Clare meets Brent, and the two must decide what their friendship means.
It wasn't until the following Thursday that Brent said anything to her.
"It's the curse of being a giant. Six foot something or other." Brent rubbed his shaggy brown hair as they filed out of the class near one another.
"Those desks are pretty tiny," Clare remarked.
"Oh, the desks are like, baby-sized! Infant-sized! My knees are constantly bumping, you know, the underneath, and there's all this dried gum...man..."
"I thought kids only stuck their gum there in high school," Clare said, shaking her head.
"Welcome to college! It's just high school with people who are legally allowed to drink. Some of them, at least. Not that it was stopping anybody." Brent blurted out a single laugh, a "ha!" that Clare thought was funny, and set her off giggling to herself.
"Hey, you laugh a lot," Brent said, peering at her. "That's a commendable trait to have."
"Yeah, except it makes people think I'm always laughing at them," Clare grimaced.
"Who would think that? And who would have a problem with that? Man, I hate when people take me too seriously. 'Brent, what do you think of this?' and 'Brent, what did you mean by that?' I don't know what I meant, maybe I was just living my life."
"I wished people asked me questions like that. By the way, your name is, in fact, Brent?" Clare asked as they came to a halt, having reached the main quad.
"Yes my name is, in fact, Brent. Your name is, in fact...?" He raised his eyebrows.
"Clare. Without an 'i'." She smiled.
"Okay, Clare with no 'i.' I don't have an 'i' either, so I think we should get along just fine. 'I's' complicate things, don't they?" Brent grinned.
"Yes, they do," Clare admitted.
Clare realized that Brent had a girlfriend when she found herself with the two of them the following Saturday as she ate an ice cream cone with her roommate in an alcove on campus. The girlfriend had her arm around Brent's as he tried to look something up on his phone, and they had pulled off to stand in the alcove while they discussed their plans.
Clare and her roommate Mei sat watching the couple mumble to each other. That part of Clare that was always so ready to be amused thought that the way Brent squinted at his phone and used his index finger to scroll made him look like a very tall old man. The girlfriend clung to his left arm and sighed, saying, "Maybe we should just go to the matinee, I think we still have time."
Clare cleared her throat, and when Brent looked over at the two roommates, his face lit up.
"Hey, it's Clare from statistics! Good to see you," Brent said, smiling. "Meet my girlfriend, Tammy. Tammy, this is that girl that noticed how ill-fitted I am in my desk in class."
"That's the price you pay for towering over everyone all the time. Hi, nice to meet you," Tammy smiled at Clare, her eyes crinkling up at the corners.
"Nice to meet you, too. I guess you two are heading to a movie?" Clare asked.
"Yeah, we just can't decide when to see the movie and when to grab dinner. We're trying to compare times at cinemas but it's proving to be a bit of a challenge." Tammy half-frowned.
"The problem will be solved in three...two...one! Look, the Regal has a showing at 5:30. That should be perfect." Brent smiled proudly.
"And just like that, problem solved. My boyfriend, tall and tech-saavy." Tammy pulled harder on Brent's arm.
"I wouldn't go that far, babe, haha. Clare, it was nice seeing you. And your friend here...?" Brent looked directly at the seated pair for the first time, putting his phone away in his back pocket.
"My roommate, Mei," Clare said. Mei smiled.
"Nice to meet you! We'll be going on our way. Ciao!" Tammy seemed to be in a hurry all of a sudden, and the couple sauntered out of the alcove and out of view.
Clare and Mei sat in silence for several minutes, as they had been. Their ice creams were down halfway past the cone.
Finally Mei remarked, "He was nice."
"Yes, he is," Clare admitted.
Clare saw Brent in class on Tuesday, and they had another short conversation as they left, and they did the same the Thursday after that. They talked about their class projects, and that the homework was pretty reasonable, despite how confusing the subject of statistics could be. On Thursday, once they reached the main quad, they had a laughter-filled, whispered exchange about how odd their professor was, how his shirts always seemed to be two sizes too large on his thin frame, and how when he got close enough to you, you could still smell what he had for lunch on his breath.
"To his credit," Clare laughed nervously, "the last time I went for private tutoring, he popped a breath mint, so at least he's aware of his problem."
"Oh, he's a dear man," Brent shook his head. "We shouldn't bag on him too much."
"This stays between the two of us," Clare said, raising an eyebrow conspiratorially. But then she backtracked.
"Unless, of course, you want to tell Tammy. Then by all means, spill the beans," Clare waited for an awkward response from Brent, but instead he laughed out loud.
"Did you just rhyme on purpose? Because that was perfect," he said, wiping his hand down his face.
"Now you're the one who's all giddy," Clare mumbled, suddenly embarrassed that they were still talking for so long together in public, and so happily.
"It's too good not to laugh at. And don't worry, I don't tell Tammy everything. We'd have to be married for that." He smiled as the afternoon sun shown around his head, almost giving him a halo.
"Okay, whatever works for you. If you're keeping your end of the secret, I'll keep mine." Clare tried to shrug off her uncertainty with a casual toss of her head.
Before Brent walked away, he reached out his hand and took Clare's pinky in his. "Pinky promise," he nodded, and winked. And then disappeared into the sunlight.
The next time Clare saw Brent, in class on a Thursday, she hadn't seen him the previous Tuesday at all. That was because he had been dumped on that Monday night--Tammy had left him for Daryl.
On the Thursday, all the bright life and energy was missing from the cramped shaggy-haired man slumped in the third row. Clare saw him in this state as soon as she had slipped into class just before the bell and somehow she knew what had happened. She knew that a tremendous blow had been dealt, and she knew who had dealt it.
They walked out of class together like usual, though they didn't say a word until they got to the quad.
He told her. He and Tammy had had a fight and that was when she had screamed that she had made up her mind. Made up her mind to do what? Brent had shouted back.
"Made up my mind to be with someone who understands me." She had collapsed onto the bed. And then called Daryl to pick her up. Daryl was--had been--a friend of Brent's.
"Not my best friend, though. Thank God it wasn't that cliche." Brent chuckled wryly, though his face still looked gray.
"Who is your best friend, then?" Clare asked him.
"I don't know; nobody." Brent laughed. "But if it was anyone, it would probably be you."
Clare was strangely flattered by this admission. It was endearing but also a little unnerving. And the turn that this statement made in their interactions was probably the reason they became so close to one another in the days and weeks following the breakup and this revelation.
"Why do girls want someone who understands them so much? Isn't it just worth it to be with someone who loves you?"
Brent asked this question of Clare as they sat outside the library late in the semester, in the warm spring air, textbooks ignored in front of them.
"It's because we feel that someone can't truly, fully, completely love us unless they understand us," Clare mused. "We like to feel known. Girls are complex, and what we really want is someone capable of beginning to unravel all of that complexity."
"No, no, no," Brent said, shaking his head. "If you ask me, once one of you girls manages to find a guy like that, he's going to drive you crazy. Because then he's going to have already figured you out, he's going to play you, and then he's going to get bored with you. That's what would happen. If that were even possible." He sighed.
"Okay, so let's say I was with a guy who didn't understand me. How would that be better than a guy who did? He wouldn't see me, he wouldn't get me, and if that is that case, he wouldn't be able to appreciate me. I would be a walking enigma to him," Clare spoke with a frown.
"Yes! Clare, don't you get it?" Brent said, practically slamming his hands on the table. "That's what guys like. Guys are clueless about women, and we know we'll never really understand, and we like it that way." He sighed exasperatedly. "So why don't girls get it?"
"And here we seem to be stuck in the battle of the sexes. What else has changed over the previous millennia? Brent," Clare cleared her throat. "Maybe someday you'll find someone who really understands you. And then you'll know why I'm trying so hard to find that."
Brent didn't say anything for a few moments. And then he said, "When you find what you're looking for, I hope I'll be around so you can tell me you told me so." He smiled in the tired way he had taken to since Tammy walked away a month before.
"I plan on telling you so. You just wait." Clare smiled back at him, a little sadly, in her own way.
Clare and Brent hung out together steadily over the rest of the semester. Mei made her quiet observations over ice cream cones as Clare shared anecdotes of her time spent with "the boy," as they'd taken to calling him.
"He seems pretty oblivious, to me," Mei remarked.
"Oblivious to what?" Clare froze.
"Oblivious to..." Mei gestured broadly in Clare's direction. "To you! To how much you like him."
"Oh," Clare breathed. She hadn't kept anything big from Mei but she hadn't expressed too much of her feelings, either. "I guess I do like him."
"Of course you do. Anyone could see it." Mei licked a drip of chocolate off the side of her cone.
Clare froze again. "Is it really that obvious?"
"Yeah, but don't worry. Apparently not to him." Mei shrugged.
"Oh, great. Just what I need," Clare mumbled.
"What? What's wrong?" Mei furrowed her dark brows.
"I'm just going to get in the way of my friendship with him, aren't I? This is just going to complicate things." Clare suddenly felt overwhelmed. She had done so well to hide her own feelings, it seemed she was just finding out about them herself.
"Clare, chill. This is normal. It's normal to have feelings. Everyone has them." Mei reached out a hand and placed it on Clare's arm.
"It's just...normally my feelings are manageable. I don't like causing problems."
"And you don't. You hear me? You don't cause problems." Mei looked Clare squarely in the face.
"Okay. So what do I do?" Clare's ice cream cone was dripping all over her hand by now, neglected.
"I don't know. Probably nothing, for the time being." Mei removed her hand from Clare's arm and finished her own ice cream cone in one bite.
The nice thing about Brent was that he loved to listen, gave good advice, and was always on her side. He might not always agree with her, but she felt like he was unshakeable when it came to supporting her in her decisions. Like when she decided to become a marriage and family therapist instead of a clinical psychologist, for instance. It never seemed to burden him when she told him things that burdened her.
He remained agreeable even when they said goodbye for summer break. He promised they would keep in touch. He even suggested they meet up at some point to spend some time together in person. Clare held these suggestions close to her heart, though she wouldn't realize how closely until the middle of July.
They had been texting sparsely. On July 17, she sent him one question: Where is this going?
She got a call from him twenty minutes later.
"Hi, Clare. It's been a while since we talked in person, yeah? And you asked me, where is this going?..." Brent paused, and took a deep breath. "Clare, I have a girlfriend now."
"Oh," Clare managed to say. She looked down at her bare feet on the carpet, phone pressed to her ear.
"I'm sorry, I never got around to telling you. I met Cynthia right after classes let out. We just became official about a month ago." His voice sounded strained on the other end.
"Good. That's good," Clare murmured into the phone.
"I know we had some good times together...it must have meant a lot to you. I didn't realize..." Brent trailed off.
Clare spoke more clearly now. "I know now that you didn't realize. I texted you that question to find out once and for all. And now I know. What meant so much to me was just normal life to you."
"Clare, I'm sorry..." Brent said quietly.
"Please don't be sorry. No harm has been done. I'm just glad now that I understand. I know I talked about how I want so much to be understood, that one time we talked. But now I just want to understand things for myself." Clare sighed.
"You deserve that much," Brent said.
"Goodbye, and have fun. The summer will be over before too long." Clare hung up. With no more questions left, she smiled to herself and left her phone on the bed.