It was no surprise when Carrie approached me the next day, looking kind of upset. I had been sort of dreading this encounter ever since Ben told me that he’d clued her in to my little white lie.
Luckily, Carrie didn’t seem angry with me. She was clutching her calculus textbook to her chest and biting her lip as she stood before me, just as I was waiting for homeroom to get started. “Hi, Ms. Woodrow,” she said. “Can I talk to you?”
“Of course, Carrie,” I said. I was trying to sound maternal-ish, although Carrie was way, way too old for me to be any kind of mother figure to her. I was more like a hot older sister.
“Mr. Graham told me he doesn’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease,” she said.
“Well, of course he denied it,” I said, trying to salvage the situation. “I told you, he’s sensitive about it.”
“He said he had a spinal cord injury,” Carrie said. “He seemed to know a lot about it. I think he was telling the truth.”
“Right, well…” I mumbled. Shit.
“It’s okay you lied,” she said. “I get why you did it.”
“You just want us to become a winning team,” Carrie said.
“Right,” I said. I licked my lips. “Exactly.”
“The thing is,” Carrie began. “I really like Mr. Graham. We all do. He’s a good teacher and he really cares about the team.” Her eyes looked far off and she got this dreamy expression on her face. I knew she was picturing Ben and suddenly his face popped into my own head too. “He’s nice and he’s funny and he’s incredibly…”
“Sexy,” I breathed, completing her thought.
“Nothing,” I said quickly.
“Well, anyway,” Carrie said. “I just… I wanted to tell you that even though I want to win, I just can’t do anything to Mr. Graham. I’d rather lose.”
Well, that was loyalty. Or love. Or better yet, lust.
Anyway, it was obvious I wasn’t going to get any help from Carrie. I had to take matters into my own hands.
“I want Ben Graham investigated.”
“Investigated?” Principal Hoppenfeld raised his eyebrows at me. Hoppenfeld had Old Man Eyebrows, like the kind Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes had. If they were a little longer, they’d be obscuring his vision. It was actually kind of gross. I was trying to look him in the eyes while avoiding looking at his eyebrows, but it was hard. If I ever date a guy with eyebrows like that, someone should just put me out of my misery.
“I don’t think Ben Graham is an effective teacher,” I said. “I want to lodge a formal complaint.”
“A formal complaint?” Hoppenfeld didn’t seem to know what to make of me.
“You must have some objective measure of his teaching abilities, right?”
“There’s the advance placement exams, I guess…”
I nodded vigorously. “Yes, those. You should get a list of the scores of all his students over the time he’s been teaching here.”
Hoppenfeld started at me. “This isn’t really warranted, Holly.”
“The kids love Ben,” Hoppenfeld said. “They voted him Teacher of the Year last year.”
God, this just got worse and worse. “It takes more than just being liked to be a good teacher. In fact, maybe that’s a sign he hasn’t be teaching effectively.”
“I’m not investigating Ben.” Hoppenfeld shook his head. “What do you have against him anyway?”
“You have this all wrong,” I protested. “It’s the kids I’m thinking about.”
Unfortunately, Hoppenfeld wasn’t buying it. I guess he was smarter than he looked.
Just once, I would have liked to make it to school with my make-up intact. There’s something about the subway that does a number on my foundation. Someday when I’m a principal or something, I’ll get a car. Or better yet, I’ll take a taxi to work every day.
Anyway, I had to arrive at school fifteen minutes early every day just to reapply my make-up. I did it sitting at my desk, my compact open as I put on a fresh layer of eyeliner and lipstick. I usually fix my make-up at least three times a day, and honestly, I feel like anyone who doesn’t do the same is a slob. Make-up must be retouched. It’s just a fact.
“More eye make-up?”
I looked up from my compact and saw Ben Graham sitting in his wheelchair in front of his desk. I hadn’t even heard him come in. I get very focused when I put on make-up. It’s almost Zen.
“Just fixing it,” I said coolly.
“You really don’t need so much make-up,” he said.
“I guess you’re the expert,” I replied. “I suppose you like the natural look. What do you think, that women should grow out their leg hair and braid it?”
“I didn’t say that,” Ben said with a smile. “I mean, I agree that some women need make-up to look good. But you’re naturally pretty. You really don’t need to cake it on like that.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, although I was kind of flattered that he said I was “naturally pretty.” I didn’t think anyone had ever said that to me. I mean, men had called me beautiful before, but I liked what he said. And the way he said it.
“Maybe you’re right,” Ben conceded. “The only stuff I know about style is what I learn from the seventeen year olds in my class.”
“No kidding,” I said, although the truth was that I thought Ben had a pretty nice sense of style. He always seemed to wear shirts that fit well and brought out the color in his eyes. I could tell he didn’t use any product in his hair, but it always seemed to look pretty good. Ben had kind of an innately hip style.
“Anyway,” he said, “the reason I’m here is because we have our first out of town math competition coming up next week and I want to make sure you can come with us.”
“Out of town?”
“Nothing exotic,” Ben said quickly. “We don’t have competitions in, like, Hawaii. We’ll be going upstate. There’s a dorm that’s going to put us up for the night.”
“A dorm?” I felt my stomach turn slightly at the idea of communal showers and twin beds with lumpy mattresses.
“Well, you and I will probably get better rooms than the kids,” he said. “At least, we won’t have to share.”
I looked up at him sharply and suddenly remembered something that I used to love about living in college dorms: the hook-ups. I loved getting drunk and pulling some hot well-muscled guy back to my room, pushing him onto my bed, and allowing him to ravish me. As I stared at Ben, I imagined the two of us getting drunk on cheap booze, him leaning forward to press his lips against mine…
“Holly?” Ben was staring at me. “Are you all right?”
No, I was not all right! I was having erotic fantasies about a crippled guy. I wanted to fuck a guy who most likely wasn’t even capable of fucking. What was wrong with me? What was next? Was I going to start masturbating to the Jerry Lewis Telethon? “I’m fine,” I croaked.
“Great, so you’re in?”
“Definitely,” I said, managing a weak smile.
I spent a long time deciding what to wear and what to pack for my first overnight math team excursion. Simply put, I wanted to look hot. But I couldn’t exactly dress in a short skirt and tube top if I was going to a math competition. I had to look tasteful. But also hot.
As I lay down my fifth rejected dress (a flower-print number that fell above my knees and you could slightly see my nipples), I wondered why I was making such an effort. Who was I trying to look hot for? Certainly not the adolescent boys. Did I think I was going to hook up with some white haired math team coach from Syracuse? No, I did not. So there was only one person I could have been doing this for.
So yes, I was thinking about Ben quite a bit lately. In all honesty, he was pretty much all I could think about lately. And yesterday, when I was dialing O on the little pink telephone, he was very much in my thoughts.
I had never been attracted to a disabled man before though. Most of the time, guys in wheelchairs were a huge turn-off to me. When I was growing up, there was some center for adults with severe disabilities right by my house, and I used to see the cripples in power wheelchairs getting loaded off the bus. They all looked retarded, with lolling heads, and certainly not like somebody who could be the object of any sort of sexual fantasies. And ever since then, that was what I thought of whenever I saw a person in a wheelchair.
But Ben wasn’t like that. He was cute. He was sexy. If not for the chair, he was totally the kind of guy I would have gone for. Well, in terms of looks, at least. His personality kind of sucked, although I had to admit he was pretty smart.
I finally settled on a black blouse and red (well, maroon) skirt that I bought a couple of weeks ago at Macy’s. The blouse was fitted and very flattering to my tits. I picked a pair of black suede pumps that I got discounted at Payless, where I’m a little embarrassed to shop but I can’t afford the really high end stuff on my salary. Every couple of weeks, I stop in Jimmy Choo’s and stare longingly at the three thousand dollar shoes. In the back of my mind, I have this fantasy that some rich handsome stranger will see me staring at the shoes and buy them for me. Then marry me and spend the rest of his life buying me shoes until he dies and leaves me his fortune.
I packed an equally alluring outfit for the next day, as well as my make-up kit, skin care supplies, and hair supplies. I started to zip up my luggage when I thought of one other thing that might be nice to bring: some wine.
About a month ago, I had purchased a bottle of white zinfandel wine, but apparently I had used it all up in that time. There was less than half a cup left, which wasn’t enough to loosen up. So I blew the dust off my liquor cabinet, hoping to find some nice peach schnapps, but instead found that I’d been a little remiss in stocking items. The only bottle that hadn’t been nearly emptied was some Jack Daniels. It felt a little unprofessional to toss a bottle of whiskey into my bag, so I decided to pour the contents of the bottle into my wine container. I re-corked the wine and viola!—I had a surefire way to get myself and any gentleman callers drunk off our asses.
We were taking off for upstate at eight in the morning on a Thursday morning, and when I arrived at the bus stop, Ben was already there, rallying the kids. He usually wore a tie to work, but today he was a little more casual in a checkered blue shirt that had the top button undone. He looked adorable, maybe even more so than usual.
He looked up at me when I arrived, and he stopped talking mid-sentence and his mouth fell open a bit. I guess I looked pretty good.
“Wow, you look hot, Ms. Woodrow,” one of the boys, a kid named Dan with spiky black hair, commented.
“Dan!” I scolded him, although I was secretly pleased.
“That’s completely inappropriate, Dan,” Ben said, still staring at me. He was looking at my legs. I have to admit, I have amazing legs. I couldn’t blame him for admiring them. “Holly, you really… brought a lot of stuff for one night.”
Oh, he was staring at my rolling luggage, not my legs. Damn. “It’s not that much,” I protested.
“It’s like four feet high,” Ben said. “I brought a backpack.”
“So you’ll put it in the trunk,” I said, shrugging.
Ben sighed loudly and I felt irritated. Men just didn’t understand packing for trips. He probably just brought one clean shirt and underwear. He probably didn’t even brush or comb his hair in the morning. I bet he was one of those guys who just ran his hand through his hair once after showering and called it a day.
I helped heard the kids onto the bus and the driver helped Ben get inside. This bus was arranged differently than the other bus, and Ben had to sit in the front. I was considering sitting with him, when I saw Carrie perched in the seat nearest to her teacher, talking to him enthusiastically. When I heard Carrie utter the words “best teacher I’ve ever had,” I decided to go sit in the back by myself.
I spent the morning reading a magazine, and intermittently dozing. I was woken up once when Carrie came by to distribute some practice math problems, and once when we stopped at a picnic site for lunch.
The picnic site was a large grassy area with a bunch of picnic tables. Ben had brought a cooler filled with sandwiches and one filled with drinks. I took a bottle of water and a roast beef sandwich. When I unwrapped it, it had that weird plastic-y smell inside and I crinkled my nose. “Where did you get these sandwiches?” I asked Ben.
“A local deli sponsored us for free,” he said.
“Ugh,” I said.
“Sorry, your majesty,” Ben said.
How could he say that to me? Just because I rightfully thought these sandwiches were inedible? “At least I didn’t spend the entire bus ride flirting with my student,” I said.
Ben’s jaw dropped open. “What?”
“You heard me.” I folded my arms across my chest. “We all know Carrie has a pathetic little crush on you.”
Pale-faced, Ben glanced around to make sure no students were in earshot. “Holly…”
“I’m just saying, you shouldn’t encourage it.”
“I’m not…” He shook his head. “Okay, fine, you’re right.”
Now it was my turn to be shocked. This was the first time Ben ever told me I was right. About anything.
“I know I should have discouraged her,” he said. “I guess I was just flattered that a pretty seventeen year old girl would like me.”
Pretty? How could he possibly describe Carrie as “pretty”? She was practically hideous. Was he blind in addition to being paralyzed? “You think Carrie is pretty?” I asked casually.
“Well, I guess,” he said. “I mean, she’s… look, I shouldn’t even really be talking about it, you know? She’s young, that’s all.”
“Unlike me, an old woman in my thirties.”
Ben laughed. “All right, you can stop digging for compliments. You’re hands down the prettiest female in the school. Are you happy?”
“But still not your type, huh?”
Ben squinted up at me, a weird expression on his face.
“What?” I finally said.
“I’m just trying to figure out why you care about that so much,” he said.
I tightened my grip on my purse and looked away from him. For once, Ben Graham had managed to get me flustered. As much as I liked to believe I always had the upper hand, I was beginning to think maybe it was Ben who was calling all the shots.
To be continued....