What was I doing here?
I watched helplessly as people laughed and talked, rushing back and forth, confidently shouldering their backpacks along with the crushing weight and responsibilities of college life.
My panic levels were rising, like icy cold hands wrapping around my neck.
I was going to die here.
Dead from stress, right here in front of the “Welcome to Grantsville Community College” sign. I would be in the newspaper for weeks but, hey, maybe they’d offer my aunt a refund on my tuition….
“Don’t do this to yourself. Stop it.”
“No, not you, sorry. No one was supposed to hear that, I just….” My breath caught in my throat as I forced myself to make eye contact. I looked back down almost immediately.
“Sorry, I’m really nervous. I was just…..” I giggled nervously, blinking back tears. “Hyperventilating. This stupid mask isn’t helping.”
He nodded his head in understanding, leaning towards me conspiratorially. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m nervous too.”
“Thanks,” I whispered gratefully.
He tilted his head towards me, inviting me to reestablish eye contact. My eyes stubbornly refused, staring instead at my scuffed up shoes. I probably needed new ones, but goodness only knew I couldn’t afford a new pair.
“Where are you headed, Chloe?”
“I honestly have no idea.” I shrugged, glancing down at the crumpled paper in my hands. “BMS 302, wherever that is.”
He glanced down at his own crumpled paper. The mask couldn’t cover his amused grin. “Probably right next to BMS 301.”
Huh. Well, that was convenient.
“Want me to walk with you? I don’t know where it is either but hey, might as well be lost with a buddy, right?”
I risked glancing up at him again. He seemed sincere, even a little hopeful. His eyes were warm, kind and inviting, “let me help you,” they seemed to say. They were also the prettiest eyes I’d ever seen, and I don’t think I could’ve told those eyes no even if I’d wanted to.
“Great! So, where are you from Chloe?”
“Well,” I explained as I struggled to keep up with him. Once he noticed he subtly shortened his stride, taking smaller steps so I could keep up with him. “Most recently? I live in North Point, with my aunt.”
“No way! A fellow North Point Narwhal?”
I winced. “Well, not exactly.”
His expression became one of mock horror. “Oh, goodness, please don’t tell me you were one of those Cherry Hill High snobs.”
The mock horror became sincere. “South Point? Please tell me you’re joking.”
I laughed. “No, I was homeschooled.”
“Wow, really? So you’re like a genius, huh?”
I stopped short, shaking my head in disappointment. “You have no idea how much I want to slap you right now.”
He raised his hands defensively. “Don’t you dare. 6 feet. Stay back!”
I rolled my eyes. “Why does everyone always think that? They automatically assume I was either too smart or too stupid for regular school. Why can’t I exist somewhere in the middle?”
“I wasn’t trying to be…. ah, what’s the word…..”
“Stereotypical? Assuming? Presumptuous?”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re one of those kids that read the dictionary for fun aren’t you?”
I batted my eyelashes. “And you’re one of those kids that makes fun of kids who read the dictionary for fun aren’t you?”
“Oh, look who’s being prestigious now,” he smirked.
“Presumptuous,” I laughed.
We had stopped walking altogether now, standing in the plaza, staring into each other's eyes. He was biting his lip, even with the mask on, I could tell he was. He had that look in his eyes, the look that seemed to say “oh great, I’m going to fall in love with you, aren’t I?”.
Having subconsciously held eye contact for a solid minute and a half, I blushed and let my gaze wander back down to my shoes. He cleared his throat and we started walking again.
“So…. homeschool? What was that like?”
“More like vanschool, actually. My aunt is the one who raised me. We traveled the country in an ancient VW van until her eyes got too bad for her to drive. My education came through books and museums and national parks and stories of the people we met on the road. It was honestly like something out of a fairytale,” I laughed wistfully.
He could hear the longing in my voice. “But now….?”
I shrugged. “She’s getting old, she wants me to get a degree so I can support myself when she’s gone. I need to figure out how to live a real life.”
“And why couldn’t that be your real life?”
I bit my tongue.
Oh, if only the world worked like that…..
But what if he was right? Why couldn’t it?
I shook my head. He was confusing me.
“You’re studying to be a psychologist aren’t you?”
He laughed. “Not in a million years.”
“Then what’s with all the questions?”
He blushed, just a little bit. “I’m interested in what you have to say. Like, you said, it’s like something out of a fairytale.”
I laughed. “I don’t remember any fairytales where the hero made the mistake of trading away 4 years of their life for 40 years of student debt and a piece of paper.”
“So don’t do it,” he shrugged.
“You’re really telling me I should drop out of college before I even start my first class?”
“No, not you necessarily, but me, yes.”
I gaped at him. “Are you being serious?”
“I mean, I don’t want to be here anymore than you do. Plus it’s been 25 minutes and I still haven’t found the stupid BMS building, but I did find you. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe,” he was getting excited now, “this wasn’t the place we were supposed to be, but the place we needed to go to meet who we were supposed to meet.”
The sidewalks were empty by now, everyone was in class, and we were alone. We had stopped walking again, staring at each other, our eyes asking a million questions we were too afraid to ask.
I glanced down once again. A leaf was peeking out from under my shoe. It was a pitiful looking thing, wilted and torn, nothing compared to the leaves in Shenandoah National Park or Aspen, Colorado, to say nothing of Yellowstone and Utah and Michigan and…..
What was I doing here?
I smiled. Crazy as it was, he was right.
I didn’t belong here, I never had and I never would and, honestly, I never wanted to.
I wanted to learn and grow as I’d always done, under the stars, in the mountains, on the beach. Through songs and sunsets and stories and setbacks. Rainy days and wrong turns, late nights and long drives.
With a sudden decisiveness I tore the paper in my hands to shreds. I let out a sigh of relief as I watched my schedule fly away with the wind.
He grinned. “Now, I know I’m being presumptuous again, but that means you’ll come with me, right?”
I laughed, grabbing his hand. “How soon can we leave?”