The English Teacher
By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
THAT SHE HAD NOT KILLED HIM IN HER SLEEP WAS STILL THE GREAT RELIEF
of every morning
Not that she actually believed he was dead when he slept in
on a Saturday. It was merely a leftover ritual, the weak ghost of an
old fear from years ago when she awoke and waited, barely breathing,
as close to prayer as she had ever got in her life, for a single
sound of him: a little sigh, or the scrape of his feetie pajamas across
the floor. He'd scuffle into her room still warm and puffy and half
asleep, and the piercing relief of him collided with the horror
of possessing such a fear and the dread of its return the next
Now here he was at quarter of eleven, finally, his boots whacking
the stairs, missing steps, his shirt unbuttoned but with an undershirt
beneath (she didn't know what grew on his chest now and
didn't want to). He shook out half a box of cereal and ate it in a few
loud smacks at the other end of the table. Still, what sweetness
flooded beneath her skin! She did not, could not, let him see it, and
instead told him to remember to close his mouth please.
His back to her, carrying the empty bowl to the sink, he said
he was going over to Jason's. To take apart a television.
She watched him cross the soccer fields diagonally-no home
games today, thank God-and disappear down the path to Jason's
house. All the delicious, fleeting relief of him went, too.
She returned to the mounds of essays in front of her. Within a
few hours she reached the bottom of the freshman papers and moved
on to the juniors'. Peter didn't come home for lunch, so she forgot
Vida began to contemplate canceling her plans for the evening.
Tom would want to touch her again, scrape his mustache against her
neck. Her armpits grew slippery. The telephone on the wall urged
her on-a virus, a migraine. A quick call and it could all be over, the
sweating, the rancid taste, and the sensation that she was no longer
inside her body but beside it. And yet it was this disassociation that
immobilized her, prevented her from getting up from her grading and
walking the five paces to the phone. Instead she continued to watch
the pen in her hand make small thick checkmarks beside the strong
passages, and larger aggressive comments beside the weak, and then,
below the last line of each essay, deposit a grade. She always graded
more harshly in the afternoon before an evening with Tom Belou.
Peter answered the door. When had he come home? She hadn't
heard the doorbell. It would be Lloyd or Wendell, the custodians,
looking for an extra hand to move some chairs from one wing to
another. But then there was a strange swishing in the hallway, coming
at her, and Tom himself appeared in her kitchen. He was wearing
a parka. She'd never seen him in any sort of coat. The temperature
had dropped twenty degrees since last weekend. It was beige, with
a belt he let dangle at the sides.
"You off to climb Everest?" she said, feeling trapped in her seat
at the table. She didn't go to great lengths primping before she saw
him, but she did brush her hair and her teeth and change out of her
old slippers with the stuffing bulging out. Until this moment their
encounters had been quite formal, with precise beginnings and ends,
no sleepovers, no weekends away. Neither had ever dropped in on
the other like this; their children had never met. Their touching was
tentative, nearly absentminded, though her memory of it was acute,
a confusing ache of pleasure and shame. No intercourse. Miraculously,
they were in silent agreement about that.
Her dog Walt nudged Tom's hand with the long bridge of his
nose, but Tom didn't respond as he usually did. He just stood there
in the doorway, his eyes flicking over her impatiently. He was going
to break it off. It couldn't have been clearer to her. This was just the
way he would do it, in person, in a parka, perhaps after a trip to the
dump. He needn't bother. It was hardly anything to her. She had
enjoyed his company, his lack of demands on her, but that couldn't
have lasted much longer.
"I'm sorry," he said, pointing to the sea of essays, "I know I'm
interrupting." His hands were red from the cold.
Let's just get it over with, she thought, anger and humiliation
prickling her throat. Her mind felt calm, detached, but her heart
had another engine altogether and thudded painfully.
"I just had this ... I was planning to ... but it just made me so
crazy, all the ..." He walked the length of the kitchen, away from
her, the bulky parka sleeves squealing as his arms flailed about. She
wondered if he'd stitched it himself, this awful coat.
She wished she'd never said she loved him. She was just being
polite, returning the compliment late one evening. But now it turned
out he'd been mistaken. Of course it had been too soon. His wife
had only been dead a short while. She wished he'd just spit it out
and go home.
He reached the far counter, spun around, and with three long
strides he was there before her, hovering over her and her work.
He smelled of something familiar. Maple syrup, maybe. His eyes
finally settled on hers. "I love you, Vida. I do. But it's not enough
for me. It's not enough to simply love you. I wish for everyone's
sake it were but it's not. I want to marry you." A laugh or a sob,
Vida couldn't tell which, pushed its way out of his chest. "I want
to marry you."
Out of the parka came a ring, no box, that clinked as it landed
in her teacup. "Damn," he said, fishing it out with thick shaking
fingers. "I'm sure you've had better proposals than this. I'm just not
It was, in fact, her first proposal. Another woman, a better
woman, might have confessed this. She never would. She had let
him believe, along with everyone else up here, that she'd been married
to Peter's father.
The ring hovered now, too, caught in the tips of his fingers.
Suddenly she understood the true role of the ring. It forced, as T. S.
Eliot would say, the moment to its crisis. Without it, a proposal was
just a question, a query, and the response could be the beginning
of a conversation that might last weeks, or years. But the ring demanded
the final answer within a few seconds. You either reached
up and took it, or you kept your hand on top of Hank Fish's essay
on Emerson. And once you took it, you'd have an awkward time of
giving it back. But to not take the ring, to leave it untouched, to
watch it go back into the parka pocket, the proposal marked with a
fat F-who could deliver that blow? She heard Peter upstairs, crossing
the landing to the bathroom. She'd always imagined these moments
filled with ecstatic conviction, but this moment was about
ending the embarrassment, stopping the shallow breaths through
Tom's nostrils and the little laugh-sobs he was trying to suppress. It
was about Peter upstairs and her terror of the mornings and all the
years they'd been alone together in this house.
Whether she spoke or simply nodded she'd never know. All
she knew was that the ring, several sizes too big, was slipped on her
finger and Tom was kissing her, then burying his face in her hair,
then kissing her again. Everything felt rubbery. She had the sense,
despite his enthusiasm, that it wasn't really happening this way, that
they were rehearsing, hypothesizing, and that the real moment
would happen later, would happen differently.
Tom called up to Peter, who launched himself down the stairs
immediately, his lack of athleticism embarrassing to her in Tom's
presence. His face was bright red. He already knew. Even before Tom
made the announcement, clutching her at the shoulders, she saw
that Peter already knew.
"I am so psyched," he said, pumping Tom's hand, then raising
both fists in the air as if it were the successful end of a soccer game.
"Congrats, Mom," he said to her and pecked her on the cheek. There
was a bit of a bristle to his chin. "This has been a long time coming."
He was beaming at her, though he barely knew Tom. A handful
of hellos at the door, that was all.
They celebrated with cookies and cider. She filled the glasses,
passed the plate, but still she was somewhere apart from her body,
and this moment was somehow apart from the rest of her life. Again
and again she felt they were practicing, all three of them, and each
time she smiled at Tom or Peter, she felt they were acknowledging
She walked Tom out to his car. She hoped that this would serve
as their date, that she could have the rest of the evening to herself
to finish her work. But he hugged her again and said he'd pick her
up at seven.
He got into his car, then leapt out. "I almost forgot." He reached
into the backseat. "A little engagement present."
It was a blue box with his insignia on it, Belou Clothiers. He had
been that certain she'd say yes.
"When I was a very little boy," he said, leaning against the car
and pulling her toward him in a gesture of familiarity that was probably
familiar only to his wife in the grave, "my grandfather made a
dress for a customer, a very simple dress. A few weeks later a friend
of hers came in the shop and ordered the exact same dress. She said
her friend had told her it was a magic dress. After that he got another
request, and another. My grandfather must have made twenty-five
of those dresses. I forgot all about them and then when I saw
you I remembered. I remembered the dress exactly, right down to
the pearl buttons. I don't know why."
She lifted off the top. It was yellow, a color she never wore. She
was relieved that it was a summer dress with tiny capped sleeves: it
would be at least eight months before she'd be expected to wear it.
"It's lovely," she said, holding it up to herself. Dear God, what
had she done?
"It's magic." He kissed her again. The kisses were different
Tom the Tailor made me a dress, she imagined telling Carol,
though she knew she wouldn't.
She watched his car turn off her gravel road and onto the paved
school avenue, which carried him past the mansion and all its new
limbs, then the tennis bubble, then the hockey rink, in a long arc
before finally setting him back on the main road. She would have
to leave this campus, this haven of fifteen years, if she actually married
"Aren't you freezing?" Peter called to her from the front door.
There was a thrill, a wildness, in his voice she'd never heard before.
She opened the trunk of her car and tossed the box in. What's
in the box, he'd ask when she got a little closer. He was going to
have so many questions this afternoon. She stopped on the path to
the house and lit a cigarette to buy herself some more time.
AT HIS MOTHER'S WEDDING, PETER DANCED WITH HIS NEW STEPSISTER
Fran, whose attention had slid over the top of his head at the beginning
of the song. She wasn't focused on anything in particular, which
made her lack of interest in him all the more apparent. But he was
simply happy to be dancing with her. He might never again have the
opportunity to dance with someone so thoroughly out of his league.
This marriage was exactly what Peter had wanted and now it was
here, all around him, written on balloons tied to chairs and on the
inside of the gold band his mother now wore-the first piece of jewelry
he'd ever seen on her. It had all happened so fast, and he was still
dizzy with his own good luck. There was something creepy to people
about a boy living alone with his mother for his whole life-fifteen
and a half years. He'd been embarrassed by it. And now that long
chapter was finally over. Tonight they'd go home to a regular house
on a regular street, husband and wife in the master bedroom and four
kids sprinkled in rooms down a hallway.
The song was coming to an end. He hoped its last notes would
bleed into the beginning of the next. But there was a pause as the
lead singer, his math teacher, Mr. Crowse, took a swig of beer, and
Fran wavered like a leaf in the silence, poised to catch the first wind
away from him. He had to secure her in place, and his mind spun
in search of the words. After they had lived together for a few weeks,
he'd probably have a ton of things to say, but now they were strangers.
He'd already complimented her bridesmaid's dress, as well as her
poem the night before. He could make fun of the band, the
Logarithmics, which was made up of the very geekiest teachers at
Fayer Academy, but he wanted to say something big, something that
would intrigue her.
"My mother wanted to marry your father from the moment they
met." His mother wouldn't like him saying that. He knew it wasn't
"I could tell," Fran said, scrutinizing them, his mother and her
father, who stood holding hands and not letting go as the music
started up again. It was "Beast of Burden" and they played it much
slower than usual, Mr. Crowse practically whispering into his mike
with his eyes shut and sweat streaming over his lids. Peter and Fran
watched their parents step closer, her father tucking his mother's
fingers tight in the dip between his shoulder and collarbone.
Fran turned back abruptly to him. "Shall we dance?" she said
in a foreign accent.
At school dances, he headed straight for the bathroom whenever
he heard the first languid notes of a song like this. Even a slow
dance with Fran did not overpower the urge to holt. But she'd already
looped her arms loosely around his neck, so he placed a hand on either
side of her waist. She was a year older but no taller. The fabric of
her dress was so thin he could feel the narrow band of her underwear
and the heat of her skin where there was no underwear at all. Peter
tried to keep all the facts straight in his head: this was his first slow
dance and his first contact with the underclothes of a girl; yet this
was his mother's wedding and this was his stepsister. He felt there
was some secret to this kind of dancing that he hadn't been let in on.
Quickly his hands made damp nervous spots on Fran's dress.
Halfway through the song Fran's head, which had been cocked
and swiveling in every direction away from him, plummeted to his
shoulder. Her eyelashes flickered on his long neck.
"Does your mother dye her hair?" she whispered.
Peter opened his eyes to see his mother floating by. Her hair
was longer than most mothers'. Usually she wore it pinned at the
back with the same tortoiseshell clip but today it was down, her dark
red curls draped over Tom's arm like a flag.
"No," he said, though he sensed another lie would have pleased
her more. "She doesn't."
At the end of the song, Peter peeled his palms from Fran's dress.
Before he could decide what to say, her father tapped her on the
shoulder and gave a little bow as she turned to him. She put her
arms out like a professional, the way she had when she'd said to
Peter, Shall we dance? But this time her face looked like it had been
plugged in. No girl had ever looked at him like that.
Instead of completing the swap, his mother whispered that she
had to go to the john, and left him on the dance floor alone. He
watched, for a short while, her tall figure try to push through to the
stairs on the other side of the room. Every few feet she was stopped
by people wanting to congratulate her. They mashed their laces
against hers, pawed at her dress, spoke loudly into her ear, and all
the while his mother kept imperceptibly moving on. If he held his
breath, she would look back at him. But she didn't. She reached
the stairs, kept her eyes forward, and disappeared beneath the floor.
He took a seat at a table with some children he didn't recognize
and their babysitter. The children were tying her wrists together
with the strings of balloons and none of them noticed when he sat
down. He swung his chair toward the dancers and sipped on a flat
Coke someone had left behind. He felt suddenly grown-up, beside
but apart front the screeches of the little boys, his right ankle on his
left knee which made a box of his legs, the way most of his male
teachers sat during assemblies. The babysitter was pretty and probably
thought he'd come over to try and talk to her so he was careful
to ignore her. All three of his stepsiblings were out dancing now:
Fran, with her father, still shining like a star; Stuart, the oldest, old
enough to be in college but for some reason wasn't, glumly twitching
with a fat cousin of theirs; and little Caleb up on the shoulders
of Dr. Gibb, who had been Mrs. Belou's oncologist. She had only
been dead a couple of years and now his mother was Mrs. Belou.
Excerpted from The English Teacher
by Lily King
Copyright © 2005 by Lily King.
Excerpted by permission.
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