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Authors: Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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BOOK: The Wood of Suicides
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I settled on my stool in the basement laboratory at nine
A
.
M
. for my biology lesson, dream unbroken, third row center. The class was conducted by Mr. Higginbottom, a gentle giant of a man with a jutting jaw, dressed in lumberjack plaid. Before all else, he informed us of his faith in Our Christian God, which in no way conflicted with his profession as a scientist. As I listened to him speaking slowly, earnestly, about the beauty of the natural world, intelligent design, I knew that his God had nothing to do with the flesh and blood god who had taken me into his arms the previous day, in a world of sun and trees and open air. For the rest of the lesson, I took to staring out the window, at the path to the library, which was lined with blurred red azaleas.

When the bell went, I rose, still dreaming. I had a long walk from the science wing to my first lesson in Romantic poetry, which was located on the top floor of the building that overlooked Trinity Catholic College, our brother school. Caught in the rush between classes, I moved with the crowd up three flights of stairs to the place where I took algebra, and across a bridge to the humanities wing. There, I missed my classroom, and was forced to turn back when I reached another bridge. This led down to the performing arts center, from which a clanging of musical instruments could already be heard. By the time that I arrived at the wooden door—windowless, carved with an Art Deco sunburst—of my English class, the lesson was already seemingly in progress. I quietly slid the door along its tracks—unfortunately, not quietly enough to enter the room undetected.

He wore chino pants, a cornflower blue shirt. He was holding the prop of an attendance list. All the same, there was no mistaking him for another man. He stared at me with a look of open astonishment, trailing off in the middle of roll call. I flamed. I faltered. I set my sights on an empty desk beside the window, and began my walk of shame across the room, ignoring a gleeful
“Psst!”
from Marcelle Lavigne.

Once I was seated, he seemed to recover himself, returning to the class list with admirable composure. He announced the names of my classmates in a clear, sonorous voice. When he got to my own, he paused, eyelashes fluttering down at the page. I could have sworn that a smile, tenderly suppressed, was already itching at the corners of his mouth. He raised his eyes to look me full in the face as he addressed me, “Laurel Marks?” I nodded and my own eyes flashed, as if I were hearing my name aloud for the first time ever.

I
HAD
never before had a teacher as eloquent as Mr. Steadman. I knew this within the first ten minutes of the lesson, in which he described to us what we could expect from his course. He would introduce us to the Romantic poets. He would discuss with us the nature of the sublime, love, freedom, and revolution. He would instruct us in the ways of the Byronic hero. All of this, he told us in the smoothest possible manner: smiling blithely and swaggering up to the blackboard, where he scrawled his notes left-handedly in illegible white chalk. All of this seemed calculated to seduce me, and me alone.

As I watched him, the possibility of a new, dynamic god, changeable yet cultivated, was made flesh before my eyes. He was not the abstract ectomorph that I was accustomed to, but expressive and robust, with hands that gestured widely as he spoke, and roving eyes that were not afraid to make contact; that seemed to seek it out, if anything. Though he didn’t glance my way too frequently, the spellbinding flow of his movements and the perfection of his timing meant that I was utterly rapt when he did, and had no way of tearing my eyes from him. In fact, I couldn’t even bring myself to look away long enough to discern whether he was having the same effect on the other girls. Instead, I sat back in my chair, focusing my attentions on perceiving every aspect of his bright, shifting divinity.

Even then, I might have analyzed it. Even then, I might have told myself that it was no coincidence that he was my father’s age; that he stood an even six foot tall, as my father had; that his eyes and hair were dark, just as my father’s had been. How little the analysis would have mattered though, when confronted with the brute desirability of the man at the front of the room, who was more solid, more tangibly male than my father ever had been; whose dark eyes were quick and hot, like liquid fire; who was getting enthusiastic, very enthusiastic, about the sublime. In his resonant voice, he read us passages from Burke, speaking of the masculine properties of size, strength, and turbulence, and the passion of terror these properties inspired; a passion, he assured us, which had its origins in our fear of death.

When the bell went and my classmates stood up from their seats, I stayed sitting for another heartbeat, stunned. It was as if my mind had been plundered of all its contents. “Tomorrow we look at Wordsworth. I may bring in some daffodils,” he finished with levity, closing the book from which he had been expounding. I noticed that the room was rapidly emptying. I rose from my own chair, crossing to the door. He was heading in the same direction. He stopped at the doorway to let me pass before him, nodding my name. “Laurel.” I thanked him and hurried ahead, eyes averted.

U
PON
LEAVING
the room, my heart skipping, I found myself face-to-face once again with Marcelle, the girl from my art class. She was standing with two friends, looking exceedingly short in her long socks, with her heavy-duty ring binder pressed against her chest. “Hey, new girl,” she called out to me brashly, as I attempted to make a beeline for the bathroom. Steadman passed with a high head and a leather briefcase, suddenly incognito, on his way to the teachers’ lounge. “What’s-your-name, Lauren? You’re in my art class, aren’t you? And my French. Amanda does French too.” Marcelle gestured toward a busty, brassy blonde of about my height, who came forward. Her other friend Graziella hung back in the shadows by the lockers, dumpy and shrewish.

“I remember
you,”
Amanda said with a simper, “You ran off so quickly after class yesterday. We didn’t get a chance to introduce ourselves. Where were you going?”

“Oh . . .” I saw tears, blurred leaves, Steadman. “I had some enrollment stuff to take care of.”

“Where are you from?” she persisted.

“Convent of the Sacred Heart.”

“Come downstairs with us!” Marcelle interjected, linking her arm with mine.

It was in this manner that I found myself being pulled along by Marcelle: a forceful girl, though at least a head shorter than I was. She had fine, almost whitish hair and cartoonish features: convex forehead, protuberant gray eyes, ski-slope nose. Alongside me, she skipped and clowned, tripping over the laces of her oxfords and cursing her own clumsiness. “
Merde
!”

“Marcy, you dope,” Amanda jeered behind us. Tall, ripe, and amber-eyed, Amanda moved with hip-swaying slowness. Alongside her, Graziella shuffled in silence.

We descended to the ground floor and sat ourselves down on a patch of lawn, which looked out over a sunny area of benches, coffee carts, and stainless-steel bubblers. Graziella left us to buy a cinnamon bun. In her absence, Amanda widened her eyes and told me in an aside, “That girl is
such
a bore lately. She broke up with her boyfriend over the summer.”

“And fat lately,” Marcelle giggled, taking a box of Good & Plentys from her bag and offering them around. Naturally, I refused.

“Yes! She wasn’t always that fat,” Amanda cooed excitedly. She gestured across the lawn. “See that girl over there, the super trampy one? That one with mahogany hair and her skirt up to here?” Amanda raised her hands to an improbably high place near her crotch. “Gratzi used to be her size last year.”

“Not Siobhan,” Marcelle protested, vehemently chewing her candy. “She was never as skinny as Siobhan.”

They continued arguing about their girlfriend’s former dimensions until she returned, eating her thickly iced bun. “We were just saying how pretty Dana Nissen would be if she got her skin fixed,” Amanda covered her tracks, inviting Graziella to sit down again. The girl made a noise of assent between mouthfuls and plumped herself down on the grass.

I only half-listened as Amanda continued pointing out other girls in the area: “that freak Mitzi” who slouched and never spoke; the two lesbians, Ella Massie and Cassidy Park, who were not, contrary to appearances, an item; the trio of beauties, Jade van Dam, Jessica Britton, and Kaitlin Pritchard—all of whom were student committee girls and “total Christians,” according to Amanda. Having accorded me this information, she stopped and looked at me expectantly, her amber eyes as clear and cold as a hawk’s. It took me a moment to realize that she’d asked me a question, and another moment to realize that I was under no obligation to tell the truth about myself.

“My parents are getting a divorce,” I began. “Dad’s gone to work in Germany until it’s finalized and Mom’s staying with friends. They still don’t know what to do with the house. I’ll probably be spending Christmas in Trier . . .”

T
HE
NEXT
day, I was far more prepared for his lesson, having primped in the mirror beforehand and found a friend to sit with. Marcelle had helped herself to my window seat. I settled for the aisle, an arm’s length away from Amanda, who maintained her place in the front-center row with Graziella. To my annoyance, Marcelle kept leaning across me during the lesson to get at her friends in the next row, blocking my view of Steadman.

That Wednesday, Mr. Steadman had dressed himself in a pale striped shirt, worn with a silky tie of swirled gold and brown paisley and the beige chinos of the day before. The promised daffodils were in a vase on his desk, dazzling and yellow. He smiled through roll call, taking sips from a mug of coffee that he’d brought with him straight from morning break. He had also brought along some printouts, which he set about distributing, starting from our desk. We had the best desk in the whole classroom, by the window and right next to his own.

“Would you care to hand these back, girls?” Mr. Steadman said, passing the papers to Marcelle and me, and charming us with a look that made me blush and her yip with laughter.

Thick brows. Molten black eyes. Roman nose. Dangerous sickle of a smile, sending cold thrills down my spine, hot flutters through my stomach. I tried to find fault with him, I did. His teeth were imperfect. His waistline was thicker than it could have been. There were a few wrinkles at the corners of his mouth and eyes. The more I looked, however, the more his faults seemed like perfections. His wrinkles were lines of expression, adding to the imperfect charm of his sharp canines and slightly crooked incisors. The spare weight around his middle only made him seem more loveable, more lavish with his affections, as well as more appetitive and therefore likely to succumb to my affections. Moreover, it didn’t prevent him from being an incredibly well-proportioned man, with broad shoulders, long limbs, and strong, sinewy forearms.

It was a lesson of Wordsworth, the Lake District. Our desk by the window, overlooking the lake and the weeping willows. As Steadman spoke to us about the glittering blue waters, the green fells and golden daffodils that inspired Wordsworth and his likes, Marcelle nudged me in the ribs, drew my attention to the view outside the window. Some rowers were pushing off from the banks, sweeping across the water in crews of four. “Trinity boys!” she mouthed. She leaned across me and made the same remark to Amanda, who gasped and asked “Is Seamus there?” Marcelle squinted, whispered “I think so.” Amanda simpered and patted her hair with the back of her hand.

BOOK: The Wood of Suicides
7.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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