And there she was, dripping wet from the rain, crossing the street right in front of me, and I had never thought of her this way. It was hard to see past the wipers pushing the rain back and forth and the fog on the windshield, so I lowered my side window a little to get a better peek. She wore a slate-blue dress that hugged her body, which grew darker and darker with every rain drop. She walked with a slow pace, kicking puddles with her bare feet, smiling as if she had no regard that it was raining, as if she was a desert bird, parched from the sun, and the rain quenched every feather of her thirsty plumage. She held her arms up to hold her books over her head, creating a square umbrella to protect her hair, yet her black locks sat wet on those bare white shoulders. With her arms in the air, her strapless bodice crept downward from the weight of being wet, revealing the top of a dove-like chest, that rose and fell with each step. The hem of her stretchy dress crept upward, making her slender bare legs longer and longer, making her stride slower and even more graceful. And inside me, something surged twisting like a knot, tightening my muscles, widening my eyes, pummeling my chest, forcing me to act, to save her from this downpour. I drove quickly, my hands and feet moving with instinct as if my body knew exactly what it had to do, even though my mind was locked in a trance. I swerved the car alongside her and lowered my window all the way down.
“Hey.” She gave a bright smile that stood out in radiance among all the surrounding gloomy darkness like a lighthouse beckoning ships and souls to safety.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I asked.
“It could be worse.”
“It is worse. How about a ride?”
“You don’t mind that I’m soaked?”
“No problem. Just get in.”
A sense of guilt crept up inside when I peered at her body as she entered my car and sat with care on the leather seats. Her dress was hiked far up, yet it didn’t seem to bother her that she was exposing her full thighs, soft-hued as ivory. I looked away, but I could still see her in my thoughts, her bare smooth skin against the hard cold leather.
“You don’t have to call me professor.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s fine. Just Felix is fine.”
“I live at Maple, on the farthest corner of the campus, behind the tennis courts. They’re nicer apartments, cost more, but no drama from roommates.”
I drove and Trista sat there quiet, looking out the window, watching the rain come down in sheets. Despite how I felt, I wanted to be a gentleman and I kept my eyes forward. When she moved in her seat, I heard the sound of wet clothes against skin against wet leather. She was soaked to the bone and I was expecting a smell of damp clothes and moist books, or worse like the smell of a wet dog, but she smelled like lilacs in the rain. It was as if she had walked through a field full of lilac trees, with the branches brushing against her, infusing over her wet hair its flowery perfume. Her sweet fragrance filled the car and I gripped the steering wheel harder, resisting the urge to turn my head and breathe deep her intoxicating scent. What had made me want to pick her up? What was I thinking? The windshield wipers went back and forth to a steady comforting rhythm that reverberated throughout the inside of the car. Then I sensed that she turned from her gaze out the window and I could feel the heat from her eyes looking straight at me. And the silence was unbearable, growing bigger between us, bigger and thicker, and I lost any ability to form a sentence, to find words that would cut into the silence.
“I enjoyed your class this morning.” She spoke with ease, her words sharper than mine.
“I had read a few stories from Dubliners, but Ulysses was too intimidating for me. And then when you assigned Portrait, I never thought it would be that good.”
My mind lingered on her soft voice, but I focused on her words, the actual words, trying to remember the morning class, or the course I taught, or the things I had said during my lecture.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “If you think Portrait was good, Joyce really flexes his literary muscles in Ulysses. You only get a hint of what he could do with stream of consciousness in Portrait.”
“I noticed that it’s not on our syllabus.”
“Ulysses, by itself, would take maybe two or more semesters to read and study. Maybe I should consider creating a course of it, well, if there is interest.”
“If you’re teaching it, Felix, I’ll definitely sign up.”
Her words echoed in my ears and I wondered. Was she interested in studying Ulysses or just being in a class I taught? I looked over at her and smiled. Her black locks of hair fell around her large brown eyes which were like orbs, like worlds that you could lose yourself in and forget all that was and is, and spend an eternity mesmerized by their beauty. I turned away. There was no need to get lost in such worlds.
“Was Portrait autobiographical?” Trista asked. “I mean Stephen’s early schooling was terrible, if that was actually what Joyce went through.”
“Stephen Daedalus is Joyce’s alter ego in Portrait. The events that occur in Stephen’s life almost mirror events that occurred in Joyce’s.”
“Awful. His parents just left him there at Clongowes. He was so young.”
“Boarding schools were normal at the time, a means of good education.”
“And to be alone in such a place with mean older boys, and that Father Dolan with his bat, how could he hit children—”
“It was how they ran the Jesuit school.” I became intrigued by her passion. Her cheeks were aflame as she spoke and it seemed that she allowed Stephen’s plight, Joyce’s past history, to pass into her soul; his written words had called her and she leaped at the call.
“He hit Stephen for no reason, what was the purpose of hurting him? Just awful. I would never want to go through that.”
“Interesting,” I said.
“Looking back, would Joyce have chosen differently?”
“I’m not following.”
“No one wants to go through hardship, but what if that fire of adversity and suffering are the things that forge your character, makes you who you are? Would you choose it again?”
“Good question. I don’t know.”
“Would Joyce be Joyce without his experiences, his hardship as a child, his rigorous schooling?”
“I see. Joyce’s genius may have come from his harsh environment and upbringing as a child.”
“Or could he have been even more of a genius if he wasn’t so stifled as a boy?”
I smiled. “That’s a good question too.”
The first time she walked into my classroom, I noticed her, but gave her no additional thought. She had often been quiet and I believed she had nothing important to say. Just another pretty face that would vanish after the end of a semester. But in the rain, and here in the car, there was something alluring about her, not only in her body, but her mind as well. I glanced at Trista and her smile unstuck me from time and in its slowness, I saw its movements of grace, the small soft ridges of her full lips, red and wet like petals, moving together, arching at the center, curling near the ends with slight motion. Then I noticed that she looked away from me and at my left hand on the steering wheel and I felt a heat on that hand, a red hot glow which blurred everything, and all focus rested on my wedding ring.
“Do you have kids?”
“Yes. I have an eight year old boy.”
“I can’t imagine being a parent yet.”
After those words, I felt the tiny blemishes on my hand, the slight wrinkles across my forehead, and the few strands of gray poking through my brown hair, all cry out telling me that I was an old fool. She must have thought of me as one too. She was so young with so much energy and I felt archaic. Why did I pick her up? I had an eight year old boy at home and I was not young like her and I pictured my boy at her age, all grown up, strong and handsome, and his face, shining, with his straight nose and a cleft in his chin that he got from me, but his eyes were his mother’s, and every time I looked at those eyes, I remembered how he looked at me the first time, when I held him in my arms on the day of his birth, and I never wanted to stop looking into those beautiful eyes, deep and dark, like orbs of light in tunnels of darkness, much like my wife’s, yet hers swirled with a tint of hazel, and the first time I had noticed the tint was on a date almost a year before we got married, when during a storm, with the rain coming down, pounding the sidewalks, the streetlights dimmed, covered by the haze of rain, we pressed together under a store’s awning, the click-clacks and pings of the aluminum covering above us, and she looked up at me, and I saw with clarity how her eyes weren’t the deep brown that I had thought, but a bit lighter, and they mesmerized me, her eyes reflecting the storm around us, raindrops falling like tiny specs of reflected light descending, and we kissed and I had never felt that way until now when I had watched Trista walk in the rain, but this felt strange, that a feeling like that would reemerge after ten years and with someone else, and I noticed that I had been driving slow not because of the heavy rain outside, but to spend some time with her, to figure out why I felt this way, why the whole scene reminded me of the mesmerizing encounter with my wife years ago, yet now, feeling like an old shriveled prune, I drove quicker just to drop her off sooner.
“Whoa, Felix, slow down a bit. What’s the rush?”
“You’re soaked. I just thought you might want to get home.”
She smiled. “I do want to get home and change, but it’s not every day I get to talk to you alone. During class or even after it, you get swarmed with students. I usually don’t want to bother you.”
“No. It’s never a bother. I would make time if you’d ask.”
“Well, make time now.”
“Sure. What do you want to ask me?”
Then my cell phone rang and I fumbled for it in my pocket.
“Sorry. Wife. Give me a minute. Hello, honey.”
I saw from the corner of my eyes that she chuckled when my voice changed in tone, knowing that I was caught off guard. I wondered if she saw through my facade of pleasantries, my playful academic demeanor, and into my deep buried feelings of how I trembled being so close to her.
“Yes, okay.” I spoke in quick bursts of affirmatives, my one word answers implying that I had more pressing matters at hand, but the call lingered and I wanted my wife to tell me how much I mattered to her and how much she wanted me. Instead, she spoke of things that I was to do and how I should be on top of them instead of letting them slide, reminding me to stop at the post office to buy stamps, to pick up milk on the way home, to make sure I’m not late, and other things that mattered little to me. I pictured my wife’s face while she talked on the phone with her look not of delight but of disapproval, like I wasted time, a look that had come to make me feel less than a man over the years when she compared my little responsibilities to that of her long list of daily tasks, her caring for our son and doing laundry and cooking and cleaning and paying bills and managing our finances and working full-time, and all that it took to be a good mother, a good woman, yet I felt I must have contributed something to this family and realized that I was nowhere on her list of things, important things to attend to, as if I was something that could be pushed off and placed away until she had time for leisure, unless there was something more urgent, anything of more value, than her being a loving wife.
“Yes. Okay. I got it. Yes. Good. I’ll be home soon.”
I tilted my head toward the window. “Love you. Bye.”
Trista had a big smile on her face.
“What?” I wondered what she thought of me.
I slowed the car and parked in an empty space in front of Maple Residence Hall. Strange. I felt anger rise up and I dwelt on the words, residence hall, and how they irritated me. Only a few years ago, they were dorms and now the word dorms had the connotation of dungeons, and we were instructed not to call them that anymore, so now they were residence halls, which sounded better, but they were still dorms. A set of proper words that made us comfortable, made our pursuit happier.
“Well, we’re here.”
Trista’s eyebrows scrunched up into a frown even though she still smiled.
“Hang on, I still want to ask you something.”
“Sure.” I turned off the ignition. The wipers stopped moving and sat at the base of the windshield, allowing streams of water to flow down unobstructed. The droplets, hitting the roof of the car, gave off a snapping sound as if rivets were falling from the sky. My heart pounded in my chest and I became nervous of the question she had in her head. I feared that the question would lean on the intimate and I would be forced to admit myself, my immediate feelings, yet I would explain how this was not a premeditated attempt at her, but something that was impulsive, brought on by her presence in the rain.
“What was Stephen’s turning point?”
“Excuse me?” All tenseness left my body and I relaxed my breathing.
“When did Stephen know for sure what he wanted to do with himself? I sometimes wonder how can anyone truly know what they are meant to do? I mean, I haven’t had any altering event in my life where I knew I would go one path. I am so unsure of it, yet Stephen and Joyce made it seems so definite. When was his turning point?”
“Well, if you consider it, Stephen was also unsure and he had a few moments of revelation.”
“It’s not when he gave into his desires with the woman in the street, the one in the pink gown, is it?” She smiled.
Why would she bring that up? Trista’s eyes looked straight at me and I wondered if she sensed something. Her eyes were like orbs again, worlds to be lost in, but I hesitated to turn away from them. Does she even know or is she teasing me understanding fully my thoughts? I crossed my arms and stared forward. I watched water run down the windshield like a stream rushing out to pour itself into the sea.
“Some say that may have been a turn,” I said. “Stephen surrendering himself to worldly sins and cravings of the flesh could be a turn, but a clear turning point would be an epiphany, that moment of clarity or realization after which everything is seen with new eyes.”
“When your soul’s lens is corrected.” Trista placed her hand on my arm to get my attention. I turned toward her. She moved her hand, crossed her arms, and smirked. She then bent her eyes forward to watch the windshield stream.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s a good way to put it. I like that. I guess Stephen’s soul needed correcting more than once. Some say his first epiphany was after Father Arnall’s sermon on Hell.”
“Oh, that chilled me to the bone. It was terrifying.”
“It may have been Stephen’s first, but I can’t say for sure, because he eventually grows cold to it and doesn’t see himself as a priest.”
“So it was the bird girl.” Trista lifted her right leg and placed her foot on the dashboard. Then she pressed against the windshield and with every moment of her leg, it seemed that she stirred the stream with her foot.
“Yes. He sees that beautiful girl wading in the water. That is when his soul takes flight and he knows deep within what he must do next, that he is to become an artist.”
She turned and leaned her head on the seat, her feet still against the stream on the windshield. I looked into her eyes and the worlds in it engulfed me. I could not resist. Why her? Why now? I had been waiting for my wife to look at me like this, to face me in such a way, to turn to me, a turn she had made away from us when our son was born as if there was a greater list she was checking off; graduating college, getting married, having children. But the waiting, accompanied with great patience, a lesson taught by my mother in caring for and loving a spouse, turned from days into months into years, until the waiting and absence of affection became the norm, while moments of intimacy felt strange, awkward, and at times, something to avoid, even if they were longed for. In Trista’s eyes, I found a world where my wife still cared and thought of me above all things, where our hearts knew what we would become and our paths made definite. A world of love both physical and spiritual. A world of rain running down like rivers, of kicking puddles and splashing windows, of wet clothes and lilacs, of lights and darks, of aluminum awnings and pings of rivets, of soaked hair and eyelashes, of soft skin and warm kisses, of moments of clarity that would repeat over and over again into eternity.
My cell phone rang again. It was my wife.
“Hello.” I pointed an index finger in the air to Trista, implying that this call would be quick. I listened to my wife’s voice, a voice that in the past had fired me to anger or lulled me to comfort. She explained how she was now able to leave work early and would run to the grocery store and the post office. She told me not to worry and that she would pick up our son from after-school care, a duty that I performed daily. She said she would see me at home and signed off with an I love you. And I wondered if I had been too rough on her over the years not concerning myself of how she felt, of how it must have been very hard to be a new mother, of how she undertook the responsibility to run the house while I grew busy with my academic career, of how she must have felt as awkward as I, and yet I wondered if this one instance of care, this trickle of concern could ever overshadow the years of her neglect and my waiting.
“Do you always talk like that to your wife?”
“What do you mean?” I startled at Trista’s question as if I was unaware that she sat in the car next to me.
“You seemed rigid and uncomfortable when she called.”
“How is that?”
“It’s like you’re acting as if you—oh.”
I looked into her eyes, but the worlds within them changed. I could see that she was thinking and that her lips no longer held a smile. Could she see into my thoughts? I felt my whole body, with all its visible signs of age, screaming in shame with an earth shattering volume yet unable to make any audible sound.
She sat there quiet.
“Trista, I thought you needed a ride. I was just trying to be nice, that’s all.”
Did she believe me? Was there a trickle of empathy in her eyes, a connection of understanding that could not be spoken with words? I shouldn’t have picked her up. I turned and looked out the windshield. The silence returned and this time it seemed bigger and much thicker, its weight bearing down on me, but I refused to utter a word, refused to cut down what had now mushroomed between us. I sensed her eyes looking straight at me, heating my body aglow, burning my soul, until she placed a hand on my arm and everything felt cool like rain on skin. I looked over and I believed that her lips, with slow movement, curled near the ends, into a sly smile. I could not tell but her eyes that stared me in the face seemed inviting.
“I’m going to go.”
Then she swung the car door and stepped out. I felt she didn’t finish her sentence. I watched her walking away in the rain, her books hugging between her right hand and hip. Maybe, I did not hear correctly, but the last of her words seemed unspoken. With a slow stride, she walked up the stairs to her apartment, her hips swaying with every footstep. I felt I needed to continue what she started. She opened the front door with her keys, walked through, and left it ajar. Or should I finish it?
And it was that single moment, that point in time, with instant clarity, that years later, after a long pursuit of happiness, when grays overtake hair and wrinkles conquer all skin, when wisdom full blooms from seeding in youth, after what seemed like an unhappy life, that I would look upon with longing, with deep thought, with a regret, wondering how my life would have been if I had chosen differently.
B. A. Varghese
B.A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) with a degree in Electrical Engineering and is currently working in the Information Technology field. Inspired to explore his literary side, he has earned a B.A. in English from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Apalachee Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other literary journals. (www.bavarghese.com)
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