Alice flashed another matchstick and almost involuntarily, flung it his way.
The burning phosphorus momentarily clung to the facial skin, incinerating part of his stubble, scathing the soul deep within.
To wince in agony was of no significance because his body was already pot-marked with the blisters of her earlier flares. Reacting to pain, it seems, was a luxury he could no longer afford.
But how did it end this way, the wise seer degenerating from a guardian angel to the man enslaved?
Well..., once he was her mentor, but that was so long ago!
He recalled the bygone days when she would admiringly look at him as he navigated her thoughts through the depth of his experiences. Entranced by the fond indulgence of her patronizing teacher, she would cherish every word he uttered, each thought he shared. And in the process, she empowered him with the intellectual stimulants only a mentor could feel.
Yes, those were certainly the nurtured times when both thrived on each other and caringly nourished their bond.
Somewhere along the course, he realized that while she sought his company for guidance, he yearned for her companionship. In a moment of tacit honesty, he found himself accepting his feelings for her.
Admitting the stark reality evoked a distressed feeling of guilt at the recklessness of manipulating his superior insight over her vulnerability. Was it a betrayal, an emotional entrapment?
As she grew more self-assured, Alice began to sense a budding rebel rise within. The presence of the mentor was comforting but she had a life of her own.
Still unwilling to brush him aside, she preferred to maintain a detached silence, no longer sharing her thoughts, or seek his advice.
It pained him to watch her drifting away, a rudderless boat heading towards the deep seas. For she was still so vulnerable, yet ill-prepared for the turbulent life ahead; the rebel should have waited.
Straining to wade through life without his guidance, she increasingly asserted her rebellious mind and committed the very mistakes he had guarded against. The urge to prove herself, her innate yearning for societal approval dominated her actions, and he was all too aware of the price she would have to pay.
She should know, her strength had to grow from within, not derived from the indifferent and uncaring society.
It was never her mindless acts but the heartless deeds, disguised behind her soft smile, which caused him most anguish.
For he knew that the mind related to everyday sensibilities but the heart signified her deep-rooted feelings.
His treasured caterpillar that was to have metamorphosed into a beautiful, free-floating butterfly, had chosen to mutate into a predatory black widow, mercilessly draining the life out of her entrapped prey.
One day, alone in the confines of soundless walls, the mentor left the world behind. As he gasped his last breath of life, he knew Alice would cry in bitter helplessness. Making herself believe that her mourning was at the loss of the mentor who was also a friend.
But, in fact, feeling sorry for herself at having lost her security blanket, and for no longer possessing the punching bag on which to let loose her pent-up frustrations.
Alice left her apartment in haste. She worried about missing the bus to her downtown office where her demanding boss impatiently waited.
She would have thrown the employment at his face but the job paid for the rent, the food, and the basic amenities she could barely afford.
It was often that she would recall how her mentor had warned against the dangers of subtle entrapments, financial and emotional. And each time she would brush the thought aside; that was life.
In her rush down the stairs, she bumped into her neighbor who was returning from his night shift. They muttered excuses and moved carelessly on. Neither paused for a moment or even thought of that sweaty one-night when they had casually satiated their physical need without any lingering emotions. Yes, through the paper-thin dividing walls, they would overhear occasional cries of lust from the other room, but it did not matter; that was life.
Her boss was in a good mood, he even appreciated how well she handled her last assignment. Alice blew a sigh of relief.
Just as she sat at her disorderly desk, her cell phone rang. Her sister and the husband had a bitter fight again. Alice spoke in a hushed, whispered voice, explaining she would call later but her panicking sister would not understand because things were too serious.
She walked into the washroom and agonized over the phone. Why won’t they leave her out of this? Didn’t they realize she had enough problems of her own? What could she do from thousands of miles away? But that was life...
She cherished her quiet moments at the café, sometimes reminiscing how the mentor had introduced her to the bitter taste of coffee. Not that she hadn’t tried it earlier but through him, she began to appreciate it.
Once in a while, the passive background music would play a long-forgotten song he had stored on his cell phone especially for her to hear. With a hollowed sense of loss, she would remember how he passionately explained the subtle meaning within the lyrics.
In those moments of reflection, she would recall their frequent beach strolls, dining at nameless restaurants and going on endless drives with a comfort they cherished. God, how she missed him! But that was life...
Time passed, as it always does.
Still living alone, she was middle-aged now, comfortably detached from the borderline poverty of her youth.
Somewhere during her career, she had ventured into her own small business which was now a reasonable success. Her house was in an uptown neighborhood, her office in the central part of the city.
With growing success, she had become more self-assured, even gaining confidence in wearing her hair boyishly short.
As she looked into the mirror, Alice saw an unfamiliar face; devoid of her youthful looks, a pair of sad but honest eyes.
She shrugged away the alienation and prepared for the final interviews her staff had lined up for new hiring; c’est la vie.
He was a young freshman with a spontaneous smile. Full of life, but lacking experience. There were better candidates available but something about him told her he belonged, and she hired him.
Over following months, she coached him in the intricacies of her operations and they spent endless hours together. Soon she found herself guiding his naïve expectations of life through the richness of her own experience, his starry eyes mesmerized at each of her thoughtful words.
In many ways, this intellectual stimulant brought out the best in her.
She no longer cared what people thought and easily invited him to her home. With the fond indulgence of a mentor, she guided his gullible innocence and cautioned him against alighting superfluous, inner fires.
She marveled at how intently he absorbed each of her words, and agonized over imaginary potholes he repeatedly dug in his own path; c’est la vie.
Then one lonely night, she realized with deepening awareness how she looked forward to his youthful company.
She was in love with the man whom she meant to counsel.
After many long years, she thought again of her mentor. If somehow she could, just one last time, talk to him and tell him how much she needed his comforting presence. And admit that the cycle of events had turned a full circle, she was now in his shoes and truly felt his pain.
She knew it was only a matter of time before her lover would think he is wise enough, rushing away from her guiding shadows. The rebel in him would rise and burning matchsticks would scathe.
In composed silence, Alice reflected how, like her mentor before, she too would be expendable. And in this wonderland of life, it was her turn to be a security blanket, that punching bag.
Then someone would write her story; that was life.