The "Ghost Spring" Issue
by Emil DeAndreis
Vincent stands in the faculty restroom, unzipped and idle. Staring ahead at the tile, he gives his best effort at a yoga breath. Waits. Taps himself. Almost whispers, come on. But that would mean he talks to himself. Already, at age thirty-three.
Meanwhile, this problem worsens. Why does it feel like he’s never done? The Going Too Often/Never Feeling Finished problems: they aren’t supposed to show up until later. Much later. Like grandpa, pension-collecting later. In the med commercials, the actors who dock their yachts, or shuffle direly from their movie seats to the bathroom—they’re always gray-haired, wealthy and leather-faced, rolling their eyes playfully as though their withering prostate were a whoopee cushion, playing another prank. Vincent seeps a mediocre stream and feels no emptier, lets another breath out through an o-shaped mouth.
For the rest of his prep period, he Xeroxes fliers for the Winter Concert. He isn’t hopeful for much of a turnout. Some parents, some bored and resentful younger siblings. Probably, there will be some recently divorced teachers who’ll come so they’re not alone on a Friday during the holidays. They’ll sit by themselves, in black coats and gloves and glasses— like Groucho Marx disguises.
After Xeroxing, back to the bathroom. Unfinished business. Or, more specifically, Vincent hopes it’s unfinished, that he can coax a few more drops. He enters the stall, unzips, hovers. His belt clinks as he milks himself, slow pulls. This all yields nothing. He flicks himself—something new he hasn’t tried. This is what it’s come to: trying new tactics to scare out urine. He squeezes himself, the equivalent of thumbing a hose. He feels a burn down there. A fluidy kind of rush. His bladder has been simulated, or distracted, or something.
Vincent’s groan echoes off of the tiles.
He sighs, washes up. What he doesn’t know as he soaps his hands: a teacher in a neighboring stall has just eavesdropped Vincent’s ordeal and developed his own theory as to what Vincent was just doing with the quick choppy motions, the belt jingles, the duration of time in which he stood over the toilet, not peeing. The splashes.
Three years ago, Vincent was a student teacher at Monroe. Then carless, he took the train from his apartment, a thirty-minute commute. He had to wake up in the dark, a first for him. His clothes hangers screeched, a dismal morning noise. He found himself staring blankly at the wall, pantsless, often. On these mornings, he recalled days in high school when he would hit the snooze and finally be drawn from bed by the vapors of cinnamon buns. He’d chew like a moose at the sun-painted kitchen table, refuse to speak to his mother, as though insulted by her petty bribery of cinnamon buns to unbed him. Those days gone, he rarely managed a piece of fruit into his bag before leaving for the train.
On the way toward Monroe, he listened to Chopin Nocturnes, Bach’s Matthew’s Passion, Mahler’s Fifth, a wishful attempt at zen. At stops, he watched people his age board, studied their early thirties faces, wondered what they did. What did a man in tight gray slacks and a blasé face do? Finance? Was he established? Did he eat parfaits?
What about the skateboard and beanie guy with crow’s feet around his eyes? Spent his twenties surfing Bali? Made great memories? Maybe worked in Youth Outreach now? How did he feel about being on this train before sunup?
Natalie was a flutist in beginning band during Vincent’s first year student teaching. She was tall for thirteen with a gumbyish stature. Her lips were clumsied by braces, eyebrows one fuzzy parenthesis if unplucked. She had the berserk energy of a child in a new and daunting place. She took the train after school because her father worked late in Silicon Valley. For the first months of school, she and Vincent didn’t speak to each other. Having just been thrown over a hundred new students, Vincent did not even recognize her. He was plugged into his earbuds, staring out the oval window as flat suburbs passed and the sunlight was grayed by the fog of the nearing city.
Eventually, Natalie left no choice but to be noticed. Her manic typing and outbursts at her phone, her impatient scrolling. Routinely, Vincent saw passengers flinch awake from her exploding gum. And she was oblivious. Offensively, yet somehow charmingly so.
In time, they conversed. She asked him questions but did not listen to answers. Few things that she said were not obscene exaggerations. Mr. Nester’s bio class was a torture chamber. Thai food was euphoria. Labrador puppies were the most precious things in existence. Her eyes were fleety, her ideas unfinished. Her smell lingered when she left, an ongoing burst of pressed apples. And the train quieted.
Now, Vincent’s been at Monroe three years, and after this year, he will be tenured. Natalie is a senior, first chair flutist in Symphonic Band. Her first choice college is Columbia, safe choice Occidental. She’s grown into her skunk-tail eyebrows. She hasn’t cut her hair since freshman year; it now pours wildly in shades of desert sand. Other girls in her posse have the same Amazonian hair. They call themselves The Repunzel Party, and are carrying out a four-year plan to donate their hair to cancer wigs. For this gesture, the administration has recognized them in assemblies. A segment was done on the local news. They walk the halls and smile like First Ladies.
Once last year, from the elevated perch where Vincent conducted, he found himself watching her play, her bottom lip, pushed against the mouthpiece and folded over like a heavy flower pedal. He watched her childish fingers spidering up and down.
“Can we get out ten minutes early today?” she asked that day.
“Of course not.”
“I don’t have to answer that.”
“How about just five minutes?”
Was this flirting? Possibly it was just someone used to getting her way, someone who was the subject of paparazzi in a small public school.
“Stop,” Vincent said.
“Pleeeease Mr. Sage?”
Natalie’s face softened, as though looking at something defenseless. And Vincent knew at that moment that he appeared hurt.
“I’m only kidding,” she said.
The Rapunzel Party walks the hallways in the puddly winter of the Bay Area, boots squeaking across the floor. They strut in pig-cheek blush and hoop earrings. Their white shorts show the bottoms of their bare behinds. They are protesting the school dress code. Girls should not be told how to dress, they claim. They should control their image. Regulations of thigh and breast and hip bone and bra strap exposure are archaic. Not to mention, “beside the point.”
Midday, The Repunzel Party is called into the principal’s office, where they are told that while the progressive spirit of The Repunzel Party has always been a cornerstone of the Monroe community, they cannot, despite how medieval they find the rule to be, be naked at school. They’re sent home and told to come back tomorrow in non-lewd attire. They are warned not to take this thing any further, or suspension may in order. Senior activities, senior privileges, and even graduation will also be in jeopardy. Natalie will be barred from the Winter Concert, where she is supposed to play the lead in the night’s touching finale.
Vincent heard Le Cygne for the first time in his apartment earlier this semester. His room was siren-red from a space heater. He liked to do this: turn the lights off, the heater on, and sit in the glow. It brought him to high school, when the parents were out of town, and he and his friends would go to the garage. They’d turn the lights off. They’d climb into the car, hot box it, put the foot on the break, and fill the garage with red. They’d listen to DJ Shadow, an occasional symphony, and have profound thoughts rooted in nothing. Sometimes they’d write them on notepads, phrases like:
Glean from it in the marmalade, cascade in virus wildfire and sunset cavity
Despite being no deeper than phrases made from refrigerator magnets, they’d read their musings and think they were the next...whoever the fuck. And then they’d go and invade the pantry.
When Le Cygne came into Vincent’s life, he was in a similar state, except alone, in his apartment, eating cereal for dinner in red light. On his TV, a ballerina glided on her toes across the screen, a swan drifting across a pond. Her toes kneaded the stage and her legs wobbled, not clumsily, but weak, perhaps implying age. The ballerina bent over, seeming to take in her reflection, then outstretched her arms as though fanning open her wings to the breadth of the sky, the warmth of the sun, for the last time. As the brief song ended, the ballerina appeared to bow and then her eyes closed and her white-stockinged legs folded beneath her. She did not move again. The hollow claps of the ballet clattered through the TV. Vincent did not know why the descending swan had left him as frozen as he was. He did not know why his eyes had wetted. But he knew he’d found the song his band would play for their Grand Finale this winter Concert. And he also knew who would play the lead, the heartbeat, the fluttery and intoxicating melody of the song.
The Rapunzel Party calls the school’s bluff, and, in the name of social protest, comes to school somehow more naked. The girls are suspended before first period. Vincent finds a note from the Principal posted on his door after lunch:
Paisano, check in with me when you can, Tony.
Probably something to deal with the Winter Concert. Natalie’s punishment. On his way, Vincent plans his approach with the principal. Possibly a joke, to keep it light: I promise, let her play, and she’ll be clothed.
“I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this whole thing,” Tony tells him. His office has a world map and a poster of Muhammad Ali reading a book.
“It’s gotten a little out of hand. And quick.”
“What’d she do now?” Vincent asks.
“Let me ask you. Is there any reason a teacher might be alleging you were...uh. Well? Masturbating?”
“In the bathroom?” Tony adds.
“You know me, Tony. Don’t start my day without some Muesli, and getting off into a school toilet.”
Tony squints, an attempt at a smile.
“You’re serious,” Vincent says.
“I’m taking heat from teachers. Some venomous emails. Some go as far as to say they want you out, tenure coming up and all. So take it serious a minute. You got any bathroom habits that could be seen as...I dunno.”
Vincent suddenly feels like he’s in a daytime soap opera, the kind with the trashy and impossible plots.
“I don’t know Tony, Jesus.”
“Sometimes, I stand there and it feels like there’s a little bit that’s left, trapped. It pinches. I have to just stand there and wait, and wish, I guess.”
Tony taps his pen on the table, presses his thumb and index against his goatee and irons it down his mouth. It looks rehearsed, like he’s trying some techniques for a role he’s been assigned.
“I’m not going to tell you what’s in those emails. Just know this thing might pick up steam with the kids. Ignore it, if you can. I’ll do what I can to put the flame out.”
“How did this happen? It’s fucking Wednesday, Tony. When’d I take a leak, yesterday?”
Tony massages his forehead until it looks like a brain.
Vincent walks back to his room, experiences mild tunnel vision and leans against a locker. He feels as though he’s been released from prison into a world that wishes he’d go back. Teachers click through halls in heels and keep their eyes cautiously forward, as if looking at him might reveal him masturbating right there. Stella Burger offers a sour adult smile, narrowed eyes and tight flat lips, like a waitress after a bad tip. As he turns the corner to his hallway, a junior English class is dismissed. Vincent eyes them, trying to read who’s heard the rumor. Some boys smirk at him like wolves in sunlight.
The sun is down when Vincent leaves school. His car is parked under a tree, and birds have created an inkblot test on his hood with their shit. His engine won’t start. Shadows of Monroe basketball players, fresh out of practice, pass his car. Vincent’s engine chokes as they pass.
It’s the music teacher dude.
The jock voices sound underwater.
Mr. Sage, need a...hand?
Vincent decides he would rather sleep in his office, eat sandwich meat with Sutter Home mini bottles from 7-11 and sleep under his windbreaker, than ask them for a jump.
School ends. Vincent nods off to adagios in his office, again waiting until the sun is down to give another try at his car. Maybe he’ll start living at school. Let his car fossilize in the parking lot, start appearing to the principal as the first there and last to leave. His beard is coming in. He needs a toothbrush. Flu symptoms have been swelling in his stomach since the rumor. He’s hidden a couple of wines in a box of sheet music under his desk. Today he began taking nips at homeroom. Now, at four pm, it’s heartburn.
There is a weak knock on the door. A peck, faint enough to have been imagined. Vincent rubs his tongue across his teeth. Janitor already came, colleagues avoid him—and none of them would knock so unsurely anyhow.
“It’s open,” he says.
He feels the outside air up his pant leg.
She’s in pajama pants with clouded eyes and dried lips from over-sleep. She does an alien-scan of the small room, lets the door close behind her. Vincent opens his mouth to tell her to leave the door open, but says nothing. There is one seat in his office, a wobbly piano bench, where Vincent sits. Without a word, she’s next to him. Even lovers would feel uncomfortably close. Her hair, the apple smells it’s been for years.
“When you’re suspended, aren’t you supposed to stay home? Though I’m sure Principal Masone would be pleased that you have on clothes.”
“Right. You’ve been greatly injusticed.”
She makes a teenage exacerbation noise, an exaggerated sigh.
“I heard I’m not the only one,” she says softly. “In trouble.” She tries to hide a smile, but—stoned—fails.
“You heard wrong.”
She uncrosses her legs. Their legs are touching; they both know it. He feels her smile dissipate.
“People are stupid,” she says vaguely.
There is a silence as they both acclimate to whatever is happening.
“I told them, there’s no way you did that.”
Vincent’s leg feels a push, her warm pajama pleat. Natalie is breathing through her nose, like a puppy nap. He feels it on his neck.
“Right?” she asks; her voice cracks.
Vincent waits for the right time to tell her to leave.
“I was thinking. You probably don’t do that anymore,” she says.
She is brazen enough to look at him, inches from his face; glorious adolescence. And he is unable to look back at her.
She seems less interested in an answer, and more content to have asked. She leans forward, picks up his pack of gum from the desk. A soft talon of her hair draws across his arm. She slides out a piece, holds it in front of him, nods. The neck of the wine bottle sticks out from under his desk.
“My dad has a glass with dinner. Kisses goodnight tasted like this office all childhood.”
“You have to leave, Natalie. If someone sees you here.”
“I’ve been practicing for tomorrow night.”
He thinks he feels a fingernail graze the corduroy on his thigh.
“I’m glad,” Vincent says.
The finger now crawls in his pocket.
“Why did you choose Le Cygne?” she asks. His eyes look at the ceiling, like a man awaiting a murder verdict. He thinks about the ballet. Le Cygne. The Dying Swan. The pretty thing wobbling across the pond, appreciating her life in its last moments. How she lowers herself and closes her eyes so compliantly, how she takes the phenomenon of age, and handles it with dignity. He doesn’t answer her question truthfully, that the swan, facing the jaws of age with such grace—it feels like a hand to hold in the crosswalk.
He rubs the stick of gum between his finger and thumb.
“Why did you give me the lead?”
Natalie’s finger walks his leg like buttons of a flute. He does not tell her the truth about this either.
“You earned it.”
What a scam of an answer, an answer that pleases neither of them. He doesn’t really know why he chose her. Their legs press harder. Vincent is diabetes-weak. Natalie’s index wraps like senseless hungry vines around his thigh. Vincent reaches into his pocket, places his hand over hers, a gesture to imply a limit has been reached. He feels her pause, feels her eyes blink inches from his face. He feels her de-fuzz from this trance. For a moment, his hand rests on top of hers, and then her fingers slide in between his, and clasp his hand from beneath. Vincent has never felt this alone, not on the train rides, not in his apartment. He’s also never felt more alive.
Vincent gets word at lunch that Natalie’s suspension has been lifted for the concert. With the exception of some instant noodles, and some bananas, Vincent has been foodless since his accusation. And yesterday’s encounter with Natalie led to a bottle of wine on an empty stomach, and passing out on the train home, with his car in the parking lot.
The school day is busy with dress rehearsals in the auditorium under ever-shifting colors as the stage crew fusses with the lights. It makes Vincent feel locked in a kaleidoscope, on the brink of seizure. He finds himself leaning on things.
After school, Vincent is dressing in the men’s bathroom, wetting his hair and splashing water on his face when a teacher enters and sees him at the sink.
“Oh,” the teacher says abruptly. Then he gives Vincent a double take, as if to be sure he didn’tjust walk in on something.
“Thanks for checking,” Vincent calls; he’s drunk.
Kids trickle in. The freshmen are penguin-like, shuffling and giggling anxiously in their suits. Seniors play on their phones. Some take out their instruments, blow long tones. Beginning band plays Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries and We Three Kings. Students in the crowd intermittently shriek the names of friends. The symphonic band plays Arabian Dance from The Nutcracker, Claire De Lune. Vincent second guesses introducing Natalie as the lead of the grand finale, Le Cygne. He hadn’t even considered it until now, on the podium.
“She wears a few hats in this school, as we all know.”
He tries a paternal smile.
“A philanthropist, an activist, a fashionista. But she is also an effortless flute player. It’s possible because she’s got a radiant personality, so much so, that in four years of knowing her, I’ve sometimes made the mistake of considering her more than a student, but a friend.”
Chuckles, whispers—the crowd heard more than a friend.
“The band has improved by her, and it will be sorry to see her go.”
He raises his baton. It shakes as the woodwinds play the opening. Natalie looks at Vincent, is it apologetically? Poutingly? Then she draws her first breath, and begins her last song as his student. Her makeup is womanly, with dark, unplayful eyes. Her typical lion’s mane hair is tamed, model-like, crimped delicately like fingerprints of an almond. She’s stunning, but different. There are rings on her fingers and bracelets up her wrist, like a shackled prisoner to a wealthy philanderer. Her eyes, like a weepy panda’s, are on Vincent, even as she plays. He wonders what she means by this, the funeral eyes? Did she think this was the way to his heart? Looking like a woman? Maybe she looked up the origin of Le Cygne, learned it is about something dying.
At once, Vincent’s legs are rubbery. He begins to feel the way people describe a stroke. He stomps for feeling, which throws the band off. Some players take their instruments out of their mouths and watch. The room begins to cloud over. He forgets to breathe. One leg bends and the other follows. He pulls down music stands in a domino rally, some into each other, some into students. Instruments honk, then fall silent, and Vincent is face down.
Principal Tony’s voice is somewhere when Vincent opens his eyes. Administrators surround him. They tell him he’s fallen and has been unconscious, that the ambulance is on the way, that everything will be fine.
“This kind of thing happens all the time at weddings,” Tony says, and pats him on the back.
Staring into the red stage lights, Vincent sees the swan. Her graceful, simple dance to the world. Her legs, quaking from the weight of a lifetime, folding snug in symmetry. Her eyes shutting, at peace with letting go. It’s a beautiful reverie among the shuffle of loafers around his head. Then Vincent has a different vision. A vision of himself, flailing on stage, frantic thrashes to stay upright, as graceful as a chicken on a cutting board.
“Don’t move, paisano,” Tony says. “Just relax.”
The ambulance sounds in the distance. The siren climbs octaves to signal its urgency, one pierce overlapping another. That he wishes for Natalie in this moment, wonders what she thinks of all this, wonders what will come of them, brings up spoonfuls of bile. Vincent envisions the ambulance cutting off traffic and flying through red lights, all in an effort to save a man unsure if he wants to be saved. Now the ambulance is blocks away; the siren is inside him. He feels as though he’s being closed in on. The administrators circling above, rambling over his splayed body. And the siren, which sounds less to him like imminent safety, but more like birds. Flocks of them. Flapping and dissonant, perhaps in a fit of laughter, or to peck apart the one that didn’t make it.