Fragility - Adam Restinow

            When face-to-face with her morning mirror, Laura assesses that she is not as attractive as some but not as plain as most. Her clothes, especially her shoes, are modest as becomes a high school guidance counsellor. Her attire plus her minimalist makeup and a single strand of imitation pearls suggest a distant relationship with a nunnery. Not that Laura is a church lady; she simply has a spiritual aura. Fortunately, given her age, thirty-eight, and her temperament, mildly neurotic, she blends well with the other women on the faculty, many of whom consider Laura the older sister who always gives sound advice. The men think her intelligent, certainly worth talking to, but not the subject of lust.
            There are many such Lauras in this world, most are unappreciated. This Laura once felt counseling children was a blessed calling, a voice bringing solace and wisdom to the unworthy. Now, after years of millstone tedium, this Laura, beaten down by the banality of the unworthy, wants nothing more than Walden’s mythical pond with electricity. Her storehouse of good advice is depleted; her shelves once crammed with canned responses are barren.
            Despite weekly prompts from her mother, Laura is not ravenous for a meaningful relationship. Indeed, when questioned on the subject, she usually replies, “I am sufficiently happy.” Men do not grasp the subtlety or import of these words. Women, certainly married women, do. However, even her miniscule happiness is not without cost. Laura’s façade of contentment is fractured every Friday at 3:30 by Anthony.
            Anthony is a typical high school senior: average height and weight, varsity soccer player, adequate grades, semi-popular, and partially gregarious. Anthony is a tad less typical in that he cries. Not noticeably, of course not, but when he considers his fate and that of his extended family, his eyes swell with tears. Metaphorically, others cry over spilled milk; Anthony cries over missed homework, climate change, and roadkill. He believes he hasn’t done enough to improve the world, feels a responsibility to be a savior. But, then, he is seventeen and fraught with idealism. With the proper instruction he’ll become a cynical adult.
            Anthony’s mother and father worry that he will be one of the many who fail to meet American parental expectations: grandchildren, financially independent, a presentable wife, and there for them in their old age. Self-indulgence is allowed consistent with societal norms, which tend to be as loose as a starlet’s gown. These expectations, voiced at least once a week, press on Anthony like a Sisyphean boulder, silently present in the conversation he has with Laura.

            At what would be their last meeting, though neither party was aware of that, Anthony said, “Yesterday, after school, Tom and I were out back, kicking the soccer ball, getting ready for tomorrow’s game when Mom opens the window and asks me if my homework is done. What kind of mother does that? Talk about embarrassing!  I got all weekend to do my homework. And, besides, the year’s almost over; no one gives a shit about homework.”
            Ignoring the truth in the outburst, Laura donned her sympathy mask. “Now, Anthony, do you really believe your mother intended to embarrass you?”
            “You never know with my mother. She’s complicated, can’t always tell what’s really on her mind. Like when we talk about college. We both know I’m going to Michigan State, and we both know I’m not a numbers guy. So, ‘What should I take?’ I’ll ask her.”
            “And what does she say?”
            “Something non-helpful like, ‘Do you want to do what your father does?’ Of course, I don’t want to sell computer systems. Who would want to do something as stupid as that?”
            “Do you think your father’s stupid?”
            Anthony reddened. “Dad is smart, really smart. It’s just sometimes he’ll come home after work and complain about the people he has to deal with. For example, there was this woman who yelled at him because the system she bought didn’t do what she had told her boss it would do. Now she looks bad, might not get promoted. I’ve heard my dad say many, many times, ‘Most people are no damn good.’”
            Brushing aside a dark bang, Laura said, “So, what wouldn’t be stupid?”
            “Well, being the guy in charge would be OK. You know our principal has it nice. He’s always smiling, and everyone smiles back. If there’s a discipline problem, Mr. Sanders or Miss Romano handles it. I’ll bet he gets paid a lot just to sit in his big office and make parents feel good about sending their kids here. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind being a principal.”
            Laura restrained herself. Laughter would have confused Anthony and telling him he would be lucky to graduate college would be correct but incorrect. While humor wasn’t one of her natural tendencies, she did manage an amusing observation. “I guess the military is not for you if you want to be in charge. Perhaps you should think about owning your own business.” Laura once thought she’d like to own a restaurant so the suggestion had some basis.
            Anthony stood, walked around the chair he’d been sitting on and sat. “You know, Miss Truman, that’s not a bad idea. You know what’s big these days, is gonna get bigger, is pot. Not that I ever used it but kids I know say it really helped them when things got tough. Like for exams and important games. Took away the stress, relaxed them. You adults have a lot of stress in your lives. Probably going to be worse in the future. Yeah, I could own a dispensary, maybe two, make more money than my Dad.”
            Horrified at being labelled as a promoter of drugs, Laura pounded her fist on her desk. “Absolutely not! You are not going to ruin hundreds of lives by selling marijuana! We have an opioid crisis in this country. Your dispensary would just be the first stop on a train ride to death and destruction.”
            Hysteria and thoughtlessness took control. Glaring at Anthony, she said, “Now you listen to me. Of course, I hope you go to college. Hell, I get paid to brainwash children, and that’s what you are, a child, that college will bring you the American dream and your parents reflected glory. Colleges should pay me to recruit for them. But will you make it through or just waste your parent’s money? Your grades tell me that college for you will be an uphill climb, and that the hill is made of mud.” Laura breathed in and out, tat-tatted the desktop with her fingernails, almost stepped down from her podium but unbridled righteousness ruled the day.
            Laura rose, no one suggesting that decorum was being breached. Pointing an expensively manicured nail at Anthony, she said, “You could skip college, and the world would continue to spin. Instead, you could become a photographer; you did well in that class. But even that requires specialized, vocational education. Would your parents fund that? Would they sign off on a student loan and risk years of debt when you couldn’t afford to repay it? What are you really worth?” The truth of Laura’s wall plaque which read You Have Worth Beyond Measure apparently did not apply to Anthony.
            Waving her arms back and forth, she paraded from the back of her desk, walked behind Anthony, and stomped from one side of the room to the other. The boy swiveled on his chair, staring at a transfiguration. To his credit, he did not call out, “Miss Stork, what the hell are you talking about?,” a name he used during lunches with his friends. Not that Laura would have heard so wrapped was she in the glory of the flag she waved. Indeed, so immersed was she, so agitated with the world she inhabited, that she didn’t register on her top three blouse buttons becoming unbuttoned or that she was standing in front of Anthony, leaning forward, her hands grasping his shoulders.
            “Ask yourself, Anthony, are you passionate about anything no matter what it takes or are you the typical student who doesn’t give a shit what you do after graduation as long as you make enough money to be comfortable? Which one are you? Answer me, damn you.”
            Laura’s spew was cut short by a bead of sweat descending her forehead, coasting down her nose, rolling down her arm, and splattering onto the back of her hand. Its wetness returned her to normalcy or, if you are so minded, the angels who protect Lauras were there when it mattered. Whatever the cause, she blinked. Anthony, stone-still, looked at what he shouldn’t be looking at, blinked in return. Laura noticed the intensity of the boy’s line of sight and the licking of his lips.
            “I am so sorry, Anthony,” Laura said as she pushed away. Her blouse, quickly returned to its professional state, heaved with embarrassment. At a loss, she walked away from the young voyeur and sat on her chair. If the situation had been less perilous, she would have said something simplistic such as, “So, let’s talk about college majors.” Instead, Laura bowed her head, placed her hands on her desk, and prayed to her God that His vengeance would be bearable.
            In response, Anthony cried. Not heart-rending sobs, just the tears of someone who is suddenly afraid that his future is a man holding a piece of cardboard lettered Loose change is good enough. “I’m just not good enough.”
            Stricken, Laura performed a Hyde-Jekyll switch and reverted to form. “Now there’s nothing to cry about. You simply haven’t figured out what you’re good at.”
            “No, you were right. I’m not worth anything.”
            “Everyone is worth something. When I was in high school, we didn’t have guidance counsellors. You had to decide for yourself what you wanted to be when you grew up. My parents were divorced so they weren’t much help, spent most of their time arguing with each other about how awful the other person was. My mom worked as a bank teller during the day and worked at finding a new husband during the night.”
            “Did she?”
            “No. To paraphrase your father, most men are no damn good. She learned that the hard way, and I learned that along with her.”
            “I don’t understand.”
            Laura tasted resentment, realized the consequences of revelation but said, “You’re not old enough to know the damage a man, and someday you’ll be a man, can do. Not all men, of course, but there was this one man who I loved and told me he loved me. Oh, he said and did all the right things, bought me these pearls, but when I humbled myself, almost got down on my knees, and asked him to commit, he just walked away. Didn’t have the balls to give me a reason, just stood after dessert, said he needed the restaurant’s washroom, and never came back.”
            But Anthony did know about damage and knew enough to remain silent.
            Some say confession is good for the soul. Others believe secrets are best kept hidden. Laura, a knowledgeable member of a faculty and student body that relished and thrived on personal misfortune, sighed. “Anthony, it’s late, time for you to go home.”
            Anthony, demonstrating wisdom and grace beyond his years, rose, turned at the office door, and said, “Okay, my mother’s waiting for me. But I’m sorry for you, Miss Truman. And I appreciate our time together.”
            During the five minutes following the closing of the door, Laura reflected on who she was and who she wanted to be. Ten minutes later she stood before the principal who, as Anthony had mentioned, was smiling. “Good afternoon, Miss Truman. How was your day?”
            “I need help.”

Adam Restinow, a peripatetic wordsmith, shunned degreed creative writing programs in favor of attending to what people actually said and did. He learned that simple things, a word or a gesture, are at the heart of a good story. He also discovered that home-cooked meals cure many ailments, that true love is possible, and that listing prior publications is false pride. Adam and his wife live in Savannah, GA; but that could change if the wind blows cold.