JANESVILLE, WISCONSIN -1983
Paul Ryan’s pencil danced playfully across his paper, swinging around the blue lines of his college-ruled notebook like they were rungs on the climbing dome in the playground outside. He was a studious young man, but he indulged himself in an occasional break from the teacher’s whining drone, losing himself in his sketches. This particular notebook, kelly green and immaculately kept, served as his easel, his portfolio, a repository for that imagery which moved him most and represented him best.
The graphite scritched against the page, leaving behind sharp, hasty lines as he finished shading a half-full Gatorade bottle next to some sensible post-exercise snacks. Paul considered the artfully constructed spread, a still life of the trappings of athleticism. He frowned. The detail work on the orange slices wasn’t quite where he wanted it. A sigh escaped him, heavy enough to ruffle the pages of his notebook. He would start again. Paul Ryan would not back down until he got what he wanted from this terrible orange.
As he outlined a tasteful bowl of almonds that served as the centerpiece to the work, he distantly realized someone was saying his name. It came to him muffled, as if the high, shrill voice that spoke to him was fighting to be heard through cotton padding; or deep, still water; or a thick wall built entirely out of his own delicious contempt.
Paul Ryan looked up from his task.
“We’re watching a video, Paul. Unless those are notes, please put your pencil away and pay attention.”
Mrs. Anderson’s thick, soft arms folded across her chest, and she raised her eyebrows meaningfully at his notebook. Paul smiled sheepishly, breathing gently through his teeth as cold disdain shivered down his back. He placed his pencil neatly at the top of his desk and folded his hands over the drawing. His teacher smiled and turned back to the tv cart, her floral dress bright in the light from the half-shut windows. Paul’s smile was gone in an instant, pencil back in his hand.
The tip of his tongue traced a line back and forth over his lower lip as he lovingly rendered each precious nut, studiously trying to block out the words of the old woman on the tape playing before his rapt classmates.
…while the sperm is coming into the man’s penis, the woman’s body is getting ready to receive the sperm. It’s amazing how God made it. Because while they’re making love and being happy together, the woman begins to feel her vagina becoming slippery inside…
Hateful, Paul thought furiously, scribbling the shadow of a banana with one hand while he adjusted the soft cloth of his light gray sweatpants. Hateful.
He threw his pencil down. Mrs. Anderson’s voice had taken on an irritated edge.
“Are those notes?”
“No, ma’am,” he said sorrowfully. His hand curled lovingly around the image.
“Don’t make me take that from you,” she said sternly. “Put it away and focus.”
Paul slowly closed the notebook. His eyes flicked to the small screen at the front of the room.
Now today, we’re going to look at the boys. Do you like that?
Paul closed his eyes. He did not like that.
When he opened them again, the old woman was trailing a pencil, eraser first, down an anatomical line drawing of a man.
…unlike girls, boys have their sexual organs on the outside. We have the penis, which is like a little tube…
Paul let out a breath of nervous laughter, adjusting in his seat. He turned to Jacob Masterson in the seat beside him.
“Jake. Psst. Jake.”
Jake turned his eyes from the tv, smirking.
“What?” he whispered.
“I was gonna see if Mr. McPherson would let us take a football from the P.E. closet during lunch today. Do you-”
The woman on-screen froze as his teacher hit the pause button and the lights at the same time. The whole class blinked blearily, glancing back at him in confusion. Mrs. Anderson stood at the front of the room, fuming.
“Yes, Mrs. Anderson?”
“Are you better than the rest of us, Mr. Ryan?”
Yes, a dark voice hissed within him, scratching wildly at the prison of his ribcage. One thousand times, yes.
“No,” he muttered ruefully, looking at his desk.
“Are you somehow above this lesson?”
“No,” he repeated, pressing his hot, damp palms into the sweatpant-clad columns of his thighs.
“Have you retained anything we’ve been learning the past two days?”
Paul heard the gentle huff of laughter from Jake, felt the eyes of his classmates, inhaled the thick scent of Tamara Jackson’s strawberry shampoo and his own sharp sweat.
“Then please,” Mrs. Anderson said lightly. “Come to the front of the class and give us all a refresher.”
He was aware, suddenly, of all the vulnerable places on his body. The thin skin of his wrists, the backs of his knees, the cold, clammy expanse of his neck and belly. His mortality. His want. He gripped the pages of his notebook, crinkling the pristine edges, and stood up, holding it awkwardly against his hips.
“Leave your notebook, Mr. Ryan.”
Time stilled. People lived and died between the beats of his heart. In a flash, Paul Ryan saw the exquisite minutiae of creation, living for an infinite moment in the detailed valleys and the ridged whorls of God’s fingerprint. The pale light glinting off of Mrs. Anderson’s medical alert bracelet skipped between the dust streaks on the tv screen before dancing along the outline of Tamara’s brastrap that marred the pure line of her uniform’s crisp white shirt. Jake’s sour breath filled the space between their desks with short, staccato laughter, and Paul saw it hang in the air, saw it move like sparkling dust particles, before it alighted on Tamara’s neck, sliding down her skin like yellow oil, ruining her. Paul crinkled his nose. He saw the spiral of his future fall away below him, an inevitable slope down which he would effortlessly slide. He saw the sharp line of his jaw emerge from the gentle possibility of his adolescent face, the cleft chin grow firm and stubbled. He saw his shoulders broaden and his hands fly expertly over the knot of a tie. The entire celestial body of his present and future unraveled before him, narrowing to a single point, anchoring to his skin, flattened by time to stitch itself here — forever young, eternally humiliated, and incontestably erect in front of the entire class.
The golden image of himself gifted to him by God stood cursed before the eyes of the assembled, sporting an inescapable, destiny-changing boner.
The notebook slipped from his fingers.
Tamara, seated in front of him, turned her head, her eyes fixing on the unavoidable spectacle of his tented sweatpants.
How dare you look at me, you bitch, the thought came calmly through the slow, drowning panic. I will tear your eyes out. I will ruin you, Tamara. Piece by piece. I will alter you. I will own you. I will make you weak and you will beg me not to die.
Mrs. Anderson looked at him oddly from where she stood.
“Paul? Are you okay? You seem a little pale.”
She walked forward a few steps, until realization dawned on her face.
“Go ahead and sit down, Paul. We’ll talk after class.”
The kindness in her voice lay in him like a poison. Trembling with frailty and rage, Paul sank slowly back into his seat, eyes fixed, unseeing, on that silver medical bracelet that dangled from her wrist as she clicked the lights back up and she raised the VCR remote. The sight of it left tracers in his vision, and he watched her nervously smooth the thin fabric of her dress over her thick flesh. The sharp red imprint of the caduceus outshone the delicate letters of her name across the band, obliterating everything but the winged staff and ambitious serpents of that scarlet mark. It ate into his eyes, burrowing past his skull to curl up with whatever long-fingered demon already lived and skittered inside him.
Paul wet his lips and shifted his waistband. The scratching inside his ribcage focused. Fixated. Calmed.
On-screen, the old woman’s index finger dipped repeatedly into the loose tunnel of her opposite hand. Future Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pressed the heat of his hand into his crotch, groaned quietly, and met Jake’s eyes.
“Football’s gonna be by the north field, Jake. You in?”
Jake nodded slowly.
“And Jake? One rule.”
Jake looked at him, apprehensive. Paul breathed deep the smell of strawberries. He flashed his white teeth.