by Luke Tennis
Today's lesson is on Abe Lincoln, and Ford's Theater.
"This assassin dude?" one of them asks just before lunch. "He had that big mustache?"
"That's what they did in those days," I tell him.
"It looks stupid."
"Your point being?"
The kid looks at me, then back at his desk.
I use a lot of chalk; I have a kind of slashing style in the classroom. Bits of white go flying. Nobody wants to sit in the front row.
I stride through the aisles, a tyrant in a tie. The eighth graders are tense. No note-passing is tolerated; tittering I won't allow.
My lunch is coffee and Camels. This is not bragging. I loiter outside on a gray bench. Tiny raindrops speckle my white shirt. Back inside, waiting for the bell, I pace around in the empty classroom. Out the windows, there's not a tree in sight, only the parking lot, and spring rain.
At three PM, I walk into Mr. Kozlofski's office and tell him I want out of History. Mr. Kozlofski is the principal of Mt. Curry Jr. High, and there's nothing bad I wish to say about him. He's a man with tufts of hair. He wears a shiny ring. He offers me Biology, English, Geography. I turn them all down. "I want to go somewhere," I tell him. "The island of Borneo."
"I see," he says, smiling. "I had a similar thing, back in '87."
"What did you do?"
"I went back to school to get another degree. Now I'm the principal of Mt. Curry Jr. High. You see what I'm getting at, Skip?"
"You will. Give it time."
Before I became a teacher, I was somebody else. A going- places guy. I need to get going again. Why couldn't I go to Borneo? It's a big island far away. They have bats and giant lizards, and lots of trees. It's untamed jungle out there, but I saw on TV the other night that they're starting to cut it down.
Mindy, my wife, blames the eighth graders. I admit, they are tough. The next morning, I single-file all twenty-seven of them onto the yellow bus for a field trip from Baltimore down to Washington D.C., over an hour away. Parked, I herd them up the marble steps. There sits Lincoln himself, looking stern, staring at me from his memorial; Abe, with those eyebrows, telling me to cut out the whining. "Come on, Skip, I abolished slavery. Surely you can grow up a little; you can do it," Lincoln says.
Being scolded by the great man refreshes me. The kids are wandering off. Then we get back on the bus. I feel a certain resolve. For a few days I become a stoic, but it doesn't last.
"Those little pirates," Mindy says.
"It's not the eighth graders," I tell her. "It's me."
"All right, then," she concedes. "Go see this guy. Will you do that?"
The guy, it turns out, is a therapist. "Maybe you're just not a stoic," he tells me a few days later, in his office. He has reading glasses and a no-nonsense desk, which he sits in front of. "You don't want to teach history anymore. History is limiting. You never expected to be a history teacher."
"Maybe I should have stuck with law school."
Before we were married, Mindy and I were in law school together, but I figured let her be the lawyer. I quit after two years, with only one year left. I tried to find something to throw myself into, and I became a teacher.
"Why don't you go back?"
"To law school? Mindy says I have to take responsibility."
"What do you think it means to be responsible?"
I look at my hands and the image of Lincoln in his hat comes into my head. "Being honest," I answer, "dignified. Tall."
The therapist removes his glasses with a flourish. "Was your father a tall man?"
That evening, at home, I sit in the basement, a sort of headquarters. I have books and an armchair and a trunk for my feet. I pick my world atlas up and open it and right away land on the Borneo page. True, I have it dog-eared. It gets me thinking. The problem is, I'm too deep in, like I'll never be able to leave Mt. Curry Jr. High. I'm twenty-nine and my life is starting to happen and I feel panicked.
When Mindy comes downstairs, I show her Borneo. "There," I say, as if making some point.
Mindy is not impressed. "Take out the trash, please," she says.
Six years we've been together. She claims she knew all along I'd want to quit teaching. When I don't budge, she says, "Well, then, go. I'm not stopping you. I want what's best for you. Always."
I can't outsmart her. She's so sturdy, steady, built from the ground up. She has a little bit of Abe in her, too. Brushes her teeth every night at eleven and then gets in bed. I'll be at the Sports Zone to drink beer and watch the game on the big screen; maybe at eleven I'll tell the guy on the next stool over, "My wife'll be brushing her teeth about now." One time a guy sitting next to me said, "I know what you mean."
"Maybe I will go," I tell Mindy. To show her I'm not bluffing, I leave the basement and walk upstairs and outside to the back yard. The distant traffic hums, and a few stars are out. I can't see much in the darkness. I force myself to wait, though, a good ten minutes before going back inside.
A few weeks before summer vacation, I again go out into the back yard. I'm pretending Borneo, trying to see our three sparse trees as the jungle. Mindy comes out. She moves toward me, has her hands behind her back and her head tilted shyly. We stand in the darkness. I want to go to her, to hold her, but I don't. I resist. It's Borneo. "I've got Borneo on the brain," I tell her later that night, in bed. "I wonder if this has happened to Nickie."
Nine or ten years old, I'd turn the pages of the atlas, my best friend Nickie Hammer beside me; we'd point to all the places we would one day visit. We conceived ourselves as explorers, cutting through the woods beyond my back yard; we'd play Amazon Basin or Papua New Guinea. The wicker basket for my parents keys I used as a pith helmet. Nickie, dapper in white tennis shorts and knee high socks, would lead the way. "Get away, vipers," he'd yell, sidestepping twigs and fallen branches. We'd retreat back home for snacks and to discover new jungles in my bedroom. "There," Nickie said one day, his sticky finger directing me. It was a map of Borneo, where it said UNEXPLORED TERRITORY in the center of the island.
One time in the woods, Nickie stopped and pointed up at the trees. "Did you see that?" he said. He claimed it was a monkey, a whole pack of them. He commenced to spray imaginary bullets into the branches. He knocked off a dozen or two, then he was thirsty. He said that when we were older we would explore the UNEXPLORED TERRITORY. The last I heard, he became a stockbroker in Rochester.
"Maybe Borneo is what you need," Mindy says.
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"No, Skip, I'm trying to get you back."
She's good at saying things like that, but I don't let her get away with it. "I'm right here," I tell her.
"You're as far away as ever you've been. Farther."
"Well, six years together--what do you expect?"
It's a week before school lets out, and Mindy's working on a big insurance case. As an experiment, I begin calling travel agents. A trip to Borneo would cost plenty, but Mindy says not to worry. But I am worried. The truth is--I realize, gripping the phone--I don't give a damn about being in the jungle. It's the principle, though. I call Rochester Information, but there's no listing for Nickie; maybe he's moved.
The last school day comes, and I clean out my desk. At home, I don't call any more agencies. Instead, I find an old deck of playing cards. For long mornings, whole afternoons, I sit in the basement tossing sevens and aces and fours at the floorboard. Sometimes I get a leanie, but no one is there to verify it. A couple leanies fill me with despair. I turn on the radio, my feet up, and wait for the one PM siren. When it goes off, exactly at one, it always takes me by surprise. Sometimes I think about being somewhere else, where I can't hear the one PM siren, and once I even get an urge to drive to Washington to visit the Memorial--but I open a box of Junior Mints instead.
Mindy comes downstairs, her hands on her hips. "Last summer you wanted to be a bullfighter. You don't remember?"
"I wasn't serious."
"You are now?"
In response, I flick a nine of diamonds.
Two more weeks pass, then it's the morning of my thirtieth birthday. All the cards are dealt out on the floor. I hear her walking upstairs in the kitchen. "Take out the trash, please," she calls. "I don't know why I have to tell you." When she leaves for her big insurance case, I go upstairs, but not for the trash.
It takes over two hours to make all the arrangements. Four weeks in the jungle. "I'm proud of you, Skip," Mindy says that evening, over birthday cake and champagne. "I don't care if it's Borneo or the moon. It's the initiative, the get up and go."
She has an agenda here; she's seen me holed up in the basement going on three summers in a row.
"To Borneo," she says.
Heartfelt, we clink glasses.
I can't back out after that. Over the next few days, I go to the mall to get an outfit; I read some jungle books to get into the spirit. Another six days go by. Then, on a rainy July morning, Mindy drives me to the airport.
The first scheduled stop is Detroit. Then some sixteen hours in the air, to Tokyo. The next leg, to Singapore. Two nights in the Shangri-La Hotel. A flight to Kuching on the island of Borneo, a shuttle to the office of Penan Tours, where I'm to meet a Mr. Pelu. Mr. Pelu will guide me. We'll board a longboat powered by an outboard motor to take us upriver to Kaput, to begin our trek. The sun will tear at us through the leaves. Long skinny things will dangle from the branches over the water. "Many things in the jungle," Mr. Pelu will say. "You see."
But of course I won't see, as I'm in room 403 of the Airport Marriott.
I have the provided cooler filled with ice. The first night, sports on TV, a long shower. I don't know how I'll tell Mindy. I tell myself not to think about it. Sleep doesn't come. In the morning I pay for a whole week, using up most of my travelers checks.
They have a good breakfast off the lobby, included with the room. I linger as long as possible. I miss my deck of cards. A lady, a business traveler, eyes me, but she looks away when I smile back at her.
"I'm supposed to be in Borneo," I tell someone on the elevator. It just slips out. He gets off on the next floor. I think of giving Mr. Kozlofski a call. He might know what to tell me.
Regret has laid itself upon me that first week in the Marriott. I don't call anybody, not the airline or travel agency, or Mr. Kozlofski, or Mindy. I'm incognito.
The lady business traveler is not a business traveler. She herself is holed up in the Marriott, it turns out. I see her throughout the day. Each morning at breakfast or coming back from the pool or reading a magazine in the lobby. So far we haven't spoken a word. But that first Friday I sit at her table while she goes through her morning paper. We get to talking at last. I tell her if my wife knew I wasn't in Borneo it would make her sad. I chickened out of it.
"Why did you?" the lady, who says to call her Zibby, asks.
"I couldn't get on the plane. Too many thoughts raced in my head."
Zibby gives me a puzzled look.
"I thought it would only disappoint me. My expectations were too built up."
"Oh, that sounds familiar," she says. "There's a man in Abilene, Texas, waiting to marry me."
"So is that why you're here?"
"At this hotel? No. I live here. I don't have a home. I stay in different hotels, you see. I move on when I get tired of one. The man in Abilene wants to put me in a house, though. Wants me to stay put. I prefer to live off my inheritance this way."
"Interesting." I look at her good. She's not attractive. A bit chubby. Yet her eyes have a quality. A sort of squinting intensity. "Maybe we don't want to grow up, you and I."
"It will only disappoint us."
"To chickens," I say, and we clink coffee mugs.
"I've got Mindy and you've got your man in Abilene," I tell Zibby at breakfast the next morning. "I guess we met too late."
"Of course I heard a man on the radio say it's never too late."
"Is that a fact," she says. "You are sort of cute."
"What room are you in?"
"On the fifth floor. Nice view. You ought to stop by."
Cheating on my wife was nothing I ever had in mind. It's more exciting than Borneo. Zibby is insatiable. We lay on the covers in the room on the fifth floor. Our naked bodies look fine and young to me. Zibby has curves. We each hold martini glassed filled with chilled vodka. I tell her how Abe Lincoln is right now frowning down upon me.
"Poor you," she says. "Mr. Self-pity." She sips and says, "Man-up, Skip. You should hear yourself."
"I know," I tell her.
"Of course I'm not any better, am I?"
"We don't want to die. So how can we live?"
"Is that what you're saying?"
"It just came out. Of course we can live."
I sip my drink and pour half of it onto her belly and begin to lick her. She moans the farther down I get. Later we're back against the pillows, chatting again. She says how curious that Mindy and I never had kids.
"We talked about it," I say. "But we have our careers, etcetera."
"Does she not want a baby?"
"Mindy is focused, what I love about her. She's a fighter pilot zeroing in."
"Simple," Zibby says. "Give her a new mission."
I kiss her on the cheek. "You're my Borneo," I tell her.
After the four weeks, Mindy says, "So what exactly happened to the camera?"
"I never went there to take pictures," I tell her. "I wanted to travel light. I gave it to Mr. Pelu as a gift."
"Fine, Skip. But that was no cheap camera."
"You have to take care of your guide," I assure her. "Mr. Pelu kept his promise. I saw many things in the jungle."
"Ants. Trees. Rocks."
She gives me a look I know well. Her arms folded over her chest, her mouth frowning.
"I slept in a long house with the people. They're such good people. It's a shame they're losing their forest. But I missed you the whole time."
I can't remove her frown, though. I'm quite sure Mindy knows, but she won't let on. I threw the camera away, dirtied-up my backpack, my jungle clothes. I took a taxi back from the airport and said I wanted to surprise her. She was at home waiting for me.
"Skip," she says, without finishing. A tear comes into her eye. "Hold me."
"What is it?" I say, hugging her tight.
"I never heard anything from you. I called the hotel in Singapore, but they said you never checked in."
"I stayed someplace else. That hotel was nothing I wanted."
"I called the airline. They said you never boarded."
"That's odd," I say.
"Skip, I know you never went. Where were you?"
"At the Marriott."
She releases me to take a seat. She stares hard at the carpet.
"Don't worry," I tell her. "I've made a decision."
"So have I," she says.
That sounds bad.
"Don't quit on me, Mindy," I tell her. "I never needed to get on that plane. I found something better."
"Life," I tell her.
She shakes her head. "Get out," she says. "Just go. Leave."
"All right," I say. "I can do that."
Zibby has moved on to a different hotel in South Carolina. We said our final goodbyes. I figure I can stay with my brother for the time being. In a day or two I'll go see Mr. Kozlofski. I don't know what I'll tell him. School begins in a week. Maybe I'll stay on. In the Marriott I began reading a new biography of Lincoln. He wasn't such a terrific guy after all.
"Mindy," I say. "I'm just a guy. Flaws and all. Throw me out if you want. Or own up to the truth."
"What is the truth, Skip? You seem to have trouble with it."
"The truth is us. Right here. Right now."
"And that's the decision you made?"
"Goodbye," I tell her. "I'll be at my brother's. Call me when you want to have a baby."
"A baby?" Mindy says. "Is that what this is?"
"That's something, isn't it?”