A spit wad hit Bombay.
I was furious. Not because my 8th grade social studies lesson had been
disrupted on the first day of school, but because my reverie had been broken—I
was teaching the geography of India. As I gazed at the map and recited the names
of places—Kashmir, Bhramapur, Lucknow, Madras, Goa—I found myself
transported back a decade and a half to my twenty-third year when I wandered
India alone. Where the heat of the sun, the blaze of colors, and the spicy food
set my senses alight. Where every day I lived the burn.
I turned. It was apparent to me that the offender was a boy at the back of
the class. At first glance he was just a boy like any other thirteen-year-old
boy, albeit physically mature for his age. He may have been from Irish stock,
judging from his coppery hair and freckles—though his coloring made me think
not so much of the Emerald Isle, but of an Indian curry.
“You, with the red hair; what’s your name?”
“Billy Arney,” the offender smirked into his desktop.
“Well, Billy Arney, just for that you can stay for detention after school
today,” I said without missing a beat. But at that moment he looked up, and my
anger evaporated in the warmth of those eyes. Eyes like two spoonfuls of golden
spice. It was then that I missed a beat.
Throughout the rest of the lesson I had difficulty concentrating – that
shock of red hair at the back of the class kept drawing my eye. I was like a
forest ranger keeping tabs on a campfire, lest it become uncontrollable. But it
was too late. It had already spread from the safe niche between my thighs, up
into the danger zone of my face. I kept my head bowed for the rest of the
lesson, hoping to hide my burning cheeks beneath my brown curls. Finally the
bell rang and the class filed out in a noisy gaggle. The Boy remained at his
desk, slouching and sullen. For a moment I couldn’t do anything, so absorbed
was I in his face—the russet brows, the smooth forehead, the constellation of
freckles across the upturned nose. His mouth was sensuous, the full lips almost
too red to be a boy’s. Then he looked up, once again catching me in his gaze,
and I almost gasped aloud.
To hide my embarrassment I hastily wrote out some cities on a piece of paper.
Handing him the list, I said, “I want you to look these up in the textbook and
write a sentence on each.” If the Boy had been listening, he would have heard
my voice betray me. I spoke the stern words of a teacher with the soft voice of
I made him perform this task at the chalkboard, more so I could get a
full-length view of him than as punishment. Tall, with a trace of adolescent
gangly-ness, he was as lovely as a young Monarch newly free of its chrysalis. At
first I would steal covert glances at his sinuous forearms as they struggled
with the textbook; the muscles of his back working beneath his thin shirt; the
slow movement of his lips as he read. But after a brief time I couldn’t limit
myself to a mere glance, and so watched him openly. I don’t think he noticed;
he appeared to be having too much trouble reading.
At last he put down the book, and raised his hand to write on the board. I
held my breath, anticipating the Sanskrit curve of his script. Then there was a
screech of the chalk as he scrawled in a childish hand:
“New Deli is the capitle of indiA”
“bhopal is sort of in the Middel of india and a lot of peeple died there or
“Bramadur is an evil pLace in lord of The rings”
“Lahore is french for SLut.”
Unable to watch this blasphemy, I focused my gaze instead on his hands. They
were superb: a farm-boy’s hands, coarse and constant, like they had been
rough-hewn from rock. I watched those hands greedily as they fumbled with the
chalk. I imagined taking them in my own and leading the Boy to the boiler room
in the basement, and there in the darkness, accompanied by the roar of the
furnace, I would bruise his young mouth with kisses.
I wondered could he feel my heat, could he smell burning? How could he not? I
was near flash point: My body was a fuse, my loins loaded with plutonium— one
touch from his flinty hand and I would have exploded, taking him, the map of
Southern Asia, the classroom, the entire school with me. I wanted to reach for
him then—I needed to touch him—but the alarm on my watch went off. Detention
“You can go now ... I mean ... you’re free to go ... but you don’t have
to if you don’t want to ... that is—unless you want ... I mean ... if you
have any ... questions?” I was light-headed with lust, stammering like a fool.
He looked at me, and his gaze was blistering. His shapely lips parted
slightly, and I thought I would swoon like some pathetic Victorian heroine.
“Are you sick or somethin’? Your face is all red.”
Flustered, I dismissed him. I waited until his footsteps disappeared down the
hall before rising tentatively from my chair, half-expecting to see a charred
imprint of my undercarriage on the seat.
After that day, I’d find any reason to make him stay after class—whispering,
gum chewing, lateness. I doled out detentions like they were Halloween candy.
When his behavior was impeccable, I’d ask him to see me after class about some
assignment or another. Like someone addicted to spicy food, I couldn’t get
enough of that endorphin rush: I was a tender mouth, which he, like a spicy
biryani, set burning without relief. With his cayenne hair, cumin eyes, and
cinnamon-flecked skin, Billy Arney seemed the closest I would ever come again to
a spice merchant’s stall in a New Delhi street market. I wanted to explore his
hidden corners, haggle for his wares. I would hang on his silences and
monosyllabic answers as if he was reciting the Mahabarat Gita. It seemed that my
brain stem had swelled to fill my skull, crowding that portion of my grey matter
responsible for rational thought into an obscure, lonely corner where it had to
scream to be heard.
It soon became obvious to the entire class that I was being somewhat
heavy-handed with the punishment. I think they had a lottery going as to whether
or not I was going to detain the Boy after each lesson: When I would call out
“Bill—see me after class,” money would change hands. I felt ridiculous but
couldn’t stop myself. I wanted the Boy near me, alone with me, so I could live
that biryani burn.
Many of my male students became hyper-aware of me; paying more attention to
lessons, coming to my desk for help, lingering after class. Maybe I was sending
out subliminal signals, or perhaps it was because I’d stopped wearing
underwear. One day, Wayne Cartwright, who was one of my better students, began
acting up as if he too was trying to get a detention. He seemed bitterly
disappointed when I sent him to the principal’s office instead. Only Billy
Arney was unmoved, uncomprehending. Behind that solar gaze lurked a thick bank
I tried to pick on someone my own size, so to speak, turning my attentions to
Steve Jones, the chemistry teacher. We’d dated a few times in the past, so it
didn’t seem totally out of the blue when I invited him over to my house one
evening for a meal.
“Come in!” I called when he knocked at the front door.
“What’s that dirty hippie smell?” was the first thing he said when he
walked through my front door into a cloud of heady incense. When I didn’t
answer, he came to the living room in search of me, stopping short when he
discovered me there holding a large platter of biryani, wearing nothing but a
few dollops of lime chutney. But poor Steve was a steak and potatoes man.
“Sorry, I can’t eat curry. It plays havoc with my bowels.”
So that was that. My cravings unsatisfied, detentions continued.
Eventually the situation even came to the attention of the school staff. Tad
Kershaw, the ninth grade social studies teacher asked me, “How much longer are
you going to spend on India? You’ve got the rest of Asia to fit in before the
end of term, and it’s almost November.”
Chrissy Beckman, the home economics teacher joked, “Goodness but you have
it in for Billy Arney!”
If only she knew the half of it.
After the twenty fourth detention or so, the principal called me into his
office and said pleasantly, “Ms. Sokovitch, I realize Billy Arney is a
disruptive student, but instead of detaining him after class every day, I’d
like for you to try and work out your differences a little more constructively.”
I’m sure what followed was excellent advice but I couldn’t heed it because I
couldn’t hear it; I was deafened by the howl of my loins. And that
afternoon in social studies class, I gave the Boy a detention for sneezing.
It took a bit of graffiti in the women’s restroom to bring me momentarily
to my senses. Written in brown lipstick on the pink cubicle door, it said, “MS.
SOKOVITCH IS A PSYCHO-BITCH”. I promised myself there and then that no matter
what he did, I wouldn’t detain Billy Arney again.
It was a sore trial. I spent my days exhausted, distracted, consumed with
longing; I spent sleepless nights doubled up, nauseated with desire. I knew the
only antidote to my disease was his closeness, his nakedness, his reciprocation.
But he was thirteen years old! If anyone found out, I’d surely lose my job and
get into trouble with the law ... and what made me think he would requite my
attentions anyway? But then again, why not? Even though I was more than twice
his age, I was not at all bad to look at; and for an adolescent boy, all glands
and urges, weren’t my age and experience in my favor? Night after night I
agonized over the possibilities and consequences, while my body ached like an
Finally, after a week of this I was broken. Sleep deprived, poisoned with
lust, I made up my mind to pounce. To hell with my career, my self-respect, and
the age of consent: The Boy was all I wanted now and I would have him. I would
detain him, and corner him, and devour him like a mango.
The next day I made the class watch a film on the Partition of India, while I
watched the Boy and waited for my opportunity. It came at last, half an hour
into the lesson, when I spied him reading a note in class. I didn’t hesitate
to give him a detention.
“Ms. Syko-bitch, I mean, Sokovitch,” said a girl sitting next to him, “I
passed him the note, so shouldn’t I stay for detention too?”
She was a belligerent, brown-eyed girl with oily hair, and a slack belly that
she was fond of showing off whatever the weather. Some might say there was an
earthiness about her, but to put it bluntly she emanated a kind of sweaty
sexuality. As I looked at her, I had a vision: I saw her writhing naked in the
lap of my Biryani Boy - like Parvati coupling with Shiva, sowing the seeds of
destruction. How had I not noticed this rival before? A hot rage exploded inside
me, and I was frightened by my feelings toward this teenaged girl. She was a
barrier between me and the object of my desire—an impassable mountain range
along the north Indian border. My primitive self wanted to face off with her, to
beat her into submission and claim her prize. But as she stared at me, I found
my fire slowly suffocated by her muddy gaze.
“I’ll see you after class as well.” I was surprised to hear myself say.
“Now everyone please turn to page 147 of your textbooks. Today we’ll be
Relief surged through me. Once again I was a teacher, a responsible adult, in
control. I realized that I owed the girl a debt of gratitude. Had she not spoken
out, I would have made the stupidest mistake of my life. I whispered my thanks
as I took down the map of India and pinned up a map of China in its place. But
as I turned back to the class, I saw her reach out and touch the Boy’s knee.
He placed his hand—his beautiful rough-hewn hand!—over hers and kissed her
lightly on her wide American mouth. It was a mouth that would never appreciate
the subtle symphony of a biryani, a mouth that could only taste the blunt
obviousness of fast food. Then the girl caught my eye, and that mouth, painted
thick with brown lipstick, curved into a smile of triumph.
In a second I was on her, my fingers twined in her greasy hair, beating her
head against the floor. “Don’t you fucking touch him!” I could hear myself
shrieking. “He’s mine!”
I haven’t seen the Boy since I lost my job and the court ordered me not to
go near him. But I’m constantly reminded of him at my current job, bagging
spices in the basement of a bulk foods store. He looks up at me from every scoop
of cumin. Sprinkles of cinnamon on my workbench are his freckles. Sometimes I’ll
grab handfuls of cayenne, and letting it run through my fingers, I’ll imagine
his hair. And every day I live the burn. All the waters of the Ganges cannot
©1999 Vanessa Dodge
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