An olive-toned hand, the right third finger adorned by her grandmother’s ring, reached out somewhat hesitantly to open the door to the main campus library before halting in mid air and dropping to her side. She had rehearsed this so many times but, in spite of her preparation, her courage began to fail her and she turned quickly back to the bathroom to gather herself.
As her shoes softly trod back up the hallway from whence she had come, she passed a group of male students who, with nothing better to do, had taken up positions in one of the common areas.
“Well, hey there, Elena!” the lead young man called out to her as his gaze swept the young Cuban woman from head to toe.
“Why don’t you call or text me anymore?” he persisted, his arms outstretched. “I’m starting to think you don’t like me!”
A chuckle and a least one wolf call arose from his companions as Elena returned his question with the most polite smile she could muster, but without giving a direct answer. The bathroom door opened mercifully before her and she ducked quickly inside. Leaving the world temporarily outside, she turned on the water and watched it flow gently between her cupped fingers. Splashing a small amount of the liquid on her face, she gripped the sides of the white ceramic basin before staring at her reflection in the mirror just above it.
The woman who stared back at her was nearly flawless, or at least that’s what she had always been told. Flawless at least from a physical standpoint. Few seemed to care about what remained unseen. A droplet of water traced a path down the smooth olive skin paralleling the course of a strand of long, deep chestnut hair that waved ever so slightly as it outlined the Spanish eyes. Taking a deep breath, Elena released her grip on the ceramic basin and turned toward the door.
Completely ignoring the calls from the young men outside as she exited, Elena retraced her steps to the library yet once again. This time not allowing herself time to reconsider, she grasped the handle, opened the door and walked inside.
As she began her search for that one particular face, her mind returned to the time when she first began to visit the library more often than she had previously during her college career. Not that she did so because of the requirements of her courses, as all of the young men reminded her ad nauseam that a woman with Elena’s beauty had no need for book knowledge. Hurtful though those statements were, those emotions paled beside the curious new sensation that she experienced when in the company of one particular young man. He was a quiet soul, at least in public, but he thought deeply and Elena was mesmerized by his view of the world. When she spoke he listened, always gazing into her eyes without scrutinizing the rest of her figure as almost all others were in the habit of doing. Perhaps best of all, as their friendship had deepened over the past year, he had never once spoken openly of her outer beauty but spoke instead of something much deeper and more eternal. That, to Elena, was refreshing; and completely foreign.
But, as far as she knew, his feelings for her did not extend beyond friendship. And so the inner torment had risen to an unbearable level even as she had slowly forsaken her previous superficial circle of friends for the comfort of his presence and the fascination of their conversations. With him, she was free.
As she rounded the final stack of books and looked beyond, she once again saw him at his usual table and in his typical position, his textbooks open in front of him and his pen writing continuously in a notebook. Alone, and yet not so. Her pulse quickened as it had been prone to do so recently in his presence, but perhaps more than previously. Her less than confident legs made the final few strides toward the table where she gently pulled out the end chair and slowly took a seat. His attention diverted from his work and he put his pen down and observed her familiar face. A smile shattered the precious expression of concentration as a warmth enveloped his whole countenance.
Her name. It rolled from his speech seasoned with a Tennessee accent like the sound of the evening breeze in the treetops. No whistles of approval. No suspicious glances with ulterior motives. She managed a smile in return.
“I hope I’m not interrupting.”
He looked briefly at his watch.
“Absolutely not. In fact, you’re a few minutes late today and I began to worry that you weren’t coming. Believe me, I need the study break.”
He stretched his arms out in front of him to loosen the stiffness.
She smiled again.
“Glad to be of service.”
Elena did her best to hide her emotions and to continue with their usual conversation but her more anxious appearance did not long go unnoticed.
“Are you alright?” he asked genuinely.
“Oh, of course. Just, you know, some things on my mind. Nothing really.”
“Anything I can help with?”
Her eyes glanced up from the table to connect with his. She knew the time had come, but once done there could be no undoing.
“That depends,” she replied softly.
He appeared understandably perplexed.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
She inhaled deeply and placed her right index finger on the library table almost as if she intended to inscribe her thoughts into the wood itself.
“It’s…well…I mean…have you ever had something to say…something you wanted to say…but had no idea of how to express it?”
The young man nodded his head.
“Which suitor is it this time?” he asked.
“No…it’s not like that, I mean it kind of is, but not like you would imagine.”
His brow furrowed almost with a touch of concern.
“Elena… I’m sorry, I just…I’m just not really sure what you’re asking of me.”
Elena nodded in understanding.
“All I know is that…” she began as her finger gently scrawled on the table. “Well…”
Her head dropped in disappointment.
“What am I doing?” her question hung in the air. “This would be easier in Spanish.”
Her fingers combed through the shiny brown strands.
“But then I couldn’t understand a word you say.”
Her gaze lifted once again.
“That’s why it would be easier.”
He thought for a moment before responding.
“Spanish is your heart language. Think of what you want to say in Spanish, and then tell me in English.”
Closing her eyes briefly, she recalled the whole reason that she was there. The language in her mind began to flow once again and her pulse rate slowed. She opened her eyes and, exhaling slowly, began to speak.
“I’m so tired,” she began softly as he continued to listen.
“Exhausted, to tell the truth.”
She paused before continuing.
“When I close my eyes, I can still see those faces and hear the voices that have called out to me for all of my life. And, as I listen to them, I find myself astounded by how few if any cared anything about me at all. I was their addiction; their distraction. I was their ticket to popularity. I was their idol to set upon the mantelpiece and worship whenever the mood would strike.”
The young man did not move.
“Look at me…” her eyes began to well and the voice began to tremble.
“I don’t care what your eyes tell you. You’re being deceived. What you’re seeing is the loneliest person on the planet. Without value. Without a true friend and surrounded by a sickening amount of expectations and superficiality.”
Her hand wiped her cheek.
“I was exhausted…but then you came.”
The tears were unstoppable.
“Heavens above, what am I going to do? How do I tell you this? I come here to hear your voice. I look for you wherever I go and pine for you when I am not with you. Others call to me constantly but I only hear you. You see the unseen. You are like none other.”
She buried her face in her hands.
“I should be sentenced to eternal purgatory for throwing my emotions on you like this, but I am living in one now and so it makes little difference to me. Heavens above, what am I going to do?”
“Elena,” the kind voice responded. The reddened eyes lifted to see him passing her a box of tissues that he carried in his bag.
“Elena,” he spoke her name with a distinct hint of disbelief. “My life has not been the same since you entered it. It’s just that…”
His gaze focused on the smooth olive tones of her hands.
“I’m not sure I’m worthy of you.”
“Please don’t patronize me,” came the swift reply. “I know something of value when I see it.”
“I would never do that to you, Elena. You are a treasure and a jewel among the stones of which I am chief. I have nothing to offer you and have nothing in common with those who have surrounded you.”
“You plead my case for me,” the young woman replied. “I would not have fallen if you were merely a copy of what I had grown accustomed to.”
He inhaled deeply, almost as if it was painful to speak.
“Please forgive me,” his head dropping as if in shame. “But I must know.”
He exhaled slowly.
“Are you certain that you are in love with me, or merely the idea of me?”
Elena had already anticipated the legitimate question as she had, in all honesty, already asked it of herself. As she observed the fair skinned gentleman with emerald colored eyes, she was keenly aware of their differences but even more aware that those differences were what had captivated her to begin with.
“Look at me,” her response began. “Look at me and tell me that the thought of a life together has not entered your thoughts. Tell me that the eyes of our future daughter have never once crossed your mind.”
He paused before answering, but raised his eyes to meet hers before doing so.
“She has soft, beautiful brown eyes…just like her mother.”
He gently closed his textbook and notebook as their gazes remain fixed. He reached out and gently took her hands in his.
“You are the bravest woman I have ever met. If it’s alright with you, why don’t we just sit here for a while?”
Elena, now for the first time a free woman, nodded in response, the oppressive weight no longer resting relentlessly upon her shoulders.