Fiction: The Same Kit by Kim Magowan

Photo by Tevarak Phanduang.

Mike had visited the playing fields of the St. Anthony’s campus before, back when he used to coach the boys’ JV soccer and they had away games here. But it had been years: the combination of his tricky left knee and becoming the Academic Dean at Drake had put an end to what he considered young faculty obligations—the sweatiness, the voice made hoarse from sideline shouting, the handing out of wet orange slices, the cat-herding of teenage boys. Of course he’d been to St. Anthony’s three months ago, but that was the other end of campus, when they’d moved in Elizabeth in August. Mostly what he’d seen that visit were endless views of the stairwell, as he went up and down, up and down, carrying all the things that would make Elizabeth’s dorm room homey—the yellow lamp from their guest room, the wicker hamper, the ridiculous number of posters—while Jess and Elizabeth occupied themselves with arranging everything. “You’re so red, Honey,” Jess had said at one point, laughing. “And goodness!”—dragging a fingertip over his dripping forehead—“You’re so sweaty!”

But this side of campus, the green fields, he hadn’t seen in a good ten years. Though of course boarding schools all looked alike: St. Anthony’s could have been the younger sibling of Drake, his own school, where Elizabeth had grown up, and had attended one wretched year before transferring; where Mike and Jess had spent virtually their entire adult lives. It reminded Mike of those house kits Sears Roebuck used to manufacture. All these prep schools popped out of the same box. Mike could picture the unfolding thence of a gray stone chapel, brick dormitories, and identical velvety playing fields.

Mike shaded his eyes, looking for his daughter in the knot of girls on the field, sprinting after a soccer ball. The kids too seemed to emerge from the same Sears kit: slim, fierce, hair scraped into ponytails. Yet not so long ago he’d despaired of Elizabeth being able to blend in so seamlessly.

Abruptly, he straightened. Not because he saw Elizabeth, but because standing at the side of the field was Charlotte McAllister. His body recognized her before his brain, limping belatedly behind, followed suit.

Of course he’d expected Charlotte would be there. She was the coach. He’d rehearsed, on the drive over, for what to say, in what tone. Cordial without being too warm. Yet seeing her—Charlotte was wearing a skirt the wind whipped about—made him realize that he was not, in fact, remotely prepared.

Mike kept his hand, visor-like, over his eyes, and Charlotte turned and raised her own hand, doppelganger-like, to shade her eyes and look back at him. She gave a small, royal wave.

The whistle blew; the game was over. The St. Anthony’s girls lined up to shake the other team’s hands and say “Good game, good game” in that slurry way they did—this ritual also Mike knew well, it sprang from that same boarding school kit that dictated these teenagers they were molding be both competitive and good sports. At last Mike was able to identify Elizabeth, though only because she saw him first, and waved both arms in a grand, wind-milling way, as if steering a pilot to land a plane.

“Dad!” she bellowed. A year ago Elizabeth could hardly make eye contact, spoke so softly Mike and Jess both joked that they were going deaf and needed to have their hearing checked. Mike advanced—towards her, towards Charlotte. But Elizabeth was already hurtling towards him, flinging over her shoulder, “Is it okay if I leave with my dad now, Mrs. McAllister?”

Charlotte smiled—to the marrow of his bones, Mike recognized that wry smile. She said, “Yes, of course Lizzy. Bye Lizzy. Hello Mike.” She repeated the pinched, closed-fingered wave.

***

“Are you sure you don’t want to invite any of your friends?” Mike said, again. “We have room in the car for three of them.”

“Positive,” said Elizabeth. “And don’t worry, Dad! I promise I have friends. If you come up to my dorm room after dinner I’ll prove it. But I haven’t seen you in ages, so let’s make it just the two of us.”

Mike looked at her closely and Elizabeth, mockingly, squinted back. “Really, Dad! I’m good,” she said, and he had to concede she looked good. That horrible dullness, like someone had blown out her eyes, was gone. One night last winter, when Jess was away at her book club, so not filling the house with chatter, Mike had watched Elizabeth. Slumped at the table, she was pushing around her salad with the tines of her fork. Startled out of his own sadness, he’d thought, Ah, you too. Her depression had frightened him in part because it was like looking into a mirror.

“Give me two seconds to shower, I’ll be right down.”

Mike waited in the Common Room of Elizabeth’s dorm—the Common Rooms also seemed to have sprung from the same kit, with their comfortable, stained chairs, and the carpet worn to the nub, looking nibbled. Two girls lounged a few feet away from him. The boneless way teenagers slouched made Mike want to send them all to chiropractors. “Griffin didn’t even notice me,” he heard one girl say. Soon Elizabeth bounded down the stairs, hair wet and combed, blue coat slung over her shoulder. The girls said, “Hey Lizzy!”

“See Dad? Friends,” she said, as they exited the dorm, her arm hooked in his.

“They call you Lizzy?”

Her eye roll was Jess’s, exactly. “Everyone calls me Lizzy.”

***

“You sure you ordered enough?” Mike laughed. “Clam chowder, salad, baked potato, and steak?”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “Don’t you know better, Dad, than to shame adolescent girls about having healthy appetites? Don’t they review all that in your deadly faculty retreats? Besides, my one complaint about St. Anthony’s is the food. It’s not awful, but it’s so, so bland, and the meat is always overdone. Well, the salad bar is good. Better than Drake’s. They have pepperoncini—you know what those are? Those sour pickled peppers?”

“Sure,” said Mike, and then, shame-facedly, “Sorry.” Elizabeth was exactly right about those faculty retreats. Just last fall they’d had a special speaker, someone who taught Gender Studies at U Mass, caution them about making sure, at Sunday sit down dinners, that teachers presiding at each table offered girls second helpings just as often as boys. Likewise, to make sure they called on girls just as often as boys in class. She’d told them about a study where the teachers used a counter to track that they called on both genders equally. The boys had complained that they were being ignored, because they’d gotten—everyone had gotten—so used to preferential treatment.

“No worries,” said Elizabeth, with a shrug.

“So, other than the overcooked meat: are you happy?”

“Oh yes, absolutely! St. Anthony’s is a much better fit for me than Drake. I know you love Drake, Dad, but you get it, right? I was always Dean Hallinan’s kid. It just wasn’t tenable.”

“‘Tenable!’” Mike said, smiling.

“What? I used it properly.”

“So you did.” In just three months, Elizabeth looked older; studying her face, Mike could see the woman she would become. He enjoyed this assertive, self-confident version of his daughter, much as it startled him—Elizabeth, so indecisive she could barely get dressed in the morning, the floor of her room a hurricane wreck of discarded clothes. So insecure she could hardly be induced to speak in class, and when she did, she’d mumble.

“So how are classes?” Mike said.

“Oh, I love them! Except for Latin, that’s a total waste of time.” As Elizabeth talked about European History and Spanish and Chemistry, Mike nodded. Jess had been right, after all. Mike had seriously worried about Elizabeth, wondering if they should get her on antidepressants, get a psych consult—“Something is clearly wrong!” he’d said, with the authority of someone who had taught high school for twenty years.

“Nothing a change of scene won’t fix,” said Jess, which Mike had taken as more evidence of Jess’s naive optimism, her blithe “Everything will sort itself out!” way of stomping into the world. His wife reminded Mike of someone wading in puddles without rain boots. Look at how blind she’d been to Mike the last two years, the way he’d been distracted first by happiness, then grief. “What’s that French expression?” Jess had said to him once. “You’re dans la lune, Honey.” Mike had flinched, but her comment was lightly tossed, and a moment letter Jess was pouring him tea. “I bet you’re coming down with a cold.” Mike pictured his wife like the Peanuts character Pigpen, except instead of being encased in a dust cloud, Jess bopped around in some iridescent bubble. She wasn’t adequately equipped for the difficulties of the world.

Yet she’d been right about Elizabeth.

“The teacher I love most is Charlotte,” said Elizabeth. “Mrs. McAllister, I mean, but she told me that when we’re not around other kids, I can call her Charlotte. She said, ‘After all, Lizzy, you’ve known me since forever.’ Funny thing is, I didn’t really know her when she was at Drake. I mean, you were good friends with her, but to me she was just another scary adult. And she’s the best coach. I dreaded soccer, but she’s all about ‘identify and release your inner killer.’ Now I attack the ball, I go for it! And I never much liked math, but she’s a fabulous geometry teacher. She says geometry proofs are like composing a story. You visualize what you’re trying to prove, and then you align all the steps. Like this.” Elizabeth took a handful of plastic envelopes of oyster crackers from the basket in front of them, began arranging them in a line.

“Yes, I know Charlotte is a great teacher,” Mike said. “Her evaluations were always through the roof.”

“She explains something, and it’s like a mist is lifted, and everything suddenly makes sense,” said Elizabeth.

Mike stared at the path of oyster crackers. He knew that technique of Charlotte’s well, the way being with her made things clearer and sharper, the air more oxygenated. They’d been friends for almost the whole duration of her tenure at Drake, that is, once she told him off for being stuffy and old-fashioned. From the day eight years ago he’d hired her, Mike had found Charlotte attractive, though stealthily so—it was less about her looks than her vibrancy. He was always surprised, when he looked at photos of Charlotte in yearbooks, at how still pictures failed to capture her. But he’d imagined that his attraction was the remote, never vocalized, purely interior kind that he felt for other women—the lady at the farmer’s market who sold mushrooms, Julianne Moore—until that night almost two years ago when, over beers, Charlotte had leaned forward and kissed him. They’d gone on a clear-the-air walk the following day. It had been spring; the grass was long and wet.

“I don’t know what you’re picturing, but it’s not like I see us working as a couple,” Mike had said, as they walked side by side, relieved that he was not saying this face to face, skewered by Charlotte’s sharp eyes. “We’re too much alike, you and I. We’re both melancholy, and easily frustrated.”

“All that would be relevant, and might give me pause, if I were looking for a partner,” said Charlotte. “But I’ve already got one, and so do you.”

“So what do you want?” Mike had said, coming to a halt. Charlotte stood in front of him, smiling. His fog had lifted, as if suctioned by a machine, leaving him facing the bright glow of her.

“She’s wonderful, isn’t she?” Elizabeth said, and Mike nodded. He looked up and into Elizabeth’s blue eyes, the clear-sky color of Jess’s. Mood ring eyes, he thought of them. When Elizabeth had been so depressed last year, they’d been murkier.

“Dad, about Charlotte. I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Elizabeth said, and Mike steeled himself.

“Yes?”

“Do you think she’s happy?”

“I don’t know,” said Mike, truthfully. Joyful: he’d certainly seen a joyful side of Charlotte, her cheeks warm and pink as if she were facing a furnace. Happy, he was less sure about. In some ways Charlotte had felt completely transparent to him. He’d intuitively known how to please her. But he had trouble reading her—weirdly enough, she’d become more opaque when their relationship altered. “Don’t try to protect me,” she’d told him in its early days. “I’m a mathematician; I’m perfectly capable of calculating risks. Take care of your own self. If this gets too hard, I promise I’ll let you know.”

“Why’d she leave Drake?”

“Oh… I gather Adam wanted to be closer to the city for work. I think the commute was becoming a real hassle.”

Elizabeth studied him, and Mike fought the impulse to look away. “Well, for my sake I’m glad,” Elizabeth said, simply, and then, “Yay, soup!”

***

“Great seeing you Dad,” said Elizabeth, when he pulled up outside her dorm. The prior invitation to come up to her room seemed forgotten. Mike considered reminding her, but he still had the ninety-minute drive home. “Tell Mom to send me more snickerdoodles.”

“Will do, darling.” He watched his daughter bounce into her dorm. It was already dark, the early night of November. The black tree trunks against the inky sky looked almost liquid.

Mike took his cell phone out of his pocket and texted a number he hadn’t in well over a year.

Elizabeth tells me you’ve been very kind to her. Thank you for that.

Phone in his palm, he saw the wavering three dots: someone is typing.

My pleasure. I’m very fond of Lizzy.

He texted back, I noticed you called her Lizzy!

Everyone does. It’s what she likes to be called. Yes, I saw you grimace. Nickname snob. And (ahem) Mike.

Smiling, he wrote something, then deleted it. He imagined Charlotte, holding her phone, looking at the same flickering three dots. Like the oyster crackers in the restaurant, stepping stones to somewhere.

Well, thanks, he typed at last. He turned off his phone, and headed down the black, quiet road towards the freeway.

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, JMWW, New World Writing, Smokelong Quarterly, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com

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