Plain Text Version - Fiction
We are standing in the hallway between classes at the alternative high school where we both teach, when Brenda asks me to suck on her engorged breasts, to relieve the pressure from not having nursed her infant in several hours.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she says. “But if someone doesn’t, I’m going to burst. I’m already leaking.”
I notice a wet spot the size of a quarter on the front of her sweater. “Do you want to borrow my vest? Don’t they have special pads for this sort of thing?”
“Shut up, it hurts, goddammit. Please!”
It’s not that I don’t want to, or haven’t been thinking about what it would be like, as recently as the last time I saw her, a little over a week ago. She and her husband Bern had invited us over for dinner, so we could see how her new baby would get along with ours, a scant six months older. I tried to look away while she nursed, or at the baby, the two of them right there on the couch next to Susan. Both Brenda and Susan, sitting with their turtlenecks hiked up and their bras pealed back, and there they were--the full orblike breasts and their erect burnt sienna nipples damp and glistening in the lamplight. Brenda’s baby still didn’t have the hang of nursing; it seemed to clamp its lips onto anything and its tongue flicked like the wings of a hummingbird. In order to get the baby to suck properly, Brenda had to first rub her nipple against its cheek; and in order to remove the baby she had to break the suction created by nursing by licking her finger and inserting it between the baby’s lips and her nipple.
“Look,” she sounds desperate, as if issuing a peremptory command, “my milk supply’s way up. Jaclyn’s just finished a growth spurt. I’d ask your baby or even Susan to do it, if they were here--except Susan’s allergic to milk. At least she’d understand how painful all this is.”
“Where would we do it,” I ask, surprising myself by clearing the way for assent with so little reflection, so insignificant a pang of conscience. Susan and I have been married for eleven years and I’ve never been unfaithful. As far as I know, she’s never been unfaithful to me, either. And Brenda’s been a long-time friend, even before Bern.
Yes, Bern with his clothing and paraphernalia shop, Stash, on Locust Street—Stash II about to open in some suburban mall. Insufferable Bern with his interminable talk of expansion, of how cautious he is choosing his buyers, how he never, ever purchases goods that are the product of exploitation. How he’s one of the good guys, even dropping out of college for a while to hitch-hike (though another of the stories I recall featured a yellow WV Microbus) down to Guatemala, where he showered the campesinos with the hard currency they craved for antibiotics and impossible to get building materials, and yes, even bribes, and how he paid them more than they ever dreamed of getting, just because he fell in love with the exquisite work they did--the colors, ah, the colors, did I ever tell you how fucking exquisite they were, those dyes you could never get in a million years up here. And yes, how at first he sold them for ten bucks a piece, the sweaters at least, from a collapsible table he dragged home with him every night from location by the Reading Terminal.
Maybe I agreed because Brenda and I had been lovers—a lifetime back. She was just a kid then, a high schooler at the same alternative school where both of us are now teaching. Back when she attended, though, things were quite different. This was well before irate parents who listened in on their kids’ phone conversations demanded that the school board mount an investigation, because half the male faculty, it turned out, had slept with half of the female students. And that’s when the other half wasn’t sharing joints and peyote buttons. I belonged to the first half, a teacher, just out of college with no background or training in education and not all that much older than the seniors.
Back then the city was our classroom—the art museum, the courthouse, the library, natural history museum, the arboretum. The ideas seemed pedagogically sound at the time, endorsed by various boards and schools of education. And only the best and brightest were allowed to attend. They even tempted in kids from the suburbs by promising that colleges would give them special consideration, that their “experiment” in education would be worth as much as a class presidency, a cello seat in all-city orchestra, maybe even a varsity letter.
It sort of worked—Brenda went off to Oberlin until she realized that she wasn’t academically prepared and couldn’t keep up with her classmates. From there she went to Hampshire and ended up, I’m pretty sure, at Immaculate or Rosemont or Cabrini, one of those Catholic girls’ schools out on the Main Line—most likely the only Jew in her class. I hadn’t seen her in more than ten years, until she began substitute teaching at my school, almost a year ago, arriving with just the slightest puffiness around the cheeks and the subtlest swelling pressing against the waistband of her skirt. Just as I remembered her—and more!
As we stand there deliberating, crowds of students began to grope and shove their way down the hall, taunting and haranguing each other, oblivious to the room of their next class or the buzzer. I nervously realize that both Brenda and I have preps for the next 40 minutes, as we protectively press on, further down the hall, against the presiding current. “But where can we go?” I repeat.
“Oh, we’ll find a place,” she says. “I’m desperate enough to do it right here in the hall, but I’m afraid of getting bumped. Remember, though, this is only going to be this…only this, isn’t it?”