Evan looked up in shock when Layla slid into the seat next to him on Thursday afternoon for their World Literature class. She didn’t look at him, instead busying herself with getting out her books, spiral notebook, and a pen that she used to take notes. His hands rested on the keyboard of his laptop, but he no longer paid attention to the Facebook chat he had open, instead staring at Layla.
Heidi, the girl who normally sat next to him, approached with a frown. When she glanced at him, he shrugged, not sure what to make of this either. Heidi smoothed a hand over her blonde ponytail and cleared her throat, directing her attention at Layla. “Um, excuse me. This is my seat.”
Layla glanced up, her black hair falling away from her face. She gave Heidi a warm smile. “Oh, sorry. I know. But Evan and I are working on the project together, and I wanted to be able to talk to him about it so we can coordinate our schedules. You understand, right?”
Heidi’s frown grew more pronounced, her brown eyes flicking between him and Layla. He gave another shrug, as dumbfounded by this as Heidi, stunned into silence by this new and different version of Layla that he hadn’t encountered before. Quiet and studious, yes. The frigid bitch in full force on Tuesday. But apologetic, smiling, and polite? Who was this chick?
Layla bent to get something else out of her bag on the floor by her seat, her hair falling down and blocking her face once more. Heidi stood there for a minute staring at Layla, her shiny pink lips compressed in a thin line. With one final look at Evan, Heidi turned away to find a seat elsewhere.
When she was gone, Layla sat back up, nothing in her hand, her eyes darting around the room, briefly lighting on Evan before turning back to her desk. Digging in her bag had apparently been a front to keep Heidi from pushing further. He didn’t know what to think about all of this, both her sitting next to him and the way she’d handled Heidi so that she avoided a confrontation.
His curiosity getting the better of him, he leaned over the side of his desk so he could keep his voice low. “What was that all about?”
“Hmm?” Her face turned toward his, but her eyes remained looking down at whatever she was writing in her notebook.
“That. With Heidi. Why are you sitting here?”
Her dark eyes met his before darting away, and she licked her lips. “Oh. Like I said. We need to discuss our project. It’s easier if I’m sitting near you instead of halfway across the room.”
“I thought you were planning on doing everything. Or did you decide to give me reading lessons after all?” He let some of his irritation from Tuesday enter his voice, lending a caustic edge to his sarcasm.
This time she actually looked at him, huffing out a sigh. “Please. You’re an English major. We both know you can read. With all those tutors helping the football team, I’m sure they’d at least do that much.”
He ground his molars together at the clear implication that even if she thought him smart enough to read, her estimation of his intelligence wasn’t much higher than that. Why did he even give a damn what she thought? But he did.
Before he could formulate a cutting response, Dr. Rankin appeared and started class. Evan had a hard time paying attention to the class discussion, which was unusual. Dr. Rankin was one of his favorite professors, and her class discussions were some of the best that he’d ever participated in.
“Dr. Coopman? What’s your take?” Dr. Rankin addressed all of her students as doctors, even though they were undergrads.
Evan’s head popped up from behind his computer where he’d been brooding. He had no idea what they were talking about. Dr. Rankin had a tendency to single out the students who were distracted to answer questions, even if plenty of other people were chiming in, and now he’d been caught out. He wouldn’t care except that when he glanced around, trying to mine some clue about the discussion from his subconscious, he caught Layla smirking.
Dammit. Getting caught out like this wasn’t helping dispel her impression that he was just a dumb jock. How had she not noticed his comments during the other class discussions? Or did she choose to ignore those? Or maybe she thought his comments were obvious and juvenile. Shit.
And he still couldn’t come up with anything to say, while Dr. Rankin stood in front of his row, looking at him with an expectant expression on her face.
Finally, his cheeks and the tips of his ears hot, he shook his head. “I’m sorry. What’s my take on what?”
“We were discussing the similarities and differences between the Russian authors under Soviet rule and authors from other Eastern Bloc countries, like the Czech authors Milan Kundera or Vaclav Havel.” Her clarification was delivered calmly. Her purpose in calling on distracted students was only to get them to pay attention, not to humiliate or embarrass, even though that was sometimes a side effect.
A soft voice came from his right. “No tutor to feed you comments this semester?” He glanced at Layla, her smirk still in place.
Deciding to ignore her, he cleared his throat and thought about the question. “The Russians seem more hopeless and angry than the Czech writers you referenced. Which is particularly interesting in light of the fact that what was then Czechoslovakia had been occupied by the Nazis before the Soviets took over. I guess when you survive a concentration camp, like Ivan Klima did, maybe being blackballed and forced to work as a garbage man instead of a writer doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Interesting point.” Dr. Rankin walked back to the front of the room, moving the discussion onto the next item, and Evan slumped back in his chair, closing his laptop. He wasn’t taking notes anyway, why drain the battery by having it open?
“Maybe because by the time Klima and Kundera were under Soviet rule the Russians weren’t running the labor camps anymore.” Layla’s response to his observation came as a muttered comment that he wasn’t sure he was supposed to hear.
But he did. “Even the later Russian artists have an angry quality to them that seems missing from Klima’s novels and essays. Don’t you think?” He had to lean over and loud-whisper to be sure she heard him.
Unfortunately their conversation didn’t go unnoticed. “Dr. Coopman?” Dr. Rankin’s voice cut through the classroom, interrupting whatever she’d been saying. “Did you have something more to say?”
“No.” Layla’s stifled chuckle caught his attention, but he ignored it. “Sorry. No.”
Dr. Rankin held his gaze for a long moment before turning back to what she’d been saying.
“Busted,” came from Layla in a singsong whisper, but he continued to ignore her. He wasn’t going to be drawn into another whispering match with her and get in trouble with Dr. Rankin. Layla had caused him enough trouble today. He wouldn’t let her get to him again.
He managed to keep his attention mostly on the class discussion and ignore the way Layla’s hair swung forward when she looked down to write notes. And the way she ran her hands through it to push it back. And the curve of her neck when she swept it up and did that crazy thing with a pencil that chicks sometimes did to put their hair in a messy bun. How did a pencil keep your hair all wadded up on the back of your head? It made no sense to him. That’s why he studied literature and not physics.
“I hope everyone’s gotten their books for their projects already. Next week we’ll talk more about Temptation by Vaclav Havel. Thank you for a good discussion today, everyone.” Dr. Rankin turned to collect her things, signaling the end of class.
With his laptop and books safely stowed in his bag, Evan stood and faced Layla. She’d said she wanted to discuss their project. He had plans to go talk to Abby, his roommate’s girlfriend’s friend, about their book and see if he could get a better idea of the cultural background and some good ideas for where to go with their research. He’d done some Googling, and talked to Elena, his roommate’s girl who spoke Spanish. She’d laughed at him and said, “My parents are from Mexico, Coop. I don’t know any more about Chile or its culture, either now or in the past, than you do.” But she’d offered to put him in touch with Abby, a Spanish major, and Abby’d told him to come by the language department today after class.
While cursory research divulged information about the military coup in the seventies and the subsequent reign of terror, he didn’t know where to go with that. He always did better talking out his ideas with someone than just letting them rattle around in his own head. He liked projects where he got to work with a partner for that reason. Which had made Layla’s attitude toward him all the more frustrating. So he’d bounce his ideas off Abby to see if something good came out and try to force Layla to take him seriously.
But if she was willing to work with him … He didn’t know what might’ve precipitated this change, but he wasn’t going to question it. Hell, maybe she’d asked Dr. Rankin for a partner change and been lectured about her attitude. That made him smile.
He cleared his throat, but Layla didn’t look up from putting her things away. “So, you said you wanted to discuss our project.”
That got her attention. She looked up at him. “Yeah.” Standing, she shouldered her bag. “I did.”
“Great.” He could tell she wanted to say something else, but he didn’t want to keep Abby waiting, and he also didn’t want Layla to think she’d be dictating this whole project. “We have an appointment in the language department to discuss Chilean culture and the historical background of Allende and her book. Let’s go.”
Without letting her say anything, he headed for the door, but she caught up to him quickly. “Wait, what? Who are we meeting?”
He glanced back at her. “Her name’s Abby. Friend of a friend. But she agreed to help.”
She snorted and muttered something under her breath, but he didn’t catch it. Whatever. If she wanted to morph back into a frigid bitch, that wasn’t his problem. He’d do his part. If she wanted to do hers, she had that chance, but after the hot and cold treatment he’d gotten so far, he decided he didn’t care what she did. If she didn’t want to talk to Abby with him, then that was up to her.