It’s not surprising at all that Bela Malhotra is the one who has blown up his life, Eric thinks as he trudges across campus toward the Catullan office (the last place on earth he wants to be right now but the location of a couch he can crash on for at least the night). Of course it was Bela Malhotra.
No, he knows that’s not fair. Victim-blaming, etc, and he’s trying to be better than that. It’s Ryan’s fault that Ryan assaulted two women. It’s Ryan’s fault that Eric had to fire his best friend, move out, and sever ties irrevocably with the one person he’d clicked with at freshman orientation more than two years ago. That his writing staff, and maybe even his own writing ambitions, are in shambles. Ryan’s fault, entirely and without a doubt, that any of this has happened.
And incidentally, that he won't be seeing her regularly anymore. He isn’t sure how he feels about that. Relieved, right?
She’d flown into his life like some kind of buzzing insect, insistent and refusing to be swatted away. Her whole persona was like a neon sign proclaiming, “look at me, look at me!” He supposes they all want attention, but some of them are in it for the kind of attention you get for a byline in the New Yorker or a writing credit at the end of a daring and award-winning short, not just … loudly crashing in and demanding it. Literally showing up places uninvited. And the things she would say, at top volume, to anyone. She was a sentient disruption, an agent of chaos. But she had talent. He couldn’t deny she was brilliant, even if her presence at the Catullan gave him an edgy, nervous feeling, like everything sacred was about to change.
But she’s not at the Catullan anymore, and everything is changing.
It isn’t her fault, and yet, still, it feels less surprising than inevitable.
What is surprising is that the subject of his grim musings is running toward him across the quad. Smiling. And calling his name. And wrapped in …
“Bela? What are you wearing?”
“Oh, it’s caution tape,” she tosses off without explanation, like that’s the most normal thing in the world and not the physical embodiment of a Danger, Will Robinson-style warning.
“Yeah, I can see that.” He tries not to notice that she also looks really good in it. Better than anyone should ever look wrapped in plastic.
When she asks him how he’s doing, the next surprising thing that happens is that he actually tells her. It just comes pouring out of him, like they’re confidantes instead of … whatever it is they are (former brief colleagues?), but complaining is second nature to him, so that’s probably all it is. When she looks at him like she genuinely cares, he remembers that her life has been blown off course too by recent events, but before he can say something about that, they’re laughing about his dads somehow, and he’s forgotten who he is.
Her voice is softer tonight. Her smile is softer, her laugh is softer, like they’re just for him in this moment. And the thing she does with her shoulder when she suggests that she’ll see him around is … for lack of a better word, soft.
In the next moment she’s running toward her friends, yelling something for the entire campus to hear about her frozen ass, and he snaps out of it just as quickly. Yep, that’s more like it. She’s Bela Malhotra, in the middle of some wild escapade he can’t even begin to fathom, and he’s … probably headed toward a long night alone with his laptop and his thoughts. No two people on the planet could be more wrong for each other.
It’s wrong that the thought even enters his head for an insane moment. He doesn’t know where that came from.
He looks back as they move further away from each other and catches a flash of yellow in a streetlight, her unmistakable shrieky laugh making its way over to him on a breeze.
It makes no sense how unsettled he feels, because she’s left the Catullan, he doesn’t even have to see her anymore, but it’s there. A flutter in his rib cage, a tightness in his throat, another glance behind him to see if she’s still in range.
He’s not even sure what else could go wrong, but he can’t shake the feeling that Bela Malhotra is going to continue to disrupt his life somehow, and he has zero control over it.