Friday, August 7, 2009

The Plunge

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet wander into pools of doubt

The Maria Chronicles, # 5

Maria is sitting with her eyes closed on a chaise lounge, poolside, on the roof of a downtown Philadelphia hotel. She's here at the bidding of her old college buddy Janice, who came in from Boston for a conference and ordered Maria to take the Amtrak train from New York and take advantage of the free hotel room. Maria wasn't sure she really wanted to make the trip, but finally decided with Labor Day coming up and her daughter Felicia unable to make the visit she talked about, it would probably be a good idea to avoid the combination of anxiety and boredom of awaiting the first full day of school. She'd taken the train, and arrived by cab from 30th Street station earlier that afternoon.

Though it's early September, it feels more like late July, with a still-strong sun casting a bright light. In her drowsy state Maria is marveling how she seems to forget every year just how the academic calendar works. In June, July, and most of August, she somehow thinks the school year commences with a bang on a specific day in early September. In fact, it tends to begin, just like it ends, fitfully: a meeting one day, nothing the next, a couple more after that, and then a weekend. All her courses never meet on the first day of classes, and so she feels like the old Meat Loaf song: "All Revved Up and No Place to Go." The prospect seemed particularly daunting this year, given the looming new job and the sense of loneliness she's felt ever since she moved down to New York six weeks earlier. She suspects Janice understood all of this better than she did, and indeed the aggressive edge in her voice when she called suggested her friend already had a head start in the argument in which she would ultimately prevail.

Maria hears Janice say "Rise and shine, sweetie," and opens her eyes to find a margarita, rocks and salt, on the glass table beside her chair. "It's happy hour. Time to get to work on some fun."

"You really are determined to corrupt me, aren't you."

"Just doin' my job, girlfriend. Now pick up your glass so I can give you a proper toast."

Maria complies. "I greet you at the start of a great career," Janice says as she hoists her own.

"Hey -- that's what Emerson said to Whitman! After Whitman sent him
Leaves of Grass. How'd you know that?"

"What? You think you've got the corner on literary history, kiddo? Remember: I was an English major, too."

"Well, I'm impressed."

"Don't be," Janice says, waving her hand and smiling. "I read it on a blog this morning. Quote of the day or some such thing." Janice takes a long pull on her drink and then reaches into the bag beside her chaise and pulls out her sunglasses and a copy of
Vogue. She puts on the former and begins flipping through the latter. "So when do you get down to business?"

"Well, I have a full faculty meeting on Tuesday, meet my advisees Wednesday, and I think there's a picnic or something that afternoon. First day of classes is a week from today."

"Rarin' to go, I bet."

"Yes and no. I'm sick of the anticipation. Though it hasn't even been four months since I was offered the job, it feels like it's been forever. So in that sense, yeah. But in another sense, I'm, well, tired. If it hadn't been for the break-up with Mark, the move, the new job, I think I might well have thought about making a change anyway, and if I had, I might have gotten out of high school teaching."

Janice turns toward Maria, but keeps the glasses on. "No. Really? I can't really believe it, Maria. You've got chalk dust in your veins."

"I dunno, Janice. Maybe it's just like anything else. The routines become enervating after a while. And infantilizing, too."

"What do you mean?"

"I dunno. There's something about spending time with kids all day that can really get to you. I mean, I love 'em, I really do. But as you get older you do start to have a harder time relating to them. I mean, I still identify. But I can imagine a time when I'll just be too old for this. As it is, I occasionally resent them. Sometimes I daydream about working with young teachers instead."

"Well, I can see that," Janice says, reaching for her drink. "No reason not to keep an eye out for something along those lines." She resumes looking at the magazine.

Maria feels restless. She had planned to go for a swim, but can't seem make herself get up. She has a Barbara Delinsky novel in her own bag -- well-paced junk fiction -- but doesn't feel like reading. She's troubled by what she's said to Janice: is it true? She's never quite put it like that before. Now she fears that by expressing these ideas she's given them a reality they haven't had. In a way she knows this is irrational, she feels some irritation with Janice for eliciting these feelings. Maybe coming down here was a mistake. Maria opens her eyes: she can't even drift off now.

Her train of thought is broken by the sound of Janice's Blackberry, which is ringing somewhere inside her bag. "Damn," Janice says, reaching in to answer. Maria stares straight ahead at the Philadelphia skyline as she listens to Janice talk, her formality in marked contrast to the tenor of their earlier conversation: "Well certainly, they've got great people down there. But they can't do it alone . . . what does Anthony say? . . . Well, yes, I could go down there . . . All right, then. I will. Thanks for calling, Andrea." Janice starts hitting the keyboard, apparently to send out an e-mail. "Idiots," she says to Maria, her eyes fixed on the tiny screen. "Looks like I'll be going to Dallas next week."

"Not a welcome prospect, I take it."

"I hate Dallas, and I hate the Dallas office even more, which is really saying something," Janice says, tossing the Blackberry back in her bag with evident disgust. "What I would really love is to tell the manager down there to go fuck himself, but for some unaccountable reason my boss thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. I'm supposed to be in San Diego at the end of the week, so I guess I'll just make a detour."

"I didn't realize you were still traveling so much."

"Well I wasn't -- and I'm not really supposed to. I'm telling you, Maria, I'm getting too old for this."

Yeah right, Maria thinks. Never having traveled much herself, she's always thought it a little glamorous. In any event, Janice has always been a Type-A personality when it came to work. Funny to think that Maria will be the first of the two to get a divorce. Of course, that's because Janice never married, but even so, this is a most unexpected outcome. Actually, Janice's boyfriend of six years will also becoming to Philadelphia this weekend. Maria is supposed to join them for dinner on Saturday night. Since they're in a two-bedroom suite, there will be room for the three of them. Maria likes Gary. He has kind eyes, and has never given her the look-over most men do. Not that she's any competition for Janice anyway.

"I'm going to head back to the room," Janice is saying. "You going to stay down here for a while? We have a reservation for dinner at seven."

"You know, I think I'll have a swim," Maria responds, finally mustering up the energy to stand up as well. "Might as savor the end of summer."

"Thatta girl," Janice says, and her smile is so affectionate that it washes away some of the bad feeling of the last few moments. Maria walks over to the diving board, determined to ignore the cellulite on her legs, which is getting easier to do now that she fully understands that any of the men here will be focusing on the younger women anyway. She bounces once, leaps off, and feels a shock of cold as she plunges into the water.