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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tea and Semantics, Paula McGrath

    Kirsten was late and somewhat disheveled. They were becoming careless. It could not happen again. Her Tea and Semantics sessions were not to be messed with. Though not strictly time-tabled by the Department, they were steadily gaining respect. Sometimes she imagined herself to be at the centre of an 18th century Salon, bringing together the best and the brightest for stimulating debate. On a more practical level, they attracted graduate students, and an army of graduate students was what she needed. At only twenty eight she was the youngest Junior Professor in her Department, and she planned to make full Professor by thirty.

     To this end, she also frequented innumerable conferences, so often that Hans had begun to complain lately. But it would be worth it in the end, she would point out to him tonight. She knew how to work a room better than anyone else she knew, and it was a point of honour not to leave without an invitation to speak at some other university.

     The conferences were also where she met up with Jonny, her lover of almost three years now. John Rex. It sounded so English to her, though Jonny was actually half Chinese. Today she was late because she had lain naked on top of him while he wrote Chinese characters on her back for her to guess. She cared more about getting the characters right than the erotic possibilities; Mandarin would be a worthy addition to her CV. She stood off him then and turned on the shower. She stepped in with some distaste, but then one got what one paid for and Jonny could be somewhat frugal. Hans would never expect her to make do with such modest accommodations. When she stayed in hotels with her husband he worked on what he called 'the tear system'. Less than four stars led to tears, hers. Still, she would put up with Jonny's shower because it was better than a lingering smell of condom rubber. As she lathered up the cheap soap she wondered whether Hans would be more upset that she was sleeping with another man or that she was using contraceptives against the Church's teaching. For her part, she had made a few full Confessions and she was reconciled to both.

     She applied her make-up swiftly and professionally, air-kissed Johnny so he would not mess it up, and left.

     Hans did not know that she religiously took the pill which she kept hidden in a secret pocket of her bag, so that when they copulated monotonously a few times each month in his bid to recreate, there was no chance. A pregnancy would set her back years. She didn't tell Jonny about the pill either; the condoms were a comfort to her from the point of view of safe sex. Jonny was quite a bit older and in his past he had taken advantage of many ready-to-be-impressed grad students.

     As she rushed to the Arts Building she thought about Jonny, left alone with a cold bed and the used towel in a damp ball on the tiles, and the two flaccid prophylactics leaking into the waste basket. He would be packing by now, then taking the bus to the airport and back to London where, like her, he taught semantics, and lived his solitary bachelor existence. She felt sorry for him.

     She swept into the seminar room where a cluster of students, and her friend and colleague Sabina, awaited. Breathlessly she introduced the topic for today and handed around photocopies of the suggested reading for that week. They had all read it of course, but as she explained, she found it useful to have a copy to hand. Someone made an opening comment. Kirsten nodded encouragingly. Gradually a couple of opposing viewpoints began to emerge. Then, just as it became interesting she raised a hand.

     - Let us take some tea.

     She moved to a side table she had carefully arranged earlier in the day: the small linen cloth, the tea bowls and caddy, the bamboo scoop, the new whisk. Now, she ritually wiped all the utensils again as the students were her guests and the ceremony demanded it. This was chado, or the way of the tea, as she had been taught during an exchange to Kyoto as an undergraduate.

     Some of the new students shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Kirsten did not concern herself with their discomfort but moved systematically through the ordained movements of measuring and whisking. The words harmony, respect, purity and tranquility were written in careful calligraphy, by her own hand, on the white board behind her for her students to reflect on; what more could they want. She herself was transported somewhere closer to God as she gave the ceremony her complete attention. She confided to Sabina that it had the same effect on her as the transmutation at Mass, so much so that she ran it past her Priest who, a little impatiently, assured her she could make as much tea as she liked.

     Once she had whisked the powdered green tea with hot water from a thermos to the right consistency she and Sabina served their guests. She had the greatest of respect for the revered tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu but she was not above adapting elements of his philosophy to suit her circumstances, and since she had no wish to try and persuade the students to sip unhygienically from one bowl, they each received their own. 

       Nor did she attempt to elicit a bow from them as they received their tea. On one occasion a visiting student from Tokyo had bowed graciously, first to her, then to the student next to him, then he had raised his bowl in respect to her and towards the writing on the board. She had been extremely touched and gratified.

     After they had drunk their tea Kirsten cleaned the utensils in a bowl of water and put them carefully away. By now the muttered discontent of the newer students was audible and rising. Kirsten cleared her throat.

     - The following points were raised...

    And she exposed clearly what had been ragged and fragmented before the break. She then asked the group to split and discuss. Now, discussion was quiet and focused. Kirsten sat back and watched, exchanging a discreet, knowing smile with Sabina. A few minutes before the end she brought them back into one group and they presented their findings cohesively.

     When the last student had reluctantly left the seminar room she allowed herself to relax.

    - Jonny? Sabina asked, referring to her near-tardiness.

     Kirsten nodded.

     - Well done us on that journal article, Sabina went on. - It was the talk of the Department this afternoon. Dieter particularly liked my angle on imperatives.

     Dieter was the Head of Department, and Kirsten didn't like Sabina's news. Sabina was her friend, but she was also the competition.

     Hans had attempted dinner when she got home. He was a better engineer than he was chef, but she was tired from her exertions of the afternoon and grateful for his efforts. She kissed him as he took the chicken breasts out of the oven. She always liked him much better after she had seen Jonny. It was comforting that she knew he would be there, familiar and dependable. Jonny was considerate in never putting pressure on her to leave Hans, but sometimes she wished he would at least pretend he was waiting for her to do so. She felt sure that he could manage to visit Berlin more than once a month, for example, but somehow she never managed to broach the idea. He was quite expert in deflecting the merest hint of any talk of commitment. Somehow she knew she shouldn't push him. At least not yet, because whether he was aware of it or not, Jonny was part of Kirsten's long term life and career plan.

     - How was your T and S session, Dear? Hans interrupted her thoughts.

     - Great. She yawned and stretched out on the sofa.

     Hans put a glass of wine in her hand.

     - Dinner in five minutes.

     He began setting out plates and utensils.

     - Kirs, I was thinking that we should try and get to the Youth Group. You have no conference on this weekend, and we haven't volunteered in ages.

     He was right. When they were first married they had given a lot of their time to the Youth Group, the same group they had both belonged to, and where they had met. They had agreed that it was only right that they should give something back.

     - I know, Hans, Kirsten was genuinely rueful. - We haven't been pulling our weight. So many conferences! But you're right, let's drop in on Sunday.

     She felt instantly lighter for the decision - sometimes she sickened herself with guilt and ambition – as they settled down to dinner and some light TV. She took out her contacts and put on her glasses. Hans massaged her feet, so they wound up going to bed early to make love. Hans loved her in his clumsy way, and it was always nice not using those disgusting condoms. As attentive and skilful as Jonny was, they always made her feel as if he were at a remove from her.

     Jonny phoned the next day at 3.30. She was insistent that they maintain a routine, that any chance they had of making their distance affair work depended on at least that much commitment. At first he laughed at her for being so German, and phoned whenever the mood took him, but he soon learned that this offended her disproportionally, so nowadays, mostly, he was punctual. They talked for twenty minutes every day. Today she complained about Sabina and implied that her friend was trying to take all the credit for their article. He laughed.

     - Joint articles never work out.

     Kirstin didn't find it funny.

     - I wanted to use my part of the work at the London conference.

     She was becoming quite anxious.

     - Then teach together. Jonny had begun to sound bored.

     Kirsten segued into some Chinese conversation to remind him how competent and versatile she was, and he indulged her for a few minutes. She always made a point of being the one to finish the phone call so he could not. Game-playing, Sabina had called it, laughing at her.

     The conference in London did not run smoothly. Jonny was busy playing host to visitors from China, and Kirsten found herself spending much of her time with Sabina. They taught together and their course was deemed reasonably successful, but Sabina had, in Kirsten's opinion, hogged the entire Question and Answer session, making her look foolish, and she had said as much, so there was bad feeling between them. Kirsten pouted about it to Jonny until finally he sighed and said he would go and straighten things out. He left her in his rooms while he went to track Sabina down.

     Kirsten waited there for several hours. She finally left a note before she had to leave to go to a talk. I took a lonely nap on your futon. I hope it went well with S.


     It had gone very well indeed, Jonny grinned to himself, but he supposed that was just semantics. He told Kirsten what had happened when he caught up with her the next day. Sabina had laughed when he told her why he was there, told him that was the problem with having such a ridiculously young affair, and that there was a lot to be said for the mature woman – that she herself was closer to Johnny's age than to Kirsten's - then she had steadily held his gaze and slipped off her clothes to stand tall and athletic and quite naked. They had fucked like wild animals, he told Kirsten, adding that he knew she wouldn't mind since – given Hans - there was no commitment between them. Predictably, she flew into a state. Mainly, she just couldn't understand why. In any case, she would not tolerate him sleeping with another woman. The affair was over.


    Kirsten appreciated Hans and his steady reliability more than ever. She cancelled any conferences which would have been more about Jonny than work. She spent more time with the Youth Group, even volunteering to supervise one of their weekend camping trips, something she hated, but she was willing to put up with a little discomfort for the sake of building on her marriage.

     Matters had even improved in the bedroom. Instead of waiting passively for Hans to fumble in her direction she took the initiative and actively seduced him. She supposed she had always steered clear of being a pro-active lover because she didn't want to seem loose. To her surprise Hans rose to the occasion magnificently. Instead of their usual awkward embrace there were moments of near-poetry. She used every trick she had learned from Jonny, but Hans still managed to surprise her. She hadn't known oral sex was even in his vocabulary. When they fell back afterwards in exhausted release she told herself she was well rid of Jonny, and that Sabina was welcome to him.

     Now that she had more energy to pour into her Tea and Semantics it had become a mild sensation. Kirsten had to change venue to accommodate the crowds that came every week. She brought in undergraduate help for the Tea Ceremony. Her students had come to realise the worth of the tea break, so that she could stand, as she did now, and survey the hive of discussion which followed with pride. Usually they were too busy with the debate to remember she was there, but now one of the graduate students was looking at her strangely, and it took her a moment to realise why. To her horror she was scratching her genitals, in public.

     She went straight to her doctor on the way home. It was probably some sort of allergy to perfume or something, she told herself, then the doctor, willing away the edge of fear which had arisen in her.

     - No, the doctor said after an examination. - It is herpes. It can be managed. We'll just prescribe... He flicked through his drug reference catalogs. Kirsten wasn't listening. Managed? She could not have a sexually transmitted disease. She was always careful to use condoms. How could Jonny...? Did Sabina...? She couldn't ask since they barely spoke since the London conference. She was in a panic. What if she had given it to Hans! She had to tell him, though it was probably already too late.

     - I have herpes, she said without preamble as they got ready for bed.

    Silence followed. Kirsten folded her sweater and laid it on the chair, unable to look at her husband. There was no need. She knew what was coming. The end of her marriage. She would have to move out, start again. There would surely be an annulment. Her family would find out. Hans was saying something. Kirsten forced herself to pay attention.

     - Me too. I'm sorry.

     She blinked. - Sorry?

     - I went to Friedrichstrasse. I paid a woman my mother's age, may God forgive me, to perform oral sex. She was bored and stoned but Kirsten, I was hooked. I went back every night for a week for the same thing, same woman. You were at a conference dear, with your John Rex. Then I wanted much more I'm afraid, but I just couldn't bring myself to use contraceptives. Not against the Pope's express orders.

     He sounded so sincere, willing her to understand.

     - So I found the type of prostitute in the back alleys who will do it without condoms for a little extra cash.

     - The Pope does not advocate prostitution either, Kirsten said, sitting down hard on the chair.

     Hans knelt in front of her and took her hands in his.

     - My dear, Mary Magdalene appears in the Bible but condoms do not and on that ridiculous basis I made my decision. I have slept with dozens of Mary Magdalenes by now, my love, each with her own beauty, her own charms. I'm going to hell for it, of course, he added, an afterthought.

     He fell silent.

     - My affair is over, she told him.

     - I'm sorry.

     - Thank you.

     They remained where they were for a long time, considering their situation, and from time to time absently scratching their genitals.

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