Always Alone

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Chapter Five

"HEY, MISS PETERSON, would you like to join me and a few teachers for lunch?" Mrs. Ruiz says after we've taken the kids to the cafeteria.

"Okay," I say.

I'm your classic introvert. I do poorly on big crowds and if you don't talk to me, I will never be the one to engage in conversation. I've spent the last two days having lunch in my classroom because the thought of meeting new people gives me anxiety.

I've always pictured the man I marry to be the complete opposite of me when it comes to socializing. That way whenever we are in a big crowd, he'll take the lead and do all the talking while I just contribute to the conversation with a nod and the occasional smile.

Mrs. Ruiz opens the door to a room not too far from the students' cafeteria. The quote by Benjamin Franklin "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn," is written in bold calligraphy on the wall. It's the first thing you notice when you walk into the room, reminding every teacher who steps inside to engross our kids in learning.

The room is painted a light green with tones of beige as an accent color. In the middle of the room are two dining tables with enough seating for sixteen people.

"Wow," I choke out.

Mrs. Ruiz laughs at my inability to come up with words. "That was my first reaction, too. After a week, you'll get over it, trust me," she says, putting her utensils down on the table and walking over to microwave her food.

I sit on the chair next to where Mrs. Ruiz put her silverware and join three other teachers. One of the teachers dressed in a red dress and heels is grading papers. Why someone would teach elementary and wear heels to class every day will remain a mystery to me 'till I die.

I look down at my clothes thinking maybe I'm underdressed. I'm wearing a white blouse, pants, and flats. I don't see anything wrong with my clothing, teachers dress casual.

During our chat, Principal Garcia said that we represent the school and should dress accordingly. However, a teacher's clothing doesn't speak of what goes on inside the classroom. She said that as long as the kids are learning and improving their test scores, teachers could dress casual, just no ripped jeans or sandals and no see-through clothing.

"Hey, I haven't seen you here before. Are you new?" I turn to a man with an ivy-league haircut, wearing a baby blue button-down shirt rolled up at the sleeves.

"Yes," I say, looking down and opening my leftover mac and cheese. I'm so nervous, I don't even bother with heating it.

One word responses are the best to cut off a conversation.

Seemingly, this man doesn't take the hint. "I'm Mr. James. Henry really, just don't call me that around the kids." He chuckles, showing his slightly crooked teeth. There's something about the way he smiles that gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Is he trying to be funny? I smile out of politeness and say, "I'm Genevieve," looking around for Mrs. Ruiz to save the day. I spot her over at the microwave talking to an older lady with graying hair.

The man looks like he's just had an epiphany. "Oh!" he snaps his fingers. "You're replacing Mrs. Greenhill."

Mrs. Greenhill was Mrs. Ruiz' cooperating teacher until she was diagnosed with stage four cancer and resigned a few months ago. The principal tried to split the classroom with another teacher but couldn't, leaving Mrs. Ruiz to teach all subject areas to thirty-six students for two months until I was hired.

"Yes," I say as I take a bite of food and I'm finally saved from this uncomfortable interrogation when Mrs. Ruiz takes over the conversation.

"I need her, Henry. Don't scare her off." she points a finger at him and takes a seat next to me.

Mr. James shakes his head. "I'm not. I was just asking a simple question." He holds up his hands.

When I look at the clock I'm relieved to see we only have ten minutes left of lunch. I've never been a people person. I'm the type of person who at a party—well, I wouldn't go to a party in the first place, but...—would be playing with the kids instead of mingling with the adults.

"This is her first year of teaching," Mrs. Ruiz mentions, giving him a knowing look.

And the last ten minutes of lunch finish off with every teacher in the lounge reminiscing their first year and wishing me luck.

By the end of the week, I've managed to memorize all of my students' names and have spoken to all the parents by either email or phone, introducing myself as their child's new teacher. I have a ten-page list of things to "look for" and "call me when" for each one of my students.

Most of the parents speak Spanish, which made it hard for me to communicate telephonically with them. I asked for their email, typed it up in English on a document and translated it to Spanish before sending it to them. Why I thought southern parents would be chill, I have no idea.

It's past 7:00 pm by the time I take Angie out for her usual walk. The sun has said goodbye to the Heavens and has been substituted by a full moon so vast, you don't need a telescope to see the bits of gold around its craters. The lamp posts around the building make it impossible to catch sight of the stars. I follow the light to the walking trail and pass by the gym, noting the lights are on, but no one seems to be there.

After my one-weekend run, I haven't been able to build a routine because I've been too tired with school. All I wanted to do was eat, shower, and sleep. That hasn't been the only reason, though.

I didn't want to risk going and seeing the guy from a few nights ago there. I wouldn't have been able to concentrate on exercising. Now that the gym looks empty, I think it's the perfect time to go inside, take a closer look at the machines, and start working on my thighs and butt.

I head home and fire up my laptop to go on Pinterest and look for workouts and sets I should do to firm up my body. After a thirty-minute search, I build a routine and change into my gym clothes. I grab a water bottle, keys, and close the door on my way out.

When I get to the gym, I tap in the code and press on the handle to open the door. The cool AC does wonders to my moist skin. I've only been in Miami for a couple of weeks and I already have a tan. To say that it is tan is a lie. My ghostly skin doesn't tan, it burns and turns lobster red when the sun says hi, which is why I've been wearing sunscreen ever since.

Looking like a professional gym, the place seems bigger than what I remembered. The treadmills are lined nicely next to each other on the left side. In front of me is the massive mirror with a variety of dumbbells on the racks.

There's a squat section. I walk over to it and retrieve like a snail as I don't understand how to use it. It's too advanced for me. There's a machine with a bunch of cables and pulleys with bits of weight on the bottom. I won't even waste my steps walking over there.

My eyes drift around the space until they settle on the boxing bag in the far center of the room and memories of the man hitting it cross my mind.

"Why not?" I say to no one in particular and shrug, crossing over the mat to place my fingers on the heavy bag.

I try to pinch the side of the black bag with my thumb and index finger but it's impossible to do so with the tightness around the sides. The bag feels like it's been filled with sand and grains.

How did the guy make it seem like it was made out of cotton and fluffy clouds? I give it a high-five with my palm and the bag swings back.

A surge of epinephrine passes through me as I put the keys and water bottle on the mat. I have an incredible urge to punch Hansel in the face for what he did to Jess but since he's nowhere to be found, this will have to do.

I begin to build momentum like I've seen in the movies, and jot my feet left to right. I rolled up my shoulders when his face appears in front of me and put my thick hair into a ponytail. Closing my hand up into a fist and gathering all the force my 5'3 frame can muster, I punch the bag. Hard.

"Shit!" I shout, dancing on my tiptoes. I place my hand on my stomach to cover the agonizing pain.

My eyes begin to well; it feels like I punched a brick wall with heavy iron inside. Forgetting all about Newton's Law of Motion, I look down at my knuckles just as the heavy bag comes forward and hits me in the face, making me fall backward on the mat.

Thankfully, the motion didn't break my nose.

I hear a gleeful laugh followed by, "Are you alright?"

I look up to an extended hand marred with black ink all the way to the knuckles. My gaze moves over the Celtic ink in the forearm to the black koi fish in his shoulder. I can feel my doe eyes widening as my pupils dilate, not just from pain, but because the man in front of me is the guy from the gym.

"I...I think so," I stammer, more from his proximity than physical pain.

I sit up and touch my forehead with my unharmed hand, feeling a bump already forming on the side of my head. Looking down at my white shirt, I notice a streak of pink splattered on the thin cloth and turn my hand as tears flow down my cheek when I see my skinned knuckles.

The fragile skin is ripped with a trail of blood spilling out. I twist my hand to take a closer look at my thumb and gasp at the monstrosity. The fingernail has turned a rotting black and the muscles around my thumb are a shade of red, green, and purple. It's swelling up fast.

"Oh, no."

"Can I take a look?" the man asks in a hoarse voice.

For the first time, I look up to his face. I can't stop my heart from thudding loudly out of my chest like it wants to leave my body and magnet to his heart.

His dark hair is closely cut to the scalp. A scruffy shadow lines his chiseled jaw and angular cheekbones. Below his chin to the right of his neck, I notice a geometric star tattoo with only a few portions of it filled. Black, straight eyebrows sit above his viridescent eyes, giving an extension to a defined nose.

As the pads of my fingers touch his hand, a rush of warmth injects my veins and my whole body heats. I let out a small gasp just as he intakes a breath and our eyes lock.

Pale green to pale green.

I've heard it said a thousand times—the eyes are the window to the soul. But it isn't until this moment that I finally understand the phrase. Looking deeply into the eyes of a person, they can show you so many things about them. By just one glance you're able to see a person's emotions, their invisible self.

No words are needed when I look into his green eyes, they bleach with transparency. This man carries shame. His eyes coruscate delusion, impulse, and guilt—so much sorrow. But like any window, it can be seen by both directions and in this instant, I'm wondering what my eyes reflect.

He looks down at my hand and rapidly asks, "Can you move your fingers?"

My fingers tingle as I move them across his calloused palm. "I think you broke your thumb. You're not supposed to close your thumb in a fist, it's supposed to be around the other fingers. Which hand do you drive with?"

"Um...the left."

"I could drive you to the hospital to get it checked out," he suggests.

One of the first things Dad warned me about living in Miami was never to be alone with a stranger. My body might want him, my heart might be intrigued by him, but my brain thinks better of it.

"No, it's fine. I'll just call an Uber," I say, trying my best to stand up without applying pressure to my hand.

"Just trying to help," I hear him mutter in a low voice when I reach the door.

"Thank you," I say without turning around. Breath fills my lungs again when I walk into the starry night.

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