Prelude: Here is another milestone, another critically important character. With most of the events and characters that I’ve written about, I am able to sustain a relatively clinical and analytic stance. With the Carpenter, even after nearly twenty years, I cannot. I find the words about him in a quiet well of memory that settles and sways as deep in my belly as Michael does.
Michael wrapped himself around me, and we floated this way through middle school and raging hormones. In one of only two public all girls’ high schools in the country, I was reunited with the twins and other girls from my Mt Airy school. They were curvier, more confident than I remembered, and I was a faint memory to them.
I met Carpenter because a few of us sophomores were allowed to take pre-calculus with the juniors. In the first week, he tried to teach us about limits. See this rabbit? He drew it crouched in profile on the far left-hand border of the blackboard. It badly wants to eat the carrot (dangling life-sized on the other end). But the rabbit has rules. It can only jump half the distance to the carrot each step. So it never actually reaches the carrot. But the distance there is approximated and the rabbit can get so close that it’s practically as good as being at the carrot. Rabbit could just crane his neck and gobble the whole thing, I thought, my eyes widening in alarm.
In that hour, Michael fled. My head filled with the roar of the Carpenter’s voice, a rattle and a booming that made me stretch arms out to my walls to still the vibrations. I understood every word he said, felt them steno graphed one at a time, heavy in their prints, and followed each trail to the next, logical thought. I could feel his index finger as it glided along, mapping my brain.
In the first year, I barely said a thing. I just did math. Except one day, I failed a test. I knew I failed it, because I stared and stared at scribbles on the sheet that made no sense. But when the day came for him to give us back our grades, I didn’t get one. When I walked with trepidation up to his desk after class to ask for it, he waved my question away with his hand and said it didn’t matter. Everyone has a bad day once in a while. He had destroyed my test. That grade had nothing to do with you. He looked embarrassed, and I neither argued nor felt relieved.
I drew a portrait of him in charcoal. I hid it in my notebook and carried it around for a week. On the last day of classes that spring I opened the cover a little to show it to a friend beside me. She took me in one hand and the drawing in the other, up to his desk. Through the crowd of girls, the voice boomed again as he spied the picture, this time directly at me. “Who did that!” Kids scattered and then we were alone. Did I paint, too? My brother was an artist? Did he ask about my parents, how we came here, or did I bring that up? My own voice, too, was frightening. At the end of an hour, he wished me a good summer.
I had another class with him the next year, and we fell into an easy rhythm. Several of us ate lunch in his room – the geeks, the gloomy, the rebels. He was the only teacher I didn’t hate on sight, was the compliment bestowed by one friend’s sister. After school, I might linger, wheedling a ride home, helping to rearrange his shelves. We began giving each other books. My Godel, Escher, Bach for his Frank O’Connor reader. I thought a lot over the summer about that drawing you made, he told me.
He made me tapes of British Isles music. I found an Archie Fisher record in the library, made a tape of it, and memorized Witch of the West Mer Lands. I asked him if he knew the song. I love Archie Fisher. He sparkled. We found the Kirksten Pass of the song on a map of the Lake District. He had walked there maybe when he was in England. He drew to show where he had boated along the course of the Thames, where they were capsized, the one pub where they figured out he was Jewish (not a good thing). His favorite series of English maps was printed in book form to fit in the palm; it catalogued rabbit holes, sheep’s paths and old trees to guide one about English walking trails.
He thought I had supernatural powers. He thought I spent every waking minute reading, drawing, or spinning complex thoughts. I in fact spent many hours daydreaming, listening to pop radio, and talking to girlfriends. I did not read the entire Bible, only Exodus, which just happened to contain the pro-choice reference that came up in conversation one day. I’d gotten bored at the begats. He asked for help on a New York Times crossword puzzle one day – 13 across: the three unities…oh, try Time, Place and Action…he stared stunned as the letters dropped into place. I had just learned that in English the day before. He accused me of never eating because I spent lunch periods nibbling carrot sticks. Rabbit. But I carried several pounds of baby fat until well into college and ate a lot of junk food at home. He said I could pass AP computer programming blindfolded. I winced. It was the only class of his I never took. I never lied, but to the end, was always anxious that he would find me out. I believed he was blind to my mediocrity.
He had his own peculiar approach to skills assessment. Draw Jenny, he commanded. I looked at my friend a long time first before drawing a single-line negative in white chalk on the blackboard, without turning around. Not bad, he said. She’s too perfect a face, I complained, and that makes it hard. He just ruffled my hair approvingly. He gave me a small box of tiny French Conte crayon pastels one day, in an off-handed way. They were all shades of brown, black and white, so that I could not use my color-blindness as an excuse to not practice drawing. He never asked what I did with them.
I rendered, he sketched. Loosen up, kiddo!
He was bemused by my obsession with words,
their alignment and rules, the spine of them.
Thoughts stiffened and creaky,
I bit down stage fright
to free them into the air:
stretching slowly, lowly, low.
He didn’t understand what I said —
told me to try again.
Lights! I commanded.
Here, I’ll make the words bend for you;
then we can try some spiky things, strange hues,
I nudged them to dance, and he was game;
He brought the theater, the music
Tell me stories, I begged. He hinted at his childhood, which seemed lonely. The charisma must have always been there, but he felt tortured by his family because in a family of would-be doctors and lawyers, he was an artist, and a clown. When he was less than ten years old, his grandmother fell ill. He remembered sitting on the lower steps of the staircase with his sister when his mother came down to tell them she had died. He remembered smiling a giant smile. His grandmother had tortured him. But afterwards, he had nightmares about that smile and was ridden with guilt for months.
There was another early crisis of conscience – he had spent many happy hours hunting frogs in a nearby pond, alone I imagine, and wet, and then killing them with a small gun. One day he startled himself by realizing the enormity of the destruction he had wreaked. It stopped abruptly and forever.
He had that tendency, to make complete and lasting decisions about things or people. I teased him that there were hundreds of girls before me, and would be hundreds after me. Already, I was jealous of passing on sixth-period lunch with him to the next class. He shook his head no. No. There won’t be another one like you. I won’t let it happen. I’ve decided I can’t do this again. He said it more sadly than had reason to expect. I didn’t know what to say. I often didn’t.
He carried some knee-jerk politics from the sixties. We argued briefly one day when, in making a point I can’t remember anymore, he referred to my parents’ upper class status in Vietnam. It was a brief argument because I was unarmed. I didn’t know anything about my grandparents or how my parents came to Saigon. He had a way of opening up terrible wounds with the best of intentions. He wouldn’t remember a word of this when I brought it up later.
He could have an effeminate way about him. The voice would lilt, something in his enunciation, a gesture. He wondered about it too, when he detected a tinge of homophobia in himself. He stared wide-eyed into space and fiddled while thinking, mostly with the white hair so it sometimes stood on end for the next class. He did this leaning back in his chair, feet on the desk, or pacing from one corner of the room to another, blindly navigating the islands of chairs and desks. He was left-handed, which made sense and which I deeply envied. He wrote with a backward slant, letters barely formed that had to be read with a sense of gestalt. He had big hands, warm chalk-stained fingers, carpenter’s arms, and a visage mostly cheeks and deep lines in constant motion. He argued and laughed loudly, but could withdraw into a deep, silent smile that I would chase for yards and yards. He stooped over when walking, walked with a rocking step, always slightly trotting. He wore jeans, sneakers, and flannel shirts sometimes misbuttoned. He owned one tie. I saw it at my wedding. No one could think he was handsome. More like a hobbit, a romantic hobbit.
He had a chemical touch, transforming everything he touched. Stand close enough and he might brush by, rub and polish away a stain, a sore, find the colored matter underneath and make it plain to you; his ears always pitched to catch the low sounds, sweet and deep, the whispers, the secrets.
The unease spread after sophomore year. Everyone disapproved of something about us. Other teachers never said a word to him, but they felt free to let me know there was a line, and we were slipping over it. I was taken aback and defiant; I saw no need to categorize us, and nothing seemed fraught to me. I drew down the door blind to his room during lunch because I didn’t like people looking in when I spoke. He would quietly let it back up.
My parents were discomfited. It’s not fair to his wife, they said. What wasn’t? Leave her alone, my brother snarled at my mother, It’s all she’s got. I had no fantasies about the Carpenter, and I never talked to Michael about him. I guarded a less defined emotion. I cried myself to sleep one night and in sleep, dreamt I got up from bed and came out the door just in time to catch him on the landing. The stairs were carpeted and noiseless. He turned at my voice and smiled, and he kissed me on the forehead, just once. It was the slightest touch, and then he had some other place to go.
He loved the immigrant story. A Cambodian student wrote a story about her refugee journey in a rowboat across the South China Sea and showed it to him. He asked if I would want to print it in the newspaper. I made an editorial decision to devote an entire issue to the stories of recent Asian immigrant students, the ones that seemed so different from me. We had them write in their limited English. We let them say how hard life was, and who they thought made it so. We contrasted our school with the one where my father taught, where non-native students were a near plurality. Only after the layout was complete did I show it to my father. He thought it was too political, that I should forget about it. Dangerous, is what he said. So I did not tell him when we had an assembly about it, and listened to the girls reading their stories in heavy accents. The Carpenter told my friends that I looked beautiful in my ao giai. My most treasured graduation prize was a massive volume, a history of American Labor, from the AFL-CIO for excellence in the development of democratic human relations, for that feature.
I never saw the recommendation letter he wrote for my college application. He effusively congratulated other girls, but I just got a pat on the back. Was he surprised? Did I belong at Harvard?
I have three yearbooks. He is in profile in the first, smiling politely in the second, looking at me obliquely through the page in the third. In my senior yearbook, he scratched a pen drawing of me sitting under a tree looking out beyond, and wrote that he wanted to be there ten years from then when I reread it. But after graduation, he deliberately ignored me at a class pool party in July, which was swarming with other girls and teachers. It was the last time I saw him before leaving for Boston. The afternoon passed without a minute together, and I sat poolside, knees under my chin. Over here, Mai. I turned obediently. The shutter on his camera clicked. What kind of a lesson was this?
“Why him, Mai?” Blue asked.
Had he not heard a thing I said?
“Because I could hear him, because he broke through the bubble, because he could map my brain.”
“Why not let other people break through the bubble?”
I could barely make out the blurred outlines of his face, warped by the thick glass wall between us.
“Because inside the bubble, you don’t want many hands reaching in. That would be overwhelming, scary,” my voice broke and his face became a mere blotch through the tears, “You want just one hand, a firm grasp…..” I demonstrated with my own two hands tugging on each other in front of my chest.
“Yes….. It was him, Mai, because you had never felt a hand come that close before.”