It was a question with no right answer: Did anything happen? On the lips of her guidance counselor, the words were soft and feathery and accompanied by a hand on top of hers. “Did anything happen between you and Mr. Peebles?” The counselor nearly whispered it, as if to solicit a secret. The police officer was stiffer, the words typeset on his tongue. “Call me if you think of anything.” It was code for his disbelief; they both knew anything” wouldn’t just suddenly occur to Pam, like the location of a parked car.
And then there was her father. “Did anything—?”
“No,” Pam said, violated by the phrase alone. They were at the kitchen table where he’d summoned her to sit.
“All those times he was here in this goddamn house.” Her father clapped his palms together. “Did he touch—?”
“No,” she repeated, furious he was alluding to sex or sex acts or more specifically her private parts, furious that her own father imagined Mr. Peebles petting them. No. Nothing. Never. Not ever. Pam had never, not ever, touched anyone’s anything.
What did she do with Mr. Peebles? The man hired to help her prepare for the Biology SAT II, so she’d be admitted to a prominent college and acquire a prominent job and have a prominent life? Flow charts. Molecules. Membranes. Mr. Peebles with his woolly mammoth moustache and peppermint breath. Mr. Peebles, who knew answers to all her life questions. How it was possible that humans shared 60 percent of their DNA with a banana. Why some earthworms had ten hearts. He even knew the proper way to say legumes. Legg-youms. Until the word came out of his mouth, she’d thought it was pronounced Leg Gums. You have to learn your legg-youms, he said, after she’d failed to identify which item on the list was unlike the others: A. soybeans B. peas C. peanuts D. pistachios. (Answer: D. pistachios.)
“I don’t understand how peanuts aren’t nuts,” she had said.
“They grow in the ground,” said Mr. Peebles. “Nuts grow on trees.”
“But it’s called a pea-nut,” she protested. “How ridiculous.”
“More like nuts,” he said and tried to subdue his grin. His dimples dimpled. She rarely saw dimples up close but had learned from him that the dimple gene was dominant. She sucked the insides of her cheeks and wondered if there was any category in which she was dominant.
“Did you know,” said Mr. Peebles, knees bouncing, eyes blinking hard behind his frameless glasses, “that the average American child eats 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before they graduate from high school?”
“Eew,” she said. “I won’t.”
“You’re not the average child,” he replied.
It was the pause afterwards, the hasty eye contact and hastier looking away about which she didn’t tell her father. Nor did she tell him that she walked Mr. Peebles out after their last session and teased him about his cobalt Corvette convertible—“I thought they only made those in miniature”—or that to squash her apparent skepticism of sports cars, he suggested they go for a ride. And she agreed.
Mr. Peebles had let her pick what she wanted to listen to on the radio (“One” by U2) and crank up the volume until she could feel it in the middle of her ear (was that the cochlea?), and Pam, her hair a flapping flag, had sung into the wind because Bono’s crooning wholly swallowed up her own. Did I disappoint you? Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
She didn’t tell her father about how they wheeled past the playground where the Rudnick sisters happened to be playing, or how Mr. Peebles greeted the girls with a friendly salute. Pam’s father, who always feared the worst. “What kind of idiot would drive a convertible?” he once scoffed. At the time, they were at a stoplight beside one. Pam had gawked at the so-called idiot behind the wheel, a thick-shouldered blonde examining her teeth in the rearview mirror. “Imagine,” her father had said, “what would happen if that car flipped over.” And Pam did just that: pictured the vehicle airborne and upside down, a whip of yellow hair and black mouth and the dizzy bloody crush of concrete plowing into bone.
When she and Mr. Peebles glided back in front of her house, volume lowered, skulls intact, Pam glared at the lifeless beige station wagon in the driveway, the one she would likely steer when she got her license.
“Hope it wasn’t as bad as you thought,” Mr. Peebles said. He placed his hand over the gearshift and gave it a squeeze. For whatever reason, Pam didn’t get out of the car.
News of Mr. Peebles’ arrest came just days before the junior prom to which Pam was asked last minute by a Japanese foreign exchange student. On a free period between math and history, she had trekked to the deli across the street for a soda only to find her tutor on display below the register. The Hillside Tribune. ALLEGED TEACHER-PREDATOR APPREHENDED. The photo was poor quality—a pixilated head amidst a flock of cops—but Pam knew what she knew, and she knew it with stomach-twisting certainty.
“Is that all?” said the cashier.
Wasn’t it enough? Mr. Peebles, who drew maps of the food chain and arrows for energy flow, who showed her pictures of pythons and cheetahs and Great White sharks. Everything preys on something, he’d said. It’s how we survive.
That week, while her classmates talked corsages and party vans, Pam pored over news coverage, riveted by each new sordid detail. The online chat. The lewd language. The undercover agent who had posed as a 12-year-old girl. The meet-up plan: a Wendy’s. In Jersey. Off of Route 1. The promises. The pleas. The pornography. According to one report, Mr. Peebles hadn’t put up a fight, hadn’t tried to run, had even held out his hands to let them shackle him. Pam squinted at the inky face framed in the backseat of a squad car. She tried to decode his expression. Regret? Fear? The face was unfamiliar. That is not you, she said with her eyes. That cannot be you. Above him loomed the burger princess, all pigtails and youth and hideous joy.
Which of the following organisms can engage in asexual reproduction? A. starfish B. yeast C. hydra D. strawberries. (Answer: All of the above.)
“What do you think of that?” Mr. Peebles had asked her one winter afternoon. “Organisms that can create clones?”
“I think it’s weird,” she said. “Who wants to deal with several of themselves?”
Mr. Peebles had laughed in a way that made Pam laugh, too: head back, Adam’s apple bobbing. Nobody else thought she was so funny.
“I’m not even sure,” she continued, riding the wave of validation. “I can handle just me.”
“How are you so clever?” he said, fingering his moustache. “Tell me.”
They had talked about all kinds of sex, Pam and Mr. Peebles. Flower sex. Cell sex. Fertilization. Mutation. It was part of the curriculum.
“Sexual reproduction has more energy costs associated with it than asexual reproduction,” he said, a fact she jotted down in her notebook so she could read and reread it and attempt to understand it. Sex had costs. Some kinds of sex cost more than others. “Much of that energy is spent on finding a mate,” he continued, and Pam had that pushing sensation in her belly, the one she felt in the beauty aisle at CVS while scanning the creams and powders and sprays designed to make her smoother and shinier and sweet enough to eat.
Had she known the whole time? Had she seen signs?
She had told Mr. Peebles things. Not indecent, but personal things. About herself. Her life. How could she not? There they were in her house, in her den, elbow-to-elbow at her family table. To her left: the upright piano at which she’d taken lessons until her teacher quit, citing “personal issues.” (I think I was the person he had issues with, she’d told Mr. Peebles. Said he: not every pair’s a match.) To her right: a photo gallery of Pam and her brother as babies, as toddlers, as brace-faced pre-teens, photos in front of which Mr. Peebles paced while Pam retrieved his weekly payment from her father.
“Awful picture,” she said when she found him scrutinizing her bat mitzvah headshot, his nose inches from the glass. “That day sucked.”
“Oh?” he said, approaching. “Why’s that?”
“All that fake smiling,” she said. “I came home with sore cheeks.” Mr. Peebles folded the check she handed him. “Well, that confirms it,” he said, tucking it into his pocket.
“You’ll never be a politician.”
Pam smiled—for real this time—and tipped onto her toes.
“You have to be a professional fake smiler to be in politics, didn’t you know?”
“Never,” said Pam, shaking her head. “I will never be a politician.” How did he always find the right retort?
“Senator Leffler?” he teased. “President Pam?”
She giggled as she walked him through the kitchen, past an oblong table where, that evening, she’d eat flavorless pea soup in silence with her family and where, in an attempt to do so quickly, she’d burn her tongue and shout “fuck” and get berated.
“By the way,” said Mr. Peebles, holding open the screen door, “it’s called a buccinator.”
“The muscle you strained from all that smiling.” He stroked the middle of his cheek, slid his thumb from ear to chin and Pam did the same and for a moment they were simpatico, the two of them touching their own faces in the same way, at the same time. Her skin warmed under her palm.
“Buccinator,” she said, as he walked to his car, his stride wide and swift. Bucks-in-ay-tor. It sounded like a machine. A maker of bucks. One that printed enough bills to buy the energy for sexual reproduction.
That day in his convertible, Mr. Peebles scrunched his nose as though holding back a sneeze. “Thanks for taking a ride,” he said, shifting into park.
Pam stared at his bony knuckles and clean, trim nails. She wanted to put her hand on top of his. There was a tingling between her legs and a pulse beneath her tongue. Mr. Peebles was not a traditionally attractive man, but Pam, with her wide forehead and weak chin, was not a traditionally attractive girl.
“There’s something,” she started, but stopped, pushing a tuft of frizzy brown hair behind her ear, then changing her mind and shaking it free. “I think you’re a really good teacher.”
Mr. Peebles winked. The exam was a week away. It was their last-ever session. “Don’t forget to review chapter eighteen,” he said. “Viruses show up every year.”
Pam hated the anticlimax of their goodbye and how after she called out “Sayonara!” and closed the door, he didn’t disappear. Damn open-air convertible. She got to observe just how little their parting affected him. How he glanced at his watch and fiddled with the radio and rapped his thumbs against the wheel. She refused to think she was just another student in his roster. She refused to believe he took them all for a ride.
On her way up the driveway, she kicked the bumper of her father’s wagon. The sting of rejection was all around her.
Her father at the kitchen table, fists knocking each other: “They ought to fry him for what he did.”
Yes, she agreed. Let him burn.
“That bastard,” he said.
Bastard. Traitor. Beloved.
After her father’s rant, Pam hopped on her bike and pedaled to the middle school and sat in the courtyard and stared. Twelve-year-olds. In mini skirts. In French braids. With lips swelling over their braces and pimples colonizing their chins. By the side wall was 12-year-old Chad, her next door neighbor, a boy who built booby traps in the woods behind his house and subsisted almost entirely on Pez. Pam watched him scramble after a tennis ball then hawk a slug of phlegm which nearly hit the feet of a redhead passing by.
“You’re disgusting!” the girl screamed.
“Bite me,” Chad called back.
The redhead’s face collapsed into a cry, saliva bubbling between her teeth. Pam tried to picture Mr. Peebles’ fuzzy mustache grazing her mouth. The thought made her organs cramp.
Pam Leffler attended the junior prom with Atsushi Immamura because A. he was the only one who asked her B. she’d never been on a date and thought this might count as one C. she’d received her subject test scores just days before and learned she didn’t just do well, she did very well, so well that, even knowing what she knew, she longed to hear Mr. Peebles call her a dynamo, a wizard, a first-class crackerjack, and craved distraction D. her United Nations Club had all agreed that not attending prom would’ve been a sign of social hostility. (Answer: All of the above.)
In the Hillside High gymnasium, where the basketball hoops brimmed with balloons and a disco ball spat light on the backboards, Pam tried to focus on her date. His slick, black hair. His button mushroom ears. And the curious way his mouth devoured each word as if tasting its center but not its edges. The two of them bypassed the makeshift dance floor in favor of the back-wall buffet. Atsushi was naming everything he saw, either to prove his command of the language or because they seemed to have little to talk about.
“Shrimp,” he said as he stabbed one. Solitary creatures, Mr. Peebles had called them. Loners. Pam bit into a French fry.
“Potato,” said Atsushi. Thought Pam: selectively bred. Few others seemed to be eating. In fact, few others seemed to be at the prom at all. It turned out that most students who received their parents’ permission to have a night out with a chauffeur-driven vehicle had gone elsewhere, to Jones Beach or the South Street Seaport or a rich relative’s Manhattan pied–à–terre. Pam, on the other hand, freshly licensed and in temporary possession of her father’s car, hadn’t considered alternatives. Elsewhere never even occurred to her.
The speakers thumped a heavy bass that tittered the walls of her chest. Pam tugged on her dress, the same short-sleeved black number she wore to temple on Yom Kippur, and rested her nail-bitten hands on a standing table. She had not only chauffeured herself to prom, she’d picked up Atsushi too, honking in front of his tiny Tudor, trying not to stare as his elderly host mother escorted him down the walkway. When they paused at the driver’s side window, Pam reluctantly rolled it down.
“Pleasure,” the woman said, though looked displeased. What did you expect? Pam wanted to shout. Who did you hope I would be?
“You play good sports,” said Atsushi, abruptly beside her. He was referring to their badminton partnership in Phys Ed. It was how they met. Pam was a weak athlete, uncoordinated and uninterested, but didn’t feel like arguing. She pretended to swat at a shuttlecock. “Ace,” he said and grinned, revealing surprisingly small teeth.
Something else she disclosed to Mr. Peebles: one time, she said, she got trapped on top of the dryer.
Usually it was her father who told the story about how three-year-old Pam hoisted herself up to wait for her clothes to dry and how, ten minutes later, he heard her terrified screams from across the house. Bruce Leffler had sprinted through the kitchen and into the den only to find his little girl clinging to the dryer’s edge with her elbows.
“Squealing like she was about to fall off a cliff,” he’d say, laughter rumbling through his shoulders. “And the kicker?” This is the part that made her cheeks burn. “Her toes were not an inch from the ground.”
“But I didn’t know that,” Pam always protested. “If I couldn’t feel the ground, how was I supposed to know it was there?”
“Not even an inch,” her father would say, pinching the distance between his fingers. Pam didn’t just find the anecdote unfunny.
She found it exposing. That’s what she told Mr. Peebles.
“What does it expose?” he said.
With her pinky, she traced the spiral on the cover of her textbook, a shape whose endlessness seemed torturous. “I’m still her,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “That’s still me.” How could she explain that she’d spent her whole life afraid of that unknown space beneath her feet?
“You know,” said Mr. Peebles, “people change.” His eyes fixed on hers. “We all do. Growth,” he said, “is a natural part of life.”
How she had clung to those words that afternoon and the next day and especially now as the music slowed and the lights dimmed and a pale, meaty couple embraced at half-court.
“We should go somewhere,” she said. Atsushi raked a fork across his plate, commingling several incompatible foods. He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. “Somewhere else,” she said. Eric Clapton wailed from the speakers: you look wonderful tonight.
“Okay,” he replied.
Pam could hardly hear her kitten heels against the gym floor as they passed the speakers and wove among the crowd. She kept her head down so as not to have to interact with anyone from her classes or her after-school clubs. She was bad with pretenses: nothing was never up. The weather was rarely fine.
Paces from the exit, they were catcalled by a chapped-lipped photographer (“Stop, you two!”) and because Pam already felt guilty not only for fleeing but for her rambling imagination, she obliged. As did her date. The man posed them in front of a chlorine-blue background and implored them to smile, which neither of them did—he for cultural reasons, she for temperamental ones. Afterwards, Pam tried to be discreet about ogling the Polaroid, but it was hard to ignore the image, the evidence of their togetherness, their limp arms and slack jaws and liquid eyes. An aerial view of bodies adrift at sea.
“It’s nice,” said Atsushi, peeking over her shoulder. She waited for him to name their movements. Exit, she thought, as she pushed open the heavy door. Twilight. Pavement. Fate. In her father’s station wagon in the far right corner of the parking lot, under an awning of evergreens, they buckled their seatbelts without a word. Pam revved the engine and flicked on her headlights. She felt a rush in her neck and arms as she squeezed the steering wheel.
“Where to?” she said, though she didn’t wait for an answer.
Barry M. Peebles lived on the other side of town, down the hill from Center Street, just beyond the carwash. Pam knew this from the clues she’d inadvertently picked up during their sessions together. How he hiked through Killroy Park. How he had the cleanest ride in Hillside. How his small, traffic-less block was ideal for practicing parallel parking. She hadn’t meant to keep track. She hadn’t meant to remember. The details simply coalesced into coordinates in her head.
“Want pizza?” said Atsushi as they bumped off a curb and into the street.
At one time, Pam had imagined Mr. Peebles residing in a stately Victorian with a wraparound porch and hanging plants that he not only cared for but whose taxonomic categories he knew how to spell. She pictured his living room full of fine furniture and even finer art. A library with floor-to-ceiling books and a laterally sliding ladder. A skylight through which he watched the leaves change and the snow fall and birds build nests one stick at a time, while he meditated on the mysteries of the universe.
Of course, that was before. Now, she wondered what kind of house befit a man like that. A man like that. A man like what? Pam snaked around the train station as if on autopilot.
“Maybe the park?” said her date, as if he had a say in their quest.
Only once had they grazed the subject of her love life.
“No pink blouse today?” Mr. Peebles had said, draping his pea coat on the back of his chair. At first, she didn’t understand his question, so far from her radar was the holiday; she was readying her questions on polypeptides. Then she remembered the roses twirling in the fingers of her blonde classmates.
“Commercial waste,” Pam said and stuck out her tongue.
Mr. Peebles had shrugged. “Some people need a reminder to show affection.”
“That’s sad,” she said. As a preteen, she’d been taken with a game called M.A.S.H., one that, in a few pencil strokes, determined whole swaths of her future. The house she’d inhabit. The car she’d drive. The man she’d marry. With each turn, she prayed she’d land on a guy on her handpicked list: Sean from her Spanish class or the gym teacher, Mr. Roman. Each go-round, without fail, she wound up with a dud: the cashier at Blockbuster video, the vice principal, someone’s younger brother.
Never did she win a crush. Not once. They probably played a hundred times. Her friends scoffed at the improbability. Maybe, they said, you’ll just have to go it alone.
“People can only show affection,” Pam replied, hunching forward over her work, “if they have someone to show affection to.”
“I bet someone wants to be affectionate with you,” said Mr. Peebles, popping in a Tic Tac, “and you just don’t know it.”
Beech Street consisted of six clapboard houses and one lopsided sign: Dead End. Pam never understood why such a sign didn’t simply read ‘End.’ Wasn’t the phrase redundant? Mr. Peebles’ breath in her ear: Well observed, he was saying. One point for the poet. A man like that. A man whose cobalt Corvette convertible stood out on its driveway not just because the glitter in the paint glowed in the beams of her headlights but because his windshield had been smashed into a spider web. Alongside it, a hill overrun with weeds led to a gray box-like house. Even in the semi-darkness she could make out its unremarkability.
“You live here?” Atsushi said when Pam pulled over to the curb. There was doubt in his voice, as there had been in the voices of everyone who had poked and prodded her all week. How many times was she asked if something happened between her and Mr. P—something improper, they meant, something physical—even as she shook her head? Of course, no amount of provocation would convince her to reveal this: sometimes, late at night, in a concealed space in her brain and with a force that made her feel both aroused and ashamed, Pam thought about all those sessions during which nothing happened and wished more than anything that something had.
“No,” she said. “I just thought we should have some privacy.” She wondered what he assumed, Atsushi with his hairless upper lip. Through an upstairs window, Mr. Peebles noted the familiar station wagon and its newly minted driver. He felt a tickle like hunger above his belt. Or so Pam imagined. The urge that followed was like a command: reach across the console and place a hand on his thigh. Pam obliged. Just to see if she could. Just to see what it felt like. Atsushi’s breath caught in his throat. Or maybe it was her breath in her throat. Pam held still, the action unplanned, the route unknown. Her fingers, as if fused to someone else’s hand, tiptoed across his suit pants and settled on the runway of his fly. Beneath it, a warm lump throbbed like an egg about to hatch.
“Don’t,” he said, gripping her wrist, pushing her away. “No thank you.”
“I’m not doing anything,” Pam snapped. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
Atsushi folded his hands over his lap as if to protect himself. Beyond the windshield a “No Outlet” sign receded into the dark.
Pam felt the hollow muscle in her chest dilate and contract, some parts superior, some parts inferior, felt it fire and misfire and fire again.
Courtney Zoffness‘ stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Indiana Review, The Common, and elsewhere. Her honors include an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship for 2017. She co-directs the creative writing program at Drew University and lives in Brooklyn, NY.