The first time I saw Ben Ruck across the quad, my eyes swept right over him. Just another college kid heading for class. I didn’t even remember his face until he showed up next to me in Intro to Microeconomics, looking like death warmed over. The too-bright fluorescent lights of the room washed his skin out to a sallow bronze, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in two days, wearing sweatpants under a button-down shirt like he’d tried to dress respectably but had given up halfway through. I empathized. His hair puffed around his head in loose ringlets, one side a little flatter than the other. He clutched a Red Bull in one hand and something that smelled strongly of espresso in the other. He abandoned his backpack on the floor almost as soon as he reached the seat, and I watched him take a gulp out of each as he sat down in the hard, plastic chair. After that, he started alternating slugs of the two, hunching over the desk, and I almost gagged in sympathy.
He glanced over, and his face contorted into an expression that I graciously called a grimace. It looked like what I imagined utter regret would be if expressed facially. I grimaced in solidarity and asked quietly, “Late night?”
He swallowed another slug of Red Bull. “More like early morning,” he said. The bags under his eyes were dark like bruises. His hands started to shake. He shuddered. “God-damn, I hate this shit.”
By the way he was eyeing the Red Bull, I guessed he wasn’t talking about microeconomics. Although the glare he sent at the whiteboard, where “Introduction to Microeconomics, Fall 2017” was written in block print, made me wonder if it wasn’t a bit of both. I sympathized. Prerequisites sucked. “It looks like the caffeine’s working, at least?” I offered, pointing at his shaking hand. As if he hadn’t even noticed, the guy looked down, flexing his hands like he’d never seen them before. I stared, too. I’d never seen a guy look this strung out on the second day of class. The silence dragged on. I glanced up and realized the professor was late again. I looked back at him. “So…” I said slowly, making him glance up from his inspection of, apparently, how his knuckles worked. “Who’re you? I’m Kai. Um, Kai Jackson.”
“Kai?” the guy asked. “Weird name, man. I mean. Um. Sorry.” How much caffeine had this guy had so far? He kept talking. “I’m Ben. Ben Ruck, yeah, not Ben Rock, you know, Ruck like a rucksack. You wouldn’t believe how many people–”
I cut him off, mostly because the professor had finally walked in, five minutes late, juggling two folders, a textbook, and a coffee cup, but also because I could hear the guy – Ben – working his way up to a rant and I wasn’t going to subject myself to that at eight-thirty in the morning.
“Ben, right,” I said, “Nice to meet you.” On reflex, I shook his hand. My hand engulfed his, and I felt the tremors shaking his hands stop for a few seconds.
He stopped, staring at where I’d just let go of his hand. “Um, yeah,” he said quietly. His blush made his freckles stand out. I found myself staring and snapped out of it, focusing on the professor as she started class. I couldn’t make myself pay attention to what she was writing, though, because my thoughts kept going back to the way Ben’s blush had brought life to his sallow cheeks, and the way his freckles covered his face. Maybe I was more tired than I thought I was, I figured. I couldn’t let myself get a crush on a guy who couldn’t even manage to stay on a healthy sleep schedule for a week. I’d be doomed.
No matter how much I told myself to get over my little crush, I still found myself sitting next to Ben every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and learning about him and his tics. Like how he only bought Red Bull when he was running on less than three hours of sleep, how he chronically forgot to eat breakfast, and how he worked full-time at a public library near campus to help fund tuition. Nearly every time Ben sat down, he’d start talking and slowly get quieter as, I assumed, the caffeine hit from the coffee he was gripping faded. I let him babble, because his face got all happy when he talked about something he really liked, even if I had no idea what exactly hacking had to do with a Jeep or an RFID-whatever. Seeing Ben smiling made my stomach flip over, and I always ended up smiling back like a dork. I was probably the most obvious dude with a crush that had ever graced campus.
Sometimes he’d be a little less hopped up on caffeine and ask me questions about myself, saying that he really didn’t mean to overshare, but that apparently caffeine made his brain-to- mouth filter disengage. He’d watch me as I tried to answer. Sometimes I’d look up and see his eyes tracing my face or, once, my arms where I’d crossed them over my chest.
A couple of weeks after we first got to know each other, he asked, “What’s up with the friendship bracelet?” He pointed at my bracelet, green, gold, and blue strings woven like, well, a friendship bracelet, and tied around my wrist. I never took it off.
“It’s…” I searched for words to make it sound less like a cliché. “In high school, my junior year AP English teacher gave them to people as good luck.” Ben cocked his head, eyes on mine. “Turns out, she was, uh, she had cancer and didn’t tell us. Makes sense, you know, we weren’t entitled to that information and all. But, yeah. She, uh, she passed, I guess, last year. And I just…wear her bracelet to remember her. I dunno.” I shrugged, staring at the bracelet. I didn’t know how to say that she’d been the first one to tell me that I had potential as a writer and the first one to encourage me. That she’d been the first one I’d come out to, three years ago. I looked back at Ben, who was staring down at the table, face unreadable.
Ben nodded, almost to himself. He looked at the bracelet and back at me. “You two were close?” he asked quietly.
I nodded and huffed a laugh. “Yeah. We were.” I figured, I was already this deep into the story, I could tell a bit more. Not everything. “She was the one to, I dunno, tell me that I could write well. It’s why I’m going to be an English major now.”
Ben smiled a little. “I get that. Sorry for your loss, man.” I shrugged. Two years wasn’t long, but I remembered that I couldn’t email her to ask for revision advice anymore almost every day. He continued, “But if you’re going to be an English major, the hell are you doing in microecon?”
“Prereq,” I said, and Ben snorted a laugh before his face fell again. I didn’t know what he was thinking about, but I felt bad for bringing the mood down. Ben had probably been expecting some fun story about dudes being bros and exchanging brotherly friendship bracelets. Instead he got inspirational dead teachers and cancer.
I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Ben reached over and grabbed my shoulder, holding it for a couple of moments that felt like forever. I froze, just a little, and didn’t let myself lean into the point of contact or look at him in shock. What was he doing? Was he trying to comfort me? That had to be a stretch. Why would he think I needed comfort? Why was his hand so warm?
He let go when the professor walked in, and I missed the weight of his hand. I figured at that point that keeping my crush subdued was a lost cause. Something about Ben, whether it was the quiet mornings where he listened or the talkative ones where he told the stories, drew me in.
A week later, I finally worked up the nerve to make a move. Granted, it wasn’t a big move. At all. But I considered it a win, because any progress was progress, and I’d been wanting to see Ben outside of the fluorescent-lit classroom, with its blank beige walls and lines of plastic chairs for weeks now.
“Ben, hey,” I said as he walked up. He seemed even gaunter than normal, the bags under his eyes had bags, and he had a Red Bull clutched to his chest. He wasn’t holding an espresso in the other hand, so he wasn’t at the breaking point yet. “Everything good?” I asked.
“Long shift at the library,” he said, slumping into his seat. I heard his stomach grumble and watched him jump and blush.
“Forgot to eat breakfast again, huh,” I said, teasing. I nudged his shoulder with mine.
Ben shrugged, a wry smile on his face. “What can I say,” he said, “I couldn’t bear to miss out on time to chat just to shove a granola bar into my face.”
I resolved not to let the idea that he valued time spent talking with me over food go to my head. Ben valued a lot of things – sleep, work, time on his computer, sometimes even studying – over food. I wasn’t that special. I still felt myself blush and saw Ben glance over.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, “You can’t get enough of this.” I waved a hand over my chest, and couldn’t believe my eyes when Ben’s eyes followed my hands and he blushed.
“Speaking of chat time,” I said, trying – and failing – to smoothly segue into what I actually wanted to ask. “Do you maybe want to grab lunch at the dining hall when class gets out? Or, I dunno if you have a class, or something to do, or…” I trailed off.
Ben blinked. “I’m free after this,” he said. “That’s…really early for lunch.” I didn’t let myself slump, but Ben must’ve seen something on my face, because he kept going, getting louder. His hands started waving like he was trying to comfort me or something. “But that’s okay! I mean, I haven’t had breakfast, so early lunch is totally okay, I’m already starving and all, you know, and I’ll never turn down food–”
Sounded like the Red Bull finally kicked in or something. It wasn’t often that Ben got that worked up that quickly. Did he really care that much? I cut him off before he could work up to a full rant, saying, “Awesome, great, lunch after class?” when he paused to breathe in.
Ben settled. His hands came back down, and he glanced over at me before watching the door.
“Sounds good,” he said.
I couldn’t keep back my smile. Maybe my crush had a chance after all.
That lunch turned into a weekly lunch, which turned into lunch after every class. A month after we first met in class, we were eating lunch together after every class and talking until I had to get to my afternoon class at one-thirty. Ben didn’t have any class after microeconomics, because he had work starting at two, so we sat in the dining hall, across from one another, and just talked. I wished we could meet up more often, even though a logical part of my brain said that meeting three times a week for lunch was still really close for just-friends.
I was never able to remember everything we talked about over our food. It felt like the conversation just worked, and sometimes it lulled as we both shoveled food into our mouths, but it never really felt awkward. In one conversation, we probably talked about anything from how much we hated class to whether or not we thought the people across the hall were about to start making out in the corner to our high school experiences and how weirdly similar they were, even though Ben was from north Texas and I was from Kansas. Then, every day, at one-fifteen on the dot, not willing to cut Ben off early but needing time to run to class, I had to get up and apologize for leaving. Ben never looked put out, always grinning and waving me off with a joke about playing hooky, but I felt bad, probably irrationally, about leaving him there at the table alone.
One day, I had a stroke of inspiration: if I told Ben I was looking for a better place to study and write my essays and tried to hint subtly-but-not-that-subtly that I wanted to get off- campus, he’d probably recommend the library he worked at. He was always talking about how great the tables in the back were for studying, surrounded by shelves upon shelves of books and silence. And then, if I had a legit reason to be there, it wouldn’t be weird for me to pop in occasionally and chat for a few minutes. Maybe I could make what was otherwise likely mind-numbingly boring for Ben interesting for a few minutes.
I tried my idea out a month after we started meeting up daily, finally working up the nerve after chickening out a dozen times. It ended up working like a charm, Ben lighting up and talking about how awesome “his” library was for studying and how sweet the Wi-Fi was if you found the table right next to the hidden router before someone else was clued into its location. I grinned and said I’d be there that afternoon after class, and I wasn’t lying. I had way too many assignments breathing down my neck.
I walked in that first day kind of awkwardly, not sure which direction Ben’s seat at the circulation desk was or where the fabled Wi-Fi-table was. I saw the circulation desk to my left as I stepped into the library proper, and Ben looked up at the door’s swoosh. He started grinning when he saw me walking in, and I grinned back, walking more confidently toward his seat.
“Hey, Ben,” I said as I got within talking distance. Except apparently I was still being too loud, because someone sitting at a table past the circulation desk shushed me loudly. I felt my cheeks turn hot, and Ben rolled his eyes, pointing at the shushing person and shrugging.
“It’s no big,” he said quietly when I stopped on the other side of the desk. “That guy shushes everyone. He shushed my boss once.” He huffed a laugh under his breath, smiling widely. “The look on his face when my boss made this whole production about it – all a joke, though, Tom’s a cool dude – the look on his face was priceless.” He paused and tilted his head. “Still, you probably should be quiet, man. Your voice carries.”
I laughed, trying to keep quiet, now overly conscious of my volume. When Ben fell quiet, I let myself stop laughing too. The silence felt awkward, and I didn’t like the feeling. Was I supposed to crack a joke? Walk away? Ask Ben how his day had been going? I didn’t know how to handle this new environment, all of its rules about volume and the amount of time I could spend monopolizing their employee. I fidgeted with a pen that had been sitting on the “Visitor Sign In” clipboard. Was I a visitor? Did I need to sign in?
Ben sighed heavily, and I looked away from the clipboard. I noticed that he looked a little less tired. Maybe he’d finally managed to get twelve hours of sleep like he’d been saying he was going to do for the past month. His eyes were a deep brown, and I realized only too late that I was staring at the thin honey-colored ring that circled around his pupils when his eyes met mine and he raised an eyebrow.
“You okay, there, Kai?” he asked. “You look like you’re spacing out.”
I couldn’t exactly admit to staring into his eyes like the proverbial princess, so I cleared my throat, straightening up from where I’d ended up leaning on the sign-in clipboard.
“Do I, uh, need to sign in?” I asked.
Ben blinked. “Technically?” he said. “That’s for people who don’t have library cards. D’you want one?”
I looked around at the library, probably twice the size of the campus library, and figured that it couldn’t hurt. “It’s free, right?” I joked, signing my name on the clipboard.
“Yes, smartass, the card is free,” Ben said.
I got the library card, signing it with a flourish in purple Sharpie because it was the only permanent marker Ben could find in his desk drawers.
“Now,” I said, “Where was the legendary desk of endless Wi-Fi again? I kinda forgot what you said, and I’ve got a Reconstruction Lit essay to write.”
Ben pointed me to it, and I pushed off of his desk, waving at him on reflex. I stopped myself halfway through before I could finish the motion, pulling my hand to my neck and rubbing it. Awkward. I turned to go find that desk, because I really did have work to get done, but before I turned the corner, I looked back at the circulation desk. Ben was helping a customer who must’ve walked over while I was having a crisis about the aborted wave. Ben laughed lightly at something the lady said, and I smiled as I walked around the corner. At least working here wasn’t all boring for him.
As the semester went on, Ben got progressively more stressed and kept deflecting my questions. I figured it had something to do with the reason that he was going to major in business without any enthusiasm behind it or actual skill in business or economics. He also complained, a lot, about how work was preventing him from getting his homework done, so he was stuck staying up way too late to get everything done. I wanted to help him in some way, because he looked like he was one major exam away from a collapse, but he wouldn’t listen to me trying to get him to take a night off. Kept saying he was “fine” even as the bags under his eyes just got darker.
Yeah, right. Doing just fine.
I finally had a chance to make him take a break just before classes were cancelled for Thanksgiving break. My afternoon Friday class was cancelled because the professor knew no one would show up to an afternoon class on the Friday before a long break. I didn’t know what to do with myself for a while, but then I remembered that Ben’s shift would be ending in just a few hours, so I settled in to wait for him. Odds were, if I didn’t step in, Ben would just try to keep working through break, and he, more than anyone else, needed some downtime. I was willing to be the person to force the issue.
I walked into the library to the high-pitched beeping of the scanner ringing across empty tables and against the wood-paneled walls. Nearly everyone had vanished, except for some people I could spot in the back, studying furiously. Behind the circulation desk, Ben was hunched over a stack of books and kept scanning them to do…something. The way he was sitting looked like it hurt.
“Ben! Hey, Ben! Dude, look alive,” I said, probably a little bit too loudly because immediately there was a buzz of shushes from the people studying. Ben just huffed and shook his head, though, so I wasn’t all that sorry.
He waved me closer, hissing, “Kai, man, I’ve told you over and over – be quiet in here!” I tried not to smile at how he was failing to hide a grin. I laughed quietly, because he’d told me that before, but it’s not like his boss was around to fire him. And if me being loud got him to smile, I would bring a marching band in with me.
I started my “get Ben to relax” pitch, figuring that Ben would probably only tolerate me being around for a little while because he was careful not to draw attention like that.
“C’mon, Ben, just hear me out,” I said. “Tonight, you and me, my place, we Netflix some shitty action movie and throw popcorn.” Ben looked like he was about to protest, so I raised my voice a little – just a little – and kept talking. “You need a break, Ben, it sucks to see you this stressed,” I said.
I tried to look pitiful and like I needed someone to watch an action flick with, and judging by the fond smile and eye roll I got, I was succeeding. I had Ben on the hook; now to reel him in.
“Man, it’s Friday before a break,” I wheedled, making sure to keep the pitiful look on my face, “Live a little!”
Ben laughed under his breath, shaking his head. “Fine,” he said. “Something plotless with Bruce Willis and you got a deal.” He stuck his hand out to shake and I shook it, cheering quietly when Ben pulled back. I’d managed to get him to take a break! And he’d agreed to come over to my place, which was a major first.
Ben huffed a laugh and shoved me away from the counter, saying “I got to close up, so you got an hour to pick the best bad movie you have.”
I made sure to wink obnoxiously as I walked out grinning. Success!
Now I just had to figure out how to signal ‘I have a massive crush on you’ to him without either freaking him out or having him misinterpret it. Piece of cake.
A few hours later, the movie was over, Journey fading out of my TV’s speakers as the credits rolled. I sat back onto my couch, Ben next to me, and popped another piece of popcorn into my mouth. I wasn’t looking forward to cleaning the popcorn off the floor, but it was all worth it for the night I’d just had, getting to cheer and jeer the movie with Ben. The kitchen light was bright enough that I could see, but shadows lay over everything like a quilt. The movie faded to the credits, and Ben was quiet.
“So,” I said, breaking the silence, “It’s no Die Hard, but what did you think? Did watching Chris Evans make a fool of himself in The Losers make up for not being able to watch Bruce Willis bring about a Christmas miracle?”
I leaned further back into my couch, the overstuffed heaven that it was, and took a split-second to think. Pull the old yawn-and-throw-an-arm-over gambit? Was that even cool anymore? I mentally shrugged and just went for it. Worst Ben could do was prove all the signals I’d been getting for months wrong and lean out of it, or maybe get really angry and storm out. That wouldn’t be fun, but it would at least be an answer. And Ben didn’t seem like the type to make a huge deal out of it anyway. He was too calm when he wasn’t hyped up on caffeine.
I made an effort of throwing my arm over. I yawned big enough to crack my jaw, painfully, and pulled my arms over my head. The groan that slipped out when I stretched my back out and it popped audibly wasn’t fake, but the way I settled my arm over the couch back totally was. I leaned into it, my right hand brushing over Ben’s far shoulder. He was warm, and the fabric of his hoodie was soft to the touch. His hair tickled my bare arm.
Ben froze, and I froze in response. There was no way I’d misjudged it, I was sure. It wasn’t like he didn’t spend half the time we were in the same room either blushing or watching my face. I waited for Ben to act, ready to laugh and take it all back.
Ben turned toward me. He didn’t shove my hand off, so I let it rest there and brush his shoulder again. Ben shuddered. I stared.
“Kai?” he asked me, our eyes meeting. I held his gaze, and realized I wasn’t breathing.
He wasn’t shoving me away. He wasn’t shoving me away.
I cleared my throat and let my hand brush his shoulder again. “Yeah?” I asked.
Ben blinked. He glanced down at his shoulder, and I waited for him to get up and walk off. Maybe not storm off, that time was past, but I braced for rejection and awkwardness.
Instead, I got him breaking into laughter. Really loud laughter. I kept staring at him, wondering if he’d finally cracked under the stress.
When he slowed down, I opened my mouth to ask what the hell, but he beat me to it. “Dude,” he wheezed, still laughing under his breath, “Kai, dude. Did you really just pull the ‘gonna throw my arm over your shoulder as I yawn’ move? Did I just watch you pull a move that only works on high schoolers on me? You actually just did that?” He collapsed back into laughter, and I started laughing, too. I didn’t even know why I was laughing. It was like I couldn’t help it. Ben was laughing, so I laughed.
After we both laughed for a good while, long enough that my sides hurt enough to make me pull my arm back to grab onto my ribs, I leaned back and sighed. “Man,” I said, “I haven’t laughed that hard in forever.”
Ben straight-up giggled. It sounded like he still wasn’t over the move I’d pulled. I wanted to ask what his reaction was, but he didn’t sound like he was going to be coherent for a while.
I sat there in silence, very aware of my hands on my lap. I didn’t know what to do with them now.
Ben quieted slowly. Maybe he felt the awkwardness that had appeared in the room. It was so thick I could almost taste it. “You good, Kai?” he asked, finally.
“Yeah,” I said. My voice shook, and I wanted it to not. This was already awkward enough, I didn’t need to sound like a nervous high school kid too.
“You…sure?” he said back, turning slowly to look at me. I tried to look less like I was bracing for rejection or anger and more like I was just sprawling over the couch. Totally natural. “Because you look like I’m about to, I dunno, take away your hypothetical puppy, and that’s not cool.” He closed his eyes and breathed out, visibly relaxing himself. I knew the feeling. “So,” he said, looking back up at me, “What’s up?”
I didn’t know what to say. Come clean? Make up a dumbass lie that we both knew was a lie? Start babbling about how it was all good and Ben could choose whatever he wanted, really, I wasn’t attached already? (Like that would work.)
“What’d you think of the movie?” I asked, shifting guiltily on the couch and figuring that any distraction was better than where Ben was trying to go.
“It was so bad it was good,” Ben said easily, “But that’s not what’s up, Kai. C’mon. You can tell me.” His hand twitched toward mine, and I went for the popcorn. I didn’t know how I would react if Ben tried to, I don’t know, hold my hand right now. Yelp? Grab and hold on until he got sick of me?
“I guess it’s not,” I said around the popcorn. Now that I’d made a move, I wanted to take it back. Go back to the status quo, where Ben blushed and watched me and I watched back but neither of us made to move closer.
“Kai,” Ben said quietly, moving closer, “What, did you think I’d jump up and run out when you pulled that move?”
“I dunno,” I said. I really didn’t.
“Well I won’t,” Ben said. “Kai, look. Hey. Look at me,” he said. I met his eyes. “I was about to pull the same thing, but you’re taller than me. Can you imagine the way that’d look?”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Ben said. “I was.” His face was somehow closer than it had been a few seconds ago. I couldn’t see anything but his eyes, the bags under them that didn’t go away no matter how much sleep he got.
“Oh,” I said.
I brought my arms back up to catch his shoulders, trying to pull him in or hold him there. I didn’t really know what my hands were doing. I felt Ben grab my upper arms as I finally decided that pulling him in would be a better plan and stopped for a few seconds. I didn’t want to force him into anything, so I looked for hesitance in his face. I took in every line, every freckle. I could see his eyes flickering across my face, hopefully doing the same. Seeing only slight confusion, probably about why I stopped, I closed my eyes, pulling him in to rest my forehead on his. I felt Ben bring his hands up to the back of my neck. He shifted, pulling my head down as he stretched up to press his lips to my cheek. I did my best to memorize every moment.
Kelly Carroll, a non-binary writer from San Antonio, TX, aims to use their unique voice to spread diversity and inclusive fiction in the generally white, cisgendered world of mainstream literary magazines. They know how it feels to be forgotten or ignored, and they refuse to allow it to happen to others if they can help it. About to graduate, Kelly looks toward their own “high noon” as they step into the world, wholly themself.