By Carlee Jensen
Featured Art: Paralyzed by Abby Pennington
It was Halloween, and all the ladies from the front office had dressed as Wonder Woman. I spotted them as I crossed the parking lot: in matching red go-go boots and lamé headbands, tight Lycra dresses that framed their tits in gold. There was something dazzling about the sight of them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the head of the carpool line, tiny skirts ruffling in the October breeze.
“It’s quite a spectacle,” said Claudia Palmer, surveying the scene while she waited for me to swipe my key card at the front door. Claudia was too dignified for costumes, but like all teachers of a certain generation, she owned a vast collection of appliqué vests and novelty jewelry, which she trotted out for special occasions to the delight of her fourth-graders. As she waddled through the door, burdened by her many tote bags, I admired the twin kernels of candy corn hanging from her ears and the gap-toothed jack-o’-lantern brooch perched at the apex of her ample chest.
“I’m glad they’re confident,” she went on. “Even Mrs. Ward, at her age. But is this really the example we want to set for our young women? Your outfit seems much more appropriate, Valerie.”
I was a cat. I had been a cat every Halloween of my teaching career, with the same fuzzy ears from the grocery store seasonal aisle and the same greasy whiskers drawn in eyeliner on my cheeks. A hole had opened in the armpit of my overextended black T-shirt, revealing stipules of untended hair whenever I raised my arm. I liked Claudia—she was the kind of teacher I could imagine myself becoming in a few decades, an old-school bitch who inspired devotion in the students she tortured with handwriting practice and multiplication quizzes—but it seemed awfully rich to suggest that I was any kind of example.
Still, she wasn’t the kind of person you contradict. “It is a bit on the nose,” I admitted, gesturing through the window at Mrs. Ward. She was hamming it up, striking Lynda Carter poses for the approaching cars. “Like, I’m a teacher! What’s your superpower?”
Claudia clicked her tongue. “I get that mug every Christmas. It’s a bit of an overstatement, don’t you think?”
Sasha found me twenty minutes later, slumped over the copy machine in the darkened faculty lounge. She’d come in to brew her coffee; her empty mug was patterned with cheerful, smiling ghosts. I was standing glassy-eyed in front of the grunting machine, watching the slow reproduction of an asinine word search in the shape of a pumpkin.
“You are the most joyless elementary school teacher I’ve ever met in my life,” she told me, flicking my cat ears with gentle derision. “When are you going to get rid of this thing?”
“What are you talking about? I’m full of joy. Look—” I dropped a stack of copies, warm from the machine, onto the counter beside the heavy-duty stapler. “I printed these in orange.”
Sasha shuffled the pages, unimpressed. She was a fun teacher, the kind who saved kids’ sloppy crayon drawings and cheered at their weekend soccer games and showed up to Pajama Day in a spangled unicorn onesie. Every Halloween, she transformed her classroom into an oasis of child-friendly spookiness: stuffed black cats and synthetic spiderwebs, her mother’s old smoke machine belching clouds of sweet-smelling fog.
I had tried to be like her, once upon a time. The first Halloween after we met, flush with secondhand enthusiasm and a badly calibrated sense of my own capacities, I’d gathered my fifth-graders on the rug to regale them with the story of Mr. Fox, his death palace and chamber full of butchered maidens. They squirmed and squealed and said, “Ms. Clyde, this story is crazy!” but I kept on going. When I got to the part with the severed hand on the wedding table, Jamie Hastings fled the room and vomited chicken nuggets into the recycling bin. “You’re a wonderful teacher,” Sasha had assured me, patting my back as I cried in her classroom during recess. “You’re just a little intense.”
Sasha, by the way, looked fucking fantastic: at once wholesome and sexy in some kind of cowgirl ensemble, with a silver buckle hanging from her hips and her lush yellow hair braided loosely under a fake Stetson. There was a winsome, flyaway look about her, as though she really had just climbed down from the back of a beautiful palomino. I felt a sudden, acute awareness of my holey shirt and greasy hair, of the scab on my chin where I’d picked a zit the night before.
“Did you get a load of the office costume?” I asked. “Wonder Woman?”
Sasha shook her head. “They’ll live to regret it. Mark my words, one of those ladies will find herself bare-assed in a room full of first-graders before this day is over.”
The single-serve coffee maker spat its last few drops into her mug, and she pumped open the lid to flick the pod into the trash. From the pocket of her plaid shirt, she extracted a tiny plastic cup of vanilla creamer. I watched her peel back the foil and swirl the contents slowly over the surface of the coffee, forming a little spiral nebula. Her engagement ring sparkled on her left hand: a stone the color of a blood orange, set deep in a sturdy silver band. Gwen had bought it for her on a whim, at a craft fair in Utah where they’d spent the summer hiking through slot canyons. She slipped it onto Sasha’s finger that very same night, down on one knee in dusty cargo shorts.
“A few of us are meeting for drinks after work.” Sasha licked a drop of creamer from the lid and tossed the container into the trash. “Want to come? Guaranteed appearances from at least two of the Wonder Women.”
Once, at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, I’d stuffed fistfuls of those vanilla creamers into my fanny pack while Sasha egged me on, biting her knuckle to stifle her laughter. “You’ve never been sexier,” she told me in a whisper. The next morning, naked in our hotel bed, I watched her throw one back like a shot of tequila, chasing it with a swig of watery coffee from the lobby. When I’d pictured proposing to her, the ring had always been a diamond.
“I can see those gears turning in your head,” she said. “You’re desperately looking for an excuse to stay home in your sweatpants.”
“That is not true,” I said. “I’ll think about it. Really.”
“Liar.” She swatted me with my own dumb word search. “Don’t lie to your friends.”
By the time I made it back to my classroom, the kids were trickling in. Katrina Hale and Danielle Rudinski were dressed as each other, one in a blonde wig, the other in a spangled gymnastics leotard. Rachel Singh was a Beatle, in a skinny tie she had borrowed from her father. Devon Nekimken, who most days took refuge in the largest sweatshirt known to man, wore a Magic 8 Ball made from papier-mâché, a blue cardboard triangle perched atop his head. REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN. It had taken the whole family to get it onto him, he told me, each of his brothers guiding one arm through crooked holes they’d cut with a hand saw.
“If I have to pee, I’m toast,” he told me matter-of-factly.
I gave them each due praise, insisting on the 360-degree view and posing one probing, process-oriented question per child. Sasha would have called this another sign of joylessness. Just tell them they look great, she’d say. Not everything has to be an intellectual exercise. But it was something I did well. I had never mastered the touchy-feely parts of teaching—I loathed conflict resolution exercises and frequently allowed children to cry alone in the bathroom—but I was good at thinking. My heart glowed warm at funny moments of ten-year-old genius; a finely wrought persuasive essay or a single sparkling insight about Catherine Called Birdy could melt me even on my worst days. I liked to believe it gave me an edge with certain kids: the ones who shared reptile facts instead of making conversation, who quoted Tolkien like a party trick, who begged to sit with the grownups at Thanksgiving because all the cousins thought they were a narc.
Kids like Taylor Mayes. “Almost unbearable,” her fourth-grade teacher had assured me in our hand-off meeting. Needy, disruptive, self-absorbed, a child with nothing in her emotional toolbox, who was in no way a joy to teach. It was an uncharitable assessment, but not completely unfair. Taylor appeared at my desk each morning with a stiff, anxious look on her face, ready to bore me with another interminable story from home. Sucky at compromise and a nightmare during group work, she was the subject of weekly emails from the concerned parents of kids who either ignored or tormented her. I would love your support, the gracious ones wrote. What they meant was: Keep that little girl in line.
And yet, Taylor had her moments. At the end of the first week of school, she showed me the comic book she’d been working on all summer. On the cover, a long-limbed girl stepped lightly across the cratered surface of the moon, pulling a cat behind her in a Radio Flyer. They wore matching bubble helmets and watery, serene smiles. As I flipped through the dreamscape sketches, I noted her tender attention to detail: moon rocks crunching beneath a slender paw, wrinkles forming in the corner of a skeptical mouth.
“I wanted it to feel quiet,” Taylor told me, “but safe. Not scary. Like when you wake up in the middle of the night, but you’re in your own bed and everything’s okay.”
It was the click of heels on the tile floor that announced Taylor’s arrival that morning, even before the distinctive, gravelly sound of her voice. “Happy Halloween, Ms. Clyde,” I heard her say behind me. I was in the middle of a talking-to with Leah Sirakian, who had shown up sniffling over her unfinished math homework for the third day in a row, but I spared a glance at the door to acknowledge her.
Taylor Mayes—she of the baggy basketball shorts, expert on the life of Harry Houdini, the only kid who’d ever taken my old Lloyd Alexander books off the library shelf—was standing at the classroom door, wearing what was unmistakably a grown woman’s lingerie.
“Whoa,” Leah intoned, wiping her nose on her polyester Hogwarts robe. “Nice dress.”
It was a black slip, trimmed in lace—a classy one, which had the muted shine of real silk. It was a little too long for her; the hem brushed her knees and the neckline drooped lower than it was supposed to, plunging down the length of her sternum, unimpeded by any curves. A network of straps criss-crossed over the exposed planes of her back. Her tights, too, were bigger than they needed to be, extra fabric bunching up in the sides of her glossy high-heeled shoes. Someone had painted her lips a brilliant red and coaxed her scraggly hair into crisp, bouncy ringlets.
Taylor beamed at Leah, then turned her earnest gray eyes to me. “I like your costume,” she said with rote politeness, gesturing at my shabby ears.
Was I allowed to return the compliment? I racked my brain for some safe and noncommittal response, but I hadn’t quite come up with one when Amelia—class busybody and administrator of many socially precocious group text messages—appeared at my elbow, clutching her unfinished word search.
“Taylor?” she cried, craning her neck and squinting dramatically. “Is that you?”
Amelia Rausch’s signature screech was famous in the lower school, an ultrasonic marvel that could silence crowded cafeterias and halt whole kindergarten classes in their tracks. Hearing it now, the other kids whipped their heads around with such magnificent force that it seemed almost choreographed.
It wasn’t five seconds before they swarmed. Half a dozen girls flocked to Taylor’s side like flying monkeys. They crowded around her, all exclamation, blocking her from view with their bodies and hands and glittering costume jewelry.
“Oh my god.” Katrina lifted onto her toes to get a better view. “You look so pretty.”
“So pretty,” Danielle agreed, pawing at Taylor’s earrings. “Are these real diamonds?”
They weren’t wrong. Bizarre though it was, Taylor looked beautiful. The too-big clothes hung elegantly on her small form, framing the fine bones of her shoulders, and the overall effect was more glamorous than sexy. It didn’t hurt that she was glowing, basking in the attention of girls who wouldn’t usually give her the time of day. She turned obligingly back and forth as they examined her, craned her neck so they could touch her curls. Watching them fawn, I wished for another adult in the room—someone whose expression I could check as the scene unfolded, who could help me gauge how I should feel.
Amelia had retreated from the frenzy to arrange herself atop one of the low tables, feet on somebody else’s plastic chair. Her sweatshirt drooped, Flashdance-style, from one shoulder and a yellow sweatband held back her abundant hair. Who taught her to hold herself that way, I wondered: head tilted derisively to one side, leaning carelessly backward onto her hands?
“I literally can’t believe this,” she said, loud enough that everyone could hear. “Taylor is wearing girl clothes.”
Against my better judgment, I really did like Amelia Rausch. She wrote beautiful poetry and had a good attitude about fractions, which was more than I could say for some of the more authentically pleasant kids in the class. But there was no way around it: she was a little bitch. I swiveled in my chair to face her, words of reproach already forming on my tongue.
But Taylor was a step ahead of me. She did not cry, or throw a punch, or flee to the safety of the bathroom. Her lip didn’t so much as quiver at Amelia’s objectively shitty comment. With a level of aplomb I wouldn’t have thought possible, she smoothed the skirt of her dress and gave a whimsical little twirl. An uncharacteristically winning smile spread across her face, usually so dour and serious. “I know!” she said. “It’s the craziest thing!”
And the other girls laughed in agreement. The craziest thing! Amelia’s expression altered ever so slightly, grew looser around the edges. She slid down from the table and came close to Taylor, reaching out to touch one of her slender, silken straps. “I really like this dress,” she said. Taylor met her eyes, beaming. It was a little like watching the first notes of a romance.
The kids went to Music a few minutes before ten. Taylor walked with her arm linked in Amelia’s, her expression vivid with discomfort and pleasure. I watched from the doorway as she floated down the hall, tugging up her shoulder straps.
Sasha took her class to Gym at quarter to eleven. On her way back, she paused at the top of the rubber-coated stairs and stuck her head through the open door of my classroom.
“We saw your class coming down the hall,” she said, light and buoyant like a kid dying to tell a secret. “I had to shove my own eyeballs back into my head. Taylor Mayes in that slutty little dress! I can’t believe her mother let her out of the house like that.”
The thought had occurred to me, too. I’d never actually spoken to Erica Mayes—she had missed Back to School Night—but I’d seen her in the halls for years, collecting Taylor from after-care, art-school sexy in leopard-print pencil skirts and acetate jewelry. She was six feet tall, twice divorced, a professor of graphic design: the opposite of my own mother, who had nearly died of shame the day I pierced my nose.
“How did your kids react?” Sasha had a little sparkle in her eyes, the way she always did when she gossiped. “Did she melt their faces off?”
Melting of faces, there had been none. But I had watched Jordan Fragoso get red around the ears when he asked to borrow her pencil sharpener and Devon Nekimken, unsubtly craning his neck to get a better look, had knocked over a box of wooden pattern blocks with his bulbous, papîer-maché-encased rear end. I did a little impression of Devon, wild-eyed with panic and patting the empty air, which cracked Sasha up. She cried when she laughed, the way she always did, pressing at the corners of her eyes so her tears wouldn’t smudge her mascara.
Listening to her laugh, I’d always told her, was my favorite thing in the world. It was the first thing I’d loved about her, that August morning when she’d asked to borrow a pen for the bloodborne pathogens training. I drew one like a pistol from the inner pocket of my jean jacket, and her laugh was pure surprise and delight: clement weather, captured in vibrations of sound.
“That is cool,” she had said earnestly, tugging on the jacket to get a closer look. “That is seriously cool. You should, like, hide stuff in there.”
“Never hide your tampons,” she’d chastised, slapping me gently with the back of her hand as though we were old friends. “Get a Game Boy to play on the toilet. Or get a snake, and make your kids hold it when they’re being assholes.”
She was so pretty: coral lipstick and Birkenstocks, hair twisted in a tortoise shell clip. By the end of that week, I was making pesto in her food processor. Neither of us had ever known another gay teacher, and in each other we discovered the pleasure of perfect understanding. When Kelly Cress pinned a rainbow badge to her backpack, or Diana Kim plucked Annie on My Mind from the library shelf, it was Sasha I wanted to tell. She was the only person who understood these moments’ significance, how they shredded my heart with their warm luster of possibility. When Max Arnaud—tiny, macho king of the second grade—spent an entire recess period with Andrew Samson’s head in his lap, running his fingers tenderly through Andrew’s silky brown hair, Sasha described it to me with both hands pressed hard to her chest, as though she could trap the beauty of that moment inside her. “It could be so different for them,” she said.
The first week of summer, she took me tubing on the Gunpowder. We filled a cooler with beer and lime LaCroix and floated it between us, suspended on a nylon tether. I bought a waterproof speaker and made a playlist with all the songs she loved. “Fuck,” she said over and over, “this is such a good one.” When we reached the place where the river widened into a deep, slow pool, I shimmied out of my tube and dog-paddled beside her, spraying her with sparkling pearls of water while she laughed that magical laugh.
Back at her apartment, she fixed grilled cheese sandwiches with too much Miracle Whip. We ate them on her overstuffed couch, legs tucked under us like girls at a sleepover, wiping our greasy fingers on the same green dish towel. Our first kiss, when it finally came, tasted like paprika and hot oil, lime fizz, falling asleep in the sun. Naked in her bed, I admired the spray of freckles on the backs of her legs, the twin crescent burns on the bottoms of her ass cheeks where she’d forgotten to apply sunscreen.
She always dazzled me, in the truest sense of the word. I’d catch myself watching her while she did dumb, ordinary things: graded papers and folded laundry and dislodged burnt bits from the bottom of the cast iron skillet. I had never been happier than I was that first year, when we strung those perfect moments together like pearls and I felt so grateful just to be near her.
But there were problems, too—little fragilities. The more I fell in love with her, the easier it became to name the reasons I didn’t deserve her. Guys I’d let fuck me in college. Kids who had slipped through the cracks. My dad. I was convinced Sasha could see it, too. When she told me I was good and smart and beautiful, it raised an aching rage inside me. Was she lying, I would ask myself, or was she just fucking stupid?
The rest of it was probably just in my head. She flirted with the girl at the smoothie place and kept pictures of her exes on her phone. She told graphic, gratuitous stories about sex: pressed against a wall behind a Barcelona night club, on a sticky lounge chair beside the Hampton Inn pool, in her narrow freshman bed at Smith. It shouldn’t have bothered me. After all, she had only wanted the same things I wanted for myself: love and attention, pleasure and comfort, the feeling of being seen in all her Technicolor clarity. What made me crazy was that she got those things.
“I’m never going to be enough for you,” I told her once. We were fighting; I can’t remember what about. It was one of those days when I felt cold all over, hard around the edges, like I was trapped inside a plaster cast of myself. Sasha started to cry and swore it wasn’t true. Her face got all puffy and red; for such a beautiful girl, she was ugly when she cried. I remember my heart struggling to beat inside my chest, pulsing weakly as though muffled beneath layers of fat and ice and concrete. When she left me, a month or so later, I wasn’t sure whether I had been right all along or had finally just pushed her away.
She called me from the road after Gwen proposed, somewhere on the highway between Zion and Canyonlands. I’d been reading on the balcony, bare feet up on the railing, the way I did sometimes when I woke up feeling good. My neighbor had given me a spearmint plant for my birthday and I’d plucked one brilliant green leaf to crush between my fingers, staining the tips so that I left faint green smudges on the pages when I turned them. I didn’t understand what Sasha was saying at first—she had to shout into her cell phone to compensate for the shitty reception—but when I finally put it together, I felt a terrible ache spread down the length of my spine, a hot itch over my skin, a feeling of loss like that very first day I’d woken up without her.
It had been two years since our breakup by then: long enough for the silent treatment and the awkward work parties and the gradual reintroduction, for the restoration of that ease between us that had made it so simple to kiss her in the first place. “I’m proud of us,” she’d told me a few months earlier, celebrating the end of another school year at a wine bar too loud for real conversation. “We found the right way to love each other.” She was in deep with Gwen by that time, and Gwen was gentle and smart and smiled at Sasha when she thought no one was looking. It should have been clear where I stood. But it took that crackly phone call, with the sweet smell of spearmint on my fingers and the stained book still open on my lap, to make me realize she was never coming back to me.
And yet, here she was: sitting on the edge of my desk, talking shit about kids, the seam of her blue jeans just inches from my hand. I imagined running my finger along that seam, tracing the path from her knee to her hip. It would have been easy, if it weren’t also impossible.
Devon had tried to pick up the pattern blocks after they spilled, but the stiff shell of the Magic 8 Ball made it impossible for him to reach the ground. He’d strained his arms like a T. rex trying to pick a blueberry, exaggerating the effort for comedic effect. Straightening up, he had given a self-deprecating shake of his head that made his cardboard headdress slip down over his eyes. REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN.
“If you come out with us,” Sasha said, still breathless from laughter, tugging at the white bandana around her neck, “you need to tell that story to Regina. She loves Devon Nekimken. I think she still has his howler monkey project.”
Regina Nicolosi taught in the classroom across the hall from Sasha’s. They were friends, meaning they shared chart paper and watched each other’s classes when they had to pee. I imagined the three of us at some high-top bar table, swapping stories about our kids: warm, casual, just a hair’s breadth away from actual intimacy.
“I thought the point of drinking with your coworkers was to talk about something other than work,” I said.
Sasha tutted, swept a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “The point of drinking with your coworkers is to hang out with your best friend,” she said. “Which, if you haven’t noticed, is me.”
Half an hour after the kids got back from Music, there was a rap at the classroom door.
The kids had paired off to read, spreading themselves lazily over the gritty area rug and the wide ledges under the window. Amelia had grabbed Taylor’s forearm at the sound of the word “partner,” leading her to the kidney table where I worked with the anxious kids during math. They made a sweet picture: Amelia leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, Taylor smiling nervously as she fidgeted with the hem of her dress.
It was one of those good moments when they didn’t need me. I wandered idly around the perimeter of the room, perching on the edges of tables to eavesdrop and listening to the same paragraph read over and over again. I didn’t notice the knock at first; Danielle Rudinski had to pause mid-sentence to point my gaze in the direction of the door. Through the long pane of glass, I saw the prim mouth and dark eyes of the school guidance counselor.
As a kid, I had a neighbor who kept Italian greyhounds—four of them, with bulging eyes and scrawny little bodies—that she’d walk two at a time like sets of quivering parentheses. Lindsay French reminded me of those dogs. She had a high forehead and a long, serious jaw that sucked every trace of warmth from her face. Seven months pregnant, with a vast belly that stuck out awkwardly from her thin, angular frame, she had rigged a sober homespun version of the Wonder Woman costume: starry blue leggings and orthopedic sneakers, a wool cardigan whose subdued rust color could hardly be called red. She’d worn the headdress, though, with its sparkly star in the center, and a sequined cuff on each wrist.
“Ms. Clyde,” she stage-whispered as I cracked the door, “could I speak to you?”
In the hallway, she cut right to the chase. “I wanted to check in about Taylor Mayes,” she said, keeping her voice low. She wore an expression of mild, unthreatening concern that I’d seen her adopt with particularly touchy parents. “That’s quite an outfit she has on today.”
I remembered Sasha’s description: that slutty little dress. At least it was honest.
“It’s a bold choice,” I said, finally.
Lindsay rested her hand on her belly while she spoke, as though she were giving voice to the fetus’s professional opinion. “I can’t help but wonder where it’s coming from. It seems out of character for Taylor.” She tilted her head, holding my gaze. “I know you have some girls in your class who are—more sophisticated, you might say. Do you think she’s just trying to fit in?”
Trying to fit in. It sounded so harmless, so heart-wrenchingly relatable.
I found myself thinking, unexpectedly, of Taylor’s mother. I can’t believe she let her out of the house. But it didn’t seem so illogical. It would have been Erica Mayes, after all, who held Taylor on the couch when she came home from school frustrated and lonely; who watched with disappointed hope as Taylor’s occasional friendships fizzled and faded. It must have filled up her heart, when Taylor fished that slip off some department store clearance rack, to imagine her baby surrounded by admirers, feeling for the first time that spectacular joy of belonging.
What wouldn’t she have done to make that possible?
I wanted it to feel safe, Taylor had told me as I paged through her comic, all those weeks ago. What could be safer, for a kid like her, than solitude: the lightness of her steps across that empty lunar field, the warmth of her breath inside that sealed glass dome, the perfect quiet of the house when she woke in the middle of the night? Even so, she had chosen to appear that morning in a dress that begged to be seen. There was something heroic about it, her determi- nation to show up in the world with all her raw edges exposed. I felt a wave of tenderness and admiration.
When I was in fifth grade, I made a habit of faking sick: bad pantomimes of sore throats and stomach cramps, which my mother indulged though she saw right through them. I’d spend blissful mornings on the couch, sucking lozenges and watching Dr. Phil, but by early afternoon, I would already be dreading the next day of school.
To hell with Lindsay French, I thought. I’d cast my lot with Taylor and her slutty little dress.
“She’s a kid, Lindsay,” I said. My voice was louder than it needed to be, stronger than I might have expected. “She’s playing dress-up. It’s not a crime.”
Lindsay pursed her lips. “I didn’t imply that it was. But it’s concerning, don’t you agree?”
“Concerning on what grounds? Because you can see her collarbones?” I flung up my hands when I said this, made a big show of it. “What kind of school are we running here?”
Lindsay took a deep, slow breath, counselor-style. “You said it yourself, Valerie. Taylor is a child. Little girls shouldn’t dress like grown women. I’m surprised I need to explain that to you.”
That brought me up short, I’ll admit. It was the kind of righteous proclamation I might have made in different circumstances. Lindsay must have seen something on my face—some sliver of doubt or hesitation—because she doubled down immediately. “The world can be very cruel to young girls,” she said. “That much, I’m sure we can agree on. We’re doing Taylor a disservice if we don’t teach her to protect herself.”
She had worn a Wonder Woman T-shirt under her cardigan. It was the old-school cartoon image: the buxom warrior princess, poised for combat with her fists clenched and a regal red cape rippling behind her. I’m a teacher. What’s your superpower? We all wanted to believe it.
“She feels good,” I said. I could hear a new instability in my voice, crowding the conviction that had found its footing there only a moment ago. “The poor kid deserves to feel good about herself for once. Please Lindsay, just let it go.”
Lindsay looked at me with genuine sympathy, hands folded over the taut globe of her belly. This was her second baby, I knew; she’d lost the first.
“I understand, Valerie.” She spoke more gently, though her voice held its firm, clipped edge. “But I’m not asking for your permission.”
When she got back to the classroom, Taylor’s lipstick was gone. Gray ghosts of mascara clouded the skin around her eyes—the eyes themselves had gone shiny and raw—and she picked nervously at her raggedy cuticles. Lindsay had given up her drab cardigan, draping it across Taylor’s shoulders as though she’d just pulled her from the rubble of some awful natural disaster. She had rolled the too-long sleeves into thick cuffs to reveal her hands and wrists. Amelia tried to wave her over, but Taylor turned away.
“Can I please work by myself?” she asked me with soft desperation in her eyes.
For the rest of the day, she fidgeted: pulled at the sweater where the wool scratched her skin, rolled up those sleeves until they bulged above her elbows like pool floaties. I should have told her to take the damn thing off, but I didn’t.
I tore out of the classroom as soon as I could. Didn’t wipe down the board or unjam the pencil sharpener or push the recycling bin out into the hall. Taylor had scuttled out the door at the end of the day with her head slung low, shoulders tight around her ears as though she were trying to hide her face in Lindsay’s cardigan. Before recess, she had used the rubber band from her neat little bundle of colored pencils to flatten her curls into a sloppy ponytail. It would hurt when she tried to take it out later, snagging on the ends of her hair.
Amelia had hesitated at the door, watching the transformation with a concerned crease between her eyebrows. Taylor loitered, studiously avoiding her gaze. Eventually, Rachel Singh had taken Amelia by the elbow and led her out to the playground.
Sasha’s classroom was the last one before the parking lot. Sunny acoustic music poured into the hall from beneath the closed door, a moment’s respite after a day of “Monster Mash” and “Thriller.” I could see her inside, sanitizing the tables with Lysol wipes, her ass swaying slightly in time to the music. The supply closet stood open behind her desk, ready to swallow the smoke machine until next fall.
We used to kiss there in the afternoons, among the stacks of construction paper and old D’Nealian workbooks.
Watching her, I waited for something to melt inside me. It used to happen all the time, standing at the coffee maker or the copy machine. My mind would wander backward to the night before, to some sweet way she’d touched me or some sexy thing she’d said, and I would feel my body flooded with a kind of buttery ease. I still closed my eyes sometimes, tried to conjure that old softness, just to know I could.
I wanted to go in. I wanted to open the door and then shut it behind me, to watch Sasha’s eyes cloud with concern when she saw my expression. I wanted to sink into one of those comically small chairs and cry while she rubbed my back, asking no questions but understanding perfectly. But there was something in me that knew it wouldn’t be that way. Something in me refused to melt. I could see my reflection in the long pane of glass, superimposed into the empty space beside her. I looked even worse than I’d realized.
My Honda was parked just a few steps from the playground, and as I crossed the parking lot, I could hear the after-care kids playing Red Rover on the lawn. Someone—a high school kid, or another irresponsible teacher who had needed a moment’s peace—had abandoned the grease-stained box from a miniature pizza. It sat open on the asphalt, a trio of drab wrens pecking at the gummy remnants of crust.
The car was a disaster inside: dark stains on the seats and grit collected around the edges of the floor mats. There was a thick glop of bird shit in the middle of my windshield, but I’d run out of wiper fluid the week before, so I just left it there. I turned my key in the ignition. The radio sprang to life, playing a CD it had swallowed months ago and refused to release.
My phone pinged on the seat beside me, then pinged again. Sasha. THIS DAY WAS NUTS, the first text read. And then, You’re coming out with us, yes? I need a million drinks.
I felt that tightening in my chest, that hardening around my edges. I felt the world like a sunburn needling my skin: Sasha’s chipper ease, the birds on their pizza crust, the joyful shouts of kids whose teachers hadn’t permanently fucked them up. The rearview mirror showed my joyless cat ears, wilted on my head. I pulled them down—they went easy, flopping into my eyes, blotting out the sun for the briefest moment—and then I held them in my lap, one end of the plastic headband in each hand. The snap, when it came, was Pink Lady crisp. I tossed them into the backseat with my tote bag of ungraded spelling tests.
The slamming of car doors sent the wrens scattering, rust-colored streaks against the late flare of the sun. Tossing a cursory glance over my shoulder, I spotted a small figure at the edge of the playground, leaning against the fence and waving at me furiously. Its sleeves were floppy and cumbersome, and for one radiant moment I thought it might be Taylor. But it was Devon Nekimken, back in his drooping sweatshirt. The battered Magic 8-Ball lay on the ground beside him, shed with the ease of an outgrown carapace.
Taylor didn’t come to school the next day. I got an email from her mother—eloquent, livid, copied to every member of the office staff. They’d had plans to go trick-or-treating with her cousins, but she had broken down in tears and begged to stay home. Did you believe you were acting in my daughter’s best interest? the email demanded. Did you see yourselves as her protectors or her champions? I cannot begin to express the harm that delusion has caused.
Sasha married Gwen that spring, and in the fall, they moved north, to a cold city I would never visit. I was surprised to find that her absence left, not a gaping hole inside of me, but a narrow pocket of air in which I finally felt able to breathe—that my muffled heart seemed to beat with less effort once I could see myself without seeing the space where she might have been.
I never stopped thinking of Taylor. Whenever I recalled that time, it was to her my mind went first: those sharp edges, that delicate dress, the long-limbed girl in her silent lunar landscape. In the deep part of my mind that remembered what I had not actually experienced, I could see her on that late October morning, standing in the yellow glow of the bathroom. I saw the sleek tubes of lipstick; the cratered pots of eyeshadow; her small, serene face in her mother’s hands. I saw the first fragile moment after she opened her eyes onto her own reflection. Not better, necessarily, or more beautiful. Just different. Unencumbered. Possible. I came to understand that, eventually, though it took me a very long time.
Carlee Jensen is a writer based in Baltimore. Her fiction has appeared in The Master’s Review, where she was a finalist for the 2021 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. A former elementary school teacher, she is currently an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University.