Shaelyn felt as awkward and vulnerable as a hermit crab without shell. She couldn’t stop her arms from crossing and her nails from scratching. If she hadn’t been wearing two shirts and a sweater, she probably would’ve been bleeding before she even found her date. Not that she was sure finding him was even possible.
The commuter dining hall was packed with students that ranged from the palest white to the darkest brown, a blurred gradient of humanity swirling together. Noise came at her from every direction. Girls were laughing like seagulls circling a laden fishing boat as it returned to port. Words collided and divided, merging into sounds that held no meaning and made it hard for Shaelyn to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
She wished there were gulls instead of people and lapping waves instead of footsteps. She’d rather get swarmed by green heads in the salt marsh than face the cafeteria full of her fellow students.
But here she was, choking on the smell of pizza, chicken fingers and tacos when she could be breathing in sweet, briny air. Instead of eating alone on the riverbank like she usually did between classes, she was braving the freshmen, the athletes and other grad students because a man she hadn’t even officially met in person had asked her to.
Two weeks ago, his curly hair and warm eyes had caught her attention at a panel discussion on the intersection between science fiction and real science. They stared at each other half the night, not hearing most of what the panel participants said. She’d thought about introducing herself, but became nauseous and sweaty every time she decided to do it. She’d gone home disappointed, fearing she’d let her shyness ruin another potential end to her self-imposed loneliness.
Back in the drafty beach house she rented for the academic year, she wrapped herself in a blanket and opened her laptop, resigning herself to feel social by looking at other people’s lives on Facebook. It was safer to do that. She’d feel connected because she knew what was going on in their lives, but didn’t have to worry about acting the right way or saying the right things.
The first post on her newsfeed was from Dillon Schafer. It said, “Welcome to the family, Ankle-biter.” Below it was a photo of him, the blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked man, with his arms around a thin woman and a German shepherd puppy.
Shaelyn recalled the warm weight of his arm around her when they went out for drinks last fall. At first, she had been silent while he tried to pry words out of her stubborn mouth, but the more Shaelyn drank, the more she talked. After half an hour of her rambling about the impact of green crabs on Cape Cod marshes, he stopped touching her.
While the invasive crustaceans were actually restoring the marshes, they were toxic to the conversation. Dillon tried to change the subject. Shaelyn just kept on blabbing. The more specific she got, the further away he moved. Eventually, he went to the men’s room and never came back. Now, Dillon was living with another girl who probably didn’t even know European green crabs were invasive, and Shaelyn was still alone.
She wasn’t looking for a husband or anything permanent. She just wanted someone she could go on a second date with, and maybe a third -- someone to break up the monotony of always being alone with her research.
She was about to leave Facebook behind for a less depressing website when a little red one appeared over her messenger icon. Curious, she clicked on it. The profile picture showed a man with frizzy blonde curls tumbling down to his shoulder. He had a bass guitar in one hand and a book in the other. It was the man from the panel.
She clicked over to his profile. His relationship status was single. He was working on a PhD in Nano Technology. He loved music and literature. He had cycled 40 miles on Tuesday. He had photos with friends, but none of them were female, save his sister. He looked like a normal grad student, so she read his message.
“Hi Shaelyn, I saw you at the sci-fi panel and thought you were pretty. I was too nervous to talk to you, but heard your advisor say your name, so I thought it might be easier to talk online.”
Alarm bells went off in her head, screaming STALKER!
She ignored them and replied: “I saw you there too. What was the most interesting segment?”
“I was surprised the writers hadn’t thought of anything too new that the scientist didn’t. Do you think people are losing creativity, or are scientists just getting more creative?”
That had been the topic of the panel, but Shaelyn vaguely remembered that each panelist, whether a writer or scientist, had something more specific to say. She couldn’t remember what it was though, and if he didn’t either, then it was likely that he had paid more attention to her than the speakers.
“Umm, Shaelyn?” The hesitant voice pulled her back to the present. The gentle tap on the shoulder made her jump like she’d been electrocuted. A hand retreated like a hermit crab hiding from a predator.
“Aiden?” she squeaked, feeling her nails penetrate all her layers of clothing. He had been easy to talk to online, when she couldn’t see his face and didn’t have to worry about him seeing hers. He was smiling, at least, and looking at her very intently. She hoped it was a good sign. She took a deep breath and forced more words out of her mouth. “It’s nice to finally meet you, to actually meet you, officially, in person.”
He blinked. The edges of his thin lips twitched against his goatee. He clasped his hands together. Angry butterfly wings pounded the lining of her stomach. She made her lips smile instead of cringe. She’d said too much, made things awkward by adding the actually and officially when she should have just said nice to meet you.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” he said, smiling in spite of her terrible sentence. “I like your sweater.”
“Thanks. I got it at a thrift store. The salesperson said it was handmade somewhere. I’m not sure I believe her.” Shaelyn clamped her teeth down and bit her tongue. He hadn’t asked where she got it. He had just said it was nice.
I should have stopped at thanks, she thought, looking around at how easily other people were talking. They were laughing, leaning back with their hands by their sides. The smiles were natural, not forced grimaces.
“That’s cool. What did you want to eat? I usually just get wraps from the sandwich station.” Aiden pointed at a glass case full of wilted lettuce and an assortment of meats and breads.
“Okay, wraps are fine. As long as they don’t have cheese.” Even though the lettuce looked old, it was less processed than the other options.
“They make them to order.” He started walking towards the line, and she followed, wondering if he’d already decided not to ask her for a second date.
After their first Messenger conversation, chatting with Aiden had become part of Shaelyn’s nightly routine. Talking to him online was like writing in a journal -- just letters on a screen with no face or feelings attached to it. They gossiped about university politics, swapped tips for writing grants and complained about their undergraduate research assistants.
Then Aiden invited her to have lunch with him. Her shivering fingers danced across the keyboard, typing and deleting more than a dozen replies. Shaelyn had gone on lots of first dates, but never any second dates. She had to choose the location carefully. Some place public enough to make meeting a stranger safe, but close to campus so she could get away if she wanted to. Finally, she typed “I can meet you in South Dining Hall at noon.”
She didn’t think about the effect the other people were going to have on her until after he replied saying, “Perfect! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“So when did you know you wanted to be a marine biologist?”
Shaelyn blinked. They were sitting down at a tiny booth in the back of the dining hall. The booth had high walls that dulled some of the sound. It was in a corner, so no one was right next to them. It was the most isolated table they could have found, but it was also the only one quiet enough for Shaelyn to be able to follow the conversation.
She stared at Aiden. His hands pulled at his auburn goatee hairs. His fingernails were ragged and bitten. He smiled whenever his eyes met hers. His tuna sandwich was half gone, but she only remembered seeing him eat one bite.
“Did you hear me?” he asked.
She stared at her untouched veggie wrap. “It's all I ever wanted to do. I’ve loved the ocean as long as I can remember. When I was five, I would try to recreate ecosystems in buckets and ‘experiment’ on the creatures. I was too young to understand cruelty then, and don’t want to think about how many crustaceans were sacrificed for my childhood curiosity.”
She took a bite of her food. She swallowed. She remembered in this kind of conversation, it was polite to ask questions. “How long have you wanted to be an engineer?”
He shrugged. “I’ve always liked building things, but when I was a kid, I thought I’d be a writer. I used to tell my parents stories and quiz them to see how much they remembered. Of course, I also took apart every machine in the house at some point in my childhood and put them back together with less parts. They told me it would be a waste if I majored in English, so here I am, studying engineering.”
“Do you like it?” Shaelyn didn’t understand how someone could be getting a PhD in a subject they weren’t passionate about. She would never spend so many hours in the lab or the field if she didn’t love the salt marsh with all her being.
“It's alright. It gets kind of boring running the same test over and over again, but there are a lot of cool machines to tinker with.” He took another bite of his sandwich, making another third of it vanish. He chewed. He swallowed. “So what do you do for fun?”
“Anything outdoors,” she said. “Biking, hiking, swimming, as long as I am moving, outdoors and away from crowds.”
“Me too. Have you ever been to Bar Harbor?”
“I was just there in August. What’s your favorite trail?” She could still smell the clean air, perfumed with the mingling scents of salt and pine.
“I like hiking up Bernard. You can’t see much from the summit, but the trails are quiet and the terrain is stunning.”
“I love perpendicular,” she said, unsure if he was actually done. “The one with spiraling stairs climbing the rockslides.”
“That’s the best way up Bernard. What are the most peaks you’ve ever hiked in one day?”
“Seven,” she said without stopping to count. Not all of them were technically mountains, but she counted anything with a summit marker as a peak.
“Damn. You beat me by one.”
Grinning, Shaelyn began a tale of that seven-summit hike. As they continued swapping stories about adventures in Acadia National Park, the awkwardness trickled away like the tide leaving a shallow beach. Before she knew it, her lunch hour was up.
“I have to meet with my advisor now.” She stood, gathering her shredded napkins.
“Do you have plans for Friday evening?” Aiden stood, mirroring her actions.
“No, do you?” Shaelyn's fingernails stabbed her palm through napkin shards.
“I’ve been wanting to try the scallops at Local Catch. Would you like to go with me?”
She walked over to the barrels, forced her hands open and watched the shreds fall like snow as words flew out of her mouth .“I live down the street from there, at 13 Middle Road. You want to meet at my house at 6?”
“Sure.” He smiled and extended his hand. Shaelyn shook it, liking the way they fit together. If her hand was a hermit crab, his was a shell that might be just the right size for hers to crawl into.
Sara Codair lives in a world of words: she writes fiction whenever she has a free moment, teaches writing at a community college and is known to binge read fantasy novels. When she manages to pry herself away from the words, she can often be found hiking, swimming, gardening or telling people to save the bees. Find her online at https://saracodair.com/.