The evening of my daughter Hadley’s first sleepover, I dropped my phone, and it cracked so badly, when I tried to thumb through Instagram, pieces of glass chipped off of it.
I was trying to get a video of Hadley and her buddies singing and dancing to Mama Mia. They were so cute belting out, “You can dance! You can jive! Having the time of your life!” I couldn’t resist.
The phone slipped from my hands as I was sneaking up on the girls, and it smacked on the floor just as Meryl Streep pushed Christine Baranski into the ocean.
Two days later, I had an interview at a middle school, in a town a bit west of Ann Arbor. It surrounded a small lake—large enough to fish and ski in the summer. I fantasized driving alongside the lake’s shore in the morning as the sun rose, the water a blanket for sleepy ducks.
By Sunday evening, though, my splattered phone screen now had black blobs of what looked like oil on it. I knew Siri would be of no use to me in finding this school.
“Just print out the directions,” said Jesse. “Like in the olden days,” he joked.
I rolled my eyes. “It’s hard for me to read directions and drive,” I complained.
“You’ll be fine,” Jesse said, pulling up the directions on the computer.
“Isn’t reading while driving dangerous?” I asked. “Like texting while driving?”
Jesse smirked, and handed me the one-page document. Five steps to follow and I’d be there.
“It’s right off 94,” he said. “No problem.”
The next day, I texted Jesse constantly about the interview. “I’ll never find this place,” I told him. “I don’t even know what this school looks like. I’ve barely prepared for this interview.”
“You could do the interview in your sleep,” he texted back.
“I don’t even know if I want this job.” Finally I wrote, “I don’t want to go.”
But I did go. I got in the car and followed the directions without Siri. Everything was great until I got off 94 and roads were blocked off due to construction. The directions we printed the night before hadn’t accounted for roadwork, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I drove around the lake, past old-time drugstores and fishing shops, but couldn’t find the school.
Before Siri, when I couldn’t find something, I’d call Jesse while he was working on computer models for hurricane storm surge and flood evacuation plans. I’d do it while I was driving, usually in some sort of mild or full-on panic. “I can’t get to the zoo!” I’d yell. Or, “Where’s the closest Starbucks?” Real serious stuff. Once Siri entered our relationship, so many fights were prevented because, thanks to her help, I could figure a few things out for myself. It’s not that Jesse minds helping me. It’s more the state I am in when I call for help: frantic, ticked off, and with the mindset that he needs to fix it right now. I don’t care if he’s working on the latest model that will not only end storm surge but eliminate hurricanes once and for all: I DON’T KNOW WHERE I’M GOING.
The day that I was lost, I could feel myself turning into the Tasmanian Devil, and I knew if I called him up declaring a state of emergency, things would not end well. I pulled into the town’s high school, put the car in park, and called him. I named the street I was on, plus the nearest cross streets. I told him how far away I was from 94. I was rational and neutral. Some call this behavior “acting like an adult.”
Jesse told me to get back on 94, so I did. He told me to get off at the next exit, and we’d re-trace my steps, but every exit was closed due to construction.
“I don’t understand how they’re all closed,” he said. He was starting to get annoyed, and I began to take it personally. Like he was accusing me of closing the exit ramps. “It doesn’t say they’re closed on my phone,” he said.
“You want me to take a picture?” I snapped. “Or should I just off-road it and explain that the phone didn’t say the ramps were closed so the orange ‘ROAD BLOCKED’ sign must be lying?”
There was a long, heavy pause, and then, “It’s clear you’ve made your decision, Callie,” Jesse said, using his monotone scientist voice with me. “You made your decision about this job before you got in the car.”
I hung up on him.
How dare he tell me I made my decision, I thought, as I gripped the steering wheel with one hand and turned up the radio with the other. What’s he talking about? He is so wrong! I pressed my foot on the gas and rolled down the windows. I crumpled up the directions and threw them in the trash. I’d figure this out myself.
About ten minutes later, I realized the miles to Chicago were decreasing, and I hadn’t seen any signs for Detroit in a while. I was heading west on 94, instead of east. I bet I could find my way to Chicago, I thought. How many trips had I taken on this highway back and forth from Grand Rapids to Oak Park? I kept driving and thought about surprising my best friend, Celena. She’d scream and give me a hug, and we’d go out on the town. I entertained the thought while belting out John Mayer’s “In the Blood:”
How much of my love will be insane to some degree?
What about this feeling that I’m never good enough?
* * *
Jesse saw me teach once. “It’s like a light switch turned on inside of you,” he told me later, and he said it like he was humorously baffled.
The principal of the Detroit school I’d left in the fall said something similar after a formal observation. She’d gone through the rubric she used to assess me, then leaned back in her chair and put her hands together, her fingertips tapping as she studied me. “You’re a different teacher than you are a colleague,” she said, and she said it in the same tone Jesse used, like she was trying to get in on the prank.
I knew what she meant. I am quiet in staff meetings. I keep to myself, studiously and meticulously attending to teacher preparations. Something changes though, when students arrive. Jesse was right. It is like a light has been turned on.
“I feel most myself when I am teaching,” I told her.
I would quit that job less than a month later.
Another memory: Jesse and I were living in South Bend, Indiana, and one night, we drove to Saugatauk, Michigan, for dinner. As we were walking back to the car, I heard a bluegrass band playing and stopped to listen. I love bluegrass. “Ahhh,” I sighed, “they’re perfect.” I lifted myself to tiptoes to see if I could catch a glimpse of the band by the water.
Jesse tugged at my arm, “C’mon!” he said, and I remember he looked like a boy, mischievous and delighted, “Let’s go back! We can listen!”
“No,” I said, peeling his hand off mine. “I have work to do.”
It was the first day of summer. I wouldn’t be teaching for at least two months.
Years later, after I’d become a mother, Jesse and I were in the car and I told him I missed teaching. “I feel like I was good at it,” I said, pulling my feet up on the dashboard. “Was I good?”
“You were good,” Jesse said, thoughtfully. He was quiet for a moment, then took my hand. “There were days though, when it consumed you. I missed you on those days.”
Suddenly, I was firing questions at him: Which days? How was I acting? Which class was it? Which school?
Of course, he couldn’t answer. By then, I hadn’t taught for about five years, and we’d moved across the country and become parents. So much had happened, but I never forgot his comment, nor his previous one about a light switch being turned on inside of me. How does something that makes me feel truly myself also ruin a part of me?
* * *
I turned off the next exit so I could head Eastbound towards home. Jesse was right, I thought, as I searched for signs that read “University of Michigan Stadium.” I had made my decision about this job before I got into the car. But it wasn’t because I didn’t want it. It was because I was afraid.
I loved my students at the job I had in Detroit, but I couldn’t keep up with the workload, or all the meetings. I didn’t want to teach the way I was told I was supposed to. It wasn’t a good fit, but it wasn’t just that school. I’ve taught in four different schools, and the same thing always happens: I burn myself out, and I do something else for a while: work at a scrapbook store, teach aerobics, become a mother, get an MFA, and this last time, work in a school library. With the exception of the scrapbook store, I loved each role, and each added a layer to the kind of teacher I would become. I return to the classroom with a creative vengeance, only for the same thing to happen again. This method of working makes me feel reckless and irresponsible.
What I love the most about Siri is if I make a mistake—a wrong turn, for example—she doesn’t tell me. She just finds a new path for me without saying, “re-calculating.” Sometimes, I’d make a mistake on purpose, just to see if Siri could find me and figure out what to do with me next. She always did. Only a few times has she told me to, “proceed to the route,” and I do, wondering only for a moment if her robotic female tone sounds mildly snarky and exhausted with me.
She found me on Packard and State, about two miles from home. I know this intersection well. In one direction is the coffee shop called Diesel. In another is the fairy village on Fourth and William where Harper and I stand and wonder for a moment each time we visit. I can get to the church we’ve been attending from this corner.
“Turn right on State,” Siri told me. I ignored her and went another way. I could get home from here.
Jesse was working in the yard when I got home. He had his hands on his hips, and his head was bowed. He was looking at the wild hydrangea bush in front of our window.
I walked up next to him and we stood in silence for a moment.
“You found your way back,” he said, and looked at me. He was wearing his Detroit Tigers baseball cap—his favorite baseball team. He looked like the boy who grabbed my arm in Saugatuck while the bluegrass band played. I smiled at him.
“I found my way back,” I said.
He put an arm around me, and I took a deep breath and let it out.
“I think I need a new phone, though,” I said.
We laughed, and then I said, “I miss teaching middle school.”
“I know,” Jesse said.
“But I’m not ready to go back,” I added.
“I know that, too,” he said.
We watched the fresh leaves on the shrub rustle and I bent down to pat the new buds.
“A friend of mine told me that wild hydrangeas can spread themselves around freely,” I told Jesse. “They are okay if they don’t stay in one place.”
“That’s probably why they’re all over this block,” he said, turning to survey all the other homes with hydrangea bushes in the yards.
I liked that idea—that a bird or the wind took a part of something, and dropped it somewhere new.
And it grew. And it was beautiful.