Mara Glass did not care about "weird hot guy," the supposed "campus cryptid." She had heard of him her first couple years and had him pointed out to her by a classmate once, but what was there to notice? Okay, he was probably thirty, a nontraditional student, so what? There were a number of those around. Apparently he was hot--well congrats to people who were into people, they could keep him. And if you asked Mara, from her extremely objective perspective, those Disney-green eyes were doing a lot of heavy lifting. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about a thirty-something guy who didn't talk about himself to twenty-year-old classmates. He probably had, like, a real life. There were rumors he was married, although Brittany noted that the only reason people thought that was because one time someone heard him finish a phone call with, "You light the candles, I'll bring dinner. I love you." None of that was remotely interesting to Mara. He sounded like a normal person, and she wished people would shut up about him.
Then in third year, she had a history class with weird hot guy.
It transpired that he was pretty much as weird as everyone said. He always wore a hoodie, usually with his hood up like he was in a certain video game, and would be dead silent for two weeks of lectures, just sit there with a tiny little thoughtful expression, and then ask questions that were very weird and specific. The subject would be the first Crusade, and weird hot guy--Nicky Smith, he had a name, and besides, he wasn't that hot--would ask the professor his opinion on whether plenary indulgences were a bigger draw than anti-Saracen propaganda for the first crusaders, or if the American TSA served as modern day Knights Templar in a way.
Eventually the professor gave up and just suggested he write a paper about whatever thing was bothering him this week, and he'd help Nicky get it published if it was good enough.
So he didn't disrupt class too much. Mara was starting to get why people talked about Nicky, but to be extremely clear: she still didn't care. She was going to pass with flying colors and she wasn't interested in the parts of college that distracted her from that.
Unfortunately, life is ninety percent distractions, and Mara was randomly paired with Nicky for a partner project. Naturally, Captain Mysterious missed a straight week of classes and didn't reply to a single email. Their stupid project was due on Wednesday, and it was now Monday, and she was going to kick his ass, campus cryptid or not.
"Have you seen Nicky?" Mara asked Brittany as they grabbed lunch together. Mara usually ate alone, but Brittany was, unusually, sitting by herself today too, so she took a chance.
"Who's Nicky?" Brittany asked, chasing meatballs around her Italian wedding soup.
"The guy, you know, the…" Mara sighed. "Weird hot guy?"
"Oh, yeah, Nicky. You know what, I haven't seen him since last Monday. Oh! But! I have new intel. His wife or girlfriend or whatever is an artist."
"Oh, okay. Um, I don't care, I just need to get him to answer a fucking email. We're doing a partner project in History 367 except I've done like, most of it, because he hasn't been to class and he doesn't answer emails. I hope he's not dead, but also, I'm going to murder him if I get a bad grade."
"No way is he dead," Brittany said through a mouthful of quesadilla. "Dude looks like he fistfights God regularly."
"You think he's Jewish?" Mara said, in spite of not agreeing with that assessment at all.
Wrong audience. Brittany just blinked at her. "I don't get it."
"You know, Jacob--never mind. Anyway, if he doesn't show up to class today I'm gonna talk to the professor."
"Cool." Brittany looked around and leaned in, grinning. "Can I tell you why I know his wife's an artist though? It's good, I swear."
Mara sighed internally. "Yeah, okay."
"Yes! So, Soci 339, we're talking about how specific environments change broader social rules without necessarily subverting them, right? And Prof Stutz is coming up with an example, so he asks if anyone's ever done nude modeling, and Nicky raises his hand, like, of course, except then he wasn't a good example because it turns out he only models for his wife. Or, sorry, his 'beloved' is what he said. So that's adorable. He's so weird. Oh and her name is Jo. Like Joanne, I guess, or Mary Jo or something. Or Jo from Little Women."
"Huh." If she repeated that she didn't care, Mara would be getting into rudeness territory, so she held her tongue. "I have class in ten, I better get going."
"See ya round." Brittany waved.
Mara looked for Nicky, but he wasn't there. Again. Fuck. She even sat in the back so she could spot him and his stupid hoodie when he got there.
He showed up ten minutes late, absolutely silent. Mara only noticed when he slipped into the seat beside her and she jumped. "I'm going to kick your ass," she whispered.
"What for?" he whispered back, the first words he'd ever actually spoken to her. She was going to reply, but the professor cleared his throat loudly, so she sat up straight and focused very hard on taking notes.
When class was over, Nicky was halfway out the door before Mara even realized he had moved. She chased him down outside the history/poli sci building. "Hey Assassin's Creed, slow the fuck down!" Okay yeah, that was not appropriate to yell at a near stranger in a crowd of other students, but Mara was frustrated.
He turned around and waited for her to catch up. "I forgot about you kicking my ass."
"Yeah, what the hell. We have that project due Wednesday!"
"Dude! I emailed you like ten times."
"Do you not check your student email?"
Nicky winced almost imperceptibly. "Not really...ever."
"Okay, well, lucky you, I did most of it, but I'm not getting a B on this so I need you to give me three hours tonight."
"Ah, sure. We'll meet in the library?"
Right, okay. She hadn't actually planned very well. "Um, I usually…" How the fuck do you explain to someone that libraries are a non-starter because of only semi-related childhood trauma when they're the least threatening building in the world to normal people. "I don't...Can we not? They um...I don't do libraries."
But he didn't laugh at her or ask. "Where would be good for you?"
"My place should be--crap, no, my roommates are having a loud anime night and I can't work when they're doing stuff. We're not like...close. I usually do my schoolwork in the soci/anth lounge, but it closes at five, so that won't work."
"No, because I hate cutting it that close, and also, I have a Hillel meeting."
Nicky leaned against the garden wall. "I suppose you can come to my place. Let me call first."
"That would be...thanks." She almost said It's the least you can do, but that would be unnecessarily combative, and she didn't know his life.
He pulled out a flip phone and made a call in definitely not English. At first Mara thought she recognized an Italian word or two, but then he switched to a different language entirely, and she was lost. He had a soft little smile the whole time, though. "All right," he said, hanging up. "We can work at my place, but Jo is already planning dinner. Do you like shakshuka?"
Wife named Jo. So Brittany did know something. "Uh, you don't have to feed me."
"It will be there whether you eat it or not."
"Oh, okay. What time? And where do you live?"
"Is five all right? I'll write down my address."
"Great, yeah." Also, what the hell was shakshuka? "What language was that?"
"Arabic," Nicky said, writing his address on a post-it. "It is not a long walk. I'll see you then."
With that, he left, leaving Mara's head spinning a little. He was really weird. Diplomat's kid? Actual Assassin guy, creed and all? Time-traveler? Whatever. No, fuck. She was overthinking this. The hype was stronger than his actual weirdness. His wife was probably Arab or something.
Mara headed over early and knocked on the door of the small rowhouse at exactly five pm.
The man who answered the door was not Nicky. He was brown-skinned with dark features, curly hair, and a beard. "Hi," he said cheerfully. "You must be Mara."
"Um, yes, I was looking for--"
"Nicky's running late, he'll be here in a few minutes. Come on in." He held the door open for her.
The house smelled like sourdough bread and looked like an archaeology professor married an antiquer. "Wow." The rugs were gorgeous, Persian maybe? Mara didn't know shit about rugs. But there were also old weapons and pretty tapestries on the wall next to three bookshelves filled floor to ceiling with books old and new. She nearly ran into the wood-frame couch, distracted by the oil paintings hung on the wall. Some were geometric patterns, some landscapes, and at least one was clearly Nicky, thankfully not a full body one.
"You can set up at the table," her host said, directing her to the dining room.
Mara opened her laptop and realized suddenly that this guy who was either Arab or North African or something was almost definitely the person Nicky had been speaking Arabic with, which would probably mean… "Did you--are the paintings yours?"
"Most of them."
"Are you Joe?" With an e. Joseph, not Joanne.
"Yep. Don't mind me, I'm just getting started on dinner."
Mara couldn't believe this. She was the one person who didn't care about Nicky's mysterious personal life and now she was the one person who knew his spouse was a man and that he lived in a gorgeous museum and his husband painted him--probably naked--and baked fresh bread and what did he even do for work. She didn't care though. She didn't. She-- "What is his deal?" she said before she could stop herself.
Joe looked back while washing a red pepper. "Who, Nicky?"
"I mean, I know it's none of my business, it's just like, he never talks about himself, and I wouldn't care except that half the campus is wondering, like, he starts college in his thirties or whatever and asks the weirdest possible questions in class and doesn't check email ever, apparently. Until two minutes ago I assumed Jo was short for Joanne--or, my friend did, I'm totally cool--and that was literally all anyone knew about him."
Joe laughed. "He used to be a Catholic priest. Then he met me. Does that answer your question?"
Didn't you have to go to school to be a priest? "I have like fifty more now, actually, but yeah. I'm being rude, I'm sorry." Mara covered her face with her hands.
"No worries," Joe said, chopping the pepper. "We're just private people." But his tone was perfectly friendly.
"Oh, do you have like, family issues? Oh my god, I don't know why I said that, I'm so sorry, I'm just going to work on my work silently until Nicky gets here. This is why I don't do people. I mean not like that. Well that too. Shutting up now." Mara hunkered down over her computer and pulled up the project files, her face burning.
"If you're asking whether we run into trouble as Muslim and Catholic gay men in love, let's say, probably less than you think."
Presumably because they were private people, Mara thought, but she kept quiet. She was just going to embarrass herself again if she talked.
The front door opened and Nicky came in. "Oh, you're here already." He set his backpack down on the table and was about to sit down next to Mara when Joe popped over to greet him. "Hayati, we have a guest," Nicky protested, but not very strongly.
"She won't mind," Joe said cheerily, and he kissed Nicky. "Dinner in forty-five."
They got to work on the project. It was a presentation without actually presenting, so basically a powerpoint and a script to submit. The air filled with the scents of onion, pepper, and tomato. Mara had already outlined most of the project, and Nicky was actually extremely smart despite his somewhat archaic ideas of writing and presenting, which Mara assumed was due to the Catholic priest school. Seminary, right? Wasn't it called seminary? Didn't priests learn Latin? Did Nicky know four languages? What was he doing taking history classes at an American state school when he and his husband were obviously European?
He was very interested in the Jewish perspective she'd made their presentation about. "I usually thought about the Catholics and the Muslims, sometimes the Copts, but I confess, I never really researched the Crusades from the Jewish angle."
"I read a book on it last year, so I'm sort of cheating, but he did only give us ten days for this project, and whatever, I know what I know. I added citations."
"Thank you for managing this. I don't usually do group projects."
"At school," Joe said, setting plates and bowls out. "Mara, water? Tea? I can open a bottle of wine."
"Oh, uh, I don't drink except on holidays. Water is good. Thank you."
Joe finished setting the table, set out the bread, and whisked the pan of egg, tomato, and vegetable stew onto a trivet. "If you need to keep working through dinner, I won't be offended. Please help yourselves."
Mara had never had shakshuka, and it was delicious. Tomato and peppers and squash and onion all stewed with lovely spices and gently poached eggs. There was a big crusty loaf of fresh sourdough to dunk as well as a bowl of juicy green grapes.
"So…" Mara contemplated the dregs of her stew. "This is definitely a joke setup. A Jew, a Muslim, and a Catholic all sit down to dinner." She looked up nervously, but Joe was nice enough to laugh outright and Nicky cracked a little smile, which seemed to be all he ever did anyway.
After dinner, and when they were nearly done with the project, there was a knock on the door. Joe answered it, and Mara heard a man, his words a little slurred, say, "Sorry, Joe, I could use a couch."
"Hey, Book, always. Heads up, Nicky has a classmate over."
"Oh, shit, sorry. I was going to visit tomorrow but I…"
"I know. Come on in. I'll get you some water."
Mara looked up to see a light-haired, somewhat scruffy man sink onto the couch, turned away from her. She decided not to ask. Joe brought him water and offered him dinner, but he just nibbled at the bread.
"Are you going to be sick?" Nicky asked gently.
"No, no," the guy said, still facing away. "Just had a little too much. Sorry to interrupt...what's happening?"
"We're doing a group project."
Couch guy turned around. "For what?"
Nicky said slowly, "School. I'm in university."
"What? Since when?"
"Sebastien," Joe said, and then continued in a different language which was maybe French? Mara was seriously regretting only learning Spanish and Hebrew now.
Sebastien--Mara was assuming that was his name--looked completely bewildered. "Okay. Yeah, great. Um, I'm going to…" He disappeared behind the couch back.
They finished their work, and as she packed up, Mara said, "Okay, I have to know, what's with all the stuff? I mean, it's very cool, looks expensive, and also like, most people wouldn't have it, are you like, an archaeologist or anth professor or something??"
Joe looked over from the sink where he was washing dishes. "Me?"
"Yeah, I already know he's a college student and ex-priest. I have no idea what drunk guy's deal is." Couch guy, why didn't she say couch guy? Why was she so awkward?
"I am...not. No."
"So...collectors? LARPers? Time travelers? Just really into old swords? I get this major Assassin's Creed cosplayer vibe, mostly from Nicky."
The sober men were staring at her. "It is a good game," Nicky admitted. "What's cosplayer?"
"Seriously? Like when you dress up as a character. Like Altaïr or Edward Kenway or whatever. Luke Skywalker. Wonder Woman."
Nicky looked over at Joe with a tiny little smirk on his face. Joe closed his eyes but shrugged his shoulders and grinned.
"What is happening?" Mara asked.
"Are they doing the look thing?" Sebastien asked from the couch. "You get used to it."
"Right, well. Hey, thanks for dinner, it was amazing, and thanks for hosting, I should get home and get some sleep."
"Oh." Nicky stood up. "Can I walk you home?"
Mara was about to reject him, because accepting help from people was embarrassing and uncomfortable, but...yeah. It was dark, it was a number of blocks to her apartment building, and a couple months ago she'd been followed and that sucked very much. "Oh, um. Yeah. That'd be good. Thank you."
"I need to grab my jacket." He disappeared down the hall and Mara put on her shoes by the door.
"Hey," couch guy croaked, his voice low so Joe couldn't hear. "Their thing is that they like to pretend to be mysterious."
"Yeah. They're just, what do you say, nerds. Feigning mystery. They think it's fun. You're scratching at nothing, believe me. I've known them for years."
"Huh. Well, they're very good at it. So, it would be bad if I let people on campus know about the mysteries I've uncovered?"
Sebastien put a hand over his eyes. "I don't know, be thoughtful about messing with people's personal lives, no matter how perfect they look."
"Oh, I wasn't…. Yeah. Got it."
Nicky found his jacket and headed out with her. The night air was damp and cool, the breeze just barely there. They walked in silence for a couple blocks, and Mara realized this was probably her last chance to actually find out anything else about mysterious weird hot guy, so she said, cringing as she did, "How does one become an ex-priest by, what, thirty?"
"Who said that?"
"Oh." He was quiet, and Mara was about to apologize when he continued. "Such a path is probably the best hope for gay men who are severely indoctrinated--ah...fucked up by Catholicism."
That made sense. He was probably barely in it when he met Joe. "Hey, um, thank you for being cool and stuff. I'm bad with people, which, I mean, obviously. I usually try to avoid them, because I only always ever embarrass myself. You can ask Joe, I said even more dumb stuff before you got home, and honestly, most people are not as understanding and you guys are very cool and nice, and thank you for putting up with me."
"I wasn't," Nicky said.
"Putting up with you. Mara, I think you have a skewed idea of yourself. You had questions, you asked them. I was not offended."
"I didn't mean to have questions," Mara sighed. "Everyone else wants to get in everyone's business, especially the weird--the mysterious guy's, and I just want to graduate with a 4.0. But I guess I'm not immune to being nosy too."
"Were you not just reaching out?"
"If I could suggest."
"I would say you should seek out people with similar core values, not necessarily the same religion or interests, but values, and when you speak or act, think not only of whether it is the peak of moral righteousness, but whether it will strengthen your relationship. But mostly I think you are young and you are still looking for your people, and you will find them. You will be okay. I like your company. Others will too."
Mara was suddenly very grateful for the dark because her lip was trembling.
"I felt very alone when I was younger. People I might have been close to, I wasn't. I had to keep them away from my real self. But meeting Yusuf--Joe changed all that for me. Now I have not only him, but a family we built together. There are many ways to build the life you want. Certainly if anyone has the drive, I think it is you. We have to have other people."
"Uh," she said, biting her cheek, "this is me." She put a hand on the doorknob and paused. "Thank you for dinner. And everything."
"Maybe next time you come for dinner, Booker will be less drunk." Presumably "Booker" was Sebastien.
Wow. He really meant all that stuff. He was actually extending an invitation. "I'd like that."
He nodded at her. "Until Wednesday," he said, and he started walking away.
She opened the door. "Hey," she called. "Is your last name really Smith?"
"See you in class, Mara," he replied.
"Okay, Ezio Auditore da Firenze!"
The dampness of the night muffled sounds, and there was loud Yoko Kanno (she'd never asked to know that name, but it couldn't be helped) music coming from inside, but Mara was pretty certain she could hear him laughing. Fucking victory.
"Okay," Brittany said, sliding onto the hallway couch where Mara was doing Anth homework. "Rumor has it that you spent the night with Mysterious Hot Green Eyes Man. Spill!" The ice clinked in her metal travel mug.
"There's not much to spill," Mara said. "I went over to do school work, his husband made dinner, I went home." She had already decided not to mention the drunk guy on the couch.
"Oh, husband!" Brittany squealed. "Mare, you have the most concrete details anyone's gotten in three years, you have to share."
Brittany might not be the best friend for Mara to have at the top of her list, but maybe she should think deeper about who she was and who Brittany was before writing her off. Still, she didn't want Brittany to make Nicky's campus life uncomfortable. "There's not a lot to say, honestly. They're super nice, kinda big nerds, but they're private people, so…" Even if I knew all their secrets, I wouldn't tell you, because you'd just gossip about it. But then she thought about Nicky's advice to weigh both moral righteousness and relationships in any action, and took a few seconds to think of a better phrasing. "I just want to respect their privacy," she said instead.
"You know what? That's totally fair, and extremely cool of you."
Maybe it was time to start working on relationships in a deeper way. Maybe that would help them stick. "Brit," Mara said, "if you had to write down your core values, the things you build your life on, could you?"
"Whoa, someone's getting deep."
"Just something Nicky said last night. It's stuck in my head."
"Oh yeah? Well...not offhand, but I could brainstorm, I guess."
"Yeah. Me too."
Brittany took a long sip of her iced mocha. "Pensive look," she said, poking Mara. "I fully love this plan, actually. Meet me in the li--" She cut herself off quickly. "Or...the...student center. Two-thirty? We can reassess our deepest being together."
Mara started to say no. Most things she could do on her own, especially personal stuff. Revealing her innermost beliefs to Brittany sounded nerve-wracking at best. But. We have to have other people. And a person who cared about her weird triggers was not a bad place to start. "Yeah," she said instead. "I'll be there."