How sad is the descent in the Land of Silence.
The wakeful sleeps,
he who did not slumber at night lies still forever ...
no door, no window, no light to illuminate it,
no north wind to refresh the heart.
Egyptian Widow's Lament
"You've had students hanging around here since eight AM," that piece of shit Fatzer whined when he saw me hurrying in the hallway. "It's not my job to take care of signing your students' course cards! Don't you have a class you're missing?"
"Oh, shut up," I muttered, trying to get the key to my office in the lock through the muzz that had surrounded my brain.
"What did you say, Renoir?" Fatzer growled, closer to my shoulder than I'd realized.
"I said, 'Just woke up,'" I lied. "Power was out and I overslept. Sorry."
His piggy little eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Try to act like a professional and get a clock that can wake you on time from now on."
Fuck you, Fatzer, I thought as he carted his puerile little ass back to his office. I put my hand over my mouth to make sure I didn't say it aloud. You only get up in the morning because your wife can't stand to look at your ugly face in the daylight. You only get up in the morning so you don't wet the bed. You get up at five thirty in the morning because that's when cartoons come on TV so you can draw up your lesson plans from them. I started to snicker to myself as I grabbed texts and folders.
That evening, after finishing my student paperwork in record time, I paced from the kitchen to the phone on my desk to the back windows to look at the rain to the phone to the kitchen, over and over again, wondering why he hadn't called, wondering if I should call him, right up until he knocked on my front door, dripping and worried-looking. "I know I should have called first," he said, standing on the porch, "but I wanted to see you before I went home."
Ah-ha, I've made you shy and uncertain, I thought, and wanted to torment him a little. "Please come in," I said aloud, and took his coat as I had the night before. "I'm so glad you took the time to stop by," I continued, in my most neutral, professional voice, and led him to the sofa to be seated. "Can I offer you something to drink?"
His eyes, searching mine, appeared haunted, as though he thought he might have simply imagined the night before and had to now come to grips with an unwelcome reality. He ground the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. "Maybe just water?"
My snickers escaped my control and I pulled his hands from his face as I sat beside him. "Valentine," I whispered, putting my left arm around his neck and letting my fingertips rub over his moustache before kissing him.
That second night was different. The first night our lovemaking had been tender and tentative, a performance and a questionnaire: Can I make love to you? Will you continue to desire me? Did I do well? But the second night was a fiercer and more desperate experience, each of us taking possession of the other: This is what I wanted! I belong here! I need you!
When the alarm went off at five, and he rose and dressed and left, I felt lonely and adrift. Looking at the clock, a wrench of my innards told me it would be at least fourteen or fifteen hours before I saw him again. Thursday was spent checking the face of my watch, counting down the minutes, hating classes and office work and co-workers (though hating Fatzer had been a constant since my first staff meeting a decade before) and anyone who wanted to have a conversation, anticipating only his face at my doorstep, desiring only the touch of his hands.
At eight in the evening, the phone rang. "Augusta," he asked, "have you had dinner yet?"
"Just finished," I answered.
"Oh. I was just going to ask if you wanted to have a late dinner with me."
"I made enough for two, and your half is still warm -- just some plain old everyday food, beef stew with french bread."
"I love you when you talk about food." He paused. "I -- want to be with you. But I don't want to be imposing myself on your beautiful house, or on you ... "
"Valentine," I told him, loving the sound of his name, "if you don't want to impose, you could bring your shaving kit along so we can set the alarm to ring at six rather than five." There was no answer, just a click on the other end. I laughed aloud to have come to the point of finding being hung up on to be very, very sexy.
The rain had stopped, but the fog rolled back in from the ocean, making the air still and damp and miserably cold, so I (with more than a few ulterior motives) wrapped Valentine up in warm blankets and brought him his dinner in bed. He was very appreciative of the food, and I was bemused by his pleasure in my cooking. Cooking for James had been an exercise in accepting criticism, and no pleasure; Moersgard preferred dining out to sitting in a kitchen or dining room. Seeing Valentine smile over something as simple as bread and stew made me feel like giggling and blushing.
Our third night together was for comfort, snuggled close together conserving heat, his cheek against my forehead, my head on his shoulder, the elements in balance and at peace.
"You're a happy-looking woman," KC Carson said to me the next day, catching me in my office between classes. She leaned on the doorjamb of my office. "Are you and the musician going to come down to Bobby Lee's to dance tonight?"
"I don't know," I said, dishonestly. Would we break off from our honeymooning to go out? Not on my account. "We haven't talked about what we're doing."
"Oh, please," KC said. "I know what that means. If you're not making plans, then you've already made plans, and they don't include anyone else." She straightened and turned to the hallway. "Hey, how's it going, Mr. Fatzer?" she called, waving to the bastard department head as he walked towards the elevators. As soon as he was beyond hearing range, she turned back to me. "I love calling him Mister instead of Doctor. The stupid little fucker turns purple every time. I have a pair of pants just that color. I think I'll start referring to it as 'Aneurysm Violet'."
"You've had too much caffeine this morning," I said, wiping tears of laughter from under my eyes.
"There is no such thing as too much caffeine for this body," she said, running a hand carefully through the spiky hair on the top of her head. "Do I look okay? I'm about to take on a roomful of homophobic freshmen, including a Christian Scientist and count 'em, six Jehovah's Witnesses."
I frowned. "That many in one class? Isn't that kind of odd? Damn, if I had the period free, I'd ask to sit in. Hell, I'd take over your class and find out why they were taking the course."
KC sighed. "I wish you were. I can't remember a class I've hated as much as this one. That's why I wondered if you were going to Bobby Lee's. I know I'm going to need someone who understands teaching and doesn't mind a screaming drunken lesbian cussing about it."
"Susanna will be patient."
"Patient, yes, but she says I scare her when I blow off steam."
"Then find a different way to blow off steam. Why don't you write a biography of Fatzer, from your point of view? Get it published through one of those vanity publishers, and leave copies of it all over campus!" Laughing again, I added, "You may want to write under a pseudonym."
"You know, Augusta, that's not a bad idea at all. See ya later." She turned towards the hall, and then turned back. "If Mister Right and you get out of bed, I'll see you at Bobby Lee's."
I waved her on, sure that I would not be visiting the lively bar that evening.
That evening ... Valentine knocked at my door just as I was sending Kimsky a rather gloating e-mail telling her of my excellent good fortune. I was hanging up his coat when the computer chimed, indicating that I was being invited to communicate via the messenger function. I paused, Valentine beside me, to look at the little flag, which read, "You hog." Valentine's eyebrows rose in surprise. "That's Kimsky. Hang on, this will just take a minute." I typed in reply to her, "READ A BOOK!" and then signed off. To Valentine's continued curiosity I explained, "That was the message we left for one another in college, when one or the other of us was ... well ... occupied in the dorm room and not wanting to be disturbed." I could feel my cheeks getting warm with a blush. "That's Kimsky and her husband, Burlie," I told him, pointing to the picture they'd sent recently of them standing beside their house along the Auglaize River. "He was the reason I spent so many hours at the library." I laughed a little. "Good thing it was open twenty-four hours."
"She was your roommate? She looks a lot older than you." He held the framed picture and peered at my friends.
"She hates the idea of dyeing her hair, even though she grayed really early."
He set the picture down as the computer chimed again. An indicator box noted that I had new mail. "Do you need to answer that?"
"No, I'm sure it's Kim, leaving some obscene note. That's her favorite hobby, I think."
"You call her Kimsky most of the time," Valentine observed as he made himself at home, stretching out on the couch. I sat on the oriental rug beside him, warmed by the thought that he felt 'at home.'
"Her real name, maiden name was Kim Janetsky. Burlie always called her 'Skee' or 'Sky' when he wanted to annoy her. 'Kimsky' just seemed to fit."
"What did she call you?"
Mostly she called me stupid for putting up with James and his possessiveness, I thought. The nickname she had for me? We held a ceremonial burial for that old name the day after I was officially Augusta Renoir. A minor sidestep in order. "She calls me 'Gus,' and please don't you do that. She and Burlie are the only ones I can stand it from. Even their sons don't.
"But I figure Kim and Burlie can call me any damn thing they want. I went to their house to hide while I prepared for the divorce. They let me live with them for several years while I got my life back in order, even though I hadn't seen them in more than two years." I felt haunted, remembering those days. I shrugged, ready to drop the unpleasant subject.
Valentine had stopped playing with my hair. I looked at him and saw a bit of a frown on his forehead, and he was staring at me intently. "What was she, like a mother figure? Was your mom already gone?"
"No," I said, feeling a little prickle of tension rise. "My mother didn't think bruises and verbal abuse were a reason to end a marriage. Kim was my best friend, the only person I knew I could trust absolutely. We're still closer than most sisters, I think."
"How -- long -- have you known each other?" His voice sounded odd, a little choked.
I looked up to see him examining my face. Looking at me objectively for the first time, are you? I thought. Shit, this is where it gets salty. Why should I be ashamed of how long I've had the best friend in the world, or how old I am, and why is it going to hurt to answer? Quietly, I said, "Kim and I have been friends for twenty-four years."
His face went ashen, the color even leaving his lips. "Augusta, how old are you?"
Stillness was my refuge, and I sat as still as a carved statue in a funerary room of a pharaoh. "I'm forty-four." Let the dice roll. Let the cards be dealt.
"Wow," he said, swallowing, trying not to be a creep about the discovery, "you sure don't look anything like -- I mean, I thought you were -- like -- thirty-two or thirty-four..."
I understood how he was feeling, now didn't I. Did I look as shocked when I found out his age as he did finding out mine? Probably. I stood up from the floor and went to stand with my forehead against the glass door, staring out at the rain, which had begun to pelt the patio again. You can't turn back the clock, I thought, and you can't erase Time. I faced him again, but he was staring off into space, sitting up now instead of sprawled. "Funny," I offered, by way of trying to find a method of explaining that I wasn't an exploitative dirty old woman, "thirty-four -- that's how old I thought you were when we met."
"Were you ever going to tell me?" His voice was very quiet now, too.
"If and when the subject ever came up, yes; and when it did, I did."
"But you didn't think it would matter?" he said tersely.
"Yes, Valentine," I said, pulling some anger up out of my depths to head off the hurt that was starting to surface, "I did think it would matter. But then you managed to convince me over the past two weeks that it didn't."
He looked away quickly. Was he suddenly ashamed of his passion? "Now I understand. Maybe you should have just been up front about it -- when you looked at my driver's license, wasn't it? Why didn't you just tell me that -- instead of lying to me? God, I can't believe you would lie to me like that."
"I didn't lie, I never lied to you."
"Yes, you did! When I asked you what was wrong, you said you were sick! And then gave me that drama about accepting those god-damned gloves, when all along it was finding out --" he was breathing hard, his face looking crumpled.
"Sure, that would have made much more sense," I shrugged sarcastically. "I should have flung myself back away from you and shouted, 'Eewww, Younger Man cooties!'"
"Everything's a damn joke with you, Augusta," he started to say, but I jumped in.
"No, everything is not," I said with some heat. "But maybe this whole thing was some sick cosmic joke at our expense. God knows if I had any say in the matter it would be different. All I know is that I'm the same Augusta Renoir I was last night at this hour, Valentine, the same." I broke off talking, afraid that I might start to beg.
He stood up from the position in which he'd been perching on the edge of the couch. "I'm sorry, I need to think. I can't think," he mumbled, looking only at the floor. Was he afraid that if he looked at me again, I'd be some skeletal hag with no teeth? "I'll give you a call," he said, retrieving his coat and striding out the door.
I went to the bathroom mirror to have a look to see if his fears were founded.