The culminating activity for the trimester was standing up in front of Mrs. Kelliher and the entire class and reading your proudest piece. While Kevin Stendahl was in front of the whiteboard, whispering his way through a sonnet, I stared down at what I’d written about the time Keebler, Nathan, and I—driving back from the midnight release of some videogame at Best Buy—had pulled over to watch a snapping turtle die in the middle of the road.
I was nervous that my writing didn’t impart all the awful glory of that enormous pile of armor, penetrated. By the time we found him, the blood pouring out of the crack in his back had coagulated into a mahogany goop, but the violence of whatever had opened him was still present; he was jerking his neck from side to side, smashing his palsied beak into his own shell as we stood around him and giggled in awe.
The turtle had been trying to cross from the subdivision I grew up in to the man-made marsh across the street, but none of us were athletic or brave enough to carry him to where he could die in peace, so we decided it would be humane put him out of his misery as quickly as possible. I was most confident with the writing in this section, feeling that I’d captured the perfect tragicomic tone for our teenaged fumblings in Keebler’s dinky car. We had to run the turtle over four more times before satisfied we’d at least expedited his suffering.
My problem was with the end of the story, where we all crowded around the turtle to decide if this latest mercy blow, which had briefly sucked him up into the car’s wheel-well, had been enough. He wasn’t dead, but his thrashing had lost its urgency. The crack in his back had deepened to a pool of fresh blood, with a ghostly white ooze at its center that none of us could identify.
Whatever it was pulled pathetic goose-bumps out of my flesh, the sort of visceral empathy I’d often feel when listening to music or reading a novel. Nothing of real life had ever touched me there before, though, and enjoying it that night made me even guiltier than it normally did.
“That’s its soul leaving,” I joked to insure we’d turn away before my eyes brimmed over.
Though my tone of ironic naïveté felt like the perfect end to the story as I’d written it, I hadn’t worked out a way to imply why I’d felt compelled to write about that night. It was that the turtle’s soul—luminous and viscous against the thin, bright blood—had looked like a big wad of jizz bubbling up out of his back.
I joined the applause as they trailed off. “Thank you, Kevin,” Mrs. Kelliher said as he set his poem on her desk. “Alice, you’re next.”
I glanced back to my manuscript options as Alice got up. The left side of my folder held the original draft—I had tried to allude to my inspiration in that one. It would out me as a masturbator, though, so just writing that the goop looked like cum was out of the question. Plus, it seemed somehow less than literary. Instead, I ignored my memories of that final scene and drew the description solely from sensory details about jizz, hoping the subtext would come through.
I’d appreciated Mrs. Kelliher’s subtlety in striking-through the entire paragraph-long prose poem about “sticky-slick slop” with the comment, “Too flowery, edit for length.” If she had even hinted that she understood what I was implying, I would have had to imagine her spindly old fingers becoming familiar with semen. Realizing this exacerbated my fears about the girls in class wondering what I knew about cumming, so I excised the whole section to end up with the tight, pithy final draft in the right sleeve of the folder.
But all the girls in school already knew I was sarcastic. I had signed up for this elective because I thought creative writing could convince them that I was sensitive. I had always thought of myself as a kind, delicate person but had never been able to convince anyone else of this fact, mostly because I was so ashamed of the only evidence I had: the care and consideration I doted on my female classmates in my imagination and the way opening my eyes to reality afterwards, alone in my chair with a fist full of jizz, felt somehow like dying in the middle of the road.
Now that we’d almost reached my spot in the alphabetical order, I was tempted to subvert Mrs. Kelliher and read the original.
I joined in the applause late again, embarrassed that I hadn’t even noticed a word she’d read even though I’d given every part of her sedulous attention before leaving for school that morning.
“Thank you, Alice. Denise, your turn.”
As Denise stood—unaware of how often she’d succumbed to my kindness—I scanned back through the original draft, sure that if I found the courage to read it, Denise, Alice, and the rest would start to notice me.
Behind me, Keebler laughed. As I realized that it wasn’t his mean or happy laugh but that giggle he got when nervous, I looked to the front of the class.
Denise’s voice faltered. “… your pussy… You ask him… again… to stop…”
“Denise!” Mrs. Kelliher shouted. “We discussed this.”
Denise took a deep breath, and started over. “He forces his hands down your jeans, clawing at your pussy. You ask him again to stop, but he stopped listening long ago.”
“Denise!” Mrs. Kelliher was standing, her finger stiff towards the door. “Out! Out!”
Denise ran out, clutching the manuscript against her chest as she spun away from Mrs. Kelliher, who called after her, “In the office until the end of class,” before sitting back down.
She took a deep breath while looking at the roll call, then looked up to me: “You’re next.”
I looked around: everyone was slack-jawed, staring at the door. My choices were less clear than ever. Denise’s few words stood so bold in the room, I could barely read my own.
“I’m not ready,” I said, and that was the truth.
Front page image by redjar.