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Authors: Catherine Green

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BOOK: Life In The Palace
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Seth was smiling, “So somehow Rob starts talking to the lovely Stacy and the rest was history?”

“Yep. In the end it only took one look for the game to be up. One afternoon Mom popped into the store to see Stacy. As they were busy finishing the McKenzie funeral wreath, in walked Rob. Stacy looked up and smiled. Mom took one look at the expression on her face and freaked. This was definitely their big mistake. Stacy was perfect, but she was still a teenager. Banning her from seeing her unsuitable boyfriend was the same as buying them tickets to the Love Shack in Vegas.”

“That’s when she ran away?” he asked, simultaneously nodding a greeting across the circle to two very effeminate guys with sweat dripping off of their bare chests.

“No. She pretended to go along with it. She must have still been seeing him the whole time, though, because off she went to college and everything seemed normal. Until my Aunt Helen called from Detroit to ask if Mom seen Stacy’s Facebook page. There she was, and there was Rob. Mom tried frantically to call Stacy. Dad threatened to drive to Connecticut to get her back. That’s when she ran away.”

I paused; he seemed to be thinking.

“What’s it to you? Why does her taking off mean you have to?”

I stared blankly ahead, “When she took off, it was like the night of the living dead in our house. Our dog, Buddy, spent most of his time curled up under my bed. I spent most of my time at Spike’s. At a certain point, I just had to go home. That’s when Mom started baking cookies. Dad would ask me about my assignments and then casually enquire what grade I got. Eyebrows got raised when I slept at Spike’s on the weekend. I went from being the second kid to being the only kid. I hadn’t really minded playing second fiddle to Stacy all those years.

“Suddenly I’m the champion of all their hopes and dreams, and they’re watching me like a hawk to make sure I don’t turn out like her. But I already had a life and friends, and soon I’m sneaking around to keep doing same things I was doing before. After a while I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

I suddenly remembered I was talking to someone else.
Maybe Spike’s right. It might be time for therapy if I’m spilling my guts to some random stranger.

It dawned on me that acting as my unofficial therapist was the most attractive man I’d ever met. I sighed inwardly.
Spike can say what she likes but I am definitely not going to end up with Mr. Perfect eyebrows, because every time I speak to him I prove how totally lame I really am.

I glanced over at him. His eyes hadn’t left my face. I couldn’t read his expression, but it was one of neither the amusement nor pity I had expected to see. He looked like he was about to say something. I turned my head and waited. His eyes flickered away from mine for a second.

“I guess Texas’ loss is Montreal’s gain.” He said quietly.

Someone called his name from across the circle. Five guys in loose fitting pants, most with their hair in short ponytails were motioning to Seth to join them. A grin spread across his face.

He looked back at me. “Excuse me.” I nodded. It wasn’t like I had any hold on him. I’d probably had more than my allotted share of Seth time.

Does Seth know everyone in this whole city? Or does everyone just know Seth? I hope for his sake that he’s very good with names. Look at all of these people, he talks to each one like they’re his best friend. It really works, ten seconds ago I was about to believe he was interested in my pathetic little saga. He must make everyone feel that way.

“Are you enjoying?” Bernie asked to my right.

I nodded. “I was just thinking that Seth should run for office.”

She smiled, “Don’t worry he probably will. Dwayne is already on board as his campaign manager.”

“He knows all of these people from the bar?”

“Some. He was also editor of the college newspaper last year. And he gets around.”

He’s pre-med, a philosophy major, the editor of a college newspaper and he plays in a band. This guy can’t be for real.

Bernie saw the look on my face. “He doesn’t sleep much.” She explained.

“What are they doing now?” Four made a loose circle, while the one I thought of as the leader stood in the middle.

“Capoeira”

I’d never heard of it. I shrugged.

“It’s a form of Brazilian martial arts. Watch, it’s cool.”

Laughing, Seth stood and entered the circle. The crew around the edge began a lyrical chant. Quickly a crowd gathered, clapping their hands in time to the chant. The leader moved from side to side in time with the chant. Seth, still laughing, mimicked his movements. They danced around each other, and then the dance became more complicated. Still in time with the chant, they kicked and lunged. Seth kicked out and the leader whirled under his raised leg. The leader pivoted on one hand, his legs deftly avoiding Seth’s next move. It was a mix between very slow break-dancing and tae kwon do.

After about five minutes, Seth bowed elaborately to his opponent and moved backward out of the circle. Immediately his place was taken by one of the original men. By now there must have been fifty people watching. In comparison to this pair, Seth was just a beginner: They span together like an oversized executive toy, flying over and under each other as though they were tied together.

He’s not that good at it. All those people watched him do something he’s not very good at, and he didn’t care. Stacy’s every move seemed crafted, perfectly presented for the adoring crowds. Seth’s nothing like Stacy. I saw him crouch down to talk to some guy in a wheelchair but he was just talking to a guy. He’s not proud of himself for talking to someone in a wheelchair or wondering if anyone’s noticed. I’m not sure he’s even human.

I sat back to enjoy the show and the comfortable feeling of finally belonging in the city I’d randomly made my home.

 

On line for coffee and a sandwich on Wednesday, I turned to Maxine behind me, “Why are there no Starbucks around here? Why do we keep going to these Second Cup places? And why is there one on every block?”

It dawned on me that Maxine was wearing a black singlet, but her chest was just not that muscular. I let my eyes rise. Seth smiled at me. “Second Cup is the Starbucks of Canada.”

My face must have given away my continued confusion because he said, “It’s the Canadians. Don’t ask too many questions.”

“Where’s Max?” I asked and then kicked myself for not having a smoother conversation starter.

“She went to the ladies’ room. I’m holding her place in the line.”

I nodded like I didn’t care, and tried to ignore the tingles his proximity was inducing down my spine.

Seth cocked his head to one side. “If you got here as soon as summer session started, what were you doing before Josh herded you into the summer school posse?” It was a slightly random question, but every time I saw him he seemed to find something to talk to me about.
How nice is this guy to go out of his way to make the new girl feel welcome?

There wasn’t really any way to answer the question honestly and still sound remotely interesting. I opted for honesty. “I met this chick Tal. She didn’t have a study partner, so we paired up.”

“She was also new?” The line inched forward slightly. Seth stepped forward more than I did, which moved him even closer into my personal space. I was acutely aware of my lips.

“No, she’s from here. But she’s religious and a bit weird. I don’t know whether she didn’t know anyone in the class, or if it was the opposite and everyone else already knew to avoid her.” I laughed uncomfortably.

“I’m sorry that sounds really awkward.” His tone was surprisingly sincere.
Why does he care? Is he just that friendly?

I felt a little guilty. I’d grown to quite like Tal. “Actually I’ve been wondering if she has Asperger’s, or something, because she’s quite nice. She’s just a bit different.”

Seth caught my eyes and held my gaze, “There’s nothing wrong with being a bit different.” He smiled and a flood of warmth rushed my body. Before I could respond, the man in front of me moved away and I had to step forward to order.

Chapter 3

T
he air conditioning
in the lecture hall created that surreal shopping mall experience where my brain knew that outside it was broiling, but I still wondered if I should have brought a jacket. It was so humid in Montreal I’d practically forgotten I owned any outer wear. My eyelids were drooping. I’d rather relive the night before than pay attention to the lecture. We’d sat at a street side café until nearly midnight. Seth had done his usual number; show up for an hour before heading to work. I tried not to watch him but it was hard when again the only free seat had been next to me.

Ethan and Josh had been arguing over whether Josh owed Ethan sixteen camels and four donkeys as payment for a bet, or the other way around. Suddenly there was Seth next to me, asking me about live music in Texas.
I hope my answers were coherent because as soon as his eyes caught mine I had trouble breathing. I can’t believe that after two weeks he’s still making a point of talking to me so I don’t feel left out as the new one.
I let my mind wander to what had become my default daydream: Seth asking me out.

Seth was just about to make his move, only the 67th time that morning, when something the Professor said managed to penetrate my dream state.

“The project will be in groups of three. It will account for 40 percent of your final grade.”

Groups? There’s a group project in this class? How did I not notice when I was signing up?

“We can be a group,” Josh whispered.

On the other side of me Tal winced. She was wearing the long denim skirt and t-shirt combo that seemed to be her daily uniform.
I don’t think she was overjoyed when he started sitting with us last week. He does seem to be my friend, or at least I keep hanging out with him and the gang. It’s normal he’d sit with us.

I raised my eyebrows and hoped my expression conveyed the possibility without affirming anything. My train of thought completely broken, I was forced to listen to the remainder of the lecture.

When Josh ran up to get us the assignment sheets, I was able to turn to Tal. “Is this okay? Would you rather be in a different group? I don’t want you to feel coerced.”

Tal sighed and shook her head. “I don’t really – well, no, it’s okay. It’s only for a few weeks. I can work with him.”

I tried to reassure her, “I know what it might look like, and no one wants to be the third wheel but it’s not like that. We’re not dating or anything, although he might have other ideas. I promise I won’t get you stuck in an awkward situation.”

Tal smiled, “That’s sweet of you. But isn’t exactly what I was worried about. I don’t usually hang around with guys that much. I mean, I do with my brothers and my cousins, but not much with other guys.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what to say. “You’re very religious?”

“Quite.” She looked uncomfortable.

Josh was back with the papers before I could say anything else.

“We have to track the development of one scientific area. We have to write a report and then give a presentation to the class.”

I looked at the assignment with a sinking heart.
A group project with the quasi-nun who can’t talk to boys, and the boy who’s trying to get into my pants but is the brother of the latest object of my fantasy life. Not a winning combination. Suddenly this isn’t such an easy A. Perhaps I should have taken the Art of Listening.

“We’ll meet in the library in half an hour. Today we can pick a topic and divide up the work. We can each research our section of the timeline, then we’ll just put it all together later.” It was clear from Tal’s tone of voice that this was a command not a request.

Josh nodded. “We’ll meet in the library.”

Tal left quickly. I would have preferred to go with her but she just disappeared.

“Are you hungry?” Josh asked. I wasn’t really up for a whole lunch date, but I was hungry.

Accessing the cafeteria meant crossing the campus. At the top of campus an imposing grey stone mansion crowned the hill. The rich green lawn flowed from the steps of the mansion all the way down to the bustling city street. Trees lined the driveway in the center of the lawn and the perimeter was surrounded by buildings. It was as though someone had planned a university, but then waited for buildings to sprout like mushrooms. The gargoyled museum stood next to the 60’s concrete and glass of the Arts faculty.

The glass-fronted student center was complete with all necessary mod cons including a cafeteria with enough tables that even at lunchtime you could linger without anyone else ever needing your spot. Josh eyed my giant sandwich.

“You’ll be able to eat all of that? You have a big appetite for a girl.”

I stared at him incredulously, “Josh, stop all that ‘for a girl’ stuff, or I’ll be forced to kick your butt. This sandwich has three food groups packed between two slices of bread, so it’s efficient as well as tasty.”

Josh rolled his eyes, “Ok, no more girl cracks, but please don’t lecture me about nutrition. My mother got there before you. I’ve had a lifetime worth of food pyramid pep talks.”

“Your mother’s into health?”

“She’s a licensed nutritionist and naturopath. If it wasn’t for my Dad putting his foot down, she’d serve only raw food.”

“I can’t see you having a hippy for a mother.” I really meant that I couldn’t see Seth having a hippy for a mother.

Josh threw up his hands in disgust. “She’s not even a hippy. She’s the twinset and pearls with well-tailored slacks type. You’d expect her to be riding show jumpers, not sprouting her own barley. It was her very well-mannered version of a midlife crisis. Dad started dyeing his hair, and she got all macrobiotic. Thankfully they each let the other do their own thing so they’re still happily married. Mom gave him some natural henna dye to use.”

“You seem to have survived unscathed.”

Josh waved his hotdog for emphasis, “It all started when Seth left for college. It’s really Susie who’s had the worst of it. She’s still got one more year of high school before she can get out. She always complains that we left her to suffer. But what were we going to do, go to school in Boston just so we could live at home and keep her company?”

“It’s always hard for the ones left behind,” I said as I finished the last of my sandwich.

It was only as we walked into the library that I realized we hadn’t made up an exact place to meet.

“She’s on the fourth floor,” Josh said as I went to press the fifth–floor button in the elevator.

Did she say that? Maybe I missed something.

“We should do X-rays, as in radiography. The science of internal imaging,” Tal said as we walked over.

I’d been expecting one of those sessions where everyone pulls a million books off the shelf and randomly shouts out ideas until finally we settle on one because it’s time to go home. But I couldn’t think of any reason not to do X-rays.

“No one else will do it,” said Tal. “It’s better not to cover the same topic as another group.”

I was just about to ask how she knew that no one else would do it, when Josh asked, “How will we divide up the material?”

“Chloe will do the early development and an overview of how radiography works. I will do the middle section on how it is commonly used in medical practice. You will do MRI’s and developing technologies.”

I found myself nodding my assent along with Josh.

“Good,” Tal said standing up. “I’m going to check some books out and start researching at home. We’ll meet again on Wednesday to coordinate.”

As she walked out, I just sat there waiting for Josh to say something. He didn’t.

“Was that a little weird?” I ventured. “Who made her the leader? Also, when did she become so assertive? The whole summer she’s hardly said boo to a goose.”

Josh shrugged, “She’s a Footman, no?”

“A what?”

“She’s one of the People, observant I mean.”

“I guess so. I think that’s what she said.”

Josh was nonplussed. “That’s what they’re like.”

I let it go. “Do you actually want to look at any of these books?”

He was incredulous, “No, I was going to Google it first.”

“I’m not sure that the prof is looking for quite such detailed information. How long does the whole thing have to be?”

“Seven-minute presentation and a twenty-page group report.”

We started walking out. “So how are you planning on spending this slightly sweaty afternoon, Ms. Diaz?”

Shoot. I walked into that slightly veiled come on. Can I just forget that he has a hot brother and date this one? He seems pleasant enough, although I’m not sure we have much in common.

I gave the most non-committal answer possible, “I was just going to see what happens. If it’s totally unavoidable, I might study.”

An afternoon with Josh might not be that bad. No one’s actually going to make me date him. Perhaps some of the others will show up.

We sat at one of the picnic tables overlooking the lawn. There was just enough shade for it to be pleasant.

I felt pressure to make conversation, “Why did you stay for summer school?” Then I kicked myself, I just asked him the one question I don’t want to have to answer myself.

Josh shrugged, “When Seth came here for school my parents bought an apartment. No one told me I had to come here, but there was a certain amount of unspoken parental pressure. All joking aside, the winter is brutal. The summer is the best time of year to be here. It’s like the whole city is partying. As long as I’m taking classes my parents will fund a three-month-long party.”

“Is that why the others stay?”

“Everyone has their reasons. If you have to pay a year’s rent why not? I think a lot of the internationals stay. Some people have come so far to get here, it’s too hard to go home. What are you going to do with all your stuff?”

I waited for him to ask me why I was there for the summer. He didn’t. He moved on to more of the slightly stilted conversation people make before they’re actually friends.

It’s much easier when the whole group is around. I can just get swept up in their conversation without having to give too much.

“Were you ever in Canada before?”

I shook my head. “I had heard of it. I hear there are mountains and forests and moose.”

“You do have to watch out for the moose. The mountains are pretty cool. There’s a bunch of good hiking trails not that far out of the city. Sometimes we rent a car and drive up on the weekend. You could come, if you want to.”

“Sounds fun.” It actually would be, although I can’t say I’ve actually been hiking before.

“Ethan’s parents have a vacation place up there. It’s cooler up there; lots of people like to get out of the city. My grandparents have the same sort of thing in upstate New York. They live in Manhattan.”

A voice interrupted from behind me, “Yeah, except they spend the summer in the country and the winter in Florida. So when do they actually live in the city? Basically, only for Thanksgiving.”

Josh laughed, and Seth sat down at the bench beside me. The brothers exchanged a look. There was a pause which was good, because I needed time to recover. Seth had just sat down next to me. Josh broke his stare away first.

“I can’t believe they actually give you people credit for these summer courses. How much are you actually learning?” Seth said, shaking his finger at us.

“The stuff about Galileo was fascinating.” I defended us. Josh said nothing.

Seth sat astride the bench facing me and Josh. I tried to ignore his pelvis.
What am I, a dog in heat? He’s wearing black jeans. Either he has lots of identical pairs, or he just doesn’t wash them, and a black wife-beater. I’m not sure if it counts as a wife-beater if it’s black. I can see his biceps. He must work out. Also he must gel his hair. No one actually gets out of bed looking that perfectly messy. I wonder if his face is rough when you kiss him. Note to self; you’re probably about to date his brother, so don’t imagine those soft lips kissing you.

“Don’t you have anything better to do than come and question our study habits?” Josh asked.

Seth paused, and then smiled sheepishly. “I might have experienced a slight case of getting locked out of the apartment.”

“Why didn’t you just call me? What’s with all the espionage tactics?”

“I might have left my phone and wallet in the house with the key.”

Josh laughed, “What do you have with you?”

Seth reached into his pocket, “About fifteen Marlboro Lights and a Zippo.”

“How many did you smoke before you came to find me?” he asked suspiciously.

Seth sighed, “That’s the whole thing. I was out of smokes so I ran down to get more. When I got there I discovered my minor leaving-the-apartment-with-nothing-but-clothes error.”

“So how’d you get the smokes?”

“Mrs. Wan took pity on me.”

“She gave you a zippo too?” I didn’t like to interrupt but I was too curious.

Josh shook his head, “That he always has on him. Not the sense to stop smoking, just the ability to always have a light.”

I turned back to Seth. “I thought you were pre-med.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I cringed.
Please don’t remember that you didn’t tell me that
.

He looked apologetic, “I am. It just goes to show that education and good sense do not necessarily go hand in hand.”

I smiled at him. He smiled back. I felt all the blood drain out of my body and warm pink light take its place. Everything faded into the background. There was just me and him.

“Do you want to get back into the apartment or what?” Josh disentangled his legs from the bench.

“Might as well.” Seth managed to get from sitting to standing without any of that awkward bending and sliding that sitting at a picnic table usually entailed.

“Are you coming?” Josh asked.

Am I? Do I want to go home with Josh? It seems a bit intimate, hanging out in his house just the two of us. Do I want to see inside Seth’s house?

“Sure. I’ll tag along.”

The apartment was light and airy. A big bay window looked out to the leafy street. With bright white walls, off-white drapes, two cream leather couches and a huge flat screen TV, it looked more like a magazine spread than a student apartment. I think my mouth was actually open, because Seth saw me staring and said, slightly embarrassed, “Yeah, our Mom decorated. She doesn’t trust us.”

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