by ingrid díaz
The first time I see her she is standing by the cereal dispensers, contemplating each one before making a decision. The dining hall is filled with the incessant clatter of silverware on plates and rumbling conversation. It is deafening to us who sit in silence, observing and absorbing the intangible flow of social interaction.
A dish falls and shatters. Everyone pauses mid-sentence, mid-bite, mid-thought and looks around. But I, I remain focused on her. She has now spilled cereal all over the table and I have a sudden desire to strip out of my skin and slip into another, a far more confident one, and walk over to help her. In this other skin, I might be the sort to say the things she needs to hear.
But I have only the one skin, and she’s already walking away from my imaginary self.
She sits and joins in someone else’s laughter. The sound is lost in the distance between us.
The second time I see her she is sitting in the shadow of a tree, her head bent over the pages of a book. Her hair shines golden in the afternoon sunlight and I stand on the sidewalk, captivated.
She doesn’t look up as I walk past her.
Weeks pass before I see her again and this time she is at the student center, arguing with a vending machine. Her dollar whirs in and out of the mechanical slot.
I have stopped short at the bottom of the stairs and bodies brush past me as I search my pockets for change.
He appears out of nowhere and blocks her from my view. Moments later, she walks by me, smiling, soda in hand.
I let the coins fall back into my pocket.
It is strange to feel like a ghost. I lurk in the edges of her life like an unheard whisper.
I like to imagine that we could be friends.
I still don’t know her name.
I am at the bus stop when she appears beside me. Her scent swirls around me; intoxicating.
I don’t dare look at her. I let the sound of traffic drown out the pounding of my heart. I watch as the pages of an abandoned newspaper glide over the sidewalk and land at my feet.
She bends to pick them up and her hand brushes against my jeans. She looks at me as she stands. “Sorry,” she says, and smiles, embarrassed.
I want, suddenly, to tell her everything. I want to pluck from the air the inconsequential moments between us and place them in her hands so she can see that there is meaning in the unseen spaces. And that I’ve been there all along, between one forgotten instant and the next.
Words fail me and I say nothing. I watch instead as the bus pulls up.
The doors sigh as they open.
The sky expels a breath in the cold winter air and snow piles on the sidewalk. I watch the world turn white from the relative warmth of my dorm room. I know she’s out there, somewhere, in a place beyond the snowflakes and I wonder if she’s happy. I wonder if any of us are.
I learn her name some weeks later. She is standing in line at the cafeteria and I hurry to stand behind her, feeling anxious. I carefully note the items she places on her tray: a can of Diet Coke, strawberry yoghurt, a banana. The latter she selects with care, touching three before putting them back. She settles on one and moves along.
The work-study kid behind the counter smiles a toothy smile at her and says, “Hey, Nina. What can I get for you?”
Nina. Her name feels like a gift.
Her voice is soft but clear against the noise around us. “The usual, Nickie. Thanks.” She glances in my direction and her eyes narrow briefly in thought. My heartbeat speeds up. But she sifts through her memories and doesn’t find me there.
I want to say, “I saw you at the bus stop once,” but she’s already looking away, already taking the plate of food, already forgetting me.
“Next,” says the guy behind the counter.
Nina. Nina. Nina.
I am obsessing.
“What’s his name?” my roommate asks one day.
“Oh, c’mon,” she says. “Don’t play innocent. It’s all over your face. You’re in lo-oo-ve.”
I laugh but inside I feel like crying. “There’s no guy,” I say.
I say nothing. She falls silent and I am both grateful and mortified. I want to take it all back. I want to laugh. I want to tell her that there is a guy, a perfectly handsome, unattainable guy. I want our shared belief in the lie to conjure up his existence.
But there is no guy.
I want her. I want her. I want all the good and the bad, all the highs and the lows. I want her to run toward me and away from me, to scream my name in anger and in ecstasy. I want her to caress me, to slap me, to love me and hate me and love me again.
I want to kiss her.
I’m in love with the untold story of our life; the unwritten chapter. I’m in love with the possibility and the impossibility of all that could but will not be.
The school year ends.
I never see her again.