It began as a disagreement over what William Faulkner meant when he wrote Homer Barron drank with younger men and preferred their company to Miss Emily's. Our class had unanimously agreed on the other ambiguous aspects of the story, save for one dedicated contrarian, but we were almost evenly split on the matter of Homer's sexuality. By the end of the period, the debate was not resolved, and most of my peers were content to leave the answer buried with Faulkner, but I wanted to know what Mr. Wagner thought.
I waited for everyone else to leave, most in a rush to get to their last class of the day. I was not a typical AP student; I didn't have a suicide schedule or parents that would kill me if I brought home a B or a bedtime dictated by mountains of homework. If anything, I was suffering from serious senior-itis and had opted not to take an eighth hour class, no matter how "bad" early dismissal would look on a college application. Usually I spent that extra hour on the computer in the library before trudging home—my car was in a state of disrepair that would require a miracle and my laptop might as well have been a pineapple for all it was worth—but today I sat in the desk closest to Mr. Wagner's. "Hey, do you have time?"
"Hmm?" Mr. Wagner was typing an e-mail but looked at me. He had tired brown eyes, black hair he kept neatly shorn, a serious brow, and thin frowning lips that belied his sunny disposition. He was my only teacher who wore a tie almost every day despite being one of the youngest at twenty-six years of age, but he had the weathered hands of an outdoorsman, callused palms and ragged nails and thick fingertips. His jaw was cut square and always tight. "One second, and then we can talk."
He typed with two fingers but quickly, occasionally glancing down at the keyboard to find the backspace key. He had a hawkish nose, too thin for his wireframe glasses that often found themselves perched like a cliche librarian's, and the hollows of his cheeks rested beneath severe bones. His long neck and long arms and long legs were all attached to a slim torso drowning in an ill-fitted yellow button down, but he had worn a t-shirt and cargo shorts for Spirit Week's casual Friday, so I knew his unflattering slacks were hiding toned legs and a particularly admirable ass. "Who're you writing to?"
"Just another teacher. I don't have enough copies of... the next novel we're reading..."
In early autumn, Mr. Wagner rolled up his sleeves because the school wasn't airconditioned, and I had spent plenty of time admiring his thick forearms and the dark hair that thinned at his wrists. Unfortunately, it was mid-December, and the school never seemed to pay its gas bill, so I could only glimpse his watch when he reached for a book on the shelf nearest to him. He didn't have a wedding ring. "Oh, cool. What are we reading next?"
"Hamlet. You've read it, right?" He looked at me, waving the copy he had just grabbed before setting it on his desk, and I nodded even if I had never read Hamlet. "Good. I really liked your paper for Great Expectations, I can't wait to read what you come up with for this one... now, what was it you wanted?"
"Your opinion on the debate today." I wondered if I was looking into his eyes too often or not enough. I had never figured out the balance, so I stared at his collar instead, at the pale sliver of skin that was hidden when he readjusted his shirt. "I know it's like, one of those things that literary scholars aren't agreed on, but I was just curious about what you thought. I mean, just for the sake of having your opinion."
"I don't think my opinion's worth anymore than yours. What do you think?"
"I'm not sure. That's why I'm asking."
"Well," Mr. Wagner began. His voice was smooth and deep, rumbling from his chest, but affected by a nervous air. I could tell he hadn't been popular in school, and I supposed he still wasn't popular; when I saw him talking to other teachers, he was always on the fringe, nodding along absently and trying to discuss politics when everyone else was gossiping. I liked him more for it. "I've told you before, I really don't want you to base your opinion off of mine. I don't mind you discussing with me when you're stuck, but in this case, I think it's something you should research on your own. My word isn't law, and I'm certainly not an expert on Faulkner. To be honest, I'm not his biggest fan."
"I know that. You told me when we read The Sound and the Fury." I stood and leaned against his desk, resting one hand on the ledge. "I'm not asking to like, know the answer. I am really just genuinely curious about what you think. Come on, I had to sit through your theory on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for almost an entire Speech Tournament. Remember, when my event was canceled? I think you owe me." I delighted in the way he flushed; it was a subtle pink, like those little flowers that grow in clusters, and I had seen it once before when I corrected him on the differences between crocodiles and alligators.
He wrinkled his nose and then spoke, "Okay, well. To be honest, I've usually taken the quote to mean he was an immature bachelor, but I can also understand how it could be interpreted as a suggestion of homosexuality. I've read compelling arguments for both, but it's such a... small aspect of the story that I'm not even sure if it's worth the attention it receives. If anything, I'd say don't worry about it. I don't really understand why anyone would obsess over one character's sexuality in a short story that's an allegory for southern reconstruction. It doesn't affect the plot one way or the other because either way he's unattainable, and that's what matters to Miss Emily."
If I tried, I don't think I could count the nights I spent wondering if Mr. Wagner was gay or straight or taken or single, but I had never thought of whether or not he would accept any of my advances. I knew he wouldn't make the first move—he loved his job and told everyone he loved his job and was a person who exuded integrity—but men were different when they were tempted. Men were different when they were offered the apple. Men were different when something they desired peeled its layers and said take a bite. I tapped my foot like I was struck by what he said, and when I leaned close and kissed him, I doubt he expected it.
He didn't move, and I held his arm until his lips were gracing mine with faint pressure, and his touch ghosted my hand before gripping it. I was unaware of my heart beating, of my lungs short of breath, of anything other than the way his thumb brushed a circle over the bone in my wrist over and over.
There were footsteps in the hall, someone walking past to get to the copy room judging by the click of high heels, and while we couldn't have been seen from the door, I pulled away. I was aware of the blood in my face, of the blood in his and lower, but I knew when he pursed his mouth that I had crossed a line we had both been too conscious of. The line Mr. Wagner watched me from when he repeated after a minute passed, "The important thing is he's... unattainable. That's the point of the story, and his sexuality has no effect on that. You... you need to go home, Jacob."
I left, and for the rest of the year, I never stayed after class.