to catch yourself up, get into the archives.
– Chapter 9 –
She was distracting. Did she realize how gracefully she walked, how squaring her shoulders once and for all would be all it took to make her formidable? Did she know how closely she resembled an editorial fashion spread with her angular movements, the abstract slope of her arm on her desk as she propped her chin in her hand, and the sharp juts of her jittery legs as she sat? Was he obvious when she strode by his desk in the morning and he quickly inhaled, like someone had just lit incense?
Of all the things Gideon had fantasized about, coming back here—storming the administrative offices and staging a coup or throwing copies of I Kissed Dating Goodbye out of his classroom windows or burning a bottle of Pompeian Extra Virgin in effigy or planning a field trip to a Unitarian church with a lesbian pastor—attraction to a student had never crossed his mind.
For one, church girls weren’t his type. He didn’t like their clothes, the ill-fitting skirt suits with boxy shoulders and overlong hemlines or the unfortunate floral patterns on all their dresses. Even when they wore something normal—a pair of jeans and heels, for instance, or a form-fitting frock—he hated the way they fancied themselves quietly revolutionary for it.
Their conversation also wearied him. They were so much more preoccupied with what other people were into, since they considered so many things sin themselves—so many things, besides gossip, of course. And worst of all was their preoccupation with marriage. When would they realize that, “I’m believing God for a husband” was second-date Kryptonite?
The dating venues were so limited. Restaurants. Bowling alleys. Museums. Movies were an option, but with anything rated R, a church girl might make a show of cringing at all profanity and looking away during any sex scenes or, worse yet, covering her eyes. Then later, when Gideon asked if she liked the film, he’d likely be forced into a lengthy conversation about the uselessness of onscreen nudity, or else she’d clam up and treat the whole outing like some kind of spiritual betrayal. She’d side-eye him, accusingly, like he was trying to coax her away from her salvation or, worse yet, her virginity.
Gideon couldn’t take the constant edge, the endless, dogging worry about shocking a date or knocking her off her evangelistic square.
He preferred women who’d grown up only attending church in passing or irreligious women who conceded belief in God but didn’t need to discuss Him on their dates. His favorite type of all was a woman who’d been devoutly raised with any religion—Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam—but had, for whatever reason simply stopped practicing.
They seemed best able to understand him.
All these small revelations of interest in this girl who sat moping in the back of the room, doodling in a notebook, while he tried to engage the rest of the class in a discussion of the sociopolitical underpinnings of race and class in Othello, were constantly flooring him.
Even now, as he curved over the long bar counter and cooled his hands on the sweaty glass of a Heineken bottle, he startled himself by wondering whether she might’ve been doodling about him.
He’d been doing his best to avoid her and she made it pretty easy. He didn’t have to obsess over how jittery he might’ve looked if he called her insightful. She saved her insights for essays and articles and lit mag submissions. There’d never be an occasion for the class to hear how his voice lilted and dipped when he pronounced her name. He never had to pronounce her name—not for talking out of turn or for tardiness or to acknowledge her raised hand. She was bent on blending in, wholly unaware of how impossible it was.
He’d happened upon her in the hallway once, toward the end of the first quarter, and stood apace, pretending he was looking everywhere but at her. Grades were due in a week and he hadn’t begun to tally them, but he already knew where she stood. She wasn’t an on-the-bubble student; hers was a solid A. She had such impassive expressions, a sort of perma-pout and still, bottomless stares. He wondered if she knew whether she were passing or failing his class. He wondered if reassuring her would serve to make her smile.
She was standing in front of a shadowbox full of miniatures. According to the flimsy paper tag beside it, it was a replica of Jonah’s prophecy at Nineveh. The little Jonah figurine was covered in something that resembled primordial ooze. The background was overcast with tumultuous grey. The entire crowd of penitent citizens were tearing at their clothes and grimacing. Gideon glanced at the title card to find out which unlucky student spent all of his Friday and Saturday nights at home alone for what must’ve been months, in order to create this. He felt a twinge of sympathy for “David Douglas, Sophomore.”
He stared at the side of her face for a while, committing her smooth, coppery skin to memory, before walking up and standing beside her. As tall as he was at 6’4”, they seemed almost shoulder to shoulder. He feigned closed inspection of the miniatures, leaning close to the glass and then recoiling.
“You’re doing well,” he said without looking at her.
In his periphery, he could see that she’d turned to face him, but he kept staring at the stupid shadowbox.
“In my class. You’re doing well.”
“Oh.” She turned back to stare at the box again herself.
He wanted to find a way to bring up the poem she’d submitted for The Manna Quarterly earlier that week and how one of the spare, free-verse stanzas had been haunting him ever since:
i am an ailing huntress,
full of elastic eggs.
twist them open;
you will find blood.
Maybe he could praise the surprising sophistication of her work. “You don’t write like a high school student,” he imagined himself saying. But it sounded insulting, even in his head, and not at all right for the sentiment he hoped to convey.
Gideon sucked in a deep breath. He was an adult. He got that. A cellmate, a jumpsuit, and a broken toilet could await him if he so much as smiled at her in any way that might be interpreted as suggestive. But when he tried to turn and walk off down the hall, he felt glued to his spot beside her.
Impossibly, feelings were writhing up his insides like moss and he had no idea how to root them out, no idea if he even wanted to.
“This is… macabre.”
“It is,” he blurted, before realizing she meant the shadowbox.
“Another round?” the bartender wondered, reaching for Gideon’s empty Heineken.
He shook his head. “Nah. I really shouldn’t be drinking to begin with. I teach English at a Christian school.”
The bartender cocked his head to the side, like he was weighing whether to ask any follow-up questions. He must’ve decided against it. Wise move.
Gideon really could’ve used someone to talk to. Even aside from his attraction to a seventeen-year-old, things were weird for him now that he was back in Ridgewood—not that he hadn’t expected weirdness; of course he had. He was teaching at Holy Pentecost. He hadn’t even wanted to see Holy Pentecost after he’d left it and now he was on its payroll.
He beckoned the bartender back. “I’ll take another one, after all.”
Gideon chuckled at how appalled Principal Harris would be if he happened into Marcus’—ostensibly to pass out bible tracts and not to knock a few back himself—and saw Gideon here working on a fourth round. Would it be grounds for firing? Suspension?
If a beer weren’t enough, he could produce much worse. As he drank, he thought back to the last faculty meeting when Sister Davis pressed him about his curriculum: “What texts will your children exegete this year?” She’d perched herself so close to his right that his elbow almost knocked into her as he poured his coffee.
“I’m not making my students exegete biblical texts.” He stared down at her over the rim of his coffee mug and waited.
“But it’s standard for Honors English!” she sputtered.
He shrugged. “I remember. I had to do it, myself, when I was a senior. Then I went to college. And exegesis didn’t do me much good in Intro to British Lit.”
“Well, most of our students won’t be studying British literature; they’re going to seminary or missions or service.”
“Even so. I’m sure they’ve had plenty opportunities to interpret bible passages before their senior year of high school. I thought reading a few books might also be helpful.”
“I see. And do your parents know—”
“Principal Harris knows. I submitted a syllabus before I was hired.”
Gideon was so sick of people invoking his parents whenever they took umbrage with something he did, but he knew it was inescapable here, where all the faculty were aware that his parents were the only reason he’d gotten this job. They also seemed acutely aware that he should be deeply grateful, though few, if any, of them knew quite why.
Bishop and First Lady James and Barbara Agee had spent the past ten years bailing their only son out of inescapable jams. Their church, which they’d left Holy Pentecost Christian Center to found when Gideon was still in grade school, had grown so large they’d recently purchased the old Ridgewood Coliseum, which easily seated 10,000. Bishop Agee had his hand in politics and Barbara was on the Board of Directors for the Urban League; they were people of influence.
They’d paid for Gideon’s education—undergrad and graduate—outright, and they were, indeed, why the hiring board looked the other way and hired him without their usual nitpicky vetting.
As quiet as it was kept, he had only agreed to the position because he had no other choice. He felt oddly outsized under the low ceilings and in the mildewed corners, amid the sludgy faculty coffee and the inedible reconstituted lunches.
But even so, some mornings he couldn’t believe how gingerly he’d started to settle into this life. Gideon, who’d dropped X and smoked weed so vilely laced it’d landed him in the hospital. Gideon, who’d done lines of coke at small press book parties and swilled vodka ‘til the world blurred, then jumped in his car and nearly mowed down a family. Gideon, who’d served a yearlong sentence and still had 484 hours left on his community service. Gideon who, unlike he’d heard rumored of Maranatha, was actually party to an abortion and grappled with only occasional guilt for agreeing that he and the girl should go through with it. Gideon, who still believed in Jesus but felt wholly psychotic for it, given all he’d seen and done.
This was the guy who’d been hired to teach this army of next-gen Pentecostals.
It hardly seemed possible.