It was a brutal first week of classes. Apparently my senior year business profs took their job of preparing us for the “real world” very seriously. After multiple hours of law, finance, economics, and marketing, I was beat. The one upside was that my class schedule ran Monday to Thursday, giving me a three-day weekend to dig myself out.
My book snapped shut faster than our financial econ professor could say “see you Monday.” Rising with thirty other students, I looped my book bag over my head.
“This assignment’s going to take all weekend,” grumbled Jane beside me. Jane was possibly the only person more serious about school than I was. Her black hair and almond-shaped eyes came courtesy of her Asian mother and the faintest hint of freckles was from her Scottish father. Jane’s look was striking and exotic and Ava had been dying to get Jane in her clothes since I’d introduced them the year before.
Jane and I were both business students. We’d established a solid bond over calculus and caffeine—both major themes of junior year.
“Want to work on it at Bart’s?” she asked. I could feel a marathon session coming on. This course definitely had the heaviest workload of the four I was taking.
“Deal. I could go for a sugar fix. I’m pretty sure the mental gymnastics Finske’s putting us through could burn off anything we want to eat.”
We walked along one of the paved lanes that connected the campus buildings and bordered greenspaces on which students lounged. Our destination, Bart’s Café, was in the social sciences building on the other side of campus.
Don’t ask me why the coffeehouse was called that. As far as I knew, there was no Bart involved in its management. Maybe at one point there had been. Maybe Bart had taken Dr. Finske’s Advanced Topics in Financial Economics course and thrown himself off the social sciences building.
I waved at a few friends we saw on our way across campus. As usual, the first week of classes carried a certain energy. I chalked it up to excitement on the part of the freshmen, who were easily distinguished by their enthusiastic expressions, tendency to be clustered around campus maps and signposts, and the telltale college bookstore bags clutched in their hands.
We pushed through the doors of the café to find it packed. Bart’s was a popular hangout for students of all vintages. It boasted schizophrenic décor that looked like the contents of a surf shop and a record store had been tossed in a giant box, shaken, and dumped out again. Case in point, the café’s crowning glory: a surfboard mounted behind the counter from which Gene Simmons’ countenance leered. But the real reasons for its loyal following were that it was open twenty-four hours and also served beer after noon.
I placed our orders at the counter while Jane miraculously found a booth in the process of being vacated. This was an impressive feat, as Bart’s was especially popular with both the coffee and beer consuming patrons near the end of the week.
“Did I tell you I’m taking my LSATs next month?” Jane swirled a spoon in her cappuccino after our drinks were delivered to our table. Jane was a serious brain. The Law School Admissions Test was just one more step on her path. I knew she’d blow it out of the sky.
“That’s amazing. You’ll be a hot shot litigator in no time. Are you excited?”
“I’m excited that my parents will be excited,” she hedged. Jane had a tight-knit family and big expectations to meet. I knew what that was like, but while Jane was following the path her parents set out, I was hell-bent on making success on my own terms. If things had worked out differently, maybe I’d be the one taking my LSATs instead. My mom would trade me in for Jane in a second.
“But you’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, right? I mean, I haven’t heard you talk about anything else.”
Jane thought for a minute before responding. “I think it’s partly because I’ve never had anything I wanted to do, unlike you. As long as we’ve been friends you’ve planned to start your own company. That’s so … daring.” I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way because it had been the goal for two years. Success seemed inevitable, even if I had to jump through a thousand hoops to get there.
I could still remember the day in seventh grade that may have sealed my fate in fashion. It was two years after my dad left and Ava had come to school wearing the craziest skirt I’d ever seen. It was purple with green flowers sewn up the side. She’d cut up one of her mom’s tops to make it.
As awkward as that first creative foray had been, it had made me smile for the first time in a long time, and had been the jumping off point for Ava’s more serious creative explorations. Ava had been bitten by the design bug, and because we were inseparable, I wanted to go there with her. And to get the business side done she needed me too.
“Well,” I said cheerily, “maybe we’ll get sued and need your first-rate representation.”
Jane’s face brightened. “You think so?”
* * *
An hour later Jane and I had made some impressive progress on our assignment. Take that, Finske. Jane packed up her books and some students noticed the activity, eyeing our booth like hyenas. I smiled sweetly and waved to let them know I wasn’t going anywhere. One of them gave me an unfriendly hand gesture. I shook my head, laughing, and went back to reading.
One of the great things about having buckets of work was that it took your brain off of other things. Like parents. And exes. And friends’ brothers who showed up out of the blue and kissed you like they’d been waiting their whole lives to do it.
After the other night I’d lain in bed for a while trying to sort out what had happened. In the end I chalked it up to the booze and feeling like crap about Jake. I hadn’t been with a guy all summer and had forgotten how seductive attention and a pair of strong arms could be. It was totally rational, and now that I’d fallen into the trap once, I could avoid it.
If I was lucky I wouldn’t see Dylan again all semester. It was a big campus.
As if conjured by my musings, Dylan Cameron pushed in the door with two girls and a guy.
They were laughing like old friends. But a guy like him would make friends quickly. No doubt he’d be every bit as popular on campus as he’d been in high school.
I was absorbed in tort law a few minutes later when a figure stopped beside me. I looked up, ready to defend my spot if necessary. Dylan Cameron leaned over the table and extended a plate in my direction. “Banana bread for your thoughts?”
He folded his tall body into the seat across from me without waiting for an answer. I wondered what’d happened to his friends but wasn’t ready to let on that I had noticed him come in.
“So I know I’m new here, but I have to say, this Bart guy knows how to bake.” Dylan, oblivious to my thoughts, closed his eyes as he took an appreciative bite. Glancing around, I saw more than one pair of female eyes watching us—scratch that, watching him—with interest. It was clear that others would’ve been more than happy to share their booth with him. Alas, he’d chosen mine.
Through all of this Dylan and his baked goods were on their own planet, completely oblivious to the attention.
He did look pretty great. Today’s vibe was more prom king incumbent than rebel. He’d shaven, which added to the clean-cut look, and tucked Ray-Bans into the collar of his green polo. It made me think about the feel of his chest under my hands, his jaw under my mouth. Did that count as checking him out? I forced the thought away.
Rolling my eyes, I leaned toward him. “Sorry to rain on your parade, but Bart isn’t a real person. He’s made up, probably to inspire the affection and consumer loyalty you just displayed.”
Dylan sat back, looking like I’d just told him there was no Santa Claus or that I drowned puppies for fun. “Way to shatter a guy’s dreams.” Then he shrugged and went back to his snack. Which, I inferred, had never actually been destined for me. “I guess I’ll recover. As long as someone keeps making this stuff, I’ll call them anything they want.”
I suddenly wondered why Dylan was here. He’d brought books but didn’t seem to be in a hurry to use them.
The air between us felt heavy, though I wondered if I was the only one feeling it. “Dylan, about the other night. In my room.”
He looked directly at me. His dark lashes softened the intensity of his probing gaze. “What about it?”
“Can we just forget it?”
Dylan paused, and I could practically see the wheels turning in his head. He took his time answering, even finished off the banana bread and slid the plate to the end of the table. “Forget what?” His face was unreadable.
Was he going to make me spell it out? “Forget …” and then I caught on. Smooth Lex. “Oh. Well, thanks.” I paused. “Because I was upset and things were just weird and I feel like Ava doesn’t need to know about me groping her brother. Though in fairness you were also pretty central in the whole—”
“What part of this is us forgetting about it?” Dylan frowned.
He made no motion to leave so I figured he wasn’t here to talk about the other night. Now that the moment was over and some of the awkwardness dispelled, maybe I could multitask. I popped open the lid of my MacBook computer, remembering a promise to Ava that I’d scope some web agencies to design us a site for our launch next year.
“So … how’s the exciting world of undergrad engineering?” I asked him, glancing up as the machine booted.
Dylan leaned forward in the booth and shrugged. He didn’t seem to share my penchant for multitasking. The pile of books he’d haphazardly deposited on the table between us remained untouched. “It’s pretty straightforward, like Penn. Math, science, rinse, repeat.”
My eyes narrowed as I studied his expression. He looked normal, but there was a glint of something in his eyes that didn’t match his bored tone. Something clicked in my brain, and the corner of my mouth twitched in response. “You love it, don’t you?” I asked accusingly, even though I already knew.
There were some people who just oozed brainiac. Dylan wasn’t like that. In fact his looks were so striking that his intelligence could easily go unnoticed.
Dylan narrowed his eyes. “What if I do?”
“You’re a nerd! I’m onto you, Cameron.” I couldn’t resist teasing him. It was kind of like poking a bear. I kept wanting to push him further, to see if I could make him react.
“I confess to nothing of the sort. Besides, you already know enough of my secrets.” His eyes warmed and his careless words made me think of our conversation—and other things. I quickly steered us in another direction. Especially since I’d just effectively declared the kiss off limits.
“How’s the living situation?” Ava had told me Dylan was in a six-man house just off campus. His roommates were sophomore and junior guys, most of whom played varsity sports. One of the guys, Rick, knew Dylan from rugby camp in years past.
Dylan rolled easily with the change of topic. “You ever see that movie about fraternities?”
He paused and thought for a moment. “Any of ’em.”
“Yeah.” Ava and I had been forced to watch Van Wilder an embarrassing number of times during her older sister Kate’s Ryan Reynolds phase. Which quickly became my Ryan Reynolds phase. Apparently Ryan Reynolds was contagious.
“It’s pretty much like that.”
I pulled my best stumped face. “Does that mean booze, girls, homoerotic initiation rituals, or substandard levels of cleanliness?”
“Pretty much all of the above. Minus the initiation part, since we’re not actually in a frat. But try telling some of the guys that.” His expression grew serious. “Speaking of guys, is that asshole giving you any more grief?” I wished he hadn’t brought up Jake. The last couple of days I’d enjoyed diversifying my list of problems, luxuriating in new concerns like the possibility of failing this semester.
“A couple of texts, but nothing I can’t handle.” Jake had written to say he was glad to see me at the party, and that if I ever wanted to meet up I should let him know. I had no idea whether Jake wanted to get back together or just relieve his personal guilt by hearing me say I was OK. In any case, it was starting to feel like I’d moved on. For the first time I truly didn’t give a crap what he was doing and it was liberating.
Dylan’s face darkened. “If he does, will you let me know?” He grabbed my phone from on top of my book bag, which was sitting on the table between us. He put his number in it before I could even protest. Then texted himself so he’d have mine.
“You look like you’ve done that before,” I observed.
“What, saved a damsel in distress or given a girl my number?”
“Yeah, I think we’ve established I’m a big time player.” I couldn’t help laughing at his tone. “But seriously, I know people. This guy’s account can be hacked and his GPA halved in no time.” I raised an eyebrow. “Or, you know, I could just rearrange his face,” he said. The words were meant as a joke, but they drew my eyes to his hands, clasped loosely on the table.
Nope. I’d already figured out thinking about Dylan Cameron’s body, any of it, for more than a couple of minutes would lead me down a very distracting path. I stood up and eased out of the booth.
“What, you don’t think I can take him?” Dylan misinterpreted the reason for my departure. He slid his sunglasses on his face and adopted a steely expression. “I know kung fu.” His Matrix impression was passable at best, but what killed me was that he’d tried it.
“Whatever you say, Keanu.” The nerdiness secretly delighted me, but he didn’t need to know that. In fact, I needed to get out of there. “All this talk of falling GPA’s is raising my blood pressure. One of us has a hot date with the library.” I swung my bag over my head. “And a word to the wise—you might want to check it out if you plan to keep your scholarship.” I started toward the door but turned to call over my shoulder. “Oh, and don’t blow all your money on carbs. At least not before midterms.”