Late morning. It was colder than normal, for this time of year and my hands were freezing. I regretted not bringing a jacket with me, but there wasn't time to go back to my room.
"Hurry," Audrey said, bumping me forward with her shoulder. She had been complaining all morning, and I was growing more anxious.
"I think our class is over here." She said, pointing to the brick building at the end of the gravel path. Bowed oak branches framed the large windows of the first floor. A thick layer of moss clung to the brick corners, darkening the brownish-red brick. A set of old pillars supported the overhang of carved lettering. The letters were engraved with gold, thin lines - Sage Hall.
"What do you mean, you think?" I asked sarcastically. I tilted my head towards her. "Aren't you supposed to know your way around here?"
She rolled her eyes and flipped her wavy chestnut hair over her shoulder with a flick of her wrist. She was less than amused.
"Well excuse me." She said, drawing out her vowels in perfect, dramatic fashion. "I've never taken a science class, so I've never been over to this side of campus."
I closed my umbrella as we walked under the front overhang. I clenched my hands nervously, my eyes set to the front of the building.
"I'm new. You're supposed to be my guide." I reminded her.
She laughed and loosened the knot on her raincoat. "As promised. School tour guides get paid by the hour, so I'll bill you at the end of the day."
"You're hilarious." I said, and opened the door in front of us. She let herself in, giving a smirk over her shoulder at me.
The inside of the building was as academic as the outside appeared. Marble tiles lined the entry way that opened into the main hall. The dim morning light from outside brightened the beige walls, which were covered with flyers and announcements for the first week of school. Students rushed in and out of the hallway, some with papers or books in their hands. I couldn't help but notice the glass case at the center of the room, filled with impressive portraits and awards from previous students and their accomplishments in labs and companies. The university had a reputation for its prestigious student body. The creator of the first language learning phone application, several researchers at the partner lab in Berlin, and a few nominees for international science prizes were just a few I spotted on the front row. Like a camera lens, my eyes refocused onto my reflection in the window glass.
And then there was, not altogether hopeless, but certainly not special - me. I brushed my hair out of my eyes and corrected my posture, trying to make myself more presentable. My face looked slim and tired. My usually long, dark hair was pinned carefully into a twist at the top of my head. My eyes barely looked green in this light, and I could see the beginning of some dark circles. It had been a long week of moving and unpacking, and I hadn't slept well the last few days.
"Did I mention you look like a librarian in that outfit?" Audrey said, noticing me looking at my reflection.
I frowned and straightened the sleeves on my shirt. I could always count on Audrey to make fun of me. I was not in the mood.
She laughed and straightened the collar on my navy button up. "I mean, a hot librarian."
I pushed her hand away and sighed. I was not amused. "Shut up."
"Oh my god, Jenna you're so sensitive," She said laughing. "Lets go, I think I know where the lecture room is."
I rolled my eyes and followed her as she led the way to our first class. We passed a few open doors before finding the room at the end of the hallway.
I couldn't help but feel out of place as we walked into the classroom. A few students conversed quietly among themselves in the front corner – clearly regulars to the science building. A neatly pressed blazer with satin trim, a leather shoulder bag from a French brand I did not recognize. A royal blue silk tie, loosened slightly. Every part of their appearance was fine-tuned. I noticed just a few girls in the room, grouped together in the front of the room. The student in the second row made brief eye contact with me, tucking her dark brown hair behind a pair of modest pearl earrings. Light red lipstick framed a set of perfect teeth. The girl next to her pointed to a message on her phone, flashing a designer rose gold watch with diamond detailing and a neat manicure. They were perfect. I felt like I was on the set of a movie.
"Table in the back, yeah?" Audrey said, nudging me.
I came back to my senses. Before I could respond, we walked up the small set of stairs to the back of the room. I set my bag next to her.
"This isn't going to be so bad." Audrey said, pulling out the chair for herself.
"I promise, it's much better to take it together. We can just copy each other's answers." She said half jokingly.
I exhaled and sat down slowly next to her. So much had happened in the last few weeks - it was unreal. Everything I owned was packed away in a dorm room across campus that I still couldn't find on a map. I've had cereal for every meal for the last three days. My socks were mismatched in a pile under my bed. All in all, the last few days were not going as smoothly as I had hoped.
It wasn't even a week ago that I was working my last shift at the cafe, tying the lace curtains up for the last time. It seemed like my first day at Weston was so far ahead of me. Now, I was here.
I could never imagine how nervous I would be walking through the halls this morning, trying to pretend that everything was normal. I closed my eyes and stuck my hand into my half open bag. I felt for the Weston acceptance letter with my embossed name on the letterhead, crinkled at the bottom of my bag, as if I needed some kind of proof. Like any second I would wake up to the sound of East Side traffic, back in my old bed, in my old neighborhood. Like any moment one of these students would find out I was not one of them. They would expose me. They would find out that I didn't belong here. I was an imposter. I'm sure I had made coffee for some of these people before over the years. Would they recognize me? They had to notice how out of place I looked with my old polka dot scrunchie and my shoulder bag covered in vintage concert pins. The back of my neck went hot.
"Yeah." I said and forced a smile. I sunk in my seat trying to push away the feeling of doubt that was beginning to creep in.
I looked to my friend in the seat next to me, feeling a moment of comfort. Audrey. Wavy brown hair, always pinned back behind her right ear. A pair of friendly hazel eyes, that crinkled when she was lost in thought. Always a bit overdressed for the occasion, but confident enough to pull it off. Today was no different - a pair of black patent leather heels, designer denim, and a flowy pastel blouse.
Audrey was my favorite customer. Double foam latte, with a pump of vanilla and cinnamon. Two summers ago, she came every day - set up on the back table with her new laptop, a stack of prep books, and her designer water bottle. I gave her free refills and when it was slow we watched reruns of old reality shows. She loved looking through my sketchbook full of window plants and half rendered hands, telling me I was the best artist she's ever seen. She made fun of everything I wore, and I couldn't stand how much she gossiped. I couldn't tell you why we got along so well. But after her summer exam was done, she kept coming back to visit, and soon we made it our mission to visit all of the thrift stores on the strip.
The rest was history.
I didn't have much time to reminisce. The professor walked in a few moments later, cutting through the classroom chatter by clearing her throat. She shut the door in silence and walked to the front of the room. The fine lines on her face and the tight bun on the back of her head radiated with intensity. She wore a plaid suit and carried a cup of what looked like tea in her left hand. She set down the mug quietly and glanced over the room of students in front of her.
Audrey sighed next to me, writing the date in curly letters at the top of her page. We waited for the professor to speak, expecting the worst.
"Hello everyone," the older woman said, looking over a long list of typed names on her clipboard. She seemed distracted, and bothered.
"This is beginning biology. Some of you are first years," she said, scanning the room and pushing up her large round glasses. "And some of you should have taken this in the first year."
Audrey looked at me from the corner of her eye and held back a guilty smile.
"Things I don't tolerate in my classroom - absence or being late." She said, and tapped her pencil on her clipboard, giving a pause for effect.
The timing could not have been more perfect as the doorknob clicked from the outside and was carefully opened. The door cracked, and a student walked in with hesitation. He couldn't help the look of surprise on his face when the entire classroom glanced up and stared at him. If this had been the set of a sitcom, this would have been the part with the audience laughter and applause. Instead there was complete silence as the student stood awkwardly at the door, letting it close behind him.
He shifted his weight, holding his book bag by one strap, and looked across the seats of the full lecture room. He finally made eye contact with the professor's wrinkled glare.
"Do not be late." She repeated, with emphasis on the last word and motioned for him to find a seat.
He hurried to the first available seat in the row in front of us, and did not move again, not even to take out his notebook.
"This course might be the most difficult one you take at Weston. It is a lot of material, and a lot of work. It is entirely up to you if you decide to stay in this class." She said. The silence in the room was impenetrable.
I looked over my shoulder at Audrey, hoping for a reassuring nod or a glance. I already had a bad feeling about this and we weren't even five minutes into the lecture. I was waiting for her to give me the 'let's get the hell out of here' signal, but her attention was elsewhere. Her eyes were locked ahead, at the latecomer in front of us who was now quietly opening his bag for a notebook. I groaned.
I wrote furiously trying to keep up with the professor's looping speech, but before I realized, my page was full of unorganized bullet points and run on sentences. I glanced at Audrey's notebook to see if she had made sense of this somehow - her page was empty as she stared longingly, chin in hand, at our new neighbor.
"Now that we have the course overview done with, we will choose our groups for the lab component of this course." She said, throwing her lecture notes on her opened folder and crossing her arms.
"Three to four people per group. I urge you not to choose friends." She said sternly, "It can be very distracting."
Audrey finally woke up from her spell of enchantment and looked my way. Her face lit up with excitement, and I knew she was up to something.
"Are we really going to stay in this class? This is crazy. I can't even keep up with her syllabus." My eyes helplessly darted back and forth across the page in front of me.
Her nose scrunched deviously.
"Chill out Jenna. It will be fine." She whispered back, motioning towards the seat in front of us. "We already have a partner."
She smiled in her throw caution to the wind kind of way. It was too late for Audrey. She was going down with this ship. Jack and Rose. Titanic style.
"Hey." Audrey leaned forward and tapped the late-comer's shoulder. It wasn't the smoothest move, but it got his attention. He looked up from his planner, as if waking from a trance.
"Uh. Hey." He said back, with a frown. He glanced at Amber and then at me. I hadn't noticed at first, but now I knew why Audrey was so distracted. He brushed the hair away from his eyes, resting his arm on the table and studied my face for a second. His smooth jawline and his deep green eyes, had a european look to them. He was exactly Audrey's type.
"Well," She said slyly, trying to get his attention again. "You should be in me and Jenna's group. Yeah?" She asked curiously.
He glanced at her sternly, and his brow furrowed as if he was bothered by the question. There was an awkward silence, and Audrey tapped her pencil nervously on the desk. She was not one for rejection and usually didn't take no for an answer.
"It looks like everyone else is paired up, so what do you say?" She said again, a bit more forcefully.
He sighed and finally he shrugged.
"I guess so." He said with a slight accent. His vowels seemed short and strangely inflected, but I couldn't tell where he was from. Audrey was thrilled. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes lit up as she took out her phone.
"Awesome. Here," She said, reaching over and handing him her phone. "Let me get your number so I can text you."
Their voices faded away and I looked around the room in a daze. A strange feeling swelled in my chest as I watched the light change from the window. The sun was gone now, and a few drops of rain speckled the glass outside. I was tired. I was confused. Everything felt distant for that second. I took a deep breath and rested my hands on the table. I closed my eyes for a moment trying to remember home. I could see the unevenly paved roads and painted old wood house fronts. The scent of coffee grounds and burned bread from the cafe, still fresh in my mind.
Why was I here? Something felt strange, but I didn't know what. I could still see the words at the bottom of my acceptance letter, burned in my mind. You are now part of the Weston family, in a regal looking script, and the short signature scrawled underneath. I had no idea what those words meant. I had no idea that they would change everything for me.