by Ben Cohn
On the first day of Senior Art Studio, our teacher was late. We all sat in a circle on the floor. I glanced around at the fourteen other people in the class, the fourteen other people I had taken art classes with all of high school.
I met Mr. Gordon in Graphic Illustration on my second day of Freshman year. “Call me Andrew, but don’t tell anyone I let you do that,” he said with a smile, like it was a secret. I found out he told everyone that a week later, but it still felt a little thrilling, a tiny bit of revolution in an otherwise staid school day. Four years later, the night before senior year started, I said to my parents that Andrew was my favorite teacher, and that’s why he was writing one of my college recs. I could still see my Dad bristle at his first name coming out of my mouth and it made me happy to rebel in a tiny way.
“I know y’all know each other, but I want us to say our names, what medium we’re planning on working in this year, and our irrational fear,” Andrew said.
We did know each other, but we answered the questions anyways, laughing. Jenny’s irrational fear was butterflies (“They just freak me out”). David’s irrational fear was choking to death (“What about those competitive eaters who just swallow hot dogs whole?” Jack said with a smile. David shuttered). Marisa said her irrational fear was carbon monoxide poisoning (“That’s never gonna to happen,” Andrew said, throwing his hand down like he was dismissing CO2 in its entirety).
I was in the midst of trying to crack my pointer finger. I could feel the crack in there, but no matter what direction I pushed it in, I couldn’t get that snap I was craving. “Zach?” Andrew said. He ran a hand through his jaw-length brown hair and resettled his glasses on his nose.
“Oh yeah. My name’s Zach, my medium is drawing and collage, and my irrational fear is home invasions.”
Andrew looked at me like I was his favorite painting in the world. It was the look that let me know that I was his favorite student (“I don’t pick favorites, but…”). I could see him taking note of what I said, adding another pile of clay to a lumpy sculpture he had of me in his mind.
We got to work. A few of us spent most of our days in the art room, but I was there the most. My current project was drawing fusions of people’s faces into pudgy multi eyed monsters, and I was desperate to get the shading on the double eyeballs just right. On a Tuesday, I got there right after school and worked for five hours. No one was supposed to be in the building after 7:00, but I didn’t leave until 8:30 when my mom texted me “where r u????” My mom had taken to typing like a teenager more than I had. I threw everything into a drawer and sprinted out of the art room.
When I got to class the next day, everyone was whispering. Jenny told me that some expensive colored pencils had gone missing. Blood rushed to my face, and I checked the drawer where I had left everything. They weren’t there. Andrew’s face was blank. When he saw me, his eyes locked.
“Zach? Can I talk to you in the hall?”
I suddenly knew why Jenny was scared of butterflies — they were flying in circles around my stomach. I followed Andrew into the hall; he shut the door and leaned against it. The over head lights in the hallway cast dark shadows over his eyes. “I found two pieces of yours laying out in the room this morning.”
“I guess I forgot to put them away.”
“Marisa and Emily said you were the last person in the room yesterday.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Can you tell me straight?”
“Did you take them?”
“Did I take what?”
“The pencils? I’m not mad.”
“I didn’t steal the pencils.”
“I didn’t say steal, I said take,” Andrew put on his first grade teacher voice. “Look, if you did, can you give them back to me and I’ll say I found them in a cabinet or something.”
“I didn’t take anything.”
“OK,” he said, and made a face I couldn’t read. He was studying me, and thinking something — what I wasn’t sure. “Are you going to be in the room this afternoon?”
“Not today but probably tomorrow,” I said, although suddenly I wanted to be anywhere else.
“Just make sure to close the door behind you so that it locks.”
“I will,” I said.
The next day, I went to the art room after classes ended as promised. When I walked in, I found Andrew sitting at a table, staring at clay disks.
“Hi,” I said, trying to avoid any contact with Andrew. I felt so guilty about being responsible for the stolen colored pencils my stomach churned all day.
“Can you come over and look at these?” Andrew said, and I walked to the table to get a better look at the clay disks. They were white, unglazed, and had small cylinder in the middle raised up from the rest of the disk. There seemed to be two sets — on one, the small cylinder fell a little to the left, and on the other other, it was just a bit bigger.
“What are they?”
“Casts of my nipples,” he said without making eye contact. “I should have left out ‘my,’” he said to himself.
I laughed, not knowing how else to react. “I don’t know if I have anything to contribute to these. What are they for?”
“I’m not quite sure yet, that’s why I wanted your advice,” Andrew said, laughing. I thought to myself that this was why he was my favorite teacher. No one else at this school would show me the clay casts they made of their nipples. It was totally a un-teacher thing to do. The only other time I had ever seen something a teacher made outside of class was when we found our math teacher’s Dr. Who fan fiction and read it aloud at a party while we were high. “You know, I was thinking about something I thought you’d find interesting.” Andrew looked at me like a dog waiting for a treat.
“What?” I said, unsure of what was coming.
“Ok, it’s this thing that happened to my neighbors. This couple that lives down the street from me arrived home after a night out, their first night out since their kids had moved out, and they went to sleep immediately. At 3AM, the wife woke up because she was thirsty, so she went downstairs and into the kitchen to get some water. She turned around and leaned against the counter. She saw a silhouette in the doorway to the kitchen holding something in his hand. The wife dropped her glass and the man hurled himself towards her, and luckily the wife is pretty athletic so she jumped out of the way and began to run out of the room and around the first floor of her home, shouting for her husband. This guy ran after her, grunting and growling, and she kept shouting her husband’s name over and over again, but he slept through it. And while this was happening they just kept running in circles around the first floor of this house, and then suddenly, as if another switch had gone off in this guy’s head, he stopped running after her and flew through the back door he had broken into, but he left the rope that was in his hand behind.” Andrew stopped and looked at me. “Isn’t that awful?”
I was dazed. “Yeah, yeah, that’s awful.”
“And the thing that gets me is the rope. What was he planning on doing to them once he tied them up?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” I couldn’t say anything else. “I think I’m just going to go home, I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“Oh really?” Andrew said. He didn’t sound surprised.
“I think so, I just don’t feel in the right headspace to work on any projects right now,” I said as I stumbled out of the room with my bags falling off my arms.
“Clay nipples?” Jenny said. “You’re kidding. Mr. Gordon did not show you clay nipples he made.”
“Clay casts of his nipples,” Jack corrected.
“Exactly: clay casts of his nipples. That’s so fucking weird, Zach.”
“It’s just something he was working on,” I said. I was the only one who thought this.
“Why did he bring in something he was working on into school?” Jenny said.
“And specifically that. Why did he bring that thing he’s working on into school? I bet he could get fired for that,” David said.
“Yes, specifically clay casts of his nipples. Why those? And why did he call you over to show you to them. It’s so weird. I don’t know how you’re defending him, Zach.”
“He’s Andrew, that’s just his thing. He’s like…”
“A cool teacher?” David said.
“Yeah, a cool teacher,” I said, nodding my head.
“There’s no such thing as a cool teacher, Zach. Only failed artists and pedophiles,” David said.
“Ok, don’t be a dick,” Jenny said. “But he’s right. Also, it’s a little like he was coming onto you.”
“No he wasn’t,” I said too loudly.
“I mean, Mr. Gordon’s definitely gay,” Jenny said.
“How do you know that? And why do you call him Mr. Gordon? Everyone else calls him Andrew.”
“It’s weird to call a teacher by their first name. And he totally is. Why else would he love gossip so much?” Jenny said with a big smile on her face, knowing what she said.
“That is an unfair stereotype,” I said laughing. “I’m the only gay guy here, and I don’t think he is. I should be the authority on these things.”
“Exactly, you’re the only gay guy at this entire school! Why else would he show you a cast of his nipple? He’s targeting you.”
“It was nothing, really. And besides, that’s not even the part that weirded me out. It was the story! Why would he tell me that story after I said on the first day of class that my irrational fear is home invasions. It was a home invasion story. It seemed kinda purposeful.”
“Ok, if you can imagine that Mr. Gordon— Andrew would tell you a story that would prey on your irrational fear, why can’t you imagine that he at least showed you those casts of his nipples to make you uncomfortable.”
I didn’t have a response, and so I just stared at the colored block floor tiles that covered our entire school.
“So I’m right?” Jenny said. “Good. Like always.”
“I didn’t say that. I just don’t have any more arguments,” I said smiling.
Jenny did a little dance and I laughed.
The next day in Senior Art Studio, I delicately placed a cut-out of a fashion model’s head onto a kangaroo body when Andrew appeared in front of me, making me jump and drop the paper on the ground.
“I got that,” he said immediately. He turned around, and leaned his torso completely over so that his Sleater-Kinney tee shirt rode up and I could see a lower back tattoo of Magritte’s pipe, as well as a clear look at his skinny-jeaned butt. I hadn’t imagined that Andrew had a tramp stamp, and if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that this is what it was.
“Here you go,” he said with a smile, handing the model head back to me.
“So what’s up?” Andrew stared at me with a big toothy grin.
“I don’t know. I’m making a collage.”
“No I mean, what’s happening, what’s the drama, what’s the goss?”
I did a double take at the word goss, which was so ugly and foreign coming out of Andrew’s mouth.
“Not anything I can think of,” I said. I desperately wanted him to go away.
“You know what Bridget told me? She and Ian Foley broke up because Ian, Marisa Corgan, and Julia Long had a threesome.”
“Can I just do my collage?” I snapped. I felt like I was having a fever dream, or like someone had dosed me and I had no idea. Sure I had heard that Ian, Marisa, and Julia had a threesome, but a teacher, even Andrew, saying it to me made me want to throw up.
Andrew studied me, rolled his eyes, and then put his hands up. “Sure, sorry.”
My heart was beating so fast that even my hands were quivering, and I couldn’t get the model heads to fit the lemur bodies I had found in National Geographic. I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face and tried to puke but just dry heaved and then teared up a little bit.
After the weekend, I tried to avoid Andrew as much as I could. I needed to document my work to send to college anyways, so I just stood in the hallway and took too many photos while changing the lighting over and over again.
When I got home, I fell into a seat at the kitchen table.
“How was your day?” My mom asked from her computer, as she replied to email after email.
“That didn’t sound very convincing.”
I looked at her and paused. “I have a someone I used to really like—a friend— and I did really like them until recently, but they started acting really weird, and when I told them to stop, they started acting out. Like, getting really mean.” Mean was not the right word, but the truth was weirder and uglier than words allowed.
“At an old job, one of my coworkers tried to kiss me. Just in the middle of a late night at the office, I looked over at him and his face was an inch away from mine, eyes closed, lips puckered,” she said between short bursts of typing. “I told him no, I was dating your dad at the time and anyways I wouldn’t have been interested in dating this guy.” And so for the next month or two he tried taking ownership of my good ideas and hoisting the blame for bad ones onto me. He even threw away a report I wrote before it could get to our boss. But after a while he got bored and stopped bothering me and I even outlasted him there. Sometimes you just have to buck up and ignore people.”
“Yeah.” I sighed. I had eight more months of school left.
Later that night, I got an email with the subject line: CAMERA LEFT OUT. It read:
I was cleaning up the room today and noticed the camera was left out. You were the last one using it. It’s our only camera and it costs $400, so if it was stolen, we wouldn’t have the money to replace it, and we’d have to charge you. Please remember to clean up after yourself when you’re in this space, this is the second time something has happened while you were in the room. I’ve cc-ed Ms. Bryan and Principal Miller, if they would like to talk to you about it.
Remember I’m writing your college recommendation,
I walked up to my room and screamed into a pillow for five minutes and then I tore one of my t-shirts into a bunch of small scraps of fabric. Not very strong stitching, I thought. Principal Miller sent me another email just after, asking for meeting times, and Ms. Bryan wanted to “have a chat, just you and your advisor.”
“I’m sorry I left the door unlocked and the camera out, but I really don’t think this is a pattern. The camera wasn’t even touched — Mr. Gordon found it before he left.”
Principal Miller stared at me through narrowed eyes. “Mr. Gordon says you’ve been acting differently this year, that you weren’t like this before. He says you’ve been rude and mouthy in class. Is that true?”
I sat in my seat in silence. I was stunned. My head was racing too fast to come up with anything to say.
“Zach?” Principal Miller looked genuinely worried.
“I think I may have asked if I could just work by myself once, maybe more harshly than I meant to be.”
“That’s not what Mr. Gordon said. He says every class you’ve used an inappropriate tone with him and often talked back when asked to stop doing so.”
“That’s just not true,” I said in exasperation. I didn’t know what Andrew was talking about.
“You’re calling Mr. Gordon a liar?”
“Yes—no, I mean…” I heard my mom’s words in my head. “No, I’m not.”
“You’ve figured that out for yourself?”
“Look, Zach, you’re a good student who gets good grades, and no teacher has ever complained about you before. Just cut it out. It’s senior year, you’re applying to college, you’ve got much better uses for your time than being in meetings with me. You can leave.”
I walked out and Jenny was waiting for me on a bench by the office, flicking through Instagram.
“How’d it go?” Jenny asked.
“Fine, I guess.”
“Did you get detention or something?”
“No, nothing like that. I just—Mr. Gordon apparently told the Principal a lot of stuff about me in class that wasn’t true. It was really weird.”
“That doesn’t sound weird. It sounds fucked up.”
“Yeah I guess that’s what it is, fucked up. I don’t really know what I’m going to do. It’s too late to switch into another class.”
“Did you tell the Principal all the gross stuff Mr. Gordon did?”
“What am I going to do, Jenny? Tell our principal that the art teacher was trying to fuck me? What evidence do I have of that? And why would he believe my word over a teacher’s? I just need to get through this class. Maybe I’ll start doing pottery so I don’t have to be in that room, I can just hang out in the ceramics studio.”
“You’re not going to do pottery, c’mon.”
“I will to get away from Mr. Gordon,” I said with a half smile.
I was staring hard at Mr. Gordon’s ear, which lacked an earlobe. It just ended, and where the lobe was supposed to be, there was empty space. It felt unfinished, like he was born too early and the cells didn’t have enough time to complete this part of his body, or God forgot to craft them and sent him out into the world unlobed. I had the weird feeling, though, that Mr. Gordon liked the fact he didn’t have earlobes. It’d be something to show off, to invite students to rub his earlobe-less ear between two fingers.
“Zach?” I could hear him. He sounded annoyed — angry even. I still didn’t respond. “Zach.”
“Here,” I said. The eye roll was compulsive.
“Pay attention next time so you don’t waste our time, please.”
I stared at him for a second. A ‘fuck you’ sat in the back of my throat. He barely cocked an eyebrow and my posture crumpled.