The Peeping Tom

chimereOne of my favorite classes in high school was World Civilization. The teacher, Mr. Hart, was also one of the high school wrestling coaches.  He was a soft-spoken  man but easily commanded respect with his mild-mannered brand of “I don’t take shit from high school kids”  he brought from the padded red wrestling room.

Mr. Hart spoke in a low voice.  His brown hair was parted on the side and often flopped lankly across his forehead and over his horn rimmed glasses.  I don’t think he noticed me much,  except to be pleased that I made good grades. I liked the class, but disliked going to it on account of Elaine.

Elaine was a cheerleader and sat to my left, second row third seat from the front.  We never spoke, though she always struck me as a nice sort,  much nicer than some of the other cheerleaders.  But I was nervous around her; I had a secret, the kind that, fair or not, destroys reputations.

Elaine was dating a boy named Mike, something that surprised me greatly when I saw them together. Elaine was a thin girl, the kind of thin that suggested fragility, with none of the cockiness that induced envy in other girls. Her face was fine-boned, the skin so white it was almost translucent.  She had brown hair that fell in a soft wavy shag to her shoulders, with fringed bangs that gave her eyes a startled aspect.   Unlike the other cheerleaders she wore no make up.  I was too young then to know that, among those flashy cheerleaders, hers was the real beauty. I only knew that she seemed so delicate, a china doll that was choosing, alarmingly, to date a bull.

Mike was the antithesis of the popular guys most cheerleaders favored.   He was a true bad boy – large, shaggy, beard-scruffed and older-looking, he wore a leather jacket that jingled with zippers and perpetually reeked of smoke. He drove a beat up car, a car that looked and sounded like a dirty white dog. I saw him around campus a lot, but never close up until the night he got caught looking through my bedroom window while I undressed.

It was just dark, maybe nine at night, and my dad and I were the only ones home.  Dad was in the TV room, the sound of his occasional beer belches counterpointing the drone of the TV.  I was in my room at the opposite end of our ranch house; I was changing from my softball uniform, standing in front of the mirror with that critical gaze of the teenage girl, when I heard a sound behind me at the window.

I ignored it – we always kept the windows up during summer, and you could hear all kinds of critters – moths batting softly against the screen, the neighbor cats prowling some sleeping bird.  At the exact moment I was naked, the sound came again, a low crunching of gravel. I froze, recognizing that sound easily enough, since I was the one who weeded the gravel flower beds.   My eyes darted to the mirror and now I could see what I’d heard; the dark outline of a tall man standing at my window, peering in.

I casually picked up my clothes and left the room, dressing in the hall with shaking hands before going out to my dad.  For once, his look did not scare me.

“I think there’s someone looking in my window,” I told him.

That night, I learned a lot about how fathers love daughters. Dad was around 48 then, younger than I am now.  He played softball and volleyball and bowled and was still thin in those days, the beer gut just a rumor around his waist.  I knew he was fit; he was the one, after all, who caught my 70 mph pitching and hit grounders to me.

I did not, however, know that he was fast. But he was. And quiet!  He was out the front door and around the house so quick it took my breath away.  There was a shout and  the dull meaty sound of flesh hitting flesh, and then dad was calling for me to call the police as he wrestled his man around to the front of the house where he could get a look at him under the porch light.

“Do you know this creep?” Dad had him by the scruff, yanking his head back so that I could see his face.  I recognized him right away, of course, but had no idea if he knew that I knew who he was.  I dropped my eyes so neither he nor my dad would see my recognition.

“No,” I told dad, looking down. To this day I do not know why I lied. Fear, I suppose.  Fear that this creep would tell everyone what he’d seen. That he’d tell them more, make it better/worse, make it legend. Make it something everyone would see every time they looked at me.

My father loved us but was a habitually angry man; the house that frequently felt like a war zone had allowed me no power.  It was easy enough to give it away to a man who tried to take it.  What else did I know?

Mike struggled; he was eight inches taller, thirty pounds heavier and more than twenty years younger, but dad hung onto him as if he were a puppy.

“Are you sure?” dad asked, shoving Mike’s face toward me.

I flinched and nodded miserably.

“Go call the police,” dad said.

I went, slowly,  to do as he said, figuring the fear and shame that filled my stomach like smoke was a sensation I would become much more familiar with, once Mike was free to tell it his way.  I was hoping dad would decide calling the police was an over-reaction, but he did not call me back, and I had to make the call, my voice barely a whisper answering the dispatcher’s questions.

The police came, but not before Mike wrenched himself free, leaving my father with a handful of his hair and a mouthful of curse words.

“What’s your name!” my dad screamed, impotent with rage, as Mike fled up the street.

And then Mike did a funny thing.  He gave dad a name. How he settled on this name, I’ll never know.  But the name he called out was the name of a boy I’d dated once – a nice boy who had a gift for singing. We’d kissed once, behind the Pizza Hut after my first high school play.

Mike yelled this name, and my shame and fear evaporated like..well, like smoke. I imagined the police showing up at the door of this boy’s house,  scaring his old Polish mother and causing the neighbors to whisper about her.  When Mike flipped my dad off and laughed from his position of relative safety, that decided me.

I turned coolly to dad.

“He’s lying,” I said.  “I remember him now.”   I went and got the yearbook and pointed him out to the police when they arrived.  When they asked me if I knew who he hung around with, girlfriends and such, I hesitated, thinking of Elaine’s breakable porcelain beauty.  What was her dad like, I wondered, that she dated a guy like Mike?

No, I told them. I don’t know anything about him, just his name.

Dad got the rest of the story from the police: how they waited until three in the morning, then went banging on Mike’s parents’ front door.  They grabbed an un-startled Mike and threw him in the cruiser, brusquely telling the frightened, confused parents they could come pick him up at ten the next morning.

I don’t know what they said to Mike, but he never uttered a word about the incident to anyone at school. There was no shaming rumor mill speculating about how I looked naked   The only time I ever saw him again was walking home from school.  I was on a lonely stretch of wooded road.  I was not scared when I realized a car was following me – not at first.  It was not a big town;  I’d just passed my aunt’s house a quarter of a mile back, and my cousin’s house was just ahead, maybe three hundred yards beyond the trees.

I’d walked this road hundreds of times and had the fearlessness of innocence, something that would disappear by the end of the year when a classmate was found in those same woods raped and strangled with her own knee socks – but that is another story for another day.

Then out of the corner of my eye I saw the car; a  dirty white dog of a car.  I walked on, looking straight ahead, the car panting behind me. I could hear his voice, low under the engine, but tried hard not to be able to make out the words – I was unfortunately not successful at this.  But, after a few hundred yards he grew tired of the game and he drove away with a shriek of tires, and he never bothered me again.

The semester wore on and I continued to go to Mr. Hart’s class, sometimes covertly staring at the sweet-faced Elaine as she took her seat across the aisle from me.  Did she know? I wondered, and decided that she didn’t – mostly because if she did, I didn’t think she’d be able to be so incurious.  I didn’t think she’d be very nice about it, either, sweet face or no.  Given the climate of girls, my punishment for being the object of his indiscretion would likely be severe.

Then came the day of the quiz. I, the good student, noticed a boy from Mr. Hart’s class reading the text during lunch.   He, also a good student, noticed me noticing.  Forgot about the quiz? he asked.

I had not forgotten about the quiz – I  have sticky flypaper where my memory is supposed to be, which enables me to remember all sorts of bizarre things – for example, that the rock and roll singer character in Stephen King’s book The Stand  (which I last read 7 years ago) is named Larry Underwood, mom Alice, and that he sleeps with Lucy but wants Nadine (last name Cross), and when the Judge realizes that Lucy realizes this, Lucy says (with a bitter quirk of her lips) “Women know. Women almost always know.”

OK, you’re thinking, challengingly, big deal – any serious King fan can come up with that.  But do you remember the name of Larry’s pre-plague hit single – Baby Can You Dig Your Man? And that the second line of the song is “he’s a righteous man”?  And that his friend Wayne tells him, while walking on the beach “There’s something inside you that’s like biting on tinfoil, Larry.”? Or that Frannie’s  father’s name is Peter? Or that Harold Lauder (sister: Amy) wrote a letter to a women’s glossy stating that the existence of the magazine was an argument in favor of enforced eugenics?  Or that when Nadine finally seduced Harold it was over a meal of beef stroganoff with tinned beef?

Go ahead. Look it all up. I’ll wait.

I do not forget things.  I did not forget that we had a quiz. You can’t forget what you didn’t know, and  I didn’t know we had a quiz, because when Mr. Hart announced it I was reading the book that was sneakily planted in my lap instead of paying attention to class.  As a child, I escaped into reading from my turbulent household every chance I got – there was a book under my pillow, behind the toilet, in the garage. I read whenever I could, and often when I was supposed to be doing something else, like sleeping.

I had half a lunch period to cram for the quiz, which was always 3 open ended questions presented on mimeo paper, the letters blurred, blue and fragrant.  I had no time to study, so I did the next best thing: I memorized the entire chapter. It was a short one.  Mr. Hart wrote on my quiz “A++!! The best performance by a student ever!”

It was an effusive compliment, rare for this wrestling coach of few words, and I felt guilty, since my score did not reflect learning but just my weird memory glitch.  Even at 15, I knew the difference.  So I stayed after class one day to confess.  Mr. Hart  must have raised an interior eyebrow to see me pausing in front of his desk, looking so uncomfortable. But he was a subtle man, and he did nothing outwardly to make me more nervous than I obviously was.

“What can I do for you?” is the perfect thing for a teacher to stay to a student.

“I have a confession to make,” I blurted.

He waited.   I could feel how red my face was as I handed him the quiz.  “I sort of…cheated.” It wasn’t the right word, but it got his attention.

One eyebrow went up, questioning.

“I memorized the whole chapter and then just wrote it down.” My face felt like a brick furnace now.

“How is that cheating?”

“Well….”  I had no answer.  My face felt like it might actually blast off from my head.

“Let’s see,” he said.  He flipped open the text to the test chapter.

He read silently for a moment, his eyes moving steadily from the book to my test and back again.

“Will you do something for me?” he asked in a pleasant voice that did not sound at all mad.

“Here,” he pointed with a blunt finger at a paragraph.  “Start reading.”

I did.  About a sentence in, his voice, low and soft, joined mine.  We read the whole page, and then the next, and the next, me from the book, Mr. Hart from my test.  It was as if we were harmonizing in a choir.  There were only four or five words that I’d missed or changed. Three quarters of the way in, I put the book down and recited from memory. When we came to the end we were both silent a moment.

“Wow,” he said, and rubbed his chin musingly.

“Um, so what now?” I asked him.

He smiled and leaned over and added another plus sign to the two that were already there.   I gathered my books to leave, but wasn’t surprised when his voice stopped me at the door.  He was a wrestling coach; he knew all about timing.

“But now that I know you can do that, you’re going to get a different type of test,” he said.

I nodded. In those days, a student would never dream of opining to a teacher something was unfair, even if it was, which I wasn’t sure this was.

“By the way, good work,” he said, and held up a book. I recognized it right away – the school literary magazine, Page One, which, thrillingly, featured a few of my poems.

“Oh, thanks, “ I stammered, surprised to realize that he knew I existed outside of his class.

The days of covertly (if only occasionally) reading fiction in my lap during World Civ came to an end with the Russians. In Mr. Hart’s class we learned about the Failed Russian Revolution of 1905, the royal Nicolas and Alexandra with their hemophiliac son Alexei, the black-bearded mystic Rasputin looming over the doomed family like a brooding shadow.

I’d read widely by then, knew about American slavery and the Civil War, the Holocaust and Viet Nam, and so knew that truth could be, easily, more terrible and strange than fiction.  But for some reason, the murder of Rasputin and the Tsar’s family caught firmly in the sticky flypaper of my memory.  Perhaps it was the children that made the events of the year 1917 jumbled together in a collage of ice and smoke, blood and cold that clanged in my consciousness.

More likely, it was the music. One day we walked into class and found Mr. Hart tinkering with a turntable and speakers (this was not just pre-ipod but pre-boombox, when pterodactyls cruised the sky). The turntable was on his desk the speakers so large they stood on the floor and were nearly as tall as me.  The boys in the class swarmed around them, checking out the Peavey speakers, the Technics turntable.

The music that poured forth from those speakers was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Mr. Hart spoke along with the music, explaining how each movement pertained to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I sat in my seat, transfixed: it had never occurred to me that instrumental music could ‘mean’ something the way songs with words could.  To be shown how wrong I was in such spectacular fashion was overwhelming.  I sat nailed to my seat in a state of total sensory overload.  For a moment, I feared I might cry.

Mr. Hart must have understood; he reached to turn the volume down as the cannons roared, giving me a small, private wink.  (Today, in my forties, I regularly buy season tickets for the local symphony, and always think of Mr. Hart on Tchaichovsky night).

At the end of the year, in the last class of the semester, Mr. Hart brought his stereo back.  We spent the hour playing music with historical references, music we students brought in.  My contribution was an album by Rush (remember them?) I learned about Rush from my brother, but when I recognized the lines of Rudyard Kipling in one of their songs, I started following them of my own accord.

The album (vinyl!) that I brought to class was A Farewell To Kings.  I still remember how Mr. Hart read the lyrics in the liner notes, his lips moving slightly, and the way he listened to our music as if he actually liked it   – maybe even understood it in a way that we didn’t.

When they turn the pages of history
When these days have passed long ago
Will they read of us with sadness
For the seeds that we let grow?
We turned our gaze
From the castles in the distance
Eyes cast down
On the path of least resistance

We analyzed the messages of the songs and the music to the events of the times.  Perhaps I remember this one so well, was drawn to it, because of the timelessness of the sentiments.  Back then, we drew parallels from the song to the times – the 70s, with its energy crisis, the conflict in the Middle East grinding on and on.  Today, the prediction seems an equally cogent coda to our own era featuring a Congress and election process that are barely  more than puppets of wealthy corporate interests, its citizenry morphing from voters to consumers beefing up and dumbing down on cheap, endless junk food for the mouth and mind.

So that was the end of Mr. Hart’s class.  We gathered up our books and left the room in a melee of music and excited talk, Mr. Hart in our midst as we spilled into the hallway.   I headed down the hall toward the stairway and my locker when suddenly a boy materialized in front of me.  Although I can see him perfectly in my mind’s eye – the dirty medium blonde color of his hair, his square jaw somehow echoing the squared lenses of his eyeglasses, I can’t recall his name.

He sat two rows over from me and we had never spoken. He was familiar to me in that vague way of classmates whose lives intersect only briefly… I might have had a hard time placing him if I saw him outside the context of school, which I never had.  He was quiet, maybe one of the ones who smoked in the stadium before school and during lunch.  The kind who took the shop classes full of boys with long hair who drove Chevelles and Chevy Novas.

“Here,” he said, and thrust a wrapped package into my hand.   Startled, I fumbled it; by the time I recovered, he was gone in the swim of students.

“Did that boy just give you something?” a voice asked.  I looked up to see Pam, a tiny perfect girl, a cheerleader who dated the student council president and football captain.  She showed me a lumpy package wrapped identically to the one I held.

Inside was a bottle of perfume.  The bottle was a semi-rectangular, clear, the liquid inside deep amber, the cap a faux tortoise-shell affair with the word “Chimere” written in white script across its surface.

Pam also had perfume – a different brand.  “How sweet,” she said, and flitted away in her maroon and white pleated cheerleader skirt.

I glanced around, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. I never saw him again, this boy who sat at the margin of the classroom in a seat that gave him a sightline from me to Pam.  I picture him still, the way he must have looked in the aisle of the somewhat dingy Rexall drugstore on Main Street.

Did he pick the perfumes based on the bottles, or did he furtively uncap them and sniff them, he in his blue hoodie and ratty jeans, the sour faced ladies at the register watching him mistrustfully in the concave mirror they used to catch shoplifters?   And why did he choose Windsong for Pam, Chimere for me? Was it chance, or purposeful?

I was interested enough to look up the word chimere, which I thought sounded vaguely French (I bet the makers of the perfume thought so, too).  All I could learn was that a chimere is a sort of church-y garment worn by bishops and such in the olden days – not unlike an academic gown but w/out the sleeves, in snooty upper class colors of scarlet and purple.  Hmmm.  But then another source speculated that the etymology was Homeric, referring to a beast in the Iliad, called the chimera  “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle,and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire”.

Perhaps because of this description, I wore the perfume, which actually smelled good enough that, when it ran out a few years later, I bought another bottle, an act that took some dedicated searching.

Later that week,  I would see Mr. Hart walking alone across the football field-sized expanse of grass (for some reason referred to as “the sunken garden”) that fronted the main building of my high school campus.  He looked up  just as I noticed him, eliminating the awkward teenaged desire to pretend I hadn’t seen him and slink away unnoticed.  He actually pointed at me with his long pale hand, so that I stood there on the step, unmoving, as he made his way past the shouting, hurrying students to my side.

“I saw your name in the paper” he said, smiling, and I nodded. My collegiate athletic scholarship was published in the local paper, and it seemed everyone my parent’s age had noticed.

“Can I sign that?” He nodded at my yearbook, and, surprised, I handed it over.  He scribbled something with a flourish, then handed it back to me.

I wanted to tell him how much I’d liked his class – how much I’d liked his teaching, and the music – but I was tongue-tied.  I was accustomed to answering adults, but not actually conversing with them.

If he noticed my discomfiture, he did not let on.  “Have a good summer,” he said easily.

There was something in the way he said it – treating me like an equal, like someone his own age, like the imminent passage of time was not a train chuffing steam next to us, ready to carry me away and leave him on the platform.  Something in the way he stood there looking at me in the sunlight, smiling, not expecting anything, just enjoying being with me.  My embarrassment dropped away. Mostly.

“See you around,” I smiled back at him, and he reached out and briefly grasped my shoulder as if I were one of his wrestlers.

Later, at home, lying on my yellow patchwork bedspread, I opened my yearbook to read the inscriptions of my fellow students.  The busiest pages were just inside the front and back covers.   One boy, who would die before the age of twenty-five, filled an entire half page with silliness, which he signed with a flourish.  By chance, he was a wrestler, and I remembered that Mr. Hart, wrestling coach-cum-educator,  had paged deep inside the yearbook,  and skimmed in search: nothing.  Then, on a hunch, I turned to the wrestling team photos. And there, in the upper right hand corner, next to his stern unsmiling face in the team picture, he’d written:

Sandy, keep writing! 

Best wishes,

Jim Hart 

I studied his signature, the fact that he eschewed the “Mr.” in favor of his given name startled me slightly, and conjured images of his ‘otherness’ outside of school. I tried to picture him as a “Jim” – driving in a convertible with his arm resting on the window, eating at a restaurant with a woman and a glass of wine in front of him, standing in line at a grocery store – but my imagination could not see past the image of him standing there in the front of the classroom in his long maroon wrestling coach shorts and one of his ubiquitous short-sleeved shirts with the breast pocket, arms folded, eyes closed as classical music swelled to fill the classroom.

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