Fiction

Look at me: A short story by Abigail George

I miss you most when I am most alone with my innermost thoughts. When I am walking, perhaps talking to another student at the college. My innermost thoughts are just dreams, waking memories. I turn to look for you and then I chastise myself because you are never there. I turn to look for you hard sometimes in a passing embrace between a couple or perhaps when I see someone who looks like you from afar.  A fleeting gesture of romance – passé and after all your hard work that was all that you achieved in the end. The solution was love or what you imagined it to be. Your nose had been caught often in a book. Now when we pass each other we both stare coolly ahead, oblivious to the world at large, to each other’s past impassioned pleas, imagined infidelities and shielded by an impenetrable gaze.

Professor Mahola was startled out of his reverie by a passing student’s greeting.

A simple remainder of what has passed – what is left behind is this: a self-righteous person who is lovelorn, a Prima Donna who aspires to lead both a hermetic life and to be incredulously pious. Lecherous prig, pig, leech. She screeched a thousand, a hundred murderous, damning insults in her head but nothing, nothing can calm, can dull the quandary that she found herself in. He remembered her slipping into something slinky. The negligee felt, soft and cool against his skin as she lay beside him in the bed. The fabric was silky, slinky and smooth. No longer the teen screaming drama queen but the sordid little drama queen. You had the evening perfectly prepared. You had lectured yourself over and over how to catch your professor’s eye and now you had the perfect opportunity to be the elegant hostess.

She watched the daytime dramas after her lectures; talk shows and she taped any show that she missed. When she took her bath at night or stood in the shower she imagined that she could see into and through her body at the democracy of the veins. The past sometimes left fingerprints for future reference.

She was no longer a girl who was demure and docile in the presence of the opposite sex but a woman who was alluring and feminine. Whose walk was sensuous, whose body was curved and talk light hearted, conversation intelligent.

The geometric patterns of light at play on the leaves reminded her of the cufflinks on his sleeve as he prepared to leave to a literary awards ceremony. With a backward glance he would say, “I promise I won’t be back too late.”

Sumaya Naidoo’s upbringing had taught her that discretion was the better part of valour. Professor Mahola, of the English Literature department at the University of Port Elizabeth seemed perfect and she was the partner who seemed less than perfect – flawed. She watched him sleep and wondered what the language of love was; picture perfect or alchemic.

She wondered why she hadn’t noticed his haggardness (which she had mistaken for rugged handsomeness), his dark, black hair, slightly curling and greying at the edges, lean frame, his hubris, turkey neck, his indifference towards what she championed for or whether or not her preference for that evening’s meal was the mundane or for the exotic. He didn’t like lipstick. He dismissed it as hedonistic. A streak of red across her lips always signalled emergency. Kohl-rimmed eyes, perfume, teeth stained yellow, eyes bloodshot the morning after promiscuity. Her mood swings signalled depression and emotional instability.

Perhaps that is why in retrospect he had chosen her out of all the girls in the class. She was intelligent, she did not smoke or drink, frequent bars, nightclubs, and she was attractive but also insecure.

He always disregarded her impertinence, rudeness, cruelty and her standoffishness, arrogance and recklessness as immaturity in class when she aggressively debated. Once they had met in a supermarket aisle and they briefly nodded to each other. He remembered her although then she seemed devoid of sexuality. What she was wearing and wore to class never betrayed her sensuality; her mouth was provocative and sensual. After that meeting they spoke after class, on the telephone, at a film festival and they emailed each other. He had brown eyes, dark hair and he was taller than her. She had always thought that was romantic like Lord Byron – a knight in shining armour. She excelled at fidelity, secrecy, privacy, the ownership of both persuasion and possession and so she thought, guarding her rights against the whispered voices that say, he is married you know and standing up for her self. He was married. He was divorced now. His wife had remarried and moved abroad with their two young sons.

Her arms, her back, the back of her legs and her neck were moth brown like driftwood. She proofread the book he was working on as extra credit. She was his best student. They lived in harmony unlike his married friends, he confided in her and the one friend he had who was separated.

She wondered sometimes if it was appropriate that he told her since some of them worked at the university but then she dismissed it, thinking that he had probably told his male friends about her. Did that make her a mistress, a harlot? When he started talking about his children for the nth time she finally began to ask herself divorce or denial?

There were the ones who really hurt. There were names that belonged in a little black book of secrets, misery, heartbreak, lies and loss.

Sweet talk. Sweet nothings. He runs his fingers up her spine. If this was happiness then on some days it felt as if she had died and gone to heaven.

You have made me so happy, she said but he could not bring himself to say the same words, even though he felt the same. Slowly as he realised before her that day by day they were no longer in sync. They were moving out of reach. He was the first, he realised, in a line, a succession.

Soon she will find him tiresome. Handsome! He scoffed. There is a vacancy and urgency behind her eyes. She was an amalgamation of the woman of his dreams or as close as he could come at this age. Wouldn’t that intimidate anyone? He would hold her hand, charming, old school, old fashioned. Whenever they watched television he reached for her hand and they would sit with their fingers intertwined. Now when she came into the room and took up her seat at the back of the class he realised she was beautiful. Striking. Crikey!

Gone were the baggy clothes, the extra pounds mysteriously disappeared and the dark circles under her eyes. The unsmiling, serious student, articulate and domineering whenever her intelligence materialised. She laughs and embraces people non-discriminately on the campus.

He would notice that others were beginning to notice too – the male students clamoured around her outside of class and the female students – Amazons from another time zone – are attracted to her for different reasons.

She is formidable. Intense. Intensity has been replaced by wisdom, worldly laissez faire sophistication.

He would take charge. End the affair. Say it was for the best. He has his male pride.

In the beginning he made risotto, chicken tetrazinni. Everything was always very fancy, to impress and he was always going out of his way to show off his experience in the kitchen.

First he admonished her and then he reminded her. “Take care of yourself.” She always promised she would. She had subsisted on comfort food, macaroni and cheese, lots of pasta and fattening sauces, greasy pizza, fried chicken, roast chicken, mashed potato, spaghetti, potato salad, cheese (feta and cheddar) and creamy apple pie.

Later that evening he looks taken aback when she puts her arms around his neck and stands on tiptoe, kisses his cheek. He smiles. “What? What? I read a lot. I watch a lot of films. In the bedroom she confesses quietly that it is her first time. Ambitious would sum up her academic career in one word. How could he have missed that on the first day of the new semester as she floated into his class with a slipstream of other students? He had taken her for a dilettante. Everything had come too easy for her.

He is excited by her ideas, her impressions on everything; they debated about everything whether they were in his office working together or in his bedroom. He convinced himself perhaps this time it was different. She was older in more ways than one – than the others – even though she was younger than them and more emotionally mature and grounded. He likes the way she fusses around him to make sure that he is comfortable. She has decorated her own place – a flat where she lives alone – with flair. He approves. He catches her off guard when he kisses her on the mouth. He anticipates reproach but none is forthcoming. He kisses her forehead. He kisses her lips and only then does she withdraw from his embrace. He watches her with intelligence. Her pose, her extroversion that is uncharacteristic of her. He reads her external behaviour and her non-verbal cues like a scientist. She is forward (pretence) and too trusting of his practised and elegant advances but he finds her electrifying.

Her face unsmiling. She looks like a goddess. She is innocent. “How should I wear my hair for class? Up or down? Which do you prefer?” He would prefer down but he is noncommittal even though he can see it is important to her. When she wears her hair down it frames her face. It had been shorter at the beginning of the year like a pixie cut but another boyfriend who she was no longer seeing asked her to grow it back. Later that evening as they lay side by side there is a new desire, a new fire in her eyes. To forego discretion as he had once put it so succinctly one evening would mean that a woman is no better than a common whore.

What do you think inspires home wreckers and misanthropes? Prostitutes bill sex as a means to an end, he continued while he wondering what exactly was he flailing at.

She said nothing in her defence, unsmiling, lips pursed in a moue. She wondered just how quickly she could get rid of him. She had been running and he had been waiting outside her flat in his car for her. Her feet hurt and she was tired. Volunteering had taken up all of her free time and she was thinking of doing a diploma in management the following year but only if she had the spare time. He was jealous, he was cold, he was snivelling and she felt irritated, annoyed even and she felt she had every right to be. This is what men do. Men are weak. When they are uncharitable, malign your character and accuse you of unimaginable sins.

She went into the kitchenette for a glass of water, came back into the sitting room and sat down on the sofa. He was smoking. We were both consenting adults. I think you should leave now. She decided that was what she was going to say and leave it at that. She had enough credits in his class to pass and it was only a few more weeks until the exams and she would leave the campus and find a new place to stay or decide whether or not she wanted to go home for Christmas.

“I am not a monster. It would be very cunning of you to lay a charge of sexual harassment against me. To say that I raped you.” It was his reputation and tenure at stake here so he had to cover all his bases.

He had expected histrionics. Perhaps he should not have come at all. Her demeanour had frightened him when he left. Her face was blank. What people don’t understand, she said time and time over and over again to herself, misanthropes are incapable of love. She was strong and he was weak. Perhaps all men who were brilliant, who were educated, cultured at some indecipherable turning point in their lives were misogynists.

If he had hurt her, it didn’t mean she would love him any less. Like all the rest he would go unequivocally into her little black book. Silly men! Men like boys, women like girls. Sometimes she would cry herself to sleep when she watched orphans, refugee camps on television, children who were soldiers in war-torn African countries or the violent backlash between activists and the police in protest marches across the globe.

The next day his beautiful, independent and wise protégé was in class. She was alone in the world. She didn’t have anyone. The protagonist in the story she had written was estranged from her family because she had a mental illness. He tried to catch her eye and to imagine what she was thinking or what she was feeling. He felt like kicking himself. A glimpse was all he was longing for. But not once as he read the story she had written aloud to the class did she look up. When the bell rang, she was the first out the door.

So it went on for the rest of the term. He was embarrassed and mortified at what he had said and alluded to in a moment of supreme weakness.

He saw her at the track one day and watched her from afar as she stretched her limbs, jogged on the spot, ran up and down the bleachers. He noticed that she looked thinner. Her face haggard and her face looked tired; as if she was carried the weight of the world or the wars of the world on her shoulders.  She sat down and took a gulp of what he presumes to be a sports drink. Those things were filled with electrolytes so he supposed they were good for her. She hunched over to tie what he assumed was her lace but then he noticed that her shoulders were trembling. She was crying. Tears, perspiration, moisture blended together.

She wiped her tears away with her sleeve and he realised she was just a child. Everything had been pretence. She acted older, she assuaged his insecurities about his teaching abilities, she was gifted, talented and that went without saying. She assumed responsibility when she didn’t have to. What he remembered most of all was that to her their relationship had never been a game. Mind games. She had never posed being sultry or that their lovemaking was a thrill, always spoke respectfully of his wife and she never asked him questions about the divorce or why didn’t he see his children more often instead of spending time with her. She understood things about him that he could never put into words, with one look; with one gesture they could, as odd as it sounded almost telepathically communicate.  What had he described her as being? Formidable. She was fashioning a life for herself, a conjugal love, a husband who was a friend, gentle teacher, mentor, educated, clever and a best friend who would also protect her. They would represent the family she always wanted. He could see that now clear as day why now she had always loved making him smile. She mistook his seriousness for grumpiness.
It had all been an act. He walked slowly to his car, dragging his heels.

Oh, God, he asked himself. Forgive me, what have I done?

Just like people say when something bad has happened and they call an emergency service.

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