This Is Your Face

Amanda (Flickr/kaname27)
Amanda (Flickr/kaname27)

You’re more assured than your fellow students, and I spend a lot of time wondering how you developed that certainty. We’ll come to that later. You wear your clothes with the casual confidence that belongs to a particular subset of the young: the very beautiful or the very cool, or those who have learned to substitute the deficit of one with an emphasis on the other. What I mean to say is that you are easy in your body and in the world, and I don’t see that often, especially in young women. Or “womxn,” as you’ll write in your essays over and over, the sight of those repeated x’s making me twitch. I’ve never been one for adjusted spelling—it’s a sleight of hand, all this symbolic change, a confidence trick, a brass band to cover the screams. We may be “womxn” one day, but that day is far off and changing a letter is not going to make it come sooner. For now, we are still women, you see, still living with the knowledge of all that’s been done, of all that’s happening, of all that’s still to come. Don’t tell me that everything we know, all the lessons learned by witches and fire, the blood-shame and the celebration, the escape tunnels dug by good mothers for daughters, can be forgotten with the exchange of one letter for another.

You dress as though the late ’80s and early ’90s have folded in on each other. In the first weeks of the semester, there is not a shapeless floral dress, velvet choker, pair of scruffy hobnailed boots, or scrunchie you leave unworn. The hot pants and the crop tops will come later, as you work your way through those two decades, as you become more comfortable with this new boyfriend of yours. This all makes me feel particularly old, because in 1988 I was at university too, enthralled by my own body, feeling newly powerful outside the constraints of a school uniform, by the pleasures I seemed suddenly able to find everywhere, in everything.

You’re self-deprecating but cheerful, and this makes the other students warm to you—that ability to underplay yourself for the crowd is not something your generation is known for. It’s all oversell all the time. I can’t work out if you’re genuinely grounded or if you’ve developed this trait as a way to charm. If it’s the latter, I know you better than I think. Every woman does this, makes a play at being charming or at approximating charm; it’s part of being defended, surviving. We strike a series of poses, hoping that at least one of them is convincing enough to fool a few people, maybe even ourselves.

When I was your age, I smoked endless joints to give my life a soft focus, to make it more interesting; you do the same thing, I suppose, except with an array of camera filters.

You don’t know this yet. Or maybe you do. Your generation lives with a noise and pressure I can scarcely imagine. Each day, you are commanded to enter the world and then remake it through documentation. Every one of you is your own personal archivist. When I was your age, I smoked endless joints to give my life a soft focus, to make it more interesting; you do the same thing, I suppose, except with an array of camera filters. It must be so exhausting to live and reflect simultaneously. No wonder you and your peers are always complaining about how tired you are. There was a time when I was convinced this was sheer laziness, a performance of psychic fatigue, the worst form of passive-aggressive attention seeking I’d ever encountered, but it’s not that at all; you’re just all busy doing the impossible. You’re trying to hustle the world when the world has you hustled, and there is nothing you can do about that, because to recognize it would be to sit down in the middle of the road and not want to get up again. Capitalism, that tricky bastard, has taken the spin and terror of your and every other girl’s body, and served it back to you.

I think sometimes that you know this; you’re sharper in class than the others, you have a knowingness, you read more and quickly—in an era of student resistance to reading, this makes you more singular than I let on. You understand when an author is being sly, you’re not seduced by stridency, and God knows it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t shrill and strident in a university—or anywhere—these days. When I was your age, my interests (my work, I called it, even then)—feminism, Marxism, race—and the ways they all “intersected” (that word!) and made “interventions” (that word!) and were “entangled” (that word!) were not the main event. They are now, and inasmuch as I suppose I should feel something close to triumph about that, I mostly feel a wary melancholy because the most interesting place to be—intellectually—is not the center. It’s so hard to stay honest at the center, you see. It’s almost impossible to keep others in view. And yet I know too that all these years at university—of never having left, of the uninterrupted path from undergraduate to doctorate to teaching—have distorted my view, that given the political and intellectual orientation of my colleagues today, I could be forgiven for thinking that all the culture wars had been won, that all the –isms were a defeated memory, that we were the powerful ones now, that all the menacing patriarchs had been done away with, disappeared from view, and that the bright, promised, hoped-for future was here. But all I need to do is step into a classroom and see you young women (no, you girls) gathered, all of you weighed down by burdens you don’t yet understand you’re carrying, and I know that we’re not in the future at all, we’re not even in the present. Instead, we’re still stuck in the ancient past. Ah, Penelope!

Some internal/external mathematics for your consideration: I’m 54 now, which to every 18-year-old is antediluvian (for a woman, anyway), but I know what it is to feel simultaneously 12 and 103. It is to be in the world—to be responsible, reliable, a worker, able, capable—but to feel the constant tug of the feral child, to be ready to break out or break down, whichever comes first. It’s to be amazed that there are still no answers, only more work and less quiet. It’s to be attached to one’s phone but to remember a youth without it. It’s to spend at least part of the day thinking—I used to do [insert individual’s particular loss of joy here] more. I teach at the same university where I did my undergraduate, and there are moments on a windswept afternoon, or a pink morning, or when the campus is caught in the cool stillness of early evening, when I find myself surprised that I am not 18, 19, 20, not still taking the stairs three at a time, not still seeing in the crowd the faces of my friends, happily colliding with some, avoiding others, not still accepting a flyer to a party or a low-stakes protest, borrowing money for lunch, not still cutting class, feverishly finishing an essay in the library, guzzling bad coffee. As I walk the university’s wide roads or take refuge in the shade of its tall buildings, I am in constant collision with my younger self, astonished to see in a window’s reflection my face lined and hair graying without any of the commanding imperious glamour of a Sontag streak.

We meet when you take my seminar on women’s biography. I begin the first class always with a feminist historian’s quote—that women’s lives “are caused to disappear.” I speak this phrase and then wait for the inevitable hush to fall across the room. Each time, like clockwork, I can feel how every one of you girls is hearing something you’ve always known to be true but had never heard put into words, that you’re experiencing a shock of recognition, that your minds are clicking and turning and that an image of your mothers and grandmothers is rising before you and you are seeing their lives deliberately sanded down, worn to the quick. After the hush comes the quiet horror that this may happen to you, followed by an immediate refusal, the same indignant refusal determined girls your age have been making for decades now, that no, that won’t happen, not to you, you’ll resist, you’ll push through, you’ll triumph, it’s different now, you’ll join the boys’ club or make a girls’ one, rule either, control both, you’ll drop a letter, replace it with a symbol for the unknown, invent a new heaven and a new earth, you won’t disappear, you’ll make enough noise to stay in the game even if you can’t change the rules, never mind bend them. You’re ambitious, you girls, steeped in ambition, crawling with it, clinging to it. The ones who come to university always are, even the ones who are terribly quiet in class, even the ones who use shyness as a way of getting attention, even (especially) the ones who pretend to have no ambitions at all, because the work it takes to cover that up and be unthreatening means they are serious enough about getting ahead to hide it.

So when I offer that quotation, when I speak to you all about erasure, about power, about the ways in which the world is designed to make you disappear, I understand why most of you resist the truth of it, why, when you start to feel your leg in the trap, you frantically begin to gnaw your way out. I let you either deny the invisibility or dive into it because at no other point are you going to have your feelings about this given more credibility. This space, I tell myself after a two-hour class in which I have begun to watch you girls grope toward a vocabulary with which to name your condition, is in almost every way that counts what I’m here for. If you tell me that disappearance doesn’t happen anymore, I affirm that as a possibility. If you admit that it does but you can fight it, win it, I affirm that too. I affirm it all because to stay a good teacher, to remain in the world, one has to pursue optimism with fierce devotion. And I remain, along with the girl still in me, resolutely optimistic, loyal to our shared ambitions.

Each time, like clockwork, I can feel how every one of you girls is hearing something you’ve always known to be true but had never heard put into words.

That said, I don’t make myself available to you as some of my women colleagues do, the ones who play at being maternal and warm, who smile and invite intimacy, the ones who bring baked goods at the end of the year to signal that theirs is a complex femininity, the ones who talk about “circular” engagement with students, as though hierarchies are only ever oppressive and not sometimes necessary, as though there is not a sacred difference between learner and teacher.

I’m not saying that I don’t care for my students, worry about my students, about you, that I don’t feel panic for your futures and the mess you’re all set to inherit. As with all my responsibilities, I take pastoral care very seriously, but I also know it’s a burden that falls disproportionately on women and that if my male colleagues fail at being sufficiently empathetic or kind or available, they’re not branded as cruel or uninterested, just a little scattered or awkward. Perhaps “womxn” will have an easier time of it. We shall see. In the meantime, I’m still being asked to play mother, whether I want to or not.

I imagine you all think I’m quite steely. Good. I think steeliness is the best model of womanhood I can give you.

Have I made it plain that I like you?

In our second week together, I find myself staring at your name on the class list, wondering if the elaborateness of your given names (three! the pretension of some parents!) is there to make up for the ubiquity of your surname. That surname, one as common as Smith or Jones, is one I’ve said to myself every day for almost 35 years. A way, I suppose, of controlling my own response to it. When I see it’s yours too, I am surprised, joyful even, to greet the word without the usual jolt of fright. At most, I feel annoyed that it has entered my day, made its way into this classroom. But the feeling dissolves when I raise my eyes from the register and my gaze meets yours. As I settle on your long curls and sweetly eager smile, I feel it, the prickle of recognition that can sometimes spark between student and teacher from the first. Here is someone, I tell myself, who will do the hard work of thinking. I call out your name, and you reply that you are “present” and that’s precisely what you will be in the weeks to come: present, alert, excited about all that we will read and say together.

A few days later, I see you sitting, just as I used to, with your friends in the quad, your head in your boyfriend’s lap. This boy, I decide, has better looks than sense and is too smug or stupid to know the difference. You’re all cross-legged or splayed out, bodies smooth and fresh, bare legs, stomachs artfully exposed or concealed, dozing in the sun, sitting in the shade, smoking cigarettes (still ), letting the drama students entertain you (still ), casting sneering glances at the engineering students who have textbooks open on a summer’s day (still ). You’re wearing a tight, thinly striped, multicolored top that follows the dip of your breasts and waist. When we wore a top like that, our parents laughed at it as ’70s nostalgia. Plus ça change.

In week three, we tackle a story about women and enforced silence, and one of the students announces that it made for “really triggering” reading. There is a murmur of assent, and at this you turn to her, straightfaced, utterly earnest, and confide that you find the word triggered “really triggering” and you’d appreciate it if, going forward, she could warn you ahead of time if that word was going to be used. The girl’s face clouds in confusion; declaring a text painful or wounding is usually met with affirming nods, with tales of being similarly brutalized by a story. I struggle to suppress a smile. It’s not that I don’t agree that we should tread this terrain with great sensitivity, but I find the speed with which your generation pedals between fragility and bravado astonishing, disorientating, sometimes closer to a power grab than a desire to engage critically. You’re still holding that pinched, pleading face, enjoying her discomfit, before letting out a peal of laughter. It gives the others relief, they offer sideways glances, bite back laughs, and the triggered one’s expression turns from puzzlement to fury. I look down, pretending to fiddle with the projector, the lead for which, I realize after the longest time, is not plugged in. Your irreverence has filled me with an unexpected giddiness that makes me want to do precisely what I should not: gather you up, shower you with grateful kisses, grant every one of your papers an automatic A. I allow myself, at most, a careful smile.

That night I lie in bed, blinking into the dark, my partner next to me in a deep sleep, thinking about how you rescued so much in that moment—the class, me, the text, something precious we seem determined to lose.

In week four, you announce that you love every text I’ve set. Every choice I’ve made is the right one, you affirm. Look how they lock into each other, you cry. This course is so cleverly structured, you say, praising me in front of the entire class (even as some of the others roll their eyes); look, one can use x to make sense of y, animate this in relation to that, invite this poem to chime with that essay. I smile and nod, yes, yes, exactly. We develop a shorthand, and as we parry back and forth, I could be 18 again, with my closest friend at the time (a boy a few years older than me, every bit as bright as you), amazed to feel so alive, struck with delight by my own witticisms.

I’m so eager to hear what you have to say. There’s something about how your mind works—its agility, the unexpected connections it makes across and between texts, the way you lean forward when you want to emphasize something, your hair falling across your eyes, your fingers playing endlessly with the row of thin, jewel-green Indian bangles you wear daily, how you break the intensity of what you’re saying with a laugh or a joke. It all gives me a pleasure I can’t name exactly but I know is specific to you. It could be just us two if it weren’t for the other students occasionally raising their hands, venturing a thought, interrupting our glorious back and forth.

I find myself speaking about you to colleagues, so much so that in a staff meeting someone weaves into the discussion the statement “true pedagogy resists favoritism” and others exchange telling looks, amused, perhaps even a little concerned. I resist the urge to mention you after that because what I can’t explain is that it isn’t just favoritism (something I admit to freely and without guilt). It’s more than that—I feel as though I know you. And I suspect you feel as though you know me.

u u u

As the semester progresses, you make use of my office hours more than any of my other undergraduate students; you knock—two raps—and then before I have the chance to say, “Come in,” you swing the door open, your smile wide, your energy infectious. You always come bearing the gift of good coffee (a campus improvement from my student days that cannot be overstated), hungry for talk, treating all of my old ideas as though they are new, freshly born, astonishing, which I suppose they are, to you. You stand before my bookshelves as though they’re the most wonderful and interesting things in the world and share that your father always says that you can tell a lot about people by the books that are on their shelves. I laugh and say that your father sounds like a very sensible man indeed! You beam as though I’ve said something much more meaningful than I have and then lean down, peering at the spines, reading aloud the titles as though they are a clue to, or a haiku of, my personality: Drown, Dust Tracks on the Road, NW, The UnAmericans, Beloved.

I look at the hodgepodge of unalphabetized disorder (unforgivable for an academic) and say apologetically that I have to categorize the books. Immediately I regret my tone; I’ve been trying not to do this, trying not to apologize for things that could not possibly give offense, trying not to offer excuses as a reflex, trying, I suppose, to not be a woman. You don’t notice any of this and respond that at least I haven’t arranged the books according to color, a décor choice we agree, in chorus, is ridiculous.

I am beginning to understand where your extravagant sense of self comes from: your father. You speak about him all the time. He is a large enough feature in your conversation for me to be able to connect your adoration of him with your confidence in yourself. The good mothers may be able to dig the tunnels for their daughters, but it’s the good fathers who haul them up from underground into the bright light of day.

An unusual man, I think to myself, and wonder how much of him is in the girl before me.

We begin to run into each other outside of class, at the library’s entrance, in the corridor near my office, close to my parking bay. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were conspiring to make these moments happen because each time I see you, your hands are full of books, as though you are the Platonic Ideal of the Student. It’s almost quaint, in this digitized universe, to see a young person handling the books with such care, angling them in a way that invites me to read the titles, to offer you my approval. This alone, this desire to be with books, to be seen with books, makes me warm to you further because there isn’t a year that passes without the same bewildered exchange in the staff room: They just don’t read is the plaintive cry, the thing that unites staff across great divides. They don’t read. The students don’t read, sighs Postmodernism to Postcolonialism, laments Performance Studies to Romanticism, all of them putting aside for a moment the grievances they hold about the others’ methods and curriculum.

A few minutes into week five’s class, it becomes apparent that most everyone but you has not done the readings. I thrum my fingers on the table, furious, considering various strategies of reprimand—shaming, pleading—but find I do not have the energy or the will to pursue any of them. What I’d like is to dismiss everyone but you and for us to sit together cozily, happily, alone, and speak about the texts. I cannot do this, so I ask instead why the reading has gone undone, as though it’s surprising to me that young people at a midlevel university would prefer to do almost anything other than engage with difficult texts that do not easily give up their meanings.

After a long, impossible silence, a student says with complete sincerity and without a shred of shame that she didn’t read the text because she “didn’t like it.” Emboldened, another says that her “concentration span” means she can’t read “long-form work.” I suppose this ability to name and own one’s shortcomings could be read as a form of radical self-acceptance, but the declarations sound less like the result of careful introspection and more like a boast, one that I was expected to receive with a combination of good humor and admiration. Instead, I could not hide my sadness, my sense of defeat, because what is a university for if not for reading?

You look at me as though you understand my despair.

You wait after class to walk with me to my office, to tell me how shocking you think it is that the others hadn’t done the readings. You’re sympathetic. Bewildered. Agitated on my behalf. In my office, you collapse into the larger of the two chairs available, all long loose limbs, glowing skin, drum-tight stomach, fingers dragging through wavy hair, a study in animation. When you speak, you switch between languid stretches and quick excitable movements; when you stretch, you lengthen still more, and I marvel at how supple the young body is. Without warning, you ask me my age and I laugh, because girl students feel a particular thrill at finding out how old their women professors are. More than questions about marriage or relationships or children (no, yes, no), they want to know how old I am. I am always quick to answer—I must live my politics, be unafraid of aging—though it was admittedly easier to respond at 35 than it is today.

When I tell you, your response is unusual: “God, I can’t wait to be older. Being young is so hard. And being a woman—”

I nod and wonder, not for the first time, about all the ways in which my generation has failed yours, how much more shocking your entrapment must be because we’ve taught you to recognize it.

You’re searching for something today, I can tell, in need of something more than just praise for having done your homework. When you confide—airily, conversationally, as though it’s just occurred to you—that your mother died several years ago, I worry that you’re hoping I will, at least in part, fulfill a role I’ve never wanted.

In the middle of the semester, I find myself working in my office well into the evening, late enough for my partner to call, concerned, asking when he can expect me home. As I walk to my car, I realize that I have forgotten that today is an unwelcome anniversary, one that I usually watch out for, mark in my mental calendar, but seem this year to have forgotten. I wonder if this is a good sign, a signal of some kind of release, but I also know better than to put too much faith in that possibility—my forgetting could be as much an indication of something permanently unresolved as it is of diminishing significance.

And if that first kiss—unexpected, unplanned—felt right at first, it quickly began to feel wrong, but the more reluctant I grew, the more insistent he became.

I surprise myself by turning from my car and making my way to where it happened, deliberately going to a place I ordinarily avoid, back to that pathway—pretty, sylvan, private—back to where my 18-year-old self and my friend—the boy I spent all my campus hours with—had come to smoke a joint alone, away from the noise and fever of a residence party. We’d run across the empty university plaza, through the hot air of that summer’s night, laughing wildly, only a little stoned, till we found this place where we could be alone. And if that first kiss—unexpected, unplanned—felt right at first, it quickly began to feel wrong, but the more reluctant I grew, the more insistent he became, mouth harder, tongue angrier, hand grabbing my hair, blood to the roots, fingers around my wrist, not at all the person I’d known and shared laughs, books, cigarettes, late nights, early mornings, endless talk with, not this boy who became suddenly furious, demanding, for whom I could only manage a headshake because no was a word so foreign to our friendship, who must not have meant to knee me in the stomach when I tried to push him off, who when my panties tore looked briefly stricken but then kept on, kept on—blow to the mouth, lips pressed hard, a pain thick and sharp, cracked me in two, kept on, kept on, a dull ache for days to come, and then his words, spoken as he was getting up, brushing his jeans free of dirt, looking almost shy as I lay on the ground still shaking (just a little)— “We’re still friends, right? Don’t start making this into something it wasn’t.” He looked down, pushing his hair from his eyes, saying he needed a smoke. I stayed where I was, curled up in that pretty passageway until I could put myself back together (just a little) and go back to the party. There, on unsteady legs, my mind loose, my eyes red and glazed, I whispered some of it in half-sentences to a friend, a girl, who said only, “Hectic. I thought you guys were such good friends?” and then searched my face, skeptically, as though there was something I wasn’t telling her.

After that, I ducked when I saw him, and he, perhaps feeling something close to regret, would try to speak to me, but when I couldn’t speak to him, when I ran at his approach, he moved from regret to fury, as though my fear itself was offensive. He began to saunter, sneer when we saw each other, performing a contempt that I suppose was meant to mock my hurt and all that was once between us. And then he was gone, graduated the following semester, left this city to live with his father, left me with a carefully tended silence and an unanswered why?

I see now that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to fill in that silence, trying to provide an answer that is not mine to give.

I don’t know what happened to him. I’ve never followed the trajectory of the boy I once called my closest friend and now only speak of as “my attacker.” I have never looked him up. By knowing nothing about him, I am able to dream him into something more permanent, more final than death; I am able to dream him into nonexistence. My logic, as far as I can tell, is this: if he didn’t exist, then neither would the crime.

Do not speak to me about reporting or repair or revenge, of making contact with tucked-away feelings, of healing or wholeness; I’ve circled and burrowed and engaged and dug and worked away endlessly through all the therapies one might conjure—talking, dancing, writing, breathing, confronting, soothing, bathing, baking, gardening, shaking, lying on a couch not making eye contact with my therapist, sitting on a chair making constant eye contact with my therapist—and I can tell you this: all any survivor wants is for it not to have happened, to have known herself without the wound.

And when the therapist would ask (as you might) why I stayed at the place where it happened, why I never left, I would offer the practical reasons: that this was the place that offered me scholarships, work, prestige, a chance to teach into the darkness, do the work of redress. But beyond that, there is this, what I do not say to anyone, and only rarely admit to myself—that if I am here, I can keep an eye on the memory. I know where it lives. It will not surprise me.

And even then, the memory is, like all live things, careless, unpredictable, a vortex to be sidestepped. For the most part, I’ve trained myself to avoid the triggers (allow me, in this instance, that word, please), but it still lurks about, finds form in unexpected fears and shallow breathing, in having to steel myself ahead of a particular film or article, in managing panic when traveling, in the vast landscape of my dreams and nighttime dread. That night and all its clinging debris have become a part of how I live in the world, part of the breath and movement of my hours, the stuff of an ordinary day. And when I say ordinary, I don’t mean easy, I don’t mean I’ve gotten used to it. What I mean is that there are just a handful of days in a year when it doesn’t occur to me. What I mean is that it’s always there and that, like with everything in life, some of those days are easier than others. But here I am, for the first time in 35 years in this little passageway, breathing the soft flower-scented air. All is dark, all is still, but for a faint rustle, the menace of a small moving creature in the bushes.

I drive home feeling unexpectedly light, my mind on you, not on him.

The break in the semester means that I do not see you for a full week. I would usually spend that week trying to forget about work, but I find myself returning to you, circling around you, so much so that I feel compelled to mention you not once but several times to my partner, who eventually says he finds my interest in you unnerving and that I should “watch it.”

“Watch what?” I say with a laugh I muster up from somewhere.

“I’m not sure,” he answers, throwing me a worried look. Over the next few days, he mentions you teasingly as though he can joke you away.

I am eager to see you when the semester resumes, but you are not in class. Your absence is an ache. I send you one email, then another, then another to “check in.” You do not respond. I consider calling. I tell myself that this is care, not excess.

You miss another class, and just as my concern is mounting, just as I’m considering calling you at home (the department secretary gives me your number), you come to my office hour. This time you do not open the door, instead waiting for me to do so. I find you there, turned as though you are about to leave. You’ve been crying. No, weeping. Your eyes are red-rimmed, and there is a small bump on your mouth.

“What’s happened?” I ask.

It’s nothing, you tell me. You just need an extension for your essay.

I hover a hand over your arm, careful not to touch you, to lead you inside via gesture. Sit, I tell you, take off your coat. You shake your head no and tuck deeper into it, though the day is mild and my office is warm. I battle the dread already gathered before you speak. And then the story as old as any told, the one most women know and recite by heart and head.

Yes, I think to myself, of course you trusted him, loved him.

No, I tell you, love doesn’t make the line between yes and no porous. Yes, I’m certain of that. No, what you describe is not a seduction gone wrong.

A scream—hot and thick—is building at the back of my throat. I douse it with a sip of water and try to manage the hatred I feel for this boy I’ve seen you with so often, your head in his lap, your whole life ahead of you. I dip quickly into vengeance; I imagine finding him, outing him. Aloud I say things about Student Services, I ask about the police, I make suggestions for counseling.

“No,” you say. “No. I didn’t come here for that. I’ve done all of that. My father’s seen to all of that. He’s been wonderful.”

Your father again. Not just an unusual man, but extraordinary, heroic even. I feel such relief for you. More, I feel a certain faith in the moral universe almost restored.

“I mean, obviously, he’s furious,” you go on. “He’s said that if he ever sees him, he’ll beat him to a pulp.” A small laugh. “He’d need a friend. He’s not a very big guy, my dad. But it helped, you know? That he was so angry for me. Not with me.”

I feel such a tenderness for you and your father, for how he’s given you his anger, how he’s shown you his love through his rage, exonerated you from all blame and responsibility—not that you should carry any, but the world is built for you to do just that and for those of us who love you to help you to put that blame down.

You say that you are grateful for my support, that you have always felt welcomed by me, understood by me, that you have always felt as though you’ve known me and as though, by some mystery, I have known you. I say nothing because I begin to understand with sadness that our symmetry will now be rooted differently; it will not be books but wounds that bind us. My silence embarrasses you, and you apologize; you’ve probably said too much, you don’t mean to overstep.

Not at all, I reply, doing what I can to keep my face soft, open, alive to your pain. We speak more, you tell me your body is aching, and I feel the memory of that same ache in mine. We cross our legs at the same time, my mimicking of your movements invisible beneath my desk. You say that of course you long for your mother but that your father has been both mother and father to you in this moment and for all the years that came before. You say when you count your blessings, when you think about how you might heal, you know your father is the force that will take you through. I tell you what a wonderful thing this is, I tell you it is beautiful luck, it is grace, a blessing, though it should not be.

You talk and talk. Your father said this, the attacker said that, your friend came to fetch you, the policewoman doubted you, you know she did, you don’t want anyone to know, you want to tell the world, you want to hide under the covers, scream it till you are hoarse.

“I’ll be all right,” you insist, and when I suggest that you don’t need to be, you’re allowed not to be, you let out a wail that comes down through the centuries. I get up and go toward you, and you collapse on my shoulder, swollen, weeping, rough with grief. I rock you and croon as though this is something I know how to do. I kiss your head. I must bandage you up, I think, take you through; you are a bird, a feathery thing without language, wounded and soft. You pull back, embarrassed again, and turn to hunting through your bag for a tissue. I do the same, grateful for the break, relieved to not have to hold you. We each find a tissue at the same time, hold them up at the same moment, and take the opportunity—eager, desperate—to laugh softly, to share the reprieve. You blow your nose, rub at your eyes, then you throw back your head, searching the ceiling before bringing it down at an angle and gazing at me through a wave of hair. As you do this, my breath turns shallow, then hot. My flesh rises a little from the bones, the hairs on my arms quiver. Something is turning through the room like a small and terrible tornado, invisible, ruthless, whipping and curdling what is between us. Again, that look down, sideways, through your hair. I want to yank your head straight, scream to stop it. Recognition, repetition. Recognition, repetition. I see suddenly, shockingly, what I have always known, always refused in you. And your surname, that name, common enough for me to have dismissed any link to then, is the only word I can hear, looping in my mind.

You sense something is amiss. You ask, “What’s wrong?”

I am doing all I can to sit less rigidly, to keep my breath even, for myself, for you. I am thankful that your gaze drifts elsewhere—to my books, to the window—grateful that you’re unfocused enough from the shock you cannot yet name to not look directly at me. Because this way, I can look at you. I can look at the shape of your jaw, at the mannerisms I now see you’ve inherited, I can feel the full surprise that that mouth, his mouth, sits on your face, and know the wonder that I did not see it before. You’re looking down at your hands now, touching your own wrists, stroking them. Then you hold them up to show the bluish press of the bruises, evidence that you fought. Again and again, you say, I did try.

Yes, I think, I did try, while I stare at you, watching how your face dissolves into his.

Almost an hour has passed. In a few minutes, I will have to teach a class. I tell you this regretfully and usher you to the door, extracting a series of promises that you will call if you need to, email, message, come back tomorrow.

At the door you tell me that what’s upset your father so much is that this happened on campus, that this is his alma mater, and that it’s tainted the whole space for him too.

“I understand that,” I reply.

You stop suddenly, giving me your first smile of the afternoon (that mouth! ). You’ve realized something that gives you joy. “You did your undergrad here too, didn’t you?” and when I nod, you say with the excitement that comes when a coincidence feels like serendipity. “You and my dad must have been here at the same time!”

You search for the delight you want, need, to see mirrored on my face.

“Yes,” I reply, trying to hold the quaver at bay, keep the terror on mute.

“Yes,” I say, resisting the urge to cup your face, to stroke it, squeeze your jaw, plunge my fist into that mouth.

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Nadia Davids is the author of the plays At Her Feet, Cissie, and What Remains and a novel, An Imperfect Blessing, which was shortlisted for Africa’s Etisalat Prize for Literature.


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