Prompt: Write a short scene in which one character reduces another to uncontrollable sobs without touching him or speaking.
Here’s a long one. Bear with me!
She would call it “unpleasant.” Not “bad” or “horrifying” or “likely to make her crush herself into a dark alcove and shiver like a hypothermia victim.” No, she would call it “unpleasant” and she would lift her chin and screw her innocent doe-eyes into hard slits, and they would return to their racy magazines and football practices. She would return to her quiet corner in the dining hall where she ate her slightly wilted spinach salad and read romance novels disguised in the slip covers of Oxford’s World Classics and he would forget her name.
He started with a note. Plain white, ripped straight off his handout about the chronology of the existentialist movement in France, it landed on her desk in a little dime-sized ball halfway through Professor Rewston’s lecture on the theme of despair in Sartre’s No Exit. Until she caught his pleading eyes from two desks over, she thought someone had missed the trash can spectacularly. After she identified him, she thought he had missed the cute blonde in the too-tight cardigan sweater. Tall. Reasonably muscular. Face approaching the golden ratio. Athlete. If she paid any attention to the basketball team, she would have known the name to attach to that genetically gifted face.
She was neither an athlete nor a jersey chaser, but she was certain that he was looking right at her, then at the ball of rubbish, then at her again. Can you meet me after class? it said, half blurred out by the crinkles. She pointed to herself. He nodded. Right after Rewston’s lecture, which she heard only half of and recorded only a third of in her pink unicorn notebook, she stopped next to him in the hallway, doll-sized compared to his basketball-god’s height.
“Alyssa.” She clutched her notebook like a flat, jagged teddy bear. The spirals cut swirls into her forearm.
“Right, Alyssa. You’re really smart.”
She shrugged, mouse-like.
“I . . . need help.” He ruffled a hand through that wavy brown hair, wafting pine aftershave and shampoo into her nose. “I’ll lose my spot on the team if I fail this class. I can’t drop it.” Her silence made his lip twitch, dimpling his cheek. “I want you to tutor me.”
“Me?” she squeaked, wondering how he had chosen her, of all the halfway competent students in the class, wondering if he sensed her sneering detachment from his world.
“I don’t get this stuff. But you do. You always answer Rewston’s questions.”
She bit a red line into her lip. Sheepishly, he fished for a piece of paper from his pocket and pressed it into the space between her arm and her notebook. “Just think about it, okay?”
Once his head, half a foot higher than even the tallest people in the crowd, had bobbed down the hallway and around a corner, she unfolded the note. ‘Mike,’ it said in characters almost like an ancient alphabet, and a phone number.
He had a reputation as a nice guy and he had snagged, as a freshman, one of the coveted starting spots on the basketball team. He pronounced Nietzsche like “Nee-chee” and Camus like “Cay-muss” and spelled Kierkegaard five different ways. But his smile made his cheek dimple and crinkled his eyes, and when she flipped through their textbook and talked about ego and personal responsibility and facticity, he listened and took notes in his cipher-like script and asked her the kind of questions that no one else cared about.
Questions like where she came from and how she got to be so smart and why she wrote volumes in her little spider-letters on tests but never spoke to anyone. And she answered him in her mouse-voice and told him all about her clapboard house in Omaha and her five dogs all named Zippy and the white cap-sleeved dress that she wore to the Basilica every Sunday to receive communion and hear the choir sing to the painted angels on the ceiling. And he told her about his basketball career and numbers that she didn’t understand and people that she knew as faces on the television who now had names and stories and favorite colors.
After his first passing essay, a five-page clutter of text with four paragraphs and three block quotes and a big clumsy ‘C’ scratched at the top, he hugged her in his big forearms and bought them raspberry smoothies at the student center. They sat at a booth in the basement and listened to Manchester Orchestra on the same set of headphones and counted how many times they heard someone mention how bad the pizza was.
He found her crying, once, in the courtyard of the Humanities building, with a ‘D’ math test fanned in her hand. He squeezed her shoulder and walked her with his hands over her eyes to what he called “one of those artsy movies you like” at the performing arts center. While she focused between the French subtitles and the heat his arm left on the armrest, he squinted his eyes and pretended to appreciate the dramatic cinematography. Over soggy cheese fries, they both agreed that the movie was terrible and retreated to the quad to watch The Matrix on his laptop.
“It would kick ass to jump like Neo. I’d be MVP every year,” he said, punching the air as Keanu Reeves flipped on screen.
With her knees pushed up against her chest, she watched his skin tense around the veins in his arm. “It’s all philosophy,” she half-whispered, half muted by the chill wind crackling leaves across their toes. “And religion.”
Like it did when she described determinism or existential despair, his forehead creased in the middle, and his lower lip puffed out. “You’re kidding. It’s about fighting and the machines . . . and stuff.”
“Neo is Jesus, and Trinity is Mary Magdalene . . . and her name is the Holy Trinity too. And Morpheus is like a prophet, or an apostle.” She poked a finger into the dirt, tracing circles that wound around the toes of her ballerina flats, and described the hidden symbolism to him. His eyes lit like candle flames on a five-year-old’s birthday cake. She had to break the news that he couldn’t reference the Wachowski Brothers in his essay on Kafka. But when he dropped her in front of her dorm, he hugged her so tightly her feet cleared the floor and demanded that she watch the movie with him again and show him all its secrets. She would, she promised, if he brought raspberry smoothies.
For her, he represented many firsts—not the squeamish romantic kind, though she might have entertained a small crush if he could learn how to spell Kierkegaard with two A’s, but the innocent and necessary kind that she had missed. He was the first classmate to start a full conversation with her, and the first collegiate stranger to become a friend. He was the first visitor to sit on the new futon in her dorm room, and the first audience member to clap for her violin solo. He first introduced her to the not-so-tedious game of basketball, and the shamefully addictive world of competitive Halo. Sometimes she could beat him now, though she knew he let her win.
She also knew that their worlds would never completely merge, even with the glue of inside jokes and late-night pizza runs and bad two-dollar movies from the student center. “Practice,” he would apologize before cutting their Halo game short. “See you later,” he would say when she crossed him in the student center with a skinny collegiate Venus—still with a smile, but she knew he wanted her to buy her coffee and sip it in another corner of the room, where her naïve intelligence would not intimidate his conquest. But he would sugar her scratched pride later with a raspberry smoothie and a heavy-armed hug. She had no other friends to tell, and his friends knew who she was, her name at least attached to a face, but no one joined or witnessed their stolen moments. She liked it that way—she told herself, and half the time believed.
He ended with a note. Simple notebook paper, clean and bright white—not the yellowy kind that looked tea-aged in her binder. She couldn’t have told you, after, why she wrote it. Maybe she feared that the week of Fall break would twist apart their soft bond. Maybe she thought that he deserved to know his own merit, and knew no other way to show it. Maybe she just needed to peel the words off her brain so she could be sure that the feelings would exist somewhere outside of her, tangibly. Maybe she had never had anyone else to write them to. She sealed the neatly folded square from her to him, with a sketchy, childish penned heart.
Two days passed before she promised herself to deliver it. Too anxious to make an appointment, she circled the quad for him, skirting the edge of the athlete gaggle where she knew she might catch his eye and draw him out. The grating laughter halted her toes at the edge of the grass.
“’I just wanted you to know how much your friendship means to me,’” read the tall, broad-shouldered boys in a backwards cap, spitting her own words back at her with a sneer. She fished uselessly in her empty purse pocket.
His friend snatched the paper and acted in falsetto, “’I had a really hard time adjusting when I first got here, coming from a class of thirty to a class of three thousand—‘”
“’And you’ve been there for me when I needed someone, even though I was supposed to be the one helping you. I know I can count on you, and I just wanted to thank you for being my friend.’”
They only noticed her then, when they had blinked out all the laughing tears and could focus on the five-foot-nothing bumpkin with the square glasses and the secondhand dress with faded yellow flowers. They looked her up and down, the boys in their tight perforated jerseys and the girls with their department store lipstick and airbrushed legs, and then they looked at him. He just bit his lip and looked at her, and frowned, and shrugged.
She left him studying the dirt with his hands in his pockets and curled, sobbing, into the gnarled roots of the oak tree in the deserted Humanities courtyard, until her lashes stuck together and snot salted her lips. Yes, she would call it “unpleasant” and she would forget him, and raspberry smoothies, and the five different ways to spell Kierkegaard.
(P.S.: This story was inspired by a lost note that I and a few of my friends found in the dining hall. We didn’t open it, but it was addressed from Alyssa to Mike. Just a short, quick piece. Helpful critique and comments are welcome.)