An improper high school crush’s significance seeps into the pages of the book of adulthood…
by: Michelle Bracken
The stark white envelope sits alone on my desk. From Mr. Jones, it says. The letter arrived two hours prior, in the midday afternoon. I’ve been laying on the sofa and staring at it ever since. Jimmy, my husband, doesn’t know him personally, only believes that we were friends once and thinks that maybe we still are. Jimmy thinks he knows Mr. Jones because he’s read that newspaper article in The Desert Trail, the crapshoot of my hometown, the one where Mr. Jones said that he was so proud of me and my success, that he wanted to see me again, get my autograph and have me lecture his 12th grade class. I had wanted to throw that article away, but not Jimmy. He carefully clipped it and framed it.
“It’s just a small town,” I had said.
“But it’s you,” he replied, pressing the paper into the glass of the frame.
I was so nervous that first morning that I had to suck cherry cough drops to keep from biting the insides of my cheeks. I was fourteen and chubby. Pimples oiled by the hour. I didn’t want to go, but my mother had gotten up early to make eggs and blueberry pancakes and to braid my hair. “Oh, you’ll go,” she said, sitting on the couch, pulling my neck closer to her crotch as I sat on the floor. I hated her then.
I walked to my first day of high school, of English 9, in jean shorts and a black tank top because it was so hot in that desert that even at seven in the morning, I had sweat soaking my armpits. But everything changed when I saw Mr. Jones. I knew at that moment that I would always want to go to school, that I would always be on time, and that I’d always do my homework, even when Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 were on. I knew that I loved him then.
He stood tall, tan, and gray. He wasn’t losing his hair yet, but the color was gradually fading. It sat like a thick mop. I took the first seat in the center row and watched him rub the stubble on his chin.
He stood behind his red podium and studied the roll sheet. Students filed in, some laughing but most yawning. No one noticed me. I sat alone, in the front.
I always did the reading and never spoke up in class unless he called on me. Or unless his eyes met mine. Then I would raise my hand.
“Autumn,” he would say, pointing to me.
I would try to think of something impressive to say. Try to prove that I was smarter than everyone else, smarter than my age. It didn’t matter what I’d say. He’d respond, “Yes, indeed. Very good.” Then he would stand behind his red podium, his hands grasping the front, his body leaning into it, toward me. He consistently wore the same thing — khaki shorts, polo shirt, and sandals — even when it was cold.
I always got As on my papers. The Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs belonged to my classmates. They would smack their gum, draw scribbles, and make faces. I sat and listened. Wrote furious notes on the Odyssey. I couldn’t get enough.
I passed him every morning on the way to class. Mr. Jones would sit on one of the senior benches and squint from the early sun. Sometimes he was late to our class because he said that he lost track of time watching the weeds try to grow through the cracks of the sidewalks. I never saw him staring at weeds, only picking at the dirt underneath his fingernails. I figured his weed story was supposed to inspire the idiots in my class. A month into the semester he smiled as I walked by.
“How’s life?” he asked.
He seemed to get a kick out of that.
Our first major paper was on To Kill a Mockingbird. I couldn’t wait. I went home the night he assigned it and wrote until my hand went dead. I wrote it again and again. It wouldn’t be due for weeks, but I couldn’t wait.
A week after we turned it in, Mr. Jones told the class that there was one particular paper he wanted to read aloud. “It’s the best I’ve read in years,” he said as he stood behind his red podium.
My body got all hot inside. It was seven thirty-four in the morning and I couldn’t stop sweating, even though the a/c was on full blast. I prayed that it was mine he was going to read and it was.
The first day of my sophomore year I walked into his classroom fifteen and thinner. Not as thin as Jakie Keen or Tammy Willis — the cheerleaders who ate lettuce for lunch — but I was thinner. I thought this would matter to him.
“How was your summer?” he asked, his chin resting on his right hand.
“Hot,” I replied.
“And yours?” I asked, my heart racing as fast as a rabbit in heat.
“Just like any other — like you said, hot.”
I nodded. I didn’t sit in the front, couldn’t stand sitting in the front. I knew that all I would do if I did was sit and stare and stare and stare until the bell rang. I moved to the last seat in the row farthest against the wall. He didn’t say anything.
English 10 was at nine-thirty in the morning. At ten after ten we had a break. He stopped at my desk on a Tuesday during one of those breaks. I was the only student still in the room; all the others had left to get cookies and Cokes. I sat at my desk and read Stephen King’s The Stand.
“You a fan?”
My body was hot and sweaty all over. I shifted in my seat, set the book down and said, “Yeah, not hardcore, but I enjoy him.”
He smiled and sat on top of the desk across from me. His legs were hairy and tanned, the calves meaty. He flexed the muscles in his calves, and I was fascinated to watch.
“He’s done some good stuff. I’m more of a Shakespeare fan myself.” He paused. “I’m a writer too, you know. Always working on the great American novel.”
“Oh?” I didn’t care for Shakespeare. Didn’t even believe that he wrote all those plays and sonnets, but I didn’t dare say that. I didn’t say anything. I just stared.
“Do you like to write? It’s so obvious to me that something’s going on with you when you do. It’s amazing, really. Don’t you think?”
My cheeks burned.
“I want to be a writer.” I stuttered. “Write books.”
He got to his feet, “Well,” he said, his hands in his pockets, “you already are.”
English 11 wasn’t the same. Mr. Jones wasn’t my teacher. I sat in class and wondered what he was doing. Yes, Mr. Mackey was fine and dandy. He was smarter than my favorite, but not as intriguing, pretty, or tanned. That year involved me watching the clock, dreaming of him, and trying to look more mature. I tried to lose weight and I wore makeup. But I discovered that I couldn’t lose the weight and that no matter how much foundation I rubbed on my cheeks, the zits would still poke through.
The summer before my senior year I waited by the mailbox. The schedule, my schedule, was due by August 18th and I didn’t want to miss it. I was too excited for anything else. When it arrived, I almost flipped. Ran and screamed all the way to the front door. I was scheduled to be in Mr. Jones English 12 Honors class. Everything had fallen into place.
I was my fattest that year. Tipped the scale at 188. Wore a size sixteen. My mom told me that I wasn’t fat because I was so tall, 5’9” and all. The number sixteen scared me. “It’s too big,” I told her.
“Look at me,” she said, pulling at her flab. I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean, maybe that I was to enjoy my not so fat self until I got to be older and fatter like her. Zoe, seven years younger than me, only shrugged and continued to play with her Barbies while I tried to get used to the wideness of my skirts and jeans.
I tried sitting in the back of class again, but he asked me to sit in the front. “You’re my right-hand man. I need you,” he said.
I was most vocal in Short Story. We’d read aloud stories and then talk about them. Mr. Jones called on me, “What do you think?” he’d say, rubbing his chin.
I’d look at his hairy legs and watch the muscles in his calves twitch.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I’d say, “It’s about suffering.” Most of the stories were about suffering.
He’d nod in agreement.
I applied for college in November and I asked him for letters of recommendation, he was glad to write. “Anything for you,” he said.
Months later I told him how I had gotten into Cal State San Bernardino (Mom wanted me to stay local) and had yet to hear from UC Berkeley.
“You’ll get in,” he said.
“I just applied for fun.” I shifted my weight from my left foot to my right and brushed the hair from my face. “They’ll say no for sure.”
“They won’t,” he said, hands in his pockets. “And if they do, they’ll regret it, you’ll see. You’re too good for them, for all of them.”
I smiled and said something stupid, like yeah right.
He just stared.
Every story I wrote, he loved. He’d read them aloud to the class. They got sick of me by the fourth one. “What a suck-ass,” they snickered. I just grinned.
I was in Economics when Sally Fleming came up to me. “Your story, Autumn. It’s beautiful. The boy and his mother, I almost cried.”
I stopped scribbling, “What story?”
“Oh, you know. The one you wrote for Mr. Jones’ class.”
“You’re not in that class,” I said, staring at her braces.
“It was on his desk; he told the class that they could read it if they wanted. It’s like a cult classic now. Everyone’s talking about it.” She smiled and flicked spit from the red rubber bands in her mouth.
Every class I had, another student would come up to me and gush about how good my story was. I hated them, couldn’t stand their stupid praise but felt good inside knowing that Mr. Jones was gushing about me to all the dumb fucks who would never know how to write anything. Ever.
I got into UC Berkeley and he was the first to know.
“I told you so,” he said.
The last essay in my English 12 Honors class that I wrote for him was on A Tale of Two Cities. I hated that book. When I got my paper graded and returned to me, my world ended. B+ it said. I flipped to the last page, where his comments read, I think you overshot your mark.
I didn’t talk to him for a long time after that.
I graduated high school at the top of my class and went to UC Berkeley. I told my mom I couldn’t stay local, that I had to go to the real world and explore or whatever kids my age were supposed to do. But I really went because I didn’t want to think about him, didn’t want to know that I was even near him. Cal State was too close.
And I didn’t think about him, not like I used to. I told myself that it was just some stupid teen crush. Other girls had Brad Pitt to swoon over. I had been hot for Mr. Jones.
I didn’t think of him until seven years later. My sister Zoe called me and talked about her English teacher.
“He talks about you,” she said.
“Like what?” I was still pissed about that B+.
“Just how smart you are. He asks me about you all the time.”
Zoe was a senior in his English 12 class. I was twenty-five when I made my first visit to see him. It was three days before Thanksgiving and Zoe wanted me to say hi to Mr. Jones. I acted like I couldn’t be bothered but inside counted the hours. By then I was down to 135 and the zits were long gone.
Her class started at eight thirty-five. I met her outside room forty-four.
“Come on, let’s go!” Zoe grinned.
She didn’t have the fat problem, but the zits got the best of her. She reached for the door. We walked inside, Zoe in front. His room still looked the same, and Mr. Jones stood behind his red podium. Zoe sat in the center row, fifth seat. I sat in front of her. Other kids came in, talking and laughing. He didn’t notice me. The bell rang. He looked at the class. I looked at him. His hair was grayer than before and thinner than I remembered. He hadn’t aged that much.
A blonde girl asked him something.
He answered her and then set his eyes on me. “Autumn?” he smiled.
I just sat there.
“It’s so great that you’re here. I didn’t even see you!”
My cheeks burned.
He kept staring at me as he talked about Oedipus Rex. Some of the boys watched me and whispered. A tall, lanky one with shaggy hair asked if I was single. I told him that me and him equaled rape. He just grinned.
“Do research,” Mr. Jones said, sending the class to the computers in the back of the room.
I sat still.
He rubbed his chin and walked toward me. He sat on top of a desk in front of me and his calves greeted me by dancing.
“It’s been so long,” he said.
“I’ve been busy.”
“Zoe told me you’re writing for a magazine.” His chin rested on his right palm.
“Travel. Not what I want to do, but it’s work.”
“But you’re writing, that’s the important part.” He paused. “Writing anything else?”
“I’m working on a novel.”
He jumped at that. “What’s it about?”
“A girl in love with someone she shouldn’t be.” That was a lie. It was really about a girl obsessed with a dead woman who kept appearing in her bathroom mirror but I couldn’t tell him that.
He shifted on the desk and put his hands on his knees. “I’d like to read it.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Yeah,” he continued, “I’ve been wanting to write, but I can’t.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked, staring at the hair on his legs. I wanted to lick it and his calves, all of it.
“It’s too personal — what I want to write,” he said.
“Everything’s personal. Get over it.”
He looked surprised. Then he paused. “You’re right.”
He gave me his phone number when class was over. He said he wanted to get together, talk about writing. I smiled and said I would call. I called him that night. I was at his house by eight o’clock. He opened the door in flannel pajama pants and a black sweater. “Hi,” he grinned.
“I’ve been divorced for two years now,” he said, sipping his glass of red wine. “She has the kids.”
“How are you?” I hated wine and instead opted for hot chocolate.
He leaned in across the couch. “Great, actually. Eleven years was too long. I’ve never felt more free.”
“Are you ever lonely?”
“Sometimes.” He paused. Then he sipped his wine.
I was putting my empty mug in the sink when I felt him behind me.
“I’ve always thought about you,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around my waist.
That little voice inside told me to kick him in the knee and yell fuck off, but I was too hot for that.
“Yes.” He rubbed the small of my back. “Always. I wondered when you’d reappear.”
I turned to face him. My body was a pot of embers. I couldn’t say no. We kissed.
I would like to say that I didn’t sleep with him that night, that I was a good girl and said no thank you and went home. But I didn’t and I couldn’t. We made love on the kitchen floor. He was my first orgasm.
“I’ve always wanted to make love to you,” he said, rubbing my back.
“I wanted to know what it’d be like to be inside you. The writer. I’ve imagined so many guys fucking you and ignoring the beauty.” He rubbed harder.
“Oh,” I said.
We talked about writing, but mostly we fucked. I still called him Mr. Jones, even when he went down on me. It didn’t seem to bother him. It only made him go faster.
He wanted me to stay that weekend. That month. That year. I told him I had a job and all.
“Quit it,” he said. He was naked in the bed, the white sheets at his feet.
I was naked too. I pulled my knees to my chest. “And do what? Live off you? There’s no jobs here.”
He moved toward me, pulled my legs away from my chest and brushed my nipple. “Well,” he said, leaning in to kiss it, “You can live with me and work on your book.”
“Maybe,” I said, staring at his calves.
I stayed with him for weeks and ignored Mom and Zoe, told them I had work to do, that I had a deadline.
And I loved him. But not enough. He didn’t take me away. We didn’t move to a cabin in the woods and write. We didn’t say screw the world and laugh at those too unfortunate to see that we knew better, that we were getting out, that we’d be alone and together and happy and drunk and high on love.
He went to school every morning and talked about great literature. I sat at his typewriter and tried to write some.
“The great American novel,” he grinned.
I stared at him.
“When can I read it?” He scratched his head.
I put it off for as long as I could. I knew he would hate it. He expected so much.
“Is now a good time?” he asked one evening.
I didn’t want it to end. The sex was too good. “Tomorrow,” I said.
“This isn’t what I expected,” he said a week later.
I sat in bed, the sheets covering my naked body.
“Why?” I asked.
He sat up and stared at me. “It’s so young, so…immature,” he stammered.
I didn’t say anything.
“You’re not fourteen anymore. You’re a grown woman. Don’t you think you should write something more meaningful?”
I thought about Nadine, my protagonist, and how she could not live without the dead woman in her mirror. How she hated herself for living there and how she hated herself when she attempted to move.
“Like fucking your divorced high school English teacher?”
His face reddened. “Don’t say that.”
“Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember all those stories we read my senior year?”
“So? What about them?”
“What were they about?”
“Lots of things.” He was annoyed. Something I had never seen before.
“Suffering.” My eyes burned. “They were about suffering. The essential human experience.”
He didn’t say anything.
My vision became blurred and I couldn’t stop. “Not everyone gets divorced, you know, life’s problems, people’s problems — they’re not definable by some high school teacher who fucks his students.”
“Now, hold on!” he yelled, reaching for me.
“Fuck you, Mr. Jones. Take your great ideas of me, of writing and shove them up your ass!”
What’s that?” Jimmy asks, sitting next to me.
I look at the letter and shrug. I think about reading it but then tell myself that Mr. Jones is just some old pervert wanting to love me since I made good on what he thought was trash. “It’s from an old teacher,” I say.
“Must be real proud, being your teacher and all.”
“I’ve been thinking. What does it mean, the dedication in your book?” he asks, staring at me.
I love Jimmy more than Mr. Jones. Not because he’s my age or handsome or good in bed (Mr. Jones beat him at that) but because he’s stupid and adores me. It doesn’t matter what I say, do or write — he loves everything.
The dedication read: To English Calves.
“Nothing, really,” I say.
Jimmy’s black hair falls across his dark eyes and he grins, “come on, you can tell me.”
I grab a pillow from the couch and gently smack him in the face. He falls back, laughing. Sometimes, when I go home, I think of my fourteen-year-old self and of how horny I was for Mr. Jones. Maybe he knew then, that I wanted to lie in his bed and play with the hair on his legs, maybe he knew that I went home at night and fantasized about him and me and writing until I could fantasize no more.
“It’s because Dad left,” Zoe said the last time I saw her.
“That’s not it,” I said, picking at my nails. “It was just hormones, you know. Teenage hormones.” I shook my head. “Just a fantasy I had.” I stared at her and saw the me that was young and naive and saw that she wasn’t me. “Don’t you have fantasies about men?”
She grinned. “Yeah, but not Mr. Jones. He’s so old!”
I continued picking my nails and mumbled in agreement.
Michelle Bracken lives in Los Angeles. She’s a fellowship winner at theOFFICE, a past participant of the Community of Writers and the ZYZZYVA Writers’ Workshop, and a Best American Notable. Her writing has appeared in Litro UK, The Baltimore Review, Forklift Ohio, The Superstition Review, Empty Mirror, Inlandia, The Coachella Review and elsewhere.