I was into it.
Thus far, the class had been pretty drama-free. He’d started out with softballs. We’d walked in on the second day of class to discover he’d divided all the desks into groups of four. We were supposed to start there, in a smaller group, before he’d change things up.
After thirty minutes of intense discussions, he came by our little cluster and asked us to recap what we’d talked about.
And then, he’d said—
“Great, great. So what are the names of everyone in your group?”
That was the thing that got me to take him seriously. Because wow, we’d been talking for a while and we’d never once asked to know each other’s names. I thought maybe this guy was smart. I thought maybe he would be different. I thought, hey, Mr. Jordan might actually know something.
But today was a new Monday. Time for a change.
I’d barely gotten to my seat when he shouted at me.
“Shirin and Travis,” he called, “come over here, please.”
I looked at him, confused, but he only waved me over. I dropped my backpack on the floor next to my chair and went, reluctantly, to the front of the class. I stared at my feet, at the wall. I was feeling nervous.
I hadn’t met Travis yet—he wasn’t one of the four people in my group—but Travis was everything television taught you a jock was supposed to look like. He was big, blond, and burly, and he was wearing a letterman jacket. He, too, I noticed, was looking around awkwardly.
Mr. Jordan was smiling.
“A new experiment,” he said to the class, clapping his hands together before he turned back to us. “All right, you two,” he said, turning our shoulders so that Travis and I were facing each other. “No squirming. I want you to look at each other’s faces.”
Someone kill me.
I looked at Travis only because I didn’t want to fail this class. Travis didn’t seem thrilled about staring at my face, either, and I felt bad for him. Neither one of us wanted to be doing whatever the hell my teacher was about to make us do.
“Keep looking,” Mr. Jordan said. “I want you two to see each other. Really, really see each other. Are you looking?”
I shot a hard glare at Mr. Jordan. I said nothing.
“Okay,” he said. He was smiling like a maniac. “Now, Travis,” he said, “I want you to tell me exactly what you think when you look at Shirin.”
And I lost feeling in my legs.
I felt suddenly faint and somehow still rooted to the ground. I felt panic and outrage—I felt betrayed—and I had no idea what to do. How could I justify turning to my teacher and telling him he was insane? How could I do that without getting into trouble?
Travis had gone bright red. He started sputtering.
“Be honest,” Mr. Jordan was saying. “Remember, honesty is everything. Without it, we can never move forward. We can never have productive discussions. So be honest. Tell me exactly what you think when you look at her face. First impressions. Off the cuff. Now, now.”
I’d gone numb. I was paralyzed by an impotence and embarrassment I didn’t know how to explain. I stood there, hating myself, while Travis fumbled for the words.
“I don’t know,” he said. He could barely look at me.
“Bullshit,” Mr. Jordan said, his eyes flashing. “That’s bullshit, Travis, and you know it. Now be honest.”
I was breathing too fast. I was staring at Travis, begging him with my eyes to just walk away, to leave me alone, but Travis was lost in his own panic. He couldn’t see mine.
“I—I don’t know,” he said again. “When I look at her I don’t see anything.”
“What?” Mr. Jordan again. He’d walked up to Travis, was studying him, hard. “What do you mean you don’t see anything?”
“I mean, I mean—” Travis sighed. His face had gone blotchy with redness. “I mean she doesn’t, like—I just don’t see her. It’s like she doesn’t exist for me. When I look at her I see nothing.”
Anger fled my body. I felt suddenly limp. Hollow. Tears pricked my eyes; I fought them back.
I heard Mr. Jordan’s vague, distorted sounds of victory. I heard him clap his hands together, excited. I saw him move in my direction, ostensibly to make me take a turn performing his stupid experiment and instead I just stared at him, my face numb.
And I walked away.
I grabbed my backpack from where I’d left it and moved, in what felt like slow motion, straight out the door. I felt blind and deaf at the same time, like I was moving through fog, and I realized then—as I realized every time something like this happened—that I was never as strong as I hoped to be.
I still cared too much. I was still so easily, pathetically, punctured.
I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew I had to go. Had to leave, had to get out of there before I cried in front of the class, cussed out Mr. Jordan, and got myself expelled.
I’d charged blindly out the door and down the hall and halfway across the school before I realized I wanted to go home. I wanted to clear my head; I wanted to get away from everything for a little while. So I cut across the quad and through the parking lot and was just about to step off campus when I felt someone grab my arm.
“Holy shit you walk fast—”
I spun around, stunned.
Ocean’s hand was on my arm, his eyes full of something like fear or concern and he said, “I’ve been calling your name this whole time. Didn’t you hear me?”
I looked around like I was losing my mind. How did this keep happening to me? What the hell was Ocean doing here?
“I’m sorry,” I said. I faltered. I realized he was still touching me and I took a sudden, nervous step backward. “I, um, I was kind of lost in my head.”
“Yeah, I figured,” he said, and sighed. “Mr. Jordan is a dick. What a complete asshole.”
My eyes went wide. I was now, somehow, even more confused. “How did you know about Mr. Jordan?”
Ocean stared at me. He looked like he wasn’t sure whether or not I was joking. “I’m in your class,” he said finally.
“Are you serious?” he said. “You didn’t know I was in your class?” He laughed, but it sounded sad. He shook his head. “Wow.”
I still couldn’t process this. It was too much—too much was happening all at once. “Did you just transfer in or something?” I asked. “Or have you always been in my class?”
Ocean looked stunned.
“Oh, wow, I’m really sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t, like, ignoring you. I just—I don’t really look at people most of the time.”
“Yeah,” he said, and laughed again. “I know.”
I raised my eyebrows.
And he sighed. “Hey, really, though—are you okay? I can’t believe he did that to you.”
“Yeah.” I looked away. “I feel kind of bad for Travis.”
Ocean made a sound of disbelief. “Travis will be fine.”
“So you’re okay? You don’t need me to go back in there and kick his ass?”
And I looked up, unable to contain my surprise. When had Ocean become the kind of guy willing to defend my honor? When had I leveled up to become the kind of person for whom he’d even offer? I barely talked to the guy, and even then, we’d never discussed much. Last week he’d hardly spoken to me in bio. I realized then that I didn’t know Ocean at all.
“I’m okay,” I said.
I mean, I wasn’t, but I didn’t know what else to say. I just really wanted to leave. And it only occurred to me that I’d said that last part out loud when he said—
“Good idea. Let’s get out of here.”
“What?” I accidentally laughed at him. “Are you serious?”
“You were about to cut class,” he said. “Weren’t you?”
“Well,” he said, and shrugged. “I’ll come with you.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“I know I don’t need to do that,” he said. “I just want to. Is that okay?”