The first day of School
She had traded shifts with the new girl for the school year so that she could be up early in the mornings and then home in the afternoon for the bus. She would work 9-3 and be home all afternoon to have an after school snack and hear all the days stories. It would cost her, the morning shift was notoriously slow so she’d make less in tips and since her mom would be at work too she would need to pay a sitter for the little one. But it was going to be worth it.
She showered in the small windowless bathroom thick with humidity. Coming out wrapped in a towel she looked across the small apartment. The kitchen countertop was badly chipped and sitting on it was a brand new, empty, Hello Kitty lunch box. She didn’t need to pack a lunch or snack because they had qualified for the school meal voucher program at the elementary school. Hello Kitty would never carry food back and forth, but would instead each morning have a note inside it that read, “I love you from the top, to the bottom, and all the way through.” She had bought the lunch box along with the matching backpack even though it cost an extra $5 to help make sure her daughter fit in the with the other kids. The pink backpack lay limp on the floor against the wall. It was empty too. The local church would give her daughter her school supplies in the cafeteria when she got to school. They would provide a folder, a 24 count box of crayons, two pencils, a sharpener, an eraser and a glue stick. This would have to last all year.
She picked up the bedtime story books from the floor and put them on the coffee table and then pushed the table against the wall and folded out the couch. She was tired but anxious. Before laying down to sleep she peeked into the bedroom and watched her two girls sleep. They were lying head-to-foot in a twin bed. The baby, only 18 months slept only in a diaper and was tucked close to the wall and her big girl, 5, was lying on her stomach in princess underwear with an arm hanging over the edge. The room was hot. The windows were open but there was no breeze. Each girls’ dark hair was sweaty and damp and stuck to their face and backs. They had no pillows or blankets.
She didn’t close the door in hopes that some breeze may come, but she tiptoed back to the damp thin fold out couch and lay down to sleep. All the windows were open. The sheets over the windows were still.
In the morning there was a fabulous rush of school nerves and preparation. A special breakfast of pancakes was made, teeth were brushed, hair was braided, and she surprised her older daughter with a brand new pink dress from the thrift store that was special just for the first day of kindergarten. It had a heart of made of pink sequins on it, only a few were already missing.
She counted the minutes for the chain-smoking neighbor to arrive to watch her younger daughter. It would be close enough to get the big one on the bus and be at work on time, but if the sitter was late and they missed the bus, well then quite frankly they were screwed. But she showed up a minute early much to her relief and so she and her daughter were able to walk to the corner bus stop and enjoy the hot late summer morning together.
The bus stop was crowded. Most of the moms seemed to know each other. One introduced herself as the kindergarten room mom. She told her she would send pictures of the first day activities and they traded cell phone numbers. The school bus was loud as it rounded the corner. Her daughter’s hand tightened and she kneeled down in front of her, fixing her braid and straightening her name tag. And then with a simple kiss her little hand let go and disappeared into the dark cavernous bus, up the steep stairs and she was too short to be seen from the sidewalk. She was gone. On her way. The bus pulled off and while she felt like she could’ve stood there waiting till 3:30 to see the bus come back, she had to be at work.
By 10:30 she had checked her phone countless times hoping to see a glimpse of her girl on the first day of school. Work was slow and uneventful. Finally a text. There she was, a smile from ear to ear, sitting on the carpet surrounded by 17 other smiling small faces. Circle Time. She stood staring at the picture and said out loud to no one in particular, “I’m going outside for a smoke.”
And there she stood, in the doorway, staring at this picture, the heat unbearably thick and the smell of urine and garbage overwhelming. Late summer heat and Bourbon Street don’t mix well. She could hear the sound of her daughters voice, hear the laughter of the kids and feel the excitement of being 5. She couldn’t wait to get home. Her boss called her inside. He had a guy who wanted a lap dance. She walked back in to the dark loud room and climbed on to the lap of the old white man who was already hard just at the thought of her riding him. One hand on her breast, the other on her ass while she stared at the clock over his shoulder, thinking about meeting the bus at 3:30.
This story was inspired by this picture, which I took in New Orleans in 2014 around 9:30am and by the many pictures in my Facebook feed that same year showing many affluent first days of school. We really are very lucky.
Originally published on my short story fiction blog, August 26, 2014. Copyright Julie Avellino, not to be reprinted without written permission