Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

— Virginia Woolf

An Impromptu Lesson on Black Holes

by Michelle Ross

I envisioned all of us hiding inside one black hole—together.

But that’s the problem, really. He became too good at hiding.

I HAVE A HABIT of worrying about improbable outcomes. For instance, Nick packs our perishables for a camping trip in an ice chest along with two bags of ice, and I feel sure that the food will be room-temperature by the time we back into our reserved camping spot; that the yogurt, cheese, sliced carrots, and deli meat will draw heat with the cunning of an alligator snapping turtle wriggling its wormy tongue to attract prey. To reassure myself, I reverse the scenario in my head: if I wanted the perishables Nick packed in ice to be room temperature by the time we arrived, I could be certain I’d end up having to brush ice crystals from the ham.

 

I try the reversal now. Imagine he’s a good guy, and I want him to find us, only we can’t make a sound, can’t show ourselves—we’re in a black hole. How could he find us?

 

Especially if we are in danger because a bad man, a gunman (like a mythological chimera, only part man/part gun) is also coming for us. Yes, then I would think, the good guy will not find us in time.

 

It’s not working.

 

Perhaps because our being found and killed is not an improbable outcome.

 

Four minutes now, and still I haven’t heard the click of Sheila’s heels against the tiles or her hand on the classroom doorknob, checking that I locked it. When Sheila announced the lockdown on the intercom, she neglected to use the words “drill” or “practice.” An oversight. Our first drill has been on the calendar since the start of the school year three weeks earlier. (Three weeks, Sheila said during a planning meeting, should be enough time to acclimate the children to classroom routines, “to get them comfortable.”) But the fact of the matter is this: if Sheila had said “drill,” my legs wouldn’t be shaking. I wouldn’t be clenching them with the rigid determination of a person trying to hold in intestinal gas.

 

It was at the dinner table, Nick across from me—chewing, chewing, chewing—that I came up with this idea of black holes as a metaphor for lockdown drills.

 

Black holes aren’t part of the kindergarten curriculum, and I won’t teach the unit on space science until spring, after we study rocks and soil and other earthly phenomena. This impromptu lesson on black holes lends a new meaning to teaching to the test.

 

I told the children that black holes keep everything hidden inside them; that they could be bright as carnivals inside, but from the outside, all you see is darkness. Then, Alesha Sims, who at the age of six is the resident expert on everything, raised her hand and said, “Actually, light can get out, eventually.”

 

I didn’t argue. Her parents are scientists. Twice a month, they send over graduate students to conduct hands-on experiments with all the children in grades K-5. They’ve been doing this for two years, since Alesha’s older brother, Ezra, started school. We didn’t do lockdown drills then.

 

When I started teaching ten years earlier, after my younger daughter started kindergarten, the teacher who mentored me said that it takes six years to get to the point where you feel truly confident as a teacher. Six, she said, as though it was an indisputable fact: a price tag on a bottle of wine. I’d thought she was nuts. Then, my seventh year of teaching, I remembered, and I thought, yes.

 

Now I wonder if in six years I will be comfortable with lockdown drills. So far, I feel like I’m doing everything wrong. For instance: black hole?

 

I envisioned all of us hiding inside one black hole—together. The image in my head had been something like the time a parent brought a red parachute to class, and we’d all grabbed hold of the perimeter, pulling it down over our bodies so that the parachute plumped up like a fruit, and I’d said to the children that it was as though we were seeds inside the flesh of a tomato.

 

Five minutes since Sheila’s announcement. The children, all twenty-three of them, stare at their shoes just as I suggested, so they won’t get the giggles or forget to refrain from talking. Even Jeremiah and Julio, who are always arguing about whose turn it is to play with the magnets or the animal adaptations matching game. Even Tanya, who asks to go to the bathroom two dozen times a day. I can’t even hear their breathing over the hum of the air conditioner. They have taken to the “activity” (not “drill”—too much explaining; not “game”—too fun) with such earnestness, it’s as though they really aren’t here.

 

Or: it’s as though they are dead. Playing possum. Even among animals other than humans, for which most predatory behavior is a matter of necessity, predators aren’t interested in already-dead prey. Of course, for most predators, this preference is judicious: fresh kills help ensure your meal doesn’t make you sick.

 

I suppose we are also adapting a protective strategy similar to that of a school of fish or a herd of zebra the way we are wedged together in the cubby room. Safety in numbers: the rationale being that as an individual you’re difficult to pick out from the crowd. Of course, for this method to be effective, we would need to be in motion. We would need opportunities for escape. In truth, we are more like fish caught together in a net.

 

But we are not “together” really. We are each an individual black hole, each of us alone.

 

Nineteen years of marriage now, and the evenings our teenage daughters are out with their friends or at extra-curricular activities, Nick and I sit across from each other at the dinner table, and our communication often consists of a series of mundane questions: How was your day? Did you happen to make it to the post office? Do you want the rest of that parmesan? We emit a string of one-word answers like microscopic photons thrown off our surfaces: fine, yes, no.

 

Each of my answers has a paired response, trapped inside it by nuclear forces. I feel them like lead balls in my core.

 

During our staff meeting about the lockdown drill, nobody raised the question of whether a gunman would be so easily fooled by a quiet building and locked doors when outside, the staff section of the parking lot is full of cars. Is he supposed to think we’re all on a field trip?

 

Nick seems to be so easily fooled by my silence during dinners when the girls are out. If he suspects that I withhold, he doesn’t let on. He takes what I give him. Then he clears the table.

 

Five and a half minutes. Like the children, I stare at my shoes. I’ve given myself a headache the way I used to at solo contests when I played clarinet in high school. Then, I was afraid of failure: missing a note, making the instrument squeak, public humiliation.

 

What I want is for Nick to notice my absence—to come looking for me, draw me out. Like we’re playing hide-and-go-seek.

 

But it’s as though my presence or absence makes no difference to him. Like he can’t see me either way. Like no light gets in there, wherever he is. I wonder sometimes if he’s no less hidden from himself than he is from me.

 

When we tried couples therapy a few years back, his body was in that plush blue chair with the brown paisley pillow, but his mouth output scanty, depreciated words about how he loved me and wanted our marriage to work. More scattered photons. And afterwards, when I suggested we do our assigned homework—identify and compare our “love languages”—Nick didn’t know what I was talking about. Homework? he said. Love languages? Like his input valve had been shut off even more than his output valve. Or: maybe there’s a barrier in his head that prevents input and output from mixing until he’s ready. Like the reactants in a hot pack. They’re inert until you break the barrier, and then comes the chemical reaction.

 

Nick isn’t one for heat.

 

I try to draw him out sometimes. I wave my arms. I holler. I tell him how alone I feel.

 

He just shakes his head. He looks exhausted. I don’t understand what you want, he says. I love you, he says. I’m a good man, I’m a good man, I’m a good man.

 

What he means is what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t stay out late drinking. He doesn’t do coke. He doesn’t crash his truck through backyard fences. He doesn’t hit me.

 

Nick’s father did all those things. He was a bucket emptier, to use the metaphor I teach the children to help them measure their feelings and how they treat each other. As in, when you pushed Robby, you spilled his bucket. When you helped Cara stand up when she fell, you filled her bucket.

 

Sometimes I think Nick’s father shot holes in his bucket, that refilling it is impossible: the love just dribbles right back out.

 

Nick’s father is why Nick is a black hole.

 

I guess I could blame my parents too—for my being attracted to a man who hides from me, whose hiddenness drives me to hiding also. But where does that get me? Blame is how a man ends up massacring children and teachers at a school. Or: people in a movie theater or a mall or a political rally.

 

Do these gunmen blame the people they kill? Or: are we just easy targets?

 

The way Nick was an easy target for his father.

 

The stories Nick has told me are heartbreakers. They have more than a little to do with why I fell in love with him in the first place. He knows what it’s like to live in fear of terrible violence. He knows what it’s like to hide and hope to God you’re not found. He knows how to survive.

 

But that’s the problem, really. He became too good at hiding.

 

And maybe I’m not one to talk. Nick is an easy target for me too. For my fear that I married too hastily. For my regret that I gave up grad school to have babies. That I watch too much television and don’t exercise enough.

 

No one tells you that when you teach children, whether yours or someone else’s, you will constantly come face-to-face with your hypocrisy. Like this bucket stuff. I’ve been talking to children about their buckets for years—teaching them how to fill their own buckets and the buckets of others. Fill others’ buckets, I say, and you inadvertently fill your own.

 

The problem I don’t address: how do you fill anybody’s bucket when you’re overflowing with resentment? Or fear?

 

I wonder now, what is the measure of the distance between Nick and me? What is the measure of the distance between us and these gunmen who take their resentments and fears out on innocent strangers?

 

Nick isn’t a bad man, no. But does that make him a good man?

 

Am I a good woman?

 

Seven minutes. As much as I’m worried that the children will make a noise and that a gunman will find us and make us silent forever, I’m also suddenly worried that they will be silent forever whether or not a gunman comes. I’m worried that they will hide from themselves and from the people who love them.

 

I’m worried about the anger their fear will breed.

 

We’re rehearsing for our deaths, after all. If the children didn’t understand the gravity of what we’re doing here in the cubby closet before, they surely grasp it now. Their teacher’s legs are trembling as though a T. Rex is about to grab hold of her with its teeth. Their teacher puts her finger to her lips even though Tanya’s tights are soaked, her neck red with shame.

 

There’s no reversal to help me out here. Anger and fear are shackled together.

 

All I have is this: despite everything, it’s Nick I long for right now. I almost believe that I exert force enough to draw him here from wherever he is, no matter the distance or the magnitude of the forces keeping him away.

 

And this: what Alesha said about black holes, that eventually light will escape.

 

Once this drill ends, if this drill ends, I will spend the remainder of the day—and the school year, if it comes to that—drawing the children out of hiding. Tell us how you feel, I’ll say. Tell us what you need.

This impromptu lesson on black holes lends a new meaning to teaching to the test.

Do these gunmen blame the people they kill? Or: are we just easy targets?

MICHELLE ROSS’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Broad!, Cream City Review, Moon City Review, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, SmokeLong Quarterly, Superstition Review, Word Riot, and other journals. Her debut story collection, There's So Much They Haven't Told You, is winner of the Moon City Press 2016 Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming in February 2017. She serves as Fiction Editor for Atticus Review.

 

The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.

—Cervantes, Don Quixote

© 2016 The Indianola Review