I'll Stay, page 27
“Excuse me,” she’d said that first day she’d arrived in class. Many of the kids had been staring at her, some doing goofy things to show off, but with this everyone jerked to attention. It was after lunch and we’d gathered on the rug by the window for read aloud. “Why are most of the adults always so bad in Roald Dahl’s books?”
I marked the page with my finger and closed Matilda. She was right, of course. But new kids were notoriously shy and I was surprised that she’d spoken. She was tall with long dirty blond hair, small, squinty eyes, and unforgiving, severe eyebrows. Was this a rhetorical question, asked so she could show off by answering? Was she challenging me? I didn’t know. Her question seemed genuine.
“That’s a good question,” I said. “Does anyone have an answer?” I glanced at Sophia, our class’s most well-read student, but she stiffened and dropped her eyes and I knew not to call on her. Others began shifting, uncomfortable, too, when I met their eyes. No one seemed to know which way this was going to go.
“They’re always so mean.” Talia scrunched her nose in concern.
I nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Do you have any idea why?” With fingers from both hands, Talia tucked her hair behind her ears. And then she shrugged, her nose still scrunched, and said, “I have no idea!”
I felt the collective sigh as everyone nodded. Yes, the new girl didn’t know, either, and wasn’t afraid to say it. Randall, who had an answer for everything even if he was wrong, stared at her. Sophia turned her entire upper body to look. And with this Talia became an instant magnet, the unspoken leader, the girl with the power. This was something most kids, and a lot of adults, didn’t understand: people were often most attractive when they admitted they didn’t know.
Sophia slowly raised her hand, and when I nodded at her, she said, “Maybe Roald Dahl knew a lot of mean adults when he was growing up?”
“That’s stupid,” Max whispered to Jonah.
“Max, that’s not nice,” I’d said. He shrugged and hung his head.
Several girls began whispering. Paolo picked at the loose rubber on the heel of his sneaker. And I remembered, very clearly, how Talia had turned to Sophia. The two of them stared at each other in a kind of solemn and silent way that signaled something profound had just occurred.
I strained my neck, my hand still on the chalkboard, trying to see the far edge of the playground, but I couldn’t find either of them. I knew that by putting Sophia and Talia at the same table, and in the same reading group, I was encouraging a friendship. And I was quite sure this was not a priority with the other teachers. Even though Meadows Academy wasn’t as intense as some of the local private schools, such as Winsor or Belmont Hill, and championed the “whole child,” most everyone—teachers, administration, parents—were focused on one thing. Performance.
“Look at you, watching your flock from your window. Do you see mine down there, too?” Kitty, hands on her big hips, grinned from my doorway. She charged into the room and threw herself into my chair. Cheeks flushing, I stepped away from the window. Even though she was only a few years older than me, Kitty was already jaded. Perhaps someday I’d be that way, too, but so far this was new to me. I was only in my second year of teaching and terrified that my students, moving to fifth grade next year, would do so without learning enough from me.
“Thank God we’ve got the day off tomorrow,” she said. “I love these random holidays. I need a three-day weekend. It’s been such a bear here so far.”
“We’ve only been in school three weeks, Kitty,” I said.
“I know.” She sighed as she laid her torso across my desk and began fiddling with a pile of paperclips. Pasty white flesh spilled over the top of her chinos and her feathered brown hair spread across her shoulders. She reminded me so much of Ducky that I felt a soft spot for her, even when she annoyed me.
I also felt grateful. I’d learned a lot as her assistant for two years before getting my own class. She was one of the best teachers in the school. I cleared my throat and asked, “Think you could help me with another student? I can’t figure out what’s not working with Max’s writing. I don’t think he’s got executive functioning issues. But I don’t know what to do. He’s such a smart, articulate kid. But he was all over the place in his last essay.”
She rolled her head on her arms and looked at me. “The what-I-did-over-summer-vacation essay?”
I nodded. “He wrote about visiting his cousins in Maine.”
“Maybe the question was too open ended. Tell him to write about the three best things about visiting his cousins. Make him list them, one per paragraph, and tell him to elaborate. Sometimes you gotta lead them a bit.”
Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? I felt the same way last week when she helped me with a science lesson. Teaching was not intuitive. Yet.
She sat up. “Did you hear we’re getting a new gym teacher? Someone says he’s coming over from Concord Academy. Do you know?”
I shook my head. I tried to stay out of the gossip mill as much as possible.
“Well, I hope he’s young and hot and single,” she said.
“It’s a terrible idea to date someone you work with.” I laughed and glanced out the window. My student teacher, Eileen, was lining up the kids on the blacktop. Recess was almost over.
“I know, but I’m feeling desperate,” she said. I rolled my eyes. “I am! You have no idea how hard it is to meet nice, eligible men. By the way, we’re all still waiting to meet your husband. We’re beginning to wonder if he even exists.” She laughed.
“Ha, ha, real funny,” I said.
“Seriously, Clare. Does Ben really work all those hours?”
“He does. It’s insane.” Ben and I had been married for three years, and I could count on two hands the weeknights he was home before nine. But this wasn’t the only reason I’d not introduced him to the group. I liked Kitty and the other teachers but I wasn’t anxious to become best friends with them.
“So, come out with us,” she said. “After book group next Friday night. We’re going to that bar over in Brighton. You know, the one with the karaoke.”
I felt a flutter in my chest. But then I remembered what we had planned (how could I have forgotten?) and was relieved that I had an actual conflict this time. I shook my head. “I can’t. I’m headed to the Vineyard for the weekend.”
“You’re going to miss book group again?” she asked. I nodded. “What are you doing out on the Vineyard? God, Clare, you’re so, I don’t know, hard to pin down.”
I liked Kitty and didn’t want to be hard to pin down or elusive or anything else. I wished I’d never said yes to her book group. One meeting had been enough. All those women in one room, yakking and drinking wine, had made me so anxious. “Remember that my mother died last summer? It’s a little late, but we’re having her memorial service next weekend.”
“Oh.” Kitty’s lips parted. “I’m such a jerk. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
Suddenly dozens of little voices erupted at the far end of the hall, and I felt their energy blow into the room like a sudden gust of wind. I stiffened, as I always did before class resumed. Would I ever feel completely confident here?
“It’s okay, Kitty,” I said. “How would you have known? Most people have memorial services right afterward, not a year later.”
“Losing your mom, oh! That must be awful.” She shook her head. “I’m never going to survive my mom dying. She’s my best friend.”
The kids charged into the room, their faces flushed and sweaty. Kitty stood, started toward the door, and tapped each kid on the head as she said, “I know you and you, and I know you.” The kids giggled as they watched her. Everyone loved Kitty. Maybe someday I could be like that, too, so loose and comfortable and funny.
As she waved goodbye and blew kisses, I imagined Kitty and her mother having coffee over the breakfast table and talking on the phone.
My mother had been many things but not my best friend.
As the last of the
Lee and I had been like that. We knew each class and each professor that we both had and at night we discussed them all. How many times had we been shushed after waking each other up in the cold dorm? How many times had we obsessed over someone or something—the Rat Man case, Patricia Graceson, the old Russian man—and turned them inside out by talking about them?
I glanced at the window again. The sun, at a different angle now, cast a thick streak through the glass that crossed the center of the blue and red reading rug. Lee and I had not spoken since Amy’s wedding, five years earlier. In the beginning she’d written me several short, terse letters that were filled with traces of anger (well, I’ve been back from Thailand for three months and happy to tell you about it if only you’d write me back). But except for a short condolence card after my mother died, she hadn’t written in the last couple of years. I always meant to write back. Truth was, my life was calmer with her not in it. Sometimes I went for days without thinking of her or what happened.
“Ms. Michaels?” Paolo stood in front of me, his cowlick sticking out above his right ear and his face twisted in worry. He was a fragile, cautious boy, intimidated by authority. After meeting his father at parent night last week, I could see why.
I knelt in front of him and smiled. “Is everything okay?”
He bit his lip, trying to hold back his tears. “I can’t find my mitt.”
“Do you remember where you had it last?”
He slapped his hands to his face, hiding his eyes. I watched with alarm as his shoulders began to quiver and knew how embarrassed he’d be if others realized he was crying.
“Think,” I said, my voice low and gentle. “Did you leave it on the playground?”
He shrugged, his hands covering his eyes. They were little boy hands, fingers hairless and pudgy, dirt and God knows what else wedged under ragged nails.
I glanced back at Sophia and Talia and watched as Abby, who’d not been happy being usurped by the new girl, maneuvered her way between them. When Abby began talking to Talia, I saw Sophia wilt and wanted to shout to her, “Don’t let this happen! Don’t let anyone come between you two!”
I licked my dry lips. “How about Sophia goes with you to look for it?”
He nodded and I called Sophia over. After explaining the task, I saw her shoulders rise. She grabbed Paolo’s elbow and they hurried out.
I turned to my desk. I needed to get a grip. These were fourth graders. They had their own lives. My job was to teach them, not control or manipulate their friendships or worry about them in this way.
I reached for my math lesson plan.
* * *
After school I drove to my parents’ house and let myself in the back door with my key. My dad, who’d been devastated when my mother died, had recently begun to feel a bit better. He was taking an antidepressant and getting out of the house for walks and movies and an occasional dinner. But I worried that after the memorial service next week he’d slip back into that quasi-functioning state he’d been in right after she died.
“Dad?” I said. The kitchen was just as I’d left it three days ago—the tin of crackers next to the bowl of apples and oranges, the pile of clean dishtowels next to the stove. Had he eaten the chicken salad I’d made? Did the milk spoil in the refrigerator again? “Dad? Where are you?”
“In here,” he called.
I found him at the dining room table, hunched over a piece of paper. The Boston Globe and The New York Times sat at his elbow. Dozens of copies of Listen, Before You Go were stacked at the far end of the table. My dad was only sixty-eight but he’d aged a decade in the two years between my mother’s diagnosis for colon cancer and her death. His hair was now fully gray and falling over his eyes. His shoulders, usually so sturdy and broad, were thin and tilted inward. I felt alarm sweep through me. It wasn’t easy getting here every day now that school had started, so who would make sure he ate, showered, and got out every day?
“I brought you some biscotti that I made.” I put the Tupperware container in front of him. He glanced at it and then went back to the letter he was reading. “Dad?”
“I’m sorry.” He put the letter down and looked up at me. “Thank you, my dear. You know how much I love your biscotti.”
But he didn’t open the container. I shifted my feet and looked around the room. My mother’s hospital bed, where she’d spent the last three months of her life, was no longer next to the windows. Also gone were the piles of blankets, sheets, extra chairs, medicine, throw-up pail, bedpan, and all other accoutrements of the sick and dying. And yet I still felt her heavy presence in this room. Watching him, I realized that it wasn’t a coincidence, despite all the rooms in this big house, that he’d chosen to do his paperwork in here.
“Have you been out yet today?” I asked. “Or yesterday?”
My dad tilted his head, thinking. “No.”
“Dad, you promised to get out every day, remember?”
He waved his hand at me. “I’ve simply got too much to do. Look, we just received a letter from your mother’s cousin, Oliver, who’s coming to the service next week. You remember him?”
How could I forget? His gift, Ellie the stuffed elephant, was forever immortalized in my mind. And in Listen, of course. I nodded.
“We’re going to have quite a gathering.” And then he smiled, a genuine smile, one of the first I’d seen in a long time. “Look at some of these responses.”
I sighed and sat next to him. My dad and several of my mother’s writer friends had arranged this “memorial celebration in honor of her writing life” at the Vineyard home of one of the writers. Logan and Beth, his fiancée, were coming in for it. My dad’s siblings, Aunt Denise and Uncle Richard and their spouses, were driving over from western Massachusetts. And, as my dad told me the other day, there would be a “famous writer or two. Which would have pleased your mother.”
I’d finally started to feel as if I had my life back—the last year of her illness had been excruciating for everyone and then there was so much to do after she died—and I wasn’t looking forward to making her the center of attention again. But my dad wanted it. He’d been too shattered to do anything but a small family service when she died a year ago last August. I supposed that holding a celebration where we read from her work was an appropriate way to say goodbye.
I picked up a letter from Agnes Menendez, who said she wouldn’t miss the service “for the world.”
“Who’s Agnes Menendez?” I asked. “That name sounds familiar.”
“Don’t you remember? She and your mother were two of only three women in the English department. She and your mom had quite a rivalry although she isn’t a Miltonist. After your mom started publishing fiction, Agnes became humbler.”
I glanced at the space in front of the window where the hospital bed had been. My mother had not gone gently into that good night. She’d gone literally kicking and screaming without a moment of peace or resignment or inevitability or remorse or questioning or acceptance or faith. Crippling fear of death eventually killed her, I believed, and it had been excruciating and exhausting to watch.
But my dad didn’t want to talk about this.
“How was school today?” he asked.
My parents had been incredulous when I decided not to pursue a PhD but instead work as Kitty’s intern in the fourth grade at Meadows. “That’s babysitting,” my mother had said. I’d defended my decision—I needed to make money and getting a PhD would t
I waited to see if my dad would ask anything else and perhaps then I’d give more details about my day. Instead he picked up another letter and read. And then suddenly he sat up and reached across the table. “I almost forgot. I have two things for you. One is a letter which came this morning.”
I recognized the handwriting. Lee. Her return address was Manhattan. Last year, Sarah had told me that she was living there again. She’d also said that Lee had gotten married. My dad was watching me, and so I said, “It’s from Lee.”
“Wonderful. I didn’t realize you two were in touch again.”
“We aren’t.” All I’d told my parents, after a bit of probing from them, was that Lee and I had had a falling out and had not recovered.
“Maybe this is a good time to get back in touch. Why not invite her up for the service next week?” He arranged a stack of letters and then rearranged it.
I’d wait to open Lee’s letter at home. That way, if she yelled at me again or if I started to cry, I wouldn’t have to explain this to my dad. “I don’t think so.”
And then he put his hand over mine and stared at me with so much concentration that I sucked in a sudden breath. He cleared his throat. “I found something else you might be interested in. It seems as if Lee is all around us today. Here, look at this. I’d say that this is a sign, if I believed in that kind of thing.”
He handed me the Globe, folded over and squared. In the center was a short article about five documentaries from first-time filmmakers that were set to play at the MFA for a short run beginning tomorrow. Included would be Lee Sumner’s documentary, The Long Slide: A Tale from America’s Decline, about the closing of an automotive plastics factory in Indiana and the “devastating effects this had on the county.” I felt my mouth fall open. She’d done it. Lee had made a documentary.