Daphne's first two weeks at college were the most confusing she had lived in her life. Firstly, meeting her roommate, a girl called April Smith, did not go as well as she had hoped it would. Secondly, she suffered throughout the ice-breaking activities tailored by her resident advisors during welcome week, and felt like an outsider in a world that highly praised sociability. Thirdly, when her classes started, she realized they would be more challenging than she had expected.
Everything was overwhelming, though at times very enlightening.
She had literary analysis and a class specifically on Shakespeare's plays. She also had lessons on the major American and British authors, before lunch. In the afternoon, she devoted her time to world history, because she thought too much literature would depress her.
Her professors, without distinction, were very inspiring and genuinely passionate about the courses they taught. Her academic adviser at McAdams, Dr. Lawrence Steinberg, actually was a published writer. He had published an epistolary novel titled Isadora that was becoming quite the sensation among the students on campus.
Isadora was a 19-year-old who had left her parents' house upon their death to start a new life in a different town. Sadly, she became delusional. Her delusions – quite aggressive ones, which mostly involved shadows that whispered she was cursed – led to her own death by drowning.
Right after the death of her boyfriend, Isadora was then truly convinced to be cursed. Her presence, she thought, was causing the death of her beloved ones. Desperate to stay away from everyone else she knew and had learned to love, she took her deceased boyfriend's boat and sailed day and night, until she starved herself to death. During a storm, the ocean swallowed the boat and Isadora's body vanished forever.
Daphne, who had finished reading the book in just four days, from the very beginning regarded it as book she would never forget. She thought that if her father read it, he would have quite a different opinion on the influence of a college education on someone's writing.
Isadora was such a good-natured character, always genuinely kind to everyone around her, that many students started to debate why she shouldn't have died in the end of the novel. Daphne didn't belong to any discussion group in particular, but she had intently observed them gathering in lounges. She had watched them discussing in that enthusiastic manner that abounded in youth, carefully listening to their debates while pretending to be doing homework at a nearby table.
One day, Daphne decided to ask Professor Steinberg for advice on writing.
Isadora was, Daphne thought, a representation of the Lady of Shallot. She felt particularly impressed that her professor had been able to so capably make such analogies with Lord Tennyson's work and at the same time make Isadora a story that felt unique.
She went to the meeting with him feeling brave – though, of course, a little nervous to be meeting with an acclaimed professor and author – but as soon as she stepped into his office, she felt like she was quite a different person. That is, she felt like her old self. She looked at him in his office, a man dressed very formally, and felt very intimidated right away.
Not that professor Steinberg was a difficult person to address. In fact, he was the best representation of a man who had spent his entire life devoting himself to knowledge, though the weight of his wisdom was never imposing on him or on his students. It felt like knowledge went through him and left his mind metamorphosed into something of a more ethereal quality, something weightless and more fluid, more dynamic. Something, above all, attractive.
Still, as she found herself in his office, she felt insecure about her own ideas and the very nature of going there to talk with him. She was scared he would find her foolish.
Building up courage, she told him everything she thought of Isadora.
“The Lady of Shallot?” He asked, and took off his glasses as he pondered for a few seconds. “It flatters me to think that perhaps my writing is more linked to Lord Tennyson's than I thought.”
“You mean you didn't make all those reference on purpose?” Daphne asked him, surprised.
“I've taught classes on Lord Tennyson's works for so many years, that some of his stories, perhaps all of them, might have gotten deep inside my soul and made me who I am. That's the same for all writers. The stories of our favorite and least liked authors flow naturally into our writing and give it meaning, even though we do not clearly notice when it happens. That, I suppose, is how creativity works. It is constantly making us repaint and retell old stories.”
“But I thought creativity sort of meant originality. It means, I guess, coming up with something unique. I – I actually enjoy writing. I want to be an author. I mean, I want to write a novel. The problems I have with writing usually have to do with my constant inability to think of ideas no other writers had ever thought. I'm sorry, all I'm saying is that I don't want to be the sort of writer who writes about, let's say, one of these numerous novels about writers having writer's block. I want to write something creative, unique.”
“I understand your worries, Daphne. I'm also happy to hear you want to write a novel, and I'd encourage you if you were considering writing about a writer, yes. Why not? It certainly is a difficult, though rewarding career. You probably know this too well already. Concerning your thought that creativity means originality, I believe some people would say that, yes, that's what it means,” he said, and after thinking some more, added in a whisper: “Others, perhaps, would say that creating something new is nothing but theft of something old.”
Daphne left professor Steinberg's office feeling strange, though strange in a good way.
That was a particularly windy day, the grass on the beautiful grounds of McAdams College bowed to the strength of nature, and the tree branches moved as if worshiping the sky. Daphne felt her clothes blown very loosely around her body as she walked back to her residence hall. Her mind, for the first time in many months, was at ease. She was ready to begin writing her novel.
In an impulse, she untied her hair. She opened her arms and let the wind push her to Sampson Hall, where she lived on campus. She had a heartwarming daydream that if she jumped, the wind would catch her and take her with it to some other place where she could finally be happy, be herself. She was ready to try flying away, when a familiar figure greeted her.
Daphne froze. There, with her hair annoyingly flying about her face, she waited until Ben got closer to her. She couldn't help feeling that she had been caught doing something wrong.
“You look very nice today, Daphne,” Ben said with a smile, though a slightly cynical one that didn't match his naturally good personality.
“Funny that we meet here. I actually am coming from your room, but your roommate didn't know where you were.”
Of course April didn't know, for she didn't talk with Daphne.
When April Smith arrived at McAdams, she was just as scared as Daphne and desperate to adjust to her new life as fast as possible. She was coming from a school where she had been a popular girl. Very popular, actually, and adored like a rock star. She wanted – or, rather, needed – to have the same status in her new life, otherwise living felt meaningless. When she arrived, she was greeted by her neighbors, Michelle Brown and Janice Schmidt, and found in being with them what looked like her only opportunity to restart her reputation.
It was the rule, however, that popular ladies only had a maximum of two best friends – only two, and no one else, to share the glories of having a very close friendship. If unlucky Daphne had arrived, perhaps, ten hours earlier, April and her would have been best friends for the rest of their lives.
During their college years, they would always have shared the same room and decorated the walls with April's glow-in-the-dark stars and the posters of her favorite movies. Daphne would have received neatly written cards every holiday, and they would have talked every night until 2:00 AM about April's admirers.
Daphne would have wore a bright pink dress in April's wedding and would have been her maid-of-honor. That same day, Daphne would have met Joshua Muller, a half-German businessman and April's husband's best man. They would have dated for a year, stayed engaged for four months, and married with simplicity in a hidden chapel in some obscure European village between mountains.
Daphne would have given birth to twin boys, Otto and Werner, and lived happily in Ratingen, where she would have helped Josh administer his telecommunications company. Daphne would have proved to be a keen administrator, but Josh would have encouraged her to continue writing.
At the age of forty-five, she would have published an autobiographical book about her memorable years and friendship with April at McAdams, and she would have won the Nobel in literature for it.
As this friendship was bound to never happen, Daphne knew that a few terrible things awaited April in her future. Daphne could only lament for April that Michelle wasn't exactly the loyal friend she was seeking to have in her life, and for Josh – dear Josh – because Janice wasn't the supportive and loving partner he needed. There were many sad things in Joshua's future, but Daphne forbore thinking about him any longer. Thinking about him broke her heart.
“Where were you?” Ben asked her, bringing her back from her daydreaming.
“In professor Steinberg's office,” she said, and blushed when she realized she had spoken too fast. “I – Um, had a meeting with him. He's my adviser.”
“Isn't he the author of Isadora?”
“Yes! Yes, he is. Have you read the book?”
“No,” he said, and scratched his head looking a bit shy. “I actually don't read novels that often. But I do like them, yeah.”
“Good,” Daphne said and stared at her shoes.
There was an awkward silence between them, and she felt tense. She knew what he was going to say. Daphne thought that was the best time for sylphs to come pick her up in the air and take her to a country where she didn't feel nervous, but there wasn't a lot to expect from them. Sylphs had never paid attention to her.
“Why didn't you show up last night?” He finally asked. She would have cringed, if he wasn't standing in front of her.
Since the first day at McAdams, Ben had followed her everywhere. He daily invited her to lunch and to have dinner together in the cafeteria. He was always searching for her in the common lounge. When he couldn't find her, he went upstairs to knock on her door. If Daphne happened to be alone in her bedroom, he stayed with her until April arrived with Michelle and Janice. He talked about his classes, his friends from high school, and his plans for the future. Ben wanted to be a mathematician, but he couldn't decide whether he wanted to teach or to be a researcher. To be both a teacher and a researcher, as Daphne had suggested, was out of the question. He thought the only way he could succeed was by giving his full attention to just one activity.
Daphne usually liked to have him around. He was a polite boy, always thought twice before saying something, and showed the greatest interest in her writing when she told him she wanted to write a novel. He had read, like everyone else in the world, her short stories in the past and wanted to know more about them. But Daphne didn't feel like talking about her past.
He talked and talked, as if they had been close childhood friends. He was a shy boy around others, but when the two of them were alone, he turned into a completely different person, and spoke about himself with ease. Daphne soon grew surprised, and a little uncomfortable, with that sudden friendliness.
The day before Daphne's meeting with Professor Steinberg, during dinner, Ben had invited her to watch a movie with him. She said she would, but as they walked from the cafeteria to Sampson Hall – they lived in the same residence hall – Ben was more inquisitive than normal. When Daphne forbore talking about her life at home, he was offended. Ben accused her of never being open.
How could she be open after only a few days together? She started to regret having him around.
When they arrived in the lobby of Sampson Hall, she lied to him she needed to get a jacket before joining him for the movie, and spent the rest of the night reading under the town's gazebo with a flashlight.
“Because I had some reading to get done,” she told him, uncertain. Although she had decided it was best to run away from him, she couldn't help feeling bad.
He gave her a nervous smile.
“But you told me you were going to get a jacket and meet me later,” he said, and sounded as if carefully weighing every word not to let his annoyance show.
“I know. I'm sorry. I – I realized I had homework to do when I went to my room, and it was too late to let you know I wouldn't be able to watch a movie with you.”
“You were not in your room last night.”
“I went to the library,” Daphne lied.
“Well, on the way to the library you could have stopped by my room and told me you couldn't stay.”
Daphne, who was feeling more and more awkward, rubbed her forehead impatiently. Ben was looking at her intently and gradually losing his temper.
“You're lying,” he said out of the blue, and Daphne blushed immediately. “You didn't go to the library. You know, I was a little annoyed you hadn't showed up, so Caleb and I went to a bar on College Avenue. On the way back, we saw you reading under a gazebo.”
Rage took over Daphne's mind. She didn't know why, but she couldn't stand being confronted by Ben, even though she knew she was wrong.
“That's right. I am lying!” She said, raising her voice. “I also lied when I said I'd meet you later. I don't know why. We aren't friends, Ben. I'm not here to make any friends. I need to focus on more important things.”
Ben was pale, even more pale than he naturally was, and looked on the verge of shouting at her all the thoughts that tortured his mind at the moment.
“You need to focus on more important things?” He repeated, nervously. “You mean your book? Your novel? If writing is more important than making friends, then I was really wrong about you.”
“Are you insane?” She yelled, losing her mind. “How can you say making friends like it was the easiest thing to do? We were not becoming friends. There's no way we could become friends in a week or so! At this moment, yes, writing is more important to me. I'm alone here.”
He shook his head, annoyed.
“You know, you're the strangest person I've ever met,” he said in a melancholy tone, and walked away.
Daphne thought of running up to him to continue shouting, but managed to control herself. She tied her hair back in a ponytail and spun on her heels decided to leave McAdams College to never come back. She didn't want to be around Benjamin Wallace after what had happened. She felt ashamed of herself; though, more than ashamed, she felt angry. How dared he say I was lying? She thought, rubbing her forehead as she walked away. He knows nothing about me, and has the boldness to accuse me. He knows nothing about friendship!
If McAdams was supposed to be her new home for the next few years, it was very disheartening to think that after two weeks she already felt like running away.
Daphne had, though, nowhere to go.
She spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the stores on College Avenue. Nothing really interested her, but looking at expensive clothes she wouldn't dare to buy and odd antiques seemed, little by little, to readjust her thoughts. Daphne felt more aware of her rudeness, of feeling lonely, and of the weather.
Her sweater felt too thin on her body, and her spirits were low. Trying to escape those harsh, cold winds, she impulsively opened the door of a strange, windowless black building that was squeezed between a drugstore and a small restaurant. She entered the establishment with the sole intent to find warmth, and how great was her surprise when, instead of finding a bar, she stumbled into a cozy, dim bookstore.
Daphne gasped and instinctively covered her mouth. The place was packed with books and more books covering every wall. There was a tall stack of books on every corner. She took a deep breath and filled her nostrils with that welcoming smell of old parchments. A few fake torches here and there provided the only source of illumination to that little hidden bookstore.
She walked about feeling the book spines and was glad to notice that they were in no specific order. Bookstores were way more interesting places when she felt she had to go hunting for certain books, or when a visit to a random bookshelf allowed her to be greeted by unexpected stories.
“Hello?” A woman's voice said behind Daphne, startling her. “Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I was going to close the store.”
“No problem!” Daphne said, feeling a little embarrassed and heartbroken. Her little kingdom was, after all, already taken. Daphne felt envious.
The woman smiled. There was something in her large smile that resembled the frankness of her mother's smile. Daphne forgot her envy and felt as if she had just met someone wonderful.
“You're not the first person to feel hypnotized after entering this bookstore,” she said with a smile. She was in her forties and had a very distant accent that Daphne couldn't precise, but perhaps it was French. Her hair was abundantly curly and very long. In that white, long dress, she looked as if she had just came out of one of John William Waterhouse's paintings. She precisely looked like, Daphne thought, Waterhouse's Juliet.
“Yes. This place is. . . wonderful!” Daphne said and sighed. “I should go now, then.”
Daphne had barely touched the door knob to leave, when the woman spoke with her once again.
“You are a writer, aren't you?” She asked.
“Yes,” Daphne said, and turned to her with her heart racing. “Yes, I am. How did you –?”
“Your hands,” the woman said, and pointed at Daphne's hands. “Your fingers are covered in black ink. Do you use a fountain pen?”
“Yes, I do!” Daphne replied. She felt strangely happy. And, above all, relieved.
“That's your mark,” and she paused as if waiting to know Daphne's name.
“Daphne. Daphne Chase.”
“Well, that's your mark, Daphne Chase. Just show your hands and people will know who and what you are,” she said and smiled. “I'm Marie Delbes.”
They shook hands. Marie had many rings with stones.
“I should go now. You're closing the bookstore. Nice to meet you, Ms. Delbes!”
“Just call me Marie. And feel free to come visit again. It is, you'll find out, a nice place to write.”
Daphne took a good look at the world behind Marie, and after a long sigh, waved goodbye. She knew she would definitely come back.