The length of the trek to the Bennett Building seemed to increase with each and every step. Mid-February was living up to its reputation—cold and dreary. Jonathon looked up at the stark, leafless trees and wondered again why he was doing this. It wasn’t like he was going to get anything out of it. In fact, it was taking more out of him than the reverse. Janet had called the night before, sure that his relationship with Ms. Elizabeth Forester would have progressed by now.
The fact that it was on permanent hold hardly dented Janet’s enthusiasm. She assured him that once the semester was over, Ms. Elizabeth’s true feelings would be revealed to be as ardent as his were—or would be if he let them, which he wasn’t because that would just lead to more heartache than he could possibly deal with.
Books in hand that he had practically memorized by now, he pulled open the wooden door and entered the only world that even made sense anymore. It was here that he could imagine the world as it could’ve been, would’ve been if only he had been a different sort of person, an interesting person with education and faith. The education part was dicey at best; the faith part non-existent. And yet, with her quiet and stately manner, she made him believe it was almost possible.
Almost, he thought as he sat down, watching her turn and lift her gaze to his. How could one look from someone who was completely indifferent to him make him ache so deeply? How could simply lifting her gaze to meet his for a millisecond snag his heart so absolutely? It made no sense. She had rejected him, not once but twice—to his face, out loud. In his prior lifetime, the one he had lived before having his heart smashed to smithereens, he would never have looked twice at a woman who would not instantly proclaim him brilliant and exceedingly witty and then fall into his arms.
But this woman, this one was different. That should’ve been abundantly clear simply by the fact that he was here, sitting in a desk, preparing for a test that made no difference whatsoever to anyone other than him, and maybe her—though that was hardly evident.
“Okay, everyone, it’s time. Please settle in.” The soft yet classy cadence of her voice, the way she moved from one end of the room to the other—Jonathon noticed it all, and berated himself for noticing it at all.
He should’ve stayed home. Once again he told himself that, and once again, he sighed at the knowledge that home would never be the same knowing she was here, teaching.
“I have graded your papers from last week.” She held them up as if to torture them all further. “You may pick them up when you hand in your tests.”
Papers rustled; students settled.
Walking like she was on clouds moving at her feet, Ms. Elizabeth, as he had been calling her all weekend, handed the tests to each row. When she came to his, her gaze did not so much as brush his, and his heart fell at the understanding that went right through him. She was embarrassed, embarrassed by his offer, embarrassed to even look at him.
He knew his charm with the ladies had suffered grievous blows, but he’d never been quite this bad. Sitting down, he turned the paper over.
“You may begin,” she said from down front.
Jonathon read the instructions. They were just as they had discussed in her office—two required essays and a third for extra credit. He had to let out a breath to get the vision of her in that office to stand down. It was almost as good as seeing her now. With everything in him, he wanted to impress her with the voracity of his knowledge and insights, but with her mere yards away, that wouldn’t be at all easy.
Question I Who, in your opinion, was the better match for Marianne—Colonel Brandon or Willoughby? (At least 2 pages please)
It was strange how Jonathon could hear her ask the question, liltingly and excited, waiting to hear his answer. In his mind, she was right across that desk in her office, leaning forward, listening to him, pleading for him to tell her what he thought. With another sigh, he put the pen to paper. It was a sure bet he would never be enough to impress her.
Elizabeth hid behind her copy of Emma, pretending to be reading as if she wasn’t watching them, but she was watching them or more to the point him. He was huddled over the words pouring from him. She could hardly keep the overwhelming curiosity at bay. There were four choices. Which might he have chosen, and what insights would he bring? There most certainly would be some. With him insights and wit were all but a given.
He glanced up, seeming to search for something—a word, a thought, and then like a bolt of lightning from the sky, his gaze met hers. She jumped, and shaken to the core, she returned her gaze to the words in the book in front of her. They swam in no distinct patterns. Did he see her looking at him? If so, would he misinterpret that, would he think she’d been looking more than a few seconds? Would that encourage him?
Her soul was in an awful swirl of chaos. Did she want him to notice, or did she want him to back off? If she told him how the words in his paper had touched her, would that send signals she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to send? Fighting off the questions, she slid farther into her chair, wishing she could hide behind the bed and disappear into a time and place far different from this one.
At two o’clock, the other students began to leave, but Jonathon’s focus was solely on the third essay. It was about the quandary Edward Ferrars found himself in when he fell in love with Elinor. Quandaries. That was something Jonathon knew something about.
The clock’s hands slid down and started the climb back up as he did a quick, final read through of the third essay. It wasn’t as brilliant as he’d wanted it to be, but the truth was he was spent. He could wring no more from his soul if he tried. His head hurt from forcing it to think so deeply; his heart hurt from opening it so completely. Knowing he could do no more, he sat back and grabbed first his coat, then his satchel from the floor. It was only then that he realized the others had already vacated the room. His gaze snapped to the clock, and disbelief flooded through him. 2:37.
When he was at the front, he laid his paper on top of the others. “You should’ve stopped me.” Softly, in invitation, he smiled at her when she looked up and stood.
“I had plenty of time. It’s not like I was scheduled to meet the Queen,” she said with a soft smile of her own.
He liked the teasing quality underlying her words and movement. “Oh, really? I figured, you know, a socialite like yourself would probably be headed to the Grand Ball.”
Her smile became an almost laugh. It was enough to set the turmoil in his heart at a modicum of peace. “No. I think I have a date with a stack of test essays.”
“Well, good luck grading,” he said and with a lift of his eyebrows, he started to turn.
“Oh, wait! Mr. Danforth…”
Closing his eyes on the odiferousness of that name, he fought to get something other than a grimace on his face as he turned back. “Ms. Forester?”
“Um, you forgot…” Her gaze collapsed to the desk even as she held out the pages to him. “You forgot your paper.”
“Oh, yeah.” It was impossible to keep the offensively short brush-off out of his voice as he both reached for it and snatched it out of her hand. “I guess I did.” Once again, he turned to go. However, he’d made it all of one step up, the vile poison of disappointed desire burning in him, when she spoke.
“I’m sorry.” The softness of her voice barely dented the still air of the classroom.
He stopped with a jolt, and as he stood there, feeling everything she brought up in him, the dichotomy of her words and previous actions smashed into his mind like waves against the shoreline. Slowly he turned back to her. “What?”
Her gaze came up to his but fell to her fingers slightly splayed on the desk. When she brought her gaze up again, it held a compassion and sorrow he had sensed but had never seen. “I’m sorry… about your loss.”
“My…” Then he realized what she was saying. He lifted the paper in his hand in acknowledgement. “Oh.” The memory hit him harder than he had been prepared for. “Yeah. Well. It was a long time ago.”
She nodded, trying to read what his eyes were crying. In them was a willful pushing away of the pain even as it breached the surface again and again. “Who was she?”
It was crazy to ask, but her heart had to know.
His gaze fell to the paper in his hand, and the words took more effort than she’d ever seen words take. “My…” He looked at her, searing pain slashing through every trace of him. “She was my wife.”
The breaking of his heart echoed through the entire room, and Elizabeth felt the quake in her own. “I’m so sorry.”
That he was trying to say something was abundantly clear. That he couldn’t was even clearer. When his gaze came up to hers, there was a desperate fight to cover up all that was there with nonchalance and bravado. He smiled—kind of. Then he shrugged—kind of. He lifted his eyelids, trying not to let them fall, lest the tears fall with them. “Thank you.” Then he let out a short, little laugh. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time.”
He turned and started up the stairs. Seeing him go, watching him walk out like that—her heart simply couldn’t take it.
Elizabeth’s entire being jumped at the understanding that if she didn’t say something, he would be gone. “Jonathon.”
As he turned back, she realized how impossible these words would be to ever get out. But this wasn’t about him making a move or her trying to keep her propriety in tact. He was hurting, aching. That wasn’t an act. It was more real than she had ever seen in someone’s eyes, and she just couldn’t let him walk away in that much pain. Quickly, she yanked her satchel from the desk and grabbed her coat. “I was just thinking. It’s a nice day for some coffee.”
Concerned confusion drifted into his eyes and over his features. “I’d hate to impose. You’ve got tests to grade, and…”
“The tests can wait.” She made it to where he stood at the bottom of the first step. “I think a nice mocha latte sounds wonderful.”
Jonathon couldn’t quite catch onto what was happening. One moment he was turning in his test, the next he was walking with her outside in the bone-numbing cold as she struggled to get her coat on over her satchel.
“Would you… Would you like some help with that?” He wasn’t sure of anything where it concerned her.
“I… Yeah. Could you…?” She wrenched the satchel from her shoulder and handed it to him. “Could you hold this?”
He took it from her, walking slowly as he simultaneously looked at her and tried not to. “You really should’ve put that on before we got out here, you know?”
“What and let you escape? I don’t think so.” With the coat on, she reached back for her satchel and replaced it over her shoulder. “Thanks.”
They walked several more steps.
“Um, where are we going anyway?” she asked, and it was only then that Jonathon realized he had no idea.
“Oh. Uh.” He glanced up one way and back the other. “Well, there’s this little place just off campus or we could just go… you know, to the Student Union or something.”
She considered the options. “How about the coffee shop? The Student U is always so crowded.”
“Then we need to turn here.” Without touching her, he turned them both to the crosswalk and checked for cars. “This place, you’re going to love it. It’s real quiet and laid back. Perfect for coffee on a day like today.” They crossed the street together and walked down the long sidewalk leading off campus.
Tucking her hands into her gloves and then into the pockets of her coat, she meandered next to him. They really should be making tracks a little faster, but Jonathon was not at all sure he would even get her there, much less that he should hurry her along. He pulled his coat up closer to his ears. This was about as unromantic as it got. Then he berated himself for the thought. It wasn’t supposed to be romantic. She didn’t want it to be romantic, and if it meant spending time with her, he was perfectly fine with that.
“So how was the test?” she finally asked in that soft, airy voice that so captivated his imagination.
“Good. Good.” He nodded, ducking further into his coat. “Course you’ll probably never know that by my answers. I’m just not real good at getting what I think onto paper.”
She checked him with a confused look. “Everything you’ve turned in so far has been extremely lucid.”
“Lucid,” he said with a knowing nod. “There’s a word.”
They crossed the next street and were now off campus. At the other curb, he turned them to the right where they joined the New York throng on the sidewalk.
“So do you do coffee a lot?” she asked, her gaze jumping over to him and away again so quickly he couldn’t catch it.
“I used to a lot. It was a reason to get out of the apartment.” When they got to the little restaurant, they descended three steps, and he opened the door for her.
When she stepped in front of him to enter, Jonathon shook his head to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. How this was anything other than a dream, he had no idea. At the front counter, he held up two fingers. “Two please.” Even that sounded odd to him.
The host took them to a side table, and they each sat down.
“Uh,” Jonathon said, looking at her because he had no idea what to say.
“No thanks,” she said. “Just coffee please. Black.”
Ripping his gaze from her, he looked at the host. “The same please.”
The host left, and Jonathon fought not to completely freak out. Teasing seemed easier than anything serious.
“I thought you were going to get a mocha latte.”
She looked at him with that mysterious smile he loved so very much. “Maybe next time.”
What that simple phrase did to the middle of him, he could not explain. Sanity skittered away from him. If possible, she was even more beautiful close up—the pale skin framed by wisps of brown hair, the soft features, the large, dark eyes. It was like drowning in a sea of incredible.
Carefully she shook her head back and glanced over at him. “I read your paper… over the weekend.” Her head and gaze stayed down. “You must love your sister very much.”
Just trying to look like he was at least somewhat cool, Jonathon leaned back and put his arm on his chair. “Janet? She thinks I’m hopeless.”
Elizabeth’s smile was at once playful and shy. “Well, can you blame her?”
Nobody had to tell him about her wit and intelligence. He just wished he had some defense against them. “Probably not, though I’d like to.” His thoughts fell into the real love for his sister, and he shook his head and brought his arm down. “Nah. That’s not true. She’s been a rock. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”
“It must’ve been very hard when it happened.”
His eyebrows shot up, then lowered as he sighed. “It still is.” Why he said it, he didn’t know, but it brought her concerned gaze to him once again.
The waiter showed up with the coffees, and Jonathon used his as a shield against the soft compassion in her gaze. When they were alone again, Elizabeth didn’t so much as lift her cup.
“How long ago was it—when she died?”
Nothing in him wanted to go down this path, but the kindness in her eyes gated off the rest of life, giving him a place to deal with just this. “A year ago last November. Car wreck. I was in London at the time, making some insanely ludicrous amount of money on another one of my deals. I was supposed to go to the gallery with her that night. It was the opening of her show.” He glanced up, partly to make sure Elizabeth was still there, partly to make sure she was even listening. She was. “Abby was a photographer. She did landscapes—rivers and water mostly. She was really good.”
He shifted backward and glanced up again but let his gaze fall to the black concoction at his hand. “At the last minute there was some glitch…” He exhaled. “I don’t even remember what it was now, but something happened that was going to torpedo the whole thing. So I told her I’d be back as soon as I could, and I hopped a flight out in the middle of the night.” Slowly he shook his head. “That deal seemed so incredibly important at the time.”
Letting his eyes fall closed against the pain, he breathed for a minute before resuming the story. “It was raining that night, and rather than calling for a cab, which is what we usually did, she decided to drive. Another car in front of her lost control. She didn’t get stopped…” All this time had passed, and it was still horrifying to think about her last few minutes. Did she survive for long? Did she even know what she hit? Did she think about him? Or was it over so fast, she thought about nothing at all?
He had no answers to any of those questions. Slumping his shoulders over his cup, he paged through the images in his brain—many were real memories, some were only made up to fill in the heart-wrenching blanks. “Janet called me… in London.”
Elizabeth sighed and shook her head slowly.
“I think it was almost as hard on her as it was on me.” Jonathon exhaled and picked up his cup. “She loved Abby almost as much as I did.” He took a drink. When he set the cup back down, the dark cloud of depression cloaked across his spirit. “The class was Janet’s idea. I hadn’t been out of my apartment in so long, they were about to call in the men with the straight jackets.”
His pathetic attempt at humor was met with no amusement at all in her eyes.
After a moment, she picked her fingers up to her cup but did no more than touch it. “How long were you married?”
“Three years.” It was amazing how hard that was to say. “We met on a bus in Italy. She was photographing the great bodies of water. I was checking out hers.”
This attempt only brought a slight smile.
He lowered his lips to his cup. “I’m kidding, and she’d kill me if she heard me say that.”
Elizabeth looked enthralled although he couldn’t really tell why. “Tell me about her, about Abby, what was she like?”
“Abby?” That name sent him drifting on a dream he hadn’t allowed himself to remember. “She was great. Vivacious. Fun.” He glanced up. “The very antithesis of me.”
That confused her. “But I thought you said in your paper that you were the crazy one.”
“Crazy. Yes. But not fun.”
“Oh, that’s not…”
He held up his hand, and then his thoughts fell into seriousness. “Risk. Not fun. Risk. That was me. The riskier the better. Give me a deal with millions on the line and me as the go-to person, that was my arena, and I loved the game…”
His gaze came up and held on hers. “Now, I go to this class down at the community college, and when I’m not there, I remember being there, and somehow it makes life worth living again.”
Elizabeth searched his gaze, reading his soul. “And what happens when the class is over?”
After a moment of thought and he shrugged. “I go back to hiding out in my apartment and wishing life would just leave me alone?” It was as much a question as a statement, and it pushed her backward.
There was so much she wanted to tell him, so much about having faith and how things really could get better. But who was she to tell him anything? It wasn’t like she’d ever been married, much less lost the one she loved.
“This is nice though,” he said, capturing her gaze. “It’s not the mocha latte, but it’s nice.”
Her smile came up from her heart. “Yes. It is.”
When she got home, Elizabeth could hardly contain the curiosity. She laid her things on the little table next to the door but took the satchel to the couch. In minutes she had his test out as she curled her legs up and under her. Food could wait as could the other work she had to do. She flipped to the opening page, and her heart slid through her chest at the sight of his handwriting. Gently she slid her fingers over it, looping the way he did in those angles.
It wasn’t hard to picture him sitting there, drinking coffee, as she stared at the writing. He had come a long way, but the fight wasn’t over. She pushed back at the thought of him going back to his lonely apartment, and her heart tripped over the thought. In her mind, he unlocked the door and stepped inside. It was quiet. Too quiet. Eternally quiet, much like a tomb. The thought stabbed her heart with sadness for him. It must be terribly hard.
She lowered her gaze to his paper.
To determine who is better for Marianne, Colonel Brandon or Willoughby, one must first decide which is better: sense or sensibility. Colonel Brandon, the embodiment at this point in his life of sense, is the good and upright choice. Solid in his lifestyle; temperate in his whims, he balances Marianne’s open-armed embrace of the world. Willoughby, on the other hand, very much takes life as it comes. He is not overly concerned about implied promises or whom he hurts in his quest to get what he wants. So, one will guard her honor with his life; the other will trash her honor and her heart to get what he wants.
The answer should be obvious. But is it? Willoughby is a scoundrel, no question. He picks up and puts down women’s affections with no real regard for them at all…
The answer continued as Elizabeth dug deeper into it. Was he really going to argue for Willoughby winning? It wasn’t until the very last paragraph that he tipped his hand fully.
Maybe it is wrong to have wanted Marianne to embrace the scoundrel who broke her heart, for surely, if he didn’t hurt her initially, he would have eventually. However, the scoundrel in me wonders if her love could have tempered his impulsiveness. Then again, probably not. Sense generally wins out in the end even if it does make one close their arms a little more each time.
It was such a sad ending, depressing even. As she let her gaze fall away, she began putting the pieces of him together that she knew. The more that fell into place, the more her heart ached for him. A risk taker who had taken the ultimate risk and lost, he had given up on even being himself. Worry snapped into her and with it, questions of how ridiculous she was being. This wasn’t her problem. What could she even do to help him? There was nothing she could say that would bring Abby back, nothing that could turn back the hands of time. Still, for all the ache in the words, she wanted to, and the want to pulled a prayer for him from her lips.
Somehow Elizabeth had convinced herself that he would come for office hours the next morning, so they could talk, but he never did. As she stood at her mirror on Thursday morning, she brushed her fingers through the wisps of bangs and then let her gaze trail down the braided ponytail that slid down her right shoulder. It had been years since she’d really worn her hair down even that much. It was longer than she remembered and darker.
With a sigh, she wondered about him and what he was doing. Was he even awake? Probably not. Why should he wake up any earlier than to get to class? Class. One o’clock. That was five hours away. It wasn’t wholly certain that she would even make it that long.
All morning, she thought about him, even worried a little until he walked in with an eight-minute cushion. The light gray pull-over shirt looked casual but not trashy. She liked that about him—his style. With effort, she focused on her discussion with Susana about the beginning of Emma and the girl’s initial impressions of the book. However, when Elizabeth glanced up at him, he caught her gaze with his smile meant just for her.
She almost giggled with the giddiness in her heart. He was seriously going to stretch propriety if he kept that up.
“Okay, time to get to work, everyone.”
Jonathon knew he shouldn’t watch her with such rapt attention, but he simply couldn’t help himself. The minutes he spent in her presence held a light and a peace that his battered spirit craved. The minutes not in her presence held only the agony of loneliness too long suffered.
She started class and talked about the new book, went over some of the initial impressions of the characters, and then opened the floor for discussion. He liked her laugh, especially when she was trying not to. It had a way of glinting in her playful eyes, daring her to let it out. The moments she let it out, however, were few and far between.
At the end of class, she told them that their tests were on the front desk, and they were welcome to take them. True to form, Jonathon held back, waiting until the stampede was headed out. He stood and swung his satchel to his shoulder. Three steps down and he stood behind the others, waiting, glad for the chance to watch her talk to Adam near the chalkboard. Her hair was down in a braid on her shoulder today. He’d never seen it like that, and he couldn’t help but wonder if it had anything to do with him. Of course, that was narcissistic at best, which was pretty par for the course with him.
The crowd dissipated, and he stepped up to the desk. Only six papers remained, and it was not much of a challenge to locate his. Curious, he flipped through it. On the back page was a hand-written note much like was on his essay. But this one was only four words.
We need to talk.
Elizabeth glanced over at Jonathon as she spoke with Adam, and in case he was planning to leave, she lifted her hand to indicate she wanted him to stay. The pounding of her heart increased when Adam’s last question was answered, and he turned to leave.
She waited until Adam was safely out of the room, before returning to her desk. There she took the first of many impossible leaps. “I’m sorry to keep you, but…” Her gaze fell to the paper in his hands and snagged on his hands. They were nice hands, with long, slender fingers. With a shake, she pushed that away. “Um.” Forcing herself, she looked up at him. “I know this is none of my business, but…”
Her gaze fell again. She was so very bad at this. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. It was that she cared so much she wasn’t at all sure how much of that she should put into words. Fighting to find some kind of a balance between what she should say and what she could say, she lifted her gaze to his again.
The concern in his eyes raked across her heart. “Was the paper that bad?”
His characteristic drollness dragged a smile out of her. “No. It’s not that. I just…” Her gaze went out to the chairs, and to stall one more moment, she lifted her hand. “Please, let’s have a seat.”
He looked not just concerned now, but wary. She hated that. It wasn’t how she’d envisioned this moment at all. However, obediently, he took a front desk, and she pulled herself up onto the large desk.
She watched her fingers playing with nothing for a long moment. “This is hard for me to say, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
If he could look anymore panicked or puzzled, she wouldn’t have known how. “Are you kicking me out of your class?”
“No. No. It’s nothing like that.” Putting her hands on either side of her, she lifted her shoulders. “It’s just that… Well, when I read your essays, I noticed something that I thought maybe you needed someone to talk with about.”
Why was she doing this again? She couldn’t clearly remember. Heedless of the fact that she had no idea where she was going with this, she plunged ahead. “Well, you write about who you were and about who you’re becoming because of what happened, and I can’t help but wonder if you’re forcing yourself to be something you’re not because you think the old way is too dangerous.”
“Dangerous? I don’t…”
“That last line of your first essay. ‘Sense generally wins out even if it does make one close their arms a little more each time.’” Hope upon hope for a definite no piled on her as she looked at him. “Do you really believe that?”
When he didn’t answer but looked away and down instead, that hope slipped away from her.
“Jonathon, you must know,” she said, pleading with him as she stared only at the part in his hair. “You must know, that you can’t give up on life, on being who you are. Look at yourself. You are a talented person. You’re funny, and you’re witty, and you’ve got enough intelligence to fill two heads. But what are you doing with any of that? Sitting in an empty apartment waiting to die? That’s not life. It’s not what you were put here for.”
He didn’t move, not even a twitch.
“I know what happened hurt you deeply. I get that, but surely Abby wouldn’t want you holed up somewhere, wasting away like this. Can’t you see? That’s not the Jonathon she loved.”
His gaze jerked up to her, and angrily he brushed the tears from his eyes. “How do you know anything about that? You didn’t even know me back then.”
“No, but I do now.” The words were soft and filled with empathy. Still, she had to swallow to get them out. “You’ve got way too much to offer our world to waste it sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.”
That yanked him right up and out of the desk. “Wow.” His eyes were at once sarcastic and angry. “Thank you so much for the benefit of that lecture. You know, that stuff is real easy to say for someone who’s never picked out a casket or stood over a headstone that was all that was left of the person you were sleeping with two days before. You have no idea what this is like.”
She absorbed the blows of anger. “You’re right. I don’t. And I’m sure I don’t have any right to even be asking about it. But I do want to help if you’ll let me.”
“Help? You want to help? How?” He lifted the paper squashed in his hand. “With some stupid words in a book no one’s ever read before?”
This was spinning out of control, and every revolution brought more pain into his eyes.
“No. Please. Jonathon. That’s not what I meant.”
“Yeah? Well, save it. I don’t need this. I don’t need you telling me what a loser I am. I don’t need Janet asking how I’m doing every second. I don’t need any of it.” He raked his fingers through his hair and looked for the nearest way out.
“Jonathon,” she said softly. “I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, you and every other self-absorbed know-it-all out there. Have you ever been a counselor?” He leveled a cruel gaze on her, and Elizabeth backed away from it.
“Yeah? Well, apparently you missed your calling. I’ll see you Tuesday, Ms. Forester.” He turned, and when he got to the front desk, he whacked his paper on the side of it causing her to jump.
She watched him climb the steps feeling like he’d just punched her in the gut. When he was gone, she put one arm around her middle and the other up to her neck where she felt the braid. Her heart panged on the degree of her own stupidity. She shouldn’t have said anything. She should have just left well enough alone—for both of their sakes. Fighting to push it all out of her mind, she slid from the desk, turned and gathered her things. It was a long time until Tuesday.
In his kitchen, Jonathon slung the satchel to the floor and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. The cap barely made it into the trash on his way to the living room. On the couch, he reached over and snapped on the television. Shaking his head out and back to clear it of everything, he anchored his gaze at the show he had no emotion left to care about.
Stupidity was becoming a pattern in Elizabeth’s life. She had spent the morning on Monday waiting, hoping, praying. Thinking was impossible. She tried to finish up an article for the Poetry Journal but gave up. Teaching was worse. Her mind wouldn’t stay on the topic, and she came very close to calling two students Jonathon who were not. Monday night as she tossed first one way and then the other, she thought about all the ways she should’ve done that differently.
“We need to talk? That sounds like a subpoena. What was I thinking?” She rolled the other way. “I wasn’t thinking. What did you think, Elizabeth? That he was just going to open up about everything, and it would all be okay? It doesn’t even work like that in the books.”
Knowing she wasn’t going to get any sleep, she pulled herself out of the warm bed and padded down the hallway to the living room. It was small, nothing impressive. She sat down and grabbed the remote. In three clicks, she had Pride & Prejudice playing. Most of the time it lifted her spirits like nothing else could. Tonight she simply curled up and cried.
Every tick of the clock from 12:30 on was pure torture. By ten after one, she was fighting with everything she had to get it together and keep it that way. They discussed Emma—easily her least favorites of those they would study this semester. Who cared about some silly girl who tried to match-make everyone, nearly ruining friendships and lives in the process? Maybe Jonathon was right. Maybe love was just a trick of some hormones that led only to heartache and misery.
If this felt this bad, she didn’t even want to fathom what he had gone through. When class was over, she gathered her stuff slowly, still stupidly hoping. Moment upon moment and there was nothing else to gather. How could she leave? What if she did and he showed up? She sat down in the chair to ponder that possibility. Her gaze went over to his desk, his very empty desk.
She let her gaze fall from it. He wouldn’t be back. The sigh hurt as did the knowledge that he was out there somewhere—hurting. She stood, still moving at a glacier pace just in case. “Dear Lord, please be with Jonathon. Wherever he is.”
“You sound terrible.”
Janet’s bluntness echoed across the lines. Why had he answered? He should’ve just let the machine get it—again. Then again, there were already 25 messages blinking at him from it. He’d heard most of them but hadn’t had the energy nor the desire to hear her yell at him directly.
“Thanks. You sound great too.”
“What’s up?” she asked suspiciously. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been calling for like three days now and nothing. I was getting tired of talking to your machine.”
“Yeah.” A very small part of him was glad she hadn’t taken option two and come in person to check on him.
There was a long pause that he hardly heard and had no inclination to fill.
“So,” Janet finally said. “How’s class?”
The word went through him like a sword, but he fought not to notice. “Thrilling. Absolutely terrific.”
“And Miss Thang, the teacher?”
Pain sliced through him. “Listen, Janet, do we really have to talk about this?”
She said nothing for a long moment. “Did you drop the class or just her?”
Couldn’t he just be left alone in peace? Why was that such a difficult concept to everyone else? “I didn’t drop her. For your information, I never had her. Now can we please talk about something else?”
“Are you going back—to the class?”
“Does this sound like something else to you?”
She did not reply, a sure sign she knew he had heard and fully understood the first time.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “Okay? I don’t. I don’t know if I’ll go back, if it even makes any sense to go back. Happy now?”
“No. Not really. Listen to me, Jon, you were making real progress with that class. It was good for you. Why would you just drop it?”
“Because she wants us to write like what we feel and junk like that. What’s the point of that?”
“To figure out where you are with things. To get some of the stuff that’s running around in your head out so you can deal with it.”
“I don’t want to deal with it! Why is that so impossible for everyone to understand?”
“Everyone?” She let the word sink in. “Does she… know? Did you tell her about… Abby?”
He put his arm over his eyes as he laid back on the couch.
“Jon, did you tell her?”
“It came up. Okay? I told her, and that was that. End of story.” With every molecule in his being, he wished she would just quit asking, but if he hung up and unplugged the phone, she would be here in twenty minutes, and as bad as this was, he’d much rather have this conversation over the phone. “Don’t worry. She handled it just like the counselor did. She was all sad and concerned just like she was supposed to be.”
“And that’s bad?”
He exhaled hard. “I don’t see what talking about it or writing about it or thinking about it is going to help. I want to forget it. Okay? That’s what I want.”
“Well, I hate to tell you this, but you’re not going to forget it. Abby was a part of your life, and she’s a part of you. That’s never going to change.”
“I’m just tired of this.”
He thought, wondering what he did mean by that. “Hurting. Feeling like crap all the time. I’m tired of everybody feeling like they have to include me and think about me and worry about me.”
“That means we care, Jon.”
“Yeah? Well, then I’m tired of people caring. They shouldn’t have to worry about me. I don’t want them to look at me like I’m gonna break at any moment. I hate that.”
Janet took several seconds to answer. “I just want you to be you again.”
“Maybe I don’t want to be me again.”
“What does that mean?”
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t get the words to the surface.
“Jon, what does that mean?”
“Listen, I’ve got to get going here, but thanks for calling.”
“Jon. Jonathon. Don’t hang up on me.”
“Bye, Janet.” And he waited one second before he beeped off the phone. Knowing she would call right back, he flipped the phone to the couch next to him and stood. If he was in the shower, he could reasonably say he hadn’t heard the phone. In fact, he did hear it—three times before he crawled under the cascade of water. There was no telling when his last shower had been. But it felt so good to just stand there and let the rest of life wash away from him.
By Thursday at 1:30, Elizabeth had to admit even to herself that he wasn’t coming back. She’d pushed him too hard, too far, too fast. As much as she hated that, she could do nothing about it. His desk seemed so very empty, so very sad. She wondered what other pastimes he had taken up to fill his days—he surely wasn’t reading anymore. Her mind could only hint at how lonely and awful it must be for him. She hoped Janet was there with him, but she had no way of telling that.
Thoughts of him so preoccupied everything else that she realized as she gathered her things after class she’d forgotten to grab the book of Browning poetry from her office. Could this day get any worse? Hurrying to her office, she’d retrieved the book and was standing at her door locking it when her alert system blared to life.
“Elizabeth.” Andy’s voice slithered up her spine. “I’m glad I caught you. I wanted to at least say good-bye.”
“Good-bye?” It was a great word except that he was standing right there. “Are you leaving?”
“Caroline is back in commission, so I guess my presence here is no longer needed.” He held out his hands almost absurdly as if she might want to hug him.
“Oh.” She slid a strand of hair over her ear. “That’s… great. Well, take care.” Turning, she started away.
However, he turned with her, and it was all she could do to remain calm and not run.
“You know, we never got to get that cup of coffee,” he said, following her step-for-step. “How about now? I’d really like to catch up.”
Her heart thudded against her chest. “Oh, no. I’m really busy right now.” Coffee? The word ran smack into Jonathon’s face and held there. But he was gone, and he wasn’t coming back because of her stupidity in not knowing how to handle such situations. Worse, Andy was walking right beside her because she didn’t know how to handle that situation either. The whole thing was beginning to give her the worst headache of her life.
“I’m really not coming back,” Andy said as they got to the lobby. “If you don’t go now, you might miss your chance.”
Elizabeth whirled on him, determined that this should end right here. “Listen, Andy. I really am not interested. Okay?”
“It’s just coffee. You don’t have to wig out.”
“I am not…” She corralled the anger and forced it deep into herself. “I am not wigging out. I’m telling you I have no intention of getting coffee with you or anything else.”
“Elizabeth,” he said, lowering his voice as he glanced around at the students milling about, “I’m sorry about how things ended before…”
Breathing hurt as she willed him to just stop talking.
“I know I was a jerk. Just let me make it up to you.”
She closed her eyes and yanked all the anger in her life to the surface. “What happened was as much my fault as yours. Let’s just leave it at that and go on with our lives.”
“You should know I’ve never stopped thinking about you. We would’ve been so good with each other.”
There was a real piece of her that just wanted to lash out and scream at him, but she held it back with both fists. “I have to go.” She started away.
“Is that a no?” he called after her.
Frustration crowded into her all the way to the library. One guy that she hated kept showing up. The guy she liked had disappeared. Apparently, the trajectory of her miserable life was moving forward right on schedule. In the library, she sank into her chair but didn’t get to work. Instead, she sat there forcing the worry for Jonathon to once again overtake everything else. What if he didn’t come back? What if he just disappeared from her life forever?
The utter futility of it all descended on her as she thought about the hurt he must be enduring. The memory of him that last day in class raked through her. What was the point of any of it? The class? Learning? Even being here? So you studied and learned and understood, and then what? You died and the knowledge you had gained died with you? That hardly seemed an endeavor worth putting any stock in. Knowing she would get nothing productive done, she stood and ambled over to the bookshelf beyond. Psychology books stood there in every array and color.
Letting her fingers drift over the titles, she wondered how much knowledge they contained. Did they in fact hold the very secret of life? She closed her eyes, wishing she could absorb their wisdom through her fingertips. Maybe then she could figure out what to do about the Jonathon conundrum. When she opened her eyes, her fingers were on one title: Patterns in Psychological Healing. Because she really didn’t want to do anything that remotely resembled what she was supposed to be doing, she pulled the little volume off the shelf.
Paging through it, her attention grabbed to one line at the top of the page.
All healing follows the same pattern: denial, glimpses of the issue, struggle against the truth, anger at the truth, acceptance of the truth often accompanying a shift in thinking, moving to the next level.
Not really seeing anything else in the library, she took the little book back over to her seat. The section continued with a short discussion about each phase and how subjects rarely realize they are in a particular phase but how each phase is easily seen when understood. Leaning back in the chair, Elizabeth let the pieces of what this was telling her fall into and mix with the others she knew. It was much like a 3-D puzzle coming together. Each piece raised and reshaped the others.
Suddenly she bolted forward as she caught the first glimpse of what it was telling her.
Jonathon knew he had to get out of the apartment. If he didn’t, he might as well die there. It would come to that eventually. With a last grasp at sanity, he grabbed the little volume he was supposed to be reading, tucked it into the pocket of his caramel-colored suede jacket and made for the door, just as the phone rang again. He simply stepped out of the door and shut it quietly. He couldn’t deal with Janet and her million questions. He couldn’t deal with anything right now. All he wanted was to disappear.
Outside, the weather was less than hospitable, but he pulled the collar of the coat up closer to his ears and kept walking. The park was out. It was too cold to go there. His steps seemed to know where they were going, so he simply followed. The less he had to think, the better. Nothing seemed at all real, more like an elaborate illusion swimming before his eyes. The question was only briefly asked when he turned onto the campus, but he didn’t even really answer it. He didn’t care where he went as long as it meant ‘not here.’
As he meandered down the sidewalk, he wondered for a second what day it even was. He couldn’t remember, so he didn’t try. It was only when his feet were on the steps of the library that he paused and really asked what he was doing here. However, he was here, and thinking about it was too much trouble. He climbed the steps outside and then inside.
Instantly his spirit said it liked the quiet and the dimness of the lighting. Yes, he could disappear here—away from the phone and from life. Not bothering to go to the back, he grabbed a chair, yanked the book from his pocket, and bent his head over it. Whether he would actually read it was another question altogether.
For two hours Elizabeth had taken notes from the little book. It all fit so perfectly, how could she have missed it? Realizing there was no way she could absorb it all in even the few hours she had here, she decided to check the book out. She could map it and learn it so much better at home anyway. Taking it to Mary’s desk, she handed it over and glanced back at the normally empty tables standing at attention in two lines over to the dark wall beyond.
However, in one yank her spirit jerked to a halt. Her eyes snagged there and then widened. She yanked her attention back to the librarian’s desk. It couldn’t be. Could it? Carefully, slowly, she turned, and when her gaze took him in, the middle of her heart snagged on her breath. It was him. There was no doubt about it. He was reading Emma. Her heart cataloged everything about him—haggard and sad, slumped over himself. Sliding somewhere between symbolism and reality, she searched for what it all meant. He was here, alone, reading. Yet he hadn’t come to class. Everything about him screamed both “leave me alone” and “help, I’m drowning.”
“There you go,” Mary said. “Enjoy.”
“Uh, thanks.” Elizabeth accepted the book and pressed it to her chest. When she turned, she couldn’t get her gaze to leave him. Would it be so terrible to just go say hello? Then again, he might bolt, take off, and she might never see him again. His paper cracking against the desk that last day when he’d left her classroom snapped through her, and she jumped.
She had to be completely, certifiably insane to go over there, and yet, if she didn’t, might this chance ever come again? Closing her eyes so she couldn’t see how foolish she was being, she walked over to his table. When she was there, he didn’t even look up, and her gaze jumped behind her back to safety. How she wanted to just leave. However, she was here, and if she’d come this far, not staying to say hello was rude at best and stupid at worst. “Um, hello.”
Jonathon was buried deep in old England and had totally shut out the rest of the world until that moment. When he looked up, his breath caught. He blinked twice, knowing he must be dreaming. Her hair was up again, tucked to the back of her head as wisps escaped, catching the light, resembling a halo. She smiled sheepishly and the tiny laugh sounded both hopeful and scared. Her gaze slid from his across to the shelves.
“I just… Uh, I saw you over here, and I thought…” Her words said she was here, but her actions said she’d rather be anywhere but. A moment and her gaze came back to his and then it fell. “Um, we missed you in class today.”
“Yeah.” He reached for nonchalance but missed by a mile. “I’ve been busy.”
“Oh, yeah.” There was a shimmer in her eyes he’d never noticed before. “I understand. I just…” Her gaze was shifting again. “Well, I just wanted to come say hi.”
He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think.
“I’d better get back.” With a tiny bounce to get herself moving, Elizabeth backed away. “Have fun reading.”
“Oh, yeah.” It was only when he looked at the book in his hand that he remembered it. His gaze took in the book pressed next to her. “You too.”
“I will.” And with that and one more blink, she fled around the bookshelves.
For long minutes after she was gone, Jonathon relived the conversation. It was nothing. Nothing that could mean anything, and yet… She had come over to say hi even after the way he’d treated her. Practically yelling at her to stay out of his business, skipping class—they did not scream respect and admiration. Certainly not as much as he had felt for her. And now, she was over there, two bookshelves away. She probably thought he was a real jerk by now, and he couldn’t deny the assessment.
Although he tried, he couldn’t get the words in the book to go into him with any meaning. He needed to apologize. Sure there was no chance for them, but there was also no reason she had to look so wary and scared with him around either. He didn’t want that for her. She was the most open, kind, loving person he knew. And he certainly didn’t want to be the cause of her closing her arms.
Exhaling at the thought of what he was about to do, he pushed to his feet. He didn’t put the book down. Instead he shoved it in his pocket. He pushed the chair in, fighting to forestall what he knew he had to do. Ducking, he headed to the bookshelves and then ever-more-slowly around them. On the other side, she sat at the table, hunched over, scribbling notes in her little book. The smile in him started somewhere around his heart and traveled first up and then through him. He let out a breath and started toward her.
However, when he was two steps from the table, she looked up and gasped, nearly sending her books and work crashing to the floor. She reached up and pushed the bottom of her glasses up. “Oh. Mr. Danforth?” There was fear and concern in the greeting. Her gaze searched his, making finding the words harder than it should have been. “Um, can I help you with something?”
His gaze fell from hers as he gathered himself to get the words out. “I’m sorry, Ms. Forester.” He brought both his gaze and a small smile up. “I behaved like an idiot, and I’m sorry.”
She sat back, considering that and him. “Would you like to have a seat?”
NO! somewhere in the middle of him screamed in utter panic. NO! Don’t sit down. Don’t get sucked in any deeper! NO! Just say no and walk away! “Sure.”
It was exactly what Elizabeth had been praying for for a week, but now that he was here, sitting there, right across from her, words escaped from her consciousness. She laid her arms on the table one atop the other and just looked at him for a long, long moment. “So how have you been?”
His gaze never came up to hers. “Surviving, I guess.”
She nodded, hoping he would keep talking. When he didn’t, she ventured further. “You’ve missed class. Does that mean you aren’t coming back?”
Reaching in his pocket, he produced the book but still didn’t look at her. “I’ve been reading.”
“I see that.” It was terribly hard not to jump in and ask questions and demand he tell her everything; however, Elizabeth had tried that and it didn’t work. This time she was going to do her best to let him come to her.
“It’s pretty good. A lot less depressing than Sense.”
“Well, it’s just… I don’t know. Lighter. Emma’s not all proper-proper like Elinor, but she’s not wild and out there like Marianne either. It’s like she knows her place in life and likes being there. I do feel sorry for Harriet though.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
His gaze came up to her in surprise and then fell back to the book. “Well, Emma is really persuasive about things. I just think Harriet should stick to her guns a little more. Do what’s right for her rather than letting Emma talk her into things that make sense for Emma but not necessarily for Harriet.”
He thought about that for more than ten seconds. “But that’s what we all do, I guess.” When his gaze came up, it was filled with exhausted sadness. “We want to make things better for someone else, and so we try to get them to do it our way, thinking they’d be happy if they did it our way.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t work.”
She knew he was talking about more than the book. “No, it doesn’t. But it would be nice if it would.”
“It’d sure be a lot easier that’s for sure.”
“How do you mean?”
Every look was cautious and guarded. Finally he shrugged. “If we could just live so everyone else approved, maybe they’d get off our backs once in awhile.”
They were venturing into deeper water, Elizabeth could feel it. She forced air into and out of her lungs. Fighting to figure out what she could ask and what was off-limits, she held her gaze on him. “If we could make everyone else happy, then they’d let us alone?”
He nodded, his gaze anchored to the book in his hands. “Something like that.”
Knowing this question might drown them both, Elizabeth prayed for the right words. “What makes being alone such a good thing?”
His gaze jumped up to hers and then fell. “Well, you don’t have to worry about how hard you’re making life on everyone else. If there’s no one else there, you don’t have to worry about them worrying about you.”
Her brain snagged on the word ‘worry’ and stayed there. Although she had no idea if she could say the words or how he would take them, she knew she had to say them. “You know, worry often comes when there is no faith.”
“Faith?” His eyebrows lifted skeptically. “What does faith have to do with anything?”
“Faith has everything to do with everything. Faith is what gets us up in the morning. It’s what allows us to walk through our day. Without it, life is one big ball of confusion and chaos.”
“Huh.” He shifted. “Sounds like my life. Lots of confusion and chaos there.”
“And you like it that way?”
His eyebrows narrowed as anger snapped to his face. “What?”
“You like life to be all chaos and confusion, right?”
The look on his face was getting darker and more troubled with every passing second. “Does it look like I’m enjoying it? I hate it, but I just… I don’t know how to fix it, how to get out of it, you know? It’s like it’s all around me, closing in on me, and sometimes I just want to get away from it—to not feel like it’s going to take me right down with it.”
Elizabeth nodded, her heart going out to him. He really was hurting. It showed in every facet of his being. “Okay. So, if you don’t like being there in the chaos and confusion, what are you doing to break out of it, or are you just going to give up and let it have you?” Asking the questions was hard. Waiting for the answers was harder.
It was as if he was looking really hard, trying to see something. “Do you ever feel like it would all be so much easier if you just got to the end already?”
The question was soft, barely there, but Elizabeth felt it all the way through her.
“Yeah,” she said simply, softly. “I’ve felt like that before.”
His gaze was at once concerned and confused. “You have?”
The tiniest of laughs escaped from her chest. “I have.” And then in that instant she decided to go for broke. “I remember standing on the curb one day after class and thinking, ‘I could make this all go away. Just step off this curb. With that car that’s coming…’” Her gaze tried to stay on his but failed. “I don’t know what or why, but something held me back, and I’m really glad it did.”
“Because you found what you were supposed to do, where you were supposed to be in life?” he asked, clearly trying to get the pieces to go together.
“No. Because I realized that life isn’t just about the bottoms. It’s about the tops too, and I’ve had some tops since that moment that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
She let her brain contemplate the question. “Well, like graduating and getting my Doctorate, and teaching.” Then because it was in her heart, she allowed the words to come. “And sitting here with a friend.”
Head down, he thought about that. “A friend?” He breathed the words. Slowly he nodded as she tipped her head to the side and waited. His gaze came up to hers. “Is that what we are?” Quietly he pleaded for her to be very gentle with her answer.
“I think so, don’t you?”
The smallest amount of peace drifted into his eyes and face. “Yeah. I think so too.”
“Good afternoon, everyone.” At the front of the room, Elizabeth rolled the chalk back and forth in her hands. The mystery smile was back, and Jonathon couldn’t help but think how much he liked that smile.
Coming, being here, still wasn’t easy, but her question about what he was doing to get out of the chaos and confusion dogged him. For this moment, this was what he was doing. The next one would have to take care of itself.
“Over the weekend, I found something for my room,” she said, and her eyes lit up with the excitement. “I thought I’d share it with you today because it will probably appear on a quiz or a test in the future, and I don’t want you to be lost when I ask the question.”
She went to the board, her light beige cotton dress hugging the top of her and swirling out at the bottom. He wondered if her whole closest was only dresses in various colors just like that one.
“They call this the pattern of healing. First, you have denial about what’s going on about some event or pattern of events in your life. Now, they say that this denial can be a conscious thing or done unconsciously. Either way, it is the state of not wanting to contend with some painful experience. The second stage is the glimpse. In this stage, you get some hint in your psyche that something is not right. You may not see it all. Maybe all you see is that things are not working out like you want them to, but you get a glimpse that all is not right. That’s the glimpse.
“Next, comes the struggle. In the struggle phase, you try desperately to get back to denial. You’ve seen the glimpse or maybe several of them, but you want only to go back into denial because you think it was easier.”
Jonathon was beginning to think that coming was a very bad idea, but he buried his head in his notebook and took notes just the same.
“The fourth phase is anger. When you’ve struggled and struggled with the problem, and it’s still not working out, you get angry. Maybe you get a short-fuse with others and snap at them for no apparent reason, or maybe you outright lash out at others or yourself about the problem itself. This fourth stage may upset many people in your life, even you, but it is a good place to be because you know denial is no longer an option, and here, you have the energy to make the changes that need to be made. Finally, in the last phase we make a shift or come to acceptance, thus moving us to the next level of existence.
“If we make a shift, we change our mind. With that, our actions follow. The other thing that might happen is that we finally come to accept that we cannot change whatever it was, and we accept that and learn to move on.” She wrote the last words on the board and turned. “I got this from a psychology book, but remember how we talked about the room and how each piece affects the others? Well, when I read this, I could see how it fits not just people but characters in books as well. It’s one more way to more fully understand why and how a character grows throughout a book.”
At her desk, she picked up her copy of Emma. It, like all of her books, looked ready to fall apart. “In literature, we have rising action, driven by both internal and external conflict. Then there’s the climax and the resolution or denouement. The framework of rising action, climax, and denouement of a book mirrors the pattern of healing. In rising action, the characters are presented with a problem, they are brought out of their denial of how they’ve been living by getting a glimpse. In that glimpse, they see something is either changing, has changed, or needs to be changed. The conflict further mounts as the person struggles and then peaks at anger or frustration. That’s the climax, the turning point.
“As a character works through this, the denouement unfolds as healing takes place. This is one reason people like happy endings. They like to see the characters come to some healing.” She stepped around the desk and leaned against it. “Would someone like to use this pattern to explain what we have read in Emma so far?”
Tentatively Letty raised her hand, and Jonathon was eternally grateful to her. He didn’t want to talk.
“Well, I think Emma is in denial about her mother’s death and how she thinks her life is so complete and happy just the way it is. If that was true, then why is she so mental about trying to fix everyone else up? I mean, poor Miss Harriet. She is going to get shredded because of Emma’s ‘help’.”
Jonathon was glad he wasn’t the only one who was worried about poor Miss Harriet.
“I think that’s the struggle part,” Mr. Thomason in the back said. “Emma doesn’t want to look at her own problems and the things that aren’t great in her life, so she runs around trying to micromanage everyone else’s so she doesn’t have to think about her own.”
“Yeah, but that’s all unconscious,” Letty said. “I don’t think she realizes that’s what she’s doing.”
“But it’s still what she’s doing,” Susana said.
“And what about Harriet?” Elizabeth asked, clearly amused by the insights of her students. “Does she move through this pattern too?”
“I think Harriet wants Emma to like her,” Adam said. “I think she listens to Emma rather than what she thinks.”
“And…?” Elizabeth prompted.
“And,” Adam said, digging for more. “She is miserable. She’s struggling, but she’s not angry yet.”
“Okay. If we assume that Harriet comes to some degree of healing at the end, what do you think will need to happen between her and Emma in the coming chapters?”
“She’s gonna have to stand up for herself and do what’s right for her no matter what Emma thinks,” Letty said.
“She needs to grow a backbone and say, ‘Back off already,’” Mr. Cruz said. “Otherwise she’s gonna be getting jerked on that chain forever.”
“So let’s say for discussion that she tells Miss Emma off. What happens then? What if Emma gets mad?”
“Then Emma gets mad,” Jonathon said, and when her gaze struck his, the breath jammed in his throat. Still, he didn’t let his gaze run. “We don’t get to make everyone else’s decisions, and being mad because someone’s not doing what you want them to is like blackmail—emotional blackmail. You put pressure on them to do it the way you want it done by getting mad when they don’t do what you want.” He looked at the chalkboard. “That’s the struggle part I guess.” Then a thought struck him as he looked at the phases. “I think sometimes you vacillate between those first four for a long time before you come to the last one. You struggle some and then deny some and then struggle some more. You get angry and then you see glimpses of how off everything is, but you don’t want to face it, so you go back in denial again.”
“And many people live their whole lives there.” Elizabeth held up her copy again. “Books show us pathways out of that confusion and chaos into healing—not just for the characters but for us too. Great books help us get there if we pay attention to what they are showing us.” Her gaze went to the clock. “Well, that’s it for today. Please keep up with the readings. A quiz might not be far off.”
The groans were there but softer and more teasing.
“I know. I know. You love this class.” She laughed. “See you on Thursday, and I’ll give you your topic for your paper.”
She just laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll live through it.”
And the class broke up.
Of course, Elizabeth hadn’t missed him sitting there. She hadn’t missed his answer either. There was still sadness in his eyes but a glimmer of light was there as well. It gave her hope for him, more hope than she’d had in weeks. When she saw him gathering his things and standing, she prayed with her whole heart that he wouldn’t just walk out. How that could feel so very life-shakingly important, she didn’t know, but it felt like every piece of her was tied up in a decision that wasn’t even hers to make.
At the end of the row, he stopped and waited for Letty and Adam to go past. Standing at her desk, Elizabeth kept her head down but saw every nuance of every movement he made. If he turned to the door, should she call out to him? If so, what excuse would she give for calling him back?
However, when he turned not for the door but for the front, her heart skipped across her chest, and she fought to corral both the smile and the elation.
“I take it the library’s been good to you,” he said, nodding at her book.
She smiled. “Yeah. Sometimes God smiles on me.” Carefully she put the psychology book into her satchel.
He leaned on her desk, watching her. “So what’s up with all this faith and God stuff anyway? Do you really believe in all of that?”
When she looked up, concern went through her—most of all because she hadn’t realized God was an off-limits topic with him. “Yeah, I do.”
He considered that for a long moment and then nodded.
“Don’t you?” she asked very gently.
“What? Believe in God and stuff?”
A breath and he shook his head. “It’s a nice idea, I guess.” His fingers played with the wood on the desk. “You know, Heaven and angels and clouds and harps, and all of that, but I don’t really get into stuff like that.” He looked up and shot her a smile that should’ve looked playful but fell far short. Then he shrugged. “I’m not knocking it for anybody else, but for me…” He exhaled hard. “I guess I’m just too grounded here to worry about what comes next.”
Elizabeth heard it all, but she didn’t believe a word. The word ‘Denial’ flashed through her mind. He needed a glimpse, but was that up to her? Was it her place? If not you, who? The thought was more a whisper. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly, walked out to the desks and sat in one. She hadn’t done that in years. He turned, watching her in concern. With him at the desk and her here, the room looked so very different.
She took a breath to settle into the moment. “I don’t think Heaven is just about some time or place in the future. I don’t think that’s all God’s for either,” she said. “I think He can be right here, right now with you and for you if you let Him be.” More of her cards fell to the table. “Take me for example, how do you think I found that book—the one we talked about today?”
Like he couldn’t care less, he shrugged. “I don’t know. You studied it in some faraway psych class.”
“No. I was trying my best to find something to distract me from how worried I was about you.”
His gaze jumped to hers. “About me? Why?”
“Well, because you were so angry, and then you quit coming to class, and I wasn’t sure I would ever even see you again. So I was looking for something to read so I’d quit thinking about it, and that’s what I pulled off the shelf. Pretty perceptive of God to send that to me now, don’t you think?”
Scrunching his face, he shook his head. “What does God have to do with finding some book? That’s just a coincidence.”
She paused for a moment to gather her thoughts. “Remember the other day when I said, ‘Faith means everything about everything’? Well, the same could be said of God. God means everything about everything.”
He pulled himself onto the desk and set his satchel down next to his foot. “I’m not following.”
“Well.” How to even put this into words? She searched through her mind and finally just started somewhere. “The presence of God gives things meaning that the absence of God does not. Say for example, that there is a student in my class, and I see her only as a student. Does it matter much how I treat her? I mean can I just grade her stuff down just because, right?”
“Because that wouldn’t be fair.”
His face fell into a scowl. “What do you mean, ‘So’? Teachers are supposed to be fair.”
He laughed like she’d lost her mind. “Why? Because otherwise you could just do whatever you wanted and nothing would make any sense. It wouldn’t make sense to go to class because your grade would be based on the whim of whoever was in charge. Besides they have laws and policies against that. You’d get fired if the student could prove anything.”
“Do the laws and policies make it right, or is it right and so they spelled that out for anyone who wouldn’t see it as such without the laws and policies?”
The deep thought on his face said he was not just blowing this conversation off. “Well, I think they try to codify what’s right and wrong so nobody’s confused, and everyone gets treated the same… so it’s fair.”
Elizabeth nodded. “But does the law make it right or does the law simply illuminate what’s already there?”
He thought long and hard, staring into the question. “It illuminates what’s already there I guess.”
“Okay. If it’s already there, where did it come from?”
“I don’t know that it came from anywhere. It just was.”
“So why isn’t it just the other way then? Why isn’t it just that we can do whatever we want, no rules, no boundaries?”
“Because if we had no rules, you could hurt someone for no reason at all and get away with it.”
“So? If you did that, society would devolve into whatever you wanted, take it. If you wanted to, do it. It would be a free-for-all.”
He was getting a little angrier with each challenge. “Well, if you did that, it wouldn’t be long and everyone would be dead because I could kill you for any reason or no reason at all and once that started, it wouldn’t stop.”
“Okay. But why would that be bad?”
When he laughed, it was an exhale of frustration. “Because it would be chaos.”
“So then you don’t think it’s a coincidence that being fair is a rule, and you think that there’s a reason if you extrapolate it out why it’s a good idea to be fair—not just for you and the other person but for society in general. You see that there is actually a reason for the laws, and the laws are a code that spells out things that are already right and wrong—the law doesn’t make it right or wrong. It already is.”
“Yeah.” But he didn’t sound overly sure.
“Then where did these rules, these laws that just are, come from?”
“What does it matter?”
“Because if you think they are just random, you will treat them as such. But if you believe Someone created them, then they are given a meaning that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
He was getting tired of the conversation. “I still don’t get it.”
She shifted in her chair and leaned back, looking into the air between them. “For me, God is what gives things around me meaning. He is not some faraway person I may meet someday. He is right here with me all the time, every day. He’s gotten me out of some really tough situations that could’ve taken me right out of the game. When I’m with Him, things make sense in ways they just don’t otherwise. Things aren’t just random and happenstance, there is an order to things, a rightness about them that just isn’t there if God isn’t.
“He has shown me things that still make me go, ‘Wow. That’s cool.’ Like the other day when you talked about the poetry book when we were reading Sense. God put those pieces together in me so that I saw more with them together than I ever would have if I had treated them as two random pieces that didn’t go together.”
“But you were the one who put them together.”
“Maybe,” she conceded. “Or maybe He was the one who ordered them right next to each other for me to see how perfectly they fit.” She glanced back at the clock and realized the next class would be coming in any minute. Sliding out of the desk, she went to hers. “Oh, goodness. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give you chapter and verse about God and the order of the universe.”
However, as he watched her, it was not with anger but with profound interest. “I’m not. We should do this more often.”
She looked up, thankful that he wasn’t running for the exits. “You got any time in particular in mind?”
With a glance at the clock, he considered the question. “Well, I was thinking about going over to the library, but I didn’t want you to think…”
“That you were trying to butter me up to get extra credit?”
He smiled. “Something like that.”
Her coat was on, her satchel on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I only give extra credit if you earn it—you don’t get any for buttering me up.”
They started up the stairs.
“None at all?” he asked, obviously teasing.
“Nope. But I’m always available to discuss the secrets of life with someone who’s interested. Take it or leave it.”
He pushed out of the door and held it. “I’ll take it.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2008