The day began as it always seemed to, lately: a few blissful, sleepy moments of temporary amnesia and then, somewhere between rolling over and glancing at her alarm clock in horror, the dreaded weight of all her problems crashed down on her. The weight had a name.
"Oh, Adam," Joan mumbled, wincing as she slowly swung her legs over the side of the bed. As if on cue, her cell phone rang. Her ring tone was still Hollaback Girl by Gwen Stefani and at seven twenty in the morning, it was as annoying as all hell.
Let me hear you say, this –bleep- is bananas…B-A-N-A-N-A-S! This –bleep- is bananas! B-A-N—more to stop the sound than out of a wish to speak to anyone this early, she answered with a moody: "what now?" She half-expected to hear God on the other end, asking her to bake Bonnie some brownies or something.
There was a loaded pause. And then, soft as a whisper of wind: "Jane."
A chill went down her spine.
It was a voice she knew too well but she still froze in shock, nearly dropping her cell in surprise. Since the mock trial, she hadn't been on the receiving end of any calls from Adam. He'd been keeping his distance and she, till recently, had cherished that distance: she'd needed it between them, to recover, to figure out if she could forgive him, if she could forgive herself—for her stupidity, her blindness, the mistakes she made.
But now? "Um, hi," Joan said, staring down at her red-painted toenails and trying to sound normal, "why are you—I mean, um, it's um, early…couldn't you have just talked to me, you know, at school?" She winced. That hadn't come out exactly how she meant but it was out there now, thickening the tension between them.
Why was he calling, anyway? It was seven freaking twenty-two, which is enough to make a person hostile toward anyone, let alone someone who'd recently crushed your soul.
"I'm sorry." He said that as often as her name these days but it sounded gut-wrenching each and every time; as though she casually cracked open his heart and he was just breathlessly recovering. "I just… never mind. I wanted to—talk to you about something, but it's not important. I just needed to hear your voice."
Joan's lips parted, her mouth rushing full with soothing, loving words. Then her cheeks heated: he wasn't allowed to say those things anymore. But then, it didn't really matter: Adam could make a simple 'hi' sound like 'I love you'. She couldn't escape his hold on her.
She brimmed over with the need to tell him he could say anything, anything was important to her if it was important to him—she longed for him to talk to her—really talk—the way they hadn't since the trial. I know I shouldn't, but I want to know every single thing you're thinking, I want all of you
This cautious, polite, painful friendship was slowly driving her insane and further and further from the softness and steady burn of his love for her, the love that rescued her in a bright, beautiful crescendo and destroyed her later, as an afterthought, as though she'd never been Jane at all.
But she couldn't say any of these things. "Okay."
He sighed her name, like the word alone tortured him: "Jane…" Then, stopping himself, he said: "So I—I guess I'll see you at school."
Joan dug her fingernails into her knee, clawing till she thought she might be drawing blood: "I guess." She suddenly gasped, overcome with the idea that this might be all they'd ever be again to each other: friends that weren't really friends, strangers—niceness.
"Adam!" she said quickly, unsure what she might say next, but the phone went dead, he'd hung up. He hadn't heard her. Or maybe he did and he hung up anyway. Who knew? Everything was so screwed up between them.
"Joan!" called Helen from downstairs, sounding stressed out. "Come on, get up or you'll be late getting to school!"
She swallowed, wondering what the chances were of being able to persuade her mother that she was very, very sick or having cramps or something. She stared at the bruised half-moon shaped marks in her knee. Anything to avoid Adam the stranger.
"Joan!" Helen yelled, now sounding truly and uncharacteristically pissed.
Maybe not today, Joan thought to herself, chickening out against facing her mother's wrath and trudged to the bathroom.
Joan was late in getting ready for school and then she was late for her bus and eventually, she was extremely late for English. She ran down the hall, already dreading the evil Mrs. Brown's brutal humiliations of people who came late, didn't turn in their homework on time and hated her subject. Needless to say, Brown seemed to be constantly on Joan's case.
Just as she turned a corner, she ran headlong into a pale, pretty brunette with deep, beautiful eyes. The girl smiled at her and said conversationally: "Late for English?" She was wearing a black toque over her curly, dark hair. On it, it said: MAKE POVERTY HISTORY! Joan began to walk toward the class and the toque girl followed.
"Isn't that a bit much?" Joan asked irritably but without much fire, indicating the toque with a raised eyebrow. "I mean, it's one thing to ask me to counter-balance evil, but making poverty history isn't exactly a one-woman job."
The pretty toque girl smiled in surprise, touching the toque self-consciously. "Well, no, but it is achievable, you know. If there's enough awareness and it becomes enough of an issue for world leaders to—"
"I know, Live 8 and all that," Joan said, "eight world leaders in one room, deciding the fate of billions of starving African kids next week—so why didn't you go start dropping in on one of them? Someone who could actually…" Joan caught sight of Adam through the classroom window, "…make a difference? I don't even have my own life under control."
"Are you okay?"
Joan turned to the girl she'd thought was God, and flushed bright red. "Um, yeah, I'm fine."
Funnily enough, God never asked Joan how she was doing unless it was somehow relevant to an assignment or the answer was 'suicidal, thanks'. On the other hand, He probably never needed to ask her that question: He always knew.
"Sure," the girl who wasn't God said nonchalantly, "Cause you sound like it, too." Momentarily taken aback by such snarkiness from someone who wasn't the Almighty, Joan wasn't able to come up with a snappy comeback fast enough before the toque-wearing beauty added, "You want to skip and talk about whatever you're so fine about?"
The door swung open, revealing Brown smiling her bitchy smile. "Well, ladies, are we planning on gossiping out here all day or are we actually going to try and, oh, I don't know, actually join the class? Maybe pretend we're going to live up to our potential?"
She hated that 'we' thing. Brown was always doing that. Instead of saying: 'late again, are you?' she'd say: 'late again, are we?' with that special snide tone. It made Joan want to strangle her, screaming: "we are not a 'we', we are a 'me' and a 'you', but we will never, ever be a 'we'!"
"Sorry," Joan mumbled, moving past her and steadily avoiding eye-contact with the boy whose gaze she felt burning into the side of her face like fire.
"Detention, Miss Girardi," Brown snapped from behind her, "sorry isn't good enough."
Joan looked at Adam, her gaze drawn to him inevitably at those words, who looked steadily back, his eyes shining with their sorrowful beauty and it made her shake inside. Yeah, he knew about sorry not being good enough. Never mind, his expression seemed to say but his eyes couldn't lie: and his eyes were dark with sadness.
"Um, it was my fault, ma'am," said the toque girl who wasn't God.
Adam's gaze shifted from Joan's face to the girl behind her and frowned, looking troubled. Joan turned to look at her as well. Toque girl was smiling her innocent smile at Brown and her hoody was zipped all the way up, hiding the slinky black tank underneath.
"I'm Mary Jane Clover," she said, quickly, "the new student? I was totally lost and Joan was just helping me find the right classroom."
Brown looked doubtfully at Joan. "Is this true, Miss Girardi?"
Joan nodded slowly, unsure why this random person would do her a favor, but really grateful all the same. Brown turned away from her to address Mary Jane and Joan flashed her a grateful smile, which Mary Jane returned.
"Well, why don't we sit down, girls?" Brown said, going to her desk and picking up a copy of the book the class was reading. "Welcome to the class, Miss Grover. And know that rules apply as much to new students as old, so we won't be turning up late again, will we?"
Mary Jane nodded seriously, politeness and light, then turned and rolled her eyes, muttering: "It's Clover. Grover is a Muppet."
Joan slid into a seat diagonally to the left from Adam—he was sketching, his hand slowly moving across a paper in long strokes. His hands were covered in pen ink for some reason, and the streak of blue near his thumb was somehow impossibly endearing. There was a nasty-looking cut running jaggedly along his knuckles. She rubbed her own knuckles absently as she gazed at the angry red, reflexively feeling his pain.
She watched him from the corner of her eye, imagining herself kneeling beside him (the hard linoleum against her knees, him looking down at her part-mystified, part-awed) and taking his hand in hers, kissing all along and around the cut, feeling a tremor go through him and relishing it, and pre-Bonnie Adam would've whispered 'Jane' in protest, but secretly he wouldn't have cared she was kissing his hand in the middle of English class.
Pre-Bonnie Adam, St. Adam, was as crazy as she was. It was one of things that made them work.She imagined running her hands through his hair as he sighed her name again, in pleasure, for once, instead of pain.
In a flash, Joan remembered the feel of his hand as it moved down her inner-thigh that night after the concert, his eyes looking at her with such intensity—the shuddering, frightening ecstasy in that one movement alone that made her wonder who needed drugs, when there was this to be had. Then: her sudden, overwhelming panic. We're in a truck. I don't want my first time to be in a truck.
"Open your books, please," Brown called sardonically, "the story is on the inside of the book."
It's a camper.
Just then, something happened that made Joan stop breathing.
Mary Jane had casually gone and sat down beside Adam, and now, as she opened her copy of Wuthering Heights, she leaned toward Adam and whispered something into his ear. Instead of giving her a look of astonishment, Adam smiled at her gratefully and Joan heard him say: "Thanks, Mary Jane," and he might as well have said: die, Joan. Because that was exactly what it felt like.
She'd never heard him call anyone else Jane before, either.
Mechanically, Joan looked down at the passage in her book and noticed her hands where they gripped the sides of the book were trembling. Distantly, she heard Bitch Brown ordering her to read aloud to the class ("…with feeling, please, Miss Girardi…") and she opened her mouth and read, lips beginning to tremble as the words began to make sense:
"My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliffe resembles the eternal rocks underneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary."
A tear ran down Joan's cheek at the last word, and the deep, almost pleading and yet defiant, panicked note in her voice, electrified the words she read aloud.
To each of the students, it was as though Cathy Earnshaw, the character speaking, who they'd through the course of reading the book had resented and judged as bitchy, fickle and pretty boring suddenly appeared among them. And they felt her sincerity.
"Nelly," Joan/Cathy's voice rose suddenly and became hoarse with deep conviction, "I am Heathcliffe!"
Adam, who'd been gripping a pencil tightly in his hand, snapped it in half.
Joan couldn't look at him, but his presence pressed down on her and she didn't need to see him, to see him. She blinked the tears from her eyes to see the page as she continued, almost angrily:
"He's always, always in my mind," she sucked in a breath and the class breathed with her, riveted, "not as a pleasure, anymore as I am always a pleasure to myself, but as—"Joan nodded heavily, as if in agreement, "—my own being."
Yes, Joan realized.
"Go on," Brown urged her, and for once, there was a spark of true enthusiasm in the jaded teacher's eyes.
Joan, still possessed by Cathy, looked to Heathcliffe, Adam, who was sitting at a desk and staring at her in rapture and in deep pain, as if under a spell. She continued, her voice filled with low desperation: "So don't talk of our separation again, it is impractical and—"
Joan paused as the narrator of the book took over, interrupting Cathy: Nelly the maid, who Cathy had been pouring her heart out to. "She paused and hid her face in the folds of my gown but I jerked her forcibly away."
Looking away from Adam, she stared, coldly, at the nothingness that stretched in front of her and snapped, now Nelly judging Cathy, and not Cathy herself: "I was out of patience with her folly!"
And Joan felt oddly insulted, as though she too had been judged and jerked away from: it was ridiculous, this pain that was never lessened. Who could take such a drama queen seriously? Nelly the maid was right. And yet…she shook her head, still trembling. It was Cathy she related to.
The class erupted into applause. Mary Jane whistled appreciatively. Joan smiled weakly, wiping away her tears in embarrassment and thanking God she'd forked out the extra ten bucks for mascara that was waterproof. She desperately tried to shrug off the sudden muddle of emotions inside her, the truth in the passage written by someone who seemed to know the inner workings of her soul.
"My, my," Brown said, trying to sound as sarcastic as she usually did but failing, "we might have some hidden potential. Excellent characterization."
Ha, Joan thought, playing yourself isn't that hard. But she nodded anyway, still battling the words that echoed meaningfully in her mind.
"Next week, we'll be discussing Cathy's character as a dysfunctional, destructive persona," Brown told the class, looking like she was really looking forward to teaching for once.
Oh joy, Joan thought irritably, why don't I just wear a toque that says SCREWED in big letters?
As she slowly got to her feet and started putting her stuff away, Mary Jane appeared at her side, followed by Adam. Oh, so they just stuck together like glue now? She had only just joined the class, how the hell could they be close already?
"Hey," Mary Jane said, wide-eyed with admiration, "that was so amazing, the way you did that. Are you in the drama club or something?"
Grace, who Joan hadn't even noticed sitting in the back of the class, came to Joan's side, as if protecting her from the sadistic toque-wearing, Adam-stealing bitch: "Not yet, but she could be any day now. Is that next on the schedule, Girardi?"
Joan tried to laugh but couldn't. "I think my club-joining days are over," she muttered, thinking tiredly of Ryan.
Mary Jane looked confused and Adam looked deeply troubled, his eyes running searchingly over her form. "What do you mean, Jane?"
"I'm M.J.," Mary Jane, or apparently M.J., said to Grace, sticking out her hand. A wisp of curly brown hair fell prettily across her face and she brushed it away, with a hand with prettily manicured fingernails and she beamed her pretty smile.
Joan stared at her in absolute hatred, pretending she hadn't heard Adam's question.
Grace looked from Joan's face to M.J.'s, with a raised blond eyebrow. "I don't do initials," Grace said coolly to M.J. and secretly loyally to Joan, and brushed past her. M.J. looked befuddled.
Joan stood for a moment, hoping M.J. would take off and be irresistibly pretty somewhere else so that she could talk to Adam alone, but M.J. just stayed there, with her annoying political toque. Annoying, because Joan would've totally worn it if she could've gotten one.
"Here," Adam said suddenly, and ripped a paper from his notebook, handing it to her. Joan looked and M.J. nosily looked as well. But the moment Joan's eyes fell on the sketch, it didn't matter.
There was a sketch roughly in center of the paper, which was unfinished: it was a man in eighteenth century clothing, scowling brazenly up at her, half-hidden behind a curtain. His face, though more weathered and more angry, bore an odd resemblance to Adam himself.
But the sketch above it was the one that made Joan feel those crazed, heated yearnings rise up in her throat.
It was Joan, eyes wide and glittering with unshed tears and yet she looked somehow fierce: her cheeks were flushed and her eyebrows set angrily downward, her mouth parted, as if in speech.
For some strange reason, there were jagged hills behind her: a wild, dreary landscape, even though this was obviously a sketch of Joan reading in class just now.
Beauty shone up out of the sketch: Adam had made her look more beautiful than she'd ever been in a moment she was sure she'd been ugly. It was drawn in intricate detail but it was slightly smudged and Joan suspected he'd drawn this very quickly.
Joan met his soft, unwavering gaze. He didn't look like the eighteenth-century man anymore; he looked pleading, confused, yet watchful of her—as if he was waiting for something, for a sign from her.
"That is so cool," M.J. told Adam and the moment between him and Joan shattered to pieces.
He tore his gaze reluctantly from Joan's, to his shoes, to M.J.'s pretty, alluring face: "Just a sketch." But his tone belied it.
"No!" M.J. protested, touching his shoulder, "it's brilliant. The detail!"
Struck dumb, the subject of the sketch said nothing, reeling from the sight of M.J.'s hand on Adam's shoulder. She swallowed hard, staring at her drawing-self's longing, pleading gaze and the contradicting anger in her eyes. M.J. sounded disgustingly like another Iris, or worse: another Bonnie.
"Uh, thanks—um, M.J." Adam sounded unsure about the nickname, or maybe about Joan's reaction to the sketch: his eyes kept flickering to her face.
M.J. laughed cheerfully. "Oh, no," she said, still touching his shoulder, "don't call me that. I love the way you said Mary Jane before."
Mary Jane: Joan clenched her fists, wrinkling the stiff paper a little. With a burst of anger in her chest, she shoved the paper at Adam, snapping: "Keep it. It's too good to give away."
And she pushed past the two, nearly running to the door, where Grace was waiting, looking sulky. "Am I supposed to talk to this person now?"
"No," Joan said, chest heaving, "She's Adam's thing, not ours."
Grace looked taken aback, then weirded out, then sorry for Joan. "You know he still…? I mean, a thing like you and Rove had doesn't just, end. He's not into her."
Adam came out of English, M.J. at his heels. "Jane—" he looked at her, eyes shining with meaning she couldn't deal with, so she looked away, not wanting to.
"What?" she asked, her eyes trained on the wall opposite.
"Never mind." He sounded resigned. "I'll see you later, okay?"
Joan shrugged, nodding absently, though she'd never been less absent from any conversation in her life: "Sure."
"Okay, Jane." He reluctantly backed away from her, then turned and headed toward art, head bowed. The way he said Jane, was so intimate, it left Joan feeling slightly breathless and abandoned there in the hallway.
M.J. beamed at his back. "I can't even do paint by numbers," she announced, dreamily.
Grace rolled her eyes and walked off, disgusted: "that's information I'm really going to cherish." And Joan followed, ignoring M.J. completely to avoid attacking her, and thought that maybe M.J. was something worse than a second Bonnie.
She was a second Jane.
God made his first appearance of the day at lunch, during which Joan was hiding out in the library. He slid into the chair across from her, in his Cute Boy form. "How are you, Joan?"
She looked up from the book (A Midsummer Night's Dream) she was pretending to read and scowled at Him. "Don't you know?"
"Of course, but the question conveys a certain interest in your welfare. And you say I never ask you how you are," he added, smiling His knowing, irritating smile.
"No, that's what I was thinking." Joan sighed, slamming her book shut. "Who is this M.J. person? Is she going to fall in love with Adam?"
God cocked his head thoughtfully to the side and wondered: "Isn't the question, is he going to fall in love with her, more relevant?"
"Just tell me," Joan whispered, leaning over the table desperately. "You could've told me about Bonnie. Is there a universe, or a window of possibility into a universe where she falls in love with him? And they get together? Is it possible?"
God took a book from the shelf behind him, paging through it absently, "Everything is possible, Joan. Me sitting here, talking to you proves that. Nothing is too wonderful to be true."
"God, why can't you ever give me a straight answer?" Joan exclaimed quietly, putting her head in her hands. And then, before he could speak, she waved one dismissively: "I know, I know: you don't answer questions."
"Correction: I don't answer questions to which the answer is either irrelevant or something you already know. Do you think Adam will love M.J., the way he's loved you these two years?"
Joan shook her head, a tear rolling down her cheek. "But he didn't love me enough or he didn't—trust me enough."
"Are you sure you don't have that backwards?" God asked calmly.
Her head snapping up, she whispered furiously: "Are you saying this is my fault?"
"Books are such wonderful things," God mused, tilting his chair back thoughtfully, "a woman, in the nineteenth century, wrote characters and created a world that people relate to, to this day. Today, reading that passage, you felt you understood something, didn't you?"
Joan looked down. "So you're saying I'm Cathy." She snorted. "A dysfunctional and destructive persona."
"I don't approve of her labeling Cathy with that," God replied. "If she wants you to discuss her character, you need to look beyond the surface, beyond the labels, to see the true persona underneath, whether dysfunctional or destructive." He grinned at her. "Think fast," He said and threw her his book. Well, not His book, obviously, but the book in His hands.
It was Wuthering Heights.
"Page 258, third paragraph. Read it and decide who you really are: Cathy or Heathcliffe."
Joan scowled, hating the idea if it meant the same feelings she'd had during English. "What's the point of reading something? It won't fix anything."
"Emily Brontë never wanted to publish her book, her sister persuaded her to. And when it was published, the whole world hated it. And yet, here it is, in a library in 2005. Sometimes you can't see the big picture, but that doesn't mean there isn't one." And with that, He sauntered out.
Joan sighed stubbornly but went to page 258, and began to read the third paragraph, spoken by Heathcliffe:
"You teach me now how cruel you've been—cruel and false. WHY did you despise me? WHY did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me and cry and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you, they'll damn you. You loved me—then what RIGHT had you to leave me?"
Joan covered her mouth with her hand, to keep from crying out: these were her words, her thoughts.
"What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton?"
Adam suddenly appeared, as if out of nowhere, his beautiful eyes watching her carefully as he sat down where God had been a minute before. "Hey, Jane," he said, and with those two words and that smile, he might as well have told her he loved her.
And she hated him for it. M.J. wasn't the issue—she saw that now.
"Why did you do it?" her heart was rising in her throat and she watched as his smile slipped away and he stared at her, not bothering to pretend he didn't know what she meant. "Why did you do it, if you loved me so much?"
His lips parted and he breathed out, eyes watering—"I did love you, Jane, I don't know…"
"Bullshit!" she interrupted him, whispering because they were in the library, but with a tear running down her face, "You do know! If she was just a hook-up, why risk it, if it meant losing me?"
Adam's hands shook. He looked down, mouth opening and closing as he fought for words and didn't seem to find them. "It wasn't—a trade-off, I didn't think of it like that, I didn't—"
"But you did!" Joan cut in and she sobbed inaudibly as Adam seemed to crumple, his eyes calling out to her as he cringed for her every tear, "You chose her, Adam. You loved me but you made her more important, because you betrayed me—to be with her. Don't you get it?"
She stopped, realizing that everyone in the library was staring at them—Joan, sobbing and shaking and Adam, pleading and crying. Somehow, in the midst of their heated, horrible whispered conversation, they had ended up holding hands across the table between them: tightly holding onto one another, even as Joan killed their subtle truce with the truth.
But Adam had killed them first.
And he realized that as he ignored all the students staring at his face, maybe didn't even see them in his grief but he didn't stop staring at Joan and he didn't release her hands from his tight hold, no matter how she struggled, now that the truth was out.
"Listen to me." His voice shook. "Listen to me, Jane."
She stared at him angrily: or beyond anger. "What? What can you say?"
He lifted her left hand, still imprisoned in his right, and lifted it to his mouth—he kissed it, twice in a row, his eyes never leaving hers. She felt the dampness of his tears on her fingers. "If I've hurt you, Jane, if I've betrayed you, I've betrayed myself, you are—" he closed his eyes tightly and opened them again, "my self. You're—Jane. I belong to you. Even if you walk out now—" he kissed her hand again and she uncurled it, naturally and he kissed the center of her palm, sending a jolt of something like electricity through her. "You take me with you."
Joan sobbed, but persevered: "If it was me, just me, I could forgive you. But you didn't just hurt me, you hurt yourself, you killed—yourself. You're not Adam anymore, not my Adam."
He stared at her, breathless, a tear running down his cheek. "Jane—"
"And I'm not Jane anymore."
That was the killing blow. He released her hands and something in his eyes died.
Joan stood slowly up, leaving Wuthering Heights behind on the table, never having finished reading the full third paragraph. But after she left, after she was long gone and he'd skipped a whole period sitting motionless in that chair, his hands open in front of him, Adam finished it for her:
Because misery and degradation and death and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us. YOU, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart, YOU have broken it and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! Would you like to live with your soul in the grave?