Charm and Sweetness
* written at request *
Elizabeth nervously drummed her fingers on the table, wishing she had waited until the admissions officer arrived before having a cup of coffee. She reminded herself that the university she had pinned her hopes and dreams on wanted her… this interview was simply routine… to make sure they weren’t making a mistake. Elizabeth hardly had enough money to pay for a semester of school. And what with her five brothers and sisters following closely behind her, there simply wasn’t the money to fund everyone’s education. This interview was her last chance at a school-funded scholarship. Without it, she would be forced to settle with the cheaper second and third runner-up schools.
She sighed, looking at her watch again. ‘Where is he?’ They had given her choice of meeting locations, and told her to bring whatever she felt like. Such a free selection not only helped them see what prospective students were like below the surface, but supposedly made the interviewee more at home. After all, no one liked to be pinned in a stuffy closet-sized office trying to answer questions about one’s entire life, system of belief, and life-long dreams off the top of the head.
Unfortunately, the coffee was making her a bit more nervous than she had been already, and the interviewer’s tardiness wasn’t helping in the least. She scanned the contents of the coffeehouse again, checking to be sure that he wasn’t there and waiting for her. She wasn’t quite sure who she was looking for, but she’d been told it would be a gentleman wearing either a suit, or some college memorabilia such as a baseball cap. And in looking now, she saw no one fitting either category… aside from the young man who just walked in the door…
Elizabeth sprang to her feet and rushed over. She stuck her hand out in greeting. "You must be the university recruiter. I’m Elizabeth Huxley." It had been a quick greeting, but one she’d been planning for days.
The man before her was certainly not at all whom she had been expecting. He was considerably younger, perhaps only a few years older than she was. His eyes were a stunningly bright blue, his hair a blonde that almost shimmered in the light. He wasn’t too tall, and not too short, and looked rather relaxed in his white university sweatshirt and dark blue jeans. Not to mention that he was irresistibly handsome…
"Yes I am," And his voice was calm and soothing, accentless. If anything he spoke like a Californian movie star, with the same inflexion and enunciation. He sniffed and raised a fist to his mouth, coughing into it once. "I’m sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of a cold. So we’d best not shake."
She withdrew her outstretched hand awkwardly. "Oh," she said softly. "I’m so sorry to hear that. We could do this another time if it’s more convenient."
With a shake of his head, "No, no. It’s nothing really." He rubbed a finger gently against the side of a nose that, she noticed now, was slightly pinkish at the tips and right below. "So long as you don’t mind the occasional sneeze and if I suddenly sound a bit congested. It’s been happening on and off."
She rarely even admitted it to herself, but Elizabeth had always had a bit of a weakness for sneezing. ‘Was he kidding? MIND? How could I possibly mind? Then again, how could I possibly concentrate on making a good impression with the poor guy sneezing…?’ She debated a moment, pushing her feelings aside. "Not at all. I already have a booth already in the back there." Elizabeth pointed, just to be certain he saw.
"Wonderful. Let me get something here and I’ll be right with you."
Elizabeth sat down, running her hand through her hair, straightening the collar of her blouse. She reminded herself to be calm, and took a deep breath.
"I do want to apologize for being late. The subway broke down and took a while to repair. Though it did give me a chance to review your paperwork a bit more thoroughly." He coughed again, into a fist. "Since we’ll be delving into your personal life, I thought it would be nice to introduce myself first. My name is Mark Constantine, and I’m a second year graduate student at the university. I work for the admissions office, alumni hall, and public affairs. I… I…" his eyes rolled back. "Excuse me a mom… uhhh… a moment…" he closed his eyes, brought his fist up so that it brushed against the underside of his nose. "uhhh-HUHSHooo…" with a sniff and a wrinkle of his nose, he lowered his fist. "Excuse me. Sniff! My cold… um," he gazed into her gorgeous blue eyes, which were not only gazing back into his own but, he thought, seemed to conceal some hidden fire. This was going to be a very interesting interview. "Where was I?"
Elizabeth’s mind was completely halted by the lovely sneeze. She thought it was adorable, how it seemed to last longer than most, drawing out from a strong build into a perfect, gentle resolution. The breath he’d taken had been so deep, his whole body virtually flowing into it as his chest rose, his nostrils flared, and his body shuddered forward with a sound so Heavenly. She was instantly attracted to him from it... let alone at how stunningly handsome he was. But now she struggled to recall his last words. "You were telling me where you worked."
He paused a moment, thinking. "Oh, right Sniff. I grew up in Southern California and attended the university as an undergrad as well, so if you have any questions about life there, I’d be happy to answer them. Um, let’s see… I double-majored in communications and public relations, and minored in literature. I took off a year to do some work for several different shelters and social work agencies. Then I decided to pursue my graduate degree. I also head the largest volunteering organization on campus."
She was more than impressed. "Goodness!"
"But enough about me… " He smiled. "And I want to assure you this is a casual interview. No need to be impressive, just speak openly and honestly. And feel free to ask questions if you’d like, as well."
She nodded. "All right, Mr. Constantine."
He chuckled, turning on a delicious smile that dissolved her nervousness in an instant. "I think we’d be much more comfortable speaking on a first name basis. Mark would be fine."
"All right… Mark."
"So why… uhh…" he quickly turned to the side, holding his hand up again. "uhhHHUUUCHHOO! Uhh… uhhhHUHSHOO! Sniff!"
"Bless you," she said softly. She usually didn’t bless people; she preferred to keep a distance when sneezing was involved, observing only. But there was something so charming about this man that she just felt the need to say something.
He nodded. "Excuse me, and thank you." He shook his head, as if annoyed by the sneezes. "What I was trying to ask was why you chose this place to meet."
She shrugged, then launched into explanation. "I’ve lived in this town for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, my father would take me here every Saturday mornings. He would have an espresso, and I would have a lemonade and blueberry muffin. My father passed away when I was twelve."
H is look was one of sympathy, his baby blue eyes turning down at the sides. "I’m so sorry."
She shook her head. "It’s all right. I can still feel him here sometimes. I guess I figured that he might be able to help me out a little here today."
"So you live with your… mother?" he was rummaging around with the papers on the seat of the booth beside him.
"Yes. And six younger brothers and sisters."
"Whoa! That… uuuhhh… uhhhHUHSHHH! Sniff. Oh, sniff, excuse me. Sniff! That must be rather difficult at times."
She smiled, nodding. "It can be very trying, but there are certain perks to being the eldest. Not to mention, heaps of responsibility. That’s probably why I’m as out going and in-charge as I am. Dealing with six kids running around gives you a certain ability to juggle many things all at once."
"Which you seem to have done quite well at in hih… high… high… " He clamped a hand over his mouth and nose this time. "uuuhhhh-HUHSHHH!" While it didn’t sound especially loud, the sneeze was so forceful bent him forward, almost knocking over the cup of tea on the table. Elizabeth noticed, unable to take her eyes off him a moment, and pulled the cup towards him. He was hardly done, though he stayed bent forward, breathing deeply at a slow, long build-up. "uhhhh… uuhhh-huuhhhh… uhhh-uhhhh-uuuhhhh…" Each grew deeper, stronger, pulling at his entire body, which swayed back and forth, eyes shut, mouth half open but with teeth clenched, as if he were bracing himself for it. "uuuhhhhh… uhh-uhhh-uhh… uuuhhhh—" Then he tensed up, leaned back up straight, gaining an inch in height, then he snapped forward further than the first time. "uuhhhHUHSHHHOO! uhhh-HUH-CHOO! SNIFF!"
"Bless you!" she said, picking up her purse. "Would you care for a tissue?"
He shook his head, placing a small tissue pack on the table, plucking out one, and blowing strongly, but very discreetly and politely on it. "Please sniff excuse me. It’s this cold…"
"It’s all right. Seems like something’s always going around here in the spring." She wasn’t quite sure that were true, but she wanted to offer him some reassurance. She pushed his tea back towards him, and he gave her a thankful nod.
After rubbing at his nose and taking a few more sips of tea, he tried again. "From your papers here it seems you were quite busy in high school. Since freshman year you were sniff taking on leadership roles. That’s very impressive."
"Thank you. It was luck in several cases. Many of the clubs I was very interested in joining simply had graduated seniors and thus officer openings, so I ran and was voted in."
He nodded, sniffling into a tissue and trying to look inconspicuous about it. He gave one last sniff and looked back down at the papers. "And I see you did some sniff outside volunteer work as well. When did you find sniff time for all them and maintain your," he quickly glanced at the paper. "3.96?"
Shrugging, "If something’s important to me, I make time."
Smiling, he rubbed at his nose again. "If you had to pick between academics and organizations, which… uuhhh…" It began again, making him stop completely, helpless against the build-up and its inevitable outcome. "uhhh… uuuuhhhhh… uhh-uuuhhh… uuhiiiihhhhhhh-uhhh-HUHSHOO! UhhhCHISHH! ehhSHOO! uuuhhhh… uhhhhHUHSHHHH!" His sneezes were sounding stronger at every moment, and he was starting to look a bit tired and beaten up.
Mark was frozen in an odd position, as if the sneeze were halfway out. His breaths were deep but silent, though she could see his chest build fully with each. His eyes were squeezed tightly closed. His mouth half open, with a barely noticeable frown. His fist was in front of his face, a few inches, giving Elizabeth enough room to see his nostrils flair just a little with each breath. He suddenly flinched, then barreled forward with a strong, "huuuuhhhhh-SHEOOO!" He pulled out another tissue, blowing his nose.
‘Yes,’ she decided, ‘he certainly is looking worse. But he looks even more attractive like this… maybe it’s just his charm…or maybe it’s his absolutely amazing sneezes…Mmmmm…I bet it’s both. But those sneezes…’
Of which he had quite a lot, demonstrating it as he blinked his eyes and sniffed, saying, "Goodness, please do excuse me!" And then gave her a large, gentle smile that seemed to completely take over his face—and her heart.
"Bless you! Are you sure you wouldn’t rather do this another time when you are feeling a bit better? You look like you—"
"uuuhhhhSHHHIISHHH! Sniff, Bless me…"
Her voice dropped down, almost a soft sigh as she finished her sentence, "—could use some bed rest."
Mark smiled, shaking his head. "Thadks, sniff, but our schedule is rather tight. Sniff! It’d just by luck to cobe dowd with a cold od the plade ride over here."
Elizabeth sighed to herself. ‘This man is just too adorable for words!’ She felt a bit shaken by her feelings, but tried to clear her mind by answering, "That depends on the repercussions."
He froze, his brow furrowing, obviously trying to figure out the meaning of her words.
"You asked if I would chose academics or organizations, yes?"
"Oh," he smiled. "I subbose I did, Sniff!" He rubbed gingerly at his nose with a tissue, wondering how in the world he’d been so lucky to get such a sweet girl for an assignment when he felt so bad. She appeared to be completely on top of everything, and her eyes seemed to project incredible sympathy. It was difficult to keep his own mind off both her and the cold, but he tried his best.
"It would depend on the repercussions."
Mark seemed instantly intrigued. "Blease, sniff, go od."
"Well," she drank down the last bit of her almond mocha. "I can’t very well stay in college without good grades. And I won’t be able to get a very good job during or afterwards with low grades." She paused, giving him a moment to reason through that. "However, I don’t think I could ever just let things alone and study." She smiled, giving herself a moment to phrase it correctly. "I want to make a difference in this world. I want to use my time to help others, to help the community. The clubs I headed and activities I was involved with are more important to my heart than simple grades on a piece of paper. But without the first, I cannot have the second. And if I simply have the first, I will…" she paused, "I will feel empty inside." She looked down, shrugging her shoulders. "I don’t think I could ever just have one. But if it came down to it, I’m afraid I would have to chose the second."
He raised his eyebrows. A rather surprised expression crossed over his face, and he had to think it over a second before saying, "Even if it meant leaving the university?"
She nodded. "I’ve waited my whole life to get in here… it would break my heart to chose to leave. I want a good job, and I want an amazing education in my field. But some things are more important than I am. If my leaving meant others could live and survive, then I suppose I would have to leave."
Changing the subject, Mark coughed, and blew his nose again. "Why dod’t you tell be about this sniff photo albub you’ve brought here."
"It’s my scrapbook, actually," she said, moving her empty cup to the side of the table by the wall, turning it around and opening it. "All four years of high school are right here."
"What a wonderful idea," he said, looking over the first page, a collage of her interests and favorite things: animals, sports, movies, books, clubs, cities, music, the list was endless. "Why dod’t you turn the bages sniff, excuse me, add exblaid a few thigs to be."
"All right," she turned the page. "These are my three best friends. We’re literally inseparable sometimes."
"Where are they attedig college?"
"Various places- none of them out of state, actually."
"So…" his face dropped. "Ode secod… hhuuhhh-huhEHHSHOOO! IhhhCHHHHISHH! uhhhSHOO! uuuhhhh… uuuuhhh… uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uhhhhhhhhhhhhh…HUHH-uh-SHISHHH!" He pulled out another tissue. "Excuse be. I’b listedig…"
"Um," she ran a hand through her hair, hoping she wasn’t blushing at all. Those had been the best of them so far… simply marvelous… "Actually you were—"
"uuhhh… uuhhh-uhhhHUSHHHH! uhhhCHISHH! Sniff! Uh, excuse be, agaid."
"—about to say something."
Blowing his nose, he nodded. "So I was. Thadks. With such a big fabily, add such uuuhhh…" his whole body shook with the sneeze’s force. "uhhhhSHOOO! Sniff, Sniff! Excuse be. With such fabily add frieds Sniff! ared’t you codcerded about beig a little hobesick? This is all the way across the coudtry, after all."
She nodded. "I’ll probably be extremely homesick for a few weeks. But this is something I’ve been working for my whole life. Actually, I sort of look at this university—"
"uuhhhhCHIISHHHOOO! Uuuhhhhh…uuuhhhh… uhhhhhSHISHHH!"
"As the last step before jumping off a cliff into my dreams. Bless you!"
"Excuse be. uuhhh... uuuhhhh… uuuhhhh-uhhhhh-uuuuuhhhh…uhhh-uhhhHUHHSHHOOO!" His whole body shook at it, causing his stack of paper to fall to the floor in a mess. His sneezing was nearly nonstop; there was no way to pause and pick them up.
"Ooh!’ Elizabeth exclaimed, hopping over to scoop them up, keeping her eye on Mark, as he struggled against another.
"uuuuuhhhh…uuuhhhhhh… uuhhh-uhhh.. uh-uh-uh—" and he froze, not breathing, not moving. Then relaxed back against the seat. "Ugh…" He rubbed his nose roughly, trying to get the tickle to leave for good, though it seemed for now the fit of sneezes had passed. He looked down at the papers she scooped up, lying them on the seat beside him. "I’b so sniff sorry, Elizabeth. Thadk you so buch. That’s so sweet of you."
Their eyes, met, as she lay the one last bunch of papers on the pile, and he rubbed at his nose. They drowned out the soft music, the conversations, the street noise. It was only the two of them for one moment. Their eyes. Their smiles. Their hearts. Their—
Suddenly, "CHIISHHHOO!" The stuck sneeze finally came.
In a soft, gentle whisper, "Bless you."
With a soft, gentle nod, "Excuse be. Add thadk you."
Elizabeth rose, returned to her seat, and ran her hand through her hair. One moment. But it had meant so much more.
For a few minutes, she fussed with her purse, and he tidied the papers, and blew his nose. Then he cleared his throat. "You were speakig of…"
She quickly fell back into things. "Of leaving my friends and family behind. And yes, of course I’ll miss them. I love them all. But I want this, and I need this to get to where I’m going. Wasn’t it Picasso who said something like ‘Every act of creation requires first an act of destruction?’"
He nodded, his handsome blue eyes smiling at her over a tissue. "I’b sure it was."
‘Oh no, now I’ve done it. First that look of passion, and now I’ve let my thoughts out. I just rambled on and on out loud… in front of him… this is the last thing I need. Now he thinks I’m showing off on purpose, after he said I didn’t have to go out of my way to be impressive. Think, Liz! Think! Say something already!’ "I’m sorry. I tend to ramble when I’m nervous." She looked down, playing it calm, and trying to keep him from noticing bright red cheeks. "That was an expression my AP English teacher always used when discussing polar opposites. I guess it just popped into my mind."
After lowering the tissue, and apparently stuffing it into his pocket, she could see now that he was indeed smiling at her. "I cad still rebeber the first words by advadced Eglish teacher told our class." His voice suddenly transformed to a loud, booming, deep one, his eyes squeezing half closed and his eyebrows raising and he began the imitation. "‘This is advadced Eglish. Here, you will thidk. It bay be a first tibe for you, it bay be a horribly hellish experience, it bay drive you crazy or fill your soul to the edge, but you will thidk.’" He paused, resuming his normal tone and voice, "Ub, without the stuffidess of course."
Elizabeth laughed, truly a blessed sound which put the silent look out of their minds completely. They focused on the interview, on their purposes. "Sounds like quite a teacher. Is she the reason you pursued a literature minor?"
He nodded. "Add I’ve always loved readig and adalyzig… so bany differedt ways to view beoble… so bady differedt types of beoble. I love gettig idto their heads. Baybe that’s why I like recruitig SNIFF! recruiting." His charm was overflowing, and Elizabeth couldn’t help but be spellbound by it. "Why do you ask?"
"My world history teacher inspired me like that. To not only learn everything I could about people everywhere, and not only see how alike everyone, but to go out and do something that will make a difference to all these people and… and I’m rambling again. I’m so sorry."
He shook his head. "Do deed to be sorry. It’s dice to see sobeode with so buch bassiod."
"Um… I’m sorry: bassiod?"
He sniffed, going a bit red in the face, himself. "Sorry. Bassiod… sbirit, edthusiasb, excitebedt."
"Yes. I’b really sorry. I’b dot bakig this easy for you sniff ab I? I’b sure I soude horrible all stuffed ub like this."
She smiled. "I really don’t mind. I followed you fine up until then. I’m just sorry you don’t feel well."
His warm, soft, soothing smile assured her that her sentiment was sweet and received happily. "Why dod’t you sniff show sniff be thuuhhh…uhhhHIHSHHHOOO! uhhhSHOO! uhhhSHEOO! UhhHIHH-SHOOO! Sniff! Oh, goodess, blease excuse be yet agaid. Sniff! Why dod’t you go on with your scrabbook."
For the next half an hour, they carried on likewise, as she explained select items in her scrapbook. Pictures of her friends and family, flyers from plays she found exciting, awards she received for this and that, and flyers for club events. Mark seemed to be hanging in there all right, considering, though several rather powerful sneezes escaped his nose. She began skipping around, and talking a little faster at seeing him nearly deteriorate before her eyes. As much as she wanted the position, this poor, sweet guy’s health was probably more important. So when she finished up, she decided to insist upon it. There was nothing she wanted more than to let the interview carry on for hours, so she could be witness to his lush, loud sneezes of pure perfection… but with the way his charm soaked into her, this man was just too sweet to allow suspension of his misery.
"uuhhhIHHSHOOO! uuhhhCHISHHH! Sniff! Sniff! uuhhh… uhhhhHUHHHshhhhh! uuuhhhhCHISHHH! Sniff! Uh… excuse… HEHSHOO! SNIFF! Excuse be…"
Finally, she could take no more. The cold was into full swing, and the poor man seemed completely at its mercy.
"Mr., er, I mean Mark, You really don’t look very well. I think it might be a good idea to either finish this later, even on the phone, or conclude now."
"uuhhhhCHISHHH! uuhhhhSHOO! uuuhhh…HIHSHOO! uhhhSHEOO!" He was too busy sneezing at present to answer. "uuhhhhSHOOO! uuuhhhh-HUH-SHOO! uuhhhh…uuuhhhhh…uuhh-uh-uhh-uhh—" His body was tense, leaning forward with each strong, heavy breath. He held a tissue in one fist, a few inches from his face. It seemed to take forever, but finally, it struck. "uhh-uhh-uh-uuhhhhhhhhhh-UHCHOOOO!"
"Bless you!’ she exclaimed, handing him a few tissues from her purse just in case.
He took them thankfully, mumbling through them, "Excuse be."
She couldn’t resist one more mention of it. It wasn’t everyday she felt her interest fulfilled by such a charming, handsome, man with a passion to match her own. So, very casually, she exclaimed, "That’s quite a cold, there!"
He nodded. "I’b so sorry. But I thick we’re through here, adyway, udless you have sobe questiods for be."
Elizabeth shook her head. "No, not really. But if I have some, I can contact the recruiter’s office, I’m sure."
"Ask for be, if you like. SNIFF! I’d be habby to... to… uuuhhhhUHHSHHHHOO! uuhhh-CHISHH! uuhhhSHOO! Sniff! Excuse be." His voice, once calm and soothing was now thick, congested and deep. "Sniff! …to adswer theb for you."
‘But could he possibly sound any cuter if he tried? No… I don’t think he could...’
They both rose from their seats and collected their things.
"I certainly will. Do you need help finding your way back to the subway?"
He shook his head. "I bay soud like I’b stuffed with cotted, but I really dod’t feel all that bad… yet… I’b od by way there, though."
"Well you take care of yourself, and I really do hope you feel better soon." It sounded like an order, but her voice gave it the sweetness, filling it with caring.
He nodded wearily. "Thadk you. Add I’b sure I will. I’d better, otherwise the blade ride back will be just awful."
‘Just too adorable for words…’ "It was nice meeting you."
He nodded. "I dod’t wadt to be too forward, but sidce you are going all that way to school… add you brobably won’t dow too bady people out there, feel free to look be ub id the fall. I could show you the best coffeehouse id the city."
Elizabeth’s heart soared. ‘I’m in! I’m in! I’m in! And Mark is…’ She had to admit that she might like to see more of him, on a regular student-to-student basis, of course.
"uuhhhHISHHH!" He bent forward, nearly in half, with the sneeze. Mark dug another tissue out of his pocket and rubbed at his nose. "Excuse be."
"I’d love that, Mark. Thank you."
He nodded, smiling. Then slowly headed out, leaving Elizabeth standing there alone, enveloped in the warm, soothing aroma that reminded her so much of her father, and now would remind her of Mark.
Suddenly a thought popped into her head, and she darted out the door, running down the street after him. Elizabeth caught up before he was halfway down the block. She laid a hand on his shoulder, and he turned around, a bit startled to see her.
"Mark..." she said, panting, giving herself a moment to regain her breath. "I… I have to ask you something before you leave."
He nodded, eyebrows raised with that delightful ‘curious’ expression. "Go for it."
She swallowed a breath of air, letting it out slowly, then began. "That question you asked, academics versus organizations… that wasn’t the answer you were expecting, was it? I could tell by your face."
He shook his head. "Do, it certaidly was dot. I’ve heard quite a few adswers to that ode, and yours, Elizabeth Huxley," he stopped to blow his nose quite powerfully, and talked a bit clearer afterwards as a result. "Yours was the most caring, dedicated, mature and thought-provoking of them all. I wish that I, now, could understand and feel even half of what you do."
Instead of smiling, Elizabeth was completely stunned. She had expected quite a different answer. And, unquestionably, she had not expected such an outright outpouring of praise. She lived a simple life, and derived pleasure from her successes and aid alone. Sure she earned countless awards and recognition, but his words surpassed them all. Elizabeth knew she had touched this man, and that was the reason for him mention to contact him. Not her pretty face, not her accomplishments, but her convictions, her beliefs; her passion for life had actually rubbed someone the right way. She opened her mouth several times, only to close it, speechlessly.
Finally, he whispered, "Thank you would be sufficient."
She nodded furiously. "Oh, yes! Thank you! It’s only that no one has ever said…"
He patting her arm, gently. "Then it’s about time sniff someone did. Enjoy your summer, Elizabeth. Sniff! I hope we can meet up some time in the fall. If you’re not too busy." Charming smile.
His touch was light, but she could feel his warmth through it. It burned pleasingly on her arm, a reminder of him, of his words. "As do I. I make time for what’s important, you know. Thank you."
"And thank you."
He turned, only to stop a footstep or two away. His hand, fist ready, went to his nose. "uhhh… uuuhhh… uuuhhhhhCHOO! Sniff!"
"Bless you!" she called after him.
He turned his head, a sheepish, but handsome and fetching expression on his face, as it broke into a grin. "Thadk you."
She nodded a goodbye, not being able to say it.
And he did the same, turned, and walked until he disappeared into the crowd of pedestrians.
This time, when she watched him walk away, it felt different. Instead of simply dreaming her goals, she could feel them. She felt for the first time warmth fill her, as her future unfolded before her. And this time, she knew in her heart, she truly was capable of making a difference in the world.