But when the bus stops at Platt Falls, she sees him. He’s walking up alongside the bus toward the open door, head held rigidly forward by his brace. Soon the bus is rolling and Brian gingerly sits himself down in the seat next to Hanna. He doesn’t say anything at first, just stares forward at the seat in front of him. Hanna feels the hairs on her neck standing up, but she wants him to say something. His silence worries her.
“Hanna, right?” he says.
She nods. “And you’re Brian.”
“Yeah, so I ended up getting my dad to let me back into the house. Says I better get a fucking job real soon but it’s fine if I stay there for now. You know, I’m not that old. I know plenty of 24-year-olds that still stay with their parents from time to time.”
“Sure, yeah, that’s good. I’m glad to hear it.” Hanna thinks he must look older than he is because he smokes, or maybe just because he hasn’t had an easy life.
Brian rotates his shoulders so that he can look over at her. “Thanks,” he says. He gestures at the notebook in her lap, and she notices that he’s holding his lighter, just like before, but not flicking it as much this time. “Nice notebook. It seems like people hardly ever write by hand anymore. Always clacking on the keyboard.” He makes an exaggerated typing motion in front of him.
“Thanks,” Hanna says. “I write in this all the time.”
“I figured as much. Since you had it with you last time I saw you, too. Look,” he scratches his beard, “how would you like to grab a drink or something sometime?”
“What?” Hanna says. Her ears suddenly feel hot. “I’m nineteen, I mean. I can’t drink.”
“Oh, you seem older than that for some reason. Coffee then? I don’t mean like a date or anything. We could just talk, ya know? I’d like to talk to you more.”
Hanna looks down at her lap, running her fingernail along the spine of her notebook. “Thank you for asking, but I better not.”
“What do you mean, you better not?” He raises his eyebrows. “It’s just that—I don’t know.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” he smiles, “I don’t want to seem like some creep who tries to impress pretty girls with his all-day-pass.” He laughs. “It was silly. I’m sorry.”
Hanna realizes that Brian probably won’t talk to her anymore. He seems embarrassed, turning to face forward again and flicking his lighter. The bus is approaching a stop a few blocks away from the college, and she notices Brian reaching for his pack of cigarettes and nudging one out with a ragged thumbnail.
“Are you getting off at the next stop?” Hanna says.
“Yeah, I need to shop for some stuff up here. Get a bit of food to bring back to my folks’ house.” He speaks abruptly as if he’s not interested in Hanna anymore. He makes her nervous, but at least before he seemed to like her and care what she thought of him. She feels a weight in her throat and wishes she could rewind to before she said “no” and say “yes” to him instead.
The bus comes to a stop, brakes whistling, and Brian gets to his feet. He has the cigarette between his lips now, ready to light up. Standing just before the bus comes to a stop, he holds onto the seats for balance.
“Brian,” Hanna says.
He turns to face her. “Yeah? I gotta get off here.”
“I know, it’s just, why don’t we meet for coffee sometime?”
“Yeah, why don’t you meet me at the Java’s on campus this Friday? I’m done with classes around five. Does that work for you?”
“Sure, Hanna. I’ll see you there.” He smiles for a second, then he’s gone, stepping off the bus for his smoke.
She wonders for a minute if she’s out of her mind, wanting to meet with this stranger. It’s almost like she wants something bad to happen to herself, or maybe she’s just seeking a thrill—a sort of social skydiving. She watches Brian stride away from the bus, his frozen breaths mingling with cigarette smoke in the air behind him.
All Hanna can think about as her history class wraps up on Friday is her imminent meeting with Brian. If he remembers their plan, he’ll be waiting for her at the campus Java’s, ready to have a cup of coffee with her. Loading her things into her backpack, along with her notebook, she keeps wondering what she will say to him. She has no idea what he will want to talk about, but that’s what keeps her dwelling on their encounter—because based on her previous encounters with Brian, he will have something to talk about, and it will be important to him that Hanna listens. Her presence at Java’s will be meaningful, and she won’t have to work to make it so. Rather, it will come naturally. Will he call her pretty again? Will he ask to see what she’s been writing? These questions fill her mind to the brim and cause the end of class to approach rapidly.
Hanna makes her way toward Java’s. It’s five o’clock, and as usual, the halls of the college are thinned out by this time of the day. Java’s is located in an open area between two parallel hallways in the central building on campus. The floor and chest-height walls around the seating areas are a brick façade, and there are comfortable booth seats along the sides as well as round tables with steel-frame chairs in the middle of the café.
As Hanna approaches Java’s, she gets just enough of a view over one of the walls to see Brian sitting at one of the booths on the opposite side, neck brace firmly Velcroed. Her chest feels hot when she sees him. He actually came? She still hasn’t prepared for what she would do if Brian followed through on their meeting. But there he is, gaze set on a napkin in his hands as he tears the OK– hand of the Java’s logo into small fragments that drift to the tabletop in front of him. A few other people are sitting here and there, but the area is empty in comparison with the activity of the early afternoon.
She pictures herself walking up to him, at which point they would exchange greetings and smiles. They would walk the fake-brick ramp to the serving window and order coffees, standing shoulder to shoulder. At one point, their arms might brush against one another. He might offer to pay for hers, and then again, he might not. They’d sit back down across from one another while he would stare into her eyes with that particular intensity of his and talk to her; all the while, Regina Spektor would sing about the color blue over the speakers in the background. Brian’s own blue eyes would refuse to let Hanna’s gaze go—the rapids of his thoughts would prevent her from becoming complacent or disengaged.
But as she stands there beyond the perimeter of the coffee shop, she sees other groups of friends, couples, and individuals studying alone. They each have their reasons for being there. Brian, sitting there picking apart his napkin, is there for no reason at all other than to meet a girl he doesn’t even know. Hanna remembers the bus that she will probably miss if she doesn’t leave now, the meal that will be waiting for her at home, and also remembers that certain planets will never align because they orbit on different angles. She knows that, in reality, she will sit down across from Brian at a loss for words and he will launch into a stream of consciousness, with or without her. They may or may not even get coffee, they won’t stand shoulder to shoulder, he won’t ask her about herself or how her day was. She and Brian aren’t friends—maybe they could be, with enough effort, but their lives are largely different and nonintersecting.
Hanna turns from Java’s while glancing back over her shoulder at Brian, who doesn’t look up from the napkin he is tearing. Holding her notebook at her side, she makes her way to the sliding glass doors that lead out onto the sidewalk and eventually to the busstop. This time, she’s positive that the stranger with the neck brace won’t be on board.
A few weeks have gone by since Hanna last saw Brian in the coffee shop. She hasn’t spotted him on the bus or around the campus, and she is mostly relieved. He probably isn’t happy with her since she stood him up—then again, he might have found somebody new to talk to, to frighten with stories about his life.
Professor Laney is having trouble with the projector in the classroom. Hanna watches her frantically pressing keys on her laptop, trying to get her PowerPoint presentation to display.
“The technology issues at this school…” Professor Laney says. She sighs dramatically and says not to go anywhere—she’s going to get the computer guy to help out.
The room is dark except for the glow of the solid blue projection screen in the front of the room. People shift around restlessly at their desks and chat among themselves. The girl sitting next to Hanna just stares forward, tapping her pen on the three-ring binder in front of her. Hanna knows her name is Marcy from the roll call at the beginning of each class, but they’ve never spoken. Of all the tables in the room, Hanna and Marcy’s is the only one that isn’t contributing to the soft hum of conversation in the room.
“Hey,” Hanna says. “I’m impressed you actually take notes in here.” She gestures at Marcy’s binder. That was dumb, she thinks. Who starts a conversation like that? “I’m lazy and just download all those lame PowerPoints in order to study.”
Marcy turns toward Hanna, the blue glare reflecting off of her glasses suddenly vanishing to reveal a set of surprised eyes. For a moment, she looks at Hanna as if she had just popped into existence in the next seat over, but then her expression quickly changes to a smile.
“I know, right? These presentations always put me to sleep,” Marcy says, laughing. “Hey, you’re Hanna, right?”
“Yep, and you’re Marcy?”
“That’s me,” she says. “Nice to actually meet you.”
Professor Laney flurries back into the room and presses a button on the projector. The cover page of her PowerPoint appears on the screen, an image of a high, sharp cliff-face with a neatly-pruned field running right up to its edge. “What do you know,” Professor Laney says. “One push of a button and we’re back on track.”
Jim Ryan is a senior English (Creative Writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. He lives in Avon, New York and has previously published a poem and story in Gandy Dancer. He would love to one day drink tea with Neil Gaiman while discussing gods and good art.