Sure enough, when I arrived at my usual spot for lunch the next day, a certain girl had already taken a seat, leaving a conspicuous gap next to her for me. Based on the fact that she wasn’t eating yet, I assumed she was waiting for me. Taking advantage of her thoughtfulness, I took a seat.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted.
Turning to me, she gave me a smile.
“Afternoon, Ret,” she returned the gesture.
“Ret?” I responded, confused.
“I’m sorry, do you mind if I call you that?” Iris asked, “I thought it sounded nice, and it’s easier to say than ‘Retter’.”
I shook my head. It was certainly a bit intimate for someone who’s only known me a couple of days, but I honestly didn’t have a problem with the name itself. In fact, in hindsight it was surprising that nobody had called me that before. After all, it seemed like a rather easy shortening of my name.
We both took our lunches out and began to eat. While I had brought my usual prepared sandwich and crackers, I could see a slightly more varied lunch in Iris’ bag. Something that especially stood out was the large concentration of green on the left side. It was quite unusual for someone our age to be so diligent about eating “healthy” food, which made the concentration of vegetables all the more impressive.
Of course, I had no intention of commenting on her choice of food. She had claimed yesterday that she came to this spot for some peace and quiet, and I didn’t want to take that away from her. Plus, it wasn’t as if I was much of a talker anyway. It was more natural for me to stay silent and simply “enjoy” my food as much as I could. However, even if I was willing to stay silent for the entire lunch period, as was the usual, she clearly was getting rather uncomfortable by the halfway point. I wasn’t sure if it was the silence or simply being in close proximity with me, but I figured it was a good idea to break my silence to figure it out.
“Is something on your mind?” I queried.
She turned to me, startled by the sudden break in the silence.
“No, don’t worry about it,” she replied, stuttering slightly.
“Are you sure?” I checked, “You seemed uncomfortable.”
She looked down.
“Well, we’re friends, right? It’s just, I don’t know anything about you. If I’m going to keep sitting with you every day, maybe it would be a good idea to get to know each other a little bit.”
I blinked, then chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
Not dropping my smirk, I gave my answer.
“You were the one who wanted to sit here, remember? I just happen to have been sitting here for much longer.”
However, she did bring up a good point, so I decided to indulge her anyway. After all, there wasn’t anything to lose by sharing a few personal details.
“Well, I’m Retter Hanson,” I continued before she could respond, “I’m a junior here at Northwest Creek High School. I grew up around here, so if there’s anything you need to know about Northwest Creek as a city, you can ask me. Not that I would know any good party locations, you’d have to go to someone else for that.”
Half expecting her to be ignoring me, I turned my head, only to see her completely focused on me.
“Was my boring introduction that interesting? I was simply rattling off things about me as fast as I could.”
She nodded emphatically, a smile coming to her face.
“Sorry, did I get a bit too excited?” she asked, a blush forming, “I just like learning about other people.”
“I thought you said you were quiet,” I responded.
“I am,” she confirmed, “I don’t like useless small talk that doesn’t have any impact. But I really like hearing new things about others, because it helps me learn more about myself in the process.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you asked a man who’s never met a woman before what it was like to be a woman, he wouldn’t think there was anything different. He would probably think all women are just like men, because he doesn’t have any solid counterexamples to draw from. However, when that man meets a woman for the first time, he doesn’t only think she’s different from him, but also what makes him different from her. It’s easy to take things for granted when you don’t have anything to compare them against.”
I nodded, the idea somewhat going over my head but not completely incomprehensible.
“Couldn’t you get the same out of books, though? Why do you need to talk to people to understand that?”
“You’re right, to a point,” she conceded, “But there’s a difference between reading about others, and experiencing others for yourself.”
“That sounds a bit dirty,” I commented.
“I know,” she said, looking forlorn, “I didn’t realize it until I said it.”
Once again, silence fell between us. Unlike before, however, it was a more uncomfortable silence, and I began to hope she would continue talking. It had been a long time since I had been that engaged in a conversation, as short as it was, and I didn’t want it to end. Eventually, I was the one who had enough of the silence.
“So you haven’t told me anything about yourself,” I inquired.
A pause followed, then a response.
“You’re right,” she admitted, “You know my name, but I haven’t told you anything about me.”
“If it’s difficult, don’t feel pressured to say anything.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s only fair considering I asked you first,” she conceded.
I turned to her, putting my full attention on her as she had on me.
“My name is Iris, as you know,” she began, “I’m also a junior here at Northwest Creek, but we only moved here for this school year. My dad grew up around here, though, so it’s not completely unusual. I live with him within walking distance of campus, so it’s not too painful to come here every day.”
I wanted to ask about her mother, but the fact that she hadn’t been brought up in the conversation indicated it might be a sour spot.
“Are you an only child?” I asked.
“My mother passed away when I was young, so I didn’t get the chance to have many siblings. Plus, Dad never remarried, so it was just us for a while.”
I cringed, realizing my clumsy failure to remain tactful.
“It seems like you’ve had a tough life,” I reasoned.
Iris put her hands behind her head, and relaxed her shoulders.
“I guess,” she agreed, “But I’ve never thought of it that way.”
I tilted my head, ready to ask what she meant, but she stood up before I had a chance to ask.
“It seems like we’re almost out of time,” Iris said, “We should head to class.”
I nodded, gathering my supplies and putting my backpack on. It was a bit disappointing that we didn’t get to finish the conversation we were having, but I needed to focus on class for the time being.
Thankfully, class managed to flow by rather smoothly. Nobody decided to pick a fight with me today, and considering my plans for the afternoon, I could not have been more grateful for that.
Once class was over, I exited the classroom before Cap could catch up to me and made my way directly toward the faculty offices. Of course, with how familiar I had become with this area of the building, I didn’t need to check the nameplates to find the office I was looking for. Upon reaching the door marked, ‘Mr. Samuel MacArthur’, I knocked and waited for a moment. Normally, I came here a couple of times a week, but circumstances had made it impossible for me to visit since the end of September, and considering it was almost two weeks into October, this was a visit I desperately needed.
“Come on in!” I heard a muffled voice permeate the door.
Figuring there was no reason to wait, I immediately stepped in. I was greeted with the face of the school’s European History professor, Samuel MacArthur.
“Welcome back, Retter,” Mr. MacArthur opened, “It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen you. How are you doing?”
With how long I’d known this man, I figured honesty was the best policy here.
“It’s been up and down since the last time we’ve talked,” I admitted, “I don’t think today was too bad, though.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he replied.
“Is Gibson feeling better?” I inquired, “He must have been feeling pretty bad if you had to take two weeks off to help him.”
“He’s much better, thanks for asking,” he replied, “Thankfully, it was just a stubborn fever, but with my wife out of town, I couldn’t spare a day away from home.”
“That’s right,” I remembered, “Your wife’s a business executive, right?”
“She’s at a conference in Europe right now, and that left me stuck at home with little Gibby. Retter, if you ever have children, remember to appreciate every moment you have with them when they’re healthy. It makes it much easier to help them when they’re sick.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I responded, not making eye contact.
“I don’t expect you to yet,” Mr. MacArthur laughed, “But one day, you’ll figure out what I mean. If lunch is any indication, you may very well be on your way there.”
“What do you mean?”
Mr. MacArthur gave me a smug grin.
“Do you think I didn’t see you sitting with Iris during lunch? I must say, she does seem like your type.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Mr. MacArthur, you know Iris?”
He nodded, a gleam in his eye.
“She’s in my morning class. Quite an intelligent young lady, consistently scoring in the top ten in the class on exams.”
“I thought Iris was a junior,” I clarified, “You mostly teach sophomores.”
“I’m teaching an elective class on Medieval architecture this term,” he explained, “She’s in that class.”
That made a lot more sense. Mr. MacArthur always had a soft spot for artwork, and in his eyes architecture was likely just another form of art that could be explained in a historical context.
“Smooth,” I muttered to myself.
“Did you say something?” he was prompted to ask.
I shook my head.
“Just impressed that you twisted your love of art into a class that you can teach at work. You’re as sly as ever.”
“I’ll have you know, Retter, that studying architecture is a valuable part of understanding all of history, in times of both war and peace. Even if it can be beautiful at times.”
I laughed, but he was right. In my time studying history, I had always paid attention to how everyday, innocuous details affected more conspicuous events. Whatever ulterior motives he may have had, the pitch likely didn’t take too long to get approved by the administration.
“You know, Retter?” his voice snapped me out of my thoughts.
Mr. MacArthur was grinning.
“You seem a bit more relaxed than usual,” he commented, “It’s a little unnerving to see you not all tightened up.”
“That’s just because I’m talking to you,” I retorted, “You know I’m a lot more comfortable around you than anyone else.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he clarified, “Even though you definitely talk more when you’re with me, you still have an air of tension around you that doesn’t let up. That air isn’t quite as thick as it normally is.”
“How can you tell?”
“I can’t put it into words. It’s just a feeling,” he struggled to explain.
I didn’t really see where he was coming from. From my perspective, today felt like any other day in my life. I contemplated the possibility that he was simply seeing things, but I didn’t want to make that assumption without evidence. In addition, Mr. MacArthur had always been quite perceptive where I was involved, so it wasn’t possible to take what he was saying off the table, even if I personally doubted his conclusions.
“I’ll think about that,” I replied halfheartedly, “I don’t feel any different, but maybe you’re onto something.”
With that said, I stood up, ready to go.
“Thank you, as always,” I stated, nodding.
He stood up as well, noticing my intent to leave.
“Of course, Retter,” he returned, “If you ever need anything at all, please let me know.”
“Say hi to Gibson for me,” I called as I closed the door behind me.
With that complete, I began walking toward the exit, ready to return home for the day. However, I ran into an unfortunate surprise on my way out.
I inwardly flinched, turning to the source of the voice. As expected, it was Cap again.
“Cap, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m busy again today.”
He rolled his eyes.
“That’s what you always say. Can’t you hear me out?”
I sigh. This was the last thing I wanted to deal with, and somehow I knew this wouldn’t end quite as easily as it usually did.
“I know you want to talk about before, but I’d rather not. It’s painful for me to think about it,” I pleaded, “I think we should just remain strangers.”
“Retter, why?” he asked in earnest, “Please give me a chance. I don’t mean to hurt you.”
“That’s what makes this different?” I responded sharply, then backtracked, “I’m sorry. But please see this from my point of view, Cap.”
Without waiting for his response, I walked away. He was an individual I really didn’t want anything to do with. To get my mind off it, I decided that I would spend the rest of today preparing for my next conversation with Iris. After all, there wasn’t much else in my life to look forward to anymore.