He was way more interesting than the stupid art on the walls but I pretended he wasn’t.
I pretended to ignore him because I was so fascinated by what students had taped, glued, stapled and plastered everywhere: abstract, weird, basic art… circles and body parts, flowers and robots, cities and landscapes. My favorite one had no pictures at all, just words from some weird, disjointed conversation, one that almost sounded real. Part of it went like:
“Having a good time?”
“I am. Are you?”
“Yeah, kinda. Let’s go over there. I think I know that girl.”
“I know her too. She’s okay, stupid laugh.”
“Yeah… we shouldn’t. It’s just too much effort.”
“Oh stop it.”
I really liked that one.
We started on the first floor, ended on the third, there was nothing on the fourth. He pointed out a few things here and there, white light shining off his bald head, but mostly, he said nothing, and mostly, I pretended to be interested in walls while watching him move, look, change, turn.
He had green eyes, green and yellow and a little brown, and they were perfectly natural, like a snake and a leaf in a river, but I think they saw too much when they looked at things, and at me. They couldn’t just see a girl, an okay girl, a pretty girl — a pretty girl that liked them. Or green eyes, my green eyes, trying so freaking hard to find his…
Or the color of the art; he couldn’t just look at the colors on the walls or the general shapes of the things on the walls. He had to know the precise pressure of the pencil tip; the exact width of the lines. He needed to understand the weight of this and the texture of that and the meaning behind acrylics and cotton and things.
So he measured lengths and figured out angles. Cut until he reached into the essential numbers of things and then took those numbers down, believing them implicitly. He believed numbers more than he believed words, I think, and more than he believed colors or shapes or eyes, and I wondered what number, what value, he was giving me right now. How many seconds I was good for, or had left, before my velocity or density or what-the-fuck-ever died down.
As we turned a corner, I remembered a recent dream about another one, the old one.
I was in my friend’s house in the dream, the one who just moved out to Colorado, and I was looking after things for her. I knew the house was going to sell soon, but for now, there were plates in the kitchen and plants in the living room. I was standing by the plates while worrying after the plants, seeing the viney arm of a long pothos stretching delicately, reaching from one wall to another.
And then I was holding a camera in my hand – the one James had given me – and still thinking about the pothos when I found myself looking over at Chris, an ex who was suddenly in the other room. He was just sitting there on the floor, a brown box beside him, looking back at me. I wondered what was in the box: Cate’s books, candles, nothing.
I asked him to smile and held the front lever of the Polaroid down. He made a smile, held it for a few seconds, and then frowned at me. “Just take the fucking picture,” he said.
And if this was then, I would have apologized. But I’ve changed.
“It’s the fucking flash,” I said, and then it was as if the picture took itself, capturing him with his deep frown, which is how I mostly remember him now. And maybe that picture would have been art, thumb-tacked up on these walls, if I lived here in Huntsville — in the same town as James, the one I’m with now.
Anyways, we eventually passed by the same classroom I’d noticed a half hour before: dimly lit, door open, afternoon light coming in through one small window in the back.
Hang on, I said, pulling back. I feel like there’s something in here.
He smiled without speaking and followed me through the door.
Beige desks, the kind that curve around and behind you, were neatly set in rows. There was a whiteboard, podium, and clock and while I didn’t know what I’d find here, I strongly believed it was there.
So I walked toward the back, turned around to face the room, and looked at James: tall, dressed well, staring back at me. A sweet, penetrating gaze. I couldn’t hold it.
“Which desk would be yours?” I asked, eyes sweeping the room. I already knew where mine was. I could still feel him looking at me so I continued looking away.
He tipped his head down eventually, took a few steps forward, and raised it back up again. He looked at the row on his right, considered the one to his left… I saw his eyes stick to my desk for just a second and my heart raced a little. Why? I wondered, thinking loosely about the statistics, the chances, the numbers of things. There are like twenty desks in here… does it mean we’ll stay together forever if he chooses the same one? I didn’t know. I still don’t know what numbers mean.
But he chose a different desk: one a single row ahead of and beside mine. I smiled, exhaling, and revealed mine. I actually sat down in it for a while while he remained standing — and he never did sit down in his.
Things got quiet for a bit. We both knew what happened after this so we wanted to draw it out some more; pretend we had the whole day, week, year together. His beard was growing out. I’d mentioned I liked beards two, three weeks ago and I could tell that it was longer now. I knew why he was growing it out and it made me sad for some reason.
“So what would the lesson be today?” I said.
He looked over at me and then at the board, at what was written on it.
“You can ignore that,” I said quickly and he laughed but didn’t say anything, pacing around for thirty seconds, one minute…
“Let’s say you’ve got an hour left to live,” I continued, realizing it was so lame but going with it anyways, “and you’ve got a class full of kids in here. What would you teach them, tell them, just before you leave — right before it’s all over?”
He turned to face me, still silent but seeming curious. So thoughtful. I remembered the time we’d played a guessing game together, sipping on coffee while it rained outside: You can ask as many questions as you’d like, I’d assured him, but he’d still spent a full three minutes deciding on his first question. So deliberate. So thoughtful.
“Okay. Five minutes, James. You’ve got FIVE minutes left to live.”
“Wow,” he said, laughing and rubbing his hands together. I’d held hands with him earlier on that day… kissed his lips, chin, throat, lips. Sat close beside him, stood right in front of him; my head on his shoulder, tucked under his chin.
“Or, if there’s nothing you want to say to them, you could ask them a question,” I pressed further — leaning forward, into the desk. I was resting my weight on my elbows, my head on my hands, and that was when he seemed to feel it, to find it — the shape and texture and color and weight of the thing I’d already felt before.
“I’d ask them to look at me first,” he began, looking at the floor, “and then I’d ask them: What were you thinking just now? What was on your mind a second ago, before I asked you to look at me? And I’d point at each of them and ask: you? And you? Your boyfriend, lunch, the homework assignment — okay, got it; you? Two seconds, come on… you?” He walked around the room then, nodding at all of them, the ones who weren’t really there, but not at me, and I actually was there. I wanted him to look at me again.
“And I’d tell them: You weren’t here when you were thinking about those things. You were somewhere else, someplace else — in the past, in the future. You were missing out on the single moment that matters most.”
I watched him closely, heart racing, really wishing he’d look at me again. I couldn’t explain to you exactly what was happening or why my mind did this, but I remembered the night before…
We’d gone to a wedding together.
I’d worn shoes he liked and a dress he loved and then we’d driven, a little tipsy, to the state park. “We’ll just take some pictures and go,” I said, knowing we’d both want to remember today… how nice we’d looked and what fun we’d had when we were together. And he’d looked really handsome that day: blue pants with a yellow button-up; a blue tie with brown shoes. He was like a cloudy fall afternoon — the kind you wear sweaters and blankets for while reading and dreaming and holding someone.
Anyways, we parked the car, got out, and waited for someone friendly-looking to pass by. When they did, she took a picture of us with my Polaroid.
That picture’s beside my bed now, leaning against a short lamp and sharing space with tiny bottles of essential oils: thieves, sage, lavender…
But before leaving the park, we decided to walk around just as the sun was going down. It was beautiful outside — beautiful sky, beautiful weather. Beautiful boy. I was so happy and sad to be there with him.
I took my shoes off — short, rosy-mauve heels — and walked along the road, watching the sun setting through the woods sometimes and my small feet moving parallel with his brown shoes other times. I wondered how far we’d go together, how long we’d last this time.
“What are you afraid of stepping on when you walk around barefoot?” he asked me later, after the wedding, the art, the lesson. He was taking up painting now. He said he was really terrible at it but I’d thought the single thing he’d shown me was really great: interesting lines, deep shadows. I loved the yellow he’d mixed for the background; the graded edges of the mountains; the droopy tree and the winding staircase he said needed more work than anything…
“Glass,” I said. That was all. I couldn’t think of anything else. But then he named twelve things he would worry about: glass, rocks, pine needles, mud, spikey grass, cactuses, prickly plants, bugs, slimy things, wet things, rough things, sharp sticks. And spider webs. So thirteen — not twelve. That was the number. And I realized then that there was more to be afraid of than I’d originally imagined.
“Stay in the present moment,” he said. “Be here — just here, right here — now. That’s what I’d tell them.” And finally, he looked at me. Finally. I smiled up at him and got out of my desk. He was walking down my row now and I was already standing there, waiting for him.
When James stepped close enough to me I put my arms around him, crossing my wrists behind his neck and kissing him once and twice and then once and twice again. I felt a small wave of nausea and grief pass through me, right here and now, because I don’t understand his numbers, but I still pressed my lips against his: once, twice, a third time, another time…
Green eyes; white light; yellow art on the walls.
This 98.6% nf short story (written for my creative writing class) brought to you by Aun Aqui… still here.