Who was she? Not noticing, he'd rushed past her, until she'd spoken, softly, a second time and his half-aware brain made him turn and say, "What?"
"Are you all right?" She blushed. "Pardon me. My name is Ada. Wyatt and I found you when you were beaten. I hope there wasn't any," she spoke with pauses between the phrases, "I hope that you, that you weren't in the hospital very long. I hope you weren't badly hurt."
His hand went to the new scar on his face. He was glad none of his friends were around to hear this. He looked at her face. Fantastic. You didn't notice her, and then when you did, she looked like Joan of Arc or a medieval saint. She finally turned away.
"Wait!" he blurted. "I didn't hear you."
"I'm sorry to have bothered you." She resumed walking.
Stall. Stall for the right thing to say. "I'm glad you stopped me. I didn't know... This is very awkward. I'm not like that."
God. She didn't get it. He'd have to spell it out. "That's not the kind of situation... It was a fluke."
"Of course it was. I've never known such a thing to happen."
He wanted to carry her books and had to stop himself from asking. "Thank you. For helping me."
"Oh, it wasn't me. It was Wyatt. I wouldn't have known what to do."
"Ah. Look, I'm having a party this weekend. Why don't you and -- Wyatt? -- come?"
"Oh, he doesn't live here now. You're very kind to invite me, but I can't come alone."
"It's a potluck dinner. No big deal. Say you'll come."
"Oh, because... You can meet some people. Have a good time." Why was he walking half-sideways and pleading with this stranger?
"That's very generous, but no. I couldn't."
He followed her to class and sat next to her, talking, until she promised to come. He wrote his name and address and phone number, and the date and time of the party, on paper torn from a notebook, and watched her tuck it in the coin pocket of her jeans. That was the last he'd see of her, but he couldn't think of a way to get her phone number, and the professor was starting to lecture. He left.
She arrived ten minutes early Saturday, a disposable aluminum pie tin in her hands. Everyone else would be late, and he was glad. When he opened the door she had already turned away.
"Come in," he said. "No one's here yet."
"Excuse me. I must have misremembered the time."
"People usually come late."
"When should I come back?"
"No, no. Come in. Come in." He took the dish from her. "What's this?"
"A casada. I hope it's appropriate."
"I'm sure it is." He leaned toward her, smiling. "What's a casada?"
She turned back the foil. Underneath were beans and rice and meat and vegetables. "I had to cook with Bunsen burners in the lab. I've never done that. They probably wouldn't be too happy if they found out."
"How interesting. People usually bring things from the supermarket." Her face showed disappointment. She thought she'd done something wrong. "Thank you. You didn't have to make such an effort." He hoped no one else came. "Would you like to see the house?"
His place was a dump, a little rental east of Massachusetts Street, the wrong side of town, in a run-down block with neglected yards and the occasional damaged window held together with duct tape, or covered by cardboard. The street was made of paving bricks that had settled and tilted. None of the houses had garages, and most lacked driveways. All the cars were old, and many exhibited a history of accidents. But she was impressed that he had a house; if anyone else had said this, he would have assumed they were putting him on, but he believed this girl. When she saw the back yard she fell silent and stared, her hands clasped under her rib cage.
"You've let your garden go," she said.
"It isn't mine. I haven't been here long."
"I could make it live again," she said.
"I like to garden," she said, and hurried on, "Never mind. I don't have any tools."
"Come here." He led her to the basement. "See?" A hoe, a garden rake, a shovel, and several things he didn't know the names of leaned against the wall behind the furnace. "You could use these."
"But -- "
"I'll buy the plants," he said. "You do the gardening."
"But that wouldn't be fair. I have no way to repay you."
He thought for a moment. "Give me half the vegetables. I like fresh vegetables." He'd have to be careful what he ate in front of her; vegetables weren't part of his diet.
"And flowers?" she asked.
"Same deal. I'll pay, you work, we share."
"That's so kind of you." She started to talk about vegetables and gardening. Her voice grew softer, instead of louder, with her excitement, and he was having trouble understanding her. Someone called his name from the kitchen. "Excuse me," he said, and hurried upstairs.
Everyone seemed to arrive together. Within minutes his friends stood around the table, eating, talking, and drinking beer. The girl sat in an armchair, alone, a plate on her lap and a fork in her hand, but every time he headed toward her, someone grabbed his arm and insisted on talking to him. She disappeared without his noticing, before twenty minutes had passed. She was there, and a minute later she was gone. Her casada was untouched; no one wanted it. They were all eating the pizza and other junk food.
The party lasted late. He went to bed drunk and slept hard. Around ten in the morning the doorbell rang. He couldn't see; the porch was roofed, and hidden from his bedroom.
"Who is it?" he yelled.
He checked himself in the mirror -- his head had grown the usual weed patch overnight -- and plastered down his hair.
Her first words were, "Are you certain you want to do this? It's an expense for you."
"Sure. Fresh vegetables, flowers. What could be better?" Actually, she could. She would be much, much better.
She glanced at him, not straight on, and smiled when she saw that he was looking at her, and averted her eyes. She was transparent as air. Everything showed -- hesitation, anticipation, shyness. His envy was a pang in his solar plexus: she didn't know what it was to be on her guard, trying every moment of the day to conceal herself.
She stopped just inside the door, looking at the disorder: beer cans, sofa cushions on the floor, upended chairs. "What happened?"
"We played football."
"In your house?"
His head ached and his inability to think of a sharp retort gave him time to control his tongue. "Not too smart," he admitted. "Lucky there isn't much that can break." He grinned. "Besides, it was only touch, not tackle."
"Oh?" A momentary silence, while she seemed to ponder his meaning and decide not to ask what he'd meant by "touch" and "tackle". He was about to explain when she gestured to the back of the house and said, "May I?"
He watched her work. There had been no rain, the ground was hard, the sky cloudless, the sun too hot for spring. Rooting around in the dirt should have been as appealing as thumbscrews and a hair shirt -- at least, it looked that way to him. After a while he left the window and went to look for a misplaced economics textbook; when he found it, he tried to study, but kept looking out the window. She was completely intent on what she was doing.
He took her a glass of water around one p.m. He touched her arm. His finger left a white spot. "You're sunburned."
"Thank you. I always forget time when I'm gardening. I saw an aloe in your house. Do you mind if I use it?" She put the shovel and the hoe and the heavy rake next to the back door.
She explained what she was doing with the aloe, breaking off a piece and using the fluid to relieve the burn. "I should pay better attention. I've burned before, but I keep forgetting how much more sun there is here."
"Would you like something to eat?"
"No. I'll be going. I've imposed enough."
"Stay. That sunburn... " He gestured. "Stay and talk."
"I don't have anything to say. I'd planned to be at the library. I have a paper to write."
Too elusive. "Just a little while," he said. ""Everybody likes to talk about themselves, how they grew up."
"I'm not very interesting. My life was terribly dull. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Lawrence is like a big circus. There's always something going on, so many people, so much traffic, so many choices. Even going for walks overwhelms me." She waved her hands.
"Lawrence? This is a small town. It's boring. New York, L.A., London -- those are the interesting places."
"They'd probably be too much for me. Wyatt is living in Los Angeles."
"The one who helped me?"
"Is he your boyfriend?"
She shook her head. "That's not quite the right word. We never seem to have the right words for what people mean to us, do we?"
"Then what is he?"
"I can't explain. More than a boyfriend. Maybe what medieval people called a lover. Someone bound up with your life, the one you share everything with. The one who's part of your heart."
"Then why... Isn't L.A. too far away for that?"
"I tried to tell him that before he moved."
"So now he's there, and you're here." This sounded promising.
"Yes. I miss him."
He watched her. She was lost in some sort of dream; she seemed unaware of him. "Are you free tonight?" Why was he asking her this? "For dinner? Have you ever been to the Castle Tea Room? You'd like it."
"Oh, no. I couldn't do that. It wouldn't be right."
"I'm flattered, but why are you asking? I have nothing to give you. I'm involved with Wyatt."
"I'll be good," he said. "I'm not trying to take you away. Everyone can make friends, be social... "
"I don't think so. Why should I trust you?"
"Trust me? You don't?" She didn't answer. "You're different," he said.
"Yes." She looked past him and watched the clock on the kitchen stove for a few seconds. "Yes. I am different." And said, "I wish I weren't."
How did she do that -- show her insides on her face? Or maybe the question was, how did everyone else not do that? She was so natural. He wanted to bask in it. "Please," he said, a word he hadn't used in years.
"I'm sorry. I don't think it would be right. Besides... "
"I'm not good at being in this place. I'm a good student. But I don't know how to talk to people. I can't learn the secret rules. I don't understand half the things people say. They say something, and I say the wrong thing back to them, and they look puzzled. Sometimes they laugh, like they think I'm making a joke. There's only one person I want to talk to, and he's not here."
"Don't you have any friends?... I mean -- "
"This is becoming too personal. I'd better go." She turned away.
"What about the plants? Shouldn't we be looking for plants?"
She looked at the clock again, and out the back window at the garden, and then took a little booklet from her back pocket, flipped it open, and for a long moment inspected the writing inside.
They took his car, and he waited outside her dorm while she put on a hat, and a shirt that would cover her sunburned arms. They stopped at the drugstore and she bought sunblock. They stopped at various nurseries. She explained the virtues and shortcomings of various flowers and vegetables and made him choose, since the garden would be his. They finished at sunset and ate at a drive-in restaurant on Twenty-third street.
"We had dinner together after all," he said.
"Is this dinner? It tastes more like a greasy snack."
"Sure it's dinner. People go to drive-ins on dates."
"I have to learn these customs. You tricked me, didn't you?"
"Never." He put a hand over his heart, then changed the gesture and made the Boy Scout sign. "Scout's honor."
"Are you a Boy Scout?"
"No, but," how to explain? "I mean I mean what I said." Why did he sound like a dork every time he said anything to this girl? She wasn't running any games on him, and that threw his timing off. He couldn't adapt. But it probably didn't matter. She didn't seem to notice.
"Is this a date? Are we on a date?"
"What is a date? It's such a vague word."
"It's when a guy asks a girl to a movie or dinner or something. To go out and spend some time getting to know each other."
"Then why isn't this a date?"
"I'm not sure. I guess because it happened by accident. Didn't you and your boyfriend go on dates?"
"No. We studied and talked and made lo-- studied and talked." She looked at the hamburger wrapper in her lap. "I miss him," she said.
"Why did he go to L.A.?"
"He wants to be a rock and roll star."
"You know musicians lead very, how can I say this? Chaotic, that's the word. They lead chaotic lives. Odd hours. Alcohol and drugs. Women."
"I'd better go home." She opened the car door.
"Wait." He started the car. "I'll drive you."
When they pulled up to her dorm, she didn't get out. They sat without speaking until she asked, staring out her window, "Do you think that's true, about musicians?"
"No. I shouldn't have said it."
"He's not like that," she said, and opened the door and got out. "Please water the plants before you go to bed. The car was hot. They need water, they'll be dry." She paused. "You've been very generous. You've been very patient. Thank you."
"No. Thank you," he said.
"Thank you for being charming and wholesome and, well, for being charming and wholesome." What had come over him, that he couldn't stop talking like a thirteen-year-old trying to flatter a cute girl?
"You're joking." She closed the door and turned away.
In the morning the plants were gone from the porch
and he thought someone had stolen them, but when he looked in the
back yard they were in the soil, lined up in tidy rows, already a garden.
The tools were as neatly lined up, next to the back door.
She had arrived and departed while he slept unknowing.
He stood shirtless and barefoot in the yard, scratching his belly and thinking that
he'd forgotten to ask for her phone number and didn't even know her last name,
and he'd seen her three times and couldn't stop wondering about her.
She was odd, and elusive, and very pretty.
The question was how to attract her. No: it was how not to scare her away.
This girl required special handling. Thank God for the garden,
to keep her coming back, or she would disappear,
and the thought of her disappearance made him uneasy.