UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 10/2011
SARAH TEREZ ROSENBLUM
Jack misses the first two weeks of class, but arrives for the third, just in time to watch me use chalk. I’m on tip-toe, sketching a plot diagram, right arm aloft when he enters.
Writing the word ‘climax,’ I’ll text Morgan weeks later. A sign, don’t you think?
Le sigh, she’ll reply.
When I turn he’s seated, back row, between a young woman sporting a lavender headscarf and another, older, who spends each class spooning yogurt. Raspberry Yoplait, always; she dips her spoon carefully to attain the thinnest glaze, then meticulously licks it away. Each container lasts two hours. Class runs three. During the final forty minutes she becomes noticeably restless. Sometimes I run over, just to watch her writhe.“Class, we have a new student.” I say this because a teacher might.
Pasadena City College attracts a jumble: smart kids who didn’t apply themselves, dumb kids who didn’t apply themselves, adults, successful but unfulfilled, and victims of the economic downturn who think education the answer. The last group makes me laugh; noxious, unpredictable laughter I disguise as coughing fits. My students think I have asthma.
“I’m Jack. I’m an actor. Authorship is something I struggle with, so I thought I’d give this class a whirl.” Jack twists a thick silver ring.
I hate writing on the board; have since age seven when a paper clip fat Matthew White threw, caught in my hair. I was scrawling the week’s spelling words and I tossed my head like a pony trying to shake the paperclip loose. Even before the Santa Ana winds began last week, my students seemed defeated; impossible to imagine one summoning the strength to uncurl a paperclip, let alone toss it my way. It’s my ass that concerns me. And chalk dust. And being seen without seeing back. At the board again, I finish the chart, careful not to wipe my hands on my skirt. Turning, I catch Jack’s eye on a slow crawl from my hips to my face. Later I decide this is where it began.
At home I sit on the kitchen’s cool floor, a bag of frozen M&M’s in my lap.
“I’m wiped,” my girlfriend says. “See you tomorrow.”
“It’s nine-fifteen.” I let each bright disc soften on my tongue.
“The heat.” She shrugs, closing the bedroom door.
Morgan writes: There is someone I am attracted to as well (we met at an audition) but I am 100% sure that 1) I don't want to impact my relationship with Julia, and 2) any long-term relationship with this person would not work. That doesn't keep me from thinking, fantasizing (in both a romantic and sexual way), and caring. And given the right moment, something between us could happen, if I let it.
When we lived together, Morgan and I used to play “Movie Star,” a game in which we cast actors as friends, relatives, acquaintances, even ourselves. After a year with someone, you no longer care how her day went. Party games pass the time. She thought Scarlett Johansson could play me, a flattering lie. I usually picked Mary Louise Parker for her, also untrue; it’s a toss-up between Gollum and Jesse James.
I’d written, I have a crush. On a MAN. Help. No reference to Morgan’s relationship, so her e-mail surprises me. Secretive and cunning even when we were together, she’s let slip little about her current girlfriend, a woman in her fifties with a hard on for horses. They met at the track.
It would be useful for me to know a little about a few things:
What do you think you want? An emotional/sexual affair? A single sexual encounter? An experience within your relationship? Outside of it? How is your current sex life?
I’m rereading the opening lines of Morgan’s e-mail at the class break when Jack leans over my desk.
“Blackberry?” His skin seems darker than the previous week. Swarthy Pirate Fantasy, I think. No visual, just the words.
“Yes.” Captain Obvious meets Swarthy Pirate Fantasy.
“I-phones, man.” He slides his from the front pocket of his jeans, displays it like an exotic toad in cupped palms. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I’m sure.” From this angle I could give him a blow job.
“Ms. Long?” Vanessa, the youngest in the class, possibly in the world shifts from foot to foot in front of my desk. “Oo Jack, I like your phone. My boyfriend wants one, but they’re crazy expensive, right?” With a practiced flourish, she sweeps back her hair.
“What can I help you with, Vanessa?” I nod at Jack as he returns to his desk.
“I did the homework, but I think I did it wrong.”
Though seated, I’m sure Jack’s still watching. I don’t confirm. Jack seems an offering tossed from the heavens. Maybe God doesn’t hate me after all.
“Vanessa, there’s no wrong in creative writing.” I pat her hand, fleshy, with neon pink nails. I have no idea who I am.
Does he know you're (usually) gay? This is Dan, in an e-mail sent a week later. Dan and I are a romantic comedy poised to pounce. We met online. A straight guy in a sexless marriage, he hits on me relentlessly. If we lived in the same city, I might have fucked him by now, or maybe not; my girlfriend and I have pledged monogamy, plus I rarely sleep with men.
He might REALLY be dying to fuck you but respectful enough not to push because he believes you don't want male attention. Most women I know who identify as lesbians get VERY angry when men hit on them anyway. Consider that!
I forward the e-mail.
Morgan: Good point, Dan. But to me, the question isn't whether or not he’s interested. That only becomes important once you know what you want, at which point, you take steps to assess his interest level. It should depend more on you than on him right now.
I doubt Jack knows I’m (usually) gay. “Gay” does not fit the teacher persona I’ve fashioned, the one who wears pencil skirts, tames her hair with pins and supports her students when really she wants to punch each one in the mouth.
This week I’ve asked them to illustrate setting or character using a sense other than sight. Delia, the yogurt woman, describes her kitchen. “I hear the sounds of sizzling bacon,” she reads, “The smell of baking bread.”
Yeah right, I think, picturing a pristine refrigerator, rows of perfectly placed Yoplait lining each shelf.
Jack’s turn. Clearing his throat, he waits for silence to pool then describes slick metal walls, steamy air, the scent of burning flesh. Present tense, first person, his protagonist is blind and trapped, speaking to himself.
Watching him perform I think, actorshowoffwhore. I think, a lobster in a pot, big deal. Still, the piece’s pulse, obvious yet unquantifiable thrums like something alive.
Jack looks to me when he’s finished.
“Innovative work,” I tell him. “What was it like to write?”
“I started with the heat,” he says, “the rest unfolded like a flower. I liked the idea of a nonhuman narrator.”
“Nonhuman?” Sitting on one foot, Vanessa fingers a scarf she’s looped twice around her neck.
“Yeah,” Jack smiles, “I was thinking maybe a frog or a lobster.”
“Wow.” Vanessa bobs her head. Behind her, Delia’s spoon scrapes the bottom of her cup.
In her spare time, my girlfriend draws buildings. She’s a systems analyst, not an architect, but after she thinks I’m asleep sometimes I hear her slip from our bed. I used to follow her down the hall to her office, lean in the doorway listening: pencil on paper like Egyptian cotton; creamy and thick. Slim neck, late hour, lamp a brave candle at the corner of her desk, together it all seemed so romantic. I don’t remember why.
When Jack wasn't in the picture, were you having doubts? Can you imagine breaking up? I'm all for being open about these sorts of things, but does the thought of having an experience with Jack with her knowledge steal a little bit of the "just yours?”
Although Morgan lives in West Hollywood, we’ve seen each other only once in the six years since our breakup. We met at Urth Café in West Hollywood. She ordered tomato soup which splashed from her spoon to her lap. I had one of those lattes with the leaf design stenciled in foam. Two weeks into her relationship with Julia, she seemed anxious to brag. I listened to her itemize Julia’s gifts.
“I wanted to buy you things.” I said when she’d finished. “But I’m a grad student.”
“I don’t love Julia for her money,” Morgan said.
“You don’t love her at all.” I jostled the table and soup splattered her thighs.
“You did that on purpose.” Morgan smiled.
We fucked in her car for ten minutes before I started to cry.
I write: The answers, in order: Yes. Yes. Liar; no.
Outside the classroom, Jack’s slipped a yellow scrap into my hand.
“My next show. All the actors contributed material.” Necklaces peek from beneath Jack’s collared shirt, a silver chain and a leather strap. “Stuff like that usually scares me shitless, I’m there to act, not create, know what I mean?”
“But with all this writing,” Jack shrugs, adjusts his messenger bag. “Anyway, I want you to come.”
“I make it a practice not to socialize with students.” Untrue but a handy phrase to have in your back pocket when some mouth-breather invites you to Thanksgiving dinner. I say it now out of habit.
A pack of students, none of whose names I’ve memorized shambles toward us.
“I insist.” Jack hits me with one of his stupid actor expressions. I imagine he calls it Respectful but Beseeching 132B.
“We’ll see.” Conscious of my skirt my legs my pantyhose, I follow the students inside.
Workshop day for Vanessa, she’s written an essay about her fear of choking.
“When I was sixteen,” she reads, “it got so bad I stopped eating solid food for a year. I’d dip bread in milk and squeeze my eyes shut, terrified to swallow.”
Another orphaned rape survivor holocaust victim, I think.
“Nice work, Vanessa.” I dart a glance at Jack. I bet he shaves his balls.
“It’s Vanessa’s boyfriend I feel sorry for,” I tell my girlfriend that night.
Absorbed in a Mash rerun, “What do you mean?” she asks.
“Girl’s afraid to swallow.” I wait for her to turn so I can smirk, maybe wink. Instead she laughs, though she’s seen every episode. Hawkeye’s still got it after all these years.
Rebecca, please come. Btw, I’d love to read your work.
This e-mail, unexpected, unnerves me for two reasons.
Morgan: You’re so weird about your name, you big Jew. Maybe you’d rather we all went by social security number. What’s wrong with him wanting to read your work? Seems like a low-key attempt to connect.
I’ve never thought to write about it, but at sixteen, I ate a bad salmon puff and nearly died. Hospitalized for days, I’ve retained two images from that time. First, a nurse slapping her thigh in what seemed like slow motion, laughing at the tiny television screwed into the wall. In my memory, the set is blank and she laughs at nothing. Second, my mother, head in her hands in a chair near the window, in front of her, a bearded man with the largest teeth I’d seen up to that point, reaching to touch my cheek. Perhaps a consequence of my dehydration, each image seemed painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.
Later I understood the monster in the second memory was a Rabbi, sent to confound the Angel of Death by giving me an additional name. I never liked my original, spinster-librarian-lesbian-sounding, so the ordeal felt like a backward wish-granting. Awake, I never saw the nurse.
On my phone, I e-mail: No relation to Judaism. A name feels personal, mine to disclose.
I ask my students to free-write for, at minimum, fifteen minutes per class. Sometimes I write with them, grocery lists or anagrams of Jack’s full name. Perhaps I’ll submit my work to The Paris Review or The New Yorker; it’s all I’ve created since I graduated.
Just nailed my audition for a national, Morgan replies. You e-mail him yet?
In the back of the classroom, Jack writes, tracing fingers through his (thick, lustrous shiny too perfect metrosexual) hair.
“Pencils down.” No one uses pencil, some type on laptops, but I say it anyway. “Who wants to read?”
“Might as well.” Pierce looks like Kurt Cobain if instead of committing suicide he’d begun eating nine Double Downs a day. No matter the prompt or assignment, he adds to his novella, a meandering account of Lithium’s effect on his libido and bowels. I tried once to explain that scatology is fine, but like any component of writing, it must serve a purpose other then shock.
“Further plot, advance character, you see?” I did the power pyramid thing with my hands.
“I don’t know about that.” Pierce rolled his serial killer eyes.
Now, listening to Pierce complain about Lithium, I think how as a teenager, Frances Farmer was my favorite song. Pierce should write about Teen Spirit deodorant, about a heart-shaped box and how nature is a whore. I giggle, though I don’t mean to.
“What’s so funny?” Pierce peers from beneath his hair.
“Never mind,” I say, which makes me laugh more.
“Want to see a play Friday?” I ask my girlfriend.
Trolling Craigslist for condos, “Here’s one with exposed brick,” she says.
“Aren’t you ever going to buy?”
“Friday’s the Lakers game.” Head to one side, peering at the computer screen, she looks like a curious dog.
I’ll be there, I write. As for my work, I only share published writing with students. But maybe I’ll make an acception. Before sending, I forward Jack’s e-mail and my potential reply to Morgan and Dan.
First of all, teach, you spelled exception wrong. That’s it from Morgan. No second or third or fourth.
Dan: He wrote “btw” and you still want to screw him? Fine, ask him out for a drink after his show, then be blatant. Use the "I am hardly ever even remotely attracted to a man, but you just get my pussy soaking wet!" line on him. No straight male could resist.
Even a few years ago when they were still having sex, Dan’s wife wouldn’t let him talk dirty. She’s Catholic, so he talks dirty to me. Once in a while I send him a picture, maybe a bare shoulder or part of a breast. Back in grad school, I tried to get him to pay me, but he said it made him feel cheap.
What I wrote seems blatant enough.
Dan: You’re kidding, right?
I correct my spelling, then send Jack the e-mail, immediately refreshing my inbox. On the couch next to me, my girlfriend adjusts the maroon reading glasses balanced on her nose. When we first got together she told me, “The things I’ll say when I fuck you, afterward, you won’t look me in the eye for days.”
The other day I reminded her.
“Have you said those things yet?” I asked.
Morgan: I think it’s easier for me to compartmentalize, so it’s possible for me to test the waters, shall we say, before completely blowing up my life. That's not the most self-complimentary truth, but there you have it. You, on the other hand, are not as capable of deceit. Besides, what if he's a creep? What if he ends up only wanting to date casually for a month? What if he has a wooden leg? P.S. So far my interest seems reciprocated, but I won’t be leaving Julia any time soon.
Morgan’s wrong. My deceits are smaller and more commonplace, but I’m just as capable as she. In our year living together, I slipped bills from her wallet nearly every day. She had steady voiceover work then and a reoccurring role in a series, but insisted we split the expenses in half. Most Sunday mornings, I’d treat her to coffee with her own twenty. She never noticed a thing.
On the way into class, a hippie with a clipboard stops me.
“Have a minute for factory farm chickens?” The copper bells on her pants tinkle and click.
“Only if they’re battered and fried.” Ahead, I see Jack striding toward my classroom. “Don’t block the door,” I add. Turban girl reads a story about a girl in love with a boy.
“Each night she falls asleep with his name on her lips, hoping tomorrow his own lips will be where his name was.” She licks the corner of her mouth, cracked and dry. “That’s all I have so far.”
“Comments?” I watch Jack raise a finger as if summoning a check.
“Beautiful final line,” he says.”
“That’s only where I stopped.” Turban girl straitens her spine. “More stuff will happen, like maybe tomorrow he calls.”
“Still.” Jack smiles, but not like an asshole, like a father or a forgiving king. “Your narrator seems so passive, though. For the first three pages, she only thinks. What if you brought the dialogue with her best friend forward, opened with them talking near their lockers, and then doubled back to give us her thoughts?”
“Maybe.” Turban girl looks doubtful.
“Other comments?” I should give her classmates more time to volunteer, but workshop silence makes me sweat. “Any questions for us?” I ask her.
“No.” Her tongue sneaks to the corner of her mouth. “Wait, yes, do you think he’ll call?”
Someone, not you, I think.
“He’ll call,” Jack says.
I text Morgan, Poor student wrote wish fulfillment fairytale. Wants some Penis to call.
Since when do you care about your students? She replies. Excited about tonight?
You sure you won’t be my wingman?
If I showed up you know he’d go home with me. Besides, I got plans. And not with Julia ;)
You’re going to cheat?
Showering and dressing, I check my phone, but she doesn’t reply.
I’m wearing my hair loose, I e-mail Dan. Guys like that, right?
Hell yeah. You’re my favorite sexy school teacher. You still gonna fuck him if his show sucks?
My face in the mirror is flushed, my hair arranged in artful wisps. I don’t look like a Rebecca, nor, thank God, a Frances. Maybe I’m someone new.
In graduate school I wrote a short story about an aging actress who’d lost her young daughter years before. If the narrative had a point it was something like, You Can’t Outrun Despair. During a party scene the actress shares her method of dealing with colleagues’ embarrassing performances.
“You can’t avoid them, of course,” she said, face aglow from wine. “I make a beeline backstage, cup their cheeks between my hands and say-” Visage awed, voice tremulous, she grew two feet before continuing, “What you did…on that stage tonight? Mmmmm. And then I kiss them full on the lips.”
Younger then me, the teacher running the workshop remarked, “Emotion-driven character study, check. Dead child, check. You write like a woman.”
“I am a woman,” I said.
“Then you see the problem.” Smiling, he thumbed his tufty beard.
Inside the tiny black box theater I button my thin cardigan. Outside burning wind lifted my sundress, but now I’m shivering from artificial cold. Before the lights fade I scan the house, more than half full. Broken into couples and threesomes, the audience seems a bastion, exclusive and self-sustaining. Although instantly accessible, my friends are scattered across the country; I’ve come here alone.
Watching Jack is kind of like being him, which I sort of want to do. Life as a square-jawed man with soft brown eyes and the right amount of chest hair; what could be easier? Onstage he’s fluid, professional. I hadn’t planned to like his work.
Going backstage seems an imposition. Instead, wishing I had a coat to struggle with or a scarf to adjust, I slowly sort through my bag. I text Morgan and then Dan, but my cell phone stays dark like a dead thing.
“Miss Long?” Beside me Vanessa clutches a blond bro’s arm. “I thought that was you. Jack was whoa, right? Total win!”
“What are you doing here?” Instinctively, I bare my teeth.
“Support your classmates, right?”
“Jack invited you?”
The underwear I’ve chosen, a decade old but purchased at La Perla, creeps down my hips.
“So, guess what.” Vanessa clasps her hands like a child on a Christmas card.
“What?” I snake a hand behind me, tugging my waistband in place. The blond mimes puffing a cigarette and strides up the aisle.
“He’s like, the only person in L.A. who still smokes.” Vanessa giggles. “You know my essay on choking? It won a contest, this ‘story of your life thing’ in “Glamour?” Five thousand dollars. Can you stand it?”
“I know, right?” Behind Vanessa, Jack finally emerges. Talking with an older couple and a petite brunette, he doesn’t look my way. Maybe I can leave before he sees me.
“I was thinking about transferring to UCLA, maybe major in creative writing, be a real writer, like you.”
I always tell my students a real writer is someone who writes.
“What did you do last night?” I’ll ask. “You wrote. So you’re just as real as any writer out there.”
“I’m not real.” I tell Vanessa. “Excuse me.”
I’m at Jack’s elbow before I realize I’ve chosen to move.
“Rebecca.” Jack has that “I’ve seen God and he looks like me” expression actors get after a show.
He clasps my hand, a meaningless gesture. Make the fan feel included, I’ve seen Morgan do it before.
“These are my parents.” Jack motions toward the older couple, now several feet away, searching their pockets for something, perhaps lost keys. “And this is Sylvia,” he reaches for the brunette whose thick silver ring exactly matches his.
“Jack.” I catch his face in my hands. I’ve never navigated a first kiss without some sort of mishap, the clash of front teeth, bumped noses, once a stumble from a high curb. Ice-cream-sundae-pirate, I think, one hand on his jaw, the other in his metrosexual hair. Jack’s hands on my shoulders are insistent, but in this moment, I’m stronger. When his lips part, I know he wants what I do, but he’s too shy to say. So what if he’s struggling? So what if Sylvia’s tugging my arm. I’ll stop when I’m ready, maybe tomorrow, or next week. Digging an elbow into some fleshy part of Sylvia, I press my pelvis into Jack’s.
“Miss Long!” Beside me, Vanessa clutches at my shoulder. I pull back, coughing, as if I’ve swallowed ocean water. Behind Sylvia, Jack’s parents’ mouths form identical spheres.
“You like nice underwear, don’t you?” I ask.
“What?” Relaxing her grip, Vanessa steps back.
“Lace-edged, silky, maybe embellished with crystals or rhinestones?”
“I guess.” Vanessa tangles her fingers in her multi-strand necklace, a nervous habit I recognize from class.
“My underwear’s black,” I tell her, “The waistband’s gone slack and the ass is almost see-through. Know what else?”
“Rebecca-” Jack to the rescue.
“Vanessa,” I say like a teacher, all I am, “do you know what else?”
Vanessa shakes her head.
“It’s the nicest pair I own. You know why?” Jack’s fingers around my wrist are intimate; his thumb presses my vein.
“Why?” Vanessa whispers.
“Real writers can’t afford underwear,” I say, moving toward Jack who recoils, releasing my wrist.
“I just need to tell you something.” I crumple his shirt in my fists, leaning forward to whisper in his ear.
Outside, the heat envelopes me like a blanket, welcome at first, soon stifling. I’m sweating by the time I reach my car. Key in the door then the ignition, foot on the gas and a straight shot from the 101 to the 110; I could drive it blindfolded, but sometimes the predictable goes rogue. Not texting; both hands firm on the steering wheel, I’m remembering Jack’s upper lip, sweat dampened and gritty with five o’clock shadow. I’m picturing his expression when I whispered my real name.
Maybe I turn the wheel too soon or too sharply, or maybe the terrain and my memory of it diverge. Either way, after I hit the embankment, though the Toyota’s left side is mangled, I stumble from the car, more aroused than stunned.
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