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prompt-lope, cope, mope
I've been sitting on this one for years. Years. I figured a wit-fit was what I needed to push me into the shallow end.
"If you expect nothing from anybody, you're never disappointed."
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
It's 2:06 and she can't breathe.
They stampede through the door: feet shuffling, bags dropping, and desks screeching across tired linoleum.
"You have marker on your face, Miss Swan."
Mumbling thanks, she turns to face the board, wiping her cheek with a clammy hand and trying to ignore the giggles erupting behind her back.
54 more minutes, Bella.
There is one last fruitless attempt to clean her face before she turns to them and begins their near-daily routine.
She tells them the day's agenda. The ones who aren't ignoring her completely roll their eyes or laugh. She pretends not to notice and asks halfheartedly for last night's homework. They don't have it, they don't bother making excuses, and she demands none. She explains the assignment. Read the poem. Answer the questions on the worksheet. Today, it's Emily Dickinson, but it doesn't really matter because they won't do it, and she really doesn't expect them to. They continue to talk, to throw paper objects across the room, to eventually doze off.
She retreats to her desk and reads silently.
Today, it's a travel book about China, and she loses herself in the brightly colored photos of raven-haired women with porcelain skin, of wooden chopsticks lying beside glistening bread, of golden buddhas and statues made of jade. This is the part where her heart clenches, where she wonders if she will ever see anything that beautiful up close.
Of course not.
She sniffs and turns the page.
"You okay, Miss Swan?"
Sadness gives way to shock that any of them were paying attention. She lifts her head from the book to find Rosalie Hale, and now several others, staring at her. Rosalie's face is usually hard lines and red lipstick, but her temporary concern has softened her, and for a moment Bella is struck by the beauty of this young woman dressed in black cloth and metal.
"I'm fine, Rosalie. Thank you."
Rosalie's smirk says the same thing as she turns around in her seat to talk to Lauren.
Bella pretends to have something in her eye, but all she can really do is clench her fist and pray that she won't lose it in front of a bunch of sixteen year olds. Her fingernails slice into her palm and she winces from the pain, but welcomes the distraction. Her heart beats in her chest and her stomach and her head, until a siren sounds and she finally, finally exhales.
Because it's 3:00 and she can breathe again.
Her students shuffle leaden feet out the door, headphones placed in ears long before the final bell rang, the celebration of a Friday afternoon temporarily stalled until they are away from her room. Soon, locker doors will slam shut, voices will shout plans and logistics, and ancient cars will grumble to life.
For now, she stands at the lectern and organizes her notes without actually looking at them, part of her wishing one of them would turn around and ask her a question, and the other terrified that they'll do just that.
But they all leave without saying anything. Not a single goodbye or thank you.
And she doesn't blame them.
Her purse hangs heavy on her shoulder, weighed down by all the promises she didn't keep today: the unopened bottle of water, the credit card bill (now past due), the novel she meant to start weeks ago.
She is nearly across the threshold he starts waddling toward her, sweaty with entitlement, his walkie-talkie strapped to his side like a gun.
"Leaving early, Bella?"
She winces, feebly attempting to sidestep his advance and nearly knocking over a desk.
"Of course not, Mr. Newton."
"Please, Bella. I keep telling you to call me Mike."
"Sorry, Mike. Is there something I can do for you?"
"We just heard from Mrs. Cope. Looks like she'll be out for the rest of the semester."
She tries to turn her shock into a smile.
She always was a terrible actress.
"Bella, I know Mrs. Cope has some of the more difficult classes here. Your sixth period class is, of course, especially…challenging."
"I hadn't noticed."
He leans in, like he's going to tell her a secret, like they are in on this together.
"Look, we don't expect you to work miracles. Just keep them busy, keep them quiet. Most of them will be gone before their senior year anyway."
For some reason, this makes her frown.
"Oh come Bella, you're not that naïve. They either end up in adult ed, jail, or pregnant."
Bella thinks of Rosalie Hale, and she wants to ask Mike about people surprising you and self-fulfilling prophecies, but she is interrupted by the smell of Axe body spray and cafeteria casserole as he steps closer, his eyes alight with false sincerity.
"How are you holding up, Bella?"
He says it in the slow and hushed tone that, in the past three months, she has come to hate. Especially when no one ever asked her that question before. When she was watching Charlie's skin turn from yellow to grey, when she was holding a bucket for his vomit or cleaning the bed after he shit his pants.
Or at the end, when it was only her sitting next to him, wondering if his next thick and garbled breath would be his last.
No. No one wanted to know how she was then.
It was only after the funeral, after the polished wood and pretty flowers and touching bible verses. Only then did the "how are you's" appear, slick and gleaming with care, with concern.
Mostly, with condescension.
"I'm fine, Mike."
She is so practiced at saying this by now, knows exactly how many teeth to show without overdoing it, and how to tilt her head to the right so she's looking just past their face.
Mike puts a hand on her shoulder and she sees his arm hair caught in the gold band of his watch. She wonders if it hurts, if it would hurt more if she pulled on it.
"You know I'm always here if you need me."
The squeeze becomes a rub and she steps back.
"Thank you, Mike."
Her voice is as harsh as she intended it to be, and the recent faculty-wide sexual harassment meeting pays off when Mike drops his arm and plants both hands in his pockets, jingling his keys and making the walkie-talkie bounce against his stomach.
"Let me know if there's anything I can do."
He smiles and it's just as ridiculous as when they were in high school, except now his teeth are wet and yellowing a little, and when she looks up she sees the beginning of a receding hairline.
As he lopes away, she notices one of his pant cuffs is stuck inside his sock, and she wonders when they all got so old.
Every time she looks at this front door, the peeling paint reminds her of the to-do list still hanging on the fridge, written in her father's masculine scrawl.
Clean out gutters
WD-40 on porch swing
Prune trees—front and back
Paint exterior (color? Ask Bella.)
The weight of her bag forces her to drop her keys, and she curses before finally stepping inside.
Without thinking, she takes the change out of her purse and lets it drop into the ancient glass water bottle, two more nickels and a dime in a sea of silver, copper, and gold.
When did it get so full?
Her eyes catch the fading words painted in nail polish on the side.
This time, she stops, kneels, and allows her fingers to trace the clumsy 6-year-old scrawl. Closing her eyes, she remembers his strong hand covering her tiny one as they wrote her name together, how he coaxed her through the "B" that always gave her trouble, how he chuckled when she made her two looping l's so big because they were the one's she knew best, how she asked him to write "adventures" because she hadn't learned how to do a "v" or "t" yet, how he was the first person to put change in the bottle saying,
"For my beautiful girl's beautiful life."
Her feet slide out from beneath her, arms draping across the bottleneck as her forehead rests against the cold glass.
"I'm home, Dad," she whispers, knowing no one will answer.
And no one does.