The room was terribly silent. A small, cramped space, barely above the minimum legal limit of 15 square meters, Lydia’s dorm room was composed of a desk, a chair, and a bed, the walls around them tightly covered with bookshelves and posters, papers on top of papers on top of papers. Presently, the cramped space was covered with a thick layer of silence. It was silent despite the footsteps of the other students, passing regularly in the corridor outside, their words barely muffled by the cardboard door. It was a silence that pushed the world away, stifled the clattering coming from the shared kitchen on the floor and transformed the paper-thin walls into an impenetrable fortress. It was the silence of absence and solitude.
Samantha had left 3 hours ago with a grin on her face. ‘I’ll call you when I get there’, she’d said, a promise she had the habit of forgetting, lost in the heat of the moment. Lydia found it hard to feel mad at her. Her friend’s bright, cheerful character and disarming smile served as her best defence, making it impossible for Lydia to hold a grudge against her.
But she wasn’t alone. People generally liked Samantha - she was the type of person to create a dazzling first impression, a gorgeous yet down-to earth blonde that engaged with anyone and everyone, naturally turning people around her into friends. And once time passed and they got to know her, for most it became apparent that behind the bright eyes there was a bright mind, intelligent and ambitious, ready to take on the world. It was a fine line to walk, and not one without its pitfalls, but, Lydia agreed, people who only judged a book by its cover were not people whose opinion mattered much in the first place.
Still, here she was, looking at pictures of cats and mindlessly browsing youtube, an afternoon turning out depressingly like so many others, deadlocked by her social anxiety.
‘There are other girls in the dorm I could go and talk to’, Lydia thought, collapsing from her chair directly on the bed behind her and staring at the white ceiling. Sarah was probably back from her biology classes, she could just go, knock on her door and say hi… but she didn’t want to, not really. Well that was the problem, wasn’t it?
A sharp knock on the door pulled her out of her reverie and back into reality.
‘Yes, who is it?’. Her voice sounded hoarse after hours of silence and she coughed a few times to fix it.
The door pried open and Alex’ head popped in, looking mildly apologetic.
‘Hello, Lydia, is Sammie around?’, he asked, glancing around the room.
‘No, she left a few hours ago….’
She obviously didn’t have her hidden under the desk, so why was he looking around the room like that? When she thought of it, though, she wouldn’t mind a bit of company…
Her mouth was too dry. She got one of her usual fits, not managing to say anything. What would she even say? He looked around one more time, said goodbye and closed the door. Her mouth was still dry. Did she even open it to speak? Did she even try? ‘Damn it!’, Lydia thought, sinking back in the emptiness of her tiny lair, crammed with objects.
The room was terribly silent.
She brushed past a few guys in the kitchen, sliding forward carefully but confidently, avoiding the cup-holding hands and cigarettes like a predator feeling at home in the convoluted pathways of its lair. Snatching an empty glass she poured herself a drink and maneuvered herself out in the same fashion. She glanced at the clean blue curtains and modern furniture and she thought the house was lovely, wondering when she’d be able to afford something of the like instead of her small room at the dorm. But the thought was far too boring, too serious for a fun evening like this, so she pushed it aside, concentrating instead to the new faces around her.
And there were always new faces. That was the point, wasn’t it? Meet new people, make friends, maybe hook-up with someone? This party was a good party. The place was cozy, the music was decent, and it had just the right amount of new faces - not too much, not enough to make her feel alienated or an outsider, but still a sufficient number to make the atmosphere thrilling and spice things up.
So she blended with the crowd, bathed in the dim lights and the drunken chatter, indulging freely in a night of drinking, dancing and flirting. It was only 11 in the evening and her head was already filled with a warm and happy dizziness, a dizziness that made her laugh and smile without noticing that in her pocket, her phone was silently vibrating.
He paced around the dorm building, hoping against hope that something would happen, that somehow he’d catch sight of someone who knew where she was, or that he’d find some other clue that would help him. But none of these things happened and the minutes flew by. It was mid October and the warmth of summer had already began being replaced with the first cold gusts of autumn. Alex shivered as night began to fall and a soft silent rain sprinkled on the campus grounds. There was an irregular stream of faces going in and out of the dorm, but none who were able to help him. Resigned, he sighed and hurried back home, a short drive away to his parents house in the suburbs.
It left a bad taste in his mouth, being stood-up like this. She had practically promised to take him with her! Well, maybe it hadn’t been a real promise, but in any case she had strongly implied it, at least hinted that they would go together…
But in his heart, Alex knew it was unlikely things would resolve that easily. Staying friends with his ex was a weird thing. He didn’t regret it, but he knew it would take some time to clear out the old shirts in the house.
They had broken up at the end of their freshman year, just before the holidays, giving them a few months of alone time to cool their heads off. It hadn’t been a particularly long relationship, one of those euphoric get-togethers when you first meet someone like-minded in college and you spend a few months talking about all of your hobbies while constantly having sex, only to discover that there is more to a long term relationship than simple like-mindedness.
But still, they had had their moments. Samantha was smart, in a very down-to-earth way, an unexpected intelligence in the pretty blonde girl that had quickly drawn him to her like a moth to a flame. He recalled their first night at the library - Samantha had blocked one of the fire exit doors with a small splinter, keeping the door closed but not quite, which had allowed them to sneak in unsuspected past closing time. That night they built an impromptu camp at the second floor, making use of the small reading lamps which still worked. Later he tied her hands to the top of a bookshelf, kissing her passionately while sliding off her underwear. During the ordeal she shook the framework so violently, that a manual on molecular biology fell on top of her head. They ended up reading that book naked in the small hours of the night, tucked in a sleeping bag, discussing viruses and whether or not they classified as living things, an unlikely ending to a night Alex was sure not to forget. They snuck out at sunrise the way they had come in, leaving no trace of their nocturnal adventures save for a squeaky bookshelf that would be replaced in the months to come.
And now she wouldn’t answer his phone any more. Sam was at that stupid party, finding new friends, and Alex was driving home alone. And he was mad. He was mad not because he was alone, but because he expected more of her. He had expected her to get him. Despite all her smarts, Samantha didn’t understand that he wasn’t still chasing her, that he didn’t call her because he wanted them to get back together.
Deep inside, Alex was bored. It wasn’t the common boredom of laziness and not having things to do. It was an existential boredom, a void left after an adventurous few months of discovery. Samantha had shown him how fun and interesting the world could be. And now that she was gone, everything just seemed so bland, so mundane. Unlike his ex, he hadn’t met that many new people in his first year. He wasn’t particularly shy, he was confident in that much, but he was nowhere near her level of social connections. She was always someplace new, exciting, exotic. She was where things were happening. And all he wanted was to be there too.
The arm, lean and strong, drew her closer. She didn’t resist, snuggling on the couch with her head resting on his shoulder. He was a handsome exchange student, one out of many who had arrived at the beginning of the academic year. He spoke with a strong spanish accent, telling a story that she was able to follow only halfway through as the alcohol gradually got to her head, so she nodded and smiled while rough english mixed with the foreign words washed over her.
The hand rested on her hip naturally, confidently, with neither tension nor anxiety. That was the best part of the deal - finding someone who was as comfortable in his own skin as she was, who understood the rules of the game and played it effortlessly, who took the right amount of time, neither pressing nor delaying the next step of social dance they were performing together, a ritual that had began when she smiled at him and he led her to his group of friends, casually holding her hand to guide her through the crowd.
The fingers now played with her hair, nesting in that delicate zone between the neck and the ear, caressing her while the group discussed their first impressions of their temporary college. Then the final steps of the dance were done and they bowed politely to their audience, excusing themselves to go get some new drinks in the kitchen, a trip that was postponed as he pushed her into the bathroom and locked the door, pushing her to the wall while silencing her with a kiss.
The lips whispered something in her ear and she shivered, a moment of anticipation before his hand reached under her skirt, caressing her gently, before he slid her panties down a few inches and touched her, before his fingers slipped inside her and all she could do was grip him tightly and enjoy the ride.
She put down her pencil and leaned back, critically contemplating her drawing. She had worked on it for the most part of yesterday’s evening and into the small hours of the night, leaving only finishing touches for the following morning. It looked pretty good.
‘What do you think?’, she asked Samantha, who was eating an early breakfast on her bed.
‘It looks pretty good’, her friend replied. “I didn’t know you were so good at drawing dragons.”
‘Technically, it’s not a dragon. See, it has only two legs, plus wings’ pointed Lydia on the sheet ‘If we have to be exact, it’s a wyvern’ she added.
‘Then why don’t people call it a wyvern then?’
‘I don’t know, but I suppose “The Wyvernborn” just doesn’t seem all that cool’
They both chuckled. 9 o’clock was not a good time for philosophical debates, not when the sun was shining, warming up her cramped room with the last blissfulness of the receding summer. It was going to be a wonderful day, one of the last days that you could go out sunbathing on the green lawns around campus. They had classes during the day, but Lydia’s mind had already skipped past that part, racing in her thoughts to the evening. She found herself longing to spend times with Sam, somewhere private, maybe a coffee shop or a bookstore where they would be able to talk like they used to.
‘So how was the party last night?’ asked Lydia nonchalantly, still adding a last few touches to her drawing.
‘Pretty good, actually” Sam replied. ‘There was this charming foreign guy, and at first I thought he was going to go all romantic on me, but when things got serious he didn’t hesitate for a moment to shove me in the bathroom’ she bit her lip, lost in her memories. Lydia shot her a grumpy stare.
‘The bathroom? Let me guess, he showed you how to pull the water’
‘Very funny, Lydia. Listen, I’m sorry, I know college has been tough for you...’ Samantha began, her voice a strange mix of compassion and sadness, with a hint of guilt. It wasn’t her fault that people liked her. And it wasn’t her fault that Lydia didn’t like people, or at least didn’t know how to get along with them. She walked over and gave her friend a hug. She hugged her back.
‘Alex came by last night, asked for you’ Lydia interrupted, pushing her gently away and taking another sip of her coffee. ‘Are you sure this “just friends” is working out between you two?’
‘Well….’ Samantha hesitated, thinking it over before giving her answer. ‘I don’t know. Guy’s been chasing me around a lot lately. He’s cool and usually very fun to be with, but right now I just need a bit of space, you know?’
She finished eating, packing a small bottle in her bag for the day. Classes were going to start in an hour, so they still had a bit of time before they had to rush out the dorm.
‘You know’, Sam reflected, ‘now that I think about it, maybe he likes you and that’s why he’s around so much!’ she teased Lydia.
She answered that with a smirk, unsure whether her friend was joking or being serious.
‘Don’t be absurd, Sammie, we both know that’s not the case’ she added with a distant expression.
‘Okay, maybe… but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t change his mind. Seriously, Lydia..’ Sam stopped fussing for a moment and turned around to look at her ‘You’re a pretty girl, I see no reason why he wouldn't be interested. Just try talking to him, okay? Or to any other guy for that matter. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’re not going to lose anything, so… just try’’
Whatever. It was not going to anyways. She packed her own bag for classes.
He spent the last 20 minutes of psychology class doodling on the edge of his notebook, a common form of escapism that he reverted to whenever he was bored. Due to his natural curiosity he had already familiarised himself with the core principles of conditional psychology, studying Pavlov and Skinner partly from YouTube videos, wikipedia articles and random threads that he had found on the internet. So he doodled while the professor explained in what seemed to him overly simplistic terms the things that he already knew. It was almost like a meditation, allowing his mind to wander off, a journey which presently consisted of a divided narrative, half of him silently brooding on the past, the other half coming up with impossible scenarios for the future.
The class wasn’t part of the mandatory curriculum of his biology degree, but it was rather something he had enrolled in to fill up his time and meet with new people. And it was an added bonus that the majority of the 150 students were girls, giving him an excellent view of the female landscape on campus. He contemplated the short ponytails, the long flowing curls, the short skirts and the elegant fingers, some of the scribbling busily, others doodling like himself. He tried to single out a few interesting prospects, thinking how he could possibly engage them and what he would say. After all, every opportunity not taken was an opportunity missed. Life was boring and was going to remain that way unless he did something about it. There was no use counting on Samantha anymore. What had been had been. Now it was time he took matters in his own hands.
Sam was waiting for him outside the lecture hall. She smiled and handed him a coffee, once again hammering the point that she was not someone he could predict. He shrugged it off. Looks like his morning wasn’t going to be so boring after all.
‘What’s up?’ he tried, sipping from the cardboard cup as they made their way down the big stairway and into the green spaces around, heading for a nearby stone bench. ‘To be honest, I wasn’t expecting you to show up, especially after you stood me up like that yesterday’ he sipped again, pausing for effect. ‘I really wanted to go, you know’ His voice was thick with unspoken questions hanging in the air.
‘I’m sorry about last night’ she started, her voice steady but unconvincing, as if she wasn’t sure in whether she should apologise.’I just needed some space, you know how it is… and I’m aware things haven’t been easy for you either’ she added, sympathetically.
He sighed. There was enough of that. He needed to clear things up, now.
‘Sam, it’s not always about you. Don’t get me wrong, you’re amazing, but I’m over you. For real. I don’t want to get you back, I’m not clinging to some desperate hope. I don’t want you in my bed. But I do want a good laugh and great company and to do something adventurous from time to time. I want a friend’ he let that sink in for a moment and then continued before she had the time to reply. ‘And I’m going to be perfectly honest with you - I want to have fun again. You get to go to all these interesting meetings and parties and there’s always something cool going on around you. Now I just feel left behind. I know. It’s selfish, and a pretty shitty thing to say, but, well, I think you’ll understand and forgive me for it.’
He stared straight in her eyes, seeing her thoughts flicker as she tried to assimilate all he had said. There was empathy and there was a shadow of understanding, but there was also some doubt left, he could tell. She opened her mouth to speak but he interrupted her.
‘Just… trust me on this one, okay? Do me this favor, as a friend, and believe that I’m honestly not after you. We’re done. Finito. Now, I just want to hang with the coolest girl on campus and get some flavor back in my life.’
She laughed - a warm and sincere laugh, and it seemed the tension had suddenly evaporated from the conversation. ‘The coolest girl on campus, huh?’ she punched his arm ‘You sure know how to flatter a lady. Very well, I’ll buy into it. Consider things between us cleared’.
‘Excellent! Can’t wait to get back in the game’.
Samantha looked at him, his cheerful expression now that the ice had melted, his gaze lost somewhere in the leaves above them. She studied him for a long moment, her eyes warm and at the same time mischevious, calculating.
‘Believe it or not’, she began ‘I might have something for you’.
‘Yeah. Actually, I need a favor. But I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy it. In any case, it’s about Lydia…’
He raised an eyebrow.
Near the campus there were many modern cafés and fast-food restaurants that were frequented by the students and the young people of the town. Most of them were unremarkable, quickly put-together copies of McDonalds and offered little aside of the usual range of burgers and fries. The Quill, however, had a more sophisticated, old fashioned look, a look borrowed in equal parts from old european cafés and the classic American look; it had seats imitating the lavish furniture of the 20s, tapestries with little flowers and nature morte paintings hanging on the walls. It was the place of choice for most teachers, often seen sipping on a double espresso while grading papers in between classes.
This is why Lydia loved this place so much. It was a place where people gathered to be alone, a busy atmosphere of independent minds that worked around the clock while still maintaining an air of serenity about them.
Today, as most days,The Quill was only half full and she could enjoy a corner to herself, where she sat down, ordering a coffee before putting on her earphones. It was four in the afternoon, her classes were over and frankly she had nothing better to do. Sammie had said she’d drop by around four thirty, which left her half an hour of staring out the window.
It was at moments like these that she liked to delve in her imagination, coming up with various scenarios. She imagined a young man passing outside the café. She imagined their eyes would meet for a fleeting moment and he’d decide to maybe come inside and buy her a cup of coffee. He would sit in front of her, his hands cupped around a hot latte, and he’d talk about university life and his favorite books and how the weather here was much nicer than where he was from. Sometimes he was an exchange student from a foreign country, other times he was just returning from a year abroad. He was charming and smart and classy in a slightly eccentric way, a normal guy in most respects but tinted nevertheless with a touch of exotica. She would get lost in his words - polite yet inviting, taking her far away from here. There was never any need to say anything. A smile was enough. A smile would tell him everything. He would leave with her name and her number and a promise to call.
Suddenly, he sat in front of her. She was completely taken by surprise, so much so that she gasped almost audibly and barely managed not to spill her coffee. Then the moment passed and she came back to her senses. It was not an exchange student. It wasn’t even a stranger. In fact, it was Alex.
He smiled at her and ordered an espresso, his head turning around and taking in the unusual style of decoration. An awkward pause stretched, until she finally managed to gather her bearings. It was that uncomfortable clash with reality when you come out of a dream and are still unsure of the things around you.
‘What are you doing here, Alex?’, she asked him, trying her best not to make it sound like an accusation.
He shrugged and vaguely pointed around.
‘Sammie said you’d be around here, so I decided to drop by…’ his voice trailed off. ‘You look like you need some company’, he added with a sympathetic smile.
She stared at him, baffled. Thoughts swarmed her head like angry bees and she found herself unable to pick a reply. “No thank you, I’m fine”, “Yes, I’d love some”, “What do you mean?”, “Why would you care?”...
For all the noise in her head, she couldn’t come up with anything better than silence. Her eyes slowly fell to the table. The silence stretched. He was waiting for her reply? Absent mindedly she noticed that the coffee was getting cold.
He continued his efforts of polite conversation for a while more, awkwardly filling the gaps with sips from his latte and fiddling with his fingers. He did his best, but it was a one sided limp that soon died off. She managed a few short words here and there, but they only served to underscore the icy silence. At some point, having finished his coffee and all out of words, Alex picked up his stuff, muttered a shallow “catch you later” and left.
Samantha had meant well and she could hardly blame her, but the coffee “date” made her face the bitter reality of who she was - a girl who couldn’t face boys, no matter the amount of goodwill and patience they might have. She desperately wanted to have someone close to her, to hold and embrace…. and more. Yet, despite this yearning, or maybe because of it, she failed miserably and consecutively in every attempt to approach or even to be approached by a boy.
In the light of this truth she found herself angry, disappointed and miserable. The rage and frustration built up inside her, and in the following weeks she no longer spoke to anyone, even to Samantha.
But best friends remain best friends even in our darkest moments. Through her period of dark rage Sammie didn’t give up on her. Lydia hated her friend for always having everything, for her numerous friends and boyfriends, for her charming smile and easygoing attitude, for the casual sex she was having while Lydia remained confined in her solitude. One day she couldn’t take it any more and she exploded, pouring over Samantha all her hate and anger of this injustice. She screamed and then she cried and Sam held her until she couldn’t cry any more. Then she held her even closer and told her that everything was going to be all right.
The following day things were better and they were finally able to talk openly about the issue. It took them time, but with the worst behind them, they were able to focus on finding a solution. So, they came up with a plan.