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excavation coverFall 1986

“Open your notebooks,” Mr. Ivers ordered, stepping backward from us, his eyes blinking rapidly behind his glasses. I saw a glimmer of a smile, and then a furrowed brow in mock seriousness.

“You’re going to use these notebooks to compose journal entries. You’ll turn the notebooks in to me once a week, every week. You can write about whatever you want, so long as there’s evidence of writing somewhere, somehow, in that notebook. Got it?” He held his elbows. He caught my eye.

“Why don’t we take just a little bit of class time to start this gig. Anyone have any questions?” Mr. Ivers began moving past students’ desks, throwing out joking comments, lingering with kids who pleaded that they had nothing to write about.

I raised my hand. My eyes followed him, starting with his tie. My eyes crept up his thick neck, ending on the cleft in his chin. I glanced at Abigail, who was busy writing in her notebook. She paused, put her head down on her desk. I bit my lip when suddenly Mr. Ivers’s eyes met mine.

“Mr. Ivers? Can you c’mere?” I held my raised elbow in the air as if it was a burden to hold up, as if I was wounded and required assistance.

He lifted his palm to me as he focused on Sheila’s question. Sheila whined about the assignment and Mr. Ivers cajoled her into starting with just one sentence. When Sheila’s pen met paper, he made his way to my desk. I watched him, the way his mouth opened slightly so that I could see his tongue dart out and touch his lips.

When he came to my desk, I pressed my lips together and hid a smile.

“What am I supposed to write about? Like, anything? We can write about anything?” I let my hand touch the cool of the desktop.

“Yep,” he answered, looking at me with raised eyebrows. I noticed beads of sweat on his forehead, which was broad and pale. He started to move on to another raised hand, and my arm shot back in the air, straight, sure.

He turned back to me. “Yes, Wendy? Another question?”

I brought my eyes back to the desk, back to the notebook, away from his small, hazel eyes and amused look. “So like it doesn’t have to be specifically about school?” I felt my legs twist up under the desk. I imagined I needed a touch-up to my eye-liner. My lips felt chapped under the coat of bronze lipstick.

“Nope,” he answered as he moved away from me, down the aisle between desks. “In fact, I would hope that it has hardly anything to do with school.”

I watched his back, the expanse of his gray sweater, and inhaled the almost imperceptible scent of his cologne. He went back to briefly conferencing at students’ desks. His words were lost on me as I stared at my notebook, its pages naked, waiting to be split open and attacked with my pen in one fluid motion. Later, after half of the first page was covered and I felt like I was coming up for air, I looked up to find Mr. Ivers’s eyes fixed on me, a slight smile on his face, as the class bent over their notebooks.

 

After school, I was waiting for my mom to pick me up. My friend Eva and Mr. Ivers flanked my sides, and I felt the dip into nighttime occur even though it was just nearing four-thirty.

Somehow, someway, I mentioned the novel I was writing.

“You’re what? You’re writing a book?” he said, hands on his hips. The dimple in his chin was showing, and he waited for my answer. I glanced at Eva. She had taken home my special red binder on different occasions, always returning with praise, wanting to read more. Handwritten on lined paper, it contained pages in the hundreds. My book was being written in bubbles of private time: after watching television and instead of watching television, before sleep, between phone calls to friends, sequestered in my bedroom. I savored my identity as an only child, different from most of my friends. Silence, notebooks and carbon paper were commonplace in my bedroom.

“What are you writing?” my mother asked occasionally, only to receive the same answer every time, “Nothing.”  My father seemed unaware and uninterested in what I was up to when I sat cross-legged on my bed, door not quite closed, Soft Cell crooning softly out of the stereo speakers.

I flinched, imagining what would happen should my parents ever invade the red binder and read its contents. Looking at Mr. Ivers, I felt a tickle in my groin. I bit my lip, leaned heavily on one leg.

“Yeah, I’m writing a book. Eva’s read most of it,” I answered.

Eva laughed, a sound that mixed appreciation and something else, something like Watch out, Wendy. We both knew what the pages contained. And I knew why she was laughing like that. The moment felt like when I steadily walked the length of a swimming pool that got ever deeper, relishing the moment when my feet would touch nothing.

“Well, what’s it about? What’s going on? Is it your life story?” he inquired, elbowing me playfully. I looked hard at this man, his tie askew, his ruddy complexion brought out by the afterschool patrolling of campus, and now from the teasing he was giving me. My teeth involuntarily clenched under my closed lips. I was aware of being subtly condescended to.

“No,” I retorted. “It’s fiction.” I paused. “About a girl named Ali Milan. And,” Shit, I think, I’m giving it away, “her boyfriend.” Make this more innocent-sounding. “And her family,” I added. I felt out of breath. My voice had gotten louder, surer.

“And I never want my parents to read it when it gets published,” I said. Mr. Ivers was still smiling at Eva and me.

“Why?” he asked, and I saw a man, for an instant, who was enjoying two young girls that he thought he had something over. I made my move.

“Well,” I started, looking sidelong at Eva, whose eyes were open wide, her hand to her mouth to stifle giggles, “because there are parts in it where people are, you know, making out, doing more than that, you know. And. Well. It’s in detail.”

Eva’s face was red. Mr. Ivers took a deep breath.

“My parents probably wouldn’t like that, because it’s based on personal experience,” I lied. My feet suddenly felt hot in my black boots, rooted firmly to the cement.

“Well, get those pages to me! I need something to get my blood racing!” Mr. Ivers bellowed, and we all laughed. I wanted to linger over what he meant by this, but I stood stock-still, even as my knees felt loose and I wanted to flee. He was looking at me expectantly. My face was hot. I started to rifle through my bag.

“I can’t be here while you read it,” I said. “Here, Eva, show him.” I handed her the bulky red binder. My heart pounded and I scurried away as soon as she took the manuscript. I watched them from a discrete spot near the manicured bushes that surrounded the A-frame office. They were leafing through the pages together. I put my hand over my mouth, forgetting the other students nearby.

When I spied my mother arriving in her station wagon to pick me up, I quickly retrieved the red binder from them on my way to her car.

“Hey,” Mr. Ivers called out to me as I started to open the door to the car, “I wanna talk to you about that book!” I gritted my teeth even as I smiled, waved, and got inside the car, glad that my mother was not conscious of this last exchange, this exchange that made me shift in my seat the whole way home. I was full from this series of recent events, happy I had something to mull over when I got home, something to write about. Still, in the midst of my excitement, I noted the straight line of my mother’s mouth and the wrinkles on her forehead. There was an electric tension buzzing from her. Her sunglasses hid her eyes and I snuck a look at her short skirt, which I disapproved of. The radio blared Erasure, a British band my mom loved, which horrified and sickened me because I loved Erasure. I listened to her talk about hot flashes and stared straight ahead. If she flipped the turn signal and maneuvered into the Dales Market parking lot, I knew that the weekend might be flawed with the smell of vodka, the lull of heavy cigarette smoke, my father escaping the house or retreating to the room where he buried himself in hours of Saturday afternoon sports, a fresh beer within reach. I was suddenly still, muscles tensed in the burgundy passenger seat of her car. My body relaxed just slightly as the car turned away from the market.

Hours later, Eva called to tell me this:

“Mr. Ivers wants you to call him at home. Here’s his phone number. So you guys can talk about your book.”

I didn’t question why my friend had my teacher’s phone number. All I could think about was when.

It was the beginning of a long weekend. I waited until I had a chance, a perfect opportunity, to call Mr. Ivers, the phone number written in my careful script waiting to be used.

 

________________________

wendy ortizWENDY C. ORTIZ is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, July 2014) and Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, November 2014). Wendy writes the monthly column “On the Trail of Mary Jane,” documenting medical marijuana dispensary culture in Los Angeles, for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, PANK, Specter Magazine, among many other journals. A recent essay that appeared on The Nervous Breakdown was translated into Italian for the online journal Abbiamo Le Prove. She has twice been a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook, a rural writing retreat in Washington state for women writers. Wendy is co-founder, curator and host of the long-running Rhapsodomancy Reading Series in Los Angeles. In addition, she is a mother and registered marriage and family therapist intern.

 

 

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

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