On the last day of class before summer vacation, his students – all fifteen of them, ranging age eight to sixteen – filed out the door saying their goodbyes. Before leaving, one of his sixth-graders, Molly Hanchet, stopped at his desk. She had red hair and freckles and, in five years, would likely be Park County’s Fourth of July Rodeo queen. After that she would go on to pre-med at Stanford. She had her thumbs hooked in the straps of her backpack and she said, ‘Have a good summer, Mr Colson. I hope next year you feel better.’
She left and James was forced to ponder the implications. It had to be bad if a sixth-grade girl could see that he was fucked.
Carina lived in a small rental cabin on the river, set back in a grove of old cottonwoods. Once, in a windstorm, he’d lain awake, envisioning whole trees shearing off at rotten points in their trunks, branches punching through the roof, flattening him and Carina in the bed. He imagined them being found out that way.
Carina wasn’t home and he sat on her front step. He was preparing to leave when her car pulled in behind him. She got out and groaned at the sight of him. ‘I’ve had a bad day,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if I can handle you right now.’
‘Maybe I’ve come here to profess my undying love.’
They did it with her bent over the small two-burner stove, her skirt up around her waist. In their frantic movements one of them nudged a burner switch and soon the cabin was full of a strange odour. James thought for a moment that he was having some sort of olfactory response to imminent ejaculation. And then Carina was slapping him and swearing. A section of her hair had begun to curl and smoke.
He sat at the foot of the bed facing her. She was on her back inspecting the ends of her hair.
‘God,’ she said, ‘what a day.’
‘She’s moving her stuff out right now. That’s partly why I’m here. I can’t really go home for a while. I drove by the house and she was loading boxes.’
Carina didn’t say anything. She wet her fingertips in her mouth and rubbed at a burnt end.
‘Boxes. Moving, dying, breaking up. All life’s great tragedies are marked by the appearance of those goddamn square cardboard units. Such an ominous shade of brown.’ He’d thought of this earlier today and it pleased him to say it. He wished she’d come to his side of the bed and put her hand on his leg. He didn’t think that was asking too much.
‘Fuck,’ Carina said. ‘I may have to get a haircut to fix this.’
‘Part of me didn’t actually believe that she was going to leave. We had some serious work-it-out talks. We went camping up on the Stillwater last weekend. We sat side by side next to the campfire. She said the stars above were like a million diamonds. She said that. I almost asked her to marry me.’
Carina was pressing her hands to her face. Her fingernails, as always, were immaculate, painted a brilliant red. Each nail was like a little cherry hard candy that James wanted to crush between his teeth.
‘I’m serious,’ he said. ‘I was going to propose. And you know what? Why can’t the stars above be like a million diamonds? And why, when she said that, did I want to tell you about it immediately?’ James stopped. There was some sort of noise emerging from behind Carina’s hands, both of which where now clamped over her mouth. Her fingernails were digging into her cheeks and her eyes were screwed shut. And then she rose from the bed and he could hear her retching in the bathroom.
When she emerged, her dark hair was in beautiful disarray. She was brushing her teeth, one arm crossed over her bare breasts.
Carina had come from San Francisco on a grant to teach creative writing to at-risk girls on the Crow Reservation. She was writing a book about her experiences. For someone who could be so sarcastic, downright caustic, it surprised James to see the level of earnestness with which she approached her job. She loved it. She loved the at-risk girls (a classification that, on the reservation, seemed to encompass the entire population). She approached each class day with happy anticipation. If he happened to entertain the idea of staying over on a school night she would kick him out so she could prepare. She was a teacher and he was a teacher, but what she did was something completely different. He fully acknowledged that. She had a passion. He enjoyed the really nice sense of calm that came from having good health benefits.
She sometimes read him sections of stories or poems, written by her girls. James had to admit that some of the stuff was pretty remarkable. There was one he always remembered, the words themselves and the way Carina had read it, in bed, naked, on her stomach with her feet up in the air, her heels knocking together in time with the words. I look at him, the boy that doesn’t love me, and it’s like a badger has climbed into my chest. The badger tramples my stomach while it chews on my heart.
Carina got into bed. She continued to brush her teeth. She also started to cry.
‘I’m sorry,’ James said. ‘I shouldn’t have been talking about all that stuff. It’s been tough for me lately and I’m –’
Carina was shaking her head, pointing at the kitchen. ‘Can you get me a glass to spit in?’ she said, her voice garbled by toothpaste.
When he returned with the glass she spit, handed it to him, and then rolled in bed to face the wall.