Maybe I was only half listening, but at first I heard her last sentence as "I'm sure we'll enjoy it here." Hmmm, there's an interesting thought. I was about to make a witty reply, but fortunately I bit my tongue. I scarcely knew this woman, and yes she was beautiful but that didn't imply she was available. "I'm sure I will, Elena," I simply said. "Thanks for your help picking it out."
"My pleasure, Dr. Jackson," she replied. (I learned quickly that I was always "Doctor" or "Professor", no matter how much I protested that I didn't have a doctorate and wasn't a full Professor.)
Elena phoned the owner and we agreed to meet the next day to sign the paperwork. A day later I moved in. I was pleased at the way things had gone so far. An attractive, bright and cheerful apartment. A decent office on a pleasant campus. A delectable young woman in the Dean's Office brightening up my day every time I spoke with her. Even without Terri, life was pretty good.
Classes began on the following Monday. I quickly warmed to my students, especially the girls (and Sarah had been right, there were a few stunners and many others who were merely very attractive).
I was usually in the Dean's Office at least once a day, and I was always impressed by the way Elena unflappably handled the stream of visitors and phone calls, switching effortlessly between Russian and English. Despite her looks, Oxana was no bimbo; she efficiently handled Yerzhan's schedule and correspondence. But as the office manager Elena had to deal with the walk-ins and the unexpected interruptions. I never heard her raise her voice, even to the most unreasonable of visitors. She was a natural manager of people, and I could see why Yerzhan felt he had been incredibly fortunate in recruiting his office staff.
I soon met my two colleagues who were advising KBS on the other specializations. Stan Williams was near retirement age, an HR specialist who had worked at General Electric and then spent many years in the California State University system. His wife Mary had come with him so that, as she put it, "I can amaze my friends with trivia about part of the world they've never seen -- and believe me they've seen a lot!" We shared quite a few lunches. They were a delightful couple, and I envied them that they could enjoy this experience together.
And Martin Hensley, the accounting specialist, was a hoot. Like a few of the British professionals I had met in England he had been an expat much of his career, and he had plenty of stories about life in places like Kenya, Oman, and Cyprus. He was also "defiantly single," to use his phrase, and chased pretty much anything in a skirt. The scuttlebutt was that he had bedded a woman from the Admissions Office within a few days of his arrival. I noticed from the beginning that Elena was uncomfortable with Martin. Oxana later told me he had tried to hit on her while she was showing apartments to him. Bad move, from what I knew of Elena.
Terri and I talked on Skype maybe three times a week, usually at the beginning of my working day which was evening for her. Her semester seemed pretty much routine apart from the traveling she'd be doing. The big literature conference was just after Thanksgiving. Our conversations were friendly but without passion: more like acquaintances keeping each other updated on happenings in their lives. I jokingly mentioned in one of my first calls that I wished the video worked so she could give me a strip show. She gave a "humph!" and hurriedly changed the subject. OK, I got the picture. No more sexual innuendo for Terri.
In late September I joined four other faculty members on a weekend retreat at an old Soviet-era sanatorium outside Almaty. The place had been tarted up a bit with modern conveniences, but the overall air fell somewhere between faded grandeur and genteel dilapidation. Elena was with us to take notes and keep a record of our discussions.
I noticed as we checked in that Elena was having an animated conversation with one of the reception clerks and a gentleman in a jacket and tie whom I assumed was the manager. It was all in Russian, but I had no trouble understanding Elena's forceful "Nyet! Nyet!". She sounded liked she was struggling to control her temper. Eventually check-in finished and we got our room keys. I asked Elena what the discussion had been about.
"Oxana reserved six rooms for us but didn't give them your names," she said. "When you gave them your passports to check in they realized that three of you are foreigners. They were going to charge us more for the three rooms. I said we wouldn't accept that, that all of you were teachers at KBS and you should be treated the same way. I went as far as to say that no one at KBS would ever come here again and we would spread the word as much as we could to stay away." She paused for breath. "I didn't want to bother Oxana or the Dean on a Friday evening. I'm just happy I got them to back down."
I looked at her with new respect. Obviously there was a feisty streak in this woman to go along with the beauty and competence and grace under pressure that I already knew about. I wondered if her boyfriend ever stood a chance in an argument with her. I idly wondered what their make-up sex was like.
We had good discussions on Saturday, and put a lot of flesh onto the bones of the Finance curriculum that was in the catalog. We talked about texts and assignments and prerequisites and what overseas graduate programs were looking for. We talked about KBS students -- their secondary schooling, strengths and weaknesses, study habits. Maybe it was adrenalin, or maybe the camaraderie that develops when capable people tackle worthwhile projects, but it was somehow more stimulating, and more fulfilling, than any of the curriculum development exercises I had been part of at Eastern. Elena was there on the sidelines, efficiently recording the entire proceedings.
By the end of the afternoon I was ready to relax a bit -- maybe a workout and a meal. As our meeting broke up I consulted with Elena on the schedule for the next day. Yerzhan would come tomorrow and we needed to brief him on our ideas. But at the back of my mind was a more important question. Should I ask her to dinner? Since her display yesterday she was more intriguing to me than ever, and this was the best chance so far to get to know her better. Plus in this setting she couldn't read anything improper into the invitation. I hesitated, then took the plunge.
"Elena, perhaps you could join me for dinner in the dining room here this evening. I hate eating alone in public, and besides I need someone to tell me what all those strange dishes on the buffet are. I was going to the gym to work out, but perhaps we can meet there about 7."
"That sounds good Dr. Jackson, thanks for the invitation. I'll rest a bit and then meet you there."
We did eat together, and over the evening I learned quite a bit more about Elena, and she a bit about me. She was 24 and came from Semipalatinsk, in the northeast of Kazakhstan, an area mainly populated by ethnic Russians though she herself was an ethnic mix, with a Russian father and Kazakh mother. She had three sisters, all older. "My father really wanted a boy, but never had one, so I guess I had to do!" she laughed. One of her sisters was a teacher there; one was a housewife with two kids; the third had married a man who proved to be abusive and she had been lucky to escape. She had divorced him and was working in a shop. Both her parents were still living, and she visited her family usually twice a year, traveling by train as plane flights were too expensive.
She could have stayed home and studied there, but decided to move to Almaty instead. "I really wanted to do something different from my sisters," she explained. She had a degree in English from one of the state universities in Almaty. (So that explains the excellent English, I thought). She had worked in an insurance company office after graduation. When KBS had advertised for staff she had applied right away. Yerzhan had hired her for his office after a short interview. She had a roommate and lived in an apartment pretty much like mine, about 45 minutes' bus ride from KBS.
She loved her job but was thinking about further study, probably an MBA in Human Resources. From her earlier job she saw that HR professionals with Western training who could cross between local firms and multinationals were badly needed in Kazakhstan. She'd already asked Stan for his thoughts and he'd been very helpful. Getting an MBA would mean going overseas, since KBS wouldn't be in a position to start one for several years. She didn't have the money so she would have to get a scholarship of some sort.
I casually asked about boyfriends. Yes, she did have one, she said. A student at another university, a couple years younger than she. She gave the impression she didn't see him much. He certainly wasn't the love of her life. "If I'm going to go to school overseas I can't be married, I probably shouldn't even have a serious boyfriend," she said, and I had to agree with her.
About that point two of the other faculty joined us for coffee, so the conversation moved to more innocuous things. We parted company about 20 minutes later and headed for our rooms.
That evening I lay on the somewhat lumpy mattress, nursing the pleasant fatigue that comes with accomplishment, and everything began to change. Unbidden and unplanned, but certainly not unwelcome, visions of Elena began to float through my brain. Of course I had jerked off since I came to Almaty, usually to images of a couple of my students who always dressed in ultra-low-cut jeans or ultra-short skirts, real cock-teases I suspected. I would never try to hit on a student, here or at home, so they were "safe" -- fantasies could stay fantasies. That night was different. My cock stiffened to ramrod intensity as I imagined Elena, body mostly bared, seductive in a lacy bra and thong panties. Elena, shedding her bra and offering her lovely breasts for my hungry gaze. I was stroking quickly now. Elena, standing naked with her back to me, bending over to show off her delectable ass and pussy. Oh God. I wanked myself with passion. Elena, nude next to me on the bed, fondling her breasts languidly, watching me with supreme satisfaction, knowing she was the woman turning me on. That last was a little too realistic. I had to choke back crying out her name as I came more intensely than I had for months, years maybe, spurting my load all over my chest and stomach.
Cleaning myself up I realized I had crossed a line. It was one thing to think highly of her as a professional, or to warm to her as a young woman with plans and hopes and dreams, or to admire her beauty. It was something quite different to have explicit sexual thoughts about her. But now my feelings were clear. No doubt now that I wanted to fuck Elena -- no, no, I wanted to make love to her the way she deserved -- and no doubt the more I learned about her the more I would want her. I groaned as I thought of the frustration I saw ahead over the rest of the semester. Yet I saw how tensely she interacted with Martin. If I tried to hit on her and said something that offended her, I'd be no better off than he. I didn't want anything to happen that would destroy our working relationship, or our friendship. Anyway, I knew from long experience that seduction had never been one of my strengths.
I wrestled with my thoughts for more than an hour, my body tossing around on the bed as my emotions tossed around my brain. Eventually I concluded that it was best if we stayed as friends. Any move to be more than friends would have to come from her, not me. With that decided, I fell into a restless sleep.
I did my best to act normally around her the next day, and later as we returned to our usual weekday routines. I detected no hint that she saw anything different in me. I was wrong.
On Thursday in midterm exams week I had an early meeting about employment prospects for Finance graduates with two British bankers. I didn't arrive on campus until after 11:00 and as I walked into the office wing I knew immediately something was wrong. Students hardly ever hung out around the faculty offices, but that day there were little knots of them standing together talking. I entered the Dean's Office and saw Oxana and Elena sitting on the couch. Elena's head hung down and she was sniffling. Obviously she had been crying. She looked up at me as I came in and it was clear she was badly shaken.
"What happened, Oxana?" I asked. "Why is Elena so upset?"
"Dr. Jackson, Dr. Rahman collapsed in his office a half hour ago. The ambulance took him away but we think he's dead."
"I did everything I could!" Elena burst out. She collapsed again in tears.
I was shocked. Mohammed Rahman was younger than I was, certainly no more than 40. I didn't know him well but he seemed like a decent guy and I knew his students said good things about his teaching. He had a wife and two kids in Bangladesh and seemed devoted to them. How terrible for his family, I thought. How terrible for all of us. "Are you sure about him?" I asked Oxana. "Where's the Dean?"
"He's on his way. I phoned him. " She composed herself. "Dr. Rahman was talking to a student in his office when he fell forward in his chair. His head must have hit the desk top and his body slid out of the chair to the floor. The student ran in here shouting that Dr. Rahman had fallen on the floor in his office. The Dean wasn't here and Elena sort of took charge. She told me to call an ambulance and to call the Dean on his mobile phone. Then she hurried to Dr. Rahman's office. She started giving him CPR and mouth-to-mouth and trying to revive him. She didn't know if he was still alive." She paused. "She blames herself for not being able to revive him. After about ten minutes the ambulance crew came and took over. They worked on him for a few minutes, then carried him out on a stretcher and sped off. We haven't heard anything more."
Elena had stopped crying but still looked distressed. I walked over and sat next to her, putting an arm around her shoulders, silently willing her to stay calm, not to beat herself up mentally over a twist of fate she could not control. Oxana stayed next to her on the other side. Neither of us said anything. There was no need.
About five minutes later Yerzhan walked in. He was ashen. "The hospital phoned me a few minutes ago as I was driving here. Dr. Rahman was dead on arrival. They suspect a massive heart attack but they can't be sure without an autopsy. Oxana, will you call HR and get a phone number for Dr. Rahman's wife. I ought to tell her the news myself. How sad, how horribly sad." Oxana started for her desk. He turned to Elena.
"Elena, I heard about how you tried to help Dr. Rahman. I know you're upset. Please don't blame yourself because I doubt anything anyone could have done would have made a difference. Why don't you take the rest of the day off. I'll get Yevgeny to take you home. Oxana, while you're on the phone can you ask Yevgeny to wait outside?"
I spoke up. "Yerzhan, I agree Elena should go home but I think she needs someone with her. If it's all right with her I'll go with her. I'll make sure she gets there safely and stays calm."
"OK with me, Dan. Elena, is that all right with you?" She nodded mutely. Oxana found her purse, I picked up her coat and, with my arm still around her shoulders, we slowly walked her out to where the car was waiting.
We rode the first few minutes in silence. Abruptly Elena spoke. "I think he died in my arms, Dr. Jackson," she said quietly. "Oh God, why? Why couldn't I do something?"
Of course I had no answer. To comfort her I said "Elena, maybe it was fate or destiny or circumstances or karma or whatever, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that the way you went to help him was remarkable. You were thinking only about him and what you could do to help him -- you weren't thinking about yourself. To me that shows real courage, I'd go as far as to say heroism."
"But I couldn't do anything to help him! I failed, Dr. Jackson. I did everything I knew and I still failed."
"No, Elena, you would only have failed if you'd done nothing," I said. She had no reply to that, and we lapsed again into silence.
"How did you learn lifesaving?" I asked after a minute or so.
"I worked at Kapchagai for two summers while I was a student," she said. Kapchagai was a resort area on a lake, a couple hours' drive away. "I had to learn lifesaving skills including CPR. I never had to use them though. It was drilled into us in the training, there is no time to waste if someone is drowning. You have to start trying to revive them right away once they're out of the water. You have to respond pretty much by instinct. I guess that's what took over when that student ran in saying Dr. Rahman had collapsed. I was acting on instinct. It only hit me afterwards what had really happened, how a man actually died while I was trying to revive him." She shuddered afresh at the memory.
I had a brief mental image of Elena in a swimsuit on a lifeguard stand, her model's body turning heads up and down the beach. I decided that for now I had better bury that image in the darkest corner of my subconscious. "Well, I hope the people who trained you hear about what you did today. They'd be proud to see that you used your instincts the way you did, to help save somebody's life." Oops -- that didn't come out right. I got flustered and began to stammer. "Uh, well, I mean. . ."
Seeing me so tongue-tied made her giggle a little. "Relax, Dr. Jackson. I know what you mean, I know what you're trying to tell me. Don't worry, I'll be all right, it'll just take some time for the shock to fade away. I think you're wrong, I don't think I did anything heroic. Like I said, I just acted on instinct. It's just so sad that I couldn't do anything for him . . ." Her voice trailed off and she fell silent again.
I decided I needed to change the subject, to get her mind off what had happened. "Elena, tell me about where you went to school. Yerzhan -- er, the Dean always says that KBS is different from the state universities. Maybe you could help me understand what the differences are -- is it the students, the courses, teachers, buildings, maybe all of the above?"
She giggled again. "All of the above sounds about right." She began to talk about her experiences as a student, adding in some things she'd heard from Oxana and others about the places they'd studied. I was genuinely curious and chipped in a question from time to time, but mostly I just let her talk. The therapy seemed to work as she became visibly less stiff, her face more animated, her posture more relaxed. At one point, as she recalled a story of how a group of classmates had tried to rig the student government election, she actually laughed. It was music to my ears.
After some 15 minutes Yevgeny pulled up to a nondescript apartment block. "Here's where I live, Dr. Jackson. Please don't worry, I'll be OK. Thanks for coming with me -- you were right, it does feel so much better having you with me, having the chance to talk."
"Do you need me to come in with you, or help you with anything?"
Was it in my imagination that I detected a hesitation in her response? "N... no thank you, Dr. Jackson. I'll be fine. I've already taken enough of your time." No you haven't, I thought. Not at all. "I'll see you tomorrow. Thanks again." She got out and headed for the building door. I signaled Yevgeny to wait until she had punched in the entry code to the outer gate and, with a wave, disappeared inside.
On the ride back it was that last minute that I kept replaying in my mind. I had invited myself into her apartment for the purest of motives -- to support her in her distressed state and, as I told Yerzhan, to make sure she stayed calm. So what might have happened had she accepted? Would we have simply talked some more, maybe had a drink or a snack, further cemented our friendship? Or, as the devil on my left shoulder was crudely telling me, would there have been more? Might we have ended up making out, or even screwing each other? I couldn't say. Certainly I wanted to think that I would never take advantage of a woman when she was most vulnerable, when she most needed a shoulder to cry on, when she trusted that the man with her was a rock and a support. Only a real scumbag of a man would do such a thing.