Chapter One: September
It’s a quiet moment in the Harkness College tutoring center.
Okay—let’s face it. They’re all quiet moments at the tutoring center. But that’s how we shy girls roll. We like the hush of whispered voices as the tutors pitch in to help. We like the walnut paneling and the pharmacist’s lamps on each table. Each one makes a pool of warm light on whichever homework assignment has brought another student in for help.
My subject is English and writing. I was the only a freshman to apply for a tutoring job, which means I’m often helping upperclassmen. That was half the point of getting this job—forcing me to talk to people.
Sometimes it’s not so hard. I’ve just finished proofreading a junior’s philosophy take-home test. She wore a Harkness Tennis jacket and diamond earrings. In other words, she’s one of the attractive, sporty people. I call them the BPs, which is short for Beautiful People. But the paper was well-written and barely needed a second pair of eyes. So I can’t hold her beauty and confidence against her. Not too much.
Now I have a free moment to myself, so I pull out my phone and open up the YipStack app to see who’s online. My own most recent contribution has 26 likes and six comments. Not bad.
YipStack is my secret passion. It’s a completely anonymous app that works by geolocation. So most every comment and every thread is from another Harkness college student.
I’d never heard of YipStack until my roommate suggested I take a look. She meant well. She was trying to prove to me that my acute awkwardness isn’t all that rare. Unlike a real social network, YipStack doesn’t bolster your popularity. It’s anonymous, so it’s more of a raw, unvarnished look at Harkness College.
But now I’m hooked. Besides Nadia, YipStack is my other best friend. I don’t even tell her how much time I spend on the app, because it’s more than a healthy amount.
I scroll through now, looking for some action.
Some yips are purely informational. It is avocado and bacon wrap day at the student center. This is not a drill. Some Yips are confessional. I cheated on my Spanish quiz and now I’m just waiting for the cops to show up. Beneath these little truth bombs are found a smattering of comments. Some supportive, some clever. Some grumpy.
Reading YipStack, it’s obvious that not everyone at Harkness is perfect or even perfectly happy. They’re tired or they’re worried or they’re out of time. They’re drunk or sad or horny.
It’s quiet tonight tonight on Yipstack, too. All the washing machines in Turner house are out of order. Guess I’ll have to give all my dollar bills to strippers instead. And, If you’re into weak beer and handsy men, Beta Rho is having a party tomorrow.
Ah, and here’s a familiar chestnut that gets yipped at least once a week. Not clever, but always popular: When’s the last time you had sex?
The comments below are comforting to me, because they range from some overachiever’s answer: A half hour ago to the more comforting Two months ago or maybe three?
I scroll down further, hoping to find my favorite response. Never. Because that’s my answer too. After sifting through a couple dozen other comments, I finally find someone else who’s still a virgin, too.
It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Some of us are just too shy to make it happen. In high school, my equally nerdy boyfriend was also shy. Neither of us ever got up the courage to go there. We’re both still virgins.
Or maybe he isn’t anymore. I’m not about to ask.
With a quick glance around the quiet room, I begin to draft my next clever Yip. Writing is easier for me than conversation. I can be clever and self effacing as long as I don’t have to look anyone in the eye.
First draft: When Joan d’Arc was my age, she was brave enough to lead troops into battle. So why am I so nervous about going to a pizza party in the Beaumont common room tonight?
Hmm. The joke isn’t sharp enough yet. I delete the second sentence, changing it to: So why do I have to rehearse three times just to order a pizza?
That’s better. And also true. I want to eat free pizza tonight, but if anyone tries to talk to me, it won’t go well…
“Bonjour.” The deep voice—from right above me—startles me so badly that I jump. My phone goes clattering to the desktop as I whip my chin upward to see whomever snuck up on me.
“Désolé!” he says. “I should come back later?”
“No,” I say, fumbling my phone back into my bag. “Please sit down.”
My heart is banging against my ribs, and not only because he startled me. If possible, I’m even more awkward with men than with women. It’s worse if they’re attractive.
And this guy? Very attractive. Wow. He has a wide, handsome face and coal-dark eyes ringed by impressively thick lashes, and a broad face. Broad shoulders.
Broad everything. Wow. He must eat a lot of protein. And now I’m staring as he arranges himself in the chair opposite me and draws out a folder. He’s really handsome. One of the BPs, for sure.
I can’t stop staring. There’s something rugged about him that’s hard to describe. There’s color in his cheeks—at least the part that’s not covered with dark scruff. And his biceps bulge from the sleeves of his T-shirt. He reminds me of a superhero going incognito, concealing his identity among the ordinary college students.
Though the muscles can probably be explained by the logo on his T-shirt—Harkness Hockey.
It’s always the jocks who need tutoring. I swear. Nadia and I have a disagreement about this. She says that jocks are just used to coaching, and thus accept help more readily than the general population.
“I think they’re just not as smart,” I always tell her.
She just shakes her head. “You say that, but you’re still intimidated by them. So which is it?”
“How can I help you,” I whisper up at this handsome giant.
He frowns, and then folds massive hands onto the desk between us. “Excusez-moi?”
People always tell me my voice is soft, and that I’m hard to hear. He must agree, because he leans forward, those big, dark eyes blinking in close proximity. It doesn’t help the knee-knocking, teeth-rattling nerves that overtake me whenever a beautiful man looks at me.
Get a grip, Josie. “How can I help you today,” I ask carefully.
“Bon. I have the paper due for English. And my English is not so excellent. So I hope you will help me find all the places I fuck it up. I bring it…” He opens a folder and rifles through some papers.
For a long moment I just blink at him. “Your English…” Did he just say that he didn’t speak the language?
“When I come to Harkness last year? I don’t speak much English at all,” he says, dropping a rough draft of an essay on the table between us. “Please help me find zhe places where I fuck up the grammar.”
His honesty has stunned me. The Harkness students I’ve met so far would never admit to any kind of weakness. In fact, they tell me that most students wait until their grades are in jeopardy to find the tutoring center at all.
And I don’t blame them. Struggling? That’s shameful. Harkness is a top-notch school where everyone worships at the alter of intellectual exceptionalism. With an admissions rate that hovers around nine percent, having a big brain is the only way to get in.
Or at least I thought it was. Every year, something like a thousand valedictorians get rejections from Harkness. Who would dream of implying that he isn’t as qualified as the next student?
I’m actually irritated now, because it burns me up to know that some of us sweated every quiz and assignment in high school, because we needed our grade point averages to be perfect hundreds. But students are admitted to Harkness because they’re really good at shooting a rubber disc into a net with a stick?
Apparently the English language is optional for athletes.
I pick up my red pen and begin with the first paragraph of his essay. All sophomores are required to take a writing seminar. And now I know why. Every sentence of his essay has an error. The essay is about his birthplace in Quebec. The ideas are well organized but the grammar is just awful.
“Hey, miss…” he pauses. “I do not catch your name.”
“It’s Josephine.” And now I feel like a jerk because I never gave it to him.
“Jhosephine,” he says, softening the J. My name sounds beautiful in his French accent. “I am Pepe. Enchanté. But why do you make home town two words here but not here?” He points at the changes I’ve made.
“Ah. In the first case, home is modifying town. But in the second case you’re using hometown as an adjective. Hometown memories. So it’s one word.”
He frowns, and looks exceptionally handsome doing it. “That is confusing. Homework is always one word, even when it’s a noun.”
“Um…” I click the button on my red pen a few times. “Convention.”
He looks skeptical.
I push on, because watching his handsome face is making me nervous. I edit the heck out of his essay, fixing the awkward bits and the errors. It’s probably too much for a first-pass. I should make suggestions and let him work on it.
But he makes me twitchy, with his cheerful smile and tight T-shirt. He leans in to watch me work, and I’m actually sweating.
“How is this?” he asks, putting a broad finger on the page next to an edit.
His hands are enormous. I don’t even know why I notice that. I have no business thinking about his hands. Or what his touch might feel like…
What is wrong with me?
He’s waiting. Watching me. And I realize I didn’t answer his question. Swallowing hard, I look down at the page.
“So…” I clear my throat. “You can’t write about a blue small doddering fishing shack. It has to be a doddering small blue fishing shack.”
“Um…” A bead of sweat rolls down between my breasts. Because I don’t actually know why my order of adjectives sounds better. “Let me think for a second.”
“They all modify shack,” he points out.
“True…” Lord, it’s hot in here. “But, uh…” My mind is a blank. I have been speaking English my entire life. And I have no idea why adjectives sound correct in one order and nutty in another. “Let’s try another example!” I can do this, right? “Okay—the tight blue hockey T-shirt.”
“You think my T-shirt is tight?”
My gaze flies up to find him grinning at me. “No! Just… We use, uh, size before color.”
He grins. “Size before color. Got it.”
Kill me! Kill me! Kill me! “Right Here’s one—it’s not green small spiny dragon.” I’m babbling terribly. “It’s a small, spiny green dragon.”
He laughs, revealing dimples, and I lose another 10 IQ points. “Show me this dragon. I want to see for myself.”
Oh, man. The moment he sat down at this table my brain turned to glue. The only way to recover is to get rid of him.
Lowering my head, I finish my edit at top speed. By the time I pass Pepe’s essay back across the table, it’s covered in red marks—like a bad case of road rash.
Maybe I’m not cut out to be a tutor. I should apply to be a professor’s assistant instead. Whenever I make eye contact with Pepe, I’m uncomfortable. He’s so handsome that it’s like looking directly into the sun.
And now I’ve savaged his paper, even though I couldn’t give him good answers to the only two questions he asked. Some tutor I’m turning out to be.
“Can I have an email address or a way to text you?” I croak. “I need to send you the rule for adjective order, so you know how to apply them. Sorry I couldn’t explain it better.”
He looks surprised by this apology. “Pas de problème, Jhosephine.” He startles me by picking up my red pen, and then my hand. My mouth falls open as he writes his phone number on my palm.
His hand dwarfs mine, and I can’t look away. Or speak.
“Bon.” He stands up, and I’m so flustered I actually stand up, too. “When zhe new term starts, it always takes a while to get my English back. You have been much help!”
A lot of help, my brain corrects. Luckily, I don’t say it aloud.
And then he shocks me again by leaning over the table to grab me into a quick hug. My entire body is briefly enveloped in bulky warmth. I inhale the scent of warm boy and clean hockey shirt. The scruff on his cheek scrapes my forehead, and goosebumps rise up all over my body.
Then, just as quickly, it’s gone. He steps back and gives me a cheerful wave. “See you next week!”
I just stand there on my side of the desk feeling shell-shocked while he makes his exit. It’s a long minute or two before I finally remember to sit down again.
That night, when I check YipStack before shutting out the light, I see this:
TIL there is no such thing as a green small spiny dragon.
I fall asleep smiling, and dreaming of men with large hands and dark eyes...
You will receive Chapter Two in your inbox on Tuesday, March 27! Or, if a friend shared this page with you, sign up to get your own copy.