bruisedegos

Bruised Egos

By Jackie Dana

Winner, Fourth Place, The Eighth Annual Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, 1999

 

bruisedegos
Original image as published by the Austin Chronicle. Artwork by Jason Stout.

“Give me the daggers,” he demanded in falsetto.

From the first day he walked into class I knew Mr. McGinty wouldn’t be like our other teachers. Maybe it was because he was Australian, a foreigner. Maybe it was also because he used to teach at a boy’s boarding school. Didn’t he joke that it was going to be hard to adjust to teaching girls? He didn’t do things the way everyone else did, that’s for sure. Instead he set his own rules as it suited him.

We were reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and he had assigned us each a part. “It’s a play. We won’t treat it just as cold words on a page,” he explained, his deep accent sending us all swooning.

I wanted to view the play as he did. Maybe that’s why when he chose the other parts, I really hoped he’d let me read Macbeth’s role. But Mr. McGinty always picked Cathy, while he would intone, “Tis the eye of childhood/That fears a painted devil,” having saved the part of Lady Macbeth for himself.

Two days into the reading of the play, Mr. McGinty asked us to memorize Lady Macbeth’s monologue. We were supposed to learn it by heart and then make an appointment to recite it back to him. He said it would show if we really understood the character’s motivations.

What a great chance to prove myself to him, I thought. It had to be perfect — it was my goal to perform the speech better than anyone. To that end, practicing the lines became my sweetest obsession. Over and over I repeated the words: “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty!”

“Don’t you think it’s a pretty weird passage to choose?” Sue asked me after hearing me recite the speech twice. “I mean, all that stuff about sex and women’s breasts? If you ask me, Mr. McGinty’s a pervert.”

“No, he’s not.” She wasn’t in my class — how could she say something like that? “Look — it’s a really powerful speech. Let me try it again, and I’ll show you.”

Sue shook her head and walked off. She might have been laughing at me, but I didn’t care. It was time for my appointment anyway.

The wooden floors creaked slightly as I walked down the hallway, and I caught my breath. I stopped outside Mr. McGinty’s classroom and silently recited the lines once more. Did I know the speech well enough? My mother did, my friends did, everyone seemed to know it as well as I did by now. But would it be enough? I wanted to prove to him that I was a good as the others — definitely better than Cathy.

The moment of truth came as I stood outside the door. In about ten seconds I’d be alone in the room with him. All of a sudden my throat spasmed. My hands were sweaty. But I sucked in my stomach, thrust back my shoulders, and went inside.

“The raven himself is hoarse–” I began, and continued flawlessly to the end. It was perfect. For two minutes I felt like I was Lady Macbeth.

Mr. McGinty never looked up at me until I was done. Then he scribbled into his gradebook and thanked me.

He gave me a C+. It might as well have been an F.

I hated him.

***

There was no way to know what ingredients lurked within the punch. It tasted horrible but everyone drank it anyway. After all, we were graduating soon, and drinking the punch was a political action, the choice of freedom over parental supervision. Well, that’s how I saw it. Maybe all the others who clustered around the bowl just wanted to get drunk.

Several people had gathered at the gate and were giggling loudly. I joined a couple friends who left the patio, our curiosity enticing us to join the crowd.

Mr. McGinty had just walked up the sidewalk.

Mr. McGinty? How did he know about our party? Immediately I swallowed what remained in my cup. Even with all that talk about making his own rules, he was still a teacher, and just like any of the others he could turn us all in for underage drinking.

But no one else shared my concerns. I watched Lizzie spin around, elated. “Hi, Mr. McGinty! It’s so great you’re here!”

Cathy sidled up beside her, a pale blush stretching across her cheeks. Although no one had asked, she explained, “I told him about the party.” He nodded as he pushed the gate shut, and winked at her.

I couldn’t believe it. Then again, what did I expect from the teacher’s pet?

By that point there had to be a dozen girls around him, all laughing and carrying on like he was a movie star instead of our English teacher. Someone even handed him a cup of punch.

What was the big deal? He was just a teacher — he wasn’t all that great. I wasn’t about to make a big deal out of his presence like the others were. I returned to the patio and drank another cup of punch.

Later on that evening my head was spinning from too much alcohol when Debbie walked up to me.

“How are you getting home?” she asked as she bent over to pick up an empty cup. Unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t have a car. “Is someone coming by to pick you up?”

“No, Sue’s taking me over to her house. I’m going to spend the night there.”

“Didn’t you know? Sue wasn’t feeling well, and I think someone drove her home about an hour ago.”

“Great. How am I supposed to get there now?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll find you a ride.”

I couldn’t really imagine Debbie going out of her way to help me, and I had just surrendered to the notion of calling my mom when Mr. McGinty walked up to us — to Debbie, actually. I don’t think he even saw me there.

“I’ve got to be goin’ now,” he said to her. “Thanks for the party.”

He started to walk away when she called him back. “Mr. McGinty, did you drive here?”

“I’m all right,” he quickly responded. “I only had the one cup — ”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant. I was just wondering — she needs a ride over to Sue’s house. It’s not that far from here.”

I looked up. Did she mean me?

He casually tossed his keys into the air, catching them with the same hand. “Ah, right. No problem.”

Forgetting how much I loathed him, I walked with him down the brick path to the driveway. If I had been given a million years to examine that moment I never would have believed what was happening. Mr. McGinty was going to give me a ride. Alone, just us, in his car.

“Where to?” he asked me.

I told him Sue’s address as I slid into the vinyl seat of the old Mustang and fumbled for the seat belt. I was so nervous I had sat on the strap and couldn’t find it.

“Here, let me help you.” He leaned over the seat — over me. I held my breath. “Hmm, there you are.” He handed me the buckle. For just a second his fingertips brushed against my palm — he had just touched me.

As he drove, he asked me if I had enjoyed the party, but my tongue suddenly went numb, and I could only nod. All of a sudden I felt giddy, like I had on the first day of class — I was alone with Mr. McGinty! Far too quickly we reached Sue’s house. How could I just have wasted the whole trip without saying anything? “Thanks for giving me a ride, Mr. McGinty.” It was the best I could manage.

He nodded. “Since we’re not in class, you might just call me Christopher — or Chris, if you’d like. It sounds better — not so stuffy.”

The invitation caught me off-guard. “Okay, Christopher,” I said slowly. The word — his name — had an odd flavor to it, like the bitterness of the first taste of beer. And just as forbidden.

He slowed the car to read the addresses. “Is this the one?”

The brick house with the twin rosebushes was unremarkable but also unmistakable. “Yeah, this is it.” I directed him to turn up the driveway that circled to the back of the house.

When he stopped the car, I unbuckled the seatbelt and turned to thank him, and noted in the dim light that he was smiling. And his hand lingered on the gear shift for a second too long. I wasn’t thinking — the alcohol, I guess — but I moved my hand to cover his.

“What’s this?” he asked, in a different voice from the classroom.

I licked my lips. “Is it okay?”

“I don’t know — is it?”

My whole body suddenly felt like it was carved in stone. I couldn’t move even to nod. My eyes were closed, and I could feel nothing but the warmth of his hand under mine. This was so unlike me, so out of character. I finally managed to say “yes” though it was a miracle that he heard me.

I heard the soft crunch of upholstery as he shifted his weight. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yeah.” I opened my eyes to the darkness. His left hand had moved up my arm, his fingertips teasing the hem of my sleeve, and goosebumps erupted along my arm. With practiced ease, he slipped his other hand from under mine, and when it was free he put the arm around my shoulder.

It was perfect, the stuff of dreams. I had waited for this for a long time.

***

Behind the locked door I scrubbed away the red stain of lipstick and all the rest of my makeup. Alone in Sue’s bathroom, I couldn’t figure out how to turn my clothes right side out, and even putting on my pajamas became a challenge. I washed my hands and my arms, scrubbed places that he had touched me, and as I did so, water spilled everywhere. Every force in the universe seemed to be working against me.

When I was done I dared another glance in the mirror before I opened the door. I scarcely recognized the face that stared back.

What had I done?

He told me I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened between us. I’d have to keep it from my English class and all my friends. Otherwise, he said, people would get the wrong idea abut me.

***

As I took my paper from him, I glanced down at the grade — a 97%. When I looked up at him, he smiled. “You’re showing remarkable improvement.”

After class I tried to slip out with the others, but he called me back. As I stood there, staring at the floor, he remained in his chair with his hands folded behind his head. “I expect you know why I asked you to stay behind?”

I gripped the edge of the desk. “If you mean last week — I didn’t mean for that to happen, you know. It was all pretty unexpected.”

“Aye, it was.” He looked at me as if sizing me up. “There’s no harm done, though, was there? I assume you were discreet, as we discussed?”

“I didn’t tell anyone.” Who would believe it anyway? “As far as I’m concerned, it never even happened.” I could feel my face burning with sudden embarrassment.

“More’s the pity then, because I was hoping to invite you to a party on Sunday.”

The direction he had taken the conversation caught me unprepared. “A party? What if someone sees us?”

“You’re not ashamed to be seen with me, are you now?”

I looked down at the paper with the grade glowing red in the top margin. With everything that had happened, I hadn’t even studied. “I really shouldn’t — I mean, you’re my teacher.”

“We’re both adults. No one here can tell us what to do outside of school.”

***

Had I really agreed to this? I asked myself as I followed him up a flight of stairs. “Who’s having the party?”

“Neighbors,” he offered with a wink as he reached the door, where instead of knocking, he slipped a key in the lock.

This was his home? I didn’t know how to respond, so I just nodded.

His living room was sparsely decorated. There was a sofa and chair, a glass dining room table, a few CDs stacked by the stereo. A golf calendar was thumbtacked to the wall but there were no other posters or artwork.

I was struck by how ordinary it was.

Christopher handed me a bottle of imported ale and then sat next to me on the couch, very close, and put his arm around my shoulders. When I tried to make small talk he lifted my hand and began kissing my fingers.

“So you never intended to take me to a party, did you?” I asked.

“Shh–” he pressed his lips against mine, his kiss forestalling any discussion.

Don’t be a baby, I chided myself. Wasn’t this what I wanted? But when I opened my eyes, Christopher had disappeared. All I could see was the teacher, Mr. McGinty, his face contorted and sloppy, his body soft and out of shape. And he wouldn’t let me go.

He never expected me to fight back.

***

Everyone noticed — it was impossible not to notice. He had a black eye, dark and swollen. His cheek looked like a plum. Nobody said a word when he walked into our morning assembly, and none of the other teachers approached him. Things like this didn’t happen, not at our school. Teachers were supposed to set a good example for the students.

He and I never spoke again outside of class. I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about him. And for my term paper I chose to write about Lady Macbeth, and I got an A.

I think he was surprised that I had understood her character all along.

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