He’s the only other person you know who loves David Bowie. Not like your friends tolerate David Bowie for your sake or how your mom only knows the radio hits. He knows all the albums you talk about, every deep cut. “Modern Love” is his favorite Bowie song (killer drums, he says right before the first verse kicks in), so on days when there’s a test in his class you listen to it while you dress for school. It reminds you not to hate him, no matter how difficult he makes the questions. There’s power in the not-hating.
And when your step-dad slams your step-brother’s body against the side of the family van, he listens. And when your mom gets knocked up, he listens. He listens during lunch and after school and on his planning period (he won’t rat you out for ditching history to visit him). You sit together on the tables of his empty classroom, your leather platform boots kicking the toes of his Payless loafers.
He lets you steal his CDs – not just Bowie but The Police and Peter Gabriel and The Who – and brings you DVDs from home. He tells you what to love about everything, and you repeat his opinions back to him like a clever parakeet.
He compliments the haircut your friends say is butch. He tells you your singing voice is beautiful when you practice “Kashmir” for the talent show. When the bell rings, he stops you in the doorway of his classroom to finger the sleeve of your new satin blouse and whisper his approval.
He signs emails with Love and his first name.
He smells rotten. It’s nothing you’d notice if he weren’t hovering over your desk to murmur an inside joke, but he hovers so much. Sometimes you catch yourself putting distance between the two of you, avoiding the radius of that stench. You’re never quite sure where on his body it’s coming from, but it’s bad enough to keep you from doing something stupid.
Not that you want to do something stupid, although at seventeen you’re aching for some wildness that could set you apart from the Christian girls in Abercrombie. The joke, of course, is all those girls are getting laid while you’ve wasted two years pining for a boy who doesn’t want you and a girl who can’t want you. Nobody will ever want you. There will only ever be him with his stink and his weak chin and the swirls of back hair peeking through his cheap white dress shirt.
You don’t want him. There’s power in the not-wanting. You wrest his desire from his own hands to wield against him. You mock it with friends who call you a cock tease, and even then you say things like What if I’m not teasing? then cackle when they shriek Who would ever fuck him?
Certainly not you.
Though if you did, you wouldn’t be the first. When you were a sophomore, all the seniors told you a soccer player sucked his dick for a college recommendation letter.
But that might not be true.
And anyway, you wouldn’t. Not that he was asking (the smart ones never ask, you’ll learn from some feminist blog when you’re twenty-two).
He talks a lot about giving up teaching to become a doctor. Some days he means it, and on those days, you come home and cry.
You wish he were your step-dad, real dad, foster dad. He’s barely old enough to be any of those things.
And he’s too old to marry. Isn’t he? You sometimes imagine it anyway, more thought experiment than wish. It would mean living with his mother, but she would die eventually. It would mean never leaving your hometown. It would mean a partner with a steady job and a music collection you didn’t hate. You could do worse than that. Your mother did worse than that.
But there’s the stink of him to consider (maybe it’s halitosis, you and your friends posit, maybe it’s a glandular thing). You think of curdled milk and mummy wrappings. You couldn’t endure it for very long.
Then one day you’re in a crowded room somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, watching a robot from North Carolina battle the robot your classmates built, and suddenly the stink is everywhere. It stings your nose, trickles sour down the back of your tongue, clogs your pores. It settles on your hair and clothes like smoke.
Two hands grip your shoulders from behind and begin to knead them.
You remember the day sophomore year when he taught your class about chromosomes. The boys all laughed and said you were so mannish you must have been born with an X and a Y. He laughed too, but when you gave them all the finger, he didn’t frown or tut or send you to the principal’s office. You let yourself believe he was on your side.
You lock eyes with a friend across the room. She’s taking all this in, biting into her lip like she’s holding in a scream (I was jealous of that attention, she’ll confess fifteen years later, I just wanted someone to love me, even a creep like him) and you’re holding in a scream of your own (you’ll tell her you wanted the same thing). He slips his fingers beneath the collar of your T-shirt, and no one is stopping him (he will kiss your face at graduation, in the middle of another crowded room). You’re not stopping him (next year, when you’re at college, he’ll tell his students lies about you). This moment just won’t stop happening (you’ll hear a rumor that he’s sleeping with one of those students). You bite your cheek and keep holding in the scream (this time you’ll know it’s true). You believe (he has probably done all of this a dozen times before), you have got to believe (he is probably doing this right now), there’s power in the not-screaming.