Lilly, the pupil


knoxI was teaching creative writing, part-time, at a private high school down in Palo Alto. The gig felt pretty humiliating. Here I was – in my mind, one of the premier literary voices of my generation – reduced to helping the children of privilege express their petty, overwrought dissatisfactions with life or, alternately, craft an admissions essay to the earn them a spot at one of our nation’s elite universities. Needless to say, I drank often.

lillyLilly didn’t seem much different from the rest of my students. At least, at first. She was small, introverted and seemed to harbor an inordinate amount of undirected rage. Midway through the year, though, she turned in an assignment on future goals entitled, “Why My Life Sucks.” When I started to read it, I thought, ‘here we go, again.’ The story however, wasn’t about adolescent melancholia, but was supposedly written in MY voice, about my own dissatisfaction with life.

The next day, after a surprisingly lively discussion of Fitzgerald, I asked Lilly to stay after class.

“Is this about my essay?” she asked, once the class emptied.

“What do you think?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying make fun of you, or anything. I, like, just thought it’d be interesting to delve a little into you, as a character. I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.”

“You actually hit the nail on the head, Lilly,” I said. She looked up at me. “Which generally hurts more.”

I forgave Lilly for the paper, but told her she’d have to write a new assignment, as I couldn’t, in good conscience, give her a grade for a spot-on examination of my psyche.

We started going to coffee after school once a week. I was scared to tell her, but Lilly became my only friend at that time in my life. I withheld nothing. Told her stories of my travels, lost loves, failures. She encouraged me to write more and asked for advice on college.

“Go to a city,” I said. “A big college in the city. The more you can expose yourself to, the more you’ll learn. And you just won’t have that in some podunk college town.”

I fantasized about kissing Lilly more times than I’d like to admit, but had the decency to stop myself.  At least I think it was decency; it could have been just self preservation.

Lilly ended up getting into Columbia and she left in August.  She sent me updates of her life, which I happily read and responded to, my heart all a pitter patter.  When she came back to town the following summer, we met up for coffee again and discussed how lame college students are.  We took a walk through the park where she presented me with a bottle of ’82 Margot she’d stolen from her father.  We drank it from a brown paper back and threw bread into a duck pond.

“You ever feel like you were born at the wrong time, Knox?” Lilly asked, making a bit of a pass at me.

“Lilly, I don’t even know when I was born,” I said.

Lilly wrapped her arm around mine and laid her head on my shoulder.  We watched the ducks, sipped from a bottle worth a semester of my salary and thought of what things could have been like.  And that was enough for me.

4 Responses to “Lilly, the pupil”

  1. 1 Scott

    More than just “a bit” of a pass. Further proof, as if any were necessary, that men need to be hit upside the head to get the hint.

    Probably best you didn’t, as tempting as it might have been to indulge.

  2. 2 E

    I am currently reading Lolita – this is so appropriate – and equally as beautifully written.

  3. I don’t always realize the things we reveal about ourselves. And even more shocking when someone look at us and see who we are.

  4. 4 minmax2k

    You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din

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