A little story I've been working on...don't expect more any time soon though. ;)
It was my sophomore year when she entered the scene. She had the quietest presence of anyone on campus, and that’s probably why she created such a buzz. But when she spoke, it was enough to make you laugh.
“She sounds like a twelve-year-old.”
“She talks like Queen Elizabeth.”
Usually it takes years to earn a nickname at Halle--you’re lucky if you get one at all, even luckier if you get a kind one--but for Leah it only took a week. And that’s exactly what they named her: Queen Elizabeth, the royal genius. And rightly so.
“Is there anyone who still uses ‘inasmuch’ and ‘hereafter’ and ‘verily’?” I would hear the gossipers say, giggling obnoxiously within an indiscriminate radius of her. That last one was a hoot for the gang. They started using “verily” as a kind of slang. She was interesting, and interesting meant likable at Halle. She had the sort of character that naturally attracted friends, but she denied herself them, that martyr. The way she briskly walked through the hallways with her head bent down and books clutched tightly to her chest, the way she never wore makeup and never let her hair down, clearly implied that she was here to learn and get out. Nobody would have guessed she had run away from France at seventeen under the false identity of Leah Parker.
You never realized how pale her face was until you saw her standing next to someone else, which was a rare sight. That’s how I picked her out when I saw her for the first time in the cafeteria. My, how she stood out--her face looked puny when framed in that enormous bouquet of dark brown hair piled and pinned up behind her.
“If you wanna check out girls, I’d love to eat that for you.”
“Check out who?”
And that’s exactly what I was intending to do at the moment, until Scottie poked his annoying face in front of me and forced me to pay attention. Scottie got his name because he had some distant relation to something Scottish, but there was no trace of anything Scottish in him whatsoever, and nobody cared how it got started or what his real name was. He didn't even write a last name on his papers, just “Scottie”. The professors didn't have a problem with it, because everyone loved Scottie. I found him so irritating that he was on my list for reasons to transfer (it was a long list too, for the record). How did he manage to keep that grin on all the time? Did he do face pull-ups or something? Maybe he got the inside of his cheeks pierced and stuck a safety-pin in it, maybe he got in a car accident and his jawline never healed, maybe he was plastic humanoid alien spy from outer space, maybe...
“Come on, bud, just point her out to me. It’s the tall one with the blonde hair, isn’t it?”
“What?” I tried to direct my eyes in the general direction he was pointing to. “Uh, yeah, that one.”
Scottie proceeded to tell me that her name was Valory and that she was his lab partner, you know that? He then started telling me this story about he dropped acid on her leg and burned a hole in her pants, and then how they both like the Vietnamese restaurant downtown, blah blah blah, and then moved on to going to her soccer game, blah blah blah, and then she said, blah blah blah, you know that?
“No, I didn’t know that,” I said. The bouquet-hair girl had left the line now, with the most pathetic plateful of salad I’d ever seen. You could eat that in two mouthfuls. No wonder she’s so pale.
“Hey buddy, you still there?” Scottie had already taken up to eating my lunch. “You know, Ross, sometimes you’re so out of it I think you’re an alien spy from outer space.”
I looked at him vaguely. “Takes one to know one.”
Scottie laughed loudly, although I’m not sure he got it. “You’re a real character, Ross, you know that?”
But I didn’t answer, because right then the bouquet-hair girl sat down at our table. I normally wasn’t this bold, but right then I was looking for any means of escape, so I spoke. I spoke the Queen Elizabeth.
“That’s a pretty small lunch.”
The Queen answered not. She had her head bowed down over her plate, hands folded, eyes closed. There was a long silence, a kind of silence I wasn’t used to. Scottie wasn’t used to either, nor was he used to someone changing the subject while he was talking. He turned to his left to see who I had addressed.
“Aw yeah girl, is that all they eat from where you come from? You could fit that whole thing in a teacup. Where are you from, anyway?”
I wanted to slap my forehead. Even Scottie should have been able to see that this wasn’t the time to talk to her! But she was finished now. She looked up and serenely observed the two of us staring.
“I beg your pardon?” She said.
There it was—that voice everyone was talking about. She had spoken barely louder than a whisper, but that gentle, childlike sound was so different from anything else you heard in the general cafeteria buzz that every word cut through the air like a drop of ice water in the desert. It was a spell I didn’t dare break, but someone else did.
“I said you could fit that whole thing in a teacup,” Scottie replied eagerly, not wanting a pretty girl to miss his profoundly clever comparison, especially since he made it up himself, on the spot.
The girl assessed the situation quickly, looking down at her plate and back to Scottie, then said:
“In more inviting circumstances my appetite would go unchecked; however, in regards to the seemingly primitive qualities of your culinary arts, it is prudent to warrant careful deliberation in terms of quantity and selection, inasmuch as I might stave off parasitical infection or unnecessary acute attacks of indigestion.”
When people encounter something they don’t understand, their natural reaction is to laugh it off. The urge was welling up in both of us, but I sensed that the girl was completely serious when she said this, so I grabbed a can of Pepsi and started chugging it casually. Scottie was less experienced in the art of disguising laughter, letting out a loud choke-snort and displaying his confused grin at her.
She knew we were laughing, and spoke thus:
“I am well aware that such duration and unmediated exposure has served to dull the sensitivity of native stomachs, and for this I do not hold you accountable. However I fail to see how this merits mirth, and the noises you are producing have a disquieting effect on my ears, therefore I humbly entreat you to cease these noises, for they are not at all befitting to a gentleman.”
“Huh? No, it’s not that.” I said.
It was the truth, but I didn’t want to say any more. She kept on staring at me, so I kept on chugging my Pepsi. Since I had just explained to her that what we were laughing at was “not that”, I suppose she thought that she was entitled to the whole truth, and was waiting for it. People feel bad about not telling the truth, so if you can equivocate it by explaining what the truth isn’t, somehow you think you’re justified. Nobody told Leah about this particular trait of human nature, so she didn’t say “Oh, Haha!” and shut up.
She was supposed to be the butt end of the joke, but she had just made capital of us, and I was still trying to find out how. Most people would have given in at this point and started uncomfortably laughing at the unspoken joke that was themselves. But Leah, as I was going to find out later, would only laugh at something if she thought it was funny. This would often have the effect of inverting the scale of discomfort to the inflictor in place of the victim. Kind of like how Joan of Arc burned at the stake with a smile on her face, thus owning up the whole Church and making them look lame.
It was entrancing to watch her eat, forking up neatly organized shreds of salad and popping them in her mouth, chewing each bite twenty-eight times and completing the transaction with a graceful swallow. All other attempts at conversation fell flat, and I ended up chatting with Scottie about classes, something I never do if I can help it. Somewhere in the middle of it, Leah picked up her empty tray and tried to make an inconspicuous exit. She was leaving way too soon.
“Hey, nice to meet you,” I choked out desperately.
She nodded. Then to my surprise, she smiled.
“What’s your name?”
“Nice name,” interjected Scottie, which is what he said to everybody. But she was already gone.
Scottie grinned at me. “God, those Frenchies. Gotta stay away from them.”
“Yeah. You should definitely stay away from her.” It may have been a warning, or a challenge. But it certainly wasn’t advice I intended to follow.