“The Talking Cure” from The Class of 2000
high school dystopia in the late ’90s: a chapter from a novel
In addition to my regular Friday book review and Sunday weekly newsletter, I am introducing a Wednesday post for Fall 2022. Wednesday posts will feature the creative writing I’ve published elsewhere over the last decade, whether in a now unused Medium account I would like to close or in literary journals that have either folded or that paywalled my work years ago.
[This is a chapter from my 2021 novel about the hopes and horrors of American suburbia at the turn of the millennium, The Class of 2000. While it comes at the midpoint of the novel, it works as a freestanding short story. This chapter flagrantly violates certain increasingly influential ethical precepts about fiction writing today, not only because it portrays human problems that some critics believe are better left unspoken in literature, e.g., sexual assault, but also because it does so by tangling the moral response to this dilemma into such a knot of crossed purposes that good gets twisted into evil and vice versa. Brenda Wineapple’s 2003 biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne quotes a notebook entry from the 19th-century American author, an idea for a story: “A story to show how we are all wronged and wrongers, and avenge one another…” This might be the motto of The Class of 2000.]
The Class of 2000
Chapter 16. The Talking Cure
Before her mother pulled her out of Jackson High School and re-enrolled her, mid-way through her sophomore year, in St. Maria Goretti (where she’d gone from kindergarten through eighth grade), Marianne Maldonado had read in the textbook for her elective psychology class that repression could make you sick.
If you allowed your mind to hide thoughts about traumatic events or lawless desires from itself, they could go underground and spread like a kind of mental cancer to various parts of your body: you could go blind, your throat could close up, your legs could stop working, you could lose the ability to speak, you could vomit after every meal, your hands and feet could go numb, you could wake up screaming — and never stop.
The thought of her mind concealing its own memories and those memories in turn burrowing like ticks or hookworms under her skin terrified Marianne, so when she was certain that she had the house to herself, that her mother and baby sister had gone out and would not be back for at least several hours, she would look into the bathroom mirror and say aloud, in a strong, declamatory voice, “Eric Kroeber peed on my face.”
It was important to be clear about this, because if she forgot it, she would become sick when her body remembered. As long as she was able to say it, its power to come at her in the dark could be contained.
But she had not wanted to say it to anyone else. She did not want her friends to see pee like tears leaking out of her eyes every time they looked at her. They would feel sorry for her. Their pity would cause them to be nice to her at first, but they would eventually come to think of her as a downer, even a suicide threat. Their voices would get quiet when she came in the room; they would feel they couldn’t make certain jokes in her presence or invite her to see certain movies. She could just imagine their compassionate smiles, with little twists of satisfaction at the corners of their lips. When you pity a girl, you have power over her. In her case, it would be worse: pity mixed with disgust. Everybody secretly feels that suffering and degradation are contagious. They would be nice to her, yes, and then they would pity her, and then they would hate her, and then they would shun her.
The way, she thought, we all eventually avoided Marla Tyler when she got leukemia in sixth grade, around Christmastime. Marianne just felt, somehow, that when bad things happen to people, they stick on them like tar. You don’t want that on your fingers, in your hair: you’ll never wash it off.
She tried to keep it a complete secret, but Eric Kroeber was going around telling people not only that she’d slept with him, which was bad enough, but that they were going out, maybe even going to the winter formal together. Eric Kroeber!—whose mom supposedly ran some kind of gambling den, whose dad was in jail or the hospital or Texas or just somewhere else, whose grandma was an alcoholic who’d lived in a trailer park up by Pymatuming until she burned herself to death by falling asleep with a lit cigarette in her toothless mouth—Eric Kroeber with his dirty hair and his dirty fingernails and a smirk that said nothing at all could possibly ever matter enough to him to hurt him if he lost it.
In truth, all these facts about Eric Kroeber had drawn Marianne to him. He was different from the people she knew, different from herself. He wasn’t in the Honor Society or the Model U.N., and she doubted his mother even owned an iron. She had heard the rumors—microwaved kittens and stints in juvie and crack cocaine—and she’d even seen the bloody faces of the boys who looked at him the wrong way. But maybe he committed those crimes because there was no one to love him. She wanted to see his dirty smirking face crossed with a different expression. One morning near the start of her sophomore year, it just came to her: she would get with Eric Kroeber and change his face. This reasoning embarrassed her now, because she felt she had been stupid; then again, she had been nice, too, and she wouldn’t let herself forget that either.
She had gone to a party in South Park where she knew he’d be—some of the cheerleaders, not her best friends but people she was friendly with, bought weed from one of his friends, and she asked if they would take her. She certainly didn’t want her actual friends there, wriggling their prim, powdered noses at Eric and his friends.
She tried to talk with him during that fall bonfire-party on the first really cold night of the year, but she was mainly interested in the play of the firelight on his wet, shining eyes. He always looked as if he were crying, even when he also looked angry or unfeeling.
They didn’t have a lot to talk about, honestly, so she tried to keep up with his drinking, though she’d barely ever been drunk before. Eventually he was dandling her on his knee and pouring beer straight down her throat, while his friends whooped and hers giggled nervously. The night smelled like turning leaves, smoky and sweet, like dry wine. The beer ran down her chin, down under her fuzzy pink sweater in a line to her navel. The crimson lipstick she’d worn to impress him smeared.
Later, they were in the woods. She was not even quite sure what they had done together. She woke up nauseated in a sleeping bag, redolent of the unwashed smell of his hair. She thought she heard rain, but as her eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness, she saw that it was only Eric peeing against the trunk of the tree they had settled under.
She looked up in his direction—she couldn’t see his face; it blended into the black leaf canopy, silhouetted against the purplish sky—with an almost tender feeling in her stomach. Was she the first person he’d ever been this close to, the first girl he’d embraced out under the trees, the stars?
It was then that he flicked his penis to the side and sent a hot stream through the cold October air right into her eyes, into her hair, into her mouth. He laughed, shook himself off, zipped himself up, and walked back to where the bonfire’s embers still smoldered.
She lay still for a few soundless seconds of shock and only failed to scream because she began to vomit, the metallic taste of the beer now sour with stomach acid.
All this bodily spillage steamed briefly and then chilled in the autumnal night.
She didn’t feel guilty, not one tiny bit, that rape was what she’d accused him of, even though she didn’t really know what they had done together, sexually speaking. Before accusing him of anything, she had investigated the definitions of “rape” in the weighty dictionary her mother kept next to the Bible in a glass-doored bookcase otherwise crowded with trophies, tassels, and sea shells, mementoes of the sisters’ milestones and family vacations past. Definition one, the main one, didn’t quite fit in her estimation—whatever they had done in the woods up until he peed on her face was more or less what she had intended to do with him that night; she had intended to get drunk and do something with him, anyway. But look at definition three: “an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation.” Isn’t that what Eric Kroeber did to her? If what he did was not abuse, not violation, not despoliation, then what was?
She had intended to clean him up, but all he’d done was make her dirty. She wanted to be nice to him, and he was nothing but cruel to her. Whatever mistakes she may have made, she thought, the moral balance came out in her favor.
She had not wanted to make a public accusation, though, not even when he was lying about her to everyone. Her friends, who didn’t drink or take drugs or show any interest in dirty boys from the other side of the borough, hadn’t been at the party that night and weren’t inclined to believe cheerleaders who said they drove her home even though she—responsible Marianne, always so put together!—was puking and too drunk to stand up after she’d gone into the woods with Eric. She only told them that she thought he was “gross” and that she would not be seeing him ever again. Her friends knew she would never go out with a guy like him, just as they would not, and she was confident that no one else would believe his lies either. He was Eric Kroeber, and she was Marianne Maldonado, and that was that.
But she wanted, no, she needed him to shut up. Even to see him in the school hallway brought back the foul, malodorous, hot sensation of something oozing all over her body; he was like a food that had once sickened her, which she was now forced to eat every day. She tried to think of a way to make him shut up without her having to tell everyone what he had done.
If she told, not only would the authorities try to take away his freedom, they would try to take away hers too, even if with the best of intentions. The thought of some guidance counselor talking to her about what she had done or wanted to do with her private parts, some school-mandated psychologist with pursed lips and a professionally-caring demeanor asking her how it made her feel to be degraded, the thought of her inevitable subjection to these rule-bound figures trying to contain her experience with their rigid expressions of phony concern that had no other purpose but to protect themselves and the community from the contamination she now bore—she would sooner meet Eric Kroeber again in the woods than be forced to deal with such people.
If only she could meet him there, just the two of them! This time she would bring a knife and put it up against the thing he had turned on her like a weapon. She would cut its throat. But no, that was not who she was: she was Marianne Maldonado. If she became a crazy angry girl who carried around a knife, a girl who wanted to cut off boys’ dicks, a girl who’d risk jail for some loser who needed a bath even more than he needed what they called a positive role model—well, then, that would only prove (to her!) that he had defiled her, that he had made her no better than he was.
Even so, she had to shut him up. Every time she thought of him, she felt sick, and not only sick but hopeless, stuck in mud, sinking in wet earth, the way thinking of Marla Tyler used to make her feel.
Why, she wanted to know, had the two incidents, years apart and unrelated, become so blended, so cross-contaminated, in her mind? Her mother had pulled her out of Jackson High and sent her back to the Catholic school before she could finish her elective psychology class and dispel more of the perverse human mind’s mysteries. There were no psychology classes at St. Maria Goretti. In Catholic school, they did not recognize sickness but only sin; in public school, it was the reverse. Which omission was worse, she did not know.
It was a risk to tell her English teacher, Mr. Lydon. But she had heard that he was not a person who condemned others for their poor choices as long as they showed a willingness to make better ones in the future. Everyone said he was too smart to be teaching public high school, and that he didn’t always do what his bosses told him to do. Supposedly, he had helped students out of many types of serious trouble, like owing money to a drug dealer or needing an abortion. Granted, the people he helped were usually not people like Marianne Maldonado, but that was what she got for involving herself with a lowlife like Eric Kroeber (and that, by the way, is what her mother would have said had she found out—“How could you ever get involved with such a lowlife as that?” with the intended implication that being peed on served her right—which was why she would never, ever tell her mother).
Everybody liked Mr. Lydon, anyway—students, parents, other teachers. But especially the students. He made boring books seem interesting—even dangerous—because he explained very clearly what those books really whispered underneath their confusing language, crusty vocabulary, and incomprehensible symbolism. She couldn’t think of any other teacher who would tell them what Hamlet meant when he spoke to Ophelia of “country matters” or ask them if they didn’t think that what both John Claggart and Edward Vere really wanted was Billy Budd all to themselves. With the classroom door shut, with his voice lowered, he made sure they knew that their schoolbooks, with their cracked library permabinding and their generations’ worth of student names scrawled on the inside covers, contained real human desires, dilemmas, and disasters, were written by people whose bodies shuddered and spilled. On the classroom corkboard he had tacked up a homemade poster; it said, in large orange letters on black poster paper,
“The world of books is still the world.” — Elizabeth Barrett Browning
She was taking advanced English with him last period. (Eric Kroeber took remedial English, and remedial everything else, so he would have no idea who Mr. Lydon even was. He would never see him coming.) It was easy enough to go to him after the school day had ended, a friend waiting to drive her home out in the parking lot.
He said, “What can I do for you?” in that wide-open way of his; he brought his desk chair out from behind the desk and straddled it backward, resting his chin thoughtfully on his forearms, crossed on the chair back.
She chose to remain standing. She held herself perfectly still as she spoke, her head bowed, her hands folded gently below her skirt waist, the toes of her burgundy Mary Janes turned in. She feared he might overreact if he thought she seemed especially distressed.
As she related her story, he didn’t look at her at all, nor even down at the floor by her feet; rather, he stared off to her right, at a poster of Charlotte Brontë hanging between two of the classroom windows, which themselves faced out into yellowish orange treetops, their leaves dryly brushing the pane. When the leaves fell, they would be able to see out over the highway that ran below Jackson High.
She told him everything, without any concealment or deception, from the basis of her initial attraction to Eric Kroeber to what he had done to her in the woods to why she could not tell her friends or her mother.
Mr. Lydon nodded as she spoke, the flesh of his chin bunching now to the left, now to the right, on his silver-furred forearm.
“I just want him to be quiet,” she said.
When she stopped speaking, he stood abruptly and dismounted the chair as if it were a horse. He firmly shook her hand and told her to think no more of it and to take care of herself. He promised he would see to Eric Kroeber’s silence.
She nodded politely and left the room.
The story the school eventually learned was that Eric Kroeber had gone to an abandoned house at the edge of South Park to freebase cocaine and had accidentally lit himself as well as the house on fire. He was eventually able to break a front window and hurl his weight over the shards still stuck in the frame to the outside, where he extinguished himself by leaping into a pile of rain-sodden leaves. Some of the brown mulch fused with his melted flesh. He stayed in the hospital for three months; he needed 16 skin grafts, and his despoiled face would always bear the marks of his immolation.
After the third time some of Eric’s friends pitched rocks through the long bay window of the Maldonado house in the middle of the night, Marianne’s mother said, “You can tell me what happened or not—it doesn’t matter to me—but I am pulling you out of that goddamn school.”
On her final day in Jackson High, the day before Christmas vacation, she quietly thanked Mr. Lydon and told him not to take any more action on her behalf. He nodded and wished her well.
She supposed that he had made the situation even worse—Eric Kroeber’s accident only increased the talk, and now some of her acquaintances who had been at the party that night avowed that she had been raped, while others maintained that she had sought out sex she came later to regret, but that in any case Eric Kroeber lay in the burn unit because of her.
It was just as well she was leaving Jackson High then. The whole school had begun to give her that sensation she’d previously only felt when seeing Eric Kroeber in the hallway. St. Maria Goretti, where she could rejoin old friends and begin again in an atmosphere of simpler rules and consequently simpler transgressions, suited her well.
By February, it was as if she had never gone for a year and a half to the public school. Her mother, seeing her contentment, admiring her well-behaved friends, encouraging her benevolent extracurricular activities—her visits to the old folks’ home on weekends, her charity to the homeless on holidays—even ceased to complain about the missed vacations and canceled home renovations caused by St. Maria’s expense.
In the nights, she imagined Eric Kroeber looking over a wall of flame at Mr. Lydon, begging for his life, that smirk of his gone for once. Once, and then forever, when he crossed the flame and passed through the glass. Burned right off his face. She envisioned—she had no cause at all to envision this—Mr. Lydon, as his silver mustache and bright blue eyes gleamed in the firelight, pissing on a prostrate Eric Kroeber to stanch the flames.
She fantasized about this scenario in great detail—steam lifting from the arc of urine in the cold autumn air as the flames crackled—so that she would not suffer the return of the repressed.
Marla Tyler had died at the end of a hot August, a few months after her friends took the opportunity presented by summer vacation to stop visiting her. They stopped with their parents’ silent approval. Their parents, who had been so eager to help the “poor little thing” when she still looked innocent and only notionally stricken, decided after all that they certainly didn’t want any of that black sticky tar that was her physical decay and imminent death tracked onto their pastel or white carpets.
But all the girls did go to Marla’s viewing. So many flowers crowded the room that the whole funeral home smelled like a conservatory. Marla lay tucked up in her coffin, buried to the chin beneath all her prized possessions.
Only her grayish, greenish, shrunken face peeked out, with that bite-mark scar she got from crazy Michael Abandanato in the second grade and a fooling-no-one blonde wig, the skin of her cheeks like a bruised and rotting windfall apple among the bright pinks and yellows of her toys and clothes and books. She had gone to the other side like the pharaohs they’d learned about that year in social studies, with everything she loved in this life.
Marianne knelt above the friendship bracelet she had herself fastened around Marla’s thin wrist when she first got sick. She thought she was going to burst out laughing for some reason, but she started to sob instead. Awful, braying, dry-heave sounds erupted from deep in her chest, from the pit of her stomach, and her mother led her out of the funeral home early, all the girls’—and their mothers’—eyes on their backs.
Her mother had been terribly embarrassed by Marianne’s anguish, but she bought her some bright new shoes on the way home anyway.
[If you enjoyed this chapter, please consider purchasing The Class of 2000 today.]