by: Staci Stallings
“I do not believe I’m doing this.” Jonathon Danforth strode past the knots of college students who were draped and drawn over every available step and statue. Had it been cold, they all surely would’ve taken refuge elsewhere, but New York was experiencing one of those fascinating if completely frustrating warm snaps in the middle of January.
It couldn’t last. They never did. That’s why Jonathon wore his black wool coat even today when it was 60 degrees out. He was ready for the moment the cold front, that one not even predicted yet, blew in. Climbing the steps, he asked himself again, “Ugh. What am I doing here? This is completely insane.”
Still he reached for the large door and entered Bennett Hall. Inside was considerably more crowded and considerably colder as well. It was nice to see the good people of New York Central College didn’t waste money on little issues like heat and light. His gaze slid to the ceiling where the lighting, such that it wasn’t, glowed dimly. With a snort of derision and disgust, he made his way through the old lobby, dotted with students.
They were all young. Nineteen, twenty. No more than 22. Some looked at him. Most were content to ignore him. In the middle of the lobby, he stopped and dug out his schedule. English Literature. Room 103.
As he stuffed the schedule back in his pocket, he had to ask himself yet again why he was doing this. It wasn’t like he needed an education. He had one. Two if you counted life experience which he definitely did. And yet, here he was, standing at the doors of an old lecture hall that held little if any fascination for him. Why? drifted through him again, but he beat that back. Did it matter why? Did it really?
He was here. He had made this decision, and now he was going to go through with it whether he liked it or not.
It was a thing of beauty. Lecture Hall 103. Elizabeth Forester had been here, in the lecture hall, since eleven a.m. It was not required that teachers, uh, professors get there two hours before the class was to start, but Elizabeth simply couldn’t help herself. The old English wood, the desks placed just so. They didn’t make them like this lecture hall anymore. It was a throwback to a time long before when students came and sat up straight, ready and eager to learn.
Of course in the past three years since she’d become an actual professor, she had seen very few of such students. Many today were not interested in doing more than minimal work and collecting a good grade (somehow that the two didn’t go readily hand-in-hand never really made a dent in their social calendars until right before finals). She wanted to be angry about that, to make them understand what literature could do for a person, but she had no real way of conveying that except to her own heart, so she contented herself in presenting the material and letting what happened, happen.
But 103. That was a different matter altogether. First, it was storied—for her anyway. It was where she had first come into the hallowed halls of higher education as a wide-eyed freshman more years ago than she wanted to admit. And there was always the aura of Professor Avery, her first mentor, that hung about the place.
As she sat at the old desk which really served no real purpose anymore, save that they couldn’t get it out of the room, she thought about Professor Avery. “Elizabeth, you are a fine student with a great passion for fine literature. Have you ever considered teaching?”
And thus had the trajectory of her life forever changed. It was odd, she thought, running her hand slowly across the smooth old wood, how one minute your life could be so one way and the very next, it would never be the same again.
Although the classroom could hardly be called full, Jonathon took a seat in the back and pulled the schedule out once more. English Literature was bad enough. He’d hate to stumble into a really bad class.
Voices came from around him, but he paid no real attention to them. They were from a different world, a world that, though he might try, he would never again inhabit. He bent and reached into his black satchel for the notebook he’d purchased for three dollars at the bookstore. It was only a single subject notebook, not even distinctive. He shook his head at the cost and placed it on the desk. So many things had changed since the last time he’d sat in a room like this, praying it would be over and swearing he would never come back.
With a small sigh, he opened the notebook, took out his pen, and in careful block letters wrote: ENGLISH LITERATURE across the center of the top page.
“Great. We’re so screwed,” a pasty kid with bad skin and a nose ring said as he sat down with his friend right in front of Jonathon. “We got the Wicked Witch of the East.” The kid sat or rather slumped into his desk.
“Yeah, dude,” his friend, an equally savory subject of no more than twenty, said as he fell into the desk next to his friend. “Rachel had her last semester, and she said she required papers and all that shit.”
Jonathon swallowed and beat down the impulse to pulverize the two. So much had changed since he’d been in a classroom, so much, and he wondered once again why he had let Janet talk him into this. He dropped his gaze to his paper and wrote down the time of the class 1:00-2:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. He had no syllabus or he would’ve written the teacher’s name also.
“If she gives us papers, dude,” nose-ring boy said, “I am so out of here. I don’t have time for shit like that. It’s not like I don’t have a life.”
Yes, Jonathon thought, a sad, pathetic little existence that will no doubt only get dimmer and darker the longer you take a breath.
“Good afternoon, class.” The teacher’s voice, though not exactly English held a mysterious accent that Jonathon snagged on immediately.
He looked up and sat up straighter. Good idea or not, he was here, and he was going to make the best of it.
“Class,” Elizabeth tried again. Although it was precisely 1:00, students still milled about, sitting on the desks, conversing with their friends, standing at the back doors of the hall. “Um, excuse me. If you could all come on in and take your seats, we can begin.”
They didn’t really pay her much mind, so with frustrated determination she turned to the chalkboard. With penmanship that would’ve snarled the mind of the great English masters, she began the lesson. “This is English Literature. I am Ms. Forester. My office hours are from 9 to 11 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You may come see me about any problems you are having.” Information transferred, she strode to the desk as the students found desks and fell silent.
Pulling the syllabuses with her, she strode to the first of the rows and handed half of them one way and half the other. “These are the syllabuses. I suggest you take them home and commit them to memory. They are requirements, not suggestions.”
The groan she had come to expect began on one side and crossed the sea of seats to the other.
“There are five books on the syllabus. We will read all five in their entirety.”
“Plus, you will have four papers,” she continued without pause, “and three tests.”
“Jeez. What are you trying to do, kill us?” a student down front asked.
“No,” she replied coolly. “I’m trying to teach you.” Her gaze snapped from that student up the rows to make sure everyone had the syllabus. Turning, she readjusted her glasses. “Now. We will start with our section on English poetry.” At the desk she lifted one of the little paperback books she had brought with her. This particular one looked shabby compared with those the students who thought that far in advance had purchased. But that was both to be expected and quite unavoidable. No book in her possession lasted longer than four read-throughs. She had come to expect them to fall apart long before she got tired of them. “That would be this book.”
She held it up in case they could decipher colors better than words. Opening it, she hardly took a breath before her gaze fell to the words, and she was transported once again to a place and a time that made more sense than any other place she had ever occupied.
“The rain set in early tonight,” the teacher, Ms. Forester, read from the little book that looked a hundred years old and sounded older. “The sullen wind was soon awake,/It tore the elm-tops down for spite,/and did its worst to vex the lake:/I listened with heart fit to break.”
Something about the young woman and how she read drew Jonathon’s full attention to her though he had never been a big fan of poetry.
Her gaze swept the class. “When glided in Porphyria; straight/She shut the cold out and the storm,/and I kneeled and made the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm.” The words came from her softly, mysteriously as if she knew something no one else did.
Though he didn’t notice, he tilted his head and riveted his gaze onto her. She seemed ethereal, as if only partially connected to this earth.
“To set its struggling passion free/From pride, and vainer ties dissever,/And give herself to me forever.”
It was much like being caught in a cobweb you can’t get out of; it clings—to your clothes, to your body, to everything. Only these words clung not to his clothes nor his body, but to his spirit. He tried to shake them loose, but they were captivating.
“That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/Perfectly pure and good: I found/A thing to do, and all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around,/And strangled her.”
With a gulp, Jonathon backed up. His eyebrows narrowed on the thought. What was this? They were ten minutes into class, and she was already reading poetry about some idiot killing the woman he loved? He slid back in his desk and fought not to sigh. She was just like all the rest of the punk-nosed, acne-laden idiots that populated this institute of supposedly higher learning. If he could’ve gotten up the courage or the energy, he would’ve stood up and left. In fact, he glanced at the door, wishing he had fought harder against his sister’s insane suggestion.
Frustration crowded in on him as he shook his head, tapped his pen on his notebook, and forced his attention back to her and the reading of death. This was just what he didn’t need.
“And thus we sit together now,/And all night long we have not stirred,/And yet God has not said a word!”
Jonathon looked around. Maybe there was a thought police guy close enough he could bust her for saying God in a public university. At least then he could get out of this nightmare and go home to his couch where he should’ve been smart enough to stay in the first place.
“He killed her?” one kid asked down front in confusion.
Ms. Forester looked at him. “He did.”
“Man, that’s jacked up,” the kid in front of Jonathon said.
“Dude,” the kid next to him said, “that’s just wrong.”
“Why?” Ms. Forester asked, and Jonathon’s eyebrows shot for the ceiling.
Was she kidding? Reading things like that to impressionable kids who might think it sounded like fun? It was all he could do to force himself to stay in the seat. Dropping this class sounded like a very good idea. In fact, he might just conveniently not even drop but just never show up again. It wasn’t like he was the one who had paid for the class anyway.
“Why’d he kill her? I don’t get it,” a young lady down front said. “Didn’t she like come to see him and everything?”
“He killed her to keep her,” Ms. Forester said as if that made all the sense in the world. “He didn’t want her to find another, and so rather than risk that, he killed her before she could lose her purity and innocence.”
“Well, that’s one way to do it,” the kid in front of Jonathon said, and with everything in him he wanted to bop the kid on top of the head.
“Is it?” The dark eyes hidden behind the stark, small glasses landed right in front of Jonathon, startling him far more than he could readily admit. “Does it make sense? Can you kill love in order to keep it?”
“No,” another young lady from the front said. “If you kill it, you don’t get to keep it. It… like… dies.”
“Yes,” Ms. Forester said, and Jonathon saw the con, “but it says, ‘And yet God has not said a word!’ So God’s obviously okay with it, right?”
“I don’t know. Wait a couple days,” one girl said. “The smell alone will tell him that wasn’t a good idea.”
“Why not?” Ms. Forester leaned into the front rows. “Why is it not a good idea? She can’t not love him now. Right?”
“Because, Miss, if she’s dead, he don’t get to keep her, and she don’t love him neither,” another guy tried. “He just gets to sit there with her for awhile, and then he gets to bury her, and love is just like… gone.”
That pushed Jonathon back from the conversation for good. As intrigued as he had been for most of the class, he didn’t hear one other thing.
Well, at least she had their attention, Elizabeth thought as she pointed out the reading assignment of fifteen poems for the next session over the noise of the departing students. They were already back to social hour, and with a sigh, she relinquished her time with them. It hadn’t gone badly, too badly anyway. That was something.
Gathering up her things, she slid the extra syllabuses into her over-the-shoulder satchel and erased the board. Her heart did a little slide at the sight of her name on that board. How overwhelmingly in awe of Professor Avery she had been that first day. As her hand made large, sweeping arcs, erasing her name from memory, she couldn’t help but hope she had made a difference in someone’s life today like he had made in hers all those years ago.
It was what every teacher wished for, she guessed. At least the ones who cared. The truth was, looking at the class today, this class, her class, she knew that English Literature, would be long forgotten by most if not all the second they stepped out of those doors. It was a least of the worst electives for most. Not that she blamed them, but she did wish…
The back door snapped open, jerking her from her reverie. The next class in here wasn’t for an hour and a half. She had checked. However, the man who stepped in was not any faculty member that she had ever met. She stumbled over both the darkness of his features and his scowl. “Um, can I help you?”
Without answering, he stepped through the back desks, and when he stood, he held up a black scarf. “Sorry,” he said. “I left this. It was a gift from my sister. She would kill me if I lost it.”
“Ah.” Elizabeth raised her chin in understanding, but in the next instant questioned everything about him. He was older, much older than most of her students, and although she searched her memory, she couldn’t remember a single interaction they’d had the entire class. She pulled her satchel over her shoulder and started up the steps. “Are you…” She had to clear her throat to get it all out. “Hm. Are you…. Um, were you in the English Literature class just now?”
“What? Oh. Yeah. Very entertaining.” He slung the scarf around his neck. “Especially that whole killing your girlfriend thing. Very nice.”
Softly and somewhat puzzled, she laughed. When she got to the top step, he followed her to the door and out.
“Well, the good news is, that was just to get their attention.” She glanced back past him into the now-empty lecture hall. “Next class will not be nearly so gory, I assure you.”
His smile was soft, barely there. “Then I shall look forward to the next class.” And with that, he clicked his heels, turned, and disappeared into the crush of students.
Looking after him, Elizabeth frowned. That was odd. It was like meeting Mr. Darcy’s almost-witty cousin. Then she shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Oh, Elizabeth, really. I swear sometimes I think you think those characters are real.” With a scowl and another shake of her head, she turned and headed the other direction, hoping the library wouldn’t be crowded today.
For two long days and two longer nights, Jonathon had debated about going to class again—or not. As he crossed the cold, hard concrete, knowing he was late, he shook his head at the stupidity of coming back. She seemed nice enough—she, of course being Ms. Forester—especially after class, but it was hardly likely that she even knew he was on the planet. She didn’t even know he was in a class she’d taught for an hour and half. That either said a lot about him or a lot about her, and he wasn’t entirely sure which annoyed him more.
Carefully, quietly, he pulled the large wooden door to the lecture hall open and peered in. Just as he was afraid, class had already started. Well, at least his grade wasn’t in jeopardy as it had been his first go-round with the education system. Slipping quietly in, he crossed past two other students to his seat in the back.
“I would I could adopt your will,” she read at the front. “See with your eyes, and set my heart/Beating by yours, and drink my fill/At your soul’s springs—your part my part/In life, for good and ill.”
Jonathon flipped his book open and found the page. Two in the Campagna. He’d liked that selection. Mostly because it was short and also because no one died.
“Sounds like Browning had it bad,” a guy down front said.
“Yes, you’re right,” Ms. Forester said. Then she stopped. “I’m sorry. What’s your name?”
“Oh, uh. Adam.”
“Adam…?” she asked, searching for the last name.
“Mr. Reynolds,” she said as if she’d just stepped off a carriage in Old England, “would you like to expand on your comment about Mr. Browning’s love life?”
“Oh, well,” Adam said as if he’d never heard a question quite like that one. “He’s just all ‘O my dove’ and ‘I yearn upward, touch you close.’ I mean it sounds like he’s got some serious needs he’s trying to get this chick to take care of.”
The answer was crude, and even if Adam was trying not to be, Jonathon rolled his eyes in embarrassment for her. To have to expound on that one would have landed him in the hospital with an aneurism.
“You’re right, Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Browning did have some serious needs as you put it. He was in love, deep, deep desperate love, with his soulmate. Her name happened to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”
“Whoa. Whoa. Hold up,” another young man down front said. “Didn’t she write that other one? That ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ at the end?”
Ms. Forester smiled that little smile that said she knew secrets they could only guess at. “Very good, Mr….?”
“Oh, Taylor. Roman Taylor.”
“Very impressive, Mr. Taylor. You read the assignment and can quote it.”
“I’d heard that one before,” Roman said. “It’s on like Hallmark cards and sh… stuff.”
She laughed and then fell serious. “The Brownings are one of the greatest love stories in all of English Literature. The best part is, they were for real.”
“Did he kill her too?” one of the guys on the other side asked.
Without hesitation, Ms. Forester turned her attention to him. “Mr….?”
“Mr. Cruz.” Ms. Forester took a moment to regather herself. “No, Robert did not kill Elizabeth, but they were both very in touch with the fact that love here on earth does come to an end. They often wrote of such things as losing the other and the indelible pain that would bring.”
“So were they like in a war or something?” one of the girls asked, and when she saw her teacher begin the question, she answered it. “It’s Letty. Letty Rahman.”
Ms. Forester tipped her head to the side, illuminating the wisps of light brown hair that escaped from the weave of the two braids twisted at the back of her head. “No, Ms. Rahman. They were not at war. There were wars going on, to be sure, but the English society during which the Brownings and the others we will be studying wrote was characterized by extreme manners in genteel society. For example, people in the upper classes addressed one another as Mr. and Mrs.—even if they were married.”
“If they were married?”
“Yes. It was all very formal and proper. There were rules about society and about family, and you did not break these rules or terrible things would happen. You might end up penniless and destitute. You might end up married to some scoundrel who took you as a bride for your family’s money. Or you might have to marry someone not for love but for family honor or to keep the family from dishonor. For young women, life revolved around whom they would marry and who would marry them.”
“That’s whack. Who needs a guy to be all up in your business?”
Ms. Forester turned and questioned the petitioner with one raise of the eyebrow.
“Susanna Suertes,” the girl replied.
“Ms. Suertes.” Like she was gliding on glass, Ms. Forester strode to the space just in front of the girl four rows back almost exactly between Jonathon and the teacher. He swallowed the trance down, fighting to break free, but it did not leave.
“In this time period, women were considered no better than cattle or horses. They were basically property. Fathers paid suitable and sometimes unsuitable gentleman to marry their daughters. That was called a dowry. If she did not have a dowry, a young lady’s chances of being suitably married were drastically reduced and therefore her chances for a life of anything more than life as a servant were greatly reduced as well. But you have to understand, it wasn’t like a young woman could simply buy the nearest castle and move in. Women could not own property. They could not own their own homes. They did not own horses or even the knickknacks or silver in the household. The man owned everything. If the male of the family passed on, the estate passed to the next suitable man whether he was part of the family or not.”
“Girl, that’s whack. Why couldn’t women own anything? Women are just as good as men.”
“Now. Maybe.” Ms. Forester spoke the words like small bombs, dropped with precision. “But back then, an unmarried woman with no father was at the mercy of other relatives and the gentleman the estate went to. Minus that, she had very few options. So the noble class of women could go from living in idyllic settings one day to destitute the next just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “But this made love all the more important. For a man who loved his wife and daughters would go to great lengths to ensure they would be provided for upon his death. Death and love were ever at the forefront of the thoughts of these people because they were so intricately entwined. Listen…”
And then she read from Rabbi Ben Ezra, another of the poems they had read. Fifteen poems was enough for anyone. Jonathon had finished this one sometime around three a.m. Wednesday morning when he couldn’t sleep for the question of if he was even going to come today. Now, today, for the most part, he was glad he had come. It wasn’t all symbolism and sonnets as he’d been afraid it would be. When she talked about love, it was even kind of nice. If you believed in such a thing, which he didn’t.
“’Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be,/The last of life, for which the first was made./Our times are in his hand/Who saith, ‘A whole I planned;/Youth shows but half. Trust God; see all,/nor be afraid!’”
She slipped the book closed. “Listen to those words. In them Robert Browning is calling us all to be more than we are, calling us to love with a love that will slip through the provincial bonds of time and complete the whole. ‘The last of life for which the first was made.’ He’s saying both parts are important. This part you are living now will teach you what is right and what is important so that the last of your lives can come full circle into something that means something to the world and to God.”
Without bothering to open the book again, she continued, though Jonathon noticed she’d skipped a few lines. “Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years,/Do I remonstrate—folly wide the mark!/Rather I prize the doubt/Low kinds exist without,/Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.” The mystery was back in her voice again. “Hear that? Do you hear it? ‘I prize the doubt.’ He’s saying, ‘Don’t live your life thinking you have to have it all figured out. Prize when you don’t know. Prize when you’re on the verge of something big and you don’t know if you can do it. You can for ‘Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years…’ Don’t waste time now being afraid and sitting on the sidelines. Don’t let hopes and fears take away these years. They are quick, and before you know it, they’ll be gone.
“‘Low kinds exist without.’ If you are chained to this earth by your doubt and your fears, you are a low kind. You are a ‘finished and finite clod.’ That means if you let your doubts and your fears take over your life, then this is it. This is all there is. If you stayed chained to the fear and doubt of this earth, then you are a finite clod, and when you die, they will put you in the ground, and you will rot, and that will be it. You will be untroubled into eternity by the spark of love… or even of life.
“Browning understood something that few of us ever do. It is in the risking to really love, to really put yourself out there that life is truly and most wondrously lived.” Her gaze caught the large clock on the wall. “I know it’s almost time to go, but please, just a couple more.”
No one, least of all Jonathon moved.
“All I could ever be.” Her voice reverberated around the room. “All men ignored in me./This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped./Aye, not that the Potter’s wheel,/That metaphor! And feel/Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay–/Thou, to whom fools propound,/When the wine makes its round,/’Since life fleets, all is change; the Past is gone, seize today!’” She seemed transported to a wholly different space and time, and with her most of the class. “Listen to that. The Potter made you, and even though the world may ignore you, the Potter knows what He’s doing, but we have to seize what’s right in front of us and not let this moment slip into the Past.”
He wished she wouldn’t keep looking at that clock. It reminded him he would have to leave very soon.
“One more,” she said as if begging for permission. A soft groan crossed the classroom. “I know. I know, but this one is really good. ‘So, take and use Thy work;/ Amend what flaws may lurk,/What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!/My times be in Thy hand!/Perfect the cup as planned!/Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!”
The final words rang in the great hall and whispered there for another moment into eternity. Had this been a performance, Jonathon would’ve been the first to applaud sarcastically, but this was no performance. He could see it in her eyes and could hear it in the breathlessness of her voice, she believed every single word of it.
“He’s saying,” she said softly, and not even a pen moved, “that we may not be perfect. We may have our lives all out of sorts, and our cups may not look like what we think they should, but the strain of the stuff that happens to us, those intentions that went past the aim—those times are in God’s hands, and He can fix them if we’ll let him. Then in our old age we will approve of those lessons we learned in our youth, and our death will bring us full circle.”
A second and then another the words hung there, and then she smiled softly almost apologetically. “Read the rest of the poems in the book for Tuesday’s class please. You are free to go.”
They might have been free to go, but it took several long seconds for anyone to move. And then they were moving, but it was subdued, hushed in a way it hadn’t been before. Jonathon moved slowly, blinking and trying to understand the trance he’d fallen into. He didn’t bother to put his Poetry of Robert Browning book back in his satchel. As the other students crossed out into the noisy world beyond, he watched her up front. She moved like she was not even on solid ground. Dressed in that soft tan cotton dress that swirled around her ankles encased in black boots, she looked more like a spirit escaped from history than a real, live person. Stepping to the board, she erased the markings there and then strode to the desk to gather her things.
He’d never stayed behind before to talk to a teacher, that he could remember anyway. And he knew doing so branded him as a hopeless kiss-up, but his mind and body simply wouldn’t shift back into normal mode. She climbed the steps and smiled when she saw him coming down the row.
“So, see,” she said as if she was proud of herself. “No one died today.”
He smiled, amused in spite of himself. “That’s a definite improvement.”
At his row she stopped and waited for him to join her before they stepped out into the hallway.
“So, did you enjoy these poems?”
Man, he wished he could just say yes. Instead, he wrinkled his nose. “I’m not really a poetry kind of guy.”
“Oh.” She lifted her chin, revealing a long slender neck. Then she pursed her lips and nodded. “I guess not.” When her gaze came to his, it almost knocked him backward. Soft with a hint of both sadness and determination, she looked at him. “Well, I hope to see you Tuesday. Watch My Last Duchess, it’s kind of an echo of Porphyria’s Lover.”
“Oh, okay.” He nodded. “Thanks for the warning.”
“You’re welcome.” She jerked her gaze away from him and then smiled. “I’ll see you Tuesday.”
He lifted the book in a half-hearted wave. “Tuesday.”
And with that she turned and strode off across the lobby and down the hallway beyond.
When she was gone, Jonathon’s senses kicked back in, and he dropped his gaze to the book in his hand. It held something, something that was innate about her. Vowing to figure out just what that something was, he did not turn the other way as he had the previous Tuesday. Instead he headed for the library. His apartment was so horrible for studying.
First there was the refrigerator. When he was bored, it was too much of a temptation, and reading these poems was about as boring as it got. Unless she was in the front of that lecture hall reading them. Focusing on the fact that she saw something there he clearly didn’t, he directed his steps to the library. He would read as long as he could, and then he would go home. Thursday wasn’t turning out to be so bad after all.
Buy “If You Believed in Love”