The hands on the clock said 1:45. She would come at 1:58, though her appointment was at two, and she would walk in and give a polite smile and say, quite simply, “Hello.” And he would smile, genuinely happy, and stand and return the greeting, courteously ask how she was doing and then offer her a chair on the other side of his desk. Then he would sit in tense silence as she opened her bag and took out the grammar books and the lessons for the day. He would look only at her hands as she did because looking at her face would be too obvious.
She would produce all of the relevant papers and he would read through his homework in a nervous voice. Me, nervous! he thought. I'm a grown man. And she would nod when the work was right or gently explain when the work was wrong, or if he had written something particularly complex or clever, she would simply say, “Good.” It was 1:52 now, and there were still six minutes to go.
She came on his lunch break. He had two hours for lunch, that being one of the perks of having such a good job. Salim was second-in command of a multi-national company headquartered in Dubai. He took overseas phone calls and saw a steady stream of rich and important international clients for whom English was the common language. That's why he was taking English classes, to fine-tune his accent, to turn his 'beesness' into 'business' and his 'moanie' into 'money'.
“Eye-yam so sorry meester Stein, but I cannot see you jast to-die. Bleese talk to my seketary and we will work out ze abointmint for you. Yes yes, off course. Gudbye.”
“A 'P' is not a 'B',” she explained one day. “Though they are both made with the lips, there is a difference between the words pit and bit. Can you hear it?”
He would smile apologetically and stare at his fingernails. There was no letter 'P' in the Arabic alphabet and he had a hard time trying to say the words pathos, pink, and portfolio, especially while looking at his teacher's lips.
“And your letter 'T',” she explained, kindly so as not to insult him, “does not belong on the tip of your teeth. It belongs on the roof of your mouth just behind the teeth.”
Over a course of three months he had worked hard and succeeded in changing his accent from the harsh, guttural rendition of English that is common to the region into the soft and almost pleasant accent of a highly educated foreigner. A good friend of his, a British lawyer, saw him one day after many months, and said with begrudging admiration, “My God, Salim, you sound like a villain from a James Bond film.”
At this he smiled and gave Robert a gentle punch in the pin-stripes. “It is my English teacher, I have been taking her classes for three months, she is good.”
“She must be British then,” Robert said, more as a statement than a question.
“Oh no,” Salim shook his head, “She is American.”
“But not incurably, I'd bet.” Robert laughed. “Just give me three months and I'd put a bit of British in her.” Here Robert winked wickedly, and for some reason, Salim found himself inwardly seething. Robert noticed the sudden darkening, the slight narrowing of the eyes, and said, “Are you well Salim? You look ill a bit suddenly.”
Salim held both of his palms out and bowed his head slightly to excuse himself. “It is this traveling. I have flown to London three times this month, and it tires me.”
“Very well then.” Robert clapped Salim on the shoulder, a little hesitantly, and took leave. As soon as Robert was safely beyond the door and closed inside of the private elevator, Salim sat down on his leather chair and felt around for the bottle of Scotch inside his desk. He poured himself a double and threw the drink down in one go.
He had long stopped feeling guilty for drinking alcohol. Even though he was a Muslim, and even though his religion forbade all intoxicants, the cult of success demanded that he make a champagne toast on certain official occasions and politely accept the fine wines that his happier clients bestowed upon him, for refusal would be seen as unprofessional, uncivilized even. By now, he had made the inevitable transition from a slightly guilty Muslim who sipped champagne at company dinners to wholly guiltless Muslim who drank Scotch in the privacy of his office.
After another drink he felt as though he might not kill Robert after all.
The American teacher was Muslim too, strangely enough. Salim perfectly remembered how shocked he had been the first time he saw her: paper-white skin, ice-blue eyes, and a delicate cream scarf wound about her head like some sort of holy aura. It hung from where she had pinned it, and the light shone through the layers. He hadn't talked to a woman in a scarf since…since he had made his pilgrimage to Mekkah four years ago, and on the way back, stopped in the duty-free shop in the airport and bought some vodka for his colleagues.
He had been late that first time, and his secretary had led the teacher into Salim's office and sat her down on the over-stuffed sofa in front of the bay window. She had been reading a book when he walked in, and when she looked up to greet him, he saw that the light from the window shone through her eyes like they were made of glass. It had unnerved him, they were very nice eyes, but they were a tad unnatural.
Salim thought about pouring himself a drink now, but reconsidered. She would be here in a minute and she would smell the alcohol on his breath. He would be better off checking his homework again. He picked up his pen and tried to twirl it in his fingers. It fell from his hand and clattered noisily onto the desk. Salim looked at it and sighed.
I make deals in the millions of dollars, I can have any woman I want, and I have dropped my pen more times in her presence than I have in my entire life…
Salim placed both of his hands on his desk and stared at them, lost in his own thoughts. He was surprised when he heard his clock softly chime two o'clock. She was two minutes late. What if she wasn't coming? Last class, she had looked up at him just as he was stealing a glance at her, and there had been a few seconds of awkward silence. She had flushed a beautiful shade of pink and then turned quickly back to the book in front of her. What if she was angry? What if she refused to come anymore?
Salim rubbed his hands together, cleared his throat, quietly practiced his homework, and readjusted his tie all in the course of the next two minutes. His phone rang and he nearly jumped out of his seat.
“Sir?” the secretary said on the other end, “Your teacher called. She apologizes for the delay and says she will arrive shortly.”
“Thank you, thank you,” he muttered into the phone, and then hung up without listening for the secretary's reply.
She was coming. He opened his desk drawer and poured himself a drink before he had time to reconsider. He drank it quickly and then followed it with another. He closed the bottle and stowed it away hastily, then he went to his private bathroom and brushed his teeth vigorously. He splashed water on his face and then dried up with a monogrammed towel. He returned to his desk and quickly called his secretary, and ordered that two cups of strong coffee should be brought in when the teacher arrived. He had just hung up the phone when he heard the hiss of the elevator doors opening, and the staccato click of her heels on the marbled floor. He fixed his eyes upon his desk, and did his best to appear thoughtful, or nonchalant, or calm, or anything but nervous and increasingly warm on the inside from Scotch.
She opened the heavy wooden door without knocking, and stepped inside the room. She smiled politely and said, “Assalamu Alaykum.”
And he smiled, genuinely happy, and stood and returned the greeting, and then offered her a chair on the other side of his desk. She opened her bag and began pulling out the books and lessons, and he stared politely at his own hands. The secretary came in a second later, bearing a tray with two cups of coffee, and set them down on the large desk. “Cream and sugar?” she asked the teacher.
“Both please.” The teacher looked up said thank you, and gave the secretary a smile, one very much unlike the one she gave to Salim every week. This one was softer. Ah, thought Salim sadly. That must be a real smile, and the one she gives me must be just formality.
When the secretary had left, the teacher sipped her cup of coffee tentatively and then said in her strange American accent, “Sorry I'm late. I had some problems with my car on the way here. Thanks for the coffee.”
“You're welcome,” Salim said, and he was very careful to form his lips into a circle when pronouncing the 'w' in 'welcome'. Salim sipped his coffee and then, before he could think, blurted out, “I thought you were not coming.”
He mentally braced for the bolt of lightening he expected to strike him for his impropriety.
“Pardon me?” she said with her coffee cup halfway to her mouth.
Encouraged by the teacher's subdued reaction, and by the Scotch, Salim cleared his throat and said, “I said I thought you were not coming.”
“Oh no,” she said, “I would call if I had to cancel.”
The coffee was finished in silence and the lesson began. Salim did his best to pay attention and to covertly study his teacher's face at the same time. It was a fairly difficult task since all of the conversation revolved around the lesson, and the entire lesson was in the books on the desk. There was no legitimate reason for him to look up at all.
When the lesson was finished, the teacher gave her wrist a small shake and her watch slid out of her sleeve. “I've stayed ten minutes to make up for me being late,” she said looking at it, “I hope I haven't made you late for anything.”
“Not at all,” Salim said, leaning back in his chair and looking up at her. He liked this chair a lot, it was quite expensive, made of soft Italian leather and expertly engineered. It had a comfortable feel, and an aura of money and power about it. “You are having problems with your car?”
“Yes,” the teacher nodded. “I've already spoken to your secretary about it, and she even called and arranged for my car to be towed. She's a very sweet lady. She's going to call me a cab.”
“A cab?” Salim said uncertainly, trying to remember something.
“Yes, a cab is a taxi. A taxi cab.”
“I should have remembered that,” Salim said, “I knew that word. A taxi, one minute please.” Salim dialed his secretary. “Hello? Yes, cancel the… cab. Send the driver up please. Yes. Thank you.”
Salim looked up and saw bewilderment on the teacher's face. He registered the look with private and pleasant surprise. “I would not dream,” he said choosing his words carefully, “Of sending you in a taxi cab. Please accept the services of my driver instead.”
“Oh no no,” the teacher said quickly, straightening and holding both of her hands out, palms forward. “A cab will be fine, please don't trouble yourself.”
“Trouble myself?” Salim smiled, stroking the soft leather on the arms of his chair, “It is no trouble to myself, only to the driver, and he is paid enough to be troubled in such a way. I am sorry I will not be accompanying you, only my driver.”
The teacher was visibly relieved. “Thank you,” she said a bit more calmly, “That's very nice of you, and of your driver.”
There was a self-conscious pause in the conversation as Salim tried to say something that was fitting, grammatically correct, and possibly friendly. Before he could think of something that fit all three requirements, there was a knock at the door and a uniformed driver stepped in. He gave a deferential bow and said, “Madame?”
The teacher smiled at the driver and stood up, and then turned slowly back to Salim. “Thanks again,” she said awkwardly, “I appreciate the ride. The day after tomorrow at the same time then?”
“Yes,” Salim nodded, standing up, “The same time.”
The teacher followed the driver out of the door. Salim stood until he heard the hiss of the elevator doors. Then he sat back down at his desk, allowing a guilty smile to spread over his face as he locked his fingers together, propping them under his chin. He was thinking of her reaction, how when she refused his ride, she said no, not once, but twice very quickly. And her eyes had widened. Had she suddenly straightened in her chair?
Salim's eyes darted from left to right over the space on his desk as he processed these signs. He knew what people looked like when they were afraid. Men came into his office and cowered in the same chair that she sat in on a daily basis, quietly terrified of the power he wielded and the favor he could bestow or withhold at his leisure. They all sat erect in their chairs, blinking more often than natural. Some openly cringed, some of them feigned cheerfulness, some of them wore fake nonchalance, and the bravest of them put on an air of humble dignity to cover their inferiority before him.
It was too good to be true. Salim must not believe that this teacher, this confident and professional teacher he had meekly submitted to for the last three months, was actually afraid of him. But still, he savored the thought and decided it would taste better with another glass of Scotch.
Later that evening, after a full day's work and a gourmet meal, Salim sat pensively in the back seat of his car. He considered himself an expert in the analysis of behavior and body language, and he had been thinking all day of how the teacher had accidentally given him the upper hand, how she had accidentally shown that she was nervous this afternoon, maybe even afraid. Salim felt he could relax now, that he would no longer need to be nervous around her, for he had enough proof that it was she who was nervous around him. He pushed a button on his armrest and the glass dividing the back seat from the front slid open.
“Yes sir?” the driver asked.
“Call Alice, ask her who towed my teacher's car. Then take me there.”
The driver nodded and the glass went back up. After a few moments the car turned away from the part of town that Salim was familiar with, the glass towers, the opulent restaurants and the luxurious private clubs. The skyscrapers passed and the streets became narrower. The street lights glinted off the curves of the long, black car as it slid noiselessly from the street into the sandy driveway of a mechanic's garage. There was a light shining from a room towards the back of the garage, and there was perceptible movement within. There were several cars parked outside the garage, presumably in various states of repair. Salim wondered which one his teacher drove.
The glass slid down again. “Sir?”
Salim stared intently at the light in the back room and felt a trembling of suspense, of good things to come in the future.
“See who is in that room,” Salim said slowly, “And bring him to me.”
Salim watched, invisible behind his tinted window, as the driver strode purposefully to the back room of the garage. He knocked on the window, twice, and stepped back. Salim saw another bulb come on in the garage and the front door opened a crack, sending a slice of warm electric light over the cars parked outside. Salim watched the pantomimed exchange between his driver and the man behind the door, unable to hear and unable to look away.
Finally a small, stout, South Asian mechanic emerged from the door with one hand suspiciously in the pocket of his greasy overalls, and began stepping carefully towards Salim's driver. The driver took a step back and gestured towards the car where Salim was sitting. The man took two steps, and then stopped, and then started again. When he had mincingly come as far as the tinted window, the driver opened the passenger door for him and waited for the man to step in. Salim sat quietly in his corner of the back seat, simmering with anticipation. The man grunted and sat himself down and the door was closed behind him.
“Wh-who's there? What you want sir?”
“My friend,” Salim said, “I need a small favor from you only.”
“Garage closed,” the man said with an admirable show of bravery, “and only work Toyotas.”
“You towed a car belonging to my friend today,” Salim said in the low, smooth voice he used for intimidating lesser men, “I want you to replace everything with new parts. I want you to clean it, inside and out. I want you to make it run like it is new again, and I want your work to take no less than one week.”
“You be lucky if I finish in one week!” the man said, forgetting his fear to talk shop, “If you and me are talking about the same car, the little Amreekan lady with the scarf, take two weeks.”
“No,” Salim said, his voice so low he was almost purring, “Finish it in one week and you will not be sorry.”
The mechanic shivered. “And wh-who pay for all this?”
“My driver will call, he will come to check what you have done. Give him the bill for the extra work, and give the lady the bill only for what was broken when you towed it. You will not mention my surprise.”
The mechanic nodded his head quickly and began pushing ineffectually on the handle of the door. The driver unlocked it from the master control and the mechanic tumbled out, shuffled quickly back to his garage and slammed the door shut behind him. Salim ordered the driver home again.
As Salim watched the neighborhood change and the streets widen, excitement twisted and writhed and throbbed in the bottom of his stomach. Today was Sunday, we have class again on Tuesday and Thursday. He should have the car ready by next Monday. That way I can have next Sunday, too…
Salim spent the next day doing his work half-heartedly, and even let his attention drift in the middle of a phone call. He was so busy hoping, planning, and scheming that he awoke suddenly to a voice saying, “Hello? Hello? Salim are you there? Damn this phone line…I've been talking to myself for the last five minutes. Stella! Call back the son of a…click.”
Salim tactfully called the other party back first and apologized, saying he had gotten disconnected five minutes ago and had been trying to call back since. He forced himself to concentrate on the call and even made up for his previous neglect with some understated but well-placed flattery. When the call was over, Salim dropped into his chair and leaned back, placing his feet on the desk. He was careful not to put his legs on the pages of English language exercises that were spread out there. They were only half-way done, and poorly at that. Part of his homework was to write sentences with the twenty new vocabulary words that the teacher gave him on a weekly basis, but today he could not think at all.
On Tuesday morning he stood in his closet and felt at loss. He would wear a suit, that was a given, but which one? If he wore a silver tie, would that seem like too obvious of a cry for attention? His navy suit with the hand-painted silk tie was sedate but well-cut, but then, he had already worn that on Monday.
Now who is acting like a woman?
He settled on a gray suit with a patterned silver and maroon tie. It was a color combination that his tailor never failed to mention as “…very sophisticated, sir.” He selected a platinum tie clip, one without extra ornamentation and placed a six thousand dirham pen in his breast pocket. Then he went to his dressing table and frowned at the designer cologne labels. They were all too flashy, the scents were all piney, or floral in a manly way, or clean-smelling. He needed something sedate but masculine, he needed…Aha! A little bit of musk.
Salim arrived at his office half an hour early to finish his homework, and when his secretary arrived, he ordered her to hold all calls until ten minutes into the workday. He wanted to finish his work undisturbed, he wanted it to be exceptional, he wanted his teacher to read it and smile and say, “Good.”
At 1:30, his lunch was delivered. He ate it quickly and went to his bathroom and brushed his teeth, his hair, his shoes. He straightened his tie and unbuttoned his jacket and went back to his office. She would be coming soon. The secretary had called her at noon to confirm her class and to ask if she wouldn't need a ride today as well.
Salim glanced over to the clock. It was 1:50. He took his homework out arranged it neatly on the desk. At 1:57, the elevator hissed and the teacher's heels came clicking towards his door. The teacher came in and said hello.
He stood up and returned the greeting, and offered her the chair on the other side of his desk. She nodded and sat down, and instead of opening her bag, she looked up and said, “Your secretary asked me if I needed a ride. I thought she was going to send a cab, but your driver picked me up instead.”
“Ah, he insisted that he pick you up.”
“Did he?” the teacher said, tilting her head to one side slightly, “He's such a quiet man.”
Salim smiled cheerfully at the teacher and thought he saw her eyebrows raise just slightly. Still smiling, he said, “Shall we begin the lesson?”
His homework had been done flawlessly and Salim counted the times he heard his teacher say “Good.” Five. He had never gotten five before, and by the end of the lesson, he had only dropped his pen once. It was the teacher who dropped her book instead, and when she moved to pick it up, Salim stood up and said, “Please, let me.”
He walked around the tremendous mahogany desk and picked the book up from where it had fallen on the floor. As he crouched at her feet to pick it up, he felt sure that she must be able to smell his cologne. Why else had she shifted in her chair? He picked the book up and placed it gently on the desk and then returned to his own chair. When the lesson finished, she assigned Friday's homework and began putting her books back in her bag. Salim leaned back in his chair and gazed contentedly at her face as she did this. When she looked up suddenly, he said right away, “What is the status of your car?”
“The mechanic said that there was some problem with the radiator,” she said, averting her eyes and putting one last book away, “It won't be ready until Monday, I think maybe it's because he's busy.”
“My driver has asked that he should escort you from here to your home until your own car is ready. He distrusts men who drive taxis. I do as well.”
“Oh,” she said quietly, “ok.” And that was all. The driver knocked on the door and stepped inside. She stood up and followed him out.
Salim sat at his desk trying to suppress a smile. He was nearly bursting with excitement, he wanted to stand up and dance, he wanted to pump his fist in the air, he wanted to sing. He had expected her to primly refuse- to give some irreproachable excuse for not availing herself of his offer, or maybe even to have another car. Salim himself had three, a black one for work, a silver one for parties, and a red luxury sport utility vehicle for vacations. But she had agreed, and now there was nothing left to do before Friday but wait, and do his homework.
Salim worked especially well on Wednesday, he felt alive and well-oiled, he skillfully flattered the appropriate parties and pleasantly threatened others. It was a good day. At the end of it he went back to his designer duplex apartment and did his homework enthusiastically.
Make a sentence for the following vocabulary words:
Persistent: adj. refusing to relent, continuing firmly or steadily. A persistent man always gets what he wants.
On Thursday morning, Salim woke up early and showered. He emerged from the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist and walked into his closet again. He had woken early enough today to dress himself at a leisurely pace, and so his took his time selecting a suit.
Pinstripes? Too formal. Black? Too intimidating, or too much like a waiter depending on the choice of tie. Blue? Wore that on Monday. Olive? Ah, olive. Perfect.
Salim hummed as he stood and dressed before the mirror, a nameless but happy tune of his own improvisation. He selected the same musk he had worn on Tuesday and took care not to put on too little or too much. He gave himself one final appraisal in the mirror before walking out of the door, seeing how his tailored suit fit perfectly over his wide shoulders, buttoned neatly at his trim waist and set his own olive skin off exotically. In a dark blue or black suit that contrasted his skin, Salim could pass as an Italian, maybe even a Slav. But in olive, he had the unmistakable warm glow that only an Arab of medium skin has.
The morning's work went well, and by 12:30 Salim had quite an appetite. He phoned his secretary and cancelled his order-in lunch. He called the driver shortly afterwards and headed out for a quick lunch to a nearby roof-top cafe. At 1:30, he looked at his watch, wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin and left.
The driver held the door open for Salim and closed it behind him. Inside the car, Salim inhaled deeply and savored the atmosphere of the back seat. It was cool and smelled of the leather on the seats and the musk on his suit. He placed his hand on the seat next to him, the palm down and the fingers spread out and pressed into the leather. He wondered where she had sat the last time she rode in this car. He wondered what the look on her face would be when she sat down and saw Salim there. Salim tried to picture his teacher's smile, not the wooden one she gave him, but the soft one he saw her give to the secretary once- the friendly smile, the soft smile, the smile where her lips actually parted instead of staying pressed politely over her teeth.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, thinking of nothing in particular, content to breathe and feel and anticipate. With his eyes still closed, Salim felt the car slow and then stop. He listened as the driver opened his door and stepped out, and then listened to the sound of his footsteps go fading into the distance. There were a few minutes of silence, and then the sounds of footsteps returning towards the car. Salim turned expectantly towards the door and watched from behind the tinted glass as the driver reached for the handle. The door opened and Salim looked away as his teacher sat down, with her head still turned towards the driver. She was saying thank you. Salim cleared his throat.
The teacher turned suddenly and saw him and Salim thought he saw the tiniest glimpse of something unpleasant. Alarm, was it? Or was it fear? Salim smiled graciously and said hello. She returned the greeting nervously, simultaneously moving farther away in her seat and smoothing the skirt over her knees. Salim straightened in his seat and pulled his knees closer together.
“I apologize for surprising you.” Salim said smoothly, “I had an appointment before this and there was not enough time to drop me at the office and then pick you up.”
“Oh?” she said in a strangely flat voice, “I called earlier and your secretary said you were out to lunch.”
Salim, an experienced liar, laughed and waved his hand as if shooing away the misunderstanding. “Even lunch is an appointment for me, I had to schedule it three days in advance.” He chuckled at his own joke, and the teacher smiled, but with her lips still pressed over her teeth.
“It is a cozy villa that you have,” Salim said after they had driven a few minutes in heavy silence, “the perfect size for just two or three people.”
The teacher nodded, still looking out of the window. Salim turned in his seat towards her and said, “Do you live alone?”
He watched the teacher's profile as she blinked slowly and then turned her body towards him. “Yes, I live alone.”
“I hope I am not rude for asking, but what brings you to this city so far from your home?”
“Many things,” the teacher said without elaborating. Then she quickly looked up and turned the question back onto Salim. “And you?”
“I am local, so I am from here,” Salim said proudly, “But I am not always in Dubai- sometimes Berlin, often London, Madrid, Tokyo.”
“How often do you travel?” she said, repeating a question from last week's grammar lesson.
“You know as well as I do how many classes I am missing these days. It is rare that I should have four lessons in a row. For that I apologize.”
“Do you enjoy it?” she asked. It was yet another grammar-book question.
“It is tiring sometimes, one wishes that he could settle quietly someplace, but he wishes this only sometimes. At other times, it is very enjoyable.”
The teacher launched a barrage of polite but impersonal questions at Salim all the way until the moment the car stopped before the glass tower of Salim's office. The driver opened the door for her, and then for Salim, and they walked together to the elevator. Salim's mobile phone went off just as he was stepping into the elevator after his teacher and he decided to take the call in the lobby and allow the teacher to go up before him.
Once the phone call was finished, Salim got onto the elevator himself. This public elevator took him only as far as the 31st floor, where his company headquarters were located. Once there he took another elevator, a private one that led up four floors and opened only to his office. When he arrived, his teacher was already seated primly in the chair on the other side of his desk with books and papers laid out for the lesson. Salim said hello, and his teacher said, “Shall we begin?”
Salim got one 'good' and a nod at the end of his homework. The rest of the lesson was complex and it was difficult for him to keep up. By the end, Salim had given himself a headache trying to digest all of the new grammar rules and long vocabulary words that his teacher had presented.
At 3:02, the driver knocked on the office door. The teacher shook her watch out of her sleeve, glanced at it and then closed her book. She assigned Salim homework, said good-bye and then left before Salim could respond.
As Salim numbly closed his book and gathered the notes in front of him, he realized what his teacher had done. In the car, instead of giving him a chance to direct the conversation, she had questioned him continually about unimportant and impersonal things, and robbed him of his chance to ask her anything personal or unrelated to English grammar. During the lesson, she had overwhelmed him with complicated lessons and rapid-fire questions about grammar rules he was supposed to have memorized. She was in control again, and there was no mistaking that she had asserted her authority on purpose. Salim had lost the upper hand. He had also dropped his pen four times, splattering ink on one of his books.
Friday passed uneventfully, Salim slept in, went out for brunch, and double-parked outside of a masjid to catch the last minute of the sermon before prayer began. Afterwards he caught up to some office work. After sunset he met with some friends to watch a movie in VIP lounge and ended the evening by buying a new pen for his class on Sunday. He was looking for something with a better grip. The man in Mont Blanc boutique ensured him that this particular pen not only came with a very ergonomic grip, but also had an 18k gold nib, platinum casing, and diamonds set into the logo.
On Saturday evening, Salim met Robert at a dinner hosted by a common business connection. “You look lovely this evening, my dear,” Robert said, mocking him good-naturedly, “With your fair brows pushed together into a most charming state of distress. Your velvet eyes glazed with a far-away kind of look. It must be a matter of the heart then,” Robert sighed dramatically, placing his hand over his chest.
Salim put his fork down and swallowed hard on his steak. “I beg your pardon.”
“Come dear, you can tell Uncle Robert, who's the foolish fellow who's broken your heart?”
Salim wiped his mouth with his napkin and stared at Robert with narrowed eyes. Robert noted the lack of real fire beneath the harsh gaze and pushed forward.
“So you can tell me about Hannah and Eva, but not this one? And who was that German woman last time, the one with big teeth?”
Here Salim snorted and laughed into his napkin, losing all pretense of anger. “That was Gertrude,” he said recovering, “and her teeth were not so big.”
“Gertrude…” Robert mused, “That's right. I should've remembered her name since it does rhyme protrude.”
Salim covered his eyes with his hand as Robert laughed openly at his own joke. When he was finished, Robert wiped imaginary tears from his eyes and then leaned forward, speaking to Salim in a low and earnest voice. “Out with it then. Have you finally loved and lost your secretary?”
Salim shook his head.
“Good, I may have her then?”
“What does it matter to you Robert, you have a dozen stories of romance on a weekly basis. Tell me one of yours.”
Here Robert straightened suddenly in his chair and held his head high, his chin out challengingly. “A true gentleman never speaks of such things.”
“But I should speak of them?”
“You heathen Arab, you're no gentleman!”
“Nor you, English infidel.”
The conversation deteriorated into an exchange of affectionate racial slurs and the night ended with a few off-key songs in the back seat of Salim's car. The next morning Salim's alarm clock went off at seven, and as the electronic siren reverberated painfully in his sore head, he toyed with the idea of going in to work late. Ms. Alice was an excellent secretary, she could come up with a hundred ways of placating neglected clients.
(The Vice President is in a meeting, but he told me you might call, sir, and asked me to inform you that he would get in touch with you as soon as possible, as he is very eager to talk to you. He will call you as soon as he is able. Of course sir. Yes, yes.)
Salim slapped the alarm clock and pushed his face deeper into his pillow. He was still in bed when his mobile phone went off at 9:05, trilling Beethoven's Ode to Joy in progressively louder tones. He fumbled for the right button. He eventually pushed it and said, “Hello?” It was his secretary.
“Good Morning sir, Mr. De La Rosa has called for you twice since 8:30 and Mr. Robert Spenser left a message for you at 8:40. Shall I read it to you?”
Salim mumbled the affirmative.
“The message reads: Sincerest condolences on the loss of the aforementioned broken body part. Take two strong doses of Gertrude and call me in the morning- Doctor Robert.”
Last night's memory was fuzzy, what was Robert talking about? A broken body part? Salim rubbed his eyelids with the forefinger and thumb of his left hand as he tried to recall the evening. His secretary waited patiently on the line.
It was coming back now, what was it that Robert had said? Someone had broken his heart? Salim suddenly remembered the conversation and the evening he spent fretting about his teacher…his teacher! She would be coming today! This was Sunday afternoon, and his homework had not been done and now he had slept in and wasted what little time he had to do it. He gasped aloud.
“Sir? Is everything all right?”
“Alice, send my driver immediately. Postpone my calls, tell them I am in a conference until 10:30.”
“Yes sir.” Salim disconnected the phone and threw off his covers. He washed his face hastily but did not shave. He ran into his closet and grabbed a simple black suit. He put it on quickly, pocketed his mobile phone and ran out to the elevator. His new pen was forgotten in the entryway.
Salim arrived at his office and accepted a handful of messages from his secretary on his way to the elevator. As he waited impatiently for the doors to open on his floor, he read through them. There were five, and they were sorted in chronological order; 8:45, message from Robert. 8:52, slightly angry message from La Rosa, 9:10, message from potential client, 9:15, message from a mechanic. And the last one, 9:18, was a message from his teacher. Salim looked at his watch. It was 9:35. She must've called when he was en route to the office. He read the message hastily.
“My apologies,” it said, “I have to cancel class for today. I will call you when I can come.” Alice always took messages verbatim, and as Salim read the note, he tried to hear the words as his teacher spoke them. In his head they sounded toneless, ambiguous. They were possibly benign or possibly angry.
The elevator doors opened and Salim walked slowly to his office and sat down at his desk. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his mobile phone, cycling through the directory and looking for her number. He found it and hesitated before pushing the button. What if she was angry at him? What if he had been too forward in the car? He placed this thumb over the send button. He knitted his eyebrows together and pressed it.
The phone rang, once, twice, thrice.
“Hello?” It was she who picked up.
“Hello, this is Salim,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I just received your message. I am hoping everything is well?”
There was a pause at the other end of the line. “Hello?” Salim said again cautiously.
“Yes, everything is fine, thanks,” she answered. “I just can't make it today, sorry.”
“May I help with anything? A taxi perhaps?”
“No, thank you. A taxi will not be necessary.”
“Pardon my asking,” Salim ventured, “I hope you will not mind, but may I ask if there is any problem?”
Salim thought he heard the scratch of breath blown across the receiver. It could have been static, he was not sure.
“There is no problem at all, thank you.”
Salim twirled a pen in his free hand and then ventured, “Then why can you not come?”
Over ten seconds of silence followed. Salim cleared his throat. Then he heard the sound again, it could not have been static. It was definitely a breath of some sort.
“I'm sorry,” the teacher said slowly, “I just don't feel up to teaching classes anymore. I'm tired these days. If you don't mind, I'd like a vacation.”
“Of course, of course,” Salim said right away, “A week? Two weeks? When will you return?”
“I'm sorry for not making myself clear the first time,” the teacher said. “But I would like to postpone classes with you until further notice.”
Salim put his hand quietly on his forehead and said, “One moment please.” He put the phone down on the desk and exhaled loudly. Then, as he was staring at his desk in perplexity, his eye caught the fourth phone message- the one from the mechanic. It read: “Tell him I tried but she's very angry and I'm sorry, she looked inside of the car and I'm sorry, ok? Please.” After the last line Alice had penned a few dots and a question mark in parenthesis, which was her way of signaling her confusion.
Salim picked up the phone quickly. “I…”
“Yes?” his teacher said tonelessly. Now Salim realized that her voice was calm but angry. How could he have missed the exasperated sigh earlier?
“Listen,” he said, dropping all pretense of formality, “Can you please come to my office? I think we must talk in person.”
“I would rather not,” the teacher said.
“Please,” Salim said, “You must, please, I shall send the driver for you in ten minutes, ok?”
After a tense silence she said, “Fine,” and hung up. Salim rang his secretary and had the driver sent to the teacher's house. She would be arriving soon. It would take less than twenty-five minutes altogether. He had much to do in that time and had to hurry to accomplish it.
He quickly called La Rosa and made the proper apologies, setting a time for a longer, uninterrupted phone call for later in the afternoon. He phoned the potential client and convened a council of secretaries to arrange a meeting some time next week. He stuffed the other three messages in his desk and in doing so, spied his bottle of Scotch. He lifted the bottle to his lips and took a long draught. Then he rushed to his bathroom to brush his teeth, and to shave, which he had not done yet.
He emerged from of the bathroom with his jacket in his arms and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and stopped in his tracks. His teacher was already sitting in the chair on the opposite side of his desk. The driver must have gone exceptionally fast. Either that or time had passed much faster than Salim expected it to.
She did not turn around when he stepped into the room, but stayed in the chair, erect and motionless. Salim felt his stomach quiver suddenly. He drew in a breath, called upon all his mental resources, and walked to his chair, still with his sleeves rolled up and his jacket still over his arm. He sat down without looking up at her right away, contemplating his lap. After a few moments, the teacher said, “Well?”
Salim looked up guiltily, embarrassedly, and said, “This is about your car. Please allow me to apologize.”
The teacher looked unflinchingly at Salim, the only sign of her emotions being a slight flaring of her nostrils, a rise in color to her cheeks. “What-”
“Please,” he interrupted, leaning forward and putting his elbows on the desk. “I know that it was not right of me to do such a thing secretly, but I wanted to make a surprise for you.”
“By going behind my back and threatening the mechanic?” she demanded.
“Oh,” Salim said, wilting. “I am sorry. Please forgive me. I am very sorry.”
The teacher put a hand on the back of her neck and shook her head. “I just-” she began, exasperatedly, “I mean, what right? What are you trying, to, to- achieve?”
Salim looked up at her, and he stared sadly into her eyes. She shook her head slightly as he did this and raised her eyebrows, as if asking a question. Salim opened and closed his mouth several times as if to answer, and when nothing came out, his teacher shook her head once more and stood up.
“Wait!” he said, suddenly recovering his powers of speech.
“Good bye,” she said through tight lips. “Good luck with your English studies, and with finding a new teacher.”
She turned and walked out of the door. Salim stood and rushed out into the hall behind her. The elevator doors had already opened and she was just stepping inside of them when he caught up and ran in behind her. She turned around angrily as the elevator doors closed behind them. She jabbed at the button for the 31st floor.
“Now what?” she said irritably.
“Please,” Salim said, trying to stand at a respectful distance in the limited space of the elevator. “Please, you misunderstand me. I meant you no harm, I did not mean to violate your privacy.”
“Then what did you mean?” the teacher challenged, placing one hand on her hip. Salim was momentarily distracted by its curve. Then he blinked and looked up, staring into his teacher's angry blue eyes again, searching them for a sign. That fierce sparkle, was it the hard sparkle of a diamond? Or was it the faceted sparkle of ice? Could the ice melt? Could he make the eyes melt?
As he stood staring, the ice did melt, and a trickle of water leaked out onto the teacher's cheek. “Oh I am so sorry!” Salim said, frantically producing a silk handkerchief from his pocket, “Please don't cry, please, I am so sorry!”
The teacher snatched the handkerchief and turned away, and at that moment, the lights flickered in the elevator. There was a grinding noise and the elevator stopped. Salim stood uneasily with his hand on the brass rail in the compartment.
The teacher looked up to the ceiling, and then to Salim. She pushed the button for the 31st floor several times, and then the button for opening the door, and when at length, nothing happened, she threw the handkerchief back at him scornfully and said “Dammit! Did you arrange this too?”
Salim shook his head innocently and pushed the emergency button. It gave off a wicked spark and Salim jerked his hand away. He squeezed his tingling fingers for a moment, and then reached into his pocket for his mobile phone. The pocket was empty. Of course. His mobile phone was on his desk.
He closed his eyes and turned and rested his head against the cool wall of the elevator. The teacher was standing with her back to him, both hands on the brass railing. They stood in silence for an interminable amount of time, waiting. Finally, the teacher sighed, set down her purse, and sat down on the floor with her legs crossed beneath her skirt and her arms crossed on her stomach. Salim sat down also. He stared meekly at his fingernails.
Salim cleared this throat and spoke, quietly, because the stillness in the elevator made his voice seem very loud, saying, “I am not a bad man. I am not what you think I am.”
The teacher was staring at the elevator door. She said, “So what.”
“So you do not have to leave teaching me. I will not harm you.”
The teacher raised an eyebrow and turned to glare at Salim. “Harm me?”
Salim felt a hot rush of color to his neck and he looked away. After a while he glanced down at his watch. Ten minutes had passed in the elevator. Salim looked at the ceiling, then at the floor, at the elevator buttons, and then at the door, and when he turned his head slightly to steal a glance at his teacher, who looked like she was resting her head against the elevator wall with her eyes closed, she turned to him and gave him an accusing stare.
“I did not do this!” Salim pleaded, “Please believe me. I would never do anything like this.”
“Like you would never do anything with my car?” she was still staring at him.
Salim met the teacher's angry stare with a look of both regret and longing. He began awkwardly, “If you knew why I did it you-”
“Don't bother,” the teacher said, interrupting him. “I don't care why you did it. When this elevator opens I am going home and you and going to find a new teacher.”
“I don't want a new teacher.”
“I don't care what you want.” The teacher turned away and sniffed. A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Why are you crying?” Salim asked in a way he hoped was gentle and inoffensive.
“I'm tired and upset and I'm stuck in an elevator,” the teacher said wearily, “Why shouldn't I cry.”
Salim drew a breath and held out his hand, as if making an offering, “But you don't have to be upset, and it's not so bad being stuck here. Someone will come and open the doors, until then, please don't cry.”
Another tear rolled down the teacher's cheek regardless of Salim's advice. Salim put his hand back in his lap, and after contemplating it for a minute, he shifted on the elevator floor so that he was facing his teacher. “Please, why are you crying? Is it because you are angry with me? Please tell me.”
The teacher wiped her tears away with a corner of her scarf and Salim quickly handed her the silk handkerchief he had initially offered her. She took it without looking at him and dried her eyes and dabbed at her nose with it.
“I am crying,” she said slowly, “Because I am mad at myself. I am mad at you, and I am mad at this stupid elevator.”
“There is no reason why you should me mad at yourself,” Salim said with admonishment in his voice. “And you shouldn't even be mad at me, I had a good reason for what I did, and I caused you no harm. Now the elevator,” Salim said, trying to dispel some of the stress in the air, “Even I am mad at the elevator.”
The teacher said nothing. He scooted a little closer to her and said quietly, searching her face, “You know why I did it, don't you?” The teacher flushed and looked away from him.
“You know then.” he said, licking his lips anxiously, “Will you still be angry with me?”
“Leave me alone,” the teacher said weakly, “Go back to your corner and stay there until the doors open.”
A mechanical clicking noise came from somewhere beneath the floor of the elevator.
“No,” Salim said, scooting a little closer, his eyes glittering with excitement. “Listen. I know why you are crying. You do not have to be upset. I am not a bad man. I have an excellent career and I-”
“You have nothing I need,” the teacher interrupted sternly. “Now go back to your corner.”
Salim drew himself up indignantly, “Nothing you need! Do you not need a house? A life? A man who will-”
“Nothing!” she said, raising her voice suddenly. “That is enough, go back to your corner and stay there!”
“You're not teaching me any more, correct?”
“Correct,” the teacher said through clenched teeth, struggling to control her anger.
“So if you are not my teacher then I do not have to obey you.” The teacher's eyebrows shot up in surprise and Salim smiled. “You are not the teacher anymore and I am not Mister Vice President. You are Angela and I am Salim.”
“I didn't give you permission to use that name,” the teacher said, her lips pressing together tightly when she ended her sentence.
“I do not need permission.,” Salim said, matching her tone. “There is no student and no teacher, only man and woman. Now Angela, you must tell me. Am I not a suitable man?”
“Fine,” the teacher said, turning suddenly to face Salim. “You want to know? I'll tell you.” She held up her hand and began counting off her complaints on her fingers. “You're a professional liar, you drink, you smoke, you don't pray, you don't give a damn about your own religion and you think you can trick me into falling in love with you? How stupid do you think I am?”
Salim blinked and shook his head as if trying to shake off the teacher's outburst. “But, but,” he stammered, “Surely you must be joking. You are American, you know what life is about, and I can give you a good one!”
“To hell with your life,” she said, and then laughed bitterly, “Yes, to hell with it. I don't know if you even believe in accountability, so I'm not going to make a fool of myself by talking about heaven and hell, but I know what my life's goals are, and none of them involve any of yours, or you, or any men like you. Ok? Is that clear?”
Salim sat dumbly, staring at the floor. The elevator shivered and the lights flickered again. Suddenly, alarmingly, it dropped and then came to a jarring halt. The doors had still not opened. Salim looked up to the ceiling in alarm and swallowed against the lump of nausea in his throat. The teacher had her eyes closed and hands grasping the brass rail above her. Salim opened his mouth and drew a shaky breath. There was a harsh grating noise and the elevator jerked suddenly up and then down again.
“Oh ****…” Salim said shakily.
The teacher opened her eyes and took her hands off the brass rail. “Look,” she said, her anger replaced with urgency, “Look, I need to apologize for insulting you. Don't hold it against me, please.”
Salim had wrapped his arms around his middle and was rocking back and forth with his eyes closed, trembling. His breathing had become irregular.
“Oh no, don't panic!” the teacher said, standing up and taking Salim by the arm. “Stand up,” she said, and she made Salim stand and bend over with his head between his knees. “Breathe gently, there. Good.”
Salim closed his eyes and forced himself to inhale. The elevator doors hissed and opened half of an inch, and when Salim looked up eagerly he could see a vertical section of gears and wires lining a wall of cement between floors. He stood up immediately and forced his fingers into the crack, pushing against the doors. As he grunted and strained, the teacher sat down again and held her cupped hands out in front of her face, praying.
Salim groaned through his clenched teeth and pushed the door harder. It came open another two inches, and then the entire elevator shuddered and Salim pulled his fingers out just as it began moving again. The wires showing between the open doors scrolled upwards and out of sight at a progressively faster speed, and Salim was lifted onto his toes by force the rapid descent. Faster and faster the elevator fell.
When the elevator struck the ground with a deafening crash and a shattering of glass panels and a crackling of electric wires, Salim lost consciousness.
Salim dreamt he was swimming in a tremendous pleasure garden, and in the immense blue pool, hundreds of other people were laughing and frolicking. Some of them were sitting by the pool and feeding each other fruit. One woman was laughing gently as she leaned onto another man's neck. Salim turned and reached out with his arm and began swimming. He had taken only a few strokes when he realized that something was wrong, he could not feel his fingers in the cool water.
Salim lifted his arm from the water and stared at it in horror. His right hand was missing, not cut off, but decayed off, rotted off, and greenish-brown veins and arteries dangled lifelessly from the stump of his wrist. Salim turned to the other swimmers for help and saw that the man swimming next to him was trailing a sightless eye through the water from a gaping socket. A woman floating beside him was missing her jaw, and her teeth and blue tongue hung straight out from the bottom of her face. Everywhere Salim turned, he saw people laughing joyfully and rotting alive. Salim put his remaining hand to his face and found that he had no nose, only a moist, oozing cavity between his eyes where it had once been. He screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
He was still screaming when he awoke on the elevator floor, and he coughed and gagged on his own blood, and then screamed again. Salim rolled over onto his side and was immediately struck with overwhelming pain. In the thin shaft of light that was shining through the crack in the elevator door, Salim watched blood drip to the floor. It was coming from his face. He held out his hands in front of him and nearly screamed at the sight: his right hand was crushed, the skin and muscle and bone all mangled together in an oozing, shockingly painful mess. Salim shuddered as a wave of pain washed over him again. He vomited. When the wave subsided, Salim turned over onto his elbows and knees and crawled forward.
He found her, still sitting cross-legged, her scarf still wrapped neatly around her head, though shards of glass and debris were scattered all over it and nestled in the folds that lie over her chest. In his confused state, Salim thought she might be sleeping with her chin resting on her chest. He tried to say her name, but he couldn't hear himself mouth the words. He couldn't reach out and shake her, so he crouched before her, bleeding and shuddering, until the shaft of light in the elevator widened and several silhouettes entered through it.
In the days and nights that followed, Salim was seldom conscious, and his sleep was disturbed with the same frightening dreams of the pleasure garden. Between dreams he had vague ideas of doctors and nurses and needles, and of a relentless cycle of pain, and then numbness, and then pain again, followed by numbness.
Two and a half weeks after the elevator had come crashing down from Salim's private office to the company headquarters on the 31st floor, Salim regained consciousness, and Robert arrived not half an hour later.
He laid his hand uneasily on the rail of Salim's bed. “How do you feel old chap?” Robert asked softly.
“I don't know,” Salim said. His throat was raw from the tube that had been pulled out only a few minutes ago. “My hand, it hurts…”
Robert averted his eyes and self-consciously pulled his own hand back into his lap. “You haven't got it anymore Salim, they had to take it off…”
Salim raised his arm unsteadily and stared desperately at the bandaged stump. That's right, his hand had hurt so much. He remembered seeing the bloody pulp above his wrist, and then getting onto his elbows and knees and crawling towards…
“My teacher!” Salim croaked, starting from his pillow, his voice grating harshly in his throat as he groaned and tried to lift himself with his remaining hand.
Robert leapt to his feet and pushed the button that called the nurse and tried to subdue Salim at the same time. “Calm down, calm down! You must rest Salim, the doctors say you're barely alive as it is now. Stop thrashing about or you'll undo everything!”
Salim dropped back onto his pillow, exhausted from his brief struggle. “You must…” he said breathlessly, “…you must tell me…please, how is she…”
A nurse came in holding a wrapped syringe and a small glass bottle. She opened the syringe and then stabbed its tip through the top of the vial, drawing out its contents.
“You must promise not to get all worked up when I tell you Salim, or I won't tell you at all.”
Salim did his best to nod earnestly, though it sent bursts of pain through his skull.
“Alright then,” Robert said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He drew a breath and held it for a second. Then he released it, saying, “I'm sorry I had to be the one to tell you. She didn't survive.”
Robert turned his head and continued talking as he stared into the space above the window. “I can't remember the technical word for it, something about the brain being struck from the impact, the doctors said she never felt a thing. I'm so sorry Salim.”
Hot tears welled up in Salim's eyes and escaped, burning paths from the corners of his eyes to the pillow beneath his head. The nurse slipped in next to all the tubes and wires connected to him, and then emptied the injection into the cannula of his IV.
Salim's mouth hung open. Tears flowed freely from his blood-shot eyes, even as the sedative spread through his body and his eyelids grew heavier. Robert stayed watching him until the fingers on his remaining hand stopped twitching and his breathing grew less harried. When he thought he was finally asleep, Robert leaned carefully over Salim, and then watched in surprise as a large tear welled up in the corner of his closed eye and ran down his face.
“Poor chap,” Robert murmured as he walked out the door, “Crying in his sleep.”