“That sounds really nice,” the woman sitting across from Zach said, her hands folded in front of her, a polite smile on her face.
Zach just nodded. That was one of those phrases that he just didn’t have an answer for.
What am I supposed to say? He thought. “Yeah, it does sound totally nice that I’m twenty-eight and still in college?”
Just in time, the sound of a knife clinking a wine glass echoed through the room. Zach could have cheered with relief, but instead he stood from the small table, lifting his glass of red wine.
“It was nice meeting you,” he told the woman, reaching out to shake her hand.
“You too,” she said, putting her well-manicured hand in his, limp as a rag.
Zach had already forgotten her name, but it didn’t matter. He was pretty sure she’d forgotten his as well. That was how these speed-dating things went: you met a bunch of women at once, and at the end, struggled to remember which one had been which.
He walked three feet to the next table, where a brunette with an empty wine glass sat, looking at her phone. He waited a moment for her to look up at him. Then he waited another moment, and another, until she finally finished texting someone and looked up at him.
“Hi,” he said, trying not to be annoyed. “I’m Zach.”
“Emma,” she said.
They shook hands. Same limp-rag handshake. Zach sat, carefully placing his almost-full wine glass on the table. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he could tell that she was pretty in a classic sort of way: dirty blond hair, blue eyes. Her face was nice enough to look at.
It just wasn’t doing anything for him. No spark. No wiggling feeling in his stomach. Nothing.
“So,” she said. “What do you do?”
Zach could hear himself giving her the answer he’d given the other eleven women already, as he’d moved around the room from table to table. He was a junior studying structural engineering at Northern Utah University. Yes, he was a non-traditional student; no, he hadn’t gone back to school after getting one degree, this would be his first.
Her interested flickered out, just like most of the others’. Women in their late twenties didn’t want to date someone who was still a college student, not that Zach could blame them. A guy whose only income was from tutoring calculus students, who subsisted mainly on ramen?
Not exactly a catch.
Politely, Zach sipped his wine and asked her about herself. Then he managed to nod and smile at all the right points without actually listening to a word she said.
* * *
Back in his dorm room, Zach flopped onto his extra-long twin bed and looked up at the ceiling, giving himself a few seconds before throwing himself into the homework that he still had to do. God knew there was plenty of it, but that was his own fault for trying to cram four semesters’ worth of classes into three. After all, it was cheaper that way, and Zach figured he could sleep when he was dead.
You should stop going to these bullshit dating things too, he thought. You’re not going to meet someone this way, and it’s just making you miserable.
The problem was, he didn’t know how else to meet anyone. He lived in a freshman dorm as the Resident Advisor, so he spent his weekend nights on call, doing his homework and occasionally breaking up parties that got too loud or too drunk. Otherwise, he was in class or in the campus’s computer lab, using the engineering programs that his own ancient computer was way too slow to run.
Sometimes, he went grocery shopping. Once in a blue moon, he’d go out with the other RAs who were his age, not that there were many.
Zach let his eyes close, draping a forearm over them for just a moment. He didn’t even want to meet someone, if he was being honest. He had too much to do and not nearly enough time for a relationship or a girlfriend.
But two years ago, his oldest brother Seth had fallen off a cliff.
Halfway down, he’d turned into an eagle and flown away, totally unharmed.
As if that all wasn’t weird enough, Seth had heard their dead mother’s voice. She’d told him that the reason he could shift was girl he’d just met — the girl who was now his fianceé.
In the following weeks and months, Seth and Zach had discussed it endlessly. Seth tried to give Zach shifting lessons, drew diagrams, came up with crazy metaphors. Once Zach had jumped from the roof of the house in an attempt to force the shift, but nothing had happened.
Zach had finally decided it was one of two conclusions: either Seth was the only one who could shift, or he needed to find a girlfriend. So he’d tackled the girlfriend mission the way he tackled everything: studiously and methodically, trying to find the best way to meet as many women as he could, hoping that someone might click.
No one had. He was starting to feel like it was hopeless, not to mention a little scummy, like the only reason he wanted to go on dates was so he could turn into a bird.
With a long, loud sigh, Zach took his forearm off his eyes, sat up, and walked two feet to his desk, where he pulled up the calendar on his computer. He rubbed his eyes, yawning as he looked over the problem sets that were due the next day.
I swear to God, when I graduate, I’m going to sleep for a week, he thought.
* * *
A few days later, he walked down a hall in the student union feeling wildly overdressed. Before the semester started, he’d blown some of his loan money on a suit from a store down in Salt Lake City. Paying nearly $300 for a single outfit had made him nearly pass out, but he knew that first impressions mattered. Besides, a good suit was an investment, an item of clothing he’d be wearing again and again.
Once he was inside the job fair, he felt better. He was still more dressed than most of the people there, but at least he wasn’t the only one wearing a suit and tie. Here, at least, the people wearing cargo shorts and flip flops looked out of place, not him.
Before heading in, Zach reached into his briefcase — bought on the same trip as the suit — and pulled out the flyer that had the layout of the job fair printed on it. Booths were highlighted in three different colors: green for firms he was very interested in, yellow for firms he was kind of interested in, and orange for anything he’d like to check out if he had the time, but that weren’t a priority.
Since he knew people tended to move from right to left — he’d read it in an article somewhere — he started on the left side of the massive hall. That way, he figured, he would have the fuller attention of the recruiters on that side.
Zach stood up straight, cleared his throat, and approached the first green-highlighted booth. For an hour, he shook hands, handed out his resume, and talked about his research interests. After a little while, he stopped being nervous.
They’re here to hire someone, he reminded himself. I’m here to get hired. That’s all.
It’s kind of like speed dating, but slightly more pleasant.
After forty-five minutes, Zach felt like he was on a roll, like maybe he was finally getting good at talking to people. Most of them didn’t seem to mind that he was a nontraditional student, a good six years older than the usual college student. In fact, a couple of them confided that they preferred nontraditional students — more driven, one recruiter had said.
Zach turned the corner of the makeshift hallway and stood there for a moment, between two booths, glancing at his game plan for the next stretch of booths. The job fair was finally filling up, so there was slightly more of a crowd to navigate.
He looked up from the map, frowning, trying to come up with a plan.
Then, two male students stepped away from a booth, and there she was, twenty feet away. Just standing there, her hands perched on a plastic folding table, her strawberry blond hair curling just past her shoulders. Wearing a white blouse and close-fitting but professional skirt that hugged her curves in exactly the right way.
Zach’s mouth went dry, and he swallowed, then licked his lips, then swallowed again. He realized that he was staring, and looked back down at the map he’d highlighted, pretending to read it.
Instead he sneaked another glance at the girl. Now she was talking to another student, handing him a brochure, nodding as she did and despite himself, Zach imagined standing behind her, his face in her hair, her perfect, round ass against his erection as she sighed, arching her back into —
No. No. No, hell no, NO, Zach thought. Do not get a boner right here in the middle of a job fair.
What the hell is wrong with you?
He turned around, nearly colliding with a bored-looking girl in a badly-fitting blazer. He power-walked past the booths he’d already visited and toward the water fountain by the entrance to the hall, where he took a long drink. Then he stepped away and pretended to look at a bulletin board.
What if this is what you’ve been waiting for? He thought. You wanted zing, and I think you just fucking got it.
He glanced back at the job fair, rows and rows of plastic folding tables.
I came here to get a job, he reminded himself. Anything else would be wildly inappropriate.
There was an ad for free puppies. He looked at it for a while.
It’s not like she’s going to hire me, he thought, and looked down at the map he still held in his hands. Most of the tables along the row where she’d been weren’t even highlighted, so they didn’t even hire structural engineers.
Be cool for once, Zach told himself.
He turned around and walked back past the booths. He stopped at the corner for just a split second, looking at the girl again. MutiGen, her booth said.
Not even highlighted on Zach’s map.
He took a deep breath, then closed the distance between them.