Chauvinist Pygmalion


Short Fiction by Mazin Saleem

 

She was 27, had never had a boyfriend, wasn’t a virgin. She’d had what she would call ‘affairs’ in a kind mood or ‘lovers’ in a kinder mood, though her tone was ironic, otherwise shags or just some guy she was seeing on and off. These affairs never lasted long, the worst and longest less than a year, in a house-share, before his visa ran out.

#

Her friendship group offered to matchmake her. She told them dating in your thirties was as dignified as thrashing around for a lifeboat. When they pushed back a little on this, she said that after you pass 27 you round up. Her mum rang to mention another friend whose kid had had a baby. She told her mum she might as well ring to list which of her friends’ kids were having unprotected sex. In fact, this sentimental longing for grandkids was cold biology, offspring that proved themselves fertile being the real guarantee of the genetic line. Her mum said she’d go talk to her brother if she was going be like this. En route to the agreed café or pub she’d sneak herself a daydream of her ideal first date: quiet. A stable, calm, quiet guy, so not a fellow academic then, haha. Or a date in silence even? A scarred but strong mute, can you imagine. A martial arts monk, no, a handsome statue. Then she’d reach the café or pub and find her date talked like an auctioneer.

#

He, though, he’d been her student. She taught physics, maths or Classics to kids for whom private school hadn’t been enough, meaning they were either stupid or their parents were class-paranoid. What’d made her scroll back to his listing, apart from the decent rate (she was into her fifth year of a PhD) was the special info: ‘Client not young / Old.’

#

This didn’t mean he wouldn’t still be stupid – she was smarter than most the men she knew, though not in a way they liked, she had no wit — but at least there’d be no overbearing parents. That’s what you think! a fossil of a woman said, as she got wheeled out by her son from behind the larder door where she’d been secreted to watch their introduction, only to stay for the rest of the lesson, demanding to know why she wasn’t teaching Latin grammar, telling him he was never going to be a CEO like his father and find a wife if he didn’t know the difference between declension and conjugation, then laughing, for some reason just laughing, a toothless mouth, her terror of a bald woman — the front door opened while she was pressing the buzzer.

#

Her student lived by himself, long motherless. Neither was he stupid exactly, though he was more diversely slower than the 15-year-olds she taught. He liked to stall getting started with tea and chitchat, he took more than a break per lesson. These retirees with all the money and freedom to pick whichever interest off the shelf like a cruise brochure, attend daytime lectures where they could nap in public. He was the first student of hers ever to spend time and money on how he dressed. From their first lesson on his suit was clean, ironed, even bespoke. A flattering fit could only do so much for a man his age, not much taller, dark, half-bald, his former ‘sensual’ lips now over-enlarged. But after their fourth lesson, waiting for him in the lobby to come out of the toilet under the stairs, she saw on a glass table a framed black-and-white photo of him, from, it looked like, his early twenties and she got it: like an ending or punchline.

#

In the photo, which looked like a headshot and which he, as though reluctant, confirmed was from his time as a stage actor, he wore a half-open shirt and was looking off camera (at someone?). She felt what she hadn’t felt since her teens, when she’d see a boy on a poster for a band or a film, and it was like the sun pushing her away from looking too closely, the pictured boy’s beauty setting off adrenaline that remained in her stomach till she got home where she only had to recall the image to tap into a swirl of the same excitement.

#

Next to this man with the tree-mushroom ears and cockerel neck she pictured a winch she could turn to rewind him and see how he used to look. Only briefly, because what was really there, and too present, was the now of him, so that the image of his former beauty dissolved as fast as it had appeared, like a failed haunting.

#

The now of him: the way he carried himself like others only do when walking backwards, his concave arse, his constant sounds of pain or discomfort, his vague smell of heated wood mixed with disinfectant. Chest hair, which she liked within reason on men, but white, and chest muscles turned into skin and flesh so soft she felt she could, with only the tiniest snap of the wrist, pectorally scalp him. And white pubes: dabbing at them, she told him he was going bald downstairs as well as up, and he mumbled something about eight decades of your trousers going up and down taking their toll before pulling the sheet to their waists. The way he slowly got undressed and dressed, turned to the wall, and methodically, both of them having come to an unspoken agreement to avoid the grotesquery of any striptease. She’d never have laughed (as such) or been especially turned off. His embarrassment made her picture the photo instead, the rich stiff white shirt, picture with what strutting confidence he’d once backed-up off some prone starlet to shoulder his way out of his shirt as her hand spontaneously pressed to the junction of his ribs and stomach like the gesture version of a gasp, while above her hung his look of smirking condescension, a look he couldn’t possibly have made at a woman for, what? twenty years? thirty years?

#

She fantasied about having met him in a past life when the picture had been taken. The contrast of being with him then and being with him now led to the idea of a threesome with the younger and older versions, which in turn led to the idea of what they’d feel looking across her at each other, whose heart would break most, the younger man’s at the sight of what awaited him, or the older man’s at the sight of how much he’d been. The second reaction not some lack of perspective in which he wasn’t appreciating his luck at having had some years of being young and beautiful — but instead an admission that, what with entropy on the one hand and potential on the other, at every moment in life you were worse than the moment before. She tried to explain this to her student, but he didn’t get what she meant about potential and entropy, not being science-minded. She didn’t mention the threesome.

#

After they were done with Latin, he said he wanted to learn some physics. She asked what ‘done’ and ‘some’ meant here then asked him why. He said getting old was manageable so long as you were doing something other than getting old. The money aside, more tuition was not mutually appealing. When he wasn’t reminding her he was older, he was asking just how old did she think he was. He claimed he knew her history better than her, all because she’d not recognised the people in a picture from a production of ‘My Fair Lady’. He grumbled that maybe he was archaic then, after she’d told him you no longer needed to write the ‘-st’ after ‘among’ or ‘unbeknown’. Because it was archaic.

#

These were his few sorties to reclaim some power. He wasn’t in any higher status work or social position, though she pointed out his electoral power as a retired pensioner, and he said that yes he felt powerful. But she knew he was too vividly old for any wealth he’d stored to matter much. The old wealthy might have purchase power, but it was as faintly ridiculous as a previous generation’s magician act: look at the inadvertent antiques in his apartment. Most of all, considering how much older he was, he had no status with society when it came to their relationship. Society disapproved of it, it was tacky at least, and at worst creepy, gross, exploitative, if not immoral. It might’ve just been tolerated were he thirty years younger, even twenty. Now society wanted none of it.

#

Though she never asked about his earlier better relationships, if he’d been married, she checked his apartment for other pictures, and found more than one of a woman (but none of kids). She envied these beautiful women their sex with him, then reassured herself by thinking how much sex must’ve changed. Even the way her seminar students talked about sex was already different to her. The idea that sex changed, that it was done differently, with different expectations, language and baggage, by different generations: he’d never say he was going to cum, he’d say he was going to spend. Her fantasy adapted, no longer about past lives but time-travel, bringing him back to the present with her then teaching him the way they did things half a century into his future. These fantasies, afterwards, made her blush even though she was alone.

#

What she, getting an eyeful of the picture before she led him upstairs, was in it for was to provoke the tenderness that came not so much from their age difference as the difference between him and the picture (i.e. she fucked him because it was all so tragic). Then what was he in it for? An attempt at a last hurrah? The resolve to have one last love affair? She smiled at ‘love affair’, then realised it’d almost definitely be his last.

#

For him, it couldn’t just be the age difference, because often his dick went soft before he was inside her, or went soft inside her, and she knew, what with the casual competence he wanked next to her later, when he’d cum like thick slow icing, that it wasn’t always down to his age or the literal comedown from the Viagra. She didn’t take it personally: even he had to think she was plain; she’d made her peace with this. But neither could she be a fetish for him, because she had no special part he might accept the rest of her for: her feet were big; her hair was fine, meaning thin; her bum was an out-of-fashion shape; her tits were small enough for ex-lovers to make their comments, but not too small she had any androgynous appeal; and she wasn’t super slim. He wasn’t with her to blur his vision and picture someone else from long ago. Her skin was OK, better than his, kind of inevitably: the peppered backs of his hands and his tea-brown throat seemed to have taken their cue from his scrotum. But her skin, ice-pale, was full of moles, and not just the ones she could pass off as beauty spots but the ovals on each forearm, and the dot under her breast with a hair growing out of it, and that fur patch like Neanderthal skin bursting through time and her shoulder blade. She wondered as she tried to sleep whether people would disapprove of their relationship less, in an ‘understand but not condone’ way, if she were beautiful? Or disapprove more? Or the same amount, but for darker reasons?

#

Nights she’d get up out of bed and sit in the dark with her cheek slumped on one hand, and stare into space across her stacked and piled desk, feeling her sad ugliness. She stood to look at herself emerging in the mirror as the room got lighter. She loathed how she looked but at the same time, and which was worse, she loathed the world for telling her it didn’t matter how she looked then made it matter every day of her life. Telling her that she simply needed to rely on her numerous other, less cosmetic features to succeed, while repeatedly showing her how an attractive woman ought to look and behave, but that she must never conspicuously or even consciously try to look and behave like that, but also that she was going to have to look and behave like that to ever be happy.

#

(Always these abstractions like ‘world’… She meant her mum’s humiliating fretting, her friendship group’s aggressive baby-pics, and the men, but more in their loaded absence or incuriosity or occasional roadside viciousness, as if she were prematurely old.)

#

At least she had him, who made her cringe when he laughed at her put-downs of the dirty old Ovid they were translating together, squinting and leaning back with his mouth open but with no sound coming out, like he was happily taking the blow of the joke. She modified her messages to look more adult: upper case, single exclamation marks. He thought this was much too formal. He modified his messages to look more youth: numerals for numbers, C.U. for see you. She thought this was way too informal. He was sending more messages after she’d left than before she arrived.

#

It gave her a kind of temporal vertigo to leave his grand apartment and head to the kinds of bars he would never even think to go into, and sit talking to friends loudly over music that’d only depress him, about the latest show they were all watching, or scroll together on their phones through hot or ridiculous dating profiles. Since none of her friendship group knew about him, and since his age meant he wasn’t a long-term prospect, she never had to ask herself where it was going. No one would ever guess, although she’d taken a picture for posterity, of his black-and-white picture. When a friend showed off new baby pics, and since she was banned by society from responding to them with a shrug, she instead showed off his picture. They passed her phone around the table for so long she got nervous. She said it was just some visiting theatre lecturer she’d been flirting with, in the right tone it could be taken as a joke, letting them off the hook for their smirks, but excited by her secret it was kind of true. Picture telling them. She wouldn’t say who’d made the first move then watch them squirm for a position. The last friend to have a look barely had a chance when a message from him arrived, and she grabbed the phone back, to everyone’s oohing. He was asking to meet outside his apartment for the first time: at the opera house.

#

What, to see an opera? She declined. They had another lesson, just a lesson, she made sure. He texted again — again afterwards — asking to meet in a theatre bar.

#

She’d sign him up to a social group if he wanted to do culture. Or set him up with someone more his own age, one of her old aunts, the biological connection might give him a thrill. She knew loneliness, but that wasn’t enough reason for an official, public pairing that wouldn’t even be absurd but full-on surreal. Her and him cuddling on the sofa in front of Love Island Her and him late-night instant messaging. Not that he couldn’t use a computer — he did own one — anyway it sat blankly on his desk like an idol, but she somehow knew he’d address her in his opening gchat with ‘Dearest Henrietta’. Maybe in exchange for the opera and theatre she could take him to gigs. The bands might like him; they might think he was someone’s cool dad — she corrected her evasion: grandad. Or some ancient tanned promoter or regretful musician willing to cough up a few grand at a pet project so long as he could hang out in the studio getting drunk on whisky that he’d keep buying everybody while telling them how he’d once met Brian Epstein. She pictured him hanging nearer the back of the gigs, drinking the same one pint of bitter, struggling with the squishy large clear plastic cup so that he had to steady it from the bottom and make quite the face when puckering for a sip. Like what if someone offered him a smoke. What if, smoking, he told them about weed he’d smoked in ‘the’ Lebanon. Or him taking MDMA, joking about having been keen on sherbet since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, making them all grin so very hard. Him high. Him dancing to dance music. Sweaty, giddy, trying to mimic, not from taking the piss, but because he actually saw it like that, their dancing — and so skipping and bunny-hopping about the club. He texted her again about a restaurant in a gallery. And if they crashed at someone’s, for an after-party? Look, Henrietta’s brought her ‘Help the Aged’ mascot. Henrietta’s brought a literal ghost to the feast. Or how about that nice new deli near his apartment?

#

The night before, she prepared to let him down gently, and when she arrived she tried to choose the best point: at the start, which would call off the meal? Or at the end, which would make her feel guilty for eating it? Once he’d picked up ‘the cheque’, as he insisted, and while she was wording and withdrawing her opener, he said he thought they should stop the other thing.

#

She said sure, if he wanted to stop, they should stop. If it was too much. Or too tiring. Or too creepy, you know, making him feel guilty. He said petite mort didn’t seem so petite when you were close to the grande. Shooing away the image of the Grim Reaper at the end of their bed whacking off, she told him that was witty, for him. He said he’d not meant to make her laugh. He said each time they slept together was like counting down. A paradox of a countdown, since you kept counting more to try keep from counting to the end. She said she didn’t quite get that because of his accent. He got magnanimous and said he would pay for the rest of the lessons. She said he owed her way more than that.

#

Then she too explained some things to him. That the way people did things here, now, was that you prefaced invites to stuff like this with how it’d be good to have a talk. He said yes, talks were good, and she said not like that. You were supposed to say that you needed to talk because better to make a person fret for a week than just spring it on them, this all said with her hands pressed in a fin, looking over her glasses like in seminars.

#

Back to the bar where she’d installed her friendship group as an escape pod. She didn’t tell anyone what had happened, though she broke into laughter now and then. Not that any of them asked why she fell silent towards the end of the night. Rejection was one thing. It’s that nowhere was secure, there was no higher ground. Then the backlog of shame, coming on all at once.

#

In defence, she ran the winch forward hard, till he was circling the drain of his death. Forgetting about her only because he couldn’t help it. Locked in that prison that is time picking off all your loved ones, one by one, as you get sicker and weaker, with no one to look after you when everything starts to get in the way and hurt. She didn’t have to admit anything to her friendship group, to anybody. He’d be around for less time than she’d have a picture on her phone. Give it ten years. Five.

#

She made herself sleep late and dream badly. First thing in the morning, she texted him: they should run away together. He replied that at his age you don’t run because there’s only one thing you’ll be running to and she stopped him before he got morbid again, replying that she wanted to run away so far from everybody that she wouldn’t be ugly and he wouldn’t be old. He never replied — but maybe his ghosting was literal? The entire point, though, of a ghost was that you were meant to see and hear it. She saved all she had left, the picture of his picture, as wallpaper on her phone.

#

Over the months, the image of his eyes and chest through the squares of her apps superseded her memory of him. Otherwise unreplenished, the memory dissolved. It was essentially true that she had been with the man from the picture. For her to have had just one affair, even in secret, with someone so beautiful was the sort of good fortune that makes life worth it: a stroke of fortune so unlikely to have happened to her of all people that in the past you’d have blamed the divine.

 


Mazin Saleem is an author from Manchester currently living in London. He has written short fiction for Litro Magazine, The Literateur, Pornokitsch, Open pen, and more, and is a regular reviewer at Strange Horizons. His first book The prick is out now with Open Pen.