The Biryani Boy
a short story by Vanessa Dodge

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 a lover.

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 somethin”
“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 was over.

“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 of fog.

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 open wound.

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 studying China.”

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 extinguish it.


©1999 Vanessa Dodge

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