Andrea Price Berthot

A Second Wind

Erin’s classroom is in the basement of the high school. For eight to nine hours a day, she sees nothing but oatmeal-gray cinder block. Each morning she lingers in the teachers’ lounge for as long as possible, savoring the strips of purple, dusky sky that peak through its blinded windows until the morning bell dispatches her to her bunker. Today, however, she is running late and can’t afford even one longing glance as she rushes in to collect her mail.

“Oversleep?” Jana is lounging on the sofa beside the mailbox, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and the latest Oprah-approved novel in the other. First period is her planning period; she doesn’t have to rush.

“No.” Erin has never overslept in the eight years she has taught at this school. She wants to say this to Jana but bites her cheek and reaches for the wad of papers protruding from her mailbox instead.

“Did something happen?”

Having anticipated this question, Erin succeeds in blinking back the tears that threaten to breach her eyes as the image of her one-year-old daughter’s face plowing into the hardwood floor, blood exploding from her tiny nose like a trampled ketchup packet, bursts back into her mind. She had stepped away from the changing table to retrieve a clean onesie from the dresser for only three seconds, but that was all the time Krista had needed to roll over and crawl off the edge. Gabe was out on his two mile morning run and the doctor’s office didn’t open until 8:00, so a panicked Erin had scooped up the screaming Krista and literally run to the hospital ER, which was only a few blocks away from their house. The doctors, who seemed almost amused by Erin’s blanched face and shower-damp hair, quickly concluded that no real damage had been done, so she texted Gabe a short version of the events, dropped Krista off at daycare, and rushed to work without any make-up or her morning cup of coffee.

“Krista rolled off the changing table and hit her head. I took her to the hospital and they said she’s fine.”

“Wow. I’m glad she’s okay. You can’t take your eyes off them for a second, can you?” Jana takes a long, slow sip of from her mug. “Has she said her first words yet?”

“Not yet,” Erin replies, shoving her junk mail violently into the trash can. Jana’s daughter, also one year old, has already said her first words.

“Are you reading to her enough? I read to Ainsley for at least twenty minutes every day.”

“Gotta go, Jana. Bell’s going to ring.”

“Okay. Have a nice day.”

Erin’s first class is predominantly populated by football players who refuse to follow any of her rules but adhere to the guidelines of their own stereotype religiously. One of them is boy named Tyler whose massive size, clear complexion, and adequate intelligence destroyed any sympathy, shame, or self-control he may have had long ago. Today he announces that all the women in The Great Gatsby are “gold-digging whores,” repeatedly twists the nipples of the boy sitting next to him, and belches loudly while doodling a grotesque, balloon-like penis on his desk. Erin has been told by the administration that she needs to develop a “thicker skin” and stop sending students to the office for minor infractions, so she curls her fists, focuses on the sharp pain of her nails digging into her palms, visualizes punching Tyler in the face in order to keep from actually murdering him, and tries to offer the rest of the class another way to view the female characters in the novel.

During her thirty-minute lunch break, Erin grades papers at her desk, drinks a Milk Chocolate Slimfast that tastes more like liquid chalkboard, and thinks about her younger brother, a professional drummer who plays in bands on cruise ships and spends six to nine months at a time sailing along the coasts of Mexico, Australia and various islands in the South Pacific. Between gigs, he lives in a nearby town and substitute teaches at the local high school, which he once told Erin was the easiest job he’d ever had since the girls, naturally attracted to their deeply tan, twenty-six year-old, world-traveling teacher, were always obedient, respectful, and eager to please him, and the boys, impressed by the power he wielded over the girls, followed suit. Erin had wanted to murder him as well when he said this, because the male students who found her attractive universally behaved like Tyler, disrupting her class at every opportunity and then smiling up at her as if to say “Hey! See what I’m doing? I am totally in control of this class right now! Bad-ass, right?” while the girls, weary from fighting for attention in every other class as well, became despondent.

Erin is packed up and ready to bolt to Krista’s daycare when the final bell rings, but a senior named Alina is waiting outside her classroom and begs her to proofread her personal essay for her application to Stanford for the third time. Erin hates Alina, not just for her delicate, nymph-like bone structure and her healthy, lustrous hair that always falls just right even though she clearly makes no conscious effort to take care of it, but for her unapologetic eyes, commanding diction, and boundless potential. Alina will get into Stanford, graduate, immediately earn a master’s degree, and never return to this tiny, one-high-school town again. She will move to New York City, to an office in a tall building with enormous windows that stream in sunlight. She will spend her mornings jogging in Central Park and her vacations gallivanting through Italy and India like that Eat, Pray, Love woman. As she begins to read Alina’s essay, Erin sees sleek gondolas under torchlit archways and the mirrored pool before the Taj Mahal rather than the words on the page, but after a moment she manages to clear her head and focus, marking the few, tiny mistakes she finds and scribbling suggestions in the margins.

Krista smiles and claps as soon as she sees that Erin has come to pick her up, and Erin prays that her lack of Post Traumatic Stress is due to the goldfish-like memory of a one-year-old and not residual brain damage from the accident. As soon as they arrive home, she grabs a copy of Goodnight Moon, gathers Krista into her lap on the floor and attempts to read to her, but Krista is in the mood for pony rides and repeatedly pushes the book away, stands up, and attempts to climb onto Erin’s back. Eventually Erin is forced to give in, but after only fifteen minutes of crawling around the house on all fours with Krista digging her nails into her back, she feels like an aging thoroughbred that has just been beaten in the Kentucky Derby, so she plants Krista in front of her toys and trudges to the basement to start the laundry.

After she has switched the first load from the washer to the dryer and taken the garbage out to the curb, she receives a text from her psychologist husband saying that a client is having a crisis and he won’t be home for dinner, so she digs a Stouffer’s microwave meal out of the freezer and retrieves a jar of baby food from the cupboard. Once she has eaten her rubbery meatloaf and fed Krista her processed peas, she runs the dishwasher and feels guilty for not feeding her child organic, home-cooked meals. Next, with Krista clinging to the legs of her pants, expecting another horse-y ride, Erin files away the day’s mail, then with Krista still in tow, finishes and folds the laundry, gives Krista her nightly bath, and attempts to keep her awake until Gabe shows up by feeding her a handful of Cheerios. When the clock strikes nine, Krista passes out in her high chair mid-chew with a soggy little “O” stuck to her bottom lip, so Erin carries her up the stairs and places her in her crib. Only after she has slipped beneath the covers of her own bed does she hear the creaking of Gabe’s footsteps on the stairs.

“Everything okay?” she asks as he ambles into the bedroom, stretches, and begins unbuttoning his shirt.

“Oh, yeah. Just the usual drama.”

Erin used to be curious about the various neuroses and disorders of Gabe’s clients and irritated by his ethical commitment to their confidentiality, but she hasn’t had the energy to care, let alone ask, about their issues in years.

“So Krista’s okay?” he asks, plugging his iPhone into the charger on the nightstand.

“Totally fine. Like nothing ever happened.”

“Thank God,” he sighs, sliding into bed beside her and pressing his fingers against his eyes. “I wish I could have seen her before she fell asleep, though.”

Erin tilts her face toward him, breathes in his earthy, familiar scent and soaks up the heavy warmth of his body beside her. She wants to stretch out her arms and swallow him up, to bring his freshness, strength and warmth into her...but she is just so tired.

“How was your day? After that whole mess, I mean,” he asks.

“Long.”

“Tell me about it,” he sighs again, rolling over onto his side and turning his back to her. “Sometimes I feel like I just give and give and give and don't get anything back.”

When Erin turns her head toward him this time, the urge she represses is to kick him. Instead, she reaches for the light switch on the wall above her head, snaps it down, rolls over without a word, and squeezes her eyes shut.

After an hour that feels like a second, Krista’s baby monitor erupts and Erin’s body jerks awake. Gabe stirs beside her but doesn’t get up.

“Can you go to her?” Erin asks, hating the begging she hears in her voice.

“Come on, Erin, I’m exhausted.”

“So am I.”

“But you didn’t work till nine tonight.”

No, she thinks, snapping the sheet off her body and stumbling toward the bedroom door, I never stopped.

After nearly an hour of fuming while struggling with the squirming Krista, who seems to be able to feel Erin’s tension, rocking her back to sleep and hating herself for hating being up with her baby, Erin finds she can no longer sleep. Instead, she clumps downstairs to the computer to check her mail. There is a new message from her brother, who set sail for his most recent cruise a week ago. He has attached a picture of himself on a beach in Acapulco. In the photo, which Erin imagines was taken by some beautiful, twenty-two-year-old, 100 pound cruise ship dancer, he has one foot resting in the soft, white sand and one planted against the side of an enormous, sea-weathered rock, spreading his arms out like a triumphant Poseidon as a crystal-blue wave crashes against the rock and sprays up all around him.

Erin has only traveled outside of Kansas twice, and only seen the ocean once. During her freshman year of college she flew to Florida with her school choir, and after their concert on the first night there, the students were sent to spend the night with host families. She and her roommate were paired with an extremely wealthy older couple who lived only a few blocks from a remote, private beach, and since Erin had never seen the ocean before, the couple agreed to walk her and her roommate down to the water's edge, even though it was almost midnight. Completely deserted and miles from any city lights, the beach was dark and utterly silent except for the massive, rhythmic crashing of the waves. Standing there, with a vast, black sky above her and an endless, roaring sea before her, Erin felt for the first and only time in her life both completely dwarfed by and completely connected to the entire world. Back in her bed at the old couple's house that night, she fantasized about sneaking out and returning to that beach. She wanted to press her back into the soft, wet sand, stare up into the boundless sky, and fall asleep while breathing in and out with the rhythm of the rolling waves. But, of course, she had stayed in her bed.

Now, sitting in the muted, blue glow of the computer screen, Erin hears the low bellowing of the wind outside and listens as it picks up into a high whistle. Her eyes drift toward the kitchen and the two sliding glass doors that lead to the backyard. The digital clock on the microwave nearby reads 11:57. Seconds later, she is standing in front of the doors and sliding them open, allowing the powerful but warm September wind to rush inside, rippling through her flannel pajamas and blowing her hair back over her shoulders. When she grabs a jacket from the closet and scribbles a note saying that she is going for a walk, she has no idea why or what she plans to do; all she knows is that she needs to be out in that wind.

The sweet smell of the honeysuckle bush in the backyard tempts Erin to stay and simply sit on the porch for a while, but another powerful gust of wind persuades her to continue walking out into the deserted street. As soon as her bare feet hit the crisp cement, she laughs at herself for thinking to put on a jacket but not shoes. Still, she does not return to the house but begins to jog and then to run with no particular purpose in mind except to keep going. After a few blocks, she decides that the dim light from the neighborhood street lamps is too much light, that she is craving a level of darkness even a small, sleeping town cannot provide. So she makes a sharp turn and heads toward the city limits, to a solitary, wooded area she has seen from the highway but never ventured into. As she runs, she listens closely to her breath whistling in and out between her lips, her feet swishing through the cool, damp grass, her heart pounding faithfully beneath the her chest, and feels that somehow these are the most beautiful sounds she has ever heard in her life.

In the distance, she sees that the small concentration of Cottonwood trees is by no means a forest, at least not the kind of lush, dense wilderness she imagines exists on the northern Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but it is dark, secluded, and alive. She slows her pace, catches her breath, and listens to the murmur of the rustling leaves and swaying branches above her head as she wanders deeper into the fresh, living darkness.

Towards the middle of the mini-woods, Erin discovers a Cottonwood tree that is considerably larger than the others. She approaches it with reverence, knowing that while it may not be as ancient as California’s famous Redwoods, it is certainly very old. After standing before it for a few solemn moments, intermittent gusts of wind washing over her like waves, she raises her hands and runs her fingertips over the weathered bark. Then, without knowing why, she takes another step forward, presses her cheek against the heavy trunk, and begins to cry. When she feels the sudden rush of wetness on her face, she realizes that she can’t remember the last time she allowed herself to truly cry, and when her weeping grows into wild, abandoned sobs, she is surprised by the intensity and power she hears in her own voice. She slides down to the base of the tree and curls up between two of its giant roots, her body trembling with joyous release. Soon her crying melts into laughter, and she burrows into the earth beneath the tree the way Krista burrows into her chest when she is ready to go to bed. She knows she doesn’t need to run away like her brother, to the Caribbean or anywhere else, and she doesn’t need the eternal emptiness of that black, Florida sea. She only needs to look at the world around her, to listen to herself, and to embrace the intangible ribbon that draws the two of them together. Smiling at the taste of her tears and breathing in tandem with the steady wind as it exhales softly through the trees above her, she closes her eyes and surrenders herself to the universe and to sleep.

In the morning, the honeysuckle bush in Erin’s backyard smells even sweeter than it did the night before. Through the sliding glass doors she can see Krista crawling, giggling with glee as Gabe chases after her, his shirt rumpled and hair askew, trying desperately to secure her socks to her quick, little feet. When he looks up and sees Erin, he demands through the glass, “Where have you been?”

“Running. And now I’m done.” She smiles, picks off a tiny sprig of honeysuckle, places it behind her ear, and steps up onto the porch.

Andrea Price Berthot teaches Creative Writing at the high school in Arkansas City, Kansas, and resides in the nearby town of Winfield. Her fiction has appeared in A Space of Your Own Room, Moondance, Luna Station Quarterly, Magnolia Journal, and previously in Melusine.