It is decided at a summer staff meeting that The End of the Century will be the schoolwide theme for the year. Since it would be a mathematical fallacy to celebrate the year 2000 as the start of the new millennium, they all have to agree that it is not the turn or dawn of anything yet, just the end. Ellora and Jane, both first-grade teachers, have been passing notes back and forth with their own suggested titles for the schoolwide theme: The Beginning of the End; A New Beginning Begins; The End of Something Followed by the Beginning of Something Else; Same Shit, Different Century.
But sometime around Thanksgiving, Jane stops joking around. Without warning Ellora, she quits teaching to join a yoga instructor training program. When Ellora asks her to explain, Jane can’t, or doesn’t want to, but invites Ellora to a women’s spiritual retreat in Costa Rica over winter break. It’s lucky that Ellora’s parents are going to India in December, which means she doesn’t have to go home to Ohio. She accepts the invitation in the hopes that she and Jane can reconnect. Maybe it will even be like a little vacation, she thinks, the only true vacation she’s ever taken over a winter break.
It almost feels like old times on the airplane. They pay extra for plastic cups of cheap chardonnay and laugh at all the same parts of the in-flight movie. When they walk out of the airport to catch a taxi, the heat is a pleasant shock. They stay in a community center in San José, nowhere near the water. All Ellora wants to do is drink piña coladas on a beach and maybe take a tour of the rainforest while Jane talks to her, opens up about the totality of what is going on with her.
Unfortunately, they have to follow a strictly regimented schedule of lectures and community circles where they discuss their “knots.” This is not at all relaxing. When it is Ellora’s turn to reveal her primary knot, she says she doesn’t have one.
The facilitator, a silver-haired woman with a whispery voice, encourages her to reach back into her dreams, memories, and family stories, because these knots, which one could think of as trauma, can be inherited from past generations and even from past lives. Except for Jane and Ellora, all the women are white. Jane, much more than Ellora, has expressed discomfort when they are the only minorities in the room, yet here she is in a country of brown people, willingly surrounded by white people, immersed in their project. At breakfast that morning, one of the women had asked Jane if she was raised a Buddhist, and when Jane told her she’d grown up attending a Korean Presbyterian church, the woman lost interest and turned away. Jane simply went on eating her breakfast without a hint of annoyance at the blatant orientalism.
“Reincarnation isn’t real,” Ellora says, “so I won’t be reaching into that, but I guess I’m surprised the world hasn’t ended. I’d say that’s my knot.” The women have learned how to probe the speaker for more, so Ellora starts recalling the disaster movies of her youth, which had convinced her that a nuclear war, a meteor strike, a pandemic, or something unforeseeable would wipe them all out. As she talks, she realizes what a shame it is to spend so much of one’s life fearing extinction-level events. The facilitator looks unsatisfied but moves on.
Jane says her knot is that she always wanted to teach in a low-income urban school, but her body rebelled against what her mind and heart wanted. “This conflict inside of me is causing such pain, excruciating, physical pain. My jaw hurts. My back hurts. My feet hurt. The only relief I get is from yoga. But what do I do about my mind? What do I do about my heart?” This does not sound to Ellora like a knot. Just an excuse.
“Teaching makes the body hurt,” Ellora says for the benefit of all the non-teachers in the room. Outsiders don’t understand the physical energy required to manage a large group of young children all day long.
Later, when it’s time to do exercises with a partner, Jane grabs hold of someone else before Ellora can even locate her in the room. At dinner, which they eat at a long table, Jane doesn’t sit anywhere near her. It’s only when they are retiring for the night in their dorm room that Ellora has a chance to ask her what the hell is going on.
Jane is in her pajamas doing one more downward-facing dog to stretch out her back. “You really don’t know?”
“I don’t. Please enlighten me.”
“Why did you blurt out that thing about teaching making the body hurt?”
“Because it’s true. I thought I was backing you up.”
“No, Ell, you weren’t backing me up. You took something I said that was specific to me and made it about every teacher in the whole world. You made me feel worthless.”
Ellora apologizes. The last thing she wants is to make Jane feel worthless. “You’re such a good teacher, Jane. Don’t you think the job is getting easier now that we have some experience? Plus, I thought we had such a great summer. I mean, has quitting teaching made you happy?”
Jane comes out of her pose and lies prostrate on the floor. She doesn’t answer. Ellora continues. “This is all so narcissistic. It just isn’t you.”
“Stop,” Jane says. “You’re making it worse.”
Ellora stops, but she goes to bed bitter. This Jane is nothing like the woman she started teaching three years ago. This Jane is a shell of the vibrant person who once lived in her body and cared about other people. Ellora cannot figure out how this transformation escaped her notice until it was too late, and if it has nothing or everything to do with her.
On the last day, December 29, they are guided through meditation and chanting to manifest world peace in the coming Age of Aquarius. Ellora always thought “Aquarius” was just a song from Hair, but no, it is an actual thing in astrology, a period of expanded consciousness when humanity finally takes control of its destiny, which this group of women has intuited will be coming with the new millennium. Before they finish, Ellora breaks the circle and walks out. She decides to wander around the art district and eat dinner on her own at a place full of locals. The old Jane would have liked this better. When Ellora gets back to the dorm room, Jane has left her a note saying she has taken an earlier flight out.
It has been a terrible trip, but in the taxi heading back to her apartment in Brooklyn, Ellora misses the pastel colors of San José. New York looks gray and ugly, and all of its people miserable. On New Year’s Eve, she calls and leaves a message on Jane’s answering machine, asking if she has plans for that night and, if not, if she wants to go to a party or just come over and stay in and watch TV. Ellora knows that Jane is lonely, as lonely as Ellora.
Jane doesn’t call back until the next day, when Ellora is hungover from getting drunk the night before, by herself, while watching premature celebrations of the new millennium sweep across the globe. “It was a mistake to take you to Costa Rica,” Jane says. “I can’t believe you walked out in the middle of the peace circle.”
“Peace circle? Jane, those women are only concerned about their own comfort. World War III could be breaking out around them, and they’d still be chanting.”
“I can’t see you anymore,” Jane says. “I think you’re my knot.”
Ellora wonders if she could make Jane laugh by saying, “Not!”
“What did I do?” she says. “What did I miss?”
“You keep asking me to explain myself to you but you’re the one who won’t talk, Ell. Your family treats you like shit and you think you don’t have any knots? Come on, you act out your issues all the time including by trying to be fucking teacher of the year. Maybe I’m too focused on myself right now—I’ll give you that—but you, God, it’s like you don’t even have a self.”
Ellora doesn’t appreciate the deflection. She still thinks her stories about her parents and two brothers are pretty funny. She remembers how horrified Jane was when she told her their nickname for her, roughly translated from the Bengali as dummy, and how after every trip home, when Ellora would describe to Jane their interactions and arguments, Jane would comment on how mean and abnormal it all seemed. Ellora’s biggest problem with her family is not how they treat her but how they look at the rest of the world, with such certainty and arrogance, like nothing is ever complicated or layered or changeable. But Jane wants to pathologize something that Ellora has learned to cope with just fine. She moved halfway across the country and now rarely has to see them. She thinks about them less and less every year.
“You have nothing to say?” Jane prods.
“Just that you shouldn’t have left your class in the middle of the year. You really fucked them up.”
Jane actually chortles, the laugh she used to reserve for people they despised together. “You’re not saving anyone,” she says, and because Ellora hangs up immediately, these are the last words spoken between them.
On the first day back at school, Ellora uses a marker that smells like a blueberry lollipop to write the date at the top of the chart paper. January 4, 2000. All the zeros look strange to her. “This is the last year of the twentieth century,” she says to her class. Although she has explained the word “century” multiple times, it’s been a challenge for Ellora’s first graders to understand the concept. The scale of time they are supposed to grasp eludes them.
“Ha ha, we’re a hundred years old,” Robbie says.
“The word century does have to do with the number one hundred,” Ellora says, “but none of us here is one hundred years old.”
Everyone starts calling out their ages. I’m six. I’m seven. You’re seven? Ellora lets it go for a minute before giving them their assignment. Write about how you will make the twenty-first century awesome. This sounds open-ended enough that they can take it in any direction they wish.
Ellora asks her students to put their thinking caps on. “What are some ideas you have for the next century—your century.”
Someone yells out no school. This naturally gets a lot of chuckles.
“No more drugs! No more fighting!” cries Maritza. Maritza’s mother is in a halfway house trying to get her children back from foster care. They had one supervised visit scheduled for the holidays. Maritza was beside herself before the break, so worried that Y2K would ruin Christmas with her mother. Ellora reassured her by explaining in a kid-friendly version what Y2K was and joking that everything should at least be okay until New Year’s Day. Maritza understood both the joke and the reassurance.
Hoping Maritza’s example will sink in with everyone, Ellora doesn’t bother to solicit any more ideas and sends them to their tables to begin work. For the next ten minutes, it’s so quiet that even her whispers of encouragement feel disruptive to the space they need. To resist the urge to hover over them, she looks out the windows of the south-facing wall. These kids don’t know how lucky they are to have this view of Lower Manhattan. In different kinds of weather, she guides them to draw the scene out the window using only crayons – no pencils, no erasers. Whatever their eyes translate to their fingers is what goes on the paper. Her own artistic talents are regrettably limited, but she tries to show them what can happen when her eyes follow the lines. When she lets herself see the colors in the sky, she can create something memorable.
Against her will, her thoughts wander to Jane. They were both first-year teachers when they met. Ellora was introverted, prepared to keep her head down and hide in her classroom, but Jane, friendly and irreverent, pulled her into her orbit. She didn’t realize until Jane left how isolating it could be in a classroom all day with small children. Having an adult friend at work, someone to laugh with, made Ellora a better teacher.
A commotion breaks out behind her. When Ellora turns around, Robbie is holding his neck and wheezing unnaturally, his face a sickening shade of purple and his eyes wild with panic. The kids at his table think he swallowed an eraser. Not the nubby ones at the ends of the pencils. The big pink ones that are so nice and oblong at the beginning of the year but stabbed by pencil points and butchered into useless pieces by the end of November. Ellora rushes over and holds his face in her hands. She peers into his open mouth to see if she can reach in and grab the eraser. She sees nothing but his tongue and his uvula and his tonsils and the dark caverns of his upper throat, and when she reaches in with her hooked finger it only seems to make things worse. Swallowing her own panic, she orders Maritza to run to the nurse’s office while she slaps Robbie on the back as hard as she can. His wheezing gets louder.
All the teachers are trained in CPR as part of their certification, but Ellora hasn’t committed any of it to muscle memory. She can only act out the Heimlich Maneuver based on what she’s seen on television. She puts her fist at the top of his belly, covering it with her other hand and thrusting. He feels as slight and bony as a bird. There’s no give to his flesh and she keeps thinking that she’s breaking him, breaking him and not saving him.
Suddenly everything stops. His eyes close and his body goes limp in Ellora’s arms. “No,” she cries, laying him down on the floor. Where is Maritza and the nurse? She can’t remember whether she’s supposed to do mouth-to-mouth now or chest compressions. Behind her, the class is stomping and shouting Robbie’s dead! Robbie’s dead! This might prompt someone from the hallway to come in and check on them, but stomping and chanting aren’t unusual in Ellora’s classroom.
She starts chest compressions but forgets to count them when at last Nurse Linda is at her side taking over. She tilts his head back and leans down to do a rescue breath, the step Ellora had missed. Ellora stands up and pushes her students toward the wall. She thinks of taking them out of the classroom, not wanting them to see Robbie fail to wake up. But something changes before she has to decide. The next time Nurse Linda opens Robbie’s mouth, she’s able to reach in and grab hold of the eraser, pulling it out swiftly and tossing it aside. It’s covered in slime and for a moment almost looks like it’s pulsing, like it’s the still beating heart of a small wounded animal. The kids start chanting, come on, Robbie; wake up, Robbie. Then Robbie’s body heaves and revives with the most wonderful retching sound. Nurse Linda cradles his head, helping him to sit up. Ellora wonders why he isn’t crying. She imagines he should be wailing like a newborn baby freeing the air in his lungs. The class is quiet at last, spellbound as Robbie slowly regains consciousness.
It’s not much longer before EMS is there, followed by Helen, the principal, and Vicky, the social worker. The paramedic calls Robbie buddy and asks him to respond to a few simple questions. Thank God he still knows his name. They put him on the stretcher and carry him out as the kids sing Get better, Robbie. We love you, Robbie.
No one suggests that she go to the hospital with him. In the meantime, her class has refused to settle down. She doesn’t want to yell at them after what just happened, but if she doesn’t get them under control, she will lose her mind. She grabs a tissue and picks up the offending eraser. Then she shakes her tambourine and gives them twenty seconds to clean up their tables. She has to kill fifteen minutes before it’s time to line up for art class.
She gathers them on the rug for “Jump Jim Joe.” The words of the song tell them what to do.
Jump, Jump, Jump Jim Joe.
Shake your head and nod your head and tap your toe.
Around and around and around we go
And we make a great big circle and we Jump Jim Joe.
At the end of the song they have to plop into their places in the circle. They cooperate because they know it’s time to play a game. She reaches into the basket behind her to grab the ball that they’ll roll to each other—no one can receive the ball twice. It’s a regular-size gym ball, but this one looks like the Earth. She rolls it to David, who rolls it to Juanito, who rolls it to Dylan. Ellora clears her throat. “Dylan, I want you to pause and think for a minute. Can you roll the ball to someone you don’t get to talk to very often?” He looks around and then rolls it to a girl, Marion, who is so quiet it’s easy for everyone to forget about her. The smile on Marion’s face when the ball comes to her moves Ellora in a way she doesn’t expect. She fights back tears as she watches the Earth roll across the carpet, the oceans and continents and melting polar ice caps landing in her students’ doughy hands for a few seconds at a time.
When the ball rolls back to her, fat tears are streaming down her cheeks. No one says anything. No one starts sniffling or crying with her either. Sometimes if one student hurts another’s feelings, she will let her eyes water for effect as she lectures the class about kindness. She always considers it a success if some of the students cry with her. But this time they do not dare to mimic her. They must think that she’s only crying about Robbie, because he almost died and they were all witness to it. The only reaction is from Maritza, sitting next to her, who puts her little hand in Ellora’s.
While the kids are in art class, she goes to the office and fills out the incident form. The social worker has called in from the emergency room. They are keeping Robbie for observation, but so far, he’s doing fine. The secretary looks at Ellora and asks her if she wants to go home early. Ellora shakes her head.
Of course, word gets around school that Robbie had to be taken to the hospital. In the cafeteria, his kindergarten teacher says it was only a matter of time before he choked on something. The implication that it was bound to happen in Ellora’s class is not hard to read. Other teachers, as soon as they see her, give her hugs before they ask for more details—the gossip—about what happened. Ellora does something unprecedented this afternoon. As soon as her last student is picked up, she gathers her things and leaves.
She stops at her favorite dive bar for a drink and has dinner by herself at a trendy new Italian restaurant on 8th Street. She used to do this with Jane. Because they were both single when everyone else had partners and children to run home to, they went out a lot after work, trying all the new bistros popping up on the way to the subway station. They started calling Avenue B, Avenue Bistro.
By the time she gets home, she feels both numb and slightly delirious. There are no messages on her answering machine. It’s not even nine o’clock yet, but she gets under the covers and thinks that if she calls Jane and tells her what happened to Robbie, Jane will say the eraser getting stuck in Robbie’s throat is no coincidence. She will turn it into some kind of metaphor, or worse, a sign that the universe is trying to get through to her. And Ellora, feeling exhausted, might admit that she failed to retrieve the knot, failed to save Robbie’s life, maybe even allowing that it was due to divine mercy, not Nurse Linda, that he didn’t die. Ellora is the one who is worthless. Who is she kidding, thinking she has the power to save anyone?
She tries to imagine the peace and forgiveness on Jane’s face if Ellora concedes. Ellora sleeps fitfully, and in her dreams, Robbie does not wake up. Her parents and brothers are at the funeral, laughing at her.
Robbie is back at school the very next day. At first his classmates heap all their attention on him, and during the morning meeting, Ellora gives him a chance to tell them about his trip to the hospital. He says the doctors looked in his brain, which brings up many questions Robbie can’t answer, but after an hour of school, yesterday’s incident is all but forgotten. Ellora has removed the erasers from the tables and keeps a close eye on Robbie, resisting the temptation to lift his chin and make him open his mouth every few minutes.
They have to finish their writing assignment on how they would make the next century awesome. It’s becoming apparent that Ellora has neglected the schoolwide theme all year and it’s time to put something on display. Most of the students only worked on their drawings and have not written a sentence yet. She pushes them harder today, walking around and asking them what they plan to do next. And since there are no interruptions, it turns out to be a productive session. When she calls the kids back to the rug and asks who wants to share, they all raise their hands.
“I don’t know if we’ll get to all of you, but let’s start with Robbie.”
Robbie reads what he wrote. “When I am a hundred years old, I will still love Miss Ellora. I will take care of her because she will be two hundred years old!”
He didn’t understand the assignment, but what did it matter? He took a marvelous mental trip into the future and came back with this amazing declaration. The whole class claps for him, and Ellora feels a newfound confidence. How wrong Jane is. How wrong she is about everything.
Their final project for the schoolwide theme will be a performance, her class on stage pushing the metaphorical barrel of the twentieth century, with all its progress and horrors, to the cusp of the next millennium. There they will open it up, holding up objects that represent the good things they want to keep and the bad things they will leave behind, before they cross the threshold into a new age. When she was young, she was not taught to question what was given to her. This script, which they will write together, will be full of questions. The kids will never forget it.
Chaitali Sen is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky (Europa Editions 2015) and the short story collection A New Race of Men from Heaven, which won the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction and will be published by Sarabande Books in January 2023. Her stories and essays have appeared in Boulevard, Ecotone (receiving a special mention in the 2019 Best American Short Stories Anthology), Shenandoah, New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult, and many other publications. A graduate of the Hunter College MFA in Fiction, she is the founder of the interview series Borderless: Conversations on Art, Action, and Justice.