I was running late, but that was expected. He had even commented last week on my ability to cradle a yoga mat and a latte in the crook of my arm while subtly slipping into the lecture hall a few minutes after our weekly Chemistry II class had commenced.
"Pure talent," he had grinned. And then asked if we could meet to study for our final exam, to which I had agreed to within five seconds of his request. Ben was sweet, always peppering me with questions about my weekend plans, and I'd been wanting him to ask since we had exchanged numbers six weeks prior. I was fit to make a good impression, maybe even dazzle him with the study guide I'd created in preparation, but everything changed when I stepped into the study room I'd reserved for us at the University of Iowa Main Library.
He flashed a smile when I arrived, already scrawling equations on the whiteboard. Trying to calm my nerves, I cracked a joke about how I was out of my element without a latte, with a nod at the periodic table he'd already drawn. Instead of laughing, he shot a glance at the podium in the corner of the room, and I caught a glimpse of a small goldfish swimming around in a tupperware next to his backpack. His intent gaze caught me off guard, but not any more than the sight of the goldfish.
"Is that… yours?" I questioned.
He nodded. "That's Craig. He's been a good luck charm since freshman year in the dorms."
I wasn't sure why this fish had any right to crash our first date, but I wasn't going to ask any more questions.
"So, I took the liberty of creating a study guide we could use. I used the online quiz answer bank, because I got most of those wrong the first time. Maybe we could use those to prepare for the exam?" I suggested. I'd hoped to come off as organized, brilliant maybe. But he simply glanced at Craig, who was bubbling about in a oblivious manner. As goldfish do.
He furrowed his brow at me. "Maybe let's start with the basics, then. I thought those quizzes were pretty easy; it might be better to review the equations if you had trouble with those."
"Oh, okay." I was surprised at his seemingly dismissive tone. With another lingering glance at Craig, Ben scribbled in his notebook and quickly flipped to a new page. I wondered if Craig felt as clueless as I did.
I pulled out my stack of note cards and handed them to Ben, desperate to prove myself. "Quiz me. I got this."
He looked at the first note card and flashed the front side of it at me. "Alright Angie," Ben said dubiously. "Do you know the difference between protons and neutrons?"
"Of course." I answered confidently. "Protons have a positive charge, and neutrons are negative."
His gaze immediately shifted back to the goldfish. Craig swam around frantically. "Is he okay?" I wondered aloud.
"He's fine. He's just worried because you didn't know that neutrons have no electric charge," Ben replied solemnly.
I laughed. At least his sense of humor was back. But he didn't laugh with me; he scribbled in his notebook again, putting his hand on the tupperware as if to console Craig.
I swear the fish was following me with his eyes as I nervously shuffled through my note cards, looking for an easier question. Why hadn't I gone through these before heading to the Main Library?
"You know, I think I might have to head out soon." Ben's voice broke through my train of thought. "Craig's a little hungry—think I should feed him soon."
"We can study somewhere else if you'd like!" I offered. "Craig's a great study partner."
"Yeah. I'm not so sure he'd say the same about you." He muttered without any hint of sarcasm. He grabbed his textbook, shoving it into his backpack.
"Wait what?" Confused, I watched as he erased the board and continued to gather his belongings. His notebook was still on the table as he checked on Craig. and I made out his observations: "bubbles after bad joke," "eye roll after incorrect answer."
"I'm sorry, did I do something wrong?" I asked frantically.
Ben didn't say anything. Just nodded at the fish with a curt smile, slipped his backpack over his shoulder, and left me sitting alone in the study room.
Incredulous, I recapped our conversation. Upon realizing I had done nothing out of the ordinary, I came to the conclusion that Ben had simply been having a bad day.
Several weeks went by, and I found a new seat in our Chemistry lecture. We hadn't spoken since our study date, and I hadn't found the courage to approach him. I was studying with a friend from my discussion section in the library once more when Ben walked past our table.
"That kid is so weird!" Jess giggled. "I heard he takes his fish on dates to decide if the girl is good enough for him. My friend went on a coffee date with him and he took notes on how the fish swam differently after she spilled her mocha!"
Dumbfounded, I laughed with her and thought to myself that the tiny tupperware had played a bigger role in Craig's disposition than my humor. In Craig's defense, I wouldn't want to be studying on a Friday night either, but I suppose when you're the only friend of your owner, it's hard to come by any other social outings.
Somehow, Craig's rejection felt personal. I could only hope that next time he crashes a date, he's blowing bubbles of approval.