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Pause and Reflect

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Sunday morning: sunshine pushing in through the gap in the curtains, the noise of birds outside and cats inside and Kah, always the heavier sleeper, still breathing deep and steadily despite the insistence of the cat chorus that they would starve to death, right now, if no one got up and fed them.

Forgoing the traditional argument about whose cats they even were, anyway - arguments were unsatisfying when the other person was asleep - Isabelle got up and was accompanied downstairs by the cats, who weaved themselves about her legs to prevent her from forgetting them. She fed them and then they abandoned her, one retreating upstairs back to the bed and the other to the sunny spot on the sofa.

Accustomed to such betrayal Isabelle took her coffee and a piece of toast and went outside to the garden, intent on enjoying what they’d spent so long working on. There were weeds pushing up in the tomato beds and the roses weren’t doing quite as well as they would have liked but all things considered, as something they'd shared, that she’d been pouring her soul into when the painting wasn’t going right and her tutoring jobs were done, it was really pretty good and it was enough to fill the gap New York had left inside her.

She missed the city in a way that Kah didn’t and so it was something they didn’t really talk about. She missed the house in Cobble Hill, missed the proximity to restaurants and cafes and as many galleries as she could dream of. She missed the rhythm of the city, of buses and subways and traffic and the liveliness of it all, people scurrying about on their daily lives, ordinary and extraordinary, each to them making their own way in the city that she loved. She even missed Foster - missed her students, for the most part, missed those of her colleagues who had kindly turned a blind eye to her living arrangements, missed the feeling of purpose and structure that came with timetables and schedules. It had been a hard adjustment, and harder for her than for Kah.

Isabelle was thinking about it that morning because it was the first Sunday in August and the date had been circled in red on the kitchen calendar for weeks. There was no note and no explanation because neither of them was likely to forget.

Liza and Annie were coming to visit.

Liza and Annie were coming to visit and Isabelle didn’t know how she felt, or how she was supposed to feel. The initial anger had long since subsided with the aid of Kah and altogether too much Scotch; she had remembered that she was an adult and they were teenagers; she had, in fact, at times been grateful that what they had feared for years had happened and she and Kah had survived it. Baxter and Poindexter had been poking and prodding and digging for dirt for as long as they’d been at Foster, and with the benefit of hindsight Isabelle had even come to the conclusion that nominating them to host the student council meeting had been their way of trying to find some proof. (It was perhaps ironic, then, that the meeting had set in motion a chain of events that had ended with Isabelle and Kah fired from Foster Academy and exiled to the country. Without the meeting Liza would never have been in their home, would never have offered to feed the cats, would never have brought Annie with her: without the meeting things might well have still been going along as before and they would still have been living on tenterhooks, waiting for the other shoe to drop.)

Isabelle was still sitting there when Kah came outside, bearing not one but two cups of coffee. She accepted the second gratefully. “Sleep well?”

“Wonderfully. What about you, up at the crack of dawn as usual?”

“Somebody had to feed your cats,” Isabelle said, catching Kah’s eyes as they sipped their coffee. She didn’t need to see Kah’s mouth to know when she was smiling.

“How kind of you.” Kah set her coffee down on the little glass-topped table between them. “Are you all right though? Really?”

Isabelle had spent years learning how not to deflect, how not turn questions back onto Kah and say “Are you all right?” Putting those skills into practice now she said, “I assume we’re talking about our visitors?”

Kah delicately shrugged one shoulder in a way that meant ‘yes’.

"Just because I understand what happened doesn't mean I'm not still a little..." Isabelle struggled for words, words that Kah the poet could probably supply better. Angry? Betrayed? Yes, maybe. They had spent so long protecting their personal space and perfecting it, too, creating a haven against the world that had always seemed out to get them.

"I know."

There was a butterfly darting about one of her flowerbeds and Isabelle let her gaze follow it, absorbing the colours, the sense of movement and joy and freedom. She’d been that carefree once, and only briefly. “I look forward to seeing how they’re getting on,” she said.

*

Liza and Annie arrived a little later than expected. Isabelle had thought they’d take a cab from the station but they'd walked, apparently, arriving pink faced from the heat and bearing fresh baked bread from the bakery near the station and olives from a deli Isabelle had loved in Manhattan. They shook hands awkwardly all round, and then Annie scooped up the ginger cat who'd come to see what all the fuss was about and buried her face in his fur as she scratched behind his ears.

Isabelle also felt like hiding.

Kah saved the situation as always, taking the bread and exclaiming over the olives. "I was going to get cheese," Liza said, scuffing a toe against the kitchen floor, "but I wasn't sure it would travel well in this heat."

"You were probably right to be worried about that. Let me get you a cold drink. Iced tea? Juice? Water?"

"Tea is fine, thank you."

"Annie?"

Annie lifted her head. "Just water, please."

There were only two seats out in the garden so they sat around the kitchen table instead, doors and windows opened wide to the outside, to let in whatever small breeze there might be.

"How's MIT?" Isabelle asked of Liza, the same way she might speak to any other former pupil.

Liza's eyes seemed to light up and for a moment she was the young girl in Isabelle's classroom again, quietly sharing a dream she'd expected would be discouraged. "It's wonderful," she said. "Hard, but wonderful. I feel like - like I'm doing the right thing. Like I could have a job as an architect and make things and be good at it."

“Well, I always knew you'd be good at it."

Liza blushed. "Thank you. I've always appreciated - I always knew you did, I think. You helped with so much. The student council and - everything." She shook her head, as though she was going on too fast and saying too much, and looked at Kah. "Chad told me to say hi. He loved your classes. I mean, so did I.”

“How is Chad?” Kah asked, and the conversation moved with speed to the safer territory of Liza’s brother, of the good memories of Foster and people they’d known. Isabelle didn’t ask if Liza knew what had become of Sally Jarrett - if she’d managed to get her head above the water of Baxter and Poindexter’s twisted worldview - and Liza didn’t mention her. The two girls had been friends or at least friendly before everything had happened and Isabelle thought, briefly, what a waste.

They ate sandwiches of cold cuts and tomato and cheese and the fresh bread the girls had brought, still talking about people Annie didn’t know. Annie seemed happy enough, what with the cats under the table, and Isabelle was pretty sure she wasn’t indulging them with scraps but didn’t care to look too closely. What she couldn’t help noticing was the sideways glances that flicked between the two girls, each checking the other was okay, and the way their fingers brushed and lingered whenever one found an excuse to hand something to the other.

That could have been her and Kah - actually was her and Kah - too many years ago to be worth counting now.

*

Kah had taken the girls upstairs to show Annie some sheet music she’d inherited from an aunt and was having trouble making sense of, and in the silence they left behind Isabelle breathed again and then went back outside. This morning’s coffee cups were still on the table; she pushed them to one side and sat down, tipping her head backwards to feel the sun on her face as she felt the gratitude of things being okay.

If she was to be honest with herself Isabelle would know she’d been anxious or even scared, afraid that seeing the girls would send her back to that first dreadful moment of homecoming and realization or to the slow painful days afterward as their world fell, inevitably and inescapably, apart around them. There was no way to consider one thing without the other.

It probably helped that Isabelle and Kah had the rebuilding of their lives well in hand and that the Liza who’d showed up today was very much older than the girl they’d left in New York. Isabelle had changed substantially in the space of a year, especially at that age, and she shouldn't have been surprised that Liza had done the same. Although that was the case with all her former pupils: her mind expected them to stay frozen as they were when they left school, and was then surprised when they didn’t oblige.

Isabelle returned to the present when Liza, unexpectedly, came out to join her. “They’re talking music and I don’t quite get it,” she said. “Annie loves it though. Do you mind if I - ”

“No,” Isabelle said. “Of course not.”

Liza still seemed uncertain as she sat down on Kah’s chair. “This is lovely,” she said, gesturing out to the garden.

“Thank you. Mostly Kah's doing, of course."

Liza sat for a few long moments with the tension of someone with something to say but no idea how to say it until, inevitably, the words rushed out of her. “I’m still sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

“We shouldn’t have - not in your house, anyway.”

“Yes,” Isabelle said. That much was definitely true. “Probably not. But I was young, once.”

“I’m still sorry.”

“I know.” Teacher-student bonds were hard to break and if there was a way to shatter them Isabelle hadn’t found it yet. “How are you and Annie doing?”

Liza sucked in a long breath that made Isabelle wonder if the question had hit a sore spot. “We didn’t talk,” she said. “For a long time. After - everything. When we went to college. She wrote me and I… didn’t write back. Because I was scared, because I didn’t know what to say or do, because I felt guilty, because… because of everything.”

“But you’re talking again now. Obviously.”

“Yeah. Annie came out to see me at MIT for a few days before Christmas, before we both went home. We stayed up half the night and talked, we went for walks, we ate horrible breakfasts at greasy little cafes. And then we went home and I pretended like Annie was never at MIT, and she told her family everything about it except that we shared a bed.” Isabelle must have looked confused because Liza shrugged again. “Annie still hasn’t told her family about us. About her.”

"That's a privilege some people get to keep. And that gets torn away from the rest of us.”

“I know.”

Somewhere in the house, Annie began to sing something haunting and lyrical and probably French. Her voice drifted out with the breeze and then everything around them seemed to settle into a stillness where the only moving thing was Liza’s shining eyes turning towards the house and Annie.

“I guess it’s all worth it in the end,” Liza said when the last notes of the song had faded away. She sounded a little breathless.

Isabelle thought of the little house and the garden and the cats and New York just a train ride away, even though it wasn’t her city any more, not really. “You stick with it,” she said, still the teacher and always the teacher, “and I think you’ll find it is.”

Liza smiled, looking at once like the student who protested the reporting rule and the young lady who was going to be an architect one of these days. “That’s the plan,” she said. “Even when it hurts. I learned from the best, after all.”