When I got home, I contacted Kimsky by computer to tell her the bad news. She and I reviled Moersgard far into the night, while my mind was still weaving back and forth between the implications of Jacob's story and common sense. Jacob had no hesitation about forming relationships that might be unsuitable, but then he didn't fall in love, at least not to my knowledge. Wasn't convenient for him, I suppose. And he didn't want anyone falling in love with him, that had always been plain.
I'd been like that, too, that was what made us such a perfect team for so many years. When the hell had I become vulnerable to love? Thinking back to my original intention regarding Valentine, I could remember thinking that he would make a very pretty date, perhaps even an occasional sexual outlet, nothing more. Certainly there had been no thought of 'love' or 'faithfulness.' Or of thinking about what was best for him, rather than what gratified my own interests.
"Come on, Gus," Kimsky typed into my screen, "what's Moersgard's credit card number? Burlie found this triple X porn magazine when he was cruising the 'net -- let's sign Moersgard up for it."
I giggled, finishing the last drop of wine in the bottle. But I couldn't remember the sequence of the last eight numbers, no matter how hard I tried to focus the memory. "I bet I have a receipt somewhere that has the number on it," I told her. "I just can't call it to mind right now." An inability to access memory meant it was time for bed, and way past time for bed for Kim.
Crawling between the sheets, I continued to snicker at the possible reactions of Moersgard when the pornography started arriving at his door. Wouldn't he have a lot of explanation to do when Miss Barbie found it on his kitchen counter?
That son of a bitch. He had me trapped, didn't he? There has to be a way out, I thought as sleep began to close in on me. In less than 24 hours, getting to Ohio had become far less an escape from pain than an act of defiance. I'd become Moersgard's poodle, chain collar jerked to call me to heel, and I resented it deeply.
In my dream, I was trapped by one hind paw in a painful trap. I pulled and pulled, but the pain was so hard that it felt like a weight on my heart. I looked at my beautiful gray hind paw, and knew that I would have to chew it off above the toes if I was to free myself. Could I survive without the foot? Chase and eat only mice? No way would I be able to run down the deer. Would it be better to die at the hunter's hand here, or starve to death in the deep green forest, lulled by the thick white snow?
As I raged at the steel, James put his arm around my back so that I could rest against him when I tired of fighting. Panting, I looked at his face and auburn hair, surprised.
"Caught you again, didn't I?" he asked, grinning in triumph. His expression changed to a menacing, lustful leer. "Want me to set you free? I can set you free, Baby."
I screamed and rolled out of bed, knocking over the bedside light and the glass of water I'd taken with me to the nightstand. Both broke. I stood there in the dark, gasping like I had been running a marathon, looking around the room to see where James was hiding.
No James. A few minutes passed before I could fully return to the present, and know that James neither knew nor sought my current location.
Still a bit drunk, I made a ritual tour of the house's windows and doors, making sure they were locked and that I was alone. I pulled the heavier blankets off the bed and slept with my back pressed against the front door, fear and revulsion pattering after me as I slid once again to sleep.
I awoke at six, immediately burning with shame for being trapped. The fog had rolled in so thickly that I could hear drops splashing on the step off the front porch. I looked out the window and saw only white, with dim patches of darkness that were the trees along the street. The world has been erased, I thought. There is no more world. Just what I believe in. I could move away and pretend a fog came into my mind, and I would see no consequences because I would not look. I could run, and call Moersgard's bluff, even though I knew from the expression in his eyes it was no bluff, and let the chips fall where they may. I can't predict what the future will hold for Valentine. Maybe the next babe he would have fallen for would have been the school nurse, and he would have been fired for getting her knocked up. Started purely in spiteful desperation, that thought made my stomach turn, and I moved away from the whiteness of the marine layer outside the window.
My closet had no more solace than the fog. What does a woman wear who has no escape? When I was married to James, what I wore was nondescript, so that other men would not find me too attractive, provoking another outburst of James' jealousy. And when I was making ready my flight from him, I wore the ugliest clothing I had, hoping that he would leave me alone. Looking at the rows of blazers and shirts and slacks and dress clothes, I realized I had no ugly clothes. Every garment in my repertoire was pleasing to my eye, and purchased to please my image of myself. I have no idea what to wear, I said to the closet. Let's decide after a shower.
In the shower, I kept turning my mind to my entrapment and how to escape. I should have just told Moersgard weeks ago that I was moving because of Nicolai's baby, or that Burlie's mother needed to sell off some property -- why the hell did I let him know anything of my personal life? Just because he had been part of my personal life for ten years? Stupid, stupid, stupid!
By the time I had dried my hair with the hair dryer (and hadn't given even a thought as to how long my hair took to air dry when I was a teen and didn't have a hair dryer), the mirror had cleared of its mist and I appraised the woman in the mirror, remembering the morning that I began to plan my escape from James. There were no bruises on this woman. No look of confused horror in her eyes, none of fear. She just looked tired and annoyed, like someone had taken her parking space at Christmas at the shopping mall.
Dammit, I thought. I'm not the same woman I was back then. Yeah, maybe I have nightmares and some issues, but I'm not revisiting the same past. I can be startled by a nightmare, but I'm not living in fear. More like living in pissed-off-you've-crossed-me-for-the-one-and-only-time attitude. Make me stay in Port Laughton, would he? I began to ponder how to make Moersgard regret his decision. I pulled on a thick gray sweatshirt that had 'Port Laughton University' imprinted across the front, and blue jeans, and running shoes, and returned to the far side of the room to clean up the broken glass and water that had darkened the hardwood floors.
"The whole idea of karma is not retribution," I told the class in exasperation, "the karmic process is that of coming to acceptance of one's self, good or ill, and recognizing that one's goodness or illness has no bearing on individuality or completion in the religious system, except as one retains the possession of goodness or illness. Release of the possession of one's deeds, be they good or ill, frees one from the cycle of rebirth. Purgation, not punishment." Andrew the Bright Star was absent; without him, this class was the dumbest batch of dim bulbs in years. They looked at me blankly, not getting it.
"Do you understand that people basically know if they are good or bad?" I asked them.
A brunette girl with braces and a lisp that was unbecoming because of the way she lifted her upper lip to talk raised her hand. "But doesn't it say, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?'"
"No, that's Hammurabi's Code of Laws, not what we're talking about at all. Let's put it this way: you use someone else's credit card to buy something for yourself. Maybe the credit card of the store you work for. You know that you've done wrong ... ?" I watched this scenario sink into their heads.
"Well, yeah," said the brunette, "if they find out."
"Yeah," agreed a cretin whose head was shaved to within an eighth of an inch, leaving him look dirty rather than shorn. "Unless they catch you at it, it's all good."
I flipped open my briefcase and removed a stack of stapled hand-outs on moral development. I had twenty copies; there were eighteen students, plenty to go around.
"First mid-term exam will be essay questions on moral development and its tie-in with religious purification systems. Make sure you study this handout carefully."
"Hey," said the semi-bald youth, "I got this same handout in Psych last year."
"Yes," I said, "I'm sure you did. Now you have it again, and you get to apply it to 'Systems of Religion.'"
"That's like double jeopardy," said a girl in the front row who favored (gods know why) dark-rimmed eyeglasses, and who chewed gum loudly.
"No, that's like Education," I replied. "And by the way, I don't grade on a bell curve, so you had better start studying the texts that have been assigned over the past weeks. Just a 'heads up', you know."
The girl with dark-rimmed glasses said, "That's not really fair. You need a bell curve because not all of us are on the same educational track, you know?"
In response, I turned to the blackboard and wrote the word "elective" in blue chalk. "Do you understand what this word means, Miss Dubay? This class is an elective even for Religious Studies majors, one of six from which RS majors can choose. It is not a requirement for any major. And that means that educational tracks, be they Physical Education or English Literature, mean exactly nothing. When a student signs up for this class, he or she has three choices: drop the class, take the class for a grade, or take the class 'pass/fail'."
Miss Dubay curled her upper lip a little, thrust her lower jaw forward, and slapped her pen down on her handout. Definitely a piqued student. I smiled, feeling warm and fuzzy at her annoyance, and added, just for cruelty, "That means that even with a 'pass/fail', you'll need to know at least fifty-one percent of the material to get a passing grade."
When the bell rang, and the students stomped out of the room, I looked at my notebook for this class, containing a copy of each class' lesson plan, and notes on which students had excelled in discussion, or on unexpected side trips of learning. Under today's date, I wrote "Mid-term essay Q heavy on self-acceptance and release." Maybe I should have made this lesson into a Saturday morning cartoon for them. Or maybe I haven't been a very good teacher for this class this term, I thought, vowing to go over the lesson plans and notes from the beginning and see where I might have done them a disservice. Maybe this class wasn't as dumb as it seemed.
The marine layer had lifted to the upper third of the tall pines of the campus as I headed back to my office. Snickering to myself about the comments on grading scales, I considered that I had dealt with the students much the same way Moersgard had dealt with my intent to resign. Don't like the way the cafeteria runs? Woof, woof, too bad, top dog wins. Mixed metaphor, there, but same basic idea. Push me, I knock you flat. Moersgard wins over Augusta; Augusta thumps ignorant students. It's Saturday; Ignorant Students will probably whack Bobby Lee's. I could go to Bobby Lee's on Monday and check out the graffiti in the restrooms -- see if my name appeared on the walls.
You know, it really upset me that the class was unable to 'get' the idea of awareness of self and deeds ... and even more the sense that the kids had that if they weren't 'caught', wrongdoing didn't count. Well, yes, all the gods know that people cheat on their taxes, and sleep well as long as they're not audited. And businessmen/women make shady deals and play loose and heavy with the expense accounts, so long as there is not an oversight committee. And lawyers take on clients they know are guilty, and suits they know are frivolous, and everyone is on the take and on the sly and nothing is honor, duty, pledge. But students are supposed to be different. They're supposed to be hearts and minds opened to knowledge like flowers to bees. Not already jaded to think that avoiding punishment is the prime directive, or that sidestepping consequences is a way of life.
I stopped with my key in the office door. Consequences. Sidestepping consequences was what I'd been intending to do by moving back to Ohio -- that was what Moersgard was suggesting, damn him. But he had no idea what was really going on, that it wasn't a case of avoiding due punishment or pretending that nothing was wrong, it was a case of trying to set things right again, to go back to a set of circumstances that were unsullied by issues of time, abuse, and fidelity, but most of all by Time ...
When the door opened, I saw an envelope on the floor, a thick-papered one whose fibers were visible in their ivory swirls (an expensive one, from Wordsmith's downtown, not a drugstore). The front of the envelope was blank. I opened the flap of the envelope (it had not been sealed, merely tucked in) and pulled out a matching card, and looked inside.
A nearly-black curl of hair was enclosed, the cut end tightly tied with a black satin ribbon. I sat down hard on my desk chair, stunned. Image upon image cascaded in my mind: Valentine's curls tumbling on his brow as he looked at the menu boards in Giammarino's Delicatessen; my fingers buried in his hair as we kissed with the mist flying past us at the arboretum; his silhouette against the reflection of the city lights on the fog, above me as we made love. I touched the hairs of the curl, knowing how soft they would be; I brought the curl to my nose, sniffing delicately the faint scent I knew I would smell. And brought the curl to my lips and cheeks, knowing how the sensations would make my heart ache, and desire rise.
I give up, I thought. I lose every round. Augusta Renoir becomes mortal, and with any damn luck at all, dies before her lover grows disgusted with her. And maybe Moersgard is right, I'll get bored and ditch him. Or we'll be like Moersgard and me, and just casually peel off for different interests. But in the meantime ... I carefully put the curl back in the card, in the envelope, and packed it into my briefcase along with the weekend paperwork. Turning to the book-cases against the wall, I found the box from the jeweler's and traded out the earrings I'd chosen that morning for the heart-shaped gold ones that had lain on black velvet. The weather this morning was chill but not bad, though there was rain due later in the day. I guessed I needed to make a stop down town before I headed for home.
I sat in back of the onlookers who clustered around Valentine playing his music, content to listen, content to wait. When the audience dispersed, and Valentine was putting his violin in its case, he looked up and saw me, and froze.
"I've decided not to move back to Ohio after all," I said.
"Good," he said, walking over to me. With the back of his fingers, he lifted my hair away from my left ear to see the earring, and smiled like someone seeing a rainbow. "Are you staying because of me?" he asked in a quiet voice.
The honest answer is one you will never know, I thought, prepared to mislead him again. "Yes." I was leaving because I love you, I'm only staying to protect you.
His hand dropped to my arm. "Augusta, are you all right? You look tired."
"I am tired, Valentine." Tired of struggling with issues of age. And damn it, yeah, sometimes forty-four does look tired. "Would you help me out today, please?"
His dark eyes took on even more depth. "Of course! What can I do?"
"I'm making lasagna this afternoon, and I have no one to fall asleep on my couch," I said. "Do you think -- that is -- could you do the honors?"
He slid his hand down my arm to my wrist, and looked at my watch. "If you let me drive you to your house, I could have the nap and the lasagna 35 minutes sooner than if we ride the bus."
"'Time is of the essence,' they say. Or 'Time waits for no one.'"
He shook his head. "Don't start with the 'eighteen years' thing again. Not today. Let's try a 48-hour cease fire, can we?"
I raised my hands in mock surrender. "Okay." We joined hands and began walking, across the main street, past Dollonger's Warp and Woof, down the alley towards his apartment. At the Davis Alley Pub renovation, he pulled me behind a scaffold draped with canvas, set down his violin case, and absolutely erased any thoughts that I'd had about resignation, or weariness, or age.
And he was completely mistaken about the timing of the bus route versus taking his car, because by the time he was able to collect 'a few things' from his apartment, and drive to my house, it was full dark, though neither one of us minded the lost time at all.
The story isn't over, and I still don't believe that when it is, the ending will be a happy one. Sooner or later, the beautiful love story is going to stop sailing through the air like kites in the wind from the sea and crash to the ground, crumbling, cracking, unrecognizable.
His father openly despises me, and has forbidden me his house ever since the all-too-memorable Thanksgiving dinner when he was so rude as to loudly and bluntly inquire my age at the table over dessert, and I looked him in the eye and said with my voice, "I'm forty-five, thank you," while my eyes said, You plebian, pretentious pig, why don't you embarrass your entire household? He heard and saw both equally clearly. Not sparing Valentine's feelings at all, he now refers to me as 'The Cradlerobber' or 'That Pedophile' if he admits to my existence at all, damaging what once was a relatively close family relationship that Valentine enjoyed.
Siding with her father, his sister Elaine has never forgiven me for ruining her best friend's chances with her brother, and regularly writes him letters offering him a haven if he wishes to escape my clutches, or when he comes to his senses, or when I tire of him and seek a new gigolo. I know that she said these things only because I overheard him shouting at her over the phone.
His mother apologized in a small voice the last time I walked out the door of her home, while Valentine and his father still argued in the dining room, but whether her "I'm sorry" was for her husband's insensitivity or her way of saying "You're unsuitable for my son," I don't know.
Yet it is part and parcel of the nature of our relationship, unfortunately, that the attitudes and preconceptions of our society condemn the older woman who takes a young lover. A young woman attaches herself to an older man, and at worst is seen as a gold-digger taking advantage of an old fool who can't resist a pretty face. But turn the genders around, and the older woman is immediately suspected of evil designs, and the young man -- well, who among us has never heard the hateful word "toyboy?"
We installed a second phone line to my house, so that Valentine could take calls under his own name, and he has his own post office box for mail. These are the accessories for the affair, luggage we've carried along since the horrible argument we had that left him bitterly depressed and living in a motel for several weeks, when he proposed marriage to me and came face to face with my adamant resolution never to legally tie myself to anyone again in my life. Not even for him, especially not for him, will I burden another person with the responsibility for my care should I become disabled -- nor will I burden myself with the legal ugliness of the ending of a marriage should the relationship fail. I did that once, and the scouring clean of the tendrils of that servitude was horrific enough to set my resolve in steel against the institution of matrimony.
And so we live in a day to day existence with each other. At this point, neither of us doubts that the other loves, but the sad reality is that neither of us trusts the other. Does Valentine love her enough to put up with her vagaries through one more of her nightmares? Is this the day that Augusta takes off and never returns again?
I know that the day will come when I don't see what I need to see in his beloved dark eyes, whether that be a lessening of love, or a distaste for the signs of my aging that will inevitably, inescapably begin to creep upon me. On that day I will take my cue to fade again into the forest, disappearing from his life so completely that he will never find me. I've done that before, and I can, and will do it again. This I know.
Eighteen years is a generation's worth of distance -- I have no faith that it ever works out long term. He will be an engendering spirit for the next forty or fifty years; I am a barren woman for whom even the nominal fertility of my embracing, receptive spirit will last perhaps another five. The numbers are hateful. When he is thirty, I'll be forty-eight. When I'm a certified senior citizen of sixty, he'll be just forty-two. Then it gets worse.
Before that happens, I'll find my way back to Ohio, and journey to the mythical land of grandmas and rocking chairs; of hearths where people nod comfortably into dreams and clocks tick quietly on mantelpieces, marking little increments of Time. The season will always be evening, and I'll watch the sun setting and cradle the good memories in my heart, letting the forgetfulness of age erase all others. I'll hear the haunting sound of a violin solo, and imagine again that my hands play over the softness of the curls on his forehead. Then my heart will travel back through time and remember love, untroubled by age, while the light fails, and the darkness reaches up to kiss it tenderly goodbye.
In the beginning desire descended upon it --
that was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is, is kin to that which is not.
Rig Veda X