Eighteen

Between classes and emails, Wednesday morning blurred into Wednesday afternoon. The banality dulled Dan. He wished it would last forever.

"Hallelujah, we're saved, you're wrong, and I'm not taking in your problem students." Jen's announcement shook him out of his reverie. "You're welcome." She dropped a file folder onto his desk, scattering stray Post-it notes.

"What's this?" he asked, but she only lifted her brows and grinned.

Dan opened the folder and thumbed through printouts of old newspaper articles. "That's a lot of research." He had not thought her very invested.

"It only took half of first period."

"Don't you have a class then?" Dan looked up to catch her shrug.

"I gave my students free reading time while I looked this up. They were happy and I was happy."

The first was a clip of old police reports from the local paper. Dan scanned the articles and found familiar names. He read the section once, twice, three times, looked up in disbelief. "Elise died driving drunk?"

"She drove off the highway and crashed into a tree," Jen clarified. "I think we can rule out elaborate vendetta on the part of dear Mr. Department Chair."

Old news seemed unreal sometimes, like stories. "Rebecca never told me."

"I'm shocked that she wasn't thrilled to tell you her mother was a drunk driver," Jen said, and Dan was distinctively reminded of how difficult it was to befriend a cat. "Look at the next one."

He put aside the first page. The second was an article titled, "Alum weighs in on work, his time at Columbia, his journey."

"This part was fun." Jen tapped a section in highlight.

"I bet," he said.

'Growing up, I was non-athletic. I was lanky. My father was involved in founding the Minnesota Deer Hunting Association the same time I became a vegetarian after reading Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet. I was gay on top of all that,' Phelan said at the Class of 1977 reunion on Saturday, October 20th.

As Dan read, Jen paced around his room, pausing briefly to admire a poster of Hemingway.

'I've always been part of the minority. I will always fight for the minority.' He flipped to the first article. "His reunion was the same date as the car crash."

From the far corner of the room, Jen nodded. "In every description of Roger Phelan we've seen, he's the self made hero with the difficult past. I mean, read this, he's 'handsome,' 'successful,' he's got 'progressive thinking,' 'a good sense of humor,' and it's true! Maybe Rebecca's the doubtful—"

"No," he interrupted. "Absolutely not." Not Rebecca. Not the girl whose demons he saw with his own two eyes.

"No? Okay." Jen crossed her arms over her maroon sweater vest. "Then tell me why you're trying to kick her out of your class when you like her that much."

"Look—"

"And I hope you're aware by now, Dan," Jen interrupted, circling back to him, "that I know bullshit when I hear it."

She did not speak loudly, but he felt his spine bend, felt his shoulders drop. He could say many things, but nothing very true. "Those implications he made last time, about our professional relationship," he tried, "they won't apply to you."

The corners of her lips twitched. "Try telling that to the gay community and see if they're not after your ass."

"Do this one favor for me, Jen? Tell me what I owe you."

Jen let escape a curt, measured sigh. "I want an honest explanation. I want to know what business a high school junior has with two grown men in the first place."

"That's Rebecca's story to tell—"

"And it's yours." The points of Jen's shoes touched the toes of his. Dan backed into his desk. "Let me tell you something," she hissed, "if you meant to be responsible, you wouldn't have waited until now to get her to transfer. It's as if you..." Her voice was harsh and her breath hot.

"I don't know what you mean." Dan could tell her he was a fool, but she'd ask him what sort.

Jen threw up her hands. "You know what? I think I will accept this transfer. I'm going to keep an eye on her. And you." She grabbed the file folder and rapped it hard against his chest. "Read the rest of this. It's enlightening." She turned without glancing back but Dan could hear the brisk, angry clicking of her heels down the hall.

He stood by his desk, file in hand, and swore. Beneath the dim white florescent bulbs of the classroom, he questioned if despite all his intentions, anything he did could make good come to fruition.

.~.*.~.

Atop the table stood a fake bouquet bathed in real sunlight. Rebecca rested her chin on her knuckles and stared at pink daisies and white lilies until she could see each square stitch, then stared at it some more until her vision blurred and the petals appeared fresh and pearly. She counted six daisies and five lilies, not including the ones she could not see. Why there were fake flowers in the record store, Rebecca did not know. It was a nice touch though.

She knew she should use the time before her job interview to get the reading done, but she laid her copy of Reservation Blues down on the table and could not open it. The book had too much to do with being forced to read what she didn't like. Too much to do with being in a class with a teacher she didn't want.

He asked her how she would feel about a transfer, and the truth was after embarrassment wore off it hurt. One sided fantasies played out fun, maybe. Knowing tortured.

Rebecca looked at her face reflected in the yellow-brown liquid of the tea before her. The weather had warmed but the store was chilly and so her palms got all cold and clammy. Rebecca wrapped both hands around the cup and sipped. The tea tasted like hot, dusty water. She set it down away from her. The cups were made out of ninety-nine percent recycled materials and had swirly designs of trees printed on them. People shouldn't buy cheap tea to go with fancy cups, she thought.

Jazz played in the store. From the other side of the lilies, Pete tapped the cash register for a customer. He rocked his head and his torso to the music as he did so, like he was having fun.

"Good song," Rebecca commented over the daisies.

Pete saluted the customer goodbye before glancing in her direction. "Yeah, you know Bobby Watson?"

"Um…" she said. "No."

"Oh."

Each daisy had twenty-one petals.

"Do you study music? In college?" she tried after Pete finished with another customer.

"Yeah I did," he said, coming to Rebecca's side. "Then I wondered, why go to an institution at all if I'm gonna be an artist?" He yawned without covering his mouth and stretched.

A stable source of income, thought Rebecca.

Noticing her silence, Pete nudged her. "Hey, I might've learned shit at college, but that doesn't mean I'm not chock-full of useful talents."

"Oh?" Rebecca brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Like what?" It made her glad inside that their conversation had taken off.

"See that dude over there?" Pete leaned in close and Rebecca could see clearly the individual hairs on his chin. He pointed to a short, skinny, bespectacled man in a brown and white striped shirt browsing the New on Vinyl shelf. He looked twenty-something and had a large nose which twitched when he picked up a record. Rebecca thought he might make a great rodent impressionist.

"What about him?" she whispered back.

"He's an engineer. Doesn't have a whole lot of friends. Probably hasn't gotten laid in a while."

She snapped her eyes up. "And you know that because?"

A wicked grin stole over Pete's face. "Look at him! He obviously weighs less than his IQ number."

"You're stereotyping!" She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle.

Pete shrugged. "What do you think? Should I go up and ask him an insulting question and see if he punches me?"

"What's that supposed to prove?" She felt conspiratorial, a little bad in a good way.

"If he's too wimp to punch me, then he's an engineer." He rolled his eyes, and Rebecca giggled. "Clearly."

"Dude, if he's not going to punch you, it's because he's so much scrawnier than you."

"Fair point." Pete glanced behind her at the clock.

She wetted her dry lips. Together, she and Pete laughed the nervous laugh of people who were not very close to each other and had run out of things to say too soon. Rebecca picked up her book and played with the pages.

Pete asked her if she was nervous. At first Rebecca did not hear.

"A little," she said, shrugging. It was her second interview in her life and she didn't get the job the first time around.

Pete shook his head. "Don't be. James is dope."

She passed her empty cup between her hands. "I never thanked you, by the way, for referring me to this job."

"Hey, Hannah told me you needed some cash and we need an extra hand here," Pete said. "It's a win-win situation." He directed his glance towards the door. "He's here."

She stood up and smoothed her blouse.

"Rebecca? I'm James. Sorry I'm late—I had to drop off my daughter at daycare." The man had a large forehead, the sole feature not immediately generic about him. What little light in the room balled up there and shifted and bounced as he came up to her.

"Nice to meet you." She smiled her best smile.

James's handshake was warm. He had lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes that suggested generosity with kind words and encouraging smiles. "It's funny. I was reading your resume," he said, leading her into his office, "when I noticed that you're going to the same school my partner works at."

"That's interesting," she said, and reviewed again in her head the prepared list of strengths she possessed—perseverance— and weaknesses she had overcome. "It's a small world."

Hanging on his office wall was a clock that had a melted frame like it was from Dali's painting. She sneezed, and James blessed her.

"Yeah." James reached over his desk and turned around a photo frame. And Rebecca saw James and a blonde toddler girl with chubby arms and bright eyes and Roger Phelan smiling back at her.

"Oh."

"Do you know him?"

She choked trying to say yes, and James asked if she was alright.

"It gets dusty in the shop sometimes," James apologized.

She told him she was fine and that she knew Phelan.

"Is he well liked?" James winked at her. "Don't worry, I won't tell."

When Rebecca got out, she saw parked like a mutant beetle on the drab street a yellow and black-striped sports car.

.~.*.~.

The Route 42 bus spewed a lot of exhaust. Rebecca learned after she got off the bus and watched it clunk away. It was dirty but it had character, she thought. She left a decent part of her on that bus.

Because decency was like the kind of helium balloon for little kids. It was tangible and made her feel good she had it, but it took her nowhere, and letting go was not hard at all.

She once believed he could catch her. But what she needed to confide in him. Needed to have him trust her. Needed to wake up every day knowing there's someone willing to fall with her— someone who had fallen with her. The urgency of her need kept her awake at night and dreaming in the day.

It was selfish but she needed him and he wanted her.

She had looked up his address in the online phonebook and the buses she needed to take to get there. And she asked herself, hey, could I go so low and knock on his door? The answer was yes though he might turn her away.

He might call the police. Her heart hammered at her throat, one two three.

She could offer him sex. Frenzy coiled up inside of her like worms in her gut. She would be bad at it—sex—with her luck, in the beginning. She would be terrified. But she knew he was patient and nice enough and she could learn. She could rationalize it. It was two people joined together at the groin. The average volume of human semen, she remembered from sophomore year sex ed, was about three and a half milliliters—she'd swallowed larger doses of cough syrup as a four-year-old. He was bigger but he was older. He wanted her and she needed him.

It was truth. Oh God, Rebecca pleaded with all the spirituality her agnostic self could muster, please don't let this go badly. Four five six, she fumbled with her bra straps to make sure they remained hidden beneath her wide necked top. Visible bra straps, she thought, were juvenile or trashy, even if she had gone with classic black.

His car was in the driveway. Her fingers circled the doorbell button, touched the smooth surface. Seven eight nine, she counted her heartbeats and pressed down. She shuddered.

Footsteps. His door, she noted, was a dark orangey-red, like the color of leaves when Thanksgiving rolls around and like old, rusted blood. It swung open. He hadn't even locked it.

"H-hi?"

When she breathed in she was conscious of her chest rising though all she got was a frozen smile and blank stare. But it was expected, she told herself. Ratty blue t-shirt and five o'clock shadow, but Rebecca wasn't going to be picky. In fact, she rather liked him that way: confused and not at all terrifying.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

The birds were chirping.

"I—" she started. She wanted him, missed him, needed him. She didn't know which was fiction and which was fact. It's cold out here, she thought to say, but she wasn't the sort of girl who could pull off confident things. "M—" She could not bring herself to call him Mister. She supposed she had been too optimistic in thinking that he'd invite her inside without question.

"What's wrong?"

She stared at her feet. "That we want each other but can't." Some lines sounded not at all cheesy in her head.

Rebecca heard him sigh. She could feel her failure sinking in with the cold of twilight. "That's the one right thing we've—I've done so far."

He sounded right. What he said to her almost always sounded right. But he cared for her and that knowledge was fruit luminous and heavy with forbidden possibilities. It made her tremble. She reached out and touched his arm. "You can't pretend nothing's happened," she whispered, shaking her head. "You can't pretend you don't know."

He covered her hand with his but he didn't push her away. "Do you know how old I am?"

"No," she said. "But I do know that we're both over the age of consent."

He made a noise, like a laugh and like a choking sound. "You're experiencing a lot of emotions right now, and it might be that you're confused—"

"I'm not—"

"You have to understand—"

"You're the kindest person I know. We've gone over this but I can't help what I feel." She couldn't help what she needed.

He would undo himself, she knew it was too much to ask but only then could she make him hers.

"You do...like me, don't you?" Her voice was small.

He said he cared. He said so.

Ten eleven twelve. Thirteen fourteen fifteen. Sixteen seventeen eighteen. Eighteen—the age that she was not that could solve so many minor problems. She looked down at the bluish ceramic tiles of his front porch. She needed to turn into a puddle and evaporate.

He put a hand on each of her arms and she went rigid even though that was a bad thing to do if he tried to shove her away. Instead he pulled her out of view of the doorframe. He muttered something and since she could not hear she could pretend it was sweet. He traced a finger along her jaw, thumbs brushing cheeks. Rebecca tilted her face up and he closed the distance between their mouths, kissing her softly, carefully. Three two one.

He said, "In another lifetime, things would be different. You'd have graduated. Or I would be younger. It wouldn't be... it wouldn't be this."

Rebecca also had imagined what it would be like if he wasn't closer in age to her dead parents than to her. But then he wouldn't be as gentle. Then she'd find his faults. She wouldn't feel as safe or as powerful. Wouldn't need him.

Her cheek against his chest, she heard his heartbeat, a harmonic to the erratic pulse of her own. Rebecca closed his door behind her back. And then she breathed out. And she said, "I like this just fine."


Questions:

Are there parts of the plot that's confusing, particularly with the stuff about Rebecca's mom?

Do the characters get too whiny/emo in between each stage of their character development?

Is it apparent that Dan kinda gives up after the scene with Jen? Is it (at least somewhat) believable that Rebecca would do what she did?

Awkward/otherwise bad writing?

Any other opinions?

Please help me out here by answering any or all of these questions. Reviews returned and all that fun shtuff.

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