He found that the man that had been so friendly with Elle at the library was some guy she met in her English classes the previous semester. He hadn’t bothered to learn his name when his face was so deeply engraved in his psyche, yet he knew it anyway. Richard…Richard Ivan O’Connor. His brothers had a good time when he figured out the man’s name through Asar’s ranting about Rick the Dick, Dick the Dickhead, Dick the Bastard, That Motherfucker, Richard O’Fuck You, Richard the Sewer Rat, Dick the Dime, Ivan the Dickless, The Pimp with No Tricks (that had been Valon’s favorite)…and any other tasteful, possibly Theran/German/English epithet that he could come up with, despite his mathematical background he seemed to have a talent for creative names. No matter how many times he cursed the man, that didn’t mean he knew anything less about the bastard, or was any closer to Elle… not to mention, the man was apparently immune to his deadly death glare.
According to his brothers, they spent a good deal of time together working on papers and eating meals. They weren’t dating, but neither of them would have been surprised if they didn’t start, judging by the way Richard stared at her and fawned over her, to which she was completely oblivious as usual. He took little solace in the fact that he and Limp Dick O’Connor were in the same situation, even if that Motherfucker happened to have a bit of an advantage. The information didn’t help his disposition when he walked to his Senior design class and they were walking out of the RMC together—laughing together. A murderous rage surged up but he kept walking until he walked past them without so much as glance in her direction but caught part of their conversation.
“You’re lying,” he said.
“I know,” she replied with a false smile. “It’s usually at this point that people drop the subject.”
“I know,” he replied. “But I’m not a people now am I?”
She laughed at that and that was as much of the conversation as he allowed himself to hear as he took the road behind the RMC to get to Engineering kitchen. He managed to get through the class and head back to Duncan without slicing a finger off from the sheer amount of distraction he’d been under. He got ready for a multiple-mile bike ride to clear his mind only to hear her voice again from the other side of the elevator doors as he came down. He cursed and braced himself for when it opened with her smiling lips and blank eyes.
“Asar!” Ja’Lisa cheered with a grin. “Nice to see you.”
Elle only smiled politely at him with a faint, “Hello.”
“Yeah…” He said averting his eyes and forcing his body to move forward. “Elle…you’re a writing consultant aren’t you?”
She blinked, “Yes.”
“I uhm… I was wondering if I could ask for your help for writing my thesis?”
She wrapped her lips around the straw of her Boba tea in thought.
“It’s my job,” she said and he felt it like a punch to his kidney. He was surprised he didn’t double over in pain, maybe he was getting better at acting. “When?”
“Whenever you’re free.”
“I haven’t changed my number,” she replied as Ja’Lisa stepped into the elevator around him, he turned his bike and slid his shades down before the power unleashed itself and he gave himself away. “You can get my email off the consultation website.”
Nothing more was said and those words made him wince at their tone: indifference. He nodded unable to do much else before the elevator doors closed and she turned back to her conversation with Ja’Lisa about some paper that she was writing and a project that he’d never heard. He waited until the number above the door turned to “3” before getting on his bike, plugging in his headphones, and biking towards his route.
Ja’Lisa didn’t comment on the exchange until they reached her room.
“What the hell was that about?”
“It’s my job. I’m not going to be a bitch to someone who needs help just because I’m not a friend of theirs.”
Ja’Lisa wanted to slap her for missing the entire point of her question, but sighed instead. This was Elle she was speaking to so the idea that she was completely oblivious, or indifferent, to the meta-question that was posed was not foreign. She thought back to that conversation they’d had standing on the third floor of Duncan, in the hallway about the difference between what they did and what they should have done. Ja’Lisa had not had her out-of-the-box moment yet, and Elle seemed not to care, a little more preoccupied with just dealing with the box’s construction itself. If anything, she seemed to be fortifying it, more and more each day.
It hadn’t taken long in sophomore year to figure out that there was only so far you could go with someone ignoring your existence without not giving a damn anymore. In a normal situation, she would have gone with a straight question, but this wasn’t exactly the time. She had a paper due and Elle didn’t seem to be in the mood to discuss it rather than an essay on Asian literature.
“Alright, let’s get with this paper alright? I’ve got my own papers to write you know?”
She laughed and rolled her eyes as Ja’Lisa passed the laptop to her and let her make comments. They finished just in time for lunch and headed to the servery all smiles and laughs. They parted there under the pretense that Elle had to run, get lunch, change and head to work before one o’clock. She made it to the office with thirty minutes to spare worked until closing and headed back to her apartment. She’d just turned the key in the door and set down her bag when her phone rang.
“Hello?” She asked, pulling off her heels and walking barefoot to the kitchen.
“Who is this?”
A moment passed before she said anything and he waited on the other end to hear her voice, praying that she would say something instead of hanging up as his brothers had told him to expect.
“When is good for you?”
He winced at her tone and could hear her moving around in the kitchen and pulling out ingredients.
“Uhm…nights? Let’s say tomorrow night?”
“At what time?”
“8…if that’s okay with you.”
“It’s fine,” she said sweetly. “Where?”
“Uhm…at Fondren? I’ll reserve a room and we can meet up there?”
“Wonderful, let me know which room when you reserve it.”
“Of course…” He bit his lip and breathed in as she waited.
“I am working under the understanding that you haven’t been briefed about the writing consultant procedure for this year, so here it goes. Bring everything with you in case you want to make changes or I need background. This is not an official review, you can take my comments under advisement and make your own decisions later. I’ll be timing the session because I get credit by hours…”
She continued laying out the basics of the process and he lost track of how much pain it caused him to hear her speak to him in that false sweet tone that customer service representatives used when they were being nice. The politeness held a staleness that made his stomach churn uncomfortably. It was too impersonal and distant for comfort and made him squirm a little as she spoke.
“…you got all that?”
“Yes,” he replied softly.
“Wonderful, then I look forward to meeting you tomorrow at eight at Fondren.”
“Have a good night,” she replied and hung up.
As soon as she set the phone down she turned on the music and turned the phone of silent, ignoring the flash of her mother’s number across the screen. She just didn’t have the patience to fight anymore, too drained from the last one. She’d call back after she had time to calm down and eat, by then her mother would have reached home and would be too tired to fight. It turned out that her mother had been thinking all day about ways to slash what little energy Elle had left to ribbons. She screamed and yelled through the speaker on the phone and Elle sat at her tiny table, staring out into the darkness of the city. There wasn’t anything to say as she heard the words that she always heard being hurled at her.
Family, duty, religion, Christianity, faith, need…
She scoffed when her mother took a breath and asked, “Do you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“What is it that you expect me to say?”
“Well, what does that mean?’
“It means that I’m tired.”
“Tired?! You aren’t tired, you’re trifling.”
“Don’t you okay me! I will fly down there Elle!”
“For what purpose?”
“You think you’re grown now just because you’re a senior? Don’t you forget everything that I had to sacrifice for you! You can’t even deign to help your brother out who loves you so much? To help me out? What about your grandmother? And I have to deal with Tiffany? What about me? Can’t you ever consider how I feel?”
She didn’t let the scoff escape her throat, “Yeah.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means whatever you want it to mean, Mom. I don’t think flying down here when you can use that money to bail Luke out is such a good idea.”
“You’d be paying for it,” she said.
As if I would pay for you to fly down here and yell at me, she thought and sighed.
She thought of the words of Ayn Rand for a moment, something about sacrificing herself because it was her duty and it was their duty and right to demand the sacrifice because there was nothing that they could sacrifice.
From each according to his ability and to each according to his need…
She snorted, she’d pull a John Galt revolution before she let that shit happen.
“I’ve got class tomorrow. So say whatever it is you called to say so I can go to bed.”
“You are such a bitch,” her mother told her. “And that’s why you’re in your senior year and never had a date in your life.”
“Probably,” she agreed. “Is that all?”
“I’ll be expecting that money to be paid into my account within the week.”
Well, you’ll be waiting forever, she thought and told her mother she loved her and to have a good night.
She didn’t remember how she got to bed, but she woke up feeling like she’d only slept for three hours instead of the eight she’d gotten. Somehow she remembered that she didn’t have class or work that day and soothed herself back to sleep, turning over on her electric blanket to soothe the ache across her back. She woke up again at six o’clock, and rose from bed as if she was from the grave and stumbled her way to the shower. One more year, just one more and then she could go somewhere else and never hear that voice again.
At seven-thirty, Asar grabbed his laptop, his notes, and the rest of his supplies with trembling fingers. He breathed in and took solace in his brother’s grinning; at least someone was happy about this.
“So long as you don’t piss her off, you may have a chance to fix what you’ve done in the last four years in a month.”
“Be glad that she’s such a forgiving soul.”
He rolled his eyes, “Thanks, bro. That’s exactly what I need.”
He grinned and gave him a half hug, “You’ll be alright. Just don’t be an asshole, she’s obviously already pissed off with you.”
He huffed and headed out the door with his brother following close behind as he headed down the stairs and out into the night. Valon parted with him at the Archi studio with a vote of confidence in his favor. The cold air of the library washed off the tremors leaving him with a cold dead feeling that felt something like numbness. The next actions were simple, he got the key to one of the most hidden, most obscure rooms in the library on the 3rd floor and texted her the number. Arriving at the room, he laid out his equipment and logged on to his computer to keep himself from running away. A few minutes passed in which he was very prepared to get up and run, but by the time he’d decided three knocks sounded on the wood of the door with the finality of a presence behind it. He really could pretend that he wasn’t there…and probably get himself killed for it later, or he could open the door.
The doorknob twisted like a knife in his side and he pulled it out with the opening of the door to greet her with an expression that was somewhere between worry and wary. She looked at him with those alert and analyzing eyes, and he felt the jolt that brought the pain to ruin and replaced it with an odd sense of joy. He wasn’t bleeding out from her stare, but it seemed to half-cauterize the wound though not painlessly. His brothers had the easy route, yet he was floundering around in this weird relationship, but he never thought that he would find so much pleasure in having someone in his presence. A smile raced its way across his lips as she stood there waiting for him to move back so she could enter the room.
“Good evening,” he greeted.
“Greetings,” she replied. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
He moved aside to let her sweep past him, praying that it wouldn’t reveal him sooner than he needed. It wasn’t as if they were exactly on the friendliest of terms at the moment. He took the seat at the corner of the table, close enough to see the screen and have skin to skin contact by accident, but far enough away that if he slipped up, she wouldn’t notice it. She blinked a bit, rubbed her eyes, adjusted his screen and began to read, marking it up as she went.
Curiosity made him watch her work with a strange sense of home as if it was natural to see her proof-reading something he’d written while they were alone, within touching distance. His lips quirked into a half smile as the reality came back with the sound of her business tone.
They weren’t familiar at all.
“Is there something on my face?” She asked without diverting her attention from the screen.
He blinked at the sound of her voice and wondered how it was that she could see him with her eyes on the screen.
“I can see you staring at me, I was wondering if there was something on my face.”
“Oh…no, there isn’t.” He said and continued. “You’re just interesting to watch.”
Her brow furrowed for a moment before clicking down and typing away for a minute or so and making a sound that was something like interest. He was impressed to see that she hadn’t even opened the reference folder as she was reading his dissertation.
The question “Just not interesting enough to speak to?” went unsaid but he could almost hear it in the definite and quick taps of her fingers on his keyboard.
“Oh? I never knew that. I’ll keep that in mind.”
He winced at the flatness of the statement. Though he dreaded hearing that fact in the form of a question, he would have preferred it to her disinterested words. He hoped that there was something else, a way to start a conversation, that maybe she would help him keep himself from drowning in the awkwardness of the situation. To his trouble, she didn’t say anything else. So he gathered his nuts, took a breath and put his feet in the water.
“How have you been?” He ventured.
“Working, in school, and paying rent.”
“Oh? Where are you working?”
“In the medical center,” she replied. “St.Luke’s as a secretary for the Bone and Joint Clinic.”
He nodded, “I never pegged you for a secretary…”
She didn’t want to point out the obviousness of that statement and he didn’t want to admit that it was definitely the wrong thing to say. Instead he breathed in a bit and let his legs disappear beneath the water as he watched her work a little while longer before speaking again.
“How are your classes going?”
“Fine, writing my thesis as it were. Yours?”
“Great, writing my thesis too.”
She tapped and scrolled across a figure to the next page, a hand of painted nails resting on the stack of reference pages. He thought it odd that he nails were without a single chip, eerily perfect as if she poured all her concentration into the painting of her nails. More than that, they were a reflective and almost shifting color of sea depths, the color of the sea when he gazed out the window at his home on Thera. His mouth twitched a little.
“Is a humanities thesis different than a science one? I mean, as far as research.”
His hips were in now and it was cold and murky.
“It can be,” she replied as she highlighted and marked a few things and continued scrolling.
“How so? You don’t have to do research?”
“It’s different, we’re not running experiments it’s a matter of analyzing literature, or writing literature, to get certain effects.”
The water came up above his abs now, getting colder, darker, thicker as he sunk in.
“Oh…that’s why I could never be an English major…too much theory, not enough application.”
“There’s plenty of application,” she told him. “How do you think literature is produced?”
He chuckled a little, “I suppose you’re right.”
“Besides without people to proofread papers,” she said. “How would you science people publish anything? Get anything organized? Or learn about your trade in the first place?”
He nodded, slipping just a little deeper until the nothing but his shoulders, arms, and head were above water. Just a little more.
“Yeah…I suppose you’re right. English people do write better textbooks…and if we didn’t have someone to write our speeches we probably wouldn’t even think about how the normal person was going to understand what we were saying.”
“Yep,” she said and continued typing, nearly speeding through the paper without missing a detail.
She had so much practice reading engineering dissertation write-ups that it wasn’t hard. He knew that, but she didn’t know that he knew that and was working on the idea that she could get out of conversation because she would need her concentration. He swallowed, that only meant she wasn’t going to let him get in the water completely without a fight: she wasn’t going to volunteer to speak.
I can see why they told me to be careful…she is really not happy with me.
He bit his lip, trying to think of a way to draw her into a conversation without creeping her out, pissing her off, or being too personal. He was glaring at the water turned clay around his body as he held himself above the unmoving mass while trying to figure out how to turn it back into water and get in all the way.
Silence passed as he stared at her staring at the screen and contemplated the clay ocean.
Thera must have been watching him across the stars and smiled before granting his wish. Two bodies came stumbling down the hall, close and wrapped up in their making out that they bumped and stumbled amongst the books. The sound of their activities, the desire could be heard through the glass as the girl was slammed against the glass window effectively gaining Elle’s attention as she glanced at the couple with disinterest and turned back to work.
He got up and tapped on the window a little bit, gaining the woman’s attention. She turned around and turned bright red, the man’s ears turned red a little as they stared back at Asar through the glass with disbelief.
“The ones down the hall don’t have windows,” he told them and the scurried down the hall disappearing from sight.
“Hmmm,” he started before tsking. “That wasn’t awkward.”
She scoffed a little and looked up to see him leaning against the window with a wistful-looking out at the lines of books in front of the window. He heard her breathing before the sounds of typing picked up again. She muttered something about defiling the library and people’s weird kinks before the silence between them resumed. He sighed.
“Wait,” he said turning to look at her.
Holding his breath and swallowing hard hoping that letting go of the boardwalk over the gelatinous mass wouldn’t mean death, but would turn it back to water. She looked up at him, expectantly and his hand went up yet he did not sink into the gelatin that had suddenly hardened to rock around him.
“You’re angry with me aren’t you?”
Her expression didn’t change, there was no ripple of disturbance, she only blinked slowly, sleepily.
“Why would be angry with you?” She replied.
“Because….” His voice trailed off. “Because of everything…”
Her head tilted a little, but her eyebrow didn’t move. He took it as a sign to continue.
“Because of my stupidity…”
“Your paper’s not that bad—”
“I’m not talking about the paper,” he said calmly.
She waited for an explanation—not because she really wanted to hear it but because he was apparently very nervous. His eyes shifted around the room, to anywhere but her face. She waited for him to bite his lip, sit down, and finally meet her eyes with an emotion she couldn’t really place nor cared to.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
She blinked in disbelief and leaned back in her chair, withdrawing her hands from the keyboard to give him her full attention. Whatever he had to say after that seemed important to him to say it, what type of person would she be if she didn’t at least listen?
“I’m sorry, I realize that since freshman year I haven’t been very nice, but the truth is that I did want to be friends with you…I just didn’t know what to say.”
He swallowed down the other words that would have been too soon for the moment and waited the moments away, holding his breath in the solid imprisonment and hoping that he could continue to hold he found a way to turn the rock into water.
“I didn’t mean to make you think that I was ignoring you on purpose or anything. I didn’t mean to make you angry, or to hate me…I’m sorry, Elle.”
He held his breath as moments passed and he waited for her to say something. Drowning in worry and terror, he almost missed the tiny, three letter word. The past tense of “do.”
“…Did?” She asked and suddenly he was falling into a liquid world, gazing up through shifting blue into the light.
He watched her carefully for the moment that her eyes softened a little and a little flicker of what could have been forgiveness, not understanding, acceptance with no question, surfaced.
“I still do,” he replied.
Her eyes smiled a little and her mouth twitched as she chuckled a little, turning her eyes back to his paper and placing her fingers over the keyboard again.
“It’s alright, Bright Eyes. Don’t look so scared. I’m not going to punch you, or slap you.”
He smiled back as she went back to work and it quickly turned into a grin, “Even if I asked you to?”
She glanced at him, shaking her head in disapproval, “I knew you were a freak.”
He laughed and resurfaced to breathe and tread water for the rest of the night. The tension in his shoulders relaxed back into the chair and a few minutes later she was talking again, about his paper, but her tone had changed. She didn’t sound like a customer representative anymore but like Elle. The way she did when she was helping people because she wanted to, the way she had on all those Sunday nights in the Duncan commons. Aside from the grammatical errors, she pointed out the organization issues and he couldn’t help but admire her for her professional approach to it. He took her notations to heart and made a few more notes of his own as reminders to what they were talking about. The session ended with him answering questionnaire online, signing her form, and asking that she look at it when he made the changes.
“Please?” He asked looking up at her as she gathered her things.
“Sure, let me know when,” she replied pulling her bag on her shoulder and heading out the door with him packing up to catch up to her.
Despite her refusal, he walked her to her car at West Lot. Refusing the ride to Duncan she offered, he waved her off and bid her goodnight before heading towards Duncan, to his room, and to sleep. In the morning, his friends would tell him that he looked happy and ask him if he scored the night before. He’d laugh and tell them no, but wouldn’t tell them what had happened.