Rose Himber Howse
The only student not writing was Desiree. This was an era when all the girls except the Pentecostals flat-ironed their hair, but Desiree let her unruly curls be themselves. Each day she had a different adornment in the corners of her eyelids: purple constellations of glitter, a swoop of gold pencil. Today, metallic blue stars. She stared past the PERSEVERANCE poster of the silhouetted mountain climber mounted on the cinder block wall.
I mouthed “Need help?” but she shook her head aggressively and hunched closer to her paper. I sipped the dregs of my latte. Its frothy warmth made me teary with that cheap, poignant haze that everything takes on when you haven’t slept. The small comfort of something that was the same even though Margo was gone. We’d been slated to analyze a Lucille Clifton poem as a class that day, but instead I’d dug up a sub-plan from the annals of Google Drive: a pro/con essay on gun control, doctor-assisted suicide, abortion, or other ethical dilemma of your choosing. Worth extra credit, so they’d focus.
At that very moment, Margo was sailing up I-91 to stay with her sister until she figured out a more permanent place to live. She could have been happy with or without a kid. But she couldn’t stand the person I’d become during the fertility treatments. The last thing she said to me: You want a sperm bank, not a wife.
After I dismissed the class, I unlocked the top desk drawer and got out my contraband. The student who had the deathly allergy wasn’t one of mine; still, I dipped my apple slices into the Skippy’s jar covertly as I rifled through their essays. Monday we would get back on track with our poetry unit, and all the black-eyeliner kids who sat in the back would peek their heads up from their desks like baby birds and tear pages out of journals and leave them for me.
Toward the bottom of the stack was a nearly blank piece of paper with a single sentence, titled Desiree’s Abortion Essay. Below that: Well if I didn’t want to get pregnant than I shouldn’t of opened my legs.
I saw her at lunch duty. She was sitting alone. I was doing the milk checklist: legally each student had to take a carton, even if they threw it directly in the trash. Desiree was drinking hers, though, slurping it like she was in a hurry to get out. I watched an ethereal copy of myself part from my solid form and walk over to her, put down the milk clipboard, and put a hand on her spray-tanned arm. Do you want to talk? I could feel my chest vibrate with the words I wasn’t speaking. My legs quivering with potential energy as she tossed the Styrofoam tray and whipped into the hallway. Desiree was absent on Monday. I didn’t see her again for six years.
Margo had a new wife by then. I adopted a dog with arthritis. At night I touched the coarse skin on the bottom of his paws. Sometimes I went into the city for dates with women I met online. If they came back and slept in the dog’s spot, she circled the foot of the bed, restless, disoriented, until they left.
Without Margo’s IT salary, I shopped at Smart Save, in the neighborhood near school, where the chicken was reconstituted with water and dented cans were five cents off.
I was pushing a clacking cart toward the frozen aisle when I saw the boy ripping the bag. Gnarled gray things like clumps of frozen glue splattered across the floor. The sign behind him said 4th of July Special 5 LB Frozen chitlins $7. When he reached to pick one up, I grabbed his arm. “Don’t touch—it’s yucky.”
He started crying without tears, yelling, really, and his mother appeared, clutching a 2-liter of RC Cola. And I knew, though her curls were pulled into a bun, eyes naked of stars, only the grease along her parted hair was shining in the grocery’s fluorescent lights.
“Sorry, ma’am,” she said.
“It’s me,” I said. “Do you remember?”
She accidentally kicked one of the chitterlings and it sailed across the linoleum like a hockey puck. “Shit,” she said quietly. And then, a little louder, “Sorry, I think you must have the wrong person. Come on, Mickey. Let’s go.”
Copyright © 2021 by Rose Himber Howe