Nothing. The silence embarrassed her.
“We can leave Charles with my mom. We’ll have the whole day.”
Tim, startled, appeared to backtrack in his head. “Oh. Sorry. But I just have too much going on. New client means new everything-that-comes-along-with-that.” She found it darkly funny the way her husband of five years addressed her, swinging his eyes from his computer toward the couch where she sat with their cat on her lap. Toward, not to. Because he never managed to complete the gesture, his attention coming to rest just shy, on the edge of the kitchen table.
Caroline, close to laughing (season of perpetual hope my ass), kicked absently at the ottoman, her bare foot just missing the cushy upholstery, connecting with the hard wood frame.
“Shit! Shit shit shit!” She grabbed her foot in her hands, squeezing the toes where they’d hit. She was whimpering, really hurting.
This caused Tim to look directly at her, even utter an “oh, ouch” once he realized what had happened. For a second she felt amazing, like a grand-prize winner, but this fast lapsed into irony as she recalled the last time she’d caught him really looking. She’d been brutally sick in bed, her face lit up with fever. He’d looked then, though she remembered feeling more like a museum artifact than his dearly cared-for wife. Like a peculiarity, something he was considering for the first time, but for its cold cultural significance only.
Still, he’d brought her fluids and food, remembered medicine, until she was well again.
The day-to-day pain, though, the stuff he would’ve had to look in her to see, not just at her, this went unobserved. And so she walked with it, laid with it, and as she was doing now, sat with it: a big scared hollow known only by herself and a few of her closest friends.
April 12, 2006. Caroline sits rigid in the salon chair, hands clenched beneath nylon cape as her stylist works through a knot in her hair. Pinching just above it, protecting Caroline from the slightest of tugs, Shelley eases her comb in and out, again, again. With the care of a surgeon, Caroline thinks, feeling the lump start to rise in her throat.
She settles on Shelley’s face, finding something almost desperate there, like mourning: the way her lips are pressed and her forehead is waving, and her eyes, her blue eyes that have gone dark with overemotion. “It’s okay, I’m okay! Go ahead and just yank right through it!” Caroline feels like shouting. At the same time she feels like swiveling in her chair and wrapping her arms around sweet, sweet Shelley. But she doesn’t, mostly for selfish reasons, mostly because she wants to horde the comfort.
Like always, she barely recovers in time—swallowing, suppressing. Shelley makes it through the knot, which lightens things a bit. But Caroline still feels the lingering weight of another’s compassion, and when Shelley grips her hair between two fingers and makes clean parallel snips, this adds a new dimension. It’s the same when she works product at the roots and down the length, tugging and scrunching with such intention, and also toward the end when she travels slowly around Caroline’s head, twirling the dark blonde strands around an aluminum brush, patient patient patient while she points the blowdryer, waiting a few seconds each time for the curl to set. It is the combination of precision, patience, and soft warm air hitting her neck and scalp that produces the effect: that makes Caroline feel excruciatingly important.
“Well, what do you think?”
As Shelley positions a hand mirror behind Caroline’s head so that she can see the back, Caroline smiles and swings her hair.
“I love it. It looks great—like always.”
Caroline follows Shelley’s eyes, which remain on the wall mirror as she unsnaps Caroline’s cape.
“Yes, it’s a good shape. The best for you I think.”
Yet Caroline thinks something about Shelley’s expression makes her look not quite satisfied, or like she knows she won’t be if she keeps on looking. She turns away from the mirror and gives Caroline’s shoulder a quick squeeze.
“See you in a few?”
“Yes, maybe sooner than you think. I swear, it’s like my hair’s in the middle of a weird growth spurt or something. It just keeps...”
Caroline knows she needs out, needs to get outside. She hurries to the counter and pays, stuffing a generous tip into one of the miniature manila envelopes. Once outside she hugs herself, wishing to trap some of what lingers. After a while she touches her hair, moving a hand along the length, pausing at the bottom where it flips carefully. A good shape.
She pulls open the door of her apartment, greeted by the whir of the ceiling fan and the smell of last night’s takeout. A cat, her cat, slinks around her ankles, purring, instantly content.
It’s been just her and Alistair for almost a month, for as many days as have lapsed since her last trim. Looking down at him as she places her keys and purse on the side table where they belong, she feels an inkling of confusion creep in, settle. Her eyes land on Alistair’s empty food dish and the thought “what if I accidentally? ...” flickers in her mind, where it’s joined by a small amount of fear, and by recognition.
Five weeks earlier, she’d been going over sh- words with her second-graders. Shut, short, sharp… Three of them stood at the blackboard, backs to the class, arms and legs twitching impatiently as they awaited the next word. She focused on their hands, grubby little fingers wrapped around bright stubs of chalk. Billy kept drawing on himself, the elastic waist of his jeans by now caked with white grit. She thought about stopping him, or sending him out to the hallway as she’d done in the past, but it didn’t seem important enough this time. This time it seemed… funny. Suddenly it was all she could do not to laugh.
She collected herself. “Okay, ready? Next word is… ship.”
They, the contestants in this day’s round of “Spell or Die” (what could she say, kids respond to grand finales; they’d voted the name in), combined to make all the obvious gestures: clutching their small foreheads in pretend concentration, turning to gaze at her quizzically, spouting “ooh ooh, I know!”s… Peter, an earnest redhead and a personal favorite of hers, was the least demonstrative of the three, his self-assurance reflected in a quick nod. He stood waiting, as if for some cue other than the word itself. It made her slightly anxious. What are you waiting for, you’re losing your advantage. Write, quick, while they’re still wasting time.
He did, although not quickly at all. As she watched him eek out his curves and lines, she squeezed a fistful of loose cotton at her hip, her long teacher’s skirt pulled taut against her thighs. Meanwhile, the others—James and Forrest—had begun their own renderings, stabbing at the board with their ground-down chalk, dragging letters out with the same force that launched their wiry selves through the day. They went fast. Half a minute later Forrest was done, and not two seconds after that, James. Peter was the last to finish, closing up his p as her stopwatch hit a full minute. The outcome: s-h-i-p (James); s-h-i-t (Forrest); s-h-i-p (Peter). This made James the clear winner, being the first to spell the word correctly.
Forrest, though, had a different take. Because while going with a t over a p must have seemed like the greatest of great ideas at the time, sure to get him some nice loud laughs, Caroline guessed that losing to his halfway-buddy made her undervalued student (Forrest was the youngest of six; his dad and mom, both meth addicts, worked at the nearby Tulalip Casino) feel absolutely awful. She imagined no amount of laughter could have cancelled out the kind of awful he felt at the moment just before his little rocket-fist flew into action, the only action he could think of to take, the only action that would teach James that he, Forrest, was the best one. The best speller, the best person.
He hit him hard, connecting first with nose, next with cheek, before falling down with the force of it. Clearly audible: the clean pop of bone-on-bone, rattling teeth, a sort of hiccup. Forrest hopped back up and he kept going, pelting the bent-over James, who was clearly incapable of a rebuttal, with punch after punch after punch. The sounds kept going, too, though they dulled a little as Forrest became more frantic, less targeted in his blows. Then, after what struck Caroline as a period of ironic reverence, with not a single person in the class, herself included, responding physically to the event, everything erupted all at once.
It was amazing, she thought, the breadth of movement. The legs and feet kicking out and back; the arms shooting forward; hands waving, pointing, pumping... They, all boys of course, badly wanted a role, and here they were, launching their slim missile bodies up and down the aisles of her classroom, their success all but clinched in this grand fight against air. She turned to the cluster of teary girls that had gathered next to the door. They hardly moved at all—the only part that did was their faces, scrunched up and quivering. And it wasn’t only the girls who were crying. There was Jayson Wentworth, who had spoken maybe ten words on the year and was all-out wailing, switching his attention back and forth between the horrible cartoon (bam! bam! kapow!) front and center, to Caroline, to where she stood motionless behind her desk at the back of the classroom.
With Jayson’s attention came more attention. This was because Forrest was getting tired, his punches slowing down, with James crouched and curled in on himself like a threatened sea anemone. The mellowing created room for new thoughts. And as Caroline observed eye after scared eye swing toward and settle on her, no fight left in them, she saw the change of heart, the realignment, the confusion: They wanted her help now. So why wouldn’t she help? Why wasn’t she being like a teacher?
She’d think back on it later—during the drive home that afternoon, on the couch with her husband Tim the same evening, in a booth at Applebee’s the next day over lunch as the school principal awkwardly “dismissed” her. (“You must be aware, Caroline, yesterday’s incident was hardly the first of its kind. We think it’s best that you take some ‘you’ time. We spoke with your husband, and he mentioned getting you in to talk to someone, to a… professional.”)
She thought about how unconcerned she must’ve looked standing still like that as one of her kids beat up another one, and for kind of a long time; about how, to an audience of seven-year-olds, she must’ve looked terrible and uncaring.
Yet she’d cared through the whole thing. She’d cared so much—connecting Forrest’s motivation with the act of violence with the flow of energy in the room with the indirect participation of her students with the shifting allegiances—she’d run out of time for the other parts. How to explain this? How to explain that it wasn’t a matter of not caring, or worse, of wishing harm on her students, but that it was as quantifiable, as universal, as physics? That she would’ve addressed the tending-to-James part of the sequence if she’d only had time.
The answer: There was no explaining. Not in a way that would get her understood.
The eyes, once they’d settled, never budged. Forrest and James had joined the silent plea, Forrest as distracted by his teacher’s complacence as much as he was his own exhaustion. Caroline saw on James’ face, a face blotchy and blood-streaked with a newly cockeyed front tooth, a reaction to her betrayal: hurt, shame. And on both their faces, anger. Why didn’t you stop me/him?
The door opened, and in walked the teacher of the other second grade class, Mrs. Mallory, or Kendra. She and Caroline were buddies, but work buddies only, so not close. Given the noise level, Caroline was vaguely surprised that it had taken her so long to appear.
Kendra was still for three seconds at most, long enough to scan the room, linger briefly on Caroline and connect the dots (for there had been prior things, slips smaller in scale yet worrisome enough). She flew into action—“okay, everyone, sit down,” “Caleb, go get the nurse,” “Caroline…” Caroline what? There was nothing to finish with—Caroline knew it and she knew Kendra did. So her name just hung there.
The last meaningful thing that occurred to her before Kendra helped her gather up her things and walked her silently across the parking lot to her car was how much Forrest’s deep blue t-shirt had been like the ocean, his fist approaching and receding like the tide.
The day of the fight was exactly one week before Tim left. In the course of the first six days, he tried with all the warmth of a mathematician to get at what was behind it—not only the fight, but various other events like leaving Charles at daycare until ten at night, failing to help her arthritic grandmother out of the car, neglecting to walk their beagle for days on end.
“I don’t understand. I just do not get it, get you. You were talking to your mom? You were on the phone, shooting the shit with Cecilia, and that’s what prevented you from picking our son up from daycare?”
Caroline felt the thickness in her head, and she couldn’t imagine what she was about to say. “I know. It’s just that I needed to finish up. Since you talked to Mom about me, about the school, she’s been worried. But it’ll get better, everything will. I just need, I think I’m tired.”
Tim leaned forward on the couch, elbows on knees. “Caroline, you clearly need to talk to someone. I’ll see about getting you an appointment with a doctor this week, okay? I’m sure there’s someone at that clinic up on 32nd.”
The way he was looking at her (weird weird weird—yet I’m obliged), she wanted to bring him down, collapse his skinny arms. She started to explain a ‘no’ answer, but Tim cut her off with an angular hug, his chest shrinking slightly with the effort, and this she wanted to make last. Because as she stood there with her head on his shoulder, she got to be close without having to find what to say. And it was what she needed.
The next morning, after Tim had left for work, Caroline sat watching her son, taking in the sweet sound of his babbling. He had about a ten-word vocabulary, but preferred to fall back on the more expansive gibberish he’d grown so comfortable with over the months. Because she’d collapsed the baby safety gates, Charles was free to roam about the usually off-limits room. At one and a half, he was as curious as the next toddler. He walked in uneasy circles, pausing occasionally to grab hold of the edge of anything that stuck out—refreshing his confidence, Caroline smiled in understanding, before he continued to toddle along unaided. His head bobbed around the whole time, seeking out anything worth more than a second of his time.
After about a minute, he’d found it. Just the thing: the Kosta Boda vase her grandmother had brought back from her last trip to Sweden. It was a substantial piece, thick and bottom-heavy, and it sat alone on the middle shelf of their antique bookcase.
Caroline sat casually: back against the couch, legs pulled loosely into her chest. She was enjoying herself, enjoying watching as Charles’ brown eyes, her brown eyes, grew big as he stared up at the nice shiny toy a foot above his head. He even appeared to cock his head slightly to the left, to consider. At the point his chubby arms went up, his fingers fully extended, reaching, reaching, she counted nine tick marks in her head—no gates, free to roam, compelled by curiosity, faltering, refreshing, faltering, refreshing, pulled in by the prize, going after the prize—which was at least as many as she recalled taking down the day of the fight, and certainly more than with any of the other times.
She was halfway to ten when she heard the door open, close. Tim stood there, in clear view of her and Charles. And with one dramatic whoosh, everything he’d been carrying dropped to the floor as he lurched toward the living room.
“WHAT IN THE FUCK ARE YOU—”
The pretty Swedish vase was airborne before he could finish. Just barely grazing Charles’ right shoulder on the way down, it hit the carpeted floor with a thud, making fifteen, and as dull a sound, she thought, as Tim’s entrance had been striking. Charles was crying now, his little body shaking with the effort. Tim swooped down, wrapping their son in his arms, hugging him. Her husband was crying. He was hugging so tight, she thought.
He looked at her then, and she brought her hands to her face. Feeling there the wetness of tears, of verifiable anguish, she realized it. That this time, she had a number, too.
He’d gone right after, pausing at the door and muttering something about getting her a doctor’s appointment. He took not only Charles, but the dog, with him. He left the cat behind, with her. He’d never liked their cat.
Since that day, she’s heard from him four times, exactly once a week. Each time he asks if she’s called for an appointment with one of several psych docs he tracked down online, and each time she says not yet but she will… soon. He’s staying at his parents’ house in the next town over—he won’t be there long, he tells her, just long enough to “sort through things.” She knows what he means, he says. Yes she does, she says each time. What she leaves out is everything else: the satisfaction she’d felt at the moment it was clear he was leaving. Leaving because he was supposed to, because it was next. The next (last?) tick mark in the sequence, the logic of one through eighteen.
Part of it—all the orchestrated suffering of the last three months added together—is about consequence, she can finally admit. About one-thing-begets-another. It’s about if-a-then-b, about what the two of them had never had. Because up until now, all they had was a random assortment of points (his detachment, her availability, their endurance) where no one thing gave rise to a logical next.
The only glitch, the only disruption in the otherwise collectively smooth stream of events, she thinks, had been James’ refusal to run from Forrest’s onslaught that day. That should’ve been part of the sequence: he should’ve run. Or, she, Caroline, should’ve run, a long time ago. Maybe that was the glitch.
As she lies curled up on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, her tummy is sick with sadness. She misses her son. But she doesn’t miss her husband, at least not in any specific way. And because she can’t figure out a way to bring (a) back into succession while leaving (b) out, she thinks of her hair appointment instead. Closing her eyes, she feels Shelley’s comb slide through her damp hair, hears the slice of the shears, feels the shivery warmth of the dryer… She feels held like a baby. She feels important—again and again and again.