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He’s twenty-two the first time he thinks she might take him seriously. Which is funny because he’s got his Class of ‘14 tassel stretched out over his ear, and has had more than a few beers, but not everything in life has to make sense. Most of it makes no sense at all.

She’s rubbing the green and gold strings along his shoulder and he wonders if he’ll have a sunburn in the morning, there, on the spot she just skimmed over.

“You know you did this because of me,” she says, and he has no idea what she means. “Like, if I’d never convinced you to come home from Hawaii, you may have never graduated.”

“Oh, well thank you.”

“Maybe I should go to college,” she says. “If it’ll get me a sweet party like this.”

“Yeah, you know, burgers, pool floats, your dad trying to instigate a sword fight with a mosquito torch. Nothing like this to say you’ve achieved the goal of higher education.”

“Come on, Trav, seriously, you know everyone’s proud of you.”

“What about you? You’re proud of me?”

“Of course I am! There’s nothing this big that I’ve ever followed through on. I’m still paying off my car and I bought that when you were in high school, okay? So, enjoy this.”

He knows she’s right. That he’ a college graduate now, a man, with interviews lined up and a diploma on the way to him in the mail. The first one in the family to make it this far even if he doesn’t know how he got here. The last time he checked in on his life, he was standing in the registrar’s office sophomore year.

But it’s happened, anyway, regardless of how unaware he was. He’s done it, accomplished something.

The sky’s looking like rainbow sherbet and Grayson’s throwing his little brother in the pool, and Travis feels light and good, so much so, that he doesn’t stop himself from putting his hand on Laurie’s knee.

She’d said, “It’s like the world’s your oyster, Trav. You can do anything you want,” right before, and, yeah, he guesses he can. He moves his thumb, slow and deliberate, and assumes this side of him grew in too, while he wasn’t paying attention.

She doesn’t pull away, doesn’t say his name like he should know better. She lets him stay there, the joint warm and solid under his palm.

He finishes what’s left in his High Life, his mother laughing on the other side of the yard, and he thinks about how he’s always liked Laurie, for as long as he can remember.

***

By the time June’s getting ready to wrap up, Travis has exhausted all of his employment opportunities. The problem is either that he’s too experienced or lacks experience, depending on which person is interviewing him.

But actually, the real problem is that he’s been sleeping on his mom’s couch for over a month now, and there’s nothing like that to make you feel like the biggest waste of life on the planet. He woke up the other morning to his little brother, Charlie, putting Cheerios on his face while Grayson video taped it on his phone.

He was supposed to have a job by now, and be working on getting an apartment and not staring at his suit in the dry cleaning bag on the back of the bathroom door while he brushes his teeth. And that’s how he decides he’s going to just take the job at the golf course that his dad organized. Because at least it’s something other than watching Ellen in his boxers.

Somehow it’s even worse though, getting the paycheck for serving whiskey to old men at 10 o’clock in the morning. Listening to them talk about their gout. Their bad shoulders. Leaving him the change from a round of three drinks that works out to about 60 cents a service.

He looks at the coins in the jar, almost always exclusively coins, and swears when he gets home he’s going to send out more resumes. But then he parks his car that the AC doesn’t work in any more, and he’s tired and his feet hurt and he knows he’s going to have to go back the next morning. Catch his dad looking at him like this wasn’t the way he had intended things to go. And so he winds up using his computer instead to refresh Facebook and look at people more successful than he is.

And he gets angry, in that misdirected kind of way, where he hates Jeremy for having a girlfriend, and the fact that Veronica goes to Happy Hours with her coworkers. Travis doesn’t even know if he’s ever going to be able to go into a bar and feel happiness again. Which he knows isn’t Veronica’s fault, or his mom’s, or anyone’s really but his, but it’s easier to just be mad and blame the universe.

Which is what he’s doing on a Tuesday, the week stretching out ahead of him long and empty, all the worse because there was cake here this morning and now there’s not. He sighs, staring at the crumbs still stuck to the plate at the bottom of the sink.

“Hey, Travis!” Laurie calls to him from the living room where she’s painting her nails over a stack of files. “How was your day?”

“Shitty,” he says, rooting around in the cabinet, only finding granola bars.

“You’re not going to ask me how my day was?”

He asks her, “How was your day, Laurie?” like it takes all the strength he has left and he doesn’t know why.

“It was fine, thank you.” He flops down next to her on the sofa, and she somehow doesn’t smudge the index finger she’s coating for a second time. Still looking at her nails, she says, “Before I come across like a total bitch, did anything actually terrible happen today?”

“Nothing ever happens for me any more.”

She slams the brush back into the bottle and turns to him in what is typically a showing of surrender, hands in the air, but that she’s somehow making look predatory. “Okay. Look. So you’re working a job you hate. That doesn’t make you special. I used to sweep hair for nine hours a day. I’ve stood on the side of the road holding a sign while wearing a bikini and I can get bodily fluids out of sheets, carpets and upholstery from the year I spent at a motel in Ft. Lauderdale. And I hated doing all those things. Hated them. So, I quit. And I slept on people’s floors and ate nothing but Ramen, or I sucked it up and worked it until something better came along. You need to accept it or accept the alternative, Trav, that’s all you can do, because sulking around and being miserable isn’t going to get you anywhere. So which is it going to be?”

He’s so used to his mother’s quiet demeanor, the way she lets him get away with everything, that he doesn’t even know how to respond to this approach. Laurie isn’t jumping in to help him out either. She’s just waiting, the smell of her pink nails heavy in the room, and all Travis can be sure of in this moment is that he doesn’t want Laurie to be disappointed in him any more.

“What do you think I should be doing?”

“I think you should figure it out for yourself.” She looks down at her hand, tilting it and apparently liking the way it catches the light, because she scoops up the files and her keys and heads for the door. “You’re smart, you’ll know what to do.”

She doesn’t sound surprised when he calls her that night and says he’s going to try to get out. And she’s not shocked either when a week later he’s got a new job doing the copy for an up and coming advertising agency.

“You’re the only one who thought you couldn’t do this,” she tells him quietly, during a hug that lasts maybe a little too long. Her breath on his neck something he knows he’s going to remember even though it should be no different than any other time someone’s whispered something in his ear. “And if it sucks, there’s always something else out there.” He professes his thanks into her shoulder and wishes she had both arms around him, that she didn’t have to be holding champagne.

***

He probably shouldn’t be spending his first paycheck before he’s even set up his direct deposit, but he’s taking Laurie out for her birthday. Even if she doesn’t want him to, which seems to be the consensus because every time he texts her a suggestion, she turns him down.

He finally corners her at his mom’s two days before when she’d swung by to help with a root touch up that both Ellie and Grayson have botched in the past. “Do you have plans with someone or something? Some boyfriend you don’t want everyone to know about? You can tell me, you know. I’ll keep it a secret.”

“I just don’t want to do anything, Travis. It’s not a big deal.” She slips off the little plastic gloves they came in the hair dye box like an old pro, not touching her skin at all.

“I feel like I owe you so much, let me do this.”

“No, alright?!” She actually yells it at him and he’s so taken aback he’s concerned he might have jumped a little. “Thank you,” she follows, more calmly. “But I don’t want to celebrate this year. Tell your mom I’ll see her at work.”

And she’s just gone, without having a glass of wine, or watching the tail end of a movie that’s on cable, or even giving him a goodbye. He hates it so much he decides to just ignore her even though she’s given him the best advice out of anyone this summer.

Which is why on Thursday night, he knocks on her door with the hand that’s not holding a bag of takeout, loudly, for at least a minute before she comes and opens it.

“I thought I made it clear that I was not in the spirit to celebrate my birthday,” she says to him, icily, and he looks at her in her oversized t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms and feels really sad for some reason.

“Oh no, this isn’t for your birthday. This is just...dinner. Because I’m supposed to take a client to dinner next week and wanted to know if the food at this place was good.”

She’s smiling, in spite of herself. “You don’t have clients.”

“Alright, fair, I might not have clients, but I do have this food. So, either you’re going to make me eat this stuff alone in my car, or you’ll let me come in and at least share it with you.”

“Why don’t you eat in your own house?” she asks, even though she’s stepping aside to let him in.

“Because Andy’s there and he probably wouldn’t even leave me any sauce at the bottom of the plate to dip a piece of bread in.”

“Oh sweetie, that’s nice that you think he’d leave some bread.” He can see her trying to tidy up the living room, moving a box of tissues back to the side table, reorganizing a slew of magazines, while he unpacks the food. He thinks about Laurie crying alone on her couch on her birthday over an article in a stupid magazine until it hurts too much to do it.

She brings over the bottle of wine that was on the coffee table that’s certainly more empty than full, and pours him a glass. It still feels weird to him sometimes that he’s allowed to do this now. That he doesn’t have to feel like Laurie’s letting him get away with something.

He offers her the lasagna, even though she swears up and down that, no, really, the pasta primavera is her favorite, but finally takes it from him, smiling and saying thank you.

They talk about work, and that Ellie gave her an entire jar of jellybeans in case she ever forgets her name, and still two weeks later how it’s still really a bummer that the 4th of July fireworks got rained out. They kick the bottle of wine and open another one to watch Sixteen Candles since that had been her plan for the evening before he showed up anyway.

Laurie puts her head on his shoulder and throws a blanket over the two of them, and it’s domestic, and nice, and he’s really missed being with a girl like this. Just comfortable with her.

When Molly Ringwald laments about how everyone forgot her birthday, he feels like she might answer him this time. “Why didn’t you want to do anything tonight?”

“I didn’t feel like it.”

“But more than that. Why didn’t you feel like it?”

She lifts her head to look at him. “Travis, when I first met your mother, she told me she was 31...”

“She wasn’t 31,” he interrupts, what he feels like is very necessary.

“Yeah, I knew, but still, I remembered thinking, oh, I’m never going to be that old.”

“I know everyone jokes about the whole you dying at 30 thing, but, seriously, I don’t think that anyone really felt that was a possibility.” He wants to ruffle her hair or punch her arm or slap her out of it, she’s being so ridiculous.

“No, more that I never thought I’d be this old. Like, a person in their thirties. That’s me, now. I’m old. I’m an old person.” She spoke that all like she was sure, like she knew exactly what the score was, but then she asks, “What are you even doing here with me?” like she has absolutely no idea.

And he should tell her it’s because he loves her, or at the very least because she’s his friend and she’s gotten him through so much shit this year, but instead he says, “Laurie, if you’re going to insist on spewing out nonsense like that, I’m just going to have to kiss you until you shut up.”

She puts her hand on his cheek. “God, I remember being 22,” and it’s not like he didn’t warn her.

***

It’s really possible that the 45 minutes he spent making out on Laurie’s couch with her was just a poor decision born out of wine and misplaced emotions, and he’s fully prepared to just pretend it didn’t happen if that’s the lead she takes.

He’s not going to fixate on how he’s wanted to kiss her since the first time his mother brought her home, years before he would ever kiss anyone else. How still with all those girls in between, she’s the first who didn’t leave him just a little bit afraid underneath it.

And ignoring it seems like exactly how this is going to go especially after they just kind of stopped, and she’d laid down in his lap so he could play with her hair while Jake Ryan came to the church. And then the movie was over, and she’d said she still had to go to work in the morning, and walked him to the door. Kissed him only on the cheek to say goodbye. Laughed, and said his mother was going to kill her. Which he took a little offense to, because, hey, he’s the one who set this in motion. Pointing that out makes her laugh again.

So at the bar on Friday he sat next to his dad instead of her, even though it left him subjected to a really long conversation about some commercial with a talking dog. But it wound up just being him and her left at the booth in the corner, Grayson yelling at them to go home, he’s got to go to a kids’ soccer game in like 6 hours, and then Travis walking her to her car, and finally the two of them going at it against the driver’s side door until a cop kindly asked them to find a better place to engage in this kind of activity.

He kisses her again two days later on the beach and she kisses him after that outside his office on a lunch date, and each time it happens they laugh it off and don’t really talk about it. He wonders if they’re ever going to have sex just as often as he thinks about how the hell this is happening.

***

He does have sex with her, finally, on the living room floor of his new apartment that he maybe only started leasing so this would be a possibility.

His mother shows up seven minutes past the point she would have killed herself, which is not enough time for him to feel comfortable about her suggesting if they’re so hot, they should turn the AC up.

And it’s been really nice not talking about it, not letting anyone know, but it’s starting to feel like this is going from a thing that happened to a thing he needs to keep happening. And there’s no way he can hide it for much longer.

But when he tells her they need to come clean, own up and deal with the consequences, or run away and live somewhere else, on his only slightly used couch one night, she asks him why.

“Because, I want to touch you all the time and it’s getting impossible to stop.”

After she kisses him for about ten minutes, she says, “Maybe I love how excited you are when we finally get to be alone.”

“I’m always that excited by you.” He says it earnestly because it’s true and the way she looks at him makes his heart somewhat swell and break at the same time. It’s the place that he thinks he could say, “I’m in love with you,” but she saves him from the decision by kissing him again.

It’s only in the morning, when he wakes up long before her, that he realizes they never agreed on anything and he doesn’t know how to bring it up again.

***

His dad invites everyone to Labor Day at his mom’s, or, he should say that his dad’s fiancee, Beth, does. And that’s just another plus to being with Laurie, she doesn’t need an explanation of why that is not the most insane situation. She simply asks him how many bottles of wine he thinks they should bring.

And somewhere between the margaritas, and Stan kicking his ass at some video game he’s obsessed with, and Laurie telling Ellie she looks old, and Ellie telling Laurie she looks like a whore, Travis winds up in what was his childhood bedroom, nearly fucking Laurie against his little brother’s growth chart. He doesn’t know either.

“I wish there were Labor Day fireworks,” she tells him. “I feel I really missed out on getting to ravage you on July 4th.”

“Is ravage now the verb we’re using to describe this?” he asks, trying to undo her belt buckle without looking.

She says, “Yes,” at the same time that Charlie asks from the doorway what ravage means.

“What are you doing in here?!” Travis screams at him.

“I wanted my soccer ball. You don’t live here any more, this is my room!”

Laurie says, “It’s under your bed, sweetie,” while somehow discreetly readjusting her bra. Travis is just hyperventilating. “We’re sorry for not asking before we came in here. Your room is just so cool.”

“You should come over and play with my racecars someday, Laurie,” he says while still giving his brother stink eye. “Travis isn’t invited.”

“Not even if he does awesome racecar sounds?”

“Well, maybe.” He goes to kick the ball out of the room but turns back. “Wait, you didn’t tell me what ravage meant.”

“It’s something grownups who like one another do, Charlie. You don’t have to worry about it.”

He seems satisfied with this answer and leaves them alone.

“You know he’s going to tell my mother,” Travis yells at her.

“I thought you were the one who wanted to tell her.”

“Well, not like this!” He’s pacing the room and all he can think about was if Charlie had walked in a few minutes later, and he’s sick with it.

Laurie declares, “I’m going to go tell her. Time to swallow the sword, Trav.”

And Travis has wanted to tell his mother since this started with some part of him, but hearing Laurie announce that it’s actually going to happen fills him with an unexpected kind of terror. He knows he should go with her, but she doesn’t wait to see if he’s going to follow her.

He wishes he could say he was brave enough to do it.

***

Travis sits there on his brother’s bed for what feels like a long time, waiting for the scream that doesn’t come. He feels like a coward and a kid, and he wonders if it even matters that Laurie is currently breaking the news because he wouldn’t want to be dating someone like him after this.

When he hears a knock on the doorframe, he hopes it’s Laurie so he can apologize, but he turns to see it’s his mom.

“I’ve missed coming and talking to you in this room,” she says, in that wistful way that she always seems to be talking about him.

“Did she tell you?”

Jules sighs in a way that lets him know she did. “Why didn’t you let me know? Were you scared?”

“Mom, she’s one of your best friends, I think we’re all aware of how creepy that is to acknowledge.”

“You’re supposed to be able to talk to me about everything,” He stares at the floor, the rug a different color than he remembers, because he can’t handle disappointing her. “But, you’re a man now, Travis. I can’t make you do that.”

When he looks at her, she has tears in her eyes and he has to hug her. “But you’re not going to stop trying, right?”

“Oh, God, never.”

As she rubs his back, he says, “I really do love her, Mom.”

“I know, honey. She loves you too, but don’t tell her I told you.”

He’s trying to figure out how to respond to that when Charlie’s back in the room screaming, “Stop ravaging Mom! THIS ISN’T YOUR ROOM!” and all he can do after that is laugh.

***

It takes a half hour for his Dad to clap him on the back, and Ellie to get out all of her puns, for the moment, and Andy to cry, and Grayson to casually remind him that he hit that first, but after that, he’s able to brush Laurie’s shoulder, and hold her hand and kiss her when they sit down to dinner.

He would have endured much worse all night for that.