Nerves rattle like iron butterflies in her stomach, making Pam’s legs shake and her hands tremble. She’s green with inexperience (or maybe that’s nausea) as she makes her way into the front office. She repeats the credentials on her degree to the anxious parts of her. You have a master’s in education. Think you can handle ninth graders with finger paint? The kids won’t even be here for another two weeks.
The front desk feels slippery under her sweaty palms as she taps her fingers to get the secretary to turn around. She does.
Pam almost gets lost in her wavy red hair, the soft dip of her nose, the light stain of pink in her cheeks that she’s pretty sure isn’t artificial. She clears her throat.
“I’m Pam. Pam Beesly? I’m the new art teacher. They told me to check in at the front office before I went to my classroom…?”
“Oh! Right. You’re Pam. I’ve been expecting you.” Her voice is probably what you’d expect from a pretty, tiny woman: bubbly and high. “I’m Katy.”
She gives Pam some forms to fill out, a copy of the school policies, et cetera, and points her toward her classroom. “Down the hall to the left. The one with the red paint smear.” That can’t be a good sign.
Katy’s eyes follow her as she swings open the door to the front office, wiggling her fingers at her when Pam smiles over her shoulder.
As first days go, Pam’s is fairly normal. She meets other teachers, makes polite small talk.
“Pam Beesly, the new art teacher.”
“No, I’m not married.”
“An apartment a few blocks away.”
“This is my first teaching job, actually.”
She gets lost once trying to find the staff bathroom, but her class is neat and tidy with bleached walls (with the small exception of the door) that she’ll cover over with posters of Monet and Picasso, and it’s quiet while she munches on her spinach salad at lunch time.
She’s walking to her car at three o’clock, waving politely to the gym teacher Roy as he’s pulling away in his pickup and pauses to let her cross ahead of him. Sunlight catches fire in her line of sight, and she looks over the roof of her car and a few others it’s to find the secretary just reaching her own driver’s side door.
“Hey,” Pam calls out, uncertain but hopeful, and Katy’s face turns. She smiles.
“Hi! How was your first day?” She sounds like she’s actually interested in knowing, but it could just be her imagination.
“Okay, actually. I guess we’ll see how it is after Labor Day, but right now… okay.” Her resulting smile is tentative.
Pam gives a little awkward wave, not having much else to say, but she pauses when she hears Katy’s voice again.
“Do you want to have lunch tomorrow?” Pam’s eyes meet hers over glinting aluminum and there’s something there. She can’t quite place it. “I usually eat alone, but it’d be nice to have someone else, you know?”
She does know, and so her face lights up. Soft and slow, but it’s definitely there, in synch with the warm bloom in her chest.
“I’d love to. My classroom at noon?”
When Katy nods, her curls bounce and shimmer, and she slides into the car seat with a light sigh.
“What did you think when you first met me?” Pam will ask years later, curled up on a golden mustard-colored couch, with Katy tucked into her side and a sleeping horse of a dog snoring at their feet.
“I thought you were the most beautiful nauseous woman I had ever seen,” Katy will admit wryly. Her cheek will pillow against Pam’s arm and her eyes will speak volumes of truth just waiting to be read.
But that’s the Future, and we aren’t there yet.
“I try to be more involved in stuff besides the office.” Katy’s explaining what working here is like, but Pam has a feeling it’s also a guide to how to survive in a public school. She pays attention carefully. “Like, I coach the cheerleading squad.”
And she snorts because, well, of course she does.
“You should try it,” she nudges slyly, and her eyebrow arches. “I mean, not cheerleading. But, I don’t know. An art club? We’ve never had one, but I’m sure there are tons of kids who might be interested.”
“We’ll see,” she hedges, and steals some of her nilla wafers.
The first day of school is a mess. She doesn’t think her hair has ever been more frizzy, like it’s responding to her stress instead of the humidity like it normally does; a tube of green paint explodes in front of the door to her classroom; she gets her class schedules mixed up. And she’s pretty sure the shop teacher Dwight called her a communist under his breath.
“The first day is always the worst,” Katy comforts, when they meet at their cars after work, a sympathetic expression shadowing her face and causing the corners of her mouth droop. “If it makes you feel any better, I forgot to do the announcements this morning and didn’t realize until halfway through homeroom.”
She laughs shortly, decompressing, before offering a small smile in return.
“That’s the spirit. Cheer up! Only ten more months to go.”
They groan in synchronicity, then giggle like dorks at their tiny inside joke as they both slip into their respective cars.
This is September, and they are only just beginning.
Pam collects a modest handful of art students from her classes, appointing them a time slot after school to discuss ideas, exchange information about scholarships and opportunities in the city, and air creative grievances.
Katy helps her set up the classroom, all the while chirping out little bubbles of advice and encouragement. A student from Pam’s Art 3 class, Chelsea Harper, steps forward as club president, off of Katy’s advice to choose the person most excited about art, and yet most responsible. Every Thursday afternoon, the band of young artists meets in Pam’s classroom, spending most of the time off topic and loving it.
It’s wonderful to see their eyes light up when they talk about their art, or poetry or music, even politics, if they promise to keep it diplomatic. Katy sees the change it causes in Pam after a meeting, her hands animated as she describes her prized students and their conversations, her words spiked and loud in the empty parking lot. Katy points out Pam’s excitement and laughs, delighted that she’s found her own little niche in the jungle of public high school. She pulls Pam close in the chill of the autumn evening and gives her an encouraging little squeeze. Pam’s cheeks shade a rusty red, like the skin of ripe apples just picked and plopped in a barrel, but if Katy notices she doesn’t remark on it.
(It’s not a coincidence that Pam’s art club meetings fall on the same day as Katy’s cheerleading practices; she likes that they can walk to their cars together, sometimes arm in arm, and that, if the timing is right, they’ll grab dinner or a cup of coffee together after work. But she tries not to think too hard about her reasoning.)
(And if it gives her the chance to interrupt Coach Anderson’s blatant attempts at flirting with Katy, then that’s just an added bonus.)
Back-to-school night arrives like an Acme anvil, and Pam is left scrambling to pin up all the artwork her classes have created so far this semester, lay out brochures for art contests that the students won’t take seriously but hopefully their parents will, and to make herself look professional instead of like the scared college student she knows herself to be. She trades her paint-splotched work shirts and jeans for a collared button-up and dry-clean-only dress pants, praying to the god of accidental spills that nothing will happen to them in the chaos that is her classroom. So far so good.
“Za za zsu,” Katy whistles from the doorway, looking her up and down, and Pam nearly drops the stack of palates in her hands. “You clean up real nice, Miss. Beesly.” Katy flutters her eyelashes coquettishly and fans a dramatic hand over her face, pretending to swoon.
“Oh shush,” Pam giggles, swatting her with a clean rag and turning to scrub a mysterious green substance off one of the tables. “Are you here just to taunt me or did you have a real reason?”
Pam bends over the desk and Katy speaks.
“Just enjoying the view.”
Pam’s shocked eyes meet Katy’s sparkling ones, and with a departing wink she’s turning to leave.
Her students get approval to paint a wall mural in the arts wing and later, when they’ve proved their talent and neatness, another in the English hall.
Pam is gathering the supplies slathered with paint into a single mess bucket in the empty hallway, her students now safe from clean-up duty behind the doors of their next classes, when the classroom behind her opens up. She turns, eying the teacher’s triangular torso and hesitant smile. She hasn’t met this one yet; she doesn’t have much reason to wander into this part of the school, and her classes and their resulting chaos take up most of her time. Case in point.
“Hey,” he greets, hands in his pockets, “You need some help?”
Pam’s gaze sweeps across the stretch of newspaper carpeting the linoleum and the peppering of paintbrushes and masking tape. She nods enthusiastically.
“That would be great, thanks.”
Through the conversation that follows as they tidy side by side, Pam discovers that though they’ve never met, she’s definitely heard of Mr. Halpert; the school has been abuzz with gossip about his nasty split from his wife, an Italian literature professor from the college town next to theirs.
She sympathizes; he seems like a nice guy.
If she had looked up, she would have seen Katy’s retreating back, an invitation for coffee murdered between her pressed lips and jealousy in her hazel gaze.
“You should wear your hair down more often,” Katy says thoughtfully, about a month later, over the deafening hum of the cafeteria.
They had managed to wrangle the schedule so they now have lunch duty together, the scourge of teachers and office workers alike. There isn’t much to it: breaking up minor fights, keeping the kids in the lunch line from bowling over the freshman, clearing out the stragglers hoping to skip their next class by hiding out in the cafeteria. But it’s a pain if you’re manning the post without a chat buddy to keep you company.
“You think?” Pam apprehensively questions, pressing a timid hand to her free-flowing locks. Katy grins and nods, reaching over the cafeteria table to twirl one renegade curl around her index finger. Pam can feel the heat of her palm, so close to her neck and she gasps in a tiny breath from the proximity, eyes darting around to their surroundings.
Katy doesn’t seem to notice.
Pam had always hated her November birthday, hated how it wasn’t warm enough to be outside but rarely snowed, hated how she always got sweaters or mittens as presents, hated how she never had it off for school, always just a few weeks away from Thanksgiving break.
But this year she doesn’t mind so much.
“It’s not much,” Katy explains with a self-deprecating shrug, pushing the puff of yellow and green tissue paper toward her. “But I thought you might like it.”
Pam’s eyes dart from the present to Katy as her smile grows, pulling the package toward her and holding down a giggle as she tears away the wrapping.
“I figured it was fitting, since, you know. Teachers. Apples. Isn’t that a Norman Rockwell thing?”
Katy gestures to the apple scented bath set in Pam’s hands.
“I love it,” Pam laughs, pulling Katy into a hug.
“I only used it as an excuse to smell your hair,” Katy will explain off-handedly quite a while down the road, her hand flopping around like a beached fish in a show of insignificance.
“Really?” Pam’ll respond, flabbergasted, resisting the urge to press her hand into the concave of her clavicle like some silver screen starlet. “You devious little hussy!”
Katy will merely smirk devilishly and interlace their fingers.
But for now Pam just pulls away with a shy grin and asks when Katy’s birthday falls.
“August,” she nods, a glint to her eyes, “August twelfth.”
“So what are your plans for the holidays?” Pam questions Phyllis, stacking another tray of cookie sheets on a shelf.
The art and home ec rooms are two hallways apart, but the two share a supply closet, and Pam has gotten to know the other woman pretty well despite the age difference. They chat about their families, hopes for the future. (Neither want children of their own, and they bond over exasperation with the looks they get when it comes up in conversation.)
“Nothing much. Just visiting Bob’s family in Vermont like always,” Phyllis’s husband works at a vocational school just down the road specializing in heating and refrigerator installation. He comes up in conversation a lot. “And you?”
Pam shrugs, lifting a bin of paint to stack on top of another containing flour and sugar. It’s a wonder they ever find anything in here.
“I’ll probably just drive over to my mom’s. My dad is in Hawaii for the holiday, so not much going on there.”
Phyllis looks disappointed for some reason, and before she can fully make the decision to let it go, the other woman pipes up.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Phyllis says shyly, “Is there- You know? Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“It’s fine, whatever it is. Just ask.” She’s a bit apprehensive, especially since Phyllis is known on the staff for her bluntness. She figures maybe this has something to do with the gossip surrounding that pug-faced shop teacher who hates everyone except that snobby math teacher and what everyone suspects goes on in the supply closet on the other side of the school.
“Okay,” she sighs, setting down a wreath and placing her hands on her hips, “Is there something going on between you and Katy?”
Pam’s stomach drops out as her face sizzles into a warm, pink color, and her eyes are everywhere but looking at her companion.
“What do you mean? We’re friends.”
She sees Phyllis nod out of the corner of her eye, in what she suspects is not acceptance but sympathy.
They continue to stock the shelves in silence.
“This is like a train wreck,” Pam says in horrified awe, watching Vice Principal Scott parade around on stage, accidentally insulting both the foreign language department and several minorities. And in an effort to include the Hanukkah-observing students, she’s pretty sure he just called Santa out as a Jew. Don’t ask.
Katy giggles, delighted. “I know, right? It’s a wonder he hasn’t been sued, or chased after by an angry mob sent from the ACLU.” Michael gestures obscenely to the principal with a Star of David and the blonde buries her head in her hands. “We should have popcorn.”
Pam smiles slightly over at Katy, quickly averting her eyes back to the stage. It’s the last assembly before winter break and the auditorium is buzzing with excitement over the predicted weekend snowstorm and the imminent two-week release. But she can’t focus on the time off; she’s still thinking about Phyllis’ interrogation just a week before.
Well, that’s unfair. She had only asked. But she had felt like a light was shining in her face and someone was demanding an alibi that she didn’t have for the night of the crime. She had had no idea how to respond. Was something going on? What thing qualified as something?
The students are released with an annoyed hand gesture when no one laughs at Michael’s Kwanza joke, and the two women rise quickly to help retain order and prevent a stampede as everyone rushes the exits. Some teachers included. They get separated in the wash of the masses, but when Pam finally makes it back to her car Katy is waiting for her.
The redhead is leaning her shoulders against her car, her bright violet scarf wrapped around her mouth and fog puffing out from the folds of the fabric. Her hands are stuffed in her pockets and she juts her hips out, swaying as she waits.
“Hey,” she calls out softly, the empty parking lot and the thin winter air magnifying the sound infinitely. Katy’s cheeks bow as she glances over at Pam, and though her lips are covered she can tell she’s smiling. She pushes off from the car, using a gloved finger to tug down her scarf.
“Hey yourself. Are you busy tonight? ‘Cause I was thinking a little classic romcom cheese and an order of Chinese.” She steps closer. “MSG included, of course.”
Pam bites her lip, thinking how nice that sounds. But she’s still confused, still flustered at the way Katy’s eyes on her make her feel all warm and fluttery, and her instinct is to panic and flee. So that’s exactly what she does.
She steps backwards, toward her car.
“Actually I kind of told my mom I’d come over and help decorate the tree,” she can’t look Katy in the eye as she lies, but she finally finds the courage and blinks up from the pavement, smiling sadly. “Sorry.”
And she is.
“Oh,” Katy shoves her hands back into her coat pockets, rocking on her heels and nodding. “That’s okay. Some other night then?”
Pam nods as she unlocks the driver’s side door, fighting the grimace rearing to settle hard on her face.
Katy’s still standing in an empty parking space in Pam’s rearview mirror, staring down at her shoes, when she drives away.
Pam sneakily snatches her gaze over to Katy’s profile, as the staff suffers through the last dregs of the third quarter meeting. This is the teacher’s first day back, with students not set to return for another three days, and she’s been avoiding Katy’s calls all break. She can’t say the other woman makes her uncomfortable, quite the opposite actually, but every time Katy’s goofy photo pops up on her cell phone screen, she finds herself hesitating. Though she couldn’t say exactly why.
Stanley from the history department is scratching away at his customary crossword, happily not paying a lick of attention, as Pam inspects Katy’s face again. What’s a nine letter word for awkward sexual tension?
Katy’s hazel eyes flick to hers.
Pam diverts her sight to the sweating forehead of the school’s typing teacher, the woman’s frizzing red hair swaying as she blunders through a speech about why she turns the lights off in her classroom at the beginning of the day. Something about concentration. She doesn’t claim to actually be listening.
(If she were paying attention, she’d see the way Katy looks at Jim looking at her, and she’d recognize that it’s the same way she looks at Roy looking at Katy. But that would be too simple, and they aren’t ready.)
It’s around the forth monotone ellipsis of Toby’s report on students skipping class to hide out in his counselor’s office that she decides to forget the whole thing. What’s to be afraid of? Maybe Katy feels the same electricity when they touch, maybe she doesn’t. Worst case scenario, Pam has to switch schools due to excessive humiliation and awkwardness. No biggie.
The meeting has managed to wrap up sometime during her internal monologue, chairs scooting and papers fluttering. No time like the present, right?
This time when their gazes catch, Pam holds it with steady, unblinking eyes.
“Hi, Pam,” Katy greets softly, sounding more timid than Pam’s ever heard her. Usually Katy is all exclamation points and stressed syllables, and she immediately misses her enthusiasm. Pam makes a silent oath to bring that back in her.
Pam shuffles the last of her papers into an accordion folder, turning to face her entirely.
“Are we…” Katy switches feet, putting her right forward and leaning against the conference table. “Are we okay? You’re not avoiding me, are you?” The hesitant smile on her raspberry lips says it like a joke, but Pam can see in her eyes how anxious the thought makes her. They’ve become best friends this past year; neither of them want to lose that closeness.
“Yeah,” Pam nods slowly, but confidently, placing her hand momentarily over Katy’s, “We’re great.”
Time passes, and she could almost forget, if her heart didn’t pulse funnily every time Katy walks into the room. If she didn’t feel herself falling, feel the earth moving under her feet. If she didn’t see the same thing in Katy’s eyes.
The snow begins to melt and everything is about to change.
This is the moment that she knows:
It’s the first warm day of spring and the windows in the art room are propped open to the fresh air. The light of the morning sun pours like liquid gold in slats against her arm, her back, her fingers curled up on her desk.
(She won’t remember the exact date, but that is not what is important.)
The slightest breeze rustles the ends of her hair, and Katy smiles faintly, almost like a flash of light, and flutters her gaze to the floor. She’s wrapped in the fuzz of a light green sweater, and Pam will swear that she’ll always remember the color, imprinted like a blinding light on the backs of her eyelids.
Green green green.
She’s pretty sure this skip of her heart, this magnetized pull of their fingertips, means that she’ll never want anyone more.
“Wait,” Katy will call from their kitchen. She will emerge with two mugs of steaming tea and tuck her small body beside Pam’s, resting her chin on the other woman’s shoulder and whisper, “This is my favorite part.”
Katy is helping Pam tidy up after another art club meeting, tossing away napkins and stacking cups inside each other to form a barely manageable tower of Solo red. One second Pam is bending over to sponge the table of crumbs and the next she’s turning around into Katy’s body, positioned just behind her.
Katy’s just a smidge shorter than her, and her nose brushes against Pam’s chin as she slowly looks up, their eyes catching like suction cups.
“I like your hair,” Katy murmurs mindlessly, tucking a curl of it behind her ear. Pam nods, entranced by the puff of air that pushing against her lips as Katy speaks.
And then they’re kissing (finally, Pam thinks), with Pam’s strawberry lip gloss sliding against Katy’s barely there pink lipstick, and then a flash of tongue, and then something shiny and new unfolding like a spring rose in the space between their mouths when they part, just for a moment, to breathe.
Their faces separate abruptly when they hear the squeal of wheels on linoleum.
Creed, the crazy janitor no one ever can make sense of, pushes his mop into the room. For a moment Pam has a nervous flash of the rumors, the whispers behind their backs and the derisive snorts of a classroom of teenagers when they hear all about what the art teacher and the receptionist got caught doing after school. But then Creed’s head raises, eyes skipping right over Katy’s fingers on her waist, still hidden under Pam’s blouse.
“Sorry ladies,” he apologizes amiably as he walks backwards out the door, abandoning his mop, “Thought this was the men’s room.”
At the close of the door, Katy bursts out in giggles. She buries her face in Pam’s collarbone as they both laugh and continue to intertwine.
Pam’s AP art class is busy like creative little beavers, tongues tucked between teeth and scurrying about for supplies. The deadline for sending in their portfolios looms a week from now, and her classroom has been a flurry since after spring break.
So no one is paying attention the great clandestine hand off as Katy slides a little square of paper onto Pam’s desk after dropping off the attendance sheet, Katy’s accompanying wink, or Pam’s resulting blush. She feels as young as one of her students, swallowing a giggle as she unfolds the college-ruled paper, eyes flitting, hoping not to get caught.
The note literally reads:
The pink lady dances at six. She’ll need a second tutu.
But, in code of course, because they’re having fun being secretive, it actually reads:
I’ll swing by to pick you up at six. Bring a change of clothes if you want to stay over.
They never said they weren’t dorks.
Theirs isn’t the first gay love affair the school has seen. Rumor has it, (if by rumor you mean Kelly, the theater teacher) the foreign language department is comprised entirely of one such power couple; apparently Andy the French teacher and Oscar the Spanish teacher have been going strong for years. Putting the romance in romance languages since 2006.
Pam snorts, drawing a look from a girl furiously trying to make the portrait of her grandmother look less like the crypt keeper, and she subtly slips the note into her purse.
Later, Katy will sneak up on her and blow into the hollow behind her ear, earning a squeal. Pam’s hands will be caked with mud from her youngest students’ clay projects and she’ll be unable to retaliate, only flap her hands and giggle. It will be the same school, the same halls, but everything will be different.
But later still, years later, Katy will wrap both arms around Pam’s side, pillowing her cheek against the other woman’s crimson sweater-covered chest.
“You had your epiphany, but I knew always.”
The July sunlight pounds down on their backs, causing another trickle of sweat to stream down Pam’s temple and onto the strap of her sports bra as she pumps her legs harder to keep up with Katy.
“You sure run fast for someone with chicken legs,” Pam taunts even as she huffs with the exertion. Katy laughs, spinning around to sprint backwards and still managing to out pace her.
“I’ve been jogging every morning for years. It takes practice.”
They circle around the neighborhood, past the mail carrier waving merrily to a snarling dog and a gang of three year olds recklessly driving their tricycles, around Mrs. White’s creeping bushes that puff out onto the sidewalk, and finally up the little walkway leading to their building. Pam leans against a planter, breathing deeply.
It was a complicated decision, making the leap into living together. But then again, as complicated as it was, it was equally simple; her one year lease was up and they were in love.
With their combined funds they found a cute duplex just big enough for two, with quiet neighbors with whom to share a wall and a backyard for Katy’s tulip addiction.
They aren’t perfect but they’re learning, both willing to teach each other.