Ms. Waters’ Private Visitor
She waits for me after class under the pretext of tutoring. I tutor her in ways not academic.
We meet in fragments, strategized portions of time.
We sit side by side, inhaling each other’s perfume, pretending to discuss the textbook between us. I study the angles of her face, the symmetry of her thighs.
Though we want to—and though we tease—we aren’t safe to touch.
Autumn is seventeen, and I am her teacher.
Autumn works at a Kosher ice cream shop. She wears orange lipstick on the job, the only place, she says, she braves that shade.
She is prettier than she realizes, with big eyes and bangs and her 50s pinup style.
She thinks of herself as an outcast.
She stammers every time she speaks in class.
She has a small group of friends who wear thrift store clothes and dye their hair a different color every week. Autumn can be careless, but she is always kind. The sort of girl I would’ve been jealous of in high school.
It was obvious from the start she didn’t need a tutor.
I was surprised, but pleased by her forthrightness when we first met.
She’d said, “Please tell me if I’m out of line. I wanted a way to get to know you.”
We started meeting Fridays after class—first at school, then in secret.
When I was fifteen I went on a church retreat with my youth group; I stayed up late with a girl named Marnie who stroked my hair and massaged my back. Her soft breath exchanged secrets with my skin, inspiring countless nighttime prayers for forgiveness.
I didn’t know then that crushing on girls was an option.
I used to envy girls their fuller lips, fuller chests, bolder personalities. I was intimidated and too shy to befriend them.
But once you accept that certain women turn you on, envy is replaced with appreciation. (What a beautiful mouth; What a distinct style…)
I love that Autumn shaves her legs for me, though I wouldn’t mind if she didn’t. She cares too much—though it’s cute—about her make-up. It feels good, knowing someone tries so hard for my attention.
Her friends, as far as I can tell, have no idea.
We pass in the halls but don’t say hello.
There’s a part of me that stings when I’m ignored.
Sometimes we laugh about the headlines we’d inspire—the montages on primetime news dramatizing our relationship. Though we both know it’s no joke.
I don’t follow her on Facebook.
If I did she’d see that a woman in my circle—Claire—has started to pursue me.
I like Claire, but I haven’t had much success with thirty-something women. As though they can tell I’m late in understanding my sexuality. Claire is beautiful and smart and interesting and I feel desirous, but timorous, when I’m around her.
Working in a school is like an alternate reality with no association to any other aspect of your life. It’s a compartmentalized daily bubble of No Social Media, No Swearing, and No Flirting with the sexy English teacher down the hall (though you get too drunk with Said Teacher at Principal Kim’s Christmas party, blurt out that Said Teacher’s ass is the visual highlight of your day, ST takes it wrong and now you’ve lost your only form of escapism at school).
It’s Thursday and I’m teaching pre-calculus. Nobody cares. It’s nice outside and the windows of my room face the courtyard. The students by the windows watch the stragglers outside flip their skateboards while smoking Marlboros, loitering in their insouciant cloud of Good Taste in Music.
Half the class is texting as though my No Phone rule hasn’t been in place since Day One. Half of those half are likely texting about how boring I am, or how much I suck. Sometimes—and every teacher will admit this—I really despise these little jerks.
Do they actually think I want to keep them indoors? I might as well try teaching a dog to thread a needle. It’s impossible to get through to teenage martyrs.
Autumn sympathizes with her eyes. I can tell she’s antsy but she won’t get out her phone. Even before we got together she always showed respect.
Kyle sits behind her, flirting or insulting, I can’t tell which. She stares straight ahead while he talks, but then he tugs her hair and she flinches which makes me flinch so I take a deep breath to stay calm. Autumn turns around and punches him so hard in the arm that he almost falls out of his chair.
Several students “Oooooohh” and an indignant Kyle begs me to chastise Autumn. Despite the commotion, four kids remain absorbed in their screens as though nothing has happened.
I shake my head. “Consider that today’s lesson, everyone. Why don’t you spend the rest of the period doing whatever it was you were going to do anyway.”
Autumn and I watch old movies on weekends, spreading blankets and junk food on my living room floor.
“You could definitely star in a role like that,” I say to her, pointing toward the image of Lauren Bacall swaying her classic hips across the TV screen. “Gorgeous, witty, crass.”
Autumn raises her glass of water as though toasting. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Bitch?”
She fluffs a stack of pillows then lays back and asks, “How didn’t anyone see that Rock Hudson was gay?”
“People see what they want to see,” I say, untwisting an Oreo.
“Don’t you get frustrated hiding in an age when even ten-year-olds come out?”
“Every day,” I say. “Though our situation is a bit unique.” I reach for another Oreo and curl up against her.
“Just the way I like it,” she says and stuffs her mouth with popcorn.
“I thought you’d forgotten me,” says Claire over the phone. “It’s good to hear your voice.”
“Not forgotten,” I say. “Maybe a little shy.”
“Well, I am intimidatingly beautiful,” she says.
Her voice is gravelly, seductive.
“I took a Xanex just to call you,” I joke.
We banter until I get around to asking her for dinner.
She’s busy Thursday, how about Friday?
I have a work thing.
She’s out of town for a week after that. Call when she gets back?
I look forward to it.
A Knock at the Door
I’m at the school dance leaning against a vending machine in the nicest shoes I own, scanning the crowd of inflamed adolescents who sip punch and huddle in groups, laughing about fictional conquests. As far as Claire knows the chaperone gig is required, though really I’m here for Autumn.
Autumn’s friends seem nice in their indifference. I don’t mind them—Autumn has good taste. But I can’t help wanting her all to myself.
After five or six Katy Perry songs, I go use the bathroom and return to find Autumn sitting with Belinda Castro in the corner of the gym. Belinda’s mouth is at Autumn’s ear and she’s twirling a lock of her hair. Autumn is smiling with her eyes closed.
Jealousy burns in my throat like indigestion. I’m transported sixteen years back, broken-hearted over the loss of a friend to the boy she started dating.
I feel juvenile and rejected. Immature and old at the same time.
I need to get away.
I leave the lights off in my classroom and close the door. Streetlights poke holes through the blinds like searchlights.
I hear a knock at the door, faint but intentional. My skin flushes. It could only be her.
“I’m here,” I whisper through the crack.
“Can I come in?”
I open the door. The music is a distant hum of thudding bass. Autumn looks sullen and slightly sweaty. I check the hallway for voyeurs. “Did anyone see you?”
“No,” she says. “I swear.”
I lock the door and ask, “Why did you ask me here if you had a thing with somebody else?”
“It’s not like that,” she says, her eyes like milky puddles. “She came onto me. And, I guess…the attention was flattering. I’m sorry you saw that. It didn’t mean anything.”
“I understand—I do. You should be able to date and I can’t offer that.”
“But you’re the one I want,” she says and steps toward me through a pinprick beam of light. “There’s no one like you, Valerie.”
I touch her arm. “I want you too. So much sometimes it hurts. But even when you’re eighteen, I’ll still be your teacher.”
Her eyes search mine. She says, “Please don’t let me go.”
So many potential repercussions.
Yet I’m alone with a beautiful girl in a locked room, and at least for right now, I don’t care what anyone else might think.
I know what she wants and I want the same thing.
I pull her hips into mine, my hands in her hair. On her face. Her breasts.
“I liked watching you dance,” I whisper. “…like an actress on a stage.” I kiss her throat. She wilts.
I lift her onto my desk.
She is speechless, but not quiet, in suspense for my caress.
I am flushed and anxious. I shush her when she cries out.
But the forbidden is my weakness and I surrender to her touch, allowing my body to swelter and expand with every lick of fiery desire.
Neither of us will see the classroom the same again. We’ll make secret eyes while classifying Cartesian products, then we’ll blush, picturing a much emptier room in much dimmer light.
I’m getting coffee with Claire. We’ve been out a few times but I feel a bit like I’ve been using her. As though she’s the proof that I’m a fully functioning adult. I’ve lost the energy to try. The same, I fear, for Autumn—ever since we took our biggest risk. The stress of hiding takes a toll. It’s only a matter of time before we’re caught.
Claire is distant; I can tell she can tell what I’m about to say so I just say it.
“This isn’t a good time for me to date.”
She looks past me at a painting. Darkens. She says she wished she’d known that from the start.
I can only say, “I’m sorry.”
She says, “It’s all right if you’re scared. So am I.”
I smile but say nothing.
We hug outside between our cars. It is the closest we’ll ever be. I bury my face in her hair and breathe deep. She smells like orange peels. It reminds me of Autumn’s lipstick, and all of a sudden I’m in the mood for ice cream.
I stop outside the shop and catch a glimpse of Autumn through the glass. It’s busy so I leave.
At home I cry over the kitchen sink while washing dishes, into the soapy water that I wish could cleanse the film stuck to my heart. I clean to process sadness—scrubbing the countertops and cupboards, sweeping crumbs across the floor.
I am blue and in love with what I can’t and shouldn’t have.
I am in love.
We both knew it was wrong all along—not our love, or the sneaking, but the risk to the futures we deserved.
We were careful, but not perfect.
We were attracted by subversion.
I saw her in the summer, four years later, tanned and slightly plump. She looked at me an extra beat, waiting for the light, then turned and continued on her way. In those few seconds I could see she’d changed, in that shrewd way that college changes you.
I’ve still not told a single soul.
It was Autumn who finally ended it, with a handwritten letter slipped into my desk.
(I’ll think of you often, never obsessing.)
(Remember to first love yourself.)
It was a letter I should’ve written, but didn’t.
Classy, like Bacall.
“In The Morning I’ll Be Better” by Tennis
“Until Then” by Broadcast
“Lovelier Girl” by Beach House