Another day of silence, another cafe, another romance novel that she likes to pretend entertains her. She sits with her back to the rest of the room and her face toward the window, shivering in her unbuttoned wool coat every time the door jingles open and cold drafts ride in on the backs of bundled-up customers.
The novel isn't engaging enough to distract her from the chatter and laughter of a group of fellow students sitting a few tables away. Their easy camaraderie hits her like a punch in the gut every time she breaks her focus to enjoy her tea, and she dives back into the story with greater determination and less success each time her mug clunks back down against the heavy wood table.
Holiday season is the hardest time for her. The combination of cold, darkening days and looming exams weaves tension into every waking moment, made so much worse by the fact that she has no one to share it with or help her relieve it. The novels become constant companions during the days, and she spends her nights worrying because novels are far from textbooks. Then she reads some more, and the worry slinks away.
The group behind her quiets, and she shoots a glance over her shoulder to see that they've begun pulling out textbooks and notebooks and plugging their heads into their laptops. Time to go, she thinks, shutting her book and stuffing it into her bag. She ignores the voice that says she is fleeing from the reminder of what she should be doing, if she cared more (or at all) about her grades, and also of what she wanted but was too…something…to go out and get.
She leaves the mug in the dish bin and buttons up her coat, ignoring the many pairs of eyes that follow her. She used to get so excited when men looked at her because it was confirmation that she wasn't that pizza-faced teenager anymore, that she had actually grown up to be as beautiful as everyone had predicted back before she turned thirteen. But it wasn't long before she figured out that attention meant nothing if she didn't know what to do with it (or was too chicken to try and find out).
The bells on the door jingle as she pushes her way into the cold, her coat wrapped tight around her.
"Hello, how are you today?"
"Good, thanks, but a little cold. Busy with finals and all. Yourself?"
"Good, good. Is this all for you?"
"A tea please, sixteen ounce. Earl Grey if you have it."
"Of course. Room for cream?"
"Yes, thank you."
Another cafe, another cup of tea, another brief parade past tables and appraising eyes until she finds the warmest corner. There is a bit of cursory consideration for the essay due the next day, but she manages to appease that part of herself with the promise of later, and then smother its protests in fantasy.
She makes it a point to be friendly with the people behind the cash registers at all the places she haunts, even if they cycle out with the regularity expected of a campus cafe. She doesn't talk much during the day; her roommate is asleep when she leaves every morning (or at least she pretends to be), and large lectures don't require much interaction. She finds the opportunity for a little bit of communication - an exchange of smiles, a laugh, maybe even a bit of mutually appreciative eye contact, if the cashier is a tall male - to be a welcome change from the expressionless silence she wears around her the rest of the time.
How she became this way is a mystery to her, and it doesn't help much to think about it.
The essay never gets written.
Sometimes writing is a better escape than reading - mostly, she thinks, because she can reasonably trick herself into feeling productive. She tries not to think about how much she loves it, or how good it would feel to write professionally. Accountable to no one but an out-of-state editor and far-off deadline, living in fantasy worlds she wishes too much were reality. Then that voice would make itself known (there are cheaper ways to become a housewife) and she goes back to convincing herself science is almost as good.
But oh, how she dreams.
I look up at the clouds and wonder what they would feel like against my skin - freezing and soft and wet and fresh, a thrilling, invigorating contrast to the solid shoulders of the dragon I imagine beneath me.
We would chase the rays of sunshine through racing clouds, skim just beneath their underbellies so that I could put my hands above my head, holding tight to the dragon's powerful body with my knees, and make ripples in their cotton surface. My arms would come down soaked and stiff with cold, and I would laugh as the wind froze my sleeves against my skin and bit into my cheeks, numbness spreading like venom through my flesh but kept at bay by the heat of the dragon. I imagine the sound, the great roar of the wind past frozen-stiff ears, the exultant pump of my heart, and the deep, powerful thud-rush of great wings beating.
The clouds break just ahead and sunlight reaches through like grasping fingers. It takes only a whisper of a thought from me and the barely-there tensing of my thighs before we're lurching after it. I laugh and scream as the wind rips my hair and clothes and voice behind me, as my muscles tremble from holding so tightly to the dragon's shoulders, as his scales and heat cut into the vulnerable skin at the inside of my legs. I lean forward as we climb, wrapping my arms as far as they can reach round his neck, feeling the fire and power and passion in his taught body beneath the rough-slick scrape of his scales, like silk pulled over stone.
And when we finally catch up to the sunlight, I lose myself in wonder over his beauty, because his body shines all colors of the fire that burns inside him - brighter than any gemstone and more alive than sunrise.
But none of this can be real, and I can't imagine anything in the real world that would come close to making me feel as though I were chasing the sun with a dragon.
Of course she does much worse than she could have on finals. She grits her teeth, turns the page, and tells herself next time like it will somehow end up different.
Break is almost a month long. She works at her mother's store, kneading dough poorly and making awkward small with the customers. They're almost all middle-aged, female, and frazzled, and she disdains them.
Her mother forced her into customer service at the bakery when she was fifteen, hoping it would help her break down the barrier that prevents her from communicating easily. It didn't help much; she can talk to people now, but it's always uncomfortable and any divergence from the usual dialogue is feared.
She has to make an effort to halt her train of thought. Mulling over the problem makes it worse.
She's been lying to her mother for years about her grades, and somehow it always turns out alright. 2.7 in Evolution and Systematics becomes a 3.5. 3.0 in History of Life becomes a 3.9 (for real this time, because the professor likes her and trusts her and god don't expect things from me because I'll only disappoint—-). She calls Organic Chemistry a 2.1, because god forbid she admit to skipping everything - quizzes, exams, the final - after the first midterm. Her GPA was so bad she didn't get credit.
Something is wrong with her brain. She doesn't know what happened. She doesn't understand why she does these things, why she can't just stop reading - she doesn't understand why, but she understands that she'll keep doing it.
One word does come to mind, though.