The teacher across the hall is soaking wet this morning.
She showed up with her peach-colored hair unchained, clinging like spiderwebs, heat gelled in there. Sunlight from the ride in to school sticking to her, backlighting her cherubic face, glued to those handsome ringlets unspooling all down her back.
“Why are you wet?” I ask. We both know it sounds weird, or maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. She never says anything, not really. She talks around me, rarely to me.
I talk and I hum and I flip pages and I curse and I wait for the kids to show up and she says nothing.
She drinks a coffee.
She pulls shiny black heels onto her little cold-looking feet, slips her sandals into her purse.
She always dresses better than all of us. She always looks better.
She is, ultimately, better.
I wonder if her boyfriend knows I think about her when I fuck my pillow at night.
He doesn’t. I know this because he is a fucking shmuck.
Jake. There’s no way Jake thinks about anything. He’s eight feet tall or something and wears salmon shorts and Lacoste polos and calls me “bro.” Asked me if I’m a golfer when we met, didn’t listen for an answer. Drives something foreign that goes by so smooth in the school parking lot when he picks up Natalie that it wooshes at you like an oscillating fan.
Jake cheated on her last year with her best friend. He said it was because they were drunk on a camping trip and he got confused.
About what, I’m not sure.
His clothes shouldn’t matter, or how he talks to me, but trust me—it all matters. It all builds up, all the little pieces of him, into this trash-compacted pile of muscle and his gargoyleish face.
He has an email job. He bought her a necklace that says Natalie on it for her birthday last month.
“He got it personalized to say my name,” she explained to me when she came in wearing it after spring break, trying to look happy about it.
Trying to like her gift.
“Jake was so excited to give it to me,” she’d said, and I’d nodded.
I think Jake might be special in some way. Triple-blessed. Bastard. Jake is extraordinarily lucky. Or I just don’t know how things work.
I am still in her room. She’s writing the date on the board and the kids are starting to file in and I should go sit in the teacher’s room during my free block but I am just staring at the wetness still on her neck, a droplet crawling down into her baby blue silk blouse.
Imagine working your tongue all around that neck. Catch those droplets. Pamper her, serve her. Buttle for her.
I’ll bet Jake fucks her harder than I could.
I’ll bet he doesn’t finish on her legs before he can even get inside.
Scouts honor, that’s what I’d do. I wouldn’t want to, but that’s what I’d do if she ever let me.
I wouldn’t stand a chance.
I make eggs and then I make a pancake. One pancake. Breakfast for dinner. I soak it in syrup. I am alive, yes.
A coughing in the hallway. The click of a lighter.
My neighbors are old. They are so old I do not understand how they get up the stairs, but they do. It is so impressive, the whole thing—Maury holds Eunice’s hand firmly in his translucent grip, and together they ascend the monolith of the wooden staircase. If they have grocery bags, they leave them and he comes back. I should help them more than I do.
Then again, they chose to live here. To be helpless.
I am eating my pancake and watching an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians from over a decade ago. Bruce is still Bruce. Bruce is not Caitlyn. Bruce is a man, a gentle man with gentle wrinkles, driving a Ferrari to a Go-Kart track or some shit. Scott is yelling at someone and his shirt is half-unbuttoned and his spray tan makes his eyes look alien.
Kim’s ass is tremendously fat. She does not look like a person.
I think about Natalie’s ass. Her ass is like a couple of little hams. I like it better, it’s normal. I will not tell her this, as much as I’d like to.
I mix whisky and lemonade strong. My grandmother drank this drink all afternoon, all year. Smoked Virginia Slims endlessly. My parents didn’t drink anything. Ironically, grandma lived to be older than Maury.
My parents died earlier than you’re supposed to die. Things are unfair.
Jake and the way (I assume) he never notices the sun trapped in Natalie’s perfect locks, Mom’s lack of funeral because of COVID, Dad’s funeral with basically nobody there, the fact that I’m out of whisky and I’m not even drunk—these are examples of how things are unfair.
“Celebrations of Joy,” the principal calls it. A time for teachers to announce all the random bullshit they’re up to.
Laura DeSousa adopted a new dog, and everyone claps about that. The band teacher had a great “tech-free retreat” with some relative whose son tried to off himself over Christmas break. He’s not planning on being dead anytime soon, we’re told. Big clap there.
I like to imagine I’ll have an announcement sometime.
I’ve decided to go on a one-man trip to Sandals.
I downloaded Bumble Friends just to get drunk and tell men I can suck the chrome off a tailpipe, just to see what they’ll say.
A dream. I’m telling them:
Folks—Natalie and I are engaged.
And one day I’ll do it—I’ll tell everyone, because we will be.
Or maybe I’m embarrassed to admit how much I miss my parents. It’s probably more than they’d miss me if I’d gone out with The Virus.
I liquor up and I walk around town alone and wonder how you people live.
People talk and clap and bustle about. I wish I had a drink. I would like to not be here, seated. Rigid. I want to be horizontal.
Driving home, I wonder when Natalie will announce something that will make me kill myself.
A little while later. Maury and Eunice are leaving, and I hear them descending the stairs so carefully, hanging on for dear life, knowing one slip of a slipper on the slick wood is a sure farewell.
I pull out my penis and tell myself I’m going to force myself to masturbate looking at Kim and Kourtney and, to be honest, even their weird friends who hang around and eat salad and don’t speak.
But I’m lying. I know it, you know it.
Maury and Eunice start their car and when I finish, I’m not thinking about Kim Kardashian; I’m not even thinking about Natalie and how I want to fuck her and rip that necklace off her.
Instead, I’m thinking about how of all the apartments in Barrington I managed to get the one across the hall from the couple from The Fucking Notebook, how I have to watch him offer her a hand every two seconds. How they’re so matter of fact in their matrimony and partnership. How they’re always rubbing their togetherness and their life in everyone’s face.
“Mister,” which is what they call me when they don’t care about me. They know my name. It’s so late in the school year, getting warmer.
I taught this kid The Great Gatsby and shit, and yet I’m an adult from the Peanuts comics to him. Oddly comforting, kind of. Kids never like adults. I never liked adults. There was never anything to like. I am perpetuating that with my old, wooden, petrified nature. With my hollowness.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Why are you sleeping?”
It is after school. I’m not sure what time it is. It’s just me and Randy in the room. They pay me to supervise detention and Randy was the only one today, and he only got detention because he hit a vape in the bathroom while the vice principal was taking a piss four feet away.
Then he cried when he got in trouble. We teach a docile group here. Softer kids, some would call them. Soft adults teaching soft students how to get gobbled up by the sharp world.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding, his red face earnest, eyes wide with justice. “For the past, like, fifteen minutes.”
I say nothing. I don’t know what to say. I was dreaming of something, but it’s gone.
I wonder what Natalie is making for dinner tonight at the apartment she and Jake share in the other part of the city, the pretty half with all the trees.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say.
I’ll bet she’s making tofu for herself and something like ribs or a steak for Jake.
See, Jake is a real man, I imagine. He’s got that face. He doesn’t eat tofu. He eats roadkill and bear meat and whatever else.
She makes a lot of tofu, and she brings it into school over salad for lunch the next day. I know this because we share the mini-fridge.
I inspect her meals in that fridge daily like an archaeologist sweeping into a lost underground city.
Each pile of leftovers leads back to another evening in her mythical, majestic life elsewhere.
A story I have not been told.
Randy opens his mouth to speak again.
“Randy, if you say one more word, I’m going to tell them you vaped in here. Right in front of me. And nobody will know I’m lying.”
Randy stares at me. I stand up, pick up my laptop. I leave.
As I drive on the freeway I think about Jake and how he’s too good for tofu, how Natalie told me this when we were grading late one evening before Christmas break.
She was wearing the cranberry cardigan and a little winter hat when she said that. The school is always cold, she says. We ordered pizza that night, holed up in the teacher’s lounge and lived in that bubble until he was there outside. Of course.
That was then, now I’m here, realizing I left Randy and there were no other adults in the building. I shake it off. He is fine. He is fifteen. He will survive.
I would eat Natalie’s tofu every night. I’d cook it for her myself; she’d never have to work in our home.
She’d just have to lay there and let me wash her hair sometimes. Let me take off her socks and clothes and sleep with her naked by an open window, her long statuesque frame folding elegantly against my hobbit torso.
I imagine she’s always cool like the other side of the pillow.
I get home and cook up tofu and it tastes like shit.
I watch the Kardashians again. Kim orders broccoli cheddar soup and iced tea at a restaurant and that’s it.
She left the house for a bowl of soup.
This pisses me off more than it should, the way everything she does is a waste. The way lunch is a waste, all these confessionals, heavenly white backgrounds making their faces distorted, glowing, their eyeballs apparitions carrying nothing strain against their makeup. Irises too real amidst the smear of arrested muscle, ancestry erased with little knives.
The mother looks like a hammerhead shark now.
I keep watching different seasons, moving through them. They age faster than me.
This is one of the few comforts the show offers. Maybe it’s why I’m watching it.
As I bite into my Double Quarter Pounder while sitting, idling, in the McDonald’s parking lot, I imagine Natalie would be disappointed in me, eating this trash instead of doing a better job with the tofu.
It makes me feel worse to know that she absolutely would not care, not have time to even notice, what with all the things happening across town in her luminescent, beautiful apartment.
Okay, I haven’t seen it.
But I think I’ve dreamed about it enough—her linens, where she parks her car. Where she walks the dog, all around by the river.
What she thinks about. All that.
I lie in bed a long time before sleep comes. I wonder if I love Natalie or if I’m just so bored and I’m turning fleeting, tiny moments into full scale cinematic affairs in my head.
It’s both, in some way, yeah. I know. But I also know her breath in my ears so late in bed would make me stop thinking about everything so much.
“Are you chaperoning?” one of the kids asks me. Madison. She’s eating alone and I have lunch duty and I’m eating alone, so me and this red-cheeked, sad little freshman are sort of eating lunch together.
“Chaperoning what?” I ask, wondering what fresh hell this school has me supervising.
“The dance,” she says, taking a bite of her meatball grinder and holding eye contact while she chews. Her eyes are milky. She has a bovine quality.
“I forgot about that,” I say, and it’s true. I’ve been having a hard time remembering much. I only remember things I’m trying not to think about.
“That’s okay,” she says, and it’s sweet, how she says it. They really are sweet, the kids. “So, are you?”
I ask who is chaperoning. She doesn’t know. We eat in silence.
Some kids throw food. I get up to stop them, sit down. Their little voices swell and rise as a tide again once I’m back to my meal. More of the same.
Nothing ages or changes inside a school besides the teachers and the rats in the walls.
I get stuck sitting next to Mr. Paskunak at the staff meeting.
“Hey,” he says to me. I’ve forgotten his first name. In theory, I should know it. I want to say Jim, but I’m probably wrong.
He crosses an ankle over his knee. He teaches gym. He’s taught gym since before I was born. He gets to wear shorts to school.
I’m dressed like a fucking Build-A-Bear and my sweater is too hot, my tie too tight.
“Hope this doesn’t take long,” he says, conspiratorially. I have nothing to say. I don’t believe him. It seems as if he loves these meetings—the bits of business, the random announcements.
Celebrations of Joy again. Of course.
Jim DeWitt bought a boat.
Everyone’s fucking pumped about the boat.
A paraprofessional I’ve never spoken to says her son got a new job helping kids with cleft palates.
People are happy about that, too. But they seemed more excited about the boat.
Jim DeWitt said we’re welcome to join him and The Boys out on the water sometime.
I wonder who the boys are.
It goes on. They’re all doing so much.
I clap, I think. To congratulate everyone on all they have.
I awaken again as Natalie stands up, smoothing her black pencil skirt. She dresses like she’s in an office. That necklace looks so stupid. Her shirt has spaghetti straps. If she was anyone else, she’d look silly, too much. Too regal for public school.
“Sheesh,” the gym teacher is saying, and he wants to meet my eye. I want to strangle him for looking at her.
I want to tell him this.
I’m thinking of killing Mr. Paskunak, and then myself.
I wonder if Jake likes this outfit as much as I do, or as much as the gym teacher does.
There is no way.
“Hey everyone,” she says, eyes the color of winter forest sweeping around the room. She looks rested.
“We need more chaperones for the dance Friday. We’re expecting a big turnout—” for some reason, these people clap—“and so we’re going to need more people.”
A couple hands go up. Mine is one of them.
I raise it so she’ll be there, and so she’ll look at me, nod with a little smile.
It’s a radiant smile.
Paskunak’s hand goes up next.
I wonder if she’s ever thought of me outside of school. Natalie.
I also wonder what I look like to her across the hall, or when we’re sitting and eating lunch like we do sometimes. If she ever notices that I’m getting fatter, always. If she smells the booze coming from my skin in the morning.
“Excuse me, young man,” and the voice comes from behind me in the lot. I know it’s Maury. I know he’s going to ask for something. Some favor.
And I turn around and there they are., the fuckers. Eunice is holding flowers from the supermarket and Maury is holding her elbow. She is a woman made of paper mâché, or maybe her limbs are glass and her torso and face are paper, always wilting and breathing with the rise and fall of coming summer humidity.
She can’t do much. She seems dead upon first glance every time I see her.
Like he’s just keeping her around for show. Weekend at Eunice’s.
“Is there any way you could help with our groceries?”
So I do it. They thank me. They invite me for dinner. I refuse. I make myself smile at them for reasons I do not understand.
“Goodnight, young man,” she says, and I watch Maury plant a dry one right on her cheek as I close my door to them as they linger in the hall.
I realize they do not know my name.
I’ve got a gangbang on the TV—routed through an HDMI from my computer, all the creamy moon-tones and glistening limbs moving to the hollering coming out loud through the TV screen, all of them together like a demented forest blowing in some biblical winds—but my eyes are closed; I’m thinking about Natalie as I do it, until I’m not, until all I can think about is Maury and Eunice and how they go buy all these groceries and just expect someone else to carry all the shit up.
Like I forced them to live past eighty-five.
Natalie would hate what I’m thinking.
I can’t come because I keep thinking of Maury’s dry lips.
Eyes open, the gang bang is for real.
Mouths punished; assholes agape.
A little guy is absolutely splitting open this big girl who, with my eyes squinting, I can sort of cast as an extra Kardashian, and something about it gets me over the hump.
I think of Natalie with no necklace.
I think of Kim. Kourtney.
Aliens. Unappealing to the Christian somewhere in me.
They just happen to be here in the dark on the tube.
I can taste tofu.
My senses blaze Technicolor for a moment.
I come and wonder what those fuckers ate for dinner after I hauled it up the stairs.
I miss when it snowed, when it was cold and night was real night. Even out here so late, after midnight, it’s not real dark—just pregnant purple sky down over the little rain falling.
It smells like when I was young. Like metal, and it’s warm. My cigarette smells like my mother’s cigarettes. Like her mother’s, yet different. With my eyes closed, we’re somewhere, all three, me and her, Dad there and quiet.
I walk so much but I am not tired. I am out of whisky again. The store is closed because it is three in the morning.
Would be nice if they’d open their doors, though, let me have more. I’d take wine this time and walk slowly.
Smell the smell all around until it’s light and it’s gone and they’re dead again and Natalie’s elsewhere.
The fact that Jake is breathing on this planet right now is devastating.
“Thanks for helping tonight,” she says, breezing in the room. I’ve been here a while, staring at my computer and doing nothing. I teach them nothing. In theory, they’re reading, they’re writing.
I just try to stay awake. Not throw up at school.
She’s giving me a list of kids attending, over by my desk. I smile and I know it’s an ugly smile. Dark, groping, but if she notices, she doesn’t care. Gone in a flash, still talking.
The room fills up with students.
We look at one another.
They definitely see everything Natalie misses.
It is dark out but the gym is lit up fluorescent like a hospital. The kids are moving in a mass to the bowel-shaking tones of music made fuzzy by the cheap PA system with the bass turned up. The teachers are off to the side, glaring at the kids and their stepless dancing.
But it is wrong for us to care, right? We give them music and a space and stand and stare at them.
It is not their fault they are real and we are reduced versions of whatever we think we once were.
It’s not their fault we’re bathing them in a spotlight and expecting to see ourselves.
Lauren DeSousa, Paskunak, Jeff Rose, Joanna Hershfield. Jim DeWitt. Maybe even Natalie. Myself. We have lost what the kids have.
Good for them.
“I’m going in,” Paskunak says, wading into the mess like a giant navigating a ball-pit, haphazardly separating the kids, tossing boys aside like a baggage handler with suitcases at the airport.
I start to tell Natalie that Paskunak’s taking himself too seriously, but in a moment she is gone after him, her little black skirt flipping up a bit as she takes Trevor Morehead by the shoulder and pulls him away from Alexia Valenti gently, her other hand reaching for a couple of rowdy freshmen.
Then I’m just standing there. She comes back.
“Can you go check the bathroom?”
She looks at me like I’m stupid. I feel stupid.
That’s kind of how it works with me and her.
I don’t find any, not in any bathroom. The one by the stairs in the science wing is empty, of course. No one goes there. I avoid the one in the Math wing because that’s where the smokers would be. I go out the door and smoke my cigarette and nobody is outside and it’s okay for a moment.
So proud of not drinking before, but I sip from my little thermos in my jacket.
Jake is probably home enjoying a drink in a normal way. Or, infuriatingly enough, not needing one to survive his night.
When I get back, Natalie gives me a strange look.
Songs play. Lots of new songs. I know them but I wear the bemused expression of a man who does not understand any of it, ha ha ha, old man teacher guy. Whatever.
The breath mints are overpowering on my tongue.
Lil Peep song, and they all bounce in a group like it means something.
And it does. Not just to them. It just does. I’m sure.
Lil Uzi Vert. Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead.
The kids leave and I move some chairs.
Adults clear out. They’ve got their own offspring at home. They’re tired.
The booze is almost out of me. I take a piss and it’s really gone.
Out in the parking lot, it’s not raining or anything like it. It’s like daylight, the moon is screaming down unto us.
Maybe I’m still a little messed up, because I look at Natalie with her heels in her hand, little purple trainers on her feet, hair back in a ponytail now, eye makeup a bit sweaty, heading out to her car, telling me thank you for everything, you saved me, and when she says I saved her I know the night shouldn’t end, that the sky is swirling color and not just heavy black for a reason, that our cars are parked near each other for a reason, that the kids and Paskunak and everyone fucked off for a reason, and so I ask her if she wants to go get a drink.
The look she gives me is quizzical, slow. Her hesitating, me with my hand on the roof of my little car, we stand there.
I am acutely aware of my stupid jacket, stupid tie. Overdressed for this bullshit.
Maybe the night’s not so pretty.
Maybe I said it with a little lilt that made it seem like I don’t get the whole thing, that I don’t get that there’s Jake, that she lives across town, that I’m not real to her, that I’m barely real to much of anything or anyone.
That I’m taking the shell of a woman I’m given daily and filling her with brushstrokes of everything I want, all in some silly game.
Using this person in my own game of anti-suicidal magical realism.
“I’m kind of tired,” she says, which is fine.
But it’s the little laugh. She gets in the car.
The laugh swims around in my car as I’m out, driving, moving.
Maybe I’m getting poetic or whatever, but I swear to God the moon hit her necklace when she laughed at me and it screamed NATALIE at me louder than it needed to.
Nothing is worse than not having liquor at home because you finished it twenty-four hours ago and discovering this fact later in the evening after all the stores are closed.
Because then you’re at a bar somewhere downtown eating nachos that taste awful and drinking bourbon that’s good and beers that are cheap and no one’s there to do it with you.
So you’re just eating and drinking, then it’s just drinking.
And the bar is a bummer, sure, like bars are. Knicks game is playing on one TV, Yankees spring training on the other.
The men eating around me are tucking into big burgers and fries.
They talk to the pretty bartender like she’s their wife. Winking, howling at their own jokes.
They make you angry and they make me sad. Like a lot of shit.
They always try to talk to you when this happens but you leave your eyes unfocused and try to go somewhere.
Away from the bar, though, the restaurant is beautiful. People are eating real dinners with other people.
You notice Natalie first. She’s with Lauren DeSousa and Jim DeWitt and some of the others. She’s drinking something tropical out of a big glass.
She sees you and she looks at you but doesn’t register much. You’re far away, maybe imagining things. She might not even see you.
This makes you angry and sad, just like most everything else about the night.
Mom and Dad died not long ago. It feels like a different world.
You wonder why you’re thinking like this. It’s too much.
But seeing Maury and Eunice moving to the exit is even more upsetting. It’s the first time you’ve seen them outside the apartment, the parking lot. The stairs. But it’s the same:
He’s leading her to the door by her hand. They are one unit. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them not touching.
So goddamn smug.
Never seen either of them have to be alone for a moment.
I finish my drink and it’s as if the room is empty except for me and her and the vacancy the happy couple left behind.
I drink another and think about the chances that there will be a murder in the Kardashian universe one day.
I could see Rob mass shooting one of their family dinners. Caitlyn Jenner driving a golf ball into Kris’ head, killing her. No one knowing if it was on purpose. No one caring, not really. Maybe Scott murdering himself.
I’m alone, they’re asking me to leave.
Yes, I can drive.
I drive with all four windows down. Rollicking.
Out of liquor. OK. Butter, hair gel—it’s all in the apartment.
I don’t bother with the lower stairs, just the ones high up. Steps from their door. Spread it around with my hands.
It’s funny how, sometimes, you don’t notice tinnitus is there until it ends.
Back on my couch. Finally. I smoke a cigarette and listen to the cacophony of violence once Maury reaches that step and makes that awful sound, taking his best girl with him.
Does he think about anything as he tumbles. Does she break on the way down or just shatter at the bottom. Does she feel me slide that ring off her finger.
There’s knocking on my door, and I think it’s a fireman. Or a cop.
I don’t answer. I turn up the volume.
Kim is attending the Met Gala. Her sisters are excited. I’m squinting, wondering why they’re not beautiful, not really.
I max out the volume. It’s loud but I can still hear the voices, feel that messy vibration in the air. That one of confusion. Awe.
I burp bourbon. Go to my computer. I misspell part of the email, but it doesn’t matter. I’m writing what my fingers have long wanted to write, speaking that thing I knew they’d know one day. Wedding bells rise and fall with the palpitations in my ears. The subject line will say it all, and they’ll all squeal when they wake up and open it:
Celebrations of Joy…Natalie & I.