Second Language

Fiction

Her second time with Jorge, being sober felt like a mistake. Already underneath him, his gangly legs draped over the side of the couch, she realized that only several degrees past tipsy could she seem normal. “Want we should leave the lights on?” Jorge asked. Moments later, “We can try with you on top?” The thought of her body hoisted, light trained on the puckered flesh etched purple-blue with veins, made her seize up.

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“What is it?” Jorge asked, breath hot on her cheek, the bristly hairs of his beard sticking to her wetted lips. She paused, fished a hair from her mouth. “Got any tequila?”

Last time, already drunk, they’d passed a bottle back and forth. She remembered laughing at the sharp liquid dribbling down her chin and then nothing, save a furry image of straddling Jorge on a kitchen chair in the apartment he shared with two other men. She knew it was done, though, because the following afternoon, leaving a staff meeting to throw up in the fourth-floor student bathroom, she’d gone to pee and found several drops of blood. She was not quite 35.

“We finished it this other night,” Jorge said gravely. He pulled back. “Do you need it? You do not feel relaxed?”

She’d never seen him ruffled. In the halls at school, he wore an expression of bemusement, his incredible height making him a beacon amid the throngs of his peers (the Latin students tended to congregate in loud clusters in between classes).

“I’m relaxed,” she chirped, unconvincingly.

Jorge contemplated her a moment longer, then rolled off of her, stood. She forced herself to gaze up all six feet of him, taking in the contrast of jutting ribs and slack gut, the coarse curlicues of jet-black hair that enveloped his chest and stomach, travelling his thighs and flowering in startling abundance at his groin. He was, she saw now, uncircumcised.

When he bent, his back to her, to pull on striped jockeys, she turned, sparing them both the too-intimate sight.

•••

Weeks ago, she and Mo had been in line at the supermarket.

“Who will do it to you? It has to be someone.”

“Not true,” she’d said. “People die virgins.”

“I think you have to consider a student,” Mo had said, removing a bag of grapes from their cart. “I’ve told you — we must use the coupons,” he’d scolded gently. Despite growing up in a house with servants, Mo understood budgeting on an intuitive level. “It is fear,” he’d laugh at her, when she raised it. But fear transmitted, she knew, could do something else. Before him, she’d run her account down to zero with every paycheque, greedy for takeout dinners, fancy coffees. Her father, when he called every week, asked her the same series of questions, in the same order. “Has your rent increased yet?” “Are they still paying you the same salary?” Finally: “Are you dating?” He didn’t know that her bills were now being split.

Their marriage was democratic. Mo did the finances, the cooking; she cleaned the apartment, washed dishes, got up first to make coffee. Shopping they did together.

She noticed that his voice was hoarse, that his high, sculpted cheekbones were offset by soft lips.

The first time they met, she couldn’t stop blushing. For a single afternoon, he had been her student, having transferred in the middle of term to her high-intermediate class. When he spoke, prompted to give some inane account of his weekend (this was the bulk of what took place at language school), his easy descriptions, the barely traceable accent, had made the other students, who laboured over every pronouncement, sit up straighter in their chairs. To her horror, she felt heat in her face every time she looked over and met his eyes, or when she tried not to look but felt the steadiness of his gaze. She noticed that his voice was hoarse, that his high, sculpted cheekbones were offset by soft lips. She’d seen him earlier that day by the water fountain and assumed he was a supply teacher, his outfit downtown Toronto hipster (he told her later that he’d gone to a trendy intersection of the city and sat in a café for hours, studying people, how they spoke, dressed, held their phones). He wore blue Converse sneakers, perfectly scuffed. When class ended, she’d forced herself to breathe deeply and asked, with sinking regret, if he could stay behind.

“You’re going home in a month,” she’d said, her voice wobbly, not meeting his eyes as she studied the secretary’s scribbled-out note, paper-clipped to the day’s attendance sheet. “I can recommend you to the pre-advanced class. It’s a jump, but your English is really good.” She’d thought of Jackie, the pert woman who taught one level up, her arms scrawled with tattoos. She could often hear Jackie’s students laughing, the sound a rich chorus from down the hall.

Mo had let on neither surprise nor pleasure. He’d simply nodded, murmured a vague assent. But then, too, he’d made no gesture towards leaving. In the silence that had followed, she’d heard herself ask, “What will you do, when you’re home?” A muscle in his cheek had twitched.

“It is,” he’d said, “complicated.”

It had started in her stomach and spread upwards like warmth, the rush of elation. She’d quickly adjusted her features to those befitting concern, nodding when he’d asked if she had time to talk. Then, in a gloomy Starbucks down the street, Mo had told her the beginning of his secrets. He had mapped it out: his slow withdrawing of funds, collusion with the relative (he already knew which one they’d send: young, malleable), the sum he’d use to pay off the private investigator his family would send to find him. The girl, he’d said, a cousin, would suffer most; news of her humiliation wouldn’t be contained.

“This is something that happens, in my country,” he’d said quietly, large palms cradled on his knees. She’d nodded, said nothing, allowing herself a breath of a thrill before imagining, with a pang, the girl’s wildly public rejection. It wasn’t until several days later — floating from the flurry of text messages sent between them, that she’d rounded a corner on the school’s second floor and saw Mo sitting on the sofa that was wedged beside the vending machine, his head tucked so that it lightly rested against another student’s (a Russian engineer named Sergey, who the year before had been in her vocabulary elective), the two of them poring over something on Mo’s phone — that she’d understood.

That night, she’d surveyed her apartment. There was the bedroom with its bare walls and built-ins; the square living room that ran into what Mo later dubbed their “elevator kitchen.” She would clear out the hall closet, she decided — containing clothes that no longer fit, the prints she’d bought in a hopeful mood — so that Mo could hang his shirts, each one pressed, their collars immaculate.

After they’d gone to City Hall, telling no one, Mo had sailed through the school’s remaining levels and been promoted to a beginner teacher’s classroom assistant. Months later, when news of their secret had gotten out, Mo completed an online ESL teaching certificate and was hired by the school to teach his own class. For a short period, the other teachers had talked about her; she could tell by the hush that fell on the break room and the faculty washrooms when she entered. But all that had died down once Mo and Sergey had been spotted at a bar by an intermediate teacher, their fingers entwined under the table.

In the supermarket, Mo had said, “You know, there is someone who I think will do it in my class. Latin American. Very tall. And old.”

“What’s old?” she’d frowned.

Very late 20s.” Mo had said, ignoring her glare. “And he is graduating — in two weeks! You need to come to my class’s final Friday party; we’re having a barbecue, at Linda’s condominium.” He’d waited a beat before adding, reverently, “There will be booze.”

Only since Mo had she entertained the idea that it might not be too late for her. She hadn’t known, had had no girlfriends during the embarrassing interval of school, or in university, on the imposing downtown campus where she hardly spoke to anyone, commuting home each day to the city’s upper reaches to eat dinner with her parents; her father hunched and exhausted from a day of factory work, his anger at her for doing a “useless” degree in English literature conducted through a wall of thick silence; her mother drawn, impossible to read. Her parents’ snatches of conversation always in a language she could understand but not speak.

After, when she’d left home and found work at the language school, her co-workers were polite but distant, as though blankness might be catching. She’d begun to know then, observing from a safer distance than she’d been able to when young herself, the round girls and pockmarked boys — teenagers and twenty somethings who’d traversed oceans to sit in stuffy classrooms conjugating verbs and having bland conversations about the weather — who held hands in the halls, or made out on the school’s concrete steps — that sex was not merely for the beautiful and burnished. She saw that it admitted to its ranks, also, the bumbling and unlovely.

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Still, it had only solidified in her mind when she’d seen up close the men Mo brought home, whom she met at odd junctures rolling cigarettes at her kitchen table or thumbing her magazines on the futon that doubled as his bed. They were the sort — unremarkable, sad looking — she’d pass on the streets without second glance. Before putting in earplugs to block the noises that seeped through the wall — each distinctive in his groaning, his loud sighs — something tightly coiled in her, a buried grain of hope, bubbled upwards.

•••

At Linda’s, people had at first talked blandly in broad circles. Once tipsy, they’d clefted into cliquish twos and threes. She’d wished someone would speak to her until they did, then wanted only to slump to a chair and let the din of conversation wash over her, her face set how it fell.

She’d recognized Jorge from Mo’s descriptions of him, from having seen him around, noticing the way he towered over everyone. He’d worn a trim, blue and white striped polo shirt with khaki shorts and spoke amiably to his classmates, saying little but laughing often at things they said. Some had looked at him longingly. She’d anxiously sought Mo’s eyes and he’d fixed her with a look that said they would get nowhere, these lissome, effervescent teenagers. Earlier, he’d placed a glass of whiskey in her hand and she’d clutched it, a lifeboat.

Mo, too, had taught her to drink. Beer you nursed, relishing the heaviness it brought upon your limbs; liquor you shot back, to bolster your nerve. When she’d remarked on the irony — a Muslim teaching her to get smashed — he’d laughed. “Things are different underneath,” he’d said.

The night had tipped over its peak. The cluster of students who’d remained gave off a vibrating, masculine rowdiness, shouting obscenities in each other’s languages. Mo had poured shot after shot, lit cigarettes. When Linda had slumped, her eyes closing, against the wall of the condo’s rooftop patio, Mo had corralled four students towards the elevators and down to an idling taxi, making laughing promises that he and Jorge would catch up with them at the club. No one had mentioned her.

Jorge had stood smoking, not bothering to close the five or so feet between them on the now empty patio. He’d been aware, it seemed, though not surprised, at having been chosen.

•••

Now, she could hear him moving around in the kitchen that splintered off the long hall that ran through his apartment. She wondered if he wanted her to dress, leave. When he finally reappeared, his face was austere. “Come,” he beckoned, saying her name, its syllables alien in his mouth. “Where?” she asked uselessly, stiff with shame at her exposed, half clothed body, which, no longer pressed against him, he could properly see. “The kitchen. Come.” Mercifully, he turned and left as she scuttled to where she’d spotted her shirt on the floor across the room and pulled it overhead, her heart clobbering her chest.

When Jorge cued her, she drank the smoke again — this time, she felt, lustily — then again.

The kitchen hummed faintly with electricity, Jorge busy at the stovetop. She moved closer, and saw him place the serrated ends of two butter knives between the coils of a red-hot element. A square of tinfoil sat on the counter. On it, rested four slabs of a brown, chalky substance she couldn’t place. Jorge lifted a pinch of it, then extracted one of the knives and gingerly placed it on the flat of the blade. He carefully turned off the element, removed the second knife and pressed its surface against the first, so that a white billow began to slowly coil upwards from the metal.

“Come,” he said, nodding at the smoke. “Drink it.”

“Drink?”

“Drink, like this,” Jorge mimed sucking air. “Quickly.”

“What it is?” she asked, though she knew she’d do as he said.

“Hashish. Quickly. Do not waste it.”

She moved closer, falteringly sucked the smoke.

“More,” Jorge said. She drank more. Jorge drank some, dumped crumbs of brown in the sink. She watched, this time transfixed, as he repeated the process — putting the heat on, setting up the knives, and felt a dreaminess, a floating bubble, expanding outwards from her chest. When Jorge cued her, she drank the smoke again — this time, she felt, lustily — then again. She started walking (gliding, she thought) to the kitchen table. She placed a flat palm on its vaguely sticky solidity. She lowered herself onto the chair and looked at her white thighs under her skirt that rode up when she sat, the flesh spread on the wood surface. The veins were sort of pretty, she thought, and began to lightly trace them with her forefinger. As she ran her finger along the blue lines, her mind buzzed with dozens of unfinished thoughts, each a charged filament leading her to dozens (hundreds?) more, the entire web crackling with uncharted possibility. What felt like ages later, she remembered Jorge, and looked up. He leaned against the countertop, head tilted, watching her.

“I think,” she said, her mouth lead filled, “I might be high.”

Back in the living room, the couch became irrelevant as she wrestled him to a wall, toppling a lamp, her lips and teeth dragging flesh, wanting both the hard and pliant parts of him, his yielding an allowance before he pinned her. So this was proper sex. Jorge’s pace was first languid and then, as if in response not to the noises she issued but to some arbitrary, inward cue, urgent. People talked in hushed, worshipful tones about connecting, she mused, but this was something else, each of them engrossed in a private, atomic struggle, the other merely a hurdle to pass to arrive, panting, at some glimmer — an illusion, really — of relief.

As she lay with her face pressed to the floor, stomach chafing on the laminated wood, she thought how silly it was, to have feared for so long something so impersonal, absurd. It was like everything, really. Better before it was attained. Afterwards, Jorge leapt up, raining beads of sweat. She watched him pull a towel from a thin cupboard in the wall, wipe himself off in various places and then squat before her, knees cocked to either side.

“What?” she asked, shyness suddenly flooding back.

“Your hair, it is a strange shape.”

She released a hard crack of laughter but realized, as it came, her chest was sore, packed with a stiff loneliness.

When she got home, she knew, Mo would be up waiting up. He’d be reading one of her paperbacks under a scant ring of lamplight, or propped on an elbow over his e-reader, following the elegant curls of Arabic with a frowning focus. Beside him, on the low table, would sit a drained tumbler. His plastic reading glasses would be on, the Armani pair, and, as he often did when she caught him unawares, he would look at once serene and mournful. She would want to curl against the unrelenting shell of him. Maybe this time, the last tendrils of inebriation stoking courage — she’d breach the distance of hoary carpet between them. Maybe, in the last, grey hours of night, she’d lie against him on the futon, feel the breath that came and came, the room’s remaining shadows sucked out like a vacuum when he turned off the light.


Kate Cayley read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View Jodie Shupac’s author profile.