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…