The Day After
It is a restless sleep, the sleep the professor sleeps once all hope seems lost. It was past midnight when he closed the three windows on his computer and made his final visit to the bathroom. Sitting, in order to minimize the sound and not wake his daughters in the room next door, he pulled his phone out of the pocket of his pajama pants, then thought better of it. He didn’t want to get sucked back in. Instead, he stared at the door, thought of what he’d tell the girls the next morning. Then he got up and skirted out of the bathroom through the darkness, headed for bed.
The next morning, he gets up to do his wind sprints as he always does, trying to find some path back to normal. Before he straps the phone to his arm to count his steps, he checks to see if some sort of miracle has happened while he was sleeping. No, he finds, his worst fears have come true. The misogynist has painted the map red.
After the workout, after an English muffin and half a chapter of an old friend’s novel about a suffragette archaeologist, he wakes his daughter to pour her breakfast and get her ready for school. When he tells her what’s happened, who has won, she sighs and says, “And we have to live with him for 4 years.” Then, after a bite of her frosted mini wheat, trying to find the sweet side of this turd in the cereal bowl that is now their life, she says, “At least 4 years is shorter than a war.”
The professor does not stop himself from saying, “Not necessarily.” Then, fearing he’s scared her, he wraps an arm around her shoulders and gives her a squeeze.
After that daughter is on the bus, it’s time to get the other one ready, but she’s not ready. Not dressed, not listening, her eyes glued to the tablet that’s playing cartoons as she sits before her own now-empty bowl of cereal. Not ready. There is a vacant smile on her face that makes her father think that maybe ignorance is bliss. He doesn’t tell her anything about what’s happened. He figures there will be time for that later, plenty of time.
At the bus stop, she stands on the rock she always stands on and begs him to spin her around. Which he does. And for a moment, he feels like maybe they’ll all be okay. His wife smiles at the scene playing out before her, happy to see (he thinks) that he’s still managing to hold back the tears. Later, before she goes to work, she will hold him in her arms and tell him to focus on what he can control, to let everything else go right now. If he can.
But he doesn’t feel in control of anything as he sits in his car, in the parking lot across the street from the school, wondering if he has the strength to face what he knows will be a classroom full of panicked faces. Panicked, at best. Probably distraught. Probably ten times more scared than he is. And with ten times more right to be. He pulls at his beard, a nervous tic he keeps meaning to quit. He catches sight of his pale skin. And then he is suddenly ashamed of his own weakness, fears he is laying claim to a terror that does not belong to him. So he gets out of the car and gets to business.
In the class, they are crying. They are holding each other, these strong young people who feel powerless this morning, who probably feel powerless more often than he realizes in this country that has just told them that they don’t matter. They slog their way through class, those who have chosen to come. And all the while, the professor cannot help but think of the others, those who he hopes are taking care of themselves somewhere else. He keeps one eye on the door, hoping the rest will at least peek through the window, the flash of each tear-stained face letting him know another of his charges is okay.
Once the business of the class is done, he tells them that he is there for them, if they need him. It feels like a pathetic gesture, but he parks his ass in the hard plastic chair and some of them stay. Some of them ask him questions. He tries his best to chase his candor with something sweeter, something as close to hope as he can muster.
“You’ve lived through more presidents than we have,” one of them says. “Has it ever been this bad before?”
He struggles for an answer to this one, then thinks of the old man who couldn’t name the disease that was killing his people. Who wouldn’t name it, wouldn’t say it out loud until it was too late. The professor thinks of the bombs he feared might come raining down from the sky at any moment when he was a child. Then he thinks of men with slicked back hair and fancy suits and wads of greenbacks pulled from back pockets. He thinks of these men with gray hair now, or none, with bellies spilling over the belts they used to cinch so tight around their washboard stomachs that all the ladies swooned. He seems them in red baseball caps, drunk on nostalgia to keep themselves warm under the shadow of the bending sickle’s compass coming to fetch them.
The students look at him expectantly, hopefully. “Never?” they say, tears welling up in their eyes again.
“No,” he says, “it’s been worse” and he hopes that he’s not lying to them. He hopes that the darkest days are long since gone. For their sake and for his daughters, and maybe even for his own.
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