More than two years later I stood at the edge. Physically at the edge of a staircase, which, once crossed, would become the point of no return. I could turn away now; walk back the way I had come, go back to my life of the past two years, back to India perhaps. A good life, but unfulfilled. Metaphorically I stood too at the edge of a choice which I knew would alter not only my life, but many other people's lives, forever. Was I sure? No. Should I be doing this? No. Was it wrong? Probably. Did I want to do it? YES. Undeniably, uncategorically, unequivocally, with every fibre of my being. I had to. I took a deep breath and placed my foot down onto the final step.
Eighteen months had passed since that fateful day at the school. Eighteen months. Five hundred and fifty-two days, to be exact. Every day I willed myself to stop counting them, but I couldn't, it was like trying not to think of the pink hippopotamus. That number was always there at the back of my mind, like a slight headache you can convince yourself to ignore but know will push forward at any given, inopportune moment. Some days I did really well; I woke, got dressed, went out, went about my business, sometimes all day long, without once thinking of her. But in the quiet dark moments she always came rushing, unbidden, to the fore of my memory. Even when it was months since I'd last seen her I could still recall her with perfect clarity – the way the light caught her hair, bringing out the reddish gleams, the way her eyes lit up when she was excited, her alluring mix of self-confidence and self-doubt, her passion for the written word. I still had one of her stories. I'd never had the chance to give it back because I had never seen her again. That was one of my greatest regrets – our hurried goodbye in my classroom, with her mother standing guard at the door, was nothing like the farewell she deserved. That we both deserved. The last thing I remember of her was a voice full of hurt and pain. I hated having that memory; she deserved better. I deserved better. In the first few weeks after that day I used to take her story out every day, read it, savour it, trying to bring her closer to me, to use it as a channel through which we could communicate somehow, but the pain had become unbearable and I'd buried it at the bottom of a cupboard, wanting, but not quite able, to be totally rid of it – as if that would somehow erase any trace of her as well. Naïve, but I wished it. Perhaps – if only we'd never met, if only I'd kept my distance from the start, if only… I might be contented now. I'd have a job I loved, friends I liked and people who admired me. Of course I would want that. There was only one problem with that scenario.
It would mean I'd never met Grace.
After I'd left the school I got a job working for a publisher in a reference library. Not quite my ideal, but, as I told myself sternly, when I could muster up the strength, it was about as much as I deserved, and I was lucky to have any job. The blemish from Upton Sinclair would track me around for the rest of my life; it was about the worst record for a teacher to have. The ironic thing was that, much as I might have wanted it, nothing had ever happened between Grace and me, but the black mark on my record did not distinguish between what had and had not happened. It classed every kind of impropriety under one heading: Misconduct with a student. So watching a film with her was somehow the same as having sex with her. What a waste. I might as well have had sex with her then, if I'd known that was going to be the case.
I thought a lot about that, in the eighteen months that I worked at the library. It was all so stupid. I hadn't wanted to sleep with Grace. Well, it might have been a part of it, perhaps, eventually, but I wanted so much more than that from her. I wanted to be with her; I wanted her. But I wasn't allowed. Admiration from a distance, perhaps? That might be allowed. But that was for beautiful, empty dolls. You couldn't do that with Grace. You needed to be in there with her, sharing the moment, sharing her interests, her passions, her insecurities, her loves, her fears, her truth, her soul.
On March 17th, eighteen months after I'd left the high school, it happened. I woke up and felt different. Inexplicably I no longer wanted to block out the memories of my last year there; suddenly I wanted to relish them, and I wanted more. I wanted to know what was going on without me. What life was like outside the nest I had built for myself to hide in. So I picked up the phone and called Jerry. It wasn't the first time we had spoken, of course. Like the good guy he was he called me up every few weeks, always friendly, unaccusatory, but with that little reservation on the edge of his voice that told me that our easy-going days as partners-in-crime were pretty much over. We talked about lots of things – art, movies, books, his family – but by an unspoken agreement the school was never mentioned, nor anything to do with it – friends and colleagues, the plays he was putting on, the pupils…and especially not Grace. But today I felt reckless, insane almost. I suddenly needed desperately to know what was going on there, in that place that had been my world for so long. And the subject of Grace needn't come up, I reasoned with myself as I dialed. She would have left six months ago; she was a freshman at college now, no doubt, making an impression on some other English teacher. The thought nearly killed me, to be frank. Loving all things creative and to do with books and writing – that was our thing. That was special to us; it was our sacred bond. Surely Grace had felt that too? She wouldn't want to share it with anybody else, would she?
I was being insane. Of course she would. I had gone, she'd moved on, made new friends, met new teachers. She probably had a boyfriend. Probably didn't give me a second thought anymore, or if she did she most likely dismissed me as some silly schoolgirl crush. I could see her, with her new boyfriend, laughing and discussing past relationships: "Oh, and there was this teacher in High School I had this total crush on..Mr Dimitri. I wonder what ever happened to him…?" Oh God, the thought of that nearly broke my heart. But then I remembered the book. Our book. She wouldn't, she couldn't forget, not with page three as a constant reminder to her. So I dialed Jerry. He answered; we talked about something arbitrary, something mundane, I can't even remember. But when there was a lull in the conversation I jumped in quickly. I had to.
"So, Jerry, I've been meaning to ask you…how's it been going at Sinclair? Since..you know."
There was a pause, and I could almost hear Jerry's thought processes wondering what on earth I was up to.
"Jerry? You still there?" I walked over to the fridge and got out some cheese. I needed to keep my hands busy, under the pretext that this was just any old casual conversation. I cut myself a slice.
"Yeah, I'm here, August. Well..it's been all right, I guess. Not the same without you, of course. But still, the same old story, you know? It never changes much, does it?"
"No." Or it didn't, until I met one girl who stood out like I'd never thought possible. "So, did you do a play last year?"
"Um, yeah. Much Ado about Nothing, actually."
"One of your favourites. I bet it was great, Jer. I wish…I wish I could have seen it." Was she in it? Was she? I mustn't ask him. Stupid, stupid. Of course Grace was going to come up. That's why you phoned him. You know it; you're deluding yourself if you think otherwise.
"Yeah, me too. Look, August-"
"Was Grace in it?" There. I've said it. Can't take it back now.
"Look, August, I don't think-"
"Jerry. It's me. You know me. What do you think I'm going to do?" I could feel my voice rising in anger, and I fought to keep it down, friendly, low-key. "It's been eighteen months, Jerry. I'm just interested, that's all. Just tell me."
Jerry sighed. I could hear him. "She was Beatrice. And yes, before you ask, she was fantastic. Okay?"
Beatrice. I could see her now, feisty, strong-willed, trading insults with the best of them: "I had sooner hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me." But deep down, wanting to be loved just the same as anybody else. Oh, Grace.
"August? You still there?"
"Yeah. That's great, Jerry. All I ever wanted was for her to do well. Um, so has she gone to college now, do you know?"
"Harvard, I think. Look, Gus, I know it's none of my business, but you're not still – I mean, it's been ages, and she's moved on with her life now, and you have too. It's just that –"
"What?" I snapped.
"Forgetting about Grace Manning, and everything – it's the smartest thing you can do."
I groaned. He was right. Of course he was right. It was the smartest thing to do. Unfortunately it was the one thing I didn't feel capable of doing.