Night. My ceiling rips open and water from the roof pours in. The lights are off, and I reach under the covers. My hands are cold. The sheets and blankets are cold. There’s a spark of light, and thunder groans. I peek at the sky and rain trickles in. I’m inside a room, inside an apartment, but the noise is as if I were outside in its thickness; the water makes a dull slap as it hits the mattress. When I flick the light on, my ceiling hangs open, a wide mouth. Strips of paint like tusks.
I’ve been dreaming about losing teeth: in corn, drawers, or boxes. Sometimes the dream is carnival: I’m smiling and POW my enamel explodes, sparkling onto the floor. In others, as I eat, my canines stick to food, ribs and steaks, sharp white decorating the meat I can’t gum down.
It’s the third week of dreams and the first night of winter rain. It’s a Southern California February, so rain is a trick: wet grime traveling to gutters is a pretend spring clean. The winter sky is vaguely dark, palm trees swing like windshield air fresheners. When it rains here, people hide, avoiding the weather as if it is some kind of chaos. But tomorrow, there will be sun. It’s fake weather, here and gone before becoming an actual season. People in Southern California don’t own umbrellas.
In the morning, I call my landlord Rick, whose blonde mustache is firm with wax. I tell him about the leak, the gaping hole.
It’s a big one, I say, I can see sky from my bed.
A skylight, he says.
A hole, I say. It’s loud on the other end. There’s commotion and muffling over the receiver.
Good thing it never rains, Rick says.
But you’ll fix it? I ask.
I’ll come over to have a look, he answers. He doesn’t give a time. He hangs up. From the hole in my ceiling, I see the morning grey switch to blue.
At work, I’m teaching my students about paragraphs. This is college, and most of them are older, what academia calls “nontraditional,” the ones who fucked up after high school, joined the military, had babies, ran meth labs, had drinking problems or a lack of focus. My class is at night, for students who work full-time jobs, and my goal is to keep them interested. Most nights, I just want them to stay awake.
This semester I only have seven students, the minimum, three of whom rarely show up to our twice-a-week meetings. Their names on my roll sheet are littered with Xs, and I wonder if they have disappeared in real life, too. Of the regulars, there’s Joanne, a mother of two, who on the first day told the class that her favorite book was the Bible. Joanne is here because Standard Written English is mandatory for her certificate as an X-ray technician. There’s also Harrison, the mechanic; Ursula, who sits in the back and draws cartoons on the desk; and David, a loudmouth, my unlikely favorite.
David is struggling with the material. His essays are coded with a combination of textspeak and slang abbreviations. On his last paper, I was tempted to write, UR NT GONNA PA$$, but instead I made a note about when and where I held office hours. He didn’t show, though he’d said he would. He didn’t rewrite his paper either.
Maybe because my course meets at night, maybe because I’d rather be elsewhere on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, I teach composition as if it were cool: thesis statements as cocktail party conversation, quoting as flirting with a crush, SEXY paragraphs. These comparisons make Joanne uncomfortable. Harrison gives a courtesy laugh. Ursula doesn’t look up and continues to draw, word bubbles from her cartoons saying, SHUT UP. David adds his own commentary to the lessons. He speaks without raising his hand.
Though it’s postcard warm during the day, the sun sets early, and the sky is pitch when I arrive for class. The wind is stirring, and even though I don’t see the clouds, I know rain will come. As I begin my housekeeping, I want to announce that my ceiling has unzipped, that I may need to leave early if it rains, but my students are already disinterested in my preliminary comments about the weather. Ursula sits in the last seat, in the last row of desks. She pulls a strand of hair in front of her face and looks for split ends. I can hear a pluck as she rips a hair out by the root. There’s still five minutes before class officially starts, and Joanne is rereading the homework. She has multicolor Post-it flags on almost every line of her textbook. There are four highlighters on her desk. I hear a click-click every couple minutes to signal that she’s highlighting again. Harrison comes to class in his greasy coveralls. He picks at the dirt under his fingernails. He spits on top of his hand and attempts to rub the oil out. A patch over his heart reads Harry in red cursive, but he requested to be called Harrison on the first day. David walks in as the clock strikes six. He sits in the front and slams his things around: Gatorade, notebook, pen, phone. He pulls out a sandwich and begins to eat. I hear lettuce mashing as I write the agenda on the board.
Teach, David says, mouth full. Didn’t you wear that shirt last class? He moves food around his mouth with his tongue and pushes a swallow down with Gatorade. A line of bright blue rims his lips.
Professor Lewis, I correct. And no, I say, it was a different shirt.
David looks around at his peers, who ignore him, and says, Man, you really like see-through clothes then. He smiles, showing a piece of green wedged between his teeth and clear braces.
I look down at my shirt, a cream-colored blouse that I have layered over a tank top. The arms are sheer. A peek of cleavage if someone were looking.
That’s a little inappropriate, I say. I see Joanne nodding in the second row.
David’s smile fades. He crumples his sandwich wrapper and tosses it toward the trashcan yelling, Kobe! When the ball bounces off the rim he says, Shit, under his breath. He doesn’t pick up the trash.
Tonight, I say, we are talking about paragraph structure, organization. I write the word SEXY on the board, and start to explain the different parts, the types of sentences, a logical progression. When I turn back toward my students, I pull my top up. David’s comment leaves me exposed, naked even. I look at the classroom ceiling, square after square of beige in a grid.
Why is it important for paragraphs to be sexy? I ask. How does this apply to writing?
It doesn’t, Ursula says. Her eyes cross and meet in front of another strand of hair. She pulls again and throws it onto the floor. She wants to study Illustration when she transfers.
It’s kinda like, Harrison starts, your writing should look good. He says the last part like a question. Harrison joined the Army after high school, hasn’t taken an English class in nine years. This is his first time back in school after his discharge. He isn’t sure of anything. He came to my office hours once and told me about being stationed in Afghanistan, about guarding landmines for hours, sitting on a wooden bridge with a canteen and loaded gun in his lap. Even then, he talked in questions.
I don’t really know what I’m doing, he said, and at first, I thought he was talking about writing. I should have offered real help, the counseling center or something, but when he said that, I thought, Me neither. I thought, Who am I to tell you?
Yes, Harrison, I say. Your writing should look good. I turn to the board and write the words, Get it right, get it tight! When I turn back to face the class, Joanne has her hand clenched over her mouth. Her cheeks are cherry tomatoes.
The classroom door is ajar, and a gust of wind blows it shut. I scratch the top of my head and pace the room as I continue to lecture. I hear myself ask, Does that make sense? again and again. My students nod. Even Ursula shakes her head up and down, black hair swishing on her desk. I look back at the ceiling and notice, this time, that one of the squares in the back corner seems off-kilter. As I readjust my gaze to my students, David pulls an apple from his backpack. He takes a bite and looks right at me. His eyebrows raise twice. He grins without teeth.
The asphalt in the parking lot is wet after class, signaling that it rained though I didn’t hear it while teaching. On the drive home, I turn the radio low and whisper a repetition of please until I find street parking in front of my complex. It’s a Spanish-style building: two rows of units with tile and dying trees in between. My unit is in the very back, upstairs, over the shared laundry. My kitchen boasts an alley-cat view. There’s a balcony that will surely collapse if more than one person stands on it. It’s covered with beer caps and pots of dead plants.
When I walk up the stairs, I find a note taped to my door.
Irene—I checked the hole. I can patch it, but I need supplies. For now, I’ve put a tarp down and moved your bed. Rick.
Inside, there are muddy footprints on the carpet leading to my room, and as I follow them, I use my right foot to buff the dirt in. I try to open my bedroom door, but it knocks onto my bed frame, leaving a couple inches of space to see inside. With a shove, I wrestle enough room to squeeze in and see my bed is at a diagonal. Leftover rain pools on the tarp; most of it has seeped off the edges into the carpet, creating a circle of darker beige around plastic. There’s one brown shoeprint on my bedding.
I call Charlie because I’m too proud to sleep on my own couch. It’s late enough, so I know he’ll answer.
I met Charlie in college in a British Literature class. I was a good student: I understood Beowulf and could read meter. Charlie came to the afternoon seminar drunk after beers from the on-campus bar. He blurted out questions about whether an Old English reference could mean syphilis or another venereal disease. After college, I went to more college, another degree, and Charlie became a shoe salesman at a department store. We reconnected randomly as I was leaving the mall eyeglass store and he was leaving for a lunch break. Over a pretzel and lemonade from the food court, I told him about teaching English, encountering many young “Charlies” in my classes.
Do you ever hook up with your students? he asked, smiling. Charlie has the biggest mouth, the biggest smile, the biggest teeth I’ve ever seen—almost cartoonish.
I’d thought his question was a joke, but after a minute of suspended silence, I answered, No. Offended, I said, Never.
Come on, he said. You look young enough, you know you think about it. He winked and wrote his number on a business card. I used it because I didn’t know what else to do with this information. And now, Charlie and I see each other when one of us needs something.
Do you know how to patch up a ceiling? I ask Charlie on the phone. Do you know any roofers?
That’s your landlord’s job, he says. What does it say on the lease?
I don’t really have a lease, I say. I’m month-to-month. I have a piece of paper that says “month-to-month” with my signature on it.
Well, you got played, Charlie says. His voice is curt. You should always sign a lease, he says.
My forehead starts to itch. I scratch around my hairline. I scratch inside my earlobe and sound pops in and out of range.
I know, I say. I haven’t called Charlie in weeks, not since the dreams started, the incisors gathered under trees, wrapped in red bows like presents.
The line is silent and then Charlie says, If you didn’t sign a lease, your landlord doesn’t have to fix anything. You’re screwed, he says. He begins to laugh, and I imagine his big mouth, white teeth the size of jumbo marshmallows squeezing together in a half-moon.
I moved into my apartment over a year ago, the first one I’ve ever had alone. I remember how happy I was to escape a lifetime of bad roommates, how this was maybe my first real adult home. I met my landlord Rick, with too much hair for a man his age, at his home. I signed a sheet of paper. The apartment was nice enough, but the promise of solitude and independence was more attractive than any breakfast nook or roof access. Rick kept saying, I’m really flexible, and, Unit L is my favorite, so I signed. I asked no questions. Since then, my water pressure goes soft each month, my drains don’t drain, there’s black mold growing under the paint, my window locks are painted over and broken. Unit L is full of charm, Rick had said. And, Use wood scraps to secure your windows.
Why don’t you stay at my place tonight, Charlie says over the phone. Put out some pots and pans and you’ll be fine, he says.
OK, I say. But I have grading to do, we can’t get crazy.
I’m not the crazy one, he says. The phone clicks. After a few moments, I hear a flat line. A mouth breathing Ahhh through gums.
When I get to Charlie’s, he’s stoned in sweats on the couch. There’s a glass bong on a glass table, a prescription bottle of pills beside it. We exchange pleasantries. I tell Charlie about Ursula, her choreographed avoidance in class. I think of bringing up David, the constant eating, the way he licks his lips, but Charlie cuts me off.
Guess what, he says as I sit on the brown leather couch, I think I have vertigo. He shakes the medication on the table and tosses it in my direction. I don’t recognize the name of the pill. I spy the word “infection” in a line of precautions.
Really? I ask. How?
I don’t know, he says. I was gathering stock for a guest in the back, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground. The ceiling was spinning.
How much did you drink last night? I ask.
Nothing, he says. Not much. And then, I wasn’t drunk.
It sounds like a hangover, I say.
It’s vertigo, Charlie says. There’s a power in his voice that I haven’t heard before. It’s not funny, he says. He closes his eyes and rubs his temples.
Sorry, I say. I curl toward him, and reach to kiss his head, but he puts a hand up.
Don’t, he says.
Well, I don’t have a roof, so I think I win, I say. When the words come out, I regret them. Charlie’s walls are sterile white, and aside from the glass coffee table and couch, he has no real furniture. I don’t know if it will even rain tonight.
Charlie rolls his eyes and says, I can look at it for you later, if you want. But this is a lie. Charlie has never seen my apartment. He picks up the remote and says, Let’s talk about something important: Storage Wars or Extreme Fishing?
I have grading to do, I say, pulling out a small stack of essays. David’s paper sits on top, an analysis of a Gary Soto poem titled “Oranges.” David has titled his assignment “I’ll Take Ya To The Candy Shop by Soto Cent.”
Extreme Fishing, I say. And then, Do you have any alcohol?
Good choice, Charlie says. He switches channels and stands to walk to the fridge. He’s slow to move and at one point his palm reaches to the wall so he can steady. Charlie tosses a can of beer from the kitchen and when I miss the catch, it bounces off the couch cushion.
More important, Charlie says, couch or bed? He points to his bedroom.
Couch, I say, tossing the essays aside.
OK, he says, but you can’t make me dizzy. He’s anchored himself on the couch. Charlie puts his hand on my thigh, then on my hand. His face is a stupid grin as he moves his hand from mine to grab the bong from the coffee table for one more hit. I hear the sound of tiny footsteps on his roof, needles of rain, and shift my weight so I can see outside from a window. It’s a light sprinkle, but I envision the pots in my room filling. The teeth from the ceiling gathering drops until it drip drip drips into the metal. An orchestra of sound, water collecting in my apartment until my furniture and things are floating, my bed a boat, my file cabinet swaying like a buoy. On TV, a fisherman wails as he wrestles a trout from the river.
Look at that thing, Charlie squeals. Look at it!
I see river waves and dirt and rocking. I see the water swirl. The trout’s gills flex open, and its mouth hangs open. There are no teeth.
In the morning, Charlie leaves early for work. It’s inventory day, he tells me with a soft kiss on my head and a faraway look in his eye.
I can look at your ceiling tomorrow, he says. I don’t say anything in response, but Charlie adds, Tonight after work, we get drinks—an inventory thing. I can’t tonight, he says, and in his repetition, it becomes clear that he has a different kind of plans for his evening. He leaves me in his bed in his house, and I hear him whistle a happy tune as the front door shuts. He doesn’t mention anything about the spins. The vertigo feels as distant as the rain.
I’m looking at his ceiling when I remember a special I watched on The Today Show when I was still a student in college and not a teacher, a doctor on screen explaining Medical Misconceptions, the bubbly host saying, You think you know, but you have no idea! The doctor’s words come back in a wave, as real as the fish from last night: Most people believe vertigo is caused by sharp movements and spinning carnival rides, but vertigo is really a side effect from the fear of falling. It’s the human urge we have when faced with extreme heights, the thought of purposely falling down. Our desire of wanting to fall outweighs whether or not we actually will.
The next day I’m on my couch grading when Rick knocks on my door. He looks like Mr. Peanut without the monocle, and his mustache wiggles as he explains the plan. He has a cleaned-out metal can, black plastic, and a gallon of Liquid Roof.
We should climb upstairs and patch things up, he says.
We? I repeat.
I want you to see what I’m doing, Rick says. I care about this, Irene. There’s inflection in his voice as he says it like he’s trying to convince not only me, but also himself. He keeps using the word we as if I could fix things, as if I knew what to do all along.
I got a ladder, Rick says as he moves out of my doorway. He circles his arm, beckoning.
Rick steadies the bottom of the ladder as I begin to climb. I’m in pajamas, and I’ve slipped a pair of sandals over my socks. My feet slide across the rubber soles as I pull myself over the ledge and stand. I hear Rick clanging below with the Liquid Roof, plastic, and can. As he pulls himself over the ledge and onto the top of the building, I’m looking out toward the alley behind the complex. I turn to scan the view: more apartments, more alley, one palm-lined street after another. I squint in hopes of seeing the ocean. If I strain, I can see the Queen Mary.
Over here, Rick says, as he kneels by the leak. A puddle of dirty water fills the roof’s belly. I join Rick and stand over the hole. I see the green tarp in my room. I move closer, accidentally kicking rainwater with my feet, soaking my sock, and it trickles inside the hole, pat pat pat on the tarp. Rick lays the plastic down, slaps gobs of Liquid Roof on top. The sky is Easter egg blue. I feel close enough to the braided power lines that I could reach and grab them, swing like Tarzan to the complex next door if I wanted. From up here I could tiptoe the lines like an acrobat right into another life.
Doesn’t look like it’s going to rain anytime soon, Rick says as he slaps the lid of the Liquid Roof shut with his palm. He looks at the clean metal can beside him and moves it twice. His eyebrows rise toward the clear sky and then back to their spot on his face.
That should do it, Rick says. And then we climb down the ladder.
It’s Thursday, and I’m back at the college to teach. I want to say that Rick’s repair is working, but it hasn’t rained since Tuesday. The inside of my bedroom looks the same. The ceiling teeth are little flags hanging as I try to sleep. I message Charlie a picture of the damage, but he doesn’t respond. I imagine him hostage in a stockroom somewhere, surrounded by shoebox walls, spinning like a mechanical top.
In class we continue the conversation from Tuesday about paragraphs. I explain topic sentences as miniature thesis statements. I make a few bad jokes about toy dog breeds, and Ursula groans. Joanne cannot stop yawning, and when I pass by Harrison’s desk, I’m surprised to see that he’s writing a poem instead of notes. He covers it with his palm when I get close, but I know the tricks. I look down and shake my head, and when I look back up, David is mocking me. His eyes are closed and his head swings dramatically.
There’s a rumble outside that I recognize as the beginnings of a storm. The blinds are open in the classroom, and I see a crack in the sky before the water comes.
I visualize my roof: water building over the black plastic, the sagging belly, a loud crash as the water cuts through, a smack as it hits the tarp, the ricochet of rainwater—a sprinkler in my bedroom. I remember the cleaned-out metal can and wonder what kind of beans once lived inside. What Rick had planned to do with it, I’ll never know. My class is silent, and we watch as puddles form on the sidewalk from the window. We listen to the angry pelts.
Does anyone object to leaving early? I ask.
My students look around, eyes meeting each other as if to say, Don’t speak.
OK fine, I say. I have papers to pass back, and then you’re excused. Have a nice weekend.
I hand back Harrison’s first, a solid B, and he meets my gaze with a quick, Really? before he packs his things to leave. Joanne earns an A, and Ursula a C++, three points shy of a B-. She scowls at the grade, says, Unbelievable, before covering her head with her hoodie and barreling out of class.
David is stretched out on his desk. I give his paper back last because it’s a Revise and Resubmit. I’ve written the words, See Me, in large colored ink on the front page.
It’s really coming down, David says. I don’t have an umbrella, kinda fucked up you making us leave early, get all soaked, he says. He opens a banana and eats half of it in one bite. The fruit mashes into paste in his mouth as I put the paper down on his desk.
You like that title, Teach? he asks with a smirk. You know the song? 50 Cent? David mumbles the lyrics, only audible when he curses. He stops singing and his brows wrinkle when he sees my writing. His face changes, and he uses his free hand to scratch his head. Then, David throws what’s left of the banana on the floor. He stands fast, pushing the desk away as his legs straighten.
I don’t think you took this assignment seriously, I begin to say, but David is pacing. He breathes deep and loud through his mouth. I look at the door and the window.
You saying I failed? he asks. He waits a breath before, You saying I’m a fuck-up? He stops pacing, and his eyes meet mine. They are soft blue, a kind blue, now rimmed in red, wet gathering at the corner. Am I even going to pass? he asks. His nostrils flare.
It’s true that David is in danger of failing. It’s also true that rain outside is coming harder than before, a march of rocks. It will take a miracle for David to find the points to pass. I can’t give him any guarantees.
You may resubmit this by next week for a better grade, I say, hoping it helps.
Next week! David shouts. He shoves his desk. He kicks his backpack. By now, David’s really crying. Tears as big and loud as the water outside. He pulls his white T-shirt up and blows his nose, a trumpet in the silent room. If I don’t pass this class, I’m kicked out of school, he says, his face redder. If I get kicked out of school again, my moms will kick me out. He’s shaking. I can’t live in my car again, David whimpers. He’s rocking himself with his own arms.
I scratch my head, my shoulders, my back. David grits his teeth, and I remember what he said on the first day about wanting to be a dentist. I remember orientation, all those training videos. I can’t remember if I should tell him to calm down.
I’m such a fuck-up! he shouts. His hands make fists. First, he swings at the air, one and two. I always fuck things up, he says, and the fist meets his face. I hear the snap of bone to skull as he says, Can’t get a job, can’t get a girl, even your mothers don’t want you. His fist hits his face like punctuation.
I cover my mouth and step back. I look at the door, the window.
David, I say, in a voice a mother might use. David, I repeat, take a breath. You’re not a fuck-up, I say. I’m looking at the ceiling, that one square in the back holding on with nothing more than a promise. Take a breath, I say, and when I close my eyes, I imagine the whole thing crashing. There’s commotion. Another desk hurled. David screams. Then everything is quiet. I open my eyes and see David breathing with his whole body, swallowing the saliva in his mouth. He looks only five years younger than me, if that.
You’re right, Professor, David says. His eyes widen. His face blank like paper. He exhales and grabs his things. I’m sorry about that, he says, and the door slams behind him. What’s left of his banana on the floor is a patchwork of bruise.
Everything in my room is wet when I get home. The tarp is a homemade Slip ’N Slide. The carpet squishes as I walk. It’s late, after ten, and I phone Charlie. His voicemail plays without ever ringing and I leave a message: Are you gonna help me or what? I sleep on the couch, and in my dreams, my teeth are all there, I feel them with my tongue, but as I step in front of a mirror they melt into vaporous drool. I’m standing there all gums, all alone.
Morning. The sky is clear. The TV weatherman boasts of sunny skies until the end of the month. Bye-bye winter weather, she says as she waves. My phone is blank like the sky, and I picture Charlie sleeping on a bed of shoeboxes, his body evaporating until it’s a platform of cardboard squares.
When I turn my computer on, I have six emails from David. They are all the same, copy and paste. He writes, I thought I knew you. I got nothing. Nobody gives a shit bout me!!!!! This got me thinkin bout something severe. Ur gonna be sorry. His punctuation reminds me of a childhood poem I loved titled “Summer Showers,” a rainstorm written exclusively in exclamation marks, ellipses, commas, and asterisks.
I shut my laptop and reach for my shoes. I loosen the ties, and they slide on. When I walk outside, the ladder is where Rick left it, leaning against the building; the metal still wet as my hand grips.
At the top, I see the hole, the black plastic, the hardened globs of Liquid Roof. The metal can has rolled to another corner. A puddle has formed over the repair. I stomp near the plastic and watch it ripple. The alley is empty. Clumps of trash, married by the rain, in a haphazard pattern below. I move near the edge and kneel. Closer, with my hands on the perimeter, down so my face is flush with the roof. And as the scene below begins to twist, I wonder if this is wanting.