They always used the last table along the back wall of the library, where they could talk. It was hidden behind the card catalogs, next to the emergency exit, with a small dusty window overlooking a loading dock. Wyatt liked to spread out his books and notebooks and papers in heaps, but Ada opened only what she was working on, with everything else neatly stacked.
Ada was silent, except for her cough, which she had had for a week, and which was getting worse.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
She folded a piece of paper, caught herself, and tried to smooth out the crease. "I saw you with someone. A girl with long black hair."
He had taken up with Kim again, because Ada tired him. There was no way to forget what had shaped him: the schoolyard fights, the girls who had tutored him in sex, and all the other things that contradicted what Ada believed and how Ada acted, and that he couldn't tell her. Kim was the wild girl who always reappeared, who lived in freedom, without conventions. She thought of her own pleasure, not of right and wrong. Ada learned. Kim explored. Wyatt had used up Kim's world; there had been less there than he'd expected. He wanted ways that needn't change, as Ada wouldn't change. She knew who she was, and she had what he wanted: simplicity, conviction, faithfulness. If he was with Kim for a moment, it was only out of habit, and for comfort. Now it would have to end.
"She was kissing you."
"She kisses all her friends." It was even true. "It doesn't mean anything." Less true.
"I think it did. Does. We shouldn't be studying together." She coughed again.
"You're involved with her." She used the word "involved" like a bit of new vocabulary in a foreign language: a word her listener would understand, but which she wasn't sure she'd used correctly. "You shouldn't be spending time with me."
"I'm not involved with her." How could he tell her that Kim didn't love him, she preferred him to other men? Even that would be saying too much.
"What would she say if she knew we spent so much time together?"
"That's ridiculous. I said I'm not involved with her." She wouldn't care about Ada, except as a curiosity.
"Why do you spend so much time with me? We can't be together. It's wrong, to spend time with someone else when you have a girlfriend."
"Girlfriend?" Sex buddy, more like. The whole thing with Kim was meaningless, though it had lasted, on and off, for three years.
"Yes. That kiss was... was a girlfriend kiss."
He threw his pencil on the table. "Jesus. It's not true. What can I say? What do you want me to do?"
"I don't want anything."
"Then what are you -- why this, I don't know, pressure?"
She closed her book and traced the title on the cover with her finger -- Irrational Man. "I feel things... I couldn't sleep last night. Maybe I'm jealous. It hurts." She gathered her things. "I have to go."
"But -- wait!"
She vanished before he could collect his own books and papers.
He stared out the window. When he'd met her, she had always been watching, and wary, like a forest animal that had strayed into a suburb and hidden in a hedge until night, when it could find its way home. He had seen her on campus, that expression on her face. But that wariness was gone when she was with him. She had said to him, "I feel like I'm always in the margin of the book, except with you. With you I'm in the text." He wrote a note to himself on the inside cover of a notebook: Honesty. Finesse. Silence. Patience.
He dumped Kim from the nearest pay phone. She would tolerate it -- he'd done it before, and she'd expect that they'd get together again, the way they always did, when the other woman was gone. Let her think it.
He knew all Ada's classes, and the next day he waited in the hallways, looking for her, tardy for his own. She didn't appear. The day after that he did the same, and still didn't see her. That evening he called.
"I thought you knew," Jackie said. "She's in the hospital. She has pneumonia."
He judged the time, just after dinner, was probably within visiting hours; he went without bothering to call and confirm. Her face was as white as the pillow, her hair that flaming color, the only color in the bed. Tubes in her nose were connected to a cannister of oxygen next to the bed, and a needle in her arm to an I.V. on a pole. One hand lay next to her on the covers, the other on her chest.
Ada opened her eyes. "Wyatt. What are you doing here?" She raised a hand, to stop his reply. "I'm glad you came... I can't breathe," she said. "I think I need more oxygen, please," she told the nurse.
The nurse adjusted a valve. "Better?"
She took several breaths through her nose. "Yes. Thank you."
Wyatt sat in the guest chair. He leaned forward and grasped her fingers.
She squeezed his hand. "I'm tired," she said, and closed her eyes and started to doze. She roused herself and said, "How rude of me." She glanced at him. "I shouldn't have said that, in the library. It wasn't fair. I was tired and ill -- "
"Forget it. Just get well."
She pressed his fingers between hers. "I don't have the energy to get well. That's the trouble with being ill. It's self-perpetuating." She smiled.
"Do you want your assignments? Your books?"
"Thank you. If it's not too much trouble. And please tell the professors why I'm not there?"
She fell asleep until the nurse returned and said, "Visiting hours are over." Wyatt stooped and kissed Ada on the forehead. Her skin felt cold under his lips. She touched his cheek with the fingertips of one hand, and thanked him for visiting.
"See you tomorrow," he said.
She was in the hospital a week. He attended her classes and took notes. She usually had a textbook open on her lap when he visited, though she couldn't stay awake and concentrate.
When she was released he borrowed a car and drove her to her dorm. For the first time he saw her room. Her half was like a monk's cell: desk, chair, bed, clock radio. Her closet door was open, and the clothes within were few and simple: no dresses, only jeans. There was a brick-and-board shelf with a couple of dozen books. The textbooks had the "used" sticker. A glass paperweight and an old teddy bear and a picture on the desk of a young Ada, a man and a woman, and a boy. That was all. The room was immaculate.
For a few days her attendance was sporadic, and she still had to spend hours each day in bed. He helped her with her assignments, brought her food, and returned some library books for her. He continued to attend as many of her classes as he could, in addition to his own. In the evening he dodged the hall monitors and helped Ada study from his notes. Jackie was their guard, always checking whether the coast was clear; she liked him because he was helping her friend.
When Ada resumed her normal schedule they studied together again, with greater intensity, to catch up. He taught her all his study tricks; she only had to be shown once. They spent every evening and the weekends studying at his apartment. He had to change some of his habits -- he'd always had an album on the stereo, but she found music distracting; she thought it mere noise. Often, she studied so late that she fell asleep over her books. Then she would wake and move to his sofa, intending to nap, and sleep until morning. Sometimes he made her take the bed, and slept on the sofa himself.
The little they talked he limited to safe subjects: classes, his band, weather, events on campus, and an occasional oblique question about how she was taking care of herself. There was time for risky topics like the library conversation later, though he couldn't see yet how much later "later" might have to be. Even if she didn't open up, at least he would see her every day. The signs were favorable. She was beginning to ask his advice about personal things.
One day in April she said, "I -- I'm not finding anything here. So many students want to have fun, not work. Sometimes I'm ashamed, because I look down on them, because they're so frivolous. I don't belong here. Maybe I should go home."
"Give it time. You are different, you come from a different place. You don't have to fit in. Different isn't worse, just different."
She looked dubious.
"Ada, stay. I think you want to."
"I don't know."
"Stay. You're a born student."
She glanced at his eyes, then shrugged and scratched her wrist.
"I would miss you," he said, "more than you can know."
She looked at him, her pupils expanding until her irises were two narrow rings of almost-black between the pupil and the white. Her stare was too strong. He looked away.
She appeared at his door that Saturday morning with a picnic hamper and no books. "I borrowed this," she said. "Look." She opened the hamper. Two settings: plates, bowls, cutlery, wineglasses. She had packed cheese, bread, and wine.
"Wine?" he asked. "You don't drink."
"Jackie gave it to me last night. I thought of you. You like wine, don't you?"
"Yes." It wasn't a good day for a picnic, the ground was damp from rain, but she had gone to the trouble of getting everything together and a picnic was a chance to break the study habit and talk. "We'll need something to sit on." He retrieved the wool blanket, and added his wallet and pen knife to his pockets.
She had a spot in mind, on the hill between the campanile and the football stadium, surrounded on three sides by bushes. They weren't the first to use the place. The grass was littered with cigarette butts and joints and a beer bottle. She gathered the litter in a pile. "Is this marijuana?" she asked, holding up a roach.
He nodded. "And that's beer." He pointed at the bottle. She laughed. He didn't point out the used condom half-hidden under one of the bushes.
She wore a green long-sleeved shirt with narrow red stripes widely spaced. The cuffs were rolled to her elbows, and the white of her arms was flawless. With Wyatt's help she spread the blanket, and even on that small task she concentrated as if nothing else mattered. She seemed usually to be focused outside herself, at what she was doing, her face expressionless. And then, as now, when she had finished (the blanket was flat), she would look at him with some unexpected expression -- anticipation, or a quizzical "What's next?", or a momentary smile. But today she surprised him, and looked down at the picnic basket, her face still abstracted.
She sat on the blanket. "I have to tell you something but I don't know how," she said.
"Just say it."
She took the food from the basket. "I don't know how I would have gotten through this semester without you, after I was ill. Or even if I hadn't been. I was completely lost in math. I never had much math. It wasn't just the studying. You taught me how everything works, the tests and the strategy -- I don't know how to describe it."
"The game? The setup?"
"Yes. You showed me the way. I can never repay you. My mother told me a friend would help. Told me to make one. She told me to ask questions when I didn't understand." She interrupted herself, glancing at him, then away: "Wait. That sounds wrong, as if... I wasn't trying to use you. It was different from that. More than that. You're my best friend. I always wanted a best friend." She looked into the distance, as if checking for the arrival of someone, then down into the picnic basket. "I... I don't know how to open the wine."
"It's okay," he said. "My knife has a corkscrew." She didn't look up from the basket and he couldn't see her face. He knew she thought she'd said too much, and he had no reassurance. Her ears had turned red. Clip-on earrings dangled from the lobes. This was the first time he'd seen her wear jewelry.
The cork broke into pieces, some of it falling into the wine. He poured.
She wrinkled her nose at the first sip. "It's strong. It's strange."
"It's an acquired taste," he said. "Most of the best things are."
"I'll try again."
"Don't knock it back," he said. "Take your time."
She sipped. "I've never tasted anything like this. It's so odd. And people actually enjoy it? They like the taste?"
She had a second glass while they talked and ate, and then a third, and he matched her, so she wouldn't consume the bottle by herself. She was drinking without paying attention to what she was doing. Her movements were rapid and largely without purpose. Her hands shook when she broke the bread.
"It's my birthday," she said. "Not today. Yesterday. April fifteenth."
"Happy nineteenth birthday."
"Seventeenth," she said. "I came here two years early."
"I wish you'd told me. I would have bought you a present."
"This is better, although I almost didn't -- I almost not did this." She grimaced.
"I thought... I thought you might not want to picnic with me. You have other people for, you know, the other things. We only study."
"I don't need anyone to study with. Studying is an excuse, an excuse to spend time with you."
She faced him and blinked, then opened the picnic basket and looked inside, and closed it again. "Wyatt, how do you know what you feel?"
"It's the closest thing to me."
She shook her head, so abbreviated it was little more than a tremor. "Then maybe there's something wrong with me. Maybe I'm different. I don't know what's happening to me. I don't know what to do, or how to act, or how to begin."
He shifted closer.
She rubbed her thumb along the knuckles of his hand, the one near her on the blanket, then rested her hand on top of his. "When you were seventeen, were you confused?"
"I still am. Confusion is good. You're not alive if you're not confused."
"There's no hope, then. I'll always feel this way."
"But -- "
"Never mind. I meant something else. I said it wrong." She paused. "At least you know what you... Why isn't anything simple?" She pressed her fingers to her temples. "This is what happens when I have the influenza. My head spins. Is it because of the wine?"
"I'd like to lie down."
On the walk back to his place she was stumbling and he hovered close to her, to make sure she didn't trip. When they arrived, she sent him out for aspirin.
The living room was empty when he returned. He called her name, and she answered from the bedroom. He stepped inside and turned on the light. She was in bed.
"Do you -- " He'd meant to ask whether she felt ill, but stopped when he saw her clothes on the chair, neatly folded, panties and bra partly visible under her shirt and jeans.
"Don't talk," she whispered. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done."
He closed the door and turned off the light. After a long moment of not moving, his mind blank, he thought that she would misinterpret his delay as lack of desire. She had nerved herself to what was, for her, the impossible offer, and he couldn't reject it. Everything between them was about to change, regardless of what he did. He sat on the edge of the bed, obliquely to her, and opened his mouth to speak, but nothing emerged. The English language had left him. He was next to the girl he had dreamed of for months, and he was unable to act, for the first time in his life.
"Please," she said.
He set the bottle of aspirin on the floor and untied his shoes.
She kissed inexpertly, nervously, and ran her hands over his shoulders and arms. His penis couldn't enter her fully. He pushed, and the hymen yielded, but not entirely. Not seeming to breathe, her eyes closed, her hands on his shoulder blades, she didn't move. She was almost dry, probably from fear, and he wanted to help her, but if he withdrew and used a hand, or his mouth, to ready her, he would embarrass her. Having begun, he had to keep going: she expected him to. When she tore, and he plunged in, she wailed. He pulled most of the way out, and looked, and saw her blood.
The sex was the worst he had ever had, even painful at first, from her tightness and lack of lubrication. He wondered what the age of consent was; surely seventeen was old enough -- but she was a young seventeen, and should have waited. He should have made her see the need to wait. But how could he have said "No" so she would understand that he meant "Not yet"? He finished as quickly as he could, and lay next to her.
He would hurt her now, without meaning to, without knowing how he was hurting her, or even that he was. Or he would know why -- how was he to explain when he went away? Or she would get pregnant. She was so inexperienced that all this was sure to go wrong. She pressed her face to his chest, and he wrapped an arm around her. The finality stunned him. They were on the way now, on a road without exits, no idea of their destination, and no map.
"This was a mistake," she mumbled.
"No it wasn't," he said. It was, but he thought she needed the lie.
"It's terrible, I can't stop thinking about you and her. The girl with black hair. Isn't she, aren't you -- ah," she gasped for a breath, and wept, her tears against his skin. "I never thought anything could hurt like this, it's a knife in my heart."
"I broke up with her that night we were studying. I broke up with her the same night."
"Don't you know? Haven't you figured this out? I didn't want her. I wanted you. All I think about is you, every minute."
She pressed her face against his chest, weeping again.
"Why are you still crying?"
"These are the other kind of tears," she sobbed.
Then he laughed, at first slowly, but the laughter grew until he couldn't breathe, only laugh. He wanted to explain, but there was no air. The guffaws were asphyxiating him. His lungs wouldn't operate, and if they had, the stitch in his side was too painful anyway.
She sat up, staring at him and clutching the sheet above her breasts,
tears still streaming from her eyes, her mouth agape.
With a great effort he reached for her hand and held it,
and lay roaring with relief and joy.