The Rhett Butlers

He is 40. You are almost 17. You know his kiss is coming, that day in the classroom, but still it surprises you. A short story

Eric Ogden

You always think of him as “Mr. Eagleton,” even after you start sleeping with him. You always call him that, too.

You are so naive, even for a teenager. You actually believe that story about a kid dying from eating Pop Rocks and soda together—not only do you believe it, you believe it happened in your town—and that’s such an old, old story. But then, so is yours and Mr. Eagleton’s.

He is 40, and blandly handsome in the way of homicide detectives, or 1920s bankers. You are almost 17. Your romance starts with a kiss by the world map in the back of the classroom after everyone else has gone for the day. You knew this kiss was coming, had encouraged it in all sorts of ways, but still it surprises you.

You are even more surprised the next morning when your best friend from next door, Marcy Hutchins, calls and says, “Mr. Eagleton keeps riding his motorcycle around the court and looking at your house.”

You peer out the window, with the phone still to your ear, and sure enough, a motorcycle slowly cruises by, and the helmeted driver turns his head in your direction.

“You should probably do something,” Marcy says. “My dad says he’s going to go out and tell him to stop disturbing the peace.”

“Okay,” you say.

“Also, he’s wearing weird jeans,” Marcy says, and hangs up.

You tell your parents you’re going to the library and hurry outside. You cut through the backyard and intercept Mr. Eagleton as he roars around the block. You climb on the back of his motorcycle and ride away. Probably your parents would be more upset about the fact that you’re not wearing a helmet than that you’re going off with the history teacher, but only just.

You’ve always liked school but now you really like school, because in addition to the thrill of getting good grades, you have the thrill of seeing Mr. Eagleton. The two interesting parts of your life have combined, and now your whole life is interesting, although you still have homework, and dinner with your parents, and raking leaves and stuff. But school is so satisfying now. In class, when Mr. Eagleton makes everyone laugh, you get to sit there, knowing they all love him and he loves only you.

Sometimes you pass each other in the halls, and he’ll stop talking to whomever he’s talking to and say, “Hey, catch me later, I want to talk to you about a project,” and you can’t believe that nobody realizes you and he have eyes only for each other.

Your friends, the other teachers, the school itself, are all a colorful blur, a soft, rich background for the movie that is now your life.

The very next week Mr. Eagleton wants to go to a hotel with you. He is tired of making out in your car, and you can’t go to his house, because it’s right across from the school and he has nosy neighbors. But you can’t go to the Comfort Inn, because Marcy’s older brother is the manager, and you can’t go to the Holiday Inn, because sometimes other teachers go there for the lunch buffet. So Mr. Eagleton says he will take you to a motel called the Starlite just outside of town.

“What kind of motel is that?” you ask, meekly.

“One with a stained mattress and a naked lightbulb,” Mr. Eagleton says. He means to be ironic, but the irony is that his description is pretty accurate.

You know that in the motel room you and Mr. Eagleton will take off all your clothes and get into bed. You imagine that will lead to something you think of as naked kissing. Which it does, but the naked kissing lasts for about five minutes and then becomes sex.

All your life, men will snort with laughter when you tell them about this naked-kissing business—about the fact that you actually thought that—but it’s true.

The day after having sex for the first time, you wake up with an awful stomachache. It keeps getting worse, and eventually you leave school and have Marcy take you to the doctor, because what else are you going to do—go to the ER holding hands with Mr. Eagleton? Besides, he has to teach World History.

You and Marcy go to your pediatrician. Dr. O’Hara is an extremely taciturn man who sometimes goes through a whole appointment without saying more than a word or two, and you’re really hoping this will be one of those appointments. But after five minutes of him silently examining you, you break down and confess that you lost your virginity the day before, and you’re really worried and scared that maybe you’re hemorrhaging internally.

Dr. O’Hara blinks, and for a moment you think he’s not going to say anything, but what he does say is that you appear to have appendicitis and that he wants Marcy to drive you straight over to the hospital, which Marcy does. The hospital admits you and rushes you right up to surgery while Marcy calls your parents at work and bursts into tears, and your parents tell her, over and over, how proud they are of both of you, how grown up and responsible you were, how you two did just the right thing.

The night you have your appendix out is pretty awful, but by the next afternoon, you’re feeling much better. Your parents stay with you during the day, and when they leave, Marcy comes to visit. Snow is falling hard, so the nurses look the other way and let her sleep in the empty bed in your room, and even bring her a supper tray. Mr. Eagleton has sent you three dozen yellow roses (you told your parents they were from the golf team), and Marcy gives you a pair of earrings, and the nurses must be bored, because they keep stopping by your room to talk, and outside your window the hospital grounds are draped in a wedding gown of newly fallen snow. You have never felt so happy or so loved.

You and Mr. Eagleton are becoming regulars at the Starlite Motel. The first time, you stayed in the car while Mr. Eagleton checked in, but now you go in with him to see what name he uses when he signs the register. He always chooses characters from your favorite novels: Mr. and Mrs. Gatsby, Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield, Mr. and Mrs. Finch, Mr. and Mrs. Twist. This idea seems very romantic to you, even though you would never change your name, and certainly not to Eagleton.

The woman behind the counter seems to like Mr. and Mrs. Butler best. “Ah, the Rhett Butlers,” she says every time. “Welcome back.”

She is a large, motherly woman who looks a lot like Mrs. Harrison, the woman who drives the Children’s Bookmobile. She always has the TV on, and always on a channel showing Wheel of Fortune. She’s unbelievably good—you once saw her guess “Apocalypse Now” just from the letter C.

This woman makes you feel a lot better. Nothing bad can happen to you here.

Mr. Eagleton tells you he’s going to give you a B in history, so that no one will suspect anything.

“But I’m getting an A,” you say. “Getting a B for A work is probably more suspicious.”

“Leave it to me,” Mr. Eagleton says, which you find beyond annoying.

At least the course is World History and not English, because you really couldn’t have taken that.

You will graduate 11th in your class, nudged out of the top 10 by Priscilla Todd, an annoying girl with a waterfall of red hair who takes mostly typing classes. Will you think bitterly about the B in history for many years? You’d better believe it.

Mr. Eagleton is always going on about how this has to be secret—no texts, no e-mails—and how you can’t tell anybody. And you don’t tell anybody, not one single person except Marcy, and Marcy is less like a person and more like your frontal lobe, so she doesn’t really count. And then Mr. Eagleton tells you that he told Mr. Poole, who is not only a person but also your geography teacher.

“What did he say?” you ask.

“He said that you were gorgeous,” Mr. Eagleton tells you, “and also that you seem 10 years older than all the other girls.”

The gorgeous part is really nice, but you’re not so sure about the 10 years older part.

“And he said that in his experience, teenage girls can’t fuck or suck at all,” Mr. Eagleton adds.

“What experience is that?” you ask.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Eagleton says, but his eyes slide away.

You are beginning to realize that although it’s always hilarious to hear teachers call each other by their first names, and even more hilarious to hear them making weekend plans, often they say things to each other that aren’t hilarious at all.

Mr. Eagleton shows you a porn film—he turns out to have a fairly extensive collection. You are young enough to still have your parents always in the back of your mind, and you are heartbroken to think that your mother lives in a world where such films exist.

Which is not to say that you don’t enjoy it. You only wish Marcy were there to watch it with you, because that would make it real. That’s the problem with Mr. Eagleton—he’s unreal. The part of your life that contains him is too sealed off, like the last slice of cake under one of those glass domes.

Marcy tells her parents that she’s sleeping at your house. This way she can stay out past her curfew or even all night. She’s going over to Jeff Lippencott’s house; his parents are out of town.

Mr. Eagleton is always going on about how this has to be a secret—no texts, no e-mails—and how you can't tell anybody.

You agree. Of course you do—think of all the times Marcy has covered for you. You sit in the TV room, wearing sweats and your glasses and eating cold Pop-Tarts. You wish only the very best for Marcy, but you feel forlorn, picturing her at Jeff Lippencott’s, maybe lying in his parents’ bed, leading a real life.

Marcy knocks on the window a little after 11. You open it and she steps over the window ledge, shaking little diamonds of cold rain from her hair, and says, “Oh my God, he’s such an asshole! He spent the whole time doing keg stands with his friends, and I didn’t know anyone and wound up helping his little sister weave pot holders.”

This story should make you feel lots better. It should make you happy to be you again. But it doesn’t.

You and Mr. Eagleton go away for the weekend, and in the process you learn many life lessons, although you’ll need some time for them to sink in. You learn that if you tell your parents you’re going to a Model UN weekend, they’ll think the event so boring, they won’t question it. You learn that bed-and-breakfasts have the same furniture as hotel rooms, only arranged as inconveniently as possible. You learn that all those funny and interesting lectures Mr. Eagleton gives in class are not as funny or as interesting the second time around, and not with only you as a captive audience. You learn that sometimes the very best part of going away for a weekend with a man is planning which clothes to wear.

When you get back Sunday night, Marcy calls and asks if it was incredibly romantic, and you say yes, because you don’t have the heart to tell her that if you’d wanted to listen to boring shit about the World Bank, you could have just stayed home.

Geography is one of your more effortless subjects, which is just as well, because Mr. Poole is a fairly effortless teacher. Anyway, it’s not biology, where you have to be hypervigilant lest some confusing fact escape you, and you have time to observe Mr. Poole as he sits at his desk, grading papers. The top of his head is bald and freckled, and the skin looks thick and sort of slimy, like on a toadstool or an oyster, and you wonder who the girl was, the one who was no good at fucking or sucking, and how she could bring herself to even try either one with Mr. Poole. You hope that wherever she is, she’s happy now and that she hardly ever thinks about it—

Right about this time, Mr. Poole looks up and meets your gaze over the top of his bifocals, and you realize with a Klondike-cold sort of clarity that Mr. Poole has these same thoughts about you, only kind of the opposite.

The moment should be extremely awkward, but it’s not, and after a second you bow your head back over your textbook, thinking of the strangeness that, in a school of 3,000 students and staff, you and Mr. Poole should be the two who understand each other perfectly.

These are your top five concerns at the moment:

1. College applications

2. Biology midterm

3. AP English exam

4. Money for a new phone

5. Summer internship

Mr. Eagleton is probably in the top 10 somewhere, though definitely lower than the golf team. He’s more like a club, not even a sport, and you think about him as much as you’d think about chess club, if you were the sort of person who belonged to chess club.

Apparently Mr. Eagleton feels a little differently. “I dream about being married to you,” he says.

“But I’m going to college,” you say.

Whatever he was hoping you’d say, it wasn’t that.

Mr. Eagleton likes to talk about motorcycles, cars, football, jazz, and hiking, none of which is interesting to hear about, especially jazz. In fact, if you made a Venn diagram (you’re learning about them in algebra) of your interests and Mr. Eagleton’s interests, the overlapping part would be really tiny, hardly big enough to write the word sex in.

Mr. Eagleton still won’t send texts or e-mails (he says they’re like Styrofoam and never go away), but he writes you letters. Long, passionate, sexually explicit letters—but in the end, sort of repetitive. At first you read them all thoroughly, conscientiously, but later you just glance through them, the way you look at the vocab right before a biology quiz. You fold them and, one by one, shove them all in a drawer in your desk.

You don’t realize that you have a weapon of mass destruction in your desk drawer. You parents would never snoop, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t believe it. The worst that would happen is that your mother would bake brownies in the repressive way she did after she found used condoms in the yard once. All those years of straight A’s and National Honor Society and Junior Achievement have an unexpected benefit: any misdeed can now be cloaked by the skirts of your goody-goody reputation. This isn’t anything you planned, but you would have if you’d thought of it.

The closest you ever come to discovery is one night at dinner when your father says mildly, “What’s up with your grades? You haven’t gotten higher than a B in history all year.”

In addition to marriage and the porn film, Mr. Eagleton has other ideas. One of them is anal sex. You think he’s joking when he first mentions it, but then you realize that the joke is on you.

You know Mr. Eagleton has an ex-wife, although he never talks about her, and you know he has ex-girlfriends, and you’re pretty sure he has ex–teenage girlfriends, students like you. But you don’t know this for certain until one day when you’re lying in bed together—you’re tracing cracks in the ceiling with your eyes—and he says, “I wish I could take a picture of you right now.”

“You already have a picture of me,” you say, and he does. It’s one Marcy took of you. You spent nearly two hours getting your hair to look like that.

“A picture of the way you look right now,” he says.

You sit up. “I’m not going to let you take a picture of me naked.”

He shrugs. “It’s a good thing Poole and I have this deal to clean out each other’s desks if either of us dies unexpectedly. Because I have other pictures that could get me in trouble.”

What is it with people and their desk drawers? Mr. Eagleton is looking at you with false modesty. You realize he wants you to burn with jealousy, but you only wish you could ask for your picture back.

One day at the Starlite, Mr. Eagleton signs the register “Mr. and Mrs. Baggins.” This is disappointing on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that you don’t even like Tolkien.

Even the woman behind the counter seems let down. She moves her cough drop from one side of her mouth to the other before she hands over the key. “There you go, Rhett,” she says to Mr. Eagleton.

Then she glances at the TV and says, “Gingerbread house.”

Mr. Eagleton is already holding the door of the office open. “Are you coming?” he says.

“In a minute,” you say. You are looking at the TV too. You have never wanted to watch Wheel of Fortune so much in your whole entire life.

You tell Marcy about the Mr. and Mrs. Baggins thing and she says, “Oh, yuck.” (She said that about the anal sex, too, only less vehemently.)

“I know,” you say. And the thing is: you do know.

You tell Mr. Eagleton you can’t stay after school anymore. You say you can’t go out in the evenings. You say your parents are suspicious. You say you’re grounded for drinking vodka in Marcy’s basement. You say you lost your phone and haven’t replaced it. You tell him your computer crashed. You tell him you have PMS.

To all of these, Mr. Eagleton says, “Don’t you fucking lie to me.”

Well, he is a teacher, after all. He’s the one who told you that when you call in sick someplace, you shouldn’t cough. Don’t overdo it, he said.

If only Mr. Eagleton were a guy your age. Then you could have Marcy tell him you don’t want to see him anymore, and he would go out with all his friends and drink beer behind the bleachers until he threw up, and that would be the end of it.

But because he’s your teacher, you have to see him for 50 minutes every day, and even though you enter class with your books clutched to your chest and your eyes downcast like a nun’s (aren’t nuns the ones who do that?), occasionally you have to look up, and when you do, Mr. Eagleton is always looking right back at you, his eyes burning like chili peppers. And when he lectures and walks around the classroom, sometimes he stops by your desk and you can tell that he wants to reach out and touch you, and your heart beats very fast until he moves on. Your essays come back with big red C’s on them—one scrawled so hard, it left a hole in the paper.

He stands by the door these days when he dismisses class—something he never used to do—and you have to walk right past him, and you can tell from his breath that maybe he’s drinking beer behind the bleachers after all.

The phone rings all the time and then the caller hangs up when your parents answer. For three straight days, your family gets no mail at all, and your father calls the post office to complain. Your trash has, apparently, been gone through. One night during dinner, your mother pauses with her fork midair and says, “Do I hear that motorcycle again?” During golf, another player says, “Isn’t that Mr. Eagleton in front of the clubhouse?,” causing you to three-putt the very last hole of the season. (Thanks a lot.) Someone leaves a Baketacular gift basket on your porch, and your father thinks it’s from his office and eats all the scones.

“Mr. Eagleton needs to grow up,” Marcy says. She has come over to eat the blueberry muffins.

This confirms something you have long suspected: Marcy—Marcy, who says things like “I never knew you weren’t supposed to put tinfoil in the microwave”—is actually more mature than Mr. Eagleton.

Thank heaven you leave for college as soon as school is out. You have a summer internship at an art museum in Virginia. Mr. Eagleton doesn’t know this.

On the day you leave, the neighbors turn out to see you off, but all you can think of is how horrible it would be if Mr. Eagleton rode his motorcycle by right now and saw the car sitting in the driveway, packed with so many cartons and suitcases that your father can’t put the front seat back. (He’s already in the car, and looks like a cockroach driving a matchbox.)

You are so busy worrying about this that you forget your and Marcy’s ironclad rule not to go near Mr. Finnerty after he’s been watching baseball and drinking six-packs. You let him hug you goodbye along with everyone else, and Mr. Finnerty kisses you on the mouth and gives your ass a little squeeze. Everyone looks mortified except Marcy, who looks delighted, and your mother, who is staring off into the middle distance. You are sure she’s going to go inside and bake brownies as soon as you leave.

You climb into the car next to your father, and you should be happy, but the realization that you won’t see Marcy later to discuss Mr. Finnerty is like an oil slick on your heart, black and treacherous. You are much sadder about this than you will be years later when you hear that Mr. Eagleton’s motorcycle hit a roadway oil spill and spun into a tree.

When that happens, you won’t feel a thing.