SIX-FORTY-FIVE IN THE MORNING. An ungodly hour for beginning work. But then again this was supposed to be a godly place, despite its destitute look with its cafeteria vent emitting thin wisps of steam and its weathered clapboards gathered up and hunched in the shadow of the highway overpass like a squatter puffing the butt of a last cigarette. Our Lady of Perpetual Hope College Preparatory School for Girls. I fought against a strange sprawl of nausea unknotting itself in my stomach in sync with the sliding of file folders, stray paper clips, and a package of Ramen noodles inside an otherwise empty guitar case I yanked out of the back of my car. A paper clip hit the inner mechanics of a hinge with a small ting of sound, and with it the nausea seemed to scatter again. Maybe it had been the result of the breakfast taco served to me at the gas station on a brown paper towel, like the kind they have in the public bathroom dispensers. Maybe that hadn’t been the best idea at six-thirty in the morning, an even ungodlier hour for breakfast from a gas station. I offered a tight-lipped grin and nod to Meg Wyatt and Juanita Green hauling rolling carts full of graded papers and books from trunks, then gathered my own skirt in one fist and scrabbled across the broken asphalt in the dowdy high-heeled shoes I’d bought at Payless for just this occasion. It was Halloween, and I was Maria von Trapp.
_____Until I’d been hired by Hope, deemed the only acceptable shorthand for the school considering the students’ more interesting choice of Perp Prep, the Sound of Music had encompassed the extent of my knowledge of Catholicism. That and the Exorcist, but I was pretty sure dressing up as the rabid-with-demons Regan MacNeil would be frowned upon. Though I’d thought about it. Long enough to buy a can of split pea soup and test out a sort of projectile made of bendy straws, twist ties, and a whoopee cushion.
_____“No one else is going to agree with you,” my husband Jamie had said, walking past with baby Lola tucked under his arm like a football.
_____“Agree with me about what?”
_____“That you’re funny.”
_____“Story of my life,” I said, folding up straws, squeezing the pea soup out of the whoopee cushion, and patting the counter in search of my car keys for the trip to Payless, plan B. And it really was the story of my life. I have many a horrible memory of coming out of a good eye-scrunched laugh at myself only to find several blank-faced, slack-jawed people staring silently back at me. This had happened just three weeks before, matter of fact, when I’d walked a hobbling Jamie out of the urologist’s office, as he delicately negotiated the ice pack in his pants back into place like a kid plucking a wedgie, and I’d said of his vasectomy, “It can be reversed, right? Cause I’m kind of thinking just one more baby would be great. Like, perfect. I mean, cause, see, I was just thinking we may have jumped the gun here, babe.” I’d laughed in a series of snorts for a good minute-and-a-half before I drew a long sigh of a breath and realized Jamie didn’t agree with me that I was funny.
_____Lola, on the other hand, thought I was consistently hilarious. All the time. I could cross my eyes, blow a raspberry, pull the severed thumb trick, impersonate Martin Scorcese. Didn’t matter. Lucy, who was seven, began to laugh with me less and offer instead a smarmy little half-grin that shouldn’t have found her face until she was sixteen at least. She had become logical, and there was something completely humorless in her logical, scrunched-nose, tongue-tucked-under-the-lower-lip picking-apart of everything, like, for example, when she’d pried open my hands to reveal the severed thumb was just the thumb of one hand bumping against the bent knuckle of the thumb on the other. “And besides,” she’d said, “let’s say you could pull your own thumb off. It’d be gross and not funny.” Humorless yet endearing. You have to adore a seven-year-old who donates her hair to Locks of Love, knows when the space station will pass between Jupiter and Neptune, and says things like, “You can’t draw people like Picasso did, Mom, because when he did it that way it wasn’t because he couldn’t draw … which is why you draw them that way.” Thanks to that single smarmy expression of Lucy’s, I had to have Lola just to maintain a receptive audience. I’d left baby Lola dressed as a cupcake at her grandmother’s and dropped Lucy off at school, dressed as Madame Curie.
_____I angled my guitar case through the front door of Hope and straightened my apron. “Good morning,” I sang with a trill to nobody in particular. The other souls skimming the halls of Hope this early were too preoccupied to respond. Roberta Darnell was testing out the intercoms with her lips too close to the microphone. “Check. Check. Thank you ladies and gentlemen. I’m here all day.” Coach Irvine and Randall, the school’s technician, were duct-taping electric cords to the linoleum so as to make the cords leg-breaking hazardous as opposed to neck-breaking hazardous. The principal, Sister Earnestine was popping one of two balloons shifting together with a squeak of their rubber in the voluminous button-up shirt Crosby Rochfort, the chemistry teacher, had hoped would approximate a Catholic school-girl’s uniform. One and then the other. Pop, pop. With the lightning-quick rapidity of a snake strike. As Rochfort’s shirt exhaled, Sister retracted her safety pin she latched once more to the elastic of her skirt and closed with one swipe of forefinger and thumb. Sister Earnestine approached every manner of offense with the same poker-faced efficiency, whether it be a young girl with the answers to the algebra quiz scrawled in the creases of her crossed arms or a grown man in drag flaunting double D balloons. “Not appropriate at all, Mr. Rochfort,” she said, and because I could suddenly imagine my name at the end of the same sentence I took a quick detour into the language arts wing.
_____Within three long strides I was face to face with Dee Gilbeau who’d just stepped around her half-opened door, poking her black-rimmed glasses up her nose in anticipation of being in someone’s way – her favorite position literally and figuratively. “Why hello there,” she said wringing the last bit of sincerity out of the greeting with the flatness of the lingering syllable. I first met Dee on a bus ride to the historic convent Hope sent new teachers to for orientation. She was scrunched beside me in her black tunic and her black pants peeling gum off the sole of her black cloth shoe and railing against halogen light bulbs. Within ten minutes of our arrival she’d managed to get herself lost, and we finally found her preparing Waldorf salad in the cafeteria with the nuns. “Don’t eat it,” she’d said drolly, “none of us washed our hands. I can’t believe how unsanitary this place is. Disgusting.” Her mouth was full. She’d been my best friend at Hope ever since. Dee wasn’t in costume, but rather in her usual black, flowy attire blending with the long, limp tendrils of her equally black hair. She gave me a quick up-down inspection in the hall and then said with the animation she usually reserves for the UPS man, “Oh look at you! A pregnant Maria. Now that is hilarious.”
_____“What? I’m not-”
_____“I’m not supposed-”
_____We kept interrupting the first awkward utterances of each others’ sentences until Dee loudly sighed and rearranged the tie of my apron. “There,” she pronounced. “You just had it up funny or something.” She tried to flatten the folds of the apron and dress with a few flicks of her fingertips, as if she were dusting off crumbs, over what I was beginning to understand was my ridiculously paunched stomach. “There.”
_____I tried to suck it in and felt half my abdomen crawl up under my ribs. Yet there was still a generous protrusion.
_____“Don’t be hard on yourself. You just had Lola, like, what is it now? Three weeks ago?” she asked.
_____“Five months ago, Dee. Five months.”
_____“Oh,” Dee’s nose scrunched. “How’d that happen so fast? Wow, I’m really self-absorbed.”
_____“Yes you are.”
_____“Must be the breakfast taco I had,” I determined. “That’s the kind of thing that triples inside and sits like a-”
_____“Eeee. Right. Enough said.” Dee flattened her hand in the air in protest. She was wearing a plastic ring with a pink plastic jewel like the kind you might fish out of a Cracker Jack box.
_____“Gotcha.” The nausea was returning with the thought of tacos and Cracker Jacks. I stretched out my lower lip, swept the blond flop of the Maria-over-grown-bowl cut that was already mine back away from my eyes, made a few lurching steps in the direction of my own classroom next to Dee’s, and finally headed toward it with purpose. “Better get to work.”
_____“You’re the boss, applesauce,” I heard Dee say before she boldly planted herself in the way of someone else. Darth Vader, as it turned out. And judging from the blue Crocs peeping out from under the cape I guessed this was Marcus, the French teacher. The single snort I heard reverberating off the inside of the plastic mask confirmed it as I clomped on my heels. This would be Marcus’ trademark laugh, a sound like a choking of an old lawnmower. Nothing made people stop laughing quicker than Marcus joining in.
_____By the time I swung the guitar case up on my desktop and started my computer, Dee had sent me my first email of the day. “Got anything Crosby could use for boobs?” it read. I deleted it.
_____The old wide-slatted blinds across the wall of windows in the back of the room cringed, gaped, and winked in various stages of dilapidation. They couldn’t be opened or closed or raised any more than they were right now, letting the morning light through in uneven patches. I spent a good five minutes of every morning staring back at them in disgust before attempting anything more productive. Mismatched desks sat askew. A whiteboard on the sidewall showed the shadows of Hamlet quotes, a Venn diagram, and a hangman game. A laminated sign on the door marked the teacher’s bathroom that I shared with Dee whose classroom was situated on the other side. I could hear the sink running and the brief clamor of something like aspirin rattling in a bottle. A door slammed shut and then the flag on my inbox flashed.
_____“How much have you got done so far?” Dee wanted to know.
_____“Staring at blinds,” I wrote.
_____“Loser,” she replied.
_____Nausea returned. I covered my mouth. With a deafening trill of the bell the room transformed in the presence of costumed teenaged girls from something like an empty glass bowl to a glass bowl with caffeinated spider monkeys crammed inside. A second bell silenced them. After the prayer and the pledge one of them, Victoria, with her voice rumpling the feather boa of her costume, finally asked, “Are you going to hurl, Ms.?”
_____“Nope,” I said with feigned confidence as I stood with my fingertips sprawled on the desktop and directed them to get in their groups. They had projects to work on. Which really meant I was in the mood to stare at the blinds for a week.
_____“Maybe you’re getting the flu,” a scrawny girl named Madge, swallowed by a southern belle costume, suggested while puffing a sleeve.
_____“Groups,” I demanded blandly. And above the scrapes of desks being rearranged into clusters, Hannah Montana (or Katie) said loudly, “I bet she’s pregnant again.”
_____“She looks pregnant,” her friend Vera agreed.
_____“You do, Ms.,” Victoria nodded.
_____“Just a bad breakfast taco,” I said. “Get to work, will you? Sheesh.” This was my problem. I had a way of giving the proverbial snowball a nudge down a long hill without even realizing it. What ensued went something like this: from the Pic-n-Pac?, gross, they’re not so bad if you’re hungry, have you been to Tio Taco?, oh my god that is so good, I saw Adam there last Friday, like what was he doing there, oh my god he is such a jerk, like that guy in that movie, oh that one yeah just like him, I saw that movie with Bethany, don’t say her name even, ho bag, oh my god yes, what did she do, well ….
_____“This doesn’t sound like project talk,” I raised my voice, which meant it shattered into three pitches and squeaked, “Projects, projects, projects. That’s all I want to hear.”
_____“You know,” Vera said, “you were really irritable when you were pregnant the last time too.”
_____“Right? Wasn’t she?” Katie turned to me. “Like, you gave me a D on my paper for no reason.”
_____“Katie,” I sighed, “We went over this. Quoting from your own post to Wikipedia does not count as a scholarly source.”
_____She’s irritable, because she’s pregnant leave her alone already, she’s got a bump, like Angelina, yeah like her just like her, you should have been Angelina for Halloween Ms., who is she anyway, Maria, Sound of Music duh, I hate that, I have to watch it every Easter, why on Easter?, oh my god I wish I had chocolate right now, like my weight in chocolate, oh my god that would feed the southern hemisphere for a year, what?
_____“Get to work!” I trudged between desks for the bathroom. “I’ll be right back.”
_____“She has to pee,” I could hear Vera informing the rest. “She had to pee all the time before, remember?”
_____From the in-between bathroom I could hear chatter emanating from two classrooms, squeezing in on me from both sides. I rubbed my temples with my eyes closed and then rummaged for an aspirin bottle in the large black purse Dee had left sitting slumped in the bathroom sink. I am not pregnant, I kept telling myself, that’s impossible, that’s … impossible? According to the little tri-fold pamphlet Jamie had brought home from the urologist’s office, it was entirely possible for the first few months after his procedure. This was not good, I was thinking as my fingers hit a box of pee sticks. A package of ten and they were all here, I counted, shaking them around inside, all but one. The panicky excess of pregnancy tests in Dee’s purse made sense to me. She probably used them on a regular basis just to be sure. It wasn’t that she had anything against children in particular. At least once I’ve caught her smiling in response to a student greeting her at her classroom doorway, and there was that time she let Lucy play with the three-hole punch. Dee’s real problem was with pregnancy in itself. When pregnant with Lola, I’d easily trigger her gag reflex by showing her my pregnant belly convulsing with Lola’s kicks. She called Lola “that little parasite” back then. I thumbed one stick from the package and unwrapped it. Maybe Dee wouldn’t notice it was missing. Within seconds a bright pink line formed in the little test stick window beside the other. Positive. Maybe, I reasoned, Dee hadn’t kept track of how many sticks she’d used herself. One more would go unnoticed. After all, this was a woman who’d always wandered aimlessly, squinting after her own car, in the teacher’s lot though she’d been assigned the same spot for three years. Positive. When she was down to just one test left, I’d run out of explanations for why Dee wouldn’t notice the dwindled numbers of her tests and left it A student knocked on the door while I texted Jamie a string of expletives.
_____“Are you okay, Ms.?” I recognized the little lamb bleating of Judith who I imagined had been cajoled toward the door with threats of twisting the head off her Hello Kitty pencil.
_____Am pregnant, eight tests, holy shit, call my mother, I punched in with my thumbs, swallowed in a hard gulp, and dropped the phone back in my Maria apron pocket.
_____“Yes, Judith, thanks,” I said, fanning the trembling out of my hands quick and sucking in a sob. I rehearsed a smile before opening the door. “Just fine.” When Judith looked up at me, snarling incidentally in a moment of panic, I realized my smile was twitching. “Are you working? You should be working. Work!” This time it wasn’t the squeaky split-pitched hysterics they recognized but something from the gut, a good two octaves below, a growl, a devilish growl. The girls were perfectly quiet for the first time ever in my supervision. I could even hear the slight squelch of Georgiana’s shoe sole pressing into the layered wax of the floor. “Back to work,” I said, and their heads bowed toward one another in their clusters.
_____The phone buzzed. I slipped it out just enough to read, ha ha ha. I typed back, Not kidding, wtf do we do now? Am going to die like old woman in shoe. I watched for a response. Watched and waited. There was nothing. The phone rang. It was my mother.
_____“Mom,” I whispered. “I’m in class, you know.”
_____“I know. I know,” she had the tenor of pinto beans rattling between paper plates like the ones we made in kindergarten, a kind of rasp I’d only heard in handmade maracas, cartoons, and her throat, “but this is, you know, a family issue, so.” Lola was screaming in the background. Not because she was unhappy. This was her normal sound, the happy banshee shrieking, I called it. It was this and sleep with Lola and no in between. I imagined her cupcake costume scrunched into a wad from the force of screaming, and all I could think of was Lola multiplied.
_____“Okay class,” I muffled the phone against my chest and could still hear the shrieks, “Mrs. Gilbeau will have her eye on you for awhile.” I opened both bathroom doors and waved at Dee on the other side. This was our usual bail-out procedure.
_____“The stink-eye,” someone said under her breath, and the noise level slowly began to rise back to usual decibels.
_____“Mom?” I shuffled down the hallway and leaned against the trophy case.
_____“Jamie told me eight positive tests? Have you thought of a name?”
_____“Mother, all I can think of is me, going out of my mind. I’m not like you. I’m not cut out for more than one baby at once. I’m just not that fabulous--”
_____“Don’t be silly.”
_____“Really,” my reflection in the glass contorted with concern, “and, bottom line, this wasn’t our plan--”
_____“Don’t do that, mom.”
_____“Deflate everything with the shuh. I hate that,” I said, “Apacolypse shmacolypse. You know? It’s still on its way no matter how you feakin’ say it.”
_____“Calm down. Take a breath. Let it out. Rinse and repeat. This is how we do it, darling,” she was almost singing, “one foot in front of the other.”
_____“Is this a commercial jingle?”
_____“Stop it. You know what I’m telling you. We’ll manage together. I’ll help you. I’ve emailed all your sisters already, and they’ll help you. Well, maybe not Margaret. Margaret writes,” she paused to clear her throat and no doubt adjust the bifocals sitting on her nose, “‘Did they buy their condoms from an ancient truck stop bathroom dispenser?’ Cause you do know the snip snip doesn’t work right away. I hope you did use something.”
_____“Well, we just said to ourselves condoms shmondoms!” I realized I’d just yelled this down the hallway at the all-girls’ Catholic school. Roberta Darnell raised up to peer at me from her swivel chair inside the little glass office by the entryway.
_____“Then it’s a miracle baby,” mom said, “and we’ll all be happy, so.”
_____“Yes ma’am,” I relented as I relented at the end of each of my conversations with mom.
_____“That’s better. See you after school, dear,” Mom said. Lola screamed, and the scream was suddenly silenced with a click.
_____I glanced down at the phone. The old woman in the shoe didn’t die, Jamie had typed, we’ll be okay. When I stepped back into the room, Victoria said, “Just tell us already. You’re so pregnant aren’t you?” Several peers joined in the begging, and I hurried to shut the bathroom doors.
_____“I’m so not discussing this with you. Please, back to work,” I was saying, but the bell rang, prompting a mass shuffling of papers and the slamming shut of books and soon the room was the empty glass bowl again. A scrap of notebook paper flit silently to the floor in their wake. I stood in my Maria get-up with my arms sloppily crossed over my apron and breathed in. The blinds snarled at me, and I snarled back. My shoes thudded against the linoleum as I trudged back to my desk and sat.
_____How do you solve a problem like Maria, Dee had emailed. What’s wrong with you?!? A bail-out before lunch? Highly suspect.
_____It was my free period, but Dee was teaching sophomore English. My clawed fingers hesitated over the keyboard. I could just see Dee, pulling her fingers through her hair, sucking her teeth, and saying after a very long, awkward pause something about tapeworms or alien life forms. I’m very, very busy, leave me alone, I responded, and just after I clicked “send” Sister Earnestine’s voice buzzed through my intercom over the door.
_____“Mrs. Moore,” the rigid syllables lined up side by side as I straightened in my chair so fast I sprang something in my lower back, “to the office, please.” I pressed my hand against the gulp that refused to make its way down my throat. I stood to find Dee standing in my bathroom door looking up at the point where the disembodied voice dissipated in a burst of static and went silent.
_____“Uh-oh,” Dee said, her fingertips still on the doorknob. “If she asks what happened to the two grapefruits from the teacher’s lounge, you know nothing.” I sighed at Dee who forced a hand to her hip and squinted at me as I walked out. “You better come talk to me when you get back,” she raised her voice after me as I made my way down the hall. “Busy my ass!”
_____Behind me, at one end of the hallway, the cafeteria issued forth its requisite smells of sawdust and hot rolls. At the other, Roberta pinched a phone to her ear with her shoulder behind glass. In the middle, beside the banner announcing in hand-drawn blocked letters filled with polka dots the after school viewing of An Inconvenient Truth, the guidance counselor, Yvonne Tripp, stepped from her office with both wan arms extended toward me. Her blouse draped off her limbs thin as tent poles, and she wrangled me into a hug that was the equivalent of her trademark dead-fish hand shake. “Congratulations,” she said as I gave her a one-armed half-hug and pat on the back in return.
_____“What?” I asked.
_____“Congratulations,” she held me at arms’ length and grinned. She had a way of closing her eyes and nodding when she spoke if she was being particularly sincere which is what she did just then when she added, “children really are a blessing. They really are.”
_____“Well, I’m not, I don’t, how did you,” I was stammering even though Yvonne was blinking languidly and nodding and walking back into her office. Her door shut with a loud scrape of its latch. I clomped forward again, hastened by the sight of Sister Earnestine waiting by Roberta’s glass cubicle with one hand folded over the other. I tried a smile, which twitched again, as the distance closed between us with an ominous slowness I couldn’t seem to speed up. She loomed, locked-handed, lips pursed, on the horizon. Then finally, we were toe to toe and she motioned for me to step into her office. _____ “As you know, the grapevine here is a short one,” she said as she closed the door, “and I understand we may be looking at another maternity leave. Congratulations.” Through her parted lips I could barely see the straight edge of her teeth which was Sister Earnestine’s approximation of a smile. My shoulders went a little slack with the relief of it.
_____“It’s nothing official yet,” I said in an exhale, “I mean, I’m just finding this out myself.”
_____“Well, when we know more, we’ll come up with a plan, yes?”
_____“Oh of course, of course,” I said, feeling behind me for the knob, “we will.” With one of Yvonne’s blink and nods I slipped free and returned down the hall that suddenly seemed much shorter than it had been only moments before. The phone buzzed in my pocket again. You feeling okay? It was Jamie, texting. I paused at my door, angling my thumbs to type, Overwhelmed. Feeling blah. Maybe clean house for me later and watch girls so I can cry in bath. Order dinner, with a chocolate shake, lots of whipped cream.
_____Whatever you need. Love you, he wrote.
_____Foot rub too. Can’t take Discovery Channel tonight. Let’s do Pride and Prejudice marathon. Love you too.
_____ Already I was feeling infinitely better. I even smiled at my snarling blinds. And then Dee came bursting through the bathroom door so the noise of her class poured in behind her and then dwindled on its own. “I’ve sent them to the library,” she hissed in a wicked whisper as she straightened her glasses.
_____“Are you GPS tracking me?” I asked.
_____“I could hear your shoes a mile off,” she explained as she dragged a chair to my desk where I sat. “What the hell is going on?”
_____ I covered my face with both hands, growled into my palms, then leaned in toward Dee and said, “I just don’t want to hear any gagging, grating sighs, or dry heaves--”
_____“Shit, you are pregnant again.” Her lower lip went in and out of her mouth, and I reached for the trash bin with the intent to maneuver it under her chin. “No, no, no,” she said as she swatted at my efforts, then took her black-rimmed glasses off, squinted her eyes shut, and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her eyelashes went damp and she sucked in a breath. The trash bin thudded against the scuffed linoleum beside my computer cart as it settled again. I reached to touch the knuckles of her hand, drawn up and resting on my desk top, but hesitated. Just as she opened her eyes again, I crossed my arms and slumped.
_____“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m okay with it. I guess. I will be.”
_____“No, it’s not that.” She sniffled, pressed a thumb into the corner of each eye to dry them, and returned the glasses to her nose with a poke. “It’s just here you are. You don’t even want another kid, right?” I nodded. “And I’ve, well …”
_____I breathed in, something of a gasp, and pronounced as if I’d just been told Sister Earnestine was really a man, the surprise-but-of-course, “oh!” “You’re trying,” I began. “You’re trying?”
_____“It’d be nice,” she shrugged a shoulder and stretched the corners of her lips down. “Don’t tell anyone. Anyone. And I mean I will bust knee caps and pluck off fingernails.”
_____“I wouldn’t dare,” I said, wide-eyed, pinching at my lower lip. “I’m sorry.”
_____“Like you can help it. It’s just the world crapping on me again.”
_____“But, but what about, you know, how repulsed you get,” I wondered.
_____“What. You were under the impression that we’re mature adults?” She stood and straightened her black tunic. “Please.” Her eyes narrowed at me and her slack jaw went askew. “Wait a second. How did you know so fast? About you being pregnant?”
_____I pinched at my lip again, making little pop, pops of sound every time I let go. I could feel my mouth tightening into a cringe. “Because,” I said weakly, and after a deep breath in I blurted, “because I used all your pregnancy tests. Well, almost all. And those lines were like neon they were so very pink.”
_____“I’ll buy you more.”
_____“No, no, no. Get up genius.” She fanned her hand for me to stand, making the plastic ring on her finger click.
_____“You can’t hit a pregnant woman,” I said.
_____“Don’t worry about me. You’ll be hitting your own head in two seconds,” she said, “follow me.”
_____I thudded after her in the shoes that were starting to pinch in on my toes and rub blisters on my heels. I should have been Regan MacNeil with the split-pea-soup projectile, I was thinking as I watched Dee’s dank hair rustle side to side across her back, wafting the smell of something like canned green beans. Her shoes squeaked. She opened the door and welcomed me in with the same gesture Sister Earnestine had ushered me into her office with. Dee was twisting her mouth aside, suppressing a grin, as she reached into her bag still slumped in the sink and shoved the box into my hands. “Read it,” she said, “Take your time. Sound it out if you need to.”
_____Get pregnant sooner, the purple banner across the box read.
_____“Congratulations,” she said with a smack of her tongue from the roof of her mouth, “you’re ovulating.”
_____I wasn’t sure which came first, the tears or the laughter, but I’d crushed the box with the remaining stick inside it in my fist as I mimed “yay!” like a breathless kid presented with a pony on Christmas. And when my eyes went clear and dry again and the odd, airy laughter stopped, silence clamped down on the little bathroom in a choke hold. Dee’s cheeks suddenly sunk in as if she’d swallowed her tongue, her face going aslant, her brows disappearing into the choppy black fringe of her bangs. I crumpled the box against my chest, pressing down on it with both hands. “Oh. I’m sorry Dee,” I said. She parted her lips and quickly closed them again, pressing into a small line. We’d always been jabs and jokes. Nothing about us had equipped me for this moment in which I was completely ecstatic at the thought of my not being pregnant and Dee was completely depressed at the thought of her not being pregnant. I leaned to slide the box back into her gaping purse and considered my options.
_____“I’m sorry. I’m just laughing at myself,” I said, trying to explain away my merriment which was surely like a slap in the face, thinking it all through as I went. “I mean it’s funny. An ovulation test. Shit, I practically told the whole school! And my mother. My sisters. Jamie. Hilarious, right?” She wasn’t laughing. It was like trying to untangle a train wreck, pretend it didn’t happen, set it going on the rails again. Self-deprecation wasn’t working. Maybe sympathy would. I recalibrated my tone, breathing in, mustering some tears that came easily at first thanks to the expression deepening on Dee’s face. “Truth is,” I said, imaging how our friendship might evolve into something really solid after all this bonding, “it was Jamie’s idea to stop with two. I tried to talk to him.” I tucked my chin. My face went wet. “So there’s no more for me, and until two minutes ago I was so hopeful, so happy, underneath it all. But now ….” I raised both my hands and dropped them again.
_____Dee looked down at the sink and rubbed one thumb against her other. I could hear her swallow. “Yeah, well,” she finally said, “you better pull your big girl panties on and go tell everyone you only tested positive for stupid.” Her shoes made a swoosh of sound against the floor as she pivoted towards her room and shut the door between us.
_____I scrunched my shoulder to roughly dry my cheek against my shirt and yanked the phone from my apron pocket to type to Jamie: Not pregnant. False alarm. Call my mother. I hate Dee. Hate her hate her hate her. My thumb passed over the toggle on the phone to click send, and then I waited for sign that Jamie was reading. I blew my bangs from my face and kept going without him. If I’m her secret Santa again this year, am leaving flaming crap in a bag in her cubby. I was always her secret Santa. Everyone put her name back, and I was always the last one to remember to draw. That’s what kind of friend I was, I was thinking. I held on to her name when no one else wanted to. I was there for her with the gingerbread men, the ceramic apple pins, the catechism coasters, and the French vanilla Coffee Mate with the ribbon on it. I’m not helping her find her car in the parking lot anymore, I wrote, and I’m forwarding all her emails to the list serve “on accident.”
_____What’s going on? Jamie finally responded as my thumbs began to cramp.
_____Good. Right? What’s Dee got to do with it?
_____Confided in Dee. Even cried. Tried to connect with her. She just said something insensitive and left. Whatever. Hate her.
_____Remember she’s not human, Jamie wrote. Gotta go. Let’s celebrate. Margaritas. Our place. Sixish. Nothing to be sad about. Old lady in shoe was a hag.
_____Ok, I typed with a sigh.
_____The next bell rang out. The clatter filling the room was louder than usual, a chair tipped over, maybe, or someone tripping over the cord to the projector again. I straightened to study my reflection in the mirror, wipe smears of mascara from under my eyes, sweep my hair aside, smooth down my Maria collars and striped apron. Maybe we had been wrong, I thought, maybe one more …. “Ms.” There was a timid knock at the door. “Your blinds just fell down on Kim Jong Il.” When I pulled the door back, Bethany stepped aside to reveal Nicola in green uniform and cap wrestling the wide-slat blinds gaped around her like a vigorous fly in a sticky-paper trap. She stopped, squinted, and saluted when she saw me.
_____“Someone yank the little dictator free,” I said, stepping between desks, making my way to the front. The one section that had fallen had exposed enough of the window that the sun practically whited out everything around us, lighting dust motes, reflecting off watch faces, making my computer screen impossible to see.
_____“Don’t you have something to tell us, Ms.?”
_____“Yes,” I said as Nicola stepped free of the mess of blinds across the back of the room and sat. “Get into your groups to work on your projects.” The phone rang in my pocket, and I answered, scrunching around it behind the desk, squinting in the sun, trying to listen above the din of the girls sorting the desks into new clusters.
_____“Drats. I was really beginning to like the name Eva,” my mom said. Lola screamed in the background. My shoes pinched down on my feet. A headache was forming behind my brows in the bright light. I was wishing she hadn’t given the futile, run-away idea taking hold in my mind a name.