Fiction: The Love Interest

Soon after arriving at Hein University, Cass realized that college was basically one long, unfortunate sitcom. Dorm RAs were either coke addicts or devout tattletales who wrote you up when you listened to The Kills too loudly on your turntable. The bros who lived upstairs got drunk and peed out of the window in the middle of the night, rather than walk down the hall to the communal bathroom. You only ever got locked out of your room while taking a shower, and then you had to wait in the hall in your ratty bathrobe for campus security to let you back in.

And then there were the days when you just wanted to drink your mocha at the coffee house before your lecture, and the only seat open was next to that guy you had a one-night stand with last weekend.

A really great one-night stand. The kind of one-night stand you hoped would keep standing.

Cass had a theory that she might have slept with her soul mate already and have absolutely no idea, because no one ever acknowledged the stranger they’d fucked when they bumped into each other around campus afterward. That wasn’t to say she was interested in a soul mate right now—she just wanted to stay awake in American Literature. It was the principle of the thing that mattered, an issue of respect. If a dude had seen you naked, he should have the courtesy to nod in greeting during your inevitable run-in. Hein University was small. It always happened sooner or later.

She held her coffee and peered around the room for another place to sit, willing the jock a few tables away to not look up from his textbook. But sitcom logic could not be fought. As if her mystical screenwriters had seen an opportunity for comedic gold, he chose that moment to stretch his arms up over his head, yawn, and glance in her direction.

Her face flushed with heat as she remembered his mouth on her hips, teasing her until she begged him to just touch me, Ian, please.

That was his name. Ian Katz. Last weekend Ian Katz learned what she wanted and gave it to her so tenderly that it had required real effort to leave before he woke up. And now he was some guy at the coffee house about to pretend he didn’t know her. She really needed to take a break from the hookup scene.

Hurt was just beginning to sting in her stomach when he smiled at her. And, if Cass’s eyes were not deceiving her, he gestured to the empty chair at his table.

Well. Maybe today was more How I Met Your Mother than Seinfeld.

If there was one good thing about Cass—and there were several, but this was the most relevant—it was that she could roll with strange situations. Besides, she had a mocha with whipped cream and caramel drizzle in hand, and with that she felt capable of anything.

With a casual flip of her hair, she strode across the room as if sitting together was her idea in the first place. She lowered herself gracefully into the seat across from Ian, AKA the bro with amazing oral sex abilities who happened to be a really good dancer if she remembered the frat party correctly. There had been a lot of cheap champagne involved.

“Hi Cass,” the bro said.

They remembered each other’s names! Bonus points all around.

“Hey,” she replied, tacking on a stilted, “How are you?” Cass took a long sip of her drink and scalded her throat. She didn’t want to look directly at him for too long. It seemed impertinent, a word only her grandmother ever used. Her strongest memory of his face up until this point was of how he gritted his teeth as she rode him. This thought was not appropriate for a Wednesday morning.

“Pretty chill,” Ian answered, his voice lower and smoother than she remembered. A great voice, the kind made for radio or inappropriate whispers at the library. She wondered if he had any idea what memory she was reliving in her mind. Or maybe he was also thinking about her fingers digging into his shoulders, holding on tight. “I have a midterm next week so I’m doing the reading I blew off all semester.”

“I admire your dedication to your studies,” Cass said. That came out bitchier than she’d intended but he just laughed from deep in his chest like a Midwestern Santa. It echoed through the coffee house and a few people glanced over at their table. She wondered if they looked strange together: him, a fraternity brother with a bellowing laugh, and her, a mousy music snob who smelled like dust and vinyl. Not that she wasn’t attractive, just like, not the North Face jacket-wearing type of attractive.

“It’s been a busy few months,” he explained. “I finally got Netflix. Had some important catching up to do.”

She leaned over the table to read the cover of his textbook, half-expecting an economics course reader. “And… French Lit II could wait?”

“I needed to see if the Gilmore Girls hype was valid.”

Cass’s heart grew three sizes under her comfy sweatshirt.

Things she deduced about Ian in the first two minutes of their conversation: she liked his voice. A lot. He had this modest, sexy drawl. And he actually looked at her instead of avoiding eye contact like every other twenty-year-old who didn’t know how to talk to a woman he’d slept with. The dude wasn’t even fidgeting.

She found herself relaxing in his company too, except for the bone deep awareness that only a few days ago there had been much less talking and much more… grunting. She was kind of loud.

Maybe it was his smile? He had a really friendly smile.

“Thanks for letting me join you,” she said. “It’s so busy here today.”

“I like company.” Big smile, big dimples, big brown eyes. Had she ordered him from some catalogue? Any second now he would reveal that he collected the heads of Barbie dolls or wanted to work on Wall Street. She didn’t belong in a meet-cute, she belonged in some shitty dramedy about millennial sexual norms. She didn’t even wash her hair this morning. “Plus I hoped I’d run into you sooner or later.”

Correction, make that a devious smile. It suited him.

“Oh really now?” Cass was great with clever comebacks like that. Other classics included is that so, and can you repeat that? But she was distracted by the mess of nerves in her stomach and how he kept running his thumb along the lip of his coffee mug, tracing it back and forth.

“Really,” Ian said. She could practically see her reflection in his gigantic hazel pupils. It felt uncomfortable in a nice way, like stepping into a too-hot shower. “I had a good time the other night.”

“I did too.” This was perhaps the understatement of the century, which on an unrelated note was a saying that always bothered her, being that it was a huge overstatement. But Ian seemed worthy of the contradiction, much like having an accidental coffee date with a stranger you’d already fucked.

“So why’d you disappear?” he asked. “I woke up all by my lonesome, feeling used and sticky.”

He cracked the T in “sticky” with relish as he teased her. It was charming. But she couldn’t help but think how much shit she would get if she were the one saying that to some guy. She’d sound creepy and more than a little pathetic. Not that he was pathetic—Ian was anything but pathetic. But if she didn’t actually like him, he’d be opening himself up to a lot of risk, saying something like that.

That was the whole point of casual sex, wasn’t it? To be casual? Risk-free? To go back to daily life on Monday morning as if nothing ever happened? Hookups weren’t supposed to matter, which was why she sort of sucked at them. It always seemed to her like sex didn’t have to change your life to be important. It wasn’t like there was fucking on one side of a line and love on the other. All the fun stuff happened in the middle.

“I’m sorry for making you feel used. And sticky.” Cass studied the side of her coffee cup. The paper wilted where a droplet had spilled down the side. “That’s usually how these things go, you know,” she added. “Meet a guy at a party, have some fun, vanish before you become actual people.”

She wasn’t saying she loved it, as far as systems went. She hadn’t stopped thinking about Ian since that night, and it seemed like such a waste to walk away from someone who might be worth sticking around for. Someone who remembered all the lyrics to pop music from the 90s and wasn’t afraid to belt them at the top of his lungs just to make her laugh.

But the sting of rejection left scars. Too-high expectations could cancel out an entire night’s adventure. So she slipped out from under his arm around 5am and put her pants back on. And she awaited the awkward run-in at brunch when the gild would get scraped off the memory.

“You seem like an actual person to me,” he pointed out. “And we had a great conversation about how Frank Ocean needs to release another album on the walk to my dorm. That’s something actual people do.”

“Walk places?”

“Discuss music preferences.”

“You’re sharp,” she said. “I’m impressed.”

“And you’re condescending, but I’ll let it slide.” Cass flushed, and he waved her unspoken apology off, unconcerned. “Were you expecting me to be a dumb jock?”

“Maybe.”

Yes. Because you really only got two out of three traits: smart, kind, or good-looking. Otherwise you’d been spoiled by the screenwriters of the sky.

“I am quite attractive,” he mused, displaying his dimples again to hammer the point home.

“And modest.”

“And interested in you.” His eyes glinted when her mouth fell open and no sound came out. “Run out of comebacks?”

She shouldn’t be surprised. Their entire conversation led up to this moment; she’d figured that out like four minutes ago. But there was something so bold about it, how ready he was to just put his feelings out there. No playing hard to get via text, no waiting to accept a friend request, nothing. I am interested in you. Those must be the bravest five words in the English language.

“Are you secretly a jerk who’s gonna blow me off as soon as you get sick of the chase?”

He chuckled like some dignified professor. “Hey now,” he said, raising his hands in the air in a slow-down gesture. “I just want someone to watch Gilmore Girls with.”

“Not to kill the mood, but I’ve never seen it.”

His responding grin was contagious. “We have to fix that. Like, soon. It’s of grave importance.”

“How does tomorrow night sound, say… 7?”

“You know where I live.”

She glanced at her cellphone screen, trying in vain to hide the smile threatening to break her face in half. To her surprise, her lecture started four minutes ago. Whatever, at least she was awake.

“I gotta bounce,” she said. “I have an exciting discussion about representations of suffering in the Industrial Age waiting for me. Thanks again for the chair.”

“Thanks for sitting in it.” And then, as if to solidify his status as the shamelessly goofy and yet still somehow alluring love interest of the next season of her life, he winked.

Cass snorted as she stood up and dug her headphones out of her coat pocket. “I am judging you so hard right now.”

“I think I can live with that. Enjoy your suffering.”

She suspected she would.


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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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