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For my beautiful mother and my dear sister, who make me feel good about being who I was, am and will be. There was never a single second I doubted their support. I’ve always felt a little like the underdog but they made me believe that being different is a damn good thing.
(n.) lit. "we are together"; a shared sense of purpose and motivation in a group – it transcends mere agreement, and implies empathetic understanding among the members of the group
"I took the bed next to the door because I like to just let myself fall down on it when I come home," a voice greets me and I am momentarily confused if it is addressing me. "Uh, sure?" I ask hesitantly and suddenly the boxes I am carrying and which are blocking my view of the room are being lifted from my hands. "God, sorry. I didn't realize you were packed with all of this. I'm Ethel but uh, I might change that name over time because really, who names their kid Ethel? My parents must have been stoned." And for the first time my eyes fall onto a short girl with a bandana around her red curly hair, grinning widely at me. She is wearing short dungarees with one of the straps undone which look amazingly cute and funny on her and a red shirt beneath it. The toes of her bare feet are curling into the carpet.
"A-Avery," I stutter and set down the last box I am still holding and take a look around the room that will be my new home from now on. "Did you get here okay?" Ethel asks, already starting to carry my suitcase into our dorm room. I turn to look at her. "Yeah, thank you," I say and nod smiling. "Cool. My folks dropped me off at around 7-ish or so because there's this business conference thingie my dad had to attend? Anyways, so I've already unpacked all my stuff. Is it okay with you if I take this bed?" She points to the one near the door. There are already bright yellow bedclothes lying on it and a couple of pink pillows. I'm beginning to think that my roommate has a thing for colors and weird accessories as there are already multiple of bandanas in all variations and hairclips lying on her nightstand next to some rings and bracelets.
Ethel looks at me questioningly, her hand toying with the knot in her hair band and I hastily respond. "Yeah, that's perfectly okay. I'll just take this one," I walk over to the second bed in the room and sit down on it, smoothing over the bare duvet. A sudden wave of homesickness washes over me when I think of the red and white sheets that cover my bed at home and the handmade quilt at the foot of my bed, my grandmother knitted for me for my birth. I quickly press my eyes shut because I really don't want my first impression on Ethel to be that of a crying little kid. "You okay?" She asks and comes to sit down next to me. "Really, we can switch beds." I have to laugh at this and shake my head. "No, it's just... I kind of miss my little sister. And my parents. God, that sounds boring and lame but ... The next time I'll see them will probably be at Christmas and it's barely even September and... I don't know." I shrug and wipe away the stray tear that is slowly rolling down my cheek.
"It's lucky I was early," Ethel says and puts an arm around my shoulders. "That way I was able to cry for a solid hour or so before anyone else even entered the building. Believe me, it was not pretty." I sniffle and raise my head to look at her. "No, really. The second I was alone in this room I thought I'd die of homesickness. But then I ate some chocolate and the world instantly looked a little brighter." Ethel walks over to her nightstand and rummages through it for a second. "Left or right?" She asks and turns back to face me, her hands behind her back. "Uh, right?" I say, shrugging. She grins and holds her right hand out to me, offering me a Dairy Milk bar. I take it and smile gratefully. "What would've been the other option?" I ask, nodding to her left hand. "Actually, it's the same kind. I'm sure I have some Hershey's somewhere, though, if you like those better." I wave the chocolate at her. "You kidding me? This is Banana Caramel Crisp. Thank you," I say, unwrapping the packing.
"Hey, what do you say, we get you unpacked and then we check out this whole building and find the dining hall? I could go with a little bite to eat before our afternoon "Welcome Freshmen!" introduction starts." Ethel says a couple of minutes later - after we've eaten our chocolate and the world actually does seem a little brighter - and smiles at me and I just can't help it, I instantly like her a lot. Nodding my head, I rub my nose. "Yes, that sounds like a good idea, thank you." "That's what friends are for, right?" She asks and gets up to open the first box. "Let's see what you brought. A toothbrush, shampoo, tow - looks like bathroom stuff. You could've labeled it you know," she winks at me and closes the lid again. "Oh, you did. Here it says "BATHROOM". My bad." She pushes the box away and angles for the next one. Shaking my head at this unconventional and slightly chaotic but yet awfully nice and amiable girl, I laugh out loud and get up from my bed to help her.
It takes us less than an hour to get all of my stuff unpacked and find the right places for everything. Despite her casual appearance, Ethel neatly folds my shirts and puts them into my wardrobe, while I carefully stack my books onto a shelve next to my bed. I only wanted to take my all time favorite ones with me, in case I wanted to reread them but those were more than three dozens so I wistfully took only one or two of each genre. Now I am glad that I still took twenty books or so with me because they make our room seem as though people really live in here.
When we're done, we take a look around the place and nod in satisfaction. "Looks great, huh? I think we did a good job." Ethel says and punches my arm gently. I smile at her. "Yeah, I like it. Especially that old sewing machine over there." I point to the instrument in a corner of the room and Ethel bounces over to it. "Oh my god, I totally forgot to show you this!" She exclaims. "I kind of sew my own clothes," she says and softly runs her fingers up and down the metal. "You do?" I ask in disbelief and walk over to her. "That's so amazing." "Yeah, I do. These dungarees? They used to be long ones but I decided I liked them better as shorts so one morning before school I quickly resewed the hems et voliá!" "Wow. You did this before school? It would've taken me ages to just do one leg and it probably would have looked awful. You are really talented," I say in awe and Ethel grins. "Thank you. If you're nice I might sew something for you, too. Not now, though because the tour starts in an hour," Ethel says, checking her watch.
"You're right, let's go and check out the cafeteria here," I say, reaching for my cell phone and keys that are lying on my desk thinking that I'm pretty lucky to have such a great roommate.
(n.) a close friend; lit. “my companion”
Another glance at the paper in my hand, then to the door in front of me. Same building, same number. At least that's what I hope. I scribbled the number down yesterday evening in a haste to get to dinner and now this blurred digit could be anything from a zero over a six to an eight. I squint, cocking my head to one side, trying to make out what I could have probably meant by this and decide on an eight.
I'm almost sure that this is my class but I really don't want to mix up the rooms, especially not during the first week and risking to be late for the classes. That's why I chose to be here close to ten minutes early.
I spot a guy around my age leaning against one of the walls next to the classroom's door, his foot propped up behind him. He's wearing a bright baby blue knitted hat pulled deep over his curly black hair. Over his right shoulder he has slung a backpack on only one strap, keeping it in place with his hand. In the other he is holding a steaming beverage of some hot content. Probably tea, I think when I notice the little tag of a teabag hanging out of the cardboard cup.
His dark brown chinos match his shoes almost perfectly and his denim button down shirt, falling loosely over the white T-Shirt he is wearing beneath, is unbuttoned, giving him a casual appearance that makes it clear he knows his way around fashion. I decide that he probably won't laugh at me or muck me around for being completely and helplessly lost.
So I take in a deep breath and muster up the courage to ask him, if this is the right class. He is sporting a wide smile and nods at me. “History freshman “Great Ideas of Worlds Civilizations” with Mrs. Peters? Yeah, it's here. At least I hope so.” I let out a relieved sigh and reward him with a warm smile and a soft “thank you”. “You're welcome. Anyway, Benton,” he says and sticks his hand out for me to shake. “I'm Avery, hi.” Benton's handshake is strong and tight, his hands a little calloused, probably from some work or other. Instantly, I like him. He has a way of looking into your eyes with his open, big ones that makes you feel good about yourself.
Together we walk into the room, looking around the seats and spotting two free ones in the second row. Without talking about it, we let ourselves fall into the cushioned chairs. I let myself get accustomed to all of the new faces, new voices, new laughter, new people. My gaze sweeps over a group of girls in the fourth row, who seem to be friends already, judging from their smiles and the way they stick their heads together to talk. I find a boy in the last row staring down on his phone with furrowed brows. One seat in front of him is a girl with long red curls sitting next to a boy who appears to be asleep already, his head resting on his arms on his desk.
“So,” Benton begins, turning his upper body to his left side so that he can look at me. “you feeling good here?” He props his head up on his right fist and smiles. I start to think he is always smiling. I nod. “Yeah, actually, I do. I really thought I would miss home and my family but I barely had the time to think of them at all. Well, that makes me sound like a horrible person,” I say and Benton laughs. “No, I know what you mean. There's so much new stuff happening, like, all the time. You can't even get the chance to take it all in. Plus, the campus is amazing and I've only met amazing people until now. I only feel slightly bad for leaving mom all alone.”
I don't dare to voice the question out loud but Benton seems to sense my curiosity and adds: “My father left when he found out mom was pregnant – his loss,” he winks at me and I get the feeling as though he really doesn't mind all that much that it's only him and his mother and I feel myself relax again. I'm always a little edgy and uncomfortable when people talk about losing their parents or being a child of divorced parents. It makes me feel oddly guilty for having parents, who still hold hands in public, even after 20 years of marriage.
“So what else are you majoring in besides history?” I ask and Benton sits up a little straighter, clearly in his element. “History, social studies, anthropology and sociology,” he starts counting off his subjects on his fingers. “I love people. No, seriously. I love meeting new people, hanging out with old friends, observing complete strangers. Anything, really. That's why I work at Starbucks because I get to interact with so many different people each day,” he says, taking a sip from his paper cup.
I find it a little ironic that someone who works as a barista at a coffee shop drinks tea but Benton smiles widely, looking as if he had read my thoughts. “We do sell tea, you know? Plus, I love the names we have for our coffee variations. I mean, how could you not? Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino. Iced Pumpkin Spiced Latte. Salted Caramel Mocha Frap-,” he goes on and on and probably wouldn't stop if it weren't for our professor who just now enters the classroom.
The middle-aged woman with short gray hair launches into the lesson without so much as saying her name or introducing us to her class. I look at Benton next to me, who just shrugs and grins. Really, this boy is probably smiling even in his sleep.
Focusing on the professor, I try to plunge into the matter of the most formative impacts on our history in the past 30 years, Mrs. Peters is currently listing. The Cold War, The Gulf War, Black Hawk Down, Rwandan Genocide, 9/11. As the list goes on and on, I feel myself getting more and more excited for this semester. I open a blank page and scribble down key words and notes to stay on top of things.
After Mrs. Peters dismisses us, Benton and I simultaneously gather our things and stand up. “So, that was interesting, huh?” Benton asks and I nod. “Actually, yeah, it was. I was a little taken by surprise at first when she just started talking about Black Hawk Down without any preamble but I guess that's just the way things are at college.”
Benton agrees and checks his schedule. “Am I right thinking you haven't signed up for anthropology with Mr. Smyers?” I shake my head, pulling out my own timetable and frown. “Nope, for me it's... English Literature now. Building C room 115. Any chance you happen to know where room 115 is?”
Benton point to the roof above our heads. “On the third floor. Take the stairs, way faster than waiting for those elevators. 115 should be right opposite the staircase but I can't guarantee for that.” I let out a sigh. “Thank you. It probably would've taken me hours to find it. You're a lifesaver.”
A laugh comes from Benton as he hoists his backpack. “No problem, A.” He's already come to give me a nickname, that is if you can count a single letter as a nickname. “I should go now. Anthropology is completely across the campus. Nice meeting you.” He gives me another smile and touches my shoulder for a second, before starting to jog down the hall. “See you on Wednesday,” he calls out over his shoulder and I wave at him.
Still smiling, I make my way over to Building C thinking that being in college is everything I hoped for and more.
(adj.) taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, comforting and soothing things; a feeling of friendship, warmth, peace and contentment in a comfortable and cozy atmosphere
I step out of the gray building onto the campus, mentally putting a check mark behind my goal to survive the first week of college. I take a deep breath and let my gaze wander around the park. There are dozens of little groups of people scattered everywhere around on the grass, either studying or just relaxing and enjoying the first weekend of the semester. I don't know any of them but it reassures me in some way that there's the possibility that this time next year, I could be a part of one of those groups and get looked at by some Freshman. I smile to myself and let my eyes roam the campus.
There's a guy sitting on a little wall, appearing to be studying in the late afternoon sun. I'm not sure why but he makes it look as though it would be the most pleasurable activity one could find on a Friday. Something about that guy has me lingering in place and I take a closer look at him. He looks like someone I used to know but can't remember. It's an odd feeling to be reminded of someone you can't recall. My eyebrows furrow into a frown and I hesitantly take a couple of steps forward, still being far enough away from him so as not to appear as though I was stalking him or something.
And that's when it hits me. He doesn't remind me of someone, I once knew. He is someone I know. I try to remember his name. It sounded somewhat extra-ordinary. Something I associate with nature. As I'm straining to recall him to my memory, I start biting my lip. River. This boy, who used to live a couple of houses down the street. I'm not sure but I think he might have an older brother, always driving around town with the music blaring from his speakers.
River is dressed in white shorts and a hooded gray sweatshirt, a blue T-Shirt sticking out underneath it. His hair looks as if he didn't even bother to run a brush through it this morning, looking a light brown in the sunlight. A pair of sunglasses is lying on his thigh, probably forgotten.
A styrofoam cup, probably containing some sort of coffee, sits next to him. He has one leg cocked up to support his left elbow, while the other one dangles down the stone wall, tapping against it in some sort of rhythm. There are pieces of papers lying in a mess all around him. I can make out different highlighters, he's used to mark various extracts. He's also made some notes on a couple of those texts, his scruffy, strong handwriting that always seemed like a collision of ink and paper strewn over the pages.
River balances a textbook on his right hand, flicking through the pages with the fingers of his left hand, a pen clenched between his teeth. I'm not sure, he even acknowledges me watching him. He seems so absorbed by his work that he probably doesn't take in anything else that's happening around him. I've always found that a fascinating trait of his. He would get so caught up in something that he'd forget everything else.
I can't believe he is attending the same college I am. We haven't talked in what must be more than two years. The last time I've seen him was on the night before he left our hometown. I was out taking a walk when I saw him getting out of his car, keys juggling in his hand, whistling some tune only he knew. He smiled and nodded his head by way of greeting me and I raised my hand in a weak attempt at a wave. That is the last memory I have of River and it strikes me then that I still remember what he was wearing that night.
He puts the book down next to him and takes a sip from his beverage, letting his gaze sweep over the scenery around him. Luckily, I'm standing underneath the shadows of a huge weeping willow, shielding me from his view. I'm not quite ready for him to know I've also chosen this college just yet. I readjust the strap of my leather satchel on my shoulder and hoist it a little, so the weight feels a little lighter. Leaning against the tree's trunk, I take in the scene, drink River in. I haven't thought of him at all since that night when he left for college.
The sun is slowly blowing out above us and I should probably head into my dorm room but I can't get my feet to move for another minute or so. Then I finally tear my gaze away from the familiar sight and head to my room, a small smile still playing on my lips.
(n.) an awkward teenager; someone who is always gawky, ungainly and clumsy
"Hi," I say and squint against the sun. River doesn't reply and that's when I realize he is listening to some music on his headphones. I wave my hand in front of his face and take a step closer to him so that my feet come into his vision. His head jerks up and he pulls the earphones out of his ears. "Uhm, hi," I repeat, not sure what to say next. "Hey," River says and his voice sounds a little scratchy, as though he hasn't used it for some days. I don't know why I came over here. I just walked out of the building and saw him again. Saw him sitting on that stone bench, sketchbook in his lap, eyes cast downward and some magnetic pull had me going over to him. He was alone – again. I don’t know why but up until now I’ve never seen him with any friends or just some other people. Now, standing right in front of him, looking into his eyes, feeling his presence, I begin to think that going over to him was my biggest mistake ever.
"Uh, can I.. sit down for a sec?" I ask him and River shrugs. "Sure." Internally trying to calm myself down, I let myself drop next to him. Probably a little too close but I can't bring myself to care. Not when River smiles at me. "You were watching me the other day," he smirks and I feel myself blushing. I want to disappear, turn around and run away, head for the nearest exit. At the same time, I want to sit on this stone bench forever. Or at least until I have stared at his face long enough, which will probably be never.
"Yeah," I reply and look around, look at anything else than his face. "It's just that.. you're.. we, our parents, live on the same street, actually." "I know. You're Avery. Avery Pearson." River says this so non-chalantly that I just can't help myself. I look at him, my mouth a little opened. "How... I mean - when...? How?" I stutter and am more than aware that I'm most definitely not leaving the best impression of myself on him. "Like you said, we live on the same street. We kind of went to the same school. You must've been a, what, Freshman when I was a Junior?" I can only nod and River starts rubbing his hands against each other. "I never knew you knew I existed." I realize I said that out loud, feeling myself blush immediately and want to take it back but River lets out a short laugh. "Believe me, I realized."
"It's just... you're the first person from home, I've seen here," I say and gesture around campus to indicate that I mean our college. "Yeah, not a lot people go here, that's true. I'm like, the only one from my year who attends this college, I dunno." River lets his hands fall down onto his sketchbook and my gaze gets drawn to the picture he's drawn. "Can I - can I see it?" I ask, nodding toward the scrawl on the paper and River audibly sucks air in through his teeth. "I'm really not that good. You don't wanna see that. I mean, it's just some dood-" Before he can go on, I've taken the sketchbook from his hands and look at the picture and take in a deep breath. In one word? It's fantastic. He's drawn Seattle. Its skyline. With the Space Needle and everything. There are even tiny people walking around.
"River, this is amazing!" I exclaim and look at him in awe, touching his arm gently with my hand but River recoils and draws his arm away from me. Before I can ask him what is wrong, River says, “No, it's not. But thank you, anyways." I start to protest but River cuts me off. "Avery, really. There are guys in my Art class who could draw this in their sleep. When they were 4 years old." I shake my head at him but River just grins at me and I suddenly feel as though someone has punched me in the stomach. The air I breathe doesn't get all the way down into my lungs and I think I might faint because I cannot, cannot, cannot breathe. "Are you okay?" River asks and I quickly scramble to my feet, tossing his sketchbook back into his arms. "Yeah, it's just.. there's this - this class, I have to attend. I gotta go. See you around!" I raise my hand in a quick wave and stumble away from River, leaving him more than a little confused and bewildered.
Making my way over to the school complex, I keep gasping for air. There was something about his smile, the way his lips curved into a grin that reached up to his eyes. I don't know what it was but I know that I've never before felt like this and I know that I have to see River again or else I might faint for real.
(adj.) a dark, quiet and clear sky, in which the night is filled and illuminated only by stars
„Well, what does happy look like, then?” River smiles his crooked smile and I know he's joking. While I look at him, he seems to be entirely consumed by a faded stain on his shirt. It looks like he's spilled coffee on it. Years ago. He rubs his thumb over the brownish mark and furrows his brows. We’re sitting outside on that stonewall again. Classes are over for the day and after the last time I saw him here, I just decided to sit down next to him. Now, River’s look is a little distant, he probably already forgot his question but my mind just can't let it go.
What does happy look like?
It's in the sunsets. It is the smile on a kid's face. Happy is ice-cream on a hot summer day. It is the warm, almost dry rain in the spring. It is Saturdays. And Sundays. Happy is long books. Words. Sentences. Poems. It is movies. Flannel pyjama pants.
I don't even realize I just said all of this out loud, until I become aware of his presence, his lingering gaze. He looks at me, head tilted a little to one side, his hand still holding his shirt with the pale stain in a long forgotten movement. “Happy is seeing.. you,” I finish quietly.
The last word comes out so quietly that I am sure he cannot possibly have heard it. Given by the question marks in his piercing and oh so beautiful cyan blue eyes, though, he has indeed caught the ending of what has probably been my biggest mistake ever. I had vowed never to let him know just how much he means to me, how much I like him.
The last couple of days have been spent in a daze of River. Hanging out with him, going for a walk with him, watching a movie with him, basically anything you can think of. And I enjoyed every single minute of those barely two weeks and I realize that that's not even true. I don't like him. I love him. Which every inch of me and every heartbeat. Every second my blood runs through my veins, I love him. The sound of his voice, of his steps alone, really, makes me shudder in sweet anticipation of what is about to come. Sometimes I don't even listen to his words, I just let it all wash over me. I almost drown in the soothing softness of his deep, quiet, raspy voice.
I brace myself for his answer, already forming various possible replies he might throw my way in less than a minute. I fully expect him to say something along the lines of a joke, make fun of my outburst. Not because he finds me ridiculous but because it's just the way River is. He doesn't take many things seriously. He has always been The Nonchalant One. That's how he deals with things, with life.
So I'm positively surprised when there's a touch of something... sincere in his voice when he says, “Don't. Don't depend on me to make you happy, Avery. You deserve so much more in life than me. I'm not good with this. This... thing. You know, feelings and.. stuff,” he finishes lamely and for the first time ever, I hear him stutter, at a loss for words. Usually he juggles with them like a circus performer during a show.
But right now River looks lost. Like he's entered a place, he isn't sure he wants to be in. I want to console him in some way but at the same time I want him to keep going. I want him to finally face what's behind that wall he built up. To confront him with his feelings. He is always so laid-back. Thinks that everything will just work out somehow.
In a typical River motion, he straightens his back for a second, becoming even taller than he already is, before he slouches back into his old posture, hands stuffed into the pockets of his slacks, feet shuffling in a nervous manner.
I don't know why it hits me now, but looking at him struggling to find the right words – any words at all – I feel myself grow even weaker. He's always had his effect on me but I used to be able to fight it down in his presence. Not entirely, no never that but at least so much that he wouldn't necessarily notice it. He runs a hand through his brownish hair that has grown slightly too long and falls into his face every now and then in an attempt to smooth it down and overplay the awkward silence that has fallen upon us. I decide to release him.
“It's okay,” I say. “We really don't have to talk about this.” “No,” he answers. He still looks... pained. Well, if thinking about this, about us, makes him feel that uncomfortable, I think I'd rather not hear his answer. “River -,” I try to say but he cuts in. “Stop! Stop it, okay?” His voice has risen, he is practically shouting at me. I flinch unintentionally because I have never, in all the time, I've known him, heard him yell at anybody. River is the most relaxed person to walk this earth.
“River,” I start again, even though I am not sure what should follow his name. “Please,” he begs and raises his head. His normally calming blue eyes now resemble a windy and stormy sea, completely shaken and in a turmoil. I am taken aback by the expression on his face. Even more so, I am taken aback by how close he suddenly is to me. A few steps on his side and he's practically standing in my personal space. Involuntarily, a shiver runs down my spine, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
A hand reaches out to touch the sleeve of my shirt. I look down at River's long, delicate fingers brushing my wrist. His touch is so soft, I can barely feel it. My breath gets caught in my lungs. What is he doing? My brain practically screams at me when River once again shuts every voice in me because he takes another step closer to me. I feel more than see his Chucks bump softly against my shoes. He cannot possibly get any closer to me, without stepping onto my feet.