The Staring Contest

"Hey," the boy to your left whispers, leaning over so that his too-long hair falls in his eyes. "Can I borrow a pen?"

His eyes stare into yours, politely asking. You rescue a cheap ballpoint pen from the bag under your chair, clumsily brushing his fingertips as he takes it. He finishes writing a minute later, returns the pen, then turns to stare out the window. The mid-winter sunshine plays across his features, throwing them into sharp contrast. Dark long-lashed eyes, large triangular nose. "I'm Stephen, by the way." He doesn't trouble to keep his voice low. "I've seen you here, sometimes."

"Have you?" You're here at least once a day, but never before noticed him.

He doesn't reply, just remains half-smiling into the quiet.

A bell drones from some far-off part of the building. Stephen stands abruptly and you go your separate ways, but his backwards glances betray a secret (so you hope).

Within the week, you're looking forward to a once-a-day rendezvous in the library. The routine is always the same: a coy hello, then choosing matching chairs overlooking the snow-choked street, occasionally exchanging a few words but mostly not talking. Sideways glances resulting in unplanned smiles.

One day was spent sitting sadly alone. Without Stephen the time was wasted, spent on sad daydreams of sharing him with maybe prettier girls.

The bell drones suddenly, interrupting your thoughts as usual. You can't stand the idea of drowning in the fluorescent cafeteria, so you take off down the back staircase, letting yourself out into the dreary January.

Your hands find your pockets and you effortlessly blend into the crowded city sidewalk people, walking as quickly as you can to the coffee shop around the corner.

Once at the counter, you pause: considering, and the boy taking your order smiles reassuringly as you take your time. You finally make your choice, turn/eyes searching for an empty seat, and finding... Stephen.

He's sitting by the window, quietly reading, and drinking what appears to be hot black coffee. You cross the crowded floor to the mismatched chair beside him.

"Hey," he smiles, surprised. His eyes linger on yours much longer than usual, so intense you want to look away. And if you do? Or don't? Your last chance lost in a staring contest.

(2004)