He sat a few rows in front of her and, periodically, when he was certain that the professor wasn’t looking, he turned back to face her.
And, invariably, she smiled.
That was his cue to look down at his notebook and pretend to be engrossed by his horrible handwriting.
A few moments passed, then the professor resumed his rambling lecture, and Mark summoned his “perfect student” expression – body slightly leaning towards the professor, left hand moving with method so that it looked like he was getting notes, eyes following the professor’s body with the precision of a radar. Inside, he was gloating. He knew he had it all: thick eyebrows that gave him an aura of mystery, deep-set black eyes which seemed to burrow under your skull, all neatly packaged in a Burberry jacket and endless, almost palpable confidence.
As the lesson continued, Mark’s eyes took care to remain glued to the professor’s every movement while his mind concentrated on his foolproof “plan of conquest.”
At the end of the lesson, he would go to the girl, and very casually ask her “Would you care for a cup of chai?” And she, who seemed shy, would whisper in her hesitant voice: “Mmm … okay.” After that he would return home, watch the Simpsons, prepare himself a hot bath, while she would be home, pretending to read but secretly waiting for him to call. A few hours would go by and he, fully rested and still hot from this bath, would invite her over for dinner…
Mark’s serious faced morphed into a grin. He rubbed his hands on his Calvin Klein jeans and stood up. The lesson was over, and the show was on.
“Pleased to meet you: I’m Mark.” he introduced himself. The girl offered him a faint smile but, instead of taking his hand into hers, she braced her body with her arms and held onto her sweater tightly, as if she were afraid that his words could tear it off her.
“Chiara” she said, her soft voice barely audible in the crowded classroom.
“Well, Chiara. I know it may sound like I’m .., uhm… rushing it.. a bit” said Mark as he scratched the back of his head with what he hoped could be interpreted as insecurity.
She took the bait, and egged him on with a nod and a faint smile. “Would you care for a cup of chai?” continued Mark. He took care of looking at the floor. Again, he couldn’t help mentally high-fiving himself for his acting ability. Mark was an expert: he changed attitude according to the girl he wanted to go to bed with. And he never failed.
Chiara, as was expected, tenderly laid her hand on his shoulder. “All right, let’s go” She said.
“… But not to a Café’.”
Mark’s smile died as quickly as it had been born. “What do you mean …don’t you like chai?”
This was completely unacceptable. No girl had ever dared contradict him! Mark inhaled deeply, hoping the fresh air would cool down his temper.
He was very tempted to tell Chiara that he had just remembered he had a thing… some urgent business he had to attend to. But giving up on a woman was simply not in his style.
“Fair enough,” he conceded, forcing on a fake shrug and even a smile to go along with. “But I warn you: I do not have a helmet for you, and I’m risking a fine by carrying you around.”
“Oh, don’t worry. We’ll walk,” said Chiara.
“What…? walk?!” Mark blurted out, stopping a few inches from the exit.
He could not walk and leave his beloved CPR all alone on the sidewalk! Not to mention that all of this went against his principles of proverbial couch potato! He opened his mouth to protest, but Chiara was quicker: “Hush! It’s not that far.” she said, taking him by the arm and leading him outside the classroom.
The weather was uncertain, and Mark look at the gray clouds with concern. “If it rains, however, I’m getting my chai.”
“Don’t worry: it will not rain.” she reassured him.
And, surely enough, as time passed the sun managed to sneak through the clouds, which were becoming more sparse.
“See? What did I tell you?” said Chiara, a light smile forming on her lips. That smile, the only uncontained expression she had offered him until that moment, surprised him. For an instant, he was almost taken aback. He hadn’t seen a sensuous body to satisfy his lust, but the soul inside it. For a second, he almost thought she was beautiful.
But then he remembered that The Simpson’s would be on soon. Chiara said something, but Mark was no longer listening. Instead, he looked at his Rolex. They had already been walking for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes. Hadn’t she told him that it wasn’t far?
“When do we get there?” He asked. “I cannot walk anymore.”
“We will arrive n due time. Trust me.” Chiara’s voice remained soft and poised, but her pace quickened, and she was soon a few steps in front of him.
As Chiara became smaller and smaller, Mark thought about the powerful smell of coffee, its bitter taste, and everything that had always come after: a dinner at a nice restaurant, a bottle of vodka and strawberry syrup. It was always the same comfortable, reassuring routine. The only thing that changed was the woman. And now … How had he ended up in this mess, headed God knows where with a teenage girl who, as if all of that wasn’t already bad enough, had begun to hum, attracting the eyes of indignant passer-bys?
“How long ‘till we get there?” He whined. He had lost his composure and was actually acting like himself now, so annoyed was he about not being able to have his way.
“We are almost there. Hush!” said Chiara.
Hush … Hush my foot! He thought.
Mark checked the time on his Rolex and gave a start: they had walked for over an hour now. He looked up from his watch and, for the first time, paid attention to his surroundings. He saw grass, just grass. A huge expanse of grass that seemed to never end. But where the Hell was he? Where the Hell was the city? A bar? And, most importantly, where was the nearest taxi stand?
“Is something wrong?” She asked. ” He opened his mouth, looking for an angry retort which never came. Everything was wrong! He didn’t even know where to begin …
“ Look,” he said, stepping in her way and putting his hands in front of her, so that she wouldn’t be able to keep on walking. “The fact is that I must be back soon and, right now, I don’t have the faintest idea where we are!”
A flicker of amusement passed through Chiara’s eyes, catching Mark off guard. Maybe, he had underestimated her? She seemed to be less naïve than he had initially thought.
“At home…To do what?” She probed him. “Is it something so important that you can’t postpone it?
Mark’s thoughts went to the Simpsons, to the half-empty bottle of Martini on the kitchen table and the warm water for his bath which, in his mind, was already becoming cold. “Yes, definitely.” He replied.
“All right, then” She shrugged. “ I’ll take you home. But first I want to show you something: we are very close to it now!”
“But ..” He protested.
He was not used to walking and his elegant Hogans had been the perfect breeding ground for huge blisters that were now exploding like volcanoes
“No buts! You will like it. Trust me”
He didn’t trust her, but he decided to keep going. After all, he had never walked so much in his life, and could not bear to have struggled that much for nothing. Mark took the hand that Chiara had stretched toward him, and he let himself be guided by her.
To his horror, they stepped onto the grass, where his shoes would get irremediably ruined. He wanted to let go of Chiara’s hands, but it seemed too rude, even for him.
And so they walked on, through a sea of grass, across a dirt path that wound through the bushes, and into a dense forest crowded by tall sequoia trees which were blocking the sunlight.
Why did I let myself get dragged into this? He thought as he leaned against the rough bark of a fir tree and tried to remove a pebble from his left shoe. He looked at the girl, who smiled. He grunted.
At least, someone was happy. But it was the wrong someone.
“ We are almost there. I promise. Just a few steps left.” Chiara egged him on. Mark said nothing, afraid that, if he opened his mouth, he would start cursing.
But he kept going, telling himself that it was too late anyway: the Simpsons’episode had already ended.
They entered the forest, Chiara making her way with ease, Mark stumbling over rocks and the thick tree roots winding through the earth like a maze. The annoying rustle of leaves stirred by the wind echoed in Mark’s head, along with the chirping of cicadas, which loomed above them from every side. “Look, I’m almost afraid to ask, but this place is creepy. Are we almost there?” He insisted.
“Actually… We made it.”
Mark looked straight ahead and saw the trees open to reveal a small, grass-filled valley.
“Is that all?” He asked, the disappointment of the banality of it all making his body tremble.
“Come,” Chiara tugged at his shirt, then threw herself on the thick bed of grass.
Mark’s eyes widened and his nose contorted in disgust.”You’re kidding me, right?” Chiara shook her head, sending ripples of waves across her oversized blue sweater.
“You. Must. Be. Kidding. Me.” He repeated, incredulous. “I cannot believe you brought me down here to ask me to lie down on dull, boring, common grass!”
The girl stood silent, staring at him. “Well, anyway, if you brought me here for that you’ll be disappointed: I’m not going to lie down on soggy, smelly grass for no good reason and wreck my 200$ pants.” Chiara stood silent, apparently lost in her thoughts. She seemed engrossed in her own world, and Mark felt hurt. He hated the feeling of not being necessary. Mark shifted his weight from one leg to another.
“This is too much.” He said, finally. “I’m going home” He turned on his heels but continued to falter. Meanwhile, Chiara had closed her eyes. She had let herself surrender to the bed of grass and the sun filtering through the leaves drew mysterious figures on her body. Mark looked at his Rolex one last time. It was five o’clock.
At this point, he should have been lying in his bath, immersed in boiling water up to his neck, fantasizing about the evening that he would spend with the woman of the day. Mark’s eyes rested again on the girl, who was now sitting and holding something in her hand. “Come and see!” She called him, her voice suddenly strong and clear. Mark looked at his watch again,. It seemed to reprimand him with his obnoxious ticking.
“All right, I’m coming! just give me a sec.”
Slowly, Mark took his watch off and threw it in a bush of hawthorns. He then slid on the grass next to the girl, feeling a rush of adrenaline as his body came in contact with hers. Chiara looked at him knowingly, and her face seemed to glow with a secret happiness. It was the type of joy that makes your whole body fill up with energy. The type of joy that you can’t understand unless you have felt it before.
She offered her closed hands to Mark and opened them a sliver, to let him see what she was holding.
It was turquoise, with streaks of yellow and purple on the edges. The butterfly flapped its wings once, twice, then landed on Mark’s knee. And all Mark could do was look at it, holding his breath.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” The girl asked.
“It’s amazing… “