He stands next to my desk and uses this pen with green ink to mark my homework. I’m so used to the red markings that every other teacher uses, I have to stare at his circles and check marks for a minute before I can decipher what they mean.
He’s close. He smells like soap and chalk, and just below his curled-up shirt sleeves his forearms bristle with little hairs. “Here, Michaela,” he murmurs and makes another mark: a minus sign. “The two is supposed to be a negative.” He leans in even closer when he plants his free hand, his left hand, on my desk.
I try to keep my eyes on his right hand, the one holding the weird green pen, like I’m really focusing on the errors I made with my algebra problems – mistakes I made purposely so he would stop and spend more time at my desk like he’s doing right now to correct them – but I don’t care what the right answer is. My eyes drift away from the row of jumbled numbers and Xs on my notebook paper.
Brad’s fingernails are clipped, his fingers smooth and hairless, the knuckles unbruised and symmetrical. In the front of the classroom by the door, one boy, one of my 11th grade classmates, is showing something on his phone to two other boys, who then break away laughing.
Mr. Miller – Brad – straightens up. “Cool it,” he demands. “Work on numbers six to ten, gentlemen.” His words silence the classroom. He’s powerful. In control. He bends, rests his left hand on my desk again, and taps the point of the pen on my paper. “You have to find the product . . .”
I don’t hear the rest.
I pretend to get a better look at problem #3 until our bodies touch just enough so that his left arm grazes my right breast, sending a surge through my body that snags my breath away. It’s the first time we’ve touched like this. His brown eyes keep moving left and right over my notebook paper because he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know how he’s connected to me right now. I want him to look at me, but he doesn’t, making me wonder what he’s thinking. Polynomials probably. Linear equations. Integers.
Me, Brad . . . Pick me. I’m right here for you.
Brad keeps that left hand planted on the desktop while he moves his pen across my paper, so I don’t really have to move my body. Even when I rub a little against his arm, he doesn’t react even though I want him to. I’m glad I’m wearing my favorite bra today.
Now he’s pointing at #4. “What’s the x factor here, Michaela?”
I re-focus and look at his corrections. I nod my head just enough so I have to slide my hair back behind my ears. I make my voice sound like I’m talking to a doctor. “Positive four?” I say. Then I look up at him – at the faint stubble on his chin, the stiff edges of the collar of his white shirt, his loose red tie – the same look I’ve seen on television detectives, the men who grab the jackets of criminals and shove them up against a wall and later sip scotch from little glasses. And Brad could totally do that. He’s also our school’s wrestling coach.
“That’s correct. There you go.” Brad’s chirpy voice makes me feel for a moment like he’s talking to a puppy. He even lifts his left arm off the desk to pat my back, his fingers lingering for a moment on the clasp of my bra, and I feel my body surge again and then retreat when he removes his hand. He points at #4. “You see, you neglected the negative here.”
The rest of the class doesn’t notice Brad and me. Why would they? They’re supposed to be working on the next problems, but most are peering into their laps, their fingers moving feverishly on their cellphones.
Except for Shauna in the back of the classroom. I feel her eyes on Brad and me; they dig angrily into my back.
“Michaela,” Brad lectures, “you need to multiply by two here, not divide.” Now he’s pointing at #5, another one I know is wrong. “Try again.”
I peer at the paper where his pen has stopped. He’s too close. I could wrap my arm around his waist. Would he jerk away from me? Music plays in my head. “Dirty Little Secret” by the All American Rejects. It’s our song. Or will be one day. “Okay. But can I go to the bathroom?”
He straightens again, nods, points to his hall pass resting against the chalk-board at the front of the room, and steps forward to check Steve Peplin’s work. He bends over Steve’s desk, and I stare for a moment at his wide back, at the muscles pushing at his shirt.
I get up and stand next to him, feeling his height against me, and judge how he would lean down to put his arm around my waist or to hold my hand. What that would look like. What that would feel like. Another wave of energy rushes through me, and I almost put my hand on his back to get him to move a little so I can step around him. I want any excuse to touch him. To see if he can sense my feelings through my hand.
And if he could, would he chastise me for viewing him that way, a teacher, for God’s sake? What are you thinking, Michaela?
So instead, I keep my hands at my sides and go the other direction, purposely keeping my eyes away from Shauna, and when I reach the front of the classroom I hear Brad tell Steve how to reduce the polynomial. At the doorway those same boys murmur behind my back. “Fat tits,” one of them says, and the others snicker. Brad is busy and doesn’t hear them.
I pretend I don’t hear them either. Mostly I’m surprised because I’m invisible to boys at this school. Boys don’t look at girls who shop in the plus-size section. But Brad will. Soon. I know it. The three boys lean in again to look at the one boy’s cellphone, their faces showing anticipation and amusement.
In the hallway I glance back into the room at Brad to see if he’s looking at me, but he isn’t. He’s helping Dana Phillips now, his left hand resting on the back of her chair so that if she leaned back he could touch her if he wanted. I can tell by the sweep of his hand he’s putting checkmarks on her homework answers. This makes Dana smile at her paper and then up at Brad, the same look I remember from her yearbook picture, like she was already starting a career as a model. Brad smiles too. I can’t remember – did Brad smile at me that way?
I like the name Brad, but then there’s BM. His initials are terrible. I would never tell him that, though. He’s a proud man. A tough coach.
I hurry down the dim, empty hallway, a stale antiseptic smell still lingering from the morning, and feel my stomach turning. I don’t have to touch it to know my forehead is hot, but I do anyway and the palm of my hand comes away damp and warm. This makes me move my sluggish body even faster.
I’m glad the restroom is empty. I barge into a stall and, kneeling quickly, I throw up, heaving for almost a minute until little brown bits of my morning cereal bob on top of the toilet water. When I finish, I flush immediately and listen for the door opening and any footsteps. Thankfully, I’m still alone, and although the urge to vomit has passed, I stay there in the coffin-like stall and wait until I know I’m breathing. It’s like I’m discovering my lungs again, and when my breaths finally have a steady rhythm, I open the door and step to the sink, its white porcelain already stained by some girl’s makeup.
I have my purse. I have my phone. Shauna texts me.
U r crazy you think hes gonna pick u.
Her accusation makes my face grow hot again. I cup some water in my palm and then swish it around my mouth and spit. Next, I splash water on my forehead and cheeks, and some drops splash onto my red Bayview High School t-shirt. Today is the final day of Spirit Week. The football team is undefeated. Because the Bulldogs have a game tonight, the players are wearing their white jerseys with red numerals with their sleeves pulled up tight on their upper arms. They jostle each other and laugh when they walk down the hallways between classes. Sometimes cheerleaders walk with them.
I slip my bangs back behind my ears and check my face in the mirror. It isn’t a cheerleader face. My nose isn’t small enough. My shoulders slope a little. My hair, Shauna, says, is too short and too mousy – too short, in fact, for pigtails, which I suspect Brad likes. The girl he picked last year had pigtails.
Shauna thinks she’s helping me; she’s my best friend. I text her back.
When I return to Brad’s room, I walk briskly by the boys who sit near the door. I give Shauna a whatever look where she’s sitting in the back of the classroom. She slowly shakes her head at me. I’m used to that from her. At the bell, Shauna starts stacking her books on her desktop.
Brad, too, is stacking papers, our homework, into a yellow plastic tray at his desk. The tray says Period 4 on it. Picture frames of his family – I peek at them every time I enter his classroom – stand like little sentries on either side of his wooden desk. I notice with disappointment that he already retrieved my paper off my desk. I can’t hand it to him personally.
Next period, at lunch, Shauna plops down on a chair across from me, her thick-waisted body jostling the chair, and leans her scrunched up face towards me across the Formica table, her eyes squinting like she’s trying to focus them. “You are crazy, Mac. He doesn’t like you that way.”
I look around the cafeteria, the football players tipping sports drinks at their mouths, other kids copying homework assignments, freshmen at the next table over trying to steal chicken nuggets from each other’s little cardboard baskets. I pretend I’m looking for the boy she’s talking about. I stretch my neck. “Who?”
“Don’t play me, Michaela.” Shauna stabs a plastic fork into one of her own chicken nuggets and sticks the speared piece into her mouth.
I put on my question mark face and look at a table of football players in their white jerseys. Robbie Pugh is #31. “Robbie? I don’t like Robbie.”
Shauna doesn’t wait to finish chewing her chicken nugget. “He’s a teacher, Michaela. He’s bald.”
My stomach starts hurting again, and I set down on a plastic bag the green grapes I was eating, another diet I’m trying. The bathroom is across the hall from the lunchroom about a hundred feet from our table, but it will probably be crowded now. I peer across at the freshmen boys munching on their nuggets and slashing open their bags of chips, then past them to the football players again.
I pretend to study Robbie Pugh. “Robbie isn’t bald.”
Shauna lets out a big breath. “Whatever.” She takes a gulp from her milk carton.
I turn back to Shauna. “Vin Diesel is bald.”
“Vin Diesel?” Shauna’s laughter is more like a cackle as she stands up and slides her plastic tray off the table. “You are wacked, Michaela. He doesn’t like you that way. He isn’t going to pick you.” She studies me for a moment. “He likes those athletic kind of girls.”
I review in my head the girls Brad has selected before. “Hanna Greshem was kinda fat,” I remind her. Hanna graduated two years ago and now attends a small college in Indiana on a track scholarship. Discus, I think. She had mousy hair, too.
“Like I said, you are messed up,” Shauna declares and then stomps away to return her tray.
I watch her go. “He’s going to pick me,” I quietly say to her back. “I know it.”
After lunch, the hallway is full of kids weaving in and out, going to classes they don’t like, indifferent to the bell, most of them hunched over by their book bags. I follow them, faking any urgency to get to my next class. The rest of the school day is stupid group work in English, coloring anti-drug posters in health, and at the end a pep rally for the football team. I love pep rallys. We get out of class.
For this rally, we crowd into the gym and watch the cheerleaders do a dance to some hip-hop song, the hems of their red skirts lifting high enough at times to make some boys hoot at them. When they finish and amble weirdly off the court with their fists stuck at their sides, we all clap. Brad sits on the other side of the gym with some teachers. When the coach introduces the football team, Brad claps for each player and even pumps his fist when the barrel-chested coach reminds us all in an overly loud voice that the team in undefeated.
After the rally, I watch Brad exit the gym with Mrs. Spiesman, another math teacher. She’s older than Brad; she has streaks of gray hair and is heavy in her hips. He says something, jerks his thumb behind him, and she laughs. School is over, and students empty the hallways as if toxic waste had been spilled there.
Shauna and I have to bum a ride home today, and when I see a senior, Billy Osborne, I know from chemistry class, I ask him for a ride. Billy sizes me up, like he’s choosing a tux for prom, and then peers over my shoulder at Shauna.
“Both of you?” he asks.
“Yeah, both of us,” Shauna demands. “C’mon, Osborne, help us out. You can tell your friends tomorrow we hit on you.”
Billy’s eyes go wide, and his cheeks get red. He pulls out his keys, turns his back to us, and waves an arm at us as if he’s a sergeant leading his platoon into the jungle. “My car is over here.”
Bayview kids who don’t drive are always trying to hitch a ride – the school district has no busing and I don’t have a drivers license. Mom tried to teach me, but the whole experience made me too nervous. Billy drives an old Monte Carlo, and when we reach it, Shauna gets in the back and smiles mischievously at me when I sit next to Billy in the front seat. It’s like Billy and I are a married couple with our child, Shauna, in the back.
I privately enjoy my own analogy and turn to Shauna, “Buckle up, honey.”
“Very funny,” she responds and looks out the window as Billy gets in line behind a dozen other cars waiting to exit the Bayview High School parking lot.
I turn to Billy. “Sycamore Street,” I tell him.
He nods and finally maneuvers his Monte Carlo out onto the street. Some kids are riding their bikes home from school. Others are walking, and why not? This October day is warm and breezy, the leaves just now changing color, the puffy, milk-colored clouds like hilly islands in the blue sky, a sky I’d like to paint. I’d walk too if my street wasn’t so far away. Shauna wouldn’t though, so after school we always beg for a ride.
Billy hums a little and then turns on the radio. “I was thinking about getting Sirius,” he informs us, his voice like a stock investor’s, “but I decided it wasn’t worth it. I’m okay with the stations we got here.”
I nod although I’m not certain he was soliciting any agreement. Billy keeps pulling one hand off the steering wheel to swipe his sandy brown hair off his forehead, but he drives carefully. He does full stops at stop signs, he looks both ways, he doesn’t play rap songs on the radio too loud. I push my finger on the door switch and let the window slide down halfway. Bayview smells like cut grass. The leaves on the oak trees are turning different shades of red and orange. I’d paint them too. I catch Billy looking at me – at my boobs actually – and when I catch his eyes on me, he pretends he’s checking the side mirror. I want to tell him, it’s not happening. Just because he gave me a ride, I should let him put his hands on me?
Billy blushes a little and lets his wispy hair stay strewn across his forehead, as if he can conceal the side of his face. He gestures his head to Shauna, and then peers at her in his rearview mirror. “Where do you live?”
“I’m going to Michaela’s,” she tells him. “You’re a good dude to do this for us.”
“Yeah, well . . . no problem. I live out this way kinda.”
A block away from Sycamore, Billy stops at a red light. “I got some ganja in the glove compartment. We could go somewhere and smoke it if you like.” He says this like he’s asking a question.
Now I understand why he was driving so carefully. “No, Billy,” I tell him, “I don’t do that shit, but we appreciate the ride, though.”
“Hey, wait–” Shauna scoots forward quickly in the back seat.
I stop her. “I have to get home, Shauna . . . I’m not feeling well.”
Shauna leans back and exhales loudly. “Oh, shit, Michaela.” Then she goes back to staring out the window.
“No problem.” Billy shrugs and swipes his hair again off his forehead.
When Shauna and I get inside my house, I plop my backpack onto the kitchen counter and wave at Mom, who, unsmiling, waves back to Shauna and me and then turns her back to us to speak into the phone, like she’s suddenly in private mode. I smell meat in a crockpot.
“What bill?” Mom asks. She turns, and her eyes stare at the opposite wall, as if she could see whom she’s talking to. She’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt that doesn’t fit her. Dad’s? She must not have gone to work today, or she came home early.
“It’s always money with you, Len.”
Okay, now I get it. She’s talking to Dad, who must be at another business conference; he’s gone all the time.
Shauna gives me the wide-eyed look, as in “What the hell is this about?”
I shrug, and Shauna heads up the stairs to my bedroom.
Mom goes on. “I didn’t make that reservation.” Now her voice is angry. “I never made a reservation with your credit card . . .What? . . . When? . . . I was here, Len.”
Mom and Dad don’t talk. They make accusations. They defend. I linger in the kitchen just long enough to fill a bowl with chips and two glasses with Coke. Sunlight streams in through the windows, but Mom’s face darkens. “Len, how would I know how many miles you have on your American Airlines card?” Her face shows concentration and confusion, like she’s examining a plate of food she’s never seen before. “I’m telling you I didn’t make that reservation for Houston.”
I slide my backpack off the counter and onto my shoulder, put the bowl and glasses on a tray, and head up to my bedroom. Shauna has already planted herself on my bed, making me feel like a visitor in my own room. I set the tray on the nightstand and sit on the rug, which forces me to look up at Shauna who is already snatching and eating one chip after another. “You goin’?” she asks, each word said separately between crunches.
“To the game?”
Shauna stops chewing. “No, to Brad’s birthday party. Yes, the game!”
“I don’t know.” I reach for my glass and take a sip. “I have to check with my mom.”
“Miller will be there.” Shauna says in a sing song voice. She is anything but subtle and likes it when she can feel like she knows something before anyone else.
I take another sip before saying, “Shauna, it’s not like that . . . Do you think I’d sit with him?”
“Maybe he’ll come with his wife.” Shauna is enjoying herself.
She’s either trying to hurt me or make a point. I raise my glass but hardly drink from it because I’m having trouble swallowing. My room smells of dust and stale air. “I’m going,” I tell her almost defiantly. “You coming with me?”
Only a moment passes. “I wouldn’t miss it,” she answers, smiling wryly.
I’m not certain what it is. Shauna has always been like that: one time wide open and direct, the next time closed up and cryptic. Like when we were on the playground for recess in 5th grade and Libby Morris made fun of my new haircut (My mom did it), Shauna punched Libby in the chest, knocking her to the ground, and then stood over her ready to hit her again if she got up. Sniffling, her eyes never leaving Shauna’s angry face, Libby had to scoot away on her butt. And later, as we got in line to go back to our classroom, I asked Shauna why she did that. “Timing was right,” she said. Ever since, we’ve been best friends.
“What are you girls doing tonight?” Mom is suddenly in my doorway, her face still flushed from her phone conversation.
“Football game,” Shauna says cheerfully. Her voice becomes a mock whisper: “We’re going to check out the boys,” and then she turns to me and winks. “I mean the men.”
Mom sticks both hands on her hips and chuckles. “Well, well, well,” she says. “Sounds like an interesting evening.” Then her voice drops an octave. “Good luck picking the right one.”
After she leaves and I hear her footsteps on the stairwell, I turn to Shauna. “I think I’m going to ask Brad to be a stat for the wrestling team.”
“Fuck, Michaela. What’s wrong with the boys in our school?” Shauna reaches her hand into the bowl and takes the last of the chips.
What’s wrong with them? Everything. I think of Brad driving me home after a wrestling match. His car dark and warm. His hand reaching for mine. If people saw us together, what would they say?
I give in. “Don’t tell anyone, Shauna. Keep this a secret, okay?”
“Mac. You. Are. Crazy.” Shauna gulps down her Coke and scoots off the bed. “I’ll meet you later.” She pounds down the stairs and out the front door. She lives only a block away.
Two hours later I dress in my most attractive clothes: my black yoga pants, a tight cami, an unbuttoned denim shirt. I even paint my nails and then spray on the perfume my mother gave me for my last birthday.
Mom drops me off at the football game, and I find Shauna sitting on the edge of the senior section, as if daring the seniors to make her leave. No one obviously has told her to move – or they were too scared to – so I trudge up the aisle and sit with her.
On the field, players run around and then fall down. The first half is full of whistles, cheerleaders telling us over and over to “Go Bayview,” and weird chants from the senior student section, but my eyes are on Brad. He’s sitting below me to the left with Mr. Morgan, a biology teacher who’s announced he’s retiring this year. I can see Brad’s bald head turn every few minutes to look at Mr. Morgan when he gestures to the field. When Brad turns for some reason to check out the press box announcer, we make eye contact. He smiles briefly, gives me a little nod, and then turns back to the game. For a moment I can’t breathe. The air is getting stuck in my lungs.
“Michaela!” Shauna is annoyed. She jostles my shoulder with hers.
“What? I’m watching the game.”
“No, you’re not.”
At halftime I tell Shauna I’m going to the bathroom and sneak instead into the school. I slip through the band door entrance, into the lobby, and down the first-floor hallway, which is still brightly lit as if school was in session. All the classroom doors are open for the custodians to clean and empty the trash, but the custodians aren’t there – they must be on break or outside at the field. I move down the hall until I reach Brad’s room and step inside. His unlit classroom has the feel of a tomb.
I stroll the aisles for several minutes, the same way Brad does when he checks our homework, but I stop when I get to my own desk. So many times he’s stood over me here, one time gently tapping my shoulder, another time my hand, and today his fingers lingering on my bra strap as his rhythmic teacher’s voice guides me through an algebra problem.
I step tentatively to the front of the classroom and lift one of the framed pictures off Brad’s desk. Brad with his wife and family – two little girls in plaid jumpers, all of them smiling. I imagine them eating dinner or shopping in a toy store or snuggling together on the couch.
Holding the picture frame, I examine their smiles, all of them obviously happy about a life they’ve stolen from me. My heart thumps against my ribs, my mouth goes dry, and each of my legs seems thirty pounds heavier, but I smash the frame on his desk anyway and use his green pen to scratch out the faces on the now-exposed photograph. And I don’t stop. I rip posters off the walls. One says “Math = No Problem.” Another: “One thing you can’t recycle is wasted time.” And the last one: “Today is a great day to learn something new.” I tear them up with my hands and then have to sit at Steve Peplin’s desk for a minute, surprised at my own exhaustion.
I catch my breath in Brad’s quiet room. The desks are in orderly rows, the chalkboard still shows equations, and the shades are all neatly drawn halfway down the windows. The cemetery silence makes my ears hurt, so I leave his room as soundlessly as I entered and head outside to the football stadium, which glimmers like an alien spaceship beneath gray clouds and a black sky on the other side of the parking lot. The dark air cools my skin.
Suddenly, a roar erupts from the Bayview stands, and I feel drawn for a moment to rush into the stadium to find out if we scored.
But I don’t.
That’s because Brad is walking toward me, his head down, his eyes on the car keys in his hand. I hide between two SUVs and let him pass and then fall into step behind him. I stay quiet and wait until he nears his car and unlocks it.
He turns, startled. Then he scans the parking lot, craning his neck left and right, searching I know for witnesses, before settling his gaze on me. His face carefully expressionless, Brad sizes me up, just like Billy did. He opens his car door on the passenger side and finally says, “You look like you need a ride, Michaela.” He even winks.
My heart pounds with pride.
I make my face smile and promise myself not to gloat to Shauna.
I get in his car.
Keith Manos Biography:
Keith Manos is a veteran English teacher who in 2000 was named Ohio’s High School English Teacher of the Year by OCTELA and inducted into the National Honor Roll of Outstanding American Teachers in 2006. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books, including Writing Smarter (Prentice Hall, 1998). In 2015, Black Rose Writing published his debut novel My Last Year of Life (in School). Check out his website at www.keithmanos.com