Her name was Florida though she had never been there. Her mother really liked the name, the state too, the oranges and sunrays it conjured. One day you’re gonna visit for me and you’re gonna love it, her mother would say.
Florida never did visit. Instead she lived with her mother in Tucson, Arizona, and stayed there for so long she had to drive her mother to a care center when the time came. Until then she had never lived on her own, and her mother’s house took on a strange neutrality.
Florida usually found the natural tones of the desert suited her just fine, and she had always tried to emulate the world around her by becoming neutral, the background, herself, too. She worked at a school as a teaching assistant, but really she sat at the front desk and filed papers and never took her work home with her, and she preferred it that way. She didn’t have any lofty goals, she didn’t want to visit places that were too far, even Mexico, which wasn’t so far at all.
Then, the day after she left her mother at the care center, which was incidentally the last day of the school year, she overheard her coworkers talking about another one of the teachers, Ms. Ely, who had vanished. Taken off somewhere, was the turn of phrase. Perfect timing. No one was particularly worried; they expected as much from Ms. Ely, about whom they all had opinions.
Ms. Ely taught fourth grade, the toughest of the bunch. She’d once caught one of her students masturbating in the hall right before the bell was about to ring. She’d once stopped another one from stabbing a classmate with a sharpened No. 2 pencil. She was known for her quiet voice that would rise to something so severe it even frightened parents. She only attended school functions that were held on-campus, eating cake, watching from afar. The faculty parties that occurred off-campus, those she never went to, and it was there that the others began to come up with stories about her, the likes of which Florida overheard but never participated in, because, like Ms. Ely, she too would eat cake and watch from afar.
Now, though, Ms. Ely was gone and her classroom door was locked. Her fourth-graders were out on the basketball courts with one of the part-time tutors, barely in his twenties, who was looking after them as best he could for the remaining two hours of the half-day. When asked what had happened, the tutor said that Ms. Ely had been there just moments ago. Her car was not in the parking lot. Her phone went straight to voicemail.
Florida was asked to watch after the kids with the tutor. In the corner of the chain link fence that walled the courts from the intersection, she noticed two boys looking out toward the bus stop, fingers clutched through the metal. The tutor was saying something to her again, and she tried to listen, but he mumbled a lot; besides, he usually was complaining.
Another pair of boys wandered over to the corner and were now huddled together, their backs to Florida and the rest of their classmates. Occasionally one of them would look over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching. Some of them were laughing into cupped hands.
The tutor was still talking. Before Florida could make out what was going on, he said to her, I’ll just be a second. You can manage right? He took off in a hurry, leaving her alone with the fourth grade class.
A basketball descended through the air. The chain link rattled. The hot air felt like a newly ironed sheet falling around her shoulders.
Florida thought maybe they were playing with an animal, maybe a lizard, dead or alive. Sometimes the sun sucked them dry. Or, at worst, maybe they were making fun of the homeless wandering across the street. Sometimes she felt bad that she couldn’t tell the difference between a child’s parents and the homeless. She thought about shouting all their names, just to let them know she was paying attention, but she didn’t.
Now there were more than a dozen boys in the corner of the basketball court, and Danny Martinez was turning red and walking away, slowly, with hesitation, before puking in the wood chips. Florida knew she needed to intervene in whatever was going on. Whatever it was had made Danny Martinez puke all over his shirt and new shoes, shoes that he had been bragging about not two hours earlier in Ms. Ely’s class when he should have been listening to the history of the early Americas. It was a lesson Florida had helped prepare herself, late the night before. Ms. Ely insisted on teaching to the very last; she would have teetered on the abyss if she could. Florida had wanted to get the lesson done as soon as possible, for she would have to drop off her mother the following day, this day, at Splendido, that awfully named care center, a name that only made her think of fake sugar packets, as pink and red and white as Danny Martinez’s face was right now, looking up, crying to her.
It always amazed her how the children cried with such openness, as if they were being burned alive. It almost made her wish she didn’t cry so much in the privacy of the bathroom, her toothbrush in her mouth or brush in her hair. Danny Martinez didn’t even lift his hands to his face.
A parent, who had been waiting in her car for school to end, suddenly marched onto the courts and headed for Florida, saying, Aren’t you going to stop what’s happening? Don’t you know what’s happening? Those boys. Those boys, she said, pointing.
Danny Martinez wanted to take off his shirt, and Florida said no. There was something obscene in the possibility of seeing fourth-grader Danny Martinez half-naked right now, hairless, and pudgy. Maybe because the thought that he was attractive shot through her mind. A remote thought, it held no significance other than it frayed from the larger fabric of her desire to be loved. As he tried to wriggle his arms into his shirt, she put her hands on his shoulders and told him to stop it, just stop it.
The parent walked over to the boys near the fence, leaving Florida standing there with her hands on Danny Martinez’s shoulders. She led him over to the benches and sat down next to him. She placed her hands into her own lap.
The fear that she had not done anything about the boys overcame her and she felt the need to pry something out of Danny Martinez, something she could lord over this parent, who was making the boys sit on their hands.
I didn’t throw up because of what they said, said Danny Martinez. I promise I didn’t.
Well, what were they saying? asked Florida.
The parent was on her phone with the boys seated around her, and soon the tutor came running back onto the courts, followed by the principal. On the other side of the chain link, Florida could see another adult escorting a young girl, a fellow fourth-grader, who was crying with that blissful vanity she so admired. Florida was also ashamed. She watched as the girl disappeared behind the main school building.
Before the girl turned the corner, however, Florida saw a scratch or a bite mark, something as if from an animal, on the girl’s arm. Boys were little animals, too. She had gone her whole life thinking that she had tamed her surroundings, or tamed her own existence. She saw the wildness that surrounded her, the beginnings of human life, when one laid the groundwork for doing good and terrible things, and these were not always mutually exclusive.
Florida felt sick. She stopped Danny Martinez from repeating what he had heard. It had so obviously upset him. It had so obviously been about the girl. It had been too much for even adults to handle. Why else would a parent come storming in like that? The sight of the girl crying, that undid any doubt that the situation was something serious.
None of my friends like me, said Danny Martinez. I just want people to like me.
Something terrible had happened. There were going to be repercussions, and Florida had done nothing, hadn’t even called the boys over when they were first gathering. She wondered if her inaction had something to do with her mother’s current dilemma, or the lightning-quick transitions of school authority she had found herself in throughout the day. She might never know. She needed to reach out and hold onto something, someone, no matter how small, to show how much she cared. Then she wondered if her mother had ever truly loved her or had merely kept her in the house like some sort of vase to fill and refill with flowers of different kinds, different ornaments of being. Waning. Plucked. On display. Here is my daughter named after the state she will never visit. Here is my daughter the elementary school assistant teacher. Here is my daughter who has lived with me her entire life and now lives alone and lets the flowers die.
Florida sat with Danny Martinez and imagined that they could sit there for a long time and lay out all their secrets and past lives and that would be fine. If she could, she would puke herself inside-out to show him it was a reasonable thing to do.
Danny Martinez hiccuped. He was about to use the end of his shirt to wipe away the tears. Florida could see the young, unblemished skin of his belly. She stopped him and used her sleeve instead. She felt his eyelashes through the fabric. She felt his tears soak up in the hot sun. The ironed sheet of the air had crinkled around them together.
The school bell rang and the classes began to disperse. The implicated boys were rounded up, and their parents were brought to private offices. Teachers were asked to stay late. The parent who had contained the boys was treated as if she were a queen. The whole time Florida sat there, dejected, with Danny Martinez. His parents were typically late. She wanted to tell him that he would be alright and might do something with his life, that there was so much left for him to do, that he could even grow up, if he wanted to, and love her. Then she reflected upon her own life, and she knew she would have to lie to him, though the last thing he needed right now was to be lied to. Ms. Ely had disappeared that day and everyone had felt her absence, while she, Florida, had remained and still no one seemed to notice. She told him that, for now, he had nothing to worry about. Throwing up is perfectly natural, she said. You only did it because you knew what they were saying was wrong and you felt sorry for your friend. And she is your friend. She’s lucky that you’re her friend, too. When the other kids ask you about what happened, just tell them you tried to stop it because you cared, and I’ll say it’s true.
When his parents pulled up in their car, Florida led him over. She guided him into the backseat, shut the door. She was giving him back to the care of those he belonged to. His father was driving. His mother was in the passenger seat, the window rolled down.
Florida said she needed to talk to them for a moment. She had something to say. She said, I have to tell you about an incident on the basketball courts today. Something terrible happened, but your son was very brave.