"I'm locking up the classroom," said Ms. Bridle. "You have to leave."
Complicity was sitting at her desk, trying to read Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. Ms. Bridle was Complicity's English teacher. Complicity was in middle school. The bell had rung. It was lunch.
"Oh. Um, sorry," said Complicity.
Complicity was hoping that the teacher would notice the book Complicity was reading, during the brief moment that they were alone.
The book was something Complicity had ended up reading compulsively, to her own surprise, despite the fact that it was very different from what the title made her expect. It was just about a good priest or something. It was just this priest trying to "civilize the Native Americans" for 300 pages, a "missionary"—an idea that always made Complicity vaguely depressed for some reason.
The priest lived in this American desert, completely alone except for his companion, another priest, whom he loved. The priest whom the main priest loved had an ugly face, but the main priest was pale, beautiful. But these were gross reasons to like a book.
Complicity was hoping the teacher would see the name of the book, and not know what it was about.
"Come on," said Ms. Bridle, "put your stuff away."
"Yeah, I'm, uh, putting it away," said Complicity. "Sorry, it's just that this book was so interesting that I didn't even hear the bell ring," she lied.
"Well," said Ms. Bridle, "you'll just have to read it outside."
"I know, I know," said Complicity. She put her assignment sheet into her backpack, then her weekly vocabulary sheet. She was trying to put the book in last, so that the teacher would see the name.
"I don't mind you staying here," said Ms. Bridle. "But I'm not allowed to leave you alone in one of these rooms for even a minute. Liability issues. You know the rules."
Ms. Bridle came to stand over Complicity's desk. She was a woman in her early 30s, ash blond, wide-hipped, large-boned.
"Stupid rules," grumbled Complicity. She started putting a yellow sheet of paper labeled "March Events Calendar" into her backpack, to demonstrate her speed.
"Mm," said Ms. Bridle.
She glanced at the book.
"So what are you reading?" asked Ms. Bridle finally.
"Oh, um," said Complicity, "it's just, like—this book." She paused in the middle of putting away the "March Events Calendar."
"I see," said Ms. Bridle ironically. She smiled. She suddenly remembered why she wanted to help Complicity.
"Just—Death Comes for the Archbishop," clarified Complicity.
Now, Ms. Bridle recognized the plain orange hardcover on Complicity's desk. It was one of her own copies.
"Why, that's a beautiful book," said Ms. Bridle.
Due to embarrassment, Complicity suddenly found it difficult to speak, or move. Her face became flushed.
"Um, I thought it was okay," said Complicity. She wondered what she should say. "I mean, like, you've read it?" she added hastily.
"Of course," said Ms. Bridle. "It's a classic."
"Huh," said Complicity. "Um, I didn't know that. I mean, I've never heard of it before. I just liked the title, I think. I didn't think the writing was that great, though. In the book itself. Not at all, actually. Um, honestly I thought it was kind of stupid."
"Hmm," said Ms. Bridle. " I don't think I agree with that."
Ms. Bridle put her hands on her hips. She had fleshy forearms and upper arms. At the bottom of her forearms, the big stretch of flesh was broken up by various bands and bracelets in earth tones. Ms. Bridle always wore layered blouses and sweaters, and in the spring she wore blouses and skirts with patterns on them. Complicity tried never to notice the specific attributes of "Ms. Bridle," except when she was mad at her.
"You really need to hurry," observed Ms. Bridle.
Complicity was not making much progress at putting the "March Events Calendar" into her backpack.
"Sorry, I am trying to be fast," said Complicity.
Ms. Bridle stood in front of her until Complicity finally put away the "March Events Calendar" and finished tying her shoes.
Complicity grabbed the priest book and got ready to leave. However, after walking a few feet, Complicity decided to put the book into her backpack as well. She had gotten into the habit of always walking with her hands crossed over her chest, and she couldn't do this while holding a book, without being obvious.
"Actually," said Ms. Bridle, while Complicity was squatting on the floor, "why don't you walk with me to my car?"
"Huh?" said Complicity.
"Or see me tomorrow after class if you prefer," said Ms. Bridle. "Either way—I'd like to talk to you a minute."
"Oh! Uh, today is fine," said Complicity, shoving the book into her backpack and quickly getting up. The teacher wanted to talk to her. Complicity's embarrassment turned into excitement. Complicity wondered if embarrassment and excitement were related.
"Okay, great," said Ms. Bridle. She led Complicity out of the room.
They walked alongside the long empty "Language Arts" building. They walked between the "Language Arts" building and another school building. It was a pleasant but overcast day.
"So let's talk," said Ms. Bridle, eventually.
"Um, about what," said Complicity, falsely modest. It was probably about her last paper or her grades or something. Maybe she would get a chance to make up an explanation for why she thought the book was stupid.
"You don't know?" said Ms. Bridle, suddenly serious. "Really? Or you're trying to be modest, or what?"
She fixed her pale blue red-rimmed eyes on Complicity.
Complicity thought about the difference between embarrassment and shame.
"Um, I honestly don't know," persisted Complicity. "Is this about my last paper? You said it was plagiarism or something."
"Plagiarism," repeated Ms. Bridle. She looked at Complicity again. Complicity resisted eye contact.
"Complicity," said Ms. Bridle. "You know very well that I thought your short story assignment was—original. It was a little disturbing, yes. But you have a very strong voice. And choosing to title it 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'—I thought that was kind of a hysterical reference, actually. Have you read any other work by Flannery O'Connor, by the way?"
Complicity had not read any work by Flannery O'Connor. She had sort of heard the name before, but she kept getting it confused with "Georgia O'Keefe," on the poster right above the teacher's desk. She vaguely associated both women's names with blouses and large, womanly arms. Complicity had not known that "A Good Man is Hard to Find" was the name of a story by Flannery O'Connor. She just thought it sounded like a "literary" title for something, and since Complicity's story was about a gay guy who couldn't relate to people, she thought it was appropriate.
"No, I've only read, um, 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,'" replied Complicity. "I used it as a reference, like you said in your comments."
"Right," said Ms. Bridle. She looked Complicity over.
Complicity's story was about a gay teen shooting up his middle school, not because he was made fun of for being gay (he was good at hiding his nature), but because he was a nihilist. In fact, being gay for so long without anyone noticing was part of what made the unnamed teen narrator realize that "life was just a video game with all graphics and sound and no gameplay basically." First he killed all the girls, because they were obviously fake. Then he even killed the popular athletic guy he was in love with, to prove his thesis that "nothing was real."
"Listen, Complicity," said Ms. Bridle, frowning. "Listen to me this time, okay? I want to help you—"
Ms. Bridle trailed off, searching for words.
Complicity felt a pleasurable sensation in her spine like someone was directly manipulating her nerves back there. Embarrassment is irrational, thought Complicity, like if you're just talking to someone, there is no reason to feel embarrassed. Shame is rational, when you know that you are contemplating something bad. That is the difference between embarrassment and shame, thought Complicity.
"Why would I need help," said Complicity.
Ms. Bridle sighed. They were at the entrance to the staff parking lot. It was just a parking lot next to the gym.
"Let's go to my car," said Ms. Bridle.
They walked across the staff parking lot. Complicity could see the other kids hanging out and playing sports on the other side of one of the fields.
"You're about to fail my class," said Ms. Bridle.
Complicity pretended to be extremely surprised.
"But I turned in that short story paper!" said Complicity.
Ms. Bridle stopped. She put her hand on the trunk of a white compact car.
"There's my car," explained Ms. Bridle.
Complicity felt excited. The car was not too old, not too new. There was something sad and surprisingly intimate about seeing an adult's car who was not your family. Complicity felt dramatic.
"The big projects," Ms. Bridle told Complicity, "such as the short story assignment—constitute 60% of your grade. You're okay there. There were a lot of lates, but I think you only failed to turn in that one, the family tree project.
"Your real problem," continued Ms. Bridle, "is the homework. The personal journal entries, the vocabulary words. Those are 40% of your grade! How hard is it for you to write one page? I don't even read those journals! At this point your total percentage grade in the class is probably in the high 50s—an 'F'."
"An 'F'?" emoted Complicity. "My mom's gonna kill me."
"I don't like what you're doing," said Ms. Bridle, earnestly. She looked right at Complicity. "I don't like what's happening to you. You're different from the other kids—to be perfectly frank. And I think you know that. You're a writer. I don't want to sound cliched, but you're wasting your potential."
Complicity looked back into the teacher's pale watery eyes. She couldn't resist them anymore.
Complicity knew they were following a script. She knew that she wasn't a writer. She was just a person with bad intentions. She actually hated writing.
Complicity even knew that she was only saying "bad" to herself as a euphemism, so that she could pretend she meant "evil" or "fucked up" or something, instead of what she really meant, which was "petty." Which was "stupid." Which was—
"Death comes for the archbishop," Complicity suddenly said, by accident.
"I'm sorry?" said Ms. Bridle.
But shame and excitement were related. Complicity felt at once guilty and superior to this arbitrary adult woman, this "missionary." She became aware of Ms. Bridle's large, womanly arms, of the substantial breasts under her thin short-sleeved blouse, even though she wasn't mad at her anymore.
"Um, I said, is there still a way I can get a better grade?" said Complicity. "Like maybe if I turn everything in from now on?"
They looked at each other.
"I'll tell you what," said Ms. Bridle finally. "You can still get a low 'B' in this class. Prove you care about what you're doing. I'll be honest with you, your grades here aren't going to matter in the long run. Not in high school or in college. But I'll also tell you right now, you're not going to get anywhere, in high school, in college—in your relationships—if you go on like this. Which, I think, Complicity, would be a terrible, terrible shame. So what I am going to do is this: I am going to give you an extra credit assignment. If you choose to complete it, well, maybe the chance to undo some of your more egregious mistakes will motivate you to change yourself. What do you think? "
"So I can get a 'B' if I do this assignment?" asked Complicity.
"It will count towards a 'B,' yes." replied Ms. Bridle. "Are you going to do this, Complicity?"
"Um," said Complicity, "yes."
"Okay," said Ms. Bridle.
Ms. Bridle walked to the passenger-side door of her car. She started yanking on the passenger-side door and shaking the handle.
"Shit!" said Ms. Bridle.
Then the door swung open. The staff parking lot was half empty, otherwise it would have hit another car.
"Sorry," apologized Ms. Bridle. "It's just that this door doesn't work."
The car was messy inside, with papers strewn everywhere.
"Of course, it's not like there's anything to steal here," remarked Ms. Bridle as she rifled under the front seat.
Complicity noticed something draped carelessly on the dashboard—probably one of Ms. Bridle's scarves or blouses. She noticed something else. "A condom," thought Complicity involuntarily, her heart skipping a beat. No, it was part of a package of gum. Ms. Bridle probably chewed gum.
"Okay," said Ms. Bridle finally. She emerged holding a brown paperback.
"This is my own copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find," said Ms. Bridle. "It's a Flannery O'Connor short story collection. For your first extra credit assignment, I want you to write an essay about the title story, 'A Good Man is Hard to Find.' And this time, I'm not gonna give you a topic. You can write about anything, any theme that interests you, as long as you explore it in depth for at least five pages. Your grade on this assignment will count for half of your homework grade. Once you turn that in—I'll give you another essay to write. Then you'll have a chance to make up for all of your missing homework."
"Wow, uh—thanks," said Complicity.
The essay was due in a month.
"I am making an exception for you, Complicity," warned Ms. Bridle.
During the rest of lunch, Complicity decided that she was going to change. She was going to become a better person. That would show Ms. Bridle, if she started turning everything in. Complicity got started on her extra credit assignment right away. She started reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
The story was about this stupid family. At first Complicity assumed the family was going to learn a gentle lesson, or nothing would happen, but then, to her surprise, the whole family ended up getting killed by a dramatic philosophical dude named "the Misfit." Complicity enjoyed reading about how this superficially normal man completely destroyed this family's conventional values, and lives. "Wow," thought Complicity. "I can actually appreciate literature." Maybe she was "a writer" after all.
Yet, when she got home, Complicity realized that she had no idea what to write about the story. She thought it was good that the man killed this stupid family. She thought it was cool how he was such a "gentleman" while totally not giving a shit. That was probably how she would act if she started killing everyone at her school—
The next thing Complicity knew, she had spent three hours daydreaming about how she would act if she started killing everyone at her school. Her parents were going to be home soon.
After that, Complicity avoided working on the essay for a long time. She finished reading Death Comes for the Archbishop. She got back to her normal life of school and watching TV. She read a YA novel about boys in a boarding school somewhere.
The night before the essay was due, Complicity tried to start writing it again. She decided her theme was that the Misfit was the "good man" of the story's title. She thought that would probably shock the teacher. She thought that was probably not what Ms. Bridle expected anyone to write. But, Complicity did not know how to defend this theme. It was not "good" to kill people, right. Maybe she could use the "nothing is real" idea twice? Complicity started to panic. She decided read the story again, to maybe find evidence she could quote.
After she finished reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find," however, Complicity decided to re-read the novel about boys in boarding school. "Ms. Bridle will never understand how much I appreciate literature," thought Complicity earnestly.
The next day, Complicity walked to Ms. Bridle's classroom with a feeling of dread. She thought about asking the teacher for an extension. Maybe she could just avoiding drawing the teacher's attention while she was in class, thought Complicity.
But it was another overcast day. The white sky gave objects a strange clarity. It was the kind of sad, brooding, yet mild weather that made your shame grow and ripen until it detached itself from "you," and that was excitement.
Complicity walked right past the door to Ms. Bridle's classroom.
Complicity walked alongside the "Language Arts" building. She just kept walking. She watched the number of students around her decrease, until she was alone walking between the buildings. She saw a puddle with the moody sky reflected inside, white marbled with darker gray. Complicity felt excited, and superior, and sad in a voluptuous way. She looked at herself in one of the windows, with her arms crossed, making sure she had a flattering profile. "I look like a killer," thought Complicity.
Complicity would spend a lot of her life walking around like this.
Complicity stood in front of the staff parking lot. She looked at the ground, at the pearl-colored sky, at the houses on the other side of the school, hidden behind black trees. She could hear shouts coming from the gym, kids having P.E. Should she go somewhere? Complicity wondered how to make this feeling last.
Complicity looked at the cars in the parking lot. She recognized Ms. Bridle's not-too-old, not-too-new car, the white compact, and she approached it. Complicity decided that it would be "fucked up" to try looking inside.
Complicity put her face in front of the glass. She saw a lot of papers inside, some books, maybe her classmates' writing. No condoms. She looked up, afraid someone had seen her. Complicity felt very excited. She felt like a fucked up stalker.
What if Ms. Bridle kept a "personal journal"? Would it mention Complicity?
Suddenly, Complicity pulled on the passenger-side door. She tried lifting the door a little by the handle, imagining how part of it might be stuck somewhere. "Shit!" said Complicity. She shook the door in its frame. Then, the door swung open. Ms. Bridle had not fixed the lock on her door.
Complicity was breaking into her teacher's car for no reason. She shut the door after herself. She was inside.
Complicity stood on her knees on the front seat, on top of a bunch of papers. She picked up a couple of them—extra copies of the "March Events Calendar." It was already April, thought Complicity. She rummaged through the disorganized heap of papers. She found assignment sheets from two months ago, lists of vocabulary words in different colors, "vocabulary squares," chapter-by-chapter summaries of books from class.
Complicity realized what she was doing. She looked at the school, at the empty sky and the long, flat buildings seen from behind an unfamiliar car window, made exciting temporarily, sad and beautiful. Complicity didn't want this to be over. Complicity needed to hide.
It was a two-door, four-person car. Complicity climbed into the back seat. She put her backpack on the floor. After some hesitation, Complicity crammed herself down there, as well, crouching so that the big bump in the middle of the floor, the one between the two front seats, pressed into her stomach. Complicity put her head on top of her backpack. It smelled like nylon, and the bottoms of people's shoes. It was actually sort of comfortable. If she turned her eyes way to the right (her right), she could see the edge of the back seat and part of the sky.
Complicity wondered how long she could lie there. She wondered what would happen if Ms. Bridle returned. Most people didn't check the backs of their cars. What if the teacher decided to drive somewhere during lunch, and Complicity stayed where she was, spying on her? Maybe Ms. Bridle was engaged to someone, and they would—
"You are way too fucked up," Complicity told herself, excitedly.
Complicity felt the top of the back seat. She found a book and some crumpled up pieces of paper. The papers were more copies of the "March Events Calendar." Ms. Bridle must have accidentally made a lot of extras. The book was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, "a guide to writing and life." The book advised readers to write lots of rough drafts and feel more confident about themselves. It seemed to be targeted at older women. "Ha, ha, if I had to use a book like this I would feel ashamed of myself all the time," thought Complicity.
The bell rang. Complicity heard distant voices. It was lunch. Complicity started to worry that someone might see her if she tried coming out of the car. She lay immobile for forty-five minutes, waiting for Ms. Bridle to show up. Ms. Bridle did not show up.
The bell rang again. Lunch was over, and the voices came closer. Kids were going to the gym for P.E. Complicity realized that she was supposed to have P.E. next. Another bell rang. Fifth period started.
Complicity did not move.
Eventually Complicity reached for the top of the back seat again, trying to find new books or other objects of interest. She noticed that there was actually not as much stuff in the back seat as there was in the front. Ms. Bridle probably found it annoying to keep turning around when she was sitting in front.
Complicity tried to reach as far as she could without moving her body. She stretched her arm all the way out, until she felt something with the tips of her fingers. Finally, she managed to get it into her hand. It was a piece of clothing.
By this point, Complicity had been lying in the same position for almost two hours. She was wearing a sweatshirt with her mom's consulting company logo on it, and her underwear, t-shirt, and pants had become soaked with sweat. Her joints hurt. She kept thinking of the part in her story where the main character stayed overnight on the roof of his school, cutting himself to prove that "pain wasn't real."
Immediately, and without self-consciousness, Complicity put the garment that she had found right in front of her face, and inhaled deeply.
The smell was not how she had imagined at all.
Complicity lurched up. This piece of clothing was not one of the teacher's characteristic blouses. It was unmistakably a man's undershirt, torn and stained. Even Complicity could tell. The tag said "Medium." Perhaps it belonged to one of the young male teachers. Complicity reeled with emotion.
Ms. Bridle was sexually involved with a man who had left his shirt in her car. That was the only explanation. Complicity pressed the shirt to her face and kept smelling it until she lost sensitivity to the smell. She felt completely apart from the world.
That was how Ms. Bridle found her an hour later, kneeling against the back seat of her car, her nose in one of her old dirty gardening shirts.
Complicity had to talk to the counselor. She also had to go to an extra class for kids with learning disabilities for a while, but she didn't get kicked out of school or anything. Ms. Bridle ended up giving Complicity a "C" in English, instead of an "F," even though she never turned in any of those extra credit assignments.
Somewhere beyond time and space, a pale and beautiful priest watched Complicity S____, and he loved her, unconditionally.