Jacob Mishmeier had not said goodbye to anyone since he said goodbye to his friends on the last day of high school. In the almost four years since, he had not spoken a single hello that warranted a complementary goodbye. Indeed, he hardly spoke to anyone at all.
In his first semester at university, a place that taught him the meaning of second-hand smoke and introduced him to basic bros before they were called that, he had attended a mandatory course in analytical thinking. Coming from a magnet school, Jacob looked forward to intellectual discourse. When a classmate and fellow math major forwarded a correct, thorough, and erudite answer during a discussion, those with sports scholarships and their devotees snickered. When Jacob glared at them, they snickered all the more. After that, Jacob looked over their heads, as if they weren’t there.
The next semester, Jacob had been carpooling to a concert with other members of the university chorus. Choir had been the center of his social life in high school, and he missed that.
One of the students in the car was boisterous and self-assured, raucous really, in retelling his adventures with alcohol the previous weekend. When he concluded with “I’m never drinking that much again!” and a laugh, it was clear he would in no way be holding himself to his resolution. Rain running down the windshield seemed to wash the braggart’s ghostly reflection from before Jacob’s eyes.
In his third semester, he had orbited a group of Christian students that met Wednesday nights to be Christian together. They danced in their pristine canvas Converses in a loose circle while singing songs. They prayed aloud and a lot. Then they socialized over apple juice and cookies.
One night, Jacob brought Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the bus ride to the meeting and back.
“Can one read that and still be a Christian?” a girl asked him. Jacob blinked and bounced his leg under the table. The leather of his new shoes squeaked in the uncomfortable silence.
“Why not?” He felt like he was missing a joke.
“Witchcraft. The Bible is clear on the subject.”
“But … it’s not practicing witchcraft,” he stammered. “It’s just telling a story. Jesus told lots of stories.”
The girl took a bite from her cookie and looked away.
“And the central message is the redemptive power of love.”
“I don’t follow your logic,” Jacob pleaded.
No one said goodbye to him that night, and Jacob didn’t return. The other members looked over his head when they passed him on campus. Their loss, he thought.
Dimly, Jacob understood he was a prick. He had been told as much before. But he believed that if the flotsam of campus life could find friends, there must be someone for him as well. The probability of being incompatible with everyone was vanishingly small.
Six semesters of straight A’s later, Jacob Mishmeier woke to his bare apartment walls, rolled off his futon, and picked clothes from a tiny pile in the corner of the apartment’s wall-length closet. Once dressed, he bid farewell to the stack of secondhand Pentiums he tinkered with when he wasn’t in class and walked to the bus stop.
In the front of the campus bus, where he always sat—the back had been for delinquents since elementary school—slippery, plastic benches lined the windows. Rapid deceleration made for embarrassingly sudden new acquaintances.
This was how he met a woman with long, straight, blond hair and a red T-shirt under blue overalls. Her glasses were thin, wire-framed, and her smooth face had been bent over The Odyssey one moment and Jacob’s head in her lap the next before he tumbled to the floor.
Jacob picked himself up and sat across from her. “Sorry. The book looked so interesting, I guess I couldn’t resist peeking. Are you reading it for a class?” he asked, for he never quite gave up hope of finding someone compatible.
The woman—Jacob wondered when “girl” ended, “woman” began, and where “young woman” was wedged between them—smiled at him. “Literature of the Ancient Greeks, but I wanted to reread it anyway.”
Jacob, who never reread books, countered that his fun reading over the summer had been War and Peace.
The woman smiled again and rolled her sea-green eyes. “There were two camps in my high school. The goths read The Metamorphosis, the prudes read War and Peace.” Jacob’s stomach dropped, and he worried he had just disqualified himself, but the woman waved as she disembarked.
Two days later, she was on the bus again, and Jacob learned her name was April. On the Tuesday following, they talked about movies, and on Thursday, he invited her to one.
It was a balmy spring evening, and Jacob stood tall outside the movie theater, scanning for April and wondering if it was safe to call this a date. He thought probably so. He had come dressed as he always dressed, in jeans and a T-shirt—this time, one with a Dilbert logo. His posture—not self-assured, simply aloof—made him invisible to the Friday night loiterers around the movie theater.
Jacob almost overlooked his date. April’s glasses were gone, benched for the evening in favor of contact lenses, and she wore a leather jacket, open over a plain white T-shirt. It felt like a betrayal, and he was surprised when she smiled up at him. He could barely focus on her face—the leather jacket consumed his attention.
“Hello,” he said and almost regretted it.
“Hi.” The monosyllable seemed to wink at Jacob and slip a hand into the crook of his arm.
The previews were over and American Beauty had begun when they took their seats, Jacob alert and engrossed, April sitting low with her feet on the back of the empty seat in front of her. He didn’t touch her—this was a first date; they barely knew each other—but April’s presence was tantalizing.
The bohemian coffee shop adjacent the theater was the obvious next step, the only other option open being the laundromat, so Jacob invited her, though he didn’t drink coffee anymore. When he was young, his sister had told him caffeine stunted growth. Jacob had been proud of his height—often the tallest in class—so he had promised God never to drink coffee again if he grew to his full height. He stopped believing in God two years ago and was long done growing, but a promise was a promise.
As they sat, Jacob wondered what people who wore leather jackets talked about. A long time ago, he had hoarded a list of questions to keep a conversation going, like a dragon hoards gold. He had been talking to a girl who had gone on at length about her cello. There was a lull as she ended an anecdote, and Jacob grabbed the first question to float by as he was washed down the conversational flood. “So, do you play an instrument?” After that, he learned to think of topical questions in the moment.
He settled on the obvious question. “What did you think of the movie?” Safe territory for the next ten to fifteen minutes, probably. “I liked how roses kept coming up everywhere. They were in the garden, on the protagonist’s desk at work, even in his sexual fantasies.” He was proud of himself for being that observant.
“The blood splattered on the kitchen wall at the end when he got shot looked like a bouquet of roses, too,” April encouraged him.
The conversational ball appeared to be in Jacob’s court again—too soon!—so he tried once more. “I’m not sure why he had to fall in love with his daughter’s best friend, though.”
“She was his unattainable object.”
And just like that the conversation was over. The leather jacket now hung nonchalantly about April’s shoulders like a mantle of power.
A gaunt student with a scruffy beard, black Metallica T-shirt, and leather jacket stopped at their table. He had a small, looped earring in one ear and brown hair with a natural curl, and a chain hung from his front left belt loop to where it disappeared in his back pocket. “Don’t I know you?” the man asked.
Jacob was certain he wasn’t being addressed. No one knew him.
With a smile, April looked him over before suggesting they might have seen each other at a Dungeons and Dragons game a few months ago. Yes, that was it, he was sure. A long, two-party discussion of D&D ensued.
“I have this friend,” the gaunt student said, “who’d had a character for years and swore by his goddess for protection. He was so cocksure about it that finally one game the other players offered him a bet: his goddess wouldn’t protect his character if he jumped off a cliff. They would give his goddess a million gold pieces if he won, and they would have the satisfaction of seeing his character dead if they won. Hey, am I bothering you?”
April shook her head. “No! Please, come sit.”
Jacob lifted the corners of his mouth into what he hoped was a congenial expression.
“I wouldn’t want to interrupt your date,” the gaunt man said, and Jacob couldn’t help but wonder again if this was a date. Or if it had been, but wasn’t anymore. He wondered if he even wanted it to be. April, at least, had not flinched at the word.
“Please go on.” She bounced in her seat like a two-year-old waiting for ice cream.
“Well, my friend took the bet,” the man said, “then marched around in a long-winded invocation of his goddess to protect him, complete with the inflections of a Southern Baptist preacher. Finally, the dungeon master picked up his 100-sided die and said, ‘You know if you lose, your character is dead, right?’ And he rolled.”
April was wordless, enraptured.
“The dungeon master’s eyes popped as the die stopped on 100. ‘Your character lands in a cart of hay at the bottom of the cliff and is unharmed.’ My friend crowed and yelled up from the hay wagon, ‘You owe my goddess one million gold pieces!’ ”
April laughed, the first time Jacob had heard her do that. “I wish I had been there. What are the chances?”
Jacob shrugged. “One in a hundred.”
“You should come sometime,” the gaunt man said to Jacob, then departed, though not at any signal from April.
“Sorry, but I love hearing people’s D&D stories,” April said.
Jacob produced a grunt of assent, not wishing to be jealous. Wishing to be the center of April’s world for the space of an hour. Wishing April weren’t wearing that leather jacket.
“Do you play?” she asked.
Jacob shook his head. He had never cottoned to the idea of just any old Joe inventing a story. Best leave storytelling to the professionals.
After checking for pitfalls, he tried a question from his hoard. “Do you have a roommate?” Fill the lull. Don’t let her ask anything else. How could Jacob follow Mr. D&D? How could Jacob follow her?
April’s lip curled. “We aren’t on the best terms after I released a cockroach into the apartment. It was just too cute to kill.”
Perhaps a post-movie trip to the laundromat might have been less absurd for April than it sounded in his own head.
“Do you have any hobbies?” she countered.
“I like to cook.” It slipped out. It was true: he had been cooking with recipes all year and could make food that tasted good, even if the presentation was lacking. But after admitting what he normally considered one of his best cards in dating poker, he felt how sadly domestic and mismatched it was to the person sitting before him. He wondered if he could redeem himself by inviting her to dinner at his apartment, but riding on the coattails of that thought was an image of her showing up with her cockroach.
Jacob stumbled through enough conversation to meet what he supposed to be the lower social limit on the length of a date: April had finished her coffee and he had finished his warm milk with honey. He thought about lower limits a lot. One young woman—a sophomore, so maybe between “girl” and “woman”—had dated him for eight days. He still wondered if that counted as a relationship.
They stood to part, and Jacob payed the bill. When he turned around, April had flung her leather jacket across one shoulder, holding it with a single finger by the collar. They walked out side by side, her non-jacketed shoulder brushing his arm. In the close darkness, she looked up into his face.
“Would you like to come to a Dungeons & Dragons game sometime?”
Would he? Would he have to buy a leather jacket for the occasion? Would it have to sport polished metal studs? What was the leather jacket equivalent of dressing up nice for a date?
“Sure, I guess we could do that sometime,” and it was clear he didn’t mean it.
She put her leather jacket on, and he told himself she was only getting cold. “Let me know, then. See you.” She walked away, turning once to wave at him. Jacob Mishmeier waved back but said nothing.
BIO: Andrew Rucker Jones is a former IT expert and American expatriate living in Germany with his Georgian wife and their three children. He quit his day job to become an author, and he has yet to regret it. You can read his blog at http://selfdefeatistnavelgazing.wordpress.com/.