Back in the Day, When Being Was Unbearably Light
© All Rights Reserved
"The gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again."
Out back in the high school parking lot, there's a school dance on in the gym but you never liked those things anyway –
He presses his livewire lips to the cool, downy expanse between your neck and your shoulder and it all falls away: the cheesy pop music bursting through the gymnasium walls; that brick-and-mortar building filled with classes and desks and old books hardly anybody actually reads anymore; his beat-up old car, even, 'til there's nothing left but you and him and the burning of his skin.
"You're everything," he confesses as he brushes your sweaty blonde hair out of your face. "I lo –"
"Don't." You frown up at him, this beautiful boy with the ocean eyes. "Don't say it." And then you kiss him again, to shut him up and because hell, kissing him is like coming home.
Do you recall the path to your own destruction? It was simple, easy really, all it took was a terrible pun, an undeserved detention, and a whole lot of poor judgment on both your parts. But mostly yours, because when it all comes down to it, underneath all the seductive glances and lustful gasps, he's still seventeen, and you're still his teacher.
It began unremarkably enough, five months ago.
You're running late, as usual. Your alarm didn't go off (or maybe it did, and you snoozed it, but shh), and to top it all off the damn shower's broken, again, so you have to suffer through three minutes of freezing cold water beating down on your skin. You stayed up too late last night, smoking cigarettes and drinking shitty cheap wine and reading Baudelaire (and no, you're not pretentious at all). You dash around your apartment, forcing your legs into ripped pantyhose, scarfing down a piece of burnt toast, and shoving your things into your purse, and you laugh when you realize that you've never not been late for the first day of school. From that bus route mix-up in Kindergarten to the traffic jam in eleventh grade to the wrong lecture hall last autumn, you've been late every year as far back as you can remember.
At least you're consistent.
Then you realize what makes this year different from all the others – you're no longer a student, late for show-and-tell or trigonometry or the senior Classics seminar. This time, you're the teacher, the one who's meant to frown disapprovingly at the late-coming stragglers trying to slide into the classroom unnoticed five minutes after the bell.
So you fling your toast down to the floor, forget about doing anything to make your hair look halfway presentable, and fly out the door to jump in your car. This is your first real job, goddammit, and you're not going to fuck it up by being late on the first day.
Somehow, you arrive on time, and you manage to be the first one in the classroom. You glance down at your schedule and smile to yourself when you see that first period is the senior Honors English class, i.e. the one where you get to actually teach good literature instead of trying to get ninth graders to write a passable paragraph.
The students trickle in, hugging each other after being apart all summer and moaning about how early it is. You half wish you could join in those complaints, especially because you didn't have time to grab your regular coffee from that deli on the corner this morning.
The bell rings and you slide out from behind your desk, smirking a little to yourself at the facial expressions of the kids as they finally register your presence. They're not used to such a young teacher, you can tell as you take in the puzzled stares of the girls, the sneaky glances of the boys trying to check out your ass without you noticing.
"Good morning," you tell them in a lazy drawl as you make your way to the front of the classroom. "And welcome to Honors English 12. I trust that, given your presence in this class, all of you know how to read." Muted laughter, then silence. Not that you'd expected anything else – these are seventeen-year-olds, after all, more desperate to be cool than anything. "I have the dubious honor of trying to get you to actually think about what you read. Not to enjoy reading – even I don't have enough confidence in my ability to do that. But if I can make you think, really think, about what some of these authors are trying to say…I'll have done my job."
You pass out syllabi and try not to roll your eyes when the preppy redhead in the front row asks about a dozen questions about the coursework. Then you begin the discussion of Heart of Darkness, which you'd assigned for summer reading because you know you wouldn't have been able to get them to read anything longer.
Redhead in the front won't stop offering her opinion. "And I think that the primary conflict in the plot is not between any external forces, but within Kurtz's soul. He embodies contradictory dual natures, in that –"
Fed up with the sound of her voice, you interrupt Redhead in the middle of her sentence. "Okay, yeah, that's all very well and good, but if I wanted that kind of simplistic analysis I'd go read Sparknotes," which, you suspect, she has probably memorized in an attempt to impress you.
Redhead bristles at your comment, but you ignore her and turn to the rest of the class. "Forget conflict and theme and symbols. What I want to know is: what did you think of the book? What did the book make you think about?"
"Well, for one thing, I thought it was a pretty dark choice to start off the year with." The low voice comes as a surprise, and you look around for its source. You locate it in the doorway, in the form of a grinning, casually rumpled boy. "Pun intended, of course," he adds with a wink.
He is beautiful. You notice it right away. His messy dark curls fall into his face, nearly obscuring his brilliant blue eyes. There are godlike cheekbones and slightly chapped lips and shoulders far broader than a high schooler's should ever be. His clothes are a wrinkled mess, some white T-shirt thrown over old jeans. He is at once a dangerously attractive man and a carefree boy, and your heart starts pounding out a siren alarm in your chest.
"You're late," you tell him measuredly, even though a tiny part of you wants to smirk at his comment and a bigger part of you wants to drool over his arm muscles. "Do you have a pass?"
HYPOCRITE, your brain yells at you, because weren't you just thinking about how you were late to every first day of school for seventeen years straight? But you're supposed to be the authority figure now, so you have to at least try to act the part.
Beautiful Boy surprises you when he shoves off the doorframe he'd been leaning against and ambles toward you. "'Course," he replies, and he extends his arm toward you, a crumpled piece of paper in his hand.
Oh. You hadn't expected him to actually have a pass. You hold out your hand, and he slides the paper into your grasp, his fingers brushing against yours for a beat too long. You can't help but look up at him through heavy-lidded eyes then, startled by the heat of skin-on-skin and the visceral reaction it's stirred in you.
And then your world shifts, because he hits you with the double whammy, those ocean eyes and that electric grin. You take the note and shove it into your pocket, trying to stay composed as he takes a seat near the back.
Somehow, you make it through class without letting on how flustered he has made you. The bell finally rings to signal the end of the period, and once all the students are gone, you collapse into your chair, head in your hands. Tomorrow, you'll make sure you save enough time to get that coffee.
That night, when you're home and sliding out of your clothes to change into sweats, you reach into your pocket and see the late pass from the morning. You unfold it, remembering the heat of his fingers against yours that morning, and gasp when you see that the paper is completely blank.
"That…that…" you sputter, blind with rage. "Little fucker!" He'd taken advantage, no doubt knowing that you're a new teacher.
You pace around your apartment, furious that you've been outsmarted, and by a high school student, for that matter.
Later, you slip under your covers, and you don't dream about impertinent boys with messy hair and deep blue eyes.
"I got a C-minus on the Faulkner test you passed back today."
You let out a weary sigh and pause in the process of unlocking your car in the teachers' lot. "I know," you reply without turning around to see who it is. Who could it be but Beautiful Boy? He's the only one who turns up unexpectedly like this in places where he really shouldn't be, like right now, at your car after school, or in the faculty lounge or at the deli on the corner of your street. And he's the only one with that voice, that low voice that nearly undoes you every time.
"Well, I don't think I deserved that grade."
You turn around and arch an eyebrow, your arms crossed. "Oh?" Your response, like all your others to him, is clipped and curt. You pray that it makes you come off as aloof and superior, and that the truth – that he makes you feel like a little girl all over again, that you're afraid of sounding stupid in front of him, that you get so distracted by his lips sometimes that you can't think of anything to say – remains hidden.
Beautiful Boy nods vigorously, his hair falling into his eyes until he reaches up a hand to shove it back impatiently. "You're always going on about how much you value creativity and critical thinking. I read the book twice. And I stand by my answers – maybe they weren't perfect, but I put a lot of thought into them."
Your answers were brilliant, you think, and you bite your lip. "Maybe so, but your handwriting is utterly atrocious. I could barely read a word of what you wrote." It's true that his handwriting is so sloppy and haphazard that it takes you twice as long to make out what he writes, but his responses on the test and on every other assignment have been so insightful and clever that you get nervous, sometimes, that this seventeen-year-old boy knows more than you do about literature.
He wrinkles his eyebrow. "Well, maybe I could stay after school one day and read them to you."
It's an almost painfully innocent suggestion, so it shouldn't have you blushing, imagining him reading to you in that deep voice of his.
"That won't be necessary," you respond, turning back to stick your key in the lock. "And all grades are final."
You get in the car and drive away.
Ever since that first day, when he sauntered in halfway through class, Beautiful Boy has been early. So early that most days, he's there before even you. The school is quiet, since the other students haven't arrived yet, and it's just you and him and the steady drone of the ceiling fans in the classroom. You try to ignore him by tidying the room or grading papers, but you always feel a secret little thrill when you walk in and see him there waiting for you.
But as time goes on, you start to do an increasingly shitty job of ignoring him. It's not all your fault – he doesn't let you ignore him, really. He bombards you with incessant chatter: tales of what really goes on under the bleachers at school sporting events, questions about your past and your future, comments about the books you are reading in class that would impress even your most standoffish college professor.
And before long, these early morning conversations become the highlight of your day.
One morning, he brings you a stack of papers and hesitantly asks you to read it. "It's nothing much, just a short story I've been working on." He wants your opinion on it, he says.
He sits there and fidgets as you squint at his handwriting, trying to pretend like he's not staring at you through those messy curls of his.
When you're done reading, your mouth is dry and you've nearly forgotten how to breathe. His writing is so good that your hands are shaking as you hand the papers back to him.
"I liked it," you tell him, even though that's the understatement of the century. You can see it now – he's the next Fitzgerald, the next Salinger, he'll have a career so illustrious he'll be talked about for centuries to come.
But your grandiose visions of his future pale in comparison to the grin he breaks into at your words. He beams at you and suddenly, everything glows.
"I'm having a party tonight," he tells you off-handedly on his way out of class one Friday. "You could come if you want." His tone is flippant but his eyes are hopeful.
You glance up at him from your seat at your desk. "Don't be ridiculous," you reprimand him.
His face falls.
"You know you're being ridiculous, right?"
Beautiful Boy shrugs. "Yeah, yeah I know," he grins at you wryly. "But hey, a guy can dream, right?"
He walks out of the classroom, then, merging seamlessly into his crowd of peers in the hall, but you sit there staring after him, his last words echoing in your head.
A guy can dream.
Late that night, you're in your pajamas on your couch, watching foreign films on TV, drinking Franzia, and eating pad Thai when you hear a knock on your door. You pad over to answer it.
"Hello?" you ask in confusion when you see that it's Cat Lady, the slightly insane woman with the apartment one floor down.
"I believe you have a guest," she tells you with a scowl.
"Huh?" Your mind is a little foggy from the wine.
"There's a young man," Cat Lady explains. "He's outside the building on the stoop, knocking on the door and calling for you." She frowns. "One too many drinks for him, I think."
You wrinkle your eyebrow in confusion, but Cat Lady leaves after that, no further explanation. Baffled, you throw on a sweatshirt and head downstairs to see what the hell she's on about.
You open the front door to your grungy little apartment building, and your jaw nearly drops when you see that it's Beautiful Boy, leaning against the railing, clearly drunk out of his mind.
Your name dies on his lips when he sees you, and he beams. "You're here!" he exclaims. "I've been calling your name for ages, and now you're here!"
You frown at him. "What the hell are you doing here?" Because now this has gone way beyond early morning literature discussions before class – he's here, at your apartment, at midnight on a Friday night, and you're really in deep shit now.
You scramble to think of how on earth he knew your address until you remember that one Sunday afternoon you ran into him at the corner deli, when you were having a coffee and reading and he'd stopped in to pick up a sandwich for lunch. You'd happened to mention that your apartment was just down the street, and he must have remembered it.
Maybe you'd wanted him to remember.
"I was at my house, at the party…you know that party I was telling you about? And the music, and all the beer, and the noise…and the girls, all these girls, they kept coming up to talk to me. One tried to kiss me," he adds offhandedly, and you feel a sharp tug of irrational jealousy in your stomach, "but I told her no thanks. All these girls and I didn't care about any of them because none of them were you."
You take in a sharp breath at that, and all the color drains from his face. "Shit," he mutters.
You force yourself to swallow.
"Shit, I shouldn't have said that." Beautiful Boy runs a hand through his hair and reaches out to the railing to steady himself.
"You shouldn't be here," you breathe, and damn, there should have been a lot more conviction behind that statement. It's just that it's him, and he's so drunk and confused and adorable, and the streetlights are illuminating his magnificent cheekbones, and he looks so sad and lost and lonely –
He takes a step toward you, reaches up to hold some of your hair. "So pretty," he murmurs, looking at the lamplight reflecting off the blonde strands, and then he's running his fingers through it.
You step back abruptly so that your back is against the door. "Go home," you warn him, and this time you say it forcefully enough that he nods and turns to go.
"I'm not sorry," he says suddenly as you're opening your door. "I'm glad I left the party, left all those people and all those other girls, and came to see you. And I'm not sorry for thinking you're pretty, because you are, you're fucking gorgeous, and I can't stop…I think about you all –"
You slam the door in his face, race up the stairs to your apartment, and throw yourself on the couch, taking deep, desperate breaths.
He doesn't come early to class the next Monday, and it puts you in a foul mood. You sit there at your desk, watching the second hand twirl around the clock, but he never shows up, and then Redhead shows up and then Guy Who Always Texts and soon enough the whole class is there but him.
You start the lesson on Ibsen, feeling completely thrown off without your daily conversation with Beautiful Boy. About ten minutes after the bell, he finally comes through the door.
You glance over at him. "Late," you snap, trying to avoid looking into his eyes because you know you'll be fucked if you do – they're all you've been thinking of ever since Friday night, after all. "I don't suppose you have a pass – a real one?"
He gulps at your biting tone and shakes his head, and you narrow your eyes at him. "Detention, after school today. Please attempt to be on time for that."
Surprisingly enough, he doesn't protest, even though teachers aren't really supposed to give detentions for being ten minutes late to class.
In detention, you have Beautiful Boy help you grade ninth grade essays. They're all shit, of course, and both of you are scrawling red marks all over the typed pages. You work in silence, until, about twenty minutes in, he finally speaks.
"Do you know why I usually come in early?"
You're so startled that you drop your red pen. Your gaze flicks over to him, seated at Redhead's usual desk in the front row.
"So I can spend more time with you. I love listening to you, even during class when you're going on and on about objects in Ibsen – I think you're wrong, by the way, the Christmas tree does actually have a meaning beyond just a Christmas tree – and I like that you don't put up with all my bullshit. And most of all I like just being around you – like this, right now, it's not really a punishment for me at all, is it? Because I'd grade a hundred of these shitty essays if it meant I got to be around you." He says all this so earnestly, so frankly, staring right over at you with those disarming eyes.
You blink, made speechless, as usual, by him. "You can't…you can't just say things like that," you protest, but he just smiles at you.
"Come for a coffee with me," he says, and you stare at him in shock. Didn't he hear what you just said?
"Don't look at me like that," he laughs. "Come on. One coffee won't kill you – God knows you drink enough every morning. We can just go to a café and talk. It'll be nice to be someplace that's not your classroom."
You want to say yes so badly that you have to gnaw on your fingernail to stop the word from falling from your mouth. You shake your head. "You know we can't," you tell Beautiful Boy quietly.
"You know why."
You're walking out of the faculty lounge after lunch one day when you suddenly feel a warm touch on the small of your back. You whirl around, ready to tell off Creepy Music Teacher, but your words go unspoken when you find yourself looking up into ocean eyes.
"There's a reading at the bookstore on Cedar tomorrow night," he murmurs into your ear. "I think you'd really like the author. Come with me."
Beautiful Boy is the soul of temptation, then, his large hand burning through your dress, his eyes wide and intent on you, but you know what you have to do. "I…no," you reply, and then you pull out of his grasp and head to class.
"Drinks tonight? You'd have to buy mine, of course, but I'll pay you back, I swear."
"That would be inappropriate on a great many levels."
"Right then…I'll just have a Shirley Temple or something."
Your downfall came one afternoon during an anti-drugs assembly in the auditorium.
You'd nearly forgotten about the event, and you are sitting in the faculty lounge alone, grading papers, wondering why no other teachers are there, when suddenly you see a notice about the assembly tacked to the bulletin board. You grab your things and dash to the auditorium, bursting through the doors a few minutes late. You take the first seat you see, on the very end of a row, just as the lights go dim and the kids in the Good Decisions Club, or whatever the hell it's called, file onto the stage to begin their little performance.
You figure this is as good a chance as any to catch up on some sleep – it's so dark that no one will be able to see you anyway – and are just leaning back in your seat when you feel a hot breath on your ear. "Hey."
You nearly jump up and scream, but you calm down when you realize who it is. It's Beautiful Boy, in the seat next to you, of course, because you have the shittiest luck in the history of shitty luck. "What are you doing here?" you whisper.
He chuckles under his breath. "What, would you rather I skip out of school early? I'm just being a good boy and learning about drug safety."
You scowl. "Well, you didn't have to sit right here," and even as you say it you know how absurd you're being. You'd (inadvertently) sat next to him, after all.
"Shh," someone hisses from the row in front of you, and you roll your eyes but stay quiet.
A few minutes later, you feel his large hand slide over and settle on your knee. You bite back a gasp. Your mind starts racing, and before you really know what's happening, his thumb has begun to stroke dizzying circles into your skin.
You should yell at him, but you don't want to attract undue attention, so you reach out a shaking hand to touch his wrist. But he doesn't stop, and you can't find it in yourself to make him, so really you just end up sort of holding his wrist ineffectively and rather pointlessly. As his hand skirts higher, making lazy patterns across your skin, your hand falls away from him entirely and you have to grip the armchair in between your two seats to try to keep yourself somewhat composed. You're not entirely successful, though, and you accidentally let out a little sigh at the feel of his rough hand against your soft skin. Your eyes flutter shut, and this feels so nice, his hand feels so nice, this feels lovely, heavenly, yes, and his hand creeps higher and higher, and you can't help yourself from leaning a little closer to him, leaning into him as his other hand comes up to stroke your hair, oh, lovely, he's so lovely…oh…
Then you're leaning over his shoulder, your lips at his ear, breathing, "Meet me outside in one minute," and you slide out of your seat and slink out of the dark auditorium. You collapse against the wall once the door shuts behind you, struggling to catch your breath, and far less than a minute passes before the door opens once again and Beautiful Boy emerges, his eyes hooded with lust. There's no one else around, since everyone's inside watching the show, so you grab his arm and pull him over to the supply closet across the hall.
Neither of you speak, then, because there are no words that can do this moment justice. He's resisted for so long and you've been in denial for ages, but neither of you are as strong as you pretended to be, and as you finally you give in you wonder why the hell you waited this long.
He pulls the closet door shut behind him, and then he pins you to the wall, kicking a box out of his way on the floor. He presses kisses to your hair, to your forehead, all down your cheek and jaw before finally arriving at your mouth. He murmurs something silent and indiscernible against your lips and then he's kissing you, oh, it's good, so good, and you slide one hand through those messy curls of his and pull his shirt with the other so you can get him even closer to you.
The only sounds are the rustle of your clothes against his and both of your heavy breaths. You kiss him greedily, and he's all too eager to give, leaning in so he can cup your face in his hands and kiss you again. And then his thigh presses between your legs, and one of his hand slides down to your legs and up under your skirt.
You've almost entirely lost yourself in him when he pants your name into your hair, and that is what brings you back down to earth. Wait… You pull away from him slowly, the haze around your mind gradually dissipating, and then you realize where you are, who you're with, what you've done.
"Fuck…" you mutter, running a shaky hand through your hair. "Fuck, I…we…this can't…" And then you shove him away from you, open the closet door, and run away as fast as you can.
"Shit," you say to your empty apartment for about the billionth time that night. "Shit."
There's nothing else to say, really, not when you've just compromised your job and your future and your entire life. And for what – to make out with some teenage boy in a closet?
But you know that's not all it was. It was more than that, he is more than that, and honestly, that's what should scare you the most.
You try reading to distract yourself, but every book you own reminds you of him. The rain is pounding down outside your window, and normally stormy nights like this make you feel content and cozy, wrapped up in a blanket on your couch, but right now you just feel like you want to cry.
You stare listlessly out the window, watching water droplets slide down the glass, and you don't know how much time passes before you're interrupted by the buzzer. You shuffle dejectedly over and press the button. "Yes? Who is it?" you ask, confused as to who would be visiting at this time of night.
There's a long pause, and then, "It's me." Fuck. It's that low voice, the one that's burned into your mind forever, and you hardly know what's happening but you know that he's downstairs right now and that's all that matters.
In a split second, you're out the door and making your way down the stairs. You throw open the front door and he's standing there, out on the stoop, his curls black with water and plastered to his head, his skin glistening, his clothes soaked through and clinging to his skin.
He's so magnificent you can't breathe.
"I tried every button 'til I found you," he says, his voice hoarse.
You don't know what to say. What can you say to him, this lovely boy who's been out in the rain for God knows how long, who stares down at you now, his eyes burning holes through you?
You bite your lip, and then you give into your fall. "Come inside." And he does, and this is your damnation.
He still comes early mornings before class some days, and you talk about literature and life, but now he also sleeps over your apartment sometimes, and those nights when he stays over neither of you get to school early the next morning.
There are exactly four freckles on your back and he traces a line between them, over and over until you've memorized the path of his finger on your skin. "Sometimes I swear you're not even real," he mumbles into your shoulder blade. "You're like a goddamn poem."
"Maybe none of this is real," you sigh, and you flip over and wrap your arms around his neck, and you can't decide what's scarier – if this were all to be a dream or if it were all to be actually happening.
You've snuck out of the dance you're meant to be chaperoning to meet him in his car, and this is so high school of you but hey, you are at a high school, after all.
And he kisses your neck and pushes your hair out of your face. "You're everything. I lo –"
"Don't. Don't say it." And you kiss him again, so that he won't finish that sentence, so that you won't cry.
There are a lot of ways your story could end. One of these is the truth:
You could get caught that very night by a fellow teacher, get dragged in front of the principal, and you'd end up arrested and in prison –
Or you could send him off to college with a kiss and a promise, wait four years and marry him when he graduates, move into some cute little house in New England together and get a dog and a cat and a coffee machine –
You could end things with him that very night, and he'd be devastated and so would you, of course, but ten years later he'd be a famous author and you'd run into him at some bookstore or library or café somewhere and the two of you would fall in love all over again –
Or he could end things with you, and you'd be memorialized only as a character in one of his novels –
Or the two of you could try to make things worth for another year or so, but the age difference would get to be too much, and you'd break up and he'd meet some cool artsy girl in college and you'd end up marrying Cheerful Biology Teacher in a couple years and it'd be like none of this ever happened, nothing at all.
A/N: Angst soup for the angsty soul.
Title refers to The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera; quote at beginning of the story is from Troy (…which like, it's a good quote, okay?).
I would appreciate a review letting me know what you thought!