“How’s the poetry thing coming along?” Ashton asked, startling Jordan from his thoughts.
“It’s okay. I mean, it’s whatever.” He didn’t feel like talking about it, but out of politeness, he shoved his dishes out of the way and removed his backpack from the adjacent chair at the cafeteria table. Today’s especially sticky macaroni and cheese stuck to the table space in front of where Ashton stood, so he took one of his napkins and tried to clean it off. The napkin, however, was still full of Pepsi from where he’d accidentally knocked over his cup, so he ended up smearing the Pepsi right into the mac ‘n’ cheese mess instead of cleaning anything. Irritated, he left the napkin and the glob of food where they were. “Sorry.”
Ashton gently touched Jordan’s arm before setting her tray on the table. She neatly cleaned off the mess and arranged her cup, bowl, and spoon, then turned to Jordan and sat back in her chair, eyeing him. She gnawed at her lip with concern in her eyes. “How’ve you been?”
Jordan knew what Ashton would want him to say, but instead, he reached down and began to zip up his bookbag. “I’m fine. Just stressing over this bio exam. Nothing new. How about you?”
“I think….” Ashton paused and pulled a new napkin from the dispenser, wringing it nervously in her hands before setting it in her lap. “I think it’s nice, what you’re doing for Olivia's sake. Poetry expresses love more than anything else.” She took a sip of whatever was in her cup and then set it down with resolve. “I can help, if you want.”
Jordan watched Ashton slip a wayward brown tress behind her ear. She resembled Olivia in many ways—the long brown hair, the light pink lipstick, the band t-shirt, the right red nail polish. The two had met in fifth grade and had been, as Ashton often put it, “friends at first sight.” It had only been natural that they’d chosen to go to the same college together—Alberry College, out in the middle of Michigan’s thumb. Olivia and Ashton had chosen it because of its English program and its “small town charm.” Jordan had followed because of Olivia, even though he had been offered better scholarships at state universities who recognized his dedication to becoming a doctor. Olivia had insisted that Jordan go to the college that best suited him, but ultimately, Jordan had chosen Alberry. Life was short, after all; who knew how many years he and Olivia had left to spend together?
Ashton snapped Jordan out of his reverie. “Really, Jord. I mean it. I’ll help you.” She took another sip and smacked her lips loudly, then proceeded to slurp soup out of her spoon. She leaned back and smiled. “Chicken noodle. They always get it right. Tastes like home.” She squinted her eyes at Jordan. “Why were you sitting alone? Aloneness breeds misery.” She hesitated, thinking over her own brilliance. “I like that. I think I’ll write that one down.” Patting her pockets, she rolled her eyes. “Looks like I forgot my pocket notebook. I usually carry one around, you know. Never know when writing inspiration’s gonna strike.” Smiling proudly at her own writerliness, she grabbed a new napkin and raised her eyebrows. “Got a pen?”
Jordan handed one over silently. Ashton scribbled her words down on the napkin before folding it and slipping it into her pocket. “‘Aloneness breeds misery,’” she said again, looking enthralled with the line even though Jordan didn’t think it was all that great. He was no writer, but Ashton was no Olivia. Even though the two had chosen Alberry for its English program, believing themselves writers of great promise, only one of them had ever managed to stun Jordan with her poetic graces.
“I’ll help you,” Ashton repeated.
“I’m good, thanks. But I appreciate it.” Jordan stood and slung his backpack over his shoulder. One of his elbows got tangled in the straps, but he didn’t want to attract Ashton’s attention, so he walked out looking very awkward with his elbow sticking straight out at an awkward angle, all the while trying to look as though he’d meant to do it that way in the first place.