I keep getting lost in the grocery store trying to find Lunchables. The deli next to my apartment has run out, having not yet adjusted to my demand which has recently ballooned from two a week to ten, so I make the trek through ankle-deep city sludge to the fancy place. I know exactly where they are—across from the neat rows of eggplants and celery that gleam under the misters, as if they could tempt me—and still I’m wandering through aisles, doubling back, pausing to try to orient myself. There are only five shelves, and the arrangement of the products stacked on them has not changed once in the three years I’ve lived in the area, but I’m getting lost a lot these days.
When I finally find them, it’s with a security guard at my heels, anxious to lock up behind me. I trudge toward the checkout line, looking up only when I hear the voice of a student. We’re a twenty-minute subway ride from the South Bronx, from the school where I teach, but with one hundred and seventy five of these students on my roster, it seems I am never alone.
“Miss, I didn’t know you have kids!” he says.
It still baffles me that I am theoretically capable of such a feat. I am only a few years older than my students, still a kid myself, and the prospect of taking care of anyone else is completely alien to me. But they’re obsessed with the idea of it. I learned never to say the phrase, I have an announcement, unless I want a few of my students to leap out of their chairs ready to celebrate a pregnancy that doesn’t exist. When they discover I am not pregnant, am not married, am alone, they offer to set me up with the guy behind the sandwich counter at the deli because he smiles a lot and he always gives them extra cheese. Someone says she can probably fix me up with the gym teacher, if I want. They have brothers and cousins and older friends. They are so desperate for me to have a family.
There’s an announcement overhead that the store will be closing in ten minutes. I follow my student’s gaze to the Lunchables in my arms. He thinks they are for my kids. He thinks I have kids.
“I don’t have kids,” I say.
It’s May, but winter is still hanging on with a white-knuckled grip when Thomas visits my classroom and says he smokes too much weed. He wants my support in giving it up. I tell him he has it, always.
I uncap a near-dead dry erase marker—I’ve been teaching English for three years but the sense of strangeness of the authority that comes with writing on the white board hasn’t left me—and I write Days Since Last Workplace Injury right below my daily homework announcements.
Every day he doesn’t smoke, I add a tally mark.
That night, though I reassure myself that I made no promises, didn’t speak about my own behavior at all, I still feel sheepish as I arrange the Lunchables on my quilt in the dark. Each ingredient is neatly parceled: the crusts, the pizza sauce, the Kraft mozzarella cheese, and the pepperoni made with “real pork and chicken.” I take my time laying them out. I focus on placing each piece where it belongs and feel my heartbeat calm, slowing down. Everything is dyed technicolor: sunset reds and oranges, covered in a greasy sheen of preservatives. It’s not “real” food, but it’s all I’ve been interested in eating lately. When the unbendable dough disks and their sickly sweet marinara paste make my mouth water, I know I’m high enough.
Thomas makes two smoke-free days, and I add two tallies.
The principal corners me in the hallway in the morning when it’s still dark outside, asking again for more.
“Don’t you want to be there for your kids?” she asks.
I confess I’m having a hard time. “I want to,” I say, “but I really can’t.”
“Gold has to go through fire,” she says. She hears my “can’t” as a won’t, which she superimposes with a will do, and by the time I open my email that night, bleary-eyed, dulled, my nightly ritual laid out before me, I’m signed up to teach Saturday school, too.
First I lay out the pizza crusts, three beige lily pads on the dark blue sea of my bed’s comforter. The yellow cardboard box they come in is adamant about temperature—”DO NOT FREEZE.” On lukewarm days, the crusts are rigid, with the consistency and flavor of a geometry textbook. Frozen, they’ll break a tooth, or, if you’re the sort of health-blind maniac who’s been eating exclusively Lunchables for months on end to avoid the overwhelm caused by finding or preparing actual food, they’ll crumble all your teeth to dust to be blown away in the sands of time.
Four days. The markers’ chemical smell makes my eyes water as I add the fourth tally to the board.
These days, even after smoking has muted most of the world around me, I can’t watch anything new. Recently, I saw a commercial where this mom, observing her sleeping progeny in the backseat, squeezes her husband’s hand at the obvious joy of owning a no-lease Toyota with extra trunk space, and I had to gulp a whole bunch of times at the sheer emotion of it all.
So now I watch the same music video on repeat: “Same Drugs” by Chance the Rapper. There’s only one human in it, which is manageable, and the rest is filled with melancholy puppets who mope around to the beat of the song. The performer is singing to Wendy Darling. He tells her he thought she’d never grow up, that she’s aged. He asks her when she forgot how to fly. I watch the video over and over. On the screen, snow falls. A lion puppet with his briefcase and coffee stomps by. An email notification from a student pops up: u weren’t at school today, hope everythings ok mom.
Next, I apply pizza sauce. The inflexible plastic sleeve pumped full of marinara is rumored to have a dotted line along which a person can easily rip open the packet. This has rarely been my experience, especially when it’s dark, especially when everything is obscured by enough smoke and paranoia to make me certain that firefighters from across the street are abut to burst into my room at any minute. I learned the hard way that approaching the pizza sauce with anything less than full deference might result in its explosion all over the ever-growing stack of my students’ literary analyses on whether or not the best thing a girl can be in this world is a beautiful little fool, and my having to explain to them that I was really so heartened by their nuanced take on femininity and Fitzgerald that I felt the need to keep their essays and never, ever give them back.
Sometimes my students keep me company in my classroom after school, long after the last locker in the hallway has slammed shut. We eat chopped cheese sandwiches from the deli by the courthouse together, small crumbles of beef littering the floor as I persist in my futile effort to straighten out the desks, though I know they’ll be askew all over again a mere ten hours from now. Sometimes my students catch me up on the latest gossip and sometimes we talk about nothing. Sometimes they ask me about the rest of their lives and if things get better. They show me scars and sonograms, give me their secrets to keep. They ask me if I’ve found a boyfriend yet, if my roommates are nice to me, how often I get home to see my family. When the custodial staff comes through to usher us out, some of them say, love you, bye.
I love the love they give me, but it’s a generosity I’m not sure I deserve. We sip our sodas and I try not to spill them on the mountains of grading that covers every surface surrounding me. It’s unfathomable to me that the time we spend together could mean more to them than it means to me. I listen to my kids and I empathize, but I have no real advice to give them from the other side. I tell them what they’re going through sounds really hard. I tell them I know the feeling.
Thomas has nine tallies. These are my guiltiest nights.
Last, I scoop limp pepperonis from their plastic cubby. A few months ago, I shuffled into the deli meat section and bought a whole bag of pepperoni. Then I could have as many as I liked on each pizza—four, even. But they tasted better, or rather they tasted more, which I didn’t like.
It feels like a luxury to have just enough.
I once read that the healthiest item in a Lunchable was the napkin, but that can’t be true because Lunchables don’t have napkins anymore.
Even high, I know these meals are not actual sustenance, that they don’t nourish me. They’re only a pre-packaged respite from what I usually have to do and be. But this role didn’t come with a rulebook, and I haven’t seen the sun rise or set from outside this school building in months, and the ones who want my advice are the ones who are the most like me, and Thomas came to my classroom today and wouldn’t look me in the eye when he said, “Miss, you’ve gotta erase all those days.”
I didn’t turn toward the board or pick up the marker. He must’ve thought I was disappointed, but I’m not. Not in him.
He pulled the straps of his book bag tight and stalked out of the room.
“Sorry Mom,” he said, and was gone.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.