They met when a receipt from the coffee shop blew out of her hand with the wind coming through the sliding door of the union lobby: He dove after it and caught it off the floor, asked, “Hey, do you need this?” as he handed it back and then laughed with her when she said she didn’t really but thanks. She turned and tossed it into the garbage can, and it took them a couple minutes after that to realize she was his ride.
His name was James T. Kirk and Gaila had elusively emphasized the middle initial as she wrote the name down for Nyota, and then a couple more times when she reminded her of the place and time, until the name had seemed to circulate repeatedly like the tapping of her stirring her tea in unnecessarily loud little rhythms. He was something other than an admittedly vague picture of what Nyota had expected from her roommate’s man of the month, but she didn’t immediately care to put her finger on how. He looked a little bit like he’d just rolled out of bed and could use a dose of caffeine himself, but she tried to give him a little credit: Everybody who doesn’t throw on a set of sweats for a day of sitting on airplanes or in cars tends to envy those around who didn't care about looking clean. It was just the way his eyes had glinted over her before he knew who she was, making her second guess if he would have lunged for the receipt if she’d been some man in his sixties.
“Nyota, then?” he said after they briefly shook hands.
“Nyota Uhura,” she said. “Are you ready to go?”
His mom was driving most of his stuff over in her truck in a few days and he’d been able to pack as light as one duffel bag, so she didn’t have to wait for him to get anything. They fell into step outside until she slowed up at the car. He liked the red color and asked her what year it was, but she'd bought it used and couldn’t remember at the moment. He looked, not quite stared but looked at her in a way she couldn’t scrutinize, while she pulled out of the parking lot, and when she glanced straight back at him at the stoplight with an idle polite smile, he got into his bag and pulled out a book to read. They didn’t talk again for sixty miles.
Sixty miles is not very long.
“No, you’re missing the whole point,” Jim was saying in a sigh. His finger was still bookmarking the page he’d been on, indicating some readiness to return to his reading just as soon as he won the argument, when he didn’t seem to be reading a paragraph or two while she was talking, which had increasingly annoyed her for the past several minutes. “I thought the assignment was a little too broad—”
“I agree,” she interrupted, laughing a little. “Shakespeare is ubiquitous, you could argue almost anything was inspired by him, but you went with Reservoir Dogs?”
“It's a vague comparison, but so is the entire structure of the tragedy as it shows up in just about any mythology. Like you said...wait, what was the one you had to write?”
“Pretty much the opposite of your assignment. We had to suggest an influence on Shakespeare from something that predated the plays, and everyone knows he read Roman myths and the like, so you had to be more specific...You know the story of Caenis? She was a woman who was found alone on a beach by Poseidon, and well, what do you think he did next?" she said with a kind of rueful shrugging. "But then Caenis demanded a favor instead of an apology from him, and asked to be turned into a man so that she could never be violated by him or anyone again.”
“She couldn’t have just asked for super strength or something?”
"Not exactly a feminist inspiration, I know. I think some kind of immunity in battle went along with the deal, though; and Caenis went on to become the great warrior Caeneus. Anyway I applied the whole story to—”
"Wait, I'm thinking. Viola in Twelfth Night? Shipwrecked and nearly killed by the ocean, and then she starts dressing like a man...?”
“And there was this whole discussion of the ocean as a place of rebirth as well as trauma...Farfetched,” Nyota conceded, “but not as cliché as using Tarantino.”
“Oh, come on, I knew full well the assertion wasn’t right anyway.”
She flinched her eyes to the side at him, feeling more and more as she did with every conversation they had that Jim was just sparring for the sake of a debate, like so many of the philosophy stoners Gaila had invited over this one night a couple months back. One of them had been far too invested in tirelessly explaining to Nyota why she should find Ayn Rand relevant to her "situation," failing completely to ever emphasize what exactly he meant by her "situation," complete with suspicious emphasis on the commonality of literally all women; at least Gaila had agreed with Nyota about him, if on the basis that those types of guys were never good lays.
“I always started off a semester throwing a paper at an instructor that I knew didn’t check out very well just to test how much bullshit I could sail past them. That was one of those papers.”
“So, what, you just intentionally wrote bad papers?”
“It was a fine paper until you did the research. Not that Tarantino isn’t compared to the classics all the time, even by the high-brow critics. Somebody he worked with told him that that one scene...well, there’s this whole thing with a story that has to be memorized so he can pass as this likable thug—”
“Yeah, the commode story,” she muttered, seeming to hit his brakes for a second with this interjection. “I never said I hadn’t seen it.”
“Okay, well, Quentin was told one time that the way the cop’s boss lectures him about it is a lot like Hamlet’s speech to the players.”
“And what did he say to that?”
“He’d never read Hamlet.”
Nyota’s expression fell flat in lazy exasperation.
“Can we stop to eat somewhere?”
They continued their attempts at mild conversation after they ordered.
“So what are you studying at Columbia?” he asked.
“I’m a linguist.”
“I want to monitor communications for the FBI.”
“No shit?” Jim raised his eyebrows, and his mouth turned up around the straw he was thoughtfully sipping out of in a way that made her think it was too much of a smirk. He volunteered, “I’m doing archaeology.”
“Hmm. Where are you taking that?”
He shrugged. “I'd like to get out somewhere in Europe but I'm really open to going all over. I couldn’t stand anything that’s just sitting at a desk. I’d love to get into cultural resources stuff too. There’s gotta be an art theft department at the FBI so maybe we’ll both end up there.”
She met his freewheeling smile with a slightly dubious one. “That’s probably a department of only ten to twenty people.”
“And you’ve gotta know, what, seventy languages for a position in the FBI?”
“Try a hundred, minimum,” she replied instantly. “As of yet I’m fluent in 68.”
“Come on,” he said, the doubt mostly playful.
“I don’t even think of myself as having a first language. I like to say I still think in Swahili, but I started learning English and French when I was two, and the languages just kept piling.”
There was a definite drop in his expression, like how someone looks when a leg of the chair they’re sitting on cracks under them. “When you were two?...Have you ever been IQ tested?”
With the slightest shutdown in her demeanor she said neutrally enough, “Actually, as a rule I don’t talk about that with a lot of people.”
He accepted that much more quickly than most people did, so naturally that it was like a recognition passed between them; perhaps he knew too, all the over-shocked questions that came after, the need to turn the genius into some kind of party trick. This possible commonality didn’t seem to have much effect on how her view of him had stacked up so far. She could think of a couple reasons why he probably got somewhat less surprised reactions if and when his capabilities were discussed, and that wasn’t his fault, but she couldn’t make herself care.
Their food came. The waitress realized, “Oh, shoot, I forgot your creamer.”
Nyota chuckled down at her cup of coffee that she’d downed half of without even noticing. “I can just drink it black, it’s fine.”
“Sorry about that.”
When she walked off, Nyota picked up her spoon and started blowing on her soup, her thought snatched away for a second.
She was about to take a sip when abruptly she realized that Jim was actually still looking at her in that sort of softly startled way, like there was something he couldn’t figure out. She felt squirming and irritant all over again, and said, “What?”
As if only then noticing that she was looking back, he blinked out of his staring, and then there was something downturned and sheepish in his face. “Nothing.”
“What?” she repeated, only realizing the simple fact as the demand came out. He had been looking because he’d been lured, and since it seemed clear enough neither of them wanted that, she tried to play along with the backpedal. But it was like being told to think of any animal other than an elephant and inevitably thinking of the elephant, and in the few seconds before she turned her eyes decidedly down she noticed too, the corded structure of his neck and arms, that decisively angled jaw, the way the eyelashes delicately framed the strong eyes. She tilted her head in a shrugging way and said, “Gaila didn’t tell me you were some kind of genius.”
He finally picked up his fork, thank God. “Who said I was a genius?”
“You sort of implied, being willing to ask me if I’d been IQ tested. You seem like you’d enjoy comparing yardsticks.”
“You seem like you enjoy making a point of it when you’re not impressed,” he said, looking straight at her again as he took another swig of his Sprite.
“Not always,” she said, sneering a little, “but sometimes.”
“Why did you feel the need to bring up Gaila?”
The question was a rude pluck, throwing her off.
“Was it just a change of subject if you thought I was thinking about hitting on you?” he asked, making her feel so quickly idiotic for having felt the avoidance of this topic had been something held tactfully in common. “Or because you might be interested but you’re under the impression that Gaila’s my girlfriend?”
Nyota slowly sat back until her arms were crossed. “Are you screwing with me right now?”
“What?” he replied, the nonchalance only slightly pierced as if by some creeping understanding.
“Gaila is your girlfriend. You are her boyfriend. If you think I’m gonna fall for the magically disappearing commitment trick—”
“Back up like ten seconds—Are you serious? Did Gaila say we’re a couple?”
Her whole demeanor went stiff in response.
“I’m trying to remember if it would have ever been those exact words, but...yeah, she definitely referred to you in those terms.”
Jim was utterly deflated, and before she could stop it she was laughing a little, a dark spill of needing to find humor in it so that she didn’t feel the desire to throw something at him.
“I’m sorry, but...” She wasn’t sorry and they both knew it. “You just have this look like this little misunderstanding happens with you a lot.”
“...Hah,” he said, not offering whether that was true or not.
She sighed and shook her head, asking after a brief moment, “So what’s the story?”
He gave a scoff of frustration. “The story is Gaila and I slept together just a couple times, and we never even talked about it afterwards when we kept hanging out. I thought there was some unspoken agreement that it was probably a mistake. Or something.”
“Maybe she thought you were just putting the brakes on when you continued to see her as if you liked her.”
“Of course I like her, what the fuck?” Jim snapped.
“That’s not what I mean,” Nyota said, “it’s just that you got different ideas.”
“Well, my assumption was just as good as hers, wasn’t it?”
“No, it wasn’t,” she said, insistence crackling into her quickly.
“Romance doesn’t have to be the default,” Jim argued just as fast, his anger only somewhat tampered as if he was glimpsing his own fervor coming up to him from the back of the diner and seeing that it hadn’t even bothered to shave for the ladies. “Most of the time it’s just sex...Why isn’t just-sex the default?”
“Just-sex is not the default,” she said, shaking her head.
“Because everybody’s looking for Shakespeare, right?” he said with a frolic of sarcasm in his voice.
“I think as far as people’s emotions are concerned,” she explained evenly, “it is the best assumption to make. I mean, maybe if you'd only slept with her one time, but a couple times?...”
“So, whatever, we'll communicate about it.” Jim pushed his plate forward in an abrupt movement, no longer eating. "Even though she has no real reason to be hurt."
She looked at him, steely. “Just because you manage to be unsentimental doesn’t make you able to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t feel.”
“I never said I was unsentimental, just that I don’t see why somebody I’ve stayed up all night with just talking, somebody I’ve laughed with and studied with and deeply respected as a human being, should feel all that sad if I’m not sentimental about her body.”
She gave an incredulous half-grunt. “People fall in love. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept.”
“People make the mistake of sleeping with people they care a lot about," he mumbled, "I'm familiar with that concept."
She opened her mouth, got interrupted.
“Listen. Take the two of us for example. Say you and I were very good friends." He crooked his head in response to her immediate look. "I know, laugh it up, it's just an example. I mean, I could theoretically be friends with you the same way I am friends with people I have no desire for. But alas, you are an extremely attractive woman, so—"
"People are attracted to people they don't actually sleep with all the time—"
"No, uh-uh, just, let me finish. So we're the best friends ever, and I really really care about you, et cetera, but I cannot...expel my latent desire to sleep with you." Jim said this with a delicate gesture that was possibly some attempt at trying to cover his words with some measure of respect. "Now, people would say that's still a friendship, and I agree. But if I said to you that you cannot be in love with somebody without having had sex with them, what would you say?"
"Of course you can, but come on; it's just different. You notice certain things about them, you think about them more..."
"Yeah, but if you took away the physical attraction, you'd just have a kind of rational but equally valuable version of the exact same affection; you'd still love them, you'd still appreciate the same things about them that really matter. I don't see any reason why this whole constructed notion of 'being in love' isn't just an entirely problematic overlap."
"Oh, are you going to draw me a Venn diagram? I love those."
The intensity of her sarcasm slowed his charge a bit, but he gave a sigh and argued, "People think that being physical with somebody that they care about sort of intensifies whatever you feel about them, when all you’re really doing is letting your body and your brain send you all these messages about ways in which you need them close to you that really aren’t important. And before you know it something about that can screw it all up and then you're out one relationship because you gambled on something you can get with anyone else who's pretty enough. And we all put on a good show; we go around saying no one needs a man or needs a woman, they just need someone who's there for them and friendship should be cherished, blah blah blah, but deep down that ‘true love’ is something people never quite stop believing in because all the movies and the whole Valentine’s Day parade still feeds us that old lie, so we all run around bumping off of each other chasing this fairy tale, and it makes the world look lonely as hell, and that's why I think romance is bullshit." He finished with a harsher brevity creeping in on his words, as if suddenly realizing he didn't know how he'd gotten so deep into the subject with her.
Uhura's arms were crossed again as she eyed him narrowly, eventually shaking her head and sighing. "And I think you're the type who has to push people’s emotions into some cataloging system, just so that you can trivialize everything and push off the possibility of ever getting mixed up with anything serious. Do you even have a friend you consider so important to you?"
He rolled his eyes at her, but not before a flinch of looking a bit stung. She could have almost felt guilty for that attack, but then her next words came out with a feeling weight that seemed to surprise both of them.
“And I have heard about enough and known enough and yeah, even dated enough smartass pompous dickbags to acknowledge that you are more than intelligent enough to take responsibility for the emotions of everyone around you. And I think that you’re the type of guy who chooses to apply his aggressive little philosophy by refusing to communicate with a girl he’s sleeping with as some form of protest to the fact that the world is not set up to his advantage in that respect. I don’t think you were oblivious to the fact that you might end up hurting Gaila. This is all a little too convenient for you."
He looked blankly out the window to their left, then forward after a brief moment. “And how many irreplaceable dear friends do you actually have, with how you make up your mind so fast about people?”
The stalemate felt strangely both relieving and discomfiting. It was suddenly clear that neither of them had meant for any fight to get this far, but the silence had dawned with only a petulant shrug, weary and gloomy. When the bill came, Jim grabbed it and paid for both of them up at the front; she was grateful for the assumption that he’d done it as an excuse to get away from her for a couple minutes more than out of any kindness or desire for a truce, though it actually somehow seemed that the truce itself was in that fact, that he’d known she wouldn’t know for sure.
The sun was waning off when they got back on their route. Jim read his book again until it was too dark, and finally asked in a diffident mumble if he could browse through the radio stations. In the static stretch of nothing but yellow towns glowing along by them, it was inevitable that sooner or later they would slide back into that momentum of speaking to each other.
They managed almost effortlessly, in fact, to talk and talk despite the tension that had been there all day and the fact that the talking didn’t quite make that slight streak of iciness go away. It was as if, now that the mutual dislike had been not so softly implied, they were free to pick at each other for entertainment as casually as they liked, with no need of polite biographical inquiries or feigned interest in topics that neither of them cared about. And even more unusual was that even though they seemed able to make just about any possible subject into an argument, after a time the grudging deference braided together with the tension in some athletically essential way, two dancers performing a duet that took as much force as grace.
Late into the night, the farther the car launched through its illuminated tunnel surrounded by the most fleeting flow of traffic, there was some planetary separation to it that gave her the feeling that if the road could continue to take them infinitely forward, she and Jim would never once run out of things to talk about. And it wasn’t all disputes either: Between some of the ripostes, some histories and milder opinions did slip in. Jim recalled to her how much trouble he’d gotten into when he was sixteen and cut class so that he and a friend, who at the time was only known as “Motherfuckin’ Pete” (one of the great mysteries of Jim’s adolescent life in Riverside, he explained, was how this label was applied to Pete both by his friends and apparently also by several of the parents in town, despite neither group ever doing so in earshot of the other), could hitch-hike to Chicago for a Beastie Boys concert. This had led to the somewhat friendlier back-and-forth about which of them got away with the “baddest shit” while they were teenagers, and he seemed, she thought, overly interested in just how rebellious she’d been capable of being.
“So that’s why you're kinda...” He gave a vague gesture, a good percentage of his attention focused on the Rubik’s Cube he’d found when he was distractedly fishing through her back seat.
She glanced shortly at him. “What?”
“I was just thinking maybe you’re not so...uptight by default." It sounded a little bit like he'd been searching for a less insulting word, so Nyota let it go. "Like you haven’t been given enough credit for how much you can do yet. When you’re done proving yourself, maybe you’ll have room to unwind a bit.”
“Not being willing to take shit does not make me uptight.”
He made a few abrupt twists to the cube, shook his head slightly. “Come on, you know that’s not what I meant.”
And on and on. Eventually the philosophies of romance, relating it to faith in higher powers in some way, came back around. The cynicism of moral objectivism, the optimism of numerous technology theories, something to do with Carlos Fuentes, and does she like to read in French? But somehow swerving back to what they'd talked about in the diner numerous times. By the time the weight of the night started to tip towards morning she was convinced that Jim believed in absolutely nothing and no one but himself.
"It's so strange, you know," she said with playfully exaggerated thoughtfulness, "you don't seem at all like a moron but then you talk like a high school kid who's just discovered Nietzsche."
She didn't look over for his initial reaction, and almost worried a bit about his hesitation before he managed to defend himself with, "Nietzsche wasn't all cynicism."
"'It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages,'" he quoted matter-of-factly. Before she could reply he was saying, “Hey, that exit there...I think, let me grab the map...”
Another few minutes passed. When she spoke again it was to tersely say, “I can’t believe I gave you a ride and you’re not even dating Gaila.”
A couple hours outside of New York she finally admitted she was fighting sleep, and they pulled over so Jim could drive the rest of the way. She woke later with her head bumping into the window, steered herself to sitting up and realized they’d just parked near his apartment complex as he was already getting into the back seat to grab his backpack.
Moving a little drowsily, she came around to the driver’s side, stopping in front of him with her hands buried into her kangaroo pocket as he shifted his bag up over his shoulder.
It worked well for this departure that they would be going to the same school; despite the fact that it was unlikely two grad students in different programs would ever be running into each other, they were at liberty to leave it at “See you around” as if they would be.
“Well,” Jim said, arching his shoulders back to give them a stretch. “See you at the races, I guess.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, smiling crookedly. She extended her hand and, after the briefest flinch of surprise or hesitation, he shook it.
“Good luck with everything,” he added with a nod, genuinely enough.
He grinned at her, something in it cheerfully self-deprecating, then made a pantomime of tipping an invisible hat, and walked away down the road.
Her small smile, one that was stranded somewhere in the greys between artificial and well-meaning, fell just as he turned away, and as soon as he’d landed several footfalls she was turning to get back into the driver’s seat.
She let out a long tired breath, her shoulders shrugging briefly with the motion, before she turned on the engine. Leaning to grab the atlas and put it up on the dashboard, she noticed something and stretched down farther, finding the Rubik’s Cube and picking it up to turn it over as Jim had left it. Perfectly solved. With some muttered grunt, she threw it into the backseat, and then pulled out.
Half a block down the road, something snagged Jim Kirk into pausing and turning to look with a kind of regretful curiosity in the direction of Uhura’s car; but she’d already gone. He turned back, shoving his hands into his pockets, and kept walking.
THREE YEARS LATER
“Wait, so she told you on Sunday?” Jim said, grunting when the wind pitted a hard gust up his umbrella. “On your anniversary?”
“That’s the worst part,” Bones said, sidestepping to let an elderly lady stray in from the crosswalk crowd and hunching under an umbrella with a ladybug pattern on it that somehow only added to the miserable wet-dog drag of the whole picture. “I don’t think she remembered that it was our anniversary.”
“How the hell could she forget?” Jim demanded angrily. “I don’t know why I know when your anniversary is, but she shouldn’t—”
“I figure it’s a hole-in-one. I’ll be apt to get drunk every year on the day we got married and also the day she left me, so.”
“Bones...You will be over it in a year. Over it in less than a year probably.”
“Frankly, Jim, I don’t see how you have the experience to tell me when I’ll be able to get over my damn marriage, so stuff it.”
“You will be fine, man. God, there are like a hundred women I know who would love to date you.”
“That’s nice. Can any of them hypnotize me into forgetting the last, uh, fifteen years of my life?”
The number stuck in the air a little harder than anything else Jim had heard. “Okay, listen, I’m sorry as hell. I don’t know...Jesus, I don’t even know what to tell you, but you’ll pull through this. You don’t give yourself enough credit, and it's like...you know what, I give up, I can't ignore it anymore: What's with that umbrella?”
“Agh, it’s Joanna’s,” Bones groaned, as if he’d just remembered how ridiculous he looked. “I haven’t had it in me to get much of my stuff from the house and it was the only one we had at the hotel. Can’t wait to keep a straight face showing up at the hospital with this damn thing. Hey, what—?”
Jim was grabbing the handle of the umbrella. “Just so happens I adore ladybugs. Let’s trade.”
“Are you serious?”
“Come on, you gotta do what you gotta do to feel dignified. I’ll take it.” He made it so that Bones had little choice but to grab Jim’s handle to avoid getting pelted by more water, and the doctor looked at Jim strangely, a tension falling out of his shoulders by a little bit as he started to hold the black umbrella. Jim asked, “And what’s the deal with the hotel? You need to stay at my place for a while?”
“I think I can afford a hotel better than you can afford all the company.”
“Well, the offer’s out there.”
“Thanks, Jim.” They slowed up a bit at Jim’s turn. “Listen, uh...you’re a good one to have around.”
Jim looked like he was about to protest, but his eyes hiccuped to the red parasol and he just shrugged and smiled ruefully. “Call me soon. Don’t do this on your own and all that, okay, are we done being softies?”
Bones gave a warm kind of rolling of his eyes. “Later.”
As they took off separately, Jim checked back over his shoulder once, frowning in concern.
Her plane got in on time, and as soon as she had the opportunity she ducked into the bathroom and stood up in the stall with her back to the door.
She cried for a while, a quiet but thorough welling of tired tears. After the crying she felt better, and changed back from the sandals she’d put on for the flight into the pair of brand new kitten heels she’d worn to the funeral.
The funeral. Another stab got her on the way to the sink. “Shit,” she muttered aloud, burrowing part of her face into her jacket and clicking back into the stall for another round. She moaned a few more curses as the water wailed up again. A small mercy was the emptiness of this side of the bathroom, but she wondered if she would have really been able to care if anyone heard.
She finally got it under control, touched up her make-up in front of a cracked mirror as a mother dragged her cranky child in and gave Nyota some generically empathetic smile that made her feel too transparent. Finally slumping to lean her hands on the sink top, she looked in a more confronting way at herself in the mirror, and then stopped slouching, deciding it really wasn’t so bad. She landed her attention on how the shoes went with the dress slacks. It never made her feel good to look cheap.
There was hard rain outside, and she had a moment’s groaning dread that she’d forgotten her compact umbrella before she found it at the far bottom of her shoulder bag. She wasn’t sure whether to stall here or get an early start to the subway station, but a restless locomotion took her walking down the street outside either way, until she slowed up at the sight of the art exhibit through the glass of a corner office. She was curiously glancing at the neat rows of pottery and the leisurely observations of the people drinking out of flutes, when her cell rang.
Checking the ID, she picked up eagerly. “Hey, I just got in. How was the dinner?”
Christine, sounding content but tired, replied, “God, they rained so much food on us. I got to eat two steaks. They don’t usually do that stuff for the assistants, so it was great. I was just kind of in a mood the whole time, cause I found out...agh, you don’t want to hear about that...”
“Oh, now. What's happened?” Hearing a grunt of hesitation, Nyota rolled up her eyes affectionately, pushing, “Come on. I already know who this is about.”
“Okay...Remember how I told you that he actually took a vacation about a month back? For an entire week? And he never does that, he never takes time off, and I wasn’t the only one at the office thinking that maybe he had actually met somebody, that he’d taken off to have this steamy getaway with somebody in the Bahamas or wherever.”
“Hmm,” Nyota vaguely confirmed, her eyes following the back of a tall couple who were examining a few paintings on one of the exhibit walls, one of them a blond and fit man and the other a woman working a pair of stiletto heels with the agility of a supermodel. “And?”
“And I found out from a colleague the other day...he was just attending a chemistry conference in England.” Christine drew out this fact like it was a truly torrid thing, worthy of the most anguished jealousy. “I mean, it has to be true. I don’t think he’s ever going to date anybody.”
Nyota sighed. “Well, you’ve been saying that for a while now.”
“I’m serious, though. I don’t think he ever dates anyone, ever.”
She lifted her eyebrows in dutiful regret. “Well, you know, some people don’t.”
“I know. I know that.”
“Look, I hate to...” Nyota’s attention slipped forward, and she interrupted herself with a laughing exclamation of “Oh my God...”
The tall blond had turned to look far back over the entrance, probably checking a clock, and her recognition had startled her. “It's nothing, just...I’ve been looking into the window of this gallery, and there’s a guy in there I carpooled with a few years ago.”
“Ah. Are you gonna go in and say hi?”
“Sweet Jesus, no way.”
“What, you don’t like him?”
“Oh, he annoyed the hell out of me for half the trip.” She paused, squinting in on the sight of him as he bent in to whisper something into the woman’s ear. “Except he’s like...at the same time he can throw an informed opinion on a dozen different subjects while solving a Rubik’s cube, and that just makes everything else all the more annoying. You know what I’m saying?”
“Not really,” Christine said, laughing. “Is he cute?”
Laughing too now, Nyota asked, “God, why?”
“Well, you know how I go for the smart ones. Especially when they’re devastatingly unavailable...”
Unable to help laughing more, she said, “You’re not that bad, honey.”
Their playfulness faded naturally over a handful of seconds, and Christine cleared her throat. “Listen, before I hang up. How are you doing?”
Nyota let out a long breath. “Not so good. I did manage not to cry on the plane.”
There was a long pause of unspoken gloom. “I’m so sorry. And I’m still sorry I couldn’t go with you.”
“It’s okay. I kind of needed to be as alone as I could be, you know?”
“Sure. Call me if you need me, honey.”
“Yeah, thanks. Bye.”
Nyota hung up and put away her phone, and when she glanced back up, Jim Kirk was looking out the window and right at her.
There was an oddly stunned couple seconds, and then Jim’s eyes roamed away to something else outside before he turned abruptly back to his date, or whatever she was, and Nyota wondered if he hadn’t actually been looking directly at her but at something posted next to the swinging doors. She swiveled to face away from the window, feeling halfway foolish, but wasn’t sparked into moving along just yet. She took her phone back out and swiped the screen into her photo album to clean out some of the sloppier photos as some of the patrons started spilling out of the gallery doors.
When Callie had promised not to be dragging him to see some pretentious installation art parade, he’d been more than happy to tag along to look at her sister’s stuff with her, but this had quickly proven to make him wish it was the sister he was taking out. The artist was the artist; her sister thought of herself as the critic, the kind that felt the need to whisper into his ear about the pedestrian simplicity of the concepts because of course it was vulgar anymore to think that the most central point of a piece could be to simply make a visual impression. If he had any opinion it was a liking for the more classical stuff, which seemed to quickly flush their art-viewing compatibility down the drain. Callie probably noticed this, but any mild disagreements between them were usually countered with a look his way that seemed to saucily intimate the valuable way in which they were compatible. This managed to put Jim back into a lighter mood bordering on self-ridicule, and the playful charade between them continued, as it always did, with promises that would be paid in full at her hotel room.
It had been when Callie was pulled off to the side by her sister for a moment that Jim’s eyes strayed forward to the rainy city outside, and the thin figure in the long coat took a moment to seem familiar to him. As soon as he’d realized it was Uhura, he’d reflexively looked away.
But a good several minutes later she was still there, and he wondered if it would be alright to go out and say hi. She hadn’t liked him, but there had been at least some kind of curiosity between them, if he remembered much about the rapport that had carried them through the many miles to New York all that time ago.
It was strange how easily that night slipped into the front aisle in his mind. His thoughts hadn’t glanced at her in a long while, though there had been several events or presentations around campus where he’d found himself glancing around the crowd just to idly see if he spotted her head somewhere. They’d learned a pretty good deal about each other a few years ago, and even though Jim had none of his best friend’s Southern etiquette, it seemed right to try to compare notes for a second time.
“Hey, Jim,” Callie said as she came up to squeeze him forward.
“You ready to go? Listen, can I meet you back at the room?”
“...I guess so. Why?”
“There’s somebody standing out there I just recognized from...from a while ago. Do you mind?”
She kissed him, lips curling in a smile he could feel against his mouth. “Okay, but keep in mind I’m ever so impatient.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Ever so?”
She chuckled, checked for anyone watching, and then gave him a decidedly more thorough kiss, with quite a bit more of her body involved. He playfully swatted her away when they finally noticed her sister shaking her head in disapproval. She headed out through the back way towards the parking garage, and when he turned, he was mostly relieved but a tiny bit unsteady to see that Uhura was still there.
By the time he came out the door and approached her in a few steps, she’d set down her bag to card through several things inside of it. About to open his mouth, he was cut off by her saying, “Hold this for a minute, please?” and could only respond with wide-eyed slowness when she held up the handle of her umbrella for him to take while she searched with both hands.
“I guess that answers my first question,” he muttered.
“Yes,” she replied easily, “I did recognize you, Jim. How have you been?”
“Rough year, but I’m not too bad,” he said, falling swiftly in line with her casual terseness.
"Still trying to be Indiana Jones?"
"Oh, you know it. How’s linguistics?”
“Great. I’m really into Mandarin right now.”
He gave an impressed whistle, then furrowed his brows at her defeated sigh as she stopped digging through her bag. “Did you lose something?”
She stood up, replacing the bag over her shoulder, and took the umbrella handle back. She took a moment to answer him, distractedly gazing past him into the street while she seemed to be weighing something carefully in her mind. Then she said, “I think I somehow left my pepper spray in Kenya.”
“Kenya?” Jim exclaimed.
She looked back at him, opening her mouth to explain, but then her eyes went up and down him and her mouth dropped open into a near-laugh. She stammered in helpless humored confusion, “Jim...What little girl is missing her umbrella?”
He looked up, rolled his eyes. He’d taken the thing out on rote a couple minutes ago, forgetting how foolish it looked. “My friend’s daughter—He’s got my umbrella because he was having a bad day, look, it’s a long story...”
Her laughter rang out fully now, doubling her over so that she had to trip back from the edge of where the rain was blocked by the awning and then readjust her hair. “It doesn’t even cover your shoulders...You look ridiculous...”
He let her go on a bit, snickering at him, his chagrined feeling somehow eclipsed by a warmth that spread through him in response to seeing her in such a giddy spill of emotion, as if he instinctively felt it meant something that she would allow herself to give him that laugh even if it was at his expense. Finally, after beginning to chuckle in return, he demanded, “Come on, would you control yourself?”
She stood up tall again, sighing out a last strike of laughter. “Listen, we can share my umbrella if you walk me to the station. How does that sound?”
Lifting his brows but not entirely surprised by this, forgetting for the moment all about Callie and her dadaism and anybody’s mean streak, he nodded.
Several blocks later he was pausing in the middle of saying something to warn, “Look out” and pull in Uhura by her arm.
“I see it,” she said, stepping in to avoid the bits of broken glass. “You were asking about tone recognition. I’ve already worked with it a lot because I know several Bantu languages, though, it’s really something you either can or can’t get the hang of, and every language is different...”
“So did you grow up in Kenya? I remember you saying something about Swahili being your first language.”
“When did I say that?” she asked, squinting and shifting after her heel slipped on a wet patch.
“Three years ago?”
“Oh...I’m surprised you remember.”
He sniggered a little. “I’m sure you remember too, but only the bad stuff.”
“Hmm,” she said, playfully neglecting to correct him in any way, and dive-bombing right into, “So how’s your love life?”
He shook his head. “I haven’t seen the light, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Come on, that looked like you were on a date with what’s-her-name back there.”
“Her name is Callie and I never said that I don’t date.”
“You pretty much said that there was no point.”
“No point in dating? I never...”
“I can’t exactly say I would still remember but that was very much the impression I got, Kirk...By the way, I really don’t mean this in that way, but have you heard from Gaila lately?”
“Yeah, I went to her wedding.” In response to her obvious surprise he asked, “Were you not invited?”
“I just couldn’t make it,” she said, and Jim figured the surprise was over the fact that he and Gaila were still in touch, and a lazily vindictive part of him chose not to share that he and Gaila’s friendship was mostly carried out on greeting cards these days, when it was remembered at all.
“The reception was kind of an epic production...She and her man are like, very loudly in love, it was crazy.”
“...Huh,” Uhura said, still seeming distracted.
“The wedding was where I met Callie, actually. She lives over there and I only see her when she’s in the city visiting family. What about you, got anything for me to be nosy about?”
“There have been several people in my life,” she shared tersely, “but there’s not much going on right now.”
And so on, as the rain finally started to let off, and they were able to walk a normal distance away from each other, whatever that should have been for whatever the two of them were at that point. It was the lack of change in Uhura’s demeanor at this reestablishment of comfort that made him realize she wasn’t exactly fussed to be around him. He began to ask more questions, and was intrigued to get answers fairly easily, to the point that any short responses she’d given may have just been something else to her mood. In fact it didn’t take him long to get the reason for this, when she mentioned in an offhand way that it had been a funeral she’d had to make it to in Africa, in the roundabout way that one knocks over a delicate subject on the way walking by it rather than letting it come head-on. But she did add, “My father,” as explanation, and so Jim said, “My mom too, just this past year,” and it felt somehow sturdy to have that in common.
Finally they stopped at the steps outside the station. She dutifully made sure he hadn’t inconvenienced himself by walking with her and he reassured her Callie’s hotel was a decent cab fare distance away.
“Oh, here.” He’d been carrying her umbrella and handed it to her, shaking off some of the droplets. She took it from him and they faced each other in idle symmetry, until something in her face, the same shade of melancholy he’d seen in it since they took off from the gallery, made him ask, “You doing okay?”
He seemed to have surprised both of them. Her mouth slightly opened, then shut in a considering expression. She suddenly looked hunched in on herself as she looked off in the distance. He realized that there was a film of tears in her eyes, exhausted and barely shed, almost like she hadn’t realized they were there herself.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s none of my—”
“Do you want to go have a beer or something?” she asked.
His eyes stuttered over the air between them. “I...What?”
“Listen.” She was speaking with the lift of being the one who’d started this awkwardly sympathetic conclusion all along, struggling past that shake in herself but coming out strong. “I...Okay, I feel like this kind of thing is supposed to be implied rather than actually asked, but considering the two of us didn’t get off to the best start I think I need to be clear about it....I guess I’m trying to say that I would like it if...you know, if we could be friends.”
The drowsy wet air felt stunned around his head and he blinked, unable to respond.
“I know neither of us were really...” She swallowed. “We didn’t really get the best out of each other, and I have no idea how you feel about the idea, but...well, how would you feel?...about starting over?”
She was then putting out her hand in a way that felt self-consciously awkward, crooking her head to the side in a kind of question.
Still in disbelief, he looked down at her hand, and then shook his head. “Come on, I’m not gonna shake your hand.” Something in her twitched, and before she could get the wrong idea he was pulling her lightly along with him to wave down a cab, saying, “I liked you just fine the first time around.”
Life had moved both quickly and sluggishly ever since she came to New York. The career was looking promising, work was stimulating, but at the end of the day she usually went home to read by herself. She could go out and find a date any time she wanted, but friends were harder to come by.
Christine had been a blessing in disguise, at first just a cumbersomely timid girl who shared her apartment building and was nice enough to have over for lunch now and then, but over a couple years she’d come out of her shell into the kind but sometimes brilliantly blunt woman who managed that rare skill of knowing exactly when to ask and when not to, about anything. But she had a night shift at the university hospital that was starting to clash constantly with Nyota’s routine, and within the past year most of their friendship had been done over the phone or the occasional two AM comedy marathon in one of their rooms when Christine had the night off and couldn’t sleep.
The thing that had kicked Nyota right into her spell of crying right when she got off the plane was the thought that she wouldn’t even get to really talk to anybody, see anybody, until late into the next day. This had spilled right into the guilt, that same old weight on her shoulders of choosing to be thrown far away from her family so that this grief had to be a sudden shock to be taken care of in a hurry, and sure, it served her right that she had so little time, so little love in her life. She knew all that thinking was no good, but with the week she’d had it was thought with a kind of binging on irrationality after countless years of powering forward with no room for anything like that. It was far from a cathartic indulgence. The rain had been no consolation, and minutes later there had been Jim, and her mind had changed and reached for him so naturally that it wasn’t even until much later that she realized it, how it had seemed he came along at just the perfect time for both of them in just about every possible way.
The bar they went to had a slow college crowd, but she didn’t mind too much that she was overdressed. He tossed bar nuts up in the air and caught them in his mouth while she gave him bits and pieces about moving around a lot when she was a preteen, how she later learned it was mostly her parents trying to send her to the best schools. He told her about being restless and fractious as a kid in Riverside, how his mom had decided he wouldn’t make so much trouble if he had a bigger place to bounce around in and firmly suggested he go finish high school living with an aunt from his father’s side of the family in Brooklyn, and even though he’d thought this was coldly sudden she’d made it clear she’d fly him home whenever he felt like it, and as things turned out he barely had any chance or reason to miss Iowa at all.
Winona Kirk had died of the most sudden cause, still relatively young, after a patch of ice on the highway made what would have been a mere fender-bender send an SUV three cars ahead of her spiraling down a drop-off. There was a line of petroleum bleeding from the scrapes and a kid screaming down below, and neither his mother nor fate had been willing to wait for assistance, so she went up in the explosion along with the passengers.
Nyota was searching sadly for what to say when the bartender plunked down Jim’s third beer. “God. What did she do?”
“She was a navy vet who took up a job in animal control, after the family happened.”
“And your father?” Nyota stammered, hesitating to ask.
He swigged down a drink and shook his head. “Never knew him. I was a newborn when he died...So, you know. Add that to your psychoanalysis.”
She looked at him directly, then back down at her drink. “I wasn’t doing that.”
He looked back, weighing this, then nodded again.
After considering for a moment she asked, “Aren’t you standing up Callie?”
He broke into a snigger. “Oh, she’s probably contacted some back-up bootie call by now.”
Almost laughing at that, she said, “Yeah, but shouldn’t you at least text her?”
“What for, to recommend somebody? Anyway, I don’t carry a cell phone.”
“What? Okay, is this some kind of hipster thing? Applied archeology, or what?” They were both laughing now.
“Nothing, I just use a land line,” he said innocently, shrugging.
“But what if your car breaks down?”
“I use a car, what, once every couple years?”
“Okay, well," she gestured in frustration, reaching for, "what if you get beat up in an alley or something?”
“You say that like it’s never happened.”
Resisting her laughter, grabbing for his hand before he could raise it up as if he was most definitely not permitted to order another drink before he could provide a reasonable excuse for this, she demanded evenly, “Jim, how can you not have a mobile phone?”
“I just...” He waved his other hand in the air. “It’s resenting the expectation that goes with it, that you’re supposed to be available to anybody at any given time. I hate that.”
She scrutinized him in a playfully drawn-out consideration, still clamping her hand over his forearm, and then lifted back, letting his arm go. “Okay. I kind of hate that too.”
He scoffed and tapped his bottle against hers. She took hers and ripped the label off to write her phone number down on the white side.
The first restaurant they came up with that they both knew the location of was a small diner, amusingly similar to the one they’d eaten at all those years ago. It had been almost a week before Jim decided to finally call her, feeling unsure about where exactly this was going to lead the longer he let it lie there, but she’d asked him if he wanted to grab a bite to eat that very day and a couple hours later she was sliding in across from him.
The waiter said he’d be back to take her order in a minute after she looked at the menu, but she flagged him back, saying, “You know, just whatever you think is good, anything you’re trying to get rid of.”
“I like the berry waffles and they’re on special, if you’re into breakfast.”
After Jim added a coffee to his order and the waiter took off, he looked at her a little intently, stirring his straw around in his drink.
“You’re not very picky about your food, are you?”
She rolled her eyes, straightening her hair back into a ponytail.
Jim cocked an eyebrow. “What?”
“No, I just...I’m used to getting the whole ‘You’re not all high-maintenance like other girls’ thing.” Her voice imitated the statement in a mock baritone of one drooling frat boy who had tried it on her a couple years back.
He sniggered a little. “No, I was just saying.”
She was smiling vaguely at a couple kids who were carding through the options on the jukebox on their tiptoes, probably mainly enjoying the flip of the covers as they pressed the button again and again. “I was going to tell you, I got a message from Gaila a couple days ago. It seemed weirdly contingent with me just running into you, I wondered if you might have mentioned it to her.”
“No, I hadn’t.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask. How exactly did you work everything out with her?”
Jim blinked, thinking far back. “...Oh, that’s right, we had some kind of misunderstanding?”
She scoffed. “And you barely remember?”
“Well, yeah, I remember you being pretty pissed about my supposed insensitivity.” He saw her expression and raised his eyebrows. “And maybe I was a little...you know...but between me and Gaila, I think the long distance just kind of worked it out for us.”
For a moment she just eyed him in doubt that was mostly teasing.
“Was I just the most depressing person?” Jim suddenly asked after a few seconds. “I mean, why did you even talk to me again?”
“Well, I didn’t think it was possible for someone to really be as cynical as you liked to come off as? I think? My memory isn’t perfect, but...well, I might have been right. You are dating now anyway.”
“Yeah, but what definition of dating are we working from here? I’m definitely still not into dating my friends...”
With a pursed little smirk, she shook her head. "So tell me about Callie.”
“She's a girl I’m seeing. Was seeing.”
She made a little slow snicker. “‘Seeing.’”
“The word is pretty nebulous, isn’t it?”
“But three years ago you said you don’t sleep with people you like, so what, you just find somebody you consider annoying trash to bang a few times, cause...” She made a cringing expression.
Laughing but also sober about clarifying, Jim slowly said, “I really don’t think I would have implied that. I may have said it would be the ideal to never mix up any kind of affection with people you sleep with, but sometimes that’s just not possible.”
“So, you and Callie...”
“Let’s not make it about Callie, just...the relations are usually temporary, often deliberately.” He shrugged. “But if I wasn’t willing to get to know them in the least, I wouldn't call it a date. And yes, I know that doesn't set me apart from a lot of other not-so-nice people who treat taking somebody out as a means to an end, but I at least try to be sure the other person is the same way.”
“And then what do you do? Just drop them after one too many dates? After they start to get too emotional?”
“...And I’m not at risk of getting emotional?” he protested a little abruptly, his eyes searching hers.
"Well, I don't know, you never said...how it is for you," she stammered. She found herself unable to look back at him for more than a couple seconds.
“Look, everybody has their little emotional defenses, mine are just a little too meditated for your taste. I mean, damn, if the tables were turned you’d be giving me a hell of a lot of shit for trying to tell you how to live your life or who to sleep with or—”
“No, I..." Serious now, she shook her head. "Look, I’m not criticizing. I’m just curious."
They were both stilled in a kind of confusion, possibly realizing how the premise of this conversation had looked totally different on either side.
“Really,” she said, laughing a little, “I swear. I’m sorry, Jim.”
Their food came. She started right in and was chewing her first bite when Jim finally recovered from his thoughtful surprise and picked up his silverware.
Bones let out a sharp curse from the other side of the mahogany dresser as it thudded down one step.
“I’m fine,” Jim yelled, bracing forward. “Give me a sec.”
They finally got this last component of the McCoy furniture heirlooms moved into the second floor of the new apartment, which Jim had cheerily noted was a little bit closer to where he lived, then cracked open a couple beers to sigh their sweat off out on the balcony.
“How are you doing out here? Any different?” Jim got a confused cock of an eyebrow for asking this, then shrugged. “I hear it helps to change your surroundings. I kind of wish I could do it right now. I still sometimes think about that Thanksgiving when Mom visited every time I forget to turn off the oven light.”
Bones took in the view for a few seconds, pensive. “You still would even if it was a different oven, I bet.”
Jim stretched to set his beer on the concrete railing, his voice scratching with the strain of the movement when he said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“I don’t know, maybe it does help to move around. It is the reason I left Georgia in the first place. Something about the idea of getting stuck out there just makes me think I’d feel old and sad.”
“Well, as long as you’re not feeling old and sad...” Jim got a fleck of ice water flung in his direction for that as Bones got into the cooler again. After a minute, Jim abruptly looked around, asking, “Hey, what time is it?”
Bones checked his old and sad wristwatch, said, “Bit after six.”
“Six already?” Jim shot up. “Damn, man, I gotta go.”
With a resigned sigh, Bones watched him rush back into the apartment. “You blowing me off for a pair of long legs like the same old?”
Jim laughed happily, finding his boots next to the door. “Yeah, but it’s not for the legs.”
“Oh. Nyota again?” He leaned forward now, looking in around the threshold. “Who is this woman?”
“Didn’t I tell you, she drove me back to the city after I finished that summer job several years ago?”
“And now she’s your friend, right out of the blue?”
“We just ran into each other a few weeks ago.”
“I guess it’s true what they say about New York...” Bones cracked into a smirk. “So is this the girl who lived with the girl who ended up marrying the guy who can fellate himself?”
Jim almost tripped out of the process of shoving one of his boots on, wide-eyed. “When did I ever tell you about that?”
“Jim, one of these days you’re gonna manage to remember that you gossip worse than a southern grandmother when you get drunk enough.”
Jim shook his head and just said, “Huh,” wondering if he might have also colorfully divulged the fact that he and Gaila had once had a very memorable threesome with that fine gentleman, but decided not to ask.
“Gaila, that was her name...What is that, Hebrew? Anyway, it was after you came back from the wedding that you told me about her. And you also happened to mention that her roommate had proven to be her polar opposite in almost every way and also, I believe it was, the only person you’ve ever met who could easily keep you up all night without laying a hand on you.”
Jim had gotten on the other shoe and straightened back up, and now he stood as if trying to get his head to chew on what Bones had just said. When he looked straight back, it was with some resignation from having any reply to that he didn’t feel almost superstitiously reluctant to say.
“So,” Bones drawled, “when do I get to meet her?”
There was one lunch or dinner after another, after another. Jim and Nyota were seeing each other at least a couple times a week by the time autumn started falling away to brittle cold, and talking over the phone almost every day as the lights of the city pierced through a frequent fog outside their windows. Nyota tended to be up in the late hours and would always pick up when he was sleepless from being punchy and inevitably watching the B-movies that aired late at night.
One night it was Planet of the Apes, until Jim found the last half hour or so of Reservoir Dogs was on a different channel and she turned her TV on too.
“‘You beat him hard enough he’ll tell you he started the Chicago Fire; that don’t make it fuckin so,’” Jim muttered along, then thoughtfully said, “I bet you could do undercover.”
Nyota had been setting her studying away to settle deeper into bed. “That’s rich.”
“I’m completely serious. You miss nothing. And you’d be good under pressure...”
“Better than this little comic book nerd cop, anyway.”
Jim chuckled in surprise. “That was obscure, Nyota. Do you actually like this movie?”
“It's funny, I remember watching this with a friend about a year ago and for a second it reminded me of you. Do you remember...?"
"I vaguely remember a conversation about why it was a good thing we weren't lit majors, yes," he replied, making her laugh lazily.
After a long pause between any words, she asked, “What was wrong this morning? Didn’t you take off work?”
Jim sighed, hesitant to get into it. “It feels weird to talk about now; I kind of overreacted. I was just having a really hard time over my mom.”
This surprised her. She’d thought Jim was well out of the woods when it came to that, and with both of them sunk into their beds softly talking to each other, she felt something in her buckle back into that sadness. Though it was in a comfortable, safety-netted way.
“It’s weird, I know, but it’s like...I have days where I think I’m handling it surprisingly well, and then every once in a while, I feel like I can’t even get out of bed.” They both went quiet for a while, and then he added, “The guilt is the worst. It’s like, we weren’t even particularly close, at least I don’t think we were; I think most people know better when they have a second parent to compare it to, you know? I’m guilty for being so distant and then I’m guilty for that making it hit me a little harder and then I’m guilty for being guilty because this was my mother we’re talking about. I’m sorry,” he suddenly said, “this is still kind of fresh for you, the last thing you need is me still moaning about my grief a whole year later.”
“Don’t say that, you know I don’t mind." She let a pause settle, frowning. "And...well, God knows I know all about the guilt.”
They fell back into vaguely watching the movie, until in a heavy afterthought, she spoke again.
“I was close to my dad; at least I thought I was once, when I was younger. You have this person who used to sing you to sleep, but then you take off somewhere in your twenties and then things become harder to say...I don’t know why that is.”
Nyota did eventually meet Leonard and Christine did eventually meet Jim, the latter expressing some surprise later on about Jim not being quite what she expected. One weekend when Leonard’s daughter had just been packed off to spend Thanksgiving with her mom and Christine had finally started working a less nocturnal schedule, they planned to get all four of them together for what half of the party counted on being a quiet night in. Nyota and Christine were the half who showed up with two bottles of wine, donning high heels and skirts after their stop at one of the singles bars they considered to be the fun kind of trashy. Leonard was the one who answered, and something in his gaze stuttered over Christine as she was just finishing up a call on her cell.
Looking at Nyota, he teased, “Well, you ladies know how to make a guy feel underdressed, way to go.”
“We were out doing girl things.”
“What’s girl things?” Jim was muttering as he appeared on the stairs behind them, just now arriving.
“The same thing you guys do,” Christine said, “but with more blood and sharp objects involved.”
“Ah,” Leonard remarked in vague satisfaction, as if talking to himself, "that's nurse humor."
“Oh, that’s right, you’re a surgeon, Leonard?” Christine fell in at his side to properly introduce herself while Jim teased Nyota about wearing those shoes again, and the evening proceeded in low-key college fashion until Joanna’s game system attracted Jim over to the TV and he and Christine ended up betting the next beer run on who won Mario Kart.
“She’s killing you, Jim,” Leonard supplied. “By the way, we were talking historical crushes while you were in the can.”
“Ah, yeah? What did everybody else say?”
“Mine’s boring,” Christine said. “I always say Nikola Tesla.”
“Hey, I thought Tesla was fabulous,” Leonard interrupted. “I said Hedy Lamarr. Nyota still hasn’t decided.”
“I’m gonna go with Cleopatra. Ah, come on,” Jim exclaimed, leaning back after his cart fell off of a bridge. Christine doubled her efforts with a slight snicker and beat him across the finish line.
“Isn’t anyone going to mention Tiberius?” Nyota teased as the two set their controls down and sat up.
Jim flicked her off. “Yeah, you know how much I love being indirectly named after a total psychopath when they could have at least gone for Caesar or something.”
“Wait, is that your middle name?” Christine asked, and then gave an almost genuinely soft look of sympathy and said, “Oh, I am so sorry.” This response seemed to tap right on something that was privately very amusing to Leonard; when he started laughing she caught his smile and looked down, grinning shyly.
“Well,” Jim said, rising back up, “I guess I’m running out.”
“Do either of you mind if I tag along with him?” Nyota asked, catching Christine’s eyes briefly.
“Fine with me,” Leonard said, after a flicker of hesitation, and Christine nodded with a shrug.
As soon as they were out on the street Jim asked, “Did you just do what I think you just did?”
“Shush. I don’t want to jinx it so we just won't talk about it, okay?”
“I’m just saying...you do know Bones just got a divorce, right?”
“Yes, I do know, and we don’t need to talk about it.”
“...He does seem pretty sweetened up on her, though.”
Nyota smiled. “I think it might be the first time I’ve seen her pay much of any attention to anybody who's looking back at her.”
“I almost don’t want to tell you because of how it makes her sound, but...she’s been really hung up on the guy who supervised her internship for forever, and I’m pretty sure this guy must be asexual or something; even she knows it.”
“She’s never bothered to just find out?”
“The thing is, I think she knows deep down that there are other ways they’d be incompatible, and she can’t seem to take that step to admitting it’s just all-around not meant to be. That’s an old story, isn’t it? The type of person who finds it easier to love the people who can’t love them back?”
Their talk had slowed their progress to a stroll. Jim zipped his jacket up a little higher, considering. “I was thinking, you'll say predictably...about how there aren't a lot of social norms that make it easy to at least start talking more with someone you admire from a distance. It's hard to find a way to, like, platonically ask someone out. And if it wasn't like that, I doubt it would be so hard to be so into someone who could never love you back. I don't know, it's just strange to consider the fact that unrequited love has to not just be an unfortunate thing, but an actual humiliation. Somebody could love a person irrevocably, for years and years and never expect anything back, and that's shameful, but once the affection is returned, we upgrade it to the much more desirable descriptions like 'unconditional.'”
She looked ahead, slow to respond. “I just think it gets precarious to nurse too much of a fantasy life over somebody else; your idea of how they fill into your life can get really overblown, and maybe a little creepy.”
He gave her a friendly scoff. “Well, I think that's awfully cynical.”
“And it’s just wasting love that could really be growing on someone else who could give it back—I just...” She shook her head, making a face as her train of thought went hazy.
“But that’s always the dead end, isn’t it? That’s always the disagreement.”
“Of...” He made a gesture of mild frustration. “The whole definition of what it means to love someone, you know, like why can’t it be inert, why can’t it be invisible?”
“Because any little asshole can love somebody. It’s what you do with it that matters.”
“Okay, but that goes back to how we talked about it in the first place. You could have serious feelings about somebody and you could be willing to humiliate yourself to make them feel better, or quit your job for them or take a bullet for them and like, you’re saying that’s less than when you could be fucking them into a mattress on a nightly basis and—”
“Jim, Jim. Jesus. I never once said those other things couldn’t mean anything, I just think...maybe you get there a little faster when romance is in the picture. And that’s not shallow,” she interrupted something he was getting to, hurriedly and half-awkwardly explaining, “it’s not. What’s the difference between making somebody laugh hard, or making them feel good in any other way, and making them...well. You know? I mean, have you ever considered that having that with somebody you’re also close to in those other ways could be worthwhile to people because it’s far more intense than anything else, that it actually is greater than the sums? You know, at least for some people?”
They’d reached the store front, and Jim turned in to face her, both of them stopping as he looked at her with some now vaguely unhappy sort of concentration. Finally he asked, “Is it like that for you?” in honest curiosity.
Years ago he couldn’t have dragged this truth out of her if he’d tried it all night, and yet she only realized it just then: The equal ground was felt like the bottoming rattle of an elevator, and her honesty surprised both of them. “I don’t know, is the thing. My longest relationship was less than half a year.”
She turned to go inside, and there was a heaviness to the way Jim seemed to be watching for her mood as they picked out and bought the beer with half of their usual flippancies. When they left, each of them now carrying a six-pack, Jim said, “It’s just that people give into it so quickly, and I wonder how much it’s really worth the risk. You say greater than the sum of its parts, I say there’s no sum, it’s not substance, you can’t just compare it to...”
“Yeah. I understand that. I guess we just listen to completely different instincts, you know, but I can understand.” Nyota sighed. “You know I’m not trying to convince you of anything.”
He shifted the bag up under one arm, nodded. “Okay.”
A little tired on her feet now, she looped her arm through his so he would slow his pace down to hers.
“Yeah, just getting sore.”
“You wanna trade shoes?”
“Ha-ha,” she intoned.
They were approaching a thirty-something woman who was taking the trash out in a matching sweatsuit and cradling her cell phone into the shoulder, talking not loudly but quite discernibly as they went by: “...no, I told him, I said that I’ve fucked at least thirty-nine bass players with condoms and his was definitely the smallest, so if he thought he was gonna pull that—”
Nyota’s hand clamped tight over her mouth as Jim squeezed her into picking up the pace, both of them barely managing to tamper in their explosions of laughter before they were a few houses down.
When they arrived back, Christine and Leonard were on opposite ends of the couch facing into each other, her legs loosely crossed around her water glass and one hand animatedly explaining something. They barely seemed to have noticed the other two coming in until Leonard looked over at Nyota almost tripping on an uneven wood panel and got apologetic about the state of the apartment.
Christine said, “Hey, Nyota, we never heard about your dead-guy crush.”
Laughing a little, Nyota stalled for a second and said, “Bruce Lee.”
Jim made a face like he’d lost a game. “Damn. Not exactly ancient history, but who can argue with that?”
Leonard and Christine resumed some story with flitting easy interjections from both of them while Nyota opened a beer and went with Jim next to the balcony window, where they just stood for a moment, as softly wordless as the first snow coming down outside.
He was flipping through the newest Time when the phone rang.
"Hey, I need an opinion," she said without greeting. "Pretty formal date tonight, what should I wear?"
"Um, how about that green one, the kinda short one with the—"
"You know what, I knew you were gonna say that. It's like why do I even call?" And she hung up. Jim put the phone down with a chuckle, read a couple more pages with loose concentration, then called her back.
"Which one have you got on now?"
"That red one I wore for graduation. I think you’ve seen the picture."
"You can always work red. With the little scalloped collar?"
"Did you have a crush on your home ec. teacher or something? I didn't even know it was called that."
"You should see how fast I crochet. So who's the lucky guy?"
“His name’s Avery, and really it’s more like a networking date. He’s going to this banquet with all these investigative big-shots and he knows full well I need to get some connections out there.”
“Using the men to get ahead,” he teased, “you bad girl.”
“He and I had a good laugh about it, actually, but he said he’d take me out to dinner and he is pretty cute, so. We’ll see. Hey, are you going out with that girl you picked up at Carly’s?”
“Hmm,” Jim hesitated. “Possibly. We keep missing each other’s calls, hopefully she doesn’t think by now that that’s on purpose.”
“God, Jim. Get a cell phone.”
“I happen to like being able to screen calls.”
“Everyone screens calls on their mobile.”
“Once, maybe twice. After a point people know they’re being blown off. And I don’t even know why you’re the one who complains more than anyone else, I mean, you’re literally the only person I never screen.”
“Really?” She cocked an eyebrow, trying to hold onto her phone while unzipping out of the dress. “What about Leonard?”
“Bones gets screened a lot, actually. Usually cause I already know what he’s about to say, so it’s like the call itself is all the reminder I need. And I think he almost enjoys being able to do one-sided chiding on my answering machine.”
She chuckled, finding that easy to imagine.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you, you’ve got some hot date for New Year’s, right? Some kinda plans?”
“I’ve got a date with my television and the Slavic languages.”
“Nah. Come on, we should go out. Christine told Bones she could get us all into her office party without a hitch.”
“Christine told Leonard, huh?”
“I thought we weren’t jinxing it.”
“But what do you say?”
“Look, I don’t know, Jim.” She sighed, already inexplicably starting to change her mind. “You really want me to?”
“I’ll come get you at eight.”
The party turned out to be totally worth getting into and out of the cold for. The high-ceilinged ballroom rented out of the convention center had a perfectly stocked bar and echoed vibrantly with swing and motown numbers which the guests actually made no bullshit about moving to. Jim and Nyota were getting windswept to Aretha Franklin while he occasionally pulled her in to say something snarky in her ear about the other couples around them. He made the most fleeting pause to wink over her shoulder at the woman he’d been chatting up while Nyota was in the bathroom earlier, but went back in to turn her under his arm in a fluid snap. Jim had always been a blast to dance with: Unlike most guys she knew he genuinely liked it and didn’t just do it for the social peacocking on the way getting between somebody’s legs, though he undoubtedly could have easily used it for that purpose with other people.
At one point they retired breathlessly to the bar, resuming a conversation they’d been half-having during a quieter song. “I was, yeah, I was a little wounded,” Jim was admitting.
She consolingly patted his forearm, amused.
“I mean...” He made a hesitant gesture. “Well, I’m sure you don’t exactly think I’d be awful, do you?”
Nyota could only laugh, and she turned her attention to the bartender who was making a questioning gesture about her order, yelling, “Just on the rocks, please!...I’m sure you’re somewhere from fine to exceptional. I don’t know. But if you thought she was faking it, you’re probably right.”
Jim leaned his back into the bar a little grumpily after he reached for his drink.
“Just think of it as the female equivalent of losing an erection or something. Sometimes we just can’t get into it.”
“Well, how is that fair?” Jim demanded animatedly. “Either scenario would have been embarrassing for me.”
“You’re forgetting that there are plenty of stupid men out there that wouldn’t consider it any failure of theirs that she didn’t have an orgasm, and some women are very used to those guys. Not that I understand the type of woman who puts up with that,” Nyota said, gesticulating with her slightly slurred emphasis in a way that would have given off that this was hardly her first drink tonight. “I mean, isn’t this girl in communications? How can you trust a woman who’s supposed to excel at talking to other people and can’t even tell a guy how to make her come?”
Jim lost it for a good two minutes over that, surfacing from his sniggering as they went to get some fresh air at the far fringes of the crowds to say, “You are unreal. I swear to God, you’re spectacular. I love you.”
She hadn’t even realized the countdown shouting had started, and she said, laughing, “I love you too.”
“Come here.” He slung her in around the waist and kissed her firmly, once on the cheek and then on her temple, said, “Happy new year, hon.”
“Happy New Year, Jim,” she said back, hugging him tight.
A couple months later Nyota was spending a couple months in China, the timing overlapping a little with a dig tour he was attending in Scotland before hopping to a couple other seminars in Europe. Throughout a given week they’d exchange several emails, some of which he’d leave open on his laptop and click over to with a sad smile before thinking of something else he meant to tell her about. A few days into his stay in Ireland he was totally infatuated with it, but couldn’t stop imagining how much fun they’d both be having if she was there.
A good deal of his last week there was spent with a Trinity student named Laura, who woke him up with a nice hard bite on his hipbone and then with something else nice the morning he had to get up and pack. She’d left him and his body with the lulling impression of hard wit and soft thighs while he fell asleep every night, and he almost wished he could take her back with him.
His laptop chimed at him, alerting him of a new e-mail, and he bent over to glance on it quickly while he was pulling his shirt on. From where Laura was stretching out and brushing her hair out of her face, she muttered, “You don’t have a girlfriend back home, do you?”
He looked quickly over, surprised.
She laughed. “Okay, I guess not. You just seemed kind of...”
“Maybe I am kind of,” he interrupted in playful mockery.
She chuckled and finally rolled up to sitting and putting her own clothes on. Later they kissed goodbye at the door, exchanging nothing else.
At the airport later, he had a hard time spotting her as soon as he got off the plane, and she snuck up to his side hissing, “James Tiberius!” and hopping into his hug as soon as he turned.
He cleared his throat, leaning into the doorway of the fitting room, and when she looked over her face lit up in a smile.
“Oh, that looks great.”
“Why did you even come out here, you know it looks good,” she teased, the cocky glint in his eye not getting past her. “Wrap it up and let’s go.”
He reappeared in a few minutes, interrupted a question about a bag she was looking at with no, he definitely did not have opinions about purses, and then reminded her she needed to pick up something for her manager’s daughter because she’d actually been invited to the birthday party for some vague everyone-loves-Uhura reason, or so he summated.
“Lego set and you’re done,” he insisted.
“I don’t think she’s quite old enough for Legos, so...”
“Something she’ll shove in her mouth then. Go on. I’ll be in electronics.”
She wandered into the toy aisle and considered one thing after another with lazy indecision. Her eyebrow had cocked at a decidedly creepy-looking stuffed animal when she heard a hissed curse pulled from a woman standing a few feet away.
Looking over, she saw a pretty blonde woman with a slightly chipmunk-cheeked grimace, who appeared to have just accidentally cracked the arm right off of a battery-operated robot. It went on creaking through the demo of flashing lights and chirping beeps, moving its one functional arm up and down, only adding to the comical effect of the sight of the woman obviously contemplating whether she was willing to march the broken merchandise up to the front or just leave it there in full sight of another customer. Nyota laughed as soon as the woman’s eyes self-consciously flitted up to meet her, saying, “They don’t make them like they used to, huh?”
The woman laughed back, then, and decided to ditch the toy.
Jim met Nyota up at the front, almost immediately saying, “That is the shadiest little bastard of a teddy bear I have ever seen.”
She tossed it for him to catch and smirk at. He’d just bounced it back at her when he swiveled to lean into the sight of the magazine rack, and then his gaze locked on something and he tensed. She followed his eyes and was puzzled to see he was looking at the woman from the toy aisle.
“Shit,” Jim said in an abrupt groan. “Uh, we’re going. Now.”
But just then the woman noticed him. There was a barely perceptible thud of hesitation, and then she yelled, “Oh, hey, Jim!”
There was a dazed, confused way his eyes followed her approach. “Hey, Carol,” he finally managed.
“It’s good to see you,” she said, stopping in front of him, also a bit flummoxed. “What are you doing these days?”
They caught up for a bit, saying nothing that revealed much of anything to Nyota, until Jim turned to her, giving her a gentle knock on the shoulder. “Sorry. This is Nyota, a good friend of mine.”
“Hi. Carol Marcus,” she said, laughing as she placed Nyota as soon as they shook hands.
“We were...kind of introduced by C3PO in aisle six,” Nyota explained.
“Toys?” Jim said in a jeering way, the attempt at familiar teasing falling a little flat, though Carol had no trouble weeding out the implication.
“Not for kids of ours. None yet.” Carol shook her head with a shrug. “I mean, you’d probably have heard if we did have...”
Jim responded to this so abruptly it was as if the tape skipped over an actual lull in the conversation. “Well, it was nice to run into you.” And when he reached his hand out to her, Nyota realized she could have so easily mistook them for barely more than acquaintances, two old coworkers who chatted all the time but never outside of their professions; but there was a flinch of Carol’s jaw tightening and something hard and daring in the motion of Jim reaching out to shake her hand, and it seemed obvious that that handshake was a deliberate insult, though to what exactly she had no idea.
As soon as they were well out of earshot outside the store, Nyota quietly asked, “Why were you like that? She seemed glad to see you.”
Jim took a blunt hesitation before answering. “A couple of laughs in the baby aisle and you’re ready to take sides?”
“Yes, obviously, since I’m asking you to explain it to me,” she said shortly.
Looking at her straight-on and then back down, Jim opened his mouth but then second-guessed again and fell completely silent.
“...Jim,” she tried again. “Are you okay?”
He softened up a little but it only seemed for her sake, nodding with a nervous smile and saying, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
And he did seem fine, mostly, until she talked about going by the library like they’d planned and could tell he really just wanted to go home for a while and didn’t hold him to it. He gave her a brief one-arm hug when they split up later.
She wasn’t able to sleep. She made some tea and tucked herself into her window overlooking the old movie theatre across the street, with a book that eventually got propped on her chest as she stared thoughtfully out through the glass. A couple leaving a movie embraced and braided into one dark form down in the changing lights of the passing cars; somebody knocked into somebody just down outside her building and she could hear an annoyed string of cussing in response to that or something else.
She was lightly startled when her phone rang, and wasn’t sure if she was surprised when she looked at the ID.
“Hey,” she said, picking up.
There was a heavy uncertain breath on the other line, and she felt an instinctive little strike of concern.
“...Are you alright?”
“Fuck, she...” He swallowed, said with his drunk thick enunciations, “She came over for a while. Came over to talk to me, she said she needed to clear up some shit and...”
“I don’t even know,” he said like he hadn’t heard her. “I don’t know how I feel about it, it’s like I’m so angry and I don’t know why and I feel like—”
“Jim, I’m coming over. Is that okay?”
“You don’t need—”
“I’ll be over in half an hour.”
His door was unlocked when she got there and she hesitantly let herself in, looked around and quickly spotted him sunk far back in his cheap lounge chair by the window.
Jim’s apartment was not the studded ideal out of New York sitcoms but a proper example of postage-stamp-sized city realty, smaller than Nyota’s cozy two-room. But it was something other than the size about it that struck her as more gloomy-looking than she’d ever noticed before. The light from his desk lamp shed a quality of neglected surfaces and the acoustics swallowed up every too-quiet movement so that the place felt strongly of a little too much winter. She crossed the room in a few paces and her first action was to pull the vodka bottle out of his hand. His grasp followed it, noncommittally, before sinking into his lap. She thought, briefly, that he might want a hug, before she felt some bend of reluctance that told her this was not the time and went to go tuck the bottle under his sink.
“How much did you drink?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” he replied simply. He did actually sound more put-together than he had on the phone, if not by much.
“Come on, Jim,” she said, finally taking a seat close by on the futon which, she remembered with another irritatingly vague pang of sadness, was also his bed. “Talk.”
Jim had a hand rubbing at his chin for a few seconds, then dropped that arm down off of his chair sloppily. A long moment went by.
“You don’t have to tell me, but I don’t know what to tell you if you don’t talk.”
Jim’s eyes were distantly glazed, wet-looking. Finally he scratchily spoke. “Carol and I used to date, okay...I even sort of considered her my girlfriend at some point. That kind of dating.”
He came to a stop already, checking, it seemed, for some badly timed response of cheeky surprise over this. When she showed no sign of this, he went on.
“But it was a really vague thing, it was on and off, for a long time, it never quite worked out because it just wasn’t right in a lotta ways, we didn’t...we didn’t want the same things. Eventually we called it off for good when we decided we would just be friends...”
He let out a long breath that didn’t quite have the weight of a sigh. She only waited patiently for him to go on.
“And we were, pretty good friends, for a while. She even introduced me when she met this new guy she was falling for, and me and Owen got along fine, we probably could have all been good friends if things had gone differently. Sooner or later they wound up engaged, I got invited over to celebrate, and everything was just great. But then...maybe a couple months after the engagement, she stopped returning my messages, she stopped picking up on my calls. She’d always been a little hard to get a hold of, so I was slow to realize it but...after a time I couldn’t deny she’d gone and cut me off. And I had absolutely no idea why, but I wasn’t about to go over to her place or butt into her business begging for some explanation, so I just...” He shrugged bitterly. “And then today at the store she has the nerve to walk up to me and act like it’s so good to see me, as if we haven’t both been living in the same city all this time.”
She had her chin rested forward on her knuckles, and finally sat back, prompting, “But she knew she needed to explain herself.”
“Yeah, I...” He made a gesture towards the kitchen. “There was a message waiting for me when I got back, she was saying she was sorry, that she understood if I was unhappy with her, and she’d like to get together...So she came over and decided to finally tell me what the fuck happened.”
After a stretch of hesitation went by without Jim continuing, Nyota said, frowning, “She still had feelings for you.”
He made a low, sad scoffing noise. “You know what the worst part is? I don’t think it occurred to her how much I would really miss her. Like if I’d asked, she probably couldn’t have explained what it is about me that made her feel like that, and maybe that’s why she didn’t feel the need to explain...But yeah, I guess, I don’t know, when you’re getting married to somebody there are some questions that inevitably come up, and one of them was whether she was still carrying a bit of a flame for me...and I guess it was only when this guy she wanted to spend the rest of her life with asked her about it that she realized it was still a problem. Only I had no clue. Was I just supposed to know?”
She watched him agitatedly digging the heels of his hands into his eyes until he dropped them and said, “Shoot. Whatever you’re thinking, just say something, please.”
“You have every right to be angry that she didn’t explain herself at the time,” she said slowly, "but I do have to say I can maybe understand why she could have felt like an actual conversation about it would have been almost impossible to have with you.”
He let out a bitter laugh, saying after a moment, “You think she would have gotten a big fight. Okay.”
“And...you know, maybe the reason she talked to you is because she’s figured everything out, because she has room to start over. She’s still fully committed to this guy?”
“Right, it totally alleviates the whole thing that she wants to have me over for the Christmas dinner party once a year.”
Nyota made a frustrated noise, and Jim’s voice raised.
“I lost a friend and it’s like I’m just supposed to accept that it’s the natural thing, that that’s growing up or whatever. I was honest with somebody I cared about and I lost her anyway and that just makes me so...” He was standing up and pacing hotly back into the kitchen. After a minute he got even more sour, saying, “So yeah, go ahead. Go ahead and ask.”
She was getting up to follow him. “Ask what?”
“Or maybe you’ve already made up your mind about it.”
“If this is the reason I am the way I am. If this happened before or after we first met, and what that means. I mean, you’ve been wondering it, right? What’s the cause and effect?”
“Jim, I don’t think...” She crossed her arms. “I don’t think there’s some missing implement, I don’t think there’s something wrong with you that needs to be fixed, other than being a stubborn little bastard, so stop putting thoughts in my head. And don’t you pick up that whisky, you’ll already be suffering tomorrow morning.”
“Fine. Why don’t you tell me what you are thinking?”
She clenched her jaw as he met her eyes straight-on, looked down. “I’m thinking that I don’t know what you want me to say, or why you called me instead of Leonard, when he would have known you when you knew Carol because I think you’re hurting too much for this not to have happened after we first met....And I’m thinking about how crappy it makes me feel that I don’t know what I'm supposed to say.”
He swerved a little to rest into the kitchen counter, then took a few steps after her when she went back into the main room, watched her lean over to wad up an empty potato chip bag and look around for the garbage can. “Look, I don’t know...Maybe I just wanted you to tell me I’m wrong like you usually do because I always find that weirdly comforting.”
“I don’t always tell you you’re wrong,” she said in a sigh. “But this time you are...way off, pathetically off, just totally completely wrong.”
“...About what?” Jim had stopped in totally perplexed shock to have this play slung back at him in a kind of threatening honesty. She looked back with an unapologetic look that said she was not going to simply ignore the subtext of this entire conversation, of the fact that she had been the one he called, the one he needed.
“About me,” she answered simply.
“...Oh.” He went past her and dropped himself down into the futon, and flatly replied, “That’s sweet.”
He might as well have shoved her into something sharp; she tightened all over, speechless with something that wasn’t anger just yet.
He caught it in her expression and fell to contrite. “Shit.”
“I’m going to get you a glass of water,” she said evenly, “and then I think I better leave.”
He swallowed heavily, blinking around him. There was a long moment before he just said in a kind of lowly boyish acceptance, “Okay.”
At the fridge, she pinched the bridge of her nose, struggling against something until she managed to bluntly shake it off. She returned with the tallest glass she could find filled to the brim, saying, “Drink all of this. You’ll be hungover either way, probably, but...”
She was setting it down on the stand next to the futon. Before she’d made it a step away, his arms were coming around to pull her in at the torso, burying his head against her, something deepening his breathing. “I’m sorry,” he started muttering. “I’m sorry, okay, please don’t leave right now...”
Her eyes were looming forward from this in some shocked plea for something from a horizon, and then her hands fell to his hair and his shoulders, hugging him to her. “Hey. It’s okay...”
He was clamped tight around her waist, his hands squeezing at her clothes, while the room around them seemed to slowly steady itself. Finally he did pull himself back, looking embarrassed, and she asked where he’d have some sweats or something she could borrow. “Drink that,” she insisted again as she disappeared around the corner into his closet.
Later they lay down facing each other on the wide futon, the silence coming in as softly as the darkness of the room after he’d turned off the lamp. Eventually his thoughts started to crackle less recklessly into speech.
“I was just thinking about how...” He rubbed a hand up over his pout for a second. “How I never had anybody to introduce to my mom. How she kept expecting it, but after a while she just stopped asking, like she understood. But I think she was worried. And of course I get it now, because...one day you’re thinking to yourself that you still haven’t replied to that Christmas card or given her a call in a while, and then a week after that she’s dead, and you’ve run out of reasons to ever go back home again.”
He was slowly speaking, more clearly now but with a tight crack of misery.
“And one day you realize your parents are gone, your family’s just trickling farther and farther away, and you’re supposed to just go out into the world and find new family, make new family...” He swallowed roughly. “And if you don’t know how to do it or want it in the same way that other people want it, you’re just kind of fucked. And it’s this huge city, with so many goddamn people, and you can still be just kind of fucked, because...”
He rolled over onto his back a little, hesitating for so long that she had to quietly ask, “What?...”
“It sounds so overdramatic, so juvenile...It’s like everything I say to you sounds so juvenile,” he said, his voice casting a bitter blow over the air, “and usually I’m actually fine with this whole thing, but the fact is whether it’s somebody I talk to for five minutes at a bar or some one-night stand or somebody I was really close to for five years, I think I’m always the one who cares just that little bit more. Every single time. And it’s like there are these set avenues that tell you how you’re supposed to declare it, and I don’t know how to take them.”
“Ah, sweetie.” Nyota was rubbing at her eyes, her frustration with him softer than before. “You know Leonard isn’t going anywhere. And neither am I.”
“You say that now.” He interrupted her protest with his voice twisted in soft regret, “You say that now, but you’ll meet somebody. You will, and maybe he’ll have a problem with me or maybe he won’t, maybe we’ll just grow apart, but it’s what happens when people find somebody, and I’ll be fine and I’ll love you and we’ll still talk, but...”
“That’s such bullshit. What makes you think I’d just let you go?”
His face had propped out of some strip of light from the window and she could barely see him, only sense the defeated sigh away from some oldest question he’d never quite had an answer for. Suddenly tired, way too tired, she turned away from him, her back arching slightly into a fetal position as she bunched one of the pillows under her neck.
“Let’s just talk in the morning,” she muttered. “Turn the TV on if you want.”
His breathing slowly became a lazily thoughtful brush of noise just behind her, their bodies only touching where the balls of her feet fell up under him a bit. After a few minutes she felt him moving to his side but still holding still, as if pensive. In another moment, his hand came over her shoulder and turned her just slightly into him.
In some instinctive movement, her face turned up when his came close for a gentle hesitation, and the kiss on her lips was as pure and firm as any other promise, brief and yet slow, loving in its careful caution. And then his mouth plucked away and lingered over her only barely, before he turned back into his side and she felt his back warm and solid against hers.
In another minute, she hazily thought, it will be as if that never happened.
They fell asleep together, too soon to confirm or deny it.
In the morning he was lying almost flat on his stomach and crammed far into the corner of the futon, and her arm was slung over his back, her face falling in next to his arm. She blinked her head up, yawned, and gave his shoulder blades some absent pats as she sat up to rub at her eyes.
She took a shower and put her clothes back on, borrowing some of his deodorant with a mental note to make fun of him later for his choice of testosterone-charged commercial brand, but then doing a double take at the scent of it. He was still hard asleep when she came back out. She refilled his water glass and set it down next to the Advil she found in his medicine cabinet. Crouching down next to the futon, she blew a narrow gust of air on his bangs. A twitch of eyelashes but no real sign of life.
Sitting back then, she crossed her arms and just looked at him a moment, as if a close enough inspection would tell her whether she should stay or go. The simple silence of the room and the sight of him sleeping in front of her swelled up to an odd pain in her chest. She sighed, stood up, and left him a note with the white lie that Christine needed a favor and urging him to call her later if he wanted to.
Without really thinking about what she was doing, she picked up a few bagels, checked the time, and then took a cab over to Leonard’s place. A woman walking a greyhound let her in at the main door.
She hoped it wouldn’t bother him that she was showing up without any warning. When she stopped in front of his door she hesitated for a short moment, let out a gust of air and then knocked lightly.
A woman’s voice, vague and then crisply familiar, was heard through the wood as she was laughing a bark of a remark at something, and then the door was opened a small gap. She was about to stick her head out when Nyota said, “Chris?”
The two looked at each other through the crack, flushing and wide-eyed, and momentarily Nyota forgot all about the mood of this morning or last night in the rush of giddy shock as she realized Christine was only dressed in a bathrobe.
Her mouth dropped open. “Oh my god, you are in so much trouble.”
Christine opened the door a little wider, her eyes wandering up in defeated amazement. “Ah, good lord, this is such a cliché.”
“You are in so much trouble,” Nyota repeated, hushed and emphatic as she pushed through the door and grabbed at Christine’s shoulders.
At a quick secretive mutter, she said, “Look, I was going to tell you, but this is only the second time and I just didn’t want to mess things up by making too big a something out of it...”
“Who is it?” Leonard had appeared at the end of the long hallway, his hair a little mussed and his flannel pants and t-shirt well-ruffled, and he stopped in surprise. “You called Nyota?”
“No, she’s...here on her own,” Christine stammered, still recovering from her embarrassment. Nyota passed by lightly punching her in the arm, and Christine grabbed the bag. “Any poppy seed in here?”
Leonard was looking at Nyota, a soberness in him now. “Are you here to tell me what’s wrong with Jim? We were supposed to go to a movie last night and he never picked up.”
Nyota hesitated for a short beat. “I guess that’s part of it.”
“Is everything okay?” Christine asked. When she got a complicated sort of shrugging and nodding for that, Leonard looked relieved that it wasn't something emphatically awful that had gone down.
“Yesterday he ran into this...this woman he knew, I don’t know how much I should say.”
“I was about to take off, actually.” After giving herself that cue to go change, Christine returned after Leonard had put on some coffee, fastening a belt over her sweater dress and asking if he remembered where she’d left her boots. She gave Nyota a warm little hug and then lingered for a second, looking at Leonard. "See you soon?”
“Would you get over here?” he said, all warm gruffness when she’d looked like she was about to start straight for the door.
As she smiled and came closer to him, Nyota rolled her glance up to the ceiling for a few seconds, managing to look down and catch Christine’s eyes at the end of the relatively innocent but thorough goodbye kissing to dramatically mouth, “So much trouble.” Christine chuckled at her as she pulled back, and as soon as she was out the door Leonard looked immediately sheepish, making some placating gesture and stammering quickly.
“Look, I know I’m not the best candidate for anybody, especially not right now, but I really really like Christine...”
Nyota shook this off. “I think it’s great, Leonard. Really. Jim and I have kinda been expecting it for months now.”
This surprised him more than she would have anticipated; maybe Jim was better at keeping his mouth shut than she gave him credit for. “Really?”
After a moment he sighed, looking very relieved, but not entirely relaxed. “So it was Carol?”
Her brief explanation hummed by into smaller talk they made as they poured their coffee and zipped up their jackets to bring it all out onto the balcony. Jim had made a lot of disclaimers about Leonard’s temperament before introducing the two of them, but the guy’s company could be a lot more calming than one might initially imagine. If he couldn’t afford this type of apartment she really didn’t know how a man like him would survive living in New York, but the cluttered ebbing of the city waking up far below them had an altered sort of attitude next to the antique feel of his residence.
She propped one leg up to place the mug on her knee. A silence had wandered into the conversation, and Leonard finally broke it.
“You didn’t sleep with him, did you?”
She’d been staring vaguely at a blue curtain moving in the window of an adjacent apartment far across the street. It seemed like the question should have knocked at her hard, but the surprise landed, present but lazy, in her prompt movement of looking at him. “No.”
He looked down into his mug and took a drink, waited.
She decided to dive in. “...Have you been expecting that to happen some day, with him and me?”
“The thing is, I never really thought too much about that at all. The first time I met you and saw the way it was between you two, I just kind of accepted that it would be whatever Jim said it would be, and...” He sat up, crossing a leg as a thoughtful gust of air went out of him. He thought carefully. “But if I’m totally honest, I think at the back of my head, I always sort of thought you kids might end up like one of those couples that stay friends for a long time, for years and years, until one day they get it together and it’s almost the afterthought, you know? I knew two people like that, growing up. Will-and-Susan, Susan-and-Will, it always rolled off the tongue like they were brother and sister or a married couple, but you ask anyone and no, they’re just good friends. She was widowed when they met, and later on he got married but it didn’t work out...And finally when they were in their late thirties or early forties people finally saw them around town holding hands. And then only a couple weeks after that, they were engaged. And I guess it made sense because...they knew each other so well, there was so little else they needed to figure out.”
She cozied her hands tighter around the heat of the coffee cup, biting her lip and having nowhere to begin.
“I feel like I’m stepping on the wrong crack here, like it’s bad luck to even ask, and you can tell me to mind my own beeswax if you want,” Leonard said. “But did you ever think about it?”
There was a heaviness in both their eyes as they met, the understanding that for some reason this had to be approached with absolute care, as if they should barely even speak about it at all.
“I mean...” He shrugged. “This could all be very cut and dry if you’re just not into Jim, for all I know.”
After a moment, she sat up a little but looked down as she said, “Well, I know that as friends we make each other very happy.”
He gave a rueful look. “You know that’s not much of an answer.”
“I know. But maybe it’s the only one I have, for now.”
After a second Leonard accepted that with a slight nod. She thought of what she needed to say.
“It almost feels different now,” she said slowly, “because before I was so sure he was right, when he said he was perfectly happy the way he’s been living. Or at least I knew to mind my own business; you know how he gets. And still, I think he can be just fine on his own and some of the stuff he said was mostly the booze talking, but I don’t think it all was. And I don’t know anymore if he avoids the whole business because he truly doesn’t want it or if he just doesn’t think he would ever be enough for anybody...It feels like a huge thing to realize.”
Leonard’s eyes had the sharp clarity of the unsettled, of someone whose hunch has been confirmed in the undesirable direction. He rested his mouth into his hand, thinking.
Abruptly she continued in a rise of agitation, “And the worst of it is that I think both things could be true, or that one idea has just cleft so thoroughly onto the other it’s impossible to say which came first, and how am I supposed to talk to him directly about that? Everything is a damn debate with him. You know what he’d be saying if he were here standing in that corner? It would be like, how predictable of me to get into thinking about this when I’m not even completely sure one way or the other. He’d be saying that the only reason you and I are talking about the possibility is because we’re conditioned to think of it because I’m a straight woman and he’s—”
Leonard had put out his hand to interrupt her, a level expression on his face. “But you know, right, that all of that acrobatic intellectual pissing around is just a bunch of hot air?”
“...God, you really know how to mix a few metaphors, Leonard,” she said in a sigh, leaning back in her chair as if suddenly very tired. “What are you trying to tell me here?”
“I’m saying...” He stammered off, grunting at his own hesitance. “Look, you gotta know that there’s a place in his head where he knows full well that if he could ever take the leap, it would be for somebody like you. And it wouldn’t be so much like Will and Susan either. You are not the type of woman that a man just settles with because ‘it’s about time,’ and he’s gotta know that there are always going to be other guys, but God’s wild horses could not drag it out of him if he actually wanted to be with you because as far as he knows you probably don’t need any of that and the last thing he’d want is some kind of pity from you. That is, the only way he’d ever admit it is if you brought it to him. And even then...”
“Look...” She shook her head as if trying to dispel even her own thoughts on the matter. “You are shading this like it’s on me to change his mind, or 'open him up' or—”
“Well. In a way—”
“It’s on him, Leonard.” She let that sit in some invisible thud, and went on with solid conviction. “What I came here to tell you is that he might be a little confused and that he’s in some kind of complicated pain right now and I’m hurting too because it hurt me to see it. Now, you may be right that he’s capable of feeling the things he claims he doesn’t or won’t feel for people, but whether he’s always been built that way or chooses to act like he is, I’m not going to try to tell him how to live his life. This isn’t going to turn into some chick lit story where we're going to twist it like choosing to fall in love with somebody is somehow more or less virtuous than everything else he is; it’s not. I judged him hard the first day we met and I wasn’t ready to understand it then, but I would never insult him now by claiming he is not committed to me in whatever way is important to him.”
Leonard had begun to look thoughtfully out at the city, as he reluctantly nodded his understanding. “Clear this up for me. He’s been this way since he met you? Since before Carol?”
“...Yeah, I guess you would have assumed that. No, it’s not because of Carol. I don’t think it’s because of any one person, it just isn’t that simple.”
“But then how did he end up getting a little serious with her in the first place?”
“He’s not so systematic as you might imagine.” She shrugged, not having really needed to dwell on that factor. “He could have just slipped up. People break their own rules, especially if they can be broken gradually...Look, I understand that you just want him to be as happy as he can possibly be, but this is only a phase for him if he decides that it is.”
“...Then why,” he asked slowly, carefully, “are you so worried?”
Slightly taken aback by this, she looked out over the planes of roofing and sky, recalling with sudden vividness Jim’s staggering vulnerability the night before, her mind working in a wobbly flicker from the moment she’d arrived to see his wounded eyes and all the way to his arm at her shoulder and that goodnight kiss she would not tell Leonard about. The moment of consideration lasted longer than intended, but she found she couldn’t look back ahead; when she turned it was to put her face in her hand.
When he realized she was crying his chair moved in, his hand going to her arm, urging her out of it and murmuring, “Come on, it’s alright.”
She spoke with quick feeling now. “I don't know why I'm so freaked out. It’s just that if he ever changed his mind, if he ever realized or decided that he wanted it, he could make somebody so happy. But nobody’s ever shown him that, and if nobody ever does...”
“Let me tell you something.” Leonard shook her a little bit so that she looked up at him. “I know a few things about that kid, and I can tell you...if there is anybody he has ever met who could show him that, just by being around, just by caring about him, it sure as hell has got to be you. You don’t have any idea how much it knocks him off his feet that you are his in any way, that he actually gets to call you a friend. You understand?”
Beginning to feel more steadied for the first time that morning in a way she hadn’t realized she needed, Nyota finally nodded.
“For now all you have to do and all you can do is what you were gonna do anyway,” Leonard added, “which is be there for him. For a long time. For as often as he needs it. I’m sure it’s too fatalistic for either of your tastes to say what’s meant to happen will happen, but if you don’t want to over-think it, just make each other happy, and let it be. Okay?”
She was beginning to feel ridiculous—for crying, for the way she’d been unable to cast off some deep melancholy the night before had scraped up out of her—but also touched by the easy comfort she’d found in this purely linear wisdom. She nodded. “Okay.”
“You want to freshen up that coffee there?” He opened the door to invite her back inside, and she got up to follow.
“Sure,” she said with a sniff. “Listen, Leonard...could you not tell Jim I came over here?”
His eyes were light and warm on hers for a brief moment. “You didn’t really need to ask. Now, while we’re being sorely predictable, why don’t you give me a juicy story or two about Christine?”
Late winter was shrugging one of its last snowfalls as Jim walked off his grogginess around the Linden Terrace at a slow aimless pull. He’d woken feeling better but with that crowding sense of hungover humility; the scent left lingering next to him made him remember how he’d very briefly woken at the tap of Nyota shutting the door behind her when she quietly took off.
He hadn’t been so drunk that he couldn’t remember most everything she’d said or done for him, but it came to him when it was ready to come, and the vague embarrassment he felt actually wasn’t so strong as the tide of comfortable gratitude.
Staring off into the icy expanse over the water, his gaze strayed in a light flinch to the two women sitting on a nearby park bench at the sound of one of their cell phones blaring a Star Wars ringtone, the other reaching over to squeeze a knee in some kind of anticipation as she answered. He reflexively picked up a slightly faster pace as he passed them up.
He thought about Carol, wondering if that hurt now as much as it had the night before. When his heart gave no simple hint of how to measure this, he wondered if the whole quake had really been about her at its core. She had done a good dent on him and he did miss her, but in truth he’d stopped thinking about her more than occasionally until he was smacked with the sight of her at the shop the day before. If it had all caught up to him at a different time, he may have just accepted her friendliness with more confusion than anything else.
Carol had always been great company, and maybe for a brief time he’d contemplated that he may have been falling in love with her, shortly before they both at least claimed to have burned that bridge; but even when they’d been very good friends you wouldn’t have thought either of them were the sharing type. Her presence hadn’t had such a versatility with his own that made the lack of it felt in the most mundane pockets of his life. She’d secured a big part of herself so independently, almost secretively, in a way that made her eventually apparent inability to repress her feelings so shocking that Jim had almost felt the emotions themselves were some heavy betrayal; he’d understood after all that that was probably the reason she'd felt she needed to cut him off, even if it had taken until much later for him to get the explanation.
Nyota was a bit like her, actually. She had a beautiful impermeability to her, but at the same time a total sincerity which, once earned, had a way of being warmly shaped by the same forwardness that could be sharp and cold in other instances. Only she was invaluable. The idea of losing her—not just by a half to that seemingly inevitable distance of e-mails and the occasional Christmas party in late adulthood—but altogether, was so unthinkable it hadn’t even reddened his mind in any vivid way when he’d been blasted on the vodka, until she’d voiced the fear for him and his cold mockery had alerted both of them to the fact that he did actually believe it could happen.
There was a tittering of a distant voice and he spared a look back at the two young women, one of them now out of the bench with excitement, snickering in a high response. He looked back ahead, blinking, somehow not having expected that laughter.
The truth was that Jim used to carry a cell phone, not even that long ago. The news that his mother was dead had reached all the way from a sparse Iowa country road to some curbside where he’d just shrugged a goodbye to Bones, and maybe it had been some unconscious weakness planted in him by that occurrence that made him want to get rid of it, the fact that if he hadn’t had a mobile he could have gone some few more hours of his life with that type of ground still solid underneath him.
He had always thought, assumed somewhere far in the back of his mind where it felt morbid to even expect one way or the other, that his would be a nice sophisticated kind of grief, that he would just manage to be a strong and silent little cowboy about this eventual part of life. And maybe if he had been responsible for the peace of mind of anyone other than himself he could have managed to put up his backbone, but it was only him. Only him getting clapped right into when he stopped short in the thick of the sidewalk as if he couldn’t see anything.
If Bones hadn’t happened somehow to look back and see this just before he took off into the walkway, Jim may have ambulated right into traffic for all he could know. When the careful but firm hands took him by the arms, all he could say was, “Oh God. Oh God. She isn’t even sixty,” until Bones dragged him carefully into the hotel a few doors up and managed such an effortlessly authoritative urgency when he asked if they had somewhere a guy could catch his breath for a couple hours that the guy at the front desk handed them a free room key with no questions asked. And then in the suite Jim dropped into an easy chair and Bones sat down across from him and simply asked, “Your mother?” and it took Jim a deluge of very slow minutes to get past the shocked onset of tears in order to be able to say anything at all.
Leonard and Jim had barely been more than acquaintances then. They’d run into each other at the same bar enough times for Jim to have been able to guess about the impending demise of his marriage, and only twice they’d idled out of the pub to go get to know each other over a bite to eat. The lightning strike of Jim’s grief had made them settle permanently into a solid friendship, and though Jim hadn’t spent any conscious time second-guessing the man’s love for him, he supposed there was always a place in the back of his mind that thought it had been awfully inconvenient for Bones that he hadn’t had anyone else he could lean on during those first weeks. He’d assumed reflexively that the tighter camaraderie that followed had been more of a series of follow-up appointments connected to that one essential favor Bones had just been too good to deny, rather than some real desire to be all of that for Jim.
And then Nyota came along. He remembered her standing on the street with a hardened desperation in her eyes that was not so raw but instantly recognizable to the still-recovering, and his reason for being that to someone else had been so natural as to seem fateful. The simple currency of her trust in him had applied infinitely to other layers of his life; the affection around him suddenly seemed so simple and so earned but also more rare in all the best ways. He still dwelled painfully on his regrets that he couldn’t have just gotten with the picture and talked a little more plainly to his mom now and then, that he’d taken for granted she was still far from death, but it wasn’t the kind of regret wielded as self-harm. He hurt for Nyota on top of it, when she admitted to the day she stayed in bed for hours listening to her dad’s favorite record or to the way she would clean out and purge random belongings from her closet in an attempt to feel more put-together. In the evenings they went out and laughed and late at night they calmed to endless circuits of conversation while sprawled on her couch or in the quieter bars, and there would just sometimes be a warmly teasing look between them that seemed to thoughtfully say, We almost didn’t do any of this. Can you believe that?
Even more meaningful was the revelation that when they’d talked tirelessly about their differences from the start, it turned out that some part of her had actually listened. Because after he’d attempted to explain that he was no coward but simply had a different definition for what was the most absolute state of what it was to love someone, she had shown up in his life in another handful of years, cracking slightly open as she stood dripping and crying before him, and asked him to be her friend. And hadn’t that been bravery?—The kind usually reserved for knock-kneed declarations of passion or stealing a first kiss at the airport, but all the same in its importance. It all looked, suspiciously, prettily, like a love story.
He shoved his hands into his pockets, and thought to himself that maybe it was. Why the hell not? His head was laughing, sharing some joke with the sprawling uncertainty of his own fate as it looked back at him with the cards still face-down, not caring for its confirmation or denial. Maybe it was.
She’d just flicked the burner on to make some tea, and turned the knob back off when her phone rang.
“Hey, guess what?” Jim’s voice, and then a series of knocks she heard simultaneously at her door and in duller beats through the call.
She went to the door and opened it with a slow smile, revealing Jim with a smartphone held to his head. “Well, Jim, it’s about damn time. Welcome to society.”
He hung up, grinning, slipping the phone into a back pocket as he went past her into the apartment. “Are you ready to go?”
“Ready to go where?”
“I thought Christine would have told you. They want us to come to this party; it sounds like some kind of surgeon shindig but you never know what the conversation’s gonna be with that crowd. Also his place is on Park Avenue so it’ll probably be nice and swanky.”
“Oh, lord, am I even in the mood for swanky?” She started to boil her water again, making a thoughtful restless motion with one foot bouncing up over the other.
“Whatever. You could show up in your pajamas and you’d still have more class than half of the interns, from what I’ve heard.” She gave him a smile for that, which he returned with a gentle kick at her slipper. “Come on.”
“I’ve got work to catch up on, but...” Her eyes followed him while he peeked into her fridge, her hesitation already breaking. “What the hell.”
She wore the green dress and they both drank about half a bucket of chardonnay, all the while using this outing to camouflage recent events. She found herself uncertain about whether there was any need for that, whether there was anything either of them needed to say. But she did want to know if he was doing okay, and she felt the need to keep some kind of close eye on him. He seemed to notice this; well, of course he did.
Christine made the mistake of mentioning what day it was that Nyota had shown up and discovered her with Leonard, her immediate balking look giving away the reason she’d probably been there more than anything else. Nyota just shifted on her heels and went off to find somewhere to get rid of her empty glass.
Later she and Christine went up together to the rooftop. Christine, always surprisingly cavalier about heights, bowed a bit farther over the edge than Nyota was willing to do with wine in her system, looking to report on Leonard’s entertaining expressions as he mingled with some cardiologist on the balcony just below. After she sat down with a contentedly tired motion next to Nyota, neither of them worrying too much about dirtying their dresses on cigarette stubs, there was a fall of silence.
“I think I might love him,” Christine finally said with a dazed, surprised weight.
Nyota began to giggle lazily, and she got a light kick to her ankle for that.
“What’s so funny?”
“No, it’s not funny. It’s great.” She lightly patted Christine on the knee. “I’m just happy. I bet he loves you too.”
“Oh, he better,” Christine cooed, and they both fell into companionable laughter for another moment. When this finally abated, she got a little serious, looking into Nyota’s eyes for a second. “You’re doing okay, right?...I haven’t seen you with anyone for a while.”
“I’m fine. I don’t know why that’s been,” she said, considering. “I just feel like trying to care about someone that way isn’t something I can do halfway, and it’s not the best time to try.”
There was a slip of silence, Christine thinking. “Because you’re so busy, or because of your dad?”
“Busy” never seemed to get in the way of her routine escapes on Jim’s time, but neither of them mentioned this of course; it was as if it didn’t occur to her because his presence had fallen into her habits so naturally that it was barely up for questioning. Whatever it was that had grown between her and him wasn’t something she could ever forget to keep watering. She said, “I guess it’s both, really.”
Jim appeared after a minute, his voice surprising them a little out of the dimness when he asked, “What are you two doing on the floor? I think Bones needs you, Christine.”
“Is he running out of stories he can use to scare the interns?” she asked, accepting a hand from him as she stood up.
Nyota moved to get up too, but Jim gave a motion to wait and then took the place where Christine had been sitting.
After a steady moment of listening to the music that was thrumming up from the balcony, she asked, “Am I in trouble?”
“What, for going to Bones about me?” Jim asked in a chuckle with a sidelong look, but he seemed somehow comforted about something by her forwardness.
“...I just want to know if you need anything.” Her hands were wringing together a little where they hung off the bump of her knees. “And that you’re not going to bite my head off for worrying about you from time to time.”
“You’ve got your own problems. Don’t worry about my little relapse.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, you little bastard,” she said cleanly, looking ahead while he scoffed. “We’ll get out of the woods together. How’s that?”
Jim’s eyes on her seemed careful, hesitant. After a short moment he seemed to kick himself into asking, “And then what?”
“I’ll still be around, if you want me for more than the support group.”
“I do,” he said, the admittance quick.
“Okay,” she said, not surprised, but still feeling relief settle somewhere inside of her.
They were silent. Then Jim said in a quick kind of caution, “I thought about what you said, about why Carol probably didn’t feel like she could talk to me, back then. And you’re right. But I want you to know, just in general...it would never be like that with you. I would never fight you on anything you needed, anything you felt. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve grown the hell up or if it’s just different with you, but...”
She watched him carefully as his hand scrubbed briefly at the back of his neck, then dropped back down bluntly.
“Christ, Nyota, the truth is there isn’t much of anything I wouldn’t do for you. And that includes letting you walk, I guess. Ain’t life grand.” His tone was a strange contradiction, like wonder masked partly by sarcasm. She looped her arm snugly through his.
“You won’t have to,” she said. “And anyway, you’ll find other people too. No, you will. Maybe you’ll have less time for me sooner or later. Maybe that uptight supervisor you’ve been putting up with will be your new best friend some day.”
“...We’re both a little difficult, aren’t we?”
“Challenging,” he playfully corrected. “We’re challenging pains in the ass.”
“But that’s why we both know to hold onto what we’ve earned. Right?”
His eyes met hers before gliding back ahead. He seemed deep in some thought that he grappled his way out of in abrupt chagrin. “I shouldn’t have kissed you,” he quietly said. “I’m sorry.”
She considered this only briefly. “I’m not.”
His mouth moved to an uncomfortable half-cringe, but when he looked up and into her eyes he seemed to understand what her forwardness meant: that she would do just about anything for him except lie to him, that she had no intention of spending some handful of eternity at his side with the two of them bending over backwards to pretend that that kiss or some momentum that was behind it never crossed either of their minds. He saw that for now it was nothing but honesty. He reached down and squeezed her hand for a moment.
“Hey,” he said a moment later in some abruptly high mood, standing and already moving to pull her up with him. The song choices had melted into jazz melodies, slowing the thin air around them. “You like this song?”
“Do you even know how to slow-dance?” she teased. “Or do you get dizzy staying vertical with somebody for that long?”
“Oh, that’s cute,” he said with a soft roll of his eyes, pulling in the small of her back in a sneer of a gesture that positioned them both fluidly into the swaying. Smiling lightly, she pressed her forearm farther across the slope of his shoulders and leaned in, pressing her other hand into a lazy hold with his below his collarbone.
Their movements emerged from the dusty dark of the rooftop like some ribbon blowing in the wind: an intimacy to be caught sight of in the corner of an eye, but never looked at straight-on. She rested her temple at his cheek and after a while began to hum vaguely along, feeling the curl of a smile on his face. And she thought to herself how it had just been a joke but surely there had to be some upright way to press that promise between two people, a lullaby for those who stood up as surely as the towers scraping the sky around them.
He cradled her a little closer, their feet not quite touching. She closed her eyes, and she didn’t think of what it had been like to fall asleep with him as much as she thought of these past months, the better part of a year that she’d spent with him, falling slowly awake.