Said the Starling
The last time we spoke, he asked me how I remembered him. In that moment, I was the dead leaf echo of Dolores Haze, pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose, my dog circling my shins, husband out back in the yard.
“A sad old man.”
I was gentle, though I didn’t have to be gentle, and I was kind, though I absolutely didn’t have to be kind.
The earliest days were the best ones, back when the late afternoon classroom was vast as a continent and all ours. I read Cosmopolitan articles on male behavior to figure out whether or not he liked me that way, my feet propped up on a desk like I owned the joint, while he graded other, normal students’ essays and pretended not to hear me calling him the meanest words I knew under my breath. He wasn’t a popular teacher--too strict, too strange--but that was good. It meant he was all mine.
He made me love things, had a way of making ugly words sound beautiful. When he said "vomit" in class, I couldn't get enough, and once we were alone I begged for it until he whistled a long v into my ear. Sometimes people asked me what he and I possibly had to talk about, but those were the narrow-minded people who refused to believe how symmetrical forty-five and fifteen can be--equal parts moody and horny, both impatient for their lives finally to begin. I tried to explain the romance of it, that he forced poetry on me long before he ever forced himself, how tender his face was when he said a student like me came along once in a lifetime. That he called us kindred spirits, but that I heard kindled, as though he and I were inflamed.
Once during a fight I called him a pedophile. He immediately corrected, “Ephebophile,” as though he'd already settled the distinction long ago. It was 1999, rape was something that happened in dark alleys and Lilith Fair girls might not have shaved their armpits but I had no interest in them. I loved: Fiona Apple topless and begging for forgiveness, Britney Spears in hotpants with BABY BABY written in rhinestones across the ass. I walked the hallways crowded with schoolgirls, carrying a dog-eared copy of Lolita in my backpack like I’d found a religious calling, lamenting that I was technically one year too old to be a real nymphet. You should’ve seen how many girls wore short pleated skirts, knee socks, and pigtails that Halloween. He had so many to choose from, but he picked me.
When I asked him why me, he explained, “You remind me of a little girl,” as though fifteen weren’t little already. (Of course he said nothing about lucky wolves stumbling upon easy prey, about the outrageousness of an adolescent on spindly legs offering herself to a carnivore.) Younger was the ever-moving goal post; he hated when I wore makeup, liked my hair long, loose, and ideally tangled. Before we even kissed he said he wanted to find me a teddy bear, a bed, and tuck me in. Every so often we'd pretend I was so young it turned my stomach, how thrilled he was to gasp baby girl baby girl as he came.
I got older; he got angier. He said that first I’d changed his life and then I’d ruined it, as though any of it had been up to me. “I’m going to die alone,” he said, “thinking of how when you were fifteen and your face was covered in zits and your mind was a chickpea, you were the fucking love of my life.” I didn’t mention: his wife, his kid, anything. In college I’d see him on Christmas breaks and we’d meet in snowstorms with scarves wrapped round our necks and mouths and only our eyes showing. Anonymous and crimeless, we could have been anyone.
One January the masonic temple caught fire but its brick walls were too cold; the water from the fire hoses, millions of gallons, froze before it reached the flames. “You’re a dark romantic, aren’t you?” he once asked me, back in the classroom at the very beginning of things. “You’re just like me. You like dark things.” From the first time he looked at me, he saw what I was, knew all he had to do was quote Nabokov to lure me in: deadly little demon among the wholesome children...unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. The gutted out temple stood five stories encased in ice and he and I both cried at the sight of it.
As years passed, we lived in utter fantasy, lied to each other so much there was never a presumption of truth. He said someday he’d give me away at my wedding, as though my own father didn’t exist. I told my friends he was just an old mentor I couldn’t get rid of, a speck of dried mud I couldn’t flick off. He asked to come to my college graduation and when I refused, he sobbed on the phone. “My parents still don’t know about you,” I said, though that wasn’t true—they knew about him, everyone knew. “Who wants to pull those old books off the shelf?” my mother asked if the subject even threatened to arise. I was just so good at taking care of myself. I licked my wounds and when that wasn’t enough, I gnawed off my limbs. Cured.
I dealt with the trauma by pretending it didn't exist. I insisted it was a big joke, made a t-shirt with ironed-on letters that spelled out PETS TEACHER and wore it just to watch everyone cringe. This was just something that happened to me, wasn’t really a big deal, all interesting women had middle-aged lovers when they were teenagers. For the rest of my life, I’d have a story to tell, something to set me apart from ordinary bores.
Meanwhile, I was twenty-four, riddled with nightmares, unable hold down a job. Not being able to get out of bed in the morning for no discernible reason means lazy, means fuck up. I confided parts of myself in boyfriends but ended up hating them when they told me to either get help or get over it. One dumped me in a letter that I tore up with my teeth. You walk around like a beaten dog, he wrote, you seek out abuse. Those boys were just narrow-minded, didn’t understand me and never would. How could they when they had no inner darkness, couldn’t even recognize a nymphet in a crowd of children if their lives depended on it?
Dissociation can be a gift: to talk in a haze and walk in a maze. Trauma leaves a fog in its wake, perfect for shrouding yourself in. I kept myself confined in quiet rooms and small spaces, clothes so tight it hurt to breathe while I remembered to the point of reliving the details that skirted round the scene. That there was a red balloon caught in a tree across the street from the classroom and that's what I stared at while he first touched me behind his desk. That there was a Renoir print hanging in his bedroom and sometimes I floated across the room, straight into that boat party. For years I collected copies of that painting without understanding why.
It wasn’t any one thing that tore away the calm I cultivated; it was so slow, so gradual, that one day I looked around my apartment and cowered in fear at a Renoir print. I lost count of how many horrors lurked in my own home, put there by me. A whole bookshelf crammed with copies of Lolita, entire weeks lost to Law & Order, my red-rimmed eyes watching the endless parade of rape victims confessing, pressing charges, getting justice. It was so simple for them.
I was a starling hung in a cage, wailing for help. I cried,“I can’t get out!” But the door was wide open. I could have freed myself. Even from the very beginning, back in the classroom, there was nothing keeping me there. I could have walked right out, could have told someone. Blame was light as air, so easy to swallow, and it never seemed to fill me up. I always had room for more.
A friend said to me once, “Your life is like a movie.” I remember walking through school, smoking red hot with rumors, feeling like a bonafide star. But if this were a book or a movie or a TV show, it would end like this:
SHE confronts HIM with a gun. Faced with the threat of death, HE begins to weep. We’re talking humiliating, snotty-nosed, hiccuping cries. What a piece of shit. SHE is left to decide, give mercy or do a mercy kill. HE is, after all, a sick and twisted animal, best put down with a bullet between the eyes.
SHE presses the gun to HIS forehead.
Why me? Tell me the truth. Why me?
Now he is old, an old man with an old neck and knuckles too big for his fingers and I’m piecing this story together. The real-life ending I get is anti-climactic and infuriatingly weak. I’m talking: wrapping myself in a blanket and saying out loud, “That was mean, those things you did to me”; waiting until my husband is out of the house so only the dog hears me whisper, “You raped me.” There have never been sadder or smaller triumphs.
It’s such an unsatisfying ending. He gets old, I go to therapy. He retires with a pension, and if I’m very lucky and work very hard, I might learn to be a real person again. That’s maybe the most unfair part. That neither of us become immortal. No one gets cured, or forgiven, or blamed.
an earlier version of this piece was published in Hayden's Ferry Review