Katie liked to draw circles at her desk when she waited for her mother to pick her up from school. She did not like to go outside, where boys teased her for looking like Mickey Mouse and fell and broke their arms after leaping off the rectangular pipe monkey bars, pretending to be Superman. What made Katie want to stay inside even more were the gray clouds lingering with the promise of rain.
Mr. Flannelson, Katie’s twenty-four-year-old kindergarten teacher, returned with a cup of coffee in his left hand. When Katie did not look up, roaming her arm up and down the paper, he regretted even leaving. He cursed himself inside his head so that Katie would not hear him. He shouldn’t have left her alone, even if she knew she was well behaved. Even if he locked the door so no one could get in. Even if he locked the windows so no one could get in. Even if Katie was quiet and knew she wouldn’t talk to strangers, because her mother had told him that she was a good girl that got her good behavior from her side of the family instead of the father who left them.
He should have gone without that cup of coffee. He’d get sued for leaving a child unattended. A five-year-old unattended. Why did he get coffee in the first place?
He sat down at his desk. He sipped his coffee, then placed it next to the fifteen sheets of Connect-The-Dot caterpillars. Katie’s was missing from the pile, because she was drawing on the back of it. His nerves died away. That was why he needed coffee. His mind kept going in circles. He’d never waited after school for a parent before.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Flannelson. I’ll just be runnin’ late,” Mrs. Woods said that morning.
“Oh, I’m sure that the outside supervisors will be more than happy to look after her.”
“No, no, no, Mr. Flannelson. She don’t like goin’ outside. She needs to stay with you.”
Mr. Flannelson watched Katie’s arm sweep across the sheet of paper, then watched her wrist swivel more quickly inside the previous shape.
“Do you always draw circles when you wait for your mom, Katie?” he asked.
The girl nodded.
“Why don’t you play outside?”
Katie pointed to the fist-sized puffs on both sides of her head.
“Mama don’t like it when I get these wet,” she said, resuming her circles. “They get bigger. And tangled.”
“Ah…” Mr. Flannelson sipped his coffee again. He regretted asking the question. He had asked it to his then girlfriend in college, and she grew tired of him asking her to go to the beach or to swim with him, as if he didn’t hear her the first time. Wasn’t she the one who introduced him to coffee? Or was it the other girl—the blonde barista at Starbucks who didn’t flinch when he told her he wanted coffee? No cappuccinos or lattes. She knew exactly what he wanted—something fiercely and undeniably black.
“I like it when they get bigger, though,” Katie said, snapping him out of his reverie. “I like how it looks.”
Mr. Flannelson nodded. He held his coffee. He wanted to apologize to the African American girl he dated in college. He wanted her to be someone she wasn’t ready to be yet—would never be ready to be yet, most likely, and he shoved her away. A brief twitch ran across his fingers. He wanted to touch Katie’s dark, coarse, black puffs to remind himself of what he had pushed away, then cursed himself for thinking so inappropriately.
“I see,” he said, quietly to Katie but more to the dark, black cup of coffee before he took another sip. Back to the starting point. Back to the regret.