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Authors: Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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BOOK: The Wood of Suicides
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I convinced myself not to take this judgment to heart. All teachers were weird, when I thought about it. Six-foot-seven Mr. Higginbottom was weird with his plaid shirts, sermons, and brood of seven boys. Five-foot-six Mr. Slawinski was weird with his cold-blue gaze, shaved head, and immunity to the charms of pretty girls when they tried to flirt their way out of bad test scores or forgotten math homework. Madame Rampling, the francophile Englishwoman who taught us French, was weird. Mr. Henderson, who wore shorts and gartered socks in all weathers, as if his hairy hams were too attractive to cover up, was weird. Mr. Wolfstein, the head of the English department, was weird with his turtlenecks, tobacco-scented beard, and smoking breaks that lasted up to half a lesson. Marcelle and Amanda, who had been in his class the year earlier, still doubled over in mirth when they remembered the way that he used to sing poems instead of simply reciting them.

I took it upon myself to find out everything I could about Mr. Steadman. Every day, I watched and listened for new information. It was a fine Thursday when Mrs. Poplar knocked on the door of our classroom and asked him, in her simpering, middle-aged way, “Hugh, may I borrow you for a minute? I have a man’s job for you in the next room.” This was how I discovered his first name: Hugh.

Name: Hugh Steadman. Date of birth: February 29, 1960. I had learned as much a lesson earlier, listening to an exchange between him and Christina Tucci, who was bragging about having just turned eighteen. “Well, that makes you eight years older than I am! I’ve only had ten birthdays, you know” (a corny joke that I didn’t really approve of, but that allowed me to calculate his true age, and the twenty-five years that lay between us).

I was not hurt by his casual habit of mentioning his wife in anecdotes. In fact, I already felt that I knew “Danielle.” His twin children had also become familiar to me: sulky Cole and dutiful Catherine, who attended the same coed middle school. It seemed almost perverse that I should know anything about them—I, who had so many impure thoughts about their father. Although it would’ve made more sense to interpret such references as evidence of his love for them, I turned them to my own advantage: as I saw it, he was catering to
me
, indulging
my
curiosity, at the expense of their privacy.

I saw further evidence of indulgence in his approach to teaching, which encouraged rapt listening over reading and note-taking. On the rare occasions when he did assign us work during class, he would prowl the room with his hands in his pockets, moving between the desks with a swish of corduroy or chino cloth. Once a suitable amount of time had elapsed, he would come and crouch by our desks, looking over our shoulders at the skimming of eyes under fluttering lashes, or the scratching away of mechanical pencils. “That’s an interesting point,” he would murmur with a smile, or “What do you make of that couplet, there?” (pointing to the line in question with a hardy index finger, which I instantly imagined being touched by).

He was an indulgent teacher. He joked with his outgoing pupils and was kind and courtly with his timid ones, so that he seemed to favor anyone he spoke to. It was an honor to be the focus of such tact, such charisma—especially as I felt myself to be sorely lacking in both. If I imagined that he was more tender, more attentive with me than the others, however, I doubted it a moment later: listening to him lower his voice with shy Sally Flores, who sat alone in the row behind us, or conversing in Italian with Graziella and Christina on the other side of the room.

He knew Italian. Where he had learned it, I didn’t know. I did know, for he had mentioned so in passing, that he had briefly attended the Perelman School of Medicine, dropping out after a year or so to study literature. I had the notion that his wife was also a doctor; that they had met while only students. This was confirmed a fortnight later when I heard that Kaitlin Pritchard had become chummy with Dr. Danielle Steadman while volunteering at the children’s hospital the year before, had even been invited over for dinner. I would have given anything to hear her describe the interior of their home, the manners of the lady of the house, and whether the handsome schoolmaster had made a pass at her while driving back to boarding school that night, but couldn’t think of a polite way of asking.

The most trivial details of his life excited me. The mugs of milky coffee that he brought back from morning break and nursed, lukewarm, until lunch hour. The flowers that presided over the anarchy of his desk, larkspur and narcissus, plucked from his very own garden. His singular, left-handed scrawl, indecipherable in red ink, hopeless in white chalk. The outfits, teachers’ outfits, paraded before me day after day.

There were beige chinos, cornflower shirt. Beige chinos, navy sweater-vest. Tweed suit, white shirt. White shirt, camel corduroys. Navy sport coat, slung over the back of his chair. On cooler days, he sometimes sported a sweater over his shirt and tie in charcoal, burgundy, or chocolate brown. Around the end of the month, he acquired a pair of gray herringbone trousers. Ties came in maroon, royal blue, gold and brown, patterned with paisley, fleur-de-lis, lozenges, and prancing Flemish lions. He wore brown wingtips, carried a brown leather briefcase. His wristwatch had a brown band and golden fixtures.

I had little desire to see him dressed otherwise. His buttons and buckles, his collars and cuffs, his taupe trouser socks, all filled me with a sweet, bright admiration. The desire to see him undressed was something else entirely: it was a desire that was almost too physical to entertain. Now and then, thinking more innocent thoughts, I would be assailed by images of dark, curled hair and tumescent flesh, never-before-seen flesh that, nevertheless, throbbed with heat and reeked of male sweat. It was all that I could do to keep myself from crying out with the thought, which was less thought than sensation—a brute, black force that made my knees clamp together, my mind close shut.

M
Y
CASE
wasn’t helped by the fact that there were reminders of him everywhere. The Molière play that we read for French class, in which a man of forty-two plotted to marry his ward, a girl of seventeen. Headlines over breakfast: a history teacher in Vermont; a music teacher in Kentucky. The sight of the other English teachers, alone: grizzled Mr. Wolfstein; fat Mrs. Poplar; even that detested hussy, Miss Kelsen.

He was sociable, oh so sociable. I had seen him bounding alongside Mr. Wolfstein, an excited pup next to the wolfish old man. He was adored and caressed by Mrs. Poplar, a fond and frumpy mother who, when I thought about it, couldn’t have been more than five years his senior. Naturally, he was flirtatious with Miss Kelsen. Yet as bitterly as I looked upon the young woman’s dimpled laughter, the older man’s murmured quips and upturned, explanatory palms, I was aware of his ways. He was an incurable flirt.

He flirted with seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen; with female teachers and librarians. Outside of work, I was sure he was the sort of man who struck up conversations with waitresses, shop girls, and stray women whom he saw waiting at bus stops or on park benches. One art lesson, while burrowing in the supplies closet for pastels, I was startled from my task by what sounded like his sonorous voice blustering into the room. “Flowers for milady,” he greeted Ms. Faber, a snaggle-toothed woman with a flesh-colored mole on her left cheek. I wasn’t thinking about her appearance then, however; the shock of his voice had brought on graver concerns, as I sent the entire tin of pastels (located at last) crashing down, along with various brushes, twigs, hard erasers, and the good willow charcoals.

“Jeez, Laurel, stop dropping things!” Marcelle cackled across the room.

I bent down demurely to clear up the mess, aided by a couple of nearby handmaids. He didn’t come to my service, but stayed standing with Ms. Faber, arms crossed and smiling (smirking?) at the proceedings. He was wearing his corduroys with the chocolate brown sweater, which brought out the chestnut tones in his hair. On my down-headed walk back to the communal table, I saw that he had placed a vase of amaryllises on Ms. Faber’s desk.

Sitting down, I didn’t look at him—simply smiled at Marcelle’s jibes and piled my hair up, sticking it in place with a pencil. He continued speaking to Ms. Faber, asking if she knew the myth of Amaryllis, the white-clad girl who had stabbed herself repeatedly in the heart to make a bloody flower for her beloved. “Do we have English today, sir?” Marcelle interrupted. We did.

Ms. Faber thanked him for the flowers, which we were to begin drawing that lesson. It seemed nothing more would pass between us. On his way out of the studio, however, Mr. Steadman stooped by my desk, retrieving something from the speckled vinyl floor. “You’ll be needing this,” he smiled slyly, placing a red pastel before me.

I
T
WOULD
be interesting to linger for a while in the art studio, a spacious annex of paneled windows and cool, northern light. It would be interesting to linger over the flowers drawn by each girl, the deviations of mind and body that they suggested.

Marcelle’s flower, for instance, was clear and bright, somewhat one-dimensional. Jade van Dam’s was green-seeded, green-centered, in grading shades of pink rather than true red: intricate yet dispassionate. Winifred Maddock’s was huge, shapeless, and somehow sad: the overblown bloom of a corpulent, side-burned virgin.

As for mine: raw and hungry and beginning to wilt, with petals that opened wide, only to turn back in on themselves. By the time that I completed enough drafts to transfer the thing to canvas, the outer white had diminished to an irregular fringe and the wilting had increased dramatically. The final product was, according to Ms. Faber, “expressionistic,” full of pathos and lacking in perspective.

O
UR
DAYS
in the sun were numbered. I knew it and, if the additions to Mr. Steadman’s wardrobe were anything to go by, he did too. Nevertheless, until mid-October, we were still having Fridays outdoors: a pleasure that he reserved for his seniors.

There was something traumatic about the beauty of those Fridays in the sunlight, where we could not touch. Sometimes under the enchantment of his words, I would let my legs open a little wider than I should have, in hope of enchanting him with a glimpse. I didn’t know how much he saw, if indeed he ever looked (facing me across the circle, could he have avoided doing so?), yet no amount of shadowy thigh could have been an accurate measure of what I felt for him. My whole body could not have been an accurate measure. What I wanted was to merge with the grass, to be there under his fingertips, every nerve laid bare.

In the sunlight, however, I was untouchable, as was he. I knew this when I saw him closing his book, but also when I saw him laughing, joking with the other girls. One Friday, I even saw him stand up from the grass, to stretch and skim a stone across the glittering surface of the lake. Never again did he ask if anyone wanted to help him carry the books upstairs. Never again did he put himself within my reach.

Every Friday brought with it a new defeat, a new cup of sorrows. It got to the point where I couldn’t even sit through Thursday’s lesson without a certain awful fluttering in my stomach, a tightness in my chest, which was a premonition of the loss that I was to suffer the next day. The tweed suit became an object of ambivalence. Not to mention the willows, which caused me to fill whole pages of my notebook as follows:

BOOK: The Wood of Suicides
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