Suzette Cohen taught seventh-grade Spanish like a conductor — arms rising, delicate hands fluttering like butterflies, turning her ear toward us when she wanted a word repeated, using her whole body as a gesture to coax the right pronunciation. When the class got it right, she stood before us as straight as a ballerina, tiny and pretty and young, clapping and giggling.
I was obsessed with Mrs. Cohen.
At first I tried to be a good student, but my diction was never right. I was getting C's on tests, I couldn’t roll my R's and I would blush deeply and go mute whenever she called on me.
“Can I give you a ride home?” Mrs. Cohen asked one day after class, as I sulked by her desk. I figured she would lecture me in the car about my grades, but instead she asked me about my hobbies and interests. Stunned by her kindness, I was shy to the point of monosyllables and shrugs. At home, I threw myself on the bed, crying for being such a dolt.
After that I was more in love with Mrs. Cohen and even more inept in Spanish.
Soon after, I brought my Cat Stevens "Tea for the Tillerman" album to school and propped it up at the front of my desk. Instead of participating in Spanish class, I read every word of the liner notes and thoroughly studied the album jacket.
I dawdled as usual at the end of class. When the room was empty, Mrs. Cohen stood at the front with her pretty arms in a lavender sweater folding across her small bosom. Now was my chance to tell her that records were my hobby and that I liked Cat Stevens. But she asked, “Do you know you’re failing my class?”
“You’re flunking Spanish,” my mother said when I walked in the front door, smoke from a Tareyton drifting out her nose. “Don’t let me hear from your teacher again.” She meant that literally, she didn’t want teachers calling her. Her interest in my education was, shall we say, nil.
The next day I sat in class, scratching pentagrams, spiders, cats and arthritic fingers with long nails into my desk with the tin band at the end of a pencil that once held an eraser that I chewed off. Mrs. Cohen taught class with her usual excitement and verve, which only made me surlier.
I was going to tell Mrs. Cohen about another hobby of mine. After class, I walked up to her desk, looked her in the eyes, making mine as hypnotic and unblinking as possible, and said, “I’m a witch and I am going to put a spell on you.”
My mother was called into school, I was transferred into an art class and, in the hall, Mrs. Cohen told me I scared her but she hoped I would take Spanish again.
A decade later, December 1980, my mother called and told me she heard Suzette Cohen died in childbirth. It didn’t really sink in. I had just started my first real job and was setting up a new apartment with my friend, Becky. It was the first apartment for both of us: a two-bedroom duplex on a shady street in the Valley. Becky got the bedroom with the view of the trees in front and I had a big sliding glass door opening to a balcony over an alley in the back.
It was generally a pretty great apartment with what we thought was only one unwanted feature — the landlord’s son. He was a stoner named Lenny who talked nonstop from the day we moved in without lifting a finger to help and then everyday thereafter when we returned from work always with the invitation to “party.”
Another problem, one that I pushed out of my mind, is that on some evenings when I entered my bedroom I was sure that I’d seen a shadowy figure on my balcony, but when I looked again it was gone. When I went outside, I’d see nothing. Because it was one of those stifling hot Decembers in Southern California, I had to keep the door opened and locked the screen. But I was scared. I slept on my back, never sleeping naked as was my norm, and never turning my back to the balcony.
One night, as I was sitting in bed reading, Becky yelled down the hall, “It’s freezing in here!” I barely had a chance to say, “What … freezing?!” when my room turned an icy cold. I looked up from my book and there, sitting at the end of my bed, sideways, legs crossed, facing the door was Suzette Cohen. I mouthed “Mrs. Cohen” and no words came out. She turned her torso entirely toward me while her lower body faced sideways and moved her arms in the conductor gestures I knew so well. It seemed she was trying to get me to speak.
Mrs. Cohen disappeared as Becky came barreling into my room. I screamed, “Get me out of this place!” Becky leapt on my bed as I leapt off. “My dead teacher was in my room!” I yelled. That night, we both slept in Becky’s room with the lights on.
A couple nights later, Lenny came by, walking in the front door without a knock. “Did you hear John Lennon was killed?” he said. We turned on the news and watched what little there was to watch at that point. Lenny kept shaking his head and saying, “Whoa. Bummer, man.” Then Lenny, who never shut up, pointed to underneath the stairs and said, “When I was in high school, a guy was killed right there; shot dead. It was a drug deal gone south. The killer came in through the upstairs balcony.”
Becky and I lived there until we both found apartments — maybe 6 more months. We dragged our mattresses downstairs and slept on the floor. We bickered all the time and when we moved out never spoke to one another again.
And as for me, I never did learn how to speak Spanish.