Part 1 can be found here.
Steph told me not to get too invested. “You can’t save them all.” She said, all mock heroics. Even though I laughed at the melodrama, her words pierced me. I wanted all the kids, even the ones that were obsessed with being cool, to learn. “Every teacher goes through a similar thing.” She told me. Well, at least their was Jean. She really had potential. At first she was shy, but now, her talents were finally beginning to show. She was one hell of a writer- essays and creative stuff, especially for a fifteen year old. I joked with her once, about her eventually becoming a historical fiction writer. The way her eyes lit up- yeah, that was my Robin Williams moment.
Steph still occasionally flirted with me. I wanted to just stay friends, and I tried to tell her it was nothing against her, till she asked what it was indeed. It was after one particularly difficult class that I told her a bit about Jann. I kept it short, left out the details, till Steph put her hand on mine, and said “How about we talk about this over a drink?” She did not let up, ever. I suppose that works. We went out the next night. I kept telling myself it wasn’t a date. I didn’t want a date.
We went to a jazz bar. Inside I was all to aware of all the dark corners. Most of the light came from these blue strips along the walls, and it gave the whole place this surreal bend. Mirrors framed by dim red bulbs mixed with the strips, warped all the people inside. It reeked of secrets. In another life I never become a teacher, and drink too much in places like these. Steph seemed a bit embarrassed about it. We sat down and she confided in me after ordering. “This place has been around forever. I used to come here years ago.”
“You grew up in the city?”
“Yes, I know I don’t seem like a local. And you? I just realised I don’t even know your background.”
“No. I moved here, started out somewhere…less crowded.”
“That explains a lot.” she said.
“What does it explain?”
“Well, like how you’re so sensitive.” She put on her do-or-die smile.
I wilted a bit. She said “Hey, It’s a good thing. Chin up- I think it’s part of what makes you a good teacher.”
Maybe. Our drinks arrived and we sipped them. The silence felt charged. Eventually Steph said “Your turn. I told you about me, now, tell me about her.”
Of course she remembered. I tried to deflect the topic. Steph would not relent. I began to get upset. In one rash moment I said, my words edged, “why do you have to pry so much?” Guilt followed. I stuttered apologies at my outburst. She waved them away. “Please. I’ve heard much worse. You have a right to be a bit annoyed. Glad to see you have teeth. You seem so soft on the kids.” I glared at her. Why were we fighting?
She leaned forward, her eyes fierce, “Get angry. It’s ok to be angry. If I threw my drink in your face, for no good reason, you should get angry. Otherwise people will just piss all over you.” My heart was racing.
“You don’t understand.” I said, uselessly, like a fucking cliché.
“I understand that you’re too timid.” My mouth clamped shut. I should breathe. There is a roaring sound in my head. Steph’s eyes narrowed, took on airs of concern. I covered my head with my hands. The sound grew. “Sorry.” She said, all of a sudden, her voice high. I don’t want to feel like this. I gaze at the window. The roar is a passing engine, some lunatic in a sports car, careening around the city in his own private fantasy.
Eventually the noise fades.
Steph follows my gaze. “Lunatics.” She said.
I’m sitting at a table in a bar where people play Jazz music, across from a woman any sane man would consider beautiful. I have a great job that I like, and friends. The table is made of wood. I am no longer here. Steph is saying things, and I am nodding. Her hand touches mine. She is asking if I am ok. I am not ok.
And all at once her touch breaks through, and the bar shatters, and tears stream down my face, pathetically. I say “Duck. We both had duck for dinner. With orange sauce. I remember now.” Steph is quiet. I continue to narrate.
“You know what we talked about? Jann asked me a question. She asked me if I had a problem with her being religious. I was disappointed, truth be told. Up till then we were perfectly compatible. The moment she asked me about religion, I began to doubt. This was the part I should lie. I should have told her, hey, no big deal, I believe in God too. Except I don’t. I think God is ridiculous. So after a bit I told her the truth. I remember the exact moment- i just wiped some sauce from my lips. I said to Jann, do you have a problem with me being an atheist? And you know what, she didn’t. That was when I knew, that I was uh…”
Steph’s nails dig into my wrist. “Go on.” She says.
“So. Yeah. So. We go outside, right, and I know it’s a cliché but the sunset is beautiful. We’re walking along the waterfront, you know that main road near the beach? I have my arm around her waist, and she leans into me, and she asks if we can go back to mine. I’m fucking happy you know. Yet, I was also, so arrogant. The atheist thing, I didn’t answer her. So anyway, we stop, and I tell her, Jann- I have a problem with religion. I couldn’t help myself, I just had to. And then her eyes, they clouded over a bit, she looked angry. Or maybe it was just my imagination- hard to tell you know. So uh. Yeah, she said, you know what she said, she said fuck I don’t remember what she said. It seemed kind of condescending. Like, If she was open-minded enough to not care that i was an atheist, that I should at least admit to the possibility that I was wrong, or didn’t know or something.”
I pause. I down my beer.
“Go on.” says Steph.
“I got mad. All self-righteous. It was quiet. I didn’t know if she still wanted to go back to my place. Then all of a sudden we’re about to cross the road, and there’s this yellow sports car, and it freaking zooms towards us. The sound right.”
I’m breathing. Heavily. A silken voice inside my head said says Finish It.
“And Jann steps out onto the road, a bit ahead of me, and….I pull her back. The car squeels, and brakes, and the guy inside curses us as he goes past, and I just lost it, you know? Fuck the whole God thing, he almost killed Jann, so I just ran after this guy, and he slowed down, and I’m yelling and cussing, and I’m just seeing red, and…”
Fucking forgive me.
“What?” Says Steph.
“Jann must have followed, to stop me. Maybe. I’ll never know. I heard a loud bang behind me. Like a door slamming. It was another car. Right into Jann.” I can’t see the table. The whole bar becomes the warped reflections inside those mirror.
I confessed, quickly, finally: “It was like an act of God.”
I breathe out. “She was…so…fucking…ruined. I was yelling, just yelling, and the ambulance came, and I went with her, and I held her bloody fucking hand, and at the hospital even then I thought she’s going to be ok, I’ll be with her no matter what, and then you know they don’t let you inside the room where they do things, so I waited.”
“The whole time I waited I kept thinking I should have said things to her, like i should have said I love you, and one more thing. I thought it up after she was inside.”
“What?” asked Steph.
“I wanted to say to her- Jann, I don’t believe in God, but maybe when this is all over, he’ll let me come and visit you.” And that’s so fucked up because I didn’t know she was dead. I mean, maybe I thought it after. I just don’t know. It’s hard to remember. So yeah. She died. She’s dead. The nurse told me. I remember the nurse cried. I don’t know if they do that all the time. But she cried. I like to think she knew, about me and Jann. One fucking date. Her dad, she came later, and he was so angry at me. He kept saying “What did you do? What did you do to her?” and now I guess it’s because you know, he was like me, grieving, but really, fuck- sometimes…never mind. So, yeah. I didn’t go to her funeral. I didn’t want to face everyone else in her life. And maybe, maybe I wanted to preserve what I thought we had. For one fucking day.
My face is dry. I wonder what anyone who watches us is thinking. Then I realise, with sudden clarity, that I don’t give the slightest damn.