I used to go to the nearby campus coffee shop in the early evenings, armed with a pen, a blank notebook, and writer's block. The sense of loneliness was unspoken but well accounted for.
I always shared coffee-counterspace with the same boy, who never smiled or talked and who had a penchant for bedhead and argyle sweaters. He liked to lean back on his stool, balancing precariously as he read novels, and I liked to pretend I wasn't watching him watch me. We coexisted in quiet companionship, thrived quietly under fluorescent lighting which sometimes caught his thick-framed glasses.
His novels changed while my notebook remained the same; his dogeared copies of The Sound and the Fury and Animal Farm distracted me as I doodled stars on blank pages, waiting for something that could not be explained.
It was raining. I remember that. His glasses fogged up when he walked in, his tousled black hair dripped water on my elbow.
"Why don't you ever write in your notebook?" he asked, turning to me with a flourish. Caught unawares, I just gazed at him, slack-jawed. His voice was deeper than I had imagined.
"I don't have anything to write about, I guess."
He sighed and shook his head, spraying me with rainwater. "Sorry," he said with a soft, hiccupy laugh that left his serious demeanour unchanged. Then--"Did you use to write a lot?" He motioned to my notebook.
"Oh, you know. Tragedies, comedies," I told him. "Everything that passed became a story. Then life stopped happening to me." It sounded melodramatic, even to my ears, and I winced inwardly. Then--"Why don't you ever smile?"
His mouth quirked awkwardly into a half grimace and he closed his eyes briefly. "I guess I don't have anything to smile about." We paused, contemplating each other, embarrassed by the brief intimacy of the moment. He reached over slowly and took my pen, opened my notebook with a sort of reverence, and with great concentration printed "Slater" at the top of the first page.
"I think," he said quietly, "that I just happened to you."
I went back there every evening for as long as we needed each other, and stopped when we didn't anymore.
I saw him the other day. We were both sitting on sun-warmed stone benches, unaware of the other. I looked up and noticed a boy with sleep-ruffled hair, a copy of Ulysses in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other. He patted the seat next to him, and I sat down.
"Is it okay?" I asked. I didn't specify whether I was asking about the book, the coffee, or something else entirely. He cocked his head pensively, considering, and then nodded.
I opened my notebook and ripped this page out, folded it in two, and gave it to him. He took it and put it in his pocket without saying anything, the smallest of grins on his face.
Slater has a beautiful smile, like crawling into bed after cold January. Like a secret. Like the beginning of a story.