It came to me again that night, one of two recurring nightmares that have plagued my subconscious since I was old enough to remember my dreams.
I’m running because I am late. Feverish and afraid. Desperate to make it there on time because if I don’t I will be deemed unfit, less than, inadequate. And what could be worse than that? What could be worse than being late for school, all those faces turning to look as you open the heavy wooden door with the window too high for you to peek through before entering, unable to see ahead of time if Ashley McReads-a-lot is smirking as she finishes early the test you’ve yet to begin? What could be worse than being a straight-A English student arriving late to English class?
The only thing I can think of is being an English teacher arriving late to English class.
Sometimes, in the same dream, I would be both, two different halves trying to complete the same whole, so as to please everyone who needed to be pleased. Student becoming teacher. Teacher never really leaving the state of student-hood.
There is a test that day, and I haven’t studied. I don’t even know what the test is about. I sweat. I start to cry. And then the feeling begins: a dull, silent throbbing in my belly and then the pulling. A visceral, vaudeville yank that thrusts me off stage into the cool, derisive darkness. I wake to uneven breath, and Adam knows why. “Freud would have a field day,” he jokes, as he nuzzles in closer to hold me.
This time, I was alone--no one to make light of my lunatic dreams, my fear of inadequacy. Today was the first day of school, and even though I was neither student nor teacher, I was some foreign manifestation of the two, and therefore compelled to make those two halves complete. Yes, I would start fresh with a new school year, as I always did before. And I would definitely not be late.
* * *
06:00. My alarm was spewing bad French pop, and I accidentally hit the “off” button instead of the snooze. I fell back to sleep instantly, that dream running rampant through my mind.
07:00. I woke up suddenly with barely enough time to run down the Cinderella stairs and then up the double helix to wake the children on time.
“Lia,” I said, gently nudging her. “Time to get up.”
She ignored me until I made threats.
“Maybe you don’t really need to borrow my...”
“All right, all right,” she groused. “I’m up!”
I didn’t believe her, at all, so I waited until I saw her walk down the hall to the bathroom.
And she was the easy one!
“Stuart,” I said, knocking on his door. I walked in and immediately put my hand to my nose.
“Time to wake up, sweetie.” I poked him gently until he finally stirred. I turned on the lamp on the night stand, which cast just enough light on his bedding to reveal a grayish ring of wet around him.
“Come on, Stuart,” I said again. “You don’t want to be late on the first day, do you?”
“Lia’s in the shower right now, but you’re next, okay?”
I sat down beside him for a moment, wishing there were something I could do to make him feel safe.
“You up, sweetie?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m up.”
Calixthe was down the hall with Minnie. I waved her toward me with a look on my face that she recognized. I put my hand to my nose and pointed to Stuart’s door as a warning, knowing the laundering would be left to her.
She waved her hand and rolled her eyes. “Dat’s a piece of cake compared to da other stuff.”
Greeted by the same stench in Soryah’s room, I tried my best not to let on that I knew.
“First day of school, Soryah!” I said with a gentle nudge. “Are you excited?”
“Yeah. Well, no not really,” she said, and then we laughed.
She rolled out of bed, suddenly aware of being wet. Her face fell, and she averted her eyes as she darted out of the room.
“Lia, hurry up!” shouted Stuart. “You’re not the only person who lives here, ya know.”
“Yeah, Lia!” Soryah chimed in. “Hurry up, stupid!”
“Lia?” I said, knocking on the bathroom door.
“Yeeessss?” she answered.
“Spit-spot!” I sang, à la Mary Poppins. “Time’s a wastin’!”
“I’ll be right out!”
When it was Soryah’s turn to shower, I reminded her about using soap.
“I know! I know!” she insisted.
“Don’t forget,” I added, intent on proving to Netta that I did, in fact, advocate children’s use of soap.
By the time Soryah and Stuart were slurping milk from the bottom of their cereal bowls, I had knocked on Lia’s bedroom door a total of nine times, after each of which she had replied, “Be right there!”
When she finally decided to grace us with her presence, it was already time to leave, and she walked down the stairs and into the kitchen with her face buried in a book.
“Lia,” I said, “what took you so long up there?”
“I was reading.”
“What? You were reading? What were you reading?”
She turned the book around to show me a title that read, “The Life of King Henry V.”
“Wow,” I said, “impressive. But now there’s no time for breakfast, and your mom insisted that all of you eat...”
“But I’m not even hungry.”
“Lia, you’re not making this easy on me.”
“Don’t worry. Mom’s not gonna care. She won’t even know.”
“Lia, if your mother asks if all you guys ate breakfast, I’m not to going to lie to her.”
Well, maybe just this once!
James came galloping in with a clap of his hands.
“Who’s ready for the first day of school?”
Instant cheers and laughter as three children climbed all over their father.
“Good morning, Christina.”
“Good morning, James.”
“I trust you slept well.”
“I slept fine. Thanks.”
“Well, off we go,” he said. “Are you ready, Christina.”
“Yes,” I said, looking a hot mess from lack of sleep, no shower, and chasing his evil spawn all over his over-sized house. “I’m ready.”
Lia’s nose was back in her book as she navigated her way out the side door and into the car.
“I get shotgun!” shouted Stuart.
“No, me!” countered Soryah.
“Guys,” James injected. “Chrissy will sit in front, okay?”
Thoughts of the night before flashed through my mind as I climbed into the front seat of the shiny Mercedes SUV. Fires, scarves, fear, hatred, love. As I turned to my left to buckle my belt, James’s eyes briefly met mine. I adjusted the belt, trying to loosen it, and then looked out the window in a daze.
“The children attend the International School, which is only blocks from here,” James said as he pulled out of the driveway. “It’s one of the best in the world. That’s why we chose to live here.”
“I remember your telling me,” I replied, eyes still out the window. “How wonderful for the kids to have that opportunity. As a teacher, I can relate to...”
“Oh, the teachers are some of the best. And the students--they’re from every country you can think of.”
“Sort of a mini United Nations, huh?”
James replied with a half-smile--I, once again, having failed to impress him with my dazzling wit.
As we pulled up to the school, I was stunned by its size. To me, it looked more like a college campus than a K-12 school. Rolling hills and tree-lined paths lead the way to ivy-covered buildings with tall, gothic-style windows. I immediately thought back to my own days in elementary school, how different this environment was from my small, catholic school experience. I thought how ideal to have children learning firsthand--at a very early age--about the need for diversity, about embracing what is different in order to find out that it is the same. How beautiful to see children from places like India, Sweden, and Iraq chasing one another around a schoolyard kicking soccer balls and playing hopscotch. How simple they made it all look.
“Let’s go, little Silverados!” James said, as he herded the children toward the main entrance. It was a beautiful, late-summer morning. Sunlight glinting off the green leaves, the scent of lilac wafting from the trees, and the soft sounds of swiftly spoken French fluttering through the air like butterflies.
I stood there for quite some time, watching James greet the parents of his children’s friends, pleasantly chatting it up without once stopping to introduce me to anyone. It was at least thirty minutes later that a very nice woman went out of her way to bring me into the conversation, having noticed me standing meekly behind James. By that point, though, my panties were so in a bunch that I could barely see straight and simply wanted to get away from him, from that place.
So much for my fresh start.
“James,” I eventually said, “should I walk the children to their classrooms so that I can meet their teachers? I know that Netta wanted me to...”
“That’s all right. We’ll do it some other time. I have a plane to catch, and I’m already running late.”
One final farewell to the children and off we went.
“Have you decided what you’ll do to fill the time during the day--now that the children are in school?” James asked as we drove back to the house.
“No, not really,” I said. “I haven’t had much time to think about it. I’d like to take a class of some sort.”
“I’m sure we’ll think of something to keep you busy,” he said.
I reached down to rub my foot, as I had suddenly gotten a cramp. When I straightened up, I felt his eyes upon me.
“Here we are,” James said, pulling up to the driveway. Calixthe ran out to open the gate, and suddenly I felt sick.
“I could have gotten out to get the gate, James...”
He ignored me, and instead sat back and watched Calixthe as she struggled to open the heavy iron gate.
Sick, I tell you! Sick!
“Well, have a good trip,” I said, practically leaping out of the car. Graceful swan that I am, I tripped and fell, scraping my ankle as I did so.
“Goodness,” shrieked James. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I said, rushing to get up before he tried to help me.
“Let me help you up.”
“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”
Calixthe was half laughing at my gracefulness when she saw what had happened.
“Just couldn’t wait to get back home, eh?”
“Of course!” I said.
“Well wait till you see what Netta has in store for you today!”
“Oh, I’m all atingle! What about you? What are your duties this morning?”
“What do you tink?”
Together we whispered, “Laundry!”
Laughing our way back to the house, Calixthe and I stopped short of entering when we caught Netta and James in a loving embrace.
“Call when you arrive, all right?” Netta asked, just before noticing us.
“I will,” said James.
James grabbed his suitcase and headed for the door. A company car had just arrived to take him to the airport.
“Goodbye, Christina.” He was standing in the doorway, smiling.
Farewell! Auf wiedersehen! Good night! See ya!
And with that he was off to Africa.
True to form, Netta wasted no time in reminding me why I disliked her.
“Christina,” she said, not even looking my way when she re-entered the kitchen. “I’d like to see you in the den. There’s a few things I’d like to discuss.”
I followed her down the hall toward the front door that was used only for “special occasions.” The den was just to the right of it.
“Here is a revised version of the children’s emploi du temps,” Netta explained, gesturing for me to sit down in the chair beside her desk.
As I made my way to the chair, I took a moment to survey my surroundings. Book shelves towered from floor to ceiling like skyscrapers. Behind the desk hung James’s MBA diploma from Harvard. Beside it was Netta’s PhD. Tucked away in a corner was a tiny television set so old it had knobs. There was no cozy couch to lounge around on, no Lazy-Boy chair in which to be lazy. Later, when I asked Calixthe what they sat on to watch TV, she said, “The floor.”
“I’ve made some changes in their hourly schedule,” Netta began. “I feel they need more time devoted to their studies and less time playing with friends.”
Netta looked up from the paper and stared at me.
“Is that all you have to say, Christina?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean. You have no reactions? No questions as to why I made these changes?”
“I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand what you’re asking me, Netta. You explained what you wanted, and I agreed. What was I supposed to say?”
Netta took off her glasses, exhaling a laundry load of frustration.
“What I mean, Christina, is that I don’t understand your lack of interest in the children’s well being.”
“I beg to differ, Netta. I accompanied them to school this morning, eager to meet their friends, their teachers, and, to be quite frank, when I tried to do just that, James said there wasn’t enough time. So, really, I am interested in their ‘well-being’ as you put it.”
Netta was flustered.
“I’m sure that James had a good reason for not making sure that you met their teachers.”
I’m sure he did!
“Will that be all, Netta?” I asked, moving toward the edge of the chair.
“Actually, there is one more thing. I’m rather upset that you were late in waking Lia this morning. It is imperative that the children eat a solid breakfast every morning--we’ve discussed that--and yet you sent Lia off to school with not so much as a glass of milk.”
Lia, Lia, Lia!
“I knocked on her door several times, Netta, but she was...”
“She was what?”
“She was reading...all morning...which isn’t a bad thing, at all, but short of breaking the door down, I’m not sure what you expected me to do.”
Netta began shaking her head and then stopped to look at me with her fierce, mountain lion eyes.
“Maybe we made a mistake,” she said with a flick of her hair.
“James and I. I think...we may have made a mistake agreeing to give you another chance.”
“We discussed it last night...and reached the conclusion that it would be too traumatizing to the children to let you go so quickly.”
“And why is that?”
Because they love, love, LOVE me?
“Because they seem fond of you for the most part,” Netta said.
“That’s nice to hear, Netta. Thank you. That means a lot.”
Another exhaled breath.
“Do you want to stay here, Christina?”
“I think so. I mean, I don’t want to leave.”
“All right, then. We’ll give it one more try and see if we can’t make this work...for the children’s sake.”
“That sounds fair.”
“If you noticed on the schedule, you have quite a bit of free time during the day while the children are at school. Have you thought about how you plan to spend that time?”
“Actually, James and I discussed that earlier. I think I’d like to take a class at the school where Calixthe is enrolled. It’s within walking distance, correct?”
Another smile from Netta. This time, though, it was genuine.
“That’s a marvelous idea, Christina. Good for you.”
“Maybe I’ll even have a class with Calixthe.”
The guffaw that Netta let out was otherworldly.
“I don’t think so, Christina,” she eventually said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that Calixthe’s French is, how shall I say, abominable! She can barely handle the beginner’s class.”
“Really? I think she just needs more practice, is all. I think she has a knack for it.”
“That is extremely kind of you, but I disagree. Her French is...well I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Well, is that all, then?” I asked, edging ever closer to falling off my chair.
“Yes. You are dismissed.”
“I did have one little question about...my...curfew?”
“What about it?”
“I just wanted to know if there were any way that, at least on weekends, it could be extended past nine o’clock. That seems rather early to me. I am an adult, after all.”
At that moment, my nightmare flashed through my mind and once again I felt the struggle between student and teacher, child and adult.
“We’ve discussed that before...”
“I know, but we never really resolved it...”
“We can’t just give you a key, Christina. And I retire early, so I simply can’t have the doors unlocked till all hours. Especially when James is away. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I said, and then turned to leave.
“Oh, and don’t forget your copy of the emploi du temps.”
“How could I forget it?”
I walked into the kitchen where Calixthe was feeding the baby, whose face was smeared purple with puréed plums.
“The food goes inside the baby’s mouth, Calixthe. Not around it.”
She flicked a spoonful of purple at me, and before I could turn away, it was all over my face. If I hadn’t heard Netta’s footsteps, I would have sought my revenge.
“Quick!” Calixthe said, tossing me a towel.
“I’m going to pick up the children,” Netta said. “They’re coming home for lunch.”
When Netta returned, the children came scrambling in behind her.
“Go wash your hands, everyone.”
“I have to go make a phone call.”
As the children filed into the kitchen and took their places at the table, Calixthe laid out a lovely first-day-of-school lunch: turkey sandwiches on toasted rye bread, fresh fruit salad, cottage cheese, and beets.
“Oh, I love beets!” I said, as laughter erupted. “We used to have those all the time when I was a kid.”
“You like beets?” snickered Stuart.
“Yes, so what?”
“Do you know what “beet” means in French?”
“Oh, no,” I said, instantly annoyed. “Is it something gross?”
Lia--ever poised and far beyond such childishness--explained, “It’s spelled differently, and it’s merely a slang term, but...it means a man’s...private part.”
At that, Stuart and Soryah began their routine of rocking back and forth in their chairs like an overloaded washing machine. They were cackling like demented chickens.
“Stuart! Lia!” Netta exclaimed as she re-entered the kitchen. “Stop that nonsense! Now!”
They didn’t stop.
Netta walked over to where I was sitting. I was prepared for her to blame me for her children’s insanity.
“These came for you today.” In her hands were two envelopes addressed to me.
Mail? For me? Oh, do I feel loved when I get letters!
I can’t remember if I thanked Netta, or just tore into them right then and there. Stuart and Soryah were oblivious to my joy, but Calixthe was excited as I was.
“Who are they from?”
“My sisters...and their kids.”
Inside were photos of my nieces and nephews blowing me kisses, hand-drawn pictures of me in France, standing beside the Eiffel Tower, and short notes written in marker telling me how much they loved me. And then, I saw the poem.
“Who is that from?” Calixthe asked.
“My niece. She’s only six years old.”
“Dark is dark and light is light.
There is nothing you or I can do to change that.
Love is love and hate is hate.
There is nothing you or I can do to change that.
War is war and peace is peace.
There is nothing you or I can do to change that...”
Netta hung back, so as not to intrude on the moment, and I was grateful for that because if she hadn’t, I would have had to tell her to mind her own damn business and step away. For the contents of those envelopes belonged to me and only to me and she deserved no part of what was mine. My family was in the contents of those envelopes, and they were what kept me alive when in the back of my mind I thought I might die from lack of love right there in that house, amidst all of the external beauty that surrounded me, the beauty of a place, the beauty of a dream that would soon grow dark and bleak and ugly.
I was sobbing uncontrollably as I sat at the kitchen table, smiling inwardly at the depth of a six year-old girl who reminded me so much of me, whose thoughts existed only in extremes, ever struggling to reconcile the two, as though such a thing were even possible.
It was twelve o’clock noon. In my periphery I saw Netta move toward the side door and click the lock closed, while the children cackled wildly over beets.