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February 19, 2024

Time Traveler 25

By Sand Pilarski

There is, in almost every class that one teaches, a particular student who stands out because of the conclusions she (or he) draws or the questions he (or she) is moved to ask. This semester I had a simply delightful new student named Andrew who had more questions about religions and religious traditions than could be answered in class. Why do so many creation myths mention chaos? Wouldn't primitive live be chaotic? Are they grounded in chaos, and so that's what they know to start from? If so, then how do they come to the idea of 'order'? If the ancient Egyptians were only just discovering a societal moral code, how did they come up with an image of deity whose description could match that of Christianity in this text? Why are there dualities in some religions and monotheisms in others? Don't the Hindu texts suggest that they originally believed in a monotheistic god but then, over the ages, found that such an improbable idea was unworkable in the cosmogony of the universe?

In six to eight years, you are going to have my job, I thought, and encouraged him as much as I could. I wished I knew of a community of Jesuits to which to send him. I was barely up to answering the barrage of questions.

During a Saturday morning class, Andrew was frustrated and bored by the class discussion. As usual, when the period was over, Andrew lingered to ask questions and posit hypotheses. Seeing me load papers into my briefcase, he plaintively asked, "If I buy you lunch, could we continue this discussion?"

Say yes, Augusta, I heard Kimsky's voice say in my brain. "Sure, Andrew. I'd enjoy continuing the discussion, but I can buy my own, okay?"

He beamed. "Great! I'm just about broke, anyway."

The sun was warm even though the air was chilly. As was normal along the coast, the winter wind had chased the fog far out to sea. In another month, it would be spring. Andrew and I boarded a bus for downtown. "Have you ever been to Giammarino's?" I asked.

"Yeah, they have great sandwiches there. You're lucky to live here. Do you think that the vedic hymns are about semi-historical personages rather than deity? I mean, persons whose deeds were passed down by word of mouth and then were exaggerated until they were subsequently written down by some scholar?"

"We can't find that out from the text we're using," I explained, once we had arrived at the deli and gathered our food. "Eliade is picking and choosing which parts of text to use. That's one of the pitfalls of study: each translation and each compilation has an author or translator whose agenda must be known before you can draw conclusions from it with any confidence. I chose to teach from Eliade's work because of the beauty he brings to the study. Origins of religious thought ... hmmm ... you might want to start with Ninian Smart's writing."

"But how do you know what to believe? Or do you consider them all false?"

"This is going to sound like a cop-out, but I consider them all true. All of them are manifestations of humanity's desire to know That Which Cannot Be Known, even in the skewed translations. The mode and tenor of each translation can tell us a lot about the religious beliefs of the person who is presenting -- "

"Excuse me, I need to speak to Dr. Renoir." Valentine stood right beside our table with violin case in hand, white as the fog and an absolute fury in his eyes. I jumped in my seat like a person surprised by an explosion. I hadn't seen him come in, or had he been in Giammarino's and I hadn't noticed? Andrew's eyes were as wide as if someone had leveled a shotgun at the bridge of his nose.

My protective instinct for students took over and I gestured Valentine outside. "Don't worry, I'll be back in a moment," I said to poor Andrew.

"Don't frighten my students like that, please," I said to him outside the restaurant, in an instant agony at his appearance. "Why are you talking to me? What is your problem?"

"My problem? My problem? What is he, a freshman? Is it that? Not that I was too young, but that I wasn't young enough?"

I was so close to backhanding him across the face that I am ashamed of it now. I actually tensed for the action, knowing instinctively how to turn my hand for the most punitive strike. Realizing this, I put my hands behind my back. "I have not the slightest idea what has happened here, or what in flaming hell you are talking about. But I've got a scared student in there, and whether you want to discuss something in civil terms or have a screeching row with all kinds of insults and incriminations, it needs to be elsewhere and some other time. Decide. Where do you want to duke this out, and by all the gods, you had damn better have a good reason for interrupting me with a potentially gifted student."

He flung his arms towards the sky briefly as though entreating his deity, and then turned and blazing-eyed, said through clenched teeth, "How about tomorrow at ten? At your god-damned trailhead on the cliffs?"

"Fine," I said, 'Bring all your excuses and affidavits." I started to return to the interior of the deli.

"Don't sleep with him, Augusta," Valentine's voice followed me.

I whipped around, and I swear that had he been within reach, I would have slapped him senseless.

We glared at each other in furious silence. He rubbed his hand over his mouth and dropped his gaze. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that."

The now familiar pain wrenched my insides. "I honestly have no idea why we're saying anything. There's nothing left for us to be saying. Why can't you just leave me alone?"

Wolf that I may have been, I flattened my ears and showed my teeth, figuratively speaking, and slunk back into the deli to protect my cub.

Andrew's eyes were still wide with alarm and concern. "There are always conflicts and screwballs in university life. One day you'll look back on this and think, 'yeah, that was part of Nutcase 101'," I assured him.

He mopped his face with a conservative white handkerchief. "He was pretty scary," he said. "One of your former students that you gave a failing grade?"

"No, Andrew. He's a brilliant music teacher. He and I just don't seem to speak a language that the other comprehends."

"He sounded fluent to me," Andrew said, wolfing his sandwich.

I gazed at him fondly. "We come from times that are so different in phrase and rhetoric that we can barely understand each other, like the translations we work with in class. In twenty years, what we study as meaningful interpretations are going to seem archaic and out of touch."

"But isn't that why we study the literature, so that we can provide a continuity from one generation or age to the next? Kind of like a bridge across time?"

"Gods help us, yes. That's why I teach. Andrew, why the hell are you an English major? Switch to Anthropology, for God's sake. "

He washed the last bite of his sandwich down with a long draw from the straw of his soft drink. "But there's a lot of literature out there that isn't religious in nature. I need a major where I can find it all."

"You ain't gonna find it in this English department," I said out of the side of my mouth, and he laughed. I caught sight of the time on my watch. The day was fleeting by, and I was ready for my day-and-a-half off. "I need to get going, Andrew."

Andrew nodded. "I understand. Have fun with Mr. Violin."

"Not today, and not likely," I muttered, picking up my briefcase.

"Oh. I thought he was waiting for you."

I paused and frowned. "Just out of curiosity," I said, "what made you think that?"

Andrew shrugged. "He just looked like he had some urgent agenda with you."

"Huh," I said ineloquently. "Great phrase, 'urgent agenda' ... see you next week, Andrew."

Urgent agenda. I turned the words over and over in my mind on the bus ride home, until they had no meaning, had become like an abstract painting that could be a blood stain or a representation of a clash of music, depending on what mood the viewer was in. What could his agenda be in wanting to talk to me? What the hell was he angry about in the first place? Why did I keep running into him everywhere? And what was I thinking, agreeing to talk to him? And who am I kidding, I asked myself. You agreed to talk to him because you can't resist the chance to see him again, and hear his voice. But an angry urgent agenda?

The early afternoon light was so mellow as I walked from the bus stop towards my house that I toyed with the idea of taking a nap in the sun on my patio instead of looking at student papers, deluding myself again that I wouldn't just spend the intervening time thinking about what Valentine might want to say. I rounded the bank in front of my house to walk into my driveway and stopped. Valentine's car was there, and he was sitting in the sun on my steps, his arms crossed on his knees, his head down, resting on his arms.

He hadn't heard me. I stood there and looked at him like a wild animal who happens upon a sleeping hunter in the woods, poised and ready to vanish away in the brush. I could take two quiet steps back and be out of sight, I thought, and then go somewhere private and commit suicide out of regret. Would death be a nothingness, an end to this horrible pain? Or would I be frozen in an immortal spirit form, endlessly experiencing this agony? Or be reborn, perhaps as a house pet, doomed to live with him and love him and watch him marry and raise a family? I shuddered. No, not suicide. But I had to do something, or he was going to look up and see me standing there looking like I was in love with him.

"I don't want to fight with you," I said quietly, and he jerked out of his own reverie as violently as if I had walked up and kicked him. How had Andrew known he would be waiting for me? "I just don't understand why you want to talk to me. Or why you were angry. Or why you're here now. I thought we were done with ... with us."

"Is he your new boyfriend?" Valentine asked, and I couldn't tell if his voice was sad, or angry, or disgusted.

"Oh, for god's sake, no," I trudged up the steps past him. "Don't be an ass."

He got up and followed me, about five steps behind, perhaps staying out of range of a swift kick. "What was I supposed to think? You were so intent on him that you didn't even see me sitting in there at the next table not six feet away! You at least owe me the courtesy of not flaunting your dates in my face!"

Forgetting that I didn't want a fight, I left the key in the door and stepped back across the porch to look down at him. "That was probably the first fucking time in two months that I wasn't thinking about you and wondering if I would ever see you again, damn you, and you just couldn't resist twisting the knife some more. God damn it." I pushed the front door open with a shove and it bounced off the wall behind it. After two steps in the door, I turned again and pointed at him. "And don't give me shit about 'flaunting dates' --"

"Oh, come on, you've been rubbing my nose in it since the symphony before Thanksgiving!" he shouted, waving his arms. "And I'm sick of it! Try to tell me you don't understand how humiliating that -- " he stopped shouting. "'... if you would ever see me again...?'"

"Rubbing your nose in what?" I demanded. "You're the one who ditched the old bag when you found out she was just an old bag!"

"You lied to me!" he cried. "I wasn't allowed to get angry because you lied to me? You let me believe I was -- while you were -- I was just your 'on the side' while you were with that old bastard Moresguard but you let me think that --"

"Moersgard, his name is Moersgard, dammit, and no, you were not 'on the side', and 'old' is the issue here, not flaunting or cheating or lying, isn't it?" I was panting for breath as though I'd fought my way up the steps through a squadron of demons. "Remember that I tried to get out of this when I found out how fucking different our ages were, but you didn't want it to end, I seem to remember some desperate words to that effect, don't make me the goddamn villain!"

"Do you have to use the word 'fuck' in all your arguments?" he raged.

I let my anger take over and paced back to the doorway. "Listen, sweetheart, if you can't stand the fucking heat, stay out of the fucking kitchen." I glared at him as though I had the power of all the mythic heroes, but two traitorous tears overfilled my eyes and spilled scorching trails down my cheeks.

Valentine reached forward with his hands, sudden pain in his face. "Augusta!"

"Keep away from me!" I growled. I backed up again and grabbed the door to slam it. And stopped it before the door hit his fingers wrapped around the jamb. I whipped the door back open and saw him staring, whites showing all around the dark irises of his eyes. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever seen you do," I told him, sickened by the thought I might have physically hurt him.

He put his other hand around the woodwork of the door as well. "If you don't care about me, why are you crying?"

"Care about you? Good god, care about you. When the hell did this become about me caring about you?" I backed up in the room and sat down on the couch, feeling weak and unable to draw a deep breath.

Valentine followed me in the door and sat on the chair at my desk between the couch and the door. He had his back to me. After long moments of relative silence, the only sounds being the low boom of the surf and the occasional passing car on the street, he said, "I missed you." He wiped at his face with his right hand, and I was glad that I couldn't see his eyes. "There was no one who wanted to hear about my music at the school. There wasn't anyone from the orchestra who wanted to hear about my teaching. At least no one I wanted to talk to. No one to tell me stories about why elephants are people or the psychological reasons for a pantheon of Roman gods. No one to listen to me tell why the high notes on the violin make people cry, or what story I'm weaving with the strings."

"No one?" I commented. "I saw you with Danielle, your sister's friend."

"Yes, that was a memorable dinner, seeing you come in with that bald guy after you were looking at engagement rings with him, wondering if you were going to marry him. I kept imagining what you might be saying to him about the origins of diamonds in betrothal ceremonies, or about the spices in the sauce on your linguini -- "

"You noticed I had the linguini."

"-- while I was stuck explaining the dishes on the menu, because so much of it is in Italian and the only Italian cuisine Danielle had ever had was spaghetti and pizza. And then listening to her talk about my sister's friends and what cell phone companies they used.

"Danielle is such a kid, and I couldn't wait to get away from her. I thought that if I had seemed that -- juvenile to you, no wonder you had no patience with me."

I had drawn my knees up to my chin, hugging them, trying to find something solid in the maelstrom of emotions. He loves me, my mind said. He'll love me not, and just suddenly one day send me away so that he can be with another woman, like he did with the fiancee he left to pursue me. I love him. I'll always be suspicious of him, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Thank god he didn't want her. What the hell am I doing to his life? We sat in silence until a seagull began crying out on the cliffs beyond my patio.

Valentine cleared his throat. "I owe you an apology for my outburst at Giammarino's. That was pretty childish of me, too. I'm sorry. Seeing you with other men is just killing me."

"Yes," I said rustily, "that's why I'm actively pursuing employment back in Ohio. I can't stay here and go through this all the time."

"Where in Ohio?" He stood up and faced me.

Shaking my head, I said, "Valentine, I'm never going to tell you that."

"And you'll just disappear again, like you did in December?" he shouted. "No one knowing where you are or if you're alive? Just throw away your life and your house here and all the people you know?"

"Yes! That's the plan! That's how much this all hurts! That's how badly this has screwed up our lives, dammit!"

"Am I losing my mind? Didn't we just find out that we do love each other? That this was mostly misunderstanding? What am I missing here?"

"Eighteen years!" I continued to shout. "No matter how long we argue about this, that's still the bottom line. That's just too many years apart. We both know that. I was upset by the idea. You were, too. How many people have you told that you were in love with a woman older than your mother?"

"Just one," he whispered.

"Valentine, what did that 'one' say in reply?"

He looked at the floor, and then turned his back on me again.

"It's okay," I said. "I heard the same thing from my friends, too."

He walked to the front door, which still stood open, and leaned against the door jamb, arms crossed tightly. He stared out across the street and the neighborhood. "But the whole point of a relationship is supposed to be the love, not what other people think."

"You're an idealist."

"And you aren't? All you were thinking about was love when you came hunting for me at my apartment last fall. You knew by then that I was eighteen years younger than you, but you came to me anyway."

"Yes, I did, against my better judgment, and look at what it's done to us! I'm staggering around like an emotional cripple, and you look like a drug addict with the circles under your eyes and the weight you've lost!" I shook my head, and put my left hand on his upper arm to gently shoo him off the door jamb. As he stepped onto the porch, I followed him and shut the door. "This hasn't been a good relationship for us." Gods, have any of my relationships been good? Abused by James, business opportunity with Moersgard, emotions battered over a sweet young thing? No, wait. Remember Kimsky and Burlie. That's the one that has always been and will always be good, and healthy, and whole.

"When were you thinking of moving?" Valentine asked.

"As soon as I can obtain a position and sell the house. A matter of a few months. I'll stay out of down town. It's time to get on with our lives. Please leave me alone from now on." My voice sounded disembodied to me, as though someone else were speaking through a microphone with a bad speechwriter's text, pretending to be me.

"At least let me shake your hand one last time," he said, extending his graceful right hand to me.

"No," I said, and crossed my arms, tucking my hands in. He took the opportunity to step forward and kiss my mouth familiarly, wrapping his arms around me, burying one hand in my hair. When I didn't kick him or push him away, he lingered, making love to me, and shamefully, I savored every second, memorizing the kiss to fuel my recollections to last the rest of my life.

"Tell me that you don't love me," he said, stepping back and releasing me. "If you can tell me that, I promise that I will never bother you again."

I mustered stillness into my eyes and face as I looked up at him. "I don't love you any more. Go away."

"You're a little liar," he said. He walked quickly down the first four steps, then stopped and turned to look up at me, with a little grin that showed a flash of his white teeth below his moustache and made my heart somersault. "And so am I."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-01-02
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