Darby resigned herself to tolerate the chaos. Chaos was a fact of working with younger children that her professors had stressed explicitly. They will be loud. They will be crazy. They will test you. Information that was helpful in the same way being told the coffee was hot; one had to test to see.
Her own sounds were the white noise of Real Housewives on TV, Sammy J’s bark at a squirrel in the nearby green space, the occasional buzz of a text message from Jason. And, the night prior, a sheet of red tissue paper tearing from her own indelicacy. She crumpled it up and tossed it into the corner of her studio apartment with the others. Taking another sip of wine, she watched an overweight, overly made-up woman on TV, face calloused and hardened from too much Botox, scream across a palatial estate’s foyer. Dramatically, the woman picked up a dinner plate and frisbeed it against the wall. If only life could be that dramatic, she thought to herself, picking up another sheet of tissue paper.
She drained her wine and went to the kitchen for another glass, pretending not to notice her phone light up on the coffee table. Buddhist will, she told herself. Strength from within. He wants you to respond right now. Be the rock. Be the hard place. A breeze through an empty forest or something. He needs you to respond. Don’t.
She picked up the phone as soon as she sat down.
I just wish you’d stop being so antagonistic about this whole situation. We broke up three weeks ago. I love you, but it’s time to move on. Stop texting me mean things and let’s get on with our lives.
She smiled and took another sip of wine feeling the magic working in her stomach. That was Jason, she smiled to herself. The author. The fledgling author. Of course, he’d use the word antagonistic. Of course, he’d take the defensive and pretend as though their break-up was somehow her fault.
She picked up a sheet of tissue paper and began tracing another outline of the human body. This one yellow–the color of skin.
“This is how it’s done, Tommy.”
Darby watched Susan, matronly, hair done up, bosom swelling beneath tightly drawn apron, snatch a white tissue cutout from Tommy’s dirtied, marker-stained fingers and begin to slowly sketch in black marker the image of a skeletal system.
“So the bones are black,” Tommy nodded.
“No, the bones are white, Tommy. The black is just where the bones are supposed to be,” Susan corrected him.
“Then what’s all the white stuff around the lines?”
Darby watched Susan pause and consider. “Nothing,” she answered, handing him the marker.
Breathe, she reminded herself. Watch. There is only doing. Be. Be in the room. Be present. Susan’s got it and you need to forget Jason and all the crap you two have been through. A rock in a moving stream or something.
She watched Susan, her cooperating teacher, skillfully steer Tommy’s grubby hands towards the yellow sheet, assisting him in outlining the body in black marker. She’s a saint, Darby thought, turning around and shutting off the sink. Someone had left it running. Do I have that kind of patience? Did Jason have that kind of patience with me? Did I have that kind of patience with Jason? Is this what I want with my life? Is my skin like this goddamned tissue paper?
She felt the tug of a small hand against her pant leg.
“Is this how you do it?” Sarah, toe-headed, apple-cheeked held out the bottom sheet of construction paper; multiple tissue-paper bodies, one atop the other, multicolored markings lining the bones, and muscles, and skin. Darby took the multiple sheets and silently rearranged the yellow one on top of the red one on top of the white one. She considered the strangeness of yellow and brown skin-tones before handing Sarah her packet. Yellow for the white kids and other kids. Brown for the black kids. She took solace in the simplicity, however wrong.
“Awesome job, Sarah,” she smiled, handing back the packet of papers. Sarah hopped back to her table, taking a seat.
She’d had too much wine again and they were laying in bed. She could see the outline of an erection form in his boxers as they watched another episode of The Office. He had his beer, she had her wine. It was hot, and her apartment didn’t have air-conditioning, so they lay there separated, her fingers playing across his tuft of chest hair. In their underwear, a fan whirred in the corner, pushing warm air around the room.
“You want to have kids someday?” she lobbed the question like a hand-grenade.
He shifted in the sheets, and let out a sneeze. Stalling, she thought. Sammy J. lay in the corner, huffing softly–doggy dreams.
He paused and said, “I’m game,” turning to face her.
Noncommittal, she knew. Noncommittal, but sincere. At least he has that going for him. She dismissed the flicker of apparent doubt in the answer. Of course, he doubts us. It’s a tough question. Yet the fact that he answered correctly meant the world. She smiled, throwing a leg across his waist, pulling him towards her. They kissed as the fan blew a shock of her hair onto his chest.
“Okay. So. Kids,” she said, pulling away from him. “What about a job?”
He took a deep breath and exhaled through his nostrils. “I don’t know. Writer? Maybe work for a newspaper or something? I wrote a short story the other day and I think it’s okay. Maybe that?” She loved his bashfulness.
“A writer? Authors don’t make much money,” she said, grinning.
“Money can’t buy me love,” he stated.
She laughed and kissed him on the cheek. “Okay. So. Writer, or something. That’s cool,” she nodded.
“And you?” he asked.
Thinking, their attention was successfully turned from the show. “Nurse?” she asked, knowing the answer before it left her mouth. “No. Not nurse.” She ran her fingers down his chest to his abdomen and back up.
“I kind of want to work with kids though,” she said. The idea struck her as novel before sinking in as realistic. She liked kids, could have even loved them. An image of her niece, only three, scampering across the kitchen floor of her sister’s place a month before ran through her head. Kids are alright. That could be my life.
“You’ve got kids on the brain, huh?”
“You want to have kids with me?” she smiled, turning his head towards her for a kiss.
Susan stepped around Darby to wash her hands. Darby saw a similarly disheveled air about her. The same sheen of sweat. The same tousle of hair. The same wrinkle in the pants and shirt. She’s old, Darby thought, eyeing the large, loose dress she favored. Old, but still beautiful. Darby wondered whether the unkempt hair, the glasses perched atop the bridge of her nose, the shirt a size-too-large; if it was all a sort of required uniform.
“They’re crazy today,” Darby said.
She turned away from Susan and watched as Tommy, a look of superhuman concentration on his face, applied a few sketch marks indicating veins on a red body.
“They’re crazy every day,” Susan said, turning to the kids.
“How’s life?” Darby asked.
“Pretty good. Shayla didn’t get down until about 2:30 last night so there’s that,” she rolled her eyes.
“Kid’ll be the death of me. Still a joy though.”
“I don’t know how you do it. I had a glass of wine, fell asleep by ten, and I’m still wiped.”
“I remember those days. You get used to it,” Susan said, snatching a towel from the counter and slinging it over her shoulder. “You get used to it and then something else comes along. And then you get used to that too,” she mused.
They watched Tommy glance up, a glimmer in his eyes as his marker continued to move across the sheet of tissue paper and onto the table. He began flicking it back and forth in big black streaks against the wood-grain, eyes turned upwards at the ceiling.
Susan launched across the room and snatched the marker from his hand. Tommy shrugged in defense. He doesn’t know, Darby thought.
Her gaze turned across the room to the back table where voices were dropped to conspiratorial whispers. She watched as three boys, Jeremy, Noah, and Hughey had their heads drawn together. Noah’s packet of tissue-paper layers was spread out on the table as they traded talking points back and forth.
The three of them, blonde and thin, looked like miniature old men discussing politics in a café. She thought of Jason’s weekly Risk games where he and a couple of friends would gather and drink cases of beer and eat frozen pizza. “Nerding out” was what he’d called it. Looking at the three small boys conspiring in the corner, she knew they were doing more than nerding out.
“Boys, how are we?” she asked in a singsong voice picked up from Susan’s example. She crouched down and met their eyes. The three of them turned, faces open and smiling.
“Ms. Jacobs,” Noah began, the most talkative of the three. “Ms. Jacobs. Jeremy told me that the human body works by food going in your mouth.” He stood and demonstrated by opening his mouth wide and snapping it closed. “And then it travels…” He drew his hands down the front of his body past his stomach. “Allllllll the way down to your toes. And then. And then. It stops at your toes and starts to fill you up.” He bounced as he talked, hardly able to contain himself. “And then you eat more. And you eat more. And then the food starts to fill you up. Like, from the bottom,” he said, karate chopping his right leg slowly upwards moving to the abdomen and stomach before heading up to the chest, finishing at the neck.
“And then. Jeremy,” he threw a sidelong glance at Jeremy, “thinks that the food, once it gets to your neck. That’s where it stops. Once it goes to your neck you get sick. And then you throw it all up. Blahhhh,” he mock-spewed, convulsing into a fit of laughter alongside Hughey. “That’s when you get sick and throw it all up and then it starts over again. And then you’re okay,” Noah finished.
“But what I don’t get,” Hughey stepped in. “Is that. What. Like, where are all the bones, and muscles and stuff?” Darby adored the way he said muskles with a hard C.
“They’re in there. They have to be,” Hughey said, prodding his stomach.
Darby smiled. “Quite the idea,” she said, her legs aching from the crouch. “And Jeremy, you told them all this? It’s an interesting theory.”
She smiled and set a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. His head rested lazily on an outstretched arm splayed across the small table. She could tell he was moving to distance himself from the whole explanation. Splotches of embarrassment showed on his face.
“Boys,” she said to Noah and Hughey who were now switching marker caps on a bucket full of markers. “Go wash your hands at the station and then go read in the corner,” she said, pointing to “reader’s corner.”
She brought her face close to Jeremy’s and smiled. He softened. “Is that what you believe, Jeremy? That we get food all the way down into our toesies?” she said, bulging her eyes to comic proportions. He smiled and nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Very interesting,” she said. “But what about bones and muscles and organs?” she asked, flipping the tissue-paper sheets on the table. Noah’s packet was perfectly drawn. “See,” she motioned to the papers, “You can see in the drawing there are other things in the body besides food, silly,” she laughed, pulling her gaze back towards her face.
“We’d just be big, blobby sacks of skin without bones and things!”
He laughed for a second before his face became serious. He sat up, eyes trained on the ground, mouth a thin-lined pencil, drawn serious and tight.
Darby fell back into a cross-legged seated position on the floor, releasing the tension in her thighs. “What’re ya thinkin’?”
“I don’t get,” he paused. She could see he was thinking deeply. “Like. If the body is full of stuff, like bones and things,” he paused, carefully considering his words.
“Where does the soul fit?”
She remembered lying in bed as Jason clunked through her apartment. She could hear the burble of the coffee pot, the clink of a spoon against one of her bowls. He muttered to himself as he did this. She turned over in bed, unpinning a hand from the weight of her body. She could feel blood begin to creep back into the constricted appendage. Her fingers prickled.
Beside her lay Sammy J. named after Samuel L. Jackson because of his coarse harshly ground bark. She felt his warmth beside her. The rise and fall of his middle. He would occasionally flick a paw with a small twitch.
When she got up the kitchen was empty. Jason left no traces of himself, and aside from the half-full carafe of coffee, she never would have known he was there. Looking around, she felt the atmosphere of the room shift. The silence of her apartment was all-encompassing. It drew her inward and made her panicky. The carpet was soft between her toes as she stepped towards the sliding glass door opening onto a small two-seater “porch.” Jason sat outside, coffee in one hand, book in the other.
“Hey,” she said. Her voice small in the open air.
“Hi,” he said flatly. The book lay open. She could feel he wasn’t reading. Just using the pages as a distraction.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He took a sip of coffee, his face turned out to the complex’s small, rectangular pool still open in early October. The green-space trees blew softly in the morning wind. Green against powder blue. Darby wished she could see Jason’s green eyes to guess what this was all about. His silence was abnormal.
The realization that he was going to break up with her came in small, tidy waves of awareness. She felt the heat and a subtle churn inside in which Jason’s elimination from her life became a definite possibility. The flicker of his absence began to materialize and solidify from abstract to concrete in small movements.
Their relationship up to that point had been a sequence of struggles. She was under the impression they’d make it through the squabbles. Every piece of advice she’d ever been given was that relationships were work alongside being joyous. This is just the work part, she told herself for the thousandth time. The fights and tension the past two weeks have just been the work part, she continued–knowing the thoughts to be foolish. She felt her eyes well up with tears. She turned and watched the undulating clear-glass blue of the pool beneath them.
The conversation about kids from the night before crept into her mind. Little Jasons running around the house. Little deep reading, diaper-clad, obnoxiously talkative, inquisitive Jasons. They would flood their future home with love and joy and chaos and screams. The vision began to dissipate.
Jason turned up to her, the well of his green eyes opening in deep water. “Are you breaking up with me?” she plied, letting the syllables of the words bounce across her tongue. A tear ran down her face.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said. His voice wavered.
The morning light coasted golden off the skin of the pool and a bird chirped in the distance. She caught the glimpse of a squirrel scamper up the trunk of a pine tree.
Turning around, she watched Sammy J. step over to his bowl, filling himself with deep slurps.
Darby was struck by Jeremy’s explanation of human anatomy. It wasn’t atypical for the kids to come up with their own theories to explain the inexplicable. She couldn’t help smile at his yarn. It was hilarious. There was a sort of conscious thoughtfulness to it all. A sense that stood more aligned with a miniature philosopher than a five-year-old.
“Where does the soul go?” she repeated to Jeremy. She felt the weight of the question, unsure how to answer.
Unkinking her legs, she stood, feeling the blood rush to her head. Jeremy sat, head upturned, eyes following.
“I’m pretty sure your soul is up here,” she raised a paint-stained fingertip to her temple and tapped gingerly.
“It sits right in front of your brain. Like, right in the front, so that if you ever need it for anything, it can jump out of your nose and save the day,” she smiled.
Jeremy’s seriousness wavered for a terrifying second in which Darby was sure he’d call foul on the explanation. She watched the thin pencil of his lips break and turn into a satisfied smile.
“So the body isn’t empty. It’s got muscles and stuff?” he asked her.
“Right. Now go wash your hands,” she motioned to the sink.
He ran across the room, hopped up onto the stool and ran his hands under the water.
That night she ran out of her complex with Sammy J. pulling lazily at the tail end of the leash, his age showing in the traces of grey on his muzzle. Turning right, she cut onto the greenbelt trail that ran towards the University. Her headphones were loud. She couldn’t hear herself breathe. She felt the crunch of gravel beneath her shoes and the coolness of the creek running beside the path.
Her thoughts ran to some advice Susan gave her on their first day together. “Fight fire with fire,” Susan said. “You get tired, go for a run or something and it’ll balance you out.”
They were eating lunch together. She had a salad and apple. Darby remembered watching Susan eat a hoagie.
“Wait,” Darby asked. “So if I’m exhausted, then running and working out which would normally make me more tired, is going to make me less tired?”
“Yup,” Susan said flatly.
“So where does the exhaustion go? If I’m just piling it up?”
Susan chewed, pausing. “I don’t know,” she shook her head. “Somewhere. Anywhere,” she said flatly, taking another bite. “Who cares?”
Darby smiled, coasting down a slight decline in the path. She watched Sammy J’s tail swing, feeling inertia carry them forward.
James Patrick is a high school English teacher in Littleton, CO, a former graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Creative Writing Program, and has been published in a variety of magazines including Crack The Spine Magazine and the Piker Press. He is currently in the finishing stages of a novel.