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Authors: Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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BOOK: The Wood of Suicides
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He ushered me into this humid paradise, which was overrun with hanging ferns, oriental lilies, orchids, and nymphaea in tubs of stagnant black water. He showed me some lilies that Danielle had won a prize for two years ago in a Marin County flower show. He reeled off the names of various aquatic blooms, smirking when he arrived at
Nymphaea pubescens.
“What do you think, my pubescent nymph?” He withdrew his hand from the water lily and transferred it to my shoulder.

“How does your wife find the time for all this?”

“Oh, she finds time for everything,” he said dryly, though not without a hint of admiration. “Danielle isn’t an idle thinker like you and I. She does things.”

I didn’t know whether to be insulted by his inclusion of me in the same category of idlers as himself. I soon brushed aside these qualms, however, preferring to admire the shimmer of perspiration on his brow and the chest hair peeking out from the front of his bathrobe. I could already feel myself being seduced by the excessive heat of the place, the beauty of the flowers. He sat himself down on an overturned plant pot. I settled at his feet and rested my head on his knees, as I’d longed to do during those dreamy Friday afternoons. He began on the Dante.

His voice, smooth and rich as ever, had its usual effect on me. I sighed. I fidgeted: sweeping my hair off my face, loosening the collar of my robe, and tugging at his leg hairs as if they were blades of grass. He noticed my affliction. Unable to maintain that old façade of pedagogic detachment, he asked me in a low, shamefully obvious tone, “Are you feeling hot, my darling?”

“Are
you?”
My own tone was wry, critical. I slid my hand up his leg and, before he could answer, was groping in the darkness beneath his robe.

He responded as any man would, inhaling sharply and snapping the book shut. When he could no longer bear the teasing kisses I placed along his kneecaps, he threw open his robe, exposing his ugly nakedness and taking my head in his hands. I had known what I was getting myself into. Nonetheless, I wasn’t quite prepared for the stifling act he had me perform—an act made more unbearable still by the thick, hothouse air.

When we emerged, all color had ebbed out of the afternoon. We retired to the bedroom once again, where we lay together for some hours in that twilit land between one climax and another. Given all the time in the world, we probably would’ve gone on that way, chafing, disassembling, and assimilating each other to no end. It had gotten to the point where I wanted it as much as he did; where I could no longer distinguish between his desire for me and my desire, between the pleasure he took in me and the pleasure of my subjection.

Of course, our time together was limited. I knew our time was almost over when we got up to order takeout, though we’d make love twice more before bed. The weekend was almost over, and it would never be the same again. I’d never be so free with him again, nor, going back to that life of locked classrooms and scheduled couplings, would I ever be satisfied with what I had.

I
WOKE
the next morning earlier than he did to cramps and soreness and a familiar, fetid dampness between my thighs—made foreign by my nakedness and by the man sleeping facedown at my side. I looked between the covers. I saw my own blood spotted on the sheets and was filled with horror, a mounting hysteria that couldn’t be explained by the simple misfortune of suffering my monthly curse in another woman’s bed. I touched myself. I saw blood on my hands and began to sob, as I hadn’t sobbed since he first deflowered me. I sobbed and shook him awake, telling him that we had to clean up; that I was dirty; that she would know that I’d been in her house, in her bed. I told him that we had to wash the sheets; that we had to air out the room; that she would smell me; that I was sorry, so sorry.

That afternoon, he drove me back to school, wearing a clean dress and one of his wife’s sanitary napkins. The main parking lot was crowded with parents and students, all of whom seemed to have arrived back at the same time, and were in no hurry to clear the area. He reversed, taking me instead to the smaller lot on the other side of campus, between the athletic fields and the performing arts center. There, he told me that he loved me, but that we’d been reckless; that it was sheer luck that I hadn’t fallen pregnant that month; that we needed to establish new methods and, moreover, to be careful about how we behaved at school. I listened, damp-eyed, as he lectured me on the importance of keeping things under control so we could continue enjoying ourselves; of his unwillingness to become a father again, at his age. I dried my tears and gave him my cool cheek to kiss, retrieving my bag and stepping out of the vehicle without a word of agreement or protest.

T
HE
FIRST
weekend that he could get away from his family, and I from the loose supervision of the school grounds, he picked me up in the SUV and drove me to a clinic—a place where he was sure that they wouldn’t ask too many questions. He gave me a wad of cash and waited in the car as I went inside, returning forty minutes later with a small paper package.

“Did you get what you need?” he asked tensely.

I nodded and patted the package in my lap.

“Good girl.” He patted my hand, an echo of my previous gesture. He started up the car and, with forced casualness, began: “I saw a motel a little way back. Or we could just park somewhere quiet; there were some nice oaks . . .”

“Oaks, please.”

“Anything for my wood nymph,” he smiled, backing out of the parking lot.

P
ART
F
OUR

S
ince the beginning of our affair, my grades had suffered slightly, as had my ability to concentrate in classes other than Mr. Steadman’s. Despite this, I felt that my mind had never been more fertile, my daydreams never more rich with possibilities. I neglected my textbooks in favor of the titles he presented me with, which I read through diligently and devotedly, underlining the phrases that seemed to express something of our love. I kept these phrases in mind, wrote them down, or repeated them to him while he held me in his lap, stroking my bare legs or running his fingers through my hair. I was eager to uphold the intertextual nature of our affair.

December was low clouds, the late honey of afterschool lovemaking by the classroom windows. We were so high above everything and the grounds so windswept that we didn’t have to worry about being seen. He would leave me as late as five forty-five on some Mondays and Fridays, stomach growling as he fixed his wristwatch and mumbled about the Hispanic cleaning women who carried keys and came at six. If the hallways were empty enough, we’d sometimes share a kiss outside his door. Usually, however, I’d slip out before him, walking prettily for his benefit and exchanging glances with the last stragglers carrying instruments up from the performing arts center. If we were especially late, I might lock eyes with one of the squat cleaning ladies, rolling along with her blue smock and vacuum.

There were inconveniences, of course. The Friday when, after circling the humanities wing, I came back to find him talking Shelley with bespectacled Emma Smith, who couldn’t risk another B minus. That other Friday when his daughter called needing a lift somewhere, while I kneeled topless on the carpet, cupping my just-unhooked bra to my chest. The Monday when he was held up an hour and a half by a staff meeting and had to make love to me hastily before the cleaners came—telling me he’d make it up to me later, as he zipped up and smoothed down his trousers. I dealt with these vexations bravely, fatalistically, never letting him see the way my soul sank with every wasted minute of our love.

At the end of December, before we parted ways for Christmas, he made me a present of Petrarch’s
Canzoniere,
the inside of which he inscribed as follows:

Bella Mia

These sonnets were not written, as you may think, by the Italian bard Petrarch for his Laura, but by a generous and noble seer who foresaw my love for you all those centuries back and had the benevolence of putting it into words for me—knowing that the mere sight of you on your knees in your green bower would render me incapable of speech. My girl, may all leaves burn, may all temples be defaced, may all poetry fall to ruins, as long as you remain forever Laurel, Laurel, Laurel, my green, my glory!

Ardently yours,

Hugh

I thanked him graciously, though there was a certain hypocrisy about such exalted words coming from the man who, only a quarter of an hour ago, had gotten me to kneel beneath his desk and do for him what I’d done that day in the hothouse. The knowledge had begun to dawn on him that he could use me in more ways than the traditional, that beyond my initial decorum, I was more than willing to be exploited. I came to relish the plush feel of his glans beneath my tongue, the throbbing of his dorsal veins, his salty taste surging into my open mouth. I loved how harassed and exposed he made me feel, bending me over his desk and tugging down my tights to enter me from behind. Perhaps my favorite thing, however, was to be held in his lap, my legs straddling his torso and my face to his. In this position, I felt utterly safe, small.

He was teaching me how to please and I was learning quickly, shedding more of my inexperience by the day. Instinctively, however, I knew the qualities he wished me to retain: that way I had of lowering my eyes when faced with the brute fact of his manhood; my tendency to hide my face in the crook of his neck when crisis was approaching and for minutes afterward; my unwillingness to talk about anything we did or the body parts involved in doing it, except in the vaguest terms—“love,” “you,” “me,” “inside,” “here,” “this.” I deferred to his large hands, his smooth instructions, his twenty-five years of additional experience.

Overall, my Steadman was a vigorous lover, an enthusiastic lover, a lover who I suspected thought himself better than what he was, but was no less appealing for this conceit. He was a lover with experience and arts, which he employed offhandedly, as if believing that what worked for one woman could be applied to any other. He had the amusing habit of breaking off from these arts abruptly, however, whenever his own physical state became a serious concern. It was no secret to me that my pleasure was secondary; that after him came the flood; that, when he used his fingers or tongue on me, it was only to be artful, to add a patina of refinement to the violent act of possession. It was a wonderful, terrible thing to be loved as he loved me—so vigorously, so brutally and, at the same time, with such intelligence, such refinement!

Each morning, I took a pill for him, which prevented any life from growing inside my young womb, no matter how often or how strenuously he had me. It happened on average about three times a week: three times a week from November until halfway through June, with allowances for vacations and monthly restrictions. In total, we must’ve been together almost a hundred times—a hundred times without his seed taking root within me, without my girlhood being burdened with a woman’s responsibilities, without my body changing. I could never allow myself to change, to digress from the mythopoetic perfection that he’d bestowed on me, and this was my greatest anxiety as we burned through that winter.

BOOK: The Wood of Suicides
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