Fear Falls Awaybyanon_temptations©
I stepped into the classroom, my heart beating so hard that I was scared the other students could hear it. I felt my face flush as a few heads turned my way, and I started to wish I was anywhere but here. I started to evaluate myself in my head; what must I look like? Did my outfit look too flashy? Did it look like I was trying too hard? Was my hair a mess? Perhaps the wind had blown it out of place on my walk over...
This was how most social situations started for me; it was nothing new. I'd been dealing with my social anxiety since I had been about 12 years old. I was doing everything in my power not to let it affect my life and my future, but I was now 19 years old and I was still finding it difficult to do anything that involved being around other people. Making friends was a nightmare, class discussions were brutal and class presentations were even worse. By some miracle I'd managed to push myself into further education regardless of the ache in my gut telling me that it would mean even more social situations and even more painful presentations. It would mean living with total strangers and being surrounded by new faces.
My first lectures of the semester had been almost painless, but the classes were more difficult. Today, there were no seats free bar one -- next to some guy who had his back to me and was talking on his phone in a whisper, despite our tutor standing at the front of the class preparing to start.
I sat down as quickly as I could, taking care not to make too much noise as I got my things out of my bag. My neighbour hung up his call with a whispered "love you too Grace, bye" just as the tutor began to introduce himself and this semester's topic to us. My neighbour smiled at me in silent greeting and I blushed a little, looked down at my blank paper and started fiddling with my pen. I wasn't sure if I imagined it or not, but I thought I heard a light chuckle to my side. Great, I thought, my classmate already thinks I'm a freak. I shook my head. I overreacted to everything but I just couldn't help it.
I sat there doodling for a good twenty minutes, safe in the knowledge that I couldn't be called upon today because the class was only introductory and hence there were not yet any questions that the tutor could ask of individuals.
"Now, I'd like you to talk with your partner about what you want to get out of this module, and what you think the key aims of this course are."
With those words, our tutor sat down and pulled out a pile of essays that he started to read through. How the hell did he have essays to mark already, this early in the school year? I sighed. At the thought of a class discussion, my hands had turned clammy and my heart rate was beginning to pick up speed.
"Hey, I'm Burn," said the guy next to me. He turned his whole body in his chair to face me.
I stole a glance to the side and gave a nervous smile. "James," I muttered.
"It's nice to meet you." Burn gave a wide smile. He looked down at his blank paper, then over at my page of doodles. "Nice notes." He said jokingly.
I blushed at his comment and immediately turned the page of my notebook to a blank one. This time he definitely chuckled.
"So, what do you want to get out of this module?" Burn asked. "Personally, I'm just doing this because they wouldn't let me study Philosophy without taking this damn logic module. And so here I am." He gestured around him.
"Well, um..." I glanced up at him and he was staring at me with a faint smile on his lips, waiting for my response. It caused my cheeks to heat up. "Well, I kind of like logic. It's simple, you know? It makes perfect sense."
"Not to me," he retorted. "So what else are you studying?"
"A mathematics module and two more philosophy modules."
"Jeez!" He exclaimed. "You must be pretty smart then. I think I'll stick with you."
I blushed again. "Nah, I'm not that smart, really. No smarter than anybody else here."
"So you're just a pretty face, then."
He winked. He actually winked at me. I didn't know how to react, so I laughed as I felt my cheeks flush. I didn't think I had ever blushed this much in the space of five minutes, but I liked Burn. He seemed like a good guy. If I hadn't known any better, I'd have thought he was flirting with me.
Burn's phone gave a beep to signal that he had a new text message and he gave me an apologetic look as he pulled his phone out of his pocket to read it, momentarily pausing our conversation. Probably his girlfriend, I thought. I took my chance to give him a quick once over. There was no denying it - he was beautiful. His dark hair had a sort of messy-on-purpose style and he had stubble across his jaw line which made him look older than he probably was. I was sure he was older than me anyway, perhaps by two or three years. He may have been sitting down but I could see that he was tall. Perhaps a similar height to my 6"3. I had already noticed his dark eyes; they were the kind that you could lose yourself in.
I was surprised that Burn was even talking to me. I supposed he had to, considering we were sitting together and had been instructed to discuss the topic with our partners. I always found it hard to believe that people like Burn would ever talk to me through choice, let alone actually maintain a real friendship. I looked away before Burn could catch me staring. That was the last thing I wanted. I didn't want him to know that I was both weird and gay. I wasn't ashamed of my sexuality and would never deny it when asked, but I was pretty sure that it would put a damper on any possible friendship and I knew I could really use at least one friendly face in these classes.
At this point, the tutor stood up and instructed us on the reading we were required to do for next week's class. I scribbled down the book and page numbers quickly and packed my stuff away in my bag. I stood up and flung my backpack over my shoulder. I was in a rush to get back to my own room in campus halls where I could get on with my work away from the watchful eyes of tutors and other students.
I left without saying anything else to Burn, but he was on my mind for the rest of the day. As soon as I had left the class and reached my room, I began cursing myself for the things I didn't say and kept thinking of things I should have done. I should have spoken more. I should have hung around at the end of class. I should have asked what he was up to this evening. I shouldn't have blushed. I shouldn't have left so quickly. I concluded that I must have looked really stupid. These were the kind of thoughts that usually plagued me when I recapped various social situations. The only difference today was that I was genuinely looking forward to the prospect of seeing Burn again. I'd probably embarrass myself and stumble over my own words again, but it didn't seem to matter; I wanted to see him despite that. Then I remembered that he'd been talking to someone on the phone. Grace, if I remembered correctly. He'd said he loved her. My heart dropped a little, but then I cursed myself for being so silly. So what if he was straight? It didn't mean that we couldn't be friends. Because God knows I needed a friend in this place.
I couldn't help but smile when I entered my class the next day and found Burn sitting by himself at the back of the room. He waved and called me over. I took the seat next to him hurriedly before anyone saw me blush. We chatted a bit about what other classes we had and got on with our work, and I stole a few glances every now and then to admire him. He asked for my help on some of the questions and listened intently to my explanations. I loved my studies and was pretty good at them, even if I didn't like to admit that to anyone, and it felt good to be able to explain things to Burn.
For the rest of the week, every time I walked into classes that I shared with Burn he signalled for me to join him. By Friday, I had spent the whole week ogling over Burn in our classes together or when I saw him in the lecture halls or around campus. He was often on his own, which surprised me, although I occasionally saw him talking to the same two guys. I was starting to worry for my sanity; I was becoming hooked to a man I had known for barely a week.
I tried to keep my glances in his direction minimal on the Friday and, as usual, when the hour was up and our class together was over, I quickly packed up my things and got ready to dart from the room. I had only taken a couple of steps away from the desk when Burn reached out and grabbed my arm lightly. The contact caused my heart to skip a beat, whether because of my anxiety or because I was attracted to Burn, I wasn't completely sure.
"Hang on a sec," Burn said, "you free tonight? Wanna come to the student bar with me and some mates?"
I instantly looked for an excuse. Not because I didn't want to spend time with Burn, but because I didn't like going to bars. They made me nervous and I wasn't much of a drinker.
"Um, I have a lot of work to get finished. A couple of assignments to start..."
"We've only just started the semester; you can't have that much on." Burn commented. "Give me your number and I'll text you with times and stuff."
Burn pulled out his phone, so I had no choice but to recite my number to him.
"Cool. I'll text you later. See you around, J."
With that, he walked past me and was gone. I stood there for a moment, wondering whether I should go out tonight. I didn't really want to; there would be lots of people. It would be uncomfortable. What if I made a fool out of myself? But I also really did want to go, I wanted to make friends and I hated that my anxiety was getting the best of me. I knew that it would be uncomfortable and maybe even painful, but I wanted to try it. I hated that I was so ready to give up without giving it a chance first.
I carried on this internal argument all the way back to my room. My room was a single; thankfully I had managed to get a place in accommodation that didn't involve sharing a room or a shower. I had applied months in advance to make sure of it. The room was small, but plenty big enough for me. Everything was very neutral; I still hadn't got around to decorating it, so it was void of anything that described too much about my personality. I had a few pictures up of my closest friend Jenny when we went to a theme park over the summer, and there was a posed shot of my little sister Bethan and another one of my older brother Dean taken two years ago. That was before things had turned bad at home and before Dean had ruined everything. The selfish bastard had left home without so much as a goodbye, without telling anyone where he was going and without so much as a phone call since he left almost two years ago. He hadn't even called when we had got the news that our father had died. It was true that we rarely ever saw him, but he had still been our father and his death had deserved some kind of recognition. I knocked the picture down so that it was facing into the desk and let out an angry sigh.
I sat down at my small desk and started on some of my reading to take my mind off of the prospect of going out tonight. I couldn't concentrate, and after an hour my phone beeped to signal that I had a new text message. I pulled it out of my pocket.
Hey, it's Burn. 7pm at The Border sound ok?
The Border was our local student bar. My heart skipped a beat, because I had heard about how busy it was in there. I thought about having to push myself through the crowds of people to find Burn and having to stand around with hordes of students pressed up against each other, and it made me shudder.
At 6.30pm, I was sitting on my bed contemplating my options. My phoned flashed and vibrated across the bedside table. I knew before I even checked the caller ID that it would be Bethan.
"What's up, sis?" I answered. I could be myself with Bethan, she was one of my closest friends.
"James, I need you to speak to mum. She is being an absolute bitch. She won't let me go to Brandon's party."
At 16, Bethan was a bit of a drama queen. She failed a lot of her classes and bunked off constantly, and was downright irresponsible most of the time. I knew it was all an act. She was the sweetest, friendliest and smartest kid I knew when she wasn't around all her school buddies. I was disappointed that she felt the need to dumb herself down to make friends.
"Beth, I don't think anything I say will change her mind." I laughed.
"Urgh." Bethan sighed. "So what are you doing on this lovely Friday evening? Made any friends yet?"
"Actually..." I wasn't sure whether to tell Bethan about my offer from Burn. Bethan knew about my anxiety and she had made it her duty to keep reminding me of how I needed to put myself out there more and take chances. She constantly reminded me that I needed to let myself experience the social situations I feared, and that perhaps sometimes bad things would happen but that I needed to learn to take them in my stride and grow from them. She also knew that I was gay, which meant that she would pounce on the idea of me meeting up with another guy and she'd insist that I go. I told her anyway. "I might be going out to the local bar in half an hour or so. A guy from class invited me."
"Oh. My. God. Am I hearing you correctly? James Jared Swift is actually going to a bar on a Friday night?" Her tone was mocking. "I'm proud of you, big bro," she joked.
"Yeah. I'm not so sure though."
"About what? You need to put yourself out there, James. I know it scares you but you won't get better if you don't push your limits and try new things. It's just a bar, what's the worst that could happen?"
"I could be humiliated, I could drink too much and throw up in front of everyone there, or black out and sleep with a bunch of random guys, or break a bone, or..."
"James. Just shut up. Seriously. Use your brain, be responsible, and have a good time. Nothing bad will happen unless you let it. You need to let go and enjoy yourself." Bethan sighed. "I really wish you'd just chill and let someone see how awesome you are. It's killing me that you can't do that. Please, you need to start helping yourself."
"I guess your right." Unfortunately, she was always right.
"I know I am." She responded. "So what's this guy like? Is he hot?"
"He is, actually. But he's also just a great guy, you know? But I'm pretty sure he has a girlfriend." I sighed.
"Pretty sure?" She repeated. "Why don't you ask him?"
I can't just ask, Bethan."
"Sure you can. Besides, if anyone can turn a straight guy gay, it'd be you. So stop worrying."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Bethan laughed. "Take a look in the mirror, will you? Gosh. Well I'll let you go -- make sure you let me know how it goes. Love you."
She hung up, and I was left there wondering what the hell I should do. I jumped up from the bed and pulled out an outfit from my wardrobe as quickly as I could, before I had the chance to change my mind. Less than an hour later and I was on my way to The Border, my stomach churning and my heart pounding.
I could see James approaching from the distance, but he hadn't seen me yet. I hoped he wouldn't mind that it would be just the two of us. I hadn't been able to convince any friends to come out on such short notice; they'd all had other plans. I was actually pretty glad for this, I wanted to get to know James more and I preferred the idea of having him all to myself. I shook my head at my foolishness, I doubting he was gay anyway.
I called out a greeting to get his attention. "James, over here."
He snapped his head in my direction and I waved. He looked uncomfortable. I wondered briefly why he was so shy, but then he walked under one of the street lights and my heart skipped a beat. He looked amazing. His dark blonde hair was sticking up in all directions, but it looked so hot. He was wearing jeans that were tight in all the right places and a grey t-shirt that clung to his well-defined chest. He had his hands in his jean pockets as he walked over and came to a stop directly in front of me. He gave me brief eye contact before he muttered a "hey" and darted his eyes to the ground.
I'd found myself attracted to James almost instantly, from the moment he sat down next to me at the beginning of the week. I was disappointed that James always seemed in a rush to leave at the end of our classes, and for the whole week I had been left standing alone and staring at the door, feeling a little like a lost puppy. I tried to convince myself that it probably wasn't anything personal; it was obvious that James was extremely shy. His shyness shocked me; I had learnt from experience that guys who looked as good as he did were usually never shy. Something about this guy had my heart racing, and I hadn't even known him for a week yet. All I knew was that I wanted to know everything about him. I wanted to be his friend, perhaps even something more. This shocked me, for I had never pegged myself as a long-term relationship kind of guy.
"You look great," I blurted. James blushed and gave a nervous smile. He looked even cuter when he blushed, and he did that a lot.
"I hope you didn't have too far to walk. It's kind of chilly tonight," I said. I was making small talk, surprised to find myself feeling nervous. That wasn't like me; I was usually fairly confident and pretty sure of myself.
"No, I...um... I only live on campus. Block D." He replied. He was looking at me now and smiling a little. His smile made me feel slightly weak at the knees. I had no idea what had gotten into me. I was pleased to notice, however, that James seemed to be feeling a little more comfortable than he had done when we were together in class.
"Oh right," I commented. "I have a flat down the street. I took a gap year, well, a few gap years actually, and so I had some money saved. I thought renting a flat would work out better than staying on campus. I like my own space." Shut up and stop talking crap, I thought to myself.
James nodded. "So you're not my age then, straight out of school?"
"No, I'm 22."
We stood there for a moment, just staring at each other. James looked away first, clearly a little uncomfortable. Was he always like this, or was it just when he was around me? I wondered if he suspected that I was gay, and whether that was what was making him feel a little uneasy.
"I'm afraid it's just us. My friends are dicks and none of them were up for going out tonight."
Gosh, he was so beautiful. I couldn't keep my eyes off of him. His hair was waving slightly in the breeze and his eyes sparkled from the street lights. I wanted to say something smart and charming, but nothing came to mind. I felt the need to impress him. I wanted to grab his hand in mine. I wanted to do so much more than stand here making small talk.
"Want to go inside?" I gestured into The Border, which was pretty packed, with music blaring out the doors.
James cast a nervous look at the building and I started to regret my choice of location. He looked lost. It was obvious that this wasn't the kind of place he'd usually hang out at and it made me feel kind of warm inside to know that he had come here tonight despite that. He had left his comfort zone in order to meet up with me, and it made me feel proud, in a strange way.
"You know, we can go somewhere else if this makes you feel uncomfortable."
James looked relieved. "Really?" He replied, sounding hopeful.
"Sure, I have a few beers at my place. We can hang out and chat. Play some music or something. Sound alright?"
James thought for a few moments and then nodded. "Sure."
We started walking as I lead the way to my apartment and made more small talk as we went. The conversations got easier as the minutes went by and James seemed to relax. I was glad. I stole a glance at him when he wasn't looking and noticed how much less tense he looked. When he didn't realise anyone was looking, his whole body was much more relaxed and he looked so happy and peaceful. I wanted to kiss him. The thought popped into my head almost as if by itself. I couldn't control it; it was suddenly all I could think about. I smiled to myself as I approached my building, pulling my keys from my pocket.