Summary: Eight years is a long time.
Notes: All italic quotes are from poems by Kate Northrop. The title is also from one of her poems. The last lines at the end are all from different poems. Also, I would like to thank Karanguni for the fantastic beta job and her willingness to stay up to 4am with me to get it done. She is fantastic.
Read HERE on ff.n.
You in the door look back / and are no longer there.
Penny left on a Saturday, two days before Leonard and Sheldon were due back from their week-long science conference, physics game, or whatever it was that had taken them out of town. It was, she'd realized, her chance to make a change. She had considered moving before, after endless rejections and the growing realization that perhaps becoming a famous actress wasn't really in her stars. Her job at the Cheesecake Factory wasn't satisfying, and made her feel like she was still in high school working the crappy job while dreaming big. She was getting older. Her sister was married. She wanted stability, a real life, a sense of adulthood. Her neighbors had kept her in place, though, and she had started to see them as holding her back from maturity by just a little bit. It wasn't fair to them, leaving without notice, but she couldn't help herself-- she needed the change.
She arranged on Tuesday to stay with a friend in a nearby suburb until she found a place of her own and then called for a storage facility. Tuesday evening through Thursday afternoon, she packed like a mad woman. She refused to let herself think about what the objects meant or what had happened on that couch, behind that bar. Time was short; she could reminisce later. On Friday she sold everything she couldn't keep and gave away everything she couldn't sell.
Before she left on Saturday morning, she slipped a postcard into Sheldon and Leonard's mailbox. They deserved more, she knew they did, but she also knew that if she started to write anything more substantial, she'd never finish and she'd never leave. This had to be a clean break; it was once again time to start over.
She spent two weeks at her friend's house, torn between wondering if she had made a mistake and looking for a new future. She still wanted to work with drama; she loved the stage and all the magic that came with it, but she also wanted a stable job.
Leonard called her cell phone several times. Penny deleted all his messages without listening to them, and later canceled her phone plan. A clean break, she reminded herself, meant no looking back.
In the middle of the second week, her friend had family over for dinner. Penny sat between an older sister-in-law and a father, both of whom were teachers. They complained about the focus on testing, debated the rich-poor gap in schools, argued over school choice, and lamented the lack of quality teachers for the maths and sciences. Listening to them, Penny realized what she wanted to do.
She found an apartment and went back to school. She focused this time, concentrating on theater and general physics for secondary teachers. She found she understood, or had at least heard of, more of the concepts than she had expected. (When she wasn't careful, she would remember how the guys had once turned on their lamps and music using satellites or how Leonard had once tried to get her to return to college. Such thoughts were easy to squash though. The tough times came when she wondered if anyone missed her.) While studying the basic material and how to present it, she began to enjoy the subject matter more than she had thought possible. Physics was about more than strings, equations, and Schroedinger's Cat; it was about how the world worked. She would hate to have to study it for the rest of her life, but she thought she could have fun teaching it.
Two and a half years passed and she finally got her certification. She spent another half-year subbing and then, by happy coincidence, her friend's father (who turned out to be an administrator, rather than the teacher she had supposed) called her with a job opening in Alhambra at a private middle school, 7th grade science, and a co-coach for the drama club also needed. She accepted immediately and moved; this time, she thought, for good.
Are you so sure / of your position in the world?
“For the last time, Penny is not going to care that your lecture was more packed than mine or that you were crowned the Duke of Strings in the drunken after-party.”
Sheldon sniffed. “She told us to bring back stories. Tell me how talking to a nearly empty room is more interesting than dukedom.”
“She was just being nice,” Leonard said, as they reached their landing and almost crashed into a woman with a child on her hip.
“Oh, sorry, I didn't see you. Do you live there?” She pointed to their apartment.
Leonard nodded. “Yes, is there something you need?”
“Oh, no, I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Gin, this is my son, Nate. I'm your new neighbor.”
“New neighbor?” Leonard echoed, his brow crinkled.
Gin pointed back to Penny's apartment. “Yeah, I live there. Moved in yesterday.”
Sheldon frowned. “You can't live there. Penny lives there.”
“Oh, is that the name of the old tenant?” Gin asked. “I heard she was pretty girl, but broke her lease. Lucky for me, though.” She bounced her son on her hip. “We just moved here and away from my ex. Turning over a new leaf.”
“That's... nice,” Leonard said, obviously struggling . “Isn't that nice, Sheldon?”
Sheldon was still staring over Gin's shoulder at the apartment that wasn't Penny's anymore. “She isn't gone,” he said, quietly. “She didn't tell us she was going.”
Gin's face filled with concern. “Ah, honey, were you friends? I'm sorry about that.”
“Don't worry about him,” Leonard said, pulling Sheldon toward their apartment. “He's just very set in his ways and doesn't like his paradigm disturbed. It was nice to meet you.”
“But we didn't get to tell her about the conference,” Sheldon said numbly as he was pulled along.
“Maybe she'll come back,” Leonard said. “I'm going to go get the mail.” He left and then returned-- Penny's postcard in hand.
He handed it to Sheldon without a word. She had only written three words.
Sheldon stared at the back of the postcard for over a minute, then dropped it, not watching to see where or how it fell.
“Fine,” he said, and went to his room.
I have to focus. / I have to listen for my life // very carefully.
Penny entered her first classroom, as nervous as she had been during her first audition in California. The children were noisy, but quieted once the bell rang. She started by reviewing the school rules and introducing the ones for her classroom. During lunch, a gaggle of girls came to visit, complimenting her clothes and asking for tips. They were all so young, but still so desperate to be pretty, cool, and liked.
She acquired another hanger-on a couple weeks into the school year in the form a perpetually grinning boy who flirted boldly and badly. He often had after school detention and would stop by her classroom between the last bell of school and the start of his punishment. He fed her lines as bad as any Wolowitz had ever thrown at her and helped tidy her classroom. She found herself charmed by the brash boy, in spite of herself.
In the mornings, students who arrived on the early bus or whose parents dropped them off, would clump together in favorite classrooms. Penny had three regulars, a girl who had an unending supply of questions about the stage and two boys who stood back, red-faced and tongue-tied. Penny tried to talk to the boys occasionally, but they were as silent as Raj. She never did figure out if it was she or the would-be starlet who held them in thrall.
Her students did not come to her with questions about homework or the textbook. The general sciences weren't catching their attention yet, but she could change that. Having hated studying in school, Penny had several ideas on how to make her subject interesting.
They made ice cream and make-up and dissected owl pellets. Penny scoured the internet for experiments and tied them into lessons from the textbook. She jumped through chapters in a manner that appealed to her way of thinking, and her students followed. They dropped eggs and discussed rockets, though the principal had forbidden her from making any. (Several students still did, and they tested them in the park one weekend.) Penny did absolutely everything in her power to make science fun.
If she wasn't going to be a famous actress, she was going to be the best damned teacher there was.
Over time, she began to recognize student types: the ring leaders, the class clowns who excelled in school but didn't want anyone to know, the divas, the bullies, the geeks who cared and the geeks who didn't. In spite of herself, she had favorites every year. Daniel, who sketched airplanes in the margins of his homework; Alicia, who swore she would be a star and reminded Penny so much of herself; Kelly, who had a gift for the stage but who was too shy to try for a starring role; Wes, the loud-mouth who never stopped teasing Addie, a straight-A student with no patience for nonsense (he obviously liked her, but would never admit it because it wasn't cool); Sarah, who had confessed after school one day that she was dreaming about other girls and didn't know what to do. They came, she loved them, and then they left, breaking her heart every time.
When Kelly, by then a sophomore in high school, returned one day to visit and share that she had been cast as Lucy in the school production of Jekyll and Hyde. Penny had been surprised and overjoyed. She suspected word of her reaction had gotten around, because, after that, many of her old students returned to say hi and talk about their lives. The oldest, Daniel, was a junior in high school and already checking out colleges. Addie was doing half-days at a local university and had won a math prize for high school students. Wes played basketball and was too cool to come visit a middle school science teacher, but he wasn't too cool to help out with the middle school basketball team and always managed to stop by her classroom whenever he was at the school. She would ask him about Addie and he would change the subject. He had a girlfriend, but she could tell he had yet to fully get over his first crush.
All the students she met during her first four years of teaching were normal; some were brilliant, some were slow, some were social, some were lonely , but none were far removed from the general expectations one might have for a twelve or thirteen year old. In her fifth year, however, she met Natalie.
Natalie slept through her classes and aced every quiz Penny gave. If Penny called her to the board, she would answer the problem quickly and without hesitation. After two months, Penny realized that her student was extremely bored and started to give her different exercises. She got Alicia, now a junior in high school and discovering that she preferred directing to acting, to pass her a test from her physics class and gave that to Natalie to do one day. Natalie finished it before the period was over and got all but one correct. (Natalie argued that her wrong answer was, in fact, an error of the teacher's, but Penny could not follow the argument and so was unable to verify her claim.)
“She doesn't belong in my class,” Penny tried to tell Natalie's parents. “Your daughter is extremely intelligent; she should be taking science classes at a high school, maybe at college, even.”
Her parents were adamant, however. Natalie would not receive any special treatment, would not be differentiated from her peers in any way. They had adopted her when she was a baby and did not want to mark her as any more different than that. “She will have a normal childhood,” Natalie's mother said. Personally, Penny suspected that Natalie's parents had issues with adoption that they really needed to work out, but she didn't dare mention that to them.
Despite, or perhaps, because of the lack of parental support, Penny could not leave Natalie alone. The girl had the sort of brain that reminded her of the neighbors she'd had once upon a time in what now felt like a completely different life. Thinking of Leonard and Sheldon for the first time in a long time, she started to get an idea.
Seems like all rooms return to the kitchen, / to the four places // arranged around the table. It's winter // and where the rest are, I don't know.
Despite their protests and best efforts, Leonard and Sheldon found themselves the babysitters of Gin's Nate more than once. Leonard tried to be a good babysitter and keep the five year old out of trouble and harm. Though he did arrange a few times to be caught returning Nate to his mother when a girl was coming over, after he'd heard from Wolowitz that women liked men they could see as good fathers.
Sheldon tried to ignore the boy as much as possible, but when that didn't work, he talked about science and did experiments.
Their first experiment had been to blow up an egg.
“Give him to me,” Sheldon said.
Leonard raised an eyebrow and handed over the squirming six year old. Sheldon stood the boy in front of the microwave and then got an egg from the refrigerator.
“What are you doing?” Leonard asked. Sheldon held up the egg. “Sheldon, no.”
“It is a test,” Sheldon said.
“I'm not cleaning up.”
“Fine.” Sheldon placed the egg in the microwave and then input five minutes. “Now watch,” he said.
The turn table spun around, the egg rocked back and forth, and then, with a sudden crack, shell and yolk covered the window.
Nate looked up at Sheldon, his eyes wide and adoring. “Cool,” he said. “Why did that happen?”
“He's a theoretical scientist,” Sheldon announced. “He asked 'why.' Experimental scientists want to know what else will explode. Engineers ask 'how' and everyone else just says 'do it again.'”
“And you created this test, how?”
“I have family,” Sheldon said. “Aunts and uncles have children. I've had years to design and refine this test. It is almost always correct.”
Nate tugged on Sheldon's shirt. “What else blows up?” he asked.
Sheldon frowned. “Probably theoretical, possibly experimental. We'll know after further testing. Come Nate, I will explain for you the science of the exploding egg.”
Sheldon decided that Nate might end up a minor scientist one day and so set up a whole curriculum for the young boy. Gin was torn between joy that her little boy was becoming so smart and annoyance at the strange smells and odd objects that began to accumulate in their apartment. For a while everything was all right again, but then, when Nate was nine years old and beginning to develop an unfortunate preference for chemistry, everything changed once again.
Sheldon knocked twice on Gin's door before she opened. “Sheldon,” she said, “what's wrong?”
“Leonard's leaving,” Sheldon said. “Leslie asked him to marry her.”
“He's not leaving yet, though, is he?”
“No, but he will. Soon.”
Shortly after that, his other friends found new jobs and lives: Raj met a girl through an online dating site his parents had signed him up for. They instant messaged and emailed daily. Raj was constantly smug and unbearable to be around. When he had first taken the new job on the East Coast, Sheldon had been pleased, at least until he realized that their group was once again down to three and unbalanced. Later, Wolowitz took a job in Florida and it no longer mattered. He sent photos every week of the hot women from the beach. Sheldon had a whole folder on his computer filled with lithe brown bodies and tiny bathing suits. He didn't know why he kept them; none of the girls ever appealed to him. If he was honest, he was examining the photographs the same way he scoured newspapers and watched the news, always searching for one person he had little hope of ever seeing again. All of this, while Sheldon remained in his apartment, tutoring Nate and dealing with an endless stream of new roommates.
the arrival of silence / the ending, the slow opening.
Penny combed the university website until she found the physics homepage. Before looking up individual email addresses, she browsed through the news. The sixth item on the list made her pause and gave her the excuse she needed.
In order to promote scientific inquiry, interest, and study, the school had decided to offer free public lectures until May of the next year. Anyone who wished to host a lecture was invited to contact the Dean. Penny clicked the email link.
A few days later, the Dean called her on her cell. “Good evening-- Ms West, is it?”
“This is she,” Penny said, capping her red ink pen. The voice sounded important.
“This is Dr. Eric Gablehauser. I am a Dean at the California Institute of Technology. I received your email about the public lecture you wish to host.”
“Yes, at the middle school where I work.”
“I see. I am calling because I see that you listed the lecturer you would like to come.”
“I did,” said Penny. She had thought long about who to request and whether she should request at all. Natalie's disdain for the regular classes, though, had made her zero in on one person.
“Let me make sure I am reading this correctly,” said Dr. Gablehauser. “You want Dr. Sheldon Cooper?” He read the name slowly, over-enunciating each syllable.
“Do you know Dr. Cooper?” the Dean asked, his voice still full of disbelief.
“I do, actually,” said Penny. “We were friends once. Oh, don't tell him I'm the one asking, please.”
“You are certain about this.” Dr. Gablehauser's voice was flat and disbelieving.
“Yes,” said Penny, tired of being questioned. “So can I have the lecture, or not?”
“He's all yours, Ms. West. Have a good evening.”
“You too. Good bye.”
Penny held her closed phone to her lips and looked, unseeing, at the black television screen.
Sheldon was coming.