01 Sep Your Life into Mine
Your Life into Mine is a short story.
Her girlish laughter, the adolescent music of it, rising above all other sounds in a high school hallway – even as he thinks this, the shrill whistle of the kettle rouses him from his daydream. Pamela tosses the morning paper down and rushes to turn off the stove. She grabs the teapot with an oven mitt and rests it on a cold burner. She scoops two teaspoons of instant coffee into each of two mismatched mugs and drops three sugar cubes into hers. James takes his black.
Pamela never buys good coffee – the kind you order online and grind yourself. James has asked his wife to buy coffee beans, something, anything, that comes in a bag; or good shampoo; or dish soap that actually washes the dishes, and a long list of other everyday items that would greatly improve the little things that make life a bit better. But Pamela prides herself on being thrifty. And she justifies this frugal trait by repeating her defense.
“Darling, I’m only making the most of your hard-earned teacher’s salary.”
And although she makes this sound like a noble thing, it irritates James, with the underlying insinuation of living on the edge of poverty. Their modest rental, a duplex in a passable neighborhood. Their ten-year-old practical, relatively fuel-efficient Ford Taurus. Tuna casserole every Tuesday night with the in-laws, without fail. Approaching forty-two, James did not picture his life turning out this way.
James scribbled his name on the white board the first day of school and turned to survey the students in his senior English Lit class. He smiled. “Welcome. Feels good to be seniors?” And there was a general agreed consensus. “That’s great,” James said. “I’m Mr. Clark, and I hope your summer was awesome.” He took roll quickly, then continued.
“I’ve put a synopsis for this semester’s lessons on your desks – I see some of you have found it. The last page is a list of novels. You’ll be required to choose three of them and write reports, all due before winter break at the end of the semester.
“Now, among this list you’ll find the usuals – the books your older siblings pushed through – To Kill a Mockingbird – Lord of the Flies. Excellent in their own way, of course. But there are a few that might surprise, and even delight you. Like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road. Murmurs among his students had appreciative tones. A hand slowly went up in the back of the room.
“Yes?” James smiled. She stood up, next to her desk, and this was both unusual and charming in the moment. Standing to speak was a thing of the past, even considered old school, but this girl seemed comfortable and not at all embarrassed to do it. “Who are you?” James asked, looking down at his seating chart.
“Charmaine Ashwood. But everyone just calls me Charlie.” Thinking back, it was in this moment, that James felt a spark of life – an awakening – a revival of youth. Charlie, he remembers thinking, half-listening to her words. “Mr. Clark?” she asked. A trickle of perspiration ran down his back.
“Charmaine, could you repeat your question, please?” and he muttered something about the noisy groundskeeper mowing the lawn outside the window.
“Just Charlie,” she laughed – the laugh that would echo in his thoughts so often after. “I was wondering if we can go off the list, and write a report on maybe a different book? I mean, just one other. Two from the list, and one of our own choosing.” He wanted to tell her she could do whatever she pleased, but he could see the entire class listen with expectation, needing an answer to this worthwhile question as well.
“Charmain,” he began.
“Charlie. It’s okay, to call me Charlie, Mr. Clark,” spoken from perfect, slightly pouting lips, the color of a delicate Nena rose.
James cleared his throat and took a sip of his generic water. “Charlie,” he said, and her name sounded so feminine despite its obvious gender. It suited her. And it suited him. “If that’s something you would like to do.” But James looked at everyone. “If any of you would like to choose a book not listed, just run it by me first,” James finished. “You may have a seat.” Charlie.
James didn’t remember driving home that day. Except when someone honked at him for not going when the light turned green. It was a Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, and as he placed the car keys in a simple bowl in the foyer, he could smell tuna casserole. But this time, it smelled absolutely wonderful, and he felt hungrier than he had in weeks. James strolled into the kitchen where Pamela stood, tearing romaine lettuce pieces into a large salad bowl already scattered with sliced radishes and shredded carrots.
“You look like you had a good first day,” Pamela said, glancing at James. But before he could tell her anything about it, she continued. “Darling, I’m running a bit late today. Would you be a dear and set the table?” And she reminded him of something he already knew. “Remember. Dining room, tonight. Mom and Dad.”
In the school days that followed, and for the first time in his sixteen years of teaching English, James stopped wearing a bow tie. He unbuttoned the top button of his starched shirts. He grew his hair a little longer, just a little, telling his barber to give him a more modern cut. He even bought a Jersey sports coat, on sale, thinking of Pamela’s strictly monitored budget. He consciously did these things for her. For Charlie.
“A bit scruffy,” Pamela frowned one morning when she gave James her perfunctory goodbye kiss on his cheek. It was true. James had noticed that some of the senior boys didn’t shave every day – but left just a hint of hair – like a five o’clock shadow. He decided this made them sexier, more masculine. And gave them a slightly bad boy image.
But James couldn’t help poking Pamela with a slight dig, a minor stab at her strict penny-pinching ways – something he wouldn’t ever have done before Charlie. “Maybe those cheap razors you buy, aren’t really that economical. I mean, if they’re not doing their job …” Pamela had stood, speechless for once. And James hurried out the door before she could defend herself.
He wanted to touch her. Not in a crude or sensual way – he would not let himself think like that. Just her exposed shoulder, round and smooth, on warmer days when she wore tank tops. And the delicate curve at the nape of her neck.
On test days he could stare at her, unabashed, unhindered, to drink in his fill of her. “Eyes on your paper,” he would say in his kindly, teacher voice to any student who looked up from the test. And while they all bent forward filling in the answers, he could watch her. The way she bit down on the end of her pen, deep in thought, between lips meant to be kissed. The way she’d tuck escaped tresses of her satin-black hair behind one ear, revealing a tiny butterfly earring.
Did she notice the changes in him? Did she feel his fixation, his desires, how he would look away, blushing, whenever she watched him? Straight through him, afraid she could see his fast-beating heart, endlessly beating to the rhythm of her name.
Staring up at the ceiling lying next to Pamela, Charlie was who he thought about before finally falling asleep. And she was the first thing he thought about when the harsh alarm clock jangled him awake on school mornings. Weekends were becoming unbearable. Without Charlie. And the long Thanksgiving holiday was coming up fast.
The week before this extended break, on a Monday afternoon, Charlie stood in the doorway to his classroom after school. He was gathering papers into his briefcase. The late afternoon light was behind her, and James thought of regal ladies in courts of old, Lady Anne and Lady Guinevere. He thought, Lady Charmaine. Maybe he thought this because another student had placed a report on The Once and Future King on his desk. Or maybe not.
“Come in, come in, Charlie. How can I help you?” James tried to act nonchalant. Normal. Teacherly, if that was even a word.
“I wanted to get permission to write my report on a book that’s not on the list. I’ll read it over Thanksgiving. If you say it’s okay.”
“That was the agreement – if I say it’s okay, of course.” She drifted over to him, fishing through her bag for the novel. She set it on the edge of his desk. Lolita. A much-read paperback by its creased spine and curling pages.
James took a step back and searched her face. Was she trying to make a point? Did she figure out his obsession for her? “Nabokov is a difficult read,” he told her, grabbing his water and taking a deep swig. Yet James knew she was his best student and would have no problem with the author’s style and vocabulary. It was the insinuation of his (love) admiration for her that worried him.
Had he been too obvious? Had she seen him staring at her, the adoration apparent? Yet didn’t he want her to notice him from the beginning? Didn’t he need her to (love) admire him back? Even if it was just an innocent schoolgirl crush for a male teacher?
Or had he taken it too far? Had he really wanted so much more, and it was now his for the taking? Was this her way of telling him she was his for the taking?
“Charlie. Why Lolita? Do you know what it’s about?”
“Kind of,” she said. “I know it’s a romance,” she whispered, and looked up at him, her green eyes wide, her lashes long and black against her fair skin. James tried to look away. It took all of his will to reach for the book and pick it up. Not to reach for her, instead. To take her by her narrow waist and pull her to him. To kiss her long and hard. He turned away from Charlie to extinguish this overpowering temptation.
And she looked down at the tiled floor.
“All right, then, Charlie,” James said at last, gulping down more water. “I trust in your judgement. Lolita it is.”
She went to take the book he still held in his trembling hand. And her fingers touched his. He saw how she had a habit of biting her nails, the pink polish chipped. But her skin was smooth, young. So very young. And he jerked back, as if her touch had burned him.
She paused, thinking he’d been repulsed by the stroke of her hand. By her. Then she lifted her chin.
“My sister told me Lolita dies at the end of this story. Is that true?” she asked, trying to overlook the way he had flinched.
“Oh, I’m not the kind of person who would spoil a good story. But to be honest, I don’t really remember. It’s been a while since I read that book.” James told her. “Your sister shouldn’t tell people how books end, whether or not it’s true.”
The Thanksgiving holidays arrived all too soon, and each day seemed longer than the last. The in-laws came over and they all feasted on turkey with the usual fixings. Frugal Pamela bought the biggest turkey James had ever seen, telling him she planned to have leftovers for a week after. Turkey enchiladas; turkey tetrazzini; turkey-cranberry casserole (for a nice change next Tuesday); and turkey sandwiches on rye, sourdough, and French rolls – counting as three separate lunches.
It was the Sunday morning before school went back in session, that Pamela, in her robe and slippers, started shaking her head at the breakfast table. “Such a damn shame,” she sighed, holding the paper. James buttered his toast and reached for the jam. Pamela had a way of ferreting out the worst news and saying those exact words. “That poor girl,” she added.
“What about a poor girl?” James asked, but it was hard for him to think about other people when Monday and Charlie were just hours away.
“A senior. Committed suicide yesterday afternoon. Says here she went to your high school, James. Maybe you knew her?”
James’ blood felt like ice had been injected into his veins. He knew it before Pamela could utter her name, a name that did not belong in Pamela’s mouth. A name that sounded so feminine despite its obvious gender. The kettle on the stove screeched out an ear-piercing whistle, just as Pamela said it. James read her lips, unable to hear above the shriek of the teapot. And the screaming he himself was making.