He can’t hear her over the music, so he steps closer, closer, closer, and she steps back, back, back. The frat house rattles and thumps, shaking to the bass. The wall appears behind her and she has nowhere to go. His body looms over her like tunnel arches when he asks what her major is and if she has a boyfriend.
“Where’d you go?” her roommate asks the next morning as she’s washing off last night’s makeup. “I saw you talking to that guy at the party, then you disappeared.” She says this without accusatorial flare, only curiosity.
But she had been there all night. Her roommate probably assumed she’d gone back to their dorm. Or to the guy’s dorm.
She recalls the way he seemed to single her out––like he surveyed the room full of women and found her to fit his exact criteria, a proper match for his impeccable taste. She’s not used to being noticed. Not on a campus this large, not in a crowd, not in the way other girls are.
As she tries to remember that feeling, her phone dings.
Hey it’s me. Great meeting u last night. We should go out sometime.
She doesn’t remember giving him her number.
A second text: Hope u don’t mind I got ur number.
She thinks of what he had to do to reach her––confessing his crush to a mutual friend, asking around to see if anyone knew her––imagining how much he must like her.
She doesn’t want to seem too eager, too desperate. She tells herself she deserves this attention; that like the other college girls who seem so experienced and worldly and confident, it’s her turn now.
She lets a couple of hours pass, but not too many. Then she replies, Okay, sure. Let me know when is good for you.
She goes to library where they’d agreed to meet and he’s standing outside laughing with his friends. He still has a touch of a baby face, with slightly chubby cheeks that soften his deep-set eyes. He seems popular, fun-loving, well-liked. He gives her a small wave in acknowledgement and she waits.
Minutes pass. She checks her phone; double checks their texts. She stares at him, trying to remind him that he’s the one who asked her here.
More minutes pass and she turns to walk away. He jogs after her. “Hey, wait up!” He just lost track of time, he says.
Such a small thing, not worth fighting over, is it?
The library. The taco bar with the stage where they watch drunk sorority girls scream “Don’t Stop Believing.” The way he signs the receipt for their meal with a flourish, like an autograph. The walk back to his car where he races to open the door for her.
The night ends with a kiss outside her dorm. He tells her she’s beautiful and perfect and other unoriginal platitudes that she forgives because she wants to believe he’s just speechless from the success of their date rather than lacking in vocabulary.
He says he’s never felt like this before; calls himself a “hopeless romantic” and an “old-fashioned guy.” He’s falling for her fast, he says.
And she’s never had anyone fall for her like that before.
It’s been days and she’s heard little more than monotone texts from him. His messages say he forgot to respond and has just been busy.
She feels the undertone of passive aggression in his texts, but doesn’t want to bring it up. She wonders whether she’s done something wrong while telling herself not to start something.
Scrolling through her Twitter feed and Facebook profile pictures and recent Instagrams, she looks for something, anything, that might have offended him. A picture with a male friend he mistakenly thinks she’s dating; a political post that riles him; a photo of her partying, half-empty drink in hand, making him think that’s all she does.
Finding nothing, she stews in restless confusion.
A week later: hey sorry i’ve been m.i.a. lately. things got really busy. can i see u tonite?
She weighs her annoyance at his belated invitation––last minute, inconsiderate––against the prospect of being wanted. She looks at her schedule, willing to compromise and rearrange.
Okay, meet me at the library.
Hours later, she wakes up in his bed, not having planned to be there. Anxiety is an acid reflux that burns her throat. Her roommate will be looking for her. As she’s rising to pull her hair into a ponytail, he says, “It’s okay. We don’t have to do anything. Just stay.”
She considers how much earlier she’ll have to wake up in the morning to get to class and how she didn’t pack an overnight bag.
“Please?” he says. And she lies back down.
Another few days since she’s heard from him and now he wants to see her. Now.
In his dorm, he tells her his grandmother is in the hospital; she might die. His vulnerability shocks her into comforting him, despite the uncertainty of their nascent relationship, if it can even be called that.
Imagining soup lovingly microwaved or flowers sent to the hospital, she asks if there’s anything she can do.
Sliding his notebook toward her and smiling with baggy-eyed tiredness, he explains it’ll be just this once, and he’ll never ask again. It’s just one term paper. She’s an English major and could crank it out in no time. It’s not that he can’t write it himself, he’s just so tired with everything going on with his family. There’s been so much to do, so many younger siblings to reassure.
If she cares about him she’ll do it. Just this once, just this one thing for him.
He wants to see her again, really he does, but he’s feeling too depressed to go out, he says. She remembers his dismal monosyllabic texts from the past week. Can she come over tonight instead?
She packs a bag with popcorn and M&Ms. She wears her cutest sweatpants. She doesn’t know what to expect––the vagaries of his invitation leave her wondering if they’ll eat delivered pizza while watching a comedy special or something more.
Back in his dorm watching Jeopardy! he calls out the answers, getting most of them wrong. She knows a number of the answers, but keeps them to herself. He makes self-deprecating jokes, poking her in the ribs to cajole her into saying her what ises aloud.
She acquiesces and as they enter the Double Jeopardy round he has fallen silent. She wonders if his depression is coming on harder or if he’s bored with the show. While focusing on whether to suggest they do something else, she blurts out an incorrect answer.
He snickers, “You’re so fucking stupid!” When he catches his breath, he says the right answer––he and Alex simultaneously stating what they perceive to be obvious. He basks in the self-satisfied glow of knowing something––one thing––she doesn’t.
It’s been awhile since she’s seen him look this confident, so she tells herself to let it go. He’s been going through a rough time. She wills herself to laugh a little too, forcing complicity in a joke she doesn’t want to be the butt of.
Her roommate is yelling again because he’s shown up unexpectedly at their dorm for the third time this week, demanding to see her. She starts to tell her roommate that something isn’t right with him, something feels off.
It’s probably nothing, she thinks. I’m just being paranoid.
She hides in the bathroom, holding her breath, while her roommate tells him she’s not here and no, she’s not sure where she went.
Hours later, she sees he’s tweeted something cryptically worrisome. He could be depressed or it could be nothing. He could be having suicidal thoughts or he could be contemplating losing his grandma or the fragile nature of life.
She debates with herself for several minutes––not knowing what to do, not knowing what is best or right. She decides to call campus police to do a welfare check at his dorm. It can’t hurt.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he screams. “You sent campus police to my dorm? If they’d found my pot I’d have been expelled!”
She explains she was just worried. She knows he’s been going through a tough time lately.
“So you weren’t there when I needed you, then you called the police on me. Some fucking girlfriend you are,” he says, turning out of her dorm and slamming the door behind him.
Fear sinks into her stomach as the door rattles in its hinges. This is the first time he’s called her his girlfriend.
A month later, she sees him with another girl. She sees them walking together, one arm around her shoulder and the other carrying her heavy freshman biology and art history textbooks, as they stroll along the sidewalk. She sees his easy smile and plump cheeks, the way he pouts a little when he’s concentrating on something the girl has said, and his too-loud guffaw.
She follows at a distance, pretending to check her phone, and watches as they part. She notices the way he draws the girl in, giving her his entire attention, then rushes off, leaving her wanting and wondering.
These familiar traits, the way he makes you feel like you’re the center of his uninhabited universe. The way he disarms you with a smile: the weaponry of his charisma.
She approaches the girl. “Hey, this is going to sound weird, but can I talk to you for a sec?”
In line in the cafeteria, waiting for the campus dining staff to shovel another orange dripping pizza under the heat lamps for the hordes of hungry students, she hears a familiar voice.
“I don’t even know, man,” he says. “I never even slept with this bitch and she’s telling my new girl all this shit to get her to dump me. Says she was afraid of me. Like, what the fuck did I ever do to her? I never even touched her.”
“Some girls are just crazy,” his friend replies, with a shrug. “That’s just how they are.”
They don’t see her a couple of bodies behind them. She wants to leave, but she’s hungry.
“I even told her about my grandma being sick and she’s still just trying to stress me out.”
“She’s just mad ‘cause you dumped her, man. Just wants attention.”
She puts in her earbuds and stares hard into her phone, wishing not to hear.
“Seriously. I never liked her anyway,” he says. “We weren’t even together for real.”
She turns her music up as loud as it’ll go, until it pulses in her eardrums, and walks away, her appetite gone.
“How’s your grandma doing, by the way?” his friend asks.
“Oh, she’s fine now.”
In the lecture hall, his professor returns the papers they’d written a few weeks ago.
He got an A-.
Mandy Shunnarah is a Best of the Net-nominated writer living in Columbus, Ohio. Her essays and poetry have been published in The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, The Citron Review, Barely South Review, Heavy Feather Review, The Missing Slate, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. Read more on her website offthebeatenshelf.com