My first day as a single woman after 25 years of being a wife, I feared not being able to do my job. I had no idea how I was going to get through the afternoon, other than to keep shoving my broken heart into the empty well inside me. I faked hearty greetings to each of my students as they entered the chemistry classroom where I teach creative writing at a nontraditional magnet arts high school in the inner city. My kids grumble when any teacher is gone, for any reason.
“We missed you yesterday,” Luis accused. “Where were you?”
I shrugged vaguely, “Oh, you know.” But I’d been a few towns over in the New Britain Courthouse where a judge in black robes had declared my marriage “irretrievably broken”; it was over, never returning. Now I numbly shoved slate tables, forming, as we always did, a makeshift dining room table for our writing workshop. I unlocked my cabinet with my tiny silver key. Zahra pulled out the tattered tapestries, flapped them open to create table cloths, clicked on the battery-operated tea lights and arranged them in the center.
“Maureen, it’s freezing in here!” Benita crowed. “It was so freezing at the bus stop this morning. Only eight degrees!”
“I know, honey, get a blanket.” My cabinet functions as a sort of “Mom’s Dresser Drawer”—the kids love to rummage through my stuff. I keep writerly things on one shelf: rose-colored Post-it notes, frayed manilla folders, poetry magnets, loose-leaf paper, Japanese windchimes and a music box that plays “I Dreamed a Dream” for free writes.
More importantly, I keep metaphors of a mother’s love. There are Spongebob Band-Aids for their broken gel-nails and bleeding face scabs when they pick at their acne, red Solo party cups for water, cheap plastic forks for their mac and cheese and spoons that melt in their boiling Ramen. There are thin satin pillows and most of all, blankets. Benita grabbed the tan chamois, the favorite blanket that all the kids fought over.
“Yay! I need this one today.”
Ashley and Chrystal eagerly snagged the extra-wide blue afghan, another favorite because two kids could wrap themselves up in the woolen pod like twins. Zahra took the maroon fleece, and the rest of the class settled in around the table, some with wool beanies on, even though it was against school policy to wear hats. But it was so bitter the concrete floored gleamed. I began to pass out paperback copies of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” I could hardly stand to find the scene where we had left off, the broken Tyrone family’s endless losses as their day in 1912 wore on.
Benita burst out, “Maureen, can I say something?”
“My heart is broken. But I don’t want to say why.”
The class became solemn. As a group of young artists, they were accustomed to sharing personally like this. Zahra, the class leader, with her black eyeliner like the tapered brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy, suggested, “Just say it. You’ll feel better.”
Benita was of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. With her ebony hair and faint mustache, she always reminded me of Mexican Frida Kahlo. Now, voice quivering, Benita confessed, “My girlfriend broke up with me. And we spent two years together.” The rain poured down the windows. She threw the chamois blanket over her head and we listened to her bawling from underneath it. “She says she doesn’t love me anymore.”
My students always have different ways of expressing respect. Two girls looked away, peering at the filigree of their fingernails to give Benita privacy, even though she was already hidden. Paco, with his enormous brown eyes, stared toward her in support. Everyone remained quiet. Then Luis shared, “I can relate. My girlfriend ended it with me on Christmas Day. I thought I was going to die. It hurt real bad.”
Suddenly, tiny Ashley, who barely spoke after her brother fatally overdosed three years ago, threw off her own afghan, walked slowly around the table, and gathered the tented shape into her arms, resting her cheek tenderly on the oval of Benita’s head. The image was so comical we all burst out laughing. I could hear Benita under the blanket laughing and crying at the same time.
My students, without knowing it, helped me get through first period. It seems unbelievable to me how that day progressed, that my plan of shoving my brokenness down was just not to be. While I never would’ve disclosed the details of my devastation to them, it was clear to me how all separation between our ages had vanished. It didn’t matter if we’d loved for a month or a lifetime; we were all together, immersed in the same poignant truth. For the first time it occurred to me that, in the midst of my shame of my marriage folding, perhaps I was just part of a huge aspect of being alive, feeling what all humans will inevitably, at some point, feel: The Great Heartache.
I had to move to second period in the dance studio where we were having a departmental share day. The kids read their most recent writing to one another, open-mic style. I went to pee in the largest girls’ bathroom, the one with a long row of stalls. They were all filled with the musical theater majors changing into leotards and tights. I caught sight of two of my students, arms entwined on the floor together, Maggie pressing her ear to Jilleen’s heart.
I crouched in front of them. “What’s going on?”
They were childhood friends who resembled one another like sisters with matching milky skin and wistful smiles.
“Oh,” Jilleen tightened her protective grasp on Maggie’s shoulders, “Boys.”
I felt my own broken heart get heavier.
“Does it ever get any easier?” Jilleen pleaded.
I felt like Benita, wanting to laugh hard and sob. There I was, a freshly-divorced fifty-three year old woman, with a seventeen year old girl asking me if love ever got any easier.
“I don’t know what to tell you, sweetie. I don’t want to lie. I can only speak from my own experience. It’s hard.”
She nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
“Look, you guys take ten more minutes here then come to the dance studio for share day, okay?’
I passed the trash can piled high with paper towels. Maggie’s shouts ricocheted off the bathroom as she called after me, “Love you!” I turned to her, and even before I realized what I was doing, for the first time ever, I imitated the gesture my students were always sending each other. I bent my two index fingers together like the heads of swans, and let my thumbs touch so my fingers formed a whole heart.
Back in my emptied classroom at the end of the day, I stared out at the rain still bouncing off the dumpster. The kids were all running for their busses. I was grateful I’d been able to stay present to the kids that day, baffled by the coincidence of all our heartache. I wanted only to go home and get in bed and close my eyes and force myself to sleep. I tidied up, folding the tapestries and locking up my cabinet.
My door opened. “Maureen?” Helen entered, in her net tutu, Harlequin leggings, and red high-top Keds. Her recently chopped-off hair stuck up all over her head like wolf fur. “My mom’s coming to get me, so I don’t have to worry about the bus. Can I talk to you?”
I was surprised she sought me out. I try and connect with all my students, but even after six months of having her in class, I’d never felt that I really reached her. “Of course. Sit.”
“I want you to know that if I seemed different in class today, it’s because I’m going through a hard time.”
In fact, I had not detected anything out of the ordinary on her face. Was this yet another lesson? That our faces never told the full story of what lay underneath?
“My boyfriend and I broke up. We’ve been together since eighth grade. He’s very depressed. He’s doing partial hospital now.”
“I’m so sorry, Helen.”
And so at the end of my first day divorced, Helen and I bonded, sitting so still that the motion detector thought there was no one in the room. The overhead lights clicked off, and we disappeared in the winter’s afternoon dark. When at last I answered her, “It really does,” the sighing of my shoulders clicked the lights back on.