Pedagogue: A Short Story by Daphna Eremina
A trigger warning has been requested for this story from several readers.
Contains mentions of eating disorders, pedophilia, sexual assault.
B’s knees sunk into the plush pink carpet that wrapped around the base of the turquoise-blue toilet and matched the plush pink toilet seat cover, a careful combination that her mother had chosen after two consecutive trips to Sears, and two wrongly colored returns. I wondered whether B’s mother had gotten them because she didn’t want B to bruise her kneecaps when, nightly, she hunched over the toilet, and holding back her shiny black hair, determinedly stuck two moistened fingers to the back of her throat and retched.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” I asked, staring at her as she got up and wiped the corners of her mouth with her hairless forearm.
“Does it matter?” B mumbled, lighting a cigarette. “Look at me.” She gestured to her flat stomach with a swoop of her arm.
From beneath her tight white shirt, I could clearly see the outline of her black bra. Her breasts were a modern, overnight Victoria’s Secret miracle, the secret of which, was, of course, two pillows of some kind of gel which reminded me of those water snake wigglies that had glitter or dolphins in them, and which gave you a strange satisfaction when you squeezed them between your hands.
I was the first to wake up with boobs, swollen and strange. I refused to wear a bra because whenever I raised my arms up in ballet class the bottom wire would slide up over my (new) nipples, only one of which was constantly hard. But B was the first girl in middle school to actually wear a bra, which made her a pioneer in womanhood, even though she had no sign of boobs at the time, and had earlier assured me that my newly grown chest lumps were actually tumors and that I would die quickly and painfully.
She was also the first to demonstrate how to fold up your skirt so it’s shorter when you need it (boys) and longer when you don’t (lesbians, parents, orthodontist). B also showed me the cold window nipple trick, and how to put in a tampon (“You just put it like you would put a hot dog into a bun, and squeeze and walk with really small steps”), which I only found out was wrong when it had unfortunate consequences involving an off-peak LIRR train seat back home from Manhattan on my thirteenth birthday last year.
I got up from the cool edge of the bathtub to open the window. In the garbage can beside her toilet, I saw her used tampon, bright red and fresh from the inside of her. She had just started to throw them away instead of tossing them into the toilet. It took a full house plumbing repair to get her out of that habit, and that was only because she had to use a Porta-Potty for two weeks, and she would rather never have to that again.
“Let’s go downstairs, I’m starving,” she yawned. “We could have that chocolate Jell-O pudding for dinner.”
“That doesn’t make you fat?”
“No idiot,” B answered, throwing open the door of her bathroom, “It’s fat-free, so you can have as much as you want. It’s like negative calories or something.”
As B and I grew, we seemed to grow apart, like diverging tree limbs or lanes on the highway. There used to be actual things that we did - activities - like bike riding on the weekends and trying to see who could hold their head underwater the longest. Now, we just sat painting our nails, watching The Real World and counting calories, which B’s mom praised because she believed it was great practice for life and also for math class. Most of the clothes in our closets were mutual property, my dad drove us both to school, and I had a pool, while B had a jacuzzi, and we could go from one to the other without feeling too bored.
There were, of course, other things that united us like classes, and secrets, and also the fact that we were in love with the same man. Or rather, I loved him, and B was telling everyone that she was fucking him.
In the kitchen, B’s mom and dad were sitting at the dining room table. Her mother was looking through a thick stack of opened mail.
She darted her eyes at her husband, who sat slumped in his chair with his forehead grasped tightly in his hand. There were long dark hairs coming out of the top of his fingers. Actually, B’s dad had hair coming out of everywhere except the very top of his head, which he was very self-conscious about, and supposedly covered with special dark spray paint. Now, there was no paint, and the bald top of his head greasily reflected light from the chandelier above him.
“I am very mad,” B’s mom said, loudly, to her husband, without moving anything but her mouth.
B’s dad grunted.
“She has to say her emotions now because her eyebrows stopped working after her doctor sucked out her wrinkes,” B explained nodding towards her mom. "Or something.”
Everything with B was or something, so you were never sure if she meant to say what she said, or something just to the left to it.
She opened the fridge and took out a six-pack of chocolate fat-free pudding.
“Is that normal?” I asked, “Is that why she’s mad?”
“She’s mad because my dad got mortgage again, or something. For a car. From a car? Not sure. Wasn’t listening. ”
“I don’t know, but I think it’s contagious. Charlie, from across the street, his parents have it too,” she picked at dry skin on her chapped lower lip. “Let’s go to yours,” she muffled and took the pudding with her free hand.
“We have pudding at my house, you know,” I told her, following her to the front door.
“Yeah, but you have the full-fat one. You know I can’t gain weight now. I have to look good for Mr. H. I can’t be looking like your mom.”
“Okay, first of all, you’re not sleeping with Mr. H, so stop lying,” I whispered, and waved to her parents, who seemed to not notice that we were leaving, or that we came downstairs in the first place. “He is not a pediatric.”
B stopped abruptly and turned to face me.
“Lou, you’re so stupid. It’s not pediatric. That’s when you walk instead of driving. You mean pedagogue. That’s the word for fat pervert. It doesn’t apply anyway. Because I’m a fucking adult. Are you forgetting where I buy my bras?”
I closed the door behind me and continued.
“Whatever. You know what I mean. There’s no way a teacher would risk his reputation and his career to have sex with you. He doesn’t love you.”
“It has nothing to do with love, virgin,” B hissed. “You can have sex without love.”
She dragged her unlaced Converse against the sun-bleached pavement like slippers.
“Yes, but Mr. H doesn’t even look at you in class.”
“That’s the point, stupid. He doesn’t want everyone to know,” B said, opening the door with her free hand. She walked into the kitchen without taking off her shoes. I took off my shoes and said hi to my mom, who was chopping carrots into large circles in the kitchen.
“Yes, but everyone knows because you told them. You literally told everyone in our grade. Also,” I continued, “You have never been alone with him. We walk home together every day. Then we walk to school in the morning. There’s just no time!”
B asked for a small spoon and then asked for a smaller one, explaining that the smaller the spoon, the more pudding there is. She tapped the scuffed toes of her shoes on the wood of the kitchen island.
“What are you girls talking about?” Mom asked.
“Mr. H,” B replied, putting the tiny spoon in her mouth and twisting in upside down to get every last dollop of pudding out of it.
“He's a rather strange man,” Mom said, offering a plate of vegetables and hummus. “Doesn’t say much at the parent-teacher conferences. But his girlfriend is quite nice.”
“What?” B and I said, together.
“I met her in town. Very pretty, a little too plump, but pretty. They met in college, I believe.”
I didn’t want to ask anything, because if I knew more, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from crying. I shoved broccoli in my mouth, which prompted B to grimace (according to her, broccoli was all carbs, which are bad for you).
Crying in front of B is awful because she waited for you to finish and then called you pathetic. I cried last week when I scraped my knee in gym class against the newly lacquered wooden floors. I slipped because the school was so proud of the renovation that we were only allowed to work out in socks. B stared at me until I was done crying, and then slid up her blue basketball shorts and showed me the soft lily white inside of her thigh. She explained that the uneven red circle, one of many, was a cigarette burn, which she did herself. “Didn’t cry”, she said and walked away. “Don’t be a pussy”.
Sometimes B drank blood out of her scrapes and picked at scabs with the kind of fascinated attention she only devoted to painting her left toenail, which she always cut so short that it bled. She once bit into a sandwich with a white worm in it, and chewed slowly, so everyone could have time to mimic exaggerated gagging.
“Hey, do you have mortgage?” B asked my mom, changing the subject.
“Of course honey. You’re going to get a mortgage too when you’re older.”
B rolled her eyes, and her shiny nose wrinkled.
“God, this whole street is sick.”
When my mom excused herself to the bathroom, B looked at me as she opened another pudding cup with her teeth.
“The fat girlfriend bitch is a cover. Obviously. You realize that right?” she explained.
“B, you are not sleeping with Mr. H.”
“Who said anything about sleeping? I’m just fucking him.”
On the inside of my bra, tucked safely by the wire, I kept a picture of Mr. H that I cut out of the yearbook I found in the library. In the picture, his hair was longer and he was a little bit younger, but overall he didn’t look too different. He had big brown eyes that crinkled at the corner like my mom’s (not B’s mom’s though, hers didn’t move when she smiled). He looked like what Mr. Darcy would look like if he taught 10th-grade history and didn’t iron his shirts. Mr. H was noble and honorable and smart without trying too hard. I heard that he gave extra credit opportunities to those who were failing and passed around copies of political cartoons and laughed. He cursed in class and we didn't laugh because he treated us like adults. He decorated his classroom in patriotic colors and gave out neat printouts of review packets for tests.
I knew that B was lying about sleeping with him, and it wasn’t because I thought she was a virgin. B actually knew a lot about sex, like most other things. She knew that that lemon juice could be used as a contraceptive, if you put yogurt on your vagina it smelled better, and that, in her words, “Your hamburger looks different after you have sex” even though she didn’t specify how, or even draw an example.
I knew that a man like Mr. H would do the right thing and wait for love to have sex. I was certain of it. He was honorable and kind. He urged us to throw our plastic water bottles into the blue bins and was a registered Democrat.
Mr. H was a gentleman, and he took things seriously. When he spoke about a war or a tragedy, he stroked his short dark beard rhythmically with his hand. He was sensitive. He told us about the murders and systematic oppression of millions of Native Americans and told us things the government doesn’t want us to know like how aliens live in Area 51 and work with the CIA.
He trusted us to be mature, to be adults, to be able to understand.
After B had left, I sat on my bed, in my room, and thought about him.
Him. Next to my TV, there was a tall shelf stacked with my favorite movies. I stood and thumbed down along their VHS covers, considering the probability that Mr. H was in love with B, and not me.
I thought of long walks along the edge of the water, and how we would run from approaching waves. He would tell me stories, I didn’t know which, really, but I would laugh, and he would laugh, and then look deep into my eyes and kiss me. At night, when I would look at the moon, I would say it was beautiful, and he would say, “Yes, so beautiful,” as he looked at me.
B would be gone. B would be nothing and she would be fat and she would hold my wildflower bouquet as I faced him at the altar.
I stopped my thumb on Pride and Prejudice. With my finger on the title, I rejected B’s claims of their affair, because I believed in him. There was no possible way that she would be the protagonist in this love story -- my love story. It was me and Mr. H. It was absolutely, most definitely, statistically impossible for her to have even touched him.
In bed at night, I thought of him as I tried to reach some kind of desperate cliff-edge end, but nothing. No orgasm. I had one once when I was watching Titanic. I didn’t do it with my hands, but I pressed my legs together and squeezed my inner thighs until I felt a warm glowy relief from the building sensation which felt like a prolonged sneeze or like that sweet syrup you put on snow cones in the summer. And last night I had that same feeling, the need to arch the small of my back and push down, but I was unsatisfied. I kept thinking about him and B together and got progressively upset. Before, B instructed me that if I put two fingers inside and wait, it would happen. I did just as she told me, but nothing happened. Or maybe I just missed it.
Before history class, B flipped the band of her skirt three times, shortening it each time by an inch. She walked into class and sat in the front. The room smelled like chalk and some kind of strong boy deodorant smell.
I sat next to B. Her knee tapped mine as she opened her legs widely, the way boys do at lunch. Since the beginning of the school year, she’d come to Mr. H’s class with more and more skin showing. The boys loved it. They sat next to her at lunch and hugged her in the hall, pressing their flat chests against her firm bra. After school, they shared cigarettes with her as they leaned against the brick wall of the science building and invited her to their basements to “hang out”. Some of them talked to me too. They asked me about my dog and about homework, but none of them asked me to go to their basements, which made me only a little upset.
I wasn’t jealous of B, only because I didn’t like like any of those boys. They were just that - boys. Mr. H was a man.
None of the boys believed B about Mr. H either. “Bullshit,” they said, and spit. It became popular that year for the boys to gargle and spit and also wear their pants with their underwear showing, which looked strange with their school uniforms.
In class, we were talking about the Civil War. I watched Mr. H carefully for signs of attraction towards B, or myself. I didn’t think that he would make it obvious, but what I was searching for was a lingering glance, or a wink. There were rules when you were stuck in a forbidden love. They involved meaningful stares and hidden messages in regular sentences.
Unfortunately, Mr. H didn't act much more different than normal. He paced around the classroom in enthusiastic strides, his hands constantly moving as he lectured. He did make eye contact with me and B both, though I wasn’t sure if it was more than usual, or just the same as every day. He had a way of repeatedly looking around the room and locking eyes with kids first on his right, then center, then left, which my mom told me was a teacher trick of commanding attention.
When he wrote on the board, his script was almost unreadable, but I took notes anyway. At the end of the class, he gave out graded essays from the week before. I got a B+ and some comments. I read them quickly, and rubbed my finger over the deep (passionate) indentations he made in the paper. “Good” was written and underlined at the top in green ink. The word made me shiver. What could he mean by good?
I peeked at B's essay as he placed it in front of her.
He leaned over and quietly said, "Bettina, see me after class," as he tapped the green F twice with his finger. B and I exchanged glances, and she quickly restructured her face into a wide grin.
"Seeeee, he wants to see me after class," she bragged as she shoved her paper into the belly of her bag.
As the bell rang, the class buoyed up, happy that it was the last period of the day. The room emptied quickly, and there was a harmony of slamming lockers outside almost immediately.
"I guess I have to stay," she smirked and hopped on top of our desk. The way her thighs mushed out as she sat made me want to tell her she was fat, which I knew would hurt her more than anything. I didn't want her to be alone with him.
“He only wants to see you because you’re stupid and probably failing,” I told her. “He will probably tell you to do extra credit stuff.”
Her face did not change, but she thrust a middle finger in front of my face.
“Virgin cunt,” she whispered. She was the first girl to say that word in school, and she used it whenever she could.
"I'll wait for you outside on the steps," I told her and I backed away. As I left, I said goodbye to Mr. H, and he looked at me and smiled.
He closed the door behind me.
I waited for B for forty minutes, but she never showed. I figured she left through the back exit, forgetting that I was waiting, or mad at me.
I walked home alone and made a list of all the reasons why I was meant to be with Mr. H. They were mostly linked with how I was different from B, and I kept reminding myself that he is not interested in her, and that she is lying. I had to strike "I am not a slut" from the list twice. Instead, I added, "I have a unique rock collection", and “I will also register as a Democrat as soon as I can.” Mr. H would appreciate my intelligence, I was sure of it. That was how I would win him over. I was different.
When I came home, I called B to ask her if she wanted to come over to swim. I felt bad about what I said and wanted to tell her that she wasn’t stupid, and all the calorie counting was actually making her really good at math and that maybe she could take Calculus with me next year. I sat on my windowsill as I called. I could hear the landline in her room ring, but there was no answer. She was definitely still mad.
Once it was dark, I looked to check if there was a light in her window, but the whole house was dark except for the kitchen. I gathered the loops of the phone cord around my thumb as I listened to the tone when I called. Her mom picked up and told me that B went early to bed, and then hung up without saying goodbye.
The next morning, my dad and I waited for B in the car before school. He tapped the steering wheel with his finger in agitation and kept checking his watch. Unlike B’s dad, who stopped saying full sentences to us after we asked him if it was normal that we had hairs coming out of our bathing suit places, my dad was an active participant in “the dangers of pubescence” endlessly asking us if we liked any boys, or if we knew about the dangers of heroin, using Kurt Cobain’s recent death as an ever-present cautionary tale.
“If she isn’t ready in two minutes, we are leaving without her,” he said, firmly, and turned the dial of the radio louder. “That girl takes longer and longer to get ready every day.”
I looked out the window at B’s front door, which finally opened. But instead of B, her mother came out in her red house robe and slippers. She leaned over as I quickly twisted the crank to lower the window.
“Bettina isn’t feeling very well today,” she said and made eye contact with my dad. “Woman troubles.”
“Alright then,” my dad shifted in his seat and quickly turned on the engine. “Hot tea and a hot water bottle will get rid of any clumps,” he advised, curtly nodding as he drove away.
School without B was strange, but I found myself looking even more forward to history class than I thought possible. Without B there, Mr. H’s attention would undoubtedly be solely on me. Before class, I checked myself in the mirror of my locker for stray hairs or pimples, and, with a slight hesitation, unbuttoned the top button of my collar.
Mr. H didn’t act too differently but looked at me more often. I took that as a sure sign of mutual respect, at least. As a gentleman, that was all he could give me at the moment, but I understood.
B didn’t answer my calls that day after school again, but the next morning, we waited for her anyway, because her mom called mine and told her that she’s feeling better.
When the door opened, my dad and I were both stunned. She wore black wool tights, like me, and like every other girl in school as a part of the uniform. Her long-sleeved white shirt was fully buttoned to her neck, and she wore the blue cardigan fully buttoned as well, and not around her waist as usual.
“You look very presentable today, Bettina,” my dad said as she got in the back seat. “Very nice and proper.”
I smiled at her and she smiled back, meekly.
“Cramps?” I asked.
“Yeah. Or something.”
Throughout the school day, she was silent. She walked slowly, and instead of sitting on her butt, she sat propped up on one foot under her tailbone. She shifted constantly as if she was unable to find a comfortable position. She kept tugging at her underwear as if she had a severe wedgie problem. When the bell rang, she got up quickly, and ran to the bathroom, pushing girls out of the way to get to the stall first.
I leaned against the side of the stall as I listened to the crinkle of the wrapping paper of her pad opening.
“Are you still on your period?” I asked.
“Weird, mine ended yesterday.”
“Whatever,” she replied, and the toilet barked with a flush.
She came out of the stall and looked at herself in the mirror, smoothing down her hair.
“Don’t wanna go to history,” she mumbled. “Wanna cut?”
“I can’t, I revised that paper and I’m supposed to get it back today.”
B took a cigarette out of her bag, and leaning on the sink, lit it after a few clicks of her lighter. One dark hair caught the light and singed. There was a momentary smell of something being burned.
“I think I’ll cut. That class is such a drag. ”
“I’ll just meet you at yours after then,” I told her, “Feel better.”
I reached out to give B a hug, and as I put my arms around her, her body went rigid.
I walked to history class excited to see Mr. H. I took a seat in the front, and waited to lock eyes with him. I was not disappointed. He looked at me six times (I kept a tally) throughout his whole lecture.
He did not give me back my assignment during the class period, so I waited until everyone left, and walked up to his desk. He was rearranging his papers, some of which were stained with coffee and something red, probably juice. He quickly put them into differently colored folders.
“Mr.H, I-my paper,” I stuttered, breaking in my voice - my voice with him, which was a different voice than my voice with others. With him, it was more meaningful. “Can I have my paper back please?”
Mr. H looked up at me and furrowed his brow.
“Oh, yes,” he said, shuffling through his papers again, “Louisa, great job this time.”
He reached out his arm to hand the paper back to me, but before I could grab it, he pulled it away.
“It’s a good paper, but there are some other extra credit opportunities,” he said, “if you are interested.”
He didn’t wait for me to reply, and turned around and started erasing the board with wide semicircular swipes of his arm. I could see his back muscles work under his white shirt where it stretched to touch his body.
“Yes,” I said. “Sure. Okay. Yup.”
“Sit down then,” he turned around a smiled. He licked his upper lip, touching the bottom of his mustache with is tongue and looked at me. “I understand you are good friends with Bettina. I trust that you have the same...values, and are both two very smart girls, smart enough to know that giving extra credit to you would be unfair to other students”.
I slowly lowered myself in the chair which always stood to the left of his desk, facing the board. He also sat down and took a while to adjust his seat, which ended up facing me diagonally. He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, exposing thin, hairy forearms. Skin stretched over greenish rootlike veins.
I said nothing, because I was nervous. I could feel my blood pounding in my temples, and wondered if this is what having high blood pressure felt like and if I would have to take a pill for it like B’s dad.
“I chose you to give you this extra credit opportunity because I trust that you’re…mature. You’re not like other girls your age. You’re an old soul. You’re different.”
I nodded, wondering what qualified me as mature for him.
“Which is why you mustn't tell.”
His hand, almost as if it was detached from his body and operating on its own terms, moved slowly to an inch above my knee and settled there with a tickle. I had an urge to swipe in away, but I was mature like he said. I believe I understood.
Mr. H was definitely in love with me. Right?
by: Daphna Eremina