First Gulf War
We were huffing rubber cement behind the hunchback of the art teacher when the
principal opened the door and told me that Dad was dead. She whispered
something into the purple ear of the teacher and ushered me away from my
table. A few minutes of commiseration beside the kiln, the smell of onions on
wrinkled lips, warm against my pimpled flesh, she told me Dad died in a plane crash.
The kids could not see me. Their laughter was subdued because the ominous
ponytail of the principal loomed: its coconut shampoo sculpting atoms. I could smell the
bagel she was digesting from lunch, her deodorant, the cream cheese. Obstinate sesame
seed was lodged between her upper incisors.
I insisted on returning to class, and upon my arrival, hit the bottle hard. The warning
label made it more desirable. Girls with mosquito bites were watching while working on
projects: pasting tonsil sticks with newspapers. We had refused to participate. We didn’t
want to get our hands icky. We said we were against war. The girls were using black and
white images of fighter jets apt to be deployed during Operation Desert Storm. Saddam
Hussein was staring at me from multiple angles.
The girls asked what the principal wanted. I did not tell them. We offered them a
hit. They refused. I could smell the principal through the rubber cement. She was talking to
the art teacher by the door. Every now and then, one of them would look in my direction
and nod empathetically as I clutched the adhesive. One of the girls dropped the sports
section on the floor and must have been staring at my junk beneath the table.
The principal disappeared. Dizzy, the art teacher strolled over to our corner. I had
Michael Jordan in the midst of a slam dunk, covered with rubber cement, embedded in the
table. The brush was in my hand, clutched intuitively like an alcoholic to a beer bottle. The
bristles were beaten from my repeated attempts to soak the edge of the table.
The art teacher was bullied but always able to bear the grunt of insults with wit and
mockery. We had liberties in this class which would be unfathomable elsewhere: we could
curse, talk back, and basically get away with deplorable behavior we would never
contemplate in any classes closer to sea level. We were dragons nursing mosquito bites,
nefarious maggots soaring through a porous cumulonimbus, high on art products,
belligerent and free to our own abstract orbits.
Beneath the art room was where the real artwork was attempted. This is where we
wrote epic poems avowing constipation on the walls. We penned odes to phalluses while
contemplating difficult bowel moments with profanity and swastikas. This was our dirty
secret. The choir teacher would find out one afternoon during Fiddler on the Roof when she
decided to urinate in the coed bathroom. The choir teacher was a Jew. Many of the vandals
were Jewish as well. All were self-proclaimed anarchists with a fondness for satanic
symbols and Spin the Bottle.
The choir teacher did not discover our stall until months after the funeral. By that
time I had filled the vaulted ceiling with decadent scribbles about my father falling from the
sky. The girls would excuse themselves to go stand on the toilet bowl to weep beneath my
messages. I scribbled sums of the most macabre near the crapper so they could cry as they
wiped themselves. I wanted the prettiest ones to pity me as they flushed. They often wrote
back with pencils, scraped the boogers left by my enemies with the ribbed aluminum
encompassing their pink erasers to preserve the language. We had become archeologists
and poets, and as more parents died that year, the bathroom became a shrine.
Weird thing about my father’s wake was that the art teacher sat in the back pew. Dad’s coffin
was empty. His chariot was buried in the desert. At school the following morning, the art
assignment involved obituaries and paper airplanes. The art teacher was fucking with me.
She had to pay for her insult to my old man.
We approached her house in camouflage dizzy on rubber cement with stockings on
our faces. We took dumps on her welcome mat beneath the porch light where moths
gathered. We toilet-papered her maple trees and mailbox, tossed eggs at the windows,
covered her Toyota with shaving cream swastikas and satanic stars. We sprayed an
excrement pyramid with lighter fluid and ignited it. The flames shot against her white door.
When her husband opened, we ambushed him with paintballs until he was forced to retreat
into the house. The flames followed. We faded into her frozen Rhododendrons.
The art teacher did not return to school. Then she did. Her arms and neck were
bandaged and her hands were blistered and her eyes were bloodshot. After class she called
us over to her desk and offered a huff of rubber cement. She held the brush beneath her
nostrils. Three of the hairs pasted themselves together. She unscrewed a second lid and
double-fisted, her chest and stomach expanding in her smock. Beating her chest in imitation
of a baboon, being pumped with rubber cement, stretch marks disintegrating, mind lost
amid an ambitious inhalation. We waited for her return. We followed her example with
mighty huffs. We swaggered down the spiral staircase, brain cells none the worse for the
The art teacher bought beer and drove us around in her hatchback. We would park
and make art in the backseat outside the roller rink. One of us watched while reprimanding
the hunchback for shaking her Toyota. She was violent and her burns rubbed against our
cheeks, smock wrapped around our necks, the blisters bubbling as we shook to the drone of
ambulances and fire trucks on the Interstate.
The day after the choir teacher discovered the bathroom shrine, we had one final
meeting in the shitter. During recess, we filled the room with as many bodies as possible.
Girls crouched on the shoulders of boys, bodies intertwined in memorial. The air grew thin
and somebody screamed that the door was jammed. We could hear the art teacher laughing
on the other side of the wood.
The girls were weeping. I told them to stay focused, keep reading my handwriting
on the ceiling. Their tears began to fall, then the sweat, and finally urine and vomit. This is
what it must feel like to know that the plane is about to crash. How the luggage above you
means nothing in the end.
The girls grew quiet as they drifted off to sleep. Their shrill screaming became a
subdued pleading. What I would have given for one last hit of rubber cement.
But then the principal opened the door and bodies wrestled themselves for oxygen.
Many did not move as the art teacher tiptoed down the stairs to catch a glimpse of
- Matthew Dexter