The fifth grade teacher is named Mr. Ashe. —David. He teaches in the classroom next door to mine, and is always asking me questions or borrowing things like the stapler or the three-hole puncher. We talk at recess and after school sometimes while we’re grading papers and quizzes. Some of the other teachers say he has a crush on me, but I tell them he’s just lonely. “We’re neighbors,” I say. “I’m someone to talk to.” David is fifteen years older than me, in his early fifties, and he used to be married. His wife left him and took their daughter with her, and now he never sees them. The other teachers gossip about him when he’s not around, but I try not to. He is attractive, but I can’t imagine dating him. He reeks of cigarette smoke, and sometimes sweat. I wonder what it would be like if I came to his house one day and cleaned it for him, put out fresh linens and washed the windows, cooked him a meal. He rarely eats at lunchtime, though sometimes he brings a limp sandwich on white bread or a bag of potato chips. Sometimes I’ll see him sneaking a cigarette behind the dugout on the softball field while our students run laps and play kickball at recess. He’ll duck his head and look ashamed, and I’ll laugh. I tell him he should quit, that it’s a horrible habit, but he says he needs at least one vice to get through the day. He is attractive in that pathetic way, a man you want to save from himself. I fantasize about saving him, but it would take more than I have to give. And what would I do once I saved him, I ask myself. I don’t know.
Once when I was new and was having a bad day I smoked with him, crouching down so no one could see until I heard my students asking where I was. I stubbed out the cigarette with my foot and covered it with some dirt, then sprayed myself with perfume, even spraying a tiny bit onto my tongue. David smiled at me and took my hand, kissed it, and then held it until I pulled away from him. “You’re blushing,” he said. “It’s sweet.”
“Why did you kiss my hand?” I asked him, and he said he didn’t know. He looked at me until I turned away from him and said I had to get back to my class. Ever since then, whenever we’re outside together he pats his jacket pocket and grins at me, but I shake my head. I try to avoid him at recess, but he always manages to talk to me during the day.
I am talking to the students about primates when he comes to the classroom to ask me a question. “Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are primates,” I tell the children, as I tape a poster displaying pictures of orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas to the wall. The children laugh at the poster, at the silly expressions on the monkeys’ faces. “That little one looks like you,” Michael says to Ben, elbowing him, but when I narrow my eyes at him he gets quiet.
“I have a film about primates to show you,” I say, gesturing toward the television and DVD player that sit on a metal cart pushed against the wall, “but we’ll only watch it if you all are good.” The children sit up straight in their desks and fold their hands in front of them, suddenly model students. When I want them to behave, all I have to say is that we’ll watch a film, even if it only lasts ten minutes.
“What are some things that we know about primates?” I ask the class. “You read about them in your book last night.”
“They’re very smart,” Anton says without raising his hand. His nose is running, it has been for weeks now, and I hand him a tissue before he can wipe it on his sleeve.
“Yes,” I say. “What else?”
“They like to climb,” says Elizabeth.
Before anyone else can say anything, there’s a knock, and I can see David looking into the classroom through the small square of glass in the door. It is Michael’s turn to be the class monitor, and he jumps up to open the door. “Hi, Mr. Ashe,” the students say loudly in sing-song as David comes into the room. He smiles and waves at them. “Don’t let me interrupt your work,” he says.