I found him to be quite wonderful, Tom Halder.
My best memory, stored next to song lyrics you surprise yourself by repeating word-for-word, was at the office that one time.
For the sake of clarity, it was the university’s computer lab. But it served as an office for the school paper, so we all got in the habit of calling it that.
So there I was, pretending to work at 4:37 on a Tuesday. Well, okay, I think we can say I was working. Those articles did need to be coded. It just didn’t really need to happen Tuesday.
But when Tom entered the office at 4:38, as he did every week to check his email before class, I was not in the lab for any other reason than because I knew he would be there.
When he walked in, I did everything in my power to refrain from showing any reaction. I didn’t even look; didn’t even see him walk in.
My roommate calls me a liar when I say that. “Then how did you even know he was there?” she’ll say, her nose wrinkling, lips knotted to one side.
“I just did.”
I sensed him moving into the room, standing less than four feet behind me, and in that moment I knew he was going to sit at a computer next to me. I was working so hard to appear not to notice him, it didn’t register that he had asked me a question for a good two seconds after the words left his lips.
“WHA?” I grunted, my head snapping to attention. His eyes widened slightly.
“Um, do you know if anyone is sitting here?”
“Oh, uh, no, I don’t think so. I mean, not since I sat down. And I’ve been here, like, ten minutes…ish…so, yeah, I don’t think…nope.”
My roommate always laughs when I tell this part because, though it’s been years, the skin covering my sternum still flushes the angry color of humiliation.
“K, thanks,” Tom had chuckled, pulling out the chair next to me.
In the following four minutes, I pretended to read the code in front of me and inhaled deeply, trying to figure out if he smelled as good as he looked.
“Oh God, I forgot about the you-smelling-him part,” my roommate interrupts, her hand over her mouth in amusement.
“I wasn’t smelling him,” I correct. “I just, you know, breathed through my nose for a while. It’s not my fault if some of his scent particles find their way into my nose.”
“His scent particles?”
“Can I just finish the story?” She rolls her eyes.
“Then get on with it. You were inhaling his scent particles. What happened next?”
The minutes were winding down—and I knew in about two-and-a-half minutes he would log out, rise from the chair, and be gone—when something happened.
I felt him turn to look at me, and in an ironic panic that only shy girls with manic crushes can understand, I wanted nothing more than for him to just go back to ignoring me.
“You’re Ava, right?”
“Oh, uh, yeah?”
“You were in my web design class, right?”
I couldn’t breathe. This hot, hot heat was building in my brain and threatened to burst, blowing my skull out with it.
“Oh, yeah, I was…I’m surprised you even remember me.”
“You had a really cool website for the final. I always meant to say something about it.”
I could have died. I could have shit myself and then died and then probably shit again.
“Really? Well, thanks.”
And then I was going to say that I liked his website, too, even though I knew I hadn’t. The layout had been confusing and his navigation bar didn’t match the color scheme of the rest of the site. But I would tell him I liked it. And even if we never spoke again, he would remember me as the girl who designed a cool website and then, in turn, also liked his. My mouth was opening to say these words when his friend leaned through the doorway.
“Halds! You do the reading?”
This person, a senior named Chris…H-something—
“You remember his name,” my roommate cuts me off from the other room where she’s fluffing her hair. “Stop pretending you don’t just to sound less crazy.”
I glare toward her room but mutter, “I think it was Chris Hubert.” I hear the rattle of her makeup brushes and assume she’s done interrupting.
Anyway. I think I would have forgiven Chris Hubert if he had said something like, “Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”
But he didn’t. Instead, he and Tom spoke a few sentences back and forth about the reading, squandering the minutes before the class with ignorant questions.
Finally, Tom glanced at the clock, sighed, and with three clicks had logged out of the computer.
“You’re an idiot, dude,” he called to his friend, who just grinned and (finally) headed to class.
Tom stood, swinging his jacket back onto his lean frame in exactly the way I knew he would. “Well, see you around, Ava.”
For a fraction of a second, I fantasized about standing up, grabbing his arm, and whispering conspiratorially that he should skip class. Grab a cup of coffee.
For an even smaller fraction, I let my brain conjure up a single image: The two of us in a coffee shop, steaming mugs in front of us, laughing over something. I didn’t let myself decide who said something funny.
“Yup, see ya!”
I didn’t watch him walk away. I finished coding the articles that didn’t need to be finished, logged out of my computer, and left.
“Ava,” my roommate says gently, wrapping a scarf around her freckled neck, “that really is the worst story.”
“I know,” I say. “For some reason it just stuck out in my brain.”
“Probably because you never even talked to the kid ever again after that,” she muses, unlocking the heavy front door.
“Probably,” I agree.