Fall is fading, winter is coming on, and students are knuckling down in hopes of passing the GED test before Christmas. Margaret is reading better, but Bernice doesn’t feel as though she reads enough in between their meetings. Me, I’m acting like a squirrel that has scored a ginormous acorn that could last me all the way to spring. The first week after Bernice gave me her card, I must have pulled it out of my wallet a hundred times. I’m not sure if I was trying to savour the moment or just checking to make sure I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
Whatever, it’s a Thursday night, last class for the week, and as I busy myself with instructions to a small band of students who have registered to begin the GED exam in the morning, I notice Margaret and Bernice packing it in early. I doubt this was Bernice’s idea, but it could be a good sign for me. All I had to do was nail down transportation to the testing center for my brave little band and then I could announce an early break. For some reason, conversations between Bernice and me had lacked the playful intensity I had come to expect. I was loaded up to remedy that big time.
What did I think was going to happen during the break? It was going to make it all about her. I was going to make her feel that she was the epicentre of my universe. I was going to chat her up with such wit and charm that she might openly complain that I hadn’t called her already. And that might embolden me to say, “Let’s just forget the card. What are you doing tomorrow night?”
The Bernice scene was playing out in my head and my communication to students was on autopilot. “So you know what you need. ID, Test Appointment slip, check or money order, and you all know who is riding with me and who is riding with Rose?” Heads nod and eyes roll at my pedantic repetition. Then two things happen simultaneously; I hear a student say, “Can we break now?” and I see Bernice pushing through the back door with her purse hand and making a behind the head wave with the freehand. A wave that said, “I know you’re expecting to talk to me but I’m in no mood for conversation.”
During the now Bernice-less break I ponder two scenarios. Wait for Bernice to come in next Tuesday and request an audience before she can make another unannounced exit, or I can get off my duff and call her, soon, like tomorrow. Standing off from the students, I thumbed through my wallet, idly at first. Then not seeing the card I adjusted my focus for a second go through. No card. The third time through I went back inside and laid everything but my cash on an open table. Rose, the adopted class mother and co-driver to most student-oriented events, was eyeing me suspiciously. I tried to nonchalantly place the items back into the wallet. The damned card was gone.
“Lose something, Mr. Cox.” Rose, who acted more like my supervisor than my aide, said in slight bemusement.
“No, I was just looking for some phone numbers I thought I had.”
“Must have been important phone numbers.”
“You’re looking for Miss Wagner’s number aren’t you”?
“I can’t believe I lost it.”
“You know what that means, don’t you Mr. Cox.”
“Nothing good as far as I can see.”
“Let your fingers do the walking.”
I let my fingers do the walking for the entire weekend. They dialled up every hospital and care facility in the city of Detroit. I began my inquiries politely enough but after three days of “would you hold please”, “may I ask what the call is about” and “we don’t have a Bernice Wagner anywhere in our system”, I was ending all calls with a strident, “I want to speak to your supervisor.”
Tuesday evening roles around again. Bernice comes into the class area and I can hardly make eye contact with her. A break comes but nothing comes from the break. In hindsight, I should have taken Rose’s advice, “Just tell her the truth. Maybe she’ll understand.”
Now it’s Thursday and I’d like to say I had screwed up my courage to come clean, but I find myself wasting our break time on bad jokes and idle conversation. Bernice has had enough of that. There is a pause and she looks at me with those baby blues, a half smile on her face and says, “You lost my card didn’t you?”
Suddenly I’m also feeling like a schoolboy who hasn’t done his homework. I can either take a scolding or try to talk my way out of it. At least I know Bernice has a sense of humor. So I launch into my frantic, week-end long search for her card, making sure I include the rudest remarks made to me and my most clever come-backs. I get a few laughs and some sympathetic headshakes. But as soon as she sees my story has run its course, she tells me, “I don’t work in Detroit. I told you, I work for a haematology-oncology group in Grosse Point.”
So not only could I not produce my homework, I didn’t even have the assignment right. But the hell with it, I say to myself. This is as good as it’s going to get.
I hear myself saying, “So know that you know I have no future with the Bureau of Missing Persons, you want to catch a movie or something”?
Then the pause you never want to hear. “I don’t know,” she says, “I’m going to be out of town for two weeks. I’ll be visiting my sister in Phoenix. Maybe when I come back, if you’re still interested.”
I suppose it’s open to interpretation, but to me this was her way of telling me the romance ship had sailed and maybe we could still be, if not friends, then at least break buddies.