The pressing need to hang an announcement board around her neck re-emerged into mind. Clawing its way to make it known amidst the ocean of pressing needs and wants. She didn’t brush it off like the last time. More like she gave it a thought, wondering what kind of sentence she would’ve wrote on the board. Probably something like suck it peeps, I’m done for the day, please return at working hours or be civilized, people, I’m not your favorite person to get her patience running off. Whichever was fine, really. She never wanted the day her idea morphed into reality to come anyway.
She still found it very intriguing, though.
It was Friday. The day everyone had always been waiting for since last Sunday. Yet at five thirty in the afternoon, while the last class she went to had dismissed long ago, Nathalie still found herself stuck right in the center of hell on earth called Haerford University. Despite the vile title, it was a prestigious institution, really. Being one of the brightest students was nothing but an overwhelming pride. Though it came with fair flaws to be painfully honest. People needed her for favor, knowledge, information, attention, understanding; practically anything they could get a hand from her, non-stop. They kept holding her to stay until they finished whatever business they had, most likely believed that she was the permanent occupant of the institution and actually lived in the building. She had gotten more exhausted from being asked for everything rather than attending the classes itself that went straight from early morning. Even Emilia who had always been her miserable company, and was supposed to drag her to the nearest cafe for a glass of peach smoothie that day, had gotten tired as well and had called her boyfriend out of boredom two times already.
“Thank you, Nathalie! I’ll see you next week!” One of her classmates from whatever class shouted gleefully. Nathalie could only hum back at her and waved a goodbye with best smile. Exhausted mind tried to recall. What was her name again?
“Are you finally done for the day?” Emilia approached once more and asked in restrain.
Nathalie, best smile never worn off, turned. “Believe me, Em. I’d like to know as well.”
Emilia’s hazel green eyes rolled. Chubby hands dragged Nathalie out of pity and impatience. “Come on, I gotta steal you from the—”
Nathalie wanted to groan—Emilia groaned—and pull her hair in instinct, but she pulled her arm from Emilia’s steel grip instead, as she recognized the voice. She turned around and found a young man she noticed a little too well.
“There goes my peach smoothie,” Emilia mumbled, and probably from the little gasp of ‘oh‘, she turned around and following Nathalie’s gaze toward the same young man.
Oliver Hopkins stood before them, Nathalie’s beloved junior in international business class. A six-feet tall of awkwardness with a pair of beautiful sapphire blue eyes. A little too ambitious from the way he raised his hand for a non-sense question in almost every class he attended to—Nathalie heard. He had made himself known and stood out to her sense. She felt nothing but irritated toward the young man.
Emilia patted her shoulder from behind, shattering her irritation as the shorter young woman whispered in her ear. “Good luck.” The last thing Nathalie could see from her only friend before the latter retreated was her stupid smirk.
Nathalie faced Oliver with commercial worth smile. “Yes?”
Oliver’s mouth went agape for a short second. “I-I’m sorry! A-are you do-done for the day?”
Nathalie almost gave the sunset’s tail a sidelong glance from where they stood. Maybe the time finally did come. She needed that damn announcement board to inform everyone that she was just a college student like them, that she did realize she had busier schedule than all of the professors in the institution, that she desired for a superpower that capable her to teleport to the bedroom in an instant, that she missed sleeping soundly…
“Well, I’m about to go home with her. Is there anything I can help you with?” As Nathalie said this, she could almost hear Emilia’s inner thought. Wrong question, Nath, dammit, when will I get the peach smoothies?
“Oh,” Oliver blinked. Not a single pity or guilt showing. “Well, th-there’s this competition. An essay competition. I uhh… I’m intend to participate and…”
Nathalie’s eyes widened as his words trailed off. She didn’t like the direction of the conversation. “And?”
“And uhh… I-I’m working on my own essay about capitalist business…”
She hummed an encouragement.
“I’m asking Professor Howard for a guidance, but… he said y-you’ve won a competition with an essay with the same topic once and…”
“He wants me to guide you,” she finished his words.
Oliver’s eyes widened in excitement. “Yes!”
“Of course, he does that,” Nathalie said with venom on her tongue.
“Well, o-only if you’re willing for this!”
Nathalie gave him her sweetest smile. “For your information, Hopkins, my essay talks about international relation.”
Oliver’s excitement faded, along with blood withdrawing from his face, making his complexion looked even paler. He didn’t say a word.
Nathalie might’ve laughed at his face, probably holding her belly for laughing too hard and fall on the floor. But, good heavens, she knew how to control herself. A decade of constant exposure had forged her self-control as hard as diamond. She professionally smiled at him instead, making him agape once more. “I did talk a little about capitalist business there, though, so I have enough knowledge. And yes, I can help you.”
Oliver wheezed in relief. “Th-thank you very much!”
She nearly snorted. “May I know which competition you’re going to participate?”
“Sure! The Rochester’s!”
Nathalie nodded in solemn. He wasn’t going to participate in the same competition as her. Of course. That kid was too young to look for master degree scholarship. Her suspiciousness subsided. “So, when can we begin?”
“A-anytime! I’m not in rush! The deadline is still far ahead! Maybe we can do this next week. Uhh… I don’t want to disturb your… weekend…” Oliver’s wavering gaze lingered on something behind Nathalie’s back, probably catch a sight of Emilia’s stupid grinning.
“That’s very wise of you. Thank you, Hopkins.” Nathalie gifted him another smile. Phew. He did know how to get on her soft side.
“O-okay? I should be the one who thanks. Thank you very much! Let’s meet on… Monday?”
“Monday. Two a.m. Cafeteria.” Nathalie turned around, sending him a goodbye with yet another smile. Her eyes lingered for a while into his eyes until she completely turned her back. She approached Emilia who did the same exact thing as what she imagined. The petite young woman grinned so wide it might split her face into two.
“You flirted him,” Emilia commented after they walk side by side, soaring the almost empty corridor. The gloomy color of sunset fell and reflected in even gloomier way on the corridor’s floor. Its reflection hit both young woman’s face.
“I just smiled,” Nathalie replied, giving the floor more attention than it should had.
“Well, sorry for break it to you, Miss Perfect of The Year, your smiles are heaven’s blessing to those testosterone creatures.”
“Female also produces testosterone. The amount is seven or eight times lesser than male.”
“Don’t give me scientific fact I will never need!”
“In humans and most other vertebrates, testosterone is secreted primarily by the testicles of males, and, to a lesser extent, the ovaries of females. Small amounts are also—”
“You’re a business student, damn it!”
“It’s all on Wikipedia. Duh. Weren’t you the one coming up with such talks?”
“Alright, alright! You got me. But you know what I mean,” Emilia gave a weak nudge on her side. “You technically turned around for him. We could just walk away.”
“That would be rude. I’m not rude.”
Emilia laughed. “D’aww, don’t be like that!”
“He’s easier to dismissed.” They stepped outside, toward the north gate. The parking lot was nearly empty. It stretched horrifically wide and it looked gloomy from the lack of presence, the near night, and the big ass maple trees. Evergreen trees, thank God. If they weren’t, they just fit so perfectly with the gloomy transition to nighttime, all the bare branches stretched toward the sky, wailing. It strengthened the feeling of being watched and defenselessness despite no one but them was there. “He forgot to ask about our own group essay in international business class,” Nathalie added as she pressed herself into her fancy blazer.
“Whoa, now that’s fucked up,” Emilia wasn’t affected by the atmosphere. “I don’t know whether you like him or the other way around.”
“I don’t dislike him.” Just irritated, like to most people but one.
“Nah, seriously, Nath. You stared at him like you see this cute baby Corgi in a pet shop and eventually adopt it, or like a tiger mama finds a juicy prey to satisfy her hormonal hunger. There’s no between.”
“Why are you making me like a Disney villain?”
“No offense, but will we finally get to that conversation about boyfriend and stuff? Your boyfriend. We are already at our fourth year in this hell, but I’ve never seen you all cuddly with someone. And I’m the only friend you have—again, no offense. Except you do have a boyfriend out there you intend to hide.”
Nathalie stared at Emilia’s wiggling eyebrows and sighed afterward. “Don’t get your hopes up.”
“You’re quite pessimistic about this, aren’t you? What? You think you can’t get a nice boyfriend just because every active male around you act like a bunch of old perverts? Hell naw. Come on, Nath! If all you do is study and running errands for people, you won’t meet him! Go have fun! Attend a blind date or something.”
“I just want to get my degree, Em.”
The wiggling eyebrows returned. Nathalie cringed so hard for the very first time in her twenty-three years of life. “You should look at your face right now.”
“I’m awesome, I know it,” Emilia added, wiggling her eyebrows even more.
Nathalie couldn’t help but laugh. “Please remind me why I befriended you again?”
“I can draw another pair eyebrows on my forehead if you want.”
Nathalie laughed once more and hugged her tiny friend with one hand. “I didn’t befriend you, Em. You befriended me.”
“That’s sweet. What did I do to get this lip service?”
Before Nathalie could reply, Emilia’s phone buzzed for attention inside her handbag. Nathalie pulled herself so that her little friend could let it out and engross at it. She felt the need to give her privacy—she always peeked. Probably Dave, as usual. The walking crowd in front of the gate attracted her attention more than the possibly lovey-dovey text. She wanted to mingle in there asap, shaking off the unspeakable feelings that had been putting her on edge for more than two weeks now. She didn’t know exactly when it first started, which, made her even more uneasy at the thought of someone probably had been watching her longer than that, but she just didn’t realize it yet.
Emilia’s curse shattered her thought.
“Let me guess. Extra class?” Nathalie asked, turning her head.
Nathalie laughed. “Say that to Dave.”
“Fuck me why now?” Emilia engrossed typing here and there with rage. “God hates me.”
“Just go,” Nathalie patted her shoulder, “we can get smoothies later.”
“Hey, now! You just want to run away! I finally get you to talk about this boyfriend thing!”
“Well, class first, then we talk. Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or,” Nathalie shrugged and wiggled her eyebrows.
The joke got to Emilia. It managed to curve the corner of her lips into a smile. “Damn it, Nath! I will definitely make you talk about cheesy romance! Later!”
Nathalie barked a laughter as the latter broke into run toward the building. For such tiny body, Emilia sure had a lot of energy even at that late.
That was fair enough, Nathalie thought. Emilia only had to sit for another two hours. Paying attention or not, it wouldn’t make any difference. She could scribble whatever on her notebooks or even sleep to pass time, the professor wouldn’t mind much of her. She isn’t Nathalie. Poor Nathalie had a total different case. Once she entered her apartment, she had to sleep for roughly an hour before taking off to work at a bookshop down the street until ten at night. After that, she would drown herself with all the assignments she was demanded to produce a perfect result. Her grade and popularity, as well as people’s expectation, were at stake. Her hard work for the past four years could crumble in pieces once she made a mistake that would lead to another. Mistake is contagious and addictive, she learned. For this sake, she probably wouldn’t sleep until three, only to wake up again at six or seven to work on another perfection again, probably off to library or somewhere calming. She had no time to rest easy. Boyfriend or cheesy romance were totally out of the picture.
For Emilia, though, if she didn’t have an extra class, she would probably return to her apartment as usual, playing around with Dave, watching some lame television shows while cuddling and eating popcorn. She woke up the next day only to play around again, probably off to watch movie or do whatever normal couple usually do. That was the fairness Nathalie believed and held. God certainly loved Emilia despite whatever she claimed.
Nathalie bloomed a cynical smile at Emilia’s back. As soon as her friend disappeared from sight, so did her smile. She turned around and started walking home on her own. All of the aches and emotions she’d been holding back came to the surface. The burn in her legs, the heaviness on every step she took, the stinging pain on her back, the strange tight feeling in her chest, the prickling sensation in her head, the choking sobs in her throat. She could pass out—she could break down anytime now. She chose to not to. She would never do.
She wasn’t allowed to.
Nathalie’s phone buzzed afterward.
“Fuck.” It wouldn’t be funny if she shared the same fate as Emilia. Totally not funny, though she would probably laugh hysterically.
She tapped her screen awake and realized it was just a group chat notification. A stupid group chat. She caught a glimpse of what they were saying and fuck seconded. She hurriedly shoved her phone back into bag and re-positioned her mind. She left the parking lot in a hurried pace, facade still on.
It was easy and hard at the same to recognize the man from the crowd, even with her exhausted eyesight. Nathalie was used to have people staring at her, mostly in awe or agape like Oliver always did, some in jealousy and hate. But this one, black among autumn color palette, consuming her as if the dark little eyes were deep black pond. Three seconds were more than enough.
More than enough to coincidentally meet the knowing gaze.
As soon as Nathalie’s eyes found his, the man who sat on a guardrail smiled. For a greeting, she supposed. Or for the sake of good manner from being caught of staring. She hoped. Though she knew most people usually looked away or pretended to not staring. In return, she nodded back at him and break the gaze. She then walked home as fast as she could, trying her best to not think about the knowing gaze being aimed at her retreating back.
[to be continued]
All supportive critics and suggestions are welcome! (Especially about the grammar)
Beautiful photo by Brandi Redd.