January 23, 2019KR OnlineFiction

Hunger

Tait sees the yellow smiley face on his T-shirt first, then the small pills in the gray knit.

“Mr. Marsh?” she says. When he looks down, a few stray bangs fall over his eyes, and he blows a thin stream of air up to push them back. He smiles, says softly, “Sure am.”

A small, quiet space grows up around them, and inside it, she feels warm and cared for.

Kids knock about in the background and push by to go in, but she does not notice them anymore. Only him. The crinkles in his eyes, the smell of spice on his skin, the way he looks at her like she’s the only thing on earth. Her cheeks burn, and she lowers her face so he won’t see. She points to the classroom to say this is where she’s meant to be.

“Of course,” he says. “Grab a seat anywhere.”

She sits by his heavy oak desk near the door. As the other kids file in, they avoid the seats around her as deliberately as they would a patch of air contaminated by strong BO or a fart. A black-and-white poster for Romeo and Juliet hangs near the chalkboard. In it, Juliet towers above Romeo from her balcony, and his arms rise to her as if in prayer.

When Mr. Marsh strolls in, she wills the other kids to shut up so she can hear him, but they won’t. He takes a piece of chalk and writes his name on the board.

“Mr. Marsh,” he says, then draws three sharp lines underneath. By the time he finishes the third line the class is silent. He smacks chalk off his hands, leans against the chalkboard.

“If there’s one thing you need to know about middle school, it’s that you’re going to have a lot of fun around here. At least in this room anyway.” He winks and smiles, and something about the way he stands with his hands in his jeans pocket and one foot pressed into the wall behind makes her believe him. There is something warm and mischievous about him, something in his elfin face that makes her want to watch him. He seems younger than he had up close at the door. He is fit and thin, his pale brown hair is cut with a deep side part and long bangs, just like half the boys in the school.

He asks what they read over the summer, and a dozen hands flap for attention. He takes turns with each volunteer, makes supportive comments on their selections, his face bright and animated, until there are no more students willing to share. She waits for him to mess it up, the way grown-ups always mess it up, with a belittling joke or some comment that cuts straight through the nerves. Then she can hate him and stuff him into a remote corner of her mind. But he doesn’t mess it up. Not then, not ever.

He pauses, waiting for any more takers. She lowers her face, and with her toe, pulls bits of lead, pencil shavings, and eraser debris into a small pile. Kids shift, slouch, and make eyes at each other. One student snorts, and another. Then a huge sigh comes from somewhere in the back. The same students who loved him only seconds ago turn on him one by one. So she raises her hand, just a little. He looks at her with that soft smile and soft eyes again. It takes a couple of tries to find her voice, but when she does it comes out surprisingly confident and clear. “Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and Frankenstein,” she says.

He cocks his head and says only, “Impressive.”

After the bell goes and she is in the doorway where he is saying good-bye to kids as they leave, he says quietly, “Hey, thanks for that.”

Her ears tingle, and she squeezes her books to her chest as she rushes out.

The next day she comes to school early and slips into her desk to read. He is not there yet, and her skin prickles with excitement. She enjoys the classroom’s calm and the white smell of chalk, but she has come to occupy the small, quiet space they built yesterday. He arrives ten minutes before the bell and says, “Oh, hi there.” He tilts his head like some question’s opened up inside of him.

“I hope you don’t mind.”

He pushes back his floppy bangs and says, “Of course not. Don’t let me disturb you.” He is the only teacher who wears jeans, and today he has on a faded black T-shirt with the Guns and Roses logo on it. The tweed jacket looks like a costume prop from the drama room. When he takes it off and hangs it on the back of his chair, he could be mistaken for a high school co-op student. She wonders if he is breaking the teacher dress code.

The next day, he’s already there when she arrives. He gestures toward the desks then returns to his papers. She’s brought Jane Eyre to show off. She has come hungry to be told she is the best, most special student. Exceptional, smart, talented above all others. When the bell rings he says, “Feel free to come by any time,” and a glow spreads inside her.

Each morning of the five sweet weeks that follow, she comes in early to sit. Her desk has a cubby to store textbooks and pencils, and she likes to rest her free right hand in the cool space. One day, her hand lands on a square cigarette pack of Nerds, but she leaves them, figuring they belong to another kid. Then the following day her hand lands on a paper bag. She pulls it out, and it has her name on it. A smiley face dots her “i.” Inside, there is a honey cruller. Mr. Marsh is still bent over his desk, as if she is not in the room. She pulls a piece of donut and eats it. Bits of sugar flake onto her fingers and the wood varnish. The doughnut is still soft, the air bubbles perfect for licking.

Mr. Marsh looks up and says, “You’re quite the reader.”

“This is really good. Thanks,” she says, and sucks sugar from her index finger.

He waves her off. “You’re reading Bronte already. Impressive. I haven’t known many seventh graders who’ve managed that.” He raises his eyebrows and smiles again.

She pulls another piece from the cruller and fills her mouth again.

In her other classes, Tait falls behind. They are boring and slow. The teachers’ expectations stupid and demeaning. But in English, when Mr. Marsh makes everybody else read a dumb Judy Blume book, he lets her read whatever she wants. The other kids fill in spelling worksheets, while she writes letters and stories. She describes the neighborhood, composes stories about girls who meet musicians and run away, about a happy family who turn out to be aliens. She returns most often to still-life descriptions because they make Mr. Marsh happiest. They make him nod and mouth the word, “yes,” and draw happy exclamation points in the margins.

Lunch times are his idea. A club is what he calls it. The strongest students gathered together to talk books and ideas. She shines to think of it. But, on the first day, nobody else shows up. She sits in her desk and eats her ham sandwich and Nature’s Harvest granola bar, and hopes to keep this time to themselves.

“They swore they were going to come,” he says, and shakes his head. He crosses his hands on his desk and veins pop in his forearms. A long line of muscle curves in the shape of a comma to his elbow.

She nods, suddenly feeling herself too scrawny and childish in her red turtleneck with the kitten picture on the front and her faded Keds with the hole in the toe. Stupid kid. Who does she think she is?

“How far have you gotten in Jane Eyre?”

“I’m at the part when she moves into Rochester’s place.”

“And? What do you think?” He tilts his head, and she can’t tell if he wants her to like it or hate it.

“I don’t know, I mean it’s a bit weird this guy asking her to be a governess for this random kid he has around the house, isn’t it?”

“Well spotted.” And again, that shine in her eye, that shine through her insides.

Nobody ever turns up for their lunch club, and later she will know he never asked anybody else to join.

The next time she comes at lunch, a quarter sits on her desk. She picks it up and turns it over. Double-sided.

“Cool, huh?”

She nods. “Where’d you get it?”

“Do you like it?”

“You always hear of these things but never see them.” She feels along the ridges for the seam and weighs it carefully in her hand, but it feels like a normal quarter. She flips it over and over again between her thumb and index finger.

He reads aloud to her and when the bell rings, she regrets it deeply.

That night, while watching TV, she presses the quarter into her belly and thighs to make small imprints of the queen’s profile and the ridged edge.

On the fifth week, when they have English last period, she lingers in his classroom afterward. The long brown drapes and windows are open, letting in one of those midautumn days when the orange leaves shine crisp against the blue sky. The desks have all been pushed against the walls for skits they performed earlier, and Tait stands in the middle, dawdling. She pretends she needs to adjust her shoe and crouches to play with the lace.

He says, “Your script today was excellent.”

She doesn’t say anything, just keeps her eye on the hole in the toe of her Keds. If she looks up, her heart will pound and her face will go red.

He scrapes back in the chair, shuts the door. He goes over to the window and looks out.

“Come here,” he says, and nods for her to stand with him.

It feels important to take in the ground at this moment, to notice her bitten fingers on her shoelace and the dust on the floor. To feel her breath grow thin. When she gets up and goes to him, he points to a maple across the road. “Purple leaves, they’re very rare,” he says.

And although she doubts him, knows she’s seen purple maple leaves before, she flushes the thought away. They stand side by side, and he edges closer to her. She tenses and her chest rattles, but she does not move. Instead she leans closer, only a millimeter, enough that she can feel him against her T-shirt’s sleeve. The heat from the back of his hand warms her forearm.

“The light today is so pretty,” she says, hoping to sound very mature. Even though her heart pounds so strongly she feels she might go blind, she wants to find out what will happen if she gets even closer.

She lifts her hand, points at how the sun shines through the maple branches and hopes he does not see her shake. When she lowers her arm, she slips her hand into his. She has to crook her elbow to reach. He squeezes her fingers, and she hears his breath catch. His palm is hot and strong around hers. She leans into him, as she used to with her mother when she was very young and craved shelter from the world. The warm line of his body makes her dizzy. If they could stay like this forever, it would be perfect.

She can see in the reflection of the window that he is smiling down at her. He squeezes her fingers, and she can tell that he wants her to look up, but if she does it will mean jumping from a cliff that has no bottom.

“I’ve got something for you,” he says after a while, and releases her hand. When he moves away, she feels chilly and exposed.

He pulls out two black packets with red bubble letters and a cascade of fireworks. “Pop Rocks,” he smiles, and hands her one.

He tears off the top and says, “One, two, three . . .” He throws his head back and dumps the neon crystals into his mouth. Then she does the same. Fake strawberry flavor shoots and pops in her mouth. Foam edges the corners of her lips, and her cheeks puff. Drool leaks from her without consent, and she tries to catch it, then gives up, and in a fit of joy opens her mouth wide to show him the fireworks. He grins and opens his mouth to show her, too. They look at each other, giggling, until the fireworks stop and she swallows the flavor. It has been months since she felt so silly and alive.

“Well,” he says, and looks her in the eye.

But she cannot hold his gaze because in those seconds when she does, it feels like the world will collapse into a jumble of kaleidoscopic light. Instead, she looks away and goes back to the room’s center to get her things. “I’ll see you Monday,” she says, and skips out the door, head low.

She rushes down the dark, empty hallway. The time spent in his classroom already seems unreal, like somebody else stayed behind in that room. But she knows it was her because she can still smell his spicy cologne on her skin and taste the candy strawberry in her mouth.

All weekend she thinks about his warm, strong fingers around hers. If she closes her eyes and holds her own hand, she can almost imitate it. She regrets not looking up at him when they stood in the window. Wonders what would have happened if she did. Maybe he would have pushed a piece of her hair behind her ear. Maybe he would have cupped her chin. And then she would have stood on tiptoes and closed her eyes to kiss him. Next time, she will look up. In bed, she places the quarter on her forehead and lies very still, focusing all her attention on how it feels against her skin.

When Tait arrives on Monday, he is not there. She goes to her desk and feels inside. It is empty and cool. No gift. She is nearly finished Jane Eyre and wants to know what has happened since the fire in the house. She props the book open and keeps her free hand inside the desk. She presses her stale peppermint gum against the back of her front teeth with her tongue to make a mold. As time passes, an uneasy feeling grows in her belly.

Ten minutes before the bell, the door opens, and there he is, shoulders slumped, his face with an unfamiliar look. With the door open now, she can see students knock and shove each other in the hallway. The air buzzes with them. Her heart leaps for him, but he does not look at her. He closes the door, goes to his desk, and does not say a word. It is as if she is not even there.

“Hey, Mr. Marsh,” she says. Everything in her stomach feels mixed up.

“Morning,” he says, but he still does not look at her. He tents his fingers, rests his chin on top and closes his eyes. She wants to go over, brush back his hair, draw a line with her finger across his forehead to smooth the creases and make him feel better. It is always her instinct to make adults feel better.

He lifts his head, but there is no smile in him. He does not really look at her but at some spot just above her head. “Listen,” he says, and she feels she is on the edge of that bottomless cliff again. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come around here anymore. Outside class, I mean.”

She wishes she could vanish on the spot. Poof, as if none of it had ever happened. “Oh,” she says, her voice inaudible.

“To be honest, I need the time for my own work. And you need time,” he pauses, and looks at her, finally. His eyes are rimmed with small crescent puffs. His skin is pale, nearly gray. The line of his mouth softens and becomes sad. He looks down at his hands again, “to focus on your other classes. Hang out with friends. Play with other kids.”

“But,” she says, and isn’t sure how to finish the sentence. If only he could know what he means to her, but she cannot find the words.

He bends down, opens a drawer, and makes a rustling sound, as if digging inside a bag. At first she hopes he is searching for a gift, that he will pop back up and say, “Just kidding!” But when he does not, she understands that she is meant to leave now, that he has moved on to something else.

She wants to run to the bathroom and press her forehead against the cool metal of the stall, but she does not want to seem like she is in a rush. She does not want to show she cares. She slides the book inside her bag and pulls the zipper closed. Students rumble outside, a body thuds against the door. Then laughter.

She remembers the sad line of his mouth, his puffy eyes, and all at once she understands: he does not want her to leave either. If she goes to him now, puts her hand on his back, tells him it is OK, she can handle it, that Friday was like a wonderful dream, maybe he will not send her away. She walks to his desk, places her palm on the wood, her back to the chaos outside. He is still bent, still searching. All she can see of him is his curved spine and a little patch of hairy skin where his shirt has lifted.

“Mr. Marsh,” she whispers.

He stops. His spine uncurls. For one second his eyes are wide. A look of love, she thinks, and the quiet warmth spreads inside her. But then his face hardens.

“You should go.” A muscle in his jaw pumps up and down, up and down.

“But,” she says, and again, cannot put her protest into words.

He rubs his eyebrow with his forefinger, then his face goes calm, as if he has finally figured something out. He says, “I am not a good man, Tait.”

“What?” She laughs because it is such an odd thing to say. The kind of confession she has never heard before, certainly not from an adult. And she laughs because he is the best man she knows. The only one who sees her, the only one who cares. “That’s crazy.”

“But it’s true.” He sighs, as if giving in to a deep fatigue.

She wants to tell him all of the good things he has done, remind him of the treats he’s given her, the conversations they’ve had, the praise he’s meted out, and about how all of the kids love him.

“Come here,” he says. She moves closer to him. He reaches up, touches some hair that has fallen over her brow, and holds it. He closes his eyes and inhales its scent like he is trying to memorize it. If she holds her breath, maybe he won’t stop. She feels herself on the precipice of something, ready to tip over. He tucks the hair behind her ear and smooths it down, just as she imagined he would.

Then, he does the most surprising thing of all: he puts his forehead to her breastbone. She flinches and blood rushes to her cheeks. But he doesn’t seem to notice. He puts his hand on her waist and grips her in a way that makes her legs buzz. He has gone somewhere subterranean, into a dark red cave that she cannot enter.

When he lifts his head, she thinks he might kiss her, but he does not. He keeps his eyes down. The look on his face is utterly changed and he seems, almost, disfigured. And she realizes why he is so sad. His hunger is greater, more carnivorous, than her own. It is not less. After a few moments, he pulls away.

“You should go,” he says again. “The bell’s going to ring.”

This time, she does. She opens the door, and there is hardly any room left in the hallway, it is so full of kids in frenetic motion, but she does not glance back at him, does not want to see if he is there looking at her, and instead joins the other kids, slips into the crowd, like a minnow.

And then, years later, in rushed, whispered stories, she will learn that she has not been the only one, though she has, perhaps, been the luckiest. But still, whenever she will think of him what returns is not horror or even relief, but the feeling—of her hand in his, the warm press of shoulder, the electric Pop Rocks flashing in her mouth. And though she will not have a name for it, she will know something of her has been lost, been swallowed.

Elaine van der Geld
Elaine van der Geld is currently pursuing an MFA through the University of British Columbia. Her work has been published in Off Our Backs and Trade: Queer Things and has been shortlisted for the EVENT creative nonfiction contest. “Hunger” is an excerpt from her novel in progress.