IS THIS DESIRE by Aida Zilelian

 

“SO?”

“SO?” HE ASKS and slumps down into his seat, to meet me eye-level.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine. How’s it going with you?”

Ever since his mother vanished last year, I have been meeting my student Samuel after school once a week. Although his day ends earlier than mine he is willing to bide his time and come back when I am free.

“We’re not here to talk about me,” I say, sighing.

He starts fidgeting with his arm warmers and scratches his flattened Mohawk. There is a brief silence. I wait and cock my eyebrow. He cocks his back.

“How are your classes going?” I begin. This is the usual pattern. I am not a licensed therapist. I am an English teacher. I have made this clear to him several times and sent him to different counselors in school. According to Samuel, Mrs. Rodriguez’s accent is distracting, Ms. White’s open-door policy doesn’t allow for privacy, his last therapist resembled a Holocaust victim and therefore, her “fragility got in the way” of him feeling comfortable enough to unleash his frustrations.

“It’s going.” He scratches his head again.

“Samuel.”

“Zoe.”

“I’ve asked you not to call me by my first name,” I say, resisting the impulse to smile.

“But you’re not my teacher anymore,” he says, grinning.  “It’s getting dark out early. Wanna go and watch the sunset at Trevor Park?”

“No.” I am getting annoyed and he senses this immediately.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Okay,” he straightens himself in his chair. “I have a girlfriend.”

After some prodding he begins by telling me how she is a college student, a few years older than him. His voice is overly bored. It is obvious that this is the safer alternative to his last love interest who, without warning suddenly decided she didn’t like him after all and didn’t bake him a birthday cake. She was famous for her cakes.

“What?” he asks in mid-sentence.

“Nothing, I’m listening.”

“No you’re not.”  He folds his arms and gives me a knowing look. “You’re thinking I’m dating her because she’s safe and she won’t go cold on me like Sara.”

I don’t want to show him how impressed I am. We spend the remaining half hour talking about this until finally the bell rings. I get up and start putting on my coat.

“Running off to the gym or to go home and read a book like the rest of the teachers?” He knows my interests aren’t that compartmentalized. It was just a few months ago that he had shown up to a downtown club where I was scheduled to perform. I noticed his stalking silhouette as I finished my set and unplugged my guitar.

Ignoring his comment I say, “C’mon, walk me to the attendance office so I can drop off my folder.”

“Can I have a hug before we leave here?” he asks. I eye him openly with suspicion. “You know you want to hug me.”

“Samuel, a hug could get me in trouble,” I say.

“I don’t get it,” he says. “You’re being paranoid.”

“No,” I say. “You don’t get it.” And I hug him.  His hair smells sweet with shampoo and some natural unidentifiable scent.

In the weeks that follow he shows up in the middle of my classes and sits in the back. I ignore him and continue teaching. The students are amused with his presence, especially when he raises his hand to answer a question. Sometimes he calls out answers and then adds, “Don’t be fooled into thinking she’s original; she taught my class the same lesson last year.” I smile and tell him to leave if he’s going to be disruptive. Everyone laughs.

The bell rings and, as the students file out, Samuel is walking ahead of me. Before I can help myself I find myself asking him where his next class is. He pauses at the door leading to the staircase.

“Metal shop. Why?”

“No reason,” I say. “I have a break and I thought you’d like to step out and have coffee with me.”

“Fuck it,” he says, “I don’t have to go to class.” His cheeks are flushed and he follows me out of the side entrance of the school. At the corner students are gathered in droves smoking cigarettes and laughing.

“Oh fuck,” he mutters. “My fucking girlfriend is here.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I say, “go hang out with her.” I walk to Dunkin’ Donuts feeling a strange sense of relief. Minutes later he walks in.

“I told her I had to go back to school with you because you were helping me with a project.”

“That’s your girlfriend!” I say. “Go back and hang out with her.”

“I don’t want to,” he says. “I’m breaking up with her on Sunday anyway.”

We head back to school and into the library.  I make him take out his notebook and a pen. “Why are we doing all this?” he asks. I see the librarian out of the corner of my eye. I look at him, his smooth, unblemished skin and his dark green eyes. Again, I can smell the shampoo off his skin.

“Samuel, you know it’s not normal for us to be hanging out,” I say. “This whole thing is fucking weird.”

I can’t tell if he’s being deliberately obtuse. “Okay,” he says, and his face is flushed again.

“From now on we meet once a week on Thursdays and that’s it. Don’t stop by my room during your lunch breaks anymore.”

He extends his hand. He’s wearing fingerless gloves. We shake on it.

“Okay,” I say. “Have a great break if I don’t see you.”

“You, too,” he says, pretending to sound formal and professional.

I am grateful there is a week of no school to help break this pattern between us.

 

**

 

The first day back is unusually taxing. The students have reverted to their usual malaise of laziness and apathy. In the hallway I see Samuel with several of his friends. He glances at me and quickly looks away as if he hasn’t seen me. I stare ahead and do the same. My lesson that day feels forced and dull, and the students’ listlessness doesn’t help matters. Again, I see Samuel in the hallway as the late bell rings and everyone is scrambling to get to class. My mouth is dry and I try not to show that I notice him. His backpack is slung over his shoulder, and although the halls are now empty his strides are long and casual. His eyes rest on me, and he nods politely and keeps walking. I can’t tell if this is feigned indifference.

On Thursday I am waiting in my classroom for him. He is ten minutes late. One of the several rules we have established is that he will call when he has to cancel or is running late. Finally I put my coat on and gather my belongings.

“Hey,” he says, walking in. “Sorry I’m late.”

“I’ve been waiting,” I say.

“I know. I said I’m sorry.” He sits in his usual seat and I take off my coat and sit behind my desk.

“How was your break?” I ask.

“Fine.” I strain to hear the faintest hint of warmth in his voice but there is none.

“Tell me what’s going on.”

“Well, I decided to stay with Susan,” he says sounding bored.

“Oh? Why the change of heart?”

“I like her,” he says.

“That’s good,” I say.

“Yup.”

“Samuel, are you in a bad mood?”

“No. Why.” His voice is flat.

“Do you not want to be here?”

He won’t look at me. He looks at the clock. “Not really, but I knew you were waiting.”

“Well, we don’t have to be here then.” I push my chair back and get up.

“Go then,” he says.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” I say, feeling the heat rise in my face as I reach the door.

“You’re being a dick,” he says back.

I walk out furious and know that he is still sitting in his seat. By the time I get to my car I am feeling light-headed and confused. When I wake up the next morning I toy with the idea of calling in sick. Calling in on Fridays can be tricky, but I do anyway. I don’t care. I spend the weekend watching TV and avoiding phone calls, determined to shake off the overwhelming feeling of not being in control.

When I return to work on Monday I walk through alternate hallways to get to my classes and by the end of the day I have successfully avoided bumping into Samuel. How long I’m supposed to continue this routine is beyond me. I’ll take it day by day until he blends in with every other student, until his face blurs in with the crowd. But on Monday when the last class lets out I hear my classroom door open as I’m erasing the blackboard. When I turn around Samuel is sitting in the back of the room, drumming his fingers on the desk.

“Where have you been?” he asks.

“Around,” I say.

“I looked for you when you left on Thursday,” he says, still drumming away.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I took the staircase but I guess you took the elevator.”

“Samuel, I have to go.” I take my bag and head to the door.

“Now who’s being a dick?” he says, and as I’m walking out he springs up from his desk and closes the door as I’m opening it. “Please don’t go,” he says. “Please don’t fucking go.”

“Samuel, someone is going to see,” I say.

“I don’t give a fuck.” He comes to closer and his face is an inch away from mine. “You are so fucking hot I can’t stand it.”

“I’m going,” I say.

“Don’t. Please.”

I back up against the wall and he slowly moves towards me. He presses his face into my hair and inhales slowly. “I’m not trying to be a dick,” he says, his breath warm. “This wasn’t my plan. I want you to believe me.”

I put my hands against his chest and press as hard as I can until he steps way. “I am a teacher. I’m not your teacher, but I am a teacher. I can’t do this. Aside from the ethical issue, you just turned seventeen! I’m thirty. Do you understand that I’m thirty and that you’re confusing the emotional loss of your mother with something sexual between you and I? Where do you possibly think this can go?”

“But I know you feel the same way,” he says.

“And that’s besides the point because it’s not important! I am walking out of here. Our meetings should stop. This is so so unhealthy for you! I can’t stand the idea that in years from now you will look back at this and remember me as some pedophile.”

“You could never be that,” he says.

“Please let me leave,” I say. What I want to do is reach to him and pull him towards me. I am queasy with desire.

“Okay,” he says and takes a step back. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I respect you. I do.”

“This is more my fault than yours, and you should know that.”

I think about his mother. How she had left without warning. “I’m not abandoning you, Samuel. I don’t want you to feel that way.”

“Okay,” he says and steps away from the door.

I can barely breathe as I leave the building and I force myself not to look behind me. I have fantasies of him inexplicably waiting for me at my car, and of course he isn’t there. I go home and the first thing I think to do is pour myself a glass of wine and rummage through my kitchen drawer for an old joint I’d forgotten about. In no time I am high and buzzed sitting on my bed playing the guitar.

I replay our conversation over and over, and wonder what parts I have invented and what I have forgotten. I think of my own mother and how much she hated me. I remember her combing my hair before school in the mornings yanking through every knot angrily.  I wonder if it’s worse to lose a mother who loves you or have one alive who hates you.

In the following weeks I am grateful for the monotony of my daily routine. Although the days repeat themselves and I move through them mechanically it lessens my anxiety. I can laugh with my colleagues during lunch without feeling the penetrating guilt that I had grown accustomed to. When Samuel sees me in the hallways he gives a quick wave and keeps walking. This is the ideal outcome. I can’t ask for better. By the spring semester I consider approaching him to see how he’s doing, but I feel my conscience nagging at me. Let him alone. It’s for the best.

One morning I see him on the soccer field playing with his friends. He notices me walking past the gates and runs over. He looks stronger and happy. I stop walking and wait for him.

“Hey!” he says and laces his fingers into the fence.

“Hey,” I say back and smile.

“You look fantastic. Christ,” he says, his faced flushed. “I haven’t seen you in a while. We should hang out soon.”

“Sure,” I say. “You let me know when.”

I am sickened, yet feel an uncontrollable giddiness. My mind is still racing as I begin my first class. By the end of the day I haven’t seen him and as I’m driving home, decide to put it out of my mind. I don’t have to necessarily blow him off. I can meet him for coffee after school at a local diner. I can make him take out his binder and an English textbook to leave out in plain view for everyone to see.

We’ll just catch up.

The next day I find a note in my mailbox at work. “Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow. Downtown Diner– 1st ave and 10th street? 1pm? – S.” I see him with his friends on my way to class and in the midst of their playful banter he sees me and nods. I give him a small smile. I just confirmed our lunch date. I think of his smooth skin, his tall, lanky stature. We are meeting in public on a Saturday. I think how we will look sitting across from one another – me with my jeans and Converse sneakers and black eyeliner, and him with his Mohawk standing up on end, his black arm warmers and torn jeans covered with markered drawings. I would look like his older sister.

I leave my sunglasses on when I get to the diner. After briefly scanning the place I don’t see him and the waitress seats me with a menu. I order coffee and take out a book. In seconds he is sitting across from me.

“Hey,” he says. “You can stop trying to be cool and take off your sunglasses now.”

He is the friend I wish I’d had in high school. He is the brother who teases me mercilessly. He is what I wish I could have been when I was his age. I envy him.

I want a mother who loves me.

We eat lunch and catch up. His classes are going well and he broke up with his last girlfriend months ago and isn’t seeing anyone right now. Although he is rambling on, intent on filling me in with everything we may have discussed during our sessions, I can sense there isn’t anyone else he’s shared this inventory with.

“How about you?”

I shrug my shoulders. “It’s going,” I say. “I have two shows lined up in the next couple of months, I love my classes – the bastards. They’re lazy but fun to teach.”

We walk out together and stop at the corner.

“So what now?” he asks.

“I’m on my way to meet a friend,” I tell him. It’s not true, of course.

“Busy, busy,” he says, teasing me.

“Well, you know how it is,” I say. I reach to hug him and he hugs me back. I don’t feel the same stirring as that afternoon in the classroom. I hug him tightly and he holds on, waiting for me to exhaust myself in this grip. I inhale the sweet shampoo smell, and suddenly let out a quick sob, but then catch myself. I pull away and wipe my eyes quickly.

“Thinks are good, right?” he asks. He looks slightly concerned, as if he’s the adult. It’s as if he knows everything, but I know he doesn’t.

“Yes, Samuel,” I say. “Things are good.”


AIDA ZILELIAN 

 

 

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