Dr. Hura is the therapist I will never see again. I know this, sitting cross-legged on her couch, as she recommends a Biomat, a long electronic mat about half the length of a twin bed with crushed up amethyst crystals inside a series of horizontal ridges.
“I’m not sure that’s right,” I say.
I’ve just finished talking at length about Micah, our relationship finished after six years. Talking about it, it seems like a stupid thing to see a therapist about. I try to compensate with research, symptom listing—a more concrete reason. I had looked up on the Internet that I might be depressed, have fybromaliga or cancer, a brain metastasis. Web-diagnosis led me to Dr. Hura, but I don’t tell her this part.
She flips over my forms and gently closes my file. Dr. Hura’s hair is dark with the exception of a skunk stripe sweeping through it. Her skin is icy, translucent, almost blue. She interlaces her skeletal hands, long and knobby, and rests them awkwardly high on her chest.
“You, Bekah, are here because you hurt,” she says and coughs, but weakly, almost like a giggle.
“I’m a shock absorber for tragedy,” I say, not really knowing what I mean. “Maybe I should just move to Hawaii. I hear that’s a happy place to live.”
Dr. Hura listens, coughs or giggles, and says, “All right.”
A Zen garden rests on a glass table. I use the miniature rake to draw seismographic earthquakes in the sand. There are stones with words on them. Love. Hope. Peace. I turn them all over.
“So what do you do with it? This Biomat,” I say.
Dr. Hura rises and tiptoes to a massage table topped with a few pillows, presumably with the Biomat underneath. She reaches over and hands me a small throw pillow with beige and cream tassels. It is surprisingly hot. I join her at the mat.
“You lie on it, for about twenty to thirty minutes each day, absorbing the infrared heat,” she says. “Turn the volume up if you are sick.”
“The dial. You turn it up when you are sick. More heat will kill the viruses.”
I’m not sure I know what we are talking about anymore. She motions with a dial, left and right. There are tiny notches and temperature markings that range from 50 to 155 degrees. I look around her office, holding the pillow to my chest. Mason jars full of puzzle pieces line the bookshelf, neighbored by a few coffee table books about astrology, swimming pools, and blue-green algae.
“And this is going to help me?”
She furrows her bleached eyebrows and pulls her lips inward. For a moment I think she might cry.
“This will help you.”
I think about the last thing Micah said to me: You are a dark woman.
I put the Biomat on my credit card and Dr. Hura namastes goodbye. There is a strong probability that paying it off will take some time. I’m not even sure if the Biomat is legal. The thing comes packaged in a black suitcase that I wheel out to my clunker junker of a Honda. The sky is ominous with thunderstorm, but I wonder if it will actually break. I slide the Biomat sideways into the backseat. I realize I’ve forgotten to give Dr. Hura back her throw pillow, which is now neither hot nor cold.
I teach geography to eight graders at Bridge Academy, which isn’t the best school, but not the worst. It’s a small school, the brick building with blue castle-like towers, right next to the crosstown. Dull light comes in from the back of my classroom on this greyish February day. Outside we hear honking and a fender bender. It smells like erasers and stale cotton candy.
Right now we’re doing a one-week unit on the US and state facts. I point to South Dakota on the large vinyl map and drag my finger down, resting on a pastel yellow Texas.
“These are the tricky ones,” I tell them.
It’s a Tuesday and that means we have geography last period. I’m not pushing them very far. Right now we’re spending time memorizing what color is what state. I know if South Dakota isn’t blue on the test, they’ll be screwed.
“Think South Dakota: big and blue.” I know this is not teaching.
They give me their zombie faces. A flock of white ibises flies by my window. Kristi splits her split-ends with her teeth. South Dakota will be blue indefinitely and no amount of enthusiasm or adrenaline injections in the world could spring these last thirty minutes to life.
I tell them spelling memorization tricks for each state. The chalk breaks as I write on the board, Connect-i-cut. I stand back, looking at my prison handwriting. I decide to switch gears and quiz them.
Jeff says, “Pier-ee.”
Kristi says, “The capital of Washington is Olympics.”
I sigh and I pass out their notecards with their assigned states. Assignment: they each have two states—I’ve claimed home, the Carolinas—and they have to identify blossoms, blooms, mottos, and interesting facts for each state. They give a notecard presentation, write a two-page paper. They complain at first—moaning, echoing their favorite word, lame, dropping their heads to their desks—because, they all want California? I’m pretty sure all my students have never left South Carolina, so I don’t know what they think they know about California. And then there’s Jazzerie who loves school more than anything in her life. I don’t have to worry about her. She is my best and most annoying student—annoying as of late, because I cannot tolerate her enthusiasm. I can hear her squealing over Rhode Island and Alaska as if she now owns them, the ones she’s always wanted.
Durrell frowns at his notecard. He flips it over, as if there has been some mistake.
“How do I do a report on Nebraska if nobody lives there?” he says, flapping the notecard against his desk.
“Oh, people live there,” I say.
“How? They don’t even have a football team.”
“What’s really wrong with Nebraska?” This comes out too aggressively. I know better than to ask these kinds of questions.
“Everything,” Durrell says, carefully annunciating extra syllables.
Actually, it was Micah’s idea to have them work on state facts. Two weeks ago, we sat on stools on the back porch, passing back and forth a hand-rolled cigarette. Micah agreed with irrational tranquility that he would be moving out with all his paintings and I would keep the cats. This was decided and it seemed like enough for one night, that we would talk more later. We never did. It was late, the porch light dimmed. The way the shadows fell, I could only see his hand in the dark, sort of floating, as it reached toward me for the cigarette.
“Didn’t you ever have to learn the state song?” he said. His voice seemed to come from nowhere. “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas,” he sang to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw.”
“Never heard that song.”
“You should try it.”
“I’m not going to sing,” I said. I thought, How can you sing at a time like this?
“Well, state facts could be good. Did you know that J. C. Penney was founded in Wyoming?”
“This is too hard.”
But he just said, “Well, you are a dark woman.”
I let my kids out early. I know I’m not allowed to do this, but it’s only ten minutes. I tell them to be quiet, like bunnies, or moths, or something.
Jazzerie whispers to me on the way out, “I have the largest and smallest states.” She smiles. She has those clear braces but with blue rubber bands on the brackets. She’s pretty popular despite these braces, one of the richest girls at school. The zippers of my students’ backpacks tinkle down the hall.
At home, I lie on the Biomat and stare up the wood grain on my ceiling. I try to see patterns or faces or shapes, something Micah would do. I slide my hand under my underwear, but I give up on this.
“In the future,” I tell myself, but I don’t finish my sentence. My clothes are smushed to one side of the closet. On the walls, a few nails stick out like warts.
Martha, the dumb cat, hops up on the bed. She tumbles over, legs flopping awkwardly in the air. Dr. Sarah DeMint, the middle school headmaster, calls to see how I’m doing, talking quickly and nasally. Our weekly friends, but-she’s-my-boss chat.
“How was that therapist? How are your students?”
I tell her about the Biomat. “It’s like radiation rock therapy,” I say.
“Is that safe? Are you sure you went to a therapist?”
I roughly explain how it works and fidget in the bedside drawer next to me. It’s jammed full of randomness. One of Durrell’s old homework assignments, a stuffed monkey Micah bought me one birthday, a lone earring, a rusted screwdriver, a Byrds CD. Sarah stalls for moment, making a weird clicking sound with her tongue.
“Huh,” she says. “Different.” She switches the subject to how it’s going without Micah, which I find annoying.
“Fine. It’s not much different,” I say. This is not a complete lie. Basically, I’ve been going without Micah for a while. It’s just that now he has all his stuff.
I shove the monkey further back in the drawer, as if it will dry up and die back there. I snap the Byrds CD in half. We hang up and I look up facts about North and South Carolina and record them on the back of Durrell’s old homework that I’ve ripped up into notecards. I discover that the state mineral for South Carolina is the amethyst and take this as a sign. I tell myself that maybe the Biomat is like one of those pills that has to build up in your system.
I roll over on my stomach. My back feels roasted. The mat gives off deep heat, like body heat. I sort of hug it. I fall asleep and have terrible dreams with terrible repetitive music, a mixture between a hymn and a circus jingle. Here we go Idaho. Here we go Idaho. When I wake up, the lights are still on. It is too early in the morning, and the Biomat has shut itself off.
It’s one of those freak days where the temperature is up near eighty and I’m wearing the wrong clothes.
Bridge Academy is decorated with red, pink, and white heart garlands and everyone is high on chocolate. Since Tuesday, Durrell has now made six tiny crane birds from metal candy wrappers. I find them carefully balanced on all the chalk. The art teacher hangs sixth grader Twizzler portraits near my classroom. Lots of people with Twizzler hair that won’t stay glued down and sprout off the white cardboard. Very Raggedy Ann. I nearly overdose on conversation hearts.
Students and teachers send carnations to each other, an annual event this time of year. The flowers are mysteriously delivered to kids’ lockers and to classrooms. I receive two. One from Dr. Sarah DeMint, and one from anonymous with a note in Durrell’s noodley cursive that says, “Roses are red, South Dakota is blue, here is a NY State fact for you: New York invented the toilet in 1857.”
Before lunch, Dr. Sarah DeMint and I meet about how my quarter is going, and I slip up, forgetting she’s my boss, and tell her that Jazzerie is a princess bitch and Kristi Collins might be the dumbest student I’ve ever had. I go on when I know I shouldn’t about how Durrell is assaulting me with Valentines.
“It’s sexual harassment,” I say.
“Durrell is twelve,” she says. “I’m going to pretend that you didn’t just say that.” She scribbles something in my file.
In geography, a pigeon pancakes into the window and probably dies. Also, I accidentally rip the map.
“Kansas isn’t just Wizard of Oz stuff,” I say.
I look down and see the piece of chalk where I lost my footing and subsequently stabbed the country with my meter stick, right across Kansas and into Colorado, Utah. Durrell and his buddies laugh.
Jazzerie gasps, “Oh, the heartland!”
I mat back some sweaty hair behind my ear. “How about the state song?”
The bell rings, I grade, school ends. After the last bell, I resolve to stitch up the gash and search through my drawer for adhesives. I find rubber cement and a small thread mending kit from a Folly Beach Marriott, located twenty minutes away, a vacation Micah and I once took after he sold one of his large paintings. This mending involves unhinging the map from the pulley and pushing back all the front row desks so I can lay the map flat on the floor. The vinyl gash has already begun to fray. The school is quiet and I spend a long time tracing rivers until they evaporate into other states.
Dr. Sarah DeMint pokes her head through the door. “Damnit, we just bought those,” she says, arms crossed, head shaking. “Let me guess, Durrell Walkins.” But this is an act. I can tell by the way she inhales that there is more she wants to say, but she doesn’t.
To compensate, I go home and I lie on the Biomat for hours, much longer than recommended. My amethyst radiation. I try to burrito my head inside the mat, pretending that I am a superhero being recharged even though this is bullshit. Peeling back the quilted covering, I watch the rocks at work. For some reason, I expect them to glow, but they just look like purple rocks. The mat is making me so dehydrated I’m peeing ochre.
Julia, the bitchy cat, scratches at a bolster pillow, shaving velour fuzz everywhere.
“Stop it. Just stop it,” I say and Julia hisses. “You could’ve gone with him for christsake.”
When I think about Micah, I think about things I wish I could forget. We’re on the beach, my head in Micah’s lap. My sundress pulled up over my face, Micah sketching. It is stupid.
I think back to something Dr. Hura said in our only meeting. She stood up, took her X-rayish hands, palms up, and opened her arms wide as if she were moving into a yogic pose.
“Attachment only leads to suffering,” she warned.
I get off the mat and unplug it from the wall. In the kitchen, I rummage in the drawer for the dull steak knife. Row by row, I split open the Biomat, collecting the amethysts in the skirt of my dress. They are still warm. I dump the rocks into a pile in the empty side of the closet.
Dr. Hura got it wrong. Maybe I just need something cold, like Fla-Vor-Ice or sorbet.
I drive out to the Harris Teeter around the corner. I smile at a young couple pushing a stroller. I let an older woman take the last basket and enjoy a free sample of grapes and cheddar. In the frozen foods, I realize that this was a mistake. Micah holds hands with young woman. Blonde, alabaster skin. I try not to look at her face. Or his face, anyone’s face. There is a loud screeching in my mind. I turn and run, knocking over a large bread display, and slipping on plastic, but I get up and abandon a carton of raspberry sorbet with the bananas. I’m not sure if I am breathing. I speed through two stop signs and when I get home, I swing open the door and lock it behind me. I kick over the cats’ food dishes. I strip off my leggings and kick them inside-out on the floor and peel off my dress and hang it sloppily on the doorknob and click on the Biomat. Except, I forgot that just I ripped it apart. I stare at the rock spectrum in my closet and kick that too.
When I reach my hand into my underwear, this time I cry.
I’m seven minutes late for geography. They are supposed to start their presentations today. I run in sweating and panting, and slam the door behind me. My button-up shirt is on inside out. Durrell is standing up, swinging his backpack around his shoulder. When he sees me, he sits back down in his seat, slowly, with his backpack on. He looks at me strangely, as if I’m not his geography teacher or anyone he knows at all. I pull down the US map, making that unzipping sound. There’s that wonky blister over Kansas, Colorado, Utah.
Jazzerie shoots up her hand. “Can I go first?”
“Kristi, you’re up,” I say.
Kristi flinches. She rises automatically, tripping over her own backpack, weaving her awkward way around desks to the front of the classroom. She looks over to me as if she is pleading, tries to speak to the class, and looks back over to me. I know this makes me a bad person.
“Um, Virginia is a state for lovers,” she begins.
“You know what, Kristi, on second thought, why don’t you go on Monday,” I say, fanning myself with a book.
“I-I can do this,” she stammers.
“Nope. You know, today is not a day for Virginia. You can go on Monday. It’s fine. It’ll be better this way,” I say. “Jazzerie, if you want to go the time is now.”
“It’s just what I found in my research.”
Kristi looks as if she might cry and nervously jangles some brass bracelets on her wrist. I tell myself she is less upset, more confused. A pencil drops to the floor. The heat clicks on for some stupid reason, and blows stale hot breath on my neck. I’m not sure I can handle more than this and it has already begun.
Jazzerie confidently sashays up to the front of the classroom. It is like she was born to give this presentation. She flicks back her ponytail with her hand so it wags behind her. Standing with her legs apart, she pulls out a thick stack of notecards from her jeans pocket. She reads swiftly, her nose tilted up toward the class.
“I have Alaska, the largest state, and Rhode Island, the smallest. They are opposites. Rhode Island is cute and tiny and way over here and its state bird is the domesticated red chicken. While Alaska is like the Hulk on steroids, way over there. In fact, Rhode Island can fit in Alaska over four hundred twenty times. Alaska is America’s Last Frontier. Its state bird is the willow ptarmigan, which is kind of like a chicken, but it’s not. And the state flower is the forget-me-not, a blue flower, a flower of remembrance, often worn by ladies as a sign of faithfulness and everlasting love.”
“Enough. Pens and paper,” I say, standing up from my desk. They know me well enough to know this means they need to write this down, that a quiz may be looming.
Jazzerie protests, “But I just started my—”
“Jazzerie, sit down now.”
And she does, but not before she gives me her jaw swinging, braces bitch face. From my blazer pocket, I whip out my homemade notecards, more prison scrawl and smudged pen.
I begin, “North Carolina is this green state. Here. Capital, Raleigh. The Wright Brothers flew the first plane at Kitty Hawk. Look at this: mountains, piedmont, coast. North Carolina sandwich. The Tar Heel State. Home of the Panthers. The cardinal is the state bird and the state flower is the dogwood. North Carolina’s state motto is ‘To be, rather than to seem.’ And you should always be someone you are and never seem like someone that you will never be. Because seeming is lying. It is cheating, plagiarism. And that’s all you need to know about North Carolina. Oh and that Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, was born there in Waxhaw. And did you know that Andrew Jackson’s wife died of stress because he was obsessed with winning the election? This is what happens when your whole life revolves around someone else and their elitist life goals.”
My students look up at me and back down, their pens and pencils furiously scribbling. I pause. Jeff peers over to Jazzerie to cheat off her notes. They whisper about something and giggle. Flirting probably. Flirting in my class like little shitstorms.
“He killed his wife?” Durrell says. He rubs his head with his eraser. “In North Carolina?”
“South Carolina,” I say, loudly. Loudly enough for the whole room to quiet and everyone to stop writing. Light filters into the classroom at a sharp angle and the tops of my students’ heads light up for a second before it slips behind some clouds.
“The Palmetto State. Back in the day, people made palmetto cabbage from the trees and you bet that it tasted like boiled vomit. They never could cook, but what’s worse is that they never even tried. Trees don’t taste good. There is enough real food here to satisfy a nation, and they were lazy. South Carolina: the first to secede from the Union. Launch of the Civil War, which wasn’t civil at all, which is good. You should never have civil breakups. And if you do have a civil breakup, you’ll get left behind with the cats and the apartment and you don’t want these things, believe me. You might go to a therapist and buy an electrified rock mat that you’ll sleep on to bring you peace of mind. Columbia is the capital. State bird: Carolina wren. State flower: yellow jasmine. See that? It’s yellow on the map. Yellow state, yellow jasmine.”
I pause. I know I’m going down the train track to hell, but I can’t stop myself.
“In South Carolina, there are many tall pines, is the beginning of a Gram Parsons song that you’ve probably never heard because you’re thirteen, but this is not a song I ever want to hear again, especially in the morning on foggy day when I’m feeding seagulls a lasagna dinner that was never eaten. South Carolina has several attractions as a tourist destination. For instance, Middleton Place is a damn Southern castle. Have you been to the beach? Dolphins, guaranteed, every time. Which is why South of the Border is never a place where you take your girlfriend, never, especially not on her thirtieth birthday. Not even for art. Do not take your girlfriend to a campy tourist mecca with a thirty-foot sombrero-hatted, neon-lit tower. After all this time, you should know her better. And if you happen to do this, you do not say, Isn’t this funny? Isn’t this fascinating? as a way to make up for the fact you are stalled here for a good three hours because someone needs to dick off doing some kind of art thing on South of the Border.”
Jazzerie’s hand springs up. “But I love South of the Border.”
“Why would a person like that place?”
“Because it’s fun. And they have really good popcorn and you can pet donkeys and stuff.”
We glare at each other for a moment. In my mind, Jazzerie is being thrown out the window by a blown up, cardboard version of South Carolina, thrown to a muddy pickup truck that will take her far, far away from here. She begins to talk again, but I overpower her.
“South Carolina is a very important state,” I yell, clapping my hands together to emphasize. I wonder, briefly, if I could be suspended. I flip wildly through my notecards, some simply tossed to the floor. My students have stopped writing entirely. I gasp for breath in between my words. “South Carolina has a motto, dum spiro spero, which means ‘while I breathe, I hope.’ And couldn’t we all use a little hope these days? Right? State shell: the lettered olive. The Riverdogs are our minor league baseball team, but don’t fall in love at baseball games because it’s probably a curse. And lastly, the state mineral of South Carolina is the amethyst which is used to heal people who hurt, especially in February because it is February.”
I have hit a new low point in my life, crying in front of eight graders. I can’t even look at them. All my notecards fallen, splayed out all over the floor. I point to my students without looking at them. Bless America, shit.
Somehow, I stumble to a cold metal chair sitting off to the left of the blackboard. I sniff and drip equal amounts of liquid snot. When I finally look up, they are all staring at me. Horrified, contorted, tearful faces. There are only the faint sounds from outside, a little buzz of traffic. We sit like this for some time before I call on Durrell.
Durrell, backpack still strapped, carries a two-gallon cooler to the front of the class and rests it on my desk. He pulls out a sleeve of Dixie cups from his backpack and untwists the tie. Carefully, he rests the cups on the chalk rest of the chalkboard, then changes his mind and sets them quietly on my desk. He leans back from me, pouring a small cup of red juice that smells like syrup. His hands are dry and small, even for a thirteen-year-old. He sets the cup in front of me; the red substance sways then calms. He doesn’t dare look me in the eye, and sighs.
Two, three cups at a time, he fills them halfway and hands them out to the class by rows. Somehow they automatically know to pass the little cups back so everyone can have one. He is careful not to step on my fallen notecards, only nudging a few with the tip of his Air Jordans.
“Nebraska was my first state. Edwin Perkins invented Kool-Aid in Nebraska in 1927,” Durrell says. Durrell goes on to talk about meadowlarks and corn before he starts his report about New York, but I’m not really able to listen. He even makes the class laugh about something I didn’t hear because I’m trying to focus intently on the Kool-Aid Dixie cup sort of disintegrating on my planner. I’m only able to stare at this sample size of Kool-Aid, sugary and red. I pick it up and take a sip, knowing it will stain my teeth.
At the end of class, I tell them I’ll see them Monday, when the rest of their state projects are due. I tell them they all get As for the day, as some kind of coded desperate bribe. They all file out. Jazzerie flies past me, Jeff chasing after her. Kristi gives me a half smile then warpaths.
Durrell tells me to try to relax this weekend. He tells me his older brother freaks out sometimes and nods like I’m supposed to understand what this means. I assume that it’s not good.
The sun shines in that strange angle where all the dust lights up, swirling and twinkling. I could be slipping into another dimension. Maybe if I try, I’ll end up some place far away, like Nebraska or Iowa, or better yet, Alaska. Of course, this doesn’t work and reality comes right back at me. They won’t turn in their projects Monday. They can’t. It’s President’s Day and school is canceled.
The following week I ask to take a temporary leave of absence.
“Two weeks,” Dr. Sarah DeMint says, relieved, “should give you a little regroup time.”
After our meeting, I drive my clunker junker down 17 South as if I’m going to Savannah, through some forests and marshes, past some white-tailed deer gathering by the side of the road. The highway becomes two lanes. I make a sudden turn, taking the connector to Edisto Island and am reminded how much Micah enjoyed this drive. He loved it because he thought it was like going into space above the green marshland, stretching endlessly.
I pull over here on the connector. Only every now and then a car zooms past. I planned to drop my amethysts and homespun notecards over the bridge, but I decide against it. Actually, I’m not sure why I drove out here. When I made the turn, I thought I might break down, but I think it’s all out now.
I look out into the space of the land, the air cool and nipping at the exposed space between my cropped pants and my socks. The color of the water seems to match the greyness in the sky. Marsh grass has faded to a rusty wheat. There is a flock of geese off toward the horizon. A few ibises, like little white specks, flutter and disappear into the grass. From somewhere there is a whiff of detritus and pluff mud. I take a deep breath and get back into my car and drive home.
To my surprise, I receive a letter in the mail a few days later. It’s from my geography class. How could they want anything to do with me, ever again? Get well soon, it says with all their scrawly, middle school signatures and a few state mottos.
Durrell writes that Oregon’s state motto is “She flies with her own wings.” He says, “Be a bird, Ms. R (and that wasn’t even my state!)”
Kristi says, “New Hampshire says, Live free or die!”
There are a few others: “I have found it, to the stars through adversity, ever upward, it grows as it goes, eureka!”
I make a little pinprick through the top of the fold in the card. I pin it with a nail to my wall, fold my arms and stand back.
Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.