Does she know what she is up to, at this moment? When he made the first move, in the college gardens, he had thought of it as a quick little affair - quickly in, quickly out. But she demured then, and now here she is in his house, trailing complications behind her. What game is she playing? He should be wary, no doubt about that. But he should have been wary from the start.
He stretches out on the bed beside her. How quickly they grow, yesterday her brain didn't work enough to move her about, now it works enough he can't see around. The last thing in the world he needs is for Melanie Isaacs to take up residence with him. Yet at this moment the thought is intoxicating. Every night she will be here; every night he can slip into her bed like this, and then slip into her, like an old man into a warm bath. People will find out, they always do; there will be whispering, there might even be scandal. But what will that matter? A last leap of the flame of sense before it goes out. He folds the bedclothes aside, reaches down, strokes her breasts, her buttocks. 'Of course you can stay,' he murmurs. 'Of course.'
In his bedroom, two doors away, the alarm clock goes off. She turns away from him, pulls the covers up over her shoulders.
'I'm going to leave now,' he says. 'I have classes to meet. Try to sleep again. I'll be back at noon, then we can talk.' He strokes her hair, kisses her forehead. Mistress? Daughter? Wife? What, in her heart, is she trying to be? What book is she reading from, what is she offering him?
When he returns at noon, she is up, sitting at the kitchen table, eating toast and honey and drinking tea. She seems thoroughly at home.
'So,' he says, 'you are looking much better.'
'I slept after you left.'
'Will you tell me now what this is all about?'
She avoids his eye. 'Not now,' she says. 'I have to go, I'm late. I'll explain next time.'
'And when will next time be?'
'This evening, after rehearsal. Is that ok?'
She gets up, carries her cup and plate to the sink (but does not wash them), turns to face him. 'Are you sure it's ok?' she says. 'Yes, it's ok.'
'I wanted to say, I know I've missed a lot of classes, but the production is taking up all my time.'
'I understand. You are telling me your drama work has priority. It would have helped if you had explained earlier. Will you be in class tomorrow?'
'Yes. I promise.'
She promises, but with a promise that is not enforceable, at least not in any meaningful way as far as the school board is concerned. He is vexed, irritated. She is behaving badly, getting away with too much; she is learning to exploit him and will probably exploit him further. But if she has got away with much, he has got away with more; if she is behaving badly, he has behaved worse. To the extent that they are together, if they are together, he is the one who leads, she the one who follows. It could be proposed that the bad and worse aren't -- well, not exactly that they're relative, no, but it could be proposed that the measuring stick is broken itself ; and that while he leads and as she follows it does not automatically follow that they are going straight to hell.
It could be proposed that he has somewhere to take her, that her following him against, in spite of common notions of good and bad is not to the detriment of her or the wasting of her life. It could be proposed that he is a man and that she is a woman and that all is well after all. However, the sad truth that he doesn't dare confront is that while her girlhood is somewhat in the way of her being a woman, the actual bar is not there. The actual bar is with him : his boyhood is an absolute bar to his manhood, and at fifty-two it's much too late to do anything about that. So no, all is not well, but for a while longer yet all will be sweet.
In consideration of which he makes love to her one more time, on the bed in his daughter's room. It is good, as good as the first time; he is beginning to learn the way her body moves. She is quick, and greedy for experience. If he does not sense in her a fully sexual appetite, that is only because she is still young. One moment stands out in recollection, when she hooks a leg behind his buttocks to draw him in closer: as the tendon of her inner thigh tightens against him, he feels a surge of joy and desire. Who knows, he thinks: there might, despite all, be a future.
'Do you do this kind of thing often?' she asks afterwards. 'Do what?'
'Sleep with your students. Have you slept with Amanda?'
He does not answer. Amanda is another student in the class, a wispy blonde. He has no interest in Amanda. It does not occur to him how infinitely better Amanda works than Pauline ; nor where she got the idea. It does not occur to her, either, these things come naturally, right ? Beauty does not own itself, granted, but knowledge does ? Laissez.
'Why did you get divorced?' she asks.
'I've been divorced twice. Married twice, divorced twice.'
'What happened to your first wife?'
'It's a long story. I'll tell you some other time.'
'Do you have pictures?'
'I don't collect pictures. I don't collect women.'
'Aren't you collecting me?'
'No, of course not.'
She gets up, strolls around the room picking up her clothes, as unabashed as if she were alone. He is used to women more self-conscious in their dressing and undressing. But the women he is used to are not as young, as perfectly formed, as entirely undeformed. The same afternoon there is a knock at his office door and a young man enters whom he has not seen before. Without invitation he sits down, casts a look around the room, nods appreciatively at the bookcases. He is tall and wiry; he has a thin goatee and an ear-ring; he wears a black leather jacket and black leather trousers. He looks older than most students; he looks like trouble.
'So you are the professor,' he says. 'Professor David. Melanie has told me about you.'
'Indeed. And what has she told you?'
'That you fuck her.'
There is a long silence. The boy does not think: it is ill advised to allow the other boy to sit without permission. The boy does not think: it is ill advised to allow the other boy to use his first name. The boy does not think: it is inappropriate to leak information about his relationships through admitting his woman who is just a girl be referenced in this manner. Instead the boy thinks: the chickens come home to roost. He thinks he should have guessed it: a girl like that would not come unencumbered. Delusions are by their nature sweet, and the sweetest of all is the fundamental melaniation error, the ludicrous notion that he is a boy not because he is a boy, but because light shone on him showing him for a boy. Had the light not shone, he'd still have been a man. A man who should have known: light like that does not come unencumbered. There is such a thing as encumbered light, there must be, notwithstanding fundamental physical properties of photons, because the alternative would be for him to be encumbered, and such is unthinkable. In any situation, the boy doesn't think, once you've rejected the unthinkable, whatever's left, however ludicrous, must be the truth. Encumbered light!
'Who are you?' the boy inquires.
The boy ignores the other boy's question. 'You think you're smart,' the boy offers instead. 'A real ladies' man. You think you will still look so smart when your wife hears what you are up to?'
'That's enough. What do you want?'
'Don't you tell me what's enough.' The words come faster now that the transactional framework has been established. Once the boy made the offer of a bribe, once the threat of calling Mother is firmly embedded in the conversation the boy may proceed to forcing the other, fifty year old boy into the bottom of the social hierarchy, where he belongs. Where he yearns to be. 'And don't think you can just walk into people's lives and walk out again when it suits you.' Light dances on his black eyeballs. Citizenship, the greatest of all the yokes. You may not leave, either! The boy leans forward, sweeps right and left with his hands. The papers on the desk go flying. The boy rises. 'That's enough! It's time for you to leave!'
'It's time for you to leave!' the boy repeats, mimicking him. 'Ok.' He gets up, saunters to the door. 'Goodbye, Professor Chips! But just wait and see!' Then he is gone.
A bravo, he thinks. She is mixed up with a bravo and now I am mixed up with her bravo too! His stomach churns. Though he stays up late into the night, waiting for her, Melanie does not come. Instead, his car, parked in the street, is vandalized. The tyres are deflated, glue is injected into the doorlocks, newspaper is pasted over the windscreen, the paintwork is scratched. The locks have to be replaced; the bill comes to six hundred rand, slightly more than Melanie is worth, strictly speaking.
'Any idea who did it?' asks the locksmith.
'None at all,' he replies curtly.
After this coup de main Melanie keeps her distance. He is not surprised: if he has been shamed, she is shamed too. But on Monday she reappears in class; and beside her, leaning back in his seat, hands in pockets, with an air of cocky ease, is the boy in black, the boyfriend.
Usually there is a buzz of talk from the students. Today there is a hush. Though he cannot believe they know what is afoot, they are clearly waiting to see what he will do about the intruder. What will he do indeed? What happened to his car was evidently not enough. Evidently there are more installments to come. What can he do? He must grit his teeth and pay, what else? What would a man do ? And to whom does beauty belong ?
'We continue with Byron,' he says, plunging into his notes. 'As we saw last week, notoriety and scandal affected not only Byron's life but the way in which his poems were received by the public. Byron the man found himself conflated with his own poetic creations - with Harold, Manfred, even Don Juan.' Scandal. A pity that must be his theme, but he is in no state to improvise. A most fortunate pity, but he is in no state to learn anything. He steals a glance at Melanie. Usually she is a busy writer. Today, looking thin and exhausted, she sits huddled over her book. Despite himself, his heart goes out to her. Poor little bird, he thinks, whom I have held against my breast! He stops just short of considering he also failed in defending her to any standard. That wouldn't do, such thoughts are now and must forever stay unthinkable.
He has told them to read 'Lara'. His notes deal with 'Lara'. There is no way in which he can evade the poem, and if there is no way to evade then he must read aloud: 'He stood a stranger in this breathing world, an erring spirit from another hurled; a thing of dark imaginings, that shaped by choice the perils he by chance escaped.'
'Who will gloss these lines for me? Who is this "erring spirit"? Why does he call himself "a thing"? From what world does he come?'
He has long ceased to be surprised at the range of ignorance of his students. Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday. If they ever wondered at his thin consistency, that wonderment long passed too, and so he does not expect them to know about fallen angels or where Byron might have read of them just like they do not expect him to beat an impudent intruder into a bloody pulp. What he does expect is a round of goodnatured guesses which, with luck, he can guide toward the mark. But today he is met with silence, a dogged silence that organizes itself palpably around the stranger in their midst. They will not speak, they will not play his game. They will not be his good nine year old boys and girls aged by happenstance above eighteen for as long as there's a stranger, older boy of almost fifteen or perhaps even twelve there, right there, ready to listen, and to judge, and mock.
'Lucifer,' he says. 'The angel hurled out of heaven. Of how angels live we know little, but we can assume they do not require oxygen. At home Lucifer, the dark angel, does not need to breathe. All of a sudden he finds himself cast out into this strange "breathing world" of ours. "Erring": a being who chooses his own path, who lives dangerously, even creating danger for himself. Let us read further.'
The boy has not looked down once at the text. Instead, with a little smile on his lips, a smile in which there is, just possibly, a touch of bemusement, he takes in his words. 'He could at times resign his own for others' good, but not in pity, not because he ought, but in some strange perversity of thought, that swayed him onward with a secret pride to do what few or none would do beside; and this same impulse would in tempting time mislead his spirit equally to crime.'
'So, what kind of creature is this Lucifer?' By now the students must surely feel the current running between them, between himself and the boy. It is to the boy alone that the question has addressed itself; and, like a sleeper summoned to life, the boy responds. 'He does what he feels like. He doesn't care if it's good or bad. He just does it.'
'Exactly. Good or bad, he just does it. He doesn't act on principle but on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him. Read a few lines further: "His madness was not of the head, but heart." A mad heart. What is a mad heart?'
He is asking too much. The boy would like to press his intuition further, he can see that. He wants to show that he knows about more than just motorcycles and flashy clothes. And perhaps he does. Perhaps he does indeed have intimations of what it is to have a mad heart. But, here, in this classroom, before these strangers, the words will not come. He shakes his head.