Compliments (4 page)

V=VX

“Hey, I don’t have my sunglasses with me, so can you stop beaming over there?”

I lean far over to the side, but Betsy’s still staring at her monitor. “Excuse me?”

“I’d be exposed to less ultraviolet if I was sunbathing on the Amalfi coast,” she says, picking at her keyboard. “What has you so bubbly anyway?”

“Are we actually having a casual conversation?”

So far, the extent of our exchanges hasn’t gone beyond diplomatic negotiation that allows us to both use the office without war. Not that I haven’t tried to talk to Betsy. I learned pretty early on, however, that her lack of regard for matching clothes and her habit of keeping earbuds in all hours of the day weren’t an exaggeration. She really has no interest in being friends. Or, sometimes it seems, human.

“You’re like a nuclear power plant over there,” she bats back, her tone annoyed but also having a bit of jest. “And you’ve been working toward a meltdown all day. I was wondering how long it would take you to hook up with someone.”

Heat tinges my cheeks. “I’m not hooking up with anyone!”

“You know, your mouth says no, but your rapid-response denial suggests you merely haven’t hooked up with someone
yet.
Not that I really give a damn who you derive functions with. But if you want to tell me, I’ll tell you if they’re worth the effort.”

“Because you would know?”

She shrugs. “Maybe not through personal experience, but I have a knack for picking up on the gossip that goes on around here.”

I can’t help my curiosity. “How? You don’t talk with anyone.”

“You think I’m listening to music all day?” Her eyes finally meet mine, and humor sparkles in her features. “People have a habit of presuming a lot of things based on appearances. They also think because I don’t have any friends, that I don’t have any interest in what everyone’s saying about everyone else. You’d be surprised some of the things I’ve heard when people didn’t think I was listening.”

I can’t decide if I should tell her she should be ashamed, or if I should ask her for pointers. Then I remind myself that I’m on a social diet and why she asked me the question to begin with.

“I’m not trying to hook up with anyone,” I reassure her. For reasons I can’t explain, perhaps because I can’t imagine what she’d do with the information or who she would tell, I find myself wanting to confide. “Okay, yes, there’s a guy. I don’t want a relationship with him, but we’ve been studying together and … What can I say, he’s super hot.”

Betsy grimaces. “And you’re not trying to hook up with him? Why?”

“Because I don’t want a relationship right now, even if it’s just sex,” I answer. “And even if I did, he and I just don’t make sense. He’s got stuff going on, and what he’s doing about it, I just don’t know if I’d ever be able to be involved with someone who … does what he does.”

It’s not like my track record makes me a prized catch, but I don’t think loading my baggage on to someone’s already full cart is a good idea either.

“So you’re saying you’d deny yourself a good lay because he’s got … issues?” She begins to stuff her ear buds back in, even though now I’ll wonder each time she’s wearing them if she’s actually listening to music. “You’re right, Lewis. The only good guys are the ones without any faults and fit your list of qualifications to a T, all while being … What was that phrase? Super hot? Just hope he doesn’t pick up on how attracted you are to him, or he might actually try to do something about that.”

The next night, after an exhaustive effort, I collapse on to the couch next to Hawk. He tells me that my mock presentation is pretty good, and can only be made better by experience. Then he asks how I thought it went.

“I don’t doubt in my abilities to get the information across,” I say, “but I’m a little scared of disruptions. Particularly … of a certain kind.”

His brow furrows as he rests his head against the back of the couch. “And just what kind is that?”

I exhale and prepare to take him back in time ten years. “In middle school, there was always this one boy who’d go out of his way to interrupt me during presentations. Just silly stuff, but I couldn’t ever get back on track again. He kept it up all the way through high school.”

“Well, first, the teachers who allowed that to happen more than once were incompetent gits. Second, you’re not a kid any more. You’re the authority figure.”

The conflicting advice from the night before confuses me. “I thought you said not to make the mistake of talking to them like they’re kids.”

Sitting up, Hawk nods. “I stand by that. However, it doesn’t mean you let them get the perception that you’re their peer. The first kid who says something is looking for a weak spot in your wall to attack. If he finds it, a few of the other kids are going to join in to get a piece of the empowerment pie for themselves. You let it go beyond that second comment, and you’ve lost control of the class.”

I roll my eyes and grab my water bottle. “I never thought getting a simple job to help with my living expenses would require me to study educational pedagogy.”

“You only have to study the Cliff’s Notes version,” Hawk says. “Hi, my name is Cliff. Cliff Notes,” he adds, holding out his hand in greeting.

The bit of humor gives me just enough courage to get up and agree to act out an example. Hawk tells me to start again mid-way through my presentation and he’ll create a distraction, so I do.

“As you can see here,” I say, pretending to point at one of my visual aids, “mathematics isn’t used only by scientist and bankers. In fact, if you’re thinking about being a farmer someday—”

“Were you?” I hear Hawk call out. He’s transformed his voice and his mannerisms into that of a prepubescent teen bully. Even though I know this is safe ground, my kid fears twitch inside me.

“Was I what?”

“A farmer. ‘Cause you look like something someone pulled out of an ugly patch.”

I break character. “They’re not going to say anything that stupid.”

“My lady, you insult my intelligence?” Hawk feigns offense, laying a hand over his chest. “They’re kids,” he assures me. “They’ll say all kinds of stupid stuff. Here’s a revelation for you: when you were getting teased in school, it was stupid stuff, too. You just didn’t know any better to realize how idiotic it was. Isn’t it great being older and understanding how silly it was to get worked up about it? Now, go on.”

I huff before finding my place in my presentation again. “As I was saying, if you did want to be a farmer, you would need to use both algebra and statistics to determine the best way and manner to plant your fields, or figure which crop will make you the most money.”

He leans forward on the couch, putting his hands on his knees and turning his elbows out. “How much did your daddy get for the ugly crop? I bet a lot the year you were born.”

“I don’t think farm humor is your thing,” I hiss out.

He shakes his head and barks out his impression of a buzzer. “Wrong response. Besides, this is probably poetry compared to what you’re likely to encounter.”

“Okay, Obi-Wan, what is the right response? How do you deal with something like that?”

“It’s simple, only takes two steps.” He ticks off points on his fingers. “Remain on topic, and take the power back.”

“How?”

“By flipping their jibe and making it powerless. The reason many bullies tease is because it’s the only way for them to feel empowered. Which is sad, but not really conductive to teaching. So you have to put a stop to it. For example, you could have said, ‘Yes, sir, sky high, but for some reason my parents only ended up with a few pennies. Guess I wasn’t as ugly as they hoped’.”

As I stare at him blankly, my eye bats, ticking off the seconds between me and this inane suggestion. Hawk sees the doubt in my expression. He leaps to his feet and comes to stand beside me.

“The kids who act out aren’t used to having someone accept it and go with it. It confuses them, and the confusion usually makes them stop pretty quickly. Tell you what, let’s switch. I’ll pretend to be the teacher and you hit me with something. I’ll show you how it’s done.” With that, he launches in to what I’m sure was his award-winning presentation. “Because I was able to negotiate down the price of the raw materials by buying in bulk, I was able to make my custom skateboards for one-third the price of the professional guys across town.”

He looks at me expectantly, pausing. I search his words, but I’ve never tried to insult someone on purpose. It’s such a foreign concept to me that I stumble for the only thing I can think of, his looks.

“Did you make skateboards to distract people from your shirt?”

“Is that the best you got?”

I shrug. “Sorry, I’m not really good at making fun of people.”

“Still, there has to be infinite possibilities of things you could say to try and piss me off,” he says.

The mathematician inside of me zeroes in on his statement. “Yeah, but I bet there’s only one worse way to do your hair, and the probability you’d stumble onto it makes me think you should be playing the lottery.”

I see Hawk’s perfect white teeth through his grin. “You’re a math geek even in insults, but it’s better,” he confirms, then returns to the script of his presentation. “And by fixing my prices to take a short term loss, I was able to increase my long term profit by winning more customers.”

“Too bad all that money you were making couldn’t afford you a better haircut,” I spit out. I can feel myself getting way too excited about what a moment ago disgusted me. My fists tighten.

“I had a choice,” he states. “Good hair, or a crazy sweet ride that all the girls would dig. I chose the ride, and got the chicks.” He blows away a blond lock that has fallen into his eyes. “Well, except this one chick, but I’m pretty sure I can make her love my hair too.”

I don’t know if we’re still acting, but I do know I’m suddenly aware of a spike of irrational jealousy brewing. Despite my best efforts and self-chastisement, my logic picks up on the signals, and I panic. I like Hawk Stephens. I’m being distracted by Hawk Stephens. I’m
attracted
to Hawk Stephens. What all of that amounts to is … I’m in trouble.

I dive back toward the couch and my bag, and begin shoving my things away. I have to get out of here and fast. “I think I get it now,” I say, my words a slow boil that is more about the disappointment in myself than anything he’s said. “Thanks for the pointers. Yeah, deflect and redirect. I can do that.”

From the corner of my eye, I see him kneel down beside me, wearing confusion across his face. “Robin, I was just acting the part, trying to help you practice. If I said something that really upset you by accident, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not that,” I murmur, refusing to look at him. “I just remembered that I have a paper due tomorrow and I need time to work on it. It isn’t anything about what you said. I already love your hair.”

He lays his hands over mine and stops me from moving any more. I’m finally forced to look at him, and the tenderness and fear I see there overwhelms me.

“What happened?” he asks. “I want to make this right with you. Just let me know what I did.”

What can I say?
Sorry, Hawk, but I’m actually pissed at you for being so wonderful that I have to leave now before I blurt it out? Thank you for helping me, now please let me go before I do something I regret?
Reaching into my stockade of disassociating phrases I’ve relied on over the years, I pull out the most diplomatic one.

“It’s not you, it’s me. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t let me slip away with that. His hands go to my arms, turning me toward him. We’re both on our knees by the couch, and I think for a moment how pitiful—or culpable—we’d look if someone came into the shipping room.

“If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll respect that. But, please, if I said anything, you’ve got to tell me. I don’t like to leave things unresolved. I’ve learned from experience that bad things can happen when I do.”

My eyes lock to his. It’s like he has a tractor beam on the truth within me; he draws it out too easily.

“What’s wrong is that I gave myself a chance to be attracted to you.”

He hesitates for only a moment, but it feels like the compression of eternity. When he finally kisses me, it isn’t with the gentle tenderness his eyes held a moment before. It’s hard, determined, and purposeful. He’s yelling at me with his lips, his kiss telling me not to be stupid and that there’s nothing wrong with what I’ve done. I feel myself solidify for a moment when our mouths first meet, but my misgivings melt away and before I know it, I’m kissing him back. His hands lower as his arms go around me, embracing me, drawing my body to his.

When I feel him begin to push me back against the couch, however, reality smacks me into the here and now. My eyes shoot open as I push him away.

“No, I can’t do this.”

His rapid breaths make his words raspy. “You can. Quite well, I might add.”

I roll my eyes as I shoot to my feet, slinging my backpack over my shoulder. “This won’t happen again. I’m not coming here again. I don’t want this. I can’t do this.”

“Robin, I—”

I don’t give him a chance to finish. The sound of his voice dies away as the door closes behind me and I take off running down the hall.

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