It’s Friday the thirteenth and day number four of your leave. You’re taking some time off work since “the incident.” You’re at the DMV because you’ve been meaning to go for months but you’re always working when it’s open. You’re afraid of seeing your students’ parents in the waiting area. You’re wearing the same Alf T-shirt and stretched-out underwear you’ve had on for the past two days. You’re pretty sure you stink. You glance at the people sitting beside you and determine they are too old or too young to have children in middle school. You may never return to work. All these years you’ve prided yourself on flying under the radar. If you return there will undoubtedly be meetings, performance analyses, watchlists. Maybe it’s time for you to switch careers. They call the number on your ticket. The woman behind the counter tells you to back up against a grey screen. “They let you smile in these pictures now, you know?” she says. Your face may have changed shape in response, but if it has you can’t feel it.
The last you saw of work was the hallway ceiling. Your co-workers, Margaret and Anita, carried you out to your car after you couldn’t get up from the floor yourself and you couldn’t stop sobbing. You hadn’t had much of an opportunity to talk to Anita, who was new to the district. After this, you are certain, she’ll only ever think of you as the lunatic. You’re pretty sure you broke some things – school property – but you can’t remember what. Margaret, the more maternal of the two women, made you promise not to drive until you were ready. You assured her you didn’t need someone to pick you up. (There wasn’t anyone to pick you up.)
When you were down there, intimate with the linoleum, the other teachers locked your classroom door. You heard a knock and a whiny voice calling, “Ms. Winn?” It was Ethan, the kid who visits your room each week to argue about his grade. Margaret opened the door a crack, stuck her head out and replied, “She’s busy right now,” as you sat merely two feet behind her, your face in your hands. You contemplated telling them you’re suicidal. But you were hesitant, knowing it’d land you in the hospital. It wasn’t so much that you wanted to kill yourself as it was that you couldn’t stop fantasizing about how you’d do it. And was that suicidal?
Either way, teaching had become difficult. You used to be confident. You were the ever-grinning entertainer for your daily audience of twelve-year-olds. Lately, your hands shook, you could barely speak. When a student asked you whether 64 was a root number, the only thought you could summon was leaning back in your Buick, listening to Sinead O’Connor while your garage filled with carbon monoxide.
You went home. You turned off your phone. When you finally turned it back on, six hours later, you had a voicemail from your supervising administrator and several text messages from your co-workers, who all seemed to think that what was happening in your brain could be fixed with enough wine.
After the DMV, you visit your grandmother. She has discovered Costco. Grandma is excited for you to stop by so she can fill shopping bags with her overflow of products for you to bring home. Today she has extra grapefruit and broccoli, tiny cups of microwaveable soup, frozen sausage patties filled with cheese. She dumps half a bag of kettle corn into a gallon ziplock and throws it on top of the pile of food. You come here now instead of grocery shopping. You sit with her in the living room after she’s offered you an individual bottle of iced tea from the pallets stored under the dining room table. It’s room temperature, but it tastes good. You realize you must be severely dehydrated. You remember one of your cousins telling you Grandma had depression too. When your mothers were young, Grandma would spend weeks in bed. By the time she got up, the whole back of her head would be matted. Your aunt would spend hours with her in front of the television, brushing the tangles out of her hair. Your cousin said, “Back then, Grandma called them ‘headaches.’” It seems a good euphemism, you think. Your head hasn’t stopped pounding from all the crying.
Grandma asks you how your sister, Trisha, is doing and you say, “She’s good,” even though you suspect the fights with her boyfriend get physical. They’re both covered with bruises when you see them. You worry about Trisha. You think she will open up, seek out your support, when she’s ready. For now, you call her on the phone but avoid seeing her in person. Your grandmother looks at you expectantly. You guzzle down the bottle to avoid saying more about Trisha.
“You like that?” Grandma asks.
“Well, I’ll give you some to take home, then.” she smiles. It’s hard to picture her in a week-long nap while her children cried from heavy diapers. Your grandmother seems so happy now. You reach into the second shopping bag she brings you and open another iced tea. You drink it, and the pounding seems to ease a bit.
You’re about to ask her what it was like for her, when it started, how she made it stop. You’re staring at the hall closet while you try to form the words in your head. The words should be gentle. She is eighty-three. Grandma notices your stare and gets up. She opens the closet, yanks at the vacuum that’s too heavy for her to maneuver.
“I suppose you want to get to it,” she says.
You stand up to begin the chores she can’t manage on her own anymore. You catch a whiff of rotting fruit and remind yourself to take out the garbage before you leave. It’s a good sign, your sense of smell returning.