Chalk Between My Fingers
I wish that life came with a ruler, something to measure it by. That's probably because I’m a mathematician. For fifteen years, I’ve taught the subject at Hamilton, a private middle school in Presidio Heights. San Francisco is a chilly city, and while I love the feel of chalk between my fingers, I’ve noticed that my fingertips have been numb for the past few years. I imagine Penny Weatherston in the English department jumping into the world of metaphor and declaring that I'm a man “out of touch.” Perhaps she’s right.
Penny’s a well meaning woman who, since hearing of my divorce, regularly asks me to lunch, dinner, and holiday gatherings. This morning in the faculty room, she says: “Are you dating anyone, Martin?” I know she’s been dying to know, like the other female teachers. Their tact has prevented them from asking, and frankly, I’m surprised that even Penny has lasted this long: tact has never been her strong point.
Not dating, I tell her. Not ready for that yet.
“Not ready?” she exclaims, aghast, coffee pot suspended mid-pour. “It’s been four years. That’s not enough time?” Many teachers dislike her directness, but I’ve always appreciated it. Those who are quiet, who nod without a word or smile quickly are the ones who make me nervous; shadowy communication holds painful words in its dark corners.
Still, I cannot find any appropriate response because I’m too confused. Has it really been four years? That’s almost 1,400 days. A lot of time, in my opinion, which I’d somehow lost track of. But Penny knows the number off the top of her head. I feel faintly sick, struck by the vision of all the teachers at Hamilton Middle School gathering in the conference room to discuss the Life of Martin Fredricks. A brainstorming session, with flow charts and graphs delineating my lack of progress, it’s the kind of meeting we hold for our most troubled students.
“Your ex-wife didn’t leave because of you,” Penny says, clutching a pile of books to her chest. “Chloe left because of her.”
I stare, again at a loss for words.
She says, “She left because it was in her nature.”
The word, nature, doesn’t call up an understanding of what it means to be human—an incessant topic in the English department—but rather, an image of a forest glen, with deer grazing and sunlight falling through the trees. Something I hardly associate with Chloe.
“She’s married now,” I say. “I hear through the grapevine she’s very happy.”
“Good for her.” Penny abruptly drops the pile of books on a desk and rummages through her purse. Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. Pride and Prejudice. Romance novels, as far as I’m concerned. Stories about women loving men. Difficult men.
“I was very good to her,” I say. “Maybe I shouldn’t have been.” I laugh and flee from the faculty room, avoiding the conversation turning into (what my mother used to call) a Pity-Pot Episode. She used the term so frequently that by the time I had turned twelve, she had condensed it to an acronym. Let’s not embark on a PPE today. Okay, Martin?
Perhaps because of my mother’s training, evidenced by my refusal to sulk, complain, or snap at others, many of the female teachers—90% of the faculty here--have repeatedly told me how well I’ve taken the divorce. They say I look great. Fit. Even happy. After Chloe left, they took turns bringing me various casseroles and lasagnas. They're kind yet unobtrusive, caring but discreet, and I have to say that I would rather be in the faculty room on a Friday afternoon with these ladies than at any bar with one of my male friends.
I’ve been doing this lately, writing my name several times before class. It’s comforting to see the words that delineate who I am, a visual self-assertion. While doing it, I can feel the estranged warmth return to my fingertips. I’m not so out of touch, I reassure myself. I’m doing fine, just fine.
But I’m also disappointed. Martin Fredricks. Such an average name. Women are lucky; they can change their names by getting married (or divorced), and in doing so, reinvent themselves. My mother, who married three times, had several monogrammed sets of towels and sweaters, and I noticed the shift of initials over the years: MAF to MAC to MAK. Every time she remarried, she held a new persona. Or at least could pretend to. I’m still Martin Fredricks, a mathematician, someone who longs for the feel of chalk between his fingers and a good PPE once in a while. I can’t escape that.
Francesca Hughs confronts me. A sweet girl, perpetually tan, with bright green eyes and an awkwardness that she suppresses through quick smiles and shrugs. She flashes one of those smiles now while standing in the doorway. Dear God, is it time for the seventh grade class already? I glance at the clock. 12:50. Nothing registers. I can’t remember what time fifth period begins, and I’ve worked here for fifteen years.
“Is it time for class?” I ask, feeling a complete fool. It’s like a chef asking one of his patrons if boeuf bourguignon is on the menu.
She nods with a solemn expression, and sensing I’m not ready, waits for permission to enter the classroom. I’ve discovered over the years that the girls in my classes read me very well: they see when I’m flustered, faintly embarrassed, rushed, melancholy. Unlike the boys, they never take advantage of my moods. When I’m run-down or a bit sad, they do not giggle, resist working, or nod knowingly at each other. The boys—Christopher Crabtree is the worst—glare at me in defiance. But the girls grow quiet, even docile. They try to make things easier.
“Come in,” I say to Francesca. “Sit down.”
She drags herself into the room as if wearing ankle weights. Even her head leans slightly under some invisible pressure. Falling into her seat, she drops her books on the desk just as loudly as Penny Weatherston had done.
It’s not her body language that alerts me. Adolescent girls convey this doomsday expression when disappointed by an unsavory lunch menu. No, it’s that she’s alone. Francesca, with her bright eyes and energetic chattiness, is always in the company of other girls. Always. Seeing her surrounded by friends in the cafeteria, near the lockers, or out in the school yard, I’ve felt a pang of both comfort and jealousy, witnessing the easy companionship she has with others.
“I was just writing my name,” I announce. Suddenly, as if Chloe is in the room, I feel her cringe. She disliked my straightforward communication. It doesn’t work that way, Martin, she used to say. You can’t just blurt something out. Once, I informed one of her closest friends, a bookkeeper forever picking lint off of her clothing, that she would inevitably drop her new knitting class. She didn’t have the patience for knitting, I told her. Or for child-rearing for that matter. Chloe flew into a rage. But how was I to know her friend was pregnant?
You’re socially inept! she shouted. A math person. That’s what you are. A math person.
Why couldn’t she see how great that was? In math, “problems” can be sorted out once one knows what to do. It’s amazing in its simplicity. There’s nothing so perfect as putting a value at the end of an equal sign, a value that can’t be refuted or denied. One can actually find the answers; it’s glorious. I don't care what anyone says.
“I write my name to comfort myself,” I say to Francesca.
She looks up. “So do I.”
That’s right. I’d seen the girls do it a million times. They write their names on their notebooks, their book bags, in the margins of their loose-leaf paper. Over and over again, in curlicue script, block print, neat, messy, pen or pencil. It’s endless. Francesca refers to herself as “Frannie” in these handwritten outbursts. She also loves to write the words, La-di-da-la-di-da over and over and over.
“Did you get into a fight with one of your friends?” I ask.
She flinches as if I’ve raised a hand to strike her. “Annwin,” she says softly.
Annwin. The alpha female of the seventh grade class, and in my opinion, the entire school. Not especially intelligent, but startlingly beautiful and that goes far in the world of upscale American teenagers. I think she’s a bully. Not because she’s malicious, but because she’s moody. I can never tell what sets her off, but suddenly, her face and body freeze into an unsettling stillness, and the other girls fidget in their seats, touch their own faces, take deep breaths. Are you mad at me, Annwin? they ask in squeaky voices. Did I do something wrong? No, Annwin says. I’m not upset. She crosses her arms, looks away, prolongs the pain for God knows how long, and I hate the girl sometimes.
Annwin and Francesca are best friends. Of course, Francesca, with her sweetness and humor, would be closest to her—she’s probably the only girl who can withstand Annwin’s deep freezes. Although by the look on her face now, I may be wrong about that. “I’m sorry, Francesca.”
“Yeah.” She leans against her hand and closes her eyes as if enduring a migraine. I’m about to send her to the nurse’s office, but then realize that she’s holding back tears.
“People in my family are moody too,” I say. “My mother. My aunt.” My ex-wife. That’s who I’m really referring to. But I can hardly make such a statement to a student. “It’s hard to live with.”
She sits up, eyes bright with anger. “Annwin gets mad, but she says she’s not. She pretends everything’s okay.”
I know the scenario.
“Then one day, she’ll suddenly blow up, and say all these things. Mean things.” Tears fill her eyes. “And like, I don’t know what to say because I’m thinking, ‘How long have you been thinking this? Are you really my friend?’”
My gut feels heavy from the grilled cheese and tater tots that seemed delicious an hour ago. “You’re the last one to know,” I say.
“It’s...” She shakes her head, blowing air out of her mouth in a shhhhhh sound. “I don’t know. It’s just—it’s just—“
“Unfair,” I say.
She sits up, points at me. “Yes! It’s unfair.”
“So how long does it last?” I ask.
She descends from her outraged position into a defeated, cross-armed sulk. “Usually, it’s like, a week. Sometimes two. But all the time she’s mad and hasn’t said anything? That’s much longer.”
I nod. Chloe’s strange silences came on two years before she announced she wanted a divorce. Odd, how she stated it so abruptly--I’m not happy, I want a divorce—in the same manner for which she’d chastised me throughout the years.
Voices outside the classroom. Rustling. Thumping feet. I take a deep breath. Here it comes… Within five seconds, the classroom spins with movement, chatter, laughter; fourteen girls and boys invade the room, screech their chairs across the floor. The words bounce about, everywhere and nowhere, all at once. No, I’m serious…. the salad dressing was gross… little black flecks…. looked like bugs… worse!... like the fleas on my cat… totally gross!
The banter amuses me, but I don’t smile. “Settle down, everyone,” I say in my best authoritative tone. “I’d like to get class started.”
The last student to enter, set apart from the gleeful tossed about entrance of the others, is Annwin. She holds herself very still, face expressionless and cold. Her chair is two seats in front of Francesca, next row over. She sits, glances at me, and flicks her blonde hair back from her face. Irritated, I stare back. Her eyes, a pale, pale blue, glower at me like a cat's. I’m waiting, Mr. Fredricks, her expression says. Try to impress me.
In math, problems can be resolved, but only if one knows the problem in the first place. Did Chloe even know what was wrong in our marriage? I only got one part of the equation: I don’t love you anymore.
Why didn’t you say anything? I’d asked her.
You can’t change people, Martin. She made for the door. I gasped for air, for speech, for any kind of hope, left with only one horrifying fact—that she’d felt like this for a long time, and now that it was done, she couldn't wait to get away.
Annwin, slowly and in rigid calm, takes the books out of her pink canvas bag and sets them on her desk. I can hardly bare to look at her. I only see Francesca, face pink and distorted, blinking continuously as if sending Morse code to the back of her friend’s head. I pick up my chalk, roll it between my fingers, and realize that I’m stalling. I’m giving Annwin a moment to collect herself. To remember that Francesca is her best friend. To turn to her as she usually does, and whisper something that makes Francesca smile, laugh, glow. But Annwin doesn’t move; she hardly seems to breathe. I gaze at the girl’s placid face, an ache in my chest, and continue to roll the chalk between my fingers. How cool it is, how smooth, and how very, very hard.