I Chose The Wave. By Amy Botula.
Leave it to high school juniors to determine what their English teacher needed. I was invited to the School of Rock Showcase only to discover later my students had appointed themselves yentas. It had taken 14 years to happen, this gesture of match-making. Not when I was teaching elementary school in a mostly Mormon community, still in my twenties, and reminding parents to refer to me as “Ms.” Not when I taught middle school and was settling into my thirties. But now, at 40, courtesy of three shaggy punk rock kids.
On the Monday after the show, Sydney—the ringleader—lingered at the end of class to thank me for coming. We chatted about the set list, how she was new to drumming but had been playing bass for years, and then I finally had to ask: “Who was that tall guy who kept coming over to talk with you? The one with the red scarf and long coat?”
“Um…actually…it’s funny you ask. That’s my bass teacher, Paul. We think you should hang out.” Nervous throat-clearing punctuated each phrase.
“You guys are setting me up?” I felt like a charity case, so hopeless I needed sixteen-year-olds to find me dates. But I was also intrigued. It was hard not to notice the bass teacher. Beyond being tall, he had dyed black hair and a weathered face. Throughout the show, he moved between talking with kids or standing in corners. We left at the same time, and he held the door for me with a dramatic flourish, bowing as I walked by.
“Yeah, I guess so.” Sydney replied.
“Huh…well…” I wondered if my face and neck were red, traits that guaranteed my inability to win at poker. And then I thought about my other options: continuing the crushes on my married and otherwise unavailable co-workers. “Get me an email address.”
Sydney and her friends proved psychic. Not only did they intuit that I needed a distraction from the nagging sense that something was wrong with my life and with me, they chose the right distraction. Paul felt both familiar and thrilling. He was viciously smart, irreverent, and entertaining. A reminder of what I wanted but didn’t realize.
What I wanted was one of the many questions a summer’s worth of travel in Asia and India had released. I returned home more disoriented than when I was wandering around India. In those weeks, I gave into the wave that pushed me from place to place and person to person. Like surfing a crowd at a punk show, I let myself be passed and carried, trusting that the hands would hold me. But as I resumed my life as a high school English teacher back in Portland, I couldn’t find the stage and I didn’t see the hands. There were just piles of student work to be graded and a to-do list that never ended.
In September, I blamed it on jetlag and culture shock. I returned only days before the back-to-school planning meetings started. A bold step for me, as I usually devoted August to prepping for the new school year.
In November, I attributed it to the need for sleep. With over 100 students divided into Freshman English, Junior English, and Honors Juniors—high stakes classes where the freshmen needed structure and the juniors needed to be humbled—it was all A-game all the time. No sub days, no slacking.
In the past, my response to doubt was to swallow it and continue to work.
By January, this solution was no longer enough.
From witty email exchanges to hours-long phone conversations to text messages appearing exactly when I needed a laugh, the courtship with Paul took a fever pitch but never led to actual consummation. It’s easiest explained this way: Paul was a chess player and a recovering junkie. Every choice was deliberate, every action elicited control. Vulnerability was avoided at all costs.
We saw each other once, unplanned but anticipated. Sydney’s band had a show at Satyricon, the scene where I had spent most of the early 90s, glued to Riley’s —my then boyfriend—side. Walking into the club, the first time in almost a decade, I saw Paul before even taking in the band. He walked up to me, leaned in and made a joke about wanting to stand close to make the kids nervous. As he spoke, a few strands of his hair brushed my cheek and the phrase “done deal” wove round my head, a mantra bringing comfort and confirmation. At the end of the show, we stood together and chatted with the kids and their parents. Sydney and her friends kept looking at us, and each time either of us caught them, averted their eyes and giggled. Paul begged off going out afterward; he felt a cold coming on and thought it’d be best to go home.
It took me three weeks to realize that the eight-block distance between us would only be bridged by phone and screen. When pressed, he declared an inability to be in a relationship, and I drew a line in response. I had fallen for him quickly. His humor, the way I felt when we talked, his intelligence, all of it was refreshing and shook me out of self-imposed monotony. But I wanted the full experience of him. And if that wasn’t an option, then no connection was.
Two months later, he texted me asking to be friends. After grieving him more than most of the men who had come before him, I consented. I missed his presence and decided it was possible to wipe the slate and start over.
But phones and screens invite flirtation and innuendo far more than friendship. Late one Saturday night, our conversation steadily moved from chit-chat to negotiation:
He: I could spend the night with you.
Me: That’s funny, I was just thinking that it would be so nice to have you lie beside me and stroke my hair.
He: That sounds nice.
He: But I would want to do more.
Me: What do you want from me?
He: I want you to give yourself to me completely.
Me: Can I set the terms?
He: Of course.
Me: Okay, let me think about it.
I didn’t need long, and though my heart was beating to the point of knocking, a larger part of me was calm and knew that what Paul was proposing was right. And good.
No more than ten minutes later, I responded:
I’m agreeing to this for two reasons: first,
I’m tired of being scared of sex. It’s been a long time and that lapse has made me fear it. Second, I trust you. Even though I don’t really know you, something shows me that I can. But these are my conditions: no third parties, no video, no camera, no candles or burning, no knives or cutting. You need to know that I don’t do a Brazilian and I don’t bleach my anus, but I do wax. No animals, no degradation of me or humiliation. No whips or chains. No golden showers or defecation. No punching or hitting. Can you agree to all of that?
I barely knew what I was talking about. All of this was new territory—most of my stipulations I pulled from pop culture and the gossip of my gay male friends. But the list came easily, naturally, just as saying Yes did. His response arrived the next morning:
He: Well, that was something to wake up to.
Me: Oh, my message? And?
Anticipation, mixed with adrenaline and the unattainable goal of grading 90 literary analysis essay outlines, moved the day forward quickly. I felt no need to consult with friends, parsing phrases to determine their meaning or trilling at the sordidness I was about to engage in. I was resolute. Ready.
An hour before we were supposed to meet, I called one of my dearest friends, explained the situation succinctly, and appointing her guardian, gave her Paul’s address. Just in case. Then I proceeded to shower and dress. I decided to leave my wallet, debit card and cash at home and then drove the five minutes it took to reach his house, bringing only my ID and phone.
For Spring, the night was cold, and jacketless, I shivered on the stoop, waiting for Paul to open the door. He greeted me with damp black hair and a hastily pulled on t-shirt that matched his faded corduroy jeans. Towering over me, he looked the way I remembered when I saw him at the show months before. I followed him up the stairs, taking in the smell of his hair, something floral and light—a reprieve from the dankness of his building’s hallway.
Beginning in my teens, I used sex to determine my worth. It started as a simple equation: Boy + me + kissing = He likes me. And grew algebraic quickly: Boy + me + both us running first through third bases. He really likes me. As I moved into my twenties, buoyed by Madonna, Camille Paglia, and Third-Wave Feminism, I realized I didn’t need to wait for the boy to make the first move. I chose to take control– perfecting my blowjob and mastering my ability to fuck on top. I became the willing one, the creative one– luring the boy back, ensuring his interest a little while longer. But by the time I reached my forties, I saw my so-called openness for what it was: a bag of tricks.
The control I sought in the bedroom wasn’t much different than what I created in the classroom. My students were mine. Their time was mine. And I was dedicated to them. On the rare occasion one of my tactics to garner their attention failed or a lesson didn’t take hold, students were still willing to admit that I was committed to them. They recognized the hours spent reviewing their work, researching new approaches, and creating curriculum just for them. Relationships and sex came and went, teaching remained—and with it, identity and purpose rolled together. I didn’t think I couldn’t want anything more.
Once inside his apartment, he led me to the couch. I sat first and then he put himself across me so that his long legs lay in my lap. I was taken aback by the familiarity, and finally, I got nervous. But he was happy to talk. We were both refugees from the early nineties rock scene in Portland, and he entertained me with stories of people we had in common. I avoided his gaze though. His nearly translucent blue eyes were like a mirror.
“Let’s go into the bedroom. It’s warmer there,” he said, at last.
As we moved onto the bed, he joked about his hippie tapestry-print bedspread—a blend of purple and blue hues, it was a departure from his metal aesthetic of black and more black. For a few moments, we lay on our stomachs talking idly and then he pulled me to him and held me from behind, wrapping all of himself around me. And I relaxed while a cycle began: me being lifted, placed, positioned, and led. Over and over again. Dress pushed up, stockings ripped, hair pulled. The occasional laugh and gasp. The murmur of “good girl.” I was taken back to a dream I had after the first night Paul and I spoke on the phone—more feeling than image, I was with him, being held and soothed.
There was no strategic lighting or seductive stance. No mood music or candles. There was just mouth and tongue. There was finger, hand, palm. Trust. Warmth. Safety. There was my body, his body. And me saying Yes.
On his bed, I wasn’t worried about the dynamics of the relationship and whether he really liked me; I wasn’t worried if I was doing a good job. I was there, clear-eyed sober and on my own terms. That was all that mattered.
On his bed, the piles of outlines still waiting for feedback were a distant memory as were the students who needed me every day. The person who wasn’t sure whether she could survive the pressures of the school year, who was tired of her narrow definitions for the words that weighed on her: work, purpose, and duty. That person? Her only job in this moment was to receive.
On his bed, I met a part of myself who craved a different life. A life much bigger than one relegated to the back pages of free weeklies and the Internet. Much bigger than one confined to a bed. Or to a classroom.
Amy Botula has NOLA in her heart, Portland under her feet, and Pittsburgh in her blood. She is a writer, advocate, and teacher. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus and Publicola, and in (the now defunct) Paperback Jukebox.
Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif. over New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Tuscany. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (2 spots left.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.