Copyright 2003 by Marc Robinson


Who was this person, frail and shy, asking him a question? She'd had to ask twice; he had brushed past, not noticing, the first time she'd spoken. He turned to face her.

"What was that?"

"Are you all right?" she asked, and blushed. "Pardon. I didn't introduce myself. 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, well, that you weren't in the hospital very long. I hope you weren't badly hurt."

His hand went to the scar on his chin. He was glad none of his friends were around to hear this. She finally turned away. Fantastic. You don't notice her, and then when you did, she looked like Joan of Arc or some medieval saint. "Wait. I was surprised. I didn't hear you at first."

"I'm sorry to have bothered you." She walked the other direction.

He reversed course and walked next to her. Stall, he thought, something will come to you. "I'm glad you stopped me. I wanted to thank you, but I didn't know who you were. Look, this is very awkward. I'm not really like that."

"Like what?"

God. She didn't get it. "That's not the kind of situation I've ever been in. It was a fluke."

"I'm certain it was. I've never heard of such a thing."

He wanted to carry her books and had to stop himself from asking. "Thank you. For helping me."

"Oh, it wasn't me. Wyatt took charge. I wouldn't have known what to do."

"Who's Wyatt?"

"My friend."

"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 just a potluck dinner. You'd be doing me a favor."


"I'd like to talk to you. I owe you. I promise you'll enjoy the party." Why was he doing this, walking sideways and pleading with this stranger?

"That's very kind, but no. Really. I couldn't."

He followed her all the way into her classroom and sat next to her, until she gave in and promised to come. He wrote his name and address and phone number, and the date and time of the party, on paper torn from his 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 showed up Saturday, right on time, a dish in her hands. She was first to arrive. Everyone else would be late. When he opened the door she had already turned away, as if to leave.

"Come in," he said. "No one's here yet."

"Excuse me. I must have misremembered the time."

"No. People usually come late."

"What time should I come back?"

"No, no. Somebody has to be first. I'm glad it's you." 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 and showed him the beans and rice and meat and vegetables. "I had to cook with Bunsen burners in the lab. I've never done that before. 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 showed. "Would you like to see the house?"

His place was a dump, a little rental east of Massachusetts Avenue; east Lawrence had always been the slums. The house was in a run-down block with neglected yards and the occasional window held together with duct tape, or covered with cardboard, or repaired with some other improvised solution. The street was made of paving bricks that had settled and tilted at angles to each other. The houses had no garages, and most had no driveway. All the cars on the street were old, and many showed a history of accidents. But she was impressed that he had a house. When she saw the back yard she fell silent and stared at it, her hands clasped at her waist.

"You've let your garden deteriorate," 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. Then she was embarrassed. She had no tools and no plants and couldn't spare the money for them, until he persuaded her to use the tools the owner had left in the basement, and to let him buy the plants. They went to the basement to look at the spade and rake and hoe and a few things he didn't know the names of, and she was standing next to the furnace, talking excitedly, when he heard someone call him from the top of the stairs.

She disappeared somehow, without his noticing, before the party was well underway. It lasted late, and he went to bed completely wasted and slept hard. Around ten the doorbell rang. Ada was there. He raised the window and yelled down for her to wait while he dressed. He checked himself in the mirror -- a bad case of bed-head -- and plastered down his hair.

She scarcely spoke, except to ask whether he was sure he wanted to do this, and to thank him. She glanced at him, not straight on, and smiled when she saw him looking at her, and averted her eyes. She had a transparency unlike anyone else. Everything showed -- hesitation, delight, uncertainty. It was all there, all plain and clear. She didn't even know that she was unaffected in a way no one else was, especially him. His envy was physical. She reminded him of his unceasing struggle to conceal himself.

She paused just inside, taken aback at the disorder: beer cans, sofa cushions strewn on the floor, upended chairs.

"What happened?"

"We played football for a while."

"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."

She didn't want to talk, only to get the spade and start work. The ground was hard, the sky cloudless, the sun hot. Rooting around in the dirt looked to him on par with thumbscrews and a hair shirt. He watched her off and on, from one window or another. She was completely intent on what she was doing. He took her a glass of cold water around one o'clock.

He touched her arm. His finger left a white spot. "I think you're getting sunburned."

"Thank you. I'd better stop. 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 showed him what to do with the aloe -- how to break off a piece and use 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."

He wanted her to stay and talk about herself and where she grew up, but she wouldn't. "You're too elusive," he said. "Everybody likes to talk about themselves. Don't you? I mean, you sound really interesting."

"No. My life was terribly boring. 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 dull. New York, L.A., London -- those are the interesting places."

"I think they'd be too much for me. Wyatt is living in Los Angeles."

"The one who helped me?"


"Is he your boyfriend?"

She shook her head. "Not quite the right word. I suppose that's what everyone would call him, though. We never seem to have the right words for what people mean to us, do we?"

"How can he be your boyfriend? Isn't L.A. too far?"

"I tried to tell him that."

"It's halfway across the country."

"Yes. I miss him."

"Look, I know you don't know me very well, but would you like to have dinner tonight? Have you ever been to the Castle Tea Room? I think you'd like it."

"Oh, no. I couldn't do that. It wouldn't be right."

"Why not?"

"I can't see anyone else. I can't do that. It's flattering of you to ask."

"I'm well behaved," he said. "I'll be a gentleman. I'm not trying to take you away from him. I just want to talk. You're interesting. You're different."

"Yes." She looked past him and watched the clock on the mantel for a few seconds. "Yes, I am different." And said, "I wish I weren't."

Her face was showing her insides again. How did she do that? Or maybe the question was, how did everyone else not do that? She seemed so natural. "Please," he said. Had he actually used that word?

"I'm sorry. I don't think it would be right. Besides..."

He waited.

"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 they say. I say the wrong things in response. There's only one person I can talk to, and he's not here."

"Don't you have any friends?"

"This is much too personal. I'd better go." She turned away.

"What about the plants? Shouldn't we be looking for plants?"

They took his car, and he waited outside the dorm while she put on a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. They stopped at the drugstore and she bought sunblock. They hit the various nurseries. She explained the virtues and drawbacks of various flowers and vegetables and asked his opinion about them all, since it would be his garden. They finished in early evening, and ate at a drive-in restaurant on 23rd street.

"We had dinner together after all," he said.

"Is this dinner? It seems 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 held up his fingers in a Boy Scout salute. "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 opened his mouth with this girl? Especially since she wasn't running any games on him.

"Is this a date? Are we on a date?"


"What is a date? It's such a vague word."

"It's simple. It's when a guy asks a girl to a movie or dinner."

"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 -- studied and talked." She looked at the hamburger wrapper in her lap. "I miss him," she said, and repeated, "I miss him."

"Why did he go to L.A.?"

"He wants to be a rock 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. Don't do that." 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 the passenger 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.

"When are you going to put the plants in?" he asked.

"In the morning, before the sun is up."

"I'll leave them on the porch."

"Please water them before you go to bed. Otherwise, they might have to struggle. The car was hot. Good night. Thank you. You've been very generous."

"No. Thank you," he said.


"I don't know. For being charming and wholesome and, well, for being charming and wholesome."

She looked astonished, then doubtful. Then she closed the door and turned away.

In the morning he looked out the window and saw that the plants were gone from the porch and he thought someone had stolen them, but when he looked in the back yard they had become a garden. She had arrived and departed without his knowing. The tools were lined up next to the back door, as they had been yesterday. He stood shirtless and barefoot in the yard, scratching himself and thinking that he'd forgotten to ask for her phone number and that he didn't know her last name, and that he'd seen her only -- what? three times? -- and now he couldn't stop thinking about her. The question was how to attract her. No, it was how not to scare her away. This girl was going to require a lot of patience. Thank God for the garden, to keep her coming back, or she would disappear.