You wore this one shirt that was just, adorable: adorably unfashionable, with a quiet, carefree masculinity. It was a pullover sweatshirt, fern green, and there were cigarette burns at the edges of the ribbed sleeves. There was a hood, of course, but the shirt wasn’t the zipped-up hoodie teenager uniform, just an old working-man’s sweatshirt that turned your blue eyes tropical. The cords that cinched the hood were perpetually uneven, the plastic tips chewed to mangled points, and one was always in your mouth as you read, sometimes both if you were reading Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment or Rebecca, but not when you were reading Catcher in the Rye. Then, your mouth was empty except for a waiting tongue. You in that sweatshirt begged to be snuggled. The well-worn elbows pilled into near-transparency from resting your head in hands resting on elbows on tables. You’d sit there in the cafeteria or library looking like a typical bored student but thinking atypical thoughts about nights and life. You put your gum on the side of your lunch plate every day, but you never put the gum back in your mouth. And even though you may have dumped chocolate milk on your mashed potatoes and thrown the plate at Gavin, which started the all-aboard food fight that got you suspended, it wasn’t entirely your fault. This high school stifled nonjocks and nonconformists, and wore down any jagged edge into a characterless smooth surface. Pep rallies were great for football players and their vapid cheerleading sidekicks, but you resisted the pressure to attain “manliness,” a made-up notion to turn you into a stoic robot meant to work and impregnate and get someone else rich while never learning the words and having the freedom to express how alienating it all is. And it was alienating: the inarticulable frustration, the unsympathetic expectations, the rigid and impossible standards on who it was acceptable to love.
Your dad came into the principal’s office to get you when he was told about the food fight. He was a huge man, an ex-linebacker sort of man. If you were to look up the word “gruff” in the dictionary, his picture would be beside it, and also beside the words “bully,” “typical asshole,” “womanizer,” and “shit father.” The rumors about what kind of man he was were whispered and plentiful. There was the one about how he seduced your mother’s sister while your mother was in the hospital (there were other rumors about why your mother was in the hospital). There were the rumors about how no one wanted to play poker with him since he intimidated everyone into losing. There were the rumors about how he treated you. If he only left a mark, maybe someone would have been able to save you sooner.
He came into the principal’s office and gave you a look that made you contract. Your bravado and charming rebelliousness changed quickly to a whimpering slouch. The sight was pathetic in the true sense of the word. You weren’t seventeen anymore, but seven, shrinking into a trapped posture.
And then your dad took notice of the French teacher, which was just a matter of time. Ms. Boucher was the other lunch monitor on duty. Your dad morphed into a gentleman. “Ms. Boucher, I’m sorry about my son. This will never happen again,” and “Men don’t know how to show women respect anymore. Lord knows I’ve raised my son differently,” and “I just wish he’d clean his fingernails,” and “I always wanted to learn French. It’s so beautiful.”
You had sat there and accepted your suspension and the shaking of heads and the tsk tsks and the hypocritical pleas about how you have to think of other people, like janitors. But once your dad started shamelessly hitting on Ms. Boucher, your manner changed. You sat up straighter, you rolled your eyes. Seeing your father unable to hide his midlife desperation must have validated your knowledge of him being a Neanderthal.
They argued about whether to allow you to participate in the high school battle of the bands that was to take place that Friday, and this motivated you to actually speak up and defend yourself. You were the lead guitarist and song writer for Sour Deeznuts, a three-piece that included bassist and tallest boy at school, Joseph “J-Date” Datoni, and raven-haired Kiki, Goth drummer and sullen Tori Amos worshipper. It wouldn’t be fair to them if you couldn’t play, you argued. You were the soul of the band, the one with all the talent.
That talent sustained you, which meant you had no need for flashy cars or status girls or those disgusting bottle cap piercings in your lobes, or your father’s approval. You didn’t need to adorn yourself with the mall or dye your long blond hair to express your individuality, and this confidence showed in the ease of your movements, like a finger joint just cracked.
That hair. That hair was an angel’s mane that would have made Stevie Nicks jealous. It was surf hair and it was sexy. Of course your dad wanted you to cut it, but you didn’t, which was really brave.
An agreement was reached that allowed you to participate in the concert, but you’d have detention the next week along with this week’s suspension.
This was on a Monday, so you wouldn’t be back on school grounds until Friday night, which seemed like an age away. The rest of the week passed in a listless haze of nonactivities: staring out windows at the zit-covered faces and the tossing of greasy hair; deep sighing; lifting eyes to the ceiling in a prayer for time to compress. But that clock on the wall was stubborn. Every unexpected sound of footsteps was an unfulfilled promise and the empty house was an oppressive curse. Nothing held attention.
It rained on Tuesday and Wednesday, of course. The winds were wicked and blew off the changing leaves before peak foliage, a disappointment because more and more maples were getting sick and who knew how long their sunset leaves would bless the Vermont landscape in sublime abundance.
Thursday dragged. There was nothing to say about the air or the sunrise or breakfast or gossip. Thursday was a black hole of adjectives, a vortex of senses. Thursday was dead. Thursday was a waste of a dimension. Thursday was stupid. The only thing worse than Thursday was Thursday night, which turned out to be a long slog of changing tones of gray-black in the cloudy night sky, no stars, no moon, not even an owl checking in.
But Friday was perfect. The air was as clean as a mountaintop and the sunrise turned the sky into a shining field of wheat, and breakfast was as sweet as rock candy, and the gossip was delicious and revelatory. Still, every minute was pronounced, but those minutes had purpose and that purpose was you.
The auditorium where the battle would be held wasn’t decorated, the faculty reluctantly acknowledging that the battle of the bands was the anti-pep rally, that any demonstration of school spirit defeated the whole purpose of a student’s self-chosen identity. The teachers and parents stood along the walls as the students gathered in the middle. No one stood right in front of the stage as if it were dangerous to stand so close to people’s intimate expressions, and to stand there alone.
The first band that performed was a group of freshmen who played three Nirvana songs. They had dedicated their set to Kurt Cobain, even though he had been dead for years by then. The next group was two girls who strummed three major chords and sang of peace and gardens. They were pretty, but wouldn’t be for long. Their looks would betray them, along with their metabolism and their baby cheeks.
Finally Sour Deeznuts took the stage, and there you were, in a white T-shirt that you had written on the front in black sharpie “No Justice” and on the back “No Peace.” You wore jeans that stayed up by who knows how. When you bent down to fix your guitar pedals, your plaid boxers peeked out from above your waistband and that one glimpse certainly sexually awakened every freshman virgin in the room, finally experiencing attraction to a male’s body as opposed to a vague notion of Prince Charming or the put-on charisma of a squeaky shiny boy-bander.
Sour Deeznuts performed one long jam. You played with your back to the audience the first five minutes, while J-Date guitar-danced and Kiki unenthusiastically drummed, but then you turned around and rocked it, just really let it all go, confronting the world with what you were. Your hair flew around you in a blur of halo and you soloed and feedbacked and let every feeling that you had no words for evaporate off your body in a haze of unadulterated testosterone.
Sour Deeznuts didn’t win the battle, and that was just the same to you. Your point was made and your music was pure. You’d be back at school on Monday.
That Saturday you rode your skateboard around the train station, the sound of the wheels jumping on and off pavement reverberating through the distance like clacking antlers of fighting elk, your shirt rising as you lifted up your arms to land on the railings. Sometimes you missed and crashed and swore, then got back up to try again, over and over, until you were satisfied with how well you rode upon the rail. You were there for hours, by yourself, while your classmates were probably hot boxing in unsuspecting parents’ driveways or feeling each other up in the dug-outs of empty little league fields.
Finally, Monday: you came into the classroom for detention and did that slouching flop onto the attached desk-seat that teenage men do when they want anyone around to know they don’t care. You looked to see who else was in the room, and no one was your friend, just a bunch of younger delinquents destined for uncompromising mediocrity. You put your head on the desk and fell asleep. You woke the second detention was over and slinked out of the room with your skateboard. Your car was parked right outside the window.
You brought nothing to do again for the Tuesday detention, so I handed you Catcher in the Rye. I told you that you would like it.
“Thanks,” you said back.
You finished it by the next detention, which we had alone. I’d have all of your consideration and the idea of that gave me goose bumps up my thighs. We talked about the book for the entire hour.
“Can you relate to how everyone comes across as a phony?” I asked.
You put your hair behind your ear. “Yeah. Though these days we call people poseurs, not phonies.”
I laughed. “True,” I said. I tucked my hair behind my ear. “I always imagined myself as Jane in the story.”
“Is your hair naturally red?” you asked.
“It’s rude to ask a woman that question.”
“Because we like to be mysterious. And our looks are supposed to be effortless. Does it matter?”
“I was just curious.”
“Do you like it?”
“I’ve just never seen anyone else with that hair color.”
I liked that you were asking me questions about my appearance. It proved interest. The truth was that I had been slowly falling in love with you all year, that I’d see you in the halls joking with the few friends you had, but I never saw you be cruel or unkind like the rest of the students often were. Unless you were provoked. I wanted to assure you that you could trust me, that you were special.
“Lowell, I want you to know you can tell me anything. You can come to me with problems with your teachers or your dad and I’ll keep it close to my heart.” I laid my hand on yours.
“I know it’s not cool for guys to talk, and that they’re never taught the skills on how to talk to other people about what they’re feeling. But I know that’s not the same as having nothing to talk about.”
“Is that why you became an English teacher? To give kids pointers on talking?”
“It’s important to have a language and it’s an honor to be able to teach that. I think it makes men better.”
You smiled at this. “Is it true that those who can’t be, teach?”
“Can’t do. The saying is those who can’t do, teach.”
“Whatever, same thing.”
“And yes, it’s true,” I admitted.
“Are you a failed writer?”
“What do you want to do after you graduate? You have so much potential.”
“Does your dad pressure you to be things you’re not?”
You shrugged, but I knew that the shrugging meant yes, otherwise you would have just said no. I was relieved that you were opening up to me and it felt like one of those first-date conversations, the kind when two people can’t find out enough about each other, as hungry for personal information as they were for their dinner, each personal morsel having the opposite effect of satiation.
The principal knocked on the door and I quickly pulled my hand away. “Ms. Piper, can I speak to you for a moment?”
I looked at you and rolled my eyes as I got up to meet with the principal. I closed the door.
“Margaret, will you be able to chaperone the semi-formal this year? Ms. Boucher has an unexpected engagement.”
I knew from the gossip I heard the previous Friday that her unexpected engagement was the principal, who was married by the way, and had been for twenty years.
“Feel free to bring a date.”
I looked in the door window at you sitting at your desk flipping through Catcher in the Rye. You were a lighthouse among the stereotypical classroom artifacts: scattered blue essay notebooks and decade-old posters of birds with Dickinson poems underneath, a portrait of Shakespeare, an enlarged photo of Walden Pond I had taken myself. I walked back in and you looked up, and you looked relieved.
“Are you going to the semi-formal?” I asked.
“I don’t really do dances,” you said apologetically. “It’s four-thirty.” And you got up to go.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Same time, same place.”
That night I poured myself a glass of wine and lay on my futon couch and put on Heart and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Nina Simone. I wanted to play so many records for you and watch your face as you listened to Patti Smith’s voice crack and Bob Dylan drunkenly giggle.
Thursday detention was full because a fight had erupted in the locker room that morning. Something about an unwanted or unintended glance in the shower. You had sat right in front of my desk, and you didn’t have a book with you and you didn’t take a nap. You stared at me, and not discreetly. But you left when everyone else did, and I was disappointed.
Friday was the last day of our detention together. There were only three other students there, all sophomore girls. They babbled on about nail polish and I made bored faces at them at you and you chuckled, then did a little gesture with your hands like your hands were talking. You asked if you could go to the bathroom and I allowed it. When you left I dismissed those three girls. I told them to enjoy their Friday.
You came back in, and upon realizing that the girls were gone you shut the door behind you. You looked at me and at my desk like you were unsure of what to do. You looked so sweet that I decided to save you the agony of figuring out how to make the first move and said, “I walked to school today, but it’s raining now. Do you think you could give me a ride back to my place?”
“Let’s go now. Let’s enjoy our Friday.”
We walked to your car together. The rain had turned to a gentle drizzle. “Won’t the principal think it’s weird that you’re getting in my car?”
“There’s no rule about teachers getting into students’ cars.”
I had trouble opening the door and you told me I had to jiggle the handle while simultaneously putting pressure on it. That worked. When I got in the car my feet sank into a couple layers of Styrofoam coffee cups and empty potato chip bags. A piece of fabric hung down from the ceiling. My window didn’t go all the way up. The ashtray was filled with cigarette butts.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” I said.
“You could buy me cigarettes!” you said.
“I’d never do that.”
You concentrated on your driving as I directed you, touching your shoulder when you needed to turn. You were wearing that sweatshirt that I love. You smelled of coffee and cigarettes, yet you didn’t smell stale.
The second we got in the door of my house, you practically jumped on me. I had to stop you to put on a record, Heart’s Bad Animals. Once I got back to the couch you kissed me like an attack and I asked you if you always kissed with your mouth wide open. Your hands gripped everything. I got up from the couch, stood in front of you, and stripped, slowly, letting you take me in, in one reveal at a time. You looked like you’d never seen someone strip before you, like no one had ever made you wait so long.
You called what we did making love and I told you not to call it that.
“I thought girls liked to call it that.”
I nearly died when you referred to me as a girl.
You invited me to a show you were playing at a coffee shop in Burlington the next night. “It’s just me,” you said.
“No Sour Deeznuts?” I asked.
“No. This is my solo project.”
I went. I wore a semi-sheer blouse and tight black pants, a look left over from my concert parking lot days that really weren’t all that long ago, I swear. You didn’t greet me, but I didn’t blame you since your father was there. I was surprised to see him since he usually acted unsupportive of who you were. I was worried he came just so he could taunt you about it later. In fact, I’m still convinced that was his original intention. He looked at me strangely, which is the first time he really looked at me. That day in the principal’s office he didn’t even see me in the shadow of Ms. Boucher, just like he hadn’t seen me when I was a teenager working at the ice-cream stand and he was fresh out of the military, hitting on my coworker, and only tipping if she was on shift.
The host introduced you. You played “Imagine.” You played “Disarm.” Then you played an original tune, one called “Dirty Maggie,” and you sang, “Maggie is so wild/Maggie is so dirty/Maggie’s got her own schoolhouse/Maggie’s got a teaching couch.” I swayed and swooned, but when I opened my eyes your dad was staring at me as though he caught me shoplifting from his store while it was going out of business.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to you that night. Your dad practically dragged you out by your shirt collar, except you never wore shirts with collars, and I hope that you never do. I followed both of you out to the parking lot and heard him yell, “What did she do with you? Wait until you mother hears. She’s a sick woman.” I said, “Wait!” You looked at me as he shoved you into the car, and even though you were laughing, I knew it was because you were hurt. It’s easier to laugh in front of a father than it is to cry.
I’ll be out in a few months if I don’t have contact with you. It is a long nightmare. My heart breaks because I know that you’re discovering how dumb and cruel and unfair this world is, and you’re discovering it with someone else. I wanted to be there when you learned those things and help you get over them. You remember those lessons forever.
I never got a chance to tell you that the song you wrote for me was beautiful. You’re really talented. You have potential like a car in park with the gas pedal pressed all the way down. Never stop playing music. Never listen to your father. Never cut your hair.
And please, please, send me the song “Dirty Maggie” if you can. I’m desperate to hear it again.
About the Author: Jane Liddle's favorite pinball game is Scared Stiff. Her work has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, Wigleaf, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. You can find her at walnutcabin.tumblr.com, on Twitter @janeriddle, and walking around Brooklyn.
Story Song: "Alone" by Heart