Teacher, Lover by Brandon M. Stickney

Her name should not appear here. It’s been thirty years and it’s still on my lips. It was the 1980s, an innocent time for me, before all the troubles. Troubles hit in the 1990s with Pamela Smart. Remember her? She was infamous for having her husband killed by her teen lover. Either Van Halen wrote of her in “Hot for Teacher,” or Smart and her boy imitated the song.

The unbelievable Smart case took a part of me away, made it tabloid. Took the freshness of attraction, put it in the hands of amateurs who turned it to lust and murder. The tabloids always take the beautiful, the Shakespearian, and make it blue collar ugly.

 

My love was about Shakespeare. That was one of the ways she got me, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well. Her name will be Mrs. Hudson, for the waters, the power, and for American love. It’s still out there, thriving, no matter how jaded we get. In the 1980s, when we were still free to pursue happiness. An America before romance became a bad word, before kids brought guns to school, and when unrevised history still mattered. When Humbert Humbert was celebrated in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”

“You guys gotta get excited about his stuff,” said Mrs. Hudson, hopping up and down on her half heels. “Shakespeare is cool! It’s love triangles and drama with knives!”

It was our first week in 12th grade English. All eyes were on this petite blond woman, her conservative look, no make up save eyeliner, red silk blouse and tan slacks. I had no idea why, but I was drawn immediately, paying more attention to her dance in honor of the Bard. What were the other thirty of us in the class thinking?

I could guess: mirth, disbelief, ridiculousness, jealousy (the girls). What was I thinking? Listen close, you just might learn, other than the fact this muse is beautiful. I must have learned long before high school that people pay closer attention to the good-looking ones, those with courageous optimism. To get high schoolers enthused with the Bard was a feat.

She had the light. The name of an archangel. And the invitation to the most important, coveted, of the arts and sciences: English literature. It was as if she came to me in my dreams, pointing her delicate finger down a long hallway, saying, “Go forth and become a writer.”

I’d love to say here that there were roses and lilies that led up the sidewalk to the doors of the high school. But students mixed up and bonkers on estrogen and testosterone would have destroyed them. I’ll just say the were red berry bushes… and, in the front yard, small flowering Japanese Maples.

 

I can walk the halls in my dreams. You are here with me. Trophy cases in the marble foyer, signed footballs and team photos. Trophy cases in the marble foyer. Signed footballs, and team photos, a bugle and pom-poms. The school’s gloried past. Wall hangings, sheets of glossy yearbook photos celebrating the graduations, one wall after another. Mine, the class of 1988. I’d name them all for you with a brief biography on each. The dudes who were my pals, my enemies, the folks who married and moved on to opportunities our town couldn’t offer. Leaving lonely parents and grandparents behind. Sometimes leaving ex’s and children behind.

What about the young ladies, those who thought me pretty. No jock, no druggie, didn’t fit into any category, really. Social butterfly. I loved girls. They took me so seriously, as if I was capable of being as such in return. I think I kissed my first girl in 11th grade, late-blooming dreamer that I was, a mind lover. Blonds. Gals who could roller skate.

I kissed my first woman in 11th grade too. It may sound like that record’s skipping but it’s not. “…fire in my loins,” as Nabokov’s character Humbert Humbert as he talked of the thing that can only be realized by forbidden love. I kissed my first girl, Angel, though at the roller rink. Rollerland in the dark back corner.

I don’t think it meant a lot to her, Angel. She kissed a lot of boys. I was a cute boy, a boy to her when she really wanted a man (not a virgin) who drove a car, so she could have all the status that girls her age craved.

What did New York … well, Buffalo girls look like in the 1980s? Lip gloss. Bubble gum. Popcorn hair piled high into a fountain or even a bow atop their heads. Makeup, some in dark shades, goth, and Madonna-style necklaces, “Frankie Say Relax” t-shirts, pink pedal-pushers and aqua-colored heels. Don’t forget Swatch watches and piles of bracelets. Anything went in this decade. Even the svelte black girl in my class. Dressed in all red—the leather “Thriller” outfit—she moonwalked across the hallway.

For me, there was Martha, Joan, Linda, Judy, three or four Jennifers, Kim, Lisa; the list of common American names continues, 10th through 12th grades. It only occurs to me now how short our relationships were—back then a day was a week and a week was a year.

All my girls had problems (who doesn’t?) and I didn’t try to fix them; yet I was looking for something, always, something each one proved not to have—I didn’t know that at the time. What did I do with them? They all had cars (their parents’), station wagons, four-door sedans. We rode around, picked up friends, and got drunk, underage. Fake I.D.s. I had no driver’s license and no desire to get one. The girls drove me around. Looking back on it the status was reversed. If I’d been in a rock band, I’d have been “the cute one,” never to have grown up, to grow old, to change. Just Brandon, the cute one. Now, I’m an ogre, a journalist who drinks too much. So, please look away from him and back to the young me, when I was worthwhile, precious.

It too was in a car that I kissed my first woman. I did not know it was going to happen. She knew. She liked being in control. I think she liked me from day one in Shakespeare class. “As You Like It” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Taming of the Shrew,” and “Merchant of Venice.” As part of “Shakespeare Today,” we were to study the life, a few plays, and perform before the whole school, in the auditorium. Having only forty-five minutes per class period, we had to edit down “Merchant of Venice” to a smaller, yet still understandable, performance time.

She was in her work clothes. Her car in the parking lot behind the school. No one and nothing anywhere near us but empty parking spaces and the green expanse of the soccer fields. First kisses have a way of moving toward and creating themselves. I was in the passenger seat, after our play-editing session, after school. The car was still off. She just eased toward me, saying, “You’re going to break a lot of hearts, Brandon.” Instinct and attraction made me kiss back, body warmth surrounding a dampness. It was close-mouthed. “Break those hearts,” she said. It felt like she was saying goodbye.

What did I think then? Break? Hearts? I didn’t want to hurt anyone. She was telling me I was a heart-breaker and I was rejecting it. The kiss had set a bomb off in my mind, but I didn’t believe in hurting anyone, didn’t even believe in fighting.

 

I had girlfriends but I was shy in 11th grade. One can of beer and I’d be nearly drunk. This was real experience, I thought. Was I already screwing it up?

I knew I was straight. I was actually accused of being that closeted old George Michael—pretty. Although I certainly wasn’t questioning my sexuality. I was simply growing up. I wasn’t a manly man, wasn’t on the football team. I played soccer. We did not have cheerleaders or groupies.

Other than my kiss with Angel at Rollerland, kissing with Martha, Joan, Linda, Judy, three or four Jennifers, Kim and Lisa would follow, between grades, intermittently, over the high school years. It occurs to me that Angel kissed me to show off, the way she faced the “audience” of the rink right after our lips parted. Either to the crowd (“I kissed the cute one.”) or to a boyfriend I didn’t know about and never met. My mind (post-first kiss) drifted as a daisy in the field, from one dream thought to the next; her’s must have had some kind of high school bubblegum motivation.

As my teacher sat invitingly after our first kiss in the car, I certainly felt the electric jolt downstairs. Now she was a woman—I had been kissed by a woman! I wanted to shout it out loud so the whole town could hear. All the world’s famous blonds in one, deep voice, intimidating, powerful. I was the lost boy, the waif, a colt, on the verge of something.

“Mrs. Hudson,” I stammered. I had no idea what I wanted to do or tell her. Something in my teacher wanted her to take control yet something else in this woman wanted me to charge forward and ravish her. She knew she would give me the experience of a lifetime. Penthouse had to be true.

 

Midway through the semester, Mrs. Hudson sensed a waning in the class and gave one of her Shakespeare-is-awesome motivational speeches. Hopping up and down in her half heels, she got the room excited and offered a thought I’ll never forget.

She said, “Someday, somewhere, you’ll all be out there in the world.” I felt as if I was the only one in class, that she was just addressing me. “And you’ll realize that something you learned in this class helped you in life. When that happens, please send me a note or postcard that says, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Hudson.’ Give me that chance to read it and smile. That’s all I ask.”

 

I am the son of hippies. Born in 1969 to parents who were nineteen and twenty, I grew up to the sounds of Hendrix, the Moody Blues, Neil Young, to talks of peaceful protest, psychedelia and doorways with love beads. The first song I memorized, at four, was Pinball Wizard. A boy named Tommy was my imaginary friend.

Raised to believe the human body is beautiful as all God’s creations (my father, the artist; mother, the psychic), I was allowed to look at Playboy, Penthouse, and Oui at a young age. The magazines were displayed in my parents’ house alongside Time, Newsweek, and Art in America. I tried alcohol at seven. We had thirteen cats and a bunny named “Boogie.”

The photos in the pornographic magazines, to me, were art, unlike the horror show of Hustler. The soft lighting, purple and gray lingerie, settings of wealth and prestige. Ladies with looks of serenity and pleasure, protective. So, from that young age my idea of womanhood was vastly different from my colleagues at school.

A fear, growing up, of girls, no idea, again just what to say. Still, they chased me with their cars and their kisses. I was most open and comfortable with my mother’s friends. Caren. Monica. Others. I was friends with their boys, and saw “Class,” that notorious Rob Lowe movie about the kid who sleeps with his friend’s mother. So, that was off-limits.

 

The girls at school. The women in the magazines. My teacher. Three totally different worlds of which I could not make sense, only navigate on assumption and instinct. Looking today at that old yearbook, Mrs. Hudson’s action shot, waving her arms Italian-style before a blackboard, a serious look for the class. Hair tucked behind her ears, chalk dust on a pocket. She looks small to me, like the street you grew up on, the bullies who are no longer frightening.

What happened between us? That kiss, that dusk, was a realization, in the hours afterward, that I had a crush. In class, sometimes, I wasn’t even listening. I stared at her face, eyeliner, her silk blouse, her pants and her small feet in pumps. I was objectifying her, imagining scenarios from Penthouse letters. Gray. Black. Red. Naked. Maybe she found me attractive, maybe my silly mind inspired the literary in her. Something her lawyer husband did not. Or was he a doctor? Architect?

Was she trying to give my crush some satisfaction, a dose of something I could reach out and touch? Was she angry at her husband? Was he cheating on her? Was it all true? Were there others … other students? These questions are recorded from what I knew then—before I could write about it—and now, when I wish to. Was she indeed interested me from the first day I walked into class, in a rugby shirt, corduroy slacks and Nike runners?

 

After the kiss, my imagination, my imaginary love life with her increased while day-to-day contact with her cooled—or slowed down. At least for a week, which in my puppy love mind was a year. As I said, “The Merchant of Venice” had to be cut down to our production length. The high school stage. It was like my affair—it had to be cut to 11th grade size. I was a virgin. Mentally, I was running from that lip gloss clan. Did Mrs. Hudson know this too? She must have observed it because she was certainly observing me. Do I sound naïve now, thirty years later? Maybe the love that she gave to me, even for the briefest moment, blinded me forever. A forever curse of naïveté about my life. At fifty, I’m still that shy boy, enabled only by press credentials and a bottle of rum. Did she arrest my development?

The sick-minded male would say to me, “Did you bang her?” I’d say no. Though I’m not overly romantic, I feel obligated to protect my mentor, her grace to me, and my readers. What was given to me few will ever experience—a glimpse into heaven. If not, why at this low moment of my existence would my pen still obsess about her—our meeting, our kiss, our edit of literature’s superstar, the school band concert, and what happened after? The quiet of those dusty sunrays in the school’s hallways still causes me to laugh today.

 

We started meeting daily, cutting the extraneous, chopping down acts, targeting the main action and the critical characters. I was there yet took in none of it (except memorizing my parts in my bedroom at home); I was gazing at her. It may sound cliché, but she really did glow in the slanting sunlight of our empty classroom, the others gone for the day.

Mrs. Hudson read Merchant’s (Antonio’s), opening monologue. I could feel the other students around us. Girls whom I’d called my girlfriends. I could hear Mrs. Hudson’s voice, smell her Lauren perfume and hear the voices in the silence of the school halls, outside that open door. Room 235.

She held up a pair of triangle earrings. I’d purchased them for her with some cash I’d borrowed from a friend. “Once we’re done here—” I didn’t hear the rest of what she said. I heard, in my head, “Break those hearts.” Why did she have to say that? It put a thorn tree in the garden. I heard my heartbeat. I wondered when everyone was going to find out. Wasn’t Shakespeare himself the master at everyone finding out?

I wasn’t a little monster—I thought of her husband, a thin guy with glasses, no kids, but lots of money. And a wife! We had cheated on him. A kiss being a bigger act of betrayal than the sex act itself. I had read about “the cuckhold husband.” To think, me, 140 pounds. A kid who cried a lot. Was kind to pets. I had contributed not only to the cuckoldom of a man but to a full broken heart. And, we were working on mine. Some of those thoughts, then, and some of today.

The idiot left to tell the tale. As you might guess, things have not gone well for me of late or I would not be looking past my burned-out basement to the satin room of memory. A song plays from then, Head Over Heels by Tears for Fears. Never stand in the way and a man and a memory he loves.

 

Somehow, we wound up at the school’s band concert that night. Saying to her husband and my parents that we completed our Merchant of Venice edit (as an actor I was to be the Merchant) and we were going to celebrate by attending the band’s show. What could be more innocent than that? As additional cover, Mrs. Hudson invited two other students along, clueless 10th graders from her modern American fiction class. Mrs. Hudson told Miss Miller and Miss Webster that their essays on Faulkner’s Barn Burning were so well done they received A’s and free tickets to the show. Mrs. Hudson told me privately that once the missus were dropped back off, the two of us might grab a celebratory drink at her house.

Petrified, I spoke up, “Uh … Mrs. Hudson?”

She knew who I meant. “Country club. Then, this is Thursday, guys night out.”

 

What of today? What if I was seventeen again and at high school with Mrs. Hudson, who was about thirty at the time. I’d have to erase the “old” in my mind and the jaded adult I have become. I’d have to redraw my optimism (I used to write “Life is great” on other students’ notebooks). Relocate the exuberance of a younger me. Could the two us live in this new world, where we don’t even have a name for the current decade? Then, it was the ‘80s and now it’s a cumbersome 2019. Or ’18, which makes little sense. ’18 would say to us: “There’s no room for your love affair here. Your time has come and gone.” Reality TV killed the video star.

There are as many, if not more, feelings and thoughts running through the human body (after the shock, of course) in a love affair as there are in a car accident. It starts with a skid, goes into a jolt, spins endlessly, leaves you dead, or simply dazed and wondering what happened. In both the affair and the accident there is something that dies. It’s the dearest tragedy.

She opened two Carlsberg ales in her kitchen. It was an attorney’s house, and a teacher’s house. Endless parlors, labyrinthine bookcases and a baby grand piano. They had money but it didn’t look like they spend that much time together.

For me, time evaporated. We abandoned the beer in the kitchen for a spot on a shaggy living room carpet. A radio played, clothes were shed, and my studies of the Penthouse letters kicked in. I guess I seduced her; I pleased her first and then I lost what remained of my virginity. The lonely young Merchant returned home after a mystifying and fantastic journey across the seas.

Today’s Tabloid Headlines as Warning:

  • Porn-Loving Kid Kisses the Tempest
  • Boy/Man Betrayed with a Kiss
  • Stud Finds Much Ado About Nothing
  • Teen Wakes from Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Couple’s Comedy of Errors

 

Love still lived then, back in the 1980s, when crass had no place in the modern home. I kid myself, wanting to believe. Lolita was a classic then, but fiction. Not reality, my reality.

I wasn’t the first student seduced in history, nor the last. My ego places me somewhere in the middle. At a time when I had little judgement and my mentor approved of me, apparently, in every way. Maybe Mr. Hudson had been out that night with his lover. Maybe my lover was angry at the world and chose the easiest target—a boy who had obviously never been laid and was only on the verge of starting to shave his face.

 

I imagined my mother knew. The next day, “You’re different.” With irony, “Just what is it?” But, as I glided down the hallway to the door, I could tell she was blaming one of the Jennifers. My father found out later. He was proud; I was theatrical but not that theatrical.

I was happy but embarrassed all day. I bumbled my way through classes and gym, clumsy, off center. I smiled. The lines from the Merchant echoed in my head. Though I showered that night, and the next morning, I carried her with me.

She was out that day. We had a substitute teacher. I was let down but relieved. Would seeing her in person ruin what we had? I was worried. Was she okay? I did not know her phone number. Knocking at the door would be inappropriate. Unthinkable even.

We did not do it again. Mrs. Hudson was out of school for a week or so with some illness. I worried about her even as I enjoyed my newfound freedom as, by any other name, a man. When she finally came back, we talked a lot, after class. The staged versions of Merchant of Venice made the local newspaper. There was a photo of me, mid-monologue, wringing my hands as Antonio does. The paper gave kudos to my co-stars and mentioned Mrs. Hudson’s guidance of her young thespians.

Though I carry the erotic fantasy and her words to me to this day, I do frown upon what I saw was the real end. We were close friends all through my senior year when I moved on to Milton and Proust. I dated girls and drank lots of beer.

 

One night in spring 1989, I was at the pier with three friends. We drank wine and skipped stones on the lake at dusk. There was a yacht club just away from the pier. I heard her laugh first. There was Mrs. Hudson in a summer dress, a college kid I didn’t know and another couple. The other woman with them was mature like my former teacher. Her companion, an alternate version of me.

I just stared. The love affair. The class, shit, all of high school, my memory, all of it, is haunted by that moment as if I was the one being cheated on. Anger. I downed my cup of beer as they walked into the yacht club. A line used from time to time flew into my head like a gull hitting a window, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Even now, decades later, I’m upset over something she did, but did not do to me.

 

Brandon M. Stickney

 


 

Brandon M. Stickney is the author of All-American Monster: The Unauthorized Biography of Timothy McVeigh, and The Amazing Seven Sutherland Sisters: A Biography of America’s First Celebrity Models (featured in the Daily Mail). He has been published in many magazines and newspapers.

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