I met Vernon at University. He taught Astrophysics. I was one of three female students taking his class. I’d love to say it was because I was determined to help up the numbers of women in STEM, but truth is I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and hoped if I learned the laws of the universe they might guide me as to my place in it.
I still don’t know what to do with myself, but I can explain synchrotron radiation and gravitational lensing and you’ll want me on your pub quiz team. I can also entertain your child for an hour using just a stick, a coin and a piece of string.
Is it still a bit cringey for you – the pairing of a student with a teacher? Or is it a bit of a turn on? Would it help if I pointed out I was 25 and he was 35? Turns out there were similar age gaps between both sets of our parents, so neither of us thought it a big deal. A girl from my course, Polly, thought it was cool. Actually – befitting her name – she squawked like a parrot and spilt her coffee on me when I whispered my confession to her while Vernon was struggling to load the Power Point slides, as usual, before she declared it cool. My BFF from back home, Adrian, asked me did it mean I got free extra tuition. He didn’t call me much after that conversation. We had had a casual thing, Adrian and I, on and off hook ups if we were both between relationships, but maybe he sensed this time was different. And while it hurts to lose a friend, I’m okay to accept a casualty in exchange for the happiness I have now.
I’d emailed my mother about him about a month after we started seeing each other. She had guessed something had happened, in that way peculiar to mothers.
“So, I’ve started seeing a guy on my course. Actually…he leads the course. But he’s young! And looks even younger. He has fair hair, eyes like crystals, has to duck under most doorways and on our first date he gave me flowers. Remember Justin? He never even bothered getting me anything for Valentine’s, not even after three years!
And yeah, I know you’ll be worrying like oh, does this mean Carla’s not going to be able to concentrate on her studies, but he’s seriously helping me. Who knew Wein’s Displacement Law could be so interesting!
Also, he’s got a gorgeous four bedroom place the other side of town – you remember that bit we drove around trying to find the university that had all the magnolia trees – that area. And did I mention he has a very big car? Not that I’m materialistic, but–”
It went on in that vein for about 3000 more words. I probably had an assignment due that day.
Vernon had seemed like an open book. But after three months or so of us going out, he let a bombshell drop. I had been sitting in the passenger seat of his hybrid Mercedes deliberately pondering aloud – with emphasis on the loud – my plans for Christmas, waiting for him to butt in and rescue me from having to go to my aunt Suzie’s by insisting I meet his folks.
Instead, he told me he’d be having Tessa to stay. He pulled into the car park at Guiseppe’s (which had now become ‘our’ restaurant) leaving me on tenterhooks while he concentrated on reverse parking into a spot more designed for a motorcycle to occupy. I thought it my heart pounded any harder my buttons would fly off like a budget Hulk-turned-stripper. I tried to swallow, but all my saliva had tried to make an emergency exit through my backside so instead I choked (while concentrating on clenching). I can’t say I recommend it.
Vernon brought out his wallet and from behind the emergency condom (I wondered later if there was significance to the placement – a reminder not to have any more?) brought out a small rectangle onto which was emblazoned the visage of a pig-tailed, gap-toothed child. His daughter.
Three years on (actually three and a half, proving I’ve broken the curse of Justin) and I couldn’t be happier. I now get to occupy one of the bedrooms of the four bedroomed house on the magnolia street. I get riveting conversation over coffee from a machine that cost the same as all my course textbooks combined whereas before in my student bedsit I literally bored my aloe vera plant to death talking about my daily worries and achievements, and those things are pretty hard to kill. I have my degree – with merit – and I’ve just been accepted on to another in business management with a view to making my start-up idea a reality. Yep, I finally figured out what I want to do with my life. And Vernon has said he’ll help fund any more degrees I want to do that I don’t win scholarships for. He believes in me, nourishes me, whereas the other men just took and took. I’m in the greatest shape of my life thanks to twice daily Pilates sessions. He encouraged me also to get the therapy I didn’t know I needed. And finally the cupboards are never bare (especially now my bulimia was addressed in aforementioned therapy).
There’s only one little thing. One little rectangular thing. Believe me, she’s as flat in affect and robustly proportioned as her photo only now she’s coming to live with us as her mother who she was staying with in France has undoubtedly been tortured into a breakdown by the devious sprog so now I’ve having to convert my home gym into a bedroom fit for a 13-year-old and who even knows what they’re into though I’m guessing gang-bangs and Botox if the tabloid press is to be believed and now I have to share Vernon with this buck-toothed entity who he has his own private language with (well, French) and–
Okay, breathe, Carla. Just like how the therapist taught you. Recognise you need to either accept the pain, or change the pain. Accept the pain…or change the pain.
I think I’ll go with change. I want my life back, my man back, my gym back. I’ve never been good at sharing. One of the side effects of being an only child, I guess.
I started my lies in the morning, when unlike everyone else I’ve ever shared a bed with, Vernon was at his most alert.
First it was little things – Tessa had given me some backchat when I urged her to hurry up and get ready for school. She’d called me by choice names. No, I can’t think where she would’ve picked up that language either, dear. Or saying what a state she had left the bathroom in for me to clean up.
I was working my way up. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Then she’d hit me – I showed him the bruise on my shoulder. He confronted her and of course she denied all, just like I complained she would do.
I told him about how I tried to get to know her when I knocked on it with a bowl of popcorn and a DVD in my hands (it was a masterful knock, let me tell you) but she just slammed the door in my face.
I pointed out the damage she’d done to my rose garden with her bicycle. Vernon would scratch his darling stubble and wonder what had got into her. Tessa kept on denying all, of course. Rectangle child got into a tangle over it.
Finally I’d shown him what she’d written in her diary. I couldn’t help it, I said. She’s left it right open on her desk next to the plates I was clearing away. I have a curious mind, I said. That’s what you loved about me, you’d said. Once.
After reading his daughter’s confessions in the handwriting and diction I’d taken so long to perfectly imitate, well that’s when the proverbial hit the fan. His perfect (rect)angel and what she'd let that boy do to her.
I stood and listened at the door while she protested as Daddy told her enough was enough, it wasn’t working out, and she was going to boarding school up north near her aunt Suzie’s. The curse of the Suzie’s. That was about the only thing we shared, me and rectangle girl. She certainly wouldn’t be sharing Vernon anymore. I was going to have him all to myself again. I got my laptop up and started looking up home gym equipment, figuring I’d reward myself with a new elliptical.
I tried to cheer him up after she’d gone away, but it was like a spark had gone and I was out of lighter fluid. We’d eat dinner in silence while the empty spot at the table spoke volumes. He was more distracted and I found myself having to repeat myself, a pattern I thought had dissolved along with past loves. We hardly went to Guiseppe’s anymore. More often when Vernon got back from the university he’d go into his study to do some marking, leaving me going to bed early with my crime authors.
Then he started one morning with a big truth, when I’m at my slowest and find it difficult even to remember how to switch the light on. Marking papers wasn’t all he’d been doing in that study of his. He’d applied for a teaching job at the boarding school we’d shipped Tessa off to. It would be a drop in salary, but it would be worth it to be near her and keep an eye that she was back to behaving, he said. We’d have to downsize, he said. What about my course, my start-up idea, I said. We said and said and said some more. Our first and final argument.
I’m now going out with the lecturer from my business management course, and I couldn’t be happier.