“Get in the car, idiot!” Clif shouted from the comfortable warmth of his compact Toyota as I rushed to gather my things and lock up the house.
“Thanks for driving me to class while my car’s in the shop, man. Seriously, I appreciate it,” I said, nestling into the passenger seat. The heat blasting through the vents was a welcome respite from the bitter outside air. Despite my countless layers and the snug beanie topping my head, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from shivering.
“Bo, of course. You’re practically my brother, dude. You don’t have to thank me,” he laughed, turning the radio up slightly for background noise. “Anyway, you know I’m going to the same part of campus as you, even if my classes do start a bit later. Thank God for the new coffee shop they just finished putting in next to the dining hall. If I have to be at school this early, you bet your ass I’m getting a coffee first.”
“Oh shit, I forgot they were putting in a coffee shop! Let me pay for you today, alright? I need to appease my guilt for dragging you here at this ungodly hour.”
Clif nodded and yawned deeply, a sleepy grin settling on his face. I could tell with a quick glance that his eyelids were once again becoming heavy, partially covering the emerald green eyes underneath. Sitting idle for so long in the cozy, early morning stillness clearly hadn’t helped him in his daily battle with sleep inertia. I had a feeling that the oversized hoodie and sweatpants he was wearing probably didn’t help since they were essentially pajamas, but a small part of me envied his consistently laid back style. As usual, his sandy blonde hair was tossed up in a lazily executed bun, a few rogue strands managing to escape the loose top knot. When I realized that Clif was beginning to drift off, I nudged his bicep gently to wake him and tried to offer some motivation, “Still want that coffee? We need to get going if we’re going to beat the rush.”
“Ugh, yeah. Let’s go,” Clif grunted as he slowly pulled out of my parents’ cobblestone driveway.
The drive, while brief, was quiet but comfortable, and I found myself warming up quickly in the narrow space. Clif and I had been best friends for years, ever since his family moved into the house across the street from us halfway through second grade. From the moment we met, Clif and I were, quite literally, inseparable. We were in the same class more often than not throughout elementary, middle, and high school, so not only were we together for hours every day, but on nights and weekends as well. Somehow, we never ran out of things to talk about, our interests almost always overlapping, but even when silence would inevitably settle around us, it was never awkward or unpleasant.
Clif shifted into park and shut off the car as we braced ourselves to step back out into the stinging cold. After grabbing our bags from the backseat, we started on our long trek from the student parking lot to the brand new coffee shop, which was conveniently located at the center of our school’s sprawling campus.
“So hey, don’t get pissy at me for asking, but how are things working out between you and Addie?” Clif asked, bringing an end to the peaceful quiet we had established on the ride. I felt my shoulders tense at the question, but ultimately decided that talking about the situation out loud was probably a good idea.
“Honestly, I think I’m going to break up with her,” I answered through labored breaths. “I mean, she’s a sweet girl, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just not feeling it. She’s coming home next week, so I guess I’ll try to meet up with her then and break things off.”
I meant it, Addie was a genuinely good person, certainly everything you could ask for in a girlfriend, but the chemistry between us was simply nonexistent. We had officially been together for about a year, but the two of us were friends long before that. We met early on in high school, though we weren’t necessarily close for most of that time. When she confessed her feelings for me at a holiday party after my first semester of college, I took some time to think things over and hesitantly agreed to give dating a try. For a year, I had given our relationship my all, trying my best to make my girlfriend happy, but it was becoming clear that I just didn’t have it in me any longer. Addie had been in Europe for close to a month, visiting family in a rural part of France, and we had hardly talked during that time. Toward the end of her second week away, I realized that I hadn’t missed her at all, and it was then that I made the decision to end it.
“Hey, you tried, man,” Clif reassured. “I know you went into this wanting things to work out, but I think you’re doing the right thing. I mean, you can’t force a spark if there isn’t one, so it’s probably best to end things sooner rather than later. I know you know this, but I’m here to talk if you need me, alright?”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks, Clif,” I smiled, looking up as we approached our destination. It felt strange to be back on campus after a few weeks away, but I was looking forward to the new semester. The tree-lined walkway, renowned for its canopy of lush foliage, was exactly as I remembered it. The landscape was breathtaking in the warmer months, but slightly underwhelming at the moment since the leaves had fallen away weeks ago.
As we walked into the newly renovated building, I was pleasantly surprised to find it mostly empty. Since classes were resuming, I had expected a crowd, but there were only a few sleepy-eyed students roaming the warmly lit hallways. When our eyes finally locked on Lucy’s Coffee, Clif and I were suddenly reinvigorated, practically sprinting toward the delicious fragrance emanating from the shop. Since there wasn’t a line, we were able to quickly grab our life-saving beverages and head back out to the main building, which was steadily filling with students.
“Which class was it that required you to get here at the ass crack of dawn again?” Clif wondered between sips, sinking back into the worn armchair he had eagerly claimed moments earlier.
“World Lit with Professor Jenkins,” I muttered, a cigarette hanging from my lips, searching my bag desperately for a lighter. “I’m going to take off so that I can smoke before class, but text me when you wrap up later and we’ll meet back at your car.”
“Sounds good, man. See ya later!” Clif beamed, his bubbly attitude restored by the caffeinated infusion.
Getting to my first class required venturing back outside and through a tight courtyard before reaching the dilapidated humanities building, so I decided to take refuge in the small enclosure to smoke. I perched on an unforgiving, metal bench directly across from a wall of heavily tinted windows and lit up a cigarette. After a few glorious puffs, I began to study my reflection in the darkened glass to ensure that I looked at least somewhat presentable on my first day back at school. My hair, which had become long enough to brush my shoulders, worked in tandem with my thick, black turtleneck to provide my nape with much needed cover from the biting wind. The unruly, chestnut curls contrasted starkly against my alabaster skin, making the strands look even darker than they actually were. While my knee-length wool coat obscured much of the outfit I had so thoughtfully put together the night before, my tailored chinos and leather Oxford’s complemented each other just as I had hoped.
With new life coursing through me thanks to the coffee and cigarette, I made my way to the building in which most of my classes would be held. Once inside, I didn’t have to walk far before I was standing in front of my designated lecture hall. I peeked in the large, hushed space and sighed with relief when I realized that all of the back row seats were still available. As I ascended the tiered room, I noticed a pair of curious eyes watching me from below, but continued toward the back without pause. Secure in my selection, I settled in, placing my bag and coat on the back of my chair, and booted up my laptop on the tabletop in front of me.
With a few minutes left before class was set to begin, I glanced at my phone and placed it in my bag when I was sure I didn’t have any new messages. Then, using my computer as a shield, I lowered my head and peered in the direction of the curious eyes that had followed me to my seat. The person’s gaze was no longer pointed at me, but I could tell the observer was a man. He had an athletic build that was discernible even through the fabric of his loose-fitting cable knit sweater, and he seemed to be on the tall side. When he turned his head slightly, I had an unobstructed view of his face and was able to study the stranger more closely. His ash brown hair was short but neat, and gold metal frames sat elegantly upon the bridge of his perfectly straight nose. My eyes continued to wander to the man’s sharp jawline, and then to the subtle smirk tugging at the corner of his curved lips.
Goddamnit. Before I could look away, the man’s eyes connected with mine and the smirk slowly but surely spread wider on his face. For some reason, the unwavering eye contact between us felt like some sort of challenge, and I wasn’t about to stand down first. I continued to stare at the annoyingly handsome man while attempting to maintain a solemn, emotionless expression, but found myself struggling to keep my composure. Our staring contest ended abruptly when the teacher, who had arrived without me even realizing, casually interrupted, “Good morning, everyone. I’m Professor Jenkins, and I want to welcome you to World Literature.”
Professor Jenkins began his first day of class spiel while I found myself distracted, lost in thought. Why was he looking at me like that? I don’t know him, do I? No, definitely not. Maybe he’s friends with Clif? I mean, probably not or I would definitely know him, right? Ah shit, this is going to bug me. I should approach him after class and ask what that was about. Yeah, I’ll do that. Should I do that? He hasn’t looked back here since the teacher started talking so maybe he mistook me for someone else. At this, I frowned and started pecking aggressively at the keys on my laptop. Why am I hoping that’s not the case? Fuck, what is going on with me? Alright, so a stranger smiled at me. Why am I letting it affect me so much?
“Excuse me,” called a smooth, baritone voice, interrupting my inner rambling. “The professor asked me to hand these out, but I wanted to take the opportunity to ask your name.” I snapped my head up to see the very person I had been contemplating towering over me. To my surprise, the man was even more handsome up close, his steel blue eyes observing me closely through the thick lenses of his glasses. The smirk from earlier was replaced by a soft, genuine smile, which made my feelings of annoyance from before dissipate completely.
“Uh, sure. I’m Bo Collins,” I responded, doing everything in my power to appear calm and collected.
“Bo Collins. Is Bo short for anything? Robert, maybe?” he asked, his gaze never wandering from my face.
“J-just Bo, actually,” I stuttered.
“Well, just Bo, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Connor Wells,” he said confidently, endearing crinkles forming at the corners of his eyes. “I need to finish handing these out, but I’ll see you around.” He raised his free hand and waved at me before descending toward the other students in the room. Up to this point, I hadn’t really taken the time to look around to see who else might be in the class. When I finally began to observe my peers, I noticed that almost everyone was ogling Connor as he shuffled through each of the rows, quietly passing out the syllabus. Okay, so all of these people are clearly eye fucking the shit out of this guy, so why did he just talk to me?
A muted vibration sounded from my bag, so I pulled it out to see who it was. Fucking now, seriously? It was a call from Addie, but I wasn’t about to answer it. It’s not like I could answer during class, anyway. Seeing her name pulled me out of the weird, dreamy bubble I had been occupying since class started. As I went to set my phone down next to my laptop, Professor Jenkins announced that he was dismissing us a few minutes early. Apparently, the syllabus was the only thing he had planned to cover on the first day, so we’d delve into the more substantive content at our next meeting. The news lifted my spirits a bit after the unpleasant reminder of my girlfriend’s existence, so I moved eagerly to begin packing my things. I slipped my arms back into my coat and slung my bag over my shoulder before stepping toward the door.
I looked around, hoping that I might see Connor one more time. I wanted to talk to him again. I wanted to ask why he had been staring at me with that smirk on his face, and why he had chosen to randomly talk to me of all people. I didn’t see him anywhere, so I let out a disappointed sigh and turned to leave when I felt a gentle tapping on my shoulder.
“Hey, just Bo. Want to grab a coffee?”