A/N: This was inspired by a silly question asked at work. The idea took root and spiralled into a multi-chapter story. This has been uploaded as separate parts on my Tumblr but I've also added an epilogue to be exclusively on Fictionpress.
I first met her just as first semester began. Palms sweating, I glanced around the lecture hall. We had just been instructed to introduce ourselves to the people next to us. From what I could see, most had classmates they knew from high school. I, on the other hand, had been the only person in my grade to throw my lot into this particular course. No familiar faces loomed out at me. And all the others were already deep in conversation.
That was when she turned towards me with a beatific smile on her face. Her hazel eyes were filled with a mix of kindness and warmth as she took me in. Had it not been the very first day and the very first subject for the under, with the weight of scrutiny heavy on my shoulders, I might have offered an articulate response. Instead, a strange gurgling had my cheeks aflame when I realised that it had come from my throat. There went my first impression. I waited for her to turn away and condemn me as the 'strange one' with a look of bemusement, but she surprised me by offering a sympathetic ear.
"I've often been told that I take the words right out of someone's mouth," she whispered conspiratorially. "The first day is always the worst, isn't it? Don't worry. I won't tell anyone if you don't."
A nervous smile touched my lips. "You don't seem all that intimidated."
She grinned. "I'll have you know that I've always been good at power. But the truth of the matter is that I'd much rather be back home instead of facing this gauntlet of lectures and tutorials. Meeting new people is always a frightening experience."
"Jamie," I said, sticking out my hand.
She eyed it for a good half second before giving it a proper shake. "My parents have always been old fashioned. It's a little embarrassing, come to think of it, but you can call me Cassie. Although my full name is Cassandra."
"Glad to make your acquaintance. Cassandra."
"Now you're just making fun of me," she accused, though humour laced the words.
Before we could delve further into conversation, the lecturer was quick to catch our attention and the lesson resumed. I don't quite remember much of that first hour for Sociology and Anthropology. Although I was quick to take notes, my mind remained focused on the feel of Cassie's hand in mine and the sweet citrusy perfume she wore.
The next time I saw her, I had just taken shelter underneath the glass overhang of the beloved central business school as the autumnal rains pelted down. Like the intelligent creature I was, I had decided to wait until the middle of the week to purchase all the necessary textbooks – believing the lines would be shorter.
Cassie was with a group of what I assumed were her old classmates. The way they exchanged banter reminded me of all those movies where the popular girl was surrounded by simpering sycophants. And yet, I envied each and every one of them as they laughed at one of Cassie's jokes or gossiped about the things they had gleaned from the first week. It was irrational. But by the time she and her posse had disappeared from view, I was on the verge of turning green. Books in hand, I stepped out from my hiding spot with nary an umbrella and allowed myself to be drenched as I trudged towards the bus stop.
Needless to say, several days later I was sick in bed and trying to make sense of the words printed on the water damaged page. It was a miracle that it had not already turned into pulp during the deluge.
That would be the last time I ever forgot to bring something to stave off the inclement weather.
How long is eighty days? Break it down into hours and you get one thousand nine hundred and twenty. Minutes-wise, there's a whopping total of one hundred nineteen thousand two hundred. In those burgeoning and fleeting moments of romance, each and every single of those precious minutes felt like a millennium that passed in the blink of an eye. At least, that's how I saw the following twelve weeks as Cassie and I slowly became more comfortable in each other's company.
Often, I found myself counting down the seconds until I would see her in the lecture we shared. Afterwards, we would head out to the library lawn, going over the readings for class. When the fancy struck her, she would convince me into skipping my next class and we would head to the nearby beach. Despite the fact that winter was fast encroaching, we would still see tourists flocking to the golden sands.
"Did you see that?" I would ask, pointing to one of the hapless families trying to take a selfie as they were battered by high winds. "You can tell which ones are from the mainland. They're not typically dressed for a day out in the sun. Umbrellas, long sleeves – those are your hints that they've not been here long."
In those too-brief moments, we flirted and teased. For me, they were the highlights of each week and I savoured the time I could spend with Cassie. And when she slowly but surely introduced me to her circle of friends, I learned quickly to adapt. Some were friendly, eager to see a new face. Others could have done well with a lesson in manners.
And as exams loomed ever closer, we would occasionally go out to the Roundhouse or the heart of the city, drinking and clubbing into the early hours. It was a different experience. The idea of grinding away and hoping to catch the eye of someone who might be interested left a bad taste in my mouth, but by the time the deadlines were knocking on the door, I took to them like a fish to water.
Of course, my grades slid a bit but I was quick study when it came to revising. It isn't a simple brag to say that I aced most of my classes. That is, everything except for Sociology and Anthropology. Suffice it to say, I managed to scrape by with a passing mark but my overall standing took a significant hit. Cassie, on the other hand, fared much better. But she had a talent for constructing essays with surprising depth that seemed to elude me. When the marks came in, she was in the top ten percent of the class.
Thus, semester break began. And with it, the school holidays.
It was the perfect time to learn about each other's habit beyond the confines of university. We would organise dates to the local cinema and perhaps follow it up with a karaoke session. Sometimes we would go as a group with a mixture of her friends and mine. Other times, it would just be the two of us. Those were the moments I cherished. Being alone with Cassie and talking about anything that came to mind.
I swiftly learned that though she had enrolled into a humanities degree, her heart longed for the sciences. Cassie was someone that was not afraid of getting her hands dirty. Coding and circuits and trying to figure out how the world worked. Those were the topics that interested her. But when she had expressed her desire to pursue a degree in engineering, her parents had been adamant. They had quashed any and all dreams before they even had the opportunity to take flight. Cassie bristled as she recounted how her father had sat her down in the living room and told her explicitly that her career path was set in stone. It was expected that she take over the accounting for their family-run business. And with her older sister absconding overseas, it was she that was expected to carry on the legacy.
Yet despite her frustrations, Cassie was quick to shut down any encouragement from me. She would offer me a rueful grin and shake her head. "Thanks Jamie but it really doesn't matter what I do at uni. There're always online courses and I've found that it's actually quite fun trying to figure out all these things by myself. I mean, it can be difficult to understand why something has gone wrong but that's why we have Google, right?"
But all of our alone time quickly came to an end in July. I can't rightly say that my mother was negligent but she often relied on me to take care of Derrick, particularly on the days when he did not have any actual tutoring. Younger than me by four years, he stood a good twenty centimetres taller. I hated that. Having seen him swaddled in diapers (and even helped change a few) it simply seemed unfair that Derrick was all but looming over me in Year 10. I tried, once, to see if I might be able to break his kneecaps when the first signs of a growth spurt were underway but dad put a stopper to those plans.
Actually, that was a lie. And it goes to show what a poor taste I have in jokes. Derrick, the loyal brother, would find the humour in it but often my sense of funny has a tendency to put off most upstanding citizens. But Cassie had one just as black as my own. Or, at the very least, she was appreciative of the sarcasm.
Derrick and I, though, we're close. Perhaps the four year age gap worked in our favour. What fights we did have were short-lived. Mostly because he had a face that everyone could love. And we often bantered in the privacy of our shared study room. That, of course, didn't mean I wanted him around when I was with Cassie.
After our first 'date' with him playing the third wheel, Derrick was quick to pounce upon me for more details. "She seems nice."
"What?" I asked, looking up from my bowl of noodles.
"Cassandra. I like her. Not as much as that other girl who could draw those henna tattoos, of course. What happened to her by the way?"
"She moved interstate," I said. "I suppose being up in the Sunshine State is better than settling for physiotherapy. Alice was always ambitious and well, I was never one to put myself out there. The distance didn't help much either."
"That's a shame," said Derrick as he worked on his maths problems. Finally he set aside pencil and scientific calculator and stretched. Pushing aside his workbook, he finally asked the one question I had been dreading for days on end. "But come on Jamie, when are you going to make it Facebook official? I've seen the way you look at Cassandra and she seems interested as well."
Despite the fact that he had lost most of his baby fat and there was an inkling of facial hair, Derrick still managed to look like a lost puppy. His pleading brown eyes begged for an answer and though my heart could be as cold as ice, it could not resist the pull.
A resigned sigh escaped my lips. I had wrangled with the question for so long that I had pushed it to the back of my mind. Did it really matter whether or not we took the next step? But what if she only saw our relationship as merely platonic? For several weeks I had been caught in a pit of paralysis and unable to climb my way out of it. The idea of placing my heart on the line and waiting for it to be crushed was not something I could idly do. And yet, what if Cassie felt the same?
"This is Houston and we have a problem. Contact with Jamie has been lost. I repeat: contact with Jamie Zhang has been lost. Hello? Is there anyone still there?" Derrick always knew the best way to break my train of thought. I tossed a mean glare his way as he merely shrugged. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine."
"I do. It's just…I'm scared. What if Cassie sees me as just a friend?"
Derrick slung an arm around my shoulder. "Chin up, Jamie. There's plenty of other fish in the sea if the worst happens. But you know what mum keeps saying about opportunities. You'll miss all the ones you don't take. So go out there!"
It was cheesy and clichéd. But Derrick always knew what to say. For a fifteen year old going through puberty, he could be surprisingly worldly even if he was still a tad obsessed with shonen anime that included the likes of Attack on Titan and One-Punch Man, often playacting scenes in our backyard. I suppose it is true: no-one is perfect.
Heeding the advice from my brother, I asked Cassie out to talk on the day just before uni was to resume. She was eager to watch the latest winter blockbusters that had hit the silver screens. Once the movie was over, we strolled down through the bustling city streets, avoiding the main road. Years had gone by but the light rail was still under construction. Rumour had it that it would go on for ten or more years, diverting traffic from the centre of town. Finally, we found ourselves in the Botanic Gardens, overlooking the harbour.
It was not how I imagined where the confession would be, but surrounded by all the different species of flora that were still flourishing despite the chill helped push me over the edge.
Taking a deep breath, I turned towards Cassie. "I like you," I said. Terror and a small spark of hope warred in my chest. This was now or never. Do or die. I had made myself vulnerable and now my nerves were all jumbled together as I waited patiently for her reply.
"I like you too," she replied but it was clear that my words had her puzzled. "What brought this on, Jamie? Did you think I was going to leave after all the things we did last semester? Don't forget, we actually have a lecture and a tutorial together."
It was enough to confirm the feelings I had. Whether it was madness that gripped me or something else, I could not be quite sure. Yet, despite all the barriers I had put up to stop myself from giving into my base impulses, I leaned forward and captured her lips with mine.