by Kelli Deeth // from issue 2. Vol. 2
In the student union building, Tamara stood in line for her decaf latte and carrot muffin, even though the muffin had more calories than a small lunch and would leave the taste of sugar in her saliva.
Last week, she’d met Fouad in this very lineup. He had been standing in front of her, just another student, and Tamara only realized it was him when he turned his head toward the counter of The Round Tree, and she saw his profile. She tapped his shoulder. He turned around and smiled, his head tilting back and his eyes widening. Fouad was in her Wednesday and Thursday class, and he came to her office hour every Wednesday at four-thirty when everyone else in the office was gone. They sat across from each other at a small, round table in a small room reserved for student-instructor meetings, and they always went off topic. Fouad told her he’d been a refugee as a child, when Saddam Hussein tried to annex Kuwait, and that he’d lived in Lebanon until he was fourteen, before his father managed to get them all to Toronto. He told her about his judo tournaments and how his dad wanted him to move to Dubai when he finished business school. Tamara told him about her life, too—how she dropped out of school when she was a teenager, worked twenty different jobs before she was twenty-one, and then went back to school to become a writer. Fouad would smile and nod at everything she said, as if he understood exactly. She looked forward to the appointments. In some ways, Fouad was her only friend at the university. Once in a while, he brought coffees for both of them, and he never let her give him money. “My treat, Tamara,” he would say. “You do so much for me.” If other students arrived, Fouad waited outside the door as Tamara quickly answered their questions. When the other students left, he sat down with her again. Sometimes they sat at the table talking until the cleaners arrived with their heavy-duty vacuums and annoyed looks.
Tamara dug through her cavernous bag for her smart phone, new since she’d started commuting by train from Toronto to teach. She’d promised Mathew this morning she’d phone him when she arrived. Mathew liked her to call him several times a day, as if her existence stopped when he could no longer see her. Standing in line, she let the phone ring and ring. He must have been in a meeting.
Tamara carried her decaf latte and carrot muffin in its little paper bag, the fat already leaking through, down the wide corridor to her classroom, 61C, for her Wednesday class, Writing 150. She had already dropped her suitcase beside her desk in the large, open office she shared with other contract teachers. She had even complimented the office administrator on her cardigan and belt and asked about how her daughter’s wedding plans were coming together.
The Wednesday classroom contained rows of tables and chairs that faced three white boards and two screens. A couple of girls were already there, laptops open; one was scrolling Facebook, and the other girl opened and closed photographs. The young women at this university wore their hair long and hanging, so in the sun it rippled like water, or they piled it high on their heads in fanciful, lazy looking rolls, as if they were young queens. One girl wore a hijab, and the other girls only talked to her during group discussions. The young men at this institution were tall and broad-shouldered, almost all of them. Tamara hardly ever saw misaligned features or shortness. Fouad’s shoulders were broad, too. He sometimes wore a red T-shirt that declared in white letters Keep Calm and Judo On.
Tamara unpacked her bag. One of the professors she took the train in with last term had told her that one of the female professors, teaching across the country now, slept with her male students. “She basically couldn’t stop herself,” the woman said, and Tamara’s mouth hung open. Anyone could see the young men were handsome, but when they spoke to Tamara, their voices trembled and they blushed. They couldn’t meet her eyes and they struggled for words. How could that woman not have seen that they were children?
Tamara set up the computer, pushed in her USB key. The room gradually filled, but Tamara didn’t look up or out. She only liked to talk to students after class. When she did glance up, she saw Fouad walk in with Aiden, the short music student no one liked. She had seen them together once from the bus window, entering the science building together. Fouad took a seat, and smiled at her briefly and seriously. Outside the room where she had her office hours, they were like any other teacher and student who didn’t know each other very well.
When the clock said twelve-thirty, Tamara pressed a button on the wall labelled screen and then the button labelled lights. The students turned their faces to her first power point slide, titled plot. The English department made her teach this way. Mysterious processes were twisted into identifiable, achievable goals.
Tamara moved to the centre of the room and raised her chin. She did, it turned out, love to stand at the front of a dark room and talk and point. In darkness, words swam up her throat and off of her tongue. The young women, more poised and luckier than Tamara in other settings, in their lives, even, scribbled down her words. The young men peered at her as if she were a talking book, something to respect or at least regard neutrally. Fouad took notes without looking up, his body bent over his notebook. At the end of her presentation, after the questions and her answers, she pressed the lights button. Everything was ordinary again. Students shoved their notebooks and laptops into their knapsacks. Tamara pulled her USB key from the terminal, shut down the computer, collected stray pens and pencils and loose sheets of paper stained with her slanting notes.
Fouad—his raspy voice, and he was the only one who called her by her name, as she had told all the students to at the beginning of the term. Most called her nothing at all or they called her “professor.” She and Mathew laughed about that. Tamara was a poet.
“Hi,” Tamara said.
“I was wondering if you could explain to me what you meant when you said…a plot finds its way into a story and that we shouldn’t worry about it too much.”
Tamara grabbed the paper bag containing the carrot muffin she hadn’t eaten, and shoved it into a corner of her teaching bag. “That’s hard,” she said. “It’s mysterious. You have to be patient.”
Fouad looked up and off to the side, at the ceiling tiles. They had talked about the ceiling tiles, the feeling they created in the room, in the class about setting. Today, he was wearing a mauve, light-knit sweater, a gold chain around his neck. His first assignment—a poem—was about his grandfather’s army boots. She had given him an A.
Fouad pulled his notebook from under his arm, flattened it out on the table, and wrote down what she said, causing her to wonder if what she said was true or half true or not true at all.
Students Tamara didn’t recognize pushed in through the door, eyed her arrogantly, questioningly, as if they did not know why she was at the front of the classroom in her Smart Set skirt.
Tamara zipped her bag and heaved it onto her shoulder.
“Okay,” she said. “The other class is coming in.”
Fouad kept pace with Tamara as she marched out of the class and the other way down the wide corridor with fluorescent lights—she always noticed lights. She was dehydrated from the latte and her stomach pinched with hunger. Students had flocked around her during break and she didn’t like to chew food in front of people. She turned left at the end of the corridor, and Fouad turned left with Tamara, toward the stairs that led up and out of the building. Tamara was always in a hurry to get away from all the students. She didn’t really like them—only Fouad.
“So you must be busy? Lots of stuff due?”
“The first draft,” he said, and he turned his face in her direction, but looked up at the fluorescent lights. Fouad had a long face, dark eyebrows and eyelashes. Some days he had a slight beard and other days his jaw was smoothly shaven. She had thought before that the girls in his dorm probably liked him. Tamara already knew she would have. He had a way of smiling so completely, but in a way that was slanted, abashed, looking for approval.
“Right,” Tamara said. “Well, I’m sure you’ll do great. You always do.”
“Yeah,” Fouad said. His walk was steady, deliberate, and heavy-shouldered. She’d noticed that young men at this university were always building their upper bodies more than anything else.
He followed her up the stairs. Tamara slowed down so they were walking side-by-side.
“You going home for the summer?” she said. She was going to miss their talks.
At the top of the stairs, Tamara pushed a door open, and warm air and spring light hit both of them. Just two days ago, snow had fallen. The warmth was a relief from something. She stopped on the cement walk and studied Fouad. He stood with one thumb hooked under his knapsack strap, the other in the front pocket of his jeans. Tamara was a few years older than him, but she felt they were the same age. Something between them was the same.
“Yeah,” he said, and he looked at her directly, as he sometimes did, as if he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see, something about her. “I’m going to miss it here,” he said.
“Your class,” he said. “It’s my favourite.”
He looked at her in that way again, as if she had revealed something, something only he and Tamara knew about. Fouad had been a refugee as a child, had half grown up in Toronto, and now he was going
to university in a small, white city. He was going to miss her.
“You’re amazing, Tamara.”
“Thanks,” she said. “That means a lot to me.”
“Those conversations we have,” he said. “I really enjoy them.” Then he said, “Hey, maybe we can meet up over the summer.”
They stood facing each other in the sunshine. Fouad smiled, revealing his incisor, the one that pushed out a little. She had sensed that Fouad was lonely, like she had been in her first year of university. Lonely, she had craved touch, any kind of solace, and spent months clutching her pillow at night. Tamara reached out and put her arms around Fouad’s shoulders, embraced him. Once she had begun to move toward him, there was no way to stop. She held him more tightly than she thought she would.
Fouad stood stiffly, and he tilted his head back and smiled, but his jaw looked tense. Tamara dropped her arms.
“I’ll see you later,” Fouad said. “Four-thirty.”
“Yup,” Tamara said, and her voice was higher than it usually was.
Fouad nodded, and walked in the other direction, toward the doors of the building they’d just left.
On Wednesday nights, Tamara rented a room in a small hotel that was once a convent but had been converted. The university was two hours from Toronto, but she had Writing 150 on Wednesdays and Thursdays. There was no point in going home Wednesday night and then taking the train all the way back on Thursday morning. Her room contained a queen-sized bed with plush, firm pillows, a night table, two orange chairs, a television that was actually a computer monitor. The rooms had either half baths or full baths. On the phone when she booked her rooms, Tamara always requested a full bath even though they cost more money, but sometimes they weren’t available. Tomorrow, she would have to get up early and creep down the hall to the communal bathroom and shower in a stall. She liked to shower early so that she did not have to step in another guest’s hair.
She set her suitcase on one of the orange chairs, mindful of any bedbugs that might have been hiding in the seams of the mattress or trekking across the floor in search of a human. Nothing had bitten her yet. Tamara set her phone on the night table, and crouched down to plug it into the outlet behind the bed. The phone buzzed as it began to recharge. She unzipped the top compartment of her suitcase and took out the leftover pizza she had hastily wrapped up this morning before she left for the train, then the package of vegetables and dip and the mini-cherry pie she bought from the campus grocery store. She turned on the television, propped herself on the pillows and unwrapped her two slices of pizza. She munched, eating everything but the crust. She decided to skip the vegetables; she would have them tomorrow for lunch. She ate the pie with a white plastic fork. She didn’t like staying overnight in the former convent, but sometimes she did like it. It was nice, or maybe easier, not to have to talk to anyone, to tell Mathew about her day, to listen to him complain about his job. The hotel room was completely hers—she could do whatever she wanted and not do anything she didn’t want to do.
She used her finger to get all the crumbs and gobs of cherry from the foil plate. Then she got up and threw the plastic wrap and the foil plate into the garbage can. Then she went over to the window to turn off the heater. It was too loud, and if she kept it on, she grew parched by morning.
She stood at the window, looked down at the trees, and the muddy, throbbing river. When Tamara was thirteen, she announced to her mother that she wanted to become a nun. Her mother laughed and turned the page of the book she was reading. In a few months, Tamara didn’t want to be a nun anymore. All she could think about was sex, and she spent all her time at the mall, down in the arcade where the boys hung out. When she had been down in that arcade, trying to brush up against jean jackets, Fouad had probably just begun the exhausting, hideous journey that his childhood became. He said he remembered seeing a soldier in the hallway of his home in Kuwait; that’s when he and his family left. His mother sewed her jewels into the seams of Fouad’s coat.
Fouad had missed his 4:30 appointment. Her nail polish, her attempt at civilized womanhood, was chipped. Today, she had hugged him. Professors were not supposed to touch students. She shouldn’t have let him go off topic in her office. She shouldn’t have talked about herself, let things become confused. She stood at the window in a state of incomprehension, dying stress.
Later, she phoned Mathew, and he didn’t answer, so she pressed end, and then he called her. This happened all the time.
“How’s it going?” he said.
“All right,” she said.
“What’d you have for dinner?”
“Pizza,” she said.
“Vegetable and dip. What did you have?”
“Spaghetti,” he said. “It wasn’t bad.”
They were quiet for a while. Then Tamara said, “I’m going to go to bed soon.”
“It’s seven thirty.”
“That’s how tired I am.”
“What, you can’t wait to get off the phone with me?”
“How was your day?” she said, examining her nails.
“The usual. Mouthfullofshovels made an appearance.”
Mathew worked in advertising and Mouthfullofshovels was Mathew’s boss; during one of Mathew’s presentations, in front of 60 people, Mouthfullofshovels had humiliated him. Tamara couldn’t remember what his real name was.
“He’s such a moron,” Tamara said.
“All right,” Mathew said.
“All I do is complain. I’m sure you don’t want to hear me complain.”
“I complain, too.”
“I’ll call you before I go to bed.”
“I love you,” Tamara said.
She realized she had forgotten to pack her breakfast for tomorrow, her bagel with peanut butter, her non-fat blueberry yoghurt, her banana, her juice box. She would take the long way to the university tomorrow, so she could stop at McDonald’s.
She grabbed her phone, and pressed the camera icon. She pressed the looping arrows, so she could see what the camera saw. The sad crooked moon of her face shocked her. She smiled hard, pressed the camera icon, then flipped to find the photo. She looked smooth and glowing—the camera was almost magical. She sent the photo to Mathew. She sent him a picture of herself in bed every Wednesday night. Then he would send a photo back. Last week, he had gone outside and taken a picture of the full moon, texted it to her without any words.
She got up, searched through her suitcase for her nightgown. No one could see in the window, she was too high up, so she didn’t bother closing the curtains. Her bloated stomach made the nightgown tight. She studied its useless melonness, poked it.
Then she sat in one of the hard orange chairs by the window. Why had she hugged Fouad? He had seemed lonely, like she had been, and she had felt herself moving toward his body, his shoulders, putting her arms around him. Something about him made her want to get closer, to envelop him and be enveloped by him; she didn’t feel that with Mathew. What she felt with Mathew was endless stress, like she was leading the way, keeping the ship afloat single-handedly. Later, during her office hour, since none of the other teachers were around and the office administrator had already gone, Tamara hadn’t even let herself get up to go the bathroom in case she missed Fouad’s knock on the department door. She checked her university email repeatedly, but he didn’t send her a message.
She got into bed, and turned out the lights.
Tamara boiled water for linguine. Earlier that afternoon, even though the warm spell was over and she had to bundle up, she walked along Queen Street to burn off the calories of the mini-cherry pie and the egg McMuffin and the hash browns.
Yesterday, Fouad hadn’t come in for the Thursday class; that wasn’t like him. He was always on time and he had never missed a class. Maybe he was busy, she told herself, or working especially hard on his assignment to impress her. He would come to her office hour next week, and they would talk, unfold their lives for each other as they did before.
Mathew came home with a six-pack and a bottle of wine. He was wearing the winter jacket and scarf that Tamara had encouraged him to buy, a black London Fog coat and a wool scarf. For the first few weeks that he owned them, they hung in the bedroom closet. They were his first grown-up clothes.
The pot of water was boiling, so Tamara took the pasta from the cupboard. Even though Tamara was twenty-nine, pasta was still the only food she could cook.
“How was work?” she said.
“The usual,” he said. “What’d you do all day?”
“Bills. Cleaned the floors. Walked.”
“Did you get paper towel?”
“I forgot,” Tamara said.
“How’d you forget?”
“How does a person know how they forget something?”
“I don’t forget.” He hung up his coat and his scarf on the coat rack hook. Then he sat down on the bench and began to take off his shoes. He sighed. She didn’t want to ask him about his day.
Tamara helped the linguine apart with her fork. She only liked pasta because it was easy. She didn’t really know what kind of food she liked. She had never stopped to really think about it.
Mathew came up behind her. “You going to leave me? Because I’m such a bastard?” His breath smelled of chocolate. At his office, he said, sweets were always being passed around. He’d gone up a pant-size in the past year. Before he got this job, he’d served coffee at a place on Spadina. All the customers loved him, especially the young women. They were always giving him their numbers, and sometimes Tamara didn’t care as much as she thought she should.
Tamara sighed. She salted the water.
“Fine,” Mathew said.
“So how was Mouthfullofshovels today?”
“Came in. Swung his dick in everyone’s face. Left.”
“I hate that guy,” she said.
Mathew poured Tamara a glass of beer, then he poured one for himself. She stirred the linguine. The person she was at home had almost nothing to do with the person she was elsewhere. At school, she was in control, and she was who she was supposed to be. She strained the pasta. Mathew took the jar of tomato sauce from the fridge.
“No salad?” he said.
Tamara didn’t want to say, “I forgot,” so she said, “I’m about to make one.”
“I’ll make it,” Mathew said. He grabbed lettuce from the crisper and tomatoes from the fruit bowl; he chopped rapidly, but he didn’t sigh angrily. Maybe his day hadn’t been that bad. There had been talk of promoting him to assistant-head of his department. Tamara hoped but she didn’t want to show how much she hoped.
They ate with their plates in their laps in front of the news. They had a dining room table, but mail and newspapers were piled or spread out on it, messy as life. Tamara twirled noodles around her fork. Any of her students at the university would be shocked to see her eating noodles and sauce in front of the television in her T-shirt and yoga pants, but then maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe no one was fooled by her teacher clothes, her Smart Set sweaters and skirts. Maybe she was never two different people.
“Cocksucker,” Mathew said, when a banker came on the screen, his hands on his knees as he smiled. Money and interest rates were only a couple of the things Mathew worried about. He also worried about wars, rising sea-levels, floods, melting, drones, and various uprisings. Tamara couldn’t keep track.
Tamara finished her linguine and went into the kitchen for salad. Before Mathew, Tamara never ate salad. She had learned to like it. If Mathew went to his dad’s for dinner, Tamara didn’t bother with it. Mathew came and stood beside her, waiting for her to finish dishing greens and tomatoes onto her plate.
They ate their salads in front of the last of the news. Tamara got salad dressing on her top and she had to rest her plate on the arm of the couch, go into the bathroom, take her top off, pour water into the tub, then begin to soak it.
“My little savage,” Mathew said, but it had always been an endearment, something he said that, paradoxically, allowed Tamara to feel loved, taken care of. They met at a party in second-year university, talked on the back porch steps in the lightly falling snow. Mathew smoked pot then, and she had needed to get away from everybody inside the house, to get some air. She hadn’t understood other people her age, how free they were. They all acted like being in university was the most natural thing in the world, not something they almost didn’t get. Tamara had to go as a mature student. She missed almost all of high school. In grade ten, after her boyfriend—the first person she ever had sex with—broke up with her, she started skipping so much school that the principal suggested she quit. She did.
Just as Mathew had come out of the house, package of cigarettes in his hand, she had been about to get up and leave, take the bus home to the room she rented with the sloping floor, because being alone was better than the confusion of not knowing why she was so different from everyone else. Mathew sat down beside her. He pulled a joint out of his cigarette pack and lit it up. He offered it to Tamara, but she shook her head. As he smoked, snow piled up on his hair, the shoulders of his sweater. No one, she was sure, had ever looked at her so directly. She breathed in his exhalations.
When they finished the salad, she took their plates and stacked them in the dishwasher. She wanted air, some movement. Commuting on the train so much was making her back sore.
“I’m going to go for a little walk,” Tamara said.
“You going to call your lover?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m meeting him at Seven Eleven. So we can have sex in his car.” Since she’d been going out of town, Mathew had been making jokes about Tamara having a lover and the things she did with him in her hotel room.
“Oh, he has a car, does he? That’s interesting.”
“I don’t care that we don’t have a car.”
“Can I come with you?”
They put their shoes and coats on and left. Tamara shivered as they walked along the sidewalk. The temperature was dropping fast and the wind was pushing at her from all directions, blowing hair off of her face and then picking it up and blowing it into her face. They walked along side streets because Mathew got claustrophobic on main streets. Mathew couldn’t stand crowds, so they hardly ever went to the movies or to bars or to street festivals in the summer. As they strolled, they didn’t really speak. Because they’d been together so long, there was nothing urgent to say. Eventually, Tamara said, “I forgot to put that bag out for garbage day.” A few minutes later, Mathew said, “God, I can’t wait for this winter to be over.”
They made their way to Grinder, the only café Mathew would patronize: one that was independently owned. She sat at a table and he went up for the coffees.
Sometimes, she liked to look at him as if he were a stranger, as a man she didn’t know. Was he still as handsome? He was. He was tall and his blue eyes seared. He had gained a little weight, but he was still fit. He wore stylish cords and shirts. Something had changed in him, though; he had lost something. When he was studying English and History, he had carried himself differently; his chin up, he would look around the living room of whatever party they were at as if he were assessing what anything and anyone was worth to him. She mistook it for strength and felt safe with him, almost giddy, like a child. For the first while after they graduated, Mathew and Tamara were people who had just graduated, people who weren’t supposed to be in jobs they loved or jobs that were worth anything or jobs that paid. Mathew worked at a coffee shop, did some construction, tutored for a while. Tamara tutored, did light editing, taught night courses for a while, then finally a friend told her about a job teaching university students and Tamara entered life.
Mathew paid for their coffees. He’d been working at the advertising firm for a year, and he always complained. He worked with jerk-offs and ass-kissers. “I never thought I’d end up this way,” he would say. “A cog.”
But Tamara would wonder, what had he wanted? Where had he seen himself? She was lucky to not have ended up a maid or a waitress. That was the path she put herself on when she was sixteen and didn’t know any better. Tamara was grateful for her teaching job, even though she didn’t really like the students, what they expected of her. If she hadn’t changed paths, she might have been one of the cleaners who came in and interrupted her talks with Fouad.
“We’re all cogs,” Tamara would say, and he would say, “Well, I guess you’re better at taking it than I am.” And then the quarrel would start.
Mathew surprised Tamara with a butter tart, her favourite. Only when she had eaten it all up, still tasting the sugar on her tongue, in between her molars, did she realize the treat was a tactic. On the way home, she wondered about Fouad. Maybe he had been sick. Maybe everything would return to normal next week. They would sit across from each other, the air between them buzzing.
She looked at Mathew, his chin tucked into his collar. It hadn’t been so cold when they left, so he hadn’t worn a scarf. He frowned. He needed his haircut. When he let it grow too long, his curls came in, and she didn’t like his curls. They made him seem soft, incapable of taking charge. She wondered if she could go back to that night on the porch, knowing everything she knew now, if she would have fallen for him, or let herself fall for him, whichever it was. She was so lonely then. Maybe she would have fallen for any confident young man who thought she was beautiful, who told her she was, touching her hair. There was no doubt that she loved him, but maybe there were different kinds of love, like there were different kinds of energy. Some energies were bright and courageous, and others were heavy and morose. She wondered about the paths people took, too. Once you started on one path, it was hard to change to another. It was hard to give up what you had, what you almost didn’t have. But at the same time, how did you not yearn or wonder what was down another path?
At home, she led him down the hall to the bedroom. Sex was aerobics and she didn’t have the energy. What they had couldn’t be called desire; they did not plunge over an edge, like how they did in Mathew’s run-down apartment with the hotplate and silverfish and her wearing his shirt after, nibbling the toast Mathew had buttered. They satisfied each other—completely—but they did not go blind.
The next Wednesday Tamara stood behind a desk at the front of the room. The students approached her in singles or pairs or threes and slipped their first drafts, worth twenty-five percent, onto the pile. Every time someone walked into the classroom, Tamara looked up. If students did not hand in their first drafts, they were not allowed to turn in their final drafts. They would fail. The course was set up that way.
Once all the drafts were handed in, sitting in an unpromising pile in the middle of the desk, she wrote questions on the white board in purple marker.
She felt the students’ eyes crawling up and down her back. Probably, she thought, they saw her rolling her cheap suitcase across the campus in the evening to the former convent. Couldn’t she even afford a cab? They probably saw her buying her weird dinners at the grocery store. Was she so poor that she couldn’t even live in the city she worked in? Wasn’t she even a real professor? Tamara wrote the last question mark, forced herself to turn to face them.
“So” she said, “these are the questions. You should write them down. We’re going to discuss them after.”
As the students wrote them down, she stood at the front with her arms crossed in the chill of the room. Outside, snow was falling into a courtyard, layering itself on the ground. The movie—In the Bedroom— was ready. All she had to do was press play. She was too tired this week to plan a lesson, so she found a movie on her bookshelf, the longest one she could find, the one that would take up the most, possible time: two hours and ten minutes. A young man passed the doorway—a flash of dark hair and beard. Was it Fouad?
“Okay,” she said. She pressed the button labeled lights.
A girl let out a sharp sigh and Tamara pressed play. She let her back cave-in, gathered her bag, loose papers, and laptop, and carried it all to the back of the room, like a homeless person.
Tamara opened the door at the back of the room and peeked into the hallway. If it had been Fouad, he wasn’t there anymore. She looked back into the classroom and stared at the backs of her students’ heads; they were all gazing in the direction of Marisa Tomei as she was chased through a field by a young man.
Tamara went out into the hall and walked to the handicapped bathroom. This bathroom was almost always empty, and it was like a small room. She sat on the toilet with her elbows on her thighs and her chin in her hands and looked down at her boots. The black leather was scuffed at the toe. This past week, the zipper of the left boot had been catching. If she were going to get a new pair, she’d have to talk about it to Mathew. They were both paying back loans and had put a trip to New York two years ago on their Visas. She pressed her face into her hands, listened to herself breathing. If Fouad never returned to class or came to her office hour, when would she see him again? If they didn’t see each other one last time this term, and didn’t meet over the summer, she couldn’t say for sure she’d see him next year either. She might be working here or she might not. Tamara and Fouad would disappear into their separate worlds, maybe forever. She rubbed her forehead, her temples, her cheeks. She remembered she was showing a movie, that twenty students were sitting in a room thinking that their teacher was exactly what she appeared to be: eager, pathetic in how much she loved things that didn’t lead to money, neat, orderly, organized, with their best interests foremost in her mind.
The snow had turned to freezing rain. Tamara walked through it to the hotel, and even though she had an umbrella, it was small, so the rain hit her coat sleeves and the hems of her pants. Even though Fouad hadn’t emailed to say he would be coming to his appointment, she had hoped all day somehow he would, and that he would give her a hundred excuses she would forgive him for, making him promise not to tell the other students she hadn’t taken marks off of the first draft.
The elevator in the former convent was broken, so she had to walk up two flights of stairs with her small suitcase. She had the beginning of cramps, but she had left her ibuprofen in her desk drawer at the office.
After the girl at the desk signed her in, Tamara said, “Do you have any ibuprofen?”
The girl opened a drawer, took out a bottle of Tylenol, and said, “How many?”
“Four?” Tamara said.
The girl, who looked tired—and who knew how long she had been awake?—tipped the bottle and shook six into Tamara’s palm. Her generosity shocked Tamara, and she smiled. She closed her fist around the pills, more than enough to get her through the night. Tonight, she had a room with a bath. She ran the water and took off her clothes. There was fat on her hips. When she was young, there had been no fat anywhere. The girls at school used to say how skinny she was, as if skinny was the ugliest way to be, which is what Tamara thought it was then. Now even her arms were chubby. Mathew had said, “Well, we’re getting older, Tam. That’s what happens.”
“But I can’t wear the same kind of clothes I used to.”
He said, “Look at me.”
“You look the same.”
He had lifted his shirt to show her his belly, but he was not turning into what she was turning into, that pudgy, unwanted, done-with woman. She wasn’t done-with, but she wasn’t the one who decided.
She slipped into the bath. She closed her eyes and let her arms float weightlessly beside her. When she was young, the bath was the only place she could find to relieve her pent up lust. Now, the hot water bit at her skin like little mean spiders. There was one light in the bathroom, a fluorescent strip above the mirror.
She lay in the bath a long time, letting the water cool, then she forced herself to climb out. She dried off. She had pudgy hips, ripply legs, plump arms, and her breasts were mournful pouches. None of the long walks were helping. Mathew loved her; she had no worry that she wasn’t loved. Mathew would accompany her all the way to death. He always said he had loved her from the first, but she remembered it differently—how he used to get drunk on their dates, how she sometimes had to pay for dinner, the time, after they had been going out only a month or so, that he asked her for money for cigarettes. At the time, he’d run out of student loan money.
She sat on the end of the hotel bed in her towel, pointed the remote at the television. She watched for a while in a daze, then fell back on the bed. Why hadn’t Fouad come to class? Why hadn’t he wanted to see Tamara again? Fouad would fail the course. It was set up that way. She couldn’t put in grades where there were no grades. He would fail the course because of Tamara, because Tamara hadn’t been able to control herself, because she had liked him more than she was supposed to or allowed to, because she’d become confused.
Lying on her back with only a towel on reminded her of pap smears and breast exams, so she turned on her side. She wasn’t able to be who she was supposed to be. She’d only been who she was and hadn’t tricked anyone at any time. Next door, she could hear kids partying in a room.
Her phone rang, and Tamara had to sit up and dig into her bag to answer it.
“Hello?” she said, and the flatness of her voice struck her.
“You at the hotel?”
“How’s it going?”
“Fine,” she said.
“You don’t sound fine.”
“I am.” She walked over to the window and looked out at the heavy, dark rain.
“I don’t like it when you’re gone,” he said.
“I wish you didn’t have to work there.”
She didn’t say anything. She put her hand on her head and closed her eyes.
“Hello?” Mathew said.
“Sorry,” she said. “Stress.”
“Okay,” he said. “You want me to let you go?”
“I’m tired,” she said.
They said good-bye. She would have to phone him later, make him feel better, ask about Mouthfullofshovels who made his every day a bizarre punishment for nothing. She’d take a picture of herself smiling.
She opened her suitcase and took out her T-shirt. She dropped the towel and pulled the T-shirt overhead.
She turned out all the lights and closed the curtain against the faint light from the parking lot outside. The rain sounded like distant thumping. She got herself a little plastic cup of water to leave at her bedside. She laid out the six Tylenol on a Kleenex. She hadn’t started yet. Tamara loved to go to bed alone—just once a week. She got in and curled up, pulled the blankets up. She was just a woman, but she had made Fouad afraid of her. He couldn’t face her again, he was hiding from her, what he had seen, some hunger that had jumped out of her through her arms, that Tamara couldn’t stop. He had trusted her to be his teacher and that was why he had opened up his life for her, showed her all the pits and roads he’d travelled. She was supposed to let him bathe in her compassion, nothing more. She wasn’t supposed to seize him.
She had to go to the bathroom. She didn’t bother switching on the light, but got up, and crept across the floor. She felt herself slouching. She peed in the dark, wiped. Tamara stood at the sink and washed her hands, confronted the shadowy fact of herself in the mirror, turned away. Instead of going to bed, she sat in one of the hard chairs the hotel provided. Maybe nuns had sat in this very chair, Tamara thought, chastising themselves, apologizing, submitting. Tamara rested her hands on her bare thighs. Tomorrow, she would break every rule, and she would email Fouad. Fouad, she would write, will you be attending my office hours next week? It’s still okay to hand in your draft. Things can get crazy this time of year. Then she would add, If not, I understand, and I wish you well. Or she would say, I really enjoyed our talks, getting to know you, and I wish you well. Then she would enter a grade whether she heard from him or not. Fouad’s final mark would be an A-. She would do that for him because for everything, she was to blame. Tamara stood up. The room was too warm, suffocating, and her throat was dry. She turned off the heater by the window, then parted the curtains and looked out at the rain.