By Jill Christman
Featured Image: Shadows by Sam Warren
It matters not who you love, where you love, why you love, when you love or how you love, it matters only that you love.
~ John Lennon
This morning I made a single-cup drip coffee and poured too much water through the small yellow cone. When I lifted the cone to peek, strong, black coffee filled my white mug to the brim.
Nay, not the brim, I thought. Past the brim. I hung onto the edge of the counter and brought my eyes down level with the top of the mug, marveling at the way in which the coffee arched up out of the mug, a bitter mountain, the strength of the surface tension pulling the coffee molecules beyond what seems possible. I would like to die on a coffee mountain, I thought, straightening my legs. I hadn’t yet had even a sip. Maybe it was time. The house was so quiet I could hear the muted ticking of the wall clock in the kitchen, thumping her plastic hands around inside her plastic face, bearing witness to the wonder of the coffee rising up and out of the mug, ticking off the seconds of our lives.
This is when I heard another voice in my head. Mr. Cosmos, my fifth-grade science teacher at the round school in Newbury, Massachusetts circa 1980. He’d given us all big cups full of water and little cups full of nothing and told us to pour water into our little cups until our cups runneth over. That’s the way Mr. Cosmos talked. Children, he’d say as if we were attending boarding school in mid-century England, Children, are you ready? Pour. Pour your water. Pour your water out—and let your cups runneth over.
Mr. Cosmos was not a man who held back. He showed us how to examine the surface of the water. He taught us the right words for everything we saw and took a shot at answering every question we asked. I have a vague memory of Mr. Cosmos having gotten in trouble for saying words other parents didn’t want him saying with their children, but on the day our cups ran over, on the day the water hung in the balance flat in the middle and curved at the edges, rising up above those edges, Mr. Cosmos said meniscus.
Memory begets memory, and as I think of Mr. Cosmos and meniscus, I see two things: the pleasure he took in words—the meaning and sound of them—and his full, expressive lips. Newbury is on the coast of Massachusetts and we all lived among fishermen whose skin darkened and creased in the summer, but looking now at Mr. Cosmos’s face in memory, I see also his broad nose and his eyes, almost black, seemingly all pupil, and I realize that while the fishermen’s faces became pale again during the long New England winters, Mr. Cosmos stayed brown.
He said meniscus again and again as he walked around the room, guiding our eyes, curving his hands into the shapes of tiny moons and flipping them palm down—convex!—and palm up. Concave. Meniscus comes from the Latin for moon. In a concave meniscus, the molecules on the edges rise because their attraction to the lip of the container is greater than their attractions to each other—which seemed kind of sad.
Mr. Cosmos taught us the science behind what we were seeing, but I’ll confess I had to look it up now to make sure I got it right about the surface tension creating the concavity, and supporting the meniscus, because what has stuck with me in memory is not the science, but the words—concave, convex, meniscus—and how gentle he was with us, always, how he came around the room with his soft hands, touching his soft fingers to the round eggs of our eleven-year-old skulls and guiding us down until our eyes were level with the rims of our cups, until we could see what he saw.
I ask my older brother Ian if he remembers Mr. Cosmos—and he does. He remembers Mr. Cosmos leaping up onto his desk and doing a kind of interpretive dance to demonstrate how sap rises in a tree. Mr. Cosmos holding his trunk steady and then starting to shimmy, arms swaying, fingers popping into juicy leaves. That’s it, I think. That’s the best way to describe Mr. Cosmos. There was no one else like him in my cold New England world. Mr. Cosmos was juicy.
Ian and I are middle-aged now, on a coordinated summer visit to our mother in the mountains of northeastern Washington. We’re drinking coffee at the picnic table in the backyard. Ian takes a long slurp and looks at me. “He was really dramatic with his demonstrations of how things worked. I guess he was probably gay, but I didn’t even know any gay people until I went to college. Or Black people.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes. That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.”
For kids who were not at all sheltered—from drugs, from sex, from danger—Ian and I were totally sheltered. We didn’t know anything.
I understand now, from this distance, that Mr. Cosmos was likely the first gay man I ever knew well. There was never any talk of a wife or children. There were no pictures on his desk. More even than any of the other teachers, it seemed to us kids that Mr. Cosmos’s cosmos was right there in that room at the edge of the hall where the school started to curve and we could see out the windows to the parking lot where the big yellow buses lined up and beyond to the playground where Tina Rose caught her leg under the merry-go-round and broke it in about ten places and Mr. Foley the gym teacher who’d served with the Coast Guard during WWII made us run around the track for the Presidential Fitness test until the fat kids—I was one of these—puked in the grass and he barked at us to put our hands on top of our heads and walk it off. “Christman! Hands up! Hands on your head! Walk it off!”
Mr. Foley was the opposite of Mr. Cosmos. Mr. Foley wore dark blue track suits and a whistle. Always. If we didn’t wear the regulation white socks with two green stripes, the man blew that whistle as if there was an actual emergency. Mr. Cosmos wore a lot of purple and fabulous scarves. If we looked sad, he would help us cry, asking us if we wanted to talk or letting us take a walk on the hill behind the school to find some quiet. It occurs to me only now that there was likely no love lost between the two biggest personalities at Newbury Elementary School.
Mr. Cosmos had black wavy hair and eyes like flashing marbles of onyx. I don’t remember thinking him handsome—in the same way that I had no real context to understand that he was likely gay and mixed race—but I do remember how much I looked forward to the moment when we’d line up and scoot along the carpeted walls of our round school to science and he would greet us one by one at the door, as if we were real people, as if we had something to say he wanted to hear, as if he could really see us.
Okay. Every story I tell of my childhood can’t be about sexual abuse. Sometimes I’d like to tell a happy story about learning science or owning a baby rabbit with sweet translucent ears or rescuing a seagull—named Jonathan Livingston, naturally—who seemed to learn to trust. And yet, during the time I was in Mr. Cosmos’s class, I was being regularly assaulted by a neighbor, and so unaware was I of how the world worked, I believed, I guess, that all eleven-year-olds had sex with their neighbors after they came home from school. We didn’t talk about it because, well, I don’t know. We just didn’t. But there I was, an eleven-year-old with what I now understand was a predator waiting for me across the field at home, and during this time, I was developing breasts, gaining weight fast, and I’d taken to regular fainting, like a lady from a Victorian novel. I remember the carpeting on the wall at the round school because when I felt the darkness coming as we moved in our line down the hall from one place to the next, I would reach up with my hand for balance, try to dig my nails into the nubs. I remember trying to hold on so I wouldn’t fall when the black curtain came down.
So here was Mr. Cosmos, seeing this girl I was every day, sometimes kneeling beside me to pick me up off the floor, and I wonder now: Did he know? At the very least, did he suspect something?
I wish I could see now what he saw then.
There we were, sitting in a two-person booth on the edge of the Korean restaurant where my husband Mark used to work in his college years, eating bulgogi. I plucked a thin strip of beef from the pile with my chopsticks, dipped it in the red sauce, and lay the rosy curl into a pale green cup of lettuce.
“I’m writing an essay about my fifth-grade science teacher, Mr. Cosmos.”
Mark laughed. “Mr. Cosmos? You don’t really believe his name was Mr. Cosmos, do you?”
In fact, I had always believed his name was Mr. Cosmos. I took a sip of my martini and let a little puddle of gin roll around on my tongue like a cough drop. “He said his name was Mr. Cosmos.”
Mark laughed. “Well, of course he said his name was Mr. Cosmos.”
“Oh. Right.” Now I was laughing too. “Okay, maybe not. I see that. Well, we all called him Mr. Cosmos—and he was wonderful.”
On December 9, 1980, it was Mr. Cosmos who told me and the whole fifth-grade class at Newbury Elementary School that John Lennon had been shot and killed the night before. I already knew, of course, and was surprised my mother had even sent me to school at all. Mr. Cosmos’s face was a geological wonder, deeply creased, and the flood of his tears that day ran through the lines on his face as if they were cutting new canyons. It goes without saying that he was too overcome to teach that day, but teach he did, because that science class in my desk by the window, looking out at the gray New England winter sky, sticks with me forty years later.
“John Lennon is dead,” he told us clearly. “Murdered.” He talked to us about peace, and he talked to us about love, and he talked to us about guns, and then he instructed us—weeping, weeping—to get out our lab notebooks with the blue-tinged paper and do whatever ever we wanted to do on those pages. We were to write or draw or color whatever we were feeling. I can’t find that notebook now, but I must have kept it for some years afterward, because I can see my page in my mind’s eye: I wrote December 8, 1980, in perfect bubble letters and this sentence: “John Lennon died today.” And then I drew a picture of my own face, which was probably an amalgam of what I imagined my own face to look like in that moment merged with the inconsolable Mr. Cosmos who then sat perched on the ledge of his desk, holding a notebook, but looking as if he was thinking about jumping. Raindrop-shaped tears splashed down our shared face into a puddle at the bottom of the page on which I drew ripples.
I lived in a house full of music, and John Lennon had always and unquestionably been my favorite Beatle—who didn’t want to imagine all the people sharing all the world?—but my tears that day were for Mr. Cosmos. That day, he let us see his grief and his agony in a naked way that was entirely new to me. My heart broke open.
Here is a meniscus. Here is murder and loss. Here is love.
Mr. Cosmos opened our eyes to what we could see, he opened our hearts to what we could feel, and he gave us the words we needed to speak what we were seeing and feeling. For these gifts, I am ever grateful.
Project Mummification began with a baby doll and a fish-boning knife.
My parents had met in art college in Providence, Rhode Island, and while their brief partnership was rife with complications, we never lacked for art supplies at either house after the divorce. Also, my mother could make anything out of paper mâché, and so when Mr. Cosmos gave us the assignment to give a demonstration for the class that would teach us all something new—I really think it’s possible the instructions were that open, and honestly, I hope Mr. Cosmos departed teaching before the notion of rubrics entered—I decided I would teach my classmates how to make a mummy.
To prepare, my mother and I sat at the wooden table built right into the wall of our little house in the sand dunes, and she coached me as I ran strips of newspaper through wide, wet bowls of glue and shaped the tiny, soggy organs: lungs, stomach, heart. When the organs dried, I painted them a deep red. When they dried once again, I stroked on a glaze because I wanted the doll’s organs to look wet after she died. I used a braided white rope for the intestines. The brain I made of tangled purple yarn.
As I said, I was a shy girl. I was also overweight, smart, bespectacled, and poor, which everyone knew because of the public way in which the homeroom teachers were seemingly required to review the menu on Monday mornings and call the free-lunch kids—of whom I was one—to the front of the room to ask whether we wanted double lunch on any of the days. I tried to resist, but when tater tots or pizza were on the menu, I could not: “Double,” I’d say quietly, pointing to the day I wanted and tasting the shame of my gluttony like the pepperoni on the thick cheese of the school pizza, sharp and greasy on my tongue.
I was also uncomfortable in my own weirdness, the weirdness of association with my weird single-mom family, my weird secret life—but on mummification day, I was excited. I felt special. I knew my project was good. There was just no way that anyone else had something like this to show to Mr. Cosmos. No way. This was going to be—in the parlance of my New England childhood—wicked cool.
The day of my presentation, I laid my poor dead doll on the table at the front of the classroom. I’d dressed her in a pretty dress. Aside from the botched rhinoplasty from opening up a bigger space in her nostrils, she looked reasonably normal.
I began by explaining that she was dead, and let my classmates consider that sad fact as I emptied the cardboard box of my other supplies and laid them out across the table: a coat hanger bent into a hook, empty jars, a bag of white rags my mother had ripped into neat strips for me, a whole carton of salt with the Morton girl in her yellow dress, a few stems of dried-out mint tied up with string, a cottage cheese container sloshing with a couple inches of soapy water and a sponge, and a small fish-boning knife to serve as a scalpel.
Now I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it, too. Nobody lets a fifth grader bring a fish-boning knife to school. But this was 1980. We’d barely emerged from the seventies. As my mother would tell you about so many risky things from my childhood: It was a different time. There wasn’t the awareness there is now. So, yeah, I went to elementary school with a boning knife in my cardboard box, fully intending to eviscerate something before the wondering eyes of my classmates. And I can’t know this, but I can hope, that the silver flash of the knife on the demonstration table of the chubby girl from the poor side of the island gave me a kind of credibility I had heretofore not enjoyed.
Who was in the room? I attended the same school from kindergarten through sixth grade, and memory blenders most of the kids into a smoothie of grade-school humanity, but a few friends stick. Tina—of the broken leg—grew enormous breasts when we were in fourth grade and was the first one to have a bra; her antithesis was Beth—and they never got along. Where Tina was voluptuous, Beth was lithe. Where Tina was loud, Beth was quiet. Where Tina was working-class, Beth lived in a house with a canopy bed, a sweeping lawn, and a barn so pretty they could throw birthday parties in it. Brainy Carolyn ate marshmallow fluff on the whitest bread I’d ever seen. Since she had braces, the fluff tangled in her teeth, occluding the silver flash with stickiness. This was so disgusting I couldn’t look away. I only remember two boys by name: Sam, a tiny blonde-haired boy whom I loved, and Kenny, the gangly red-head who was the only boy who approached my own towering fifth-grade height. It goes without saying that Kenny and I spent a lot of time do-si-doing under Mr. Foley’s watchful whistle during square-dancing class.
Beth, Tina, Carolyn, Sam, and Kenny were all watching. The room was silent. Everyone was waiting for me to begin. Mr. Cosmos was sitting on his own big desk, arms crossed over his chest, legs crossed at the ankles, swinging gently. My stomach flipped like a fish, but I knew I was ready, so I did what I still do when I get up in front of people to speak. I pressed past the fear. I pried my tongue loose from the roof of my mouth, grabbed onto the sturdy wooden table for balance, and started to push words through my lips. Then, as now, the first few words were the hardest.
“In ancient Egypt,” I began, “after someone important died, they mummified the body.” I gestured the length of the laid-out baby doll, hoping Mr. Cosmos could look past the pink flush of life that remained in her plastic cheeks. “The reason was that the person was going to need a body for life after death.”
I let this soak in. Mr. Cosmos smiled encouragingly. Beth sat up straighter in her chair, one finger wrapping and unwrapping a blonde ringlet at her temple, as if she wished she could get her hands on the embalming equipment.
“First, the embalmers would wash the body.” I ran my wet sponge over the bumps of her baby chest, feeling a flush of shame I hadn’t predicted, and down the plastic dimpled knees. I spent no time on the space between her legs. Anyway, there was nothing there.
The other kids stared as if I’d exploded out of a brick wall Kool-Aid Man style. Mr. Cosmos grinned like his cheeks would pop.
I held the boning knife up with as much drama as I could muster. “Then, the embalmers opened up the body, pulling out the organs and placing them in jars called canopic jars.” I know now that canopic jars are defined solely by their function of storing embalmed viscera, but I didn’t know that then, and I wish I had because I feel as if Mr. Cosmos would have loved to say that word with me. Meniscus. Viscera. Another science-y word with a snake in the middle. Visssscera.
“They had to leave the heart—because they would need a heart in the land of the dead.” I didn’t explain why they’d need their hearts inside their bodies, and not, say, stomachs or livers or brains—because I had no idea myself. That was just the way of the Egyptians and the afterworld: you’d be needing your heart, your cat, some snacks, and maybe a game or a musical instrument to pass the time, but you could get along just fine with the rest of your organs nearby in jackal-headed jars. Some things just can’t be explained by science.
I cut into the cross I’d already sliced in the baby’s belly and reached in to extract the
glossy organs and plunk them into individual Smucker’s jars. For comic effect, I made a big show of removing the intestine rope—pulling and pulling as if I’d never find the end. The class laughed. Mr. Cosmos howled. So much viscera.
“Now for the brain,” I said, riding the high of the spotlight. I wiggled the hook up into the enlarged nostril and snagged a bit of brain yarn, pulling it from the nose. Tina screamed. Mr. Cosmos jumped to his feet, smiling his approval, and told the kids to listen, they were about to learn something.
Once the dead doll was empty, I pried open the metal spout on the Morton’s carton with my fingernail and shook salt into her body cavity. “Now,” I said to the class. “We wait for forty days.” I paused for about three seconds. “There.”
Shaking out the salt made an awful mess.
I stuffed the cavity with the aromatics and some of the rags as if I were prepping a chicken for roasting. “The Egyptians stuffed the bodies so they wouldn’t collapse.” The room got quiet. I stuck in a couple of Play-Doh amulets for luck, folded over the plastic flaps of the ruptured belly, and wound the body with white rags until she looked like a real, honest-to-goodness mummy. I held her up for the class to see like a midwife lifting a baby. The class oohed and ahhed. For me.
Do you know what happened then? Mr. Cosmos led the class in a round of wild applause and let kids come up to the table in pairs to see my mummy supplies and ask questions. I’d never given such a cool presentation before, and I’m not sure I have since either.
I can still see Mr. Cosmos: he is standing by his desk in tightish pants and a pretty sweater, always doing something with his hands—holding them to his chest or his cheeks in an expression of feeling or surprise, clapping those hands in delight or admiration, watching us with everything he had and letting us know with his whole body that he was feeling it. I wish I had known enough to say, Hey Mr. Cosmos, I see you, too. You’re hiding in plain sight. But I see you and I’m so grateful for the compassion you bring into our lives. I didn’t yet know how to say that with words, but maybe I said that with my eyes. Maybe I said that with Project Mummification.
I wish I could tell Mr. Cosmos how I remember the day he showed us how to grieve. I wish I could tell him that I still love Lennon’s music, but know now that Lennon was not the perfect man I imagined him to be then. We are, all of us, shape shifters of one kind of another. Lennon was constantly trying on new personas and reinventing himself, and I wonder if that’s what Mr. Cosmos loved about him—this capacity to transform.
We are each more than one thing, and I’ve spent most of my life pulling the pieces of myself into a coherent whole, a Jill who can be a teacher or a mom or a wife and still be basically recognizable as the same woman. This feels vital to me, knowing who I am and inhabiting myself wherever I go, and yet still recognizing that I saved myself for this incarnation by splitting down the middle. I could be the girl that boy took to the back of his garage, shamed and hurting, but I could also stand up courageously and show a whole class how one small Egyptian made her journey to the other side—heart, brain, and liver intact.
On the day we learned about molecule attraction, what we saw seemed miraculous: here was water, a liquid, rising up above the vessel that held it all in. Mr. Cosmos didn’t say we were looking at the science of hope and possibility, but while we children held our faces level with our cups, Mr. Cosmos stood in the center of us all, traced a tiny mountain over the empty cup he held in his hand, said the word convex, and I felt a kind of surge in my heart.
Today, I study the coffee molecules rising up out of my cup, whispering meniscusmeniscus under my breath—what a wonderful, wonderful word. Over the clacking hands of time, I hear the kids starting to move around upstairs, and put my lips to the rim, breaking the surface tension with a slurp, making room for cream.
Jill Christman is a 2020 NEA Prose Fellow and the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure (winner of the AWP Prize for CNF) and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood. Her essays have appeared in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Longreads, and O, The Oprah Magazine—and her first essay collection, If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays, will be released by the University of Nebraska Press in fall 2022. A senior editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and executive producer of the podcast Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence, she teaches creative nonfiction writing and literary editing at Ball State University.
She lives with her husband, poet Mark Neely, and their two cross-genre teenagers in Muncie, Indiana. Visit her at http://www.jillchristman.com and on Twitter @jill_christman