I’m not a believer in true love or fate. Karma, sure. But I don’t think even karma could’ve foreseen this: Jessa Jha, a college sophomore failure, who clearly brought shame upon her family on purpose.
Yes, Aunty, I used Focalin to stay awake and study. Why? Because I have a barrel full of you constantly harping on me to make my dead parents proud, get out of the ghetto, and go be something! And, yes, Aunty, of course I intentionally got so stressed I became an insomniac with such severe anxiety that I pooped myself during my chemistry exam.
The aunties’ solution? Ship me off to St. Charles Rehabilitation Center.
I pushed against the crash bar and opened the door leading out to the gardens. I didn’t like how sterile the sturdy brick building smelled.
Strolling through the blooming flower beds, I soaked in their sweet perfume, allowing it to revive me.
By the pond, I caught a glimpse of my reflection. Wavy, dark brown hair billowed out from around my round cheeks. Evidence of another anxiety tic still marred my face. One eyebrow was basically gone, while the other still grew thick and unruly.
Turning away, I followed the gravel path into the flowers. I tucked my fingers beneath my armpits, fighting the urge to pluck away my remaining eyebrow. I mumbled the Periodic Table of Elements to calm myself.
From around the East Wing, a lithe man with bouncing curls was laughing as an aid ran after him, waving a white shirt in the air.
Like a track star, he hurdled rows of plants and sculpted shrubberies. Even a bird bath.
The aid was gaining. The shirtless man zipped to the left, angling down the path I stood in.
Our eyes locked. His mouth formed an ‘O’ shape as he slid to a halt, never once breaking my gaze. Before he could say anything, he was tackled into the posies, his arms reaching towards me like a devotee.
As they tussled, I caught a glimpse of something scrawled around his belly button.
“Keep it on,” the aid ordered as he stood. I noticed the badge on his scrub pocket wasn’t the St. Charles Rehab. It looked like a family crest.
As his aid marched away, he called after him. “When have I ever cared about rules?”
From the ground, the young man flashed me an impish grin. He extended his arm. “Hi, I’m Gavin.”
Unsure, I shook Gavin’s hand, immediately aware of the transfer of my armpit sweat. Then he gripped my thumb and hauled himself up.
I tried to extricate my sweaty palm, but couldn’t.
Gavin was zeroed in. It was unnerving. No one ever looked at me, except to critique. So the aunties looked at me. Classmates looked at me.
But not like this. Gavin was seeing me.
“I must tell you,” he said, his green eyes refusing to let go, “you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
I snorted and yanked my hand back. “You’re clearly still detoxing.” With that, I marched back up the path, carefully avoiding the fragile flowers.
Gavin didn’t seem to care. He plowed through the beds to leap in front of me. “Give me a chance! I’ve got ADHD out the wazoo but I hate taking Ritalin. Slows me down. I’m hooked on the ‘red Kool-Aid’. Gets me jazzed!” Gavin demonstrated by dancing a little jig. I noticed his pointed feet tapping a precise pattern in a cross.
“You know Irish dance?”
Surprise shot his eyebrows up towards his caramel-colored curls. “You dance?”
“Of course. I’m Indian.”
“That’s not—sure, you’re Indian. Doesn’t mean you eat curry, become a doctor, belly dance, and know other dance styles.”
“Then you’ve never met my family.”
A flicker of sympathy broke through Gavin’s smile before it was quickly gone. He offered his arm. “May I show you around, beautiful?”
Instant hot tears stung my eyes. “You can’t be serious.”
Spinning away, I nearly lost my balance in the loose gravel. In a flash, Gavin was at my side. Despite his protests, I pushed him off and marched through the garden, not caring if I trampled the plants.
Again, Gavin leapt in front of me and tore his shirt over his head. Squishing his belly button, he made it talk, the drawings around his belly button making it into a face. “Please, believe me. I saw you and for the first time, I saw a real person. No facades, ulterior motives, just you!”
For a moment, I forgot everything. The expectations, my failures, even my self-loathing. I was utterly undone by this (admittedly cute) weirdo, wooing me. A halting laugh cracked my throat.
Looking up, I watched the freckles on Gavin’s face swirl as he smiled. Then I realized that I too was seeing a real person for the first time.
“Gavin, you are unlike anyone I’ve ever met.”
Chuckling, he took my hands. “As are you . . .?”
“May I call you JJ?”
Warmth spread through my body. There was something in the way he spoke the nickname. Something sweet. The sweetness of something new and fresh, like a garden.
“I’d like that.”
From across the grounds, we heard Gavin’s aid shouting. He took off at a dead sprint. “Rules, Gavin! Shirt on! No belly buttons!”
The twinkle in his eyes perpetually sparkling, Gavin interlaced one hand in mine. “Ready to run with me, JJ?”
As an author, Alexandra Rexford enjoys writing stories with wit and romance, including a dash of danger. In a perfect world, she would spend all her time writing, reading, sipping hot cocoa, and snuggling with her dogs.
Featured image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
What a fun story. I felt as if I was there watching it unfold.