And I did find him.
You know that thing that happens when you become aware of something and then afterwards, you start seeing it everywhere?
He was everywhere suddenly.
Over the weeks, it had become increasingly clear that he was still a student here. I didn’t know what he studied and I only saw him sometimes, when it was lunch hour and the campus was flooded with students as they enjoyed the sun and the freedom from the lecture halls.
He was so – beautiful.
He always seemed to be buried deep in his own mind, always with headphones on. I always thought that he saw beyond what was around him, like there was something more that he was aware of. I longed to approach him and ask him what it was that he was thinking about.
But I couldn’t because I was too afraid.
“D… D? D!”
I turned around and looked at the speaker.
She was a classmate, but we weren’t exactly friends, so it was awkward hearing her calling me outside my name. Her name was Mmathapelo and she was also a student Nurse like me, but she enjoyed all of it. This was what she wanted to do and it seemed that this was what God wanted for her.
“We’re going to be late for Psych.”
“Right,” I said.
The lecture was somehow boring because the lecturer didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything the Nurses had to say. It got to a point where we didn’t bother to participate at all in the class. Mmathapelo chatted away on her phone as the boys bonded with each other while all of us were blissfully ignored.
And all I could do was stare at the open doorway and I wondered what would happen if I simply walked out. I idly rubbed my scar and tried to turn my attention back to the lecturer but by the time that I could actually focus, the class was already ending.
We all rose and started trouping out of the lecture theatre.
As I approached the exit, I realized that the girls of my class were still seated where I had left them.
My overthinking commenced right there and I wondered if I had missed something that was relevant to the class, so I made my way back down to them.
“Dilia,” Mmathapelo asked. “Do you have any friends?”
I nodded my head. “Yeah.”
“In our class, I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said.
She looked dubious and so did the two others, named Rebecca and Nicole.
“But you are always by yourself,” said the one whose name was Rebecca.
“Just because she’s always by herself, doesn’t mean that she’s alone.”
I looked over at the last of the females of our class. Her name was Kitso, but we all called her Kay.
“Meaning?” Mmathapelo asked.
“Meaning, we’ve got plans for Saturday, which is excellent,” Kay said. “And now, we have a date with a bookstore!”
I was startled by this but nobody noticed it at all.
“Bookstore?” Mmathapelo repeated.
“I love to read and write,” I said. “You already know this.”
“Let’s go,” said Kay.
I followed her out of the lecture theatre, feeling a little bit unsettled by what had just happened.
“What was that for?” I asked when we were well out of earshot.
“Entirely selfish reasons,” she said.
Kay was slender, fit and just about my height with a voice that was deep enough to have her sounding like a man if she ever wanted to. She was brown like coffee with too much milk and she had freckles on her cheeks and nose that were almost the same colour as her eyes, which were dark brown. She had short hair, cropped close to her skull and she never wore jewellery of any kind, not even earrings, as was what seemed to be the standard practice these days.
She wore dull colours, always, but tastefully. Her clothes even looked like she bought them from some high-end vintage store.
And she was into girls.
“Should I be scared?”
“That instead of a bookstore, you’re leading me to my death maybe?” I said, trying to sound serious.
She laughed at this and I found that there was an air of tension there that had been lifted.
“No,” she said.
We cleared the lecture theatre and I followed her lead when she sat down in one of the many benches that littered the campus.
She was quiet for a long moment and I found myself looking at her – she was looking right at me.
“Do you have any friends?” she asked.
I nodded my head. “One is right here on this campus, studying Accounting. We came up together. The other one is studying elsewhere so we only communicate telephonically.”
She nodded her head and then frowned. “Wait,” she said. “That’s it?”
I nodded my head, feeling just a tiny edge of defiance.
“Okay…” she said.
For another moment, she remained silent and this time, I broke it.
“What?” I asked. “You pulled me away from them – took a perfect risk there, I could have fucked that up.”
“Nope,” she said. “You wanted to get out of there as much as I did.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, doesn’t mean I couldn’t have wrecked it – but why did you wanna get out of there?”
Kay glanced around her and then looked back at me.
“At the start of the year, I thought things would be a little different here,” she said. “I thought that I’d come here and I’d get to be myself but… The class is so small and everything is group work and all that shit. Had no choice but to bond with everyone.”
I cocked my brow at her words but remained silent.
“And then there you were,” she said. “Didn’t speak the language, didn’t try to. Kept to yourself, blended in only when you needed to. Even now. I bet you weren’t even going to go anywhere specific. You were just going because you were done for the day.”
I nodded my head slowly at this.
I really had no plans for the day. I was just going to go back to my room and brood.
“So I figured I owed you a solid,” she said. “I think I owe it to myself to keep it real.”
She looked back in the general direction of the lecture theatre. “That is not my scene.”
She rose to her feet and walked away.
I gazed after her, processing her words.
She looked back at me.
“What movie are we watching on Saturday?” I asked her.
I could swear that her eyes widened a little.
“I have no idea,” she said.
“Find out,” I said. “I’m not doing anything on Saturday. Been planning to check out Rosebank, so…”
She walked off and I headed for the bus stop.
I hadn’t heard from Imo in weeks and she wasn’t replying my messages. I made a mental note to call her again. As I approached the bus stop, I saw them there, the three girls from my class.
I shook my head slowly, feeling particularly antisocial in that moment. So I turned around and walked to nowhere. I could miss the bus if it meant missing them.
I found myself seated on the front steps of the Biology building.
I watched people walk by, some of them alone, some of them paired with others.
I wondered if these pairs and groups of people were new to each other or if they had known each other for years. Were they being their truest selves now that they were in this environment? Were they far from home like me or was this place not even a novelty for them? Were they here doing what they wanted to do or were they going through the motions until they could?
I turned around automatically at the sound of my name.
I jumped to my feet and ran right at him. He embraced me and I was pretty sure that I was holding him too tight.
And then before I could even understand what was happening, my eyes were wet with tears.
“What’s happening?” he asked, worry in his voice. “Dilia, what’s wrong?”
I wiped the tears from my eyes as best I could but they just kept coming.
Benjy remained where he stood, being ever watchful, letting me have my cry.
I moved back to the steps and sat down and he sat down beside me, his hand resting gently on my back.
Eventually, I stopped, shocked at my own emotional outburst.
“Wow,” I said, my voice broken. I took several deep breaths, channelling all my energy and focus into calming myself down.
“Are you okay?” he asked gently.
I laughed humourlessly – did I even know the answer to that?
“I miss – home!” I exclaimed. “I miss my parents and Imo and the silence…”
I closed my eyes, hearing the sirens and the traffic and the chopper in the distance and the alarms of the boom gates at the main entrance to the university.
“I miss the silence…”
“Of course you do…” he said gently, wiping a wayward tear from my cheek. “Kinda guessed that this place wasn’t your speed.”
“My speed. You mean slow?” I asked, looking at him.
I laughed at this and he smiled at me. “You seem to be getting along quite well with this life,” I noted.
“Adapt or die.”
“Adapt or die.”
We spent the next hour seated right there talking about what our lives had become.
“Do you still talk to the others?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “Small talk. We kind of just – split when we left high school.”
“It hardly ever touches me, that,” I said. “I barely knew any of them… Isn’t that odd? That I went to school with them and I didn’t really know them?”
“Not really,” he said. “I get that that is what it’s supposed to be like, but nowadays it hardly seems – real, to have so many friends. It’s all about having your tribe, even if your tribe is one. In fact, I bet they didn’t even stay in touch with each other.”
I smiled wryly at this comment and the conversation went on.
He told me about his initiation into the residence that he was staying in and how it was so far out of his league that he almost forfeited his place there.
“It was that dangerous?”
“Not dangerous, just – I don’t know. Like, who does that kind of thing?”
“Your people, apparently.”
“It isn’t a campus residence,” I said. “It’s just a really giant Nurse’s quarter. Nothing ever happens there. It might as well be a block of flats with communal bathrooms.”
He looked at me wide-eyed and then burst out laughing.
I loved his laugh. “And how the hell are you coping with that?”
I shrugged. “Things stopped moving me a long time ago.”
“I can imagine, seeing dead bodies and all that.”
“And dissecting frogs and rats.”
“Yes, actually,” I said. “We did that last week. Had lunch immediately afterward.”
Again, he laughed.
“Maybe you were made to be in Health Sciences and you just didn’t know it.”
“Or,” I said, “I have no feelings anymore and I’m turning into a psychopath.”
“Well, that escalated really quickly.”
It was my turn to laugh and he laughed right along with me.
We strolled down to the bus stop eventually. It took some convincing on my part to get him to understand that I was okay and when he realized that I was safe even being here past eight PM, he left me and returned to his residence.
“Don’t be a stranger, Writer,” he said.
“I won’t be,” I promised.
There were three other people here, all of them immersed in their minds and music and in the distance, I could hear voices of other students wandering around campus under the night sky.
The breeze was gentle and just the right temperature and I felt it play on my skin, wishing that I was lying in the grass of a quiet field or floating in a luminescent pool.
Now that’s the one thing that I wished we had back home – a swimming pool. I would take night swims and feel a kind of sensory deprivation, floating on the water, my ears immersed, blocking out the sounds of everything and everyone.
Not so now.
I could hear the engine rumbling somewhere on the campus and I was willing to bet that it was the black Mustang I’d seen here months ago. It still made me smile and I wondered what it must be like to drive it.
I continued to gaze up at the dark inky sky, wishing that I could fly up there.
Maybe, if I ever got rich, I could take pilot lessons –
“What are you doing out here?”
The question almost didn’t register with me until I followed the words to the speaker.
I was sure that I was gaping right then.
My senses were far too slow to react. It took me a good long moment to understand the question but as I processed it, his impatience boiled right over and he hunkered down beside me. I could see him clearly now with the street light falling over us both.
My eyes moved over him, slowly, taking him in, being sure of what I was seeing.
And he was smiling at me.
And I was confused.
“What..?” I breathed.
“It’s late,” he said gently. “You shouldn’t be out here.”
I was just about ready to tell him that I was aware of the fact, but I caught myself at my own pettiness and simply looked at him.
His smile did not waver as he looked around him for a moment before his eyes wandered back to mine.
“Can I wait with you for the bus?” he asked.
This jolted me back to planet earth.
“Or I could give you a lift back to your dorm..?”
I blinked profusely, trying to conjure up a sensible response – I was pretty sure I was failing miserably.
Looking at him was making me dizzy. I couldn’t think straight.
So I closed my eyes and tried to separate myself from this moment – tried to separate him from the questions he was asking me. But I had barely a second to do that because his warm hand closed over mine and I snapped my eyes open again.
He was worried now.
I wondered what I must look like to him in that moment.
“Sit with me,” I said quietly.
He did so, sitting in front of me like he had last time.
He did not let go of my hand.
He pulled my arm up to the light, turning it this way and that way, looking at it.
“Clean cut,” he said, almost to himself. “I was sure the scar wouldn’t be visible.”
“The cut was deep,” I said, drawing on my knowledge of wounds. I was glad that the words flowed easily from my mouth after my most recent ramblings.
“If it was just a little closer to the skin, it would have been as invisible as a paper cut.”
“Hmmm,” he said, nodding his understanding. “Did it hurt? When it was healing?”
I thought back to those days.
“A little,” I told him. “It was itchy most of the time. I couldn’t do my laundry or the dishes for a little over a month, coz of the stitches.”
“That must have been fun,” he chuckled.
I couldn’t help it – I smiled.
“How did your parents take it?”
“Quite well, actually,” I said, amused in spite of myself. “Turns out that – my dad’s a doctor, you see, so he followed my progress from the word go. As soon as they saw that it wasn’t all that bad, they shrugged it off, got me the meds I needed and that was that.”
He raised his brows then, as intrigued as I had been at the time.
He gave my hand a gentle squeeze and this pulled my attention fully and I looked up at him. I was silent for a moment, gazing at him where he looked back at me.
“Your sweater… It’s wrecked…” I told him.
He laughed, shaking his head, “I thought as much. That was a lot of blood.”
I laughed, shaking my own head, wondering why I kept the damn thing.
“You never called me.”
This one took me by surprise.
I blinked, confused.
The familiar sound of pistons firing – hydraulics – cut right through what he could have said. I looked up at the bus and he turned around just as it parked in front of us.
The bus began to empty and with it, came the realization that our time together was rapidly fading.
“What?” I repeated.
He turned back around and looked at me.
I watched the expressions shift across his face.
The displeasure was obvious, but that faded first to suspicion then genuine surprise.
“I gave you my number, you put it right in your pocket.”
I was struggling to remember doing that. I didn’t remember doing that.
“I – I don’t …” I stammered, flustered. “I…”
After a moment, he chuckled. “The painkillers he gave you,” he said, realisation dawning clear in his voice. “The doctor said they could mess with your senses a bit. Side effect.”
I was still thrown by the fact that he had given me his number all those years ago, but I managed to answer him sensibly.
“Yes,” I said. “M-my dad had the prescription changed. The ones I got from the doctor kind of – slowed me down.”
He nodded, tracing the scar with his finger – up and down, slowly.
But I felt absolutely guilty and stupid.
If I had known –
“It’s okay,” he said. I realized that I had spoken out loud and I felt even dumber.
I groaned inwardly.
The bus rumbled to life again and he glanced over his shoulder before he looked at me again.
Now his face was an iron mask of nothing.
He rose to his feet and so did I.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said quietly.
And I was stuck. I swear, I could not move. I just stood there like a stick in the mud. Because he was leaning in and I was gazing up at him like he was the flame and I, the moth – completely spellbound.
His lips on my cheek were feather light and barely there and my skin tingled at the contact. And as if that wasn’t enough, he traced my bottom lip with his thumb.
Something flashed in his eyes and I felt like I was sitting in a pit of fire, my skin erupting in gooseflesh.
This felt like a promise.
He then led me to the bus and I entered it robotically. I had just taken my seat when the bus began to move.
I couldn’t see him when I looked out of the window.
I still didn’t know his name.