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It’s midnight, it’s sweltering, and I might be high on Vicodin, but that guy – that guy right over there – that’s him.
His posture is as familiar as a recurring dream. Shoulders rounded down, head cocked to the right, nose an inch from the tip of his pen. Absorbed. My heart swells with a painful sort of euphoria. He’s close, only two tables over and facing my direction. The café is boiling. The atmosphere is clouded with bittersweet coffee. Three years of desire rip through my body and burst from my lips:
His head jolts up. For a long time, a very long time, he just stares at me. And then…he blinks. “Isla?”
“You know my name. You can pronounce my name.” Most people call me Iz-la, but I’m Eye-la. Island without the nd. I erupt into a smile that immediately vanishes. Ouch.
Josh glances around, as if searching for someone, and then cautiously sets down his pen. “Uh, yeah. We’ve sat beside each other in a ton of classes.”
“Five classes beside each other, twelve classes together total.”
“Right,” he says slowly. Another pause. “Are you okay?”
A guy who looks like a young Abraham Lincoln with a piercing fetish tosses a single-page laminated menu onto my table.
I don’t look at it. “Something soft, please.”
Abe scratches his beard, weary.
“But no tomato soup, chocolate pudding, or raspberry applesauce. That’s all I’ve had to eat today,” I add.
“Ah.” Abe’s mood lightens. “You’re sick.”
His mood darkens again. “Whatever.” He snatches up the menu. “Allergic to anything? You kosher? Vegetarian?”
“I’ll have a look in the kitchen.” And he stalks away.
My gaze returns to Josh, who is still watching me. He looks down at his sketchbook, and then back up, and then back down. Like he can’t decide if we’re still having a conversation. I look down, too. I’m getting the increasingly alarming notion that if I keep talking, tomorrow I might have something to regret.
But…as if I can’t help it – because I can’t, not when I’m around him – I glance up. My veins throb as my eyes drink him in. His long, beautiful nose. His slender, assured arms. His pale skin is a few shades darker from the summer sun, and his black tattoo peeks out from underneath his T-shirt sleeve.
Joshua Wasserstein. My crush on him is near unbearable.
He looks up again, too, and I blush. Blushing. The curse of redheads everywhere. I’m grateful when he clears his throat to speak. “It’s strange, you know? That we’ve never run into each other before.”
I leap in. “Do you come here often?”
“Oh.” He fidgets with his pen. “I meant in the city? I knew you lived on the Upper West, but I’ve never seen you around.”
My chest tightens. I knew that about him, but I had no idea that he knew that about me. We attend a boarding school for Americans in Paris, but we spend our breaks in Manhattan. Everybody knows that Josh lives here, because his father has one of the New York seats in the United States Senate. But there’s no reason for anyone to remember that I live here, too.
“I don’t get out often,” I blurt. “But I’m starving, and there’s nothing to eat at home.” And then, somehow, I’m dropping into the empty seat across from him. My compass necklace knocks against his tabletop. “My wisdom teeth were removed this morning, and I’m taking all of these medications, but my mouth is still sore so that’s why I can only eat soft foods.”
Josh breaks into his first smile.
Accomplishment puffs up inside of me. I return the smile as full as I can, even though it hurts. “What?”
“Painkillers. It makes sense now.”
“Oh, shit.” I tuck up a leg and smack my kneecap on the table. “Am I acting that loopy?”
He laughs with surprise. People always laugh, because they don’t expect words like shit to come out of someone so petite, someone with a voice so quiet, so sweet. “I could just tell something was different,” he says. “That’s all.”
“Side effects include the cruel combination of exhaustion and insomnia. Which is why I’m here now.”
Josh laughs again. “I had mine extracted last summer. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
“Not really. But definitely in a few days.”
Our smiles fade into a reflective silence. We’ve rarely spoken to each other at school and never outside of it. I’m too shy, and he’s too reserved. Plus, he had the same girlfriend for, like, for ever.
They broke up last month, right before her graduation. Josh and I still have our senior year to go. And I wish there were a logical reason for him to show a sudden interest in me, but…there’s not. His ex was tenacious and outspoken. My opposite. Maybe that’s why I’m startled when I find myself pointing at his sketchbook, eager to prolong this temporary state. This miracle of conversation.
“What are you working on?” I ask.
His arm shifts to block the exposed drawing, someone resembling a young Abe Lincoln. “I was just…messing around.”
“That’s our server.” I grin. Ouch.
He looks a bit sheepish as he pulls back his arm, but he only shrugs. “And the couple in the corner.”
We’re not alone?
I twist around to discover a middle-aged man and woman, all the way in the back, sharing a copy of the Village Voice. There isn’t anyone else here, so at least I’m not too out of it. I don’t think. I turn back to Josh, my courage rising.
“May I see that?”
I asked. I can’t believe that I asked. I’ve always wanted to look inside his sketchbooks, always wanted to hold one. Josh is the most talented artist at our school. He works in several mediums, but his real passion is the comic form. I once overheard him say that he’s working on a graphic novel about his life.
An autobiography. A diary. What secrets would it contain?
I content myself with doodles viewed over his shoulder, paintings drying in the art studio, sketches tacked to the doors of his friends. His style is almost whimsical. It’s melancholy and beautiful, completely his own. The lines are careful. They reveal that he pays attention. People don’t think he does, because he daydreams and skips class and neglects his homework, but when I see his drawings, I know they’re wrong.