For twenty-one years, four months, and the better part of a week, Chad Mallory had contentedly evaded romantic love. To the best of his knowledge, his emotions simply did not register in that key. Sure, there had been encounters that, observed with a distant eye, could be loosely affiliated with human adoration or passion or even sexuality, but none of these had ever even approached the innermost cloisters of his heart.
His first kiss, committed in the cigarette-butt laden stairwell of a Holiday Inn during a statewide chess tournament, was an awkward, regrettable translation of hormones. His glasses fogged before it commenced, and he nearly howled with pain as his partner’s metal braces scored his tongue. His prom night — a rite of passage he had desperately dreaded — concluded with violent illness, a cold marble bathroom floor, and an $80 fine for the rental tuxedo he soiled with the undercooked contents of his dinner.
The notion that Chad was gay, as Chad’s mother and three of Chad’s four sisters surmised, was false. The women’s track team insisted on conducting their daily morning stretches below his second floor dorm window and collectively served as a regular reminder of his painful heterosexuality. It wasn’t that he was hideous, either. Though his sedentary life (traceable in a triangular form with vertices at the library, dining hall, and dorm) softened some of his masculine traits, particularly the muscles lining his belly, he was of average height and possessed somewhat broad shoulders, dense jawbones, and cerulean eyes that glimmered during his semi-weekly Skype conversations with his sister Tracy, hitherto the only woman able to understand his paradoxical incongruity with what life at an elite college actually entailed.
“I don’t know her name, I don’t know what year she is, I don’t — you see, that’s the crazy part, is, I know nothing about her yet—”
“Chad. Chad, stop talking — you’re lying!”
His sister’s face contorted into a pixelated scowl. Usually he looked forward to these technologically induced caesuras in their conversations as a time to gather himself, but today was different. Chad slid to another corner of his room, where he was certain there would be a better connection. He brushed aside a wrinkled, overturned paperback and set down his computer a few feet to the left, cursing under his breath as he refreshed his Internet connection. Suddenly the screen flicked back into motion, summoning his sister’s inquisition again, this time with more emphasis.
“What do you mean? I’m being honest, she’s perfect —”
“No, I’m not talking about the girl, Chad”
“I’m talking about the shirt I got for you for Christmas, the shirt you promised me you would wear at school.”
“Oh yes, I like it very much, sis. I’m wearing it now.”
As Chad grasped his laptop’s thin lid to adjust the frame, he felt a cardboard price tag slide across the flesh of his neck and dangle conspicuously into view. His heartbeat quickened and his cheeks grew ruddy as he awkwardly fumbled for a response.
“Oh, the tag…I can’t believe I hadn’t removed that yet. God, I’m an idiot, sis. I really do appreciate the shirt though, it’s so…colorful.”
“If you’re not going to wear the shirts, just tell me, Chad, and I’ll stop buying them for you.”
“No, no, no, you have the wrong idea, I —
“Every year you ask for books, pens, or papers, but you wear the same outfit you wore all throughout high school”
She was referring to the thick brown corduroy slacks he was currently concealing from the webcam, so chafed at the seams from his enlarging thighs that they had changed color. His other staple, a green shirt, adorned a hanger and revealed a constellation of stains, faded patches, and wrinkles.
“And well, you’ve grown a little since then (Chad saw through the euphemism, and she did have a point), and that’s O.K. if you don’t like shopping much anymore, but I wouldn’t be doing my job as a sister letting you walk around in clothing that doesn’t fit.”
“Here let me get a pair of scissors, I’ll cut the tag off now.”
“That’s not the point, C— just consider updating your wardrobe.”
The word was too grandiose to describe the sum of Chad’s clothing. Wardrobe suggested full-length mirrors, coordinated duffel bags, seasonal fabrics. Chad’s shirt, pants, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and bruised leather shoes could be enclosed in small leather messenger bag. That didn’t exempt Chad, however, from the compulsory male duty of wheeling his sisters’ body bag sized duffels through crowded airports.
“Listen, I have to go, I’m going to be late for dinner with Rob. Love you, little brother! Stay warm.”
“You look great, sis. Have a good night—”
Chad sheepishly grasped the price tag and dislodged it from its home. His green shirt beckoned longingly from across the room. He crossed in the opposite direction and turned on the bathroom light. Sometimes his appearance startled him —by learning long ago how to shave without a mirror, he had effectively vanquished his need for one. And tonight, his reflection watched his secret smile as he acknowledged lavender’s flattering effect.
Love, for Chad, was a summons to emotions and their accompanying conventions he had historically eschewed. Opera— a recent anachronistic intellectual fascination of his —now sounded completely different. Instead of scanning musical scores with a pen, simultaneously listening and marking for errant notes, leitmotifs, and booming overtures in an attempt to understand the composer’s cryptic design, Chad now found himself playing and replaying romantic arias at deafening volumes. Hanging his head back in ecstasy, he grew tender as his heart clung to every syllable, each more passionate than the last.
He walked more, too. Sometimes he walked with no destination, and nearly got lost on a few occasions. Something about solitary, meandering paths appealed to him and his hopelessly and increasingly trapped love.
In classrooms, dining halls, and campus greens, he spoke more and spoke loudly. His friends, classmates, and professors all collectively wondered what had elicited this new vitality in such a demure, serious, and solitary creature who was now showing up late to class, getting lost in passionate debate, and wearing a spotless lavender shirt.
Unfortunately, not all of his love’s effects were salubrious. He rarely slept. When he did, his dreams were fitful and anxious. He feared humiliation, rejection, and most of all, his former haven, loneliness. He knew that there was only one way to escape his isolated longing, but he seriously doubted its feasibility.
He got a haircut. He ordered new corduroys. He read Byron, Shelley, Keats, Ovid, and the Shakespearian comedies when he could. He switched his work shift at the library to the busiest hours. Lacking the courage to directly address her, he left the project of his love largely to fate. He situated himself in a location most conducive to transit, in the hopes that the intrinsic randomness of both of their paths would converge at a single place and time. And at that moment, even if just for a moment, he would compliment her, he would ask her out, he would check out her books, he would spill his coffee— he would do anything, so long as it extended their brief moment together into a memory, one that would be favorable enough to bridge the vast, stratified social distance between them.
From his seat at the circulation desk he waited for this moment, even though he was full of shame for his cowardly practices that he thought verged on stalking. When he saw her, even if she never looked his direction, he would adjust his hair, sit upright, and quietly clear his throat. Usually she wouldn’t even slow down. As she walked away, he would look back to his work and wait for the sound of arias to subside.
She wore headbands frequently, although her friends didn’t. He made note of this. How original! How elegant! How utterly indicative of a reflective mind, a confident heart, and an innocent soul! Amidst the tides of conformity, here was a beacon of hope. Her appearance, so incomprehensibly intimidating in its perfection, drew the gaze of all around her. Yet she chose neither jewel-studded earrings nor lustrous pearls, neither golden necklaces nor silver pendants to adorn her flawless features. She chose the headband. He fantasized about sliding his fingers into her smooth blonde tresses and gently removing the headband. He felt stupid, pathetic and dirty for indulging these fantasies. He felt his self-worth shrink, and sometimes wished he had never seen her.
“ — ”
“Um, sorry, this is awkward”
“ — ”
“Sorry I just need to check this out—”
He saw the book first. Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. Academic enough to make its way into a classroom, but too esoteric in its sentiment to be anything more than optional reading.
Then he saw her. No one else was in the library and in a few minutes the custodians would enter en masse to buff the floors, throw away the paper coffee cups, and lock the doors. This was the moment.
“I’m so sorry, I must have fallen asleep! I, I mean, how, how can I help you?” the stilted words startled him as he spoke.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said, laughing and adjusting her headband. “Not too many people check out books this late.”
As he brandished his scanner and began to perform his circulatory duties, he clamored for something witty to say, but his thoughts seized. His hands shook and his attempts at scanning were less than adroit. He would have to settle for small talk.
“I keep hearing that. Well, actually, a friend recommended it to me. So I guess you’re the second person to recommend Rilke to me.”
The clumsy construction of her sentences augured well; could she actually be just as nervous as he was?
The book scanned, and her name flashed across the screen. Remarkably, she was in the same graduating class.
“So, you have a month to bring it back,” Chad said, dreading that this moment would not pass into her memory.
“But between you, me, and Rilke, I won’t tell if you keep it longer,” Chad added, hoping his proposition would be accepted as humorous.
She accepted the book, placed it in her bag, and slowly turned away. She walked a few paces, extended her right arm, stopped, and turned around. Chad, feeling that human love was noble not hideous, waited on her for one last time, trying to guess the content of her remark before she made it.
“Hey, this may seem weird.”
Chad tried to express in some gesture or noise or look that no, in fact, nothing from her lips could be construed as anything less than lovely.
“Your shift’s over, by now right? I don’t usually stay in the library this late, and I live all the way across campus. I was wondering if maybe you could walk me home or something— ”
She had him at shift. Cutting her off, Chad ascended with unusual athletic ease.
“I — I’d be happy to.”
Chad was part dazed, part exuberant, and part terrified. His hands quivered, and he shoved them deep into his pockets.
Yellow lanterns, glowing soft as whispers. Leaves, soughing along the corridors of the campus like a slowly unfurling carpet. The indigo sky, the diaphanous stars, the scrolling silhouettes of clouds.
Their voices were gentle and their words were honest, but their conversation was nowhere near final.
Autumn, huge, windy, and turning, descended on the night, its truth burrowed deep inside their hearts.