Sing to me, oh Muse, of Beatrice Fleck, thirty-six-year-old virginal fourth-grade teacher, strongest woman alive, and covert writer of erotic novelettes. Unsullied not by choice but by the inscrutable designs of fate, Beatrice wanted nothing more than to be plundered. Despoiled. Sacked. Even as she stood before a roomful of nine-year-olds, elucidating the rudiments of multi-digit multiplication, even as she monitored the playground monkey bars, Beatrice dreamed of a skirted, sandaled hero climbing her ramparts. Looting her hallowed heights. A man over whom some god had cast a glamour, one that made him sturdy enough to contend with Beatrice, whose paranormal strength had come to light when she was but a spindly six-year-old, the day an upright piano collapsed on her piano teacher, Mr. Phelps, pinning his shapely calves to the tiled floor of his bachelor apartment.
“I wasn’t talking about dungarees. I was definitely talking about tepees. Manny Alvarez, please tell the class what I said about tepees.”
But Manny Alvarez, who was secretly Beatrice’s favorite student, couldn’t answer, because Ms. Fleck hadn’t mentioned tepees for nearly two minutes. She’d been talking instead about a young widow and the man who cleaned her pool, a man who wrote poetry and wore tight dungarees. As Ms. Fleck had paced the front of the classroom, painting a vivid picture of the pair, the class stopped squirming and doodling and whispering. They sat at rapt attention, small hands folded in front of them, gazing at skinny, fluttery Ms. Fleck. Her kinky hair was the color of rust, her lips a dark shade of pink. She never got angry like the other teachers, never raised her voice, and she was exceptionally good at explaining things. All the students were fond of her, but Manny Alvarez loved her. Her verdant eyes pleaded silently for his help, and he cast around for something to say about tepees.
“Um, tepees were cone-shaped?” Manny said. “And covered in buffalo hide?”
Ms. Fleck’s gaze was full of appreciation, and she nodded. Just then the door of the classroom opened. Nathaniel Baxter stuck his head inside. “Ms. Fleck,” he said, “can I have a word?”
Nathaniel Baxter taught English at the high school next door. Twenty-five years older than Beatrice, he was tall with lustrous silver hair and large, lovely teeth. Lately, whenever Beatrice sat down at her laptop to write about illicit meetings in motel rooms and kisses stolen on cross-country trains, the man she started out envisioning dissolved into Nathaniel. “This man,” her editor said when he called three nights earlier to discuss the manuscript of her latest novelette, “don’t you think he’s a bit old to be an Olympic diver?” And he was, but Beatrice couldn’t get Nathaniel Baxter out of her mind.
He’d come from Connecticut, where he’d lived for thirty years, teaching literature and raising a family. When an affair with a doctoral candidate writing her dissertation on Euripides went awry, derailing his marriage and career, Nathanial retreated to Baltimore, the city of his birth, where he took a job teaching in a public school. On a crisp October evening, he read his poetry at a downtown coffeehouse, and Beatrice attended. She sat toward the back of the room, where the dulcet tones of Nathaniel’s voice touched her physically. Each time his gray eyes rose from the podium to skim the crowd, she trembled. His poems concerned epic quests and intertextuality and algorithms and language in transition, and they all seemed to Beatrice tinged with sorrow, and she thought about cradling his silver head in her lap. She thought about wearing a pinafore and carrying a picnic basket. She thought about making love in a field of sunflowers. After the reading, Nathaniel asked her out for a drink, and Beatrice sat riveted, nursing a light beer and listening to him hold forth on poetry and marriage and loneliness. She was tempted to tell him that she, too, was a writer, but she worried that Nathaniel Baxter might scoff at her bawdy scribblings. He escorted her home, where he leaned in for a kiss. Her heart thudded as he asked if she was going to invite him inside. She wanted to—she’d cleaned her apartment that day on the off-chance that this fantasy might actually play itself out—but Beatrice was afraid. It was fear that had preserved her maidenhood: not of sex but of doing bodily harm, a fear hanging over her ever since she paralyzed a boy named Roy Tanner.
As a girl, Beatrice defeated all comers at arm wrestling and lifted whatever people asked her to—washing machines, refrigerators, pickup trucks. The coach tried to recruit her for football and wrestling in high school, but Beatrice didn’t want to do battle; she wanted to be loved. Adored like Mimi Falcon and Jess Carter, whose delicate feet never touched the ground, who were held always aloft on a buoyant cloud of admiration. The boys in her hometown were afraid of Beatrice, however, so it wasn’t until she fled to college in Maryland, where no one guessed at the aberrant strength concealed within her willowy frame, that she was even kissed.
Throughout her freshman year, she dated a boy named Roy Tanner, and by the time they were entirely naked on the twin bed in his dorm room, a sock hung on the door knob despite the fact that his roommate was home for the weekend, Beatrice feared she might erupt. She often wondered if the ache that throbbed through her at the sight of the male anatomy was part of her condition. If the hardening of her nipples and the drenching of her panties and the trembling of her limbs were further proof of her freakishness. Roy whipped her into a froth with fingers, lips, and tongue, but also with words, dirty things he whispered unceasingly into her ear. “You’re so wet, baby,” he would say, “like Niagara Falls.” Or, guiding her hand to his swollen penis, he would whisper, “Can’t you feel how bad I want to be inside you?” But what Beatrice liked most was his talk of her cherry. Of popping it. Something about the idea of a ripe, red cherry hidden inside her, one Roy could obliterate with a single stroke, drove her mad, and by the time he slid down her panties, by the time he positioned his angular hips between her thighs, she lost all control. Wrapping her legs around him, she clasped him to her with every ounce of her inhuman strength. She heard a wicked crack and a series of crunches, and Roy shrieked like a banshee, and Beatrice spent the rest of the night in the ER waiting room. When they finally let her in to see Roy—his pelvis and lower vertebrae were crushed and six ribs broken—he averted his eyes. Gazing through the window at the rose-red rising sun, he said he wanted nothing more to do with her.
“I can’t,” Beatrice had said to Nathaniel Baxter at her front door the night of the poetry reading, hoping he would assume she had her period or hadn’t shaved her legs and not that she didn’t want him. She longed for him in the way that, as a girl, she longed for the power of flight. Once he left, she worked on her latest novelette, the tale of a chorus girl and a veteran Broadway producer. In bed, she masturbated to thoughts of Nathaniel Baxter, recalling the ambrosial taste of his lips and the way his voice rippled like a current through the coffee shop.
“I’ll be back in a moment, class,” Ms. Fleck said before ducking into the hall with Mr. Baxter. “Work on your long division. Manny Alvarez, please write the name of any student who talks on the blackboard.”
But Manny Alvarez wasn’t paying attention to who was talking in Ms. Fleck’s classroom. Everyone was talking, it seemed, or maybe no one. Manny didn’t care. He didn’t like Mr. Baxter and wished he could wipe him from the face of the Earth. Manny’s father would have called Mr. Baxter a dog. He would have said Mr. Baxter came sniffing around Ms. Fleck like she was a bitch in heat. When you loved a woman, like Manny’s father had loved his mother, you didn’t let dogs sniff around her. You beat them back until they took off with their tails between their legs.
“Ms. Fleck and Mr. Baxter, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”
“You think she likes him?”
“No way. He’s like her grandpa.”
“How old is Ms. Fleck?”
“I don’t know. Twenty?”