Jamal really, really likes his second grade teacher.
Her name is Ms. Schemmenti, and she’s probably the prettiest person in the whole world. She has long, beautiful red hair like the Little Mermaid, and her skin is pinkish-white like the crayon in his crayon box, and her hands are rough with scars on them. She also wears a lot of leather and animal print, which she says is a form of self-expression. Jamal loves her because she’s really good at funny voices, and because she always lets them pick the music for getting their wiggles out, even when they ask her to play Baby Shark for the third time that week and she puts her hands on her face and goes You’re killin’ me, guys. But it’s sort of in a nice way.
Jamal is pretty sure he’s going to marry Ms. Schemmenti someday.
He’s not a baby; he knows that’s what you’re supposed to do when you really, really like somebody, and honestly he doesn’t think it seems that hard. Still, there are a couple problems with his plan. First of all, Ms. Schemmenti is kind of old—probably at least as old as his grandma, with the same pretty wrinkles around her eyes and the same worry-stitch between her brows—and Jamal is only seven and still doesn’t know how to read a clock.
So that’s not great.
More importantly than that, though, it sometimes seems like Ms. Schemmenti already is married, and she just doesn’t know about it.
Across the hall from Ms. Schemmenti’s classroom is Ms. Howard. Jamal had her for first grade last year, and he liked her a lot, too; she’s big and tall and dark like his mom, and she always talks like she’s reading aloud from a storybook. Ms. Schemmenti says that is called diction and projection. Ms. Schemmenti talks a lot about Ms. Howard, because they are Best Friends, which means that they eat lunch together every day and stop by each other’s classrooms when they need highlighters and argue with each other about what to put on pizza. But Jamal thinks that maybe they’re not only friends.
The first thing is that they touch each other a lot more than he touches his friends. Ms. Howard and Ms. Schemmenti touch each other all the time, without even thinking about it, as if their bodies are saying I’m here, I’m here, I’m here even when their mouths are closed . Also, when they look at each other, Ms. Schemmenti’s face—which is usually sort of fierce—softens and opens like a fist uncurling, and even though she doesn’t actually smile, she gets a smiling look in her eyes.
It makes Jamal happy and sad at the same time, because he likes Ms. Schemmenti and he likes it when she’s happy, but also, that’s the way his dad looks at his mom, all soft and open with smiling eyes. And he’s pretty sure you can’t marry someone if they’re already married to someone else.
At lunch, Imani says that Jamal doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Girls can’t marry girls, dummy,” she says, in the way that is called condescending, because she’s three months older and thinks she knows everything. “Our social studies book says it’s got to be a man and a woman.”
Jamal has never thought about that before, and he always gets fidgety and distracted when they read from the social studies book, so he has nothing to counter that with. But then Keisha says that two girls can too get married, because she has two aunts that are married to each other, with rings and everything. She also says that it’s been allowed for a really long time. “Those books are from, like, 1975. They talk about landlines.”
“Well—” Imani really hates being wrong; it makes her all blustery and indignant and she always tries to find something else arguing to say. “That doesn’t mean Ms. Schemmenti and Ms. Howard are married.”
That’s more in Jamal’s area of expertise. “I think they are, though. Ms. Schemmenti doesn’t like anybody except for us and Ms. Howard.”
It’s true. Around them, Ms. Schemmenti is funny and nice and she always says Nice try, hon when they say something that’s wrong, but around other grown-ups she can be kind of menacing. Like when Ms. Coleman, the principal, tells them that reading is for dorks, and Ms. Schemmenti glares at her so hard that she gets all stammery and apologize-y and offers to buy them a new class set of Where the Wild Things Are. Or when one of the guys with a camera asks Ms. Schemmenti why a woman like her would choose to work at a school like this, and Ms. Schemmenti’s face gets all scary and she says, And what kind of school is that? and the camera guy says, Oh, you know… and Ms. Schemmenti says, in a voice that’s hard and flat like the side of a knife, I don’t think I do. And when they get back from lunch that day the camera guy is gone, and she has three boxes full of ice cream sandwiches for the whole class to have one, with the receipt still on from running out to get them.
“If they were married, it would be Mrs. Schemmenti and Mrs. Howard. Plus they would have told us.”
“But that’s the thing,” Jamal says, only his mouth is all gurgly from bubbling his chocolate milk, so it comes out like how a fish would say it and makes Keisha laugh. “I think maybe they’re married and they just don’t know about it. Like, maybe it’s a secret from everybody, even them.”
Imani rolls her eyes. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Even Keisha is unsure about this: “I’m pretty sure my aunts know they’re married.”
They eventually get sidetracked talking about Imani’s brother’s new lizard, but Jamal still can’t stop thinking about Ms. Schemmenti: how tough and pretty she is, and how her red hair looks like fire, and how it’s really, really important for him to know if she’s already married, because there’s no way he can compete with Ms. Howard in terms of being a good husband. Ms. Howard is so old and so beautiful, and she automatically has an advantage when it comes to knowing what taxes are, and she probably never gets crayons stuck in her nose. But if his friends are right, and secret marriage isn’t a real thing, then Jamal still has a chance.
There’s only one way to get to the bottom of this.
The first thing he does is go home and ask his mom what it’s like to be married.
She sets down the plate she’s scrubbing, puts her hands on her hips in a joking way, like when he puts on his church suit and she has to say Who’s that handsome man in my living room? until he tells her it’s him. His dad calls it the Sergeant Mom pose. “And who’s asking? Somebody at school caught your eye?”
Jamal’s face gets hot and he scuffs at the floor with his sneaker. “No. We were just talking about it at lunch, and… and Keisha and Imani wanted to know.”
His mom isn’t convinced. “Well, you can tell Keisha and Imani that being married is a lot of fun,” she says. “You listen to each other and share all your important responsibilities. You support each other through hard times, and you celebrate the good times together, and both of them feel ten times better than if you did it alone. You get to come home to each other at the end of the day.”
Jamal can’t even begin to imagine where Ms. Schemmenti goes after she leaves the school. It’s like she just disappears. “But what kinds of stuff do married people do?”
“All kinds.” His mom grabs another plate and dunks it into the soapy water, which is warm with bubbles in it and makes the whole kitchen smell like lemon verbena. “They back each other up during arguments. They protect each other and take care of each other. And best of all,” and here she glances down at him, one eyebrow raised, “they kiss each other. A lot. ”
Jamal makes a scrunchy ewww face and his mom laughs a big laugh. “I think you might have a few years to go before you’re ready for marriage, baby,” she tells him, and holds up her hands so they don’t drip on him when she kisses his head.
Even though mouth-kissing still sounds really gross, Jamal at least knows what married people do, now. At school, he starts to watch Ms. Schemmenti closer, because even if she doesn’t know she’s married, she’ll probably still act married. But it’s sort of hard to tell when she’s just in her classroom teaching them about sentences. At one point, the announcements come on the loudspeaker really loudly and Kevin gets all freaked out and starts making noises like eeeee and Ms. Schemmenti has to get his special calm-down headphones out of his backpack and tell him It’s okay, hon, you got this, and maybe that technically counts as protecting someone, but Jamal is almost one hundred percent sure that Ms. Schemmenti and Kevin aren’t married, so he doesn’t write it down or anything. (Plus, later Kevin gets into an argument with Devonte about which Paw Patrol puppy is best, and Ms. Schemmenti takes Devonte’s side instead because Come on, dude, that police dog is a total narc.)
As the week goes by, though, he starts to notice some stuff.
Listen to each other. That’s an obvious one—Ms. Howard always watches Ms. Schemmenti really closely when she’s talking, like everything she’s saying is the most important thing anybody’s ever said in the history of the world.
Share responsibilities is a little harder. Jamal doesn’t know that much about responsibilities, but Ms. Schemmenti and Ms. Howard definitely share . They come to each other’s classrooms a lot to get red-ink pens and glue refills and extension cords; they both use the same stickers so they can get more from each other when they run out. They even share clothes when it’s cold. (Jamal can always tell who needed what, too, because Ms. Howard’s stuff is thick and knitted and comes in deep jewelry colors like raspberry and mustard, so it looks funny when she comes in from recess wearing plain black gloves.) Also, he knows Ms. Howard’s handwriting from when he was in her class last year, so he knows that sometimes she and Ms. Schemmenti grade each other’s papers.
Back each other up. That’s another obvious one. Ms. Schemmenti and Ms. Howard are one unit of two people: everybody knows that picking a fight with one of them is picking a fight with both of them. And almost no one wants to do that.
As for the protect each other and care for each other part, Ms. Schemmenti brings Ms. Howard food at least once a week, and even though she always says it’s just to get rid of leftovers, it’s clear she made it for the two of them to share. She also gets really upset when Ms. Howard is in trouble. The only time Jamal has ever seen her genuinely scared was last January, when Ms. Howard fell down the front steps and got all banged up and needed the doctor to cut her knee open and put metal in it. Ms. Schemmenti wanted to call an ambulance (which is how everybody knew it was serious—normally, she doesn’t believe in ambulances, because I could cab to the hospital for twenty bucks, and you’re gonna charge me an extra three grand for a ride in the wee-yoo wagon?) but Ms. Howard said no, so Ms. Schemmenti left early to drive her to the hospital and then carried all of her stuff for weeks while she wheeled down the hallway on a little knee-bicycle thingy.
Ms. Howard takes care of Ms. Schemmenti, too. When Ms. Schemmenti is sick and refuses to stay home, Ms. Howard always brings her a thermos full of peppery chicken noodle soup, and then she clears all the gross used tissues off of her desk, because Ms. Schemmenti has a tendency to just let them collect there like crumpled white flowers. One time, she even came and stood in the hallway outside of the classroom and put her hands in Ms. Schemmenti’s hair and rubbed her head to stop it from hurting. Which, that’s not necessarily special—she used to do that for Kevin sometimes when he and Jamal were in her class last year—but with Ms. Schemmenti, she does it a lot slower and for a lot longer. So Jamal decides that it counts.
After a lot of investigating, Jamal is absolutely, totally certain that Ms. Schemmenti and Ms. Howard are married to each other.
He’s even more certain that neither of them know about it.
Which is sort of weird, but also sort of sad. It makes his heart hurt to think about somebody being married and not even knowing it. He wonders how Ms. Schemmenti and Ms. Howard could have possibly forgotten that they were each other's wife—how it turned into a secret that even they didn’t get told.
And that makes him think that maybe somebody should just go ahead and tell them.
Later, Jamal will wonder if he could have been more tactful (a word that his mom uses whenever he asks someone if they’re pregnant or how old they are) about delivering his news. But it’s been weeks of careful study, and the disappointment of realizing that he probably can’t marry Ms. Schemmenti anymore has gotten all tangled up with the excitement of realizing that she and Ms. Howard are together together like husband and wife, and also it’s right after lunch and they’re all filing into the classroom laughing and chatting, so he’s sort of distracted by the time he finally manages to get the question out.
“Ms. Schemmenti, do you know that you and Ms. Howard are married?”
That pulls Ms. Schemmenti up short. She stops counting heads and telling everybody lunch boxes in cubbies and she turns around and looks at him with a startled expression on her face. “What?”
Jamal rocks back and forth, trying to remember everything that he had prepared to say. “Well, at first Imani said our social studies book says that two girls can’t get married, but then Keisha said that they could, and then my mom told me all this stuff that you have to do to be married and you and Ms. Howard basically do all of it—except for the kissing part, but kissing is gross anyway, so I don’t think that should be part of it—but you don’t have a ring on the special finger, so, like—” and then he runs out of air and has to take a really deep breath to finish. “Do you know that you’re married? Or is it secret?”
Ms. Schemmenti does laugh, then, but it’s a weird laugh—like the way you’d laugh if you said something really stupid and then tried to pretend it was a joke as soon as you realized. “Jamal, hon,” she says, “Ms. Howard and I are definitely not married.”
It’s a pretty clear answer to his question. “So it is a secret.”
“No, it—it’s not anything. It’s not true.”
“But—” Jamal swells with importance. “You do all the things you’re supposed to. You back each other up and take care of each other and you touch each other a lot.” He sort of forgets the other stuff now. Having Ms. Schemmenti’s attention all on him—her pretty greenish eyes and her magical spirally red hair—is making him feel dizzy and special, and he wonders how Ms. Howard can stand it all the time. “Plus you look at each other like married people are supposed to.”
Ms. Schemmenti folds her arms. “And how’s that?”
“Like this.” Jamal does his best to show her, but it’s hard to make his eyes all warm and gooey and get those little smiley scrunches at the corners.
The reaction is more muted than he expects. Ms. Schemmenti can usually be counted on to laugh whenever they make faces, but she doesn’t this time. Instead, she just stands there and looks at him for a long, long while, with an expression on her face that he doesn’t know what it means.
When she finally speaks, her voice is thoughtful and quiet. “Little pitchers, huh?”
It must show on his face that he’s confused.
Ms. Schemmenti reaches out and rubs the top of his head, her short nails scritching lightly at his scalp. “It’s just a saying. Little pitchers have big ears. To put it bluntly, hon, it means that you should mind your own business.” But she doesn’t sound angry, and she doesn’t tell him to sit back down or go to the Calm Down Corner. Instead, she pulls back to look at him straight-on. “So, you thought you’d go ahead and let me know that I’m Ms. Howard’s secret wife?”
Jamal nods fervently. “Keisha says that people should know if they’re married or not.”
Ms. Schemmenti smiles at him. “Now that is definitely true.” And then she steps back from him, and rearranges her face so that it’s mostly back to normal, except for some weirdness around her eyes. “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Jamal, but Ms. Howard isn’t married to me. She has a whole entire husband that doesn’t teach here.”
This lands with a thud in Jamal’s chest. “She does?”
“Yup. He’s a firefighter and he’s very nice.”
Just like that, the revelations of the last few weeks deflate inside him, like somebody’s letting all of the air out. Ms. Howard is married to somebody else. He didn’t even consider that as an option.
Because Jamal is what is called a romantic, his first thought is that this means he still has a chance with Ms. Schemmenti—once he’s older, at least, and has his own money and the thing that’s called a mortgage— but his second thought is that none of this makes sense; he’s never seen Ms. Howard’s husband before, but he sees her and Ms. Schemmenti together every day. But Ms. Schemmenti still has the weirdness around her eyes, so he doesn’t say that out loud. He just says, “Oh.”
Ms. Schemmenti squeezes his shoulder. “Thank you for trying to tell me, hon. That was sweet of you. But trust me: if I was married, I would know about it.”
There is a warm finality to her voice that means Jamal can’t really do anything but return her smile, and then he goes to his cubby to put his lunch box away like everybody else that’s still milling around, but secretly he thinks that what she said might not be true. That maybe Ms. Schemmenti, as old and smart and pretty as she is, doesn’t know as much as she thinks she does.
Jamal is in the bathroom washing his hands when he hears voices outside.
“...just a stupid rumor, Barb.”
The words are just barely audible over the sound of the water running, and Jamal’s ears perk up—because that’s Ms. Schemmenti’s voice (her grown-up voice, not her teacher voice) and that’s Ms. Howard’s first name, Barb for Barbara. She only uses the short version when she thinks no one’s listening to her.
Ms. Howard’s voice is a little closer: “Of course it is. I’m not saying it isn’t.”
“Then why are you acting like they just accused you of murder?”
Jamal turns off the bathroom sink (slowly, so they don’t notice the sound going away), and then goes to put his ear against the swingy door. His dad says eve-dropping is rude, but he never said anything about what if you’re there anyway and you just happen to hear what’s going on. Through the gap, he can see a thin sliver of the hallway outside—Ms. Schemmenti is leaning against the wall to her classroom with her arms folded, while Ms. Howard stands in front of her, closer to Jamal’s hiding spot.
“Three different students in my class brought this to me,” Ms. Howard says. She sounds sort of upset, which for her just means that her voice is more even than usual, like she’s pressing it flat by force. “If they got it from one of your students, that means it’s a rumor with legs.”
“Who cares if it is, though? I think it’s kind of sweet. Jamal, from my class—he told me that we do everything married people do, except for the kissing.” Ms. Schemmenti does a weird thing with her mouth that is mostly a smile. “Wait until they find out about friendship, right?”
Jamal barely has time to enjoy the unexpected pop of delight he gets from hearing Ms. Schemmenti say his name (from realizing that she’s talking about his idea), because Ms. Howard isn’t laughing with her, or even smiling. Instead, she says, sort of fiercely, “Melissa.” (That’s Ms. Schemmenti’s first name, and hearing it makes her go all still.) “I should not have to explain my reasoning to you, but suffice it to say that I am married, to a wonderful man, and I am simply not comfortable with anyone at this school thinking things about me that are not true.”
“Barb, it’s not like I’m encouraging this. I told Jamal that it was a very cute theory, but that you had a husband, and that he’s a very nice man and you love him very much.”
Ms. Howard must notice the way she presses down hard on the word man, because she holds up one shaking finger . “That is not what this is about.”
“Isn’t it, though? Call me crazy, but I don’t think you’d be freaking out half as much if the kids thought you and Jacob were secretly married.”
“Because that would be ridiculous!”
It’s louder than Jamal has ever heard Ms. Howard be, and it seems to startle Ms. Schemmenti into silence. She opens her mouth to say something, but then closes it, and some kind of realization seems to dawn on her, because after that she and Ms. Howard just look at each other.
The quiet in the hallway feels alive, like it has teeth. Jamal doesn’t really understand what’s going on at all, but their faces are really weird—their faces are all sorts of things all mixed up, some hurting feelings and surprised feelings but also something that is helpless and sort of warm, and they’re not talking, but Jamal knows from watching them for the last few weeks that they don’t always talk out loud, especially not about really important stuff. Sometimes they can just look at each other and it moves between them.
“I’ve been trying to ignore it,” Ms. Howard says finally, quietly.
But Ms. Howard isn’t even looking at her anymore, and she shuts her eyes at the sound of her name. “I’ve been telling myself for fifty years that this is just the way things are supposed to feel for women. That marriage is supposed to be good and steady and safe, and nothing else. I told myself that anyone who said anything different was lying, or sinning, or both. But—” and here her voice finally gives out, cracks into something frightened and young—“I want you, Melissa. In a way I never wanted Gerald. In a way I didn’t even know was possible until I met you. It’s not friendship. I—it’s like—it’s like a hunger.”
Ms. Schemmenti shakes her head, looking more scared than anything. “Don’t do this, hon,” she says. “Don’t undermine your entire marriage based on the assumptions of a seven-year-old. That—you know that would be really stupid, right?”
But Ms. Howard doesn’t take what is maybe supposed to be a peace offering. “It’s not just the kids,” she says. “I know you feel it too.”
“Maybe I do, Barb, but I don’t have a perfectly good husband waiting for me at home.”
Ms. Schemmenti fights it, the gentle power of the name—she folds her arms even tighter and steels herself and even tries to look away—but after a long moment, Jamal sees it: the way her face softens and opens. Like a fist uncurling.
Ms. Howard must see it, too, because her whole body relaxes. “I’m getting old, sweetheart,” she says. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on steady and safe . I don’t want to… to keep eating plain white bread just to stay alive, when there are so many other—when there’s pizza to be had, and—and mushroom risotto, and that beautiful panna cotta you made last Christmas—when there’s so much more. ”
And Jamal thinks that Ms. Schemmenti is going to argue with her, and for a second it looks like she might, but then all she says is, “Did you come up with that food metaphor just for me?”
And Ms. Howard lets all her air out at once and says, with a shiny-eyed smile, “Just for you. I also wanted to give you the innuendo—as a gift. Go ahead and make it. I know you’re dying to.”
And Ms. Schemmenti says, in a fragile voice that is just about to pitch over into tears, “It sounds like you’re craving a little Italian,” and Ms. Howard’s laugh is bright and wet and beautiful, and Jamal really expects them to kiss, then—because that’s what grown-ups do in movies when they get all gooey-eyed the way Ms. Howard and Ms. Schemmenti are right now—but they don’t, they just stand there in the hallway looking at each other, and there is so much on their faces that he almost can’t stand it. Which might be why, just as Ms. Schemmenti is starting to move towards Ms. Howard—her hands already lifting up to touch her, trembling and careful—Jamal accidentally loses his balance and falls into the swingy door, which swings open and dumps him into the hallway with a thud.
Ms. Schemmenti’s head snaps towards him, and her pink-rimmed eyes go all wide and surprised. “Jamal?”
“Good Lord,” Ms. Howard says, “the boy is like a ninja.”
“Jamal, honey, what are you doing out here?”
A million things pile up on Jamal’s tongue—like how he wasn’t eve-dropping, he was just in the bathroom and couldn’t help but hear all the stuff they were saying, and how he didn’t understand even one thing and they should maybe consider talking less with their eyeballs and more with their mouths if they want people to be able to understand them when they talk, and how he probably still can’t marry Ms. Schemmenti because even if she isn’t already married he doesn’t think she has ever looked at him the way she looks at Ms. Howard—but he’s on the spot, and so in the end, all he can blurt out is, “What the heck is a panna cotta?”
In the end, things don’t change that much.
Ms. Schemmenti is still probably the prettiest person in the whole world. She still has mermaid hair and beautiful fistfight hands, and she still expresses herself with leather and animal print—only sometimes, now, she’ll be wearing earrings that definitely aren’t hers, or a shade of lipstick that Ms. Howard wore the day before. She still does funny voices and lets them pick the music for getting their wiggles out. But now, she comes to school in the same car as Ms. Howard a lot, and they meet up at Ms. Schemmenti’s door when it’s time to leave, and a lot of the time Ms. Howard will press her lips to Ms. Schemmenti’s cheek or her temple or her hairline, and Ms. Schemmenti doesn’t duck away like she would with anyone else; she softens into it, even smiles sometimes.
The other teachers don’t know about it, which Jamal knows because Ms. Teagues, the other second grade teacher, keeps trying to set Ms. Schemmenti up with the guy that comes to fix the projector, and Mr. C, the curly-hair man from upstairs, is always coming to their classroom to tell her the names of ladies that he knows and show her their pictures and say So? Can we make some magic happen, here? As if she didn’t kiss Ms. Howard in the hallway, like, two hours ago. It’s doesn’t frustrate him that much, though, because Ms. Schemmenti always gives Jamal a special secret wink when that happens, which makes him so happy he could probably just explode.
And that’s not even the best part.
“...and now they drive the same car and wear some of the same stuff which means they probably live in the same house, too, with only one bed like parents have— and they kiss on the mouth when they think we can’t see them,” Jamal finishes, setting his chocolate milk carton down hard in the way that is called triumphant. “So I was right and you were wrong the whole time. Especially the part about ladies marrying ladies.”
Imani crosses her arms, narrows her eyes at him.
“You swear you saw them kissing?” She asks, finally.
Jamal nods. “Pinkie swear.”
Imani thinks about this for a long moment. Jamal wonders if she’s trying to think of something else to say he’s wrong about—like maybe she’s going to pretend that she never actually said ladies couldn’t get married, she was just testing him to see if he read the book, like that time she said Abraham Lincoln played hockey—but she doesn’t; she just sits there, considering his evidence.
Then, she wrinkles her nose. “Gross.”
For the first time, Jamal agrees with her.