TREE by Kenneth Radu

She thought of  murder, the more horrendous option than a simple separation, if ending fifteen years together could be simple. Perhaps inclement weather had unsettled her nerves. The windstorm last night had ripped the tin roof off their shed, exposing the insides to the rain. Panels of metal lay bent or twisted on the sodden lawn, one floating in their  neighbour’s pool which they most definitely would have to retrieve. The pool water had turned green. Past Labour Day and her neighbours took their sweet time closing it down for the winter. Adrian had not emerged from the house yet. She wondered if he’d delay their departure for the college or choose to gather the tin sheets after they returned home.

***

Tariq, a youth from Lebanon whose family had fled the wars, stopped by her office almost every morning for a quick kiss before classes began. Well, not quite a quick kiss because Tariq’s tongue probed as far as it could reach. She almost choked on its sensitive tip at the back of her throat. Yesterday morning, breaking free, she held Tariq’s face in her hands.

“Stop it, my darling. We can’t, we shouldn’t do this.”

“We should do it all the time. In class all I can think of is fucking my favourite teacher.”

“It’s a good thing you’re not taking my class this semester. Now leave, I have to get my notes together.”

She had not feared discovery because she arrived in her office before other colleagues appeared, Tariq always shut the door, and she never let him stay longer than an intimate kiss.  It began during the summer when she had found herself only one of three adults in the community pool. An elderly couple side-stroked slowly up and down two lanes. She swam a fast crawl for thirty laps before stretching out on her back, floating, letting the sun dry her face. She paddled with her hands to direct her body and sensed it move towards the lifeguard’s stand shaded by a giant maple tree behind the fence.

“You are a great swimmer Madame Gautier.”

“Tariq! I hadn’t noticed. You’re a life guard here?”

“I have been fortunate. I was just hired, m’am. Yesterday was my first day. You visit this pool often?”

“Four times a week, if I can manage it, during the adult hour when the pool is more or less free. Not many adults take advantage of it.”

“I think many of them have day jobs in the summer. They are not teachers like you.”

Swinging off the seat and clambering down the side ladder, slender body, long legs, muscular back, the elegant physique of a swimmer without ludicrous muscular bulk, the natural bronze and olives hues of skin deepened by a summer’s tan, the boy scintillated in the sun like a bar of newly washed gold. How unlike Justin. He wore a black Speedo bathing suit, his stomach flat. The elderly couple were helping each other out of the pool. Tariq sat down, keeping his somewhat hairy legs separated. She didn’t think he had deliberately chosen to be provocative. Checking to see that the elderly couple had negotiated the slippery pool steps successfully, he gripped the edge of the pool and hunched forward, his dark eyes darker in the shade of the tree. She needed to make a decision: resume laps, get out of the pool and say good-bye, or flirt with her student and sit next to his almost naked body. He had done quite well in her biology class last semester.

Only once before had she ever indulged her fantasies for boys, especially of the slender and taut frames. That affair had lasted one semester, the student had been vigorous and grateful, then graduated and disappeared from her life. Since then, professional ethics, although weak, had not prevented dalliance so much as time-eating duties, responsibilities and, of course, Justin. Treading water, she regretted lost opportunities and became fiercely aware of time and yearning. Tariq kept staring at her and she could so easily touch his perfect feet. Then she rose, raised her arms above her head, curved, dove to the bottom and swam underwater to the other side of the pool.

***

Justin came out of the house and cursed when he saw the shed.

“I had better get the damn thing out of the pool. Put my brief case in the car.”

He disappeared around the house. Moments later she saw him reaching for the panel with the life-saving pole and dragging it towards land. The scummy water soaked his clothes when he lifted the sheet and he would have to change. Already they were late and she’d probably miss Tariq this morning. He always wanted to text message or phone on her cell, but she absolutely forbade it and, despite his lustiness and penchant for dirty sex talk, he refrained. Growing up in a household of many rules, regulations and correct speech, with her he burst into the testosterone-driven raciness and garrulity of randy youth.

She had to teach him discretion, no easy matter for a boy. In compensation she encouraged him to say whatever he wanted, even adopt a proprietarily attitude towards her when they were alone together in the apartment of a trustworthy Québécois friend who lived only a fifteen minute walk from the college and obligingly vanished at Tariq’s request. They had agreed to go out for lunch today. He insisted on skipping his two afternoon classes, meeting her by her car, then driving to a cozy bistro in east end Montreal, not frequented by any one they knew, a half hour from the college.

So involved with research and labs for the entire day in a part of the campus several buildings away from her classes, Justin would not be looking for his car until six or so. He had promised to call her office then. After lunch, Tariq wanted to take her in every sense of the word on Mount Royal rising above the city, for he knew the paths intimately.

“Against a tree,” he had said in a serious tone as if he were ordering an execution. She thought of her silk blouse, of abrasion on her back. In her a satchel full of lab reports she had stuffed a sweat shirt to put on during sex against that tree. Justin was hidden behind the panel as he carried it to the shed.

“The rest will have to wait. Shit, I don’t have time to change, my pants are sopping, but they’ll dry soon enough. Let’s go.”

Lately he had acquired a peremptory tone in his voice, no less commanding than Tariq’s. When she had appeared to favour a student in class, Tariq sulked in her office and to humour him she agreed to his command that she not look at other boys. His bossiness charmed her still. What she forgave in the boy, she resented in the man. Oh, yes, fantasies of murder she fully understood arose out of the decay of love and desire. Still, as long as she remained with Justin, Tariq could only insist upon so much and no more.

***

For the rest of August she tried to swim laps every weekday during the Adult Swim hour and Tariq successfully got lifeguarding duty at that time. Another guard fiddled about the cabin with schedules for games and competitions. She knew Tariq fancied older women, older in her case being thirty-nine which fit in her newly purchased bikini with only a modest roll of flesh around her waist. Tariq focused on her breasts and legs, all of which the bikini displayed to excellent advantage.

One day, the weather being unseasonably cool and overcast, he wore a blue jacket on the stand while she swam forty laps. The other guard busy with paperwork in the cabin, Tariq extended a hand on the steps and helped her out. He did not budge when she faced him dripping wet.

“I’m wet.”

“I believe you are.”

She could have laughed over the obvious innuendo, but was charmed by the breathy earnestness and utter lack of irony in his voice, charmed too by his youthful vigour and beauty, charmed by his accent, charmed by the desire burning in his black Lebanese eyes. She could see he wanted to kiss her, but had realized how risky the move at the moment. To his instant amazement and reaction, she deftly placed a hand over his Speedo. He did not step back.

“I need to change.”

Then, winding the towel around her waist, she scurried into the Ladies room.

“Walk,” he had laughingly shouted after her, “no running on deck.”

***

The swiftness by which the affair began did not astonish as much as fantasies of killing Justin. He had grown wearying, chronically bothered with one minor ailment or another, and sex had become both rare and indifferent. Whenever Justin touched her, she hungered for Tariq. Now it was the ulcer again; last year bronchial pneumonia which had rendered him homebound and tedious for weeks. His love of tennis led to tendonitis. Over his breakfast he also mentioned a sudden dizzy spell in the shower and a heaviness about the chest. Spreading freezer marmalade over her toast, she envisaged herself becoming a full time nurse for a man old before his time, which made her feel even older.

She had wanted children, he did not, but for the past few months he had been loudly fantasizing about paternity. He had changed his mind. “It would be good thing for us to have children,” he said. She, however, had also changed hers. What she had not experienced, she longer desired. Sitting in the car next to her partner who drove without talking, she still considered leaving, but she lacked the energy to make a decision and go through the motions. She didn’t want to enter into discussions over a division of the spoils, investments, goods and chattels.

The other morning Tariq had kissed, then whispered that she belonged to him and no one else, fate had so decreed, conveniently forgetting Justin of whom he never wished to hear. She had found his possessiveness, once sexy, just a bit presumptuous, but put it down to tumescent euphoria. If she were entirely free, perhaps Tariq  would insist upon more than she wished to give. True, in the proverbial throes of passion she sometimes cried out like a heroine in a cheap erotic romance that she’d die without him.

Really, ending a common-law relationship lacked the compelling interest of murder, at least imagining how to achieve murder on a strictly theoretical basis. Only a fanciful thought because in the end she would have to come to terms with her very great fear of growing old and undesirable alone. Moreover, aware of subterranean currents in Tariq, an undertow that could drag her down, perhaps Justin could serve as a lifeline, should the need arise. Ah, the boy confirmed her desirability, but for how long? “Run away with me,” he had several times whispered during and after sex. Where, she thought of asking, to what purpose? Lovers only ran away in the movies.

Caressing his beautiful body and murmuring her craving to be overwhelmed distracted him from the future, and he rolled over to delight in the present again. She had taught him to take his time, how to please her body to make it yearn for his touch. He had at first been too rushed, fucking as if racing and reaching the finish line in an explosion of expletives. Now he paced himself according to her response, as she rejoiced in the luxurious smoothness of his torso like steel sheathed in silk.

Tariq ordered their meal in his precise French, but they ate in silence. His cologne or aftershave was too strong although she liked the fragrance, a hint of lemon. He seemed glum, some family trouble perhaps on his mind, visibly upset when she refused to let him pay the bill, arguing with her on the way to the mountain that she should not have paid for the meal.

“I am not your little boy that you should pay for me.”

Well, he was a student after all. She didn’t think he had excess cash to splurge on expensive luncheons, although his family had money. He was prone to moodiness, she had noted, tinged with anger, which she always attributed to late adolescent impatience, brain wave turmoil and sexual jitters. Perhaps he also evinced some kind of middle-eastern temperament, a history of violence to which she was not privy.

She found a parking spot near a well-trod mountain path up which he led her. They veered off that and entered the forest where he knew one clearing or another, obviously having come here often. She and Justin used to picnic near the famous illuminated cross. Tariq grabbed her hand and pulled as if she were reluctant to follow. Given her choice of heels, hiking upwards and over rough terrain presented difficulties.

At last, there it was, suddenly before her, “our special tree,” he called it, against which he wanted to take her well out of the purview of the police on horses who patrolled the mountain. She guessed it was  a red oak, indigenous to the area. In the distance she heard faint sounds of the city below and the sky was somewhat obscured by the interlocking branches, the leaves already turning.

“I want to fuck you now,” breathing heavily, he pressed her against the trunk before she had a chance to change into her sweat shirt. His hand quickly found its way up her skirt, which she had been careful to select this morning because he had told her not to wear slacks. He roughly inserted his fingers. She cried out.

“Shut up, say you love me, say you belong to me, say you want Tariq to fuck you, say it, you love Tariq, you will never leave your Tariq.”

“I love you, I love you, fuck me, Tariq, I will never leave you.”

No more than the evanescent truth of the moment, and no more truthful than all such words spoken in sex, than all fantasies of murder. When he lowered his pants, raised her leg, held it under a knee and around his waist, adjusted position and thrust hard, lifting her off the ground, her shoulders and back rubbing against the bark, she could not stifle the groan.

“Say you need it, you need Tariq’s cock.”

“Yes, yes, I need it!”

He wanted to please only himself this time. She burned, hurt, lusted and panicked. Tariq possessed a force she not previously encountered, and he would always take her as he desired. He drove thoughts of Justin from her mind, he drove away all reason and qualms like meek cattle to the slaughterhouse until she became a vacant field.

Tariq insisted on driving her car back to the college, the first time he had done so. He spoke about his studies, graduating, engineering at McGill university, finding his own place to which he would give her the key, spreading his fingers over her thigh, she belonged to him now and no other. He had been wanting to tell her this at lunch, but could not until after he had taken her to the tree, he said, now she would always be his woman. Pulling into a secluded spot a fair walk from her academic building, he leaned over and kissed her, held her face in his hands, his own face glowing even as she felt chilled.

“You love me, you will see me tomorrow morning in your office, do not be late again for I will become angry. I love you so much I will kill you, then myself, if you do not love me back, you belong to me now. The tree has proven it.” His voice was gentle, good-humoured, announcing an inexorable fact like a law of physics.

He walked away, looked back and waved. She waited until he disappeared, still impressed by his beauty. Emerging from a daze, she began thinking, ordering her choices to see them clearly. With Tariq gone, she was not distracted. Meeting no colleagues, by the time she reached her office and sat down, her back sore, her body smelling faintly of sex and Tariq’s cologne, it was past three and she tried marking papers, her mind lapsing into reverie, when the phone rang.

“Camille?”

“Yes.”

The dean’s voice surprised her. Justin had been rushed to hospital earlier around noon. They had been trying to reach her for the past couple of hours and she remembered having turned off her cell phone in the car. Some sort of heart seizure, a mild attack, he was certain. If she needed anything, maybe cancel a class or two tomorrow, let him know and he’d arrange matters. Thanking the dean for his consideration, she didn’t know how she felt, but arranging matters now seemed futile like the notion of fate, a pointless attempt to explain the irrational and arbitrary.

It was anyone’s guess how long Justin would stay in the hospital, or how ill he was. What care at home would be required? Who would gather the sheets of roofing and recover the shed? She could ask Tariq, but wondered if that would give him the wrong signal. Hiring a handyman would solve the immediate problem of debris in her yard if she did not hoist up the roofing herself. Tariq must be made to understand that she could not desert a sick man in his many hours of need. Then she noticed a small torn leaf from the red oak tree stuck to the left upper arm of her blouse. She would cancel classes for the rest of the week and not see Tariq in the mornings. Of that much Camille was absolutely certain. The leaf, once removed, left a stain on her white silk.

KENNETH RADU’S fiction has appeared or is forthcoming online in Spilt Milk, The Medulla Review, Danse Macabre, The Tower, Lacuna, Whisper&Scream and elsewhere. A collection of his stories entitled Sex in Russia: New & Selected Stories will be published this year by DC Books of Montreal. He considers himself a reincarnation of a ninetheenth-century writer of letters, maybe Flaubert, but faster and without the fetish for exactitude.

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