“You’re staring,” she says, avoiding his gaze.
“I mean, yeah. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” he replies, barely audible over his surprise, more to himself than to her. There she was, standing in the lobby of his dormitory, wearing the same cropped sweater and leggings she had on first time he saw her.
They had met for coffee at the little café on the corner at the end of the block. It was a hot spot for most of the students at his college, especially the morning after game day—bagels and coffee have a magical effect on hangovers. She had shown up ten minutes late with no excuse, her kinky coils wildly bouncing on her head, her backpack halfway slung over her shoulder.
“Hey, are you Victor?” she’d asked hurriedly, not waiting before she took the seat across from him and tossed her bag under their table. She had been impressed when she finally got a good look at him. Her students were never this cute . . . or well-built. He was a brickhouse, his burgundy thermal stretching over long, muscular limbs. If he stood up, his twists, which popped out of his head in every direction, would probably tickle the ceiling fan.
“Uh, yeah. Just call me Vic, though. You’re Nia?” His brown eyes had seemed overwhelmed by this unruly, afro’d co-ed who had planted herself right in front of him. He’d wanted to ask what she used on her hair, because he could never keep his hair so healthy once the autumn breezes started drying it out, but he had known that wasn’t what he was there for.
“Yep. Okay, so you need math tutoring?”
“Uh, no. I got your info from the writing center, remember?” he had said, pulling his laptop out of his own backpack.
“Shit . . .” She had tried to put her head in her lap, but had banged it on the table on her way down. She’d muttered to herself words he couldn’t understand and tangled her starch white, long nails into the mass of blackness on her head, until he couldn’t see her nails anymore, only her chubby, umber fingers, wriggling, struggling to escape their self-made prison.
“Look, don’t stress it. I just needed someone to read an essay over. Maybe do some light editing. Don’t get too bent up. Uh, you want a coffee or something? The muffins here are good, too.” He’d shifted uncomfortably in his seat; he had not like how discombobulated she was. Vic wasn’t the type to cause stress to anyone so he didn’t know what to do with her reaction. She’d lifted her face from the table, a sheepish grin stretching across her face and nodded.
The same grin finds its way to Nia’s face now, brought out by his confused stare. She didn’t know why she wasn’t used to it, since he always seemed plagued by that look whenever they spoke. Every time she would read one of his essays and critique his grammar or logic, the same baffled look would come into his eyes. When Nia was finally tired of pretending his essays were all she came for, the same muddled expression crossed Vic’s face as she asked him on a date. But now she’s the shy one. All she can do is smile and look away as he takes these slow, measured steps towards her.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“We were supposed to go get coffee right? Well I was supposed to get coffee. You were gonna get hot cider, ‘cause you don’t drink coffee right?” He shudders at her voice. There was something unnerving about hearing her voice. It’s been a little while since he’d seen her; almost a whole week. He used to feel the sharp sassiness of her voice every day.
“What? How could you show up for some date when . . .” Vic’s voice is drowned out by the sudden swinging open of the front door. In enters a group of freshman boys, barreling through the lobby, huddling from the cold, most of them clutching a little paper bag with a bagel tucked inside, still wearing the same outfits from the night before. Wind burst through the room, carrying their laughter along with it. It was as if Nia was invisible to them, but she was used to that. Guys like them never paid attention to the short, fat Black girls. Vic, at least, got a nod, as those loud, still half-drunk guys breezed past them, concerning themselves more with their own lives and swapping stories of their wild night that had barely ended before the sun rose this morning. Vic’s eyes follow them to the elevator, breaking the spell of his stare on Nia.
“Vic, we’ve been going to that café to work on your papers for months. You could spare one time to go, just for me,” Nia says, regaining her usual confidence. Vic snaps back to attention, meeting her eyes since the first time since he had entered the lobby that morning. He should’ve left by now. He’s going to be late. And she isn’t supposed to be here. “You’re wearing a lot of black for someone who doesn’t like dark colors,” she speaks again, cocking her head to the side, a movement he’d seen far too much in the short time he’s known her. She was teasing him and it unnerved him; that look always made his cheeks hot and raised the tiny hairs on the back of his neck. He wanted to reply, but he didn’t know what to say. The mystified look he always had when he saw her returned to his face, sticking there like his feet stuck to the floor, his jaw still slightly open, also stuck in the middle of a word.
“Victor!” A new voice breaks through the short silence that hung between Vic and Nia. A lean, Amazonian figure enters his field of vision and he snaps back into attention. “Are you okay?”
“Uh, hey, Jas.” Vic could barely mumble the words out. Jasmine stands very close to him, and leans in even closer to peer into his eyes. She can look straight into his eyes, a feat unimaginable for most people, and he can see the corners of her big, doe eyes drooping in concern. Their foreheads almost touch before he stumbles back. He places a careful hand on her black wool-clad belly, and softly inches her away from him.
“Right, right. Personal space,” she says quickly. “I thought you’d already be gone but here you are, staring at the door like a weirdo.”
“What? I’m not staring . . .” Victor grabs Jasmine’s shoulders and turns her around a bit roughly. Nia stares back at the two of them, waiting for Jasmine to acknowledge her. Jas was her least favorite of Vic’s friends. She always treated Nia as though she was some dark blot in her field of vision, some clump of mascara just waiting to be wiped away. Jas had made a habit of showing up on Vic’s arm to a few of their tutoring sessions, scoffing in Nia’s general direction and leaving without ever sitting down. She would run her fingers through Vic’s hair as she walked away, and throw a casual glance back at Nia before exiting the café. Nia envied Jasmine’s long, silky hair, which cascaded down her back like a burnt sienna waterfall. Deep, down, Nia hoped that hair was bought and paid for, because there was something just especially unfair about being tall, nauseatingly beautiful, with a perfect, even butterscotch skin, speckled, hazel eyes, AND bone-straight, brown hair. Jasmine was the model-like pillar of perfect womanhood that was undeniably destined to sit in the crook of Vic’s arm, the head cheerleader to his captain of the varsity football team—though, he had always insisted, after Nia’s pestering, that he was never much one for sports, even if his height and broad shoulders had attracted the coach of every team at his high school and almost got him a college scholarship to play sports he’d never even watched. He assured her that Jas was just a friend, someone he’d known since middle school who was just extra friendly, but Nia could see the same desire in the back of Jasmine’s eyes that she saw in her own, when she looked in the mirror.
Nia waits for Jasmine’s routine scoff, but it never comes. Instead, Jas turns back to Vic, an extreme worry buried in her eyebrows pulling the corners of her eyes even further down.
“What was I supposed to see?” Jas asks, placing her hand on Vic’s.
“She’s right there. She came to see me. We were supposed to go on a date.” Vic pulls away from Jasmine’s hand, walking around her to stand next to Nia. “You don’t see her?” Nia looks up at the two giants standing before her. She waves at Jas, a tiny, half wave that didn’t really want or need for Jas to see her. If this was meant to be some joke, Jas was edging it too far, and Nia had grown out of being the butt of somebody’s joke in high school.
“There’s no one in this lobby but us,” comes Jas’s careful whisper.
“That’s not funny, Jas.” Vic reaches out to grab Nia’s hand and . . . nothing. Thinking he missed or maybe she avoided contact with him—she was always weirdly insecure around Jasmine—he looks down towards her and tries for her hand again. This time he watches his hand phase straight through hers, a strange heat singeing across his fingers where the warmth of Nia’s skin should have been. His eyes pull themselves away from the hand that was not a hand, slightly higher, into Nia’s eyes, which are starting to bubble up into frantic tears. She swings her hand back and forth across his hand, unable to grab it, each time scorching his palm and scalding the back of his hand, like he was pressing his hand against a boiling kettle, unaware of the heat until he was already burned.
“What? What?!” Nia begins to shout, desperately reaching for different parts of Vic’s body, as if his hand had been defective so maybe his arm, his thigh, his stomach, she even stretched towards his face. Something had to work. Jas had touched him so why couldn’t she? Vic couldn’t stop her. He would try to grab her wrists to calm her down, forgetting that all he could really feel was the shocking pain, but he didn’t want to just pull away from her. He can feel her so he knows she has to be here. He needs her to be here. He turns anxious eyes to Jasmine, begging her to do something.
“She’s right here. I know she is. I can see her. I can feel her.” Victor’s voice betrays him, shaking from fear and from containing the yelps that want to leak out with every touch of Nia’s hand.
“Victor, she’s gone.” Jas says, trying to salve him with the calmness in her own voice. “We saw it happen. We were there.” Nia stops, turning to face Jasmine with a fierceness she’s never felt in herself. She’s right here! Nothing happened to her! The heat builds with the anger, then the first flashback comes. Nia grips the sides of her head, pressing her coils down to the scalp, feeling the memory scorch through her mind. She was running, barely holding on the backpack flapping madly against her back. Another blistering image flashes into her mind. Jas and Vic across the street, standing at the corner outside the café, Victor leaning away as Jasmine playfully invaded his space. This just made her run harder. This held her attention. This distracted her from the pulsing white walk lights turning red, and the red of the stoplight turning green. This kept her from hearing the squealing wheels of the car taking the corner too fast. This was the last thing she saw before it all went black.
Nia crumples to the floor, her head planted firmly in her lap, her white-tipped fingernails trapped in her hair, her star collapsing in itself. Vic thinks about comforting her, but knows he can’t touch her, and he knows he can’t handle how she burns, her very being branding onto his bones if he reached through her. She’s too real to not be here. She has to be here. He desperately needed her to be here.
“What do I do?” Victor peels his eyes off of Nia, and points the question towards Jas. She shakes her head and he knows that she’s still unconvinced that anyone was in the lobby at that moment besides the two of them, but he can hear Nia’s choking sobs and they pierce through to his heart.
“We do what we’re supposed to do. Go to her funeral. We’re going to be late.” Jas replies, as if there’s no other option. Vic looks at her. That’s the strength he should’ve had in this moment. Jas grabs his hand and pulls him toward the door. “Come on. I’ll drive you.”
He lets Jasmine pull him outside, relishing in the wintry breeze when they exit the dorm. Nia is right behind them, her chin slumped down into her chest, tears still streaming down her cheeks. Her feet drag against the crumbly concrete of the sidewalk. She doesn’t even feel the cold, but steams tiny footprints into the frost layering the ground. If only they would look back and see them, and know she was really there, but Vic forces himself not to look back, and Jas leads him forward, no creeping doubt coaxing her to turn around. She follows Jas and Vic into Jas’s neat, silver Lexus. Of course she drives a luxury car. Nia climbs into the backseat, taking the seat behind Vic, grazing her forehead against the back of his headrest, not sure what would happen if she tried to lean on it. She reaches out to tug on one of Vic’s twists, but her hand can’t get a grip on it. Vic winces almost unnoticeably from her touch.
Jasmine pulls out of the parking lot and takes a left down the street. Victor and Nia both look up at the red light. Their café sits at the corner, across the four lanes of traffic, quieter than it usually would be. The morning rush was already over, but it was still there, so sure of its purpose, so solid, so tangible.
“Hey, pull over. I gotta do something.” Vic doesn’t even wait for Jas to pull into a parking space before he hops out of the car. He doesn’t look both ways, just at the café. He doesn’t think before he begins to jog across the front of Jasmine’s car, through the intersection. He doesn’t notice Jas or Nia yell his name. He doesn’t hear the car they’re trying to warn him about. He doesn’t hear the sharp squeal of the breaks. He just sees the café and knows he can’t be late for his coffee date.