Emma lived one floor below me. We were sophomores. Her blonde hair was the color of a wheat field in August. Her smile made you lean towards her when she talked.
Brett was the one who told me she had a boyfriend. “She’s been with him since she was a freshman,” he said. “In high school.”
“Maybe that’s good. Maybe she’s bored,” I said.
By the way Brett shook his head, he knew I’d already made up my mind.
“She’s an English major,” I said. “I’m an English major. We speak the same language.”
“We all speak English,” he said.
I found myself walking up and down Emma’s floor during the day, hoping to run into her. I carried my copy of To the Lighthouse. It would give me an in. Me, a guy her age, reading Virginia Woolf. I was hedging my bets that her high school boyfriend couldn’t talk high modernism. Though I couldn’t really talk high modernism if pressed.
Emma’s roommate Colleen caught onto my new habit. “I see what you’re doing,” she said.
“What am I doing?” I looked into their room to see if Emma was sitting on her bed. She wasn’t.
“She has a boyfriend.”
“I know. I was just going to ask her about this book.” I held up my copy of To the Lighthouse.
Colleen laughed. “You’re not the first to try.”
“I’m not trying anything,” I said. “Is she in class?”
“It won’t work, but go ahead.” She patted my shoulder. “She’s in the laundry room.”
I’d done laundry a few days before, but I tossed clean clothes in my laundry bag and headed to the basement.
As Colleen had promised, there was Emma, sitting on a washer with a folded copy of an American literature anthology resting in her lap.
When I pulled my copy of To the Lighthouse from my back pocket and dropped it on a dryer, Emma looked up from her reading.
“This novel’s so good,” I said.
She eyed the cover. “Yeah. I read it last semester in Brit. lit.”
“Oh yeah,” I said coolly. “What do you think about Woolf’s thoughts on decaying Victorian ideals?” I dumped my clothes in a washer.
“I saw the book as more of a commentary on man’s relationship to the idea of God.” She looked back down at her book.
“I’m fascinated by the book’s examination of the frailty of human relationships,” I said, repeating a line from my professor. “I have a paper due next week. Would you mind looking at a draft before I hand it in?”
“I’d love to,” she said. She smiled at me. Even then I knew this was all just part of her benevolent personality, but her use of the word love and that smile fueled my hope.
“Maybe I could run some ideas by you before I start writing,” I said. She was too nice to say no.
“Sure,” she said. She hopped down and checked on her clothes in a dryer.
I started my washer.
She pulled her clothes into a laundry basket. “See you later,” she said, walking out of the laundry room with the basket snug against her hip.
I spent the next hour sitting on a washing machine, scouring the pages of Virginia Woolf’s novel for a paper idea and washing already clean clothes.