A Character Outside of His Book

The first time I saw him, I wondered if we had met before. I thought the feeling would be easy to shake off, because I knew that I’d never seen this fellow before. Instead, I felt that hesitant sense of discovery, the back-and-forth dance that some of us do when we think we recognize someone a small distance off, but we’re not quite sure.

I sat close to one of the cold windows on the shuttle, sitting on my hands to warm them after a long wait in the autumn wind. Just before the doors rattled shut and the shuttle gargled up the hill towards the college campus, a couple slid into seats several rows ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. Like everyone else on the shuttle, I was already looking out the window and didn’t notice. That is, until we were about halfway to our destination and something about him caught my attention. I blushed, suddenly embarrassed that I had missed someone I knew getting on to the bus. Did he see me? Did he wave and I missed it? Then I caught myself, realizing that it wasn’t someone I knew, and tried to distract myself with counting any yellow cars that passed by in the other lane.

But what was it that had caught my attention in the first place? How did I know that profile? I could only see part of his face, and even then at a distance. How did I recognize the dusty blond hair, cropped like he cut it himself? His sun-darkened skin? And strangest of all, the faded red baseball cap tilted over his eyes? I had never seen this boy before, but then I realized who I thought he was: Ransom. The protagonist from the book I was writing.

I had never expected to see him walking around, talking, brushing the corners of my life. No author expects that, really. After a few moments, I smiled to myself, thinking how interesting it was that a real person could remind me of an unreal one. Once the shuttle reached campus, I stepped off the bus, and finding that he was nowhere in sight, I walked on to class and didn’t give the uncanny resemblance another thought.

At least, not until I saw him again.

A few years later, I found myself, a graduate student, walking beneath a very different kind of autumn sky, warm and beaming on the still-green leaves. I passed through the campus center, letting my hand trail against the door to keep it open longer for the other students that breezed along behind me. I started towards the steps, glancing at some of the people moving past me. Girls with matching backpacks and smartphones in hand, a guy strumming a ukulele (I guess every campus has one), a group of boys headed towards the cafeteria for lunch. I took a few more steps and then nearly stopped, turning around with the sensation that someone had called my name. This time, I could see his face. A bright smile and slanting eyes. The doors swung shut and he was gone again. I wandered on to the library, wondering how it was possible. How could there be such a person—a person I’d never met, but I had imagined so completely? He even held open the door for his mates, tugging at a worn-out baseball cap like I thought he might.

It was a small campus. I hoped to see him again.

During that semester, however, I only caught sight of him once. Another sighting from across a courtyard. I told my sister about it, feeling like a schoolgirl with a crush. Time passed, and before I knew it, the semester was coming to a close. My sister and I, desperate to get away from looming seminar papers and piles of reading sloping off the kitchen counter that served as our workspace, treated ourselves to the Midnight Breakfast hosted on campus. A campus tradition on the night before finals start, the breakfast is always run by parents of students. They come to serve an all-out feast of pancakes, biscuits and gravy, bacon, grits, and all the other necessities of a proper Southern breakfast to students frazzled by studying, panicked at their lack of studying, in denial of finals altogether, and everyone in between. Karaoke croons on until midnight, and every twenty minutes or so, they announce a winner for a door prize.

My sister and I sat at a small table, enjoying the food, the horrible caterwauling of guys intentionally mangling One Direction’s latest hit, and the festive atmosphere. Twinkling Christmas trees hedged corners of the softly lit cafeteria, and the interior design students had built a gingerbread village as a centerpiece to the whole affair. We talked when we could hear each other over the happy chaos. My sister won a disco ball.

We hadn’t been there long when I began to indulge in some people watching. Many students had come in their pajamas, so the panorama was certainly interesting. I looked over one of the winding lines towards the pancakes, and there he was. I swallowed my mouthful of eggs and leaned towards my sister to tell her.

“Where?” she asked, turning in her chair.

I surreptitiously pointed him out, convinced he would notice even though we were quite far away.

“Which one?”

I told her he was wearing a bright green shirt. Turning back to me, she smiled and said, “You know, even if you hadn’t told me which one he was, I could have picked him out in the crowd. That’s exactly how I thought he’d look.”

I laughed when I heard her say this. It was gratifying to know that I wasn’t imagining him, but it was also even more mystifying that she was recognizing a fictional person based on a few words I had put down on a page.

I couldn’t believe it when he and his friends took a seat just a few tables away from where we sat. I tried hard not to stare. A bizarre notion floated over my head, that if we caught each other’s eyes, somehow he would instantly know this very strange connection, that he not only looked, but also moved like a character I had written. I suppose a girl with a crush feels the same, that if their eyes met, he might know just how much she thinks of him. It was similarly embarrassing, and similarly wonderful.

After that sparkling night, I never saw him again. I will probably always wonder who he really was, and if he would have been pleased to know how much he resembled a hero of mine.

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Image credit belongs to Michael Kappel via Flickr

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