Book Excerpt

Excerpt from Vanessa’s Curve of Mind, by Kirk Smith

I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my recently published book, Vanessa’s Curve of Mind

Chapter One

Vanessa Trippett, the graduate student at the other end of the long table, had fastened her cobalt blue eyes on Stan Harte when he began his lecture and refused to release him, even it seemed, when she blinked.  And he appreciated what that kind of attention from Vanessa Trippett meant.  He’d heard the rumors about her — how behind the pale mask of her perfectly proportioned face burned a brain like an intellectual forge, how in her single-minded quest for understanding she had asked his colleagues exactly the questions that exposed logical flaws in their thinking or gaps in their knowledge of their own specialty.

Stan was starting to worry that it was about to happen to him.  For more than a decade, he and his colleague Paul Kovick had given guest lectures to each other’s graduate seminars. It was Stan’s turn to talk to Paul’s psycholinguistics seminar.  In the students’ minds, his expertise should exceed their instructor’s, at least in the subspecialty of this lecture, which was the role of meaning in the psychology of language.  In fact, Paul had warned him about Vanessa the day before.

He had come to Stan’s office, closed the door and sat down.  He looked ill at ease, which surprised Stan because they were long-time friends and usually supported each other in the political wrangling in the psychology department.  He was a patrician blend of virility and urbanity that attracted bright young women like iron filings to a magnet, especially women in the first-year graduate class.  Years of sedentary living had not completely erased the evidence that he’d been a star football player in high school, and the trace of gray in his black hair conferred an air of scholarly authority.

“I assume you’re going to cover multidimensional scaling again this year?” he began.

“Why?  I thought that was one of the reasons I was talking to your class.”

“Right.  That’s why I came by.  To tell you that my student Vanessa will almost certainly ask you a lot of questions tomorrow.”

“I hear she’s embarrassed a quite a few of our colleagues with her questions.”

“You don’t know the half of it.  Be forewarned, buddy!  She’ll ask an innocent-sounding question… and follow it up with another… and another… until she finds a hole you can’t fill.”

“Sounds like good clean academic fun.” Stan smirked to hide a ripple of anxiety.  For a forty-four-year-old full professor with a string of publications and a reputation as an accomplished scientist, was there anything more emasculating than being shown that you don’t know what you’re talking about?  Especially when your error is exposed while you’re lecturing to a graduate seminar on what you supposedly know better than anyone else in your department.

Paul scowled.  “I’m not joking, Stan.”  He slid his chair forward and leaned toward Stan across the table.  “The stories you’ve been hearing aren’t exaggerated.  With the kind of intellectual horsepower she possesses, she can destroy you without realizing what she’s doing.”

“She’s not doing it to show off?”

“She’s not trying to prove anything.  The exams and papers she writes are head and shoulders above the rest of our students.”

“I gathered that from reading her comprehensive exam last fall.”  Stan recalled the answers that read like journal articles rather than off-the-cuff responses to test questions.

“Her questions aren’t malicious, either.  Or in any way calculated.”  Paul shook his head.  “I think the problem is that she believes everyone around her is as smart as she is, so she assumes the fault is her grasp of what someone has said.  Her questions come from a passionate desire for knowledge and clarity.  She’s so bright, she doesn’t realize someone else doesn’t have the answer to her question — or worse, that no one has it.  She always seems as disappointed as her target is chagrined to find out no answer’s forthcoming.”

“Hard to believe.”  Especially coming from the person who knew her better than anyone else in the department.  She’d been living with Paul almost a year now, in spite of the risk that someone would file a complaint under the inappropriate student-faculty relationship policy.

“I know.  I know.”  Paul groaned unconvincingly.  “You think I’m overdoing it, like I usually do.  But it’s hard to portray her accurately without sounding like a raving fanatic.”

“So what are you saying about tomorrow, that she’ll make me look like an ignoramus in front of your seminar?”

Paul smiled sympathetically.  “I’ve watched every one of my guest lecturers this year get squashed.  But like you said, academically it’s good sport.  The other students stand to learn from these exchanges, and that’s what seminars are all about, right?”

“Thanks for your concern about my welfare, pal.”  Stan leaned back in his office chair, trying to cover up his growing trepidation.

“Look, I’m sorry.  But I’m trying to educate the rest of the class.  She already knows more than they do.  She knows more than I do on a lot of topics.  Please, don’t let her drag you into answering her questions about the nuts and bolts of extracting dissimilarity scales.  If you do, everyone but Vanessa will spend the rest of the seminar lost in a thicket of incomprehensible symbols.”

“I don’t know, Paul.  That’s hard to do without seeming completely superficial.”  Stan prided himself on his ability to teach the mathematical details of psychological scaling.  He was convinced that understanding where the numbers came from demystified the results.

“Listen,” Paul said.   “She knows more math than the whole goddamned psychology faculty could muster in an emergency.  And if the math department ever finds out about her, they’ll be over here en masse trying to recruit her.”

“You don’t have to tell me!  I tried to read a paper she wrote describing her theory.”  Stan remembered it with a cringe.  A dozen pages of equations filled with unfamiliar operators and intervening text that read like a mathematical proof using words he’d never seen before.  About all he could gather from the introduction was that she was proposing a seven-dimensional model of what she called the “mind-brain continuum.”  From references to elliptical geometry and Calabi-Yau manifolds, he figured out that the tools of her derivations were drawn in part from differential geometry.  But when he reached the last page, his feelings of intimidation had given way to a mixture of awe and disbelief.  Vanessa was trying to solve the mind-body problem, the Holy Grail of contemporary cognitive neuroscience, an enigma as old as the Greek philosophers who first posed it more than two thousand years ago.  He’d had a strange premonition at the time:  This might be the first draft of the most revolutionary theory in the history of psychology — and very likely medical science as well.  If so, he and his colleagues would have to learn the math he’d just skimmed over.  And he wanted to be the first — after Vanessa, of course — in his field to master it.  What a boost that would be for his faltering career!

“Yeah.”  Paul let out a long breath.  “It’s a ridiculously ambitious theoretical project.  If only I could get her to focus on a project of practical scope, she could be finished with a master’s thesis in a month.”

After a moment of silence, Stan said in a gloomy voice, “Doesn’t sound like it will do me any good to prepare for tomorrow.”  He laughed tonelessly.  “The condemned man should eat a hearty dinner.”

“I’ll call an ambulance to come get you afterwards.”  Paul didn’t smile.  “Good luck,” he told Stan as he stood to leave.

#

Well, here he was in Vanessa Trippett’s cross hairs, and this guest lecture wasn’t as much fun as it had been every other time he’d done it.  Vanessa’s presence had changed everything.  In fact, he was starting to sweat like an advanced graduate student giving his first paper to a scientific meeting where all the big guns in the field were out there in the audience, a jury deciding the fate of his career and his chances of getting a good job in the next year or two.  The pressure hadsharpened his mind, forced him to organize his sentences better and make his explanations clearer.  At the same time, he had a heightened awareness of his own behavior and its effect on the other students.  They were watching the growing tension between him and Vanessa.  And as he came to the end of what he planned to say, he realized that he had spent most of the time looking at Vanessa — as if he were talking only to her.  He was sure the other students saw it, too, and the realization brought the heat of a blush to his face.

Sure enough, when he said, as he always did at the end of these presentations, “So… questions?” Vanessa’s exquisitely shaped hand shot up.  “Yes, Vanessa?”  He felt his heart rate skyrocket, and the stern face of his ninety-year-old father’s cardiologist flashed through his mind.

There was yet another source of Stan’s febrile apprehension.  He had seen photos and videos of Vanessa on the Playboy website three years ago and been enthralled by her sensuous body and exotic appearance.  It was just his luck that he was away on sabbatical at Stanford the same year she entered the graduate program.  When he returned in the fall and saw her, he was flabbergasted.  But when he checked her Playboy photos, she was clearly the same woman.  Although he later heard from colleagues that she had chosen Paul Kovick as her major professor and was now living with him, Stan had been looking for an excuse to get better acquainted with her because he had always wanted to talk to a Playboy model.  And after reading her paper, he couldn’t see why she was working with Paul.  His interests and expertise were much less compatible with hers than Stan’s.  This lecture might be his only chance to capture her attention, impress her and start her thinking about him as a better advisor than Paul.  At the same time, being caught out by a woman like Vanessa in front of a bunch of graduate students would be a waking nightmare.

“Dr. Harte, you’ve presented semantic theory entirely in terms of binary features, variables that can take on two values, zero and one. Is that correct?”

“Yes. As I said, binary features have a long history in linguistics.” An elementary question — harmless enough. Was it a good setup for asking a question of clarification? Or a lure to extract a statement that would crumble when the rotten logic hidden underneath it gave way?

Vanessa nodded intently. “On the other hand, the work on multidimensional scaling of meaning is based on the assumption that concepts are organized in an n-manifold with a continuous metric. How is that metric derived from binary distinctions?”

A good question. And not even close to any of the various possibilities spinning through his head in the seconds between his answer and her question.

“Vanessa…” Paul’s warning sounded like the growl of a peeved bear.

Stan looked at him in surprise. What he saw startled him. Paul’s face was crimson, and the blood vessels stood out and pulsed in his temples.

“No, Paul,” Vanessa said without raising her voice. “This is a crucial question. Why not posit continuous scales from the very beginning?”

Stan’s head rotated back to Vanessa. There was a straightforward answer, but already he saw the precipice where she was taking him. Stan hesitated, staring at the abyss of theory he saw ahead of them, a bridge she expected him to describe, a bridge he was pretty sure didn’t exist.

Suddenly, Paul leapt to his feet. “Vanessa,” he shouted at her, “you ask every speaker I have in here the same goddam question.”

In shocked disbelief Stan’s head swung back in Paul’s direction. Never, in the hundreds of seminars he’d participated in, had he seen such a violent display of emotion. He glanced around the table at the other students. They were acting like it had happened before. Aaron Holmes was actually smirking.

Vanessa completely ignored Paul. “Why not provide a quantitative underpinning for explaining why people dichotomize meanings, instead of start—”

“Vanessa, shut up!” Paul grabbed the marker for the whiteboard. “You’ve missed Stan’s whole goddamn point.”

At the word “point,” he stabbed at her with the marker. It flew out of his hand and fell in a steep arc halfway down the table, where it bounced three times like a loose football. His whole body toppled like his torso was following the trajectory of the marker. There was no cry, not even a grunt. His head missed the edge of the table by an inch.

Vanessa was on her feet even before the muffled thud of his full weight hitting the floor. “Paul!” she cried out. “What’s the matter?”

As she rounded the front corner of the table, the student sitting there stood and moved into her path. She shoved him back against the table and in another step knelt at Paul’s side.

“Paul!” she shouted, shaking his shoulders roughly. “What’s wrong? Can you hear me?”

She rolled the unresponsive man onto his back and with her thumb on his chin tilted his head back. Leaning over him, she turned her head with her ear practically touching his mouth. Then she grabbed his wrist and straightened up, scanning the faces peering down at her. “Scott,” she said pointing to one of them. “Call 911!”

The student took out his cell phone and flipped it open as he stepped out of the circle of students who had gathered at the front of the room.

“Emily,” she said to one of the women. “Go to the office and see if they have an AED.”

The woman looked confused.

“I’ll go,” said a second woman.

“Quick, quick!” Without standing up, Vanessa shed the flannel work shirt she wore as a jacket and flung it in the corner. Stan couldn’t stop himself from staring momentarily at her breasts under the pink fabric of her tee-shirt and the soft bra whose outline he could clearly see.

Vanessa bent over Paul again and, with her mouth on his, blew hard. She shook her head, then clamped his nose with her thumb and fingers and blew twice more. Each time his chest rose and fell a little bit. She scrambled sideways and began pumping his chest using her full weight while she counted aloud: “One and, two and, three and…”

Up to this point Stan had been rooted to the spot where he was standing when Paul fell over. Now, he knelt at Paul’s head and timidly placed his fingertips along Paul’s throat. “I can feel a pulse… when you…” he said to Vanessa, who nodded. He felt thoroughly inadequate watching her work like a heroic expert. She had complete control of the situation and herself while he — the only faculty member in the room — was just an incompetent bystander.

He glanced up at the ring of students jostling for a look. The sound of Vanessa’s steady counting masked their murmurs. Her hair was so close he could have counted the individual strands. The fruit blossom fragrance he smelled had to be her shampoo.

“…fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine, and sixty, sixty-one…”

Still counting, she lifted her head, anxiety scrawled across her face. Droplets of perspiration were forming on her forehead. Her hot breath, reeking of garlic and stale coffee, assaulted Stan’s nostrils.

“…ninety-eight, ninety-nine, and a hundred!” She slumped back on her heels. “Still?” she asked Stan between gasps.

“No, the pulse is… uh… gone.”

She rose on her knees, hands locked on Paul’s chest again.

“Let me help with the compressions.” Stan moved on all fours opposite her. Trying to imitate her, he laced his fingers and gingerly placed the heel of one of them on Paul’s chest.

“Thanks,” she said gratefully. She reached out and forcefully moved his hands a little higher on Paul’s chest before creeping back next to his head.

“A hundred?” Stan asked her.

She looked at him like he was a slow-witted child. “Yes!” She jabbed her forefinger into his arm. “Go!”

He pushed cautiously on Paul’s chest. Ribs crackled and crumbled under his weight.

“Harder!” she shrieked. She rose on her knees and started moving sideways to where she had been before.

Stan hesitated. “I’m breaking his ribs.”

“I already did.” A wail of desperation tinged her voice. “Here, let me.”

Before she could yank his hands away, he began furiously pumping Paul’s chest.

She placed her hand on top of his as if to gauge how much force he was exerting. “Better,’ she said softly. “Seven, and eight, and nine—”

“And ten, and eleven,” they chanted in unison. Her voice faded to a whisper, until only her lips moved with his. She took her hand away.

Roger Zhrudsky, the psychology department’s chairman, appeared at the door with a red canvas case under one arm. It was about the size of a large, thick cafeteria tray. He hesitated, then pushed his way through the students. “I have the AED!” he shouted. He knelt next to Paul’s head and unzipped the stiff canvas case.

Vanessa pointed to the device he pulled out. “Press that button.”

“Remove backing from pads and place on the chest of the victim as shown on backing,” a mechanical voice intoned.

Vanessa sat up and shoved Stan so hard he almost toppled over backwards into the students standing behind him. She clawed and scrabbled at the blue shirt on the inert man until she had pulled it out of his trousers. Grasping the loose tails of the shirt, she ripped them apart, tearing the buttons loose. Then she tugged his tee shirt up to his armpits. Roger was looking at one of the pads. Vanessa grabbed the other, glanced at the backing before jerking it off and slapping the adhesive side onto Paul’s bare chest. She turned and reached for the other one, but Roger already had the backing off. She pointed instead to the side of Paul’s ribcage toward which his hand was already moving.

As they worked, Stan stood and backed away until he bumped against one of the students. “Sorry,” he mumbled, barely glancing over his shoulder. The sight of Paul sprawled unmoving on the floor made him momentarily dizzy. Was he really going to die? Right here in front of them?

“Analyzing heart rhythms,” the metallic voice said. “Stand clear.” For several seconds everyone in the room froze, holding their breath. “Shock advised.”

“Stand back,” Vanessa said looking around the tight circle of faces. She pushed Roger away from the AED. “Everyone clear,” she shouted, glancing around again. She stabbed another button on the AED.

“Administering shock,” the mechanical voice intoned. “Stand clear.”

A moment later Paul’s body jerked and shuddered. He gasped and his eyelids fluttered.

“Analyzing heart rhythms. Stand clear.”

“Wait!” Vanessa spread her arms to hold back the people who pressed forward behind her. There was another tense silence.

“Heart rhythm restored. Put patient in recovery position and call 911.” Heads swiveled in search of the graduate student Vanessa had dispatched.

“We already have,” Roger announced.

Vanessa was kneeling again and turning Paul on his side. His eyes were open now, and he seemed to be struggling to stand up.

“Wha’ hap’n?” he slurred.

“Take it easy, Paul. Just relax.” When he pushed back on her arm, she bent over him and said softly, “Don’t try to get up yet.”

“I’m okay.” He pushed on Vanessa’s chest.

“Please, Paul,” she crooned. “You fell down.”

His eyes darted left and right. He struggled to push himself up.

“Just take it easy,” she said, almost in a whisper, moving closer to his ear. “The doctor will be here in a minute.”

“Wha’ happ’nd?” he asked again.

“You hit your head. You knocked yourself out, so we called 911.”

“Where’m…?”

She bent over his ear, her mouth almost touching it, and murmured something only he could hear. He seemed to relax.

Stan stared at Paul lying on the floor — and Vanessa hovering over her lover. But he was thinking about what would happen in the coming weeks. Unless this was much less serious than it looked, Paul wouldn’t be able to act as Vanessa’s sponsor. Someone would have to fill in temporarily, and Stan was the logical candidate.

Then it hit him like a kick in the face: Jesus! Paul almost died right here at his feet, and he was thinking about taking his student away from him? What the hell was the matter with him?