Of all the places Julia Stilwell thought she might be on a September afternoon, less than a year after the accident, this was the last she would have imagined. College. A freshman headed out on a first date. It was too normal. She felt like she’d snuck into the wrong movie, like any minute a guy in a little hat would come running up the aisle, shine a flashlight in her eyes, and ask to see her ticket.
But here she was, ten minutes to two, fixing her hair, getting her shoes on, smiling at her reflection so she could paint blush on her cheeks, going back and forth in her mind about whether to bring a backpack or a purse. It was all the usual stuff girls do before dates, but to Julia it felt like a test, a set of pictures she had to line up in the right order. Wrong answer sends you back to go. It was a blessing her roommate Leanette was in class and not around to witness the chaos of these final preparations. Leanette had dates every weekend and went to all the parties, and Julia was sure this fussing would have seemed amateur to her, like a kid playing with an adult’s makeup kit.
In the end, she decided on a messenger bag. She slung it over her shoulder, flipped the lights off, and left the room.
Outside, it was gorgeous. Cloudless and warm, the air felt like a shirt just out of the dryer. Julia lived in an off-campus dorm, and though the building was musty, with cinder block walls and a dull gray carpet that gave off a smell like boiled milk, there was a pretty courtyard out here, a cement bench, a trellis wrapped with vines and bright flowers. She took a long breath, enjoying the weather and her anticipation, perched for a moment on the fragile edge of happiness.
Julia was headed to campus, and she decided to take the path through the woods. She could have gone through town, but didn’t know whom she’d run into, and whether they’d ask what she was up to. The date with Marcus didn’t have to be a secret, but for some reason she wanted to keep it to herself, like a note in her pocket.
Before the accident, it would have been different. Julia would have had to tell Danny and Shana about how Marcus had asked her out, making little jokes to play it down. They wouldn’t have let her get away with the secrecy. In high school, when she wasn’t practicing the trumpet, Julia had spent most of her free time with these friends. She knew everything about them, from what they’d gotten on their last history tests to what their boyfriends had whispered in their ears the first times they’d had sex.
Julia had always been a bit of an oddball, with her quirky sense of humor, the flat way she delivered jokes that caught people off guard and sometimes made them smile, sometimes give her confused looks. She was never a star in the classroom, and didn’t go in for all the primping and social striving most of the girls did. She didn’t need it; her music and her plans for the future had been enough. They’d given her distance, kept her insulated from the storms of teenage social life. When her friends were worked up over a boy or a conflict with parents, Julia was always the first to jump in with a silly line to relieve the tension. She wore thrift store T-shirts and frayed corduroys and didn’t try to be the prettiest or the smartest or the most popular, just didn’t care that much about it.
But all of that was gone, that old life. She didn’t talk to any of those people anymore. She’d gotten rid of her cell phone, tossed it into a lake, actually. Burial at sea.
Marcus had suggested they meet at two-thirty, since the snack bar would be less crowded then, between lunch and dinner. As usual, Julia was early. She couldn’t help it. She’d always been the type to arrive ten minutes before a meeting, and none of the tricks she pulled to delay herself ever seemed to work. If she were ever sentenced to execution, she’d probably arrive ten minutes early for that, just to get a good seat.
She tried to slow down, scraping her shoe soles on the dirt and rocks in the woods.
As a way to distract herself, she started thinking about how the date had come about. “You have this way about you,” Marcus had said that night in the library, when they were working on the counterpoint project. “It’s like you live in your own self-contained world. I’ve been wanting to know what’s going on in there since the first time I saw you.” After he said it, he smiled in a teasing way, and she wasn’t sure if he was being genuine. She almost made a quick joke back, her habit. Nothing going on in here. My world’s in a budget crisis. But then she noticed he was blushing, all the way from his ears down to the base of his neck. There was something reassuring about his discomfort. Seeing it, she’d felt a protective tenderness for him, the way you might watching a child pedal a bike up a steep hill.
“You want to get lunch on Thursday in the snack bar?” he’d said after that, so casually anyone listening would have thought he’d just tossed out the offer, not even caring what her answer would be. But he’d given a specific day. He’d mentioned the snack bar, as if an off-campus date would have been too much to ask.
“I’d love to,” Julia had said. “But are you going to be there?”
And Marcus had smiled.
When she got near the top of the hill, where the woods let out, Julia heard a train clacking away from the station at the base of campus. She checked her watch: ten minutes early. Of course. She walked onto the train platform, into the warm bright sunshine.
That was when it happened, suddenly, in the midst of all that sparkling weather. It was as if someone had pulled the plug on the day, and all the excitement just drained out, like water from a tub.
She knew what it was, this feeling. She’d told El Doctor about it, these aftershocks, as she thought of them, reminders of events she couldn’t change, events she would have preferred to snip out of the cloth of her memory. She closed her eyes, and there it was again, her brother’s face, pale with shock at what he was witnessing, his lips opening and closing, making no sound, until finally he’d asked, “Is that mine?”
But she couldn’t do this now, couldn’t let herself get dragged under. If you want to move forward, you have to stop looking back. Positive thinking, positive results. She stood straight, pushed her shoulders back, breathed, fixed the strap of the messenger bag like a seatbelt across her chest, and continued across the tracks, up the tree-lined path to campus.
Inside the snack bar, Julia couldn’t spot Marcus. She looked around at all the tables and booths. Most were empty. At one table, two women in suits were smiling over something one of them had said, then they got up to leave, carrying stacks of paper. Inside a booth, three muscular-looking boys sat talking over empty plates and balled napkins.
They made Julia nervous, these people. The way they moved and talked and smiled seemed foreign, like they were all doing a dance she’d never learned. The thought surfaced again that maybe she wasn’t fit to be here, at a college, so soon, no matter what El Doctor said.
But it’s best not to overthink things. That’s how you get yourself into trouble. When you stop and think about how vulnerable you are, or how strange the world is, it’s easy to end up feeling confused and lonely.
In the corner, next to the doors where people walked in to order their sandwiches, a man in a red shirt and white apron was standing beside a trashcan. Julia recognized him as the guy who usually made her sandwiches. She remembered thinking more than once that he was cute. He had shaggy brown hair, and could have passed for a student if he were a couple years younger. He always smiled when he saw Julia, and offered her an extra handful of chips or a second spear of pickle with her order. She didn’t know if he did that for other girls, but it was such a simple and plainly sweet gesture that it charmed her. A pickle for your thoughts, my dear.
When she looked at him, though, smiling, ready to wave, he looked down, like he was embarrassed. She wasn’t sure if maybe he didn't recognize her, or was surprised at meeting her without the lunch counter between them, or if he was just socially awkward, but whatever it was, she felt disappointed. She wanted to give him a signal that it was okay to be friendly, wave to her when she came in. I won’t bite.
She didn’t have a chance to do anything, though, because just as she was considering it, Marcus walked in.