"Johnny's observation about the story is basically sound, but does it go far enough to explain what's really happening? For example, using Johnny's premise as a good beginning, let's take a closer look at this passage."
Oh those legs! Long, sheathed in standard jeans, legs accustomed to hard use. Louise had to walk around or over or stay clear of Johnny's terrain altogether. While students wrote in their journals on the assigned topic, Louise glanced at the legs. A couple of times Johnny sensed the perusal and Louise averted her eyes. His legs extended farther, his feet pointed upwards, under the pressure of his professor's gaze.
He was usually the last to stand up and leave the class room. As students gathered around Louise to ask a question or explain their previous absence, she managed also to watch the young man hoist his stature out of the one armed bandit, a seat too small to contain his physique comfortably. Although Johnny never failed to look in his teacher's direction, not once had he spoken to her at the end of class. Just a hint of a smile appeared on his face. Louise couldn't fathom any possible emotion she might have seen in the eyes, collecting no more information than the colour: brown, liquid chocolate imbued with undertones of gold.
From her office window Louise enjoyed a good view of the field and a rugby scrum of students in striped jerseys, their heads seemingly interlocked as one hefty half pushed against the other for purposes she did not understand. Her wing of the college jutted almost to the edge of the playing field. She had never herself been adept at team sports, preferring solitary exercises like swimming, or tennis with a colleague on the college court. Answering the phone, Louise kept looking out the window to see what position Johnny took in the field.
"Fred, are you okay?"
Her husband usually phoned in mid-afternoon to ask when she'd be coming home, a fact he knew perfectly well because, since the accident seven years ago, Louise had always come home by three at the latest, which gave her sufficient time to prepare supper.
"I'm capable of cooking a meal, Louise."
"Of course you are, but as I like to cook and you never did, why start now?"
No doubt Fred had recoiled from the asperity in her voice yesterday, so he wheeled his chair away from the stove and down the ramp into the family room which was a foot lower than the kitchen. Sometimes matters would just move more smoothly if Fred didn't pretend that the accident hadn't made a difference in how he performed domestic chores. So many differences. Wonderful, how fast Johnny ran on his powerful legs.
"Yes, you can peel the potatoes, if you want. I'll be home soon. Not to worry, sweetheart. See you later. Bye."
Oh, heavens! Just as she replaced the receiver, Louise caught sight of Johnny leaping high after a great kick, his legs scissoring in the air before he fell into an embrace of two or three team mates. Then, in what appeared to be one unbroken and swift movement, Johnny grabbed the bottom of his jersey, lifted it over his head and arms and flung it towards a young lady standing only feet away. He revealed a torso which, even from her distance, Louise could admire. The girl stooped to retrieve the jersey and held it against her chest.
If she were to take Johnny aside and say something pleasant about his work, would that improve relations? Would she stare at the young man any less if they became friends? She risked professional compromise by flicking the proverbial chip off his sturdy shoulders in too provocative a manner. If she made any gesture that could even be remotely misconstrued, she would jeopardize her authority. Oh well, it was a common phenomenon, somewhat surly athletic types who resisted literature and only attended class out of program requirements and not out of desire.
Louise returned to marking an essay, tedium like sludge clogging her spirits. How long had she been teaching the recalcitrant? She had aged in the atmosphere of indifference and dislike. Outside, youth possessed the field, tumbled, shouted and leapt in the sunlight. Unable to focus on incomprehensible paragraphs, she put her marking pen down and returned to the rugby practice. In the stands Johnny was now sitting with his hands clasped behind the back of his head, his legs extended, staring directly at her window. Louise immediately looked down at the essay.
"You're late today, Louise."
"Am I? I don't feel I'm late."
Fred raised his face to be kissed before wheeling himself back into the kitchen where he had spread several recipe books on the table. She noticed a bowl of peeled potatoes in water.
"Good, that's a help. What are you looking for?"
"Oh, something really interesting for the dinner Saturday night."
"I thought we had decided on veal parmigiana. You know how good mine is."
"Yes, everyone loves it, but you served it last time they were here, and not long before that. I think something else would be nice for a change. How about stuffed salmon?"
With the potatoes they were having lemon chicken breasts which she retrieved from the refrigerator. Fred still wore the track suit he had first put on yesterday, a lifeless khaki green, loose-fitting, no discomfort around his waist while sitting in a wheel chair. That very morning she had stood by the closet, ostensibly choosing a blouse for work, but observing her husband's scarred legs as he struggled out of his pajamas, refusing her help, and into his outfit before maneuvering his body onto the chair by the bed, its wheels securely locked in place last night. Whenever her legs touched Fred's under the covers, she moved away towards the edge of the mattress. Her legs still remained elegant, shapely, one of her best features not damaged by the decades. Fred used to caress them long and lovingly with his fingers and lips. In the years since the accident, released from the hospital, he had neither touched nor had she encouraged. The operations to restore, reconnect, replace, or screw in his bones had gouged, striated and puckered his flesh and skin. Repeated hospital stays and operations had led to fatigue. Shortness of breath when he struggled to move from wheel chair to toilet, shortness of temper, too. Desire died. "My life has fallen into the sere," she quoted Macbeth silently, and decided upon which blouse to wear.
"How did your therapy session go today?"
"The same huffing and puffing, but at least I'm able to keep the muscles toned." Fred did not look up from the recipe books.
"This one looks delicious."
Three times a week Fred took a cab to a physiotherapy center where for a grueling two hours he endured necessary exercises designed to get him standing without the aid of scaffolding, and ultimately walking. One was not supposed to give up hope, although Louise had never been persuaded that hope contributed much to anything. She had already purchased the veal, now in the freezer, but to humor her husband she would agree to whatever menu he chose. Arbitrariness and sudden whimsy affected Fred's judgment and moods. A prolonged psychological consequence of the car accident, they said, post-traumatic stress that threatened to last forever. If she had chosen salmon, Fred would now be suggesting parmigiana or something else.
"Were you seeing students after class?"
"No, just marking."
"You came home later than usual, I was wondering."
Her back turned towards him as she put the chicken in the oven. Was he keeping tabs, did she have to clock in, explain every movement? True, Fred spent his days alone for the most part until she returned home. She always prepared a lunch which he took out of the fridge himself, ate breakfast with him every morning, asked if he wanted to shower and needed assistance, checked that his medications were accessible and he was not experiencing unbearable pain or discomfort. Shutting the oven door harder than necessary, she knew that three o'clock had in fact become closer to four, each time attributing the tardiness to academic duties. When had the usual established itself anyway? When had she fallen victim to a predetermined pattern of behavior?
"We'll eat in an hour. I think I'll change my clothes. So, have you decided upon salmon for Saturday night?"
Louise did not wait for an answer.
Very muggy for the third week of September, the temperature too much above normal for comfort. Students had dressed down, the girls wearing tank tops revealing more skin than Louise thought advisable for a Toronto college, and the boys not any more modest in attire. The students were writing their first test paper. Although the test shouldn't have taken more than a half hour, Louise had decided to let them have the full class time for the sake of a few incapable students who mulled over every word to achieve minimal results. Johnny returned her gaze and seemed to be sucking on the end of his pen more than writing. He was the first to get up, his shorts rising high on muscular thighs, and held out the examination booklet rather than place it on the desk. Yes, the eyes were gold-flecked brown. His black hair curled in the humidity.
"Are you finished, Johnny? Did you find it hard?"
"No, ma'am, I didn't. I'm sure you'll give me a pass."
Why the smile? For the first time Louise didn't sense antagonism, but she didn't feel any more comfortable with intimations of irony. Was Johnny mocking her? The way he said ma'am, as if emphasizing her age. A woman above average height, she couldn't avoid his eyes. If she looked down, she risked becoming entranced by the legs. He waited, holding out the paper. Another student, making a racket with books and chair, got up. Louise accepted Johnny's test. The smile had disappeared from the mouth, but perceptible amusement lingered in his stance, in the insistence of his brown, oh so brown, eyes. He's laughing at me, Louise decided. Following the subtle shifting of his glance, she noticed the top two buttons undone in her linen blouse. An unexpected blood rush of extraordinary power made her speak to distract attention from the trembling of her hands, for she understood that Johnny could acquire as much power, more perhaps, if she allowed it.
"Do you have rugby practice this afternoon? There's a game on Saturday, I believe?"
"Yes and yes. You'll see me."'
When she sat down to wait out the hour, she reflected on Johnny's last words. Did he expect her to attend his game as well? Had she given him an advantage? What an odd position that knowledge now put her in, as if she had entangled herself in the unspoken. Really, Louise, she had a habit of admonishing herself, a stereotypical situation: the middle-age teacher, presumably still attractive in some eyes. What in the end did attractiveness signify now? And, to complete the cliché-ridden scenario, a provocative student who hinted at possibilities. She forced a smile as more students began crowding her with their text papers.
Rugby practice again this Friday afternoon, and she had decided to stay later in the office because Fred, taken by taxi to his orthopaedic specialist for x-rays and consultation, wouldn't return home from the hospital before six in the evening. She had opened the window to catch a cooling breeze. Male voices confabulated in a loud tangle of obscenities, praise and criticism; athletic bodies hurtled and kicked; Johnny, when not in play, deliberately stared at her window.
What to do about his test paper? She was surprised to see that he hadn't even attempted answering any of the questions, but had scribbled a brief note and remained sitting in class during all that time, returning her stare: I can't write the test. I didn't get time to do the work. You know, because my science courses take up a lot of time and then there's rugby. Can I have a second chance? I really have to pass this course. And I need some help. I'll come by your office after Friday's practice.
Other science students in her class also engaged in extra-curricular activities. Johnny had as much time as they, so on what basis could she grant him an exception? Today he had not removed his jersey and he stood closer than usual to her window, slowly rubbing under the shirt with a towel. Not once in her entire teaching career had she ever acted upon lust, although she'd be lying if she didn't admit that some students appealed to her fantasies. Since the accident, much of her private life had been reduced to fantasy: no, Louise put down her marking pen, she'd have to say "salvaged." Her life had been saved by fantasy. What she could no longer bring herself to touch, she could at least imagine. Was not imagination the very basis of her entire professional career, given the literature she taught? Perhaps for that reason she had not completed the call to an escort agency last month who provided a man of anyone's dreams.
Two hundred dollars an hour, the fee, satisfaction guaranteed like a kitchen appliance. If she gave the test a zero, which it deserved, then left her office before Johnny stopped by, would that send the proper signal? The mark would demonstrate that she had not lost authority or power. What on earth would she make for supper tonight? Fred no longer enjoyed going to a restaurant. They used to dine out once a week before the accident. Ah, love itself had once been sufficient diet. Startled by the knock on the door, Louise drew a perfect zero in green ink on the inside of Johnny's test paper, then checked the buttons of her blouse.
"Come in," she turned her head to look out the window as the door opened.
Outside young men were deserting the field in the late afternoon sun which cast long empty shadows on the much-abused turf.
Kenneth Radu's latest novel, The Purest of Human Pleasures, was published by Penguin Canada.
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