Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Past tense

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to digest an unexpected flavor

The Maria Chronicles, #33

Maria looks with regret at the substantial remainder of the fried ice cream on her
plate. She's not sorry she ordered it -- any dietary resolutions will not kick in until after the new year -- only that after the black bean soup and the excellent fajitas (not to mention the pair of margaritas), she simply has no more room in her stomach. Who knew there was good Mexican food to be found in Dobbs Ferry. The best part will be the short trip home.

It's been a pleasant evening. Besides filling each other in on their respective childhoods and marriages (Jack, she's learned, has a daughter in Washington and a brother in Oregon; she's explained that her parents met in Texas when her father was stationed in Fort Hood), they've had a substantial discussion about the the avowed purpose of this dinner, Ted and Nancy Sizer's The Students are Watching. Maria has never quite gotten her mind around the way the Sizers turn morality into a series of verbs: "modeling," "sorting, "bluffing," and her favorite, "shoving," the idea that prodding students to move outside their comfort zone can -- sometimes -- be the right thing to do. It's not that she rejects these ideas; quite the contrary. There's a strangeness to them that she finds alluring. It's hard for her to explain, and she never quite gets Jack to understand. But he listened attentively, and that was good.

"So you never told me about the origins of your career," Jack says after taking a sip of his coffee. "I mean you told me how you became a teacher, but not why you became one."

Maria takes a sip of her own. "Well, I could tell you, accurately, that pretending to be a teacher was one of my favorite activities as a child, because I wanted to be like my mother. It's funny that I somehow never pretended to be a newspaperman like my dad, given that I felt so much like him. Maybe it's because I wanted her approval. Anyway, after college, I just couldn't see myself going into corporate America like a lot of my friends did, among them my best friend Janice. It was a kind of like a process of elimination: the thing I had the least trouble imagining. The work I did at the Catholic school in Newton was fine, but no great revelation. When I got into the Ed school at Harvard, I felt like I had finally found my calling. It really boosted my confidence."

"Funny. Getting into Harvard, Harvard College I mean, really hurt my confidence. I went around feeling like a fraud for a long time."

"That's too bad."

"Well, maybe not. The flip side is that I tended to think a lot of other people there were frauds, too. It made me a bit jaded, but also less likely to be intimidated."

Maria is not sure what to say about that.

"The operative words there are 'less likely.' At my best, though, I have a healthy respect for authentically talented people."

"Are you at your best now?" She smiles at him.

"Are you telling me that you're authentically talented?"

"Jack Casey is that you?" A large, burly man has suddenly steps up from behind Jack. "You old devil! What are you doing here?"

"Hey, Mack," Jack says, and Maria catches the faintest whiff of distaste in his voice (or so she hopes). "Mack McDonaugh, this is Maria Bradstreet. Maria, this is Mack. We used to work together at Bear Stearns."

"Hey Maria," Mack extends his burly, albeit well-manicured, hand and looks at her briefly before focusing his gaze again on Jack. "So what the hell have you been doing with yourself lately? Did you give up the loft?"

"Yeah, I gave it up. I live out here now."

"No shit. I just came up here to meet an old college buddy of mine and was headed toward the bar when I saw you. So what are you doing these days?"

"Oh well, you know. A little of this and a little of that. Actually, I've been moving into high school teaching."

"High school teaching? No way! Are you shittin' me?"

"No, no. I really am. I mean, I don't know if I'll stick with it, but I'm giving it a try."

"Well now, I've heard everything. High school teaching. I surprised they let you near those kids." Mack chuckles at the thought. "But listen, have you heard from Ray Odierno since the collapse?"

"No, like I said, I've been laying pretty low."

"I imagine you have." He smiles conspiratorially. "Well listen: Just last week I was talking with Ray, who's now at Wachovia. He was telling me that they've totally overhauled the refi department down there and he says there are some tremendous opportunities. . . ."

Maria is initially repelled by this interruption, but suddenly finds she's grateful for it. "Jack, I'll be right back," she says, getting up and getting a nod of acknowledgment from him, even as Mack talks away. She sees a sign for "Senoras" behind her and makes a beeline for the bathroom, where she locks herself into a stall and pees. What the hell is she getting herself into? Even if she didn't have doubts about Jack in terms of his association with people like Mack -- which she does -- Maria was edging dangerously close toward flirting with the man ("are you at your best now?" Please.) Maria leaves the stall and washes her hands, splashing cold water on her face. She wishes there was somebody she could talk to now. She's tempted to call Jen Abruzzi, but as much as she likes her new colleague, she's not sure their friendship has reached this level of intimacy. Felicia would probably be weirded out by the thought of her mother on a date. Evan wouldn't, but could she really confide in him? Fuck it, she thinks and dials (clearly these margaritas have gone to her head). But Evan doesn't answer his phone. Thank God. She steps back from the sink and rests her head back on the cool bathroom tile. Slow down, Maria. Deep breaths. This is not a big deal. You've got your car; you're not trapped; you can play out the string. Get back out there.

Maria exits the bathroom and heads back to the table. When she does, she sees it's vacant, though it's clear that the bill has come and that Jack has paid it. She looks up and sees him holding her coat. Apparently Jack's beat her to beating a hasty exit. She'd be offended by his rudeness if she wasn't so eager to leave as well. As they head out the door, Maria sees Mack, who waves broadly to her and Jack.

"I'm sorry, Maria," Jack says when they're safely outside in the chilly but refreshing late December air. "But Mack has a way of taking over a room, and if we stayed I would have been chained to my chair recounting old war stories."

"Sure. I understand."

"So look, would you like to get a cappacino? There's a terrific Italian cafe down the street."

"No, I don't think so, Jack. It's been a really fun evening. But I think I need to get home now." Maria has decided a direct approach is best.

Jack purses his lip and nods, disappointed. "I understand. Well look, let me walk you to your car."

"No need. It's right here." Maria points to her Prius, only one car up the street. If Jack knows what's good for him, he won't hold her up. She looks up at him. "Jack, this has been a really nice evening. A very nice evening." Should she offer to help pay for dinner?

"Maria, I want you to know how much I appreciate this. These kinds of things are not easy. They're scary. Believe me, I know."

Yes, Maria thinks, that's good. "Well, I had a good time. Really."

"I hope that means we can do it again."

"I hope so too."


"So look, will I see you at school after the break?"

"Yes. I think I'm subbing that first week back. A couple of precalculus classes."

"Great. So I'll see you then." Maria gets in her car. Jack stands there, a grim smile, as she starts it. I don't know, Jack Casey, she thinks as she makes a U-turn out of her parking space and heads home to her waiting apartment. I just don't know.