Here's a excerpt of Alissa Nutting's new novel, Tampa.
In Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa, Celeste Price, a smoldering 26-year-old middle-school teacher in Florida, unrepentantly recounts her elaborate and sociopathically determined seduction of a 14-year-old student.
Celeste has chosen and lured the charmingly modest Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his eighth-grade teacher, and, most importantly, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after dark, rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works the late shift, and body-slamming erotic encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress of pure motivation. She deceives everyone, is close to no one, and cares little for anything but her pleasure.
Tampa is a sexually explicit, virtuosically satirical, American Psycho–esque rendering of a monstrously misplaced but undeterrable desire. Laced with black humor and crackling sexualized prose, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a grand, seriocomic examination of the want behind student / teacher affairs and a scorching literary debut.
I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never fallingasleep. To bed I’d worn, in secret, a silk chemise and sheer panties,beneath my robe of course, so that my husband, Ford, wouldn’tpillage me. He always wants to ruin the landscape. I find it hilariousthat peoplethink Ford and I are the perfect couplebased solely onour looks. During his best man’s speech at our wedding reception,Ford’s brother said, “You two are like the his-and-herswinners ofthe genetic lottery.” His voice slurring with noticeable envy, he thenadded that our faces looked Photoshopped. Rather than concludingwith any sort of toast, he simply laid the microphone back down onthe table after this last line and returned to his seat. His date had alazy eye we all politely pretended not to notice.
I should find Ford needlessly attractive; everyone else does. “He’s too good-looking,”
one of my sorority sisters groaned the night after our first double date back in college. “I can’t even look at him without feeling like I’m being punched between my legs.” My real
problem with Ford is actually his age. Ford, like the husbands of most women who marry for money, is far too old. Since I’m twenty-six myself, it’s true that he and I are close peers. But thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.
I suppose in some ways marrying Ford was worth it for the ring alone—it slowed the frenetic pace at which idiot men would hit on me during daily errands. And of course it was a very nice ring. Ford himself is a cop, though his family has a great deal of money. I hoped his wealth might provide me with a distraction, but this backfired—it left me with no unfulfilled urges except the sexual. Just weeks after our wedding, I could feel my screaming libido clawing at the ornately papered walls of our gated suburban home. At dinner I began to sit with my legs clenched painfully together for fear that if I opened them even the slightest bit, it might unleash a shrill wail that would shatter the crystal wineglasses. This didn’t strike me as an irrational belief. The thrum of desire had indeed grown so loud inside me—its electric network toured a constant circuit between my temples, breasts, and thighs—that a moment when lust might be able to operate my labia as a ventriloquist’s dummy and speak aloud seemed inevitable.
All I could think about were the boys I’d soon be teaching. Whether or not it’s the cause, I blame my very first time at fourteen years old in Evan Keller’s basement for imprinting me with a fixed map of arousal—my memory of the event still flows through
my mind in animated Technicolor. I was slightly taller than Evan in a way that made me feel half-god to his mortal: every time we made out I had to bend down to reach his lips. Since he was smaller, he was on top, performing with the determined athleticism of a triple-crown
jockey until his body was covered in sweat. Afterward I’d gone to the bathroom and then called him in; with an expression of melancholy curiosity, as though transfixed at an aquarium, he’d watched the ruins of my hymen drifting in the blue toilet bowl water like it was the last remaining survivor of a once-plentiful species. I’d felt only an elevating aliveness: it seemed like I’d just given birth to the first day of my actual life.
When Evan had a growth spurt a few months later our sexual dynamic changed—I
broke up with him and embarked on a string of repulsive dates with older boys throughout high school before realizing my true attractions lagged several years behind. At university I began throwing myself into classics studies, finding brief solace from my sexual frustrations in texts depicting ancient battles of fervent bloodshed. But my junior year after meeting
Ford, I switched my major to education, and now I was finally set with a job that would allow me to go back to eighth grade permanently.
No, it wouldn’t do to have Ford dipping his fingers in the pie on the eve before my years of student and substitute teaching were about to pay off. That night I’d taken such pains to set myself up perfectly, inside and out, like a model home ready for viewing. My legs, underarms, and pubis had been shaved and then creamed; every lotion applied bore the scent of strawberries. I wanted my body to seem made of readily edible fruit. Instead of having the flavor of something nearly three decades aged, my goal was for the slippery organs of my sex to taste like the near-transparent pink shaving gelée applied to them, for the sandy rouge of my nipples to have the flavor of peach cream complexion scrub. In the hopes that the fragrance would absorb, I covered each of my breasts with a layer of whipped mask and let it sit for ten minutes as I shaved; it hardened like the frosting of a confection and cast my excitement beneath a crisp, thin shell. After I’d razored every inch of body hair, I marveled at the buoyant lake of foam and stubble left in the sink. It made me think of the ice cream punch served at junior high school dances.
Imagine the fun I could soon have chaperoning one! Perhaps I’d even get to waltz with one or two of the more outgoing male students under the guise of fun and frivolity—the
boys who would confidently grab my hand and lead me to the center of the floor, not
realizing until our bodies were pressed that they could smell the pulsing, fragrant wetness just one layer of fabric away beneath my dress. I could subtly push against them, blow their circuitry with the confusion of blithe laughter and small talk funneled into their ear by my moist lips. Of course before I’d say it, I’d look off to the side with an idle stare that suggested nothing was happening, that I hadn’t noticed my pelvic bone ironing across the erect heat inside their rented tuxedo pants. It would require the boy to be an upstanding
sort—the type who wouldn’t be able to convey such a sentence to his mother or father, who would second-guess and recall the moment only in the dark, liquored sleep of his loneliest adult moments: post–business dinner while traveling at some Midwestern Comfort Inn, after he’d called his wife and spoken to his children on the phone and then unwrapped the plastic skin of three or four airplane bottles of bourbon, set his alarm, and allowed himself to sit
upright in bed with one hand squeezing against the growing thickness of his organ and the memory haunting him—had I really said what he thought he heard? Inside the school’s walls no less, amidst the thundering electronic notes of that year’s favorite pop song, a song he’d listened to at his very first job in the mall as he folded display shirts and greeted mothers and children who entered the store—had I really breathed that sentence into his ear? But I felt it,
he’d remind himself, felt my words form in warm air, one sentence whose breathy shape dissipated in seconds, prior to the arrival of understanding or memory. For the rest of his life, part of him would always be on that dance floor, unsure and hungry for clarity. So much so that as an adult in that hotel, he might likely be willing to give up a great deal in exchange for the sense of order that I’d stolen from him, or even to have someone to say to him, It did happen. And I would always know, and he would always be sure, but not certain, that I had drawn the ledge of my pubic bone against the head of his penis, pressed it there like a photograph beneath the plastic velum of an album page cover and whispered that phrase: I want to smell you come in your pants.
The early start time of Jefferson Junior High was one of its main allures: seven thirty a.m. The boys would practically be asleep, their bodies still in various stages of lingering nocturnal arousal. From my desk, I’d be able to watch their exposed hands rubbing across
their pants beneath the tables, their shame and their half-inflated genitals arm-wrestling for control.
A second boon was that I was able to get an extension classroom. These were basically trailers behind the school, but they had doors that locked, and, particularly if the loud window AC unit was running, it was impossible to hear what was going on inside. At
our July faculty meeting in the cafeteria, none of the teachers had wanted to volunteer to take a mobile unit—it meant a farther walk each morning, having to trek inside the school to use the bathroom, running beneath an umbrella to go unlock the door in the rain. But I’d raised my hand, playing star pupil myself, and requested one. “I’m happy to be a team player,” I’d announced, flashing my teeth in a wide grin. A red flush had covered Assistant Principal Rosen’s neck; I’d lowered my face so that the trajectory of my eyes was unmistakably
upon his crotch, then I pressed my lips together, met his gaze, and smiled a knowing smile. Of course the phrase “team player” made you imagine me having group sex, my eyes tried to tell him reassuringly. That isn’t your fault.
“Very kind of you, Celeste,” he’d said, nodding, attempting to write and then dropping his pen, picking it up and nervously clearing his throat.
“It’s like I said,” Janet Feinlog had piped up behind me. Janet, a world history teacher, was balding prematurely; the dark home-dye job she gave her thinning locks only served to more starkly contrast the white expanses of scalp that shone through. Like most
pronounced physical flaws, it did not live in isolation. The compression hose she wore for edema gave her calves and ankles the rippled texture of warped cardboard. “Classrooms should be assigned based on seniority.”
“I agree,” I’d said. “I’m the new kid on the block. It’s only fair.” Then I’d given Janet a practiced smile that she hadn’t returned. Instead she’d taken a yellowed handkerchief out of her purse and coughed in it while looking at me, as though I were a nightmarish figment that would go away if she could simply expel enough phlegm from her lungs.
Having a mobile classroom meant that I could truly make it my own. I’d put up opaque curtains, brought in my favorite perfume and spritzed it onto them, as well as onto the cloth seat of my rolling desk chair. Though I didn’t yet know which of my male eighth-grade English students would be my favorites, I guessed based on name and performed a small act of voodoo, reaching up my dress to the clear ink pad between my legs, wetting my fingertip, and writing their names upon the desks in the first row, hoping by some magic they’d be conjured directly to those seats, their hormones reading the invisible script their eyes couldn’t see. I played with myself behind the desk until I was sore, the chair moistened,
hoping the air had been painted with pheromones that would tell the right pupils everything I wasn’t allowed to verbalize. Straddling the desk’s edge, I allowed my outer lips to hover dangerously close to the sharp wooden corner of its surface before sliding forward and sitting down, the hot bareness between my legs pressing against its cold layer of varnish. Those corners. If I wasn’t careful getting up, they would easily scratch into the flesh of my thigh.
The rectangular desk, which was a heartland expanse of flat wood long enough for me to lie down on, felt somehow symbolic, being entirely smooth yet framed within four sharp points of danger—a reminder not to go out of bounds. Each time I’d visited the classroom in the days preceding the school’s start, I’d lain down upon it and pressed my spine into its wood as I stared up at the unfinished fabrication of the ceiling and opened and closed my legs; from the waist down I moved like I was making a snow angel. When I finally sat up, I intentionally scooted off the edge at an angle so the corner would knick my asshole and give me just a little pain to carry around like a consolation prize as I waited for classes to begin. Each time I’d shut down the chugging window AC unit and go to leave, it felt like I was unplugging the engine powering my fantasies. In the silence that followed, the room reconfigured itself: The imagined tang of pubescent sweat became engulfed by the laminate odor of faux-wood walls. The chalk dust floating inside a beam of sun fell stagnant, its particles petrified bugs in the amber of the light. With the air conditioner on, these flecks had been frantic with motion, racing against the vent like lost cells of skin scouring the room for a host—before leaving I’d always stuck my wet tongue out into that light’s honey, fishing it around in circles, hoping to feel satisfied I’d caught something upon it, even if it was too small to feel.
By five a.m. the morning of our first day at school, anticipation was making me feverish. Running the water for a shower, I lifted one foot up onto the countertop to look between my legs, inspecting my sex until the mirror fogged up and censored it from view. My nails, painted cherry squares that gleamed like red vinyl, scratched one last glimpse from the condensation, five thin streaks I could gaze into like open blinds that gave me a final vista on the damage I’d done throughout the night; my genitals were puffy and swollen. Spread open between my fingers, my labia looked like a splitting heart. I tilted my pelvis and hoisted up on the grounded foot’s tiptoes to get a better view. It was impossible not to feel a sullen panic as their folds closed and tasted only themselves—no fresh, squirming insect of thin adolescent fingers against their cheek. I tried to take relief in the shower’s warm surge of water. Thinking about the boys I was hours away from meeting, the fruity syrup of body wash I slathered across my breasts seemed to ferment to an intoxicating alcohol in the air. I smiled imagining them breathing the fragrance of the green apple shampoo I worked into my blond locks; despite the chemical bitters its scented foam belied, when one frothing swath of hair slid down against my face I had to force it into my mouth and suck. Soon I felt so dizzy that I had to kneel down on the shower floor; I clumsily extracted the showerhead from its holder and guided it between my legs, the same way one would put on an oxygen mask that dropped from the plane’s ceiling due to an ominous change in cabin pressure, feeling nothing
but a frightened hope for survival.
My heart sank when I checked the weather channel before leaving the house: we were due for record-high humidity. I cringed thinking of my makeup feathered and my hair frizzed by the end of the day. As I cursed, Ford sauntered out of the bedroom with a half erection and gave a large, stretching yawn in front of the window facing the sunrise. “Good luck, babe,” he called. “What a beautiful morning!” I slammed the front door on my way out.
Not surprisingly, the temperature inside the faculty lounge was nearly unbearable. We’d gathered at the behest of Principal Deegan, who wasted no time launching into a tepid pep talk. Like all of his public speeches, it heavily relied on the rhetorical device of repeatedly asking Am I right? after every sentence. “Gosh,” Mr. Sellers, the wiry chemistry teacher next to me, muttered, fanning himself. “Like the kids don’t have enough ammo already. Now I have to walk into class with wet armpits.” Janet continued making loud
crunching noises; I assumed she kept eating handfuls of granola, but after a few investigative glances I realized it was actually aspirin.
I wanted to run from the room to my class; the earliest pupils would be gathering there now. There was a vague burning at the spot where my spine connected my neck and head; my whole body yearned with the tincture of possibility. I felt like an optimistic bride the morning of her arranged marriage: I was feasibly about to meet someone who would come to know me in every intimate way. “They are not the enemy,” Principal Deegan stressed; the rest of the teachers erupted in pithy laughter.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Janet barked. A knowing nod of sympathy made Mr. Sellers’s hunched neck begin a series of short, conciliatory parakeet head bobs.
Suddenly, Janet’s eyes were pinning me to the wall. The polite laughter of agreement in the room had softened to background static between Janet’s ears and she’d heard my silence in response to her joke echo forth like a scream; worse yet, she’d picked up my expression—a snide look of unmistakable contempt. Years of teaching junior high had likely bestowed the derision sensor in her hearing with supernatural powers. Upon seeing her stare at me I immediately melted my face into a grin, but she didn’t return it. “Bathroom cigarette monitoring cannot just be an occasional afterthought,” Deegan continued. I watched the clock and pretended to think on his words with contemplation. After thirty seconds I looked back and Janet was still staring at me. When the bell rang she dropped several more aspirins into her mouth like cocktail peanuts but didn’t blink.