It was the beginning of a new semester at the University of Pittsburgh, and the first week, which was also the first week of September, looked as if it had been misplaced from somewhere in late October. The drizzle, chill, and wind forced the girls to hide their wares underneath oppressive layers of fabric. It was as if the dance of the new semester had undergone a theme change at the last minute, from “Basking in Nature and Each Other’s Gazes” to “Shelter from the Elements”.
Happy to be inside, under the comforting fluorescent lights of the engineering building, the large windows in the hallway functioned for me much like my head as it poked out from under the covers on a cold night – enhancing my comfort by showing me what I was one down comforter (or, in this case, a double window pane) from enduring.
I sat at my desk, trying to muster some forward momentum on my attempts to write a program to quickly model light-diffraction. In fact, it was already quick. The problem was that it was nowhere near accurate. As I sat there, hoping the success I felt at having turned on the computer would carry me forward to something even greater, I heard her.
From her cough, I could tell she was attractive – maybe 5’4”, 115 lbs, long black hair, white skin, a longish, beautiful face, a pretty-but-conservative dress. Maybe smart. Maybe a bit of a sorority girl. But dignified, as those things go.
I headed down the hall toward the water fountain specifically to see her. I turned the corner, and there she was – 5’2”, maybe, light-brown skin, ringlet-curly dark hair with blonde highlights. Freckles. Cute. Perhaps quite a distraction if she had some personality to her. But not someone to make me fall all over myself. Unless I thought about her to much. Or she smiled at me.
In the past, each had proved critical mass.
I continued past her down the hall toward the water fountain, filled up the water bottle I’d brought with me, and headed back, by which time she’d vanished.
Five minutes later I sat fully hydrated in front of my computer, the code of the modelling program confronting me. I decided I should probably check if Jose was in yet. I walked across the hall and knocked.
“Come in,” he said.
I did, and, to my utter shock, found that my view of Jose was blocked by ringlet-curly highlights, sitting quite boldly on the desk of my colleague and newly former friend.
How did she know Jose? And why was she sitting on his desk, dangling her foot off the side like that? How had he kept this secret from me? More importantly, why?
He’d been hiding her, obviously. Jealously guarding her – secreting her away, when a creature of her beauty and grace deserved to be free to roam the entire engineering department unhindered and uninhibited. He deserved, nay, required a harsh rebuke and severe reprimand for his greed and arrogance.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey, man,” he said.
“Hi,” she finally decided to say.
“Hi,” I responded
He looked at me, slightly smiling. Waiting. She looked at him, then back at me. I looked at him, then at her.
“Oh, haven’t you two met?”
Come, come now, Mr. Bond – you know as well as I that we’ve never before exchanged so much as a glance.
“No,” I said.
She shook her head.
“Zoraida, this is Sam.”
We shared our assessments on the acquaintance-making that had just occurred, (and, in what was perhaps a sign of our compatibility), assessing it identically – as nice.
There was an enchanting confidence in the way she spoke. Her speech accented undeserved final syllables just often enough to deny a listener’s attention any rest. I didn’t know if it pointed to her accent or her personality. Maybe the interplay of the two.
I excused myself when I felt things were getting awkward, which is usually well after things had actually gotten awkward. I returned to my desk and busied myself with tedious work, going over the simulation’s code and making sure all instances of the old equation had been replaced by the new one and that no doubling factor remained anywhere.
I got a reprieve with lunch and a couple afternoon classes, then returned to finish changing the code. I had little realistic hope that this latest attempt would result in any kind of breakthrough, but, as always, there was that rather significant bit of unreasonable hope that the first run would miraculously yield exactly the pattern we’d been looking for, and, at that point, I was too tired to even try to suppress it.
The first run yielded an error message, and I decided either I or the computer had to go, and the machine seemed firmly entrenched.
I stopped for a bagel on the way home and saw Jose in the cafe. He told me to sit with him. It felt awkward – I was sure I stunk of jealousy and that my eyes accused betrayal. As I looked down to sit, I told myself, “When you look at him again, just pretend he’s a normal person, not the traitor he is. But my brain was too smart to believe that, and I was sure my feelings were tattooed on my hot face and my thoughts telegraphed through my every pained action and muted reaction.
Luckily, he spoke first.
“So, how’s it going, Paleskin? Looks like there’s a storm coming, eh?”
I looked out the window at the sky, which had finally switched from overcast to dark.
“Yeah, well, you can’t always believe what you see,” I said.
“Hmm… you seem very wise today.”
“Clouds bring me clarity.”
We talked for a bit – Family Guy and international politics – the usual. Finally, he stood.
“Well, I should get going.”
“I’ll join you.”
We exited the café.
“So, this Zoraida…” I started.
He smiled. Turned. Looked at me. Lost the smile. Raised his eyebrows.
“How… how long you known her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a year. We TA’ed Circuits 101 together two spring semesters ago.”
“Where’s she been since then?”
“She studied abroad in Mexico for a year,” he said as we continued our passive-aggressive race against the weather, walking down the sidewalk toward our places in Shadyside.
“You must be glad she’s back.”
He turned to face me again.
“Why do you say that, Paleskin?”
“I don’t know – you guys seemed like friends.”
“Yeah. It just felt like you might be implying something more.”
“Would that be offensive?” I asked, looking down at my shadow.
“I’m not sure. Coming from you, a lot of things seem to be.”
“Seem to be.”
“Perception is reality,” he said.
“Well, one version of it, at least,” I said, slowing to take off my jacket – all this activity had warmed me up.
“But each of us only has one version.”
“I didn’t make the rules.”
“But you play by them.”
He gave me a look.
“Paleskin, is there anything you want to come out and say to me?”
“Sorry, buddy – I’m still not gay.”
“’Come out.’? I know your code.”
“Are you ever serious?”
I looked up and felt his gaze follow mine to the bright-golden late-afternoon sun.
“Only when it’s cloudy.”