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The Longevity of an Acorn

Celia knew Simon from around the university village.


Well, okay, she didn’t really know Simon—they had never spoken; and besides, who could ever know Simon? He was an enigma, a boy full of academic and emotional complexity and crooked smiles that sent his oversized glasses slipping down his nose. But she did watch him sometimes when he came into the university’s small café/bakery that apprenticed her; she supplied students with bitter-sweet coffee and sweet-bitter croissants while he supplied them with lyrical talks about wonderful things like art and literature, and most importantly about ideas proposed by men called Great Thinkers.


Celia listened when she could, straining to hear his lectures—given for free! She didn’t have to pay a single cent to hear him speak, not a single bit of tuition—over the hiss of the steaming milk for the endless drinks. She pulled together the scraps of knowledge into a quilt that she lay under every night, dreaming of Simon and the kind of life she could have with him or sitting inside those classes. Would Simon be a good husband? Would he give her many children? Would he support her apprenticeship at the bakery or would he go on to be an academic philosophizing about the ways of the world?


On some nights, her quilt was plush and warm, supplemented with memories of Simon’s touch and his voice. On others, it was threadbare, a constant reminder that Celia wasn’t a part of his world and that he’d never agree to make her a wife. All Simon had given to Celia was the politeness of a good customer interaction. No more, no less.


That was as close to knowing Simon as she had gotten, and she had been grateful for it.

But maybe she shouldn’t settle for the distant admiration, Celia thought; they both provided critical services to the student body, after all, so they were practically made for each other. She tried to cling to any scrap of gossip or shared lecture notes that the other students brought to the café, searching for any opening to bring up what she’d heard the students discussing. Any opening to impress Simon, to show that she wasn’t just a nearly voiceless fixture in his favorite coffee shop. But so far, the opportunity remained elusive.


Every day, Simon walked across the school’s courtyard, where the bakery welcomed hungry and exhausted scholars, from class to class and back again. The café stood as a refuge for students trying to escape the difficulties of their daily lessons, but for Celia? Working here was the difficulty. She loved her apprenticeship making sweets and life-sustaining drinks for the university, but being forced to the edges of Simon’s life, having to listen to him politely educating everyone else in the café but her (never her)? That was the thing that made her throat tighten up around a suffocating lump. Students came and wept into their coffees, ruining the perfect flavor blends with their salty tears, and Celia would bring them something extra sweet to re-balance them. Those teary displays were exactly how she felt when she looked at Simon, whose eyes never met hers for more than a short beat, always for politeness’ sake.


Nothing she had ever made was sweet enough to smooth out the bitterness of her own exclusion.


She created a Simon in her head on the threadbare nights as she thought about those ruined coffees, yet another thing of hers spoiled by another’s influence. Her head-Simon was gentle; he smiled that crooked smile for her. She had him repeat what she’d gathered like a forager in the café, the berries of information that slid down her throat sweet and juicy like the ripest strawberries dipped in fresh cream. And when she couldn’t remember anything else he’d said, she had head-Simon turn instead to her: promising that they could live together; that they could live an adult life together so Celia could feel like the very students she served when she lived with her grandpapa, not smothered nor thriving beneath his roof. Head-Simon even promised they could adopt a cute little cat, a symbol of their bond as they cared for a life together.


But when she awoke, Simon never kept those promises made beneath her woven quilt of dreams and wishes. As she raveled it back up to live in her heart as she faced the new day each morning, Celia had to carefully separate out the truths from the lies, that Simon was a stranger versus Simon stroking her face and promising to share himself and his knowledge with her. Lately, it had been more and more difficult to discern, and things felt fuzzy around the edges until she saw him in the café, shining and golden.


Celia wasn’t a student. Simon was only ever seen with his classmates, his arms full of books, carried always with the covers and authors on display. His classmates let their arms drop by their sides, books clutched carelessly; did they feel inadequate next to Simon? Even if they carried the same selections from the grand library and followed the same curriculum, Celia could only imagine what the other students went through—the humbling feeling of Simon’s brilliance so clearly and publicly outshining their own. Why attempt a competition when Simon had already won?


She couldn’t even pretend to be a member of the prestigious body of scholars as a way to break the ice, because brilliant Simon would see that she was only parroting words without knowing them intimately. Even though, when she practiced with other students—asking them about their topics of conversation as she prepared a latte or expressing an opinion while she gathered muffins—they included her like she was one of their own, she wasn’t nearly smart enough to fool Simon. He would see through her as soon as she opened her fool mouth.

Celia longed to be one of the girls walking with him through the courtyard—one of the beautiful girls whose dark eyes sparkled in the spring sunlight; one of the girls whose pale, delicate cheeks flushed pink as they sipped hot coffee or tea in the settling autumn chill; one of the girls with the rich, dark skin that reflected the soft pastels of spring and the rich blooms of summer.


She daydreamed about being the one to join the daily discourse from the girls’ lectures and recitations—not in detail, of course, but in broader strokes: “Did you hear about the events Over Seas? Terrible, don’t you think?” or “This author is a fool, and here’s my rebuttal to the text, which is too complicated for a baker’s apprentice to begin to comprehend. Could you imagine a baker’s apprentice trying to understand this? Unthinkable.”


Naturally, Simon wouldn’t struggle to approach a text like an archaeologist, gingerly brushing over each word until the hidden depths beneath the surface were laid bare to him. Once or twice (or thrice), Celia heard Simon share the name of a book. She was able to sit and read in the university’s old library, even if she could not take a book from its premises. It was ultimately useless, however; whenever she read the passages Simon had quoted, she couldn’t follow what Simon said about them; as she read, she found herself agreeing instead with other students discussing their class readings or debating Simon in the café. Clearly, the other students had to be wrong if she agreed with them.


Her head-Simons suffered for her failure to faithfully recreate Simon’s train of thought. It was so far beyond her own that she had to be missing something. A missing link between what Simon knew and what she did.There had to be something else, some text overflowing with unfamiliar stories, studies, facts, histories—perhaps even speculation about the future itself. The material inside would be too foreign for Celia to successfully craft a fully fledged dreamscape into which she could invest her time; she couldn’t create a simulacrum nearly convincing enough, so only the real Simon could do. Her head-Simon had served her well and dutifully, but the fuzziness of picking apart the crumbs of those dreams living in her heart from her memories of the truth with nothing but tweezers to help was becoming too much to bear. 


If Celia could just once take the place of one of those girls with their beautiful, waist-hugging coats and their fashionable scarves draping around their long, regal necks, she knew she’d get to peek behind the curtain at the world that had been so thoroughly shut off to her. She would be noticed, just like those girls that Simon lead through discussions as they flipped through pages of their books, jotting down notes and making the appropriate noises: “mmhm,” “wow,” or “oh, really?” They never looked at him, but after a few weeks of puzzled observation, Celia finally came to understand why. They knew that if they looked at his beauty while they listened, they’d be too enraptured and wouldn’t be able to do much else…including drink their coffees or eat their croissants.


And that would just be wasteful.

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