Joyland

Los Angeles |

Ms. Kay

by Sara Finnerty

edited by Katya Apekina

Amber lay with her back on the purple yoga mat, her legs pressed together at a perfect 90-degree angle. “Exhale,” the teacher said, “And bring your legs down slow, like you’re moving through peanut butter.”

I am always moving through peanut butter.

Amber kept her eyes on her flexed feet until they disappeared behind her chest and stomach, until they touched the floor.

What is the next thing?

“Now raise your legs back up. Slow, slow. Your legs are a butter knife, slowly spreading peanut butter on bread.” The teacher recited her speech about slow, exact movements being the best way to build muscle.

Move slow. The world is peanut butter. Honey. Molasses. Cookie dough. I can’t see where I’m going. I can only move slowly. What is the next thing?

The class worked their cores until Amber felt like she wanted to throw up. But she went along with it. She kept doing it anyway.

What is the next thing?

As they rested with knees together, the teacher said, as if reading Amber’s mind, “Don’t think about what you have to do later or what you did earlier today. There is only right now. Let your thoughts come and go until there is nothing left.”

I used to feel white light pump through my spine. Now I am nothing but this lump on the floor. Keep going. Keep going.

After class, Amber walked to her car. She placed her hands on the steering wheel.

What now?

Things happened without her. People danced in their houses. Cars crisscrossed over streets. Wind moved the tops of trees. The car pointed towards her condo, the condo where he didn’t live anymore.

Pretend he never existed and you never wanted him. The apartment was always only yours. What now? Papers to grade. I could walk to the coffee shop on the corner. I could sit and have coffee. I could go swimming. I could do both. Amber smiled and sat taller in her car. That will take up the rest of the day.

At home she gathered her papers and took the elevator down to the street. She chatted with the elderly woman who lived downstairs with her dog. The sun was still out. The air was mild. There was a breeze. She smiled at another neighbor and held the front door open for him. She could seem peaceful and no one would know about the knots inside her, like hair in the shower drain, all tangled up in her organs, a giant mess right underneath her skin. I could pluck the tendons from my muscles, one by one. I could grab handfuls of my brain and yellow globs of fat from my arms and push out my slimy heart and toss them right here into the street, into a lump on the floor. I am just a lump anyway.

She walked to the coffee shop. She watched her feet glide over the sidewalk.

This sidewalk is here without me. My eyes can move across it, it transports me, it is a path, one long line. Underneath is what? Dirt? Rock? Molten lava? Empty space? Nothing? That’s not where you live, Amber. You live here. You are this size.

She rounded the corner and opened the door to the coffee shop. This coffee shop is here without me. It lives, it breathes, these girls run around making coffee. There is a table for me. A chair. A temporary place.

On the top of each homework page it said, “Mrs. Latsis.” Thirty-five pages that were hers and hers alone. She thought about the book report wall in her classroom. Each student had made their own colorful front page and pressed pushpins into their book reports to affix them to the wall. “It’s more beautiful than anything in a museum,” Mrs. Amber Latsis had said, and meant. Mrs. Latsis graded her papers as the sun dipped behind the trees, then the buildings across the street. The sun moves so slow during the day, then rushes so fast to sink at night. You know that’s not true. You know we are on a giant gas ball whooshing through space with a bunch of other giant gas balls.

Amber felt the presence of the people around her. She felt the warm glow of the lights on her skin. She smelled coffee and heard the laughter of the coffee girls.

Amber touched each page of homework.

I will tell them tomorrow. Tomorrow.

She and Mr. Latsis had bought the condo for the rooftop pool. It was like living in Miami or the Bahamas. They were so high up and swimming in the roof pool was almost like flying. There are seven stories between the ground and me. Amber thought this every time she dipped her legs in the pool and slipped in. She held her breath and dove under, swimming down until she could feel the pressure of the water heavy against her back. She wanted to inhale the water, let it into her lungs and let the water weigh her down so there would be something to counteract the building pressure in her body to rise up. Just open your mouth and let the water in. No, don’t. Swim. Just swim.

She lifted her head to breathe. This water is here without me. She swam precisely and without stopping. She moved her hips with her arms. She curved her arms in gentle arches above the water and swept them below her. One long line of energy. One long line of energy. She saw herself cutting through the water. Floating on the water. The water carrying me. The water and I working together. I can’t swim without the water and the water cannot be swum in without me.

“There is no easy way to say this,” Mr. Latsis had said. He had a calm demeanor and dark eyes. They had a quiet life. “I’m going to have a baby with someone else.”

“I don’t understand your use of words.” Amber had said. “Have you gotten someone pregnant or do you intend to?”    

“She is already pregnant.” He could not look at her. There was a She. Amber felt like she was inhaling honey. She wrapped herself in a blanket. I want all the mirrors to break and shards to fly through the air, slitting us both.  

Mr. Latsis sat and watched her. “You never loved me anyway. She loves me.”

He’s right. That’s true. I didn’t love you. Not the way I loved him.  “I married you because I thought you wouldn’t hurt me.” Not supposed to happen. He is harmless. I thought he was harmless.

Not supposed to happen, Amber had thought, for months.

“Let’s do this easy, ok? You can have the condo. Don’t contest anything.”

He wants to marry her before she has the baby. Fuck them.

“I can’t afford the payments,” Amber had said.

“I’ll still pay half, every month. I am doing right by you.” He was defensive. He did not want to be seen as the bad guy.

Amber had laughed. Take him to court, baby making motherfucker. Fuck this. Don’t fight. Surrender. Learn to live a different way. Go on. I don’t know what I want.

You are a woman of the 21st century. You should not be feeling this way. But, it is the way I feel. Am I not allowed to feel confused and sad and lost? Am I not allowed? No, says this stern womany voice, you are not. I am a failure as a woman then. I should be stronger. But I am not. Not stronger. I am just a lump whooshing through space. I am a bug on a mountain. What do you want? You are supposed to know what you want!

I want only to have never felt love or loss.

You don’t mean that.

I do.

Mrs. Latsis sat at her desk in her classroom. She looked at the alphabet banner her class made as a project three years ago. By now those kids were elongated, as tall or taller than she. They move on. They grow. They don’t stop sprouting inches and hair and pimples and dicks and hormones and they fall in love. Xoxoxo.

Mrs. Latsis crossed her ankles and sat upright. Today, her body felt secured at the joints. Yoga, the next day, always made her feel like she was one whole complete person, able to push through the sludge of the world without losing bits of herself, without holes tearing inside her. She loved her classroom. It was hers. The condo isn’t mine. This is mine. My room. My kids.

She and Mr. Latsis had sat at the lawyer’s table, finalizing the divorce. They barely spoke. He was like a stranger. “Are you OK?” Mr. Latsis had finally said.

“I don’t know how to tell the kids.”

“Why do you have to say anything?’         

“My name.” Amber looked at him.

“Oh,” he averted his eyes. “Right.” Like she had never been his. Like he had also forgotten they had once been the same family, with the same name, and now she had to go back to who she was before him, a girl who believed that nothing stayed the same, people leave, men leave. Her father had left and her first and only love had left her for her best friend. They had loved so fiercely and he had been the first to fuck her at all. Her best friend had been hers since childhood and Amber had adored them both. Amber had been a girl who felt immensely. She had wanted to eat them, inhale them, but they left her for each other, and quickly married. Amber had been calm. She had quickly reassessed her life. She tried her best not to fall in love again and decided she would rather be alone than feel turmoil.  Years later, Mr. Latsis, so sweet, so good, came along and she relaxed, she could give up now, she could settle into marriage and eventually kids and old age and she loved her job and he bought a condo and someday they would get a house and she would have a garden and that’s it. Life could be simple.

“I’m confused.” The lawyer had said. “I thought you didn’t have kids.”           

“She means her fifth graders. At school.” Mr. Latsis clarified. He always elaborated for her, and clarified for her. He won’t be doing that anymore. She exhaled. She had not known she hated when he spoke for her until right that moment at the divorce table.

The first time, Mr. Latsis had come with her to the social security office. It was so easy to become someone else. Amber Latsis. This time she went by herself, with her identification and divorce papers. She was back to where she had begun.

Amber waited for her number to be called. This time don’t decide in advance. Don’t make up your mind. Never again. Don’t decide to swear off men. Just go along and see what happens. Don’t hate him. I fucking hate him. He was not supposed—people deserve love if that is what they want. You were the one who lied. Don’t decide to be one way or another. Just sit here. Quiet.

Amber handed the woman behind the glass her paperwork, and she stood at the window and signed things and it took less than five minutes to go back to who she was before him. She imagined a giant machine underneath the woman’s desk, where she stuck in Amber’s old name and a new one came out. Her card would come in the mail. People’s identities are only paperwork in a paperwork machine and change is only in the mail, in the in betweens where everything really happens.

Amber walked back to her car and felt like she was on roller-skates. Here is my car, and the highway that someone else made, and my life is a school that other people made and, someone else’s yoga class, everything is a machine, I jump from machine to machine and everything happens for me. I am on roller-skates. I am skating through.

Amber walked into the condo she no longer wanted. It was too big for her and it wasn’t hers.

Everything is a bubble. I roll on top of the bubbles. One bubble to the next. I am carried through. I want to burst the bubbles and stand with my feet on the ground. I just want my feet on the ground. I just want sand between my toes. I want to be only and completely myself. That’s not possible, you know. But I want to believe it’s possible, for a little while.

I’m sorry I couldn’t love you. I’m sorry you couldn’t make me. I’m sorry we were too small for each other.

She wasn’t supposed to change her name in the middle of the year. The kids needed her to be stable and secure and the same. They needed to trust her. But she could not keep being Mrs. Latsis. She could not hear them say Mrs. Latsis every day because now some other woman was Mrs. Latsis, a pregnant and in love Mrs. Latsis.

Tell them today. They need to know. They will be upset if they find out later.

Monica looked up. “Mrs. Latsis, are you ok?”

“Of course I am. Why do you ask?”

“You seem sad.” The other girls at the table all looked at her too, worry and concern on their faces. The kids love you immediately, even if they hate you.

Tomorrow. Tell them tomorrow. Not today. Why don’t you just tell them? I don’t want to. I want this to be a safe room for them and not a weird one. Life is too complicated. It doesn’t have to be. It does.

Tomorrow.

Amber’s sister had stayed for a few weeks after Mr. Latsis moved out, and still, once a week or so, slept over. They watched movies and ate popcorn and fell asleep in bed. Amber loved waking up next to her. Amber went to happy hour with work friends and to lunch with old high school friends, but the din quieted and she had to, eventually, go home.

I want to sell this place, she thinks one day, and move in with my sister.

On a Sunday morning, Amber decided to go to church. She used to like church. It made her feel connected to people a hundred years before, after and parallel to her, people who also dipped their fingers in water and crossed themselves and sat on pews. When she was little she thought holy water was ocean water. Salty, sweet, infinite. She sat and listened and felt nothing. She couldn’t understand what they were talking about. It was cold. Then a young boy played a hymn, softly, on a guitar. He may have been seventeen, eighteen. He had that look that boys get at that age, like god picked them up by the head and pulled them into their long, lanky shape. Like Gumby. He looks like Gumby. Amber watched as his tongue glistened his bottom lip. She watched his long fingers strum the guitar. I could fuck him if I wanted. I’m single now. Amber went home and masturbated, thinking about the boy’s lips and his hands and his youth.

Almost every day, Amber would walk to the faculty parking lot after work. She’d get in and start the engine. I could crash my car into a wall. Drive it off a cliff. She’d wave to a coworker. Put on the radio, sing along, drive home.

There was a knock on her door. Amber looked up. No one ever knocked on that apartment door. She looked in the keyhole. It was a woman.

Amber opened the door and saw the stomach. “Shit.”

“Amber?”

It was the new Mrs. Latsis. Amber couldn’t answer. The girl stood there, flustered, and turned away, “Never mind, I’m sorry…”

“Wait.” Amber said. “What is it?”

The girl turned towards her. “I came to say I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I came to apologize to you.” The pregnant girl’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“Hey, listen.” Amber looked at the girl’s eyes until they stared directly at one another. “It was over anyway, before you.” Amber did not know if this was the truth, but she said it. She decided to believe it anyway.

Amber could see the relief actually make its way through the new Mrs. Latsis’s body. The girl’s face was red and tears dripped from her chin. “Thank you, thank you so much for saying that, I’m so sorry.”

The girl hurried to the elevator and Amber watched the pregnant girl’s shoulders heave in sobs.

“I have something to tell you.” Her voice, as usual, is soft. The class picked up their heads. They could sense something was out of the ordinary. They are like one big animal, living, breathing, instinctual, hanging on my every word. I love them.

She erased her name, Mrs. Latsis, from the board. This is wrong. Don’t do this to them. I have to. I have to.

“I’ve changed my name. I’m not Mrs. Latsis anymore.”

There was a murmur, whispers, sharp inhales, and hands shot up.

“Why are you changing your name?” Jane called out, her hand high in the air, too frantic to wait to be called on. Amber did not really like Jane. In the beginning of the year, Jane had dumped her best friend and it caused a catastrophe. It’s none of your fucking business. Ugly. Quiet. Smile. Be nice.

“I’m not married anymore.” The class went quiet. They stared at her with wide eyes. Their compassion filled the room with warm, molasses sweetened air. She breathed it in. We are one thing, this class and I. For just a moment she felt a white light travel up her spine.

“Are you Miss Latsis now?”

“No.” Amber smiled and wrote Ms. Kay on the board. A cacophony rose behind her. She heard it a million times, Ms. Kay! Ms. Kay! Ms. Kay! She felt a walnut in her throat. She turned around. “It might take awhile to get used to. If you forget, that’s ok.”

Hands were still in the air.

“Why aren’t you married anymore? Did you get a divorce?”

“Yes, I did. And it’s a long story. I know some of your parents are divorced right?”

“Yes,” they said all at once.

“It’s always a complicated thing. Like a friendship can be sometimes. But I am still the same person. Ok?”

I am still the same person. I am different people. I am many people at once. I am gliding on bubbles and touching the ground and changing and the same and falling apart and fine but I am here and I will be the same for you. These are feelings I didn’t have for him and he didn’t have for me.

The next day, Jane approached her desk. Amber looked at Jane’s small nose and clear face and her cheeks pink, tinged with shyness. “We made this for you, Miss Kay.” Jane said, and hurried back to her seat. Jane watched as Amber took the card.

We Love You, Ms. Kay. It said on the cover, and inside, the class had each signed their name, and drew hearts and smiley faces. The card shook in Amber’s hands. Ms. Kay. Who I used to be. We love you. I’m sorry, Jane, for every bad thought I’ve had about you. Let it go. You need to let it go.

“Thank you. This is the best card I’ve ever received.” Amber said to the class, but looked at Jane. Jane’s face reddened and she ducked her head into her arms.

Amber opened her desk, took a pushpin and hung the card on the wall next to her desk.

Most things are beyond our control. Most things we will never know. This is not a debilitating thought, but a beautiful one.

Keep thinking it. Keep going. Keep going. Don’t stop.