Wrap Party

He had a name that sounded destined for fame.

Rick Valentine.

Or, Mr. Valentine if you were one of his lucky students.     

But fate had other ideas.

This isn’t to suggest nothing went right in Mr. Valentine’s life. In fact, he had a lot to be grateful for. And really, not a whole lot to actually complain about, especially in the comfort of metro Detroit retro bachelor pad right out of a Cary Grant flick.

As stable as his “day job” may have been, he also saw it as the easy way out. And he couldn’t help but feel as though he were a real-life theater version of Mr. Holland’s Opus. For some, this may be a dream come true. But as Mr. Valentine liked to preach in his acting and lit classes, it’s all about context. And in this context, Mr. Valentine saw the feel-good tearjerker as the culmination of a failed dream come true. Sure, Mr. Holland gets to hear his magnum opus performed by his students upon his retirement – but it’s the final nail in the coffin of his dream of being a renowned composer. Despite a lifetime of trying.

To no avail.

 

To be clear, Mr. Valentine loved his job. More specifically, he loved his students. And they loved him. Through thick and thin. More importantly, they respected him. And he respected them in equal measure. Good and bad alike. Especially his theater kids. They weren’t always the best students in a traditional academic sense. But he wouldn’t have traded them in for the world. The robotic 4.0 types?

No, thank you.

The academically-challenged, but free-thinking creative geniuses? Yes, please.

The primary source of stress at his job was rarely in the classroom, or on stage. It was the outside bullshit. The bureaucracy. Things he couldn’t control. Specifically, budget cuts, which slashed his award-winning theater program in half.  The writing was on the wall:  It wouldn’t be long before budget cuts forced him into being a mere ordinary English teacher. He liked teaching lit. But he loved teaching theater.

But through sparse, scattered grants and donations – and a great deal of out of pocket expenses – he somehow kept his program alive (though on life support). This included paying for licensing fees for the play he produced. He had no other choice. He would continue to do so for as long as he could afford…or, until they axed his program completely. In the meantime, he was going to relish every moment while it lasted. But with each passing play, he couldn’t help but feel he was one step closer to the final curtain.

For awhile, he held out hope that the pendulum would eventually swing back in his favor, only to discover that the fulcrum of the pendulum was broken. It swung swing in only one direction now.

 

 

Compounding matters was the onset of 40, which was turning out to be much more anxiety that he anticipated. He always had the idea that age was just a number, anyway. It was all about state of mind. And though he still wholeheartedly believed this, something about reaching a new decade was harder than anticipated.  Perhaps had he reached the pinnacle of his dreams by now, it would have been an easier pill to swallow. But it was a sobering reminder that the curtain to his dreams was almost full closed  – even if half of his life still lay ahead of him.

He knew he still had a lot to thankful for, including a steady relationship that – until recently – had been smooth sailing despite the routine complacency that had settled in. But rough waters seemed to be picking up lately. And though the final play of the year was finally over, it had followed a steady, stressful stream of non-stop productions throughout the year. But now that the demands of it were mercifully over, he could hopefully recalibrate his life, so that all the other scattered pieces would finally fall back into place. At the very least, he could take pride in yet another successful, sold-out production. And it wasn’t just about recouping some of his money back.  It was about giving these kids the audience they deserved. Though, he also reminded them that whether there is one face in the crowd, or 500, you perform as though you were on the biggest Broadway stage. Every. Single. Time.

They fully bought into it, too.

No doubt, his students kept him grounded. They were the one thing that thing that kept him most stable and centered (how many teachers could say that?). And it was because of these students that he got to remain in the world of theater, where he felt most at home.

But he couldn’t escape the feeling at times that it was only fool’s gold. Although he garnered the perfect teaching position, it essentially forced him to put his dream in the backseat. In the early part of his career, he at least quenched his thirst for the spotlight in the community theater circuit – and even some film and commercial work here and there, creating the illusion that his dream was still alive.

But with summer looming and his mid-life crisis worsening, Mr. Valentine was thinking about getting involved in theater again.  Maybe it would be just the thing he needed to snap out of this nearly year-long funk. But if he did that, he knew Julia wouldn’t be thrilled. He was already pushing their relationship to the limit with the demands of his “day job”. He didn’t blame her. The demands of theater are taxing on any relationship.

Which is why he was beginning to wonder if he’d be better off alone.

It had been two years since he last performed on stage – the longest such stretch of his adult life. His lack of time to devote to his dream was compounded by the diminishing returns he noticed between auditions and roles, proportionate to his exponentially increasing waistline.

It is no coincidence that he had been in a slow spiral ever since. He just needed to figure out a way to pull out of it. To regain his spark.

But how?

Once upon a time, he never would have thought it possible to lose it to begin with.

But he would have to figure it out later. Right now, it was time to focus on the wrap party he was throwing for his cast and crew to celebrate the final production of the year. He really could have used Julia’s help, but she was pulling another late-shift at the hospital. She wasn’t on board with the party, anyway.

When he brought up the idea of hosting a party at his apartment, she replied:

“Are you fucking nuts?”

“It’s totally fine,” he assured her. “They’re good kids!”

“In this this day and age, it’s just not a good idea,” she forewarned.

Naïve as he may be, he truly believed he had nothing to worry about.

He loved his students. And most of all, he trusted them. And so did their parents. They were like a family.

He wholeheartedly believed that. And never had reason to think otherwise.

 

Across town, Mr. Valentine’s star Lucy and her woefully mismatched jock-boyfriend C.J. were in the midst of their own one-act drama.

“So, when were you going to tell me?” C.J. asked, with simmering rage.

“Soon,” Lucy said, still in full theater make-up. All she wanted to do was wash her face and get ready for the wrap party, hosted by her favorite teacher and mentor. She couldn’t believe she was actually about to go to his house – she was always curious what his house looked like.

But getting ready entailed tearing down her stage-self and transforming into her true-self (though, the lines between the two were so often blurred).

Arguing with C.J. was the last thing she wanted to be dealing with. In fact, it was time to end it once for all. He was sucking every ounce of positivity out of her. Ask anyone who knew her and they would tell that she was typically a reservoir of positivity and energy. But lately, he was just dragging her down. And that was no easy feat. Yet somehow, he routinely found a way to do so. She knew what she had to do, but was too afraid to do anything about it.

There were two big roadblocks: she was worried about how he would handle it. Not that he would do anything to harm her, but she just got the sense he wouldn’t handle a break-up very well. He had a tendency to get…overly emotional. Most importantly, she didn’t want to hurt him.

The fact that he was her first real boyfriend and each other’s “first” in many other ways certainly wasn’t making things any easier.

When were you going to tell me?” he repeated, his tone more threatening.

“Tonight. After the party.”

“You’re just saying that because your mom slipped and told me.”

“That’s not true, C.J.”

“How can you be so fucking selfish?”

“I’m selfish?”

“You’re the one who’s gonna move and leave me.”

“You’re the one who’s not being supportive. This is my dream. It always has been and you know that. I couldn’t just give up a scholarship like that— ”

“It’s that fucking teacher…”

“What? Mr. Valentine?”

“You never mentioned New York ‘til you started falling for him.”

“Are you even serious right now? You’re jealous because somebody finally made me realize I can something I never thought possible? Because he’s the only person who believes in me? Because somebody actually encourages me to follow my heart?”

“What about my heart?”

For the first time, she saw how truly selfish he was. It was always right in front of her, but now she could see clearly.

“Maybe if you were half as supportive as Mr. Valentine—”

“You know what? Fuck this. Fuck your stupid little dream and while you’re at it – go fuck your teacher – if you haven’t already.”

He stood up.

“Go have fun at your shit ass party.”

C.J. stormed out of the house, leaving Lucy in tear-streaked stage make-up. She watched through the door as he drove away and fought with all her might to run after him. But she knew it was for the best.

He peeled away with Blink 182’s “Dammit” cranked up, never once looking up to see her in the window.

She hated that fucking band with a passion. And bands of their ilk. God forbid he ever let her pick the music when they went out.

“I just don’t like that musical shit you play,” he once said.

And that was that. Just his shitty music.

But not her problem anymore! Yet here she was, still crying. Waiting for the relief to settle in. She knew she was stronger than this. And she certainly knew this was for the best. Not to mention, way past due.

After washing off her stage, she got dressed for the party– a sundress she bought with the gift card from C.J. to Kohl’s (the only gift he knew how to get her). She then put her “real-life” make-up, but nothing could conceal the fact that she had been crying. She suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of facing every one. Which would mean having to pretend that nothing was wrong  And the last thing she felt like doing tonight was…act.

C.J. was right about one thing: Mr. Valentine did help her decide to go New York in pursuit of her dream. A dream he told her that he regretted never following himself.

As far as her falling in love with him?

Maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong about that.

She started heading out the door, then made a detour into the basement, where she grabbed a half-empty pint of vodka, covered in a layer of dust.

First time for everything.

She stashed it into her purse, then headed out to her parents’ Jeep Cherokee.

 

Back at the retro bachelor pad, Mr. Valentine put the finishing touches on the snack table, before inserting a tray of his home-made buns into the oven. He then neatly arranged his plastic champagne glasses on a serving tray, which awaited the sparkling grape juice he planned to toast his cast with.

He put on a Dean Martin album on to his Westinghouse vintage stereo console, poured himself a few sips of bourbon from his mini-bar into a retro tumbler – his one chance to drink tonight. And relax. He sat back on his vintage couch.

The calm before the storm.

 

As Lucy listened to the soundtrack to her favorite musical: The Last Five Years, tears cascaded down her face. As she waited as a light, she looked over at her purse, noticing the vodka bottle poking out. She pushed it further into her purse. Though tempted, she knew it would be best to wait until she reached her destination before she indulged.

She reminded herself that she didn’t have to do this.

But she was committed. And once Lucy committed her mind to something, there was no turning back.

It was the trait she identified with more than anything else.

 

Mr. Valentine finished his bourbon, then looked toward his collection of booze, realizing it wasn’t such a good idea to have them sitting there so clearly in the open. He covered the bottles with a towel, grabbed a pretzel rod en route to the kitchen, then set his glass down on the sink, somehow shattering it to smithereens.

As he cleaned up the shards of glass, the doorbell buzzed.

The first guest had arrived.

Begin the beguine!     

He never should have answered the door.

 

Lucy arrived at Mr. Valentine’s apartment complex, parking alongside a curb a half block away. She wiped away an endless parade of tears. Her phone rang, but she ignored it. She knew it was probably Thomas. Add it to the list of ways she stabbed her bestie in the heart. Maybe now with C.J. seemingly out of her life, she can make things right with the people who mattered most – especially Thomas. He deserved better.

She deserved better.

But right now, she simply couldn’t see past the tears.

 

One by one, Mr. Valentine’s prized pupils arrived (or, in some cases, two by two) and before he knew it, small living room was packed with a dozen or so talented teenage thespians.

But one notable cast member was missing.

His shining star.

Lucy.

She was always on time. He supposed it was okay for her to show up to a party 20 minutes late. She earned it.

Meanwhile, as his students sat around awkwardly, Mr. Valentine pondered the fact nobody commented on his vintage décor. Perhaps they just assumed that he was so old, the hipster element was lost on them? He certainly couldn’t blame them.

“Where’s Lucy?” Mr. Valentine finally asked.

“I’ll text her,” Thomas said.

Thomas was Lucy’s best friend. The consummate gay best friend behind every rising theater diva. Mr. Valentine couldn’t help but notice that poor gay Thomas was left behind in the dust once she started dating that douchebag C.J. – one Mr. Valentine’s least all-time Hall Shame students. The only reason he was enrolled in Mr. Valentine’s acting class to begin with was so he could be with Lucy – or, more specifically, so he could keep a jealous eye on her. He was clearly jealous of gay Thomas. That’s how insecure he was.

Though he could sort of understand why nobody asked Mr. Valentine about his vintage décor, he couldn’t understand how nobody touched the large spread of snacks he put out. Since when do teenagers ignore snacks? He couldn’t really blame them. Coming to your teacher’s house is awkward no matter how well-liked he was. It was akin to  running into students out in public, who often acted shocked that their teacher had lives outside of school.

Mr. Valentine decided the time had come to take matters into his own hands. They were used to Mr. Valentine taking the reigns.

“C’mon everyone! Refreshments!”

At his urging, everyone headed toward the refreshment table.

There was no denying it: they took direction well.

 

Through the gauze of her tears, Lucy looked toward her purse and after a long hesitation, reached for the bottle, opened it, took a sniff, flinched. She took a deep breath, then took a larger swig than she could handle. She immediately spit it out. She tried it again, but a smaller dose, swallowing it like the cough medicine she hated as a child.

Still hated.

Her phone rang, but she ignored it and took three more sips.

And then the tears stopped.

 

Mr. Valentine impatiently looked out the window.

“She’s not picking up,” Thomas said.

“Did she mention she was stopping anywhere on the way here?”

“She said she was going home to change, but she should have been here by no.”

“Typical starlet,” Mr. Valentine responded. “Can you call her again?”

Thomas dials…

“Voicemail.”

Mr. Valentine probably shouldn’t have been as worried as he was. But it wasn’t so much that was worried about her safety, as he was that she would somehow bail on the party. He would never say it aloud, but she was the primary reason he was having the party to begin with. He realized it was a tad bit creepy, but knew he meant no ill will. He simply couldn’t help but view her as his (secret) guest of honor. She was the star of the show, after all.

Though he would never admit it aloud, there was no question he felt an innocent affection toward her. It wasn’t so much about the teacher-student dynamic, as it was the spiritual match of two artists. He was in awe of her talent, pure and simple. And her intelligence and wit. Some might call it a crush. And in his thoughts, one might say he is certainly guilty.

But like the vast majority of teachers, he would never do anything to act on this in any sort of unprofessional or physical way. He knew better. And the last thing he wanted to do was put his career and reputation in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the cast and crew continued munching on appetizers, Mr. Valentine began to realize that despite the slow start, he woefully underestimated the average teenage appetite. If necessary, there was always pizza.

And though his star hadn’t arrived yet, since he didn’t have any other beverages other than sparkling grape juice, he decided the time had come to give a toast.

He popped the cork and filled the plastic flutes, then handed everyone a drink, before proposing a toast.

“I want to thank each and every one of you for everything you did to make this play the success that it was. Honestly, this was the best production I’ve ever been part of. In all my years of teaching, you were all hands down the best group of students I’ve ever been dealt.

“Even though Lucy was the star – and – I don’t mean to undervalue her contributions in any way – you all deserve equal credit for making this show what it was. To this room full of amazing talent, you are all stars in my eyes. I salute you.”

Mr. Valentine raised his glass, then downed his juice.

“Now if you will all have a seat, I have a special surprise in store for you.”

Everyone took a seat and awaited with eager anticipation as Mr. Valentine headed over to his stereo. If there was one thing they could count on with Mr. Valentine, it was special surprises.

He located the soundtrack album to the French New Wave classic Un Homme et une Femme and carefully placed it on the turntable.

As the needle hissed, Mr. Valentine jubilantly exclaimed:

“Let’s get this party started!”

Static turned into music.

And Mr. Valentine began to cut a rug. And how!

It took awhile before his students overcame their initial state of befuddlement, but eventually they whooped and hollered at the one-man show taking place before their very eyes. They were used to such crazy antics from their beloved teacher. But this one may have taken the cake!

Not that anyone should have been that shocked. He danced like the dickens every chance he got. And when he was wasn’t dancing, he was singing some old chestnut, which is students never heard before – just one of the many quirks and eccentricities his students loved so much. And yet another reason for students to be confused as to what his actual age was.

“Shake it! Don’t break it!”, Stephanie yelled out – the wild child of the group.

Mr. Valentine had legitimate concerns about she would be it weren’t for theater. Now that the season was over, all he could do was hope that she would stay out of trouble – particularly as far as drugs were concerned. He had already busted her for pot once. But rather than reporting it, he gave her a motivational pep talk instead. Though he knew the “right’ thing to do would have been to turn her in, he also knew that she would never trust him again and would likely lead her to getting into even more trouble down the road. He did what he honestly thought was in her best interest and safety. He wasn’t afraid to break the rules in order to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, Mr. Valentine wiggled his backside back and forth in what could only best be described as the twist…with a twist.

Vintage Mr. Valentine.

Doing what he did best – or, at least strived for the most: bringing smiles to the faces of his students. And reminding students how to live life in the moment. In the real world. And on stage.

He often reminded them that there was more to life than homework and rehearsal. Those things were important. But without fits of spontaneous fun, what was the point?

 

 

Outside the apartment, Lucy took one final swing of vodka, then struggled out of the car and up the sidewalk to the apartment building.  Usually the epitome of grace, she was now stupid drunk.

Lucy clumsily removed a piece of paper from her pocket with Mr. Valentine’s apartment number written on it. She dropped it and the wind blew it away. She tried to chase it down, but it was no use.

She approached the intercom, located Mr. Valentine’s name on the buzzer, then rang it.

“Hello?” said Mr. Valentine.

“Mr. Valentine?”

“Lucy?”

“It’s me!”

“Come on up. Apartment 304.”

He buzzed her in. She somehow managed to make it up the steps, toppling over a couple of times and coming dangerously close to falling all the way down, before catching herself, through no control of her own.  When she finally reached the third floor, she found Mr. Valentine eagerly waiting for her at the door.

Best teacher ever.

“Hey, if it isn’t the star of the show! Let’s give it up for Lucy!”

Everyone cheers as she entered. Thomas mockingly booed.

As Mr. Valentine watched Lucy stumble her way across the apartment, one thing was immediately clear: she was sauced.

As she clumsily gave everyone a hug, Mr. Valentine desperately tried to figure out what to do about the matter at hand. Catching a kid smoking weed backstage at school was one thing. But inviting a drunk student in his home was a whole other ball of wax.

It was his turn for her sloppy drunk hug. He hesitantly allowed her to embrace him, but then she awkwardly held on to him for so long, literally leaving him no choice but to pry her off him, somehow managing not to fall onto the couch with him still in her clutches.

He realized he could no longer ignore the drunk diva in the room.

“Lucy…”

“Yes, Mr. Valentine?”

“Do I smell alcohol?”

“I don’t feel so good,” she said, before collapsing into the couch and immediately slumping over.

“Looks like the drama queen is at it again,” Thomas said

Mr. Valentine sat next to her and sternly stated:

“Lucy, I think you’ve been drinking and you need to go home.”

“I’m not drunk,” she drunkenly insisted.

“I’m your teacher. Trust me. You’re drunk. What’s your parents’ phone number?”

“You want me to leave your party, Mr. Valentine?” she said with a hint of flirtation.

“Of course not. But you leave me with no other choice.”

“You’re going to get me in trouble.”

“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Mr. Valentine said sternly, fully aware now that he had a major problem on his hands. “Now what’s your number?”

“Why do you want my number, Mr. Valentine?”

Goddamit, Lucy!. he wanted to shout. But he kept his cool.

“So, I can call your parents.”

Was she trying to sound flirtatious, or was he just imagining things?

Projecting?

Lucy pretended to zip up her lips and throw away an invisible key.

“Fine, I’ll call the police. Your choice.”

Lucy surrenders the number to him.

He dialed. Voicemail.

“Is there another number I can call?” he asked.

Lucy shook her head, but he got the sense she was lying. How could they possibly not have another number? He went ahead and left a message, with the French soundtrack still playing on the hi-fi.

“Hi, this is Mr. Valentine – Lucy’s drama teacher. Your daughter showed up at my wrap party a few minutes ago, slightly inebriated. She needs to be picked up, so please contact me as soon as you get this, or just come on by to 7421 Sedgemoor.”       He hung up.

“Do you have any idea where they might be?”

“They went to a party.”

“When will they be back?”

“I don’t know. Late.”

“How late?”

“Tomorrow morning,” she said with a sheepish grin.

Meanwhile, the rest of the students were snickering, enjoying the after school special unfolding before their eyes.

Lucy slumped down in her seat. The concern of having a drunk high school student in his apartment was almost equal to the possibility that a drunk student was going to vomit on his vintage sofa.

Mr. Valentine tried to help her up, but she resisted, nearly pulling him on top of her. The rest of his guests began snapping pics and taking video. Soon, it would be all over social media.

“Guys, do me a favor and promise you won’t post any of this.”

Nobody seemed to be taking his request seriously.

“I’m serious. Do you guys want me to get fired?”

“But you didn’t even do anything wrong,” Thomas said.

“Did you?” Stephanie asked with as sheepish grin.

“Listen to your teacher!” he barked.

His students finally relented.

“Come on, sit up.”

“Noooo,” Lucy insisted in a drunken haze. “I just want to lie down here.”

“There’s not enough room. Come with me.”

He offered his hand, immediately regretting his decision before he could even follow through. Not because he was worried about what might happen, but rather because of what his students might say and post and gossip about before he even had a chance to get out his side of the story.

But he simply loved his vintage sofa too much to risk tainting it with millennial vomit.

Lucy clumsily took his hand and Mr. Valentine lead her into his bedroom, well aware of the snickers coming from the living room as she struggled to stay on her feet.

This is how rumors start.

No matter how innocent his actions were, he was more worried about what others might say he did. The court of public opinion was the most powerful court in the land. Especially in this day and age, which is why he always made sure to leave his classroom or auditorium door open when meeting alone with a student – male or female. Now, he found himself in the unfortunate and unexpected situation of having to leave his bedroom door open, as he awkwardly helped Lucy into the bed, then placed a blanket over her.

“Let me get you some water,” he said, before stepping out of the room.

“Is she ok?” Thomas asked.

“She will be,” Mr. Valentine said.

“Yeah, when he’s done with her,” Stephanie said under her breath, but still well within earshot.

Mr. Valentine was always amazed by how much students underestimated a teacher’s hearing.

He entered his kitchen, grabbed a Tupperware bowl and a cold glass of water and rag, then headed back into his bedroom, where Lucy was rolling around in the bed. Though Mr. Valentine assumed it was nausea, her body language suggested otherwise.

“Lay still,” he ordered.

“The room’s spinning,” she said.

“It’s not the room,” he began, setting the bucket down. “It’s your head.”

“Now it’s spinning faster!”

“There’s a bowl here next to the bed in case you get sick…”

“Thanks, Mr. Valentine. You’re sweet.”

Jesus Christ.

He then handed her the water.

“I don’t want to drink.”

“You should have though about that earlier.”

She took a sip. He then gently placed the rag over her forehead.

“Why’d you do it?” Mr. Valentine asked.

Lucy didn’t respond.

“Honestly. What was the point?”

She hesitated even more, before she finally blurted it out:

“C.J. dumped me.”

“When? Tonight?”

Lucy nodded. Mr. Valentine searched for the right words, but none came. He knew well enough that there were no words in the world that could make a brokenhearted teenage girl feel better. He wasn’t a miracle worker. Hell, there wasn’t a miracle worker on the planet who could mend a teenage broken heart.

So, he did the only thing he could do in a situation like this: he listened.

“I don’t understand,” she said, through tears.” He should be happy for me.”

“The fact that he doesn’t listen says all you need to know about him. Don’t you think?”

He wasn’t quite sure, but there was a hint of agreement in her face. And then she suddenly sat up, sniffing the air.

“Is something burning?”

Mr. Valentine knew exactly what she meant.

“Oh, God. My buns are burning!”

Mr. Valentine bolted out of the room and compounded by his burning buns was the horror of seeing his students helping themselves to his liquor!

“No, no, no, no. Please don’t do this,” Mr. Valentine exclaimed in horror.

Stephanie offered him a shot.

“Put it down.”

“Oh, c’mon! It’s not like you don’t drink.”

“That’s pretty obvious,” Mr.  Valentine said, pointing at his expansive collection of booze. “But I didn’t say I don’t drink. I just don’t drink with my students. You guys know better.”

            As Mr. Valentine gathered the bottles and shots from his students’ clutches, he was in way more hot water than he initially supposed. He then knocked over a bottle of Beefeater, spilling its contents all over the floor.

“Is something burning?” Thomas asked.
“My buns,” Mr. Valentine said matter-of-factly, before racing into the kitchen to open the oven and tend to his burning buns, throwing on a snowman oven mitt.

Just as he pulled his burning buns out of the oven, the unmistakable melody of vomit emanated from the bathroom. Followed by a tardy smoke alarm.

Torn between dealing with a fire alarm, or a puking student, he headed straight to the bathroom, ignoring the taunts by his students. And still wearing his oven mitt.

“Are you okay—?”

Lucy vomited again, somehow missing inside the toilet and instead, landing a direct shot to the exterior of the bowl.

For a brief moment, Mr. Valentine wondered if he might puke, too.

“Why are you wearing an oven mitt?”

Meanwhile, the fire alarm continued to beep.

“I’ll be right back,” Mr. Valentine said. “Make sure you don’t sit in your vomit. Or, choke on it, for that matter.”

Mr. Valentine rushed into kitchen and used his oven mitt to disperse the smoke, to no avail. He removed the battery, then headed back to the bathroom.

“Any better?” Mr. Valentine asked, as Lucy sat next to the toilet, on the edge of her puke puddle.

“Yes.”

Mr. Valentine helped her up, then lead Lucy back into the bedroom.

“Drink,” he said offering her water.

She took a long sip, before handing the glass back to him.

“Now lie down,” he ordered.

She did as instructed. As he proceeded to tuck her in, he felt an unexpected level of affection. He couldn’t quite pinpoint it initially, then realized it was a fatherly instinct kicking in. For the first time, he truly saw her as a child. He was used to treating his students – especially his theater kids – more like adults they were close to becoming than the childhood they were about to leave behind.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Better.”

“Bet you’ll think twice next time.”

Lucy nodded.

“I think you’re right, Mr.  Valentine.”

“And you’re really going to regret this in the morning.”

“Well, I deserve it.”

“That’s not true. But you definitely made a poor choice.”

She looked away. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Yet still, so damn innocent.

“But we all do.”

She looked him in the eye, smiling.

“You’re amazing, Mr. Valentine.”

Here we go.

            “Not really.”

“No, really, you are. I mean it. Everyone knows it.”

“I’m just doing my job.”

And suddenly from the living room: the unmistakable sound of sex.

Moans, slaps, and all.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

            “What’s that?” Lucy asked.

“Good question!”

            How much worse could it possibly get?  And who in the hell was fucking in the other room?

He was afraid to find out…but he had no other choice but to investigate.

He slowly crept out of the room, preparing for the worst, as the moans increased intensified in volume and frequency. Where was everyone else? Did they leave? Or, were they quietly watching whoever was fucking?

And please God, not on my vintage sofa!

“Make my ass bright red like an apple!” an unrecognizable female voice said. But then he realized exactly what was happening. Much to his relief, he students weren’t fucking. They were simply watching porn from his personal collection. Which meant they had also dug through his shit. Unlike his liquor, he didn’t just keep his porn collection in plain sight. He didn’t want his  girlfriend to find them. But nevfer for a second did he ever think he would have to hide them from his students!

Why on God’s green earth were his students suddenly turning against him?

And on his turf?

This just had to be a nightmare, right?

“Mr. Valentine! I never knew how awesome you were!” Stephanie proclaimed.

And before he could respond or even shut the porno off, his girlfriend entered.

“I don’t even want to know,” Julia said, exasperated as Mr. Valentine ejected the DVD.

“Can I talk to you privately?” Julia demanded, heading off into the kitchen.

“Do not touch a single thing without my permission,” Mr. Valentine demanded, before he followed Julia into the kitchen, DVD still in hand.

“Somebody’s in the doghouse!” Thomas blurted out.

He entered the kitchen, where Julia was waiting for him.

“Julia, I can explain—”

“What in the hell is going on?”

“Calm down,” he begged.

“Calm down? Are you fucking kidding me? How can you be so irresponsible?”

“Mr. Valentine!” Lucy yelled out from the bedroom.

“Yes?”

“The room is spinning again!”

“What’s that all about?” Julia asked, exasperated.

Mr. Valentine headed toward the bedroom, tossing the porno into his cluttered closet as he entered. Julia follows closely behind, as Lucy hung upside-down off the foot of the bed. Mr. Valentine helps her up.

“You know what,” Julia began. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

Julia turned to leave. Mr. Valentine followed her to the door, which she slammed in his face.

“Julia. Julia, wait – lemme just—“

“I have to get to work. Which is a good thing, since I’m not ready to deal with this right now.”

He turned to face his students, who were trying not to laugh. He then headed straight to his bedroom – his refuge. Waiting for him was the one student he knew wouldn’t laugh at him, despite being the biggest source of stress. And his current, single danger.

She was asleep. Her eyes closed; her face pale. In fact, she appeared so lifeless, he checked to make sure she was still breathing. He wondered if he should take her to the hospital. After all, who know how much she drank? Chances are, she probably never drank much before this night.

As he watched her peacefully sleeping body, he couldn’t decide if she looked more like a child, or more like the adult she was on the cusp of becoming. He concluded that she walked the dangerous line between the two. There was no doubt: she wss beautiful.

Angelic.

Pondering the possibilities.

Possibilities he never thought existed in even the deepest, darkest recesses of his mind.

A rea-life Humbert Humbert.

            But then he came to his senses and snapped himself out of his mental lapse into moral depravity and got back to the task at hand: figuring out how the fuck to get out of this hot mess. The last thing he wanted to do was turn the situation into something sticker  than it was already was. At least right now, he technically hadn’t done a single thing wrong, save for some stray, illicit musings.

But wasn’t it already too late?

Wasn’t he already in a heap of trouble?

Of course, it could always get much worse. He at least had some control over how much worse the situation would get.

He knew it would be for the best to not to be alone with Lucy in the bedroom,

but he couldn’t bear to face the rest of his students. He felt as though they were reading every one of his thoughts. And haven’t they already caused enough trouble?

It didn’t help that he caught the following snippets of conversation, which was all the more reason not to stay alone with Lucy:

“I don’t know what’s worse: a student wanting her teacher, or a teacher wanting his student.”

“It’s obvious they want each other.”

“I think it’s more him than her. I don’t think she—”

“Are you kidding me? She practically worships the ground he walks on.”

“I think it’s the other way around.”

“I think it’s an equal opportunity partnership.”

It was time to put his foot down. But just as he was about to get up, Lucy woke up and smiled at Mr. Valentine.

Her knight in shining armor.

“You’re the only one who believes in me, Mr. Valentine.” And then for added emphasis: “Who’s ever believed in me.”

“That can’t be true.”

“It is. I think I’m in love with you, Mr. Valentine.”

And there it was.

“But Lucy…I’m your teacher.”

“Don’t you love me, Mr. Valentine?”

“Lucy…”

“Yeah?”

“I can’t. You know that.”

“Why not, Mr. Valentine?”

“Why? A, you’re my student. B. you’re too young. But other than that, you’re a terrific girl. You’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re funny, you’re talented, and believe me, if you were 10 years older—maybe even five …”

“Let’s play an acting game. I’ll pretend to be older—”

“Lucy, I’m flattered, but I think it’s best if you stopped talking.”

“Wasn’t it you that once said non-verbal communication can be more powerful than verbal?”

“What in the hell’s going on here?” a deep voice demanded from the hallway.

And lo and behold, there appeared C.J.

How in the hell did he manage to sneak into his apartment?

“C.J.?!” both Lucy and Mr. Valentine said in shocked unison.

“I knew it. You lying bitch.”

“C.J., I think it’s best if—”

“Mr. Valentine – ‘Mr. Teacher of the Year’ – is going to try to tell me what’s for the best while sitting in bed with my girlfriend. I love Lucy.”

Lucy began to cry.

“Get out of my bedroom,” Mr. Valentine demanded.

“I don’t think I should,” C.J. mouthed back.

“Oh, I think you very much should. Unless you want me to call the cops.”

“This coming from a man in bed with a teenager.”

“Let me ask you something. What is the one thing I say should always be considered in any story?”
“Umm …” C.J. struggled to figure it out. But this came as no surprise. C.J. was never the brightest bulb in the batch. What Lucy saw in him is something Mr. Valentine never understood. Not that he had any business one way or another. But Lucy wasn’t just any other student. She was…special.  And he was aware of this fact now more than ever.  C.J. continued to ponder the answer.

Lucy sat up.

“Context, C.J. Context! God, why are you so fucking stupid?”

Mr. Valentine picked up his vintage 1960’s phone and began to dial.

“Please, no,” C.J. begged.

He looked at Mr. Valentine, then back at Lucy.

“Goodbye, C.J.” Lucy said.

Tears welled in C.J.’s eyes, before he stormed out, throwing a vase, and smashing it to smithereens. A family heirloom.

The students watched in shock as C.J. headed out the door.

Lucy lay back down and Mr. Valentine innocently rubbed her back, before he realized – innocent or not – that it was not such a good idea.

“You’re going to be fine. Everything’s going to be fine.”

A knock at the door.

Mr. Valentine charged out of the room and yelled at the door.

“Go away, C.J.!” shouted Mr. Valentine.

“This is the police!”

Mr. Valentine slowly opened the door.

“Sorry about that. How can I help you, Officer?”

“We got reports of unruly behavior involving food thrown off of your balcony and loud shouts.”

Mr. Valentine turned to his students.

“Who was throwing food?”

Everybody pretended to be clueless. Most of them  were actors after all. And Mr. Valentine taught them well.

“Who are all of these kids?” the officer asked.

“Oh, these are my students.”

“Looks like quite a party.”

“Oh, nothing too fancy.”

“What’s the occasion?”
“It’s a wrap party.”

“As in rap music?”

“No, wrap, as in party following a play.”

“Oh,” the cop asked, seemingly still confused.

The cop scans the students and recognizes one of the students.

“I remember you.”

“Hey, what’s up?”

The cop spotted the open bottle of sparkling grape juice.

“Is that an open alcohol container I see?”

“No, that’s juice. Just juice.”

“Can I see it?”

“Of course.”

Mr. Valentine walked over to the bottle and brings it to the cop.

The cop looked at the label, sniffed the contents.

“Do their parents know they’re here?”

“Of course,” Mr. Valentine said.

“Just keep a better eye on them, okay?”

“Oh, trust me. I will.”

And then…more vomiting.

“Who’s that?”

“Oh, that’s my girlfriend. She’s not feeling too well.”

“Sounds like it.”

“Have a good night,” the officer said, satisfied that all was well.

“You too, Officer.”

“Keep it real, kids. And say no to drugs.”

“We will.”

Mr. Valentine shut the door.

“That’s it. Party’s over.”

“C’mon, Mr, Valentine!”

It was time to put the hammer down:

“I would like to thank all of you for all the respect you showed me tonight.”

“We’re sorry—”

“Just go.”

“What about Lucy?” Thomas asked, seemingly suspiciously of Mr. Valentine’s intentions.

The students filed out, one by one.

Until there was only Lucy.

Mr. Valentine slowly shut the door, then leaned against it.

Please be a dream. Please be a dream.

            He realized that if it were a dream, there would be no repercussions.          

            And he could get away with anything he wanted.

But he knew for damn sure this wasn’t a dream.

It wasn’t even a nightmare.

It was real life.

And real life had consequences.

He sighed deeply, before heading toward the bathroom to check on Lucy. But she had already retreated back to bed. In fact, she was already asleep, curled into a ball, her backside facing away from him. And then he noticed the vomit on the floor.  She never made it the bathroom. Nor, did she use the puke bucket for that matter.

He’d deal with the clean-up later.

For the time being, he hovered over her, watching her body exhale deep, slow breaths.

Before his mind wandered too far down a path it never should have gone in the first place, he entered the kitchen and re-dialed Lucy’s parents.

Please answer the goddamn phone.

No dice.

He wanted nothing more than for this night to be over. But until Lucy was gone, he had no choice to wait it out. Even if it meant sleeping on the couch,

For the time being – he  grabbed a bucket, filled it with dish soap, and headed back into the bedroom to clean the puke up off the floor.

When he was done, the dumped out the bucket in the toilet, flushed it, set the bucket into the bathtub, and washed his hands before retreating back to the bedroom, where he slowly sat down on the edge of his bed. Lucy stirred slightly, but her light snores suggested she out like a light.

How cute those snores are…

At least she was asleep. He really didn’t want to deal with her being awake, based on how every other conversation went with her throughout the night.

He continued staring at her lifeless, but snoring body.

How easy it would be…

Again, prior to this night, he never in a million years envisioned a moment like this. Then again, the opportunity never presented itself.

And now that it had….

He kept reminding himself that he still technically had done nothing wrong – within reason. He had full control of his destiny and could still get out of this unscathed – or, least, relatively so.

Besides, the last thing he wanted to do was violate someone he cared about so deeply. Nor, did he want to risk the career he loved so much. Not to mention, risk ruining his beloved reputation. For what? A quick thrill? And while she was passed out? He certainly would want anything to happen under circumstances like this no matter what the context. Let alone a minor. His student. And then there was the issue of Julia. Sure, there was trouble in paradise, but she deserved better than this.

Yet, even with all of this in mind, as he sat hunched over her sleeping, angelic body, he couldn’t help but feel that he reached a point of no return, no matter how hard he tried to convinced himself otherwise. Something had begun to take over his body and mind. A dark side of himself he never knew existed. And it excited him.

He suddenly felt like a puppet, controlled by a power he didn’t fully understand. The next thing he knew, he was slowly reaching his hand toward the small of her back. He felt as though he were watching himself in a movie. Not real life. And like a movie, you can’t control the outcome, no matter how hard you might try, or want to.

But then, unexpected plot twist.to what was already an unexpected plot twist.

“I think it’s time to take you home,” Mr. Valentine said, pulling himself up over the cliff that he was so hopelessly dangling from.

A lesser man might have done the unthinkable.

But in the end, not Mr. Valentine.

Though, he could never forgive himself for his thoughts. It scared to him to think how many others might felt the same…but done worse.

Lucy slowly awoke, confused, then nodded. as. Mr. Valentine helped her out of her bed. Getting her in bed was easy, compared to the sack of potatoes he was dealing with now.

“C’mon, Lucy,” he pleaded. Annoyed.

He dragged her out of bed, nearly dropping her onto the floor.

She lost her footing and fell to the floor, hitting her head.

“Oh, God. Are you okay?”

She began to laugh hysterically.

“That was fun,” she said, despondently.

Mr. Valentine helped her back up and walked her across his apartment and then down the stairs, where she stumbled halfway down the steps, before Mr. Valentine spared her from further injury, nearly throwing out his back in the process.

“I’m flying,” Lucy said, oblivious to it all

Mr. Valentine continued to wrangle her limp body as though auditioning for a Weekend at Bernie’s re-make.

Mr. Valentine helped Lucy into the passenger seat of his rusted-out Dodge Neon.

“I need your address.”

“What would you do if you I didn’t give it to you.”

“Give me your address,” Mr. Valentine said sternly. Quite frankly, he had enough of her shit.

The anxiety of driving around with a drunk student certainly wasn’t helping his anxiety.

“Give me your goddamn address!”

“13 Salem Ave. You’re so mean.”

“You have no idea,” Mr. Valentine said, before he peeled away into the night. A heavy fog covered the landscape, impairing Mr. Valentine’s visibility.

Meanwhile, Lucy kept falling in and out of a drunken sleep.

She tried repeatedly to rest her head on Mr. Valentine’s shoulder. He nudged her away, but it was no use. Three attempts later, he simply gave in. He needed to focus on the road.

Lucy suddenly and semi-unexpectedly put her hand on his thigh, causing Mr. Valentine to nearly swerve off the road.

“Dammit, Lucy! You have to stop this!”

But she was relentless. Every time he removed her hand, she put it right back. He finally got her to stop when he forcefully moved her arm out of the way.

“You’re going to be the end of me,” Mr. Valentine said with desperation.

“Or maybe the beginning?” she said with a seductive grin.

Mr. Valentine continued staring straight ahead at the road. Who was this demon Lucy had summoned? He had never seen this side of her. In any shape or fashion. And despite the fact that she seemed to be sobering up, her behavior seemed to be getting worse!

Suddenly, Lucy began to laugh hysterically. She was going completely mad!

At first, Mr. Valentine was annoyed, but then he found himself suddenly laughing at the absolute absurdity of the situation.

And then without warning, lickety split, she passed out asleep again.

Mr. Valentine breathed a sigh of relief.

A few minutes later, they finally arrived at Lucy’s house.

“Let me help you in,” said Mr. Valentine.

“What if my parents are home…” she asked.

“I hope they are!”

“Aren’t you worried about getting in trouble?”

“I have nothing to hide. And it’s not like I didn’t try calling them.”

“What if I gave you the wrong number?”

“Please tell me you’re not serious.”

Lucy smirked.

            The ultimate betrayal.

He never even once thought they she was leading him astray. He was too shocked to say anything in response. And too angry to deal with her any longer. So he got out of the car and approached the passenger side door. Just as he reached to open the door, she locked it on him.

“Unlock it,” Mr. Valentine said, seething. He had enough of her fucking shit.

She refused to cooperate, but Mr. Valentine had a trick of his own up his sleeve.  He removed the keys from his pocket and hit the power lock button, jerking the door open, as Lucy tired in vain to pull it shut.

“Cut it out!”

“Get out of the car.”

She teasingly shook her head no.

“Lucy, I’m giving you to the count of three to get out of the car…”

“What are you going to do if I don’t?”

“One …

He could tell form her fade that she knew he meant business.

“Two … three.”

Frustrated, Mr. Valentine grabbed her by the arm and began to pull her out, but then she pulled him down on her.

As Mr. Valentine reached into the car to pull his fallen star, she finally succeeded in pulling him down on top of her.

And then she kissed him, planting her tongue deep down his throat, before he managed to pull away.

He never thought he could be thoroughly disgusted and ashamed of a kiss. Before he could even fully process it, a gruff voice barked:

“Hey you! Get your damn hands off of my daughter, you son of a bitch!”

“Hi Dad!”

Fuck!

Mr. Valentine caught a flash of a white beard a split second before he was punched square in the jaw. The man then grabbed his daughter from the car.

“Sir, I can explain–”

“C’mon, Lucy.” He then turned to Mr. Valentine. “I’m calling the police!”

Mr. Valentine watched as Lucy’s dad rushed her into the house, holding on to his throbbing jaw.

Somehow, despite really doing nothing wrong, he had a feeling that it wouldn’t matter in the eyes of the law. Especially not in this day and age. Mr. Valentine couldn’t help but feel that time was up.

In the meantime, it was time to go home. Just as he lifted his door handle, he was

whacked in the back of the head with a yellow stick of some sort. He then realized what who the assailant was, as well as well as his accessory of choice.

It was C.J. Wielding a goddam Wiffle Ball Bat!

“C.J.!

“You fucking thief!”

“A Wiffle ball bat… why?”

It hurt way more than he ever would have guessed a Wifflle Bat could hurt.

“Don’t play stupid with me you pedophile fuck! How could you do this to me?”

“Do what to you, C.J.?” Mr. Valentine said, writhing in pain.

“You know exactly what. You stole my girl. You stole my heart. Everything was fine until you started filling her head with all that motivational-you-can-do-everything-follow-your-dreams bullshit. Look where it got you!”

“Maybe you should have been more supportive.”

“Maybe you should have minded your own business.”

“I was just doing my job.”

“Trying to fuck my girlfriend?”

“That was your interpretation.”

“I thought you always said that every story can have more than one interpretation.”

“You should be happy for her—”

Happy for her? Happy that because of you, her dream is suddenly more important than our love?”

“If you really loved her, you would understand,” Mr. Valentine fired back through the lingering pain.

“At the cost of love?” C.J. asked. “Of happiness?”

“Maybe if you had a dream of your own, you’d understand.”

“I had a dream. But then you took her away from me.”

C.J. repeatedly beat Mr. Valentine with his bat, landing most of his strikes on the back of his head.  When he was done, C.J. stood over his English teacher-turned-nemesis and proclaimed:

“Now I finally understand. You really can do anything your heart desires…”

C.J. took off, peeling away from the curb, leaving Mr. Valentine lying in the street next to his car. Pondering the fact that everything he valued most deeply was more than likely gone forever.

As sirens loomed in the distance.