For an accidental find, Angel had proven invaluable. Touching on Psycho or Marnie here, Dressed to Kill there, Marta had revisited and elaborated on the topic at subsequent conferences. Variation-on-a-theme papers were a venerable if unmentioned tradition at such gatherings: forever eyeing the publish-or-perish quota—the cliché updated by tense younger academics as publish-and-perish—the congregated scholars welcomed the efficiency. Utility aside, Marta enjoyed rooting through non-literary source material as much as the political dimensions of the subject; the male-penned account of feminine duplicity was richly complex and imbued with an agreeable taint of controversy.
By the fourth time Marta stood at a lectern for the mandatory twenty minutes to uncover the intricacies of Angel’s narrative—complete with audience-pleasing film stills placed atop a overhead projector—both the character and the speaker had ceased to be students. Over the course of Avenging Angel, Angel III: The Final Chapter, and Angel 4: Undercover, Angel could no longer be labeled a “high school honor student by day,” having graduated and become a respected police photographer. Nor was she a mini-skirted “Hollywood hooker by night,” though she agreed to pose as one—for one last time—in order to trap yet another prostitute-fixated murderer. Exempt from B-movie plot mechanics, Marta’s better paying new role at the classroom’s helm did not demand so much as a change in attire.
Hollywood’s retread economy was a welcome ideology to Marta since she exploited its reliance on low-budget reiterations. The timely latest installment was grist for the conference paper mill—her constant work now generated with one primary aim: the mecca of tenure. Marta barely needed notes to explain Angel’s tidal flux of feminine agency; a single sitting through the latest sequel had replaced the earnest and painstaking shot-by-shot explication of former days. As for the conference talk, the required minutes worth of material was easily stitched together during a flight. She felt proud if absurd when cluing into a fact: she might be a leading scholar on Angel, the globe’s preeminent Angelographer. Checking later, she’d confirmed the unique monopoly.
Marta spoke about Angel 4: Undercover and listened to the panel’s three other speakers—occasionally feigning the ritual expression of rapt interest evident throughout the audience. After responding to a request to clarify a point and throwing in a comment during the roundtable, she left the windowless room and walked at a brisk pace to the exterior doors of the brick campus building that housed the entire event. Fresh air and a winding pathway were nerves-settling. The unofficial goal of the conference—a stiff and polite and nuanced after-session mingling that eventually stripped down to crowing over publications and grant funding, 3.5 Richter scandals, and fathomless complaint—always suffused Marta with dread and a rip-tide undercurrent of nausea.
Marta was aware of course that any group—from kindergarten on—invented its unique means of instituting hierarchies and channeling animosities. And she didn’t need to be told that without tactical participation, a career could atrophy. Landed in a group of any variety, though, she ordinarily and habitually conceived of reasonable exit strategies and then gravitated toward lone corners and peripheral tables of finger food and beverage urns. Or, if fortune was smiling, there’d be print of some kind to scan, publisher book displays at which she could devote long minutes. She likened the movement to a plant leaning toward sunlight; more than comprehensible, it was perfectly organic and sustaining.
For this one occasion, she forgave herself for not dividing the room into will nots, haves, has beens, and have nots, and then arranging contact with the haves, artfully dropping mention of CV-worthy accomplishments and exceptional busyness—chapters to write! funding applications! student thesis supervision! journal articles! far-flung conferences to attend! book reviews! classes to organize!—into measured conversations, and illustrating how bold new grant-nourished research would ensure the ongoing skyrocketing of an esteemed reputation. Even a courtier’s tongue required rest.
The conference was held in Boise, “The City of Trees”—so she’d read about the place, whose completely recognizable name had floated up unaccompanied by facts, images, or trivia. Say “Jupiter” and Marta would imagine a solar system illustration, enormity, dozens of moons in whizzing orbits, pinky-orange swirls of volatile gas clouds, and the Great Red Spot; but Boise only summoned Idaho and with it the seemingly contradictory occurrence of vast flat potato fields and angular swathes of coniferous trees. Boise’s cloak of anonymity was attractive.
Early into the many-paneled conference proceedings—a hive humming with intellectual enterprise of varying merit—Marta had succumbed. She decided now was finally the time to “scratch an itch” (the phrase, along with “shit or get off the pot,” jumped directly from her father’s stock of tart phrases, marvelous and vulgar but never repeated aloud). Aged two years, give or take, the condition was entrenched, she admitted, resembling one of those inconsequential yet apparently chronic maladies of television commercials, like dandruff, winter dryness, and the terrible anxieties apparently caused by dingy carpets and coffee-stained teeth. Or feminine itch, Marta had thought. It appeared to be a syndrome only the right medicine could heal.
[The chapter comes in five segments. This bit is 2 / 5.]