It was the year my favorite Beatle died, just a few months after the WTC terrorist attacks, early in my second decade at the nursery. Everyone needed diversion from the news. In the evenings I watched videos of Jane Austen novels, daytimes left my desk and went often to the nursery’s growing fields, the farthest ones out, started collecting snake skins, tortoise shells, looking for the rare mule deer antler.
I may have heard the voices, and ignored them, at ease with the melodious background sound of the Latino workers chatting and laughing among themselves. A closer buzzing was louder, directing me to a patch of grey fur just off the dirt road. There was no smell. The dry December air, a tinge of salt in the sandstone soil, so the carcass was parched and would’ve been mummified if the tissues hadn’t been so quickly devoured by beetles and maggots. And still whole, as though the primary carrion consumer — other coyotes — felt some sacred trust to not ravage one of their own. Dehydration alone had distorted the body: the splayed legs contorted, the neck twisted and head thrown over one shoulder, ears and nose leather withered, unrecognizable. Barely showing in the recoiled muzzle’s gristle, a canine tooth, whitened by ants.
“Oh, what happened to you?”
How long had I studied it, bent at the waist, my face hovering above the coyote’s body? In the ambiance of the nursery’s backlot and surrounding back country, the backdrop of Spanish conversation in the distance, my own voice speaking aloud, alone, was not an odd supplement.
When I moved, reached to touch it, I already had a leather glove on one hand and my pruner out of my belt sheath, lifted the head and worked the pruner around the spine. The only resistance was from shriveled creases of hide, but the blade was made for two-inch woody limbs, and the head came free.
December in the back country. Native canyons and hillsides trapped, hemmed in, by housing developments and military air fields. The rutted dirt two-track road unwinds for miles. To the left are five acres of eight varieties of juniper, maple and sycamore saplings, two-, then three-, then four-foot spruce, irrigated in rows. There on the two-track, just outside the growing fields, on the edge of a dry arroyo or hedgerow, under the high and wild wind, where you can hear a bee buzz and mouse rustle under the matted layer of last year’s wild oats, you could think you’re in unqualified pampas wilderness. Not always alone, often a worker moving the water-tank with a small tractor, or a crew trimming double-crowns, or digging trees tagged to come into the retail lot. The two-track dotted with scat and owl pellets. The louder rustlings are rabbits, and ravens call constantly, sounding angry, downright impatient.
As I stood after cutting through the bone and greasy cartilage, sheathing the pruner, holding the head in one hand, a louder voice, more urgent, rose out of a momentary silence — a silence that had only been marred by my own question, intended to be muttered. The other voice was not shouting, but still signified some exigency, some alarm. A wooden clatter, an airy whump, then the rustle of escape was neither mouse or rabbit, the fleeing footsteps almost as palpable as my own heartbeat. Running from the edge of a spruce field and into tall chaparral, two girls, as young as 13, no older than 16. Difficult to tell their ages, although not difficult to see their black hair streaming behind as they ran, and that one of them clutched a bundle of fabric to her chest, and their backs were bare.
Over a low sweep of hill, a male voice made one more call, then they were gone into the shallow ravine. I walked the seventy or eighty yards up the slightly uphill two-track to where they had crossed it, running from a spruce lot into the undeveloped field. Our workers were in that lot, trimming roots, tagging trees for removal. I could hear the buzz of a string trimmer, and when it stopped, the snip of pruning sheers, larger than those I carried on my belt, but mine had made no clean click while gnashing through the coyote’s gristle. Suddenly, at my feet, a large sheet of plywood, flat on the ground, about 5×5 feet. I tipped it up with one hand. The ground beneath the plywood just as dry as the surrounding dirt, and no bugs or lizards were there to flee the sudden burst of light. Underneath, two long 2x4s.
My gloved hand clutched the coyote head like a talon all the way back to the nursery’s out-buildings. Behind a tool shed, I set up an old burn-barrel and put the head inside where beetles could continue to cure it, down to the skull. It would take five more months. Meanwhile, I brought binoculars when I went out on the backlot two-tracks, and I watched, and I learned.
After one kiss, it isn’t difficult to kiss again. And again. In the car, slowed to a stop by the curb a block from her house, or in the dusty, mostly grassless, mostly unused park nearby where the eucalyptus trees are bigger around than her arms can wrap and the high swingset is rusty. Underneath each seat — thick wide bands of rubber attached to chains — are deep smoothed trenches made by hundreds of feet over decades of years, pushing off to send the swing higher, scraping to slow and stop. When it rains, the trenches fill and the water stands for several days, turning slowly to mud, and you can’t get to the swing’s seat without caking your sneakers with muck. But in late September and early October, it hasn’t rained for months, the ground is desert dry, the eucalyptus leaves dark and dusty. The trees rattle in every breeze, branches fall in the Santa Ana winds. After the time her brother was in the driveway revving his minibike when Mr. Wood’s car pulled to the curb, Heather and Mr. Wood start going to the park every afternoon, and he leaves from there. It’s only a few winding sand-shouldered roads away. She walks home, but sometimes lingers a while and goes to the swings. Some days kicks herself high, flying in arcs so the chains rattle after the apex when the seat begins to fall back down. Other days she just idly rocks back and forth over the foot rut.
After your first kiss, after the first several kisses that follow, you suddenly do know how to kiss. Your mouth does what his does. You aren’t surprised by his tongue, by the scrape of his afternoon stubble, by the growing vigor of his mouth’s appetite. Your own hands may not know where to go, what to hold, but his are accomplished enough for two, know how to hold you, the best way, and thankfully most often, he’s cupping your face with both palms, his fingertips behind your ears.
But kissing in a car is awkward, their bodies not facing but seated parallel side by side, a gearshift in between. A few times, days when the car is too hot, they get out and sit on the parking lot’s low curb, the car blocking any view of them from the lonely road that passes the neglected park. The last time they kiss in the car when kissing in the car is still the only thing they’ve done, when he gets out, and she does likewise, believing they’ll sit on the curb, he comes around the car and opens the rear door and she follows him into the passenger seat. The windows are open, but still the car becomes warm quickly. They kiss sitting up as usual, but then the pressure of his body grows, and when her back rests against the seat, his lips move to her throat, and he fingers the collar of her blouse. They are here after dance practice and she didn’t shower, so her sweat has dried on her skin but she doesn’t worry about it anymore because they always sweat together in the humid car, and there’s nothing rank about his. Nor is there anything gross about his hands, his fingers, that have now undone the top snap of her gym blouse and are moving like whispers across and down her shoulders and back up, dipping beneath her bra strap, moving the strap down toward her shoulder, like her clothes are undressing themselves, but his hands never stray any further than his thumbs that dip to where her bra just starts, and his voice, low, joins the whistle of wind moving through and around the car, joins the groan of the branches of the old trees and the rattle of the chain of the empty swingset, his voice the sound of the empty park, comfortable, tranquil, a little bit sad.
They don’t talk a lot when they kiss, but they aren’t completely speechless. Sometimes he pauses, then whispers, “okay?” She doesn’t know why, but she nods, often with her eyes closed. Sometimes he says “look at me,” and then “you’re pretty, do you know that?” Something in her knows he wants her to nod again, so she does. And he wants her to smile, so she does. And when she smiles, he does too, a boyish smile she hasn’t seen at school. And she does feel pretty. How can she not? He puts his face in her hair and breathes in like he’s smelling a rose. He runs his lips along the ridge of her jaw. The day in his back seat, one of his legs half hooked around one of hers, his hands on her bare shoulders, his thumbs tickling her skin as though she’s lying in tall grass in a bikini, his lips on her eyes, then moving to her temple, then opening against her ear, and after the warm wetness there, it’s his breath against her ear, and he says, “We should meet somewhere else. Do you know where the AV room is, beside the library?”
Of course she comes to the AV room at the time he specifies. Of course she chooses her clothing carefully that morning, and showers after dance practice then re-dresses in the peasant top with loose elastic neck and earth-toned semi-full midi-skirt with small flounced ruffle around the hem. No pantyhose under the skirt. Bare feet in pennyloafers. Her hair was in a tight high ponytail during dance practice, but she didn’t want to get it fully wet in the shower, and she hadn’t brought her new shampoo, so she just washed her face and neck up to her hairline. She’d bought Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo about a week ago, and just standing in the steamy shower, she can smell it again. She lets loose the ponytail and stands bent at the waist, her head almost to her knees, brushing her hair from the nape of her neck forward around her face, and then stands, throwing her hair back and brushing it lightly again. She hopes a not-as-hot October afternoon will keep her palms and the rest of her from sweating as she walks to the library. The AV room is next door. Hardly anyone is around, the band still practicing out on the football field, the football players in the weight room, a few kids with bikes chilling out on the quad after some club meeting for more geeky types.
He kisses her first, before speaking, his hands in her hair, then says, “I’m glad you came.” He looks at her for a moment, hands now on her shoulders, as though waiting for her to say something, so she smiles. She doesn’t know what to say.
The AV room is not much bigger than her bedroom at home, but narrower and longer. Projectors on carts are parked on one side, leaving an aisle down the middle, on the other wall shelves of smaller things, tape recorders, old film-strip projectors, even record players. It has a dusty, oily scent — she can almost smell the occasionally familiar odor of film being burned and melted when a projector jams. And there’s a stool, the kind a jazz singer or comedian might use on stage, where Mr. Wood is now sitting, his hands still on her shoulders, holding her in front of himself, drawing her nearer, between his knees. She’s still standing, and he says, “it’ll be okay,” as though she’s asked some kind of vague question, one with no real answer. He’s slowly stretching the neck of her peasant blouse so it sits off her shoulders, which it’s supposed to do, like if you wear it on a date, but you can’t wear it that way with a bra on, so he’s slipped her bra straps off her shoulders too, and his hands on her skin there are warm and smooth. When he draws her even closer and leans in to kiss her neck, her throat, her collar bones, she has to put her hands somewhere, but it’s natural to put them on his shoulders, and at the same time she’s not aware of where her hands are because he’s moved her bra and blouse below her breasts and his mouth is there, moving slowly all over, not biting or licking, just there, a wet mouth, her heart thumping like the bass on her stereo. But the elastic of her blouse is tight on the back of her neck, the flimsy cotton about to rip, and as though they notice at the same time, both their hands, together, lift the blouse over her head, and the bra follows. At the suggestion of his hands, she lifts each leg over his so she is seated on his lap, straddling him. He holds her breasts, one in each hand, his thumbs on her nipples, but looks at her face, looks into her eyes, then kisses her.
It wouldn’t make sense to pass by or gloss over the rest of the scene with the literary “veil of modesty,” smear of Vaseline on the lens, the pull-away, the fade-to-black, the train through the tunnel. Isn’t this going to be a large portion of the whole objective?
His hands on her skin, on her breasts, and now also under her skirt, on her thighs, her butt, under the elastic of her underwear, as secure, confident and sensitive as … as what? What comparisons would Heather have from her arsenal of what she’d read in English class or seen on television?
His hands just aren’t like any boy’s, that’s for sure. She had some experience on a bus trip to Disneyland last year, with a boy in the back seat. The boy had touched her, mostly through her clothes, the way a little kid jabs at spiders and lizards and thinks it’s gnarly fun to touch and pinch, poke and squeeze every creepy crawly thing.
It’s easy to let Mr. Wood’s hands go where they want to go, because everywhere they go she seems to want them to go there. Even without knowing that’s what she wanted, the next place his hands go, that’s where she wanted them to go. Even when he pushes her underwear aside and his fingers are going inside her, the same time his mouth, his teeth are on her nipple, even then.
“You’re beautiful,” he says frequently, almost a whisper, and, “I’m so excited.” And once, “unbelievable.”
She does have to get off his lap in order to let her underwear drop around her ankles and kick them away. Her skirt the only thing she’s still wearing. He has her stand straddling over where he’s sitting, and she can feel him doing something to his own pants, then he guides himself into her and says “at your own pace, just let yourself down over me.” With one hand he holds her butt, the other reaches up into her hair, brushes it behind one ear, he looks into her eyes again and smiles, and she no longer worries about not sweating because she is slick all over, and it’s okay, like sweating during dance practice. With their bodies fully joined, he presses himself closer, further into her, he says, “your life is going to get better, you’ll see … your dancing, your studies … you’ll be in touch with your whole body, your potential …” and she knows right then to move on him, to arch her back and lift her breasts, to bend her supple waist from side to side and watch him close his eyes, throw his head back, mouth slightly agape, a little sound like oh coming with each breath. Despite the underlying power and trembling suspense she can feel in his body, he seems almost helpless. Dying of thirst and gasping for breath. His hands grope for her breasts, his mouth opening and closing slowly seems to ask for hers, so she bends to kiss him.
But now, if I don’t lower that literary veil of discretion, I risk stripping away every nuance except sweaty sexual positions between a man and a girl. And even though girl is not an immediate pejorative, and not even an instantaneous sexual crime to have relations with one (who among us doesn’t want to remain a girl, if we’re candid with ourselves, in the lucid darkness of deserted bedrooms?), if the scene is reduced to mere nakedness, wordlessness, genders and genitals, adult and adolescent, the teacher and the taught, I risk the appearance of force, of coercion, of compulsion, of degradation, of corruption, of debasement. And I could be, should be, and supposedly am writing about all those things happening now, happening still, somewhere, on the rock-strewn ground where the arid afternoon air dries sweat and sperm, maybe even blood, on the insides of her thighs.
Still, he did guide her into knowing what they would do, sometimes with softly spoken words, sometimes with implicit benign manipulation, his hand lifting her leg, his arms lifting her hips, his fingers cupping her jaws, his tongue enlightening her labia. Not every day, but as often as they could, as often as he indicated there was a time and space, the hour before school, at night following a football game, and afternoons. Sometimes after dance practice, other days she told her mother there were extra team rehearsals and instead she was with Mr. Wood, in his locked classroom, in the AV room, in his car (no longer in the nearby park but further out in the back country, a dirt road through a feral tumbleweedy field that would in 20 years sprout houses and lawns, maybe even the house where Heather was raising her own daughter). And — one Friday afternoon in early November when her parents and brother had left for a weekend of biking in the desert, finally trusting that she was old enough to stay home alone — in her own bed, with a stack of her records playing: The BeeGees’ “Minute-by-Minute,” the Doobies’ “What a Fool Believes,” Billy Joel, Earth Wind and Fire, the Eagles, Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” which the team danced a routine to, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
So no need to go into detail about other positions and variations on the act — it all amounts to the same evolution. At first he will need to guide her into knowing what they were going to do. And might encourage her with admiration, “look how supple you are,” “your scent is making me wild,” and “No part of you isn’t beautiful.” But usually his feverish sotto-voice words are like an additional touch from a finger or his tongue, so that what the words say is irrelevant, if they even mean anything at all. Most often the same words, just like they’re his same hands, his same mouth: “Okay?” as a question, or “okay” as an answer. “Yes.” “Here.” “Good.” And occasionally, “thank you,” and “you have no idea …”
But she does have an idea. Not one made of vocabulary, either in her head or written in a diary, if she kept one. Both an intuitive insight and some kind of wordless wisdom, her sense, her base perception is of his unrestrained and frank need, the peeling away of proscribed, adult protocol so that his appetite lies bare … in the softening of his incisive expression, the burgeoning power of his workday casual muscles, the feral smell of his body … and, of course, in how this is not her universe but his, and yet she is in the eye, enthroned, at the center of it.
And she does have an idea of how to stay there.
March 14, 2004
Even your former students probably wouldn’t call you Mr. Wood after 25 years, and yet this familiar salutation seems unnatural for me. Even though you didn’t know me by this name I’ve employed, I think you’ll figure out who I am: a student-teacher you supervised in the late 70’s. Much as I’d like to, it will be difficult to begin this letter with the ordinary how-are-you-I-am-fine hollow gesture. Decades have gone by since you last saw me, and I have no way of knowing if you even remember. And then there’s the issue of writing a letter, which nobody does anymore. No Google search has brought me anywhere near an e-mail address for you, but, in the archived news items about you, I’ve found your attorney’s name, and was then able to locate his business address. It is up to him whether or not this letter will find you, but he has my permission to read it first. I’ll say up front (for your attorney’s information as well as yours) that while I would eagerly provide any kind of testimony — from character witness to eye-witness — I am intelligent enough to know that my services in those areas would be anywhere from worthless to downright detrimental. What kind of character witness would have only known the defendant for four months, well over 20 years ago? And as eye-witness, I didn’t see much. Once I was alone in the office with a girl who was crying. The rest of the time all the girls — and I assume she was one of them — preened and flaunted themselves without inhibition. Many looked at me with inhospitality and resentment, the way members of a wolf pack eye an interloper. The other things I observed — from the magazines in your briefcase to the five-minute movies they showed for fifty cents in the booths at the back of the adult book store in Oceanside where you took me — would, I realize, not portray you in a useful or comprehensive way.
Yes, I only knew you for less than a year. Our period of daily contact was just about four months. Yet, while there are people I knew during that same time who I barely (or don’t) remember, those four months at Mt. Marcos High School have remained a significant marker in my personal résumé. Looking through my spring 1979 journal — amid the rantings and deliberations that don’t have enough context for me to now comprehend what I was talking about — I’ve found anguished exclamations about wasting a year of my life, what-am-I-going-to-do, I-can’t-do-this, this-is-killing-me ….
I was a horrible teacher for more reasons than just that it wasn’t one of my capabilities. Although 23, my brain was still unfinished and simply could not concentrate on any task outside my needs and angst. If assigned to an accomplished model-teacher-robot as apprentice, the same conclusions would’ve been determined: this was not something this girl could or should do. But I was given to someone who was more than a Teacher with a capital T. I was assigned to a more complete person — by virtue of his human flaws — with enough empathy to not only see more in my difficulties than just an untalented teacher, but to address me on that other, deeper and more bothersome level. And, of course, this is why I’ve book-marked that time and you, probably mythologizing both, hopefully in a meaningful way.
Given the fact that everyone is the center of only their own universe, a brief intersection of two lives is often far more significant for one than it is for the other. Thus, as other major events in your life came along, you may not, or may only vaguely remember me. And, on my end, in my never-comfortable mind, I thought I’d already fully explored, many times over, my recollections of you. But recently I have begun the memory excavations all over again.
I was deeply dismayed, just a few weeks ago, to hear from a friend — a former vague acquaintance of yours — of the circumstances pertaining to your departure from Mt. Marcos H.S. The report given me, however, was not only unspecific but incorrect. I was told you’d been convicted. A simple internet search provided me a fuller picture … the charges appropriately dropped, followed by the predictable self-pitying lawsuit brought by the “victim.” My response is apt to make me sound a hypocrite to the feminist, liberal views I value, but that’s where people are wrong about both feminists and liberals. A true feminist knows that women can have significant weaknesses and can easily cause or exacerbate their own problems. And that men, likewise, feel things, fear things, and might make poor choices influenced by or based on their confusion or emotional needs or even on misconstrued best intentions.
I do feel my visceral first response to learning the more complete published details of your situation is somewhat significant, though, because I quickly realized my four months of student teaching with you in 1979 lie in the middle of your relationship with the girl. So, yes, this recognition sent me back to excavate my memory, and my journals, and even those student-teaching notes you kept for me during your observations. What I’m looking for, I’m not sure.
I had already been very aware, on a few different levels, of your marital difficulties at the time. In fact, this was the field on which we connected in ways beyond mentor-and-student, and the fact that you were experiencing your own torment has made your willingness to address mine far more significant to me. I’ve realized it still more in the years afterward; and, in fact, your attention then means even more now that I am aware of the complicated situation you were struggling with. On April 26, 1979, my journal records this short dialogue:
Me: when does life begin? Maybe 23?
You: maybe 31?
Part of my mind has us frozen there, at 23 and 31, neither of us knowing the full extent of our own despair and yet tacitly sharing it with each other.
Most of my response to learning about the charges against you has been from a selfish attempt to remember who I was at the time. At 23, I felt intimidated by the way the 16-year-olds at that school seemed so comfortable in their obvious, and often flaunted, sexuality. I felt unequal to it. I felt inferior to it. I felt retarded compared to it. My perspective then would have never conceived that these were girls (women) who did not know what they were doing. And nothing I’ve seen of the average middle-class heady 16-year-old girl since then has changed my mind.
I’ve recently seen other 16-year-olds, however — and 14-year-olds, and maybe even younger girls — not only on the fringes of society, but on the outskirts of “civilization,” in the scrub and bushes of uncultivated canyons, who are compelled to spread their legs not for one man, but for 30 or 40 men a day, six men an hour, on the bare ground, with dry grass and tumbleweeds for walls. The men themselves are treated no better than livestock, rounded up, cued into lines. With cattle, though, there is one bull, prized and pampered, who services every cow. In these fields, she accepts dozens of bulls. And tomorrow dozens more. This goes on mere miles from where we live in stucco houses, prune flowers in our pretty yards, shop for groceries and eat ice cream and rent movies, drive to work or school in SUVs or convertibles. They can be chased and scattered into the canyons and ravines, but it will still be going on again tomorrow, in another place. Dead girls can be replaced.
So, 25 years ago one 16-year-old thinks she’s extraordinary because she has attracted a 30-year-old man and consents to be his lover, proving her ultimate value to herself … and 25 years later when she cries foul, the newspapers, the lawyers, the prosecutors, the talk-show mavens zero in on her beguiled former lover as a piece of vermin who sickens moral society. Meanwhile abducted teenagers, 14, 15, maybe as young as 11 or 12, are being fucked 30, 40, 50 times a day by that many men, in “rooms” made of flattened chaparral, and where are the voices raised in protest, the hoisted fists of moral outrage, the saturation of media interest? Where?
I don’t know if I’m finished, but I’ll pretend I am, in case I am, in case I mail this tomorrow.