1. Encounter

She was so glad to be back at college. The grey walls of her small dorm room were bare, indicating that it was the beginning of the semester, but she looked on them with more fondness than she'd ever looked on the walls of her room at her parents' house. This tiny room was more of a home to her than that whole house; she knew the campus, with its tall vine covered buildings and unexpected benches tucked away in dim corners, better than the painfully suburban town where she had spent her entire adolescence.

The summer had been a long and hot one, one she'd spent mostly locked up in her room, pouring over the textbooks she had already gotten for the fall semester and re-reading the old books she had shoved on her dusty shelves. She hadn't had any old high school friends to get reacquainted with, to gossip with about the things she had done while at school. She hadn't had any newfound college friends to stay in touch with, to meet up with and complain about how boring being back at "home" was. All she'd had were her boxes of belongings from her old dorm room that she hadn't even bothered to unpack and a calendar that she kept over the head of her bed.

Every night, before falling asleep, she would take out her red permanent marker and make a big X across the box for that day. She would listen to the squeaking of the felt tip against the glossy page and say to herself, "One less day." The solitariness of her summer existence had stretched out before her, taunting her, making her realize just how quiet the house really was, just how seldom the phone rang. She would turn on her television in order to fill up the emptiness of her room just so that it didn't feel so hollow with only her sitting in it.

Now she lay in her narrow bed, glad to finally be back to the structured messiness of college life. She wasn't any less alone here, but she didn't have the gaping emptiness of a silent house surrounding her. Instead she had other twenty-year-old girls running around, unpacking their belongings, dabbing on eye shadow, and sneaking beer into the dorms in preparation for their first night back on campus. They weren't freshmen anymore, so they weren't daunted by the prospect of living away from home, and they weren't sophomores either, so they could get all the usual things they thought were necessary to have a good time past the admittedly lax campus security without a hitch.

She stared up at her ceiling, listening to the pop music and loud squeals of the girls who would be her neighbors for the next nine or so months through the thin walls of the dorm. They must have had friends over, because the rooms in this dorm were what the housing department called, "single rooms," which meant that she didn't have a roommate, and neither did the girl next door. She had specifically put in a request for one of these rooms. She wanted to be alone, didn't want to go through the unnecessary awkwardness of living with someone she didn't know.

She had already unpacked everything, from her piles of books to the string of Christmas lights that she hung over the window. She turned her head to look at her alarm clock: 9 p.m. Twelve hours until her first class. She closed her eyes. She wasn't tired. She strained her ears to try to listen to the conversation her neighbors were having. Something about rabbit ears, the biggest orgasm someone had ever had, and the dumping of a boyfriend. She shook her head. This was pathetic.

She got up from her bed, running her hands through her short hair. She had to do something tonight. After the three plus months of self imposed solitary confinement that she had just suffered through, she had to go somewhere she could be around a lot of people. She slipped on her shoes and headed outside, not knowing exactly what it was she wanted.

It was already dark out and she could see the lights in the rooms of each floor of the buildings she passed. She walked by late comers dragging their suitcases of belongings out of their cars, dodged the random stray cats that roamed the campus at night, and watched as freshmen girls walked in tight groups, teetering on their high heels and giggling as they made their way to their first ever college party. She made her way towards the outskirts of the campus, where she knew the frat houses were. That's where the best parties would be: they would be loud and crowded, full of drunken people that had no interest in talking to her. Sure enough, as she rounded the corner she heard the first signs of what was sure to be a bash that would be broken up by disgruntled police by two in the morning.

She wandered onto the front lawn of the house closest to her. It was swarming with people grasping red plastic cups, laughing raucously, rubbing up against each other indiscreetly, hoping that it would result in something a little more satisfying. She sidestepped a couple that looked as though they were trying to eat each others' faces and climbed the steps into the house. It was even more crowded inside. People were crammed up against walls, making out with each other in various stages of undress, rap and dance music was blaring out of two large speakers that were jammed up against the kitchen wall, and there was a group of boys cheering on a girl that was stripping off her clothes while she danced on top of a table.

Was this what she had come here for? To watch guys and girls participate in a laughably skewered mating ritual just because they had nothing better to do?

Well, she didn't have anything better to do, either, now did she?

She pushed her way through the ring of admiring ring of boys, eliciting boos and jeers for momentarily blocking their view, and tripped into the kitchen. She spotted a counter that was covered in plastic cups overflowing with foamy beer. She grabbed two and gulped them down, one after the other, then seized another one and inched over toward the staircase. She stumbled up the stairs, holding her drink high above her head so that she wouldn't drop it, stepped over discarded clothes and the cigarette butts and cups that littered the floor. The frat boys were going to have one hell of a time cleaning all that shit up.

Finally she reached the top floor. It was quieter up here. She could still hear the pounding of the music and the murmuring buzz the voices of all the people made, but they were hushed, as if there was a layer of cotton separating her from them. There were no lights on up on this floor; the hallway was completely dark as she peered down it, with pale, slightly eerie moonlight bathing the wooden floor out of open doorways. She brought her cup to her lips, sipping the beer this time, letting the bitter cold taste of it slide down her throat and spread through her stomach. She nodded her head in appreciation: cheap beer was just what she needed right then to calm her down.

She walked into one of the rooms, curious to see what she would find. It was a bedroom. Squinting to see better, she was able to make out that the bed was large, taking up most of the space, that the walls were covered with posters of bikini clad girls draping themselves over cars and motorcycles, and that the floor was scattered with clothes and magazines. She walked over to the window and leaned out of it, looking down on the people milling about the front lawn. She shook her head. There was nothing for her here. She turned around, ready to return to the seclusion of her dorm room.

That was when she spotted him. He was standing in a darker corner of the room, leaning against an empty bookcase. He had his hands shoved in his pockets and was staring at her. In the darkness, all she could see was the glimmer of his eyes. He must have been standing there since she had walked in. They looked at the other for several seconds, both staying perfectly still, as if they were two predators, sizing the other up. She watched as he pushed himself from the bookcase, wondered if she should leave as he walked over to the side of the bed and crouched down, sitting with his legs crossed and his back resting against the edge of the mattress.

One beam of moonlight fell across him and she saw that he was wearing a plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves and a pair of ripped, faded jeans. He had a mop of shaggy, dirty blonde curls on his head and a multi colored plastic bracelet surrounding his left wrist; it looked like a toy. He was barefoot. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out, bringing it to his mouth. There was a flash of light that she immediately recognized as the lighting of a match, and he brought it to the end of the joint, cupping his hand in front of it. He drew in a deep breath and shook his hand, flicking the match away. He took the joint away from his mouth for a moment and blew out a string of smoke. He glanced over at her, his lips raised in a half smile, and held the joint out, offering it to her.

She bit down on her lip, thinking. She'd never smoked weed before. She supposed she had a mild curiosity about it, not because she was particularly interested in the act of smoking pot, but because it was just "one of those things you do when you're in college." There were so many of those things that she had skipped over, simply because she was always alone, never getting involved, never interacting. But here she was, an opportunity being offered to her. She cocked her head to the side, studying him. The guy looked harmless enough.

She slunk down to her knees next to him and reached out to take the joint. Her fingers brushed against his as she grasped it: they were warm, a little rough. She brought it to her mouth, making sure to curl her lips so that her spit wouldn't get on it, and inhaled. Her eyes immediately watered up in a protest against the sudden invasion of smoke in her lungs, and she started coughing. She heard the guy laugh quietly, and she wondered if he could tell it was her first time.

She took another puff and handed it back to him, squinting through her tears and the thin swirl of smoke. He took it from her, taking another drag. She brought her fist up to her mouth to try to cover her coughing, and he reached over and patted her back, which made her jump. She wasn't used to people touching her.

They continued that way, passing it between them until only a burning little tip was left, which he put out between two fingers and stowed away in his pocket. She wasn't coughing as much by the time they'd finished. She felt more relaxed than she had been in a long time, almost serene. It was almost as if she were somewhere in the back of her mind, looking out onto the situation she was in, like she had two minds, or two consciousness', at once. Is this what being high is like, she wondered to herself.

"Yeah," he answered.

She giggled. She hadn't realized that she'd said it out loud. She took in a deep breath, loving the way she could feel it flow throughout her body. She could feel her heart pumping away without any direction from her, could feel her chest rising and falling with breaths that came unconsciously. It dawned on her that her body was functioning without her telling it to. The thought made her feel uneasy. She spread her fingers out in front of her, keeping her hand at arms length as if it were some strange creature she had to keep at bay, then put it up close to her face, wiggling her fingers, examining them, completely oblivious to the goofy smile on her face. What could they do, she wondered, without her telling them to?

"Are you all right?" said the guy.

Of course she was all right. It was her hand that wasn't all right; it was the one that was gallivanting about town, doing whatever it pleased. Who the hell was this guy, anyway?

She moved to get up, but couldn't. Her legs had fallen asleep under her, and instead of standing up to march out of the room and find a lamp under which she could more closely inspect her traitorous hand, she almost toppled over straight onto her face. Her smart hands didn't wait for her brain to tell them to catch her. They reached out of their own accord and planted themselves against whatever they could find to keep her from falling: him. Or, more specifically, his chest, which was warm under his soft shirt. His hands came out to grasp her just under her arms.

"Hey, be careful, there."

His voice came out softly, his breath stroking her cheek, as if he didn't want to startle her. He had a lazy smile playing about his lips, as though he were amused by something. He had a beautiful smile. She could tell because her face was so close to his. It had a playfulness about it that made you believe that he could make you do things you'd never imagine you could do.

He had beautiful eyes, too. They were a deep green with flecks of hazel in them that seemed to shimmer in the beam of moonlight that shone across him, with lashes that were almost too long and thick to be on a boy. His lips looked soft and oh so tempting. She wondered what they would taste like. He was so close. All she would have to do was lean in a little closer...

The first kiss was just a barely there brush of her parted lips against his, a delicate caress of warm breath.

It had her pulling away slightly, contemplating. He had a mildly surprised look on his face, his thick eyebrows slightly raised, but he didn't back off, he didn't push her away. She liked the way it felt, having his hands on her like that, being so physically close to another person. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been able to feel the heat coming off of another person's body.

She leaned into him again, pressing her lips against his more firmly now, closing her eyes this time. The feel of his lips were supple under hers, at once yielding and coaxing. She wasn't startled when his grip on her became a little tighter, his hands digging into her flesh as he lifted her up and placed her on his lap. She settled onto him, letting her thighs spread a bit wider so that they could straddle his narrow hips more comfortably, so that she could press herself up against him better. Her hands moved from his shirt, traveling their way up his jaw and into his hair, her fingers losing themselves in his curls, her upper arms resting on his shoulders. She sucked down the moan of appreciation he let out when she parted her lips for him and let his tongue slip in to tease hers.

She'd never kissed a boy like this before. She savored the way her breasts pushed against the solidness of his chest, the way his hands grasped her about the waist, holding her to him, and sighed when he nibbled at her lower lip. She felt his fingers creep under her shirt to inch their way up, trailing lightly over her ribs, making goose bumps pop up all down her arms. They stopped at her breasts, cupping them through her bra. The pads of his thumbs found her nipples through the thin cotton and when he rubbed them roughly she pulled away, gasping her pleasure. His lips moved to the side of her mouth, across her jaw, down her neck, leaving pinpricks of seared flesh where he kissed her. She was hugging his head to her now, giving in to the luscious feeling of having someone want her.

You could do this tonight, a small voice in her head whispered. You could let yourself go, just this once. Nothing bad will happen. His hands were reaching behind her to unclasp her bra, now. She would let him do it; she wanted him to do –

"Yo, Casey. Where the fuck are you, man?"

The voice came out of nowhere, and it startled her so much that her heart skipped a beat. Her head snapped up so fast she practically cricked her neck. There was someone standing in the doorway, but she didn't have time to make out a face: she was too busy frantically pushing the guy away from her.

"Oh, sorry, man. I didn't know you were with a girl."

All previous thoughts fled from her mind as she scrambled up, tripping over her feet and catching herself on the edge of the bed.

"Hey, wait a second," said the guy. He was still sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed, completely ignoring the person in the doorway. He reached a hand up to catch her arm. She wrenched it away and swiveled around, darting towards the door. She pushed past the person standing there, hiding her face with her hand, almost toppling him over.

She was in full on panic mode now, embarrassment and anger at herself coursing through her as she tore down the steps, through the crowds of people, and across the campus. She ignored the elevator when she got into her dorm, choosing instead to sprint up the stairs. Finally she reached her floor.

She flew at her door, desperately searching her pockets to find her key, hoping against hope that no one would see her, and then finally stumbled into her room. She slammed her door shut behind her and leaned against it, sinking down to the floor on shaky legs. The indistinctly blithe feeling she had gotten from smoking was gone: she was cruelly lucid, which made the embarrassment of her situation all the more stinging.

What the hell had she been thinking? She brought her hands to her face, shaking her head. She'd always been so careful with other people, making sure not to get too close, not to step on their boundaries lest they crush hers. Yet here she was, cringing with mortification because she had almost had sex with some random boy. She took in a gulp of air, trying to regulate her breathing. If that guy hadn't walked in on them, she would probably be sprawled on the floor right then, fucking a total stranger. Ugh. That was not an appealing thought. She shook her head again and stood up, walked over to her dresser. She got out her pajamas and pulled them on, then climbed into her bed, burrowing under the covers.

She told herself that it must have been the pot. It had to be, because there was no other reason for how she had acted.

She was a decidedly singular person: she didn't want to have to deal with other people, no matter how brief any encounter would be. She didn't understand others, and she knew they didn't understand her. People confused her: she couldn't understand why people acted the way they did, why they lied to each other, why they hurt each other. Sometimes she would sit and watch the people around her, trying to grasp what it was about them that baffled her so. At times she felt that maybe other people were not as complicated and intricate as she thought them to be, that maybe there was no mystery to others at all. But she knew that wasn't true: it couldn't be, it was illogical. When someone met her, they didn't know anything about her. They didn't know that she was so anti social that she used to think she was a sociopath.

She didn't want to bother with people. Trying to get to know them was tiring, and, she felt, a waste of time because they always hid part of themselves from you, were always deceitful. She'd always felt that the ideal place to live would be in a big city, where she could be surrounded by people, but never have to talk to any of them. She'd chosen to come to this college because it was so big, she'd thought it would have been very much like living in a big city.

Which was why she didn't want to admit to herself that she had enjoyed kissing him. She didn't want to examine more closely why it had felt so good to have his hands on her breasts, why she had leaned into his touch and laced her fingers through his silky hair. She sighed, pulling the covers over her head. Obsessing over it would do no good. All she could do was put it behind her.

And so she rolled over, burying her face in her pillow, willing herself into a restless slumber.

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