“Can I sit with you?” she asks at 7.30 in the morning.
“Sure,” and the smile I put on is not feigned but earnest. I look at her and she glows somehow, it is not the blond streaks in her hair but something within. This is worth waking up for, I can tell.
We converse over bowls of soggy grits and mushy biscuit. She made the first step, I reason, so it is my turn to be affable. As I gnaw at carbonized bacon I ask if she is a freshman. Of course she is. “I’m Kendal,” she says. Silvia, nice to meet you. “Sylvia?” she clarifies. Whenever I inform someone of my name I meet surprise. Is it such an unusual name?
People here have me labeled as antisocial, I think, because I don’t sit to eat at busy tables and I always bring a book to meals. This comes from my early training in meal etiquette, which haunts me still. Don’t talk while you eat. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t drink water until you’re finished. An American, of course, cannot understand this – neither the rules, nor my commitment to them.
Maybe they think that I am not very talkative, either. Oh god, how wrong they are. Tell them, Bill, how I talk like the radio, all the way to Savannah and back. “You are quiet,” Shreeti said to Mother. “Your daughter does not take after you.”
When Kendal sits across from me I switch into verbose mode. I push the edibles aside and want to know everything. Where is she from. An hour and a half north from here, she says, and she tells me the name of a town that I forget immediately. Oh, I know where it is! I lie, and relish at the content look on her face. She is majoring in Women Studies and is considering Chemistry too. How wonderful, I hiss. Thinking about the zealot feminists in that department and the no-longer-new 13-million-dollar Science Center that is our mascot, I say: “Those are the most interesting subjects to take around here.” Another lie, I congratulate myself. Well, what are you supposed to say to a freshman? “Don’t worry, it will all be over soon”? You say this in their junior year. When they are like this, nascent and pristine, you say “You’ll get used to it.” I ask what she thinks of the cafeteria and her cute eschewal is a reply that I could have anticipated. So that is what I say: You’ll get used to it. She understands.
Pointlessly she stirs with the fork in the grits and takes minute bites. She eats awkwardly, she knows that I am watching and is averse to this silence between us. She has bright, blue-green eyes emphasized with black eyeliner. What is that, a nose ring? Did she really have one or did I forge the memory? A freckled face, this I am sure of. Her hair is short, straight, with blond streaks. A flattering haircut, I appraise. “You remind me of Rory Gilmore.” She looks at me and her brow contracts in puzzlement, how adorable. A few seconds elapse until she gets the reference. “What – Oh! I love that show!” She finds that I paid her a compliment and I am pleased that my comment reached the target.
Well, Kendal, I must leave you. The 8 o’clock class beckons. As I say her name I wonder about the spelling and all I can think of is “Kindle,” but I know that it cannot be it. Of course I don’t ask. I will look it up in the e-mail address book later. I tell her that I like the name. She smiles, Rory-like. See you later.
I remember coming here, two years ago, a novice myself. I was scared of everything, always worried that I was doing things wrong. Surely I was not smiling enough. I was being rude. What a freak. These new people seem much more at ease, presumptuous even. Is it true, or is it a veneer and underneath there is bedlam. If so, did I put up such a persuasive performance of composure back then? I wonder. In any case: “You are almost out the door.” That is what you say to a senior.