Freshmen year of college is nerve-wracking and exciting all at once. My mom warned me about boys who thought they were men. “A man will treat you the way you want to be treated. A boy will treat you the way he wants to treat you.” She told me it was important to know the difference. I didn’t care. I could handle them.
I figured I would be focusing on classes anyhow, I never really wanted to be in a relationship when I was in high school. The few I was in turned me off to the whole “destined two” thing. My parents married right out of high school and settled into a long life of work and obligation, I sure as hell didn’t want that for myself.
So I focused. I went to the campus library three times a week and chilled with a different book every time. Sometimes I finished them, sometimes I studied them. And sometimes, when I looked up, I would catch the eyes of another girl staring at me. She would usually look away just as I moved my head, but I knew what that quick shift to the side meant. So some headphone-wearing blonde chick was making googly eyes at me, so what? I just tuned it out.
I saw her again in the common room right before fall break. We sat across from each other while I chatted with friends. She was there alone, listening to music, and her eyes would dart to me every few minutes. She was dressed up like she was waiting for a date, but her nose was firmly planted in a Stephen King novel. One of his older ones, I think. Her date never came. The thing that struck me as odd was that she never once looked at her watch. Even odder, when I made that observation, she smirked at something she was reading. It felt eerily coincidental.
The next time I saw her was downtown in the Science Museum, of all places. I was sketching negative spaces around dinosaur bones when she passed by and made a comment. She looked amazing again. I wished I had her cheekbones. Still no date, though.
“Wow, I really like your work,” she said.
My “work” was a shitty, quarter-finished mess of pencil bubbles. The jawbone I was trying to express looked like an out of shape zebra.
“Uh, thanks. It’s still rough,” I said.
“It’s great,” she smiled, sitting beside me. “I love how you’re using circles to fill in the negative space.”
“This is only practice for an idea I had, I don’t think I’m going to flesh it out much beyond this,” I said.
Her eyes searched my face for a second before she spoke again. Was this chick crushing on me? I’d never even met her before this point. All I wanted was to get back to work on the drawing.
“Oh,” she said, a little dejected. “I suppose not every idea works. Excuse me.”
She got up and left, and I watched her go. I never finished that sketch.
At the start of my next semester, I sat down in Prof. Galeson’s Art History class. Guess who sat right next to me? Miss well-dressed, dateless headphone girl herself. This time she took one look at me, said “hi,” and did nothing but write in her notebook the rest of class. I didn’t look, I kind of expected little hearts with our initials and other middle school bullshit like that.
After that first class, she kept sitting next to me. One day during Galeson’s slideshow on Victorian Romanticism (yuck), she leaned over to me and asked if I could chat with her after class. She didn’t elaborate.
“Sure, I guess,” I whispered. I figured I could use the chance to politely let her down. She surprised me a second later.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to confess my undying love or anything,” she whispered quickly.
After class, she led me to an empty conference room and locked the door. I tensed up. Without looking at me, she said “Relax, Jenna” and closed the blinds that peered out into the hallway. That did not make me relax. She turned to me.
“Sorry, that’s my fault, I shouldn’t have let you know I was keeping an eye on you,” she said.
“You’re really not making me feel safe here,” I said.
“Ugh, I said that wrong,” She said. “Maybe you picked it up in class, but my name is Nessa, and I have a question for you.”
Here we go.
“What?” I said.
“Do you… read minds?” she asked.
Okay, I know what I was expecting. It wasn’t that. I laughed in relief. This chick wasn’t scary-crazy, she was just wacky-crazy. She shook her head.
“I’m not crazy,” she said. “I’m just…. look, I’ve been reading people since I was a kid. It’s how I got my scholarship. It’s why I broke up with all my boyfriends. It’s how I’m able to tell when someone is lying to me. And in all my life, I’ve never read anyone quite like you– well, that’s not really true, all of my past boyfriends felt the same, but, like, in a different way. I thought you and I had a connection.”
I was so confused.
“It’s confusing for me, too, ” Nessa said. “Your mind reads like poetry. It’s staring me right in the face and I still can’t decipher it no matter how much I try. And you kept running into me. It’s like you knew where I was going to be. That’s why I thought, maybe, that you were like me. That maybe you liked me and couldn’t tell me somehow.”
“All right, I’m out of here,” I said, turning to go.
“Wait, no!” she said, grabbing my wrist. “Please, just let me prove it. Think of something you saw when you were alone. Something no one else ever saw. I’ll describe it to you.”
I wanted to go in the opposite direction and just not think about anything at all. But not thinking about something just makes your brain think about it anyway. In a flash, my mind went to something sad. I don’t know why.
“It’s dark outside the window, but it’s the middle of the day. You’re lying in a hospital bed. The room is empty. The walls are white. There’s a TV hanging above you, but it’s not on. There are no flowers. Umm, there’s a blue cot on your right? There’s a bag of stuff on the floor. There’s, there’s….”
“That’s enough,” I said, taking her hand off my wrist.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
I didn’t want to say, but by this point I figured she might piece it together. Better to be upfront about it, I guess.
“When I was a kid I was diagnosed with severe ADHD. It was so bad I couldn’t even concentrate on finishing a meal. One of the doctors recommended surgery. I was six years old,” I said. “I hated every bit of that room. I wanted to die.”
“That’s… terrible,” Nessa said.
“Yeah, well, that’s childhood for you. Full of terrors and bumps in the night. I got better.”
Nessa leaned back on the conference table and studied me for a long second. She looked down and to the side in thought.
“Jenna, have you ever felt like you were different somehow? Like, you just… knew things that others didn’t? Felt things? Maybe felt something… about me?”
Since she had mentioned it, I kinda did. Something started to dawn on me. I sat next to her.
“You have, haven’t you?” Nessa said. “I don’t know how deep it goes, but everyone’s mind behaves like… water. Sometimes it flows from one point to another. Sometimes it’s dammed up. Sometimes when you push it down, it erupts instead. If you try to grasp it, it falls through your fingers. It’s a moving target, but I always know where it’s moving from, you know?”
I stayed silent.
“You have a good sense of intuition. You see things as they are. Maybe…. maybe that surgery didn’t fix something, but broke it instead. Maybe you really are like me,” she said to me.
I looked back and questioned decisions I’d made in my life. I was confident a lot. I could peg someone’s personality with a glance. I was able to pick up new ideas really easily. Was my intuition really some remnant of mind-reading skills?
“I think I know what you want,” Nessa said, taking my hand. “I don’t know what those doctors did to you, but they didn’t remove your ability completely. Focus on me, what I want. What I feel. Then describe it to me.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated. Nessa was like an echo coming from a deep tunnel. She was right in front of me, but so far away. What I saw of her, what I heard, what I felt coming from her- not from me, but from her– was warm and inviting. My mind crept closer on broken legs. Still so far away. But I could see her in my mind’s eye. I could see her, sitting alone. Headphones on. Drowning out the noise. In front of her, an easel. She was painting. I couldn’t make out any details, but I saw that at least.
“You see it, don’t you?” she whispered to me. Her voice was fragile. “You’re reading me. We’re reading each other.”
“What does that mean?” I said.
She pulled me forward, and we kissed.
“It means everything,” she said.
I knew she was right.
“Just to be clear, though, I never actually had a crush on you,” I said.
“Yeah you did, deep down,” she said.
“No, I didn’t,” I said.
We kept arguing, but never let go of each other.