He was in the fifth grade, Erin was a newcomer to the forth and a sheer catastrophe for him. She owned the same red hair, or even worse: the carrot-red wisps which highlighted his own misfortune in a most miserable way. An accomplice to the crime of being a pale red-haired kid under the hot Californian sun, easily spotted on the huge schoolyard. All he could do was to avoid her, which was, of course, impossible. The bullies he had somehow shaken off, would now let Erin have it all, and there was a moment he had to choose sides. That he chose hers, was probably the bravest thing he ever did: seeing her home, carrying her schoolbag, holding her cold fingers, mostly in complete silence. They exchanged no more than hundred words during that single year she stayed in their school. Her parents moved around a lot, and the skinny aloof kid had been to quite a number of schools and schoolyards with very few friends. They would hang around together, a couple of infant angels, unassailable in their vulnerability. Did they have anything else in common, beside the essential fact of not fitting in, feeling a monster? He didn't know. When she, or rather her folks moved again, just before the summer vacation, he felt emptied and something else, something he couldn't yet name.

Years later August wondered what eventually became of her, and - secretly - what shade she grew into. Their reddish tint was of the kind 'take it or leave it': plenty of redheads were as ugly as hell, but if you got luck, you had those precious silky locks you'd love to lose your hand in. This luck he did have, as well as that of the matching pallid handsomeness; ridiculously much in his life he owed to this accidental set of genetic features. The easy going glimmer he outwardly displayed, his merciless wit, mockery nonchalance attracted women. Eventually, they backed off upon finding out there was more behind it. His frenzy, his ruthless candour about himself they couldn't bear any better than his frankness towards them. Chris, Christine Kim, was an exception. It was because, generally, she wasn't afraid of things which made sudden noises or movements - her own explanation. Indeed this came from a woman who never made a big fuss of a mouse in her kitchen. They had met in the college. Over more than twenty years, she had been: his girlfriend, his would-be wife; his worst enemy; his lover; his best friend. His guardian angel.

She never really asked him what exactly happened four years ago now. She did listen whenever words came out. Back then, he felt as if he had been living at 150 miles an hour, and couldn't handle the world at its normal speed. There was this huge sense of relief he first mistook for freedom. He was merely weightless though, caught in a free fall. Chris caught him up and pulled him together, something she had done before, with mixed success.

And Stanley Nozick, the oldest and saddest of all his college friends, thought he could use an extracurricular instructor of Writing for his English department at his City College. This was the closest he ever got to feel a fraud. But, let's face it, he was a brilliant one, and, in some, not so rare cases, this could do even better than the real deal. Teaching people how to write, anyone?

Yet more and more often, as he lay down at night, slept or walked with his eyes wide shut, he could hear things set in motion, getting nearer and louder. Now he had enough time to look at them closely, get hold of them, discern their density and purpose. And, if he had it right and was very very patient, they would fall in place and turn into words and phrases. Some of this was worth looking at twice. It had been a while since he felt this kind of certainty. Ten, fifteen years? Since 'Accidentally on Purpose', his only - now faded - claim for immortality. It had been a while for a lot of things. Poetry, Chris, New York.

In the beginning, he stayed at Chris's place in New York with no definite plans for the future, slept a lot, read her post-its with instructions for food, waited for her to come back. Chris was engaged in a huge project for her advertisment company and had little time. In short, he was some kind of a housecat forfeiting his freedom for some food and love - and he rather preferred it this way. From time to time they would go out to a restaurant, and eventually make love afterwards, something they hadn't done for a long time, and now were hungry for. He rediscovered her body which had never carried a child, small-boned and fragile, the petite girl-like body of his first woman. In a way, it was making love to the past.

He found himself stranded in some kind of a time loop, strangely detached from the past half of his life and indiferent to the years coming. Which, in Chris' opinion, was merely an indication of a 'good old mid-life crisis'. 'Just because you had a thing with a girl, you hopeless romantic,' she'd add. 'I didn't have 'a thing' with the girl,' he'd snap out. 'You, wussy,' she'd answer teasingly. 'So you think I wouldn't have this so-called mid-life crisis if I had slept with with the girl?' - 'You would have had the girl, my dear little August. And the mid-life crisis, most probably,' - 'You're not helping, Chris,' August would groan, prostrated on the couch. He didn't mind the banter, aware that ridiculing most serious problems, to Chris, was a part of solving them. - 'Are you going to take another teaching job? Suspending someone is not taking away the licence, I suppose,' she'd continue. - 'Look, if you're about to kick me out of your place, please don't beat about the bush.' Chris would take in his irritation with that savvy smile of an elder sister he knew so well. In retrospect, when it didn't actually matter any more, August realized she had always been some sort of an elder sibling or a friend to him. This was the reason their adult relationship could not last, yet formed a sound enough basis for an adult friendship. In a way, Chris served as a 'reality check' for him. With her, he felt an urge to assess very objectively all the events that eventually let his life split into two parts. It was the the only way to glue the loose ends back together. Facts, facts and nothing else.

August Dimitri, an English teacher, left the Upton Sinclair High in Chicago, Illinois, or was subtly prompted to leave after an alleged relationship between him and Grace Manning, a senior year student, became the talk of the town. Eventually, the whole affaire scandaleuse would get him suspended for the rest of the semester by the educational board, with pay. Not that it mattered. He was not expected to come back, anyway.

The facts said nothing, actually. They seemed to suggest something like an abuse of power by a sexually frustarted adult, or an emotional manipulation by a precociously mature teenager. Regular pulp fiction stuff. None of this was true, if only technically speaking.

August Dimitri had not slept with Grace Manning. He had not kissed her. She kissed him, once, or rather pressed her lips against his for a moment too short, actually, to be a kiss, and long enough to realize he did not want her to stop. But she withdrew herself, and gone was she. Leaving him gruesomely alone, like the ancient king who won his crucial battle, but lost all his troops.

The next thing he remembered was washing dishes mindlessly, with an idiotic thoroughness. His mind kept re-running the scene, suggesting alternate endings, where he reacted on the level of his male instinct: seized her shoulders, let her grey coat glide on the floor, took her face into his hands, claimed her soft mouth, all of her entirely for himself. He imagined how patient, how attentive, how self-denying he would have been for what he assumed was her first time. A pleasure almost non-sexual, the familiar pleasure of being there for Grace, with Grace at the moment she discovered something through him, with him. They had had such moments before, enjoyed them; why not now?

The adrenaline rush was over; a minute later he already despised himself for falling pray to middle-aged man's phantasies. So that's how you become a middle-aged man?, he thought. You start to mind your phantasies. 'Young man's phantasies' sounds just so damn innocent.