The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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Larry couldn’t stop thinking of Mrs. Foster. He thought he must be in love with her. He never raised his hand in any class except hers. The other teachers didn’t seem to care whether he answered questions or not. Even as they listened to his answers, they seemed to be thinking only of the next question, or staring impassively into space. But Larry could actually feel Mrs. Foster listening. If he was giving an especially good answer, her smile would get larger and larger, and when he was finished she would raise her finger and whirl it in triumph.
Everybody said it was great to have Mrs. Foster for English. She was always darting up and down the aisles, asking questions, making jokes, putting her hand to her forehead and opening her mouth in mock astonishment, saying, “My God, we’re laughing at one of the great tragedies of the English language,” then looking at the cover of the book as though struggling to read the title and saying, “Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. Macbeth. We are weird, folks; we are laughing at tragedy.”
In his other classes, Larry thought about Mrs. Foster’s class, and everything else seemed remote. The sounds of the teachers’ voices got fainter and fainter until they blended in with all the other school-building noises, like doors opening and closing, random voices in the corridor, birds chirping stupidly outside the window.
Larry wanted to tell Mrs. Foster about himself. He imagined dropping by her room in the morning and talking to her alone. Every morning he arrived at school early, determined to go up to Room 211 and speak to her. He imagined opening the door and finding her there at her desk, a cardboard cup of coffee steaming in front of her. Then her puzzled smile of inquiry that said, “Yes?” He knew all her expressions, and it was the thought of this one that stopped him. Instead of going in and speaking to her, he’d sit in the cafeteria, where they herded all the early arrivals, and feel the heat of anticipation in his chest. I’m saving myself from acting like an asshole, he would think. But he continued to imagine himself sitting across from her, telling her things, and her attentive, listening face absorbing them.
I don’t even know who my father is, he’d tell her. Really. I only know he’s somebody like Jay, my mother’s current boyfriend. She’s always changing boyfriends and having these — pardon the expression — one-night stands. That’s how I was conceived. She used to tell me my father had died, but one night when she was drunk (she’s an alcoholic, you know, but she’ll never admit it), she said, “How am I supposed to keep track of who your father is, and what’s the difference? You’re alive, aren’t you? That’s what counts.”
He wondered what Mrs. Foster would say about that. In the autobiography she’d assigned, for which he’d turned in two handwritten pages, he hadn’t mentioned anything about his mother or his dubious origin. That was almost how he had begun the assignment: “I am a person of dubious origin.” But he hadn’t. Instead, he’d written about his aspiration of becoming a doctor. He didn’t really want to become a doctor, nor could he become one, most likely; his average was about seventy-four. But it was safe and easy to write about. He didn’t put the truth, that he wanted to become a writer, because then Mrs. Foster would have expected him to write in some superior way — otherwise, how could he even think of becoming a writer? He kept hoping there would be some occasion when he could tell her the truth about himself.
Lately, he’d been passing her room to get a glimpse of her. He would even rush down from the third floor to walk by 211, then rush back so he wouldn’t be late for class. He hoped she’d catch his eye and give him the same smile she gave him in English. But she was always intent on something or out of the room. She’d once said, “The hardest thing about teaching is getting to the john between classes. One of the attributes of a good teacher is the ability to hold it.”
Larry never told Mady anything about his mother or Jay or his dubious origin, and certainly not anything about his feelings for Mrs. Foster. Personal topics didn’t come into their conversations, which were usually only long enough to fill a short walk out of the building or down the corridor. Mady had been in his English class the year before, when they were juniors. When Larry told her he had Mrs. Foster this year, she said, “Mrs. Foster’s class is like a bad television show about a comical teacher. She’s in love with this awful performance that appeals to the worst in the adolescent mind.” Mady was always talking about “adolescents” as though she weren’t one herself. When she said this about Mrs. Foster, Larry shrugged and pretended no interest in the subject.
Everybody said Mady was strange. Larry couldn’t exactly put his finger on what made her different, except maybe that she rarely smiled. When she did smile, it looked as if she were just exercising her mouth. She was smart, he decided, so they called her weird. She had read more books than anyone else he knew. But then, whom did he know besides an assortment of the usual high-school morons? He wondered if Mady knew about his seventy-four average. Mady never referred to grades, even though she had probably the highest average in the senior class. Larry had a feeling she did know about his lousy average, and that was why she didn’t bring it up. If she did, he could always say, “Those are just numbers in a box,” which was like something she’d say.
When Larry confessed to Mady that he wanted to be a writer, he realized right away that it sounded dramatic or even phony. Mady said, “I’m not going to be a writer; I am a writer. If you write, then you’re a writer. Why say you’re going to be a writer?” She looked right at his mouth when she said this, as if she were waiting for the next words to come out so she could bite them.
Mady spoke to Larry only when they were alone. If she saw him eating lunch with the guys, she’d walk past as if she didn’t know him. Later, she might say, “I saw you with the Long View High intelligentsia. Whom were you discussing, Proust or Balzac?” It was an effort for him not to look puzzled when she said these things. He made no comment and gave no sign that he had heard her, even though it didn’t sound as if she were testing him or putting him down as some sort of uneducated pea-brain. Sometimes she’d ask him what he thought of Ibsen or Shaw or Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” and he’d just shrug as though the subject were too boring to consider. She’d catch him on it, saying, “A writer has to read. It’s nourishment.” But he never felt put down or thought she was snobby. She made him feel included in a select elite apart from the morons walking the halls with them. Occasionally he’d think she was about to take his arm, but she never would. They never touched at all.
Larry didn’t think about Mady’s body. He knew she was kind of short, but he had no sense of her shape. She never entered his fantasies when he was lying in his bed masturbating. On the other hand, he had a strong physical yearning for Mrs. Foster, who was so much a part of his imagination it often seemed peculiar that she actually existed. Sometimes he fantasized that she only pretended not to know him intimately to avoid suspicion that they were actually lovers.
Larry wished he could live by himself. But with his lousy average, he’d have to live at home and go to community college with the morons. His mother would probably have kicked Jay out by then and replaced him with somebody else, somebody just like Jay. Jay’s voice sounded like a movie cowboy’s, even and easy. Whenever he was in bed with Larry’s mother, he sounded as if he were talking to a wild horse. Larry’s mother’s voice would get high pitched, then quieter, and she’d say, “I like, I like.” Then her voice would get even lower and she’d start moaning. It always sounded as though Jay, in his careful and deliberate way, were trying to make her suffer.
Someone like Jay was Larry’s father. Larry was conceived in a condition of inebriation; he was tempted to phrase it to Mady just like that. She’d appreciate it. He was always thinking of interesting ways of saying things to her. Once, she’d said, “I’m not going to ask you what you write. I hate anybody asking me what I write. You can show me if you want.” He’d said, “I’m working on something,” and her face had registered no reaction. He’d been pleased with the way the sentence had come out, but then regretted it because it had sounded so self-conscious, as if he were trying to talk like a writer. He had never written anything except what he had to for school, and he had never gotten any mark above a B. He knew if he showed her anything he wrote it would disappoint her, maybe end their . . . whatever it was.
One morning, passing by Mrs. Foster’s room, Larry saw her kissing Mr. Kenny, the biology teacher. Larry just kept walking, and for a while he felt as if he’d had some sort of vision. He sat down in the corridor outside his homeroom, his back against the cold cinder-block wall, anticipating Mrs. Foster’s class with guilty panic. Had she seen him? Would she think he was the type of person who snuck around the corridors before class trying to catch teachers in desperate sexual acts?
Now Larry had this secret he didn’t want. He couldn’t rid himself of the image of them sliding their hands up and down each other’s bodies. Or was that what he had actually seen? The memory grew into an elaborate, erotic fantasy in his mind. He tried to focus on the Mrs. Foster he saw every day. He wanted to forget the Mrs. Foster he’d seen that morning, and yet he wanted to tell someone about her. It’s a story, he realized, and thought of telling Mady.
In class that day, Mrs. Foster played her usual animated and humorous self. Mady was right: it was like a teacher on television. Larry was playing the crushed, sensitive adolescent. (He could hear Mady saying those words.) It was a comedy, and he was the joke. He could see now how contrived it all was: Mrs. Foster’s facial contortions, the sudden shifts to seriousness, the jocular asides; all timed to fit the lesson, all practiced and delivered to past generations of students. He could hear Mady’s sardonic appraisal: “She’s just catering to the mentality of mere teenagers in their acned naiveté.” How was she able to speak like that?
Larry caught up with Mady coming out of the building after school.
“What’s with you?” she said.
He was conscious of Mady’s eyes studying him as though he were a problem on an exam. He was suddenly unable to tell her about Mrs. Foster and Mr. Kenny, even though earlier he’d had every intention of doing so.
“What is it? Something happen?” she asked.
Mady turned away, continuing to walk. “You write anything you want to show me?”
“I have this story I’m working on.”
“Working on? Nothing finished?”
“No. I have an idea.”
“Oh, you’re at the idea stage. Lots of people who like to think they’re writers stay at the idea stage for years and years. Most stay there forever.”
Larry sat in the library with his loose-leaf notebook open and his ballpoint pen in hand, ready to write. He was sure this thing he’d seen could be a story, but he didn’t know how to get from the beginning, to the moment when he saw them kissing, to some sort of ending. He couldn’t imagine himself writing that much. Even now the scene was growing dim as he tried to find words to describe it.
When he saw Mady the next day, she asked if he had worked on his story. He looked down at his sneakered feet and tried to give the appearance of a tortured writer contending with the mysterious frustrations of his art.
“Do you even have a story?” Mady asked.
“Yes,” he said. For an instant he tasted the dry-mouthed impulse to tell her what he’d seen. “Yes, I do.”
“What’s this dramatic ‘yes, I do’? You sound like a bad actor.”
“I’m just saying, yes, I have a story. There’s no acting.”
Mady laughed. (Had he ever heard her laugh?) She placed her forefinger on his chest. “You’re really funny.”
“In what way?”
“You don’t have to tell me you’re writing a story. You don’t have to prove to me you’re a writer. The world has enough stories, don’t you think?” She moved her squinty eyes back and forth across his face.
“What are you writing?” he asked.
Her eyes got large, and she said in a mock horror-movie voice, “That’s a deep, dark secret.”
That night, Larry was in his room listening to his mother and Jay talking in the kitchen: Jay’s imitation cowboy voice and his mother’s rapid, peevish twang. Jay, as usual, seemed to be trying to tame her wild emotions. Larry could picture his mother dragging petulantly on her cigarette and talking as smoke drifted out of her mouth. Suddenly he heard what sounded like two hands slapped together. After a long moment of silence, his mother said, “You fuck,” as though she had just been handed some bad news. Then she shrieked. Larry tried not to hear, but things were crashing: dishes and silverware, whole cupboardsful of glasses and canned goods, everything; and his mother shrieking, “You did it, you fuck, just like all the rest, just like all the other fucks, I’ll kill you, you fuck!”
Larry could picture Jay standing there with his affected cowboy calm while Larry’s mother tore the kitchen apart. He heard them hitting the floor and grunting, the sound of their bodies rolling over, rebounding against the wall. Larry thought of climbing out the window and getting down the side of the apartment building, but there was no fire escape like in the last place they’d lived. He covered himself with his blanket and tried to imagine being somewhere else. After a while, he got up and went to the door. He couldn’t hear anything at first. Then he heard them breathing heavily and speaking in low voices, his mother crying, Jay sounding the way he did in the bedroom. In an instant, Larry’s mother started screaming again, as though she had just realized what she looked like and what the kitchen looked like:
“You fuck, look what you done, look what you done!”
Jay said, “Now, you brought it all on yourself,” sounding like someone who was picking his fingernails.
Larry opened the door, hesitated, then went out. He walked through the living room, gave a smiling glance toward the kitchen, and left through the front door. His mind had taken a picture of his mother sitting on the floor with her back against the refrigerator, her face in her hands, crying silently, while Jay sat on a chair, looking down at her as though she were something he was trying to figure out how to put back together.
Larry went upstairs to the roof. It was a warm spring night, a clear, star-filled sky. He looked down on the street and imagined himself taking a leap into the empty air. It gave him a heady, shuddering sensation. He stood by the wall at the roof’s edge for several minutes, reimagining the jump, nothing to hold on to, nothing but him, falling through space. Then complete nothingness, all his brain and bodily functions reverting to nothing, becoming part of a history of people becoming nothing.
He stepped back from the wall and sat down with his back against it. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply and tried to get into a state of absolute calm. If he could stay here long enough and get far enough away, then it might become a story about someone else’s life and not his.
When he went back to the apartment, his mother and Jay were cleaning up.
“Hey, kiddo,” Jay said.
His mother was crouched on the floor picking up broken glass. “Don’t give me that bullshit look,” she said to Larry without looking up.
“Your mom and me had a little to-do,” Jay said, smiling.
“I heard,” Larry said.
“Yeah, he heard. Goody-fuckin’-two-shoes heard. What are you looking at? Where have you been?” Larry’s mother stood up and dropped the pieces of glass into an open garbage bag on the floor. The skin around her right eye was swollen and yellow. Her lip was cut. She looked like someone in a TV movie about wife abuse. “Pretty, huh? Lover boy over here just joined the club: men who’ve whacked me.”
She and Jay laughed as though she’d made a joke. Larry’s hands felt heavy and sweaty; his face pulsed hotly. The joke was on him, as if he were blind to something essential and obvious. He smiled.
“What the fuck are you smiling about?” his mother asked, her face coming fiercely close to his. “You think this is funny?” She started to cry, lowering her head and rubbing her eyes. She looked old and too thin in her jeans and blue sweater and flat white shoes. Jay folded his arms as if waiting for her to stop. Larry wanted to bring his hand up and touch his mother’s head, but he couldn’t raise his arm. He waited till she took her fingers away from her eyes, then said, “No, I didn’t say it was funny.”
His mother looked at Jay and both of them laughed. “My son’s not too swift,” she said, and they laughed harder.
“Everybody knows she’s having an affair with Kenny,” Mady said. “Kenny is a Neanderthal.”
They were eating pizza at Mario’s Pizza Haven a few blocks from the school. Mady closed one eye as she bit into a slice with her small teeth. Now that Larry had told her about Mrs. Foster, she took hold of the information as if it belonged to her. Larry was relieved to be rid of it, though in some way he felt deflated. Mady appeared to be pondering what to do with this knowledge. She kept examining the edges of her pizza slice as she chewed.
“Is this by any chance what you were going to write about?”
“Why did you think it would make a good story?”
“I don’t know.”
“You ever actually write a story?”
Larry shook his head.
“Thought so. It’s a cliché anyhow.” She took a large bite of her pizza.
“This big thing you witnessed. The thing is, you see, you were in love with her — nothing wrong there; it’s good experience. But the thing is, you’re too close to it right now.”
Larry watched her finish the pizza. He had taken only a few bites of his. He liked listening to her talk about writing. She made it sound complicated and yet like something that could actually be done. He liked the way she chewed and looked up at the ceiling while she thought through each sentence.
“There’s this thing with my mother, too,” he said, interrupting what Mady was saying.
Larry told her what had happened.
“You’re too close to that, too,” she said flatly. “I tried to write about abuse and all that childhood crap, but it never worked. That’s something you have to look back on.” She placed the pizza crust on her plate and smiled at him. Her smile looked silly, as if she were trying too hard.
“Is that your deep, dark secret?” he said in a sarcastic voice he had never used on her before. He instantly regretted it and in his mind saw himself reaching out his hand and placing it on top of her small, pale one. But instead he said, “You know what? I am of dubious origin,” and wiggled his eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx.
Mady took a vicious bite of her pizza crust and said, imitating an old horror-show announcer’s voice, “What poor mortals we be.” Then she dropped the remaining crust disdainfully on her paper plate. “Don’t get so self-pitying and concentrated on your woes. You’ll never be a writer that way. You’ll get all self-absorbed and become a drug addict and put your brain into a permanent fog. Look at yourself, going around the way you do.”
“Like the way you do. Like you’re lost in your suffering —”
“I’m not lost in my suffering.”
“— wasting your time hanging around with dopes or mooning over Mrs. Foster, that third-rate actress floozy.”
“What’s ‘mooning over’?”
“Getting a crush on her. Don’t you know anything?” Mady picked up the pizza crust and studied it. “You and I will probably have an affair.”
“When is this supposed to happen?”
“Don’t worry about when it’s supposed to happen. It’ll just follow, that’s all.”
Mady? An affair? Like his mother and Jay? It was too bizarre. The thing was that when Mady said “affair” it was like a character in a story had said it. Jay and his mother never said, “We’re having an affair.” You didn’t say it. You just had it.
After that, Mady entered Larry’s fantasies, only transformed into a Playboy Bunny type. But he knew this dream Mady, with her hot new body, was just a product of his imagination. As a result, he grew uncomfortable in the real Mady’s presence. He couldn’t look at her or talk to her the way he had before. She’d ask him about his writing, as usual, but now it made him even more acutely aware of his shortcomings. Gradually, he started avoiding her. Just before they graduated, he began going out with a girl named Amy from his English class.
Whenever Larry walked down the corridor holding Amy’s hand, Mrs. Foster would give him a wink and he’d feel good, as if he and Mrs. Foster were sharing a secret joke. He stopped thinking about writing a story, stopped feeling any pressure about what he was going to do.
One day, when his mother and Jay were out, he took Amy home with him and they lay in bed together. They kept their clothes on and just kissed and touched each other for a long time. Larry thought of his mother and Jay and the sounds they made, and he became conscious of the likeness of those sounds to the ones he and Amy were making. Suddenly he sat up and, looking at Amy, said, “I want to do something with my life.” It was just something to say. It wasn’t what he was thinking at all. But it made him feel strong to see Amy’s eyes liquefying with love for him.
On one of the last days before graduation, Larry saw Mady outside school. It was a hot June day and she was sitting under a tree in the park across the street. She pretended to continue reading even as Larry stood right over her.
“Oh. How are you?” she said, squinting up.
“Oh, yes. Great. I love your vocabulary. I see you with that girl. Is that how you two talk to each other, just keep repeating one-syllable hyperboles?”
Larry felt as if she’d been waiting for him under the tree, watching him, gathering evidence so she could blast him with her bitter criticism. “I thought we were going to have an affair,” he said.
“Oh. I just said that. To make you feel like a writer. Isn’t that how you wanted to feel? You wanted to enjoy all the drama of it without actually doing it, right?”
“And what do you enjoy?” He felt a hot desire to hurt her, but his tongue was heavy.
“Not much,” she said vaguely and dropped her eyes to the book as though she had suddenly lost interest in the conversation.
Later, Larry thought of several things he could have said to Mady. As years went by, he neither saw nor heard from her, but he kept thinking up things to say that would’ve continued the conversation. Her family moved out west. People he spoke to from school remembered her only as “the weird girl.”
But Larry remembered her and carried with him, through all his girlfriends and his two marriages, the odd fantasy of their lovemaking.
J. W. Major