I slept with my mother’s best friend — who was also my fourth-grade teacher.
The first time I slept with my mother’s best friend I was twenty-three-years old. Echoes of our moans reverberated throughout a house that belonged to my parents. We held palms to each others' mouths to keep ourselves quiet. Creaks made by our jostling bodies sprang from the bed where I had slept as a child. We put a pillow behind the headboard to dull the noise. At last — our backs sore, our hands bitten, our bodies slick — Ms. Caruthers whispered how she hoped my mother, asleep less than ten feet away, had not heard anything.
“Even if she did hear us,” I said, tossing a stuffed animal across the room, “she wouldn’t believe it.”
That year I had been living in my family’s beach house and doing almost nothing at all. Since graduating from college, barely nine months before the night in question, I had been a complete mess. I’d worked at a magazine and quit working at a magazine, and I’d worked at a high school and quit working at a high school. I’d lived in New York and moved away from New York, and I’d lived in Mississippi and moved away from Mississippi. Now I was living in Florida working at a resort. My job involved grilling burgers, chopping salads, and frying chicken as a short-order cook at a poolside bar, and my recreation at the beach involved lounging under the sun, reading novels, and swimming through the gulf. In every way I was treading water. Therefore it came as a welcome distraction when my mother and Ms. Caruthers showed up for a visit that particular weekend in the spring.
The affair began their first night in town. I’d known Mrs. Caruthers throughout my childhood. She was a school teacher like my mother, and both had time off for spring break. They said it was a weekend for cutting loose. On the first night of my mother and her friend’s visit, I got home after dark, greeted by the bass lines of Motown blasting from the porch. They had uncorked a second bottle of chardonnay by the time I joined them. Ms. Caruthers said, “Pull up a glass and stay awhile.” I did not mind if I did.
Over the first hour on the porch, I parried the usual barrage of questions concerning my future, specifically whether I’d heard back from grad schools. I had applied to MFA programs earlier that year.
My decision to study fiction writing constituted the extent of my introspection at the time. Creating the lives of fictional characters seemed like a reasonable activity for someone who could not conceive of his own life. Plus, I've always preferred gazing at other people’s navels.
At the beach house, perhaps aware of my distaste for the line of questions, Ms. Caruthers changed the subject by asking me, “Dating anybody special?”
“Um.” Did hairdressers and housekeepers count? “Nope.”
“Somebody will come along soon enough,” she said between sips of her third glass of wine. “Could be under your nose right now.”
“She’s right,” my mother said. “You never know.”
To say I’d never thought about my mother’s best friend in a sexual way would be a lie. Despite our extreme difference in age, I had been attracted to Ms. Caruthers since the night, years ago when she told me I had been in one of her dreams. The only thing she revealed about was that it involved both of us in a hotel room, and casually said it would be inappropriate to go any further. I can still remember the perfect timing of her subsequent wink. My parents didn’t notice a thing.
On the porch, as cool breezes kicking up from the gulf, I drank another glass while squirming in my chair. The conversation had somehow turned to sex. Ms. Caruthers was arguing that it takes very little to arouse a man, saying it was possible to get someone hot simply by touching his hand. I told her, "Yeah, right." My mother chose that moment to excuse herself to use the restroom, joking that we should come up with a new topic before she came back. The sound of the back door clicking shut might as well have been the shot of a starting gun.
Ms. Caruthers took my hand in hers, held it to a face twenty-one years older than mine, and wet my palm with her lips. She made a lollipop of my thumb. Years afterward, when a close friend I’d told about the affair met Ms. Caruthers, he said, “I was expecting her to be, like, preternaturally young-looking. But, whoa, man. She is in her mid-forties, and she looks every bit of it.” There, in Florida on the porch, I didn’t think about her age because I was too busy pushing aside my erection with the hand that wasn’t serving as its surrogate.
“Okay, you two.”
Those words belonged to my mother. Although I had intended to listen closely for the sound of her footsteps returning from the bathroom, the “hand job” managed to distract me, unsurprisingly, from focusing on anything other than how much, surprisingly, I wanted to plant one on Ms. Caruthers. Had my mom seen us? I was engaged in wiping the saliva from my palm when my mother inadvertently answered the question.
“It’s getting kind of late for me,” she said with a yawn, picking up her wine glass, oblivious to the world. “Think I’m heading to bed.”
The only thing worse than the fact that later that night I slept with a woman who was my mother’s best friend was that she'd also been my fourth-grade teacher.
Now, quite a few years later, I often wonder how I have the temerity to look back on that night. I picture myself scrawling, “I will not sleep with my mother’s best friend ever again,” in rows down a chalkboard. Even though I understand it might not have been the most honorable way to behave — God knows what my mom would think — the only guilt I felt that night was for my complete absence of guilt. I figured what the hell. How often do you get the chance to sleep with the woman who gave you a C- on one of your history papers?
Neither of us mentioned our former connection as we dressed in the dark. Outside on the porch, smoking a post-coital cigarette, I did the calculations in my head. Ms. Caruthers was forty-four-years old. She had turned twenty-one when I was born, gotten married for the first of five times when I was two, gotten divorced for the second of five times when I was six, and had two daughters before I hit puberty. In grammar school, the year she taught me, I was nine years old.
On the playground the older students used to call her Spud Puppy. I have never known why, but it now seemed apt. Not that it made a difference to me what people called her. Even to this day I have never been able to address her by her first name.
“Can I tell you something?” I finished my cigarette. “Something nobody knows?”
“I heard back from Ole Miss.” I lit another cigarette. “They flat-out rejected me.”
Due to my incredible wisdom and range of foresight, I had only applied to two MFA programs, one at Columbia and one at Ole Miss. The rejection from the latter had arrived earlier that week.
Ms. Caruthers did an amazing job of calming me down, mostly by unzipping my jeans with her teeth. The legs of the chair squealed beneath us as the legs of my former teacher wrapped around me. She situated herself on my lap as though I were a seesaw.
Later, with her jeans crumpled at my feet and with her body mounted on my lap, Ms. Caruthers whispered, “We shouldn’t be doing this,” the low register of her voice reminding me that my mother was still within earshot.
“I think we just did.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You’d think at this point in your life,” I said with a smile, “you would want to live a little.”
Briefly, I worried that I had crossed the line with Ms. Caruthers, but she laughed, thank God. The poetic irony of what she said next seems almost too poetically ironic now.
“Maybe some day you can put this in one of your stories.”
The next morning, Ms. Caruthers and I both pretended nothing had happened, and for a while, I thought we had really gotten away with it. At our first moment alone together in the house, unfortunately, Ms. Caruthers pulled me aside and said she couldn’t find her panties.
Not only had I slept with my mother’s best friend, but I had also slept with my fourth-grade teacher — killing two birds with one come shot — and now, as both of us tried to keep the affair a secret, her underwear was lost in my room, just waiting to be found by my mother. It was absurd.
In the days after our night together, Ms. Caruthers and I looked everywhere, between the sheets, under the bed, behind the dresser, to no avail. Maybe my mother had already found them. She might have assumed they belonged to a girl my own age whom I'd recently brought home after a night out. Maybe my mother simply threw them away. During our few moments of privacy, Ms. Caruthers and I retraced our mistake by discussing what had happened. When we realized we would never find the panties, we resolved never to make the same one again.
She and my mother left at the end of the weekend. For a while, thinking about what I'd done made me feel like a bad person, but I eventually let myself off the hook. A week later I received an email from Columbia notifying me of my acceptance to their program.