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Chapter One: The Exchange
 

  "How's the conversation?" he asked.

   I stopped dead in my tracks, bashfully looking down the short brick pathway toward the fountain, and the handsome fellow seated at it's edge.

   "With yourself, I mean?" he continued. A smirk flowed across his lips. It seemed to spread warmth across my chest.

   I supposed I had become rather animated with the dialogue playing in my head. Again.

   He stood up and began making his way toward me, and I became quite aware of  how inadequate the word handsome had been.

   His eyes were a light jade that pierced my own, and sparkled with amusement beneath a veil of long, thick lashes. The mousy brown hair that jetted out in several directions about the top of his head was just as thick. 

   He stood in front of me now, his smirk becoming somewhat of a seductive smile that threatened to consume my ability to form a coherent thought. And breathe. The smile grew, impossibly, and it occurred to me that I'd said nothing to this curiously attractive stranger in a period of time most would feel uncomfortable with. 

His eyes shone with nothing but amused intrigue.

   "Better than awkward ones with randomly approaching men,” I finally articulated. “Most times." I shrugged, smirking myself.

   "Because you're uncomfortable with men you don't know," he crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Or because you've been caught talking to yourself?" 

    That smirk was becoming almost as obnoxious as it was enchanting. My eyes followed his arms as he had brought them across his body. The fitted knit of the sweater beneath them hinted at the definition of muscle beneath it. The sweater’s color nearly matched that of his eyes. I looked back up at them and reminded myself that conversations usually require both parties to speak.

   "Neither," I replied. "I'm used to both. Especially the men. Being hit on has been a bit of a recurrent thing here." I gestured vaguely to the campus surrounding us and eyed him with playful accusation.

   His eyebrows arched, head tilted to the side. "Hit on? I was merely curious about the attractive crazy girl I saw conversing with herself. You assume too much." 

This time the smirk that followed his remark frustrated me in a way I'd never known. I suddenly wanted to feel the strands of his perfectly imperfect hair between each of my fingers. And simultaneously pull it mischievously.  

"As do you,” I retorted mirthfully. “I knowingly hold conversations with myself in public. And the only guys who make me awkward are the bold, intrusive types." I smiled, bringing my arms across my chest as well. 

   His brows raised again, and he nodded in concession. "Like me," he confirmed.

   "Only you," I amended.

   "Only me?" He sounded surprised. "And you're sure bold intrusiveness is the only reason?" he asked, raising his brow. He replaced his seductive smile and leaned closer.

   My stomach did backflips. The smell of him seemed to stagger me, evoking another reaction I’d been naive to. Not only did I imagine my hands tangled in his hair, but also the entire front of my body pressing against his.

    "Would you like to add cockiness to the list?" I managed, a bit breathlessly. 

   All the playful mischief swiftly faded from his expression just before I spoke. Left behind was a solemn grin. He pulled back slowly, the look in his eyes odd, somehow appraising. 

It was a moment before he responded, and his soft, slow words were much like his grin. “You‘re a bit cocky, too, you know.” 

    I mirrored his tone. “It’s not cocky if it’s the truth.” 

   “That’s not hard to believe,” he whispered, looking away.

    He stared off beside me, and I wasn’t sure if he’d been speaking to me or himself. I wanted to ask what exactly he’d meant, what he was thinking, but his reverie seemed private and I didn’t want to be myself what I had accused him of being. Then he quickly turned his head back towards me.

   “I… I’m sorry to have interrupted your day. I won't keep you any longer,” he said, bowing slightly and moving from in front of me. He turned to walk back toward the fountain.

   “Actually I was rather enjoying the conversation. You know, it being with another person this time.”  I thought I saw his cheek lift in a smile, but he was too far away to be sure. He said nothing.

I was having difficulty working through the swift change in his mood. Our exchange had went from teasing banter to terminal discourse in mere seconds. He was either extremely dramatic, or far more complex than I could fathom. 

I followed him halfway down the path. “Are you really just going to walk away?” I asked, attempting to hide my disappointment with annoyance. 

    He was sitting on the edge of the fountain, looking at the bricks. “I already have,” he said dismissively, before looking up to glare at me.

    I stared, incredulous. If my insides weren't still unsettled from their recent acrobatics, I would have forgotten I had been attracted to him at all. 

    “What happened?” I wondered aloud.

    “I attempted to end our conversation,” he offered mockingly, still glaring.

    Obviously. I rolled my eyes, and blew a frustrated breath through my nose. “Why?” I snapped quietly.

    “I can’t say.” His tone and eyes were puzzled, but he wore a knowing smile. After a long moment he released me from his stare . 

    I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. His contradicting words and expression weren’t helping me work through anything.

    “Because you don't know, or aren't able?” I asked.

    “Because I'm not staying long enough to do so,” he answered, rising lithely and walking swiftly back up the path. 

    I spun around, my eyes burning figurative holes into his back, but he didn't give me another glance. He disappeared into a drove of students.

I knew that, at the moment, any attempt I made to move or speak would likely result in angry flailing or high pitched cursing. So I became as statuesque as possible. 

We had only just met, spoke only for a few short moments, but that didn’t make his sudden departure any less cutting. Or rude. I wondered briefly if he’d felt the connection that I had, or if I’d just imagined it.   

I began replaying our brief exchange, focusing on the moment of his mood change. I couldn’t find a cause for it from any of my actions that seemed reasonable, or that I hadn’t forced onto the situation in my desperation for an explanation.

I had been completely captivated by him, and not just by his outward attractiveness, but by his words as well. And the courage it didn’t seem to take him to say them. 

I sighed. Of all the guys that hit on me, why did it have to be the confident, clever one that left me alone without strong insinuations to do so? 

I moved just enough to pull my phone from my pocket and peek at the time. Fifteen minutes before my evening class. I didn’t even really know him at all and I didn’t want to spend the time brooding over him.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did. I went to the cafe to get some tea and a muffin, aiming to distract myself but thinking only of scenarios surrounding a continued conversation with him. I sat at a small round table and bit into my muffin, fleshing out those scenarios and what might have happened if our exchange hadn’t ended so abruptly. I walked to class telling myself that it didn’t matter, because he obviously didn’t want to stay long enough to find out. 

I finally made it to the small room and plopped down in a seat after what seemed more like an hour. I shoved my bag under the table and turned away from the video editing equipment toward the front of the room to await Professor Boas’ arrival.

Then he walked into the room. 

The green of his shirt, like the green of his eyes, was the first thing I saw in my peripheral vision. I stared - or a bit more accurately, gawked with my mouth open - as the guy from the fountain took the seat at the editing station directly across the room from me.  

He sat facing his equipment, not seeming to have noticed me. But I thought he likely would when he turned to look at Boas. I pondered getting up to confronting him, but I didn’t know what I would say that wasn’t extremely juvenile.  I  resigned to balling my hands into fists and slumping in my chair with my arms crossed. Staring at him.

Boas entered the room nearly right after, quickly calling the class to order. 

Perhaps he’d turn to look at the professor, feel my glare, see my face, and realize how inexcusable his behavior had been... Though, I had a feeling he could make me forgive him rather easily. 

He looked right to the professor though, and pretty much continued to do so for the next hour. I stayed quiet during the discussion, too preoccupied to know what it was even about. No one around me spoke either, so he remained completely unaware of my presence. I thought about clearing my throat or shuffling noisily in my chair, but they both seemed too desperate somehow. And if I was going to take action, I would have much rather thrown something at him.

Near the end of class, Boas walked to the middle of the room to give the week’s assignment, and stopped right between us. 

“So you are to use a single object and follow it throughout different scenes in your video,” the professor stated. He had played a short example on the projector. “Your videos should be at least two minutes long and include at least five scenes,” he continued. “It does have to be a complete object in each scene. You can’t use different rooms of a building, with the building being the object. It can be something like that table,” he gestured, “or like Antoinette's Bobby’s World T-shirt,”  he said, pointing at me.

His eyes had remained meticulously fixed on Boas throughout the professor’s description. And the only reaction to the professor pointing me out he allowed himself was to seemingly stop breathing for a moment. 

I did the same. 

“Your T-shirt game is always on point, by the way,” Boas said. I broke my stare for the first time since class had begun to give the professor a quick smile, which he returned before continuing on about the assignment. 

When I looked back his eyes were still on Boas, but he now had a white knuckled grip on the edge of his chair, and his jaw was surely tensed. 

I smiled. 

He moved only to breathe for the remainder of the class, jumping up and striding out of the door as soon as Boas was through.

I was up and slinging my bag on my back nearly as quickly, his farce of ignorance giving me the courage to follow. He was halfway down the short hallway by the time I passed through the door frame. 

He was quick, but I was determined. I caught up to him just around the corner. 

“Hey,” I said, slowing from a jog to come around in front of him. “Captain Evasion, what’s with all the aversion?”

He stared down at me with impossible eyes, so much displayed in them - annoyance, frustration, humor... and the kind of hunger that made the pit of my stomach twist. 

His eyes widened in what seemed like surprise and he quickly glanced down at my hands before stepping aside and walking past me.

I was beginning to feel like a stalker but my curiosity wouldn't let this go that easily. I turned to see him reach for the door and quickly closed the gap between us, grabbing his arm. He spun so rapidly it seemed he floated around to stand exactly in front of me.

“Look, I don’t know what I did,”  I said. “But the least you could do is tell me so I can apologize.” 

He had been staring at me with wide eyes, flared nostrils, and his mouth in a hard line. “Where are you from?” he asked.

“What?” I snapped.

The anger faded from his features at my response and he inhaled deeply before replying. “I just, don’t know, how to take you. I guess.” He enunciated each word, his brow furrowed. 

“And I just don’t know what’s made you say that.” I replied.

His eyes bore into mine for a few short moments, and I wondered briefly what he was searching for, before losing the ability to do so. 

“You’re just,” he began, and his tongue moved slowly out over his lower lip, followed by his top teeth. “Different.”

My chest felt heavy as I watched him speak. Even his mannerism made me forget to breathe. 

“The words you use, the way you dress, the way you carry yourself.” He paused and his eyes fell to the floor for a short moment. “You're not like anyone I’ve met before.”  

He took a breath, dropped his hands. When he had looked back up his jade were deep and open. I’d begun to lose myself in them before he took another exaggerated breath. He seemed set on walking away again, even after just opening up a bit. I wanted to say something to entice him to stay. Something clever.

“You’re not like anyone I’ve met before, either, ” I borrowed. So much for clever.

“I do,” he affirmed. “I should go.” His face was pained as he turned and began walking away from me again, through the door into the cool evening air. At least this time he seemed reluctant.

I needed break through his resolve.I followed him through the door, and called after him.

“Running away from people who are ‘different’ makes for a boring life, Mr. Avoidance.”

He stopped. His shoulders moved up and down with could only have been a sigh. “Anson,” he said. “My name’s Anson.”  He turned to face me, his smirk spreading. “And I was clearly walking.” 

“Anson?”

“Anson.”

How unusual. How fitting.

“Now that we’ve said my name four times how about we say yours a few, Antoinette?” he asked, taking the few steps back to me. 

“Antoinette.” I mocked with my own smirk. 

“Antoinette...” He spoke it as if he were tasting it, enunciating each letter. “It has become clear to me that, among other things, you're an extremely persistent human being. What exactly is it that you want from me?” he asked seductively, his eyes so inviting I found it hard not to physically fall into him right then and there.  

It was hard to swallow. I did so clumsily, and the truth came out. “I want to know why you walked away from me in the first place. And why you keep doing it.”

He looked away and my head cleared. 

I knew immediately I probably shouldn’t have brought up the sudden ending of our initial exchange. Or his following attempts to duplicate it. I thought he’d just walk away again.

But I studied his face. He was clearly frustrated, but more so contemplative. He stared off beside me.

“I didn’t think I could continue to be around you without getting distracted,” he said softly, before meeting my eyes again.

“What do you think now?” I asked with embarrassing intensity.

Now it was hard for him to swallow . “I still don’t know. I may be willing to give it a shot.” 

His lips parted slightly as he looked at me tentatively, hand moving in the same fashion. He reached up to sweep a lock of hair behind my ear. I breathed a slow, jagged breath, while his fingertips slid softly down my left lobe. They lingered along my jawline and under my chin. His eyes grew hungry again as he gazed at my skin beneath his fingers with great intent. He finally brought his hand to his side, clenching it into a fist.

“But I really do need to go now,” he breathed. “Thursday, perhaps?”

I could only nod. 

With one last inflaming smile, he turned away from me once more. 

I was remained still again as I watched him climb the steep grade to the court yard, fantasizing that he meant he was distracted by my mere presence, as I was his. Knowing that the only thing distracting about me was the obvious unusual-ness he had so distinctly pointed out. 

I didn't think my wardrobe had much to do with it, as he had said. Jeans and nostalgic t-shirts are too easy to come by. And my vocabulary may be slightly larger than others my age, but I’m far from a literary scholar. 

But I do carry myself rather gracelessly. I’m only nearly five foot five, yet somehow still manage to be lanky. Almost too skinny. Olive Oyl, my mom used to call me, the scrawny chick with big feet and no meat on her bones from the Popeye cartoons. I’m sure it is different to see a fun-sized girl be so gangly.  

And it’s definitely different for me, to be udderly absorbed in a guy I  just met. Or anyone for that matter. Besides my two brothers and best friend, I keep to myself. Maybe my obvious social awkwardness was part of the ‘other things’ he mentioned as well.

I sighed, long and deliberate. I wondered if he really had to go for some specific reason or if he just wanted to get away from me. If he hadn’t said “perhaps” about the next class, or that he “may be willing” to be around me I might not be so insecure.  

Funsized gangly-ness couldn't be that distressing to be around, could it? 

I sighed again, displeased with where my thoughts were taking me. He’d given me his reason for his behavior, and if I wanted more I’d just have to wait. 

But I was so sure there was more to it than the bit he given up.

I forced myself to start walking. I wasn't going to see him again for about 46 hours, and standing here wallowing in the anxiousness of that fact was unnecessary. It could be done anywhere. I rounded the opposite side of the building he had and headed toward a nearly empty parking lot. 

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