They ambled down the sidewalk side-by-side, neither in a hurry for the journey to be over. Jonathon looked over at her. He was beginning to understand some of the mysteries that hid behind her eyes, and they made him far more fascinated than he had even been at the beginning.
“So what do you think of class so far? Are you getting anything out of it at all?” she asked, not really looking at him more than a glance.
“What? Yeah. Yes. I’m getting a lot out of it. The reading’s kind of a challenge. I’m not used to having to really think about what I read—not like this anyway.”
“What did you read before?”
“Not Jane Austen. That’s for sure.” His laugh was soft. “No, before… I used to do a lot of financial stuff—reports, sales figures, company stats—that kind of thing.”
“So you were a stock broker?”
“No, not exactly. I was more a merger manager. Companies who were thinking about taking over other companies called me in to facilitate the deal. Sometimes the takeover was amiable and easy. Sometimes it was anything but.”
“And how do you get into something like that?”
“Take a guy with a finance degree and a big mouth, dangle some money in front of him, and bingo. You’ve got a takeover artist.”
“Did you like it?”
“Loved it. Big money. Flashy cars. It was a rush.”
“So why didn’t you go back after…?”
He noticed how she too let the unspeakable go unspoken. “I couldn’t get my head wrapped around anything afterward. Numbers, deals… it was all just too much to remember, too much to think about.” Slowly he shook his head. “I lost the thrill of the kill, and when it left, there was no point in it anymore.”
“So, you figured out that the money and the flashy cars were ultimately empty.”
“Something like that.”
“And what about life?”
“What about it?”
“Was it empty too?”
Step by long step he walked, thinking, and knowing the answer but not wanting to say it. “Yeah, I guess so. I mean it was like all I could do was ask, ‘What’s the point?’ over and over. What’s the point of getting out of bed? What’s the point of going to work? What’s the point of living? What’s the point of anything?”
“And what’d you come up with?”
He glanced at her. “What’s the point?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
More steps as he thought through this question. “I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t one.”
“So is it easy to live like that? Is it fun and exciting? Does believing that make you want to jump out of bed in the morning and get to living?”
“Because there isn’t a point?”
His mind swirled through the question. “Well, no. Not really. Mostly it makes me feel like giving up.”
They were at the library, but they didn’t stop. Instead, side-by-side they went right up the stairs and right on in.
On the second level, Elizabeth paused. “Hang on. Let me say hi to Mary.” With no more explanation than that, she stepped over to the librarian’s desk as he had seen her do the first day. The conversation was too quiet for him to hear, and then they both laughed, and Elizabeth came back over to where he had stopped.
“I’m going to sit back here,” she said, shifting on her feet and tilting her head to the side to indicate her normal spot. “You’re welcome to join me…”
His glance that direction surged in him. “Oh, I’m sure you’ve got stuff…”
But she just laughed. “I always have ‘stuff.’ If I let stuff stop me, I’d never get anything done.” Then her gaze came to his and in it was a question and an invitation. “But it’s your call.”
He’d already taken up nearly two hours of her time. Yes, he wanted to ask more, to talk more, to just be with her more, but he was also conscious of overstepping his bounds which he’d been traipsing right along all day. “I think I’ll just sit over here and read. But if I come up with a question, I’ll be sure to come ask.”
Her smile was slow and sweet. “Okay. Enjoy the book.”
“Enjoy? Well, that might be a stretch.”
“Okay. Then while you’re stretching to enjoy it, look for a piece for me.”
A question whispered through him. It was like she was asking him to join her search for God things, but that couldn’t be what she was saying. “I’ll see what I can find.”
Although it was the same book Jonathon had been reading for two weeks, he suddenly saw it in a much different light. There was the struggle Elizabeth had pointed out. It was so obvious. It featured Emma struggling to figure out how she had talked her friend into having feelings for the man Emma now realized she was in love with. She vacillated at break-neck speed between hoping Mr. Knightly would hurt poor Harriet, even going so far as to call Harriet’s family and upbringing into question—something no true friend would do. In the next breath she said she hated Mr. Knightly’s brother for telling him to return Harriet’s feelings. But if he told his brother not to return the feelings, then she would love him.
It was like being caught in a whirlwind of emotions. Funny how women tended to do that—at least the ones Jonathon had known. Janet was forever worried over something. In the recent past that something had been him. But she wasn’t the only female he’d ever not quite understood. He still remembered Abby.
The thought of her struck him hard, knocking the breath from him. Abby. Memories swirled, engulfing him as he’d never allowed them to before. He remembered cradling her in his arms the day her beloved dog, Pogo, had died when they were only dating. He remembered the exuberant joy of her first gallery showing, and the turmoil that nearly took them both under as she worked getting ready for it. At the time he never could understand how anyone could be in so many different states of emotions at the same time.
One minute she was happy, the next weeping over the fact that they neglected to choose her “favorite” photograph for the showing. He laughed, remembering both her insistence that that one was her favorite and not ten seconds later, her declaration of absolute passion for a completely different photograph. Truth was, he loved them all, and he could never have chosen a favorite. But she was as passionate and protective over each one as a new mother would be of her off-spring.
Then a question breached the surface of his heart. If he saw the struggle in her, did that mean there was some place in Abby that needed to be healed? That she was moving toward that and the struggle was but a phase? But what needed healed in her? He looked, searching through their first few moments together all the way to the last good-bye, but he could find no cause for her struggle because to him there was not one thing that wasn’t perfect about her.
Okay. So she left her toothbrush on the sink instead of putting it in the holder. And she set off the smoke alarms more than once with something in the oven. But those were mere quirks, not really flaws or wounds. Did Abby have wounds? Did she have pieces and places in her that needed to be healed? Had he ever noticed? Had he ever bothered to look?
He wanted to go over and pose the question to Elizabeth, but he had taken up so much of her time already. Pushing the thoughts to the side, he dove again into the book. Maybe he would get a chance to ask on Thursday.
“Oh, Harriet is in so much trouble,” Letty said on Thursday. “She is so going to get crushed by this.”
“She should’ve gotten out when she had the chance,” Susana said. “She should’ve married that Mr. Martin guy when he asked her. Now Emma’s going to steal the guy she loves, and I don’t think Emma really even cares about her.”
“Why do you say that?” Elizabeth asked as she paced slowly across the front of the classroom.
“Hello! If she cared, she would’ve listened to what Harriet wanted in the first place,” Letty said. “She’s trying to control everybody else when the truth is her own life needs some guidance and direction.”
“But we all do that,” Jonathon said, and Elizabeth’s gaze snapped to him.
All the air whooshed from her lungs.
“We do.” He was looking only at her. “We are hurting so much, and we try so hard to cover those hurts by doing stupid things that hurt the other people in our lives. We try to control them, like Emma did. Or we try to submit to others running our lives to make them happy so maybe they’ll like us like Harriet did. And we get ourselves into a giant mess because we’re too afraid to be honest about being hurt.”
Elizabeth nodded as she listened, and then the words of Dr. Avery from so long ago came back to her. She chose to share them though she never had before for no reason she could adequately explain. “I had a professor once who said that very often a character who is hurting will meet another character who is hurting. When hurt meets hurt, the situation only gets worse. So when Emma meets Harriet and out of her hurt, she tries to fix her up with all these men, and Harriet in her need to be wanted and loved by someone, is thereby willing to listen to Emma even when she knows that isn’t right for her—hurt meets hurt, and the situation devolves from there.”
“But where does it stop?” Letty asked. “If I hurt you and you’re hurt so you hurt me back… Where does that lead?”
“Chaos,” Jonathon said behind her. “It leads to chaos and hatred and jealousy and fear and hopelessness. It takes us right off the cliff.”
“Then what’s the point?” Adam asked. “If we’re all acting out of our hurt, struggling through life, how does any book have a happy ending, much less any life?”
Elizabeth took one step and then another, the answer flooding her heart. She turned and her gaze swept across them. “What if I chose to respond out of love and compassion rather than out of hurt and anger and fear? What if Emma were to choose that for herself? What would happen that would signal that?”
“She would go and tell Harriet the truth—that she’s in love with Mr. Knightly,” Letty said.
“And she’d get off Harriet’s back about Mr. Martin,” Susana added. “The only reason Harriet isn’t married to him already is because Emma doesn’t think he’s good enough.”
“Neither of them are being honest, and they haven’t been since the beginning,” Mr. Thomason said. “They are friends, but they don’t even really know each other. It’s more about manipulation than honesty.”
“Yes, but I think Emma is starting to see that all her little tricks aren’t working,” Letty said. “When she hauled off and stuffed Miss Bates down the rat hole with that comment about her not being able to limit herself to only three dull things, that was really low.”
“But Knightly called her on it,” Mr. Cruz said. “He didn’t let her get away with it.”
“Knightly reacted out of love,” Jonathon said, and a new light of understanding flickered in his eyes. “He stood up to Emma, not because he was trying to be mean to her and not out of his hurt. He did it because he loved her, and he knew she was better than that.”
Elizabeth nodded. “He tried to do that earlier when they talked about Harriet and Mr. Martin. Why didn’t she listen then?”
“Because she hadn’t been struggling so much and seeing what was out of kilter before,” Jonathon said as if he was in some kind of trance. “It was only when the consequences of everything she had done came to the breaking point that she’s now realizing, ‘Hey, this isn’t working.’”
With a smile, Elizabeth backed off. “Before you go, I’ll give you the topic for your paper so you can start thinking about it.” At the board, she wrote the topic as she gave it. “Discuss the psychological pattern of healing of one character in Emma and relate it to some moment of healing in your own life. 5 pages.” She finished, laid the chalk down, dusted her hands, and turned. “And yes, grammar counts.” One millisecond of a pause. “That’s it. Have a great weekend.”
“So, have you read any good, mind-blowing books lately?” Jonathon asked, stepping up to her desk.
She finished erasing the board and went to the desk. “No. I’ve been trying to get a stack of Lit 101 tests graded for tomorrow. They’re pretty good. Nothing earth-shattering so far though.” As she pulled her satchel on, she looked at him. “You?”
He scratched his chin. “Just finishing up this interesting Jane Austen book I’ve been reading.”
“Oh, and what do you think about it?”
Together they headed out.
“Well, at first I wasn’t too crazy about it, mostly owing to my own state of mind at the time rather than the book. But now I’m seeing some things that I never really saw before.” He pushed out, held the door for her, and retook his position at her side.
“Well, like I’ve been thinking a lot about when Abby was here and how I always thought she was just being a drama queen about some things.” He felt the protest and jumped in before she could voice it. “Not that she really was. I thought she was. Like the night of that last show. I thought she was being completely unreasonable about wanting me to stay. I mean we had millions riding on the deal going through, and she got all mad that I was choosing work over her. I really wasn’t.
“At least I thought I wasn’t.” A step and then two more. “I guess that’s what I’m trying to do now, sort it all out in my head—how much of that last fight was her hurt and how much of it was mine.”
“And that’s the way it ended? With that last fight?”
“Yeah.” It was six steps before he said anything else. “You know, I thought about calling her so many times over that next 16 hours. I thought about telling her I was sorry, but that felt like giving in to her little temper tantrum, so I didn’t. It sounds so stupid and petty and unbelievably selfish now.”
“Not really. It sounds to me like hurt meeting hurt.” Elizabeth said nothing else for a full moment. “So then you told her you were leaving even though she wanted you to be there?”
“And she told me if that’s the way I felt not to bother to come. She said she didn’t want me there if I didn’t want to be there. But that was just it. I did want to be there. I just thought I could do both. I guess I see now that I did that a lot—trying to cram our time together into the little spaces between doing other things.”
At the library steps, he followed her up without even thinking he shouldn’t.
“Is that what’s got you so tied up in knots?” she asked, digging her hands in her pockets. “That you didn’t make the really important things important until it was too late?”
He opened the outside door for her. “I don’t know. Part of it is the fight at the end. Part of it is the stupid decisions in the middle. I just so thought I was doing all of it for us, but…”
When they got to the top of the inside staircase, Elizabeth waved to Mary but didn’t really stop. Instead, she asked another question, obliging him to follow her. “And when she was gone, you blamed yourself and dropped out of life.”
On the other side of the bookshelves, Elizabeth sat down at the table and then looked up, suddenly realizing what she had done. “Oh.” She stood. “I’m sorry. Um, are you…? Did you want to talk some more? I mean you’re welcome to stay.”
Looking down at the chair, Jonathon knew what he wanted to do but what he should do was another matter. “I don’t know. I really probably better go work on my paper. I’m sure you’ve got tons of stuff to do.”
Her smile was soft and filled with empathy. “I’ve always got stuff to do. This is more important.”
As he stood there, blinking, trying to figure out if she could be for real, the thought that he’d never had anyone who would say something like that crossed his mind.
“Really,” she said softly. “Please.”
Thinking this had to be some dream he was going to wake up from eventually, he pulled out a chair across from her and sat down. He took his satchel off and set it next to the chair. Thoughts trailed through him, dodging and weaving with each other so he couldn’t catch them. “You know, I really didn’t want to take your class. I mean, not your class, but this class.”
He pulled the book from his pocket and looked at it rather than her. “I thought, you know, who cares about some old English novels. I didn’t even really plan to finish January. I just wanted to get Janet off my back about it. But now…” When his gaze came up to hers, he felt himself falling through the softness of her compassion. “I just want to thank you. I know that sounds completely bizarre, but in a real way, you pulled me back from the brink.” He let a tiny laugh escape. “Well, you and Emma.”
Elizabeth smiled and then fell into seriousness. “I wish more people understood what literature can do for them.” She dragged in a breath. “So many of my students just read the words, trying to get it read for the test or whatever, but they never take the time to really understand the meaning, to let the stories become a part of their lives. That’s the real power of literature—when it changes you.”
“Well, it has definitely changed me, which to most people would be a very good thing.”
She sat there looking at him, drilling into him with her gaze. “Why do you do that?”
Startled by the question, he looked at her. “What?”
“That. Putting yourself down like no one would want to be around you. You did that in your paper too.”
At first Jonathon thought it was a strange question, but then the fact that she was seeing the truth about him crowded in.
“I don’t get it,” she said, treading on each word carefully. “You are such a great person, and yet, you act like it would be far better if you were someone else.”
He let the words hang between them before pursing his lips together. “Maybe because I think it would be.”
With a scowl, she leaned forward, her arms on the table. “Now you listen to me. I don’t know who convinced you that you isn’t good enough, but get that thought right out of your head. This burying yourself in the sand of I-don’t-care-anyway is not going to work with me.”
How badly he wanted to pick his head up and argue, but he couldn’t. Instead, he closed his eyes and absorbed the words.
“It makes no sense for you to take yourself out of the game of life. It also makes no sense that you would think you are somehow inferior because… Because why? I don’t even know why. What is so wrong with you that you think everyone wants you to change?”
He didn’t answer because the answers spiraled and spun through his mind.
“No, I really want an answer to that. What do you think is so wrong with you?”
A breath and another, and he glanced up at her. “I’d like to tell you that I’ve always had my priorities straight, that I made the right things important. I’d like to tell you that I used the things I’m good at for the good of the world and not just for my own selfish benefit. I’d like to, but I’d be lying.” He let out a long breath. “I made more money in one deal than most people make in three or four lifetimes, but…” He shook his head. “I guess I see now how many people I stepped on to do it. At the time I didn’t think twice about it. I mean, if I was going to make money, why not? Now, I’m starting to see how empty all of that was. I wanted to be impressive—the best cars, the flashiest stuff. But it wasn’t impressive. It was stupid.
“And I think my pride and selfishness busted up the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He nodded. “I wanted to give her everything, but in trying to do that, I didn’t give her the one thing she really wanted. Me. And now, it’s too late. She’s gone, and all I’m left with is my pride and selfishness.”
Elizabeth sat, watching him for several long seconds. “I don’t think you have either of those left. I think you are beating yourself up for them, but I don’t think they’re what’s running your life now.” She tilted her head to the side. “You know what I see when I look at you? I see someone who learned the hard way, but someone who did learn.” She slid back in her chair. “Let me ask you this. Have you changed? Are you different now than you were back then?”
Looking into his heart, he simply couldn’t be sure even now. “I’d like to think so, but then I wonder if I really have. Maybe I’m just still the old me, and nothing’s really changed. I don’t even know if I had it to do all over right now, if I’d get it all right even knowing what I know now.”
“You know, life isn’t about getting it all right. Sometimes it’s about learning the lessons and deciding to do it better the next time around.”
“Yeah, but deciding and doing are two different things.”
“So are burying your head and trying.”
Long after Jonathon left the library, he thought about her words. There was no argument to make that he hadn’t been burying his head and wishing the world would go away, but was trying even something he felt he could do? And what did trying mean anyway? Getting back in the deal-making game? Going out on a date with the girl Janet had suggested two weeks before she came up with the idea of taking the class? Both thoughts hurt his head to think about.
Knowing he would have to face the paper sooner or later and wanting to not think about life for awhile, he sat down on the floor next to the coffee table and pulled out his laptop. He opened his notebook and read the assignment: Discuss the psychological pattern of healing of one character in Emma and relate it to some moment of healing in your own life. 5 pages.
She really did pile on the work, and if she were one of those boring, droning type teachers, he might have resented it. As it was, his only question was what new thing he might learn about himself or the world this time around.
On her couch with her tea and papers to grade, Elizabeth thought about him for the millionth time since they’d said good-bye at the library. She so wanted to do something to erase the sadness in his eyes, but she was no closer to figuring out what that something might be than she had been that first day when he’d left his scarf on the floor of the lecture hall. Amazing how long ago that seemed. More amazing the number of images to supplement that first one. Jonathon in the library. Jonathon at her desk, in her office, walking slowly next to her across campus. A smile came with each new image.
However, her breath snagged when she realized the semester was halfway over. Come May, he would have no excuse to hang around—especially not with her. In fact, like most of the guys who had come and gone through her life, he probably wouldn’t last ten minutes after her really found out about her. The thought brought up a raft of unshed tears. She hated that but not nearly enough to change her mind. Repulsive sounds, replete with smells and images from a different lifetime slithered into her mind. She shivered them back.
“Stop it, Elizabeth. Just stop it. It’s over.” She closed her eyes and forced the air into and out of her lungs. Pushing calm over the past, she resolutely opened her eyes and grabbed for the papers. “It’s over. No need to go back there now.”
“I have decided that you assign topics to effect maximum torture on your poor unsuspecting students,” Jonathon said on Tuesday as they walked to the library.
Elizabeth laughed softly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“These papers are not exactly easy.” His suede jacket was warmer than it needed to be, but he didn’t try to take it off. After a whole weekend of thinking about her and sorting through words to impress her, he was intent on being as impressive now as possible even if he had no real idea how to do that. Nonetheless, being impressive definitely included looking like he had some fashion sense, even if his other intelligence was in serious question at the moment. “I’ve been thinking and working on this thing for four days now, and all I’ve got are six paragraphs of pure b.s.”
“Well, maybe you’re trying to do the wrong character or maybe you’re not getting deep enough into yourself.”
How she could say that with a straight face, he had no idea. “If I get any deeper, you’re going to be covered with blood and guts!”
She laughed again, but it was always with a touch of compassion. “I don’t mean it like that. I mean when I get blocked, most of the time it’s because I’m either on the wrong road or it’s because I’m on a road I really don’t want to go down.”
“And the answer is…?”
“Either change the road or close your eyes and do it anyway.” She walked several paces. “So who are you writing about anyway?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t you helping me kind of cheating? I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
“Well, since you’re not getting a grade and since I’m not giving a grade, and since I would help any student who asked…”
Upon considering that he nodded. “In that case, I chose Emma. I figured, you know, main character, she had lots of turning points, surely there was something I could relate to.”
Elizabeth didn’t respond right away. “I don’t see you as an Emma.” Her gaze jerked to his. “I mean not like that.”
He liked the color that came to her cheeks. “That’s okay. I wouldn’t mistake you for Knightly either.”
Clearly frazzled by her blunder, she shook her head. “No. I mean I don’t see you as somebody who’s a big busybody and into everyone else’s business. You’re more the lone wolf type.” She turned a critical eye on him. “You’re far more Knightly than Emma.”
He jerked back, wide-eyed. “Knightly? Wow.”
“You don’t think so?”
“I… I don’t know. He’s like the good guy.”
“And you’re not?”
They went up the library steps, and at the top, he held the door for her.
Inside, he scratched the back of his head. “I’ve never really seen myself as the knight in shining armor type. More like the villain come to knock the knight off his horse type.”
On their way up the steps, Elizabeth glanced back at him. “We’ve really got to work on this inferiority complex of yours.”
He lifted his chin. “Inferiority complex? That’s one I never thought I would hear.”
At the top he hung back as he normally did so she could greet her friend.
“Good afternoon, Mary,” she said, however, she didn’t step away from him.
“Good afternoon, Professor Forester.” Mary’s gaze traveled from Elizabeth to him, and he shrank back, trying to disappear into the soft lighting.
However, Elizabeth looked up at him, and he felt the look all the way through his toes. “Mary, I’d like you to meet my friend, Jonathon Danforth.”
His lungs seized at the sound of his name, spoken so gently and so respectfully from her voice. It was a very real possibility that he would trip as he stepped forward to shake the young lady’s hand because suddenly nothing about him was working properly. “Mary.” He held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
As she shook his hand, she smiled a smile that was at once friendly and animated. “It’s nice to meet you too. Mr. Danforth.”
“Please call me Jonathon.”
There was a hesitation but only a slight one. “Okay, Jonathon.” A second and she looked back at Elizabeth. “Uh, your table is free, Professor Forester.”
With him following her, they crossed past the bookshelves and took their respective sides of the table. He always felt like he’d been let into the Queen’s inner sanctum back here. It was amazing how much quieter and secluded it was. And no one that he could tell, other than her, ever came back this far.
Once he was down, Jonathon thought again about what she had said. “So you really think I could do Knightly?” He pulled at his jacket that had snagged on the chair back. “I really thought I was more of the Frank Churchill character. You know, say anything to impress the ladies even though I’ve got side deals going they know nothing about.”
Elizabeth set her satchel on the floor before laying her arms on the table between them. She scrutinized him carefully. “Do you really believe that about yourself, or do you just say things like that to throw everybody else off?”
He slid his own satchel to the floor before meeting her gaze. “Why would I want to do that?”
“I don’t know. Why would you?”
Frustration crowded in on him. “Oh, no. No. No. No. No. No. You’re not going to do that freaky counselor thing to me. My head’s been shrunk enough.”
“So you’ve been to a counselor then?”
“Yes.” He nodded very slowly as if his mind was not all there. “I have been to several of them, thank you. There was the one who wanted to explain my sign to me and read my tarot cards.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot for the ceiling.
“And then there was the one who burned some incense, aroma-junk, but I only went to her once. There’s only so much stench I can take. And then there was the psychiatrist who wanted to put me on three different medications… to start with.” He exhaled. “Believe me. I’ve done the counseling thing.”
She said nothing for a long minute, just sat staring at him.
“What?” he finally asked because she was creeping him out.
“Nothing.” She shook her head. “You probably wouldn’t want to do it anyway.”
“Wouldn’t want to do what?”
“Well,” she said the word very slowly, still assessing him. “I have a little test that I give my characters to figure them out, to get to know them a little better. I’ve often wondered if it would work with a real person, but I’ve never tried it.”
Intrigued but trying not to be, Jonathon looked at her. “Is this like electro-shock therapy or something? Because if it is…” He looked at his bare arm that had no watch. “I have a meeting I’m late for…”
She laughed. “No. It’s nothing like that.” Then she waved. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.” She reached down to her satchel.
Why he would ever agree to something he didn’t even know the details of, Jonathon wasn’t at all sure, but he found himself just the same saying, “No. Now hold on there. I didn’t say I wouldn’t.”
Pulling her laptop and books up, she busied herself. “Yeah, but it’s probably dumb. Forget I said anything.”
“What? Are you just going to tell me that much and now make me wonder for the rest of my life what I missed? That hardly seems fair.”
Her gaze came to his, and the battle to decide was raging behind her eyes. “Are you sure? I mean, it’s not like scientific or anything.”
“Hey, what’ve I got to lose, right?”
Another moment and she sighed. “Okay, but if it’s dumb, just stop me. Okay? And I’m not a trained counselor or anything.”
“Long as you don’t try to read my tarot cards, we’re okay.” He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
“Okay.” Elizabeth knew she was treading in deep water, but she also sensed the Holy Spirit leading this way. With a breath to settle her nerves, she pushed the laptop and books to the side before taking out only her notebook and a pen. “This is a series of five questions, and I want the first thing you think of on each one.”
“Like that drawing thing.”
“Kind of. Except it’s not drawings, it’s questions.”
“Okay.” Suddenly he looked nervous, and she knew that was not a great way to start.
“First you have to close your eyes.”
Fear snaked across his face.
She settled her breathing even more. “For this to work, you’re going to have to trust me. Close your eyes.”
With one more look of concern, he did as instructed.
“Okay, now I want you to get quiet in yourself and clear your mind of all distractions.” It was amazing to watch him like this, eyes closed, relaxed, trusting, and she had to fight to keep her mind on the project. “Now. I’m going to ask you five questions. I want you to tell me the first thing you see, feel, or think about each one. Ready?”
“This is your earliest memory. Where are you, and what is happening?”
Barely a second passed. “I’m in the backseat of a car with Janet. We’re about maybe four or five. She’s telling Mom on me because I took something. Mom’s in the front, yelling at us.” His forehead creased like he was thinking. “I’m trying to tell her that no it’s mine. I didn’t take it from Janet. I had it first. I can’t really tell if I did have it first or if maybe I did take it from her. Either way, Mom’s mad and she finally takes it from both of us. I remember being really hacked with Janet, and her looking at me like she’d won.”
“Good. Next question. Think of a color and tell me what that color means to you.”
“It’s like this really bright hot pink.” He smiled slowly. “It’s what Abby was wearing that first day we met. I always thought that color looked so good on her.”
“Name an animal.”
“Big or little.”
“What kind of dog?”
“Mean? Bored? Playful?”
“Loyal. Playful sometimes but mostly just will be there no matter what.”
“Okay,” she said as she wrote all of that down. “Now think of a place. Where are you?”
“Big beach? Little beach?”
“Private beach. It’s like it’s not like Miami or something. It’s much cooler, almost cold. It’s just a long area with no people just coastline, sand, and waves.”
“Okay. Last question. Tell me what you are most afraid of.” Elizabeth knew the sucker punch this question could be—so much so she had considered not asking it. Time slipped into slow motion as she watched him, thinking she shouldn’t have asked. It wasn’t fair. He hardly knew her. The second before she moved to retract it, he started talking.
A million questions jumped to her mind. “Invisible? How so?” She watched him breathe and knew they weren’t on the surface anymore.
“Like what I want and need doesn’t even matter, like nobody even notices what I do.”
“Good,” she breathed. “Okay.”
Then like he’d snapped out of a trance, he opened his eyes, and his boyish indifference took over. “So did I pass?”
The transformation was so complete and drastic that it shocked her. “Umm, well. It’s not really about passing or failing. It’s about seeing deeper into you without all the surface stuff getting in the way.”
He looked at her and narrowed his eyes skeptically. “There’s no pass or fail? Okay. Then what does it all mean? Am I doomed to live a life of utter failure and misery?” He said it dramatically, like he was on stage performing.
And then the understanding snapped into her. She tilted her head as she gazed at him. That was the dichotomy she saw so clearly in him but had never quite understood. She saw it now, even as she looked at him. “Tell me about growing up.”
His face fell into sheer incredulousness. “What’re we going to do the whole psychoanalysis thing now?”
“No. I’m just curious. What kind of kid were you?”
He laughed acerbically as his gaze slipped from hers to behind him. When it came back, it was filled with sarcasm. He scratched at his hairline. “Do you really want to know?”
“Yeah, I do.” At one time she would have backed down from this side of him, now she suspected she was finally beginning to understand it.
“Okay.” He slid backward in his chair, and his entire body changed from open and trusting to nonchalant and arrogant. Even his voice seemed to change as the deep and pleasant timbre fell away. “Well, I guess you could say I was the class clown. I wasn’t all that great in school, so I pretty much goofed off all the time. My mom used to say they should pay rent on the principal’s office. I never really did bad stuff, just stupid stuff—talking in class, little pranks on teachers and the other kids, stuff like that.”
He checked her with a strange glance. “Janet was a teacher’s pet kind of kid. She was real smart and good at everything. She was captain of the basketball team and on the honor roll every semester. Not to mention, I think she was president of everything they’d let her be president of.”
“And you resented that?”
“No. Why would I? She was good at it. I wasn’t. It wasn’t like I could ever compete with her anyway. I just happened to be her brother. Trust me, that’s where the resemblance began and ended.”
Elizabeth doubted it. “And you were okay with that? Being in her shadow all the time?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “What choice did I have?”
This question stole her breath away, and she wasn’t sure why. “And how did that change when Abby showed up?”
Thoughtfulness fell over the brashness. Slowly he sat up and leaned forward. “Abby…” He cleared his throat as memories washed across his face. Serious thoughtfulness and a quiet admiration took over his features and his voice. “Well, Abby had a way of making me want to be more than just the guy with the punchline. I never felt like she really liked that part of me. She gave me a reason to be someone I really wanted to be.”
“So before, you weren’t who you wanted to be?”
He didn’t say anything, and when he looked at her, it was a mute cry for help. When his gaze dropped, she knew the answer.
“You want to know what I think?” she asked, gazing right at him.
“What’s that?” He glanced up, trying to be the brash Jonathon but failing miserably.
“I think you were always someone much deeper than the guy with the punchline. But that guy got overshadowed so much by his sister that he figured the only way to ever be seen was to be this jerk that nobody liked but nobody could overlook either.”
His gaze fell to his hands.
“I think the real Jonathon Danforth is someone who values loyalty a lot but who tries not to get hurt by keeping people at arm’s length. He sees himself as a conceited jerk, but when he’s alone, he’s anything but. The only problem is, he can’t figure out how to be who he really is and not be invisible.”
He was hardly breathing.
Tenderness for the struggle he was waging brushed her heart. “Am I close?”
When he looked up, there were almost tears in his dark, almond eyes. “I think I need to go work on my paper.” He stood, grabbing up his satchel.
How she wanted to argue. How she wanted to say something so he wouldn’t leave. Her own unshed tears washed over her heart as she stood and looked at him. “I’m sorry, Jonathon.”
“No,” he said, stopping her with one look. He held out his hand to her, and she put hers into his, the shock of which dragged her gaze to the connection. “Thank you.”
Air clogged her throat, clenching her lungs, and making her dizzy. “You’re welcome.”
And then, as if his presence had been only a dream she’d allowed herself to have, he was gone. The shock of his leaving coupled with those last few moments crashed into her, and she let out the air with a whoosh that took her a full step backward. She tried to figure out if she had said what she thought she had, if he had looked like she remembered. It was all so overwhelming. She sat down and stared at the notes she had made. Her heart ached for that long, lonely beach and for the man now walking it.
Jonathon reviewed his notes. Knightly? How could she possibly think he could ever be anything like Knightly? Knightly. The guy everyone liked, the one with impeccable manners and a decorum Jonathon had never possessed. Okay, Knightly was also wealthy, but his wealth spoke of an aristocratic spirit, not an ostentatious one. Knightly was carriages and etiquette. Jonathon was flashy clothes and flashier cars.
Searching through the story, Jonathon looked for the similarities that just were not there. She was wrong. She had to be. He wasn’t like Knightly. Frank Churchill, yes. Knightly? Not in a million years.
At midnight he gave up and crawled into bed and dreamed only of the name Knightly all the way to dawn.
Friday Jonathon battled with the bewildering dilemma. He wrote, erased, started over, wrote, and erased again. He’d hit the backspace key more than the letter keys. At three o’clock, he gave up and took a walk to the little park—not the one a gazillion steps away, but the one only three blocks away. It was smaller, ringed by streets jammed with traffic. In the little park, he sat on the bench near the concrete fountain that wouldn’t be flowing for another couple of weeks. Either to save water or to save the motor should it freeze again, he didn’t know, but during the winter, they simply turned the thing off and let it turn murky and then dry out.
Sitting there, he turned his face to the slowly warming sun of mid-March. Spring Break was a week away. Funny how when he was young, Spring Break was the goal to strive toward. Now it just looked like ten days of more loneliness than he could bear. The paper and test would be behind him by then. He wouldn’t even really have anything to read unless he started on the next one. The sigh went through him at how intensely boring his life had gotten.
His thoughts drifted back into the library, sitting across from her, and the memory of her there, illuminated in the soft light brought a sad smile. She really was as nice as she seemed. It wasn’t an act. In fact, she might be even nicer in person.
This is more important. And unbelievably she really meant it. He let his thoughts drift through the randomness and memories she had brought up. A quiet beach. He leaned back on the bench and closed his eyes. He’d never even been there until that moment, and now it was a mere heartbeat away. And if he admitted it, so was she.
On Sunday in the little church with the sunshine streaming through the stained glass windows, Elizabeth bowed her head as she sat after services and prayed for him—for his peace, for his heart to be opened. More than that felt like too much so she simply repeated those two requests until the church had long-since grown quiet. Opening her Bible, she paged through to Psalm 37:4. “…the desires of your heart.”
“God,” she prayed with the barest of whispers, “show Jonathon the desires of his heart. Show him how to come to You and how to learn to be the real him. You know what I mean by that, probably better than I do. I ask You to show him. Amen.”
When Jonathon sat down at the little coffee table on Sunday afternoon, he almost laughed when he pulled out his notes. Denial, glimpse, struggle, anger, breakthrough. He’d personally lived the first four so many times in the last four days, he had them memorized. What he couldn’t figure out was the last one.
“Okay, this cannot be this hard.” He sighed. “So let’s say for argument’s sake we’re going with Knightly. Denial. What’s he in denial about?” Jonathon put his thumb to his bottom lip and thought through the question. “Well, his love for Emma for one. That’s obvious.” He picked up his pen and wrote that down. “Glimpse?” Suddenly a thought hit. “Wait. Where does he get his first glimpse that she’s more than just a friend?”
And then like a watershed, the topic unfolded before him.
When Jonathon handed Elizabeth his paper along with the ones from the two people down the row from him, his gaze caught hers, and she wanted to ask so badly she thought she might burst. Instead, she ducked, breaking the connection. She would wait, knowing she had to.
“Is that it?” she asked, holding them up, forcing herself not to look at him as she gathered her skirt to go back down the steps. “Excellent. Now about the midterm. It will be on Thursday, and the test will consist of one question about Emma only and two questions about all of the reading we have done thus far. So I suggest that you go back and review what we did early on. I’ll be glad to answer any questions you have now.”
“Will it be about the other stuff we’ve talked about too?” Letty asked.
“Like the psychological pattern?” Elizabeth asked thankful that at least one part of her brain still seemed to be working.
“Yeah, and the four layers thing?”
“Yes. Those will be possibly framed into the questions as well.”
“And it’s all essays?”
“Yes. It’s all essays.”
The rest of class was filled with random questions about the works and which poems and how long the essays had to be. It was becoming more and more difficult not to just tell them all to get lost so she could either talk to him or read his paper, and she wasn’t at all sure which she wanted to do more. However, her learned restraint served her well. At two, the students ran out of questions, and she ran out of patience.
“Okay. That’s it. I’ll see you Thursday.” As class broke up, she stepped around her desk and retrieved the papers, seeing how her next several hours would be spent.
“You’re sadistic, you know that?” Jonathon asked, glancing only once as the other students left.
“Sadistic? Wow. That bad, huh? I said you could use your books. What more do you want?” She laughed at him.
“I just want you to know that writing that paper about had the coroner on my doorstep, and now this test too? It’s a good thing I’m not getting a grade, or I’d be in real trouble.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I miss something? I thought you were normally real trouble.” Her heart was so light just because he was actually here again, not just floating through her thoughts and dreams. She put her books in the satchel and snatched up her coat.
“Now that was uncalled for.”
“Oh? Well, what would be called for?”
He looked at her quizzically. “What is up with you today? You seem almost… happy.”
She laughed. “What? English teachers are not allowed to be happy?”
“Well.” He tilted his head to the side. “All the ones I’ve ever known have been strict and demanding and pretty anti-social.”
“And I’m not?” Picking up her satchel, she stepped in front of him to head for the steps. They were going to the library together. That seemed not even a question.
“Strict and demanding or anti-social?”
“All of the above.” At the door, she turned putting her back to it and smiling at him. She couldn’t hide the happiness. It radiated from every molecule of her.
His gaze caught hers and held. Three feet away, she felt the look go through her body and soul. “No.” His gaze slipped up to her hair and then fell back down to her gaze. “Tough but fair. Interesting but concerned.”
“Interesting?” she asked with a playful breath. “You consider me interesting?”
There was nothing but seriousness anywhere in his eyes. “Very.”
A moment more and Elizabeth dropped her gaze. It was either that or suffocate. She pushed out of the wooden door with her back. “I think you need to get out more. I’m hardly life of the party material.”
In two steps he was beside her again. “That would depend mostly on the party, wouldn’t it?”
The attraction she’d felt to this moment had always been present, but this was like falling into a trance she wasn’t sure she could ever again shake. “How so?”
At the outside door, he opened it and held it for her.
“Thank you,” she said, crossing in front of him. Before she made the first step down, he was beside her again, and she was beginning to feel his presence wrap around her in a way no one else’s ever had.
“Well,” he said, appraising her, “I can’t really see you at, you know like a wild frat party or something like that. I’m thinking an English tea would be a much better fit.”
She laughed at that.
“You really like all this old English stuff, don’t you?” he asked.
“Yes. I do.” She pushed up the edge of her glasses. “Is that so strange?”
“No.” He seemed to be getting closer to her although physically the distance didn’t change. The looks he gave her were longer, more studied and far more interested. “Can I ask why?”
“Why I like them?”
Suddenly his proximity pushed the smile from her. She fought to breathe although they weren’t really walking that fast. “Well, I like the romance and the cordiality. I like the order and the manners. It’s very… reassuring.”
She couldn’t quite figure out where all the air had gone. “It’s just…” She dragged in a breath and then another feeling like she’d run a mile. “Today people are not like that. The structure is gone; the manners are gone. It’s like rip and tear and take what you want. I like the simpler time and place and way. I like believing that’s still possible.”
They climbed the library steps, and he opened the door at the top.
“But there were so many rules,” he said. “I mean you could rule somebody to death with all the rules they had. Everybody standing when someone comes in the room and how nobody could really say what they were feeling much less thinking, and they all like talked in code about who they liked and didn’t.”
“Yes, but don’t you see that gave them the space to actually feel something? In today’s world, it’s like two people meet at a bar, ten minutes later they’re kissing passionately on the dance floor, and an hour later they’re back at his place.” She tried to smile at Mary, but it was hard to bring herself back to reality long enough to mean it. “Hi.”
“Hi, Mary.” Jonathon nodded and waved at the young lady who returned the greeting and then watched them cross and go to the back.
At the table Elizabeth swung her satchel onto it with a thud. “There’s just so little time to really get to know one another doing it that way.”
“And you see this as a bad thing?” he asked, sitting down and shifting to get his jacket to unsnag. It was funny how he always did that. This jacket was a shade lighter than forest green, and Elizabeth wondered how many coats and jackets he had. She’d already seen at least four.
“Well, yeah.” She peeled off her own coat—the only true coat that she owned—and sat down. “If they did that in the books, Emma would’ve gone home with Frank Churchill when they first met, probably gotten her heart shattered, and totally missed Knightly the true love of her life. It was only because she and Knightly got to be friends first that she could really know she loved him.”
He was looking at her with a grimace.
“What?” she asked as she sat down. “You obviously don’t agree.”
“Well. Hmm.” He glanced at her satchel. “Would you mind if I asked for my paper back?”
“Your paper? Why?” She put her hands on the satchel to protect it in case he got any ideas about snatching it.
His gaze was at once concerned and perplexed. “I would tell you, but then I’d probably get an even worse grade.”
“I thought we had established, you aren’t getting any grade.”
Putting his hands together on the edge of the table, he considered that. “Well, it’s just… Um, Abby and I really didn’t do that whole getting to know you thing.” He cleared his throat and scratched his ear. “I mean I saw her. I liked her. We got together and then married, and that was that.”
“Ah.” Elizabeth raised her chin in understanding. “So you don’t buy into the whole getting to know someone first thing.”
It was clear how diplomatic he was trying to be in formulating his answer. “I don’t know that I don’t buy into it. I just… I never really saw the point in it.”
Her heart fell as she looked at him. It was as much as she should have surmised about him long before now. He wasn’t one to favor the romance of going slowly. His brashness and manner should’ve told her that much. And yet, stupidly she had let herself hope…
“That’s not to say there’s not… a point in it,” he said, traipsing on the words like they were landmines. “I mean if you’re into all that romance stuff.”
She felt like an idiot. Readjusting her glasses, she wished she could tell him to get lost or at least stand herself up and walk away. But she sat there, not knowing what to say or how to say it. What she would’ve given for a wall and a bed to hide behind.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sensing her discomfort.
“No.” She lifted her gaze and tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t have any right to judge someone else’s life. I mean…” Her gaze fell to her satchel as her heart slid slowly through her chest. “I don’t really… know much about it anyway… mostly just what I’ve read.” Admitting that felt like a knife plunging into her. She looked up and smiled but couldn’t hold his gaze. Then she looked away. “I know that’s childish and stupid.”
As Jonathon watched her, what she was telling him suddenly dawned on his consciousness, and he saw it then—the innocence, the apprehension, the uneasiness. All he wanted to do was to take back everything he’d said to make her uncomfortable. “Elizabeth…”
“No,” she said, stopping him with one sweep of those chocolate brown eyes. “I shouldn’t have told you that.” With a breath she let her eyes go closed to stop her mouth from saying even one more word.
He saw the fight, and he knew she was about two seconds from shutting down again. He couldn’t let that happen. Not now when they had come so far. “Tell me which one is your favorite,” he said softly, pleading with her in the question not to disengage completely.
She sniffed and ran her wrist under her nose as concern scrunched across her face. “Of the books?” Pulling her shoulders around her, she pushed her arms up from her wrists planted on the chair.
“Yeah.” As he watched, he could feel her both disengaging as she slipped back into her own little world and sliding back into a controlled, reserved calm. Both worried him more than he could adequately put into words.
“Definitely Pride & Prejudice. That’s my all-time favorite of everything.”
“Why?” he asked gently, gauging everything about her from every motion.
“Why is it my favorite?” When her gaze came to his, she looked both wary and as if she was desperately reaching for control. He nodded, and her gaze dropped. “Well, it’s…” She shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just the first time you read it, you just misjudge everyone, you know. Kind of like we do in life.” She sniffed again and ran her wrist under her nose. “And then when you read it again, you see that what you thought the first time isn’t at all what’s real. Elizabeth has this great strong will, but she so misjudges Mr. Darcy…”
“Wait. The main character’s name is Elizabeth?”
Her gaze snapped to his, and unmistakable fear flashed there. She reached up and scratched her eyebrow as her gaze bounced first to the side and then fell to her satchel. “You know, I really need to be getting these papers graded. I’m going to have…”
“Elizabeth,” Jonathon said as worry crashed on him. He reached across the desk, his hand heading for the top of hers, but she jerked hers back, and when her gaze met his, fear had turned to near terror.
“I’m sorry.” The breaths were strangling out of her as she stood. “I have to go.”
His brain scrambled to make sense of anything that was happening. “Elizabeth, wait. Please.” He reached out for her but missed when she evaded his grasp. Snatching up his own satchel from the floor, he followed her, barely managing to acknowledge Mary’s good-bye. Alarms screeched through him, screaming at him to stop her as she fled down the stairs in front of him. He had to find out what he’d said that was so very wrong, but mostly he wanted to calm the panic he sensed swirling around her. “Elizabeth.”
She heard him. She couldn’t help but hear him. He wasn’t more than three feet behind her, but she couldn’t stop. Stopping, letting her guard down had already caused this disaster of a situation. Doing it again might make it a thousand times worse.
“Elizabeth, please wait.”
Through the outside doors she pushed, her feet carrying her almost as fast as her heart wanted to go. If she could just get away from him and away from who she was when he was around… Down the six concrete steps she fled, only wondering where she was going in fleeting moments that peeked around the fear and derision that were screeching in her head. What was she thinking—talking to him like that? What was she thinking—that he would know to stay on his side of the line? And where exactly had that line gone?
Tears she couldn’t let fall choked her, but she beat them back, fighting to breathe and to think straight. Neither were working. And then in the middle of the sidewalk, her body betrayed her, stopping there because she could run no farther. Her heart felt like it might burst from the ache and the effort, and she doubled over, gasping and fighting like mad not to cry.
However, like she hadn’t put any distance between them at all, he was suddenly at her side. “Elizabeth. Please. I’m sorry. Whatever I said…”
“No.” She fought every stupid little girl fantasy in her to be able to pick her gaze up to his. Professional tried to snap over everything else, but it wasn’t working. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…” Her eyes fell closed, and she squeezed them tighter, trying to get reasonable over her racing emotions. “That was my fault.”
“No,” he said, but when he reached over to her and put his hand on her arm, she jerked away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… I didn’t realize…”
“It’s okay.” But it didn’t sound okay even to her. With determination to get back to sanity, she breathed. “Really. It’s okay.”
“Can we…” He indicated the little flat bench in the middle of the sidewalk. “Please.”
She knew that ‘no’ was the right answer, but she had no energy to say it. Stuffing her hands into the pockets of her coat, she shrugged and stepped in front of him and over to the bench. How anyone could be such an idiot about things everyone else did so easily, she couldn’t tell, but at this point she should get some kind of award for the amount of stupid, immaturity she had managed to display.
At the bench, she sat, not terribly happily, but at least not running anymore. Jonathon assessed the situation and then swung his leg over to the other side. When he sat down, she was squarely in his sights. She looked sad and even a little scared. That they’d gone flying off the tracks into a gut-crunching crash with this whole thing was more than obvious in the effort she put into not looking at him.
“Look, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable back there.”
“Oh, no, you…” When she turned, her teacher look was firmly back in place.
“No, Elizabeth,” he said, stopping her. “I did. And I’m sorry.”
She shook her head as her gaze fell to her hands, holding onto her satchel that was now on her lap. “No. I’m the one who’s sorry. I behaved like a child, and that was all wrong.”
As he watched her, he began seeing and understanding things he hadn’t bothered to notice before. Yes, she was a professor, a doctor even, but in so many ways, she was like a young girl, unsure and guarded. Fearful and wary.
“It’s okay, you know,” he said, looking only at her, “to want things to be the way they used to be. Not everything about this going at the speed of light thing is all it’s cracked up to be.” His gaze dropped as he fought to decide how much to tell her. “When Abby died, one of the things I hated most was how fast it all went, how I felt like I never really took the time to get to know her.” He looked back up at her, feeling what it was to take the first, scary step of being completely honest. “I felt like we missed so much. Mostly just time and the falling in love part. It was like a blink, and it was there and then it was gone. And I would do anything now to go back and take it slow.”
When Elizabeth looked at him, it was with detached compassion. “Abby was very lucky. I’m sure she knew that.”
“Yeah,” he breathed, “I hope so.” He turned just slightly more toward her. “But now, this time, I want to do it differently. I want to take it slow. I don’t want to blink, and it’s over.”
Her eyes flitted closed and then open before searching his. After a moment her gaze fell to her hands. “I always thought…” When she looked up, there was an innocent quality to her movement that made him want only to shelter her forever from the cold, unfeeling world. That anyone could feel so deeply as she did even without words melted the hard ice around his heart. She shook her head and let her gaze fall. “I always thought it would be nice to be in love… really in love before you shared that first kiss, like in the books.” This time the shake of her head was nearly imperceptible as he worked to memorize everything about her. “I know, that’s really old-fashioned. I guess I’m just a hopeless romantic like that.”
She put her wrist up to her nose, and he saw the emotions coming back to the surface. Gently he reached up and flipped her bangs through his fingers and then brushed them aside.
“I don’t think that’s so strange.”
“Yes, you do.” Checking him with a dismissive look, she let her eyes go closed.
He so hated watching her shut down like that. It hurt.
After a moment, she shook her head. “I really have to go.”
She stood and he did too, pushing off his back foot to bring it over the bench next to his other.
“Well, Mr. Danforth,” she said, squaring her shoulders and putting out her hand, “I will see you on Thursday.”
Jonathon looked down at her hand and back up at her. Gently he covered her hand in his, feeling how perfectly they fit together. “Yes, you will.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2009