I am not damaged goods. Nor do I wish to be thought of that way. And you, gentle Allie, are no monster, and never were. No one was hurt by what we did, and despite the fashionable pieties of the day—everyone tsk-tsk-tsking about this sort of thing—the accusations, I think, are more scandalous than any scandal itself. Yes, we had an “illicit” liaison, if you want to call it that. But it was forty years ago, and as I said, no one was hurt. People have adopted a harsh opinion of such matters since then, true, but the world is no worse off, I think—its children no less safe—than it was back in those heady times when you and I were an item.
This is the reason I’ve been calling the school, Allie. Not to harass or frighten you—or whatever it is you think I’m doing. I’ve been calling because I know you need to hear what I have to say.
You can’t open a paper these days without seeing an article about some parent raging against a schoolteacher for a quote-unquote wrongdoing, real or imagined. I fear it’s the times. We’ve turned into a nation of passive-aggressive crybabies. One day you’re being awarded a trophy, the next they’re cinching your wrists with zip ties and escorting you into the back of patrol car. Whenever I read one of those stories I’m both saddened and angered, Allie. Angered because I’ve known so many useless parents who’ve expected teachers to raise their children, and saddened because the moment a well-meaning instructor does take an interest in one of her students, she’s made to feel ashamed for it.
Secrets are a sickness of the soul, Allie. I know this as well as anyone. But your secret—our secret—is as safe with me today as it was all those years ago.
It’s difficult to swallow sometimes, isn’t it? The hypocrisy? The pointing of fingers? I mean, who condemns a frustrated young husband for having an affair with his late-night co-worker? Or blames the neglected housewife, bored with her country-club affluence, for practicing her tennis strokes on her handsome young instructor instead of the ball? We forgive these trespasses routinely, Allie, and we do so because we see our own fragility in the people who commit them. But take a pretty young Spanish teacher—a single woman whose only sin is a lonely heart, sleeping with her best pupil? This is somehow a moral catastrophe? Please.
We fell in love, dear Allie. We gave, took, and made love, all in the innocence of youth. Hardly a crime, I should think. Wouldn’t you agree? And what if we were eight years apart in age? So what? My mother was six years younger than my father. My grandfather, twelve years younger than his bride, who was all of twenty-nine. When did we grow the nerve to appoint ourselves guardians of our neighbor’s character, I wonder? When did we give ourselves the godly permission to peer into another’s soul by the light of a birthday candle? Or decide we could divine the heart’s sincerity with a measuring stick? Pardon my French, Allie, but fuck those self-righteous bastards. Fuck them all, and their sanctimonious condemnations.
I loved you, precious girl, and still do. But the notion that you’ve been living in fear of my return saddens me, terribly. Do you know that? If I hadn’t given up our secret all those years ago when I was a boy, why in God’s name would I do it now? What could I possibly gain? If it was money I was after, I would have demanded it. If I were seeking revenge, I could have taken it long ago, and nothing would have stopped me. Jesus, Allie. Do you know how heartbreaking it is—how infuriating it is—being accused of an horrific thing and not allowed to defend yourself?
The only reason I called the school is because I hoped someone in the administrative offices might know your whereabouts. I had no idea you were still teaching, much less at Serewood. I assumed you’d moved on long ago. Perhaps even taken up a different profession. So when Mr. Shipler said you were still on the faculty, trust me, I was absolutely dumbfounded.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reach you that day, Allie. I think hearing my voice would have come as a relief after all these years. In any event, it would have been nice talking. Don’t you think?
You’re what now? Two years from calling it a career? Isn’t that what Mr. Shipler told me when I had him on the line? You’re two short years from the blissful anonymity of retirement, and here I come along, a former student—an old lover as it were—a man in possession of what some might call a damning bit of knowledge, and, yes, all right, I understand how the timing could seem strange. Opportunistic, even, if you allow your mind to lean in that direction. How could it not?
I can even see how the episode might have triggered the impulse to run and hide. But you’re forgetting one very small, yet very important detail, Allie. This. I am not, nor was I ever, one of your flunky first-hour freshman. I don’t spin webs in a dark little room in my basement. I don’t live online, stalking people. I’m me, Allie. Douggie Grimm, your one-time paramour. Your trusted confidante. So, if you would, please don’t treat me as if I were some sort of lowlife come to betray you. It’s humiliating enough having you dodge my calls, but it’s mortifying to think that you take me for some sort of scoundrel!
Your fears are misplaced, Allie. They always were. It wasn’t me, remember, who wrote that foul letter, threatening to expose you. It was one of your own colleagues. I never breathed a word of our affair to anyone. Ever. It was me who suffered, remember? I bore up under that whole ugly mess like the dutiful martyr you needed me to be, close-lipped and patient, never saying anything to anyone.
You do me a grave disservice treating me this way, Allie. I understand you’re frightened of the notion I might ruin your career. That I might pull your future out from under you, or devastate your finances. But, again, have I ever threatened to expose you? Have I ever demanded atonement, or retribution? We both know the answer to that is no.
Was I upset when you ended our affair? Yes. Yes, of course, I was. And I had every right to be. I was in love with you, Allie, and you were in love with me, and it seemed a capricious thing to do, casting that love away out of cowardice. But I lived with it, didn’t I? I’ve lived with it all these years, quietly and without complaint. So why are you treating me as if it were otherwise? Why are you hiding from me as if I were some sort of witch-hunting simpleton standing on a hilltop in the dark, shaking a pitchfork? Jesus, Allie. The only torch I ever carried for you was in my heart.
I moved into a new apartment after my divorce a few months ago, and while I was unpacking, I happened on an unfamiliar box. Do you know what I found inside it? The pewter tankard you gave me our first Christmas together! The one with the tiny maker’s mark, the eagle clutching the arrows. God, how the memories flooded through me that night…the two of us roaring drunk…you topping the tankard again and again with that frothy Irish stout. The cold metal of the stein never quite warmed in our hands, did it? But the mood heated. We got so wild that night I tore your blouse open as we were making out on your living room floor. Do you remember? You laughed at me, a sixteen-year-old boy channeling his inner William Holden! I suppose it was funny, the silliness of the whole incident. Though looking back on it, I recall there was great seriousness in it as well. You meant the world to me in those days, Allie. I never wanted anything between us.
Yes, I should have given it a few days rest, I suppose, before following up my first call to the school. But when Mr. Shipler mentioned the word retirement, I heard the ticking of the clock and felt a terrible urgency. An overpowering need to talk before we disappeared from one another’s lives again. I couldn’t stop myself, Allie. Especially after I didn’t hear back from you. I didn’t know if my message had gone through or not. What if it had been lost somehow? I’m sorry, but I needed to be absolutely certain I didn’t miss you. “Lo siento,” as we used to say all those years ago. I’m sorry if I caught you off guard or sounded strange or flighty or panicked. It’s just that I’ve never been any good talking into a recorder.
Did you get a chance to read the article I mentioned in the message? I hope you found the link without any difficulty. The photo beneath the cut-line is two years old. Not my best look for sure, but I was just out of the hospital. A diabetic issue. I’ve thumbed through some recent yearbooks looking for a picture of you—speaking of the like—but wasn’t able to find one. Not a single image, even online. How strange is that? Mr. Shipler told me your married name is Hilderbrandt, but I didn’t press for a spelling, and now wonder if I heard him correctly. Is it Hilderbrand? Hildebrand? Hillenbrand? Hildebrant? You see my dilemma, yes? Anyway, I’d love to get acquainted with that face again. Could you email a picture? It doesn’t have to be current.
Again, about the article. I hope you had a chance to read it. It’s a piece I wrote about the treatment of livestock on the pro rodeo circuit, and it won an award for its “insightful coverage of humanitarian practices within a misunderstood and sometimes maligned industry.” I imagine you were surprised to see I’d taken up journalism as a career. Particularly in light of the bad poetry I used to write to you—in Spanish, no less! But believe it or not, writing has been my one and only hustle for over forty years.
I wonder, sometimes, why I never took up teaching, like you, Allie. But I guess I’ve always known the answer. I wasn’t cut out for it. You wouldn’t know this, or even believe it I suppose, but I earned a teaching certificate in college. So, it was there for me if I wanted it, the classroom job. But I ran in the opposite direction because, like I said, I didn’t have the temperament. Funny. If I tell people about my accreditation, they say, Oh, Doug, you should have stuck with it! You’d have been a terrific teacher!
It makes me laugh, listening to people who think they know me. I remember a few guys, college classmates of mine, who went the teaching route. The majority of them ended up hating themselves for it. One fellow got so distraught he shot himself in the head over Spring break with a .22 revolver. It took him a week to die, owing to his poor placement of the barrel, but die, he did. Queue up the Ginsberg, right? I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness (in my buddy’s case, replace “madness” with “freshman comp”).
You’re the exception, Allie. You blossomed in the classroom. It was the perfect setting for a woman of your talents—
God, I miss you! It’s like I’ve lost pieces of you over the years and am only now beginning to understand what they meant to me.
Remember the pinkie ring you gave me? The little silver thing with the decorative vine around the band? I wore it everywhere, even after our breakup, and one day, years later, it fell apart. I’ve never had a ring do that before. Break in two. It cracked at the seam, and I took it to a jeweler to have it repaired and the idiot soldered over the design! I was beside myself when I saw what he’d done. I could have strangled the S.O.B. But to what end? The damage was done, and there was no undoing it. So, I put the ring away. Forever.
It breaks my heart to say it, Allie, but I lost the silver cross you gave me, too. My wife, Judy—this was my first wife—was terribly short, and was forever complaining about it slapping her in the face when we made love. So, in the interest of domestic tranquility, I took it off and put it in my nightstand where—surprise—it vanished. I didn’t see Judy do it, but I always suspected she was the culprit behind the cross’s disappearance, even when she denied it. God, how I grieved over that little cross! Losing it was worse than losing Judy. The irony here, of course, is that if she had ever been adventurous enough to try a new position, I might still have the thing—and her as well.
Anyway, the losses kept coming. Bits and pieces of you kept pulling loose, drifting away as if the world itself conspired to keep us apart. They were bad times when those losses occurred, and they ushered back black memories. Sorrow over what might, and should, have been. I still say I know who wrote that venomous letter, and I blame the old bitch, squarely, for the fights between us. The discord. It all falls on her, Allie. The arguments, the hospital badness, everything.
Remember the silly red scarf you knit me? The one we both laughed about because you weren’t much of a knitter and something about the way you stitched it made it curl up like a Twizzler? I lost that, too. It was stolen in a ski bar in Breckenridge in 1984. Yes, stolen! I’m not making light of your artistic skills here, Allie, not in any way. But the purloining of that tragically conceived piece of apparel was a true head-scratcher. I mean, folks in Breck wear fur, darling, not homespun. So, the theft was not only dispiriting in an are-you-serious kind of way but also sadly satirical.
I can hear you laugh as you read this. Did you know it was your laugh that made me fall in love with you? The first time I heard it you were standing at the chalkboard, in front of the classroom, conjugating the verb tener (and fucking up badly, if you don’t mind me saying so), because it was all new to you, teaching Spanish. But you laughed as if you didn’t give a damn. Which I’m sure you didn’t. You were no more fluent in that language than we, your students, were. You had been forced to teach it, as I recall, because the administration was short-handed that year. They hired you out of college to teach freshman English but would only give you the job if you agreed to teach first year Spanish, as well.
Anyone else might have called such an arrangement a joke, being backed into a corner like that. But you? You, Allie, were young and irrepressible. You refused to be cowed. You learned the language from a textbook right alongside us and made it work in ways no one might have imagined.
The second time I heard that laugh was the night of the Halloween party in your apartment. You had dressed as some sort of mythical bird. An homage, I think, to Dr. Seuss. You wore a black body leotard fitted with a rainbow of tail feathers, downy vambraces and a yellow beak-shaped hat. We were all drinking punch in your living room, some godawful concoction of hard liquor and fruit juice, and you were sitting on a bar stool, legs crossed high and sexy, laughing that low, raspy laugh while tears streamed down your face. Your father had died four days earlier—a stroke, if I’m not mistaken—and your friends had advised you to call the party off. Leave town so you could have time to yourself. But you demurred. You told them you couldn’t bear to be alone.
How I managed to get invited to that raucous party, I don’t know, Allie. Did I crash it? Tell me I didn’t! You inspired me to a number of rash doings in those wild days of my youth, and perhaps that was one of them. I don’t recall. What I do remember of that night is, I passed out in your bed, alone, and woke the following morning with you beside me, naked.
Yes, it got tangled between us near the end, when we were forced to break up because of that woman’s foul threats. And to this day no one regrets the tears and dramatics more than I do. But let’s be honest, what we had—what was there before that ugly letter destroyed it all—was good. Very good. So why should I feel bad about looking you up now? More to the point, why should you feel bad about me calling? We’re adults, Allie. The past is past, and there’s nothing to keep us apart anymore.
I don’t want to sound mean, or pushy, but your silence isn’t right. That’s all I’m saying. I’m beginning to feel the way I did when you came to the hospital that afternoon and held my bandaged wrists and gave me that stupid James Taylor album and pretended you cared for me, deeply, when what you were really angling for was an easy way out.
Listen to this, you said with a condescending smile, pointing to the list of songs on the album’s back cover. Listen to it whenever you feel blue.
Your finger rested on a single song. “You’ve Got a Friend.”
A friend? Jesus Christ, Allie. Even at sixteen I wasn’t that naive. We were lovers. Intimates in every way. And you hoped a song would assuage the pain of a broken heart? Really? I could have slit my wrists all over again when you told me those things! I hated that fucking song, Allie. I still hate it.
You know, the way you’ve been acting it’s almost as if you want me to turn you in. Like you’re trying to piss me off, so I’ll break down and call the Prince George school board and spill my guts about the sundry ways you molested me when I was in your care. Who knows, maybe the goddamned guilt you’ve been carrying all these years has finally gotten to you? Is that it? Or is it something else? One of your cruel little manipulations? Whatever it is, I’ve got no way of knowing, have I? Because without you picking up the goddamned phone and talking to me, adult to adult, I can only speculate.
Look, I know you don’t mean to be rude, Allie. But you’re insulting me with this arrogant silence of yours, and I’m not a man accustomed to being insulted or ignored or, for that matter, treated as if I were some sort of creeping, peeping pervert. I’ve reached out in good faith here, girl, and this—this cold shoulder thing or whatever you want to call it—is bullshit. I’m sorry, okay, but the whole cockeyed mess is born out of misunderstanding, and it could all be cleared up in a single conversation if you’d just talk to me.
Allie, please. Take a chance for Christ’s sake. If we could talk—if you could see me—you’d know I’m the same easy-going man I was forty years ago (gray hair notwithstanding). But, if you won’t pick up the phone, how can I ever convince you?
What if we tried a different approach? What would you think about me flying out there? Yes, I know. It’s sudden, talking about seeing one another after four decades of silence. But, why not? People do it all the time in the movies. I could be out there as early as next week. Sooner, if you asked.
Think about it, Allie. You could invite me to your classroom as a guest lecturer, and I could speak to your English students about a career in journalism. It would all be on the up and up. I could book a bed and breakfast down the road from the school—someplace convenient, but discrete—and we could have dinner, enjoy a glass of wine….
I’ve checked the flights, Allie. We can make this happen. We can make up for every bad thing that ever happened to us. All you have to do is say the word.
Call me, will you?
© Robert McGuill
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Robert’s interview]