Disclaimers: My real-life friends get on to me for refusing to talk about my writing in person. My husband doesn’t even know what this story is about because I refuse to tell him what I’m writing. My patient, patient editors have not signed off on this piece yet because I feel bad bugging them to read my junk. Everything and everyone you are about to read about are figments of my imagination. For Part 1, click here.
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Ciana couldn’t tell you what it was exactly that drew her into their tight circle. She should have just kept walking.
But she had never seen him before, and his voice carried through the air and his eyes flashed with intelligence and conviction, and it didn’t hurt that he was beautiful. Scientifically speaking, Ciana corrected herself, as science has theorized that beauty is just symmetry, which is just nature’s way of attracting.
And Ciana — by nature’s design — could not help but appreciate the symmetry of his face.
She drifted closer, catching the cusps of his words and the way his deep voice enveloped each one. Closer still, and she heard the slightest rasp as his timbre rose, sandpaper smoothing over each syllable. One more step and she was on the fringe of this circle, and he noticed her, finally, though his speech remained seamless.
Ciana wanted to unseat him as thoroughly as he had her, but did not know how.
So she listened to him speak. She swallowed his every word. And when he bowed his head, and his circle of friends or followers imitated him, she boldly stared.
And then he looked up and lifted his hands and the crowd dispersed and his eyes never left hers.
“Hello,” he said, an invitation.
Ciana fell apart when that one word hit her in the very center of her chest, so she turned quickly and away.
But she had listened and had swallowed his every word.
It was the same word, spoken the same way, and it froze the blood in Ciana’s veins.
Carefully, she looked up from her textbook and into the symmetrically fashioned eyes of the man she had run away from last week.
Was it just last week?
Every afternoon Ciana had crossed that particular lawn on her way to class she had looked for him, and every afternoon when she did not find him, it felt like its own small eternity.
Without breaking eye contact, he sat across the table from her. Ciana couldn’t have looked away if she had tried.
“I was hoping to run into you again,” he said, and the ice inside her skin slowly began to melt. “I’m Ben.” He reached a hand across the space between them, and she shook it quickly, uncertainly.
Ben smiled, then glanced at the textbook before her. His smile faltered at the unfamiliar symbols lining the open page.
“What in God’s name is that?” He leaned to get a closer look, but Ciana instinctively sat back, increasing the distance between them. She tucked the book beneath her binder to hide it from further scrutiny. Ciana wished she could do the same.
“Set-theoretic topology.” A blush bit into her scalp. She folded up her notes and dropped her things back into her bag.
“That looks…fascinating,” Ben said. “So are you done then? Do you have time to grab a cup of coffee with me?”
Ciana hesitated. Ben smiled wide, the symmetry shattered by a dimple in one cheek, nearly camouflaged by the dusty brown scruff coating the hills and lines of his jaw. Ciana wondered if this half-grown beard was intent or laziness. Whatever it was, it hid that dimple like a secret, and Ciana always found intrigue in the secrets.
“I have an hour before my next class.” The words tripped out of her mouth before she had a chance to reconsider.
And in that hour, Ciana learned that Ben drank his coffee black and bitter. That he absentmindedly rolled the plastic stirrer between two fingers as he listened with purpose. That the rest of him sat in stillness and ease while Ciana tapped out a rhythm against the table corner, dug her fingernails into the rim of her styrofoam cup, and crossed her legs at the knee, the ankle, and sometimes in between.
“Thanks for the coffee, but I’ve got to go,” she said one hour later. As she stood, the level of reluctance to leave rose with her.
“It was great talking with you,” Ben said, following her. He pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket. “Can I call you sometime?”
The flood of reluctance whooshed out of the bottom of her feet, replaced by a lightness.
And Ciana, a girl who fumbles with social graces and tastes the depths of her own darkness, gave her phone number to Ben, a boy who fiddles with straws and consumes the blackness with nothing sweet to temper it.