It wasn’t even lunch yet, and Helen had a plagiarism situation on her hands. Becky Fairchild: chipper with lots of teeth, field-hockey captain, hair ribbons in Hadley Academy colors every Friday, scones and effusive thank-you notes for teachers at Christmas, clothes from the kind of catalogs that Helen sometimes flipped through wistfully on the toilet. Becky truly was not bright. During class discussions she produced a lint roller from her backpack and ran it dreamily over her breasts, and when called on, she volunteered others for the job — “Why doesn’t Donald tell us what he thinks!” When you got down to it, the only time she voluntarily spoke was to deliver her daily appraisal of Helen’s outfit from the back of the room — “Jeans, wow. Ms. Fiore’s not wearing her usual skirt!” or “Ms. Fiore, you’re looking so bohemian today with that crazy scarf” — so relentlessly that, while her husband still slept, it was Becky she found herself anxiously dressing for each morning, wondering if she’d meant “crazy” in a bad way.
And now Becky, overnight, had transformed into an expert on devotional imagery in Jane Eyre. After ten minutes online Helen found the source of Becky’s newfound knowledge: an essay in Brontë Studies. How the girl had known such a journal existed was a different question entirely. Her father must have helped her.
But all kids had something beautiful and redeeming about them. Sometimes you just had to look a little harder and longer for that beautiful and redeeming something to reveal itself. Like when Mike Hoffstat had gestured to Helen in a sweet and discreet way about the parsley stuck in her teeth. Helen had never forgotten it. In fact, she now made a mental note to send Mike a letter in prison and let him know she was thinking about him. Or, what the hell, just drive over there and say hello! Tragic how a life could explode. One minute it was tubby time and Stuart Little, and the next you were setting fire to a nursing home. Though she doubted Mike had had any Stuart Little. Helen certainly hadn’t, what with her father too busy missing the garage and plowing his Chevy through the family room — Dad’s home! — and her mother too busy yanking her sewing table from said Chevy’s crumpled bumper. Life: what could you do? One look at Mike’s father, frankly, and Helen could understand how setting fire to a nursing home might be the only reasonable thing one could do. Or not understand, of course, but—
Point was, now Helen had to be mean: write Becky up, meet with the headmaster, call her parents. And during School Spirit Week. That was the worst part. Each day everyone was encouraged to dress in a different theme: Favorite Sports Team Day, Favorite TV Character Day, Opposite Sex Day (great, really sensitive, with poor Oliver-turned-Olivia just back from his — her! her! — mystery trip to Thailand). Today, Thursday, was Clash Day: Becky wore jeans under a dress, stripes over plaid, a man’s tie in a loose knot, one flip-flop and one ballet flat, and, as a finishing touch, yellow oven mitts on both hands.
“You can’t possibly expect me to take a test like this!” she’d said gleefully, mitts to the overhead lights.
What was Helen to do, call her out dressed like that? It was bad enough to be caught for the Big P, the rape of academe, but to be yelled at — no. She wouldn’t yell. She would take Becky into the hall and murmur. She could see it all now: the censure, the ugly paperwork, all while Becky was dressed like a clown.
Helen took a red pen and wrote on the last page: I cannot accept this essay. Then added: Let’s chat. Seemed friendlier. She would talk to Ron, the headmaster, tomorrow.
In the teachers’ lounge Helen’s friend Peg (precalculus) was studying the microwave like a child at a terrarium, opening the door every twenty seconds to poke at her macaroni and cheese.
“Better cover those tits if you’re going to stand that close,” said Paula (biology), who was eight months from retirement.
Breasts were a common topic of discussion in the lounge these days, what with Peg having given birth in May. They were always popping up in one context or another. The bags of breast milk in the staff fridge, for example. Or yesterday, during lunch duty, Peg surrounded by students in the hallway, fanning miserably at the wet saucers on her shirt with a stack of quizzes, snapping at kids who looked too long: “Problem?”
Peg sat down next to Helen, sighed, and began plucking mushrooms from her packaged salad — which, she reasoned, canceled out the mac and cheese — and hurling them somewhere near the trash can. “Look at you,” Peg said. “Peanut butter! So unassuming and almost” — she held a mushroom up to her eye like a monocle — “Puritan! Maybe if I ate like you, I could get rid of these fucking hams.” She jiggled her arms as if shaking maracas.
There was something gloriously self-deprecating about Peg. She’d share anything: The evolution of her breasts. (“Prego tits — fabulous. Post-prego tits — fucking National Geographic!”) The way her husband’s penis could move in figure eights. (“I mean, it should be in one of those caves at the bottom of the Atlantic.”) The brutal, criminal agony of eleven (“Eleven!”) days without shitting so much as a pebble. Peg lived her life without apology: the Odyssean affair with her husband while he was still married to someone else; sex by e-mail; eloping with him, finally, two hours after the divorce came through, in a rowboat on the Merrimack River with her favorite potted plant onboard. And now she was happier than Helen had ever seen her, with a baby and big, leaky, romantic breasts.
That night Helen sat on the couch in front of the TV with her husband, Tim, a cookie sheet of nachos spanning their knees like a tabletop, a big dumpling of congestion in her throat, a glass of red wine in her hand, the cat scratching the armchair, and the two of them, agreeably buzzed, laughing at it like proud parents.
She hadn’t mentioned her Becky Fairchild dilemma to Tim. She didn’t want to spoil the evening. She wasn’t going to grade essays either, because Tim had illegally downloaded a Cary Grant movie for her. Risking imprisonment so your wife can watch a movie — now, that was romantic! He didn’t even like Cary Grant but was sighing contentedly just the same, pennies of dried ice cream on his shirt. Tim often wore the same clothes two days in a row. He didn’t see this as an issue of hygiene so much as a sign of masculinity. A real man, he said, didn’t care about a clean shirt. Easygoing, that’s what everyone said about him, and it was true. Just last week his fingers had swollen mysteriously to the size of zucchinis — he was allergic to everything, poor bastard — and he’d just had a good laugh when he couldn’t button his shirt. Tim took everything in stride. For instance, he’d been in that assistant-manager position at GameStop for six years, getting abused by Randy, that pasty-faced prick with the bad gums, and never so much as asking for a raise. What a trouper.
Though asking for a raise wouldn’t have been the worst idea. Nor would looking for an actual job with a salary.
It was possible, Helen thought, to take things a little too much in stride. On an almost nightly basis she staggered downstairs naked to stare at their diminishing bank balance and scribble figures on a napkin. When she finally slouched back to bed, Tim would curl around her and give her a pat, pat on the head.
It was hard for Tim — for anyone — to find a decent job without a degree, and not everyone was cut out for college. Not having a degree didn’t mean Tim wasn’t smart. He had just installed the new windows by himself, more or less without incident, and he’d rearranged all of the appliance cords so they were connected to one giant power strip. Now he was building a new computer from scratch, its shiny, angular organs arriving almost daily by mail and accumulating on the dining-room table. She liked that he had talents she did not.
After the movie was over, Tim turned on the baseball game, and Helen drew a bath, lit candles, and killed the lights.
Twenty minutes later Tim came clomping into the bathroom.
“How’s the bath?” he asked, lifting the toilet seat.
“Super nice,” she said, her ass squawking on the porcelain. Super nice? Wrong tone, but what the hell. Maybe he’d grab a washcloth, lower himself to his knees, dribble water down her breasts, put his hand between her legs, and push her head back toward the end of the tub. Maybe he’d pull her out like a mermaid and take her right there on the floor with ample breast appreciation. At least hers weren’t sore like Peg’s from all that nursing — which, when you thought about it, seemed a little gross.
But no. Tim took a piss, scrutinized his receding hairline in the mirror, and brushed his teeth.
“Great game,” he said, mouth full of froth. “You should have seen this catch. Johnson dove, literally dove” — he demonstrated with outstretched hands, toothpaste dripping on the floor — “to catch it.”
Peg’s husband rubbed her sore breasts with St.-John’s-wort oil every night. According to Peg it was positively rapturous.
Every night! St.-John’s-wort!
Whatever that was.
But every couple had a different timeline. Peg had only gotten pregnant in the first place because her husband was twenty years older, and unless she wanted him bending over his walker at their kid’s sixth-grade graduation, she said, it was time to get cracking.
“Hit me,” Ron Meriwether, the headmaster, said to Helen the next morning.
“It’s come to my attention,” Helen said, “that Becky Fairchild plagiarized an essay for my class.”
Ron tucked his hands under his armpits and put his slippered feet up on his desk. Pajama Day. Spirit Week was getting brutal. Ron was even wearing a nightcap like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
“Becky Fairchild,” he said.
Helen couldn’t help noticing that his stomach was hanging over the waistband of his flannel pants.
“Becky is applying for early decision to Stanford,” Ron said.
“Yes, she mentioned that. But anyone can apply to Stanford. Big Bird could—”
“It’s very important to the Fairchilds that she get accepted.”
“I’m sure,” Helen said. “At any rate, it’s such a strange choice of essay. So obscure, really. I wonder how she even—”
“The Fairchilds Fairchilds.”
Helen stared at him.
As in Fairchild Hall, Fairchild Auditorium.”
“I know,” she said.
“Helen, Helen,” Ron said. He was standing up now and gazing at his Blues Brothers poster. “This is some heavy stuff you’re dropping in my lap. And this week of all weeks. I think we should calm down and get our priorities straight. Think big picture.” He eyed her outfit, another combination of loose-fitting gray things with cat hair on them. “Where are your PJs?” he asked. “Where’s your school spirit?”
“If you’re busy with the festivities, I can just go ahead and call—”
“I’m telling you to leave it alone, Helen.”
Ron reached under his desk and pulled out the oversized head of the school’s mascot, a black bear. He whipped off his sleeping cap and put the headpiece on. “Duty calls!” he said, his voice muffled as if he were a plumber under a sink, and he gave Helen two thumbs up as he left.
Ron had never read Jane Eyre. Helen would put money on it.
Helen poked her head into Peg’s class and motioned for her to come into the hall. As a nod to Pajama Day, Peg wore a sleep mask pushed up like sunglasses on her head. “No,” she said after Helen had told her about Becky Fairchild. “Nope. Not worth it.”
Peg kept checking on her students through the door crack, as if peeking in on a baby in a nursery. Her classroom was dark and smelled woodsy from a candle she kept burning in violation of some fire code or another. She had a few throw rugs scattered around and a dim lamp with a bamboo shade on her desk. Everyone was working quietly. The low lighting seemed to have a calming effect on the kids, like a blanket over a birdcage.
Helen’s class, on the other hand, was lit like a hospital waiting room: fluorescents glaring, bloodshot eyes, everyone edgy and expecting the worst.
“Look, it makes me sick, too,” Peg said, “but Ron’s just trying to help you keep your job.”
“You mean his job.”
“Pull your head out of your ass. Make her write an extra paper.” She gave Helen a colluding nudge. “Lighten up. Have an orgasm.” The bell rang. Peg touched her breasts and winced. “I’ll find you at the pep rally later,” she said. “If anyone needs me for the next fifteen, I’ll be pumping in my car like a pervert.”
It wasn’t that Helen hadn’t had an orgasm. She had! Once, her teeth had tingled as if she’d bitten down on aluminum foil. That afterglow had lingered for hours, like sand stirred from the bottom of a river after the landing of, say, a dead body — well, that wasn’t sexy, Christ, but maybe something else heavy. Or maybe it was more like the deliciousness of scratching an itch in the middle of a body cast, near the navel or inner thigh, reachable only by the precise and patient searching of a long wooden stick. Of course she understood the musical equivalent, too: the crescendo, the diminuendo. And climax, the word itself so literary. Yes, she could orgasm with the best of them, and would again soon (no one could possibly go this long), and maybe at lunch she could drop a casual reference to once having had sex with Tim on the dryer.
Everything had been so exciting at first: the frenzied but purposeful lovemaking; the breathy promises; the rhapsodic hours spent imagining the collision of egg and sperm, which appeared in Helen’s mind like an abstract painting.
But lately tact was at a premium: Tim’s distracted pounding, Helen rifling through her repertoire of fantasies, trying each one out for a few seconds before stumbling on to the next, flustered and panicky, like a contestant in some terrible game show: What Will Bring Home the Big O? Would it be (A) stranded, need ride, must strip, etc., for rude Mack-truck driver; or (B) stranded, need ride, must strip, etc., for two rude Mack-truck drivers; or . . .
When you got down to it, Helen wasn’t feeling all that great about herself. All her underpants, for instance, were stretched out, and she hadn’t gotten new ones yet. Because, you know, she had so much goddamn free time to shop. Because, no problem, she could just leave her job at work, like Tim did at GameStop. A few times the grading had gotten so onerous that she’d thrown a whole stack of papers in the trash and told the kids she’d left them on the plane — not that she’d been on a plane.
“Just give them all A’s!” Tim said, beer in hand, picking up a paper from the kitchen table where Helen was grading and reading from it in a British accent. He was always speaking in different personas: Yoga Teacher, Distressed Pilot, Hairdresser from Milan. He had designated voices for the cat, who had a lisp, and the houseplants, which were all apparently from Soviet Russia, and, depending on his level of alcohol consumption, his penis.
“You’re both young,” the gynecologist had said to them on Monday, smoothing his cheery yellow tie. “Try to reconnect. There is always more going on there than you think.”
Helen nodded. Tim helped himself to a mint from the hospitable bowl on the doctor’s desk.
The guy had a point, Tim suggested on the way home. They should cool it on the baby thing. They were only thirty-two. Did they really want to end up like their friends, who barely recognized their own lives: carting diaper bags and breast pumps; serving chocolate milk to their kids’ grubby playmates; resigning themselves to a life of endless worry?
It was something to think about.
Friday’s last block of classes was replaced by the pep rally, the climax of Spirit Week, an overstimulating affair for which Helen forgot each year to call in sick. Teachers with fourth block free were able to sneak off to their sunbaked Hondas and head home, or to a peacefully abandoned October beach, or to Rocko’s, where pints were two bucks before five o’clock. But Helen had to chaperone her students for the entire hour and a half of sensory vandalism.
Though only half full, the gymnasium was already loud and ripe. Beads of sweat caught the floodlights like sequins. Three rows down, Kyle Parker squirted an angry nest of silly string into Maggie Beaudoin’s ballet bun. Trevor Bass was sitting quietly and rocking, a penis painted on his cheek in school colors — hopefully someone else would deal with that; Helen didn’t really feel like breaking the news to him that he had a dick on his face. She wasn’t sure how many friends Trevor had to begin with — a few Dungeons & Dragons types, at best. And with that strange rocking, she could only imagine what kind of shit storm he went home to every evening.
Helen had a stack of Jane Eyre essays on her lap. She eyed the doors and imagined darting for the parking lot herself, the essays scattering behind her. Her students were already so bored and cynical, and she kept losing control of the classroom conversation — like this morning, when Keith Havers suggested helpfully that blind Rochester might have occasionally taken Jane “in the wrong hole.” Yes, those papers could just impale themselves on the prickle bushes out front.
Donald Rathmus sat down next to her and straightened his pant legs. He hadn’t worn pajamas either, but then, he was an odd bird, always frowning when he spoke and cradling a Vonnegut book like a newborn. She would have thought Donald, who claimed to have read Lolita in the fourth grade, would have appreciated Jane’s passion, her agony, her quiet resolve. But what had he picked for the topic of his paper? Trees. The symbolism of trees.
“How are you finding the pep rally so far, Ms. Fiore?” Donald asked.
How was she finding it? Donald was really too much. Helen shrugged and watched Ron on the gym floor, wearing his bear head and teetering in circles, sweat spreading under his arms (What had he told her today? To calm down?), the cheerleaders jumping and clapping frantically every time that idiot—
“I’ve been wondering,” Donald said, a note of concern in his voice, “why didn’t you ever pursue a PhD in literature? I imagine you would have found it rewarding.”
Helen was taking a sip of water and stopped just short of spewing it theatrically across his pressed pants. What, did he think teaching high school wasn’t a fulfilling-enough career path for someone as capable as Ms. Fiore, his AP English teacher? Squandered potential — was that it? A rose without sun?
“I wanted to teach a younger age group,” she replied.
“Brilliant,” he said.
Brilliant. Donald would probably go to Bard and start wearing a beret. Walk around with a fucking ukulele.
“The PhD’s value has become diluted,” he said. “I’ve read that more and more students finish their programs with very low chances of job placement.”
“Sounds like I dodged a bullet,” Helen said. As if she’d enjoyed giving up that spot at Stanford. As if she would have minded spending her early twenties wallowing in dissertation angst, fabulously ulceric from too many cappuccinos, instead of driving her anxious mother to every goddamn bar on the coast and flashing her father’s license: Has he been here tonight?
“What did you think of Jane Eyre?” she asked him.
“The love story, though. Did you like it?”
Donald brushed a fleck of glitter from his wrist. “Brontë’s rendering seemed a touch overwrought.”
“That was my impression.”
“ ‘Overwrought.’ ”
“I could be wrong.”
“Brontë’s trees, though — you didn’t have a problem with those? The vegetation was properly wrought?”
“Got a girlfriend, Donald?” she asked.
He straightened his pants again and began to stand up, muttering something about needing to use the bathroom.
“Or a boyfriend, whoops! Don, hey!” she called to his back, but he kept walking.
Jesus, what was wrong with her? Who was she to knock Donald, or ukuleles? Ukuleles were great. Maybe if she’d had a goddamn music lesson or two, she’d know the difference between that and a whaddayacallit. A banjo. She’d praise Donald’s tree analysis in class. It was an original paper, after all, with authoritative topic sentences.
Helen scanned the gymnasium for other teachers, to see if anyone else was feeling a bit taxed: Carla (earth science), hearing aids strategically MIA, was standing up to smooth her skirt under her ass. Kevin (American history) leaned against the climbing wall with his eyes closed, likely doing one of those breathing exercises he’d started after his wife had run off with an actual circus clown. A freshman had grabbed a cheerleader’s megaphone, and Margaret (geography) officiously ripped it out of his hands and proceeded to drop it on her foot. Helen laughed, then felt guilty for laughing and looked down at her own feet. The realization blossomed slowly. It didn’t seem possible, but there they were: brown on the left, black on the right. Jesus. Her shoes. Brown and black. Black and brown. In the dark bedroom that morning she hadn’t noticed. What could she do? Nothing. There was no getting around a thing like that. You either had on two different shoes or you didn’t, and she did.
Maybe she could say it was for Clash Day!
She felt a lightness, even, at the genius of it. All was well in her world. She was whole and complete. Perhaps people had been admiring her! Maybe she had even scored herself some street cred, like: Hey, that Ms. Fiore, she’s some hot tick—
Yesterday was Clash. Today was Pajama Day. Well, shoes weren’t pajamas. Shoes were duds. No one went to bed in shoes. Except Dad. Dad had. But that hadn’t really been going to bed — more like losing consciousness in a horizontal position.
She could just take the shoes off and shove them in her school bag, walk around in socks, cool and casual, like no big deal. All part of the pajama theme. More genius. Bingo. Why not show some school spirit? She would. She did.
Her left big toe stuck tragically through a hole in her sock.
There was nothing worse than that. Well, maybe those nipple hairs she had started tweezing while she brushed her teeth. One day she probably wouldn’t even bother, and then she’d be eighty, and then she’d be dead.
Peg was sitting a little ways down from Helen with her cowboy boots and flattering layers to hide her beautiful baby weight and that sleep mask — so perfect, really. Why hadn’t Helen thought of that? Why couldn’t Helen just go with the flow like Peg? She was laughing at Ron but in a gracious way. The bear head was now resting beside him like a pet, and he appeared to be performing a comedy act with flamboyant hand gestures and arched eyebrows.
The athletics director, John Turner, was at the podium, rattling off this season’s stats like something from the stock exchange: “Field hockey: 3 and 0. Soccer: 2 and 4. . . .” Helen imagined walking up to the mike, pushing big John aside, and shouting, Anyone read Jane Eyre? Do you remember how Jane knows to return to Rochester? Anyone? Fucking telepathy! Now, that’s a soul mate! Woo-hoo! Let’s give it up for Jane!
Maybe she had ADHD or something.
Someone was calling her name.
Well, it sure as hell wasn’t Tim, who barely called her from the other side of the couch, let alone from across the heather, or whatever the hell grew in England.
“I’m coming!” Helen cried back. Jesus, she was really starting to lose—
“You OK?” It was Peg, who was now sitting beside Helen, patting her knee. “Why are you yelling?”
“Oh, no reason.” Helen groaned into her hands. “It’s just been a long day, you know. Sometimes you just . . .”
Peg touched Helen’s arm, and Helen suddenly felt very far away. She couldn’t stop licking her lips. If she kept it up, they’d soon be red and blurry, like a bad lipstick job, but worse, because she wasn’t even wearing lipstick. Why didn’t she wear lipstick? She wanted to crawl under the bleachers into that dim corner with the fire extinguisher and the stack of purple exercise mats. That wouldn’t be too much, would it, for her to spend just a few minutes in the fetal position?
“You should go home.” Peg snatched the pile of Jane Eyre essays from Helen’s lap and began straightening it. “You look weird. I’ve been watching you from over there.”
“I’m fine. I was going to read the rest of these.”
“I’ll watch your students.”
“No, I’m perfectly—”
“It’s Friday,” Peg said. “Don’t you guys have plans?”
Becky Fairchild was at the podium, wrapped in the arms of her mannish field-hockey coach, gripping a plaque of some sort against her chest.
“Plans?” Helen said. “I don’t know.”
Helen didn’t catch what the award was for — Best Plagiarizer? — but everyone seemed pretty happy about it.
“Make some!” Peg said. “What about a picnic? God, that sounds nice. Wine and cheese, a crunchy baguette. I’m really into fig . . .”
The crowd began to holler. Becky shook her plaque in the air. What was Becky wearing? Helen squinted.
“. . . or jump in the car and drive to Provincetown. Find a bed-and-breakfast, quick, before you get knocked up and never . . .”
A Stanford T-shirt.
“Shit,” Peg said. “I’d give my left labia to get a weekend alone with Marc.”
“ ‘No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am,’ ” whispered Helen.
“ ‘Ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.’ ”
“Who, Tim?” asked Peg.
It was clear to Helen that she should leave. The stupid day was practically over, anyway. She stood up. She was going. She was shoving right past everyone to the bleacher stairs. Down the stairs, eyes on her feet. Black, brown. It wasn’t an issue. Right past poor, rocking Trevor with that penis still drawn on his face, past Ron in his PJs. Ron wasn’t so bad. He was what he was. He waved at her, and she flashed him a friendly thumbs up. She would stop for a beer at Rocko’s. What the hell. Maybe Tim could meet her there. A little spontaneity would do them good. Helen couldn’t remember the last time they’d gone on a date. Maybe that was all they needed.
Out in the hall she dialed his number on her cellphone. She could get some lipstick at the drugstore on the way to the bar.
“Crap,” Tim said after she told him her plan. “I was going to grab a drink with Rob and Neal.”
“Oh,” Helen said.
The animal bellow of an air horn sounded in the gymnasium, and people cheered. She leaned against the cold tiles of the wall, pressed her cheek to them, closed her eyes, and hung up. Her heart was thumping like a flat tire. What did Jane say? My heart beat fast and thick: I heard its throb. Suddenly it stood still to an inexpressible feeling that thrilled—
Helen hadn’t had enough lunch; that was all. Another goddamn Puritan peanut-butter sandwich. Who’d be satisfied with that? Sometimes her heart flopped around like that when her blood sugar got too—
I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever—
Helen was pushing the stairwell door open, climbing to the third floor. Now she was at the top, walking down the English-department hallway. Her door was on the right, and she was opening it, closing it behind her. Becky could not have been bothered to open the book, let alone write her own goddamn paper, let alone understand that that kind of love . . . that you wouldn’t . . . that it didn’t—
That real life couldn’t touch it.
She was standing at her desk, flipping through her student rolodex, dialing 99 to make an outside call. Outside the window her favorite maple was already naked, its leaves a red dress around its ankles. She would miss that tree. She would miss that tree a lot. Maybe she would leave a note for her replacement, to suggest taking the class outside and sitting with them under that tree and reading to them from Winnie-the-Pooh. The students loved that. You had to do it in the first week of October, between noon and 12:15, when the sun lit the leaves just—
“Mr. Fairchild?” Helen said when a man answered. “This is Helen Fiore, Becky’s English teacher.”