Abigail Ulman

Chagall’s Wife

   I had never before bumped into a teacher on the weekend. But there he was, sitting at the counter in the window, and I slowed down to take it all in: the face that looked more relaxed than it usually did, the late breakfast in front of him, the hardcover book in his hand with the library tag on its spine. Through the glass I saw him slide something off his fork with his mouth. I felt his eyes land on me the second I took mine off him. I drew in a breath and sauntered in.
   I took a seat next to the wall and sipped my juice through a straw, flipping through every page of a magazine without taking my eyes off his back. Dressed down for the weekend, he was wearing a pair of faded black jeans and a khaki jacket, and his dark hair, usually as neat and orderly as the jars that lined his desk, was ruffled on one side as though he hadn’t even checked it before heading out that morning.
   When the waitress came to collect his plate, I saw her brush her arm against his as she reached over him, and he looked up and smiled and said something before going back to his book.
   Under the fluorescent lights in the toilets I rubbed some gloss onto my lips. I yanked my hair out of its ponytail, ran my fingers through it, and arranged it over my shoulders. It was dirty blond, and dirty. I tied it back up. My jeans were good and new and tight but the gray hoody that showed a stripe of stomach kept going from daggy to sexy and back again. I narrowed my eyes at my reflection. Whatever you do, I told myself, don’t mention tampons.
   “Mr. Ackerman.”
   “Sasha, hello.”
   “I saw you earlier, when I walked in.”
   “Ah, yes.”
   “You saw me, too. Why didn’t you say hi?”
   “I don’t know. I suppose I thought you might have better things to do on a Saturday than chat to your daggy old science teacher.”
   “You’re not daggy.” I lap-danced my eyes over his weekend stubble, the gray T-shirt, his right hand which was tugging at the leather band of his wristwatch. “What’s that you’re drinking?”
   “An affogato.”
   “What? Like the vegetable?”
   “It’s a coffee drink. Kind of like a spider for grownups.”
   “I see.” I leaned one hand on my hip and sucked my bottom lip under the top one until it disappeared. Mr. Ackerman looked down to the floor, where one of my runners was standing firmly on top of the other. Then he blinked around the room, at the smattering of people reading newspapers or quietly chatting to each other, and back at me.
   “Would you like to try one?”
   I perched on the stool next to his and leaned my elbows in front of me. We kept our eyes on the street. It was early afternoon in the middle of autumn, and the sun was bright but stingy with its warmth. A woman walked past pushing an empty baby pram; she was talking on her mobile phone. Our silence was long and expectant, like the minutes between the snooze button and the return of the alarm.
   “So,” I spat out. “Sorry about the tampons.”
   “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said. “You’ve done your time.”

Every year, since Year Seven, a nurse had come to science class to talk about periods and menstruation. We were never warned beforehand; it was always sprung on us at the beginning of the lesson. They’d schedule it for first term so the weather was still warm enough for the boys to go play sport with Mr. Ackerman on the oval, while the girls were forced to sit again through the same embarrassing question time; the same video with the same girls wearing eighties hairstyles and wardrobes, back when it was really the eighties and before it was cool again.
   This year when the boys returned after the talk, Sam Kinley and Sam Stewart had snatched the box of complimentary Tampax off my desk, and I was too embarrassed to ask for it back. While Mr. Ackerman was out saying goodbye to the period lady, the boys had taken the tampons out and wet them under the tap, and then thrown them up at the ceiling where they’d stuck, hanging down above us for the rest of the lesson like the stalactites we’d learned about the year before.
   Later that afternoon, the tampons had dried up and started dropping one by one onto the heads and desks of Mr. Ackerman and his Year Seven students. I wished I could have seen it. We were halfway through English class, and the boys were excused and the girls told to produce their tampon boxes right then and there. Of course, I was the only one who didn’t have mine so I got dragged to Mr. Ackerman’s office, where I stood in front of him and told him with a straight face that I had got my period that day and had used them all up already.
   “All of them?” he’d asked.
   “Two at a time,” I’d said.
   Unfortunately for me, Miss Varnish, the swimming teacher, had been keeping track of our cycles so we couldn’t use the same excuse every week and, when consulted, she had divulged that I wasn’t due for another fortnight. I wasn’t about to dob on the Sams, so I’d sat through detention every Thursday night for a month.

When my drink came, I started eating the ice cream out of it with a baby spoon. Mr. Ackerman told me in his class voice to stir it in so it would sweeten the coffee. I left it to melt and reached for the sunglasses sitting next to his book and keys.
   “Are these yours?” I said, putting them on. They were too big for me. The arms reached way beyond my ears and I had to press the lenses to my face with my fingers to stop them falling off. The world looked blue from beneath those glasses, like science fiction. “They’re so bling.”
   “I don’t know about that.” He smiled for the first time, his face stubbly and blue now, too. “I’ve had those since I was in high school. They’re probably as old as you are.”
I kept them on while I tasted my coffee. It was still bitter and black and it made me cough so hard my throat stung. I pushed it aside. By the time we stood up to go, the ice cream had floated to the top and was sitting on the surface, solidifying.

Mr. Ackerman was shoving his wallet into his pocket when he came outside to where I waited on the curb. “Well, thanks for the company.”
   “Thanks for the coffee.” I took a step closer. His eyes veered past me to the traffic in the street. “You don’t have to worry about being spotted by someone. I don’t know anyone who lives on this side of town.”
   He looked down at me with a small smile. “I live on this side of town.”
   “Oh, really? With your wife?”
   “No, with my parents. I’m just here temporarily. On Charles Street.”
   “Is that where you’re going now then? To your Mum and Dad’s?”
   “No, actually, I was planning to go over to the NG—”
   “I could come,” I cut in, lowering my voice, my eyes still on his. “I’ve got nowhere else to be.”

On the tram, I sat down while he went to buy himself a ticket. When he came back, he stood across the aisle from me and tilted his head to look out the opposite window. I looked, too.
   “Think it’ll rain?” I asked without caring, and he shook his head.
   “Nah,” he said. At a tram shelter outside, a group of girls were laughing and backing away from another girl, who was sitting on the bench, pulling off her jumper. She was red-faced, and laughing, too. A bird probably shat on her, I thought.
   “Where are your friends today?” Mr. Ackerman looked over at me.
   “Uh, Amy’s at drama lessons. Nat’s babysitting. Courtney’s at home, she’s still got glandular.”
   “And your family? How come you’re out by yourself?”
   “My parents are in Sorrento. We’ve got a place down there.”
   “Ah, yes,” he said, as though he’d known that already. He had his sunglasses on his face now so I couldn’t see his eyes. More than half the seats around me were empty but he stood the whole way there, his arm reaching above his head, past the swaying handles, to hold onto the rail.

The security guard and I played the game: he pretended not to be checking me out while    I pretended not to notice. My teacher went to the cloakroom and I stopped at the first picture and checked my reflection in the gold frame. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I have just drunk the stupid coffee?
   “A monogamist.” Mr. Ackerman had come up behind me.
   “A pardon?”
   “Chagall. He loved his wife very much.” He leaned in close to the painting. “That’s her up there, see? She’s flying. And there he is, on the ground below, waiting for her to come down. Hoping to catch her. He put her in all his work.”
   He walked on to look at the next one and I watched him go. For a science teacher he seemed to know a lot about art. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel like learning schoolish things on the weekend. I dragged myself from painting to painting, ignoring the essay-long inscription next to each one, staring at the colors till they blurred before my eyes. I made inkblot tests of them all. Instead of a tableful of angels I saw a close-up of a mouth with teeth falling out; I turned a juggling bird into a woman belly-dancing; a bunch of doves in a tree became soggy tampons just hanging there.
   But it was true what Mr. Ackerman had said, about the guy’s wife. She was all over the place. First she lay draped naked over a tree of roses. Then she was dressed as a bride with a long veil and holding a baby. And later she wore a housedress and the two of them floated together above the orange floor of their kitchen.
   I finished the room quickly and wandered back out to the foyer. That’s where Mr. Ackerman found me fifteen minutes later, sitting on a cushioned bench with my legs tucked under me, staring at the floor and pressing the pad of my thumb up onto the roof of my open mouth. He sat down beside me.
   “I don’t get what he saw in her,” I said. “I mean, she was nothing special, as far as I could see. She had no fashion sense whatsoever and I’m sorry but her arse was gigantic.”
   “Maybe Chagall liked substantially sized women,” Mr. Ackerman offered. He laughed when I rolled my eyes at him. “You’ve had enough, Miss Davies. You want to go home.”
   “I want to eat.” I dragged myself to my feet. “I haven’t had anything all day.”

He knew a place in Southbank that was nice and quiet, with white tablecloths and waiters in half aprons. He furrowed his brow over his menu like he did in class when someone gave a wrong answer, and he chose my meal for me because I couldn’t decide. Then he asked me what had brought me to the “wrong side of town.” So I told him about the formal dress, and the sewing lady at my dad’s factory who had put straps on a strapless gown and how I wished I’d just gone to Chapel Street and bought something off the rack like all the other girls had because now I didn’t even think I should go to the formal because I’d probably be the only one in straps. He was silent through all this, looking around the room at the empty tables, the waiters chatting near the kitchen, then out the window at the river.
   “What’s wrong?” I asked him.
   “Oh. Nothing. It’s just a little strange, I suppose, sitting here.”
   “Do you want to go to the food court?”
   “No. I just—I haven’t eaten out in a restaurant for a long time. But this is nice. This is fine.” He looked at me. “You’re hungry.”
   “I’m ravished,” I said, and he smiled and nodded down into his bread plate.
Halfway through our risottos, I finally got up the nerve to ask him if he was married. He had been, he told me, for three years, but it was over now and he didn’t say why.
For a while after the divorce, he told me, he had stopped reading books. He couldn’t sleep properly anymore either. For the longest time, he said, he would go to see movies, dramatic movies, and keep his eyes closed the whole way through. Just so he could be moved by the music. I asked him why he didn’t just stay home and listen to CDs in the dark, and he said he liked the ritual of buying the ticket, smiling at the popcorn sellers in their vests, and sitting among the couples and groups of kids who didn’t bother turning off their phones before the main feature. He said he liked the way the score kept up throughout the whole film, dipping and rising, like someone’s chest as they lay sleeping. It was cathartic, he said.
   “What, like churchy?” I asked him.
   “No,” he said. “More like healing.”
   “So now you read books again?”
   “Yes, I’ve started to. And I guess I’m becoming more social.”
   I had waited through the last few hours for him to tell me something about himself, something personal like this, but now that it had happened, I didn’t know how to respond properly to any of it.
   As he talked I found myself imagining the scene at home when I got back. The quiet that would greet me once I’d shut the big door behind me. The laughter of my sisters coming from somewhere in the back of the house. I saw myself going to the pantry and standing there, surveying the shelves full of lunchbox food: Le Snaks, fruit leathers, apple purees, and twelve-packs of Twisties. Leaving the kitchen without taking anything, I would sneak upstairs to my room unnoticed and lie on my bed in the dark, fully clothed, with my school books open on the desk, Natalie Portman grinning down off the wall, and the duct on the ceiling slowly exhaling its heat into the room.
   “Excuse me, sir, this card’s been declined. Did you want me to try it again or use an alternative method of payment?” The waitress stood beside him with her hands behind her body. The two of them looked down at the insolent card that lay on the tablecloth, silent.
   “Uh, give me a second.”
   “Certainly, sir.” She unclasped her hands but stayed where she was. Mr. Ackerman fumbled through all his pockets.
   “Shit,” he murmured, and I bit down on the inside of my lip. I shouldn’t have eaten a main course, should have insisted on a soup or salad. I shouldn’t have said I was hungry in the first place.
   “I have some money,” I said. I took out thirty dollars and handed it to him.
   “Thanks, Sasha, I’ll pay you back. I have the money, it’s just in a different account and I haven’t transferred it yet.”
   When the waitress came with the change, neither of us touched the five-dollar note lying on its plastic tray. The kitchen staff were loitering near their window, looking out at us. What are they thinking? I wondered. She’s too old to be his daughter, probably, and too young to be his sister. I wondered what conclusion they’d reach.
   Outside a chilly afternoon wind had started blowing, and the clouds over the city were threatening something worse. We walked among the Saturday shoppers, all searching the sky for a sign of what would come next. By the time we reached Collins Street it had started to spit and I tried to lead him into a shoe shop.
   “Don’t worry,” he told me. “It’ll clear up any second.” But a few blocks later it was aiming at downpour status and the wind was so furious it was sucking people’s umbrellas up into tulip shapes. “Here.” He pulled me into a building and we stood inside the door, staring out at the water thrashing onto the road. We looked at each other, the rain streaming down our faces, and laughed.
   We had walked into the foyer of an old-school theater. There were a few people sitting along the wall, reading or staring out at the rain, paying us no attention. There were posters behind them advertising films I’d never heard of, and the candy bar consisted of a basket of mixed lolly bags selling, the handwritten sign told us, for a dollar fifty each.
The woman at the box office was glaring at us as though we should be paying for the privilege of taking refuge in her dingy little foyer. As though he agreed with her, Mr. Ackerman wandered over and asked her when the next showing started.
   “There’s one just started at four,” she growled at him. “Or the next one’s at half past.”
   “Should we hide out till the rain stops?” he asked me and they both watched me nodding.
   “One adult and one child?” She coolly met his eyes.
   “Student.” We both reached for our wallets. “One adult and one student.”

The movie was a foreign one, old and black-and-white, and as we sneaked in he whispered that he’d seen it before. The plot was nonexistent and there were no effects or celebrities; it was just people talking. I ignored the subtitles and studied the main girl, who had cropped hair and sold newspapers on the street. I wondered if he found her attractive. Probably, but why? I was yet to work out exactly what it was that guys found sexy in women but I knew whatever it was, I had it. My body was still boyish and small and straight up and down, but I knew that it was interesting to men, not necessarily the guys from school, but other men. I’d known this fact for two years now since the day on the train.
   I had felt them before I saw them, the man’s eyes on me. I had been sitting across from him and his family and looking out the window behind them at the back fences and side streets and the lights being turned on in small office buildings. Then, with a snap like a rubber band, I felt the heat of his gaze and shifted mine until we met.
   It had been a Tuesday evening and I was twelve years old and heading home from school with my mind on homework and netball and Big Brother and then suddenly this man had found me, my reflection in the window, and held me there. His arm was thrown around his wife’s shoulders and she fussed with the two small kids beside her.
   “Don’t do that!” She slapped the toddler’s hand from its nose and the man smirked at me in the window and raised his eyebrows.
   I don’t know how long we sat like that. My house was pretty close to school so it couldn’t have been longer than five minutes, but I knew as I sat there in my uniform, my nipples growing hard, my cheeks hot, the terrible secret passing between me and the stranger, that I was being admitted into a new world, that I was growing old or dying or changing or something. A sensation passed over me then, like insects crawling around on my back.
   That was the first time. Since then I had started a list in a notebook in my room of other things that gave me that sensation. Like 50 Cent clips on MTV. A car crash I saw happen on Glenferrie Road. An article I read about peacekeepers and refugees in Africa. Being on a tram without a ticket when the inspectors climbed on. The faces of people waiting outside nightclubs on weekends. A porn site I’d found open on my dad’s computer when I was checking my e-mail in his study one night. And standing in front of Mr. Ackerman in his office and lying to his stern face that I had been shoving tampons up into my vagina, two at a time.
   And so today, walking down Smith Street, when I’d glanced up from the footpath and seen him sitting there in the window, looking both strange and familiar, like photos of my parents when they were young, I had felt it—the heat, the hardness, the insects. I had turned into the café without missing a beat, as though this were a movie and I was only just now being shown the script. I had had the sudden and full knowledge that there was a reason that I had been admitted into this new world, that here, today, later today, sometime, Mr. Ackerman was going to take this feeling to its real and necessary ending.
In the flicker and dark of the movie, I closed my eyes. There was no soundtrack but I listened to the up-and-down lilts of the language as though it was music. I leaned my head onto his shoulder. His jacket still held the cold of the rain and it smelled like outside when I breathed into it. Mr. Ackerman put his hand on my hair and stroked it. I felt dizzy and humid, like I was flying above myself in the dark. I imagined him standing below me like that painter guy, getting ready to catch me before I hit the ground.
   “Mr. Ackerman,” I whispered, my teeth against his jacket.
   “Are you tired, Sasha?” His mouth found my ear and he took his eyes off the screen.    “Or do you want to go somewhere else?”