2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Winner
Proctoring high school exams with Jason was fun and games except it wasn’t really that fun and it wasn’t a game. We were professional, or as professional as ten dollars an hour could make us. We walked miles in between rows of desks and invented diversions to pass the time while the teenagers took their AP exams. Our favorite game was most likely to. Who is most likely to get pregnant before graduation? Who is most likely to end up in rehab? Who is most likely to live in his parents’ basement forever? We projected our own failures, both real and imagined, on those kids.
At the end of each exam, after Jason and I counted the papers and dismissed the students, we locked ourselves in a faculty bathroom. Technically we weren’t faculty, just temporary help, but there was no bathroom for people like us. Jason would hoist me up on the sink and I’d tug my skirt up around my waist, the corner of the cool porcelain pressing into the back of my legs. After, we’d sit on a curb behind the school and share a cigarette. He had a pregnant girlfriend at home, but I didn’t care and he didn’t seem to either.
In hindsight, our most likely to game was in poor taste, but those teenagers were so easy to read, and Jason and I were so bored. If we were honest, we were also jealous of those kids, their whole bright futures ahead of them. And there we were: fifteen years out of high school and nothing to show for it. Neither one of us had a real job, or a real life.
We spent hours pacing, listening to the sound of our shoes clacking against the hardwood floor. I thought proctoring exams would be easy, maybe even fun—I’d get to read magazines or look at the classifieds for a better job, but the administration had so many rules. We weren’t allowed to read or sit down. We weren’t even supposed to talk, but we did anyway; in hushed voices behind the rows of desks, Jason detailed how he planned to fuck me in the bathroom later. I wouldn’t have admitted it but I was falling for him. I spent too much time thinking about him, imagining where he would put his hands, his lips.
The school was one of those fancy New England private schools. The majority of the students were rich but some were scholarship kids. Even with uniforms, it was easy to tell them apart. The poor kids wore knock-off TOMS and no-brand glasses while the rich kids’ glasses were emblazoned with logos: Ray-Ban, Prada, Coach.
The nearest I had been to a suicide, before those exams with Jason, was when a girl in my seventh grade class overdosed on Tylenol. The rumor was she swallowed a whole bottle full of pills and had to be rushed to the emergency room where medics pumped her stomach. For a while after that, she was the most popular girl in school.
Who is most likely to commit suicide, Jason had asked me. And, as was our game, I went and stood behind the obvious choice, gently tapped her chair with my hand. Her name was Margaret, I knew from the card taped to her desk. You could tell she took high school too seriously, as if her life depended on it. She was a tiny thing, short and small-boned, dirty blond hair pulled tight into a ponytail, stretching the skin of her forehead. Margaret had a nervous energy. She arrived early, always the first one waiting for the door to open. We never had to tell her to stop talking in the hallway, while the others buzzed. She brought only pencils, never pens, as if she didn’t want any of her work to be permanent.
Jason and I had gone to high school together, a public school a few towns over, not this fancy private one, but we didn’t really know each other back then. The truth was, he wouldn’t have given me the time of day in high school. He was a jock, and I was one of the kids smoking weed behind the ski jump. He had been voted “most likely to become a pro athlete” and “best smile” in the senior superlatives. I wasn’t most likely to, or best at, anything. He won a basketball scholarship to the state university only to tear his ACL during his sophomore year. And just like that, his chance to get away from this town vanished. Like the rest of us, after the layoffs at the gun factory and the woolen mill, he couldn’t find a full-time job. Jason said proctoring exams beat standing outside of Manpower at sunrise, and I supposed that was true.
Someone should have noticed Margaret unraveling, and maybe it should have been Jason or me, confined in that room with her, day after day. We weren’t counselors or even teachers, though; we made ten dollars an hour to cut open plastic exam envelopes.
We found out about Margaret on a Monday morning while realigning the desks and chairs for the next exam. I was admiring Jason’s arms as he picked up a desk, wondering what it would be like to have those arms wrapped around me somewhere other than the faculty bathroom. He placed the desk on the floor without making a sound. The students were teary-eyed, hugging each other in the hall. A few girls were hysterical, acting like Margaret had been their best friend. The exam had to go on as scheduled, and when I walked past her empty desk, I almost placed a copy of the exam on it.
Jason and I didn’t bother with our games; it didn’t feel right to make a joke of anything anymore. When the exam was over, the number of papers accounted for and handed off to the school administrators, we didn’t lock ourselves in the bathroom. We both knew that was over. Instead, we sat in my car. I pulled a joint from my glove box, and we passed it back and forth until the roach was too small to hang on to.
Jason said he needed to get a real job, needed to start thinking about the future, providing for his baby. He talked about being a real man, and I knew then that his plans didn’t include me; they never had. I watched him walk to his truck, his gait so familiar to me, having watched him pace the aisles during all those exams.
I thought about Jason’s question that day, about placing my hand on Margaret’s chair for that moment. Had I cast a spell? I had wanted to tug on her ponytail, the skin across her temples stretched so tight.
Jason drove off in his old pickup truck. I listened as the rattle of his muffler grew faint and then couldn’t be heard at all. I knew I wouldn’t see him again. In the morning, he’d be standing outside of Manpower, trying to be a man. And I’d be left alone, confusing my hunger for him with my hunger for a bright future—for any future, really.