He sat in the library studying Law that was too hard for him and looking up whenever somebody passed his desk. Partly because he was bored, but mostly in the hope that maybe it would be her, and when it wasn't, and it never was, he would be secretly relieved that it had not been. That he had been spared enduring that special kind of agony that came from seeing her while not wearing the right shoes, from not wearing his hair in the most conceivably attractive manner possible. So he consoled himself with the knowledge that when he finally did see her again he would be ready for her. That when she ultimately did happen to pass him, as she inevitably must during the course of University life, he would be able to look up confidently from his work and casually call out
Not loudly enough to disturb the rest of the library but just loudly and firmly enough to catch her attention, and via the instrument of a single sound bite convey to her that he was serious and secure in his convictions. Demonstrate to her by the timbre of his voice alone that he was indeed a man and one worthy of her love. So that when she turned and saw him now - perfectly dressed, hair washed and laboriously conditioned, combed even, blonde fringe flicked ever so slightly to one side, probably the left - on the whole appearing tidy and presentable to all the undergraduate body, while still retaining that lingering and agreeable suggestion of holding an uncomplicated indifference to his appearance, she would remember. A perception of possessing a high-degree of natural grace, achieved by just the right amount of early morning hair tussling in front of the mirror, and the application of a precise ritual of tucking in and then untucking of periwinkle polo shirt into sky-white slacks. Just to give it that desired, and virtually unattainable, quality of dishevelled cool. She would remember when faced with his inspired grip on the conventions of modern style, exactly why it was that once she had fallen madly-head-over-heels, Disneyland, in love with him.
He could see it now. She would be surprised at first, at seeing him here. In her mind she’d wonder at his presence, and he would be able to make out on her lips the suggestion of a question forming but not yet realized,
"What are you doing here?"
Followed by the thought that it was in fact not unnatural for him to be here studying. An idea manifesting itself equally as rapidly, chomping so closely at the heels of her confusion that she would smile suddenly at her own foolishness and at the surprise of seeing him because, secretly and most importantly, although she wouldn't admit it, there was no one else she would rather run into, by chance, in the Economic History section of the library at quarter to twelve on a Tuesday.
The velocity and the complexity of all these thoughts and feelings, rushing through her like the atoms currently colliding in the Hadron Collider would momentarily transfix her. Yet while this insurrection in the order of her thoughts would normally terrify her, she, who longed above all else for the sensation of absolute control in all things, would allow herself this one moment to indulge and give in, relax her shoulders and reply with only the barest hint of practiced inflection,
But her smile, as always, would betray her and say it all and he, not knowing how to proceed, only having fantasized about the mere act of running into her - impeccably dressed - would be unsure of what to say next and could therefore be characteristically expected to bumble and to falter. His eyes would scan the shelves behind her head, searching for inspiration in the rows of stiff spines, finding no relief in the marble cover of Lankow’s The Role of Fiscal Policy in the Decline of the Soviet Union, instead seeing the fruits of his victory slipping away from him. Just as he knew that she could see that the two of them no longer shared anything in common, that they were not now as compatible or as perfect for one another as each had imagined themselves to be. That in reality ice-cream smiles and drowning-in-eyes were not a secure enough foundation for the weight of unsecured mortgages and starkly lit maternity wards, for labyrinthine life insurance policies and wedding anniversaries spent alone, crying over unopened bottles of Cotes Du Rhone and worn candle stubs, while the broken pool filter drones on incessantly in the background, a nervous high-pitched whine, normally barely audible in the bustle of the kitchen but under the current circumstances maddeningly deafening.
Both aware that it would be simply easier to part here than endure that future together - far better to acknowledge one another and dream simply of things that could not be, would not come to pass, for him to return to his Law and for her to her Theatre and to not be upset by it all, but out of respect for the other not exactly be happy with it either. Desperate then to salvage rapidly deteriorating good relations, he would look to her again and lean on social convention by asking her,
“How are you?”
And relieved by his employment of a familiar cliché she would thoughtlessly reply that she was,
“Fine. Tired, and a little stressed out but on the whole fine.”
A response she would have given to anyone regardless of how she truly felt, and she did feel differently. Thus they’d find themselves comfortably settled into a social nook, entering interactive autopilot and small-talk, in doing so retreating into their private inner worlds where they are able to think again and where both can simultaneously remember her boyfriend, to the degree that the momentary relief would pass as abruptly as it had come.
Their conversation would once again become stilted and awkward with each person’s heightened self-consciousness once again dominating, causing eye contact to be lost and shoulders to hunch and there to be vague murmurings from either party of lectures to be attended to and readings to be done. They would part by assuring one another that they were indeed still the very best of friends. Make promises that they would get coffee soon and
“Catch up properly”.
All the while they’d both know that this was in fact no better than a passing pleasantry, a salve for awkward wounds, and each was now so practiced in accepting hollow promises from the other that their fraudulence would be taken favourably rather than as a personal affront. Knowing that if they were to see each other again it could only be in a situation such as this, between shelves, and yet that would be all right.
Smiling, because she did not wish to cry in the library and show weakness in front of the other racing rats. Instead, she’d wave in silent memorial for the
that could not escape her throat. She would turn and she would leave and he would watch her go and it would take him the length of the aisle to search inside himself for a suitable emotional response and find none, other than the shock of having been momentarily surprised.
He would return to his desk and look again at the case law and wonder again at whether or not the Contractual Remedies Act 1979 still applied. Ruminating only a little, by way of procrastination, at what it all meant and whether or not his hair had become unsettled during the experience.
This is how it would happen and although it would inevitably result in a defeat he nevertheless continued to look up with unrestrained desperation for the uniqueness of her form in the form of every girl that passed his desk. There were so many that looked like her. Who wore her amber hair, tied back in a long ponytail, the way she wore it when she studied. Each one holding themselves with the same fabricated confidence and every time he thought he saw her, his heart leapt as he foresaw the arc of their encounter. Each moment hurtling like a racehorse through the starting gate of his minds-eye. He would smile at the thought of seeing her again and of talking to her, enjoying not so much her words as the pure lyrical quality of her voice that seemed to scream,
“I am alive.”
In anticipation that the fated moment had arrived, that this time it was in fact, certainly 100% her that was walking past the rows of desks towards him, wearing psychology textbooks as black-letter armour, he would prepare her name, ready to infuse it with everything he felt and just as he was about to say it the girl in question would turn around and he would see that it was not her after all.
He would sigh a little but be grateful that he had more time to prepare, secure in the knowledge that according to the inviolable laws of probability there was an equal chance that the next girl that passed would be her and even if it wasn't, that moment when he wasn’t quite sure could persist indefinitely, and seeing her again in another moment, even for the shadow of a heartbeat, was paradise.
Barnaby McIntosh is an aspiring short story author, playwright and critic. He lives in Dunedin while studying Law and English at the University of Otago. In 2014 he was selected for The Fortune Theatre’s Studio 4x4 Young Playwrights Initiative where he produced a short comedy titled Party Games.
Barnaby helped co-write the 2015 University capping show in which he also appeared. He reviews films for the student magazine Critic.