Rain slanted across my windshield as I pulled into Bayview Village. I parked at the edge of the lot. A narrow patch of grass and trees separated my car from the road.
“Well, that’s it for that contract,” I muttered.
I opened the window and lit a cigar. A cigar meant celebration, but I didn’t know if this success I’d enjoyed with this particular contract was something I wanted to celebrate. I didn’t know what to feel.
I’d spent most of my career in and out of schools. The nomadic nature of special needs work – of being brought in to help during crisis and being moved out when the crisis was over – made my job a transient one. I was used to moving on to whatever came next, but this one had been unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
I’d been lucky. Everyone, from the administration to the staff to the students, had been wonderfully accepting and respectful and empathetic for the entire contract. And today, my last day, they’d given me a card. Thanked me for what I’d done. And while I appreciated the gratitude, so rare in its own right, it was the empathy that made it so different.
It was the empathy that had changed everything.
My cell buzzed.
I smiled when I read her text and stared back out the window. The leaves had just started to change color, and they danced in the rain, unmoved by the autumn chill.
I answered Dee’s text and sighed. I’d felt it all day. Felt the weight of my last year and the emotions strung along behind them. I felt them tugging at me, threatening to tip me over.
There would be other contracts. Other work. Other schools.
But this one…
My cell buzzed again.
I bit my lips. Trying to explain what it had been like and how this one contract had changed my life seemed impossible. And while Dee got it – she always got it – she hadn’t been there.
No one had.
Six Months Earlier
Sun glimmered red on the horizon as I pulled into the school lot. The trees in the school yard were just starting to get their leaves.
“New day, new life,” I muttered, repeating a mantra that I’d started using in an attempt to move on from the explosion that had rocked my personal life. The mantra had yet to help.
I used it anyway.
I checked my laptop bag on the front seat. Everything was there. Whatever had happened in my personal life, however much the implosion of my marriage had drained me, I was determined to not let it affect my work. Over the past month I’d started to creep out of the emotional and physical debris – the inevitable result of my wife’s sudden departure – and was determined to start over.
“Just don’t bring it into your work,” I said softly.
I talked more to myself than I ever had, but considering the circumstances, was fairly certain that I hadn’t lost my mind.
Not yet, anyway.
The day went better than expected. The principal was welcoming. So was the rest of the staff. Even better, I did not think about my failed relationship the entire day. The particular case I’d been brought in to work on was too involved, too nuanced, and required my full attention. It wasn’t until I was heading home did I sink into my seat and reflect on the shattered remains of my personal life.
I hadn’t slept much since I’d suddenly become single, but that night I slept better. The days slowly piled into each other. Work was going as well as I’d hoped, and my relationships with the staff had tightened. They were – for me – an unusual bunch, in that they listened more than they spoke. I had determined to keep my private life separate, but time and space and the sheer rawness of my emotions conspired against me.
One day, it finally slipped out.
“Are you married, Stephen?”
“Um, no. My wife left me two months ago.”
Both Heather and Layla, the teacher and CYW I’d been paired with, stared at me. Silence descended on the room. I berated my tongue for its looseness and clamped my mouth shut.
You idiot. What are you doing?
“Oh, Stephen,” Heather said finally. “That’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
I pushed a smile onto my face. “It’s fine. Really.”
I was aghast at my error and swore that I wouldn’t do it again. I managed to keep that vow… for a week.
“I don’t know how you’re doing it,” Heather said the next week, her voice soft with compassion. “I mean, you’re doing a great job, but just to come here and deal with everything… I don’t know how you’re doing it.”
My lips quivered. I didn’t know how I was doing it either. The past two months I’d broken my day into thirty minute segments, all with the hope that time would close the fissure in my heart. I leaned heavily on my friends, who had rallied around me and promised me things would get better.
I was still a mess, however, and as the weeks passed, I shared more often than not. It was strange to come to a new work environment and not only feel welcome and respected in my job, but to find it a place of healing as well. I thanked God for bringing me there. I didn’t deserve the compassion from these almost-strangers, but I was getting it anyway.
By the time the school year ended, my confidence had reached new heights, and the remains of the emotional detonation no longer needed thirty minute intervals. The pain was still there, of course. So too, the hurt and anger and frustration. But the river had been dammed and the waters had begun to settle again.
I was almost myself again.
I watched the smoke curl up from my cigar and drift out the window. The rain had lightened. A young mother pushed her baby along the sidewalk in front of me. She paused to adjust the covers on the stroller, smiling down at her baby. Tears rimmed my eyes. Emotions played a massive role in our memories. And strong emotions – negative or positive – tagged our past in a way that allowed us to relive it. Learn from it. Bury it. It was a way for humans to hold onto good moments and deal with the ones that hurt the most.
Maybe that’s why my mind felt so jumbled. The school had been a place of healing for me, but it was also a reminder of where I’d been and what I’d gone through. So as much as it had helped me forge a new path, it also allowed line of sight into the most painful time of my life.
I rubbed my eyes. I could feel myself drifting back, remembering what the days had been like, how they’d crawled from one minute to the next, remembering how everywhere I went and everything I did reminded me of her. Reminded me of my failed relationship. Reminded me of my failure.
I still had moments where I berated myself for what had happened, and I still expended effort on “what if” questions, questions that haunted me less, but haunted me still. And yet, time had some done some healing. I could remember the emotions – the pain and hurt and sadness – but I could no longer remember her. Or us. The sun had hidden behind the clouds, and when it had finally emerged, we’d become strangers.
Sometimes I wondered if there’d ever been an “us,” or if that had been a construct. I wondered if every divorced couple asked that question. I wondered if it mattered.
I butted out my cigar. I hadn’t spoken to her in months, so those questions would forever remain unanswered. Maybe it was for the best. Sometimes the clean cut was the only way, even if it was painful. Even if it meant a lot of treatment and care. Even if it meant looking in the mirror and realizing the healing wouldn’t happen unless you had some help.
I thought about Heather and Layla. Thought about the way the rest of the staff had welcomed me. Thought about the principal, who had gone out of her way to praise my work.
My phone buzzed. Dee again.
I read her text and smiled.
My contract had ended, and my time with the best staff I’d ever worked with was over, but it seemed my luck hadn’t changed.