Elizabeth Foulke

Like the Movies

 

  Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself.
–Herman Melville

 

We’d grown accustomed to the cop car parked in front of school. Unmanned, it was meant to be a deterrent, though we weren’t sure for what—a possible school shooter, or the speeding cars that whipped past campus, their drivers rushing to make it on time to shifts at the hospital next door. Either way, its presence was meant to prevent something.

That afternoon the multiple police vehicles gave us pause as we walked through the parking lot. Krista or I said, “I wonder why they’re here.”

“I haven’t heard anything,” the other replied. And we probably guessed drugs since that seemed most likely, the only thing kids ever got into any real trouble for. And so we went on our run.

***

Much of what I cherish carries a predetermined end date. I knew I would move back East at the end of the year but the Tuesday runs up the Torrey Pines hill, like the accretion so visible in the San Diego cliffs, became a layer of sediment that completed a whole formation. Now, on the other side of the continent, the stratum of those afternoons with Krista lies sandwiched between all that came before and all that continues to be deposited.

***

Days later Krista fills me in on the mystery of the cop cars. “Leila stopped me as I was leaving. They asked her to cover Roger’s class while he got called into the office.  A little later he came back for his things and left in the middle of the day.

“Leila said, I kept warning him, Boundaries, Roger, boundaries!’  I don’t know why Leila was telling me this. I think maybe it has something to do with a student.”

Claire.

***

In cognitive neuroscience, the theory of predictive processing suggests that our version of the world is not simply the result of our sensory organs relaying the information they receive up to the brain for processing. Instead, years of moving through the physical world has furnished our mind with a landscape which is often predictable. We know an engine rev means a car is approaching, or that a sudden earthy smell heralds a rain shower. Either signal may spark an involuntary movement—we hop up on a curb or send our eyes skyward. We need not, nor can we, take in each bit of information that dwells outside our corporeal selves; there’s too much to process. So, this theory contends, we take in what is needed to survive. We are collectors storing what we’ve determined is essential, the result of an exchange between body and brain.

So what did the brain do? It focused on the most urgent or worrying or puzzling facts: those which indicated something unexpected. Instead of taking in a whole scene afresh each moment, as if it had never encountered anything like it before, the brain focused on the news: what was different, what had changed, what it didn’t expect.

Students stream by the breezeway outside of my class. Claire’s head is down as she shuffles by my classroom. I wonder why her hands don’t fly up as she talks to friends, why so quiet? Her voice not marked by its musical climbs and dips.

These past five years as her advisory teacher, I’ve come to learn what makes her sad: her dad’s drunken calls from Florida—the state he absconded to in order to avoid the law—her mom’s inability to manage the household finances. I ask Claire if she is okay. Her eyes meet mine and she gives me a quick hug before continuing to class.

Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, Claire and her friend sit at the table in the back of the room. I weave through my advisory students, asking about the scholarships they are applying for and their weekend plans. When I check in with Claire she says, “Oh, Ms. Foulke, I did something stupid and I wish I could take it back.”

“Claire, I think we all have.”

***

For the purpose of survival, what was needed was not a complete picture of the world but a useful one—one that guided action.

Each time she’d asked, I let Claire go to Roger’s classroom. She was an A student; her college applications were filled out and submitted. My understanding was that he was helping her with her AP Bio homework. Despite looking at her report cards throughout the year, I hadn’t noted that she was in AP Environmental Science and thus Roger wasn’t her teacher. Some facts my brain had determined to be unimportant, while others were deemed worthy of being stowed away.

My interactions with Roger led me to make calculations about his character. He was the chair of the tech committee. In this setting, it was his calm affect that struck me. Another role Roger took on was heading up the annual ice skating fundraiser. A hockey player, he had an in with the rink in the mall where his adult team practiced and played. He was younger than I and still had boyish features, which may have contributed to the easy interaction between him and the students. As we circled around the rink, nothing seemed newsworthy.

One of the more unusual encounters I had with Roger, perhaps the only one that my mind filed away as strange, had to do with his wedding. I briefly met his fiancé at an end-of-the-year party. He wanted to introduce us because she too was from the East and also a Red Sox fan. We had a strained conversation, the type in which it’s assumed you’ll hit it off because of a common interest but it quickly becomes clear that you don’t enjoy one another’s company. She was stilted and well put together.  I gravitate towards irreverent, self-deprecating, and disheveled. Still, I’d been invited to their wedding. Mostly because they had some guests drop out and extra food and were being married on an island in the bay not far from my parents’ house where I spent several weeks each summer. I hadn’t attended, grateful for the excuse of having an old friend and her family as company that weekend. It struck me as odd that they would invite someone they didn’t know well to their wedding as a sort of afterthought just to have a seat filled and some food consumed, as though this were a neighborhood block party and not a service commemorating a significant event. The fact that I remember this and not other things, say, from my friend’s visit, seems evidence that my brain found it strange. Later I took the need for more guests to be a sign of the beginning of a doomed union.

And yet, even the part of me that is not the result of what I’ve perceived with my eyes, or ears, or nose, or mouth, or skin, but that other intangible sense, the one that alerts animals to a tsunami and has them flying and scuttling about for shelter seeking high ground, even this part of me sent no signal.  I’d had my own run-in with a twenty-one-year-old man back in my high school days. Though my teen self hadn’t been able to put the experience to much good use, as an adult who’d spent time in therapy revisiting the unfortunate incidents of my past, I’d learned who to stay away from and developed a visceral type of knowing. My own history and the couch sessions didn’t alert my mind or my body to the subtle stirrings of Roger’s desire. I had stored certain facts but they failed to work in tandem to give me a complete picture.

***

Despite concrete reinforcements and the stilt-like stakes burrowed into the hills of Southern California, every few years when the rain finally comes, multimillion dollar homes go sliding down the cliffs and a few people die. Nevertheless, houses continue to be erected on these steep slopes. We haven’t yet learned that preventive measures cannot stay all modes of destruction.

***

A brain needed to know whether something was normal or strange, helpful or dangerous. The brain had to infer all that, and it had to do it very quickly, or its body would die—fall into a hole, walk into a fire, be eaten…but, if the signals appeared to contradict the predictions…error signals arose, and the brain did its best to figure out, as quickly as possible what was going on.

Something that had never seemed within the realm of possibility suddenly presented as a certainty. All those discrete moments coalesced in an instant—Claire shuffling in the hallway, I did something stupid and I wish I could take it back, the open mic nights. I’d gone to one. It was her first time performing in front of strangers. The year before she’d won over a few hundred students and all of the faculty and staff in attendance at the school talent show. It was striking how her small frame took up the entire space of the gym. She grasped the mic and marched back and forth across the stage in jeans and black combat boots, at times pausing to bend down from the weight of the words she was singing.

At the coffee shop where she performed, she waited nervously for her turn, said a few words and began to play her guitar. As she sang the power of her voice held the audience in a suspended state. I didn’t go to her next open mic, but both Roger and Ms. Kaighn attended. A few days later in the breezeway, Roger and I both gushed over Claire. At the time I thought he, like me, saw her as talented, full of life, and following her creative interests.

Too, the trips to his classroom during advisory, something my brain had previously deemed ordinary, now placed side-by-side with these other memories and this new information, took on a different meaning. And Claire had been absent that day, the Wednesday after all of the cop cars were in the lot.

It was a sort of inverse “Eureka!” landing in my gut like a clot of mud which hardened over the next few weeks as more became known.

***

Claire emailed me. I’m coming back to school tomorrow. I want to tell you everything. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.

A colleague came up to watch my class and Claire and I made our way out of my classroom to a quiet corner in the library.

“I’m sorry Ms. Foulke, I wanted to tell you everything, ugh.

“Do you remember when I saw you when I was going to Ms. Kaighn’s classroom and you asked me if I was okay?”

“Yes.”

“Well I’d just come back from his classroom and he told me it was a mistake. He couldn’t even look at me.

“I had a crush on him since ninth grade. Remember? I told you when me and Christina used to stay and do homework in your classroom after school.”

I didn’t. I did recall a crush on my high school math teacher. The information Claire apparently shared had precedence in my own life as well as the lives of many of my friends. So she had a crush on a male teacher, did this mean I needed to be on alert?

“One day, I was in his classroom and sitting by his desk and both of our hands were underneath the desk and then we were holding hands. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is happening?!’ ”

I once heard you can’t feel two things at once. The person who said this was trying to make a point; if you are experiencing gratitude, you can’t feel angry. Others who were part of the conversation nodded as if this was sage advice, but it seemed wrong to me. It isn’t true.

When Claire told me about Roger and her reaching their hands together in that first touch I was hit with nausea. I imagined the classroom and the potential of being caught and how this would be both exciting and terrifying for him. I imagined that moment when his long fingers wrapped around her small hand to be the moment when things went from being suspended in the realm of possibility from an inappropriate but innocuous flirtation—a little too much attention given to her, a little too much pep and laughter and lingering gazes from Claire—to something salacious and shameful.

I also felt the thrill of being seventeen and having the person whom you have obsessed about, thought of at nighttime before going to bed, squeezed into the lyrics of the songs listened to over and over, of now having that person approach you, the jolt and the buzz of that. I felt this alongside the tottering stomach.

From the hands meeting, it was he taking her to the beach one day and then to dinner under the auspices of helping her with a scholarship or something related to college. He had confessed to Claire that he didn’t love his wife. Claire was perhaps too young to have recognized this line from the script: The marriage was a mistake.

Still when Claire tells me this, I believe that Roger believed it, that somehow it was more than a well-worn line. Why couldn’t he have doubted his choice to marry his wife when now, in the company of Claire, he found himself enchanted by the life that came shooting out of her in a simple conversation, the places her voice would take him as it rose in pitch and quickened to a clip like a downhill tumble dropping into an unexpected sigh. Claire entranced us all even in minor interactions.  And there was the scar on her sternum. The zag from where a pacemaker was put in when she was a toddler. It reminded us of her fragility but also of her might.

So when Roger told Claire he wasn’t in love with his wife, it might not have just been a line that countless men use to make the girls or the women they are hoping to bed feel special. A lot of these men might actually, in those moments, not be in love with their wives. They might be engaged in a sort of method acting.

They’d begun to kiss in Roger’s red Prius and followed the kissing to where it led.

Claire started to cry as she continued, perhaps reliving and holding the moments that were still a little thrilling but contorted now by the aftermath.

“He freaked out afterwards. He said, ‘Oh my God, you can’t tell anyone. I could get in a lot of trouble, you can’t tell anyone.’

“I just wanted it to be like the movies,” Claire tells me.

“I know.”

It’s true; I do. That’s what I’d wanted too.

I imagine some of my women friends have lost their virginity awkwardly but nevertheless that the act approached or resembled love. But only one friend has shared this version. Most of the stories I’ve heard have been closer to what I experienced: drunk, brief. Though the first time I had sex occurred within the structure of a relationship, I was dumped shortly afterwards for another girl, also a virgin. This wasn’t what I’d expected. I wanted something like the movies I was watching at the time.

My favorite was Heathers. The hue a blue-black. The disenfranchised JD and Veronica are relaxed in one another’s company as they lie on the grass between croquet wickets after sex. Sure, JD’s a psychopath but he doesn’t leave Veronica. He latches on to her. She’s his idée fixe.

I imagine what Claire would have wanted to happen afterwards. Surely not Roger’s reaction of terror and the regret he couldn’t mask. In the movies, the act might not happen in the back seat of a car. There might be candles or the teen misfits might be outside in the woods. There is tenderness throughout. The boy lightly brushes back the girl’s wispy hair, buries his face in her neck after he delicately traces her collarbone, her shoulders. He tells her he loves her. In some movies the boy, so overcome with awe that he is able to partake in this intimate act, begins to shake. The girl knows she possesses something then, that there is something inside of her or of her body that can elicit vulnerability, a nakedness not merely of the body but of the soul—a moment of rapture. In the movies, the boy does not say, “I’ve made a terrible mistake. Don’t tell anyone, you can’t tell anyone!” Or if he does say this, the genre is psychological thriller, not romance, and someone ends up dead.

No one ended up dead in this scenario but it continued to get worse.

***

Later, after I moved back East, a lawyer for the school called. He had questions for me. He said Roger was claiming that the act of intercourse didn’t occur. I think back to the conversation Claire and I had in the library. It strikes me that she never said the words, “and then we had sex.” It’s something my brain determined based on other cues, the points in which she ceased to talk and cried instead and the other things she did say: “I did something stupid and I wish I could take it back.” “I just wanted it to be like the movies.”

The lawyer’s task was to learn if the school was culpable in any way. Was it possible the administration could have suspected that Roger was a predator and kept him employed anyway? The lawyer’s questions weren’t so different than those that had been perplexing me over the months. Was Roger really calculating, setting the stage so that he could fulfill some fantasy? What did it mean that Claire had pursued him? Why had I not seen the precarious situation until after the fact?

***

Since flowers never cease to bloom in Southern California, one needs other signals of spring like the blanket of gray. The mist is the love child of a cold Pacific Ocean and of hot and arid land. I lived by the coast and some days the moisture never did burn off. The marine layer has a blurring effect. It smudges the edges of the nearby hills and trees, obscuring the demarcated landscape, the branches, the rocky outcroppings.

What she thought she wanted had manifested, except now Claire was learning the actuality of these scenarios are not protected by the soft gray mist.

***

            Claire tells me about her family’s getaway over the Memorial Day weekend. Her mom’s boyfriend had some extra money so they went to a nice hotel near the bay with balconies and fire pits filled with gemlike embers. In the hotel room with her mom and the boyfriend and her sister, Claire was unable to call or text the man who had so recently undressed her in the backseat of his car. There was no sign of another meeting between her and Roger. As she tells me about the night with her family, she interrupts to say she loves him that she didn’t want anything to happen to him.

But her sister knew by Claire’s downcast eyes, the lack of laughter, that something was wrong. She didn’t let up and continued to question Claire. She looked at Claire’s phone and found a picture Claire had taken from the afternoon she and Roger were at the beach.

“I don’t know why I took it. He heard that noise your phone makes and said, ‘What was that? Did you take a picture?’ ” Even before they had done anything physical he understood the implications of being out with a student alone.

“I just wanted to have it to look at, to remind myself that this was real. That I was with him. It was just of his hand. But my sister, she figured it out. Because I used to talk about him. ‘Is this Mr. Cooper? Claire! Is this Mr. Cooper?’ I didn’t say anything and so she knew. And then I was crying and I was telling her everything. But I made her promise not to tell. But she was mad; she said ‘He can’t do this!’ But I kept making her promise not to say anything.”

***

The shore is different today. As Krista and I approach from above, we see specs of blue. It appears as if a boat with cargo of lapis lazuli was shipwrecked and the currents of the Pacific carried the stones to this stretch of beach north of San Diego. Close up we discover they are jellyfish, velella velella. Their horizontal base like cartilage, both tender and firm, is a deep cobalt with rings like the cross section of an oak that slips to cerulean and then cornflower blue before abandoning all color as the base juts upward into a transparent vertical outgrowth referred to, I learn, as their sail. The bleeding of the colors is like the gradation between ocean and air, horizons in miniature that stretch out along the shore.

I try to work through what happened with Claire and Roger as Krista and I work our way north up the coast. Only a few people at work know, the counselors and administrators. They tell Krista he is a predator and say it was only a matter of time and they wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I mean, is he incredibly stupid and did he do something really bad? Yes. But I don’t know if I think he’s a predator.” I feel heretical saying this, but I want to run what I know by someone else. I think it will enable me to determine how I feel about what happened between Roger and Claire and somehow clarify the muddled components of sex. Predator seems somehow inaccurate to me. It suggests that Claire lay docilely, vulnerable to being snatched up. But Claire had engaged in flirtation, had sought out ways to spend time with Roger. Does the antelope walk willingly into the lions’ pride?

“Of course he should have known better. He should never have let things go as far as they did. He is the adult.” All of this I could say with certainty, but it felt incorrect to simplify what had happened into the categories of hunter and hunted. Of perpetrator and victim. His age had complicated the issue, along with his role as an authority figure and a teacher, someone she looked up to. The lack of a father in her life, the unstable home, all this fit the preordained categories. Yes, it all had an easy explanation. Except that I knew Claire. Wasn’t it possible that Roger’s attraction to her went beyond a desire to entrap a younger girl? Couldn’t his attraction have something to do with what I also found so endearing and loveable about her, and wasn’t it possible that this attraction overrode his reason? Certainly someone with a stronger sense of where things might lead, who could step back and draw a boundary when he saw things becoming too personal and intimate between teacher and student, would not have found themselves “somehow” in the back seat of a car undressing a student and inviting in all the catastrophic consequences that would come afterwards. A man, a person, with more concern for how his or her behavior impacts others and more foresight would understand that a profound and frenetic pain was the sure result from giving way to desire in this context. Such a man would not have basked, perhaps, in the attention given by this young, bright, creative, enchanting girl.

“I mean his reaction afterward says to me that this is the first time he ever did something like this.” It’s a point I return to frequently. “The fact that he freaked out leads me to believe that this was the first time he had sex with a student. He’s an idiot. An asshole. What girl wants to hear, ‘I made a mistake’ right after she has sex with someone? He’s a fucking idiot, but I don’t know if he’s a predator.”

***

            His instant and uncontainable guilt caused a state of disequilibrium. For Claire there was the belief that these moments would be mystifying and lasting. For Roger they were something to erase and forget. Claire struggled to create equilibrium, to move from her feelings of euphoria and contentedness—the result of being physically intimate with someone whom she believed she loved but seemed so unattainable—to an understanding that Roger did not see the two of them as she did. It was too much of a transition to make; she couldn’t act as though none of it had happened and so she ended up telling her sister.

“I made her promise me she wouldn’t tell anyone,” Claire continues. “But on Tuesday, she came into school and went to her old advisory teacher, Mr. Ellery, and she told him everything. I was called down during Ms. Kaighn’s class and the cops were there and they kept asking me questions and I kept denying it. But they told me, ‘We already know, your sister told us everything.’

“It was awful. They asked me the questions again and I told them and Mr. Brown was in the room and I couldn’t look at him, it was so embarrassing. Afterwards we walked by Mr. Regis’s office and my sister was in there and I was so mad I couldn’t even look at her. I couldn’t believe she did this. I didn’t speak to her for a while.

“I didn’t want to get Mr. Cooper in trouble. He told me he could lose his job if I said anything. I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want him to get in trouble. I still love him.”

The cops came to her house. They took her underwear. I imagined how this must have felt for Claire. To have this symbol of something so intimate—no matter how clouded it was becoming—removed from her bedroom so that others, the counselors, the principal, the police, and the lawyers could start to piece together what had gone on between the two. The remnants of Claire’s acts of love were quickly being shaped into evidence for the prosecution.

When she was done telling me all of this at a table sheltered by the library stacks, I didn’t know what to say. It didn’t matter that I had already deduced what had happened. This didn’t give me any sense of how to respond. So I told her that I had also made an error in my calculations. At sixteen, when I’d been about the same age as she, I’d trusted a man who had been older and he, like Roger, had been a colossal disappointment. Should Claire or I have anticipated the inevitable results? Any outsider could have told us the script.

***

I’m a minor character in all of this. A witness, of sorts, a confidant, and now a chronicler. At one point I thought something other than confusion and ambiguity would surface. It’s why I spoke with Krista about what had happened during that last month of my high school teaching. It might be that I thought a clear sense of what went on between Claire and Roger would afford me a way of looking at my own sexual past. Of explaining myself to me.

***

…The way you understand yourself and your relation to the world is not just a matter of arguments: your life’s experiences construct what you expect and want to be true.

I’d never felt I was making choices as a teen, though of course to some extent I was. Despite my middle class upbringing and early years in private schools, I liked guys with tattoos who listened to the Dead Kennedys and wore leather biker jackets, not the soccer players in their khakis who listened to the Dave Matthews Band. Of course there’s no evidence to suggest that had I been attracted to the soccer players, my first foray into sex would have been any less confounding and sad. I couldn’t view it as such at the time and instead had to place it into some larger mythic structure. The fact that it had occurred on the cement “bleachers” lining the football field felt like a statement. I was a junior and had made the choice never to go to a game, though I went to a football school. It was an act of nonconformity but also of romance, I thought, to lose my virginity under an open sky on this hard unforgiving surface overlooking the field. As it happened, I was just another insecure girl operating under the assumption that attention from an older guy would take away the torment of my teenage years.

***

As May gave way to June, my advisory students graduated and most got ready for college in September. That summer I packed up my apartment and made the cross-country trek from west to east for a third time. Like my students, I was going to college. In the fall I attended a presentation at the university where I landed. A PhD candidate was discussing a chapter of her dissertation on girlhood and cultural concepts of consent. The chapter was about filmic representations of Amy Fisher, the Long Island teen who’d been involved with an older married man, Joey Buttafuoco. Fisher shoots Joey’s wife but the question remained: Was Fisher a victim of a manipulative older man with unorthodox sexual proclivities, or was she the unstable and calculating figure in this story? Part of the presentation focused on two made-for-TV movies of the affair. One starred a blonde baby-faced Drew Barrymore, the other a brunette, olive skinned Alyssa Milano as Amy. You can guess in which Amy was made to be a victim and in which a sex-crazed vixen. Fisher was given the moniker The Long Island Lolita, suggesting that other figure we don’t know how to interpret.

Everyone at my former school already knew how to view the Claire and Roger movie. But I still hadn’t solved it. I waited while I listened to the lecture. I felt there might be some piece of information that would enable me to understand what had eluded me. If Roger were merely a predator, it took away anything Claire might have actively wanted or pursued. Now I imagined that if I could crack the code of Amy Fisher, I would know the exact amount of blame, disgust, and reprobation I should feel toward Roger. What had been his fault and where had Claire facilitated the situation?

Had the sex been consensual? Had Claire, could Claire, at least in part have prompted what followed? If not, what did this mean about female sexuality? That it didn’t exist? Do we still lionize the girls who remain virgins throughout high school? Is it lack of desire or denial of one’s desire that is to be cultivated for girls and women?

Or, is it only permissible for girls and women to desire the uptick in movement of social status conferred on us when we become someone’s girlfriend or wife?

Or, can girls and women have sexual desire provided it is not quite ours? It must be a thing removed from us. We experience ourselves as the objects of another’s desire and this is what excites us—the way we cause the other to ignite. Are we capable of experiencing physical pleasure only if we believe we are inducing pleasure in our partner, always on high alert for what we can give lest we become disposable, discarded for someone who is better able to evoke the erotic?

Or, could ours be a desire to be accepted and seen by another, seen for our minds, our humor, and hobbies; this form of desire is at times as forceful and as all encompassing as our sexual desire. Yet in youth—and sometimes beyond—it is neglected and overshadowed by the belief that our bodies are the sole instruments for unabashed pleasure.

After the presentation, I waited while the crowd of people surrounding the lecturer dispersed. I complimented her work and then asked her what she had come to discover as the result of her research. “Was Fisher a victim, or did she have agency?”

“Well I don’t think it has to be one or the other, that’s the thing.”

I’d been out of graduate school for some time and hadn’t yet acclimated to the ability those in the humanities have cultivated or are chasing—the ability to rest with uncertainty. All this time, I’d thought that clarity was the goal.

***

            During phone calls with Krista, as we walk on opposite coasts, I’m not so much trying to work things through with her, as I am telling her what I think I’ve finally figured out. Which is to say, desire is a slick seaweed covered rock, at once solid and unyielding and slippery and tenuous. Or it is what smoke would be if one could fossilize it—ethereal and ossified. Roger was to blame. He should never have spent a day with her at the beach, or held her hand. He should have kept his distance when he sensed her attraction to him, but this didn’t make him a predator. We needed to allow Claire her desire too. Her propensity to convert life into a script, as many of us attempt to do—narrating our lust in order to mold it into something more sublime and destined than it is in actuality—should not be disregarded. There’s an allure, a magic to this that can transform the dull, infuse it with delight. This is not to say we shouldn’t be aware of the confused and convoluted road our desire might lead us down, but isn’t youth, to some degree, a navigation of desire? Maybe the real issue, the fault I find with Roger’s actions is that he should have understood Claire’s adolescent predilections, he should have recognized her vulnerability and never stepped into the role of romantic lead.

The result of all my talk and reflection is that I’ve distilled this complex series of events into something that I can comprehend: It’s not as simple as “He was a predator.” Was he a self-indulgent fool? Yes. Should he have known better? Yes. But was this the result of calculation? No. There was a gray area. There had to be in order to make room for Claire’s desire.

“I know there are gray areas,” Krista replies, “but I also feel that by saying that, I’m letting him off the hook and I’m not being responsible.

“I was talking to Steve. He was telling me that after everything happened, this mom came in. She has two daughters. They were pretty girls and they used to hang out around Roger, in his classroom and they would do things with him outside of school too, I guess.

“Anyway, the mom came in to tell Steve, ‘I just want you to know he never tried anything with my girls.’ Still, I do keep coming back to the fact that he fits the description of a predator. It’s like textbook.

“Steve said, ‘He placed himself in positions where there was the possibility of something happening.’ He wasn’t going to make the first move, that’s how Steve saw it, but Roger positioned himself so that if the opportunity presented itself, he was going to do something.”

I thought about the classroom. The handholding. Was the opening the brush of the hands, something that could be misconstrued as an accident until one wove their fingers into the others?

In this view, Roger positioned himself so that when an opportunity did arise he became the sandy soil of the cliffs; once the rain came cascading down, everything collapsed taking homes and a few lives with it.

But my view differs. I continue to be puzzled by the point at which something ceases to be a choice.

***

It appeared that the brain had ideas of its own about what the world was like, and what made sense and what didn’t, and those ideas could override what the eyes (and other sensory organs) were telling it. Perception then, was not passive and objective but active and subjective. It was, in a way, a brain-generated hallucination: one influenced by reality, but a hallucination nonetheless.

A look at the court documents suggests that the lawyer may have had a point. I’d assumed that Claire and Roger had had intercourse, but he wasn’t charged with statutory rape; instead other sexual acts occurred, but no penetration. I had filled in the gaps from our conversation in the library, and my perception of what had occurred that evening in the Prius might need to be rethought.

At first the court documents shock me. These past three years I was almost certain that Claire lost her virginity that night in the car, and I had never doubted that Claire and Roger had had intercourse. Unable to revise my understanding of what had taken place, I think perhaps Claire lied in court so that the charges against Roger wouldn’t be so severe. She’d been hurt. She questioned his inability to be the adult and stop things, but she also believed her actions had something to do with their tryst and didn’t want him to go to jail so she’d withheld some information.

But then I begin to concede that the story I thought I knew was actually constructed, in part, by my perception. A perception based on information I had that often led to an accurate view of the world, but not always. What I’d imagined took place in some cases might have been a valid picture, but in this case I had gotten some of the facts wrong. Sometimes what gets filled in is simply a story.

And I began to wonder why I—like the law and others—viewed this one act of intercourse as some defining display of either intimacy or debasement and everything in between. Here I was placing a weight on the act of sex, as though it too were a clear line that could be defined and not something like the gradient cliffs, which appear from a distance to have discrete layers yet when approached it becomes evident that the colors blur where the bands meet. I had resisted the urge to name the two predator and prey, precisely because it seemed too facile to be accurate, and yet I continued to view virginity as a clear demarcation. If they didn’t have sex, what did this change?  The deposits of silt or debris were there in each of them; the evidence of this time in their lives was part of their landscape now. And while more silt continues to be deposited on this era, the stratum remains.

***

I moved but the remnants of the layers of my own life find their way into my consciousness, calling me back strongly in late spring. May into June was the accretion of the afternoons straining to run up an unrelenting hill and ambling back down to sea level. It was talking — knowing that no matter what I said in my attempt to figure out what happened — would be considered by Krista. She might agree or reflect or counter my perception and by doing this I might come nearer to a truthful account of what went on between Claire and Roger. It was the marrow of friendship, of offering thoughts into the open air to be taken up by another.

Late spring was the season of sleepy mist, and the shambles left by the evening that Claire and Roger spent together. And it was the season of the sail jellyfish.

The liminal floaters remind us of the falsity of fixedness and clarity and boundaries. The velella velalla are creatures of air and water. They skim the salty surface of the ocean, but their vertical outgrowth, their sail, acts exactly as such, catching the breeze and pushing them across a watery surface. Thus they are susceptible to currents of both sea and air.

We may be simultaneously driven by desire and the object of another’s yearning. Often there is a strange symbiosis to this, but sometimes we find there is not.

 

Author’s Notes

All quotations are taken from the article, “Mind Expander: Andy Clark believes that your thinking isn’t all in your head” by Larissa MacFarquhar in the April 2, 2018 issue of The New Yorker.

 Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

 

 

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