Tampa : Chapter 1


alissa nutting

chapter one

I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep. To bed I’d worn, in secret, a silk chemise and sheer panties, beneath my robe of course, so that my husband, Ford, wouldn’t pillage me. He always wants to ruin the landscape. I find it hilarious that people think Ford and I are the perfect couple based solely on our looks. During his best man’s speech at our wedding reception, Ford’s brother said, “You two are like the his-and-hers winners of the genetic lottery.” His voice slurring with noticeable envy, he then added that our faces looked Photoshopped. Rather than concluding with any sort of toast, he simply laid the microphone back down on the table after this last line and returned to his seat. His date had a lazy eye we all politely pretended not to notice.

I should find Ford needlessly attractive; everyone else does. “He’s too good-looking,” one of my sorority sisters groaned the night after our first double date back in college. “I can’t even look at him without feeling like I’m being punched between my legs.” My real problem with Ford is actually his age. Ford, like the husbands of most women who marry for money, is far too old. Since I’m twenty-six myself, it’s true that he and I are close peers. But thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.

I suppose in some ways marrying Ford was worth it for the ring alone—it slowed the frenetic pace at which idiot men would hit on me during daily errands. And of course it was a very nice ring. Ford himself is a cop, though his family has a great deal of money. I hoped his wealth might provide me with a distraction, but this backfired—it left me with no unfulfilled urges except the sexual. Just weeks after our wedding, I could feel my screaming libido clawing at the ornately papered walls of our gated suburban home. At dinner I began to sit with my legs clenched painfully together for fear that if I opened them even the slightest bit, it might unleash a shrill wail that would shatter the crystal wineglasses. This didn’t strike me as an irrational belief. The thrum of desire had indeed grown so loud inside me—its electric network toured a constant circuit between my temples, breasts, and thighs—that a moment when lust might be able to operate my labia as a ventriloquist’s dummy and speak aloud seemed inevitable.

All I could think about were the boys I’d soon be teaching. Whether or not it’s the cause, I blame my very first time at fourteen years old in Evan Keller’s basement for imprinting me with a fixed map of arousal—my memory of the event still flows through my mind in animated Technicolor. I was slightly taller than Evan in a way that made me feel half-god to his mortal: every time we made out I had to bend down to reach his lips. Since he was smaller, he was on top, performing with the determined athleticism of a triple-crown jockey until his body was covered in sweat. Afterward I’d gone to the bathroom and then called him in; with an expression of melancholy curiosity, as though transfixed at an aquarium, he’d watched the ruins of my hymen drifting in the blue toilet bowl water like it was the last remaining survivor of a once-plentiful species. I’d felt only an elevating aliveness: it seemed like I’d just given birth to the first day of my actual life.

When Evan had a growth spurt a few months later our sexual dynamic changed—I broke up with him and embarked on a string of repulsive dates with older boys throughout high school before realizing my true attractions lagged several years behind. At university I began throwing myself into classics studies, finding brief solace from my sexual frustrations in texts depicting ancient battles of fervent bloodshed. But my junior year after meeting Ford, I switched my major to education, and now I was finally set with a job that would allow me to go back to eighth grade permanently.

No, it wouldn’t do to have Ford dipping his fingers in the pie on the eve before my years of student and substitute teaching were about to pay off. That night I’d taken such pains to set myself up perfectly, inside and out, like a model home ready for viewing. My legs, underarms, and pubis had been shaved and then creamed; every lotion applied bore the scent of strawberries. I wanted my body to seem made of readily edible fruit. Instead of having the flavor of something nearly three decades aged, my goal was for the slippery organs of my sex to taste like the near-transparent pink shaving gelée applied to them, for the sandy rouge of my nipples to have the flavor of peach cream complexion scrub. In the hopes that the fragrance would absorb, I covered each of my breasts with a layer of whipped mask and let it sit for ten minutes as I shaved; it hardened like the frosting of a
confection and cast my excitement beneath a crisp, thin shell. After I’d razored every inch of body hair, I marveled at the buoyant lake of foam and stubble left in the sink. It made me think of the ice cream punch served at junior high school dances.

Imagine the fun I could soon have chaperoning one! Perhaps I’d even get to waltz with one or two of the more outgoing male students under the guise of fun and frivolity—the boys who would confidently grab my hand and lead me to the center of the floor, not realizing until our bodies were pressed that they could smell the pulsing, fragrant wetness just one layer of fabric away beneath my dress. I could subtly push against them, blow their circuitry with the confusion of blithe laughter and small talk funneled into their ear by my moist lips. Of course before I’d say it, I’d look off to the side with an idle stare that suggested nothing was happening, that I hadn’t noticed my pelvic bone ironing across the erect heat inside their rented tuxedo pants. It would require the boy to be an upstanding sort—the type who wouldn’t be able to convey such a sentence to his mother or father, who would second-guess and recall the moment only in the dark, liquored sleep of his loneliest adult moments: post–business dinner while traveling at some Midwestern Comfort Inn, after he’d called his wife and spoken to his children on the phone and then unwrapped the plastic skin of three or four airplane bottles of bourbon, set his alarm, and allowed himself to sit upright in bed with one hand squeezing against the growing thickness of his organ and the memory haunting him—had I really said what he thought he heard? Inside the school’s walls no less, amidst the thundering electronic notes of that year’s favorite pop song, a song he’d listened to at his very first job in the mall as he folded display shirts and greeted mothers and children who entered the store—had I really breathed that sentence into his ear? But I felt it, he’d remind himself, felt my words form in warm air, one sentence whose breathy shape dissipated in seconds, prior to the arrival of understanding or memory. For the rest of his life, part of him would always be on that dance floor, unsure and hungry for clarity. So much so that as an adult in that hotel, he might likely be willing to give up a great deal in exchange for the sense of order that I’d stolen from him, or even to have someone to say to him, It did happen. And I would always know, and he would always be sure, but not certain, that I had drawn the ledge of my pubic bone against the head of his penis, pressed it there like a photograph beneath the plastic velum of an album page cover and whispered that phrase: I want to smell you come in your pants.


The early start time of Jefferson Junior High was one of its main allures: seven thirty A.M. The boys would practically be asleep, their bodies still in various stages of lingering nocturnal arousal. From my desk, I’d be able to watch their exposed hands rubbing across their pants beneath the tables, their shame and their half-inflated genitals arm-wrestling for control.

A second boon was that I was able to get an extension classroom. These were basically trailers behind the school, but they had doors that locked, and, particularly if the loud window AC unit was running, it was impossible to hear what was going on inside. At our July faculty meeting in the cafeteria, none of the teachers had wanted to volunteer to take a mobile unit—it meant a farther walk each morning, having to trek inside the school to use the bathroom, running beneath an umbrella to go unlock the door in the rain. But I’d raised my hand, playing star pupil myself, and requested one. “I’m happy to be a team player,” I’d announced, flashing my teeth in a wide grin. A red flush had covered Assistant Principal Rosen’s neck; I’d lowered my face so that the trajectory of my eyes was unmistakably upon his crotch, then I pressed my lips together, met his gaze, and smiled a knowing smile. Of course the phrase “team player” made you imagine me having group sex, my eyes tried to tell him reassuringly. That isn’t your fault.

“Very kind of you, Celeste,” he’d said, nodding, attempting to write and then dropping his pen, picking it up and nervously clearing his throat.

“It’s like I said,” Janet Feinlog had piped up behind me. Janet, a world history teacher, was balding prematurely; the dark home-dye job she gave her thinning locks only served to more starkly contrast the white expanses of scalp that shone through. Like most pronounced physical flaws, it did not live in isolation. The compression hose she wore for edema gave her calves and ankles the rippled texture of warped cardboard. “Classrooms should be assigned based on seniority.”

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