Why Must Simple Things Be So Difficult -- creative nonfiction by Jessica Shen
How does one talk to, or even just interact with someone they barely knew? That was the question I found myself asking the first time I sat next to Rupert on a Friday afternoon during our weekly rehearsal for Youth Symphony.
Rupert wasn’t someone new to me. I’d first seen him in seventh grade, and played in the same section as him in eighth. I heard about him frequently in school. Our conductor loved bragging about him, whether it was about how he’d made it into nationals or how he was just an overall genius. I always noticed him at events we were both at and often found myself generally curious about him. And now that I was sitting next to him, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to know more about him and find out what drove him to become as great as he was. But that wasn’t something I could just ask. I had to get to know him first.
Most of our rehearsal has passed with the two of us sitting in awkward silence. A part of me wanted to turn and just stare at him for a solid five minutes, but I knew all that would do was make him think I was weird. So I settled with eyeing him through my peripheral vision before I was struck with an idea. I could ask him my stat project question! I promptly faced him and blurted out, “What’s your favorite type of cheese?” I watched his eyebrows raise at the question, eager to hear what he answered.
Then I realized that I hadn’t given him any context. And the question on its own wasn’t exactly one that was asked every day.
Immediately, I hurriedly added, “It’s for my math project. I’m collecting data to measure what the greatest cheese is.” I could sense Nina, one of the other people in our section, snickering behind me, but I pointedly ignored her. At my words, his eyebrows returned to their original spot and his eyes turned thoughtful.
“Ah ok,” he said, with a small smile. “It would probably have to be cheddar.” I nodded my thanks and quickly recorded the results on my phone.
That was just the first rehearsal. For the ones after, it mostly consisted of the two of us just sitting next to each other in silence. I really did want to get to know him better, but I just had no clue how to. The books and the movies made it look easy. You walk up and manage to strike up a conversation that somehow doesn’t end in disaster. And I wanted to do that but by now, it was pretty obvious that my social skills weren’t quite there yet. Asking someone for their favorite cheese wasn't quite something I knew how to build off of. So I did the only thing I could: I went to my friends for help.
“You should go up to him and say, ‘So how’s the weather today,’” Aurik said one lunch, his words sticky from the rice he just ate. I stared at him for a couple seconds, trying to figure out if he was kidding or if I’d heard him wrong. There was a lot of chatter in the cafeteria, so it was definitely possible. He looked back at me expressionless, and ate another mouthful of rice. Breaking eye contact, I sighed. He was serious.
“Yeah, that's never happening.”
“I mean you have to talk to him somehow,” Roy piped in. “It’s kind of hard to get to know someone if you guys don’t know how to talk to each other.” Hearing that, I groaned and covered my face. I knew what he said was right, but I really didn’t want to think about it.
“I can barely even look him in the eyes,” I said through my hands. “Holding a conversation with him just seems too impossible.”
“Then just start with saying ‘Hi’ to him or something,” Roy suggested. Hearing that, Aurik whipped his head around to face me just as he was about to eat more rice.
“You haven’t even said ‘Hi’ to him yet?!” he asked incredulously. “You asked him what his favorite cheese is before you said ‘Hi’ to him?” He shook his spoon at me, and rice fell onto the table.
I dropped my head onto the table.
“It’s just…he’s just…I don’t even know, ” I mumbled. “I can barely even look him in the eyes for more than a couple seconds at a time. I just know I’m going to mess this up somehow.”
“Well you won’t know until you try, am I right?” Aurik said, closing his thermos. He fought with the cap for a couple seconds before finally managing to close it. Watching him, I nodded and resigned myself to the fact that overthinking was inevitable.
And so it came. The day of reckoning. Everything was the same, except the anticipation that pooled in my stomach was much greater than it normally was. Thoughts of the upcoming rehearsal constantly popped up in my head throughout the day.
“Jessica, Aurik told me about your…predicament.” Lucy said during the drive to Rivers that day. “Care to tell us your plan for today?” In the seat behind her, Aurik nodded vigorously in agreement. I considered not answering. I didn’t want to obsess over it anymore than I already had today. But seeing the way they were both staring at me, I figured that wasn’t an option.
“All I need to do is look at him and say ‘Hi,’ ‘Hello,’ or something like that right?”
“Oh, and you got to make sure you get that juicy eye contact,” Aurik quipped. “It’s meaningless if you don’t do that.”
“I agree,” Lucy said.
With all the advice they’d given me, what could possibly go wrong now?
He wasn’t there when we arrived at Rivers, a fact I was grateful for. It meant I at least had some time to mentally prepare myself before he came. Our group always arrived early, so seeing him there would’ve given me an actual heart attack. There were only a couple students milling around the room that was empty except for a large semi-circle of identical black chairs. I dropped my stuff down beside my seat, sat down in it, and took a deep breath. I could feel Aurik repeatedly glancing at me from across the room, but I tried my best to ignore it. I was desperate to distract myself, and the only thing I could think to do was work on my slideshow for Speech class. So I pulled out my laptop and started searching up images of Peppa Pig.
Soon, other kids started trickling in as well, and the chairs in the room gradually began to fill up. I found myself looking up every time someone entered, both anticipating and dreading his arrival. Occasionally someone would come up and talk to me, a distraction I welcomed. I was in the middle of a conversation with some random person, when I turned my head and THERE HE WAS.
My brain froze. And then started racing. And then froze again. I subtly stared at Aurik, trying to convey the message of ‘HELP ME.’ He just smirked at me. I fixed my eyes onto my screen so I wasn’t staring at Rupert as he walked in. That wouldn’t be the best way to start this thing off. I took a deep breath and did my best to arrange my face into a neutral expression. I could feel him getting closer.
When his feet arrived in front of me, I looked up. When our eyes met, I grinned at him and said, “Hello!” He paused briefly and looked at me. I forced myself not to break eye contact, though it was all I wanted to do. He stood there for what felt like an eternity. I could swear I felt sweat condensing on my neck even though it couldn’t be warmer than 45 degrees outside. Finally he responded with his own “Hi…” before sitting down next to me.
Nothing else really happened for the rest of the rehearsal, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d taken a step in the right direction. When everyone had started packing up and leaving, Roy skipped up to me with Aurik at his heels.
“So…did you do it?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said with a grin on my face.
“Now all you need to do is get his number,” Aurik said. He looked over to where Rupert was stacking his chair and then at me. “I mean you might as well do it right now.”
Hearing that, I immediately fled the room. I would worry about that later. Much later.
Jessica Shen is a current high schooler living in Massachusetts, and enjoys writing fiction and poetry. When she isn’t spending time trying to finish her homework, she can always be found listening to music or watching anime.