Woodshop

Woodshop

By Ryn Seidewitz

Even Mom thought we were dating. My mom, the woman who’d been telling me pointedly since I was eleven, “you know it’s OK to be gay, you know that right?” thought me and Liz were dating. She’d straight up sat me down and handed me a box of condoms after I’d gotten my hair cut because Liz had told me long hair made me look too feminine. “You love your hair,” she’d said to me. “I don’t know why you don’t want to tell me what’s going on. But just be safe, Tommy.”

At school, the junior girls would tease Liz about her “little woodshop sophomore.” She’d tell me about them, her head thrown back laughing, as if it was the most ridiculous thing in the world. “As if we’d waste what we have on some high school romance,” she would say. Then she’d go back to whatever it was she was doing—patiently packing a bowl or thumbing through a worn book—and we’d never talk about it. It was only Liz who knew we weren’t dating. Only Liz who knew that we’d transcended such juvenile forms of relationships—that we were real, true friends. And when she said it, I really believed it.

One day in early March, we were in her room after school. Her mom was working the night shift at the Applebee’s in Bowie. We’d pooled our money (her from her job at Rita’s and me from my allowance) and bought some weed off her brother, Drew, who had started selling to kids at College Park, where he was commuting on scholarship. We were lying on her twin bed. She was on her back, staring at the ceiling and I was on my side, staring at her.

I tried to match the rhythm of my breath to hers. We’d cracked her big bay window open to let out the smell. Bits of late afternoon sun filtered in through the curtains, lighting up her face so it was half-illuminated, half-obscured by shadow. I was waiting.

This was how it always went. We’d get high. We’d lay out somewhere—her room, the park by my house, in the backseat of her brother’s car. We’d be quiet for a stretch. Sometimes five minutes, sometimes thirty. Then she’d talk to me. This time, it only took fifteen minutes.

“Did you notice anything off about Mr. A today?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “He held me back after class.” We were both in Mr. A’s woodshop elective. Liz was a terrible woodworker. Her birdhouses were flimsy, her bookshelves uneven. She’d only taken the class to prove that girls could do shop. I’d noticed today that she hadn’t been behind me as I rushed to my next class. “He said that I needed to put in more time with my projects. That I needed to pay more attention. You know, I was pissed. It’s ridiculous! I try, I really do, I’m just not good at that stuff. I’m more of a thinker. Shop is useless, anyway.”

I was very good at woodworking. Mr. A had even sent one of my pieces to be shown at an expo in Hagerstown. Mom had been so proud, she’d taken off work and let me skip school on a Tuesday to drive us the two hours out there to see it. It was just a simple wooden box, but I’d done some fancy bevel work on the lid and it really did look nice up there on its stand. Someone had bought it for fifty dollars and Mom took us out for a nice dinner after.

“I’m sorry Tommy, but you know what I mean. It isn’t like I’m going to use woodworking later in life.”

Like she’d use all those symbols she talked about in The Great Gatsby later, either, I thought for one savage moment. But, as soon as the bitterness hit me, it was gone. I knew she wasn’t upset about woodworking, exactly. She was really just upset that there was something she wasn’t good at and someone else had noticed.

“Anyway, if it had just been that, I wouldn’t have even mentioned it to you. But he kept me there for ten minutes going on about how he saw something in me, about how if I just took this class seriously I could do well in it—fucking ridiculous. He acted like he was saving me, when he knows that I get A’s in all my other classes. One C in woodshop isn’t the end of the world.”

She paused. “I’ve been thinking about it. It was really weird and annoying and I couldn’t figure out why he’d care. Then it hit me.”

She rolled over. We were face-to-face. Her lips were inches from mine.

“He likes me. He’s got a thing for me.”

Now came the moment I usually looked forward to the most. After every thought, no matter how earth-shattering or mundane it was, she’d turn to me and ask, “so, what do you think, Tommy?”

Once, it had taken her a whole hour to speak. When she finally had, she’d told me about her father.

“I was the only one to see him die,” she’d said and paused. She’d put the joint to her lips and let out a long, slow breath, smoke puffing out in front of her then dissipating. “Mom had left the room. She thought we didn’t know she was going out to smoke. I was only seven. But when she came back smelling the way she did, it was obvious. He’d been sick for a year. That was all Mom would ever call it, ‘sick.’ I’d overheard the doctors talking to them once when they’d sent me out of the room. It was lung cancer. Drew was supposed to watch me ’cause he was older—only eleven, but already a big adult. He had wanted to get a Twix or something and so he had left me alone with Dad, who was asleep. He’d been asleep for a few days by then. There was definitely a sense, you know, that things were coming to an end.”

There had been another pause. She had opened her mouth to continue but something had gotten caught in her throat. I vaguely remembered my own parents’ fights. I could just barely recall the image of my dad walking out, slamming the door behind him, my mom sending me to my room. Those images felt like a strange dream, something that had happened to someone else a long time ago.

“With Drew and Mom gone, I could finally have Dad to myself,” she’d continued. “I’d been waiting all day to talk to him. When I tried with Mom around she would get agitated and tell me to be quiet and do my homework, that he couldn’t hear me anyway. I can’t remember what I told him. Probably something stupid like what I’d done in school or some book I’d just learned to read. But after a few minutes, Mom came back and she started freaking out, hitting buttons, calling doctors. I guess he’d drifted off while they were out and I hadn’t even noticed.”

Now I could tell she thought that this Mr. A thing was some brilliant discovery. I had to admit that his behavior was odd. She was smart—she made sure everyone knew it. She didn’t need anyone to tell her to get her act together. And if she did, it wasn’t as if anyone in their right mind thought she would listen. Everyone at Roosevelt expected her to follow her brother to College Park, if not somewhere better. Mr. A, though, really loved woodworking.

Early in the year after our first assignment, he’d held me back after class. I’d been terrified, nervous my project had been a failure and that he was going to yell at me. Instead, he’d pulled up a picture on his phone of a piece by a famous woodworker he’d seen at an exposition in Florida last year.

“Look at the way the box slopes slightly inward,” he’d said, tracing his finger along his phone, zooming in and out rapidly. “It gives the cube this dynamic motion. Your box reminded me of this.”

The sides of my box had ballooned outward slightly—it had been a mistake but I hadn’t had enough time to fix it. He’d slipped his phone back in his pocket and put a hand on my shoulder, pulling me close, conspiratorially.

“You’ve got a natural talent, Tommy,” he’d told me. “Not many kids take this class very seriously—” I’d opened my mouth to protest, to save his feelings. “No, I know they don’t. They’re lazy, they just want to get a grade and forget about all this. But you’re different. You’ve got the bug, just like me.”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to tell him that my boxes didn’t mean much more to me than an hour or two of my mind slipping out of my head. I didn’t know how to tell him that it was less of a passion and more just something to do with my hands. Instead, I’d said, “sure, thanks,” and ran toward my next class.

So, I could see how it would really bother him that the girl who could find it important to know all about the life cycle of a cell and the main causes of the Great Panic of 1893, couldn’t be bothered to know the difference between mahogany and maple.

“I don’t know,” I told Liz. “Seems pretty innocent.”

“You weren’t there. Watch him next class, you’ll see.”

I watched them the next class, and several after. All I could see was Liz trying harder. She asked more questions and took more time with her work. I could tell that Liz thought she was flirting with Mr. A by the way she batted her eyelids and smiled at him in class. But Mr. A seemed steadfastly oblivious to her advances, though pleased at her slight improvements. He was positively elated when, one day, she correctly identified some wood that he had salvaged as pine in front of the whole class. From where I stood, it seemed Mr. A’s conversation had achieved the desired effect.

Liz stayed back after class that day to, ostensibly, ask Mr. A for extra advice on beveling. I stood at the door, one foot in the classroom, one in the hallway, watching them, anxiously waiting for Liz to leave. Liz was standing a little too close to Mr. A, leaning her chest toward him as she ran a finger along a line in her work. Mr. A was concentrating on her piece, following her finger up and down the uneven line.

“I just can’t manage to hold the tool steady while I work,” she said, her eyes fixed on him.

Mr. A kept his face fixed on her wood below. “You have to slow down,” he said, patiently. “You’ve started taking more time, but you’re still always the first done, you’re always ready for the next project. Make sure you’re moving your hand as slowly as possible, it’ll help you with your precision. If you work hard, these movements will become second nature. But you have to put in the work.”

The second bell rang, signaling that we both should have already been in our next class. Liz didn’t make a move to leave, didn’t acknowledge me standing at the door, tapping my foot. Mr. A didn’t seem to notice I was there either, still intent on Liz’s line. I was anxious to make it to geography on time and finally gave up and darted from the classroom, leaving the two behind.

Liz didn’t bring him up again for several weeks. When she did, it was the middle of April, and we were on the couch in her basement. We would sit in that basement for hours most Sundays, smoking, talking and, occasionally, studying. Then, around five, right before their mom got off work, Drew would drive me back home in time for my mom to make me dinner.

I was rolling a joint. Liz had taught me how to roll one last summer when we’d first met. Her mom had just joined Alcoholic’s Anonymous. My mom had been going since I was five, around when Dad left. Even though it wasn’t technically allowed, Mom had invited Liz and her mom over for dinner. I think Mom was excited at the prospect of another single, recovering-alcoholic mother to befriend. After dinner, our mother’s had banished us to my room while they cleaned and talked about “adult things,” like which Sex and the City character they were (they were both Samantha’s).

“Keep the door open!” Liz’s mom had said, laughing to herself, as if it were a joke.

Liz, of course, had immediately shut the door. Our mothers didn’t bother to check on us even once. Liz withdrew a baggie with a few rolling papers and two small green stubs from her pocket.

“Do you smoke?”

I had never seen weed before in my life.

“Yes.”

Liz looked at me skeptically. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest, ready to reveal my lie. I opened my mouth to defend myself then closed it again.

“No.”

Liz had grinned eagerly, but, to her credit, didn’t make fun of me at all. Instead, she’d taken out her goods and laid them out on my desk.

“Come here,” she’d said, folding herself cross-legged into my chair. I’d leaned over her shoulder. Patiently, she’d explained each motion. After she was done, she’d made me roll one under her guidance. I’d taken to the process immediately.

“I like to smoke it out the window, so my mom can’t say anything about the smell,” she’d said, climbing out of my chair over to my window and cracking it open.

“Do you do this a lot?” I’d asked after we’d finished the joint, my head swimming in a new, strange calm.

“I do it enough.” She had moved to my bed, sprawled out lazily, and I had taken a seat at my desk chair, looking on at her.

“How’d you learn?” I’d asked.

“My brother taught me,” she’d replied. “He taught me a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Like if you eat it while your still in the grocery store, then it’s not technically stealing.” I had laughed, because she’d said it like it was funny, but I’d been confused. Why was Liz going grocery shopping with her brother? Mom did our shopping, every week on Saturday mornings before I’d even gotten out of bed.

Now, as Liz readily admitted, I had surpassed her in the art of rolling. Her joints were always too loose and burned too quickly, while she claimed that mine were as tight and smooth as she’d ever smoked. “Don’t you ever forget who taught you,” she’d remind me.

She was telling me about a book she’d read in her American Lit class. I felt strangely calm as I lit the joint, listening to her talk about Faulkner and watching the twisted paper end burn away.

“I was right about Mr. A, by the way,” she said.

“What?”

“I was right,” she repeated, grinning smugly. “He has a thing for me. He asked me to babysit for him Friday. He was giving a talk about oak chairs to some woodworkers in Upper Marlboro. You know he and his wife split up last year. She lives in Pennsylvania now with her new boyfriend.”

Friday, she’d told me we couldn’t hang out because she had to be with her mom on her mom’s one night off work. Yesterday, we’d gone to see a movie at PG Plaza after she’d gotten off at Rita’s. She hadn’t said anything about it the entire day. I passed her the joint.

“He lives so close to here, only a mile or so. Mom was working, so I just biked over. He took off as soon as I got there. His kid was really sweet, her name’s Mallory, she’s only 4.” She took a drag. “Anyway, when he came back, Mallory was already in bed. He kept on thanking me, telling me how much he appreciated it, what a life saver I was. He gave me this long hug. Like, really long. When it was over he looked into my eyes really intensely—just like this.” She put her hands on my shoulder, the joint burning in between two of her fingers. I noticed, with a pang of excitement, for the hundredth time, the little flecks of grey in her hazel eyes. “I really thought he was going to kiss me. It was intense. I got so nervous, I told him my mom was waiting for me and ran straight out the door.”

I wondered if Liz was exaggerating. I couldn’t quite believe it. After school, while Liz tutored middle schoolers for her community service hours and I waited for her brother to pick both of us up, I had begun to visit Mr. A in his woodshop. I would help him clean up after the day and listen to him to talk endlessly about the different grains and finishes. It was my own form of meditation. A week ago, he’d stopped what he was doing and asked me what was on my mind. I’d been taken aback, we never talked about ourselves. I’d felt Mr. A and our time together to be an extension of woodworking—a way to forget about myself and drift pleasantly into repetitive solidity.

“You’ve seemed off lately,” he’d said. “Not quite all there.”

I’d felt a jolt of panic in my chest. Before I could stop myself, I’d felt everything pour of out me. I’d told him how miserable I was, how much I loved Liz, and how much it hurt that she couldn’t see. He’d seemed surprised, maybe even a little uncomfortable, like he had expected me to say something about my grades or my plans for the future, or maybe even something about how I missed my dad. He clearly hadn’t prepared for this confession and I was embarrassed. Despite this, he’d stopped what he was doing and listened as patiently as he had when Liz had clumsily thrown herself at him. He’d crossed the room and put his hand on my shoulder like he had that first day.

He’d said, “if it’s meant to happen, son, it will.”

I’d felt the sentiment to be comforting.

So I didn’t want to call Liz a liar, but the Mr. A she’d described didn’t seem real. He seemed like some fantasy she’d cooked up in her mind.

“I don’t know,” I said and left it at that, resolved not to feed Liz’s delusions.

The next day, though, I couldn’t help noticing that Mr. A wouldn’t look Liz in the eye; that he didn’t even say a word when she presented him her incredibly adequate, and maybe even kind-of good, birch-wood bowl.

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