Miriam Cohen



Ms. Perry wore platform shoes with open toes and the very sheerest of required pantyhose. Sometimes she'd even paint her toenails something crazy, like blue or orange. And she read the magazines they did—she could name all the different celebrities. Can you believe that wedding, this divorce, weren't those first five trips to rehab sufficient?
     They wished Ms. Perry were their mother!
     The students who loved her were a special kind of girl: glossy-haired glasses-wearers. Their cheeks were swabbed with body glitter sparkling of tiny moons and stars and hearts, maybe, but they were serious about taking notes. They had ambitions.
     She told them, believe her, they didn't wish that.
     Ms. Perry was so modest!
     The bell rang—and they leapt! They flitted! Pleated skirts opened like umbrellas against rain. It was difficult to avoid seeing who still wore sturdy little girl underwear, and who'd graduated, startlingly, to low-rise bikini bottoms. Ms. Perry always saw more than she intended to see.
     The highly relevant example: Lisa Wolff, vomiting in the girls' bathroom. Ms. Perry had been in there to vomit herself—not after a night of boozing! After a night, that turned into a very early morning, of getting a little tipsier than she'd planned, or imagined she was. And on pear martinis, dusted with cinnamon, like pastries. But not, Ms. Perry saw now, exactly like pastries. She'd been on a date that was clearly going to end up nowhere, not even in bed—he'd told her as much, basically—and she'd want to impress him, show him she could just have fun. She was up for just having fun.
     She hadn't at first realized it was Lisa Wolff, of course. Ms. Perry, hearing the vomiting, had been caught off-guard. Was that somehow she herself throwing up?
     Lisa came out of the bathroom stall, wiping at her cheeks. Her clavicle jutted forward like pleading hands.
     Ms. Perry was swallowing and swallowing.
     It wasn't fair to view a student as a nemesis. Ms. Perry knew that. But Lisa Wolff was more virus than girl, contaminating the rest of the class, who crowded around her at lunchtime, their bodies humming like cars about to start, decked out in cheap jewelry and colorful hairbands and patterned knee socks, asserting the differences belied by their uniforms. They wanted diet tips. They wanted to know, Were their lunches healthy? And Lisa Wolff would look from lunch to lunch. Nope, nope, and...nope. She would then pick up a clammy slice of turkey, roll it into a kind of flower, and bite off its head.
     Lisa, standing before Ms. Perry, was wearing the jewelry, the hairband, the knee socks. But on her they looked staged, as though her mother had dressed her.
     It was a terrible thing, not to have a faculty bathroom.
     "Lisa," said Ms. Perry. "Is there something you need to tell me?"
     Ms. Perry reminded herself of her own mother, hands on hips.
     "I have the flu," said Lisa. There were broken veins scattered across her face, gathering especially at the eyes, like premature crow's feet. 
     Her face was bloated as a drowned person's.
     Ms. Perry could hold it in no longer. Luckily, there was the sink.
     "I have the flu," said Ms. Perry. She wiped her mouth with a brown paper towel folded neatly in half.
     Of all the things she saw—Adele Schapiro idly picking her nose in the hallway; Lucy Philips with a poorly-covered-up hickey on her neck, which she admitted was the result of a bicycle pump taken to her face in an ill-fated experiment; poor Amanda Johnson with blood at the seat of her skirt, and many, many midriffs, proudly announcing themselves when ooh-oohing hands shot up in the air—this was the only she'd been obligated to report. But the trouble was the trouble it would take. She'd have to go to the principal, whose fear of computers complicated her life ridiculously. Among other absurdities, he still mandated handwritten report cards. She didn't know where he even got his carbon paper. She couldn't figure it out. Was it maybe supposed to be charming? A bold expression of OCD?
     She'd have to go to the guidance counselor, who kept boxes of Special K in her office and a Weight Watchers point system pinned to her cork bulletin board. The guidance counselor was forever wanting to share with Ms. Perry what she'd eaten so far that day and how many Weight Watcher points she had left and how good she was being. The guidance counselor was fat in a doughy way, with an undifferentiated shelf of breast that made her seem pushy and obnoxious even when she was just sitting in her desk, quietly munching from a carefully measured-out baggie of Special K. Those were breasts that would charge at you in a crowded store or parking lot: Out of my way!
     The guidance counselor would probably just be jealous. Bulimia, she would say. I used to have bulimia. Or anorexia, or a binge-eating disorder. The guidance counselor could get competitive when it came to conversations.
     So Ms. Perry had made a deal with Lisa: Don't come down with the flu again, and no one will have to know.
     It hadn't occurred to Ms. Perry—what was the matter with her?—that Lisa might tell on her for suspicious during-the-day vomiting.
     The principal had called her into his office and shut the door. He was concerned, he told her. But the corners of his eyes were pinched tight, and really he was saying, I'm going to fire you. Ms. Perry found herself entirely out of options. Now, if she were to buck up and report Lisa, it would look petty, an unimaginative tit for Lisa's tat.
     Ms. Perry began to speak too quickly, her words tumbling over each other like kindergarteners on their way to recess. She would have told him sooner, she explained—much too quickly! Why couldn't she slow down?— but she was waiting until the end of the first trimester. Better safe.
     It occurred to her only later that the flu really was the best lie, and the most obviously there for the taking. There was something wrong with her, Ms. Perry knew. Her own teachers had accused her imagination of over-activity, and here it was: fidgeting, on the move, racing too far ahead.
     The principal's blush spread even to his scalp, where stray wisps were arranged to approximate hair. He asked her if she needed to lie down. For a moment Ms. Perry panicked. Had she somehow said, I have cancer? Had she given the impression she was dying?
      "Sometimes women in your"—he stopped to look at the ceiling—"condition find they need to lie down." He mimed a pregnant belly, his hand beginning at his chest, swooping far into the air, ending dangerously close to his crotch.
     "I don't need to lie down," she said.
     "All right," he said. "That's all right."
     "The first trimester is almost done?" he asked.
     She assured him it was.
     "We don't discriminate here." His eyes darted up to meet hers, and then away, quickly as squirrels. "That's just something we don't do here. These are modern times," he told her, shaking his head as though confused. 
     But it would have been preferable if Ms. Perry were married. This was something the principal, very unfortunately, couldn't deny. This was a private, all-girls' school, it really couldn't be helped. There were certain expectations. There were certain standards. It was necessary, then, to have a plan of action in place before Ms. Perry publically confronted the rumors that had now spread from girl to girl like lice. A truth might perhaps have to stretch. The principal's hands, fisted, pulled slowly at the air.
     So: Ta-da! Voila!
     Ms. Perry was married now!
     Her students—the ones who loved her—had at first been sad to find out they hadn't been invited to the wedding, or at least alerted to the news. And she was pregnant?
     Hel-lo! Had they missed something?
     But they were all past this now: They wished she were their mother!

There was still the lingering question of Ms. Perry's rings, and so she went to a costume jewelry store and pointed through a glass case to a ring with a small cubic zirconia diamond that looked like a snowflake.
     "I don't know if I would," said the salesgirl. "Those things look like engagement rings." She made a quick slice at her throat. "Totally tacky."
     "Oh!" said Ms. Perry. "It's not for me. I mean, yes, it's for me, but it's for a costume. I'm going to be in a play."
     The salesgirl was wearing earrings made of beads and trailing feathers that brushed her shoulders when she lifted them in a double shrug.
      Ms. Perry began feeling desperate, as though she had to pee, and badly.
     "I'm not in a play. I'm illegitimately pregnant and I teach at a backwards all-girls' school, and my principal wants me to pretend I'm married."
     Ms. Perry found she believed herself. She summoned a single blooming tear.
     The salesgirl put her hand to her mouth. Her nails were painted a careful magenta, and they spread across her face like a dried-out novelty starfish. "No way," she said. "That's like..."
     "I know!" said Ms. Perry.
     "You should sue," the salesgirl said. "That's what I would do, no question. I'd just sue his ass and live off the settlement."
      "I would," Ms. Perry said. "But I've got to think about the baby." She gestured vaguely. "These court cases drag on," she said. "Even when they're open-shut."
     And now, awfully, she mimed opening and shutting a door.
     But the salesgirl seemed not to notice. "It's hard on single moms," she said. The beads in her earrings rattled.
     Ms. Perry smiled with one side of her face, like a stroke victim.
     The salesgirl came out from behind the glass counter and touched Ms. Perry's arm. Her breath smelled of spearmint and waxy strawberry. "I wish I could give this to you for free," she said, and winced.
     But she could give Ms. Perry complimentary wrapping. She used silk ribbons, crisscrossed them, looping the remaining ribbon into a bow. She looked Ms. Perry in the eye. "This is how they do it at Tiffany's."

If Ms. Perry squinted and held her hand far from her face, her hand was transformed entirely. She was someone she hadn't realized she'd wanted to be. Of course! It was so obvious now! Marriage was the ticket.
     Married and pregnant, she was intoxicating to be around. Her students gazed up at her during her lessons, pupils enlarged, as though stumbling from darkened rooms. Adele Schapiro's eyes crossing more consistently than was usual.
     Tell us the story! they demanded.
     They interrupted the lessons: So was his family like the Capulets or the Montagues? Was he more of a Mercutio or a real, hunky Romeo? They hoped Romeo, but were pragmatic enough to account for this other possibility.
     What was she going to name the baby?
     And because she was a pushover, a teacher who was also kind of a friend, having failed to follow the advice she'd been given by any and all who heard she was to teach (never smile for the first month!), she made up stories for them.
     She had direction, a purpose, as never before. She was not, anymore, just someone who chiefly corrected spellings: Lose; not loose. Comma; not coma, getting mixed up herself, scribbling on their papers, making arrows and asterisks and smiley faces: Never mind!
     No longer did she sit in her apartment, watching reality TV shows whose titles she carefully messed up if ever they should come up in conversation with people who were not her students. Catching up with the Kardashians? she'd say, and laugh and call herself a dork when corrected: No, no: it was Keeping up with the Kardashians.
     She prepared all the W and one H questions with an intellectual rigor she'd forgotten all about. It was like finding an old picture of herself. Oh yes, that was her, wasn't it?
     His name was Sebastian. He was a lawyer. They'd met on the street—it was so funny!—he'd literally run into her. And she'd dropped all her papers—their Lord of the Flies essays, in fact. And he picked them up, and then, well, he'd picked her up. He'd used all the hardest vocabulary words: Can I at least take you out for coffee to make up for my boorishness, my obstreperousness, my inanity?
     It had all happened so suddenly! She'd been swept utterly off her feet.
     The how of it was the only question that stumped her. How did it happen? How did one go from coffee and empty pleasantries to a whole life spent with this other person?
     "It's ineffable," she told her students.
     This satisfied them not all. They were like fact-checkers, scouring for details. "Sebastian, like the lobster from The Little Mermaid?" asked Susan Lee.
     Actually, it was exactly like that. The Little Mermaid had been playing on a loop over the weekend, and Ms. Perry had somehow ended up watching it twice. That was just like her. Most everything that came to her was revealed, ultimately, as a thought someone else had had first.
     "Did you get married because of the baby?" Amy Heller asked, her eyes wide and glassy with contact lenses that had only days ago replaced her glasses.
     "Rude!" hissed Amanda Johnson. Hissing, but smiling also. Because the answer seemed terribly clear.
     "Actually, no," said Ms. Perry. "We got married quickly because his mother is dying, and he wanted her to be at the wedding. And we're hoping—we're really hoping—she'll get to see the new baby, too."
     She'd heard this story somewhere before, but she couldn't place it. Was it maybe the plot of a made-for-TV movie? Something she'd read in Glamour magazine? It had the distinct ring of a story one of her student might have written for the brief and painful creative writing unit, which had to be unceremoniously cut short when Lucy Philips handed in a story titled "Guns are Good."
     Ms. Perry's story, if it were a missing cat, would be one of those listed as, Without any distinguishing features.
     But her girls seemed, strangely, to believe her. They were sighing and nodding, foreheads creasing with worry, with love. It was so romantic! It was really brave, also. And, like, was the wedding in her hospital room? Did Ms. Perry need to wear a veil and also a hospital mask? All the nurses, probably, were clapping, right? And were there so many flowers some had to be donated to sick kids or to people without enough visitors?
     What was Sebastian's mother dying of?
     For a moment, Ms. Perry felt like asking, Who? But then she remembered: Sebastian, the boorish, obstreperous, inane, apologetic, romantic, sincere, hunky Romeo of man, was her husband. Ms. Perry lowered her eyes. "Emphysema," she whispered. "From smoking in high school."
Adele Schapiro lingered one day after class, slowly, slowly dropping her pencils into her pencil case. One. Another. Another. Lisa Wolff stood behind her, a presence to be ignored. If Ms. Perry spoke to Adele long enough, Lisa would give up. She, surely, had a bus to catch, a mother waiting in a mini-van.
     "Adele," Ms. Perry said. "What's up?"
     Adele shrugged. "The sky," she said, but without her usual oomph.
     Ms. Perry sat at the edge of her desk with her feet dangling. All her favorite teachers had had feet that dangled from desks.
     "I made you something," said Adele, shrugging. "In art class, I did."
     "How lovely," said Ms. Perry.
     "It's just"— and Adele's face became extremely scrunched—"I just really hope your baby turns out to be a girl."
     She rummaged through her knapsack, which stank, Ms. Perry couldn't overlook, of overripe cantaloupe. Adele pulled out a tiny pink hat. "My mother says it's bad luck," she said. "To plan in advance."
     "In advance?" said Ms. Perry.
     "In advance of the baby." Adele twirled a strand of hair around her finger so the tip went white. "Because you never know about these things."
     Adele's eyes seemed to kiss, then parted, embarrassed strangers. It would not be a lie to say Ms. Perry loved Adele Schapiro.
     "I don't believe in bad luck," said Ms. Perry. "And Adele is my grandmother's name, actually. If it's a girl, that's what we'll name her, Adele."
     Adele looked at the floor and beamed.
     Lisa Wolff, still there, said, "Ms. Perry?"
     A deep breath in, out. "I'm talking to Adele," Ms. Perry said.
     "It's OK," said Adele. "That was it."
     And Ms. Perry was forced to collect herself, make a kind of smile. "I only have a few minutes," she told Lisa. "So you've got to make it quick."
     Lisa nodded. Her face had taken on a kind of Victorian pallor, her skin stretched taut over the hollows of her cheeks. She looked old, but also, from certain angles, much too young. Not for her were the awkward little buds of breasts held in place, even if they didn't yet quite need to be, with bras adorned with tiny ribbons, flowers that poked through uniform shirts like oddly misplaced nipples. Or sports bras for the more embarrassed, worn backwards, in Amanda Johnson's case, in a terrible, poignant attempt to hide what was becoming clear. Lisa was entirely flat. It was even possible that she wore an undershirt instead of a bra.
     "I didn't realize you were pregnant," Lisa said. "It seemed like something else. Like, the smell. I think gin."
     Ms. Perry's laughter sounded like it came from a cartoon: ha ha ha.
     She wasn't going to ask Lisa how she knew what gin smelled like. Where was everyone else? Where was the guidance counselor, the principal who cared so much? And what about, for god's sake, the other teachers? Was she really the only one who noticed what was going on? It was so clear it might have come from a psych 101 textbook: an over-achieving, introverted, upper-middle class, white, preteen girl with problems at home.
     There had been girls like Lisa in Ms. Perry's high school, though none in middle school, she didn't think. Actually, now that she was thinking of it, there might have only been one girl. There was Ms. Perry's imagination again, overacting, multiplying when it should be staying out of the way and still. The girl—it was just the one, Ms. Perry was sure now—had been a kind of celebrity in the school. Every so often, she'd be hospitalized, and then return looking normal, but not really. The normalcy was only temporary, worn like a new, ill-fitting dress. Soon enough she'd be thin again, very and then ghastly. One day, she came to school with a tube in her nose. And she was so nice, so friendly. Always smiling, even with that tube, even with the strips of healed or healing cuts that braceleted her wrists. She'd gotten into Princeton, though who knew if she'd actually gone in the end, or stayed.
     "Well, clearly it wasn't gin," Ms. Perry said now to Lisa. "It's dangerous to drink while you're pregnant. Don't they teach you anything in Health?"
     She hadn't meant to ask a question.
     "We talk about healthy eating," Lisa said. "We learned about the food pyramid."
     "That's nice," said Ms. Perry.
     "I know a lot about it," Lisa said. "Because of my diet, so."
     Ms. Perry had to say something. She had to.
     "That's nice," she repeated.
     Lisa looked at her scabbed knuckles.
     "Your mother must be waiting," Ms. Perry said.
     "My babysitter," said Lisa.
     "Well, a babysitter shouldn't have to wait!" Ms. Perry was all but shouting. She was all but smiling.
     Lisa heaved her knapsack onto her thin, breakable shoulders.
     Ms. Perry had been in awe of the girl in her high school. How controlled she was, how good, how smart.  Once, Ms. Perry had tried to starve herself, but by dinnertime she was so hungry she couldn't see straight. She liked to eat. There it was. In a fury, another time, she'd smashed the glass frame of a portrait her grandmother had painted of her. The symbolism, she'd thought at the time, was profound. She'd made a scratch along her wrist, but she couldn't bring herself to dig deep enough to draw blood.

Ms. Perry missed her bus and had to wait.
     The sky had turned an oily kind of gray, the color of pigeon wings.  She liked who she became under this sky: a harried, youngish wife who was keeping her husband waiting. A wife whose husband, Sebastian, would yell at her and then apologize. He would put his big hand on her belly and, tears in his eyes, tell her it was just that he was afraid of how enormously everything was about to change. She would understand. I know, she'd say. I know, but we're in this together.
     The next bus was so packed there were no bars to hold onto, and so Ms. Perry was held upright, it felt, by strangers' bodies. There was someone's arm thrust against her breast, someone else leaning into the small of her back. Ms. Perry might not have been there at all. Just across from her was a pregnant woman, seated and beatific. The woman's hand was thrown over her belly, as if to say, Oh, this old thing?
     Ms. Perry twisted her engagement ring so the fake diamond pressed against her palm. She twirled it back around. Now it caught some florescent light.
     "When's the baby due?" Ms. Perry said.
      The woman lifted her pocketbook to her lap.
     "I'm just a few weeks in," said Ms. Perry. She put her hand to her stomach. Oh little plum. Oh tiny, blushing, feathery sprite. This was what it was not to be lonely.
     The pregnant woman smiled. She was Ms. Perry's best friend now. "I'm at the point where, when I stand up, I don't want to sit down. I might not be able to get up the next time! But of course, everyone gives up their seat for you once you're showing so enormously. And, right, that's not even when you need a seat. When you need a seat is right in the beginning, when just breathing makes you nauseous."
     There was no heaving or panting, but a sudden, simple lifting. "Please," she said, waving majestically.  "Have my seat."

And then it became time to hand in report cards. The principal left a detailed letter in Ms. Perry's faculty mailbox. The letter was printed on grainy white stationary that had a weight like no other paper. The principal, in his lovely calligraphy, outlined the due dates and expectations, ending on a jubilant note of faith in her abilities as a tough-but-fair educator. All the other teachers had identical envelopes tucked into their mailboxes. The principal believed strongly in the personal touch.
     Ms. Perry's students didn't receive letter grades, but numbers, ranging from one (unthinkable!) to four (she was not supposed to, officially, award them as cavalierly as she did). She decided she'd go to the faculty break room during lunch so she could copy her grades onto to the carbon paper against the copy machine's sputtering whirr, which might pass, in moments of sever desperation, for postmodern music.
     The guidance counselor stopped her in the hallway. She plucked the carbon paper from Ms. Perry's arms. "You don't want to unduly exert yourself."
     She pretended to stagger beneath the thin stack of paper.
     "I swear, I'd never guess you were pregnant!" she said. "Boy, when I was pregnant, my bust went straight one way, my bottom the opposite!" The guidance counselor became suddenly serious. "I gained a great deal of weight. A great deal. It's not a favor to anyone to stay thin during your pregnancy."
     And then her face lit with sudden delight: "To try to stay thin."
     Her hand shot out and was now patting Ms. Perry's stomach, just between her hipbones, where period cramps came to congregate. Ms. Perry thought of pro-choice campaigns: Leave my uterus alone!
     She stepped backward.
     The guidance counselor looked as close as she ever could to concerned. "You're, what would it be now, four months along?"
     All Ms. Perry could think to do was agree.
     She smiled a doll's smile, all mouth and no eyes. She was reminded of being a child: Alarm, alarm, she and her brother used to bleat, running from imaginary robbers, so breathless it hurt to breathe.
     She left the carbon papers with the guidance counselor, laughing in a kind of way, and went to find the principal. His door was all the way open, held in place by a dictionary that was terrifically thick. He had an open door policy, he liked to say. He called for her to come on in and not at all to be shy.
     She was not feeling, she said, her best.
     He mimed the pregnancy he imagined for her.
     She made her lips a line and nodded.
     The principal was at once on his feet, little springs maybe really beneath his wingtip shoes. He all but slung her over his back and out of the office, as though she were a bag of recyclables, or a bride.

Ms. Perry did some research and found a four-month-term fetus would have bendable bones, fur, a light marbling of fat. And it could kick. She had gone wrong somewhere, but she couldn't figure out how to retrace her steps, locate her former self, shake her, stop her in the act. Because here she was, no different from her students, getting caught up with some fad, some hobby, getting obsessed, and then forgetting. Not forgetting. The pregnancy had become like a pimple: she was aware of it, it worried her, but for now, she was going to let it sit.
     She lost the baby.
     And her husband, boorish and perfect, abandoned her. Her mother-in-law went into shock and died. Ms. Perry removed her ring. 
     She called the principal. He offered condolences. He told her the students would make her a card. He told her there would be a sub, not to worry. She drew the shades in her apartment, sat quietly on the bed, head in hand, as though there were something real for her to mourn.
     The thing to do was call her friend Jeff. They weren't friends, really. Or, they had once been friends. But then they'd almost dated, after his girlfriend had told him she loved him but he wasn't smart enough to be her husband. Ms. Perry had thought, at the time, Well, why not. But after the one date, she'd stopped answering his texts. So he surprised her, came to her apartment uninvited, with grocery store flowers, said he thought he loved her, or could love her. Thanks, but she was pretty busy, she'd said. He should really call, if he was going to come over. They hadn't spoken for months after that, but then they ran into each over at a party and pretended nothing had ever happened. And then she fell into the habit of sometimes going to his apartment, which was dirty and cold and narrow, though with multiple rooms. Jeff didn't have a steady job, but he kept himself in the money by renting out rooms in his apartment for triple their worth. That was what he said, anyway. His parents might have been supporting him.
     He told her, now, to come on over, sure.
     On the bus, she held herself gingerly, shoulders straight. No one gave her a seat. Those seats weren't for her. There was a pregnant woman on the bus—there were pregnant women everywhere, it turned out—gazing out the window, eyes bovine and glassy. Another woman sat with a little boy on her lap, the stroller precariously balanced against the wall next to them. The boy had a blond cap of hair that fell partway over his eyes. His nose was running. Her boy would have had a haircut; he wouldn't have gotten a cold.
     When she got there, Jeff offered her water. The water was from the tap and came in a smudged, dirty glass. She imagined she saw the ghost of another woman's lipstick, though she knew Jeff didn't go for women who wore lipstick, and also that it didn't matter. She wasn't his wife. He wasn't her husband.
     "Don't you ever do the dishes?" she said.
     "Yes, I do, thanks for asking, Mom," he said.
     She became a cartoon again: ha ha ha.
     When she was done with her water, he cut his toenails. It was an unrelated activity, he told her. He'd been planning to cut them even before she called. "I do the deed in the bathroom," he explained, inviting her to follow him in. "More sanitary."
     She politely acted not horrified by the bathroom. Chunks were missing from the walls, mold blossoming along the edges of the tub. Two cockroaches perched on the edge of the sink like a pair of doves. There didn't appear to be a toothbrush. Jeff hummed a non-tune as he clipped off the little yellow whirls into the rust-outlined toilet. The hair on his toes, she noticed, was black, mossy, edging into the territory of gorilla. It wasn't like she could ask him to shave it. But she did. She shaved her toes.
     He brought her into the bedroom, where there was a pile of dirty laundry stacked high enough in one corner that it was possible, from a distance, to mistake for a soft chair. She dead-fished it on the bed, head to the ceiling, a little floppy on the bumpy mattress, but basically still. He unhooked her bra, idly twirled his fingers around her nipples. He told her, as he always did, that she had great boobs. She told him, as she always did, that she really preferred he call them "breasts". He moved in to suck.
     "OK," she said. "Good work. Enough."
     He wanted to know what the problem was. He always wanted to know what the problem was.
     It was everywhere. But what was she supposed to say? Don't remind me of my baby, who's not real? Don't be a man who's not my husband, who's also not real?
     "You just seemed sort of like a vampire for second there," she said. "Also, you've got a water stain up there shaped like an amoeba."
     He needed to turn over to see the ceiling. He didn't say anything, but then he laughed, a little, haltingly, like it was his second language.  He told her she was a piece of work, one weird girl, did she know that?

Her students had already been briefed by the time she returned. The guidance counselor had given a talk, Adele Schapiro told Ms. Perry in a voice soft as powder. Ms. Perry had perfectly prepared the story. She'd practiced. But they would not ask her how it had happened, what had been said. They sat at their desks like the students she'd imagined before she began teaching, moveable pieces of chess. They sat and stared at her, some with little girl legs spread unwittingly apart, others already crossed at the knees or ankles. They seemed simple and small enough to hold. And there was Lisa, gray pouches under her eyes, looking sad and understanding.