Fiction Issue Runner-Up
Sometimes when he looked at her, he wasn’t sure what he was seeing.
Generally, most often, she was Elyse, double major, guitar player, graduate school application obsessive–compulsive. She was a cigarette enthusiast and a member of the local wine–tasting club. She knitted and sewed and stitched, her hands constantly in motion, whether she was on the train or conjugating Russian verbs aloud or talking avidly about TV shows with her friends.
Most of the time, she was Elyse, a fusion of teenage girl and adult woman, not quite one or the other. Ben liked that about her, because it meant she wasn’t predictable, that she wasn’t completely without immaturity or lodged firmly in the stereotype of the responsible adult.
Occasionally, though, Ben looked at her and saw something he did not expect.
Instead of her typically self–conscious college clothes, he saw her wearing gowns of organza, yards and yards of fabric flowing around her and trailing in long bustling trains on the grass of the quad. He saw her with circlets on her head, gleaming gold in the autumn’s setting sun, and a regal bearing squaring her usually slumped shoulders. He thought he saw her walking toward him as though she were crossing the length of a palace’s grand hall, or with the haughty, cold look in her eyes of a practiced courtier.
He would see that for a second, the briefest flash of the light catching her gold watch across her face, and then she would be back to the Elyse he knew, a 21–year–old in jeans and a plaid wool coat.
He and Alex, his roommate, went to the library between classes one day. Ben needed a biography of Queen Victoria for his English history course and Alex wanted to pick up that week’s New Yorker. They walked slowly from the room, cold autumn sunlight following them across campus.
They came inside, swiping their identification cards through the security checkpoint and calling out quick greetings to Jess, the student librarian they were both friends with. “Ben,” she said earnestly, leaning over the counter with a film history book in her hand. “I got the book for you! It took some wheedling, but I managed to convince the other library to loan it out to us on special request. It’s only for two weeks, though, so…”
Ben took it from her, flipping smoothly through the glossy pages, smoky soft–focus photos of Casablanca and sixties–bright Ursula Andress rising out of the cobalt blue Pacific in “Dr. No.”
“You’re taking a directing class, right?” Jess asked, smiling at him, resting her chin on her hands. She had glasses and freckles, but Ben could never really remember the details of her face, the color of her eyes, the shape of her glasses, when he walked away.
“Yeah.” Distractedly, he paged through the book. When he least expected it, he found Elyse watching him coyly between screen shots from “Rosemary’s Baby.” She had Mia Farrow’s blond boy haircut and her eyes were forested in black mascara. Listening closely, he thought he heard her say, “It’s Vidal Sassoon.”
He looked up, and saw Jess peering at him with anxious excitement. Her hand had stolen across the counter when he hadn’t noticed and now rested on his. He shook her off quickly, pretending to have an itch, and tucked the book under his arm.
“Alex,” Ben snapped, jerking his chin toward the door. “You ready?”
Ben sat next to Elyse in their statistics lecture, as of course he should. He would help her with her questions, when she had them, and when she didn’t feel like eating the apple she unfailingly brought with her every day to class, he naturally took it off her hands. She was a lefty, and her elbow always bumped his as they furiously raced to note everything their fast-talking professor rattled off.
In between computing the standard deviations of Chi-square possibilities for varieties of Guernsey cows’ milk production, Ben would sneak surreptitious glances at Elyse. Her eyes would be oscillating between her crumpled pages of notes and the blackboard covered with equations and calculator-speak, and so she rarely ever noticed if Ben stole a few well-earned looks at her.
Even though she was always crouched over her notebook, hair stressfully scraped off of her face and two teeth gnawing at her bottom lip, Elyse had the ability to transform into someone else when Ben looked at her for too long. The world seemed to fall away around her, leaving her in a setting of intrigue and interest: a train station, a restaurant on some small European street, a beach with white sand.
The other students in the room disappeared, and Ben saw only Elyse, wrapped in a noir’s trench coat, or with a long cigarette holder pinched between two fingers, or shining with suntan oil under shady palms. At times like those, all thoughts of mathematical calculations slipped irretrievably from him, lost in a dense haze of his own creation.
There was going to be a concert that evening on the quad. Students were already spilling from their dorms and crowding the grass, laying out blankets and tugging on their coats as the chill of the evening began to wrap around them. Ben spotted Elyse emerging from a building with a few of her friends and immediately started over toward them.
“Where are you going?”
Ben turned sharply and saw Alex watching him with a puzzled expression.
“I thought you were going to sit with us.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “I’m sitting with Elyse.”
Alex considered this information for a moment before he gently asked, “Why?” Ben opened his mouth to fire off a quick retort, but was cut off by Alex, who added, “Ben, she barely knows you exist.” He motioned vaguely over to where Elyse and her friends stood, and Ben looked, looked and saw who had to be Elyse’s boyfriend encircle her waist from behind.
Stiffly, shortly, Ben nodded, after swallowing the dryness in his throat. “Yeah,” he said feebly, after an uncomfortable pause. “Yeah, I was just kidding.”
But as he followed Alex over to where he’d staked out a square of grass for them, Ben couldn’t help glancing back to where Elyse stood. When he looked at her, he saw the arms wrapped around her wore his sleeves, and that the mouth whispering in her ear was his own.