Can We Please Talk About Us?

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Hannah Anna had been ducking out of the school building as soon as possible lately. She knew this didn’t look good to the administration. Many teachers stayed an extra hour unpaid to show how seriously they took their jobs. But if Hannah Anna didn’t leave right away, then Donny, her special boy, would catch her and compel her to listen to his latest self-destructive ideation. She’d called all the places she was supposed to call, and, even though it took her weeks and drove her crazy, she finally got him hooked up with a mentor through a program at the local Boys and Girls Club that matches upper and lower classmen. He preferred her, he said. Today was not a day she could sit through one of his bloody fantasies. Today she’d timed it right and managed to make it to the parking lot undeterred.

Teaching is strange. Boys and girls fall in love with their teachers. Some days Hannah had to bat them away from her door with a broom. The Latin boys felt no restraint pitching woo at Hannah during hall duty. The Middle Eastern girls were prone to hugging up from behind, even though the only legal hugs in public schools were shoulder to shoulder. The American kids knew not to touch but stood absurdly close. Hannah had gotten used to the bad breath of teenagers, who seemed to have bad breath across the board.

We’ve all heard the stories of teachers who take advantage of this love; there were rumors that some of Hannah’s own colleagues, men and women, had poked around in the forbidden garden. There had even been pregnancies, she’d heard. But no one ever talked about how weird it is to have teenagers constantly falling in love with you. Especially for people like Hannah, whose own teenage experience was utterly devoid of such affections. Teachers were incredibly reticent to discuss this phenomenon, including Hannah. What if her peers thought that she had welcomed or even invited this attention? What if people began to suspect she might reciprocate these feelings towards children? Even scarier, what if these suspicions had in them a kernel of truth? This is perhaps why Hannah Anna had not told anyone about the notes she’d been receiving.

But today Hannah Anna found yet another note stuffed under the windshield wiper of her car. She debated whether she should go back into the building with this evidence or tuck the note away and pretend it didn’t exist. That had been her MO for the past week, but this was now the third note. Hannah dreaded unfolding it, even though up until this point all any of them had written on them was the question: CAN WE PLEASE TALK ABOUT US? Perhaps it was the big block letters, kidnapper style, that gave them a nefarious tone, but content-wise, the notes were innocuous.

She’d remembered that her horoscope that morning had told her to be responsible today, which she thought meant that she should go to the gym, but now she considered it meant for her to share this note, and finally deal with this secret admirer. She reluctantly turned to make her way to the building when she jumped back, surprised. Donny was standing inches behind her grinning like a maniac.

“Jesus Donny, you scared me half to death.”

“What’s that?” Donny said, pointing to the note.

“It’s nothing,” Hannah said.

“I saw a girl put it there like five minutes ago. What does it say?”

“That’s private, Donny.”

“You let girls do extra credit? Why can’t I do extra credit?”

“What? You don’t need extra credit.”

“If she gets to do it, I wanna do it too. You’re not being fair.”

“Donny, we talked about the whining. You promised me you’d try to stop.”

Donny looked down at his hands apologetically. His nails were grotesquely long, but at least they were clean. Sometimes he’d accidentally graze her hand with his pinky nail. The feeling sickened her. “I wasn’t whining,” he whined again. “I just…I was looking for you. I had an epiphany today.”

Hannah muffled her sigh so as not to betray her frustration. “What’s on your mind, buddy.”

Donny grinned widely and paced as he spoke. Hannah Anna couldn’t help but feel like he was faking it a little. He looked TV demented sometimes. “Well, okay, you remember how yesterday I said I wanted to kill my grandmother. And you asked why, and I said because she hates me.”

“Yes.”

“Well, I was thinking about that because I couldn’t sleep, and then I was also thinking about Antigone and Oedipus, and I remembered that my grandparents were cousins. And then I got to thinking that maybe my family was cursed and that I’m cursed and that I really want to kill Grandma because killing Grandma would mean my mother was never born, meaning that I was never born.”

Hannah Anna mulled for a moment while Donny grinned at her, patiently waiting for her analysis. “That’s all very interesting, Donny. Can I say something that might give you a little comfort?”

He nodded eagerly.

“The Oedipal curse, it’s really about everyone, not just select families with some small history of incest. It’s about how we’re all cursed. It’s about how knowledge of our condition is the scourge of all humanity. That’s why he gouged his eyes out; because seeing is knowing. Antigone teaches us to remain principled despite our curse. She teaches us to honor our dead, even if as living men they intended to enslave us. Or, if not honor them, at the very least bury them, so that we don’t have to see. So that we can forget the horrible truth occasionally. It’s okay to put some of the darkness underground. In fact, it’s the right thing to do half the time.”

Donny grimaced as he considered what Hannah Anna told him. Then asked, “Does he die right away?”

“Huh?”

“Oedipus. Does he die right away, after he claws his eyes out?”

“I would think pretty soon after,” Hannah Anna said.

“I would have ripped my throat out instead, if I were him.” Donny clutched his throat with his sharp nails. “I’d have grabbed at all this stuff and just ripped my throat out. I think that makes more sense.”

“Don’t rip your throat out, Donny.”

“Okay, Miss Lisa.”

“For homework, I want you to tell your mentor about the throat thing, and I want you to figure out why you said that.”

“Okay, Miss Lisa. Have a good afternoon.”

“You too, buddy.”

~

Hannah Anna Lisa lay in bed Saturday morning feeling sorry for herself and puffing on her e-cigarette. She’d quit smoking when she started at her new school and entered the vape life, but there was something so fake about the fake cigarette. She lacked a sense of realness with every inhale. Her body was fake. Her thoughts were fake. Her whole heart was a veiny sack of stage blood ticking down the hours until it was okay to swallow a couple codeine laced ibuprofen that the orthopedist gave her for her shoulder pain.

Here’s the funny thing about Hannah Anna’s shoulder pain: she’d had this piercing, chronic ache since her early twenties; so something close to ten years she’d suffered. She’d had it through her marriage, her father’s death, grad school, the beginnings of new loves, new jobs, new cars. The ends of those things. Some nights she couldn’t sleep because of the pain. She developed a phobia of button down shirts and slim fitting jackets. On days when it would disappear, she’d twist and stretch until she found the twinge. She knew it wasn’t really gone. But one shot of cortisone from an actual doctor and the pain was gone. What was left was the absence of pain.

She thought it was this absence that had been sapping her energy lately, but maybe it was vaping, or maybe it was teaching. She was thinking about her health and Donny when she heard the man knock on her door. She stood from her bed and walked to her door. She could smell the advanced stages of popcorn lung emanating from her every pore. She peeped through the peephole. “Hello?”

“It’s the exterminator.”

“Everything’s fine,” Hannah said, not opening the door.

“No roaches? No mice?”

“Nope.”

“Ok. Can you just sign this thing saying everthing’s fine.”

“Sure.” Hannah Anna pulled a sweatshirt over her breasts so as to be presentable when she opened the door. She had cute tits that looked cuter hidden away. Hannah in general had that round-faced cuteness that had an undercurrent of untapped sexiness. The kind that caused her mother to say things like, “you could be really beautiful if you tried a little.”

She opened the door and penned where penning was needed. Hannah Anna just last year, and without realizing it or really thinking about it, had moved to the Black part of town and most of her building was inhabited by single men in their fifties. Hannah had grown accustomed to a certain amount of space during her marriage, but the divorce had left her in a bit of financial ruin. Her new apartment was huge and cheap because racism had kept this neighborhood yet untouched by gentrification. Hannah was conspicuous. She and the entire building of fifty-something Black bachelors had burdened themselves and each other with ridiculous displays of gender performance. Or was it a racial performance? Or both? She felt guilty for taking up space here. She knew all the stories, had taught all the stories. Black boys whistling at white women, making eyes at white women, bumping shoulders with white women—all leading to murderous white riots and the destruction of the Black Diaspora. And she kind of suspected she might be part of a new bloodless coup.

Her neighbor Tony was entering his apartment as Hannah Anna penned the exterminator’s sheet. Tony caused Hannah some discomfort because he required daily flirtation. She was often left exhausted by the exchange of witty back and forth.

“I heard you come in last night,” Tony said. “Three a.m.? You had me worried.”

“Oh jeez, Tony, I hate that I wake you up.” Hannah Anna’s door makes an awful squeal as it passes across the marble threshold. She’s gotten good at lifting the door to reduce the friction, but Tony still hears it.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s alright, so long as I know you’re home safe.”

“Oh, that’s sweet, Tony, happy New Year.”

“How bout you buddy?” The exterminator interrupted. “Mice? Roaches?”

“Oh no. They’re in their winter homes in Florida.” Tony joked.

“Heehee.”

“Have a good day.”

“Haha, you too now.”

Hannah was just about to shut the door when Tony stuck his foot at the jamb. Tony was in bad shape for his age and walked with a cane, but he still wore heavy, mud-caked work boots. “Hold up doll, I got something for you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Hannah said, releasing Tony’s foot.

“Well, it’s two things. Wait here a minute.” Tony hobbled to his apartment and retrieved two things. “This here’s from me.”

“Tsk, Tony, that is so sweet.”

“It’s only a Christmas card. There isn’t any cash.”

“Heehee. You shouldn’t have. Thank you.”

“And this here some woman dropped off while you were out. She was cute. Made me promise I wouldn’t tell you who left it for you, but I didn’t get her name so how could I? But she was really very cute; I thought you’d like to know that. Who doesn’t like getting a gift from a pretty lady?”

“She left it for me? Me specifically?”

“Yeah, she was trying to leave it in the foyer, but I told her this isn’t that kind of building. She seemed antsy after that. Actually she seemed concerned. Like she was worried about you. She kept asking if you were safe here. And you know, I flexed my bicep a little, told her as long as Tony was your neighbor, you’d be more than safe.”

“Weird,” Hannah said. “I mean, what happened, this woman. Not your virility. And she didn’t say who she was? What she wanted?”

“No. I just assumed she was your sister or somebody. But then I remembered you’re not from around here and that you don’t have a sister. And I think, but I’m not sure, she was some kind of Spanish, and you’re not Spanish.”

“Well thanks Tony. And Merry Christmas. And happy New Year again.” Hannah Anna Lisa shut the door and removed her pants and sweatshirt. Her painkillers were kicking in and she was getting pleasantly itchy; also, the hallway conversation had made her a little lightheaded. She crawled back into bed with the mystery envelope. She hesitated, then quickly ripped the envelope open, nearly tearing the note inside. It was written in block letters just like the others. It said: DEAR HANNAH ANNA LISA, HEEHEE, I KNOW I’M SUCH A NUT! BUT I CAN’T MOVE ON. I NEED TO TRY. CAN’T WE PLEASE TALK ABOUT US? THE TWO OF US ARE ALL I THINK ABOUT. GIVE ME SOME SIGN YES OR NO.

Hannah was too relaxed to be afraid, but she understood this was not good. The secret admirer had found out where she lived. And it was definitely a girl; now both Donny and Tony confirmed seeing her. This added another layer of fear: what if people suspected Hannah of lesbianism and pedophilia? They might find out that she had dated a woman in the past, while in trial separation from her husband, and that it was the actual lesbian, not Hannah, who had ended things. One indiscretion might confirm the other in suspecting minds.

But then this new note had another strange effect on Hannah. It made her feel special. Hannah had hoped when she was younger and more romantic that someone would someday see the special light within her, and if someone saw it, then it must be there, it must be evidence of her importance in the world. She’d given up that dream, but just for today she would allow it. She’d gotten a mediocre (not bad, just humph) evaluation at school and she hadn’t had anything close to a satisfying sexual encounter in over a year. Her self-esteem was in the toilet, and so just for today, she would allow herself to live in the illusion that she was loved. That she was chosen specifically for love. It was Saturday after all, and she had a date later that day with a man she’d met online. Best to enter those situations with at least a peppering of confidence. She’d worry about the letter and her safety later.

~

Hannah met her date at a wine bar in the city. He had chosen the spot, but as Hannah Anna walked toward it she realized she’d been there before on another date with a man from the internet. How that could be possible in a city this big was beyond her. She worried for a moment that maybe she had gone out with this man before and that they were accidentally on a repeat first date, but their profile pictures and their ‘about me’ sections had changed and they didn’t recognize each other. I guess that’d be something to laugh about at least, she thought. A gust of familiar smelling subway wind enveloped her as she waited to cross the street, reminding her, just a wafting whisper of a reminder, that, “Hannah Anna, you’re not real.” What is this phenomenon of realness anyway? Of feeling real? Sometimes she’d have these conversations in her head and her dad would answer. He was the person she talked to when she talked to herself. Reality is a shared delusion, he might say. Reality is the sum of our subjective experiences that only god can calculate.

The man did not look familiar. For some reason this made Hannah sad. He had a brand new face. It was a nice face, he was a good looking guy, but she was hoping, I don’t know, to feel like she knew this person already, whatever the hell that meant. They ordered their own glasses of wine and considered sharing something from the small bites section of the menu. Hannah Anna let him make a suggestion before she made hers, even though she desperately wanted to eat the assorted olives and cheeses.

“I’m off dairy right now,” the man said, “So anything but cheese.”

She was relieved she’d kept her mouth shut and not mentioned the cheeses. Disaster averted. She still had her insecurities to worry about though. For instance, she was putting off dealing with her facial hair for one more day, but was that a wise decision? The lighting was a smidge too bright and he could probably see her moustache.

“Want to share this vegan flatbread?” Hannah suggested.

“Ehh, I hate the word vegan and everything it stands for, but that has basically everything I eat on it, so yes.” He laughed at himself and Hannah laughed too. Good, things were light. Once they’d each gotten the mundane stuff out of the way, the conversation flowed nicely, easily, in a way that made Hannah Anna feel open and honest. It was the kind of free association banter that Hannah Anna hadn’t known she was looking for, but was exactly what she’d been missing in her life. She wasn’t even sure what they were talking about, just that they were talking and that it was agreeable and easy. And he was cute. At first she didn’t think she was going to find him attractive because in his profile pictures he had a very gummy smile, but in real life that didn’t bother her. Maybe this was going somewhere.

The man leaned in. “I usually date eights or nines,” he said, “and then I realize too late we have nothing to talk about. Beautiful women can be so vapid.”

Hannah Anna perhaps should have taken that statement personally, but instead she read it as an invitation to share. They’d gotten there already! Complaining about past dating experiences, like they were so relieved to have met each other. Ok, she thought, I’ll go with it.

“I keep getting involved with men I don’t respect,” Hannah Anna confided, “but then I do that thing where…”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” The man snapped back in his stool.

“…I try to fix them. What?”

“You date men you don’t respect? What are you trying to say? What, you don’t respect me? I make like six figures and you’re a couple years older than me. I mean, I’m the one going out on a limb here. Didn’t you hear me? I usually get eights or nines, even tens, but I didn’t want to say that because I didn’t want you to feel ugly. You know what, I don’t have to sit through this.” The man, whose face had looked so gentle just moments earlier, turned gummy and foul. He stood and Hannah could see now that he had the ass and wide hips of a woman.

“Ok.” Hannah said. She was in shock, paralyzed by the man’s sudden change in character.

“Good luck being single with that attitude. You know, it’s rude to talk about other dates when you’re out with somebody. And you have bad hair.” With that the man stormed out of the wine bar.

“Jesus Christ,” Hannah said out loud. She looked down at the smeared plate where the flatbread used to be, and the man’s empty glass, his third. “Do I have to pay for this?”

The patron beside Hannah heard the disturbance and offered his comfort. “Don’t listen to that guy, doll. You’re a solid eight. I bet you were a ten in your twenties.”

“I am in my twenties. I mean I just turned thirty.”

“You know what I mean. Listen, just get out of here. I’ll take care of your bill, just go home and forget that asshole.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Hannah stood. She looked at the patron one last time for reassurance and he nodded. She made a thank you face even though she kind of didn’t believe he would pay, and she stood to leave. Awkwardly, she put on her jacket, wincing as she raised her bad shoulder, forgetting that she didn’t have a bad shoulder anymore, and she left the wine bar.

She felt at once huge and lumbering in her exit and also utterly invisible. The largest nonexistent creature in the entire universe. A goddamn spectacle of falsehood. What had just happened? She’d shown up on time. Had she talked too much? Had she not paid the man many compliments? This is exactly the kind of thing that would happen to her.

She puffed on her e-cig as she walked toward her building. If you’d seen her, you’d think she was deep in thought, but Hannah Anna’s thoughts didn’t run as deep as they used to. Her thoughts skipped along the reflective surface that was the pond of perpetual social self-doubt. Tony was outside sitting by his car holding court with some other men from the building. Hannah Anna knew she’d have to do a little flirting before she was allowed to go upstairs. She wanted to cry.

“Hey fellas.”

Tony didn’t seem to pay her any mind. He began flailing his arms in front of himself. “Oh no, see now that right there is a deal breaker,” Tony said audibly to his friends. “I don’t date a woman who smokes.”

Hannah was too inward to know he was talking about her so she proceeded to unlock the front door silently. All the men crowed, “Ooooh. That’s cold! She cold!”

Hannah Anna turned around. “I’m sorry guys, were you talking to me?”

“I was just saying I’m not in love with you anymore,” Tony said. “Because you’re a smoker. I don’t date a woman who smokes.” Tony was hanging out of the passenger side of his car that he kept parked outside the building’s entrance. Jazz played from the speakers, his bum leg stretched out long towards the curb. Hannah could see through his shirt that his left pec had grown triangular and loose with age. He had a saggy tit, probably two.

“Oh,” Hannah Anna said. She looked at her e-cig and considered explaining to the men what it was, and maybe Tony would consider being in love with her again, and this impulse confused her. “Aw shucks. Sucks for me I guess,” she said, smiling coyly. She felt her race, her gender keenly. Felt everyone feeling out their place on the totem pole.

Poor Hannah Anna Lisa crawled back into bed for a scratchy scratch, and, I don’t know, practiced her Spanish straight through Sunday. White men on internet dating sites like to say that they’re “killing it,” meaning that they’re really good at life. Hannah thought about this on days when she was in bed before the sun had gone down. She most certainly was not killing it.

~

Because her life had turned into a series of humiliations great and small, the events of the weekend were not especially out of the ordinary, but Hannah nevertheless had to do a little mental workout to keep from losing her footing. Much of this mental work was an exercise in forgetting and repressing, so it really wasn’t all that strange that Hannah Anna had forgotten about her secret admirer. Someone else might have been more vigilant after something like that, but the notes had caused in her such a sick amalgam of emotions, all she could manage to do was pretend they didn’t exist. That’s why Hannah Anna didn’t think to check her school mail box first thing Monday morning. It was out of the way, and she was running a little late, and if she didn’t sign the sign-in book at exactly eight o’clock or earlier then the principal would write her a letter that would end up in her personal file, and if a person gets even one letter in her personal file that can be grounds for her school to deny her any number of things she might want in the future, from a small increase in pay to continued employment. Even a signature at eight-o-one is grounds for such a letter and the whole staff knew it. Mail could be checked at any time in the day, but that book had to be signed. So that’s why she didn’t see what was waiting for her in the mailroom.

Hannah Anna was writing the day’s objective on her white board when she heard her name over the PA system. It was the principal, who could not mask his disdain. “Ms. Lisa, if you are in the building, will you please address your mailbox situation. I repeat, Ms. Lisa, if you are in the building, please address your mailbox situation. Other faculty members must be able to freely access their boxes without obstruction.”

Hannah Anna broke into a sweat. Had she neglected her box for so long that it now impaired other people’s access to their own boxes? Was she in some kind of trouble? She rushed to the first floor to see about her mail box situation. Her smug principal was standing in front of the mailroom, arms akimbo, waiting for her. He had a walkie hanging from each of his pants pockets and they were both at full volume. All the school administrators had walkies to communicate quickly in case of an emergency, but only the most dickish kept theirs on full volume. The principal was the kind of man who was killing it, and Hannah Anna was suddenly very self-conscious about the humidity’s effects on her hair.

“Good morning Dr. Person, I’m so sorry, I had no idea I’d let my mailbox get so disorderly.”

“Ms. Lisa?” Dr. Person squinted and pointed: a gesture less to confirm who she was and more to suggest that she was not important enough for him to recognize personally.

“Yes.” Hannah Anna swallowed hard and stepped forward to see her mess. She could not believe her eyes. It appeared as though a Pinterest page for someone’s quinceanera had vomited all over the room. There was crepe paper strewn about, multi-colored balloons, flowers, both real and hand-crafted from pipe cleaner and tissue paper. It was beautiful and absurd. Hannah found herself in a fit of nervous laughter. “I’m sorry, Dr. Person,” she said, holding her mouth, “is this some kind of joke? Is it my birthday?”

“You’re the only one laughing,” he said, straight-faced.

“I’m not really sure what’s going on.”

“I’ll be sending out an email, but it should go without saying that these types of displays are not allowed in the school without executive approval.”

“I didn’t do this.”

Dr. Person had already averted his eyes and was reaching for his right-side walkie. “The faculty at Mahatma Gandhi High should not be required to bear witness to your romantic life, Ms. Lisa. Tell your paramour to cool his jets.”

This, Hannah thought, from a man who uses the school email list to send out holiday pics of his family’s trip to Turks and Caicos. We’ve all seen your nipples! “Wishing you and yours!” But we could talk double standards for the rest of our lives, couldn’t we? What stung most was that Hannah Anna didn’t even have a paramour, but Dr. Person was already walking away, and there was no point in defending yourself to men like that. With men like that, it’s best to just acquiesce and hope they forgot about you by the afternoon. Hannah turned once again to the confetti fart she now had to undo. A streaming of crepe paper led the eye toward her box, where she could see that there was a scroll-like object unfurled at its opening. She went to the scroll and read its contents. The author had used bubble paint.

“Oh my!” Hannah Anna was not prepared for what she read, so it was not her fault that she got a little turned on at first, just before she went cold with humiliation. Dr. Person was not entirely in the wrong to be so upset about this display of affection, especially if he had read the scroll. She cleaned up the mess that now felt dreadfully pornographic and rehearsed what she would say to Dr. Person, because she felt now it was her obligation to tell him the whole story. She had a secret admirer who was obviously becoming more and more brazen. Forget the ambivalence, the least of which were her own feelings of unworthiness, and finally tell someone.

Her hands and shirt front were still dusted with glitter when she knocked on Dr. Person’s office door. Though she’d rehearsed, speaking to authority figures always made her nervous. It was her experience that people in charge tended more often than not to be dangerous idiots and so one must choose her words wisely. She choked up and stuttered apologetically through her explanation while he nodded suspiciously, as though he’d already forgotten who she was.

“So, what’s the problem exactly?” Dr. Person asked.

Hannah Anna thought she’d made it clear she was being harassed, or at least that she was in the beginning stages of harassment, but Dr. Person’s eye-balls had a fuzziness that indicated he’d lost the thread of comprehension. She knew that look from the classroom. She would need to differentiate her delivery. “I kept the scroll,” she said, tongue-tied.

“What scroll?”

Hannah handed him the erotic scroll. “Whoever it is,” Hannah Anna said, “this is really creepy and totally inappropriate in a school. You could say it’s harassment.”

“Oh, I didn’t see this.” Dr. Person read a few lines, eyed Hannah Anna up and down, then read the rest. “Are you sure this was left for you?” He seemed now incredulous toward the very thing he had scolded her for moments earlier.

“It’s addressed to me.”

“Oh, yes.” Dr. Person was flustered and shifting in his seat now.

“I thought you’d seen it, that’s why you were so upset.” Hannah Anna immediately regretted her wording. Dr. Person’s expression stiffened at the accusation that she could possibly inspire even the slightest emotion in him.

“I wasn’t upset. I don’t get upset, Ms. Lisa. It was quite clear from the way the streamers led the eye to your box that that spectacle was meant for you. I have no need to go reading your personal correspondences.”

“I didn’t…this isn’t…that scroll is not personal…”

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“What am I supposed to do with this?” Hannah Anna snapped back in frustration. “I have no idea who’s sending these notes, I’ve done nothing to attract this attention, and now this person is showing up at my home and vandalizing the mail room.”

Dr. Person scoffed at Hannah’s concerns. “I’d hardly call it vandalism, Ms. Lisa. And you really expect me to believe you don’t know who this is?”

And there it was, the first accusation that confirmed all of Hannah Anna’s initial fears. Defeated, she made one final plea: “Can’t security look at the cameras? I mean, somebody must have seen something. A person couldn’t have done all that without someone noticing.”

Dr. Person leaned back in his chair, legs spread, nonchalant, self-satisfied even. “I mean, I’ll look into it. But, now that I’ve read this, it’s obviously by a woman.” He whispered the word as though it were a slur and eyed Hannah Anna as though she were also one. “So, there’s… you know, it’s not… what’s she gonna do?”

“Huh?”

“What I mean is a woman doesn’t pose the same threat. I mean, a woman isn’t like a man.”

“A woman isn’t like a man,” Hannah repeated matter-of-factly. She sighed in defeat. “Dr. Person, this is really embarrassing for me, and I don’t want to be a nuisance…” She fought back the tears that often came when Hannah felt frustrated. She hated getting emotional, but it seemed to have a thawing effect on Dr. Person.

“Oh no, sweetie, this isn’t your fault,” he said, three parts condescension one part contrition.

“I just think it’s important,” Hannah said, choking through her constricting throat, “since we’re working with kids, that you know the full story here and maybe security should know.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll make sure security sees this.” He lifted the erotic scroll and grinned.

All was forgotten by the lunch bell. And perhaps if Hannah Anna didn’t have the sparkly reminders embedded in her clothes she’d have forgotten too. Her students were, thank god, in a studious mood. The topic was justice. The text was Antigone. The consensus was she was right, but she should be punished anyway. Donny had stared at Hannah the entire fifty minutes of class and did not, to her knowledge, blink once.

When Hannah Anna was leaving the building for the day, she had the uncanny feeling that all eyes were on her. But maybe that’s what it was like in general having a secret admirer. She’d always had an amiable relationship with the school’s security team, but as she left the building things felt different. Two of the guards winked at her and one called her baby and mami and gave her a squeeze on her shoulder.

Hannah Anna got in her car and headed to the gym. She was going for a run despite these bizarre events. She knew if she didn’t head to the gym now, she’d just end up in her bed waiting for the sun to go down. She ran a hard thirty minutes and then treated herself to a shvitzing. Hannah loved getting naked in the women’s locker room. She loved sweating it out in the sauna, tits flopping in unbeautiful directions, gut out, pubes in disarray. She felt entirely unselfconscious there, even among some of the younger and more orderly bodies. Women knew how to treat each other in the locker room. They knew how to ignore each other. No demands. No conversation. Eyes steadily ahead and hot nudity along the periphery.

In here it was all about Hannah Anna’s singular bodily experience on this planet. It was all about her. And, because she got out of work earlier than most adults, she often had the locker room sauna all to herself. She sprawled out along the white aspen bench and pushed Donny and Dr. Person and Tony and everyone out of her mind. She filled it back up with her father, imagining him as Carl Sagan, saying Carl Sagany things about the pale blue dot while she fingered the sweat around her navel. She was absorbed entirely in a self-interest that spanned the cosmos. Then, quite suddenly, the feeling was gone. And she felt instead the terrible sense that someone was watching her. She snapped her eyes open and spotted the silhouette of a young woman peering through the window of the sauna door. Hannah gasped and nearly fell off the bench. The woman was gone before Hannah could truly make out her features. Hannah rushed to the door, nearly slipping on the wet floor, to try to catch a final glimpse, but the girl had vanished. Was it her? Jesus, did she follow me here? Hannah felt a rush flow through her. Perhaps she had gone from hot to cold too suddenly, but she felt it in her cunt specifically. Who was she? If she wanted to talk so badly, why was she so evasive?

~

Hannah was proud of herself for returning home after sundown. She’d made full use of her day. Tony, of course, was hanging out of his car in front of the building, but this time he was not with the men. He was having what looked like an impassioned conversation with a woman. The woman looked to be Hannah Anna’s age, maybe younger.

“Hey Tony,” Hannah said, slipping her key in the front door.

“Oh, Hannah, hey. This is my daughter, Nicole. See Nicole, I said the neighborhood is safer. Look: a white lady.”

They all laughed.

“Nice to meet you, Nicole. Your Dad’s the best neighbor a girl could ask for.”

Nicole looked to her feet, almost disgusted by Hannah’s statement. “Yes, well, Tony, I’m sure, is a good neighbor.”

“He is,” Hannah said shyly, wondering if she’d offended.

“My dad raised me,” Nicole blurted. “I don’t have a mother.”

“Come on now Nicole, don’t be like that,” Tony interrupted.

“Well, it’s true; isn’t it?”

Hannah wasn’t sure if she was actually part of this conversation, but she spoke anyway. “That’s tough. My father died young.”

Nicole looked Tony in the eye intently. “My mother’s not dead,” she said. “She’s just someone else now.”

Hannah was utterly confused by the nature of this small talk. Tony was kind of shifting his weight from good leg to bad leg. Hannah thought he might cry. Embarrassed, she fumbled with the door and said her good byes.

She began preparing a single lady’s dinner of wheat pasta with Trader Joe’s puttanesca when her phone buzzed from a text. She didn’t want her meatless meat balls to burn on the frying pan, so she didn’t look right away. Less than a minute went by when it buzzed again. Then again. Then again. Hannah was worried it was her mom; maybe someone was dead? She turned the burner off to look. At first she didn’t recognize the number, but she could tell from the content who they were from:

8:46 i want to apologize for my behavior last weekend i was a total jerk and you were great if you wanna try to fix me i’d be one lucky guy 🙂

8:47 i mean, you said some stuff too i think you should give me a second chance i’m really not a bad guy pweety pweeeze 😉

8:47 i put myself out there and this is what happens, radio silense, bitches be cold

8:47 you know what fuck you, this was a moment of weekness on my part and your last chance consider yourself blocked

Hannah wished in this moment that she had a best friend to call like when she was younger and before the divorce and before everyone had kids. That best friend would laugh and make fun of this audacious man with horrible spelling and the bottom of a woman. And they would come up with fun and cruel nicknames for him and reference him whenever they would embark on a new blind date. He’d become a type of man that they were now subjected to in their dating lives, and they would support each other after these inauspicious encounters. Now that best friend doesn’t exists. So she called her mom instead.

“You’re just being too picky, you have to give people a chance.”

“You divorced Dad. Were you too picky?”

“Your father, Hannah, was a junkie.”

“I don’t want to talk about this. I was trying to complain about my life.”

“Well I don’t know what to tell you. Dad was a junkie.”

“You’re being awful right now. I want to talk about me.”

“Hannah, be fair. I was married to the man. I’ve made my peace, but I get to say what I want. I’m sixty years old, and for fuck’s sake, I’m going to say what’s on my mind. What? What’s all that sighing about?”

“Well, now you’ve got me thinking.”

“What?”

“Well, I’ve been teaching Antigone, and, what if we’re cursed? What if I’m kind of a junkie because Dad was a junkie? Like how all of Oedipus’s children are fucked? What if this is the Lisa family brand of the Oedipal curse?”

“Argh.”

“What?”

“I just thought that after the divorce I wouldn’t have to have these pseudo-literate, self-indulgent woe-is-me conversations masquerading as intellectual discourse. Jesus, what are you teaching these poor children?”

“Fuck you.”

“I love you too, Hannah.”

“Good night, Mom.”

“G’night, sweet girl.”

~

Hannah was now swallowing three to five Percocet during dinner and was out before ten pm. She liked to study Spanish a little fuzzy just before bed now. Cuando era la nina, yo jugaba con juguetes. Cuando era la nina, yo jugaba con mi padre. Me gustaria un poquito de agua, por favor. Gracias. De nada. Out like a light.

Hannah Anna would have stayed asleep straight through the night if not for the commotion that broke out in her hallway. She heard the shrieking first from inside Tony’s apartment. Tony’s voice now sounded decidedly feminine. Hannah was surprised she hadn’t noticed before. Hannah went to her front door and looked out of her peephole to see what was going on. She saw Tony’s door swing open. He wasn’t wearing any pants. Hannah was mesmerized by the void between his legs, and his tits were visible through his white tank, the hardness of his nipples brought a sexy firmness to his chest. And he looked tall and strong despite the absence of a penis and the one thin leg. Tony had one of the other neighbors, a short and forever drunk retired marine whose name Hannah didn’t know and who always called her Teach, by the scruff of his neck. The man, too, was in a stage of undress. The man was laughing as Tony beat him over the head.

“Don’t you fucking talk to me like that, you motherfucker!” Tony shouted, foaming at the edges of his mouth. “Nobody want you! You nasty ass nigga with your little dick! Nobody want you!” Tony kicked the man out of his apartment and straight down the hall, all the while the man was laughing and mumbling slurs underneath his breath. Hannah could see Tony was shaking and on the verge of tears. In solidarity, Hannah watched silently to make sure Tony got back in his apartment safely.

Hannah now understood the tension between Tony and his daughter. She wasn’t sure why, but Hannah blamed herself for all of it. Everyone’s pain. She opened her door, forgetting entirely the terrible noise it made as it scraped across the threshold. It must have startled someone; Hannah heard a nervous shuffling from the stairwell. She wanted to spit at the marine for all he’d said. Feeling bold, Hannah peered down the stairs to inspect. Hannah saw at the landing a young woman instead, crouched over a dozen or so pink and red hearts cut from construction paper. The girl looked up at Hannah like a frightened doe. She tried to gather herself to flee, but Hannah cornered her at the landing.

“It’s you,” Hannah said. Hannah moved closer toward the young woman, forcing the girl to press herself against the wall to avoid contact. The girl tucked her chin into her chest and squeezed her eyes shut. “What do you think you’re up to, coming to my home?”

The girl didn’t answer. She was visibly afraid. Hannah felt something she’d never actually felt before. It was thrilling, intoxicating, like snapping your teeth into a raw steak. Her senses sharpened. She pushed even closer to the girl, who Hannah recognized from her fourth period class, the same as Donny’s, but Hannah couldn’t in this moment think of the child’s name. She was a quiet kid who rarely spoke and who had left little of an impression. Hannah now had the girl pinned.

“There are boundaries that must be respected,” Hannah explained to the student.

The girl did not speak. She shrunk further into herself, becoming smaller as Hannah felt herself swelling, growing expansive and dangerous. The sensation was undoubtedly sexual. Hannah savored it, allowing the child to quiver in silence, utterly terrified. Hannah somehow managed to get even closer, splitting atoms to avoid actual contact. Her voice deep and throaty, Hannah spoke through the girl’s shiny black hair, the fly-aways tickling Hannah’s upper-lip. “Just as it is entirely unethical for a teacher to violate the trust of a student, it is also entirely disrespectful for a student to violate the boundaries of a teacher’s personal space.”

The girl remained bowed and panting. Hannah nuzzled the girl’s ear like a dog because she could. It felt incredible. It felt like she could stomp out the whole world with the tip of her nose. “The things you have written,” Hannah continued, “the sexual things, that’s no way to address a teacher.”

Hannah wanted to press her crotch on the child. The more paralyzed with fear the child became the more this desire was aroused. The young girl had had no idea what it was she had actually been begging for, but it was clearly not this, but then it also was this. Hannah knew she could do whatever she wanted to this kid, and that thought became the words, “I can do whatever I want with this kid,” inside Hannah’s head. The greed of the moment collapsed with this realization. The teasing in Hannah’s canines receded, and she made room between herself and the girl. The space between them cooled.

“There is no ‘us’ to talk about, you understand?” The girl didn’t respond. “Do you understand,” Hannah reiterated.

“Yes Miss.”

“Leave,” Hannah said.

The girl didn’t budge right away. She was loving the terror. She was toying with looking up, her eyes squinting the way eyes do when they look at the sun. “Miss?”

“Leave!” Hannah snapped, and the girl bolted.

~

Hannah didn’t usually take a Percocet before work, but she was not at all looking forward to seeing other humans. The very real events of the night before would most certainly require some kind of something. She wasn’t sure what she had to do, or what she was going to do, but she knew it was her professional responsibility to act. So she gave herself a little dreamy assistance. Her worst fears were realized when she found yet another note tucked away in her mailbox. This time the girl had written in script; an obvious attempt at whimsy. The note read: Set a huge mountain ‘tween my heart and tongue! Hannah couldn’t place the allusion in her current state, but she understood that her student had now upped the ante with this new level of literary sophistication. Jesus, Hannah thought, this kid is relentless.

Hannah wanted to confront the girl one last time on her own, now that she knew who she was, to see if she could talk sense into her. The last thing Hannah wanted was to humiliate the kid by getting the authorities involved. She certainly didn’t want to humiliate herself either. Hannah went about her day as usual, counting down the minutes until her fourth period class. Hannah rehearsed in her head what she would say to the girl. She fantasized about the myriad possibilities of how the whole confrontation could play out. When the moment finally came though, the momentum was gone. The girl acted as she always had. She’d retrieved her journal and went right to work. She didn’t seem at all uncomfortable or nervous, in fact the girl seemed to have matured overnight. She was taller, her spine straighter. She’d even greeted Hannah confidently and said good morning. Had Hannah hallucinated the whole thing? Or was this just kind of how the rest of the year was going to be? Every school year posed its own unique challenges with its own cast of characters.

“All right,” Hannah said. “Let’s open to page twelve-fifty, scene one, act three.” Hannah grimaced quizzically at the sea of compliant page turning. What a weird job, she thought to herself. She felt then suddenly the absence of a presence and realized what it was.

“Where’s Donny?” she asked.

No one answered right away, but a few kids began looking to each other nervously.

“What’s wrong?”

The girl, who until today had gone entirely unnoticed, spoke from the back of the room with a booming and commanding self-assurance. “He’s in the hospital,” she said. “He tried to rip his own throat out of his neck.”

A couple of kids laughed nervously, hearing the horror of the news in such frank terms. The girl didn’t flinch. Because she could now, she looked Hannah Anna heavily in the eyes until it was Hannah who lowered her gaze and turned to act three.

 

by Dawn Ryan

 

Dawn Ryan.JPGDawn Ryan is a graduate of the Rutgers Newark MFA Program in Creative Writing. Her short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, and American Short Fiction. She reads, writes, eats, sleeps and loves in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, with her wife and brand new baby girl.

About the Artwork

The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.

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