The Gap Year
By: Karlie Taylor
On the night before I graduated from college, I could not sleep because I was thinking about Jesus, not in the deep, philosophical kind of way, but the human kind of way. See, I’ve got this picture of Him that has always lived in my mind. He’s dark-haired, kind-eyed, and gentle. He gives people this look as they pass that tells them, “I understand you,” and for better or for worse, people are wrecked by it. I imagine Him and His father building chairs, tall like barstools. As Jesus begins to swing His hammer, He freezes. A series of harrowing questions fill His mind because He knows. Will the man with the hammer hesitate too? Will he apologize under his breath with every strike? Joseph’s voice pulls Him away from His anxieties and with a newfound strength, possibly bred from anger, Jesus rams the nail into the wood with one blow.
I brought a girl into my childhood bedroom last week. Door open. No whispering. We chatted for a good while, but I was distracted. The achievements held up by pushpins, the medals hung on the closet door knob, the pictures of my old friends who are now years away, they were all reminders of all the people I used to be. This girl knew none of them. The thought made my stomach churn and I could feel my face get hot when I looked too intently at an artifact of my past. I asked her to leave before dinner.
“I think I’m catching a cold.”
My dad volunteers as a basketball coach for the local high school. I played on his teams when I could, but the only athletic skill I ever had was my height. Still, when he asked me to help him with a summer practice, I agreed. The boys, mostly sixteen and seventeen, looked so young. Surely I looked older at that age. I certainly felt older. For most of the practice, I stood by Dad and echoed his instructions with a stern look on my face, hoping none of the boys could see through me. A basketball rolled out into the hallway and towards the stage. I ran after it to get away and to feel helpful, but I stopped before I picked up the ball, realizing where it had brought me. More than basketball, more than debate club, more than anything, I loved my high school drama program. Plays, musicals, whatever they had, I was in it and while my castmates were on stage, I sat in this little, white hallway listening to a still voice.
“You’ll hear His calling!” Mom said.
“The phone’s not ringing.” I replied.
Somehow, I ended up in a bowling alley an hour and a half away from home with a bunch of my old friends. We’re all old enough to drink so the bowling was bad and everyone suddenly became twice as funny. I laughed at the jokes and stifled laughter when the owner nearly kicked us out for launching the eight-pound balls down the lane, but I was still me. Still nostalgic and strange. The lights softened and I faded away from the hilarity around me as I realized the people I grew up with were grown up. Sure, we were still on our parent’s health insurance and, if we were lucky, had a couple hundred bucks in our bank accounts, but Taylor pats his friends on the back when he laughs with them like his dad does, and Skylar drinks beer out of tall, brown bottles, and Riley offered to pay my tab because we made a stupid bet in high school and he never paid me what he owed. I had forgotten all about that.
I kept books for a farmer whose wife decided she was too old and too busy with the grandkids to do it herself. She taught me how to do everything and by the end of the day I had eaten seven chocolate chip cookies and I was thoroughly convinced she could have been some kind of mathematician if she had been born in another time, or at least, another place. The farmer stopped into his dusty, stale office from time-to-time as I was working to check on me and to make conversation. He asked me if I had a “real job” lined up and I could not answer him. Then, he asked me if I was going back to school and I still could not answer him. We weaved around each other, him asking me more specific, nearly unavoidable questions, and me, batting each one away with a shrug and a chuckle.
“I’m afraid to make a mistake.” I said.
“Well, if you’re going to make a mistake, you have to commit to it.” The farmer replied.
I became a substitute teacher because it was either that or working on the custodial staff at the nearest hospital which was forty-seven minutes away. Though I was a bundle of nerves, I survived the first day, PE teacher, elementary school, no worse for the wear. As I signed out with the secretary, she told me trustworthy substitute teachers were hard to come by and asked if I would work for the third grade teacher while she was on maternity leave. I must’ve given her a hesitant look because she bragged endlessly about Mrs. Wooley’s impeccable lesson planning and goddess-like organizational skills until I agreed.
On my first day as a long-term-sub, I went to the teacher’s lounge, poured myself a cup of particularly strong coffee, took a sip, and spilled a hearty drop onto my light gray polo. Frantically, I wiped it over and over with the papery school napkins, but I was too late. The stain already settled into the fabric like a scarlet letter. My third grade teacher was new and a little on the dorky side. He wore thin wire-rimmed glasses and his hair stood up awkwardly at his hairline. My classmates and I used to draw pictures of him in semi-morbid situations because of this. I remembered drawing him lying in a frying pan, a pad of butter melting across his torso. I was doomed.
Inch by inch, this class of tiny people and I made it through the day. There were mishaps, sure, but they were minimal and easy to forget, but so were the kids’ names. There were two Peytons in class, girl Peyton and boy Peyton, but boy Peyton looked a lot like Robbie and girl Peyton had an identical twin named Paris. The only name I knew without a doubt was Kiera. She was familiar to me, quiet and small, shy in an endearing, and not concerning manner. Kiera wore light-up sneakers and the beads at the ends of her braids click-clacked when she walked. During the last thirty minutes of the day, craft time, she worked diligently on something she would not let me see and after the dismissal bell rang, she kept working. Three minutes later she lifted up her creation: a long yarn necklace with plastic beads and paper heart charm.
“To cover the stain on your shirt.” She said.
And the phone finally rang.
Karlie is a writer and high school English teacher. She graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a degree in English. She enjoys reading, crocheting, and her family.