THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER
by Alethea Tyler
One, two, three, four taps against the side of her thigh. To ground her. To calm her. Four was the perfect number. Divisible by two. The age of untouched innocence. Not too large, but not insignificantly small. A number that made sense in her mind. She liked the number four. In fact, she liked all even numbers because they possessed the ability to fold perfectly in half. In 8th grade, she had won the spelling bee because the word had been eight letters: rutabaga, a root vegetable. It was the uneven words she had struggled to remember.
Her husband had a six-letter name: Joseph. But she called him Jos, with an e: Jose. She never spelled it out for him in fear that he would recognize the oddity that controlled her life. As if he didn’t already.
They were lying in bed, his curly mop pressed in between her breasts. He was not snoring which meant he was not asleep, but they rested in perfect silence. A mutual understanding for the need of stillness hummed in the air. She was waiting. She always waited for him to fall asleep. Their duvet clung uncomfortably to her skin, to the insides of her sweaty palms. Tentatively, she reached out a cream-polished pointer finger to run along the threads of their sheets. One tap, two taps, three taps, four taps.
“Whatcha doing?” Jose’s head lifted from her chest. Her ribcage locked as she fumbled for an explanation.
She knew he knew she was lying. He was very good at that. Sensing her compulsions with a telepathic intuition. He didn’t say anything which simply meant he was leaving her to be, but not that he didn’t know exactly what she was doing. 14 years they had known one another. Married for eight. He knew because Jose practically knew everything. Practically. Seconds ticked by. His breathing went from deliberate to heavy.
Centuries later, Jose’s steady snoring reverberated in the air. Cautiously, she draped a leg over the side of her bed, scooching out from underneath his heavy arms. She pulled the covers over his face and thanked God she had married a heavy sleeper. She fumbled with the light switch, heavy fingered, contemplating if she shouldn’t. But the thought of crawling back to the warmth of her resting husband without doing it paralyzed her.
The light switch went on.
Once. She forced her eyes to travel the room, grazing over their bureau tucked away in the right-hand corner. Just beside the door.
Twice. Darkness, molasses thick enveloped her.
Three times. Now she saw the armchair, an impressive Victorian style that they had found at a thrift shop for 48 dollars. A fair price to pay.
Dopamine trickled through the synapses of her mind. Satisfied.
She lied back down in their bed, pulling Jose’s arms across her once more, resting her head against his chest to hear the even beating of his heart. She closed her eyes, but couldn’t sleep, her mind furiously sifting through the syllabus of her new kindergarten class. There were 26 kids. They had been at 25 which her boss claimed was maximum capacity, but she had begged with swollen eyes and he had given in.
“This kid needs to go to a good school. His mom is a single mom struggling to make ends meet! She wants something better for him. We have room. We can take him. Please.”
He had even gotten a scholarship. On his application the name read Joe. Close to Joseph, but not close enough. She had accepted the odd in favor of the bigger even weighing a three-letter name against a 25-person class.
There were four teachers. Paid decently. They were all in their 30s, just like her.
Well, she was 32 to be precise. The perfect age. Especially to have kids. She had been waiting for 32 since she was a little girl playing house, swaddling plastic baby dolls. She had waited because her mother had had her when she was 21 and look how that had turned out. It was something she had always known about herself: she wanted to be a mother, to have the power to nurture and protect, to stand by her children as they battled through life, flowering into independent, functioning adults. She was 32 and waiting.
The nights were the hardest for her. When Joseph lie draped across her body but inaccessible, his mouth unable to extricate confessions from hers. When her mind wandered to the darkest corners of the room where shadows loomed like silhouettes. Rather, a silhouette. His silhouette which snaked itself underneath the covers. His untrimmed fingernails brushing against the inside of her body, raw. From the ages of five to eleven. Sometimes it was not just fingernails, it was a hot tongue that reeked of bourbon or a protruding appendage that she could not understand. She’d count the seconds every time. A distraction. It never lasted long, but was always uneven. She’d close her eyes and think about what it had been like to be four. Sometimes he’d stop and push the sweaty, stringy strands from the corners of her eyes, stare into her pupils. The worst part. And then he’d start crying.
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m so sorry. There’s something wrong with me.” His calloused hands would swallow his face, his shame and she’d be drowning in the current that dragged her from violation to a desire to comfort. The latter always won. She’d grabbed his salt-soaked palms and hold them against her cheeks.
“It’s okay, dad. I won’t tell.” It was a line he had force fed her for those six years before he died. She knew when she repeated it, he’d stop crying, chest ballooning full, knocking her off of him by leaving. Each time she was emptier. She didn’t know if her mother knew. And didn’t want to know. It would have been too painful to ask. Besides, they didn’t talk about much. Not even about her father’s death; a drunken car accident.
She had been in the backyard, playing with their dog; a shelter dog she had named Ruffles because that had been her favorite snack. Her mother had pulled the porch door open and told her what had happened robotically. And she hadn’t asked questions because of the guilt that pooled like battery acid in her stomach… all of those times she had palmed her eyelids shut, wishing such an atrocity would occur. Her mother had closed the door and they had each retreated to their perspective rooms to emote. And returned to each other numb and silent. She was twelve, but realized that with his death, the secret had been sealed. Her mother had taught her it was improper to scorn the dead. And so, from a young age she learned that silence was the best and only solution with topics that were unbearably emotional.
In bed, she lied. Trembling despite her husband’s sweaty body. She wanted to wake him. Turn the lights on. Let him hold her tightly so she would be reminded the weight of the reality she now occupied. But then she would have to turn the light off and on and off and on again.
When her mind had grown tired of counting numbers, she fell asleep. She’d gotten to 1,232.
In the morning, Jose woke her. Overflowing with vitality as he set the coffee mug on their bedside table, the steam practically glowing in the suburban sun beams that fell through their window. They had picked a nice neighborhood hoping they would have children to fill the second and third bedroom with. It was the tenth house they had looked at. No sexual offenders nearby. A good public elementary, middle, and high school within close proximity. A park just around the corner.
“You look tired.”
“Didn’t sleep well.”
He said nothing. He knew. She knew he knew. But he knew she wouldn’t want to talk about it. One night when she had had too much white wine to drink she had opened up like a broken lock, vomiting intimate confessions all over his floor. She was 20 and he had been the first person she had told. He had taken the back of her sweating neck and pulled it so that his forehead rested upon hers. He hadn’t tried to kiss her. All the pieces did not fall back into place. She knew there was pieces that had been fingered away, edges of her that had been pocketed and buried deep in the ground along with her father. But right then, she let her half-finished self fall asleep in his lap. She didn’t even touch the light switch. That was the night he had first told her he loved her.
He was not a perfect man. There were times he grew frustrated with her sensitivities. Times he wanted to touch her but she could not stand the idea of flesh upon flesh. Times where she had lost her mind. Stopped eating, stopped sleeping, stopped talking. He had gone crazy trying to make her laugh and when that failed, he had shaken her, begging for his love to return to the ghostly body he held. Which she had detested. But he apologized and she verbally forgave him breaking the spell. He was not perfect. But he was patient and understanding. He didn’t lust after adventure or flirt with other women. And that night when he hadn’t kissed her, she knew he was a man she could trust.
It was the second day of school. Thursday. Joe sat along the edges of the classroom, quiet. The other kids were out at recess.
“Hey guy…you okay?”
He looked at her with eyes distant. And she fought the swimming memories of her five-year-old self that threatened to break the surface.
He didn’t say anything else. She offered four crayons and a blank sheet of paper which he accepted with jelly coated fingers. Together, they colored in silence. She didn’t ask him a lot of questions. When she was five, she hadn’t liked to talk. She knew the other teachers were worried. They had conferences before school started and he had been a common topic.
“How do we help him? Losing a father at that age…”
“He needs extra support.”
“He may have a hard time adjusting.”
It had been too much for her to think about. She had spent those moments staring at the Keurig coffee maker, the yellowing linoleum tiles, the flickering fluorescent lights. They had asked her to weigh in. But she could not bring herself to speak, just shrugging her shoulders. An act of personal mercy that had come across as indifference. Later, she had caught them whispering. They thought she didn’t care. They had found her silence selfish and weird. They didn’t understand.
She paused to grab a purple crayon to fill in the giraffe’s tongue and shot a cautious glance at Joe. His skin was perfect, adorned by a smattering of freckles underneath his eyes and on top of his pointy, poreless nose. His dark hair fell across his forehead, obscuring his brown irises which focused intently on the coloring page spread out on the plastic, red table. He sensed her looking at him and met her eyes with his, giving a half-smile.
“I like zoo animals. Last summer my mom took me and my brother. He’s seven.”
“I like zoos too.” But before she could say more, she felt a twinge in her chest, her throbbing pelvis, excused herself to the bathroom and began to tap.
One, two, three, four. Deep breath. In for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds. One, two, three four. Another deep breath. In for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds. Her heart slowed, but she felt flushed from her scalp to her toes. She ran her hands under water until they were rigid and pink with cold. Then three more times. But not for the germs.
Steadied, she re-entered the classroom. All the kids were back from recess, their high-pitched sounds and syllables creating symphonies. She felt weak at the back of her knees.
The day came to an end too quickly. 3:05 was the worst time. Two odd numbers, zero didn’t count, and the parents would flock to the classroom. Babies on hips, cellphones plastered against ears, adoring children flinging themselves against mothers and fathers, reaching out for affection with chubby fists, boasting about their latest drawing or factoid. And protective hands cocooning little fingers would take them home. Where fortunate parents would get to look upon gloriously gleeful faces and wipe noses and give baths and read fairy tales and children’s books. Fairy tales she had favorited and memorized for her future children. Children’s books her and Jose had bought the first time she had gotten pregnant that now lay hidden in their empty room. The room that was waiting. She was waiting too. Her belly wishing to swell. She was late. A month or so. Maybe the third time would be different. Maybe this time it would work. She was too afraid to hope.
One tap, two taps, three taps, four taps. Jose arrived promptly at four. As always. She didn’t like to drive. Other cars swerved unpredictably. She couldn’t tap while driving. It was too much. And Jose was a good driver. Their friends in college mocked him. Grandma. They’d chuckle and he’d reach over and hold her thigh with long fingers. He knew she didn’t like to go too fast.
When they got home, Jose cooked dinner: spaghetti and meatballs. A Thursday classic. Afterwards, they rested on the couch, listening to Frank Sinatra. He planted kisses down the long of her neck, her larynx saturated with the sounds of pleasure. They made love. With him, she didn’t count the seconds.
With every passing day, her secret expanded. She’d race to the bathroom in the hopes that it was morning sickness and not her relentless anxiety that rose like bile from the back of her throat.
Jose started to notice. She ate very little and talked even less. He was hesitant to ask questions. The first two times had nearly caused an implosion. And he had stuck by her side. Bringing water to her parched lips, respecting her need for silence. He had acted stoic, but she knew it had killed him just as much. One night, when she had gone to fetch an orange from the fridge at an unreasonable hour, she had found the bed empty. He had been crying softly and quietly in the room that had painted yellow in naïve excitement. She had let him grieve alone, knowing her presence would cause a shift in attention. She knew he deserved to grieve too.
When it had been too long to go unasked he mentioned her period. But she couldn’t bring herself to answer him. Instead, she had gone to bed. That night she tapped against her heart. One tap, two taps, three taps, four times. Intertwining her rigid fingers, she prayed to a god she did not believe in. Six letters over and over, quietly, so Jose would not know. Please. A word that rarely made it past her teeth. One time, when she was seven, she had said the same. Please. And he hadn’t stopped. She recognized there were bad associations with even numbers and letters too.
At school, she’d sit in her desk, watching matted heads of hair run around the room, tonguing the number 31. 31 percent of pregnancies ended in miscarriage after pregnancy was confirmed according to one of the websites she visited often. Last week, she had taken a pregnancy test. Jose had gone out with his friends. She had clutched the small, brown bag to her chest and sloppily torn through the flimsy box. Two perfect pink lines had appeared. She was pregnant. But how long would it last?
She hadn’t told him. Scared to tell him, even more terrified of vocalizing hope. The first time, she had thrown herself into Jose’s arms, screaming.
“Oh my god. Oh my god! Jose! Jose! Look!” It had been the happiest moment of their life.
She didn’t want to think about that now.
She was 32 and waiting. And her husband was waiting which hurt her just as much. They’d talked about having kids since they were 18. Not with each other. Not at first. Not until they had fallen in love had the fantasy extended to having kids with one another. Kids loved Jose. And he loved them back. Recently, she’d seen him with his friend’s baby cradled in his muscular arms. The baby had been crying and then it had stopped. And she watched as it looked up at his clean-shaven face, his forest green eyes, his long, perfect nose, and smiled. Its little feet kicking, little toes wiggling from underneath light blue socks. The baby had smiled and Jose had smiled. And suddenly all the oxygen left her brain. She placed an arm against the counter to hold herself steady. All their friends had kids.
It made her occupation complicated. Somedays the sight of kindergarteners left her elated, but other days it mocked her. She didn’t understand. Her mother had been 21. Her father 25. Fertility issues were not genetic. She had dared to ask her mother this after the first baby they had lost. Her mother laughed as if the possibility was ridiculous. Jose had asked his father too. He had even gotten tested, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Didn’t want to have that emotional conversation with a doctor. She was 32. She wasn’t old or unhealthy. Didn’t smoke or consume copious amounts of alcohol. She had waited, she had married, she had established a career, she ached for children with every atom that comprised her body. For chubby cheeks and little shoes. For a kindergartener of her own. And all she had gotten were glimpses of it.
The third week of school, Wednesday, she knew it was going to happen. She had woken up late, thrown her hair in a bun, yelled at Jose for not waking her, and spilled the coffee. Which was followed by more yelling. She was mad he had forgotten to put it in the to-go cup. And he had gotten frustrated that she expected him to put it in a to-go cup today when every other morning she drank from a mug. All day she tapped. She went to the bathroom eight times. Her stomach twisting, convulsing.
At lunch she called Jose to pick her up. He did so without asking. At home, she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, counting the paint particles that resembled popcorn kernels. Jose had gone back to show a couple another home. She cleaned the kitchen to pass the time, running a sponge over granite counters, over stainless-steel appliances, over her stomach, attempting to wipe away the vile. Hoping it was not what she feared it to be. She scrubbed out the sink. And then scrubbed it out again. And a third time, before the pain became unbearable as something started to fall out of her.
She rested in the bathtub in their bathroom, naked, her heels on each side of the faucet, the fixture emitting a light dripping noise. She counted. 16 drips before her body began to leak too.
Her body was leaking, the betrayal rolling down the ceramic, swirling around the drain. Her fists opened and closed as she rocked back and forth, banging the back of her skull on the edge of the bathtub. She closed her eyes, but the color of blood was burned into the darkness of her eyelids. Blood swam around her ears, contorting the sound of her heart beat, her taste buds watered from the imagined metallic flavor.
She thought about the two children she had already lost. The third that was pouring out of her.
Her breathing became uneven. The pain seared through her abdomen, shot down the tendons in her legs, contracted the muscles deep within her. She wouldn’t let herself cry, didn’t want the tears to fill the bathtub. Terrified she’d drown herself in all the things that could have been; the developing fetus, her blossoming hope. She had been stupid to think it could have been any different.
This was how Jose found her.
“Oh fuck. Fuck, baby?” He fell to his knees at her side. She turned her neck, indifferently, saw who it was and attempted to push her mouth into a smile, but instead began to cry.
“Jose, I’m sorry. I’m so… sorry.” Her ribcage shook noticeably with every contraction of her body.
He knew exactly what was happening. He had seen it before.
He ran the water slowly, making sure it was warm before taking the shower head and bathing her. Lathering her hair with shea butter shampoo and conditioner. Sponging the bloody insides of her thighs. She let him. Gripping his arm as he did so. And afterwards, he took her hands in his, guiding her from the bathtub, wrapping her in plush lavender towel.
He picked her up in both his arms and she rested her head on the top of his shoulder. They sat on the bed, but he didn’t let go. Cradling her. Like a child.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. I’m so sorry.” She repeated over and over again, unconscious of how much her breath trembled underneath the weight of her grief. He didn’t let her tap against the side of her thigh, soothing her by rocking her back and forth, humming. The noise soothed her, calming her manic cells.
“I would never leave you. It’s okay. These things happen. We can try again.”
She knew they wouldn’t. Rather, they couldn’t. One more time and she would disintegrate. A fourth time. And if the fourth time failed…a fourth failed pregnancy. She loved the number four. She wouldn’t be able to withstand it.
And she knew he knew it too.
About the Author:
Alethea Chiara Tyler is sophomore at Colorado College pursuing a degree in Creative Writing. She has written and self-published three novels which are available on Amazon. In her freetime, she likes to eat copious amounts of sushi, to go thrifting, and to dance with her dog.