Friday, July 17, 2009

Meet Ms. Bradstreet

In which we meet a new character in the middle of her story

The Maria Chronicles, #1

It still doesn’t seem real, Maria thinks to herself as she drives her green Ford Focus rental car out of the hotel parking lot onto Interstate 87. There will be just enough dusky light for her to get another look at the school. She wants to see it one more time before she flies back to Manchester in the morning and begins a new life. At 49.

She’s not unhappy, mind you. But she can’t quite believe this whole thing is really happening. She never would have been here if she hadn’t been confronted with Mark’s affair, but once he confessed, she suddenly felt she was being presented with an opportunity that was too good to pass up. (She still feels guilty about wanting the divorce, and every time she does she hears her friend Janice’s voice in her head: “If you say you feel bad for not wanting him back one more time, I will hit you.") With Evan and Felicia done with college – and with real jobs, go figure – she couldn’t think of a reason not to submit her resume to Carney Sandoe.

Not that she really expected anything to happen. Or that she needed anything to happen. But once it did, once she actually came down here and talked to people who seemed to see her fresh without any of her personal baggage or the seemingly inevitable invisibility that 16 years at Derry High had engendered, she felt like she had suddenly wandered into a movie about someone else’s life, where the surroundings were unfamiliar, and, more important, what would come next seemed entirely unpredictable. Not unpredictable in an especially ominous or exciting sense, but one that somehow made her feel curious about her own life in a way she hadn’t felt in decades. Since she was unexpectedly admitted to the Ed school at Harvard and realized she was a bona fide Ivy Leaguer. (Well, maybe not bona fide – she was still a UMass graduate, after all, and anybody who knew anything knew that the Ed school was the poor stepchild of the university, a diploma mill compared with any of the other schools at Harvard, graduate or undergraduate. But still.)

That was 1985, just before her grandmother died. She thinks of the picture she keeps on her dresser – the one taken in El Paso, probably a decade before her mother was born. The other picture she has, this one engraved in her memory, is of Mamacita holding her in her lap and stroking her hair, calling her “mi carita bonita.” She said it again when Maria called her to tell her she had gotten in, and wondered if Mamacita fully understood that her grandchild was an adult. Maria remembered feeling sad, and, simultaneously, an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude: No one else in her life loved her with such pure simplicity, took the sheer pleasure in Maria’s mere existence that Mamacita had. For that very reason, Maria had never taken it all that seriously; now it seemed almost unbearably precious. Maria often wished she could achieve something like it as a teacher. (She realized early on that wasn’t going to be possible with her children, any more than it was for her mother.) She supposed it was a more realistic aspiration for an elementary school teacher, but she was too much her father’s child not to want to master, and convey, substance. Yet she still hoped that something of Mamacita’s spirit coursed through her, and that maybe there was enough of it left –

There it is. Maria pulls over the side of the road to contemplate the empty building. If it was during the school year there would probably be a bit more activity than there is now; maybe a jazz concert would be ending, or the janitorial staff would be emptying a day’s worth of trash from the wastepaper baskets. Now it seems sealed shut, and the only sound is the summer crickets and the buzz of a streetlight on the other side of the road.

Maria exhales. “All right, then,” she says aloud as she puts the car in drive. She figures the next time she comes back, this place will be teeming with traffic – cars, buses, people. She smiles at the thought as she turns on the headlights. “My freshman year.” She resolves then to have a glass of white wine – no, a margarita, on the rocks, with salt – when she gets back to the hotel.