by M F McAuliffe
He was gentle.
Because he was gentle and she knew him, because he’d cried when his wife left him, because he loved his kids.
Because he had cried and been stricken, because he was lost and had cried, because he was gentle and laughed and loved his children.
Because they’d walked and half-laughed along the river-bank and walked and half-listened along the street, because he wanted and she thought she could give him something, enough, over lunch, over dinner, while he was lost.
Because he asked and she couldn’t say “No, because…”, she agreed to dinner in the staff dining-room. It was handy; she was contract-staff and so she’d never been there, had never bothered to go; he had to stay for a class at half-past five.
The student cafeteria was downstairs, along the side-street, a long string of a room, orange vinyl under a black wooden ceiling. The vinyl was adrift in squalor. The squalor was encrusted with noise.
The staff dining-room was upstairs and along the highway, a long, blue-carpeted room, maple tables, heavy beige hessian curtains. The light was muted. The air was muted. She watched the curtains hang, block out traffic, commuting, blackboards, chalk, diagrams, work; morning, evening, coming, going, home, work; layoff, fury, fear.
There were four older men eating without much sound at a few isolated tables.
She was alone, morning, evening, coming, going.
She was early. Chalk, blackboard, layoff.
She was by herself. Fear. Fear, fury.
The blue-carpeted space waited for sound. The men’s eyes waited for news.
Everyone knew everyone; only old-timers ate up here. She was news that would be alluded to. These men would see and surmise, shake their heads, smirk, shrug. She turned to leave. Laid off. Fury, fear, fear.
He arrived. He smiled at her, blushed and said how glad he was she could make it, how he’d looked forward to it, she was his guest. He ushered her to the centre table, held her chair, gave her the menu with a flourish, told her how his kids had taken to her when they’d all had dinner after the walk along the river, how they’d asked when she’d come back.
She smiled and asked if the vegetables were frozen, so he’d stop being so direct, so pleased, so loud, so voluble, because the last of the sunlight was glinting through chinks in the curtains and she could see how dusty the air was, how old the old men were and how they’d fought over the years from the time the college had been a smithy and lunch had been in an open shed; how they’d furnished their classrooms out of estate-sales; how they’d sharpened their pencils with their teeth; how they’d hung their metal-grey coats in grey metal cupboards while the rain and the years and the nights pelted down; how they’d fought and gradually things had got better, a staff association, a dining-room; how their fingers and thumbs had been ingrained with chalk and still were and would be even after they stopped lecturing; how the heaviness of their heads and gazes was age as much as armature; how they could see her as a bright parrot-like frivolity, another one of the endless, pretty women who came and went in the endlessly frivolous Arts Department; how they’d watch other men take women like her to dinner and somewhere else afterwards, if they didn’t themselves, those women who probably shouldn’t have been there and who certainly wouldn’t be in another thirty years, because they’d never been in it for the long haul. Never would be.
He was looking at her and telling her about his lecture.
He was looking at her and his eyes were wide with trust and his hands were small and neat, too small to fend off a blow, far too small to strike one.
She had to leave, was desperate to leave because he was trusting and alone and his kids had taken to her, because she had nothing to say and nothing to give, because the place was being closed and everyone was being laid off, old-timers and all, because his severance would be large and he was generous, because he loved his kids, because he was gentle.
She smiled and declined dessert. She smiled and thanked him and said she had to go.
He offered to walk her to her car.
She stood up.
The foot of the chair caught on the carpet. The edge of the tablecloth rose with her; the coffee spilt, the heavy silverware fell against the plates, every head turned.
The old men’s eyes looked at her, saw a wisp.
His eyes returned to her, saw earth and hearth and warmth.
When all she’d wanted was an unobtrusive exit.
He helped as she gathered books and papers from her office for the evening’s work. She closed and locked the office door. It was the office, she thought. Not hers. It was less transient.
They walked down the corridor.
He was waiting, small hands, generosity, smile. He loved his kids, wanted someone decent for them.
“What about next Saturday?”
She had been dreading this because she knew him and liked him and he had been hurt, because walking along the river had been too much, was in it for the long haul. She wanted to hide, stop existing, because the only thing she could say now would leave him alone in a landscape of loss, where he was gentle, and loved his kids, and was still crying.
In 2002 McAuliffe co-founded the multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly with her husband, R. V. Branham, and she continues there as contributing editor. In 2011 she co-wrote and co-published the artist’s book Golems Waiting Redux (GobQ / Publication Studio, Portland).
Photograph: Humberto Suaste – detail from EL NIDO