By Julie Cadman-Kim
Just before Christmas break, the new mandate comes out, the stamp of the superintendent of public education in the upper right-hand corner. This is after the half-baked mandate about keeping a bucket of rocks by the door. And the one that accompanied the same miniature novelty bats you can buy for ridiculously inflated prices at baseball games. It’s after the twenty-fifth school shooting this year, the horror of it spanning the country like a trail of of bloodied footprints in the snow.
I set the memo down on a desk in the front row and warily eye the box Ms. Espinoza in the front office handed me when I punched in this morning. It’s a brown box emblazoned with the Amazon logo. “We ordered 150 of them overnight,” Ms. Espinoza told me, “that’s the beauty of Amazon Prime.” I nodded. I’ve learned to just accept new mandates, to go along with whatever they told me to do, despite the fact that I’m not actually teaching anymore, just prepping kids for the big test in April, the one that they will inevitably fail before they are somehow magically buoyed into the next grade anyway.
“None of these kids can read,” I’d told my principal ten years earlier.
“Well, public schools are in a sad state of affairs, Ms. Morton, but the doesn’t mean you should just throw in the towel.”
“I’m not going to throw in the towel, I just think there’s something more going on—maybe some of them have special needs—”
“We don’t do special needs here—we don’t have the budget for it—or the time.”
“But they can’t read—”
“Ms. Morton, I’m not sure if you’ve ever had to balance a budget—”
“Let me finish. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had to balance a budget around thirty-seven teachers past retirement age making close to a hundred thousand dollars a year each, just hanging on to fatten up their bloated pensions, while at the same time you’re trying to scrounge up the money to pay for extra support from these so-called special needs kids. Have you ever, Ms. Morton, had to do that?”
“I have not.” I tugged at the hem of the Forever 21 blouse I’d purchased with my first paycheck.
“How old are you?” The principal asked, his voice taking on a softer tone.
“You’re young. Let me give you some advice, Ms. Morton: put your energy towards the things you can control—let all the rest go.”
I use a pair of safety scissors to slice through the holiday-stripe Amazon tape. Wrapped in clear sausaged air packets is a gun-metal grey vest, bulging slightly from the explosives nestled in its lining. I reach in. It’s heavy, maybe six or seven pounds. I take off my cardigan and put on the vest, pull up the big industrial zipper. The vest hangs heavy on my shoulders, reassuring, like a winter blanket. In a zippered pocket sits a little plastic box connected by a long insulated wire to the rest of the explosion mechanism. On the box is a dull red rubber button, the kind that aches to be pressed. I zip the pocket closed and then awkwardly stretch my cardigan back on.
“Your D.O.E.-issued suicide vest is to be worn at all times during school hours,” the instructions read. “If the time comes, when it comes, wrap your arm firmly around the assailant and press the button.” At the bottom of the page are the stamped signature of not just the superintendent, but the governor and the president.
I button my sweater just as my students begin to stream in. “Good morning,” I call, my face flushed.
“Miss, what’s wrong with your sweater?”
“It looks like she’s smuggling something in there.”
“You got a gun, Miss?”
“Active shooter!” someone says. They laugh. “Active shooter,” they say again.
I crumple up the mandate and kick the box under my desk. It’s 9:05.
When lunch rolls around, I take my pile of grading and speed walk down the hall to the mandatory meeting in Mr. Eboe’s room. The principal is already there. The room is hotter than the rest of the school, the radiators working overtime, and my colleagues look as sweaty as I am. Some of them wear the vests brazenly. Others, like myself, have gone to the trouble of trying to hide them from our students. Still, word must have gotten around, because on my way to the meeting, all the kids in the hallways gave me a wide berth, hugging the walls and watching out of the corner of their eyes like I might snap. Taking a seat in the front, I curse myself for not being early enough to grab one of the good chairs in the back.
“Tell me again why I can’t hide in the closet with the kids?” one of the kindergarten teachers, a woman in her late sixties is asking the principal. Her suicide vest is covered by a knit Christmas one. The rows of triangled Christmas trees bulge over the explosives.
“It would defeat the purpose of the vest—which is to keep the children safe,” he tells her.
“What about me?”
“Mrs. Alfaro, there’s no need to get hysterical. When the worst happens, we’re going to need you to keep a cool head. If a shooter is in the building, it makes more sense if you just stay and wait.”
Mrs. Alfaro takes her seat, nodding a little too fast, like she’s trying to convince herself.
“Do you have to wear one?” an angry fourth grade teacher demands. He stands up in the back row, fidgeting with the pocket zipper the whole time he’s talking.
“I would if I was asked, Mr. Marks,” the principal says, chubby in his black suit and honest-to-God snake-skin boots.
“Well, I’m asking,” the fourth grade teacher says. “I’m asking you to strap live explosives to your body everyday and pretend like it’s normal.”
The principal rolls his eyes. “Mr. Marks,” he says, “I understand you’re under a lot of pressure here—the state of things today—but you’ve got to work with what you’re given.”
“Well this morning I was given a suicide vest,” Mr. Marks says.
“Maybe you’re thinking about this the wrong way,” the principal says. “Maybe think of it as an early Christmas gift courtesy of the Department of Education. Now you are not only protected in your classroom, but you’re also protected on the street, on the subway—in your own home, even.”
“How does wearing the vest protect me?”
“Well, not you, per se, but those around you. It sets you up to be a hero.”
“It sets me up to be a martyr, and I’m not gonna do it.”
“Mr Marks, the teachers’ union dissolved three years ago. I think we’re well past the point of not gonna do it. This is nation-wide—where do you think you’re gonna go?”
Mr. Marks sits down. The hand on the pocket zipper stills. Other people lean away from him, avert their eyes.
“Now does anyone have any other questions?” the principal asks. He surveys the room. Under my vest, my heart beats insistent against my ribcage. “Good,” he says. “Have a happy holiday, everyone.”
Four hours after school is out, I’m still at my desk grading the kids’ writing, the vest draped over the back of my chair. It’s getting dark outside, but there’s no reason to hurry home. My husband and I live in a 300-square-foot apartment in Manhattan which we began renting during the last economic crash and which we are still—thanks to New York City’s renters’ rights laws—not paying market value for. He works nights anyway, my husband. He doesn’t know when I get home, and I’m asleep long before he gets back. I think about texting him to let him know I’m still at work, just in case anything happens, but I don’t. What’s the point? He neither asks about my day nor wonders where I’ve been when I arrive—I am simply there or not there, as if, when out of his presence, I cease to factor into his reality. I’m like a little avatar materializing on his computer when he hits the power button, ready to yell at him for not doing the dishes.
I grade one last essay and set it onto the stack of finished work. I’ve gotten a quarter of the way through the 125 I have to finish by the end of the week when we’ll be asked to stay even later for parent/teacher conferences. Standing up, I sling my bag over my shoulder. But with the lights off and the door open, something calls me back. On my chair, the vest almost glows in the dark, pulsing like a living thing. I can tell it wants me. I go back and put it on under my sweater and coat.
There, doesn’t that feel better? it asks. Don’t you feel safer now that you’re controlling your own destiny?
“Yes,” I say and lock the classroom door behind me.
On the subway I usually stare at my phone or fall asleep, waking to find myself resting on a stranger or rubbing my forehead when it slams against the pole after a hard stop. Today, though, I don’t do anything but sit upright and watch people getting on and off the train.
Look, the vest says.
A lady in a Santa hat has just walked into my car. She drags a wheely suitcase behind her; three overflowing plastic bags hang on her forearm. The skin of her face droops like a latex mask. From somewhere on her person comes the hyperactive soprano whine of the Chipmunk’s Christmas album. The woman clutches the pole, bobbing to the music, a smile on her face.
Do you think she worries what anyone else thinks about the way she’s living her life? the vest croons. Do you think she gets up in the morning with a thought in her head about anyone but herself? You could learn a thing or two from someone like her.
On either side of me, two men sit down. Immediately their thighs spread wide, pinioning my legs. My knees press tight together to give them space, to avoid touching them.
Do it, the vest prods.
Exhaling, I ease my own legs open until my kneecaps meet theirs. One man acquiesces, startled, and I move to inhabit the space he’s left behind. The other turns to look at me. His baseball cap is low over his eyes, the brim rounded until it’s nearly cylindrical.
Stand your ground; you’re worth it. Don’t let him think he can intimidate you.
“You want something?” he asks.
“Nope.” My voice is void of any emotion. I do not move my leg.
He scoffs and turns away, both of us refusing to cede a millimeter. Our knees touch the whole way home, but I work my hand beneath my coat and under my cardigan. Between my thumb and forefinger, I tug slightly at the zipper pull on the pocket of the vest.
I’m proud of you, the vest says. You’re already doing so well. You’re making incredible progress.
“Thank you,” I say out loud.
“You’re welcome.” The Santa-hat lady grins hard at me. I grin back.
When someone slams into my shoulder as I’m going up the stairs, I freeze. Behind me, a waterfall of swearing overflows at the sudden traffic jam. They wouldn’t treat me like this if they knew I was wearing seven pounds of explosives.
It shouldn’t matter if they know or not; you are owed the same respect as any human being, the vest reminds me.
I nod and stand up straight, readjusting the strap of my bag. Shoulders high, I walk up the rest of the stairs at my own pace.
Outside, the sky is gray and nebulous, and the cold air offers a hoarse whisper of the impending holiday. Shops are dressed in sparkling lights, their windows blooming with painted candy canes and holly. Soon the city will be covered in white, trapping all the all the tears and urine and hotdog water, and blanketing trash bags and broken-down furniture in softness. I walk slowly, savoring each step, letting people walk around me even though it is obnoxious, or maybe because it feels good to be obnoxious.
It’s a beautiful night, the vest whispers.
“It is,” I agree.
“There will never be another night like tonight. It is unique in all time and all space, just like you. Give yourself the permission to enjoy it, the vest tells me. You deserve all the beauty this little world has to offer.
My fingers unfurl to pet the poinsettias for sale outside of every bodega I pass. Over my chest, the vest thrums its approval.
Five flights up, I unlock my door. All the lights are on. Bing Crosby’s “Silver Bells” ricochets off the entryway walls, which are also the kitchen walls. My husband is eating ramen out of a pot over the sink.
He’s home, the vest says.
“You’re home?” I ask.
“I never work Mondays,” he says.
“Nope—not for the last year at least.”
I close my eyes, trying to picture what last Monday had looked like, and the one before that. What time had I come home? Had he been there then? Did we have the same conversation?
If it was important for you to remember, you would have.
I blink my husband back into being.“I guess I forgot.” Some of the magic of the commute home evaporates. I let my bag drop. I take off my coat and sweater and hang them up on the clothing rack permanently affixed under our built-in loft.
“Whoa—what’s that?” my husband asks when I’m back in the kitchen.
“You sound like my students.”
“No, seriously, what is that thing?”
“It’s my suicide vest. The DOE passed them out this morning.”
“Is it, like, a classroom management thing?” He sucks up a mouthful of noodles.
“It’s to take down active shooters.”
“Don’t you follow the news?”
He shakes his head, his eyes still on the vest. “I think heard something about it, but I didn’t know it was actually going to happen. Why didn’t you tell me?”
That’s a lot of emotional labor he’s passively asking you to do. Push back; show him you’re human; you can’t be expected to juggle so much.
I tug the pocket zipper open-shut, open-shut. “I forgot about it,” I say,
Good. Don’t let him pin it all on you.
“There’s been a lot going on.” I finish.
He nods.“Hey, I’ve been thinking, maybe it’s time you actually considered quitting—it seems like things are getting pretty crazy over there.”
Is he always like this?
“Always. Things are crazy everywhere.”
“Yeah, but maybe this is a good time to go.”
Tell him what you’re really thinking.
“Go where?” I ask, “no one would give me an internship at my age—”
Don’t hold back.
“—and you can barely afford your half of the rent as it is.” I give the zipper a hard tug. My pocket gapes halfway open. “I can’t go anywhere.”
“I could take on more hours,” he says, “I could make it work.” He abandons the pot of ramen broth in the sink, his arms crossed, his feet spaced wide like a boxer.
He’s doing it again—he’s putting all the responsibility on your shoulders, forcing you to always be the one who has to make the decisions around here. Besides, it’s not a fair choice—he isn’t giving you any real control.
“If you took on more hours, I’d literally never see you again.” I unzip the pocket all the way. A tickle of thrill tentacles my spine.
“So you’d rather keep going back to that job every day than try something new? Look, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be hard at first, but I think—“
—He’s being reductive—
“I didn’t go into teaching because I thought it would be easy.” I’m ramping up to my usual rant about why someone with an advanced degree insisted on waiting tables at a Vietnamese restaurant, but the vest stops me.
It’s not worth it. He’ll never understand your point of view. Save your energy.
“Anyway,” I stall, “someone has to do it.”
“But why does it have to be you?” he asks. “You’ve worked there long enough—go somewhere else—somewhere they wouldn’t make you wear a suicide vest.”
“There are worse things,” I snap.
The vest hums.
“It’s like you want to stay miserable,” my husband says.
I work my hand inside the pocket.
Remember the night sky? Remember how free you felt?
My fingers coil themselves in the insulated wire inside the deep pocket. They pinch along it, centimeter by centimeter like it’s a rosary. At the end is the little plastic box. On top of that is the red button.
“Misery has nothing to do with it,” I say. “I’m tired, that’s all.”
Ask yourself if this is what you really want. This tiny life, here? With him? When there are countless other realities out there?
I stare at my husband, caught between the two walls of the kitchen, hemmed in by the bedroom door on one end and the living room on the other. His short black hair is riddled with gray, his stomach paunches over the waistband of his sweatpants. He has a new wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Aren’t you tired too?” I ask.
He walks towards me, then stops. “Yeah, I’m tired, but I also have a lot of good things going on in my life.” He smiles and walks the two extra steps it takes to get to me. “And look, I mean it about making it work. I’ll switch my hours or something, I’ll try to be home more, but I really think you should quit your job.”
The vest scoffs. Classic projection. He’s unfulfilled in his own work, so he tries to convince you to quit something you’re good at.
My husband tries to put his hands on my waist, but the vest has erased it.
“What’s going on with your pocket?”
My hand freezes.
He’s changing the subject.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been messing around inside your pocket for the last few minutes.”
He settles for resting his hand on my shoulder. Inside my pocket, my fingers reanimate. I find the box again with the red button. “It doesn’t always have to be you,” my husband says, standing so close I can see a splash of ramen broth on his shirt. “It’s not too late.”
It’s too late.
“What?” I ask.
It’s too late for him to give you advice. He doesn’t realize that standing in front of him is a woman of impossible complexities—a person the likes of which he could never hope to understand.
“You’ve seemed so far away lately,” he says. “What’s going on with you?” He squeezes my shoulder.
Remember the poinsettias? the vest murmurs.
“Yes what?” my husband asks.
Inside my pocket, I stroke the soft, rounded surface of the red button with the pad of my finger. “I think sometimes it makes more sense for me to put my energy towards more productive things.” I say, my back against the door, hand in my pocket.
My finger pulses with unexplored energy. I hold my breath.
The vest trembles.
“Like the things I can control.”
A graduate of Bennington College, Julie Cadman-Kim currently teaches English to middle school students in Seattle. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, and the Sonora Review, where she was selected by R.O. Kwon as the winner of their 2019 Annual Fiction Contest.