Despite his insubstantial height, Dr. David Mortenoir dominated the classroom. Maybe it was that one of his eyes was glass, but no one knew which one. Maybe it was his wardrobe, so black it seemed to lack texture or depth. Maybe it was simply the deep gravitas of his voice.
Ultimately, the only time his students felt safe enough to relax was when he paced and lectured, expounding his love of his subject of expertise as if it were an aria.
And this is why, when he paused suddenly, mid-sentence and mid-step, every single person in that room held his or her breath.
“Would you care,” he growled, “to repeat yourself, Mr. Jenkins?”
Jenkins–if the twice-a-senior frat boy had a first name, no one knew it–replied with misplaced confidence, “Well, you were saying how a ‘being is a being that is being–‘”
“I know what I said,” Dr. Mortenoir snapped. “I want you to repeat what you said. I wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.”
“I said that I didn’t smoke enough for this.”
“So I did hear correctly,” the professor told the class. He fixed his left eye on his victim–the rest of the class took note of this. “And by smoke, Mr. Jenkins, I assume you’re referring to grass.”
Jenkins mumbled something.
“Louder, please, Mr. Jenkins.”
“Hmph,” said Dr. Mortenoir. He looked away, and when he turned back, his right eye settled on him. “And whose fault is that?”
The room seemed to hiccup, as everyone, in unison, held back a giggle.
The professor snorted. “I somehow doubt that, Mr. Jenkins. You never struck me as the kind of man who knows how to pace himself.
The room hiccupped again.
Two seats over and one row back, Fred gritted his teeth and took a deep breath. This Jenkins asshole was ruining everything.
No, that wasn’t true. Fred wasn’t really pissed at Jenkins; he was pissed about what happened at work earlier. Because today was his day. And he blew it.
This morning was the first time that his crush, the geeky girl with the big, round glasses, the fitted turtlenecks, and the pleated skirts, came into the campus bookstore during his shift, a look of puzzlement on her so, so adorable face.
He’d only seen her around for a few weeks, but a combination of timing and social anxiety kept him from talking to her. The two times he’d been alone with her and had no excuse not to introduce himself, he’d choked. He could never think of a single opening.
But this time, his expertise presented him with the single best opportunity he’d ever had. It was time. His knees wobbled, but he stumbled on in her direction, allowing momentum to do all the work. His throat tightened and dried, but he swallowed to loosen and lubricate him. His brain told him he was too boring and too unattractive to get her attention, but he told it to shut up to let his crush decide what she thought of him.
And so he’d appeared at her side and told her he could help, and she’d responded by walking directly toward his coworker at the cash register. It was the kind of thing he couldn’t help but take personally.
But maybe it had nothing to do with him. Maybe she simply didn’t hear him. Maybe she didn’t know if he actually worked there. Maybe she was friends with his coworker, and he just didn’t know it.
That was then. Now, he was engaging in one of his favorite activities in the world: absorbing the knowledge of the greatest philosophy teacher since Socrates. He wasn’t going to let some substance-abusing douchebag or the memory of a flighty nerd ruin it for him.
“Now that we’ve established Mr. Jenkins’s crippling sobriety,” continued Dr. Mortenoir, “who can explain what is meant by being?”
His hand shot up at the same time as a buxom coed. The professor acknowledged her with his left eye. This made sense to Fred, given the open secret of Dr. Mortenoir’s icky weakness for a certain type of young woman; no one was perfect.
“Existing?” the coed offered.
The professor grunted. “Existing. Brilliant. Can anyone tell me what we mean by being without consulting a thesaurus?”
Behind Fred’s raised arm sat the redhead with the green scarf, now the recipient of Dr. Mortenoir’s right eye.
“Let’s hear it,” he requested hesitantly.
“I think…” she tried; “… I think Aristotle theorized that being is defined by the ability of something to act on something else.”
“Decent start,” he replied, “but still not right. Can anybody tell Ms. Blake why she’s wrong?”
Fred flapped both of his hands in the air like he was directing traffic at a Formula One race.
“Nobody?” Dr. Mortenoir asked.
Fred flapped harder. He was on the verge of going airborne.
“Really?” Dr. Mortenoir begged. “Now this is just sad.”
Fred broke. He slammed his palms on the desk, causing everyone but Dr. Mortenoir to jump several inches. Immediately Fred turned crimson and sank down in his seat. It was okay to be frustrated, but that was kind of immature.
Dr. Mortenoir finally focused his right eye in his direction, and then cocked his head to addressed the woman behind him with his left. “If we were to settle on your definition, Miss Blake, Aristotle definitively proved that Fred exists.”
Wishing he didn’t anymore, Fred sank even further into his seat while the class chuckled.
He spent the next hour listening, and then slinked away to his off-campus apartment. As usual, his flatmate lay sprawled on the couch, staring at the television and shoving an enchilada into his face.
As he blew past, Fred muttered, “Norville.”
As usual, his flatmate didn’t even look up.
“Whatever.” Seriously, screw that guy. Fred wasn’t the most clean person on earth, but at least he–
“What the fuck!” he shouted as soon as he entered his bedroom. “Goddammit! This isn’t funny anymore!”
Actually it wasn’t even funny the first time Norville had rearranged the furniture in his bedroom. But this was… how many times? And how the hell did this asshole, who seemed to exist solely to consume sodium, saturated fats, corn syrup, and anything coming from an LED screen even get the motivation to pull this stupid, stupid prank over and over again.
“Get the fuck in here and fix this, Norville!”
When no response came, Fred kicked the wall as hard as he could, not regretting the outburst at all. He turned back to the door, only to find it occupied by a diminutive Cool Guy with frosted, spiky hair, a studded denim jacket, and an unlit cigarette behind his ear.
The Cool Guy shouted down the hallway, “He’s here!”
“Finally!” shouted back a woman from the direction of the kitchen.
“Susan,” said another woman’s voice, “I’ve advised patience on innumerable occasions.”
“That doesn’t make it suck any less,” Susan told her.
“We’ll discuss its virtues later, but first, I must converse with–“
“Oh, hell no!” Susan snapped. “Baby, you have the bedside manner of a cranky-ass textbook.”
“Textbooks are inanimate objects,” explained the one called Baby. “They cannot have a bedside manner, much less attach any emotional value to their words.”
“That was a metaphor,” Susan told her.
“My response had been sarcasm. That you didn’t recognize that is disappointing.”
“For fuck’s sake,” groaned the Cool Guy. “I’m in a band with groupies and everything. Why do I even hang out with you?”
A hand softly patted his arm.
When he saw who it belonged to, the Cool Guy moved away and said, “He’s all yours, Victor. Be gentle.”
Victor was six feet tall and wore a body consisting of broad, lean muscles just a little too large for his white, threadbare T-shirt. For some reason, a green handkerchief–which brought out his equally green eyes–draped over his shoulder, as if he had come over immediately after posing for a sexy calendar.
Usually a boy that attractive brought out a streak of jealousy in Fred, but something about Victor made him an exception. Maybe it was his sincere warmth, which made it clear he wanted to be friends. His voice was as gentle as his smile, softening the impact of the three words he spoke: “Fred, you’re dead.”
“Huh,” he thought aloud. “That actually explains a lot…”