The first time we met wasn’t actually when we moved in together.
Well… that’s not quite true. We didn’t officially meet until we moved in together, but I knew who she was. What she looked like. When I transferred to this new university, the school had sent me her name and I’d looked up her Weibo out of curiosity. I only got as far as her profile photo before chickening out, though. If my mother had seen it, the school would have been contacted, a fuss would have been raised, and my fervent desire to start the semester quietly would have been dashed to pieces.
But things rarely go as planned, as I would soon discover.
I was in a cafe, a week before I was supposed to move into my dorm room. Clean, warm light spread evenly over all the tables and chairs, no matter how far away from the windows they were placed. The cafe had windows all along the front and back walls, which was one of the reasons I had chosen to come here: I like light. It cheers me up-–I’ve always thought that it’s impossible to be sad in a bright room. More than that, though, this place was perfect for studying; I would have to remember that in the future. I was reading a book in the corner booth by one of the back windows, a cup of tea in front of me. I don’t remember exactly why I looked up when I did, but I glanced toward the door and there she was.
I mistook her for a boy at first, from the back. She was tall, taller than I expected, with short, black hair slicked back on top of her scalp and shaved back and sides. The 1205 tattoo caught my gaze first, the script curving across her temple in such a way that my fingers itched to sketch it. What did the numbers mean? Tattoos were permanent, so the choice of digits had to be significant.
Then she turned and I saw the softer jaw, the smooth neck and chin, and realized. Oh. She’s a girl…? Just looking at her camouflage jacket and boys' clothes, I knew that my mother definitely would never approve of her. My mother didn’t approve of toms. But her confident smirk matched the photos that I’d seen. There was no doubt about it. This was Mi Le, my roommate-to-be. I hadn’t expected to run into her here–-Shanghai was an enormous city–-but in hindsight, I suppose it wasn’t too much of a surprise; this cafe was near the school, and most of the clientele seemed to be students.
Mi Le didn’t seem to have noticed me, which was just as well, since I wouldn’t have been able to speak had she approached me. I can get terribly shy around new people; but even so, I don’t generally speak much. Growing up, my mother always told me that girls should be demure and quiet; let the men do the talking, at least in public. A lady should never raise her voice unless she has just cause. My mother often seemed to have just cause, but my father and I are both quiet people by nature, anyway, and I’m most comfortable when no one pays attention to me.
A nearby burst of laughter interrupted my thoughts; out of reflex, I shrank back into my seat, pressing closer to the window. Not that such an action would have done me much good anyway–-the cafe was too brightly lit to hide in nonexistent shadows. I could only pray that I would remain unnoticed.
Unfortunately, my prayers went unanswered. I jumped at the clink of ceramic on wood and blinked as camouflage filled my vision and the scent of jasmine tea wafted through the air. My eyes flicked up, all my thoughts swallowed by a sense of panic. Mi Le was standing over me, confident smirk twitching the corners of her lips upward. I swallowed and froze.
“Is this seat free?” she asked, in a manner that indicated her doubt that my answer would be no. I nodded my head. There wasn’t much else I could do in this situation–-I clearly was here by myself and the cafe was bustling. Peak hours must have rolled around without me noticing; nearly every other seat was full.
She slid into the booth across from me, but sat closer to the aisle, diagonal from my place still smushed against the window. I didn’t say anything, taking a sip of tea to avoid the expectation of conversation. I was mostly just hoping she wasn’t going to start one; I hadn’t yet mentally prepared myself to meet my roommate.
This time, I was in luck. Just as I was finishing my tea, Mi Le reached into the pocket of her sweatpants and dug out her phone. It buzzed repeatedly, barely audible over the dull roar of voices in the cafe. She answered it with a swipe of her finger and a frown. “Wei? Zhao Gui, what do you mean, ‘Where am I’? You said the game was canceled because He Yu wanted to go to KTV instead. I’m at the cafe right now.” She went silent while Zhao Gui replied. “Fine. Give me fifteen minutes.” She hung up and glanced down at her drink. It was still steaming.
“Hey. Hey.” I glanced up from the book I had surreptitiously returned to reading–was she talking to me again? She was. Mile slid her mug over to me. “Want this? It’s a thank-you for letting me sit here.” My eyes widened and I hastily pushed it back. She didn’t even know me (yet). Why was she giving me her leftovers? How rude! But once again the mug returned to me. “Take it–-I didn’t drink any, I promise.” I looked back at her face, trying to find the joke she was playing on me. Her lips still curled in a smirk, but her dark eyes were earnest. They mesmerized me. I hesitated, then shook my head and reached for the mug, intending to give the drink back to her.
Before I could move it, though, both of her hands closed over mine and pinned my palm to the ceramic. Warmth soaked into my skin from all sides, seeping in from the smoothness of ceramic and the roughness of calluses. Heat rose unbidden from my cheeks and I ducked my head, letting my black hair fall over my face to hide my blush.
I stared at her hands. They were surprisingly gentle, despite the rest of her outward appearance. The bright blues and greens of another tattoo swirled on her left hand, pouring under her sleeve like water. While I would never get a tattoo myself, especially not an elaborate one like this, I was still curious as to what it was. I couldn’t tell from this angle.
My silence must have come across as wavering because she said, “Look. If I take it with me, it’ll be cold by the time I get to the basketball courts, and my bike doesn’t have a cup holder, anyway. It’s too hot right now for me to drink it all here, but you seem like someone who would savor her beverages.” I looked up, a bit irritated now. Which is ruder, I wondered, giving a stranger your leftovers as a ‘thank you’ or giving a stranger leftovers because they happen to be sitting there?
Just throw it away then, I wanted to tell her. Or give it to someone else. I tugged my hand free and tried to ignore how cold it suddenly felt.
Mi Le shrugged, giving up. “Drink it or don’t drink it, it’s up to you,” she said, standing up. “But if you like, I’ll treat you, if we ever meet again.” She smiled. It softened her face in a way that I sensed she didn’t let many people see. “A proper thank you, next time. This is just a placeholder.”
I didn’t say anything to that. What was there to say? We were going to be roommates, in a week. By then, maybe we’d both have forgotten that this had happened.
But even as I said that, I knew I wouldn’t forget. There was just too much about this woman that caught my eye, that would get me in trouble. I would just have to keep my distance, my head down, and my fingers crossed that my mother never found out that my roommate is a tom.
As Mi Le strode away, confidence flowing from her like sunlight, I found myself again wanting to sketch her: her smirk, her tattoos, her shaved back and sides. I settled for studying the tea she left behind, watching as the steam gradually disappeared, as the golden liquid settled into a flat, glassy plane. Smooth, unbroken, full of color-–just like her.
Everything about Mi Le was unexpected, and I wasn’t sure even then what to do about it.
But the one thing I never would have predicted was that I would fall in love with her.