Kathleen Aguero

 

 

 

A COMFORTABLE WOMAN

 
 

All morning, Lena had been eyeing the plate of cookies which Jessica had brought to  class for her goodbye party. “Look at these,” Denise, the head teacher had said while Jessica beamed beside her, “Don’t they look delicious?  Jessica helped her mother make them.”  Then Denise put the cookies on the high shelf along with the apple juice and gaily decorated paper cups, special for today’s snack.

Yesterday, Jessica had brought in pictures of her new house in a nearby suburb for show and tell. It had a wide front lawn you’d have to mow in summer, a maple tree to one side, a row of flowers bordering the long walk to the front door.  “My room is right here,” Jessica pointed to a window on the second floor. “It’s bigger than my old room.  And look how far away the next house is.  Mama says it will be quiet.  The noisy neighbors won’t keep me up anymore.”

Lena caught Denise’s amused look.  But Jessica didn’t seem excited or happy about this new house.  Lena thought she looked sad and wondered if she would miss the city: the comfort of other people all around you, neighbors sitting together on the front steps and talking on hot summer nights.  Lena knew Jessica had friends in the neighborhood—the teenaged girl who was her baby sitter lived two doors down and sometimes took Jessica out for ice cream after school, a young couple with a new baby Jessica loved to visit lived right upstairs.  Jessica was beginning to tell them about her new school with a big gym, a cafeteria, and a playground with a new climbing structure when Martin’s remote control robot broke into the circle walking stiffly and saying “This does not compute” in a mechanical voice. The children laughed.

“Martin, you have to wait your turn,” Denise said firmly as she took the controls from Martin.  Martin sat back down, but he grinned.  Everyone was looking at him and his robot now.  Lena thought Martin might feel envious of Jessica.  In their school, the children all ate lunch in their classrooms and two of the swings in the play area were broken and hadn’t been replaced since last year.

            Jessica giggled at Martin. Lena knew she wasn’t supposed to have favorites.  This job was her first as a teacher’s aide, and, during the two day orientation, the supervisor had said with a meaningful look- “Of course, I don’t need to tell you that pre-school children are quick to pick up on favoritism.  Remember, each child is special in his or her way.” But Lena couldn’t help herself.  Jessica was her favorite.  Like Lena, she liked to laugh and her soft brown curls, quick movements and confident, almost bold, way of speaking reminded Lena of a girl, Almeida, she’d admired when she herself was five years old, just one year older than Jessica, and had moved to a strange city.  How flattered Lena had been when Almeida had chosen her as a friend. She used to save part of her lunch to give to Almeida when she walked her home after school each day. Her own mother never knew this and, astounded by Lena’s appetite at dinner, would pack her larger and larger lunches each day. Lena smiled to herself remembering this childish deception. She had bought Jessica a small packet of rainbow stickers, brightly colored, with sparkles, as a farewell gift—the kind of gift Lena would have wanted to receive when she was four.

            Lena had purchased them at the drugstore near the subway stop.  She remembered catching a glimpse of herself in the large storefront windows.  Her skirt, she thought, was a little short and made her legs look heavy.  The man who worked at the newsstand­­–– whom she disliked for his appraising stare and the way he seemed to stroke her palm when he handed her change—caught her looking at herself and whistled. Even now, just to think of it made her a little angry.  And then she’d spilled some coffee down the front of her blouse when someone jostled her elbow in the crowded station. She’d dabbed cold water on the stain as soon as she’d gotten to school but a faint ring still showed where she’d rubbed it.

            Denise had smiled and laughed when she saw Lena at the classroom sink.  “I can tell whenever you get up late and drink your coffee on the train—you always spill it!” Denise got up early every morning to work out before school, Lena knew, but Denise never looked mussed.  She was such a calm person, Lena thought—never impatient with the children, never raising her voice in anger or excitement.  Her long hair was always smooth although she never sprayed it, and even on the hottest days, Lena had noticed, she never seemed to perspire.  “That one’s made of plastic,” Yvonne, the aide next door, had once muttered after Denise passed by.

            “No,” Lena had chided.  “You’re just jealous.” But to herself she had to admit that Denise didn’t seem quite real.

            As she sat at the crafts table helping Maria and Pierre use the scissors, Lena could smell the cookies on the shelf just above them.  Their sweetness brought saliva to her mouth.  She hadn’t eaten any breakfast before the long train ride from the other end of the city.  Just the coffee.  She hoped Jessica’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt if she didn’t eat any cookies.  Today she had started a diet.  Last night her boyfriend had teased her as she’d helped herself to more rice—“I like a comfortable woman, “ he joked, gently patting the soft flesh of her thigh.

            “My Lena’s always loved my cooking,” her mother interjected. “Besides, she needs to keep her strength up with this new job.  Running after children all day—I know what that’s like.”

            Thinking about it, Lena bit her lip and flushed.  She wasn’t a large woman, but when she’d scrutinized herself in the mirror last night before bed, she thought her legs were a little thick, her hips just a tad too wide.  She was afraid of turning into her mother whose stocky peasant build never seemed to fit comfortably into fashionable clothes—her dresses always straining slightly across the bodice and hips, sleeves snug around her upper arms.  Before she went sleep, Lena had opened the deep bottom drawer of her bed table where she kept her nighttime snacks and resolutely dumped her small packets of M&M’s, raisin cookies, and peanut butter crackers into the wastebasket.  Then quickly and quietly so as not call attention to herself, she carried the bag outside and put it in the dumpster.

            Being so close to the cookies was making Lena tense.  “Maria, what pretty colors you’ve chosen for your flowers.  Pierre, you did a nice job gluing.  Time to clean up now and let someone else have a turn.”  Lena helped the children put their things away then moved them to the climbing structure at the other end of the room. I have to make sure they get a mix of small and large motor activity, she reminded herself, and Denise wants me to involve Maria in more active play.

              As she was settling Pierre and Maria, Jessica came up tugging at Lena’s skirt.  “Lena, please read me a story. The one about the caterpillar.”  Lena sat on the floor leaning against a cushion with Jessica on her lap and opened up the book.  “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” she began.

            “Today’s my goodbye party,” Jessica interrupted.

            “I know.”

            “I don’t want to go to a new school.
            “It will be all right.
            “I’ll miss you, Lena,” Jessica’s lip began to tremble.

            “I’ll miss you, too.”  Lena kissed the top of the little girl’s head. “But I’ll write you a letter.  Won’t that be nice—to get a letter?”

            Jessica snuggled back against her. But even from across the room, the cookies distracted Lena.  She felt impatient that she was so aware of them as she imagined herself at the little party, taking just a bite then crumbling the rest of the cookie so Jessica wouldn’t notice she hadn’t really eaten any, or maybe eating just one cookie—one wouldn’t do any harm, she resolved--and it was better to eat one cookie than to hurt a child’s feelings. 

Jessica looked up at Lena, “Maybe you can visit me at my new school, or get a job there.”

Lena remembered the way Almeida’s perfect curls had dipped to one side as she’d looked at Lena and pointed to the new girl in the class, one with perfect curls like Almeida and a pink ribbon in her hair.  “I’m walking home with her today.  You can’t come.” Lena had lowered her head so Almeida couldn’t see the tears, and she’d stood there at the bottom of the long stairs which lead to the school, studying her scuffed brown shoes until she was sure Almeida was out of sight.

Jessica had begun squirming.  Lena followed Jessica’s gaze toward the cookies.  “They’re chocolate chip,” she said, “I put sprinkles on them, for the party.”

“Stop wiggling, now, and pay attention to the story.” Lena was surprised at how sharply she spoke.  Jessica frowned but grew still.

“...on Thursday, he ate through four raspberries,” Lena read.

“Strawberries,” Jessica interrupted.

“Strawberries, yes.”  Lena turned the page roughly.  She could feel her neck and shoulders tightening.  It was as if that plate of cookies were the largest thing in the room, like the pin-up calendar on Uncle Leo’s wall that called attention to itself but had to be ignored.  Lena just wanted to be rid of them.  “...and he was a beautiful butterfly,” she read quickly without putting the usual tone of wonder in her voice.

Jessica looked up at her. “Are you angry?”

“Of course, I’m not angry,” Lena said lifting Jessica off her lap, “but look at the clock.  The little hand is at ten; the big hand is at six.  Time to get ready for nap.”

Lena put on some quiet music; then she and Denise helped the children get out the mats and find their blankets and stuffed animals.  Each child got a back rub.  Jessica’s was always last because she had trouble falling asleep.  “You do Jessica, today,” Denise said softly. “It’s her last day, and she’s so fond of you.”

This was one of Lena’s favorite times in the day—the quiet peaceful classroom, the sound of the children’s soft breathing, the faint scent of their sleep. Usually she loved giving Jessica a back rub and was proud of her ability to soothe her into sleep, but this morning her hands seemed jerky and there was something jarring in the tune she hummed.  It took Jessica so long to fall asleep! To sit there humming quietly, circling the small back again and again! Her own legs twitched.  She could hardly keep from jumping up.  “Close your eyes,” she said.  Jessica closed them.

 “Lena, I have to go to the office,” Denise whispered.  “I’ll be back in ten minutes or so.”

Lena nodded and continued to stroke Jessica’s back. She glanced at the clock.  She’d only been with Jessica three minutes!   Lena usually waited until she could feel Jessica relax completely beneath her hands and could hear her breathing grow deep and regular. But now she could be still no longer. Jessica’s eyes were closed.  She seemed near enough to sleep.  Lena walked quietly over to the snack shelf.  She moved away and began to clean  up the water area.  She moved back to the snack shelf and lifted the tea towel that covered the cookies—how good they smelled­–-then covered them again.  She wanted to cry or smash something; she didn’t know why. She lifted the tea towel and picked up a cookie.  She took a bite then spit it in a paper towel and threw the cookie away.  She felt as if something inside her had been turned off, as if she were Martin’s remote control robot.  She looked over at Jessica.  Her eyes were still closed, but Lena couldn’t tell if she were really sleeping. Lena took another cookie and ate it, fast.  She could feel herself grow warm as if even here, alone in this room with the children asleep, she felt ashamed.  She took another cookie and ate it even more quickly.  She moved away and began to straighten up the story books.  Her hands were trembling as she put books away.  It was hard to get them on the shelf.  She glanced at the clock.  Denise had been gone five minutes. Lena was back at the snack shelf, two more cookies in her hand.  She felt a little reckless now, heart pounding like the time she’d surprised all her friends by taking  a dare and climbing over the high fence around the deserted bus barn.  Once she’d got halfway up, she couldn’t look down, couldn’t stop, just one shaky foothold after another.  When she got to the top, she couldn’t remember how she got there.  The sticky sweetness of the chocolate chips was beginning to make her a little sick, but she was hardly tasting the cookies anymore.  It was as if her hands and mouth had separated from the rest of her, as if she, Lena, had disappeared and there was only this determined, mechanical act of eating.  She was sweating slightly. A small noise made her look at Jessica.  The child’s eyes were open now, watching, but she didn’t say a word.  Lena took another cookie and ate it furiously.  She heard a footstep in the hall--Denise. Cramming the last cookie in her mouth, she replaced the tea towel over the empty plate and moved to a table near the door where she sat sorting the children’s lunch slips.  She sneaked another look at Jessica who was crying now, not making any noise, tears staining the shiny edging of her pink blanket, her eyes following Lena.  She wanted to go to Jessica and comfort her, but how could she?  What would she say? Her body felt cemented to the chair. She stared down at the table.

Denise entered the classroom, a package of paper plates decorated to match the cups in one hand, a bag of ice cream sandwiches in the other.  Silently, she held them up to Lena. “For the party,” she mouthed, a grin on her face.  Lena nodded.  She felt sick now. Denise carried the packages over to the snack table and saw the empty plate.  She turned around, first toward Lena, hands and eyebrows raised in question, then toward Jessica whose crying had grown audible. Quickly she crossed the room and put her arms around Jessica.  “What happened?” she asked.  Jessica shook her head and looked once more at Lena before burying her face against Denise’s shoulder.

Lena stood up slowly, stiffly, as if she’d been crouching for a long time in a very small space.  She remembered the gift she’d bought Jessica.  Wiping the chocolate off her fingers on her smock, she put her hand into her skirt pocket and touched the stickers.

 

 Copyright © 2011 Kathleen Aguero

 
Kathleen Aguero's poetry collections include Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth, Daughter Of, The Real Weather, and Thirsty Day. She has also co-edited three volumes of multi-cultural literature for the University of Georgia Press. She teaches at Pine Manor College, Chestnut Hill, MA in both the undergraduate and low-residency M.F.A. programs and in Changing Lives through Literature, an alternative sentencing program.