Out of the corner of my eye, I’m watching a girl. She’s on the opposite side of the courtyard from me. The sun is pounding down on her bare shoulders. Her face is pressed up against a camera, and she’s squatting low to the ground. It looks like an old manual camera by the way she focuses the lens and turns a lever after every shot.
The courtyard between us is really just ample cement sidewalks converging in a circular cement center. Apparently, whoever designed the landscape of Mesa Community College, felt this cheap material would suffice for students who are here on a budget and don’t deserve a luxury landscape. Ivy League schools get Corinthian columns, cobblestone promenades, and brick halls surrounded by gardens so students can read Ernest Hemingway next to granite fountains and quote Robert Frost in terraces covered with climbing vines. Community college students get cement benches and a lone cafeteria specializing in greasy doughnuts and potato wedges. It puts us in our place from day one.
My eyes are drawn back to this strange girl. You can’t help but notice her—she’s always roaming around outside, like she’s part coyote. Sometimes she sits against a tree and writes in a notebook no bigger than the palm of her hand. Sometimes she draws on a sketchpad. Sometimes she whistles. She’s always by herself. She wears the same beat-up black Adidas tennis shoes every day. I think I used to own the same pair, when I was twelve.
She wears baggy jeans, an interesting style choice since the average summer temperature in Phoenix is a hundred and ten degrees. The jeans practically slide off her bony hips, and the bottoms flap like bird’s wings in the dusty wind gusts. Today her tank top is the color of the sun, a citrus yellow, and it’s too small, hugging her long, slender waist. She has the curves of a beanpole. Once she caught me watching her and grinned, but I immediately looked away. I don’t want to acknowledge her. I’m not looking to make friends. I just want a diversion, an object to rest my eyes on so I can zone out and wait for time to pass.
I lean against a wall of the science building, which offers a sliver of shade, and pull my baseball cap low over my forehead to block out the bright light reflecting off the pavement. I always wear a hat to class. I feel like I can hide behind it, like I have the power to shun the world simply by lowering its rim. I pretend people can’t see me and I can stare at whoever I want, mostly girls, in their skirts that fall barely below their hips, in high heels that show off their tan legs, and skintight tank tops that leave little to the imagination, which is fine with me.
I pick up my iPod and scroll through the albums until I find rap. I think music is seasonal. In the summer my taste changes. More hip hop, upbeat, fast-paced. In the winter it slows down. More acoustic and oldies. I drum my fingers against the ground and delay going to class until the last possible second. There is nothing more painful than taking math and creative writing in the middle of the summer. It’s too much forced right and left brain activity to be asked of a person before noon. At least the misery comes in a concentrated dose of four weeks and not an entire semester.
My eyes wander back to this girl—now lying flat on her stomach in the middle of the sidewalk. I can feel myself glaring at her. What is she doing? Taking pictures of the stupid concrete? I watch her, baffled, and scan her lanky body. She isn’t skinny like models in magazines—emaciated skinny, people who look like stick figures with big hair and makeup. She looks hyper skinny, as if she can’t sit still long enough to eat a full meal. As if her secret diet is living life at a vivacious speed.
I check the time on my phone and look back at her with a frown. Of course she has to be monopolizing the one path between me and the English building. I could walk around her, but I’ve never seen someone photographing a sidewalk with such dedication, and I’m curious to know what’s luring her to put her face inches from the ground. I stand up and take cautious steps toward her like I’m approaching a wild animal that could thrash out unexpectedly. She’s sprawled out, her chest supported by her bony elbows, her hands holding the camera perfectly still. She must have heard me coming.
"Don’t walk any closer," she warns. I stop a few feet away, and the wind picks up sand around us. Wisps of dirty blond hair fall free from her braid and blow in her face. I frown at her for hogging a public walkway.
"You’re blocking the sidewalk," I say. My throat’s dry and my voice comes out raw and scratchy. She slowly turns her neck to face me and her eyes are intense on mine, serious in her mission.
"You’ll scare them away," she whispers, and motions with her eyes. I look down at the empty path. There isn’t a single movement in the distance. I stare back at her with concern. Maybe she’s schizophrenic. Maybe the desert heat has fried her brain (at least the logical side) and she’s hallucinating. I lift my foot to back up, but then I glance down and realize only a few inches away from this girl’s head are two pale green geckos. They’re facing each other as if they’re talking.
I keep still and watch her turn the camera lens with delicate precision. She presses a button and I hear a subtle click.
"Got it," she says. She stands up and brushes the sand off her jeans. She’s taller than I thought, only a few inches shorter than I am, and I’m six foot three.
"It’s hard to get those buggers to sit still," she says. She smiles and her light brown eyes meet mine. "Definitely camera-shy."
I study her. She must be from out of town. My guess is the Midwest or out east.
"You’re not from around here, are you?" I look at her skin, covered in freckles but paler than native Arizonians’, who acquire enough daily sun to give their melanin a year-round stain of tan.
"What makes you say that?" she asks, and squints up at me.
Because you’re acting nuts.
"You don’t see many locals sacrificing their bodies on hot cement to get a close-up shot of geckos," I tell her. "They’re everywhere."
She looks at the ground for more lizards. "They’re so friendly. They always play tag around my feet." She places a black cap over the camera lens. "I’m visiting for the summer," she says, in answer to my question. I raise my eyebrows. Normally I’d be gone at this point. Small talk isn’t my thing. But this girl is becoming more bizarre by the minute.
"You moved to Phoenix for the summer?" I ask, and she smiles at my shock. Most people flee the desert this time of year, unless you like feeling your skin bake or you enjoy spending your days inside a cool refrigerator commonly referred to as air conditioning.
"I’ve always wanted to see the desert," she says, and raises her chin. "What are you doing after class?" My mouth drops open at her assertiveness. Does she actually think I walked over to talk to her? Doesn’t she realize she was just blocking my way?
"Uhm," I stammer. My daily routine is the same: eat lunch, play video games, strum my guitar, lift weights, try to figure out my life. Stay out of my parents’ way. Work part-time at Video Hutch.
"Could you give me a ride home?" she asks.
I stall and pretend to check something on my phone while I think of an excuse.
"I rode the bus over from Scottsdale, and it took two hours to get here," she adds.
My mouth drops open with shock again. Who moves to Phoenix without a car? A weird jean-wearin...