Theme I: Habits, “There Is a Girl in My Seat” (fiction)

By Riley Cardoza

I wouldn’t care if it was any other class, but it’s not. It’s my philosophy lecture, and it’s the perfect seat. And she has stolen it.

It isn’t just that it’s six rows back – close enough to hear, but far enough to escape the professor’s intense line of questioning – or that it’s on the edge of the aisle, guaranteeing a quick approach and a speedy getaway. Those were the reasons why I sat there initially, rifling through my backpack for a composition book on the first day of class.

That was when the other reason, the more important reason, the absolutely vital reason showed up. I saw his black jeans first, pooled at the ankles above scuffed oxfords as he slid past me. “Excuse me,” he said. It was the softest of murmurs, barely audible, just a puff of air. But it was enough to pull my gaze from his feet, up past his V-neck tee shirt, and to his face. Our eyes met, latched together in a stare so intense that I half-expected my glasses to fog. The right side of his mouth pulled up and there was a flash of teeth; then the moment was over and he was sitting beside me. Our arms were lined up like the double yellows painted onto the street, parallel and never touching, but I was aware of every centimeter buzzing between them.

We didn’t speak after that, just took notes side-by-side and filed out of the lecture hall at a quarter after five.

Every Monday and Wednesday when I slipped back through those double doors, I told myself that today was the day I would talk to him, the day I would initiate the conversation that would set our entire future in motion. But I never could manage more than a shy smile or a furtive glance in his direction during that lull in the auditorium before class. We were surrounded by the toss and turn of other voices all building up and swirling around us as if mocking the fact that neither of us could find our own words.

Now, when I stride the usual twenty-seven steps towards my aisle, I nod to myself, sure that today is the day. I am even surer than I was two days ago and much surer than I was last week.

But there is this girl in my seat.

I don’t know who she is; I don’t know when she got here. All I can see is her choppy blond haircut and her tanned neck popping out from my seat. And all I can think about is if I had left my dorm just two minutes earlier, I might have beaten her. If I hadn’t wasted those precious seconds searching for my cell phone (which had been in my pocket all along), if I hadn’t missed the light on University and 12th, if I hadn’t paused to admire a crudely built snowman in the park – I wouldn’t be frozen in the middle of a bustling lecture hall, wondering what to do and where to sit.

I end up snagging the spot behind his empty chair. I’ll still be able to see his tousled brown hair from here, but his profile will be hidden, and he’ll have no idea that I’m here, right here.

When he comes, he doesn’t notice that I’m at his back, doesn’t notice that the girl to his right is not the same one who has been there all along. He just murmurs, “Excuse me,” like he always does, eases himself into his seat, and pulls his blue notebook from his backpack.

“Hi, I’m Gina,” the girl says. She turns slightly to face him, giving me a glimpse of her crystal eyes and her sure smile.

My hand, which has been locked tightly around my pencil, lets go in horror. The pencil nosedives to the floor, skips to the right a bit, and settles onto the tile. It makes a small noise, a minuscule tap, but it’s enough to pull the boy’s gaze from Gina, over to my direction. But his eyes just slide over me, and then he’s looking at her again, holding out his left hand.

“Paul,” he says. “Nice to meet you.”

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