Eleven years have lapsed since you last set foot in that classroom.
You didn’t take ceramics until your senior year; you had spent your first three years tackling all of your AP classes, already diligently working on a CV that would impress future bosses.
You didn’t know you would finally find peace—after an entire adolescence defined by anxiety— behind the potter’s wheel, your hands coated in clay, your right leg kick, kick, kicking.
Mr. Briggs had a reputation for being the school’s most lovable asshole. When the girls who sat next to you arrived three minutes after the bell the third day of the semester, he made them walk a large trashcan—full of dry, discarded clay—around the track, twice. The rest of the class laughed as they watched from two stories above.
He’d always had that sadistic streak, your uncle told you over the phone, but he was his absolute favorite teacher in high school.
Mr. Briggs seemed different somehow, though, with you. He’d tease you when your pinch pots were uneven, but there was a hint of something else underneath. Kindness, you thought at the time. He’d pull the clay from your hands, twist and turn it in his own for a minute or two, and return it to you, smooth and perfect and round.
Later, he began calling you by a shortened version of your middle name when he was close enough for others not to hear. A secret he learned from his attendance sheet.
When you decided to restart your midterm project from scratch, he invited you to come in during 0 period. If you didn’t mind listening along as he played his classic rock albums, of course.
You didn’t mind. So you showed up at 6:45 the next morning, working at the wheel as he drank from a Thermos, reading the newspaper. Harry Nilsson sang about troubles and teacups, whales floating to the bottom of the ocean and decomposing.
And you came in early again the next morning, continued spinning the wheel. He asked you some questions about yourself. What colleges did you apply to? Which part of town did you live in? What music did you like? He teased you for having the bad taste typical of a young person. Called you by that shortened version of your middle name as he mocked you with a smirk.
The morning became your favorite part of the day. He continued to ask you questions. About your after-school job at the drive-thru. The boy you thought you had a crush on who worked there too. Your parents who didn’t understand you. Your best friend who sometimes understood you but not always. Not quite.
You told him things nobody else knew, or would ever know. The ways you hurt yourself. Your guesses as to why.
Your heart raced in bed. You tried to count sheep, but you could only imagine his mouth making the shapes of your middle name.
Even after you had been coming in early for a couple weeks, you still felt electricity in your veins and a lightness in your head when you climbed the stairs to his classroom before sunrise.
You’ll always remember that morning; it was a Tuesday. You remember because when you had arrived early on Monday morning, the door had been locked. Later, in third period, a disheveled substitute barely acknowledged the class, hiding his hangover behind the computer monitor the whole hour.
Worst case scenarios flooded your mind. A horrible car accident, his body melded with hot metal. A stroke or an aneurysm, his head face-down in a bowl of oatmeal.
Your entire day was commanded by those visions.
That next morning, you arrived a few minutes later than usual. You had stalled a bit, on purpose. In your mind you were giving him extra time, who knows what for. The door was unlocked. You walked in, placed your bag below the bench where you’d sit later in third period. He looked up from the newspaper, smirked. Using the shortened version of your middle name, he asked if you had missed him.
You told him you had. You even admitted that you’d been worried. Your relief made you honest, the same way too much vodka would months later at your first college party.
You gathered your clay, got settled behind your wheel. Started kicking and spinning and sculpting. That morning, Stevie Nicks sang about thunder and rain, the precise conditions required for players to love you. You lost yourself in that rhythm, in your own dreams.
You didn’t see him approach. But suddenly he was kneeling there next you; he stopped your ankle, mid-kick, with his open hand.
You turned, startled, and met his eyes. From this close, it was easier to see how much older he was than you, impossible to ignore. The decades were right there on his face.
To this day, you still think you kissed back. An equal participant, even that first time. But there were even more mornings. A whole semester’s worth of mornings until that day in June when you graduated and he retired and you never saw him again.
You drove by his house once that summer. Found the address online and made the hour trip one afternoon. You wanted to see what his wife looked like, and hopefully catch one last glimpse of him. You drove home disappointed.
You weren’t ready for it to be over. You still thought you were in love. That feeling lasted a while. Much longer than you’d ever admit to any of your future therapists. Semester upon semester stacked, and then years passed.
Even now, you still think you might have been in love.
And you still want to believe that you were the only one he ever called by her middle name.