A tribute to doomed lovers
“Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets,
that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true.”
– Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
He bathes in his sweat in a 21-year-old room he doesn’t own, sipping cheap foreign beer and watching his sunburned belly rise and fall. The thick summer air makes everything sticky and the open window fails to help. He tries to distract his sweaty self with some soap on the telly, where overdressed women shriek at each other in an ugly language he only half understands. But he can’t help overhearing another heated conversation going on outside. Two angry birds. Probably lovers, one giving more love than it receives. He knows this story. Life always goes that way. It has its equilibrium. In a relationship where one loves the other 60%, the other can only love back 40%. But who knows; he has never been good at maths anyway.
Being an English teacher in a developing country gives you a lot of free time, most of which is spent either gulping down cheap foreign beer or barfing it out into some filthy toilet. It gives you a lot of free time to walk alone in the chaos of the city, dodging motorcycles and snacking on unhygienic street food, or to search for British pubs to hide in and feel even more alienated than before. It gives you a lot of free time, most of which you don’t know how to spend. An idle body leads to a busy mind.
His mind slips to his children sitting together in the chilly kitchen of their typically English brick house. A 17-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. His daughter is a reader, a thinker, and a singer. She plays the guitar and talks about philosophy. The boy is a joker. His intelligence exceeds his age and he cracks jokes like a 40-year-old man. Last week, they rapped him a song they wrote together about how much they missed him.
He takes a last warm sip of the beer and opens another with his teeth. He lets out a long sigh, which feels odd knowing that no one is there to hear it. As though sighs were pointless if no one acknowledges them. He speaks loudly in his mind, “It’s great here. I love it here.” And he does. Life here is a year-round vacation: eternal sunshine, exotic ladies, cheap meals, beaches within an hour car ride. Loneliness is irrelevant.
Not that he is lonely, mind. He has many friends, and many students he dares call friends. There’s something about an English teacher that creates a special relationship between him and his students. There’s something about literature and poetry that strips their audience bare, leaving everyone exposed under the boiling spotlight of vulnerability. Within every interpretation, every understanding nod, every doubtful disagreement, is a piece of each person’s rawest self. The teacher then becomes a bridge and a bowl for everyone’s emotions no matter how deep and secretive, making him seem like a benevolent saviour with comforting open arms.
This is why many students fall in love with their English teachers.
His wife is an English teacher, too. But she is different. The purpose of her job is to teach 4th graders to speak with proper grammar and spell definitely definitely and not definately. She is a good teacher and most students love her. But she is different. Her job is different. Their student-teacher relationship is different. He hopes she is out of bed by now. Evening here is morning there. He hopes she remembers to kiss their children good morning. He hopes she thinks of him before she falls asleep. But he probably doesn’t deserve it anyway.
He glances at the clock, even though he already decided early on that he wouldn’t do that tonight. He glances at the clock again; he failed to register it the first time. 6:54pm. She’s late. By 54 minutes. Make that 55. He sighs again, this time softer, more controlled.
She is a beautiful creature: the almond of her skin, the depth of her wavy hair, the tight curve of her nose, her flaming lips, the defiant lines of her body, the terrifying darkness of her eyes. His heart drops every time he thinks of her, the way she sits still as if she had all the secrets of the world within her palms, the way she crushes his name with her tainted accent, the way she pushes and pulls his head around with just a whisper dripping from her lips. His chest aches now just thinking about her. She is a creature all right. But she’s not his creature. She is no one’s creature.
Then come three knocks on his door that he’s been waiting for in the past hour. (His flat doesn’t provide a doorbell.) He tries to drag his feet and approach the door as slowly as possible as some odd pressure builds up inside his chest. His ribcage is almost exploding when he finally opens the door. And there she stands, with her weight on one leg, smiling, still in her school uniform.
His theory of students falling in love with their English teachers fails to mention that English teachers are vulnerable beings as well. (Perhaps even more vulnerable, as they like to pretend to be brave.) They are vulnerable beings and they fall in love, too.
He lets her in, unsure of where to put his hands. He seems to have too many all of a sudden. She glides across the small room and throws herself onto the sofa. He wants to kiss her. But he can’t. Not yet. Dinner first. He sits down next to her and grabs a plate of some lame fried rice he’s recently learned to make. It’s already gone cold, waiting for her arrival.
She pushes the plate out of his hand, almost spilling the food, but should he care? She slips onto his lap, wraps her arms around his neck, and kisses him. Softly. She stares into his eyes, her face so close to his that his vision becomes blurry, and he feels lightheaded. He can smell the sun still glowing on her skin. He breathes it in. He breathes her in. He licks his lips before he swallows her whole.
Devouring her, the tips of his toes go tingling cold, as if heat has escaped and risen upwards before flooding down upon his forehead, weighing down his eyelids as they struggle to sneak another peak at the heavenly face burning up before him. It’s a sense of completeness not yet complete, that he needs to keep pushing and pulling, thrusting and scraping, where pain becomes pleasure, and pleasure always insufficient. It’s a hardness wrapped within softness, a lubricated friction, crushing his tightly knotted chest with such heated intensity until his being can barely contain itself that gulps of desperate delight slip through the gaps of his teeth and the trembling of his lips half a breath at a time, and for a moment he swears he can see the universe.
Then they just lie there on the sofa: she on top of him, their breaths short and excited melting into one, their clothes gathering dust on the floor, dinner still cold and uneaten. Her dark skin sticky on his, he can taste the salt of her sweat on his lips and feel the curves of her body pressing into his. She is his creature now, for now, too tired to run away.
He likes to tell himself that it’s okay. If your wife doesn’t know, it’s not wrong. If you’re not in the same country, it’s not cheating. It’s a different world; it’s not reality. He got bored. She got bored. They got bored. Of each other. He had to leave. He had to leave her behind and find someone else to distract his weary mind. He’s getting old and tired of life. He needs some excitement to keep him living.
He isn’t sure if he believes all those things. At times, he feels as if he doesn’t even need them. Excuses are useless when you don’t feel guilty.
He traces his fingertips along the lines of her body and starts kissing her again. He’s never tired when she’s around. It’s as if she has a strange energy source bursting within her. The whole world becomes alive in her presence.
This time, his wife is on his mind the whole time. It energises and disgusts him. He knows whom he loves, and yet no one else can know. Everyone in his life lives in his twisted lies. Sometimes it feels as if this love affair isn’t real, because the only other person who knows about it is this beautiful creature that might as well have been a fragment of his imagination. But he knows it. He knows he loves her. He knows he loves her and that all he wants to do is to swallow her whole.
Here are some things he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that in 25 years he will be living with his wife again and fucking his wife again. He doesn’t know that in 25 years he will be travelling through Heathrow and that he’ll run into this beautiful creature of his one last time. He doesn’t know that in 25 years she will already be married with two children of her own, that by then she will be wrinkled and bored, just like he is now. He doesn’t know that in 25 years he’ll realise for the first time that he’s not in love with her, that he’s never been in love with her, that he’s only in love with an image of her, of someone who doesn’t exist, who never has and never will, and that he’ll continue to love that someone for the rest of his worn out existence.