Hurrying the last ten steps and up the hard concrete stairs, Jonathon didn’t even slow down to look at his watch as he entered Bennett Hall. He hardly noticed the milling students or the noise. He’d spent two full days immersed in poetry, and his heart was full to the brim in anticipation of hearing what she saw in the words. The wooden door was nothing of an obstacle as he yanked it open, glad to see they hadn’t started yet.
She was down front, sitting on the large desk, talking to Letty. They laughed about something, and he saw the sound more than he heard it. Unnoticed, he slipped into the back row, glad to see that Mo and Curly, the two guys from the first couple of classes had obviously decided it was too much work to hang around. It had been three classes since either had shown up. At least he wouldn’t have to listen to their inane conversations anymore.
He sat and pulled off his coat, readjusting his charcoal-colored sweater. It was softer and nicer than he remembered, having lived in what amounted to sackcloth since the two Novembers before. He pushed those thoughts away, determined not to think about that now, not here, where life seemed almost possible again.
“Mr. Thomason,” Ms. Forester said, addressing the young man to Jonathon’s left, “would you please close the far door?”
“Sure thing.” The young man got up, and with two long whooshes, the rest of the world was shut out.
It was not possible to describe in human terms what that did to Jonathon’s soul. He cleared his throat, covering his mouth with the hand that held the pen. Willing himself to breathe, he forced his gaze down to his notebook and readjusted the book on his desk and shifted to get comfortable.
“Thank you.” Pushing up her glasses, Ms. Forester let the moment settle before beginning. “Okay, today I’d like to try something a little different. I would like each of you to pick a poem, stanza, or line that has touched you or made you think differently or just completely whacked you out in the last couple of weeks.”
There was a light laugh that passed through the classroom.
“And I’d like you to tell us about why it so affected you if you care to share.” She let the instructions seep in and then looked at the far left side of the room. “Mr. Cruz, if you don’t mind, would you please start us off?”
Time slipped by like sand into the sea at high tide. With two students still left to speak in the process, Elizabeth wished she had cut a few of the earlier ones a little shorter, not so much because she didn’t appreciate their insights but because she really wanted to hear Mr. Danforth’s thoughts on the subject. Although she told herself she didn’t notice, she hadn’t missed the softness of the dark sweater he wore today. It had a v at the top where his white undershirt peeked out. The deep smoke color of the sweater set off his dark, brooding eyes and darker hair. It was a perfect complement to the black jeans she’d noticed when he first came in.
Several times throughout the class she’d had to force herself to keep her mind on the poetry rather than letting it slide to him and settling there. At 2:28, Mr. Thomason the next to last began his take on Cristina, a poem about the power of a single look from a single girl. She was beginning to understand that poem in a whole new way.
“I just know how that feels,” Mr. Thomason said, his words were filled with ache and strain. “You know? To have her look at you and to know you’ll never be the same again, even if she never feels the way you do.”
The students down front had turned around to give him their attention, and he saw that attention and cowered from it, suddenly conscious of how open he was being and becoming embarrassed by it.
Elizabeth stepped up first one and then two stairs to him, capturing his gaze so he was looking only at her. “What’s your favorite line in the poem, Mr. Thomason?”
It took him a minute to locate it and another few precious seconds to gather the courage to read it. “She should never have looked at me/If she meant I should not love her,” Mr. Thomason said with rapture in his voice. “You know, it’s just that Browning so gets how that first look can just change everything forever.”
There was clearly more to that story. She was sure of it, and with everything in her, Elizabeth wanted to ask. Why had she started at the front and not the back? However, her gaze slipped up to the clock. They were already late, and she knew no way to extend the time they already did not have. She glanced over at Mr. Danforth who smiled softly and shook his head. He knew there was no time.
“I guess we’ll have to call it a day with that one,” Elizabeth finally said, regret trailing through her heart. She turned as students stood and headed out. “For Tuesday, read Sense & Sensibility Chapters 1-10. We’ll be discussing it. Be ready. Have a great weekend!” She was dodging students and backpacks as she went back down the steps.
“Have a great weekend, Miss,” Adam said.
“You too, Mr. Reynolds.” When she was safely on the main floor, she turned and saw him gathering his things in the back. “Oh, and Mr. Danforth, could I see you for a moment?” She tried not to watch for his reaction to the summons. She shouldn’t care, not like she was afraid she did anyway. He was a student, her student. That was not a set of roles she took lightly.
Still as she put her things together at her desk, she had to swallow the racing of her heart as she felt him fighting the sea tide of students going the other direction to come inexorably toward her. “Calm down, Elizabeth,” she muttered to herself. “Get a grip. You can do this.” When she picked up her gaze, she managed a smile as he approached.
“Yes, Ma’am?” There was a definite New York swagger to the greeting. He bent his head forward. “Ms. Forester.” Carrying his coat and bouncing slightly on his toes, he leaned forward as if to keep the next words in secrecy. “Am I in trouble?”
Elizabeth fought not to laugh as she shook her head. “No, Mr. Danforth. You are not in trouble.” She wished he didn’t have such a strange combination of boyish charm and manly charisma about him. It unnerved her and sent her stomach skittering like fluttering birds.
He was highly intelligent. She could see as much in his eyes. And yet, that intelligence wasn’t always used for purely altruistic purposes. There was also sarcasm, cynicism, melancholy, and arrogance mixed in them as well, and none of that settled her nerves at all.
She busied herself with her notebook, poetry book, and satchel lest her heart catalog his qualities too precisely. “Um, I wanted to apologize. I should’ve kept a better eye on the clock than that. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, hey.” He held up his hands as if in surrender. “They needed the time a lot more than I did. Besides, I was having trouble figuring out which poem to do anyway.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
He didn’t answer right away. Instead, he stood there just looking at her. “Well, I really like Rabbi Ben Ezra from the first day, and House and there are a couple others that I really liked too. But…” The thought trailed into oblivion, and when she noticed it, she sensed it was hesitancy in saying it rather than not knowing what to say that stopped him.
Fighting not to be taken in by his obvious attractiveness, when he still didn’t say anything, she stopped and looked at him. “But?”
He looked right at her, and it was clear there was an argument going on in his head as to whether he should say what was going on there. “Well, it’s just… There was one poem. Now. I think it’s called Now…” Like he was grabbing for a life jacket in a tumultuous sea, he reached for his book to confirm his thoughts.
Elizabeth nodded. She knew the poem well. “Out of your whole life give but a moment.”
His search for the poem stopped with a jerk, and his gaze jumped to hers. The words flittered in her heart for a moment, and then she found them again.
“All of your life that has gone before,/All to come after it—so you ignore,/So you make perfect the present—condense,/In a rapture of rage, for perfection’s endowment,/Thought and feeling and soul and sense–/Merged in a moment which gives me at last/You around me for once, you beneath me, above me—” Her eyes slid closed as the words wound through her. “Me—sure that despite of time future, time past–/This tick of our lifetime’s one moment you love me!/How long such suspension may linger? Ah, Sweet–/The moment eternal—just that and no more–/When ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core/While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut, and lips meet!”
Bound up in the sheer elegance and simple beauty of the poem, Elizabeth pulled in a breath before she opened her eyes. Romantic ideals like the moment of the touch of a kiss or a first glance had a way of teleporting her to a space far away and removed from anything earthly. She tried to smile at him, but it didn’t really make it that far. “That one?”
His smile was much more pronounced. “Yeah. That would be the one.”
Because she had to or she would do something she would surely regret, she went back to the pen, the notebook, and the satchel. “So what did you like about it?”
“Oh, uh. Well, I mean… you know…” He scratched the back of his neck. “The whole idea of, you know, this moment being so important. That first line. ‘Out of your whole life give but a moment.’ That’s it, you know, you might not have eternity, you might not even have tomorrow. For all that matters, everything could change in the next minute, but you have this moment, this one, and it’s what you do with this one that really counts.”
She was looking at him now, again, with those interested, open eyes that he had seen her bestow on each and every student today—even the insipid ones who just recited lines rather than really understanding any of it. So, the look was at once special and not. Jonathon wanted to think she might be truly interested in anything he had to say on the subject, and yet, he couldn’t tell if she really was or if she just was like that with everyone.
“That’s so true,” she finally said with a wispy quality to the words as she pulled on her coat. “You know, I think too often we miss this moment in a desperate attempt either to run from the one before it or to get to the one after it.”
Jonathon was fighting not to notice her getting ready to leave not to mention the impulse to help her put her coat on. In any other situation, he would’ve known exactly what to do and how to do it gallantly. In this one he was at a complete loss. His mouth caught up with his brain, and he stumbled to get the words out. “Plus, I think he really outdoes himself by implying they are doing a lot more than it turns out they are. That line ‘You around me for once, you beneath me, above me—’? I mean, hello. Then you get to the end and you find out he’s that crazy over just a kiss. I mean, come on.”
At that Ms. Forester pulled her satchel off the desk and slipped it over her coat. She was leaving. He felt it. Charm had never been a problem for him in the past, but he felt like he was failing and flailing this time with no idea how to stop himself.
“Maybe he wasn’t just talking about a kiss,” Ms. Forester said. “But one thing’s for sure, Browning certainly doesn’t understate anything when it comes to how much he loved Elizabeth. In fact, I think that’s one thing that makes his work so powerful. He doesn’t think of it as a simple kiss, even if it is. It’s more a life-changing moment, and he sees it as such and treats it that way.”
Then, all put together, with a soft smile, she nodded and stepped past him for the stairs. “Well, thank you for sharing your thoughts with me, Mr. Danforth…”
“Please call me Jonathon,” he said as he followed her.
Her gaze snapped to him as they made the first step up. It stopped there for a fleeting moment only and then fell from his face. “I appreciate that, Mr. Danforth, but I make it a habit not to address my students by their first names. It helps to set the tone both for respect in the classroom and for the propriety of the time period we study.”
As his heart fell into his shoes, he climbed the stairs a half step behind her and at the top, stepped around her to push the door and hold it for her.
“Thank you,” she murmured, ducking past him.
Once in the lobby, he could not find a single way to keep her from leaving, and it was killing him to know that.
“Well, it was nice to talk with you,” he finally said after they had stood outside that door in full view of everyone much longer than they should have. He sensed that she was uncomfortable, that maybe he was wasting her time and she was simply being polite in not running the other direction. Her glance away from him toward the outside doors confirmed as much.
When her gaze came back, she didn’t really look at him. “It was nice to talk with you as well, Mr. Danforth.”
Why did she have to use that name? He was beginning to hate it.
Her gaze came up to his then, and she tilted her head and smiled softly. “I’ll see you on Tuesday?”
He corkscrewed his bottom lip in muted surrender. “Yes, Ma’am, Ms. Forester. I will be here.”
The choice of address hit squarely in her eyes, and although no one would’ve seen it if they weren’t intent on memorizing everything about her, he saw it with no trouble. A moment and she nodded. “Then I’ll see you Tuesday.” With her hands in the pockets of her coat, she turned and headed off across the lobby toward the door tucked among the huge windows that graced one whole wall.
Jonathon watched her walk all the way to the doors, berating himself for being so stupid as to fall for her or whatever he had done. It was insane. She was clearly not interested in him, and why would she be? She was probably shacking up with some guy from campus anyway, and even if she wasn’t, what would she ever see in him? He was like double her age or something, and she was all soft love and life. He was far more near death and depression.
Truth be known, he might not even come back on Tuesday—or ever. Anger and hurt poured into him with such velocity that it swept rational right along with it. He raked his fingers through his hair, kicked at the smooth floor, and turned. Poetry about love and stupid things like eternity and God were little more than ridiculous wastes of time. What had any of those ever prospered anyone? Nothing. They were all silly, childish, and ridiculous, as Shakespeare said, they were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
He banged out of the opposite doors and turned his steps not toward the library but toward his apartment. With one hand jammed in the pocket of his coat, he hiked up both the satchel on his shoulder and his collar on the other side. Bending into the stiff northern wind, he shook his head. No. He wasn’t coming back on Tuesday. It was stupid and pointless, and he’d lived pointless enough times to know it was smart to get out while the getting was good.
Elizabeth verily ran to the library, her heart hastening every step. How close had she come to doing something completely out of bounds? Had her heart or some other base feature of her been in just a bit more control, she probably would have. Even now the memory of his handsome face and deep, thoughtful eyes made her weak. Ugh. This was crazy. Professors who could rightfully put the term Doctor in front of their name did not go around ogling students, nor did they invite students to stay after class, thereby putting themselves and the student in awkward and compromising positions. She should have known better, and she had. It was just…
As she climbed the library steps, she went moment-by-moment through the conversation, berating herself for every single thing she had done to encourage him. And she must have done something for he certainly seemed encouraged, though honestly, she’d had so little experience in that area that she couldn’t be wholly sure of anything. Maybe she’d read it all wrong because she wanted it to be something it was not or maybe because it wasn’t something she wanted it to be but shouldn’t.
On her way to her table, she only waved at Mary, too distracted to carry on a proper conversation. It was rude probably, but she felt the flush of her cheeks and knew in this state, she might say something she would really regret. Plopping into the chair with a thud, she let out the breath she’d been holding since he’d said his name. Please, call me Jonathon. Why did those simple words make her want to run far and fast? And what was it about him that so flustered her that propriety itself went out the window?
One thing was for sure, come Tuesday she was going to have to be doubly on her guard—for herself and from his charms. That was not anything she was even vaguely sure she could do, but as she pulled her books out to study the coming material, she knew she had to. It was a matter of obligation and decency, and those had always been high on her list of standards. She was not about to start compromising them now.
The light of the refrigerator snapped on with the opening of the appliance door at 2:18 the next morning. Jonathon shook his head and squinted into the bright light. He hadn’t slept ten minutes though he’d been trying since early afternoon. Reaching in, he grabbed a beer. It wouldn’t help. It never did, but at least it was doing something, something other than thinking, remembering, and hurting. Letting the door go closed, he unscrewed the bottle cap, slung it to the floor across the room, and took a long drink without really tasting it at all.
Had he eaten supper? Though he tried, as he ambled from the dark kitchen into the darker living room, he couldn’t really remember. He sat on the couch with a crunch and didn’t bother removing whatever it was he sat on. With the temporary energy from another drink, he opened the old pizza box lying there next to him on the couch, wondering if it had been there for more than a day. Reaching in, he pulled out a piece of cold, hard crust, smelled it, and took a bite. It wasn’t bad though he really didn’t taste it either. He considered turning on the television so he could have some company in his misery but finding the remote would’ve taken far too much effort so he didn’t bother. Instead, he just sat there, in the dark, drinking the beer and munching on the old pizza crust.
How long he sat like that, he didn’t know, but at some point he recognized that the beer was empty and the crust gone. Barely summoning the energy, he reached over and pushed the pizza box and the other six dozen other things littering the couch to the floor beside the coffee table with a decided crash before lying over. There was no pillow, so he rolled his arm under his head and fought the images and feelings that had taken up disturbing and enduring residence in his head and his heart.
Shaking his head, he closed his eyes. Nothing was worth this.
It was two nights later or there about when Jonathon remembered the assignment. He’d slept-walked through two entire days without really seeing their arrival or departure. But at midnight when the sun had gone down and would not return for more hours than he could possibly endure, he walked to the table in the little dining area and pulled up the satchel. He was still pretty sure that he wasn’t going on Tuesday or maybe even ever, but at least this was something to do.
In the living room, he stepped over the heaps of debris on the floor, sat down on the soft leather couch, and reached over to snap on the light. It pulsated through his brain, and he shook his head at its onslaught. Running his fingers through the waves of his hair, he dragged in a breath and let it out. His gaze went to the little book in his hands. Sense and Sensibility. He forced himself to focus as he opened the pages.
The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex…
When class started on Tuesday, Elizabeth noted with both annoyance and ache that Mr. Danforth was not present. Although she tried to tell herself differently, he had never been far from her thoughts all weekend. However, seeing that he was too arrogant to even show up on time did something to push the scale more to annoyance than ache. This was, after all, a pattern with him, and it was one she didn’t particularly care for.
“If everyone would take out a piece of paper, please,” she said as the class settled in, “I will write a short question about your reading assignment on the board. Please answer it to the best of your ability. These quizzes will factor into your grade in the class only in a positive direction. If you have read the material…”
The door at the back snapped open, and her attention jumped there. The black coat, the unkempt appearance—he looked like he hadn’t slept or showered in days.
It was only with immense effort that she forced her mind and heart back to what she was saying although she could hardly remember it. “Um, if you have read the material and can convey that on the quiz, you will receive up to 10 extra credit points toward your grade. If for some reason,” her gaze went back to him, now scrounging around in the back desk, and she frowned, “you have not been able to read the assignment, simply note as such on the paper. The quizzes will not count against you.”
Turning to the board, she picked up the chalk and fought not to drop it for the shaking of her hand. “Today’s question is this: Explain the role of money and inheritances in the lives of the Dashwoods.” She wrote it down and turned. “Now, of course, this answer could be the foundation for a dissertation, but I don’t necessarily want anything quite that in depth. I just want to see how much of it you understood. You may begin.”
In the back, Jonathon was still berating himself for even coming. He had a hellacious headache, and no matter what he did, it wasn’t going anywhere. He scratched his head, wondering when he’d last showered and feeling all the missed sleep. Just the same, he tore a piece of paper out of his notebook, re-read the question on the board, and forced himself to be rational enough to get something that made sense onto the paper.
Elizabeth watched him, trying not to. The more she looked, the more annoyed she became. He looked like he was on a four-day drunk. Why he even bothered to come in his sorry state, she couldn’t rightly tell. His eyes were hollow, his skin sallow and sunken. She shook her head at her own inability to pull her gaze from him. Then, with great effort she forced her gaze to sweep across the bowed heads of the other students. She was here for them—all of them, and they deserved a teacher who was not having some little girl fantasy crush on some unattainable, clearly undesirable man of ill-repute and even more questionable character.
For fifteen minutes, she waited, reading through her own copy of the book for something to do. Finally, she stood. “Okay. Please finish up.”
Most students held their papers up, and she gathered them. Irritation surged to the surface when she had collected everyone’s, and he was still scribbling away in the back.
“Mr. Danforth?” she asked, not wholly kindly as she climbed the steps.
“Huh?” He looked up with wild, unsteady eyes. “Oh.” Quickly he finished that sentence and slipped the paper from his desk with a soft gentle whoosh. He stood, stepped toward her, and handed it over. There was an almost smile in his eyes, and then it fell as his head dropped.
She took the paper from him, noting the ragged edge. He hadn’t even bothered to tear the tattered holes apart from the notebook paper although there was a perforation just for such cases. Striding down the steps and back to her desk, she laid the papers to the side and went to the board.
“Today we will turn our attention from the Brownings who wrote in the mid-to-latter portions of the 19th Century to Jane Austen who wrote in the early part of that century. Miss Austen was born in 1775. Sense and Sensibility was her first published novel. Can anyone tell me what the terms sense and sensibility mean and how they relate to the theme of the book?”
Try as he might, Jonathon was having trouble getting his thoughts past his feelings. Looking at her was like seeing every cruel rejection life had ever handed him, and it was enough to yank tears that were long-since dry from his soul.
“Sense,” Letty said down below, “refers to being able to think rationally, to be sensible about life and about love. That would be Elinor in the book. She is very sensible and rational even when the others are not.”
“Very good,” Ms. Forester said. “And sensibility?”
“It means letting your feelings get the better of you,” Jonathon said without so much as raising his hand, and her gaze jumped to his. He pulled his coat further around him to disengage from that look. “It’s like stupidly believing in asinine things like hope and love.” With his gaze, he challenged her to object to that, to prove him wrong, which he both knew he wasn’t and that she couldn’t.
The words landed like blows in her eyes, and she tilted her head quizzically. “You don’t believe in love, Mr. Danforth?” Her words were soft, halting, and laced with hurt.
Hard, cold bitterness wrapped around him as he stared at her. “No, Ma’am. I don’t.”
“I see,” she said, clearly having trouble assimilating this new information. “Then what is love, Mr. Danforth? A mirage? An illusion?”
His swagger took over. “Well, if you believed in love, which I don’t,” he shifted, readjusting his coat again, “then you would obviously have fallen for the oldest lie in the book.”
“Which is?” It was like the words were strangling to get out of her.
“That some trick of a few hormones could ever be worth anything or make any difference at all. More people have gotten sucked into that lie and slaughtered there than any other lie ever created.” The words were harsh, and he didn’t try to soften them. The truth was, he wanted to hurt her, to burst the illusion of her in his own mind and in hers. It was clear from the pained look in her eyes that he was doing a very good job of it.
She blinked twice, trying to get the words out. “And the greatest writers of all time have taken up the subject of love in all its facets, why? If love is not real, if it is not something to be believed in, then doing so would make them what, Mr. Danforth? Deluded? Insane? Foolish?”
“Hey, if the shoe fits…”
Her gaze fell from his all the way to the floor. When it came back up again, she didn’t look at him. She didn’t really look at anything or anyone. “Well,” she said and the syllable was more a breath, “it’s obvious that someone has strong opinions on the subject. Anyone else care to offer something?”
She didn’t look at him again the rest of the class, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Yes, he’d scored a direct hit. Several of them to be exact, and yet that didn’t make him feel any better as he’d hoped it would. Instead, it made him feel like a complete jerk. As he watched her, her gracefulness was a stretch now like she was reaching for it and trying to hold it rather than it being just a natural extension of her like it had been before, and his heart said what a complete ass he’d been.
He closed his eyes, seeing the pain his innate callousness had caused once again. What was it about him that made him think he had any right to take such a beautiful creature and crush it under the hard sole of his bitterness and arrogance?
As the second hand slid inexorably around the dial, he realized he had to apologize. She deserved that much. More. But he couldn’t give her more. First of all, he had nothing to give, and second of all, she wouldn’t have taken it even if he’d have offered. Still, he had to try, to say something to get that soft light back in her eyes. The fact that it had gone out like a candle caught outside on a cold, stormy night knifed into his heart even deeper than the misery had. He hated that. He hated himself all the more for having caused it.
When she called for the end of class, he stood but didn’t really move more than that until three-fourths of the class was gone. Rehearsing what he might say although nothing seemed at all adequate, he stepped down each stair, gazing at her and knowing he had just committed a truly unpardonable sin.
The noise of the other students died down and then out. When he got to her desk where she was collecting her things, he stopped. Her head was down, her hands busily stuffing things into her satchel.
“Uh, Ms. Forester? Can we talk?”
The second she looked up, he saw the pain and the attempt to cover it.
“I’m really sorry.” He glanced back to his seat in the back. It looked a million miles away. “About before…”
“No,” she said, turning to the board and swiping it with the eraser. “You have every right to your opinion.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He deflated. “It’s just that. I had a really rough weekend, and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you, and I’m sorry.”
When she came back to the desk, her gaze was steady but full of sadness. “Apology accepted. Don’t worry about it. Okay? It’s done. Over with. End of story.”
But he was worried. Very worried. He had to do something, something to make her look less sad, less crushed. “Um, listen, I know this is a little unusual, but would you like to like go get a cup of coffee with me or something?”
This time her gaze snapped to him with vehemence and barely concealed disbelief. “I’m sorry, Mr. Danforth. I don’t accept coffee dates from students.”
Dates? The word cracked through Elizabeth like a lightning strike, and yanking her gaze back to the papers, she did her best to get them in the satchel. Why in the world had she used that word? There were millions of words in the English language, and she knew most of them. So why did that particular one come out of her mouth?
“I… I know,” he said and paused just a fraction of a moment, “but technically I’m not a student.”
Confusion flashed through her, and her gaze went to him.
“See,” he continued, “technically, I’m just auditing this class. I mean, it doesn’t really count. I won’t get a grade or anything. So technically, I’m not really a student, just a guy who happens to sit in the back of the class and would like to have a cup of coffee with you.”
His subtle attempt at humor flickered in his eyes, both begging her to forgive him and to accept his offer. However, Elizabeth was still spinning so badly on his words from before that she couldn’t get her mind to hold to a single position.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Danforth,” she said, trying to soften her words, which because of the ache in her heart were mere breaths. She pulled her satchel from her desk and slid it over her shoulder. “I don’t want to set a precedent that is both ill-advised and unwise to the integrity of both our characters. I hope you understand.”
Softly his dark eyes said yes but pleaded no.
She should leave now, just walk away and let that be that, and she would have but for the screaming of her heart that if she did, he might walk away as well—and never come back. Swallowing and knowing it was a mistake, she forced her gaze to his. “My office hours are from 9 to 11 a.m., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you would like to avail yourself of those times, you are free to do so… as my student.”
There was a moment of hurt followed by another of understanding that went through his eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Together they walked up the stairs, and Elizabeth was fully aware of him holding back so that he was a half step behind her. Then at the top, he stepped past her and pushed through the door before holding it for her. The gallantry of the gestures touched her heart even as her rational side sliced at them with the daggers of anger and disgust.
Outside the lecture hall, she turned, willing the feelings rushing through her not to give her away. She picked her gaze up to his once more. “Will I see you Thursday?” Nothing in her heart said she should even be so brave as to hope.
His eyes drifted into soft acceptance as he looked at her. “I’ll be here.”
When Jonathon walked out of Bennett Hall, he squinted into the not-overly-warm afternoon. That he had totally gone off a cliff with her was abundantly evident. His chances, perilous as they were to begin with, were now in absolute shambles at his feet. When he got to the corner that would lead him to his apartment, he didn’t so much as look at the turn.
Walking on, just getting lost in the city and the crowds, sounded like a far better idea. So he walked, thinking but trying not to. How had his life gotten so completely out of control? It was like one moment he was on top of the world, success and accomplishment firmly in his grasp. In the next it was all gone, and after more than a year, he still couldn’t quite account for that.
His steps carried him, further and further into the jumble of the city. Around him, horns honked and people moved in some strangely choreographed pattern, and yet, he noticed none of it. They were merely mirages that he didn’t even really see. Instead he was back in London, crafting the deal of a lifetime. It would, when it was completed, net him more money than most people saw in two lifetimes. Yet what he most remembered about that meeting was the moment that all he had worked so hard for had come crashing down in one unbelievable heartbeat.
“Mr. Danforth,” Mr. Albert’s secretary had said, breaking into the intense negotiations, “you have a phone call, sir.”
A phone call. One simple phone call. He’d taken millions of them to that moment, but he’d never had one like that. His heart arched in his chest, squeezing out the air in his lungs, at the memory. Although he didn’t so much as remember picking up the phone or what he said in greeting, he still remembered with perfect clarity the hysterical panic on the other end as if it was etched into his very soul, and he suspected it would be forever.
“Jonathon? Oh, thank God.”
“Janet? What’s wrong?”
“Jonathon?” His twin sister was weeping, fighting to get the words out and not winning that battle at all. “Oh, Jonathon…”
“Janet, calm down. Hey. Hey. Calm down. Okay?” He looked at his watch, calculating how long it would take to get back to New York. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Abby, Jon. She was in a wreck…”
And that was the moment his whole life had stopped.
At a park he didn’t recognize, he took a breath and turned into its wide wrought-iron gates. Even though it was hardly green, it looked peaceful and serene, so unlike the chaos of his current existence. Scenes, images, conversations from the next week drifted through his soul, and he closed his eyes, remembering them with the blur of grief and disbelief that still shrouded them.
His methodical steps carried him over the long bridge that spanned water he didn’t even see. Instead he looked out past it and up at the hazy, gray sky beyond. It looked lonely and sad as if it shared the grief that had crowded though his heart for so long it felt like forever. He remembered the flight home, the awful numbness that had encapsulated everything, and he remembered Janet, standing there in that airport waiting for him. It was pain he’d never known existed to that very moment, and pain he now lived with every day.
When he’d walked so far he no longer had the energy to go even another step, he found a bench and sat down. With a heavy sigh, he looked around, wondering just how he had gotten here. How far had he gone without even realizing it? He looked back the way he had come, not recognizing anything. How far was home anyway?
He had no idea. With a shake of his head in frustration with himself, he surrendered the fight and leaned back against the bench. What was he supposed to do now? Where was he to go from here? How do you find your way back when you’ve walked so far you’ve gone off the face of existence?
His gaze fell to the satchel at his side, and thoughts of her, standing at the front of that classroom that first day slipped over all the other memories. It was the slightest of all smiles, but it went through him just the same. He’d messed up, yes, and she would probably never forgive him. But for one moment, she had given him a glimpse that life could go on, that it could be good again. That lifted his heart in a way he could hardly put into words.
With another sigh, he flipped the satchel flap open and reached in. The little book was not much bigger than a dime-store novel, but its pages were densely packed with words and more words. He had to read the assignment anyway. He was after all going back to class come Thursday. He’d promised, and it was a promise he now planned to keep.
Money and inheritance form the foundation of many of the early complicating aspects of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Sense and Sensibility. The early issues surround the inheritance bequeathed to Mr. Henry Dashwood who had a son by a previous marriage and three daughters with his current wife. Fully prepared to take care of all of his obligations to his wife and daughters, especially owing to the advantageous marriage of his son into a family with considerable wealth, Mr. Henry Dashwood is suddenly and unfortunately taken with a unexpected and tragic illness. Seeing the precariousness of his wife and daughters’ situation, he summons his son and exhorts a promise from him that he will in fact take care of his half-family upon his father’s death.
Mr. John Dashwood, the son, makes the promise to his father but is soon talked out of keeping it by his wife, Fanny Dashwood. Henry has hardly been laid to rest that John and Fanny show up to claim their lawful place at Norland, the family estate, and Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters are turned out, forced to accept a cruel and most unfortunate reversal of fortunes…
It didn’t end there. In fact, it went on for the front page and half of the back, and it wouldn’t have ended there had Elizabeth not so rudely stopped him. She sat in the library reading and re-reading his words. It wasn’t so much that they had a real depth of understanding. They were no more than a simple outline of the structure of the story. However, the way they were expressed and the eloquence with which he expressed them captured her full attention. Not only did he know what he was saying, he certainly knew how to say it.
As she laid the essay to the side and wrote “+10” at the top, she reviewed her earlier assessment of him. She had clearly misjudged him on at least some level. He wasn’t just some arrogant jerk nor a drunken bum. There was a depth, an understanding of life and all its complexities that formed an undercurrent to his writing. She wondered about that. What had brought him to Room 103? He obviously had a solid educational background. And her mind stumbled on his comment about auditing the class. With a question tracing through her, she pulled the class roster, which she had barely scanned before now, from her satchel. She examined the list and saw the asterisk next to his name.
Turning the paper over to the instructions on the other side, she found the designation of an asterisk. * Auditing a class. A student may audit a class, take it without credit, for a number of reasons but only at the discretion of the department head. Students auditing classes are not required to complete any written work assigned but may do so at the request or with the consent of the teacher. However, no grade of any kind will be assigned these written or oral efforts.
Her gaze drifted over to the plus-ten. So it made no difference, and yet he’d put that much effort into it? Did that make any sense? She tried to find it but came up with nothing. Reaching over, she picked up his paper again. Then, with slow, intentional motions, she carefully tore the ratty holes from the edge of it.
The dichotomy of Mr. Jonathon Danforth trailed Elizabeth to class on Thursday. She’d worked it out in a million different ways in her mind, and still, it made no sense. In the room long before any of the students arrived, she sat at the desk at the front, looking at his desk all the way in the back. Memories of him sitting there and talking with her after class drifted through her. Even in the midst of the confusion, there was a soft tenderness there when she thought of him. Closing her eyes, she knew nothing else to do. “God, please show me. I’m so confused here. I don’t want to get hurt, but I don’t want to hurt him any more than he already is. Please show me what to do.”
Jonathon was ten minutes early, washed and scrubbed and so nervous he was about to jump right out of his skin. He pulled at the top of his soft smoke-blue, button-down shirt. It hadn’t been out of the closet in so long he wondered if it was even still in style. Between it and the darker tie in the same hue, he felt completely overdressed for the occasion, and yet if he was going to make any kind of good impression, he had to start somewhere.
At the door to the lecture hall, he ran his hand through his hair twice and then hoped that hadn’t messed it up. It was only when another student walked in as he stood next to the entrance but out of sight of the room that he gathered his courage, closed his eyes, and gave himself the shortest pep talk in the history of pep talks. “You can do this. Just go in there and be… impressive.” With a heave of a breath, he nodded, put on his game face and strode into the lecture hall.
The second he stepped through the door, although Elizabeth was talking with Adam down front, she saw him, and her world stopped. He was not in jeans or anything close to casual. In fact, he looked like he’d just come from a meeting at the mayor’s office and had simply left his jacket in the car. Her breath snagged and refused to leave her body.
“I like Marianne better,” Adam said. “She’s a lot more fun, and she actually says what she thinks.”
“Oh, yes. Right. She does.”
Her mind fell into turmoil. What was he doing? He didn’t stop and turn at the back row like he was supposed to. Instead her heart followed him every step of the way to three rows from the front where he turned into his normal side of the room, found a desk, and sat down. His gaze chanced over to her, and his smile was so soft it melted her heart. Then it was gone, and he was busy getting ready for class. Which was what she should be doing she suddenly realized.
Holy cow! How was she going to sound at all credible about anything with him sitting there looking like that?
“It’s time to get started,” Ms. Forester said, striding to the other side of the room where the large desk stood. She was in a soft brown knit dress that tied at the top of the neckline and swirled all the way down to her ankles. It highlighted her dark hair that was up at the back of her head as always. She looked completely incredible.
It took a couple minutes for everyone to get quiet. For his part, Jonathon got his notebook out, his book ready, and his pen in hand. He hoped she gave another pop quiz. At least he would know what to write for this one.
“I’ve graded your quizzes from last time,” she said, bringing them to the front. “Please pass them around and find yours. For the most part, they were very good. I’m pleased to see that most of you read the material and put some effort into understanding it.”
She turned, and Jonathon scratched the side of his face in anticipation of getting his. When the stack came to him, he sorted through them quickly, pulled his out, and handed them on. The +10 at the top lifted his heart and brought a real smile all the way to his face. So she didn’t think he was a complete flake, even better she wasn’t one to take her frustrations out by ripping a contrary student’s work to shreds. He liked that about her. It said so much. Sliding the paper into his notebook, he refocused on the day’s lesson.
“From your reading, can anyone expound on the continuing theme of the difference the author sees between sense and sensibility?” she asked.
In the front row Adam raised his hand, and she nodded. “Mr. Reynolds?”
“Well, at first, Marianne pretty much doesn’t really care about what anyone else thinks. She’s in love with Mr. Willoughby, and she just goes for it, you know? I mean he offers her a horse they can’t afford, but she wants to take possession of it anyway. Then when he leaves, she just falls apart. She’s all about what she feels like. She doesn’t hold back even if it isn’t real smart.”
“And how is Elinor, the older sister, different?” Ms. Forester asked and nodded to a student across the room. “Ms. Suertes?”
“She’s like all wound up in propriety,” Susana said. “She cares so much about what everyone else thinks that half the time, she lets others do her thinking for her because she’s so worried about being prim and proper about everything.”
“What about the others? Like Captain Brandon. Where does he fall on the scale between Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility?”
“Oh, way on the side of sense,” Mr. Thomason from the back said. “I think him and Elinor should hook up. They’d be a good couple.”
“Ugh. No they wouldn’t. They’d bore each other to tears. Not to even mention the rest of us.” Letty said, and when Ms. Forester laughed, the soft light came back on in her spirit. “No. That would never work.”
And so she and the others had a great time categorizing and analyzing each character and chatting about who was right, who was wrong, and who was obviously going to get hurt in the whole mess. The time passed like a dream, and in no time, she looked up at the clock. “Well, that’s it for the day, ladies and gentleman. I’ll see you back here Tuesday. Don’t forget to read Chapters 1 through 10 of Volume II.”
Like he might forget, Jonathon wrote that down in his notebook. He liked the book well enough, but what he really liked was her amazing ability to make it come alive not just for him but for the other students as well. Wishing he had some excuse to go and talk to her but knowing he didn’t, he simply gathered his things and headed out. She was his teacher. He was her student. That’s the way she wanted it, so that’s what he would be happy with.
And strangely he was… happy. Happier than he’d been in a long time. When he crossed through the doors into the sunshine beyond, he dug his cell phone out from the edge of the satchel. With two presses, he put the phone to his ear. “Hey, Janet. You up for a really late lunch?”
With a heart that fell into her shoes, Elizabeth realized he was gone. Just why she had thought he would come and talk to her, she wasn’t at all sure, but when he didn’t, it sent a physical ache right through the middle of her. “Come on, Lizzie,” she told herself when all the students were gone, “this is what you wanted. It’s what you told him to do. What’s he supposed to do, make an idiot of himself to get you to notice? It’s not his fault this can never work.”
But it hurt just the same.
“Wow!” Janet said the second she walked in and Jonathon stood from the deep darkness of the restaurant’s waiting area to greet her. “Look at you.”
He smiled but was more than a little embarrassed by the accolades. “How are you?” Putting his arm out, he leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“Very good.” Her gaze traveled all the way down him to the black slacks and dress shoes and then back up again. “So what’s up with this? You’re actually out of your apartment. That’s an improvement.”
“Danforth, table for two,” the maitre de called.
“That’s us,” he said, smoothing down his tie and turning her with the guidance of his other hand.
All the way to the table, his sister eyed him suspiciously. He probably deserved that for the rotten way he had treated her. Her concern only now touched him in the ways it was meant to. At the table, he let her sit first and then followed on the other side.
“Would you like to start off with some drinks or hor’dorves?” the waiter asked, materializing with two water glasses almost instantly.
They each placed their initial orders, and for his part, Jonathon perused the menu. She, on the other hand, perused him. It was mere minutes before the waiter was back, and their real orders were placed. Then there was no hiding.
“So what’s up?” Janet asked, folding her hands on the table and gazing at him. “You look almost human again.”
“Almost?” He took a sip of wine with a small smile. “Gee, thanks.”
“I’m serious, Jon. What gives?” Then understanding jumped to her eyes. “It’s that class, isn’t it? That one at the college.”
Setting the glass back on the table, his gaze followed it, and he smiled at how nice hope felt. “Maybe.”
“Maybe nothing. Tell me right now, little brother. I want to know. Did you meet someone? Is she another student? Oh, please tell me she’s older than 19.”
Jonathon laughed out loud at that. “Whoa. Slow down. Cool your jets.” He tried to think how to tell her all that had happened, but it had to start at one place. “I did meet someone.”
Janet’s eyes glowed with glee. “I knew it! Tell me everything.”
Then his face fell into seriousness. “Well, I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
“Wh…? But you only just started. You can’t know something like that in only a couple weeks.”
The fact that he did know drifted through him, but it didn’t hurt like he thought it would. The truth was, he would be forever grateful for the time Ms. Forester spent in his life no matter which way this went. It had brought him back from the brink of a truly miserable existence. Jonathon glanced at his sister, knowing he had to tell her all of it. “She’s the teacher.”
“The teacher?” Janet’s eyebrows arched for the ceiling. Then she thought a moment more and leaned forward. “Yeah, but you’re just auditing the class, so that shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
He shook his head. “That’s what I said, but let’s just say she didn’t exactly see things the way I do.”
True worry went across his sister’s face. “Okay, so if she dumped you, what’s up with the almost-power suit? Does this mean you’ve rejoined the land of the living?”
When he took the breath, it felt better than any other ever had. “It means it’s time to get on with it.” He leaned forward, resting his forearm on the table, and his gaze went to her. “I’m so sorry, Janet, for everything. I know I’ve put you through hell, and…”
“No.” His gaze fell into seriousness. “I’ve been a real jerk, and you never deserved any of that.”
Her face registered the words. “I’ve been so worried about you. I didn’t know what to do anymore.”
“I know.” He nodded slightly. “I’m sorry I scared you. I promise. It won’t happen again.”
Janet put her hand across the table onto his. “I just want you to be happy.”
Again he nodded only it was even more slight. “I know.”
Lunch had arrived, and Jonathon was enduring the 35,000 question game. His sister had always been far better at this game than he had. He only hoped she would quit before he lost.
“So what’s her name?”
Janet stopped cutting into the meat. “No. I mean her first name.”
“I don’t know,” and admitting it made him smile to himself.
Knife one way, fork the other, she stared at him. “You are in love with this girl and you don’t even know her name?”
He shook his head but didn’t apologize for it.
“Okay.” Sawing like she was cutting a tree down, Janet commenced eating. “So, she’s a professor, or is she like a graduate student?”
“She put Ms. on the syllabus, so I would assume she’s in graduate school or maybe she has her Master’s and is working on her Doctorate.” He lifted the glass of wine to his lips. “I mean if she had a doctorate, she would put that, right?”
“I would assume so. Why wouldn’t she?”
But he wasn’t so sure. His mind worked on the question of why that snaked away from him in labyrinths he couldn’t see.
“So tell me about her—is she pretty, how old is she, does she do anything other than teach English?”
And then, to the best of his ability, he filled his sister in on all the particulars that he knew, which he realized were rather scant other than the fact that she was completely amazing and mesmerizing.
“So, when are you going to see her again? I mean, do you guys go out?”
“No.” He let that hang between them a moment. “She’s very proper about things, and the whole student-teacher thing is a really big deal to her.”
“Which is a good thing,” Janet said slowly as she pointed the top of her knife at him. “It means she has some sense.”
He almost laughed at the term.
Shaking his head, he fought to get the smile back down. “Nothing. I don’t know. I just don’t want to push anything with her. I mean if she doesn’t think it’s a good idea, I don’t want to put her in a position she doesn’t feel comfortable about.”
Janet’s face fell in confusion. “Okay, who are you, and what have you done with my brother?”
“Nothing.” Jonathon sat forward in his chair. “It’s just she’s got her career to think about, and she’s an amazing teacher. I’d hate to do anything to mess that up.”
The knife came up again as Janet leaned forward. “Yeah, but you like this girl.”
There was no denying that fact. “Yeah. I really do.”
“Okay. Then you’ve got to be smart about this. I mean by May the class will be over, and you’ll be a free agent and so will she. The trick is to stay close enough until then so that she doesn’t get away.”
“You sound like we’re playing cops and robbers.”
“Dating.” She pointed the knife at him. “And it’s much more tricky.”
Jonathon shook his head. “I really don’t think…”
“I know you don’t think. You’re a man. That’s obvious.”
His sister was never one to mince words.
“So, she’s a teacher, a professor,” Janet said, clearly thinking through the situation as she took a bite. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t said anything. “Then she’s got to have like office hours or something, right? That’s it. You find out when they are, and you figure out some reason you have to go ask her a question.”
He laughed at her like that thought hadn’t crossed his mind a million times. “Like what?”
“Like what? I don’t know, you lost your syllabus and you need a new one, you can’t figure out what some dumb poem means. I don’t know. Make something up. Do I have to do everything for you?”
It wasn’t a wholly bad idea. In fact, Ms. Forester had said as much. Still, he couldn’t just walk in there and act like he was clueless. That would never work. The tangles of the situation wrapped around him. “This is crazy.”
“Yeah,” Janet said, smiling at him, “but it’s a good crazy.”
Her laptop sat open on her desk Friday morning as Elizabeth glanced again at the book open there as well. What was that line again? The one about obliterated character—love and strength in a smudged existence? She put the pencil in her teeth and page slowly through the long Browning poem, Pompilia. She needed to find that line.
Standing outside her open door but out of view, Jonathon slowly exhaled to calm his scattering nerves. He glanced at the little gold moniker next to the door.
Dr. Elizabeth Forester.
His entire being honed to that name, those three simple words, etched for all eternity in that gold plating. Elizabeth. He thought and considered, and finally decided that yes, it fit her quite nicely. The doctor part threw him but only a little. It was part of the mystery he knew to be Ms. Forester. But wow. That name and this one seemed a million miles apart. At least.
Closing his eyes to banish all those thoughts, he took another breath and checked himself top down once more. Tan suede jacket. Nice but not overly dressy sweater. Jeans. He looked like every other preppy college kid on campus and that annoyed him. He glanced back down the hall, thinking he should never have thought this was even a vaguely good idea. Before he completely lost his nerve, he turned back, ran his fingers through his hair once more, took the next step to her door, and knocked.
At the desk she was bent over her computer, a pencil clinched in her teeth, and books strewn everywhere. “Just a second,” she said, typing quickly.
“Okay,” he all but whispered, taking the opportunity to watch her unabashedly.
She glanced up, and the typing stopped. Reaching up, she took the pencil from her teeth. “Mr. Danforth.” She blinked twice, seemingly trying to decide if he was really standing there.
“Um, I’m sorry to bother you. If now’s not a good time…”
“What? No. No.” She pushed to her feet, leaving the computer as if she had forgotten all about it. “No. Now’s… good. Now’s… fine. Uh, please, come in.”
Feeling like a sheepish idiot, he took another step in and another over to the chair she indicated.
Her gaze never left him as she followed him down. “Um, what can I help you with?”
The moment had arrived. It was what he always called in business deals the moment of greatest impact. This one felt destined to crush him. He pulled all his best impress-them skills to him, hoping he wouldn’t make a total fool of himself in the process. “I was… I was looking at the schedule… the syllabus, and I noticed the paper that will be due for Sense and Sensibility. Great book by the way.”
“Are you enjoying it?” She leaned back in her chair, staring at him.
“Yes. Actually, I am. I didn’t know if I would, at first, you know. I mean old England and all the Misters and manners and stuff.” He scrunched his nose. “Not exactly my style, but I’ve really enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It’s almost as good as Browning.”
She smiled, and he liked that. At least she hadn’t thrown him out.
“Anyway, I was reading the syllabus, and it talks about this paper that will be due, and I was wondering if we’re going to have our pick of topics or if you will assign one like next week or something.”
He was so nervous, it was almost cute. He hardly looked the accomplished intellectual Elizabeth knew him to be now.
In wonder at so many things about him, she tilted her head, assessing him and the situation. “You are aware that you don’t have to actually do the papers, right?”
His gaze jumped to hers. “What? Oh, yeah. I know, but well, I want to. I mean, if that’s okay with you.”
So many things made so little sense about him, and she was dying to know. If he had been any other student, she would ask, so why was she so reluctant with him who she most wanted to know? A moment’s pause and she pushed forward to lean on her forearms on the desk. “Do you mind my asking why you are taking my class, Mr. Danforth?”
His eyes went wide as a trace of fear wafted through them. “Why?” It took several long silent seconds for him to search his list of reasons. “Uh, well. Um, I needed something to do, and this was the least worst option.”
Confusion slid through her, and in the next second he realized what he’d said.
“Oh. No.” He was backpedaling so fast if he’d been on a bicycle, he would’ve fallen off. “That’s not… I mean…” Closing his eyes, he looked like the nerves were about to take over his entire being. “I’m sorry. This was a bad idea.” He stood. “I’m sorry for having bothered you.”
Her heart lurched her upright at the understanding that he was leaving. “No, wait.”
But he was already at the door, headed out. She had to do something to stop him.
“Please, don’t go… Jonathon.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2008