Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stalling tactics

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to have a dignified panic attack

The Maria Chronicles, # 11

Maria walks briskly into the girls bathroom down the hall from her classroom and enters a stall so that she can hyperventilate in peace. She knows she should go to the faculty restroom, but it's too far away and she wants to give into her panic attack -- now. Fortunately, this one is empty. She locks the door of the stall, and sits down, clothed, on the toilet. She begins breathing rapidly.

She's really been so good -- too good? -- until now. Sure, there was the initial agony of her marital breakup, which she sometimes revisits these days when she's lying alone in bed at night. But leaving her old job, getting this one, relocating, even the first couple days of classes: through it all she's maintained her equilibrium. (This trait of an even keel is a source of pride to Maria, one she takes secret pleasure in when praised for it by family and friends, and feels secretly aggrieved about when she's teased about it by some of the same people.) But somehow, coming out of two flat classes in a row on Dutch New York -- a lesson plan she had prepared as a hometown specialty -- has set her off. All those blank, evidently bored faces. Not openly admitting defeat, she let the second class go ten minutes early. Then, with the room and the hallway open, she bolted here, only allowing her anxiety to reach full flower as she rotated the latch onto the stall.

How could she have done this? This alien place where nobody really knows her? All these people have lives already; there's no real room for her. She doesn't even really have the luxury of tossing it all over and going back. Even if she was to break her lease, break her contract, what would she be going back to? The kids are gone. Her marriage is dead. How could she have fucked up her life this badly? The supposedly sane one! She leans forward and puts her head in her hands, listening to the sound of her own breathing.

Maria is startled by a voice echoing into the cavernous bathroom. "Omigod, did you see the way he was looking at her?"

"What do you mean?"

"He was staring straight at her shirt. It was like he was waiting for her boobs to pop out!"

"C'mon, Karen, he was not."

"I'm telling you! The guy gives me the creeps! What is he, like, forty? Give me your comb."

"Just a sec. OK. Here." Maria hears a stall a few feet away close.

"What do you have now?" the voice in front of the mirror says.

"Bio," from the reply from the stall. With Selznick."

"Lucky for you."

"I know. Gonna be hard to stay awake." Sounds of flushing and the stall re-opens. A flurry of activity at the sink.

"Are you going to Tricia's party?" Maria doesn't get to hear the answer as the girls depart.

"Omigod," Maria says out loud to herself, mimicking the voice she just heard and unable to suppress a smile. She's half angry at these girls for disturbing her peace, such as it was. But she can't help but be amused too, as well as appalled on behalf of anyone who noted the lecherousness of that teacher who is now her colleague.

But this train of thought gets broken as she hears the sound of the door opening again. What sounds like a backpack is dropped to the floor and Maria hears quiet but fleet footsteps make for the stall the previous visitor had occupied, as it's the one furthest away from Maria. There's silence for a moment and then she hears the unmistakable sound of almost silent sobbing.

Now what? Maria scrolls through her options. The most obvious is simply to get up and go. If this was a womens room, as opposed to a girls room, this would surely be the correct choice. But Maria isn't so sure. Then again, even girls cherish their privacy. And she is surely a stranger. Actually, it may well be worse if this kid is one of her students.

The sobbing continues. If anything, it's gathering in intensity. Does the girl even know Maria is there? She guesses not. Maria herself is always aware when there's someone else in a public bathroom. The other two probably knew someone was there but didn't care. Yet this girl's distress is strong enough that she may not have paid attention to the pair of feet under the stall. An unexpected discovery might be alarming.

Maria stands up. Though she never used it, she turns around and flushes the toilet. Leaving the stall, she heads for the sink and washes her hands. The string of noises she makes culminates with the yanking of paper towels. She dries her hands and tosses the paper towels in the wastepaper basket. Perfect silence. Maria stares at the mirror. Now what?

Maria turns around. She wants to sound casual, but can't quite pull it off: "You OK in there?"

"Yeah." In one sense, the voice sounds anything but OK, mournful and almost breaking. And yet Maria hears something that she can't help but suspect is intelligence, even composure, behind it.

"Yeah," the voice repeats, sounding a bit better. "I'm fine."

"Is there something I can do for you?"

"No. I'm fine. Sorry."

"Nothing to feel sorry about," Maria replies in a voice that's almost chiding. "Everybody needs a good cry now and then."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Be nice if this school came up with a better place to do it, though."

"Yeah" -- there's a tinge of a laugh now -- "I guess."

A pause.

"All right then," Maria says. "I'm going to leave you hear to finish your good cry in peace. I'll linger outside for a minute to make sure you don't need anything and to steer anyone who comes by to the bathroom downstairs. If it turns out you need anything after that, I'll be in Room 211." This, Maria knows, will identify her, if the girl doesn't know already. Which is fine.

"OK. Thanks."

The hallway is crowded when Maria steps out on patrol. Two girls frown but comply when she says, "There's a problem in here at at the moment." Perhaps because others witness this exchange, no one else comes forward. The next period is just about to begin now. Things will calm down.