The cheapest form of time travel is hanging around youth and, because of my book, this past year, I’ve spent some time teaching writing workshops.
Not too long ago, at a certain gig, most of my students were fifteen-year-old boys. A strange species, right? Ropy physiques, tight jeans, and loose morals.
The majority of learning took place during the lunch hour, when school was tucked away and the real world took over. They would bring up girls. Mostly naked ones. And my mind whirled, reminding me that I’m overdue for an apology, not to mention a confession, especially before June, when another birthday will present itself.
I was 13 and found that friend, you know the pal whose father attended Woodstock and smoked pot and gifted his kid access to his Playboy collection. Yeah, that one.
One day, Ben, arrived at school with a copy of Playboy from June of ’84, my birth month and year, so I took it as a sign. Although, when you’re 13, anything involving a naked woman can be viewed as a sign, a neon one.
Ben and I met up in the bathroom at the tail end of break, and he let me flip through the magazine’s pages. It wasn’t Professor Kirke’s wardrobe that led to Narnia; it was better. It was glossy pages and glossier women, and breasts and legs and hips and bellybuttons.
“I’ll sell you the centerfold for twenty bucks,” Ben said.
I slid my hand into my pocket and came up with ten dollar bill, given to me by mother to spend at the lunch truck. “What can this get me?” I asked.
“This,” he said, pointing to a woman a few pages past the centerfold.
I drank her in. Tanned and long-limbed, eye lashes en masses, a coquettish grin playing on her face, like she was happy to see me, too. “OK,” I said.
We walked into a stall and Ben ripped her out of the magazine with surgical precision. I handed him a ten spot and slid the woman, I called her Brooke, into my math folder. (The class had already met, and I didn’t want Brooke to get creased.)
As I sat through English class, my stomach grumbling, I wanted to zip open my leather-bottomed Jansport and check in on Brooke. Make sure she was still there, cozy and safe, nestled between Pythagorean Theorem notes and a 65% math quiz that my mom wouldn’t place on the fridge. The teacher rambled on, and I let my brain breathe. I had made the right move: the centerfold would have been too much. Too much paper. Too much woman.
Where would I display Brooke once I arrived home? I couldn’t tack her to the wall. She wouldn’t exactly complement my mom’s decorating: a Winslow Homer sailboat print above my bed, a crucifix near the window.
A book, I thought. Yes, a book. I would tuck Brooke in one of those gigantic coffee-table books that no one ever read—one that was more for show than substance.
After I arrived home, I found the perfect book, one on the French architect, Le Corbusier. It was heavy and large enough to hold Brooke without having to fold her.
I secured Brooke with some masking tape and slid her onto my shelf, where I hoped she’d be with me forever.
Our romance was lovely and consistent. Every day I opened to page 177, and there she stood, bashful and surprised, her lips bent in something of a smile. Every now and then my mom would pop in and I would flip to some random page and actually soak in information on Le Corbusier—learn how he was obsessed with the absence of supporting walls and fostered deep love for rooftop gardens.
My mother is/was that mother, the one that witnesses her child drawing and immediately invests in an all-inclusive two-week package to live in Paul Cézanne’s home in Aix-en-Provence.
So I should have known that that year, when my birthday came around, there would be a stack of heavy books accompanying my ice-cream cake. There, in a heap the size of a goat were more coffee-table sized books on architecture: Gehry, Hadid, Piano, Kahn, and Pei.
My mom, proud of herself, leaned back. “I noticed,” she said. “You’re always looking at architecture. And you seem really into it. Like you’re trying to figure something out. Do you like your gift?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good.” She stared at my father. “You see,” she said. “He wants to know how things are made. He appreciates beauty.”
My father shrugged and took a sip of merlot.
My mom wasn’t that far off. I did want to know how certain things were constructed. I did want to immerse myself in beauty. Architects and I just had a different idea of what monuments looked like. Theirs possessed sconces and arches and flying buttresses. Mine were rife with curves and red-painted toes and moisturized skin
But for now, Mom, I have to apologize. I’ve let this go on for far too long. I guess I liked looking like a cultured 13-year-old kid rather than an extra in American Pie. Let’s go ahead and stop it with the architecture books. It’s been 32 years and my collection weighs more than Frank Lloyd Wright in a rainstorm. If the books do keep rolling in, though, know you’ll have a secondary residence soon enough—one constructed from these hefty books’ pages, spines, and laminated covers.
Mathieu Cailler’s poetry and prose have been widely featured in numerous national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The Saturday Evening Post. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has been a finalist for the Glimmer Train New Writers Award, the New Rivers Press American Fiction Prize, and the Carve Magazine Raymond Carver Short Story Award. He is also the recipient of a Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and a Shakespeare Award for Poetry. He is the author of Clotheslines (Red Bird Press), Shhh (ELJ Publications), and Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press), a finalist in short-story fiction for the 2016 International Book Award.