Waiting was the worst. Jolie had always thought so. Until she found herself sitting in the lobby outside her Thursday morning lecture, her head snapping to attention each time the door swung open. Jolie knew what she had to do once he walked out those doors, and wished she could skip to the part where she had already done it. Instead, time crawled forward, suspending her in endless anticipation. Waiting wasn’t the worst—no. Time was.
It was only later that she would look back and marvel at how true this thought would be for her and Jace.
Jolie rubbed her eyes from behind her glasses, then focused on the ticking clock on the wall ahead. Sunlight streamed through the east-facing window and glared off the marble floors. Why were the earliest mornings in her school week the most eye-burning? Jolie loathed classes before nine o’clock and, up until the start of this semester, had skipped them often. Then a perfectly good reason to never miss a class showed up and early Thursday mornings became a fail-safe how-to on perfect attendance.
Her friend Alix emerged from the lecture hall and slumped down on the bench next to Jolie.
“That sucked.” A resounding statement and one of defeat—typical of Alix post-examination.
“I’m sure you did fine. We studied enough.” Jolie’s canned response echoed off the tiles of the empty lobby.
Alix stood up and jammed her arms into her oversized jacket. Thick brown bangs covered Alix’s eyes while Jolie watched her struggle with the zipper. “Does staring at words count as studying? How quickly did you finish? I looked up once and you were already gone.” Alix sat down again and jiggled her legs.
Jolie poked at the bench’s faded black vinyl. “The first one to finish. I think. It’s adrenaline.” She eyed Alix’s round face as a wordless conversation passed between them. The plan for Jolie to approach Jace, which she hashed out with Alix the night prior, would go into effect as soon as he walked out those double doors. “So, let’s just…sit for a while.”
Alix hesitated before leaning against the wall. “Sure, we can sit for a sec. I don’t think I slept last night. You probably slept less, huh?”
Jolie nodded and closed her eyes. An image of a broad smile and wavy hair flashed behind her eyelids. Her stomach jumped. Her eyes popped open. This was the same pattern as last night. “The tossing and turning were cardio-worthy.”
Alix patted Jolie’s hand. “Well, at least you like to exercise.”
“I like to sleep more.” And she would have slept more throughout the entire semester, had she said something to him when they made eye contact during their first class together. Instead, Jolie had flinched and looked away, her mind racing. She spent the rest of the class trying to process how someone she didn’t know—at all—could make her feel like he’d just returned from a long absence. The urge to ask him where he’d been all this time had overwhelmed Jolie, making it impossible to introduce herself. Jolie was well aware she was shy, but her reaction to seeing his face was next-level. And that ended today.
“He’s taking his time, huh?” Alix cut through Jolie’s rumination over the same unanswered question.
Why him? Jolie squinted at the clock again. Ten minutes remained until class was officially over. Time was not the worst. The worst was going after the unknown once her time ran out.
“It’s possible he went out the front exit,” Alix added.
Jolie let out a long breath. She hadn’t considered that option, but it was possible. Today could be the day he broke his semester-long pattern of exiting the door she had planted herself in front of. Her heart plummeted at the thought but her mind caught it before it broke for no reason. “No, I don’t think so. It wouldn’t make sense.”
“How about we give him two more minutes?” Alix said. “If he’s not out by then, we can assume he left through the front and you won’t—” Alix stopped talking as the lecture door swung open.
Jolie’s back straightened. He was done. And walking. Right past the bench. His messenger bag was slung over one shoulder, and his stride purposeful—like he couldn’t wait to get out of the building.
Jolie stood up, trance-like. Her heart beating a sprinter’s pace. Go catch up, it would say if hearts had mouths. But her feet had turned to puddles, followed by her calves and then her knees. All she could do was stand still as her body dripped into a puddle across the tile.
Alix glanced at her. “Jolie, what are you doing?”
“I… I can’t.” Jolie’s voice shook.
Alix remained quiet. The significance of what Jolie had set out to do, and that she couldn’t see it through, didn’t need highlighting. “You never know,” Alix whispered while Jolie’s eyes tracked his legs moving him further away. “He might come through the Union again and I can give him your number or something.”
“That happened once. In three months. Those odds are not favorable.” Jolie watched him stop in front of the exit. Inevitably, he would walk out those doors and the “Where’s Waldo?” of her college years would continue. It seemed where she was frequent on this campus, he was elusive. Not a single random, or even not-so-random, run-in outside of class. Yet, there he stood, mere steps away. The end of the beginning was within her grasp. All she had to do was go up to him and say what she’d lost so much sleep rehearsing.
Time was running out.
“You’ve put way too much pressure on yourself, and on this person you don’t even know. And—Why is he just standing there?” Alix’s voice sounded far away.
The loud, rhythmic ticking from the lobby clock directly over his head had replaced the sound of his retreating footsteps now that he’d come to a stop.
Jace was staring out the window. She noticed his headphones were pulled down around his neck.
Jolie was standing only a few paces away from him.
She could do this. She had to do this.
Go catch up.
Jolie clutched onto Alix’s arm. Her expression, she imagined, was wild. Her face was an oven.
Alix rolled her eyes. “I’m going to use the bathroom,” she said and mouthed, Go.
Reason took over emotion and Jolie launched herself forward.
She was out of breath when she reached him. His back was to her. She felt dizzy and slow like she was underwater, and reasoned the sunlight was playing ethereal tricks on her mind; Jace appeared to be glowing. Her hand trembled as she tapped his shoulder, the black leather from his jacket soft and cool on her index finger.
Don’t pass out.
Jace turned and stared at her. His expression was startled. His forehead was creased, and his eyes—not brown, like she’d thought originally, but more of a sage color in this light—grew wide. Probably because she was in full-on gawk mode.
“Hi.” Her voice shook. She hoped he didn’t notice.
“Hi…” He continued to stare.
“You don’t know me—” She paused and released her clenched jaw.
“We were in the same lecture all semester, and since this is our last class, and I never run into you around campus, trust me I’ve looked—” A strangled giggle released from her chest. Why had she said that? “I was wondering if you’d maybe like to hang out sometime?”
Those were the most words she had ever said to someone she’d never spoken to before—and it all came out in one breath. Jolie wondered, in the silence between her voice and his response, who had just occupied her body—and if they were to become good friends.
His gaze raked over her face. The corners of his mouth had curved slightly. There was no way of knowing what this expression revealed, other than how it made her feel. His face right now was like waking up from a really good night’s sleep.
“Uh, yeah sure, yeah. That’s cool,” he said.
“Great!” Her voice cracked a full octave above her normal range. “I’ll just give you my phone number.” Jolie shoved the ripped piece of notebook paper with her number on it into his hand. She’d written it down ahead of time since her hands always revealed her nerves. Adrenaline was a funny thing.
He seemed startled by her speed. “What’s your name?”
Right, he didn’t know hers. “Sorry.” She shook her head. As far as first impressions went, hers was a mess. “I’m Jolie.”
She already knew his name. Jace. But hearing him say it, and the tentative smile he offered afterward, was a memory cemented in a heart still under construction.
She pushed the bridge of her glasses up her nose as he ran a hand through his hair.
“You headed out?” he said, searching her face with a pair of eyes she couldn’t believe were staring back at her.
“Yeah, I am.” She pulled on her gloves and noticed Jace watch her put on her hat with the oversized maroon puffed topper.
His mouth twitched as if he was sharing an inside joke with himself. “I like your hat.”
“I like you.” Jolie’s stomach dropped to the floor. Why! Why had those words come out of her mouth? She twisted her hands and attempted to unscramble her mind. “I mean, I like your jacket. It looks very leathery.”
Jace’s smile grew while he readjusted his messenger bag. “You’re different. Aren’t you?”
“You could say that.” The heat radiating from her face was becoming unbearable. This was not going as planned. But, who was she kidding? Her only plan was “hello”. Everything else was an awkward bonus.
Jace continued to smile. “All right. So, you want to go?”
“Yeah. Great!” Jolie glanced over her shoulder. The lobby was empty. Alix was still in the bathroom. She should tell Jace that Alix was waiting. But, but… Jolie worked her bottom lip between her teeth while she followed Jace to the lobby doors. Alix would understand why she left without warning, right? How long could the walk with Jace last? Once he went off in the opposite direction, she would rush back to Alix. Problem solved.
Jolie blinked at the glaring sun while her breathing adjusted to the frigid temperature. The sharp air choked her lungs, but walking next to Jace was more shocking than the cold.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that class is over,” Jace said.
“Those early mornings weren’t my favorite.” Jolie bit her tongue to keep from saying more—seeing Jace had been her favorite.
“Tell me about it. I have to take a bunch of required courses in order to advance in my statistics program. This was one of them. And don’t get me wrong, the different facets of psychological research were interesting enough. But I’m ready for the next step. I’m aiming for magna cum laude by graduation, which is crazy to say out loud.” Jolie felt her eyes open wide. He was smart—numbers smart. She still counted with her fingers.
They weaved around a couple holding hands, then Jace continued, “Higher education isn’t a big thing in small-town Iowa. I’m the first in my family to go to college, so I’m trying to do it right.”
They stopped at a crosswalk. The roads were as white as the exhale of his breath. Yet, Jace seemed unaware of the cold. Beside her, his jacket remained open. “I don’t know why I just told you all of that.” He laughed. “And proceed to tell you exactly what I continue to think. Your turn.”
The light changed. Jolie drew in a breath. “Let’s see. I’m not from Iowa but from the second most popular state to attend this great university.” Jolie felt Jace touch the small of her back and maneuver her to the inside of the crosswalk. Her body buzzed as loudly as her mind. She would not blurt out how insane this all was. Instead, she tried to focus. “I’m a psychology major, which took me two semesters to figure out, so I’ve been in a constant state of catch-up—and no, I cannot read your mind, but yes I may be a little nuts.”
Jace barked a laugh. “Noted.”
“I’m kidding. I swear I don’t know what came over me earlier, giving you my number. I’m not what anyone would consider the ‘outgoing’ type.” Jolie forced her mouth shut.
The pressure on her back disappeared once they reached the other side of the road. She wondered if he’d enjoyed their fifteen seconds of closeness as much as she had.
“Can I be honest with you, Jolie?”
“Yeah. What’s the point otherwise, right?” She attempted to laugh away her defensive tone. Her trust had been broken too many times to react any other way. And she hated that fact. She hated that someone’s willingness to be honest felt like a commodity she had to earn.
“You’re very easy to talk to, which isn’t normal for me,” he said. “It’s like I’ve known you for longer than”—Jace squinted his eyes in the direction of a large digital clock hanging off the side of a brick building—“twenty minutes. I wish you would’ve approached me sooner in the semester.”
Jolie’s stomach jumped straight into her throat while the snow on the ground turned into pure glitter. She glanced in his direction and watched his wavy hair dance in the cold wind. How this wasn’t a dream was beyond her.
They stopped at another intersection. Her apartment was a block ahead. Their time was almost up. “Which way for you?” Jace asked.
It took Jolie a moment to turn her attention away from Jace and look ahead. “My apartment is over there to the left.” The crosswalk light changed and they moved into the road. Jace’s hand returned to the small of her back and guided her in front of him as they approached a mound of frozen snow. Jolie’s feet slipped over the pile. Jace caught her by the elbow. He lingered by her side while his scent, something musky like sandalwood or amber, drifted around her.
“My place is just past yours to the right,” Jace said, pointing to the five-story apartment building Jolie saw looming in the distance daily.
“You mean the blue one with the red roof?” Jolie stared at where he’d been hidden away only steps from her apartment. How had she not run into him? Remarkable really, and infuriating. He wasn’t elusive. He’d been right under her nose this entire time!
He nodded and fiddled with his jacket zipper, the shadow of a grin plastered on his lips. Did Jace realize too how serendipitous their meeting had become? Or was she overthinking the little things again?
They came to a halt in front of her building.
“Wow. I am just now realizing how cold it is,” Jace said. The tips of his uncovered ears were red and poked out from underneath his wavy hair. “So, Jolie...”
Her mouth went dry as the sound of her name rolled off his tongue. “So, Jace.”
He blinked and cleared his throat. “I have, like, three finals next week, and a paper, and live with a bunch of dudes who never study and are loud and—not your problem.” He cleared his throat again. “I was planning to use the weekend to catch up and study, is what I’m trying to say. But maybe I could call you on Sunday if I can break free.”
Today was Thursday. Aside from the written take-home final she had to turn in next Wednesday, she was done for the semester. She and Alix had plans to celebrate tonight. Damn, she wanted to invite him along, but not with a weekend of studying ahead. And double damn at having to live in the memory of this moment for three days while she waited for him to call. Or not call. “Okay, yeah. Whenever is totally fine.”
“Great. Well, until next time then. I look forward to it.” He dipped his head and began to walk on but didn’t go far before he stopped in his tracks, looked over his shoulder, and delivered a wide, devastating smile. A shiver coursed through her as the same sensation she felt at the beginning of the semester dangled on the edge of her own awareness. There was a uniqueness to his presence, felt not just once, but twice now—as if she’d been reunited with a stranger.
She shivered again in the frigid weather and continued to stare like a complete fool well after he disappeared into his building.
Don’t freak out.
Jolie rotated on her heel and took off in a run. Alix. Jolie had left without saying goodbye. She was pretty sure Alix wasn’t still in the bathroom at the lecture hall, and more than sure she was pissed. Halfway between the lecture hall and their apartment, she saw Alix’s petite frame hunched against the biting wind. Her arms were crossed over her oversized red jacket. Her pace was set to “visibly annoyed” as she approached. As if the length of her tiny stride ought to be wider than what her legs could actually accomplish. Jolie sped up to close the gap.
“Alix! I am so sorry.” The apology was sincere, but she couldn’t hide the joy in her voice.
Alix’s frown evaporated as she shouted in the icy mist.
“I gave him my number,” Jolie said as Alix clapped her hands. “Wait! Oh my god. Oh crap.” Jolie slapped her hand against her forehead. The sensitive skin was frozen; unlike her sinking dread. “I didn’t get his. How did I not get his? What if he doesn’t call?”
“So you did it!” Alix dodged the loaded, mostly rhetorical, question like a pro. Three years of friendship would do that, Jolie figured—form a callous against the constant second-guessing.
“I did. But it gets even crazier. We started walking, and talking, and asking questions, and before we both knew it, he’s standing in front of our apartment, pointing to his a block away. Alix. He lives a block away! How is that even possible?”
Alix shook her head, wide-eyed. “All this time.”
Jolie nodded and walked ahead in a daze. All this time. And in a week she would pack up to go home for a month for winter break. In a different state.
“He’ll call,” Alix said so convincingly it stunted Jolie’s growing concern. “Why wouldn’t he?”
They entered the front door of the apartment building and each let out a sigh. Time to thaw.
“Even though I look like this?” Jolie pulled off her hat to the sound of static electricity. She imagined her hair was similar to Einstein’s in the dry air.
Eight a.m. lectures meant most students rolled out of bed and stumbled in smelling like the night before. Jolie had taken some effort this morning. She’d brushed the tangles from her boring, brown hair, dabbed some concealer under her unavoidable-during-exam-time bloodshot eyes, and glossed her lips. Still, her black sweatpants and fluffy winter jacket had to be the opposite of a thrilling first impression.
“Stop it, Jolie. You’re being ridiculous.” Alix pushed open their front door and tugged off her stocking cap. Alix had brown hair like Jolie, but stood five inches shorter. Add in her tiny nose, and Alix’s sweet and mousey appearance stood in stark contrast to her loud voice and mother-hen tendencies.
“Never mind, I’m just kind of…” She didn’t want to say it out loud —freaking out. “I’m riled up, is all.”
“How couldn’t you be?” Alix gave her a look of, well, Jolie wasn’t quite sure what that look was, possibly pride mixed with concern.
“What’s with your face?” Jolie asked, circling her finger at Alix. “Why are your eyebrows going all over the place? It doesn’t match your smile.”
Alix’s face dropped. “Fine. I’m going to say this, but please don’t take it the wrong way.”
Jolie stopped herself from opening the closet door and leaned against it instead. “Go on.” She waited while Alix snapped and unsnapped the buttons on her jacket, her eyebrows pinched together.
“Just…tread lightly,” she finally got out.
Jolie eyed her friend, knowing there was more. Alix was never short for words, but now she held back for some reason. Maybe Alix realized it would be wasted breath. The timing of Jolie’s introduction to Jace had left her little choice but to dive in. Jace was a magical, pristine pool she thought could only exist in her dreams. She had no intention of treading lightly at all.
Jolie would have to race against the clock to make up for all the time already not spent in the warm waters of his presence.