Letter to the Father
by RUBY BRUNTON
I realize now that all that time he wanted me. And that’s really hard for me to say, because I never think anyone wants me.
I see people I want everywhere, on the train, in a café, at a bar, riding their bikes down the street craning their necks to check for oncoming traffic (I love necks. I run my fingers down the backs of necks, bite into them, watch the little hairs standing up.) I stare at these objects of lust, hoping they’ll stare back with a look in their eyes that says, “I want you too. I want you so bad, I dream about you.”
But it never happens. They remain preoccupied with their phones, coffees, beers and bikes and don’t even notice me staring. So it is only after years of reflection that I am able to state that what he wanted was me. For so long, I couldn’t believe someone like him would even look at me in that light. Or I thought that only happened to other girls, those self-assured femme fatales or whatever. But maybe that’s what got him going, my naiveté, my lack of prowess, my obliviousness to his desire. Maybe he liked that I was delicate, that if he lay me down I might shatter. Maybe, just maybe, he really did care. But how many girls have fallen for that. How many had fallen for that.
I remember the second class I had with him. I don’t remember the first. I think we just went over the necessary formalities. Grades, deadlines, dates and downloadable resources. The humdrum admin of academic life. Later, he talked about the constitution. I didn’t know Australia had a constitution so I guess that’s why it stuck in my mind. During the second class, he stated the specifics. He talked about indigenous law and land rights. I had a head full of questions. How could the foundational legal system result in one group getting everything of value while the other was stuck with arid land? After the lecture I approached the front to ask him what would require a long and complex to answer. Before he tried, he asked my name. “Ruby.” He said, turning it over and over on his tongue. “Ruby. That suits you.” He began to answer, but realizing the time – about 9:30 – suggested I come back the next day during his office hours.
I had a full time job and was trying to complete a Master’s degree with a full-time load of three evening classes and countless assignments and group projects. There was little chance of me making it up the hill to the university during his office hours. It was almost impossible to finish all my teaching paperwork in time to be a student in his class. I was wrecked from the insomnia. I would lie awake at night, unable to sleep, my brain so full and churning. Night after night. I would doze off sometime before dawn and, an hour or two later, rise to splash cold water on my face.
In his third class, I fell asleep. Not a deep, head down on desk, faint snores emitting kind of sleep. I was listening intently, and then I just drifted away. When I came back to the room, I saw him staring at me and I felt embarrassed. When he’d finished the lecture I walked down the front to apologize. I explained that I was an insomniac and he said he was an insomniac too. He hadn’t slept properly in over ten years, he crept downstairs after his wife was asleep and read, watched movies, went online. He mentioned his cellphone was always on and he would always answer.
“Are you in theater as well?” he asked.
“As well as…?” I asked.
“As well as your parents,” was his response.
“H-h-how did you know my parents were in the theater?” I stammered.
“I googled you.” And then, seeing my expression of surprise, he added, “I do it to all my students,” as though to put me at ease.
I thought it was strange, but not suspicious. Not then. Besides, I had other worries occupying my brain. The lack of sleep was dangerously altering my work mode, my position at my school had come up for review. Teaching jobs are not good for insomniacs anyway, the requirement to be switched on and lucid at all times, the expectation to be charming. I was close to flunking one of my evening classes and I didn’t care about the other. I began to seriously question if an advanced degree was going to help me. I had borrowed thousands of dollars in the hope of escaping teaching for a “career” which was such a vague concept at the time it seemed laughable.
Still, something continued to draw me to his law lectures. There was a formula, and at the time my brain required stability. The case studies were engrossing. Copyright law intrigued me. I was set on writing my final project on sampling in hip-hop. He was very supportive, finding book and journal titles for me in his spare time.
During his lectures, he kept his eye on me, making sure I was awake, enjoying seeing that I was fully engaged. Afterwards we would go straight to his tutorial, where he took relish in repeating my name. “And what do you think, Ruby?” He’d ask in front of all the other students, not caring that he said my name the most. “Surely Ruby has some thoughts on this.” And he’d catch my eye and smile. The day of his sixth lecture I took off from work. I had an appointment with the university counselor who advised me to drop two of my classes. The workload was too much for my fragile, sleepless body, my fragile, sleep-deprived mind. “You should keep going to one of your classes,” He said, “It’s very important that you maintain an attachment to the university. Or you may fall into the abyss.” I weighed up the options. I felt I could drop the film module, I felt it would hardly be relevant to my vague future career. Besides, the instructor hadn’t seen one film I’d describe as decent. That left Public Relations, where I had a 100 percent pass rate, but could not stomach the thought of another group project on how to minimize a media disaster for major oil companies accused of spills. I wanted to keep going with Law, but I was so far behind. The counselor advised me to take the easier option.
I went to his sixth lecture anyway, and afterwards made my way to the front, one last time. His face sank: “Are you not enjoying my lectures? It can be a bit of a boring subject at times, but I do my best to make you laugh.” I tried to smile.
“I love your lectures” I said. “But we’ve only completed 10% of the final grade. I’m sinking and I’m fairly sure I’m going to fail.” He said I was one of the smartest students in the class and with a little help would pass easily, with merit, even. He said we should talk about it, outside of the confines of the classroom. He took out his business card and wrote his cellphone and personal e-mail address on the back. “Don’t bother with my office line,” he said. “I rarely answer it. Try my cell. And remember you can call anytime. I’m awake through the night.” He gave me a smile that seemed nervous, rather than suggestive, but if it had been the opposite I wouldn’t have noticed. Sleep deprivation is a strange hallucinogen; I walked around with a veil over my eyes, never knowing if what was happening was actually happening.
I sent him a message that read, “Ruby”, and he replied with a smiley face. We agreed to go for a coffee the following day. I didn’t go to his seventh lecture, or eighth, or ninth. The tenth lecture was the final one, and there was supposed to be a party after, but I wasn’t there. I had reached a stage where words on a page no longer sat neatly next to each other. I had attempted to search the library database for articles but drowned in a sea of titles that hurt my eyes. I finished 75 percent of my final Public Relations grade and stopped going to classes after that.
I got a one-year grace period from the department, one year to pull my act together and re-enroll. But a year later, I had abandoned this project all together, turned my back on my accumulated debt, my half complete degree, the school where I hated teaching anyway. I moved to New York City, had a string of strange part time jobs, made new friends, began to sleep. He was all but forgotten. Even now, I can barely remember what he looked like. What his voice sounded like. How his inelegant accent butchered the two syllables of my name.
Years later, a scandal slash publicity stunt exploded over every social media outlet. A Toronto lecturer professed his undying allegiance to great male authors. All the sexual radicalism he needed could be found in books written by men. The most sexually explicit novel to garner his praise was The Dying Animal, which naturally piqued my curiosity. A condensed version told the story of a 62-year-old male professor who knows exactly how to seduce his 24-year-old student, having done it successfully countless times before. I didn’t suddenly view my own lecturer as a predator, but the blinders fell from my eyes. He was not some lame séducteur falling on every female that walked through his door.
But he had wanted me. He had attempted to solidify his presence in my life by offering me the fatherly support I had been missing for the previous ten years. He had wanted to take care of me.
I arrived at the café late, and he had already found a table. He stood up when I arrived, and kissed me on the cheek. I had been advised by my doctor not to consume alcohol or caffeine and so I ordered a chamomile tea. He ordered a glass of wine. I told him more about my research topic, the articles I’d read, the cases studies that related to my thesis. He asked me about my family, where I grew up, my plans for the future. As I spoke, his eyes bore into me; his toes touched mine under the table. I grew distressed, thinking of how much money I already owed the university, how I may have been about to lose my job, how impossible the idea of producing 5,000 coherent words on copyright law seemed. He placed his hand over mine, and it stayed there until it was time to leave. His fingers stroked the back of my hand. I don’t know why I didn’t pull my hand away.
The café was closing. He had office hours, I had decisions to make. The last words he spoke to me were, “I’m here for you, Ruby. Anytime. For anything.”
I never saw him again.
Sketches by Tracey Emin.