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Tell Me How This Ends
By Victoria De La O
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Victoria De La O
All rights reserved.
Back home, they say that a guy who won't make the first move is about as useful as a match that won't light.
Ryan McAllister is most definitely an unlit match.
Today he's two rows in front of me, just to the left — ideal placement for checking him out. He's running his oversize hands through his straight, floppy brown hair, like he does every Tuesday and Thursday in my Shakespeare and the Modern World class. Sometimes I feel guilty for staring. But most days I consider this one heck of a spectator sport.
"Alas, poor Yorick," Professor Stephens says, disrupting my ogling. He's holding a skull up in the air.
The girl next to me scrunches her face. She's wearing a yellow Spartans tank top and looks as excited to be here as the skull does. "Gross," she whispers.
"But effective," I reply.
She stares at me like I'm a piece of gum on her shoe. Guess I shouldn't tell her I borrowed the cranium from the biology department for Stephens. If only that would help me get a better grade in this class.
My focus wanders, so I shoot a quick text to my roommate, Sam.
Nursing student + Shakespeare = FAIL
She texts back right away, part of why I love her.
Then you might want to stop texting and pay attention.
You are so bossy, I type.
Go talk to sexy guy ASAP. That will help.
Oh yeah, I reply. I'm HELLA all over that.
I can picture Sam rolling her eyes at my bad attempt to sound like a Californian. I get that a lot. It's not like I'm the only transplant in the Bay Area — in fact, most of the people who live here are from somewhere else. But going from Utah to California was a lot like Dorothy getting sucked into that tornado and ending up in Oz.
I put my phone away and stare at Ryan again. He doesn't say a lot in class, probably because he has a stammer. But when he gets called on, he makes really interesting observations. Plus, every time papers are handed back, I peek at his, and he's never gotten lower than an A–.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to ask Ryan to tutor me — because I need the help, but also because I'm finally ready to do more than stare. It's time for me to put myself out there again and leave what happened in Utah behind me. Otherwise, why did I bother to move?
Ryan is different, which makes him interesting. It seems as though everything is contained within him and he doesn't need the rest of us to entertain him. He carries a weathered messenger bag that perpetually holds a new book, which he pulls out and reads before class. What really gets me is the way he lights up when he reads, as though he is totally unaware of people watching him or the pressures of school and daily life. Like his only cares are the words on the page and the joy they bring him.
I want him to look at me that way.
He turns my direction, and I don't bother to glance away. If he's noticed me eyeballing him, he hasn't let on. In fact, he hasn't done anything to indicate the interest flows both ways.
Unlike my friends back home, though, California girls don't wait to be asked. So, when in Rome ...
"Don't forget to bring in your one-page close read for next class," Stephens says, holding up the skull. "And thanks to Miss Price for securing Yorick for us." More than a few heads turn my direction.
I take a deep breath. It's now or never. I push my shoulders back and try to channel those girls who wear cutoffs so short the pockets stick out of the bottoms. Girls who have a gene that I don't, which keeps their lips perpetually glossed and their flirting effortless.
When I finally get to his seat, Ryan glances up at me but stays silent.
"Hi. I'm Lizzie. Do you have a second?" I sit on the edge of his desk, facing him.
He continues to stare, and his eyes pack a punch — all chocolaty and puppyish. Man, no one should be allowed to have lashes that long. There's an awkward pause, and I start to feel self-conscious. Maybe Ryan has zero interest in me striking that match.
Then he takes a deep, purposeful breath. I'm guessing that having a stutter means you need to speak slowly, especially if you're caught off guard.
"Hi. I'm R-R-Ryan." He shakes his head, grimacing.
"Nice to meet you. I couldn't help but notice you're doing great in this class, and I wanted to see if you'd be willing to tutor someone. Me, I mean. In case that wasn't obvious." Now I'm the one who can't form a coherent sentence. Lord.
"Umm. I haven't ever th-thought about it. You sure you would w-want me as a tutor?"
He takes one finger and makes a circle around his mouth, and then does the talking-puppet motion with his hand.
I shrug. "Doesn't bother me. I see how much you read. You really listen in class, like you're actually enjoying it."
"You're not?" He folds his arms and sits back to consider me.
That right there is what is so sexy about Ryan: He doesn't flirt. He is trying to figure me out — see if I'm interesting. Suddenly, it's crucial I pass his test.
"I had to take this class because I transferred here, and I was missing a requirement. But I'm obsessed with reading Denis Johnson and Alice Munro. Shakespeare, not so much."
His eyes come alive.
Bingo. I'm in.
"I usually have free time after this c-class. Will that work?"
"Yes. I really appreciate it."
I glance down and grab my tote bag, which says SAVE A HORSE, RIDE A COWBOY. Mom gave me this bag two years ago, mostly to aggravate Dad.
I feel Ryan gazing at me, so I look up quickly. He barely has time to avert his eyes from my legs.
"Next Tuesday?" I ask.
He nods and we exchange numbers. It's all very businesslike again, and now I think maybe I imagined the leg staring. But then, as we part ways, he stops and turns to me.
"By the w-way, I already knew your name."
I step out of Campus Village, where Sam and I live, and tilt my face up to the sky. Nights here are still warm in early September, so I let the air seep into my skin. One thing I don't miss about Utah is the freezing cold.
I transferred from the University of Utah to San Jose State University a year ago — but not because of the great weather. The sense of possibility called to me. San Francisco to the north, the Pacific to the west, and Silicon Valley all around you. So much is happening here, and it all happens fast. This was a place where I could become someone new.
My parents still don't understand why I left home to study nursing in such an expensive city. Then again, they didn't know how badly I needed to rebuild myself.
I walk down East San Salvador, past the Vietnamese restaurants emanating the scent of lemongrass. Yet another benefit of living someplace where there are so many different kinds of people: The food is much better. For someone who was raised on tuna casserole and Frito pie, that's a huge win.
I turn left onto South First Street, eager to meet up with the girls so I can brag about today's success with Ryan. I weave through the throng of people heading to and from bars until I get to the pool hall. This place is one of my favorites because it's half bar, half pool joint, and it's really mellow. I'm happy to see there's no line at the door.
"Excellent," I say when I see Sam and Angel sitting at a good-size table.
"It's almost clean, too." Sam signals for the waitress.
Her long dark hair is wet, so I can tell she showered and changed at the hospital before coming here. I thank my lucky stars, yet again, that I'm not premed like Sam. She might as well move into the hospital, she's there so much.
"This is probably as good a time as any to tell you Megan is coming," Angel says.
Sam and I groan.
"And she's bringing her new fuck buddy." Angel practically whispers the last two words. That's because she grew up in Mexico, just about as sheltered as I was. She's also vertically challenged, topping out at five feet. All of this gives people the impression they can take advantage of Angel — which is when things always get interesting.
"Seriously, though, why is Megan coming? Not that she's not welcome ..." I'm unsure of what to say.
Megan is Angel's roommate, but we don't hang out together much. I'm not one of those girls who makes it a mission to hate on other women, but Megan is a tough one. The first time we hung out, I had braids in my hair, so she called me Heidi the rest of the night. And then she got so drunk she threw up on my purse.
Angel shrugs. "Her other friends were busy doing something else."
"Where did she find the new guy?" Sam asks.
"They work together at the marketing agency where she interns," Angel says. "He's older — twenty-six, I think. He does sales or ads or something."
Angel's a computer-science major, so she doesn't sweat the details unless we're discussing algorithms or Doctor Who — which is never.
I sling my purse over the back of the chair and turn to Sam. "Hey, I took your advice today and finally talked to him."
"And? Did stutter-guy live up to expectations?" she asks.
"His name is Ryan."
Sam leans back in her seat. "Wow, already defensive about him. What happened?"
"Time out," Angel says, holding her hands up in a T-formation. "You're doing it again. Fill me in first."
Sam and I have a tendency to start a conversation in the middle.
"Lizzie's been scoping out this hot guy in her class," Sam summarizes.
Angel makes a sweeping gesture with her hand. "You may proceed."
"He's going to tutor me." I can tell my smile looks smug.
"Nice. How long until you let him get a taste of Utah?" Sam asks.
Angel shakes her head, her thick, jet-black hair staying motionless.
"He's only agreed to tutoring."
"Is that what you're calling it these days?" Sam's eyes sparkle with mischief, and, as always, I envy how beautiful they are. She is half Italian, half Filipina, all knockout.
"You really need to get out more," I tell her.
"Girl, who has time for that?"
"Excuses, excuses," Angel says.
Sam sighs. "Whatever. Either way, Lizzie should be getting laid, so I can live vicariously. It's her duty as my friend."
I love that Sam pushes me. By my family's measure, I'm a bit rebellious, meaning I don't pack a gun in my purse. But by Northern California standards, I'm a puritan. I don't do social media, I've only slept with two guys in my life, and I never drink to excess.
The alcohol thing especially makes me stand out, because most people here drink as though today is their last day on earth. Which it might be if they keep partying so hard. I'll be happy if I never have to see another guy passed out in the hallway. The nice thing is, you can always find people like you somewhere, and so my closest friends aren't big drinkers, either.
Speaking of which, the cocktail waitress hustles over and takes our order: a beer and two sodas. She doesn't even attempt to hide her look of disgust at our selections. Another reason I love this bar.
A man walks through the door then, and whatever I was going to say to Sam scatters to the four corners of the earth. He barely glances at the bouncer checking IDs — just glides on in. He's a head taller than anyone else in this bar, and I can tell he's fit by the thin cashmere sweater molded to his chest. Still, it's not his body but the way he uses it that's fascinating. He eats up the floor with each step, seemingly determined to get where he's going. As he walks, he scans the place with a lazy sweep, like he's already bored. Except I can tell he's noticing everything. When his gaze lands on me, every hair on my body stands up straight. Never in my life have I been so aware of another human being.
"There they are now," Sam says, and sure enough, Megan is right behind this guy. My eyes are locked solely on him, though, as they maneuver to our table.
"Hey," Megan says, tugging him up next to her. "This is Jude. Jude, this is Sam and Lizzie. You know Angel already."
Jude scrutinizes each of us, with eyes that are as blue as the Pacific. When he gets to me he lingers, but his mocking expression doesn't change. I can only assume he feels equally unenthusiastic about meeting the lot of us. I'm equal parts disappointed and relieved by his disinterest in me.
"Hey," he says, his square chin tipping up in a nod.
Jude and Megan sit down across from me, and the table feels smaller than it did a minute ago. While I'm shifting around in my chair not paying attention, Sam and Angel spot an open pool table and run over to begin a game without me. It's too late for me to join them without it seeming like I'm running away from Jude and Megan. Traitors.
Looks like the group two pool tables down is getting ready to head out. Before they've vacated completely, Jude walks up and claims the table. He holds his hand out to Megan and motions her over.
"Not in these heels. Plus, I just got my drink," she says, wrinkling her nose.
I suspect that Megan has a lot of cute facial expressions, and they are probably all effective. She's a girl who understands how to use what she's got in a way I never will. I envy her confidence but am put off by it, too.
"Elizabeth?" Jude walks up and hands me a pool cue.
"It's Lizzie," I say as I try to push it back at him, but he's already wandered off to chalk up his stick. I glance at Megan to see if she's pissed at me, but she's busy checking out one of the bartenders.
Before I know it, my feet are moving and I'm following Jude to the table. My heart is beating faster, because it's a finely tuned piece of machinery. It knows that this way lies danger.
Jude doesn't even turn to see if I'm following. He doesn't need to; he knows I will. I kind of hate him for that, but then, no one made me get out of my chair.
Jude bends to the table and starts racking up the balls. His long fingers are precise and graceful as he manipulates each one until it is perfectly aligned. When he pulls his hand away, his fingertips glide over the green felt table.
"You're going to get me in trouble with your girlfriend," I say.
His smirk is wicked and impenetrable, and it becomes impossible to breathe. This feeling is unsettlingly familiar. My ex used to have the same effect on me, until I let him take me apart piece by piece and turn me into someone I didn't recognize.
I remind myself I'm not doomed to repeat my mistakes. This is only sexual attraction, and I can choose to ignore it. Even still, I feel its impact.
"It's not like that between us. We hang out once in a while. She's a fun girl." His words are heavy with condescension.
"Emphasis on the word 'girl,'" I say under my breath, but he hears me.
"You think I'm too old to be cruising sorority chicks?" He pushes up the sleeves of his blue sweater, and his forearms are strong and tan. He goes to break, and a ball sinks in the far left pocket. He's stripes. "Could be you're right. To be fair, she dropped in my lap at work. Literally."
"I'm sure your HR department would be glad to hear that," I say.
He laughs out loud. Arrogant people never seem to have a sense of humor about themselves, so this surprises me.
"You like these kinds of bars?" he asks, rubbing his fingers together like there's something sticky on them. "It smells like sweat, and the beer tastes stale." He glances around, probably taking in the harsh lighting, the worn wood tables, and the slightly faded tan paint on the walls.
"I'm guessing you go to places that serve Asian-fusion and charge fifteen dollars for a beer?" I say. I manage to sink a solid ball but have no luck on my follow-up.
"I can't help it if I have taste."
"Back home, we'd call it 'being fussy.' I suppose you can't help that, either." I notice how the ankles of his tight black jeans slouch artfully over his black leather boots — which don't have a scuff on them. Jude makes everything look easy, but he works at it harder than he lets on.
"'Back home'? Who says that? Were you born in a cornfield or something?"
"Utah. But I guess that's the equivalent to city folk like you," I say with a terrible southern accent.
"You know Utah's not in the South, right?"
I laugh again. "Just testing you. I was going for dramatic effect."
This forces a genuine smile out of him. As if those eyes aren't enough, the man has a dimple. But the smile fades quickly, and he has etched lines around his mouth that make him appear hard and uncompromising. He's so aloof that he doesn't strike me as someone who has a lot of fun. I wonder if he's ever been silly in his life.
Excerpted from Tell Me How This Ends by Victoria De La O. Copyright © 2016 Victoria De La O. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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