When I was a grad student I was invited to lunch by a couple I didn’t know. Intrigued, I went. We met in a classy restaurant and they were already there. Their faces brightened as the waiter escorted me to their table.

They introduced themselves as Alvin and Brenda. I noticed that they dressed to impress. They were gorgeous, groomed, and fragrant – like freshly crushed almonds. They urged me to order a drink.

It didn’t take long for them to get to the point. “We’d like to offer you a contract,” Alvin murmured. He cocked his head.

Oh my, I thought.

“What kind of contract?” I muttered.

“You’re the kind of person we’ve been looking for,” Brenda assured me, “as a third.”

“A third? A third what?”

Alvin raised an eyebrow and pushed a mysterious envelope across the table at me. “It’s all in here,” he said. “I think you’ll like the terms.”

I looked down. The paper was typed, with nice, neat rows of words under several bolded headings. I bit my lip.

“Just tell me what you want,” I said.

“We want––” Brenda began. She glanced at Alvin. “Rather, we need you to consider this. We’ve spent a long time looking for just the right person. Please just read it. And you can name your terms. As long as the basic arrangement stays as is, we’re willing to negotiate.”

“Well said,” I stated. But I’d noticed a quick asymmetrical gesture with her head. I knew something about microexpressions, and I didn’t quite believe her. Or maybe I didn’t want to believe her. Maybe I was looking for an out.

“Take some time,” Alvin said. “Our number is there. I’m sure we can come to a fair arrangement.”

I didn’t wait to be served. I didn’t want to owe them. I had to see what they had in mind. I took the envelope and left.

When I got home, I read the introductory letter. It was all pretty clear, and it reached right into my gut with a flame I couldn’t put out. They wanted to hire my services to stimulate them. They had enclosed a five-page narrative to illustrate what they expected. If I was willing to accept, then I was to meet them again to discuss the terms. I scanned the narrative.

Holy crap, I thought.

The story was Woody Allen’s “The Whore of Mensa.” It opens with a desperate man asking a private eye to assist him with a “problem.” He’s been seeing a student who provides pleasure for a price. Because his wife refuses to discuss intellectual subjects, he’s hired a brainy lady to talk to him about Proust and Yeats. But now she’s blackmailing him, threatening to reveal his intellectual infidelity. “They got tapes of me discussing The Waste Land.”

The PI calls to make an appointment with one of the girls from this clandestine ring of mental provocateurs. He learns that the fee varies, depending on complexity. “Symbolism’s extra,” it turns out, but he can have his choice of a blonde or brunette.

During banter over Milton and Melville, the PI learns that a college bookstore is a front for this cerebral prostitution ring. A wall of books opens to a secret room, where “pale, nervous girls with black-rimmed glasses” sit on couches holding Penguin Classics. For $50, a client could “relate without getting close.” If you were a big spender, you might get to read a girl’s master’s thesis.

So, this is what Alvin and Brenda were seeking. They wanted to purchase time with my grey matter as it churned through original texts. A philosopher Dom. I liked it.

I met with them again and listened politely as they explained that they’d felt intellectually dried up. They’d lost the luster in their conversations. They knew what I was studying, thanks to my advisor, and they wanted to pay me to talk about it to them.

“There are some things I won’t discuss,” I told them.

Brenda nodded. “You have limits.”

Alvin sat forward. “We should establish whether they’re hard limits, or soft.”

“Sartre,” I said.  “That’s a hard limit. No way No Exit.”

“But what about Camus?” Brenda asked.

“I can do Camus. But only The Plague or The Fall. I’m not about to revisit The Stranger.”

I could see them melt at the sound of these names. I understood. Passion can have that effect.

“What about Heidegger?” Alvin asked.

I rolled my eyes. “Maybe. That’s a soft limit. We’ll see how this goes.”

I pulled out a book and opened it to “The Diary of a Seducer.”

“Let’s start with a little Kierkegaard,” I muttered.

“Oh my,” Brenda murmured.

That was the ticket. I had them. Their eyes gleamed with the inner light of a dopamine rush. It was just the start of our 50 shades of grey matter. We had a long way to go. 

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