It’s late January when Jess wakes up with a sudden and overwhelming feeling of being lonely in her bed. Curled up on her side at the edge of the mattress, she listens to the sound of the front door locks clicking into place and footsteps moving into the apartment. For a moment, in the dark, she expects to feel the dip of the bed under Spencer's weight, the tug of his arm around her waist pulling her back against his warm, solid chest. It takes the space of a few breathes to remember where she is and that Spencer isn't here. She spreads out like a starfish in the center of the bed and stares at the dim spill of light from the street angling up against her ceiling.
The bed may feel too big, but she doesn’t miss him. Not really. Not the Spencer who cheated on her and broke her heart, anyway. She knows where to find that Spencer. Sometimes she still thinks about going there and throwing rocks through his windows, deflating the tires of his bike, adding bleach to his conditioner, any of the petty revenges she plotted out during that first month when all she wanted was for Spencer to beg for forgiveness or fall off a cliff, possibly both at the same time. Still, she feels the hollow ache of just how much she misses the person she believed he was and the life she thought she was going to have with him.
Through her wall, she can her the rolling ocean of Schmidt’s white noise generator, and out in the living room the television comes on.
Jess fumbles for her glasses and gets them on, blinking as bright numbers of her clock come into focus, blaring 3:30 AM in their angry red. She sighs and gets out of bed, but takes half of it with her. The quilt wrapped around her and dragging behind as she shuffles out carefully, not wanting to interrupt anything.
“Nick,” She whispers as she tiptoes toward the solitary figure slouched in the glow of the TV, “Nick, is that you?”
“No, Jess. It’s a crazed madman who broke into your apartment in search of cable sports programming and Cocoa Pebbles,” Nick hisses back from his place on the couch, not even looking away from the screen.
“Oh, that’s really too bad. Schmidt ate the last of the Cocoa Pebbles yesterday,” Jess says, flopping down into the corner of the couch. “What are you watching?”
“Honestly? I have no idea.” Nick squints at the TV. “I don’t really care. I just spent ten hours in a bar full of insurance actuaries. Drunk, boring, and cheap is not a good night for me, okay. I just want to watch whatever this is and sleep for at least eight hours without anyone telling me about average male life expectancy.”
“Sure. That’s cool. Oh, hey! Competitive yo-yo! Awesome.” Jess tucks her feet up, nudging her bare toes under Nick’s thigh. He drops his hand to her ankle, shoving lightly. But when Jess digs in and refuses to budge, he rolls his eyes and gives up. His thumb rubs slow circles against the top of her foot. “Spencer's really good at yo-yo. He tried to teach me once.”
“How’d that work out?” Nick asks, flipping the station over to a man yelling about the miracle of dehydrated food.
“I tried to go around the world and hit him in the face. Black eye. I felt really bad about it,” Jess says, “It was right before Halloween, so we went to Cece’s party as a pirate and his bawdy wench. He looked...” She pauses, not sure how to finish the sentence. The last time she told this story, it was Spencer sitting next to her, his hand low and possessive on her back as she talked about just what a dashing pirate captain he’d made. “Nevermind. It’s stupid.”
“You only tried that one time?”
“Yeah. I was kind of afraid if I did it again it would go just as bad, or God, what if it was even worse? Like, what if I knocked somebody’s teeth out. Or...” Jess turns her attention to the TV, pretending to be fascinated with the creation of turkey jerky. Turkey jerky. Turkeyjerkyturkeyjerky, she turns the words over and over in her head until they lose all meaning. It doesn’t take long.
“I always liked the yo-yo.” Nick says eventually, pulling her out the internal jerky loop. “Pool though. That I;ve never mastered. Caroline tried to teach me. She’s kind of a hustler, really. It was pretty sexy. I mean, when she wasn’t beating Schmidt. That was always just kind of sad to watch. Still, it’s fun to play. I can at least beat Schmidt. And I keep hoping that one of these days I'll actually be good at it. Get that perfect game, you know?”
“They call her Lady Luck...” Jess sings softly, not entirely sure that they're really talking about the yo-yos or pool. She doesn't expect Nick’s surprised laugh or the way her heart speeds up when his fingers gently squeeze her calf. She looks down, not sure how she missed the way his hand has slid up under the leg of her sleep pants. His palm is broad and warm, and she closes her eyes for a moment and just breathes, keeps herself still.
“I still think about her a lot,” he says, and Jess looks at his profile, his eyes still focused on the TV. Jess isn't sure that shriveled up mango really requires the level of attention he's giving it..
Jess remembers what Winston and Schmidt said at the wedding and the sad drunk version of Nick pressed up against her in the photo booth. She wonders if she needs to change the subject before Nick starts crying. “You’re not going to cry are you?
“What? Jess, no. Why would I... Jess, you have really got to stop believing everything Schmidt says.” Nick shakes his head. “Caroline is done, no more crying. Not that I cried. I never cried. I mourned manfully for a lost relationship. It’s a very different thing. And either way it’s over. I messed up and she broke up with me. But, Jess, she was my friend for a long time and my girlfriend for four years. I'm not ever going to be able to forget her just because it's over. And Spencer was...”
“Spencer was a cheating bastard who broke my heart and it’s stupid to still think about him.” Jess says, trying to look angry when all she feels tonight is sad. It’s what everyone has told her and she’s just finally gotten to the point where she can believe it’s the truth most of the time.
“Yeah, okay. Spencer was that.” Nick frowns. “And an idiot.”
“I really loved him a lot.” Jess says.
“I know.” Nick shifts, his fingers trailing slowly down the back of Jess's leg, around the ridge of her ankle, and palm resting against the top of her foot for just a second before he lifts his arm to rest on the back of the couch.
Jess knows it’s not really an invitation, not the way it always was with Spencer or was just starting to become with Paul, but the idea of going back to her bedroom and trying to fill all the space in her bed is a little more than she can take right now. She untwists herself from her quilt, shifting over on the couch until she’s tucked up against Nick’s side, her head under his chin.
"Hey, watch the elbows," He grumbles, but his fingers curl over her shoulder, sliding restlessly at the edge of her sleeve.
“I wanted to love Paul,” Jess says. “Paul was nice. Why couldn’t I love him?”
“Shhhh.” Nick tugs her tighter against him and pulls the quilt across them.
“You’re nice. We should make turkey jerky. Turkeyjerky, bork, bork bork.” Jess mumbles, letting her eyes fall closed drifting to the easy rhythm of Nick’s heartbeat and the slow rise and fall of his chest.
“Jess, wake up.”
“Hmm, whu?” Jess blinks and squints up at a smudge that sounds a lot like Winston. She’s lying flat on her back and her toes are cold where the quilt has slipped. “You’re blurry. Where are my glasses? Where’s Nick?”
“You’re glasses are on the table. Nick, I assume, is in his bedroom. Where he sleeps. You have one too.”
Winston hands her glasses over and Jess shoves them on, wresting herself from the tangle of blankets. She goes for dignified but somehow manages to wind up with ass-over-tea-kettle-onto-the-floor.
She takes the hand that Winston holds out for her, and manages to get to her feet.
“You did go to bed last night, right? I'm not imagining that thing that happened where you sang that obnoxious song from that movie."
"I just think the Von Trapp family had the right idea. Bedtime is something that should be celebrated."
"Wait, do you sleep walk?” Winston says, stepping out of the way as Jess slings the quilt around her like a toga. “Do we need to start locking our doors against marauding Jesses?”
“What? No. I don’t sleep walk. I was.. and Nick... You know what, forget it. I’m gonna go shower.”
“You better hurry. You know how Schmidt feels about exfoliation Saturdays.”
“Right. I’m just gonna. Go.” She says, nudging past Winston, and definitely not looking back at the spot where Nick had been last night. She’s nearly safe when she feels the backward tug of the quilt not moving with her. She twists around to see Winston’s foot planted on the trailing tail.
“Jess. Did something happen last night?” Winston asks.
Jess presses her lips together, thinking about the possible answers to that. “No? It was. No. Nothing. I just couldn’t sleep. Did you know you can get a food dehydrator for three easy payments of $59.97 plus shipping and handling? Do you think we can get one for Schmidt for his birthday?”
“Go take your shower, Jess.” Winston says, laughing and settling down onto the couch.
“Sir. Yes, sir,” Jess salutes, slapping herself in the face with the corner of the and marches out of the room.
She takes her time in the shower, singing her way through washing her hair and shaving her legs up to the knee. She’s just turning the water off them the door opens.
“Jess, hurry up. You know the last Saturday of the month is a vital part of my self-care regime. We’ve talked about this. I need to do a full body salt scrub, detoxifying mud mask, rejuvenating moisturizing treatment, and finishing polish. It takes time. You don’t understand how much effort it takes to stay pretty. Skin this like is a commitment.”
“Are you saying I’m not pretty?” Jess asks, wrapping her towel around her and stepping out of the shower. She looks up at Schmidt with wide eyes and measures her pout just right to make him stammer just a little.
“I. Uh... you’re pretty. You’re a pretty girl. With the skin and the eyes and the hair, and you know." He waves his hands vaguely up and down at her. "I like all your stuff that you’ve got. You just. I mean...”
“Awww, you like my stuff. Schmidt, that may be the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.” She pops up on her tip toes and gives him a peck on the cheek. “Enjoy your salt mask.”
“Salt scrub, Jess. Salt scrub. A salt mask would just be stupid.”
Saturday is for catching up on lesson planning and grading, and Jess means to spend the day in her room. It’s two months until state tests, and she’s got the reading specialist's progress reports and intervention plans to review. Not to mention the towering pile of math tests and history essays and poems that has overtaken her desk in the last week. She wrinkles her nose at the progress reports, closes her eyes and wishes hard for them to vanish, for her students to suddenly and miraculously have all become grade-level proficient. When she opens her eyes, the reports are still there and just as discouraging as they were the first time she glanced at them in the teacher’s lounge.
Picking up the little red apple stress ball that Paul gave her as a ‘no hard feelings about the dead woman on Thanksgiving or that thing that happened with the iPad display at Best Buy’ gift and holding it aloft, Jess gives the universe her best Scarlett-style impassioned promise. “As God is my witness, you will meet standards this year.”
Three hours of differentiated instruction group and individual remediation plan updates later, she pushes her glasses up into her hair and presses the heels of her hands against her eyes. In the living room she can hear the the explosions and bickering of Nick and Winston’s weekly horrifyingly bloody video game throw down.
“Crafting break?” Jess asks her four walls. When they don't bother to answer her, she tugs open her desk drawer and gives her Magic 8 Ball a vigorous two-handed shake. All signs point to yes, it tells her, and Jess throws her arms up with a victorious cry. She texts Cece in all caps with enough exclamation points to get the message across and starts making a list.
“I’m going to Michael's,” She announces, stalking out of her room and standing behind the couch, purse already over her arm. “You should come with me.”
Winston grunts something that could be yes or no, she's not fluent in him yet. But the only sign Nick even hears her is just how carefully he holds still and doesn’t acknowledge that he’s heard her.
“Nick. Winston. Come on. Go shopping with me. It’ll be fun. I’m almost out of gold star stickers and I need to design a new bulletin board for February. Oh my god. February. Valentines for my kids. Oh! Oh! You guys! We can make Valentines for each other!”
“Jess, no.” Nick says, lining up a shot and blowing Winston’s head off. “Ha.”
“Fuck,” Winston does something with his controller that Jess thinks looks only slightly less complicated than defusing a bomb and somehow his character has a head again. “Hey, don’t speak for me. I’ve got a bunch of photos of my old team that I could stand to scrapbook. Plus, I’m supposed hang with Elvin this week. That is a kid who likes him some origami and chalk drawing. And what've you got against platonic Valentines, anyway? I like knowing my friendship is valued.”
“See, Nick. Winston wants to come have shopping adventures. And I bet Schmidt will go with us, too.” Jess moves toward the bathroom ignoring the look of ultimate betrayal that Nick is sending Winston’s way. She starts pounding on the door. "Schmidt! Schmidt!”
“Damn it, Jess, I’m polishing! You’re messing with the rhythm.”
“Cece and I are going shopping at Michael’s. Do you wanna come with?”
There’s a crash from inside the bathroom, and Jess startles back with a yelp when Schmidt yanks the door open, his face and chest covered in blue gelatinous goop. “Give me five minutes.”
“Yay, Schmidt!” Jess clasps her hands, bouncing onto her toes as the door closes again. "Schmidt, why are you blue?"
“Schmidt. No. You know what happens.” Nick gives up on killing Winston with brain waves and forehead wrinkles and vaults over the back of the couch. “Jess, you can’t take him there. He can’t be trusted.”
“Then I guess you’ll just have to come with us. To supervise.” Jess says, and when Nick frowns at her, mouth pulled down deep in the corners, she mirrors it, “Oh, look, it’s Mister Cranky Face, and Mister Cranky Face doesn’t want anyone to have any fun.”
“Schmidt, don’t do this. Do you remember what happened last time?” Nick shouts.
“I learned how to knit,” Schmidt says, opening the door and leaning out. He's back to his normal color and wiping his his body buffer ("It's not a wash cloth, Jess.") carefully at the shell of his ear. “It’s a valuable skill.”
“You bought fifteen hundred dollars worth of yarn and a ten pairs of those things--” Nick is making motions with hands that don’t seem to have anything to do with knitting. They’re really more of a stabbing gesture.
“Needles,” Jess offers.
“Yes. Thank you, Jess.” Schmidt smiles.
“--and you sat around here making things for six months. You left things lying around. I almost skewered my balls on a half finished sock! You made me a pink sweater and wouldn't shut up about it until I promised to make it my 'good luck' sweater. Pink!” Nick shouts, his hands digging into his hair.
"It was salmon," Schmidt says.
"It itched." Nick tugs at the collar of his t-shirt. "I flunked a contracts exam because I couldn't stop itching long enough to actually remember anything. All I could think about was the fact that my goddamn sweater felt like somebody was taking sandpaper to my nipples everytime I so much as breathed."
"That was hand-spun, custom-dyed, merino wool. Why can't you just appreciate nice things?" Schmidt yells, turning back into the bathroom, and slamming the door behind him.
"I'm sure Schmidt didn't mean to sand your nipples," Jess says, backing off a half step when Nick turns to face her, looking horrified and clamping his hands over the aforementioned nipples. This the kind of thing, she thinks, that she'd be able to resolve quickly if this were her classroom. Neutral corners for five minutes and a peer mediation and maybe a trust exercise or a roleplay exercise focusing on the importance of mutual respect in conflict resolution and it’d all be good. She curses her status as junior roommate and the apartment's lack of posted behavior norms.
"He gave me a rash that lasted a week!" Nick says. "A week!"
“Hey, Nick,” Winston says in that voice that Jess has started to think of as his Jess-whisperer voice, and she’s kind of gratified to hear that maybe it’s his Nick-whisperer voice too. “Do you think maybe you’re a little more upset than you need to be?”
“Don’t you ‘hey, Nick’ me, Winston. You weren’t here. You went to Latvia and left me with Schmidt and his yarn. You don’t know--”
“You know, I'd be more offended that you don't appreciate my friendship if I didn't know you're just jealous of my skills," Schmidt says, emerging from the bathroom fully, tying the belt of his kimono. Jess has to admit, his skin looks great."Just because you couldn’t get through the basic scarf--”
"JEALOUS?! Nick's voice has been rising steadily this whole time and is pretty close to screeching now. Jess
“Maybe it’s not that I couldn’t,” Nick yells, poking Schmidt in the center of the forehead with two fingers. “Maybe I just realized it was stupid when I could just buy a scarf from a store, like a normal person!”
“Wait, wait,” Winston says, much closer behind Jess than she expects him to be. “Nick, you tried to knit. Oh man. I wish I could've seen--”
“It was for you,” Nick says, rubbing at his face, and the motion makes Jess notice the bright flush high on his cheeks. “You kept complaining about how cold Latvia was.”
“You tried to knit for me?” Winston slings an arm around Nick’s shoulder and drags him into a side-hug that Jess is pretty sure would be less awkward if Nick just relaxed and let it happen. “Thanks, man. That was cool.”
"See," Schmidt says, "That's how you show appreciation for a friend who takes the time to do something nice for you."
"You're a very good friend, Schmidt," Jess says, patting him gently on the shoulder. "And so are you, Nick."
“I didn’t even finish it,” Nick says, deflating from puffed-up, angry face Nick to sad slouchy Nick. Jess isn't is glad that there's no more yelling, but sad slouchy Nick isn't really an improvement, she doesn't think.
“It’s the thought. It's that you actually put thought," Winston says with a shrug, not budging from Nick's side. "Oh man, was that why you sent me that hat and mitten set for my birthday? I loved those.”
Jess hasn’t ever met a group hug opportunity she could resist, and this one is calling to her. “I think I’m going to have to hug you both now,” she warns them. When nobody says no, she flings her arms around their waists. She's not expecting it to last more than a second before hitting Nick's affection limit, and she can't keep herself from grinning when she feels Nick's hand land tentative at her waist, slide into the small of her back and keep her where she is.
“Lemme into this action,” Schmidt says, and Jess feels the him press up against her back. She feels squished and stuck, barely able to breath with her face mashed into the Winston's armpit. But when Schmidt says, “Oh yeah, that’s nice,” can't disagree with him.
“I love you guys,” Jess says just as the doorbell rings. “Oh hey. That’s Cece. Winston, could you please get the door? Schmidt, go put on pants.”
“Maybe Cece doesn’t want me to put---”
“PANTS!” And Jess is startled by the force in her voice before she realizes that Nick and Winston spoke at the same time.
“I’ll just go put some pants on,” Schmidt says, abandoning the hug.
“Please come with us,” Jess says after Winston and Schmidt are far enough away not to hear her begging. They aren't quite touching anymore, but they're still in each other's space, almost toe to toe, and Jess tips her head back to meet his eyes.
“Jess,” Nick sighs. “I’m not. It’s just. Why?”
“Glitter, Nick. Glitter and construction paper and glue and paint and pipe cleaners and stickers and pens. So many pens. Even you like pens. You can't lie to me about that, I've seen the way you look at a good ultra-fine-point. Come on, you can even mock me--all of us--the whole time. Isn’t that fun for you?”
“I’m not buying anything.” Nick says. "And I'm not going to knit. Ever again. I am a no crafts zone, Jess."
“Of course. No crafts ever for Nick.” Jess nods sincerely, resisting the urge to tuck her hand behind her back and cross her fingers. And if she manages to cross her toes, well, that's just her business.
Nick drives and somehow Winston convinces Schmidt to make a race for shotgun instead of wedging himself next to Cece in the back seat.
“Thank you,” Cece mouths at him, across Jess, who’s trying to find a way to be comfortable in the middle.
“I’m gonna buy you a latch hook kit,” Jess says, turning to Cece. “Something to do when you’re hanging out on set so you don’t get bored. But only if you promise not to carve out your rivals' hearts with the hook. Not that I think you're a vicious killer, but I've heard stories about what happens in the fashion industry, and it isn't pretty.”
“Cross my heart, I won't kill anyone.” Cece grins and holds her pinkie up for Jess to confirm the promise. “Wait. Latch hook. Isn't that the stuff that’s like hanging a shag rug that took bad acid on your wall?”
“Not your thing, I guess,” Jess admits, thinking about the summer she spent on the four-by-six tapestry of a unicorn battling a griffin. She wonders if her mother still has it in the attic; it might just be the thing that Schmidt’s been looking for to tie the small room together. “How about counted cross stitch? Ohhhh, I’m gonna get you all the embroidery floss and then get you those subversive patterns. The really rude and dirty ones.”
“Sounds good,” Cece agrees.
“You like it rude and dirty, huh?” Schmidt says.
“Shut up, Schmidt,” comes the chorus, and Jess settles back into her seat with a grin.
Schmidt only spends a hundred dollars on yarn this time, insisting the whole time that it’s a coincidence that everything he’s picking out matches something in Cece’s jewelry. Then he finds the bakeware section and spends another five hundred on cupcake and candy making supplies.
Winston winds up getting chatted up by a girl who gives him her number right before she talks him into buying all the best scrapbooking equipment and signing up for a class. Jess is pretty sure the number was part of the convincing, but she lets Winston preen a little bit.
Cece gets herself restocked on leather working supplies, and Jess is impressed by just how well she ignores Schmidt’s “Leather and lace. Schmidt likes. I’d let you work me ‘til I’m supple and sof--, uh. Never mind.”
Jess makes Nick push her cart as she fills it with all the reward stickers she’ll need to get through the end of the year, ten packages of red and pink construction paper, lace heart doilies, multi-packs of glitter and “Oh, beads. I’ve got to get beads. And pastels. Did you see what aisle they have the foam board in? I think I want to build a diorama for our unit on the atom.”
Nick doesn’t make fun. He doesn’t even tell Jess to stop when she skips down the wide aisles of yarn sing-songing, “Worsted, and chunky, and sport, oh my!” But he does disappear for five minutes, coming back with a nervous little smile twitching in the corners of his mouth.
“Did you get the scrapbook girl’s number too? Oh, or was it that girl working the bead counter. She was totally looking at you.” Jess grins, shooting finger guns at him.
“I didn’t get anybody’s number Jess.” Nick says, but he just keeps smiling.
Jess wakes up to the strange little creak that her door makes whenever anyone but her pulls it closed. “Schmidt? How many times have I told you, I don’t have your aroma therapy candles?”
But when she opens her eyes, there’s no Schmidt and no murderer waiting for her under the bed or in the closet.
There is, however, a brown paper bag sitting folded over and taped closed sitting on the edge of her bedside table. She tears open the paper and sucks in a startled breath at the tempera paint kit and bare wood yo-yo. She traces the carved surface, sliding the string onto her finger and smiling at how the toy seems to fit just right in the curve of her palm. She slips out of her room and knocks lightly on Nick’s door before opening it a crack and peering into the near dark beyond.
“Nick." Jess whispers. "Nick, are you awake?”
“Okay. Well. I won't bother you, then." Jess smiles but doesn't move. She stays there, leaning against it his door frame, until her eyes adjust enough that she can see Nick lying on his back on the left side of his bed, one hand tucked behind his head and the other reaching out across the empty side of the bed. She thinks for a long moment before she says, "Fair warning: when you wake up, I’m gonna have to hug you."
“Go to sleep, Jess. We'll start tomorrow.”