Authors: Elaine Wolf
Back in the counseling center, I took several “While You Were Out” slips from Sue. But I didn't look at them. Instead, I pulled Tina Roland's and Jen Scotto's program cards. This time I wouldn't have to worry about skirting Debra: the juniors M through Z were mine. I asked Sue to call for Tina and Jen.
Tina came first, in jeans like a second skin and a cropped black sweater that hugged her chest. Long bleached hair swagged across her right eye. Brown iridescent gloss colored her lips. “What's up, Mrs. M.?” Tina slunk into a chair and crossed her legs. “Why'd you call me out of Spanish? That's the one class I like. Zeitler's the only teacher who's not a total geek.”
“Sorry, Tina. I won't keep you long. Just wanted to see how you're doing. I know you're in Ms. Richardson's class, and I've heard some of the girls are a little uncomfortable with the rumor that's going around.”
“Okay, Mrs. M. What's up? Really.” Tina leaned forward and clicked her blue enameled nails on my desk. A tiny rhinestone
glittered on the polish of her right index finger. “Who told you what I said about that dyke?”
I jumped in my seat. “Watch what you're saying, Tina. And nobody told me anything.” My first lie in weeks. “I'm just checking with some of the girls in Ms. Richardson's classes. That's all.”
“Oh, come on, Mrs. M. You think I'm that dumb? You didn't call anyone else down. I would've heard if you did.” She unwrapped two pieces of gum and rolled them up. “So someone told you we joke around in the locker room. Big deal. What's the problem?” She put the wad in her mouth.
“The problem is that what you've been saying is hurtful. Ms. Richardson's a terrific teacher. And her life outside of school is nobody's business.”
“You're entitled to your opinion, Mrs. M.” Tina cracked her gum. “But I don't have to agree with it. In fact, my parents don't think she should even be allowed to teach. So what you're saying, I guess, is that my parents are wrong.”
I swallowed hard. “This has nothing to do with your parents. Ms. Richardson's an excellent teacher. That's all that matters here.”
Tina eyeballed me across my desk. “Could I go back to class now? There's only like about twenty minutes left this period.” She blew a huge purple bubble.
“Lose the gum before you get back,” I answered, ushering her out.
As she left the center, Tina high-fived Jen Scotto, seated at the round worktable.
“Whad'ya call me down for, Mrs. Maller?” Jen asked. “I handed in my program card, and I'm not failing anything. So I'm not in trouble, am I? ’Cause my father said he'd kill me if I get in trouble again this year.” She chewed the skin around her thumbnail.
“Relax, Jen.” I held open my door. “You're not in trouble. I just want to know what's happening in gym. I hear you've been talking about Ms. Richardson.”
Jen sighed as she eased herself into one of my chairs. “So? You heard about that poster a while ago, right?”
“Yes I did.”
“Well, after that some of us started to feel sort of creepy … you know … like it's really gross and all … I mean, like what if Ms. Richardson comes on to one of us?”
“Come on, Jen. You know that's not going to happen.”
“But you never can tell with those lesbos. At least that's what my mother says.”
“Oh? And what else does your mother say?” As soon as I got the words out, I was sorry.
“Well, here's the thing. My mother says perverts shouldn't be teachers. She says Richardson should be fired, and if she isn't, then parents should do something about it, because most parents think perverts shouldn't be allowed to teach. But what does this have to do with me? And why was Tina here?” Jen twirled a stringy strand of brown hair.
“Listen, Jen.” I took a slow breath. “I'm disturbed about what's going on in the locker room. I've heard what you girls are saying, and it's hurtful and mean.”
As I spoke, a fire lit in Jen. “Oh, I get it. It's that fuckin’ little bitch. I'll kill her! I swear I will!”
Jen's rage forced me to my feet. “What are you talking about?”
“It's Liz Grant. That fuckin’ skinny moron! She told you about Mr. Richard's Son, didn't she? If this gets me in trouble, I'll fuckin’ kill her!”
I leaned against my desk and willed myself to stay calm. “Watch your language, Jen. And Liz Grant has nothing to do with this. Liz hasn't told me anything about gym. She has nothing to do with this,” I repeated, motioning to the door.
I sat at my desk after Jen left and thought about what she had said. And as I did, I knew I should have listened to Joe. Because maybe he'd been right. Because now Liz might get hurt. And at that moment, I hated my don't-get-involved husband, Mr. I-Don't-Give-A-Damn-What-Schools-Should-Teach.
I shut my office door, shut my eyes, shut myself off from Meadow Brook. What had happened to Joe? To us?
Early scenes flashed in my mind—a time before Danny. Joe shirtless on a ladder. Hammer in hand, he salutes me and my college buddy, Rayanne, as we approach the house he's working on.
“Howdy, ladies!” Joe calls, lowering the hammer to his waist in a mock bow.
“He's gorgeous,” Rayanne gushes. “My God! What a body!”
The next day the temperature climbs to nearly a hundred in the little upstate town where Rayanne and I spend the week after NYU graduation in her grandmother's summer cottage. We head for the lake and spot Joe at the edge of the swimming dock. His back is to us. A smaller man sits beside him.
“Oh my God, Beth! I think that's him, the guy from the ladder.” Rayanne grabs my arm and pulls me toward the swimming area. “Come on,” she says. “I'm not gonna blow this chance.” She lets go of me to pull her red and white striped moo-moo over her head.
“What's the point? He probably has a girlfriend. And we're going home tomorrow.”
“But we've got tonight.” Rayanne grins. “And what muscles! We're allowed to have fun, you know, Beth. And I'm wearing my good, skinny suit. And just wait till those guys see you in that yellow two-piece. They'll fall in the lake.”
In my office in Meadow Brook, I replayed that afternoon Rayanne and I spent with Joe and his friend Andy. The Dairy Freeze, where Joe claims me. “What'll it be, Red?” he asks. I can't help but smile: Joe's noticed my hair. When he hands me my cone, fingers touch. My heart somersaults.
A new scene: the warning of friends—
He's a construction worker, Beth
Yes, he's gorgeous. But come on. A construction worker?
Dad and Rayanne rally round, swatting the doubts that buzz in my mind. “He's a good man. Hard working,” Dad reminds me. “He'll be a good provider.”
Rayanne's assessment: “Just think of those gorgeous kids you two'll turn out.”
A year later, the wedding. Small but perfect. Then dreams about children and a house with a yard. And a dog. Joe wants a dog. A house, then kids, then a dog. My mantra:
house, kids, dog; house, kids, dog; house, kids, dog.
Say it enough, I tell myself, and it just might come true.
I'm pregnant before we even phone the real estate agent. Dad jumps out of his seat when we call him Grandpa. He hugs me hard. “You'll be a great mom, honey.”
But I lose the chance to find out then. Dr. Feinman says the miscarriage in my third month isn't my fault. “Listen,” he explains, “that baby just wasn't meant to be.” He talks while he examines me. “This might hurt for a second. Just need to make sure everything's fine.”
Dr. Feinman sees Joe and me in his office, but speaks only to Joe: “Try again after she has one regular period. No reason Beth can't have a normal pregnancy.”
Two years later and another miscarriage behind us, I'm pregnant with Danny. Joe and I talk about nurseries and baby names. Joe wants a boy to shout with at football games. I dream of a girl. But when I start spotting at school, that dream fades.
Just a healthy baby, please God. Just a healthy baby.
Nothing else matters. Not how my students will do in the school assembly. Not what Dad will think of our fixer-upper in Bay View. Not even how Joe feels about it. The only thing that counts is the child inside me, the one I can't bear to lose.
Months before Danny's birth, I became Danny's mom. Now in my Meadow Brook office—door closed, eyes shut—I thought about Danny, about Joe. How had it all come to this?
e got a note, Beth.” Bob spoke before I seated myself at the conference table in the principal's office. “It's from Tina Roland's mother.” Bob swigged orange juice from a pint container. He put it down as Peter came in, carrying a white paper plate with a buttered bagel. I wished I had brought my coffee.
“As you can see,” Bob went on, “I asked Peter to join us. And Steve too. But he's over at the middle school.” Bob finished his juice in a loud gulp, then stood to shoot the container into the trash. “Pete and I need to talk to you about this Ann Richardson thing.”
“What about it?”
Peter waved Mrs. Roland's letter in the air like a flag, then placed it in front of me. “Read.”
I picked up the single sheet, ripped from a spiral notebook, and read the words in loopy bright pink script:
Dear Mr. Andrews
Tina told me that Mrs. Maller took her out of Spanish to talk about Miss Richardson. She told Tina she has to respect that gym teacher, but that's none of Mrs. Maller's business. She gets paid to make sure Tina passes and to figure out what to do after high school, and that's all. So please don't let Mrs. Maller take Tina out of class again for no good reason. She should not talk about Miss Richardson with my daughter. My husband and I think perverts shouldn't even be allowed to teach.
Mrs. John Roland
Peter crushed his paper plate and put it in the center of the table. His thick lips glistened with butter. “Anything you want to tell us, Mrs. Maller?”
Before I answered, Bob walked to his desk and dialed the counseling center. “Sue, when Steve gets back, please remind him I need to see him right away.” Bob addressed me as he sat back down. “Beth, I already told you we're handling everything that comes up about Ann. You shouldn't be discussing it.”
“What do you mean?” I looked directly at Bob to avoid Peter's stare. “Tina's one of my students. I haven't done anything wrong here.”
Bob stroked his mustache. “You know we don't want the whole community talking about this. There haven't been any more signs, and things have been quiet. So we just—”
“But don't you want to know why I called Tina down?”
Peter jabbed the air with his index finger. “It doesn't matter why you called her down. Bob told you to stay out of the Richardson affair. It's not your problem, and it's none of your business. What part of that don't you understand?”
Something cold and heavy settled in my chest. I fixed on Peter in eyeball-to-eyeball combat. “I don't understand any of it. When I hear that one of my students is making fun of a teacher and spreading rumors in the locker room, it's my job as her counselor to make it my problem and my business. And—”
“That's enough, Mrs. Maller,” Peter said. “We've got better things to do than to listen to your locker room nonsense.” He released me from his eyes and got up to leave.
“Hold on, Pete,” Bob said. “Maybe we ought to hear about those rumors. What is it you were about to say, Beth?”
Peter sat down and picked up a chewed pencil. I swallowed hard, then started in. “I understand that Tina Roland and Jen Scotto have been joking about Ann and calling her names. And we can't just ignore that, because they won't stop unless we do something. So I did call Tina and Jen down. I told them that what they're saying is hurtful and mean. They need to know we won't tolerate that behavior.” I paused for a moment and looked from Bob to Peter, who doodled on a notepad. I noticed the imprint in bright red letters on top of the paper:
What part of NO don't you understand
? “As I said, I didn't think we tolerated hurtful behavior in Meadow Brook.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” Bob said. “Of course we don't. But Peter and I have handled everything that's come up since that sign was posted on Ann's door. That's what the superintendent wants, and that's what we've done. So you don't have to worry about it anymore.”
Peter struck the table with his pencil. “Just a minute. I have a question for you, Mrs. Maller. How do you know what the girls talk about in the locker room?” Without giving me a chance to speak, Peter continued. “Oh, I know. Second period. Ann's large section. Isn't Liz Grant in that class?” He kept right on, not expecting an answer. “So now I get it. The girls talk in the locker room, and little Lizzie Grant runs straight to you with the gossip.” Peter pushed back from the table and turned to Bob. “Don't you see what's going on here? Mrs. Maller doesn't just do her job; she wants to do everyone else's too. You know she's not Liz Grant's counselor,” Peter said, as if I were no longer in the room. “She just acts like she is. So I've got an idea. How ’bout we let Mrs. Maller run the whole goddamn school.” Peter walked to the door, then turned around and hurled his last line: “Obviously she thinks she can do a better job than we do.”
I wasn't surprised that Bob had let Peter go on like that, chewing me up like the pencil he'd fiddled with throughout the meeting. Peter's persistent and growing harassment was the norm in Meadow Brook for those of us who didn't party with him and Bob. In the fall, I had even spoken with the high school union rep—one of the party-goers, unfortunately—about Peter's attitude toward me. “Oh, he's not really that bad,” my colleague had said, “and there's no cause to file a grievance. Pete's basically a good guy. The stress around here gets to everyone. Just don't let him bother you.”
Now I looked at Bob and hoped for an apology for Peter's behavior. But, of course, it didn't come. Bob simply waited for Peter to leave, and then said, “Beth, I'm going to remind your chairperson that you are not to get involved in anything to do with rumors in the locker room and with the sign that was posted about Ann. And remember, you're not Liz Grant's counselor. Peter's right. When Liz shows up in the counseling center, send her to Debra.”