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Polly ShulmanThough occasionally heavy-handed, The English Teacher is thoughtful and often moving as it explores [a] brave boy's efforts to learn what his mother has longed to forget.
—The New York Times
THAT SHE HAD NOT KILLED HIM IN HER SLEEP WAS STILL THE GREAT RELIEF of every morning
Not that she actually believed he was dead when he slept in on a Saturday. It was merely a leftover ritual, the weak ghost of an old fear from years ago when she awoke and waited, barely breathing, as close to prayer as she had ever got in her life, for a single sound of him: a little sigh, or the scrape of his feetie pajamas across the floor. He'd scuffle into her room still warm and puffy and half asleep, and the piercing relief of him collided with the horror of possessing such a fear and the dread of its return the next morning.
Now here he was at quarter of eleven, finally, his boots whacking the stairs, missing steps, his shirt unbuttoned but with an undershirt beneath (she didn't know what grew on his chest now and didn't want to). He shook out half a box of cereal and ate it in a few loud smacks at the other end of the table. Still, what sweetness flooded beneath her skin! She did not, could not, let him see it, and instead told him to remember to close his mouth please.
His back to her, carrying the empty bowl to the sink, he said he was going over to Jason's. To take apart a television.
She watched him cross the soccerfields diagonally-no home games today, thank God-and disappear down the path to Jason's house. All the delicious, fleeting relief of him went, too.
She returned to the mounds of essays in front of her. Within a few hours she reached the bottom of the freshman papers and moved on to the juniors'. Peter didn't come home for lunch, so she forgot to eat.
Vida began to contemplate canceling her plans for the evening. Tom would want to touch her again, scrape his mustache against her neck. Her armpits grew slippery. The telephone on the wall urged her on-a virus, a migraine. A quick call and it could all be over, the sweating, the rancid taste, and the sensation that she was no longer inside her body but beside it. And yet it was this disassociation that immobilized her, prevented her from getting up from her grading and walking the five paces to the phone. Instead she continued to watch the pen in her hand make small thick checkmarks beside the strong passages, and larger aggressive comments beside the weak, and then, below the last line of each essay, deposit a grade. She always graded more harshly in the afternoon before an evening with Tom Belou.
Peter answered the door. When had he come home? She hadn't heard the doorbell. It would be Lloyd or Wendell, the custodians, looking for an extra hand to move some chairs from one wing to another. But then there was a strange swishing in the hallway, coming at her, and Tom himself appeared in her kitchen. He was wearing a parka. She'd never seen him in any sort of coat. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees since last weekend. It was beige, with a belt he let dangle at the sides.
"You off to climb Everest?" she said, feeling trapped in her seat at the table. She didn't go to great lengths primping before she saw him, but she did brush her hair and her teeth and change out of her old slippers with the stuffing bulging out. Until this moment their encounters had been quite formal, with precise beginnings and ends, no sleepovers, no weekends away. Neither had ever dropped in on the other like this; their children had never met. Their touching was tentative, nearly absentminded, though her memory of it was acute, a confusing ache of pleasure and shame. No intercourse. Miraculously, they were in silent agreement about that.
Her dog Walt nudged Tom's hand with the long bridge of his nose, but Tom didn't respond as he usually did. He just stood there in the doorway, his eyes flicking over her impatiently. He was going to break it off. It couldn't have been clearer to her. This was just the way he would do it, in person, in a parka, perhaps after a trip to the dump. He needn't bother. It was hardly anything to her. She had enjoyed his company, his lack of demands on her, but that couldn't have lasted much longer.
"I'm sorry," he said, pointing to the sea of essays, "I know I'm interrupting." His hands were red from the cold.
Let's just get it over with, she thought, anger and humiliation prickling her throat. Her mind felt calm, detached, but her heart had another engine altogether and thudded painfully.
"I just had this ... I was planning to ... but it just made me so crazy, all the ..." He walked the length of the kitchen, away from her, the bulky parka sleeves squealing as his arms flailed about. She wondered if he'd stitched it himself, this awful coat.
She wished she'd never said she loved him. She was just being polite, returning the compliment late one evening. But now it turned out he'd been mistaken. Of course it had been too soon. His wife had only been dead a short while. She wished he'd just spit it out and go home.
He reached the far counter, spun around, and with three long strides he was there before her, hovering over her and her work. He smelled of something familiar. Maple syrup, maybe. His eyes finally settled on hers. "I love you, Vida. I do. But it's not enough for me. It's not enough to simply love you. I wish for everyone's sake it were but it's not. I want to marry you." A laugh or a sob, Vida couldn't tell which, pushed its way out of his chest. "I want to marry you."
Out of the parka came a ring, no box, that clinked as it landed in her teacup. "Damn," he said, fishing it out with thick shaking fingers. "I'm sure you've had better proposals than this. I'm just not that type."
It was, in fact, her first proposal. Another woman, a better woman, might have confessed this. She never would. She had let him believe, along with everyone else up here, that she'd been married to Peter's father.
The ring hovered now, too, caught in the tips of his fingers. Suddenly she understood the true role of the ring. It forced, as T. S. Eliot would say, the moment to its crisis. Without it, a proposal was just a question, a query, and the response could be the beginning of a conversation that might last weeks, or years. But the ring demanded the final answer within a few seconds. You either reached up and took it, or you kept your hand on top of Hank Fish's essay on Emerson. And once you took it, you'd have an awkward time of giving it back. But to not take the ring, to leave it untouched, to watch it go back into the parka pocket, the proposal marked with a fat F-who could deliver that blow? She heard Peter upstairs, crossing the landing to the bathroom. She'd always imagined these moments filled with ecstatic conviction, but this moment was about ending the embarrassment, stopping the shallow breaths through Tom's nostrils and the little laugh-sobs he was trying to suppress. It was about Peter upstairs and her terror of the mornings and all the years they'd been alone together in this house.
Whether she spoke or simply nodded she'd never know. All she knew was that the ring, several sizes too big, was slipped on her finger and Tom was kissing her, then burying his face in her hair, then kissing her again. Everything felt rubbery. She had the sense, despite his enthusiasm, that it wasn't really happening this way, that they were rehearsing, hypothesizing, and that the real moment would happen later, would happen differently.
Tom called up to Peter, who launched himself down the stairs immediately, his lack of athleticism embarrassing to her in Tom's presence. His face was bright red. He already knew. Even before Tom made the announcement, clutching her at the shoulders, she saw that Peter already knew.
"I am so psyched," he said, pumping Tom's hand, then raising both fists in the air as if it were the successful end of a soccer game. "Congrats, Mom," he said to her and pecked her on the cheek. There was a bit of a bristle to his chin. "This has been a long time coming." He was beaming at her, though he barely knew Tom. A handful of hellos at the door, that was all.
They celebrated with cookies and cider. She filled the glasses, passed the plate, but still she was somewhere apart from her body, and this moment was somehow apart from the rest of her life. Again and again she felt they were practicing, all three of them, and each time she smiled at Tom or Peter, she felt they were acknowledging that, too.
She walked Tom out to his car. She hoped that this would serve as their date, that she could have the rest of the evening to herself to finish her work. But he hugged her again and said he'd pick her up at seven.
He got into his car, then leapt out. "I almost forgot." He reached into the backseat. "A little engagement present."
It was a blue box with his insignia on it, Belou Clothiers. He had been that certain she'd say yes.
"When I was a very little boy," he said, leaning against the car and pulling her toward him in a gesture of familiarity that was probably familiar only to his wife in the grave, "my grandfather made a dress for a customer, a very simple dress. A few weeks later a friend of hers came in the shop and ordered the exact same dress. She said her friend had told her it was a magic dress. After that he got another request, and another. My grandfather must have made twenty-five of those dresses. I forgot all about them and then when I saw you I remembered. I remembered the dress exactly, right down to the pearl buttons. I don't know why."
She lifted off the top. It was yellow, a color she never wore. She was relieved that it was a summer dress with tiny capped sleeves: it would be at least eight months before she'd be expected to wear it.
"It's lovely," she said, holding it up to herself. Dear God, what had she done?
"It's magic." He kissed her again. The kisses were different now-firmer, possessive.
Tom the Tailor made me a dress, she imagined telling Carol, though she knew she wouldn't.
She watched his car turn off her gravel road and onto the paved school avenue, which carried him past the mansion and all its new limbs, then the tennis bubble, then the hockey rink, in a long arc before finally setting him back on the main road. She would have to leave this campus, this haven of fifteen years, if she actually married him.
"Aren't you freezing?" Peter called to her from the front door. There was a thrill, a wildness, in his voice she'd never heard before.
She opened the trunk of her car and tossed the box in. What's in the box, he'd ask when she got a little closer. He was going to have so many questions this afternoon. She stopped on the path to the house and lit a cigarette to buy herself some more time.
This marriage was exactly what Peter had wanted and now it was here, all around him, written on balloons tied to chairs and on the inside of the gold band his mother now wore-the first piece of jewelry he'd ever seen on her. It had all happened so fast, and he was still dizzy with his own good luck. There was something creepy to people about a boy living alone with his mother for his whole life-fifteen and a half years. He'd been embarrassed by it. And now that long chapter was finally over. Tonight they'd go home to a regular house on a regular street, husband and wife in the master bedroom and four kids sprinkled in rooms down a hallway.
The song was coming to an end. He hoped its last notes would bleed into the beginning of the next. But there was a pause as the lead singer, his math teacher, Mr. Crowse, took a swig of beer, and Fran wavered like a leaf in the silence, poised to catch the first wind away from him. He had to secure her in place, and his mind spun in search of the words. After they had lived together for a few weeks, he'd probably have a ton of things to say, but now they were strangers. He'd already complimented her bridesmaid's dress, as well as her poem the night before. He could make fun of the band, the Logarithmics, which was made up of the very geekiest teachers at Fayer Academy, but he wanted to say something big, something that would intrigue her.
"My mother wanted to marry your father from the moment they met." His mother wouldn't like him saying that. He knew it wasn't true.
"I could tell," Fran said, scrutinizing them, his mother and her father, who stood holding hands and not letting go as the music started up again. It was "Beast of Burden" and they played it much slower than usual, Mr. Crowse practically whispering into his mike with his eyes shut and sweat streaming over his lids. Peter and Fran watched their parents step closer, her father tucking his mother's fingers tight in the dip between his shoulder and collarbone.
Fran turned back abruptly to him. "Shall we dance?" she said in a foreign accent.
At school dances, he headed straight for the bathroom whenever he heard the first languid notes of a song like this. Even a slow dance with Fran did not overpower the urge to holt. But she'd already looped her arms loosely around his neck, so he placed a hand on either side of her waist. She was a year older but no taller. The fabric of her dress was so thin he could feel the narrow band of her underwear and the heat of her skin where there was no underwear at all. Peter tried to keep all the facts straight in his head: this was his first slow dance and his first contact with the underclothes of a girl; yet this was his mother's wedding and this was his stepsister. He felt there was some secret to this kind of dancing that he hadn't been let in on. Quickly his hands made damp nervous spots on Fran's dress.
Halfway through the song Fran's head, which had been cocked and swiveling in every direction away from him, plummeted to his shoulder. Her eyelashes flickered on his long neck.
"Does your mother dye her hair?" she whispered.
Peter opened his eyes to see his mother floating by. Her hair was longer than most mothers'. Usually she wore it pinned at the back with the same tortoiseshell clip but today it was down, her dark red curls draped over Tom's arm like a flag.
"No," he said, though he sensed another lie would have pleased her more. "She doesn't."
At the end of the song, Peter peeled his palms from Fran's dress. Before he could decide what to say, her father tapped her on the shoulder and gave a little bow as she turned to him. She put her arms out like a professional, the way she had when she'd said to Peter, Shall we dance? But this time her face looked like it had been plugged in. No girl had ever looked at him like that.
Instead of completing the swap, his mother whispered that she had to go to the john, and left him on the dance floor alone. He watched, for a short while, her tall figure try to push through to the stairs on the other side of the room. Every few feet she was stopped by people wanting to congratulate her. They mashed their laces against hers, pawed at her dress, spoke loudly into her ear, and all the while his mother kept imperceptibly moving on. If he held his breath, she would look back at him. But she didn't. She reached the stairs, kept her eyes forward, and disappeared beneath the floor.
He took a seat at a table with some children he didn't recognize and their babysitter. The children were tying her wrists together with the strings of balloons and none of them noticed when he sat down. He swung his chair toward the dancers and sipped on a flat Coke someone had left behind. He felt suddenly grown-up, beside but apart front the screeches of the little boys, his right ankle on his left knee which made a box of his legs, the way most of his male teachers sat during assemblies. The babysitter was pretty and probably thought he'd come over to try and talk to her so he was careful to ignore her. All three of his stepsiblings were out dancing now: Fran, with her father, still shining like a star; Stuart, the oldest, old enough to be in college but for some reason wasn't, glumly twitching with a fat cousin of theirs; and little Caleb up on the shoulders of Dr. Gibb, who had been Mrs. Belou's oncologist. She had only been dead a couple of years and now his mother was Mrs. Belou.
Excerpted from The English Teacher by Lily King Copyright © 2005 by Lily King. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 8, 2006
This is a passionate tale of a mother and son's vital bond. King doesn't write a warm-fussy depiction of hearth and home, no, it's more like being hit on the head with a brick. It's a provocative look at our notions of intimacy, honesty, loyalty, family, and the real meaning of home. Good solid writing in this her 2nd book.
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Posted July 11, 2010
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