Graceless – by Marcus Emanuel

Cleanth Bachmann was 57 when he began his tryst with Emily. He was in good shape for 57, but aging. His muscles were firm, without significant fat deposits, but his skin had gone loose and hung on him like pizza dough. Age spots speckled his back. His leg hairs had mostly gone, except for a few white wild ones scattered about his shins. His beard still had brown in it but grey and white had taken over. He wore horn-rimmed bifocals.

At times he was able to acknowledge to himself that this adventure with Emily would most likely be his last such one. 57 seemed too young for this to be possible but the evidence was against him. His wandering eyes, his smiles on the sidewalk to the women whose gaze he could catch, were treated strangely now — as if something unwelcome or beyond comprehension. When he’d come out of his divorce almost a decade ago, Cleanth had been surprised to find that he was still marketable. While his colleagues shuffled off into obsolescence — their wardrobe stagnating, their posture shrivelling — Cleanth found he was still able to hold a conversation with a woman about nothing at all, to make her laugh without saying anything funny. But now, as with everything, he was discovering he was not immune. Now he too had to fight in order to maintain what he’d thought had been his right — and to largely fail in doing so.

But how was one to fight for his sexual prominence? No, one couldn’t. Any attempt would only lead to desperation. Like an ouroboros, it would consume itself.

Early in the fall semester at Grinnell — the students scurrying around building to building, searching for their classes — a thrum of excitement stirred through the campus and, with a heavy sigh, Cleanth tried to sever himself from it, to distance himself from this familiar anxious energy. It was disturbing how simply this was done. He had not consciously flirted with his students in years, but now, having forcefully segregated himself away from the herd of the living, he found his pedagogy transformed. No longer detached, clinical in his lecturing, he suddenly found himself taking on an avuncular manner. He played for their affections, reached for jokes and puns he thought they might find humorous, even if he found them absurd. He was more successful than not but this success only disturbed him further. My god, he thought, when did I become this clown?

And then, of course, in the spring semester Emily appeared before him. He walked into the first day of his Classical Mythology survey course and found her seated in the front row of the rounded auditorium. Holes in her jeans showing her knees knocked together, her v-neck cotton t-shirt pulling to the curves of her body, her small mouth and plump lips letting dangle the end of a pen. Throughout his lecture his eyes kept wandering back to her. No one sat near her. At the end of class no one talked to her, no one noticed her as she walked out, head down, arms holding her books tight to her chest.

Did he know what he was doing? Yes, he thought. He was submitting to the demands of the body, he could do nothing else. Why be ashamed of this? But did he know the sacrifices that came with this submission? Yes yes, he thought, I am well aware. So this is how it will end, then, in something messy. It did not change his perception of himself as much as his perception of those who had ended in such disgrace before him.

But no, to be honest, he had no idea what he was doing.

 

 

He found her in the library among the stacks of books. It was not intentional nor was it accidental. He thought he’d seen her enter the building and he’d wandered among the floors until he happened to find her.

“Emily,” he said, smiling brightly, and then quickly reprimanded himself for it. Don’t go playing the clown now, you fool.

“Professor Bachmann,” she said his name quietly and curtsied with her eyes.

“Please,” he stepped closer to her, “Cleanth.”

She nodded and smiled.

And then they were simply standing before each other, neither speaking. The grey metal shelves forced them close to each other, and the low ceiling and thick carpeting kept their sounds muted. Her body was still turned away from him, towards the shelf, but her chin was over her shoulder, facing him. Awkwardly, Cleanth clenched his hands to fists and shoved them in his pockets, thinking them safer in there.

To do something else with his eyes, he scanned the spines of the books surrounding them. “Sociology?” he asked.

“Oh,” she looked around herself in a surprised manner. “I was just wandering.”

His smile widened. “Me too. But Sociology is important, especially for Classical Mythology. But you’re . . . my class is an elective for you, no?” He had pulled her file and he couldn’t remember if he was supposed to know this or not. Had it been discussed in class? No no, she didn’t speak in class.

“I’m a fashion studies major,” she said, more to the books than him.

Cleanth had to stop himself from looking doubtful. The girl dressed like she was trying to hide. “Well it’s certainly important for that too. Here,” he grabbed a volume from the shelf. It was something by Durkheim, a work he wasn’t familiar with but if it was Durkheim it would be difficult enough. He held it out to her. “A good starting point.”

Emily did not look at the book but turned, sharply, to look at him. The work hovered between them, bobbing slightly in Cleanth’s hand.

“Extra credit,” he said, “if you’re interested.”

But still she stared at him. And Cleanth thought, it must be that we know more than we realize. He’d known a woman once — Karin, always clad in tight black leather, with a body like a praying mantis and small high breasts with large dark nipples — who’d believed we communicated in ways we didn’t understand yet. Not just some psychic mumbo-jumbo but information, emotion, passed through smells we weren’t aware of, body language we didn’t know we saw. We communicate one unconscious to another, she claimed, more than in any conscious way. And in this moment Cleanth thought she was most likely right. Staring at him, Emily seemed to see everything. His loneliness, his desperation, his desire trembling just beneath his skin, his fear at the spectre of senescence hanging over him. Through some smell, some awkward hip movement, he had revealed it all.

She took the book.

Idly, as he returned his hands to his pockets, she flipped through it. “It looks difficult,” she said.

But he was already turning away from her. His body was trembling, screaming at him to run, to get away. But he clamped down on it. “Yes,” he said coldly, “it is. Let me know if you need help with it.”

“Thank you,” she said, but he was already out of the aisle, gone.

Four days later he sent her an email. How’s the Durkheim? Let me know if you want to take me up on my offer. Within an hour he’d received a reply:

Yes, please.

 

 

A week and a half later, at around 4:30 pm on a Sunday, Cleanth was cooking cacio e pepe. Schubert’s Sonata in A Major was playing through the kitchen radio and he was thinking of Gillian. In his mind he called her the river goddess. It was always as if she’d wandered away from some commune, barefoot through the city streets until she ended up in his apartment. She kept the smell of firewood caught in her hair. She’d been tall and thin, a model’s body with a man’s nose dropped in the middle of her face. It had poked him awkwardly when the kissed but over the four months or so that they’d known each other he’d come to like it. She had thin lips and high cheekbones, a wide forehead between her eyes. Their love making had been awkward but wonderfully so. What were they to do with those long legs of hers? When he finally figured it out, folding them up against her, wrapping his arm around them, it had clicked. Together they had slipped into something neither was aware they were capable of. Her hand would find his shoulder and squeeze it tightly while she moaned ceaselessly in his ear.

After a few months she wandered away and he let her because, well because what was one to do with a woman like that? That had been his thought then, his comment to a colleague that had enquired, but now the question came back to him with renewed force. What was one to do with a woman like that?

Things had not gone well with Emily on their first encounter and Cleanth found himself anxious now, anticipating her arrival for their second meeting that evening. The first time, just shy of a week ago, had ended with Cleanth leaning over her, his mouth stained red, asking repeatedly why she wouldn’t stay for another drink. She had laughed as she left and he hadn’t been sure the meaning of it.

“Please see me again,” he had muttered as she’d closed the door.

Why had she agreed to? He had emailed her afterwards, asking a chance to make amends, but why had she agreed? Why had she not cast him aside as he probably deserved to be? Was it just loneliness? Lack of confidence? He had no idea. He was terrified to find out.

She arrived later than he had expected. She was flustered, her hair slipping out of its tie, her cheeks redder than usual. She kept apologizing and shaking her head as if to get loose of something. Their night had barely started and already it was a mess.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” he kept saying. “Here,” and he reached out for her coat. It took her a moment to understand the motion.

The cacio e pepe was still warm but a coldness crept at the edges. A thin filmy layer of moisture covered it from the lid being kept on.

“It’s delicious,” she said between bites. They were eating at the small table in the kitchen, with two thin chairs, wedged between the windowsill and the oven. She bent low to the table, her breasts pressing up against the edge, and shoveled in bite after bite. Her cheeks were red, her eyes a little bloodshot and still glistening. How old was she? He tried to think. She slurped the noodles up, literally slurped them, so that the ends flapped around, leaving pepper flecks on her nose, before they disappeared into her mouth. She looked up at him and smiled but there was a tiredness in her eyes, in her body, and it overcame him too.

He didn’t eat at all, his appetite was gone. He didn’t speak, there was nothing to say. He sipped his wine and listened to the sounds of her eating the dinner he’d made her. He sighed and he could feel his bones ache. He’d taken to the tiredness quickly, it seemed to become him.

But she, suddenly, seemed to be revived. Perhaps because he’d taken the burden from her, or perhaps the dinner had simply revived her. She stood in the small kitchen, in the middle of the horseshoe of greystone countertops, and made small dance steps to Ravel’s Bolero, playing on the tinny kitchen speakers. She laughed at the mistakes she made and tried not to spill the wine. Cleanth thought: Yes, I’ve seen this one before. And honestly, he’d seen better. He’d watched Isa in her underwear and high heels perform flamenco to Sabicas, just a few feet from here. Her heels making dull thuds in the throw carpet of the living room, a sheet thrown over the corner lamp, her hands clapping the complex pattern high above her with a small smile on her face. He’d sat spellbound at the tiny vibrations the insides of her thighs made as she pounded the ground to the ferocious rhythm.

“Emily did you bring the book?” he asked.

“What?” She was focused on the dance step she’d made up but she was hopelessly out of rhythm.

“The Durkheim?”

“Oh, no,” she laughed, bubbly, overly so — could she already be drunk? “I’m sorry!”

He tried to smile but he couldn’t manage it. He shook his head and walked into the living room. It was a warm room, full of carpeted surfaces. A large dark oriental rug took up the majority of the floor space, filled with dark blues and yellows, an intricate pattern obscured by furniture. There was a corner desk and bookshelves everywhere, all overflowing. There was a large couch in the middle, soft and well used, facing a wall without a TV. Instead there was a stereo lined with rows of records and CDs. Cleanth picked out a copy of the Ives’s Concord Sonata and put it on quietly, so as not to disturb Emily and her Bolero. He spread himself out on the couch and closed his eyes.

In the other room, Emily continued her dancing. She loved the swirling pattern of the song, its gentle build. The cycling repetition was so forgiving to her — she could err in her dance, misstep, slip off balance, and always the song would offer her another chance. She’d created a sort of variation box step, where at every other corner she performed a little half turn on her tiptoes, and she used this to make her way to the small table where the wine bottle was. Stopping momentarily she refilled her glass. She took a long full drink, filling her mouth with the red, almost spicy liquid. It ran down her throat warm and her tongue was left tingling. Filling her glass again, she moved towards the living room.

Cleanth opened his eyes to find her standing over him. She’d had a cable-knit sweater on before but she’d taken it off. She wore a grey speckled tank top. Her dancing had hiked it up so that the skin of her belly peaked out from the bottom. She’d taken off the hair tie and her black hair was tousled, wild over her shoulders and neck. In one motion Cleanth stood and grabbed her. One hand went high on her neck, his thumb beneath her chin and his forefinger wrapping around behind her ear. The other slipped quickly beneath the tank top and found the small of her back. Her skin was damp with sweat and the shirt clung to her. He pulled her into him and kissed her heavily, his lips pressing hard against her mouth and his hand keeping her head in place. She started to fall backwards and her hands shot out, one to steady herself on the couch, one to grab him by his shoulder. Quickly, though, Cleanth pushed her down so that now she was reclined on the couch. He put his thin, frail body on top of hers and rubbed against her. One hand was trapped now beneath her but the other left her neck to find her breast, fighting down the top of the tank top. It was so large he could barely hold onto it but he squeezed it tightly. Her head free now she pulled her lips away, over him, gasping for air.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.” She spoke the words quietly, sucking in quick breaths between them. Cleanth’s hand shot back up to her chin and arrested her face again, his lips pressing into hers. He wrenched his other hand free from beneath her and began to undo his belt buckle.

He could feel her breathing laboring, her chest rising and falling dramatically. She began to whimper, the sound leaking out of the corner of her lips, trying to escape the dampening of his. Her tears ran down her cheeks and spilled over his hand clasped tightly around her neck.

Cleanth detached himself from her. He sat himself up on the opposite end of the couch and tried to catch his breath. The two of them were there together for a moment, both next to each other breathing heavily. Emily was still laying down, her shirt hiked up over her belly button, one areola showing. Her hair was a tangle beneath her and there was a red print on the skin of her neck. Slowly her breathing began to level out.

Cleanth was sitting upright at the opposite end. His belt buckle was undone, his pants just below his buttocks. His grey briefs were exposed and with them his pale thighs. His hands were shaking. His mouth was open as he pulled air in desperately, unable to calm himself.

Finally Emily moved, quickly, rolling over, off the couch and away from Cleanth. She pulled her shirt down and hurried to the kitchen, around the corner and into the horseshoe where she couldn’t be seen.

Cleanth could feel his pulse beating throughout his body — in his wrists, in his chest, his lymph nodes. My god, he thought, my god. He was angry at himself and then furious at her.

A few minutes later, Emily hurried past him, her purse and sweater jumbled in her arms, and out the door.

Cleanth remained on the couch. The strange chords of the Concord Sonata shimmered around him.

 

 

He let out a silent sigh of relief when he came into the classroom to find her not there. His hand hovered over the attendance sheet for only a minute before he marked her as absent. He marked her absent three more times, once that week and twice the next, before he received notice that she’d dropped the class. It was by email and he read it at his laptop, a half eaten sandwich in his hand, the light of the afternoon casting a glare on the screen. He had to stop eating he thought he was going to cry or be sick. It took him ten minutes to recover.

He thought that after this life would return to something close to normal but of course, obviously, this was ludicrous.

He was in the grocery store when the first image came to him. He was at the olive bar spooning out pickled garlic when a mother, exhausted and beautiful, and her child walked past him. Suddenly a memory of a face overcame him. He couldn’t remember her name but he could remember her face — her upturned nose, her sloe eyes with thick eyeliner. It must have been fifteen years ago, maybe more. They were naked and he was on top of her. His legs were less scrawny but already their thick coat was starting to thin. She let out a moan but in his memory now it was a whimper, muffled and wet. In the image his hand was clasped over her lips, her eyes were wide and her hand gripping tightly to his wrist. He broke out in a cold sweat at the thought of the image.

There were others. The rhythmic churnings of the copy machine loosening the image of Annie in his mind — kneeling on the bed, her face in a pillow, Cleanth holding one of her hands behind her back, her small wrist bones beneath his grip. Riding home on the train, Magdalene’s face appearing in the reflection of the window. His hand was holding her hair tightly above her head, his knees had her shoulders pinned down to the bed. But no, he remembered Magdalene. He remembered her buoyancy and her quick smile. He remembered her straddling him, her thighs strong and beautiful from riding horses, and he remembered how she laughed gleefully at Cleanth’s moaning. But still the image was there, her eyes wide, her face trying to turn away, and he couldn’t get rid of it.

After two weeks of this he emailed Emily. If possible, I’d like to see you again. Please. She didn’t write back but a few days later she showed up at his apartment around 9:30 in the evening.

Opening the door and finding her there he was flabbergasted. Why would she return? Why would she come at his calling? Unless, he thought, unless his memory had been wrong. Unless it hadn’t been like he’d thought it been, it hadn’t ended with her running from the apartment, her cheeks red and wet. But no, he looked at her and he knew. He knew because he could feel his body lurching for it again, to take her there and push her against the door frame, his fingers undoing the silver button of her black jeans, his hands fighting the fabric down. He turned away from her and invited her in.

They walked into the room and sat down on the couch, on opposite ends. Rarely for him, the stereo was turned off. They both sat facing ahead, far from each other.

“I wanted to see you again because,” he started, “I . . .” But the words trailed off. There was nothing to replace them with. They sat in silence together until finally he asked: “Why did you come?”

She too was quiet for a long time. She had crossed her legs so that she was sitting on her heels. She was looking down at her hands in her lap.

“Because you asked me to.”

“Yes, but . . .” he turned to look at her. “Emily what I did wasn’t right, I’m sorry for that. It was very wrong of me. Truly, I’m very sorry.”

She nodded.

“You deserve much better than that. I should show you that I’m a better person than that.”

She shrugged. “You stopped.”

“No Emily,” he half turned his body towards her, raising a hand in protest, “that’s no excuse —”

“I know,” she said, nodding. “But I get to decide whether I come back or not. And I felt sorry for you, you seem so lonely.”

Cleanth turned away from her. Now he looked at his own hands in his lap, one of them flexing into a fist over and over again.

“I’m lonely, too,” she said.

He could hear that she had turned now, so that she was looking at him while she spoke, but still he looked at his hands. He was hunched over, his head down.

“Cleanth,” she said, and compulsively he turned to look at her.

She was smiling lightly and her gaze was so steady. He thought again yes, no, she knows everything, she can see everything. And then, smiling, she nodded.

Cleanth moved towards her. Emily turned so that she was facing him. She spread her legs so he was able to come closer. Immediately, giddy, his hands went for the bright silver button of her pants, as in his imagining. “No,” she said and pulled them up. He grabbed onto her stomach, whatever he could find next, and then her breast. She didn’t resist and so he fell onto it, his hands freeing it from her sweater, his mouth clasping on. Slowly, her head leaned back. Cleanth began to move more eagerly, to rub himself against her, but her hand came down on his shoulder to slow his movements. He couldn’t, though, he couldn’t slow himself and she had to push him away, lightly, his mouth against her stomach as he finished in his khakis.

They lay still for a moment and then Emily pulled her sweater down. She eased herself out from under him and, putting her shoes back on, collected her purse and left the apartment.

Without his request, she showed up again a week later. By that time Cleanth was desperate for her. All week long he had been hounded by the spectres of the women he once knew. Their protests had become more pronounced. In the shower he saw one, curled on the bed, her hands tied with a belt behind her back, crying out. Walking to the front of his class, suddenly, an image of hands pushing against the hair of his chest, frantically, trying to toss him off. Less and less was he able to put names to them but all of their faces rang true in his memories. Still, though, the veracity of their expressions terrified him.

When she came to his apartment Emily took her shoes off and put them by the door. She asked him if he would like to put any music on and he did. She would sit on the couch, cross-legged, and sway to the music, smiling. Often, during Bartok’s string quartets, Penderecki’s threnody, this seemed impossible — the halting, uneven rhythm, the harsh, dissonant chords — but she was never discouraged by this. In fact she always seemed quite content, quite in tune with the music. Then she would nod and Cleanth would come over to her. After the first time she placed a finger beneath his chin and drew his mouth away from her breast. She allowed him to place his hand there instead. It took longer but the outcome was the same. And, as before, after a suitable duration of rest, she would collect her things and see herself out.

In the bathroom stall of the school, staring at the scratched graffiti on the door: a woman naked and running from him towards the bedroom, laughing, but then hiding, jumping away, running frantically as he got closer and closer. At the Levee, a beer bottle in his hand and the baseball game on a screen above him: a woman crying, mascara running down her cheeks, as he stood over her.

Emily would show up at the same time, 9:30, each Thursday. She would let him touch her but only over her clothes. His fingers would linger at the edge of her fabric while he rubbed himself against her leg.

In the cafe on the weekend, his cappuccino warming his hand. At the whiteboard, the marker squeaking against the plastic surface as the color ran out. At the art house cinema, a small bag of popcorn between his knees. Everywhere he saw them, everywhere.

Emily would sway to the music, her shoulders moving slowly and her head swaying on her neck above it. Sometimes a finger would tap a rhythm against her ankles, folded beneath her, if there was a rhythm to tap out. He would watch her, eagerly, waiting for her to nod. But she would simply sway, drinking in the music, until she’d had enough. And then she would collect her things and see herself out.

Eventually, some time later, Cleanth realized that she wasn’t coming back. Staring into the soapy dishwater, the public radio barely audible over the running faucet, the realization crystallized within him. That night he had a dream:

He walked down the steps of the auditorium and toward the lectern. He turned when he got there and found the classroom full of the women of his life. Naked, they sat behind their desks. Only Emily, in the front, in the spot he had first scene her, was clothed. She stood and came to him. Gently, hands on his shoulder, she guided him before the lectern, to the floor in the middle of the room, and helped him to lay down. Laying on the floor, spread eagled, the linoleum cool against the flesh of his buttocks, he watched her. Slowly, she walked from desk to desk, and tapped each woman on her shoulder. They stood and walked slowly to where Cleanth was. They crouched down beside him and began to bite him. Their teeth dug into his skin and then severed it, coming away with tendrils of muscles dripping blood from their jaw. It was excruciating. Each bite he could feel distinctly. Even as they chewed it and swallowed it, he could feel his flesh tearing between their molars, being burned by their stomach acids. His body was pinned to the linoleum and he was helpless as they came round, climbing on each other in a controlled, orderly fashion, and took their bites from him. When his flesh was gone they devoured his entrails. When there was nothing but bones Emily came round again, tapping them now on the other shoulder. Each woman, once tapped, would select a bone and stand, walking out of the room with it. His femurs, his ribs, his phalanges, one by one they took him apart. Finally, when they were gone, he was alone with Emily. She smiled at him and then, in a single motion, nodded.

marcusemanuelMarcus Emanuel lives and writes in Chicago. He has a Masters in English from DePaul University and a Bachelors in Film and TV from New York University. His work has previously been published in The Thoughtful Dog, Loud Zoo, and The Rag Literary Magazine.

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