Brad was dressed in a simple pair of khaki shorts and a black tee when I arrived at his dorm. Short hair spiked up, his face freshly-shaven, he offered me a smile that could’ve crumbled mountains before saying, “You want to take a walk?”
“A walk?” I asked. “Where?”
“I dunno. Anywhere. There’s a trail down the road if you’re okay with walking a distance.”
“I don’t mind,” I replied, sliding my hands into my pants pockets. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah. Just let me lock up.”
He spent only a few moments in his room—gathering his cell phone, his wallet, his keys—and then locked up before leading me down the corridor and to the front hall. Brad was quick to step forward and open the door, then held it open as I walked into the humid evening hair.
“The weather gets better as it gets darker,” Brad said as he stepped outside and came to stand beside me. “This is, what? Your third day?”
“Yeah. I still haven’t gotten used to the heat.”
“It didn’t get hot up in Utah?”
“Not like this,” I replied, and laughed—a sound that brought a smile to Brad’s face but almost immediately disarmed me. I drew in a breath in an effort to keep my face clear of emotion and forced a smile of my own before saying, “Where are we headed?”
“This way,” he said, and began to lead on.
He took me down a long road that was flanked by two sprawling parking lots meant to house the vehicles belonging to those students attending the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. As we walked—he with his hands in his pockets, mine at my sides—I tried my hardest to summon the urge to speak, but found that any time I did I was wrought with tension, and plagued by the worst of nerves.
“So,” Brad said, drawing his word out to draw my attention. “You were gonna tell me how classes went?”
“Oh,” I replied, thankful for the lead-in that I was unable to commit to. “Yeah. Sorry. I was just… thinking.”
“My day. Being here. Living here.”
“How do you like it so far?”
“I haven’t explored much beyond the campus,” I said, drawing up alongside him to avoid a bicyclist using the sidewalk as their own personal road, “but so far, I like it here. It… has a lot more culture than I was used to up there.”
“How do you mean?”
“This is going to sound a bit insensitive, but the people in northern Utah were just…” I paused. “What’s the word I’m looking for? Not friendly.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that strangers are meant to be regarded with suspicion. You’re either one of us or one of them—and in my case, the one of them meant that I didn’t belong.”
“Your parents weren’t Mormon or something?”
“It’s not that. It’s just… I never really belonged, for a variety of reasons.”
“Tell me about it,” Brad said.
We came to a stop at an intersection and waited for the lights to turn red before crossing the street. Here, we paused; and here, Brad viewed the quickly-darkening sky before turning and leading me down a sidewalk into a residential area.
“I like to walk here,” he said, “because of all the trees. It’s relaxing. Peaceful. Takes my mind off the schoolwork.”
“What’re you studying?” I asked.
“You’re an artist?”
“I like to think of myself as one, yeah.”
“What about you? Why are you here at school—other than to escape the north?” he laughed.
“I… got a fellowship to study English, and, well… to write.”
“You’re a writer?”
“That’s fucking cool, man.”
“I don’t get that a lot,” I admit. “It seems like everyone and their dog is a writer nowadays.”
“But to get a fellowship that moved you cross-country and got you into school? That takes skill, and talent.”
“You’re blowing smoke up my ass.”
“Hey, I never said you were a good writer, but I can’t judge, since I haven’t read any of your work. You’ll have to let me read some of it sometime.”
“Only if I can see your art,” I replied.
The smile that parted Brad’s lips made my heart swell; and even though I was just beginning to get to know him, it didn’t take much to deduce that I had a crush on him, though whether he could sense that or even cared I wasn’t sure. However—at that point, it didn’t particularly matter. Simply being near him put me at ease, which was something considering that I had developed what I believed to be a chronic fear of men, all thanks to my father.
A sigh had escaped my lips—long, hard, and filled with dread—but thankfully, Brad didn’t notice, or didn’t seem to catch on that it was because I had thought of something rather troubling.
At that moment, during which I began to realize that my attraction to the man was primarily due to the fact that he didn’t want to beat the shit out of me, Brad had stopped walking. Given that he’d been a few paces in front of me, it was easy enough to determine that something had caught his eye.
“Brad?” I asked as I came to a halt beside him. “What’re you looking at?”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he blinked several times, then frowned.
I lifted my eyes. I trailed them across the street. I thought, for one brief moment, that I would see something—anything.
But I didn’t.
And, oddly enough, Brad’s hand was bundled into a fist.
“Brad?” I said.
“Yeah?” he asked, his tone so abrupt that it startled even me.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine,” he said. “Just… thinking.”
He started walking shortly thereafter, but didn’t wait for me to catch up.
He simply kept on going.