘perfection’ had been used. So I hadn’t been wrong. He had been eyeing me in class. Perhaps there was still a deal to be struck. A sale to be made. Not the one I’d planned when I came in. I’d have to pay the real price now, but perhaps disaster could be averted.

‘Professor,’ I began, ‘I’m seeing more and more clearly how wrong my actions were. I was offering you something that perhaps really is a temptation for you?’ My voice raised at this question his eyes gave some acknowledgement. ‘And yet it was an offer you could not ethically accept, and even if you rejected it, you would at times regret or second-guess your refusal. And then the recording thing makes it so much worse. Still, I think we could resolve this ourselves. I really am ashamed of myself, and you don’t need to worry about me trying it again on your colleagues.’

‘So your proposal is that you just get away with it? Because you’re pretty, bright and charming, you get to walk away from a blackmail attempt…’

‘No, no,’ I interrupted, mentally filing ‘pretty’, ‘bright’ and ‘charming’ next to ‘beautiful’ and ‘perfection’, ‘There should be consequences. Serious consequences. But they don’t have to be shame and expulsion for me. Couldn’t you punish me yourself?’

‘How? A grade penalty? You’re already on track to fail the course if your performance doesn’t improve, and side deals to remove grades for reasons unrelated to student learning are as wrong as side deals to give them.’