It's 1981 and I'm sitting on a lumpy oatmeal-colored couch in the office of my tutor, Brendan McLaughlin, an intense red-headed philosopher who frequently falls off his bicycle and is almost always late for our appointments, dashing in with bottles of wine and loaves of bread and windblown hair and a bicycle clip still on his left pants-leg. I've come to England for my junior year in college as part of the Oxford Overseas Study Course organized by playwright Francis Warner. We go to Warner's apartment at the beginning and end of each semester for wine-and-cheese parties in his elegant flat near Walton Street, where the wallpaper has actual leaves pressed into it.
I am an innocent. A baby. Virginal in mind and body. And, I think now, McLaughlin is having fun with that. Teaching me the theory of phenomenology as regards first-person experience and perception, pain and pleasure, he motions to the precariously stacked books on the shelf above my head. "Now if one of those heavy books were to fall--smash--down on your head, you would certainly feel it and know it existed, wouldn't you?"
"Or if I were to take a nail and drive it straight . . . through . . . your hand . . . you would feel it? You would perceive pain?"
"Yes." Where is this going?, I wonder to myself.
"Well, that's enough for today. Let's go to the pub!"
We walk to the White Horse, next to Blackwell's bookstore, where he buys me a pint.
Seated on a little stool in the low-ceilinged room around a small wooden table, I feel I've been whisked away to a land of smaller people, hobbits perhaps. Tall, blond, long-legged, tomboyish rather than elegant, I stand out here in a way I never do at home in Arkansas.
He fixes me with a long look. "I must tell you about the most extraordinary thing that happened to me yesterday. I used to have a parrot, you see. "
He says this as though everyone has had a parrot at one time or another.
"But I just couldn't take care of it, so I gave it away to the family next door. Well, one day the wife came out of the shower, completely naked, dripping water, and the bird flew straight at her and bit her on the nipple."
His eyes are mock-wide, watching for my response.
"Of course, they had to get rid of it. I'd moved by then, and I never knew what happened to it, but yesterday I ran into a friend and she asked me if I knew that my parrot was in bird heaven! Naturally I thought she meant it had died, and I was a bit sad. But then she said she'd seen it. Turns out Bird Heaven is some kind of sanctuary for unwanted birds! So I'm going to go visit it this weekend."
Is this an invitation? I choose to ignore it. Sip my lager.
"About the parrot and the lady's nipple, though--what would you say? Was it pain or pleasure at work in this case?"