Writer’s Note: Any references to real people, places or events is entirely coincidental.

When I was in high school, I occasionally gave thought to the idea of becoming an artist. The principles of design were easily understood, and my knowledge of production software was more than adequate for my level. Unfortunately, I always seemed to lack a certain dexterity of the hand necessary for such an endeavor. Any time I tried to make something with a drawing tablet or even a simple mouse, the result was often very lackluster and imprecise. I could never be proud of anything I created back then.

Despite my many failures, I remained fixated on this idea of beauty in all things. With engineering, I could at least learn to create functional objects with beautiful aesthetics, and a part of me entertained the thought of going beyond even that – perhaps turning myself into an object of beauty somehow. The former would come by means of a traditional postsecondary education; that much I knew. The latter would have to find its origin in activities much more obscure and unorthodox.

In an ironic twist, both of these things would be cultivated in much the same setting, something I had yet to be aware of as I drove along Highway 37 toward the city of Rosewood. Alone in my thoughts for roughly three straight hours, it took all I had to resist turning around and rushing back home like a scared child. Of course, I knew that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Come what may, I needed to act like an adult. I needed to confront a world magnitudes larger than anything I had been used to before.

Rosewood wasn’t too intimidating with its population of roughly forty thousand, and Rosewood Tech was also quite small at a mere seven thousand. What made it significant in my mind was that seven thousand also happened to be the population of the town where I had spent most of my life growing up. Now, when I got out of bed each morning, I would have an entire town literally on my doorstep. Talk about a culture shock.

Still, there would be nothing gained from hiding myself away. With each new day, I tried to introduce myself to at least one new person, whether in my classes or just lounging around the student union. Many of them were sincere and accepting of who I was, which definitely helped. My professors, on the other hand, tended to hold mixed perceptions of me. Maybe the problem was that they had no idea how to read me as an individual, thus interactions with them felt a little less sincere.

Although, there had been one exception…

“Good afternoon, class! I hope you all were able to make the most out of a truly a record-breaking summer.” The students around me began to quiet down as he made his way to the whiteboard. Standing just shy of six feet, his overall build was toned but not muscular. His skin was a bit too pale, and his light brown hair was showing signs of loss. The thing that most captured my attention was that he couldn’t have been more than thirty years old. Personality-wise, he couldn’t have been too different from any of us.

“Welcome to Chemistry 201,” he continued. “This is the intermediate level, meaning that it will move a little faster than you might be used to. Most of the information you’ll need is in the syllabus, so please look it over carefully.” He reached for a marker and began to write some things on the board. “As we’re all adults here, please feel free to call me Jeremy instead of Professor Steinbeck. This will be my second year teaching at the university level. If it feels like I could be presenting the content in a way that matches your learning style a bit better, you’re welcome to give feedback at any time during the term.”

I found myself raising my hand, and when he called on me, I timidly asked, “If it’s alright, how old are you?” A few students giggled behind me, causing my face to turn a bright shade of pink.

“I happen to be twenty-nine. I hold a Masters in Chemical Sciences and a Bachelors in Applied Statistics. Eventually I’ll be seeking a Doctorate in both, meaning that I am still very much a student like the rest of you. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes, sir. Um, thank you.”

“With that now covered, I’m going to try and learn each of your names.” As he went down the list, people would respond with either “Here” or “Present,” which was customary for an introduction. Making his way quickly through the names, it wouldn’t be much longer until mine would be called.

“Charles?”

“Here.”

“Tamera?”

“Present!”

“Nicholas?”

“Uhm…” Slowly I raised my hand again. “It’s Nicole, sir.”

“Oh! My apologies. Let me amend the roster real quick… There. A pleasure to meet you, Nicole. Now, Sara?”

“Over here!”

I felt myself slumping a little in my seat. Well, that certainly could have gone better… The conversation moved to the syllabus and the term’s overall structure, but by then I was only paying half an ear. I just wanted to get out of the room and find somewhere to chastise myself for being so damned neurotic. After forty-five minutes, I got my wish.

Lunch found me in the student union, sitting across from a few of my dormitory neighbors as they chatted about their hobbies and other interests. I would occasionally chime in, though I was still very irritated after fouling up so badly. I scarfed down my meal a bit too early, practically choking on it and inadvertently causing at least one person to take notice.

“Are you alright, Nicki? You’re looking a little pale.”

“I could walk you back to your room if you need to rest.”

After a few small coughs, I swallowed and shook my head. “Thank you – both of you – but I think I’ll just drink some water and try to walk it off. I really don’t want to miss anything during the first week.” Wishing them a farewell, I stood and grabbed my things, departing from the student union in the hope that a breath of fresh air would help calm me down.

There were drinking fountains near the entrance thatI could use to replenish my water bottle. After downing a few mouthfuls, I let out a deep sigh and allowed my gaze to move from building to building. All around me, people of different generations and different walks of life were going about their business in the most casual of ways. Many of them seemed to interact just fine, regardless of personality or identity.

Was I overthinking this? My high school teachers had all been friendly from the start, though it often came back to the dynamic of them being adults and I a mere child. I was praised for my hard work, yet my passions back then were never fully acknowledged by those I had looked up to so dearly. In this environment, things were different; we were all adults here, as Jeremy had so eloquently stated. If I wanted to make friends with him beyond the classroom, then I had the freedom to do so. Perhaps that was the reason I was so terrified.

If my eccentricities were to overstep a boundary in any way, then no amount of excuses would be able to undo the damage. Therefore, as much as I wanted to be myself, I would still need to be rather subdued whenever I was around him. A part of me felt disappointed by this conclusion, but my more logical self rationalized this as simply being for the best. After all, I hadn’t come here with the purpose of making friends. I was a student above all, and I had a goal to pursue.

Things began to look up as the days progressed. Neuroticism quickly forgotten, I found myself back in my element once the knowledge I’d acquired in high school started to return. Chemistry had always spoken to me like a language, and soon I was being called upon more often than the other students who surrounded me each day. Some of them even approached from outside of class to ask for help with the finer points. By the third week, all feelings of apprehension had completely vanished.

On a Thursday morning, I decided to ride the bus into the city to explore for a bit. Students of the university were allowed to ride for free, which I felt would be better than constantly wasting gas. To my surprise, Jeremy happened to be there. “Oh, Nicole! Are you adjusting to campus life?”

“I feel a little better about things; thank you for asking. What are you currently up to, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“My home is close by, so I tend to have my lunches there on the days I hold labs. It just feels more comfortable.”

“I see…” Silence soon fell between us as we waited for the bus to arrive. After we boarded, I continued to look in his direction, an idea beginning to manifest. I knew it was stupid, yet I found myself absolutely compelled. “Hey, Jeremy. Is it alright if I… have lunch… with you…?”

“Huh? I didn’t catch that, Nicole.”

“I asked if I could… have have lunch with you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see why not.” At the next stop, he motioned for me to follow him off the bus. We walked another few minutes toward a smaller house near the end of the street. His car was in the driveway which told me that he too opted for the cheaper alternative. Considering he was a man of the sciences, It certainly made sense.

Fishing the keys from his pocket, he swiftly unlocked the door. “Feel free to make yourself comfortable, Nicole.” The furnishings were rather typical: a leather couch here, a flat screen TV there, a set of bookshelves against the far wall. Glancingtoward the kitchen revealed an assortment of pots and pans hanging from a center rack. Will he feel obligated to cook for me? Maybe coming here wasn’t the best idea…

Sure enough, he grabbed a pan and filled it with water before turning on the stove. “Are you allergic to anything?”

“No, not to my knowledge…”

“I just wanted to be sure.” He poured a box of noodles into the water and placed a glass lid over them. In a second pan he mixed milk, butter, Parmesan, pepper, mushrooms, cream cheese and a bit of garlic to create a creamy white sauce. When the noodles were soft enough, he strained the water and then poured them into the sauce, allowing it to simmer for another five minutes. The scent alone was phenomenal. He then spread the mixture into two bowls, placing them on the table with a smile. “Enjoy.”

“Th-Thank you for the meal.” Dropping my bag to the floor, I sat down and slowly brought the first bite to my lips. My eyes widened in amazement as the full flavor hit my taste buds. “This is really good! I haven’t had a meal like this since I left home.”

“Cooking isn’t exactly difficult; recipes are similar to what you’ll find yourself doing in the lab. If you look at it as a pursuit rather than a chore, you’ll be more inclined to make time for it.”

I nodded, taking another bite and then another. Though I wanted to say something, my mind was suddenly blank. He decided it best to dig in as well, the room growing silent save for the occasional clinking of silverware. This was not what I had in mind. I set down my fork and cleared my throat.

“So, how do you typically spend your off-time, Jeremy?”

“Hm? Well, I tend to go on a run each morning, and I enjoy hiking among other recreational activities.”

“Oh! Um, have you ever been geocaching before?”

“I’ve done it a few times. Nowadays, you can get an app on your phone which is relatively on par with those older GPS units.”

“When I have money again, I want to go all-out!” A giggle escaped my lips and I immediately covered my mouth. I could feel the heat radiating from my cheeks as I blushed profusely.

“You needn’t be ashamed of your ambitions, Nicole. I think it’s charming to dream when you’re young.”

“Y-Yeah…”

“Anyway, I would like to bounce that question back onto you. How do you spend time when not in class?”

“You might find this a little weird, but my favorite hobby actually happens to be contortion.”

“As in, stretching and flexibility?”

“Mhm. It’s something I’ve really loved ever since I was little.”

“Would you be willing to show me a bit of your skill?”

“…Huh!?”

“That is, if you’re comfortable, Nicole.”

“Oh… Alright, then…” Standing up from the chair, I moved over to his couch and removed my flats. Stretching my legs and grabbing my soles, I bent my knees and lifted my ankles until they were behind my neck. My professor’s eyes widened and he placed a finger to his chin.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you were flexible! It seems so effortless and fluid when you do it! Though you may want to…” His eyes glanced in the direction of my hips. My skirt had flown up a little, and even with tights on, a bulge was slightly visible. I let out a gasp and rushed to unfold myself, pulling my skirt down as tight as I could. He said nothing as I returned to my seat to continue eating.

Nothing was said as he collected the empty bowls to wash them. Nothing was said as we took the bus back to the campus. Still nothing was said as three o’clock rolled around and we passed by each other in the lab. When it was over, all either of us could say to each other was, “See you on Monday.” I wanted nothing more than to scream.

How could I have been so careless to alienate him like that? He had offered me so many kindnesses and all I had accomplished was to invade his personal space again and again. My utter embarrassment haunted my dreams and left me a wreck come Friday morning. It was all I could do just to make it through the day’s lectures, exhausted to the point of debilitating numbness. When I looked around me, all of the colors of the world seemed washed out, and every sound felt distant to my ears. It was as though the world had somehow lost its beauty overnight.

If I left things as they were, I would only continue to be miserable. I needed to apologize, to make amends. When my classes had finished for the day, I rushed over to where his office was located, only to find he had already left for home. Frustrated, I realized that I now had an ultimatum: I could spend the weekend agonizing, or confront him that night. In all honesty, I had nothing to lose by doing the former.

Around half-past seven, I got in my car and drove toward his house. The sun had set, blanketing the neighborhood with a bizarre eeriness. Parking opposite his driveway, I took a few final breaths to calm my nerves. All I had to do was go inside, apologize to him, and then leave.

I walked across the street, up the driveway, along the steps, and then firmly knocked upon his front door. When it finally opened, the sight I bore witness to made my jaw drop. Jeremy stood wearing an all-black unitard of a material similar to latex. It had both a chest and a crotch zipper, the latter of which drew my attention to a significant bulge. On his hands were a pair of leather gloves, and on his feet were a pair of skintight leather boots.

When he noticed my dumbfounded expression, he smiled. “Ah, Nicole… I was expecting you. Please make yourself comfortable.” It turned out I wasn’t the only one with eccentricities after all.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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