Those eyes of his snared me like a fish, dragging me out of my life and into his. Now, when I look at all the parasites clinging to him, I see only few dozen who’ve been touched as I was. It’s in their eyes — anyone can see it. The rest of them are dragging the net down. They should all be thrown back into the sea. They haven’t really been changed.
I’m not saying I was perfect before I met him. No, I’d never say that, though I’d already become the sort of person who could understand, who could see his vision, who could truly hear what he was saying. It was after I’d changed, after I’d found him, that I fell in love with him.
“You’re jealous of them,” he says, “because they love me, too.”
I’ve wiped my feet on their betters. They leave bread crumbs and emptied wine flagons and broken crockery all over the floor. Vagrants, thieves, whores — they don’t listen to a word he’s saying. They want bread, wine, the clothes off his back, the shoes off his feet. After they’ve taken all they can, they’ll grind him between their blackened teeth and spit him out in the dirt. I spent my life with people like that.
“And look how well you’ve turned out,” he says, and he chucks me under the chin like I’m some orphan or stray dog that straggled home after him.
“I was already a changed woman by the time I met you. My husband changed me.”
“I know,” he says.
How could he know how much I’d changed? I’d given up spiced wine, baked meat, fried bread; I’d stopped painting my lips and my eyelids; I’d changed my gowns of gauze and silk for simple dresses of wool. Those were all frivolous, external changes. When I met him, it was my very heart that changed.
My blood ran hot then cold, my heart hammered then faltered, my skin was sweaty hot then clammy cold — and all that before he said a single word. All he’d done was look at me.
“They’re just… stealing from you,” I say as he crawls into bed.
“Without them, I have no work,” he says.
“There are plenty of people who need you and who can contribute to your ministry.”
“I don’t need their money. I don’t want it,” he says, starting to snore. “A man cannot serve… two… masters.”
“Earning enough money… wake up… earning money to put bread on the table or lamb in the stewpot isn’t serving two masters,” I say, and he smiles at me in that way he has.
“I love you, more than any of the others,” he says in that honeyed voice of his, and I’d feed those parasites and sycophants off my own plate to please him.
That’s the power he has over me. He’s taught me that love isn’t just words. Only I’ve gotten nothing but words for months. Before he falls asleep, he kisses me on the cheek or on the forehead, like a brother kisses his sister. Why does he push my hand away when I try to show him my love? Why does he turn his head when I kiss him on the mouth? What kind of love is it that he has for me now? The same kind of love that he has for all those filth that he’s saved?
“The only kind of love he knows is his work,” says his best friend, the bookkeeper. “His work will change the world.”
I suspect the bookkeeper is pilfering.
If I could catch him, if I could see him slip one coin into his own pocket, I’d drag him by his curly red beard and dash him into the dirt, saying, “Look, this is the love he and the others have for you — thieves’ love.”
“I love him far more than you do,” says the bookkeeper, “and I don’t have to sleep with him to prove it. The proof of my love for him is in my respect for his work, my encouragement, my admiration.”
I wanted to gouge his eyes out, that filthy little bookkeeper.
His work and the little money he does earn aren’t the only things the bookkeeper admires: I’ve noticed the way the bookkeeper looks at me when we’re alone, and it’s not my face he’s admiring.
I’m not imagining it. Tonight, when I was putting the lentil stew, the onions, the bread, and the salt on the dining rug, he pressed his upper arm against me, against my breast.
That wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time I’ve been sure that it wasn’t an accident. He’s done it several times. He pretends to be reaching for the stew or the bread — it doesn’t matter which — it’s the way he looks at me when he does it. He presses against me then bites that thick, full bottom lip of his with those straight teeth, letting it go slowly, never looking away from me. That bookkeeper — he’s more than a thief and a liar — he’d betray him, his own best friend, if he could.
It isn’t jealousy I feel as I hurry over to my place, my heart hammering, my cheeks hot, my palms cold.
“Please don’t leave me alone tonight,” I say in his ear, but he merely pats my leg under the table and smiles at something the bookkeeper says.
Maybe he doesn’t love me after all. Maybe his work is his only love, his only passion.
I get up from the table fast, so he won’t see the tears. I don’t want him to stay out of pity. I don’t want the bookkeeper to see my humiliation. I go to the other side of the room, my back toward them, and start scouring the pot with sand.
“If this is how he treats the woman he loves,” I think, but my tears blur the pot I’m cleaning.
“We’re going to drink our wine in the courtyard,” he says to me after they’ve eaten, and they’re all rising from the dining rug, stretching, and picking up their wine-cups. “We’ll take the olives and the bread with us.”
I nod as all of them leave the main room. I put away the food and clean the platters. As I’m placing the crocks and dishes away on the shelves, I hear a noise behind me.
“We’re out of bread,” says the bookkeeper.
He doesn’t even use my name. He doesn’t say “please.” Like I’m a slave bought from a Roman auction block. I gather some warmed flat bread from the covered basket near the oven and take it over to where he stands. As I lay the bread on the serving platter, which isn’t empty, he drops the platter of flatbread on the packed dirt floor, yanks me against him, his arms tight around my waist and back, his chest and hips hard against me.
His mouth is open on mine, his tongue forcing itself in. Before I can stop him, he’s pressing his knee and thigh upward between my legs. I can’t breathe, my fists are pounding his chest and shoulders, my nails are digging any bare skin I can reach, but something in my body is saying, “Yes, yes, this is how a man should be.”
Suddenly, we hear a noise, and when the bookkeeper pushes me away from him — both of us panting like animals — we see him standing there in the doorway.
“Magdalena, Judas,” he says, “what are you doing?”
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Naked, with Glasses
© 1993, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
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