Easy (Contours of the Heart #1)(5)


by Tammara Webber

It didn’t surprise me that practically everyone chose Kennedy. He was one of them, after all. He was the outgoing, charming, future world leader. I was the quiet, cute but somewhat odd girlfriend… After the breakup, I became just a non-Greek undergrad—to everyone but Erin.

Tuesday, we passed the reigning campus power-couple—Katie was president of Erin’s sorority and D.J. was vice president of Kennedy’s fraternity. “Hi, Erin! Great outfit,” Katie said, as though I wasn’t there. D.J. tipped his chin and smiled at Erin, his eyes flicking over me, but he didn’t acknowledge my existence any more than his girlfriend had.

“Thanks!” Erin responded. “Fuckheads,” she muttered right after, linking her arm through mine.

When I’d moved into my dorm room over a year ago, I’d been horrified to find myself with a roommate who embodied the sorority girl stereotype. Erin had already claimed the bed nearest the window. Above her headboard, she’d fastened shiny blue and gold high school pom-poms to a huge cutout spelling “ERIN” which was coated in gold glitter. Surrounding the giant gilded letters were posters covered in photos of cheerleader events and homecomings with hulking football players.

As I stood gaping at her light-reflective side of our tiny room, she’d bounced through the door. “Oh, hi! You must be Jacqueline! I’m Erin!”

Diplomatically, I hadn’t voiced the no shit comment that popped into my head.

“Since you weren’t here, I chose a bed—I hope you don’t mind! I’m almost done unpacking, so I can help you.” Wearing a university T-shirt that almost exactly matched her upswept coppery hair, she picked up my heaviest bag and swung it onto the bed. “I attached a whiteboard to the door so we can leave messages to each other—my mom’s idea, actually, but it sounded like a usable suggestion, don’t you think?”

I blinked at her, mumbling, “Uh-huh,” as she unzipped my bag and started removing the belongings I’d brought from home. There had to be some mistake. I’d filled out a lengthy roommate attribute preference sheet, and this girl appeared to have not one of those desired qualities. I’d basically described myself: a quiet, studious bookworm who would go to bed at a decent hour. A non-partier who wouldn’t bring a parade of boys through our room, or make it the floor headquarters for beer pong.

“It’s Jackie, actually,” I’d said to her.

“Jackie—so cute! I do like Jacqueline, though, I have to admit. So classy. You’re lucky, you can choose! I’m sort of stuck with Erin. Good thing I like it, huh? Okay, Jackie, where should we hang this poster of—who is this?”

I’d glanced at the poster in her hands—the likeness of one of my favorite singers, who also played the upright bass. “Esperanza Spalding.”

“Never heard of her. But she’s cute!” She’d grabbed a handful of tacks and hopped up on my bed to press the poster against the wall. “How ‘bout here?”

Erin and I had come a long way in fifteen months.

Chapter 4

Arriving a minute before econ began Wednesday morning, the last thing I expected to see was Kennedy, leaning on the wall outside the classroom, exchanging phone numbers with a Zeta pledge. Giggling after snapping a picture of herself, she handed his phone back. He did the same, grinning down at her.

He would never smile at me like that again.

I didn’t realize I was frozen in place until a classmate shouldered into me, knocking my heavy backpack from my shoulder. “’Scuse me,” he grumbled, his tone more Get out of the way than Sorry I ran into you.

As I bent to retrieve my backpack, praying Kennedy and his fangirl hadn’t seen me, a hand grasped the strap and swung the pack up from the floor. I straightened and looked into clear gray-blue eyes. “Chivalry isn’t really dead, you know.” His deep, calm voice was just as I remembered from Saturday night, and from Monday afternoon, across the Starbucks counter.

“Oh?”

He slipped the strap back onto my shoulder. “Nah. That guy’s just an ass**le.” He gestured toward the guy who’d bumped me, but I could have sworn his eyes raked over my ex, too, who was crossing to the door, laughing with the girl. Her bright orange sweatpants said ZETA across the rear. “You okay?” For the third time, this question, from him, held deeper significance than the usual, everyday implication.

“Yes, fine.” What could I do but lie? “Thank you.” I turned and entered the room, took my new seat, and spent the first forty-five minutes of class fixing my attention on Dr. Heller, the whiteboard he filled, and the notes I took. Dutifully copying charts of short-run equilibrium and aggregate demand, all of it seeming like so much nonsense, I realized I would have to beg Landon Maxfield for help after all. My pride would only cause me to slide further behind.

Minutes before the end of class, I turned and reached into my backpack as an excuse to sneak a look at the guy on the back row. He was staring at me, a black pencil loose between his fingers, tapping the notebook in front of him. He slouched into his seat, one elbow over the back of it, one booted foot casually propped on the support under his desk. As our eyes held, his expression changed subtly from unreadable to the barest of smiles, though guarded. He didn’t look away, even when I glanced into my bag and then back at him.

I snapped forward, my face warming.

Guys had shown interest in me over the past three years, but other than a couple of short-lived, certainly never revealed or acted-upon crushes—one on my own college-aged bass tutor, and another on my chemistry lab partner—I’d not been attracted to anyone but Kennedy. The economics lecture reduced to background babble, I couldn’t decide if my response to this stranger was lingering embarrassment, gratitude that he’d saved me from Buck, or a simple crush. Perhaps all three.

When class ended, I packed my textbook into my backpack and resisted the urge to look in his direction again. I fiddled long enough for Kennedy and his fangirl to leave. As I stood to go, the persistently sleepy guy who sat next to me spoke.

“Hey, which questions did he say to do for the extra credit? I must have knocked off for a few seconds right around when he discussed those—my notes are indecipherable.” I glanced at the spot he indicated in his notes, and sure enough, the scribbles became less and less readable. “I’m Benji, by the way.”

“Oh, um, let’s see…” I flipped through my spiral and pointed to the assignment details printed across the top of the page. “Here it is.” As he copied it, I added, “I’m Jacqueline.”

Benji was one of those guys to whom adolescence hadn’t been kind. A scattering of acne dotted his forehead. His hair was overgrown and curly—a skilled stylist could tame it, but he was probably a fan of the eight-dollar place featuring flatscreens of nonstop ESPN. Given his doughy midsection, I doubted he spent much time in the university’s state-of-the-art gym. The t-shirt stretched across his belly gave some sort of “bro” instruction best left unread. Expressive hazel eyes and an engaging smile that crinkled them adorably were his saving grace in the looks department.

“Thanks, Jacqueline. This saves my ass—I need those extra credit points. See you Friday.” He snapped his notebook closed. “Unless I accidentally sleep in,” he added, giving me a genuine smile.

I returned the smile as I moved into the aisle. “No problem.”

Maybe I was capable of making friends outside of my Kennedy circle. This interaction, along with the defection of most of our friends to Kennedy after the breakup, made me realize how dependent on him I’d become. I was a little shocked. Why had this never occurred to me before? Because I’d never thought Kennedy and I could end?

Foolish, naïve assumption. Obviously.

***

The room had almost cleared, the guy from the back row included. I felt a stab of irrational disappointment. So he’d stared at me in class—big deal. Maybe he was just bored. Or easily distracted.

But as I exited the room, I spotted him across the crowded hallway, talking with a girl from class. His demeanor was relaxed, from the navy shirt, open over a plain gray t-shirt, to the hand tucked into the front pocket of his jeans. Muscle didn’t show under the unbuttoned long-sleeved shirt, but his abdomen looked flat, and he’d put Buck on the ground and bloody easily enough Saturday night. His black pencil sat atop one ear, only the pink eraser at the tip showing, the rest disappearing into his dark, messy hair.

“So it’s a group tutoring thing?” the girl asked, twirling a long loop of blonde hair around and around her finger. “And it lasts an hour?”

He hitched his backpack, twitching wayward bangs out of his eyes. “Yeah. From one to two.”

As he gazed down at her, she tilted her head and rocked her weight slightly from side to side, as though she was about to dance with him. Or for him. “Maybe I’ll check it out. What are you doing after?”

“Work.”

She huffed an annoyed breath. “You’re always working, Lucas.” Her pouty tone hit my ears like nails on a chalkboard, as it always has when used by any girl above age six. But bonus—I’d just learned his name.

He glanced up then, as though he sensed me standing there, eavesdropping, and I pivoted in the opposite direction and started walking swiftly, too late to pretend I hadn’t been purposely listening to their conversation. I wove through the rush of people in the packed hallway, ducking out the side exit.

No way was I going to those tutoring sessions if Lucas attended them. I wasn’t sure what he meant—if he meant anything at all—staring at me like that during class, but the overt intensity of his gaze made me uneasy. Besides, I was still in a mourning period over my recently-shattered relationship. I wasn’t ready to start anything new. Not that he was interested in me that way. I all but rolled my eyes at my own thought processes. I’d gone from a marginal amount of interest to a possible relationship in one jump.

From a purely observational perspective, he was probably used to girls like the blonde in the hallway throwing themselves at his feet. Just like my ex. Kennedy’s titles of class and then student body president equated to small-time celebrity status, and he’d relished it. I’d spent the last two years of high school ignoring the envious girls who dogged our relationship, just waiting for him to be finished with me. By the time we’d left town for college, I was so sure of him.

I wondered when I would stop feeling like such a clueless twit for that misplaced trust.

***

Landon,

I’m having more trouble with the current material than I let on, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to make it to one of your tutoring sessions. Too bad for both of us that my ex didn’t dump me early enough in the semester to drop this class! (No offense. You’re probably an econ major and like this stuff.)

I’ve started researching online journals for the project. Thanks for decoding Dr. Heller’s notes before sending them to me. If you’d have forwarded them without a translation, I’d be searching for a tall building/ overpass/ water tower from which to yell “goodbye cruel world.”

JW

Jacqueline,

Please, no leaping from towering structures. Do you have any idea how much damage that would do to my tutoring reputation?? If nothing else, think of the effect on me. ;)

I create worksheets for the tutoring sessions. I’ve attached the past three weeks’ worth. Use them as study guides, or fill them in and send them back to me, and we’ll see where you’re getting confused.

Actually, I’m an engineering major, but we have to take econ. I think everyone should, though – it’s a good starting point for explaining how money, politics and commerce work together to create the total chaos that is our economic system.

LM

PS – How did the regional competitions go? And btw, your ex is obviously a moron.