Chapter 1:

You Can't Blink

Love Is A Constant Battle

It’s always a struggle to eat lunch at the canteen on campus.

Once noon comes, what seems like the entire student body of the university swarms the whole floor which is the dining area. The lines would always be long and the wait time can take up to fifteen minutes and that can be stressful. It’s even worse when you're already feeling hungry, which is hard to avoid during mealtime, as it can be torturous while waiting in line.

However, the struggle doesn't end after buying your food. You still need to find a place to eat. While that may sound an obvious step, finding an open seat adds to the difficulty. It would be no exaggeration to say it’s the second trial of eating at the canteen.

Although, to be fair, this part is not as bad as the long line. It’s only stressful if you’re really unlucky, but on most days, you can usually spot one or two tables who are about to be finished with their meal. Most people would reserve a seat for you if you ask nicely and no one else has asked yet.

If you’re extra lucky, you might spot a friend or at least a familiar face who will let you squeeze into their table. The tables had benches attached instead of individual seats - picnic tables, basically - so you can cram as many butts as it can possibly fit. Of course, if the occupants were willing to sit so close together.

Unfortunately for me, I don’t have many friends so I rarely hope for such a thing to happen whenever I have lunch at the canteen. The first option is the only viable strategy for me.

But, even more unlucky for me, today seems to be one of those days where I can’t seem to find a seat. Through experience, I found that the best tactic was to look for a group since a few seats are sure to be open once they decide to vacate it. But, somehow, whenever I spot a group who seem to be about done with their meal, another party has already staked their claim on the table and they have no extra room. Spotting solo diners is already difficult and I also have no luck asking for their seat when I see one.

This is the first time I have experienced this phenomenon. I’ve heard the stories, but since I’ve already spent more than a few times eating here and never have it happen to me, I thought they were exaggerated by people who couldn’t stand the crowd. It seemed manageable to me before all this!

My arms were getting tired from carrying my tray. I was starting to regret declining my classmates’ invitation to eat somewhere off campus. Having lunch in the university’s canteen is much cheaper than a fast food chain, but as I make another trip around the floor looking for a table, that extra cost to avoid all this effort is now starting to look like a worthy sacrifice.

However, it seems like fate had something in store for me. Just as it was my first time experiencing the extreme difficulty of finding a table, I also finally get to meet a familiar face in this godforsaken place.

I may not have many friends, but I still managed to make a few. Most, if not all of them, seem to avoid the canteen, though. This friend of mine usually does, too. But, for some reason, this person is here right now. Whatever that reason is, I don’t care to find out since I may finally be able to be seated and take my lunch. I couldn’t afford to be picky since I have a class at exactly one in the afternoon.

“Marie!” I called out to my friend as I approached her.

She managed to hear me over the noise of the crowd, but she seemed to have been unable to find the source of the voice calling for her. I called out to her again.

This time, she looked towards my direction and waved.

I took it as a signal that I could go to her even though I was already walking towards where she was. I’d have approached regardless.

As I neared her, I started to regret my decision to ask if I could sit with her.

She was sitting at a small table that could accommodate two persons and the other seat was already occupied. However, my friend already sharing a table with somebody else wasn’t the problem. The table was a mini picnic table so the seat was also a small bench which could fit two girls if they were willing to squeeze in together. My intention would be that and I think she wouldn’t mind doing so with me. We’re both girls, after all, and we’re on good terms.

Or, at least I think we are on good terms.

Regardless, my problem was not with Marie. It was with the person she was sharing the table with, which was her boyfriend. I hadn’t noticed since he had his back to me when I first spotted Marie.

I don’t have anything against him personally, mind. In fact, I like to think I also get along with him at an individual level.

The problem is… my problem is that the two are together.

Becoming a third wheel is the least of my concerns. In fact, I’d have preferred that feeling of being out of place whenever I’m with these two.

The thing is these two are probably the most popular people on campus!

Marie has charm and personality. She has the looks and style of a model and carries herself with the confidence of a top celebrity. Yet, she’s also one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. She’s the number one girl you’d want to have as a girlfriend, according to an anonymous online poll.

Her boyfriend, his name is Ken, also has the looks to be a teen heartthrob. But, I hear what makes him popular with the girls is that he’s funny, dependable and easy to talk to. He, similar to Marie, also tops the online polls of being the number one boy to have as a boyfriend.

It’s not surprising that even as a couple they stand out. They get talked about as the perfect couple by everyone. It would be no exaggeration to say they’re the celebrity couple of the university.

They’re nice people, but their status within the student body can be pretty intimidating when you’re with them by yourself. Especially in public I become self-conscious because I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb from other people’s view.

Furthermore, the fact that both of them are only wearing simple shirts and jeans yet look like they wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy magazine is making me even more self-conscious about my own fashion sense.

I considered just giving them a quick greeting before making my escape. Beggars can’t be choosers, but in this instance, I think I can choose to avoid them for my sanity.

However, Marie invited me to sit with them.

“Can’t find a seat?” she asked. Then, without waiting for my answer, she told me as she scooted over to the opposite edge of the seat “You can sit with us.”

It would be weird to refuse her now so, reluctantly, I sat in the space she made for me on that short bench.

“Hi, Kat”, Ken greeted me as I set my tray on the table.

“Hello”, I greeted back, trying not to look and sound like I didn’t want to be there.

“Great timing”, he said. “We’re just about done with our lunch.”

I did notice their plates were already empty except for a plate in the middle of the table with one slice of pizza on top of it.

Seeing that gave me the realization that today was pizza day. No wonder the canteen is busier than usual.

I’ve heard their pizza is especially popular. Not only was it tasty, it was also cheap so students would flock to buy them. They sell out very quickly, however, which is probably why I haven’t seen it on the menu when it was my turn on the counter.

But, that isn’t important right now.

“Really good timing”, Marie echoed. “Maybe you could help us settle a bet.”

“A bet?” I asked.

“Yup, we’re trying to compete on who gets the last slice of pizza”, she explained. “But someone here just doesn’t want to admit defeat.”

“What do you mean?” Ken protested. “It was supposed to be my win.”

“If neither of you want to concede, why not just share the slice?” I interjected.

The two of them stared at me unimpressed as if I said something stupid.

I immediately regretted my question. I was afraid I gave them a bad impression with that thoughtless remark. I haven’t experienced it nor seen it happen in real life yet, but don’t popular people tend to ostracize those that crossed them? That seems to always happen in dramas and now I’m fearful it will start happening to me!

Then, Marie, calmly but with a hint of cheerfulness “We could share it, but that wouldn’t be fun.”

Looking at Marie and Ken’s expressions again, they didn’t seem to be annoyed by my question. Instead, both of them sort of have this playful grin on their faces.

I guess that was simply me imagining things due to self-consciousness.

I was still lost on why they were competing for the last slice of pizza, though. But, I figured I should play along regardless.

“So, how can I help? What game are you playing?”

“The game is simple”, Ken said. “Marie and I will be saying some things to each other and the first one to laugh or smile loses.”

“Then, what do I need to do?”

“You can be our referee. Help us judge on who breaks the rule and loses.”

“Can’t you two do it by yourself? I mean, you can see each other’s faces.”

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to help, but isn’t their game something that could be played without a referee?

“We tried”, now Marie replies. “But, like I said, someone here just doesn’t want to admit defeat.”

I could see Ken looking like he wanted to protest Marie’s statement a second time, but she was quick to continue with her explanation.

“We’re hoping you could be our impartial judge. Of course, you’re free to have your lunch while doing it.”

“Ah, I see”. It didn’t register for me the first time, but now I get it. “Okay, I can be your referee.”

They didn’t skip a beat once I agreed to it and started immediately.

“Alright, game start”, Ken declared as the two stared at each other.

Marie made the first move.

“I haven’t slept for ten days because that would be too long”, she said, opening up with a joke.

There was no reaction from Ken.

“You’re so beautiful, your birthday should be a national holiday.”

Ken’s line surprised me that I started choking on my food, even though it was just rice.

If they were using the game as a means to flirt, I wish they didn’t bring me into it!

“Are you alright?” Marie asked out of concern for me.

“Sorry, you two flirting just surprised me.”

She seemed confused by my explanation and asked “What do you mean?”

“I mean Ken saying that about your birthday.”

“Don’t be silly”, she replied, laughing. “That was just a lame pickup line he said in an attempt to make me laugh.”

“Ah, you laughed!” Ken interjected.

“That doesn’t count”, Marie countered as she quickly composed herself. “I was talking to Kat.”

Ken then looked at me, probably expecting me for my decision as the referee.

“Sorry for interrupting, please continue.”

He sighed in response out of frustration.

I’m really sorry…

“Alright, let’s start again. This time, let’s make the rules clear. If one of us reacts to what the other have said, it’s their loss, got it?”

“Got it.”

Ken then looked at me again, probably wanting me to acknowledge the new rule.

“Got it”, I meekly said.

“Game. Start.”

It was Marie’s turn after the restart.

“Two mallards walk into a bar. The third one ducks.”

No reaction from Ken.

It’s now Ken’s turn.

“I thought diamonds were pretty until I laid my eyes on you.”

Marie's face twitched a bit, but she didn't smile.

It’s now Marie’s turn again.

“I made a new word up. It’s plagiarism!”

“Does your left eye hurt? Because you’ve been looking right all day!”

“Why did the scarecrow win an award? Because he was outstanding in his field.”

“If I could rearrange the alphabet, I would put U and I first.”

“How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh? Ten tickles.”

“It’s a good thing that I have my library card because I am totally checking you out!”

The two continue their back and forth with the lame jokes and the corny pickup lines. Neither have lost yet, but the longer the game ran, the more each of them struggled to hold back a smile.

I was also collateral damage. They were aiming their lines at each other, but I was still getting affected by them as I could hear everything that was being said. While Ken’s lines were really corny, I was silently enjoying some of Marie’s jokes. The ten tickles joke especially.

Although, I guess I wasn’t silent enough that the two of them looked at my direction to ask if I was fine. It seems that I was shivering uncontrollably as I held back my laughter.

“Yes, I’m fine”, I said. “Sorry for interrupting you two again, but I just found Marie’s jokes really funny.”

“Huh, you have a similar sense of humor to Ken”, Marie commented.

With that, I would guess Marie was telling those jokes because Ken enjoyed it. Assumingly, Ken’s strategy was the same as it was Marie who enjoyed those lame pickup lines.

“Geez, get yourself together otherwise we’ll never end”, Ken scolded me.

“I’m sorry”, I answered as I continued giggling.

I knew I had to stop soon, though. So I took deep breaths to calm myself down.

As I wound down, I couldn’t help but give a comment to Ken.

“It’s amazing how you’re able to say those lines with a straight face”, I said.

While I enjoyed Marie’s more, I still found Ken’s approach to the game admirable since I think it was something that most people would be embarrassed to say with a straight face.

“It’s only natural”, he confidently replied. “She’s the most beautiful girl there is and I’m not ashamed to say it.”

My heart skipped a beat when he said that. Not in the way that I fell in love with him, but rather in a way you would while watching a love story when something romantic happens.

I wasn’t sure if it was intentional from Ken, but I wasn’t the only one who reacted from what he just said. I noticed that Marie looked away from me when he replied to my comment.

Ken also noticed this and, since he was seated opposite us girls, he was able to get an angle to view what expression Marie was wearing on her face.

He smiled and, as he pointed to Marie, exclaimed “You’re grinning; you lose!”

While still looking away from me, she protested “It doesn’t count, you were talking to Kat!”

“But we just agreed to a rule that it’s a loss if someone reacts to what either of us has said. You reacted to what I said to Kat!”

He was also motioning for me to take a look at Marie as he said that.

I complied and walked over to the side where she was facing. I found her grinning in a weird kind of way as if she was trying to hold it back so she looked funny. She is also blushing and, as with her smile, the color reached up to her ears.

She continued to resist. She said to me, “It doesn’t count, right?”

I placed my hands on her shoulders.

I slowly exhaled to calm my nerves.

Calmly, I answered her “I’m sorry, but he’s right. You lose.”

Upon hearing my judgment, she slumped in defeat while her opponent celebrated with a fist pump before quickly grabbing that slice of pizza they were competing for.

It was a strange scene. These are two of the coolest people I know, yet here they are with their childish side on full display.

Marie especially looked cute with that distressed expression she was wearing when she suffered defeat. Precious, even, when you think that what ultimately made her grin like an idiot was an honest statement of admiration instead of a cheesy pickup line.

Arashi Sensei
Taylor Victoria