This is a thing people talk about, and confidence is what they call it, so psyche yourself up. You stare at your own eyes looking back out of the bathroom mirror. Her name is Christina and she’s in your Virginia Woolf class and she likes you, so go out and take hold of that knowledge. Do what needs to be done.
This is what you say to yourself, holding your own eyes in the mirror, but the words aren’t solid. This is your second year back at college after the accident, and you’ve got nothing to show for it, female-wise. Not a kiss or a caress, but now is the time to make it happen.
You are charming. Your voice doesn’t make you sound like a retard OR your voice does make you sound like a retard but you can overcome this because you are very smart. You are riotously funny, and this is because you are extremely quick and clever. You need confidence, because when you are confident words tumble from your mind like pebbles, and each is more seductive than the last.
“HA!” screaming a joyless cackle into the dorm bathroom mirror, a couple dudes you don’t know hurry out of sight. After they do you squeeze out a small amused giggle just for yourself.
Your feelings are never hurt when you see people’s smiles melt upon hearing your voice, because you have empathetic reasoning, and you’ve heard recordings of yourself.
It’s disgusting; you sound like a retard and you know it, which explains why shopkeepers in small-town Iowa are so fucking helpful all the time. Smile at yourself in the mirror and it’s genuine, because you know that those who know you, like the friends that enjoy your company understand that you’re not mentally handicapped. They know that you’re whip-smart and you make them laugh all the time.
That’s what’s gotten a hold of Christina, it seems. She comes to speak to you, almost via a beeline, every time you enter the same room.
So here’s what you do, after class on the way to the Union for lunch, just tell her how you feel. She’s been sending signals all week, you’re pretty sure, so she probably feels the same. Okay, maybe not the same exactly, but she’s gotta give you a shot. Think of it, in a business-type sense, the risk to her is minimal, so why wouldn’t she take a chance?
Passing the bent and beckoning trees on the way to class, you’re feeling chuffed, and you should be. Chuffed is a very good word. It means like puffed-up, you think, and it sounds like it. It evokes one of those old cartoon birds with the massive chests that are always grabbing Daffy Duck by the neck. The word and this image of it are flowing through your mind while you head to class.
You’re seeing the steeple of Davis hall crest the top of the hill now, and you can feel your pulse quicken. This is scary, and you have a few minutes till class starts, so you sit on a cement bench in front of the hall and collect yourself. Oh shit, Christina’s here and she sees you, and she approaches.
In an instant, you try to sketch out what to do. Calm down, a centering voice seems to say from the future and the past, let her speak first.
“Ready for the test?” She says, clutching at the shoulder strap of her backpack. You imagine that this might be an unconscious indicator, almost like she’s playing with her hair, which you’ve been told told previously is a sign of unconscious attraction. Could this mean that she’s somewhat nervous also?
You try to seem confident and in control. “Yeah, I kinda like essay tests.” This is a lie, as all tests suck, but you do tend to perform well on essay tests. It’s way easier to disguise how little you’ve actually read on essay tests. If the question is on Mrs. Dalloway you’ll just parrot what Hankins said about Septimus and you actually loved A Room of One’s Own, so you’re not too worried. “I like them better than short answer or multiple choice, anyway, how’re you feeling?”
Christina looks at the ground, an adorable smirk or grimace on her face. A muffled “Meh” sound escapes from her lips as she pulls them tight against her teeth. “Me too, I just hope she doesn’t ask about Waves.”
“Yeah I couldn’t even make sense of that thing,” you look to the distance, portraying a charming apprehension. “I don’t even really know who the characters are.”
“Yeah me neither,” she chuckles adorably. She’s comfortable with you, or seems to be, so you try to go deeper.
“Yeah, but I think she’ll have mercy on us about that, I don’t think we’ll need to talk about Waves.” She smiles and nods, so you take your chance. “So—um, I wanted to talk to you a little, so—uh, don’t hurry off if you finish the test before me.”
There’s a flash of panic on her face, you’ve seen it many times before and it portends doom. But this one, Christina the understanding, pushes past it and smiles again, restoring your confidence. “Okay! I won’t finish before you but if I do, I’ll wait for you here. Ready for the test?”
The teeth in her smile alight and beckon you towards the classroom, and you think she might have even winked at you. This is a good sign, better than you’ve ever seen before, and you think it could finally happen this time. You’ve thought it before, man, but this one could be your first real girlfriend.
You know you’re shooting yourself in the foot even considering that, because you’re 20 years old now, and it’s weird to have never had a girlfriend. It’s embarrassing but the fact that you’ve never had a girlfriend doesn’t matter, because she’s cute and hot and she really likes you.
Test’s over, you probably did okay, but now comes the waiting. Christina’s still in there, of course, so you look for a spot to post up. This is tricky, because you want to find a spot where most people who come out won’t notice you, at least at first, so you can introduce yourself when it seems most appropriate.
You take a spot under the branch that hangs just above the entranceway stairs. You pull your feet up onto the bench, wrapping your hands around your knees and clasping them together. You close your eyes and your checks feel the denim covering your thighs as you press your face into your legs.
You try to focus and calm down, but you are rudely interrupted.“Hi Andrew, how’d you do!?” Leslie saw and chirped at you, raising her hand and grinning.
“I don’t know,” you say, and then you see her lips start to purse expectantly. “How’d you do?”
She drops her bag onto the bench next to yours and takes a seat. She sighs theatrically, “I don’t know,” she drops her head to the side. “I think I got some good points in, like about the inner lives of the characters.” She sits down, lowering her head to your level, but you’re still just watching the door.
You try not to look at her or make any expression that indicates you’re about to say something, but she keeps looking at you anyway. “Yeah that’s the kinda thing she’s usually looking’ for, I bet you did fine.”
She grins and nods, almost losing the tiny hat off her head. “Thanks,” she says politely, laying her left hand over her right and patting her own lap a few times. “This was a fun class, right?”
You didn’t really understand where her question had come from, but she looked up at you after she asked it. You answer “It was totally a fun class!” because it was. At Cornell College you do the one-class-at a time block schedule, which to your taste is perfect for english and social studies classes, which is all you take.
One of the few advantages to the after effects of your traumatic brain injury is that you don’t have to take science or math classes, yay! “What’s your next class?” you ask without thinking. You curse yourself silently.
“Europe: 18-whatever to 19-whatever. It’s a history course.”
“Eh,” you say. You see a group of five more students come out, leaving only a few left. You know you don’t need to talk to all of them. You could let a a few go, but you’re unable to stop your mouth. “I got world religions next, been looking forward to this one.”
She seems puzzled, though a smile slides over her lips. “Oh, um—“ she chuckles faintly as she seems to search the ground around her for something specific. “You interested in world religions?”
You think about it, why does it sound interesting? Unable to come up with an actual answer right away, you instead gave her the joke you’d previously developed in your room, alone. “I’m just really curious about Zoroastrianism. It sounds awesome.”
Leslie began to say “Yeah I find it pretty. . .” but then you lost track of what she was saying because Christina finally came out of the main door of Rorem Hall. You excused myself from Leslie, giving no real excuse, and started to stalk toward Christina. You kind of notice Leslie’s face looks slightly crestfallen, but your mind is elsewhere.
You make sure not to intrude on the conversation between Christina and one of our classmates, waiting until they say goodbye to approach. When you are just within within speaking distance, Christina turns and greets you first. “So you said you wanted to have a conversation, maybe after the test?”
The little voice in your guts wells up and pours out of your mouth, sounding cheery and energized. “Yes! —um, I mean yes, yes I did, shall we?” You step aside to usher Cristina down Cornell College campus’s pedestrian mall. “So how’d the test go? For you.”
She rolled her eyes slightly as she answers your question. “I don’t know, not well,” she looked at the ground in front of her. “So what’d ya wanna talk about?”
“Well,” you said, pausing then, for a long time. This is the hardest part, and it hasn’t worked yet, so you realize that you should just get it over with. “In these weeks of class I’ve gotten to know you and I think we’re great together, so I was wondering if you wanted to get a bite to eat sometime soon.”
Watching her face, you know the instant the sound from your lips hits her ear that her response will be in the negative. “I’m so so sorry, but I’m actually graduating in a couple weeks, and I don’t think now’s a really good time to start something new.”
Disappointment washes over your face like cold water, but there’s relief also. Your hopes have been dashed, but at least it’s not your fault. “Yeah,” you say, lowering your eyes. “Yeah I guess, I mean I understand.”
You do understand, and that’s probably what makes it worse. “I’m really sorry,” she says, and as you look into her eyes, you can see that she feels real regret.
“Don’t worry about it,” you say, even though your stomach feels flattened. You smile at her. “Okay, anyway I’m really sorry, but I’m sure we can be great friends.”
You could be bitter, but you’re not, because this is the fault of no one. You and Christina did feel that spark, but this time, wouldn’t you know it? The gods were against you. So you say “Absolutely,” and you embrace her, but not in the way you want. She pulls away from you and you head back to your room.
Sitting in your desk chair you realize you’re not thinking about Christina. You are satisfied that the connection the two of you share is real. If circumstances had not been so inconvenient, you believe, everything would have been different.
Flash forward 5 months
It’s a new day, and you’re ready to start your senior year. Junior year was a bust, but you need to forget that. You got out there, you tried your hand, you came up with nothing, but this is a new year and today is a new day.
You get your shit together and head out for the first big breakfast of the year, excited to see some of your friends. You and D-Money can talk shit about whatever, you can discuss Trixie’s new speed run on Super Mario 3 or whatever, and maybe something new can start to drift into your life, who knows?
That’s what’s exciting about these first meals of the year at the union, the thrill of the new. So you’re excited, you slip on your new Achewood T-shirt and your White Sox hoody and you brave the bluster striking out for the cafeteria.
The spring dawn is hidden behind a curtain, its noise softened by a mat of clouds. You put on your spring jacket and put in your headphones playing “Earthquake Weather” by Beck. You break through the front door of the student union feeling very cool, but as soon as the iced-over heels of your boots hit the smooth tile of the floor you flop flat on your back. Landing with a slap that announced its pain loudly, instantly softening afterwards.
You can hear footsteps and rasping voices. In the distance, you hear someone laugh. Fuck. You grin as you try to erect yourself smoothly and confidently, but instead you stumble foolishly and plop onto the soft lobby furniture. Your eyes are closed, as you dread opening them.
Eventually you open your eyes, and you are pleased to see no one. “Okay?” You hate that quasi-question, coming from some invisible stranger. Less an inquiry and more an inquest.
“Yeah,” you cough feebly, using it more as punctuation than anything else, as if it represented a comma. “Yeah I’m fine.”
It must seem pathetic, the sight of you struggling your boots off and slowly tying on ratty gym shoes. Since your brain injury your right hand is basically retarded, so that makes fine motor control troublesome. You don’t see anyone who seems to really recognize you, and your spill may not have been as catastrophic as you thought. Anyway you make your way into the line for the cereals.
You step towards the plastic tubs of sugary bubbles and grab a bowl. You grasp the scoop and fill your bowl with a combination of Sugar Smacks, Honey Nut Cheerios, Peanut Butter Crunch, and Frosted Flakes. You put this mess into a big bowl and drown it to the top in skim milk. You stare at your concoction, grinning as you point yourself toward what had been your normal breakfast table last semester, and that’s when you see Christina.
You stand stunned for a moment, trying to come up with an emotional reaction that would be explicable. You smile, and sit down across from her. You will not be afraid of this moment, for this is probably one of the many moments that will amount to a personal self-respect.
“So,” you pause real long after this first syllable. You watch her mouth, held open, it seems embarrassed. You figure that’s probably as it should be, if the universe is just. Thinking about what you’ll say next, your lips crack a smile and you show your teeth. “What’s up?”
You’re proud of your question, because it’s pretty noncommittal, but it can be delivered with spiteful flare. “Yeah, uh,” she speaks nervously, clutching at her waist. “Sorry.”
What the fuck does she mean by sorry? You think you should play it cool, not revealing how hopeful you’d been. You’d really thought she could be your first girlfriend, and the memory of that hope warms the poison in your blood. “Sorry?” You press the tray down swiftly onto the table, so that all corners clack onto the wood at the same time. You try to think of something clever to say. “So what class are you in?”
“Now,” she says, pausing while she acts embarrassed and looks at her own shoes. “Now I’m a Junior.”
This is devastating, and you take a seat as if you need to. “You’re a year younger than me?”
“Yeah,” she crosses her left hand over her right and lays them on her lap. “Sorry about that, but you understand, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
It wasn’t until you were stomping back to the dorm that you began to think of a retort. The best one you can come up with is “Fuck you.” That wouldn’t have satisfied you anyway, but it does enough that you can make it back to your dorm room without breaking down.
Once you open the door and step into your room, you sit on the bed and turn to watch Lost on your computer. How could you be so stupid?
You smile, reclining back onto a stack of pillows and lacing behind your neck. Realizing it’s not so bad, and Christina’s an unfunny bore anyway, and you wonder why you cared so much. Then there’s a knock on your door.
“Hello?” you say, no longer tortured, as you’ve begun to realize Christina was a passing fascination.
“Hey, I looked for you at breakfast, I heard you were here.” It’s Leslie instead, and a gleeful relief washes through you. You open the door, and Leslie takes the seat in front of your computer. “I heard about what happened with Christina at breakfast. That’s tough man, sorry.”
Without even hearing my response, she’d already started to speak. “Yeah fuck her.” Then suddenly with rib-rippling rhythm, you cackled for a time, nervous about what you were finally considering doing. “Hey do you wanna go out?”
You wince slightly, because you know this is ill-timed. You still have hope though, because you’re pretty sure she’s always liked you, and she’s pretty cute now that you think about it.
She has red pigtails and a patch of light red freckles that run from a spot on the back of her neck right to the center of her chest, massing together like a river. Your eyes trailed this pathway of freckles until she speaks.
You’re watching her face, knowing that you would be able to tell what her response would be. Her face droops, and so does mine. “Sorry,” she says and looked at the ground. You idiot! You curse yourself for missing what was a golden opportunity to get with Leslie. “Yeah,” you say, purposefully pausing a significant stretch of time, “So, I’m kinda going out with Kyle now.”
You think you know Kyle, he’s the guy who snorts Adderal and cleans his apartment all night. But he’s a nice guy, and you don’t have the energy to be angry anymore. So you recognize, the game is over now, and you’ve lost. Motherfuck it all, especially yourself.
But at least this experience shows you that you at least have something alluring on your side. So there you go, and if you’ve gained nothing, you at least have hope.