Facing Myself in the Dark
Teachers can open young minds to new ideas.
That's what makes being one a dangerous proposition.
On April 1, 1957, Anne Millicent Cooper gave birth to the only child that ever managed to survive the toxic environment of her womb. As she sat in her hospital bed, aching, tired and drugged, holding that squinched-up piece of human flesh that was at once all-Anne and not-Anne, she searched her daughter's face for some sign. Grandma Cooper always said that a person had their name written all over their face, and a wrongly given name was a tragedy that could twist someone's personality into improper and disastrous proportions. After the horrible events of November 1963, Grandma Cooper claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald's mother hadn't read his face right and so was to blame for the events that had led him down the path to assassination.
Anne sat, cranky from exertion, and marveled at the fact that her baby had not yet cried. Even when the doctor had whacked her a good one to give her breath, the baby had merely hiccuped with dignity and slowly turned from blue to pink without a sound. Even now the baby lay quietly, her steely eyes focusing on Anne with such intensity that it gave her the creeps.
Years later, when Grandma would scold Anne for naming that changeling baby wrong, Anne thought back to that Fools' Day and remembered the grayness that belonged to the baby's face, as if the sun had set and impressed shadows over her features to leave a darkness that never lifted. That shadow had moved Anne, when presented with the birth certificate, to carefully print Twilight Cooper. No middle name. No father's name.
Anne had killed three children. Least, that's how Grandma Cooper had seen it, though she'd never actually used the word murder. Three children, all boys, had been conceived, nurtured, then poisoned by some agent in Anne's blood. As Anne sat numbly before the doctor while he explained the situation again, sat wearing a sanitary pad and belt in order to stop the gush from her uterus, she envisioned some thief, some spy, sneaking around her body, hiding in shadows and ducking out of sight until it saw its chance and pounced upon its prey. She was impressed by its cunning and tenacity. She did not mourn for these sons, sons that would have grown big and strong and masculine. She didn't see the need.
So once Anne had her Twilight, she and her baby and her mama and her grandma settled back into their house, on the outskirts of Mason, North Carolina, and tried to ignore the stares and whispers. Nights, Anne would sit by the window, listening to the radio, and wish for the big city, where a person could get lost in the crowd. Who would know who the bastards were? Grandma Cooper said the word bastard referred to those who used it, not those at whom it was aimed, but Anne noticed that Grandma stopped going into town in the company of her family of women after Twilight was born.
Grandma seemed slightly afraid of Twilight, as did others. When she grew older, Twilight could enter a room and the waves would part as they did for Moses. Grandma would stand in her kitchen, scrubbing the dishes and watching that spook child do her homework at the table, but if Twilight looked up or spoke, Grandma would avert her eyes.
Twilight was born with that witchy color of blonde-white hair, which silvered as she grew. Anne read up on hair colors and dyes, but Twilight simply shook her head as if that dismissed the subject. Anne supposed it did.
Anne's mama, Ruth, was the only person in all of Mason who was not the least bit afraid of Twilight, who could look her in the eye, could tell her no, could raise her voice to her. Then again, Ruth wasn't afraid of anybody, said fear was a waste of time that didn't serve anyone except them that wanted to be feared. Anne wondered if that included her daughter, if Twilight liked the effect she had on others. Anne never had the nerve to ask, and Twilight never offered.
When Twilight was ten years old, she left home. She and Grandma Cooper were watching a game show, and Twilight simply got up from the couch, crossed to the front door, and left. Grandma didn't bother to sound the alarm until the next morning, when Anne went to wake Twilight for school.
"She ain't here. Ain't no sense calling for her."
"What? Where is she, then?"
"Walked right out the door yesterday afternoon."
Grandma Cooper sounded so calm that Anne almost forgot to be upset. "Where'd she go?"
Grandma Cooper shrugged. "Didn't ask her."
And somehow, that almost made sense.
Twilight was found the next day in Smithfield. Somehow she had managed to travel more than twenty miles down Highway 40. When asked by annoyed policemen and her bewildered mama and exasperated Ruth, Twilight shrugged. Didn't matter how she got there. Only Grandma Cooper agreed with her. "She's home safe, ain't she?"
And Anne supposed she was, although her scrutiny of her daughter increased in intensity. Over the next couple of weeks, she watched her as if watching a stranger, as if examining a paramecium under a microscope. Her clinical thinking about her flesh and blood didn't disturb her; how else should someone think about their kin?
And so Twilight grew, doing as she pleased with the calm belief that that was the way it should be, bewildered by others' reactions to her willfulness. She did not comprehend how someone else could decide how it was proper for her to behave. She lived in the world behind her shadowed face and steely eyes, and no one had ever been invited inside. No amount of force parted those doors, either, though Ruth bullied and cajoled. Anne simply watched, her hound-dog eyes testimony to her child's strangeness. Grandma Cooper kept a wide berth around Twilight and only reacted if the girl was disrespectful toward her. No one had the right to be disrespectful to their elders.
As a teenager, Twilight was fascinated by the physical difference between herself and the other Cooper women. Grandma Cooper was tall and thick-boned, exuding an air of strength. Her gray hair still held hints of its former ebony color. Her skin was dark and tough from years of sun and hard work. Ruth resembled her mother, big and sturdy and dark. Anne was paler but in all other ways was Ruth's daughter. All three had bright green eyes, while Twilight's were gray. Twilight was thin, all angles and bones, and small. Her heart beat within her chest like a fluttery bird, and if she looked in the mirror after removing her bra, she could see the movement of its wings underneath her skin. Her hair was white-blonde-gray, and she seemed fragile, breakable next to the workhorse women of her family. Yet wire and steel and bone reinforced her, and she would not break.
Despite the differences that could only come from genetics, Twilight never asked about her father. The Cooper understanding was that she had no father, and even after she learned the facts of life from Becky Carlson, the perky snubnosed cheerleader in her American Lit class, Twilight did not ask from whose sperm she had come. It really did not matter. Twilight, as she watched children in town with their daddies, knew relating to a father would be as foreign as committing that act that Becky had whispered about, to be hot and messy and sweaty and connected to another human being. Those things, sexual acts and fathers, were for other people. Twilight was meant for different things.
Twilight also differed from the other Cooper women in temperament and desire. She shunned Grandma's Bible, Ruth's relish for housekeeping, Anne's longings, for something better, something bigger. She could feel her eyes glass over when Anne talked of the big city or Grandma quoted Bible verses at her.
But one day, when Twilight was fourteen, Grandma's religion penetrated. Twilight had once again aggravated Ruth to the point of rage and had ridden the wave of Ruth's loud words into the living room, where she found Grandma Cooper seated on the couch. She was hunched over the Bible in her lap, rocking. Twilight started out the front door when Grandma's words stopped her.
" 'Through a glass darkly.' "
Twilight turned and fixed her steely eyes on Grandma. "Excuse me?"
"You see the world as those who have not found God, in shadow."
"Yes, yes I do." Twilight disappeared out the door, not hearing or not caring to hear the admonishment in Grandma Cooper's words. As she walked down the dirt road that extended from the Cooper house into Mason, she twisted the words around in her head. Yes, the world did seem dark to her, but wasn't it, truly?
Twilight met a man when she was seventeen, the chance meeting being the catalyst that would start her motors, that would start the propulsion that would move her far, far away from the Cooper land, from Mason, from the South. His name was Wilson Carpenter, and she first caught wind of him in the drug store after school one day in the fall of her senior year. She had stopped in for a soda and was seated at the counter, reading William Blake, when she heard the voices of Ethel Milton and Rosemary Helms. Ethel was nothing but a nosy busybody, but Rosemary was Reverend Helms's wife. So Twilight listened, pretending to read, and heard them talking about "that new fellow."
"Just moved in last night," Ethel was saying. Ethel owned the town's boarding house and so was usually the first to meet any newcomer, since Mason did not boast a hotel. Twilight supposed Ethel's nature and the job had drawn together like magnets. Gossips were well suited to live among the hub of the town's happenings and in fact were happy no place else.
"Only brought one suitcase. Small little thing. And so I asked him if he was having the rest of his things sent and do you know, he said there wasn't any more. I mean I know men aren't the same about belongings, but really. One suitcase!"
From her seat, Twilight could hear Rosemary's murmur, and she strained to listen.
Ethel continued. "Yes, I know. Charming young man, too. So handsome. And you know it's rare that a young man would want to teach. I mean, women have limited paths, but a man--"
Rosemary spoke again, and though Twilight tried, she could not hear the woman's words. Mrs. Smith boasted a much softer voice than poor squawky Ethel.
"Well, yes, I guess you're right, but it would be different if he was older." Twilight wondered where Ethel supposed older male teachers came from, if sixty-year-old businessmen suddenly got the urge to teach Algebra to pimply-faced junior high kids. "Or at least married," Ethel continued.
"Well, there's still time for that," Rosemary said, speaking more clearly. And Twilight silently praised her: Atta girl, Rosemary, project that voice.
Ethel grumbled. A gossip had more fun if the recipient of what-might-turn-out-to-be-scandalous news agreed with her. The conversation dwindled as the women began to speak of the upcoming church bazaar, and Twilight tuned them out. A new man. A teacher. Probably the lower grades, and probably a math teacher. Twilight wished she had caught his name.
The next day, her English teacher, Miss Turner, did not show. After ten minutes of no supervision, the class was becoming restless. Twilight read her book and ignored them, until she heard a deep voice above the din.
"Excuse me. I didn't realize that a teacher's absence was permission to run amuck."
The class grew silent, staring at this man, the young face that could have passed for one of theirs. He dropped his briefcase on Miss Turner's desk with a loud thump that even startled the unshakable Twilight. "My name is Mr. Carpenter. I have been assigned to this class for the rest of the semester. Miss Turner will not be returning."
Twilight, by carefully listening to Ethel, had learned that Miss Turner was now resting comfortably in Raleigh, in a bed in a minimum security ward of Dorothea Dix hospital. She had had some kind of "nerve thing," according to Ethel. Twilight figured it must have been a nervous breakdown and wondered if it had been student-induced.
"Old Turner's gone loony," one of the boys in the back called out, and there were uncomfortable giggles throughout the room.
Mr. Carpenter fixed the room with an icy stare. "I will not have such talk in my classroom. You will show as much respect to Miss Turner as you will show to me. If any smart-aleck thinks he can best me, then he may leave right now. I will not play a game of wills with this class, and anyone who attempts to rattle me will find his own cage rattled. Is that understood?"
Twilight knew Mr. Carpenter had been briefed well; Miss Turner's seventh-period British Lit was widely known to be the worst bunch of seniors ever in one classroom together in the history of Mason Senior High School. Twilight, who never demeaned herself by complaining, had not approached any administrator about switching classes. She chose simply to rise above the rest of the class and therefore ignored them as she did almost everyone else.
As the bell rang, Mr. Carpenter raised his voice to call Twilight to his desk. Gathering her books, she slowly moved toward him and stood before him, clutching her belongings to her chest.
"I have had the chance to read some of the papers you wrote for Miss Turner."
He paused as if she were supposed to speak, and Twilight stared him down. "You have a lot of talent. Frankly, I was wondering what you were doing in this class. You could have taken Honors."
"There are just as many Neanderthals in Honors as in here," Twilight replied coolly.
Mr. Carpenter, to her surprise, grinned. "Fair enough. You may go. I just wanted to let you know you had been noticed."
"I would have preferred to have been overlooked." Twilight fixed him once more with the gray beams of her eyes and turned, leaving. She listened with satisfaction to the sound of her own heels clicking down the hallway. Hopefully that confrontation had settled things and he would let her go back to her world, reading during class and dutifully turning in A assignments.
Her luck would not have it that way.
Twilight found herself arguing points with Mr. Carpenter during class, arguing theme and intent and characterization until her pale face reddened and she thought her chest would burst. Shocked by her atypical behavior, her classmates gave her a wider berth than usual, unnerved by this change in the status quo. These confrontations drained Twilight, sapping her strength. Mr. Carpenter, on the other hand, seemed charged by these challenges, energized. His eyes would flash and the corners of his mouth would quirk. Twilight often wondered if he provoked her deliberately.
Fall became winter, and still Mr. Carpenter poked and prodded at Twilight until she was forced to participate, forced to respond with more than cool dismissal. When he saw her in town, he would not speak, but he would wink or wave or smirk in a way that made Twilight feel naked, unprotected.
One day in late February, Mr. Carpenter called Twilight to his office. "I have something for you," he insisted, and when he quite proudly presented a paperback, Twilight blinked dumbly at him. "Go on, take it." She did, and turned it over. Lady Chatterley's Lover. She looked up at him, her expression a blank question. "I'm not allowed to teach it in class. The school board turned me down flat. But I believe that good, strong minds should never be kept from strong words and unsafe novels. It's yours. To read, I mean. And if you like"--and suddenly he seemed shy and uncertain--"we can discuss it when you're done."
Twilight simply nodded, staring at the ornate words on the cover that spelled out the title. She felt somehow as if she were standing on the precipice of the rest of her life.
She devoured the novel in two days, reading it around chores and schoolwork. She found the sexual imagery as foreign as Grandma Cooper's religion, and she told Mr. Carpenter so.
"No, no, it's not strange, it's beautiful. Here--" and he took the book from her and opened it and began to read, and Twilight was filled with such a delirious warmth at his words, the feeling of good alcohol as it slides down your throat and burns in your belly.
" 'And this time his being within her was all soft and iridescent, purely soft and iridescent, such as no consciousness can seize. Her whole self quivered unconscious and alive like plasm. She could not know what it was. She could not remember what it had been. Only that it had been more lovely as anything could ever be. Only that. And afterward she was utterly still, utterly unknowing, she was not aware for how long. And he was still with her, in an unfathomable silence along with her. And of this, they would never speak.' "
Warmth and emptiness spread to her appendages, her finger and toes filled with numbness and feeling. Twilight felt as if she would break apart into a million pieces and disappear. And, as his blue, blue eyes looked into her own gray, she knew that he read her mind.
Days passed, then Mr. Carpenter slipped her another book, this one also banned from the Mason library: Lord of the Flies. Book by book, discussion by discussion, Mr. Carpenter introduced Twilight to a world that Mason would never allow to pass over its borders.
Twilight wrote in her journal, huddled over the page, the pen, and the flashlight in the dark of the room--
Did you ever think I would be so happy ?
--and she was filled with righteous indignation, with the most wonderful Itoldyouso feeling.
I showed you.
Once, when they were arguing over some minute point in Milton, huddled together as always in that little cubicle off the classroom that was deemed his office, Mr. Carpenter stopped and asked, "Why is your name Twilight?"
"My mother chose it." Twilight stared at him as if he were dense.
"No, Little Miss Literal. Why?"
"Because I see the world that way."
"No one could accuse you of wearing rose-colored glasses," Mr. Carpenter responded, but through shrewd examination she decided he was speaking from gentle affection, not criticism. This made her as uncomfortable as criticism would have, and she felt defensive and flushed. Mr. Carpenter nodded as if it all now made perfect sense. "'Through a glass darkly,'" he murmured.
"How did you know?" Twilight was startled into an open response.
"Of course, that's not exactly what it means, but it's appropriate. The entire verse refers to the relation between the body and soul."
That became their next topic--Twilight devoured Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Descartes under Mr. Carpenter's guiding hand.
Twilight felt herself free from Mason's bonds. She would walk down the street and silently taunt passers-by: I read what you ban, I think about what you decry, I question what you hold sacred. And she felt almost a sexual rush being in the presence of a Mason authority--a city council member, a school board member, a teacher, the principal--and knowing that she had escaped from their prison, that she had outfoxed them.
As February became March, Mr. Carpenter and Twilight met almost daily in his cramped office. Their arguments grew to have an intimate nature, and Twilight felt herself becoming possessive about him. As close as they became, two subjects remained off limits: the Cooper family and college. The Coopers did not have the money for college, and though Twilight had squirreled away every penny from her job at the grocery store, she did not enough money yet. Application deadlines came and went, and Twilight gritted her teeth.
One day over Tolstoy, Mr. Carpenter suddenly asked, "Going to the senior prom?"
Twilight examined him, the glint of the light off of his glasses, his shaggy blond hair. She knew every pore in his face, every wrinkle in the knuckles of his hands, yet she looked at him as if he were foreign.
"Of course not."
"What do you mean, 'of course not'?"
"You still don't know Mason yet, do you? We have a caste system as strict as India's. I'm one of the untouchables. To date me is to risk excommunication."
"Take those gray glasses off, Twilight." He leaned across their laps and kissed her, briefly and firmly, and Twilight felt the same flyaway feeling that he had given her when he had first read to her.
The next day, they did not meet. Mr. Carpenter had a staff meeting after school. The next time they met, everything was as if normal, but Twilight could not look into his eyes without tasting his lips.
In her journal, she dared write I love you, then crossed it out. She wasn't sure she knew what love was. She knew what Lawrence thought about love, and Shakespeare and Donne and Dumas and--but those were only theories.
As the prom approached, Twilight held herself above the excited conversations about corsages and dresses and post-dance plans, but there was only so much that one person could ignore. She began to feel herself deflating, and could almost hear the whooshing noise of air escaping.
"I have something for you." As when he said that the first time, Mr. Carpenter appeared proud of himself. But rather than handing her a book, he gave a package of a wadded brown bag. "Excuse the wrapping."
Twilight opened it to discover a pair of cheap sunglasses. The lenses were covered with red construction paper. At her quizzical look, he shrugged sheepishly. "Rose-colored glasses."
Twilight felt so naked and frightened, but she managed to croak, "Thank you."
He reached to embrace her, a warm bearish clumsy hug, and she felt herself melting. Then from behind her--
"Excuse me. Mr. Carpenter, may I see you in my office?"
She turned and he looked up to see the principal, Mr. Walker, obviously furious, and as Twilight stood and gathered her things, he held out his hand to escort her from the room. She noticed Mr. Walker kept his hand above her shoulder, as if she would burn him. Twilight stayed to watch the two men walk down the hallway, Mr. Walker's stride meaningful and angry, Mr. Carpenter's determined and proud. Mr. Carpenter did not look back.
At home that night, Twilight dialed Ethel's boarding house. She was shocked to hear her voice tremble. "May I please speak with Mr. Carpenter?"
"Is that you, Twilight Cooper? You have enough nerve! If you had the sense to keep a low profile, you might escape with a clean nose!"
"May I please speak with Mr. Carpenter?"
"I don't know if you should."
"Put him on the goddamn phone, Ethel!"
Twilight heard the gasp of shock, then the indignant sniff, and the clattering of the receiver. Minutes later, Mr. Carpenter answered the phone, sounding so meek that she was frightened. She clutched the solidity of the telephone to assure herself that the earth was steady beneath her.
"Twilight, you shouldn't be calling me."
"I wanted to see if you were all right."
"I will be. Twilight, please."
"It will be all over town tomorrow, thanks to Ethel."
"I don't care."
"Twilight, I don't think you understand." He sighed, an old man sound. "They think I seduced you. That we--"
"But we didn't!"
"That doesn't matter. Twilight, if I don't leave quietly, my teaching license will be revoked, and I will be charged with statutory rape. Do you understand what that means?"
"But you didn't touch me!"
"I went too far, and that's all that matters."
Twilight felt a burning in her chest that welled up in her throat. "Don't they know you can make love to a person without ever touching?"
"At least I taught you something." He sounded sadly pleased.
"Twilight. No. Promise me you'll get out of Mason. When you graduate and have the money, leave. Go somewhere where you can think and breathe and love. Then write me and tell me you're doing well."
Twilight was strangling.
She managed to gurgle, "I promise."
"Twilight, do you know that time right before you drift off to sleep, when every worry and every need comes crashing in on you?"
"I want both of us to be able to face all those demons in the dark, to be able to face ourselves in the dark, and be able to sleep. Do you understand?"
"Do you understand?"
"Then make that your goal. D. H. Lawrence said, 'I want to live my life so that my nights are not full of regrets.' I want that for both of us, and my leaving quietly is the only way. Do you understand?"
"Thank you, Twilight. For everything. I shall think of you every time I read Lawrence. I am so glad I made him come alive for you."
Dial tone. Twilight listened to this last remnant as long as she could, willing this lifeline to bring him back.
Anne saw a change in her daughter even before she heard the rumors. Twilight held her head high, not with her usual oblivion, but with defiance and pride and something that appeared to be fear. Anne dared not ask the source of the flame behind her daughter's gray eyes, and when she learned about that scandal up at the high school, she hid herself in her tiny bedroom and wept into her pillow, and she wished terribly that she could provide for her spooky silent daughter.
Grandma Cooper was shocked, and blamed Twilight's name and, therefore, Anne. "You hear darkness every time your name's called, it affects you. You listening, girl?" But Anne was not listening, for once. Ruth remained quiet, which was not her nature. But she did not remain silent. She would watch Twilight, a certain understanding glittering in her eyes.
One night Ruth found Twilight on the porch. One slender hand on the railing balanced her, and she faced toward the shimmering lights of town.
"Looks beautiful when you're not in the middle of it, don't it?" Ruth reached to touch the shining silver of Twilight's hair, and for once Twilight allowed it.
"I loved him, Grandma. I really did."
"I know." There was no judgment or disapproval, only a simple statement of fact, and those two words gave Twilight the strength to straighten her spine.
"Love is a good thing, girlie. Don't let them tell you any different."
But they did. There were snickers and whispers and outright taunts. Students wondered out loud if she'd earned all her good grades with sex, and a band of guys, led by Reverend Helms's son, followed her around all day every day, making lewd comments and requests.
"You kiss Miss Turner too, Twillie?" Buck Helms had muttered, leaning close to her as she was at her locker so that his hot breath rained on her neck, and cool collected Twilight whirled and with one punch forced that hot breath back into his mouth.
She found herself before the principal, Mr. Walker. "Twilight, it would greatly sadden me if I had to bar you from graduating this term."
She said nothing.
"Twilight, please, you are not helping Mr. Carpenter by attempting to protect his honor."
"If you would, I wouldn't have to."
"Go home, Twilight. There's nothing here for you today. The excitement will have died down by tomorrow."
But it did not, even though Mr. Carpenter disappeared as if he had never existed. When Twilight received her yearbook weeks later, she was not surprised to find that his picture had not been published. She was followed home almost every day by groups of guys who made sexual suggestions and thinly veiled threats. The owner of the grocery store asked Twilight to quit her job. The Cooper household began locking its doors and windows during the daytime. One afternoon Twilight arrived home to find Ruth diligently scrubbing the word whore off of the side of the house.
And not once did Anne or Ruth or Grandma Cooper ever ask the question:
Did you do it ? Did you sleep with your teacher ?
For that, Twilight was grateful. At least to them, it didn't matter.
Twilight graduated June 1, 1975, as the valedictorian of her class. No one believed she had earned any of her grades with her mind, so Twilight decided to forego the traditional speech. Mr. Walker gratefully agreed.
On June second, Twilight was driven to the Greyhound station by Ruth, after dutifully kissing Anne and Grandma Cooper goodbye. So there they sat, grandmother and granddaughter, in the parking lot of the bus station. Twilight had one suitcase, filled half with clothes and half with books, her mother's string of pearls--her graduation present--and six hundred dollars, the sum total of every penny she had ever earned. Ruth had paid for the bus ticket without even asking where Twilight was going. When Twilight offered the information, Ruth shook her head. "Just tell me when you get there, baby. The stops along the way don't matter."
"I'm surprised you haven't asked why I want to do this."
"Don't need to, baby. I know, and besides, ain't none of my concern. Each person has to find his own."
Twilight clutched her bag in one hand, the money for the ticket in the other. She crossed the parking lot, determined and proud, and did not look back.
On April 1, 1978, Wilson Carpenter went to his mailbox to find a postcard depicting a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Turning it over, he read:
Curiousier and curiousier. But no regrets.
Wilson did not have to recognize the handwriting to recognize the sender of the card. Smiling to himself, he tucked it into his pocket and decided to go for a walk. He kicked his way down the street, whistling tunelessly and enjoying the warmth of the sun on his neck.
Carla Brumble (firstname.lastname@example.org) graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in psychology and from Boston University with a degree in counseling. Most of her stories, including this one, are set in her native North Carolina. She is married to her best (or worst) critic, and is in the midst of writing her first novel.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Carla Brumble.