Eric curses, shaking his hand.
"Did you burn yourself?" I ask.
"Your hair was too hot so it burnt me. You suck."
"You're the one who volunteered to help me."
Eric and I are in my bathroom, situating ourselves on the fuzzy bath mat in front of the mirror. He's currently kneeling behind me with a straightener in his hand, attempting to make my hair appear as if I know what I'm doing. I definitely don't. Let's just say I'm not efficient when it comes to being a girl. Learning how to put on makeup was enough of a nightmare, so I haven't even gotten around to learning how to do hair.
"Well excuse me for being excited my best friend finally has a date," Eric says. "Considering you don't do this very often, I think I'm entitled to helping it go as smoothly as possible."
"If Brendon doesn't like me because my hair isn't done, I don't think I want to date him."
"If only you'd thought of that with your other boyfriends. Sorry to say, but you haven't had the best taste in the past years."
"Hey!" I snap. "That's not fair! I didn't know the last one was going to be a jerk. He seemed nice at first."
"That's what worries me about this new one."
I try to catch Eric's eyes through the reflection of the mirror, but I give up when he purposely avoids looking at me.
"Well he got what he deserved anyway," I comment dismissively.
Let's just say there may have been a certain best friend punching the guy in the face.
"His nose wasn't straight for very long," I say, snickering.
"He cheated on you. Like I was going to let him just get away with that."
"You almost got sent to jail for assault. You're lucky he didn't call the cops."
"He didn't dare after I told him about my overprotective brother that just got out of prison."
"You don't even have a brother. Both of your siblings are girls."
"He didn't need to know that."
I laugh softly at his antics. It's really great to have someone care about you so much.
I am quiet as I listen to the music streaming through the doorway. The beautiful, melodic vocals of the song almost caress my ears. I love to hear Eric sing. He just finished an album, and I asked him to play it while he helped me get ready for my date in a few hours. I'm lucky he was in the nearby guitar shop, checking out what he said was his "new baby."
When I tear my attention away from the song, I realize my eyes are closed. When I open them again, Eric's smiling. The soft kind where he appreciates how much I enjoy his music. Sometimes I think I flatter him too much, but they're all compliments he deserves.
I return to the subject of his straightening ability.
"You know, I've never really asked. How come you know how to do all this? It doesn't seem fair I'm worse at girl stuff than you."
"Yeah, well, this is what happens when your mom makes you play with your little sister every day," he responds. "Especially since all my sister ever wanted to do was play makeovers. Either that or have a nerf gun fight."
I shift, tucking my leg under me to get comfortable.
"Hey!" he exclaims. "Watch your movements, or you'll end up with a burn on your forehead like she did the first time she made me straighten her hair."
"You burnt your sister?" I ask, horrified.
"It was an accident," he defends. "I promise. I was focusing really hard on getting it right so when she jerked away from a mosquito in the room I accidentally brushed against her with it. To make it worse, her picture day was a week later."
"You're an awful brother."
"Hey!" he scolds. "I am not! I felt so bad afterwards I cried. She cried more, of course, but I did too. And then I got grounded for a whole month."
He finishes straightening the piece in his hand.
"You don't have any room to talk, Jennamiah,” he adds. “Considering what I'm having to do for you right now, you can't criticize my styling skills."
"Fine, fine," I concede. "I'm sorry. I'm just really lucky you love me so much."
He scoffs, pulling another strand through the hot accessory.
"That's right, you're lucky," he says, but it's playful. "How did I end up with a best friend like you anyway?"
"I do believe it happened when I had to talk down the guy that was trying to pummel you for insulting him when he cut in line. Honestly, Eric, how else did you expect him to react when you asked if an eagle was living in his receding hairline?"
"Well, I don't know!" he answers, exasperated. "He was extremely rude to cut in front of me! You know as well as I do that we had been in that line for hours."
"It was good thing I looked a lot like his daughter so he couldn't be mad at me when I stood in front of you. I'm the reason your nose is still straight."
"Shut up. Don't make me stop doing your hair."
"You don't get to stop doing my hair. Since I had to help you remove your leather pants earlier because they were stuck, you have to finish this."
"Do you have any other words you can use?"
"No. Now just shut up."
"Whatever you say."
Twenty minutes more for my hair, a full hour spent on my makeup, and seven outfit changes later, I'm ready. Actually, now that I look at this sweater, I don't like it. I toss it to the growing pile in the corner. I shiver as the cold air hits my shoulders, only covered by the thin straps of my undershirt.
"I swear to god, woman," Eric whines from his the place he’s flopped down on my bed. "Just pick a shirt and go with it. I thought you liked the green one."
"The green one is fraying," I answer, distracted as I sort through my dresser.
The black one? No. That one’s a little too tight for a casual date. The llama one? He might think that’s stupid.
"What about this blue one?" I ask Eric, holding it up.
He raises one eyebrow, looking at me dubiously.
"Isn't that the one your mom's dog threw up on?"
"Oh, you're right."
I groan, trying to hold in my exasperation as I search through the closet for something else. My dresser has disappointed me today.
"Aha!" I exclaim, pulling out a grey sweater designed to be worn more like a dress. Buttons line the collar, zippers running down the side.
"Why are you trying so hard?" Eric asks, snickering. "It's not like this guy is Leonardo DiCaprio."
"I'm not trying hard," I reply, defensive. "I just want to make sure I look good, that's all. Like any normal person going on a date."
I quickly throw on the dress, adjusting my leggings.
"Is this too stereotypical?" I ask.
I don't want to seem too much like every other girl in the fall season.
Eric opens his mouth, but he's interrupted by the doorbell.
"Is that him?" I ask, horrified.
Surely he's early. There's no way it's time. I don't feel ready. But I look at my clock and it informs me he's right on time. I curse.
"I'll go talk to him,” Eric says, “You finish getting ready."
He gets up to stride across the apartment.
"Oh no you don't!" I screech, pulling him back.
"Why not? I wanna meet this guy, Jenny Jay. See what he's like."
"And I said no! I know you'll go out there and just threaten him or something."
"Jenna?" I hear Brendon call, his voice muffled by the door. "Is everything okay?"
"One second!" I yell back. "I'm just finishing getting ready!"
I grab Eric by the arm, dragging him to my closet. I shove aside the remaining shirts, a task made easy as half of previously there items are on the floor.
"In," I order.
"Eric, if you ever want me to pretend to be your girlfriend for your stalker exes, you'll get in this closet right now."
He narrows his eyes at me, but complies.
"Just stay here until we leave. I don't want him to get upset again. Oh, and if I find you trying on my shoes again you're dead."
"You're just jealous I can walk in the heels better than you."
I slam the door closed, scurrying forward to my bed. I slip on my boots, then cross my floor to get to Brendon. I open the door, flustered.
"Hi, Brendon!" I chirp, trying to sound confident.
"Hello," he answers, smile soft.
My next words are caught in my throat as I take in his appearance. He's wearing a fitted black sweater, the fabric hitting him in all the right places. Not that it looks like he has any wrong places. He's got faded blue skinny jeans on, accentuating just how long his legs are. A coat is laid across his arm, a blue and black striped scarf woven around the collar.
"You look beautiful," he says, looking embarrassed he just admitted that. His words break up my line of thought.
That's fortunate, as I'm worried I'll begin to drool. Come on, Jenna. Get it together. You're not a dog.
"Thanks," I reply, beaming. "I just threw this on."
Yeah, right. I used the whole time we were apart to get ready. I'll never let him know that though.
To be fair, Brendon looks like he might have changed a few times himself. His outfit is a bit too put together to have just been prepared within ten minutes.
"You're looking pretty good yourself," I say back.
"Shall we go?" he asks, stepping aside to let me through.
There's a loud crashing noise from the bedroom, and I have to resist the impulse to groan. You had one job, Eric.
"What was that?" Brendon asks, peering into the apartment.
"It's just the cat," I answer, frantically trying to block his view. "He's playing with the new toy I got."
"You have a cat? What kind?"
"Ummm a Tabby Cat. His name's . . . George."
Before he can ask anything else, I step out and close the door.
"Ready?" I ask, walking away.
Brendon pauses for a moment, confused by my attitude. But then he scurries to catch up.
"Are we driving?" he asks, sliding into the space beside me.
"Nah, it's just the next street over. Something I enjoy when it's late and I want coffee but don't want to go far."
He nods. We exit my apartment building and stroll to the other street. We chat about little things, nothing too specific. We're more concentrated on keeping ourselves warm. The chill outside seeps into my sweater, so I'm relieved once we slip inside the heated interior of the coffee shop.
We order our drinks and claim a small table next to the window as we wait for them to come out.
Brendon's the first to speak, leaning forward against the table.
"Before we talk about anything else, I would first like to sincerely apologize for my behavior this afternoon," he says, sheepish. "While our misunderstanding did explain part of it, the way I acted was still unacceptable. Even if you had been in a relationship, I had no right be angry about it."
"It's okay. You were jealous, I understand. It's actually pretty sweet. I haven't had anyone be jealous over me in a long time, so it was a nice change of pace."
"You haven't?" he asks, brow furrowing. "Surely you're joking."
He sits back, looking discontent.
Our orders are called, and Brendon stands up.
"I'll get them," he volunteers, and strides up to the counter before I can say anything.
The barista drops Brendon's drink before he can get a grip on it, so he has to remake it. I like how kind the man is to the apologetic worker, smiling and making reassuring motions with his hands.
While I would like to watch him interact more (especially in those jeans), I feel creepy just staring at him. I look for something else to occupy myself with.
There's a newspaper on the end of the table, left by a previous customer. The page is open to a crossword puzzle. I scan the clues, looking for something I would know.
"Hmm," I ponder aloud, "I wonder what a six letter word for climb is."
"Ascent," I hear from behind, the voice startling me.
"Brendon!" I exclaim. "You scared me!"
"I'm sorry," he apologizes, abashed, "I just heard you wonder about the clue."
"Do you like crossword puzzles?" he asks, looking over my shoulder.
"I'm bad at them," I answer, "but that doesn't mean they're not fun sometimes. Do you?"
He shrugs, flopping into his seat across from me.
"I like words. Ever since I was a little kid I've been fascinated with language. So I enjoy word games, yes."
"So ascent means a climb?" I ask, scanning for the answer key to check if it was the correct answer. He's right.
"Yes," he replies, "Or something can rise through the air and be ascending."
"Can it mean to climb to something not real? Like ascend to happiness? Or to success?"
"I suppose so, yes," he answers, shrugging. "Anything that's an upward motion to something."
I push the paper to the side, wrapping my hands around my cup to enjoy the warmth seeping through. Fall has started to creep into the city, the crisp air chilling the atmosphere. It's been raining a lot more than usual, but I don't mind the weather. People catch my eye as they scurry by the coffee shop windows, wrapped up in their sweaters. Those more prepared peer out from under umbrellas. Some of them hustle along with their loved family members, some with their loved laptops.
I'm mesmerized by the faces as they pass, the colors of the umbrellas blurring with their form as I peer out the rain-coated window.
I've always loved to watch people interact with each other.
I'm watching as an old man steps out into the rain, wrapping a scarf around his neck. Then I hear the bell above the door ring, and I'm brought back to my situation.
Oh my god. I just totally zoned out on Brendon.
"I'm so sorry," I say, mortified. "I didn't mean to ignore you."
When I look at him though, he doesn't seem irritated in the slightest, his eyes instead wide in wonder as they peer at me. Actually, a soft and heartfelt smile is gracing his face, almost as if he's found an old friend.
"What?" I ask when he doesn't say anything.
"Nothing," he answers. "It's okay, by the way. I know you didn't mean to. Do you like to watch people?"
"That makes me sound like I'm a serial killer, Brendon."
He laughs, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand.
"I don't mean it in a creepy way," he says. "I just mean, do you think they're interesting?"
"I guess," I answer, embarrassed. "People as a whole are interesting, don't you think?"
"I do," he replies, smiling again.
He takes his own look at the window, watching the condensation on the glass.
"So what are you looking at?" I question.
His eyes get this kind of far off look, dreamy and nostalgic.
"The rain on the window," he says. "When I was younger, my mom used to have this habit. Every time it would rain she would make a nest around the bay window in our living room of all the blankets and pillows in the house. Then she'd invite my younger brother and I to watch the droplets race each other down the glass. It's been a simple pleasure to watch them since then."
My heart swells when I catch the reminiscent smile, and I can't help but smile myself in response. His words leave me breathless, the emotion in his eyes overwhelming.
"Do you guys still do it?" I ask.
"Ah, no," he says, awkwardly looking back at me. "She passed away when I was sixteen. Cancer."
Oh, no. I'm a really bad person. I should have known somehow not to speak, being asked something like that so many times myself.
"I'm so sorry, Brendon. I didn't mean to be an insensitive jerk."
"It's alright," he dismisses. "Honestly, don't worry about it. You didn't know. Besides, I'm the one who should be sorry. I shouldn't be talking about depressing things anyway. It's our date."
It bothers me he looks chagrined.
"No," I answer, firm. "It's not something you should apologize for. Ever."
His eyes light up, a sparkle there. He gives me a grateful smile.
He's shared something so personal, I feel like I should return the favor. Normally, I hate opening up to just about anyone. It's a frightening thing to give a piece of your past to someone. But with Brendon, I'm not scared. I'm confident he won't trod upon my memories.
"You asked if I liked watching people," I start, looking at the letters on my cup.
WM for white mocha. NF for nonfat milk. WC for whipped cream. Everyone thinks I'm weird for getting whipped cream with nonfat milk, but I like to think they cancel each other out.
Brendon is quiet, waiting for me to continue. He seems to understand that I'll keep talking without any prodding. I sigh before speaking again.
What really makes me afraid is how easy it is for the words to flow. Since when am I able to talk about my personal life so freely?
"Every Saturday morning my dad would wake me up a couple of hours before my mom's alarm to go off. He was an early riser, and I was young enough I wanted to be awake anyway. He'd walk with me to the little coffee shop across the street and order me a hot chocolate. We'd spend the morning watching all the customers that came in, try and guess their life story. Were they a librarian? An accountant? Or something more exciting, like a spy? I always chose dinosaur wrangler for someone, because I watched too many cartoons. We'd secretly sneak peeks at couples and wonder if they would be married or not. It was always fun to see if they'd catch us looking, so we'd flinch back and giggle if they did. But then he, um, died two years ago from a stroke. I guess that's something we have in common, huh?"
I'm almost scared to look back up despite my reassurance earlier, but I do anyway. I don't regret it.
Something about his eyes has transformed. They're a viscous liquid now, molten and gooey like someone took a piece of an emerald and liquefied it. I've never had anyone look at me the way he is right now. My breath gets caught in my throat.
"It sounds like you love him very much," Brendon coos softly.
I like the way he says love and not loved.
"I do," I reply. "You too, with your mom."
That was a stupid thing to say. Why am I so ineloquent?
Brendon doesn't seem to care, his mouth quirking into a smile again.
He glances away, suddenly quiet.
"You know," he begins, "you didn't have to tell me that if you didn't want to. You don't owe me anything because I told you about my mom. I mean, uh, not that I'm not glad you did because I'm really quite honored actually but-"
"Brendon," I interrupt. "I know. I wanted to."
He laughs at himself quietly, before reaching across the table.
His fingers gently brush against mine until I remove my hold on my cup to give my hand to him. The appendages wind around each other, the spaces lining up perfectly so they mesh together. How can our bodies be arranged to fit so well? Don't even get me started on how great it feels. Brendon has soft skin, and his hands have been in his pockets so they're warm. The chill from outside seems far away for just a moment. Then he lets go, and I hate to say I sort of miss it.
"So, what do you do for a living?" I ask, trying to get the conversation back to things less meaningful. I don't want to dive into my past right now.
"I write a sports column in The NY Alibi."
"No way," I exclaim. "Really?"
He nods, curious at my surprise.
"Why do you sound shocked?" he asks.
"Well, and I mean no offense, but you don't really seem like the kind of guy who likes to play sports."
"You don't have to play them to write about them," he says, shrugging.
Then he registers my slight insult.
"Did you just insinuate I can't play sports?"
"You're just so . . . skinny."
"I find that insulting," he replies, genuinely offended. "It's not my fault I have a lithe physique. I'm stronger than I look. And for your information, I'm an avid soccer player."
I can tell by the way he's leaned forward in his seat he's passionate about his sport, and now I feel bad. I didn't want to make him angry. Jerk saying number two down. Why not just go for three strikes, Jenna? I really need to think before I say things.
"I'm sorry," I murmur, looking down. "I didn't mean to make you upset. I'm sure you're a great soccer player. Honestly, I believe it."
There's a long moment of silence. Then suddenly he's chuckling, making noises through his nose as he tries to withhold it.
"W-what?" I ask, surprised by his sudden mood change.
"You look so guilty," he comments through his laughter. "Seriously, you look like you just killed my puppy."
"But you were upset and now you're just, um, laughing?"
He can't control his chortles at my bewilderment anymore. Other customers are looking at us now, wondering what could be so funny. I'm joining them in this thought.
"Sorry, sorry," he says, coming down from his giggle fit. "I apologize. It's just funny how bad you felt about it."
What does that mean? I feel like he's being the jerk now.
"Excuse me?" I ask, irritated. "I don't see anything funny with me feeling bad at all."
He smiles warmly at me, the expression melting away the anger I'm trying to maintain.
"I don't mean it's funny you feel bad-"
"Felt bad. Not anymore."
His grin widens, as he knows I'm just pretending to sulk. It can only mean he's learning. That's not good.
"-I just think it's sweet you were concerned about me being angry," he finishes. "I'm not mad, if you're still worried."
Come on, Jenna. You were supposed to answer with a snide remark. Where has your confidence gone?
"No ma'am. We should play a game of soccer sometime, it'd be fun."
"You think so? I don't know much about it. I'm more of a hockey kind of girl."
"No, it'll be great," he replies, enthusiasm lacing his voice. "I can teach you. Don't worry, I'll go easy on you when we play."
"That sounds a little pretentious, don't you think?"
Not really, considering I'm uncoordinated enough a monkey could beat me in soccer. But I like to keep the fun level up, so I say it anyway.
"Maybe, maybe not," he comments mysteriously, flipping up jacket collar to hide his face like he's scheming. "You'll just have to wait and see."
"You're so weird," I say, but I can't stop the giggle that rises from my throat. Sometimes he's strangely silly. I like it.
"So what do you do?" Brendon asks, tilting his head to the side.
It's cute. He looks a little like a curious puppy.
"I'm a freelance graphic designer," I answer.
"Oh? What kinds of things do you design?"
I like how attentive he is, his questions genuine. This isn't just small talk. He actually wants to know.
"Well," I start, not sure how to explain it, "I design a lot of things. Anything anyone needs, I usually do fliers, wedding invitations, stuff like that."
"Anything I would have seen?" he asks, then immediately looks mortified.
"That sounded so rude. I'm sure you're perfectly good at your job whether I've seen it or not. It's not like I know what I'm talking about. I'm sorry."
I wave at him, hoping to calm him down.
"It's fine, I'm not offended," I say, and the relief is evident on his face.
I think back to my projects, searching my brain for any events I'd done he might have seen.
"Did you go to the Holmes conference a few months ago?" I ask, thinking his job may have led him to the sporting event.
"Yes, of course. I did coverage on the teams there."
"I did the event posters for that."
He looks shocked, leaning back.
"That was you?" he asks, incredulous.
His surprise could be either good or bad. He could have loved them. He could have thought they were ridiculous.
"Those were amazing," he finally breathes. "I remember walking into the building and not being able to stop staring at them."
Good. The first option then. I had spent the better portion of a month making them, so they hold a special place in my heart.
"Thank you," I reply, a warm, satisfied feeling rising in my chest. I take a lot of pride in my work. "The event manager is a friend of my mom's, so she showed him some of my designs a few months before and he liked them enough he hired me."
My smile is returned by his.
"So, you work with the newspaper?" I ask, wanting to know more about his job.
"Yep. The paper you were looking at is actually the one I work for."
I pull the newspaper back to me, scanning the title. He's right.
"Ooh, I want to see it then," I say, excited.
It's strange to me how much I want to see his piece. I feel like it might give me an insight into him. No, Jenna, it won't. It's a sports thing, not a memoir.
I look anyway, flipping through the pages. I stop once I find his article, printed neatly on the side. His prose somehow seems beautiful despite it being a journalistic article. I'm not even a fan of football, but the way he weaves the tale of the most recent game makes me wish I was there.
"This is really good," I tell him.
I look up to see a wide smile planted firmly on his face. He looks extraordinarily pleased to hear my compliment.
Note to self. Brendon takes a lot of pride in his work too.
I skim my finger along the paper, only to be greeted with a sudden pain.
And I've somehow managed to get a paper cut. Great. I hiss, dropping the abusive object.
"What's wrong?" Brendon asks, eyes worried.
"I got a stupid cut from the newspaper."
I stare at it, sulking as I start to bleed.
"Hold on," Brendon says, reaching into his coat hanging on the chair. He extracts a Band-Aid and some antibiotic ointment.
"Did you just pull those out from your jacket? Like they were there the whole time?"
"Yes. Give me your hand."
I don't resist as he applies the ointment to my finger and wraps the fabric around it. I'm still processing.
"There you go," he says, smiling.
"You just keep that in your jacket? At all times? Why?"
"You never know when you'll need some. There's a first aid kit in my car too."
He laughs at the dumbfounded look on my face. Who seriously carries Band-Aids in their pockets?
"My dad is a doctor," he adds. "I've always had an interest in his line of work. I even used to follow him around and ask questions all the time. I guess it's just become a habit to carry medical things around."
"You're so weird," I answer.
He grins, understanding that while I do think that, I'm also joking.
"I think your finger is pretty happy about it," he comments, smiling as he returns my hand to the table.
"Fine, fine. You're right. Thank you."
“If it makes you feel any better, I used to carry around crayons when I was little and pretend I was my mom. She’s an elementary teacher.”
His wide smile is endearing.
I reach down to sip at my coffee, closing my eyes briefly as I enjoy the warm liquid sliding down my throat. Whoever first used coffee beans to make the liquid is my hero.
Brendon's laugh causes my eyelids to flutter back open.
"What?" I ask.
"You look like that coffee just caused you to have a heavenly experience."
"It did," I answer, half-joking and half-serious.
This time his laugh is much louder as he leans back in his chair. I almost feel as if he's mocking me.
"Hey!" I protest, irritated. "I don't see your little cup of leaf water over there doing anything to rock your world."
He leans forward, propping an elbow on the table.
"It's delicious, I just don't usually savor it like it's the last thing I'll ever drink."
"That's because it's not as good as mine."
He smiles at me, pushing the cup forward.
"No, it'll be gross."
"How would you know? Have you had this one?"
"No, I haven't. But I know because I've tried a lot of tea flavors and they all taste bad."
He's still insistent, nudging the tea forward even more.
"You can't knock it until you try it, Jenna."
"If I try it will you try my coffee?"
He makes a face, but sighs and nods.
"Sure, I'll try your drink too."
Okay, I guess that's fair. Maybe I can convert him to a coffee lover yet.
I take the cup from the table before he almost pushes it into my lap, staring at it as I hesitate.
"You don't have anything I could catch, right?" I ask.
"Excuse me? Like what?"
He sounds offended I would ask such a thing. Sorry, but I like having a healthy mouth.
"Well cold sores are a sign of Herpes-"
"Yes, Jenna. I know. Are you suggesting I'm going to infect you?"
"I read somewhere that as many as eighty percent of people have it."
"Well, I don't. Never had a cold sore in my life. Have you?"
"Nope!" I chirp.
"Wait," he says, thinking. "If it's up to eighty percent that means eight out of every ten people have the virus. So if you don't have it and I don't have it, then . . ."
We look around the room, bursting out into laughter together. We get a few strange looks, but I don't care. I speak first.
"I suddenly feel as if I'm in one of those movies where only a few people are not infected with some virus. The kind where we save the world."
He's losing his control as he throws his head back to chuckle. It takes him a few moments to wind down, during which we get even more states. Some people are irritated, seeming to glare at us for daring to have fun.
Others are smiling, their gaze soft and happy as they watch Brendon.
I feel a strange sense of pride that I'm the reason he's laughing like that.
When he settles down, he gestures to his cup once again.
I know it's not that big of a deal, but I'm relieved to hear that Brendon's healthy and clean anyway. Unfortunately, it also means I don't have an excuse not to try his tea now.
Okay, it can't be that bad. It'll only taste weird for a second. It'll just be like the other bitter, watery ones.
I take a sip of it, bracing myself for the worst. It doesn't come. Instead, I'm greeted with the warm, pleasant flavor of peaches with a hint of what reminds me of apple pie. Whatever this is tastes amazing.
I stare at the container in my hand, wishing I could just snatch it from Brendon. Who, by the way, is now staring at me with an amused look in his eyes. He knows I liked it. Damn it.
"It tastes like medicine," I announce, pushing the cup back to him.
He smile widens.
"Uh huh," he says. "I'm sure. So you didn't try to look at the order on the side of the cup as you passed it to me?"
That's a good idea. I should have done that. Now I'll never know without asking him. Maybe I can distract Brendon and go see if the barista remembers.
"No, I didn't," I reply, fortunately able to call that statement truthful.
He looks like he's going to speak so I interrupt him
"Okay, try mine."
I slide it over to him, enjoying the obvious distress on his face.
He picks it up anyway, bringing it up to his lips.
Surprise floods his face.
"This is so much sweeter than I thought it would be."
I beam at him, glad he seems pleased with my drink.
"All coffee isn't bitter. I like to drink it black sometimes, but other days I like to go the other way."
I feel kind of bad I lied about his tea. I mean, he knows, but still. Fine.
"What was yours again?" I ask, sighing.
His face breaks into a smile as he tells me.
"While I still think coffee is better, I'll admit that wasn't so bad."
"Ditto to your drink."
An employee walks up to our table, interrupting our conversation.
"I'm sorry, folks, but we're closing soon."
I look around, realizing the amount of people in the store has decreased dramatically. My phone tells me it's 9:00 when I check it. Where did the time go?
"I guess we should go," I tell Brendon.
"I suppose we should. Hey, hand me that newspaper. I want to do the crossword later."
I slide it to him, heading to the trash to throw away my coffee cup. He slips the paper into a pocket inside his coat.
We exit the store, standing just outside as we talk.
"Let me walk you back," Brendon offers. "My car is parked near your building, so we might as well go together."
"No, it's okay," I respond, waving him off. "I don't want to burden you."
"For protection," he says.
"Really, it's okay. I'll be fin-"
"Mine, not yours."
I laugh, reaching down to brush my fingers against his. He responds the way I hoped he would, intertwining them together. His smile is heartfelt.
"Okay, pretty boy. I'll walk you to the apartment."
"My hero," he jokes, pretending to swoon.
I definitely like this man.
We head in that direction, chatting to get to know each other..
"So," he starts, "what's your favorite color?"
"Purple," I answer. "The really deep kind you see on a lot of design channels."
"I'm sure I would if I watched those," he responds, laughing.
Who doesn't watch those shows? I feel like that's against human nature. Everyone likes to look at houses once they're nicely decorated. Okay, maybe not. It could just be a designer thing. I'm going to be in denial about that though.
"You're dead to me," I say, sulking.
"What about you?" I ask.
"Blue. Navy blue if I'm being specific."
I have to pull my hand from his when it starts to get sweaty from contact. I return it.
We pass a couple sitting on a bench, thoroughly attaching their faces to each other's.
I pretend to fake vomit once we pass, and Brendon laughs.
When my hand starts to get warm again, I decide to abandon the hand holding and wrap them around Brendon's arm instead. He laughs again. Holding hands isn’t always as romantic as people think it is.
"Okay, my turn for question," I say. "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?"
He thinks for a moment, humming softly.
"I guess Venice. The scenery is gorgeous. My dad has this photo in his house of a small neighborhood there, set on the edge of this massive cliff. The body of water stretching below it really takes your breath away. I think that would be fun to see."
The wonder in voice makes me want to go there too. Brendon has a way with words, just in the way he speaks, that makes everything exciting. Maybe he should be a salesman instead of a journalist. I bet he could even sell me some prune juice or panty hoes and I'd be genuinely enthused by them.
"Where would you go?" he asks, thankfully bringing my thoughts back to reality.
"Barcelona!" I chirp, already knowing the answer.
"Ah, Spain. Good choice. Why there in particular?"
"My mom and dad met during a semester abroad in Barcelona. They used to tell me bedtime stories about the beautiful places there. I want to see this place called La Boqueria. It's a market with stained glass food stalls under a wrought-iron roof. They used to eat seafood every week there."
Brendon gazes down at me, a sort of gentle fondness seeping into his eyes. The look makes the cold atmosphere seem worlds apart, a warm feeling enveloping me instead.
My body disagrees, a small shiver running through my form. The sweater is warm but my hair does not sufficiently protect my neck from the frigid air.
"Are you cold?" Brendon asks, stopping. "Do you want my coat?"
"No," I deny his offer, voice firm. "I don't want you to be freezing because I'm not as prepared as you. Besides, this sweater's pretty warm and we're not far from my house."
How can this walk have lasted so long? I realize that we've been walking at a snail's pace, both subconsciously not wanting to leave. I wonder if Brendon's noticed.
He opens his mouth to protest my denial of his jacket. My body betrays me as another shiver comes from it.
"At least take my scarf," he insists, unwinding it from his neck. "I'll live without it."
Okay, why not? It's not as if I can't give it back to him. I take it with a thank you, wrapping it around me so it drapes across my shoulders as well as my neck. It's warm from Brendon wearing it, and it smells like him. I resist the urge to bury my face in it.
We reach my building, but we don't go inside. We just stand outside of it, staring at each other. It's awkward, but only because I'm not sure what to do.
Do I invite him up? That might give him the wrong idea. Do I just say goodbye and leave? That's awkward too. I think this is the part where we have our first kiss, but I've never really had to worry about that. It's usually decided by them.
Brendon nudges closer, and I'm glad he seems to get the idea. He leans in close, his breath against my face.
"Hey, ya whippersnappers! What are ya doin outside? Don't ya know it's gettin' cold and dark?"
I immediately recognize the person to interrupt us as Manny. He's part of the security for the building, although none of us that live here are sure why. The old man is at least seventy, his face weathered and covered in whiskers.
I started talking to him when I first moved in and kept locking my key in my room. We've developed a friendship over the years, despite me learning to keep my key with me. He's a kind soul, but I can't say I'm not more confident in my ability to protect myself than I am of his.
"Hun! Is that you? Is this ya new boyfriend? Jenna, you heartbreaker, you. Stealin' men's hearts."
I laugh, letting my forehead brush against Brendon's chest. He's certainly confused.
"Brendon, this is Manny. He works security here. Manny, this is Brendon."
I don't know exactly how to introduce him. I'm never quite sure when a date turns into a relationship, so I just use his name.
We separate as the two go to shake each other's hands.
"What are you doing outside?" I ask Manny. "You'll get sick if you spend too much time out here."
"Just doin' my patrols, Hun. That's awfully sweet of ya to worry though."
He turns to Brendon, a toothy grin coming from his mouth.
"You're a lucky man, Mr. Brendon. If I was forty years younger I'd be dating her myself."
I try to stifle a laugh, but it comes out anyway when I see Brendon's attempt to hold his own laughter in.
"Well, I gotta go, young’uns," Manny says. "Don't stay out too late, alright?"
"Okay," I answer, smiling. "Good luck on your patrols. You're doing an excellent job keeping us safe."
"Thank ya kindly. I'll keep doin' that."
He meanders to the other side of the building, and I watch him go. He's a silly man, but he's very sweet.
"Well," Brendon says, "I guess there goes that moment."
He seems almost disappointed, but there's also a smile on his face.
"Yeah, sorry about that. He's a good person, he's just a little awkward. I think he gets lonely."
"I think it's nice you guys are friends," Brendon replies. "But I think he has a crush on you."
"I can't say you're wrong," I answer, laughing. "I think he's really after Gertrude from down the hall. They fill their prescriptions together every Friday. That's true love, if you ask me."
Brendon's chuckling, and the sound of it reverberates around the space.
"I guess I really should go," I say, gesturing inside with my head. "I might get scolded for endangering my health if I'm out here for too long."
"Yes, that might be a good idea."
"Will you be okay walking back to your car? I can call Manny back to escort you."
"I think I'm more convinced a puppy could protect me," he answers, grinning.
"I had a really good time today," he adds, eyes warm and genuine.
"Me too," I answer, smiling.
He suddenly steps forward, brushing his lips against my cheek. It's a sweet gesture, even if it's not what I really wanted.
"Goodnight, Jenna," he coos.
"Goodnight, Brendon. Sleep tight."
He smiles before turning on his heel.
"Wait!" I call, realizing what I'm still wearing. "You forgot your scarf!"
"Keep it!" he answers as he walks. "You can give it back to me next time!"
Next time. I like that. It might be a little presumptuous to assume we'll have another date, but I don't mind. Maybe it's obvious how much I would agree to that.
I feel a giddy smile come to my face as I fiddle with the warm scarf, inhaling the smell of it again now that Brendon's gone. With a contented sigh, I enter my building.
When I open my door, Eric's sprawled across my couch. I bet he was waiting for me to get back so he knew Brendon hadn't killed me or something. Sometimes the man is an idiot, but I'll always be grateful we're friends. Even when I'm pretending I'm not.
I set down my things quietly, pulling off the blanket settled across a chair. I'm careful not to wake Eric up as I lay it across him, making sure no stray limbs are sticking out. He emits quiet murmurs as he dreams something about "marshmallows" and "giant bunnies." He's such a kid. Still, it feels nice to have so many people care for me.
I sigh again, tired from the adventure of the day and the previous week's workload.
I wander into my bedroom, ready to settle in for the night. This is when I come across the disaster zone. My shoes are strewn everywhere, heels haphazardly piled into a corner. As if that means I won't notice.
Screw trying not to wake anyone up. Screw people caring about me. A certain someone is so dead.