Photo courtesy of Imax.com
Julia Zygiel ’19
The sharp wind of early spring buffets Rich and Nina as they settled onto a bench outside of the library to study. Even though it is the first day of spring, it certainly doesn’t feel like it, and Nina watched Rich with envy as he slipped into that laser focus of his with an ease that she knew she would never achieve. Nina herself was unfocused, too cold to think of homework, but unwilling to leave her friend to retreat inside.
He was studying for an important philosophy exam, but he had studied for it all day yesterday, and in her honest opinion, he could use a break. Besides, she was in the mood to chat rather than be productive, and he had insisted upon dragging her into the cold to study, so the least he could do was entertain her.
She clears her throat at him, following it with an “uh” to indicate that she needs his attention. “Can I,” she pauses to feign anxiety, then bravely forges on, “Can I ask you about something?”
“Anything,” is his response, though his tone is reluctant. He seems to think that it is his duty to be there for her (and everyone else), whether he likes it or not. At first she thought it was sweet, but as the months of their friendship went on she came to realize that he takes it more as an opportunity to display his intelligence than to comfort the person in need. She recognizes that what she’s doing will only encourage this habit, but at the same time she can’t help herself. Maybe this time will be different.
She leans back into the cool metal rungs of the bench they have chosen, aware of his eyes on her face. Suddenly, real anxiety has taken hold of her and she focuses on watching the few clouds in the sky. She worries that her thoughts will be too heavy for a study session, too private for the outdoors.
“Do you ever feel, like, empty because you don’t have a significant other?” The anxiety swells as she speaks and then subsides, replaced by embarrassment at having said something so revealing. She looks to him. His face is contorted with concern. Wonderful. “I can’t say I do.”
“I dunno…I watch all those television shows, I see couples everywhere, it makes me lonely. I know that’s like THE most teenage thing ever and that people are dying, but that doesn’t mean I should feel empty. Like”—she wants to communicate the conviction that her feelings matter in some way, but she can’t quite find the words—“I’m real, you know?”
He doesn’t respond immediately so she tries to laugh it off, saying, “I don’t know what I’m saying.”
He remains silent, thinking through his response, and she wants to take it back, to simply say “Nevermind,” but before she can back out he speaks, unveiling a masterpiece of his usual pretension that fills her with frustration.
“Well, your worries are pretty normal for a teenager. Your life shouldn’t be completed by someone else.” He pauses either for effect or to consider his next words—she had given up trying to tell. “You’re whole. Do you get what I mean? There—There is no emptiness, because your self occupies all of the space within you. You are all you need in this life and the next. Sometimes it’s all you will have.”
“Jesus, Richard.” She knew he would spout something like this and still she had asked him about it. Why had she bothered at all? “I know you fancy yourself an intellectual and all, but could you maybe try being a real person for once?”
that slow, rolling laugh, that
sounds too practiced to be real, “An intellectual, that’s a laugh. But sure, let me be a ‘real’ person. Hello, my name is Real Person McGee, how may I help you today?”
She rolls her eyes, regret weighing down her limbs, “God, don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. I just need you to tell me that I’m too good for all the boys and that one day I’ll find my perfect prince charming and that it’ll all be fine, okay? I don’t need this bull about the nature of the self or whatever.”
She searches for something to do to distract from the angry tears in her eyes. Remembering the slim white box in her pocket she drags it out, her other hand patting herself down for her lighter. A silent pleasure washes over her when he makes a face of disgust.
He opens his mouth to speak again but she cuts him off, pulling out a cigarette, deciding to mock him now, “Besides, humans are social, right? We love each other, hate each other, hurt each other.” She places the cigarette between her lips and sparks her lighter, the smoke rising between them like a confessional curtain. She offers the box to him even though she knows he hates them. “We have to have connections with other people. So, yes, there can be emptiness and, no, I am not all that I need.”
He scoffs as he declines the box of cigarettes, communicating all of his mocking and taking offense in that single exhale. She wonders if this counts as a talent or a particularly awful flaw, “Well if you have all the answers then why did you ask me in the first place?”
She returns his tone, sarcasm and condescension rolled into one, “I thought maybe, for once, you wouldn’t get all big brother about it.” She switches the cigarette to her right hand so that the smoke will float closer to him and he shifts in his seat, but does not move away. Such dedication. “It’s my own fault, though, I should have known better.”
“I’m sorry I’m so disappointing.”
She waits for more, for some explosion, but it doesn’t come. Instead he goes back to his book and guilt burns her insides, regret at having been so cruel weighing on her now. She takes another drag of her cigarette before extinguishing it with the heel of her sneaker.
“I’m sorry, too.”