It’s Valentine’s Day. My desk holds various gifts waiting to be given, a bouquet with a peacock feather wrapped in a plastic package and heart-shaped box of chocolate with surprise middles, but then Ray walks in with the giant stuffed bear he wants to give his new girl later after school. Massive, covering his face when he holds it in front of his body. I ask him how much the bear cost. Forty-three, he tells me, at Duane Reade, would have been 21 if he had a discount card. Why didn’t you just ask for the store card? I say, and he ignores me. He heads straight for the back closet that has a lock. It’s clean? He asks. Yes, I assure him. It sort of is. Just last week, I got tired of the roaches crawling over kids worksheets during lessons, the way they’d jump up and everyone would scoot their chairs and we would all turn into a team with a common enemy, so I emptied every part of the classroom, including the closet. Madeleine stayed through her global class and helped as I emptied it and mopped the floors. She took each roll of chart paper and banged it in a thud against the floor: look miss, those are the eggs, she pointed, and I knew she had experience. This is it, we got it, Miss, and after we threw out the chart paper in industrial size clear garbage bags, we tied them tight at the tops and watched the eggs cling to the plastic as we threw it all out into the hall.
Still, Ray is right to be reluctant to place his 4-foot teddy bear on the bare ground. It’s fine, I tell him. It’s probably been worse places already. Just like his heart. I know the girl he gives that bear to will put it down somewhere too, maybe in her house, maybe in the corner of her room beneath the LED lights, maybe out front with the plastic bins of trash. Ray, always finding more to give, Ray who had to go to court on his birthday, what a day to spend my birthday, he’d said, as we sat around in circle time the day before. And I really just don’t want to see my mom. We spent his birthday without him, drawing our names and little bubble-letter notes on a folded piece of yellow construction paper, “You’re the best” and “We love you” And “Thanks for being my day one, brotha” and he smiled halfway as we handed to him when he returned.
Ray would have held that bear all day, just he like he holds everything else, but for a second I feel so grateful that he trusted a place of mine to put it down. A place inside a closet that hasn’t seen a roach in days. Maybe. It’s fine, I tell him, because even if the roaches get the bear, will we know? I’ll be sure to bang my feet so that they scatter before we unlock the closet and pull it out at 3pm, before he takes it to the girl we’ll never meet, before she pulls it from his hand or maybe stares at him wondering what she’s going to do with something so big and so exposed, the way we all sort of look at Ray when he tells us everything all that’s going on with his mom and siblings, and the houses he wants to buy and fix and sell, and the football team in Jersey that he keeps swearing is recruiting him, and his uncle’s place in Florida he’s trying to live.
This is Valentines Day here in Brooklyn: kids hiding massive bears, carrying around balloons and bags and chocolates that will melt by heaters and get thrown away. Some gifts that never make it out of closet bottoms or bags. When I look, I don’t see the candy or the stuffed animals, I see arms and hands and mouths reaching for love. I feel so far past that stage of my life now, the wanting. But how can I not remember: when love used to hang from somewhere above and we grabbed and jumped for it, so illusory, we just wanted a touch, a taste, we bashed at the air like a piñata that might spill out a reciprocated feeling, because only then could life really start.
I know when I get home, I may have a card waiting for me. There may a be a rose laying in plastic on its side, a blue rubber band strangling its stem. Whatever I find, even it’s nothing, I won’t mind, I’ll know that none of it matters. Years ago, I reached that piñata and held on with both hands. I swung from it until it fell by the rope from a ceiling and it split open, until warm skin and I love you’s and cackles and cum spilled out all over my life, when my husband was just a boyfriend with hair that looked so dark and fierce beneath my fingernails, when I pulled him so close that I thought our bodies could maybe overlap and smash our outlines together into one. But time—it does its thing. Now that we’ve been peeled apart, there are still parts of me still stuck in him, parts of him still stuck in me, and we’ve taken what we need from each other, enough to last us without Valentines gifts, big 43$ bears, without fingers hanging on to locks of each other’s hair, and at least there are no roaches to scatter, maybe that’s more than enough to sustain us even when we finally decide to walk away. A love like that: that fades and settles so quietly you could miss its vanishing, I can’t decide if that is what I wish for all my students, if that is what I wish for Ray.
© Emily James
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Emily’s interview]