Had they known about her truth, her story all along?
The Trio, out of uniform, leaning against each other and the door frame as though it were perfectly normal for them to be at her apartment on a Friday night.
The girls run wild and roughshod across the playing field, galloping into the woods, caught up in a mission of mischief. Molly watches them from the school patio, squinting into the sun. As their teacher, what she ought to do, her job really, is go after them, collect and return them to their class.
On the other side of the patio door, Bingham High’s history teacher, Mrs Johnson, is zig-zagging through the rows of cafeteria tables toward Molly. Molly sighs and marks the cold April air with a white puff of annoyance. She slips the cigarette rolling between her fingers, the treat she was counting on to lighten her thoughts and carry her through the last period, back into her pocket.
Mrs Johnson’s face, bespectacled and frowning, pops out the patio door, rippling the air.
“Have you seen The Trio, Ms Collins?” she asks, pointing the sharp edge of her nose at Molly.
“The Trio?” Molly says, feigning confusion. “The Trio” is the moniker assigned by staff to the inseparable, high-spirited triumvirate of Janice, Paula, and Rachel. In her two years at Bingham High, Molly has watched the girls, smart and charismatic, wield the formidable power of their youth over the predominately middle-aged staff. Mrs Johnson, hard-baked to the bone and not suffering the desire to reverse her years, is the one adult determined that the girls follow the rules.
Molly has the pleasure of having the three, their endless chatter and non-stop texting included, in her third-period advanced placement art class. Janice was invited to attend. She’s talented, possessing what every artist desires: the ability to infuse paintings with emotion, to paint what is felt, not what is seen. Rachel and Paula, their placement was encouraged by the administration too, as Bingham’s principal, Mrs LeClaire, put it, “fill seats and keep the class running”.
Three years ago, encouragement of the same kind would have irked Molly, eaten at her artistic integrity, and likely provoked her into rebellious action. Now, here at Bingham High, as an art teacher rather than an artist, as part of the school system, she didn’t even raise her eyebrows. She just did what she was told.
“Yes. Rachel, Janice, and Paula—your students. Your friends. They’re not in fifth-period math like they should be. I don’t suppose you know where they are?”
With the sun behind Molly, she can see the bricks of impatience in Mrs Johnson’s eyes, the result, she suspects, of the many short-tempered outbursts she’s witnessed Mrs Johnson deliver, from years spent pretending to like young people. “Oh, The Trio. No, I haven’t,” Molly says, adding a head shake for effect.
“So you haven’t seen them? Because you have been out here?” Mrs Johnson says.
“Right.” Molly is sure Mrs Johnson doesn’t believe her. “I’d try the gymnasium. They’re probably in the fitness room, working out.”
“That’s where I’m heading now.”
“If I see them, I’ll send them your way.”
Mrs Johnson’s right eyebrow lifts into a question. She lets it drop. “Where you need to send them is the principal’s office. Cutting class is against the rules, even for the school’s royal court.”
“Right,” Molly says again. “To the principal’s.”
“You remember where that is, don’t you?” Mrs Johnson adds.
Molly rolls her eyes but the history teacher is gone, her head retracting behind the door’s opening like a turtle.
Molly chopped kale in time with the jazzy bass of The Navel’s Lost Train, thrumming from the speakers of her new Bose, her gift to herself for surviving the winter semester. If she closed her eyes, she was back at Razo’s, dancing to their live set.
The smell of herby chicken filled the kitchen. Molly’s main course was the usual, a grocery store lean cuisine frozen dinner, but it smelled delicious. It was easy to ignore she was eating alone, and not at a fancy restaurant with friends celebrating the end of another week of teaching.
Molly stopped chopping kale at the knocking on the door. It wasn’t a sound she often heard. She stood still for a moment and thought. A delivery? Her landlord?
Or maybe the semi-cute neighbor from the floor below, the one at the laundry she loaned quarters to? Doubtful, but she tossed her apron onto the kitchen counter, combed her fingers through her hair and smoothed her blouse, just in case.
What? Molly thought when she opened the door to the familiar but utterly unexpected faces of The Trio, out of uniform, leaning against each other and the door frame as though it were perfectly normal for them to be at her apartment on a Friday night.
“Hey, Ms Collins,” The Trio said.
“Hi, girls,” Molly said, tongue thick with caution. “This is a surprise. How did you—”
“We saw you leave the drugstore yesterday,” Rachel said.
For no reason, really, they told her in their perfectly tuned three-part harmony, they trailed her home. Tonight, bored mainly, with nothing better to do, and without money for the mall, they came back.
“Oh. I see,” Molly said, ticking through her list of polite but teacherly ways to end this conversation and send them on their way.
“Yeah, we were bored,” Rachel repeated, “and curious.”
“To see where the young, cool teacher lives.” Three fingers pointed at Molly’s chest.
“Oh,” Molly said.
“The other teachers,” Paula started, “are old and boring.”
“And,” Janice added, “they don’t live here.”
“Here?” Molly asked, “You mean in this building?”
“Not here, here, like this building, like in the city. They live in the suburbs,” Rachel said, making air quotes around suburbs.
“Well, I’m about to have dinner,” Molly said. She glanced past the girls to the street. The idea that anyone was watching made her uneasy. Last November’s missed work-days and her “general lack of enthusiasm in the classroom”, as Mrs Johnson put it on her mid-term evaluation, already had her standing firmly on shaky ground. Having three of her students at her apartment on a Friday night, even if only to converse on the stoop, unsupervised and unsanctioned, was exactly what she shouldn’t be doing. Molly could hear the staticky sound of Mrs Johnson’s “Tsk, Tsk.”
Molly didn’t love being a teacher, hardly, even if it was art, but she did need the job. Not only did she have student loans and rent but she also had her mother beating the drum of “I’m done being a bank” every time they spoke. If she lost this job she would have to go back home to her childhood in Raleigh and all of that baggage. She was sure, absolutely so, that going back home was something she couldn’t bear.
“As soon as the bell rings, they leave for the suburbs. I mean, like the minute it rings. They can’t wait to get out of the city,” Paula said.
“It’s true,” Janice added. “Mrs Johnson wouldn’t stay to help with my history project—the one for the Wright History Scholarship. I had to ask my brother. He made me pay him—20 dollars!”
“They’re afraid of the city—like it’s a monster,” Rachel said. “They say the crime has gone way up. Robberies. Theft. Rape.”
“They think Newport is taken over by zombies after dark,” Janice said. “Zombies after their wallets.”
The girls giggled and mimicked the robotic gait of horror-movie zombies.
Molly understood it wasn’t that the girls cared whether their teachers lived in the suburbs or the city. In the girls’ minds, We Don’t Care About You! was written across their sky in the smoke of a plane their teachers flew.
She understood what it felt like to be forgotten. Every Christmas. Every birthday. When the gift, when the card she was hoping for, didn’t arrive, she was forced to re-live her father’s denial. Forced to accept that in his world, she didn’t exist to him.
“Can we come in—for a bit?”
With this lived abandonment between them, Molly’s apprehension about the girl’s presence evaporated. She stepped aside and let them in.
The hurricane eye of The Trio swirled by, as the girls boorishly tumbled through, opening door after door without a glance to ask permission, rummaging through every drawer like it was theirs, passing their discoveries from one sweaty hand to another, holding each swiped treasure above their head and squealing—
“This is amazing!”
“This is beautiful!”
“This is so me!”
—before tossing it aside.
Molly watched in awe. The seamless fabric of the girls’ togetherness was impressive. Also a bit depressing. It illuminated everything Molly’s friendships were not. Nya and Demetri, fellow teachers she met at district training a few years back, were great—the stuff TV friends were made of, always up for a night of martinis at Ricki’s, always loyal, liking her posts and returning her texts. But their union wasn’t baptized in blood and bone. Nya and Demetri were her friends, sure, but equally, simultaneously strangers. They weren’t like The Trio, intrinsically linked. Inseparable. Moving more as one than three separate people.
With Molly’s belongings, shoes, pajamas, and underwear interrogated and judged to satisfaction, the girls fell into her living room. Wide, bright eyes sat, squished into one on her condo-size couch. With mouths undulating like waves, they spilled questions onto Molly’s lap.
“Is it true you’re dating Mr Gibson?” Paula asked.
“But you think he’s cute, right?”
It was Janice’s turn. “Did Mrs Johnson’s daughter run away at 14, like everyone says, because she hated her?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. But probably.”
Back to Paula. “Where do you get your pencil skirts?”
“At the store.”
Janice again. “What’s your favorite song?”
“It came out in my senior year of college. It was always on the radio and playing at parties.”
“Wait,” Rachel said, scrunching her mouth and narrowing her eyes, “that’s an old song. You graduated, like, three years ago?”
“I got my teaching certificate three years ago,” Molly said.
“So, what were you doing before?” Rachel asked.
“I was in Chicago, painting.”
Rachel, suddenly the Trio’s captain, eyes wide and glassy, opened her mouth. “Why did you leave Chicago to be an art teacher—in Newport?” she asked, consuming all the room’s air.
The carpet beneath Molly’s feet shifted. She looked at Rachel, smiling with teeth shiny and sharp as knives. Then at Janice and Paula. Had they come for this, she wondered, with their fingers softly, gently petting her ego and stroking her neglected underbelly, to open her wide and expose her hurt? Had they known about her truth, her story all along?
“Why?” Rachel said, beating the question like a drum.