When I was a kid, my grandmother’s house had a bedroom in the upstairs with a secret room behind a footwall. An attic-turned-storage closet, really. On snow days, my older brother and I felt along the textured wallpaper for the barely-there crack of a door and peeled it open, only the hot, dark air to greet us. Inside, we pretended we were two of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, having found some unknown world, some timeless Neverland. Once, when I was eight and the neighbor girl was six, she and I played alien, innocently stripping ourselves of clothes and letting the other explore the unknown.
I think about that attic room sometimes when I’m sitting on an upside-down bucket in a broom closet on the fourth floor of St. Bishop’s Prep, my colleague Mr. Jeffers beside me, his cigarette disappearing into its red butt. I wonder how much of my grandmother’s dormer room was as inglorious as this one.
Today Jeffers and I smoke first thing in the morning, wondering how many of the boys will make it to class. November has blown in as inches of icy layers, and most of the commuting boys probably still lie in bed, knowing they’ll spend the day playing video games in their basements. The boarders only have to walk here, and so here we are—they and I, Jeffers and the other teachers. I wonder if Merk Shepherdson—who lives thirty yards from my class and still is late every day—will bother to make the trek across the quad. The others will be waiting for me in their aligned desks when I enter, staring out the leaded window at the snow-covered bricks and ivy; the shoveled sidewalks covered with blond boys in pea-coats; the leaves still clinging to the Japanese Maples, making them look like red-velvet cakes coated in icing. And some of them will think, even, how beautiful it is, how lucky they are to be here, looking out at a scene they will, no doubt, come to remember with nostalgia.
“I could’ve used the day off,” Jeffers says, taking a drag. “To grade papers, I mean. I could’ve used a frickin’ snow day.” Jeffers lives in the dorms with the boys and has all the time in the world each morning to get dressed and get here. To grade papers and stay up on his work. And yet he hasn’t buttoned his top button. His tie hangs loosely around his shoulders, and his hair grows shaggy and unkempt. Sitting on a stack of newspaper before me, he scissors a cigarette between his fingers in a dramatic fashion.
Jeffers was also once a student here—one of those kids who bought the school yearbook and asked everyone on the basketball team to sign it. My brother scoffed when he heard about Jeffers’ becoming a teacher, saying only, “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
“Yeah, a snow day would be nice,” I say, thinking of my laptop, which has sat untouched for months; of all the writing I haven’t done since becoming a teacher; of all the things I’d promised myself I’d do instead of landing back at my alma mater, a place I’d already before been happy to leave.
We hear a voice in the hall—a woman’s—and brace for someone to open the closet door. Jeffers places his hand on the doorknob, ready to hold it shut if necessary.
I need to see you after school, young man, Miss Schmidt’s muffled voice says.
Jeffers smirks and nods. “Lucky bastard,” he says, shaking his head slowly. “She’s a hottie.”
“Hmm,” I nod.
“You know what’s going to happen in her class after school, right?” He elbows me and winks, and I wonder if he’s kidding or whether he knows something I don’t. He knows lots of these kinds of things I don’t. I remember once seeing him in the gym, sitting on the bleachers next to a senior, the two of them deep in conversation, their voices drifting in low whispers until Jeffers laughed as though he, too, were seventeen, and I remember thinking at the time that the pair seemed like real friends.
Jeffers’s cigarette barely clings to his full lips, and suddenly I feel uncomfortable being alone with him, my knees only inches away from his.
“Okay, gotta go, man,” I say, extinguishing my own cig on the bottom of my shoe and laying it on a dust tray. “Test day.”