Monday, September 14, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to digest some snarky lunchtime conversation

The Maria Chronicles, #10

"God, look at her, the little tart."

When Maria looks up from her salad, it's to locate the author of the remark, not its target. It's then she follows the disapproving eyes of Edie Wilson, sitting diagonally across from her, toward a girl holding court at a table to their left, wearing a low-cut tank top, short shorts, and flip-flops. Maria envies her outfit on the basis of temperature alone; it's warm in here and she feels uncomfortable in her silk blouse. She also feels saddled with the weight of her purse, which sits at her feet. She wanted to leave it in the department office, but she found it locked.

Maria has just met Edie, who teaches French, by way of the chair of the History Department, Jennifer Abruzzi. Jen has been terrific with Maria this week, unfailingly anticipating her questions and introducing her to everyone she can. But Maria feels what she knows must be Jen's strain. At this lunch alone, Jen has brokered introductions to Edie, Math teacher Penny Perez, and English teacher Carl Kurtz. The three of them have been discussing the mid-September heat and comparing it with last June's graduation ceremony. Maria has been grateful that such a topic necessarily means she can stay silent. Penny light-heartedly mentioned that the girl in the tank top, Cara Montoya, had been seen making out with her graduating boyfriend before the ceremony, which is what prompted the intemperate outburst from Edie.

"That's our girl," Penny responds when she sees what Edie does. Cara has one leg crossed under the chair and is leaning forward to spear some ice cream from a boy's dish.

"Edie lived in England for many years," Jen tells Maria, as if she's translating. "That's why you hear her using Anglicisms like "tart."

"The wanker," Carl says, winking at Maria.

"Fuck off, Carl," Edie says, and Maria can't quite tell if the smile is ironic in a good-natured way or simply caustic.

"I believe we use that expression in the U.S., Maria, as an expression of affection," Carl says Or, at any rate, Edie does."

"I see," says Maria, who doesn't.

"Somebody should tell her to go home and get dressed," Edie continues. "All of the boys in my class, and Ashley Jenkins, were transfixed by her in class this morning."

"As, apparently, are you," Carl observes. His bald pate seems to have a waxy glow. His salt-and-pepper beard is neatly trimmed.

Maria is afraid Edie or someone else at the table is going to suggest it's Carl who has an interest in this Cara, which will make her even more uncomfortable than she is already. She's relieved when Jen tries to take the conversation in a different direction. "She's not a bad kid. I taught her last year."

"Well, she's pretty dim as far as I'm concerned. And that outfit is hardly a vote of confidence in her own abilities."

"Well, you work with what you have," Carl observes, mild but serious. "Brains, brawn, looks, money, health, in whatever combination you can arrange them."

Maria is now officially irked as she takes a long swallow of water. So it's despite her better judgment that she finds herself saying, "My best friend used to dress like that when we were in high school."

"Really," Penny says. "You still in touch with her? What's she doing now?"

"She's director of HR at a software company outside Boston," Maria says. "Still looks fabulous."

"Good for her!" Jen says. She puts the napkin in her hand down on her tray. "Gotta run. Maria, you want me to show you where to get a key to the office so you can get in if there's nobody there?" Maria is amazed at the way Jen sometimes seems to read her mind.

"Yes. Please," she says, getting up a beat after Jen does, bending down to pick up her purse and tucking it under her arm before picking up her tray. "Take care, everyone." Carl gives Maria an encouraging smile. Edie is engaged in conversation with another teacher who's now standing beside her as she butters a roll.

"Don't mind Edie," Jen is saying as she buses her tray to the back of her cafeteria. "It's just her way."

Maria doesn't know how to interpret this. She really hates gossipy, back-biting work environments, thinking back to a summer job she had in college where the atmosphere was positively poisonous, with the exception of a wonderful Armenian woman who could laugh it all off and helped Maria do the same. She's used to talking about students at cafeteria tables, staff lounges, and even local bars after work. In a way, she supposes, that's worse than gossiping about your peers. But somehow it seems less egregious. She knows that people don't necessarily change that much. But you can always tell yourself that there's something provisional about any complaint you might make about a high schooler. That capacity for surprise has not been vindicated often over the years. But enough to keep it alive.

"Go down the hall and make a left," Jen is saying. "Ask for Patricia. She's a sweetheart and will take care of you. If I don't see you again, have a good afternoon, Maria. Feel free to give me a call."

"Thanks very much, Jen." As they part, Maria sees Cara Montoya standing at her locker, rustling through her books. Their eyes meet briefly. "Hello," Maria says, figuring she's the adult, however disoriented she may be feeling. "Hi," Cara says evenly, looking down again. One more door, for the moment at least, that will remain locked.