May 31, 2012
Hannah put on a smile to match Katie’s and braced herself for what was sure to be a long, detailed, and rambling dissertation on Katie’s latest enthusiasm.
“Guess what happened yesterday, Hannah.”
Katie knew she hated guessing games, but that never stopped her from treating the most ordinary conversation like an exciting mystery.
“I can’t imagine. Fill me in.”
“The new instructor came by, and he is so hot! You just wouldn’t believe how good looking he is. And he has this fantastic accent. Not a thick one. Just enough to be . . . Oh, you know. A little exotic. From Europe somewhere, I guess.”
“Really? The guy Dr. Philips hired for the Fall classes? What in the world is he doing here in June? Does he think it’s going to take him all summer to get up to speed on his class assignments?”
“I don’t know why he’s here so early,” Katie said, her bubbles barely flattened by Hannah’s matter of fact questions. “Maybe he wants time to get settled in. Don’t you want to know what he looks like, and what he said?”
“Not especially,” Hannah said, determined to cut off the flow of trivia, or at least slow it down so it didn’t distract her from the work at hand.
“He asked about you,” Katie offered, never one to be put off by her victim’s lack of interest. The look on her face said that her curiosity bump was itching madly. “Maybe he knows you from somewhere. Oh!” Her expression said she’d just had an idea, and Hannah knew from experience that it would be a wildly extravagant fantasy. “Maybe . . .” Katie dragged it out with a sly smile. “Maybe he came to High Springs because he knew about you somehow. Wouldn’t that be exciting?”
“For heaven’s sake, Katie. Be sensible. That doesn’t make any sense at all. Dr. Philips said he’s from Europe. I’ve never been to Europe, and I don’t know anyone who was ever in Europe, so there’s no way he could possibly know me, or want to know about me.” She shook her head, thinking that this was even more over-the-top than usual for Katie.
“Well, anyway,” Katie said, undaunted. He came in and introduced himself, and after he looked around and I told him about our problems with the books, he asked me if I worked all alone. So I told him about you and how we work together, and we’re the best of friends and everything. And he asked me a lot of questions, like he was really wanting to know all about you. It was almost like he came looking for you.”
Hannah laughed, but she wasn’t amused. “In other words, he wasn’t the least bit interested in me at all. You told him way more than he wanted — or needed — to know, so he had to be polite. Didn’t it ever occur to you that discussing me with a total stranger wasn’t the smartest thing in the world? You don’t know anything about him. And you do know that I hate having my privacy invaded. I wish you’d stop and think before you start chattering away, especially to a complete stranger.”
That seemed to get through, and Katie actually looked hurt. “I didn’t think answering a few questions would invade your privacy. They weren’t really that personal. I mean he didn’t ask when was the last time you went on a date or anything like that. But he was really interested. About the books too, and how we have to keep the stacks closed and how all the books are rotting away because the government won’t give us any money, and . . .”
“All right, Katie!” Hannah just managed to keep herself from yelling. “I’m sure he was completely fascinated. Now, can we get to work?”
“Hello. I’m Patrick Graham, the new lit instructor. You must be Hannah.”
She nodded and, repressing the automatic impulse to put her hands behind her back, she laid the book on the desk and put on the expression that Katie called her polite-mask, and had teased her about more than once. Expecting the usual clammy handshake and trying not to cringe, she was surprised when his cool, dry hand took hers quite gently, turning it over so that it rested on his. He looked down at it for the barest fraction of a second, then raised his eyes to her face and smiled. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Hannah.”
Hannah’s awkwardness with strangers was such an innate part of nature that she’d learned to accept and live with it as one of her many flaws. Normally, it didn’t bother her, but as she slowly pulled her hand away from the new instructor and tried to find a response, it grew into a monster that was stealing her ability to move or speak. Looking down at the desk, she saw the book she’d just let go of, and grabbed it with both hands. Its solidity was a comfort and she was finally able to say “Yes, I’m Hannah Gordon. I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Graham.”
“Just Patrick, please. Everything seems to be very informal around here, and I don’t see any reason why I should change that.”
The edge of a foreign accent teased Hannah’s ears, and one part of her mind was trying to match it to the many she’d become familiar with from her movie-watching. “We don’t have the money for formality,” she said, and was immediately aware of how little sense that made. She’d blundered again. Her face was hot with embarrassment and she hoped he didn’t notice.
He looked down at the book she was holding with a white-knuckled grip and started to move away from the desk. “Well, I have a meeting with Dr. Philips coming up. I’ll see you again, I’m sure.”
He was halfway to the door before Hannah thought to say anything, and a feeble “yes” barely made it past her lips.
Katie watched him until he was out of sight, then turned to Hannah with a look that surely meant trouble. Katie’s curiosity bump was itching again. She’d probably noted every detail of an encounter that left Hannah torn between wanting to forget it entirely and and needing to analyze all its strange nuances. The new instructor was unlike anyone she’d ever met, yet there was also something familiar about him. She knew that her mind would be turning the problem over until she’d solved the mystery. But for now, she put it aside and prepared to be bombarded with Katie’s completely off-the-wall enthusiasm.
“Wow!” The word fairly exploded from Katie’s lips. “What was that all about? For a second there, I thought he was going to kiss your hand. Isn’t that what European men do? I wish somebody would kiss my hand. It looks so sweet and old-fashioned.”