This story is by Sam Roche and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I blamed the wind. It was always there, just loud enough to be noticed and yet too quiet to be a full-fledged annoyance. It moaned on the other side of the window, relentless and cold. It wouldn’t be so kind as to keep me from focusing altogether; it allowed me to think enough to come up with answers, but not so much that my calculations turned out right. Rain had joined in halfway through the exam, pattering the window. The rain wasn’t all evil, as it kept the dizzying swirl of leaves pinned to the ground; but the noise kept me glancing up from my paper. As soon as I was allowed, I stormed out of the room. In the corridor flickered a single ray of sunlight. I blinked, and the golden radiance turned out to be a woman.
She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She stood in the one ray of sunlight we would get today, which made her hair glitter like honey strewn with star-bits. Calling her eyes “brown” did not do them justice; they invented their own shade of warmth, richer than polished oak, softer than caramel.
“Hello?” She said, somehow making it sound like “Perhaps you would rather have a picture of me?”.
Heat spread from my cheeks to my forehead, my neck, and the rest of my body. Standing in front of her, I was sweating like I had run all the way across campus, and I just knew my face was crimson.
I squeaked: “Hi.”
“I’m Elise.” Her voice was music, soft as summer wind.
She filled the awkward silence with a sunshine-smile.
“How did you do on the exam?”
My heart tumbled from the little spot where it had been floating. I couldn’t tell her I had failed. I didn’t know what her laugh sounded like but if she laughed at me… I wouldn’t stand it.
I shrugged. “No idea.”
Elise looked at me for endless seconds, her eyes darting back and forth the way they would on a page. I was naked before these eyes, more exposed than the day a surgeon had bent over my body, more exposed than when I had lain on the bed waiting for my boyfriend.
“There’s no shame in failure,” she said, “but there is shame in being content with it.”
It sounded grand, like a quote from a dead poet. I wanted to confess to her that I had failed not only the exam but the rest of my life too; that I should be out of the university this instant and get some uneducated job. My family needed the money; what was I doing here?
“We could study together,” said Elise, startling me.
“We could?” I even sounded stupid. Perfect.
“Yes.” She looked down, chewing on her lower lip. “I didn’t do too well. I hear you shouldn’t study alone, how about we give it a try?”
I nodded, and we set off to the library. Crossing the lawn was like playing hopscotch without a grid, avoiding the deep puddles and stepping into the shallow ones. The sky bore the threat of more rain so we hurried inside along with other students.
We sat in one of the fish tanks. They flooded with sunlight when the season had any to spare, but on a day like this they were murky. Students walked by on the other side of the glass walls, scouring the library for assignment material.
“How were you trying to learn the periodic table?” Elise asked, interrupting my train of thought.
“Um, I read it, copied it and pinned it above my desk.” And I still couldn’t remember it for my life.
She looked thoughtful for a moment, then grinned the special grin of someone who got an idea that’s clever and funny. She threw herself in one of the chairs and got to scribbling. Her smile sparkled. Her pen danced over the paper, led by graceful fingers. There was sunlight in the room, only it didn’t come from the sky.
She handed me the sheet triumphantly. At first I only saw verses. A poem? I took a closer look. A song. A song about the periodic table, using the melody of a pop song I loved.
“Sing it,” she said, and upon seeing my embarrassed blush, she added, “tonight, when you’re alone.”
“Thank you,” I said, trying not to make it sound like a question.
A knock at the door stole her reply. A group of men was standing outside waving at us. Elise skipped to the door.
“Not wanting to bother you lovebirds, but we have the room booked starting now.”
I sucked in air to protest but the words stuck in my throat like a too-big spoonful of Nutella. Elise’s laugh bounced off the walls like a stream on smooth river stones.
“Come on, my lovebird,” she said, holding her hand out to me. “Let’s leave the palace to the princes.”
I wanted to dash out of the room and run from the library, from the university, from the country. Instead, I picked up my books, my notes, and my song, then I left the fish tank.
Was it my imagination, or was Elise walking a little closer to me as we left the library? Was it only a stumble, or did she reach out for my hand? Every glance met her eyes, and they seemed to glow in the rapidly dying light. With every step I dreaded she would say something. The pounding of my heart made my legs tremble. Trapped in my mind like a frantic bee buzzed the word “lovebirds”. Was this the impression Elise and I gave off when we laughed together? She was gorgeous, but in fact, it only made matters worse, because I was an ugly mound of fat, with dead-raven hair and eyes the color of mold on a forgotten slice of bread. Elise wasn’t only beautiful; she was charming. She was the princess from a fairy tale and I was the witch.
And for God’s sake, we were both women. That was wrong above anything else.
The rain saved me; it started pouring down with no further warning than the typical autumn chill. Heavy drops smashed into the mud as if they meant to break my world. There was no way I could stand under this and not get bruised shoulders.
“I live just two streets from here,” I said, shouting to cover the noise. “I’ll run home.”
She nodded and replied in a barely audible tone, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The rain made me unsure, but there seemed to be a promise in her voice.
I got home wheezing from the mad dash, and I would have crashed on my bed had I not been soaking wet. Digging humid papers out of my bag, I found the periodic table song that Elise had scribbled for me. My throat tightened, and the song remained unsung.
I did my best to avoid Elise, but it was worse than denying myself a warming cup of coffee during break time. I missed her laugh, I missed her light. How did one get addicted to a person this fast? Seeing her from a distance and not walking towards her, not smiling at her, not seeing her sunshine-smile made me ache. I couldn’t be in love, not with her, not with another woman.
I managed to keep my distance for four days and a half, before Elise barred my way through a shortcut corridor, arms stretched out dramatically.
“Let me through.”
“No. You’re avoiding me and I want to know why.”
Were her eyes shinier than usual?
“I like being with you,” Elise said, and she did have tears in her eyes. “I like you, Christina.”
Despite myself, I gasped in horror.
“You can’t like me,” I said with a crumbling laugh. “I’m ugly. I’m fat, I have dull hair, and my face is a mess. You’re beautiful. You’re my sunlight on a rainy day, you…”
I stopped dead.
“That’s not it,” she said, giggling through the tears. “You’re big, that’s beautiful. Black hair and pale eyes, that’s mysterious. You’re beautiful inside too; naive and stubborn, but you’re hopeful.”
“This can’t be beauty.” I shook my head in dismay.
“But it is.” She laughed her stream-laugh, and it held a song I could sing to. “We don’t have to be together. I just want to be around you.”
This couldn’t be wrong, could it?
An uninvited giggle spilled out of me. “I can handle that.”
The wind gave a melodic echo to my words. Would I have talked to Elise in the first place had I not failed my exam? Would I have failed at all had there not been the wind? Certainly not. Quietly, I thanked the wind.