I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
It has been a singular pleasure to watch Fiona blossom over the course of the semester, as a mathematician and a person. She is consistently well-prepared, exudes a quiet sweetness, and is beginning to take on a leadership role in the classroom. Her artful solutions on the vector test truly raised the bar for the whole class. I only hope she will become more comfortable sharing with us the full breadth of her talents.
I finish typing Fiona’s midterm report, lock up my office, and there she is. She and her teammates from freshman basketball are celebrating victory in the East Hallway, performing an impromptu line dance, pliant bodies undulating like windswept wheat. Fiona lingers toward the back, eyeing her companions for direction but moving with natural grace. What a spirited bunch!
I bop by, singing loudly and badly.
“You’re so weird, Mr. Finch,” they say, giggling. I give them high fives for the win and execute a couple of spins I learned from an Urban Dance instructional videotape advertised on late-night TV. “Go Mr. Finch, Go Mr. Finch,” they shout.
“When we going out, Mr. Finch?” yells Rosemary, svelte shooting guard.
“Mr. Finch, I’ll be legal in four years, wait for me,” rasps Anya, the sturdy center. I get this behavior sometimes, from the brasher girls. Not that I’m an Adonis, just approachable: five foot eight, mid-30s, in good shape, decent looking but not intimidatingly handsome like Mr. Crosby, the English teacher whose presence renders them mute.
Four tenth-grade boys loiter nearby, snickering, chins tucked into massive hooded sweatshirts. Nike-wearing nihilists. God forbid they should allow their bodies to express the ineffable feelings that music invariably conjures. In the group is Matt Reagan, whom I believe is Fiona’s paramour: “You still owe me three homeworks, young man,” I yell.
While the girls resume celebrating, I tarry next to the activities board. I have a gift for blending into my surroundings. When I was Fiona’s age, one of my teachers described it thusly (in more prolix language than I usually find appropriate for progress reports): “Jim has a marked proclivity for absorbing the prevailing ethos of the group and to disappearing [sic] into it.”
I watch the girls apply their Girl Gang body glitter and Like Butta’ flavored lip gloss. Where some might see in this ritual a slavish devotion to ad-driven consumption, I can’t help but admire their generosity in sharing their cosmetics. And the colors of the products—the bright pastel hues—such a life-affirming palette.
Fiona suddenly approaches. “So, you going to give me a ride home today, Mr. Finch?” I’ve given her a lift before when games ran late, but that was at my suggestion, so this reflects new boldness.
“Of course,” I say. Although her house is a bit out of the way and I have some polygon projects to evaluate, I want to encourage her social daring. There’s always some give in my schedule at this hour. My life outside school is not as full as perhaps it might be. (I’m still reeling from the demise of my book group!)
Fiona throws her Hawaiian-print messenger bag over her head, double-kisses best-friend Pilar as if she’s off to Paris, and struts toward the parking lot in leather wedge sandals from Charles David. Unlike girls in years past with her figure, she doesn’t slump her shoulders or cross her arms to cover herself. She’s been taught to respect and cherish her body. Okay, she’s totally hot. In my profession, it’s best to acknowledge the incontrovertible and move on.
It goes beyond external beauty, however: the girls in our school have this remarkable spirit, an eagerness to seize every new opportunity. Mr. Cavalli, the PE teacher, calls me “girly man” because I always sit with female students at lunch. But the fact is, if you want a freewheeling exchange of ideas, you don’t plonk down with your shepherd’s pie next to the drowsy, grunting boys. When I was in school, I was oblivious to the richness of the girls’ realm, too nervous in their presence to really see them, too preoccupied with maintaining the middling status of an okay athlete (cross-country, diving) and not-bad student (B+/B).
I open the doors of my battered Saturn and a muddy smell puffs out. To make room for her feet, Fiona has to kick aside a pile of old newspapers, but she is gracious as ever. “I see you’re fond of reading periodicals, Mr. Finch.”
I drive along Flamingo Lake and cut through Walnut Grove, my childhood stomping grounds, whose narrow, leaf-strewn streets and teetering bungalows I find soothing. It was once the residential heart of the city but is now dwarfed by surrounding subdivisions. All too quickly we’re on Elysian Boulevard, where the blocks stretch out to accommodate a steady stream of shopping centers and fast-food restaurants.
Nervous to be riding in a teacher’s car, Fiona unzips her backpack and reorganizes things, moves a teddy bear out of sight, sticks some loose papers into folders, reviews tonight’s homework.
“Mr. Finch, it’s really nice of you to drive me home,” she says as we pass Seminole Acres, where they’re putting in 15,000 new units.
“Fiona, you are a valuable person who deserves nothing but niceness and respect,” I say. This is an empowerment phrase we’ve been encouraged to iterate at regular intervals to counter the self-esteem crashes that hormones induce in girls Fiona’s age. I’m not sure of its impact, but I know it’s a heady time to be teaching girls. We’re completely reshaping the classroom to accommodate gender differences in learning styles!
My enthusiasm for new girl-friendly curricula verges on excessive, my colleagues inform me. But what else is there to get excited about these days? The overemphasis on standards has sucked the life out of lesson planning. The city has chosen to completely disregard the recommendations of the Wetlands Protection Committee on which I serve. You can’t even see plays downtown anymore because the Palmetto Theater couldn’t compete with the malls and multiplexes.
“Oh,” Fiona says. In the ensuing silence, she is moved to reorganize her hair and I struggle to keep my eyes on the road. With two tie-dye scrunchies, she puts it in girlish pigtails, thinks better of it, French clips it into what the kids call a messy pony tail, then settles on a chignon, which Jane magazine recently did a feature on. (I find this magazine to be a useful research tool to gain insight into my girls’ brains.)
“That’s a good look for you,” I say.
“You’re so sweet. When are you going to get married? You deserve a nice wife.”
“The right woman hasn’t come along yet.” Two years ago, I dated the gym teacher, who had a nice body, but the bucked teeth got to me after a while, as did her passion for wearing peasant dresses and listening to the Grateful Dead. Lately, things have been quiet. I have to admit there are times late at night in my Murphy bed when I feel like something crucial is missing, lying just outside my field of vision, and if I could just glimpse it, I would be transformed. The way a new equivalence can open up a previously insoluble proof. I found it encouraging that on Chinese Food Monday in the cafeteria, my fortune said, “A change are happening soon.”
“How are things with Matt?” I ask Fiona as we drive through the gates of Liberty Estates, where she lives.
“Oh, he broke up with me last week. I was grieving and all stressed for a while, but my mom thinks I’m coming to terms.”
“Perhaps it wasn’t a good fit,” I say. Matt is a foot shorter than Fiona, was suspended recently for smoking cigarettes, and seems to boast no exceptional abilities other than the willingness to try dangerous tricks on the lower-school rope swing.
“To help me feel better, mom let me buy a new dress for the dance this weekend.”
“Did that help the whole emotional piece fall into place?” I turn onto Crispus Attucks Avenue and pull up in front of her house, a Greek Revival McMansion that bulges to the edge of the lot.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure it looks right.”
“I could look at it for you.”
“You would? Okay. It won’t take too long,” she says, starting to get out of the car, appearing to assume I meant now. She notices I haven’t budged.
“Don’t worry, Mom’s in deposition until seven, dad’s got a dinner with underlings.”
She sits there wiggling, looking at me with a mixture of terror and hope.
“Well,” I say. I have to make my daily check-up call to mom, see how her hip’s feeling, but she’s probably napping right now. What the heck. It is a little unorthodox to carry the pedagogical process into the home, but it is such a teachable moment: to show that a man is capable of proffering advice in a putatively feminine arena, to demonstrate that not all men are Neanderthals.
In her house, Fiona seems more comfortable. She raids the Sub-Zero, rifles through the mail. She slides across the shiny floor to the computer in the corner of the kitchen and does some e-mail a mile a minute the way the girls do. Silently approaching, I notice she’s writing to her best friend, Pilar, saying something about how she can’t believe I’m actually in her house right now.
“Hey, don’t look,” she says, clicking “Send Now” and exiting in a heartbeat. She spots a stray dumbbell next to the chair, a 20-pounder, and idly reels off ten curls. Man, what an incredible time to be a girl, you can lift weights and dance, be sexy and strong, do sports and do your nails. How full their lives are.
Whereas boys seem to be having trouble getting it together right now. The other day I tried to spice things up by showing a film in class—we’d finished a unit on tangents and it was a natural spot for a break. The film was called Pi and had received three and a half stars from Time magazine, and though it was experimental, I believed it would offer insight into the mind of a mathematician. Well, the boys seemed to think that because the film was in black and white it was automatically boring. Several of the girls eloquently expressed their frustrations with the enigmatic hero, but not a single boy would share anything about the film’s emotional impact.
Somewhere along the line, boys have stopped evolving. If you graph their development on the x-y axis, letting y represent time and x growth, you get a curve that runs parallel to the vertical asymptote!
Fiona lowers the weight slowly to the floor and asks, “Shall we view the gown, monsieur?”
I hasten to follow as she bounds up the stairs two at a time. Her room is bright and airy, with angled sunbeams streaming through the lace curtains onto the canopy bed, reminding me of pictures of Chartres the art teacher showed in assembly today. Lying in the middle of the pink wall-to-wall is a pair of flowered panties, which Fiona deftly hides by laying down her backpack. Whirling about like an energized electron, she feeds her hamster, kicks her shoes into the closet, straightens out the covers of her bed.
A spring-like aroma emanates from Fiona’s makeup table, which teems with myriad vessels of nail polish, perfume, body glitter, eye shadow. There is, for example, a set of Mary Quant eye colors that resembles a box of kids’ crayons, a lava lamp-shaped bottle of Dep Level 8 Hair Emancipator, and shiny tubes of Fly Girl lipstick with names like “Whatever” and “Funeral Parlor.”
She sees me eyeing the Goth Girl black nail polish.
“You want to try some?” she asks.
“Maybe a couple of fingers.” She inspects my face to see if I’m serious. I hold my hands out.
“This is going to be hilarious,” she says, suddenly excited, directing me to sit down on a blow-up armchair adorned with smiley-face stickers. She paints my thumb-nails first, slapping my hand when I move too much. I feel the warmth of her breath as she concentrates. By the time she finishes, my hands are trembling slightly. Waves of excitement and dread are crashing inside me.
She goes to her closet, slides open the doors, and at long last reveals the dress for the dance. It is simple but slightly risqué. In cornflower cotton enlivened by stripes of cantaloupe, celadon, parrot green, and sandalwood, the plunging v-neck top boasts a fitted bodice, princess seams, and slightly puffed cap sleeves and is connected by side strings to a midnight pleated skirt with an asymmetrical hemline. (Again I’m indebted to Jane for my grasp of the relevant argot.) As she holds it up to herself, the phone rings and she darts into the hallway and answers with a polite “Gork’s residence.”
Her usually quiet voice rises to a screech and I hear phrases like: “Yes, he’s really here.” “Do you think I should?” “Everybody’s going to be so jealous.” “No, they’re not supposed to be home for three more hours.”
Fiona returns and takes her dress into the bathroom. She comes out and she is a vision, but her face is wrenched with uncertainty.
“Could you like help with the um … zipper.” She backs up to me and I can see she’s removed her bra. As I zip, I try to touch her as little as possible.
“You’re really nice to do this,” she says. She’s put on some kind of innocent-smelling perfume, but it doesn’t fully mask the earthy traces of her earlier athletic endeavors. She looks at my eyes, looks at my lips, and I sense that she might kiss me.
“Now wait a minute,” I say. She coughs. I must stay focused on the potential for instruction.
I’m tremendously relieved when the door bell rings. Fiona leans out the window and reports that it’s Matt, her ex-boyfriend, and I’m not relieved anymore. If the boy was to discover my presence, he might spread the word back on campus, and my superiors, absent a full briefing from me, might not grasp the rigorous logic undergirding my visit. Fiona agrees to fend him off.
I look out the window and see Matt making rap gestures on the brick path and Fiona speaking to him with her arms crossed, body stiff. Matt peels back his sweatshirt hood and kneels down in a supplicant’s posture, takes her hand, kisses it. I can tell Fiona is now laughing from the way her shoulders bounce. They sit down cross-legged on the grass and I worry I’ll be here until nightfall. Fiona abruptly reappears and feverishly rummages through her backpack.
“Matt needs help with homework,” she says, waving the worksheet I assigned for tomorrow. Of course I’m pleased to see students working together. On the other hand, this assignment is calibrated to take 25 minutes.
I pace the pink carpet, peek out the window and see Matt and Fiona sprawled on their stomachs in parallel. I assess the logistics of crawling commando-style to my car, decide it’s too risky. Eventually, I find myself standing before the open closet, drawn inexorably to the rippling wall of color. I think about my closet at home, with its modest selection of drab tweed, a blue blazer, a beige raincoat, a smoking jacket that I bought second-hand for last New Year’s but never wore. Like a child running his fingers down the keys of a piano, I trace the soft furrows of fabric: silk, velour, sequins, cotton, tulle, Shetland, cashmere.
I flash on an episode in class involving Matt. “Without math, people,” I said, coming up behind the little know-nothing’s desk, “Mr. Reagan would be a girl.” The class erupted in laughter and I went into a brief explanation of how in the complex process by which cells read genetic information contained on the chromosomes, the subtraction of single protein can make the difference between male and female organisms. I was being playful, of course, but there was important truth to what I said, I realize now. With the most infinitesimal changes in my DNA, I might have ended up a girl.
As I idly thumb the sartorial splendor, an idea occurs to me. In class, my constant refrain is “Take chances, make mistakes.”
Fiona and I are the same height, but I’m thicker around the middle, so I’ll have to choose loose garments. For a shirt, I have trouble deciding between a cropped baseball-style T-shirt with a list of endangered species on the back and a rhinestone-encrusted white tank top with a Hell’s Angel logo. I eenie-meenie-minee-mo to come up with the former and slip it on, folding up my sweater vest and Oxford shirt and placing them on the bed. The overall experience isn’t much different from my Fruit of the Loom undershirts, except for the trace of perfume. In the skirt section, I find a red mini with an elasticized waist band, which I manage to wriggle into after shedding my gray flannel slacks. At first, feeling a breeze on my thighs is somewhat unsettling, but as I acclimate, I begin to feel more connected to the elements, freer.
Figuring I’ve only used up 10 minutes and the 25-minute worksheet should take Matt 35, I plunge into the shoe collection. Who could resist platform boots, even if the glitter and laces recall the early Elton John? Now this is cool: to be five inches taller.
I finally allow myself a glimpse in the mirror and it’s not exactly a beautiful sight. I don’t feel any immediate rush of Girl Power. I try cocking my hip, fluttering my eyelashes, and I’m a sultry vixen. I strike a martial arts pose, launch a couple of kicks, and I’m opening a can of whoopass. But I still feel like the nasally math teacher. It’s while I’m applying a soothing layer of kiwi-strawberry face relaxer that I hear voices from the lawn.
“So you gone be my bitch,” Matt says in the African American accent the popular boys favor.
“I guess so, but don’t say it like that,” Fiona says.
“You know to be my bitch you gone have to hook me up. Translation: blow job,” he says.
“I don’t know. Not now. I’ve got more homework to do. Bye Matt.”
Shit. I hasten to the door, but there’s no lock. I’d been counting on a lock. Already there are footsteps on the stairs. With a quick distance/time calculation, I decide my only hope is to slide open the closet door and climb in.
“Mr. Finch, what are you doing?” Fiona says, laughing, a few feet from me. I try not to breathe.
“You know I’m a little old for hide and seek. Anyway, I see your hair sticking out.”
I hear footsteps moving closer. She finally slides the door open with a flourish. There is a howl of laughter and her face hovers close, all scrunched with hilarity. But gradually I see her expression inexorably morphing from a wide grin to surprise to horror.
In a crisis like this, teachers are trained to slow ourselves down. I take deep control breaths, ease carefully out of the closet. I don’t speak right away. Part of the trick of being a good teacher is being able to rescue calamitous situations. Fiona flings herself backward onto the bed, presses her hands to her eyes, howls, “Oh my god, Mr. Finch. Oh, my god. This can’t be happening. You’re a fag. How could you not tell me?”
“Fiona, that’s a fallacious assumption insufficiently supported by the evidence at hand.” I search for a way to explain that what might seem to her to be a creepy deception should really be seen as a celebration of her gender, a reinforcement of the class lesson that girls represent the vanguard of the nation’s future.
“Bad boy! Hold still now,” Pilar says in her gravelly voice, wagging her finger at me as I sit before the vanity. She leans against my side and continues applying the mascara. But I can’t help it: when I spy myself in the mirror, I reflexively lift my chin and flutter my lashes and I feel a stinging in my eyes and I start rubbing with my knuckles. Fiona and Pilar point at me and laugh, having a grand old time: I’m their little project.
To back up slightly: After Fiona cycled through her initial shock and confusion, she seized control of her emotions and figured out a creative solution to our awkward circumstance. She decried it could be totally fun if she invited best-friend Pilar over to “get a look at me.”
“Pretty please, Mr. Finch, with a non-carcinogenic cherry without red dye on top,” she’d said. Still guilty about the emotional maelstrom I’d triggered, I was powerless to resist. They shrieked together on the phone as they discussed ideas for properly completing my makeover. I seriously considered fleeing, but I wondered what kind of example that would set: if at the first sign of adversity, I wilted.
When Pilar arrived, she kicked off her Ugg boots and went straight to work. She and Fiona collaborated seamlessly, each plucking an eyebrow, each shaving a leg.
Now, after Pilar finishes the mascara, Fiona comes in with some blush. Fiona decides my hair is not right and digs out a Cleopatra wig from Halloweens past. It makes my head feel hot and itchy, but I kind of like doing the little girly gestures to keep it out of my eyes, whipping my head sideways, tucking recalcitrant strands behind an ear. Pilar takes to mimicking my hair flip.
They are an incongruous pair. Pilar is nervier, smaller, darker. I would hazard a guess she smokes cigarettes. But she has a fun way of leering up at you from under that cascade of curving bangs, as though she’s onto your dissimulation but finds it amusing.
“Not bad,” Pilar says as the girls twirl me for inspection. “Needs clothes that fit properly though.” I’m impressed by their ability to stay on-task. But I feel like a poodle at the groomers, overly fluffed and perfumed, skin irritated, headachy and thirsty, in need of a good run. How do I explain to them that it is not so much I want to look like them as be them?
Growing girls need their protein, so we decamp to the kitchen for complex ice cream: Fudge-injected Brownie Batter with Caramel Swirl. My platforms make a pleasing sound on the hardwood and I can’t help but execute a little syncopated tap, hands behind my back like an Irish dancer. My jaunty foot play cannot, however, dispel a rising sense of regret about this whole absurd escapade. If there were a way to beam myself up, I’d probably head to the gym for some racquetball, burn off some tension.
“When are your parents due?” I ask Fiona for the third or fourth time. To humor me, she calls them on their respective cells, nails down their ETA at two and a half hours.
“Remember, if word gets out at school, you each receive an F for the semester. Not a D, an F,” I say.
“Chill out, Priscilla,” Pilar says. Fiona disagrees that I resemble a Priscilla and there ensues a lengthy consideration of what my girl name should be. The back door opens and in walks a third friend, Allegra, a 19th-century-style beauty with golden ringlets who is the smartest girl in the class, so smart the other girls don’t get how smart she is, which is maybe why she’s also the quietest girl in the class. Often I think she’s not paying attention until I make a grown-up joke and she’s the only one who gets it.
Seeing me in my new get-up, Allegra snorts once and quotes the clown from Twelfth Night: “Oh mistress mine, where are you roaming?”
I come back with Viola: “They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.”
“Talk about cross-gartered,” Allegra retorts and the others look at her sideways.
As they eat, the girls multi-task, take a couple of bites, dial a number on a cell, IM for a moment, reapply lip gloss. The ice cream loosens their tongues and they indulge in a free-flowing consideration of who’s hot, who’s not, who likes whom, who blew off whom. I notice Fiona doesn’t mention the earlier encounter with Matt, realize she wants to keep it to herself, feel her watching me to see if I’ll mention it. I feel like I’ve passed an important test, sense her gravitating toward me. She idly twists a strand of my wig.
Pilar mentions someone she used to date named Justin, who “bagged her” in favor of a cheerleader, who in turn broke up with Justin, but they’re still “friends with benefits.”
“I’m interested in this terminology,” I say. “Who can define that for me?”
“Ah yes, professor, this is quite intriguing, is it not?” Allegra says, pursing her lips, squinting through imaginary spectacles.
“Cut him some slack,” Fiona says, proceeding to explain that it’s lingo for friends who have sex together—mostly girls giving guys blow jobs.
“I’m hearing a surfeit of stories about girls giving guys blow jobs,” I say. “Do guys ever reciprocate? I mean I’m concerned about the power dynamics at play.”
Finally, Pilar asks, “So who did you hear gave who a blow job?”
“Gave whom, Pilar,” I say.
“Here’s what I think,” says Fiona, deftly changing the subject. “I think we need to hit the mall and get Mr. Finch hotter clothes.”
“Mall, mall, mall,” the girls chant.
“Actually, I think our experiment has run its course.”
“Oh pwease, Mr. Finch,” Fiona says, making puppy eyes. “We’ll all do today’s challenge problem.”
We’ve probably gone far enough with this strange dream, the math teacher tottering on platforms like Miss Piggy. But I picture what I’d be doing at home right now, heading to the basement laundry room with my new issue of Harper’s, having to explain to my neighbor the retired colonel that it’s really not the same magazine as Harper’s Bazaar.
“Okay, here’s how it’s going to go,” I say and read them the riot act. If used selectively, a sudden display of fierceness can be useful for maintaining order.
“I call shotgun,” Fiona says as we approach the car. I hear Pilar and Allegra sniffing the seats as they climb in back.
Allegra whispers to Pilar, “Teachers are considered the second-worst paid profession, after nurses.”
“Nice car, Mr. Finch,” Pilar bellows and Fiona turns around to glare at her for the clumsiness of her insincere remark.
“What do you know about cars, Pilar?” Fiona says. “You’ve been jonesing after a Humvee. She says it’d make her feel powerful, Mr. Finch.”
“That’s how millions of Americans feel, I wouldn’t dismiss that so quickly,” I say. Thereupon, Fiona and Allegra lay out for Pilar why Humvees are irresponsible, citing lots of solid data about mileage statistics and Middle Eastern oil reserves.
I get on Lake Road as soon as I can, figuring that on a one-way I’ll be less visible. And as soon as I can, I slip onto the East-West Interstate, heading to the other side of town. Out past the Versailles Gardens development, Allegra remembers there’s a cool boutique in the Expressions Mall and that becomes our destination. I park at the far end. As we walk toward the store, the girls fall silent. We enter in a nervous cluster and a saleswoman with prodigious highlights says, “Hello, ladies, may I help you,” eyes fixed on me, sarcasm in her smile. My teenage companions scatter toward side aisles and I am left alone staring dumbly at a rack of lacy thongs.
“Are you sure there isn’t anything I can help you with?” the woman asks.
“I’m good,” I say and continue toward the separates, where I hope to intercept the girls. But when I hear them tittering on the other side of the divider, I reverse course and seek egress. I conclude the girls were not quite ready for this.
“Wait, Mr. Finch,” Fiona says, hastening to my side. She hooks my arm, steers me toward some spaghetti strap Ts in day-glow colors.
“These are kind of fun, don’t you think?” she says. “They might provide a less constricting fit.” A bracing array of colors spread out before me. I touch a blue one and it falls off the hanger into my hands, feeling lighter than air.
“Perfect,” Fiona says. “It picks up the blue in your eyes.” Almost imperceptibly, she exchanges it for an extra large, which she takes to the register before I can stop her. She hands me the bag as the four of us walk out.
“We’ll get a skirt next time,” Fiona says.
“Totally,” Pilar says.
“Absolutement,” Allegra says. By the time we get to the Saturn, everyone’s giddy and giggling, even me. I pull off the endangered species shirt, and my bare chest seems genuinely to shock them. I ham it up, flexing my muscles, pounding my hairy pectorals like an ape.
“Mr. Finch is buff,” Pilar says.
“Most hirsute,” Allegra says. I don the T and the way it hugs my contours makes me self-conscious.
“It fits you perfectly,” Fiona says.
On the way back, we listen to Rent, everyone singing in full voice. I get a little wild with my driving, peel out a few times, which is not easy in five-inch platforms. There is talk of how we have to do this again, where we’ll go next time. Pilar and Allegra have term papers, so I give them door-to-door service. At Fiona’s, there are no cars in the driveway, so it seems okay to go in and fetch my clothes.
But as Fiona turns her key in the back door, I hear strange noises, a kind of growling that organizes itself into a male voice. The door opens and there, standing at the kitchen counter, riffling through mail, barking into his cellphone, is Stanley Gork, Fiona’s father. He is exquisitely dressed in a tailored charcoal suit with red power tie and matching handkerchief, and yet he conveys an air of animal ferocity, in his full-browed glower, the way he keeps shifting his weight. In a recent profile in the Sentinel he was hailed as the poster boy for a new breed of 21st-century executive, someone “with the take-no-prisoners ethic essential for success in the Mad Max world of cutthroat global capitalism.”
In his booming voice, Stanley says, “Yeah my car’s in the shop. But I gotta go, George. Fiona’s home. Bye. What in god’s name is going on here?” Head down, eyes averted, I slip quietly into the hallway and head for the front door.
“Wait, that was the math teacher, wasn’t it?” Stanley says, and his robust footsteps pursue me. I can’t build up much speed in the platform shoes. They may be stylish, but I keep rolling over on my ankles. A few feet from the front door, just as a sensor detects my presence and thoughtfully switches on some recessed lights, Stanley grabs my shoulders.
“Come on now, let me get a look at you. Jesus, what a fruitcake. What exactly were you doing with my daughter?”
“Extra help, sir. She’s having trouble with sines.”
“Seems like you’re the one who needs help. To think last time you were here I thought you were trying to get into her pants. Not literally into her pants.”
“You’ve got the wrong idea. This is about education. I have to admit I was bit reckless in breaking new instructional ground. But that’s how we learn, right?”
“Listen to you.” I hear anger building. “You’re a freak show.”
“Sir with all due respect, I have to question your judgment. You’re drawing conclusions based on surface, on fashion. I doubt such superficial reasoning is encouraged in your field of endeavor.”
“You’re questioning my judgment?” he yells, getting up in my face. When he swings with his right, I avoid it with a quick feint, but when he comes back with a left hook, I get tangled up in the skirt—it hugs my legs so tightly—and his fist lands squarely on my cheek. Down I go.
“That’s right, little bitch,” he says. He tries to boot me in the side with a calfskin loafer, but I grab his leg and latch on. He shakes his leg but can’t dislodge me (I’ve been using the pull-up bar in my bathroom doorway). But then he leans down and twists the spaghetti straps on my shirt until they sting my neck. With the other hand, he reaches up my skirt and gives me a charley-horse. My thigh on fire, I’m helpless to keep him from carrying me outside and depositing me on the immaculate lawn. He kicks me several times.
“Isn’t kicking for girls?” I manage to say. As he shifts to fists, I search for something to distract my mind, can find refuge only in the reassuring certainty of math. I count the number of blows, notice his tendency to alter three lefts with a right. I gaze out over the proud streets of Liberty Estates and lose myself in the orderly symmetries, the pleasant regularity of standard lot sizes and roof heights, the exactitude with which address plates and garbage cans have been situated, the soothing rhythm of column window column window column window.
Stanley concludes his onslaught by grabbing his crotch and declaring, “Candy-ass motherfucker.” I see his pants ripple with the pendular swing of his privates, and it occurs to me just how vulnerable men are, with their most sensitive parts hanging out there like fruit to be plucked. The added mass of the platforms will substantially augment the total force as my foot swings up into him. What an idiot I’ve been, lying here like a wuss, assuming I couldn’t take this guy because why, because of his job, because of his deep voice? I’m ready to counterattack when Fiona emerges from the house.
“Oh my god, Dad, what are you doing? You’ve gone insane, acting like some kind of gangsta. Mr. Finch is merely dressed up for a school play.” That’s my girl. “The teachers are doing an experimental production of Twelfth Night.” Another of Fiona’s patented artful solutions. I’m so proud of her. Stanley silently withdraws into his Greek Revival, his furrowed brow suggesting sudden concern about legal exposure.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Just need a moment to gather myself,” I say. She reaches down and fixes my spaghetti straps. I can see in her face that she wants to do more.
“You can give me back the skirt another time,” she says.
Then she disappears too, and everything is quiet on the well-tended street. Cars park in driveways, people go inside, sidewalks remain empty. Lying there in the skirt, I feel scratchy fibers of lawn prickling my thighs, worry for a second about my vulnerability to insect life.
In the distance, I notice a beautiful red orb, which in my foggy state I mistake for a setting sun. But it begins moving toward me and I realize it’s the light on top of a patrol car. Reflected in a puddle on the street, the orb is twinned, and as the car nears, my eyes yearn for the wonderful, elegant moment when the orbs merge. But of course that’s physically impossible, and the patrol car splashes through the puddle and annihilates the reflection. It’s not any old police car, mind you. It belongs to the subdivision’s private security guards, who know how the homeowners like things to be. They’ve no doubt heard reports of a disturbance.
—Born in San Francisco, Pierre Hauser now lives in New York, where he is vice president of the Daphne Foundation. He has previously worked as a reporter, editor and park ranger. Hauser’s stories have been published in Carve, dySpout, and Northeast Corridor. He is the winner of BOMB’s second annual fiction prize, judged this year by novelist Patrick McGrath.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee