My first week at the university, in many ways, was no different from that of any other freshmen learning how to navigate the campus – which was huge; I’d never had to do so much walking before – and stumbling my way toward exploring college life. For myself, this included a girl on the same floor of my dorm, a drama major who was shallow enough to target me rather aggressively for romance, and who just as ruthlessly cut me loose a few days later once her eye had settled elsewhere. This was confusing, as she had only so chastely fallen asleep next to me while monologuing at length about how she wanted to me to be “her first” — everyone reserves the right to change their mind about nearly anything at nearly anytime, as difficult to understand as it might be, though you’d think if there was anything I should have understood in the world by that point it would be actresses.
On the bright side, I found her roommate to be much more pretty, and sharply witty. As luck would have it, the roommate asked me out a few days after I’d been given the cold shoulder. Her name was Elizabeth, though people called her Lizard, and while she was not cold-blooded she was in fact walking cool. Also, she was one of the few people on our floor who had a car, so I jumped at the chance to run out with her when she asked me out for a drive to dinner and a show at a comedy club. We had a terrific time, talking and laughing. My hands tingled with the warm sense of being cool, and of being with a girl who seemed to know it.
Back at the dorm, as I began walking her back to her room I felt her mood turn, not warm and not cold — more like immaterial, as if she was hoping to will herself out of existence. It fired an alarm in my hindbrain.
“I don’t mean anything by this,” I told her. “I had a great time going out, I’m just walking you back.” Still, I had hoped to kiss her when we got to the door. She shook her head in a very tiny way, sending a clear signal while still also clearly masking something else. But I kept walking, and she walked along with me.
A red tie was hung around her dorm room’s door handle, a signal I’d learned from the actress to mean that she had a guy in the room, and that the two of them probably didn’t have their clothes on. The protocol that the two girls had established was for the arriving lady to knock lightly, as her way to say that she’s gotten home and needs to get to sleep. The arriving girl was then supposed to take a ten-minute walk, to give the lovers a chance to cool off and get decent.
I knocked, if that’s a strong enough word for what I did — I knocked hard enough to crack something deep in the meat of my hand. Lizard jumped half a meter to one side. I didn’t wait for a response, turning on my heel and fuming down the hall. Lizard followed about twenty seconds behind me.
“She’s pissed,” Lizard said, eyes narrow.
“Good,” I said.
“I have to live with her.”
It’s frustrating how quickly I can come to see other people’s perspectives. It robs me of any chance of being angry for long. I guess it’s a good thing for everyone, ultimately, even if it robs me of any joy in being blindly self-righteous.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
She calmed down surprisingly fast herself.
“I should’ve just told you,” she said. “It was her idea. She didn’t want you accidentally dropping by, was all.” She crossed her arms, red-faced and red-haired in her oversized men’s sports coat.
She was adorable. I had to look away.
“I had a good time,” I said.
“Me, too. But for the record, so you know, I don’t have it in me to go out with anyone on the floor. All right? I need space to do my own thing. And not around here.”
“Sure,” I said quietly, rubbing the tiny broken thing in my hand, wondering exactly what had just happened, other than a truly great girl leading me on for a full evening so that I’d be less likely to disturb her roommate, who had dumped me a few days earlier, while she lost her virginity to some other guy she’d just met. Except for all that, I wasn’t sure what to think.
I took a breath. Seriously, this was more interaction with non-dancer girls than I’d had in a severely long time. “I didn’t mean to bang so hard on the door like that,” I said. “Sorry if I startled you.”
Lizard seemed to relax a bit, and shrugged. “She gets what she deserved. I wasn’t happy to do all this.”
“Oh. I hope I wasn’t too much trouble—”
“That’s not what I meant.” She forced a prim smile until, over a few moments, her face slowly relaxed into the fullness of a real grin. I realized I was smiling, too. “Look,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”
I kept to myself for most of the rest of the week. Already, I could tell I’d made some poor decisions. The whole “modern dancer computer programmer” thing was throwing people for larger and larger loops. The other dancers thought I was a tourist, a programmer who’d found a great way to pick up on girls, and did not trust me at all. The computer people presumed I wasn’t serious. I didn’t dare risk sharing my plan until I’d made more progress on it. I knew I sounded crazy, but surely I could prove that there was a method to my madness. I’d done it before.
By the end of my first week in class I’d been handily redirected out of both social circles, it seemed. Plus, I had basically no money. That’s why the first Saturday night of the school year saw me sitting at my roommate’s drafting table, trying my sore hand at drawing a comic book.
“Hello?” came a voice at the door, with a light, one-knuckle knock.
“Hey,” I said, looking up, rubbing my eyes. “Come in.” I’d left the door open, as people seemed to do.
“I just saw you there,” she said, “and wanted to say hi.”
“Hi,” I said, wrinkling up my face. “I think I’ve seen you around, haven’t I?”
“Yeah,” she said, beaming a marvelous smile. “I was gonna ask you about that, but I figured one of us had to use that line first. I saw you downstairs with everyone in the cafeteria yesterday. Even so, seriously, you do look familiar.”
I used to get that a lot. I still do. Maybe once a month, maybe every six weeks, a total stranger will walk up assuming they know me. I’m told this doesn’t happen to everyone. I must have one of those faces. However, I had a good memory for faces. Why did I feel the same way?
“It says Patrick on the door,” she pointed out. “Would that happen to be you?” Everyone had their name on their door those first couple of weeks. In one of those terrible cosmic coincidences, my randomly assigned roommate’s name was Patrick.
“I’m the other guy,” I said, getting up from behind the drafting table to touch hands with her as she made herself comfortable on my narrow, dorm-room mini bed. She was unlike any other gorgeous, petite blonde girl I’d ever met. At the same time, she struck a deep, familiar chord in me.
“Derek,” I said slowly, after a long enough pause that I was sure I would not stutter.
“Jen,” she said, eyeing me through long lashes. “My friends call me Jen.”
At first, I froze. Then warm goosebumps spread over my skin, like a sunburn.