This entry is a continuation of Mr. Goldberg, Part I.
To repeat what I said at the beginning of that essay: I'm applying some basic ground rules for this series of memoirs. You may not agree with what happens in them. That's fine. I don't agree with everything that happens in them, either. Expressing that sentiment in a rational and adult manner is okay.
What's not acceptable is over-reacting to events that happened thirty-six years ago with fear, alarm, name-calling, and cries for someone to be lynched or castrated or prison raped. These are sentiments that have been expressed in my comments section before, and this time around, I won't tolerate them.
I might not have known the rules of football, or even how to bluff my way through a middle school NFL betting pool. Despite being the tallest in my class by a head, I might have been the most uncoordinated sixth-grader ever to attempt playing basketball.
At sports I simply lacked confidence and experience. I disappointed on every count. But I was an Olympic-level reader. The year I was in Mr. Goldberg’s homeroom class, he made me feel as if I was better-read than most of his adult peers.
Once a week or so, Mr. Goldberg would keep me in conversation so long after school that the only thing he could really do to make up for missing my bus was to drive me home. After the second or third time, I began to relax when I saw him approaching me at my locker, after the final bell had rung. Then I began to anticipate it, and hope to see him striding around the corner from his classroom, clipboard in hand, shirt white and still crisply-pressed.
We talked about books, those drives home. He was more interested in what I was reading that had been the children’s librarian at the public library branch I frequented. He was particularly impressed, for some reason, by my deep affection for murder mysteries. I’d already devoured most of my mother’s Agatha Christies by then, and was working my way through Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter novels. He leavened my affair with the British cozy murder by suggesting I investigate Sam Spade and Nero Wolfe. He’d drive slowly, but not slowly enough to suit me; those few minutes alone with him meant more to me, and I learned more from them, than all six periods of school ever did. Sometimes at my home I’d linger in his car a little longer, grateful for someone adult to talk to about something I clearly loved so much.
My middle school had a system for independent students that was pretty unique for the area. We were called Responsible Movers. Students who qualified for the Responsible Mover program through good grades and behavior signed a contract every two weeks with every single one of their teachers, specifying what work we’d get done in that two week period. So I’d carry my contract around to Mr. Hedgepert and he’d write down what lab experiments and textbook chapters I’d need to do, and Miss Christian would give me my reading assignments for English. My math teacher might give me a chunk from the pre-algebra textbook to cover, and my social studies instructor would give me some reports to complete.
Over the two-week contract, a Responsible Mover could complete the work in any order he wanted, at any time he wished, and pretty much anywhere he cared to be. If I preferred to do all my work in the media center, or in the cafeteria, I could. If I wanted to spend all day in the science lab working on my chunk of assignments one day, and the next day doing nothing but my social studies report, that was fine and dandy. The only classes I had to attend at the same times every day were those that required everyone’s presence—which for the most part meant merely band.
The system was intended to lighten the classroom burden for teachers and to heighten bright kids’ autonomy. Largely it worked, because the Responsible Movers were largely bookish and independent students who would rather have cut off a finger than lose their privileges. I, of course, was one of them. By the autumn I found myself shyly asking Mr. Goldberg if I could work in his classroom during his free mid-day period before lunch. He had one of the few classrooms in the building with a door that closed and locked; my rationalization was that with the extra isolation, his space was quieter than the hum of the larger open-school spaces.
Quite simply, though, I enjoyed being around him. I’d sit in the back of his empty room, working or reading, while he’d grade papers or look over a copy of Sports Illustrated at his desk. I liked looking at him; he brought pleasure to my eyes. Sometimes I’d watch him while he worked with one of his hands curled against the side of his face.
Once in a while I’d catch him watching me. He’d smile, and nod, and return to his work, apparently unbothered that a kid was intruding on his one quiet period of the day. At the end of the period, when the bell rang, he would open the door and walk out with me, a hand on my back to escort me into the hallway so I could join the others for my lunch period.
“You’re very lucky,” he said unexpectedly, one quiet day, as we both were sitting and working, “to be blond.”
My hair was many shades lighter then than now. I was born with almost white hair. In sixth grade it was still a shade of bright yellow. “Why?” I asked, shaking my head.
“I just always wanted blond hair,” he replied, shrugging it off as if it was no big deal. He went back to his reading, as did I. “I always liked blonds,” he said to his papers.
It was a remark that made my heart yearn for something I didn't have the vocabulary to express. That sentence, more than anything he’d ever said to me, made me want to burst into song, like someone in one of the movie musicals with which I'd grown up. I felt like he’d reached out with those words and drawn fingers across my heart, only to make it ring out with a rich, lost chord. But when I looked up at him, hoping for I don’t know what, he wasn’t paying attention to me.
It was a few days after that incident that he stopped me at my desk before I rose and left for lunch. “Hey, sport,” he said, giving me just the briefest touch on my shoulder. “Mind if I ask you a favor?” I nodded. “I’ve got to give a test later on today and need to keep an eye on the time. But I forgot to wear my watch, and there’s no clock in here. Would you let me borrow your watch? Just for a couple of hours? I can give it back to you at the end of the day.”
My watch was a Timex that my grandmother had given me the previous Christmas. I’d never particularly liked it, as it was cheap plastic and both the strap and face were an unusually ugly shade of blue plastic. Still, though, it was a timepiece in a progressive school that had some kind of philosophy against clocks in classrooms, so I didn’t see the harm. “Thanks sport,” he said, clapping me on the back. I secretly enjoyed it when he called me by that nickname. Perhaps it wasn’t so secret. I had a tendency to blush deeply around him, and I’m sure the reddening of my skin gave it away. “Come back before the final bell, and I’ll let you have it back.”
That afternoon I Responsibly Moved my way out of whatever work I’d been doing to stop by his classroom before the last bell rang. “Oh. Hey buddy. Yeah,” he said, when he saw me appear in his doorway. “Just a second, guys,” he told his classroom, as he stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. Although we were out in a public space, we were totally alone and unobserved. The whole school was quiet in that calm-before-the-storm way it always seemed to be, right at the end of the day.
“I really appreciate you letting me borrow your watch, man,” he told me, as he unfastened it. His wrists were so much thicker that he’d had to fasten the strap on the hole closest to the end. “It’s kind of tough in this school sometimes, without a watch, especially when I’m trying to give a timed test.” While he smoothly talked, he took my left arm with his hands, extended it, and casually began putting the Timex back on me. I felt like I was being dressed. I shivered a little when I realized it implied that at some point earlier, I’d been undressed. My wrists were so thin that he had to pull the strap snug. I felt breathless at our proximity, at the sensation of him standing so close, of his hands on my wrist, my elbow bumping so casually against his stomach.
The back of the watch was still warm from his body. “There,” he said in a low voice. His hands were still on me, for just a little too long. We stood so close to each other at that moment. His forehead was bowed low, almost next to mine. It felt so intimate that it seemed wrong—but how could it be, out in the hallway where anyone might have seen something so innocent? “Thanks again.”
It was at that moment, when his fingers were still on my arm, that I understood everything. I’m not sure what triggered my intuition, especially with the mere anthill of experience I had in the mysteries of what brings two people together. But I knew, and I knew with concrete certainty, that Mr. Goldberg was attracted to me. I knew for certain his attraction was sexual. I’d had absolutely no exposure to the art of flirtation between men at that point, though I’d received months and months of education in the act of fucking, glimpsed through a gloryhole three inches wide. Yet in the space of two eternal seconds of his fingers lingering on me, I knew exactly what he wanted, and hoped for, and what he yearned to have.
It felt like the first adult intuition of my life, and it stunned more than frightened me. Until that moment, I’d had absolutely no idea.
We were only inches apart, but when I looked at Mr. Goldberg after that moment, I felt as if I’d grown feet higher and decades older. “Sure,” I said. “You’re welcome.” And then without a word more, I darted off to my bus, French horn banging my legs, heart in my throat.
The next day, Mr. Goldberg borrowed my watch again. He kept me a few moments after homeroom so that he could undo it from my wrist himself, and fasten it on his own. He returned it to me in the same manner as the day before, that afternoon. For three days running I melted whenever he’d take my arm and fasten or unfasten that plastic blue snap. I felt as if I were being disrobed. I wished I were being disrobed. I wanted that more than anything, and hoped my trembling didn’t betray me.
It wasn’t until Friday that he varied the ritual. “Listen,” he said, keeping me back before I went to lunch. “I’ve been using your watch all week and I know it’s got to be a pain in the butt. I need to pay you back somehow. So how about it, sport?” He dug around in his briefcase and, after a moment, held out both hands. They were spread with one of every known brand of gum. There was Dentyne, and Big Red, and all five flavors of Fruit Stripe gum, as well as sticks of Wrigley’s Spearmint and Doublemint and Wintergreen, Chiclets, Bubble Yum, and several flavors of Trident. "Take your pick."
I blinked at the sight. It looked as if—and I suspect he had—he’d visited a candy store and come back with every flavor available, simply so he could guarantee there’d be one I liked. Deep inside me, a very soft but adult voice whispered to me, Look how badly he wants you. “I can’t,” I said, agog at all the sugar.
“Oh sure you can. I’ve got plenty.”
“I mean. . . .” I found it difficult to find the words, and I was certain I was blushing again. For me, a genuine, deep-down blush was (and still is, though they come pitifully rarely now) almost more powerful a sensation than orgasm. It tickles me from my jawbone and the backs of my ears down to the base of my spine, making me feel pink and tiny and tender and thoroughly alive; it licks across my skin slowly and mercilessly, making me shiver and flush from the simultaneous hot and cold. “I did it because I like you. Not because you were going to give me stuff;”
Mr. Goldberg looked at me for a moment, and then closed his hands. All the sticks of gum tumbled together like pick-up sticks before he tossed them onto his desk. “Come here,” he said, and pulled me away from the door, into the corner of the classroom that was all cinder blocks. It was the room’s blind spot. Anyone looking through the glass panel from the outside would’ve been unable to see us there. My heart was racing. I felt out of breath and as if I’d run the six-hundred-yard dash for the yearly President’s physical fitness challenge. “So if I asked to borrow your watch again today, you'd maybe let me?”
“Do you need it for a test?” I asked.
He seemed surprised at my question. He paused. The pause turned into a wait, and the wait into an eternity. When he answered, it was his honest response. “No, I don’t.” His voice had become husky and hushed.
“Did you need it for tests the other days?”
It was maybe the first time I’d ever called an adult on a fib. Neither he nor I realized, though, what a big step I’d taken. “No,” he said softly. He stared in my eyes as he spoke the next words. “If you want the truth—well, listen. I just liked . . . having something of yours . . . with me.” He waited to see my response. When none came, he said in a very small and defeated voice, “It made me feel good. I hoped that maybe . . . I don’t know. Maybe you like the idea of me having it, too.”
From the way Mr. Goldberg’s shoulders slumped slightly, and from the husky way he spoke, I knew for the very first time in my twelve years that I was utterly and absolutely in control. What he'd given me could be used as live ammunition. I intuited that it could cause pain. It could destroy. Yet the sensation of total sway didn’t make me feel cruel, or manipulative. Rather, it made me feel tender toward him. It was the first time a man had opened to me his most private inner landscapes. Instead of seeing only the vulnerable points where I could strike, I saw tender spots that I felt obligated to protect, as best I could.
“Yes," I said.
“Yes?” he asked, looking at me like a doomed man.
“Yes. I—I like when you borrow it,” I said in the smallest possible whisper.
“You do?” I nodded. “Really?” I nodded again. “Maybe I . . . could give you something too? What do you think? Would you like it?”
“Yeah,” I said. "I would." My blush was furious now. Every tingle inflamed my skin further, so that it felt as if the blush was reigniting itself, circling around me over and over and over again.
“I don't have anything like a watch. But . . . I was thinking of this.” He leant down, his face coming closer to mine.
And then he gave me the most amazing kiss of my life.
At least, that’s the way I wish I remembered it. What really happened is that he leant down and seemed about to kiss me, but then at the very last moment, he balked and began to pull back, thinking better of it. Then I lurched up, hoping to encourage him, but instead decided against it when I saw him pull back. Then he made another move when he realized I'd moved in, but pulled away. Again I responded a second too late. Back and forth we bobbled, like a mechanical toy made asynchronous by a lop-toothed gear. Eventually, awkwardly, our lips grazed.
It was a tentative and delicate thing, the merest breeze from a butterfly’s wing. It wasn’t the most amazing kiss of my life. I’d had kisses from aunts that had more passion. But it was my still my first real kiss, for better or worse.
My heart thudded as I stepped away from him. I was nothing more than percussion and red skin and heat and hardness at that moment. “Can I give you a ride home today?” he asked, trying to clear his throat of the husky emotion still trapped within. “Please let me.”
“Yes,” I told him, over the timpani of my pulse. “I’d like that a lot.”
(Part III will appear next week.)