(This story first appeared in The Laurel Review, Volume 41, Number 2, Summer 2007. This version has some minor changes.)
All my best work has been of Miss Kristinsen. I can’t help it. People like her are the only things worth drawing anyway. But it’s weird because she has that huge scar on her face. It starts above her eye and goes halfway down her cheek. She still looks good, though, with her pointy little shoulders and the way her mouth twitches when she’s nervous. She has a hard time. And the way she walks. I can’t really concentrate on a leaf or a shoe or whatever we’re supposed to be drawing when she’s in the room.
On her first day here at Creeley Middle School she wanted us to draw a branch she’d brought in from outside. It was all twisted and had a bunch of little branches coming off and kind of wrapping themselves around it, which was hard for some of the other eighth graders to do but easy for me since I’m used to much more complicated stuff. I was done in fifteen minutes and then I started drawing her. She was standing in front of the class with her hip cocked to the side, which affected the shadow on the crotch of her jeans.
When she saw I had started something new she came over, looked at my paper, and said, “Use a softer lead for the nose.”
“Sorry,” I said. I switched pencils.
“My nose doesn’t look like that.”
I was about to erase the mistake when she said, “Do that later. We’re drawing the branch now. And start over. This one looks hurried.” I got another sheet of paper for the branch.
The next day she held my second branch sketch up and told the class how good it was, how I got all the proportions just right and you could tell where the bark had been chipped off and scratched, and everyone said yeah, they knew I was good already.
But then she started pointing out the bad things too, which felt strange because our teacher last year was pretty slack and didn’t really care about details.
“How many twigs does this branch have?” she asked, pointing to my sketch.
Trevor raised his hand. I didn’t want him to say anything because I was still mad that he had been making fun of her scar between classes. Before she called on him, he shouted, “Five. But the real one has six.”
I felt the pencil in my hand almost break I was so shocked. I usually don’t make mistakes.
“You need to focus,” she told the class. “You can’t be thinking about something else when you haven’t finished your work yet. Jennings’s mind was wandering yesterday. He didn’t focus on the assignment. You stick with your assignment. Don’t get sidetracked.”
Then she looked at me and said, “Jennings, what are you doing?” She came over and picked up my sketch of her talking to the class and held it up for everyone to see, and everybody laughed. "You little space case. What is this?”
“He’s just kissing up to you,” said Trevor. “Don’t pay any attention to him.”
“Be quiet, Trevor. Jennings, I don’t know why you keep drawing pictures of me, but this isn’t what we do in class.”
Everyone was holding back giggles and Trevor grinned at me like I was in trouble or something, but after Miss Kristensen had looked at the sketch a little longer she started laughing and I knew she was having a good time.
After class Trevor said I was kissing her ass. Then Paul said what I really wanted to do was lick her asshole. Then Trevor said it probably tastes just like vanilla and I told him to shut up because that’s a horrible thing to say and he really shouldn’t have said it. I had the taste of vanilla in my mouth all afternoon.
Trevor’s a real asshole. One day I was staying after class to help clean up and he was the only other student there. He was brushing the dust off one of his sketches that had fallen on the floor, acting all concerned even though it looked like a five-year-old drew it. Miss Kristinsen was sitting at her desk, writing comments on the back of someone’s sketch, and we were talking about how the pods on the magnolia tree in front of school were filling up with seeds because we’re both nature lovers. She said she had one in her yard and I asked her where that was. It turned out she had bought a house on Meriwether Street when she moved to Charlottesville last summer.
Then, I swear to god, Trevor said, “Who cut your face?”
The tip of Miss Kristinsen’s pencil went through the sketch and she sucked in air between her teeth. She stared at the paper and said, “That’s none of your—” but she couldn’t finish. She kept looking down at the pencil tip. Finally she said, “Actually, Trevor, would you please leave?”
Trevor’s eyes widened for a second and then he walked out the door.
She didn’t tell me to leave. I thought maybe I should but for a minute it was still like she couldn’t see me so I finished putting the pencils away and put the pad of Bristol board on the shelf. Then I picked up the scraps of paper off the table and threw them in the trash. Then I started sweeping the floor.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“Just cleaning up a little.” I noticed the floor was actually not that dirty so the broom was just scraping across it and not sweeping anything up.
“You don’t need to do that. The janitor will take care of that.”
“Mr. Stevens doesn’t come until tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to worry about your grade, Jennings. I hope you don’t think this will affect your grade.”
“I just wanted to help.”
“I’ve got to finish this grading. I’ll see you tomorrow. Okay?”
I went to my locker to get some homework since it was lunchtime and I always study during lunch. I had to pass the art room again on my way to the cafeteria and I heard Mr. Andrews, my geometry teacher, talking when I walked by. He was talking real loud, asking Miss Kristinsen lots of questions about where she was from and whether she had a family or anything, and it was only her second week so I figured they hadn’t met yet. She wasn’t saying much. I looked in the door and saw Mr. Andrews sitting on the edge of her desk, leaning over her, and she had her chair rolled all the way back against the wall. I started thinking about how someone had cut her face and I thought she might be thinking the same thing, how she hadn’t known who was going to cut her the first time and she didn’t know who would cut her the next time either, and I thought about that time last spring when Mr. Andrews threw chalk at Miranda for playing with her phone in class.
When Miss Kristinsen saw me she rolled her chair forward and said, “Jennings, come here a minute.”
I went in and she said she had to talk to me about my behavior but she was looking at Mr. Andrews when she said it. She had to talk to me in private, she said. I told Mr. Andrews hi and he said hi to me and when he got up from the desk I walked right past him but he kind of edged away from me. He got that look in his eyes he had last year when everyone was teasing him about his big breakup. At first I didn’t know why he did that but then I realized how I was looking at him and it made me kind of embarrassed, to not even feel how hard and mean my face was until after he was looking back at me. But when I saw how Miss Kristinsen looked at him the same way I wasn’t embarrassed anymore. I told him I liked learning about rhomboids and stuff, and I really do, because it gives me ideas for my sketches, and he said he would see me in class after lunch.
When he left, Miss Kristinsen took out my latest sketch, a drawing of a mangy dog she had had us do from a photograph, and gave me some tips on how to make it better. She showed me how to make a rough texture for the mangy spots and how I should be careful with those because each one had its own kind of beauty. To help me practice drawing the smooth gray sky in the background, she put her hand around mine and guided it back and forth across a piece of scrap paper at just the right angle so my pencil left a perfect layer of graphite, and when she took her hand away my hand kept moving just like that, still perfect, and my hand felt cold without hers.
I knew why she didn’t want Mr. Andrews there. He must have reminded her of the guy that cut her. Maybe they looked the same. I don’t know. But if I was there when she was with that man, and she trusted him, and there was no one else around to stop him, I would have done something about it. But that’s not the only thing. I keep seeing it happen, a strange man standing over her with a knife in his hand, and I can see it go straight through her skull so I never meet her, or cut out her eyes so she can’t look back at me.
It’s not that Mr. Andrews is dangerous or anything, but she obviously doesn’t want him around. And if he touches her at all, or says something, or looks at her wrong, it can hurt her in ways that he can’t understand like I do.
A few days later he was at it again. It was the same situation. Lunch had just started and I was walking by with my homework when I saw him in a chair he had pulled up in front of her desk. She was looking at her papers, not paying any attention to him, so I went in and asked her if I could practice drawing. She said that would be fine, that in fact she was happy to have a student who cared so much about her class.
“What are you gonna draw?” she said.
Mr. Andrews laughed so hard his stomach jiggled through his tee shirt and when he was through he said, “That’s sweet.”
“Mr. Andrews,” she said, “I’m helping a student.”
“Oh,” he said, and he looked so confused that I almost started laughing too. “You’re not busy, are you?”
“I am right now. Maybe we can talk another time.”
I wanted to draw the left side of her face, the side where you can’t see the scar, so after Mr. Andrews left I moved to a seat on the right side of the table. I got out pencils and paper and watched her work. I could only see the top half of her above her desk, the crease she got along her forehead when she tried to figure out what was going on in the worst sketches, every movement in the fabric of her sweater. A few minutes before lunch ended she came over, picked up my sketch and sat on the table so I had to look up to see her face.
“This is good,” she said. “You’re getting better.” Then she gave me some tips on how to do the shading on her neck, how I shouldn’t make it too dark because her little chin doesn’t leave a big shadow.
The next day at lunch I sat on her left side where the scar looked like a ladder going up into her brain. I drew it too big and threw the paper away so she wouldn’t see.
I kept doing this every day, always changing seats so I could draw her from a different angle. After I had sat at every place at the table I started borrowing a little student desk, the kind with its own chair attached to it, from across the hall, and I could move that wherever I wanted. She usually acted happy to see me, but sometimes she would look at me weird like she thought there was something wrong with what I was doing.
One day she got up from her desk and went to the file cabinet to get my folder. She laid it on the table and went through my work, taking some of it out to line up side by side. I couldn’t keep drawing her at her desk because she wasn’t there anymore so I decided to start over and sketch her leaning over my folder. That would give me a chance to draw the top of her head, which I had never done before, but then she told me to come look at the sketches she had picked so I got up to go see them. In one she was rolling her eyes at a student’s crappy work. In another she was twirling a pencil in her fingers. One showed her with a piece of spinach stuck between her teeth.
“I just thought we should go over your progress,” she said. “This is good here.” She pointed to the rolling eyes. “Good emotion.” She flipped over another sketch and the one under that was a profile of her face with the scar going straight down the center of the paper. She picked up the profile and looked at it for a long time. I had drawn her with a still, expressionless face, like more of an object than a living thing. I did not remember drawing it.
“How did you get that?” I said.
“It’s nothing. Get what?”
She put my sketches back in the folder, put the folder away, went to her desk and got back to her grading. I still had a blank sheet of paper so I sat down, and tried to make eye contact with her, and drew her not being honest with me.
I felt messed up the rest of the day, like we would never really understand each other, and this hurt inside because I knew she needed someone to be there for her and she was really kind of weird. She needed someone to talk to. Obviously, she wouldn’t want me at her house, but I still wanted to know what it looked like for when I thought of her at home. I knew it was on Meriwether Street and had a magnolia tree in the yard so after school I got on my bike and headed that way.
When I got to Meriwether Street I went all the way down the road even after I had found a house with a magnolia in the front yard, just to make sure there were no other magnolia trees, but that was the only one. I left my bike behind some bushes across the street and took a look at her house, which was little and green and had small windows. It was on a corner lot with a fence around the back but if I went to where the fence ended in some scrub oak I could see the back yard. She had a plastic pool chair, the kind that leans all the way back, with cigarette butts all around it. A tall glass lay on its side next to the chair. Two brick flowerbeds were up against the wall of the house but they didn’t have any flowers, only weeds. One of the windows had its blinds down. In the other one the room was too dark to see anything. I wanted to ask her what she did out there. I wanted to plant some flowers for her. But I wouldn’t know what to say about that, and I knew she would be there any minute and then I really wouldn’t know what to say.
I went home.
I went by her house every day after school. The back yard was always different. Sometimes the pool chair would be on the concrete by the back door and other times it would be farther from the house. She left magazines and books all over the yard. Once I heard her yelling from inside even though the door was closed. I didn’t understand what she was talking about but she kept saying, “Where is he? Where is he?” She was screaming that it was their job to know, they had to know, she had seen someone behind the fence. I was staring at the window even though the blinds were down, but when she pushed them apart to look outside I saw the phone in her hand. I turned and ran.
I was afraid of getting caught and I didn’t want to scare her anymore so the next week I only went to her house twice.
In November we started silkscreen and I didn’t want to do her picture on a shirt because I wasn’t very good at silkscreen and it would have been an insult to her. Instead I decided to make a print of a magnolia pod because it reminded me of her house, but I knew I couldn’t tell her that was the reason. When Trevor saw my design he called me a hippy.
After the first day of silkscreen she was really tired. The idiots had been acting up during class. Jane had used the exacto knife to trim her cuticles and Paul had tried sniffing the ether. Miss Kristinsen was worn out by lunch so she took her sandals off, lay back in her chair, and propped her feet on her desk. That’s when I decided to draw her feet.
She closed her eyes and I went across the hall to get the desk. When I carried it in I was extra careful not to bump it against anything because she looked like she was dozing off and I didn’t want to wake her. I put the little student desk down in front of her big one as gently as possible, so slowly I could feel each of its feet touch the floor one by one, and I took the drawing pad into the hall so I could tear a sheet off without her hearing. When I finally sat down she had stretched her legs out and her feet were so close I could smell them. My eyes followed the thin lines crisscrossing her heals until they got to the smooth white arches above. On her left foot, just under her big toe, was a tiny yellow callous. Her toes started to wiggle, opening and closing again before I could get a good look between them. I realized this was because I was leaning over so far that I was breathing on them, standing with my legs between my desk’s seat and desktop. I had to see between her toes where the skin was so smooth, so I reached out my hand and put my fingers between the toes of her left foot. For a second, I felt her damp, warm skin pressing in around my fingers. But then it was over. Her legs jerked away from me so fast her chair tipped back and she almost fell over.
“Hey,” she said, “don’t touch me.”
I sat down and put my hands on the desk. I couldn’t speak.
She put her sandals on. “What were you doing?”
I don’t know how long she looked at me before I told her I only wanted to draw her foot, and that I was only trying to see the spaces between her toes so I could draw them.
“Don’t lie,” she said.
“I’m not lying.”
She stared at me for a minute and said, “You can draw my foot if you just don’t touch it. Okay?”
She took her sandals off and put her feet back on the desk, and kept her eyes open.
After lunch I felt farther away from her than ever. For her to think she had to watch me like I could hurt her or something made me think I might not ever be able to make her happy. All I wanted to do was appreciate her but she didn’t appreciate me. I couldn’t concentrate on my classes for the rest of the day. Mr. Andrews was the hardest to deal with. After he found out I was spending my lunch period with Miss Kristinsen he had started kidding around with me, asking if I had had fun at lunch every time I walked into class. I didn’t even answer him that day.
When school was over I rode my bike around Miss Kristinsen’s block five times before stopping. I didn’t know if I really wanted to think about her but I couldn’t just pass by. I left my bike in the bushes and went around back behind the fence. She was home. I knew she was because her car was in the driveway but I had to see if she had been outside reading and having a drink, enjoying herself like she needed to.
When I got to the end of the fence I saw her lying on the pool chair in a hooded sweatshirt, smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine. I was surprised even though I knew I shouldn’t have been. I knew she was home. But I had never actually seen her out there before.
She saw me right away. “Jennings,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
I didn’t say anything.
“I could have killed you. You’re lucky I recognized you.”
“Sorry. I just wanted to see you.”
“Do your parents know you’re here?”
I pulled some leaves off a tree and dropped them on the ground. “No.”
“You need to go home then.” She left the magazine in the grass beside her, put the cigarette out, and went inside.
“Bye,” I said.
I could never go back. She wasn’t happy to see me there, and it wasn’t like when she wasn’t happy to see me at lunch. I could never go back and try again. This was her home.
In class the next day I was so embarrassed I sat in a corner where no one would notice me. I worked slowly, taking my time cutting the magnolia design into the vellum, because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by going to the silkscreen station and burning it into the screen. Everyone stares whenever someone does that. Miss Kristinsen knew I was wasting time but she didn’t say anything.
She kept giving me weird looks, though, and I was almost too scared to stay with her during lunch, but I knew she expected me and I wanted to be there in case Mr. Andrews came back.
After the bell rang and everyone had left she said we had to talk. I was about to get up and go to her desk but she was already walking towards me, to my spot in the back of the room, so I sat back down. She took the seat next to me, leaning forward in her chair and squinting at me like she had never done before. The corners of her mouth turned up, but it wasn’t a smile. It was more of a puzzled expression. I picked up a pencil from the table and rolled it between my fingers. She looked me up and down for what felt like a whole minute but probably wasn’t.
She said, “I worry about you, Jennings.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“What were you doing at my house yesterday?”
I couldn’t’ tell her why I went there. She wouldn’t like it.
“Jennings, don’t draw on the table.”
I stopped my hand. There wasn’t any paper. I hadn’t been paying attention but I was drawing her face right on the table. I didn’t know I was. It wasn’t very good so I started erasing.
“How many times have you been at my house?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t go there anymore.”
She put her chin in her hands, leaned her elbows on the table, and stared at me. And I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to help me anymore and she looked meaner somehow, but I knew she wasn’t really. I would never be able to draw her just right. It hurt to see her like that.