Excerpt from The Laughter
Chapter 1: “It Began as Lust”
BY SONORA JHA
It began as lust, that much I will admit. The events and emotions that came after were harder to reconcile. I, Oliver Edward Harding, am not one to trifle with the truth. The thing about truth, though, is that it sometimes reveals itself in the recounting, not in the living. So, while it is still fresh in my mind, I must revisit the events of these past weeks; in particular, the matter of the boy.
The straight and sure lines within these pale margins of my mind leave no other trail but those of my design. Only here might one find a true “safe space,” as it were, to borrow a phrase from the luminaries of our time. Do I take a risk, then, by spilling my thoughts in ink? Do I dare reveal the workings of my heart in some clumsy assembly of words? Oh, but it is such comfort to hear the scratch and whisper of pen on paper, to write by hand the way I once did as a boy with a journal. Here I am, then, on a page, in a fresh notebook, committing my story to sight. My story and theirs.
Before I dwell on the story of the boy and his aunt, I must state that something has been taken from me, something precious and tender, and the loss of it is so great that it may smother my account with searing emotion at times, of the kind no associate of mine would generally ascribe to my personality. I will attempt to sluice out such emotion, lance this open wound of the ghosts within, although I will not delude myself that a complete exorcism is possible. I must remember that the police prefer a clean retelling of incidents. Unblemished. The gendarmerie, the boy would call them. They are leaning on me to make sense of all that happened. I must organize my thoughts here so they can have the spotless narrative they so desperately need. I won’t, of course, share my written accounts with them, for I hardly imagine them avid readers, but I will deliver to them as lissome a truth as they deserve. Were it not for their urgent and unannounced visitations multiple times a day, I would have more time to discern the most pressing matter at hand, the matter of the letter.
What is to be done with this letter that is in my possession? This question has kept me sleepless until this hour of 3:45 a.m. I must choose one of two alternatives. This letter was given to me by the boy, less than a week ago. He asked that I mail it to someone in time for a birthday, someone in France. I am familiar with the contents of this letter. I did not read it in a furtive lapse of ethical judgment but, indeed, at the urging of the boy himself. Adil Alam, the boy, came to imagine me as some sort of mentor to him in the matters of the heart. Be that as it was, I did not advise him to change a single word in the letter. I found it rather charming, his declaration of love, driven by a clumsiness endemic to those forced into solitude in adolescence. The letter was all the more endearing, I thought, for being crafted by hand, despite the poor penmanship that has resulted from the millennials’ practice of texting, which has rendered all correspondence among them to be, quite literally, all thumbs.
The contents of this letter are remarkable not merely for their sophistication but also because they will have a significant impact on the investigations of the police. And this is where my dilemma cuts deep—the boy extracted from me the sincerest promise that I will not share its contents, not even in part, not even orally, not even in concept, with anyone. The letter was meant to leave my address and arrive at the address of one Ms. Camille Harroch in Toulouse, France, as close to her birthday on December 1, 2016, as was calculable by ordinary post. Today is November 3.
Of course, all of this is rendered with greater poignancy because the author of the letter, the boy, now lies fighting for his life. If he dies, will this letter live beyond him? If he lives, whom will this letter serve? My journey of discernment must lead me to now deploy the letter in the service of love, or in the service of the law.
If one must speak of love, one must begin this story at that point. Although, as I noted earlier, it began for me as lust. That impulse, too, caught me off guard, because Ruhaba Khan was not the kind of woman to have inspired lust in me in all my years.
It helps to return to it. In these sleepless hours here, at my desk at home, I must return to that man I was at my other desk just about a month ago, in my office, a man far less bereft than I am today. It helps to play back those early images of Ruhaba in my head, before she knocked on my office door. In fact, those nascent fantasies I’d had of her did feature her knocking on that door. In the scenes of my imagination, she would knock, she would walk in, and she would stand over my desk. I would rise to shut the door behind her, “to keep the noise of the Department of English out,” I would tell her. Then, as she spoke of something—it was different each time in my fantasy—as she spoke of committee work and how it ought to be divided on the basis of disciplinary expertise of the faculty, I would come up to her, put a finger on her lips, and shush her.
I wouldn’t startle her, but I would no doubt see surprise in her eyes. And then, as she realized that goodness, yes, she had been expecting this, she would smile against my finger. My free hand would brush up against her buttocks and smooth the fabric on the ample mounds of flesh there. Things would go so quickly from here, and I would be assailed by the colors and scents of her flesh. She would be speaking of her workload on committees, negotiating with me for a reduction as I’d lay her down on my desk. I would enter her. She would fall quiet except for the tiniest sighs and moans. I would cover her mouth to protect her interests. Department walls have ears, especially those of the Department of English.
So you will understand when I tell you that I felt flustered and somewhat exposed the first time she actually knocked on my office door. I hurriedly put away my knitting and turned the key on the lock of my desk drawer. When I heard her voice outside say, “Dr. Harding? It’s Dr. Khan,” I had a moment in which I thought I must hide something else, some physical evidence of her that she would spy on the desk or on the rug on the floor. But there was none, just a lot of books and papers from my years of work on a literary biography of Chesterton.
Ruhaba wasn’t looking around my office. I wondered if she could smell the wool and yarn of my knitting, or the heat of my desire, but she seemed to have very little curiosity about my little world in that room. She walked in with a sense of purpose and said, “Dr. Harding, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Oliver. Please,” I mumbled, as I stood up and motioned to her to take the seat before me.
She gave a half-smile and a nod and sat down. “I’ll get straight to the point,” she said. “I must ask to be relieved of my responsibilities on the Building and Space Committee.”
This was so close to my fantasy, I squirmed a little as I sat back down.
“Any particular reason?” I said.
“I have some personal commitments coming up and I anticipate having less time to devote to committee work. I know we are in the middle of a huge push to demand more space for Liberal Arts after that STEM building was approved, and I just think you’d be better off with someone who can devote more energy.”
Dear God, she was pregnant. I had entertained so many requests of this sort over the years from female faculty heading into maternity leave. Family Leave, they call it now. Of course, I heartily support it, even though colleagues like David Meyer make awful jokes about what I see as strides for more gender equity. What was it he said recently? “Personal commitments” was code for “I have been recently fucked harder than ever and now you must all bow before my biology and divide up my work while I go get fat and distracted.” Men like Meyer are increasingly a relic in academia, thank the heavens.
I reminded myself that Ruhaba wasn’t married and then reminded myself that this was not a thing that mattered these days. As if reading my thoughts, she said, tentatively, “Although I am not required to say what my personal commitments are, I feel it might be collegial of me to share them with you. A nephew of mine whom I have never met before is coming to stay with me. He arrives in two days and I have no idea what to expect.”
“Nephew?” I said, trying not to sound too relieved.
She felt compelled to fill the silence that followed, although she frowned as she spoke, as if irritated with herself for not living into her political beliefs about women’s rights to privacy at the workplace. “He’s a teenager and he … needs a change of scene … I am told. That’s all I know. He’s my sister’s son and she’s asked for help.”
“Ah, I understand,” I said. “Well, I will have to grant your request, of course. Although I do think your voice is so useful on that committee.” What I meant was that her voice and her skin and hair were the only reasons I was chair of that committee. Discussing the blueprints of buildings and their layouts as reflective of the mission, vision, and values of a university was the dullest work to which I had consented in years. Let me be candid and state that one of the reasons that women of color are asked to do disproportionately high service on committees on the American campus is that men of pallor like me are no longer asked. We have proved to be obtrusive and resistant to change and have thereby earned ourselves more time sitting back in our offices or getting out to play golf. I, especially, had a system that worked well to make me the least desirable man for committee service: I would passionately argue every position and kick a committee’s decision-making in its bluest balls. The only committee I now served on with any enthusiasm was this Space one and the one on Rank and Tenure. I was coming up on my final two years of my third term as chair of the Rank and Tenure Committee. I will be the first to admit that the reason I did this work was to weed out the riff-raff to whom universities were awarding tenure these days. I was fair, and I was tough as nails.
Ruhaba said, “That’s very kind of you, but you and I both know that the Building and Space Committee is a joke. We’re just little pawns in the hands of the administration. They already have a blueprint for their own little campus universe.”
I was so stunned by her candor, I let out a roaring laugh that I instantly realized seemed quite disproportionate to her words.
She startled and then smiled. Oh, would that it were so simple to put my finger on those lips now. I cleared my throat. “True,” I said.
“Please don’t take that as rudeness on my part,” she said.
“Oh, no, I won’t. Trust me.”
“Well,” she said, pushing herself away from my desk with both hands. I recognize that my thoughts then were entirely inappropriate, but, although they were mere thoughts, I want to keep my writing here honest, close to the bone. So, I will admit I wanted to reach out and hold those hands and place them firmly back, pin them down to the edge of the desk, but instead, I stood up to shake one of them.
“If there is any way I may help with the nephew situation …” I said, knowing I might be implying more familiarity than we had between us. We only met on committees and at the occasional work event. We weren’t even in the same school at our university—she taught law and I, English.
“Oh, thank you, but it may end up being less trouble than I am anticipating,” she said. Then, she hesitated. “It’s just that his parents and I have been estranged and I …” Her eyes started to wander around my desk now and it took me a moment to realize that she was looking for signs that I may have had a family.
I quickly jumped in. “Oh, I understand about being estranged from loved ones. My … my ex-wife and Kathryn—my daughter … well, they keep to themselves more than I’d like.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry.”
“It is what it is,” I said. It was what it was.
I wanted to talk about her, not me. “But perhaps the arrival of the nephew means that things are on the mend? The easiest way back into a family’s heart is through the children and all that.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” she said, sounding unconvinced.
She started to take steps backward toward my door.
“They’re sending him to you, which implies trust.”
She stopped and looked at me. “Trust?”
I stared at her. Her eyes were inky black and frank. Some sort of evolutionary thing in her genes, perhaps, to render themselves penetratingly human behind a burka. Even though her traditional dress had been minimized to a headscarf, old manners die hard. I had encountered this strange thing about her before, this taking of things literally and seriously. It’s as if her part of the world did not have the same rules of small talk and niceties as ours. I found it so beguiling.
“Certainly,” I said.
I was ready to play by the rules of her part of the world. I added, “Your sister must respect you and your life here or she wouldn’t …”
“Oh, I doubt that,” she said waving a hand dismissively and taking those black pin-points of her eyes off me. “My sister and her husband don’t approve of my ways. You study all the way to a PhD and your family tells you it makes you less marriageable. Then they ask why you live by yourself in your late thirties. Why you move around like this in the Western world. They didn’t like that I once had a lover. That was the last straw for them. Oh, wait. Not that. The last straw was that he wasn’t a practitioner of Islam.”
I stood there in silence. She drew a sharp breath in, widened her eyes, and looked at me as if she had forgotten for the last few moments that I was even there. Her hands flew up to her face and she looked away and smiled with embarrassment.
“Goodness, Dr. Harding. I can’t believe I am prattling on and on like this about such … such personal things. You will have to excuse me. I am clearly out of my depth with this oncoming …”
“Oliver,” I said, faintly.
“Please call me Oliver.”
She smiled and gave me an odd look. She was peering at me, as if noticing for the first time that I am a handsome man. Some twenty years her senior, but blessed with the distinguished look of handsome men who age well.
She looked away then, as if it were all suddenly too intense. She nodded, thanked me for listening, and walked out my door.
I sat back in my chair, weak. She hadn’t quite ruined my fantasies with the untidy reality of her circumstances. The images of my own mind had stayed for a while, and indeed, she had now gifted me the whiff of a scent from her hair to work with. She had given me a better sense of a voice in a lower octave, more inquiring in personal space than the declarative voice she held in meetings. She had offered a fuller sense of her chin and neck. An academician’s office is a dismal place. Semesters go by in the predictability of students’ papers arriving on one’s desk and coffee mugs drained and forgotten during glassy-eyed grading. Office hours are a puddle in which minutes drip and drip and drip with no students in sight, as if they indeed had no debate with Chesterton’s arguments against modern relativism. Janitorial staff came in at night to dust around the bookcases, but they were trained to never touch the piles of journals—even those from as far back as 1998—nor the shattered spines of books left open to a page since 2002 on the academician’s desk. So, they’d miss the drying peels of mandarin oranges and leave the academician to find them blackened or moldy every time he had the spark of an idea and shuffled into paper in search of a reference.
This month of October bore down especially hard on the academician’s office in our town of Seattle. Take my office windows, for instance. I had the best office in the Department of English, better than that of even the current department chair, a fine Nigerian woman who taught postcolonial studies. My office had a row of three windows, and hers, one. But what I hadn’t considered when I made a power play for the office with the three windows was that I would have three times the swath of gray sky for the nine months beginning in October. Three times the view of the row of full moon maples as they lost their leaves and turned to twigs. Three times the damp seeping in through the glass. Three times the view of students shuffling around through the quad below, dressed in their black Uniqlo puffer jackets. Three times the dread of the penetrative advance of the gray as it dealt the great seasonal sadness we would all either feed or deny, we faculty and students. The latter, at least, would seek treatment, and then we would be awash in Adderall-driven attention or Zoloft-muffled anxieties.
So, it would be cruel to question the warm ripple of lust in the wake of Ruhaba’s visit to the academician’s office in October. In the fantasies that followed, I was able to have her face me as she lay back on my desk. I was able to remove her headscarf because I now knew where to untie it. I could fill in the length of her hair with my imagination and have it tumble in endless curls over the breadth of a desk hurriedly swept clear of years of debris.
Reliving these images in my head and writing of them at this feverish pace feels macabre given the terrible nature of things that happened in that very office on November 1. Goodness, was that just two days ago? No one is allowed in that office now, and the whole floor of the Department of English has yellow police tape around it. I do not want to ever go back in there, not even to retrieve my Chesterton book notes and my knitting. What could I possibly find there in the middle of all that loss? I feel like a dirty old man, and my fantasies that once soothed me now feel tawdry. Predatory.
Reality, you see, had rewarded with me with so much more—moments in flesh and blood, with voices and shouts and laughter and fights and letters and promises—oh so many promises. The dreams I began to build in the quiet moments between reality will have to see me through the months to come.
As for the police and federal agents, they could knock themselves out in that office of mine, looking for Truth. If they had read their Chesterton, they would know that a bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world.
They have their questions. But, truth be told, the question that is beyond their ken, the question that overwhelms me, even more than the matter of the boy and his letter to Camille, is one of love. How much and how quickly I came to care for these people. I am haunted now by this—did they ever come to care for me at all?