The blustery winter wind buffeted Talia as she walked across the NYU campus to her merchandising class. Winter was setting in here in New York City, and all reports indicated that it would bring an unprecedented cold snap. The naked branches of the saplings that lined the walkway, formerly flamboyant, shivered in the icy blast of the breeze, and the iron-gray clouds threatened snow.
Talia's boots crunched in the gravel as she stepped off of the path, looking at one particularly forlorn little tree, barely holding onto the soil, even with the wooden poles that braced it against the wind. Talia knew that the tree would be coated in ice and snow once the weather set in. Would it still be here in the spring? Would she still be here in the spring, fighting her way to a better life here at NYU? Could she handle college classes and a job? She had done just fine in high school, but this was different. She remembered her mother holding her hand tightly before she got on the plane, clutching her one-way ticket to New York.
"Are you sure that you want to do this, honey?" her mom had asked, the little wrinkles around her eyes deepening as she tried not to cry. Talia could hear the quavering, the tears perched just on the edge of her mother's voice.
"I can do this, Mom. I'm just going to be in New York at school. I promise that I'll call you every day. But I need this." Talia looked into her mother's tear-filled eyes and felt the familiar clench of fear in her stomach, the same one that she had felt every time someone knocked on the door. Every time that she saw the news of a new development in the war in Afghanistan, every time that they put up the pictures of the faces of the fallen, her stomach would drop into her feet. She was petrified that one of them would be Jake, that she would see his tanned, square-jawed face on the screen. She was scared that one day she would open the
door to a man in an Army suit, holding a folded-up American flag. She was scared that one day she would have to stand over her brother's coffin as people that she didn't know said things that didn't matter because all that she could think about was him playing football in high school, his proud face, sweat-stained from hard-fought effort as he lifted his helmet off. She could still see him helping her up after she had fallen on the ground, brushing the gravel off of her little-girl knees and getting her a bandage, telling her funny jokes to stop her from crying, making her laugh to distract her from the pain.
When she had been standing on the train platform just that morning, waiting for the train that would take her to school from her leaky walk-up apartment, the biting wind blowing her hair around her shoulders, Talia had marveled at it all. People of all ages and races, each with his or her own story, all packed into one city by virtue of opportunity. Everyone had to get somewhere, whether it was the Wall Street big shots to their million-dollar jobs or the janitors to wash windows and wax floors.
As she pulled open the door to the building, Talia wondered what this class would hold for her. Hopefully, it would bring a future, a real one, not one spent waitressing at the Tannery; a future that would make her mother proud.
She was a few minutes early, but the hall was already filled with people, mostly tired-eyed young students. An impressive array of technology—laptops, tablets, even the rare legal pad and pencil—was displayed on the desks.
As the teacher called the class to order, Talia opened her bag and rummaged around inside, pulling out a notebook and pen.
It was then that Talia noticed the girl two rows over. She was nicely dressed, with a cashmere sweater and leather boots. The girl unwound the scarf from her neck and set up a computer on her desk, but all of this was done while staring directly at Talia with piercing blue eyes. The girl had smooth brown hair and dark eyebrows, and looked to be about nineteen or twenty, but there was something about her that unsettled Talia. Talia couldn't put her finger on it, so she turned resolutely away from the girl and flicked her notebook open to the next clean page as the teacher began her lecture about vertical integration. For the next fifteen minutes, the hall was silent but for the insistent peck-peck-peck of fingers on keyboards and the scratching of Talia's pen on paper.
As much as she tried to focus, Talia kept thinking about why the girl would be staring at her. Every time Talia looked up, she could see the girl out of the corner of her eye, staring at her with those judgmental eyes. The girl wasn't even taking notes, just staring right across the lecture hall at Talia.
As the class went on, Talia continued to be hyper-aware of the girl's eyes on her. It made her start to feel uncomfortable, and she shifted nervously in her seat....
Was it her jacket? The jacket was a dark green Army coat, given to Talia by her brother before he started his second tour in Afghanistan. The coat wasn't torn or stained, but it was slightly too big in the shoulders and had seen better days. Talia, however, had yet to afford a good winter coat, so she always wore one or two hooded sweatshirts under the jacket.
Was there something on her face? A quick check in her compact answered that, but Talia felt herself starting to blush.
Was it because she didn't have a fancy laptop or a nice phone? Talia could barely pay her rent with her waitress salary, but it wasn't like she looked like some street person. Her cheeks burned, but this time, it wasn't from the cold.
The girl was twirling her hair around a finger and looking at Talia, still. Had she even blinked?
The questions came in sharp reality now, making the surface of Talia's notebook distort with the tears building in her eyes. Was the girl scoffing at her? Did she think that Talia didn't deserve to be there? Why was she silently judging Talia, without even knowing her? Would she make a snarky comment about Talia's appearance after class? The memory of other girls in her high school classes doing just that made Talia shudder. She remembered taunts from them as she walked back from school, head down, and book bag bumping against her shoulder blades as she tried not to cry.
The memories came flooding back now, strong and bitter.
Doing her homework in the kitchen at Betty's Diner during her break, seeing plates of food wasted as her own stomach growled...
Holding onto her brother's hand at the airport, begging him not to go away again, tears streaming down her face as he stepped onto the plane and waved one last goodbye...
Missing prom to work overtime at the diner, seeing the beautifully dressed prom-goers stop in after the dance to get fries and sodas and envying all that they had, and everything that she did not.
Who did this girl think that she was?
"Andrew Carnegie's American Steel company was the prime example of vertical integration...."
Being laughed at by the cheerleaders and the popular girls, shunned by the well-to-do and the socialites. Wishing that she could be one of them, but knowing that she never would be.
"Rockefeller pioneered the buying out of his competitors to make his business stronger, and many others throughout history have followed his example..."
The first night in her new apartment, hearing cats screech at each other in the alley, the eerie whistling as the window creaked and the whole building shuddered as the train flew by. Talia had never felt more alone.
Alone. Talia snapped back into the present, shaking off the rancor of those recollections. She couldn't be weak now. She had sacrificed too much, worked too hard to fall apart just because this stuck-up girl insisted on staring at her, judging her.
Why was this even bothering her so much? Talia thought. She should be used to it by now. Maybe it was the way that the girl looked at her, unapologetic, her face smooth, expressionless and cold. She saw no pity in those eyes, not even any outright malice. Just quiet judgment.
She cast a cold look at the girl, but the girl didn't even flinch. She just kept staring. The corner of her mouth quirked slightly upward, and she smoothed her hair back with one hand, draping it over one shoulder and stroking it back into place. It was as though Talia's anger was amusing to her. Talia ducked her head, feeling embarrassed, insecure and out of place.
The clock ticked loudly, in sync with the hammering of Talia's pulse in her scarlet face, the quick hitch of her breathing as she tried not to break down. She stared at her paper, feverishly scribbling notes to hide that her hands were shaking uncontrollably.
After what seemed like forever, the two-hour class was over. The teacher stepped back over to her desk in the corner, engaged in easy chitchat with her aide. Everyone was putting their coats back on, putting their computers back into their bags, talking about lunch plans and study groups and all that was so good in their lives. They could go out to clubs or back to their apartments to relax with friends. They could go to parties and on dates and even just sit in dark cafes with a book and a cup of coffee. They didn't have to go to a job where the people never tipped well and were almost always angry, drunk, or both.
Talia had had enough. She took her time packing her bag, trying to think of what she could say to this over-privileged, snotty socialite who seemed to think that Talia wasn't worthy of being in the same classroom. The girl pressed a button on her computer and slid it back into her bag.
Talia took a few deep breaths, preparing herself for the sting of an insult, and walked over to the girl. The girl carefully rewound her scarf, pulled her coat back on, and stood up, clutching the edge of her desk. She paused as Talia approached. She seemed slightly unbalanced, like she didn't quite understand why Talia was there. Her face was uncertain, and for the first time, Talia felt a little thrill of victory that she had managed to unsettle the girl, just as the girl had unsettled her.
She's probably hung-over from her night of partying yesterday with Daddy's credit card, Talia thought scornfully.
But when the girl looked up at Talia, one glance made Talia's mind empty of all the things she was going to say.
The girl was blind.