Shit! I was miles away. Who’s calling me? Oh, Daniels again, oldest member on the rowing team and soon to graduate his Master’s degree. I can guess what he wants, but he’s completely clueless about me.
“We’re all going for a drink at the Riverman. You coming?”
“No, thanks. I’m going for a run.”
He gawps at me and shakes his head in disbelief.
“You are a fucking machine, Grey,” he says and walks away leaving me alone.
That’s how I like it. And I know what he’s thinking – that I’m not a team player, a weirdo. The truth is I don’t really feel like going for a run, not after two hours of intensive rowing practice. I have to work hard to keep up with the rest of the team, to be better than them. I’m six-one but still the shortest, lightest and youngest guy on the team. They think I’m hardcore because I always go for a run after a training session. Maybe I am: my ‘sessions’ with Elena have taught me to endure, to hide what I feel. I am fucking hardcore – none of the team would believe what I can endure. There’s also no way I can shower at the same time as the rest of them – not with the fading marks of Elena’s cane all over my back and down my ass. I smile to myself. That would definitely raise a few eyebrows.
My smile falls. It’s still hard to leave her in Seattle, even after nearly two years at Harvard. If I don’t see her for more than three or four weeks, I begin to feel off kilter. I know my parents are still worried about me being out here alone. It’s fucking irritating – they keep asking me if I’ve made any ‘friends’. They think I might start drinking again or go off the rails in some other way. That’s not going to happen: Elena has taught me discipline – over my mind and body. I’m here to work. That’s all. But it’s getting harder, not easier. I don’t know why.
I run a couple of miles then slowly jog back to the boathouse men’s locker room. I strip off my sweaty kit and gratefully let the hot water flow over me. Hot water, being clean – these are pleasures I never tire of. Maybe it’s because I haven’t always had them. I shake my head and roll my shoulder muscles to dispel the memory.
When I turn off the faucet Jeff Williams, the number four stroke, is staring at me in horror.
“What happened to your back, man?”
Shit! He’s seen the results of Elena’s handy work. I’m fucking furious at myself for having been so careless. I should have checked that everyone had left.
I stare at him impassively. I’ve perfected this look since the age of 15. It hides what I’m thinking and seriously discomforts anyone I use it on.
He can’t meet my eyes anymore and he lowers them abruptly. I grab a towel but he’s still staring at me – at my chest this time. Is he close enough to see my scars? I don’t know but the thought makes me frown. I don’t want his pity: I don’t want or need anyone’s pity. It’s none of their fucking business. I know that Williams is gay and that’s why he never goes with the others on one of their drinking and womanising binges. Neither do I: Elena would beat the crap out of me if I did. But it dawns on me that he thinks I’m gay, too. That’s why he’s waited for me tonight. I wish he’d stop staring at me like that: horror on his face and pity in his eyes – it’s pissing me off.
I stare back, keeping my face as blank as possible but my eyes give me away and he takes a step back.
“Sorry, man. I just…”
He can’t finish the sentence and he looks away. I toss the towel in a hamper and pull on my jeans and a Tee then sit to put on socks and boots. The silence stretches between us; I’m not going to break it. I shove my kit in my sports bag and quietly leave. I’m out the door before I hear him follow me.
I ignore him and keep on walking. Besides, I’ve got an appointment with that useless shrink that my mother and father insist I see. It was one of their demands when I got into a school 3,000 miles from home.
This latest idiot is a ‘listening therapist’. I’m supposed to sit there and do free association talking. Fuck that. He’s the third shrink I’ve seen in the last 18 months. This one’s a complete dick. I sat silent throughout the first session as he waited for me to talk. I didn’t. So now he thinks it’s a battle of wills: he thinks I’ll break and start talking to him. I won’t, of course – I’ve got nothing to say to that fucking idiot. I feel bad that my parents are paying for this pathetic waste of space but if I stop going, they’ll interfere and I don’t need that.
Besides, I like it here, in as much as I like it anywhere. Nobody bothers me, not now. The first few months as a freshman at Harvard were fucking ghastly – people staring at me the whole time. Yeah, yeah, it’s just a pretty face over an ugly shell. No-one would want to get to know that. Several of the braver or more forward girls tried – asking me to join them for drinks, or for help with their studies or even just offering me sex. I turned them all down. I don’t want any of them – I only want Elena. Now they leave me alone, although they still stare. It’s irritating but that’s all.
The teaching is varied: some good, some surprisingly mediocre. I thought Harvard would push me a bit more; I’ve gotten pretty good at exploring my limits over the last five and a half years. Or rather Elena has gotten good at making me explore my limits. Nobody here has gotten anywhere near my limits.
I hate that my parents are paying for my fees here because it means they’ve still got control over me. They love me – fuck knows why – but they don’t know anything about the real me: and I work very hard to keep it that way.
My favourite teacher is Professor Mathers. She teaches Behavioral Finance and Macroeconomics. She’s straightforward, intelligent and fair. She doesn’t take any shit either: if you don’t work in her class, you’re out. No third chances. Some of the other students don’t like her because of the pace she goes at, but it suits me and anyone else who can keep up. She’s one of those people who teaches because she believes in passing on knowledge from experience; not one of those ivory tower types who’s never had to succeed in the real world. She’s also a lesbian which is a relief, because it means she’s not intimidated or diverted by my looks. I can trust whatever grade she gives me.
So I’m surprised when, later that week, after another pointless session with the asshole shrink, she asks me to come to her office after class. I’ve aced her most recent test – again, and she’s given me straight As for every essay I’ve ever written for her. But I’m not happy with the latest assignment she’s given us because she’s told us to work with a study buddy. What are we, five years old, for fuck’s sake! I don’t need anyone’s help and I sure as shit don’t need a buddy. I’ve already made up my mind to work alone whatever she says.
“Mr Grey, if I could have a moment of your time, please.”
The Professor has never asked to speak to me one-on-one before so I’m wary.
She says ‘please’ but I know it’s not a request – I recognise that tone instantly. The other students stare at me as they leave the lecture hall. They’ve never seen her speak to me either.
When the last student has left I follow the Professor to her study. She points me into a chair in front of her desk.
“Well, Mr Grey, that was a very interesting interpretation you gave on the consequences of the loss of the Gold Standard in your last paper. Original thinking. I liked it a lot.”
I’m surprised by the compliment, but polite. Always polite.
“You have great potential, Mr Grey, of that I have no doubt. People like you are needed to lead this country’s industrial future. Well now, have you decided who will be your partner for this next assignment?”
From the look on her face she already knows the answer. I see where this is going and I’m surprised. I didn’t think the Professor was such a simpleton to pair me up with someone just because she thinks I’m a loner. I am a loner – but it’s by choice, for crissake.
She meets my impassive gaze, a small smile irritating the fuck out of me. I continue to keep my face carefully blank. I watch as she narrows her eyes.
“The role of a leader is to lead people, not to drive them, Mr Grey. Whilst brilliant, you need to be able to work with people. I’m assuming you haven’t yet selected a partner to work with?” She takes my silence as an affirmation.
We’re disturbed by a soft knock on the door and she nods at someone over my shoulder.
“Well then, I have taken the liberty of selecting a suitable partner for you. Come in, Miss Hill. We were just discussing the latest assignment.”
Shelly Hill enters. I recognise her. She sits at the back of my Macroeconomics class. She doesn’t speak unless spoken to – like me. I haven’t really looked at her closely before but I do now. She has long brown hair and light hazel eyes. She’s dressed in cheap jeans and a baggy T-shirt. She looks pissed off. She must know why she’s here and she’s not happy about it either.
“Miss Hill, you know Mr Grey? He’ll be your partner for the next assignment. I’m sure you’ll enjoy working together. Thank you both for your time.”
She’s dismissing us. Shit! Time to speak.
“Professor Mathers, I’d rather complete the assignment by myself – and I think Miss Hill would, too.”
The Professor smiles coolly.
“I’m sure that’s true: but I’ve just explained why that won’t be the case on this occasion. And I don’t like to repeat myself, Mr Grey. Good day.”
I stand up without another word and open the door for the silent Miss Hill, politely allowing her to leave before me. I follow her out and close the door.
In the corridor she’s staring at me as if I’m a science experiment gone wrong. Good call, baby, because there’s nothing normal about me.
“That told us,” she says, raising a delicate eyebrow. “Believe me, I have no great desire to work with you either but it seems we have no choice.”
I sigh. “It’s nothing personal. I just prefer to work alone.”
“As do I,” she replies.
We stare at each other and slowly a pale blush blooms across her cheeks. Yeah, yeah – the usual response. She looks away.
“Let’s go and get a coffee,” she mumbles, “and then we can divide up the work so we can see each other as little as possible.”
There’s no point in being a shit.
“Good idea,” I smirk at her and she gives me a small smile of relief.
She heads for the refectory, a place I normally avoid as much as possible.
“Why does it feel like everyone’s staring at us?” she whispers.
I shrug. Because they are. I’ve gotten used to it. Vacuous people impressed by looks that are only skin deep. I buy her a cup of coffee and carry it to an empty table. She blushes again. Christ. I hope she’s not going to start mooning over me and I throw her an irritated look. She squares her small shoulders and looks at me defiantly. It makes me smile and she stares at me in amazement before she starts to smile, too. Women don’t usually make me smile – it’s a novelty.
She shakes her head.
“Let’s divide this up then,” I say, getting to the point quickly. “We can do the introduction together – tonight, if you’re free – then I’ll do sections one through four and you do can do five through eight. Then get together and work out a summary.”
“You’re very bossy,” she says softly.
That surprises me. Am I?
“Well, what do you want to do?” I ask, irritated again.
She cocks her head to one side and stares at me. “No, that’s fine. I’d just prefer to have been asked, rather than receiving an order from high command.”
I can’t help laughing out loud and she smiles at me shyly.
“Ok,” I say, “fair point well made. Do you want to get started on this tonight?”
“Sure. Tonight’s good. Do you want to come to my room – say 7pm? My roommate’s usually out by then so we can work.”
I frown. Well, at least if I’m in her room I’ll be able to leave when I want.
“I’ve got a class at 6.30pm but I could be there by 7.45pm.”
“Oh. What class?”
I shift uncomfortably. I don’t want to give this girl my life story even if she does seem like a rational human being.
“Kickboxing,” I mutter.
“Oh,” she says again. “Ok, 7.45pm.”
She gives me the address and her cell number on a piece of paper.
The kickboxing class has allowed me to blow off some steam. I knocked the instructor on his ass which pissed him off. I wasn’t even on my best form, distracted by thoughts of seeing Shelly Hill later. I’m going to have to find somewhere a bit more challenging to train. I jog back to my apartment and shower quickly.
Unlike most freshmen and sophomores, I don’t live on campus. I still get nightmares and my parents didn’t want me to have to go through the humiliation of waking up screaming with a roommate I don’t know. It’s bad enough when it happens at home. It’s fucking terrifying: I wake up bathed in sweat, my heart hammering, tremors running through my body. And the memories. Always the memories. The only thing that soothes me is music.
I drive to Shelly’s and get there by 7.40pm. But it’s a blonde girl who answers the door when I knock. She’s tall and curvy and stunning and I’m so not interested.
“You’re here to see Shelly?” Her tone is as puzzled as her expression.
“Hi, Christian!” Shelly calls from inside. “Come on in.”
Blonde Girl steps out of the way to let me enter, her expression frankly carnal. I’m used to it – it gets old fast.
For a moment it looks as if Blonde Girl is going to stay but then Shelly says, “Have a good evening, Hannah,” and Blonde Girl reluctantly leaves us alone.
Shelly hovers nervously but I relax when I see textbooks scattered across her desk and over the bed. I can tell by her faint blush that she’s embarrassed to have me in her room. There’s only one chair so, ever polite, I shift some books on her bed to make a space to sit down. Her blush increases. To give herself something to do she offers me a coffee and I’m relieved that she wants to work, not talk.
I’m pleasantly surprised by how astute she is. She’s so quiet in class I’d never noticed that she has a quick brain and a logical way of thinking. There’s a creative side to her, too. And, to my surprise, we work well together. There’s a lot more to Miss Hill than meets the eye. In a gentle, understated way, I find that she’s attractive. For the briefest of moments I fantasise about asking her on a date. But it’s just that – a fantasy. No sane girl would ever want me.
The assignment is mind-numbingly straightforward – for me, at least. It involves looking at real life case histories of companies and suggesting how and why they should be fixed. It’s so fucking obvious what needs to be done that it’s hardly a thrilling assignment. Surprisingly, Shelly has similar thoughts. Not for the first time I wish I could do this for real instead of a tedious paper-only project. I’d like to get out there and really work but my parents won’t hear about any suggestion that means I don’t graduate first.
We’ve been working solidly for nearly an hour when unexpectedly, I hear my phone beep with a text message. I assume it’s either Mia or Elliot – no-one else ever texts me. But when I glance at it – shit! It’s Elena.
* I’m outside your apartment. Where the fuck are you? *
Fuck. I’m in trouble.
“I have to go,” I say, standing up quickly.
“Is everything ok?” asks Shelly, looking concerned.
“Yes, but I have to go. I’ll see you in class.”
I’m out the door and running before she can reply.