Muse (A short story)

I wondered if she regretted accepting my invitation, because five minutes into our conversation, I was already talking gibberish. But I kept on talking, anyway:

“I know exactly what you mean,” I said, nodding my head emphatically. “For me, it — that is, the artistic impulse — always begins with a ‘throb’, a ‘pulse’, or a ‘fluttering’, if you will. I mean, an image would suddenly ‘flash’ in my head and I’d be compelled to write something down on a piece of paper. Sometimes this ‘flash’, ‘fluttering’, ‘throbbing’, or what have you, will come in the form of a voice.”

She raised an eye brow. “A voice?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Like you, I also love words. I love the sound that they make when they are spoken out loud. I love stringing them together, arranging them in particular ways, even if I come up with pieces that are totally meaningless.” I chuckled.

“But my poems are not nonsensical, if that is what you’re implying,” she said, visibly agitated. “Of course, they’re meaningful.”

I shook my head in protest. “Oh, of course, of course, of course. I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t mean to say that your poems are nonsensical. Not at all. They are meaningful. Utterly meaningful. In fact, they are pregnant with meaning. They must be. Otherwise, why would you win all those literary awards?” I laughed but her cheeks remained flushed.

It was the wine, you see. It was the wine that did it. I had too much of it. I picked up a bottle of Merlot on my way to the cafe to meet her and I drained it in less than fifteen minutes, while driving. What else could an aspiring writer do when he is about to meet a real writer — and an established and accomplished one at that? Maria Teves is the author of five books — the first three are a collection of poetry and the last two are a collection of essays — all of which won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. She was formerly a professor of Creative Writing at the Ateneo de Manila University and she is currently teaching History of Western Literature at the Iowa State University.

I met her a few weeks ago during the launching of a poetry anthology which she edited. I was one of the contributors. My poem was called “Atheism”. There was nothing below the title. I was surprised that she accepted it. She even wrote me an email saying how moved she was by the profundity of my piece. She then invited me to attend the launching.

During the launching, she asked some of the contributors to read their works onstage. I was among the presenters. It took me approximately two seconds to deliver my poem in its entirety. The audience received it with stunned silence.

I had asked her to sign my copy of the anthology, and then I returned the favor by inviting her for some coffee. I invited her precisely because I knew for certain that someone like her — someone of her stature — would never, ever accept such an invitation from someone like me. But to my great horror, she did.

She took a sip of her coffee and winced.

“How often do you write?” she asked.

“Oh, everyday,” I said. “Every single day, I go to a quiet corner in my room and wait for my Muse.”

“Every day, huh?”

“Oh, yes. Without exception.”

“Have you tried submitting your other write ups for publication?”

“Nope. Only that poem I sent you. The rest were not fit for reading, so I got rid of them.”

My feelings of anxiety had by this time completely evaporated. I felt bold and daring. I was swimming in a sea of felicity, if not ecstasy. I was smiling, humming, tapping my hands on the table, and bobbing my head to the beat of a song only I could hear.

She glanced at her watch and glanced at me.

I winked at her and gave her my sweetest, smoothest smile.

“You’re so pretty,” I said, gushing.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“I said you are extremely attractive. If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you, by the way? You cannot be more than 27, I am sure. Twenty-six? Twenty-five?”

A look of surprise mixed with revulsion shot across her face. She reached for the pack of cigarettes on the table and took out a stick.

“I adore your eyes. They are so — what’s the word I’m looking for? Ah, “ethereal”. I mean, they are like the eyes of an angel — luminous, crystalline, and enchanting. Not that I have ever seen an angel before to be able to make that comparison.” I chuckled. “Although, I guess I could say that my Muse is a kind of angel, for she sometimes manifests herself to me as a being with wings. I see her almost every night and she is always surrounded by this faint light. But you are way prettier than her, without a doubt. Way prettier. On a scale of one to ten, ten being the most pretty, I’d say your score is 9.5. Hers would only be 7.5.”

She fidgeted in her seat.

“Can I ask you something, professor? Again, if you don’t mind. I looked you up in Wikipedia the other day, and according to the article, you are not yet married. I was so astonished. Is that true? If so, do you have a boyfriend right now?” I’ve never felt this smooth in my whole life.

She glared at me.

“Is that a “no”? Really? I find that extremely hard to believe. You must have three dozen suitors, at the very least. Do you intend to marry sometime in the near future? Or, what do you think of the institution of marriage?”

She looked away, her neck glowing under the afternoon light. I just sat there, grinning, overwhelmed by the radiance of her beauty. She seemed to be emitting rays of sunshine.

She glanced at her watch again.

“Would you look at that,” she said. “How quickly the time has passed.” She turned to me. “I’m very sorry, but I have to go now.” She stood up and crushed her half-finished cigarette on the ashtray in front of her. “I have a meeting at 5 o’clock.”

“You’re leaving now? But you just got here.”

“It was nice meeting you.”

“It was nice meeting you, too. But do you really have to go right this instant?”

She took her books and shoulder bag from the table and started to walk away. I stood up and followed her. Fire was welling up inside me. Her silence and evasion only emboldened me, coaxed me, and invited me. For the first time in years, I felt glad to be alive.

“Please, won’t you stay? I’ve been waiting for you all my life. You bewitch me.”

She kept on walking without turning around.

“Can I see you again, Professor Maria Teves? Gosh, I love saying your name. And this is all so surreal. The great Maria Teves is actually here walking before me, and I am chasing her with my heart.”

She quickened her steps.

“Maria?” I pronounced her name again, this time with greater care and passion. “Maria?”

Her hand dipped into her bag.

“Maria, please. I must tell you this: You are a living poem. Yes, that’s true! You are a piece of art. Your face, your hair, your shoulders, your arms, your elbows, and your legs — they are organic verses. Has anyone ever told you that? I want to read you and savor the nuances of your meaning.”

She stopped walking, her arms were trembling, and her shoulders were shaking.

“Please, Maria. You are now officially my Muse. I won’t be able to write another verse – nay, another word — without you. In fact, I won’t be able to breathe without you. I’ll suffocate and die without you. As I speak, I’m having difficulty breathing. Don’t go.”

I walked up to her slowly and carefully, my heart swimming in a river of alcohol-induced happiness.

“Maria, please listen to me,” I whispered, touching her elbow as cautiously and as delicately as I can.

She swung around. In her right hand was a bottle of liquid. She raised it in front of me and pressed its lid and immediately it spewed chemicals onto my face, burning through my eyes. I screamed and jumped up and down the sidewalk, fell to my knees, rolled over back and forth a dozen times, and writhed and convulsed in pure agony.

“You pervert!” she cried. “Stop following me, or I swear…”

I shut my eyes as tightly as I could and cried “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” until I was hoarse. The pain was unbearable. I heard the echoes of her footsteps recede into the background of my blurry mind. She was still talking, perhaps cursing, and soon her voice trailed away and was swallowed by the shouts and exclamations of the people who saw what happened.

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