Karen Zlotnick

Maui

 

During her prep period, Giselle Mooring had taken to opening the LIVE CAM of the Maui Humpback Whale Sanctuary, where, from December to April, if your timing was good, you might glimpse a humpback whale or two spouting, fin-slapping, or even breaching. Often to avoid the demands of a prep period—grading papers, emailing parents, meeting with seventh graders who showed up for extra help—Giselle opened the stream on her middle school science lab’s high-definition computer and immediately zeroed in on the water’s horizon. She got such a kick out of catching the action—almost as good as being there. She knew she would never be there.

Each time she spotted a whale, she clapped her hands together and looked around for someone to tell. But she suspected that everyone already felt a little sorry for her since her divorce from Richard, who since his retirement had been lauded as the most charismatic and beloved teacher the district had ever seen. After twenty-nine years of marriage and twenty-seven spent teaching in the same school as Richard, she knew revealing this odd pastime would make her even more pitiable. These moments were better left unshared.

Towards the end of each prep period, before she left the room to refresh her coffee, she scanned the screen for other sights: sea turtles on the reef, crabs on the sea wall. Sometimes her eye caught a paddle boarder in the distance (so brave!) or a tour boat headed back to shore. Sometimes she even saw snorkelers close to where the camera was mounted, their black flippers surfacing to produce small splashes as they floated aimlessly along the coastline.

Once Giselle had a chance to reflect on this moment, she would remark that a seventh period prep wasn’t an ideal time to see something upsetting, as she had two more classes to teach afterwards. So when she spotted her retired ex-husband in his Pepto-pink swimming trunks and snorkeler’s mask floating ass-up and holding hands in the Maui surf with someone in a very small bikini, she lost her breath. It can’t be him, she reasoned. But she’d special-ordered those pink whale-print trunks for him when his interest in the sea was piquing, when he first said he wanted to take her to Hawaii. And there was the half dollar-size mole on his right shoulder, unmistakable in Maui’s morning light. That was him, alright.

When the bell rang for the start of the next period, Giselle realized that her seventh graders had already entered the room, had already found her snatching her reading glasses off her face and putting them back on, squinting at the classroom desktop. Her face was only about an inch or two from the screen, so when the usually sad Seb Fisher smirked and asked his classmates, “Is Mrs. Mooring kissing the computer?” her face flushed with shame.

The kissy-kissy noises and giggles of the other students snapped her face towards them, and she instinctively patted her chest, adjusted her turtleneck, and asked them to take their seats. “I guess you caught me whale watching,” she said dimly, her eyes still pulled toward the light of the computer.

At the 2:53 dismissal, after her students had tested her patience for two straight periods—broken pencils, torn Scantrons, goopy noses, bubble gum snaps (forbidden)—she ran into a stall in the women’s faculty bathroom and bawled until her eyelids felt like paper. When she finally came out and stood facing the mirror, she could barely look at the wreck who stared back. What was she doing whale watching during her free? Pathetic. Whale watching through a computer while Richard was in Maui with some bikini-clad bimbo on what should have been their trip? Pa-the-tic.

Cutting off Driver’s Ed. students crawling nervously out of the high school’s adjacent lot, flying past the school’s youth officer who sat in his patrol car, Giselle drove the fourteen miles to her house at top speed. She opened the door, let the cat out, threw her tote on the counter, kicked off her flats, sunk her teeth into a Granny Smith, and then chucked it into the trash.  She set up her laptop, adjusted her turtleneck, loosened her belt, and turned on the livestream. The whales were active—lots of splashes—but Richard and his young companion were absent from the view. For the next seven hours, the screen showed no signs of them.

Giselle’s dreams were often obvious manifestations of her worries: ninety-two unruly middle schoolers packed into a classroom with twenty-five desks, Richard’s mother’s face in the mirror instead of her own, four flat tires in the middle lane of the George Washington Bridge. That night, her nightmares had her desperately flailing, trying to stay afloat in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by whales who threatened to swat her under forever. She woke convinced she was broken and drowning.

The next day, at their daily team meeting, Lauren Garvey, a tall, earnest English teacher who had agreed to be team leader, wanted to talk about Seb Fisher’s pervasive sadness. Giselle was so distracted that Lauren needed to remind her who Seb was. “He’s in your eighth period class, Giselle. Skinny? Blond hair?” Giselle was only momentarily embarrassed before she remembered Seb’s kissing-the-computer comment and hardened at the thought of him. Her mind wandered to a time in her younger, more compassionate years when she might have felt the deep shame of blaming eleven and twelve-year olds for their slip-ups, their moments of badass behavior, even their dark troubles like the ones Seb wrestled with. But not anymore. The world is too soft on these kids, she thought. Seb and his classmates might someday have to face the fact that your ex could be a total dick.

 

A year before, Giselle dreamed of spring break in Hawaii, Maui’s blue-green waters, the promise of clear skies and temperate days, the soft tones of hospitable Hawaiians gently placing pastel leis around her neck. She imagined what it would be like to be there with Richard, to watch his toned body straddle a surfboard, to film him wrestling a giant tuna onto a fishing boat. She knew he was encouraged by the resolve she was demonstrating. “I’ll go, Richard. I really will this time. Hawaii sounds dreamy and perfect. Let’s make the reservations.”

And so they proceeded — with reservations for the Maui resort, for the fishing excursion, paddle board lessons, yoga by the pool, side-by-side massages, even a swimming-with-dolphins session for two. The pink whale-print bathing suit was a token of her commitment to this adventure. This time, she would get on the plane.

Two weeks before they should have boarded, on a windy Saturday afternoon, Giselle walked out of their local hardware store and sat down on the sidewalk in the center of town. In between the first two deep gasps for the breath that eluded her lungs, she turned over the brown paper bag filled with carabiner keychains she’d purchased to use as prizes in Monday’s Science Jeopardy game, thinking it would come in handy if she hyperventilated. The third gasp was loud enough to grab the attention of the young deli worker who was passing by, and when he asked, “Lady, do you need help?” Giselle answered thinly, “I think I do.”

She hadn’t seen this one coming; there’d been no slow increase in her pulse, no numbness in her lips, no spiraling “what-if” thoughts. This one hit her explosively on the back, like an old, drunk friend whose embrace is both painful and warm. She winced as resignation articulated itself in her mind: “Here we go again.” Then after a few seconds, as she was accustomed to doing, she repeated, “Here we go again,” this time with complacency and the odd bit of enjoyment that often arrived when she remembered to say to herself, “now I don’t have to…” In the past she might have mouthed, “now I don’t have to see my mother-in-law” or “now I don’t have to drive to New Jersey by myself” or “now I don’t have to sit in a dark movie theater wondering which audience member has a gun.” Today, as cringeworthy as it might have been, she thought, “now I don’t have to get on that plane.” Not that this was a pleasant experience. It was just that Giselle had learned to look at these episodes as packed with small consolation prizes—each one wrapped in the neat little gift box of an excuse. When Giselle heard the distant sound of the siren, she leaned over and placed her head on the cool cement of the sidewalk so she could be comfortable waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

Giselle’s respiration had already slowed to a more reasonable rate by the time Richard got to the hospital. She watched him nod absently as the emergency room staff told them both that yes, this was probably another anxiety-driven incident and that after just a few more tests to rule out anything serious, they would be free to go. She knew right then, right there in the ER from the view of the gurney, that Richard was done, that Hawaii had been a dreamy distraction, that her mind and body would never permit her to go, that she would resign herself to her narrow life, that not everyone is meant for adventure, that homebodies are people too, that dammit why does it come down to travel, that fuck this, fuck Hawaii, fuck you Richard and your dolphin dreams and fucking whale-print swim trunks and your fucking way of making me feel so fucking weak.

They barely spoke when Richard canceled the trip; she knew not to ask about how much they’d lost in cancellation fees, about how much this one added to the tally of cancellation fees over the years. And they barely spoke when Richard moved to an apartment over the hardware store or when they exchanged the names of their divorce lawyers. The process was swift, and after he put his last signature on the documents, Giselle heard Richard say, “I wish you had agreed to get help.” But at that moment, she was trying so desperately to use her upper teeth to feel her bottom lip that she couldn’t speak beyond a mutter.

Grace comes unbidden, Giselle thought she once heard someone say. Science is her thing, but isn’t there always room for blessings?

 

Some time after Giselle’s upsetting Maui discovery, Lauren, always a caretaker, put her arm around Giselle and handed her a slip of paper with the perfectly handwritten name, phone number, and credentials of a local therapist, Meryl Cohen. Lauren’s sweet smile was all the communication that passed between them, and it was just enough to make Giselle wonder why they weren’t real friends. But since she and Richard had split up, Giselle had remained guarded, and she found it impossible to find real friendship among the hallways he’d once filled with his charm. Despite his retirement, the feel of him lingered.

In the building, Giselle thought of Richard as the person students and teachers alike were drawn to—especially when they were feeling anxious or angry or helpless or overworked. She’d seen him calm colleagues stressed out by emails from hovering parents, even administrators overwhelmed by glitches in scheduling or ongoing issues with technology. Always ready with a silly quip that could lighten a moment, Richard seemed to Giselle to be everyone’s go-to guy. She heard his students refer to it as “hitting up Mr. Mooring for a Dad Joke,” even though he wasn’t a dad. She’d watch him position himself in his classroom doorway between periods, one hand in a front pocket, the other resting on the overburdened keychain attached to his belt loop above his hip. A group of three or four students would approach him, at first shyly, and he’d humor them in a playful radio voice: “Do you think the guy who came up with the phrase ‘one hit wonder’ came up with anything else?” Teachers in their neighboring doorways would cover their mouths to stifle their laughs as they could see the kids ponder it, then cackle and shout, “We have to tell that one to so-and-so!” Giselle understood the preciousness of these middle school moments—tiny little opportunities for gawky pre-teens to set aside worries about budding acne and lunch-table drama, dress code warnings and fitness test failures—and they made her feel meek, unable to compete with Richard’s magnetism, unable to contribute in any way that was comparably meaningful. After his departure, Giselle could see that her sorrow was at least partly rooted in the fact that her colleagues were still grateful for Richard—even loyal, in a way, to the ghost of his warm, comic presence.

The paper with Meryl Cohen’s contact information sat in Giselle’s tote for a few days before she mustered up enough nerve to loosen the anchor that kept her stuck, to make the call. Meryl was lovely and smart, and her voice felt to Giselle like she had reunited with a dear friend. In fact, she made Giselle feel as if she could leap into therapy courageously, and at some point in their first few sessions together, she admitted to Meryl that Richard was not, in fact, a dick, that he was kind and goofy, and his only real husband-flaw had been his deep desire for a partner who could match his zest, who could show up for their life together. Giselle hated hated hated how easily he had moved on, how he had already, just-like-that, found someone to take to Maui, but really, she was just so damn mad at herself for falling short time and time again. She’d been hell-bent on staying safely tethered to what—she didn’t know—to the floor, she supposed—under the giant, suffocating gloom of her husband’s shadow.

Giselle allowed Meryl to guide her through the deep, rough water of Richard’s giving up on her—the disappointment, the depth of her shame. She sobbed ferociously—sobbed for the pain she was in now, sobbed for the Richard she missed now, for the Richard she’d missed all those years when he pleaded with her to join him in life, in living, in wandering, in adventure. She sobbed for the self she’d lost to him, for all the time she’d spent berating herself for not being the partner he imagined her to be. Meryl fed her tissues until she depleted two full boxes and had to use the bell-shaped sleeve of her tunic to pat the raw skin on her nose. Finally, through a snot-drenched upper lip, Giselle said she got it. Why he had to go. Why he had to move on, even with someone else. When Meryl asked Giselle to describe what it felt like when she spotted Richard and his young travel companion on the livestream, she strung together the words stiffly at first: “Well, I saw something pink in the water and thought ‘how strange,’ and then I peered in.” As Giselle unloaded the image, the tension in her shoulders seemed to creep down her arms and disperse out of her fingertips, and for the first time since she walked through Meryl’s office door, she zeroed in on the absurdity of it. “So there I was in the corner of my classroom, my science lab, looking at my ex-husband in live time snorkeling with a younger woman! Can you imagine? I mean this was a crazy thing! Who does this happen to?” In recounting the moment, she recognized something in her voice she hadn’t heard since her early days with Richard: a humor of her own, quick and incisive, separate from Richard’s easy one-liners. Especially reassuring was Meryl’s hearty laugh when Giselle described what the ass-side of the pink whale-print swimsuit looked like facing the vibrant Maui sun.   

 

Exactly six weeks after Giselle’s courageous first session with Meryl, after she had written eighteen or nineteen entries in her feelings journal and she had filled up three whole pages of the new sketch book which she’d purchased for visual goal-setting, the ash-toned Seb Fisher lingered in the back of her science lab after dismissal.  He suddenly seemed different to Giselle, perhaps a little more courageous himself. Anyway, he certainly wasn’t snickering or making kissy sounds. Instead, the earnestness in his voice propelled his words forward to the front of the room where Giselle stood. “Mrs. Mooring,” he began, “can I ask you a question?”

 

On Monday of the following week, Giselle listened attentively to the last of the morning announcements: “…And finally, if you’re interested in whales and the life of the sea—and who isn’t?—and if you have a seventh period lunch or study hall, come join our brand new Middle School Whale Watching Club which will meet every seventh period in front of the high-definition computer in Mrs. Mooring’s science lab. Anchors away, sea lovers!” As the principal’s voice trailed off, Giselle turned to see Seb Fisher standing in her doorway, his two hands projecting their enthusiastic thumbs-up. She waved to him warmly, pointed to the “Welcome Whale Watchers!” poster she’d made over the weekend, and then turned to make sure all the computer wires were in place, all the connections set for seventh period when her students would show up to her classroom—a place, she thought now, where sorrow might at least be paired with some new sort of adventure.

***

Born and raised in New York, Karen Zlotnick lives in Westchester County with her husband and her Newfoundland dog. She teaches high school English, and when she’s not in the classroom, she writes both fiction and non-fiction. “Maui” is one of a collection of short stories set in a fictional Hudson Valley School district. Karen was lucky to have one of her other stories from this collection published earlier this year.

 

 

 

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