From Issue 15: Ardor

Tim Keppel
Monica Rendon was waiting for Professor Lawson’s outside his office. Dressed in jeans and a halter top, she sat down hesitantly. In class she was quiet but attentive, always observing; when she did speak, her comments were incisive.
“Professor,” she said haltingly, “there’s something I want to write but I don’t want to share it with the class.”
“Remember that the other essays will be pretty personal.”
“But, still . . . ”
“Okay, if you want, you can just show it to me.”
“Thanks, professor.”
“Don’t worry, nothing’s going to shock me,” Lawson said. “I’ve seen everything.” It was an attempt to put her at ease, but he worried that it might sound like bravado. Empty bravado, at that.
The rest of the week Lawson’s thoughts kept returning to Monica. He wondered what had happened to her that could be so traumatic. Lawson lived alone in an apartment near the university, where he had arrived seven years before, new to the city. Except for a couple of flings, he had kept mainly to himself.
When the students turned in their essays, Monica’s had a cover sheet marked “Private: For Prof Only.” Leaving class, she widened her eyes at him to emphasize the point. That night Lawson poured a glass of wine and set the stack of essays beside his recliner. The first one he read was Monica’s:
Sitting in the university cafeteria, Monica sees a guy walking toward her and begins to tremble. She hasn’t seen him in in two years. Would he speak to her? What should she do? Run?
She had met Ramon through friends in Barrio San Antonio. He was a hefty guy with curly black hair and a dense beard that made him look older than his eighteen years. A heavy metal fan, he wore black clothes and “his dark eyes, hooded by dense brows, revealed the pain of his mother’s recent death and his resentment towards his alcoholic father.” He himself abstained from drinking. He was very smart and always made her laugh – in the beginning.
“He’s not my type of man,” Monica told herself many times but eventually she agreed to spend time with him. She thought it would be a transitory affair like others she’d had. For a year everything was great. He was always thoughtful and romantic – roses, jewelry, a trip to the Hotel Sunrise in San Andrés. He would prepare her breakfast and take it to her at the university. They were together before and after each class, ate lunch together, and studied together. They took the same bus and when she got home he would immediately call to make sure she arrived okay.
This was only the beginning. Soon he was accompanying her to the door of the classroom and waiting for her when class ended. He would phone her throughout the day. Why did she let him do this? To please him? To show gratitude for his attentions? To help him through a temporary crisis? When she tried to change the rules, he said, “If you love me, why won’t you spend time with me?” Finally she decided to “end that stupid game in which I was the prisoner and he was the guard. But after that, for two more years, my life would not be mine.”
Ramon was consumed by jealousy. Monica’s classmates and even her teachers became threats. He made her stop listening to her music because she seemed too enamored of the singers. She tried everything to get rid of him “but it was like quicksand: the more you fought the deeper you sank.” Her mind “engaged in evil machinations that bordered on madness and which she fortunately didn’t act on. Others less dire she executed.” She tried to make him fall in love with another woman, she tried to bore him to death, she cursed him to his face. Nothing worked. He was always there, like a shadow.
One day he arrived while she was doing homework. She ignored him. Hours passed and his eyes burned with anger. She could hear his breathing. Neither spoke. Finally he announced that he needed to talk. “I don’t want to fight this time, I swear,” he pleaded.. “All right, tell me,” she said tightly. He insisted they go to her room. Monica sat on the edge of her bed. He walked around red-faced, clutching his head. Then he fell to his knees and sniveled, “You don’t love me anymore. If I killed myself you wouldn’t care.”
“The truth, no,” Monica said. “I don’t have a drop of love for you.”
Ramon let out an anguished cry and began to bang his head against the wall. Monica, terrified, shouted at him to stop. He seemed capable of anything. Her mother appeared, concerned by the commotion. After a while she managed to calm him down, then whispered to Monica to be gentle with him so he would make it home alive. All Monica could tell him was “Tomorrow will be better.” He stared at her silently, eerily for fifteen eternal minutes before he left, saying, “I love you just for me.”
Early the next morning Monica and her mom packed up and left. For two weeks they stayed with her aunt. When they returned, the neighbors told them Ramon had waited outside the house morning and night. Opening the door, they found a pile of letters on the floor. Her mother took them and hid them. Then she asked Monica to do something which was very difficult for her: withdraw from the university.
“Two years have passed and now he reappears, walking toward me at the cafeteria. Voices and laughter, someone plucking a guitar. Should I run? Before I can react, his eyes meet mine, then swerve away.
It has been difficult to recover my life, to return to the person I was before. Slowly I am reclaiming myself.”
Lawson finished his wine and poured another glass. He’d been so absorbed in the essay that it took him a moment to acclimate himself: the books on the shelves, the sound of cicadas, the tropical heat. Monica had surprised him with her deft descriptions and illuminating details, she’d made him feel the intensity of her life.
Lawson read more essays but had trouble concentrating. He kept flashing on Monica sitting in his class, her tantalizing, supple body; penetrating eyes; tender smile. She spoke little to anyone except to her blond, heavy-set friend, Ashley, whose essay had dealt with her hypochondriacal mother..
Lawson wondered what had happened to Monica during the two years after she escaped from Ramon. He wondered what had happened since that day at the cafeteria. Did she still live with her mom? Had Ramon continued to pursue her? Had there been other men?
He was also curious about Ramon. What was it like to be so completely obsessed? Was he that obsessive about other women or was there something about Monica that drove him mad?
Lawson returned Monica’s essay with a request that she stop by his office. It was dark outside when she appeared, a few voices echoed in the halls, the last students going home. Her nervousness seemed to lessen his own. He began by praising her essay and encouraging her to share it with the class, anonymously if she preferred. Monica said she’d think about it. Then, leaning forward and lowering his voice, he asked how she was doing.
“Better,” Monica said, crossing her legs.
“Do you still live with your mom?”
She returned his gaze. “Yes, but in another house.”
Lawson nodded consolingly. “And the guy?” He didn’t want to say the name. “Have you seen him again?”
“No.” Monica frowned, then added, “But I heard he wants to see me.”
Lawson nodded. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I feel afraid like before.”
Footsteps resounded in the hall.
“Any time you want to talk, please feel free . . .”
Suddenly Ashley appeared at the door. With tight smiles, they parted.
After that, Lawson couldn’t get Monica out of his mind. If she hadn’t arrived at the beginning of class, he would speak disjointedly until she appeared, when his mood would brighten. He wondered if the other students noticed. He had sworn off getting involved with students. He’d done it once when he first began the job and within days everyone knew. But maybe a flirtation, one that only went right up to the edge and no further, would do no harm.
Walking to his car, Lawson watched the friends cross the campus under the towering ceiba trees. A fresh breeze blew, and he felt a twinge of envy toward Ashley for enjoying Monica’s company. Some professors, including Christopher Pardo, the department head, invited him to join them for drinks, but Lawson declined. Conversations with them were always forced and their talk of university matters bored him. But he worried that they sensed his indifference and resented him for it.
His apartment – drab and cramped with traffic noise and a double bed with one side unslept in – was waiting for him. Pouring some wine, he thought of Monica’s sensual voice, her full lips. He knew her modest collection of tight jeans and halter tops by heart.
The next class Lawson showed a film, The Age of Innocence. Turning off the lights, he positioned his chair to afford a clear view of Monica. She seemed to catch the subtle humor the other students missed and seemed touched by the parts Lawson found touching.
Maybe, Lawson thought, Monica could keep a secret. Had he not kept hers? He would bide his time until the end of the semester. The days passed slowly, and instead of enjoying the Monday holidays when there was no class, he cursed them. A week after the semester ended, his heart pounding, he called her. A recording said her number was out of service.
The vacation days were dry and sultry. The grass was the color of rope. Not knowing what to do with his time, Lawson went to a movie by himself, he tried new restaurants. His sister and mother, who lived in a distant mountain town, wanted him to visit but he knew he would spend the whole time thinking about Monica. He considered calling Ashley to ask for Monica’s number but felt she would see right through him. Then one day at the mall he saw her. She was sitting in the food court by herself. In his shorts and sandals, looking quite unprofessorial, Lawson approached her. “Hi, did you change your number?”
Monica’s eyes flicked about. “Yes, I did.”
Writing out her new one, she leaned over the table with her hair hiding her face. She kept glancing uneasily around.
Lawson said, “I’ll call you.”
A week later, Lawson sat sipping wine on the balcony of his apartment, waiting for Monica. He had tried to make the invitation seem so harmless that she’d be hard-pressed to refuse. He had offered to pick her up but she said she’d take a taxi. He still hadn’t decided whether to play the concerned teacher or the platonic friend or simply show his hand. He would have to play it by ear.
Monica arrived wearing a yellow top Lawson hadn’t seen, dangling earrings, and extra make-up. He poured some wine. The traffic noise, which he’d always found annoying, suddenly seemed lively and rather pleasant.
Monica sat with one leg curled up under her. She had a tiny mole on her neck the shape of a teardrop. He couldn’t believe she was there in his apartment.
“I told my mom I was going out with Ashley,” she said.
“So you told Ashley?”
“I had to.”
“That’s okay. She seems discrete.”
“She is. Don’t worry.”
While they ate he asked Monica about her family. Her father had died when she was young; it was just she and her mom. She came down with anemia and it took several years to correctly adjust her medications. Her mom doted on her. She spent a lot of time by herself, reading and painting.
Lawson talked for a while about movies and books, pulling some off the shelf to show her, before finally asking what he’d been anxious to ask. Had Ramon contacted her? She said he hadn’t. Was he studying at the university? She said she didn’t know. Lawson worried that she might be bothered by his age. Yet feeling the effects of the wine, the night air, and the jazz on the stereo, Monica spoke and laughed freely. She emitted a physical warmth that made Lawson ache to caress her. He mentioned that he’d be staying in the city for the vacation and he’d like to visit nearby places like Popayan and Armenia.
“Maybe we could go,” he blurted. When he put on the film Body Heat, she snuggled up to him on the couch.
For the rest of the vacation, they saw each other often. Though Monica didn’t invite him to her house, he would pick her up a block away and they’d go to his apartment or to a bar. She told her mom she was going to Popayan with Ashley and they spent two nights there in a quaint hilltop hotel, where the brisk mountain air intensified his passion. They frolicked under a natural waterfall and slept beneath two blankets with their bodies intertwined. Waking early, he lay watching her in the predawn light, her hair splayed on the pillow. A light rain plunked the tin roof and, breathing in the eucalyptus-scented air, he could not contain his happiness.
Monica, however, seemed to be holding back. Lawson wondered if her behavior had something to do with her ordeal with Ramon. Her habit of pulling her hair. The way she would recoil when he opened a cabinet as if he might hit her with the door. Her exaggerated fear of dogs and passing cars. Her insomnia, which left her in a slight but perpetual fog. Her compulsion to do everything, whether it be homework or household chores, to absolute perfection, so that she was unable to start something else until she had finished. She had said in her essay that she wanted to return to the person she was before. Lawson wondered when that would be, if ever.
Yet he accepted the challenge of winning her trust, of showing her how she deserved to be treated. Above all, he tried not to be demanding of her time. Sometimes, dying to call her, he would force himself to wait. And when she called him, timidly asking to see him, his heart would swell. Being in her presence was so intoxicating that even accompanying her to buy shoes or have her nails done was nothing short of bliss. He was leading the life of a man whose every move is determined by a love affair.
But when classes resumed in August, something changed. Now they had to pass in the halls with no more than a quick nod and a wan smile. And Monica was spending more time with Ashley, who seemed to be competing for her attention. Lawson worried that this might cause Ashley, out of self-interest, to reveal their secret. He knew that Ashley was tired of covering for Monica and Monica was tired of lying to her mom. Lawson was annoyed at having to cut short their visits because Monica had to get home. Maybe, Lawson thought, it would be better for Monica to level with her mother. But when he suggested this, Monica resisted. She said she wanted to “avoid complications.”
Also, being back at the university meant the presence – real or imagined – of Ramon. When Lawson would pass by the cafeteria and see Monica studying or chatting with Ashley, he would instinctively glance around to see if someone was watching her. He had never seen a picture of Ramon and only knew him from Monica’s description. Maybe he had shaved his beard or cut his hair but still Lawson felt that somehow he would recognize him, if only from the intensity of his gaze.
One Friday Monica failed to show up at Lawson’s apartment as they had planned. Trying to reach her, he kept getting her voice mail. Finally he called Monica’s mom, who said she wasn’t home. Much later Monica called him, peeved. She said she had been with Ashley and her phone had been “misconfigured.”
Lawson began to pass by her classroom to see who she was sitting with or talking to. He called her at odd times to see if she might be somewhere she hadn’t told him she would be. One day he watched her from his car as she got on the bus, then followed her to make sure she got off at her house.
Lawson knew that Monica and her mom had financial problems. Though it was a strain on his paltry teacher’s pay, he gave her money, clothes, a cell phone, an ankle bracelet. He sent her frequent messages and used the word love, a word she didn’t use.
Lawson had hoped to see a steady increase in Monica’s affection for him, to see her reticence and aloofness fade. But now he wondered if they had become a permanent part of her. When they made love, she no longer seemed to surrender, and he would notice, when she didn’t think he was watching, a look of glassy indifference.
One day she told him she was looking for a part-time job.
“You don’t need to,” Lawson said. “Whatever they’re offering, I’ll give you more.”
Lawson had imagined that being with Monica would bring an ecstatic happiness but instead he felt a painful anguish, a constant dread. Each time he saw her he felt a gnawing in his heart and a difficulty in breathing.
He decided he needed to win over her mother. One Sunday Monica planned a birthday party for her and Lawson wasn’t invited. She told him she would try to see him afterward, depending on how long the party lasted. Lawson waited. Darkness fell and she still hadn’t called. He decided to show up unannounced.
He parked in front and knocked on the door. Her mother, delicate and proper-looking with worried eyes, greeted him with a soft voice. Lawson handed her a bouquet of roses. She looked confused.
Then Monica appeared, acting perturbed. Under her breath she told him, “I said I would call you.”
“My phone was misconfigured,” he said.
With a sigh, Monica led him into the living room where her mother, a couple of aunts, and Ashley were eating cake.
“Just in time,” he said awkwardly.
“So you taught Monica?” her mother asked, serving him a slice.
“Yes, she writes well.”
Lawson excused himself to go to the bathroom. He went down the hall and opened one door and then another until he found her bedroom. Seeing her room was like seeing her naked: her private self revealed. This was where she spent her nights. This was where Ramon had lost it. Lacey curtains, a flowered comforter, a neat little desk, and the walls covered with posters of long-haired musicians Lawson didn’t recognize. He saw the postcard from the Hotel Sunrise.
The next day Lawson called a man he knew in Administration to ask whether a student named Ramon Gutierrez was enrolled in classes. The student had attended the first few weeks of his course, Lawson said, and then disappeared. After putting him on hold, the administrator came back and said yes, Ramon Gutierrez was taking a class in industrial engineering, Thursdays from three to six.
Twice the next week Monica excused herself from their usual encounters, saying she’d be with Ashley. Ashley needed her, she said; she was having a rough time with her mom. But were they getting together to talk about Ashley’s mother or to talk about him? Maybe Ashley was covering for her while she saw someone else.
One Sunday after a brief visit, Monica told Lawson she had to leave. The love-making had been perfunctory. Irritated, Lawson said he had something to tell her. He said one of the professors had asked him if he and she had something going.
“He knows,” Lawson said. “And if he knows, who else knows?”
“But he can’t know,” Monica said. “We never talk in front of people.”
“It had to be Ashley,” he said.
Monica’s eyes flashed. She went to the door, then stopped, looking embarrassed. Lawson always left the money on the table but this time he hadn’t. He waited a five count, then stood slowly before taking the bills out of his wallet.
Her visits to his apartment became ever more strained. Sometimes they had little to say to each other and Lawson, fearing she was bored, labored to make conversation. He realized that both of them were suffering but he couldn’t bear for her to leave..
One day she told him she was going to see a play “with a group of friends.”
“Who’s going?” he asked.
“Sandra and some others.”
“Can you come over after the play?”
“I don’t know. We’ll probably go out for a beer.”
He kissed her, just to see if she would let him. But the kiss only brought him sadness.
That evening he kept looking at the clock. His mind conjured up images of what Monica could be doing, and with whom. The pain he felt was much like a physical pain.
He stationed himself outside the theater and when the people poured out he spotted her with Sandra and another woman. He moved closer.
“Lawson!” Sandra shouted, not so much to greet him as to alert Monica. When Monica looked his way, he saw the annoyance in her eyes.
The next day, Monica asked Lawson if they could meet at a coffee shop. Already seated, she looked different somehow, like someone he barely knew.
“I’ve started a job,” she said, glancing away.
“But . . .”
“And since I’ll have very little free time, I think we should stop seeing each other.”
All at once the sounds of the shop became muffled. Lawson’s limbs felt numb and helpless.
“I need time to myself,” Monica said.
“I’ll give you time,” Lawson managed.
“I have to go,” Monica said, picking up her book bag. “Please don’t try to contact me.”
Watching her leave, Lawson kept hoping she’d look back, perhaps with sadness in her eyes. But she seemed in a great hurry to get away, to a place that didn’t include him.
That night Lawson drank until he could feel no pain and fell into a heavy sleep. But he awoke around four in the morning with his mind awhirl. Like someone who has lost his keys, he wildly retraced his steps, thinking that if only he hadn’t gone there, hadn’t done that, they would be right there in his pocket. How had he been so careless? And he seemed to know, with absolute certainty, that he would be locked out forever.
He was thankful when eight o’clock arrived and he could get up. He felt tired and weak. The brilliant sunlight, instead of consoling, seemed to mock him.
He tried not to let her know he was watching her. From a second floor window he could see the cafeteria, where she often sat with Ashley. Sometimes he would drive to her house and park at a distance.
One day he got an email and, seeing her name as the sender, almost cried out. He read the message hungrily. Lawson, it said, my mother saw your car parked near our house. She said you were there for hours. He stopped and savored these words before going on. It really upset her. Remember what I said: stay away from me!
Not only was he crushed but he was also offended. What did she think he would do to her? Something extreme? Just the fact that she thought him capable of something like that suddenly made it seem like a real possibility.
From the railing on the second floor of the Engineering Building, one could watch the swarm of students making copies, eating empanadas, gossiping, and making cell phone calls. The class on Thursdays was held in Room 104. Lawson came to know the faces of every student in the course, none of which was Ramon’s.
One day Christopher Pardo called Lawson into his office. Fastidiously dressed and wearing a frozen expression, Pardo exuded the smug authority of a bank manager. “Lawson,” he said, “a student has made a complaint about you.”
Lawson was stunned. He never had complaints from students. “Who is it?”
“Monica Rendon.”
Lawson clenched his jaw.
“She seems quite distraught. She’s ready to go to the dean, or whatever.” The brightness in Pardo’s eyes suggested that he derived a certain pleasure from conveying this news. Perhaps he felt that his dislike for Lawson had been validated.
Lawson was alarmed at the thought of losing his job. Teaching was his only refuge. He began to sense a change in his students: the way they looked at him, the way they whispered. He began to believe that whether through Pardo or Ashley or Monica herself, the word was out, and instead of listening to what he was saying in class, they were looking at him as if he were a stalker. He saw now that the story would be passed from student to student, year after year, and even if he managed to keep his job, he would be forever tarnished. He began to loathe Monica almost as much as he loved her.
The courtyard of the Engineering Building was especially frenetic at six o’clock. As Lawson watched the students file out of class, his breath caught in his chest. It was Ramon. No heavy metal garb, just jeans and a button-up shirt. His hair was cut short, his beard trimmed. His face was impassive.
Ramon headed toward the main avenue. Lawson followed, slowing as Ramon waited for the crosswalk light. He had no idea what he would say to him, but he didn’t want to let him slip from his sight. Crossing the street and entering the mall, Ramon walked slowly, examining the display windows. He stopped at a teller machine, took out some cash, and continued on. Finally he came to a small restaurant that specialized in crepes. He took a table and asked for a menu. Lawson stood behind a kiosk of sunglasses and pretended to be making a selection. When the waitress asked to take Ramon’s order, he indicated that he hadn’t decided. That’s when it became clear that he was waiting for Monica.
Lawson swiveled his head, trying to determine from which direction she would be coming. He felt lightheaded at the prospect of confirming his suspicions. Perhaps his pain would be assuaged by being proven right. By knowing that she had gone back to that possessive beast. Perhaps that would make it easier to let her go. Or perhaps it would make it harder.
After a while the waitress took Ramon’s menu and, later, brought his food. He ate languidly, then paid and left.
On Thursdays Lawson would go to the Engineering Building and, from his perch on the second floor, he would listen to the buzz of the students and watch them flitting from one cluster to the next like bees. Once, as he was leaning against the railing, he felt a presence at his side. Turning, he saw it was Ramon. Head down, Ramon was also focused on the teeming crowd. They were no more than three feet apart.
Tim Keppel’s work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Carolina Quarterly, Notre Dame Review, and elsewhere.
Three of his story collections have been published in Spanish translation by Penguin Random House.
Keppel teaches literature and writing at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia.