Artwork by Tara Gilbert-Brever
His ladies enter the classroom, and the late day becomes dark. Matt reads his list by a graciously angled sunset.
Perfect checkmarks by each word.
Politely, someone flicks the switch and the room is illuminated by hissing fluorescence. He doesn't look up, pretending to be engrossed in the lesson plan, but knows them all by their uniform scent; freshly applied hairspray, though powerful, doesn't quite mask the residual aromas of the suppers they've just cooked and served.
Mrs. Laird comes to his desk and leans in. "I wanna cuss out my old man in Spanish," she declares, forcing Matt to indulge her with a smile. Her nearness sends a breeze of peppers, chicken, and propylparaben into his nostrils. Only lately has he come to realize that this is his favorite perfume.
No. Absolutely not. He draws a heavy line through it.
With the interior lights lit, the evening outside seems much darker than it really is. The gloomy, unpeopled hallways seem dim as well, and tiled walls tend to amplify the slightest noise into a jarring, strident burst. Sensitive to this effect, his ladies greet each other as murmuring doves. Their voices lovingly obscure the language. Matt cocks his ear but generally fails to decipher his students' pre-class exchanges. This would not always make him so lonely, but tonight is their final class meeting, and he's feeling a little moody about it. A little sentimental.
Crisp dresses and slack suits mingle in his imperfect field of vision—at first it seems that Emily Laird and Connie Sheetz mirror each other tonight; both wear pastel green outfits that enhance the transparent skin on their hands and throats. To be fair though, Mrs. Laird is younger and more at ease than Mrs. Sheetz, who may just be coming in from the Hair Hut or the travel agency where she works. Her skirt is rigid, and as she slides into her seat, the hem refuses to drape along the shape of her bent knees.
Someone comments on her outfit. Matt reads her mouth as it shapes the words, "I made it myself."
Matt looks back at Emily Laird and watches her tug at pills on her sweater. She is less carefully put together than some of the others. Her pants don't exactly match the pullover, but the attempt is honorable. Her chin tucks into her chest as she concentrates on pulling at the threads. She holds her breath and deftly plucks at the geography of her powerful breasts; the seams of her brassiere are clearly defined under the strained knit fabric. Matt struggles with her, holds his breath as she does. He permits himself to be transported chin-close to a green sweater, then abandons the fantasy just before it shows on him.
Mrs. James N. Gaylord, as she insists on being called, Mrs. Strecki, and the rest, are all so beautiful tonight. They are pale and powdered and decorated. Matt's tongue aches a little, as if he's eaten too much caramel fudge. Mrs. Finskerd dances in, pretending that she's late, and smiles at him. Upon meeting her peers she daintily rubs her front teeth with her fingertip to make sure there's no bright lipstick there. Matt adores her delicate fastidiousness but is distracted by something else that saddens him even before he discovers what it is. Above the gentle music of the ladies' indeterminate gossip, he is aware of some other more ancient sound. He strains to listen, but the discontinuous resonance is elusive, is a miserable animal thinness in the air—
The janitors are singing in the stairwell again.
He can't locate the identity exactly, but he recognizes that it is an old song, a terrible song. He knows it's about women and sexual pain. And the singers sound so sure. The singers sound like men becoming dogs. They sound like they are making themselves into dogs with their excruciating songs.
The janitors sing in the stairwell, as they do every night. And they smoke, they complain, they whistle. Matt would like to complain, too, but no one else notices the janitors singing. Or they don't really care.
Matt presses his fingers into his temples and squeezes his eyes shut. He maintains this pose for what he thinks is a pretty long time, but when no one approaches to offer loving, maternal attention, he abandons his false agony. Still, he sighs dramatically. He can't help it. The ladies assume their assigned seats.
Somewhere far away, janitors hoot and cry.
Uniformly, his ladies smile. Uniformly, they seem so satisfied. For him, at this time of his life, they represent what is unobtainable. The heavy sweet scents, strong enough to make his head ache, are not fashionable among women his age. And that soft skin is the exclusive product of decades of cold cream rituals and familial abuse. Fatigued cells have surrendered their integrity to children, to cook pots, to grocery store light. Matt considers the sensations that babies enjoy. He fantasizes about being totally immersed in an abundance of such unmuscled, flower-sweet flesh.
Mrs. Strecki wears a long steel braid tonight, and she's sloppy and lovely in a pink daisy shift. When she sits back she traps the braid against the seat, pulling her own hair, so from time to time she leans forward to set it free. Matt glimpses whole secrets revealed in her temporarily enhanced décolletage: a peach wad of Kleenex and a tiny silver crucifix battle for territory in the underworld.
"Exactly," he whispers, unheard.
Mrs. Strecki makes much of readjusting herself when she sits straight again, as if she is aware of his eyes upon her. Unleashed from its braid, Penny Strecki's hair might spread out like water, might be sweet and delicious, something in his mouth, in his fingers. He could glide through that hair as through a perfumed jungle, and at the heart of it he might swim in her body. Her hair could move on its own. The living, tentacled, colony animal, seeking to embrace him as well. He could see her, inseparable from water, floating over and in it, the lady of Shallot, all hair, all scent, all flesh.
Matt has a sudden unreasonable urge to snatch the Kleenex from between her breasts. He's jealous of the tiny silver Jesus. In the upstairs classroom desks are being dragged, and the groaning too closely expresses what Matt dares not. He shakes himself back to a material present.
Matt rises from behind his desk and is self-conscious of his posture. He circles to the front and hops up to sit on the desktop, imitating the casual and youthful disregard that his students expect from him. He unnecessarily pushes his black hair back from his forehead and adopts a sour expression. At twenty-eight his face is as yet too smooth and sweet to carry any authority, but he compensates by playing weary.
He makes his blue eyes dim and his shoulders droop. He suppresses his youthfulness, even as his legs dangle from the desk. His blue jeans are the right kind: not so tight that they should scare anyone, but they do make his point. Before he speaks, he scratches himself with a practiced idleness.
"Well, we might as well get started." Matt's voice is deep and sensual. The ladies smile. They are so tastefully embarrassed.
"This being the last time we get together means that it's time for me to teach you something useful." Matt pauses so his ladies can laugh. "I've been told this is what I'm famous for, so here we go." The students make a show of containing wicked mirth as they open their notebooks and raise their pens.
"Let's start with soft-core."
Matt slides off the desk and saunters toward the blackboard. He tugs at his belt loops to smooth out the seat of his jeans. Finding a nub of chalk, he copies the first set from his vocabulary list in strong block letters. As he writes, he carefully pronounces each word along with its translation, after which the ladies are required to repeat the same. They comply, with artful, nervous snickers.
Matt instructs, "Bastardo—bastard."
The ladies echo, though softly, "Bastardo—bastard."
He continues, "Puta—slut."
The ladies echo, "Puta-slut."
Chiming voices perfectly enunciate each syllable as if the phonemes of curses are somehow more volatile than others. Matt feels oddly pleased. "Faggot" enjoys a perverse musicality when it is spoken as a soft prayer, by many voices not quite in sync.
Matt turns around and brushes chalk from his hands, affecting keen interest in his nails. He senses a warming in his thighs and looseness in his throat. His saliva tastes sour.
Janitors howl and groan.
Mrs. Finskerd, along with her classmates, is visibly amused. She enjoys quelling her laughter almost as much as she enjoys the shame of the lesson. She sucks in her cheeks, pretending that she could burst out in unladylike guffaws at any moment. She's living on the edge.
Matt notices that her mouth is unusually red. Her lips are wet. Matt pushes his hair back again, and Mrs. Finskerd crinkles her nose at him. Her red, wet mouth parts to emit an amazing, breath-stopping sound, then closes again. She's rolling a cough drop from cheek to cheek.
"Um, with the 'F' word—fuck. I might as well say it," Matt flounders a little. Mrs. Finskerd's mouth has somehow unsettled him. Matt disengages his attention from her. He recoups his attitude.
"So if any of you ladies are squeamish, then you'll have to get over it. I'm going to be saying 'fuck.' Quite a lot. You may leave if you can't handle it."
Matt risks a glance at her wet, red mouth. A janitor loudly hawks up phlegm. Matt is lying as he adds, "Makes no difference to me."
He pauses for what he wishes were a more dramatic, uncomfortable moment for his students, but they regard him as cheerfully, as indulgently as ever. No one rises to leave. No one shifts in her seat. No one takes the potential danger of "fuck" very seriously at all. Matt tries to smile and wonders what kind of grotesquery his facial muscles have actually achieved. He doesn't know why, but he feels kind of pissed off.
"Whatever happened to the Moral Majority," he mutters with bitter humor, and his ladies politely laugh. Mrs. Finskerd's hands are splayed across the violet pages of her notebook. Her polished nails shine back the overhead lights.
"Anyway," continues Matt, "The word 'fuck' doesn't work exactly like it does in English. I mean, you could say 'fuck you' or 'go fuck yourself' or 'fuck off,' but I don't think it would mean much. You'd probably get a lot of confused looks. 'Fuck' is most effective as the verb in a statement in which the subject is 'Tu madre.' In fact the most powerful insults are always directed toward the mother of the person you are insulting. The worst thing you can say in Spanish is to suggest that 'your mother fucks... whatever.' That is, the mother of the person you are insulting, obviously."
For some reason Tammy Finskerd's fingers seem tipped in diamonds.
Or maybe they're on fire.
Matt could roll those fingers between his lips, sort them with his teeth and tongue, draw from them pure sex and sustenance. Put her on her back, sink her into a bed as soft as her wide ass. Lace his fingers into hers and hold them there above her faded, stiff hair.
Lipstick on her teeth, the taste of lipstick, the taste of cough drops, eating lipstick and honey-menthol together. How many sticky possibilities in just a kiss? Beso. Beso, beso, beso...
Matt turns toward the board again and writes: joder—to fuck. He pronounces the words crisply, as before: "Joder—to fuck."
It seems like a long time passes before the ladies echo him.
"Joder—to fuck," they chorus, and Matt convinces himself that this last word is hard for them to sing, that its consonants are made velvet by uncommitted mouths. Matt is acutely aware that there is no snickering, no giggling, no human noise at all.
Not so amusing now. Now it feels different. He suspects that among his ladies there is a communally held breath, a telepathically arranged agreement to silence, and it is an agreement which does not include him.
"In Spanish, the verb form of joder is transitive, meaning it is followed by a direct object." Matt surveys the range of faces and is struck by the calm humorlessness of his students. He is sure that this is some transitional state of being, that the absence of tension is a natural characteristic of whatever condition directly precedes guilt, or awareness, or fear, or lust.
Mrs. Strecki raises her hand.
Her palm and fingers are long and elegant, very thin like a harpist's. The crude golden wedge of her wedding band looks too heavy for her fingers to support.
Matt nods at her.
"Is 'ho-derr' an irregular verb?" she asks.
"No," answers Matt. "It's an easy one." He sits down in his chair and wishes she'd say it again.
Matt feels strangely sapped, like he's coming down with the flu, or his head is stuck in a can. The thing that comes most easily to his lips is an incredible confession, but he beats that down. Finds a substitute.
"We can get a little rawer," he croaks. His throat is warm, as if he's been drinking. Behind the desk, his cock betrays him. Matt scoots in and spreads his thighs apart so that they press hard against the metal edges of the kneehole of the desk. He tries to concentrate on the bruising pain.
"If you want."
His ladies' expressions turn strange. That calm is replaced by less categorical workings, but the one thing he doesn't read is rejection.
"I mean," he says quietly, "it all depends on just what you really want." His eyes drop to the pages of his notes. He fingers them absently. He moistens his lips.
When he looks up Mrs. Strecki's eyes are wide, but not in surprise. She expects something important to happen. In another time, another setting, another lighting, he would lean over to her and ask her in a special half-voiced, half-tragedized whisper, "What do you... want? What do you really want?" Inappropriate here, but:
"I mean, obviously these are just the classics," he says and gestures to the list of profanity that he knows is behind him, just above his head. "You all know that."
Mrs. Finskerd straightens in her seat. Her eyes, too, have a kind of new light in them. Vanity abandoned, she chews into her lipstick. When she takes a breath, so does Matt. He taps his knuckles as if in time to music. He tries to seem light.
Mrs. Finskerd has that look. He wants to shout at her.
But keeps it cool.
"You see, there are certain idioms for certain things. Some of them are a little on, well a lot on the dirty side," Matt chuckles nervously. "We could talk about some of those."
The silence is remarkable and terrifying. His erection is so painful that his nose is beginning to sweat. "For example, throughout the languages things are fairly consistent with regard to, you know, intimate activities."
His students' faces remain impenetrable. "In every culture there seems to be a need to express—" Matt pauses, his face contorts. He searches for a way to be somehow gentle, clear, and eloquent, "—excitement, if you will. A need to express it in metaphorical terms."
Matt nods to himself. "Intimate excitement," he clarifies. He looks for understanding, thinks he sees a glimmer of it on Mrs. Finskerd's nearly interested face.
"Some languages compare it to death. In Italian, I understand they say, 'muoio,' or 'I die.' 'I'm dying.' I think. Maybe it's 'you're killing me.'"
Matt suddenly becomes aware that his hands are not in view. He's been wringing them under the desk. He quickly brings them up and laces his fingers together, gripping and re-gripping them. "In French, they have one about death too, but the one I like best is 'prendre son pied,' which literally refers to grasping the foot. My French—it's crappy. But the point is the metaphorical expression. It's a comparison thing. In English, we like to use the word 'come.' You see the relationship?"
Matt tries to assume a scholarly authority. "What I'm getting at is the value of studying these idioms. Well, you can see it, I'm sure. Language is full of variety, full of power. We, in this class, should feel completely free to discuss any aspects of language we see fit. We have that right as adults. We have that mandate as curious scholars. Linguistic explorers."
Matt listens to the control in his voice and fights the impulse to loosen his belt.
"Agreed?" he queries. But no response.
"Ladies, it's up to you."
Not even whispers, not even shoes moving along the tile.
Up. To. You.
Janitors whistle. Janitors kick wheeled buckets down echoing hallways. Janitors shake their keys.
A green uniformed man appears briefly in the doorway. His hands are dark with machine dirt, and his face is lined and greasy with sweat. He tips his green cap to the ladies and winks. His keys are still swinging from his belt.
"Sorry. Thought y'all were gone. I'll come back later." The Janitor offers a solemn nod to the tight young man behind the desk. Then he's gone.
The Janitor's sudden appearance and disappearance has broken the mood. Matt is perturbed, destabilized.
The Janitor's whistle resonates in the corridor, and fades as he makes his way down the hall. The song he whistles is the song they were all singing before. Matt suddenly knows what it is. He knows the song.
It's on the tip of his tongue.
He can feel the words, the shape of them, creeping up his neck into his skull. They have immeasurable heat and power.
He feels it, really feels it, now.
Mrs. Finskerd remarks, "I used to love that song."
"'I Walk the Line,'" whispers Matt. The air conditioner kicks on, and it propels new, startling weather into the room. Where Matt has perspired he is now chilled.
He is making love now, to someone he doesn't recognize but knows so well—no arms, no legs, no head, but it is an expanse of flesh, a depth of it cocooning him, lubricating him, relieving him of certain oppressions; he no longer breathes, he no longer moves himself. His lover takes him in and consumes him, absorbs him. He becomes a part of a larger lover whose vanities are expressed by what is so little: the agents of vanity are maybelline, aquanet, valium, king of kings, and powderfresh. This lover uses him as a similar cosmetic application. She moans, "Matthew," and he becomes one more thing she loves on her shopping list. Nipple and cunt, breast and buttock are indistinguishable. He moves through her as through unknown rooms in a dream, a paraplegic; he leads with his mouth, crawls on his lips and palms.
Everyone waits for the Janitor's footsteps to fade. When the janitor can no longer be heard, when there is nothing but silence, Mrs. Strecki rises. She shakes loose her skirt and walks up the aisle of desks, her gaze solidly fixed on Matt. When she reaches the threshold she pulls the door shut and makes sure it's tight.
Matt's heart pounds so hard he knows his shirt is moving. He knows his face is either bright red, or utterly white. The blood wants to burst out of his ears.
When Mrs. Strecki turns she is neither smiling nor scowling. She is cool. Ready for what he has to offer. Under lilac polyester, where her bra cuts into her plump torso, provocative swells of flesh and elastic speak to the fallacy of containment. She says, matter-of-factly and without heat:
All right, she said.
He can hardly believe it.
Matt looks to his notes for a clue; he'd crossed out pedo. That was the right thing to do. There were things had hadn't dared write down, not even to cross them out; beso negro, for example.
He almost says the words as he's thinking of them; beso negro!"
But that would be a huge mistake. If at some point those words should slip from his lips, he could claim the excuse that serial killers give, irresistible compulsion. That will be his answer for the authorities, when the question comes, in the future. Irresistible compulsion.
But for now the women wait, and he is able to contain himself, if only barely. He rises and spins to face the chalkboard, a quick maneuver to hide what he has to remind himself is shame.
He wants to scream his excitement, and he does, in a way. "You tell me!" he shouts to the black board, hoping that his voice bounces back at a normal pitch. Then with more control he says, "What do you want to know?"
He begins to erase the primary lesson, making space for what must come.
At first he doesn't realize what he's done. What the simple act of hiding himself allows.
But it comes to him. The women no longer have to meet his eyes, and he no longer has to meet theirs.
A female voice chirps. "Umm. Boobs?"
He knows the voice but builds a wall in his head between her soft inquiry and his recognition. The classroom has become a private place, a confessional, a room full of masks. He must at least pretend not to know.
Respectfully, in big cursive strokes of dust, Matt writes alimentos on the board.
"Penis?" offers another voice. He manages to reject the full image of her face as it leaps to his mind. He will accept lipstick floating on a blank field of thought, but that is all.
Pene goes on the board.
A long pause of consideration precedes the next suggestion. "The woman's privates?"
She can't bring herself to say it in English, and that thrills him even more. "Pussy?" he says, as if he's calling a kitten to his fluttering, teasing fingers. He writes Chocho on the board.
Cojones. Heuvos. They recognize the second term and laugh.
"What else!" he demands.
Another pause, then: "More stuff like the foot grabbing thing."
"Idioms?" he says.
"Whatever. Poetical words for ugly things."
Matt nods. Angel Custodio he writes, then pronounces it for his pupils. "Guardian angel—it's a sweet name for a condom."
"Mala Semana means you are having a bad week, or you are menstruating."
"How about a bad month," someone mutters in a way that wasn't meant to be heard by all, and her mistake is rewarded with approving laughter.
He wants to keep going, but his ladies are getting tired, running out of ideas. He writes frantically, papaya, mango, hacer la sopa...
Matt pushes into the board with his chalk, starts a dangerous swing up a capital cursive B. It is as if some larger force, a bigger man, stands behind him and guides his hand.
Oh no, no, no.
He's written Beso when his watch starts to beep. He slaps the face of the watch with his other hand like a man trying to stop a spurting wound.
End of class.
Some light voice moans. Disappointment is not new.
Matt is suspended over an invisible cursive N.
The rattle of the door almost makes him jump. But it's locked. She locked it when she pulled it closed. Absurdly, Matt stares at the jiggling knob.
Only when he hears the chime of keys does he lower his writing hand. Only when he understands that the mechanism will be released does he give up passion, mad desire.
Poetry for ugly things. What else, then?
Mrs. Finskerd declares the obvious, but there is still a need for her statement of punctuation, and transition. "They gotta clean up." She and the others start to stack their binders, click their pens conclusively.
Matt slumps, exhausted, into the chair behind his desk. His erection is half there, half not, and he's stopped caring.
No apology this time, the Janitor enters the room, towing his trash cart and his broom. He nods and smiles to the women as they leave, murmuring country things to make them giggle as they scoot out the door, back to their families.
The Janitor will not give Matt any of his sweetness. That stuff is in short supply, and it's only for the ladies. He's a rough bastard, dark with grease embedded nails. He reeks of industrial strength everything and tobacco.
The last one out is Emily Laird. She's pokey, and seems reluctant to leave it all so unfinished. Almost as if he senses her weakness, the Janitor-whom she has known since high school, and with whom she once drank a bottle of Boone's Farm before accepting him as her first lover-parks himself and his equipment between Emily and the teacher's desk. Maybe it has been years ago, and maybe it was other girls, but he's done this before.
Emily and the Janitor exchange an ancient look. She backs away and leaves the room like a vapor.
Matt still hasn't gathered his papers together. His empty leather satchel yawns by the desk, and Matt's face seems to have collected more flesh than it can support.
The Janitor examines the chalk board.
For a long time.
Then he turns his critical gaze to Matt, and gives him a chilly special: his eviction-notice smile.
"After nine pm," the Janitor growls, "this is my house." He tugs his belt to jangle the huge loop of keys, shaking them for Matt the way he might jerk the choke chain of a bad or lazy dog.
Obediently, Matt snaps to attention, his eyes childish, his face wasted. He looks like he's just been roused from a three day drunk. When he leaves this room, when he leaves the campus, it will be for the very last time.
The Janitor is pleased.