"But what if she started it?" the little demon whispered, unconvinced by my logic. Again I had no answer.
The next day Elena was back, outwardly unchanged, her usual superefficient self. Only people who knew her well, like me, noticed a shadow of sorrow in her eyes. If anything it made her more desirable to me. We shared an unspoken bond now, like wartime survivors of a hellish battle. I still wanted her -- wanted her badly -- but I held true to the decision I had taken at the retreat. Anything beyond looking and talking would only be at her initiative. All I could do was endure.
The rest of the semester flew by with no more dramatic incidents. Yerzhan hired a part-timer to take two of Mohammed's classes. Stan and I were happy to cover the other two. In my case it was a second section of a course I already was teaching so it wasn't much more work. I presented the revised Finance concentration curriculum to the Academic Council and was pleased to see it sail through with no dissent.
I made sure I spoke with Elena every day. Usually I stopped into her office late in the afternoon, when there were fewer visitors to occupy her. We would chat about anything and everything, often for just a minute or two, but sometimes for much longer, me just luxuriating in her presence. Oxana said nothing; by then she was used to my ways. Once I caught Yerzhan giving me a strange look as he was leaving for the day, but I quickly let it pass.
Exams were held over a ten-day period in early December. The last exams were on a Wednesday and grades were due in by Friday morning. KBS faculty had to stay on campus up through the President's "convocation", as he called it, which was on Thursday right after exams this year. That was no problem for me as I wasn't leaving until the following Sunday. By luck of the draw I had an exam on the last day. Yerzhan graciously offered to change it to an earlier day, but I declined. No sense hurrying off, and anyway I'd be home in plenty of time for Christmas.
Stan and Martin had all of their exams in the first three days, and left right away when their grades were done. Stan and Mary were spending three weeks in China and Hong Kong before going home to California. Martin had a job interview at another UK campus, for an admin position. I wondered whether maybe he had run through the ranks of willing females where he was and needed a change of locale. Oh well, "whatever," as my son Steven would say. No matter what I thought of his womanizing, he was a brilliant teacher and gave a lot of valuable curricular advice to KBS.
I knew I wanted to get some kind of gift for Oxana and especially for Elena. The Eastern sweat shirts and coffee mugs I had with me didn't seem right somehow. On Monday during exam period I went over to the President's office to see Aigerim, his personal assistant. She was a good-looking lady of about 35. She was also very married and about eight months pregnant with her third child. Even Martin hadn't tried to hit on her.
After exchanging pleasantries I told her my dilemma. I wanted gifts for Elena and Oxana that they would use and appreciate, but wouldn't come off as being too personal.
She thought a minute and then said "There's a new cosmetics store that opened over on Dostyk a few weeks ago. You could give each of them a gift certificate. I'm sure they'd be thrilled. A lot of girls don't have much money to buy the fancy brands of makeup. It would be a luxury they probably wouldn't dream of buying for themselves."
"That's a wonderful idea, Aigerim. I'll do it tomorrow. Thanks so much!" I left her office with a spring in my step.
The next day I arranged for Yevgeny to drive me to the shop, using the address Aigerim had written out in Russian. As we drove up to the store he looked puzzled, but then he smiled broadly.
"Elena?" he asked. Damn, had I been that obvious?
"Da. Ee Oxana," I replied, a little shaken, mustering about all the Russian I had learned.
"Karasho," he said, still smiling. Looks like Aigerim had picked a winner.
I bought two gift certificates for 10,000 tenge each. Not without difficulty as the sales assistant spoke no English and I couldn't get the notion of a "gift certificate" across to her. Finally a supervisor came over who knew some English and we finished the transaction. As I left I could see the two of them whispering and sneaking furtive looks at me. Probably they thought I was buying a present for a mistress, maybe even two. Well, let them think what they want. As beautiful and desirable as I thought Elena was, my time at KBS was reaching its end and I had resigned myself to the fact that bedding her was not going to happen. I persuaded the night security guard to unlock the Dean's Office early that evening, and slipped the envelopes onto their desks.
My exam wasn't until 11 on Wednesday, so I arrived about 10 and casually wandered into the Dean's Office. Oxana saw me first. "Dr. Jackson, what a wonderful present!" she squealed. "Thank you so much!" She flung her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, more passionately than her husband would have approved of. I could feel her ample breasts pressed tightly against my chest.
Elena followed. Her kiss on the cheek was more reserved, but also more intense and lingering -- or perhaps that was in my overheated imagination. "That was so thoughtful, Dr. Jackson," she said. "You're a good friend and a really wonderful man."
I glowed from head to toe. "And you ladies have helped me have a fabulous semester. I'm the one who needs to thank you." I excused myself before I started babbling, or tripping over my tongue. But I floated through the exam and the rest of the morning, still basking in Elena's praise.
Thursday morning was the President's assembly. The plan was that when KBS had graduates it would be a full-fledged graduation ceremony. For now it was a chance to get together and congratulate each other on a job well done. The President and Yerzhan gave short speeches praising the progress KBS had made. The President thanked the visiting overseas experts who had joined KBS for the semester and asked me to stand for recognition. I was pleased to hear that the Board had set up a scholarship fund in memory of Dr. Rahman, with the funds targeted to students from smaller rural schools in Kazakhstan. That was fitting as Dr. Rahman had come from a small village in his native Bangladesh.
The President went on, "On the day Dr. Rahman passed away one of our colleagues made a heroic effort to save his life. I've spoken with the Board members and they agree that we should recognize her actions today in front of the entire KBS community. Would Elena Sultanbekova please come forward and accept this certificate of appreciation."
Elena stood and came forward to much applause. I knew that in her own mind she still felt she hadn't done anything heroic, but it was gratifying to see top management sharing my point of view on the matter.
Friday was my last working day, and that evening was the dinner that the President financed and Yerzhan hosted to mark the semester's end. I stayed in the office much of the day, boxing my books for shipment and making sure all the materials for the revised Finance courses were in order. At mid-day I took Aigerim to lunch, to thank her for her gift suggestion. I only saw Oxana once all day and didn't see Elena at all. That seemed odd, but I knew I'd see her at the dinner. Since spouses and significant others were invited, I assumed Elena would be there with her boyfriend. The prospect of meeting him was depressing. It had been a glorious fantasy, dreaming that Elena could be mine even for a short time. Now that vision would pop like soap bubbles.
In mid-afternoon I Skyped Terri as she was just waking up. I told her I wouldn't be in the office after today and couldn't phone her. If the airport had Wi-Fi I would e-mail her from the departure lounge. She said fine and that she was glad I was coming home. We broke the connection. Still no passion there, I thought.
Dinner was at the Skyline, a classy and expensive restaurant not far from campus that became a dance club after 10 on weekends. I arrived shortly after 7, knowing that since nothing ever started on time we would not eat until 8 at the earliest. A few faculty were already there. Yerzhan came up to me and introduced his wife, a distinguished-looking lady about his age. Oxana was standing nearby with a tall gentleman whom she introduced as her husband. I said hello to them, then wandered the room chatting with some of the other faculty and a few spouses I hadn't met before. I was talking to a young Accounting colleague when he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, staring at something over my shoulder with an expression of awe on his face.
I turned and saw that Elena had just entered. I understood why my colleague was struck speechless. She was stunning! She wore the archetypical little black dress, short and low-cut enough to display her legs and a bit of cleavage without looking slutty. Her hair was done up, which I had never seen. And she was alone. No boyfriend in sight. She waved to a few people including me, then went over to talk to Oxana. Several eyes followed her. Understandably so. She was definitely the most beautiful woman in the room. She could well have been the most beautiful in Almaty that night.
The meal was excellent, and as usual at banquets there was plenty of wine, vodka, and brandy for everyone. After the main course Yerzhan rose to speak. He thanked everyone for all their good work during the semester. He informed us that the Board had approved the next phase of the campus development project at their meeting earlier in the week, and that construction would start in the spring. This was greeted with applause. He then thanked the visiting scholars-in-residence for all of the expertise they had freely shared with KBS. In Kazakhstani fashion he offered a toast to the three of us. As I was the only one present, he then invited me to say a few words.
I had expected this -- Oxana had given me a heads-up -- and I was prepared. I began by thanking everyone for the wonderful hospitality I had enjoyed during the semester. I praised the esprit d'corps and collegiality that I seen among the faculty, and how well we had worked together on the curriculum revision. I complimented Yerzhan on his leadership, and the Finance Director on his willingness to risk Yerzhan's wrath by insisting that budgets were respected. I mentioned some of the praise I'd heard from students about their teachers and their program.
I saved my last words for Oxana and Elena.
"Oxana, I know you're the person who allows the Dean to keep his sanity." Everyone laughed. "It's important to everyone that the Dean stays sane -- so that makes you a very important woman at KBS. I know you do so much work behind the scenes that even close colleagues of yours don't hear about. I just want you to know that everything you do for KBS is much appreciated. I hope when I come back to visit years from now you'll still be there, still working to hold the School together. Thank you Oxana, and I wish you the very best." I was partly aiming my words at her husband, whom I knew was expecting Oxana to stay at home once they started a family.
I turned to Elena. Since her boyfriend wasn't there I departed a little from what I'd planned to say.
"Elena -- is there anywhere else in Kazakhstan that I could find the same combination of professionalism and courtesy and courage and efficiency and kindness and, yes I'll admit it, stunning beauty all in the same woman?" The last part was what I added. "I don't know, maybe there is somewhere, I haven't visited every office in Almaty. But working down the hall from a young woman with all those qualities has been my exquisite pleasure. So many administrative offices are forbidding places, but not here. You make the Dean's Office a welcoming place. Wherever your career takes you, I'm sure you'll bring that same graciousness to your office, your work, your colleagues -- and between that and your steel determination I'm sure you'll go far in whatever path you choose. I wish you the very best of everything. Thank you Elena, good luck, God bless."
I closed with a general thanks to all and an invitation to visit me in the US, followed by a toast to KBS and its future success. As I sat down after the toast I didn't look at Elena. I wasn't sure how she'd react to my heartfelt, part-improvised paean to her wonderfulness. Maybe I'd embarrassed her. I remembered that as a kid I'd been tongue-tied around pretty girls, and half-smiled. Some parts of my life had certainly changed for the better.
After dessert and coffee the party began to break up, and as I wouldn't see most of them again I said my goodbyes as people left. A few of the younger faculty were staying around, waiting for the dance club to open. I was tempted to wait with them but remembered that I had to get my laptop from the office. I started to head toward campus and, to my surprise, Elena joined me. She must have left something behind that she needed. We made small talk as we walked about the dinner and about her plans for the break between semesters. I thought about asking where her boyfriend was, but couldn't bring myself to do it.
I had reached my office door and was about to unlock it when Elena asked the question that changed my life.
"Did you really mean what you said at the dinner?" she asked. She sounded a bit shy and hesitant.
"About you? I meant every word of it. You are a remarkable young woman and I really hope you have the chance to get that MBA or do whatever you want for a career."
"No, what I mean is . . . about being beautiful?"
I have no idea why I did it. Some kind of instinctive response maybe, like the instinct Elena fell back on when she went to help Mohammed. I pulled her to me and kissed her. On the lips. Hard. She froze for a moment, then rapidly melted into my kiss. I held her tightly, savoring the gentle freshness of her skin, the scent of her shampoo on her coiffed hair. She moaned gently. My excitement was evidently communicating itself.
I broke the kiss after what might have been 20 seconds, or 20 minutes. "That's how beautiful you are," I said quietly.
She paused for a few seconds, her face flushed, her eyes a volatile cocktail of uncertainty and desire. Then she launched herself at me and kissed me fiercely, insistently, violently. Our bodies were plastered to each other, our hands roamed, our tongues danced. No hesitation anymore, no half-measures; her intent was clear and I responded in kind. I had been half-hard since we started walking to campus, thinking of how she looked under her coat, but now my erection sprang to life. Even with our coats on she had to notice.
Anyone in the hallway could have seen us. I don't know if anyone did. Everything around us had fallen away. There was only the immediacy of our embrace, the intensity of our kiss, the immenseness of our suppressed passions now burst open.
She pulled away. "Not here. Not now," she whispered. "Tomorrow night, at your apartment. I know where you live. I helped pick it out, remember?" She said the last with a half-giggle.
"Yes, Elena, tomorrow night." I thought quickly. "Let's meet at the Bosporus at 7 for dinner and then go from there."
"I'll be there, Dr. Jackson." She turned and headed for her office door. "Sweet dreams," she said mischievously as a parting shot.
Fat chance. She knew very well who my dreams would be about.
I did a quick scan. No one around that I could see. I retrieved my laptop and walked home in a half trance. I didn't think about the fact that I was going to cheat on my wife. I didn't think of what Yerzhan would say if he got word of what happened. Let the consequences fall where they may. I only cared that the most wonderful woman in the world would be in my bed tomorrow night, and we would make love.
I had pretty much cleaned out the refrigerator, so I had nothing to eat in the apartment. Thank God at least I had a bed. I didn't know if Elena planned to spend the night. Of course I hoped she would, but I wasn't about to phone her to ask. I went to the corner bakery and bought some pastries. I went to the supermarket and bought oranges and cherries, and some of the flavored tea I knew Elena drank at the office. As I neared the checkout I grabbed a three-pack of condoms, just so I was prepared. Martin had told me many local women weren't on the pill, because of the expense.
The Bosporus was a Turkish restaurant just a block away from my apartment. I arrived a little early and chose a secluded table. I had worried all afternoon that Elena might think better of the situation and simply not show up. I called over a waiter and ordered a bottle of good Georgian wine. Even if she didn't show up, I was going to have myself a nice farewell dinner.
I needn't have worried. Precisely at 7 she entered and quickly found me in the corner. She was dressed more conservatively then the night before, but her blue print dress still showed off her toned, slender legs. Her hair was down but she still wore heels. I stood and greeted her with a casual, affectionate hug. As I held her chair for her to sit she noticed the bottle of wine.
"Dr. Jackson," she said with mock disapproval. "I didn't think you were the kind of man who got women drunk and took advantage of them."
"I'm not, usually. You must bring out the best in me." She blushed. "And for tonight, at least, please call me Dan."
That was the last we spoke about what was to come. Over a delicious meal we had the same sort of free-ranging conversation that we'd enjoyed in her office. We talked about her country's political future, my country's souring economy, my thoughts on Kazakhstani students, her thoughts on Kazakhstani men (not at all favorable). And we did finish the wine, though I drank about twice as much of the bottle as she did.
It was 8:30 by the time I paid the bill and we left. I noticed that at the coat check she retrieved a large floppy bag. Good, I thought. Looks like she's ready to stay the night. I broached the subject indirectly as we started to walk to the apartment.
"Does your roommate expect you back at a particular time?" I asked.
"No, she's in Shymkent for a week with her family." Then, quietly, "I'm all yours."
I pulled her to me and kissed her, and we clung tightly to each other the rest of the short walk to my apartment. As I punched in the entry code to the building's outer door I remembered mishearing her words on the first day, when we looked at the place. "I'm sure we'll enjoy it here," I had thought she said. Oh yes Elena, I thought now. Yes we certainly will.
No sooner had I shut and bolted the apartment door than we were all over each other, picking up where we had left off the night before. After a minute or so of deep kisses and frenzied embraces, we came up for air and both laughed.
"We ought to at least take off our coats," I said.
We hung them on the hooks next to the door, along with my sport jacket. I guided Elena to the living room, where sitting on the couch we continued our explorations. Now while we kissed I had one arm around Elena's shoulders and one cupping her breast, while she stroked my back. I didn't turn on any lights. The light from the street lamp outside, filtered through the flimsy curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows, was enough to cast Elena's curves in alluring shadows.
Without warning she stood up and, when I moved to join her, she took my arm and firmly pushed me down again. She reached behind her back and unzipped her dress. With a shrug of her shoulders it fell to the floor at her feet. Stepping out of her heels, she bent over to pick up the dress and set it on a nearby chair. She was as magnificent as I had dreamed. She wore a dark lacy bra, maybe black, maybe dark blue, I couldn't tell in the light, and matching bikini panties cut high on the legs. The lamplight showcased her body to perfection.