Disgrace - Yet neither he nor she

Thursday, 29 December, Year 8 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

Yet neither he nor she can put aside what has happened. The two little boys become presences between them, playing quiet as shadows in a corner of the room where their mother opens herself for and wraps herself around the man they do not know. The man they must not know. Why not ? Because it is her secret. In Soraya's arms he becomes, fleetingly, their father: foster-father, step-father, shadow-father. This is her secret. For the brief time Soraya is, after a fashion, his, her children are shadows, and after a fashion, dead. This is also her secret. Leaving her bed afterwards, he feels their eyes flicker over him covertly, curiously. He is her secret. His thoughts turn, despite himself, to the other father, the real one. Does he have any inkling of what his wife is up to, or has he elected the bliss of ignorance?

He himself hasn't a son. His childhood was spent in a family of women. As mother, aunts, sisters fell away, they were replaced in due course by mistresses, wives, a daughter. The company of women made of him a lover of women and, to an extent, a womanizer. With his height, his good bones, his olive skin, his flowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism. If he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look. He could rely on that much, or rather he could at least rely on not remembering the ones that didn't.

That was how he lived; for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life. Then one day it all ended. Suddenly, it seemed. Much too soon, it seemed, and without a warning all his powers fled. Glances that would once have responded to his slid over, past, through him. Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her. He existed in an anxious flurry of promiscuity. He had affairs with the wives of colleagues; he picked up tourists in bars on the waterfront or at the Club Italia; he slept with whores.

His introduction to Soraya took place in a dim little sitting-room off the front office of Discreet Escorts, with Venetian blinds over the windows, pot plants in the corners, stale smoke hanging in the air. She was on their books under 'Exotic'. The photograph showed her with a red passion-flower in her hair and the faintest of lines at the corners of her eyes. The entry said 'Afternoons only'. That was what decided him: the promise of shuttered rooms, cool sheets, stolen hours.

From the beginning it was satisfactory, just what he wanted. A bull's eye. In a year he has not needed to go back to the agency. Then the accident in St George's Street, and the strangeness that has followed. Though Soraya still keeps her appointments, he feels a growing coolness as she transforms -- herself, into just another woman ; and him, into just another husband. The children, the bills... the facts of life creeping in.

He has a shrewd idea of how prostitutes speak among themselves about the men who frequent them, the older men in particular. It is not so very different from the way wives speak among themselves, especially the older ones. They tell stories, they laugh, but they shudder, too. They shudder as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of the night. Soon, daintily, maliciously, he will be shuddered over. It is a fate he fears, like the cockroach ; and just like the cockroach it is a fate he cannot escape. Holding women in line is hard enough for their owner, forget about by-the-hour rentals.

On the fourth Thursday after the incident, as he is leaving the apartment, Soraya makes the announcement he has been steeling himself against. 'My mother is ill. I'm going to take a break to look after her. I won't be here next week.'
'Will I see you the week after?'
'I'm not sure. It depends on how she gets on. You had better phone first.'
'I don't have a number.'
'Phone the agency. They'll know.'

He waits a few days, then telephones the agency. Soraya? Soraya has left us, says the man. No, we cannot put you in touch with her, that would be against house rules. Would you like an introduction to another of our hostesses? Lots of exotics to choose from -Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, you name it.

He spends an hour with another Soraya - Soraya has become, it seems, a popular nom de commerce in the hotel rooms of Long Street. This one is maybe seventeen, unpractised, to his mind coarse. 'So what do you do?' she says as she slips off her clothes unconcerned. 'Export-import,' he says. 'You don't say,' she says.

There is a new secretary in his department. He takes her to lunch at a restaurant a discreet distance from the campus and listens while, over shrimp salad, she complains about her sons' school. Drug-pedlars hang around the playing-fields, she says, and the police do nothing. For the past three years she and her husband have had their name on a list at the New Zealand consulate, to emigrate. 'You people had it easier. I mean, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, at least you knew where you were.'
'You people?' he inquires. 'What people?'
'I mean your generation. Now people just pick and choose which laws they want to obey. It's anarchy. How can you bring up children when there's anarchy all around?'

Her name is Dawn. The second time he takes her out they stop at his house and have sex. It is a failure. Bucking and clawing, she works herself into a froth of excitement that in the end only repels him. He lends her a comb, drives her back to the campus. After that he avoids her, taking care to skirt the office where she works. In return she gives him a hurt look, then snubs him. How can you bring up women when they just pick and choose which lessons to learn ?

He ought to give up. He ought to retire, from the vocational "university", from the sexual market, from everything. Let the pretense rest on the younger shoulders of more eager men. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself? Not the most graceful of solutions, but then aging is not usually graceful business. A clearing of the decks, at least, so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old: preparing to die. Strangely enough at some point aging actually was rather graceful, he thinks. Maybe the gracelessness was just under-reported, as the medical inventors of diseases and conditions say. Schizophrenia was under-reported which is why there's so much mental disease all around, and with it the indignity of aging also. Why not.

Might one approach a doctor and ask for it? A simple enough operation, surely: they do it to animals every day, and animals survive well enough, if one ignores a certain residue of sadness. Severing, tying off: with local anaesthetic and a steady hand and a modicum of phlegm one might even do it oneself, out of a textbook. A man on a chair snipping away between his own legs, excising himself. An ugly sight, but no uglier, from a certain point of view, than the same man exercising himself on the body of a woman.

There is still Soraya. He ought to close that chapter. Instead, he pays a detective agency to track her down. Within days he has her real name, her address, her telephone number. He telephones at nine in the morning, expecting the husband and children to be out. 'Soraya?' he says. 'This is David. How are you? When can I see you again?'

A long silence before she speaks. A shadow of envy passes over him for the husband he has never seen, while Soraya-on-the-phone is silent and Soraya-in-his-mind speaks. 'I don't know who you are,' she says at last. 'You are harassing me in my own house. I demand you will never phone me here again, never.'

Demand. She means command. Her shrillness surprises him: there has been no intimation of it before. She may have been a snake in a snake's bed while lying there with the snakes - but at home, Soraya is a wife and a mother, just like any other. Competency is hard enough a bar, but to expect it extemporaneous ? He puts down the telephone, his envy gone.

Without the Thursday interludes the week is as featureless as a desert, and just as dry. There are days when he does not know what to do with himself. He spends more time in the university library, reading all he can find on the wider Byron circle, adding to notes that already fill two fat files. He enjoys the late-afternoon quiet of the reading room, enjoys the walk home afterwards: the brisk winter air, the damp, gleaming streets. Scholarity has that much in common with the Street, that it will take all comers, and for as long as they wish to stay.

He is returning home one Friday evening, taking the long route through the old college gardens, when he notices one of his students on the path ahead of him. Her name is Melanie Isaacs, from his Romantics course. Not the best student but not the worst either: clever enough, but unengaged. She is dawdling; he soon catches up with her. 'Hello,' he says. She smiles back, bobbing her head, her smile sly rather than shy. She is small and thin, with close-cropped black hair, wide, almost Chinese cheekbones, large, dark eyes. Her outfits are always striking. Today she wears a maroon miniskirt with a mustard-coloured sweater and black tights; the gold baubles on her belt match the gold balls of her earrings.

He is mildly smitten with her. It is no great matter: barely a term passes when he does not fall for one or other of his charges. Cape Town: a city prodigal of beauty, of beauties. Does she know he has an eye on her? Maybe. Women are sensitive to it, to the weight of the desiring gaze, and there's not so much child left in university students. Is there ?

It has been raining; from the pathside runnels comes the soft rush of water.
'My favourite season, my favourite time of day,' he remarks. 'Do you live around here?'
'Across the line. I share a flat.'
'Is Cape Town your home?'
'No, I grew up in George.'
'I live just nearby. Can I invite you in for a drink?'
A pause, cautious. 'OK. But I have to be back by seven-thirty.'

From the gardens they pass into the quiet residential pocket where he has lived for the past twelve years, first with Rosalind, then, after the divorce, alone. He unlocks the security gate, unlocks the door, ushers the girl in. He switches on lights, takes her bag. There are raindrops on her hair. He stares, frankly ravished. She lowers her eyes, offering the same evasive and perhaps even coquettish little smile as before.

In the kitchen he opens a bottle of Meerlust and sets out biscuits and cheese. When he returns she is standing at the bookshelves, head on one side, reading titles. He puts on music: the Mozart clarinet quintet.

Wine, music ; beer, noise : a ritual that men and women play out with each other. Nothing wrong with rituals, they were invented to ease the awkward passages. But the girl he has brought home is not just thirty years his junior: she is a student, his student, under his tutelage. No matter what passes between them now, they will have to meet again. Is he prepared for that?

'Are you enjoying the course?' he asks.
'I liked Blake. I liked the Wonderhorn stuff.
'I'm not so crazy about Wordsworth.'
'You shouldn't be saying that to me. Wordsworth has been one of my masters.'

It is true. For as long as he can remember, the harmonies of The Prelude have echoed within him.
'Maybe by the end of the course I'll appreciate him more. Maybe he'll grow on me.'
'Maybe. But in my experience poetry speaks to you either at first sight or not at all. A flash of revelation and a flash of response. Like lightning. Like falling in love.'

Like falling in love. Do the young still fall in love, or is that mechanism obsolete by now, unnecessary, quaint, like steam locomotion? He is out of touch, out of date. Falling in love could have fallen out of fashion and come back again half a dozen times, for all he knows. 'Do you write poetry yourself?' he asks.
'I did when I was at school. I wasn't very good. I haven't got the time now.'
'And passions? Do you have any literary passions?'
She frowns at the strange word. 'We did Adrienne Rich and Toni Morrison in my second year. And Alice Walker. I got pretty involved. But I wouldn't call it a passion exactly.'
He begins to scowl at the enumeration of inept niggers pretending themselves people, and writers and whatnot. Just like he likes to think himself a Professor, the thought starts to form, but he banishes it, and with it the scowl. So: not a creature of passion. In the most roundabout of ways, is she warning him off?

'I am going to throw together some supper,' he says. Will you join me? It will be very simple.'
She looks doubtful.
'Come on!' he says. 'Say yes!'
'Ah... ok. But I have to make a phone call first.'

The call takes longer than he'd expect. From the kitchen he hears murmurings, silences.
'What are your career plans?' he asks afterwards.
'Stagecraft and design. I'm doing a diploma in theatre.'
'And what is your reason for taking a course in Romantic poetry?'
She ponders, wrinkling her nose. 'It's mainly for a change in the atmosphere that I chose it,' she says. 'I didn't want to take Shakespeare again. I took Shakespeare last year.'

On to the next chapter, "What he throws together..."

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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