I didn’t realize I was frozen in place until a classmate shouldered into me, knocking my heavy backpack from my shoulder. “’Scuse me,” he grumbled, his tone more Get out of the way than Sorry I ran into you.
As I bent to retrieve my backpack, praying Kennedy and his fangirl hadn’t seen me, a hand grasped the strap and swung the pack up from the floor. I straightened and looked into clear gray-blue eyes. “Chivalry isn’t really dead, you know.” His deep, calm voice was just as I remembered from Saturday night, and from Monday afternoon, across the Starbucks counter.
He slipped the strap back onto my shoulder. “Nah. That guy’s just an ass**le.” He gestured toward the guy who’d bumped me, but I could have sworn his eyes raked over my ex, too, who was crossing to the door, laughing with the girl. Her bright orange sweatpants said ZETA across the rear. “You okay?” For the third time, this question, from him, held deeper significance than the usual, everyday implication.
“Yes, fine.” What could I do but lie? “Thank you.” I turned and entered the room, took my new seat, and spent the first forty-five minutes of class fixing my attention on Dr. Heller, the whiteboard he filled, and the notes I took. Dutifully copying charts of short-run equilibrium and aggregate demand, all of it seeming like so much nonsense, I realized I would have to beg Landon Maxfield for help after all. My pride would only cause me to slide further behind.
Minutes before the end of class, I turned and reached into my backpack as an excuse to sneak a look at the guy on the back row. He was staring at me, a black pencil loose between his fingers, tapping the notebook in front of him. He slouched into his seat, one elbow over the back of it, one booted foot casually propped on the support under his desk. As our eyes held, his expression changed subtly from unreadable to the barest of smiles, though guarded. He didn’t look away, even when I glanced into my bag and then back at him.
I snapped forward, my face warming.
Guys had shown interest in me over the past three years, but other than a couple of short-lived, certainly never revealed or acted-upon crushes—one on my own college-aged bass tutor, and another on my chemistry lab partner—I’d not been attracted to anyone but Kennedy. The economics lecture reduced to background babble, I couldn’t decide if my response to this stranger was lingering embarrassment, gratitude that he’d saved me from Buck, or a simple crush. Perhaps all three.
When class ended, I packed my textbook into my backpack and resisted the urge to look in his direction again. I fiddled long enough for Kennedy and his fangirl to leave. As I stood to go, the persistently sleepy guy who sat next to me spoke.
“Hey, which questions did he say to do for the extra credit? I must have knocked off for a few seconds right around when he discussed those—my notes are indecipherable.” I glanced at the spot he indicated in his notes, and sure enough, the scribbles became less and less readable. “I’m Benji, by the way.”
“Oh, um, let’s see…” I flipped through my spiral and pointed to the assignment details printed across the top of the page. “Here it is.” As he copied it, I added, “I’m Jacqueline.”
Benji was one of those guys to whom adolescence hadn’t been kind. A scattering of acne dotted his forehead. His hair was overgrown and curly—a skilled stylist could tame it, but he was probably a fan of the eight-dollar place featuring flatscreens of nonstop ESPN. Given his doughy midsection, I doubted he spent much time in the university’s state-of-the-art gym. The t-shirt stretched across his belly gave some sort of “bro” instruction best left unread. Expressive hazel eyes and an engaging smile that crinkled them adorably were his saving grace in the looks department.
“Thanks, Jacqueline. This saves my ass—I need those extra credit points. See you Friday.” He snapped his notebook closed. “Unless I accidentally sleep in,” he added, giving me a genuine smile.
I returned the smile as I moved into the aisle. “No problem.”
Maybe I was capable of making friends outside of my Kennedy circle. This interaction, along with the defection of most of our friends to Kennedy after the breakup, made me realize how dependent on him I’d become. I was a little shocked. Why had this never occurred to me before? Because I’d never thought Kennedy and I could end?
Foolish, naïve assumption. Obviously.
The room had almost cleared, the guy from the back row included. I felt a stab of irrational disappointment. So he’d stared at me in class—big deal. Maybe he was just bored. Or easily distracted.
But as I exited the room, I spotted him across the crowded hallway, talking with a girl from class. His demeanor was relaxed, from the navy shirt, open over a plain gray t-shirt, to the hand tucked into the front pocket of his jeans. Muscle didn’t show under the unbuttoned long-sleeved shirt, but his abdomen looked flat, and he’d put Buck on the ground and bloody easily enough Saturday night. His black pencil sat atop one ear, only the pink eraser at the tip showing, the rest disappearing into his dark, messy hair.
“So it’s a group tutoring thing?” the girl asked, twirling a long loop of blonde hair around and around her finger. “And it lasts an hour?”
He hitched his backpack, twitching wayward bangs out of his eyes. “Yeah. From one to two.”
As he gazed down at her, she tilted her head and rocked her weight slightly from side to side, as though she was about to dance with him. Or for him. “Maybe I’ll check it out. What are you doing after?”