Mr. Maxwell: An Affair in 10 Parts
First Published in eFiction January 2013
I knew exactly what I was looking for. My fingers dove past piles of memories, the closet smelling of dust and morning. From the depths I unearthed a veined shoebox bursting with receipts and pictures. I sat on my old twin bed and quickly found what I was looking for: a picture of me graduating from pre-school. The tiny photo was more worn than I’d hoped, the colors fading to green, the edges flaky and soft. In the photo I’m five. My smiling eyes are wide, not yet dampened by adult burden. Mr. Maxwell is sitting behind me, his hair full and thick. He is also smiling. I snapped a pic of the photo and texted it to Mr. Maxwell.
Leaving the picture and shoebox behind, I went for a jog. My parents’ neighborhood was slowly waking up. Late summer dew gilded the myrtles; steam from the street floated up toward the morning brightness. Half a mile into my jog, my phone vibrated. It was Mr. Maxwell. “we have to stop,” his text read. “marcus found my phone. he knows. the pics. the calls. everything.”
Absurdity fell from the sky, shattering the rules of the game I’d spent years unconsciously designing, as obsession dropped me in a place where fantasy and reality blended, the chemical products being bitter absurdity and dull contempt. Actual consequences weren’t part of the plan. The plan had been fantasy, sex.
Mr. Maxwell texted again. “he dumped me. i told him u and i meant nothing. he left. & u never came to miami like u promised.”
A bead of sweat dripped onto the phone as I brushed away a bee. “Goodbye, you pathetic fuck,” I said to the phone, to him.
He texted again, “for the record tho buddy, this pic is adorable. u were hot even @ 5.”
Six months earlier, by the time Mr. Maxwell and I had reconnected, things had been falling apart between he and Marcus. They’d been together for a couple of months, and like me, Marcus was significantly younger—over twenty years. The age difference between them was beginning to weigh on Mr. Maxwell. He was having trouble keeping up with the all-night, drug-fueled parties and he told me he’d started getting Botox injections to compete with Marcus’ youth. He said Marcus stayed out all night, that he was convinced Marcus was sleeping with DJs around Miami.
He started sending me longer texts and calling every day, and I listened for hours as he droned on and on about Marcus, Florida and the gym. I helped him decode text messages and conversations, and I responded dutifully as my personal contempt for him began to grow. He never asked about my life, about how I hated being home for the summer during grad school or how I’d spent twenty years obsessed with finding and seducing him. He just wanted someone to dump his drama on.
With that, the fantasy just dissolved into irreconcilable truths: I was now six inches taller than him. His voice, once deep and authoritative, was now high and squeaky. Instead of a healthy young man in his late twenties, he was now just a tragic drug addict obsessed with staying young. He was supposed to have been a stable professional with glasses. He was supposed to have been an older man with whom I could brunch and cuddle. That’s not how fantasy fulfillment works.
My only consolation, now that he broke the rules of my mental game, was to use him. One night while my parents were away on their yearly Europe trip, during one of our late calls, talk turned to sex. We began sharing our favorite positions, bragging about our respective sexual skills. The high of seduction took over and my mind flooded with a warped rationale: I deserved to have phone sex with him. He wasn’t the man of my dreams, so the least he could do was get me off in my parents’ living room. Who cared if he was over two thousand miles away and had a boyfriend? Exploiting his sexuality in such a detached way fit perfectly with the vicarious version of him I’d been sculpting since I was ten. Objectification tapped at the window, the living room swam around me, empty and dark. As his voice tickled my ear, I ejaculated. The adolescent me, the scared kid who’d been afraid of his first orgasm, was finally able to fulfill as much of his fantasy as he could. In my mind, Mr. Maxwell had been there for my first orgasm, an impossible question I’d once asked the dark, and now he’d finally he answered it.
For the rest of that summer, until the morning I found the picture of me graduating from pre-school, we had phone sex every night. During that time, my parents returned from Europe, and the affair had to go underground. I panted in the darkness of my parked car. I whispered empty promises from under the covers of my twin bed, empty promises like how I’d come to Miami to reunite with him. He told me we’d dance, do drugs, and “fuck ‘til we dropped.”
We began texting each other pictures of our body parts. Questions I’d had for years about his ass and thighs were finally answered. Studying these texted pictures, I ignored the sad tiles on his bedroom floor and the pathetic folding chair he used in his makeshift office. Instead, I chose to focus on his carved body, the revelation of his penis. I also ignored the blatant perversion of him being sexually enticed by me, the man-version of his former fifth-grade student.
I found him on Facebook. He didn’t accept my friendship request right away. “I don’t get on that often,” his first Facebook message read. When he finally accepted, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years and was afraid to look at his pictures because in my head he was still the same Mr. Maxwell from Butler, the private elementary school where he’d been my fifth-grade teacher. I was shocked to discover that while older, he was still uncomfortably attractive—defined abs, bulbous biceps, swollen pecs. His face seemed a little stretched, but it was definitely still him.
He began sending longer messages, filling me in on what he’d been up to for the last twenty years. He told me that just before we lost contact, my aunt, the Spanish teacher at Butler, mentioned at school how Mr. Maxwell was living with her and my uncle. She casually referenced his frequent male houseguests and inadvertently outed him. He was fired a few days after the school dance, the one where he high-fived me.
Distraught, he moved out of my aunt and uncle’s house and moved in with a female friend I’d never met. After a night of drinking, he and this female friend had awkward, sloppy sex. She got pregnant, and they married in Vegas. Over the next couple of years they adopted four more kids while he went to grad school, became a college professor, and pretended to be straight.
He wrote to me how his marriage had been a sham from the start. Their sex life was nonexistent and he’d started cheating on her with men immediately, stopping off at bookstores on the way home from work to, as he wrote, “blow a load.” His wife found out about the cheating and moved the entire family to Miami where nothing changed. He began fucking his male students during office hours. Rumors of his affairs began to circulate and eventually
the following was posted on RateMyProfessor.com: “Yeah, he’s a great instructor. Too bad he’s cheating on his wife (and kids!) with one of his young gay students.” A friend was able to delete the comment, but his wife had already discovered the damaging claim. He promised to stop having sex with his students and initially found restraint, but then he met Marcus, a twenty-two-year-old senior. They fell in love immediately. “You’re fucking a child!” his wife yelled at him when she found out. It was their last argument. They divorced soon after and she got custody of the kids, moving them Atlanta. As he said, “She thought her love for me was strong enough to keep us together. It wasn’t.”
I stopped seeing Mr. Maxwell’s face during orgasms when I was sixteen and started having sex with actual people. Still, over the next fourteen years, I thought of him whenever I perused my old yearbooks, visited my aunt and uncle (his former landlords) in Oregon, and of course whenever I heard “Vogue” by Madonna.
During those twenty years apart, fantasizing about Mr. Maxwell was regular practice. I’d imagine bumping in to him at a club in West Hollywood—we’d see each other across a dewy dance floor. I’d dance over to him, and at first he wouldn’t recognize me. I’d tell him who I was, and his face would light up. We’d kiss and spend the rest of our lives eating Mexican food and listening to George Michael, twisted up in his black satin sheets. He’d be a doctor; I, a scholar. We’d both wear glasses. I pictured him older, still handsome and strong. I saw him camping with friends, strumming nineties classics on his guitar.
I could be anywhere—school, my parents’ car, Disneyland—and suddenly I’d see him laughing at something my aunt and uncle had said or eating chicken salad with a plastic fork during school lunch. For those twenty years—as I came out to little fanfare, lost weight, gained weight, almost failed out of high school, dropped out of college, re-entered college, had countless dates, a few awful relationships, hundreds of sex partners, and three therapists—I allowed the fantasy of Mr. Maxwell to build, to collect like poisoned rainwater in an invisible barrel.
A few days after Mr. Butler was fired, my aunt and uncle moved to Oregon. I was moved out of private and into public school. Being a child—translation: invisible—I was given no explanations, no reasons. My uniform was traded for jeans and slouchy tee shirts, my security for danger, my past for future. The protection I’d felt from the students and staff at Butler was replaced by the daily threat of rabid peers who found my fey ways the perfect receptacle for their own self-loathing. Snack during junior high was a daily war. Kicking, spitting, being drawn on, getting punched in the arm constantly. I taught myself how to be funny, how to protect myself with humor. If I could make a joke about my obvious gayness before they could then they had no power. “Yes, I’m a fag. Yes, I suck dick.” Mr. Maxwell and the life I no longer lived watched this bullying from the periphery of my consciousness, ciphers of what was.
During this painfully adolescent period, I discovered masturbation by accident one Easter Sunday. Tucked in my twin bed, my stomach aching from a day of bacon, chocolate, and eggs, I began touching myself with the same hand I’d high-fived Mr. Maxwell just a year earlier. After a few moments of manipulation, there was a strange pain, a pleasurable bite in my penis accompanied by a punctuated release that flashed Mr. Maxwell’s face in my mind.
“What was the that?” I asked out loud. The darkness didn’t answer. In the days and years following, my daily orgasm to Mr. Maxwell’s face became the only connection to the childhood I’d just lost: my aunt and uncle’s house, the homemade tacos, Butler Elementary.
The last time I saw him as a child was at the school dance. He was the DJ and had a preference for diva dance hits like “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer and “Groove is in the Heart” by Deee-lite. The dance floor was actually our classroom, his DJ booth actually the desk that held my plastic red bee sting kit.
I discovered I loved to dance that night, finally tapping into the healing properties gay men have always found in heavy beats and sassy lyrics. Students I’d grown up with cheered me on, my family shouting for me to keep dancing. I felt at home, safe.
I’d just finished dancing to “Vogue” by Madonna, and unable to stop smiling, I found myself walking over to the DJ booth. My crush, my teacher, waited for me. His eyes were closed, his head bobbing to the beat. I tapped him on the arm. He opened his eyes and smiled big at me. Even at ten, I knew there was a connection, an electricity between us. I wanted to touch his angular face, to laugh with him. I wanted him to touch my sweaty arms, my legs.
“Looking good out there, bud!” he shouted over the bass. We high-fived and the sting never left my hand.
A few months before the school dance, my parents and I went to my aunt and uncle’s house for Sunday dinner. The house smelled of refried beans flavored with bacon fat. My mom’s hands flipped flour tortillas warming on the gas flame with expert torque. Spanish rice steamed and bubbled in a pot on the range. The orange sunset matched the shredded cheddar in my aunt’s clay bowls. Gloria Estefan, my aunt’s favorite, sang from the giant stereo in the living room. My uncle and dad sat mesmerized by a humming football game in the den. Dusk drifted into hazy night, and to fend off boredom my cousins and I took empty coffee cans and sprayed their silver insides with Windex. We stuck our heads in, took deep breaths, and the world spun for three seconds.
My mother’s voice called for me from the kitchen.
“Yeah?” I asked, now standing before her.
“Will you go downstairs and grab a folding chair from the garage?” She was chopping cilantro.
“But, Mr. Maxwell is down there,” I protested.
“Oh, he won’t mind,” My aunt said stirring the beans. “He knows who you are, being your teacher and all.” They both laughed.
I took a deep breath and forced myself to walk to the edge of the stairs. I looked down but couldn’t see him. I knew he was home because his car was in the driveway. The stairwell yawned up at me, revealing the darkness below. Taking another deep breath, I crept down, taking each step with great caution, inching slowly into the depth. Once at the dark bottom, I inched past the lit doorway of his bedroom. A dormant part of me wanted to catch him naked in the black silk sheets I remember my aunt said he slept in. Instead, I found him sitting in a leather chair, shirtless, strumming a guitar. Seeing his chest for the first time, as his arms cradled the wooden instrument, I suddenly had questions about his calves, his thighs. I wanted to know what the rest of his body looked like, to run my fingers through his brown hair.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, smiling. “How’s your arm? It’s been through a lot this week.”
“Fine.” My voice was quiet, meek.
“Good to hear it.” His smile made my face feel warm.
I ran to the garage, got the folding chair, and darted back up the dark stairs.
A week earlier, during recess, a bee stung me for the second time that year. The previous sting had occurred a few months earlier and—after being rushed to the ER and put on an
IV drip—I discovered I was deathly allergic. My parents and the doctors warned that if stung again I’d only have ten minutes to live. My parents gave Mr. Maxwell my newly prescribed bee-sting kit, and he kept it—a tiny red box of extremely hard plastic—in the bottom drawer of his desk. I felt safe knowing that if stung again, he’d save me.
The afternoon I was stung the second time I ran through the blur of black and white uniforms, and burst into our classroom, an alien place during recess, in a frantic panic. Mr. Maxwell was eating his chicken salad. I showed him where I’d been stung. Calmly, he took the red kit from his desk and instructed me to sit down. He scraped the stinger out with one of his keys. He took the tiny hypodermic needle, filled it with epinephrine, and administered it to my left arm. His other hand held my shoulder steady. His breath smelled like mayonnaise and onions. His strength disarmed me. As he tightened the tourniquet above the sting, he said, “Gettin’ a little heavy there, buddy. I gotta tell your mom and aunt to stop making all that fatty Mexican food.”
My breathing relaxed and I smiled, knowing that my family and Mexican food were
things only he and I shared. None of his other students could understand that inside joke. I thanked him for saving my life and spent the rest of the afternoon waiting in the whale principal’s office for my mom to pick me up.
Mr. Maxwell moved in with my aunt and uncle a few weeks before he became my fifth grade teacher. He was in his late twenties, had just moved to LA, and needed a cheap place near school. My aunt and uncle’s house, which was less than a mile from Butler, made perfect logical sense also given that my aunt was a teacher there. Neither they nor my parents thought that fraternizing with their son’s teacher on a personal level was a violation of an implicit authority code. For whatever reason, they saw no problem with letting him bleed into our lives.
My life became a paradox. On any given night, Mr. Maxwell and the other adults drank and gossiped over greasy homemade tacos. We’d all laugh, watch movies, and dance until us kids fell asleep and had to be packed into the family minivan. The next morning, when my family wasn’t around, Mr. Maxwell would yell at me for not doing my homework the night before. The boundaries dissolved as Mr. Maxwell began to know more about my family than any fifth-grade teacher ever should. He knew my mother reprimanded me when I ate too many enchiladas at Sunday dinner. He knew what I looked like splashing around with my cousins in their aboveground pool on hot days. He knew my grandmother watched Geraldo every
afternoon and that my aunt listened nonstop to Gloria Estefan.
Conversely, I knew more about him than any fifth-grader should ever know about his teacher. I overheard my aunt tell him that there was nothing wrong with being gay. I knew from a random laundry hamper that he wore white Hanes briefs. I knew his father was in the Coast Guard. I knew he didn’t want my aunt washing his Hanes. I knew he liked to listen to U2’s “Drowning Man” and George Michael’s “Father Figure” on Saturday mornings as he washed
his car, bare-chested. I knew to not ask about the men that spent the night and to ignore the yelling that came from downstairs when he was on the phone with his parents.
I officially met Mr. Maxwell when he hit me. I was six and in the first grade. He wouldn’t be my teacher for four more years. I wouldn’t find him on Facebook for twenty more.
I’d punched a girl in retaliation for her punching me, and the substitute teacher sent me to the principal’s office for hitting a girl. The principal, a whale with too much power over helpless children, yelled at me from behind a massive desk.
To my right, another teacher—tall, male—was carrying out a female student’s punishment. The male teacher’s angular face scrunched up and his lips curled as he slammed a wooden paddle against the backside of the weeping girl.
“You can be next,” the whale principal hissed in my direction, pointing a finger to where the male teacher and the crying girl stood.
Rubbing her eyes, the crying girl left, and I walked over.
“Hey, buddy,” the male teacher said. “I’m Mr. Maxwell. What’d you do?” He towered over me. His thick paddle covered in signatures and tape dangled from his slim fingers.
“I punched a girl,” I said unable look up at him from fear.
“No good, buddy,” he said. “Touch your toes.”
I bent over and closed my eyes. Whoosh. The nerve endings in my butt ignited with white heat. I didn’t cry, and just as the pain rushed down my child legs, it was gone.