Post Road Magazine #28

Pity

Lisa Gornick

Pity

Lisa Gornick

In 1967, the summer after I turned eleven, my family moved to a ranch house on a cul de sac in a town not far from Baltimore. The house was laid out in a T with boxy bedrooms and low bumpy ceilings like a reptile's skin and a dining square off the rectangular living room that reminded me of math sheets demanding computations of the area of ungainly shapes. My father, recruited to head the Physics Department at the nearby branch of the university, had bought the house without my mother or the rest of us having ever seen it, and I hated it on first sight for lacking the nooks and crannies, the polished banisters, window seats, crawl spaces, attics, gardens, and gazebos of the houses I knew from the children's books I loved. Technically a suburb, the town was in truth sub-rural with scant connection to the city, which in those days was in the depths of its decline with a largely abandoned downtown, what little of which remained functional would be decimated during the race riots the following spring.

Of course, it had never occurred to my father to inquire about the local schools or the character of the community. My younger brother and I got our first introduction when the girl who lived on the other side of the cul de sac told us she wasn't allowed to play with us since her mother, who'd correctly surmised from our surname, Steinberg, and my father's olive complexion, that we were Jews, had informed her she was at risk of having her blood let in one of our barbaric rituals. We were, I would soon learn, the only Jewish family in the town where the religious diversity ranged from Catholic kids who attended one of the many parochial schools and evening fellowship classes, to Catholic kids who went to parochial school and to Friday night mass so they wouldn't have to get up early on Saturday morning, to Catholic kids who went to the public schools where they either rested lightly before landing in quasi-industrial jobs or settled permanently into personas-sloppy drunk, football hero, lusted-after cheerleader-they would keep for the rest of their lives.

The town was rife with anti-Semitism, slurs about kikes and money-grubbing Jews, but none of it felt personal since none of the kids who said these things had actually ever known anyone who was Jewish, and other than the keen neighbor across the street, it seemed never to have crossed anyone's mind that our family might be Jewish any more than that we might be space aliens. It became a never-ending ordeal for my brother and me to one by one tell our friends we were Jewish, something I dreaded doing, not out of fear of losing my friends-my brother and I were both popular-but because of the embarrassment of having to say to someone who hadn't even known she was insulting me that she had been, and then the awkwardness of having to digest the apologies.

*

In my last month of tenth grade, my father bought a camper van and took off cross country with a thirty-two-year-old female post doc from his lab. My parents were vague about the meaning of this arrangement, but when my goodie-two-shoes mother started smoking cigarettes on the patio at night and my father did not return to the house by September, my brother and I surmised that a permanent change was under way.

Our mother took a job at a local nursing home. Neither she nor my brother, who was busy with football practice, got home until seven each night, so it fell to me to start dinner.

Whereas my brother was invested in being part of the school, I was biding my time until I could move away and begin what I thought of as my real life. In ninth grade, I had been a peripheral part of the popular group with a boyfriend who was on the varsity baseball team; our dates focused on fights about his pressuring me for sex, which I would not have been adverse to if he weren't so dull. In tenth grade, I spent a few months hanging out with the pot smoking kids, not really smoking that much pot myself since I didn't like the way it made me feel-tired and stupid-but for a while finding the novelty of the marijuana rituals and the loquaciousness of the other kids when they were stoned kind of interesting. The new dinner responsibilities gave me a good excuse to do what I really wanted, which was to spend my afternoons lying on our living room couch and reading until it was time for me to put on the franks and beans or chicken and rice.

Most of the teachers were lifers who'd been teaching the same tired curriculum for decades, but every once in a while there was a new teacher who tried to "engage" the kids. That year, the new teacher was Mr. Mitner. Mr. Mitner was cute in a pale Irish way with nice features and a neat head that seemed a little small for his long frame. He'd majored in English at Fordham, where he'd commuted from his mother's home in the Bronx. His first year at my high school, he coached the Boys JV Basketball Team and taught Honors Eleventh Grade English: The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, The Merchant of Venice, and some Flannery O'Connor stories. For the first time in all my school years, I actually listened because he actually had things to say about the books that weren't totally obvious. I wasn't much of a talker in class-it wasn't interesting to hear myself talk; I already knew what I thought-but Mr. Mitner would call on me sometimes, inquiring in an arch way, "So, Ms. Steinberg, how would you describe the moral universe of Daisy?" or "What do you think Salinger means by the image at the end of the book?"

The week Mr. Mitner assigned The Merchant of Venice, he asked me to come see him at lunch. "Please have a seat, Ms. Steinberg," he said when I slouched into his classroom. He smiled at me and pushed his bangs off his forehead. With his jacket hanging on the back of his desk chair and his shirt sleeves part way up his arms, I could see the fine black hairs on his arm. He sat on the edge of his desk and swung his legs back and forth. I didn't find him particularly attractive but I could see why a lot of the girls in my class and even some of the popular cheerleader girls had crushes on him-one in particular who'd bragged that she'd driven him home after two of the basketball games, insinuating that something had happened, which no one believed.

"I want to talk with you about our next book, the Shakespeare play." He paused until I looked up from my lap. "One of the themes in the play is anti-Semitism. I was worried our class discussion might make you uncomfortable."

I laughed, more out of nervousness than finding what Mr. Mitner said funny-nervousness since I wasn't used to teachers talking with me about anything beyond a reprimand for reading during class or an occasional good job as they handed back a test. "Mr. Mitner," I said, "I've been in this town since I was eleven. I've heard kids say every prejudiced thing you can imagine about Jews, in front of me only because they never thought anyone in this school could possibly not be Catholic."

Mr. Mitner looked at me. "Well, I'm pleased to hear that. I grew up in the Bronx where every other sentence contained a racial epithet. Mean, vulgar insults. The adage, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, is true."

I thought about whether I should respond, and then ended up half mumbling, "What doesn't kill you makes you harder."

Mr. Mitner squinted at me in a way that made me squirm. It was as though he were seeing me for the first time. Then he smiled. "Well, Ms. Steinberg, perhaps you'll write a paper on that: what doesn't kill you makes you harder."

*

Honors Eleventh Grade English fumbled through The Merchant of Venice and I wrote my final paper on the question of whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite or was depicting anti-Semitism. Mitner gave me an A+. Over the summer, a rumor circulated that Mr. Mitner had been seen at a movie with Julie Ralston, a girl who had just graduated and was working in her uncle's auto parts store. By the end of the summer, my brother referred to her as Mr. Mitner's girlfriend.

"Yuck," I said.

My brother looked at me curiously. Now that he'd started to shave every day and was going to be on the varsity basketball team, he refused to act like my little brother, challenging me at every turn with his superior understanding of how everything worked.

"Why yuck? She's graduated, she's eighteen, an adult. And Mitner was never her teacher."

I couldn't defend why I felt it was yuck-maybe because Mitner had been my teacher, maybe because he'd made me squirm that day in his classroom.

*

At the beginning of my senior year, I decided I wanted to go to college in New York. My father, who by then had settled into a crummy house in downtown Baltimore in a neighborhood that had been heavily looted during the riots that followed Martin Luther King's assassination, had to come in to talk to the guidance counselor because she'd never heard of Barnard. The guidance counselor thought that since I was a smart girl, I should go to Sweet Briar in Virginia where the smart girl from last year's class was now.

"Sweet Briar is an excellent school, Professor Steinberg," she told my father. Although it was November and in the thirties outside, there were sweat circles looping down from her armpits. "And they take good care of the girls. No boys are allowed in the dormitories..." she said with a meaningful glance at me.

"My daughter wants to go to Barnard," my father announced in a voice that signaled end of subject and perhaps reminded the guidance counselor of the physics class she'd failed in college because she shut up about Sweet Briar and looked up the address to request the Barnard application.

Mr. Mitner wrote one of my letters of recommendation and it must have been good because I got in. Over the summer, I worked as a waitress in a diner and had my first boyfriend who wasn't a kid: Hank, a 26-year-old black short-order cook who played drums for an R&B band and had gone in 1969 to a youth Communist conference in Europe with Angela Davis. He'd had a baby with a girl in Oakland, California, which was where he'd grown up, and he lived in the black part of town, where I'd really never been before, with his grandmother, who he'd come east to take care of for a while. Hank laughed when I told him I was a virgin, but he was gentle and sweet as he led me through the basics and made sure I got something out of it "because baby, it ain't no fun for me if it ain't fun for you."

In late August, my father and brother drove me to New York and, after we unloaded my stuff and I met my roommate who'd grown up on West End Avenue and we went with her to have coffee and pie at the Chock Full O' Nuts, my father and brother drove off and I literally cheered, right there on the corner of 116 th Street and Broadway about what felt like the beginning of my real life.

*

When I came back for Thanksgiving, my first time home that semester, my brother told me that Mr. Mitner was now the Boys Varsity Basketball coach. The season had begun and after games, Mr. Mitner sometimes had the team over to his house for a party, where he would let the boys bring beer if they had a designated driver. According to my brother, the thing with Julie Ralston was over and Mr. Mitner was openly dating one of the Spanish teachers, Señora Marta Gomez.

A Columbia sophomore, Rolly Thines, who I'd gone out with a couple of times and then stupidly slept with, after which I'd had to admit that the only thing we had in common was that he was also from Maryland, though in his case from one of the tony prep school neighborhoods of Baltimore that I'd not known existed before coming to Barnard, offered me a ride back to New York the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, which I took and then regretted since he spent the whole trip trying to convince me to go down on him while he was driving, which I thought was both repulsive and dangerous. We arrived in New York mid-afternoon, no longer speaking. My dorm was open, but no one else on my floor was back. I unpacked my things and wondered how to spend the rest of the day. I could have called my roommate who was at her parents' apartment, but I felt like I'd be intruding, a hanger-on to whatever parties she would be going to with her friends also home from college. I lay down on my dorm bed and fell asleep.

I woke to the phone ringing. To my surprise, it was Mr. Mitner. "How did you get my number?" I blurted.

"Your brother gave it to me a while back. I'm here in the city, visiting my mother. You didn't go home for the holiday?"

"I did. I came back early because I had a ride."

"So, what are you up to now?"

"Not much. No one is here. I guess I'll get some reading done for my classes next week."

"Why don't I take you to dinner? You can tell me about your classes."

*

I put on a skirt and some boots and took the subway to 79th Street to meet Mr. Mitner at an Italian place he'd suggested. Mr. Mitner was seated when I arrived. He had on a crew neck sweater and his hair was a little shorter than the last time I'd last seen him.

"Good to see you, Mr. Mitner," I said.

He stood and gave me a peck on the cheek while I awkwardly wiggled out of my jacket and settled the book bag I was carrying because I didn't own a purse. "Now that you've graduated and are in college, you can call me Jim," he said.

"Jim."

"Everyone calls me that except my mother who calls me Jimmy still."

While Mr. Mitner, Jim, talked with the waiter about which bottle of wine to order, it occurred to me that no matter what I called him, he would still be Mr. Mitner to me. He poured me a glass, and for a moment I thought that I should tell him that I was not yet eighteen, but that seemed silly since like everyone else in my dorm who was still seventeen, I had a fake ID and we all drank at the bars near school, just not with our former high school teachers.

Mr. Mitner told me about growing up in the Bronx, in an enclave of Irish-Catholic families, and going to a parochial high school where he'd been on the basketball team, and then to Fordham, and how in all of those years, he'd hardly ever been to Manhattan save at the holidays when his mother would always take him on the Sunday before Christmas to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and the 10 am Rockettes show and, until he was way too old, Santa at the Lord & Taylor's department store.

"I once dated a Barnard girl," he said with a little laugh. "Sophie Jacobsen. A little nymphomaniac."

I had heard my brother's friends talk about what they imagined to be Mr. Mitner's hot sex life, first with Julie Ralston, who'd never been considered a catch before she dated Mr. Mitner but whose stock had risen in all of their eyes afterwards, and then with Señora Gomez, who had a way of arriving just as they left the parties at Mr. Mitner's house, occasioning a lot of tittering and on one occasion, Corky, the team clown, climbing a trellis to look in Mr. Mitner's window, resulting in a fall from which he'd been lucky to have only sprained a wrist.

It was a clear night, and Mr. Mitner suggested that he walk me back to my dorm. We walked up Broadway, talking about George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant," which I'd read for my British literature class and that Mr. Mitner told me was his favorite essay ever-the way shooting the elephant was an act of cowardice, how doing something wrong out of fear of humiliation was even lower, in his mind, than simply doing something wrong, and how he'd come to realize that this was also true about being intimidated into doing something right, that this was also a sort of cowardice.

Mr. Mitner looked at me meaningfully, as though he was sure I must be catching the drift of what he was saying, but I felt lost in the same way I had with the poems by Thomas Hardy in the same class-that there was a dark labyrinthine meaning that eluded me.

"The curse of a Catholic boyhood," he said in what I knew was intended to be a mocking voice but struck me as a little creepy and made me wonder if his calling the girl he'd known at Barnard a nymphomaniac had been a thought he'd had about me, as though he knew about the incident in the car earlier in the day with Rolly Thines trying to get me to go down on him and it had been transposed in Mr. Mitner's mind into something I'd initiated.

When we got to my dorm, Mr. Mitner insisted on escorting me up to my room since the dorm was basically deserted, after which I felt like I had to invite him to come in.

I turned on the overhead light and my desk lamp and offered him a glass of water, which I went to get from the bathroom down the hall. He looked at the books on my shelves and then sat in my desk chair drinking the water. Having no other alternative, I sat on the edge of my bed.

Mr. Mitner came to sit next to me. He seemed a little disheveled, with his shirt tails out, but I thought it was the wine and the late hour. He took my hand in what at first I hoped was a fatherly gesture, but then he shoved it into his pants which he must have unzipped when I'd left the room. He squeezed my hand around his substantial erection, then pushed me back on the bed and put his wet mouth over mine in a way that made me gag.

He felt heavy, heavier than Hank or Rolly Thines had ever felt, and between the weight of him against my diaphragm and his saliva in my mouth, I felt like I was suffocating and gagging all at once.

"Mr. Mitner," I gasped after I managed to free my mouth. "You can't do this."

Mr. Mitner sat up. He put his hands over his face and bent over so his head was almost touching his knees. "Oh, my God," I could hear him moaning. Then he slid off the bed, onto his knees, and started to pray, his back towards me, "Lord, forgive me, Lord, forgive me," over and over again.

"Mr. Mitner," I said, "Please, it's alright."

Still on his knees, Mr. Mitner whispered, "I almost violated you."

"You stopped."

We remained in silence for a while, my hand feeling dirty from having touched his penis. Then, Mr. Mitner got off the floor, and sat back on the bed, this time a few inches away from me so no part of his body was against mine. "Can I tell you a secret?" he said. "Something I've never told anyone?"

I wanted to say no, but I didn't feel able to say no to Mr. Mitner who had given me an A+ on my Merchant of Venice paper and written my college recommendation letter which was part of how I'd ended up in this dorm room in the first place.

"I'm a virgin. Twenty-six years old and still a disgusting virgin."

My eyes must have opened wide because Mr. Mitner then said, "I know. It's shocking. It shocks even me."
I looked at the floor, averting my gaze so he wouldn't see that behind my shock, it also struck me as perverse, as though he'd confessed to being a foot fetishist or having had sex with animals.

I kept my eyes on the floor while Mr. Mitner continued. "At first, it was because of my upbringing. I truly believed that I had to wait until marriage. And then, as I got older, twenty, twenty-one, and started understanding that this was just one of those things people say but you're not supposed to really do, it was out of embarrassment."

Mr. Mitner cupped his hands over his knees. "I was too embarrassed to tell the girls I went out with, all of whom had already lost their virginity, that I had no experience. Last spring, with Marta, Señora Gomez, was the worst: all the lies about needing to get up early and wanting to wait until we could go away together because I was terrified that if I tried to have sex with her, she'd be able to tell that it was my first time and she'd be horrified."

The look on Mr. Mitner's face was unbearably pathetic. I felt humiliated just seeing it. Even though my neck was hurting from the effort of pushing Mr. Mitner off of me and I knew what he'd done was wrong, I felt sorry for him.

I lowered the shade and turned off the overhead light and then I took off all of my clothes and climbed over Mr. Mitner so I could get under the sheets.

Mr. Mitner looked at me wide-eyed. It occurred to me that he had probably never seen a naked grown woman-I supposed that was what I was. He bent down and unlaced his shoes.

Mr. Mitner left on his red and green boxer shorts. I held open my sheets. He was a little flabbier than I had expected and he had hardly any hair on chest. He suckled at my breasts for what seemed like too long a time and moaned but not in the way I'd heard from Hank or from Rolly Thines. I reached down to confirm what I suspected: the erection was gone.

I made some efforts to resuscitate Mr. Mitner's erection, something I'd never had to do with Hank or Rolly, but my own expertise was minimal. Afterwards, I blamed myself for giving up too quickly, but from the way Mr. Mitner's skin had felt clammy and his breathing shallow and his penis soft like a baby's foot, I was 99% sure there was nothing I could have done to help Mr. Mitner.

*

Mr. Mitner left before I woke up. I took a long hot shower and changed the sheets on my bed and then went back to sleep. When I woke up, it was two in the afternoon, and there were only a few seconds before I remembered Mr. Mitner and a gloom fell over me again.

Mr. Mitner called three or four times before I came home for winter break, but each time I would wildly motion to my roommate, NO NO, and she would sweetly tell him that I was in the library or at a friend's performance. Once she even said I was at class even though it was ten at night. I hoped he would take the hint, but his letters continued, each restating how he couldn't wait for me to come home for Christmas break. There was a restaurant he was not going to try until I was home to go with him and some books he had bought for me and something "special" he had for our first night together again. His last letter, before the break, concluded with: "I know, my little beauty, that it will be different next time."

*

I slept with Rolly Thines the weekend before winter break and then again the night before he drove me home. In the car, we smoked a joint and he told me the story about how he'd lost his virginity at fourteen with his Jamaican nanny's daughter and how afterwards the nanny had said to him, "Now you the man," which I thought was hysterically funny and couldn't stop laughing about until Mr. Mitner's flaccid penis resting against my thigh came to mind and I had to open the window to keep from throwing up.

It was four when we got to my mother's house, too early for my mother to be home from work. There was a car in the driveway, which as we approached I recognized with a sinking feeling as Mr. Mitner's car.

I climbed out of Rolly's car and Rolly handed me my duffel bag and squeezed my butt as Mr. Mitner got out of his own car.

I didn't actually say "What are you doing here?" but it must have been obvious that this was what I was thinking because Mr. Mitner said, "Your mother invited me to dinner."

I tried to come up with a reply, but my thoughts were still muddled from the joint, muddled in a way that now felt distinctly unpleasant.

"She said you'd be getting in around four, so I thought I'd come over early to have a visit first with you."

"This is Rolly. Rolly Thines. He gave me a ride."

Mr. Mitner peered at Rolly as though he'd caught him plagiarizing a paper. Then he held out a hand to shake. They made some small talk about the holidays and the basketball game that would be on television that night and then Mr. Mitner took my duffel and Rolly whispered in my ear, "I'll call you, babe," and got back into his car.

I unlocked the house and excused myself to use the bathroom. By the time I returned, Mr. Mitner had settled into the living room, in what I still thought of as my father's chair.

I sat on the couch, my legs tightly crossed. Mr. Mitner stood. He glared down at me, then lowered himself beside me.

"So, are you fucking him?"

"What?"

"Are you fucking that stuck-up little piece of shit?" He put his hands on my forearm and twisted hard, giving me what as kids we'd called an Indian rope burn.

"Mr. Mitner, stop! You're hurting me."

He released my arm, but I could still feel his leg against mine. "That's why you didn't return any of my calls, right?"

I looked at my shoes and then at my watch and prayed that my mother would come home early.

Miraculously, the front door opened. It was my brother with two friends, all of them in basketball shorts and shoes. Three sweaty angels.

*

The rest of the vacation was horrible: pretending to my mother and brother that I was just being irresponsible in not returning Mr. Mitner's calls. When I finally called him back, it was on my mother's insistence; she actually stood next to me at the phone, refusing to leave until I dialed, lecturing me about how it was rude not to return a teacher's call-once your teacher, always your teacher and deserving of that respect. It got to the point where I thought, well, maybe I just had to let him try again to have sex with me so he could get over it.

Mr. Mitner nearly wept when I called him from the payphone at the Seven-Eleven to say that I was coming over. By the time I arrived, he had pulled the drapes shut in his living room and bedroom and lit so many candles I feared he might set the place on fire.

"Undress me," I instructed.

Mr. Mitner got onto his knees and pulled off my boots. He unbuttoned my denim shirt and tried to unfasten my bra but got stuck on the hooks. I reached around and unhooked it. He petted my breasts in a way that made me feel anxious.

I tried to help him. I got out of the rest of my clothes myself and panted into his ear and acted like as much of a hussy as I could muster from my limited experience with Hank and Rolly Thines. I did everything I'd ever read about in Cosmopolitan magazine, but it was useless. He'd get hard but lose it before he could actually enter me.

*

Mr. Mitner called me twice more before I went back to school. On the second occasion, I asked him not to call me again.

"I can't help you," I said. "I tried. I honestly did."

Mr. Mitner moaned into the phone.

"Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm not your type." I liked this line of reasoning since it seemed that it let him save face. "When you meet a girl you really love, it will work. Trust me," I said.

Mr. Mitner moaned again, and I realized with horror what he was doing.

"If you call me again, I'll call the police." I slammed the phone.

*

I married Rolly Thines's second cousin, John, who I met at Rolly's sister's wedding the summer before my senior year. I had gone as Rolly's date, though more as a matter of convenience for him since I was home that summer and bringing one of the girls he was sleeping with in New York where he had taken a job trading bonds would have meant too much of a commitment for him. With me, he just had to show up the day of the wedding at my mother's house and could return me that night, which he didn't even have to since John, who was more sober than Rolly after the wedding, offered to drive me home.

John was a second year pediatric cardiology fellow at Hopkins, and for the first year we were together, I kept pinching myself that someone as funny and smart and kind as he was could like me so much. We married the month after I graduated, inheriting from his aunt a house with the nooks and crannies I'd always wanted-a pantry and a sun room and a linen closet tucked under the attic eaves-in a shabbily genteel neighborhood not far from the university. Perhaps because I was so grateful at the cards fate had dealt me, we had more kids and much earlier than I had ever imagined, three girls and a boy by the time I was thirty-one. I never planned to be a stay-at-home mom, but with four kids and a husband who worked long hours with very sick children, work that was more important than anything I would ever do with my English B.A., it seemed both ethical and logical that I should devote myself to providing a home for John and our children along with whatever small volunteer work I could manage.

My oldest three children were of similar temperament to John and me, bookish and introspective, but our youngest child, our daughter Amelia, was cut from a different cloth: a scrappy tomboy who outran the boys in kindergarten, and with a mind just as fast and intrepid. An excellent shooter, she was a starter on her high school basketball team by ninth grade, a feat that delighted my brother, who lived by then in Boston but would travel down two or three times a year to watch Mealy, as he called Amelia, play.

In her junior year, Amelia's team made it to the regional championships. John had a dangerously ill child in the hospital, so it fell on me to drive Amelia and three of her friends to the Wilmington sports complex where the games were played. The girls piled out of the car and disappeared into the steamy locker room to change into their uniforms. In the stands, they settled into the stew of their team, huddling together and twirling one another's hair, as they watched the game before their own.

I took a seat at the top of the bleachers, luxuriating in this interlude between the drive and my daughter's game when I could drink the milky coffee I'd brought in a thermos and lose myself in Anna Karenina, which I had not read since high school when I'd hidden it on my lap under my desk. I slipped back a century, into the hunt: Levin and his hound Laska and Stepan Arkadyich and the silly Veslovsky on their expedition for snipe-for Levin, a horrible first day, and then his vindication the next day, trekking twenty miles solo before daybreak to return with a full booty of birds.

When a hand touched my shoulder, I started. "Is that you?"

I don't think I would have recognized the voice alone, but something about the touch, almost like a claw, made me bite my lip even before I saw the face, larger looking now with a heaviness along the jaw and hoods over the eyes.

"Mr. Mitner?"

He laughed. "I've changed that much? Well, you look great. Hardly any different." I glanced down at my daughter, still with her friends on the bleachers.

"What brings you here?" he asked.

"My daughter's team is playing."

Mitner looked at the court where girls in the same baggy shorts and athletic tops that I'd been watching for years now seemed too scantily clad, their coltish limbs exposed as they raced between the baskets, their high ponytails swinging behind them. I could see that Mitner thought my daughter was playing in the game going on below us, an error I did not feel inclined to correct.

"And you?" I asked. "What brings you here?"

"I'm the coach for the Barrondale Girls Varsity. They just played. Actually, I'm the principal for the school, but I coach this one team."

I knew I should say something nice about his being the principal, about his career having taken this turn, but a copper taste had invaded my mouth and I felt as though I literally could not speak. I glanced at my watch, making the clucking sounds and gestures people make when there is something they need to do. I gathered up Anna Karenina and my coffee and coat. "Well, nice to see you," I said.

Mitner was staring at me in a way that made me certain that my face must be betraying the misery he was causing me. He smiled, but it felt more like he was baring his teeth, and I recoiled, fearing in that moment that he might reach out and twist my arm.

*

It took me several weeks to get Mitner out of my mind, to not feel as though by his mere presence he had soiled me, to not fear that I would come home to find him parked in my driveway. For a few days, I was obsessed with the thought that I needed to warn Amelia about him, lest he try to track her down, but the rational part of me knew that made no sense, that even if Mitner had figured out that she was not one of the girls playing on the court below us, she had her father's last name, which he would have no reason to know, and there were eight teams playing that day, each with at least a dozen girls.

Still, I began working out a speech to deliver to Amelia about why if she ever heard from someone named Mitner she was never to respond, but before I could finish, I laughed out loud. Even at sixteen, there was no chance that Amelia would be taken in by Mitner.

I didn't think about Mitner again until more than a decade later when my brother sent me Mitner's obituary from the Times. By then, Mitner had become the superintendent of a Massachusetts school district. The obituary mentioned his years as a basketball coach and his work with an international organization that funds schools for girls in Africa, to which donations in his name could be made.

There was no mention of a spouse or any offspring. Was it possible that Mitner had gone to his grave a virgin? And then for a moment, I felt my eyes well. Pity for myself, for the girl I had been, but also for Mitner-that the sucking and grunting and crying and arm twisting had accomplished nothing, that I had been unable to help him, and that it was all now such a long time ago.



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