From Behind the Couch

     Sylvie enjoyed quiet. No, she needed quiet. A lot of it. It wasn’t that she was anti-social, she just had a lot of things to think about, and thinking was best done on the sly, as far as she was concerned.
     She took long walks and dreamed about the world being a better place, with happy mama’s and papa’s and smiling round faces of children gazing adoringly up at their personal deities.
     She climbed tall trees and pretended to be a bird testing the wind, balancing on swaying branches, her arms spread wide.
     She perched in the loft above the living room, and sketched the raucous parties her parents frequently held, with swirling throngs of fancy adults clutching fragile stemmed wine glasses, their trilling conversations breaking over the strains of Paganini or Mozart wafting up to the ceiling, gathering like storm clouds.
     On rare quiet evenings when it was just she and her parents, she crept away from the table, unnoticed and unmourned, to curl up like a cat behind the couch purring over a favorite book while her parents’ silverware clinked in time to their speculations about various friends and colleagues.
     No, Sylvie enjoyed her alone-ness. She knew no other way of being in the world that fit her like a close-knit glove, and was happiest when watching and wondering and waiting.
     To some, it was perhaps an idyllic existence – one that didn’t involve parental commands and expectations and requirements.
     But Sylvie made sure it stayed that way. Her grades were close enough to perfect as to cause no wrinkling of eyebrows and cross-examinations as to what roadblocks barred her from achieving those grades. Her room was always perfectly tidy, as was she. She made sure to attract no undue attention, and in this way, ensured that her bubble of solitude was preserved.
     At school, it was more difficult, with persistent teachers assigning her to work groups and fellow students trying to gossip and pry and tell secrets about each other.
     But, Sylvie had learned early on how to gently swim in the currents of classroom, hallway and cafeteria etiquette without too much threat to her rainbow colored bubble of protection.
     She answered when called on with clear and respectful responses, she smiled and shrugged when asked her opinion, turning the question neatly back onto the questioner and listening with what appeared to be great attentiveness to what the other person had to say.
     She carried her lunch to school, and thereby avoided the long cafeteria line, disappearing instead into the school library and completing assignments as she nibbled on vegetables and cheese sticks.
     And then one sodden November day, while the rain drizzled down the library windows outside, and Sylvie strained in the dim light to make out the fine print in a footnote, she jumped slightly at the sound of a bag thumping down on the floor.
     A slender boy, with a mop of dandelion shag for hair and soft brown eyes peering through his round framed glasses, collapsed with a sigh into the hard wooden chair. He stared solemnly across his table, across the divide of dully-colored tiled floor, and right across book strewn Sylvie’s table to meet her startled eyes.
     “Hi,” he said quietly. “My name is Nick. I’m new here, and that cafeteria is too noisy.”
     He rummaged through his book bag and brought out a sandwich and Oreo cookies, along with a heavy advanced math book and paper.
     “Never went to a school before where they let you eat in the library.”
     Sylvie blinked twice. “Sylvie,” she offered cautiously, and looked back down at her open history book.
     Hopefully, he would be quiet. Sylvie was half-studying, half-dreaming of Elizabeth I as a young girl, navigating the eddies and pools of shifting loyalties and treachery, fighting to survive a precarious existence.
     “I haven’t seen you in any of my classes, yet,” Nick said around a mouthful of sandwich. “What do you have after lunch? I have biology and then economics.”
     Sylvie looked back up, eyebrows coming down to a “V” over her eyes, perplexed that he continued trying to talk to her.
     “I’m studying for a history quiz next class,” she responded shortly.
     “Great!” Nick said. “Let me just finish this last problem and I’ll ask you questions from the chapter. That always helps me when I am studying for a test.”
     Nick scrawled a bit more on his paper and shoved it and the remnants of his lunch into his bag, and pushed his chair back from the table.
     “No, that’s okay,” Sylvie said hastily, realizing he actually meant to do exactly what he said.
     “I think I’m done studying. I have to get to class.” With a sense of almost-panic, Sylvie hastily stood up and gathered her books and lunch bag and scurried from the room, feeling a bit twitchy, rather like the mouse she had caught her cat Zumba playing with last year.
     Once out of the library, she heaved out a great sigh leaning against the wall to gather in some strength, and then slowly straightened. History class was fifteen minutes away, but perhaps if she walked slowly, she would get there just as the door opened and could slide into her favorite corner seat.
     “Hey!” Sylvie froze in dismay as Nick stood by her, beaming ear-to-ear. “How about I walk with you? You can tell me where my next class is and where the gym and lav and all that is . . . I could use the help, and you look like you could use a friend.”
     Nick swung his backpack onto his left shoulder and handed her his class schedule, neatly gathering her books into his right arm.
     “Lead the way,” he gestured with his head down the hall.
     “Didn’t they assign you a buddy for your first day here?” Sylvie asked.
     That was what usually happened. A student from the student body government, or from one of the geek clubs, usually was assigned to shepherd a new student to and from classes, and orient the new kid to all the things they “ought” to know about the school – and with any luck, at least a few of the things students usually wanted to know, that administration would not share. Where the smoker’s hole was, if you were so inclined. What the best afterschool clubs were, the best sports coach, who threw the best parties . . .
     “They tried,” Nick confessed. “I didn’t like the guy. He was . . . well, demeaning to a lot of students and teachers . . . and I prefer to make up my own mind. But I have since been late to all my classes, because nothing in this school makes sense and I don’t have a map . . . please, please help me?”
     Nick grinned engagingly at her. “Hey,” he said, suddenly serious. “I can tell you are used to being alone – you probably like being alone – and frankly, so do I. But, wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend who gets that? I had a friend back in Nevada who understood. I was sorry to leave there – I’ll probably never see him again. Let’s be friends.”
     Sylvie thought for a moment or two. “Maybe,” she said. “Let me show you where your classes are, and then if you want to study together – quietly – in the library during lunch, I guess I can give that a try.”
     “Fair enough,” Nick said, beaming.
     “Lead the way, Sylvie. Looking forward to being your friend.”