"Against the Current" by Brittany Ackerman




I dress in the dark every morning for school. I don't want to wake up Lanny, who makes his own schedule for his marketing business that starts much later in the afternoon. I'm supposed to get to the high school where I work around 7:00 am every morning, but I usually wake up around 5:00 am so I can stop and get coffee and then sit in the office and try to figure out my plan for the day. Some teachers stay after school to do that sort of thing, but I prefer to be out of the house as soon as I can, before my brain can catch up to my body and recognize that I'm still here in this situation. I remember the night I moved my stuff into Lanny’s two-bedroom apartment. We sat at the table and wrote a list of all the goals we had for each other, a list of promises. It had been his idea to make the list, and we read them aloud and ate spaghetti and garlic bread he picked up from The Olive Garden. There was so much hope bursting inside of me, I almost believed it.

Since I'm first to arrive at work, I flip on all the lights. I set down my things; a hot caramel macchiato with 2% milk, my two tote bags filled with binders and books, and the keys to the classroom. I hold onto my cell phone that I’ve become obsessed with lately. I read somewhere that our devices have actually become part of our human form, an extension of our bodies. I turn on the desktop that is a no-fail computer, one of the only ones in the room that is definitely connected to the printer and won’t crap out on me since I have to print today. I use a different key to open a drawer in an industrial metal grey filing cabinet and take out a stack of blank paper that I’ve hoarded. We’re not really supposed to do that, but if we run out of paper, we have to walk all the way to the front office and request more.

Before I can even get anything done, Gerald walks in. Gerald is my age, twenty-seven, and a history teacher. He’s been here since he graduated college and it’s his dream to become dean of the school someday. He wears a suit every single day and has one of those beautiful leather briefcase satchels that opens like an accordion. He wears tortoiseshell Ray Bans and doesn’t take them off when he steps inside the faculty lounge.

“Oh man,” he says to the room. “I don’t even know why I walked in here, I'm gonna head up to my room. You want some coffee?” Gerald might be in love with me. When he found out I was a writer, most likely from reading my bio on the school’s website, he asked if we could exchange stories. I said I wasn’t working on anything at the moment, but that he could feel free to send something my way. I was trying to be nice and I knew Gerald had big pull at the school, having gone to the school as a student himself and working his way up the ranks. He’d done his prerequisite student teaching hours on campus and finally made it to full-time staff. I thought maybe he could help me somehow, that I should try to make friends here.

He had given me a story to read in a manila envelope that he had typed on his typewriter at home. The edges of the pages were crinkled, having been wet and dried, and he apologized as I looked it over, saying he liked to drink whiskey while he wrote fiction. The story was about a man who is an average man working in an office but who moonlights as a James Bond sort of character, but it wasn’t clear exactly what kind of do-gooding he did. He had weapons and a nice car and always wore stylish suits, but it seemed more like a character portrait than a story. It was unfinished, and rather than hurt his feelings, I just told him to let me read more when he was done. But I knew types like him. He wasn’t willing to do the work to revise. It was more the title, the being a writer than the act of writing itself.

“Already have some, but thanks,” I say and continue to log into the computer and pull up a reading packet for The Great Gatsby.

“Starbucks is shit,” he says. “I’ve got a hazelnut blend anytime you want some.”

I nod and Gerald walks out. I'm alone for another forty-five minutes or so until the other teachers arrive. Most of the female teachers wear blouses printed with elephants or butterflies and a loose-fitting cargo pant with sensible shoes. I wear jeans every day and a white t-shirt tucked in with a blazer, despite the perpetual humidity in South Florida. I wear sneakers with insoles because of a slow growing genetic bunion.

I staple my packets one by one for the hundred and twenty-five students I have and Jessica, the poetry teacher, reminds me that I can make the copy machine staple for me. I resent her because she got the job I applied for. I’d interviewed to be in the Creative Writing department, but ended up in AP English Language and Composition. I’d imagined days entering the room in long coats and sucking on caramel candies and talking to my students about the form and structure of poetry, the great poets and their historical context, the work my students would turn in—beautiful, original, bold. But now I make copies of packets for books I’d read and hated in high school. Now I give weekly multiple-choice tests where I can’t even get the all the answers right.

Jessica is skinny and wears black leggings with combat boots and a baggy sweater. Her hair is in a messy bun and she wears too much eyeliner. I can’t even remember the last time I wore makeup.

My phone buzzes in my blazer pocket and it’s Lanny asking if we’re out of cinnamon.

“It’s on the counter,” I remind him, since he likes it in his drip coffee he makes at home. I leave it out for him each day, but he always forgets. I see that I have fifteen minutes until first period starts and I head over to my room on the other side of campus.

Veteran teachers have their proper homerooms, but since it’s my first year I have to migrate throughout the day to a different classroom each period. My first period room belongs to a math teacher, Katy, who has posters of cats doing mathematics all over the walls and photographs of her and her long-term boyfriend all over her desk. When I step into her room she’s always upset, like my presence is a huge inconvenience to her, which it probably is. She always asks if I’ll need the white board, which is already filled with equations and notes for the day, so I shake my head no and pull down the screen for the projector. It’s easier for me to have digital presentations and my own handouts so that I never have to mess with another teacher’s room. There are no kids present yet and I awkwardly stand next to her desk until she gets up and we switch places. I log into her computer and she lingers with her coffee tumbler and cell phone.

“I think Brad’s going to propose really soon,” she says. She can never go too long without talking about her very serious boyfriend, Brad.

“That’s great,” I say and pull up my presentation.

“I wish he’d wait until after Christmas.”

“Why?” I ask, simultaneously finding a spelling error in my presentation and wondering if the students will even notice.

“I just love Christmas so much and don’t want to be engaged and have it be a holiday. Like, he should just let me have Christmas and then he can propose after. But then again it might be nice to have a big shiny ring against the backdrop of our tree, you know?”

“For sure.”

“What about you?” She asks, and I'm not sure what the question is.

“I'm Jewish,” I say. “So no tree for me.”

“Silly! I meant your boyfriend, Leonard? Is he going to pop the big question anytime soon?”

“Lanny,” I say, defensively. I recall our fight the other night. I had asked Lanny to kill a spider that was crawling above my head in bed and he refused, saying he didn’t want to disturb the natural environment of our apartment, so I used a Swiffer to kill the bug against the wall and it left a huge blood stain. I then got out cleaning supplies and tried to erase the stain from our wall and Lanny said the chemical smells were giving him a headache so he went outside to the porch and listened to a podcast and didn’t come to bed until hours later. He had woken me up when he came in. I had been dreaming that I was on a plane taking off but we couldn’t get high enough in the air and we crashed. I managed to survive and walked back to the airport and tried to find another flight. I couldn’t read any of the signs at the ticket counter and was about to ask an attendant for help when Lanny’s rustling prodded me awake. Thus, initiating another round of me reiterating that I have to be up early and him calling me selfish, until we both turned opposite ways and fell back asleep.

“Oh, maybe,” I say.

“Well, I'm sure he will,” Katy says. “I have a second sense about these things.”

Katy leaves and I open the Facebook App in my phone. I’ve had a profile online since college but don’t really post much anymore. I mainly use it to stalk people from my past and see what everyone is up to. There’s a guy I went to elementary school with, Zak Davidson, who was my first real crush. I remember how he sucked on the Great White Shark ice pops and how his head was shaped like a big beautiful egg. I once asked him if he wanted to kiss me in first grade. He said kissing was gross and ran away, but years later and thousands of miles apart, he accepted my friend request. I scroll through pictures of his latest trip to the Cayman Islands. He’s always with his family, never a girlfriend, and I imagine myself with him on the island snorkeling and drinking Mai Tais.

Students begin to arrive just minutes before the starting bell. They convene among each other and I slip my phone into my blazer pocket. I walk around the room and hand out the papers I’ve copied. The kids don’t bother to make eye contact with me or say “thank you.” They don’t ask me about my weekend and I think maybe it’s better this way. They don’t know about Lanny or my life outside of school, really. I had wanted to be one of those teachers who beamed into the room and captivated her students with charisma and knowledge, but I soon realized how impossible it was. I thought maybe I should just show up, do the work, and go home; be a cog in the wheel. But a part of me still wanted to connect with them, to get them to feel something, to realize that high school was a temporary place but their contribution to the world could, would, last forever. And then I thought, Who was I kidding?

I make my way back to my desk and turn on the TV for the morning news announcements. It’s usually a bunch of bullshit; self-important kids who want to mess around each morning making dumb announcements about school dances and themed dress-up days for Homecoming. Things I probably cared about when I was that age, but now I couldn’t care less. The students stand at the end of the program for the Pledge of Allegiance and I sit, defiantly. On the first day I’d asked them if they knew what they were standing for, putting their hands over their hearts, swearing an oath to God, what for? They had no answer and I told them in my room the Pledge would be optional, but they all stand and do it anyway out of habit.

*

Lanny’s got his headset on and is on the phone when I get home. I stopped at the grocery store and bought boneless, skinless chicken breasts that I’ll slather in premade BBQ sauce and throw in the oven for a half hour with some shredded cheese. He’s always fine with things like that, things that come together easily and in one pan. He catches my eye and sees me fumbling with the bags. He lifts up his arms like he’s holding two invisible pizzas and then points to his headset, signaling he can’t get off the call, it’s important. I change into my after-school-and-finally-home outfit of old raggedy shorts and a big t-shirt and my glasses and get started with dinner. Lanny closes the door to his office and I'm grateful we live in the two-bedroom for this reason, that he can separate himself from me when he needs to. It’d be a nightmare if we only had one room.

I’d met Lanny when we both studied creative writing in graduate school, a school that we can see from our apartment’s balcony. He’d been living in the same apartment with a friend who moved out to live with his girlfriend. It had been a time of everyone moving out to further their romantic relationships, and so Lanny must have felt the pressure of inviting me to take over for half of the lease, which still remained in his name. I Venmo’d him half the rent each month with a cute little emoji of a swan or a bucket of popcorn or something dumb to try and show passive aggressively that I wished things were different. I wished Lanny could front all the money for our bills. I wished I didn't have to work at a high school where I swore I’d never work. I wanted to see the world and travel and write. I wanted a big life, not the small life I had in the city whose name literally translated to “The Mouth of the Rat.”

Lanny had treated me well, though. He had been there when my workshop pieces got reamed by the other participants. He’d driven me home from too-late nights spent at the local dive bar after our night classes. He’d helped me with my syllabus for my first class as a teaching assistant. He’d shared his textbooks with me, edited my papers, that kind of thing. He’d also been there when my older brother was struggling with drinking and my parents had to forcibly put him in rehab. Lanny’s dad was an alcoholic and he started taking me to these meetings where people stood in front of the room and told stories about their families; how their parents stole money from them to drink, how their kids ran away from home and slept in bus stations, how their husbands and wives blacked out every night and sometimes most of the days too. Lanny’s dad lived in Croatia now and had left his mom to become an evangelical pastor. Lanny’s mom was sweet though and kept to herself. She was a teacher too, so we had that in common.

I end up eating dinner alone and making Lanny a plate he can warm up later. As I eat my chicken, I look at pictures of Zak Davidson online. On a whim, I message him, “Hey, it’s Annie. do you remember me?” Lanny walks out to the living room and turns on the TV. I turn my phone off and push most of the sauce off of my chicken so it creates a stagnant puddle on the side of my plate. Lanny doesn’t bother to microwave his dinner and starts eating while watching football.

“Sorry about that,” he says, referring to the long work call. “This chicken is great!”

*

I like to physically go inside the Starbucks every morning instead of doing the drive-thru. I like for people to know I'm doing something with my life, that I need coffee because I have something to go do, somewhere to be. I head inside and wait my turn in line. I order the same caramel macchiato, a drink I had regularly in grad school because it was sweet and caffeinated and never lost flavor no matter how many times I microwaved it. I stand off to the side and wait for my name to be called and collect my drink.

“That’s a nice dress,” a man says to me and I turn to see he’s wearing sunglasses inside. I'm wearing a black peplum dress with pink and orange flowers and black pumps. I'm not sure if the shoes quite match, but they’re the only heels I own and dressing in the dark isn’t easy. I’d woken up with an itch to dress up today, a feeling that maybe changing my wardrobe would change my attitude, or something. The man is balding a bit, but looks to be no older than forty-five. He’s wearing a suit and sitting down in a chair with a side table and an empty chair next to him. He motions for me to come sit down with him.

“Thanks, but I have to get to work,” I say.

“What do you do?” he asks.

“I'm a teacher,” I say, and “Annie” is called, my drink is ready. I swipe it from the counter and smile at the man before I walk toward the door.

“Come on, Annie, just talk to me for five minutes,” he says and I stop. I know he’s hitting on me, that he wants something from me that I'm not going to be able to offer him, but it feels bad to be rude to someone who complimented me. I turn to face him and notice a big, blue Alcoholics Anonymous book underneath his open cup of coffee. I look at the time on my phone, which I am now balancing underneath my hot drink. I have plenty of time to make it to school. I sit down in the open chair and put my bag on the floor.

“A lady should never put her nice bag on the floor,” he says.

“It’s just a shitty old tote, it’s fine,” I say.

“Hey, watch the language,” he says and motions to the high school kids in their prep school uniforms ordering iced lattes and twirling their enormous car key rings around their fingers, annoyed, waiting for their lives to be over.

“I'm Roger,” he says and takes off his sunglasses. He has light blue eyes, aquamarine. I remember my best friend growing up had earrings that color because it was her birthstone. I always disliked my own birthstone, ruby, and never owned any jewelry to promote my birth month.

“And you’re Annie,” Roger says, “with the caramel macchiato!”

“Yes, that's me. So, what do you do, Roger?” I ask, wondering if he works, if he’s rich, why he gets to hang out at Starbucks while I have to go to work.

“I'm sort of in between things, but that’s why I come here every day, to market myself, to network, to see what’s up, you know?”

He catches me eyeing the big, blue book.

“… There’s also a meeting I go to around here,” Roger shrugs.

“My brother is in AA,” I tell him.

“Well, you’ve gone and broken our first rule then,” he laughs.

“No,” I say. “I haven’t told you his name.”

“Smart girl. What do you teach?”

“Advanced Placement English Language and Composition.”

“Wow! Very smart girl. Do you see yourself always teaching as a career?”

“I hope not. I really just want to write.”

“Oh, I think I’d have a book you’d love. I’ll bring it for you tomorrow if you’ll promise me to come here again and have coffee with me. I’ll buy.”

“I do have to get to work, but it was nice meeting you. Good luck with your… networking.”

“Annie, I mean it. Come back tomorrow and I’ll have that book for you.”

I walk out of Starbucks and feel a pang of nausea. I hadn’t said anything to Roger about Lanny. I didn't give Roger my number, but it still feels like a trespass. I wonder if I told Roger too much, gave out too much information too soon about my brother, my job, to essentially a stranger. But I wanted to tell him even more because I knew he would listen to me, maybe even say something back, something helpful. I text Lanny to have a nice day, but he doesn’t respond until hours later. His only response is an emoji of a giraffe, and I'm not sure what it means.

*

“The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg represent the eyes of God,” I say to my class. I'm in my third period room, which is meant to be a science lab, and the kids sit at tables of four on stools instead of desks. The board is cluttered with a lab assignment for the week, so I'm using the projector and showing a PowerPoint. The lights are dimmed and I walk while I talk, my feet burning in my shoes.

“God is always watching over the characters, judging society as a moral wasteland. Gatsby is, in a way, his own God. Same with Daisy, and Nick Carraway is just another man, looking for a master…”

“Wait, what eyes?” a student asks without raising her hand.

“The eyes on the billboard,” another student says back. He looks annoyed and I sort of appreciate his protectiveness over me. “What are you, an idiot?”

“Oh my God!” the girl shrieks. “You can't say that to me!”

“Well, it's like,” the student says. “Pay attention. Just, do the reading, or whatever.”

“I did read!” the girl shouts. “I just forgot about the eyes.”

“Class,” I say and a headache starts to build. I know I need to diffuse the situation, but by some grace, the bell rings and everyone exits. I log out of the system and pack up my bags. The male student has lagged behind.

“Am I in trouble?” he says, and I can’t for the life of me remember if his name is Johnny or David or Henry.

“No,” I say, “It’s freedom of speech. But, probably not the kindest thing to say,” and he leaves confused, but I imagine, relieved.

*

I'm grading papers in my free period when Megan, one of my students from fifth hour, knocks on the glass window to the teacher’s lounge. Students are only allowed in if they are invited, and I move to the door and let her in. I know her well because she always arrives to class early and makes it a point to ask me how I'm doing. I never have any exciting things to say, but it’s usually just a segue for her to talk about herself, which is fine. She has a boyfriend who doesn’t go to our school, but she’s Christian and her parents are very strict about the time they spend together. His name is Hector and he’s very “fast,” but he loves her, deeply. They met on an app called Snapchat that Megan had to explain and show me how to use afterwards. She loves him, and I don't really see what the problem is, but she is always in the throes of an internal crisis. She has not turned in any of her work, but she promises to make it up soon.

“Do you have some assignments for me?” I ask, motioning to the stack I'm currently grading, which happens to be from her period’s work.

“Hector wants me to lie to my parents so I can go to his house and sleep over,” Megan says. She wears baggy jeans and has rubber bracelets in a crisscross pattern all up both her arms.

“My mom let me have co-ed sleepovers in high school, but I think it was because she wanted to be my friend more than my parent.” I always hope that Megan’s obvious reverence for me is enough reason for her not to share anything we speak about in private.

“Lucky. We’re not going to, like, do anything, but it would just be nice to cuddle…”

“You can’t go over there if you think all he wants is to cuddle. You guys are teenagers. But if you love him, do what you think is right.”

“Do you love Leonard?” Megan asks, and I pause but then realize I’ve told her about him for some reason.

“There is love between us, yes.”

“I can’t wait to grow up and be like you.”

I want to tell Megan how depressing being an adult can be, but that the depression I had in high school was way more overwhelming than the depression I have now, which is more of a constant malaise. I look forward to days off, to seeing movies, to trying new restaurants. But nothing is really new anymore. Everything has been done.

“I liked what you said about the eyes today,” Megan says. “It was comforting, knowing we’re not alone.”

“The eyes are judging though. They are the universal arbiter we all fear.”

“In perfect love there is no fear,” Megan says, and I give her a dollar and tell her to go get a slice of pizza and have a nice day.

*

I resolve to not speak to Roger the next day. But when I see him the next day at Starbucks, I walk towards him. He sticks to his promise and buys me my caramel macchiato. I had trouble deciding what to wear, more trouble than usual, and had decided on a simple silk skirt and a sweater. It was too hot for the outfit, but I wanted to look less sexual. Roger tells me he has fifteen years sober and I tell him about my brother, about Lanny, about my parents who I no longer speak to because of how they enable my brother, about how I hate my job, about everything. It pours out of me and I feel better after, but there’s still a twinge of regret, the feeling I might be cheating somehow. When it’s time to go, Roger gives me a huge workbook with the title Codependent No More.. “Ignore my writing in it,” he says, “but I think you’ll really enjoy it.”

I put the book in my trunk and leave it there for a week, as if letting it rest will somehow erase the guilt I feel of having it. Also, I'm hiding it from Lanny.

*

That night, I dream I'm inside of a burning building. It appears to be the campus where Lanny and I attended grad school. The building is on fire and collapsing but when I run through the halls to warn everyone, no one believes me. I can’t find Lanny, and only run into my thesis chair who finally recognizes me and guides me to the window and tells me to jump. The city outside looks unfamiliar and I ask her if everything will be okay. “God no,” she says, and I wake up. Lanny isn’t in bed. I can see light coming from under the bedroom door and know he must be up late working. I grab for my phone on the nightstand and see that Zak Davidson has responded to my message with one word, “no.”

*

Jessica, the poetry teacher, is sobbing in the teacher’s lounge after lunch. Some of the other female teachers surround her in a circle, including Katy. From what I gather, her long-term boyfriend has broken up with her. Her eyeliner is running down her face and I wonder if she’ll quit and I can take her position.

“Did he give you a good reason?” Katy asks, holding her tumbler in one hand and rubbing Jessica’s back with the other. All the women are in animal print blouses except for Jessica who wears a black crew neck sweatshirt and leggings. She looks so small, like she could be a student.

“He just said it wasn’t working anymore,” Jessica says. “He doesn’t love me anymore.”

“What an idiot,” Katy says. “He’ll be crawling back in a week!”

“I don't know what we’re going to do about Rascal and Bandit.”

“I'm sorry?” another woman asks.

“Our cats,” Jessica explains. “We got them together when we were in college. It’s all a mess!”

Jessica calms down a bit and begins packing up her things. I feel weird that I haven’t said anything to her, so I walk over and try to be comforting.

“Do you need help with anything?” I ask.

“Do you think you could cover my fourth hour? You’ve got a grading hour then, right?”

“Sure. Just give me the room number and I’ll be there,” I smile. Jessica fishes in her bag and hands me a folder with a hodgepodge of papers inside.

“You’re so lucky,” she says and blots her eyes with a tissue. “Your classes actually help these kids, while I'm here just reading them poetry and who knows what they even retain.”

“I hope you feel better,” I say and Jessica exits into the afternoon heat.

We’ve got ten minutes until class starts, so I grab the poem on top of the pile and make copies. It turns out to be a poem I’ve never read before, William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” I figure it might have been something assigned in a poetry workshop in grad school that I just never read or took the time to care about. I hurry to Jessica’s room, which is her very own room decorated with famous Edgar Allen Poe lines and cut-outs of famous poet’s heads. A stuffed little black raven rests on her desk. The class files in and I explain that I’ll be subbing today. None of the kids know who I am.

I have students play a game called “popcorn” where they read the poem until they get tired, so they shift their lines to another student by saying “popcorn” and the student’s name. It’s a game about paying attention and following along. I listen to them read the poem and try to make sense of it myself so I can be ready for discussion.

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, popcorn, Nina!”

“…A robin red breast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage, popcorn, Steven!”

“…Every night and every morn, some to misery are born, popcorn, Gary!”

“…God appears and God is light…”

The students finish the poem and we have a discussion about the themes, the symbolism, the message. One student brings up an interesting idea of the poem as an omen, a sign of what will happen in the future. The minutes on the clock pass by too quickly and before I know it, the bell rings. But no one rushes out. No one had started packing, the zip of zippers zipping prematurely, the legs moving to one side of the desk to anticipate an exit. Instead, they rise slowly and thank me for the class.

I pack up my things and leave the room, almost forgetting the room wasn’t my own.

*

At home, Lanny is working on creating a website for a client, so I sneak to my car and get the workbook from my trunk. I start reading a little bit each night and hiding it under the bed. The book is all about how to overcome codependency with exercises, mind maps, and longwinded readings. I find it insulting that Roger would think I’d enjoy such a book, that he assumes I'm codependent, that from only one time of meeting me I’d need such a book in my life to guide me, help me to find my path to a free life, free from the chains of whatever he thought I was chained to.

As I push the book under my side of the bed, I drop my cell phone and move to the floor to pick it up. The phone’s screen illuminates and I see a small red box underneath Lanny’s side of the bed. I check to see if he’s still working and he is, so I crawl around to the other side and pick up the box. I know before I open it that it’s a ring, but when I pry the box open to reveal an oval shaped diamond on a gold band, I lose my breath. I wonder how long it’s been there, when he plans on asking, and a small part of me questions if it’s really for me, if I'm the one he’ll be asking. But yes, it’s for me. I'm his girlfriend. I live here.

*

“I want my book back,” Roger says the next morning at Starbucks. “It was a mistake to give it to you. I need it back now.”

“I'm sorry. I didn't bring it with me. It’s at home. I can bring it tomorrow.”

“I need it right now. Go home and bring it back. Now.”

“Roger, I have to go to work.”

“Don’t ever say my name again.” “What the fuck?”

“My wife and I are getting back together. Just bring the book back and you’ll never see me again.”

*

I find myself walking to Gerald’s room. I knock and he motions for me to enter. His jacket is on the back of his chair and I smell the coffee brewing, sharp and nutty.

“Well, well, well,” Gerald says and smiles. “What brings you in?”

“You were right,” I say. “Starbucks is shit. Could I have a cup of coffee?”

“I knew this day would come. Why are women always chasing after the wrong men? Why, why, why? But then, they always see clearly in the end…”

“Gerald?”

“I knew it wasn’t working with your boyfriend,” Gerald starts.

“Gerald, that’s not why I'm here. I genuinely just wanted some coffee.”

“Come on, Annie. You want this too. I know you do.” Gerald has been slowly moving towards me this whole time and is now only a foot away.

“Lanny is going to ask me to marry him,” I blurt out. “He has a ring.”

“Oh,” Gerald says and backs away. “Congratulations then, I suppose.”

“Listen, I don't know why I'm here. I want coffee, but I don't know if I want to get married. I have no idea what I want. I read this book and it talked about having unconditional positive regard for myself, and I don't have that. See, I hate myself. It’s just negative thoughts, spiraling, all the fucking time. I have no idea how to be or what to do. I don't even like working here. I hate this job. I'm a writer. This is just a big joke. I feel like I need to snap my fingers or something. Gerald, can you please just…tell me what’s wrong with me?”

“Why are you asking me this?” Gerald says raising his voice now. “Why don’t you just go and ask your fiancé?” I leave without coffee.

*

When I take out the trash that night, I put the codependency workbook inside too. Back in the apartment, I start to feel a pain in my chest. It’s a tightness hovering over my heart, and I panic. I call Lanny into the bedroom and tell him what’s wrong. He leaves and comes back with a glass of milk, tells me to drink it down in one gulp. I do what he says. He leans down beside me in bed, gently takes the phone from my hand and shuts it off, places it down.

“I used to get those kinds of pains all the time as a kid,” Lanny says and takes my hand, rubs it. The pain starts to dissipate and I imagine it like little red arrows moving down and away from my heart.

“…and my mom always gave me a glass of milk…”

“I think it’s working,” I say. “Annie, you know I love you, right? I just…I fall short, you know? I'm not perfect, but I love you, I love our life. I don’t want anyone else.”

I'm suddenly tired. Lanny senses it, kisses my forehead and shuts the light. I fall asleep and dream that I am naked swimming in a river. I am moving my arms and legs in ways I didn't know possible, my body free and liquid-like. I swim and swim and notice a waterfall ahead. I turn around and try to swim back against the current. I become aware that there are people watching from the side of the river and they point at me but don't dive in to help. I know I won’t make it, but I swim anyway, as hard and as fast as I can.

*

I take some of Lanny’s terrible coffee in a tumbler with our grad school’s logo on it to work. When I sign into the school computer, I have an email from the head of my department notifying me that Jessica did in fact quit and they want to know if I’ll take over her classes. I'm the only other person on staff with a creative writing degree. They say they can easily replace my AP classes, or get a sub for the time being. I accept the offer and will take my new spot on Monday. It’s a Friday and there’s another email about an assembly today, something about anti-bullying. It’ll take place in first period, right after the bell.

I walk my kids over to the auditorium and let them sit wherever they want. Some teachers make their students sit in adjacent rows, but I just let them go, tell them to enjoy. I see Megan with some other students preparing to sing for the choir. I had no idea she was even a part of the choir. She waves at me and I wave back.

There are so many moments that you want to give up and walk out of the room, that you want to scream, cry, make yourself seen and heard. But these moments pass and you find yourself walking down the halls again, returning to your car at the end of the day, printing papers, making copies, talking to the people who you curse in your head. Sometimes they surprise you; mostly they are disappointing. But they are your people, and you must learn to get along, somehow.

The choir opens up the assembly with a song the director has made a big deal about because she wrote it herself. It’s called “On Eagles Wings,” since our school’s mascot is an eagle. “As we fly on eagles wings, we fly so high, straight and true…” the choir sings.

For a moment, I am moved by their voices, the way the sound floats up and around the auditorium, how everyone is listening to them, or pretending to listen, but how we all feel the vibration of each note they sing. I get a chill and cross my arms. I rub them slowly as if someone else is doing it, comforting me, holding me tight.



Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. She has led workshops for UCLA’s Extension program, Catapult, HerStry, Write or Die Tribe, and forthcoming for Lighthouse Writers. She currently teaches writing at Vanderbilt University in the English Department. She is a 2x Pushcart Prize Nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.