seals

It’s always the same; one parent starts to look a little tired, while the other appears normal. Fast forward a certain amount of time, and one of them looks like his or her best friend died, and the other looks like a beautifully well-trained circus seal: plump and sleek and shiny, all over.

Sometimes the seal is a woman and sometimes it’s a man. I haven’t seen any great differential gap between who does the hurting and who gets hurt – between the jellyfish and the seal.

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to need a man

“I need a man in my life,” I told Vicki, poking at the green foam in my glass with my straw. Green. Inventive. Her eyes widened. “Oh come on,” I told her, “a guy. You know?”

“You need a man?! Like,” she leaned in closer, “Like your body needs a man? Or like, marriage?”

“Oh my – ” I choked before I could finish. Maybe green was not an indicator of potability. “Is that all that men are good for? I mean, I clarified, I said a ‘guy’, and that’s what I mean – a guy. A friend.” She seemed confused. “To fall in love with slowly?”

“No, when I say a guy I mean just a friend, a dude, a bro. I’m just tired of talking to girls right now.”

“That means me too, doesn’t it?” She frowned. “Did you just drink that whole thing?”

“That’s what I’m talking about! Every time I go out with you and your friends,” I sighed, rephrased. “It just seems whenever I go out with girls I’m told how inadequate I am, we all are, and I’m sick of it because the minute I challenge any of it I’m told I just don’t understand yet, or accused of being anti-girl.”

“What?” She was completely still, watching me.

“I’m tired of hearing about diets, and surgeries, and body modifications, and what this or that article says about when you should biologically reproduce. I don’t want to make the point of my life – why did any of us go to school or do anything other than embroider if it all leads up to this? I don’t want my life to be this one huge search for a ‘wonderful man’ with the right lifestyle it’s just sickening it just . . . My life needs to mean more than a huge diamond one day.”

Vicki looked at me steadily. I was looking down at my folded hands but I could feel her eyes pass over the bridge of my nose, my glasses, the top of my head like a hot searchlight. “You can get a sapphire, you know. They’re beginning to be in style so if you wait to get married it’ll most likely be in vogue by whenever that is. Sapphires are really pretty so you shouldn’t feel badly about not wanting a diamond – ”

“Was there some poisoned well I neglected to drink out of?” I interjected, even though I knew there was no stopping her description of wedding trends.

Or reaching her.

couples

I never want to ask the unhappy couples if they’re okay. Sometimes I can’t help myself, the words come out and I feel like a fool but they’re out already and there’s no stopping the response. “We’re fine!” they tell me, us, whomever. “Never better!” “Great!” “Happy!”

And then one morning you see pink around their eyes, or the sunglasses never come off, but the wedding ring is off, and they’re too busy to say good morning.

Invariably the children’s clothing is rumpled, his or her hair isn’t brushed – and no one is happy I said this.

Teachers aren’t supposed to notice.

slope

Sometimes I still wish I could see him. Acting on that wish would be unconscionable, so I don’t think I’ll see him. No one ever runs into anyone else in this town. I don’t know why.

The thing about a married man – and this is when backs stiffen, lips press together, and the most stereotypical of judgmental looks are employed, because every decent American knows that you do not enter into anything with a married man. If it’s a friendship that got complicated, that slid from a very regular, happy place into a murky gray area where the intensity level was far too high – well, it won’t net you any sympathy. It’s a forgone conclusion that you – I – was a bad Lola.

But the thing about an unhappily married man, the thing you will not expect and most definitely have mixed feelings about, is the way in which he makes you the center of his universe. He is sad, after all, and he is just realizing that much of the little things he pinned his self-worth on are nothing more than mile markers, and will not comfort him when he is lost. And then you –

I should say I. Then I, without realizing it, became the thing that made him happy, the sole thing, and he gave me attention and moral support and we shared sandwiches. If there is anything which I can picture as the absolute of two happy people, it’s sharing sandwiches. When I understood what power I held in his life I shivered all over. I don’t like power, not even the word, and most certainly not the implications. I don’t like unhappiness either, and it’s a point of pride that I’ve always been the sort of person my friends know they can call in any sort of duress. By this time we spent so many of our daylight hours together – I was on a sabbatical from the preschool, pursuing another career entirely – that he’d become, in essence, my only friend.

I was halfway down the slope, and as yet had no idea.

happiness

“I don’t know what to do with that girl,” the director sighed, meaning Elsa, meaning her sadness. “She stands around and – if you look her in the eyes she smiles at me but you know she’s putting her hands in her pockets a lot, just staring into space. Do you think she’s unhappy with school? I’ve tried to talk to her, but I don’t want to be nosy either. It’s hard to be young.”

My arched eyebrow went unnoticed. “I talked to her about love, marriage, that stuff. Her parents are talking to her about ‘keep your bases covered, cover all your bases’ something like that. She says it all the time. What makes a compatible marriage and all.” She shook her head. “I told her when it comes to that sort of thing just find someone that loves you for who you are and supports you. You don’t need a man nowadays to have a baby, if you want to have a baby, and if you don’t want to have a baby you can still have a man. But you don’t need a man, Elsa, I said. You get you whatever makes you happy – a baby or a man or a wife. You can have a wife too – ” she elbowed me. I nearly fell off my chair (of course mono affects balance).

“I wanted to let her know that I’m okay with whatever she wants to do.” There was a long pause, then her voice became serious. “Why does – you tell me, Lola, why does no one tell their children ‘Just be happy’? It seems like the most important thing.”

And maybe it is.

states of undress

Sometimes the parents connive to see us in states of undress. “Can you imagine that Drew wanted a bikini-themed pool party for his third birthday?” a mom asked us, eyes wide as saucers and completely guileless. The dad – her husband – was standing behind her, giggling. It was his habit to giggle, more or less constantly, whenever he was inside the school. In the colder months he’d turn his head into his coat and giggle inside his London Fog.

I took Drew aside after they’d left. “Do you know what a bikini is?” I asked him gently, on my knees and his level. He cocked his head to one side, considered, and nodded. “It goes ka-kaww!” he shrieked. (If you’re wondering, no, he was not a weird child. He was an exceptional student and a mediocre artist. For his fourth birthday party he insisted on a cowboy party. His father wore a ten gallon hat, stood next to the ponies for the duration, and giggled into a fringed vest.)

Señor Jeggings

“Sometimes I feel bad for the parents,” I told my masseuse as she worked out knots on my back, knots worthy of – oh, I don’t know – an accountant who also happened to harbor a lifetime of repression. Anyone who pulls the label off beer bottles. Those. “Because they’re old?” “No – well – they’re not all old. Some are young. There’s a hot dad. The moms even named him ‘Hot Dad.’ ”

She stopped to laugh and ask me where my daycare was, exactly. I told her nevermind the hot dads, we were talking about the ones worthy of sympathy. The one who wears jeggings, for example. “Is he a hipster? Are they purple crayon jeggings?” she asked. “No, no, his wife buys them for him. I caught the other parents trying to decide on an unfortunate nickname (something like Señor Jeggings), so I – ” “Wait, wait, I’m lost. This man wears clothing his wife buys him?” she seemed genuinely confused. “Well, yeah, married guys do that.” Single guys have sister-gifts and mom-gifts, but I wanted to keep it simple.

“But why would they wear what a woman buys them? Are you saying that once men get married – pouf! – they lose their minds and become these, like, automatic slaves?” I was glad to be face down. I didn’t have to display any sort of facial expression. “No, well, I mean, I think men like to find clothing. On their bed for example. No shopping trip necessary. Like a fairy left it.” (My explanation would have been better were I not horizontal, mid-rub.) “Oh, a fairy! Yes, you Americans believe in fairies until quite late in life, no?” I took a deep breath. “Well, the thing is, Skye, that, we . . . don’t believe in them that long. There are . . . limits – ” She cut me off with a new idea. “Or is just everyone you know an idiot?”

But really her hands are genius. The knots were gone when I left.