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Counting the Days
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
She takes in a deep breath of warm Raft College air and expels it as if she is expelling a part of herself. The part, in particular, that is capable of coherent thought. The day is only halfway over, but she is already beat.
She had known that college was going to be a challenge. She had looked forward to that after the boring routine of high school, and she continues to hold some small particle of that enthusiasm. But it is still exhausting trying to get all the new information that has been shoved her way sorted into a proper arrangement.
The rest of the day doesn't look any more promising, but for the moment at least she has a full hour to rest and forget about it all.
She is walking toward one of the many open areas on the Raft grounds, one that she had noticed during the short tour of the university. It is a bit out of the way and seemed to attract fewer students than other spots around the campus, two qualities that she finds very palatable.
A concrete walkway winds its way up to the top of the small hill she is approaching. Carved concrete tables and benches dot the tiled area. She chooses one of the tables along the edge and notices almost immediately upon sitting down that it is covered with sticky sap from the tree sitting alongside. After a bit of searching, she finds a spot that is relatively sap-free and feels cheered by the fact that the movie theater floor-like quality will almost certainly keep other people from trying to join her.
Not that she doesn't want people to join her.
No, scratch that. She doesn't want people to join her. With few exceptions, she doesn't like other people overmuch.
And she needs her solitude right now, anyway. An hour to herself away from lecturing professors and questioning students and the noise and the bustle.
She pulls a book from her satchel, cracks it open, and starts reading.
As she approaches what is quickly becoming her regular spot, she pulls a small spray bottle of surface cleaner and a wad of napkins from her pocket. A few minutes of scrubbing has her seat and the section of table right in front of her completely cleared of treesap and ready for an hour of quiet, uninterrupted relaxation.
For the first half hour, she doodles idly on a piece of scrap paper, letting her mind wander where it will. The second half hour is spent reading the first chapter of her Western Civilization textbook.
The free period goes just as well as it has the entire week, leaving her refreshed and ready for another round of classes. She wonders if it would work as well even on days she doesn't have class and considers coming down for the weekend just to keep up the routine.
She looks up from her books, startled when someone sits across the table from her.
It is a boy approximately her own age, presumably only just stepping into manhood. He sets his book bag on the ground next to the stone bench, opens a textbook, and starts reading.
The sense of invasion comes as a shock to her. She has only been sitting at this table for a week, after all. And it's a free campus. He can sit wherever he wants, even if it happens to be right across from her. But for some reason it still grates against her nerves that he would simply sit down without even asking if the seat was taken.
She works to calm herself. At least he isn't trying to strike up a conversation. All he is doing is sitting and reading. Even as she stares at him, he keeps both his head and his attention directed strictly downward. She might as well not even exist as far as he is concerned.
Well . . . good, she thinks. That suits her just fine. Just fine, indeed.
Her mouth seems to open of its own accord and she is about to ask him just what he thinks he's doing, because it is not fine. But she shuts it just as quickly. She remembers what her sister Quinn told her earlier in the year. That college was going to have people that she would actually like. That she would have lots of friends.
She doesn't think of herself as someone who is supposed to have a lot of friends. But . . . she thinks it might be nice to have a few more. And that certainly isn't going to happen if she snaps at every single person who decides to sit near her.
The biggest piece of her mind that she gives the boy is a brief dirty look, then she goes back to her book and promptly forgets he's even there.
He's sitting across from her, and she's beginning to see the entire thing as a test of wills.
For the fourth day running, she has sat down at her table to read, or to work, or to simply veg out, and he has sat down across from her without fail, and apparently to do the exact same thing. It's almost like a childish game, the annoying copying game that siblings use to torture each other. He's trying to make her break, she's sure of it. He wants some kind of reaction, and thus far she has been able to keep from giving it to him.
Because she's stubborn. Oh, so very stubborn, a trait that she inherited from her mother and honed against so many other irritants in the world. She has put her shoulder against worse than this silent boy and come out on top.
She will not break.
He will speak first.
She will not break.
The boy is sitting across from her, but he has become part of the scenery. No more noteworthy than the table itself. Or the grass. Or the clouds. Or the tree sitting next to them, its leaves already turning a lighter shade of green that will gradually shift to orange, red, or brown.
He is nothing to her.
This is what she keeps telling herself, and she's almost managed to make it true. But there is still that small itch in the back of her brain that compels her attention like the world's most irritating gnat.
She swats casually at the back of her head and keeps working on the short story that she's writing. The mental gnat leaves her alone for a little while.
But only a little while.
It is Saturday.
She has long ago found that sitting in the open area on the weekends does indeed help her relax more. And relaxation is something she dearly needs. She is about to be hip deep in midterms, and so virtually all of what used to be her free time is now taken up entirely with studying, reviewing, memorizing, and taking so many notes that she has begun to wonder which will happen first, carpal tunnel or critical laptop overheating.
He sits down across from her, and for several long minutes, she doesn't notice. She has finally learned to ignore him completely.
But this cannot be ignored completely. She looks at him and then looks around. There are no other students in the open area, many of them off doing whatever it is college students do whenever they are not hanging around the campus. It is just him and her, two people who should have been off elsewhere doing other things, be it studying in their dorms or partying at a kegger or walking the streets to look down on the local townies.
Not that she has ever done those last two things, but still. It is the principle of the thing.
While sitting and pondering exactly what to do about this situation, she lets out a small sniffle. She clamps one hand across her nose in horror at this betrayal her body has perpetrated. Since the slight soreness had started in the sides of her throat the day previous, she has been afraid that she has caught a cold or the flu or some other dreaded disease.
She has tests to take. She has studying to do. She cannot afford to get sick. And she definitely can not afford to get sick in front of this boy. They have finally reached a truce of sorts. A treaty built of mutual disinterest. She doesn't want him to start paying any sort of attention to her, and hacking and coughing and spitting up phlegm could do nothing but attract attention.
She will have to stay inside for a while. It is the best thing to do anyway, if she really is getting sick. She will miss sitting at her table, and it may drive her crazy not to get in her hour of quiet semi-solitude, but it is simply something she is going to have to deal with.
But for now, she sits and she reads.
She doesn't feel very well. But she is determined to ride this illness out at her regular table for just this one day. Midterms are killing her just as surely as the cold is.
At least she knows it definitely is a cold now. The flu would have already buried her and moved on to its next victim.
Fall is descending rapidly upon Boston, and the breeze is pleasantly cool against her warmish skin. She is a ball of misery inside, but the exterior world has seen fit to help keep her from being totally uncomfortable.
The boy shows up and sits down, ruining her burgeoning good mood. He is late today, and she had allowed herself to hope that he wouldn't come along at all. But there he sits in spite of all the foul thoughts she sends his way. He spreads his usual array of textbooks and notebooks out on the table, then pulls two small lidded bowls from his satchel and sets them alongside the schoolwork.
She watches out of the corner of her eye as he produces two plastic spoons as well. After settling everything into place, he begins to read as he pulls the lid off one of the bowls and starts eating the thick broth within.
She tries to concentrate on her own work, but she finds herself wondering what the boy's meal smells like. She feels certain that it must be something wonderful, but her nose is too clogged up to take in even the slightest whiff.
He finishes the broth, then gathers the bowl and all of his books into his bag. She openly watches him leave, equally confused by his early departure as his late arrival. It takes her a few moments to realize that he has left behind the other bowl and spoon.
She briefly considers breaking the silence between them by picking up the bowl and taking it to him, but quickly dismisses the notion. She's glad he is gone, and she doesn't want to take the chance that even taking the bowl to him without speaking might cause him to come back.
Hefting her book up to her bleary eyes, she does her best to ignore the lidded crockery. But as she reads, a small part of her brain starts turning a thought over and over, trying to figure it out. Unable to concentrate on her studying, she hauls the thought to the forefront of her mind and takes a good hard look at it. And so she wonders . . .
Why two spoons?
It is, without a doubt, the most delicious chicken noodle soup she has ever eaten.
Midterms finally finished and cold gone - excepting the occasional need of a handkerchief or paper napkin - she sighs in relief.
Wondering what to do about the boy situation, she sighs in frustration.
He wasn't at the table yesterday or the day before, and he isn't there today. She had talked to her best friend earlier in the day about the whole thing. Jane had told her to just woman up and talk to him.
Her ex-boyfriend Tom had also called, just as he had promised he would do shortly after their breakup. She had, for some inexplicable reason, told him about the boy. After a short pause, he had given her the same advice as Jane, if with gentler phrasing.
She is confused. What is this boy's game? Is it a game? She was never good at trying to figure out people's motivations, and his are further masked by a history of strange behavior.
Blowing her nose, she decides that sitting in her usual relaxation spot is not as relaxing as it should be. She leaves, hoping she can find something else to fill up her weekend.
Her heart threatens to thump out of her chest. She isn't sure what to do, so she does nothing, hoping that he will make the first move.
The only move he makes is the same one he's made almost every single day he has sat across from her. He pulls out schoolwork and hunkers down, concentrating on it and it alone.
No one says anything for the rest of the hour.
The leaves have begun to fall, and she has to brush them aside to sit at her table. She is certain the he will have to do the same on his own side, but it doesn't matter. She doesn't care.
There is indeed the sound of rustling leaves, but she barely registers it. She concentrates on the notes she is jotting down. Fifteen minutes, and she decides she has had enough work, so she puts her notebook away and pulls out a novel that she has been slowly making her way through as of late. It is only recreational reading, but she has been storing the small bit here and there for possible future reference in a paper she's working on.
A sigh sounds out from the other side of the table, taking her completely by surprise. It is the first voluntary noise that he has ever made in her presence.
She tries to glance up without actually moving her head and notices that he has set his left hand out on the table. It isn't doing anything. It is simply laying there, palm down. It is sitting on what she feels is her side, and this is pulling his arm out at what appears to be an awkward angle.
It can't be comfortable. So why is he doing it?
She takes a chance and lifts her face a bit. He is still not paying attention to her, looking down at his own book with a solemn expression.
What is going on here?
As she sits and thinks, she also moves. Almost without her notice and definitely without her conscious permission, her right hand has started inching its way forward. When this strange development comes to her attention, she decides that she is going to swat his hand away from her side. She has had quite enough of this little game, thank you very much, and it is finally time to end it.
To her utter shock, she lays her hand gently on top of his.
He doesn't react. Not a shout. Not a twitch. His expression remains unchanged, even though she is sure that he can feel the warmth of her palm just as readily as she can feel the smooth skin across the back of his hand.
They sit like this for several minutes, and the entire time she is internally demanding that she explain herself.
More time grinds out, and then he is the one to take the next step. Very carefully he lifts his thumb and rubs it softly against hers.
She almost forgets her satchel in her hurry to be anywhere else on the planet.
He is a no show.
Still no boy. Where is he?
The start of a new school week. She has become worried, despite herself.
She wants to apologize. Wonders if she even has anything to apologize for.
Halloween is lonely without him. She is surprised to find that she isn't surprised over this.
She gives up, and giving up cuts deeply. It feels strange.
Intellectually she knows she didn't really lose anything, and by all rights she should be happy that she finally gets her table to herself like she had always wanted. But she senses that her intellect is, for once, lying to her.
She takes the glove off of her right hand. She then places her hand on the table, wincing slightly at the cold surface of the concrete. Her fingers trace imperfections in the stone, ghostly indentations that she can only feel, not see.
She puts her head down in the crook of her left arm and wonders if she is going to cry.
Her hand is suddenly enveloped in warmth, and she jumps, startled. She holds her gloved hand over her mouth and tries her best not to cry out loud.
He is sitting across from her. This time, there are no books. No texts. No worksheets. And his attention is reserved for her and her alone.
"Hi," he says. "Would you like to go out sometime?"
He smiles warmly at her.
And to his delight, she smiles back.
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
December 20, 2009