My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in the mornings. One nun always dusted the toilet seat with talcum powder. Another nun plugged the sink and filled it with water. I never understood the nuns. One was old and the other was young. The young one talked to me sometimes, asked me what I would do for the long weekend, if I’d see my folks over Christmas, and so forth. The old one looked the other way and twisted her robes in her fists when she saw me coming.
My classroom was the school’s old library. It was a messy old library room, with books and magazines splayed out all over the place and a whistling radiator and big fogged-up windows overlooking Sixth Street. I put two student desks together to make up my desk at the front of the room, next to the chalkboard. I kept a down-filled sleeping bag in a cardboard box in the back of the room and covered the sleeping bag with old newspapers. Between classes I took the sleeping bag out, locked the door, and napped until the bell rang. I was usually still drunk from the night before. Sometimes I had a drink at lunch at the Indian restaurant around the corner, just to keep me going—sharp wheat ale in a squat, brown bottle. McSorley’s was there but I didn’t like all that nostalgia. That bar made me roll my eyes. I rarely made my way down to the school cafeteria, but when I did, the principal, Mr. Kishka, would stop me and smile broadly and say, “Here she comes, the vegetarian.” I don’t know why he thought I was a vegetarian. What I took from the cafeteria were prepackaged digits of cheese, chicken nuggets, and greasy dinner rolls.
I had one student, Angelika, who came and ate her lunch with me in my classroom.
“Miss Mooney,” she called me. “I’m having a problem with my mother.”
She was one of two girlfriends I had. We talked and talked. I told her that you couldn’t get fat from being ejaculated into.
“Wrong, Miss Mooney. The stuff makes you thick in the middle. That’s why girls get so thick in the middle. They’re sluts.”
She had a boyfriend she visited in prison every weekend. Each Monday was a new story about his lawyers, how much she loved him, and so forth. She always had the same face on. It was like she already knew all the answers to her questions.
I had another student who drove me crazy. Popliasti. He was a wiry, blond, acned sophomore with a heavy accent. “Miss Mooney,” he’d say, standing up at his desk. “Let me help you with the problem.” He’d take the chalk out of my hand and draw a picture of a cock-and-balls on the board. This cock-and-balls became a kind of insignia for the class. It appeared on all their homework, on exams, etched into every desk. I didn’t mind it. It made me laugh. But Popliasti and his incessant interruptions, a few times I lost my cool.
“I cannot teach you if you act like animals!” I screamed.
“We cannot learn if you are crazy like this, screaming, with your hair messy,” said Popliasti, running around the room, flipping books off window ledges. I could have done without him.
But my seniors were all very respectful. I was in charge of preparing them for the SAT. They came to me with legitimate questions about math and vocabulary, which I had a hard time answering. A few times in calculus, I admitted defeat and spent the hour jabbering on about my life.
“Most people have had anal sex,” I told them. “Don’t look so surprised.”
And, “My boyfriend and I don’t use condoms. That’s what happens when you trust somebody.”
Something about that old library room made Principal Kishka keep his distance. I think he knew if he ever set foot in there, he’d be in charge of cleaning it up and getting rid of me. Most of the books were useless mismatched sets of outdated encyclopedias, Ukrainian bibles, Nancy Drew. I even found some girlie magazines, under an old map of Soviet Russia folded up in a drawer marked SISTER KOSZINSKA. One good thing I found was an old encyclopedia of worms. It was a coverless, fist-thick volume of brittle paper chipped at the corners. I tried to read it between classes when I couldn’t sleep. I tucked it into the sleeping bag with me, plied open the binding, let my eyes roll over the small, musty print. Each entry was more unbelievable than the last. There were roundworms and horseshoe worms and worms with two heads and worms with teeth like diamonds and worms as large as house cats, worms that sang like crickets or could disguise themselves as small stones or lilies or could stretch their jaws to accommodate a human baby. What is this trash they’re feeding children these days, I thought. I slept and got up and taught algebra and went back into the sleeping bag. I zipped it up over my head. I burrowed deep down and pinched my eyes closed. My head throbbed and my mouth felt like wet paper towels. When the bell rang, I got out and there was Angelika with her brown-bag lunch saying, “Miss Mooney, there’s something in my eye and that’s why I’m crying.”
“Okay,” I said. “Close the door.”
The floor was black-and-piss-colored checkerboard linoleum. The walls were shiny, cracking, piss-colored walls.
I had a boyfrIend who was still in college. He wore the same clothes every single day: a blue pair of Dickies and a paper-thin button-down. The shirt was western style with opalescent snaps. You could see his chest hair and nipples through it. I didn’t say anything. He had a nice face, but fat ankles and a soft, wrinkly neck. “Lots of girls at school want to date me,” he said often. He was studying to be a photographer, which I didn’t take seriously at all. I figured he would work in an office after he graduated, would be grateful to have a real job like that, would feel happy and boastful to be employed, a bank account in his name, a suit in his closet, et cetera, et cetera. He was sweet. One time his mother came to visit from South Carolina. He introduced me as his “friend who lives downtown.” The mother was horrible. A tall blonde with fake boobs.
“What do you use on your face at night?” is what she asked me when the boyfriend went to the toilet.
I was thirty. I had an ex-husband. I got alimony and had decent health insurance through the Archdiocese of New York. My parents, upstate, sent me care packages full of postage stamps and decaffeinated teas. I called my ex-husband when I was drunk and complained about my job, my apartment, the boyfriend, my students, anything that came to mind. He was remarried already, in Chicago. He did something with law. I never understood his job, and he never explained anything to me.
The boyfriend came and went on weekends. Together we drank wine and whiskey, romantic things I liked. He could handle it. He looked the other way, I guess. But he was one of those idiots about cigarettes.
“How can you smoke like that?” he’d say. “Your mouth tastes like Canadian bacon.”
“Ha ha,” I said from my side of the bed. I went under the sheets. Half my clothes, books, unopened mail, cups, ashtrays, half my life was stuffed between the mattress and the wall.
“Tell me all about your week,” I said to the boyfriend.
“Well Monday I woke up at eleven-thirty A. M.,” he’d start. He could go on all day. He was from Chattanooga. He had a nice, soft voice. It had a nice sound to it, like an old radio. I got up and filled a mug with wine and sat on the bed.
“The line at the grocery store was average,” he was saying.
Later: “But I don’t like Lacan. When people are so incoherent, it means they’re arrogant.”
“Lazy,” I said.
By the time he was done talking we could go out for dinner. We could get drinks. All I had to do was walk around and sit down and tell him what to order. He took care of me that way. He rarely poked his head into my private life. When he did, I turned into an emotional woman.
“Why don’t you quit your job?” he asked. “You can afford it.”
“Because I love those kids, I answered. My eyes welled up with tears. “They’re all such beautiful people. I just love them.” I was drunk.
I bought all my beer from the bodega on the corner of East Tenth and First Avenue. The Egyptians who worked there were all very handsome and complimentary. They gave me free candy—individually wrapped Twizzlers, Pop Rocks. They dropped them into the paper bag and winked. I’d buy two or three forties and a pack of cigarettes on my way home from school each afternoon and go to bed and watch Married… with Children and Sally Jessy Raphael on my small black-and-white television, drink and smoke and snooze. When it got dark I’d go out again for more forties and, on occasion, food. Around ten P. M. I’d switch to vodka and would pretend to better myself with a book or some kind of music, as though God were checking up on me.
“All good here,” I pretended to say. “Just bettering myself, as always.”
Or sometimes I went to this one bar on Avenue A. I tried to order drinks that I didn’t like so that I would drink them slower. I’d order gin and tonic or gin and soda or a gin martini or Guinness. I’d told the bartender—an old Polish lady—at the beginning, “I don’t like talking while I drink, so I may not talk to you.”
“Okay,” she’d said. “No problem.” She was very respectful.
Every year, the kids had to take a big exam that let the state know just how badly I was at doing my job. The exams were designed for failure. Even I couldn’t pass them.
The other math teacher was a little Filipina who I knew made less money than me for doing the same job and lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Spanish Harlem with three kids and no husband. She had some kind of respiratory disease and a big mole on her nose and wore her blouses buttoned to the throat with ridiculous bows and brooches and lavish plastic pearl necklaces. She was a very devout Catholic. The kids made fun of her for that. They called her the “little Chinese lady.” She was a much better math teacher than me, but she had an unfair advantage. She took all the students who were good at math, all the kids who back in the Ukraine had been beaten with sticks and made to learn their multiplication tables, decimal places, exponents, all the tricks of the trade. Whenever anyone talked about the Ukraine, I pictured either a stark, gray forest full of howling black wolves or a trashy bar on a highway full of tired male prostitutes.
My students were all horrible at math. I got stuck with the dummies. Popliasti, worst of all, could barely add two and two. There was no way my kids could ever pass that big exam. When the day came to take the test, the Filipina and I looked at each other like, Who are we kidding? I passed out the tests, had them break the seals, showed them how to fill in the bubbles properly with the right pencils, told them, “Try your best,” and then I took the tests home and switched all their answers. No way those dummies would cost me my job.
“Outstanding!” said Mr. Kishka when the results came in. He’d wink and give me the thumbs-up and cross himself and slowly shut the door behind him.
Every year it was the same.