Sometimes you just don't see it coming.
I was on the downtown 6 train, coming back from the Bronx, thinking of the most recent girl I'd successfully driven out of my life, Angela, and doing some creative mental math to figure out how substitute teaching could allow me to pay my Greenpoint rent without her, when it suddenly hit me. A sucker punch square in the mouth.
The guy came out of nowhere. By the time I knew what happened he already yanked my iPod away from me.
I stood there, stunned for a moment, my mouth filling with blood as I looked at him. A tooth came loose and I held it there in my mouth, in all the salty blood.
"What're you gonna do?" he said, raising a fist.
I could see he hadn't expected me to stay standing after a punch like that. This guy had no clue how many times I'd been hit before or that I'd never, ever been knocked down.
The other people on the train looked at their feet.
My heart hammered as adrenaline dumped into my veins.
"What?" he said. "Do something!" But his voice trembled. He hadn't planned on a fight.
I stepped forward and spit my mouthful of blood into his face. He cringed, wiping wildly to clear his eyes as he stepped back, cornering himself against the subway door. I hit him as hard as I could, knocking his head back hard against the subway doors. I yanked my iPod out of his hand and stepped back. He cursed at me, loud enough for the whole train to hear, but he was doubled over and grappling frantically with his injured nose. When the train screeched to a stop he jumped off in a hurry.
My loose tooth hung by a thread. I pried it free with my tongue and spit it out onto the subway floor with a fresh mouthful of blood.
The tooth fell with a clack, the root shockingly white in the dark red puddle. For a second I wanted to pick it up and take it with me, but I was embarrassed so I sat down and watched people grimace as they stepped over it to board the train.
A little girl with blue eyes stepped in the blood, her tiny pink sneakers leaving red tracks as she walked down to the far end of the train, her mom holding her hand.
My hands shook violently so I crossed my arms and held them tight to my sides. My tongue went into the empty spot where my tooth had been and I thought of Angela. Angela had blue eyes like that little girl with the bloody footprints. For a second I let myself wonder what life might have been like if I married Angela instead of driving her away, and if our baby would have had blue eyes like hers or brown eyes like mine. I didn't like wondering. It made me sick, or maybe it was just my injured mouth and all the adrenaline.
I dropped my head down between my knees and closed my eyes, swallowing mouthfuls of blood as the train rocked me back and forth.
The call came early the next morning, another subbing job in the Bronx. I didn't want to get out of bed, but I needed the money. I tongued the empty spot in my teeth and the emptiness felt unnatural, I couldn't get used to it. It made me think of Angela, her empty spot in our bed. I couldn't get used to that either. When she was here I always turned away from her so that I faced the wall. I don't know why I did it, I knew she wanted me to hold her. Now that she was gone I put a pillow in her spot and held it tight.
The ride from Brooklyn took forever. I watched each time someone got on the train to make sure it wasn't they guy from yesterday. When the train screeched to a stop I got off, still on the lookout.
When I finally found the school a secretary shoved a classroom key in my hand and told me I'd be teaching first grade. I told her I didn't know anything about little kids. I'd only taught high school. She said school started in ten minutes and if I wanted to get paid I needed to go open the room and take the chairs off the desks, now.
Before I was settled the kids came in. They were tiny, wearing uniforms, looking up at me and expecting me to teach them something.
One of the kids had it in for me from the start. Her name was Tia. She made fun of my skin, my clothes, my height, my hair, everything about me seemed to provoke her hatred. She knocked over a potted plant, flung paint on my shirt and called me names I didn't think first graders should know.
I gave her extra attention, trying everything to win her over, but nothing worked. I bent down to try and help her with an addition worksheet and she kicked her little desk over, spilling paper and pencils across the floor.
By lunchtime I felt lobotomized. I'd been defeated by a seven year old. I was taking what felt like my first breath in hours when another teacher came into the room and told me to go downstairs to the cafeteria for lunch duty. I struggled up from the teacher's desk, exhausted and demoralized.
The lunch room was twice as bad as the classroom. Kids ran from table to table, spilling juice, flipping lunch trays, screaming. A pop like a gunshot startled me as a boy smashed an empty milk carton under his foot. Just then a tiny hand reached from a nearby table and touched my knee. I flinched. It was Tia. The beads clicked in her hair as she turned to look up at me. She squinted, examining me, ready to speak.
I just stood there, tonguing that empty spot in my mouth where my tooth used to be. It was raw. It hurt. It was as sensation I was used to. I found it almost comforting. It reminded me I was tough. I realized nothing this little girl could say to me could matter, one way or the other, after all the beatings and losses I'd endured.
I looked down at Tia. She locked onto me with her big brown eyes, considering something.
"I wish you were my Daddy," she said.
My legs got weak. I took a dizzy breath and dropped to a knee. I was down.
Sometimes you just don't see it coming.
Christian Rose lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and is a native of Binghamton, New York. His writing has appeared in The L Magazine and The L Magazine’s Literary Upstart Competition ’09 and ’06, The Modern Drunkard, Birdsong, Word Riot, Denver Syntax, The 2nd Hand, Zygote In My Coffee, JMWW, Main Street Rag Anthology and DeComp. He is currently working on his comedic novel Born Hung Over, several short stories and some feature-length screenplays including a horror script called The Gorge, a comedy called Kidnapping the Groom and a screen version of Born Hung Over.