MS CAREY, TATJANA, HEY.
Seems like it’s been forever. I read your book The Low End Of High School and had to write you. Last time I saw you was tenth-grade English, when I was taking that class, kind of v/ regrettably, a second time. It was the last semester you or me either one was there. Remember, they started making you teachers wear dresses and us boys slacks instead of jeans and the girls had to wear those plaid skirts? Wasn’t that bad for the girls, looking like naughty little Catholics, but still. Guess I can say that to you now, right? You were only ever four years older than me. You’d gotten out of college and were teaching English and German, ready to make a difference. And then you were gone.
I remember that first day, sitting in those low, top-heavy desks that used to wreck my back, even then. You talked at us like we were little people, we weren’t used to it. I mean, the way you did it, like we were college kids, maybe even your friends. You told us these goals you had and the stuff we were going to read and how you really wanted us to make a connection, all of us—just like the character at the beginning of your book. Only you said it with a German accent. I didn’t recognize it at first. Everybody went on later about you being a Nazi, just meanness, but I had to listen hard before I finally caught the tinge in your words. Seems weird I had such a hard time hearing it. Always after I heard it whether I wanted to or not.
And you being German got us to wondering where you got that name, Carey. It wasn’t German, or at least we didn’t think so. When we finally figured out it was your husband’s name it came like a revelation. But it was a confusing one, too, as you had us call you Ms. Carey. And we never saw him or heard anything about him. Even your book now says you live alone in New York and teach college. What was he, a green-card stunt to get you set up here? I don’t mean it mean, just curious. I hear people doing those things all the time and it’s a hell of a lot better than other ways. But I’d hate if something awful happened to him between then and your dust jacket.
That’s why I had to write you, I guess. The book, Tatjana. Feels weird calling you that, even now that we’re the same sort of people getting old. I can’t be drafted, you’re getting too old for a baby. That’s the measuring stick, here. Probably not yours. I’d forgotten about you, English class, and then I see the name. It’s one I don’t forget, one I never meet another of, but I hear it and there you are in my brain with your Cleopatra haircut over monster eyebrows. If I met another Tatjana I wouldn’t believe she really existed. I picked up your book and read it.
And there you are, telling this story I sort of remember. I know an /-narrator isn’t always the writer, but that don’t mean it isn’t. I recognized you, saw you giving that speech the first day and fighting the principal over letting us read that pedophile book, the Russian guy. I marked you a mile off weaving through the hallways when you thought nobody was looking, beating your head against the lockers and whispering to yourself. Some of us saw that. Makes me kind of sad to find out it’s because you felt like you weren’t getting jackshit anywhere in life.
And then there I was. Only I was Melvin, now, Melvin Sanders, Mr. Whitebread USA your character called him. You talked about how a woman always knows when her ass is getting looked at, like some radar goes off soon as you spin around in that long, tight dress to write something on the board. Tubby little Melvin was watching, you could feel him. You’d turn and catch his eyes and ask a question, maybe give him a wink.
I knew you knew, though. You’d wrap your leg around the pole of your podium—you didn’t tell that part—and we got a kick out of it, how you’d tangle it up like you aimed to hump it. And I looked at your ass when the chance rolled around, sure, and I saw you every day when you came in not wearing a bra and stood right under the vent all day and let your nipples get stiff beneath your blouse with the cold air blowing down. You didn’t mention that, either. But I used to sit there and wonder, Good God good God, what if that woman’s reading my mind. I’ve wondered that over so many women I knew it’d turn out to be true eventually, with one of you.
There’s a lot you left out, especially about yourself. Maybe every guy in the room did want to pop their cherry with you, but don’t act like you weren’t encouraging it. You weren’t the poor, pitiful woman trying to hold up under the stress of horny teenage cocks. It was you dressing slutty and slinking around like you were just willing one of us to jump on top of you.
I thought it was me for a while. You told about you and me and the prom. The girl I was with, Kelly Hawthorn, holed up crying in the bathroom because she didn’t think I thought she was pretty enough. We were all the time doing that shit. She’d go crazy and I’d just be stuck. You’ll probably be surprised to hear that me and Kelly have been married nearly ten years now and have got three kids. They’re beautiful and they look like her. She’s a nurse. But that night it was on the other end of the long school hallway that you didn’t find Kelly crying, didn’t go do your comfort-girl routine. You found me and you said, Bitch of a night, right, and then slipped your arms around my shoulders, looked me in the eye and started dancing. I remember the slope of your waist under my palms, goddamn. How you pressed up against me in that sequiny nightgown. You moaned or groaned a little and we swayed to the music drifting from the gym.
Yeah, all that was in the book. But it wasn’t with poor old fat boring Melvin Sanders you spun around like a diamond over glass, it was some kid named Palmer McCourtney who I never fucking heard of in my life. Who was he, Tatjana? You took something else you gave me and gave it to him, too, something you gave all of us—that big speech the last day we were in your English class, reading Shakespeare before summer break. We were dicking around with yard sticks, slapping them together like swords and acting the last scene of Macbeth. You sat us down and said you loved us and you’d miss us and life was just too fucked up—your words, right in the classroom, like a blue strike of beautiful fucking lightning—life was just too fucked up for you or me or anyone else to expect things not to change. It’s like you recorded it all and stuck it straight into your book, put it in there but gave it all to this Palmer McCourtney.
I’ve been trying to figure him out for months now. Who were you fucking, which shithead classmate of mine was so special you took all the memories out of my head and gave them to him? You left me a fat failure of a kid repeating a grade and staring at your ass. You made out like you and McCourtney had something great, beyond the sexual desires of the pubescent, you say. Always, through the whole book, like you were above everything. Don’t you remember what else you said to me that night, that you didn’t say to Melvin Sanders or Palmer McCourtney either one at the prom? Kelly came out of the bathroom and down the long length of hall and you said, I quote you word for word on this, you said in your nasally German voice, You have no idea how much better I’d fuck you than she will. You ran your fingers down my arm and then Kelly was wrapping her arms around me, oblivious, and that was it.
I don’t remember anything about you that wasn’t somehow sex. It wasn’t a bad thing, maybe just confusing to figure out later. You were doing us a favor, bridging some gap between what we wanted and what we were talking about and what consumed us every waking moment. It just tears a hole into my head when you write this book and change the names but you make it exactly the same, minus a few wrong things that take away from how I remember. And you throw in Palmer McCourtney and I just don’t know. Who’d you give all of you and me to?
Not long after prom and that last day of Shakespeare I left high school for good and started working on my family’s farm. That didn’t make your book either, how my father was a drunk and Melvin Sanders had been drinking his freshman year and an eye had to be kept on the whole situation. It’s the genetics. But at any rate he let the place go to shit and I got it running again, making money and shining like a beacon atop the dead hill of youth. You said that about something else, you know. Maybe this is the sort of thing you could stick in another book, revisit Melvin and make me not so pathetic.
You were gone from the high school forever, then, too. I never heard where you went, but now you’re a writer, famous, an amazing person. On the cover you’re the same as always. It must all be better than teaching high school. I’m not pissed, but I keep looking for answers to shit I don’t understand. Right now I’m trying to remember things exactly, not just what happened in my mind but how everything really occurred, right there, independent of what you remember or I remember or what’s written down. Kelly sort of thinks I’m crazy. I told her most of this and she said it’s fiction, it’s just fiction, and sure enough it says that right on the spine of the book. But I want to hear it from you. Tell me, Tatjana. Tell me what I remember and what I don’t. Tell me who’s who. Explain it so everything comes together and sticks right and I’m me again.