On my break I strolled around the block, admiring the trees which lined the streets. They had burst into pinks and whites over the weekend, making the city smell like spring. They must be especially stalwart trees, I thought, to bloom so abundantly amid the concrete, asphalt, and exhaust fumes. The very idea of them was intoxicating.
At the last possible instant I saw and dodged a blond, pant-suited, high-heeled woman as she hurried in the other direction. Her eyes were glued to her smart phone. I kept walking but turned my head, seeking any sign that she’d noticed the near miss her large coffee and possibly her phone screen had just survived. It was pointless to snarl; she was already several yards behind me and moving fast. At least I wasn’t wearing her coffee.
Maybe she was watching premarket trades. I did, when I dressed like her for work. The markets would open in an hour. How many stockbrokers worked in these glass towers? How many lawyers and accountants?
The blow to the side of my head stopped me in my tracks. The temporary “ROAD WORK” sign hadn’t been there earlier. It was metal, but my skull hit it with a dull thud, not a clang, and I felt like a clapper.
What would you say if you were standing at the front door of a nice guy you just met, and it was 6 a.m. and still dark, and you were delivering fresh baked goods he wasn’t expecting, but you hadn’t rung his doorbell yet because you hadn’t figured out what to say, and he opened the door and found you there?
I said, “Here. I made muffins,” and held out a paper bag with two large muffins. They were fresh from the oven.
He took it, smiling faintly. His eyebrows were all the way up to where his hairline might once have been. Now he had no hairline. But he could have looked quite a lot worse. If he’d had an oversized mustache, and little tufts of fur protruding from his ears and nose, he’d have looked like Mr. Nixon, my middle school principal.
That’s what I had thought at the Christmas Eve party, 34 hours earlier. Now I could hardly think at all.
We were camping. My neighbor Joe and I didn’t want to be camping – that night or ever, really – but our ten-year-old sons begged and pleaded and even did extra chores, so we had to take them camping.
Overnight. In the mountains. Sleeping in tents. But not really sleeping. Trying to sleep.
It wasn’t all bad. The moonless night was warm and clear, and the thick blanket of stars we saw above us between the treetops was amazing. But for me – apart from the disorientation of being off the grid, with no Internet and no cell service – it was all about the fire.
The fire kept the animals away, or so I supposed – bears, coyotes, whatever. Somebody said there weren’t any wolves, but there were bobcats and mountain lions here and there. Eventually we’d have to put the fire out. I was more than nervous about that, but only a little afraid.
Joe was a different matter altogether. He was paranoid, neurotic – not in a clinical sense, perhaps, but not in a particularly manly sense either. Park him in front of a computer or hand him a golf club or make him give a speech in front of 5,000 people, and he was right at home. Take him into the mountains or onto a body of water, and he turned to pudding. Not one of your quieter puddings.
When Mr. Bingham asked, “Why did Nixon go to China?” I kept a straight face and raised my hand.
He nodded to me. “Ms. Morgenstern?”
“To make American Chinese food great again?”
Others laughed, but he didn’t. “After class, please. Now, serious answer, anyone?”
I raised my hand. When no one else did, he nodded to me again.
“Why am I in trouble, but Mark isn’t? His jokes haven’t even been funny lately.”
I knew the reason. Mark Williams was the teacher’s pet.
Morons hooted behind me. Bingham pursed his lips. “Everyone, Monday will now feature a quiz. Fifty words on the significance of Nixon in China.”