All He Saw Was Summer
by Carolyn Light Bell
Carolyn Light Bell
Carolyn Light Bell's work has appeared in Big Muddy, Blue Buildings, Croton Review, Great Midwestern Quarterly, Kansas Quarterly, Limestone, Louisiana Literature, Milkweed Quarterly, Minnesota Memories, Minnesota Women's Press, Northern Plains Quarterly, The Paterson Literary Review, Phoebe, Reform Judaism, Response, RiverSedge, Tales Of The Unanticipated, and West Wind Review.
Watching them makes me feel like an intruder, leering at something intimate behind lace curtains, but I can't help myself. I feel an upsurge of belief again, a regeneration of my spirit, which, if you must know, has sagged a little with age. They are the image of fresh love, the kind that unrolls its crenellations, undressed to its core. They prove that love is still in style, that it continues to be kind despite the coldness of virtual reality.
They glow like love stars in a constellation, impenetrable, distant: he, leaning in slightly, she, head bowed demurely toward him. Both somewhat shy, about the same height, ash-blond, big-eyed, and certain in their geometry. When they sit together, their shoulders, their thighs, their calves, their fingertips melt into a seamless stream. Their lips murmur indistinct secrets. I am both fascinated and embarrassed.
When they walk through the halls, their voices are low, quiet, blending into the raucous chaos surrounding them. They flow in and out, scarcely visible, two abreast, among a rush of bodies hurrying to class, shielded by the armor of love. By virtue of their existence, all witnesses are a bit sweeter, elevated by their gentle smiles.
I didn't notice Alex much during first semester among eighteen senior boys. He was a clown. I took his grinning to be smug, even sarcastic. His work, however, showed a serious side, a mature mind.
Now, second semester, his grin is actual happiness, a quality absent in most teenagers. His joy is rooted in a woman, a full-lipped, cow-eyed, lovely, long-legged girl. Alex and Liv aren't, at first blush, a likely match. She moved here from Germany because her father landed a corporate job in the city. He is Jewish, his grandfather a Holocaust survivor living in New York.
I expected my friends to be jealous, but they're totally cool when I tell them I can't hang out because I want to be with Alex. When I first came from Munich, I had no friends. Then I made the basketball team. One of my teammates has a brother who attended every game. I could feel him watching me when I dribbled and passed. When I scored, I could see him out of the corner of my eye flashing a huge smile. His mouth is large and takes up a third of his face. His eyes laugh too. Some guys laugh and their eyes are hard. At first I thought he looked a bit quatschkopf (crazy in the head). When he came down to the court with his parents right after a game and introduced himself, I already knew who he was but pretended like it was a surprise. I knew his name. I knew he was a break dancer. I knew he liked me.
From that moment, things between us moved fast. In Germany, we went to clubs in groups and had a lot of freedom. Parents here have to know everything. I'm really glad my parents don't ask a lot of questions. I wouldn't be comfortable telling them about our private times. I haven't loved anyone before. I guess I've been practicing for Alex. He takes me into his arms as if I were meant to exist there, like that's my place. It's funny, we come from completely different backgrounds, but we're alike. He finishes my sentences, putting two long fingers to my lips and whispering exactly what I mean to say before I have a chance to talk. Some people think it's not a good thing, that he doesn't let me speak, but that's not it. He speaks truth to me. When we're together alone, he kneels over me and talks to me and kisses me everywhere, tells me how I make him feel warm inside, like he's at home in a peaceful place. I love the things he says to me. I love the way he talks. He's funny and sweet and good.
Day after day, the two lovers come to class early to help me move chairs into a circle, throwing down their two cumbersome backpacks into a canvas heap, a mound of mutuality, between two chairs they claim next to me. One goes to the library, the other asks to go too. One turns in a poem or a paper, the other turns in a poem or paper just after. They work together like Leo and Anna Tolstoi. It's mutually productive, so I have no objection. If I believed one was doing the other's work, I would put a halt to it, but I know Alex's work, and it's very different from hers. They work independently together. The rest of the class, already accepted into college, and well into second-semester senioritis, act like they're doing me a favor to turn in assignments. Alex and Liv are not only prompt with their work, they're precise, even perfectionistic, rewriting and rewriting until it meets standards of A.
We're studying "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in class. It's about how fast life goes, and how these chicks are parading through a little village, which shows on the Grecian urn, or vaselike thing, and there are these pipes and boughs and heifer cows and the cows represent the young maidens who are "overwrought" and there are musicians playing songs and people who really like underdig the parade but feel sorta depressed because they know the time will be gone soon like a memory and it's all very cool and written in rhyme which we studied. The beat goes deep, you know? One chick is "unravish'd" which means she's still a virgin and they haven't had their "bliss," which means, well, it's obvious, but it's still beautiful because they're stuck there in this permanent waiting. Anticipating. This Keats guy is awesome, the way he writes about young love, so I think I'll try to write something for Livvy to show her how much I love her and tell her that we aren't going to be dead for a long time so let's be beautiful the way we love each other now. Let's take it and run. It's not like she doesn't want it and it's all about me, though. We only get together when it feels right, when we both want it. The word I have for it is bliss. That word is so cool. So I write an assigned poem that's supposed to be about the transience of life, but it's really written for Liv, and Ms. Gregory reads it aloud in class. Liv gets all red in the face and I think she's mad, but she's really happy. And proud. At least that's what she says. Being so close the way we are, it's easy to feel exactly how she's feeling most of the time. I hear her breathing in my own chest. I don't know which heartbeat is hers and which is mine. Then my beat speeds up, setting me on fire. I'm going to burst right out of my skin, but her soft look slows me way down. She has this way about her of looking at me like she's going to burn holes right through my face if I don't settle down, so I take my time and it's worth it. It's really worth it. She's changing me. I swear.
# # #
Dear Ms. Gregory,
I am writing to express my profound gratitude to you for inspiring our son, Alex. I've never seen him so happy. He can't wait to get to school. He talks about your class all the time. You have inspired in him something we've never seen. It wouldn't surprise me if he becomes a writer, thanks to you. I hope someday he'll write our family history. For now, though, he feels good about himself and his work. Whatever it is you're doing in class, we are deeply grateful to you. I am sending a copy of this letter to the Headmaster and Chair of the English department.
Herbert Westerman, M.D.
# # #
Of course this is every teacher's answered prayer, a parent who not only likes writers and sends you a fan letter but also sends a copy of the letter to your boss. The truth is I think the boy has talent. Natural rhythm. He writes almost perfect iambic pentameter without forcing it. Rhymed poetry isn't fashionable, but so what? In class, we discuss how quickly youth is gone, how transient the "spring," how beautiful the "heifer's . . . silken flanks with garlands drest." I teach them to scan for meter and rhyme. For me, it's a blackboard exercise, performed year after year, abab, etc., a study of the common themes of literature: love, death, war . . . and they teach me over and over that "beauty is truth, truth beauty," "that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." They rekindle in me the reminder that Keatsian love did exist in my life once — "unravished," "happy, happy . . ."
Alex and Liv coo at each other like they're part of the pastoral parade, "piping songs forever new," marching around the Grecian urn. I feel nostalgic and, yes, a bit melancholic. I admire the hell out of what they have and am maybe a little jealous of their youth and innocence. They know the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth. They are experiencing it on the inside track. Their poetry is equally poignant, well-crafted, and sensitive to Keatsian themes. Others in the class are either jaded from being jilted or wary from disbelief that joy can exist in today's world. Others suspend their disbelief and take Keats at his word, knowing in some instinctive way that their friends are the real deal, well, about as real as it gets at eighteen.
In his last couplet of a sixteen-line poem, Alex writes, "Once bonded together but now unstrung/At last we live! Forever young." And she writes, "Within each child a glim'ring light/A soul that's silver and pure/A beauty that lives and can't be changed/A treasure no one can immure."
Both of them finish the final project — to create a large book, a composite of all their writings, in an artistic form — thoroughly and creatively. They drive one another to achieve great things, not just good things, but truly lovely. She turns in hers first, with a beautifully constructed, color-coded table of contents, each section decorated according to what it is — essays, poems, short stories, journal entries. His comes in second, not quite as colorful, but well organized, clean, and complete. Books from the rest of the class trickle in all week, fragmented, halfhearted — a disappointment. One student has the audacity to say he wasn't told he had to keep his writings and has thrown his work away. I've had it on their assignment sheets for weeks.
Alex and Liv sustain me, my icons of scholarship and true love.
Then one day, I'm late and I'm distracted. The air smells old and chalky as a blackboard gone unwashed for years. I look around. The lovers are here, but instead of next to each other, they sit within the ranks of gender. In high school, boys often sit with each other as a kind of protective barrier against girls, potential heartbreakers, more at ease with each other anyway. I have come to expect this. Alex and Liv are the sole exception.
But, today she is sitting in the middle of the girls, and he is sitting with the boys. My bearings are unhinged.
I search everyone's faces. Nothing. Surely they're acting. Someone will laugh or burst into tears. Yet no one says a word or signals anything unusual. They seem to be saying, "We all knew it wouldn't last. Where've you been? Get over it and move on."
Don't they realize how important they are to the future of humanity? Alex and Liv prove sensitivity still exists in this callous world. How could they split without letting me in on it? They've robbed me of my musings.
Suddenly I am immensely lonely. I've been a fool. What makes me think that I know jack about teenage love? It's been decades. Let's face it. Things change. I'm older now. Young lovers don't operate like they used to. It's just sport.
Besides, I'm their teacher, not their choreographer. I'm there to inspire them to academic heights, not get involved in their personal lives. I plunge to earth with a thud. How dull. How mortal. How unsightly.
This cruel joke lasts throughout the period. My imagination muses:
A month or two hot and heavy, total obsession, and then it's over? So what happened? Lover's quarrel? Her father grounded her? His grandfather told him it was an insult to his heritage? She had to get an abortion? Her mother said she had to free herself up because of college? One of them found someone else on a whim? She's returning to Germany? Everything has a beginning and an ending.
At lunch, I tell my colleague and good friend, Snappy.
"Get over it," she says. "You know it's a fantasy. Why are you involved? What's that about? Why do you care?"
"I'll tell you why I care," I say. "Day after day, year after year, pimply, angst-ridden teenagers stuff their awkward bodies under too-small desks and earnestly try to learn from me, despite hormonal longings, ennui, and Facebook. In turn, they entertain me, they enlighten me, and they enlarge me. I owe it to them and to myself to care just a little if one or two of them suffers the fallout of an exploded dream."
"You could get more entertainment from Netflix, more enlightenment from reading O magazine, and more enlargement from a carton of ice cream."
"Not the same. None of those things get me out of bed in the morning. Each one of these kids is a little miracle. Don't you remember when you lost yourself in someone else?" I say.
"No. Can't say as I've ever lost myself. What a frightening concept. I don't even think it's healthy. I like being me. Separate from anyone."
"Remember in the song 'Hello, young lovers,' there's a line about 'when the earth smells of summer'? It's like being born, drinking in the world . . ." I say, dreamily.
# # #
Later that day, I think back to three years ago, when Snappy first described this job. We were swimming at sunrise. We locked our bikes by the lifeguard stand, threw off our cover-ups and flip-flops, and put on goggles. It had just rained. The lake was deliciously cold, grey, and calm.
"Just a few classes, Gregs, it'll be great for you!" she said. She was right. The money is good for my husband and me, who, like the rest of the country's retirees, are stretched financially.
When I retired several years ago, it was exhilarating at the time — like jumping into a cold lake, swift and shocking. The water filled my ears, nose, and mouth. Big decisions are like that. You go to the edge, look out at the water, say a little prayer, suck in the air around you, trying to exhale, and hurl yourself out into the lake. Hesitation is shocked out of you by the jolt and pressure of icy water bracing your limbs.
I took this new job, but forgot details like what malcontents say to each other on Fridays: "TGIF!" i.e., every day is torture until the weekend. I forgot the faculty lounge gossip about students who don't conform to the norm. I forgot about parental pressure for performance, glassy-eyed students who'd rather be home sending obscene photos of themselves to strangers online or running around outdoors with pretend guns in hot pursuit of each other in a grisly game called Assassins. I forgot about student stories of alcoholic parental beatings, pregnancies, self-injurious behavior, anorexia.
I secretly wonder, after taking the plunge, if I'm really teaching again to prove to myself that I can still do it. I find myself discussing issues as they come up that many other teachers rarely face: clitoridectomies, the pink-ification and cute-ification of American culture, interracial politics.
"I don't like pink because it's popular or girlie-girl. I just happen to like the color, okay?" says Rachelle, an African-American girl, fuchsia nail polish painted on artificial fingernails that curl around her raspberry pink Hello Kitty! backpack, which she draws closer to her feet. She blinks at me under rose-pink glittery eyelids.
"Pink looks really good on your cinnamon skin, Rachelle, but it might be totally racist to allow you to be an exception to the rule without at least mentioning what our culture does. The fact is your conformity compromises you."
"I don't know whatchyoo talkin' 'bout, but I jes' like wearin' pink. 'Sides, it's really none of your business."
Midday, I get sleepy, heavy-lidded, head-nodding sleepy. Unless I jazz it up a little, it's routine. I've done it all, had every type of conversation with teenagers and their doting or negligent parents.
And then along come Liv and Alex to wake me up.
"Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest . . ."
It's Friday before prom. Right on schedule, snowy-white apple blossoms are at their height in my side yard. They fill the yard with graceful petals bursting through buds, popping open in multiples, flowering and full of birds. Last week, I picked up two Bohemian waxwings from my deck, their soft bodies perfect, their tiny beaks crushed from flying excitedly into the windows, mistaking the images they see reflected back as their own true loves. Each one, drunk as Narcissus, suddenly dead, its delicate yellow breast no longer beating, its belly full from a surfeit of fruit, fits exactly into a pint-sized Ziploc baggie. I bury them every year.
# # #
Liv comes in early as always. She is puffy-eyed and red-faced.
I can't resist anymore. "Liv, you don't have to answer this, but, well, I just wondered, are you and Alex still an item?"
"Yes, are you boyfriend and girlfriend?"
Liv smiles. The color of her eyes intensifies from blue to turquoise. Her cheeks redden. "Yes," she says, "we are."
"Oh, because I thought since yesterday you weren't sitting together and since it looked like you'd been crying, maybe . . ."
"Oh, that's funny. The air is funky with pollen this spring and I'm allergic. We just took different seats, that's all."
"Oh, well, I was just wondering." I feel stupid nosing around in their lives. Am I a voyeur? A pedophile? Other students file in.
# # #
Later, at lunchtime, I check in with Snappy, my armchair psychotherapist.
"What have you got invested in this, Gregs?" she asks.
"I believe they know something I don't. In fact, I wonder if I've missed it altogether."
"I don't know. That's just it. They were doing so well with Keats. They knew the language of love. They got it."
"C'mon, Gregs, Keats was just a kid when he died. He didn't know nearly as much as you and I do, now that we're, well . . . seniors."
"Right. Keats was orgasmic about spring, and we've lived and loved in every season, all the way through winter and back again to spring."
"Exactly. Cut yourself some slack."
"You mean the one who counts is the one that sticks around after the parade? Listens to the piping in your heart and dances in the glittering prisms that radiate light from snow that reflects off the crown of your head?"
Snappy rolls her eyes.
# # #
Monday, Liv comes, weaving a little, into my room under the weight of her backpack and burdens, cheeks smeared with mascara, breath rushing out in little pulsating sobs.
"Liv, what happened?" I say.
"Oh, Ms. Gregory. We broke up!" One loud wail, a hiccup, and she is silent.
"I am so sorry . . ." I begin.
Liv tells her story in a trembling voice.
When she's finished, I launch into a speech, partly to keep her from sobbing, partly because I think I know what to say. "Liv, Keats died at twenty-five. He and his urn were stuck in summer, arrested in time. Keats was too young to know the joy of all seasons. Do you see? 'Forever young' is death."
She looks at me as if I'm the one who's quatschkopf. "Ms. Gregory, it's okay, really. It's not about Keats. Alex said he'd changed because of me. He didn't. He couldn't. Maybe it lasted as long as it was meant to. Alex meant every word he said."
"At least at the time," I say.
"Every word," she repeats.
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