~*RESPECT AND OTHER MEANINGLESS DISCOURSE*
She looked so familiar. Not like a normal teenage girl in any sense. My first impression of Helen as she walked through that door was preceded by my final glimpse of life as I knew it. The moment she walked in, all wild curls and evil smile and swinging hips, the light in the room seemed to change and I swear I saw a two little red horns potruding from her forehead. Why that appealed so much to me at that particular moment is a thing that will need explaining. Especially considering what I more or less voluntarily chose to get myself into.
All through the horrendous process of education and career preparation I kept telling myself and others "oh, I'll never teach". A million fools with a million foolish hopes and dreams get the same fucking English degree every year and have the sheer balls to think they'll never end up teaching. An English degree, friends and neighbors, prepares you for nothing but teaching....career-wise. I tried whoring myself out to magazines and newspapers for about three years and then I realized that, with the unstable nature of our modern media ecosystem, I would be better off giving in to the temptation of a nice insurance plan, being called ‘Sir' more than twice a month, and driving an Accord. The County School Board offices looked dangerous to a would-be journalist fresh out of college, but I left feeling so utterly superior that I knew where it all would lead. I would either a) go absolutely crazy and find the nearest clocktower within my first year of dealing with the darkly-suited, whimsically-necktied or lavishly-rhinestoned, stony-faced higher-ups, or b) get fired as quickly as possible, go on unemployment and....I don't know, I'd join a band or something.
First I filled in for a young teacher, Sandra Andrews, who went on maternity leave. She hadn't meant to get a pregnant and I knew it the first second I met her. Eyes bagged from insomnia, hair unwashed, with a look on her face that said she'd just as soon take on the next motherfucker who said a word about when the baby was due. She decided to take a very extended leave and eventually ended up quitting. I was accepted as the high school English teacher equivalent of a mid-season replacement show. The kids hated me, I hated myself, and the principal of Funchess High School was a 50 year old woman who had the nerve to call me ‘sweetie'. Not that I was an intimidating person or anything. I thought I was actually a pascifist, the passive resistance type who always sized up a situation but never took a chance. But by the time I wallowed in that hell for four years I'd been threatened by at least half the school's population of football players and would-be gang members/freelance rap artists. Even dismissed by the other teachers, my cold misanthropic mind was feeding my warm, lovesick heart more and more reason to join in its noble crusade to rid my life of human influence. It was a nightmare from second grade all over again. I was lucky to find a few kindred spirits among the faculty, usually women who initially thought I was gay because I was such a sparkling concersationalist and eventually ended up dumping me because (and I state these verbatim from answering machine tapes/e-mails/hastily scribbled notes in the chronological order that they occurred:) "it's too weird", their "husband's starting to suspect something", or they "decided to date women exclusively."
This last one came just before graduation during what would be my final year as teacher at Funchess. I headed cross-county and joined the proud team at Cook High School. Which is where I find myself now. Everyone in this god damn teacher's lounge is trying to write a novel, but I just came face to face with my shitty life and decided to make the most of it. Cynical. Indifferent. Call me what you will. My life as I knew it was boring, pointless, and a complete and educationally-engineered misallocation of artistic recources. I hadn't gotten laid in a year.
Which brings up an interesting point.
I found a piece of paper, crumpled up in the typical unassuming high school way, on the floor of my classroom as I was making a perfunctory sweep of things a few weeks ago. Now, I'll never for the life of me be able to know who wrote the note, and more importantly I'll never know why I actually opened the tightly mashed ball of loose-leaf and read the damn thing. All I know is that it had been written between two students of mine, apparently during that morning's loathsome lecture on Macbeth. All I know is that, amid more colorful language, scripted in handwriting that was painfully feminine, I had been called a ‘piece of ass.' Me.
I interject. I've been told I am handsome, but usually by relatives and old women who think I look just like their son. How old is your son, I ask. Fifteen, they reply. Oh, I say, and force a painful smile. The more commonly used word is ‘adorable.' I'm a non-threatening 31 year old kid and it drives me absolutely insane. My mother is jealous of my complexion. Every now and then I'm still carded by convenience store clerks. My last three girlfriends (the paranoid bitch, the slut wife and the lesbian) used the phrase ‘you're so cute' at least twice in bed.
You can imagine the reaction in my hitherto naive mind, which had always interpreted the teacher's position as one of respected authority. I sort of fell back into a sitting position and re-read the note. They were talking about me, and suddenly I imagined the full kaleidoscope of horror which this note represented. My eyes had been sealed shut for almost an entire year. I took for granted the common assumption that high school girls in reality were only dating the car and/or position of prestige. Who are you going out with? A Jeep Grand Cherokee. The quarterback. A Lexus. Key Club president. High school boys were different, but I had been one and I remembered the first time I had used the term ‘piece of ass' to describe a cheerleader. Dammit. As the true nature of my students began to sink in, there was an extended period of introspection during which my soul felt completely detached.
A colleague read the note at my request over the next period's lunch break, and, though I expected her to have a hearty laugh or maybe clutch her chest and whisper "goodness gracious" or something equally predictable, she only sipped her coffee frugally, sighed, and handed the note back to me.
"Is it really such a shock?" she asked with a completely flat tone.
It's been said that I look permanently confused. Therefore I can only imagine how inconceivably comical I appear when I'm really, truly bamboozled.
"What?!" I exclaimed. She gestured calmly that I lower my voice. "What? Of course it's a shock! I can't even get a date, where do these girls get the right to–well...you know!"
"They're only girls, Frank, for chrissake." That same flat tone.
I switched from bamboozled to paranoid. Paranoid must have been an even bigger hoot to behold. "So this isn't anything new?" I asked suspiciously.
"Put two and two together, Frank," she fluttered her eyelashes in exasperation, "you are the youngest male teacher at Cook. You are single. You teach a relatively unthreatening subject. You are not that intimidating–"
I waved her off, frustrated, before things got too personal. "I already know all this. I just didn't know high school girls were so prone to..." I gestured frantically toward the note as if it were toxic waste. My colleague, all composure and stability, refused to finish the sentence for me. She viciously waited for me to complete my thought. Damn women and all their psychological head games. I dropped to a forced whisper, "unbridled lust!"
"Then you don't know much about your average run of the mill high school girl. Just cut your losses and think yourself lucky that the thriving homosexual community hasn't claimed you." She did a bad job of holding back a few giggles at this.
"Oh, that's just not funny." If I sounded peeved, I was glad she picked up on the tone.
Her manner returned to that of the kindly lunch-hour psychologist. "You are so threatened by this, Frank, and I don't see why!"
"Listen to me...this–" I grabbed the note and crunched it in my hand, holding it up for her like a sacrifice to the Gods, "is the first advance of any kind I've had in a year. If you don't mind my intense fascination with the phenomenon, that's a frightening thought!"
"So you really just need to get fucked and you'll be okay."
"Not so fast–"
She sighed. "You need a relationship with a woman in order to affirm that you're looking in the right places. Beneath that you're really just getting scared that your appeal has dropped to the adolescent level."
I stared at her in complete silence for a good long while. She stared back. I think maybe she was formulating her response for the question she knew I was going to ask.
"What are you doing Saturday night?"
"I'm dating a professional bowler, Frank." She replied with cold honesty, and had the nerve to offer a good-natured smile. I did not smile back.
The bell rang.
As she rose with her lesson plans and oversized canvas bag, she leaned in to whisper in my ear. "Don't worry. Someone will find you soon enough."
I thought this through for a very long time. Too long, in fact. I was ten minutes late to class and my fourth period decided to exercise their unwritten right by leaving. One scrawny blonde kid had stayed behind out of the goodness of his heart but I sent him away without a second thought. The note went in the garbage. But my perspective on things had been irreparably altered.
For the next few weeks I sat with my legs crossed and averted my gaze as often as possible when my female students addressed me. I behaved like a traumatized sex crime victim thrown into the rapist tank It was pathetic, inadmirable, and it affected my work. I was being harsher. My warm, friendly comments were ceasing to exist, even towards the young men (maybe it was my colleague's off-handed comment about the thriving homosexual community combined with a deep-rooted fear of the connotation that would be drawn from my constantly crossed legs). I took a lot more time to study the way people looked at me. I blamed it all on the fucking note I never should have opened in the first place.
Hi, I'm Franklin Harrison, I'll be your piece of ass for third period this semester.
I took to sighing a lot more.
Little by little, I started to realize that it was a personal battle, one which I didn't have the resources to fight. I tried psychoanalyzing myself and that only worked to spook me more. If a tree falls in the woods, I always believed, and no one is around to hear it, sound cannot exist. But the tree had fallen right on top of me this time and I couldn't move–there was no way to get help, much less tell someone I'd never heard it coming. My colleague was the first and last person I told, and the first and last person who tried, however weakly, to offer me help. I was desperate, and the effects were starting to rub off on everyone around me. My sexual barometer was clicking at ‘10' but I was unable to even think about such things, not in my environment.
Which is probably why I was so frightened of Helen as she walked into the English workroom.
"Hi," I said brightly, trying to mask my fear, "you need something?"
She held a crumpled yellow Post-it between her middle and index finger, and lifted it parallel with her shoulder, the way rich women hold their cigarettes. A hint of a smile crept between her lips, pulling the left corner of her mouth into a sinister upward arch. Her eyes were....I can't explain her eyes. They were entities unto their own. Imagine Madonna on the cover of the ‘Ray of Light' album....that sleepy, enlightened, ‘I-know-something-you-don't-know' glare that rattles you to the bone. Make the eyebrows a little heavier, bow them in just the right natural way, to where you don't know whether they're mischievous or just plain evil. That was my impression, at least. If her eyes could talk, I was sure they would have spewed things that'd make a sailor blush.
Let me explain something else. Something the more skeptical, conservative mind is no doubt cringing over. Let me explain that Helen Bartness, all 5'3'' and 128 pounds of Helen Bartness, all mass of curly brown hair and rough, intrinsic features of Helen Bartness, all pouty pink lips and heart-stopping eyes of Helen Bartness, all voluminous bosom and womanly hips and dancers' legs and slightly pale but just tan enough skin of Helen Bartness was NOT meant to be a teenager. Somewhere a 27 year old woman was walking around with just burgeoning breasts and a coatrack frame on the shapeless legs which should have been reserved for this girl. Heaven's worst mix-up. If word got out, the press would be all over it. They couldn't take the risk. So they struck a deal with Hell and Helen is what came out.
Guys should have been swarming all over this one. But along with my piece of ass epiphany I also realized that intelligence is a major turn-off in high school. Not just being smart like the prom queen who was always a National Merit scholar or AP student or something, but true deep-rooted intelligence. The type of intellectual burden that causes a person to truly worry about things and unintentionally turn away from anyone who isn't on the same level of higher consciousness. Helen was the great unseen darling of the Science department. She was a genius in chemistry class but–oh.
She was also a writer.
The little notebook and the detached countenance of a writer...this is what made her unappealing. The fact that she would rather stay at home and type up a demented little short story than come and see your stupid fucking football game, thankyouverymuch, Mr. Jeep Grand Cherokee. THAT made Helen special. THAT is what frightened me. Because I knew before I ever met her that I understood her on some weird level.
"Oh, yeah." She said flatly, and smacked a wad of cherry-scented gum with a level of apathy and thinly veiled duplicity that transcended her age, almost even her gender.
~*THE COOK CITY WAR MEMORIAL PARK*~
I do have parents. We just live separate lives, for the most part. They know nothing about me except that I should smile more often, a revelation they had a few years ago. A month has not passed since that they do not remind me of this. I've made it a point to smile in their presence, just so we'll go back to our silent disregard for one another.
They're extremely protective, as all parents who fool themselves into thinking they're "good" are, but I was also a very capable and guiltless liar. Social misfit status gives you a luxury that social gadfly status immediately terminates. The luxury of the lie. If I had been attending raves and keggers for the last three years, if I had dared to mix with the spiritual leeches society deems ‘popular', if I had even taken a second glance at a boy my age, someone would have found out, word would have gotten around to my parents, and they would have either completely stunted my popularity or encouraged it to the point where my comfortably misanthropic soul would have shriveled up inside this confining shell of a body.
So I accurately predicted that they would have no problem when I started to have Franklin Harrison drive me home every Thursday and Friday after school.
I was not rich. In fact, rich teenagers frighten me and I try to run away from them whenever possible. It chills me to the bone to think that someone my age could be depositing $5000 in a bank account every week without even working for it. It's one of those maddening realities of life that sometimes make me want to accidentally back into a Lexus or two in the school parking lot. But whatever the case, whatever the horrors of financial life as I knew it, I was splitting a car with my mother. The dusty blue Civic would drop me off at school every Thursday and Friday, and my mother would drive to work at an accounting office in nearby Olsen Valley. She did not return home until late that evening, and until the spring semester of my junior year of high school I had been accommodating my misfortune by riding the bus home.
Ever since the first time Harrison and I were alone together....when I came to the English workroom to borrow a copy of ‘Great Expectations' and he signed my pass....the only thing I could hope for was to be alone with him again. It was vital to my plan. Therefore my mother's usually inconvenient usurpation of the car had been a blessing in disguise.
His face when I asked for a ride....oh, I wish words on paper could do justice to that expression. Confused, surprised, somewhere below that postively terrified, all at once on that cherubic face as the other students started to file out of the Creative Writing classroom at the end of the school day.
"You leave near Gaylon Street, right?"
He lived in the Autumn Banks apartment complex on Dalton Avenue, number B-4 from what the phone book said. Two minutes from Gaylon Street.
"Um...yeah, I think so. Why do you ask?"
"Well," I bit my lower lip a moment and looked away, readjusting the way my backpack was hanging on my right shoulder, "this is going to sound crazy, but do you think you could give me a ride home–that is, if it's not too far out of your way?"
We pointlessly second-guessed each other for the next thirty seconds or so. "Oh, no, that's fine" "No, not if you don't want to!" "No, it's no problem at all!" "If you don't have the time, I can find someone else"–and on and on like that. Finally we just dissolved into humiliated chuckles and I let out a breath.
"So I guess that's a ‘yes'?"
More laughter as he nodded, giving a look that seemed to say "you beat me. You win." He handed me his keys. My fingers were barely trembling as I brushed the palm of his hand to take them. "It's the maroon Accord. Parking spot 15," of course, I already knew all this by heart. I was watching his eyes, all chocolate pulchritude, as he talked, focusing on keeping my smile from spreading too noticeably, "just go wait in there, I'll be down in a few seconds. I'm trusting you."
"Oh, you know me, I'll just drive off and you'll never see me again." I replied with a deadpan sarcasm I was known for. He chuckled and went to packing away his things. But not before turning around (a completely lush, full turn. His grace had not gone unnoticed by my roving observations) and pointing at me.
"Hey now. I hold your college recommendation in my hands."
He winked at me and I took it as my cue to leave, though something in my mind had ceased all logical activity and I was only able to compose my mental faculties enough to remember how to walk down the stairs to the parking lot. College, college, college, how could I care about college at a time like this? He didn't know he would be holding much more than my college recommendation eventually, but that was all my plan, not his, after all. I fumbled with the keys a bit, dropped them once, and smiled evilly at a passing science teacher who appeared suspicious as I tossed my bookbag onto the backseat.
His car smelled vaguely of the cologne he wore. That damned cologne. It would be the first thing to go. It was a completely incomprehensible concept, why a man like Harrison would even choose to wear cologne, much less feel the need to douse himself in the hideous stuff every morning. Other than that, the interior was tidy and well-kept. I made the split-second decision to forget being stealthy about things and picked up his CD case, flipping through the selection.
I should explain here the fundamental dilemma which dictated the annals of my plan. Yuo see, I was never able to find a true love, even a companion, or even a casual romantic interest among my peers. The problem was that they were all too evolved by the tiem I got to them. And as far as anyone getting to me...well, I had sincere doubts about anyone who would pursue me romantically. An odd paradox, cruel, true, but I rarely trusted people who admired me.
The solution would be to develop my own companion–to find and raise a lover to satisfy me on all grounds. But women were naturally on the business end of this deal (long implemented by men), making it more difficult for me to ingratiate myself into the romantic fray in such a way. Young, naive boys, of course, were of no interest to me.
I had to kill, you understand, to get what I wanted. I would have to lure, capture, and murder a personality in order to remake it in my image. There was a list of criteria to be met–a mental list I had made, a checklist that Franklin Harrison had filled to the brim with his physical and characteristic blessings. The person could not matter less than it did in my shrewd, meticulous plan.
That's why I really didn't give a damn what Harrison kept in his CD case. I'd be able to change all that soon enough.Now I would only have to keep myself from turning into a giggling fool whenever I so much as felt his presence.
He did not have me wait as long as I expected, and emerged from the school building toting his stately briefcase in one hand as he checked the watch on his wrist. He had explained to our class one afternoon that the briefcase had been a college graduation gift, presented to him by his father who had more or less believed he was going straight into law school. Harrison....my Franklin Harrison, a lawyer. The thought was as ludicrous as it was frightening. This man was the picture of innocence and sensitivity. As he told the story, I tried as hard as I could to imagine him cross-examining a witness in the stony, cold-hearted way usually associated with lawyers, and I laughed. The class registered my amusement and indicated a unanimously similar response, to which Harrison only conceded, with a sigh, that we were right. He was a pushover, a crybaby, and, by most standards, a self-conscious fuck-up. My words, not his. I simply made the observations and drew my own conclusions. I believe, in his personal assessment, he placed himself somewhere between Leonardo da Vinci and God, but his chronic espousement that ‘true genius is never recognized until one is dead' led me to conclude that he wanted to do much more with his life than teach. It would be my job, unfortunately, to erase this ambition and replace it only with an overpowering need to pander to my every desire. As they say, to make an omelet...
He tossed the briefcase carelessly into the back and ducked into the driver's seat. I smiled brightly and told him he shouldn't have rushed.
"I didn't," he said, "yours is the easy class. I do most of my work during third period anyway, so I can be ready to go at the end of the day." He made a survey of car as if afraid I had misplaced the gear shift. Checked himself in the mirror (self-conscious), confused himself with the wrong ignition key (fuck-up), and by the time we were finally underway I realized what a frenetic mess he was. I was unsure what could cause such a dynamically anxious personality, but I hoped with all my heart that I would be able to change it. I also hoped that he was not due for a heart attack. That would seriously complicate things.
After all, his good points still outweighed his bad, and that is why I made our first ride together as non-confrontational and easy as possible. We spoke a few words about the air conditioner, he asked if I would mind listening to the Guess Who, and I coughed once as a precursor to the lecture he would one day receive about that inexorable cologne. At last it came down to me giving him directions to the little brick house on Gaylon Street where I lived.
I tried to look a little helpless when I broke the news to him. I try to look helpless whenever the need arises–but it's not easy for me. I have the type of caricature that begs perturbation. As if I'm the typing of person one would do the saving from, and not for. Not an easy thing to say about a teenage girl, but the look was all mine and it took everything in my power to muster a look of complete abandonment as I smiled down at Harrison, telling him:
"Look, I know you're going to probably think this is a huge inconvenience, and that's okay if you decide you don't want to, but–" he whipped off his sunglasses and it was as if someone turned a light on in a dark room. I looked away for a moment, and stumbled over my words. I hadn't counted on having to look him in the eyes, and that brought an entirely new depth to my performance. I ad-libbed a bit by clearing my throat until I was able to stare him down, "if you wouldn't mind–and only if you wouldn't mind–I can't have the car on Thursday and Friday afternoons and I would be so grateful if you could drive me home then..." I bared my teeth and bowed my eyebrows in hope.
He thought about it for a minute and sighed deeply. "Wow, you sure roped me into this one–" and he laughed. A grin broke out on my face, stretching the length of my rosy cheeks until it hurt, "–but I'm only doing this because you're my best student, and I expect things to stay that way if I agree to this." He pointed. What was the deal with all this pointing? Was he trying to convince himself that he was older, wiser, and held a position of authority over me? It certainly appeared so.
"Oh so now you're turning this into a deal," I fell into a kneel on the curb, my hands catching the frame of the car as I spoke to him in the open doorway, "okay, if that's the way it's going to be I want to pick the music next time."
He actually laughed again, and I knew we were going to be fast friends.
The most satisfying part about it was that he didn't know the same.