He had a bad habit of reading out loud. Everyone was staring. The whole bus now knew that this poor girl had a fondness for books and board games and some very strong social anxiety.
He scrambled with his headphones to escape, even if they weren’t playing anything. Once they were in his ears, he was no longer a part of this world. He was separate from that bus full of people who had obviously heard him reading an online dating profile out loud. The headphones granted him that.
He decided he should probably listen to something so he actually couldn’t hear the teenagers behind him laughing. As he scrolled through his podcasts, someone pushed past him in a rush and out the door to the stop. The bus began to pull away and he looked out the window. The teenagers were choking on their laughter. Oh, no. Oh, god no. It was her.
He’d spent enough time reading her profile before today to recognize her from her picture. Just as the bus made the turn, she sat down on the stop bench, burying her face in her hands, then slipped out of view.
He felt awful. Usually it was only himself he embarrassed in public trying to read a menu or loudly announcing a text from his mother about the adorable thing the cat had just done. This time there was collateral damage. His problem had become her problem. What if she lives nearby, and sees these same commuters on the way home from work every day? What if those same teenagers are there, taunting her every day? Before he knew what he was doing, he had pressed the stop request button. He had to let her know that this was his problem, and not hers.
“At least bring her some flowers!” The teenagers called after him as he practically fell down the step onto the sidewalk. He forgot to play anything on his headphones.
He started walking in the direction the bus had just come. What was he even doing? He had no plan here. Just walk up to her and say, “sorry for sharing your private info with two dozen strangers. Anyway, bye!”
This was going to be a disaster. Or, it would have been if it wasn’t one already.
First thing tomorrow, he’d start searching for a way to stop his bad habit. Whatever it took. Visiting a therapist, practicing reading silently daily, hiring a hypnotist, duct taping his mouth shut when he was in public. Anything. This was the last straw.
Until today, the worst result of this had been that final exam in college. The one for Biology. It wasn’t even his major and he hated the course, but he had to take it to fulfill a requirement. The class was massive. A lot of people had requirements to fill. They couldn’t all fit in a classroom, so they held the final in the seats of the school’s huge old auditorium. His problem was more intermittent in those days, and more under control. He usually caught himself early when he started. But something about that place, the creaking old wooden seats, the dust floating in the few thin strips of window light in the dark room, made him slip. By the time he looked up and noticed that everyone including the professor was staring at him, he had apparently read his entire three paragraph answer to a question out loud. The anger in the professor’s eyes implied that his particular requirement would not be fulfilled this semester.
He had been texting his friend about the disaster unfolding between two bus stops as he walked.
“Well, whatever, you’ll never see her again. Who cares?”
“I do. I really liked her,” he typed back. He realized that he had said it out loud as he typed. He also realized that he had reached his destination.
Then he realized that she was still sitting there.
And she was smiling at him.