(Edit: Mostly rewritten. Some details changed.)
"So tell me about this cutie in your class…" Angela said, biting into her somewhat soggy cucumber sandwich. We were sitting together in our school's cafeteria space, the bad lighting wreaking havoc on our complexions.
"Well. He's got brown hair, really dark, and it looks so sleek and soft. And his nose is so straight and sharp. And he's got those cheekbones, you know, that look like you could cut someone with them. And his big soft gorgeous eyes… He's the most beautiful guy I've ever seen, Ange, I'm not kidding."
"I think I know him," she said, looking thoughtful. "Not personally, but I've heard of him. Tobias, I heard his name was?"
"I have no idea," I said. "I just know he sits at the back of my Religions of China class. I'll find his name out somehow."
"Well I heard he's a real ice… king… you know, he's really cold. He shot down like every girl around."
"Well then maybe that gives me a chance!" I said. I sat a little taller in my chair. "Sweep him off his feet, you know. Save him from all those girls."
"Well, he also turned down Joshua. I heard."
"What? But Joshua… he's hot! He's so hot. And if Joshua's not good enough for him… how can I ever hope to go out with him?" Slumping over, I sighed. Life. Unfair.
Angela and I – we liked to talk like this. We liked to say who we'd go out with, who was just dying for us, who's hot, who's not, and the rest. But it was just idle chatter. We knew we were on the plainer end of the school beauty spectrum. Angela, with her rounded face and frizzy pale hair, and me with my lumpy nose and gangly body. You know those gay guys, who are obviously too matured to have that boyish beauty, but too clearly effeminate to be called 'manly' in any meaningful way? That's where I was stuck.
Would I ever get the guts to ask out Tobias? Probably not. And if I did, I'd just get shot down. So there you go.
"Well, that's enough of that," I said, breaking the momentary silence. "Did you see Jennifer's hair?"
"Yeah, oh my god. Why did she change it over winter break? It looks awful."
"Just the worst! Ugh! I wanted to say something to her, but I was like, I don't really know her, and that's the kind of thing where if you don't know the person it's so awkward. I would just come off looking like a total bitch."
"Paul, you are a total bitch."
"Yeah, but I don't want to seem like it," I laughed. "Hopefully one of her friends will say something."
"We can only pray."
"Shit! I've gotta get out of here, my class starts in less than five."
"Religions of China?"
"Yeah but – hey, don't make that face!"
"Say hello to Tobias for me," she said, batting her lashes and pouting her lips.
"Get bent!" I said smiling, scooting out of the chair. I slung my pack over my shoulder and gave Angela a little wave from behind as I left.
The Asian Studies department had its own building, all the way across campus. It wasn't far, but I had to hurry. I was walking as fast as I could. It made me look uptight, but every time I tried to stop looking so uptight I slowed down, so…
The walk that ran down the main campus area was lined with cedar trees, which were blocking the wind on this chilly and overcast day. The name of my school was Red Cedar University-College. To be honest I didn't know which came first, the trees or the name. For all I know they named the place after the trees that were conveniently located there.
The Asian Studies building was hideous. Excrementally disgusting. Maybe it looked alright when they built it in the sixties, but today it looks like congealed vomit. On the outside, anyways. I did nothing to conceal the shudder that passed through me on the way in.
My excitement was building. Just those two times I got to see Tobias, entering and leaving the classroom, were a big deal. I licked my lips and hurried a little more. The insides of the building were alright, covered with, you guessed it, red cedar, and having aged considerably better. My breath caught a little once the door to my classroom was in sight. And I was on time, too!
There he was, crowned in glory, sitting at the back of the class. The seats were on rising levels, like an auditorium, so he was at the highest place in the class. His eyes weren't staring at anything in particular, probably waiting in boredom for the class to begin. Every time I saw him I was shocked by how beautiful he was. It was like no memory could do him justice.
Since the professor was coming in right behind me, I had no time to gawk, and I scurried to one of the seats up front. I pulled out my notebook and prepared to pay attention. It was only the third class of the year but I was getting in the flow of things. When the lecture began I gave it my full mind. No time for cute boys when my grades were at stake.
"So," the professor began. "Your first real project of the year will be to present the core ideas and biographies of a major religious thinker. I don't want to waste any time on this, so just come up to the front and sign your name under one of the thirteen figures here…"
The class came to life, not wanting to get stuck with a lame guy (we're talking about you, Mencius.) I knew without even a second to think who I wanted to work on. Zhuangzhi. He was the whole reason I signed up for this class. Not that I know too much about him, but there was this cool thing where he dreamed he was a butterfly. When he woke up, he was like, am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?
So I was back in my seat in seconds. The professor came up to me and handed me a big sheaf of papers. "You wouldn't mind handing these out, since you're already done…"
"Yes sir," I sighed. I got up and started to hand out these papers. A quick look told me they were a rubric of criteria for how we'd be marked on the project. Some students took papers right out of my hand. It was kind of rude, actually.
But things started looking up when I got near the back of the classroom. Tobias. I get to hand a paper to him. Maybe our fingers will brush! Just as I was nearing him the professor started to read out the groups.
"Confucius: Nancy Brown, Jarminder Dahl, Betty Kwok. Zhuangzhi: Paul Bachinsky, Marlene Riopelle, Tobias MacMillan…"
I froze in my tracks, running through what he'd just read out in my head. Me, Paul, and him, Tobias, in the same group? I took a big gulp.
"Hey," I said when I handed him the paper. "I guess we're on the same project, together, you and me. I'm Paul." He just looked up and raised his eyebrows. I felt really awkward so I turned around.
Class was apparently over, so all the students came together to work out their projects. The girl, Marlene, who we supposedly had to work with, came up to us. Her straightened hair fell around her made-up face, her expression saying I'd rather be anywhere but here.
"Is anyone free tonight? We should probably get started ASAP. We've only got a week and a half to get this done," I said.
"But its Friday," Marlene said, disgusted. "I've got plans, obviously. Can we meet on Sunday?"
"I'm okay with that. Tobias?" I asked, successfully not stuttering over his name.
"Sure." His voice was like golden honey, a fruit salad of sonic delight. His ruddy tanned skin shone under the fluorescent lights.
I cleared my throat. "Let's meet in the school library. Ten?"
"On a Sunday morning? Are you stupid? Let's make it one," Marlene said.
"Fine," I grit my teeth, "one."
That settled, she was off, looking at her cell phone. Tobias stood up, getting ready to go off to whatever divine things he did with himself after class.
"So… what do you think of this project?" I asked him. He looked up at me like, are you serious?
I blushed. I couldn't help it. It was mostly embarrassment I think. Before I knew it he was gone.
I waited impatiently inside our school's library. I always arrive early to things. It's congenital. So here I was, at twenty to one, with nothing to do. I browsed through the books, but that was harsh lame. There wasn't anything interesting here. Every time I heard the automatic doors swish open I glanced up, disappointed when it wasn't Tobias.
Eventually though, a couple minutes before one, I was rewarded with the boy himself, striding unselfconsciously through those doors. I kind of swooned inside. I wish I could be as unselfconscious as him.
I waved at him, and went to sit at a table near the front. "This way we'll see when Marlene arrives," I said in appropriately hushed tones after greetings had been exchanged. He just nodded. He was so endearingly aloof. Then he scratched the back of his head. Not bashfully, more like, I have an itch that I don't care about scratching.
Confounding my plans of having him fall unrepentantly in love with me, he pulled out his phone and started to do something with it. I looked around and waited in uncomfortable silence.
Marlene finally showed up at ten after, yammering away on her cell. "Sorry guys," she said with crocodile sincerity, "you wouldn't believe the night I had last night. You know," she said, winking. "Well, you probably don't know, Paul."
"Sure I know," I grouched. "Anyways, let's get working. How are we going to present this?"
As we hashed out our plan for the project, I relished every time that Tobias spoke, because I got a socially acceptable chance to stare at his face. Even looking bored he looked divine. Even talking about bibliographies he sounded like the most riveting man alive.
"Okay, let's exchange numbers," Marlene said, taking out her cell phone, which seemed more like an extension of her body than anything else. I was judge-judge-judging her in my mind.
"Sure," Tobias said resignedly. Wait. I hadn't thought this through. I would be getting Tobias' number. Marlene, you genius, you saint. I scrabbled for my own phone, at the ready. I was going to get his number, infiltrate his heart, and plant myself there, slowly but surely.
Don't think I was naïve, though. The way Marlene looked at Tobias, I knew what she wanted. But every time she made some kind of flirtatious remark – "Yeah, I agree, Zhuangzhi was… seminal." – Tobias would make a non-committal noise, or not even give any response at all. It made me rejoice inside, even if I wasn't getting anything better from him.
But such a dream of an afternoon had to end. It ended remarkably quickly, actually. At two thirty, Marlene looked at the clock on the wall. "Shit! I was supposed to meet Jennifer a half-hour ago!"
"You were only planning on being here for an hour?" I accused, but was ignored. That's what I get for sounding like a nag, I guess.
"Bye guys, I'll see you around." She got up, eyes locked on her phone. She gave Tobias a shy smile, and inside I scoffed at her calculated seduction. Then she was gone.
So much the better; I'll have Tobias all to myself. Except that he was packing up to leave. "How about that girl," I said, rolling my eyes. No response. Ouch. I had to hurry to pack my stuff in order to walk out in step with him. "Are you going? I'm going too. Let's walk out together." I almost said let's go out together.
"So where you off to?" I asked non-chalantly.
"Cool, cool. Where's that?"
"Wow! How come you come all the way down here then? Why not go somewhere closer to home, like Cap?"
He just looked at me and raised his eyebrow again. Fuck. I was totally not infiltrating his heart.
"Um, I gotta go this way now. See you tomorrow, okay?"
"Yup," he said. As I walked away, I restrained my desire to sigh. When I got back home, I took a long hard look in the mirror. I felt really ugly. I pulled at my stringy, wiry hair. My eyes were asymmetrical, differently shaped. My mouth looked too low, my lips puffy without being full.
I found this incredibly depressing. I got out of my bathroom and walked down the unlit halls of my house. Lying on my fresh bedspread, I stared at the ceiling.
A/N: Zhuangzhi is sometimes Romanized as Chuang-Tsu. This is the first chapter of my edits for Tenderhearted. The original was written between February 2012 and May 2012. This first edited chapter was posted in late May 2012.