“All right, class,” she said, straightening up, “who can tell me how many times eleven goes into three hundred and ninety-six?”
As she watched five of her students attempt to work out the problem on the blackboard, Beatrice tried to slow the flutter of her heart. She knew Nathaniel Baxter’s reputation. She’d heard the chatter in the teacher’s lounge. She knew he’d taken out Virginia Gordon, who taught fifth grade, and Katie Knight, the Spanish teacher at the high school. Melanie Thomas, who worked in the front office, and Janine Matson, the vice-principal. Rumor had it that the dalliance with the doctoral candidate wasn’t his first, that throughout his marriage, there had been others. Coeds. Adjunct professors. School administrators. Dozens. Maybe hundreds. Beatrice was aware of these things. They were, in part, what drew her to Nathaniel Baxter. What made her decide, as she stood in front of her troop of nine-year-olds, as they kicked their restless feet and stuck out their tongues and wiggled in their seats, that he was the one.
In the hall, he’d asked her out to dinner for that night. She would invite him back to her apartment. She would pour a decent red. She would put on a Marvin Gaye album and turn down the lights. She would straddle him on the sofa. She would not allow herself to become overexcited. She would remind herself to go slow. To be gentle. Over the years, Beatrice tried many times to will away her brute strength. To divorce herself from it. Shed it the way a lizard sheds its skin. She found this to be impossible, however. Not that it was all bad. At times she rather liked being so powerful. She never had trouble opening a jar of peanut butter, and carrying her groceries to her fifth-floor walk-up was no sweat. And when the gray Baltimore winter finally melted into the first hesitant days of spring, she ran for miles at top speed without tiring. But these things couldn’t outweigh what her strength had done to her love life.
Since Roy Tanner, she’d come close to intercourse on several occasions, but as the moment of penetration drew near, Beatrice always felt herself slipping, losing the control she was generally able to exert. Roy’s shattered body floated inevitably into her mind, and she was forced to put a stop to the proceedings. After one particularly frustrating sexual near miss, she sat down and banged out her first novelette, the story of a buttoned-up school teacher and an oily auto mechanic, in one fell swoop. Afterward, it was as though an erotic Muse had claimed Beatrice as her exclusive mouthpiece. A Muse who flooded her with an in-depth understanding of what it was like to be normal.
But it had been years since she’d gotten close to a man, and Beatrice felt it was now or never. The only way to go into this thing was with eyes wide open, so she would tell Nathaniel Baxter about her unnatural strength. What she did to Roy Tanner. Her erotic writings. Her virginity. It would be a relief to reveal these things to Nathaniel. To share with someone the burden of her peculiar truths. It was only fair to give him all the facts and let him weigh the risks. And although Beatrice’s experience with men was mostly fictitious, although she dealt almost exclusively in fantasies, she was fairly certain that Nathaniel Baxter would fall in line. That he would risk his own well-being to have a go at her. It was this conviction, as much as his silver hair and sweet voice, that drew Beatrice so strongly.
At dinner, when he asked about her erotic writings, Beatrice would say her stories were born out of her desire to struggle weakly against a man, to swipe at him like a feeble kitten, to forget that she could, at any moment, choose to overpower him.
Manny Alvarez stood before her desk. At the ringing of the bell, she’d dismissed the class and sunk into her chair. The boy’s bright, dark eyes bored into her.
“Yes, Manny? What is it?”
He stepped forward, pressing his thin body into her desk. He reached both arms across its scarred surface. Beatrice’s hands, which showed her age more than any part of her, rested palm-up on the desktop. Manny grasped them and squeezed. Beatrice was momentarily undone.
“Thank you, Manny,” she said.
Manny had first followed Ms. Fleck home months earlier, and often, in the evenings, after he finished his homework and fixed himself hot dogs or a can of ravioli for supper, he would make his way to her building. He only had to take one bus to get there. Ms. Fleck lived on the fifth floor of a not-so-nice place by the standards of most white people, but it was nicer than the building he and his mother had moved into a year earlier, six months after his father, a longshoreman, was crushed by a shipping container filled with stereo equipment. From the corner across the street, Manny could see directly into Ms. Fleck’s window. She never pulled down the shades, and every time Manny had been there, she was sitting at a card table, typing on a laptop. There was a mailbox on the corner, and Manny liked to clamber onto it and sit rhythmically kicking the blue metal, watching Ms. Fleck, and think about the two of them living in one of the tepees she was forever talking about. They would wear loincloths, which would leave Ms. Fleck’s breasts swinging free. Manny would stalk elk, deer, bison. Once he speared them, once he skinned and hacked them into manageable hunks of meat, Ms. Fleck would roast the flesh over a blazing fire. They would tan the hides and gather fruits and nuts and berries. They would stretch the hides over wood frames to make drums. They would dry empty gourds and fill them with seeds. They would pound the drums and shake the gourds while dancing around the fire, praying for rain and whatever else they needed. Ms. Fleck would never be too tired to listen. She would place his hands on her breasts, leading him gently into manhood. Manny’s mother didn’t get home from working second shift at the blanket factory until 2:00 am, and Manny would sometimes sit on the mailbox watching Ms. Fleck until well after midnight, wondering what would happen if she stood up and walked to the window, what she would do if she caught sight of him down below.
After she showered and wriggled into a low-cut aquamarine dress, Beatrice stood at her living room window. It was still light out, and someone was moving into an apartment on the top floor of the building across the street. Walking home from school, she’d observed movers using a block and tackle to hoist an upright piano to one of the apartment windows. The instrument now hung suspended in midair. It would never fit, Beatrice could see that from across the street, and she wondered what kind of movers would hoist a piano without first measuring the window. Dusk was falling, and the brawny men were nowhere to be seen. Was it to be left hanging overnight? This idea worried Beatrice, but when she caught sight of Nathaniel Baxter approaching her building, she forgot all about the instrument.
In the restaurant, an Italian place to which Nathaniel always took his dates, he ordered a bottle of decent red and wondered what he had done to deserve Beatrice Fleck. He last deflowered a girl twenty years earlier, a sophomore named Mandy who cried afterward. Nathaniel cried, too—he was nothing if not empathetic—and held Mandy until she drifted into sweet sleep. He even remained stretched beside her on the twin bed in her dorm room for a time, listening to the light whistle of her breath, watching her small breasts rise and fall, envisioning the admiration that animated her open eyes. If he’d known she would be his last virgin, Nathaniel might have spent the whole night with Mandy, but he had an 8:00 am class that semester—a seminar on Homer, Virgil, and Dante. As he scuttled through his forties and fifties, Nathaniel never managed to talk his way into the pants of another unsullied girl, and now that he had crossed over into his sixties, that fantasy was behind him. But here, out of the clear blue, was his very own Beatrice, a virgin offering herself up like Iphigenia, the innocent girl whose spilled blood Artemis demanded before she would allow Agamemnon and the Achaean fleet to sail in pursuit of Menelaus’s wayward wife. True, Beatrice Fleck was older than your average virgin, but she looked easily ten years younger than her age, Nathaniel thought, and when she declared that she wanted him to take her maidenhood that very night, Sir Penis, that one-eyed showstopper, who these days did not always obey his commands, stood at full attention, knocking against the bottom of the table, throbbing with such force that Nathaniel was tempted to sweep away the glasses and bread plates and butter pats and candles and take Beatrice Fleck right there. Even when she announced that she was cursed with abnormal strength, that she remained a virgin because she paralyzed the only man she ever came close to screwing, Nathaniel wasn’t deterred. He was used to girls with crazy notions: unstable women are the cornerstone of the adulterous relationship. The more he gazed at Beatrice, the more lovely she grew. He wanted to sit at her feet and bury his head in her lap. He silently thanked the gods for this unexpected boon, promising them burnt offerings, the fatty thighs of rams and hogs or whatever else they desired.
“There’s something else,” Beatrice said. She leaned across the table. “I write erotica.”
Nathaniel nearly swooned. He downed his water in three gulps, and the waiter hurried to refill his glass. Beatrice pulled a thin paperback volume from her handbag and slid it across the table. Nathaniel greedily skimmed the first paragraph his eyes found:
The rocker was one of a set Philip and his wife purchased on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard thirty years earlier. Sturdy boughs of walnut, an intricately caned seat. In it, on countless evenings, Philip had rocked two infant sons into sweet slumber, and he felt that he knew this chair better than any other. When he shared it with Ivy, when she hiked up her plaid skirt and climbed aboard, when she straddled him, rocking them softly with the tips of her exquisite unpainted toes, brushing her glossed lips against his, separated from him by one thin layer of cotton and one of gabardine, Philip prayed for death. He prayed for a masked intruder to creep up behind him, to sink a knife between his shoulder blades. He wanted to be forever suspended here, at the apex of experience. Where things took shape and became possible. For Philip, the anticipation was far more rapturous than the act.
“Jesus,” Nathaniel Baxter said. He expected Beatrice Fleck’s narrative to be titillating; he hadn’t expected it to reach through his V-neck sweater and thump his heart. On the book’s cover, an illustrated man embraced an illustrated woman from behind. He was shirtless, and she wore a man’s white button-up. Super-imposed over this image was a drawing of an empty rocking chair. Nathaniel looked up at Beatrice, who was ordering chicken marsala from the waiter and smiling, and he understood that he was dealing with a far more profound mystery than he’d imagined.
Though the restaurant was some distance from Beatrice’s building, the March night was unseasonably warm, and they’d chosen to walk. As they reversed their route, Nathaniel rolled up his sleeves. He listened to Beatrice talk about the Midwestern town where she grew up and the characters who populated her fourth-grade class. The wind was high, and Nathaniel was unnaturally aware of the night air, which seemed to willfully caress his skin. As his eyes roamed over brick and stone building fronts, over bodegas and newsstands and corner markets, he wondered why he’d always thought Baltimore so grim. The city seemed, in this moment, softened and brightened. Drenched with possibility. Streetlamps and traffic lights twinkled. The people they passed were all attractive. Laughter rang out. Music with no visible source followed them over the sidewalk, a melody sweet and filled with yearning. Nathaniel felt as though it might take days to reach their destination, and he found that he didn’t mind.
Eventually, they arrived at Beatrice’s building, whose bohemian charm reminded Nathaniel of the buildings of countless girls he’d loved. Feeling like a teenager, he chased Beatrice up five flights of stairs, wondering at his own stamina. In her apartment, she pushed him down on the sofa. She straddled him and kissed him so deeply Nathaniel felt it in his toes. They proceeded toward their common goal slowly and with painstaking care. Beatrice shed her clothes, and he was mystified. Dressed, she seemed fragile, easily broken, but once she was uncovered, he saw that her shoulders were broad, that her body rippled softly with muscles. Her breasts stood up like two ripe apples, and her jutting hip bones were the prettiest things he’d ever seen. In spite of her probing tongue, in spite of her roving fingers, Nathaniel sensed reluctance in Beatrice Fleck, and, to his surprise, a similar feeling of his own rose up to mirror it. “We can stay here,” he whispered as his hand slid incrementally up her thigh. “We don’t have to go any further. We can stay right here forever.”
Beatrice, who sat on his lap, gave him a quizzical look. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” Once she left the room, Nathaniel stood. His erection throbbed painfully, and he crossed to the open window. He couldn’t prove it, but he thought he’d never wanted any woman as much as he wanted Beatrice. He peered through the screen, amazed by the strength of his vision, which was sharper than it had been in fifteen years. He took note of the things that made this night unique, things he would cherish when he looked back as the self he would become in the future, when he wanted to relive his time with Beatrice Fleck. A fat woman walking an unclipped standard poodle. A convertible full of shrieking teenagers. A man balancing on his hands. A small boy sitting on top of a mailbox, glaring up at Nathaniel. An upright piano tied around with stout ropes, dangling in mid-air above the mailbox, swaying in the wind. “My gods,” he said to Beatrice, who entered the room exactly as a sickening crack sounded, as the massive wooden block holding the piano in place splintered, as the instrument started to plummet. “The boy’s going to be killed!”
Later, Manny Alvarez would hardly remember the crack. He would hardly remember the piano. He would hardly remember Mr. Baxter’s hateful face staring back at him from Ms. Fleck’s window. He would hardly remember Ms. Fleck materializing beside him, lifting her arms, bending her knees, catching the piano over her head, grunting softly, fighting for balance, holding the instrument aloft for a long moment before kneeling to place it gently on the sidewalk. What Manny would remember was the way Ms. Fleck’s breasts bounced as she caught and then discarded the piano, how they pressed against him when she snatched him from the mailbox and held him so tightly he couldn’t breathe. She wore only a pair of silky purple panties, the kind his father had always liked on his mother, and Ms. Fleck’s pale breasts were just as Manny had imagined them. As she held him on the sidewalk, as she swayed back and forth and whispered, “You’re all right. Everything’s all right now,” into his ear, as people who witnessed the extraordinary event ringed Beatrice Fleck and Manny Alvarez, Manny felt that if they closed their eyes and wished hard enough, he and Ms. Fleck would find themselves standing in an open clearing. Wearing loincloths and gathering wood and roasting hunks of meat and dancing around a fire and praying for things. Praying for all the things they needed.
When Beatrice Fleck walked into her apartment wearing the white button-up shirt given to her by a man who watched her save the life of Manny Alvarez, Nathaniel Baxter was forced to avert his gaze. Some deathless god had lavished a splendor on Beatrice. She looked taller, fuller. Encircled by a nimbus of light, her skin glowed. She reminded Nathaniel of Artemis, the huntress, jealously guarding her chastity with silver bow and arrow, and he trembled.
“What is it?” Beatrice said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I should go.”
“I should,” Nathaniel said, but he didn’t move.
“Is this about my strength?” Beatrice said. “You didn’t believe me before. And now you’re frightened.”
Nathaniel was frightened, yes, but not in the way she thought. He wasn’t frightened of what she could do to him, but of what he could do to her. Of how the man who destroyed her maidenhead would change the world. As he’d watched Beatrice manhandle the piano and avert disaster, understanding struck Nathaniel like a bolt of lightning tossed by great Zeus. Her strength was tied to her purity. Had he deflowered her before the instrument plummeted, she would have been unable to save the child. Beatrice Fleck should never be forfeited for the sake of one man’s vanity and pride.
“In some versions of the story,” he said, “Iphigenia is not sacrificed. Artemis snatches her from the altar and leaves a deer in her place.”
On the sofa, Beatrice cradled Nathaniel’s silver head in her lap. She expected to feel frustrated, thwarted. To sink into hollowed-out despair. Instead, it was as though she’d been given a reprieve. She smiled at Nathaniel, whose eyes were changed, lit with awe and admiration. A new story occurred to her, one whose eroticism lay buried beneath the surface. A story in which men journey from far and wide to fall down at the feet of a woman who, they believe, can change everything. Can destroy the world as they know it with one snap of her fingers, one blink of her eyes. They’re willing to sacrifice themselves, these men, willing to march single file off a cliff or have their hearts torn out and eaten by the priests of her order. For they believe in her strength, in her power, in the great, undeniable force of her. They believe if they pray hard enough, if they feed her enough of their lives, she will grant them all the things they desire.
When dawn reached with her rosy fingers into Beatrice Fleck’s apartment, she found Beatrice seated at her laptop, typing in a rhythmic fury. Nathaniel Baxter lay on the sofa, lost in sweet slumber. All day, the sun dangled like a ripe, red cherry in the sky.