One of my favorite musicals, Spring Awakening, has a song in it called Totally Fucked. The opening lines have always struck a chord with me.
There’s a moment you know
Not an inch more room
I’m telling you this because I had one of those moments today.
I had finished my homework, and I was taking a break from the piece I was going to perform at the spring concert and just letting my fingers to play with the keys of my synth, when I heard Quint let himself in. A few seconds later, there was the sound of the pantry sliding open and then closed again as he put his shoes in their designated place.
“Hey,” I greeted him, glancing over my shoulder as I continued playing.
“Hey,” he replied, setting his briefcase on the desk. “That’s lovely. What is it?”
I shrugged. “Improv. Just fooling around.” I let the melody trail off and spun around in the swivel chair.
Quint smiled at me from across the room. “How was your day?”
“Good. Got my homework done.”
“That’s good,” he said absentmindedly. He was sorting through the mail he’d brought in. “Junk, bill, bill, something from your school.” He paused and looked at that last envelope a bit longer. “Doesn’t look like a bill. It’s hand-addressed to you,” he said, holding it out to me. I got up and took it, and Quint turned his attention back to the bills. I tore open the envelope and pulled out a sheet of paper.
Dear Mr. Calhoun,
This is the second notice of academic concern we have sent to you regarding your course BIO 100: Introduction to College Biology. We encourage you to contact Academic Services to be matched with a peer tutor –
“Theo? What is it?”
The way Quint was looking at me, I had a feeling I’d let some of my anxiety show. “Just an overdue notice from the library,” I said (that being the first excuse I could think of), as I refolded the letter and stuck it back in the envelope. I ordered my sprinting heart to calm down and shoved the stab of guilt to the back of my mind. Quint’s eyebrows drew together, a small line forming between them.
“I thought they sent out the overdue notices by email?”
Oh, right. Shit.
“I guess their system must be malfunctioning or something,” I said, turning to go into the kitchen so I wouldn’t have to meet his eye. Really, I berated my conscience, if you wanted to throw a fit about this, a good time to do it would have been a month ago.
“Well, you should put them in your bag so you don’t forget,” Quint said as I stared into the refrigerator without really seeing what it contained. I felt another punch of guilt, mixed sickeningly with relief that he’d bought my story.
But perhaps I felt too soon. “What books?” he asked, suddenly, from right beside me.
I jumped and spun to face him, blurting, “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to,” he said, conciliatory, and then he added, “I didn’t think you had any library books checked out. Where are they?”
Excellent question, really. “I lent them to Mitch,” I invented, wondering when I’d gotten to be such a smooth-tongued fake.
Quint frowned at me and opened his mouth as though he were going to say something, then closed it again. That couldn’t be good.
“I don’t think we have anything to make for dinner tonight. How about pizza?” I asked, casually as I could while panicking, as I closed the fridge and took a step towards the phone on the counter.
“Could I see that envelope?”
“Why?” It wasn’t my best ‘I’m completely innocent of whatever you’re suspecting’ voice, given that it came out as more of a squeak.
“Because I have a feeling you’re hiding something from me, and I’d like to know what it is,” Quint answered, sounding much too matter-of-fact for my tastes. Double fuck. I froze with my back to him, one hand on the phone and the other clutching the damning letter, as though I were thinking of calling for help, and the chorus of that song popped into my head.
Yeah, you’re fucked, alright, and all for spite
You can kiss your sorry ass goodbye….
Apparently, my conscience has a sick sense of humor.
Quint continued, “And your reaction makes me sure of it. Hand me that envelope, please.”
Fuck times infinity. I turned around very slowly, and he had one hand held out to me and the other on his hip, looking as though he was prepared to wait all night, if necessary.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been stupid enough to get yourself into a situation like this. If you have, you know what I was feeling. If you haven’t…. well, it isn’t particularly pleasant. It reminds me of the feeling I get before performing – dry mouth, racing heart, sweaty palms. The only difference is that instead of an undertone of excitement, there’s a lump of cold dread, like sour ice cream, in the pit of my stomach. Covered with guilt sprinkles.
I swallowed and handed over the letter, which was now slightly crumpled from my death-grip on it. Quint took it, but instead of opening it, he said, “This is your last chance to tell me on your own.” I doubted I could have spoken at that moment if I wanted to. I shook my head, keeping my gaze on the kitchen floor, and after a second I heard the rustle of paper as he took the letter out.
Quint’s a fast reader, but I could swear it took him an eternity to read that one page. Finally, he said, “This says it’s the second notice. I don’t recall there being a first.” Sometimes I think it would be easier if he’d yell. That quiet, slightly puzzled tone he gets when I’ve really screwed up is awful.
“They emailed me the first one,” I said, barely above a whisper.
“…. About a two weeks ago?”
“Why am I only hearing about it now, then?” he asked in the same tone, tilting his head to one side and catching my lowered gaze. “And why did I have to figure out something was wrong myself and practically pry this out of your hands?”
“I… don’t know,” I said, jerking one shoulder as I looked sideways so I wouldn’t have to see the perplexed disappointment on his face.
He sighed. “Well, why don’t you go to the corner and think it over for a while?”
I went, my eyes tingling with unshed tears. Stupid, stupid, stupid…. I banged my head against the wall with each repetition of the word, attempting to knock some sense into it.
“Theodore, that’s enough of that,” Quint said lightly. I stopped and let my forehead rest against the paint. “Stand up straight and think about why you’re there.”
I groaned softly. Couldn’t he just leave me to my misery for a bit? Then again, he had a point – the quicker I came up with an answer, the quicker this would all be over. Finally.
So why hadn’t I told him before? Because I didn’t want him to know, obviously. But if I gave him that, he’d just counter with another “Why?” and I’d wind up right back where I was.
It wasn’t as though this was the first time I’d had problems with school. I flunked out before more because of a lack of organization and prioritizing, though. With Quint around to help me make sure I got everything done and to keep me from blowing off class to go hang out with friends, I had been doing much better -almost straight A’s in fact. He’s great at finding other ways to explain things when I don’t understand a concept, too. But I hadn’t asked for his help in bio. Why not?
I was pulled out of my musings by the sound of the desk drawer sliding open. I winced reflexively, looking over my shoulder to see him take the paddle from the dark cave it lives in. “Quiiinnt…”
“Do you have an answer for me?” he inquired calmly, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Not yet,” I muttered, eyeing the paddle with loathing.
“Then turn back around.”
I did, and tried to ignore my now-confirmed fate and reorder my thoughts.
That damn thing’s going to hurt…
Shut up, that isn’t helping.
Why didn’t I want him to know? Because I thought I could handle it on my own, and then by the time I realized I wasn’t handling it, it was too late.
Because I felt ashamed.
I shifted my weight to my other foot, trying to work up the nerve to tell him I had an answer, when I knew what that would inevitably lead to.
“Are you ready to answer now, Theodore?”
I could swear sometimes he can read my mind. “Yes, sir.”
I went and sat on the coffee table in front of him. He was leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees with his hands clasped together. I picked at a loose thread on my jeans, expecting him to tell me to look at him at any moment. When several seconds passed and he didn’t, I realized he was waiting for me to do it myself. Well, that was the least I could do, given that I’d been lying to him for a month.
I forced myself to look up, and he gazed back at me steadily through his glasses, and… well, it seems silly, but something in his blue eyes reassured me. I took a deep breath and plunged in. “I wanted to take care of it on my own.”
The line between his eyebrows came back. “I don’t understand, Theo. It isn’t like you to hide something like this from me for this long,” he said, shaking his head. “You told me last year when you were having trouble in philosophy. Why didn’t you tell me this time?”
I shrugged again, squirming despite myself.
“Do you need to go think about it some more?”
“Well?” he asked, scrutinizing me with that ‘I’m waiting’ expression.
“I- because this was biology!” I said, with a bit more force than I meant to. Where did that come from?
Quint’s lips parted, and he didn’t say anything for a long moment, just studied me with his head tilted slightly to one side and his eyebrows lowered. I’ve seen that look before, when he’s reading some medical journal and he’s just reached a new understanding.
“Why should that make a difference?” he asked.
Damned if I knew. “Because…” I stopped, shaking my head in frustration.
“Because I’m a doctor?” he suggested gently.
I blinked at him, my mouth dropping open as it clicked into place. I had been so ashamed that I just couldn’t understand biology, and the more ashamed I got, the more I wanted to prove to myself that I could pass the stupid course without any help from anyone. Least of all, Quint.
“Yes,” I whispered, more to myself than to him. “I felt so… stupid. I didn’t want you to know. I just… didn’t get it.” I forced the words past the knot in my throat and studied my feet as unexpected tears crowded into my eyes.
Quint rested his hands on my knees. “Look at me, angel.” I did, and swiped my hand over my face to catch the tears that had escaped. “Not getting biology does not make you stupid,” he said, softly and very firmly. Some of my disbelief must have shown in my face, because he gestured to my synth in the corner and said, “I learned how to play piano when I was ten, but I can’t play a thing without sheet music. I can’t improv on that and come up with something beautiful like you were doing earlier. And you’ve heard my attempts at writing lyrics.” He smiled on that last part, and even through my tears I had to smile back. Some of the rhymes he comes up with are truly awful. “Would you say my utter failure at song-writing makes me stupid?”
“That’s not…. Writing songs doesn’t require intelligence, it requires talent,” I objected weakly.
“It might interest you to know that many psychologists think they’re the same thing.”
Which only proved that shrinks are batty. Zeggy excepted, of course.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“You have a natural ability for music; I have a natural ability for science.”
I frowned. Well, when he put it like that…. But, still.
“Science is more useful,” I pointed out.
“Music is more beautiful,” he countered. “I wouldn’t want to live without either, would you?”
“No,” I conceded. “Although I could live without having to take bio.”
“We’ll talk about that later. Right now, we need to talk about you hiding this from me.”
Do we really? I’d be happy just leaving it here.
“Hiding a problem is not acceptable in this relationship – especially not for two weeks.”
I winced, realizing I’d unintentionally given him the wrong impression earlier. “It was closer to a month, actually,” I admitted.
He stopped, thrown off his lecturing stride, and frowned at me. “You said you got the first notice two weeks ago.”
“Yeah, but I knew I was failing for longer than that,” I reluctantly explained. Might as well confess all. “My professor spoke to me about it a month ago, and I started going to extra study sessions during my lunch hour. That’s why I didn’t get a tutor when the first notice came. I’d already tried, and it hadn’t made any difference, so I thought it was pointless. Plus, it would’ve meant I had to go to school at odd hours, and….” I trailed off, not wanting to complete that sentence.
“You didn’t want me to know,” Quint finished for me, nodding. He paused, and then asked, “Did you feel guilty about lying to me?”
No, I felt peachy keen about it. “Of course.”
“Do you think perhaps that was a sign that you should’ve told the truth? No matter how hard it was?”
Oh, right. Damn. “Yes, sir.”
“By hiding it for this long, you’ve made it much more difficult for us to reverse the damage, not to mention putting yourself through unnecessary stress and harming the trust between us.”
Ouch. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” I said, hating the way my voice broke.
Quint sighed. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did. I’m going to have to keep a closer eye on all your schoolwork for awhile.”
I gulped down tears and nodded.
“Let’s get this finished,” he said, patting my knee. “Stand up, please.”
I felt guilty enough that I didn’t make any of my usual last-minute pleas for mercy, and much too soon I was bare-assed and wrong-end-up over his lap. I will never understand how I haven’t gotten used to it yet. You’d think, after years, I wouldn’t mind as much. Or at the very least, that I would manage to remember how much it hurts. He started with his hand, and that was bad enough. Then, when I was crying and my butt was smarting like hell, he said, “Give me your wrist, please.”
“Nooo…” I choked out.
“Now, young man.”
I whimpered and put my right hand behind me, and he pinned my wrist to the small of my back and shifted me closer to his torso so I couldn’t reach back with the other hand. I know he does that because he doesn’t want to risk accidentally hitting my fingers with the paddle – I can’t help reaching back, and when you’re a musician, your hands are everything – but it makes me feel strange. Completely helpless, and at the same time, secure and cared for.
When he had me positioned, he said, “Hiding problems from me does nothing to help solve them. Being in a partnership means we need to share things with each other.”
“I know; I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “Please don’t.”
He didn’t answer, but tightened his hold on my wrist and brought the paddle down on my already-stinging rear with a sharp crack. I haven’t had experience with anyone else, but I suspect if you compared Quint to all the guys who know how to properly swing a paddle, he’d come out near the top. Soon, I was incoherently promising the moon and all the stars in the sky if he’d just stop. It gets kind of hard to count at that point – the separate swats blur together into a uniform burn, and I’m never in a fit state of mind for math – but I’d guess he gave me another ten or so before concluding with two final swats to the tops of my thighs. Then he began the post-spanking comforting ritual. I’m sure you know how it goes – calming murmurs and such.
Much later, after I’d changed into pajamas (the cotton bottoms made my bottom throb marginally less), and after Quint had ordered pizza and coaxed me into eating a couple of slices, I said, “I’m never going to be able to pass that stupid class now.”
I was laying on my stomach on the couch with my head in Quint’s lap, and he ran his fingers through my hair before replying. “You’re going to arrange to have a peer tutor tomorrow, and I’ll help you study at home, and if that’s not enough, you can take it again over the summer.” He made it all sound so simple.
“Couldn’t I just take it next year?”
“The summer classes are only for a month. You’ll live, and everything will be fine. I promise.”
I believe him.