A nightmare. A tornado dream for the first time in years. I used to dream of tornadoes repeatedly; they varied in size, some small as ponies, some as big as god.
I lived in the Midwest then; tornadoes made sense.
Where I live now, there are no tornadoes, but there are fires.
I have never dreamed of a fire.
I wake in bed, next to my wife, who in a dream I had grabbed by the shoulders, pleading, Please, love me.
A dream, a revelation, a fire.
Anna shows up to class early, conspicuously holding a copy of a book entitled Living A Feminist Life. Ahead of the bell, she reads, annotates, while I pick at a blueberry muffin, make last-minute adjustments to that period’s vocab review.
Finally, I glance up, ask her about the book, and she tells me the author references material we’ve read in my class, Like the author discusses Mrs. Dalloway, and that Marilyn Frye essay . . .
I also ask Anna about California, from where she and several other students recently returned. Mostly, she tells me about the van ride, how one of the students came down with stomach flu and puked repeatedly into a plastic bag.
Grim, I scowl.
Earlier this year, she entered a poetry recitation competition, and I coached her. She chose to memorize Bishop’s One Art and Claudia Emerson’s Early Elegy: Headmistress.
Bishop is special to me—one of the first poets I read and admired: committed to form, precision, and quite certainly a dyke.
Early Elegy was new to me, but I immediately recognized the subject matter.
Anna, on the other hand, struggled to find an inroad. Headmistress just makes me think of, you know, Harry Potter or something . . .
I tried to explain to her the women who taught me in Catholic school—not headmistresses, but somewhat akin to, women who perhaps would have preferred another profession—firefighter or lawyer or journalist. Or women who didn’t marry due to bad luck or sickly mothers or disinterest in the opposite sex, who had to choose between teaching or the convent.
Head – the intellect, the governance.
Mistress – the wife, the clandestine lover
I myself wanted to be a professor. Now I am a teacher.
Teacher – working class.
Factory version academic.
Doesn’t matter about Woolf or Marilyn Frye. Now it’s about field trips to California and bathroom breaks and school dances and the need for Band-Aids and permission slips and my paper is late because a girl broke my heart and you just have to accept it because they’re high-schoolers. They have to graduate, somehow.
And then, sometimes, as in the room with Anna, when I read lines from One Art, so that she might hear how I feel the stanzas—“so many things feel filled with the intent to be lost . . . “ —those times, when I am hovering somewhere between teacher and coach, but not quite either, I am content with being left the “lesser gesture.”
I lived in the Midwest then.
I was barely nineteen.
Dr. Harris was in her late forties, devastatingly intelligent, particularly on matters pertaining to postmodern literature, feminism, and phallic imagery in the works of Hemingway.
I changed my major from elementary education to English with a minor in women’s studies.
Everyone needs a catalyst.
By sophomore year, I saw to it that Dr. Harris became my academic advisor which meant time outside of class in her small, book-crammed office that overlooked Lake Michigan.
She wasn’t particularly warm, but she was smart and serious; I wanted to be smart and serious, too.
And she could be funny. Once, in response to a male student who argued that Jim Morrison’s lyrics were poetry, Dr. Harris raised her eyebrows, smirked, “’C’mon baby light my fire?’” And sometimes she was complimentary—once, after a presentation on Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” she mouthed an emphatic Wonderful as I stumbled, red-faced, back to my desk.
Other students appreciated her undeniable intellect, but didn’t particularly like her—she was a ruthless grader, and unapologetically feminist in the mid-90s, when feminism wasn’t quite yet “en vogue,” much less “appreciated.”
Among my peers, I defended her. She expects a lot of her students, that’s true. And I think it’s awesome that she has convictions. And, Did you know she was a Fulbright scholar?
One morning, over cereal and weak coffee, in the cafeteria, my roommate asked bluntly, Do you have a crush on her or something?
My face burned. No. Jesus. I just think she’s . . . a little brilliant.
Most days, I couldn’t tell if I wanted to be her or be with her; such is often the conundrum of lesbian youth.
When Dr. Harris assigned me Rich’s Compulsory Heterosexuality as work toward my senior thesis, I read each word as though poring over a heavily coded love letter. I sought heat, found little, but something had crossed over; I got a little insane, began to take impossibly circuitous routes between classes so I could pass by her office door; I took late night walks along campus drive around the time I knew her night class let out. I began sending lengthy emails—in the halcyon days of email—seeking her perspective on subjects ranging from some obscure feminist essay “I’d just happened across” to the ancient Greek’s treatment of women in drama and poetry. Once, on the ride home from a museum field trip I, a bit too eagerly, took shotgun in the school van, so I could engage her in everyday banter. I told her about female musicians she might want to “check out”—like Tori Amos, and twenty years later this detail still makes me cringe.
In my world lit class, we’re wrapping up Red Azalea which my students eagerly devoured thanks, in part, to the “forbidden love” storyline.
Is Anchee Min actually a lesbian? A student asks me.
This is territory I’m not willing to traverse in the age of identity politics, so I move us toward the broader topic of Communist China which then finds us, somehow, on the even broader topic of memoir itself.
Truth is messy, I say. Messy under Mao, messy in Trump’s America.
Midway through the discussion, another student raises her hand and says, As a writer of memoir, what do you think? How much of memoir is fact and how much is ‘messy truth’?
I am inexplicably embarrassed. I don’t want my students reading my work. I’m too candid on the page, and they are not my intended audience. My kids, I call them, though most are junior and seniors. Not quite kids, but old enough to Google me, and most have.
On Goodreads, I see a glowing, lengthy review of my book, written by a student.
While reading Rich’s “Split at the Root” in AP, a student remarks, Her style in this essay is a bit like yours.
Several students “like” my author page on Facebook.
The night I give a reading at an event in Flagstaff, a small posse of senior girls gather in the back of the room, Anna among them, causing my wife to note, Your fan club has arrived.
When a sixth-grade boy, whom I’ve never taught, approaches me during lunch period and beams, I love your writing, I am horrified.
No sixth grader should be reading my writing.
Only as he elaborated did I realize he was referring to my handwriting on the whiteboard in room thirteen.
You do these really neat loops.
Dizzy. Sleepless. A heaviness in my chest and limbs. Bathing, eating—secondary to chain smoking, coffee imbibing, or forgotten altogether.
I quit smoking pot because it makes me have horrible thoughts and start drinking heavily. My hypochondria worsens—I fear death from imagined afflictions while elaborately fantasizing about a death of my own making: sleeping pills, opened veins, drowning.
I sought poetry on the subject of depression, but all poetry about this kind of depression felt false.
The whole world felt thick and askew.
It was the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was reading huge amounts of Anne Sexton—Live or die/but don’t poison everything—in preparation for my senior thesis which centered on her poetry and some “mother daughter cycle of death and rebirth” bullshit, laden with obscure feminist theory, full of pedantry, of postmodern grasping, written for an audience of one.
My senior thesis increasingly became an esoteric love letter to Dr. Harris that I researched and wrote over summer break while babysitting my cousin and contemplating suicide by drowning myself in my uncle’s in-ground pool.
When senior year began, I was but a sick brain barely commandeering a junk-food-and-booze-fat, under-slept body.
Second semester, I took two classes with Dr. Harris, not counting our occasional meetings for my senior thesis. In her creative writing class, I wrote dark fiction about girls anchored to the bottom of swimming pools by bricks, about girls who after gin and several bumps of Adderall gave blow jobs to sloppy boys who, when sober, they’d have no interest in whatsoever.
I wrote extensively about shame and guilt and once, during a meeting in her office about my thesis on Sexton, she asked me if I was “all right,” and I got embarrassed, said, Yeah. Yeah. I just have a new aesthetic.
Because what else was I going to say? I’m losing my damn mind? I’m making bad choices? I wish I were dead?
Two weeks before graduation, during an exit interview with English majors, Dr. Harris mentioned she would be traveling for a conference during the month of June and Would anyone house sit for me?
This was the first time that year I felt hopeful. I knew I was supposed to “find-a-job-and-move-on-with-my-life” but that seemed impossible.
Plus, I knew I’d never kill myself in Dr. Harris’ house because that would be rude.
What I heard Dr. Harris say, when I accepted the offer to house-sit, was I’ll be attending a conference in Kenya. This is what I wanted to hear, as it fit so perfectly with my idea of her.
What she actually said was that she’d be attending a conference at Kenyon.
I humblebragged to my peers, who were not at all jealous, about my post-college plans: I’ll be house-sitting for Dr. Harris while she’s in Kenya.
I thought she was on the African continent; she was in Ohio.
It’s like this, I tell Anna. Imagine you like to smoke and drink—which you should never like to do—
But imagine maybe you like to do those things and you . . . you like to talk at parties, and make people laugh, which are okay things to want to do—
But your day job—you’re a teacher. You’re a headmistress—
Which is like a fancier teacher—
Exactly. And there’s a certain way you have to be—
Anna attends a school where teachers have tattoos and nose rings and in the warmer months, sometimes wear flip-flops to school, so this is, admittedly hard for her to imagine. She runs her hands through her hair, frustrated, says she doesn’t know why she picked this poem, but I am in love with this poem now and invested in keeping the selection.
Listen, I say. Do you think your teachers are the same in their private lives as they are when they’re at school? I mean, aside from the way they look or dress. Do you think they talk the same? Behave the same?
She hesitates, No?
No, I affirm.
Dr. Harris’ house was a modest bungalow full of jade plants in chipped tea cups and, naturally, books. In her upstairs home office, a collection of cassette tapes sat in a wicker basket. This was my favorite discovery—I had attempted, several times, to engage her on the subject of music, and now I had access to her personal discography which, for my tastes, was quite vanilla: Carole King, a smattering of world music, and Paul Simon’s Graceland which I played on incessant repeat.
To this day, I cannot hear a song from this album without acutely recalling Camel Light Wides smoked on Dr. Harris’ front stoop, tipsy on Blue Nun wine.
“The Boy in the Bubble,” is my madeleine.
I watered her plants, meticulously.
I was fastidiously tidy (something I wasn’t then, and still am not); I bleached her porcelain sinks until they were whiter than she had left them.
I sorted her mail, examined photographs on her refrigerator—nieces and nephews, mostly.
I experimented with cooking so I could use the sesame and peanut oils she kept in her cabinets—these seemed exotic to me.
I slept in her bed which, in my defense, she had given me permission to do.
When friends who were still in town asked if they could come over to drink and hang out, I adamantly refused—I would not debase my privilege by making it another night in the dorms.
By the time my house-sitting tenure expired, I had lined up a house-sitting gig for another professor in town, and so I “accidentally” left behind one of my CDs, Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele, ensuring a reason to return to Dr. Harris’ home.
The plan worked in a way. Dr. Harris discovered the CD and knowing I was still in town, asked me when I’d like to come retrieve it.
The day I returned for my Tori Amos CD, Dr. Harris did not invite me in.
She thanked me for “holding down the fort,” cracked her front door, and slipped me Boys for Pele.
Anna makes it to state finals with “Early Elegy.” Her mother is up for a prestigious award that evening, and her father (who is my wife’s psychiatrist) has patients, so neither can accompany their daughter to the competition, leaving me to drive her down the mountain to Phoenix.
As the aspens become cacti, Anna and I run short on conversation, stagger into the topic of weddings.
I’m so glad my friends have stopped getting married, I say.
I was tired of being a bridesmaid.
Anna laughs in shock, You were a bridesmaid?
I side eye her, Many times.
Did you have to wear a dress?
Every time, I say.
She laughs, open mouthed, shocked, You wore a dress?
Her laughter delights me.
Most days, at school, I wear jeans, a band t-shirt, and hoodie. My hair is short – declarative, my wife says—a shaved undercut I often slick back with pomade. No one would ever mistake me for feminine, much less straight.
This day, I’m wearing a button up shirt, a blazer, black pants with Doc Martens—the best I can do as “teacher representative.” Anna is wearing a white blouse, black blazer, black pants, heels, and makeup. We look like, maybe, we’re going to an important meeting.
Look at us, I observe. Why is a poetry event so damn formal? Isn’t that the whole problem with poetry?
I know, Anna says. And it’s going to be so hot in the valley.
Too warm and too dressed up—the problem with poetry.
When Anna doesn’t place in the state finals, which I believe is a grave injustice, we drive back up the mountain and gossip about the other competitors. I am careful to dilute my cattier observations with true critical feedback, I felt he did not convey a true understanding of Gluck’s poem . . . (I don’t revisit the fact that he called her “Louis Glook.”)
Anna tells me about a boy, the very confident, handsome one who got second place, who chided her for admitting she was nervous.
I want to tell Anna that boy was a complete ass, that I thought he was contrived and superficial and she was the best. I want to say What the fuck was up with that girl’s sultry delivery of Langston Hughes? And why was that other boy shouting Robert Frost? And what was with that kid’s hand gestures, he was reading Keats for Christ’s sake.
Instead, I play adult, play teacher. Some of those readings, I tsk, changing lanes.
Anna laughs nervously, Yeah. I know.
Sometimes, I’d receive a postcard from Dr. Harris—from Bali, from Thailand, from Wisconsin. Where there might otherwise be personal notes, were quotes from writers scrawled in her tight, angular handwriting.
I still have the postcards.
Possibly, she felt obligated to send them, as I wrote her frequent, long letters detailing my post-college life—my mundane job, my little efficiency apartment, my cat, evaluations of books I’d read.
Eventually, my desire for Dr. Harris’ attention burnt off like a fog. With young adulthood, independence, came new obsessions, new problems, new interests.
Nevertheless, I stayed in touch, and shortly after I finished grad school, Dr. Harris emailed to tell me my alma mater had an English adjunct position open.
I was barely thirty and already working three adjunct gigs. What was one more? I needed the money.
When I started teaching at my alma mater, I was early in a romance—single minded and giddy in the way only new love can make a person. When class was out, I’d hurry from the humanities building I used to slowly haunt as an undergrad, back to my car to make it back to Chicago in time for dinner with my girlfriend.
And one day, I ran smack into Dr. Harris.
I was easy with her in letters and emails over the years, easy with her when she was nothing more than words in white spaces, but there she was—real, material, really there, again.
Carolyn Harris, she said, tapping her chest, as though I couldn’t recognize her.
But I recognized her too much.
I took a step closer. I know. Yeah.
Though this was an occasion where we would have otherwise embraced, I knew I had let my shock and awkwardness squander the opportunity.
You acted so strangely, she smirked, her eyes as bright and piercing as they had been when I was an undergrad, a teenager, and in them I saw no recognition, no indication that she ever knew the depth of my old feelings, that I had once been in a kind of love, that I had once occupied her house as though it were a body.
We exchanged pleasantries:
How are you?
How are classes?
Are you still writing?
Until, in a marvelous eruption of non-sequitur, I blurted, You should come to Chicago sometime.
Despite being in a new relationship, I was impulsively willing to jettison all for the chance to lure Dr. Harris into my city, my apartment, my bed. The possibility felt like the acquisition of another degree, the killer conclusion to an essay I’d been struggling to properly finish.
That would be nice, Dr. Harris replied, coolly.
She never took me up on my offer.
Years later, just ahead of my first chemotherapy treatment, when life itself felt particularly tenuous, when I was pickling in my own mortality, I wrote again to Dr. Harris. I had every intention of confessing all. I wasn’t sure if I would live much longer and I wanted her to know how I’d felt. I wanted to tell her that, once upon a time, I had been in love with her—at least in a kind of love—and I needed her to know because I’d never told anyone else, except for maybe a therapist or two, and that I wasn’t bothered by the fact the love had been unrequited, only by the fact that the feeling felt like a crazy ghost of an emotion and could never be solid, never real, unless she knew.
Instead, I wrote that her classes meant a lot to me and that she had meant a lot to me as a teacher.
When Anna was a junior, we read confessional poetry in AP Literature.
I told her cohort I had a special fondness for the work of Anne Sexton. When we read her re-imaginings of Grimm’s fairy tales, the boys felt lukewarm and the girls ping-ponged, ambivalent – she’s very weird and she’s very cool.
I always thought Sexton’s work was fiery. I didn’t understand how any young woman could feel lukewarm about it.
Whether a library fluke or a random page turn in a Norton anthology, I somehow discovered Sexton in high school. At sixteen, I was astonished by what she wrote—I didn’t know one could place such dark intimacies in poetry. As an introvert, an excruciatingly shy girl, a Catholic, I was enchanted by the “confessional” mode Sexton embraced —confess, confess it all, say what you want to say—even the sullied, perverse, cruel parts.
As a teenager, and young woman, I idolized Sexton’s salacious candor. Now, in my forties, I admire her work but see in the stanzas a woman who never left that thick, askew world, a woman governed by addiction, obsession, and libidinous cynicism.
In her senior year, Anna takes my Intro to Creative Writing class that, due to a scheduling error becomes a mixed-age social experiment where middle schoolers comingle with high schoolers—a messy petri dish of creative thought, immaturity, and maturity.
The middle school girls adore Anna with her dark, curly hair, her bright smile, her confidence. The day Anna turns eighteen, a seventh-grade girl half-jokes, Are you legally old enough to adopt me?
They emulate her posture, her mannerisms, they fall silent when she speaks, bite their lips.
One day, as a prompt, we read an excerpt from a Sexton poem:
A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
A middle school girl calls the lines “weird” and another middle school girl says, “it’s too creepy.”
Anna cocks her head, comes to Sexton’s defense, I like it . . . but then again, I’m a big fan of Anne Sexton.
She says this like a girl “in the know,” a girl ahead of her time, and she flicks her eyes at me.
Anna has spoken, so the middle school girls reconsider their opinion, “Yeah, actually, I guess it’s pretty good.”
As the middle school girls walk back their earlier disapproval of Sexton’s work, Anna and I smirk at each other.
Later, at a party with her parents, I will tell this story, tell them how the girls idolized their daughter.
I believe Anna really did like Sexton, because what smart, subversive girl doesn’t love Anne Sexton—dark and profane, creative and clever as hell? What girl, who has ever longed to claim herself doesn’t rejoice at Sexton’s unapologetic, “Dear love, I am that woman”? What girl who grapples with her own sexuality doesn’t find a knowing nod in Sexton’s “knocking at my cloister”?
Just don’t grow up to be Anne Sexton, I tell Anna, knowing I can’t take credit for her love of the poet.
I can only be half-certain that I casually flicked some metaphorical cigarette butt into her heart’s trail of teenage gasoline.
Flagstaff is at the beginning of a drought. The county is torching brush as a precaution, and digital road signs flash, “Prescribed burn ahead.”
I smirk when I drive by the sign on my way home from school because I think of how my generation used the term “burn”: you’ve been insulted, found out, revealed, exposed.
Oh, burn! My friends used to say, teasing me obscenely about my interest in Dr. Harris.
Burns, in this context, were most effective when unexpected, most effective when they were sudden and bitingly true.
In the case of the road sign, the burn is “prescribed,” something you’ve been evaluated for, something you pick up at Walgreens.
And this the prescribed burn is the better burn—the one that’s for the best, the one that’s preventative, the one that, eventually, might heal you.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Megara Tegal