YOUNG MR. BELL is a slightly nerdy English and philosophy major who has not yet thrown over these unsatisfying academic pursuits for his two true callings, jazz and blues keyboards and computer programming. SERENA SMITH is a painfully earnest, overwrought English major, who having taken her college’s only three creative writing classes already, is desperately bored.
On the heels of a heartbreaking college relationship breakup, Young Mr. Bell becomes enamored of two different women on campus. WOMAN A is the tall slender brunette in his intro philosophy class whose mode of sitting in the freezing cold classroom’s uncomfortable wood chairs emphasizes her dramatic hip-to-waist ratio. WOMAN B is the mysterious writer whose poems and short stories arrive periodically in Young Mr. Bell’s e-mail inbox. Younger Mr. Bell, being a bit of a poet himself, is intrigued by Woman B’s way with words. But his baser side keeps Woman A top of mind.
Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, Serena has been getting flirtatious e-mails from the fiction editor of the college literary magazine. She doesn’t know who he is, but based on his unusual first name and the fact that she attended one meeting of the literary magazine, she concludes that he must be the six-foot-tall black man she met at the meeting. He was a fine specimen of manhood, although she would have been prepared to swear he was gay. He’s not acting gay in his emails, though. He’s acting like a heterosexual alpha male with a talent for banter.
He is, in fact, a heterosexual male with a talent for banter and a tendency toward alpha-ness at convenient intervals (he’s also five ten, blond, and distinctly white, though Serena doesn’t yet know this), and he has just discovered that Woman A and Woman B are actually a single human being, Serena Smith. This is the best luck he’s had in years, so much so that he is moved to overcome his basically shy nature and inform Serena in his next email that she is in his law class.
Bad move. Serena has no idea how Young Mr. Bell knows who she is, and in this pre-social media era, that’s unnerving. To make matters worse, one of Serena’s friends knows Young Mr. Bell. Apparently, Young Mr. Bell stalked his last girlfriend. Stalkers are one of Serena’s least favorite man-types. So when yet another friend approaches Serena to tell her that Young Mr. Bell has said hi, Serena tells her friends to tell Young Mr. Bell to go to hell.
Luckily Serena’s friend is canny, lazy, or forgetful, and the message never reaches young Mr. Bell. Because Serena, in addition to being earnest and overwrought, is also fickle, and in space of just a few weeks, she decides that the stalker in the back of her law class (she knows who he is now, because the professor has called on him several times—Is this coincidence? Or posturing? To this day, Serena is not sure) is cute.
It’s now Screw Your Roommate night, a primitive event that sounds way more fun than it is. Serena’s roommate, on Serena’s request, has matched her up with a tall, good-looking, bland, SANDY-HAIRED MAN whom Serena has been lusting after for months. In another twist of good fortune for Serena and Young Mr. Bell, Sandy-Haired Man stands Serena up. Serena is now pissed, the perfect state in which to do something ridiculous and out of character, like walk across campus to Young Mr. Bell’s room, stick her head in the door, and ask him if he wants to get some coffee.
Mr. Bell does, and the rest, more or less, is history.