Something of his cut across the slivered light framing her office’s nearly-shut door. Inside, she was following an eye-float that, after appearing against the desktop screen about a month ago, had not left her alone. She was learning how to live with a speck in sight just as she was learning other rituals in this desert town. Open-air market on the dry streambed every Friday, seizing the karst terrains of the nearby hills on Saturdays, and manoeuvring past the environmental activists who blocked some part of the main road every day.
It was Tuesday. She knew he would be here. But it was still three minutes until her walk-in office hours. The eye-float, she now noticed, vanished whenever she looked past the monitor to the picture of a woman peering through binoculars, buoyant in a ballooning dress, that hung on the wall.
‘Professor,’ he knocked with the hands of the clock.
Head turned on a locked shoulder, she looked like a surprised animal.
‘Am I intruding?’ he asked. His off-white shirt had endured one too many washes but his narrow blue eyes shone.
She swivelled her chair. ‘No, tell me.’ What else could she say?
‘I was very interested in that essay you mentioned in class about T S Eliot’s borrowing the concept of ‘erhebung,’ elevation of the spirit over matter, from Hegel via Schopenhauer. I found the essay in the library and even managed to fit it into my last evening’s reading.’
He paused to collect his tribute. A few words would do. He deserved at least that for chasing her incidental remark to its rightful end when the other students dragged themselves to Humanities classes. They were in the Polytech College to train as intrepid explorers, who would set out in search of the black gold before it was gone forever. They had as much patience for poetry as they had for the protestors, who’d camped in the town to disrupt the construction of new pipelines to the local oil refinery. Among this bunch of students, she must know his one, unique mind.
But she was distant, as though she were charting the contours of some other arid plain.
Curled up on the chair, he tucked his knees hard against his chest, behind the fall of his flaxen beard. Longhaired guy, he’d called himself during the introductory class, who lives for great poetry and German Idealism. What else is there to life? Perhaps, food? And oil? He’d added, smiling. That last bit, he hoped, would be his and her in-joke – a dig at the mercenaries around them.
‘Did you say Eliot read Hegel?’
If she had said it, she didn’t remember. Lecturing was like drawing patterns in the air. There was a practiced choreography to it but there were also instants when a pattern revealed itself to her and then, like the occasional ripple on the surface of a still lake, it smoothed out, leaving no trace.
‘I don’t care very much for Hegel, Schopenhauer, or anyone who recognizes solely the reality of their own experience. That metaphysics has caused us to destroy environments and poison other living things. Look at what we’re doing in this town,’ she stopped, exasperated. What was she saying?
A woman can’t tell her Schopenhauer from her Hegel, he concluded.
‘How do you think your classes are going?’ he asked. He knew it was her first semester here, being a regular in the classes of the English professors. There were three of them anyway, that’s before she joined, huddled in a corner of the Humanities building. It was on him to save their sparsely attended brown bag events with his studied insights.
She shrugged. ‘Fine.’
Could that be all she had to give him? Why was she holding herself back? Nervous, little creature. He wouldn’t hurt her. She had to see that. ‘I could read out a few lines from Hegel, Schopenhauer, or … well, anyone you like during our next class meeting,’ he said extending his hand.
‘Why?’ she asked, dropping her eyes to the assignments stacked on her desk.
Ah, she was simpler than he’d assumed, a pragmatist. He grinned. His reading responses were in that stack. Next week, after extracting full points for his outstanding work, he would drop by her office to ask what she thought was an ideal response paper. She would then see him for what he was – a mind swimming above the rest. ‘Thank you for your time,’ he said today.
Skype pixelated, cutting off her husband every few moments. This nightly routine of throwing pleasantries and concerns into a void that devoured half her words was getting tiresome. ‘How’s everything’ couldn’t make it from one desert to another, one in America and another in Kuwait, without glitches.
In response, her husband would initially detail the successes of his team sent out to optimize oil production from depleting wells. But it isn’t as if new miracles transpired there every day. And he had little interest in the apocalyptic fictions and documentaries she consumed. So, there was not much to talk about save the eye-float. Was this the onset of glaucoma? It ran in her family. Or was it what the activists were up in arms about – the side effects of being exposed to the refinery’s toxic releases? Her husband assured her it was neither; the refinery took necessary precautions that those troublemakers knew nothing about. To divert her mind, he asked her to strip to her lingerie and tease him. Don’t you have work, she asked, minding the time difference? He continued to toss and turn on his bed.
So, she told him about the student who came to her office with bogus questions. She’d heard rumours that the guy rattled off her schedule to anyone who wished to arrange a meeting with her. Was this ground for filing a harassment complaint, she wondered aloud? You’re so cute, her husband said. Can’t you handle a boy’s attention? Baby, you can’t whine about every little thing on the job.
But her husband was speaking with no consideration for how the student made her feel – exposed as a prey – she argued. Her husband withdrew his advice. Why had she shared the problem with him when she didn’t want his solution?
She just wanted to talk.
Had she made friends? Shouldn’t she? After all, they’d decided to settle in the town long-term. It was still the beating heart of the oil industry and had jobs for the both of them. How common is that?
With all the grading, who had time for friends?
You must make time; despite long shifts, he’d found company to enjoy Bollywood movies.
What’s novel about finding Bollywood aficionados in the Middle East or anywhere – aren’t we all strapped to the seats of the same multiplex?
Well, she needed friends and, he could do with a wife who wasn’t a cynical hypochondriac.
But she rejected his interventions, and wounded, this time her husband hung up.
Her husband’s hardship allowance for the current posting didn’t cover the energy expended in these everyday battles. But all through grad school in the US, he and she had looked forward to a plush house in the suburbs with a private pool and Jacuzzi – that was their American dream – and since her literature degree wouldn’t secure the down payment, he, the engineer of the family, had taken the fall.
The perk of having a dingy corner office on the fourth floor was that she had the largest window. The painted woman on the wall could detect sweatshirts on bikes crossing the dry streambed through her binoculars at all hours.
The longhaired guy had walked up to the professor when she was switching off the projector this morning. The classroom had emptied by then. He had book recommendations for her. She should take advantage of the weekly book sale at the library. Did she come to campus on Thursdays and Fridays? If not, he could buy her books, he’d said, leaning so slightly forward that only someone watching for it would see it.
The nicotine on his breath reached hers. Her stomach contracted. She wanted to slap him across the face, but her job depended on student evaluations. And he would rate her well. So, she’d left saying, ‘Thanks for bringing the sale to my attention.’ But now she was mad at herself for it. He had sent a long follow-up email listing the books she should read to better engage with Hegel.
Shouldn’t she report his conduct? But what had he done? Recommended some books to a professor. Was her ego so fragile? Her husband was right, she was being antsy for nothing. But what about those gestures, the leaning forward, the extending of hand? Was she reading too much into some innocuous moments? Couldn’t she tackle a boy’s attention and recommendations?
In response to his rambling message, she typed, ‘Your enthusiasm about my course is good but office visits or emails to me, your professor, ought to be prompted by a purpose such as a pressing doubt about an assignment or a comprehension question.’
Hitting send, she felt lighter. She had bought time. This would deter him—he couldn’t possibly admit to not understanding instructions or the simple course materials.
The sky was red that evening for an imminent meteor shower. Walking on the levee toward her apartment, between yuccas and ash junipers, an unaffected happiness took hold of her. Perhaps it had to do with shutting down the student or the fact that her husband was coming on a 15-day vacation this weekend. They had been at each other’s throats the past few months. But at this moment, when she could see a full moon drift in the stream that was not even there, anything was possible—including complete reconciliation.
Against the red sky, her eye-float appeared, disappeared. Perhaps it was an optical illusion, like her husband was telling her, and had nothing to do with her unwitting contact with the purple tap water. She didn’t drink from the tap, no one in the town did, but surely, the lawn sprinklers didn’t use bottled water.
She was at it again, thinking the worst on a night of celestial stunts. She had to stop binging on those documentaries where some talking head pronounced the unimaginable havoc the oil industry wreaks. You live only once, she recalled the jingle of a cola ad. Besides, as her husband had pointed out, the refinery paid millions of dollars in reparation for any damages. When his overseas assignment was done her husband would join this station. Meanwhile, if she went blind, perhaps they would throw in an extra something, in the way of atonement, for an employee’s wife.
On the main road adjacent to the levee, activists were sloganeering as usual. She passed them. Did it matter whether there would be this red sky or a harvest moon when she could no longer see them?
‘Professor.’ A voice rang in the night.
Stunned, she thought she gave out a cry, but no one seemed to have heard her. In the distance, an elderly couple was taking a walk, and the protestors were drowning in their own chants.
The longhaired guy was coming at her. Was he hiding among the protestors? Or had he followed every move of her body, taut in leggings and barely contained in a blazer? His eyes had the glint of a cat’s. There was nowhere she could hide.
‘I saw your email,’ he said, closing in. ‘All semester I’ve demanded well-rounded knowledge of you and in return offered you something of myself. Where is the harm in that?’ he asked in a cool, singsong voice, scratching his groin.
She felt like she was being doused with boiling water. It took a lot to pull herself together and string a few words. ‘This is not the place—’
Not here, not now, she said in a breath and resumed walking, faster than ever. In no time she had overtaken the elderly couple, left behind her apartment, the strip malls, the massive refinery. It was a few hours before she turned to see he wasn’t following her.
She called in sick the next day, the day after, and the day after that, fulfilling her teaching obligations through video lectures. She had also drafted multiple emails addressed to the department’s Chair about the student. She would send the note once she was certain her language wasn’t giving her terror away. She wouldn’t play a hysteric brown woman.
In all this, there was her husband’s trip to look forward to, he would be here, and he could even escort her to campus for a few days. That would dissuade anyone from following her. She’d been taught, men frightened away men.
From her apartment’s terrace, she could see the refinery’s columns, standing tall behind the pinyon pines. She stood there naming the forms taken by the nebulous smoke that the columns breathed out. Perhaps her husband could just stay here. It might take them longer to get the house of their dreams without the hardship allowance and tax cuts but between his income and hers, they could get something decent for the time being.
A biker had stopped abruptly to look in the direction of her apartment. For a moment, breathing was impossible. But the biker adjusted his helmet and was soon on his way. Why was she forever in a haze?
It was then that the phone call came. A small accident had occurred at the rig off Kuwait’s southern shore. While the matter was being looked into no employee of the company whether on land or offshore could abandon post.
Emails fail at tone. So, she’d decided to see her department’s Chair in person. In any case, it was time she returned to campus. Enough of the video lectures – students could rise in rebellion. They hadn’t signed up for an online course.
When she entered her office, she smelled rotting sardines and it made her sick. The trash hadn’t been collected in her absence. She put the bin outside the office, opened the window to let fresh air in, and finally set down to rehearse what she would say when the Chair came for the meeting.
She had practiced tone and delivery a few times when the door was knocked. Take a deep breath and clearly communicate that the student has been disrespectful; then, use his emails as evidence – this was the hard part, would require interpreting and close reading – and end by saying she might have been stalked. Everything had to be put with a light touch but not light enough to be laughed away. A delicate balance. She opened the door. It was the student.
‘Where were you?’ he asked. His beard had been trimmed, and not a shirt, but a dark kurta clothed his pale, skinny frame. He glanced at the trash bin, ‘that gave you away.’
‘It isn’t my office hours,’ she protested, weakly, but he pushed the door. She would yell like a wild animal if she found her voice. But all she could do was walk backward as he claimed more and more space. Then it struck her, this barging in, this was misconduct, as clear as day. The Chair would be here any minute and he would see. There was relief in her terror now. She would be believed.
And it was a clear day too. So, when she reached the window she knew the day could take her a long way, away. Eyes set on the door – was the Chair here? – she pushed herself up, sideways. There stood the student, extending the hand she wouldn’t take.
She’d thought she would hit the ground, but pumped up and up, she rose. Recovering her spotless eyesight, she now saw herself floating over the town in a ballooning dress. The people, the buildings, even the refinery’s tall columns turned to dust in a growing desert. What a miracle this was, she would tell her husband.
Torsa Ghosal is the author of the novel, Open Couplets, Yoda Press, India, 2017. She is also the Associate Editor of the South Asian literary magazine, Papercuts. Her fiction, poetry, and essays can be found in Aaduna, Unsplendid, Papercuts, Himal Southasian, The Hindu Blink, Muse India and elsewhere. She currently researches and teaches contemporary literature at California State University, Sacramento.