Excerpt from “If You Believed in Love”
On Tuesday the weather had turned decidedly bleak. The snow, such that it wasn’t, had come and gone, leaving in its wake swirls of nothing and temperatures that chilled right through everything. Jonathon pulled his coat closer and quickened his steps up to the door of Bennett Hall. There were no students congregating today, but once again, he was late. He hated that about himself. He really did.
But just getting out of that apartment, especially on a day like today, was a major accomplishment. At the door to the lecture hall, he took a breath, opened the door quietly, and slipped inside.
“Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself?” she read, steeping each word in meaning. “Do I live in a house you would like to see?”
Before he’d even gotten into the desk, Jonathon was once again taken in by her beauty, by her words, by the etherealness of her being.
“Is it scant of gear, has it store pelf?/‘Unlock my heart with a sonnet-key’?” Her gaze came up off the book and landed right on him. The look lasted but a fragment of a moment, and yet he felt it all the way through him as if a bomb had gone off in his heart. Then it was gone, crossing to the other students. “Would someone like to tell me what this poem is about?”
Sliding down into the seat, Jonathon opened his book to House and fought to breathe. How could one look do that to him?
“Mr…?” she said in that way she had of asking student’s names without asking them. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”
He glanced up and was instantly woven fast by her gaze. Swallowing, he gulped down the breath, glancing behind him only to find the solid wooden wall. “Oh.” He cleared his throat and sat up straighter, neither of which helped. “Danforth. Jonathon Danforth.”
A soft smile went through her eyes. “Well, Mr. Danforth, would you like to tell us what you think this poem is about?”
“Oh. Huh.” Words clogged at the top of his throat all at once, and he coughed to get them unstuck. “Uh. I think that the…” Each word came in haltingly unspaced steps as if drunk and on the verge of passing out. “I think the poem, House,” he added for her benefit so she didn’t think he was a complete loser, “is about how frightening it is to let someone else in.”
That piqued her interest, pulling it up in her eyes, so he continued, gaining confidence with each word.
“At the beginning, Browning is saying, like, ‘So you think you want to come into my house? You’re asking me to unlock my heart to you and let you come in and see? I’ll tell you what happens when you do stupid things like that. People come. The neighbors and just whoever, and they take a look in your house, in your heart, and they say, ‘Oh, well, I figured he was always much less a person than he seemed on the outside. I mean look, he smoked, and he didn’t even sleep with his wife anymore. Yep, could’ve pegged him for a loser.’”
This time it was her, not him that seemed caught in the web. With one glance at her, he pushed the words from his heart.
“And then at the end, he basically says, it’s not worth it to let the world see who you really are. Maybe Shakespeare could and did, but he was a fool.”
The words, his words, were spoken with so much eloquence and understanding that Elizabeth had to reach out to even grab back onto life. “Very nice, Mr. Danforth.” She shook her head without shaking it and flipped her attention away from the man hovering in the back desk all dressed in black to one of her other students closer down front. “Do you agree with him, Mr. Hansen?”
“With Browning or the old dude?” the student asked.
Elizabeth glanced back up at Mr. Danforth with apology. “With Mr. Browning. Do you think it is not smart to let people in?”
“Oh, yeah. Sure. I mean people will diss you if you let ‘em. Even if they don’t really know anything about you.”
“People judge you,” Susana said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Elizabeth walked slowly across the room. “And so it’s smart to keep yourself hidden, to not give anyone the key?”
“Either that or you get trampled to death.”
“Uh-huh.” She opened her book. “But what about this last line? ‘With this same key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart,’ once more!’/Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!”
“What about it?” someone asked.
“What’s he saying?”
“That Shakespeare was an idiot for putting his feelings into words for everyone to read them and see who he really was.”
“Right,” she said and tilted her head inquisitively. “But is that true? Was Shakespeare an idiot for writing down his feelings for everyone to read? And by extension was Robert Browning an idiot for doing the same?”
A moment of pause.
“Well,” Letty from down front said, “kind of, I guess so. I mean we’ve seen how in love with his wife he was, but we’ve also read some really dark stuff—like Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess. I mean those aren’t fantasies or thoughts or whatever that I’d let everybody know I had.”
“Do you think less of him because of them?”
Jonathon’s whole attention was captured by her—not just because of her outer beauty but also because she didn’t go for the easy answers. She didn’t stand at the board and tell them about pentameter and alliteration. She dug into the poems and brought out more insights and depth than he had even seen reading them once, sometimes twice, and even on occasion three or four times.
“No, not really,” one of the boys said. “I mean, sometimes I think he’s whack, but sometimes I really get what he’s saying because it’s something I feel—even if I’d use better words to describe it.”
Ms. Forester smiled almost to the point of laughing. When she grew serious, however, it was a slow process into its depths. She turned, and her gaze swept the class. “Have you ever heard of Shakespeare?”
The confusion that crossed the room went through Jonathon as well.
“Do you know some of the things he wrote?”
“Um, like plays and stuff,” someone offered.
“Plays like what?” she asked, turning slowly at the far end of the room.
“Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth.”
As if really thinking this through with them, she nodded. “But this was a man who lived in the sixteenth century. This was a man, one man, a simple playwright. Why have his words lasted not just minutes, not just years, but centuries?”
And then Jonathon saw it as well. His gaze snapped back to his book. Was the point really there, or was she making it up? He read and re-read those last couple of lines.
“Is Browning saying it’s stupid to be like Shakespeare, or is he really saying the only way for your work to live on into the eternities past even your death is to open your heart and let the world in, to let them see who you really are?”
Not a sound. Not a breath in the whole room.
Without looking at her book, she gazed at them. “Rather I prize the doubt/Low kinds exist without,/Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.” Her pause held every breath in the room. “Was Shakespeare a finished and finite clod untroubled by a spark?”
“No,” someone breathed. “He was brave enough to live.”
“How do we know that, Ms. Moore?”
“Because we still have his words, we know he lived.”
Ms. Forester nodded thoughtfully. “Because he was brave enough, or crazy enough, to open his heart and let the world see.”
If anyone had so much as breathed, it would’ve knocked Jonathon completely over. He could hardly get to the depth of her eyes much less her words.
“Turn to Appearances, page 31.” Without more than a second’s time, she continued without reading her book. “And so you found that poor room dull,/Dark, hardly to your taste, my dear?/Its features seemed unbeautiful;/But this I know—‘twas there, not here,/You plighted troth to me, the word/Which—ask that poor room how it heard.
“And this rich room obtains your praise/Unqualified—so bright, so fair,/So all whereat perfection stays?/Aye, but remember—here, not there,/The other word was spoken!—Ask/This rich room how you dropped the mask!
“Browning uses the metaphor of a house again in this one, a structure of some kind with different rooms. And what’s the story with this house?”
“The guy likes one room but not the other.”
Quiet depth filled her eyes. “Why?” She turned, and her gaze caught a raised hand. “Mr. Hansen?”
“Because in one room he was trying to be something he wasn’t, and in the other, he dropped the mask.”
“And the first room, where he was wearing the mask was…?”
“Unbeautiful,” Susana said. “Dull and dark.”
Ms. Forester seemed lost in the thought. “And the second room? What was it like?”
“Unqualified,” someone down front said, “so bright, so fair.”
“He’s saying the same thing in both poems, is he not?” She turned on the toe of her boot and gazed at the whole of her students. “Be who you are. Drop the mask. Be brave enough to show the world, and far from losing yourself and being criticized like a finite clod, you may be immortalized like Shakespeare, or at the very least, the room you’re standing in might just seem a little brighter than the one where you were before.” Her attention jumped up to the clock. “Oh, look at the time. Be sure to read the last selections for Thursday’s class. See you then.”
It was like snapping awake from a dream and not being at all able to shake it. Jonathon stood as the others did as well. His mind spun trying to think of something, some reason that could keep him here with her for one more minute. He checked his things, gathering them slowly, watching her down front the whole time. One of the other students stepped up to her, and she bent to listen. What could he ask her? What question would be good enough to go to the front?
But his mind was not cooperating at all. Finally with a sigh, he gave up the search, and with only one more look, he headed out.
Outside it was still cold. Frigid really. However, instead of turning to his apartment, he picked up the collar of his coat and headed for the library. He was glad he’d spent the extra time there on Tuesday. That helped him be ready for today. However, as his mind traced through his answer, he couldn’t help but feel like an idiot. She was going to think he was completely lame. There wasn’t one truly deep, brilliant insight in any of it. And sadly, he’d thought he knew what that poem was about.
Determination to dig a little deeper seeped into him. It wasn’t like it was a formal requirement. She didn’t say, “Do it or else.” Nor was it a challenge as in “You have to do it like me to be worthy of my time.” Instead it was more, “Do it because…” Because it will teach you something important about life and about yourself. He was intrigued by that, more than he could say. And he couldn’t wait to get into these new poems and see what they had to teach him.
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