December 2013

Pins and Needles

     The night before my first day of college, I sat in my cozy little dorm and watched a program about hedgehogs and their unsanitary pins and their nasty little scrunched up faces. Alone, of course. There’s nothing wrong with it, I thought to myself. I prefer it this way.
     As I watched the shrunken quasi-rats on the screen, desperately trying to huddle together, I remembered something I had been told a long time ago. It was a story detailing the Hedgehog’s Dilemma: the damn things would yearn to be near each other, but could not approach too closely without harming themselves.
     I had never enjoyed that story. It made no sense to me. Why didn’t they just stay away from each other? Why did they feel the need to do that to themselves?

     The next morning, during my first class, I tried to subtly lean away from the girl who happened to sit on my left. She sat and blabbered on about her summer exploits, including that one week in July when she “totally met the cutest guy, like, ever!” I wasn’t in the mood for it at all, though admittedly I never was. The guy on my right was quiet as she ranted, but I was cautious about getting too close to him as well.
     Unfortunately, mid-way through the lecture, he spoke up. “Got a pen?” he asked. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was nothing more than a ploy. How had he just realized that he needed one? Out of pity, I offered him an old dingy one I found at the bottom of my backpack without looking at him. He took it, though rather reluctantly.
     He thanked me for it, his whisper sliding under the ongoing chatter of the girl, but by then I had become intensely focused on ignoring him. His words went nearly unnoticed. The girl on my left was scribbling ‘Celina and Jerry forever’ on the side of her notes. It was annoying to watch but it helped as I continued to force myself to look away from the boy. For the rest of the lecture, the professor spoke of the scientific method and its historical implications, but I couldn’t push it out of my mind. Didn’t she have anything better to do than escape into her thoughts about some lackluster summer fling?
     The lecture ended pretty quickly. As I tossed my notebook into my backpack the boy returned my pen to me. I tried not to notice his yellow hair and his green eyes, but I failed at that as well. He held his mouth agape as if he meant to say something, but I turned away and rushed out before he could. I didn’t care much for small talk anyway.

     Later, after night had fallen and clouds had settled above the campus, I began my nightly walk from my dorm, around the clock tower, through the dimly lit library halls, and back again. It had been a week since I started this routine, and by then it was exactly that: a meaningless march and nothing more. Leaves danced with the wind skidding on the concrete and a cat dashed from shrub to shrub. Tall buildings stood high on both sides, forming a wind tunnel that bit at my skin and left goose bumps in its wake. My phone vibrated in my pocket, but I didn’t want to trouble with it. It was most likely Mother anyway (“Greg, answer your phone!”). Thunder roared from the darker mounds in the distance, but it didn’t concern me too much. A group of guys passed by as their stupid neon hats threatened to fly off their heads. They continued laughing to themselves, paying no attention to me.
     I felt drips of water hitting the back of my neck, and my breath caught as I saw what stood under the lamppost a few yards in front of me: the pencil-needing boy from my class, struggling with his bike lock. He tugged and pulled at it, but it would not budge. The device remained firm, never responding to his tireless effort. He grunted loudly as he stepped back, sighing as the rain struck even harder. As much as I wanted to, there was no divulging from my path. I had to hope that the darkness and the storm would be my ally.
     As I passed, however, he saw me. I would say the clichés, but none of them happened: time did not stop, we definitely didn’t feel like the only people on Earth, and his eyes were not windows into his soul. I would not deny, however, that he made me stop walking. His gaze alone made me pause and look back at him.
     Most surprisingly of all, it forced words from my lungs. “Having trouble with that thing?”
     He stared at me blankly in surprise before he composed himself and answered with a smile, “Yeah, it does this a lot. I can be here all night and it won’t open, then I’ll come back tomorrow and it’ll practically be falling apart.”
     “You could say that about a lot of things,” I answered.
     He laughed to himself, rose to his feet, and held out his hand. “Kyle Heathers,” he announced, proud of his own name. “Mind if I walk with you? I don’t know my way around too well yet.”
     The rain strengthened to a downpour as I shook his hand and introduced myself. In wonder, I looked up and let the water hit my face. It struck cold and fierce, but it was relieving all the same. Something in the clouds had suddenly made me hopeful, it seemed. The drops bounced off the bricks of the buildings, the drying leaves on the trees, and our heads. All was silent except for the rain and the soft whisperings of Kyle and me.
     Midway through our walk, after the small talk was through, he asked, “So back home… how was it?”
     I shrugged, hesitant to tell him more than he needed to know. He looked at me, waiting for an answer, and so I replied, “It was fine.”
     He tilted his head slightly, tightened his lips, and asked, “Not much of a talker, are you?”
     The rain still gushed onto our uncovered heads. Until then, I hadn’t cared. Suddenly, though, I realized that I would have preferred to be alone. Apparently my short sentences weren’t enough of a hint for Kyle. I shook my head in response and he looked away silently. An awkwardness had settled into the air along with the pounding storm, but I had no idea how to tell him that I wanted to go on alone.
     “Thanks again for walking with me,” he said as he reached into his pocket, “I wouldn’t have been able to find my way back by myself.”
     I couldn’t take it anymore. I shifted in place, grabbed at my arm, and muttered, “I’d rather go back by myself, actually.” I couldn’t be near him anymore. His pins will hurt me if I get too close, I suddenly thought.
     Thunder, lightning. The vibrations ran through the stones under my feet, and the light was cast over the area for an instant, revealing Kyle’s shocked and disappointed face. There was little he could say as I began to back away slowly, retreating from his presence. All they want to do is stay warm, but they’ll do nothing but bleed each other dry. He made no move to convince me otherwise.
     “I guess I’ll, uh, find my way back somehow,” he answered as he stared down. It was apparent that something more bothered him. The weather had become perilous then, but I still couldn’t bear the thought of sticking around. I knew where my dorm was. I’d have no problem getting back.
     Don’t let it happen again, my thoughts taunted. Distant memories played through my mind, subtle as the mindless touch of piano keys. It’s happened so many times before. They get close and then they hurt you. Don’t give in, don’t give in, don’t give in
     Still, an odd feeling of guilt washed over me just as the downpour did. I couldn’t help but feel just a bit bad as I wondered whether I should have at least guided him back to his own place. I thought about it a bit too late, I realized as I walked into my room.
     Sorrow dripped off my clothing and my hair, onto the carpeted floor and the rug and still I did not care. The television had been left on and was still on the channel it had been on the night before. Those hedgehogs were at it again, trying to find warmth but so frustratingly unable to do so.
     Will they ever manage it? I wondered as tears welled in my eyes. They need to figure it out. They continued trying, but they couldn’t manage it. They’ll die in the winter if they don’t.

     The next time I had that class, Kyle was there but he spoke not a single word to me. Each class after that, he showed up but it was clear that in his mind I did not exist. Hell, I couldn’t even be sure if he resented me for what happened. After a few days, I managed to convince myself that I preferred it that way.
     As I took my nightly stroll every night after that storm, I saw that he was never able to open his bike lock. It stayed there, unmoving, for the rest of the year, through wind, snow, and sun. I saw that same program a few months later, and my mind thanked me for what I had chosen. If you keep to yourself, no one can hurt you. Don’t you like this better?
     I still wasn’t sure.

—Cristóbal Vásquez

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