The desks in my ancient civilizations class are weirdly separated. The distance between each of the forward facing desks makes casual conversation awkward and whispering impossible, both clustered but alone. I sit at the front to be close to the board and teacher so I only have two neighbours.
The boy to my left came for the quiz. I usually keep my books on his desk because I like the extra space. He was a few minutes late so they were already there. I don’t think he cares but I quickly grab them and blush. I don’t want him to know I thought he wouldn’t show up. No one else in our class talks with him. He isn’t the one who would start a conversation. His buzz cut blond hair reveals a distinct scar on his forehead you’d never notice if he didn’t keep his hair so short. His eyes are heavy like slate stones. My guess is people don’t approach him because of the three sharp metallic piercings in a horizontal line under his lip. I’ve never seen anyone else with a similar piercing. He talks about war a lot, and is only engaged in the classes about warfare. I think his dad is in the army. He doesn’t smile first but he always smiles back.
He probably wouldn’t want to be seen with me but he’s friendly when I say hello. I get nervous talking in class but Ms. Fin gave us fifteen minutes to study and the hum from other classmates quizzing each other is loud.
“Ready for the test?”
“I didn’t study.”
He wouldn’t have come if he didn’t want to pass.
“Ms. Fin gave us a few minutes to prepare for the quiz. Let’s ask each other questions.”
He’s amused by the question but doesn’t say no—or anything — just puts out his hand to take my sheet and ask me a question.
That’s the thing about people who are avoided or feared, they have always been nice to me. Probably because I am respectful. I guess they don’t get that a lot.
He doesn’t know any of the answers and doesn’t even have notes. I wonder if he was here that week. But I smile and show him the study page and my trick for remembering the dates. Ms. Fin was clear about what would be in the test and there isn’t a lot of material.
I wanted my smile to say I didn’t care if he was right, only that he tried. I don’t know if it did all that, or if it even could. He gets my next three questions correct and laughs at my enthusiasm. His eyes are warm and kind.
The teacher tells us to put away our books and take out our pencils. I give him a goofy thumbs up.
The paper is placed in front of me and all of the surrounding noises and people are blocked out. Ms. Fin is a fair teacher and all of the questions are exactly what she told us to study for. My study page closely resembles the test and the answers come naturally.
I’m the first to finish, but mom says you should never be the first to put in your test because you might have missed something. It’s better to wait and see how long the other students take to complete the test so you know if your completion time is reasonable. I double check my answers and then wait for the next person to finish. I haven’t missed any questions, but if I ever forgot about a back page or misunderstood an obvious question, I want to be able to tell her I didn’t rush through the test. I turn the page over and doodle eyes, my go-to time waster.
The eye I draw is beautiful with lush eyelashes and cat-eyeliner. I always keep part of the pupil and iris white while I shade around it because that’s what brings eyes to life. That’s what makes them sparkle.
They are nothing like my eyes.
It’s not that I don’t want to be pretty, I just don’t wear makeup or put a lot of time into my hair. It would be nice but I’m smart so I don’t need to be pretty. That’s what I say when I pass the makeup aisles or hear other girls talking about their morning routines. Even sincere compliments from friends on the days I wear mascara or eyeliner make me feel self-conscious. I think it’s because they know I put thought and effort into my appearance. That you care. People can’t hurt you if you don’t care.
I had lost myself in the drawing and look up to see our teacher watching me. She smiles and I notice several completed test papers in front of her. I get up and hand mine in too.
We are allowed to read after our quizzes are handed in but I sit at my empty desk and think about the people in this room—who they are and what they are hiding.
I wonder if they do the same. If they look around a room and see the insecurities through the apathy. Do they think about how actual effort, putting yourself out there and having people know you tried, makes you so vulnerable?
The boy with the piercings is one of the last to hand in his paper. I purposely avoid eye contact so he doesn’t know I am still thinking about him. The bell rings and we all leave to our next classes.
A tall boy in the halls is talking with his friends about how much the latest blockbuster sucks. A girl with a picture of the main actor in her locker turns their way and then closes the locker and walks away. I don’t think he even did it on purpose. Off the top of my head, I can list off a handful of movies, bands and actresses he doesn’t like. I’ve never had a conversation with him but he talks loudly with his friends in class and the hall. I wonder which ones he does like.
My next class, science, is close so I have a few minutes before the bell. The girl I share a table with is already sitting and listening to music. I wave and she takes out an earbud. We aren’t close but I’m compelled to make conversation now that she has stopped her song.
“What are you listening to?”
“It’s a new band. You probably haven’t heard of them.”
Does she say that because it’s easier to vocally like something no one else is aware of and can’t have an opinion on?
“Cool, I’ll check them out. What’s their name?”
She writes down the name and then passes me the earbud she took out of her ear and we sit connected with the cord staring ahead. The singer is saying something about death and light. I can never tell if I like a song the first time I hear it but I tell her I’ll check out more of their music when I go home. We don’t say anything for the rest of class but I still feel like the cord is between us, like we are a little more connected now. The silence is comfortable.
I put the paper with the band name in my pocket when the bell rings but we don’t say goodbye, just pack up our things and rush to our next classes.
The morning bell rings and Ms. Fin tells us she has finished marking our papers. I know I did well since the answers came easy and I don’t even wonder about my grade. I just want to know if he passed. I know it’s not my responsibility, but I’d still feel bad if he failed. Like I could have done more.
The worst part is that most of the time, you never find out. You can’t see what is happening in a person’s head. Maybe that’s why I like drawing eyes so much. They are the best way to tell what someone is actually thinking.
I put away my drawings and brush the hair out of my eyes. They are bare, as usual. I wonder if they notice. The desk beside me is empty, but the boy with the piercings walks in before she hands out the quizzes. I don’t say hi since class has already started. She hands us our papers first since we are at the front. He barely glances at his grade but then makes eye contact and tilts the paper towards me.
He got every question right.