Teaching is like acting, but with less pay. I relied heavily on my acting skills during seventh period every day, more than in any of my other classes. The kids were always riled up by that time, the post-lunch sugar rush fully in their bloodstreams and everyone ready to get out of our temporary daily prison called high school. I had to act like a strict, type-A, hard-ass teacher if I didn’t want complete chaos to reign during seventh period. I had to feign fury if a cell phone rang during my lecture, glare at students listening to Spotify through their earbuds during lab experiments, or make an example of the kids who passed notes. I kept the notes in my bottom drawer and would occasionally amuse myself with them during planning.
But today’s seventh period was unbearable. An eternity. I sent two boys to the principal’s office simply because I couldn’t emotionally deal with them. What were they, fourth graders? I thought I was hired to teach ninth grade biology. Finally, finally, the bell rang. As soon as the last student filtered out of the classroom, I closed the door and checked my phone.
Three missed calls, all from Kate. I stared at the flashing voicemail notice. I pulled the elastic band out of my hair and let the ponytail fall to my shoulders. I could feel that the hair was still creased from the elastic, but I didn’t try to fix it. I started robotically erasing the whiteboard when the phone rang again. I froze, listening to it ring five times in a row, six. Kate Levingston, said the caller ID. Finally, I picked up. “Hello Kate.”
The voice on the other end sounded frantic. “Was it you? Please tell me it wasn’t you.” She didn’t wait for an answer. “How could you do it? I trusted you.”
“Oh Kate.” I stopped, because I didn’t know what else to say.
Kate was almost young enough to be my daughter. My only son had just left for college when we met, and he was the reason my husband and I had been together the past 19 years. Now that Josh was in school, I wondered what my husband and I had in common. He slept on the couch or at his brother’s more times than not, and I was giving myself a break from trying to make it better. Kate had taken a liking to me from the very first day I met her last year, during New Teacher Orientation. Maybe it was because I taught the session, but she came right up to me, while everyone else was nibbling on store-bought cookies and drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, and said we should leave, maybe go to the Mexican restaurant instead. “Is that allowed? Since you’re kind of in charge and all?” she asked. She had large eager eyes and looked like a trendy version of Snow White – pale skin, black hair, and a dusting of freckles across her nose, almost hidden with a thick layer of makeup. She wore wooden jewelry that she’d hand-painted herself, which looked too chunky against her delicate features and petite frame. She was the only new teacher who wore heels to orientation; they looked vintage with a floral pattern and a ruffle on the top. She’d bought them from a thrift store in Portland when she’d been there on her honeymoon.
Kate said she wanted me all to herself because it wasn’t often a new teacher got to pick the brain of the Teacher of the Year. That was me. Imagine? So we left the school and went to Mi Patron across the street. We went through three baskets of chips and two bowls of salsa, knowing this would become our Monday night tradition without having to say it. A couple times a week we went to the local coffee shop to work on lesson plans, and Thursdays we rewarded ourselves for almost making it to Friday by getting our nails done at the salon.
Greg was never home in the evenings anyway, so it was nice to be distracted. I couldn’t bear to go home to an empty house. What was the point of making the bed and fluffing the seven decorative pillows when I was the only one to see them? Kate was like a beautiful Gothic fairy who suddenly fluttered into my life and lifted me from the routine I hadn’t realized I hated until I knew her. I quit making dinner every night. Greg came home late or not at all, had been for months. Sometimes he stopped by in the morning to grab Tupperware leftovers from the fridge to take to work for lunch. Instead, I started eating sushi with Kate, wearing lip gloss in public, going to bed early, and waking up to go to the gym with her before school.
The students loved Kate too. She told me she was using teaching as free practice to get over her stage fright, for when she convinced her husband to move to New York City so she could start performing musical gigs or maybe stand-up. She played guitar and wrote songs and comedy bits, one of those people who wanted to be famous for something someday, but only for a couple years.
Kate didn’t care if students texted during class, but no one ever did. They were too busy watching her. The week before Easter, when she saw a bowl of pastel-colored eggs in the teacher’s lounge, she decided to stuff all of them up her sleeve. Then she taught a full hour on The Scarlet Letter with no notes or PowerPoint. Just walked up and down the rows of desks, performing, every few minutes methodically letting an egg slither from her sleeve into the palm of her hand, not pausing her dialogue for a second, but carefully choosing which student’s desk or lap on which to place each newborn egg. The students engaged in a lively discussion of the novel, no one mentioning or asking about the eggs, but each student silently and desperately wanting to be chosen as the next recipient of this special gift. It was like watching a snake give birth, and the anticipation of waiting for each new egg was unbearable.
Kate made me remember why I used to love teaching.
One Thursday after school when we were at the nail salon, we decided to get pedicures too. The hot sudsy water filled the basin and we leaned our heads back, resting our shiny new nails on the arm rests. We made fun of the other teachers and the students we shared. I was wishing I had cucumbers over my eyes, when suddenly Kate bolted forward. “Marta, I have to tell you something. Show you something.” She took a deep breath, as if she were swimming and about to dip underneath the water. Then she pulled up her shirt from the side.
Kate’s lithe torso was even paler than her face. The word STRONG was tattooed down her side, starting beneath her armpit and extending down to her bony hip. The word was written in bold block letters, edged with barbed wire. But inside the letters were bruises, black and blue circles coloring the art.
“No one knows,” Kate said. The nail lady started scolding Kate in Vietnamese because her nails were not yet dry. Kate ignored her, and I stared. “I didn’t know who to tell,” she said.
“Oh my god, honey, what happened?” I couldn’t stop staring at her chiseled concave abs, the belly button ring, the milk-white skin. A blot of dark purple nail polish had smudged on her skin, over the top of one of the bruises, on top of the tattoo.
She rolled her eyes and slumped back into the massage chair. “Ryan’s been hitting me for a while now.” She held out her hand for the nail lady to fix the finger she had just ruined.
“Oh my god,” I said again.
“I’m not ready to leave him yet. It’ll be fine as long as I don’t get pregnant.”
The only other customer at the salon, a woman pretending to read a magazine, shifted in her seat uncomfortably.
“When did this start?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Kate stared at the lady fixing her nail, who was glaring down at her hand. “A couple summers ago. Pretty soon after the honeymoon I guess.” She sighed. “I started punching him back though. Last night was bad. I bit his neck and it started bleeding. This morning the scab kept opening when he was getting ready for work. Stained his white collar. And you know what? I took it to the dry cleaners on my way to work.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I touched her shoulder. The nail lady gently took my wrist and placed it back on the arm rest.
“You can’t stay there. Come home with me tonight,” I said.
“I’m fine. But thank you, Marta. Really. We’ll be fine. We’re going to counseling starting next week,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone.” I promised her I wouldn’t, then regretted making the promise. “I know I can trust you.” She smiled weakly. “I just needed to tell someone.”
Teaching is like acting, but with less pay. I got to use the same script and put on the same show seven times in a row. First period was practice. Second period, I perfected the delivery of the lesson. And by third period, I had my performance nailed. I knew exactly when to pause for dramatic effect and which one-liners worked. Admittedly, things usually went a little downhill after 4th period. I was bored with the material by then, and the kids were either ready for lunch or ready to go home.
I was a First-Year-Teacher, and I loved my job. I wore heels and pencil skirts and button-down polka-dot blouses with ruffled bows around the neck so no one would mistake me for a student. I liked hearing people call me “Mrs. Levingston.”
The first day of orientation, Marta Wentworth, the most veteran of all the veteran teachers at the school, singled me out over all the other First-Years. “Kaitlin, isn’t it?” she asked.
“You can call me Kate,” I said. Mrs. Wentworth was everything I wanted to be – confident, composed, established. Comfortable with who she had become, and beautiful. If she walked into a room, everyone stopped talking.
“Call me Marta,” she said.
“Ah. Great. I hear most Martas enjoy martinis. Is that true?” I immediately regretted saying that. I felt like an idiot, and for a second I wondered if she could possibly fire me.
But Marta just laughed. “I could be into that,” she said. “I’m more into margaritas though.”
From that day on, Marta and I become inseparable.
I also threw myself into my work. Instead of going home after school, I offered tutoring to every kid who wanted it. I taught some of the girls how to make homemade wooden jewelry. I volunteered to design costumes with the theater geeks for the school productions. I watched my students at their basketball and baseball and softball games. I especially tried to help the troubled kids, the broken ones. I understood them better. Some of them were mature enough to understand me back.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I dreaded going home to my husband. I used to love Ryan more than anything. Back then, it didn’t matter what we did as long as we were together. We could spend all weekend in bed, making love and feeling flakes from the croissants we had eaten the day before rub against our skin like dried flower petals between the sheets. And, god, was Ryan funny. Especially in a crowd. Always the center of attention, life of the party. And, for a while, I couldn’t keep my hands off him – at parties, walking down the boardwalk, even at church, just steps away from the confessional booth, where we went every few months when I felt like our sins had built up enough.
But that was a long time ago.
I could feel myself falling out of love with him. I felt like a dead tree, a hollow log that stood erect but was empty inside, just waiting to crack and tip over.
When I started to feel like my marriage was going to end, I felt the old demons coming back. I felt like the bulimic wisp of a girl I used to be in college. The girl who gave herself a new piercing every weekend. The girl who cut herself in the dimness of the dorm bathroom on the weeknights, while her friends were studying in the library. The red line that dripped down my arm was like the Nile River during the plague, a red stream snaking through the desert because of the Egyptians’ sin. But nothing looked more beautiful to me then. Watching the blood trickle down my skin felt deeply satisfying. It was a type of art, a physical manifestation releasing the emotional turmoil locked in. It was unspoken and forbidden. But it was my secret – something to guard and to hide. And I think that’s why I loved it, despite the shame. It was completely my own. I loved it all the more deeply because I had to keep it hidden.
I was terrified to become that girl again. That was then, this was now.
Now, I was Mrs. Levingston – everyone’s favorite English teacher. The further I threw myself into my work, into my students’ lives, the further the demons retreated.
Marta and I decided to plan a field trip to the Baltimore Aquarium for the entire ninth grade class. I remembered going there as a little girl. I couldn’t wait to show my students.
Admission to the Aquarium was $25 per person, and I knew some of the students wouldn’t go because they couldn’t afford it. Acouple of weeks before the trip, I announced to everyone in my classes that I had reserved the cafeteria kitchen on Tuesday night, and that whoever wanted to come bake cookies and brownies and Rice Krispy treats for a bake sale could come and split the profits to use for the field trip.
On Tuesday, I brought cake pans, electric mixers, pastry brushes, icing tubes, rolling pins, and wire cooling racks to school. I brought the three tacky aprons I owned plus bought a dozen more from Goodwill. I had no idea how many kids would show up. We ran out of aprons fairly quickly and there was barely room in the kitchen for all the kids who came. I know teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but everyone knows that’s an impossible rule to follow. All my favorites came. There was Emily from 7th period, the shyest girl in her class but who had the most savage sense of humor once you got her one-on-one. Then there was Hunter, the class clown and ringleader of some impressively creative school pranks, Jill, the artsy goth with the thick eyeliner who worked with me on costume design for the school plays, Ethan, the kid who was so obsessed with his saxophone that he practiced it in the restroom between class periods, and Caleb, the star pitcher of the baseball team who was funny and charismatic and carried himself with the confidence of a CEO.
When the kids walked in, I informed each of them: “Now there are two rules in my kitchen, and two rules only. First, you must wear an apron. It’s imperative that you keep your clothes fresh and flour-free. And second, you absolutely must speak with a Julia Child accent while performing all cooking duties. And you better know what imperative means, or you’re probably going to fail your vocab quiz on Friday.” The kids complained about the aprons, which had pictures of cats or watermelons or spaghetti-and-meatballs printed on them. And most didn’t know who Julia Child was either. But they quickly learned, and everyone had a blast, pumping music and dancing to Hunter’s Bluetooth speaker while rolling dough and perfecting their accents.
And most of all, it was worth it. It was worth the fight Ryan and I had gotten in about it the night before. I had come home after work, carryingarmfuls of grocery bags overflowing with baking ingredients. I was panting from carrying the bags up the apartment stairs, flushed from both exertion and excitement. I dropped the plastic bags on the floor and collapsed onto the couch. Ryan muted the baseball game on the television. “Shit. Are you planning on feeding an army?” he asked. I blew my bangs out of my eyes. “It’s for a bake sale. For the kids. I told you about the field trip?”
“Is that coming out of the school’s budget? Or are you just reimbursing yourself? How much was all that, like three hundred bucks?”
“It’s for the kids, Ryan. Some of their parents won’t give them money to go on the trip. And if they’re willing to help bake and sell the stuff, it’s the least I can do.”
“Kate, you can’t keep doing this. Your paycheck isn’t supposed to feed the whole school. Or to provide sequins or feathers or whatever the hell you keep buying for the costumes for every school play.”
“I work a full-time job. It’s my money, damn it. Get off my back.”
“It’s our money, and I say you don’t blow it. How many students do you have? Like a hundred? Two hundred? They’re not your kids. They’re your students. They have their own goddam parents.” His voice was getting louder.
I knew that some of them actually didn’t, and I suddenly felt like I was going to lose my mind. “Oh, so you’re saying we can’t afford a few bags of chocolate? Or sugar! Or flour!” I wanted to yell that maybe it was more about the time and attention I was giving them…that some kids needed someone to love them and spend time with them more than they needed money, but I knew that Ryan would never understand. So instead, I grabbed a bag of white flour and held it over my head. “You think we’re going to go broke over this? Because guess what, we’re not.” I ripped open the bag and grabbed a handful of powder. “This costs, what, a dollar fifty? TWO DOLLARS? What?”
“Why are you screaming about this?” he yelled.
“I’m not screaming!” I screamed. Then I started crying. “If you really want to see me get angry then I can get angry.” I threw the fistful of flour at him. But none of it reached him; it was just a puff of powder in the air. I breathed some of it in. Coughing and frustrated, I ripped the paper bag the rest of the way and dropped the split bag of flour on the floor. I ran to the bathroom and cried over the sink, furious at Ryan and embarrassed I had lost my temper so quickly. I looked in the mirror, and my face was smudged with white powder, streaks of mascara, and tears. To calm myself down, I took my pills, lit some candles, and made a scalding hot bath.
Afterward, I came back out to see Ryan. The game was still on. He hadn’t moved from his chair, and the flour was spilling across the floor as I had left it. I apologized, vacuumed the couch and cleaned the flour up from the floor. I was hoping he would apologize to me too. But he didn’t.
A few days later, Marta and I went the nail salon. I don’t know why I told Marta that Ryan was abusing me. It wasn’t a lie, not exactly. And sometimes a lie is even truer than the facts.
After the nail salon, I convinced Kate to start coming home with me sometimes. I made up our guest bedroom for her. I bought a sea-shell lamp and matching throw pillows, giving it a beach theme to give it a little character. Kate and I worked on lesson plans sometimes and watched Winona Ryder movies and shared butter popcorn on the couch. It gave me something to do other than contemplating the logistics of driving through town to check up on Greg’s latest alibi. Instead, Kate and I planned our summer vacation to Cancun together and giggled in our pajamas late into the night, like high schoolers having a sleepover.
Kate didn’t like to talk about Ryan much. A few weeks after she started staying over, Kate reminded me that it was Margarita Monday at Mi Patron. Half off drinks when you buy two hard-shell tacos. Kate dressed up in a silky red blouse that brought out the shine in her hair. By the time I got there, her cheeks were glowing and she was already on her second drink. She was in a good mood, laughing easily and playing with her dangly earrings. She had ordered chips and guacamole and, thankfully, a coconut margarita for me. The fourth period boys had given me a headache that still hadn’t gone away.
We ordered our tacos, and Kate started doing an impersonation of the school secretary, Penelope Brown, a cranky middle aged woman who hated children. It was so spot on that I almost choked on a chip. When she was done, I wiped the laughter tears from my eyes. “God, I haven’t had a best friend since college.”
Suddenly she stopped and was immediately serious. “Do you really mean that? You feel like I’m your best friend?”
I put my hand over hers. “If it’s not you, I don’t know who it would be, honey.”
She relaxed a little, nodded and smiled. “I thought so too. But I didn’t want to say it first. I love you so much.”
“Don’t get all sentimental on me now,” I teased.
“But seriously, I don’t know what I would do without you. We’ve known each other, what? Less than a year? And I can’t imagine not seeing you every day.” She tipped her glass high and swallowed the last gulp of her third margarita. Then she licked the salt from around the rim and chewed on the crystals.
I patted her hand, a little awkwardly because I don’t know how to act when people start acting emotional. “I’m really glad you came to Rutledge High School.”
“Me too. Most of the time.” But she started to slouch down in her chair.
“How are things with Ryan?” I ventured.
“Same. Not good.” She took a deep breath. “But, I need to tell you…I’ve started seeing someone.” She was playing with her lime wedge. She paused, folding and unfolding the green peel with her fingers. I didn’t say anything, just waited for her to continue. “I’ve wanted to tell you for months now, but I just couldn’t before.”
“I thought maybe you were,” I shrugged. “Is it serious?”
“I think so. Yes,” she said.
“Do you know what you’re going to do? Is he married? It’s not just a fling?”
She started crying. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I love him.” The juice from the lime was squeezed out and was now dripping down her wrist onto the table. “And I know he loves me.”
“Uh huh,” was all I could manage.“Wow, okay.”
“I just never thought I’d be one of those women having an affair just a couple years into her marriage. Like, what kind of a screw up am I?” She wiped her tears with her hand and got lime juice in her eye, so she started crying harder. She got up and walked outside, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. I threw some cash on the table and followed her through the front door. The night air was cold for April, and I could see my breath. “Wait, Kate, stop. It’s okay. Talk to me. You can tell me anything.”
She stopped walking and waited for me to catch up. We stood in the parking lot, cars with beaming headlights pulling in and out of spaces. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I really gotta go.”
Marta and I hadn’t spent any time together outside of school since our dinner a couple weeks before at Mi Patron. The day of the field trip came so we would have to spend the day together. I wore my sun-shades, pulled my hair into a long thick ponytail, and snapped my fanny pack around my waist. I’d been waiting for an excuse to wear the thrift store fanny pack I’d found a few months ago. It was made of a shiny metallic blue plastic material and had about a million zippers and pockets. I clipped a tiny unicorn-head keychain onto one of the zippers. In the days leading up to the trip, I had dared the ninth graders to bring a fanny pack cooler than mine to the aquarium. I promised to buy lunch the next Saturday for whoever had the best one.
During the bus ride, I walked up and down the aisle, bouncing with every bump in the road, sharing pickles with the kids and comparing fanny packs.
I caught my breath as soon as we drove into the Baltimore harbor. My father had taken me to the aquarium when I was in elementary school for my birthday, and I remembered it vividly as soon as I saw the pyramid-shaped glass roof, the boats floating next to the docks, the flags waving in the breeze. That day was one of the best memories I had of my childhood, and I suddenly felt like a little girl again.
Although my dad was rarely home, I had always believed that he loved me; and that day, so long ago, I really knew it. My dad was a very smart man, and he knew everything about everything. As we walked past each exhibit, he told me all that he knew about each sea creature – how sea turtles lay up to a hundred eggs on the beach, and how the temperature of the sand determines the gender of the baby turtles; warm sand makes more females and cooler sand makes more males. He taught me about seahorses, how the males have pouches, like kangaroos, and how the females deposit hundreds and hundreds of eggs in the pouch. And how the fathers never stray more than ten feet from their home, while the mothers travel and explore up to a thousand feet away.
I tried to remember everything my father had taught me so I could pass on that knowledge to my kids one day. Maybe these would be the only children I’d ever have.
Marta and I guided the students from room to room, down the long corridors of the aquarium, walking in clusters and small groups. The rooms glowed blue, and I was mesmerized yet again by the sea creatures. The tanks were exploding with color – reds and pinks and yellows and purples and greens and blues. The coral covered the sand-bed, the water rippling as if by a gentle breeze. Fish of all sizes and colors and shapes swam in every direction – up, down, sideways, backwards, diagonal. Some creeped along the bottom, others crawled up the side of the tank eating algae from the glass. The sea turtles floated through the water, blinking like tired pre-historic giants.
I started talking to anyone who would listen. “You know, people used to think coral was a type of plant made out of stone, but they’re actually more of an animal than a plant. The polyps are really just colorful calcified skeletons, with a different animal living inside each polyp.” I explained how they received nutrients through plankton and algae floating through the water but they were also capable of capturing small, unsuspecting fish. “You know what’s wild? Coral can reproduce sexually or asexually – either through nutrients within their own tissues, or sexually – but only if there’s a full moon.”
Someone from the group interrupted my spiel. “I thought you were an English teacher, not a science teacher.” It was Caleb, my student from fifth period. He was grinning sideways, wanting to get a reaction out of me. “How do you know all that stuff, about full moons and coral sex and everything.” It wasn’t a question, but more of a statement.
I gave him my authoritative teacher stare. “English teachers know about more things than just fictional stories, Mr. Watkins,” I said simply.
I left him and walked to the jellyfish exhibit, but I knew he would follow me. I traced my finger against the glass, watching the jellies float through the water. They were like iridescent bells, clear but still solid, with long strings of tentacles waving in the water. Some were blue and barely visible, some were white, and some were shades of different pastel colors, depending on how they swirled when the light hit them. They looked ethereal, like clouds or dreams.
“What about these?” Caleb asked.
“What about them?” I said.
“What do you know about jellyfish? I thought you were an expert on all this stuff, Mrs. Levingston.” I stared at his face to see if he was teasing me or if he was genuinely interested. He pretended to be a smart aleck in front of his friends, but I knew he was unusually intelligent beneath the pranks and jokes.
I sighed. “It was my father who was the real expert. I’m just trying to remember what he taught me when I was a kid.” I stared at the jellies again. “Hmm, let’s see. I do know they breathe through their skin. They don’t have lungs or anything like that. They just basically have a mouth in the middle of all those tentacles and they use it for pretty much everything. And I remember that most of them can’t see, they just kind of sense light.” I thought harder. “And if you’re swimming, it’s the clear ones you have to watch out for. You can’t see them, but their sting is the most dangerous.”
He nodded thoughtfully, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.
At the end of the day, Caleb found me again, when we were all in the souvenir shop. I was browsing through the store, looking at squid and octopus-shaped magnets and running my fingers through the dangling dolphin-pendant necklaces, watching them swing back and forth like pendulums. I felt someone touch my arm, and I snatched it away quickly when I saw who it was. I frowned at him. “What are you doing?”
“Sorry,” he said. “This was on your sweater.” He held a long strand of black hair between his fingers that must have fallen out of my ponytail. “Sorry. Bad habit.”
I scanned the room. “Be careful, Caleb,” I said.
“I actually came over because I wanted to give you this.” He handed me a stuffed animal. It was a jellyfish. The material felt like velvet. Although it was white, it had glints of pink, yellow, and baby blue that you could see if you turned it slowly. “I bought it for you,” he said.
I raised my eyebrows, feeling jumpy and anxious. “Thanks. Um. That’s really thoughtful.”
“I know. I wanted you to remember today,” he grinned. “I’m glad you came. Everything is better with you…Mrs. Levingston.” He said my name slowly, rolling the L in Levingston with his tongue.
I suddenly felt lightheaded and queasy, and I needed some air. I couldn’t be near him, not now.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, and I left the gift shop, gulping in quick shallow breaths, trying to control the panic attack that wanted to gain control of my body. I walked blindly, not sure where I was going, trying to outpace the anxiety. I was heading back into the aquarium, through the long hallways and corridors. I walked and walked and walked, until I was deep in the belly of the aquarium. I finally stopped when I reached the sharks. It was the biggest room, and I was surrounded by dark blue on all sides. I felt like an Egyptian from the Old Testament, running between walls of water when Moses parted the Red Sea, moments before the sea collapsed and swallowed everyone alive.
The size of the sharks took my breath away. There was the sand tiger shark, over ten feet long. It looked like one of the great whites, with pointed fins and teeth like razors, in double and triple rows. There was also the “spotted carpet” shark. It lay on the floor of the tank, looking flat as if it had been smashed. Its brown and gray spots helped it to camouflage into the sand. Its snout was massive, with dangling tentacles that looked like whiskers and a shaggy beard. It suddenly swam up from the floor, and I was mesmerized by its size. It took my breath away. His tail flapped like a wing. The shark was massive and ugly and beautiful and graceful all at once.
I don’t know how long I stood there alone, watching the sharks swim lethargically and rhythmically back and forth. But, as I stared at them, I felt my eyes become glassy. When Marta found me, there were tears rolling down my cheeks. “There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she exclaimed. “What have you been doing? Oh my god, honey, are you okay?”
I had never had many female friends throughout my life, but I loved Marta. I wanted to tell her everything. Her soul was wise and good and beautiful and pure; I had known it the second I had met her. She was like my mother, my sister, my best friend, my priestess. We stood alone, in silence, inside the dark blue glow. Flecks of light rippled across Marta’s face. I wanted this place to be my Confessional. I wanted to tell her the truth about Ryan, about Caleb, about everything. I didn’t know if I wanted to confess because I wanted her help, her sympathy, or if I wanted to hear her tell me it wasn’t so bad after all. Or maybe I wanted to tell her so I could finally suffer the penance I deserved. Deep down, I wanted to suffer, because suffering was the only thing that would bring reconciliation in my soul.
I had been in the gift shop telling the kids to load up onto the bus when I realized Kate was missing. I checked the lobby and the restrooms, and she wasn’t answering her phone. When I finally found her deep in the inner chambers of the aquarium, she was alone. Streaks of mascara were under her eyelashes, and she was hugging herself like a child. “Oh my god, are you okay?” She shook her head, tears rolling down her cheeks. I wrapped my arms around her bony shoulders. I thought of my own son Josh, when he cried as a child after falling off his skateboard. I rocked her back and forth. She sniffed and tried to catch her breath. Finally she said, “Marta, I’m doing a terrible thing.”
“What’s going on?”
She answered my question with a question. “How do you stop loving someone you’re not supposed to love?” She looked up at me. Her eyes, royal blue and glassy, searched mine for an answer.
“I’m the last person you should be asking about love. I don’t know that any of us have got it figured out.”
“I’m cheating on Ryan with someone from school. It’s someone you know.”
All the single teachers and bus drivers flashed through my mind. Then the married ones. It was probably the principal. Isn’t that how these stories always go? It’s always the boss – salt and pepper hair, charming, funny.
“I’m in love with Caleb. Watkins.”
I stared at her blankly. “Who? Caleb…Watkins?” My brain tried to make sense of what my ears had just heard. “Caleb, from ninth grade?”
“Yes. Caleb. I know it sounds crazy.”
“Wait, what? Kate, please tell me you’re just screwing with me.”
The face of my own son Josh, as a high schooler just a short time ago, flashed into my mind. I felt sick. “Oh my god, Kate. I don’t understand.Are you saying you’re fucking a fifteen year old? Or is he fourteen? Tell me you’re not actually fucking him. ”
“I never meant for it to happen. I swear. It’s just that, I don’t know, I feel so alive when I’m with him. I don’t know how to explain it…but there’s this darkness, this cloud, that’s always followed me my whole life. But he makes it go away. Do you get that? I can’t explain it. But he makes me happier than I’ve ever been. But miserable too. I know I need to stop.”
I blew my breath out slowly, and she hurried on. “I had to tell someone.” She shrugged, defeated. “I know he’s young. But Caleb is more of a man than my husband or any other grown-ass man I’ve ever known.”
I stared at my best friend and felt like I didn’t know her at all. Mascara was smudged around her eyes, her long black hair was tangled with her bangs damp against her forehead. Her face suddenly looked different to me than the Kate I knew. She was like a translucent fairy that lives in your backyard, who flits through the dewy mist. You love knowing she might be there, even though she steals the flower blossoms from your garden.
The next day, I couldn’t go to school because I woke up in the morning with a raging fever. The body is an amazing organism; sometimes it just shuts down when you really need it to. I called out sick and burrowed under the covers. I couldn’t tell what was real and what was a dream, what was sweat and what was tears. But that night, Greg tiptoed into the bedroom with a bowl of soup. And I started to think straight.
I saw Kate the next morning, as usual, at the faculty meeting before school. She came in late and slipped into a chair across the table from mine while the principal went over the Quote of the Day that was scrawled on the whiteboard:
“A good teacher must know the rules; a good pupil, the exceptions.” –Martin H. Fischer
All the First-Year teachers were a part of an unacknowledged, daily competition for best-dressed. They all wore skirts and heels and an assortment of fashion eyeglasses that always matched their outfits and accessories. But no matter how hard everyone tried, Kate easily won the contest each day. She looked stunning even this morning in a black one-piece pantsuit, although the capillaries showed red in the whites of her eyes. I had avoided eye contact with her for several minutes, but when I looked up, she flashed me “I love you” with her fingers quickly in sign language.
I nibbled on my bottom lip and shifted my gaze to a poster on the wall, away from both her and the principal.
I saw Kate again at lunchtime in the teacher’s lounge. She was picking at a salad with her fork when I walked in. Penelope Brown was using the microwave, so Kate and I sat in silence. I just watched her scrape the dressing from her spinach leaves with a fork and rub it against the side of her Tupperware container. She pushed the leaves to the side that were still wet and only ate the dry ones underneath.
When Penelope left, Kate and I still said nothing for a long time. Finally I said, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m really having trouble processing this, Kate,” I said.
“Trust me, I am too.”
“But seriously. What’s your plan?” I asked again.
Kate sighed. “You tell me what I should do, Marta. Switch schools? Tell my husband? Wait for him to grow up?” She jammed the lid back onto her mostly uneaten salad.
There was a box of chocolate-glazed donuts next to the microwave. She grabbed one and left the lounge.
After leaving the teacher’s lounge, I turned around just as quickly and ducked back inside. I didn’t look at Marta as I grabbed another donut. I’d save it for later.
The chocolate icing started melting into my fingertips as I walked the hallway. When I got to my classroom, I collapsed into my desk chair. Six minutes until the students would arrive from lunch. I ate the first donut, and then the second. Then I spun my chair around in circles, anxiously waiting for fifth period to start.
I touched the inside of my arm with my fingertips and thought about the red line that should be dripping down. It would look so beautiful.
I felt so ashamed for turning in my friend. And just as ashamed for hesitating. I had meant to walk straight into the principal’s office before school started that day and tell him about my conversation with Kate, but instead I taught through the first three periods of the day, feeling nauseous the entire time. I dropped the dry erase board marker a few times and forgot to give a quiz. I kept thinking of Kate in her classroom, doing what she loved, what she did best. She never could stand still; she always walked around her classroom, heels clicking, animated and gushing over whatever poem or story she was teaching, with her long hair and skirts swirling behind her. The walls were thin at school, and I often heard her laughing with the students.
But after lunch, I emailed the principal. After I spoke with him and administration, men in uniforms came and escorted Kate off the school grounds.
And just like that, she was gone. She used her one phone call for me. After that call, I never spoke to her again. Her phone was deactivated, her social media accounts deleted, her house sold. The faculty was not allowed to talk about what happened with the students.
Whenever the kids ask me why Mrs. Levingston isn’t at school anymore, I just look blankly out the window and say, “Teaching isn’t for everybody.”
Kate curls her toes into the white sand, feels the sand-lumps pressing against her shoulder blades through the towel, and absorbs the yellow sun beams on her face and arms. She hears her husband jogging up from the water, calling her name. “Kate, come in, come in you’ll love it! Look at the waves. They’re perfect today.” She sits up and flips the 1940’s style sun-shades off her face. Ryan collapses onto his towel, tan body dripping and glistening wet. Kate giggles and starts drizzling a fistful of sand over his back. The sand looks like sugar crystals against his skin, and she makes a heart in the middle of his back. “Here, eat this first,” she says after admiring the sandy heart for a moment. She hands him a tinfoil-wrapped hot dog from the picnic basket. He eats it quickly, ravenously, then another. “Oh baby, this is good,” he chews. A dot of mustard is smeared on the corner of his mouth. Kate smiles and rolls over to him. She pushes his shoulders down onto the sand, slides on top of him, and licks the mustard from his mouth.
They stare at each other, suspended in time. There is nothing but the two of them. The ocean waves are silenced, the yellow sun beams fade. Suddenly, Ryan pulls her to him and starts kissing her desperately. He is like a starved animal, kissing her lips, licking her neck, combing her thick black hair with his fingers, yanking the strings on her polka dot bikini. He’s licking her chest, nibbling the skin on her stomach, biting the skin over her tattoo, up and down, up and down. Kate clings to him, but the air becomes cold. Kate untangles her limbs from Ryan’s and tries to pull the towel over her body. The sky has become swirls of purple, royal blue, gray, and black. The swirls are dark and beautiful, circles painted and dripping in the sky. They twist together slowly, like a tornado before it’s a tornado, gathering and churning in calculated ominous circles. The sky is the color of the bruises she imagines on her torso. And Ryan keeps loving her. His mouth is still on her stomach. He uses his tongue to loosen her belly button ring and rips it out of her stomach with his teeth. She cries in pain. He twirls a strand of her hair with his fingers. “Babe. I love you. You know you can’t have this when you’re pregnant.” He chews on the ring, the metal and diamond stud crunching in his teeth, and then swallows. Kate didn’t know she was pregnant, but she feels more sad that her belly button ring is gone.
The sky bruises have become bigger circles, too heavy for gravity. Slowly, methodically, the color sinks into the ocean over the horizon. Her side hurts, the sky hurts.
She wants to untangle from Ryan, but his arms have turned into the limbs of a jellyfish. She jumps up, screaming and scraping the iridescent stinging tentacles from her body. She kicks the jellyfish-man away from her and runs up the sand dunes, the strings of her bikini streaming in the wind with her hair. The wind is too strong, the sand too loose. A part of her hopes she will see Ryan standing on the top of the dune, the man Ryan. She wants him to pull her up and away from the jellyfish. But he’s not there, and she slides down the dune back towards the jelly. His face has changed. She knows the face. It is Caleb. But he is an old man, with gray hair and a beard. But he has the same crinkles in his laughing eyes and freckles on his nose. She reaches for him.
The sky has fallen into the sea, and there is not enough room in the sea for both the sky and the water. A wave forms on the horizon, and it grows and swells. It becomes a wall, a roaring wall of gray and blue and white foam. The wall screams closer and closer and Kate scrambles up the sand dune. She slides down, but then she sees that Marta has appeared at the top of the dune, calling her name and reaching for her. She strains, and their palms clasp. Marta pulls her up to the top just as the wall of water arches over the beach and drags the jellyfish into the ocean. Kate watches the face of Caleb being swept away. He is no longer an old man, he is just a boy. A poor helpless boy, with a tuft of spiky black hair poking above the churning water. Kate runs down the dune and screams his name, but she can’t save him. He’s pulled out to sea, until there’s nothing left but a black speck between the horizon and the ocean. Another wave gathers right behind the first, another gray wall bigger than the first. The noise pounds her eardrums. Kate crumples onto the sand, crying silently, her body limp. She couldn’t save Caleb, and she doesn’t want to try to save herself.
About the author:
Rebekah Ricksecker cooks, bikes, reads, and takes care of her brother’s cat in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. She is a college track and field coach but manages to sneak in a little piano playing and writing here and there.