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THAT MORNING WE WOKE TO FIND OUR STREET BURIED IN SNOW. THE STOOPS, THE sidewalk, the row of parked cars were a blanket of white; the trees looked as if they’d been dipped in frosting, and the whole of Oak Lane—with its impeccably preserved century-old brownstones—had the look of a vintage photograph. Only the loud scrape from an approaching snowplow betrayed what Tim, my history-teaching husband, would like to believe: Erase the plow, remove the light poles and the telephone wires, toss out all electrical appliances, and it could be any other Brooklyn Heights morning, circa 1848 or 1902.
Staring down from our fourth-floor apartment, I made out the faint prints from Tim’s boots. Before sunrise, he’d crossed between two parked cars and trudged with his backpack full of graded papers toward Montague Street, where he’d climbed the steps to the Montague Academy. During the night, the thick flakes had fallen gently, but now it was morning, and the wind blew in gusts that rattled the windows of the living room/dining room/toy room where I was standing. I felt a chill.
Sam came running down the hall, his diaperless pants at his knees, crying, “Mommy, pee-pee! Pee-pee!” Teddy, newly four, followed, saying, “Sam made a mess!” Minutes before, I’d abruptly left the kitchen because, between the repeated calls of “More milk, Mommy” and “I’m hungry, Mommy” and “Mommy, Sam’s hitting me,” I knew either they’d stop, as asked, or I would snap.
With few places to look, it took no time for them to find me. Teddy had been up early due to a bad dream, and Sam had eaten hardly any breakfast, feeding himself only the brightly colored minimarshmallows from his favorite sugared cereal. “This will not do,” I announced grandly. But, of course, it would. It did.
When Tim phoned from school, I had to shout over Sam, who was shrieking, while Teddy kept pushing the button that made the phone go on speaker. Tim asked, “How’s it going?” more out of habit, I suppose, because one little moment of listening, and he’d know.
“Good, it’s going good,” I said, choosing not to tell him about a mysterious smell in the bathroom (the toilet was clogged and would not flush); the bar of oatmeal soap half-melted in the empty bathtub; the growing stack of unpaid bills; the clothes strewn, a Hansel and Gretel trail of little boys’ pants and shirts and underwear; and how when I finally made it to the sock drawer to finish dressing Sam, no socks matched. I made no mention of how the winter wind was sure to shatter our front windows, nor my prediction that this was going to be the coldest day of the year. After all, Tim was hard at work. Better to spare him.
Later, in the vestibule of our building, I managed to open the stroller and carry it down the stoop, all the while coaxing the boys to follow. I belted Sam in, lowered Teddy so he could ride standing in back, and we began our walk. Both boys were practically smothered under sweaters and coats and scarves and hats, gloves, boots—only their eyes could be seen. Beneath it all, I could hear them crying, and when I leaned forward to ask what was the matter, Teddy sobbed, “My eyes are cold.”
“I don’t know what to do about your eyes.”
Never enough. Never enough. A parent can never, ever do enough. I had the makings of a song.
Gloveless, scarfless, with my down jacket still unbuttoned up top— I’d forgotten about me.
Soon after we set off, it became clear that, because of the snow, our stroller wasn’t going to work. So, with the wind whipping and the need to think fast, I turned us around. Back home, I left the stroller in the vestibule and hurried to our storage closet in the basement to fetch Tim’s childhood sled. Outside, I wrapped the boys in an old blue blanket, set them on the sled, and pulled them behind me.
We were halfway down Hicks Street before I noticed other parents dragging their kids by the wrist, slipping and sliding, or struggling with strollers. Men and women, dressed for work, leaned into the wind as they headed toward the subway station on Clark Street, stepping gingerly, hoping not to fall. And here I came, pulling Teddy and Sam, the only children in the Heights riding to school on a sled. Glancing back, I could see them squinting in the way that comes only when they’re smiling. And suddenly, that great unreasonable distance we traveled each morning to R Kids Count Learning Center became a blessing. Some children were getting rides in carpools, and others would be arriving by car service and taxi. But the boys and I were envied—one stiff parent, Chad the Wall Street whiz, surprised me by shouting from the corner of Pierrepont and Hicks, in a manner half amused, half in awe, “Now, that’s the way to travel.”
For once I was the clever mother, the only mother with this rather terrific idea, and my boys, Teddy and Sam Welch, were content. These are the moments, I wanted to sing. These are the moments.
“Canceled,” Maria (always perky) Spence called out from her Range Rover on the corner of Pineapple Street.
“Boiler. Broken. Call me. Playdate sometime.” She had to go, her cell phone was ringing, and she drove on.
Teddy didn’t understand why we were turning around.
“The school has no heat, sweetie,” I said. “You’ll freeze, and we wouldn’t want that.”
“But I wanna go!”
With my promise of hot chocolate, Teddy calmed down. As I pulled the sled up Henry Street to Montague, Sam said, “Daddy, work,” and pointed toward the neo-Gothic ex–German Lutheran church that housed most of Montague Academy. On nice days, I often took the boys to the courtyard garden, where they climbed on the lower school’s playground equipment. This was not to be one of those days.
Instead, we turned right on Montague and headed down to Muffi ns and More. Across the street, Starbucks was doing impressive business. I preferred, as did the other mothers in my circle, the locally owned Muffins and More, which, rumor had it, was in danger of going out of business, but not if we could help it.
Handfuls of rock salt had been scattered on the pavement outside Muffins and More. The ice and snow had begun to melt. I tied the sled to a parking meter and held Teddy and Sam by their mittens as we walked carefully toward the door.
Inside, sitting at a corner table—which they managed to commandeer every day at this time—Tess Windsor, Debbie Beebe, and Claudia Valentine drank their espressos and cappuccinos and decaf lattes.
“Kate will have an opinion,” Tess said, picking up her parka, which had been lying across the only available chair. “Come over here, Kate.”
Tess usually packed a child’s activity ideal for bad weather. So it was no surprise to see her daughter, Maddie, who also went to R Kids Count, doing an origami project at a nearby table. Without prompting, Maddie offered to teach Teddy, who wanted to learn, and Sam, who seemed happy just to watch.
Debbie volunteered to go to the counter and get whatever the boys wanted. I gladly fished out a crumpled five-dollar bill, handed it to her, and plopped down in the open chair. Debbie was expecting her first in September. She often helped us with our children. “Practice,” she claimed, although on this particular morning, I thought it may have been to escape the conversation I was about to join. Claudia said, “We were hoping you’d come by, we want your thoughts.” Claudia has the throaty, smoky voice of a sultry movie star. “Tess and I don’t agree. Debbie won’t take sides.”
“Because what do I know?” Debbie called from the counter before turning to order.
While Tess considered how best to phrase the question, Claudia blurted out, not whispering, because she never whispers, “What is it with little boys and their assholes?”
Tess winced. Debbie pretended not to have heard.
On that day, as far I was concerned, any of these women could say anything—talk nonsense, gibberish, even, and just so long as none of them called me Mommy or asked me to tie her shoes, I’d be positively giddy and, in no time, reborn.
Claudia continued, “Both my boys love to drop their pants, bend over, spread their butt cheeks, and say, ‘Look, Mom!’ I mean, what is that all about?”
Meet Claudia Valentine: loud talker, blunt thinker, eager playdate maker. I hadn’t liked her at first—too brassy and needy, or so I thought— but after two of my favorite other mothers moved away last year, Claudia and I found ourselves increasingly the only ones left at what she called the dwindling party that was our life. What I always liked about Claudia was that she was the kind of mother who would kill for her kids. What I loved about her was she’d also kill for mine. Or any kid, for that matter. And if her Homer (yes, Homer) and Olaf (yes, Olaf) were to mistreat some other child, her justice would be swift and firm.
She didn’t tolerate unkindness or cruelty, and her children, while exposed to her many momentary lapses into volatility, had been given one of the true great parental gifts: They had been civilized. And if not, they wouldn’t be able to blame their mother, for no one tries harder to be fair. Her tendency toward salty language and her unabashed capacity to speak her mind may have been off-putting to the Heights establishment, but I found her refreshing.
“It’s a phase,” Tess said. “Boys grow out of it.”
“Do they?” Claudia countered.
“Yes,” Tess said, looking toward me, hoping I’d join in.
Claudia again: “I don’t think they do. I think it morphs. Their fascination with their own assholes evolves into their fascination with ours.”
Tess giggled as she pretended to cover her ears.
Still Claudia: “What is it with men that they all want to fuck us in the butt?”
Please understand: I am no prude. I enjoy the occasional tacky sex conversation. But it was morning, and this was bar talk. I did my best to ignore the question.
But Claudia kept on: “Lately, Dan has been begging me, whispering in my ear, pleading. He even bought a book, written by a woman, about the joys of it, the supposed pleasure. I’m not convinced!”
I glanced out the window of Muffins and More just as Frida Fabritz from Heights Realty hurried into the coffee establishment across the street.
Frida Fabritz was the Realtor who, years earlier, rented us our twobedroom apartment. That’s a joke, considering one of the bedrooms is a small, windowless space, a glorified closet. Recently, we had one of the math teachers from Montague over for dinner. He admired how we managed in such “cramped quarters.” I asked him to do us a favor and calculate the square footage of our apartment. Frida had listed it at approximately twelve hundred square feet, but I’d always doubted the figure. He paced out the apartment and, after a grim silence, said, “Well, you’ve got close to nine hundred square feet here, if you include the boys’ room.”
“Room?” I said. “You call that a room?”
That morning, as I watched Frida Fabritz enter Starbucks, I had an urge to chase after her. No, I wouldn’t make a scene. I’d simply tell her what we’d discovered when a math teacher measured our apartment. I ached to make Frida buckle over with guilt. Luckily for her, she’d gone across the street for coffee. Luckily for her, I had both boys and was trapped in a conversation with my mother friends.
I looked at Claudia. “What?”
“Where did you go?”
“I’m here, listening,” I said, turning to check on Teddy and Sam, who sat entranced, watching Maddie fold a series of swans with the colored origami paper. Debbie held a corn muffin between them, breaking off chunks for them to chew.
“You’re no help,” Claudia said.
“I know,” I said. “Sorry.”
Claudia said, “Whatever.”
“Where were we?” Tess asked.
“Assholes,” Claudia said. Then she leaned forward and bellowed,
“Oh, for the record, do you know which of our neighbors likes taking it up the butt . . .? ”
I escaped before learning the answer. Outside, Teddy, the willful one, struggled with me, using his winter boots to kick at my ankles. Both boys had wanted to stay, but I had errands to run, and Sam, gentle Sam, needed a nap. We set off for Key Food but stopped at the M&O newsstand for a box of cherry Luden’s and a packet of tissues for the boys’ runny noses.
“Kate, good, it’s you.”
I turned to find Frida Fabritz walking toward me, a forced smile on her face. “Sorry to grab you like this, but, please, I need a favor.” I tried to beg off her request, but Frida said, “I’ve got a prospective buyer with all sorts of questions about the neighborhood, and I thought, Who better—”
“You don’t want me to talk to them,” I said. “Not with the mood I’m in.”
Behind her fake smile, fear was in her eyes. Perhaps for the first time, I was catching a glimpse of the real Frida Fabritz. In recent years, several large realty companies had moved into the Heights, and Frida had begun to feel the pinch. In that moment she appeared desperate, and I have a soft spot for desperate people. Besides, my thinking went, a Realtor in the Heights who owed me might one day be a good thing. So I pulled the boys back in the direction we’d come.
Once, during a job interview, I was asked if there had been anything in my past I regretted. At the time I couldn’t think of a thing, not one single thing I wished I’d done differently, so I said lamely, “Sure,
I’ve made mistakes, yes, but I don’t regret them because of what I’ve learned and I’ve been bettered from having made them.” And while the person interviewing me was unimpressed, I knew my answer to be, if vague, sincere. Funny, now, what I remember thinking as I trailed after Frida—you see, she was already smiling again, which made me wonder if I’d been duped—and that was when I said under my breath: “This may be my first real regret.” Frida turned back toward me and asked what I’d said. “Nothing,” I replied. She paused before saying with cheeriness, “Great idea, by the way. The sled.” Then she laughed nervously, a mixture of panic and glee. I’d never seen her behave this strangely, and then I saw why.
The woman stood just outside the doorway of Heights Realty, facing the other way, so I noticed her posture first. She had the long neck of a dancer. And when she slowly turned in my direction, she smiled as if she’d been expecting me. I may have gasped, because she was, quite simply, the most striking woman I’d ever seen.
“Kate, I’d like you to meet . . .”
The woman extended her hand. The leather of her glove felt warm and expensive; my gloveless hand was numb from the cold. She said in a whisper, “I’m Anna. Anna Brody.”
“Anna’s thinking of moving here,” Frida said. “So I thought who better to tell her what it’s like in the Heights?”
I don’t remember what all I said, but when I finally stopped talking, Frida joked that I secretly worked for Heights Realty. “I don’t work,” I started to explain when Anna Brody smiled. “No, you don’t work.
You’re just a mother.” She said this with surprising affection and irony, and without saying it, she seemed to hint that we were the same.
“Oh,” I said. “Do you have—”
“Yes, a daughter,” she said. “Sophie. She’s three.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s a great neighborhood for children.”
“So I see,” she said, looking at my boys in their sled. I think she envied the sled.
It began to snow. Among the swirling flakes, I noticed the stream of exhaust coming from an idling black town car, double-parked. A driver in a uniform stood at attention, waiting for Anna Brody. But she was in no hurry. She slowly smiled at me and said in her soft, breathy voice,
“You don’t know what a help you’ve been.”
I must have shivered because she undid her light blue scarf and draped it around my neck.
“I couldn’t,” I said.
“You must,” she said, tying it for me. “Otherwise, you’ll catch cold.”
I wanted to say, “But it matches your eyes.”
The driver opened the door. As Anna ducked into the back of the car, Frida shouted out that she’d be calling. Anna didn’t look back, disappearing behind the tinted glass. I found myself waving stupidly as the sedan pulled away.
The rest of the walk home, I kept hearing the way she’d said it, as if it were a secret—Anna, Anna Brody. Like a stuck record, it kept playing in my head—Anna, Anna Brody, Anna, Anna Brody, Anna, Anna Brody . . . The question became: How was I going to stop it? How was I going to drown it out?
I imagined what Tim would say.
For six years my husband had been working on his dissertation. Titled and retitled countless times, it had turned into a large, sprawling work called “The History of Loss.” On the rare good days, he called it “Loss and Its Many Friends,” and on the frequent doubt-filled days, he laughed sadly and referred to it as “The Lost Cause.” Given his own history and seen from the vantage point of his childhood, Tim’s central thesis had been born out of necessity, a lifesaving theory that salvaged a lost boy, but, I had urged him to consider, what about the man? Wasn’t it time for a new theory? Happily, not yet. Besides, all theories need to be tested. Here I found myself with the opportunity to try out Tim’s. And while many people found his approach depressing, I had lived with it long enough that I’d begun to find comfort in it. On that day, in those post–Anna Brody hours, it was Tim and only Tim I heard loud and clear. Often he’d couch it in historical anecdote, or pepper his conversation with apt examples, but the gist was: Lose. Lose early, lose often. For it’s how you lose that counts. And you will lose. Your hair, your looks, your teeth, your body fluids and fecal matter; you will lose friends, your memory, and if you’re one of the elite few, like Anna Brody, who expect to be remembered, give it time: Eventually, the world will lose its memory of you, too. Anna who?
I felt much better.
Still, I was in a sad, sad mood as I pulled Teddy and Sam down State Street. It had started with the scarf, an admittedly nice gesture, but enough already—now my tears were freezing to my face.
Back home, and in an attempt to shake myself out of my funk, I gathered Teddy and Sam in our living room/dining room/toy room, where we made a bed out of sofa pillows, stuffed animals, and the almost beanless beanbag chair I’d had since college. The three of us cuddled. I told them how happy I was and how much their daddy and I loved them. I kissed them on their forehead and on their soft, warm cheeks, and they sensed, I think, that if they didn’t do something fast, I’d kiss them all over, so they began to squirm, push me away, and demand TV. We spent the afternoon watching animated and live action videos, all of which they’d seen numerous times. We had our own little film festival, and instead of making them lunch, I prepared a series of snacks that I brought out over the course of several hours. I made openface grilled cheese cut into small squares. I made faces out of pieces of produce—grapes for eyes, a carrot stick for a nose, a banana split down the middle for a smiling mouth, and a handful of raisins, placed just right, to suggest a head of hair. I amused them and even myself, and for a few hours I was not only the mother I never had, I was the mother of all mothers.
WHENEVER I GIVE, SAY, MY ANNUAL LECTURE ON THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS, WHEN I dress up like Lincoln, or recount the Cuban Missile Crisis from Castro’s point of view, and whenever my students clap and cheer as I exit the classroom, and after I climb the school stairs to my cork-lined faculty office/cubby where I sit in my broken oak swivel chair, my heart racing, exhausted but elated from my brief dance with brilliance, and just as I’m about to announce to myself I am the god of all teachers, I usually have the good sense to do the following: I pull open my desk drawer, rummage through the assorted chewed-on pens and pencils, the packages of Post-its, the pair of green-handled lefty scissors, the loose change, and the leftover Halloween candy pilfered from one of the boys’ orange plastic pumpkins, until the aging envelope is found—“Ah,” I sigh—as I take out the single piece of crinkled, now yellowed paper and reread what a former student wrote a few years back:
Mr. Welch, yore my faverite teacher ever. I don’t care what anybody els says.
The writer of this note—who for obvious legal reasons will remain nameless—was not learning-disabled, dyslexic, or a product of the oft maligned New York City public school system. He was one of Montague’s own. He is at present in his junior year at a swanky private northeastern college. His major? Elementary education. Soon he’ll be teaching children. Maybe yours.
That day the above note failed to bring me back to earth. I was flying high and for good reason. Each class had gone better than the class before, culminating with sixth-grade American history, where I somehow pulled off a dazzling deconstruction of Francis Scott Key’s lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” managing vividly to set the scene, shape the context, and in forty-four minutes, turn eighteen sullen sixthgraders into patriots.
I’d lost all sense of time since that class, my last of the day, and now I sat in my office. What now? What next? I snatched up my office phone, hit 9 for an outside line, and punched the numbers that connected me home. There the phone rang, and Kate answered on the third ring, and I started to tell of my triumph only to be interrupted by Kate’s squeal: “It’s Daddy!” She handed the phone to Sam, who said something indecipherable. But by his tone, it was clear something big had happened, something worth celebrating, so I said, “Good, that’s so good, Sammy,” and Sam got more excited, babbling at a higher pitch, and I was cheering now, for what exactly I didn’t know, but it was good, life was, yes, wee-ha, and then I said, “Let me talk to Mommy.” Kate came on the other line, and so what if my good news was aborted, soon to be topped by Kate, who had quite a story to tell. So what if I’d left my guts on the classroom floor. So what!
“Did you get any of that?” Kate asked.
“Jesus, no,” I said. “Tell me!” And she did. History had been made moments earlier when Sam woke up from some form of group family nap in the living room, wandered down our narrow hallway, stripped off pants and diaper, climbed up the helper step, sat on the toilet, and produced all by himself a single, perfectly proportioned poop.
Kate was ecstatic, recounting every step along the way, telling how Sam had told her as he’d pointed to the toilet, “Mommy, look what I made.”
Oh, I had to laugh. Yes, I was calling because I’d had a triumph, too, and while it wasn’t literally poop, it was a kind of metaphorical poop all the same.
“Are you crying, honey?” Kate asked.
She can always tell by the way my voice gets softer. The long, odd pauses between words.
“You know I am.”
“Hurry home, okay? We won’t flush until you get here.”
After hanging up, I wiped my eyes and thought, Life can’t get better. There was no person in history with whom I would want to change places. And I’m an ordinary man, which made this feeling all the more improbable.
Please understand I’m a great believer in lowering expectations.
From a young age, I learned to speak the worst about myself, expect the least, and later, if lucky, be surprised to find out I’d been wrong. So am I ordinary? In the best sense, yes. Physically? I get a B, if I’ve bathed.
“Unusual-looking” might be the most apt description: my frizzy mop of hair; my easy-to-read eyes hiding behind the tiniest of wire-rimmed glasses; my naturally straight teeth. I’m attractive enough that my students from time to time have had crushes on me, and yet not so attractive that you’ll find me modeling underwear on a Times Square billboard. I’ve always thought this to be a good thing. Otherwise I could have been cruel and dull. Why? Because perfect-looking people are often cruel and dull. I was an odd-looking, gawky kid who grew up to be not such a bad catch, or so my wife has been known to say. I like to think my rocky start forced me to develop other key qualities—kindness, empathy for the underdog, a tendency to be enthusiastic for new and strange ideas. All of this, I’m now convinced, helped in my quest to be worthy of Kate Oliver.
Now, Kate Oliver is not inherently ordinary. But she aspires to be. At five-nine she’s an inch taller than I am. Her straight blond hair, her kind green eyes, and her free-of-makeup face all combine to make this first impression: She quite likely could have been the love child of Joni Mitchell and Mick Jagger. Her hippie mother chased bliss and all its chemical and sexual equivalents for years. Her mother’s addiction to drugs and drama seemed to inspire Kate to experience its opposite. Truth be told, Kate craves the ordinary. She longs for it. Often couples marry their own kind. In Kate’s case, she married down, which was why from the first moment she appeared barefoot in her white lace wedding dress, that rip-out-my-heart moment when I saw her come around the stone column at the Chapel of Harmony in Big Sur, when I blurted out, “Oh my God,” those first tears began to roll. I proceeded to cry nonstop, as if I’d sprung a leak. And it was why I kept weeping through the readings (Rilke; Rumi; First Corinthians, chapter 13), through Kate’s mom, Ariel, singing/butchering “The Wedding Song.” I sobbed, my back shook, a stream of clear snot leaked from my nose, and everyone except my father laughed as it became obvious I couldn’t stop. Three of Kate’s former lovers—Dr. Max Brown (Kate’s geology instructor at UC Berkeley); Jeff Slade (yes, the Jeff Slade); and Solveig Knudsen (Kate’s freshman roommate/lesbian activist/body double)—watched, stunned, wondering why it hadn’t gone their way. It’s clear to me now I couldn’t stop because I couldn’t believe my own sweet luck that she was marrying me.
Nine years and two boys later, I still had the ring. And what did Kate and I have? A great, ordinary love we both fought for and guarded. Somehow in these bumpy, broken early years of the twenty-first century, we had navigated our way to something good and simple.
That was what I felt as I sat in my chair. What a quiet confidence I possessed that afternoon—to own a feeling so great that for any price, it was not for sale. I closed my eyes, leaned back, wah-lah . . . It was too perfect, I would later decide, the light rap of knuckles on the wavy glass of my office door. I ignored the knocking, but it persisted. I knew the hand. I could picture the chubby knuckles. I glanced toward the door and noted the odd-shaped silhouette pressed against the glass. Yes. Of course. It was her. Knocking. And I had no other choice but to open the door.
There she stood, all four feet nine inches of her, newly sixteen but still the same height as when she was ten, a forever pug-nosed little chunk of a girl, barrel-chested with mouse-brown hair and a cluster of pebble-sized pimples dotting her fleshy forehead.
“Mr. Welch,” she hissed. “Am I disturbing you?”
“Always. What do you want?”
“I want to confirm that we’re confirmed.”
“Good-bye.” I started to close the door.
The door shut, still the creature kept talking.
“Mr. Welch, I’ll need an hour.”
“Ten minutes,” I said as my head fell against the wavy glass.
“Ten, and no more.”
“Ten, perfect,” she said, and then, thank God, she was gone.
Aw, fuck it. Against the strong advice of legal counsel, her real name is printed here. Bea Myerly.
Memorize the name and steel yourself. Should you meet her someday, remember—you’ve been warned.
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THAT NIGHT, WHILE I WAS GIVING THE BOYS A BUBBLE BATH, TIM BURST THROUGH the bathroom door, startling me. Teddy thrust out his sudsy arms, and both boys shouted, “Daddy, Daddy!” I left them in the bathroom. There was dinner to fix.
As sometimes happened, Tim had too much energy. Because he’d left the house early and hadn’t seen the boys yet, his day with them was just starting, which explained his need to overcompensate. I knew from the shouting and splashing in the bathroom that it wouldn’t be easy getting the boys to bed.
It wasn’t, and later, I was the one insisting Teddy and Sam go to sleep. Or else. Or else what? Or else there’ll be problems. Or else no special treats tomorrow. Or else no videos for a week. I was running out of or elses. Standing in the dark hallway, Tim sighed heavily. I knew what he was thinking—You’re too harsh—but I would have none of it, saying, “Easy to judge when you’ve been out all day.” Finally, and that’s another part of this I always seem to forget, there is always a finally, after a valiant fight, night won, and the boys were down.
It was past nine o’clock. A slant of light from the hall cut across their tiny room, and Tim and I stood in the doorway. As we stared at the boys, whose shapes could be vaguely made out, I remembered something Tim once said: Children fall asleep so you can love them again. But there were dirty dishes in the sink, toys scattered in every room, pillows and clothes and other general stuff that needed to be put away.
As we tried to finish straightening up, each chore led to another chore—bagging up the trash became sorting newspapers and plastic bottles for the weekly recycling pickup; sorting mail became paying bills, which became looking for the checkbook, which became calling our bank’s automated phone line to get an accurate balance, punching in account numbers and codes, which became punching in the wrong password, which became hanging up and starting the process all over. When finished with the friendly tape-recorded voice, after having transferred nearly our entire savings account into checking, I wrote out checks for the bills we could afford to pay, left the unpaid bills for later, which led to a search for the newly purchased sheet of stamps, which were not in their regular spot, because we’d never decided on a spot for stamps. “I know they’re around here somewhere,” Tim said. Twenty minutes later, he found half a roll of stamps, but because of a recent postage increase, he had to paste two on each bill, muttering,
“What’s an extra stamp for rich people like us?,” which made me laugh, although I could have gone the other way.
It was sometime after eleven P.M. when I came into our room and found Tim already in bed. He’d propped himself up with extra pillows and powered up our laptop and gone online. I put on my flannel nightgown, climbed in on my side, and waited for him to finish.
The best quality of the disaster that was my mother was her sincere interest in hearing about my day. So no matter where we were living, either in a tent, or at Willow Song (a now defunct commune just outside of Eugene, Oregon), or in the A-frame in Eureka, wherever she and I were, she made sure to find the time in those minutes before sleep to hear every detail of my day. It was our ritual, and Tim learned early on that it was sacred to me, so even now, at the end of every day, we tell each other what happened.
I fell in love with Tim one fall day in Berkeley. We’d taken a long hike in Strawberry Canyon. Tired, we sat down between two oak trees, and he rested his head in my lap. As he talked on and on (about what I don’t remember), I watched him fighting off sleep, the way his legs and arms gave in, his eyes open at first, then closed. I liked especially how his voice seemed eager to counter the seemingly inevitable shutdown of the rest of him—his mouth, which is his most appealing feature, kept moving—he wanted, I realized, to tell me everything. As if to say, Here, this is all of me.
He seemed worried it wouldn’t be enough. And it wasn’t that I expected him to tell me everything, but I loved that he was willing to try. And yes, in addition to the fact that I found him funny, and that he said I made him laugh more than anyone ever had, it was this willingness, this desire to tell everything—the muck, the petty parts, all of it—that sealed the deal. Closing the laptop, Tim smiled, disappointed, and said, “They won.”
“Aw, sweetie,” I said.
“Terrible of me, huh? Wanting him to lose.”
“No,” I said. “It makes sense.”
During basketball season, Tim religiously checked one particular women’s NCAA Division III basketball score. The Cayton College Lady Revolvers were coached by the Ohio legend Jack Welch, Tim’s father. Coach Welch had more wins than any coach in women’s collegiate Division III history.
Tim rolled onto his side, facing me, and said, “Wait till you hear what happened today.” Then he recounted his day of teaching, saying it was one of his best ever, and he was so sweet about it that even though I wasn’t in the mood, I pulled off his pajama bottoms and touched him with my hands.
“But, Kate, you haven’t told me about you.”
I didn’t stop.
“Not until you tell me—”
So I recounted the dullest parts of my day but whispered them as if these were my darkest, dirtiest sex thoughts. “Today I buttered toast. I licked the muffin batter off the wooden spoon. I pulled the sled in the snow.” And after he came, I said, “So, that was my day.”
Later, as we lay there, lit only by the glow from the Mickey Mouse night-light, what I hadn’t told him began to bother me. It seemed silly, I thought, to withhold, so I said, “I met this woman today.”
“Oh,” he said.
Then I tried to describe her. The skin, the eyes, the gleaming Botticelli-like hair. The kind, unexpected gift of her light blue scarf. I did my best to objectively render the irrefutable astonishingness of Anna Brody, because to render her otherwise would be to deceive. This was my reasoning for why I had brought her into our bed. To my surprise, Tim said nothing, didn’t even ask her name. Turning his way, I saw why. He’d fallen fast asleep and was, I think, already dreaming.
THAT TUESDAY, AT THE APPOINTED HOUR, BEA’S SIGNATURE KNOCK ECHOED THROUGH my office. Opening the door, I discovered she was not alone. Standing behind her was Jeremy Nathan. Tall and skinny, like taffy stretched too far, his bony shoulders rounded, his thick glasses magnifying his already large eyes, Jeremy was a curious mix of a beardless Abe Lincoln and a bullfrog.
“I hope we’re not early,” Bea said with a smile.
Liar, I thought, but said nothing.
Bea studied the scene. I had my winter coat on, my backpack zipped up, my desk unusually tidy—she saw I had other plans, plans that did not include her.
“Mr. Welch, you understand we have a deadline.”
“Yes, Bea. Ten minutes, as promised.”
“I worried you’d forgotten.”
“Nonsense. I’ve been looking forward to it.”
For weeks Bea Myerly had been leaving notes, making surprise visits in an attempt to pin me down. I’d postponed the interview twice. But she wasn’t to be dissuaded, finally engaging the services of Mitchell Struck, the prissy assistant to the headmistress, who had explained in blunt terms that I was to make myself available for a face-to-face and that I should feel honored to have been chosen as the first faculty member to be profiled in the exciting new column entitled “Teacher Feature.” Bea explained the reason for Jeremy’s presence that afternoon. As photographer for both the yearbook and the Montague Missive, Jeremy had come along to take a photo. But because he’d recently broken his Pentax, he held in his bony fingers a yellow disposable camera.
Bea said, “Jeremy will be fast.”
Confused, I looked in no particular direction as the camera suddenly flashed. Bea practically shoved Jeremy out the door while I vainly suggested a second picture be taken.
“Oh, no.” Bea snorted. “Your time is precious.”
In quick succession, Bea produced a tape recorder, a handheld microphone, a pad of paper with several pages of questions written out, a bottle of water, and a plastic cup (“For when your mouth dries up from all the talking”). Then she pressed record and fired the first question. I did my best to answer, saying yes, I was from Ohio, yes, I did my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, and yes, my dissertation was progressing nicely. I refused to answer her question about favorite historical figures, claiming there were too many to list and it would be a pity if we found ourselves out of time. “After all, Bea, the clock is ticking.” The way she nervously consulted her notes reminded me that I hadn’t always disliked Bea Myerly. There was a time in those early days when I appreciated her hard work, her thoughtful questions and studious nature. Mostly, though, I pride myself on my fondness for the misfit student. Somehow, however, over time, Bea had imperceptibly crossed the line to become my least favorite student ever.
“Why did you choose history to be your life’s work?”
“Well, Bea, I became a historian to escape the tyranny of being the small non-basketball-playing son of arguably the third-most-successful coach in the history of women’s Division III college basketball.”
“Do you care to elaborate?”
Apparently, I did. “History brought me comfort. No matter how bad things got when I was growing up, I knew somewhere in history there was a story or an account of someone enduring a worse experience.”
“So for you, history was a way to feel good about yourself?”
“Well, we’re talking about when I was eight or nine. Some kids set off fireworks or shot frogs with their BB guns. I read Herodotus. I read Gibbon. The Bible, even, although as an historical document, it’s rather suspect. History helped me deal with it all.”
Bea was too busy searching her notes for a next question, so I continued uninterrupted. “You see, Bea, the great gift we give others is the permission to change us. Please, enter my world, leave me bettered, leave me smarter, leave me more alive, but above all, change me. History is about how we change. History is about why we change. History is about what happens when we don’t, when we resist. History is . . .”
A smarter man would’ve stopped. Me? Desperate for the right words, I flailed on: “History is . . . the great collective . . . ball of stuff . . . from which we . . . uhm . . .”
With that, Bea Myerly stood up and quickly gathered her things.
“Wait—is that it?” I asked.
“Ten minutes, Mr. Welch. You were very clear.”
“But I could spare a few more minutes . . .”
A few? It was now one entire ninety-minute audiocassette later. I even stopped midsentence while Bea ran out to buy more blank tapes.
I have to give her credit. For the last hour and a half, she’d been listening with the contented smile of a lottery winner. And who could blame her? Not only was Mr. Welch sharing secrets, he seemed to be enjoying himself. I even joked at one point, “Oh, the catharsis of it all.” Bea did her part, sighing along with me in the appropriate places, her eyes welling up as she heard how the coach’s son couldn’t dribble a basketball, how I was too short to play, how I was uncoordinated and bruised easily and was not inspired by the dank smell of locker rooms. So what did little Timmy Welch do? I became a scholar of the game. I learned the difference between a 2-1-2 zone and a 2-3 zone, the pros and cons of the four-corner offense, when to full-court press, the correct hand placement and wrist flick for a set shot. My bedroom became a shrine to the Cayton College Lady Revolvers, and I became the ball boy/unofficial stat keeper/special assistant coach/unpaid team scout and the backup team mascot once I was tall enough to fill out the life-size foam-rubber silver bullet.
I told Bea everything as fast as I could remember it. How it was my older sister, Sal, who was the player. And what a player she was—15.6 ppg., 5.2 reb., 1993 Division III second team all-American. I told Bea about Game Day, the endless succession of Game Days, and the constant pressure in the house. Would the Lady Revolvers win? (We almost always did.) And when we did, the concern instantly became whether we’d win again. What about the occasional loss that occurred every other season? At age eight or nine, I would collapse on the gym floor in tears, until my mother remembered to scoop me up and take me home. But by age ten, I began to wonder if there was more to life. Surely there had to be. Then one day I flipped through a picture book of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs and was transported. The Civil War. Finally, here was something worth getting upset over. I went from picture books to real books. I kept on reading. The War of the Roses, the War of 1812, World Wars I and II. So many wars! History brought the welcome perspective I craved. Plagues, revolutions, the long decline of the Roman Empire—these became my passions. For the first time, I felt balanced and free. Yes, I still had to attend the games, but somehow, sitting halfway up the bleachers, I managed to keep reading book after book, looking up occasionally to check the score, and usually only after my mother gave me a sharp elbow to the ribs.
It felt good to tell someone, even Bea Myerly. We were both laughing when the phone rang. I answered it. It was Kate, none too pleased.
“Where are you?”
I looked at the small clock on my desk. Uh-oh. I was supposed to have been home an hour earlier.
Kate said nothing. She didn’t need to. The boys were crying in the background.
I said, “I’m sor—” but she’d already hung up the phone.
That night, back at home, I was in even more trouble. Kate had left a not-so-subtle note: Deal with this!
In moments, I was clutching the final disconnection notice from the phone company, standing in our kitchen with the receiver wedged between my right ear and shoulder. This particular final disconnection notice was emphatic. Call immediately, make special arrangements, or else service would be terminated Tuesday. Well, it was Tuesday. And I’d been put on hold. I had a terrible thought—They might even terminate service while I’m holding! Just then a miracle, an operator—I’m sorry, a customer service representative—came on. She sounded pleasant enough, as if she had a sense of humor, so I said, “I’m sorry to hear about your troubles.” She didn’t answer. “Times must be tough,” I continued. Phone company employee: “How do you mean?” “Tell me, will Verizon go broke or be shut down if you don’t receive our $73.42 immediately?” Not amused, she explained my “option.” (I was not aware that one possibility constituted an option.) We would need to pay the next day, in person, by five P.M., and only a money order would be accepted. Click.
Humiliated, I set the phone in its cradle and put the cap back on the pen with which I’d been doodling. Looking down at the back of the envelope, I saw the damage. I’d covered it with squiggles, blotting out a phone number Kate had written down and retracing a name I didn’t know—someone Brody.
That night, after a war was fought to get both boys in bed, I knew what was coming. In bed with the lights out, Kate turned on her side, faced me, and attempted to discuss certain pressing budgetary matters. “How can we cut back, spend less? How are we going to survive another year on your salary?” She said it innocently enough, but her question cut. I said, “Oh, please, honey. Not now. Not after tonight with the boys, not after the Bea Myerly of it all.” Kate: “I’m worried.” Me: “But we have more stuff than ninety-eight percent of the world’s population. Do you know how far my salary could take us in Kenya or Mozambique?”
I’d used this tactic before, but always with different countries. Kate usually countered, “Tim, we don’t live in those places.” And I’d say, “Yes, and we should be grateful,” even though, I don’t know, maybe those countries are the most magnificent places in the world to live. Maybe we’d be ecstatically happy walking among the naked peoples of wherever people are naked. Maybe we should be terribly sad and wake up weeping that not only did we not live in these places, we had never seen these places. If presented with this argument, Kate would sigh, “You’re impossible,” and I’d almost say, “Maybe we should move,” knowing full well that Kate didn’t want to move. She loved the Heights. She loved its panoramic view of lower Manhattan, its bucoliclooking streets with sweet idyllic-sounding names—Cranberry Street, Pineapple Street, Orange and Willow, Grace Court, Love Lane, Sydney Place, Garden Place, Willow Place—and most especially, that street of streets, our street, Oak Lane, that lone leafy block of dreamy childhoods and a favorite of Christmas carolers: The old brick fronts with the bluestone sidewalks and the original cobblestone paving gave a group of carolers the acoustic equivalent of Carnegie Hall. The sound, the bounce! Five singers felt like fifty. Bottom line: Kate didn’t want to move, and it would be unfair of me to threaten it. Moving for Kate was equivalent to the abuse of children, for as a child, she had moved often, sometimes monthly, at least once a year.
Because Kate had heard my Mozambique argument before, I was disappointed when she provided no valid counterattack. Instead, she grew quiet and said, sniffling, “I was just trying to think of a way to make it easier for you, a way to relieve some of the pressure.”
“There’s no pressure,” I said, lying. Kate covered her available ear with a pillow. Regrettably, I snapped, “Well, if you’re so worried about money, maybe you should get a job.”
That was when she let the pillow fall away. “It’s funny you’d say that, because Bruno called. He wants to have lunch.”
When we first moved to New York, Kate worked for Bruno Schwine at the Foundation for an Ethical Future. When Kate quit to raise our boys, Bruno left to start his own consulting firm, absurdly named Bruno Schwine Associates, even though he was the only employee. At the time Kate had scolded Bruno because he’d gone to work for the enemy, as a freelance adviser to that biotech behemoth, the Monsanto Corporation.
“He may have some ideas,” she said carefully. “Maybe even a job offer.”
“Bruno Schwine?” I snorted. “Fine, knock yourself out!”
ALL MORNING I WORRIED ABOUT WHAT TO WEAR. I TRIED THE GRAY PANTSUIT, THE beige silk shirt, and the pearl earrings; I tried the tan slacks, the light blue blouse, and my tiny teacup earrings; I tried the faded jeans, the striped pink sweater, and no earrings. After trying nearly every conceivable combination of my best and favorite clothes, I decided to start over from scratch. I was naked when the phone rang.
Part of me hoped it was Bruno Schwine calling to cancel, since this little decision of what to wear was proving too big for me. It wasn’t that I was excessively vain; but I knew my choice of clothes would say a great deal about my intentions, and I didn’t know what mine were. Was I a mother at this lunch, or a future employee, or was I, quite simply, an old friend meeting to talk about old times? Picking up the phone, I heard static. It was a bad connection.
It was someone calling from a cell phone.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Anna. Anna Brody.”
Anna Brody who had left a message the week before, Anna Brody whose number I couldn’t read because my husband had doodled on the back of the envelope where I’d written it, Anna Brody who wasn’t listed in the Manhattan phone book, the Brooklyn phone book, or with directory assistance. “Oh,” I said, “I’ve been wanting to call you.”
“It’s all right.”
“No, I can explain. See, one of my kids scribbled on the piece of paper where I’d wrote your number.” Wrote? “I mean written.”
“Is this a bad time?”
I’m naked, I’m late, and you’re not Bruno Schwine calling to cancel.
“Yes,” I said. “It kind of is.”
“I’m sorry to keep calling . . .”
“No, no, it’s no bother.”
“I just wanted to ask you something about the neighborhood.”
“Go ahead,” I said as I stepped into my underwear.
“Philip’s worried . . .”
Philip, I decided, must be her husband.
“He’s worried I’ll be bored.”
“When my Teddy says he’s bored, I tell him he’s not bored. He’s boring.”
“You do not.”
“No, but I will when he gets older, because it’s what I believe. Or what I’ve been told to believe.”
“We absolutely love it here,” I told her. “The people are nice. It’s beautiful. You can walk pretty much everywhere. Best part is even if one of your distant relatives dies, your neighbors will bring you homemade soups, cookies, and trays of lasagna. You won’t have to cook for weeks. And since you have money . . .”
I stopped midthought. Oops.
But Anna seemed completely at ease. “Go on, Kate,” she said. “Since I have money . . .? ”
“There’s no end to what you can do here.” I checked the clock by our bed. Late, so late. “Maybe we could speak more later?”
“Not necessary. You see, the truth is . . .? ”
“You more than answered my questions.”
The signal momentarily faded.
“Kate, can you hear me? You know this isn’t . . . connection. Look, I’ll call ag—sometime. Soon.”
Until Teddy was born, I worked with Bruno at the Foundation for an Ethical Future. We were a ragtag, indefatigable bunch of futurists. We were never about predicting what would happen. We merely tried to imagine what could. Our work was to help our clients “rehearse” their responses to a variety of possible futures. As our fearless leader, Bruno had the idea to use the scenario-creating techniques developed by the RAND Corporation in the 1950s that had been modified for business purposes by Royal Dutch/Shell after the 1973 oil embargo. Bruno’s genius was to apply these same techniques to various nonprofits. We didn’t have much money, but we had the belief that these organizations and community groups (the Vera Institute of Justice, the Eliot Feld Ballet, etc.) were as important as weapons of mass destruction and our addiction to oil, and, more important, we had that most underrated and essential of currencies—the belief that we were right.
When I arrived at Siggy’s Good Food on Henry Street, I looked right past the bone-thin man waving in my direction. I was embarrassed about not recognizing Bruno right away. But he didn’t look well. His cheeks were hollow, and he was much too skinny. Still, he smiled as I sat down. “Pictures, please,” he said.
I brought out the pocket-size photo album I carried of the boys.
Bruno fawned over each picture, noting that Teddy looked just like Tim, and Sam had some of me.
I asked if he was well.
“Better now that I’m with you.” He paused, but not long enough for me to ask what was up with his health. “Kate, question: Have you heard of Louis Underfer?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Have you heard of Cortez?”
“No, the corporation.”
“Sorry,” I said. “But I’m well versed in Barney and Big Bird.” Bruno laughed faintly, took my hands, and said, “I want to make this as easy as possible for you.” He had just returned from his fortieth high school reunion in Webster Groves, Missouri, where he had reconnected with his childhood adversary, Louis Underfer, the billionaire founder/CEO of Cortez.
“Google him, and you’ll learn more than you need to know. Anyway, Louis is almost as rich as he is guilty. Which is good for us.” Bruno went on to explain that during the reunion barbecue, in front of several former classmates, he had attacked Louis about the dangerous and irresponsible actions of giant corporations like Cortez, accusing them all of “careless disregard for the children and the children’s children.” Louis walked away in a huff, but apparently, Bruno had gotten under his skin, because Bruno said proudly, “He called me when I got to New York and offered me a job. I hung up. When he called back, I said, ‘Why should I work for you?’ And this is what he said: ‘You’re right, Bruno. I’m a blessed man. I can do more, but I need your help. Make me better.’”
Bruno explained that Louis Underfer already had a foundation in place. He wanted Bruno to help him figure out where to give his money.
“So I named my price, and also named yours, insisting that I’d only be willing to work with him if I could hire the brightest, most tenacious, and most ethical person I’ve ever encountered.”
Like my mother, Bruno tended to exaggerate. But he was convincing, because he nearly made me a believer.
He went on, “We can go over the details later, but basically, we’ll be seeking out worthy organizations and award them grants.” He added with a wink, “We’ll be Santa, but without the suit.”
Bruno was the most flirtatious homosexual I’d ever known. At times he seemed to have a crush on me. The sweet kind, though, much like how a boy feels toward his best friend’s little sister. Innocent. Nothing sexual. Other times he exuded a kind of paternal pride, as if I were the daughter he’d always yearned for and never had.
“Think about it.”
I promised I would.
“Oh, I hope you’ll like this—we won’t be starting until the fall. And since we’re giving away Louis Underfer’s blood money, here’s what I imagined for your salary.” He wrote down an amount on the back of a paper napkin and slid it my way.
After my lunch with Bruno, I was too wound up to head straight home. So I walked to the Promenade, still clutching the napkin. My mind was racing. Maybe because I was both giddy and scared, I made up a little poem. I even sang it to myself as I stood in my favorite spot and looked across the East River to Manhattan.
Bruno Schwine is sick The sky is clear blue Anna Brody called me Look at this view
That was what I wished I had told Anna Brody: It’s the view. You can’t be bored here because of the view.
To this day Tim believes he did the convincing. As we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge that first time, he tried to dazzle me with the history of its construction, the story of the man who’d designed it, his son who’d built it, and the son’s wife who’d made sure it was finished. But in truth, it was the view. Not from the bridge—no, it was the view I saw once we’d made it to the other side. Sure, I’d seen it in photographs and often in films and on television. That day, standing on the Promenade, a slight breeze blowing, the whoosh of traffic racing below on the BQE, looking across New York Harbor at majestic Manhattan and where the Twin Towers had once been, I had the distinct feeling this place could be home.
Tim already knew the view. He’d paced the Promenade just days earlier in the moments before his interview with Dr. Millicent Vandeventer, the controversial headmistress and founder of Montague Academy. It was a quick interview, and he was hired, because Dr. Millicent Vandeventer was in desperate need of a teacher. Had she more time, Tim believed, she’d have kept looking; had a car not crashed into a restaurant window in Cambridge, Massachusetts, running over nearly twenty people and killing four, one of whom was Sadie Brier, the recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Harvard, who had been hired to teach history at Montague. Had this not happened, Tim never would have gotten the job, nor would he have formulated one of his most popular teaching games—Bad News/Good News. An example: It was bad news that William McKinley was assassinated. It was good news that Teddy Roosevelt became president. Or: It was bad news that they crucified Jesus, because it’s not nice to kill God’s only son. It was good news that they crucified Jesus, because He had the good fortune to be God’s only son, and if they hadn’t . . . and so forth, so on, etc. Tim’s idea is that one way to soften life’s cruel blows is to understand that your bad news is quite likely someone else’s good news. But the reverse is also true: Our good fortune came at the expense of young Sadie Brier, who never got to teach at Montague. And now, to add to the pile, I had just been offered a tasty job at a rather inflated salary, while my former boss, Bruno Schwine, was not only facing a summer of treatments for colon and prostate cancer, he also had a constellation of suspicious moles on his backside that may very well have been melanoma. Bad news, indeed.
That afternoon when I returned home, I found the boys standing at the top of our stairwell, begging me to hurry up the steps. “You got a box!” Teddy shouted. The boys hoped for toys, but Tim knew better, because the box was a crate, and on the side was stamped HEIGHTS LIQUOR.
Tim said, “It was just delivered.”
“Mommy, open it, open it!”
Tim used the claw from our hammer to pry open the crate. Inside were twelve bottles of expensive wines, reds and whites. Inside a second, gift-wrapped smaller box was a bottle of Cristal. “Yippee,” Tim said, pleased, because he drinks only champagne.
Disappointed, the boys returned to the living room/dining room/ toy room, where they had been watching a video. I wanted to tell Tim about Bruno’s proposal, but he insisted I open the small envelope taped to the box, so I did. The note was written on Frida Fabritz’s personal stationery.
For the biggest single home sale (by far) in the history of the Heights, I have you to thank. My client says that you, and you alone, made the difference.
OH, WE WERE DRUNK, AND IT WAS LATE, AND KATE HAD BEEN CRYPTIC AT BEST. AND I, barely a drinker, kept draining the champagne from my flute (really a glass) while begging for details. Since the work was with Bruno, it would be important but low-paying. “Au contraire,” Kate said. The money? Spectacular. How much? Kate was almost embarrassed by the figure. How was she to wrap her mind around the fact that by quitting work to have children, that by virtue of being out of the loop for a fistful of years, she would have increased her value threefold . . .
Ha, there it was.
Her value had increased threefold!
“Wow,” I said.
“I know,” Kate said, not believing it herself.
Even this drunk husband couldn’t help but notice the change in his wife. The six-figure job offer had given Kate a renewed sense of her own worth. It was all over her. Mostly, it was in her eyes.
The possibility of it all must have been too much for her, because Kate started turning off the lights and said, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
“What’s to talk about?” I said, following her. “Take the job with Bruno Schwine, work hard for a year, make buckets of money.”
“But the kids. What about the kids?”
“What about them?”
“I can’t leave them with a babysitter.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll take care of them.”
“What about your teaching?”
“I’ll take the year off. It’ll be like a sabbatical.”
“You’d be willing to do that?”
My mind began to race with this new possibility. I could finish my dissertation. And enough with teaching other people’s children. What about our children? Even Sam had begun to complain about the size of our home. And hadn’t Kate sometimes joked, “Something has to give.”
So now here it was—life was giving.
“You’d really take care of the boys?”
“It’s my turn to be the one at home.”
Kate, later, in the dark: “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said as we fucked. Yes.
And so it was decided.
SOME DAYS YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE IN A MOVIE. THE DAY I DECIDED TO BREAK THE news was one of those days.
All of April and much of May, I’d been in a teaching slump. Why? Was it the decision Kate and I had made? Or that it was still a secret? When I woke up that particular Friday morning, I knew it was time. Bad news was best delivered on Fridays. Give the students a weekend to recover. It was only fair.
What I didn’t expect was how different it would feel that day. As I climbed the stone steps to the academy, it was as if I’d been given a new set of eyes, as if my head had been wrapped in soft gauze. Each student, my fellow teachers, even Dr. Millicent Vandeventer appeared warm and fuzzy and backlit with an auburn glow. It was as if behind every move I made, every word I spoke, an orchestra played. A faint, lone oboe caressed the air as I typed my resignation letter on my Underwood No. 5 manual. Enter flutes and a French horn as I was ushered into Dr. Vandeventer’s oak-paneled office. A chorus of fifty German singers hummed as I requested a leave of absence for one year, during which I would “study and reflect” on my experience at Montague and “yes, absolutely, finish the dissertation.” I expected Dr. Vandeventer to be upset by this request, particularly with it coming so late in the year. To my dismay, she seemed elated. She nearly shot out of her wheelchair to a standing position; she nearly danced on her desk.
Before her stroke, Dr. Vandeventer had been a bright, vital force but was, truth be told, a rather nasty person. After the stroke, apart from the wheelchair and a tendency to slur words, only one aspect of her changed: She got nastier. She had long suspected—and I didn’t agree—that her history department suffered from a lack of diligence and rigor. Here was her chance to change all that, to find the next Sadie Brier, whose ghost probably kept appearing before Dr. Vandeventer, reminding her what could’ve been. Born Vera Milhinkowitz, Dr. Vandeventer had chosen her new name, it was believed, just days before she crossed the platform to receive her doctorate from SUNY Buffalo. An Ivy League wannabe, she loved nothing more than to crow about the high number of Montague graduates attending the Harvards, the Yales, the Princetons. The rumors, if true, told of the former Vera Milhinkowitz and her wild bohemian youth. Among her conquests: two ambassadors, a recent president of Dartmouth, a Nobel laureate economist, sundry awardwinning poets, and a female Supreme Court justice. Oh, the stories— men, women, men and women—here was someone, pre-stroke and post-stroke, who’d eagerly fuck a great mind. If you were sexy and stupid, she had no interest. Or if your dissertation topic didn’t appeal to her.
(During that first interview, as I described my work on the history of loss, her brow wrinkled up and her mouth pulled back in horror. “It seems rather unformed,” she said. “It’s early,” I said. “Young man,” she said, “it’s never early.” Then, as she stared at me with her cold, bloodless eyes, she said, “I have a feeling the students here are really going to like you.” I thanked her. “It’s not a compliment,” she said. “To me, it’ll just mean you’re doing something wrong.”)
That morning, as she wheeled me to the door, she positively glowed. She extended her hand, and I held it. How cool and smooth and soft was her skin. She looked up, smiled slightly, and cooed, “Timothy, your going away will be good for all of us.” I couldn’t believe what I did next. I bent down to kiss her. Unfortunately, she saw me coming and had already started to wheel herself back to her desk. Finding only air, I made a smacking sound with my lips so we’d both know I’d tried.
Fifth period, World History. Bea Myerly was in the middle of her oral presentation on the obscure Gnostic rites of the Byzantine Empire. It was to be only a five-minute talk, but Bea was in minute twelve with an inch-high stack of index cards left to get through.
“Excuse me, Bea?”
She kept talking at her usual debater-like clip.
Others in the class had to help shout her down. “Bea. Bea!”
“Can we finish this up Monday?”
“Thank you, Bea.”
Sulking, she gathered up her note cards, her audiovisual aids, the poster board with the Byzantine time line printed out in five colors of ink. She clomped to her desk and sat down, part pissed, part humiliated.
This did not faze me, as I knew who was in charge. I also knew that it was important to finesse the delivery of my disappointing news. My plan was to simply tell them the truth. Leave enough time for the impact to land. Then, when the bell rings, exit fast. Easy.
But after checking the clock, I saw that I’d left too much time.
“Hey,” I said, as if hit with a terrific idea. “Let’s talk. What’s on your mind?”
Nothing, it seemed. No one spoke up.
“We’ve got a few minutes left. What do you want to talk about?”
The only sound was Bea slumping down farther in her chair.
“Come on, now’s your chance. Ask me anything. Max? Joni?”
A short, fleshy arm rose slowly, the plump hand and stubby fingers stretched high.
The lone arm in the air started to wave back and forth like a metro- nome picking up speed, making it even harder for me to ignore that front-row sitter, that extra-credit doer, that proverbial burr in my ass.
“What’s the most important thing you ever learned?”
I have a weakness for the sincere question. And Bea Myerly seemed sincere.
“That’s a pretty broad question, Bea. Could you be more specific?”
She smiled. “Yes, in fact, I’m glad for the opportunity. What’s the most important thing you learned in high school?”
“That’s easy. There’s really only one useful thing I learned in high school. I use it all the time. And it may actually be the only thing I truly believe.”
I had their attention now.
“Wow, Mr. Welch. Will you please tell us?”
“Oh, no. If I told you, I’d lose my job.”
“That’s not fair!” Bea shrieked.
“And that was the second most important lesson—life is not fair.” Bea and the others were not pleased.
“Okay, look, after you graduate, I’ll tell you.”
Bea: “But we don’t graduate for another year!”
The others: “Tell us! You won’t lose your job! We won’t tell anyone!”
I checked the clock. Under a minute left. How to segue, oh boy. Then it came to me. Perfect, I thought. I’ll drop it in a subordinate clause.
I couldn’t have planned it better.
“How will I know you won’t tell anyone? Next year, while I’m away on a leave of absence, I won’t be able to keep tabs on—”
Before any of the others could register a reaction or ask who was taking my place, Bea let out a gasp. One loud gasp, like a cannonball in the gut.
I looked around at the others. They needed more time to process. That was when Bea let her head drop. It thudded on her textbook.
Well, it was embarrassing—she let out a cry so loud, so long, that none of the other students could express their own feelings.
The bell rang, and while the other students gathered their things and hurried off to their next classes, Bea Myerly didn’t move and cried well into the next period, which, of course, was my free period.
“Please, Bea,” I said. “Be happy for me.”
She looked up and, with tears streaming, said, “Mr. Welch, this will be your undoing.” Then she gathered up her things and fled the room.*
* What follows is the most important thing I ever learned in high school. I’d like to thank my high school Driver’s Ed teacher, Mr. Rex Lambo, who told me what I’m about to tell you while we both guarded the punch bowl at my senior prom. Imagine you find someone attractive. Are you picturing a person? Good. Now imagine you have the good fortune to give this person a hug. Are you hugging him or her? Nice, huh? Now, if, during the hug, this person pats you on your back or your shoulder, you can be sure of one thing: This person will never sleep with you.
I should add that if the person doesn’t pat you, it does not guarantee he or she will sleep with you. It merely means he or she might.
Also, if you’re a man and you’re confused by the above, I’ve simplified it for you—if she pats, you’ll be left holding your own bat. There you have it. The truest thing you’ll ever hear.