After spending the weekend at home listening to my parents argue, I take the bus back to school on Sunday evening. We pull in around six o’clock, just when it’s getting dark, and I walk the eight blocks back to school to save cab fare. Walking in the fresh air feels good after the two hours I spent breathing bus fumes.
I live in Pitchford Hall for men, the oldest building on campus. My room is on the fourth, top, floor. People complain about Pitchford because it’s dark and drafty and the paint is peeling in places, but I find it oddly comfortable. I suppose it suits my personality. My room is an irregular-shaped space at the end of the hall with one window overlooking the athletic field. Today, the field has targets set up for archery practice with hay bales behind them to catch stray arrows. I can also see a lot of sky, which is good during a thunderstorm, and the roof of the language arts building, where most of my classes are.
The best thing about my room is that it’s a single room, meaning I have no roommate. There are only two singles per floor, and I had to pay a little extra but it was worth it to me to be alone. I never have told my parents that my room cost more than the other rooms. They would have expected me — to save a few greenbacks — to tolerate the unpleasantness of living in the same room with a stranger I was sure to detest.
I huff up the stairs, noticing how quiet the building is. I don’t hear any music, loud talking, or general foolishness coming from any of the rooms. Everybody must still be at dinner, studying, or “out” for the evening, with all that that phrase implies.
When I get to my room, I double-lock the door and turn on the small lamp on the desk. I kick off my shoes, throw myself on the bed and look up at the water stains on the ceiling. I’m tired. I could go to bed right now and sleep the whole night through, but it’s only seven o’clock. I think about the studying I have to do and the novel I have to read by the end of the week.
I pick up the novel, Henry James’s The Ambassadors, and after about a half hour I start to feel hungry. The sick feeling I had on the bus has gone away. It’s too late for dinner in the cafeteria — we’re not living in a hotel, as we are constantly reminded —so I put on my jacket and shoes, walk across campus to the student union building and have a hamburger and a Coke.
I’m on my way back to my room to resume reading Henry James when I look into the TV lounge on the first floor to see who’s there. My heart literally skips a beat when I see Shane Eldridge sitting a few feet from the TV with his back to the door. He’s the only person in the room.
A Sunday-night detective show is on, with the sound turned all the way down. I go in and sit down behind Shane and to his right. I study the part in his hair and the two days’ growth of beard on his face that somehow makes him even more attractive. I can stare at him this way for as long as I want; if he happens to turn around and see me looking in his direction, I can pretend to be looking at the TV.
I wonder what it’s like to be Shane Eldridge, to have a handsome face and a perfect body and to dwell completely in a world of one’s own. Even if I were to fire a pistol right behind him or scream that the building is on fire, he wouldn’t know I was there: he is completely deaf.
His deafness sets him apart. Besides lending him a dignity and an imperturbability that nobody else possesses, it isolates him in a way that at times must be frightening. In all the months I’ve been observing him, I’ve never known him to attend a social function or have a visit from friend or family member. Whenever I've seen him sitting in the cafeteria or walking between classes, I’ve never seen anybody so alone before, but it seems not to matter to him that he has no connection with other people. In his solitude he wears a perpetual tiny smile; his face seems lit from within in a way I find hard to describe. It’s as if he’s riding above the clouds, and I long to know his secret.
I harbor a secret and improbable infatuation for Shane Eldridge, and have almost from the first moment I noticed him at the beginning of the fall semester, when he scrawled on a piece of paper that he was interested in buying a second-hand textbook from me and thrust it toward my face. Since then, I’ve had maybe three or four chance encounters with him. On one occasion I delivered his mail; another time I lent him my umbrella during a thunderstorm. I’ve never heard him speak a word. Nothing of any real significance has ever passed between us —yet I am completely enthralled with him in a way I never have been before in my life — and never will be again. I think about him day and night. Any time I leave my room I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of him or meet him in passing so he will see me and know I exist. I want to take care of him and shield him from all the hurt in the world. I want to go away with him to a place where nobody knows us and live with him until I die. And when I die, I’ll die for him.
He stands up and, for a moment, remains looking at the TV, holding very still, then pivots around and, as he is walking out of the room, glances at me but quickly looks away. I wish at that moment that I knew his precious sign language so I could jump up from the chair and keep him from leaving me there alone. I would move my hands with lightning speed in front of his face and pour out to him all I know, in the only method of communication he understands. And what I told would be, for him, either a joke and an embarrassment — I’m willing to take that chance if only I knew how — or a revelation from which he might never recover.
After he leaves, it’s as if the air and the light have gone out of the room. I sit there for a few more minutes and then go back upstairs to my room. I take a hot shower, get into bed and read until I hear the chiming of midnight, my signal to turn off the light and go to sleep.
The next morning I skip breakfast to sleep a little later and just barely make it to my nine o’clock class. After morning classes I go back to my room to pick up a couple of books and, leaving the door open because I’m only going to be there for a minute, I overhear a conversation in the hallway. When I hear Shane’s name, I stop what I’m doing and focus all my attention on what I can hear.
The gist of it is that Shane Eldridge has moved out of Pitchford and his single room at the other end of the floor from my own has become available for the next person on the waiting list. The news creates a flurry of excitement because at least three people want the room and nobody knows for sure whose name is first on the list.
After classes are over for the day, I make some inquiries and discover that Shane has transferred to a college in another state, about four hundred miles away. I’ve heard of the college but have never been there. I ask myself why he didn’t at least let me know he was leaving, as he might let any casual acquaintance know. The answer I give myself is that I don’t matter at all to him. I am less than nothing, a nonentity. For him I don’t even exist.
Thursday morning before going to the cafeteria for lunch, I check my mailbox. I have a letter from my mother, a bill for tuition and a couple of advertising circulars. Also, there is a letter addressed to me in a handwriting I don’t recognize. I open this letter first, even before I open the one from my mother. Inside the envelope is a piece of paper, not folded like a letter but folded in half and then in quarters. When I unfold it, I see that there is one sentence in small, neat handwriting: How far will you go? I look again at the outside of the envelope; it bears the postmark of that city four hundred miles away. I still have the note Shane wrote to me about buying the textbook. I take it out of my wallet where I keep it and when I compare the handwriting I see they are the same. My heart is thumping in my chest.
I have a quick lunch, go back to my room and put some clothes and a couple of books into my bag. I think about telling somebody I’m going away for a few days and don’t know when I’ll be back, but there’s nobody to tell, and even if there were, it wouldn’t make any difference.
I walk to the bus station and buy a ticket. I take a seat all the way in the back of the bus, next to the window. The trip is going to take all night and I’ll try to get some sleep. The lull of the bus is good for sleeping.
When the bus arrives at its destination after an uneventful ten hours, I get a taxi and tell the driver I want to go to the hotel nearest the college. He drops me off at a hotel that he says is just on the edge of the campus. I tip him, go inside and tell the desk clerk I want a room for two nights – possibly longer. After I’ve paid in advance, I go to my room to get cleaned up, and have breakfast in the hotel's restaurant.
I take my time eating. When I've finished, I stroll over to the admissions office of the college. They’re not going to give me any information about Shane, not knowing who I am, so I tell them I’m a student at another school, interested in transferring. They give me some papers to fill out and a visitor's pass that allows me to roam freely over the campus — even attend some of the lectures if I want to.
I walk around the campus half the morning, blending in perfectly — nobody pays any attention to me. I stop by the college bookstore and impulsively buy a book on sign language. It has never occurred to me until now that I could learn sign language the same as anybody else, even though I’m not deaf. I’m not really as excluded as I thought I was. I buy my lunch and eat it under a tree, skimming through the book to try to assess just how difficult it’s going to be.
In the afternoon I walk from one end of the campus to the other and back again. No matter what time of the day, it seems there are always lots of people walking around. I’m wondering how I’m going to find Shane in all those people when, as if I'd conjured him up out of my imagination, I see him walking toward me from about fifty yards away, wearing the red jacket that I recognize. Suddenly terrified at what he will do when he sees me, I duck behind a large maple tree, like an assassin. I peer from behind the tree, watching him as he gets closer. He passes within ten yards without seeing me and still I don’t make my move. Then I’m looking at his back as he’s walking away from me.
I start to run after him and then stop short: a man has detached from the crowd and is going toward Shane. I watch as they meet and smile and, standing close together, begin to move their hands in their own language that is still as unknowable to me as ancient Egyptian. From where I’m standing, I can see that this man is as beautiful as Shane but in a different way. He’s blond and broad shouldered, the athletic type. He and Shane look as if they belong together.
They leave the campus and begin walking down the street shoulder to shoulder. I remain behind them about half a block. If either of them turns around, I can easily duck out of sight.
After about four blocks, they go into a restaurant. Across from the restaurant is a little grassy area with a bench facing the street. I sit down there and stare at the entrance to the restaurant, imagining Shane coming out alone, seeing me sitting there, crossing the street to me with a welcoming smile. I indulge in this sweet fantasy for as long as I can bear it and then I open the book and begin teaching myself sign language. I’m going to learn a couple of phrases so that when Shane comes out of the restaurant I can go to him and tell him — in his own way — what this thing that’s tearing me apart is called. The time for doing nothing has passed.
Kopp lives in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, with
his two cats, Tuffy and Cody. His fiction has appeared in Skive
Literary Magazine, Short
Story America, Superstition
Review, Black Lantern
Publishing, A Twist of
Noir, Abandoned Towers
The Legendary, Danse
Macabre, Best Genre
Short Stories Anthology #1, Berg
Gasse 19, ISFN
Anthology #1, Santa Fe
Writers’ Project Journal, The
Fringe Magazine, Pulse
Literary Magazine, Corner
Club Press, Bewildering
Gothic, and many others.
Author contact | Wilde Oats Page
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My room is an irregular-shaped space at the end of the hall with one window overlooking the athletic field. There are only two singles per floor, and I had to pay a little extra but it was worth it to me to be alone. I never have told my parents that my room cost more than the other rooms.
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