Written and submitted by Leo Elliot.
Chapter One: The Plan
PhD by thirty. PhD by thirty. PhD by thirty. I sipped my caffeinated juice and began my morning mantra in my head. It sounded stressful I know, but it helps. It keeps my head in the game and my eye on the prize. No pressure! Though I may have over done it today because people in the café were staring at me or maybe it’s just the normal stares that I get on a daily basis. Either way, I’m starting to get used to it by now. I have spent six months in this town doing my master’s degree and not a single day goes by that I don’t get stared at. Probably because I’m Asian. And most probably because of my headscarf. I do try to look less interesting though and more the part by keeping my wardrobe simple and basic with only selections of neutral palette. 100% of the time, I have a black headscarf on just to look blended. It’s the only way to minimize the amount of stares I receive.
But in all honesty, I got over the gazes pretty quickly and I don’t mind the solitude. I actually quite like it. I love that I don’t get homesick even when I live thousands of miles away from home. I do miss home, I do miss my parents, I do miss my sister, and I absolutely miss my cats but I’m fine on my own too. Being by myself helped me focus on my lifelong plan. I guess I’m just wired that way. My sister reckons that I’m too rigid – wired like a robot. I’m not sure whether to be proud or offended by it. I have feelings, I just choose not to act on it. It’s not wise and bears consequences that I don’t have the energy for.
My far away thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice. “Earth to Aayla?”
“Oh hi! Sorry!” I quickly looked up and beamed.
Kat, short for Katrina is my course mate. The warmest blonde in my life. I’ve been friends with her since we signed up for our programme. That one day I felt so lost and alone in a foreign land and she just decided to come over and said hi. We clicked so well and she has been such a help in helping me adjust to life at Penn. She has such a positive vibe and her laughter is deadly infectious. I guess it comes with the hair which was funny because she’s not at all like the mean, leggy blondes in movies that I’ve watched growing up. And every Sunday we meet up for coffee in this tiny café because they serve the best lattes and eggs. I ran all the way there so I was in my standard uniform comprising of running shoes and track bottoms for our Sunday date.
“Looking fancy, Kat. Got a date or something?” I grinned at her bright coloured dress.
“Meeting some friends later. Wanna join me?” She winked and sipped her latte.
“You’re a smart girl, Kat. Why would you ask something you knew the answer to?”
“Well I was just trying my luck.” She chuckled. “What are you up to anyway on this beautiful sunny Sunday? You should go out, sightseeing, eat weird food or drink good coffee, whichever you prefer. You have another year here in Penn, you can’t possibly spend all the time you have left cooped up in your room with nothing but the books” She started on her to-do list for me.
“It’s not all books and notes, you know.” I said flatly. “I’ve got Netflix too.”
I swore her eyes almost rolled to the back of her head. Ever since I got here, Kat has been trying so hard to get me out of my room more. She said I needed the fresh air, and I have told her countless times that my room have windows. One of these days I know she’s going to give my head a good smack. Well maybe that’s just the wake-up call I need, but until then…
Penn is without a doubt a beautiful place. The sight is definitely different from where I came from. The view is captivating, almost movie-like but I might not have enough motivation to go out and about other than my regular runs. I need a stronger incentive to get me out that door..well, maybe not exactly like a lover to take me out for a stroll, but until then I guess I just enjoy being indoors for now.
“You sure you don’t wanna come with?” Kat asked again, hopeful.
“I’m sorry Kat. I have some catching up to do, so I really can’t.” At that point, I started to feel bad for her because think I have rejected her invites almost a dozen times, if not more.
So I quickly added, without putting much thought about what I was saying, “How about dinner? We can have dinner tonight if you want.”
She lighted up like a Christmas tree in the middle of summer and the small lady next to our table almost jumped out of her skin when Kat screamed, “YES!”
She whispered sorry to the small lady and eagerly added, “Oh my god, okay yes! I’ll see you tonight. But can I bring a friend along? I haven’t seen him in a while, and I promised him dinner tonight. It’s too late to cancel on him now. Please?”
I chuckled, “Yeah sure, Kat. Not a problem. So, Olive?”
She beamed, “Yes Olive, 8 pm. Do you need me to come and get you?”
I gathered my things, tucked them into my pocket and put my earplugs back on. I stood up, “Nah it’s okay. I’ll just see you there, okay?”
It wasn’t until my apartment door was closed behind me that it dawned on me, I have agreed to dinner with Kat. And not just with Kat, which was perfectly fine, but also with a total stranger. I’m not even good with the people that I have known my entire life! If this is not a joke, it’s just a terrible idea. I ventured into statistics for a very good reason because it’s the safest environment for me. My best friends are formulas and numerals. I’m excellent with them. You can tell by now, I’m very selective with the people I let into my life. I’m not twisted or in pain, but statistic says, the less people you let in, the better. Well maybe I made that one up, but it’s true enough for me. It gets less real, and if it’s less real, it will affect you much less. Less of the consequences that I don’t have the energy for.
I paced my room, blasting music loud enough to paint the walls of my one bedroom apartment, contemplating what to wear to this dinner with Kat. Black headscarf that’s for sure. One of the reasons I am mostly happy to stay indoors is because the summer here is super warm and I can’t possibly be walking around town in super short shorts and sleeveless top, can I? So I brilliantly avoid the sun altogether.
In the end I decided on a black shirt, a pair of dark blue jeans, brown loafers and I took my maroon tote bag with me so that I can easily pour all my belongings inside. When I reached Olive’s a couple minutes past eight, Kat and her friend were already sitting down. I walked over to them with my heart hammering in my chest, and my legs about to bail on me.
“Hey.” I said gently.
They both looked up and greeted me warmly just like their summer sun. So warm that I can feel the blood rushed to my cheeks when three pairs of eyes stared back at me.
“Jake, this is Aayla, my course buddy. Aayla, Jake.” Kat introduced us.
Yes, three counting Jake’s shiny glasses. He looked ridiculous sitting there! Did someone cut him out of a magazine and paste him there? On the chair next to mine. If my heart finally decided to go off, there and then would have been the perfect timing.
I said hi and sat down quietly. We ordered and Kat tried to ease us into a conversation which was surprisingly pleasant. It turned out that Jake went way back with Kat. They went to the same high school and were great friends since. Apparently Kat used to date one of Jake’s friends and somehow in their break up settlement, Kat gets to keep Jake.
“It was worth the fight.” Kat laughed, and wiped her fake teary eyes.
His sense of humour was up to par with me and Kat and we had similar ideas on certain issues which got the ball rolling in quite the right direction. His smile was infectiously irrestistable. My heart calmed down a bit throughout dinner, but never really returned to its normal rhythm. The smile didn’t help.
Halfway through chocolate mousse, Kat excused herself to the bathroom. My heart felt like it’s deciding that this was another perfect timing to shut down. I sipped my water nervously to kill some time when he suddenly asked me,
“You’re doing the same thing as Kat?”
“Yes. How about you? What do you do?” I felt like I should at least be nice.
“I’m in adult entertainment.” He answered calmly.
I froze. I think I got the idea. I’m smart. But I’m not naïve. I was fumbling in my brain trying to come up with an appropriate respond.
“Yes that’s one way to put it.”
He smiled at me. I knew he sensed the lump in my throat. He observed how much flush can my brown skin handle. It’s such an agony being under such scrutiny. I just sat there and stirred my chocolate mousse, digesting new information.
Kat came back, all cheery and said “So what are we chatting about now, folks?”
…to be continued.