Now I was truly stunned. I couldn’t begin to imagine why they cared about any of this. I hadn’t even realized Leilani knew who Ocean was. This class was an elective, so there was flexibility in the roster—we weren’t all in the same grade; Leilani and Shauna, for example, were juniors. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess he felt bad.”
Shauna was about to ask me another question when Mr. Jordan clapped his hands together, hard, and called out a greeting.
“All right everyone, we’re switching things up today.” Mr. Jordan was dancing the cha-cha in front of the room. He was so weird. I laughed, and he stopped, caught my eye. He smiled and said, “Good to see you again, Shirin,” and people turned to stare at me.
I stopped laughing.
“So,” he said. He was speaking to the class again. “Are you guys ready for this?” He paused for just a second before he said, “New groups! Everyone stand up.”
The class groaned, loudly, and I agreed with the collective sentiment. I definitely didn’t want to meet any more new people. I hated meeting new people.
But I also understood that this was kind of the point.
So I sighed, resigned, as Mr. Jordan started sorting us into new clusters. I ended up across the room, sitting with three new girls, and we all avoided looking at each other for a few minutes.
I turned, startled.
Ocean was sitting, not next to me, exactly, but near me. In a different group. He was leaning back in his chair. He smiled, but his eyes looked wary, a little worried.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said.
He had a pencil behind his ear. I didn’t think people actually did that, but he currently had an actual pencil behind his ear. It was so cute. He was so cute.
“You dropped this,” he said, and held out a small, folded piece of paper.
I eyed the paper in his hand. I was pretty sure I hadn’t dropped anything, but then again, who knew. I took it from him, and, just like that, the worry in his eyes warmed into something else.
I felt my heart speed up.
Has anyone else figured out that you’re always listening to music in class? Are you listening to music right now? How do you listen to music all the time without failing all your classes? Why did you delete your AIM profile that first time we talked?
I have so many questions.
I looked back at him, surprised, and he smiled so hard he almost laughed. He looked very pleased with himself.
I shook my head, but I was smiling, too. And then I deliberately pulled the iPod out of my pocket and hit play.
When I turned back around in my seat, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
The three other girls in my cluster were now staring blankly at me, looking possibly more confused by my existence than I’d expected.
“Don’t forget to introduce yourselves,” Mr. Jordan bellowed. “Names are important!” And then he picked up the large mason jar that sat on his desk every day and said, “Today’s topic is”—he pulled a piece of paper out of the jar, read it—“the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! This one should be really good,” he said. “Hamas! Terrorism! Is Iran complicit? Talking points will be on the board! Have fun!”
I dropped my head onto my desk.
It will probably surprise no one to hear that I was terrible at ignoring Ocean.
I pretended, really hard, to appear uninterested in him, but that’s all it was. I was just really good at pretending. I’d denied myself permission to think about him, which somehow made it so that I thought about him all the time.
I noticed him too much now.
He seemed to be everywhere, suddenly. So much so that I started wondering if maybe I was wrong, if maybe it wasn’t mere coincidence that kept bringing us together. Maybe, instead, he’d always been there, and maybe I’d only just begun to see him. It was like when Navid bought that Nissan Sentra; before Navid got the car, I’d never, ever noticed one of them on the road before. Now I saw old Nissan Sentras everywhere.
This whole thing was stressing me out.
I felt nervous, even just sitting in the same class with him. Our work in bio had become more difficult than ever, simply because I was trying to dislike him and it wasn’t working; he was almost bionically likable. He had this really calming presence that always made me feel like, I don’t know, like I could let my guard down when I was with him.
Which, somehow, only made me more nervous.
I thought being quiet—speaking only when I absolutely had to—would help defuse whatever tension existed between us, but it only seemed to make things more intense. When we didn’t talk, some invisible lever was still winding a coil between our bodies. In some ways, my silence was more telling than anything else. It was a breathless sort of standoff.
I kept trying to break away, and I couldn’t.
Today—it was now Monday—I only made it through thirty minutes of ignoring Ocean in bio. I was tapping my pencil against a blank page in my notebook, avoiding the dead cat between us and instead trying to think of things to hate about him, when Ocean turned to me, apropos of nothing, and said,
“Hey, am I saying your name right?”
I was so surprised I sat up. Stared at him. “No,” I said.
“What? Are you serious?” He laughed, but he looked upset. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I shrugged. Turned back to my notebook. “No one ever says my name right.”
“Well, I’d like to,” he said. He touched my arm, and I looked up again. “How am I supposed to say it?”
He’d been pronouncing my name Shi-reen, which was better than most people; most people had been saying it in two hard syllables: Shir-in, which was very wrong. It was actually pronounced Shee-reen. I tried to explain this to him. I tried to tell him that he had to roll the r. That the whole thing was meant to be pronounced softly. Gently, even.
Ocean tried, several times, to say it correctly, and I was genuinely touched. A little amused.
“It sounds so pretty,” he said. “What does it mean?”
I laughed. I didn’t want to tell him, so I shook my head.
“What?” he said. His eyes widened. “Is it bad?”
“No.” I sighed. “It means sweet. I just think it’s funny. I think my parents were hoping for a different kind of kid.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean no one has ever accused me of being sweet.”
Ocean laughed. He shrugged, slowly. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess you’re not sweet exactly. But”—he hesitated; picked up his pencil, rolled it between his hands—“you’re, just, like—”
He stopped. Sighed. He wouldn’t look at me.
And I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I definitely wanted to know what he was thinking but I didn’t want him to know that I wanted to know what he was thinking, so I just sat there, waiting.
“You’re so strong,” he said finally. He was still staring at his pencil. “You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”
I didn’t know what I’d been hoping he’d say, exactly, but I was surprised. So surprised, in fact, that I was rendered, for a moment, speechless.
I so rarely felt strong. Mostly I felt scared.
When he finally looked up, I was already staring at him.
“I’m afraid of lots of things,” I whispered.
We’d just been looking at each other, hardly breathing, when suddenly the bell rang. I jumped up, feeling unexpectedly embarrassed, grabbed my things, and disappeared.
He texted me that night.
what are you afraid of? he wrote.
But I didn’t respond.
I walked into bio the next day, prepared to make the herculean effort to be an aloof, boring lab partner yet again, when the whole thing finally just fell apart. Collapsed.
Ocean ran into me.
I don’t know what happened, exactly. He’d sidestepped too fast—someone had been rushing between the lab tables with a sopping dead cat in their hands—and he’d slammed into me just as I was walking up. It was like something out of a movie.
His body was hard and soft and my hands flew up, found purchase around his back and he caught me, wrapped his arms around me, said, “Oh— Sorry—” but we were still pressed together when instinct forced my head up, surprised, and I tried to speak but instead my lips grazed his neck, and for one second I could breathe him in, and he let go, too fast, and I stumbled; he caught my hands, and I looked at him, his eyes wide, deep, scared, and I pulled back, broke the connection, reeling.