It was strange to be at school when it was so empty. Strange to see the courtyard in the morning without its rows of endless students lining up in wait for their teachers, even stranger to have free access to all those different rooms and spaces… It was all very strange and unusual, and that in itself could be exciting… but I was still not having fun.
Not much could be expected from a community schools recess schedule. Our supervisor would stroll by on her high-heels every two hours or so just to make sure every kid was still alive and in one piece, other than that we were to choose how we would fill our hours for the day. A printed timetable with very fine print was taped to the gate, and we crossed the vast courtyard there every hour to remember what we had to look forward to and choose where to go next. I myself was keen on free-play through the grounds, but Danilo wanted to take part in one of the clubs or special activities, usually led by volunteers or undergraduates looking for extra-credits. We sat through some boring reading sessions, we practiced playing the trumpet for one painful hour, we even attended a lesson on tabletop RPG, until every student present naturally converged towards the closest thing to an exciting activity printed on todays timetable: a ping-pong lesson, scheduled for the middle of the afternoon. Yes, I guess we were really that desperate…
Past the courtyard, between the high school building and the library, there was a lonely, dark patio with concrete beams holding a ceiling overhead. At the center of that narrow space they had placed a ping-pong table, and some twenty-five students now gathered around it and waited for an unknown instructor – who was probably lost, for he was late.
Chatter, laughs and even the occasional fight broke out as we waited. Different classes were together, people seemed to be having fun and making new friends, even forgetting what we were there for. But not Danilo and I: we were bored, anxious, we didn mingle – we never did. We just leaned against the wall, arms crossed over our chests, feeding that superior outsider vibe we had built between ourselves, in which we only agreed to interact with each other, even though we had nothing to say and the other kids seemed to be having more fun than us …
After one torturing hour of silence, I had made up my mind not to come back tomorrow. If I were going to brood, Id better do it alone, in my house, where no one could watch the shadows of dark anticipation take over my face.
…Thats when I saw him.
Every parallel chatter ceased and everyone stared as he walked into the patio – not because we were a bunch of polite kids, but because all were eager after such long, indolent wait.
He walked right through the crowd with a confident gait, meeting every pair of eyes that turned to follow him, sporting an entertained but bemused smile.
Just then I didn have the occasion to notice much more than the fact that he was a man. Adult was the first word that crossed my mind, but I figured I was too old to say that without sounding idiotic, and right then I was in an active effort to avert childishness. He was a man with short bronze hair, tanned skin, specially tanned around his high cheekbones. And even though he was very tall, his body was quite burly – and I say so because I did have boys that tall in my class, but they were usually skin and bones. And his eyes… we all looked at them, because they looked back at us… but I was the only one who immediately escaped them, as if stricken by shock: they were very blue, and very piercing the pupil that navigated those cerulean irises. The way they pierced into me, completely aware I watched, gave me the feeling of an air bubble expanding and blocking my airways, but only for a moment… as long as I didn look, I could breathe fine.
Everyone groaned collectively after a while: the man had walked past us and kept going, until he stopped at a power panel by the wall. Chattering voices rose again, I could make out their protests: I thought he was the instructor! they bemoaned. What now? and Where is he? was echoed here and there, as all were disappointed that the mysterious man with the piercing eyes was not to be our entertainer for the afternoon. I for one felt strangely relieved… I grabbed Danilo by the wrist:
”Come on! Lets do something else… ”
But no! – he protested fiercely, arguing we had already waited so long, we couldn give up now – the instructor would be in soon. Thus I felt obliged to stay, my eyes turning carefully to that dark corner on the wall where he worked.
…But after some minutes, only six of us waited: Danilo and I, because he had forced me, and four other boys from our class because they had started a Yu-Gi-Oh cards match and were too invested to notice everyone else had moved on. It was then that our mysterious man began looking over his shoulder to mark our presence. I pretended not to see him, not to care that he was there… but eventually, upon noticing nothing interesting was going to happen for the rest of the day, one of the boys who was prematurely out of the cards match accosted the man. I watched with curiosity as the boy asked him what he was doing. Some evasive answer followed, and more questions, until eventually the man turned, addressing him with a more impatient voice, making sure to include the rest of us in his query, too:
”Excuse me! What exactly are you people waiting here for?! ”
I would be polite: I looked at him. Since when couldn I look at men? That same bemused smile still lingered about his lips: they were thin, soft, with a plump lower one… His jaw was square, muscular, and his chin had a charming dimple in it. I looked away fast, blushing. Since when couldn I look at men? the question repeated, followed by the answer: Since they were this handsome!
The lazy boys playing across from us beat me and Danilo in politeness: they answered that we were waiting for our ping pong instructor.
”Please! ” he sneered, poised with his hands on his waist: he wore brown cargo pants and a white t-shirt that was tight around his shoulders and chest. ”You don need an instructor for that! ”
I watched silently as the situation unfolded: The man teased the boys for their indolence in expecting an instructor, the cheeky boys suggested that if it was that easy, he could well teach us.
”Anyone can volunteer! ” Eric smiled, open palms towards the table ”…go ahead, if its so easy… ”
The man looked down at him with a hawk-like expression in his blue eyes: annoyed, inconvenienced… but slightly amused. The corner of his lip turned upwards against his will, I smiled in accord, as if my muscles mimicked his.
”Oh, alright… ” he spoke as if pretending to burden himself.
I looked at Danilo, slightly uncertain. Danilo shrugged, what have we got to lose? that shrug said, and so we followed them to the table. As we all positioned around it, I noticed I was the only girl – fact which didn fly by our new instructor. He stared at me with strangeness, then smiled disconcerted as I stiffened under his eyes.
”What are your names? ” he asked friendly – condescendingly… as if we were all kids.
”Danilo! ” my neighbor enthused.
”Im Eric, and these are Jamie, Lucas, and that skinny idiot out there is Matt! ” The card-players introduced themselves.
”You? ” he nodded at me, his supernatural blue eyes staring, expectant, impatient. I blushed.
He didn say anything. He didn smile back, or repeat my name to make sure he got it right. Of course he didn , I was just another one of those stupid kids. Why did my stupid heart flutter so?
His name? It was Chris.
Unexpectedly, the afternoon was saved by that mysterious technician.
Danilo and I waited around the table as he taught us how to play, picking one student at a time to have a go as his opponent. When my time came, I was reluctant and dumb – he insisted, impatient and detached, so I went: it was the surest form of avoiding extra attention. But he had to interrupt the game multiple times to offer me directions, and that made me too self-conscious and uncomfortable, so I removed myself from the queue and contented with watching them play.
…But strangely, interest began to outweigh shyness. Didn I mean to be treated as a woman now, and no longer a child? Chris was being so laid-back, so friendly and supportive over us that… it was easy enough to scooch over, closer to him… it was easy, at last, to perch myself at his elbows, hands on the ping pong table, and to occasionally look up at him from that small distance… There was something about his attentions that put me at ease. And I enjoyed looking at him… it made me feel warm inside. But at the same time, it was so strange to feel interested in him… I could see he had some hairs in his chest, they threatened to escape the edge of his t-shirt: no boys my age had hairs there… not even Michael Campbell. Michal Campbell! How different my perspective of him, now that my brain conjured him up after so much observing Chris – Michael, who had looked so manly and tall in my eyes, so unparalleled in male beauty, looked like a doll in comparison. Yes… it was certainly different. Chris wasn a boy… he was a man… he was handsome, tall, broad like a man… It made me incredibly shy and intimidated to be near him as I did, and that only added to how superiorly interesting he was!
The boys were excited and loud as they played… they moved around the table and pushed, and thus I bumped against his side… He only smiled a friendly, quick smile as he dodged my fall… but still, our elbows touched.
And thus, the day flew by. My first two hours there felt like six, and the following two, spent with Chris, those I could have sworn amounted to no more than 20 minutes. Most of that time I spent at his elbow, looking at him steadfastly, like a puppy, whenever he celebrated a victory against the increasingly competitive boys. Noticing I rooted for him, we teamed up briefly, undeclared: he high-fived me once, he winked when I gasped at a near-miss, at length he smiled at me as if we were friends… and when the afternoon fell and evening called at the horizon, when our heated agitation subsided into sighs of goodbyes, then I noticed it… I noticed it had happened… or perhaps I felt it in the exact moment it struck, it was the moment Chris turned to go away: my heart skipped a beat for him, my cheeks burned and my palms sweated… and I desperately, desperately didn want to go home.
”Im sorry, Im sorry… ” he had to speak loudly to silence all the protests, his palms to the air appeasing the crowd. I sunk silently behind him. ”…but I have to go. And Im sure you guys do, too! Come on… ” he frowned, that edge of impatience returning to him.
The boys complained, then, conformed, high-fived and praised Chris for his awesomeness. Danilo waited for me, not quite knowing what kept me now. And what kept me? Expectations… that Chris would turn and notice me, just as he did at the table, that he would have a personalized goodbye for me, that Id get a moment of his attention just for myself, as I now did: he turned around, a half-smile curling up his slips, his hawk-eyes half-hidden under bronze eyebrows.
”Ah, and you… ” he acknowledged, knowing I waited for him ”…you did good, too! ”
”Come on, I don even know how to play… ” I held in a laugh, my voice coming out choked and awkward.
”You don … ” he sighed, then chuckled at my humiliated protest. ”…but you did some good cheerleading. ” Another wink, and a proper smile parting his lips. I followed everything with registering eyes.
”Well, Ill see ya! ” He tucked one hand into his pocket, and the other held up in the air waving a rushed goodbye. No high-fives for me, I guess… No problem though! I had had plenty of attention, more than I anticipated in my most optimistic prospect of how that goodbye would turn out to be…
…when I turned around, Danilo watched me with a judging look. But I just cleared my throat, tried my best to oppress my smile, and awkwardly followed towards him.
”What the hell was that all about? ” he wouldn miss his opportunity.
”Nothing. Just saying goodbye. Hes… hes a cool guy… ” I said, and enjoyed the secret my heart concealed.
A secret that promised to shoo away sadness for being alone tonight, and a secret that would have me come back to school tomorrow. I felt it pounding violently in my throat now – the secret, tucked safely inside my heart. And for whom? A stranger, an older, full-grown man. How unnatural for a kid my age to be so… so smitten by him. None of the girls in my class had ever liked a boy older than 21, and yet… Chris looked like he could be pushing his 30s. Maybe more. How forbidden it felt… how special, and unique… and precisely for that, how exciting! It was strange, it was overwhelming, it was scary, and it was oh so pleasant! My insides swirled…
…they swirled and pirouetted and yanked free giggles from me all the way home. I made sure to walk behind Danilo so he wouldn see my face when we spoke, for we finally had something to talk about: Chris! I couldn shut up about his sudden appearance, about his saving the afternoon, and about speculations on his private life. I described him physically, as if Danilo hadn been there, and when Danilo complained, stung by natural jealousy by my enumerating his many traits, that I sounded like I was in love with the guy, I received a strange pleasure from denying it – from declaring the exact opposite: That I couldn believe how full of himself that guy was, how loud and silly, and why was he even there where he didn belong, playing among us kids? Too late to turn into that direction though: Danilo was at the limit of his patience and wanted to hear nothing else about him, the rest of our way was completed in utter silence.
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