Lori puts aside the stack of papers she has been marking at the kitchen table, yawns, and gets up to look for her backscratcher. It’s that darn itch between her shoulder blades, just a fraction of an inch farther than she can reach with either hand. It makes her want to scream, like the sound of a dripping faucet she can’t fix. She walks down the hall to the bedroom with the king size bed and the quilt her mom made. When she and Rob were newly married, a few years before, she told her friends that having someone to scratch her back was one of the primo aspects of marital bliss.
Rummaging in the drawer in her bedside table, through the packets of cough drops, tissues, a lavender sachet, and abandoned bookmarks, she finds the stick with the alligator claw. Rob bought it for her as a joke when they were in Florida on vacation. It looks barbaric, but does the job. She scratches and sighs, and the phone rings. She glances at the clock. 9:30. Rob is probably still at the restaurant. Their jobs make it difficult to connect. Most nights she is sound asleep long before he finishes work. And he’s still snoring in the morning when she leaves for school at 7:30.
“Sorry, are you in bed already?”
“No, but I’m thinking about it.” She stretches out on the bed.
“Hey, did I leave my shaving kit there last week?” He sounds tired. Rob is the new executive chef at a successful high-end restaurant in Napa.
“No, I haven’t seen it.”
“Did you turn in your resignation letter?” He’s not too tired to remember the letter.
“Yes, but are you sure we couldn’t live somewhere in between Lafayette and Napa? Would the commute be so awful?”
“You want me driving over an hour when I leave here at midnight? Come on, Lori, I thought this was decided.”
“I know, I know. I’m just tired and when you’re not here, I keep grading papers half the night.” She stretches her legs, one at a time; “I wish I had time to help with the packing. When are you off again?”
She hears the clatter of pans and shouting in the background, “Not until school is out.”
“Well, maybe I can drive down before one of my Mondays off and we’ll at least have an evening—” He shouts to someone, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“That would be great, just let me know when.”
“Okay, Sweetie. I’ll try to call more often. It’s all going to be Okay.”
“Yeah, I know. Sleep well.”
While changing into her pajamas and scrubbing her face, Lori can’t stop thinking about Rob’s addiction to his job. From the beginning, Rob talked about cooking. About the restaurant his grandmother had years ago and his first forays into a professional kitchen. He’d tried working in sales and service, but he hated traveling, and he had a tough time caring about the office machines he sold or serviced. Soon after they met, he borrowed money from his parents and went to culinary school. That opened up a whole new creative world for him. Even his first grueling jobs as a line cook did not feel like work to Rob. Lori has always encouraged him to follow his dream, but wonders if she has boxed herself into a corner where the focus of their marriage is too much on his career.
Lori tosses and turns all night, thinking about their plans. They’ve already started trying to get pregnant. When she joins Rob in Napa, she’s not going to apply for a teaching job. They want to make a baby first. She can go back to work later. It sounded like a good idea a few months ago.
It’s a Saturday morning and Lori is still in her pajamas and bathrobe, sitting on the living room floor like a ship stuck in the mud, staring at a pile of broken-down boxes. Boxes she is supposed to be assembling and filling with their belongings. She can’t decide what to pack first. She’ll need to keep some things in the kitchen, also cosmetics and clothing. The doorbell chimes and she sees her friend Mara who, it appears from her tights and sweaty tee shirt, has been out for a run.
“Hey, Mara. Come in and rescue me from packing . . . or even better, do it for me.”
“No way, girl. It’s play time. I’m going down to the farmers’ market. Do you want to come?” Lori throws on jeans and a shirt and goes out into the warm sunshine.
“What’s up with you?” Mara asks.
“I don’t know. I keep thinking I’m leaving my school and my friends to be in Napa. To make it easy for Rob.”
“You sure were excited about it a while back. How did you two meet anyway?” Lori smiles while telling Mara the story. Rob was a Xerox technician when they met in her middle school’s faculty room. He was the regular guy who came to service the machine. Over a semester’s time they flirted while she sipped her coffee and graded papers during her free period. Then they bumped into each other in a bar when she was out with her girlfriends. He was shy about asking her out, but they couldn’t stop smiling at each other on that first date.
Mara listens while picking out plump red tomatoes, “That’s sweet, Lori. But it sounds like you two need to talk about things.”
“Yeah, if we ever get five minutes together.” She moves on to the next stall where the strawberries look ripe and juicy. A week later she realizes her period is late. She stops at the pharmacy on her way home from school. Is she ready for a baby in her life, especially with Rob’s job? Will she be able to work all day and take care of a child by herself in the evening? And manage a home?
She has friends who have given up their jobs to stay at home, but are still frazzled just from caring for their families. And she loves her job. Standing at the bathroom sink, Lori grips the porcelain with one hand as if she needs the support and stares at the plastic stick in her other hand. Her phone alarm dings and she looks at the stick. Not pregnant. It must be the stress of getting ready to move that’s fooling with her bodily functions. She tosses the stick in the trash and relief flows through her limbs like she has surrendered to a warm bath.
On Sunday afternoon Lori goes to her favorite market to pick up the ingredients for her eggplant parmesan, Rob’s favorite. It‘s a treat to cook for him and he loves her Italian dishes. Early in their relationship, she was afraid he would not approve of her cooking skills, but Rob is easy. He loves food, no matter who makes it, if it’s done well. He’ll get in late Sunday night and sleep in while she’s at school. She’s planning a nice evening for Monday.
Back in her kitchen, she lightly breads and bakes the eggplant slices, to make it easy to put it all together after school the next day. She takes a container of Rob’s tomato sauce out of the freezer to thaw. A salad, French bread, a nice red wine. She’s all set.
That night she stays up reading until Rob opens the door at about 11 p.m., “Hey, Schoolmarm. How are you?” The usual tease.
“Watch that mouth, young man, or I’ll put you in detention.” She gets up and they hug.
“I sure miss you. How long has it been? Two weeks?” And he gives her a passionate kiss.
“Rob, it’s so late. Can’t we just go to sleep and save this for tomorrow night?” He breaks free, steps back, looks into her eyes and gives up.
“Yeah, I better shower and get the grease off me.”
They get ready for bed. Rob dozes off immediately, but Lori tosses and turns. She’s concerned about those boxes that are still empty. Sleep comes late. On Monday, Lori is entering grades on the computer in her classroom after school when she sees one of her student’s parents at her door. She motions her in, “Mrs. Walker,” the parent starts, “do you have a minute?”
“For you, sure. Come on in, Angie.” Lori closes the program and leans back in her chair, which rocks gently. Angie wedges her ample body into a student desk opposite Lori. Lori smiles, always happy to collaborate with parents. It’s not easy guiding a twelve-year-old through the maze of anxiety that the middle school years can be.
“Alex is doing fine,” she adds.
Angie places her folded hands on the desk, “I know. He loves your class,” says Angie. “It’s not Alex I want to talk about, but Elaine, who’s in seventh grade. Is there any way to get her into your English class next year?”
“Gosh, I’m sure you know the school policy doesn’t allow for that. Besides, I’m sorry to tell you I’m not going to be here next year.” She tries to maintain the smile, but her forehead creases.
“What? Oh my. That’s such a loss. Not just for my kid, but for all of them.”
“I’m moving to Napa to be close to my husband’s new job.” Lori looks down and rubs her fingers on the grain of the old oak desk. Pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, she looks back at Angie.
“Napa? Wow, that’s a great place. I guess I can understand. How lucky for you and Mr. Walker.”
“Well, I hope so. Please keep this to yourself. I don’t want any fuss. And if you have concerns about Elaine, why don’t you talk to the principal.”
“OK. Thanks;” Angie offers her hand in a warm shake, gets up from the seat, and quickly embraces Lori in a brief hug; “We’ll miss you,” she adds before leaving.
Lori sits down and stares numbly at the computer screen for a moment, glances at her watch and turns the computer off. Time to go. She yawns and pauses to rub her back against a sharp corner in the wall before heading to the car. When she gets home, Rob isn’t relaxing in front of the TV or pulling the dinner supplies out of the fridge. He’s on the living room floor with those damn boxes and a roll of tape. He’s got several all put together, though still empty, “Hey, I thought that was my job,” says Lori.
“Yeah, but it needs to get done, right?” He makes a quizzical face.
“I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it,” she complains and plops down on the sofa, tears springing to her eyes.
“Look, I know you’re busy. I’m trying to help you get started,” says Rob; “Just do a little every day and I’ll help when I can get down here.” He moves to sit next to her, and reaches his arm around her, but she pulls away.
“I’m just tired,” she says, sniffling, “I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“We could both use more sleep,” he says.
“It’s getting late,” she says pushing her mouth into a smile, “I’d better get dinner going.” She gets up and goes to the kitchen. Over candlelight, eggplant, and new yellow napkins, Rob talks about how well things are going at work. Lori tries to listen and show support, but her mind keeps wandering.
“You know, Rob, this week I thought I might be pregnant, but I guess it was just stress.” She fingers the rim of her wine glass.
“That would be great,” he says, “but we’ve got time. Great eggplant, by the way.”
“It’s your sauce. Tell me again how I’ll be able to go back to work after the baby?”
“We’ll get a nanny. They’re plentiful in Napa. I know several people who can make recommendations. I’ve read a child needs you more when they’re older. By that time, we should be set financially and you won’t have to work.”
She puts down her fork. “What if I want to work?”
He meets her eyes, “Well, Hon, that’s your choice, of course. What’s going on? I thought we agreed on a plan—new job for me, move, work on baby.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just out of sorts. I can’t seem to get started on the packing.”
“I noticed,” he says.
She frowns in his direction, “Look, leave the dishes for tomorrow,” Lori says and goes toward the bedroom with her half-full glass of wine.
“I’ll just stack the plates. I’ll be right there.”
“Hey, I need a good back scratch,” she calls back to the kitchen.
“On my way.”
With a week left of classes, always the most stressful week of the year, Lori is still looking at empty boxes. On Saturday of the last weekend, she starts in with the books in the living room. She puts Rob’s books in a box, seals it with tape, pushes it aside, and then starts on hers. The first book she picks up is the hardcover copy of Alice in Wonderland that she has had since childhood. The red cover is faded and frayed and yellowing pages are starting to fall out. Carefully leafing through the beginning, she remembers her enchantment as a child with the fantastical story and all its weird characters. The phone rings as she is looking at an illustration of Alice gazing down the rabbit hole. It’s a colleague checking on her contribution for the last-day-of-school staff potluck. She does no more packing that day.
Lori arrives at school on the last day and is shocked to find her classroom decorated with balloons and crepe paper hanging from the ceiling. Someone has written on the white board in pink, surrounded by hearts and flowers, “Good luck, Mrs. Walker. We’ll miss you!” Her first period kids are grinning and excited.
“It’s a party!” they shout. Eighth graders are always ready for a party. She can smell chocolate brownies and popcorn the kids have brought to share. Students place cards on her desk, some store bought and some homemade; “Where are you going?” they ask.
Lori is won over by their excitement and tells them about the move to Napa and Rob’s new job, everything but the baby planning. She finds time to squeeze in one of her last day activities, having the kids write and share their dreams for their own futures. She has always saved these essays and given them to the same kids when they graduate from high school.
Will she ever be able to do that again? At lunch time, she gets a great sendoff in the teachers’ room. Someone has brought in a cake that says, “Best wishes, Lori.” Before the end of lunch, the principal, Mrs. Winters, hands her an envelope with a gift card from the staff. “For your new home,” she says.
Suddenly Lori is trying to stifle a sob. People are heading back to class, but Mrs. Winters asks, “Is everything OK?”
“Not really,” she answers. “I just don’t want to leave.”
The principal, a motherly figure whom Lori has known for five years, puts her arm around her. “Well, that‘s your decision. It’s not too late to change your mind—you know we’d love to have you stay on.”
Lori stumbles through the party in her next class. During her free period, she calls Rob. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon, so he’s probably busy. It goes to voicemail, “It’s Chef Rob, please leave a message.”
“Rob,” she stammers, “Rob . . . I need to talk to you. I’m just not sure . . . I don’t know if I can . . …” She takes a breath; “Call me,” she adds.
When the school day ends, instead of packing up her room, which was her plan, Lori walks out to the car. Another teacher stops her. “Heading out so soon?”
Her decision made, she answers, “I have an important errand, but I’ll be back.” She gets in the car and drives towards the building across town that houses the Human Resources office. With the radio on Lori sings along to a snappy tune. She relaxes into the seat and, for the first time in weeks, feels amazingly good all over.
Lenore Hirsch is a retired educator who writes features for the Napa Valley Register, poetry, and stories. Her books include her dog’s memoir, My Leash on Life; a poetry collection, Leavings; and Laugh and Live, Advice for Aging Boomers. See lenorehirsch.com, laughing-oak.com.