By Michele A. Hromada
The road that ascended upward to the entrance of Mount Misery Road Elementary School was lined with dogwood trees. The three-story cigar box style of the mid-20th-century building seemed anchored solidly to the rocky terrain, despite its precipitous position at the summit of Mount Misery Road. From the staff parking lot, one could look dead ahead to a panoramic curve of coastal Connecticut, then downward into the foamy, swirling waters of the Long Island Sound. The misguided name for the road came from its British ancestors, who with Puritan reserve equated pleasurable surroundings with suffering.
On the day before the first day of school, Matt O’Connor turned his red Jeep into the parking lot. Matt had been given an involuntary transfer from his job as a middle school science teacher. He was now a fifth-grade classroom teacher, punishment for his indiscreet affairs with several female colleagues over the past three years. The school superintendent was fond of moving his faculty members around like pawns on a chessboard because, unable to fire a tenured teacher without a lengthy investigation, this gave him a way to assert power, while at the same time discourage future bad behavior.
The abrupt transfer helped confirm Matt’s wife’s suspicions about the real reasons for all those evening meetings. He now endured cheerless sessions with a marriage counselor and provocative but unanswerable text messages from Joanna Borgia, guidance counselor and his former lover at Edgar Allen Poe Middle School.
Before Joanna, he dallied with Teri, the elastic-limbed physical education student teacher who lost interest in him after she moved on to a paying job. Prior to Teri, there was stormy Samantha, who taught science in the room next to his. Disaster was averted when she went back to her husband. There was Tanya, the darkly exotic school security guard whose boyfriend showed up one day accusing her of being unfaithful. Matt hid in the science lab, as the dramatic scene caused a building uproar and Tanya’s subsequent dismissal.
Matt’s relationship with Joanna was over. Joanna had been spoken to in a humiliating conference with Dr. Mary Smith, the middle school principal. She would not be transferred but was cautioned about repercussions from the conservative school board if she continued to engage in these sorts of dalliances with married colleagues. Matt’s wife, Becky, learned about the affair from an anonymous Good Samaritan and, instead of locking him out of their house, gave him yet another chance to provide their son with a stock, suburban home life.
Matt got out of his Jeep toting a large plastic bin filled with teacher manuals and charts and entered the main office. He found his name on one of the cubbyhole mailboxes that were lined up in precise ladder-like rows on the office wall. It was jammed with schedules and memos. Mrs. Grant, the school secretary, nodded at Matt from her desk.
“You must be Mr. O’Connor. Please sign this sheet for your room key and find your photo ID in the box.”
Mrs. Grant was a small woman of about 70 with a gray pageboy and rouged cheeks. Matt suspected she knew, as did everybody else in the place, the details of his job transfer. His colleagues, a cynical bunch, celebrated racy gossip as a welcome diversion from their institutional routines. He piled his mail, ID badge, and room key on top of the bin and climbed the stairs to room 324.
His room was the last room, next to a storage closet and far from the unisex lavatory. Matt unlocked the door; the air was oppressive and antiseptic. He walked across the waxed floors to open the windows. Someone had stacked textbooks by subject on the individual student desks. Matt shuffled through the papers from his mailbox and studied the principal’s weekly agenda. Typed on orange paper, the memo was bordered with autumnal leaves. It listed the times and dates for staff meetings and student assembly programs for the first week of school. There were reminders concerning miscellaneous housekeeping matters. At the bottom of the page, he saw his name in an addendum.
Notes: Please welcome Mr. Matthew O’Connor to our fifth-grade staff. Congratulations and welcome back to Mrs. Caroline Mitchell returning from maternity leave to rejoin our third-grade faculty.
Matt looked up from the memo, remembering seeing the name Mitchell on his trip down the corridor. Across the hall on the wall next to room 323 was a poster of a schoolhouse with the words “Welcome Mrs. Mitchell’s Class: Smile if you brought your brain.” Matt walked over and peeked inside her room. Caroline was standing by a table covered with folders. The student desks were arranged in two concentric horseshoe shapes with her desk placed at the top of the horseshoe. She looked up and noticed Matt standing in the doorway. She had been aware of his presence across the hall but had chosen to get her room and lesson plans ready, thinking she would stop by his classroom on her way to the meeting.
“Hi, I’m Matt,” he said.
“I’m Caroline,” she replied as her hand brushed his in a gentle handshake.
She showed him a picture of her daughter Emily encircled in a pink enamel frame. Matt pulled a frayed snapshot of Alex from his wallet and they swapped polite stories.
“If you need any help with lesson planning or record keeping, let me know, I’d be happy to help you,” said Caroline.
“Thanks. I heard Dr. Klein is a control freak who collects plan books and keeps a close eye on his staff.”
“Yes, that’s true, but I don’t think he really has the time to read and know about everything and everybody.”
While Matt looked around her classroom to admire the bulletin board displays, Caroline surveyed him. He was the prototype for all her susceptibilities. Muscular, but not overly, a flat stomach, a solid-looking behind, enough hair, and the boy-man style of dressing that paired worn jeans with oxford shirts and ties. She shifted her gaze away from him and turned to put Emily’s picture back on her desk. Matt walked backward to the door.
“I better get back to my room. I have a lot of work; this is my first time teaching grade school. See you later at the meeting, Caroline.”
Back in his room, Matt threw textbooks into the shelves, dragged student desks around in an arrangement that was identical to Caroline’s room. His teaching style was unstructured and easy. As in life, he did not plot or plan his moves in the classroom. Matt reacted to the situation before him, relying on his placid nature and sense of humor. At Edgar Allen Poe, he enjoyed teaching his students and dealt with their quirks and aberrant adolescent behaviors without losing his temper. He diffused the many crushes girl students had on him with diplomacy. Matt’s son was the same age as his fifth-grade students, and he suspected they would probably be more trusting and easier to entertain than teenagers. Sitting at his desk he reviewed the names on his class list, scribbled some sketchy lesson ideas, and thought about Caroline Mitchell.
He estimated she was probably his age, early thirties. Her body was a nice combination of slim and curvy; her long fair hair was pulled back tightly from her face in a twisted knot with feathery edges spilling out from the teeth of a hair clip. Caroline had not been difficult to approach, but he sensed the usual female contradictions, outwardly composed, living a conventional life, but possessing secrets that were layered within. His good looks were of great assistance, but women were drawn to him because he accepted their complexities without battle, understanding that they wanted to feel appreciated and desired. Matt’s life was defined and envied by men for the things he chose not to have. Despite the fact that Matt would never have money or prestige or the need for either, his easy success with women was the source of his power. He felt Caroline had enjoyed their game of darting glances, and in the past he would have used his skills to win her over, but his parents were clear about continuing financial assistance if he straightened out his personal life. Even though his wife, Becky, did not excite him much anymore, she was still a buffer from the women he dallied with. The thought of being truly available and beginning a new relationship that exceeded the confines of sex was more threatening to him than maintaining the sameness of his present life.
Matt moved about the room in his rolling desk chair. He checked the supplies and reviewed the fifth-grade computer programs. He piled workbooks on each of the desks and noticed that if he rolled his chair a little to the left of his own desk, he had a clear view into Caroline’s room. This possibility would be the best antidote to the boredom he expected to set in as the months progressed. The rest of the morning Matt readied his classroom, then strolled down the hallway introducing himself to his neighbors before making his way downstairs for Principal Klein’s staff meeting.
The next few weeks constituted the honeymoon period of getting back to school. Calm, rested teachers gently enforced new regulations to summer-weary students made compliant by the changes in their daily surroundings. Matt discovered he had been right about fifth-grade kids; they were receptive to silly humor. It required more hours of planning each week to keep their minds busy, but his efforts paid off. By the end of September, he could sit at his desk, check papers, and his students stayed engrossed in their assignments.
Caroline Mitchell, however, found it hard to adjust to her back-to-work schedule. Emily kept her awake each night teething and fussing. Her husband, Tom, would heat up a bottle, but often fell asleep in the rocking chair, leaving Caroline to comfort the baby into the wee hours of the morning. After little sleep, she showered, dressed, and got Emily ready to drop off at her mother’s house for the day. Even though it was practically October, Caroline felt overwhelmed, not really connecting with the diverse personalities of her students. She often glanced at the clock and imagined what Emily and her mother were doing at different times during the day.
Caroline had been late again that morning and had hurried past Matt O’Connor’s door, her hands filled with a book bag and coffee mug. She had straightened her back, feeling self-conscious, distressed that she looked disheveled. She knew he would be there to greet her as usual. Caroline turned to see that he had, in fact, been waiting for her, having rolled his chair away from his desk to the front of the doorway. Matt waved and said hello; she was alarmed how this made her heart race. They didn’t have substantial conversations, but she was acutely aware of him throughout the day.
Matt liked to skulk into her room announced. Once, he made faces at her students while standing behind her. When she moved backward, bumping into him, she jumped, knocking a Venn diagram from the easel. Her students found Mr. O’Connor’s surprise visits entertaining. In the past, she would not have been an easy mark for such juvenile games, but now she felt off-balance. Caroline hoped that all she needed was more rest.
By early November, Matt’s students were becoming more demanding. He noticed how much they enjoyed doing watered-down versions of the science experiments he had done as a middle school teacher. The prospect of doing experiments every week acted as a reward for their collective good behavior. Today was the volcano project.
After lunch, Matt dropped off his class at the art room to start his prep period. He stopped at the airless closet of a bathroom; Caroline was coming down the hall carrying a stack of copied worksheets. Yawning, she reached for the doorknob as Matt walked out. They collided and their eyes met, direct and steady. Caroline blushed and slammed the door behind her.
God, he’s on to me and probably knows the blush means something. She splashed water on her face and stared into the mirror, realizing she had forgotten to darken her lashes with mascara.
Matt went outside to the parking lot to smoke a cigarette. It was a cloudless day; dry fallen leaves crunched under his feet as he hurried to his Jeep, parked in the last spot in the lot perched above a steep drop-down to the Long Island Sound. He unlocked the door and sat down on the driver’s side and opened his window. The interior of the car was cluttered. A dented soda can rested crookedly in the cupholder. Since he was a little boy, he liked the thrill he got from high places. He dragged on his cigarette, opened his fly, and while touching himself imagined driving a silver Porsche convertible; the top was down.
Matt exhaled and saw himself speeding along a darkly lit highway. Caroline was sitting next to him. She was naked except for black leather boots. Her thighs were tapered and smooth, leading into a tuft of hair between her legs. Caroline’s breasts were firm and pointed. The ocean wind whipped through her hair, causing it to fly straight up in curling tendrils. Leaving her sitting position she crouched on her knees and swung her right leg over the car’s console, easing her body onto Matt’s lap. With both knees bent she placed her right thigh so it fit snugly into the small space by his door. She opened his jeans. She took him into her hand and looked into his eyes. Caroline’s fingers stroked him upward in one direction only. She repeated this movement again and again, while her mouth lightly sucked his lower lip. She released her hand and slid forward, allowing him to enter her. She gasped and pressed her face against his. The road wound ahead and with one hand on the steering wheel he pushed himself further into Caroline’s body. Matt reduced the speed of the Porsche and found a dark driveway that led to a moonlit beach. At the peak of their spasms, he brought the car to a gentle stop. They kissed. Caroline eased herself off his body. The moonlight on the cratered sand dunes gave the illusion of being on a distant planet. Moonlight turned into daylight.
Matt shielded his eyes, flicked the cigarette out the window, and reached for the crushed box of tissues under the passenger seat. He cleaned himself up but still felt aroused. Fearing a noticeable bulge, he decided to wear his white lab coat for the rest of the day. After his prep period, the kids would be constructing a papier-mâché volcano. Matt preferred controlled chaos to quiet seatwork. He needed vinegar, baking soda and dishwasher detergent for the eruption, so he dropped by the kitchen to find Mary and Dora, the cafeteria ladies. They liked when he teased and chatted with them as he ordered his lunch each day, and he was rewarded with extra scoops of macaroni and cheese or potato puffs. Today they gave him what he needed and added a cup of coffee.
In room 323, Caroline struggled to keep her eyes open. The three hours between lunch and dismissal were difficult for her. She often resorted to assigning silent reading in the science textbook and then handed out a worksheet for the students to complete. She placed her chair near the open window, letting the autumn breeze form goosebumps on the exposed skin of her neck.
Propping the science book on her lap, she said, “Boys and girls, let’s continue reading about the characteristics of the common toad. Madison, please read the key facts listed on page sixty.”
Madison pushed her glasses back up her nose and read: “The common toad has mottled skin that provides it with excellent camouflage in its natural habitat. To deter predators, poisonous venom is secreted from glands on the chest and back. Its tongue is four inches long and sticky. The hinge at the front of the mouth allows the toad to flick it in and out with amazing speed. The toad emits a long croak during mating season, when it goes to ponds to breed, then returns to its solitary life in summer.”
“Nice reading, Madison,” praised Caroline. “Now, read the rest of the chapter silently.” Caroline turned her face away from class to look out the window. She imagined herself arranged on a white boudoir chair.
She was wearing a silk dressing gown; beneath it her body was naked. Behind her were French doors covered with toile draperies, the panes of glass darkened black. Matt was on his knees on an oriental rug in front of her chair. He was dressed in tight jeans and a linen shirt. She felt his deft hands touching her breasts, his fingertips circling her nipples. Kneeling between her legs, he bent his head and licked her inner thighs while tracing concentric circles on her breasts. The circling was in sync with the rhythm of his darting tongue. She slumped lower into the chair, abandoning herself to pleasure as his tongue darted further inside her. Caroline’s hands were locked around the back of his neck, but she released her grip to run her fingers through his hair. Matt lifted his face and slid upward to kiss her. He removed his clothes, then guided her down onto the rug, where he entered her body and stayed until her quiet moans subsided.
Caroline, seated on her chair, her thighs and pelvis pressed tight, let free the hold on her lower body and felt a surge of unexpected pleasure. It was the same phenomenon she experienced sometimes after a brief, erotic dream invaded her sleep, filling her body with sensual release. Her eyes were closed and she was smiling.
Meanwhile, the class had finished the reading assignment, and there was whispering and fidgeting. Andrew waved his hand in front of her face.
“Yes, Andrew, do you have a question about the reading?”
“No, Mrs. Mitchell, I’m finished. But why are you so happy today?”
“Don’t I usually look happy?” Caroline asked him in dismay.
“No, not like today.”
“Well, I guess I was just thinking about how nice life must be for the common female toad.”
Across the hall, Matt was dividing his students up into what he hoped were compatible groups. The best artists worked on a mural illustrating the topography of a land volcano. The few good writers in the class were given the task of writing about the events that led to a land volcano eruption. Matt instructed another group to print out information from the Internet. His most energetic crew slapped white glue onto wet sheets of newspaper to be molded into the conical shape of a volcano. The activity was noisy and messy; the volcano dried just before bus dismissal time. Matt measured out the baking soda, dishwasher detergent, and water, deciding to use larger proportions for a better effect. The class put on their safety glasses as Matt put a container inside the volcano model and poured in the magical vinegar.
“Stand back, everybody, and observe a foaming bed of lava,” he told them in a stage whisper.
A small white cloud rose above the project, some sudsy bubbles dripped down the sides, but the sour smell of vinegar was the most dramatic aftereffect of the experiment.
“What, no hot magma and molten rock? This sucks, Mr. O’Connor!” said Brian. He was a student Matt liked, but now perched on the windowsill, swinging his legs back and fourth, he was an obnoxious combination of precociousness and preadolescent mania. Brian’s proclamation got the others riled up, and they were holding their noses or hanging out of the windows pretending to choke and gasp for air. Matt calmed them down; then raced the class down the steps as the bus drivers were revving their engines to exit around the school’s circular driveway.
Matt’s colleagues heckled him as he rushed his students onto their buses. “Hey, mad scientist, what was that foul smell coming from your room? Next week we could team up our classes and dry plant specimens. I think we should start with cannabis,” shouted a fellow fifth-grade teacher.
“Nice eruption,” yelled someone else. “I enjoy one myself, once in a while.”
Caroline walked past him with her head down. He glanced at her bare legs and short skirt as she made her way through the small group of teachers.
The principal walked over to him; he often appeared at the end of the day to monitor the bus traffic. A baseball cap with the school logo shielded his gray head from the afternoon sun.
“Mr. O’Connor, your class almost missed the bus today. Another science project?” he asked, eyeing the white coat.
“Sorry, Dr. Klein; it took longer than I expected. You know the kids get excited.”
“That’s what I like to see, engaged learners. You seem to have made a nice transition to teaching grade school youngsters. In fact, some parents called to tell me their children were enjoying your class. I need a new person to coordinate the spring science fair. Ms. Ortiz usually does it, but she is scheduled for knee surgery around that time. Think about it. It would get you some positive exposure,” said Dr. Klein.
“Sure, I’d love to help you out,” said Matt.
“Good, I’ll have Ms. Ortiz share her expertise with you. And when you’re ready, we can bounce some ideas back and forth.”
Matt was shocked at having received a compliment from the boss, and even more surprised that he had agreed to do extra work. He trudged upstairs to clean his messy classroom before heading home.
By December, Matt had settled into the Mount Misery Road Elementary School routine. His teacher performance evaluation was the best one of his career, and he was the official coordinator of the spring science fair. Matt had thought about asking Caroline to be his assistant, but she had been absent from school due to a family illness, and anyway, he didn’t think she would accept.
He and Becky had ended their sessions with the marriage counselor, and she had eased up on tracking his whereabouts every minute of the day. Joanna Borgia had been making regular appearances in Matt’s dreams. The staff holiday party was next week. He would make sure to find Joanna and have a drink with her.
The day before winter recess was festive, with the students attending a holiday music pageant. Teachers lightened the assignment load and threw classroom parties with games and cupcakes, all contributing to a heightened noise level and a lax enforcement of rules. Late as usual for dismissal, Matt’s students were tossing popcorn at each other. Wearing a Santa hat, Matt coaxed the kids down the steps to the bus circle. Dr. Klein, wearing a reindeer antler headband, stood on the steps wishing students a happy holiday. Matt noticed that Caroline was carrying boxes and shopping bags to the parking lot, while a bearded young man minded her class. He had been the substitute teacher when she was out, and Matt had found his high-pitched voice so irritating that he kept his door closed all day.
Dr. Klein was reminding students to read books over the break. Nobody listened; they were already boarding buses, and the staff was making plans to meet at the holiday party held at a local pub down the road. Matt saw Caroline return from the parking lot and sensed she was walking toward him with an urgent message. She had a girlish red and green plaid bow caught up in her hair.
“I just wanted to say good-bye, Matt. I’m taking an emergency leave, and I probably won’t be back till next fall. My mom is recuperating from heart surgery, and I need to help her. Mr. Bernstein will be teaching my class for the rest of the year.”
“I’m so sorry, Caroline,” said Matt, somewhat dazed by the seriousness of her speech and the closeness of her body.
“It’s okay; it will give me more time to be with Emily.”
Caroline threw her arms around him in a tight embrace, her hands caressing the back of his neck as her lips brushed his in a kiss. For a brief moment, she relaxed her body against his. Caught off guard by the intensity and passion of the encounter, he hugged her but held back a bit. In his arms she felt fragile, small-boned, and real, not quite the juicy wench he had been plowing fore and aft in his fantasies.
“I have to go back inside to get a few more things,” said Caroline.
“Do you need any help?” Matt asked.
“No thanks, I’m just about done. Good-bye, Matt. It was fun working across the hall from you.” She felt shaky and ready to cry; it was a good thing she was leaving.
“Good-bye, Caroline,” said Matt and he watched her walk back into the school. Sighing, he wished he had the silver Porsche to entice her with a farewell drive down to the deserted beach.
Matt pulled off his Santa hat and stuffed it into the pocket of his jacket. Most of the teachers and students were gone. He stood alone and positioned himself behind the enormous trunk of a leafless oak tree; he cupped his hands to light a cigarette and watched the back of the school buses make their careful descent down the driveway that led to Mount Misery Road.
About Michele A. Hromada
Michele A. Hromada is a special education teacher and political blogger. Her work has appeared in Wild Violet, Sanskrit, Forge, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Tower Journal, and Gemini Magazine. You can find all of Michele’s work on her website www.michelehromada.com.