The following is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real names, settings, or situations is purely coincidental.
The day after the election, when the school gathered for its daily assembly, the English teacher, Sadie Jaffe, refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. That day, her thirty-ninth birthday, began like a nightmare. She woke, retrieved her iPhone from her bedside table and read the New York Times alert telling her he had won the election. When she saw the tide turning the night before, she’d taken a Xanax and crept into an uneasy sleep. After waking, she stood in the shower before work sobbing and too indifferent, too instantly drained of hope and of energy, to wipe away the snot and shampoo running down her face, over her body, and eventually finding its way to the drain.
She arrived at work puffy-eyed but ready to lecture on Langston Hughes’s “Evil,” something she had planned in the case of this worst-case scenario, now a reality, and yet a misty iridescent denial stayed with her through the day and whispered that someone would announce that this was a mistake, for it was. It was. The conservative all-girls private school catered to the privileged, but paid well. Sadie blamed herself for taking this job, for not seeing what type of place it was to begin with. She felt like wearing a hair sweater or flogging herself as she listened to the glee of the students talk about their pussy-grabbing president-elect. She saw her students, really saw them, and loved them and all the wonderful things they could do for the world, but could not save them from themselves or what they had been taught. She couldn’t save herself either, and this year, which had been infused heavily with the election, she relied upon Xanax to make it through her day and took extra before chapel, where it seemed that a line-up of manic clergy took to the altar to speak about random and offensive subjects in the name of Jesus Christ. These people were not sympathetic like mentality ill people, but simply hypocritical men breathing the death rattle of the changing of the world making their professions and importance obsolete. She simply could bear no more and ceased to attend chapel, but could not escape attendance of the daily assembly.
When she did not stand for the pledge of allegiance the day after the election, it did not go unnoticed; however, Sadie did not care, for her thoughts were focused on the semantics of the pledge: words written not by the founding fathers but pounded out due to McCarthyism. As the students and faculty said in unison “and liberty and justice for all,” she began to laugh and cry simultaneously and felt the faculty turn to look, shaking their expensively highlighted heads and whispering to one another. One other teacher had not stood; she was young, had blonde surfer hair, and this was her first year teaching here after attending a west coast school. When she had told Sadie that she was a libertarian, Sadie had just thought “bless her heart,” and realized that the young teacher either contained an innocent kindness and happy countenance that indicated resilience, or perhaps life had yet to fuck her over in a real adult fashion. With only a small bit of guilt, Sadie held only indifference as to which it was.
Sadie went home that night and drank the split of champagne that was meant for celebrating the first female president and listened to Patti Smith. She felt insulated by the books that lined the walls of the living room of her condo, for it was the books that kept her company and substituted for adult interaction. She checked her phone for missed calls or messages. It was her birthday and her son, Knox, who started college just a couple of months ago, had not called her. She thought back to college. Had she remembered her parents’ birthdays? Probably not. She could not remember going to the student union for a greeting card and stamps or using the precious minutes on a calling card to phone them. However, living on campus was short-lived, and at twenty-one she had become a parent herself. After that there was only one birthday that mattered, and that was Knox’s. The years flew by raising a child on her own, though not easily, and yet she looked younger than her age. This year as she had met the other parents at college orientation, on more than one occasion they had exclaimed, “But you are so young!” before realizing almost instantaneously their blunder by calculating in their heads that she must have had him too young.
More worried than hurt by Knox’s forgetfulness, she reluctantly checked social media to see if he had posted anything. Sadie abhorred social media, and the last time she had posted to her page was in summer: the photographs of herself and Knox in Greece weeks before he left for college. He had chosen to go to an SEC school in Mississippi to major in studio art, and to her surprise he joined a fraternity. She refused to pay his dues, but his all but absent father living on the west coast was more than happy to pay them. She found Knox’s page and was relieved to see his last post was less than an hour ago. It was a photograph, in front of the fraternity house, of a bunch of college guys dressed in khakis, ties, and blazers. She spotted Knox in the first row smiling. Dressed like the others, he had one of the disgusting red hats on his head that said, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Then she noticed the banner they held, a bed sheet with spray paint that said, “LOCK HER UP!”
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” she whispered. Her hands shook as she automatically began to phone him, but stopped herself. Soon he would make his monthly plea for money via phone or even drive the hour and a half back to Memphis to do laundry and eat something decent. She needed to calm down before she spoke to him; she needed a plan, an intervention, a shaman to sprinkle waters and anoint him with oil. She put her phone down, took a valium, and went to sleep, not noticing that she had been crying ever since seeing the picture.
Walking into assembly the next day, the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair told her that an administrator warned her to stand for the pledge or there would be trouble. While telling Sadie this, the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair seemed distracted by Sadie’s clothes and hair. Though it was November, Sadie had worn a turtleneck under a brightly embroidered sundress from Mexico with red woolen tights underneath and Clark’s Wallabees on her feet. Her hair had been braided and pinned up like Frida Kahlo’s. Sadie applied bright red lipstick effortlessly without aid of a mirror as the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair spoke; this also seemed to mesmerize the young woman and made Sadie want to interrupt her to tell her that the lipstick without a mirror thing came with time, but instead Sadie said nothing. When the girl with blonde surfer hair finished talking, Sadie paused and smiled a soft, warm smile without showing her teeth and placed her palm over the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair's cheek. Sadie wanted to tell her to join a commune in the Catskills, or go live on the beach in Hawaii and learn to surf and find a beautiful young surfer to fuck (maybe even fall in love with him or her), or, at the very least, get a Fulbright and get the out of the country for a while. Yet she didn’t say a word. Sadie withdrew her hand from the young woman’s cheek then turned and went into the assembly where she did not stand for the pledge. Again, everyone took note.
Thursday, on her ride home from school, she gave up on listening to Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, or any of the other musicians she usually listened to. A musician friend of hers once told her that her taste in music was of the genre of “Tenure Rock.” She dug in the glovebox and found the CD that she wanted: The Immaculate Collection by Madonna. She had bought it at a garage sale recently. She liked physical copies of music even as she conceded to subscriptions to music services, and she made sure that when she bought a new car that it had both bluetooth and a CD player. The CD slid into the slot with a swish, and she began listening to “Holiday.” Madonna, she thought, never got credit for being the first third-wave feminist. People called her an entertainer and not a singer, which might be fair enough, but no one said such things about Bob Dylan, who hardly had a great singing voice and just won a fucking Nobel for literature: poet, yes; singer, no. Reminiscent of the election, people criticized Madonna’s lyrics, her clothes (or lack thereof), her attitude, her constant reinventions of herself, and yet this seemed to encourage her to be more of a provocateur, more of a boss, and more powerful. She did what she had come to do, and she did it with a precise, almost surgical, precision. She did not need the word “feminist” lit up behind her at a concert; she lived the word and blazed the trail for others in her wake, leaving them to realize that they had more than two binary options to choose from: virgin or whore. Her final move of late, her newest reinvention and arguably the one causing more critique than any other in her past, was her refusal to “act and dress her age.” Madonna refused to don the veil of invisibility as women in their fifties were implicitly told to do. Sadie thought of Drake wincing at her kiss during a performance at an awards show. She wondered if Madonna went home that night and felt embarrassed, slighted, or ashamed, but preferred to think that she relished the attention, albeit bad attention. “Drake…what a little shit…what does he know?” Sadie said aloud to no one.
Most of the songs on the CD were from her childhood up until high school. Reagan. Bush. Clinton. What she would do to have any of them back. She had owned the CD before. Knox’s father had bought it for her at a used CD store during their short romance. It was the only gift he had ever bought her, and she had lost it in one of her many moves as she worked to earn more income to move Knox and herself into increasingly nicer apartments and eventually into a condo.
She had named him Knox after her hometown in Tennessee; it seemed fitting to install some piece of her southern roots, seeing as she gave birth to him at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City. Her parents had not been present, and showed no interest in supporting her choice to keep the child. Years later, they changed their mind and wanted to see Sadie and Knox. Sadie had lost all interest in seeing them and had refused. Connor’s parents had paid the medical bills, and that meant that her checkups had been at a fancy OB/GYN on the Upper West Side. They had the best magazines; W was her favorite with its oversized pages, endless pictures of celebrities and socialites, and fashion advertisements; however, she only remembered one photo from the plethora she viewed over the course of her pregnancy. The photographer had been a guest at the party and had quickly pulled out his camera to catch the shot, or so the caption read. It was a picture of Madonna seated at the party: her body faced what seemed to be the center of a group of people, yet her head was turned in response to a hand placed on her shoulder to gain her attention. The hand belonged to her ex-husband from long ago, Sean Penn. The photographer caught her look of recognition after she had turned. Her face gazed upwards meeting the eyes of her ex, and the expression on her face said so many things at once: surprise, happiness, grief, but above all else it showed vulnerability. It showed that she still loved him, just as she had declared in her documentary, filmed while she was dating Warren Beatty, that the love of her life was Sean. Madonna had requested that the scene be cut, and the director refused, for it was the only part of the film that showed her as a real person. At the time, she wondered if she would ever get over the heartache of Connor not wanting anything else to do with her or their future child. She did (and quickly), navigating her last year at Barnard with an infant. The name “Connor” became associated with strings of profanity when Knox was sick and a paper was due or traffic was bad and she didn’t reach the daycare on time.
The road, ironically named “Park Avenue,” ran parallel to the railroad tracks and offered views of dated ranchers eventually emptying itself into a less than desirable part of town before bringing Sadie to her condo in an artsy historic neighborhood. Within blocks of her home, her phone rang, and Sophie accepted the call, expecting Knox.
“Hey there,” the voice on the other end greeted her. She recognized the voice: Sam of years’ past. Sadie thought briefly of hitting “end” or saying “hello” over and over, acting as if she could not hear him, but with the thought she exhaled audibly. Sam took the sigh as an acknowledgement and continued, “I tried calling you last night for your birthday, but it was probably too late.”
Yes, it was too late, she thought. Everything about Sam was late or a miss. Five years ago, he had worked with her for a year; he was an art teacher. They had formed a fast friendship that slowly developed into something more. What it had developed into had never been defined, and soon he left and moved to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Portland? No, Seattle? It was somewhere that vaguely reminded her of flannel and grunge music, so it must be Seattle. After telling him that she fully supported his move, she distanced herself from him and Sam was filed in the “def con five scrapbook” in her head, though after she had wept over him in private. He called her on holidays and her birthday. Sometimes she answered.
“Thank you for thinking of me, Sam. It was very thoughtful,” Sadie answered slowly and with coolness, and a silence followed.
“Okay, if we are doing things this way…you sound like shit,” Sam said.
Sadie suppressed a laugh at his statement, yet this angered her at the same time. Sam read the subtext of Sadie like a dime store novel, and constantly reminded her of how uncomplicated she was (despite her best efforts to seem opaque).
“The world is shit, Sam,” Sadie said and parked her car in her designated spot at the condo, “and Knox has turned into some horrible plantation owner caricature.” She put her palm to her forehead.
“I think he might be rebelling. You know, making up for his years of being perfect as a teenager,” Sam said, and she could hear him lighting a cigarette.
“I wouldn’t mind if he were smoking pot, but becoming a member of the alt-right is a bit much. It is unacceptable. I didn’t raise him to be this way. A few months ago he was a cello player who walked around with a sketch book.”
Sam sighed, “Well, it is rebelling. That means you don’t get to choose his path of rebellion, and it probably means he will choose something that actually goes against your values.”
“Don’t use the word ‘values.’ It sounds so damn Dan Quayle, Sam.” Sadie began to cry.
“Look, I will talk to him,” Sam said. That was one thing that he got right: he kept his relationship with Knox intact. She knew that they spoke regularly. Knox had fallen for Sam just as much as Sadie had.
“I would appreciate that. Look, I am at home now, and I really need to just get myself inside and…”
“Sadie, I hope you have a great year ahead of you. I miss you—”
“Bye, Sam,” Sadie interrupted and hit end. She couldn’t stand it when he said that he missed her.
Inside her condo, Sadie pondered her life while she stretched out on her couch. It was a life so small it was peacefully contained in this small space that she had worked so doggedly to purchase. Her home had become her refuge; it had the strength of a fort and shielded her from the other disappointments in her life, but its four walls also kept her hidden, unseen. Her job had kept her busy all these years, but what had it kept her from? She had a son, but he was an adult now. She had provided him with so much, but that time had passed. The world had changed since she became a mother in college; the rage of the ignorant and the privileged had been awakened, and there was nothing she could do to change it, except her own small share of course, and she would do that, but she could not take responsibility for everyone else. The couch cushions became softer, the night became darker as Sadie meditated upon the thought of her own part…and began to think of the plans she had for herself so long ago before falling asleep.
Sadie woke the next morning fully rested. She had not taken any of her anxiety medicine and her sleep had been deep and peacefully opposed to the muggy, drugged sleep that the Xanax provided her. She cried only for a few minutes in the shower, applied mascara and lipstick, and reverted to her normal head-to-toe black wardrobe choices. She felt lighter somehow, resigned, and wrote this off as it being Friday, but something had changed. The air outside was crisp against her face and the sun shone as brightly as it possibly could in November.
She let Madonna serenade her down Park Avenue and into the gates of the school, and did not notice the stares of the other faculty as she poured her coffee into her thermal mug in the teacher’s lounge. When the secretary came to retrieve her and tell her to go to the headmistress’s office, she was only mildly surprised, but still, her stomach dropped.
As she entered the office, she saw that all her superiors were present, along with a few board members who were but well-groomed, well-married jobless mothers of students. Sadie marveled briefly, as she always did, at the headmistress’s once-a-week set hair. How neat it was. How solid and unchangeable it was! Hair like an institution, an entity in its own right. Sadie giggled as she sat down.
“Sadie, we have a problem,” the headmistress said, scowling at Sadie’s giggle.
“A serious problem,” another administrator said.
“Yes, I see,” Sadie said, leaning forward and interlacing her fingers over her knee. The headmistress opened her mouth to speak again, but Sadie was quicker, “I am resigning effective immediately. I have plans…huge plans!”
For the next fifteen minutes, Sadie told the administrators and the board members about her plans in great detail. She had, after all, listened to them, ad nauseum, for years. They stared at her with great confusion. When she was finished, she grabbed the legal pad that the headmistress held, scribbled the date, wrote, “I quit!,” and signed her name. She replaced the pad on the table and left the office.
Before leaving the campus with a box and accompanied by a security officer, she stopped the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair in the hall, handed her a folded note, and said, “I would love to have coffee with you sometime. I regret not getting to know you better.”
“But what are you going to do with our home?” Knox asked Sadie as she taped up another box of books.
“I am renting it out for a year while I am gone. I’m coming back. Everything will be put back in it’s place. Our little fortress of books. A nice professor who is visiting Rhodes is staying here,” Sadie said as she hoisted the box on top of the others to be placed in the storage unit.
“Is this because of me?”
“No. It’s because of me. It’s what I need,” Sadie replied and started loading another box with books. “You are an adult now, but that comes with responsibilities. While I am gone, you’ll have to find a way to deal with those…like paying your car insurance and health insurance on your own…maybe getting a part-time job…earning for those expenses and spending money.”
“How do you expect me to get health insurance?”
“Well, it’s called Obamacare, or the ACA. I would register now if I were you. I don’t know if it will be around much longer though,” Sadie said and Knox frowned.
“You are doing this to punish me,” he said looking around the room.
“No, I am doing this for the benefit of us both. You’ll see. I feel like I have been asleep for years. Don’t do that, Knox. Listen to yourself,” Sadie said as she brushed a stray twig of hair from Knox’s brow. “Look, let’s get these boxes loaded and I want you to help me do something very important. I want to go and adopt a dog from the shelter to take with me to Marfa. I can bring a dog with me to my shifts at the bookstore.”
“A dog? After all the years that I begged for a dog and now you get one,” Knox said with a serious pout that made him look twelve again.
“The dog will be our dog, and you’ll have plenty of time with him when you come out this summer,” she replied and put another box on the stack.
“Why would you want to open a bookstore here? Why not stay in Marfa? They are becoming obsolete. It’s not profitable anymore; they’re all shutting down.”
“Because they are needed, and it has always been what I have wanted to do. I have a home here, but I just need to get away for a minute. When I get back and open it up, I would love for you to curate the art and music books. You know much more of what to get than I would.” Sadie turned and saw Knox smile before quickly concealing it.
“Why go to Marfa to work in a bookstore?”
“I told you, I have to learn the business.”
“I know, but why Marfa?”
“I’ve always wanted to go there. It’s a place that an artist built.”
“It’s that simple, Mom?”
“Yes, it’s that simple,” Sadie replied and watched her son. His dark brow furrowed as he stared out the window. He looked so much like her, especially his expression of concern, yet the lines disappeared when his face relaxed. How lucky he was to be his age, a magic age, with everything in front of him and nothing to lose. Functioning with a naivety of how the world works and having to be an adult at the same time. She didn’t blame him for joining a club for males; he’d been stuck with a doting mother for too long. However, she thought that the simple task of obtaining and paying for health insurance and other expenses would straighten his politics out; perhaps it wouldn’t though, and Sadie was okay with that…almost okay with that.
Knox turned toward Sadie with his arms open. Without waiting, he fell into her arms, and, though he was taller than she was by a head, he stooped over, resting his cheek on her collarbone, and tucked his head under her chin just as he had a million times before over the course of his life.