The Teacher and the Boxer

Person reclining and placing foot on old stereo
Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

She and the teacher had sex within two hours of meeting at a record store that only sold Renaissance music. She was browsing an aisle labeled Italian 1600-1650 when the teacher introduced himself. His house was just a few blocks from the shop.

They made out in the teacher’s kitchen with a harpsichord mass on the stereo and ultimately consummated things in the laundry room on top of the washing machine. Neither of them took off their shoes.

On top of the washing machine, she did not think about the news she’d gotten that morning: a college friend had killed himself, though no one seemed to know why. Instead, she decided to invest in the Monteverdi box set she’d seen on cassette, and walked back to the record store once she and the teacher finished.

***

She found the boxer on a dating app the next day. She sent the first message, and they met for a slice of pizza.

“My mind and body are the same thing when I box,” he said. “There’s no disconnect between thinking and moving.”

She liked that. They ate their pizza, agreed to meet again, and did not touch each other at all.

***

The morning she met the teacher, she received a text message from a college friend who lived across the country:

Have you heard from Bradley? I think something’s wrong. 

The last time she’d seen Bradley was at a mutual friend’s wedding three years ago. He’d flown in from wherever he was living, given her an enormous hug, and sat with her through the ceremony, inventing an affair between the ancient pastor and the equally ancient organist.

“Gives a whole new meaning to pullin’ out all the stops,” he whispered.

He’d looked good. His stringy hair was back in a bun and he wore a bolo tie the way he always did for functions.

Now, she was 90% sure he was in grad school for guitar somewhere in California, and she called down the roster of people who could confirm.

The hip hop DJ she and Bradley used to work with at their college radio station ­– he’d heard Bradley was in New Orleans.

The old jazz director, who lived in New Orleans – a decade ago, their radio shows had been back to back: The Jazz Garden and Classical Catastrophe. According to her, Bradley had moved back to New York.

Then she realized what she should have done all along, and shot off an email to the friend who’d gotten married. He was one of the people with whom she and Bradley had shared a dorm. They were still close. He wrote back within minutes:

Bradley’s dead.

What? She didn’t believe him. How?

I don’t know, he responded. Then pasted a link into the email: the website of a local paper from Bradley’s hometown in Southeast Texas. It was an obituary.

On August 28th Bradley Chandler was taken from us unexpectedly.  

The friend wrote back again. That’s Texas for suicide.

She read it, shut her laptop, and went to the record store.

***

The teacher’s call came as a surprise. She’d forgotten she’d given him her number.

She brought a bag of beets over to his house—she already knew where it was—and together, they chopped and spiced and steadily added the contents of the teacher’s fridge to a pot of red curry as they filled in the small talk they’d skipped in the laundry room.

The teacher taught English at a nearby high school. His students were mostly freshman and he liked it that way. The extreme proximity of his house to the record store was the only reason he knew anything about early music. He owned the house.

When it was her turn, she explained that she too was a teacher—choral music at the city college where many of her students were older than she. In a week she would teach a class the way Guido d’Arezzo first taught choir boys to sing in the eleventh century.

“That means you’re a professor, not a teacher,” the teacher said.

“You can call me professor,” she said, and licked the spoon she’d been using to stir.

The curry was done by the time she and the teacher were finished having sex. They replaced the fallen mats and silverware on the dining room table.

She went to take the curry pot off the stove, but her right wrist touched the hot burner and the pot crashed to the floor. She ran to the sink and put her wrist under cool water. The pain was white hot and white cold, and she watched a sickly white bubble form on her skin directly over the line of blue vein along which someone might cut. She reached under the water and touched the bubble with the pad of her middle finger: it was soft.

Only when she found the teacher holding her did she remember to apologize.

***

“Who wrapped your arm?” the boxer asked, obviously appalled by the standard issue public school gauze around her wrist.

“Not a boxer,” she said. They were in his bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub. He slid her sleeve to her elbow and undressed the wound slowly. Under the gauze, the bubble had grown into a long white fish swimming up her wrist.

“Just don’t pop it,” the boxer said. “If you leave it alone it’ll harden and fall off.” He cut a long rectangle of sleek medical gauze, sprayed it with antiseptic, and laid it on her burn. His cabinets were so well stocked they could have doubled as a Red Cross. Then he wove gray athletic tape over his work.

She watched the boxer’s face—his forehead soft, his mouth unmoving, his eyes tracking every stretch of tape against her skin. Guitar strings, she thought. He was stringing her arm.

***

The funeral would be in Texas in a week. Neither she nor any of the college friends who had known Bradley were going. They all made excuses about work and travel and money, but in her case, she just didn’t think it would be appropriate. Were it not for the obituary, she wouldn’t have known Bradley’s parents’ names or anything about his current life.

She and the college friends made a donation to an emergency mental health support center and arranged for flowers and a card to be sent to the funeral in their name. A heartfelt note was written and approved by all. They were, each of them, over a thousand miles away.

She had lunch with the college friend she kept in touch with—the one who’d gotten married. They had chosen the same city for different reasons, and made parallel lives there.

She sat with him and his wife who she liked, and the three of them hypothesized about the music that would be played at Bradley’s funeral.

Lead Belly, Ponce’s Sonata Mexicana for Guitar, the dirty hip hop he used to play on the radio, or James Brown. It would have to be James Brown.

“But what if they get a church band?” she asked. “Christian rock. What are those called?”

“Praise bands,” the wife said. She was from the south and knew these things.

“Bradley wouldn’t have wanted that.”

“He won’t be there,” the friend said, sawing a piece of meat on his plate.

When the wife got up to use the bathroom, the conversation turned to why. Had the friend heard anything on the why front?

“Nothing,” he said. “And trust me, it’s not for lack of trying.”

“I keep asking if there was a note, but nobody will answer me,” she said. “Do we even know how he…” Her voice dropped off. The friend shook his head.

“When was the last time you saw him anyway?” he asked.

“At your wedding, I guess. What about you?”

“A few months ago.” He looked up at her. “He was in town.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I did,” he said. Her stomach fell.

“How was he?” she asked.

“Not good.” The friend picked up his fork like he would do something with it, then put it back down. “He wasn’t making eye contact. He said he’d stopped drinking, but something was wrong.”

The wife and the check came at the same time. They all paid and left the restaurant. She hugged them goodbye and turned down the street alone.

***

She wrote the solfège syllables on the whiteboard like steps in a staircase. Once her new class was settled on their choral risers, she added the Latin Ut and crossed out the Ti at the top of the scale.

Ti

La

Sol

Fa

Mi

Re

Ut – Do

“Good afternoon,” she said. “What do I have on the whiteboard?” All thirty hands went up. She called on a woman she’d never seen before.

“The syllables we use to learn our notes,” the woman said. She looked to be in her 50s and eager.

“Very good. Who can tell me where these syllables come from?” Ten hands went up, all returnees from earlier semesters. She pointed to a boy in his 20s.

“That Medieval hymn,” he said.

“Which hymn?”

“The one to Saint John the Baptist.”

She passed out thirty printed copies of the Ut Queant Laxis, with the Gregorian chant written in modern musical notation.

She played a C on the piano and began to sing.

music notes

So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.

She sang it once, twice, then she motioned for the students to join her and pointed to the solfège syllables on the board as their voices climbed the scale.

She thought of the monks who first sang this song—waking before dawn to chant the sun into the sky—singing to hypnotize themselves, the way she was now hypnotizing her class.

By the fifth time through the hymn she stopped pointing to the board. By the tenth, the new students submitted to the fact that they really were doing this. By the twentieth she was with Bradley.

Ut queant laxis – They’re on the green carpet in their freshman hall. She’s reading over sheet music, he’s playing guitar—resounding wonders.

resonare fibris – His cowboy boots are old and tan. He is a Texan. She is a Californian. They are all from somewhere else.

Mira gestorum – “Wha’chu doing with that Jesus music, anyway?” he asks.

famuli tuorum ­– “It’s not about the Jesus,” she says. Bradley is well aware she was raised Jewish. “It’s about the music.”

Solve pollute – “You know girls get off to Jesus where I’m from.” He taps the guitar, hands wreathed in hard-won calluses. Had she ever touched them?

labii reatum – “You too?”

Sancte Iohannes – “The guy was never my type.”

She stopped singing. The class went on, wrapped in their own meditations. Most eyes had closed. She let them sing until the last person finished.

***

There was music playing when she got to the boxer’s house. It was hip hop—something she didn’t recognize. He let her in, kissed her, and led her to the postage stamp kitchen where he was boiling water. He said something, she answered, and then she was not standing in the boxer’s kitchen but sardined into an empty bathtub with five friends and a joint at age 19.

Bradley has a portable tape player in his ski jacket. They all wear their winter coats because the window has to be open to the snow for the smoke.

“Next puff to whoever can name this tune.” Bradley has the joint on his lip like a cowboy.

“Why don’t you get an iPod like the rest of civilization?” one of the friends asks.

Bradley shakes his head and presses play. They all yell but she wins because she can say Bitches Ain’t Shit the fastest.

The boxer was standing next to her, his hand on her shoulder.

“Are you alright?” he asked. She looked up at him.

“A friend of mine killed himself.” The words came out before she could stop them.

“I’m so sorry,” the boxer said, and he took her other shoulder and hugged her into the muscles of his chest.

No, she thought. No. The boxer was supposed to be a person for whom Bradley never existed. She clenched her own fists as she stood there, pressed into the warm wall of his body, shaking with anger until she was shaking with something else.

The boxer’s shirt was soaked by the time she had the wherewithal to pretend nothing happened.

***

She told the teacher about Bradley a few days later. She’d been surprised by the feeling of the boxer knowing, and thought she’d try it again. They’d just fucked, she’d cum more than once, it was a good time to talk.

After she told him, the teacher stroked her thigh lightly and said he understood, that he too had had a friend kill themselves and he had mourned in a cloud of his own anger and regret. He said he didn’t know anything about the friend she’d lost but he could guess that she was feeling powerless and confused and that he understood. He said he’d rewound every conversation he’d had with his friend looking for signs and driven himself crazy, that he’d blamed himself. “But you can’t blame yourself,” he told her. Then he asked if she wanted to go out for sushi.

***

The boxer was not only a boxer. He had a job delivering raw pasta between the hours of 4:00 and 8:00 AM.

“You’re like a monk,” she said. He cocked his head. “Early to rise.”

“I think monks do a little better than $19 dollars an hour.”

“Vow of poverty.” They were at a beer garden, and they were laughing. The boxer went on to describe loading docks and a rickety truck, and chatting with cooks in all the Spanish he knew. His mother was from El Salvador but she’d made a point of not teaching him the language. The boxer had learned what Spanish he had in school.

“I think my Spanish is better in the mornings,” he said. “Before I’ve had coffee. I think there are more words in that in-between space.”

“I spend all day in the in-between space,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think music is?”

They finished their pitcher and left arm in arm, but they didn’t make it out of the bar. Someone called her name—the friend who’d gotten married. He was standing with his wife. She had not planned to introduce them to the boxer.

All hands were shaken. The wife chatted up the boxer as she and the friend checked in on each other. She wanted to apologize but she didn’t know what for, so she squeezed the old friend’s hand and said, “I’m here if you need me.”

He asked her how she was since the other day? Okay. How was he? Okay. How was wife?

“Better than I am,” he said. Then he took out his phone. “Someone finally got back to me.” He showed her a text message: I don’t even know if I’m supposed to say this. But I guess it’ll come out. Bradley hung himself last week.  

***

She asked the teacher about the way he taught grammar. He groaned. They were at a Thai restaurant and he’d ordered in Thai. From the look on his face, she had not been as impressed as he’d expected her to be. Ethnically, the teacher was lily-white.

“What about grammar?” he asked.

“Verb tenses.”

“That’s really more of an ESL issue.” She noticed he was very good at using his chopsticks and spoon in tandem. She said nothing about it.

“There are strange verb tenses that not even native English speakers know.”

“For instance?” he asked.

Hung and hanged,” she said. “The past tense of to hang clothes on a line is hung them. But a hanged man was hanged. He’s not a pair of pants, he’s a person.”

The teacher slurped from his soup spoon and put it down. He’d told her more than once that slurping was considered polite in Thailand.

“If there is a world where I can get my kids to understand distinctions like that AND finish Huck Finn, I need you to take me there.”

She did not go home with the teacher that night. Over the next week he would send her one text, to which she would not reply, and that would be that.

***

By the time she noticed it was the day of the funeral, the funeral itself was over. She’d gone into work for a meeting of the music department. The dean had procured soggy sandwiches and put flowers on the table in an effort to make his faculty forget he’d called a meeting on a Sunday afternoon.

Staring at the flowers, she remembered where she had recently sent flowers of her own. What had they seen? Had people worn their boots and hats to the funeral as they had to the one Texas wedding she’d attended? What music had been played? Despite the conversation over lunch, she’d decided it should be James Brown’s Goodbye My Love. She couldn’t picture Bradley’s family, though she knew she’d met them. She’d never met his Texas friends. The life in which she’d known Bradley was not the life that grieved for him that day.

Someone passed her half a sandwich on a paper towel. She imagined Bradley’s body on display—eyes closed, arms folded into a strange suit, makeup on his neck under the bolo tie.

Then the table shook as a colleague turned to ask her opinion of what had just been said.

The boxer rewrapped her arm. The burn was healing, though more slowly than he would have liked. It was still soft and full of something.

She asked him if it looked like a rope burn. He said he’d never had one.

“Not even on the ropes?

He shook his head.

Then her wound was clean, her arm restrung with athletic tape, and they were naked in his bed. Her breasts disappeared in the boxer’s enormous hands as though they’d never been there at all, and she thought of hanged men and rope.

She touched the winged muscles below the boxer’s shoulder blades and imagined their cords were made of colorful, florescent rope—the rope of rock climbers—soft and strong, rope that would not burn or scratch or cut.

She woke to the boxer’s kiss at 4:00 AM.

“There’s pasta for you for breakfast,” he whispered. She watched him put on his belt—stiff leather. “I’ll be back by 8:30.”

It took awhile for her to fall back asleep. She pictured the boxer’s belt, the hard shiny edges that could chafe an Adam’s apple or slice a jaw. She let herself hope Bradley never owned a belt like the boxer’s. Then she let that hope die. He was a Texan; she’d seen him wear that kind of belt herself.

***

She agreed to sing alto on a Palestrina mass with some of the other music faculty. It was a big gaudy piece, with big gaudy chords, but what else could you expect from the 1550s. They rehearsed with a full choir in the largest music room on campus and for whatever reason, she felt spectacularly alive.

Kyrie Eleison!

It meant “Lord have mercy,” but it was more than that. The words were Greek. They always came first. This was an invocation.

Kyrie Eleison! – Sing, O muse!

Bradley used to send his own invocation out over the airwaves at their college radio station—southern hip hop at 1:00 am on Tuesday nights.

She and their friends would pile into the sound booth with a six pack and laugh for an hour, galvanized by Bradley’s call.

“Good morning, listeners. It’s time for your weekly dose of the dirty south.”

Now, as she sang, rocking on her heels, arching her neck with the rest, another invocation seeped through the lines: James Brown.

Kyrie Eleison! – Goodbye my love. I want you to know!

Christe Eleison! – And I don’t care who knows!

Christe Eleison! – I still love you!

This was Bradley’s second line, this was his funeral. The sound was like a lightning bolt—a conversation with the soul—this music. Dear god, what must Bradley have forgotten to give this up?

***

She went to the boxer’s match the next weekend. She didn’t want to end it without seeing him fight. Now that she’d said goodbye to Bradley, faced what she’d needed the boxer to help her hide, it would have been unfair to stay. It had only been a few weeks, no one needed to get hurt.

The ring was dingy but not too Rockyesque, and the boxer lost so beautifully that she couldn’t bring herself to say what she’d come to say. He was long and fast and she could see him thinking with his body, dancing with his opponent—a man he’d introduced to her before the fight. The boxer took punches like it was something anyone could do, like it made sense.

He landed punches like he was making points in an argument, and it was on points that he lost, not with a knockout. There was blood, his blood. But that too made sense. It mingled with his sweat and glazed him, amplified him, under the lights.

She let him take her home in the rickety pasta truck. Neither teacher nor boxer had seen the inside of her apartment, and tonight it stayed that way.

He parked the car and met her on the sidewalk. This was normally the moment they’d kiss, but she was distracted by his body. His sure arms, the way she’d watched pain ripple through him and disappear—the boxer lived in his body more fully than anyone she’d ever met. She wanted to test it.

She punched him in the stomach the way the other boxer had, just to see what would happen.

The answer was, nothing. He looked down at her with a perplexed smile, the bricks of his abdomen immovable against her knuckles.

“I just wanted to try it,” she said.

“And?” he asked.

“About what I thought.”

He reached down and touched her face. They kissed goodnight, but not goodbye.

***

She shut the door and through its little window she was caught for a moment in the glow of the boxer’s headlights. She took off her jacket and sat down at the piano bench. It would have been fine for the boxer to know she wrote music; it would not have been fine for him to see the music on the piano shelf.

She’d written a motet—hardly five minutes long—just a little song for four voices. She picked up the first page, following her own chicken scratch down the staff. Usually she composed on a computer program called Sibelius, but she’d written this by hand. It was for Bradley.

The song itself was awkward, funny almost. The voices caught and dropped each other like bad ballroom dancers. There were no words, just an “ohhh” or sometimes an “aaaah.” But it began with a big open unison—the same note in three octaves like a yawn. She took the pencil off the piano shelf and wrote a word she’d never before felt worthy of. In the upper left-hand corner, just over the first line: Kyrie.

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