Subtext

You wonder what she’s thinking. What if she’s wondering what you’re thinking? She’s definitely wondering what you’re thinking. Wait, no, you’re being crazy. Not every girl sitting on your futon madly typing away on her computer is wondering what’s going through your head, okay? Well, it’s not like a ton of girls actually sit with you on the futon. It’s just Alex (fondly nicknamed Bae by your friends, to your chagrin) and your roommates, really. Right, okay. Focus. You have your own work to do. Don’t just sit here with your laptop open and your eyes glazed over. But you don’t want to do work! You wonder what she’s thinking. What is she thinking?

You shake your head to clear your mind a bit and turn to look at her. Off she goes, typing like a madwoman. Her hands are not the most precise; that “delete” button is well-loved. But her slim fingers move in a blur. She’s so pale. You can see the goosebumps on her arms, little pink peaks peering at you. Goosebumps. Is it chilly? You should close the window; she’s probably cold. You’ll get it in a second. You’re too comfortable to move, and her arm is so warm. She’s touching you. When did that happen? Did that just happen? That just happened. She presses a little more firmly against you as she chews on a fingernail, and you sigh. You relish her affection on the rare occasions she feels generous. She has a sharp wit and a sharper tongue, cheekbones that could break concrete and eyes of cut aquamarine, but her face softens when she smiles. Aquamarine. That’s your favorite color. It makes you smile. Smiles. She’s smiling at you.

“What are you looking at?” Drat. Quick, shrug at her! But do it naturally. Your shoulder shoots up and collides with the corner of your jaw. Really smooth, man. Her smile widens, and she turns back to her computer screen. God, that was embarrassing. Her mouth is such a pretty shape, and her lips seem so soft. You wonder how they taste.

No, stop! It’s the slightest bit weird to fantasize about kissing someone who’s obliviously sitting next to you. Besides, you told yourself you’d talk to her and figure out how she feels before doing anything brash. Speaking of which, it’s been a while since that mental promise. What, four weeks now? Life’s been pretty difficult with midterms and the like. You sigh.

“Why the long face, precious?” your roommate Jessie says, leaning against the cherrywood doorframe. The clinical white of her bra and panties cuts across her caramel skin framed by the room’s creme walls, and you do your best not to stare. “ILYSB” plays on soft repeat from Alex’s computer, and the upper right corner of her screen reads 2:41 PM.

“Nothing, just thinking.” You smile up at Jessie, who narrows her eyes at you and slinks off to find a shirt.

Seconds later you feel pressure on your left. Bae has rested her chin on your shoulder.

“Why are your roommates always naked?” Her whisper sends shivers down your spine, and her breath is warm against your ear and neck. “Doesn’t make you uncomfortable?” Her long hair’s fallen forward from being tucked behind her ear, and your brain shuts down as you inhale the vanilla scent of her conditioner. The smell gives you whiplash in the dining hall every night because so many damn people use the same product, but here’s the real deal. You close your eyes and nod vaguely, having forgotten what she said.

She chuckles in your ear and pulls back to resume typing just as Jessie steps out of her room, this time fully clad. Your neck is so chilly all of a sudden, and your shoulder feels naked. You look down to check you’re still wearing clothes. Well, that’s a relief. You hear chuckling and look up to see Jessie snickering at you. Ugh. You hate getting caught doing weird things. And Jessie always seems to be the one to see them. Just once you’d like to get caught by a different roommate. No, that would increase the number of people who see your weirdness, and that’s discomforting. Never mind. But why does she always catch you at the most inopportune times? Just last week she passed by your doorway when you were in your underwear rocking out to OutKast’s “Roses.” To be fair, you should have closed your bedroom door.

Ping! Speak of the devil. U finally gonna do it? You squint at Jessie, and she flings her lanky arm in Bae’s general direction. You roll your eyes. If you ever leave. The one roommate who thinks you stand a chance with Alex is the one cock-blocking you. Typical Jessie. Your phone buzzes again. Roomie and bae sitting in a tree… You quickly throw your phone to the side. Imagine if Alex had looked over and seen that! It’s hard enough for you not to slip up in daily conversation; it’s just a matter of time before you call her “bae” without paying attention. You can’t tell if that would be a bad thing. Whatever. Jessie needs to leave; you only ever get cuddles when the two of you are alone. Okay, you don’t always get cuddles when you’re alone, but the vibe of the room changes somehow, you know? Actually, you don’t know. Honestly, you don’t really get it, and maybe you’re just imagining the whole thing. Either way, it’d be nice if she would just leave already.

You were going to bring it up a few weeks ago, on a Saturday. It was going to be chill; she’d reserved a room with cable TV for the two of you to watch the national soccer game and scream at the TV together before heading upstairs to her room to work on problem sets, and at that point you were going to ask about whatever the fuck your relationship is. You were so ready to finally bring up the issue with her.

But when you actually got to her room, both of her roommates were there, and while one went to bed after twenty minutes of friendly chitchat, the other stayed in the common room, their lovely common room with the futon, on which you were trying to lounge and forcibly will yourself to relaxation before having this conversation. You ended up talking with the roommate for over an hour about religion and the afterlife, and it was a great exchange full of deep belly laughter and thoughtful “mmmm”’s, but before you knew it Bae was in an old t-shirt and sweatpants and rubbing her eyes while shoving you out of the room to send you home. At least you got a nice long hug when the roommate wasn’t looking. Her pajama shirt was really soft. Like her arm.

Her arm? Oh, her arm is back. Hello, arm. Her arm hairs are funny-looking. They’re long and shiny against her skin. You amuse yourself by flicking a fingertip across her arm hair while being careful to avoid her flesh. Back and forth and back and forth. They’re a lighter color than her hair. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. It’s an interesting color. Back and forth and back and forth. And so soft. Back and forth. A throat-clearing takes your gaze upward to her raised eyebrows, and your hand stills.

“Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.” You draw your finger back and forth again, across her skin this time. She shifts in her seat as she chats with Jessie but keeps her arm in place under your touch. Your eyes follow the raised scars down the length of her forearm, and you make sure your finger doesn’t do the same. They cut across her flesh, some faded and uneven and some as precise as a surgeon’s touch. You admire the angry pink strokes across the canvas of her skin. How did that line go from the poem you watched the other day? “She was the first beautiful thing I ever got stuck on.” Something like that. Neil Hilborn, was it? Good poem. Wait, what were you doing?

Right, not being productive. And you’re sure as hell not going to be productive now that you’re thinking about her. But then again, have you ever stopped? Stopped. You stopped doing something. What was it? Oh right, stroking her arm. Wow, that sounds creepy. You trace patterns across her arm as they come to mind, repeating each four times before switching to the next one, trying to make your shapes as perfect as possible. These are going to be the best infinity symbols ever in the history of the universe! …And now you’ve lost track of how many you’ve traced, so you repeat the infinity symbol until it feels right before deciding you want more skin contact than just a sideways eight, so you lightly drag your finger back and forth across her skin, like shading with a color pencil but a lot slower. You can’t help but be deliberate and focused when touching her. It’s the only thing that’s kept you from peppering her with kisses, honestly. Well, that and the fact that you really, really want to talk to her first so that a kiss on the cheek isn’t answered with a corresponding restraining order. Besides, the first time you press your lips to her skin must be a choice, not the product of some wayside desire that gets the better of you. You refuse to have your touch rub into smudges, and so you’re intentional. But be gentle. Masterpieces need TLC. TLC. Funny little acronym. Tender loving care.

She can be very tender, often surprisingly so. She’s sharp-witted and sharp-tongued and got an icy glare that can stop a mammoth in its tracks and by far the smartest person you’ve ever met, but she can be so sweet. You remember every pat-pat and every side-embrace like it’s imprinted onto your skin. She doesn’t do physical contact but she knows you love it, so she tries to remember to hug you goodbye. But on some days you need touch just for touch and not for her, and at times like those she knows. The last time you cried, curled in a ball on the floor because you couldn’t stand without your knees buckling, your arms and thighs raw from scratching away contamination, your hands in fists because they were shaking too hard to hold onto anything but emptiness, she knew. You remember how she descended upon you and shushed away your tears. You remember how she wrapped herself around you, all quiet softness, how she cradled your head as you fought your lungs. You remember how she gradually untangled your fingers and intertwined them with hers, how she pulled you out of the dark recesses of your mind as she pulled the tension away from your limbs. You remember the lips pursed against your shoulder. You had frozen in her arms, too surprised to even tremble. You remember how close her face was to yours. You had opened your mouth to ask the question, and you didn’t. You’ve been furious at yourself ever since. But you remind yourself that it didn’t feel right. You want to know the answer; you’re just waiting for a good time to ask. It’s been a tough couple of weeks, not just for you, but also for her. You shake your head and glance at your screen. Enough reminiscing; it’s already 2:52 PM.

You hear the click of the front door closing. Thank god. You can do this. Deep breath in, deep breath out. You feel a shift under your finger and look up at Alex. Furrowed brows embellish pools of aquamarine, and you lose yourself in them. Your favorite color. You raise your hand and wiggle your fingers at her in a slight wave, and she raises a bushy eyebrow.

“Hello.”

“Hi.” She turns back to her screen, and your eyes follow her gaze. 2:53 PM. You should get back to your paper. But she hasn’t answered your question! ….About whether she likes you…because you haven’t actually asked her. Can’t pin this one on anyone but yourself, hon.

She bops you on the nose with a finger. “What’s gotten into you?” She squints when you shrug at her again before turning back to her computer and bopping to the music. Now’s your chance. If you don’t say anything, it’ll take you another month to get the courage, and the mixed signals will have driven you off a cliff by then. You can do this.

“Hey—”

She’s standing. When did that happen? She looks at you, still perched on the futon. “Did you say something?”

“Um…no.” She nods and disappears behind the closing bathroom door. Dammit. The corner of your screen says 3:02 PM. It took you ten minutes to gather the guts to mumble “hey.” It’s going to be a long afternoon if you don’t harness what’s left of your courage.

This really isn’t a hard thing. “I” “like” “you.” Three words. You say them every day. Maybe not in that order or in the same sentence, but the words themselves are harmless. Just string them together and toss them at her. The futon cushion sinks as Bae wiggles into a comfortable position beside you. You can’t afford to wait any longer. This time, try to sound confident. No, that’s too tall an order. Let’s aim for audible. Okay, deep breath in.

“Alex.” An eyebrow arches in response, and you’re thankful for the excuse to break eye contact. Okay, now that you have her attention, just go for it. “I…I enjoy you.” Oh, dear god. Fix it. “Like. I like you. Much.” That is the opposite of fixing it. Your heart sinks as her other eyebrow rises to match its twin. You drop your gaze then look back up. 3:03 PM. “What do you think of that?” you say haltingly.

She blinks, slowly. Ping! You refuse to look away from her dancing eyebrows. “Say something.”

“You should get that.” You sigh and look down at your phone before looking up again. If it were something urgent, your brother would have called instead. You force yourself to finally make eye contact.

“Do you…?” You trail off when you feel tears welling in your eyes. God no, this would be a terrible time to cry. She opens her mouth then closes it at the sound of a key turning in the door. Jessie comes bounding in, laundry bag bouncing on her shoulder.

“Forgot the detergent.” She swipes the bottle off her desk with a grin then winks at you on her way out. You remind yourself to breathe as the door softly clicks shut.

“Please.” At this point you just want to know what’s going through her head. You feel your throat and chest tighten, and you grope around blindly for your water bottle. 3:04 PM.

“Just…just give me a few minutes to think, okay? Don’t panic.”

She knows you so damn well. It’s kind of scary. A bit terrifying, really. She’s terrifying. Good god, what on earth are you getting yourself into? She doesn’t feel the same way as you do. What if all she does is blink blankly at you and you’re left with no choice but to drop out of school and move to the Himalayas to become a hermit? It’s finally sinking in that Bae has a unique ability to hurt you. Not that she would ever do so for the sake of bringing you pain. But that’s a terrifying realization. Wow, your shoulders are really tense. How long have they been like that? And why are you breathing so quickly? This better not be a panic attack. This has got to be literally the stupidest thing over which to have a panic attack. You marvel at how you remember not to end a sentence with a preposition even in your internal thoughts in the midst of your body throwing a hissy fit. Okay, stop. Breathe. Yes, it’s infuriating that you can’t read her mind. This is exactly why you wanted to bring this up in the first place. Sorting things out and communicating how you both feel will be good. Regardless of whether she feels the same way, knowing what she thinks is what you need so that you can adjust accordingly. Breathe. Still tense? Yes, your shoulders are definitely still tense. Dammit. What if she doesn’t feel the same way? What if you’re doomed to pain? Oh god. You finally asked the question, but whom are you kidding? You don’t want to know the answer. Oh god. Did you ever? Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god —

Sweetness. Your shoulders suddenly drop several inches. You press instinctively toward the scent and smush your face against her upper arm. It’s a lot closer than you expected. Inhale. Exhale. Her hair flutters in time with your breathing. Inhale. You have to know. Exhale. Your ear catches, I’m hella obsessed with your face. Really not helping right now, “ILYSB.” Inhale. You want to know. God, that smell. Exhale. But do you?

“That tickles.” You feel a hand on your shoulder and look up to meet her steely blue eyes. Inhale, deeply to fill your lungs with her scent in case it’s the last time. Exhale.

“We should talk.”

Part Two

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