Although I live in 21st century New York City, only a close circle of friends know I am a lesbian. The East Coast may be considered a liberal and elite milieu to the rest of the country, but as a teacher in a charter school, with daily and close proximity to children, my private life could be held to a different standard. My preferences for short hair, buttoned down shirts, chinos and vague references to my personal interests reveal me to my colleagues. But I am mostly judged by my professional abilities and navigate at the periphery of the school’s social life and gossip. My last relationship ended a year ago, about the same time I developed a crazy crush on Angelique.
When we were assigned to work together, Angelique had confided that her real name was Angela, and she had changed it to Angelique in hopes of becoming more glamorous. I told her my given name was Susan, and I had asked since high school to be called Sasha, the name implying a certain androgyny. Angelique and Sasha—we could be salon Sapphists in a novella by Colette. The only problem is I don’t think Angelique likes girls. Her husband has just moved out to live with his former lover, who he had reconnected with on Facebook. Rick told Angelique he still loved her but was “in love” with his old girlfriend. For now, Angelique has accepted this dubious arrangement.
* * *
Angelique is late for work. It is class trip day to the Bronx Zoo, and we have to pack extra gear like bottled water, snacks and a first aid kit. She is a terrific teacher, gifted really. We co-teach the second grade and the worst case special needs kids get placed with us. With her skill and patience, we always manage. Our close work collaboration over the past year has developed a yin and yang quality; she is structured and organized, I am creative and playful. I’ve just finished making nametags for the kids when she comes in.
“Hey, Sasha, sorry I’m late,” she says, bumping into desks while carrying plastic bags from the supermarket. “I got the gummi bears for rewards at the zoo and ice pops for later. There are chips and ice teas for us. We’re going to need caffeine today.”
I run to the cafeteria to put the ice pops in the cafeteria freezer. When I return to our classroom, Geri Bachman, the school nurse, is sitting in a child’s chair opposite Angelique, grilling her about her marital plans.
“Have you gotten an attorney yet?”
“No, I suppose I should, but I don’t know how to start. I don’t think it’s over between us yet.” Angelique runs her hands through her wavy brown hair, then walks around the room depositing the nametags on each student’s desk. “What’s the matter?” she says as she looks back at our disapproving faces, disapproving for different reasons.
“You should think about moving on, Angelique,” I say. “He’s a hypocrite. He never wanted you to have children, and now he’s living with a woman with two kids.”
Geri chimes in. “I saw a talk show that discussed the social networking phenomenon of hunting down old boyfriends and girlfriends. Stronger hormonal levels when people are in their teens and twenties make the memories more vivid and intense than the reality. Rick will probably come back when he realizes he’s living with a divorced mom with little income. Forget about sex. It will be a matter of economics.”
Geri looks at me with a challenge in her eyes, then gets up and leaves as students start to burst through the door, excited and boisterous, anticipating a full day out of the classroom. It is an inclusion class, which means there are children with learning disabilities mixed together with kids without any special needs. The philosophy being they can benefit from each other’s differences. The children, though excited, follow the everyday routines and hang up their backpacks, file homework papers and notes in the appropriate baskets. Then they take seats on the rug for attendance and circle time. I review the day’s schedule, affix the date on our calendar, and discuss the weather and class news. I wish my life could follow the same precise structure of our second grade microcosm.
Angelique sits at the back table checking homework and trip permission slips. I ask the children to share with the group which animal they want to see. Joshua raises his hand and talks about tigers. Letitia gives a detailed description of the endangered snow leopard. All the children contribute something, except Dorian, who is a selective mute. Dorian understands us, but for his own reasons, does not speak. The school psychologist tells us that selective mutism is an anxiety disorder and there is not much we can do but make him feel comfortable in the class. Edwin is Dorian’s best friend. He raises his hand.
“Miss Godinger, can I show the class Dorian’s journal?”
“Yes, of course.”
Dorian opens to a series of crayoned illustrations of animals. The drawings are fanciful, yet sophisticated, their faces expressive with human characteristics. Their habitats are detailed. The pictures are labeled, but there are no sentences.
The class is aware of Dorian’s talent and they ooh and ah in appreciation. Edwin acts as his agent and walks the journal around so all the children can see. “Dorian draws better than my brother Oscar, and he’s in high school.”
Everyone laughs. I glance over to Angelique and she smiles at me. Her front teeth overlap a bit; her face is a perfect oval with a slight hint of a cleft in her pointed chin. She is ten years older than me, past forty, but with her good bone structure and slight body she appears much younger. I don’t think she has revealed her true feelings about Rick. She is difficult to get close to. I’m afraid if I try to get her to open up about her life I will enter a void or step out onto a precipice. It is the key to her eroticism. Although I am younger I feel the need to protect her and bring her out of passivity into what I think is a repressed passion. I am hopeful that she is not going back to her husband; I want to tell her I love her. The recent marital betrayal would make it easy for me to exploit her vulnerability.
When it is time to leave for the zoo, I review rules, check that every child has a lunch, water bottle and nametag. Angelique pairs up bus buddies, then together we usher the group out the main entrance.
The Fort Tryon Park Charter School is in upper Manhattan near the Cloisters, a museum devoted to works of the middle ages. Like most charter schools we are small. Ours has six classes, kindergarten through five. The whole school is going to the zoo today, including most of the staff. Although we are in the city, geographically above Harlem, the imposing hilltop setting, and the proximity to the Hudson River makes it seem like we are working beside an ancient, urban garden.
It is a balmy day in May. Many of the kids wear shorts and T-shirts. The staff is dressed down in jeans, sneakers or sweats. Angelique is wearing slim cotton cargo shorts rolled at her knees and has two body- hugging ribbed shirts. Lime green is on top; beneath is an identical sky blue shirt peeking out at her neckline and elbows. Geri Bachman grabs the seat next to Angelique. Annoyed, I sit behind them.
The ride is short and uneventful; the bus pulls in and parks at the Fordham Road and Bronx River entrance area. We have a tight itinerary and begin at the Himalayan Highlands exhibit. The terrain is designed to look like the mountaintops of Nepal, a natural setting for snow leopards and pandas. There are winding paths around boulders and caves. Angelique pulls out her camera to photograph white-naped cranes. I hold my breath as the class walks across a bridge over a ravine. We pause for lunch and bathroom breaks. Joshua is stung by a bee.
The last stop is to the crowded Children’s Zoo. The afternoon sun is hot; our bottled waters are lukewarm and unrefreshing. Groups of school children press close to the paddock fences, hoping to pet a goat or bottle- feed a lamb. Angelique and I check the headcount; Nurse Bachman is tending Joshua, but two children are missing. Turning, I see Edwin and Dorian positioned beside another group; a lone llama is standing in the middle of the pen watching the crowd watch him. Dozens of sweaty, little palms holding dried corn wave at the exotic creature in hopes of enticing him to come closer. The llama has a silky coat of white fur and long ears that curve inward. I approach the boys to tell them to join our class and see the llama stride with purpose toward our corner of the fence. The llama gets closer. With his goofy grin he looks like Joe Camel, minus the hump, from the cigarette package. Children around the pen scream in mock terror. His head and neck swing back and forth like a bobble-head toy in slow motion. Everyone ducks down a bit, not sure of his intent.
Then with a precision of movement that seems premeditated, he lowers his neck and head to stand face to face with Dorian. Oh no, he’s going to spit, I think. Instead, the llama blinks his eyes and opens his mouth, revealing a long tongue that swipes across Dorian’s right cheek. Droplets of saliva spray the crowd. There is a hush; we are collectively witnessing an act of God. As if anointing him, the llama also licks the left side of Dorian’s face. His mission completed, the beast turns and saunters to the center of his pen, superior and aloof. Angelique and I lunge for Dorian, hoping he isn’t damaged in some way. Nurse Bachman pushes forward to clean his face with bacterial wipes. Dorian smiles with contentment; there is a look of other worldliness on his face. I clutch his hand and gather up our group to leave the zoo.
* * *
The next morning Angelique is sobbing at her desk. Her face shining, she looks up at me. “Rick told me he saw a lawyer to have separation papers drawn. The cruel bastard said that for years when he was making love to me, he was thinking about her. Jennifer is the real love of his life. While he was away at college, she got pregnant and married this other guy. Rick said he married me on the rebound.” Her voice intensifies to a shriek. “Fifteen years together—I’m an idiot!”
Red-faced and panting, she flings a framed picture of the two of them on a camping trip. It hits a wall, shards of glass splinter in a glittery arc. I guide her to a chair and rub her shoulders and neck. My fingers move through her hair as I massage her scalp. She whispers to me, “That feels nice, Sasha.” She leans her face into my wrist; her eyes are closed.
Geri Bachman appears at the door. My hands slip from Angelique’s head. I see Geri adjust her face to deny any reaction.
“Are you all right, Angelique?” She looks at me. “You’d better call the custodian to sweep up the glass. It’s Rick, isn’t it?”
Angelique nods and looks at the clock. “I’m going to wash up and sit outside for a few minutes before the kids come in.”
Geri had been Angelique’s friend for several years before I started working at the school. Geri is her contemporary, but looks older. She dresses in conservative, tailored clothes and is attractive in a contrived way. She would never leave her house without being coiffed and made up; nothing she says or does is an afterthought.
She closes the door. “I want to talk to you. Angelique needs our help, Sasha. There is a good chance she’ll get back together with Rick. She loves him; all marriages go through periods like this. Angelique is fragile. She doesn’t need distractions at the workplace preventing her from reconciling with Rick.”
“What distractions?” My voice sounds shaky in my ears.
“You,” she says. “It’s almost like you’re encouraging her to end things with Rick.”
“That’s not true,” I lie. “Rick is an emotionally abusive man.”
“You don’t even know Rick! And anyway, what would YOU know about men?”
Her eyes widen as she cuts herself short. It is her first misstep in this carefully planned ambush. I am angry and unprepared to respond. The door opens and several students trickle in. “I don’t want to talk about this in front of students,” I say.
“Fine, but remember in this kind of a school there is more accountability and less job security. We work in close quarters here and people talk.”
My heart is pounding and I feel unsettled. The children are still revved about yesterday’s zoo trip; they sit down to write and draw in their journals. Angelique comes in looking drained but more composed. The class does activities related to the zoo trip and Dorian comes to my desk to show me his picture of the llama. The illustration captures its wacky essence. During circle time the students retell their adventures; Dorian raises his hand. I think he wants to show his picture of the llama to the group. Instead, he speaks for the first time.
“The yama yissed me,” he says. His voice is low and husky “I yove him.” There is gasping and head turning, and we all clap in unison.
Angelique squats down and gives Dorian a hug. “Yes, the llama did kiss you. We all love the llama. He helped you speak to us.”
Edwin calls out, “Dorian speaks to me. He talks to me on the playground and when we sit together in the back of the bus.”
“Why didn’t you tell us, Edwin?” I ask, thinking of the hours Dorian has spent with the speech therapist.
“I don’t know. I’m his friend and I can keep a secret. Am I in trouble?” There is a look of fear on his face.
“Of course not.” I sit next to Edwin and shake his hand.
For the remainder of the day Dorian is quiet; our chatty class is subdued. There is a sense of wonder regarding the magical powers of the llama. As I leave the school, I see Geri talking to the school’s director. I try to convince myself she can’t hurt me for my thoughts or feelings.
Two weeks later, Angelique has agreed to a legal separation. Rick is returning to their apartment to get his clothes, music collection and personal papers. Angelique is spending the weekend with me. We take the subway to my studio apartment on 98th Street. I had gotten up early to remove the clutter and scrub the bathroom. My galley kitchen is stocked with canned tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil and several bottles of Merlot. I will make linguine with marinara sauce, one of the few reliable recipes in my cooking repertoire. As we walk toward my apartment, Angelique stops to buy a bouquet of lilies while I pick up semolina bread.
She compliments me on the decor and plays “Chopsticks” on my piano. I studied for years, but now play only for myself and a select few friends. Straight away, I pour the wine for both of us. I am nervous as I start my sauce, and nick my finger with a knife. My blood oozes out, red as the Merlot. Angelique adds garlic, herbs, salt and pepper to the mix while I find a bandage. I pour a second glass of wine; I look at her small hands, her fine, wavy hair and the creases in her cotton skirt.
“Angelique, I love you,” I blurt out, fast approaching the precipice I have feared for months.
“I know. I care for you, too. I’ve only been with men, mostly Rick. This new prospect is daunting.”
Her beautiful face is solemn. I am elated that she has thought about me in this way.
“Don’t be afraid, Angelique.”
We embrace and move to my bed— a looming, lumpy presence in the back of the apartment. Our bodies stretch out diagonally across it. I grip the back of Angelique’s neck and my fingers weave through her hair; I kiss her lips. She does not recoil; her body is relaxed. We remove our clothes. Angelique’s body is little. Conscious of the extent of my passion, I check myself, not wanting to hurt her. Our bare breasts touch. I cover her body with mine. I will be doing most of the work. I sense Angelique has allowed herself to participate in an experiment; I am intent on bringing her to discovery. My mouth explores her body and I expertly bring her to quick satisfaction. Angelique’s moans are hushed but real. Her reciprocation of my given pleasure is valiant and clumsy, but I don’t care. I doze off for a few minutes. When I wake, I see Angelique filling a pot with water, heaving it over to my gas stove.
“Hey, sleepy head. I got hungry and decided to start the linguine.”
Angelique has gotten dressed and is pretending to concentrate as she turns on the stove. I throw on a ratty robe. The happiness flows down and out through my limbs to numb the ends of my fingers and toes; I know the moment has passed. She attempts to clarify her feelings for me; she is moving forward with her life and plans to divorce Rick.
“I was curious how it would be like with a woman,” she laughs.
“Well, how was it?”
“Great, for me.” She blushes and looks down.
“Move in with me Angelique, even if it’s only for a while.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for that, Sasha. I’m thinking about adopting a child. I’ve never really lived on my own.”
Our weekend together is wonderful. I play a Chopin piano nocturne. We go to a movie, shop for bagels and buy fresh fruits at a Korean market. Angelique sleeps anchored beside me, but we do not make love again.
Monday morning jumps at us, quick as the second hand on my old kitchen clock. We enter the school together. Dr. Prescott, the school director shouts out a booming greeting.
“How’s my favorite team?”
“We’re great,” I say.
I pass Geri as she fumbles with keys. My eyes meet hers, but she shakes me off and looks past me to Angelique. Her back to me, she unlocks the health office. Geri’s hatred is palpable. I am certain she thinks I have initiated an innocent into a subversive club.
The day ends as most others. The children are working on their last science project of the year, Monarch butterflies. They have been on display in a little mesh pavilion in the center of our science table. Most have emerged from cocoons to be released into the courtyard to take shaky, circular flight above the iron fences surrounding the school. Dorian draws them and colors vibrant as glass beads fill up two pages. He says little today; ephemeral winged insects don’t inspire like his llama.
Angelique heads home to her apartment to see what Rick has taken away. I pass Fort Tryon Park and look toward the river. The height of the cliffs makes me dizzy. There is water, fluidity; the colors move, separate, then mingle together, out of human control. I watch and remain hopeful. Maybe, just maybe, Angelique will change her mind.
Michele A. Hromada’s work has appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Forge, Sanskrit, Wild Violet, and Tower Journal. She has been a special education teacher and educational evaluator. Presently, she is working on her first novel, with the tentative title of Pen Pal. She lives on Long Island with her husband and their rescue dog, Noah. Read more of her short stories at www.michelehromada.com.