When I do eventually tell my mother about Mr. Myrtle, I wonder if she’ll remember meeting him on parent-teacher conference night. He was the last teacher we met with that evening. It was the second week of October and nothing had happened yet. Mr. Myrtle was still just my English teacher who always wore band T-shirts on Fridays. There was a core group of girls who were habitually late to his class because they lingered in the bathroom to touch up their makeup, and they always made it a point to ask about his T-shirts.
“So what does X Los Angeles stand for?”
Sometimes, he stayed after school and played music for us on his guitar, or he would bring in CDs of bands he liked and explain a little about each one: “This is ’60s bubblegum pop. This is ’70s freak-out psychedelic. This here is ’60s garage rock. This band plays kind of like classic stoner jams. This is British New Wave, which I don’t really like that much, but there’s a few really good songs, and it did eventually lead to even better stuff.” We were all in love with him, and never stopped to wonder why it seemed like he wasn’t very friendly with any of the other teachers, or why he spent so much time with us, or why he never seemed too eager to shut down these instances of flirtation that happened in class and outside of class.
When my mother and I sat down in Mr. Myrtle’s classroom to talk about my academic performance, he was still just my teacher who had once drawn a picture of me in his notebook while another student was asking him questions about our exam on Death of a Salesman. He later slipped the picture onto my desk as he was handing back corrected essays, with a note that said, “Did I capture your essence? It’s not easy, you know…” When my mother met him, he was still just my English teacher who wanted to talk to me after school about this story I had written for class, which was about a mentally ill man who pushes his daughter off a drawbridge, and then spends the rest of his life looking for her, in complete denial of what he has done. On that night, my father was still somewhere out in the world. The thought had even crossed my mind that maybe Mr. Mrytle was going to be the one to finally handle my mother’s ass, because why not? They were both so beautiful and infinitely kind.
“I love that quote,” my mother said, pointing at a Virginia Woolf on the wall. “‘As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’ I love that.’”
“Brilliant writer,” Mr. Myrtle said.
“I like the James Baldwin quote,” I said, pointing it out to my mom. On the first day of class, I had stared at it while we went over the syllabus. “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.”
“Oh, is that why my morning bagel tastes so cruddy?” my mom said, and we all laughed. No matter how affected we were on the inside, we would always know how to conduct ourselves in public.
Mr. Myrtle leaned forward and looked into my mother’s eyes. “I’m just going to say it,” he said. “Mrs. Li, your daughter is, by far, the best student in her class. There is no question about it. She’s an incredible student.”
“That’s the best thing you could have said. I mean, I’m not surprised, but it’s still so good to hear,” my mother said. She put her arm around me and squeezed me like she had done a million times before.
“He says that to everyone,” I said, making them both laugh, as I had hoped they would.
I had stopped fucking around online. I no longer met men on the Internet who were willing to drive a hundred miles to see me. I started talking to Thessaly on the phone again and confided things in her like how I had seen my father in front of our old elementary school, and we had shouted at each other in the street, and since then, neither my mother nor I knows anything about his whereabouts, and I was scared that he was in trouble. My mother had just been promoted to office manager at her law firm, and our house was small but beautiful and full of green plants. My favorite teacher was telling my mother that I was his favorite student, and everything was as delicately perfect as the formation of the stars in the sky.
Exactly one year later, my mom and I found out my father was dead. They found him floating in the Hudson River (how did he get there, my mother wondered, and was he chasing a shiny bird, I wondered). But all that misery was to come later. Now, the three of us were sitting in Mr. Myrtle’s classroom. He and my mother were chatting about their favorite authors. I felt I had become the happy, observant bystander my father so frequently encouraged me to be.
“Watching is enough,” he used to say to me.
“What if I want to be part of it?”
“You’re always a part of it. When you were little, your mother and I would sit a couple feet away from each other, and I would watch you crawl from your mother’s arms into mine, and you know what? I was a part of it. Sure, all I did was watch, but there’s not a person living or dead who’s going to convince me I wasn’t a part of it. I was a part of it,” my father insisted. “Goddammit, I was part of it.” ♦