“Um, hi,” he says. He boldly ekes out a split second of eye contact with me before fixing his eyes forward, toward the meandering flock of people we were exiting the building with.
“Hi,” I say back, ripping out my headphones and stuffing them clumsily in my sweatshirt pocket. I have genuinely no idea who this kid is. “I’m Emma,” I add, purely to in an attempt at mitigating some of the awkwardness.
“I… know,” he mumbled. I must have looked alarmed or even irritated, because he turned bright red. “I just, um, I picked up your ID, you dropped it. I recognized you by your hair.” He reached into his pocket and produced my ID. He held it out hesitantly, as if there was a chance I wouldn’t want it back. My fluffy, copper-red hair glared out of the tiny picture in the corner of the plastic card. I pocketed the card and pulled my hair back into a bun.
“So, are you headed to lunch?” He asked in an attempt at being nonchalant.
“Yeah,” I replied, pulling the door open for him.
“Me too,” he said. I made a mental note to nominate him for the World’s Most Awkward Conversationalist award.
“So, what class did you just get out of?” I asked, trying to pull some conversational weight.
He was really not giving me much to work with. Suddenly it hit me. “I never asked your name,” I noted aloud. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Jack,” he said, a faint smile gracing his face. He had friendly dimples beneath thick tortoiseshell glasses and short black curly hair.
I couldn’t help but smile a little back. Fortunately, we’d reached the dining hall and I didn’t no longer would have to conversationally fish in a highly chlorinated community pool. This time, he opened the door for me.
“Thanks,” I said, not realizing this positive response would lead him to trying to hand me a dining-hall tray moments later. However, as he soon realized, this complicated matters because I had to go back to the tray rack anyway for silverware. On emerging from the food lines, we stopped short and looked out over the dining hall. It was that ever-daunting part of the student meal experience in which the seating area looks roughly seven times larger than it actually is, the tables look eighty percent fuller, and all other students look exponentially less familiar and friendly than in other scenarios. Fortunately, I spotted my close friends sitting across the center aisle.
“I see my friends over there, so I think I’m going to go sit with them. You’re welcome to join us,” I indicated towards the table. Jack’s face visibly fell a bit. My stomach twisted uncomfortably.
We made our way to the table as a pair, but upon arrival, Jack muttered, “See you later” and walked away.
I sat down, stomach feeling worse. You know how some people are unable to eat when they feel uncomfortable or guilty? Fat chance that would ever be me. I scooped up a clod of mac and cheese and shoveled it into my mouth, trying to chew and swallow the hot foreign mass but really just gagging. I sputtered and my eyes watered pathetically.
“Um, Emma?” Josh made eye contact with me from across the table. At first, I thought he was calling me out on my inability to eat in a remotely human manner. Once the crocodile tears cleared from my eyes, it was clear that that wasn’t it.
“Yeah?” I replied, regaining my composure.
“Who was that guy?” Josh was onto me. And by me, I mean that part of my subconscious that tries to bury things I should really just be dealing with. As my closest friend, Josh seemed to have the inexplicable, creepy capacity to read me. He generally used it for good, but, like all gifts, it could easily be used for powers of evil or awkwardness.
“Oh, he picked up my ID in the Science Center when I dropped it,” I tried to sound nonchalant. “I invited him to sit with us be he didn’t seem to want to.”
“He kind of looked like he just wanted to sit with you,” Claire piped in.
Rats, I thought. They’re all onto me.
“Do you think he…” Claire started. There was a general vibe of consensus around the table.
“Ugh, come on, guys, he picked up my ID. In the Science Center. And talked to me for about five minutes.” Something told me I was losing this battle.
For the first time in the conversation, Luke spoke. Though he could definitely be the life of the conversation, he was equally capable of playing the listener role, or even the tuned-out-because-ice-cream-is-clearly-more-important role, which he had previously seemed to be in.
“Emma, I think you’re beautiful, and smart, and—“
“And I think you just took that way too far,” Josh said, giving Luke a mocking look. Luke returned his focus to his ice cream.
“But really,” Claire added, “you’re super nice and definitely not bad-looking!”
“Not bad-looking does not actually directly translate to good-looking,” I said, picking at the crust of my sandwich. “Not that I’m calling myself ugly.” I hesitated. “Not that I’m calling myself pretty.”
“Emma, you’re a real girl.” Luke had apparently mustered up the courage to speak again. “There’s nothing superficial about you. It’s obvious how that could be seen as attractive.” Josh set a lima bean on Luke’s shoulder, which Luke flicked back at Josh. It hung there, suspended from Josh’s flannel, for an alarming amount of time. I wondered what it was coated in, or even what it was made of.
“Well, not that this isn’t ridiculously uncomfortable or anything, but I have section at noon,” I announced, standing and picking up my tray and leaving to a series of grunted “bye”s and “see ya”s.
Talking about dating has always made me somewhat uncomfortable. Though I don’t have serious problems with myself, I seem hypersensitive to tiny imperfections in myself most people probably overlook. However, as I saw my reflection in the windows of a building on the way to class, I didn’t see the tiny paunch I get from slumping. When I opened the door, I didn’t see speckled zits on my forehead, or baby fat around my jawline. I saw a real girl, whatever that may be.