catch up with a visit to the archives.
– Chapter 12 –
It was glass, delicately blown from the breath they held, on each other’s approach. A paper-thin pane, their friendship: fragile and crystalline and spotless. But there it was: hanging in those spare, unnoticed moments when they glanced and looked away to grin to themselves before or after class. It was widening, this glass, during those first few months as she wrote elegant op-eds for the school paper, as he gingerly critiqued the poems and photographs she’d submitted to The Manna Quarterly. Every conversation, a vibrant stain. Every smile, a beam of color through the glass.
By late winter, when the worst of the snow had fallen and she knew that more of senior year was behind her than before her, Maranatha began to let slip tiny bursts of excitement every weekday morning. And though she absorbed more than enough customarily sour stares and nose-upturns each day to dampen her high spirits, Gideon was there in the afternoon, waxing practically romantic about Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and her lips couldn’t help but perk up at the corners.
She’d been collecting a sack of happy incidents: that time he’d caught her crying on a side entrance step and dropped his briefcase to sit beside her, silent, till she stopped; the poem he wrote and read during class, about Jesus as a swashbuckler; how close he’d stood so close in the cafeteria line once that their trays almost touched.
He was the kind of teacher she’d never thought she’d encounter till college, the kind she feared might only exist as myth. He was free-thinking. He wasn’t afraid to reference other religions and knew how to cast his lot with one, without disrespecting the others. Though he rarely referenced the bible in lessons, his voice took on equal parts ecstasy and reverence whenever he cited it. She recognized the tone as near identical to her own and knew that the great joy of Gideon’s Christian life had been approaching the bible as poem and story and surprising himself with how easily he accepted all its accounts, however horrifying or fantastical.
Sometimes, in class, Maranatha found herself wanting to run with him, to grab his hand and spirit him away to some reckless space where her crush made sense and she didn’t feel self-doubt singeing its edges.
Maybe she was a harlot, in her heart. She was ashamed of her gluttonous imagination. It wasn’t enough to imagine a quiet corner, where they’d talk for hours, sharing thought upon philosophy upon hope upon thought until they couldn’t figure whose words were whose and coffee proved no match for the heaviness of their eyelids. She had to shuttle forward even further and imagine their engagement photos, replete with cheesy-hip poses, like the one where he’d hoist her onto his back and run through in a public park or lift her clear over his head like she was light as a paper airplane he planned to launch into a strong autumn wind. She had to imagine how warm his neck would feel when she buried her face there or whether his whiskery chin would itch when they kissed.
Every scenario of a future—their future—was a tenderly curled sprout, pushing itself forward in her mind. She relished the newness and the hope; she hadn’t felt either in years.
The last time she dared to like a boy—really like one—was in sixth grade, when Daniel Wakefield showed up for a year. In retrospect, she probably only liked him because he hadn’t been there before her mother wed. He hadn’t heard about all those Donuts with Daddy days she’d missed because her father had never been around. He hadn’t learned that girls without fathers were more likely to be promiscuous and that children born into sin had a harder time overcoming it. He’d never seen her get tripped in the hall or read that she was a ho on the boys’ bathroom wall before she had the chance to erase it.
Daniel was awkward and gangly. He walked slightly leaned to the left, swinging one arm—sort of like Spike and Denzel in the Detroit Red scenes of X. Maranatha liked the walk because it was different. She’d also seen him sitting alone once in the cafeteria, reading a copy of Franny & Zooey. After she checked out a copy from the library and devoured in two nights, she was certain he’d be her first boyfriend. She thought they could be misfits together, and because she once mistook a sneer for a smile, she imagined he might feel the same. It took her weeks to work up the nerve to write to him. She wanted to be clever and intriguing, but she all she came up with was:
you are both deer and warrior.
you are lion and tamer.
you are lovely and wicked.
someday, i might love you.
It was creepy, but she didn’t know it was creepy when she folded it within a sheet of looseleaf and passed it to him in the one class they had together, Health. He read it surrounded by boys who’d known her since kindergarten and minutes later, she heard:
“Ugh! Don’t mess with her; she nasty.”
“She got herpes, yo.”
“The Underground just don’t stop for hoes.”
And that was that.
This was different. Much different—and not just because Gideon wasn’t sophomoric. He was a mystery and a crystal ball. What had his childhood here been like and where had he been since his escape? Gathering the answers to those questions became the most pressing fantasy of all. Knowing might somehow inform her past or help her define her own future.
These were the things she should’ve stormed into the office and shared, the day Mr. Agee was fired.
What he told was likely a nobler story, where he as the elder, was fully to blame and all of his actions were unconscionable. But she may have saved him with her truth—or possibly liberated them both:
When he walked into the darkroom at 4, it was empty. That Maranatha caught a glimpse of him was auspicious and nothing more. She entered the art room proper and stood amid the desks and easels. She had two rolls of her own she was eager to develop, of honeysuckled hedges shoved against barbed wire fences, of wild rabbits dashing across lawns, and of him, in classroom moments both subdued and animated, of him half-suppressing a smile.
She knew it would’ve made more sense to leave before she was noticed and come back whenever he wasn’t here. But maybe it was the heady prospect of unabashed conversation or the hope that their hands would brush while reaching for chemical tray tongs in the dark that made her call out, “Mr. Agee?” before she could think about what was most sensible.
He stepped into the threshold of the door, the confusion on his face mellowing into recognition. “Hey!” he said too loudly. He sounded young. His arm lifted awkwardly away from his side as he gestured to her camera. “You need the darkroom?”
Maranatha’s face felt sweaty, cold, and hot. She looked down at her feet. “I can come back another time.”
“Nah, it’s cool. You go ahead. I think darkroom priority belongs to students.”
“You were a student,” she chirped, fascinating herself. Tugging at the wrist of her shirt, she also heard herself say, “You deserve priority, too.”
She grabbed a reel and a bottle opener from the rack of supplies by the darkroom door, then strode by him, hoping and praying he’d follow with absolutely no idea how to compose herself if he did.
Gideon flipped the light switch off behind him, flooding the long room with dim, amber safelight. For a while, the clack and slide of his loafers on the floor was the only evidence that she hadn’t imagined him walking in. He stood at a development station as far away from her as possible, and in a way, she was relieved. When the sound of his feet stilled, she listened to the crack and rivet of their film rolls opening, the fidgeting of their hands as they spooled the film onto their reels.
Maranatha was torn between fierce concentration on the careful minutia of developing her film and the anxious thrill of being alone in a room with Gideon. She thought talking might break his concentration and wondered if he had similar concerns about her.
He walked the developer over to her when he finished with it, pouring it into her canister, capping it and quickly walking back to his own station to start his contact sheet. She whispered thank you but was pretty sure he didn’t hear her. The sharp snip of their scissors cutting film into strips clicked rhythmically in the air, another painstaking process to focus on.
In her head, she was witty and interesting. In her head, she initiated a conversation that neither of them wanted to end when the time came to leave the photography lab. They would compare contact sheets and crack-wise about each other’s composition. They’d point out which of their negatives would make the best prints. And somewhere along the way, she’d get him to tell her what he was like as a little boy.
But instead, the whole process was disappointingly distant and efficient. Usually, she relished the serenity the darkroom afforded, the rarity of time at school unmarred by taunts and jeers. Now, she just ached with a loneliness so oppressive she wanted to open the door, exposing and ruining their photo paper, and leave.
She slid a promising negative of him, leading a lit mag meeting, into enlarger and stared at the image inverted by light. When she took her print to the chemical trays, he was there tilting one of his own prints in the stop bath. They stood side by side and she struggled not to look at him. He lifted his work with tongs and stepped to the next tray, and the empty space where he’d been chilled beside her.
She moved to the next tray herself, plopping the print into the acrid-smelling liquid, but instead of tilting the bin to make sure that the print was evenly coated, she turned to face him. He turned, too, and for a second it seemed that neither of them knew where they were or what would happened next. They looked at each other’s faces. He lifted one of his hands, as though he was going to smooth her hair, and then let it fall back to his side.
She felt calmer than she should’ve, standing so close to him, willing herself not to worry.
“There’s a bone in my arm that pops in the rain. It’s loud but it doesn’t hurt.”
He looked at her mouth as she spoke and she looked at how his barely moved when he mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
Their lips touched and she knew that she’d never accurately imagined a kiss, how it curiously awakens all the body’s sleeping beauties. Cinema hadn’t prepared her for the numbness she felt, the reluctance to open her eyes and then, once open, her absolute unwillingness to close them again. She couldn’t have guessed that he’d smell faintly of the curried chicken he’d obviously eaten for lunch or that he’d taste like the wintergreen gum he’d chewed to conceal it. No one had told her a kiss could make her clairvoyant: later that night, she would keep touching her lips and closing her eyes and ducking into all the empty corners of her house, pirouetting worshipfully, like a whirling dervish. She’d pray and she’d laugh and, in her bedroom mirror, she’d look at herself with recognition for the very first time.
He was the one who ended it. He took three steady, backward steps and without regard for or a second glance at his unfinished photo, he opened the door and left her there.