Saturday, July 6, 2013

Project 18 (short story fiction)

Project 18. Not a secret sector where aliens were captured and vivisected, rather a course I took my senior year in high school. It was designed to empower my hippie generation to appropriately participate in the American dream by going to the polls. I learned words like gerrymandering and enfranchisement. The school board must have thought that by daily seating Mr. Grant’s class according to the first letter of their last name, we would be less likely to act as weekend anti-war-warriors. Democracy had little to fear from the crowd who, distracted by their search for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, most often missed the protest rallies. Besides, we all know, they eventually grew up to be upstanding-outstanding consumers.

I watched the rallies and the daily body counts on television and consciously chose to say no to grass-baked brownies. Most Saturdays, sprawled across my lavender bedspread, I said yes to romantic books like Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones which, like me, touted that a virgin trumped free love. Excitement was in the anticipation, not the act. And even though my long blond hair and my hip hugger bell-bottoms might have signaled I was a friend of the times, I wasn’t. I was a good girl, truly interested in learning more from Mr. Grant about the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative branch. Each was supposed to keep an eye on the other, according to the notes copied from the blackboard, maintaining our government’s balance of power. This was a few falls before Watergate and Mr. Grant went on about the democratic process with the passion of a true believer. I also learned from Mr. Grant that I possessed something that could make a married man want to leave his wife and two children to live happily in Canada-with me. Project 18 was the course that taught me I could exercise my powers and make a difference in the world.
Debbie sat behind me in class. She was, and still is, my best friend. Her last name was Winter and mine White. Together we were good for a joke. Debbie wore transparent peasant shirts that scooped low on her chest, accenting her full breasts and required only the slightest bend toward her toes to reveal two dimples on her lower back. Her red hair and her slow speech fueled my mother’s incessant concern that Debbie’s being on drugs was a dangerous influence on me. It was this kind of totally ridiculous observation that sparked a realization that my mother didn’t know, as I had once believed, everything. Debbie just had a thyroid problem. At least that’s how she explained why she always sounded so sleepy. I think it was because she was an artist who spoke fluidly with paint and haltingly with words.

Debbie’s paintings spoke with a sensuality that no words could describe. Not even the books I read across my bed came close to telling what it was like to live with an unquenchable persistent throbbing.  Mostly she painted portraits of the musicians who played at the coffeehouse, the Main Point, which was located on Lancaster Avenue, the street, that if followed, went to the sprawling homes of uptight lawyers and doctors. We waited tables, serving cheese and crackers and hot cider to the college kids with time on their hands and an occasional tip. I loved to watch Debbie walk right up to even the cutest not-yet-but-will-be-some-day famous musician, pushing her way through the circle of older girls acting as human pillows and blankets. With her slowed manner, in a way a guy could think was sexy, she’d say, “Hey, Jackson (Brown), good set. Pose for me. I’m gonna capture your essence.” Silently off to the side, I’d watch this guy swipe his hair over his brow to show part of an eye for Debbie’s camera, revealing his essence. She’d photograph him from every angle. And though acting like he didn’t care about anything, each guy, without exception, would sway and turn for her. Debbie never left without a hug and kiss and pat down from one of those long-limbed-my-lap-is-never-empty guys. And Debbie would just fold into his arms like she belonged. From the photographs she took, long after a tour left town, Debbie could squeeze the guy out of her colored tubes, mixing pigments together on her pallet and then on her stretched canvas until he was hanging on her wall.  The portrait would say, “I’m in love. She left me. I’m in pain. Look at my crotch. Sooth me, touch me.” I envied Debbie’s creative abilities with color, with paint and especially with men.

In our friendship Debbie was the creative uninhibited half of the brain. I was the opposite. Thinking and examining from afar were my trade. I imagined I was an ephemeral erudite on many subjects. I knew things. I just couldn’t act them out the same way they sounded in my head. Like with guys. I could imagine the scene where I’d be standing next to a tall guy with big hands. I knew I liked long fingers. Laughing and tossing my hair behind my shoulder, talking freely and cleverly, I’d be right up close. But when it came to life in the flesh I didn’t even know what to do with my hands. Put them in my pocket, on my hip? So, I watched Debbie. If she were the creative free side of the brain, I was the memorize-analyze side of the brain. Putting our two halves together made a fully developed brain. This union of half-sides is how things got started with Mr. Grant and me. 

“Elizabeth, don’t go quite yet. We need to talk.” He spoke with the tone he usually reserved for the kids talking through his lectures. I told Debbie I’d catch up with her later and stayed behind as Mr. Grant shut his classroom door.

“You’ve disappointed me, Elizabeth. I expected better from you.” I held my books across my chest. I was horrified. I had tried to please Mr. Grant. I listened in class as he moved across the room, up and down the aisles. I watched his suede shoes, that I later learned were his favorite, Hush Puppies,  sweep the speckled tiled floors. I saw how his short sleeve shirts left his forearms naked with his leather watchband tight around his wrist. His gold wedding band added to the solid look of his long fingers. His hair was cropped close to his head on the sides like he just got out of the army, but long across the top. He must have used a cream to keep it off his face. Pants, polyester, the fabric of teachers and salesmen, clung to his muscled form. I paid attention.

“I know you let Deborah Winter copy your answers on the test. Word for word.” 

Debbie copied my answers. What was the big deal? She let me watch her paint and I let her watch me write. That’s what friends do.

“Democracy demands honesty. You’ll need to make amends. I’ll keep this off your record. “ He offered me a pardon for my transgression if I did extra work that showed intent to grow as a full citizen in this country. I needed to appreciate the rights, responsibilities and as he emphasized privileges that had been afforded to me.

To that end, I was assigned The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and was to be prepared to discuss it the following Thursday after class.     

“Yes Mr. Grant.” Obediently, I went off to the library to find the book, never wondering why he hadn’t included Debbie in the punishment. Somehow, I, not she, had gotten caught. And I kept it a secret from Debbie and my mother. I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t a good girl.

“I am an invisible man….I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to posses a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The opening lines of the novel propelled me from reading across by bed to curling on the floor in the corner next to my white plastic lamp stand each night, imbibing 583 pages, until my mother yelled, “Go to bed already.” Before drifting off to sleep, clearly, I could see the invisible man searching for his place in a world revolving with certainty on its axis. He stood outside the circle where everyone was holding hands, whirling in circle dance. No one dropped a hand and let the invisible man in.  Life and literature were one. Of this analysis I was sure.

With an excitement of discovery that could only be compared to that first person who rubbed two sticks together to make fire, I came the following Thursday ready to discuss the book. My hair was freshly washed, as it daily was, tied back with a navy ribbon. I wore a plaid suit. Corduroy red with blue and yellow lines with a belt tightly pulled around my waist, tailored and sleek. At least as sleek as big plaid can be. Fashionable, prepared and energetic, a style I have maintained to this day.

Mr. Grant sat, at first, behind his desk as I told him all I had learned. He listened. Ok I hadn’t thought about the social justice aspect of the book. I hadn’t realized there was commentary on communism’s threat to the purity of democracy. But that didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Grant. He moved to sit on the edge of his desk and listen intently to my commentary, to my analysis that we are all invisible, searching to find our place.

With confidence I quoted the book, “As Ellison wrote, Mr. Grant, ‘If you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are.’” I’m not sure if I got the quote exactly right, but it was close enough for Mr. Grant to compliment my “deep and insightful insights on such complexity.” He was so impressed with my abilities that, not as a punishment, but rather as a reward, he assigned me another book for us to discuss the following week. I don’t remember the book. But I do remember that for weeks, many weeks after, I had a private weekly meeting with Mr. Grant discussing the works of great philosophers and authors. I had something to say and Mr. Grant wanted to hear it. I moved with ease in the world of ideas and he moved with me. He pushed and I pushed back. There was rhythm to our discourse of listening and talking. Awakening new possibilities built on what the other had said. He was a great teacher.

For the next few months, after sets at the Main Point, instead of watching Debbie flirt unconscionably with musicians who she didn’t even know and who didn’t really care about her, I read. I found myself lost in a world of ideas that needed sorting by myself and then in partnership with Mr. Grant, days pressed into weeks without notice.

It was still winter, dirty snow refusing to leave, cars skidding on the remnant ice, when I came to Mr. Grant’s room, at the end of the cinderblock hallway, and he said, “Elizabeth, I’m sorry I can’t discuss the Cicero after school today. I’m coaching baseball. Season starts early.” I felt so rejected until he went on to explain that practice would be over passed dinnertime. He’d be staying at his parent’s house a few blocks from the school, because it would be too late for him to drive the hour home.  He asked if I’d do him a favor, and take the ten-dollar bill to buy a ham and cheese hoagie and a coke and drop it at his parents’. They’d be out. I could find a key under the mat.

Honored, flattered and excited. He asked me. I’d be so happy to do that and it was easy enough to borrow the car and tell my mom I was going to Debbie’s. “Debbie, I’m going to the library to study tonight so I won’t be home.” Debbie called me on it at first, knowing I never went to the library.  Not suspecting that I’d be doing anything I shouldn’t, she said, “Ok I’ll see you tomorrow.” I was safe.

Ham and cheese became turkey and Swiss, and then roast beef with mustard. Baseball season continued. The night of salami on rye, no pickle just lettuce, Mr. Grant came to the house before I had a chance to put the key back under the mat.
“Elizabeth I didn’t expect you’d still be here.” I had stayed longer that night, risking walking through the dark empty house to see Mr. Grant’s childhood home. As the thinking detective, I wanted to understand how his crisp mind and tender personality had developed. His parents were in Florida until the summer and it seemed he was doing them a favor by staying a few nights a week. It must have been fine with his wife too. The house smelled like old people. Dark woods, covered with doilies, were dotted with china dolls. A fireplace in the living room had pictures for Mr. Grant as a young boy. Flannel shirts and cowboy boots. There was one picture of his wife and his two children. Plain, I remember thinking brown, no smiles. He was so much better looking than his wife. He was interesting and intellectual. He was funny. Mr. Grant had a quote or a story or joke for everything he taught. That reminds me, he’d say, and go on about something that had happened to him. Like the time he and his friend were in a subway, looked at a gang of kids the wrong way. They were chased for blocks until they ducked into a church. He was forced to make confession to save his life. His wife didn’t look like she had many stories to tell. He later told me his wife’s story. Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to their door. She let them in to their house and to their lives. While Bible-belting their children, she forced him to sleep on the sofa until he too found the Lord. He must have been staying in his old room at his parents’. The smell was different in there, more like spicy cologne. A cowboy hat hung over the bed. I ran down the steps as fast as I could, when I heard a door open. I was where I didn’t belong.

“I’m glad you’re here. Stay with me while I eat? We can talk about Cicero if you want.”

I kept my coat on and followed him to the kitchen. The house was cold even though spring would soon be starting. He thanked me for the food and said he was too tired to eat. I accepted the coke he split between two glasses. 

“Can you stay a little? I can light a fire. I see you’re cold.”

Damn, I was shivering.

Before I had time to speak, he opened the screen to the fireplace. I watched him roll up some newspaper, making a kind of log. “Learned to do this when I was a boy scout. Did a stint in the army. Did you know I was in the FBI too?”

“No,” managed to leave my chattering lip while he did the things a man does when he makes a fire. Poking. Piling. Stirring. Rolling. Igniting.

“I don’t talk about it much. But I was. For four years before I became a teacher. My partner got shot. A bullet right in the head. I was sitting next to him. It could have been me. The bastard chose him. It should have been me. It was my idea to park the damn car on the southeast corner, waiting for that asshole, not worth dirt on my shoe, to come out. We should have been at the northwest corner. Just where Joe said we should have been. You know I had to tell Joe’s wife he was dead. Well, that’s when my wife made me leave. That’s how I came to teaching.” He turned to see that my shiver had multiplied to a shake.

“Elizabeth I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you with those details.”

He rose to gently bring me to the floor close to the fire. It didn’t help the uncontrollable things my body was doing. As if it were natural, as if it were expected, he put his arm around me to settle down. Without any thoughts that he was married, or that I could be getting myself in to a situation I couldn’t get out of, without any thoughts at all, I leaned in against him smelling the spices on his chest.

Memory doesn’t provide me the details of the transitional moment when I went from being a dutiful student addressing Mr. Grant, to being   malleable flesh in Paul’s embrace.  But, as if it happened yesterday, I can see him pulling slightly away from me.  Looking into my eyes and saying, “When you stand next to my desk, talking passionately about truth and justice, all I want to do is reach my hand up and pull the ribbon from your hair. I want to see your hair fall loose.” And he pulled my ribbon so that my hair fell loose.

“You are beautiful.” No one beside my mother had ever said that to me. I was still shaking, wishing he couldn’t see it. I was willing to continue because I wasn’t watching from the sides. I was there seeing the chapter unfold. Not like the romance books and not like the books of great ideas. This was real. I was beautiful and excited and willing. “You tilt your head and listen to my ever word as if it matters.  You laugh in a way that I truly believe you find my story funny. You take what I say and you build it and mold it until it something I never thought of. You make me feel responsible for that. And all I want to do is kiss you for making me feel worthwhile again.”

And he did. He kissed me. Not my first, but my first from someone who had whiskers.

“Elizabeth, you are trembling. Tell me to stop if you want.” I shook my head.

He took me by the hand and led me up the steps of his childhood house, past his parents’ bedroom, past his bedroom to the bathroom. He leaned me against the door and turned the water on in the tub. I could see the steam coming from the faucet.

He unbuttoned his shirt. “Like being in our bathing suits, that’s all.” I knew he respected the laws of the land. He unbuttoned my coat and hung it on a hanger on a hook on the back door. I watched my jeans fall to the pink tile floor. He picked them up and folded them neatly resting them on top of his clothes. He left me in my underwear. He stayed in his too.

Paul put his hand on my hips. “I see them every day through your jeans. They’re wide. You’ll have no problem making babies.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t seem necessary at the time. My underwear was like a little girl’s panties, white with tiny little flowers. Thank goodness, I thought to myself, I was wearing hipsters, not the ones that go up to the belly button. My bra was white and Playtex, but it could have been silk and lace the way Mr. Grant, I mean Paul, looked at me. He led me in to the tub, turning off all the lights except a small night light plugged in by the mirror.

“I won’t touch you, Elizabeth. I won’t hurt you, I promise. I just want to be with you.” We sat in the hot water, his back at one end, and mine at the other. It was hot. I wasn’t shaking.

Of course our legs rubbed up against each other, it was unavoidable in such a small space, but he upheld the vows and the morals that were his foundation.

Through baseball season, I continued to bring him sandwiches. When we could both manage to hide away, we’d meet me at the house. My mother suspected I was up to something and interrogated me each time I wanted the car. She didn’t know everything, but she was a mother, and knew more than I wanted her to. She scared the hell out of me when she said, “I think you’re stepping into hot water.” It didn’t feel safe anymore to meet after school in his classroom. Teachers or kids might figure things out, he had said. The book list stopped. Instead, late at night, I’d pull the phone in my room to talk under my blanket. He’d call and we’d spend two or three hours talking about all kinds of things. When we’d meet, we never went past the fireplace again. We’d lie on the floor, cuddle and kiss with our clothes on. He’d hold my hips with his long fingers firmly moving them back and forth. Now I think that was the furthest line he felt he could cross and still hold on to what he thought was right.

 Before the baseball playoffs, before finals, I told Mr. Grant, on one of our long phone conversations, that I’d been accepted to Cornell University. I was accepted for the summer semester. “You won’t be going, will you?”  he asked.

“Of course I’m going.”

“I’ve got another thought. Meet me at the house tomorrow at seven.”

It was to be our last meeting. Mr. Grant was willing to leave his job, his wife and his two children for me. “We’ll go to Canada. I won’t have any trouble getting a job. I’ll take care of you and we can be together. We can leave all the messes behind. You and me with no other responsibilities.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. What messes? What responsibilities? We were great together, this was more exciting than I thought was possible, but I wanted to go to college. I wanted to learn.  I wanted to date.

We met at the house. He had never screamed at me before. I saw the soldier and the FBI agent in him as he reprimanded me for my infringement on his life. “I’m willing to leave my wife and you’re telling me you want to date?  You sound like a child.” He must have heard his own words. The case was closed. After that we agreed I wouldn’t come to class, he’d mark me present, and pass me with a good grade. I told Debbie I was doing an independent research project and with the B’s she had gotten the other semesters, it wasn’t important if she failed this one. Her final grade would be fine. She believed me. The rest of the kids could have cared less if I were in or out of class. Project 18 was over. I had turned eighteen the month before.

Today, at the age of fifty I’ve gone farther down the road than I had hoped. I live in Bryn Mawr, off of Lancaster Avenue, past the Main Point Coffee House, in one of the sprawling houses for uptight lawyers. The Main Point, after being closed for two decades, has been resurrected. Coffee is served, with creative elaboration of taste and cost that no one would have thought possible in the old days. Young unknowns sing about love and loss, pain and yearning. Sometimes, as I drive by, I wonder who is standing in the corner watching the musicians as they corral girls who are willing and able into their arms. I’ve earned my way down the Avenue by becoming a lawyer. I’m not a corporate lawyer. Rather I go after the big companies who pollute. My firm, and I do mean my firm, is going up against an oil company whose central office is farther down Lancaster Avenue.

Once in a while, like today, when my husband is out of town, and I’m sitting in a very hot tub with a candle burning, rubbing my thighs with bath oil, I think of Mr. Grant. I hope he is still alive, being visited by his grandchildren. In my mind, he was able to go back to his wife, knowing he needed to be true to his ideals. He needed to be with a woman. If he let her know that, I think she would have taken him back to their bed. I imagine he wears, like I do, a badge of honor for the enrichment gained by the daring things done in the seventies. The depth of understanding we got far outweighed the risks. Debbie was proud of me too. She says it was the first smart thing I had ever done in my life and it was a damn shame I didn’t sleep with him. The story would have been a lot better. I don’t know about that.

No longer is my hair tied back by a ribbon. But, it feels like that. With a blow dryer, I shape my shoulder-length blond hair away from face so it has a form. I leave it soft enough so that it holds a promise of letting loose. My form is fuller now, but the hips that Mr. Grant admired did bear me a daughter, and continue to give off, despite my age, a signal of womanhood that sets most men just a little off their mark. Across a table at a meeting, I can hold my own with the best of male lawyers. Torte to torte, I’m an equal. But I have an advantage in the room that they can’t name. I still cock my head ever so slightly, give a small and interested laugh, and nod at intervals that say I’m unwaveringly engaged. Genuinely, I generate excitement about discovering a new solution for the sake of a better democracy resulting from a joining of ideas. “Yes, Yes, that’s it. And if we add this or that, together we’ve solved it. You’re amazing.” I have perfected intellectual copulation. Men find it stimulating too. Never wearing anything other than fashionably tailored suits, never actually touching a peer or an opponent, I work within a guise of professionalism that no one can question. I learned a lot in Project 18. When I exercise my powers, I do make a difference in the world.                   © cydbweissman 2013