Author’s note: I set out to write a stroke story, but things turned out differently. Also, it was a deliberate choice on my part not to assign the narrator a gender; that detail is left to the reader’s imagination.
I was in the campus library, late on a Friday night and two hours deep into a physics problem set, when I heard it: the breathing. Quiet but intense, like someone was struggling, except there was no other sound besides the ventilation system and the occasional creak of a chair. Curious, and welcoming the distraction, I listened for a minute or two. Tension built and receded ... built and receded, expressed in those little breaths. And then a shiver. A pause. Another shiver. A deep intake, a release, and calm once more.
Was that... ? I think it was. My body had reacted in a particular way to the sounds, and though I halfheartedly tried to tell myself that it was probably just someone who had fallen asleep on their books, the changes I felt within my pants belied that theory.
I became aware of my restlessness, an urge to move, uncovered by another’s private ritual. But to get up and walk around, as if nothing had happened, seemed a violation of that sanctity. (Until then, my idea of sanctity had been maintaining the silence of that floor of the library, but in that moment my understanding had broadened.)
Holding my breath, and taking care not to bump anything, I rose and looked over the walls of my study desk to scan the area.
Two rows ahead of me, at a similar desk, hidden from nearly everywhere else on the floor, was a young woman. She was small, with long black hair and light skin, sprawled back in her chair, one hand idling next to her face. Her black leggings made clear the subtle curves of her thighs, comfortably spread, against the wooden chair.
The sight of her beckoned me. I needed to approach her, to enter the scene, but how? I struggled with this question, feeling a bit lightheaded as so much blood rushed, well, elsewhere in my body. After sitting and taking a few calming breaths of my own, I opened my bag and took out a pen and a notebook that I use for scrap. Making a conscious effort to suppress the jitters that were now threatening to overtake me, I rose again.
I walked toward where the girl was seated -- her form was so slight that no matter her age, I could only think of her as “girl” -- as calmly as I could manage. As if I were merely looking for a quiet place to write, I took the chair beside her, smiling as I sat down. She returned my smile, but not without a hint of apprehension. Of course, were I merely looking for a quiet place to write, I would have chosen some other seat in the nearly empty library. Nonetheless, I opened my notebook to a blank page.
“Hi,” I wrote, before offering the notebook and pen to the girl beside me. (Such a method of conversation is common enough on the quiet floor.)
“Um ... hi?” she replied.
“Just a minute ago ... was that what I thought I heard?” I screwed up my courage as I passed the notebook over.
As she read my message, the expression of confusion she put on could not hide her deep blush. “I dunno. What did you think you heard?”
“It sounded like someone, um, getting off.”
“Really? I dunno, maybe.” She tried to play it cool, but her hand trembled as she passed the notebook back.
I kept my eyes on the paper, not wanting to apply too much pressure. And yet I wrote, “I think you do know.” Before handing it over, I added, “But it’s okay. I don’t mind.”