Path of Dreams

Chapter 8

Brief Encounter

Connor had the basement apartment of his Aunt Wanda’s cottage to himself. He was responsible for his share of the utilities, he mowed the lawn in the summer and shoveled the driveway during the winter, and took care of the odd jobs that were bound to pop up in an old house. A broken light switch here, a leaky faucet there.

He was handy at things like that. Like your grandfather, practically every one of his relatives had told him at one time or another.

Good with gadgets. Not so good with people. “You do take after my dad,” Wanda observed. “Makes me wonder if sharing a name—both of you being named Connor—means sharing character or personality. That’s what the old country Celts believed, you know.”

Connor didn’t care to know and the feeling must have shown.

So Wanda pointed out that his mission had polished his rougher edges and brought him out a bit. Made him more personable, pleasant even, to have around.

“Not that you weren’t before,” she added when Connor laughed. “But your mother worries about you living alone.”

“I don’t mind,” he said.

“I know that. I told her you would get all the sociality you required at the student ward. In your case, more than enough.”

Connor also enjoyed access to his aunt’s Toyota Camry with similar provisos. If they were both headed in the same direction, he was to chauffeur. But since the house was less than a mile from campus, he usually walked.

Monday after lunch, Connor headed to the library to study. Passing through the security gates, he saw Larry Jackson running up the stairs from the periodicals reading room. “Hey, Connor! Good. I thought I’d find you here.”

“Hey, Larry. What’s up?”

“I’ve got to register my car or I can’t get a parking sticker. Karen’s in no mood to be walking to school these days.”

“Pretty soon, huh?”

“Yeah, six weeks. Listen, can you take my shift for an hour?”

“Not a problem. I’ve got a class at three, though.”

“I’ll be back by then. How about I close for you Thursday afternoon?”

“Sure, that works for me.”

Connor continued on through the atrium to the JKHB. He jogged up the steps, pausing to grab a Daily Universe out of the newspaper box.

He could walk the route in his sleep. He hitched his backpack higher on his shoulder. Loaded down with Kenstowicz’s Phonology in Generative Grammar and the thousand-page Seidensticker translation of The Tale of Genji, it was like hauling around a boat anchor. He unfolded the newspaper and glanced at the headlines. The polished aluminum handrail came up on his right. He took the steps two at a time.

“Watch out!” The warning rang out behind him.

A girl in a hurry had turned onto the landing and started up the second flight of stairs, hugging the railing. She raised her head a split second before they collided—he saw only her wide, brown eyes—then lowered her head. His weight was already off his back foot. He couldn’t stop. She was still moving forward. Her forehead thumped lightly against his chest. In a single motion, he dropped the newspaper, put his arms around her, and carried her backwards down the stairs to the landing.

They froze in the pose, as if waiting for the slow dance music to begin. She had a binder and folder under her right arm. The collision had jarred them loose. When Connor relaxed his grip, gravity took over.

The binder seesawed over his forearm. She managed to grab it. The folder caught air and sailed away. Connor missed the folder but snagged most of the contents. A handful of sheets fluttered down the stairway like falling leaves.

By now they were both laughing.

“Sorry about that,” Connor said. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“That’s okay. I’m used to driving on the left.” They stepped apart. “Oh—” she said. She recoiled, her cheeks cherry against the peach tan of her skin.

Connor felt himself physically start, as if touched by an electric spark.

A guy came up the stairs and handed her the folder. “I think you dropped this.”

The girl took it wordlessly, her eyes still locked on Connor’s.

The bell rang. They both flinched. She spun around and ran up the stairs.

Connor stood there on the landing. Finally his brain kicked out of neutral. He sprinted after her, two steps at a time, and raced into the lobby. She was nowhere.

He walked back down the stairs, picking up the scattered sheets of paper. He looked at one of them. Gibberish. His higher cognitive functions were fried. She was the girl on the Nakamozu Nankai, and he knew when he looked into her eyes that she dreamed his dreams.

Connor walked into the Reading/Writing Center, still flying on automatic pilot. He paused at the counter to catch his breath and give his cerebral cortex time to start producing rational thoughts.

“Hey, Connor,” said Alicia. Louder: “Connor!”

“Hey, Alicia.”

“You’re not on now, are you?”

“What? No. I’m taking Larry’s shift. He had to register his car.” He perused the sign-in sheet. “You’re not on either.”

“I’m taking Eddie’s shift.”

“He’s going to graduate in August?”

“That’s the plan. Amazing how biology can motivate the male mind.” She patted her stomach.

“You’re pregnant too?

“You didn’t know? Oh, yeah, you’ve been out of town. I finish my course work in December. The little bundle comes out a month later.”

Connor shook his head in disbelief.

Alicia said, “If you’re subbing for Larry, you’ve got the desk.”

He walked around the counter and sat in the swivel chair behind the supervisor’s desk. He dumped his backpack on the floor and placed the rumpled papers on the desk in front of him.

“Um—” A student approached the counter. “Is this where you get help with assignments and stuff?”

“Yeah, sign up there, on that sheet.”

“I got it, Connor,” said Alicia.

“Thanks.” Connor returned his attention to the papers he’d pick up off the stairs. Quiz sheets. A simple kana test. Twenty questions, phonetic readings only. He fished a pen out of the desk drawer, shrugged, told himself, Why not? and filled in the blanks.

The phone rang. The caller wanted to know the difference between a colon and a semicolon. After a brief explanation, Connor referred him to Section 38 in the English 115 textbook: “End Punctuation.”

He returned his attention to the kana quiz. Japanese 101. Then she must be a Japanese TA. The Japanese TA office was right down the hall. That’s why she’d been coming up the steps. Connor glanced around the room. Alicia was still working with her student. He walked to the doorway and looked down the hall. Nobody was coming. He set off at a brisk walk.

A handwritten sign on the door said, “Nihongo TA Office.” He scanned the faculty schedule cards posted next to the door: Murata, Packard, Kasamatsu, Nakamura. Packard? The name sounded familiar. He checked her card. One section of Japanese 101. Mon–Fri 2:00–3:50.

So it was her.

Packard, he repeated to himself. He hurried back to the Reading/Writing Center. Xiaojing from the English Language Center was waiting for him. She had to raise her TOEFL score to 550 to get into BYU, and her grasp of the definite article was still definitely wanting.

Connor worked with her for the rest of the hour. Xiaojing had to meet a friend at the library. He rocked back in the chair. Elaine Packard, the faculty schedule card said. Odd name for a Japanese girl. Then it came to him: the Kobe Mission president, President Packard. His wife was Japanese.

Holy cow, Connor whispered to himself.

The quiz sat there on the desk, the line for his name still blank. He wrote: “Connor McKenzie.” Larry should be showing up any minute now. He added: “1010 JKHB.”

Classes were letting out. He strolled with the flow. The door to 1054 was propped open. He walked in and began checking the nameplates on the partition dividers.

“Can I help you?” an older Japanese woman asked him. The nameplate on her cubicle said Tomoko Kasamatsu.

“I’m looking for Packard Sensei’s cubicle.”

“Elly’s got Noriko’s carrel.”

“Thanks.” He circumnavigated the room and ended up at the cubicle across from Kasamatsu Sensei’s. The nameplate said “Noriko Tsuruoka.” A Japanese 301 text sat on the upper shelf. A sheet of paper was wedged under the cover. He lifted the cover and recognized one of Oh Sensei’s kanji tests. At the top of the page, “Elaine Packard.” She’d made one mistake, used a sanzui radical when she should have used a ninben radical.

The three o’clock bell rang. Connor jumped. Then remembered that Japanese 101 was a two-hour class. Palpable relief. He left the quiz sheets on the desk, shook away his second thoughts, and returned to the Reading/Writing Center.

Larry was twenty minutes late.

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