To the non-single ex-manager who stole my heart

That awkward moment when you’re Facebook stalking someone and you accidentally ‘like’ something on their page…

Thanks for friending rather than blocking. I appreciate it.

I did rather like you when you were managing me, and I felt that there was a connection of sorts between us (maybe I was wrong there – or equally, maybe I was right, and all your expertise in mindfulness had failed you on that point?).

You never said or implied whether you were single, although the vibes you were giving off told me you were. Still, I liked you, and as there was a mutual sort of chemistry, I figured that if you weren’t single, you’d have maybe mentioned your other half in passing to signal to me to give up, or kept a conservative-looking family photo somewhere prominent on your desk, if you’re the kind of manager who likes to keep his private life out of the lunchroom gossip. Well, courtesy of Facebook I’ve done my research now, and there does appear to be a lovely lady in your life, as well as two gorgeous children, and so I will allow you to enjoy your family in peace and take my twenty-nine-year-old randiness elsewhere. But goodness, I wish you’d somehow let me know you were taken so that I wouldn’t have wasted all those emotions on hoping. Am I disposable, or something? (That being said, are you? I shouldn’t be hypocritical.) One of these days when you are brimming with pride, choking back tears as you walk your daughter down the aisle, my heart is going to have become so calloused and shrivelled by crushed hopes that it will have forgotten what love even feels like.

Over the next 6 months I will hate you. It’ll be a meaningless sort of hate; an outward-turned disappointment with myself and life that finds its scapegoat in you. Then I’ll heal and realise you were a great guy really. It’s like clockwork – the pattern of mental states just cycles through almost identically, disappointment after disappointment, like common cold symptoms, pre-menstrual syndrome, the turning of the tides, the phases of the moon and the passing of the seasons; life, death, decomposition, fertilisation; tearing you apart almost exactly the same way every time. Biomechanics. Neurochemistry. Female black widow spiders kill and cannibalise their mates. The impulse probably isn’t voluntary. If they were sentient, they might even regret it later.

Still, thanks for reminding me that beautiful men exist, and that I’m made of flesh and blood. You were like a breath of fresh air and I was like a bird in a cage, luxuriating in the sensation of it ruffling through her feathers and remembering, slowly, where she came from, and what she was made for, and feeling a new song rising up in her… it never saw the light of day, but at least it was conceived at all.

You made me feel real. Thank you. I hate you. The black widow spider in me will eventually calm down. She always does… don’cha, old girl?

In the words of Adele, “Nevermind…”

Wishing you all the best.

Daydream

Already I am treading water.
The cold air biting my lungs,
Smarting like salt in a wound,
I force myself to push and push.

How far will
My will
To be real
Be bent

Before it snaps
And I go under?

The Stoic

You could have been a singer too.

But I had begged you to stop
And smell the roses,
And you would not.

To marvel
At the dew-kissed grass
And the golden, glinting morn-light on the monument,
And you said you could not.

To exult
Giddily
In the crisp, cold November air, as it filled your head and flushed your face,
But you said you should not.

You stifled all in us girls, and in our hearts,
That was not muted, tepid or samely,
As if beauty itself were too Philistine to be worthy of your best,
And as if we were, too,
Each trembling, loving, fearing, desiring, adolescent breast.
Within your stoic, frigid code, one could only work, or transgress.

I should have loved to lend you my eyes – my sullied, worldly, heathen-bred eyes,
Had I not feared you’d also trample them underfoot.

Because if you could have seen a beauty
Uncensored
By precept upon precept, line upon line –
Here a big film,
There a big name,

And felt it coursing through your veins,
Pounding in your neck,
Ballooning out in your heart till it explode into a vast, irreverent song of joy and pain –

You might have looked in a mirror
And seen what I saw in you,
And realised

That you are beautiful too

And that

By God, and Man, and Woman,

You too are loved much.

Visit Home

Empress Kelsey,
When we were teens
Your school lunchroom bench
Your village church youth club
And its extended coterie
Of prim, cliquey girls from Christian homes
With their prudish mores and jokes
As hermetic and prosaic
As their tupperware-boxed egg sandwiches,
Were a towering, iron-gated, brick-walled world
Or a cocoon
That I used to stand outside of
And stare up at
Like a godforsaken hell-dog
And silently howl my guts out
While you watched me out of the corner of your eye
Flanked by Elders, Vicars, Teachers and other greats,
And pretended you weren’t holding the keys.

Your face hasn’t really changed since the day I left.
You graduated from uni,
And now your world
Still consists of that old village church,
Invite-only lunches in twee cafés,
The (ex) youth club coterie,
Expanded, now, to include husbands and boyfriends
And their ever-prudish mores and jokes
(as passé as anything left to moulder for a decade in its own company).
I must congratulate you though
On landing that much-coveted position
Of Vicar’s PA.
I never would have guessed.

Still,
When I approach those iron gates once more,
Only a little worn by rust with the passing of the years,
No vandal or renovator ever having touched the mortar,
I somehow find myself looking down now,
Instead of up.

I could have sworn that notwithstanding everything –
Studies, jobs, husbands, coming of age –
Your world has shrunk
To a quarter or less its size
With you still in it.

Or is it just that I’ve grown taller?

Re-Crucifixion

God,

If I drop my life

And free myself to your touch,

Will it be soft and warm and pure

Like her skin would have been?

 

I close my eyes

And reach out

Alone

In the dark

 

Feeling for you, as for a coin in my pocket:

A blinded, miserly wretch counting the cost,

Bargaining right up to the brink,

I cannot see to calculate

What I am taking back

When I take back you:

I calloused my eyes

As I was trading you in

(and you loved my dignity too much to remove the scales).

 

Now all I know is that I need you

And that she will ruin me

To the gates of hell.

 

O Christ, have mercy.

 

My shrivelled, festering soul

Adored you once

But now can only lust after gain.

An endless pit of grasping need ;

I only wish

(With the better angels of my nature)

That I still knew how to love.

 

I have abused you again and again,

Spat on your blood-smeared brow,

Shat on our vows.

Nothing has changed.

 

I drop and leave her at your feet,

If only because

You alone could know my heart

And love me now.

Lament of a Maternal Junkie

Maxime, I don’t need you now. Your maternal touch is no longer good for me. You need fear me no longer.

I’ve got a mum and she loves me, and she’s learning how not to hurt me, day by day. I watch her trying, Maxime, I watch her trying and my heart breaks. It makes me sick to my stomach with guilt to think that I even imagined you could assume the role she should have occupied in my life. You threw me away when our relationship demanded a sacrifice of you, but now, she is doing everything she can to love me well – to the point of changing her entire way of relating to me.

More than 20 years have passed and now she’s changing the habits of half-a-lifetime. She hurt me when I was a kid, like your mum hurt you. That much we both know. Maxime, we shared a childhood a generation apart. I thought you’d step in and pick up the slack, take in my orphan-soul, cradle it, caress it, kiss it on the cheek and on the lips. I wince at the thought, now.

My mum is not like yours. In my prayers I beg God that the change in her would continue, and that I might be able to bear to keep my forgiveness open. I am learning to trust her again. I feel I am finally coming ‘home’, the more like a mother she becomes. I can finally let myself grow up. My attraction to you, and to other women, accordingly, fades.

Maxime, you betrayed me. It’s not a judgment, it’s a fact. You lied to me about our relationship to the point of encouraging me to see a shrink when I didn’t believe you, and telling me what I ought to say to the shrink when I got there.

You made me betray my mum too. What you inspired in me was a form of filial adultery. You told me I reminded you of your daughter, compared me to her repeatedly, in subtle and unsubtle ways; talked to me as if I was her, smiled at my adoring vulnerability to you, tousled my hair. You encouraged me to speak ill of my mum. You encouraged me to malign my mum for what happened in my childhood even after you’d taken your loving touch away and betrayed me. Then it turned to the beginnings of ‘real’ adultery – and in this, you betrayed your own family. When I showed discomfort and cut you off, you dropped me like a stone. You acted like I was crazy when my grief got too loud. You were such an intrepid actress, you almost convinced me, too. I might have taken the anti-psychotics if you hadn’t urged me not to.

I know who my mum is, Maxime. Everything that passed between you and I was a cosmic crime against her. It doesn’t matter that, at the time, she might have broken my heart into a thousand pieces if she’d assumed her rightful place in my life. It was a crime.

And yet… you are still beautiful. And like a crack addict, I still find myself thinking of you, and reaching for you, and longing to have you in my life again.

I will let you go one day. I will repent. My affections will change and become healthy and right, and I will love my family better. May God keep you, Maxime. Let him pardon you, and restore you into something better than you now are. If you will not let God keep you, then you will pay for your deeds in full, and a horrible justice will be served. You deserve no less. Neither of us do.

Finishing it ‘Off-Record’

I spent the days following that final Thursday largely stretched out on my bed in a stupor, muttering to myself, rehearsing and reliving conversations, solutions, dreaming up revenge plots then quashing them because revenge was not ultimately what I wanted; desperately trying to analyse what had happened from every possible angle so that I might understand, so that I might be able to see those people as anything except bad or brainless, and that my faith in the baseline decency of the average human being might be restored. I lay there, hardly moving, desperately bargaining. I barely ate anything at all. All my love had meant nothing to them… how could I have been such a fool as to waste it on them, for two whole years? But was it wasted? Had I loved them because I hoped for a return from them, or had I loved them for God? I knew what my original motives for loving them were, but the more I looked at myself, the more I realised that selfishness had crept in and almost entirely swallowed them. In the end, I had chiefly loved them because I had wanted them to love me back, and this had resulted in a dead loss. Just as Scripture had promised it would. The realisation of the sheer scale of the vanity of all those months wasted which could have been spent on worthier and enduring things, pressed down on me like a crushing weight.

I could never know why they rejected me so wholly and so unnecessarily. But the most painful aspect of it all, of course, was Maxime. When I was brutally honest with myself, I wondered if, had it not been for Maxime, I would have humanly cared about the rest to any substantial degree at all. There were one or two that I cared about irrespective of Maxime. The colleague from the other sub-department whom I called my friend – and who was no friend of Maxime’s. My friendship with that colleague profited neither of us in Maxime’s eyes, but though she never knew it, that friend was like a healing spirit, welcoming me into her home, taking me on holiday with her family, inviting me for Easter so that I wouldn’t have to celebrate it alone, and sending me off well by inviting me to her family barbecue a few days before I left the city. That friendship was not a vanity, even if everything else was. I deeply regretted having neglected that colleague because I was preoccupied over Maxime.

I cannot remember how many days I waited before acting on my pain. But one day, it got too much and I could not bear it. I had phoned Maxime before and it had ended badly. If I did it again and it ended badly again, I risked her blocking my number. Then I could never contact her again. So I texted her instead. It seemed less invasive.

I shall not repeat the content of the texts exactly. But referring back to the meal on Thursday, I put the rejection from the table down to ‘bad luck’ (which I admit was insincere) and acknowledged that the Monday had been an ordeal – the day she had announced how many outsiders she had welcomed on the team after encouraging me to leave, and Rob had come out the closet. I asked her to disregard the dirty looks I had given her; those had not been charitable. Remembering how I had judged her hastily and unfairly as the one who revealed Rob’s intimate secret to the subdepartment and encouraged them to mock him, I entrusted him to her, requesting that she look after him especially. And I reassured her, lest she really had feared that I had told him about our history when I went off to speak with him privately, that I had not told him ‘anything sensitive’ and would not spread any ‘dirty laundry’ in general. ‘Anything sensitive’ here was just code for ‘the fact that we fell in love with each other, which you would sooner bundle me off to a shrink than admit actually happened.’ It was hard to think of a way to phrase it without directly calling her bluff. I wondered even if I was being too kind to let her have her cake and eat it. But then I remembered that convincing her she had nothing to fear from me would be not only in her best interests, but was something I owed to Rob. My arranging to talk to him privately in the knowledge of all present had now made him vulnerable, because Maxime might see him as a threat too.

The most dangerous thing I did was tell her I had something to give her and ask for her to remind me of her house number. I had wanted to give her a parting gift, just a token peace offering to let her know that I did not hate her utterly, and that my door was still open. The thing was, I had been to her house before but I couldn’t remember the house number. I realised only after asking that the request sounded extremely shifty indeed. She might think I was going to stalk her or wreck her house in ‘revenge’. My text message looked like an attempt at flattery and manipulation, looked at in a certain way – especially since I started out by saying I was going to send the gift in the post, then finished by saying I would deliver it in person. Had I been being manipulative? I desperately wanted to see her after all. No, at the time of writing the first message, I would have been happy with any form of contact she would allow me, and then I just got more hopeful afterwards and hedged my bets, once she had responded positively. Was that wrong? I wanted to be at peace with her; to know her good will, to see her eyes, to feel her touch once more – and to be reassured that the workplace was just a circus and a game for her too, and that her regard for me went deeper, just as my regard for her did. I wouldn’t have forced her to hug me, although a hug would have been delightful; I wouldn’t have forced her to do anything.

The worst part of it was perhaps that in the original message I had said that I wanted to send to her the gift personally because the campus had shut the previous day and so I couldn’t deposit it anywhere before moving home. In fact that turned out not to be the case. The campus actually wasn’t going to shut for another week. But although I had heard another colleague utter something like that, I had wanted to check so I looked at whatever version of the academic calendar that I could find. The calendar turned out to be inaccurate, not the colleague. To Maxime, I must have looked like I was lying. I would have come across as a stalker, and she must have been a little nervous that I might try to harm her. I was slightly impressed, after realising how this must have looked, that she had cared to reply to me at all. I had received her reply message at half past midnight, which I had found slightly alarming. Normally she never even wrote emails at that time of night.

It wasn’t just that I wanted a reconciliation. I’d had the idea of giving her this gift for a long time, and it was a little for my sake as well as hers. It was a gift whose giving would satisfy my existential itch. It was a USB key with all the teaching resources I had created on it over the past year. The head of department had waxed lyrical about the global priority to use multimedia resources, and I had created many of these myself and had quietly been using them to make my teaching life easier. If they did not go to Maxime, they would only go to waste. I had always refrained from showing them to Maxime before however, because I did not want to be seen to be bribing her, or currying favour, so that she would offer me the permanent job position out of guilt. I had wanted her to have a free decision on that; I did not want to win my permanent place in the department through gimmicks. I had not created those resources for her, but for my students, and for the glory of God. On its own the USB key seemed like a meagre gift, so I bought her a small box of chocolates and a card to put the USB key in. On the card, I had thought of many things to write, but in the end, I decided that everything that it was useful for me to say, either had been said or could be said by text message. And as she had never appreciated my long emails, yet another wall of text from me could never please her. So I got a card with a dove on it, and wrote one word inside, without citing a recipient or a sender: “Peace”. And I put the USB key inside it.

When Maxime replied to my text message, she did so agreeing that it had been an ordeal, so I praised her for holding out. After all, we were all only rats in the great rat-race that was that university workplace; we inflicted pain on each other because we were under pressure, and sometimes because we could not avoid inflicting pain. We were playing a game that we would never have been required to play if we had not been working together. On a human, personal level, there was no need to view ourselves as the sum total of the attacks we had leveled at each other in that workplace. We could surely turn and bow to each other at the end of the fight, and say, like two martial arts practitioners, “Well fought, friend! Now let me help you with that shoulder of yours I just dislocated.”. I remembered doing a martial art when I was a child, and I had loved the experience of fighting my sparring partner, then sitting down to rest together on just as good terms as we had been before beating each other up. Our workplace roles had felt like roles in a play; we were just players in such a match, working with professional needs and economic factors and office politics all around us that were requiring us to fight. So I praised Maxime for enduring and holding together until the end of her battle, because in the arena of work, she had only been a sparring partner. I was sure that my respect for her was deeper than the pain she had caused me. I longed for hers to be reciprocal.

When she gave me her house number she did not guarantee that she would be there at her house… I had not requested a meeting time or a day, in order to give her the liberty not to be there if she didn’t want to see me. It seemed only fair; I was already asking a lot. It dawned on me later that she had expected me to go that very evening however, because when I did not show up, she chose to send a group email announcing the new colleague for the position I had coveted. Though maybe that interpretation is a stretch and I was only flattering myself by imagining her disappointment, even if it did feel like one of her usual ‘catty’ revenge strikes. Accepting that hypothesis in my mind made it less painful, at least.

The next day I made my way to her house. However, I had been searching for it for about 30 minutes, and had enlisted two postmen and about five passers-by, before it was revealed that she had given me a house number that didn’t exist. I texted her and said I was sitting in the square on a bench, unable to find it despite all the locals’ help… but didn’t tell her outright that it was because the address didn’t exist. It would have been too much to accuse her of, too much animosity, to force her to own that she had given me a false address. Not only could her emotions change like the wind; the seamless switch between them and back, even made her appear to be multiple selves. If, rather than ignoring my text, she had bothered to give me a wrong address at half past midnight, when she never usually condescended to contacted me that time, could it have been a drunken text? Again, it was a flattering interpretation both for me and for her, so I hoped it was real. But still, the horrible doubt lurked, and as time went on, I feared that she really had just judged me as a psycopathic stalker and wanted to throw me off. In the end, embarrassing as it felt, I took to walking up and down the road inspecting all the apartment buildings for a label with her family name on the list of buzzers. I found it eventually. The number code she had given me for the apartment porch was oddly accurate, so I could access the mailbox. I did not want to speak to her at that point, knowing she had given me a false house number, both because my feelings of disgust were too strong, and because people who give false house numbers don’t want to be spoken to, and I didn’t want our last interaction to be unpleasant. At the last moment I wrote on the side of the chocolate box nonetheless, “Nothing has changed”. Because nothing had changed, even if I had had to stalk her house down because she had given me a non-existent number. She had just proven herself as spineless as she ever had been, and it disgusted me to see her remain spineless to the very last, but that would not stop me from loving her. A peace offering is a peace offering.

Almost immediately after I had found the house, incidentally, she texted me back, saying that she and her family weren’t at home, but that the house was next to the small fountain… I had no idea what she meant by that, but said I had found it and left the present inside for her. I was hurting immensely but I wrote in my next message that I would always be fond of her, and that that would never change. I wondered straight after sending that if I really meant it… always? Never? Those are strong words. Would I be fond of her once I recovered my senses and this horrible limerent love stopped? Yes. I actually think I would. I would be ‘fond’ of her, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine a day when the memory of all that happened, all we were and all we could have been, wouldn’t make my heart ache for sorrow. There’s a bond that that kind of scar creates with a person… even in the moments when I hate her, I hate her because I love her and because she hurt me, and because she is hurting me. I feel I could never hate her one moment without aching for all that is broken the next. Isn’t that a kind of fondness – albeit a twisted kind?

As for her reply… she seemed to take ‘fond of you’ in good grace. If I was ever back in the city or needed a place to stay, I could call her, she said… just what I wanted to hear. Of course, she knew that that was what I wanted to hear, which I imagine was why she said it. Had she thought that I had not been being sincere, and was she returning the perceived insincerity in kind? Why should she want me to stay in her house? Why should she want me anywhere near her, if she had no will to do me good? Why dangle that glittering promise in front of me and lead me around with it like a stupid animal? If I stayed with her, what would she get out of it, other than another opportunity to hurt me? She knows my faultlines and vulnerabilities now, and she has seen how easily she can send me into a despairing jealousy simply by touching another colleague in front of me and exchanging tender words. I could just imagine her using my gullibility in accepting her offer as a snare to get back at me in one of her spiteful, catty ways. Would she take her partner into the adjoining room and noisily have sex while I tried to sleep? Would she caress him at table over dinner as I ate with them, or spend the evening kissing and cuddling with him on the couch as I struggled to watch their television? Wickedness bears its reward, and adultery begins in the heart, and sodomy begins where God alone knows. Face it Ruth, if you accepted to stay in Maxime’s house, would it not be because you wanted to be in her partner’s place? How could you be there at the same time as her partner, or any of her family, and not covet your neighbour’s concubine? Her spiteful revenge would only represent the tip of the rod of the Almighty, who disciplines those he loves. The behaviour sounded a lot like her, and I surprised myself by how little shame I felt to admit my own thoughts. I ached with pain and anger. I knew her too well. Why would she lie to me? Why lead me on? I had given her so many opportunities to show me she could be a decent human being. If she didn’t like or trust my attempt to extend the olive branch, why couldn’t she just have not replied to me at all? Was it not enough that she had snubbed me over lunch, let me leave without goodbye, and given me a false house number, that now she had to be insincere, and possibly seek my harm? I had given her the liberty of not responding, of not seeing me, of not interacting, if she didn’t want any further contact with me. I had given her the space to reject me humanely. Why did she have to go out of her way to cut me up?

I was going to reply with something scornful, but I didn’t – just in case that I had been wrong about her. I knew I could always be wrong – the porch code she gave for the mailbox turned out to be correct even though the house number hadn’t been, so there was a motive for hope if I still wanted to go on believing in her. I would have given her a thousand ‘second chances’ if I could have hoped she would respond to just one of them with genuine loving kindness. But my will to hope was dying. My love was dying. Doesn’t love always trust, always hope, always persevere…? I collected myself, and wrote that if the offer was sincere, then I was very touched, but that I would like to know how she ‘ended up’ giving me the wrong house number. Eventually the excuse that she gave for this was that she mixed her number and her daughter’s number up sometimes (despite having lived there for over two years), and that she could assure me that it had not been a Freudian slip – “trust me”. I didn’t know if I could trust her. Could there be a person on this earth who wasn’t suffering from severe dyscalculia, who could mistake their house number for someone else’s after having lived there for more than two years, and not realise it until the person they had given it to texted them, saying that they couldn’t find it and were sitting on a bench at the top of their road? The text messages stopped shortly after that exchange and nothing followed them to close the conversation. She did not apologise at all.

Judging is dangerous but I desperately desired to know if she could possibly mean for my good. Not letting me sit with her and the colleagues on my last day was one thing – she had perhaps done that because it was the only way, in her eyes, to avoid a painful experience and social embarrassment. But to snub me to the point of giving me a wrong house number, when it was unnecessarily hurtful and I had given her so many opportunities to circumvent me more kindly, was quite another. Though I erred on the side of doubt I ultimately didn’t know whether to believe her reason, but I noted that she had taken few pains to convince me of her sincerity. The reason she gave was so unlikely and the snub, if it was interpreted as such, was so egregious, and thus so likely to put us at even greater enmity than we had been at before. Would she not have been sensitive to this if she cared for me at all, and been more anxious to convince me? If she had really wanted me to believe her unlikely reason; if she had really considered my good will and my care and my love as something of any worth at all, would she not have rung me instead of texting me, or would she not have written more in the text itself, or at least said ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘I apologise’ or any variation thereupon? Those options were open to her and always would be, but she had not taken them. I received a text from her later saying that she was home, and thanks for the chocolates… but no mention at all of the card and the USB key. Had she not liked all those hours of extra work I had put into developing her course module? Had she felt guilty? Had she thought I was shaming her? There were a hundred reasons she might have disregarded it, and asking ‘why’ would have burned every bridge I had painstakingly been trying to rebuild – that is, if they weren’t, in reality, already in cinders.

The text conversation ended on a note that wasn’t entirely positive – in any case, as I have said, it was never ‘closed’. I cannot know if she really confused her address with her daughter’s. There were reasons for her to be wary about me coming to her house. But I knew in my heart that I was neither a stalker, nor thirsty for vengeance, and that I had just wanted to say goodbye properly, and to reassure her (without saying the cringey 3-word phrase, embarrassing her, stalking her, demanding reciprocation, or making any unwanted physical advances) that she still had my love.

It is time now to take a step back from her. Wisdom seems to suggest that for my good and hers, it ought never be followed by a step forwards again. But in my heart, I am hoping – against hope and against wisdom – that one day I might be able to hold her to her word. I am hoping that I will be able to go back to my old city, and ring her, and have a drink together, and be close, if not like we used to be before ‘The Day It All Ended’, then like we were in that final examination of my two-year stint, shortly before I left, when we had almost seemed friends.

My Last Day: More bargaining

I did not hear my voice called out in the list of leavers in the university AGM, though I had listened as carefully as I could. But when I approached the Dean of the university to tell him, he showed me that I was on the list. He gave me my leaver’s bag, which contained a few gadgets with the university logo, and shook my hand. It was a good, tasteful gesture to be sure, if a bit corporate. A goodbye card signed by my team would have been more meaningful to me. But what could I expect, if they had been told that I had already left town before the end-of-term student jury without saying goodbye? In the vein of all my efforts to restore a semblance of dignity to an otherwise disgusting situation, I have thought of sending them a postcard, once I am more established here and can tell them whether I passed my trial period with my new employer. But would that be just another attempt at bargaining? Maybe. But the cause of dignity is worthy enough in its own right. I don’t want their last enduring memory of me to be of how I left them in disgrace.

At the university-wide meal I collared Maxime, not wanting to eschew her presence as at the previous meal. If there was one time I wanted to be with her, one day when I dared to imagine she might might honour me, it was this final day. I didn’t care if I had to actually pursue her to secure her presence next to me. I knew that in my entire life, I would never get another chance to enjoy her company again. As at the previous time, it didn’t matter to me if the conversation was strained, or difficult, or if her shallow attitudes and gossip and mockeries made her seem vulgar and ugly to me. Disgust was only a facet of my love. I adored her, and I wanted to be near her. It didn’t matter what she’d done, or what would lie ahead for me. I just wanted to be where she was.

As I followed her, she seemed not to acknowledge my presence, but hurried through the crowds of people. She sat down at the table where most of the other subdepartment members were sitting. There were two spaces at the other end of the table. When I went to sit down at one of these two remaining places, one of the colleagues objected. He was one of the more ‘no-nonsense’ ones with a famous attitude towards difficult students of ‘show them who’s boss’. He was extremely diligent and loyal to the department, and his decisions typically abided by his sense of ‘just desserts’, along with a deep concern to maintain his favour among the other colleagues, which was hard for him, as he was one of the very few male members of the team, and black. I had almost predicted that there might be some kind of objection to my sitting with them. If I had been allowed to sit with them, it would have been too perfect an ending. ‘No, they’re being saved for someone else,’ the colleague said of the chairs. ‘You’ll have to sit somewhere else’. And the others agreed with him. I looked at my colleagues incredulously. Some looked away; some shrugged. I spluttered, ‘But.. can’t something be done? Like, can’t I just sit there until he arrives?’ But no. I could not sit with them. I stared into the face of the colleague who had refused me, and it occurred to me that he might be speaking on the behalf of all the others, and that the saved chair was probably only an excuse. If they had wanted to give me any respectable kind of send-off, they would have found a way of accommodating me. It wouldn’t have been hard to set up another table place. I resigned myself, and did not bother fighting the refusal; it would have been like trying to fight the wind. I had just been collectively rejected by my colleagues; snubbed. I wanted to show them that I would not wallow in their rejection; that I would not let myself be overcome by shame. So I did not beg or cry or hassle. Instead I said, “OK. I understand now. Thank you.” Then I immediately turned around and left my colleagues’ table feeling like I had just been punched in the gut.

I wandered around the room aimlessly, and slightly dizzy. I had always respected my colleagues, been devoted to my work, and shown good will towards both friend and foe, even though I had difficult-to-interpret emotions, wrote long emails, and asked too many questions – and so many other reasons Maxime gave during my exit interview for not keeping me on the team. But could these things really merit this sort of dishonour? I did not know what I had done to deserve it – which made me wonder if their wholesale rejection of me was not as much the fault of the gossip mill as it was mine. I had heard with my own ears how malicious the talk and mockery of any ‘undesirable’ colleague could get, and I knew that I had become one. They spoke about those colleagues as if they were not real human beings – and here also they had treated me with less humanity than was called for. I dreaded to think what they could have said about me. By this time, even the tables with people I knew from other departments had just been filled. I decided that there was nothing left for me but to leave. My pain and dishonour were too great to stay. How could I possibly entertain any stranger I chose to sit by after this had happened? Nor did I even want to. It no longer mattered to me if Maxime was in the room. Nothing mattered to me any more. It was in these states of ‘nothing matters any more’ when I would typically wish or plot my own death, or pass by the river and contemplate throwing myself in it, but it had been a long, long time since I had so profoundly felt, as I did now, that I was already dead.

Before I could turn on my heel and leave however, some of the meal organisers from the ‘Welcome’ association saw me with my leaver’s bag and knowing that it was my last day, they approached me immediately. They said, “Why don’t you sit at a different table?” I replied, “Well, there aren’t any spaces left next to anyone I know.” At this their faces fell and they looked mortified. They reassured me, “Don’t worry. We will displace someone to make room for you. Now who would you like us to displace?” I was shocked. Had I understood them correctly? They were proposing to force someone to move so that I could have their seat? Did they even know how worthless I was, and what a farce it would be to displace anyone for my sake? I was deeply embarrassed. I said that I didn’t want to prevent anyone from sitting next to their friends. “Then shall we create a new table place for you? What table would you like to sit at? Who would you like to sit by?” And again, I was embarrassed by the honour. I wanted to tell them, ‘You’re asking the wrong questions. You’ve got the wrong idea about me. You’re assuming I’m a ‘good’ leaver. That most of my colleagues would actually want to sit by me. Haven’t you met my kind before? Unless you’re actually proposing to foist my presence on them as a discipline for being such indecent human beings?’ If I had accepted the offer and chosen to sit by whom I wanted, I would have been the odious, exigent evil queen, ordering punishment on my enemies and forcing her detestable presence on them. I yearned to say that I wanted to sit with Maxime. But something in me could not punish her. If I made the meal organisers force them to accommodate me, then the political trouble it would have made for them, would have long outlived my two years’ service. I didn’t want to do that to Maxime.

There was a colleague who was not sitting with the others – Jack. Jack had interests in other departments besides ours, and had preferred to sit with people he knew less well. He welcomed me next to him, even though I had not ever got to know him properly, and had only spoken to him in passing. He had been another supporter of Rob, when Rob condemned the colleague (without naming her) who had spread the news that he was gay and encouraged the others to mock him. “Would you like a glass of water – or maybe something a little stronger?” Jack said confidentially as I sat down, without asking me what had happened. I loved Jack at that moment. There is a warm gentleness of knowing, and I felt it in Jack’s tentative smile at that moment, swaddling up my aching insides. Jack kept me company throughout the meal, made sure I had enough wine to keep me cheerful, and made me laugh, talking to me the entire time. He almost made me forget that I had been rejected. He even hovered around during the social event planned afterwards when the wine wore off and I became melancholy and more awkward to be around again. But other personnel I knew were there, including a member of a different subdepartment whom I counted as my friend. She later invited me to a family barbecue to bid me a more personal farewell. I will not forget how these people honoured me.

Towards the end of the meal I excused myself to go to the toilet, making a detour around the table with my close colleagues on it, because I was embarrassed. When I came out of the toilets I was determined to say goodbye to them. This was my moment. But when I approached their table, they had already gone. For most of them their last memory of me was of me turning away from their table in disappointment. I didn’t know how they could be satisfied with that. How could they not even try to find me, to reassure me that it had all just been an unhappy coincidence, and that they had not meant to turn me away, and that they wished me all the best for my new life? At the most basic level of selfishness, how could they be happy for me to remember them by their inhumanity, since by Maxime’s own repeated reassurance, I had done nothing wrong and need not even be sorry? And Maxime… even Maxime had left with them. Knowing we would never see each other again. Why had she been content for it to end this way? How could her most basic sense of vanity have allowed her to be a negligent manager? Had she no pride, at least? Or had that sad little goodbye from Monday somehow counted as farewell to her? How could she be satisfied with that? How could her heart and her hope and her sense of what was fitting, and, right, and beautiful, be so small? Once more, I felt gut-punched. I made my way around the social event afterwards with the other colleagues I knew, but I was too shellshocked to to fell like I was ‘there’ at all.

It was only later when I remembered that their conversations had gone on after the end of Monday’s meeting, when they saw me go off with Rob to ‘talk privately’. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Maxime didn’t know what I’d gone to say to him. And she was probably frightened. Could I not expect her to have tried to prepare the others against me? It seemed too great a coincidence that it was Rob’s supporter, Jack, who had finally welcomed me to his table. This would not have been the more charitable way to try and understand the events of that day under many other sets of circumstances, but it was in this case. Something in me wanted to put a limit on the extent of Maxime’s capacity for callousness. She was catty, and deliberately struck out in pathetically petty ways at people who had hurt her in the past, or caused her to feel guilt or frustration. But she also had a considerable guilt complex, and would never strike with enough malice to reap significant guilt feelings for herself. This set of potential circumstances – fear of being exposed by me – made Maxime more the frightened, visceral little creature of impulse that I had long known her to be. And now, after the same-sex flirtation had been all but mentioned and her own reactions demonstrated both that she knew exactly what I was referring to and that she was feeling guilty about it, if she still preferred to make my colleagues hate me in an anticipatory strike, rather than just ask me straight out if I’d said anything to Rob about her – well, it just proved how little backbone she had always had. That wasn’t news to me. It was sad, and the consequences of it had sometimes made me want to kill myself, but it wasn’t news, and it wasn’t the worst vice she could have had.

The story could have ended there, but it doesn’t. The rest will feature in one last post.

The Penultimate Day: Bargaining

I’m not writing this because I want to, but because I feel like I have to. I have a sort of feverish urge to do so. Almost like a hell-bent one. I hate writing about this. I hate, hate, hate it. This post is not worthy of my time. I would be the first to say, “tl;dr”. But I need to fill in the facts. I need to get my story out, or you will not understand my pain.

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The Final Months in Retrospect: Starting from the middle of the end. Anger.

Some things are too painful to write about. If I write about it at length, I condemn myself to days of pain. Nothing is resolved. But write about it at length, I must, as a matter of blog upkeeep. Nothing I write subsequently will make sense without this.

I no longer work there in that workplace now, or live in the same city. My job had a 2-year time limit on it. There was a post going, almost identical to mine but permanent. I knew they didn’t want me, and really, I had known it for almost exactly a year. The process of realising my loss began on ‘The Day It All Ended’, and from then until the present day, the classic ‘stages of grief’ have followed each other like clockwork. At the time of writing, I am somewhere between ‘bargaining’ and ‘depression’.

I knew from ‘The Day It All Ended’ that I had just closed the half-ajar door to a permanent position in that workplace behind me and thrown away the key. I also knew that it was only really my idolatry of Maxime that had made me want to walk through it anyway, because I had been sure, at the outset of my existence in that city, that this would only need to be a temporary fix for me. I knew that it would be bad for my health to stay in that workplace – to stay in that very city, even. But I couldn’t bear not to fight to be accepted: I was in denial.

As the months went by, and I became depressed and fell out with colleagues and acted ‘strange’ in their eyes, the loss of my position and favour became more real, concrete and inevitable to me, and the ‘anger’ grief stage set in. I decided that if Maxime didn’t want me working for her and was not going to tell me not to apply for the post either, then I at least wanted a job interview. If she was to reject me, I wanted her to do so properly, through all the proper channels and processes, for proper reasons, and with proper respect for my dignity as a law-abiding human being and a conscientious employee. I did not want to be ‘persuaded’ into not applying by the collective negative pressure of the department just because she did not have the courage of her convictions to say no, and be slowly poisoned by cold shoulders and lies, and finally swept under the carpet or into the closet, still writhing in my throes, without a word, along with all the other departmental skeletons that will never more see the light of day. There seemed to be no dignity in that. A good shepherd, like a good manager, does not only keep and nurture his sheep. Measuring, monitoring, evaluating, selecting, excluding, choosing the length of their days before the final chop, leading them gently up to the abattoir to be dispatched, and ensuring that only the surest, quickest, and most humane methods and conditions of slaughter are used – there is love, dignity and tenderness in this too. Is Christ himself not the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep, and does he not decide on the length of our days, and preside over our birth and our death, and our means of death, as well as feeding and keeping us? As a teacher, this was how I could love and nurture my students, yet still grade their exams as fails if needed. I hoped for no less from Maxime as my manager. If Maxime had decided that it was time for me to leave and had a good reason, then what I wanted was either a sure, quick coup de grace to spare me the emotional trauma and waste of a drawn-out, doomed-to-fail job application, or, if she could not give me that, then a job interview, in which she could reject me cleanly and fairly as I stared her straight in the eyes. I had loved my job and my colleagues and given the best of my time, energy and devotion to them, to the point of delaying a visit to my dying grandmother just so that I could mark all Maxime’s exam papers on time, having my grandmother die before I could reschedule it, and not even requesting compassionate leave. Could I not hope to be dispatched with dignity after all I had given them?
In reality however, not only did Maxime not have the courage to turn me away, I had to request my own exit interview lest I be thrown out without a word. And I actually had to convince her that it was worthy of a place in her schedule. She assured me after the exit interview that she had been going to arrange one herself if I hadn’t done so first – but I had strong doubts whether it would ever have materialised if I had not forced it to happen. Every other one-to-one meeting I had had with her, I had had to organise myself, and none of those that she had promised over the years that we would have, had ever taken place, except the first one a few days before the start of my contract.

As the months leading up to the end of my contract went on, in my own way, I started to become more reckless. By March, anger was what I felt much of the time – anger at my situation, spilling out onto anger at everything else. I had Dolly Parton’s ‘9-to-5’ on repeat, a song that had come into my life early that month after it was introduced to me by another colleague called Rob, who asked me to play it to his students when I was covering an absence for him. It described my anger and my situation so perfectly that I made a revision activity out of it and sent it to Rob, who praised and sent it around the mailing list. The other colleagues praised it more highly than I ever could have expected – even those whom I was only accustomed to being either criticised by, or ignored. This in itself made me nervous: there was something unnatural about their encouragement. I saw that Rob had removed Maxime from the list, possibly out of deference as she was our manager, but it occurred to me that it would almost certainly have got round to her anyway if it had been interpreted as an act of resistance. And with that, went any hope of her accepting me to stay on their team after the end of my contract, up in smoke. In retrospect I wonder if that was why they had liked it so much. They were always warmer towards me when I spoke of a future that sounded like it was headed for somewhere elsewhere but with them. But I knew that my hopes of staying had gone up in smoke long ago, by now. My months of denial were over. This was reality, and in my heart of hearts, I had known that I had been as good as gone since ‘The Day It All Ended’, which had been some months shy of a year before then.

At around that time, if I did not scrape a blade across my hip until it hurt enough to numb the emotional pain, I would seek the same effect by mixing alcohol with my valerian and passiflore tablets. The amount I drank alone started to climb. I stopped caring about things like road safety, leaving the gas on, whether I’d locked my door securely, taking too many tablets, responding acerbically to colleagues who said condescending things to me rather than taking it and smiling, going ‘rogue’ after Maxime stopped responding to my emails or being around in person and I needed to sort out important administrative things (I took to just telling her what I was doing and inviting her to object); acting with deliberately brisk, sunny confidence around those who had gone cold on me, to show them I wouldn’t be beaten (and because their utter bewilderment was a tonic)… things I used to be so disproportionately anxious about, or concerned to do ‘right’. I was careful who I cried in front of at work, I managed to contain myself, and had no inappropriate outbursts. But my colleagues noticed my negative countenance which – said Maxime in my exit interview – followed me around like a cloud. Thoughts of killing myself got more frequent and more pragmatic as time went on. Then in my anger that I had even been reduced to that state, the thought of killing Maxime – or at least of betraying her to her enemies, which would be sort of like killing her, but more appropriate to the scale of the events – seemed so much more satisfying than killing myself. She had destroyed my sanity – so why should I be the one to die? Why punish myself when I could punish her, and what sick logic had ever convinced me that the victim deserved to be punished for the suffering inflicted on them by the wicked? When I realised what I had allowed myself to think – the crude polarity of the role attribution when I knew that Maxime had her finer moments and that I had probably already ruined her life more profoundly than I would ever be able to find out – I was filled with shame and fear. I was angry, furiously angry, and I was frightened of what that anger might make me do, and how it would distort my thinking. I needed to protect her from myself. If doing so caused me to commit career suicide, so be it. I picked up the phone and rang her, ready to talk everything over, finish it properly and get closure. I didn’t know how I was going to do it or where the courage would come from to speak the unspeakable into a mutually accepted existence – that we had fallen in love, she had pursued me, I had participated, then tried to stop it and she had followed suite, and it had broken my heart and destroyed my prospects in that workplace. I hadn’t even known what to say in the ‘rehearsal’ confessions that I’d been holding in my head over the past months. But it occurred to me that that wasn’t a base I could afford to cover any more. Now, it was ‘do or die’. The time for ‘how’ was over. I was desperate and I needed to make it all stop before I hurt either myself, or her, or anyone else. Compared to the cost of a botched, rage-crazed attempt at revenge or self-destruction – or worse, a successful one – any number of bizarre, career-jeopardising phonecalls was preferable.

I opened the conversation with something like, “Hello Maxime. It’s Ruth. Is this a good time to talk? I’m sorry to disturb your evening like this, but I’ve been feeling angry about something for a while and it’s been making me very unhappy. I want to express that anger healthily now. Please could I discuss it with you?” I talked around the confession of our sexually charged emotional affair in euphemisms, hoping that the shared knowledge would suffice to fill the gaps, and that we could admit it without admitting it, tacitly. But my hope was not delivered. Maxime said she had no idea what I was talking about, and that we had never even been close to each other. I was stunned and horrified. She continued to make criticisms of my character and undermine my perception of my situation. They were not aggressively made criticisms, so I listened. ‘Nobody is or ever has been angry at you’, she said. Lies. Sadie had walked into my room, white in the face, dismissed my students, and yelled at me over the office conflict. I had even told Maxime about that. ‘You have not done anything wrong here.’ More lies. In my first semester of teaching a student refused to let me take his oral exam because of how I had graded the midterm, and asked for a different teacher. It had not been long since Regina would find fault with everything I did, punishing me through my students, telling me I needed her help and then not showing up, calling out my mistakes in front of other colleagues. Both Regina and the student had told Maxime about me. And anyway, if I had done nothing wrong, why did everyone avoid me and the air turn to ice whenever I mentioned the permanent job vacancy…?

I was at a loss to know what to say. Was I really utterly wrong about my relationship with Maxime, or was Maxime deceiving me very badly? I could not bear to think that she would sink so low. But I could not bear to accept that I was insane, either. I was in love with her, and I had been for a long time. Even if I got everything about her feelings and intentions all wrong, why didn’t my behaviour confound and embarrass her? Even if I had fallen in love first and noticed the symptoms in her only later (verbal diarrhoea, tongue-tiedness, smiling, giggling, gazing at length, large pupils, intimate conversations just between the two of us, touching, repeated attempts to get me alone) she generally pursued me and not the inverse. But say I got it all wrong and those things never happened. If someone has the hots for you and you don’t have the hots back, what you tend to feel is disgust or discomfort, and it shows on your face. Well, no such thing had shown on hers. Nobody stares right into another person’s eyes that intensely and for that long, and finds it a normal thing to do if they hope for nothing more than friendship. It wouldn’t have mattered who started it. If she hadn’t had feelings, she’d have thought I was acting bizarrely and run a mile. Nobody touches someone quite like she touched me in the exam room – even if it’s only an arm or a hand, rather than a thigh – under normal circumstances. If we really were ‘never close’, why didn’t the entire phone conversation confound and embarrass Maxime? Why was she even able to respond to me? I murmured something self-deprecatory about seeing a shrink. Maxime said ‘Well, you know, that wouldn’t actually be a bad idea.’

When Maxime saw me on campus, the only thing she wanted to talk about were how my plans were going to find a new job. When I said I did not want to discuss that with her, it seemed to shock her almost into a different persona, and she murmured, in an uncharacteristically quiet, weak voice, ‘That’s why I’m frightened of talking to you’. And then she suddenly snapped back to her normal self and persona, as if she had never uttered the words at all. After that, our paths did not cross again for the rest of the semester. She wasn’t even in the lunch room when I might be there. When our paths should have crossed on the corridor, she wasn’t there. She walked past my cafe table four times one Wednesday evening and did not even acknowledge me. Whatever had been there before, after ‘the phonecall’, which took place a few months shy of a year after ‘The Day It All Ended’, it was gone. She later vehemently denied having said that she was frightened of talking to me.

In those final months, when I did see Maxime, I saw in her the same disgust or antipathy towards me as I have felt towards men I have fallen for, and ‘got over’. It was an awkward over-familiarity peppered with disgust, or disgust brought on by awkward over-familiarity. It’s the kind of disgust you can only feel for someone you used to adore. It’s too bitter and intimate a sensation to feel for someone who hasn’t been that important to you before. Little hurtful things kept happening. I noticed the pile of CVs for the candidates applying for my post, abandoned in plain sight in the lunchroom with the department mailboxes, where I am usually to be found working. Maxime stopped responding to my emails. It is true that one or two were emotional. But majority were normal – if accompanied with things like ‘I noticed the pile of CVs left in the lunchroom. I am aware that material of this kind tends to be confidential, so I put it in your mailbox. I hope that this is okay for you.’ I couldn’t not call her out. I couldn’t let her go on treating me like an ex-lover, while denying that we were anything except… ‘never close’. The other colleagues went cold around me, were no longer in the corridor where I usually saw them. If I spoke about the permanent position that was going, they stiffened and looked slightly vexed.

Weeks down the line… here it gets more painful to describe: it is still fresh and raw.

The exit interview happened. I tried again to explain the attraction without explaining it, with marginally more success. She said ‘I just like to make friends at work’. She did not look embarrassed or shocked enough for the implied notion of us having had a sexually charged, woman-on-woman emotional affair to have simply been a fiction. She spoke quickly and without looking into my eyes, like people who lie. It sounded like an excuse – and if it was an excuse, then that meant she understood what I was trying to charge her with. She subsequently advised me not only to go to therapy, but what to say when I got there – and, curiously, told me not to take the anti-psychotic medication that the doctor had prescribed me, after I had gone to my first ever appointment, which lasted all of 20 minutes. I had prefaced the issue with ‘my line manager says that I am imagining things’.

That private interview taught me certain things about Maxime. I was surprised that she did not condemn my colleagues’ lies to me which had discouraged me from applying for the vacancy – but said that she didn’t care to know who had told the lies, and excused the culprits with ‘They said that because they didn’t want to work with you,’ almost as if it was my fault I had been lied to. So I learned that it was not beneath her to defend lies, or to reframe blame onto victims when it was in her interests. Communication with her was not going to be straightforward that day, and I needed a leverage to defend myself. She herself had told me, before ‘The Day It All Ended’, that one of her greatest weaknesses, by which people could and did manipulate her, was her guilt complex. I hadn’t liked manipulating her, but for my own sanity, what I needed from her was the truth, and she wasn’t going to give it to me unless I did it. So I tried – a little insincerely – pouring burning coals over her head by playing her own self-flattering lie back to her. ‘All this time you’re the only one who’s told the truth to me, when all the others lied. You have my respect, Maxime. At least I can trust you.’ Maxime’s admission about her guilt complex had been true, and my intuition about it had been right. For Maxime’s face suddenly changed, and something very odd and out-of-place came out of her – much like the admission of ‘That’s why I’m frightened to talk to you’. When she started to speak, her voice was suddenly different. It was weak and shaky. She seemed to go into a different ‘mode’ of being. ‘I had hoped… you might have forgotten…’ she started. Then she stopped mid-phrase. And, as if she had somehow left herself during that utterance, she suddenly snapped back to ‘herself’ again. Forgotten about what? I had wanted to ask. But I felt I already knew, and by now the moment had passed. I didn’t dare question her. Once her voice had gone back to normal, just like last time, it was as if that part of the conversation had never happened. Before ‘The Day It All Ended’ she had said to me, ‘I am about six different people’. Could this switching be what she had meant? Or had she meant something far more normal and anodyne, which I had originally thought she meant, that she just acted differently at home, at work and with friends? To suppose that she had multiple personalities was far-fetched and unrealistic, but when things like that sudden change of character, ‘snap back’ and subsequent amnesia happened, I could not help but wonder.

The interview went on, and her excuses continued to wear thin. As her reports of others’ criticisms of me continued, I murmured, ‘Why am I only hearing about all this now?’ She said that she had told me before, that the others had told me many, many times before. But this was not true. She had mentioned just in passing that my emails were too long. Incidentally, this was during another session of ‘criticisms of Ruth’s character’, after I had approached her to discuss how constantly and needlessly critical Regina was being, that it was disproportionate to the mistakes I was making and that it was hard to get Regina to talk to me about it calmly. ‘Criticisms of Ruth’s character’ had happened a second time, during the meeting I requested to discuss the fact that Sadie had marched into my classroom in a rage and would not listen to anything I said except to accuse me of lying. And of course, it had happened again, during ‘the phonecall’: I had tried to address my concerns to her, and she had turned it into an opportunity to air criticisms of me – if ever so ‘gently’. But fact was that throughout my entire time there, Maxime had never approached me to give me formal feedback, even after I kept seeking it out; her criticisms of my character were only opportunistically made off the back of concerns I had voiced to her, as a kind of ‘oh, and by the way…’. They had just sounded like self-protective excuses so she could say that I was in part or in whole to blame, and would not to have to ‘take sides’ or investigate the concerns.
During the middle of the interview, I asked her if I could still apply for the role. I knew that as a question it was a non-starter, but that was my nominal reason for wanting to see her, so it felt appropriate to ask. She said to me that there was nothing stopping me, but that I would find it extremely ‘difficult’. I felt I knew what she meant by this – that it would actually be nigh impossible – but I still could have been wrong, and in hindsight I almost suspect I possibly was. For at one point in the interview, her character seemed to shift again. Not dramatically, but it shifted. Her face became neutral and seemed to take on the naiveté and impressionability of a child. She looked intensely into my eyes and said, “I can’t just give you the post… can I?” And at that moment she seemed uncertain of what she was saying. It seemed as if I might be able to just persuade her to give me the post. In hindsight, I wondered if she was tacitly inviting me to. But I knew what was right, ultimately. Firstly, I wasn’t sure if in that frame of mind she could possibly be thinking through what she was saying, or if she might change her mind later. Secondly, even if that workplace’s rejection of me was destroying me, trying to stay there – or staying there successfully – would destroy me still: through her, through the other colleagues, or through the folly of my own self. She could let me stay, but if I stayed, it would be as the outcast I presently was, and she would lose favour with her colleagues for forcing them to accommodate me, and I would in turn lose favour with her. So I swallowed my hope, knowing that this was what Christ in his wisdom would have me do for my own safety, and that trusting Maxime would lead me into trouble. And against my own struggling, grieving, desiring, indignant heart, I said to her firmly and calmly and resolutely, with strength from I know not where, “No, you can’t. And you shouldn’t.” She nodded slowly, again like a child. She did not look like herself – at least, she did not look like the self I had seen in her since ‘The Day It All Ended’. She looked more like the self I had known her to be when we were mutually still in love. Her face looked uncertain still. I didn’t know why it was uncertain. Could she just pluck a job for me out of thin air…? I regretted the denial the moment I had made it. But I knew that it was right, and I knew that saying no was the first step on my road to freedom, even if it neither felt nor looked like it from where I was standing. The interview ended, and Maxime told me how relieved she felt that it was over, and cheek-kissed me goodbye like a friend. I felt my stomach knot in disgust, the kind you feel when know you’ve let yourself be cheated because your hands are tied there is nothing else you can do. But firstly, there was some semblance of peace between us, and secondly, I had averted temptation to destruction by the force of my own will, and for that I thanked my God.

I wrote to tell Maxime that I could not be at the final students’ grades jury. I was encumbered with responsibilities and busyness related to my house move out of that city, and my time frame was limited. I had to get my passport renewed in my country before a very near deadline which coincided closely with the juries, and would have no form of official photo ID if it expired. I felt uncomfortable about taking on the administrative necessary of moving cities alone as a foreigner in the country, without a passport or any valid photo ID. My contract did not include responsibilities external to teaching , and I never managed to contribute much of use at juries anyway. The amount they would gain from my presence was not even worth comparing to the amount I would gain from being permitted leave. She permitted me the leave.

We invigilated the final exam together. It was beautiful. It was like we used to be – but without the gazing and the sexual tension, and the touching was less frequent or ambiguous. I had always wanted for my relationship with Maxime to be like this. Even when we were in love. I had known that the attraction was not right and could not last. I cheek-kissed Maxime as we left at the end of the exam. As I was about to leave at the end of the day, another colleague, Leena, who was not as mistrustful of me as some, said ‘Ohh, so is this the last time we’ll see you then?’ I was puzzled. ‘No, of course not. I’ll be there at the end-of-term meetings as usual!’ So we cheek kissed goodbye. Maxime was standing next to her. I said, ‘Ok, I’ve already cheek kissed you.’ Suddenly the smile on Maxime’s face changed. Like the moment in the exit interview when she seemed to slip into a different person, her gentle smile morphed into a clenched-teeth grimace, then suddenly morphed back again, as if nothing had happened. What was that for? It is not the custom to kiss someone twice! Was she just embarrassed…?

The colleagues were not mostly understanding about my absence from the jury and I did not understand why at firat. Then I learned that the story they were told was that I had already moved home on the day of the jury (i.e. that I had abandoned them without saying goodbye). They had been told that I had been offered a lucrative position at a more prestigious university (which was not true). I turned up to the end of year meetings and they were surprised to see me, to say the least.

The first day of the meetings, I found out that Maxime had not only filled my job and the job I wanted with outsiders, she had created a new job of the same description for someone else as well. So that probably had something to do with why she had stared into my eyes in that exit interview and said, “I can’t just give you the job” and looked like she might be persuaded. There was yet another job that had been filled on top of that – one that I had shadowed for a year and a half. I had not even been told it was going to be re-filled. Maxime spent the entire first meeting chatting to the person who had been awarded it – it was an old school friend of hers. I can only thank God for enabling me no to cry. But I could not help but stare at Maxime and the new colleague throughout the meeting, for the sheer nerve of talking over the speaker the entire time.

The final meetings after that merit a post of their own…