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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Lynn Steger Strong

Henry Holt and Co.



MY ALARM GOES off at 4:30 every weekday morning, and I keep my phone lodged between the slatted stairs that lead up to the lofted bed my husband built us in the closet we use as a bedroom, so that I’m not able to press Snooze. I climb down in the dark and find the phone, which has often fallen. I turn off the alarm and put on my bra and tights and shirt and shoes and gloves and headband, grab my keys and phone, and lock the door behind me; I run miles and miles before anyone wakes up.

By 6:15, I’ve showered and dressed and started to make breakfast. Sometimes my husband slips into the shower while the children are still asleep and we have sex. It’s cold in the bathroom. He bends me over the railing of the back ledge. He pushes me up against the grimy tiles, holds my leg up. My body is outside the halo of hot water and my skin mottles and I shiver and am cold as I wait for him to come.

* * *

I take two trains to get to work and neither of them runs well. I wait sometimes three minutes for the first, sometimes fifteen. Sometimes, the train’s right there, doors already open, as I pass through the turnstile, and I run, my bags flapping against my hip and back, up the stairs and through the crowd of people, slipping through the closing doors. I often get no seat and stand, trying not to grab hold of close-by arms or shoulders as the train turns hard, stops short. I try to read a book but fall asleep if I’m sitting and almost fall over if I stand. I hold it open, not turning any pages, both my bags clutched between by my calves and ankles, planting my feet firmly on the ground.

* * *

Good morning, team! says the Google chat they made me install on my phone when I started at this job six months ago. Looking forward to a joyfully driven professional day!

On Twitter, the world is ending. A nuclear war is threatening, ice caps are melting, kids at school are shooting other kids at school. At work, I wear collared shirts and cardigans and black wool dress pants and clip a set of keys around my neck and no one makes much mention of the world outside.

* * *

Once a week, more sometimes, when I get a seat on the train and am tired enough not to acknowledge what I’m doing, I check Sasha’s mostly dormant Facebook—she has college photos and a handful from right after. A girl with whom she roomed her sophomore year, whom I knew vaguely, reposts the same handful of old photos every couple years; We were so young! this girl says, every time that it comes up, look at us. Twenty-year-old Sasha stares at me, over and over, too much how I remember: defiant, careless posture, perfect face, her too-big eyes.

I check her hardly active Twitter. Three years ago, she retweeted a New Yorker article on Miami Beach and climate change.

I check her sister’s and her mother’s Facebooks—sometimes she’s in their pictures—to be sure that she’s still there.

* * *

At work, two blocks north of the subway, in a big brick building, through two large, heavy doors, I walk past the scanners where the kids stand in line to have their bodies and their books checked. I tip my coffee to the security guards and the kids I know.

A handful of them call out my last name.

I take attendance on the live attendance tracker and talk to my two co–homeroom teachers, who are my only friends at work. They are black women, and I’m white; for a long time they didn’t trust me, until one day they decided they could trust me, and still sometimes it seems like they might not. We are all older than our other colleagues; one of my two co–homeroom teachers is the only other person in this building with a kid. They didn’t trust me because they shouldn’t trust me, because there’s so much I don’t know or understand about them, because sometimes I lie to them about my upbringing to make my life seem more like theirs.

I think they trust me mostly because we love the kids we teach.

We check the various apps and Google calendars where the deliverables for the day are laid out and we post the morning PowerPoint about the new lateness policy, about the new rules concerning the dress code: only black socks are permitted, shirts must be tucked in at all times and belts worn, shoes must be black and sneakers aren’t allowed.

* * *

I teach two classes in the morning, both Junior Literature and Language, and my job’s completely fine as long as I am with my students. We read Hamlet and they raise their hands. I’ve been given a curriculum, rote and predictable, test-prep focused, but I ignore it. We read and we have conversations. They do group work, stand up together and give presentations on chart paper. My students are all black and brown kids, underserved, reduced- or free-lunch charter-school kids. They are still daily—by the shoddy, half-assed education that they’re getting every day at this place, from grown-ups who mostly look like me—being underserved.

* * *

I catch a kid on his phone in my first class of the day and he smiles at me and looks five so I don’t reprimand him. Put it away, I say, trying to look angry. There is a system that we’re meant to use for discipline. Infractions: majors, minors. I have not installed this system on my phone. I have not, in the five months so far that I’ve been teaching at this institution—we spent one month before that training—given out one of these infractions.

* * *

My coteacher is twenty-four and does not know how to be a teacher. He also does not know how to interact with other humans or how to define the word “soliloquy.” He stands in the back of the room and tries to give kids infractions and I tell him not to or take them away later, logging on to the system on my computer and disappearing the detentions he’s doled out. He crosses his arms over his chest and tells kids to sit up or push their chairs in. Mr. D, they call him, instead of his full name, and he shakes his head. That’s not my name, he says. And the kids laugh and, halfhearted, say they’re sorry; a few minutes later, they call him Mr. D again.

Mr. D, they say, I have to pee this minute.

He clenches his fists.

But really, they say, it’s an emergency, Mr. D.

Not now, he says.

I pop my head up from the student paper that I’m reading, trying to tell whoever said this without talking that they should stop it, but also, if they don’t stop it, I will understand.

Go, I say, to the kid who still has to use the bathroom.

Mr. D stands quiet, his jaw tighter, eyes set on me, and no one speaks to him for the rest of class.

* * *

At lunch, my two co–homeroom teachers sit with me and we talk shit about our coworkers instead of reminding the kids to clean up after themselves and not swear, like we’ve been asked to do. We talk about the twenty-four-year-olds, my coteacher and the others: twenty-three, or twenty-six, but all the same. The young ones, almost all white, anxious, energetic; their sentences sound like questions at the end. They seem scared of their own students; they don’t know how to teach and no one’s tried to help them. They’re held to standards they can’t meet—based on test scores and class averages—and they panic and dole out the material in the exact rote way that we’re meant not to. If and when their methods do not work, they blame the kids.

They’re not awful, these young white teachers. I talk about them because I’m manipulative and unfair, because I’ve learned the best way to bond with colleagues is to be galvanized against other colleagues, against bosses, and I’m desperate to ally myself with my two co–homeroom teachers instead. These twenty-four-year-olds: I’ve sat with some of them, in one of the classrooms we use as an office when no one’s using it for teaching; they’re so young, and if they were my students, they’d be some of my favorites. We’ve had coffee, sat together during training. They’re sweet and talk earnestly about social justice, but they’re my colleagues, not my students, and they can’t see and don’t seem to want to see all the ways their good intentions aren’t worth much.

Some days, I move to the tables with the kids from my class, kids I caught sleeping or who didn’t turn in their homework. You want to eat lunch with me, I say. And they shake their heads but smile. They tell jokes mostly, making fun of one another. Miz, they say, and then they say my last name, you know Jalen has a crush on Aminata; you know Razaq didn’t even read that shit you thought he talked about so well last class; you know Ananda posted a Snap about Nashya’s man and now they ain’t talking and Nashya’s going to go find her after school.

Man, huh? I say, and they laugh at me.

You got a man, Miz, they say, and I nod, smiling at them, and they laugh again.

* * *

After lunch there is a break and I download and print out all my pay stubs because I need them to finish filing for bankruptcy.

How’s it going? asks one of the math teachers as I use the printer in the teacher workroom. The math teacher is also twenty-four and wears a tie, a dark-blue jacket, and a crisp white shirt with the collar buttoned every day. He has bright-white teeth and perfect posture, too much facial hair. I check to make sure I have all of my pay stubs as he looks over my shoulder, and I turn my body so I know he knows I don’t want him to look.

Joyfully driven, I say.

We share the building with five other schools and the track team has nowhere to practice so they practice in the hallways during the last four periods of the day. I leave the teacher workroom and wait, pressed against the hall wall, as kids fly by over hurdles. A girl’s toe catches on the bottom of a hurdle and it bangs against the hard, dark floor and she falls, hands flat on the cold tile, and she doesn’t scream. I check in my bag for my pay stubs over and over. I check Twitter, check and recheck email, half read student work, and input grades. I’m not as good a teacher as I wish I were. I’m inconsistent, get distracted. I give fifty-seven comments on every three-page paper, and the next day I skim through to make sure everybody turned in their work, fix a few grammar or comprehension errors, and give almost everyone a B. No one reads my comments, and the work feels most productive when I’m one-on-one with students, checking in before and after class and making time for conferences. Most of the writing is difficult to track and the reading of it, hour after hour, wears on my brain.

* * *

Our older daughter’s school calls three hours before the workday’s over. They never remember that they’re supposed to call my husband, who is home during the week and takes care of them while I’m at work. Our daughter got a bead stuck in her nose. I must come pick her up and take her to a doctor who can get it out. I almost tell the nurse to call my husband, then instead I say I’ll be right there and message my boss that I have to leave. My co–homeroom teacher and I are the only people on the staff with kids and usually, when I say “kids” to any of my other coworkers, people’s eyes glaze over and they get antsy and uncomfortable and I get out of things.

* * *

I’m not yet on the subway platform when our daughter’s school calls back to say they got the bead out. The other nurse, who had been on her lunch break, held her hand over our daughter’s face, her thumb pressed hard against her unobstructed nostril, and blew into our daughter’s mouth until the bead popped out.

So we don’t need you, says the woman. She’s back in class, she says, all good.

But I’m already out, and my coat’s on and I keep walking. I skip the subway. When I was very young and single, without children, I used to walk the city for days. I head north then west and walk into the Guggenheim. There is a retrospective of stark lines and colors. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in a museum on a weekday, and I walk very slowly up the corkscrewing path and am alone and quiet. I look a long time at each painting. It feels like what I imagine people feel like when they imagine whatever god they might believe in standing close to them.

* * *

I walk from the museum to the train and take it downtown, where I get off and go to a coffee shop I used to go to before I worked full time. I was in grad school for six years—English literature, mid- to late twentieth century, British and American, forgotten or actively discarded female writers: Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys, Nella Larsen, Lucia Berlin. There was a time when I thought giving books to other people—showing them their richness, their quiet, secret, temporary safety—could be a useful way to spend one’s life. I spent another five years as a part-time adjunct, waitress, admin assistant. Once, for six months, I wrote quizzes to accompany the bad books put out by an education corporation, but I was fired because I couldn’t keep my sentences short enough.

This—the school, at thirty-four—is the first full-time job of my whole life.

I used to come here almost every day while I wrote my dissertation and to grade papers after. Even a year ago, I came once or twice a week. I know the name of the girl behind the counter because it’s the same as my name, different spelling, and we used to joke about this when she asked my name so she could call it when my coffee was ready. But this time when she asks my name and I tell her and I start to smile, thinking she remembers, she just nods and inputs it into the computer and counts out my change.

I tip her, too much, still smiling, hoping she’ll remember. I find a window seat. I have the same book I never read on the train and I open it and read it: Patrick Modiano, Paris Nocturne. It’s strange and magic; there’s a car crash and then almost nothing happens. I sip my coffee and break off tiny pieces of the cookie that I’ve ordered. My husband texts me, How’s your day?

Okay, I say.

An hour after work ends I pack up my bag. There’s a new group of people on either side of me since I started reading. My coffee’s empty. The cookie’s gone.

* * *

Honey, I hear, as I get in the elevator.

I turn to see our neighbor. Josslyn, I say. She’s my favorite person in the building. She stands close to me and holds my elbow as she asks me questions. She’s in her sixties, could pass for forty. She wears large wool cardigans in bright colors and keeps her tight-curled hair cut close. She has large eyes and I look forward, always, to the next time her rough, warm hands grab hold of me.

How are you? she says.

Shitty, I say.

It is our game, has been for the six years we’ve lived here, to never answer one another’s how are yous with fine, good, okay, you know.

She laughs at me. Me too, she says, as we get off the elevator.

Kiss the girls, she says, as she lets herself into her apartment.

I will, I say, letting myself into mine.

* * *

How was your day? my husband asks as I walk through the door and take off my shoes and he makes dinner. The whole place smells of onions, garlic, a poblano pepper. I hug the children, hold them, kiss them, give them extra from Josslyn. The two-year-old crawls onto my lap to nurse.

Fine, I say.

We give them a bath and eat and put them to bed and watch TV—seldom anything so engaging that we can’t also both do two or three things on our phones or our computers. We climb up to bed.

I read Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight. I would feel as if I were drugged, sitting there, watching those damned dolls, says the main character, of the porcelain dolls at a shop where she once worked, thinking what a success they would have made of their lives if they had been women.

My husband falls asleep.

* * *

At 4:45 I run along the water and it’s freezing and it starts to rain but I keep running. Rats sit out in the open, on top of benches, on the concrete. One runs overtop my foot and I scream and jump and no one sees.

* * *

On the subway, I see a new picture of Sasha’s sister: she got a dog with her newly live-in boyfriend and there is some pithy caption about this being baby number one.

* * *

I teach my morning class and at the after-lunch staff meeting our principal, who is thirty-one, posts a large yellow box on the smartboard with the number twenty-five inside. Twenty-five of us missed the weekend deliverable of inserting our lesson plans into the task grid established by the CEO the week before. The email we got from our principal as a result of this missed deliverable was long and scolding, bullet pointed. It was written in the tone one might reserve for a small child. All but one of us, our principal tells us, have since turned in the task grid. He posts a second square, this one red, with the number nineteen. And this, he says, his small eyes sharpening, is the number of you who did not reply to my email alerting you to this missed weekend deliverable with contrition and gratitude.

* * *

After the meeting, I go into the classroom where I keep my coat and bag and get them. I’ve already taught my classes. I’m meant to be somewhere, planning, but we have no set office. I go down the escalator and no one sees me leaving. I think if they see me I’ll say I’m going for a late lunch, have to get the children. Now that I’m out here, I have no idea why I’ve stayed in the building all this time.

The subway’s much less crowded in the middle of the day. I have a seat plus room to set both my bags beside me. I read Gayl Jones, Corregidora: generations carrying and passing violences to one another, how hard it is to learn what we don’t know to learn, the specific ways that we might try to cast ourselves anew.

On the bench across from me a woman has laid down a large plastic bag and is asleep.

I get a coffee and a cookie at the coffee shop and read my book for all the other hours that I’m meant to be at work and then I go home on the train.

How was your day? says my husband when I get home as he makes dinner. I hug and kiss our children, nurse the baby. I bathe them and we eat together. Family read? asks the two-year-old when I go to read them books, put them to sleep. I call my husband and we all lie on the baby’s bed together. I read and she sits on me. The four-year-old sits on her dad’s lap and it’s warmer in here than any other place in our apartment, and halfway through the second book I fall asleep. An hour later, I’m still in there, and my husband comes to get me. He helps me free my arm from the two-year-old’s small hands and stands behind me as I climb the ladder up to bed and follows up right after; he wraps his arm around my waist.

* * *

At 4:50 the next morning I pass a man, fully dressed in a too-thin coat, while I run underneath the highway. He smells, up close, like liquor, and as I run by, he screams a high-pitched scream and I sprint until I’ve covered another mile and know for sure he’s far away.

* * *

Sasha’s liked her little sister’s Facebook picture of her dog.

* * *

I teach a night class uptown on Thursdays—I keep the night class even though I mostly know by now I’ll never get a real job from the institution where I teach this night class; I mostly know that real jobs at institutions like this don’t exist anymore. I keep the job because I spent all those years in school and mostly I’ve forgotten what I thought they might be worth. Because it feels good sometimes, pretending, that I got what I set out to get.

I often stay late at work these days to meet with students, help with papers, but my coteacher comes to say he wants to meet with me to talk about relational concerns, and I say I can’t because my kids’ school just called and then I leave and go to a dark bar uptown and sip a raspberry-flavored gin drink and read my book before I have to teach.

In my night class, we read Imre Kertész, Kaddish for an Unborn Child. A student who sits off to the side of the table we all sit at, though there’s still room, and who has strangely dyed red hair, raises her hand and says, The main character is mansplaining Auschwitz to his wife, and I say, But she wasn’t there and is actively refusing to try to understand, and she says, Typical, and we move on.

* * *

On Thursdays the children go to sleep without me and it’s late and the subway’s mostly empty for the hour that I ride it. We filed, my husband says about the bankruptcy, and I’m still drunk, or maybe I’m hungover, from the drink before I taught and I do not want to talk so I kiss him and reach my hand underneath his shirt and we have sex on our loft bed. I hit my head and he says, Sorry, and then he comes and falls asleep and I stay up and read.

* * *

When we met I was in graduate school and he was still, for that first year, a person who wore suits. I had a small apartment uptown and he’d sneak out of work and I’d get out of class and we would fuck standing up against the hall wall by the entrance, me sometimes up on the kitchen counter, hands grasping the cheap vinyl. I would come and he would too and we’d both pull our pants back up and he’d go back to work and I’d go to the comp class I taught in the afternoon still smelling of him.

He’d last a full year at that job before he left to do custom carpentry for the sorts of people that he used to work with, hoping it’d be more one day, a store of handmade furniture from reclaimed wood. I was so proud then. We were eighties babies, born of plenty, cloistered by our whiteness and the places we were raised in—his parents didn’t have much money, neither had a college education, but we were both brought up to think that if we checked off certain boxes we’d be fine.

9/11 happened my second week of college; the financial crisis came the year after we met. It would be years before we understood the implications of these chasms; we weren’t formed enough to see them, were too safe to feel their first round of hits. We made so many choices based on what we thought the world was, what it wasn’t any longer, what we’d been told it was but what we finally understand that it had never been.

He worked for Lehman Brothers when the markets crashed and they went under—the sky was falling everywhere, except, of course, that he could just have found another job like that. He had this idea, we both did, that he did not want to be implicated any longer in the abstract mess of numbers on a screen and people’s lives all made or broken. We had principles or something, made up almost wholly out of things we knew we didn’t want to be or have a part in more than any concrete plans for what we’d be instead. I vaguely thought books were the answer, because they’d saved me and that seemed like something: to give them to other people, to expose them to them. He thought working with his hands. We were galvanized in this way, smug and stupid. It felt athletic and exciting, this misguided, blind self-righteousness.

Now, I think mostly he still likes what he does, except, of course, when work is slow or bills are due.

* * *

It’s 5:20 and I’m running late. I’ve stayed up late rereading Marguerite Duras, The Lover: Very early in my life it was too late. A man in his sixties gives himself a quiet, thoughtful pep talk as he climbs the steepest hill on the south side of the park at a jog as I sprint by.

* * *

You’re not doing enough “I” speak, says my supervisor as we sit with the twenty-four-year-old to talk about his relational concerns. He says I am condescending to him. Which is not wrong. I tried to talk to him about the fact that the kids hate him without telling him that the kids hate him, and now I hate him too.

I try to explain this. I try to say as carefully, as diplomatically, as I can that I have absolutely said the wrong things in trying to talk to him, that I should have never put him on the spot and asked him his age in front of other colleagues, but that the kids are turning on him, he treats them like they’re preschoolers, and that’s not good for anyone.

You need to focus on how you’re responsible, what you’ve done in each of these situations, says my supervisor. She is twenty-seven. I hear you talking too much about what he has done.

She calls us both by our names often, because it was in a book she read about how to interact with people and mediate conflict between colleagues. I know this because she has it with her and it’s covered in yellow and pink Post-its.

* * *

I teach another class and then I get my bag and coat and walk downtown until I hit a CVS, where I buy a large box of the sour neon gummy worms that I stopped eating when I was pregnant the first time and afraid of anything that might be processed or chemically enhanced getting through to the baby, and then I kept not eating them because I was nursing, and then pregnant again, and then never outside the house without our children when I was not at work. I’m still nursing, but I buy them and open the bag on the sidewalk as I walk to a movie theater I remember from when I used to be a waitress seven blocks away. There are so many streets like this, where I have been so many different people. If anyone were to ask me why I can’t leave even as this city is too hard for not-rich people, I would say it’s because I’m too afraid of what would happen to all these different people somewhere else. This is the place where I was formed, long after forming should have happened; it’s the place where no one was looking and I felt allowed.

It’s what I imagine home would feel like if the home that I was born into had felt safe.

We have one credit card that somehow inexplicably still works, though all the others have been canceled, and I buy a ticket to a movie on it and I sit and watch a story about other people’s lives in the dark in the middle of the day.

* * *

On my train ride home, I get an email from a former student at the university where I teach my night class. She’s twenty-something, young and anxious. I remember she wore crop tops in winter and wide-legged pants; she had long blond hair. In class, she used to work her hair into tiny braids, then chew on them, letting them fall out of her mouth wet when she raised her hand to speak. She spooned one large tub of yogurt into her mouth with a white plastic spoon in the first hour of every class, and the bright white skin of her bare arms and shoulders would splotch red when she talked.

hey! says her email, no capital letters and hardly any punctuation. wondering if i could pop by your office hours sometime next week. The way she piles phrase on top of phrase without saying why she wants to meet makes me worry for her.

I’m up there Thursdays, I type, though I’m an adjunct and do not have an office. Let’s find a time, I say.

* * *

It’s Sasha’s birthday, I say to my husband on the weekend. We have one day a week together, since he works on Sundays, and we pack snacks and a change of underwear for both the children and we go into the city, to the Whitney, also on the magic credit card. The kids make paintings that look like the paintings that are hanging and then we walk around until the two-year-old starts crying on the floor because we won’t let her touch the painted birds even though they are her favorite color, purple, and we go home.

You should call her, says my husband.

He used to make a face every time I said her name. But now he starts to cook dinner, gets a beer out of the refrigerator, tells the children they have to clean up their Legos before they can use the iPad, makes me a second drink.

Why not? he says now.

I guess, I say.

Did she call you on your birthday? he says.

Mommy, says our four-year-old, who’s Sasha?

I text her and she says thanks right away and sends me an emoji.

I hate emojis. As if, all of a sudden, we have agreed that words don’t work.

Sorry I missed yours, she says.

* * *

I wait a week. On the day that I watch the kids alone and my husband works, I let them watch TV in the back room, even though we try mostly not to let them watch TV, and they eat granola bars and chips for lunch. I only vaguely, in the background, imagine my husband asking what protein they’ve had so far today. I read my book most of the morning: The Time of the Doves, Mercè Rodoreda—the Spanish Civil War and a young and battered housewife; her husband forces her to care for the doves he keeps; he beats her, refuses to call her by her name; he leaves to fight in the war and she and the children nearly starve until the kind grocer asks her to marry him, feeds them, saves the day.

We spend the afternoon together on the front stoop with Josslyn. They chalk the sidewalk and she brings out coffee, touching me three times, the elbow twice and then the shoulder, and she yells at the twenty-something boy who lets his dog pee in the planter that she’s set out front.

How were they? my husband asks when he gets home and I’ve managed to give them food and get them bathed and read to them until they fell asleep.

Great, I say.

He kisses me and we order Thai food on the magic credit card—I sit on the phone as the man on the other end goes to run it. I wait for him to tell me that it doesn’t work, but he comes back twenty seconds later; Twenty minutes, he says, although it always takes over an hour.

Congrats on the wedding, I text Sasha, after we’ve gone to bed and I’m reading again but also scrolling through Twitter. Sad we missed it, I say. Which is as aggressive as I can be, which is still couched in the passive, which is usually more artful, but it’s a text message, and also, I’m not sure I care if my aggression is not pacified.

I spend an hour as my husband sleeps, rescrolling through the Facebook pictures of her California destination wedding. I reclick through the profiles of the four women who stood next to her as she smiled in her lace strapless dress and held the hand of a tall, dashing man. One of these women is her sister, who landed just shy of Sasha and her mother’s perfect features. She holds her shoulders back, though, and grins straight at the camera, willing it, it seems, to find her just right as she is.

I WAS THIRTEEN and she was fourteen and we were high school freshmen. A boy I thought I loved loved her, and I stayed on the phone with him sometimes late at night discussing her. I think I thought that if I listened hard or well or long enough that he’d love me instead. Instead, they broke up, and he stopped calling. And then there she was. I knew everything about her that any breathing person would love, the way she felt and talked as if she were a grown-up; the way she was smart but also pretty but also didn’t care enough about being cool to use the power that she should have had to have more friends. Whether I wanted to love or have or just to be her never felt as easily discernible as this or that, one or the other—more like all of it, and then more, at once.

We had a class together and our teacher was sick for half the year and the sub sat at the desk reading a book and we sat in the back of the room and talked. “Talked” does not begin to hold inside it what we did together. We sat in the school-issue chairs attached to desks, my knees up to my chest. She wore her hair down, curly, with product in it that made her smell grown-up. I don’t remember the words we said but that sometimes they felt so alive they had to be whispered; we had to lean close to each other, bottoms of our desk-chairs screeching. Sometimes one of us got so loud that other kids, or whatever sub we had that week, would turn from their desks and look.

* * *

You know, says Sasha, looking at me. I’m fourteen and she’s fifteen. She goes to touch me, then thinks better of it. We’re always close but don’t often embrace. Her family is a touching, hugging unit; when people reach for me, I never know what to do with all my limbs. You might—she’s scrutinizing. I know I’m turning red. She reaches down and touches my ponytail. You might be prettier—she wouldn’t say just “pretty.” It’s important she gives me that, no matter what. It’s a word she’s always had a right to, a world she will always, easily, possess. I mean, you’re pretty, naturally. She smiles. I can’t stand this kind of looking. But if we let your hair down—she takes out the rubber band. My hair is nearly black and thick, and though I always wear it up, when loose, it reaches to the middle of my back. I feel my spine rounding, my shoulders closing in. Do a little something, not too much, but something to accentuate your eyes.

* * *

She teaches me things mothers are supposed to teach: how to use a tampon, apply mascara, find a bra that fits. How to talk out loud about ideas I’ve only let form in my head.

* * *

Sometimes, after school, we go to her house and hang out with her mom. Her family has less money than my family. The concept of money is sufficiently safe for me at this age, available without acting as a hindrance, that both its presence and its lack feel equally abstract. My mother’s ostentatious car, vacations twice a year, our massive house; the too-big boxes of cereal and jars of peanut butter stored in Sasha’s pantry from the Costco half an hour away, their biggish house passed down and things breaking all the time and nothing getting fixed. My mom works sixty-hour weeks and when we sit down for dinner at nine or ten—because that’s when she’s gotten home, but also, she wants to make my sister and me dinner—she and my father ask us the grades we got on tests, my times on the track. There is always too much food, so much food, made with cheese and milk and butter and my sister and I learn slowly—because we’ve been taught since we were very small that fat is lazy and disgusting—that we have to either only pretend that we are eating or eat only this meal every day. We sit across from each other, our mother and our father at either end of the table. They spend the time leading up to dinner talking about work. My mom cooks and my dad makes the drinks, one and a half shots of gin with tonic for my mother, a whiskey and Diet Coke for my dad. They have these before dinner and then wine and beer with dinner, one and then another. My sister and I linger in our rooms or on the outskirts of the kitchen. We do homework, watch TV. Both our parents change out of their suits. When we sit down, the TV’s on, but we talk over it for the first twenty minutes. How was practice? asks my father. My sister doesn’t run and hates this part. Fine, I say, most of the time. We did speed today, I say. It’s understood I won if we did a speed workout. Sometimes I tell the stories that I know most please them: that I lapped some of the slower girls during intervals, that Coach sent me to run with the boys again. I hate running with the boys and do not talk the whole time and they seem to hate me even more when we have finished. They all need to stay at least a step ahead of me and we run faster than we’re supposed to. None of us is willing to let the other beat them, and it’s hot and humid and we come back sweating, panting; none of them look at me the whole time. We come back angry, our legs and arms and shoulders tight; we suck down water, and the girls are already back and waiting, hardly sweating, and they all talk together and I pour water over my head and walk back to my car or ride alone. How was math? my dad asks, because I’m in an advanced math class, was skipped ahead at their request, and this is something that he likes to ask about. Fine, I say again. I’m not as good at it as they think and I lose focus. I feel too young; everyone else feels so much older, and I sit in back and read a book in my lap as the teacher talks. My sister is a champion debater and I’m grateful when the focus turns to her and what she’s done or won or how she is preparing for her next competition. Her grades are not as good as my grades. She’s in fewer advanced classes, tests less well than I do, and my father often looks less interested when it’s her turn to speak. She eats lunch, I know, alone in the debate room. She’s two years younger than me and I drive her to school once I turn sixteen and get a car, but we seldom talk.

Sasha’s mom bakes and asks us about boys. She is a guidance counselor at the elementary school and very smart. When Sasha’s sister’s home she sits with us also and often interrupts. They all touch each other. Her sister fixes Sasha’s hair or asks midsentence if she can borrow the earrings that she’s wearing, where she got that sweater, if she thinks the shirt that she’s wearing suits her frame. She gestures often and I flinch when I sit close to her. Their mom looks hard at whichever of us is speaking and when Sasha and her sister fight in their brash, sharp way of fighting, she says, Girls, in this specific, intimate way that both makes them look at each other like she’s being silly, talking to them like they’re children, and also makes them stop, look up at her, say sorry quietly.

Of her and her sister, Sasha’s the more aberrant. She fights more often with their mother. She is the smarter of the two but also the more reckless, the one who needs more guidance, more taking care. Her sister often scolds her in my presence. I think part of what Sasha likes about me is how rootless I am, feral maybe, that she’s the one in charge.

Even though my parents are never home, we always go to her house. My house is so clean it makes the few other kids I’ve had over uncomfortable. It’s big and cavernous, with lots of suede and dark wood. My room is upstairs, down a long hall, my sister’s room down an opposite hall on the other side, and my parents sometimes, if they come home from work and we’re in our rooms, have to call the upstairs phone line to see if we are there.

When I turn sixteen I get a brand-new black convertible, just exactly what I asked for—I don’t know until years later to be embarrassed by it—and Sasha and I drive out by the water on the weekends, top down, sun splotched on our faces, hair a mess. I skip school by myself; her mom has friends who work at the high school and they would tell her. When the school calls to say I wasn’t there, I just delete the message before anybody sees. I drive out to the beach and run, then walk, for hours and no one notices at dinner that there’s sand still on my feet and in my hair. I drive around and cry. My face is swollen in addition to being sunburned and I look straight at my mother as she asks me about my calc grade and she nods when I tell her it’s an A.

Our senior year, Sasha has a boyfriend much older than us all. He is at the community college and in plays. I think he’s awful and then worry I’m just jealous: of him or her, I’m not quite sure. He’s dramatic, gesturing and talking, saying nothing, but she says she loves him. We talk about him on the phone for hours. He gets us stoned on weekends at the beach and convinces us to break in to old hotel pools at night and sit naked in the hot tub, four or five girls and his one or two friends that always tag along—they don’t ever touch me—and he tells us stories about places he says he’s been. We play Truth or Dare and we are told to kiss. She grabs the back of my head and burrows her lips in my face and I breathe through my nose and my hands make small, tight fists.

IT’S FIVE DEGREES so I wear two pairs of tights and two shirts and a jacket that my mother bought me for Christmas that smells because I wear it almost every day. I wear a headband and gloves. There’s a hole in the index finger of my right glove and though every other part of me is covered up and warm my finger is raw and splotched and I have no feeling in my hand when I get home.

* * *

My husband slips in the shower as I stand underneath the spray, cold skin prickling with each drop of heat, my legs and arms bright red. I make a fist and then unfist it over and over, trying to get the feeling back. My husband pulls back the curtain and I have to step out from underneath the warmth to let him in. I put my hand along his back and he gasps and snaps at me and we both shampoo and condition and scrub our arms and legs and faces without speaking, without touching, until we’re out and dry and dressed.

* * *

At work, a woman whom I’ve always liked but don’t really speak to is putting on lipstick in the employee bathroom. How are you? I say, and her eyes angle toward her lipstick and she says, I’m hoping this will pick me up.

Will you teach me? I say, unable, it seems, just to smile. I blame my mother, I think, for my inability to not always try in some way to make conversation out of quiet. I point to her bag. Those bags remain one of the great mysteries of my life, I say.

She laughs.

You don’t need it, she says. She is younger than me, just like every other person who works here, and she is also trying to be nice.

I smile at her and shake my head. My poor daughters, I say.

* * *

I leave after the last class I teach with the twenty-four-year-old, in which he gives a fifteen-minute speech about Brita filters as a metaphor for making edits on one’s papers. Clarity, he says, and purity. The kids’ eyes glaze over and I catch a girl in the back playing pool on her phone but I pretend that I don’t see her and as soon as class is over I grab my bag and coat and take the escalator steps two at a time.

* * *

I keep checking my phone as I walk down Broadway, thinking Sasha might call or text me back. I don’t want her to call me. I use the magic credit card to get more gummy candy from the CVS and one of those tubes of goop meant to put underneath one’s eyes and walk over the Brooklyn Bridge—though I usually reserve the bridge for running—and the last three miles to our apartment as it gets dark and my ears are very cold.

Copyright © 2020 by Lynn Steger Strong