Cal Louise Phoenix
We arrived here through a beckoning process for means. The end is education. The place is the third floor of the university’s quaint and busy library.
What I know of you has been patched together from collective slips and bits of speech. From your assignments, I’ve learned that you admire fauna, visual art, and your mother. I know that you are devout and follow convention like an unsympathetic map. When you once had a miscarriage, you mourned that God was punishing you for being apprehensive about the timing of the pregnancy.
But you do have two sons and I have met one. With a squeal, he once touched and turned the tattoos on my wrists. I slipped a couple fingers through his curls and made a face. He has your nose. It is an exact recreation of the long, curving extension that interrupts your profile. His smile could shame the sun.
I know what your face looks like from seeing you in the bathroom with your niqaab tucked below your chin. That first time, I could have choked for my lack of breath, especially when you fish-hooked your cheek so that I could see the fresh gap between molars. I was relieved for you; the offensive tooth had been affecting your ability to focus on homework.
I had also pondered your hair, which made me feel slightly wolfish. So, when I once saw you in the restroom washing without your niqab, it felt criminal, lackluster. But it is done now, and I know that your hair is an unyielding nest of fine black curls that you tie away from your face with an elastic band.
I have my own attachment to headdresses. This is so that when I step outside of my home, Adonai will recognize me from the cloudy regions of space. (Though, it is really more so that I can reflect a foggy image of myself that I know from various inscapes.) It has felt hypocritical to dismiss our symbolic modesty for my frivolous curiosity, because I am a woman too and understand what it is to be held captive in gazes that I do not approve of, to have my body and my hair sexualized.
But what gets buried among my imagination cannot hurt you. It emerges only as tiny torments that crop up when I try to sleep or when I am walking off of campus.
We connected last semester, shortly after classes had picked up. Your husband saw me first for help. He was eager to learn, requested new vocabulary, and read aloud his lessons so that I could correct his pronunciation. After every session, he thanked me passionately.
“Thank you, Khal!” he would enunciate, eventually adding, “my un-ending support!”
When we saw each other coming and going, he would wave energetically. It was touching and fueled pride in my work and my relationships with my other English learning students.
The afternoon we met, you were hesitating at the entrance to the tutoring center. I noticed your eyes immediately –two, sparkling vacuums in sea green, framed by feathered lashes that are thick and long enough to kiss the hems of your niqaab. They were startling, and I remember stuttering to address you. You beckoned to me. I didn’t know whether you were just reluctant or if you knew too little English to convey your needs.
The answer was both. You squinted at me, repeating, “what?” and “oh, sorry.” We tried to use the translator on your phone. Ultimately, you held up a finger. “I get my husband.”
I waited, and was both embarrassed and pleased when the connection was made. He explained that you were very shy and the three of us spoke in a circle until your paper was clarified and corrections were made.
After this initial meeting, I never saw you with another tutor. Your husband said that you preferred me to the others because I did the best job and I made you feel comfortable.
So, imagine my self-disgust as feelings for you began to creep within my belly.
I’m accustom to falling in love with unsuitable others, whether they be narcissists, emotionally stunted, lack convictions, or live in different states or countries. But I have never developed a crush like this one. It’s seems unfair, misplaced, and unprofessional. However, although I’m used to my inherent inability to be socially acceptable in any capacity, I cannot help but roll my eyes at myself now –oy vey.
The barriers, boundaries, and paradoxes are astonishing. If these reasons were tangible, they could be stacked like bricks until they touched a place in the air higher than any building on our campus.
I’ve embraced this column of contradictions to preserve our interactions. When you visit the tutoring center, I edit your homework and research. If there is time to chat, I ask about your classes, children, and health. I’ve gathered that the prairie is an assault to your sinuses so that you sometimes have to lift your veil away from your mouth to inhale. Now that you’ve become pregnant again, I’ve noticed that you’re more tired and less inclined to lingering chats. So, once corrections are made, I say, “come see me if you have more questions,” pat your shoulder, and go back to my desk.
This is an explanation of what has progressed and begun to soften and dissipate –a carnival of funny feelings and inappropriate daydreams. I cannot say how it started, really, but it does not matter. The most important thing I know about you is that you are happy. You’ve switched majors from human services to communication. You’re going to have another baby. You have a good husband. In a few years, you’ll return to Saudi Arabia and you’ll move into a big house, as your husband promises. The memory you will carry is of a kind, though eccentric Jewish woman who was proficient at explaining English grammar.
Of all the differences between us, that is the greatest one. Until forgetfulness, my thoughts of you will be wanton or whimsical. In my mind, I place my face in your neck and between your breasts and hips. I put my hands in creamy creases, thickets of hair, and smooth their various perfumes between the pads of my fingers. Amongst my imagination, we have no language or religious barriers –just a mutual need for confidence and pleasure. There, we are awkward bird-like beings that draw understanding through our laughter and touch, and that is all.
About the Author: Cal Louise Phoenix received her dual bachelors’ in English creative writing and sociology from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Her immediate plans include the pursuit of an MFA in creative writing. She was the winner of Beecher’s 2015 contest in nonfiction, and her poetry has appeared in the likes of the Apeiron Review, Cactus Heart, HOUND, and Green Blotter, among others. Away from her desk, she enjoys hand-sewing, attends shul, and resists nihilistic self-sabotage.