Chapter 1: So Far So Good
When I pulled into Chicago’s Northwestern University campus, I knew I was late. I spotted an empty space near Building A so I grabbed it and parked. As I climbed out, I grabbed my heavy backpack full of books. Before walking to class, I stopped for a second to breathe in the nice fall weather of September, admiring the trees displaying their intricate mosaic of colors. I looked at the time again on my cell, and I found myself running to make it to class on time. Professor Martinek was quite prompt and was obvious about hating late arriving students, and I didn’t want to be a target.
“Hey babe,” said Baran as I lowered myself into my usual seat in the back.
“Hey.” I smiled at the beautiful boy. My boyfriend’s face was beautiful, as so many other things in this world I thought were beautiful, like the sun sinking behind the Eiffel Tower, the soothing rhythm of the waves washing ashore, or the soft lingering sounds of a violin as it brought to life a light-hearted romantic sonata. He was a senior in computer programming and we’d met two years ago through a common friend and have been going steady ever since. Professor Martinek’s class was not a required class for him in his major, but he was attending it to fulfill his gen-ed requirement. Although he continued to deny it, it was crystal clear to me that Baran listened to Prof. Martinek’s lectures about men killing men and all the bloodshed in the world with a contorted face just to spend more time with me.
“One of the major causes in conflict is grievances. Many civil wars start because of social, political and economic injustices in the system. When a minority group cannot achieve equal rights within the rules and regulations of the political system, then the members of the groups may have no other option but to resort to violence to achieve their objectives. For example…,” Prof. Martinek spoke with his usual enthusiasm, already transitioning into his own zone as he continued to talk about the details of the wars he was exemplifying as case studies. I was simply fascinated by this topic: the idea that an individual would take up arms despite facing potential repression, intimidation and possibly death, at the cost of mobilization, beat all rational thought. Who would have such courage, and what level of desperation would push a man to risk his life, triggering that level of courage?
Hell, I had no idea.
I glanced at Baran whose gaze was fixed on his watch as he counted the minutes to his freedom. I held myself with utmost restraint so I wouldn’t laugh at his agony. I caught his eye and winked in sympathy. The things we do for love...My heart skipped a beat. I recognized it for what it was. Guilt, taking stabs at my conscience. Baran loved me too much, I knew that. And, he was the kindest, the most considerate, the most of everything, and then some more. And, in my own way I loved him. I knew that, too. Then, why did I have this prickly feeling, the feeling that I wasn’t ready for more with him? I didn’t know.
I pushed all such thoughts away as I heard the commotion from the random shuffle of chairs around me, noticing the cluster of students packed and restless as they waited impatiently for Prof. Martinek to end the class.
“I’ll see you next class,” Prof. Martinek said, the movement of the students finally alerting him to the end of his allotted lecture time.
“Finally!” sighed Baran, with obvious relief, “I thought it would never end.”
“I don’t know why you don’t drop this class. It’s obvious you hate it,” I said as I ruffled his hair.
“I’m fine, baby. Don’t fret over it. I get to see you three additional hours every week, that’s worth all the torture the professor inflicts on me,” he said, as his gaze flickered briefly on Prof. Martinek who was collecting his notes scattered on his table.
I rose on my toes and gave Baran a quick kiss.
“And then there are these unexpected perks,” he said, grinning like a kid who’d just been granted a boon. He looked at his watch. His next class was in another building at least ten minutes away. His boyish carefree expression changed to stern lines. “Shoot, I’ve gotta go babe. I’ll see you for lunch?”
“Sure, I’ll see you then.” I blew him a kiss before he turned to depart.
At lunchtime, I met my partners in crime, my best friends Abby and Payal, in the cafeteria. Abby and Payal were roommates. Payal was an international student from India, and her parents had sent her here to study journalism. She was a vital member of our small group with her outgoing social and cheerful disposition, quite the opposite of Abby, who was rather an introvert math genius besides her striking good looks.
“Hey Sierra,” Payal called out cheerfully as I walked up to our usual table. “What’s up? Is your boyfriend joining us for lunch today?”
“Yes, he’s done with his class project,” I explained. We hadn’t seen him much in the last week when he was embroiled in an assignment, programming some agent-based model on energy efficiency, or something like that. Frankly, I had no clue. While I’d always been good in math and physics, hard sciences had never intrigued me. It was almost perfect precision and accurate predictability with which things happened, the degree at which water boiled, the speed with which light traveled, the way with which gravity worked. I, on the other hand, preferred to study the imperfect order and patterns in the chaotic world of human kind. We belonged together; opposites attracted.
“So, that means we’ll be seeing him like old times, clinging to you. I swear you are the luckiest girl. He’s a sight for sore eyes,” Abby said. She was single, and gloriously stubborn in her refusal to recognize any male interested in her. With her long wavy blonde hair, blue eyes and tall skinny body, I’d no doubt she would look gorgeous wearing a trash bag, a fact she would deny till her grave.
Baran appeared with his three buddies.
“Baby, I’m starving. What do you want?” Baran asked, as he dropped his bag on the seat next to me.
“Just a salad, hon.” I grinned when I saw him shaking his head. He never understood how I appeased my stomach with what he referred to as rabbit food. Baran, on the other hand, was a guard in the Northwestern Wildcats men’s basketball team, and he could eat three large burgers in one sitting.
“And, you girls? Your usual?”
Payal didn’t answer. She was staring with her mouth open, which was unusual for Payal. “Holy crap,” exclaimed Payal as she fixed her dark brown gaze somewhere behind us, “don’t look behind you girls, but it’s HIM.” She tucked a loose strand of her thick black hair behind one ear, an action she carried out on auto mode whenever she was excited.
Baran and the boys took this as a cue to take their leave towards the food line. They didn’t enjoy girl talk much.
“Who? Oh, my God, you mean Seth?” Abby said, turning her head.
“I told you not to look, he’ll notice,” Payal reprimanded her.
“But, you’re looking,” Abby pointed out, continuing to feast her eyes on the boy of interest.
“And, isn’t that the point? To be noticed by him?”
I laughed at Payal’s funny contradictions. That was my way of masking the strange excitement slowly rising inside me. I knew who they were talking about and tried very hard not to repeat Abby’s behavior and look at the boy infamous asthe sexy bad boyof our college. I cringed with the familiar feeling of guilt and immediately attempted to empty my mind.
Baran returned and pushed a bowl of salad in front of me. He started devouring his food the moment he lowered himself on the bench next to me. I glanced over at him and saw his long golden curls falling over his forehead each time he bowed his head to take another large bite of his hamburger. “You’re simply adorable,” I whispered in his ear. He gave me a thumbs up, his mouth full.
“Here’s your lasagna,” said Mischa as he sat next to Payal along with Taka and Andrew. He had the hots for her but Payal was the flirtatious type, putting her hand in every jar without necessarily being interested in the candy. She enjoyed the attention of every man who was drawn to her exotic large dark brown eyes and thick natural eyelashes.
“Thanks,” Payal said absentmindedly, her eyes still fixed on Seth. “Damn, he’s leaving,” she cursed.
“Who?” Mischa asked, confused. He caught the target of her gaze and his eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t know what you girls see in him beneath all the tattoos. He’s the epitome of vulgarity and incivility.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Baran concurred as he took another bite from his burger.
A loud curse rose above the lazy indulgence in the air. A hurricane of harsh insults followed.
“Oh, no, here he goes again,” Baran said, craning his neck to look behind him.
A plate whizzed past us.
“You say that again, assholes!” Seth’s thick voice exploded, followed by a ruckus that hurt my ears. The girls had stepped back in the corner, readying the scene for the fight that was about to ensue.
Heavy punches landed on skin, feet shuffled to get away, heavy swearing meshed with painful moans.
This time, I felt no guilt eyeing Seth, as everyone in the cafeteria was riveted on his lithe foot movements as his fists came like cannonballs on the two bulky guys whom I recognized as players from the football team.
“I’ll kill you, motherfuckers,” he shouted, his rage penetrating the room, hushing all chatting around us. His face was red, dangerous, lethal. The fast lifting and falling of his chest, the heavy breath that effused from his lips screamed run away.
The moment my eyes locked on his body, I couldn’t look away. I watched as his arms lashed out, his muscles taut, his dragon tattoo stretching across his skin. Baran nor his friends, nor anyone else tried to stop the fight as Seth continued beating the two guys to a pulp.
“Stop it,” I shouted. By then, there was silence in the room except for the loud cracking sounds Seth’s fists made upon contact and the constant moans emitting from his victims. I bounced out of my seat in a blur, as if possessed by unseen forces, and my feet carried me towards the chaos. “Stop it, that’s enough!” I screamed.
Seth turned around, one arm holding the bloodied student by his collar while his fist was coiled back, bunched, ready to fly.
“Please stop,” I said again, this time a little bit calmer, flinching at the blood pouring from the guy’s nose. It looked swollen, purple, broken. Seth narrowed his eyes and his face was devoid of emotion. He turned back to the beaten guy and swung again but stopped before his fist made contact with the guy’s jaw. Seth’s grip loosened, and the guy dropped to the floor moaning, his arms wrapped around his bruised body.
“Keep away from her, or I’ll kill you next time,” growled Seth, his body trembling in rage. Then he walked towards me, his eyes still wide and dilated. He stopped in front of me and raised his hand as if touch, but his movement stopped in midair.
I couldn’t breathe as I felt every inch of my body come alive as I stood in such close proximity to him. Prominent cheekbones accentuated his green eyes. It was the churning passionate green of the ocean racked in a storm, the budding spring defying the last hold of winter. Wilderness harbored in his eyes. He was like a cactus, thorny, beautiful, a ghost silhouette of an embattled soul in a desert of loneliness. He held not a wisp of softness, no sweet promise of warmth wandered in his eyes. Yet, I was enthralled by his gaze, consumed by a magical pull, depriving me of any sane thought. I gasped in surprise as I felt Baran’s arm on my shoulder.
Seth blinked as if waking up from a dream, a look of mockery and derision settling on his face. “Restrain the princess, basketball boy. Her impetuousness can get her into trouble. We wouldn’t want her to get her hurt, now would we?” He glanced at me briefly before he turned and walked away.
As he walked out, my eyes were drawn to the dragon tattoo on his bulging bicep, its diamond-shaped scales blending beautifully from the palest shade of green to a rich dark emerald, with just a tint of red scattered down the animal’s chest. It was so ferocious looking—with penetrating eyes that sucked me in their depths—and yet so captivating at the same time. But, what made me question my sanity was that I thought I saw a flicker of movement from the dragon’s tail.
Before I could process what I had seen, Baran pulled at my arm.
“Baby, what were you thinking?” Baran’s voice quivered with worry and confusion. “He’s right. You could’ve been hurt. I still can’t believe what you just did, it’s so surreal,” he murmured, hugging me to his chest protectively.
I kept my silence. I didn’t know what had come over me, and I was secretly proud for the glimpse of courage I showed. I glanced at the two beaten guys who were now being helped out of the cafeteria by other students, probably being led to the infirmary. What had triggered Seth’s rage? What had triggered my impulsiveness to stop him? I had no clear answer.