Julie recognized the man at the supermarket. She had seen him several times before. Everytime she saw him she wondered, "Is this a young man who looks old or an old man who looks young?" He was a neighbor; they lived in the same apartment building. Somehow, he inspired confidence in her. Yet, he was a total stranger. She could be totally wrong about him, and nowadays that was risky.
The man was in the wine section. It seemed he was close to an important decision. The man had made his selection. In this precise moment, Julie decided to take a chance, and said to him, "Are you planning to drink that wine all by yourself?"
The man looked at Julie. Her hair was soft, her face was beautiful and her smile radiant. But not even that smile could hide the permanent sadness of a person who has suffered, or seen much suffering. She really wasn't trying to hide her sadness, and somehow that made her more attractive, more appealing. She had very little make-up on; she didn't need it. She was a natural beauty, who made no effort to cover up a few, almost undetectable, circles under her green eyes. She seemed to talk and smile with those eyes.
The man smiled and said, "Not if I can help it. I've seen you around. Don't remember where. By the way, my name is Alex."
"I'm Julie. We both live in the same apartment building. I've seen you at the clubhouse. You were playing pool with another resident or a visitor. I go there to catch the view of the city and to think. I hope you don't think I'm coming on to you, but I need to be away from my apartment for a while, and besides, I need some company."
"Fine with me," said Alex, "I live in 4-B."
"I'll come over, after I park my car."
When Julie came to Alex's apartment, she realized it had the same floor plan, with the same view, as her apartment on the eighth floor. It was exactly the same. But the individuality of the occupant was expressed by the several bookcases covering every available wall. In her apartment there was a music collection instead, and a stereo and CD player. Alex's furniture was better than hers, particularly that humongous and comfortable couch. In her apartment, she liked to lie down on the floor, put her ear phones on, and listen to her favorite music, particularly after a long day at work. She also liked to listen to music while correcting homework, quizzes or tests.
Alex said, "I bought an extra bottle of wine, just in case."
"Good idea," Julie said, "but I hope you are not expecting sex. Drunk or sober, it's not going to happen."
Alex look at her silently for a moment. There wasn't a trace of disappointment showing in his face.
"Not to worry," said Alex, as he was pouring the wine. "I'm in total control of my emotions." Then he said to her softly, "No problem. For me, sex boils down to two options, to take the blue pill or not to take the blue pill. I had cancer, and I opted for surgery. I must say my surgeon kept his promise. He said I would not have any urological problems, and I've had none. And as a bonus, sometimes I even show signs of life, without the blue pill."
Julie smiled, and said "I like you. You're so comfortable with yourself. You don't have any difficulty telling me this. I think I have found a friend. I can relax with you. For me sex is a very painful experience. I'm not frigid, and I like men. But sex means pain for me."
"Is this why you are drinking wine with me?"
"No, listen, I used to be a nurse. I know what choices I want to make in this matter. No, my problem is of a different nature. I'm having problems with the principal at my school."
"Oh, so you are a teacher now."
"What made you change careers?"
"I was an intensive care unit nurse for five years. I just got burned-out and I decided to do something different. If things didn't work out, I could always go back to nursing. I went to Japan to teach English. They only required a college degree, and to be a native speaker. Of course I had to drop my Georgia accent, I'm from Brunswick. I was in Japan for two years. I liked teaching, so when I came back to the States, I went back to school to get a teaching certificate. I became a math teacher at a high school here in the Jacksonville area. I'm beginning my second year as a teacher."
"So, what is the problem with the principal? Are we talking about sexual harassment?"
"Maybe we are; but Mr. Manners is too smart to be accused of that."
"Mr. Manners? You are kidding!"
Julie smiled and said, "Yes, his name is Scott Manners. This is more of a matter of unwanted sexual attention, where I don't feel harassed, but extremely uncomfortable. He is smart, good looking, very charming, and very subtle in the way he does things. This is his first year as principal at my school. He began to show up once or twice in my classroom 'to observe' my class. I had the feeling he wasn't there to observe my teaching; I had the feeling he was there to observe me. My previous principal, who is now retired, visited my class once each semester, took notes, wrote an evaluation, and went over it with me toward the end of the school year. I checked with other teachers. He is yet to visit and observe male teachers. He is doing brief visits, five or ten minutes at the time, with all the single female teachers. But I seem to hold the record for most visits."
"Is this the reason why you don't want to be in your apartment right now?"
"Yes. I made a mistake. One day, my car broke down, and he offered me a ride home. He knows where I live. He would have access to that information anyway, and I'm afraid this man is going to show up at my door. Another thing, as he was driving, he was talking to me as if we had been friends all of our lives, and I hardly know the man. Something is wrong. There were hints that he would be in the neighborhood tonight. I didn't encourage him at all, but I don't think he is the kind of man that listens to the word 'no.' Alex, do you think I could sleep on your couch tonight?"
"You can use my bed, and I'll sleep on the couch."
"I insist. Let me use the couch."
The conversation and the libations continued, until it was time to retire. Alex brought a blanket and extra pillows, and went to his bedroom.
Julie made herself comfortable on the couch. It was a very comfortable couch. She was very tired, but after sleeping for about two hours, she woke up. The night was very tranquil, very pleasant. She got up and started looking at Alex's book cases. She noticed the collection was mostly theatre plays, and some very old paperbacks, mainly detective stories. There were several photo albums. She opened one, and there were no photos in it. There were postcards from different countries. She checked the other albums, with the same results. She spent nearly an hour doing this, before she felt like sleeping again.
* * *
The next morning Alex woke up about 7:30 AM. He had a good night's sleep. He suddenly realized that Julie was sleeping next to him. She was still in her blue jeans and her sweatshirt. She had only taken off her shoes. She was sleeping soundly, on her side, wedged perfectly under one of Alex's underarms, and with one of her arms wrapped around Alex's body. Alex thought, "Mmm, I like this." He didn't move. He let her sleep while he thought about his work day. Finally, he got up; he had to get ready for work. He carefully moved her friendly arm, and put a pillow for her to hug.
He was already dressed, and having his coffee, sitting near the bed, when Julie woke up. She said, "What are you doing all dressed up?"
Alex said, "I work on Saturdays. I'm a librarian. The library is open on Saturdays. Listen, you can use this place while I'm gone. There is an extra key on top of the kitchen counter."
"Sounds good, Alex. Thanks. I'm going to go to my apartment, get cleaned up, and I'll work here correcting homework assignments, and preparing lessons for next week. To earn my keep, I'll fix dinner for you. I'll fix something easy, spaghetti and meat sauce, and salad. How is that?"
Alex smiled and jokingly said, "Great Julie. A man who works hard all day loves to come home to a home-cooked meal. I'll bring the Chianti."
Julie sprung from bed, gave him a big hug and said, "Thank you for everything, Alex."
"Glad to be of help. We'll talk more this evening, right?"
"You bet. It's inevitable with two people who like to gab."
"See you this evening."
* * *
When Alex arrived home, dinner was ready.
Alex said, "It's nice to have a woman to come home to."
Julie smiled. She was pleased, but she said, "What a cornball you are! Is there a dictionary of cliches in your library? One you consult on a regular basis?"
"Of course we have one, along with famous quotations, slang expressions, and books of that nature. But I don't need to consult any books. I'm a natural cornball."
Julie laughed and said, "You know, last night, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I checked your book cases. You like theatre."
"Yes, I do."
"What's the appeal?"
"It's all dialogue, well mostly; it's people communicating. They are, in a sense, brief, to the point. That's what I like those old paperbacks also; those detective stories. They tell a good story in two hundred pages or so. Now writers have to produce more pages, paperbacks have gotten bigger in size, and thicker, with five hundred, six hundred pages. They are not books that fit into one's pocket anymore. I'm simply not interested. What do you like to read?"
I like science fiction, and books about architecture. It is true what you say about paperbacks. The science fiction classics are not that voluminous either. I also like to read weekly magazines. Alex, what's with the postcard collection?"
"I have travelled a lot. I didn't want to be the typical tourist taking pictures all over the place. So I bought some postcards in every country and city I have visited. They are perfect souvenirs; they are perfect period. I know the world is not beautiful all the time, but I just want to remember the beauty they represent."
As the evening progressed, Alex told Julie more about himself.
He was from Tucson, Arizona. After community college, he joined the Navy. He went to boot camp in San Diego, then he was sent to Michigan, where he was trained as a holpitalman, a medic. He served in Naples, Italy. After two and a half years, he was reassigned to a ship of the coast of Vietnam, and had field duty with a Marine regiment for a year. Back in the USA, he finished his enlistment in San Diego.
Julie said, "I had an inkling you had been in the service, but I thought you had been stationed at Mayport or JAX Naval Air Base. What brought you to Jacksonville?"
"Well, that's part of the rest of my life story, Julie." He continued.
His field and hospital duties left a big impression on his mind, and, in a way, he was hurt to see so much death and pain. According to his experience, he would have found work in a hospital, or he could have become a paramedic. Those job prospects did not appeal to him. His solution, his escape really, was to go to college, under the G.I. Bill. From a practical point of view, he earned a totally useless degree in Medieval Studies. He was escaping deeply into the past. He had to learn some Latin as part of his program, and he took courses to improve the Italian he had learned in Naples. Now, what does an escapist do for a job? He decided to go to graduate school to get a degree in Librarianship. A library. There was a nice, quite, environment to earn a living. After graduation, he got a librarian's position in Jacksonville, and he never left, except for his travels. He had seen all the world he wanted to see. Now, he travels to the country he likes the most. Now he spends every vacation in Italy.
"I wonder," said Alex, "why did you pick math as the subject to teach."
"Well, math is non-controversial. I was always good at math. I could have chosen science, biology and health, but with these subjects the administrators and the parents have a lot to say about what is to be taught, and what is not. Nobody messes with math. I also like it because every problem has a solution, even though some solutions are not totally perfect. Math is part of my desire to live in peace. Math relaxes me, believe it or not."
"That's what I like about my job too. It is almost relaxing to me. There are some pressures, but nothing compared with other jobs."
"Talking about living in peace, and without pressure, I hate to tell you that Mr. Manners did show up at my door last evening, while I was seeking refuge here. He left a bottle of wine at my door."
"How do you know it was him?"
"It had to be. I don't have a boyfriend, and nobody else would have done that."
"Well, you are welcome to come here if you want to keep avoiding this guy. Keep the extra key."
"You don't mind?"
"No, I don't. Listen, tomorrow I was planning to go to St. Augustine. Would you like to come along?"
"I'd love to."
"The only thing, I'd like to leave early. About seven, to avoid the horde of tourists."
"No problem. I'll be here early with the coffee and bagels, then we can leave. Got to have my coffee, Alex."
* * *
On Sunday, they left early as planned. When they arrived in St. Augustine, Alex parked the car, and they took a walk through the streets of St. Augustine. They both liked to walk, and they did this for more than an hour. Then they went back to the car, and went to St. Augustine Beach, where they remained several hours. While they were watching the ocean, Alex said, "Do you want me to run a quick check on this guy?"
"You mean, a background check?"
"Yes. It is easy. To start, all I would need to know is where Mr. Manners worked before coming to Jacksonville."
"Let me think about it."
"Sure. Call me at the library, if you decide that you want me to do this."
"OK. I will let you know one way or another."
They finished their daytrip by having a late lunch as a small Mexican restaurant, near Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth. When they returned to Jacksonville, they relaxed for the rest of the day.
On Monday, Julie called Alex in the afternoon, around three thirty. She told him that Mr. Manners had been in her classroom again. This time he spent an entire period observing her teaching. He made a big show of taking copious notes. He was very serious, curt and professional. Not the usual charming self. He said he believed he would have to return again to observe another class. Within the next two weeks. "I think he's using the evaluation process to intimidate me, Alex. I found out from another teacher that Mr. Manners worked in Ohio, before coming here. Go ahead and check up on this guy." Alex said he would start working on it right away. He reassured her he wouldn't get in trouble for doing this.
* * *
Almost every evening Julie would drop by Alex's apartment. Many times she came bearing gifts, pastry, cookies, and even a home-cooked meal. They both felt very relaxed, very comfortable in each other's company.
"So, you are a Georgia peach, aren't you?" said Alex one of those evenings.
"No, I'm not a peach. More of a grapefruit, I think. A little bit bitter, but good for you."
"That very appropriate. Things are not peachy; they have gone a little bit sour for you."
"Right. Which brings us to our favorite subject. What are you finding out?"
"Listen, I'd rather not give you my findings piecemeal. I prefer to do it all at one time."
"OK, I can wait."
Two weeks later, Alex presented a written report of his findings.
"How did you manage to compile all this information," asked Julie.
"It was easy .The Internet. There are several websites for people who are looking for someone."
"Did you have to pay for this information?"
"Not a penny. Basic information is free. If you want detailed information, then you have to pay. Anyway, the website I used listed several Scott Manners. For each it listed all places of residence, not addresses but cities and states. There was only one who had lived in Ohio. So I began to check on that one. He has lived in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Cleveland before coming to Jacksonville. Then I called the different school districts in those cities. I called personnel departments 'to verify dates of employment.' Also found out what subject was he teaching."
"Would this get you in trouble with your job in the library?"
"No. I didn't even have to lie. I gave my name, my employment and my phone number at the reference desk. I used a phone card, and did all of this on my breaks, and on my time off. Once I pinpointed the three school districts, I called Los Angeles and Phoenix. No one seems to remember Mr. Manners in Los Angeles, but Sandy Montalvo in Phoenix knew a lot about the adventures of Mr. Manners. Through her I found out about Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, concerned parents in Los Angeles, who suspected Mr. Manners of inapropriate behavior with their daughter.
Mr. Anderson had taken the trouble of tracking down the alledged villain; and informed the school administration about his concerns. I spoke with Mr. Anderson myself. He was happy to talk to me. I explained to him why I was checking on Mr. Manners."
"So, now Mr. Anderson knows the current whereabouts of Mr. Manners," said Julie.
"Yes, there was an exchange of information between Mr. Anderson and myself."
"How did you find out about what happened in Ohio?"
"That made the local newspapers," said Alex. He added, "About my summary of events, you have to keep in mind that not everything is fact. There are also allegations, gossip, conjectures, and second hand information. Keep that in mind, when you read this stuff."
This is the report that Alex wrote for Julie.
Scott Manners started his career in Los Angeles as a Physical Education teacher. He was also the girls' soccer coach. He worked there for two years. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson didn't miss a soccer game; their sixteen-year-old daughter Cheryl was part of the team. The Andersons began to suspect something was going on between their daughter and the coach. It was the way they talked to each other, the way they looked at each other. Nothing concrete; just parental intuition. Cheryl wouldn't talk about the soccer team or the coach. She didn't show much interest for boys her age. Mr. Anderson talked to the Principal and expressed his concerns. Mr. Manners categorically denied this unfounded allegation. Mr. Jones, the Principal, as a preventive measure, made a switch between two coaches, assigning Scott to coach boys' soccer. The following year, Mr. Jones heard a similar expression of concerns from another set of parents. They also reiterated their concerns to the District Superintendent. Since Scott Manners was a probationary teacher, he was not offered a contract for a third year.
Our subject reappears in Phoenix, Arizona. Still a Physical Education teacher; but no coaching duties. There were enough teachers who wanted to coach, and who wanted the extra pay. Instead, Scott helped with the after-school detention. Anyway, Mr. Manners seemed to have moved on to older women. Female teachers were crazy about him. He was such a gorgeous guy, so nice, so charming. According to Sandy Montalvo, also a P.E. teacher, it got to the point where if he neglected someone in this female roster, she (the neglected one) would wonder "what's wrong with me?" Or, "why not me?" For sure, two teachers escaped Mr. Manners' charms; Sandy Montalvo herself, who was happily married and expecting her first child, and Sue Bannister, another P.E. teacher. Sue, who was in her third year of teaching, was not interested in Mr. Manners, and unknown to most, she was going to join the Arizona Highway Patrol as soon as the school year ended. One day, there was an incident near the teachers' mailboxes. Ms. Bannister told Mr. Manners, in no uncertain terms, to leave her alone. It did not register. Sue had to use a louder, angrier tone to address the Principal. This incident was witnessed by school staff, and some teachers. It is quite possible Sue complained to somebody at the district administration. About this time, Mr. Anderson had called Phoenix, and he had talked to the Superintendent, and a couple of members of the School Board. These factors seem to have contributed to Mr. Manners' demise. Sue Bannister went on to patrol the Arizona highways, while Scott Manners was left to pound the pavement, so to speak.
Mr. Manners disappeared from radar for a year. It is possible that, during this time, he went back to school to complete the necessary courses to obtain his Principal's certification. Indeed, he reappears in Cleveland, Ohio as an Assistant Principal. He stayed out of trouble during his first year; but in his second year he made the local newspapers. He was in bed with a married teacher. Her husband worked late hours, but one fateful day, a meeting was cancelled, and he came home early. He beat the living daylights out of Mr. Manners, who had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. He stayed under medical care for several weeks. Mr. Manners took the jealous husband to court, but the judge did not award any punitive damages. The husband was put on probation, had to pay a fine, and had to pay for all the medical bills, which were substantial. He declared to the press, "It was worth every penny. That (expletives deleted) had to be taught a lesson." For the rest of the school year, Scott was assigned to the District Office, as Director of Special Projects. It was probably a small office with a desk and a phone, so he could look for another job. He did and that's how we came to be blessed with his presence in Jacksonville.
Julie finished reading the report. She said, "This man seems to be able to get out of trouble most of the time, with the notable exception of the beating he took from that husband. I'm glad the husband was not put in jail. What do you think about all this, Alex?"
"I think your Principal got away with something in Los Angeles, but it cannot be proven. As for the rest of this narrative, I have the impression Mr. Manners has been somehow protected by other administrators. It's the old boys' club, so to speak. And on paper, Scott Manners looks good, intelligent, prepared and ambitious. Look, on paper he looks great. Three years of teaching; returns to school to get a Master's in Educational Leadership. He moves on to Cleveland to his first administrative assignment, as an Assistant Principal. Not only that, but he can put down on his resume that he served as a Director of something. Then he comes to Jacksonville as a Principal. This shows a clear career progression. You also have to figure, this man knows how to interview. Imagine him in an interview, with his charming personality and an impressive resume."
"OK," said Julie, "thanks for doing this for me. Because of this man, I'm in a hostile work environment. He has failed to intimidate me, and I have done nothing to encourage his unwanted attention. I dress and act professionally. Fortunately, math teachers are in demand. I will not return to my present job, even if I'm offered a contract renewal. I have a position lined up in Orange Park. Don't even have to relocate. All I have to do is drive across the bridge. I need Mr. Manners out of my life."
Alex said, "If it's any consolation, Mr. Anderson in Los Angeles knows about Scott's career progression. I spoke with him on the phone. He asked me to share my findings with him, which I did. Incidentally, I have never heard such strong conviction, such strong parental intuition as the Andersons have. In their view, there is something wrong with Mr. Manners. They believe he shouldn't be in the field of Education. These are not people with nothing else to do; with plenty of time to cause trouble for somebody. He is an engineer; she is a bank manager. But I'm sure this couple is good for a few phone calls and letters in the future."
* * *
Julie and Alex became very close. They were very fond of each other. Their relationship was based from the beginning in total honesty.
Julie did get rid of Mr. Manners by going to work in Orange Park. She also moved in with Alex, to an apartment in a different neighborhood. An apartment closer to work for both of them. A place unknown to Mr. Manners.
She needed very little convincing to move in with Alex; but she was very impressed by what Alex told her one evening. "We are two imperfect beings, just like everybody else. It is quite an advantage for both of us to have some anatomical imperfection, or some disfunction. We are keenly aware of our imperfections. Our emotions do not stop us from seeing ourselves clearly. Our limitations are sexual. But there is a good side to this. In our situation every kiss, every embrace has a value in itself. It has more meaning, in a sense. It is not necessarily a step toward something else. Are you OK with this?"
"Yes, Alex. I want to be with you. Besides, we are not totally banned from our sex lives. Don't worry about this, nurse Julie will help you figure things out. We'll do what we can to express our affection for each other."
* * *
The move to the new apartment was complete. It was a quiet evening at home. Soft music was playing. Alex was helping Julie to prepare dinner. Julie gave him a little bump with her hip, and said, "You are very quiet tonight."
"Sometimes, I don't have much to say," replied Alex.
"It's all right. Silence doesn't bother me. I just like being with you."
"I love you, Julie."
"Oh, you did have something to say. You make your words count, pal. Few words and a lot of content. I can relate to that. She hugged him and kissed him, then said, "Let's get back to cooking, eh? We cannot live on love alone."
Julie Jensen and Alex Fontana remain together to this day. They are very happy together. They enjoy going to work every morning. They feel privileged. And every summer, and every winter vacation they travel together to Italy.