The first day of class, he wore a suit, a black suit over a black button-down shirt and a purple tie. All the clothes hung from his frame as though he’d decided that morning to grab them out of his taller, broad-shouldered older brother’s closet.
“I thought I should dress up today so no one would mistake me for a student,” Mr. Briar said. Lara thought his face looked flushed, like he was overheated in the dark fabric, a stream of the hot September California sun shining from the window near the door of the classroom onto his white skin. The building didn’t have air conditioning.
Mr. Briar looked younger than all the other teachers, but not quite young enough to be mistaken for a high schooler.
“How old are you?” Mike, the skater boy who sat next to Lara asked.
“I’m 25,” he said. “This is my first year teaching solo so we are all freshmen in a way.” He looked at Lara and she thought he winked, but it might have been the sunlight making him squint. The golden light cut across his face and the chalkboard, where he’d written his name. He had soft features and shaggy blond hair, and Lara thought he could have passed for early 20s, but not a teenager.
After that first week, he stopped trying to distinguish himself from his students and instead dove into trying to be their friend.
An early storm arrived, clouds funneling over the mountains on the west side of the campus, and they could see the rain coming down in sheets as it approached. The campus was filled with open space in the center with a grassy quad that transformed into a mud pit after the first hour. Lara stood huddled under an umbrella outside class with the other students while they waited for Mr. Briar.
She saw him running up the pavement dressed in faded jeans, ratty sneakers and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. She thought he was rushing to let them out of the rain. But instead he dove headfirst into a mud puddle outside the English 1A room, the wet turf serving as a nature-made slip and slide.
“That was cool, right?” He grinned as he reached into his soaked jeans pocket for his keys. His shirt and pants dripped on the dingy carpet as they settled in for the second period class. “Guess I should have waited until closer to the end of the day to do that.”
At the end of class he handed out their notebooks. On the first day of class he had told them they would spend the last 20 minutes of every class writing whatever they wanted to write.
“No prompt or parameters,” he said. “Just whatever is on your mind.”
Most of the students bought cheap one subject Mead notebooks in primary colors. Lara bought a notepad made from recycled paper with a plain tan cover she doodled on sometimes when she was organizing her thoughts.
“And here is yours, Ms. Eco-friendly,” Mr. Briar said, when he put it down on her desk. He had goosebumps on his arms from the wet clothes and the image on his T-shirt was concealed by still damp mud.
Lara wanted to be a writer. She wrote poetry and bits of short stories in her notebooks.
Mr. Briar wrote back with a critique or advice on revisions, but mostly with encouragement.
She opened her notebook to read Mr. Briar’s latest reply. Lara, you always surprise me with your ability to write so well and to make me feel the gamut of human emotions with the stories and poems you write. He wrote in red pen, the same color he used to grade tests, hisletters sharp and full of right angles. He filled half a page with his responses to her, or more. Lara glimpsed Mike’s notebook page and saw the teacher had only written a couple sentences to the boy. She imagined Mr. Briar at home at his kitchen table before work with the pile of notebooks, a cup of coffee next to him, pausing when he got to hers. Giving her extra words, extra time. Extra thought.
She liked English class, but she especially liked the free tutorial period. The students were supposed to use it to visit classrooms where they needed help or to work on homework. But Mr. Briar let her and her friends who weren’t even in his class come to his room to play poker or goof around.
Mr. Briar gave her a whole pack of the carbon copy tutorial passes, pre-signed.
“So you don’t have to ask me everyday for a new one,” he said.
She filled them out for herself, Jeannie and Gerald, two of her best friends. She didn’t break rules often but she and her friends were good students who did their homework at home. Tutorial was wasted time for them, so it seemed only a slight indiscretion.
Her friend Gerald taught them all to play 5-Card Draw, but Mr. Briar taught them to play Omaha and Texas Hold ’Em. When Lara won a hand, he patted her on the shoulder.
“Good job, Lar-Bear,” he said. “I should take you to a tournament with me in Vegas.”
He guffawed at his own joke and winked at her when he’d walked away to check on other students who were actually there for tutoring.
Some days Mr. Briar brought in a guitar and played songs while they wrote in their journals. He told the students the names of singers and bands she’d never heard of like Cat Stevens “Wild World” and “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas.
As the semester went on, he shared with Lara through her notebook that he was divorced and he had a daughter who was 6.
If anyone ever hurt her, I would kill them, he wrote.
Lara’s entries became more like letters to Mr. Briar. She wrote about the crush she had on a senior boy who would never notice her, how jealous she was of her best friend Jeannie who all the boys loved and how she thought no one would ever like her.
Just give it time, Lara. You are amazing, but high school boys might not notice it. I do.
Her friends were all into theater and talked her into helping with the stage crew for a senior play. She agreed because the boy she liked was in the play and she could watch him from backstage. Mr. Briar was there, too, as a faculty advisor.
“Which boy is the one you like?” he asked Lara. “I’ll put in a good word for you.”
A few weeks into rehearsals, Lara went backstage to get some props for the second act and she found Mr. Briar sitting on the floor in the dark.
“Are you okay?” she asked him.
He looked up at her and she could see even in the dim light that he had been crying. “My ex is moving out of state,” he said. “I’m never going to see my daughter again.” Lara sat down criss crossed on the black backstage floor with him. She heard the muffle of the actors taking a break in front of the curtain and a strip of light leaked in from a door in the back where some of the other stage crew members snuck out for fresh air.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll see her for summers and holidays, at least.” Mr. Briar started crying again, his shoulders heaving with sobs even as no sound came out, his face contorted with sorrow. He put his arm around her and pulled her closer so they were facing each other now. He buried his face into her shoulder and she wondered if she smelled like sweat or like the Teen Spirit deodorant she’d put on that morning. She could smell his cologne, something like Cool Water, and his warm breath smelled sweet. Lara let him hold her and cry for five minutes, then pulled away.
“I need to get the stage ready for Act 2. I’m sorry about your daughter.” At the end of rehearsal, Mr. Briar asked if she needed a ride home. “No, Gerald’s mom is picking us up so I’m good,” she said.
A few days later after rehearsal, Mr. Briar gave Lara a little stuffed horse dressed in a T-shirt with the school logo and name printed on it.
“As a thank you for being there for me the other day,” he said. “I really appreciate it. You are wise beyond your years.”
Lara took the horse home and put it on a shelf. It watched her when she did her homework and as she fell asleep at night. Mr. Briar’s attention had made her feel special all year, but now another feeling took over, a wariness that settled in her chest and never quite left.
As closing night approached, she and her friends looked forward to the cast and crew party. The Friday of the last show, they sat in tutorial playing poker.
“You should ask that guy you like to be your date at the party,” Mr. Briar said.
“Yeah, that’s a great idea,” Jeannie said. “You know he’ll be there so he can’t make up an excuse about not going.”
“Come on, stop joking around,” Lara said. “I don’t want him to know. It will be weird.” But Mr. Briar grabbed a notebook and started writing in his hard-angle letters.
Dear Evan, I have been in love with you all year. Please be my date for the cast and crew party tonight. Love, Lara
Lara tried to grab the letter away but Mr. Briar folded it up and tossed it to Jeannie.
“You can deliver it tonight,” he said.
Lara didn’t think Jeannie would really do it, but at the theater before the curtain opened her friend handed the slightly crumpled piece of binder paper to the boy.
Lara was glad he didn’t read it, but a mix of rejection and betrayal simmered in her gut.
During English the next week, Lara wrote her shortest notebook entry yet.
It wasn’t your place or Jeannie’s to tell anyone how I felt about them. I hate you for doing that. It was just a crush…I didn’t want to date him and I knew he didn’t like me, but now I can’t even be around him. You ruined the rest of the year for me. I don’t even want to be in this class anymore, she wrote.
Lara had calmed down by the next time she had English midweek, but she didn’t want to see what Mr. Briar had written back.
Lara, I will never let you get away. I will track you down with Gerald and Jeannie, and spray you with whipped cream and put a cherry on top because you are the sweetest thing in my life right now. Don’t leave me, he wrote.
His writing was messier than usually as though it had been rushed or he was overly emotional when he responded. The words about whipped cream made Lara pause and the wary feeling deepened.
She started writing less in her notebook and Mr. Briar started writing more and more, as though she were his confidant for all the things that were going wrong in his life. Then on a Wednesday evening when she’d stayed home sick with a cold, the phone rang at home and she answered it from her bedroom with the door closed.
“Hello?” she said, thinking it would be Jeannie or Gerald, or someone else from class.
“Hey, Lara-Bear,” the voice said, the words coming out slow and thick.
“Who is this?” she asked.
Mr. Briar’s voice sounded strained and his words stumbled out in a different cadence than usual.
She sat on the edge of her bed with the phone to her ear.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I just have a cold.”
“I hope you are back on Friday,” he said. “I wrote you a lovely note and I want you to read it.”
“Yeah, I should be back,” she said. “Have you been drinking, Mr. Briar? Are you okay?” “Yeah, I’m great. I’m great.”
“Okay, I need to go, there is someone on the call waiting,” Lara said, and hung up the phone.
She called Jeannie.
“Mr. Briar just called me at home,” she said.
“Why? Was he giving you the homework assignment from class since you were sick?” Jeannie asked.
“No, he said he was checking on me,” she said. “But I did kind of hang up on him quickly. Maybe he was just calling about homework. But he sounded weird, like he might have been drunk.”
“He’s cool, Lara,” Jeannie said. “I’m sure it was nothing.”
Lara went back to school the next day and it wasn’t one of the days she had English. She lingered at the end of French class with Mme. Boucher. She didn’t mean to say anything, but her mouth started moving on its own.
“Did a teacher call you at home?” Mme. Boucher asked her.
“Mr. Briar did,” she said. “He said because I was out sick and he was checking on me. It’s probably no big deal, right? I mean, I don’t know for sure he was drunk. He just sounded weird.”
Lara never saw Mr. Briar again. When she got to class on Friday a substitute teacher stood at the front of the class and the principal stood with her.
“Students, I want to introduce Ms. Callahan. She’ll be finishing out the year with you,” the principal said. “We only have a couple months to go and they’ll fly by with her.”
After the principal left, Ms. Callahan, who had gray hair and wrinkles around her eyes, handed back their notebooks.
“We don’t have time for these writing journals,” she said. “Looks like you guys are a bit behind the last three units we need to get through this year.”
Lara didn’t ask Mme. Boucher or anyone else what happened to Mr. Briar. Rumors circulated among the students.
“I heard he kissed a girl outside the gym late at night,” Mike whispered at the end of class to Lara.
Another kid said, “No, I heard he had sex with a senior from the volleyball team in his car.”
Someone else said he had been caught drinking on campus.
“He was always way too happy to be here,” Mike said. “Maybe he was just drunk all the time.”
Lara didn’t share her little bit of truth and she never knew if it was her question to Mme. Boucher that got him fired or if one of the rumors was true.
She took her notebook home, but she didn’t open it up to the back, to the last page where Mr. Briar had written the last note to her while she was out sick. She didn’t want to know what he had to say.
Lara put the notebook and the little stuffed horse in the trash, not the wastebasket in her room or the one under the sink in the kitchen. She carried them out to the dumpster in the corner of the parking lot of the apartment complex, where no one would ask her questions about it.
Melissa Anderson is a Latinx writer from California and a reader/editor with Roi Fainéant Press. @melissacuisine (Twitter) @theirishmonths (IG)